Part 2

By Laura Roybal 



“They’re sweet,” Jack said.

“Huh,” Tex grunted.

“Don’t you want to hold one?”  Eugene asked, rising from the straw to offer an infant pup to Tex.  Despite the fact that the half-door of the stall separated him from the bitch and her litter, Tex backed up a step.

“They look like rats,” he said.

“They ain’t rats!  They’re just little baby puppies!”  Gene said, drawing the one he was holding closer to his chest to stroke it.  The bitch, lying in the straw, nursing half the littler at the moment, was watching with a worried look that bothered Tex, though the boys didn’t seem to notice it.  He was glad of the door separating him from her, but was ready to vault over it if she so much as growled at those boys, especially the little dark-haired one who was crouching in the straw inches from her sharp-toothed muzzle.

“His eyes aren’t open yet,” Gene continued, stroking the tiny, squarish head.  “They don’t even have teeth, they can’t hurt you.”

“Their teeth’ll come,” Tex assured him.

“You ain’t a coward, are you?  Scared of a little bitty puppy?”  Gene asked, edging closer to the door again.

“Hell of a thing to say about a man who climbed up on the roof above your bedroom to put out a fire two nights ago, among other things,” Murdoch said, stepping up to the door, and Gene flushed in shame for his teasing.

“Puppies ain’t nothing to be scared of, though,” Gene muttered.

“You just put that one back down closer to its ma before she takes a chunk out of your backside for kidnaping it,” Murdoch said, and Gene  bent down next to his brother to play with the puppies on the ground.

“Picked one out yet?”  Murdoch asked them.

“They don’t really have much personality yet,” Gene said.  He was thinking, though he’d never admit it, that the ranger had been right.  They did, at the moment, look more like rats than dogs. 

“This one will have pretty markings,” Jack said, stroking the back of one puppy with his finger.

“Give them a couple weeks,” Murdoch said, “When they start walking, you’ll start seeing more of what they’re like.”

“Listen!”  Jack cried suddenly in delight.  “Listen, it’s growling!” 

Tex started violently, but relaxed when he realized it was one of the babies, not the mother, that was growling, little thing couldn’t walk or open it’s eyes, and it was getting feisty already!

“Keep an eye on that one,” Murdoch advised, and he nudged Tex and stepped away from the door.  Tex followed, moving away, but staying where he could keep an eye on the boys inside.

“Anything wrong?”

“No,” Murdoch said.  “Thanks for bringing the boys out here.”

The kid just shrugged his reply.  Murdoch, actually, was surprised he would even come this close to a dog, any dog.  This afternoon they had all removed their shirts when they washed up at the pump after settling in the horses, and the scars on that kid were enough to turn a man’s stomach.  Murdoch found his mind turning again to thoughts of soft, young flesh being torn open, and shook it away before it could take hold.

“Something did come in the mail today,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Thought we should get your opinion on it.”

He handed Tex the paper and Tex held it in the shaft of late sunlight that came down from the open hayloft door above.  Like the previous two messages, this had been made of bits of newspaper, cut out and glued into a new word.  But this time, it wasn’t a date.  There was just one word on the paper.  “BANG!”

“Huh,” Tex said.  “I don’t suppose...”

“We checked it against this week’s paper, it was made of bits of three different headlines.  We think... it might mean he’s planning to blow something up.”

“Or, it was an epitaph,” the kid said, handing it back.


“If you’d been as foolish as they seemed to expect and followed their tracks straight into that box canyon, they’d have had you all cold.  Bang!  You’re dead.”

Murdoch considered.  “That’s a little cocky, don’t you think?  To send this out before executing such a ill-thought-out trap?”

“Jesse James used to write his own press releases -- before he held up trains and banks,” the kid shrugged.  “And.  Keep in mind, Palmer was trying to romance a rich old widow out of her money while living with a whore.”

“I thought he was just stupid,” Murdoch said. 

“No.  Never assume that.  Criminals generally aren’t.  On the other hand, they sometimes do what honest men consider stupid things, just because any man who lives outside the law has a tendency to consider himself above average, smarter, better than you and me.  That’s why the laws don’t apply to him: he’s special.”

It was, Murdoch thought, the best description of an outlaw that he had ever heard.  He looked thoughtfully at the kid.  “You sure you’re not a lot older than nineteen?  Say, fifty or so, with a real young a face?”

Tex grinned.  “I appreciate the compliment, sir.”

“Where’d you learn all that?”

“About outlaws?  All that traveling we did when I was a kid, I reckon.  And all those men who kinda took turns playing step-pa to me.  The Earps,” he said, “were good men, tended towards being lawmen like their pa.  Wyatt was a bit of a hard character -- no sense of humor mostly.  He might have gone the other way if he had been born into any other family -- but he wasn’t.   I always had a soft spot for Doc, but he was on the wrong side of the law as often as the right.  Bat’s an honest man, but Luke’s more of an outlaw than he’d ever feel comfortable admitting.  And some of the men who showed up of my second baptism included Curly Bill Brocious and Johnny Ringo.”

“Whew!” Murdoch said.

The kid nodded.  “If I know anything about how the criminal mind works, it’s because I grew up with men who were criminals, and men who fought criminals.  Shoot, I might have thought there was a choice there if it hadn’t been for my ma.”

“She must have been quite a woman,” Murdoch said.

“She still is.  But why do you say that?”

“To raise a boy, alone, is always hard.  To do it with influences like that coming and going...  That takes strength of character.”

“Takes prayer, she always said,” Tex laughed.

“That too,” Murdoch smiled.  “And she’s still single?”

“Yeah.  Why?”  Tex asked, a little suspiciously, Murdoch thought.

“Good Christian woman with strong morals -- and a nurse besides.  That’s the kind of woman a man my age dreams of,” Murdoch joked, and the kid relaxed, realizing he had been teasing, and laughed.

“Well,” Murdoch said, turning serious again.“I hope you’re right about this note.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared for an explosion,”  the kid said.

“How do you prepare for an attack like that?”

“Make sure you got water and bandages, I reckon,” the kid shrugged.  “Check the house and stables.  Post guards.”

“We were planning all of that,” Murdoch said.  “Except the bandages.  Not a pleasant thought.”

“Bandages,” the kid said, with, Murdoch could not help but think, the sound of experience in his young voice, “are never a pleasant thought.” 



While Johnny and Tex rode off with better than half the men, fanning out to search as much of the ranch as possible, Scott finally got his chance to sit on the porch, enjoying the shade of a huge old cottonwood tree, and sipping a glass of lemonade while the boys played under his supervision.  Of course, this was not quite the relaxation he had imagined so many days ago.  His right arm rested in a sling, and his shoulder throbbed painfully, and a rifle was laid across his lap.  Murdoch, who had opted to stay at home today also as the activity of the past few days was telling on his old bones,  was sharing Scott’s shade and his porch -- with a rifle close to hand.

“I didn’t feel like I had to sit guard duty while kids were playing even back when Johnny was a baby,” Murdoch commented, watching the boys look for buried treasure under a rock -- and come up just as delighted with a collection of bugs.

“I’ve been trying to decide,” Scott said, “If I want to send my family away where they’ll be safe until this is all over, or whether they are safer here, where we can keep an eye on them.”

“Whatever you decide,” Murdoch said, “if nothing happens, you’ll feel it was the right choice, and if something does, you’ll kick yourself forever.  And either choice can go either way.”

“Don’t I know,” Scott said.  After the silence lasted several seconds, he added, “What would you do?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Murdoch said.  “And I don’t intend to palm the decision off on you completely by saying it’s your wife and kids.  It’s my daughter and grandchildren, and I can’t figure it out either.”

“Nothing happened last night,” Scott said.  “That’s the first break since the kid got here.”

“Two nights,”  Murdoch said.  “The night you were shot nothing happened here either.”

“Right. I forgot. You know, the worst of it is not knowing what to expect next.  Or when. It’s hard to be on your guard when you don’t have any idea what to guard against.”

“I know,” Murdoch said grimly.  “What did you think of the kid’s interpretation of that last note?” 

“I thought I made more sense than what we came up with.  They were dates before, not warnings.  I even half-hoped that meant it was over.  Bang!  You’re dead, and I go home.”

“Would be nice.”

“Would be a good way to torment us further,” Scott added.  “Get us worried, and leave, leaving us wondering when or where we can expect another attack -- maybe for years.”

That, Murdoch thought, was definitely not a pleasant idea. 

“Did you ever find his name in your ranch diary?”  Scott asked.

“Palmer?  No.  Nor Rose Bolivar.  I sat up half the night reading every detail from the year before those dates until a good year after, because of what the kid said, about it being something I know, but will never remember.  But there was nothing in there that would inspire this.  And, of course, the dates on those notes are dates of incidents from the big range war.”

“Probably someone involved in that, then,“ Scott said. “But who?  And why attack us?  Why not just come out and say what it is they are angry about or want from us.”

“Remember the story that kid told, about the one neighbor resenting the other for thirty years?  He didn’t ever say why he was angry because he expected the neighbor to know.”

“Huh,” Scott said.



Teresa opened the drawer of her dressing table, and held up a stray lock of hair with one hand as she rummaged with the other hand for a hairpin.  What she found instead was a bit of paper.  “I love you,” the paper said.  She wadded it up and tossed it, found the hairpin and stuck it into place, jabbing a little harder than she meant to in the process.  What she would have given to find a note like that in her drawer when she was a young, uncertain wife!  She had been so nervous about the transition from friend/sister to both Scott and Johnny to Mrs. Scott Lancer... not sure if she had made the right choice -- not sure why he had ever asked her.  A note like that would have made all the difference in her life, giving her confidence in herself, in her relationship.  In her decision.  Or when she was swollen, sick and uncomfortable with pregnancy, feeling that she was so unpleasant to look at, feeling wretched physically and emotionally.  Or in the limp, exhausted days after the babies came,  especially the boys: babies squalling, older children needing attention, the odors of baby diapers and blood permeating the room, and herself just wishing for some rest...

There was another note in the drawer she opened to get out a fresh handkerchief.  “I love you.”  Amazingly legible for a man whose right arm was damaged, she thought, and she moved about the room then specifically searching for the notes.  They were in her closet, in every drawer, hidden among her toiletries, in the wash basin, laid on the towel by the washbasin, in her jewelry box, on her pillow under the spread.

I’ll give him ‘A’ for effort, she thought, gathering and crumpling note after note.  Too little too late.  But, an effort, nonetheless.  And she found herself wondering what he would do next.  Poetry, flowers, love notes.  What else could he do but ride into town to buy her chocolate or some other expensive gift?  Maybe, she thought, she would allow that.  She hadn’t had a good chocolate in years. 



There was a soft knock on Murdoch Lancer’s bedroom door. 

“Sir?  Can I speak to you?”

“Come in,” Murdoch said, recognizing the ranger’s drawl. “Is everything all right?”  he asked when the young man stepped into his room.  “Did you get some supper?”

“Yes, sir,” the kid said.  The evening meal had ended up a sort of catch-as-catch-can affair.  Scott had fallen asleep shortly before mealtime, and Johnny and Tex had not yet returned from their scouting of the ranch, so Teresa and Larissa had laid out cold fried chicken (which Larissa made, so it was at least edible), potato salad, bread, pickles, and fresh garden vegetables, and let the rest of the family eat as they could.  Scott woke up and  helped himself to a snack shortly after the boys were asleep, when Johnny had come in.  Tex himself had arrived later, and helped himself to dinner in an otherwise dark and deserted kitchen.  It was now... Murdoch glanced at the clock ticking near his bed.  Nearly midnight.

“My watch?”  he asked.

“No, sir.  Mr.  Johnny’s still on guard duty for another hour.  But I didn’t want to bother him when he’s supposed to be keeping a look out.  And Mr. Scott needs his sleep.  I saw your light, though, and... Well, something occurred to me while I was out riding today.”

“Go ahead,” Murdoch said, folding his reading glasses and laying aside the book he had been reading.

“That first note you got gave the date of a sniper incident.”

“Yes.  That’s right.”

“Which you got the day after a sniper took out the windows on the back of the ranch.”

“I hadn’t thought of it in that light,” Murdoch said.  “Since in the first incident someone had been murdered.”

“Yes, sir.  I know.  That’s why none of us caught the coincidence.  But the second note, that marked the date a family got burned out of their house...”

“And our barn burned down,” Murdoch said, following the kid’s train of thought.  He frowned.  “But the third note just said ‘bang’.”

“Cause, I think they planned to catch at least some of you in that canyon.  Now it’s gonna be up to you to see what they’re up to -- no more hints, you see?”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite.”

“The third violent incident in your diary was a man shot while chasing men off his graze permit.  Metate Canyon isn’t on the Lancer Ranch...”

“But it is on one of our grazing permits,” Murdoch said.

“Right.  The first two were echoes, reminders.  They may even have conceived of the note idea after making the first attack.  But the third one was meant to be murder.  Just like the third attack twenty years ago.  And sir,” he added, as Murdoch considered this information, “Wasn’t the fourth incident a fake Indian attack on a family that left no survivors?”

“Yes.  Yes, it was.”

“I don’t think they planned to have to go that far.  And I think we slowed them up again in that counter-ambush y’all engineered.  That was a piece of work.  We killed at least four of them, maybe five, and wounded maybe two more.  But sir, I don’t think we’re waiting for an explosion.  I’m thinking it’ll be an attack -- if not on this house, then on any individuals they can catch outside of it.”

“I think you may be right,” Murdoch said.  “Give me a moment, would you.”

The kid started to leave, but Murdoch said,  “You can wait here.”

Tex lowered himself into the armchair next to the bed, staring carefully at the photographs on Murdoch’s walls while the older man dressed.  Good pictures, Tex thought idly, waiting. The portrait of Johnny had been done maybe ten years ago, when he wore his moustache fuller and had no grey starting in his hair.  There was a lovely portrait of Teresa, though Scott managed to look stiff and uncomfortable in the one of him alone.  But there were family photographs, too.  All of them in one -- Johnny with both legs and Jack just a baby on Teresa’s lap.  There were two portraits of Scott and his family, one made with three children and one with one, and a picture of Scott and Teresa that was probably a wedding portrait, with Teresa looking very young and wearing a white lace gown and Scott looking as proud and sappy as Murdoch did in his own wedding portrait.  There were a few other pictures Tex could not identify: a old man with a funny hat and a white beard, another man.  A woman...

Tex came up out of his chair in surprise and stepped up to the portrait, staring.

“For this, we may want to wake up the others,” Murdoch said, sliding his feet into his slippers instead of boots.  Then, when he turned around and saw Tex staring at the portrait, he added, “What?”

Tex turned and glared at him accusingly.  “Mr.  Lancer, despite what you and your sons think of me, I have been as straightforward and honest as possible with y’all.  But there’s nothing I can do to help you clear up this problem if you lie to me!”

“What are you talking about?”

“You told me you didn’t know Rose Bolivar!”

“I never heard of her in my life.”

“Then how come you keep her picture on your bedroom wall?”  Tex demanded. 

Murdoch stepped closer, peering at an old picture of a young woman, smiling, holding a baby in her arms.  “Dear God,”  he said.



“Your mother?” Tex demanded, staring at Teresa. Murdoch had immediately awakened her and Scott, and even caught Johnny on his rounds, prowling the inside of the house in the darkness, to join them in the dining room.  “Your mother is a who... a fallen woman?”

“This picture is close to forty years old,” Scott said.  And when he caught the angry glance Teresa gave him, he amended that to “Er... more than thirty years old at any rate.  How can you be sure it’s the same woman?”

“It’s her,” Tex said.  “She’s got a lot more lines and wrinkles now, about three times as broad as in this picture, and her hair’s got more brass than a church bell, but that is her, I guarantee it.”

“Could just be a total stranger who happens to have similar features,” Johnny suggested.

“Could be,” Tex agreed.  “But I don’t think so.  She knew too much.”

“You said she said her daughter’s name was Sarah,” Scott reminded him.

A tear trickled down Teresa’s cheek.  “Not ‘Sarita’,” she said suddenly.  “‘Teresita’ When I was little, before she ran off and left us, she used to call me that.  I’m not surprised she changed her name -- she hated Claudia.  But I can’t believe she forgot mine!” 

“Maybe... I got that part wrong,” Tex said softly, as Scott put an arm around his wife and drew her head down on his shoulder.

“You never get anything wrong,” Teresa sighed, shaking her head.  “She did call me that, didn’t she?  ‘Sarita’.  And she said Murdoch married me, when what he did was take care of me so I didn’t have to go to an orphanage or support myself after my father died!”

“I thought he and Murdoch were partners,” Tex said.

“In name only, by the time he died,” Teresa said, shaking her head.  “He was a poor businessman.  Murdoch had to bail him out and bail him out until it all belonged to Lancer, didn’t it Murdoch?  The land you gave me was an outright gift: I had no claims on anything through my father.”

“I didn’t know that you...”  Murdoch began in embarrassment.

“I was young and foolish,” Teresa said.  “But I wasn’t totally ignorant.”

“She came back to claim Teresa -- just over a year after we got here,” Johnny said.  “Was she calling herself ‘Rose’ then, Murdoch?”

“Oh, dear God,” Murdoch said.  “She was.  Not Bolivar, I’d have remembered that.  But Rose.  She was with some man... what was his name...?”

“I always thought of him as ‘the snake’,” Scott said.

“They showed up,” Murdoch explained for Tex, “some time in the fall of 1871.  Teresa was sixteen, but was legally young enough that her mother could claim her -- and she did.  Her and -- let’s stick with ‘the snake’ -- threatened me with a kidnaping charge if I didn’t let Teresa go with them, so I had to let her go.  But I sent Johnny to Sacramento to file the papers to get legal guardianship, while Scott and I followed to make sure Teresa was all right...”

“You sent Johnny to do a legal job while you and Scott took care of the gun fighting end of it?”  Tex asked with raised eyebrows.

“We were hoping to avoid murder,” Murdoch said, and Tex saw the wisdom in that.  While Scott would have been better at the legal handling of the matter, Johnny would probably have been more likely to shoot first if he had to confront this ‘snake’.  On the other hand... obviously Murdoch had not known at the time exactly how Scott felt about Teresa.  He actually had divided them up so that murder was a more likely end to it all.

“And you’re right, Tex.  She was a... a prostitute, I think.  Even then,” Teresa said.  “She said she was an ‘entertainer’.  I thought she was an actress.  I thought it would be glamorous and exciting.  Until she made me put on this... this dress!  I was supposed to walk around a saloon and get men to buy me drinks.  I think, if Scott and Murdoch hadn’t shown up...”  She found herself unable to even finish the sentence, but it was clear enough to the men in the room.

“I was about two seconds from kidnaping you and forcing you to marry me on the spot if Johnny hadn’t shown up with that legal order,” Scott said.  And Teresa smiled up at him gratefully.

“You were off by a year,” Murdoch told Tex.  “Had all the facts garbled, and were off by a year.”

“You said you knew she was fiddling with the numbers,” Johnny recalled.  “Why’d you pick the summer of 1870?” 

“Because,” Tex said, “When she told me that ‘garbled’ story about Murdoch taking away her daughter, she said she couldn’t stop him because he had the help of his sons.  Maybe, she said, she could have fought against a lawyer,” he gave a nod in Scott’s direction.  “But the other son, Johnny, was a gun shark.”

“That’s how he connected the names!”  Scott murmured.

Murdoch and Johnny both nodded in agreement, one mystery at least cleared up, but Tex was still talking.  “...And I had recently been doing some research down in Sonora and came across Madrid’s name in a list of men executed sometime in the summer of 1870.”

“Sometime?”  Scott asked.  “They didn’t put in a date?  I thought the Mexicans were famous for their record keeping.”

“I think that was the Spanish,” Tex said.  “And there was a date, but the handwriting was very bad.  The numbers came out clear enough, the 30th, and the year, 1870.  But the month could have been either June or July : junio, julio.  Only one letter difference in Spanish.  And there were no entries above or below that would have suggested which it was.  That’s why I thought, until I got here and realized Madrid was alive and well, that she must have been here no later than July of 1870.  I tried to tell you that my timing was moot later, but then the incidents and the notes started...”

“Pointing us right back to the summer of ‘70,” Murdoch said.

“Right,” the kid said.  He chewed on his lip for a moment.  “You know, actually, it makes sense this way.  Say Palmer did have something to do with the range wars of 1870, it doesn’t really make sense, does it, that he goes off and forgets about it for twenty years, then comes running back if he hears you did something in 1870.  But if you did something in ‘71... I mean, if he thought you had died in 1870, but suddenly realized you were still alive a year after that...”

“I see what you’re getting at,” Murdoch said.  “But if anybody thought I had died that summer, it would have been in the sniper incident, and that was the first one the notes mentioned, not the second.”

“Public record,” the kid said.

“Maybe,” Murdoch said.  He shook his head. “Tell them about your other theory.”

And Tex did.

“Well, that settles one burning question,” Scott said.

“What?”  Johnny asked.

“I was wondering whether to send Teresa and the children away somewhere safe.  But if this kid’s right, the only way they can attack is to attack someone who’s away from this house.  This place is a fortress.  They couldn’t take it twenty years ago, and they won’t take it now.  Everybody stays right here!”



The boy’s name was Enriquez, and Johnny estimated him to be at least one or two years older than Johnny was himself.  But he thought of him as a “kid” because that was the way he acted.  He whimpered, breaking into sobs, gnawing at the ropes that bound his wrists like a mindless animal caught in the trap.  Other men in the wagon, four more besides the two of them, mostly turned away from the kid.  One man was praying, counting his rosary on his fingers.  Another man wept, but unlike the kid, he sat up straight, heedless of the tears falling down his face.  Tears, Johnny knew, not for his own fate, but for the wife and daughter he had seen violated as he lay helpless, bound on the floor, before the federales had dragged him off and shoved him in the wagon with the other prisoners.  A dozen had been taken altogether, six in this wagon, six in the one following.  A dozen more had died in the raid on the village where they had taken refuge.  The little revolution had effectively been squashed.

Bouncing in the back of the wagon was more uncomfortable than it would have been normally, since with their hands tied, they could not brace themselves in any way.  The kid, Johnny thought, should be grateful that his hands were tied in front of him.  At least it saved him the strain on the arm and shoulder muscles that the others suffered, but no.  Obviously, the kid was not grateful.  Johnny was.  He was very, very grateful that he had been allowed to see a priest last night.  They had all been given a chance for confession and even to receive the Blessed Sacrament before coming out here to die.  He was grateful, also, for his own common sense in refusing to allow Hilary to come with him.  He had broken his promise to never leave without her, but he had qualified the second promise saying he could never leave her as long as he was alive.  This would break her heart, he knew.  It would cause her tremendous pain, and for that he was very sorry.  But she had not been there when the federales caught up with them, finally.  She had not, as the other women had, seen their husbands, sons and brothers murdered or taken away like animals.  She had not seen children trampled under horses hooves, screaming for mercy, she had not, as so many of them had, been beaten or violated herself by the furious soldiers.  No, he had managed to spare her that, and for that his soul was as at peace as it could be this side of Purgatory.

He had regrets, of course.  He should have left sooner, should have gotten out of New Mexico Territory with Hilary before it became a head-long flight to safety again.  And once he came here and he saw how desperate the struggle was, he should have fled, saving himself instead of staying on because he felt an obligation to the people who had helped him, until it was too late.  Yes, he had regrets.  He looked across into the eyes of a man many years his senior and saw the same thought: regret.  The man smiled though, a small smile.  He too had seen the priest last night.  He too would die knowing that even if Heaven was not his immediate destination, he would meet his family there someday.  There was a kind of peace in that knowledge.  A peace Johnny wished they could give to that kid before he made them all lose what honor they had and start bawling like he was.

The wagon stopped, for which he was thankful.  At least the awful jolting had ended.  The other torments lingered on. They had not been fed in two days -- why waste valuable supplies on men who would die anyway?  They were all of them hatless under the merciless glare of the mid-summer sun.  His arms ached, his wrists burned with incredible pain from the ropes that had already torn through his flesh.   He had been battered, beaten by his captors.  His lips, split before by blows were splitting open again from the dry desert heat, and in his hunger and thirst, he found himself sucking his own hot, salty blood back into his mouth and swallowing.

They took the old man first, dragging him out of the wagon so that his legs and back thudded painfully on the wood, dragged him, because he no longer had the strength to walk, to the edge of a pit they had prepared yesterday, shoved him to his knees and backed off.  The old man held his face to the sun, eyes closed, waiting.  The Sargent barked out the orders, five rifles spoke, not quite all at once.  The old man’s body jerked, and he fell over backwards.  It didn’t matter much if he were dead or not, he would be before too long, lying in that hole with the sun beating down on him.  The men of the firing squad began the process of reloading their single-shot, muzzle-loader rifles, and the two guards came back to drag another man away.

Me, Johnny thought.  Take me.  Get it over.  They grabbed the kid.  The kid screamed and wailed and begged for mercy.  When they left him at the edge of the pit, he crawled away, begging, and they had to come and drag him back.  No one trusted the aim of the firing squad enough to stand and hold him, and after three attempts, they had to take pot shots at him as he crawled.  He was shot in the arm, in the shoulder, in the belly, in the other arm, somewhere low in the chest, and he still kept coming.  Disgusted, the Sargent in charge stomped up to him, held a pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger.  The kid finally died.  Next to him, Johnny heard one of the men breathe a sigh of relief.  The praying man prayed louder.  The silent weeper struggled to hold back a moan.  The men of the firing squad began reloading.  The guards had to drag the kid to the pit and toss him in before coming back to the wagon for their next man.  Johnny was almost relieved when they grabbed him roughly by the arms and drug him out of the wagon.  He tried to walk, found he could, and let them shove and bully him to the edge of the pit.  They pushed him roughly to his knees.  He looked ahead.  Opposite view now.  He could see the men still fussing with their rifles, the wagons behind them, full of men waiting to die...

And another wagon. 

Someone, an American, Johnny could tell by his accent, was bouncing hell-bent over the rough, trackless terrain, shouting... something.

Que?”  The Sargent in charge was distracted, looking back instead of giving orders.  The last man finished his reloading, and called the Sargent’s attention back by clearing his throat.  The Sargent got back to the job at hand.


I am ready, Johnny thought.  He closed his eyes.  He could see the orange glare of light even through his closed eyelids, could feel the heat of the sun on his face.  His whole body was a pain still, but he could feel the faintest breeze, a hot breeze, but still enough to lift the hair off the back of his neck and cool the sweat there.  A little.


“‘Alto!”  The gringo was shouting.  “‘Alto!  No mata.  No mata!”

“No kill, no kill.”   His Spanish wasn’t very good, but there was a ring of authority in his voice that the Sargent responded to, and he never gave the command to fire, just waited until the rickety wagon pulled up.  He stepped up, demanded that the man in the wagon clear out, this was government business, they didn’t have time for this.  The man in the wagon was talking rapidly, a mix of English and poor Spanish.  The Sargeant was getting annoyed.  He kept shouting , “Que?  Que?”  Johnny was afraid that if they didn’t get back to business soon, he was going to keel over in a faint.  His was trembling with the strain of kneeling there, the heat and the sun were making him dizzy.  His belly ached with hunger, his arms were a constant pain....

He opened his eyes suddenly as he heard his name.

“Sí, Madrid,” the Sargent was saying, pointing to him.

There was more talk he could not follow from this distance.  His was weak and dizzy enough now that the sounds were fading in and out anyway.  He was about to close his eyes again against the painful glare of the sun, when he noticed the gringo counting out bills into the Sargent’s hand.  Lots of them.  The hand closed, more orders were barked.  The two guards grabbed Johnny’s arms and hauled him to his feet.  He almost fell over, but one man held him up, roughly, by one arm while the other man sawed through the ropes that bound Johnny’s hands. The ropes split -- so did his skin where the knife gouged him.  But one pain had been relieved, at least, the burning strain on his arms and shoulders.  The Sargent shouted for them to hurry it up, he didn’t have all day, and the guards half dragged, half escorted Johnny to the side of the wagon.        

The man in the wagon was badly sunburned, his nose was red and peeling.  He had a neck like a plucked chicken and a cheap brown suit, and Johnny had no idea who he was or what was going on.

“Your name is Johnny Madrid, right?”  the man asked eagerly.  “Son of Esperanza Ordoñez?”

He couldn’t speak, but he managed a nod.

The man grinned, happily.  “Do you know your real father’s name?”

“Lancer,” Johnny croaked, forcing his dry, swollen tongue to work. “Why?”

“You’re the right man then!  Come on.  Climb on up here.  My name’s Abelarde, George Abelarde, I work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  I was hired to find you and bring you back to your father.”

Behind him, they were dragging another man out to take his place at the edge of the pit.

“What about them?”  Johnny rasped.

“Look, I’m sorry.  I had to give him everything I had left in expense money and your traveling money to get you out of there.  I can’t buy off your friends.  Frankly, I don’t think I would if I could.  My job was to find you.”

“You found me,” Johnny said, and he turned his face up to the sun again, this time figuring the time of day, the angle of the sun... East was that way.  He started walking: barefoot, hatless and starving, he was headed back for New Mexico Territory.

“Wait!”  the Pinkerton shouted at him.  “You need food.  You need water, you need a gun!”

“My daddy’s going to give me all that is he?”  Johnny rasped, turning around.  “When he never showed the slightest interest in me before?” 

“I’ll get you that -- to get you home!  He’s going to give you one thousand dollars,” the man said.  “Just for coming home long enough to meet him.  That’s all you have to do, see him.  One time.  And it’s yours.  A thousand dollars cash money!  And I can get you there.  But you’re going the wrong way!”

Behind his back, the muskets fired again, and Johnny flinched, knowing that another of his companions of the past few weeks had just died.  It seemed unfair that he should be given this chance...

But that’s exactly what it was, a chance.  A chance to keep his promise.  But...  A thousand dollars?  That was the price of ten men, as many men than he had killed in his lifetime, including the one he had never been paid for.  And no one was asking him to commit a mortal sin to collect it.  In fact, wasn’t that one of the Ten Commandments?  Honor thy mother and father?  And what he could do with a thousand dollars!  Instead of asking Hilary to ride off with him, penniless, to struggle and scramble, maybe forever, for every bite of food, for everything they needed just to survive, he could homestead a stretch of land, use the money to buy some cattle.  Or better, invest in some stock and open a little store.  Loyalty tore at him.  He yearned to go straight back east.  But the Pinkerton was right.  He’d never make it in his present condition.  He didn’t even have boots!  And how long would it take to detour around to see this long-lost father of his, earn that thousand dollars?  He could make up the lost time, maybe, coming part of the way back to her by train.  He took a step back towards the wagon.  And the strength left his legs.  He collapsed in the sand, not quite passed out, but so weak and so dizzy he knew he couldn’t even climb into the wagon that would save him.  Hilary!  he thought in despair.  And then hands were under his arms, helping him.  His back hit the floor of the wagon bed, his legs were shoved in, sliding him farther into the bed.  Splinters gouged at his skin.  Then the tailgate of the wagon was set back in place, and he was moving, rocking slowly along without having to walk.  A wet cloth was draped over his face, blocking out the glare of the sun, affording moisture to his dry eyes, nose and throat.  It revived him enough that when the Pinkerton passed back an open canteen, he was able to grip it and tip a few drops of life-giving water into his throat.

“Don’t you die on me now, boy!  I got expenses and a reward coming for finding you!  Let’s get you out of here and get you taken care of...”

Yes, let’s, Johnny thought, and he held the next sip of water in his cracked and dry mouth, trying to absorb it through the skin.  When he swallowed again, he felt the blood-warm liquid moisten his throat all the way to his belly.  



“Mr.  Pierce!”  Teresa said in surprise.  “You don’t need to do that.  I can manage.”

“It’s okay, ma’am, I enjoy cooking,” Tex said back.  “You just come on in and rest a bit.  You’ve had a hard week.”

“No harder than anyone else,” she said, keeping her back to him so he would not see the damage tears had done to her face while she rummaged in cupboards, collecting ingredients for... nothing.  Just moving so she would look busy and he would leave.  It didn’t work.  He kept right on mixing his dough.  And she had to admit, it smelled good.

“What is that?”

“Doughnuts, ma’am,” he said.  And he stepped away from his work long enough to pour a cup of coffee, which he handed to her.  “And I beg to differ about it not being a harder week for you than for anyone else.  You saw your boys terrified -- by me, I’m sorry to say.  Your daughter hurt, your husband shot, and last night was a hard week all in itself.  Sit down.”

“I do have to make lunch...”

“We can eat leftovers for lunch.  Miss Larissa has a turkey baking for dinner.”  He added flour to his dough, getting it on his shirt and jeans in the process, but he didn’t seem to mind.  He poured more flour on the work table and began needing the dough out.

“Ma’am,” he said, keeping his eyes on his work.  “If you hadn’t come in here, I would have gone looking for you.”

“Why is that, Mr.  Peirce?”

“To explain a few things to you.  About your ma.”

“Do you know her well, then?”  Teresa asked, trying to keep her voice light.

“No.  I just talked to her the one time.  And I’m sorry if I was harsh in my descriptions of her earlier -- I didn’t know....”

“How could you have known?  She’s my mother and I didn’t know!” Teresa snapped harshly 

“Well, there you’re right and you’re wrong,”  Tex said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, ma’am... Well, I said before about how this Rose Bolivar was a known user of opium and hemp.  Now, hemp kind of makes people relax.  Little too much sometimes.  Opium -- do you know what that’s made from?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Poppies,” he said.  “Same as morphia.  You ever met anybody who was addicted to morphia?”

“Y-y-yes,” Teresa said slowly.  “There was a man I knew once, a long time ago when I was young.  He’d become addicted during the War.”

“Then you know,” the kid said, “That it ain’t just a matter of wanting more and more.  It gets sos people can’t live without the drug, but the drug is eating them away too.  Kind of like having a parasite: can’t live without it, but it kills you.  And it changes people.  If you’ve seen an addict before, you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” Teresa murmured.

“So, in a way, she ain’t your ma at all.  Not the same woman you’d remember anyway.  Uh, Ma’am?  May I ask you a question that may be... well..  Personal.”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Do you happen to know how old your mother is?”

Teresa sniffed, and rubbed at her nose to pretend something other than the lingering tears was making it run.  “She was twenty when I was born -- so my father told me,” she said.  “And I’m thirty-five now.”

“Really?” he said gallantly.  “I’d never have guessed that.  Anyway, my guess of your mother’s age was  sixty-five.  I over-estimated by ten years.  That’s how much it’s drained out of her.  And it’s not only taken away her body, but bits of her mind, too.  I do believe she loved you and cared for you.  I know that losing you ate away at her heart until her mind -- drug infused as it was -- created stories around you and around your loss, making it more dramatic, making it someone else’s fault, not her own.  That’s what that nonsense about land-grabbing and marrying you off was all about.  Drug dreams.  But drug dreams trying to make sense of a real loss that she really felt.”

“Thank you,” Teresa said softly.  “But she did abandon my father and I when I was nine years old.”

“Did you have a brother?”  Tex asked unexpectedly.

“There was a boy child,” she said.  “He died.  Before he was a year old.”

“She left how long after that?”

“Six months,” Teresa said bitterly.  The she asked, “How did you know?”

“Something she said that’s kind of coming together now that I know who she really was and where she came from.  Ma’am, I think your mother might have run off not so much because she couldn’t live with you, but because she couldn’t live with her own feelings of guilt.  Guilt often brings people to opium.  Guilt loves hemp.  And guilt, left undiagnosed like that, can destroy a person.”

“He died of a fever,” Teresa said after a moment.  “It wasn’t her fault.”

“Guilt also ain’t real reasonable,” the kid said.

Teresa listened to the soft sounds of the kid, behind her back, rolling the dough and making twists out of it. 

“I was always afraid,” she said softly, “that I was a bad mother.  Like her.”

“I seen you with your kids, ma’am.  You ain’t a bad mother.  A bit over protective of those boys, now and then, but that’s how you act when you love someone.”

“What is your mother like, Mr.  Pierce?”  she asked.

“Perfect, of course,” he said lightly.  He walked over to the stove, checked the fire, spat in the grease that was in a pan, heating, and went back to his dough when it didn’t spit back.  “Actually, you remind me a lot of her.  She’s a little older.  But you both grew up motherless, both loyal and loving and hard-working.  Both always did what had to be done.  There’s a hard core in you, Mrs. Lancer.  A core of strength.  I don’t think your momma had it.”

She let the silence stretch on for some time before she said, “Thank you,” again.

The grease on the stove started spitting, and Tex walked over to start dropping his twists of dough into it.  The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg grew stronger, combining with the hot smell of the grease.

“I think we should roll those is sugar when they’re done,” Teresa said, standing to fetch the bag and a bowl.

“I agree,” Tex said.  “But I didn’t want to be too greedy.”

They worked together companionably for some time, Tex rolling and frying the dough and setting the doughnuts aside on a piece of newspaper to drain, then Teresa taking them and rolling them in  sugar until they were well coated, and stacking them on a plate.

“Do you know anything about your father?”  Teresa asked suddenly while they worked.

Tex didn’t answer immediately.  Finally he said, “Well, I did lie to you when I said he died the night I was born.  Fact is, he died a good eight months before.”

“And they weren’t married?”  Teresa asked, recalling that he referred to himself as a “bastard.”

“I don’t reckon they were the first kids in the world to put the cart before the horse. But then he was killed before he could make an honest woman of her.”

“Killed?”  Teresa repeated, asking without asking.

“Hung,” the kid said, after another short pause.  “For rustling.”

“I’m very sorry.  How old was your mother then?”

“Sixteen,” the kid said.  “Seventeen by the time I come into the world.”

“Seventeen,” Teresa murmured.  She had been seventeen when she married Scott, eighteen when Larissa was born.  And she remembered suddenly how terrified she had been.  She had grown up among mostly men, with just an elderly woman -- well beyond child-bearing years -- to help with the cooking and cleaning  until she herself came into her teen years.  No women lived nearby. Murdoch had offered to deliver the baby himself -- having had a single experience at that more than twenty years before!  But Johnny had ridden hard and fast into town and brought back the doctor -- another man!  She recalled that which she had long ago put out of her mind: the long, agonizing hours of pain, more than twenty-four altogether.

“You’re fighting it: that makes it worse,” the doctor had said.  “Just relax.  Women all over the world do this every day.”  Not a comforting thought to a terrified young girl in tremendous pain!  But Scott had stayed with her, even though the doctor tried repeatedly to chase him out.  He had sat by the bed, holding her hand, laying cool, damp cloths on her brow.

He had been there for her.

And the second child, the one that they could never coax to take its first breath.  He had held her hand through that too, and held her and wept with her when Murdoch finally came and took it away to bury outside.  After that first horrible labor and the dead baby, she had cried when she realized she was pregnant again.  But he had guessed the reason for all the tears, and had sat on the bed holding her.  “We’ll get through it together,” he had said.  “Whatever happens, I’ll be right here.”

She had been, she realized now, very angry lately.  For years, in fact, her temper had hovered too near the surface.  And she had come to blame it all on Scott.  But she thought now -- tempting a target as he was -- that he had been there for her.  Always.  Maybe he didn’t swoon over her and shower her with gifts and flowers like the besotted men in romantic novels.  But he was steady, solid.  He put up with the worst she could hand out, and stayed, always, to support her.  And to keep herself from breaking into tears again in front of this boy, she thought instead of another young girl who had had to do it all alone.

“Your mother never re-married?”  she asked.  “I mean... Never found another man?”

“Apparently not,” he said.  “But then, I don’t reckon she was looking that hard.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, ma’am.  A man knows when a woman is interested,” he said, giving her a brief glimpse of one of his mischievous grins.  “Or even just looking.  The way they look at you, the way they talk when they’re around you.  Near as I can recollect, Ma never gave out them signals to nobody.  I mean to say, my pa was an outlaw, but there must have been something good inside him, something that she never could find in any other man.”

“Huh,” Teresa said.  “You know, it’s interesting you should put it like that.  Because a woman can tell when a man is interested, too.  Both Scott and Johnny treated me like a kid sister when they first came out here.  But with Scott... there was always, I think, a little more.  Johnny, now, Johnny never looked at any woman with any more than the most passing, mild interest.”

“Oh?”  the kid said.  “Doesn’t care for women, then?”

“I wondered,” Teresa said.  “For a couple years, actually.  But then something happened.” 

“He met the right girl?”  the kid guessed.

“No,” Teresa said.  “And... yes.  It’s hard to explain.”  Talking about Johnny was easier than dredging up painful memories of her own shortcomings.  The doughnuts were all cooked.  The kid pulled his pan of hot grease to the side of the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee.  He asked, just by raising his eyebrows if Teresa wanted more, and poured more in her cup when she nodded.  The doughnuts were wonderful, warm and spicy and sweet.  The kid straddled a stool on the other side of the work table, and dunked a doughnut in his coffee, leaning over to bite it off without dripping while Teresa continued her story.

“It was a couple years after they arrived here, but before Scott and I were even engaged.  Johnny was out buying cattle, and he sort of rode into a dispute between a small farmer and his rancher neighbors.  The neighbors thought Johnny was a new hired hand or gunman to chase them out, and they shot him from ambush.”

“Bad?”  the kid asked, dipping again.

“Why do men always do that?”  Teresa asked, watching him.  Doughnuts and coffee were good, but she never understood doughnuts in coffee.  The kid leaned across the table and took her own doughnut out of her hand, dunked it in her cup, and handed it back to her.

“Try it,” he said.

So, she did.  And it really wasn’t bad.

“You should taste the coffee after a couple dunks,” he added.

Teresa laughed, and dipped the doughnut again.  “I will.  And yes, Johnny was hurt bad. They left him for dead.  But the farmer’s daughter...”

“I think I’ve heard this one!”  Tex grinned, and Teresa found herself grinning back.

“She was alone in the house, apparently.  But she managed to get Johnny inside and bandage his wound.  It was in the head.  When he woke up... he couldn’t see.”

“I’d be worried at this point, but he can see now,” Tex said.

“Yes.  The doctor said it was probably fear and shock as much as damage.  But that was later.  At the time, I’m sure it was terrifying for him.  Especially since the girl couldn’t talk.”

“Couldn’t talk?”

“No.  She was a deaf-mute.  She could tell what Johnny was saying -- if she happened to be looking at his face when he said it.  And I think she would stomp on the floor for yes and no, but that was it.  And her father and brother were out, and the men who had shot at Johnny came to finish off the job when they found out he was alive.  A gunman who couldn’t see, and a helper who couldn’t speak.  It must have been a harrowing ordeal.”

“I know Mr. Johnny got out of it,” Tex said.  “But, the girl...?

“They both survived without further damage.  I think the girl’s father and brother came home.  The neighbors were quite ashamed when they learned that Johnny was not only not after them, but looking to buy cattle from them.  It all worked out, and they brought Johnny home, where the doctor performed an operation to relieve the pressure and restore his sight.”

Teresa sipped her coffee, finding it now sweet and laced with a cinnamon taste.  So.  Maybe there was something to dunking besides the mess she usually had to mop up when people were done doing it.

“The girl,” Teresa said, continuing her story, “and her father and brother, stayed on the few days it took for the doctor to perform the operation and for Johnny to heal enough to have the bandages removed.  Johnny wanted her near him all the time, he was just crazy about her.  And I could see that she was very much in love with him.  But then, just before they took the bandages off, she left.  She wouldn’t  stay in the room.  I had to hold his hand and let him think it was her, or he would have panicked.  The bandages came off, he looked around and saw only me holding his hand, and he was heartbroken.  He ran downstairs and outside right then in his bare feet and night shirt, chasing after her, shouting for her.  But she was already riding away with her family, and she never even turned to look again.  That was the last we ever saw of her.  He was going to go looking for her, but... I think he realized what had happened even before we did.”

“And what had happened?”  Tex asked.

“He wasn’t in love with her at all.  He was in love with someone else, someone he couldn’t have, for some reason, and since he couldn’t see or hear this girl, she became this other person for him in his mind, you see?”

“Um... no.”

“Over the next few weeks,” Teresa explained, “he said things to us all, things like the way her dark hair tended to curl around her face when it was hot, like that her calico dress made her eyes look more blue.”

“Things he couldn’t have seen, if he was blind,” Tex said.

“Yes, but things that also didn’t have anything to do with this girl.  She had straight blonde hair and hazel eyes -- no blue in them at all!  And she came from a very poor family: she didn’t even own a dress.  She wore her brother’s hand-me-downs.  That’s why she left,” Teresa said, reaching thoughtfully for another doughnut. “She did care for him, very much, I think.  And she didn’t want to see the look of disappointment on his face when the bandages came off.”

“He might have just been surprised, not disappointed,” Tex said.

“Maybe,” Teresa said.  “If she hadn’t run away, they might have eventually married -- Johnny was already talking about it.  And maybe he would have come to know her and even love her for herself, and not for who he thought she was. But, she probably didn’t want to try to compete with a memory.”

“Memories fade,” Tex said.

“Yes, but not in the way real, live people do.  Real people get older, memories never do.  Memories never have a bad day and snap at you for no reason.  Memories never need a bath, never want your attention when you’re tired and want to be pampered a bit yourself.  Memories never forget important dates, or develop habits that irritate you to no end.  Nobody could ever compete with a memory because memories are perfect.  Real people,” Teresa said slowly, “Real people aren’t perfect.”



“I brought you some doughnuts and coffee,”     Teresa said.

“Oh.  Thank you,” Scott said, trying -- and failing dismally, he knew -- to sound enthusiastic.

Teresa gave him a wry smile.  “Don’t worry.  I didn’t make them.  Courtesy of our guest.”  She set the plate and cup down on the bedside table.  Scott was not bedridden by his wound, but he had stretched out, dressed, on top of the blankets to rest and read.  He put aside the book now, and risked a bite of doughnut.    

“Wow,” he said, through a full mouth.

“Besides all his other skills, he’s a good cook, too, apparently,” Teresa said, sitting down on the foot of the bed.  “He made that gingerbread you had after lunch the day before yesterday.  Speaking of which, how’s your shoulder feel?”

“Oh, it aches,” Scott said.  “But I feel like a goldbrick, just sitting around, taking it easy all day.  Between Johnny’s knife work and the kid’s cures, I feel pretty good really.  Did you know he not only carries bandages around with him, but sulfa powder, and a special kit for sewing up wounds?  What kind of kid carries stuff like that around with him?”

“A boy who’s mother is a nurse who worries about him,” Teresa said.

That, Scott thought, made sense, but he didn’t say it.  He picked up the steaming mug Teresa had brought him instead, dipped the doughnut in it, and took another bite.

“I don’t suppose,” he said, “that that kid would be interested in giving up a promising career in law enforcement to come and work for us as a cook.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would.  But, if Larissa gets her way, he’ll end up married into the family, and we could exile him to the kitchen.”

“Married?”  Scott froze.  “Are you serious?”

“It was a joke!”  Teresa said, wondering why men acted so oddly about their daughters.  The look Scott wore right now reminded her of the day she had announced to Johnny and Murdoch that she was expecting her first child, and Murdoch came up out of his chair and punched Scott right in the nose -- apparently forgetting, until Johnny reminded him, that they had been married nearly a year.

“So, it’s not... something I should be worried about?”  Scott asked.

Teresa thought of the conversation she had just had in the kitchen with Tex, about men and women giving off signals of interest.  “If it was up to Larissa, I’d say it was a done deal,”  she said. “But our young Mr.  Pierce doesn’t seem to be interested.”

And she watched with amusement as Scott’s expression went from anger -- to thunder.  “Is there something wrong with her?  Why isn’t he interested?”

“That,” Teresa said, “should be perfectly obvious!”

Scott sighed.  “I suppose... we were pretty unfair to him when he first arrived.”

“Unfair?  All you men were downright obnoxious.  And does that statement mean you’ve come to realize he isn’t causing the trouble we’re having?”

“You have to admit, it is tempting to blame it all on him.  Nothing happened until he showed up, he did shoot the dog as soon as he arrived.  But... he shot in the right direction the other day.”


“Meaning,” Scott said, “that it would be simple enough to claim to be hunting a sniper when you are a sniper -- or are covering his tracks for him.  And it doesn’t hurt a thing if you help put out spot fires after setting someone’s barn on fire.  But that ambush the other day... We knew what we were likely riding towards, and that’s why we all wanted him with us: to see what would happen when the shooting started.”

“What did happen?”  Teresa asked.

“He fell.  Very conveniently.  Making it impossible for him to shoot at the men who may or may not have been his partners in crime.  And even the fact that they shot at him while he was falling doesn’t mean anything -- all the shots missed, after all.  But I personally watched him take out one man, killed him cold.  And there is a wounded man and another body I think the kid’s responsible for. He definitely was fighting on our side.  And... did Johnny tell you about the Tombstone incident?”

“No,” Teresa said.  “What’s that?”

So Scott passed on the story of the multiple godfathers, and the thousand dollars.

“That’s almost impossible to believe, isn’t it?”  Teresa said.  “Like a fairy story or something.  Here is this boy we’ve never met before who came here strictly on business -- and it turns out Johnny inadvertently supported him and his mother for years!  Or,” she added thoughtfully, “Is that why he really came: to meet his benefactor in person.”

“He was more surprised than any of us,” Scott said. 

            “He could have just said...”

“No, one thing that kid is bad at, it’s lying.  He can’t look you in the eye when he’s doing it.  He didn’t know.  I’m sure of that.  And you’re right, it is hard to believe.  And yet, if two different people are both in one way or another associated with the same people, or even the same types of people -- their paths could cross, eventually, couldn’t they?”

“Apparently they have,” Teresa said.  “Although, you missed my point back there. When I said it was obvious why that boy isn’t interested in Larissa, I meant: obviously he’s in love with someone else.”

“You think so?”  Scott asked.

“Yes,” Teresa said.  “Because Larissa’s been more than obvious herself, and any normal, uninvolved young man would have at least flirted back a little.”

“I’ll take your word on that,” Scott said.  And to her surprise, he also took her hand, reached out and caught it and pressed it to his lips.  “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“Putting up with me,” he said.

“Putting up with you?”  she repeated, trying to tug her hand free.  He kept hold of it.  Moved it from his lips to his lap, but didn’t let it go.

“I know you work hard, Teresa,” he said gently.  “Even when Mrs. Winger is here.  And it’s a tough life out here -- tougher for you than for me.  I have a brother and a father for friends.  You’re basically all alone out here.  And you’re right, I’m not a very... demonstrative person.” 

“Oh,” she said.  “That.”  Her right hand was still trapped, so she used her left to make an off-hand gesture.

“‘That’,” he said, “is important.  “I’m sorry I got so angry about the Boston thing, too.  But you kind of caught me off guard.  I mean... well..  I never really thought you liked travel.”

She had been reluctant to meet his eyes a moment ago, now she stared at him, her mouth dropping open.  “Why on earth would you think that?”

“I took you with me on that trip to talk to the Australian cattle dealers -- and you hated it.”

“Of course I hated it!”  she said incredulously.  “What was there about it to like?”

“A sea voyage to a tropical island in the South Pacific...  I still haven’t figured out what was not to like.”

“Let me give you a few hints,” she said.  “First of all, we took the children.”

“I thought it would be educational for them,” Scott said.

“I’m sure it was,” Teresa said.  “But bringing them was work for me.  We couldn’t go on a regular passenger ship  -- not enough passengers ever want to go to some god-forsaken island out in the middle of no where..  I mean, who’s ever heard of a place called ‘Oahu’..”

“But they did have cabins.  Fairly nice ones, really.”

“Yes.  They had cabins, but they didn’t have the kind of amenities a passenger ship would have. Like games and entertainments -- or babysitters!  I had to watch the children completely by myself.  And it was more work on the ship than it was here at home.  Here they know the rules and the dangers.  There... well.. I just had to assume everything was dangerous.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Scott murmured.

“Yes it was!  Not to mention the fact that there was also no proper dining room.  I had to cook all our meals on that burner-thing in our cabin.”

“You didn’t have to cook them all,” Scott said.  “We were invited to dine in the officers’ mess.”

“Mess!”  Teresa spat.  “It was a ‘mess’ all right!  There were cockroaches all over the place!  And rats!  But worse than that were the men themselves.  They were a bunch of drunken, foul-mouthed louts!  Jack was terrified of them.  But I was more worried about Gene.  After just one day, he was imitating them!  And Larissa was far too young to be exposed to that sort of character.”

“They were rough,” Scott admitted. 

“So was the sea!”  Teresa said.  “Up and down, up and down, day after day after day!”

“I thought the motion of the boat was relaxing,” Scott said.

“I know.  And I could kill you on that count alone!  I was so sick, I actually considered jumping overboard and just putting an end to my misery.  The only thing that stopped me was the fear that I wouldn’t sink and drown, but would just sit there, bobbing like a cork, up and down, up and down forever!”

Scott ducked his head so she wouldn’t see his smile.  He wasn’t laughing at her misery -- he’d never do that.  But she did make it sound amusing.

“And when we finally arrived on dry land, we stayed in that awful little house made out of grass, with no windows or anything!  Insects rustled around in the walls and ceiling all night, and we were right on the beach where we could hear the waves pounding and pounding.  And we had to cook over an open fire outdoors.”

“It was only for a week,” Scott said soothingly.

“Yes.  Barely time for my stomach to settle before we were back on the boat, going up and down, up and down, up and down...”  

“Well,” Scott said, soothing her hand between both of his.  “When we go to Boston, we’ll have to take a train.  That will go side to side, not up and down, but generally people who get sick on boats, get sick on trains too.”  

“But trains stop,” Teresa said.  “For fuel and water, and when they stop, they stop completely.  Not to mention the fact that they travel on dry land, and if you want to get off, you can just... Did you just say ‘when we go to Boston’?”

“I was thinking,” Scott said, “that it was only fair to you to go.  I’ve lived for twenty years in the country you grew up in, but you know nothing of where I grew up, my roots, the life I lived before I came out here.  I was thinking, too, that it would be educational for the children, but this little talk had made me realize... Do you know that we haven’t spent any real time alone together since our honeymoon?”

“Yes,” Teresa said.  “I knew that.”

“It never occurred to me.  Before.  Now I’m thinking the children are plenty old enough to stay with their grandfather for a couple months. Our eighteenth anniversary will come during that trip.  We’ll make it for just the two of us.  An anniversary gift, from ourselves, to ourselves: time alone.  Time to get to know each other again.”

“You wouldn’t...”

“What?”  he asked, brushing a lock of hair from her cheek.

“You wouldn’t make a promise like this to get me out of the mood I’ve been in lately -- then take it back later.  Would you?”

“Teresa.  Of course not!  Have I ever done anything like that to you?”

“Why did you change your mind?  You really didn’t want to go  before.”

“I still don’t,” he said.  “But, you do.  And you deserve it.  You deserve anything you want, a trip like that is the least I can do for you.”

Teresa felt tears spring to her eyes.  “I was unfair to you,”  she said softly.  “Some of the things I said.  You don’t owe me anything.”

“Oh, yes, I do.  I owe you everything.  Most especially... I owe you an apology.  I had no right to say, even to think, the things I said the other night.  I’m sorry.  I can only say that I love you so much... and I’ve always been a little afraid that you would prefer someone... younger.  More exciting.”

“I prefer you,” she said, looking up into his deep, blue eyes.  “I’ve always preferred you.”  She smiled suddenly, and found herself touching his cheek.  “There were five men who got out of that stage coach twenty years ago.  I looked at all of them, trying to figure out which one could be the one I was looking for.  Then my eyes lit on you and I thought, ‘Oh, please, God!  Let this be one of the Lancer boys!’”

“Flatterer,” Scott chuckled, and using his good arm, he pulled her against himself.  Oh, it was good to feel her again, here in his arms where she belonged.  He felt like a man dying of thirst who has just been given a drink of the clearest, coldest, sweetest water imaginable.  When she turned her face up to breathe, he bent down and captured her lips. 

“Scott,” she said, moments later as she snuggled against his chest.  “I hate to sound, well, demanding.  After all, you are planning this trip -- which I know you didn’t want to take at all, but...”

“There’s something else?”

“I don’t know,” she said uncertainly, “if I have anything suitable to wear to a Boston wedding.”

“Probably not,” Scott said.  “Nothing personal, but they do get a little fancy there.  And my morning suit is twenty years out of date -- if it even still fits.  I was thinking that in a couple months, after we get this mess we’re involved in straightened out and survive Larissa’s coming-out party, we can take a week or two off to go to Sacramento, find a good tailor and dressmaker.  You’ll need a ball gown.  And an afternoon dress -- a tea gown I think they call it.  And a morning dress.  And...  Uh.  I forget.  The dressmaker will know.”

“I was just thinking of perhaps one dress!”  Teresa said with some alarm.

“It is Boston, my dear.  And while clothes are definitely not the most important thing, I do want to walk into that wedding ball and let all the men I grew up with see what fools they were to stay there.  Fools -- because I’ll be the man with the prettiest wife  in the whole town!”

“Now who’s a flatterer?”  Teresa said, but she couldn’t help the smile on her face.

“Just being honest,” Scott said innocently.  “A little prideful maybe, but honest.” 



The matched set of pear-handled, silver-plated pistols was long gone, as was the flashy Arabian horse, the silver spurs, the elegant clothing.  All of which, he thought, looking at himself in the mirror in the barber shop, was probably a good thing.  The Pinkerton had wired for more expense money, and enough had arrived to outfit him in second-hand clothes, with an ancient Colt Navy revolver and a plain, brown hat.  What looked back at him from the mirror, what the people he had traveled north with by stage and by train had seen, wasn’t a slick gunman, but just another drifting cowhand.  No one gave him a second look.  Which was good, considering the five thousand dollar reward on his head in this state.  

“Satisfied?”  the barber asked.

“Yes.  It’s fine,” he said, and he handed the man his nickel, tugged his hat lower on his forehead, and stepped outside to walk back down the street to the livery stable.

“He’s ready and waiting,” the stable hand said, and Johnny paid him also, added a tip for saddling his horse and getting it ready to travel, and swung into the saddle.  The horse responded sluggishly to direction, not exactly fighting the rein, but not the quick and accurate responses he was used to.  A lazy old plug, not much used, but what could one expect of a ten-dollar horse?  What he expected was a slow, leisurely, but uninterrupted ride to the town of Spanish Wells.  What he got was a horse that pulled up lame after only a few miles. Smoke rising in a neat, narrow column above the trees signaled a farm nearby, so he dismounted and lead the horse down the road to the gate.

“I’m wondering if I could leave him here,” he said when he had explained his predicament to the farmer.  “Even trade for some other horse.  Obviously, I’m not too picky.  I’ll take whatever you can give me.”

But the farmer looked at the hoof and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t give you anything.  Not for this horse.  Hate to say it, but somebody saw you coming.”

“What do you mean?  He stepped on a rock, right?”

“No, sir.  Looks like he must’ve stepped on a nail once.  Seems to heal up after awhile, but they can never work or haul a load again.  The foot eventually always swells and becomes painful.  This animal’s useless.  I can’t take him as an even trade for a good horse.”

“No,” Johnny said, trying to hide his bitterness.  “No, I wouldn’t ask you to.”

“Now, if you had some money on you, we could sweetened the pot a bit, that would maybe make it worthwhile for me,” the farmer said hopefully.  Johnny dug into his pocket to see what was left of his traveling money, and what he found was not even half the price of that horse.

“How far were you going?”  the farmer asked.

“I need to get to Spanish Wells,” Johnny said.

“Sure you want to go there?  There’s trouble up that way, big trouble so I’ve been hearing.  Lots of work right here in this valley.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said.  “But I’m going to see my father.”

“Tell you what,” the farmer said.  “Stage comes along this road right here.  It’s due today, in fact.  You could flag it down and it looks like you got right about enough there to buy you a seat, least as far as Spanish Wells.  I’ll even give you a ride down to the road  so’s you don’t have to lug your gear around.  How’s that sound?”

“It sounds good,” Johnny said.  “Thank you.”

“Wish I could do more for you.  Say, I tell you what.  Why don’t you hitch up the wagon for me, and I’ll go inside see if the missus has some grub you can pack along.  Looks like you might be shy the price of a meal before the end of the trip.  It’ll save you some money.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said again, sincerely, and he went to hitch the wagon.  The feeling of peace that Johnny had had for some time suddenly felt strained.  He had asked the Pinkerton why now, after all these years, his father had suddenly decided he needed to see him, and the Pinkerton had shrugged and replied, “Not my business to find the answer to that one, mate.  My job was to find you, and get you back home as quickly as possible.”  It had seemed an innocent enough statement, then.  Now  it seemed ominous.  Why “as quickly as possible?”  Because Murdoch Lancer was in trouble?  But if he was in trouble, it was much cheaper to hire a gunman than to spend what he had spent to find Johnny -- and offer that thousand dollar bribe as well.  No, he decided.  He was just being edgy --old habits that die hard.  He had been hearing rumors of trouble all the way north.  To find out that the trouble was in Spanish Wells was uncomfortable,  but it wasn’t his trouble.  His father had sent for him a long time ago, weeks and weeks.  Maybe while he was still in Piños Altos, with Hilary.  This was just one of those unpleasant coincidences that happen in life.  And anyway, it didn’t matter what his father wanted him for.  If it was to hire out his gun, the old man was out of luck.  Johnny would never, ever do that again.  And that was a vow he had made to himself and to God, and he intended to keep it. He would never again do anything that would cause pain to the woman he loved.  He finished with the wagon, and turned his face up to the warmth of the summer sun, waiting for the farmer, but thinking of Hilary.  He could see her, as clearly as if she was standing in front of him now, her eyes bright and warm, her smile so soft and sweet.  He was going to be able to keep his promise after all: he’d be back well before winter.

“You sure it’s your father you’re going to see?”  the farmer asked, coming back out of the house.

“Yes, why?”

“Man don’t usually get a look on his face like that unless he’s thinking of a woman.” 

Johnny looked up, to nod his thanks and tip his hat to the woman standing in the doorway of the house, a woman with a small child clutching at her skirt, heavy with the another one on the way.  Wife and family, that would be his soon enough, he thought, and he smiled as he climbed onto the wagon seat.

“I have to see my father,” he said to the farmer.  “But then I am going back to my new wife.”

“Ah!  Well, congratulations to you.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said.  It was about half a mile back to the road from the farmer’s front door, and he didn’t need a ride, but he appreciated it.  The farmer left him standing there with his saddle and pack and the sack of food around his feet, and drove off into the fields on some business of his own.  He waved and Johnny waved back, and he sat down to wait.  A little over an hour later, he heard the coach coming up the road, and he stood to wave at the driver.  The coach pulled to a stop, and several heads poked curiously out of the window as Johnny bartered for a lift.  He was required to pay the full price in advance and to turn over his pistol to the driver, but then he was allowed to toss his gear up on top -- and to ride up there himself.

“Got a full load,” the driver said, spitting off the side of the high seat.

Could have mentioned that earlier, Johnny thought.  But, the Pinkerton had already wired ahead that he would be there within the next day or so, so Johnny climbed up and settled himself amongst the luggage that didn’t fit behind in the boot.  It was dusty up there, and the sun burned down on him.  The height of the roof exaggerated the swaying motion of the coach so that he rocked as well as bounced.  Johnny just closed his eyes and thought, again, about how soon he could get back to New Mexico Territory.

They stopped several times during the day for fresh horses, and once for lunch.  Johnny got down and stretched at each stop, but  he helped out with the hitching and unhitching, staying with the employees he rode with, not mingling with the passengers.  There were seven of them crowded inside the coach: a fat elderly man, a middle-aged couple, a woman who seemed to be traveling alone, and three other men, all between twenty and thirty.  Johnny paid very little attention to all of them, except one tall, fair-haired dude with a strong eastern accent who made casual conversation with him once or twice.               

“Hot up there in the sun?”  he asked the first time.

“Yeah, but at least I get a breeze,” Johnny had replied, and the dude had snorted his agreement with that.  All the passengers were dark with sweat from having to keep the leather shades pulled against the dust.

They stopped for the night at a hovel of a station, a dark, filthy place that he was glad did not have sleeping space for all of them.  The women and the elderly men slept inside, and all of them seemed to scratch a great deal come morning.  Johnny, the driver and shotgun and the three other male passengers found themselves camping places under the trees outside. 

“You didn’t join us for dinner,” the dude commented, as he and Johnny washed up together at the creek in the morning.

“Brought my own dinner,” Johnny said.

“Breakfast too?”


“Lucky you,” the dude said dryly.  No one seemed to ride well the next morning on whatever food the lady of the station had fed them.  His own supply of boiled eggs, meat, bread and cheese was getting stale and running low, but Johnny was grateful to have it.  He finished off the last of it when the others stopped for lunch, but did accept the gift of a slice of apple pie the dude saved for him.  The cook here, apparently, was much better than the place they had spent the night.

Shortly after noon, the coach rolled into Spanish Wells, where it would stop for two days, and everyone disembarked.  Johnny was tossing luggage down to the driver when a voice called out hopefully, “Mr.  Lancer?”

It was new to him to answer to that name, but he remembered that was his name now and said, “Yes,” looking up.  At the exact same time the dude said “Yes?”  and looked up from where he was handing ladies out of the coach.  The two glanced at each other, then glanced at the woman who had called their name.  Girl really, not even as old as Hilary, Johnny guessed , though she was kitted out in ladies’ clothing and bonnet, no braids or pinafores for her.  She also looked surprised at the double answer, then she beamed happily and said, “Oh!  I bet you’re Scott Lancer!  And you must be Johnny Lancer!  Two brothers arriving together, this is wonderful.”

“And a little confusing,” the dude said.  He turned to help the last lady out of the coach and stepped up to the boardwalk, sweeping off his broad hat.  “There must be some mistake here.  You see... my mother only had one child.”

“Mine too,” Johnny said.

“Oh, I know!”  the girl said.  “It was Murdoch who had two.”

Johnny and the dude exchanged looks again, but Johnny had no idea what was going on, and he shrugged to let the dude know that he wasn’t holding out information.

“Two what, ma’am?”  the dude asked politely.

“Wives!”  the girl exclaimed happily.  

Two wives.  One man with two wives.  Johnny stared at the dude with new understanding.  Murdoch’s build, Murdoch’s sun-gold hair -- just like in the picture he had carried in that locket for so many years.  Murdoch’s son.  Like Johnny was himself.  Which would make him, as the girl so artlessly announced, Johnny’s brother!



The girl, Miss O’Brien -- Teresa as she introduced herself -- continued to prattle on during the long drive to the ranch house.  Her chattering reminded Johnny somewhat of Hilary -- but only somewhat. She did have time to answer a lot of their questions, but she hesitated, bottled up again, when certain things were asked.  “What’s going on?” for instance, caused her to hesitate and say, “I’d better let Murdoch explain.”  But they did glean some historical facts, learning the names of each other’s mothers, when they were married to Murdoch, and where they were now.  “Dead,” both men said in answer to that one.  Teresa talked about her own father as Murdoch’s business partner, but when asked what had happened to him, that was another, “I think I’ll let Murdoch explain.”  As more and more subjects seemed to go into that category, the dude (no, Scott.  He had to remember to give him the respect of a name if they were brothers.  Brothers!  He still had trouble with that idea!)  got Teresa talking about less personal things, like where the ranch was, how big it was, what kind of cattle they ran, how many men, what was the difference (being from the city, he did not know) between grazing permits and land that belonged to the ranch.  Johnny listened more closely to the answers she would not give than to the ones she did, and he knew long before they drove into the ranch yard that the trouble he had heard rumors of did indeed involve Lancer.    He had ridden into the middle of a range war, something he absolutely could not afford to be mixed up in now!  Let the dude handle it.  Scott.  He was the oldest son after all.  And he was a dude, not an idiot.  It was obvious from his bearing and certain other things, he had been in the military, probably an officer -- probably during The War.  He could handle whatever came up.  Johnny would meet his father -- he owed the old man that much.  And then he would leave.  But it wasn’t that easy -- he knew that even as they reached the ranch house.

Scott had been born, according to Teresa, in Boston.  Johnny, as he already knew, had been born on this land.  In this building, he thought, standing in front of the huge structure, staring up at its windows.  He had been born here, and if he recalled local custom, the afterbirth that was born with him would have been buried at the base of a young tree in the yard.  Maybe that cherry tree, growing by the living room window.  That looked to be the right age.  His blood, the mingled life of his mother and father, had nourished that little tree.   And the other tree, the huge cottonwood spreading over the dining room roof... he remembered that tree.  No, he couldn’t!  He’d been barely over a year old when his mother took him from this place.  And yet... He could almost see a swing hanging from that tree, a girl in that swing, a young, dark-haired girl, laughing, pointing her toes up to the sky... His mother.  He shook his head, thinking that he must be remembering another tree, another place.  But when he stepped closer to the tree he could see the broken, rotten pieces of rope still hanging from one of the branches.

“Johnny?”  Teresa said.  “Come on in.  Derby will take care of the horse.  I’ll show you to your room.”

He washed in the cool water that had been left in his room, stared at himself in the little mirror above the washbasin.  Johnny Lancer.  Johnny Madrid.  His blood was in this land.  But his heart was somewhere else.

Home, he thought, tasting the word.  Home and a brother.  And, if he understood the girl’s chatter, a sort of step-sister.  And a father, wanting the kind of help you hire gunmen for.  He learned more about that almost immediately.  Before dinner, he and Scott were ushered into a huge room with windows on three sides and saw the old man in person, standing, breathless for some reason, in front of a huge river-rock fireplace under a painted plaster cast of his own brand: Circle L.  Arrogant, was Johnny’s thought at seeing that.   The old man talked.  About rustling -- half the calves from this spring missing, plus hundreds of head more.  No money because no cattle, people scared.  Attacks on the helpless, himself and his business partner shot from ambush. And he listened, looking at his name scratched with bold letters on the fat envelope.  John Murdoch Lancer.  Not Juan Francisco Madrid.  Not even Juan Francisco Lancer the name he had the priest put on his marriage license.  John Murdoch Lancer.  Scott had their father’s looks.  Johnny had been given his name.  And even as he thought that, a name that Murdoch spoke caught his attention.

“Pardieu?”  Johnny repeated.  “Tom Pardieu?”

“Friend of yours?”  the old man asked drily.  He knew who Johnny was.  Scott didn’t.  Yet.  But the Pinkerton had told Johnny he had sent back all the information already, sent it by wire while they were waiting for the money to get him clothes and a horse to finish the journey.  If he hadn’t known he was looking for a famous gunfighter before, he did by now, and Johnny found himself wondering how to answer that question without arousing suspicious against himself -- or lying. 

“I’ve heard of him,” he said finally.  Which he had.  Anybody who’d ever heard anything about range wars knew the name of Tom Pardieu.  Tom was an expert in that field, expert at choosing the winning side, at pushing until they did win, whichever side he chose.  But, oh, dear God!  Tom was involved in this?  He might have decided to ride out of here, leave this man and his problems for someone else to finish, whatever his connections with them through blood.  But not with Tom involved.  Tom would have had lookouts all over town -- Johnny knew his habits better than anyone!  Tom would have word already of the two men who got off the stage and drove out to Lancer.  And if Tom hadn’t seen him himself, he would have an accurate enough description to know -- to at least suspect -- that Johnny was one of those two men.  He felt cold suddenly, the kind of cold he had known once before -- when he was dying.  The envelope with the thousand dollars lay on the table and he wished it wasn’t high summer so there would be a fire in that big fireplace, a big blazing fire that he could throw that money into.  Blood money!  He had come here, instead of going straight to Hilary, to get that money.  Cattle, a store, all that was pipe dreams, the soft smoke of them blowing away already on his own breath.  He didn’t want that money, didn’t want anything to do with these people!  All he wanted was to figure a way to get out of this mess with his skin still intact.

Tom Pardieu!  If he’d had that bit of information from the start, he’d never have come here.       

Running was out of the question.  Tom would go after him -- Tom wasn’t stupid!  Staying was about as good an option as walking into the local sheriff’s office and admitting to his other name.  And he wasn’t admitting to Scott and Murdoch any of this.  He’d have to work it out on his own.  So, when Teresa took Scott back to town in  the morning, to buy him some work clothes since nothing he had brought in his big trunk was appropriate for ranch life, Johnny rode along next to the wagon, on a borrowed horse, still working out what to do.  The dude got himself in trouble almost instantly, and Teresa -- she was going to get him killed yet! -- ran across the street to where Johnny was sitting on the hotel porch to ask him to come and help! 

“They’re hurting him!  They could kill him!  Aren’t you going to help?”

“No,” Johnny said, and with a sob of fury she had run to the town marshal instead.  He didn’t feel too bad about it though.  He had seen the two men follow Scott and Teresa into the dry goods store -- one of them knew him by sight!  He also figured that if Scott couldn’t take those two on in a fair fight, well, that was his own problem.  Johnny was still digesting the conversation he’d had with Tom in the saloon over a beer earlier this morning.

“I know you’ve been out to that ranch,” Tom said, although he was pretty certain that Tom didn’t yet realize why, for the simple reason that Johnny was still alive.   “What did the old man offer you?”

“A third,” Johnny said honestly.

“I’ll give you half!”  Tom said.  “And it’ll be half of more than just Lancer!  By the time we’re done in this town, we’ll own every decent piece of graze land between here and the mountains, and the cattle on it.  Johnny!  We’ve ridden together.  We’ve known each other for years.  You know I’ll play you fair.  That old man wouldn’t give away a third of his property just to get himself a hired gun!”

“I know,” Johnny agreed.  “But, I have to go back tonight, Tom.”

“Going back to see if he’ll up his offer?”  Pardieu asked.  “Maybe throw that girl of his in to sweeten the bargain?  Don’t even think about it, Johnny!  You’re on my side, or you’re under the ground, you know that.”

“I know that,” he’d said, sipping the beer, maintaining over the cold panic he felt in his gut the face of calm he had worked so many years to achieve.  “But we don’t want to tip him off too early, do we?  Have you ever gotten close to that house?  Know what’s inside it?”

“No,” Tom admitted.

“It’s a fortress.  It was built to withstand Indians, army, and the weather.”

“You trying to tell me I won’t win this one?”  Tom scowled menacingly.

“No.  I’m just saying, you need to know more before you try a head-on assault.  Every fortress has its weaknesses, Tom.”

“And you’ll find out what this one’s are!”  Tom laughed.  “Oh, I like the way you think, old friend.”

He picked a fight with Scott later that same day, got the dude to punch him over... something stupid.  Claimed Murdoch had tossed him and his mother out, acted the part of the bitter baby brother so perfectly he had Teresa in tears trying to sooth him.  True, he had believed that same story himself for years.  But he had learned better on his own, recently.  His mother loved him and shielded him, he’d always thought.  But she hadn’t even bothered to remember his birthday!  Or his real name!  And she had the date, at least, engraved in gold.  He had long wondered the significance of the date inscribed on that locket.  An anniversary, maybe.  Couldn’t have been the day they were married, not coming so long after what he had thought was his birth date.  In fact, it had been the gift of a loving father, to the mother of his child on the date of that child's birth, which was not, he knew from long and bitter experience, the sort of thing a man who would toss a woman out of the house would do.  That locket had been a gift of love.  Hilary had made him see that.  Hilary, and a chance to meet the man his mother had so long accused.  But, it made a good excuse.  Even if Tom found out about his relationship with Murdoch, he could use that fight to prove what side he was “really” on.  Or what side he was pretending to be on.  He was playing a dangerous game, and he knew it.  More dangerous than he had ever played before, and it was ironic that for once in his life, he had a reason to want to survive this time.

“Tomorrow,” Tom announced only a few days later, while Johnny was still trying to figure a way to stop the violence before it got any worse.  Scott was so certain he could protect that ranch house!  Johnny had told Tom it was a fortress, but it had too much glass, to many open places.  A good marksman could turn it into a shooting gallery like at a carnival side-show.  And Tom wasn’t about to be talked out of his grand plan to become a land owner, a plan he had harbored for so long and now saw as within his grasp.  Johnny rode with Tom, side by side, in front of the other men, as they headed out to Lancer at dawn for the attack.  I’m not coming out of this one, he thought.  Very likely, neither was his newly found brother or father.  But one thing he had already decided: neither was Tom.        

“Ready?”  Tom asked him, grinning in anticipation as they stood in the trees above the ranch house.

“Almost,” Johnny said.  “There is just one more thing.”

“What’s that?”  Tom was hungry for the kill, Johnny could see it in his eyes.  He was grinning, eager. 

“Get off my land,” Johnny said.


He had broken the spell.  The hungry, gleeful look was gone, and Tom was staring at him in surprise.

“Madrid!  What are you...”

“Lancer,” Johnny said.  “You handled that locket a hundred times, Tom.  You tried to steal it once.  Didn’t you ever open it?  It had my father’s name inside it.  My real father.  Murdoch Lancer.”

And Tom went for his gun, blinded, as Johnny had known he would be by his own rage.  But he’d never been as quick as Johnny.  Johnny pulled out his own gun, fired.  Tom’s head vanished in a spray of blood.  Johnny spun around, jumped on his horse, and rode as hard as he could to warn the ranch of the other men out there.  He didn’t make it.  The bullet slammed him so hard that it knocked him out of the saddle, and he hit the ground, but two shots had been fired, two warnings to the men barricaded inside the house, and his one thought before the impact knocked him cold was that maybe, maybe his father and brother would survive now.  Father.  And brother.  Family.  His family.  His home.



"I thought it was a good idea,"  Larissa said.

"Well, then you didn't think very hard, did you,"  Murdoch snapped, so unexpectedly that a look of hurt sprang into his granddaughter's eyes.

"Murdoch,"  Johnny said softly, before either of her angered parents could intervene.  He stumped a pace or two closer to the girl and said, "Liss.  I know why you think it's a good idea, but there are a few minor flaws in your plan.  In the first place, I'm the only man here under six feet tall, and the crutches kind of give me away.  No one in their right mind would fall for us dressing up as women and riding out of here in a wagon!"

"Maybe Mother and I could be the bait, then!"  Larissa said.  “We'll get in the wagon, draw them to attack us, while and you and grandpa and..."

"No!"  Murdoch and Scott both said explosively.

"But we can't just sit here forever and wait for them to attack!"  she said.  "They can take their time and we just sit here getting stir-crazy!  And what if Tex is wrong?  What if they aren't  waiting for an opportunity to attack?"

"I think our counter-ambush the other day set them back a little,"  Tex said.  "But Palmer's the sort of man who, when he sets out to get revenge, ain't likely to let a minor thing like losing half his men make him give up."


"The other flaw in your plan, Liss,"  Johnny said grimly, "is  the character of these men.  They've proven themselves ambushers and backshooters.  They wouldn't attack the wagon and give us a chance to spring an ambush on them.  They'd pick off the passengers from a distance.  The idea's pure suicide.  No one's leaving this house!"

"But...!"  she protested again.  "What are we going to do then?   Sit around and watch each other's hair grow?"

"We're going to stay here,"  Murdoch said.  "We're going to stay alive."

"This is so aggravating!"  Larissa said, pounding a fist helplessly into the stuffing of the office sofa.

"The hardest part of courage,"  Scott said, "isn't rushing into the face of danger, but waiting for it to come to you.  I think waiting's broken more soldiers than the heat of battle.  Waiting gives you too much time to think."

"I hate it when you're right!"  she snapped, glaring at him.  "Why are you always right?"

"I'm not always,"  Scott said, sitting so that the arm in the sling was away from her, and he could wrap the other arm around her shoulders. 

She laid her head on his shoulder with a sigh and said,  "So, how long do we have to wait?"

"Tomorrow's the eighteenth..."  Murdoch said.

"...Which is a significant date for you, but probably not to Palmer,"  Tex said.  When Murdoch opened his mouth to protest, the kid added softly, "It's etched in your memory because it's the day your sons came back, but all the anonymous notes you've gotten so far have had dates of acts of violence perpetrated against you or your neighbors.  Totally different."

"Anyway, the dates on the notes never did match up with this year's dates,"  Scott added.

"They couldn't, really.  There was a long stretch of time between the attack on Gene and I and the day they finally stormed the ranch house and were fought back,"  Murdoch said.  "I don't think someone bent on revenge would want to wait that long."

"Did anything happen around here before the date on that first note?"  Tex asked suddenly.

"Sure,"  Murdoch said.  "Cattle were vanishing as if they were water in a leaky bucket..."

"None of them turned up with a Circle Box brand, did they?"  Johnny asked.

Murdoch snorted.  "Of course not!  No one's that stupid!  They were being pushed into canyons and headed towards lower country.  Naturally, with that going on, there was a sudden increase in strangers in town -- most of them not typical cowboys looking for spring round-up work, but slick-looking types.  With soft hands."

"Makes handling a gun easier,"  Johnny commented.

"Not a condition you had when you arrived here,"  Murdoch noticed.

Johnny shrugged.  "I was never good at sitting around watching other people work.  Some men like idleness.  Made me restless."

“You’re going to have to brush up on that lying,” Scott grinned.  “You’re as bad at it as Tex!”

Murdoch and Teresa grinned too, all of them well aware that there had always been a difference between Johnny and the average outlaw.  He had always believed in working for things worth having, in lending a hand where it was needed.  Killing, for him, had never been about arrogance, which is why he had been able to leave that life so completely.

"Did you have an idea?"  Murdoch asked, turning back to the ranger.

"Nothing new,"  the kid shrugged.  "I'd say we can be pretty sure Palmer was one of the men who was with this other Pard--- whatever..."

"Pardieu,"  Johnny said.

"Right.  Twenty years ago.  We established the connection between Rose Bolivar and this family.  I'd say my surmise that Palmer came here to get revenge was right.”

“Not that it helps,” Scott said.

Tex shrugged. 

"Larissa's right about one thing, too,"  Murdoch said irritably, standing to pace back and forth.  "It does make you crazy."

"That's because you're trying too hard,"  Tex said.  "If you don't have the facts, you're just playing a guessing game.  And those can drive anyone nuts."

"I spy something dangerous,"  Johnny said with a little laugh.

“Exactly!”  Tex said.  “We’ve gone as far as we could on the information we have.  Now...”

“We wait?”  Scott guessed, raising an eyebrow.

“Or we could check our defenses,” the kid suggested.  Which is why he was upstairs with Johnny, holding and passing tools for Johnny to drill gun holes in the boarded up windows of the attic, when they saw the riders coming in from the south.

“Our men,” Johnny said, while the shapes were still indistinct with distance. 

Tex raised his eyebrows appreciatively.  “You are good!”

Johnny just grunted.  “I know every horse on this spread,” he said.  “Come on -- they wouldn’t be riding like that unless something was up.”

Tex gathered the tools and followed as Johnny went down the back stairs to the kitchen.  They could hear a commotion by then in the front hall, and headed that way, pushing in from the diningroom in time to hear Murdoch saying, “We’ll go at once!”

“What happened to sit and wait?”  Larissa asked, in the sarcastic tone only a teenager could ever produce.

“Some things take precedence,” Murdoch said.

“What is it?”  Johnny asked.

“Problem with the neighbors,” Murdoch said.

“But we’ve never had any...”

“Our cattle on their graze.  I need to go myself,” Murdoch said. 

“We’re going with you,” Scott said, and he and Johnny both turned to leave.


“Murdoch!”  Johnny protested.

“Scott, you shouldn’t be riding yet.  Johnny... you’ll slow us down,” Murdoch said, looking apologetic.  “Anyway,” he added as the color rose in Johnny’s face and Johnny opened his mouth in furious protest, “I want family here, to watch the house.  That’s you two.  The lives and safety of Teresa and the children are in your hands.  That’s more important.  Tex,” he added as an afterthought. “You can come with us.  Get fresh horses for yourselves,” he told the men.  Tex was already halfway out the door, heading for the stable.  The other men followed in a group.  Murdoch turned to head to his room for his hat and spurs, but Johnny caught his arm before he went one step.

"Watch that kid," he said softy.

"I thought you had decided to trust him, since he was almost your godson and all,"  Murdoch said.

"I did.  And I agree with Scott:  he did seem to be shooting at the right targets the other day..."


"But,"  Johnny said, as if that one word explained the matter.

In a way it did.  The kid seemed trustworthy enough, but he was still an unknown quantity.  Larissa’s furious, “What does he have to do before you believe him?  Die for us?” didn’t have it’s desired affect.

“It would solve everything if he did,” Murdoch said, and he went upstairs for his gear.



“This is a low trick, Lancer!”  Bart Creeley shouted furiously.  “I have to pay for those graze permits!  I need every blade of that grass!  Your cows could have been eating here -- free! -- for days before we discovered them!”

“I assure you it wasn’t intentional,” Murdoch said, looking as mild as he could.

“You say!  I suppose you want a return to the old open range policy -- where the man who can afford the most hands can push everyone else out of the way!”

“I was the first to fence my range,” Murdoch said.  “And I maintain permit fences -- even if they aren’t my responsibility, Bart.  You know better than that.”

“Yeah, well, that much fence doesn’t just cut all by itself!”

“It does when bulls are fighting,” Murdoch said mildly. 

Creeley snorted, still furious, but had to concede it was the truth.  Just two years go they had been forced to repair several hundred feet of this same fence when his big red bull and the Lancer’s new Angus had battled back and forth for days.

“They have been bellowing,” Creevy admitted.  “Still... I want restitution!”

“You’ll get it,” Murdoch said.  “What would you say is fair?  Two day’s hay?  Three?  This winter when things are tight.”

“Three!”  Creeley demanded.

Murdoch nodded solemnly and shook on it, and he sent his men out to push the cattle back through the downed fence.  Tex had sat back with the men during the exchange, and he rode with them when they spread out to gather the cattle.  The yellow horse was not a trained cow horse.  When a big cow threatened with her horns, the animal shied back and nearly lost its rider instead of dodging quickly out of the way and circling around for another angle.  The kid had to give it instruction for every move it made, fighting with reins, knees and heels to get desired results.  But, he managed.

            “Your grandson’s getting to be quite a horseman,” Creeley said, by way of a peace offering, indicating the ranger.

“My grandson is twelve years old,” Murdoch said.

“Big for his age, isn’t he,” Creeley said.

“I meant,” Murdoch said, “that my grandson isn’t old enough to be out here with us.  That’s a total stranger.”

“But he’s riding for you?”

“Yes.  Well, visiting actually.  He’s the Texas Ranger who was asking questions in town last week.”

“Oh.  Right.  I seen the picture he left with Marshall Tayback when I went into town.  Scary-looking fella, ain’t he?”


“And, pointless that ranger fella hanging around here looking for him.  A face like that, we’d have spotted him right off, wouldn’t we?”

“Yes,” Murdoch said, remembering suddenly his own trips into town, the questions.  The kid insisted Palmer was responsible for the troubles at the ranch, claimed to have spotted Palmer’s footprints.

But... as Johnny had said.

But... they only had his word on what those footprints looked like.  But... even though it was obvious there was more than one man involved, surely someone would have seen this damaged and scarred man somewhere -- where had he gotten his helpers, after all?

The cattle were all on their own side of the fence now.  Tex slid down off his horse with the other men to work on repairing the wire, lugging the heavy rolls of barbed wire, passing fencing pliers, attaching the wire stretcher.  He was awkward at it, and though he picked it up quickly, it was obvious he was unused to that sort of  labor.

Soft hands, Murdoch thought recalling the conversation of that morning.

Which the kid didn’t have, he reminded himself.

“But...”  Johnny had said. 

Later, riding the long way around to check other fences, the kid moved up next to Murdoch and said, “Why didn’t you tell him the trouble you’ve been having?”

“Tell who?”

“That man back there.  He was furious, wasn’t he?  And it’s not like it was your fault.”

“Was the wire cut?”  Murdoch asked.  “Accidents do happen out here.”

“Yeah, it was cut, and rolled back out of the way -- it didn’t snap into those positions.  Someone opened a big gap -- on purpose.  And pushed the cattle towards it so they’d find it faster.”

“I suspected as much when I first heard of it.”  He smiled at the puzzled look on the boy’s face.  “We were waiting for a fake Indian attack.”

“Yes, but...”

“Indians didn’t all that often actually attack ranch houses.  They most commonly stole livestock.  Horses were a favorite, but cattle rustling was very popular.  The locals would sell stolen livestock over the mountains to the Shoshone, who traded with their cousins the Comanche, who’d sell them for guns and ammunition to the Mexicans.  Before the Iron Horse and the telegraph cut everything up into parcels, there was a trading network among the Indians that covered most of North America.”

“I had heard of Pacific Ocean sea shells being found as far inland as Iowa and Kansas,” the kid agreed.  “But, still... it was obviously not your fault...”

“Trying to convince Creevy of that would have sounded like whining,” Murdoch said.  “Anyway, however they ended up on his permit, our cattle don’t belong there, and it’s our responsibility to keep them out.  Weak men make excuses, Mr.  Pierce.  Strong men find solutions.”



The wound Johnny would claim later to be not serious.  In fact, the bullet drilled a ragged hole through his body, taking bits of his broken clavicle with it and leaving them behind in his flesh.  Besides the broken bone, Johnny had lain unconscious through most of the gun battle, bleeding profusely the entire time.  He was barely conscious for several days, bedridden for nearly a week with the weakness from the loss of blood.  For another two weeks, he spent a great deal of time sitting in the sun, resting between one minor surgery after another as the bone chips floated to the surface of the wound and had to be dug out with a sharp knife.  He was quiet, never had much to say, but Murdoch was certain that he was feeling the ever-strengthening family ties, same as he and Scott were, and was comfortable with the new arrangement.   He had to wonder if this assessment had been correct, however, when they all gathered for breakfast one morning, and discovered Johnny was no longer with them.  The little black cow pony he had been using for his personal saddle horse was gone, as was his saddle and tack, including his saddlebags and pack. A check of his room showed the bed neatly made up -- but all his personal effects gone.  It was again what it had been when he arrived: an empty and impersonal guest room.

“I can go after him,” Scott offered as soon as they realized he was, in fact, gone.  “Doctor said he’s not up to any long riding.  He can’t be too far.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “He’s old enough to make his own choices.” 

He had heard of the incident, now nearly a month past, when Johnny poured out his bitter anger at Murdoch to Teresa and Scott.  He thought I abandoned him!  Murdoch thought, feeling a pain in his chest at the very idea.  But he didn’t, in all the time Johnny was healing, go seek the boy out and make excuses either.  The anger was something he was entitled to, after the life he had apparently lived.  It tore at Murdoch’s heart that Johnny harbored such feelings about him, but it was better, he thought, that the brunt of that anger be directed to him and not at Esperanza.  She had been so young, so unsure.  So obviously not as in love with him as he had been with her.  He couldn’t hate her for the pain she had put him -- and his son -- through.  And he couldn’t face the thought of Johnny’s bitterness redirected at her either.  It wasn’t her fault.  It was his own, if it was anybody’s.  He shouldn’t have given up looking for them.  Should have... what?  Never married her in the first place?  No.  Not that.  But he should have found his son years and years earlier.

The laughter that had filled the house these past few weeks, even with tragedy and Johnny’s injury hanging over them, dried up. Scott’s dry teasing ceased completely, as did Teresa’s responding giggles.  The long evenings spent gathered around the office fire, the three men talking just to talk, just to get to know one another, became sullen, silent evenings.  Teresa was quietly uncomfortable, Scott would start to talk, then stop again.  All of them stole glaces at the corner of the sofa where Johnny had begun propping himself comfortably in a mound of pillows as soon as he could leave his bed under his own power.

“I thought...”  Scott said once, and stopped.

“What?”  Murdoch wanted to know.

“I thought... he’d gotten over it.  Learned better.”

“I saw in your eyes the first time I looked at you that you held anger against me, too,” Murdoch said.  “Have you ‘gotten over it’?”

“The feeling, not entirely,” Scott admitted.  “The reason for it, yes.  I have worked that out.”

“Johnny’s younger,” Murdoch said.  “And, I think he may have suffered a great deal.”

“That’s exactly why he needs us!”

Murdoch sighed, sadly.  “You can’t force someone to be part of a family, Scott.  I wish...”

But he let the wish trail off, as they all did, staring at the fire, listening to it crackle on the hearth.  They had nearly been a family, all four of them.  Now they would have to make do with three, and with the hurt the empty fourth place left behind.

What they didn’t know, because Johnny in his shyness and natural reticence had never given them a hint, was that it wasn’t anger that made him saddle up his horse in the milky pre-dawn light and ride hard away from the ranch.  It was a sudden sense of urgency.  True, it was still August, but when he had awakened early and stepped outside to enjoy the crisp, chilly morning air, he had been greeted by the sight of a handful of gold leaves on one of the branches of the big cottonwood tree in front of the house.  He had made a promise, a promise to return before winter.  And although New Mexico was to the south, and Piños Altos was in Apacheria, in  the southern quarter of that territory, it was also well over a mile in altitude.  Autumn came early in the mountains.  He had lingered here, nursing his wound, long enough.  Almost too long.  If he didn’t get back there soon, she would quit looking for him.  The thought that those soft, sweet eyes might turn with interest to another man tore at his heart so badly that he left the ranch immediately, forgetting even the note he had been planning for so long to write, to leave behind the message that was too hard for him to speak aloud.

He rode south and east as quickly as he could,  crossing the Sierra Nevadas at the infamous Donner Pass, skirting around the mining camps surrounding Lake Tahoe, only to be overtaken by fever from pushing himself too hard too soon.  He ended up laid up for nearly a week, being nursed by a hermit priest in a hut in the high mountains, staring out the window at the snow-capped peaks around the lake and cursing his own weakness.  He left weak and shaky, able to travel only if he didn’t try to make too many miles every day and rested well every night -- which is probably all that kept his horse alive through the long trip as he dropped into the desert near Carson City and continued at a south-easterly angle north of the California-Nevada border, through the brush flats and desert lands to the northeast corner of Arizona Territory, where he continued dropping south and east at the same time.  In six years, a walled presidio would be built to fortify against the Apaches at Tucson, Arizona.  In nine, the hay-cutting camp dubbed “Phoenix”, in hopes of a new city rising from the ruins of ancient pueblo cultures, would be a supply point for north central Arizona Territory.  But the country Johnny traveled was sparcely populated. There were no railroads to make travel quicker, at least not in the direction he was heading.  He traveled with freight wagons when he could, for the extra protection crossing this wild country.  He stopped at friendly pueblos and Spanish missions when he found them, trading silver dollars or labor for food and fresh water.  Mostly, he drank bitter water from the alkali streams and ate tough, stringy jackrabbits, dodging hostile bands and once, a troop of federales, far north of their territory for reasons he did not wish to contemplate.  The fever of illness finally burned out of him completely, but the fever of anticipation increased as he pushed desperately east through the mountains, feeling the cold grow deeper every night, and watching the aspen trees on the mountain slopes grow brighter and brighter gold every day.  It was a cloudy, bitter-chill autumn day when he found himself, finally, looking down at the muddy streets and houses of the town where Hilary lived.  



He had intended to ride first to the  three-sided shelter that had been his home all spring, but he changed his plans when he saw the amount of traffic on the road.   Where previously only a few travelers ventured on the beaten path, now it was a mud-churned highway as freight wagons, stage coaches, private conveyances and men afoot and on horseback  poured into and out of the region.  He joined the flow, and shortly past noon,  found himself in a very unfamiliar place.  He could not believe the changes a few weeks had wrought.   This was a boom town.  New construction was everywhere.  The streets were choked with people, wagons, mules, oxen, that churned up the mud, keeping it fresh, keeping it deep.  A few miles west, what had previously been an open plain, farmed only by a few brave souls under the twenty-four hour protection of soldiers assigned from the fort, was more new construction, and marked off squares of exposed red-clay soil lined with ladders and railings -- or sometimes just existing as open pits.  Tent barrooms and brothels were running raucous business even at this time of the day, and everywhere there were people: men, almost exclusively, youthful, hopeful.  Hardened men of obvious western experience and fresh-faced Easterners .  He paused, staring out and down at this new city, so different from the sleepy little settlement that has existed before, and stared in wonder at the changes.

“We’ve lived here how many generations?” a man said.  Johnny turned and looked to see a man in his forties standing safely out of the mud on a high board porch, leaning on a porch rail, staring, as Johnny was, with interest at all the confusion.  He turned and grinned at Johnny, and continued speaking, in Spanish.  “They find silver here and it’s as if we never even existed.   They can’t keep us protected from Apaches, even with that fort right over there.  They can’t manage a steady train of supplies, even in decent weather.  But, a little silver...”

“Is that what happened?”  Johnny asked back.  “When was this?”

“June,”   the man said.  Days -- at the most weeks -- after Johnny had left.  “Three months, and they are convening a conference to name that mud hole down there and call it a town.  Silver City is the most popular choice at the moment.”

“How original,” Johnny murmured.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?”  the man asked, looking, Johnny felt, a little too closely.

“No, I’m not,” Johnny said.  “But if you are, maybe you could help me.  I’m looking for some people...”

“Everybody’s looking for some people!  Look at them all!  I could be down there myself in that crowd and never even notice me!”

“They would have been here before all this.  For a year or two at least.  A Baptist preacher and his daughter.  They had an address.  Number 4 Mulberry Lane.”

“You won’t find me attending pagan services,” the man said.  “I couldn’t tell you anything about their kind around here.  But I know that address.  Number 4 Mulberry Lane.”  He laughed.

“What’s the joke, friend?”  Johnny asked mildly.

“Number 4 Mulberry Lane is the joke!  Head on out this main river of mud they’re calling a street, hook a left at the cow trail - used to be at the edge of town, now I guess it’s the alley between that yellow board house and the tent barroom with the picture of a horse on the sign.  Follow the trail all the way to the top of the hill.  You’ll see Number Four Mulberry Lane.  Can’t miss it.  It’s the only house up there!”

“Thanks,” Johnny said, and touching his hat brim politely, he urged his horse forward into the maelstrom of people and vehicles and animals.  He began to doubt the stranger’s advise when he came to a narrow, filthy, garbage-strewn alley, but when he glanced back, he could see the man still watching him from the porch.  The man straightened, waved him on, and Johnny stepped his horse into the alley.  It wove a muddy path between the two buildings indicated, and two more behind them, but beyond he found it was indeed a narrow trail that wound up the slope of the mountain.    He rode up, leaving the noise of the boomtown below, to where the trail ducked back into the mountain a bit.  There he found a small stone house, hardly larger than the ruins of the building Hilary had hid him in.  This structure had a roof -- sod -- though shuttered openings were all it could boast for windows.  A washtub sat on a bench in the mud yard outside, a few chickens scratched in the dirt.  There was s thin curl of smoke coming from the chimney, and out back a few items of clothing flapped in the cold wintery wind.

But, this couldn’t be right!   This hovel couldn’t have been Hilary’s home!  Besides, flapping on the line back there were diapers and baby shirts.  Hilary always said she lived alone with her father....

A woman stepped to the doorway of the house, wiping work-reddened hands on her apron.

“What do you want?”  she demanded.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to disturb anyone,” Johnny said, tipping his hat.  “I think I must be lost.  I was looking for... Number 4 Mulberry Lane.”

“You found it.  What do you want with us?  You come to throw us out?”

“Throw you out?”  Johnny asked.

“It’s going to snow any day now!  We were sleeping under the wagon, it was all we had!  Not even a tent!  We thought there’d be room in town somewhere!  And that preacher-man, we saw him pull out, he took everything – well, most everything.  He abandoned the place!  If he’s not going to live here, why can’t we have a real roof and walls to keep the snow off the baby?  Or...”  she added, looking more wary, “were you planning to move in here yourself?  You can get that notion out of your head right now.  My husband comes home for lunch!  He’ll be here any second!  And I have a shotgun inside!”

He doubted that, but she was edging back inside the house, preparing to bolt the door against intruders.  Johnny slid down off his horse, knowing he presented a less threatening aspect that way.

“Please, ma’am!  I don’t care where you live.  I’m just looking for the people who used to live here.  A preacher, like you said.  Do you know where they are now?”

“They?”  the woman asked, abandoning her retreat.

“The preacher and his daughter.  Hillary.  This was their house right?  I take they left not too long ago?”

“He left, just over a week ago,” the woman said, fingering uncertainly the fringe on her shawl.

He left?”  Johnny jumped at the words.  “Is Hillary here then?”

“Not in here,” the woman said.

“Please, ma’am,” Johnny said, trying to curb his mounting impatience.  “Please, can you tell me where I can find her?  I don’t want to bother you or your family.  It’s none of my business.  I just want to find Hilary.”

The woman studied him suspiciously for several long seconds.  Finally she sighed.  “I’ll show you,” she decided.  She reached behind her to close the door, tugging the latchstring to raise the bar inside that would bolt it shut.  The out-hanging string would not stop humans from entering, but any wild animals in the area would not make it inside in her absence to harm the baby.  She tugged the shawl tighter around herself and said, “Just right back this way.  Come on.  It ain’t far.”

  Johnny followed her behind the stone shack, past the outhouse and a structure that must have been meant for the chickens, to a small trail that dropped down to a narrow creek below.  The woman led the way onto the trail, talking all the while:  “You understand why I was suspicious.  This isn’t much of a house, but it’s more than most have in this town.  Actually, my husband would be furious with me if he found out I even came outside to talk to a strange man.  You can’t trust anyone in a place like this.  But, you did look lost.  I understand why now.   And... Well... Here.  Right over here.”

He looked up and down the ravine they had entered, but he didn’t see any sign of another house, or of a trail that might lead to one.  The path came down beside the creek, obviously the water supply for the house above, and that was that.  He looked carefully, so carefully that at first he missed the whole point of this journey.  They had stopped above the creek, on a broad flat space beside the trail, a flat space that had a fresh mound of dirt in the middle of it.  And at one end of the mound, was a cross made from two raw, new pieces of planking.

A grave.

He had no recollection later of that short walk, a few steps from where he was to the mound itself.  He forgot all about the woman, recalled only his boots sinking into the soft reddish mud as he stood there, staring down at that pathetic homemade monument, reading the words scratched crookedly into the board with a knife: Hilary Lorraine. And under the name, barely legible, the dates: b. Jan 14, 1854 , d. Sept 21, 1870.                                                         

“There hasn’t been a lot of Apache activity around here lately,” the woman said softly.  “Not like it used to be.  I understand less than a year ago, when those mines down below were just one or two little farmsteads, Apaches walked in and murdered a man’s family while he was out plowing his fields.  But there’s too many people around here now.  They don’t come down on the town itself.  But they hit the stage coach less’n two weeks ago, the weekly Mail heading for Mesilla.  They found it shattered and burned the next day – there were no survivors.  I hear she had an aunt down that way she was going to visit.  Mister, you stay here as long as you like.  I’ll be up to the house if you need anything.”

Ducking her head against the icy blast of wind, the woman headed back up the narrow, steep path, pausing at the top to look back, once, at the young man who still stood there, staring at the cross.  He hadn’t known, she thought sadly.  She hadn’t meant to break it to him so hard.  The sound of crying, dimmed by thick stone walls and the wind, came to her, and she hurried the rest of the way to the house.   

Alone on the hillside, Johnny’s legs gave way beneath him, and he dropped to his knees, not even aware of how the cold and damp seeped through his pants and into his bones.  September 21.  Not even two full weeks ago!  Sobs tore through him and he fell face down in the mud.  He cried until he was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally.  And then he berated himself.

Why had he gone to California first?  Why hadn’t he come here, picked up Hilary, and then gone back?  He should never, never have let that offer of a thousand dollars stop him in his tracks!  He had completely forgotten the fact that hunger, thirst and sun sickness had stopped him, that if he hadn’t gone with the Pinkerton he would have died on the spot.  All he thought about was that cursed money!  That envelope -- which he had sealed up in the mattress of the bed he had been using back at Lancer, hidden it away, unable to bear to look at it -- had taken Tom’s life, very nearly his own, and now Hilary’s.  His own greed lost him his love: his own selfish desire to do just what he had done, ride up to her father’s front door and have the courage to knock because he had more to offer her than a life of running and hiding and starvation.  For all the good that had done him! 

Twelve days!  Even if he had to go back to California, he hadn’t had to sit around so long before he came back here.  If only he had left sooner.  Healing, he had told himself.  Healing so he could travel faster, so he could travel at all, in fact.  But he told himself now that he hadn’t needed that much time to heal.  He had been selfishly enjoying the time he was spending with his newfound brother and father, he had been having a good time!  And she had been here, waiting, waiting.  And he hadn’t come.  He hadn’t come.

Until it was too late.

Twelve days! If he had ridden faster, if he hadn’t stopped just because of some piddling fever, if he had perhaps taken another route, some direction that would have allowed him to ride the cars, travel day and night without needing to rest his horse... If... If...  If.

He had no idea that a man could hold so many tears.  He did not know it was possible for a man to hate himself with a passion more intense than he had ever felt against his step-father.  He only knew he couldn’t bear to leave her again.  And as the darkness fell, he brushed the early season snow that was falling away from the rude cross so that he could trace the carving over and over with his fingers.  Sept 21, 1870.

Twelve days ago.

Twelve days too late.



It was dark by the time Stephen trudged the long way up the hill from his claim to the cabin he had found for his small family, and he was exhausted.  He ate the supper his wife put in front of him without a word, hardly even tasting the food he shoveled into his mouth, then he dropped onto the big double bed that the previous tenant had seen fit to abandon, and fell instantly asleep.  It was not until morning, after he had had his breakfast, that he realized there was a horse tied up in his front yard.

“Alice!  Where’d that horse come from?”  he demanded.

His wife looked at the animal in surprise.  “God heavens!  It that still here?  I wonder what happened to that nice young man.”

“What young man?”  Stephen asked, “Was there someone up here yesterday?  Alice, I warned you about the type of men that live in a place like this...”

“I know, I know,” she said, and she explained to him about the stranger who had come, and why.

“He must have loved her very much.  You could see it in his eyes when he realized it was her grave he was standing on.  But surely, he would have left by now.”

“I better go check,” Stephen said.  He shrugged into his coat and headed for the trail.  Several inches of snow had fallen overnight, and his breath came out in little white clouds of steam as he walked.  He’d have to fetch water, he thought.  The trail had become treacherous.  He didn’t want Alice slipping down here and breaking a leg while he was gone.  Maybe he could get a shovel up here and fix this path up....

There was no one at the grave.  No sign anyone had been there.  He started to turn and go back up when he realized that the mound was much higher than it had been before, and he looked closer.   He slid quickly down the rest of the slope then, landing up against the body that was sprawled across the grave, almost as covered in snow as the ground was itself.  He brushed the snow off the man’s clothes, off his face, thinking a dead man on the property was just what they didn’t need right now.  Someone would have to investigate, and in investigating would find them squatting in a building they had no right to and throw them out.  If that happened, he would have to try to sell the claim and leave: he couldn’t have Alice and the baby here in the winter without a real house for them to live in. 

“Mister!  Mister, you’d better not be dead!”  he shouted shaking the man by the collar.  And he wasn’t.  His eyes opened, though they were vague and unfocused.

“Come on!  Come on, let me get you up the hill,” Stephen said, mostly to himself.  The stranger was cold as a corpse, and as limp as one.  Stephen half carried and half dragged him up the slope and into the house.

“Help, me, Alice,” he gasped, and together they got the man into Alice’s rocker, the chair she had insisted on bringing with her even when they barely had room for themselves and their supplies in the wagon. 

“Snow!”  Stephen said.  He began stripping the boots off the stranger, and when Alice came in with a bucket of fresh snow, he grabbed handfuls of it and rubbed it into the man’s cold, unresponsive feet and hands. 

Stephen never made it to his claim that day.  He worked over the stranger for more than an hour, trying to bring life back to his frozen limbs.  The man never spoke, but occasionally tears ran down his face, either from the intense pain of having blood come back into those frozen limbs, or from a pain even deeper than that.    They got hot coffee and broth into the man.  They hung his clothes to dry by the fire and, wrapped in a blanket, set him to sleep in the little bed in the loft, which started him sobbing aloud.   Stephen couldn’t stand the sound.  He went outside to tend to the man’s horse, which had been waiting patiently all night.  He unsaddled the animal, putting all his gear inside out of the snow, and took it down to the stream for water.  He had no hay or grain to give it.  If he could afford those, he would not have sold his own mules.   But there was a picket rope in the man’s gear.  Stephen picketed it under the trees where the snowfall was lighter and there was some grass for it to forage.  

The man stayed with them a week.

At first, Stephen was reluctant to leave his wife and baby alone with a potential lunatic, but he soon came to regard the stranger as something no more dangerous than the chair he sat in most of the day, staring silently into the fire, oblivious to Stephen or Alice or the baby.  After a few days he began to eat.  On the fifth day, Alice came back from fetching water at the creek to find him rocking the baby, who had awakened, hungry, in her absence.  The next day, he fetched the water, and split firewood, and that evening, he worked side by side with Stephen widening and leveling the trail to the creek so it would be safer for Alice to use.

“You’re welcome to stay on for the winter,” Stephen said over dinner that evening.  “You can help me at the claim.  I can pay you wages.  And meals.”

“Thank you,” the stranger said, speaking for the first time.  “But I’ll be leaving in the morning.  There’s nothing for me here.”

He thanked them again after breakfast, thanked Alice for the biscuits and bacon she packed for him for his trip, and gave Stephen a ride down to town.  The last they saw of him was when he dropped Stephen off at the trail to the claims, but that night, when he arrived at home, Stephen found Alice busy stocking shelves in the little stone house.

“Where’d you get all this?”  Stephen demanded, looking at the stacks of bags and cans that still littered the floor.  There were cans of fruit and of milk, bags of dried beans, flour, corn flour, brown sugar, raisins, lard.  Cheeses.  There were also blankets, a heavy coat.  A new dress.  Baby bonnets and baby gowns.  A new axe.  “Alice!  I owe hundreds of dollars for the claim I bought!  You know we can’t afford this stuff!  Any of it!”

“I didn’t buy it!”

“Charging its worse!”

“Stephen, don’t you see?  He sent it,” she said, turning a warm smile on her husband.  “That stranger.  He must be rich or something.  Look at all this!  Del Rey’s Dry Goods delivered it just after lunch.  The delivery boy told me that he told them we were relatives of that old preacher, that we were watching the place for him for the winter -- so no one’s going to come and throw us out!  And he sent all this up!  Stephen!  You have all winter now to make up what you spent buying that claim, and we’ll have all we need to survive!  Can you believe it?”     

“No,” Stephen said, sitting down in the rocker.  “No, I can’t.  But... I am glad that that one day you broke my rule about talking to strangers!”



Ed Casson was not deaf.  He had heard Mr.  Scott tell all the hands that no one, no one on this ranch was to go anywhere alone “until we find and catch the person or persons responsible for these attacks!”  And gathering kindling for Cook’s fire was hardly an excuse for wandering off alone.  But it was the best excuse he could come up with.  Colonel  Perkins would be wondering by now where he was, angry maybe that he hadn’t been around in several days.  He climbed quickly up over the ridge, keeping to the cover of the trees, circled wide of the trail and dropped into the Hidden Lake Basin, a small, scooped-out hollow with a tiny, clear lake in the center and surrounded by tall, broad-leaf trees.  This was where he had met Perkins, just over a week ago when he had been sent to look for Miss Larissa, who seemed to favor this area.  Miss Larissa, as it happened, was not there that time, which was probably a good thing, since the stranger was there.

“Sir,” Ed had said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible, “You’re on private property!  This is part of the Lancer ranch.”

“Is it now?”  the man said pleasantly.  “And do I have the pleasure of addressing one of the Lancers?”

“Who, me?”  Ed squeaked in surprise.  He had been mistaken for many things before, but never for one of the Lancer family!  “Shoot, no!  I just ride for the brand,” he said, settling easier into his saddle.  Trespassers were a problem sometimes, they tended to cut fences, or to be rustlers.  But Ed saw no harm in this man.  He was dusty and travel-worn, but under the dust, he wore an elegant black suit, white shirt.  Even a tie.  In the dappled shade of the cottonwoods, Ed saw a man who was evidently of the same class and station as the Lancers, a man used to fine talk and good manners, a man who wore fancy riding boots instead of the more common gear of a cowboy or miner.  Of course, then the man turned to smile in Ed’s direction and Ed nearly fell out of the saddle completely.  One side of the man’s face smiled.  The other side was contorted in the most frightening parody of a human face imaginable.

“Sorry,” the man said though, gently, pleasantly.  “Takes a little getting used to.  I should know.  I have to shave it every day.  Come and visit with me for a while, Young Mr.  Brand-Rider.  I know I look like a monster, but I don’t bite.”

“Well, sir.  That is... I’m supposed to be out looking for Miss Larissa, sir.  She’d gone for a walk earlier and her ma’s looking for her.”

“Miss Larissa?  Now, that would be one of the Lancers, I take it.”

“Yes, sir.  Mr.  Scott and Miz Teresa’s oldest.  She... Say, who are you anyway?  You... you don’t know the Lancers!  Do you?”

“Not for many years,” the man said.  “A long time ago I was a business partner of Murdoch Lancer’s.  I haven’t been around this part of the country for at least two decades, though.  Tell me, how is Murdoch?  Oh, and do climb down.  I don’t have any coffee to offer you, but I do have this bag of candy.  I always did have a bit of a sweet tooth.  Have one?”

Ed had a bit of a sweet tooth himself, which he generally satisfied with peppermints and lemon drops at the general store in town when he rode in once a month to give most of his pay to his mother.  He often looked longingly at the chocolates, but they were so expensive!  And this man had a whole bag of them!  Well, if he was an old freind of the family, Ed figured it couldn’t hurt to share one of his chocolates.  Anyway, knowing Miss Larissa’s habits, if she wasn’t here, she was probably back home by now anyway, sitting in the stables with a pregnant brood mare, or mooning around somewhere in that huge house they had.  Ed slid down off his horse, and left it ground tied, content to crop at the lush grass of this cool, shaded valley, and he sat, hesitantly, next to the stranger.  The undamaged part of the stranger’s face was towards him, which was easier to deal with than that ruined part, and when the man smiled pleasantly and held out a large, dark chocolate with a cherry in the center of it, Ed accepted.

“Catch me up a little on the Lancers,” the man said, settling back comfortably against the broad cottonwood trunk. 

“Well, I reckon you know Mr.  Murdoch,” Ed said, around a mouthful of candy.  “And his two boys, Mr.  Scott and Mr.  Johnny....”

“Refresh my memory.”

“Well, Mr.  Scott is the tall, fair-haired one, with glasses.  He’s married to Miz Teresa, and the three young-uns are theirs: Miss Larissa, and the two boys, Jackie and  Eugene.  Mr.  Johnny, then, he’s the cripple...”


“On a conna him only having one leg.  But he can still out-shoot any man I ever saw!  I reckon you don’t need both legs to hold a gun.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do.  Have another?”

“Oh, no sir!  I couldn’t!”  Ed said.  He had been properly raised by his mother, even if his mouth was watering.  “They’re far too....uh...”

“Sweet?”  the man guessed.

“Expensive,” Ed admitted.

“True, I suppose.  But I do have a whole bag full here.  And in this heat, they’ll just melt and be ruined.  You might as well help me eat them.”

And he had.  They had talked amiably for some time.  Ed had eventually introduced himself, and the man had countered by giving his name as Colonel Thaddeus Perkins.  Ed was not surprised to find the man had once held such a high title in the military: he was a man who commanded respect.

At some point the Colonel had asked him how he liked working for the Lancers.  By that time, sated with chocolate and quite comfortable in the gentleman’s company, he had admitted that he didn’t actually care for it much.   The Lancers were descent enough people, but awful bossy.  And they treated him like a kid, giving him half-pay and expecting him to do things like carry fire wood to the big house,  muck out the chicken coop, even help with weeding the garden, things they ought to have done themselves, so his ma always said.  Ed had hired on as a cowboy, not as a farm-wife’s assistant!  No, he didn’t get the respect he deserved around here.  Someday, though, someday they’d realize his worth....

“Oh, I doubt that,” the Colonel said.  “Not,” he added when he saw how offended Ed was, “that I doubt your worth!  You look very worthy to me, indeed.  But the Lancers tend to only see people and things for the advantage they can get out of them.  Take me, for instance.  I told you I was Murdoch’s business partner.  He raised the cattle, I sold them, that was our arrangement.  I’m not much of a stockman, and he’s not much of a businessman, so we worked well together.  I got him a much better price for his cattle than he could ever have gotten on his own.  Then one day, rustlers tried to take the herd I was helping move to the railroad.  We fought them off, but... well...” He smiled ruefully and tapped the ruined side of his face, turning so that the full light of the sun struck the damage and Ed shivered.

“I managed to both survive and get the herd in,” the Colonel said.  “I took awhile recuperating, though, as you can imagine.  When I finally got back to Spanish Wells, I went straight to Lancer, to get back to work.  And Murdoch turned me down flat.  He said a man with a face like mine would scare off customers, not bring in the good money.  He said he couldn’t use me any more.  He sent away to Boston to bring back the son he had left in school there.  That would be Mr.  Scott, I assume.”

“Yes, sir.  The lawyer,” Ed agreed.

“Lawyer and scoundrel,” the Colonel said.  “Just like his father.  Not only did they take away my living, they took everything else as well.  This valley...”

“This valley?”  Ed asked in surprise.

“Oh, yes.  This was part of the land I brought to the partnership.  But I was young and foolish.  I was engaged to be married to a beautiful girl by the name of Teresa O’Brien.  Lancer told me that if I wanted to show a girl I was serious, I needed to give her a gift ahead of the wedding.  Land, he said was the best gift, so I put all my deeds in her name.  And when I came back with this ruin of a face, she turned her nose up at me too.  She married a Lancer instead, and gave my property over to him.”

“I believe it sir!”  Ed had said enthusiastically.  “I believe every word you say!  They’re hard people, those Lancers, and Miz Teresa is the hardest of them all....”

Which is where the partnership had started, over gossip and chocolates, by the side of a peaceful pond in the cool shade of the cottonwood trees.  They had talked long, and Ed had become more and more convinced that the Colonel was a good, decent man who had been played foul by these upstart Lancers.  And the Colonel had told Ed that he planned to pay them back, now that he was finally on his feet again after the way they abused him.  He wanted them to feel shame and remorse.  And then he wanted to get back the land they stole from him.  And Ed would be the key to the whole thing.  Ed would supply him with information.  Ed would be his eyes and ears inside the ranch.  And Ed, for his final reward, would receive not just chocolates, but a small truck farm in a cool, shaded valley, like this one.  A place where he could make a good living, support his ma and his brothers and sisters, without having to take insults and half-pay from the likes of Lancer.

Of course, the land would not be his until they could wrest the Colonel’s share away from the Lancers, and even then he doubted he could put in a crop until next spring.  But Ed already had plans for the money that would come from that crop.  He would borrow against the land, first off.  Borrow enough to build a nice house for Ma and the kids.  Nothing so grand as what the Lancers had, of course, but then he didn’t want Ma complaining that he was making work for her by building a huge house for her to clean!  But it would be comfortable.  And he would buy her one of those big, brass beds like he’d seen in Miss Larissa’s room when he went to help sweep up the glass.  And maybe a second one for the girls to share.  And there’d be separate rooms for the girls and boys - and one private one for him, since he would be the head of the household now!  And nice school clothes for the kids, and shoes enough for them to wear summer and winter!

“Haven’t seen you for a few days.”

The Colonel’s voice cut into Ed’s daydreams, and he started violently.  Amazing how that man could creep up on a body, blending in with the shadows under the trees like that!  He no longer wore his black suit – too easy to be spotted from a distance, he’d said.  He still wore his black leather riding gloves and boots, but he had more common-looking jeans and shirt now, and he still blended into the background, chameleon-like, until he stepped out where Ed could see him.

“I’m sorry, sir!  I had a little trouble.  The Lancer’s are scared all right, just like you said they’d be!  And they’ve forbidden anyone to go anywhere alone, so....”

He was startled when the smaller man slapped him suddenly, cutting off his words with a surprisingly strong backhand blow that staggered Ed backwards two or three steps.  The Colonel came right after him.

“Worthless!  I ought to just kill you right now, boy!”  the Colonel said.

The words were so bitter, the tone so different from the Colonel’s usual genteel manner that Ed was stung by the sound.  He barely even registered the words themselves.

“I tried to come out here, Colonel!  I did, but they’re watching everything so closely!  You wanted to know when you could catch them away from home, well, sir, I come to tell you...”

“I don’t think I want any more advice from you,” the Colonel said, turning his back on Ed.  “Our deal’s off!”

“But...!”  Ed ran after him, grabbed the man by the shoulder, and when the Colonel spun around, his one eye glittering with cold and hate, Ed stepped back in surprise.

“But... I did help you!”  Ed insisted.  “I told you when the dog got shot.  Told you you could get as close as you wanted to the house with no one knowing!  And I lit the barn on fire for you myself!”

“I didn’t need any help for either of those!”

“I told you the Lancers would follow a trail themselves instead of sending the men to do it, remember that?  And I rousted the dog and got them all started in the right direction so they could track you and your boys right into that box canyon for that ambush!”  Ed grinned.  “You got em good that day, Colonel!  They came back draggin their tails!  And Mr.  Scott wasn’t near so full of himself when your boys filled him with lead...!”

The blow came again, this time hard enough to knock Ed off his feet.  Now both sides of his face stung, stung bad enough to bring tears to his eyes.  He blinked them back, tried to rub his cheek and found it was too sore for rubbing.

“Filled him with lead!”  the Colonel raged.  “Filled him with lead?  The man took one bullet!  One!  Four Lancers!  One bullet!  And I lost five men!  Five!  You could have mentioned that canyon wasn’t a complete dead end!”

“I..  I didn’t know!”  Ed said, “Honest, I... We’ve trailed stock in there many times, they can’t get out....”

“Men on foot can!”  the Colonel shouted in his face.  “Even that cripple!  And how long was there a Texas lawman living in that house?  You never mentioned him, did you?”

“Well, I didn’t think...”

“No, you didn’t think!”  the Colonel spat back.  “You never think!  Worthless white trash!”

“Hey, now, you can’t go calling...”  Ed complained, climbing back to his feet.

“I can, I did and I WILL!”  the Colonel shouted.  “Trash!  Stinking, stupid, ignorant TRASH!”

Ed licked the blood off his lip and picked up his hat.  “Fine!  That’s your attitude?  Fine!  I came here to tell you when and where you can catch the entire Lancer family – women and kids and all! -- away from that fortress of a house of theirs!  But you want to go taking that attitude, then I don’t owe you nothing no more!  We’re through, Mr.  Colonel, sir!”

He turned to walk away when his right arm jumped and pain shot through his entire body.  The echoes of the gunshot rolled around the small basin for several long seconds.  Ed looked down, and saw blood and bone where he should have had an elbow.  For a few seconds, he still could not comprehend what had happened, shock kept it from his mind as shock numbed the response of his body.  But then the pain blossomed, like fire in dry tinder, like an animal rending flesh and bone in hunger.  He staggered, almost fell, and turned to stare in shock at the gentle, mild-mannered man he had come to so respect – and pity.  He wondered where that man had gone.  This man was a stranger, a stranger with wild, furious eyes and a twisted evil grin – on both sides of his face.

“You shot me,” Ed murmured in surprise.  Pain and sudden weakness made his legs feel rubbery.  They no longer wanted to hold him up and he slid to a kneeling position.

“Don’t worry,” the evil man said.  “That won’t kill you.  You’ll lose the arm, but you won‘t die.  Now tell me about the Lancers.  And that lawman.”

Ed just stared, watching in horrified fascination as the hammer of the gun clicked back, revolving the cylinder slowly so the hammer would fall on a full cartridge.


“I didn’t believe it!”  Ed said.  “They said you were a murderer, that you had another name.  I figured it was the just Lancers trying to throw bad light on you so no one would help you.  But it’s true, ain’t it?  He really is a lawman, and you really are a murderer!”

The second shot shattered his left arm.  His blood was dripping now in a steady stream from two wounds, his bones poking through his skin.  Tears came to Ed’s eyes.  A man with no arms can’t run a truck farm.  He’d never get those brass beds now, that nice  house.    Instead, he’d spend the rest of his life sitting in the kitchen, watching his ma grow old and die from work, and sitting like a baby while she fed him his meals.


Self-pity more than any noble thoughts kept his mouth shut.  He was ruined now, more ruined than that man with his hideous face.  That man could still use his arms.  Ed never would again. 

The third shot hit his right thigh, knocking him out of the kneeling position and flat on his back.  He found himself thinking of Mr.  Johnny, getting around almost as good as a two-legged man with his crutches.  But he had two hands, two arms to work those crutches.  Ed did not.

“I believed in you!”  he whispered.  The man was standing over him now, sneering at his pain, at his tears.  

“You never believed in me kid,” the man said.  “You believed in buried treasure, in getting something for nothing.  Just like everyone else.  Now, you gonna tell me about that lawman?”

The tears were pooling inside his ears.  Ed choked on a sob, but he shook his head, slowly, left.  Right.  And felt the explosive pain when the Colonel, the man he had helped, the man he had trusted, shot him in the belly.



At the sound of a distant pistol shot, Scott came up out of the chair, rifle in hand.

            Murdoch grabbed his own gun, and shouted at the boys in the yard: “Get inside!” 

By the time the second shot sounded, all four of them were inside, the boys heading, under their father’s prodding, for the downstairs hallway.  Tex, Johnny, Teresa and Larissa all came running to the same location from various parts of the house.  A third shot sounded, muffled almost to nothing by distance and the thick walls, but still clearly a shot.

“Could be someone getting in some target practice,” Tex offered.

“No one’s supposed to be off that far,” Murdoch said.  “North?”  he asked Johnny.

“Yeah from up towards... Hidden Lake.”

“Come on!”  Murdoch said.

“I’m going with them!”  Larissa told her mother.

“No, you’re not!  You remember what your father said!  He wants you safe!”

“Someone’s got to keep him safe!”  Larissa said, and she turned and ran outside with the men.  Teresa knew she should have stopped her.  She also knew that at her age and in similar conditions, she would have gone as well.  She had another priority now, in the form of two pairs of eyes, looking at her in fear: one bright blue like their father’s, one soft grey as her own. 

“I’m sure Tex is right,” she said, smiling at them.  “Probably is some idiot who wandered off to get in some target practice.  Or someone shooting at turkeys.  But we’ll wait here until they find out.  Light the lamp, Gene.  And... where were we?”

“Moriarity threw Sherlock Holmes over the cliff!”  Jack said.  “And everyone thought he was dead!

“Don’t you think he’s dead?”  Teresa asked, pulling the book from the shelf.        

“No!”  Jack said.

“Why not?”

“Silly!  Because there’s so much more left to read!”  Gene said, and the two boys sat close to their mother on the narrow settee in the cool, dark hallway, reading by the light of an oil lamp in the middle of a hot summer afternoon.

Meantime, there was a flurry of men and horses in the dooryard.  Blankets and saddles were slapped on, bridles and bits slipped into place.  Larissa helped Johnny back his horse into the traces and fasten the harnesses.

“I’ll catch up!”  Johnny shouted as Tex and the first of the men swung into their saddles.  He hoisted himself onto the low wagon, settled on the seat and gathered the reins, knowing he would have to go the long way, around on the trail, despite his specially-designed, rubber-tired trap.  He had just flicked the reins, urging the horse to a fast trot out of the dooryard, when a rider settled in next to him.

“What are you doing here?”  he demanded.  “You get back in the house...”

No one is supposed to go anywhere alone,” Larissa reminded her uncle.  “Even you!”  She settled the big cartridge belt she had slung over her shoulder and continued riding, watching the road ahead.  Johnny started to shout at her again, realized the futility of it, and decided instead just not to smile in front of her.  Just like her mother!

“Fan out!”  Scott called to the men.  There was little sign in the grass of the forest, but they rode on towards Hidden Lake, and there they saw the body on the ground.

“Ed Casson!”  one of the hands shouted.

Tex dropped to the ground next to Ed’s body.  He looked up at Murdoch Lancer and shook his head, ever so slightly.

“Whoever shot him can’t be far!”  Scott said.  He divided the men into groups of two and sent them in every possible direction.  Almost instantly one of the pairs shouted.  Scott and Murdoch rode that direction. 

“Keep looking!”  Scott called to the other men.  There may have been more than one.  They may have scattered when they heard the pursuit.  Scott rode hard, caught up with the men in front of him, and quickly the faint trail they did have vanished into the hard rock country in the north-east corner of the ranch.

“Get down!”  Scott said, doing it himself.  “Look sharp!  He’s got to be here!

But the man they were tracking apparently knew something about disappearing.  They split up again, heading several likely directions, and all of them lead to nothing.

Tex, however, had not joined in the chase.  When he shook his head, he meant for the others to go ahead and leave, get on the trail of the gunman who could not be far off.    Their staying would not help.  Ed was still alive, but he would not be for long, and there was little, if anything, anyone could do to help him.   Tex reached out gently and touched Ed’s cheek.  The boy’s tear-slick eyes fluttered open.


“It’s Pierce,”  Tex said.  He wasn’t sure what else to say.  Binding the boy’s wounds would cause him great agony at this point, and would not prolong his life at all.  He raised the boy’s head, finally, resting it in his own lap, and the slight elevation made breathing that much easier, though his breath had an ominous rattle to it that Tex knew meant he had not many more breaths left in him.

“I trusted him,” the boy whispered.  “He... he was gonna get me a... start.”  He exhaled, a small sigh, and his eyes swivelled around to find Tex’s face.  “He was an outlaw, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s an outlaw,” Tex said.  Behind him, he heard someone coming.  But he recognized the sound of Johnny’s wagon, and he remained where he was, only glancing up long enough to confirm his suspicions.  Johnny, yes.  And the girl. She was off her horse before Johnny could get out of the wagon, and she ran over and dropped to her knees in the grass on Ed’s other side. 

“Careful!”  Tex warned softly as she reached for Ed’s hand.  She saw then the ruin  of his elbows, and instead of picking up the hand, she pressed hers over it.

“Ed?”  she said.  “Ed.  It’s Lissa!  We’re going to take care of you, okay?  I’m here, and we’re going to help you.”

“Miss L’rissa?”  Ed mumbled.  It was getting harder and harder to make his tongue work.  And his eyes to focus.  But it was her alright, the sun was gleaming on her soft gold hair, and her eyes,  blue as the summer sky looked to be filling up with tears... for him?

“I’m sorry!”  he said, his own tears streaming again.  He hadn’t thought of Miss Larissa!  He hadn’t thought that if the Colonel got his land back, she might get hurt in the process too.  For the first time since the Colonel shot him, something other than self-pity occupied his thoughts.  “I’m sorry!”

“What did you tell him?”  Tex asked, his voice low and gentle, but commanding at the same time.

“I... I didn’t mean...”

“What did you tell him?”  Tex repeated.

“You gonna shoot me too?”  the boy asked, gasping with the pain his own sobbing caused him.

“Of course not!”  Larissa said, tightening her grip on his hand.  She wasn’t sure if he could feel his hands.  She leaned closer, brushing the pale, lank hair off his forehead, even going so far as to plant a kiss there.  “We’re not going to hurt you!  And we’re not going to let anyone else hurt you any more either!”

“He called me ‘trash’,” Ed said.

“That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard!”  Larissa said, stroking his forehead again, his face.   “Trash!  He must have been ‘trash’ himself to use words like that!”

“I didn’t know... I... I told him about the dog.  And the canyon.  But I didn’t... You were going to Mass tomorrow, and I didn’t... He shot me so I’d tell him that, but I didn....”

The words had come softer and softer as his breath failed him, and when it finally stilled in his chest, the words clogged in his throat.  Tex reached to close the lids over the staring, lifeless eyes.  He looked at Larissa, kneeling across from him, her head bowed.

“Was he a good freind?”  he asked.

“I hardly knew him,” she said, and he was surprised at how steady and business-like her voice was.  “But he worked for us, and he deserved better than this!  We won’t need that, Uncle Johnny.  Thank you,” she added.  Tex looked up to see that Johnny had taken the medical supplies from Tex’s saddle bags.  Larissa stood up.  She started to wipe her hands on her skirt, then stopped, looking at the blood on them.  She was staring around the small basin, at the comfortable old trees, their roots drinking deep from the waters of the lake.  A stream trickled nearby, making a pleasant, musical sound.  The air here was several degrees cooler than out in the sun, and fresh.  Except for the odors of blood and bowel from the boy’s torn body.  Tex watched her, remembering that he had first met her in this same spot.  She’d been sitting, nestled in the crook of one of the big trees reading a book of poetry, when he rode in from the other side.  She’d come to her feet at once, smart enough to thrust her hand in her pocket rather than try to draw the derringer out, and demanded that he leave.  Foolish, he had thought then.  Brave, he thought now, and he stepped across the body of the boy to fold her into his arms.

Larissa found the strong arms and the broad chest comforting.  She laid her head against him, listening to the strong, steady beat of his heart, smelling the odors of horse and leather and sweat.

“I...”  she started, and paused again, unable to say the words. 

He stroked her hair, gently, and said, “It’s okay, Miss.  It’s okay now.”

“I was going to invite him to my coming-out party!”  she said, speaking quickly as if getting it over faster would make it all easier to say.  It didn’t.  She’d said she hardly knew him, and that as true.  But she had thought about him.  And no one deserved to die like this...

“Don’t think on it,” Tex said.  “He didn’t suffer too long.   And, you did good.  You eased him through it.  That’s the most anyone could have done for him now, ‘cept maybe a priest.”

“He died protecting us,” Larissa said.  “Protecting me.  He wouldn’t tell, remember?  He said he wouldn’t tell – where and when to find the family away from safety!”

Her tears came then.  She was embarrassed, because she wasn’t sure why she was crying, for Ed or for herself.  But she had never watched someone die before and it had been...  Horrible!  Uncle Johnny came then, took her from this stranger and wrapped her in his arms, patting her and shushing her gently while she sobbed the horror of the last few minutes out onto his shirt front. 

They wrapped Ed’s body in the slicker that was tied behind Tex’s saddle and lifted him into the back of Johnny’s wagon.  It was a small space.  To be more manageable in rough terrain, the wagon was less than half the length of a regular farm wagon, and the boy’s body was partly stuffed under the seat and partly bent in half in the back, in much the same cramped position Scott had had to take when he had ridden home in it the other day – though Ed was not likely to complain.  Larissa offered to help, but Ed, though he was nearly as tall as Tex, was much thinner, and Tex had been able to handle the chore alone.  Larissa squatted by the side of the lake and washed her hands in the cold water while she waited.  Johnny came and crouched nearby. 

“Pa always used to warn me that this place wasn’t safe,” she said.

“It’s too close to the road, and too far from the house,” Johnny agreed.

“I know.  But it’s so beautiful here,” she said, turning her face up to feel the soft breeze.  It rustled in the leaves overhead with a sound not unlike running water, and she smiled for a moment, recalling that when she was a child, she used to think that it was the movement of the tree branches that caused the wind, instead of the other way around.  On windy days, she had wondered if there was away to still the trees so the wind wouldn’t blow so hard.

“When was the last time you were here?”  Johnny asked her.

“It was... the day Tex arrived.”  She turned to look at her uncle and said, “I made him show me his identification papers before I let him offer me a ride back.  I’m not completely foolish!”

“I know you’re not,” Johnny said.  “But, look at this.”

He directed her attention to the side, just above the edge of the lake.  There had not been rain in this area for several weeks, and even here, the level of the water  had dropped.   What had been, two weeks ago, damp lake-shore was now dried mud, and in that mud, numerous prints had been captured and preserved.   Elk, deer and turkey watered here often.  There was the print of a bobcat, and of coyotes also.  And a small boot print that she recognized as her own.  A print that was overlaid on the print of a man’s square-toed dress boot.  Her hand went to her mouth.  She had not noticed that print last time she was here!  But it must have been there for her to have stepped on it.  He must have been here!  The man who had done this to Ed!  The man Tex said murdered all those people in cold blood just to get some traveling money to come here and get some kind of revenge on her family!  She could have met him here!  Worse, he could have sat hidden somewhere and watched her here!

She looked up with horror and met Johnny’s eyes.  “Oh, Uncle Johnny!”

“Let’s get back,” was all he said.   



Murdoch went first to check on the men he had left guarding the house, then went inside to where Teresa and the boys were waiting.

“Ed Casson’s dead,” he told her.  “And we lost the trail.”

“What will you do now?”

Murdoch sighed.  “Nothing, today.   Cook’s preparing the boy’s body, but we’ll take it into town tomorrow for his mother to bury.  Then... we either search or wait some more.  I just don’t know any more.”

“Rest,” Teresa advised.  “I’ll start dinner, and we’ll decide later,”

“How much ‘later’ do we have?”  Murdoch murmured.  But he headed for his office, for the comfort of his favorite chair, and maybe a glass of good scotch to take some of the aches out of his bones.

Larissa had also come inside.  She went up to her room by the back staircase without pausing to speak to her mother or brothers.  She stepped inside and closed the door, stopping to remove the heavy cartridge belt from over her shoulder and drop it on the bed.  And as she did so, she caught sight of herself in the tall mirror in the corner.  She had washed her hands in the lake, but there was dried blood smeared on her neck and her skirt was stained with grass, mud and blood.  Ed Casson’s blood.    She had knelt in the grass and held a man’s hand while he died.  It seemed even now more like a story, one of her own romantic day-dreams, not something that really happened, something that she had really done.  And once again she thought of that footprint, and shuddered.  Since the night the windows had been shot out, they had known they were being stalked, hunted, by some evil stranger for some unknown purpose.  But she had never considered the possibility that the stalking had actually started before.  That they had been in danger without even knowing about it.

Down below in the dooryard, her father, her uncle and the Ranger were discussing their next move.  The talk seemed to be leaning towards offensive rather than defensive now.  They had a direction.  They knew those canyons better than any stranger.  They would probably pack up and leave once they hashed out the details of the plan, go after Palmer today.  She looked at the gun on the bed again.  She could shoot – better than some of the men that worked for them.  She could ride, too.  And she knew that back country as well as anyone else on this ranch!  She opened her chest of drawers and pulled out the men’s trousers she used sometimes for chores like helping the broodmares foal and began stripping out of her ruined skirt.

Outside, after Larissa left, Scott sighed heavily.  “Dumb kid!  If he had stayed close, if he hadn’t gone out alone, like we told everyone....!”

“It was no accident, him meeting Palmer there today,” Tex said grimly.

“You don’t know that,” Johnny said.

“Yeah, I think I do,” Tex said, and he reported what Ed had said to him before Larissa arrived on the scene.

“Palmer was going to get him ‘a start’?  Johnny asked, leaning back against the stable wall, arms folded across his chest since he didn’t need crutches to lean. 

‘That’s what he said,” the kid said.  “I told you, those old ladies all thought he was plausible, a real gentleman.  He must have run into that boy sometime, used the same charm on him...”

“Not that it would have taken much to convince Ed of anything,” Johnny said grimly.  “Not to speak ill of the dead, but he wasn’t the brightest star in this sky.”

“Larissa said he kept apologizing, even though he also claimed not to have given information,” Scott said.  “She saw it as an act of courage, apologizing for not being stronger of maybe letting something slip while he lay there dying.  But he was apologizing for what he had already leaked, wasn’t he?”

“I’m pretty sure,” Tex said.  “The question now is, how much had he leaked?  He’s the one who was inside the big house, helping Larissa the other day, right?”

“Right,” Johnny said.  He had been the one at home, the one in charge of the house, that day.  And he wracked his brain trying to think what Ed could have learned that could be used against them.

“There is one more question as well,” Scott said.  “We all trusted Ed.  We had no reason not to.  How many other hands on this spread are we trusting with our lives and our family’s lives when Palmer’s already gotten to them?”

“He could know everything about us by now,” Johnny said grimly.  “And we  still don’t know anything about him!”

Meantime, in the office, Murdoch poured his drink and looked out the back-facing window to where the three of them stood in the shade of the stable, talking.  Their horses still stood, saddled and ready, while they decided their next course of action.  And Murdoch could not decide if he agreed with immediate action or not.  Maybe he was getting too old.  Maybe when he was younger, he would have ridden straight after Palmer without a second thought.  Now, though, now he just wasn’t sure.  There were miles of rough country back there.  Palmer could be anywhere.  And he could get above them and pick them off from the rocks even more easily than he could have caught Larissa alone at Hidden Lake!  A shudder ran through him at the thought, as he recalled the way Ed had been crippled and gut-shot and left to die.  This Palmer, whoever he was, whatever he wanted, just wasn’t human!

Murdoch turned to go to his chair, when he saw something out the front window.  A buggy.  He had just told the men they didn’t have to walk guard, since he was inside now, and that fast, someone had driven up to the house!  He set down his drink, disgusted with himself, and headed for the front door, so he was halfway there when he heard the knock.  Murdoch jerked open the door, furious at himself for not having seen a visitor when he was looking for intruders, and froze, blinking in surprise:  there was a nun standing on the doorstep.  "Can I help you with something, Sister?"  he asked politely.

She smiled, a small, tight smile, obviously a gesture of friendliness that was in strong competition with some more powerful emotion she was trying to keep hidden.

"I'm not actually a nun, Mr. Lancer, although they do call us Sisters of Mercy.  I am a trained nurse."

He realized now that the costume was wrong.  She wore plain gray dress with an overall apron, but it was a dress, not a shapeless habit. It was the short-veiled headdress that had thrown him off.

"Oh, I see.  But I didn't..."   

"I know I was not summonded, Mr. Lancer.  I came here to...  That is I'd recieved word..."  She paused and took a deep breath, fighting for control.  "I came to see where my son is buried,"  she finished hurriedly, choking on the words.

“I’m sorry!  We haven’t yet...”  Murdoch started, thinking of the boy who had just died.  But it was too soon for anyone to know of Ed Casson’s death.  Besides, he knew Casson’s mother.  She was a tough, stringy woman, tall and lank, with sun-browned skin, faded blonde hair and pale, ghostly eyes.  This woman was not tall, nor was she lean.   She was shorter than Teresa, with a figure that was fading pleasantly from full to plump.   The hair that escaped from that veil was dark, the curls plastered against her neck with sweat.  And behind her glasses, her eyes were a soft, greyish blue, like the polish on a steel gun barrel. 

Could her presence be a trick of some kind?

There was no one other than Ed that she could possibly be talking about.  Yet, how foolish would it be for someone to send this strange woman to his door so quickly after Ed’s death, asking about him.  Not to mention the fact that Ed was a local boy, and this woman most emphatically was not from around here!

“Would you... care to come inside?”  Murdoch asked politely.  Inside she would be cut off from anyone who had come with her.  Inside, he could be within easy shouting distance of his sons, of the ranger, of Teresa if it came to that. 

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, her lip trembling now.  If she was faking, she was a darn good actress, he thought.  “I don’t mean to intrude.  But he’s all I have, you see.  If you could just tell me where I can find his... find him....”

Tears were imminent.  Which might well have been a ploy to get him alone so she could shove a knife in him or shoot him.  But somehow, he didn’t think so.  The buggy and horse were cheap rentals from the local stable, and her dress, while it was a nurse’s uniform, was soiled, as if she had traveled a long way without a change of clothing.

“It’s all right,” Murdoch insisted, thinking now not of traps but of comfort, of a chair, before this poor woman fainted on his doorstep!   “Please.  Come inside.”

He pushed the door open, even took her hand and drew her into the cool dimness of the adobe building.  Then he shut the door behind her and led her into the office.  She stood fidgeting nervously, glancing around.  He could not tell how she felt about her surroundings, but it was evident that she was extremely agitated.

“Please,” she said, “Mr.  Lancer, if you would just tell me...”

"I'm afraid there may be some misunderstanding here,” Murdoch said gently.  “Won’t you sit down, please,"

"Pierce,"  she said.  "Miss, actually.  And I appreciate the offer, Mr.  Lancer, but...”

“Pierce?”  Murdoch interrupted. “Then, your son is... Sargent Pierce?  Tex?" 

"Yes." Her eyes were down, her voice barely more than a whisper.

"Well, he did come here on business,"  Murdoch said, feeling extremely confused by this whole conversation.  "But, your son is not buried here, Mrs. Pierce..."

"I'm sorry,"  she said, turning to go with jerky, hurried movements.  "I'm sorry, I must have it all wrong."  Tears trembled on the edges of her eyelashes and she tried to slip past him.  Murdoch caught her by the shoulders and held her firm.

"No, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry I'm not being more coherent, Mrs. Pierce.  You caught me a little by surprise.  I’m not sure I understand exactly why you’re here, but the reason your son isn't buried here is that he’s not buried anywhere!  He's not dead."

For a moment there was no response.  She didn't move, hardly seemed to breathe.  Slowly she lifted her head and looked searchingly into his eyes.  "He..."  her voice failed her before she could even find a question to ask.

"He's fine,"  Murdoch said gently.  "He's fine.  He's out in the back with my sons right now.  I can assure you he’s not even hurt!  But, please,  sit down and tell me why you thought he was dead."

She let him push her down onto the sofa.  In fact, she almost dropped down as if her legs were unable to support her.  She was trembling, he noticed.  Emotional overload.  The poor woman!  he thought.  All thoughts of traps vanished and he poured a glass of brandy and put it into her hand.

“No, thank you, I...”  she protested.

“Drink it!”  he insisted.  “I don’t know why you would think Tex is dead, Mrs. Pierce, but  you could use a little fortification right now!”

 She took a sip, and it did seem to help.  She reached into a big front pocket on her apron and pulled out a many-times-folded, soiled bit of paper. 

"I received this telegram just about a week ago,"  she said, handing it to him.

Murdoch flipped the reading glasses out of his shirt pocket, put them on one-handed, and smoothed out the paper.

A telegram, as she had stated.  It was addressed to Hilary Pierce, 14 Paseo de los Ovejas, El Paso, Texas.  The text read:

"Investigation led Tex to Lancer Ranch where shooting occurred last night.  Stop.  Received call this morning asking for personal details for his eulogy.  Stop.  Phone lines down more information when available.  Stop."

It was signed, Virgil Earp. 

"Didn't he wire you and explain?"  Murdoch asked, pulling off his glasses.

"I... I left immediately.  There was a westbound train due to leave the station ten minutes after I received that telegram.  I... I just ran down... I didn't pack or anything, as you can see.  I'm still wearing my uniform.  I suppose I should have waited for more information, but I just didn't think.  I just knew... He’s all I have, Mr.  Lancer!  I had to go, to find where he was..."

"Oh, Mrs. Pierce, I am so sorry to have caused you this pain!"  Murdoch said sincerely, kneeling in front of her on the floor.  He folded her hands in his.   "I have children of my own, and grandchildren.  I can’t even imagine what you've been through since you received this.  But, let me assure you, Tex is fine.  We called Mr. Earp for details confirming his story, not for a eulogy!  You see, the same time he showed up, someone shot out the windows of our house.  Then some other violent things happened, and... we were suspicious."

"Suspicious of what?"  she asked.

"Of strangers, for one thing.  Especially strangers asking pointed questions about certain incidents that happened to this family twenty years ago.  Your son told some outlandish stories, and gave a famous lawman for a reference.  I thought I'd be smart and trap him in his lies, and instead, Mr. Earp exxonerated him."

She made a sound, half a sob and a laugh, and covered her face in her hands.  "I... I feel such a fool, Mr. Lancer!"

"No,"  he said, shaking his head.  "No, please don't feel that way.  Like I said, I have children.  I think I would have done exactly the same thing if I had recieved a telegram like that.  I'm just so sorry that the misunderstanding even occurred.  Believing all this time that he was dead must have caused you incredible suffering!"

"He's all I have in the world,"  she repeated in a soft whisper.  And she lost all control when she added, "God!  How I hate the business he's in!"

"Here, now,"  Murdoch said, extracting a handkerchief from his pocket.  He gave it to her, and she dabbed at her eyes with a corner of it. 

"It's good, sturdy material,"  Murdoch said encouragingly.  "Go ahead and cry in it."

"It seems so silly to cry now,"  she murmured, but she was unable to hold back any longer anyway.  "If he's safe..."

"You need it."  Murdoch didn't know this woman, but he felt the familiarity of touch was needed right now.  He leaned closer, patted her on the back, not quite embracing her in a hug.  "There, there, Mrs. Pierce!  Go ahead and cry!  Don't be embarrassed, you've earned it.  And, Mrs. Pierce, I've watched your boy work.  He's a good investigator: a very smart, very cautious young man."

"Yes.  But how would you feel if it were your son doing the sort of work he does?"  she asked, wiping her eyes and nose on his handkercheif.

"Worried,"  Murdoch admitted.  "Look!  Come over here."  He climbed back to his feet and took her hand to draw her off the sofa and lead her to the window overlooking the back of the ranch.  By leaning close to the glass and looking at an angle, they could see the back of the stable where  Johnny, Scott and Tex were still gathered, still engaged in grim conversation.  Johnny was leaning against the stable, nearly face-on to them from this angle.  Scott and Tex, facing him, were both in only quarter-profile, but there was no mistaking Tex’s long-legged, youthful figure.  Not to mention the high-heeled Texas boots, with the built in sheath for that big knife, his double cartridge belt and heavy pistols or those long, spoon-handled spurs.

"The two with him are my boys, Scott and Johnny,"  Murdoch said with some pride.  "We had an unfortunate incident today.  One of our hands was killed.  We may have more trouble tonight, but this house itself is safe.    I insist that you stay with us, Mrs. Pierce, after such a long and trying journey..."

But when he looked down, he saw that she had gone pale.  The heat in her skin from the warmth of the day stood out in spots of color on her face, like cheap paint on a dead-white canvas.  She was going to faint, he thought.  It was all too much, the long day-and-night journey, the mourning, the sudden revelation.  She was going to faint.  He reached to grab her before she toppled over and injured herself on the flagstone flooring, but she spun away suddenly and headed for the office door.

"Thank-you, Mr. Lancer.  But I'm afraid I must leave,"  she said shortly, and she was out the door, her heels tapping smartly on the stone floor of the living room, before he knew it.  It was so sudden, caught him so off guard, that she had the big door open before he made it out of the office.

"Mrs. Pierce, please wait!"  he called.  "You can't leave now!" 

But she did.  Murdoch ran to the door and caught it before it closed all the way, but by the time he stepped out onto the porch,  she was climbing into the rented buggy.

"I'm afraid I must, Mr. Lancer,"  she called, an obviously false gay note in her voice.  "I'm so sorry to have bothered you.  It was nice meeting you.  Tell Tex I stopped by, will you?"

"Mrs. Pierce, please!"  Murdoch called, but she had the buggy backed already, turned the horse and laid a whip to it so that it broke into a trot going out the driveway.  He had one glimpse of her face, a face ravaged by tears despite the light tone she had managed to keep in her voice, and then she was heading rapidly up the hill.  He considered giving chase, but knew that even twenty years ago he could not have caught a trotting horse on foot!  He stepped back inside instead and closed the door slowly, thinking: it was shock, that was all.  All that time she had traveled to get a glimpse of the grave of her son, and instead she sees her son, alive and well and healthy.  It was shock.  He'd send Tex after her at once.  Poor woman.  What pressure she must have been under all that trip... And she seemed such delicate woman, too.  Probably wasn't if the stories Tex had told were true -- and apparently they were. But she looked it: and very young for the mother of such a mature young man.  Tex must look like his father, Murdoch thought idly, and: poor woman.  He hoped that she would stay with them awhile, calm and rest herself after what had to have been a tormenting journey. If there could be any calm and rest here, with the house under seige from that lunatic Palmer, and Tex, Scott and Johnny planning to go on the offensive, hunting him.

On the other hand, maybe she would be better off in town. 



“Murdoch, is someone here?”  Teresa asked, coming out of the kitchen.  Almost at the same time, Larissa called, “Grandpa?  I heard a buggy outside!”  from the second floor landing. 

“Well, yes, there was... That is...” Murdoch said, as Larissa came downstairs and Teresa crossed the floor towards him. 

“Is something wrong?”  Teresa asked.

Murdoch shook his head, still confused by all that had just happened.  “No, it’s just...  Oh, good!”  he concluded when Johnny, Tex and Scott all came in from the back through the dining room.

“Tex,"  he said, addressing the kid.  "Your mother was just here."

Tex just stared at him.  "My mother?"  he asked, his eyebrows vanishing up into his hair.  "You must be mistaken.  She's in El Paso.  Why would my mother come here?"

"Because... Well, because of this!”  Murdoch went back into the office, the others all following.  He picked up the telegram he had set down on the drinks table and passed it to the kid.  Tex read it, with Scott peering over his shoulder.

"Oh, dear God,"  Tex murmured.  He didn't even notice Johnny take the paper from his hand.  

"You said 'was' here.  Is she still here?  Did she leave?  How long ago?  I... I've got to go, to find her!"

"She came a few minutes ago, and left just now,"  Murdoch said.  "I showed her out the window that you were fine, and she..." He shrugged.  "Left.  I think the shock was too much for her."

"Showed her... you mean just now when we were all out by the stable?"

“Yes, I..."

"Shock?"  The kid sounded a little shocked himself.  He made a ragged sort of laugh and said.  "Oh, boy!  Yeah, shock!  Look, uh, I better go after her.  I'll be back -- soon as I can.  Ask your men not to shoot me."   He was turning to leave, but stopped cold when Johnny said, “Where did you get this?”

“Your father just handed it to me,” Tex reminded him.

And to everyone’s surprise, Johnny dropped a crutch to grab the kid by the collar and shake him violently.  “Where did you get her name?”  he shouted in Tex’s face.

“Johnny!”  Murdoch said.

“Let him go!”  Scott said, prying Johnny’s fingers loose and pushing him down onto the couch.

“What’s the matter with you?”  Murdoch demanded, but Johnny didn’t respond, he didn’t even seem aware of anyone in the room except the kid, and he was glaring murderously at him.

“How did you know her name?”  he repeated.

“Johnny, what are you talking about?”  Teresa asked, dropping to her knees next to him.  She reached for his hand but he shoved her rudely away.

“Hilary Lorraine Pierce,” Johnny said fiercely, still glaring at the kid.  “How do you know her name?  What are you trying to pull?”

“I’m not trying to pull anything,” Tex said.  “She’s my mother.”

“You’re a liar!”  Johnny shouted, and he tried to stand up again. 

Scott pressed him back down and said, “Take it easy, Johnny!  He didn’t do anything.”

“You know Tex’s mother?”  Murdoch asked, trying to understand Johnny’s anger.

No!”  Johnny shouted.  “I knew a girl named Hilary Pierce!  Hilary Lorraine Pierce.  A girl who died twenty years ago!  How did you get her name!”

“Died twenty years ago,” Scott repeated.  “The girl in the dream?  The one in the stagecoach...?”

“Yes!”  Johnny spat angrily.  “You had us fooled!”  he said to the kid.  “We figured it couldn’t be you, you were so... so convincing!   You were working with him all along!  And outside just now, you had us convinced it was that poor Casson kid that was passing information to this Palmer!  Who is Palmer, really, and who are you really?  And what do you want from me?”

The kid studied him thoughtfully.  “I am who I said I was,” he said finally.  “And Palmer is who I said he was.  And my mother isn’t dead.”

Don’t you call her that!  Hilary is dead!  She died long before you were born!”

“There must be some mistake,” Murdoch offered.

“Mistake?”  Johnny shouted.  "You think I heard it through rumors? I spent the night on her grave!  Why do you think I was so susceptible to frostbite years later that I ended up losing a leg to it?   I laid there in the snow all night, tracing the letters of her name carved in that board over and over...  And the date!  September 21, 1870!"  He struggled upwards again, got to his foot, hopped forward a step with just one crutch for support.  “And this kid knew about it!  Somehow, he knew!  He’s up to something, trying to... to hurt us somehow!  He got some woman to come here....”

“A woman with dark curly hair and blue eyes?”  Teresa asked softly.

“You saw her?”  Murdoch asked.

Teresa shook her head.  “Johnny described her.  Years ago.  He didn’t even realize it at the time, did you, Johnny?”

“You spent the night on her grave?”  the kid asked skeptically.      

Yes!  I told you, her father went and got her body from where the stagecoach was attacked...”  Johnny said, but sounding tired now, not shouting.  He sat down heavily and ran a hand across his eyes as if to wipe away the pain of that memory.

“Ma didn’t leave home on a stage coach,” the kid said, shaking his head.  “You need money to buy a ticket on the coach.  Her pa turned her out with nothing when he found out...” he paused, glancing at Larissa, then looked back at Johnny.  “She hitched a ride out of town on a freight wagon that was carting ore up to Santa Fe.”

“Turned her out...!”  Scott murmured, “Dear God in Heaven!” And they all turned to see him staring – not at Johnny or at Tex, but at the portraits hung over the fireplace.

“Don’t you see?”  he demanded, looking back at the others.  “This explains everything!”  They were all staring at him now as if he’d lost his mind.

“Look at it!  All of us , when we first met Tex, we liked him!  And we couldn’t see any reason for that reaction, so we all distrusted it, tried to make him into the bad guy, when the role really didn’t fit!  We didn’t trust our own reaction, because we couldn’t see where it came from!  But, it’s been right here, staring us in the face every day, and we didn’t see it!”

“Um, Scott...”  Murdoch said cautiously.

“Look!”  Scott commanded again, and he pointed above the fireplace to the wedding portrait of Murdoch and Esperanza.  “Look at it!  Look at him!  Larissa is the spitting image of her grandmother, and Tex looks more like the result of that union than Johnny ever did!”

They all looked, and they all saw then what Scott was trying to point out.  Murdoch, in that portrait, was older than Tex, but he was forty years younger than he was now, and that made the resemblance easier to spot.  The Murdoch in the portrait was a tall, young man, long-legged, broad-shouldered, with a shock of sun-gold hair.  Blue eyes: but then Tex got his eyes from the other side of the family.  He had Esperanza's wide, soft brown eyes, her high-boned cheeks.  Her fine nose and full-lipped mouth.     

"My God,"  Murdoch murmured. 

“That's it, isn't it?”  Scott said, turning back to Tex.  “The big lie we always felt coming from you, but could never prove.  You knew darn well who your father was all along!”

"Well... um... Yeah,"  Tex shrugged. 

"That’s why you came here, isn’t it?”  Scott asked.  “To meet your father!”

“No!”  Tex said.  “No!  I came here to catch a killer!  I told Ma, I said, ‘I can’t go there!  I can’t go to Lancer!  What am I supposed to say to those people?’ I wanted to bow out of the investigation completely, turn it over to someone else, someone who wasn’t personally involved!  But no one else believed in that lead!  No one else would have pursued Palmer here!  Her advice was ‘Don’t say anything, just search for Palmer’!  Virgil gave me the same advice.  So I came.  But I came here to catch a criminal.  I didn’t know you were alive!” he said, directly to Johnny.  “And I sure didn’t come here for some kind of family reunion!”

“But, once you got here you could have said something,” Teresa said.

“I didn’t want to screw up the investigation!”  Tex said.

"Telling us the truth wouldn't have stopped the investigation,"  Murdoch said.  "Not telling us the truth nearly did!  You were caught in an outright a lie about who your father was, and you still didn't admit it.  Why not?"

"I think we had this conversation once before,"  Tex said.  "You remember, the one about being ashamed of who your father is.  Let me ask you, Murdoch.  Scott.  Johnny.  If you had just discovered that your father wasn't a martyr after all, that he was in fact the kind of man who hangs around long enough for the conception, then just takes off, moves to California to live the good life while you and your ma struggle through life alone, and you ran into that man on business, would you go running up to him with your arms open crying, 'Daddy, Daddy, it's me!’"

"I didn't take off..!"  Johnny shouted.   He stopped, and shook his head.  "Well, okay, I did.  But I had to leave!  But I promised her I’d be back, that I’d come back to her before winter, and I did!  The trip took a longer than I thought.  I didn’t get there until October third.  The first snow of the winter fell that night.”  He sighed, rubbing at his eyes.  “The first snow.  But it was too late!  I was too late,”  he murmured in a low, pained voice.

"That's where you went!”  Teresa said.  “That summer, twenty years ago!  We all thought you’d left us, but you were just going back for her!”

"That's where I went."  Johnny agreed.  "But, I was twelve days too late! She was dead.  She...”

He stopped.  Looked at Tex, who was shaking his head.  Looked... at his mother’s eyes looking back at him out of Tex’s face.  But that was physically impossible!  He had known Hilary only briefly in the spring of 1870, and she was dead before October! 

Johnny shook his own head, as if the gesture would clear out the haunting pain and help him to just think.  “Her father turned her out?” he asked, repeating Tex’s earlier words.  “She didn’t go visiting her aunt?”

“Ma never had any aunts,” Tex said, still shaking his head.

“Turned her out,” Scott said, “Don’t you get it, Johnny?  He turned her out because she was pregnant!  He told us the whole story, we just never made the connection.  Remember: his mother alone and single, turned out of the house because she was unmarried and because his father was an outlaw.  His father was Johnny Madrid!”  And suddenly a new thought occurred to Scott.  He remembered Teresa telling him, many years ago, about that brief time when her mother tried to claim her again. “I kept thinking,” she’d said then, “that if they knew who Johnny really was, they’d never treat me like that!”

“Rose Bolivar didn’t connect the names!”  he said.

I never said she did,” Tex said.  

And he hadn’t.  Because, as they had all noticed, he wasn’t that good at lying.  But Scott had jumped to that conclusion, and Tex had left it at that.  “You knew that Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid were the same person,” Scott said now.  “You knew, because your mother knew.  Because your mother knows!

“She’s not dead?”  Johnny said, still stuck on that concept.  “She wasn’t on that stage coach?”

“No,” Tex said.

“You just thought she was dead,”  Teresa exclaimed.  “And she thought you were!  Tex told us he’d seen your actual death record in Mexico...!  Oh, what you must have thought,” she added, looking at Tex, “When you came here and realized that he wasn’t dead!”

“I thought,” Tex said, looking at Johnny,  “From everything y’all told me, that he had loved someone else, years ago.  Someone who died.  Someone who kept you from loving anyone else – which was your excuse for not coming back to Ma.”

“But I did...!”

“Yeah.  You say.  But why would there be a grave,  with a marker and everything, for a girl who was still alive.  Don’t you think that’s kind of stretching your credibility a little?”

“No,” Johnny said.  “If Scott is right in his guess...?”

Tex nodded.

“Then, I should have guessed it myself!  Did you ever meet her father?”

Tex shook his head.  “Ma never had no truck with him when I was growing up, never so much as exchanged letters.  I was up in Mesilla about a year ago on business, and I discovered he’d been living there for some time, not forty miles from me and Ma.  I stopped in out of curiosity, but he had died a couple years previous.  He’d married,” Tex added with a twist of his mouth, “a school friend of Ma’s.  They communicate with each other now, but, no, she never had nothing to do with him.”

“I never met him personally,” Johnny said.  “But she told me quite a bit about him.  Mr.  Hellfire-and -Brimstone Preacher!”

“What else would a man like that do when he discovered his young, unmarried daughter to be carrying an outlaw’s child,” Teresa offered, “but turn her out without a penny, then declare to the world that she was dead!”

“But she wasn’t...”  Johnny started to object.

“You said she wasn’t real big on religion about the time you were born,” Scott said to Tex at the same time.  “Small wonder!”

For a moment, there was silence as they all drank in the information, so much of it in such a short time!

Suddenly, Murdoch slapped himself on the forehead.  “Idiot!”

“What?”  Scott asked.

“It was Johnny that she saw!” Murdoch realized.   “Mrs.  Pierce!  When I was showing her Tex out the window!”   Her bizarre reaction made perfect sense now.   She had expected to look outside and see her son alive and well: Murdoch had told her that already.  Seeing Tex would not have caused a shock so severe she nearly fainted.  What she had seen was her son talking to his father, a man she thought had been  dead for twenty years!  And Tex’s own odd reaction when Murdoch described the incident was due to the fact that he, too, realized what she had seen!

Johnny made a sudden sound, something half-way between a laugh and a sob and buried his face in his hands.  “No wonder she just ran off!  She either thought she was seeing a ghost – or... or she thought...”

“Yeah,” Tex agreed.  "Pretty much what I been thinking of you since I got here."

"My God,"  Johnny murmured, shaking his head.  "She's alive."  Suddenly he jumped up, reaching for his crutches.  "I've got to go get her!   I've got to go see her, right now!"

“Maybe I should be the one to break the news,” Tex suggested.

“No!”  Johnny said.  “No, Tex, I know how you feel!  The two of you are all the family you’ve had all these years.  You want to protect her.  But you’re her son.  No, this is something I have to deal with.  Me and her!  Right now!”

"I’ll go with you,"  Scott said, bending to hand Johnny the crutch he had dropped earlier.

"I'll go too,"  Murdoch said.

“Just to keep things calm, I better tag along,” Tex said.  “She might think highwaymen were after her if you all came pelting down the road!  And Ma can shoot!”

"After a shock like that, another woman might be comforting," Teresa ventured.

"Then we’ll take Larissa,” Scott said.  He added more gently,  “We are still having problems here at the ranch.  Someone has to stay with the boys – someone we trust to protect them!"


“We just discovered one ‘loyal’ hand who was working against us.  Don’t trust anyone!”  Scott paused long enough to kiss Teresa, not a quick peck on the cheek, but a real kiss, then he signaled Larissa to come and they followed Murdoch, Johnny and Tex out into the living room, through the dining room, through the kitchen where the boys – who Teresa had left to wash dishes – where digging through the pantry looking for the last of the doughnuts.

“We’re almost done, Ma!”  Gene lied, running back to the wash basin.

“Don’t worry about it,” Teresa said.

Gene stared at his mother in surprise.  Don’t worry about it?  That wasn’t like her at all!  Teresa stepped outside behind the others, but just going far enough to get a couple sticks of fire wood, which she fed into the dying embers in the stove.

“Fetch my recipe box, Jackie,” she said.  “I think we’ll have a cake tonight.  You two can help me make it.”

Neither of the boys was enthusiastic.

“How come?”  Jack wanted to know, rooting through the pantry for the box.

“It’s a sort of a birthday today,” Teresa said, pulling out her big mixing bowl and cake tins.  Gene brought the spices, watching with disinterest while she measured.

“How come Larissa gets to go with Pa all the time, and we have to stay and help cook?” he wanted to know.  “Shouldn’t she be in the kitchen?  She’s a girl!”

“As I’m sure your father would tell you, it’s just as important for boys to know how to feed themselves,” Teresa said.  “Anyway, Larissa has more experience than you in riding and shooting.  Of course, it’s about time you got more experience,” she added, looking thoughtfully at her eldest son.  “Not just now:  it’s too dangerous.  But next time your father goes out to check the cattle or the fences, you should go along with him.  And next time the men go hunting.  Although, before that, we’d better have Uncle Johnny start you on shooting lessons.”

“What about me?”  Jack demanded.

“You, too,” Teresa said.  But she realized when she saw the look on Gene’s face that as important as it was for him to begin to grow up, it was even more important for him to have something, privileges or skills, above his younger brother.  “In a few years,”  she added smoothly.  Now, run fetch me the butter from the cool room, would you please?”



Q.E.D., Scott thought as he rode up the driveway and out onto the road.  So simple, so obvious once they made the connection!  The kid had been giving himself way since the first day.  There was that first slip he made in surprise, letting them know he knew who Johnny was.  And the next day, when he admitted that his father wasn’t Bill Hickock’s deputy he couldn’t help but look right at Johnny when he announced that he was a bastard.  And they had all been surprised to learn that the unknown boy Johnny had sent money to nearly ten years ago was the same young man riding with them, but Tex had pushed it, demanded -- not just once but twice! -- to know if Johnny had had some ulterior motive in sending that money, like perhaps because he knew who they were and felt guilty for abandoning them.  As if Johnny would do that!  But who could have guessed that the girl Johnny had mourned, the one he had nightmares about, the one who had haunted him all these years, was alive?

Alive!  Was the thought that kept flashing through Johnny’s mind.  He recalled clearly – oh, far too clearly! -- that night of snow and cold and unending tears.  The pain and the guilt of knowing he was too late.  And the fact that she was not dead didn’t change the fact that he had been too late.  Too late to take her away from a father who would treat her like that.  Too late to save her from years of hard labor, raising a boy alone, cooking meals for dimes and nickels to feed them both.  Too late then, and too late today to save her from her own belief that all those years, that all those trials, had been caused by a man who had abandoned her as surely as her father had when she was most in need.  He glanced at the young man riding beside him and thought, her son!  Tex was Hilary’s son!  In fact... hadn’t they just proved beyond any doubt that Tex was his son!  He recalled that first night when he had realized something familiar about that kid.  He did look like Murdoch.  He did have Esperanza’s eyes and mouth.  But it hadn’t been physical traits Johnny had noticed, but attitudes, habits.  He had thought that Tex might have picked up some mannerisms from Virgil Earp, mannerisms that reminded Johnny of Virge.  He wondered now if mannerisms could be inherited, not just copied.  He had often seen Gene move his head, gesture with his hands, in ways that brought Scott to mind.  But surely, that was imitation, wasn’t it?  Or was it, entirely?  Because he knew now who it was Tex reminded him of: not Virge.  Murdoch!  The way he’d raise an eyebrow when he thought you were pulling his leg, or  lower both brows so seriously when he was pulling yours... Was it possible?

Murdoch knew it was possible.  Murdoch might have considered Gene’s imitations of his father to be intentional, but he had watched Larissa grow up also, watched her develop the same habits and gestures that had so identified her grandmother.  She was not Larissa Sebastien.  She was, for one thing, much more serious.  But the turn of her head, the lift of her chin, that one gesture she so often made with her left hand while she was talking... identical!  It had fascinated him for years, this impossible, irrefutable likeness.  And he had witnessed it in Tex.  He looked over at the kid now, riding easy on that big horse, reins threaded through the fingers of his left hand, right hand resting on his thigh.... Just like Johnny!  He had had trouble making the connection before because he had not seen Johnny ride in years, but now that he knew, now that he realized, he wondered how he could have missed it.  Johnny’s son!  He had grown up hundreds of miles away, learned to ride from some other man in some other place, and sat a horse exactly the way his father did!  There was no doubt about it! He was a Lancer!

            A Lancer! Larissa thought, sneaking glances at Tex as they rode.  He’s my first cousin!  And he knew it from the moment I told him the man he had come to visit, Murdoch Lancer, was my grandfather!  She had tried everything she knew – in her limited experience – to catch his attention, had wondered why he didn’t seem to notice her finest clothes, her most gracious manner.  Her most flirtatious smiles.  She had heard girls at school complain about boys who treated them “like a sister”, but she understood that complaint to mean that the boys simply weren’t interested in those particular girls.  Tex really had treated her like his younger sister: caring, instructing, admonishing.  Holding her gently this afternoon when she needed it.  Never flirting, but always there for her – for her whole family.  Because he knew, she thought now.  He knew.... and he had never said a word!

"That's the buggy!"  Murdoch called, and Johnny turned his eyes to the road again.

"Why is it just sitting there?  Is it stuck?"  Scott asked. 

"MA!"  the kid hollered.  He slammed heels into his horse and shot out in front of them, reaching the buggy ahead of the rest.  The horse was gone.  The buggy sat  partly tilted as it leaned towards the side of the road.  But it wasn't stuck.  And it wasn't occupied.

"MA!"  the kid shouted again, standing up in his stirrups, looking around.  But there was no answer, nothing but birdsong and the gentle buzz of insects.

"Look,"  Murdoch said.  He edged his horse closer to the buggy and picked up a small parcel from the seat.  It was the handkercheif he had loaned her earlier, wrapped and tied around something.  He loosed the knot quickly and rolled out the nun-like headdress she had been wearing earlier.

"That's Ma's,"  Tex said taking it from him.  When he picked it up, it crackled, and he unfolded it to find a paper, folded in half and tucked inside. On the outside of the paper was a name, neatly lettered:  "Johnny Madrid."

"She left a note,"  Murdoch observed.

"That's not her writing,"  the kid said.

"But printed like that..."

"Printing's actually harder  to fake than handwriting,"  the kid said professionally.  "And it ain’t hers."

Johnny leaned, his wagon tilting precariously, stretched out an arm and plucked the note from the kid's hand.  He settled back down and opened it.

"Game over,"  he read aloud.  "I have your wife.  If you want to see her alive again, be at the old Benevidez homestead at sunset, alone and unarmed.  No tricks -- I'll slit her throat."  Johnny looked up and said, "It's signed..."

"Terrence T. Palmer,"  Murdoch guessed.

"No.  Tom Pardieu,"  Johnny said.  "But that's impossible!"

"Another person who supposedly died in 1870?"  the kid asked dryly.

"No.  I mean, yes!  But, not ‘supposedly’! This wasn't a faked grave or even an official document,"  Johnny said.  "Remember?  I told you!  I killed that man myself.  I shot him in the head!  He’s buried in town!"

“Tom, junior, maybe?”  Scott suggested.

“No,” Johnny said.  “I worked with Tom, lived with him, for four years!  I can guarantee you there was no Tom Junior!”

"Maybe you missed," Larissa said.

Johnny snorted.  "I wasn't ten feet away from him!  Point-blank range.  There is no way I could have missed him."

They all considered that a moment.  Murdoch had just opened his mouth intending to offer Johnny's own explanation of Palmer using information like this against them, when Scott suddenly said, "Maybe you didn't miss."

"That's what I just said!"  Johnny said. "I saw him go down..."

"Do you still have that wallet on you?"  Scott asked Tex.

"Always carry it,"  Tex said.  He slid it out of the inside pocket of his vest and passed it over.  Scott opened it, thumbed quickly through the papers, and extracted the one he wanted.

"You never looked at this, did you?"  he asked Johnny, holding it out.  "Murdoch looked at it, and Teresa and I, but you were drunk that night at dinner, and no one bothered to pass it to you!"

"Wouldn't have done any good.  I didn't know anyone from around here before then, and I left right after..."  Johnny froze suddenly, staring at the picture.  It was easily the most horrifying face he had ever seen, distorted and broken as it was.  That story Scott had read to them all once about the Hunchback of Notre Dame, even that monster hadn't had a face like this! But what made it worse was that he recognized it.

"Tom Pardieu,"  he said softly.  The fingers of his right hand went up, tentatively touching the ruined face on the poster.  “But that can’t be!”  he said, looking at Scott.  “We didn’t put up a memorial marker!  We buried him!  People don’t rise up out of their graves!”

“No,” Scott said.  “We buried him.  You were in bed, remember?  I didn’t know Pardieu by sight, and neither did Murdoch, and you weren’t even sitting up in bed for a week!”

"The man had a whole gang with him, according to your stories,” Tex said.  “Someone would have known if he was alive or dead.”

“Maybe not,” Scott said.  For a moment, he was seeing, not the ranch yard twenty years ago, but the battlefield of Gettysburg where thousands of men lay dead, thousands more were moaning, bleeding, dying.  Hundreds of men had died, or slipped away in the confusion, that were never properly identified.

"They hit the ranch front on, like an Indian attack against a fort,” Murdoch said.  “And it was a bloodbath!  Maybe twenty men were killed in that fight,  including two of our hands.  The only ones who could have really identified them were members of their own group, and the ones who weren’t dead ran to keep from hanging.  Or Johnny.”

“But, surely, after all the time he spent in town...”

“As a lawman, you should know that casual contacts aren’t great for identification,” Murdoch said.  “And anyway, we took care of our own wounded and dead first, then their wounded.  It wasn’t until the next day that we started fanning out from the front gate, looking for their dead. Johnny said he'd killed Pardieu, shot the man in the head, and one of the bodies didn’t have a face or a belly left after the coyotes got done with him, but there was definitely a bullet hole in his head. We could have made a mistake.”

“No,” Johnny said.  “No, there was no mistake! I couldn’t miss at that range!  I shot him...”

...With a pistol he had never fired before, he realized suddenly.  Never fired before, and never fired since.  His own weapons, of course, had not made it out of Mexico.  He had ridden into Lancer carrying the cheap, second-hand gun the Pinkerton had bought to outfit him for the trip.  Determined not to live as a gunman any longer, he had not tested the weapon, had not tried it on the practice range.  And, after murdering the only friend he had ever had, he had never wanted to see the gun again.  He took it with him when he left Lancer, but traded it to a gunsmith near Tahoe for a long-barreled target pistol that didn’t remind him of Tom or his former life.  His aim was accurate, always.  But he had no idea how that gun handled!  He looked at the picture again and decided it was possible.  If the gun was off, if the bullet had hit left and low from where he had thought it should go...

“Bang,” Johnny whispered.

“What?”  Murdoch demanded.

“Terrance T.  Palmer had Tom Pardieu written all over him from the start, including his initials!  The harassment, the arrogance!  Lighting fires, taking out our water supply.  The note that said ‘Bang’!  That was his idea of humor!  Even his interest in much-older women. Those are all Tom’s personal trade marks.  And revenge!  Tom always went for revenge!”

“It doesn’t make sense though,” Scott said, frowning.  “Why wait all these years to get that revenge?”

"Shot in the back,"  Tex said. 

"What?"  Murdoch and Scott both asked at once.

"It's my fault,"  Tex said.  "Dear God!  I didn't see it!  I didn't realize... I knew the first time I heard the name Lancer that this case was hitting too close to home, I knew I should have turned it over to someone else!  They might have made the connection!"

"What are you talking about?"  Johnny demanded.

"You did this Romeo and Juliet thing twice in the same summer!”

“I never...!’

“Mistaken death, I meant, not romance.   Pardieu thought you were dead, just like you thought he was.  You saw him go down, he, or one of his men, saw you go down.  Shot in the back.  Or, like me, he thought you were killed shortly after that in Mexico!  I told you the date was almost impossible to make out!   He didn't bother to come back to get revenge, because you were the only one he wanted, you're the one who did that to his face!  And you were dead.  Until one night when a drunken whore started blabbing on and on about her own past.  And I missed it!"  Tex knocked his own forehead with a closed fist.  "I can't belive I missed it!  I was so startled myself when she mentioned Johnny's name that it never occurred to me that that was the one that spurred Palmer into action!  Johnny's name was my connection to the case.  I thought it was a coincidence, I was determined that it was a coincidence, so I never realized that that was Palmer's connection too!  Not you, Murdoch!  Johnny!  I was trying so hard to ignore it that I blew the whole case!"

"That's okay, it can happen to anyone,"  Murdoch said.

"No, it's not okay!  I almost got all of you killed!  And now he's got Ma!"

"Pa,” Larissa said, breaking into the conversation, “This man, this... Palmer or whoever he is, he’s been  around for weeks, right?  Maybe getting information from someone the ranch.”

“Yeah, we’re pretty sure he has,” Scott agreed.

“Well, I know we’ve been staying inside so this couldn’t happen to one of us, but Tex’s mother just showed up today.  Why would he so quickly assume she was Johnny's wife?" 

“Good question,” Scott said, considering it.

"This maybe,"  Murdoch said, picking up the handkerchief.  A gift from Teresa for some past Christmas, it had the Lancer brand embroidered in one corner.

"That hardly connects a total stranger specifically to Johnny," Scott said.  “The note is addressed to him, and it says, ‘your wife.’”

“Maybe she said something...”Murdoch offered.

“To a total stranger about her personal life?”  Tex snorted. “Not likely!”

“She wouldn’t... still have the locket would she?”  Johnny asked, hesitating almost as if he were afraid to find out.

“It’s never away from her for a second!”  Tex said.

“Esperanza’s locket?”  Murdoch asked.

“Did she have it on?”  Johnny demanded.  “Was she wearing it where it was visible?”

“Yes,” Murdoch said hesitantly.  “Yes, it... it could have been.  She did have a large, gold locket, but... it might not have been the same one.  It looked different....”

“I lost the stone,” Johnny said.  “A long time back.  You know, that white bit of glass that was on it...”

“An opal,” Murdoch said, and he realized now why he had not recognized the locket on the woman he had met today.  Esperanza’s locket had had a large fire opal set in the center of it.  “Your birthstone,” he told Johnny.

“Oh.  Well, it fell out,” Johnny said.  “Years ago.  It had the big circle there where the stone used to be set, but not a stone.  And Tom would recognize that locket, all right!  The fact that I kept it with me all the time and wouldn’t sell it made it seem more valuable to him than it was.”

“And it was valuable,” Murdoch added.

“Yeah, but, he was obsessive about it, tried to steal it from me more than once!  He’d also know that any woman who was wearing it has to be someone who means a great deal to me, and...”  He froze suddenly, staring at nothing, his mouth open.

“What?”  Murdoch asked.

“Did she ever show you the locket?”  Johnny suddenly asked the kid.

“Yeah.  Lots of times.  Had the pictures of my grandparents, didn’t it?”

“Did it have anything else in it?”  Johnny asked, almost, Murdoch thought, fearfully.  “Like... a bit of folded-up paper?”

“Yeah,” Tex shrugged.  “Now that you mention it, there was a bit of paper in there.  She always took it out when she let me handle the locket.  Why?  What was it?”

“Our marriage license,” Johnny sighed.

"Well, that would definitely make him think she was your wife,” Scott said wryly.

“He's going to hurt her to try to hurt you," Tex said, fear obvious in his voice.

Johnny nodded.  "That looks like the plan.  There's only one thing to do.  I’ve got to go to the Benavidez homestead.  Alone."

"Johnny, this man's crazy!"  Murdoch objected.  "There's no guarantee he'd let her go, even if you did show up.  There's got to be another way..."

"No!  You saw what he did to that boy today, for no good reason at all!  If we go in there in force to try to get her back, she’ll be lucky if he just slits her throat!"  Johnny said.  "There's a chance he wants me bad enough that he'll let her go."

"Even if he did, he'd kill you,"  Murdoch said.  "I can't let you do it!"

"You don't have much choice,"  Johnny said, picking his one boot up off the wagon brake and raising the reins again.  "I lost her once, Murdoch.  I'd rather be dead than lose her again – especially like this!"

He expertly backed the small wagon, turned sharply and drove off the road, heading across country in a straight line to the east.  He slapped the reins and the horse took off,  jerking and rocking the buggy wildly on the open terrain as it broke  into a trot.

Tex wheeled his horse, intending to give chase, but Scott reached to grab his bridle and stopped him.

“Palmer will kill her!”  Tex shouted, trying to jerk away.  “Johnny going is not going to save her!  He’ll hurt her and then kill her just to watch Johnny sweat!”

“I know,” Scott said.  “But Johnny’s right too!  If we all go, she’s dead that much faster and then there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“But what can we do?”  Murdoch asked.  “Those old ruins are in a deep valley.  There’s only a couple ways in, and they’re all wide open and easy to watch!”

“Hidden Lake!”  Larissa said suddenly.  When they all turned to stare at her, she elaborated.  “If you go from Hidden Lake to that hard-rock country and drop east, there’s an old cow path that runs straight into the valley where the Benevidez  place was!  The man you chased today wasn’t running and hiding!  He was going ‘home’!”

“There’s no connecting trail through there,” Scott said, shaking his head.

Murdoch started to agree with him, then stopped suddenly.  “Yes there is!  Remember?  We fenced it off years ago, and we never use it.  Those canyons in between are public land, and there was a mining company back in Seventy-one or -two that had mineral rights in there.  They were very persnickety about cowboys coming through their operations, so we all got in the habit of going around the long way to get into that canyon. Longer, but easier, actually. But,  there is an old trail through those canyons!”

“We could search for it forever in there,” Scott sighed.

“I know where it is!”  Larissa said.  “I found it when I was exploring back there last summer.”

“Palmer ain’t an idiot,” Tex said.  “And he still ain’t alone!  He’ll have that trail guarded, ‘specially if he was using it for a route back and forth to talk to his informer!”

“His informer?” Larissa asked.

“From what he said to me before you arrived, my guess is that Ed Casson was feeding Palmer information about the Lancer family, and the ranch.”  Tex said, admitting that he had kept information from her initially. 

But Larissa didn’t seem to notice that.  Instead she looked thoughtful.  “His informer!  Of course!  Johnny said Palmer’s tracks were all over that place.  He had waited there for Casson more than once obviously, but maybe...”

“Maybe what?” Scott demanded.

“Maybe he was waiting there, hoping to catch me!”  Larissa said.  “Mother sent Ed out to look for me not too many days before Tex arrived here!  And everyone on the ranch knows that’s a favorite spot of mine!”

“Thank God he never...”  Murdoch started.

“No,” Larissa agreed.  “‘He never’.  Because you and Uncle Johnny and Pa insisted that we all stay close to the house.  But don’t you see?   Until Mrs.  Pierce drove out here today, catching me alone at Hidden Lake must have seemed to him like the most likely target, the weak point he may have been planning to use against Uncle Johnny!  And I’d bet the ranch that whoever is watching that back trail has specific instructions concerning a young lady who might head that way!”

“Instructions to kill you!”  Murdoch said.

“No, I don’t think so,” Scott said, as he began to realize what Larissa was driving at.  “He’d need her alive and intact to use her against us, just as from the lack of blood here I’d say he took Mrs.  Pierce alive!”

“You can’t use ‘Lissa for bait!” Murdoch said in outrage.

“Won’t work anyway.  He’s got what he needs for revenge,” Tex said bitterly.

“But he hasn’t had her for long!” Larissa insisted.  “And his first priority when he gets back will not be to ride up into the hills looking for his own lookout to tell him the deal’s off!”

“We don’t need bait, Murdoch,” Scott added.  “Just a decoy, a momentary distraction, a chance to take out one guard and come in above that old homestead in a perfect sniper position!”

“Too chancy!”  Murdoch said again.  “It’s too dangerous!  I can’t believe you’d even think of using your own daughter that way...!”

“Nobody’s using me,” Larissa said.  “I’m volunteering.  And while we’re discussing this, Uncle Johnny’s getting farther away, and Palmer’s getting time to make his own plans!  If it’s going to work at all, we need to get into position as quickly as possible!"

She turned, wheeling her horse back along the road they had just ridden, and kicked it into a flat-out run, with Tex, Scott and Murdoch  right on her heels.



Scott knew full well the possible consequences of what they were doing.  Every beat of his heart was like a knife driving every ‘What if,’ he could think of right through it.  But Larissa was calm, not overly eager, and that gave him a small amount of confidence.

“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Tex said, as they stopped by the lake to plan more carefully.

“Don’t back out on me now!”  Larissa said, giving him an encouraging smile.

Scott’s resolve quavered for a moment, then he pulled his daughter into his arms and hugged her tightly.  Holding her at arms length, he traced a cross on her forehead and said, “‘Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil...Stand therefore having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith ... and the helmet of salvation...’”

“Let’s not forget the ‘Sword of the Spirit,’” Tex said, and reached to untie the thin leather thong from around his neck.  He passed it to Scott, who tied it into place around Larissa’s neck.

“Where’d a nice young man like you learn a cheap border-outlaw trick like that?”  Murdoch asked.

“Ma always insisted on it,” Tex said.  “She learned it from...”  He paused and, seeming to recall that the secret was out, said simply, “Johnny,” instead of whatever story he had been about to come up with.  “She made me practice throwing it, too.  But you don’t throw it!”  he said to Larissa.  “Let me show you how to handle it.”  He stepped up to Larissa, coming around behind her and said.  “When a man tells you to put your hands up, don’t raise them up over your head, like this...”  He took her wrists to demonstrate.  “Fold them in back of your head, like this, and immediately get your hand around the haft of this knife.  If he says, ‘No, I meant over your head!’, you can lift them up, see, but you already have the knife.  And if he never tells you to put your hands up, you can fuss with your hair, here, on the back of your neck.  You know, like ladies do when they’re trying to get a man’s attention.  Right!  Grab that knife...  No, hold on.”  He took the knife from her, and demonstrated, wrapping her hand around it the way he wanted.  “Don’t flash it!  Don’t show it to him!  Hold it so the blade runs along the inside of your arm, like this.  Right!  See, you can keep it in place there, out of sight, with just a finger or two.”

“Why hide it behind your neck then?”  Larissa asked.  “Why not just keep it up your sleeve?”

“Because if someone’s going to check you for weapons, they’ll check your sleeves first thing, but not many people will check between your shoulder blades, especially if a quick pat shows them you don’t have any holsters strapped around your chest.  Now.  You got the knife there, hiding it from him.  Now, to grip it to use it, just get all your fingers around it... No!  Don’t shift position, just grab it where it is and raise your arm.”

“But that’s too awkward!”  Larissa objected, because when she grabbed the knife as he instructed her, the blade was pointing down.

“Here’s the thing,” Tex said.  “You stab a man with a knife this size, you ain’t gonna damage him much.  Probably, you’ll just make him mad.  But you may need to defend yourself, and this is a good enough grip for that.  Raise your hand up, step up...”  Standing behind her, guiding her hand, he raised her arm, showing her to just bend her arm back to pick the knife up, and together they took a step towards Scott.  “See where the knife is aimed?”  Tex asked.

“His face?”  Larissa asked.

“Yeah.  His eyes, specifically.  Like I said, you can’t damage a man much with a little bitty knife like this, and you sure ain’t gonna kill him,  but you stick it in his eye, you’re gonna slow him down or stop him completely!  Can you do that if you have to?”

“I...”  She thought, No.  I can’t!  Then she thought of Ed Casson, of the bullets that shattered his arms, his leg, his belly, without killing him.  Of the man who had done that to him and left him to die.  That same man had Uncle Johnny, had Tex’s mother, was going to try to get hold of her!  “Yes, I think I can.”

“Don’t ‘think’,” Tex said.  “If you ain’t going to do it, never draw the knife!  He can take it away from you way easier than you think!”

“I..  I can!”  she said.

“Okay.  Remember, hold it and draw it like I showed you.  You go turning it around, showing it to him, you don’t stand a chance of ever using it.  And watch that blade!  A man could shave with that blade.”

He helped her slide it back into the sheath, then Scott stepped up again and loosened the braids that hung on either side of her face, letting the hair flow free around her back and shoulders.

“Pa!  It blows in my eyes like that!”  Larissa objected.

“Bait,” he said grimly, “has to look enticing.  And it covers up that knife.  Okay, sweetheart, give us five minutes to get into position.  Then you start down that trail, looking as innocuous and alone as you can...”


It was a long hike, and Larissa was hot and tired.  Last time she came through here, she had packed a lunch and made an all-day trip of it, exploring and hiking around in these canyons.  She’d come upon the trail then by accident.  This time, with her grandfather’s instructions to augment her year-old memory, the hike was more direct, but less pleasant.  In the spring, these canyons were full of fresh breezes and running water.  In high summer, the creeks were dried up, the breezes stifled to nothing.   It was late afternoon now, heading towards evening, but the coolness would not come until the sun had moved even lower on the horizon, and meantime all the heat of the afternoon was trapped in these rock canyons.  Her hair stuck to her face and neck and sweat stained the front, back and underarms of her shirt.  She knew she looked like someone trudging grimly, determinedly towards something, not like a girl out for a stroll on a summer afternoon.  No one was going to fall for this!

A rock slid down the slope from somewhere up above, and she refrained from looking to see why.  If it was the guard, let him think she was stupid.  If it was one of the men tracking her, she didn’t want to look up and give away their position.  She did pause though, giving whoever it was a chance to hide himself again, and when she paused, she saw one of the small, tough flowers that would bloom in these dry, inhospitable canyons even in high summer.  And she picked it.  Walking slower now, she continued scanning the ground, apparently for flowers, but in reality she was looking for the sign that the men had lost up above earlier today.  There were no tracks on this hard rock, but neither were there scuff marks that would indicate a steel shoe scraping across the hard stone. Nothing.  She gathered flowers, wondering if she had been wrong all along, if this was not, after all, the way this man Palmer had returned to the Benevidez place.  Or if he had been here at all.  He certainly had made it back to their front road quickly....

When the man stepped out in front of her, she really was startled: no acting was necessary here!  But she felt pleased with herself, too.  Pa said to look innocuous, and it must have worked, because even as he stepped out, grinning and pleased that he had startled her, he slid his gun into its holster.  Apparently, whatever he planned to do, he didn’t feel he needed a weapon to do it.

“Well, well, well, little missy,” he said, leering unpleasantly.  “And what are you doing way out here, so far from home?”


Over the past few years, Johnny had adapted well to only having one leg, but there were times when it felt every bit the handicap it actually was.  Like now.  He had redesigned his wagon several times since he first needed it to get around, until -- at least on relatively flat terrain --  he was nearly as mobile as a man on a horse.  But he wasn’t a man on a horse, and the wagon was slowing his progress cross-country, which was a serious problem because “sunset” is a relative term in the mountains.  Relative, because at this time of the year, the sun could drop below your personal horizon anytime between three in the afternoon and nine-thirty at night, depending on how high in elevation you were at the time, or how broad the valley was that you were in. And the Benevidez homestead was in a low, narrow valley.

His inability to travel fast not only made him sweat, thinking how far behind he was, but gave him altogether too much time to think as well.  Of course, there was plenty to keep his mind occupied!  So much information had washed over him in the past couple hours that he still had trouble assimilating it.  Hilary!

He found himself reliving every moment, every memory of the time he had spent with her -- was it really twenty years ago?  He recalled the pain and the blood, the fevers and bandages, the cold spring nights, accented by hard freezes and even snowfall.  And he remembered sitting in the grass while his body slowly healed, his belly full of hot stew, the sunlight heating his various aches, watching the gentle way the breeze lifted the curls that always escaped around her face, watching her sew or cook, and listening to her talk, rambling monologues to entertain him and break the long --but comfortable -- silences that often stretched between them.

And, he remembered that afternoon when she fell in the creek and he rescued her.  Pain lanced his heart and tightened his throat as he recalled how he had shaken her, yelled in her face and shaken her when she was already cold and frightened.  He had been furious with her, not for falling, that was an accident, but for crying!  He hadn’t understood, and he had been determined to drill it into her that he was not a good person.  But she had seen the goodness, when he hadn’t been able to see it himself.  She had seen it, and she had brought it out.  He recalled a book Scott had read to the family last winter, as they gathered in the office around the fire.  It had been a short book, but fascinating: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Jekyll had been a good man who never let his baser instincts out.  Which is why, when that part of him became a separate and real person, became Mr.  Hyde, Hyde was shrunken and disfigured: a dwarf, because he had never been allowed to grow and develop. The descriptions had touched Johnny in particular, because he had seen then that his own life had similar, if opposite, beginnings.   It was the good side of him that had been dwarfed.  And Hilary’s tears had been the chemical potion that had dragged that side out, into the light and warmth of her love where it could grow and mature naturally.  He had shaken her in frustration at being unable to make her see him for what he really was, and in her tears, he had seen himself as she saw him.  As he could be.  As he was now.

Which thought brought Tom Pardieu back to mind. 

There had been bitterness and anger in Johnny’s soul for years, not unlike the bitterness that burned at Tom.  Tom, Johnny knew, been the middle of five children born to a prostitute.  His heart burned always with hate for the father he never knew, one of so many nightly customers his mother couldn’t even begin to guess his identity – nor did she care particularly.  It was definitely part of the reason that locket had so obsessed Tom: the locket came from Johnny’s father

“He tossed my mother and me out of the house and left us to fend for ourselves!”  Johnny had told him, more than once.

“At least you know who he is!” was Tom’s retort to that.   Tom, who looked into the face of every passing stranger, searching for a resemblance that he had not, the last Johnny knew, ever found.  It was that obsession also that caused Tom to  frequent those back rooms that Johnny had always avoided, but only the back rooms belonging to older women.  In fact, to old women.  Women, Johnny had early realized, well past child bearing age.  

“A man who visits a whore could be leaving behind more of himself than he ever intended,” Tom cautioned a then very young Johnny Madrid.  “You really want to avoid leaving that kind of legacy!”  Which is how he was so certain there was not a Tom Junior.

And why he should have recognized Tom in the man Palmer that Tex described!  Except that Tom was dead, or so he had thought.  As he had thought Hilary dead.


It was, he thought, her love that had leeched all that bitterness and anger out of him slowly, like alkali rising to the surface of the ground with the kiss of spring rains, to be washed away downstream.  Tom also had that poison in his soul.  But rather than being leeched out, that poison ate at him like acid, burning away any goodness there might have been inside.  The fact that he had come here, that he had done what he had already done in revenge for something twenty years past told Johnny that that poison had not been drained or sucked out.  And by now, Tom would have to be nearly insane with it!  And Tom had Hilary!  Johnny tried to hurry the wagon, flicking the reins again.  But the terrain was too rough, and the horse pricked its ears back instead of moving faster, picking its way steadily and carefully down a trail meant for riding, not driving, heading into the long shadows of the canyon, while Johnny prayed he was not already too late.



All that was left of the Benevidez homestead was a T-shaped section of crumbling adobe that was the remains of the oldest room of the original house, and the barn.  The barn had been larger than the house, and it still stood mostly intact.  It had a roof, though after twenty years of neglect, plenty of sunlight and precipitation came through the broad cracks between its loose boards.  Three walls were still standing, as gap-filled as the roof.  A hayloft stretched across the back half of the barn, and under it there were  a couple low walls that had once marked off some of the stalls.  The face of the barn, where there had once been wide double doors, had been partly destroyed in the fire that took the house and much of the rest of it had been pried off, as had the remainder of the interior stalls, by people who were camping in the area and used the wood for fires.  When a man stepped in front of Johnny’s wagon, pointing a rifle at him and demanding that he halt, Johnny could see the barn, far ahead but still clearly visible.  The open end was at a slight angle to him, but he could see the glow of lamplight coming through the cracks on the side, despite the campfire in front of the building.  The long shadows of the canyon wall had not quite reached the barn, but they were close.  Already cool evening air was pooling in the valley.

“I have to get to the barn by sunset,” Johnny said to the man.

“You have to do what I tell you, or I’ll shoot the other leg off!”  the man grinned.  He walked around the wagon, keeping his rifle trained on Johnny, but looking very pleased.  “Wal, now, who’da thought it?  Boss said a one-legged man was gonna come chargin’ in here to rescue that old cow he brought with him, and here you are!  Reckon he’s smart as he says he is.”

“He’s waiting for me,” Johnny said, trying to maintain an outward calm despite the fact that mentally he was screaming and sobbing in fear.  Years of practice paid off, however, and the calm he worked towards looked totally real to the man on the ground.

“Get down!”  the man said, jerking the rifle barrel slightly to indicate what he wanted.

“But, if I do then....”

“Then I can search you for weapons like the boss said!  Do it!  Now”

He cocked the hammer of his rifle, and Johnny pressed the brake, slowly raising his hands to show he was unarmed and not dangerous.  Then he turned, lowering his hands again...

“Keep em in sight!”  the man with the rifle demanded.

“I need them to climb down,” Johnny said.  He motioned the man to come around where he could see better, slowly and carefully gripped the wagon seat and turned, belly down, to slide to the ground, hopping once or twice to catch his balance without crutches.

The man chortled at this, enjoying the sight of someone at such a disadvantage.  But when Johnny turned and started to fold his hands behind his head, the man said, “Uh-uh!  Up high!”  and he moved in closer to do his search.  Tom had trained him all right.  He took the knife out of Johnny’s neck sheath first, checked for anything else hidden back there.  He set down his rifle to do his search, and he was more aggressive than thorough as he did it, finding it necessary to grip and squeeze certain body parts as if checking to see if they were what they appeared to be.

“Looks like you only lost just the one leg, huh?”  he grinned in Johnny’s face as he groped, looking for the dew of pain he was hoping for.  Instead he saw Johnny’s eyes flick to the side, and he abandoned his harassment to snatch up his rifle again.  Johnny knew he could have taken it, could have shot this man.  But what would that have gained him?  The longer he played by Tom’s rules, the longer Hilary stayed a live, and the longer she was alive, the greater the possibility of keeping her that way indefinitely.

“Don’t move,” the man said, leveling the gun at Johnny’s gut and moving to search the wagon. 

“My guns are in the wagon bed,” Johnny said, keeping his hands up.  “I wrapped them in that tarp so I couldn’t reach them.  They’re right there, you can take them out.  I was going to leave them about here anyway...”

“Sure you were!  And then ride in with all this other gear?  Oh, I think not, Mr. Madrid!”

Unfortunately, since he used this wagon mostly for ranch chores, Johnny had gotten into the habit of leaving tools tossed in the wagon bed at all times.   The guns were easy enough to remove, but there were fence posts, wire cutters, a jumble of pliers and hammers, iron bars and digging tools.  The man lifted and checked one or two of the items, then shook his head.

“I ain’t unloading all this!  You can just walk in!”

“Can I have my crutches, then?”  Johnny asked.         

The man considered.  “One,” he decided finally.  That would leave Johnny at enough of a disadvantage that he would have trouble attacking anyone.  But then,  Johnny wasn’t planning to attack.  Right now all he was planning on was getting to that barn before the line of shadow did.

“I’ll get it,” the man said, “So’s you ain’t tempted to pull any tricks.  Where are they?”

“Under the seat.”

Keeping the gun trained on Johnny, the man leaned, up and over, searching blindly under the seat with his hand so he could watch Johnny.  Johnny was watching the line of sun and shadow, and silently begging the man to hurry.  He snagged something finally, tried to lift it, tangled it all up in the seat braces and tools and the other crutch.  It took several too-long seconds for him to straightened it out and pass the crutch over to Johnny.  Johnny braced it under one arm, and looked up at the man.

“Are you taking me in, or do I go by myself?”

“Oh, I’m taking you,” the man said.  He swung up onto the horse he had hidden in the trees nearby and prodded Johnny forward by motioning with his rifle barrel.  With only one crutch, he was very awkward.  Johnny had to clutch it with the opposite hand as well, and could stump forward only with  small, careful steps, with the man following on horseback, grinning at his stumblings.  It was slow going, but they reached the barn right at sunset.

A man stepped out of the deep shadows at the back of the barn about the time Johnny gimped through  the opening.  A man with a ruined face.  A man very recognizably Tom Pardieu.

“Well, now!  Didn’t I tell you he’d be here?”  he asked nobody in particular.  His spoiled face grinned at Johnny, who was leaning heavily on his one crutch,  out of breath from the walk.  Tom’s sharp eyes took in the crutch, the sweat and hard breathing, and he swaggered forward.  “You don’t look quite so smug now, do you, Johnny Madrid?”

“Hello, Tom,” Johnny said, keeping his voice even and cool.

The grin twisted into a snarl and Pardieu jumped forward, grabbing Johnny by the collar.  “Don’t you talk to me like that!”  he raged, his fury so breathtaking that a few of the men he had gathered in the barn with him exchanged surprised glances.

“Like what?”  Johnny asked.

“Like we were friends!  Friends!”  He spat in Johnny’s face.  “I was a fool to ever think you could be a friend!  Even before you did this to me!”

“I didn’t mean to,” Johnny said softly.

“No!  You didn’t mean to!”  Pardieu shook him viciously so his head jerked painfully back and forth and he lost his grip on the crutch.  He couldn’t fall over, though, with Pardieu’s fists curled in his collar.   “You meant to kill me!  We rode together for ten years!  Ten YEARS!  I took care of you like you were my kid brother, taught you how to ride and how to shoot, and you tried to kill me!”

Tom’s recollection of the past was a bit different from Johnny’s.  He knew it couldn’t have been more than four years he and Tom were together, probably closer to three.  And he could ride and shoot well before he met Tom, but he didn’t comment, even before Pardieu tightened his grip, hurting, making it hard to breathe.  Stars danced in Johnny’s vision, but not so badly that he was unable to see.  His closed his eyes when he saw Pardieu bring up one hand, threatening with a sharp knife.  He doubted his body would let him watch his face be carved up even if he were so inclined.  He couldn’t watch, but he knew it would feel the same whether his eyes were open or shut, and he braced himself against the coming pain.

But a voice cut into Pardieu’s fury.  The voice of a young man, whose cheery tone indicated he had no idea just how genuine Pardieu’s rage was.

“Boss, ain’t you the one said anything you did was twice as effective if they could see it happen to each other?”

Years ago, Johnny had learned to speak gently to Tom, to interrupt the out-of-control rages that threatened to destroy whatever they were working for -- or each other.  Quite by accident, the boy who had spoken had the same effect.  Pardieu blinked, his eyes coming back into focus on Johnny’s face.  The grip loosened.  Johnny peeked through his slitted eyelids and saw the knife blade slide down and away. 

“Yes.  You’re right, Mr.  Fielding,” Pardieu said, releasing Johnny and stepping back, reining in his temper.  “Let them share their pain and it will be ten times worse!”

“I thought the deal was, I come to you, you let her go,” Johnny said.  And Pardieu laughed. 

“You thought wrong, then, Mr.  Hot-shot rancher!    We never talked, did we?  If we never talked, we couldn’t make a deal!  Ha!”

He stepped back, away from Johnny who wobbled unsteadily on his one leg, and he laughed at Johnny’s predicament.  “No, we never had a deal!  I would never make any deals with a dog like you!”

As Pardieu stepped back,  Johnny could see the youth who had inadvertently cooled Tom’s rage.  He was a tall, lanky, fair-haired kid, weighted down with a fancy double-hosltered rig, leaning with one hand braced against one of the four support posts that held up the hayloft, watching the action with a combination of grinning interest and horrified fascination.   He looked vaguely familiar, but Johnny couldn’t place the face until the interest melted into recognition as the kid got his first clear look at Johnny.  Blondie, Johnny realized.  The big-mouthed kid who was with those rustlers he and Scott backed down a week or so ago over in Belena Canyon.  So much for playing fair, Johnny thought, recognizing now Ace Bundy and the gunman they’d called Red in the shadows in the back of the barn.  But then the kid blurted out, “Hey!   Dooley brung you the wrong, fella, Colonel, sir!  This ain’t some Mex outlaw called Johnny Madrid!  This here’s a big-time cattle rancher from Spanish Wells, Mr.  John Lancer!”

“He goes by the name of Lancer now,” Pardieu snarled.  “Because that’s the name he tried to kill me to get!  He shot his partner and best friend in the face just to go grab hold of that land and that name, didn’t you Johnny?”

“It was my name all along, Tom,” Johnny said gently.

“Well, now this puts a somewhat different slant on things, Colonel,” the kid said.

“Shut up, Blondie!”  Bundy hissed, but the kid didn’t seem to hear him.

“I mean, here’s the thing.  We met up with Mr.  Lancer here and his brother a while back, and they caught us red handed rustling cattle, but they didn’t hang us, so we kinda figger we owe them one you see, and....”

There was a resounding thunk!  and his words ended in a scream.  Blood sprayed in Johnny’s face, and something warm and soft that was flying through the air struck his cheek before he could duck out of the way.  Blondie’s finger.  Pardieu had slammed his knife into that post, intentionally and instantly cleaving two of the fingers from the kid’s left hand.

Blondie sank to the floor, sobbing and moaning while his two partners dove to help him.  Bundy whipped off his bandana and wrapped the boy’s hand quickly.  The material soaked through with blood almost before it was in place.  Red’s bandana came off too, and he tried to tie off the wound while Bundy stood up, and found himself facing Pardieu’s drawn pistol.  He put his hands in the air, about shoulder level, moving cautiously.

“Now, Colonel!  You don’t want to do that!  This is just a misunderstanding.  Blondie, he never did have much sense, and way too much mouth on him....”

“You friends with Lancer, too?”  Pardieu demanded through clenched teeth.

“Friends?  Lord, no, Colonel!  When Blondie said we owed the Lancers, what he meant was, we owe them a whupping!  They didn’t hang us, that’s true enough, but why should they have?  We were on public land, not their land!  Claimed they had some permit to graze there so any cattle they found automatically belonged to them!  Well, we come into this country with about a hundred head, planning to start a little spread of our own, and they took them cows away from us at gunpoint, forced us to sign over a bill of sale saying they were Lancer cattle, even though they had our brand clearly marked on them all!  You bet knowing Lancer was the one you was after puts a different slant on things!  Now we’re in it for us, not just for the money you promised us! Or we woulda been if you hadn’t been so gol-dern mean!  You had no call to go cutting Blondie like that!  You ruined him!”

Blondie’s loud moan punctuated this last.

“It’s just two fingers,” Pardieu said, shrugging it off.  “He’ll never miss them!  Ask Johnny there.  Which would you prefer, if you’d had a choice, John?  Losing two fingers or one leg?”  He laughed, but no one else joined in. 

“Serves him right, having a mouth like he does!”  Pardieu said.  “I’m not saying I believe your story, but maybe that stupid kid will shut up now and then in the future!”  He looked speculatively at the three men, rubbing the sight of his gun along the scars on his face, while he considered them.

“In fact, I think maybe...”  His gun barrel started to lower towards the trio.

“Boss?” A head peeked around the corner into the barn.  “I heard some screaming.”

Pardieu wheeled and yelled at the man, “Of course you heard screaming!  And you’re going to hear a whole lot more of it!  Your job is to kill anybody who comes trying to stop it, remember?  Get back out there and keep watch or those be-damned Lancers will be coming right down our throats before we know about it!  You, and you three, go with him!”  he added, waving Johnny’s escort, Dooley, and Bundy and both his men towards the open side of the barn.

“Blondie can’t go, he’s....” Red started.

“All of you go now or I’ll kill you all now!”  Padrieu shouted.  “If anybody – anybody! -- gets close to this barn again, you’ll still die, but much, much slower!”

“Come on, Blondie,” Bundy said gently, levering the snuffling boy to his wobbly feet.  They trooped out.  Bundy pulled Blondie’s arm over his shoulder so he could support most of the kid’s weight.  With a quick backwards glance at Pardieu, Red followed them, carrying both his own and Bundy’s rifles.  The man who had escorted Johnny in slid down off his horse and prepared to follow them, but Pardieu caught him on the way by.

“Don’t trust them,” he said in a low voice.   “They might just switch sides if any shooting starts.  If it does, take them out first, then whoever is coming!  And if anybody does try to get into this valley, they damn well better not make it, do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the man said, and he followed the others outside.  It was not dark out there, would not be for some time yet.  Though the high ridge blocked the sun it was well before actual sunset, so the men, spreading out to go back to their positions were easily seen.  And Johnny just hoped that Scott and Murdoch didn’t try to come in and save him.  Maybe Bundy’s loyalty to Pardieu was questionable, but fear or bribes or both seemed to have the rest of them in line, and there were more than he had first thought.  There were still more men visible in the barn with Pardieu.  And he was certain there had been more than two guards around the valley before he arrived.

“Haskell!”  Pardieu shouted, holstering his pistol again now that the most tempting targets were out of sight.  “Where are you?”

“Right here, boss,” a voice said from the deep shadows near the old stalls.

“Get out here!  And bring the woman with you!”  He muttered, mostly to himself, “How long does it take to tie up one little bitch anyway?” while there was rustling in the shadows.  A figure stood up,  visible now over the half-wall of the last stall -- four men still inside the barn then, besides Tom himself.   The man, Haskell, walked towards the lamplight and the rest of the group slowly, prodding someone else in front of him.  Johnny couldn’t see her until she staggered out into the lamplight, stumbled and fell, rolling in the dirt and weeds on the overgrown stable floor.  His instinct was to go to her, and he hopped forward.  Pardieu put up a hand and punched him in the chest.  It was a light blow.  A two legged man would barely have noticed it.  But it was enough to send Johnny off his balance, and he fell back heavily.  Pardieu turned to watch him go down, grinning. 

“Oh, I am going to enjoy this!”  he said.  



“I think I’d rather have more doughnuts,” Gene said, watching his mother as she  mixed up the cake batter.

“Don’t you think I can bake a cake?”  Teresa asked.

“Well.  They do tend to come out a little hard,” Gene said as diplomatically as possible.

“That’s because I never heat up the oven.  But I think the oven is plenty hot now.”  She wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand as she said that and passed the spoon to Jack.

“Here.  You beat it for awhile.  I’ll get the pans ready.”

“Or fried bread,” Gene said, still looking with disinterest at the cake batter, “Uncle Johnny taught us how to make fried bread.  If this is a celebration, we should make some fried bread.”

“With honey,” Teresa agreed, much to his surprise.  “That’s a very good idea, Gene.  Why don’t you go ahead and start that.”

Teresa had been sponging off her face with a damp rag.  Not that it helped much when the stove probably had the room temperature up over a hundred degrees.  They really needed to build a summer kitchen onto this house, she thought.  It had never been done because this part of the building was adobe and it could absorb a lot of the heat.  Absorb it, and bleed it back out into the rooms during the nights, which were cool at this altitude, even in summer.  And it was heading towards evening now.  It would finally be cooler outside than in here, so Teresa moved to the door and swung it open.  Outside, the dooryard looked peaceful.  A few horses drowsed in the corral.  The chickens were still clucking around in their fenced run.  There was smoke from the bunk house chimney, but not much else in the way of signs of life.  It seemed, in fact, almost too quiet.  Teresa fanned herself with her apron, standing just outside the door, watching the shadows stretch across the canyon.  Surely, she thought, Tex’s mother couldn’t have gotten that far!  They had all stood around talking for some time, but not that long!  They should have been back by now.

“Mama!  How long do I have to stir this?”  Jack whined. 

Something’s wrong!  Teresa thought.

“Ma, where’s the baking powder?”  Gene asked from the open pantry.

“Boys, come here,” Teresa said suddenly.

“I’m stirring...”

“Leave it for a moment, just come here,” she repeated.  When they joined her in the doorway, she said, “I think we should bring that dog inside.  I think her puppies would be much happier in here than in that chilly, dark  old stable, don’t you?”

“Dogs in the house?”  Gene asked doubtfully.  Grandpa wouldn’t like that!  Neither would Uncle Johnny.  Or Pa!

“Just for a few days, until the puppies start walking.  That stable does get awful chilly at night.  We can make them a little bed in that far corner over there.  They wouldn’t be any bother at all.”

“I can make a bed!”  Gene said enthusiastically.

“The tools and lumber all burned up,” Teresa said, grateful for a good excuse to avoid hours of Gene’s carpentry.  “Anyway, we don’t need anything so elaborate.  We don’t want straw inside, but maybe some blankets...”

“She can have the blanket off my bed!”  Jack offered.

“Thank you, honey, but whatever we use will be ruined.  There are some old ones ...”  In the boarded off old section, she recalled.  That would not help.  “In the trunk at the foot of my bed,” she said.  The children’s baby blankets were in there.  She had planned to save those.  But, now that she had mentioned it, she knew that there were also several blankets for winter in that same box.  She went, with the boys following, and opened it, pulling out the oldest and most faded of the blankets in there and taking it back to the kitchen to arrange it in the corner.

“How do we get her in here?”  Gene asked doubtfully.

“The three of us will carry the puppies,” Teresa said.  “She’ll follow!  Come on!”

Gene’s doubts faded as he raced his mother and brother out to the stable.  Those little puppies were the most fun thing that had happened on this ranch in a long time, and the thought of having them right here in the house, where he could play with them whenever he wanted (maybe even sneak out of bed at night to see them!)  was exciting.  He opened the stall door slowly and carefully as he had been instructed to do, letting the bitch get a good look at him and smell him before coming in close to the pups.

“They’re having dinner,” Jack commented, looking down.

“All the better,” Teresa said.  “Gather them up now, carefully!  Like this!”

She showed them how to break the suction by sliding a finger in near the corner of the puppies’ mouths, then sliding them away from the mother instead of just tugging them off the teats.

“Where’d you learn that trick?”  Gene wanted to know, impressed.

“Uh.  Everyone knows that,” Teresa said.  “Now, we have to get them all at once if we want her to follow us.  Otherwise, she won’t know whether to come with us or stay with the ones we left.”

 The boys loaded four puppies into Teresa’s apron skirt, then took two each themselves, the bitch watching the entire operation with a worried, anxious expression.  When they walked out of the stable, she whined anxiously, but came along with them, hopping every now and then to sniff at one or the other of her pups.  She hesitated at the door of the kitchen, and only came in, slowly and guiltily, when Teresa and the boys arranged the now-whining puppies on the blanket-bed they had prepared.  The bitch came in slowly, a step at a time.  She stood on the blanket, nosing each of the puppies in turn.

“Can she count?”  Gene asked, watching.

“Not the way you do,” Teresa said.  “But she knows each of those puppies, and she’ll know if one is missing.  Come on now.  If we bother them, she won’t relax.  Let’s go away and ignore her and she’ll be more comfortable.”

“Can I get her a bowl of water?”  Jack demanded.

“Yes, that would be a good idea.  Get her some water,” Teresa said, and she went to get the cake pans as she had started to do originally.  The kitchen seemed more stifling than ever after the brief foray into cool stable, but she added wood to the fire anyway, damping the stove carefully to make it burn slow and steady.  Behind her, Jack slopped water all over the floor, and the bitch was still standing nervously in the midst of all those whining puppies.  Teresa returned to the corner long enough to pat her head and fondle her long, silky ears.  

“It’s okay,” she whispered.  “It’s okay, girl.  I just feel like I might need a little backup tonight.”

The bitch gave her hand a lick, then settled, still nervous, onto the blanket, allowing the puppies to move into position again.



“Eeep!”  Larissa said convincingly, but she was thinking, Where is everybody?

“Well, now, ain’t you a purty little thing,” the man said.  “Boss said he wanted you back alive, but he didn’t say what condition you was to be in, now did he?  Now, now, you don’t have to put your hands up.  Although,” he added, eyeing her shirt front with interest, “it does improve the view.”

He licked his lips, staring, and Larissa felt her fingers close around the hilt of the small knife.  She was terrified, which made her breathe harder, which made her look all the more interesting to the man who was standing on the path in front of her.  He grabbed, catching her right arm as he did.  She managed to shift the knife into her left hand before she dropped it, before his jerk pulled the knife out into his view.  His grip on her arm was like steel, digging in painfully as he pulled her up against him.  She could smell the foul odor of his breath as he brought his face down close to hers, and she brought the other arm up, like Tex had showed her, up towards his shoulder, and he let her, thinking -- mistakenly! -- that she was returning his embrace, reaching for him. 

I can’t do it!  Larissa thought wildly.  But if she didn’t do it... the thought was disgusting, disgusting enough to let her bring her arm down, just as Tex had showed her.  Warm fluid ran over her hand and she jumped back, freed as the man used both his hands to clutch  his eye.  His mouth was open, but no sound came out, and she could see why instantly: Tex’s big knife had slid across his windpipe, cutting off air and sound before his yell could give them away.  The man didn’t die instantly, as men did in the adventurous novels Larissa liked to read.  He struggled wildly, and if her father hadn’t stepped in to help, the kid would probably have lost control of the situation quickly.  Between the two of them, they kept him restrained, his head pulled backwards, until bloodloss and lack of air finally made him weaken.  Then they supported his weight a few more seconds, and together eased him down onto the trail.

“Messy,” Scott commented, wiping the blood off his hands on a patch of scruffy grass nearby.

“Quiet, though,” the kid said, likewise cleaning his knife.

“Where were you?”  Larissa demanded angrily.  “He almost... He tried to...!”

Murdoch pulled Larissa into his embrace, turning her head away from the sight of the fallen man.

“You got ahead of us, that’s where we were,” Scott said.  “We made it in time, though.  It’s over.  It’s all over.”

“I can’t help but think...”  Larissa murmured into Murdoch’s chest.

“Don’t think at all,” Murdoch advised.

“Uncle Johnny...”

“We’ll get there in time,” Murdoch said.

But the kid realized quickly what the girl meant.   He pulled her out of Murdoch’s embrace to wipe her face clean with her own bandana.  When she looked at it, in the fading light, she didn’t see any blood on it, and she gave a small shudder as she realized it was the fluid from the man’s eyeball that had splattered her.

“Your Uncle Johnny,” the kid said to her gently, “did what he thought he had to do all those years ago.  Just like your pa did what he had to do during the War.  And you did what you had to do now.”

She did what she had to do.  She knew that, but the comment Tex had made about her father was not a thought Larissa had ever entertained before.  But even as she shifted to look thoughtfully at her father, he added to the kid, “And you did what you thought you had to do just now.”

“I’d prefer to take men alive,” Tex said.  “But with what’s at stake right now, we don’t really have that luxury.”

And as if to punctuate his words, a thin, high scream cut through the air.  It was distant, mostly contained in the valley they were heading for, but echoes of it bounced around the canyon they were in, and it was very clearly a woman’s scream.  Scott grabbed the kid as he spun around and held him.

“Getting yourself killed won’t help her,” he said firmly.


“This is the hardest part,” Scott said, giving the kid a sharp shake.  “You stay with us!”

Tex nodded, looking down at his boots.

“We might need the horses,” Murdoch commented.

“I think we can safely say the way back is clear,” Scott said.  “Larissa, head back to the Lake and bring them here.  But don’t go past this point.  In fact, leave the horses here on the trail, and you scoot up into hiding above.  It’ll be full-dark soon, and that’ll make you hard to find.  If anyone comes looking for you, you stay hidden, no matter what you see or hear.  And don’t come out unless one of us calls to you.”

“Don’t come out unless you hear someone calling for... uh...”  Tex hesitated.  “Debra.”

“Who’s she?”  Larissa asked.

“It’s in the Bible,” the kid shrugged.  “First name that came to my mind.”

“A code,” Scott said, nodding in agreement.  “Good idea.”  When both Murdoch and Larissa looked confused, he explained.  “If one of us gets caught and they force us to call for you, or if one of them tries to trick you, we’ll be calling your own name.  You hear us calling for ‘Debra’, you’ll know it’s for real.”

“Debra,” Larissa nodded.  “Got it.”  And she adjusted the heavy gun belt slung over her shoulder and started back up the trail for the horses.  But once again, the kid stopped her.

“Uh... when you get them, might want to pull that pack of bandages out of my saddlebag and wrap their hooves before you bring them here.”


“Cause a steel shoe on rock like this makes a loud, distinctive sound.  They don’t know we’re here yet, and as long as they don’t know we’re here...”  He paused, grimacing, as another faint cry reached their ears.  Then he steeled himself to continue.  “It’ll muffle the sound of their hooves,” he said shortly.

“That’s why there’s no marks!”  Larissa realized.  When all three men just looked at her, she said, “I was trying to track the horses as I walked, and I didn’t see anything.  I know how to track across rock, Uncle Johnny taught me, but...”

“But,” Scott agreed.  “That’s how they did it.  Good thinking.”

And with a feeling of pride at that short compliment, she headed off up the trail again.

“I hope she can find her way in the dark,” Murdoch whispered.

“I hope we can,” Scott countered.

“It’s easy from here,” Murdoch said.  “We’re very close to the valley.  You just keep a grip on yourself,” he added, looking at the kid.

Tex nodded, though the echoes of that scream still tore through his heart.  With Murdoch leading, they continued down the narrow ravine that was the ancient trail.



Johnny took the brunt of the fall on his elbows, grunting in pain as they struck the hard ground.  Getting back up with his crutches both now gone was pretty much an impossibility, but he did manage to lever himself up to at least a sitting position, in time to see Haskell jerk Hilary up by her hair and lay a knife blade at her throat.

“Say goodbye to your wife, Johnny,” Pardieu said, smirking.

“What makes you think she’s my wife, Tom?”  Johnny asked in as reasonable a voice as he could maintain.

“No!”  Tom shouted.  “No, you are not pulling that with me!  I know who this is!  She had this!”  He shook a fist with Johnny’s locket clutched in it under Johnny’s nose.  “With this inside!”  He tossed a folded bit of paper on the ground, stamped it into the dirt with his boot heel.  “Your marriage licence!”

“Oh, that,” Johnny said.     

“You always were a cool one,” Tom said, “But I have proof!”

“You’re right, I did marry her,” Johnny said.  “Must have been... twenty years ago!  After you and I split up...”

“THIS ISN’T SPLITTING UP!”  Pardieu shouted, pointing to his own face.

“Before that,” Johnny said, ignoring the scarlet fury that caused Tom to spit, literally, as he spoke.  “You were right back there in Mexico.  I barely made it out with my life.  In fact, I couldn’t have made it without some help, and it seemed like a fair trade at the time: a few idle promises for my life.  But I guarantee you, I haven’t laid eyes on this girl since then.  Since... What does it say on that paper?  1870?”

“You’re lying,.”  Pardieu said.

“If I didn’t know someone would shoot you head off before you got close, I’d tell you to go search the ranch house.  You’ll find there’s nothing of hers in that house.  I’ve lived there these past twenty years, Tom.  She just had the bad fortune to show up today, finally tracked me down, I suppose, and she’s trying to lay the paternity of her kid on me.”  He gave a convincing snort of laughter. “The kid’s six and a half feet tall and blonde to boot.  I’m no more his father than you are mine.”

“No!”  Tom shouted again.  “You’re lying!  I left you a note, and you came running!”

“‘Course I came!  I thought you’d grabbed my sister-in-law.  Remember back then, Tom?  You offered me half, and Lancer only offered me a third.  The thing is, with you all I could ever have gotten is half.  It’s taken me a long time, a lot of patience, but this way, I could soon have it all.  Murdoch’s got to die soon, he’s older than dirt.  Now, he had another son, as it turns out, who married and had himself three kids, which could be a problem.  Except with all that’s going on right now, I’d be very surprised if Scott Lancer makes it out alive.  And I wouldn’t mind being married to that woman of his.  And I’d cut those kids of his out so quick, they wouldn’t know what hit them.  But she has to be alive for that to happen....”

“That is bullshit!”  Tom shouted.

“You taught me yourself, Tom.  Took awhile for some of the lessons to sink in, I know, but we have a history together.  You should know I’m telling you the truth.”

“I know a way to find out,” Tom said, and he spun around and said, “Cut her!”

The man holding Hilary dipped his knife.  He did not slash her throat as Johnny had feared, but he threw her hard onto the ground, tearing open the bodice of her dress as he did so.  Johnny could not see past the man who was leaning over Hilary, but he saw the flash of the knife blade, and heard her scream.  Johnny bit his tongue until it bled to keep himself from crying out, from feeding Tom’s fury, and the pleasure of the man with the knife.  He could not stop them, but would not let them gain any more pleasure than they were already getting from her cries.  The sound tore at his heart.  He felt like it was being ripped from his chest as she screamed again, the man with the knife bent over her, chuckling.  It was all he could do to keep from screaming himself, but he knew better than to feed Tom’s rage.  A calm voice was all that would reach him now.  And if Johnny could stay calm enough, he might be able to convince Tom that Hilary was unimportant to him so that Tom would leave her alone.  He licked the sweat off his lips, swiped at it trickling down the side of his face with his shoulders, not wanting to raise his hands to the task and alert Tom to the presence of all that sweat.  He was sitting in the dirt, looking as calm as he could when Tom, eyes ablaze with delight, had his henchman pause in the torture so he could spin back to see its effects on Johnny.

“Leave her alone, Tom,” Johnny said, trying hard to sound bored, not as terrified and heartsick as he actually was.  “You got me.  Fair and square, I fell right into your trap.  Now, it’s between you and me.”

“Is that what you think?”  Pardieu demanded, squatting in front of Johnny.  “That  for this...”  he tapped the ruined side of his face,  “I’m just going to put a bullet in your head?  It took me a year to recover from this!  A year!  I had the best surgeons I could find trying to piece me back together, and look at what’s left!  I lost my eye!  I got no teeth in half my mouth!  I’m missing part of my tongue!  It took me forever to learn how to talk again at all!  I was spitting out chunks of my own bones for months!  And when I walk down the street, anywhere in the world, people stare at me like I’m a freak!” 

“I hear you’ve been doing all right,” Johnny said mildly.

“Well, you heard wrong! Twenty years I had to live like this, twenty years of knowing who did it, but unable to come after you because you were already dead.  You know who shot you off your horse that day?  Bobby Foreman, that’s who.  He killed you for me, he hauled me out of there.  I want you to make note of that because that’s what friendship is, Johnny.  Not this!”  He tapped the ruin again, and stood up again.  “Oh, no, you are not getting off easy!  You are going to suffer, like I suffered!  You are going to pay for every second of those twenty years, Mr.  Juan Francisco Madrid-Lancer.”

“Actually, it’s John Murdoch,” Johnny said, his voice so calm that Tom was shocked for a moment into responding.


“My name,” Johnny said.  He felt like a fool arguing the point here and now, but the longer he could keep Tom talking, the longer he could keep Hilary safe.  “My name is John Murdoch Lancer.”

“Changed it did you?”  Tom sneered.

“Born with it,” Johnny said.  “And I have birth and baptism records to prove it.  So, you see, Tom, that marriage license you were waving in my face isn’t even valid.  It doesn’t have my name on it.”

“I don’t care whose name is on it!”  Tom shouted.  “It’s yours!  It’s hers and its yours!  She had the locket!  I am not going to let you spoil this for me, not after all this time!”

And in his fury, he kicked Johnny, as hard as he could.  Johnny was knocked over, into the dirt, and Pardieu kicked him again and again, venting some portion of his anger in the beating, even as the men in the barn edged forward a bit, licking their lips in glee to watch it.  Johnny was battered and bruised, and the blows kept coming.  The more he stayed silent, the more Tom kicked.  Until, quite by accident, Tom’s boot connected with the stump of his missing leg.  The pain that shot through him then was like a bolt of lightening.  His back arched, a scream tore from him.  And Tom, seeing he had found a weakness, grinned savagely.



The three off them stretched out on their bellies to peer over the lip of rock into the valley below.    They could see the barn clearly, with the lamplight glowing out of it and the fire in front of it.  Figures moved about in there, and they were aware of voices, sometimes shouting, but could not tell what was going on.  Or how many men were down there.  They could see horses in the corral behind the barn, but from this angle and in this light, they could not count them.  Between them and the barn was the black shadow of the ruined adobe wall.  To the left and ahead, forest closed in on the valley.  Johnny would have come from the left.  They themselves had come in from the right just a few days ago, up through the narrow neck from the wider valleys below.  From here, the only way down was a narrow path that clung to the cliff face, angling down and right for some distance.

“There,” the kid said, barely a breath of sound, and he pointed towards the woods to the left.  Faint movement stirred there, but they could not tell for certain what it was.  There might have been a guard there.  There might have been a coyote crossing the valley.

“Down,” Murdoch whispered.  They had hoped to use this vantage point to attack  from a sniper position, picking the men below off.  But that would not have worked even if it had been light, they could see that now.  There were too many places in that “open” valley to hide in.  And the second they started shooting, Johnny and Hilary would be dead.

The others nodded in agreement.  They slid backwards from the edge and moved cautiously down to the trail.  Forest grew around the base of these low cliffs and they were hidden in trees almost at once.  They all moved slowly, trying to make as little sound as possible on the broken rock of the trail.  Cautiously, speaking not at all, they made it to the bottom of the path.

And walked right into the arms of the guard standing there.

“Buck, what are you doing down... Hey!”

His gun came up.  Scott swung his own rifle, but not into firing position.  He knocked the pistol out of the man’s hand before he could fire it.  At the same time, the kid dove at the man, smashing him backwards onto the ground.  There was a sharp rap, and a grunt, and a second man they had not even seen before fell to the ground.

“Don’t shoot Mr.  Lancer!”  someone whispered hoarsely in the dark. 

The kid ran his knife across the throat of the unconscious man.  He could have bound and gagged him, but they didn’t have time to worry about someone wiggling free and coming at their backs later.  He stepped aside and gave the same treatment to the other man lying on the ground, while Scott peered into the darkness beyond.

“Why shouldn’t I shoot?”  he asked.

“We want to he’p you,” the voice said.  “We did he’p you.  We got that other fella for you, see!  We don’t mean you no harm!”

“Show yourself,” Scott said.

There was movement in the shadows, and a big shape detached itself from the darkness.  When he stepped close enough, Scott recognized him as one of the Circle Box rustlers.

“Bundy, isn’t it?”  he asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.  “What do you know about all this?”

“We didn’t know any of this had anything to do with you, Mr.  Lancer, you got to believe that...”

“What do you know?”  Scott repeated slowly.

“The Colonel, Colonel Perkins his name is, he recruited a bunch of men to he’p him get back some land a Mexican gunslinger took from him.  Leastways, that’s what he told us...”

“Who’s Perkins?”  Scott asked.

“Perkins, Palmer, Pardieu,” the kid said, standing up, cleaning his knife blade on his pants leg, and returning it to its sheath.  “Man seems to have no imagination, but I’d bet he’s got a ruined face.”

“That’s him!”  Bundy said, nodding.  “Honest, Mr.  Lancer, you done us a good turn not turning us into the law when you could have.  I know that.  I’d never come back and attack a man who’d done me honest like that, but we didn’t know...”

“Does he have my brother?”

“Yes, sir.  In the barn.  And a lady, too.   Mr.  Lancer, we need he’p, that Perkins, he hurt Blondie....”

“You’ll get help when we get help,” Scott said.  “Let me put this to you straight, Mr.  Bundy.  We offered you a chance to reform.  You threw in with an outlaw instead.  A lot of people have died because of this man.  My brother may still die.  And you’re asking me to just trust you?  Would you trust me if the situation were reversed?”

“Look here, Mr.  Lancer,” Bundy said earnestly.  He drew forward Blondie, who was whimpering softly, clutching one bloodied hand to his chest.  His eyes were glazed with pain and he didn’t seem to be able to stand on his own.  Red stepped out of the shadows too, supporting him on the other side.

“You done us straight, Mr.  Lancer.  The Colonel done this to Blondie.  Now, who do you figure we’re gonna side with?”

“We could have killed you, easy,”  Red said.  “We didn’t.”

“Okay,” Scott said.  “Here’s the deal.  We need to get to that barn and get my brother and the woman free, without being spotted so no one kills them first.  That means we need to get past the guards, or take them all out, silently.  Do you know how many men there are here and where they are?”

“There’s nine of them left, counting Perkins,” Bundy said, running some figures silently over his fingers as he double checked that count.   “Nine, yeah. Perkins, Haskell, Dandy, Joe and Billy are in the barn.  The others are spread out, making sure no one gets close.  They’ll be moving around, but staying in certain areas.”

“Can we get to the barn?”  Scott asked, flinching as he heard another scream of pain tear through the night.  Not a female scream, he realized, but a male one.

“Not without us,” Red said.

“Tex, you got that knife still?”  Scott asked.

They all heard the soft shshshs of it sliding out of its sheath and the kid displayed the long, broad blade in the moonlight.

“These men know I won’t shoot them, because gunshots will cause the men in the barn to kill their hostages.  But you take a good look at that knife, gentlemen.  It’s taken three live already this evening, and one of the men was conscious at the time!  I guarantee you it will take three more if we have any reason at all to think you’re working against us.  Now, let’s go.”



Pardieu staggered from the force of his own kicks, ran into the same post that was stained with Blondie’s blood, and clutched at it to keep from falling over.  He was laughing, a sound horrible enough that the grins of his own men were starting to look strained.  It was almost fully dark now, and the fire light threw bloody highlights over his ruined face while the lamplight made his eye glow like flames.  Johnny could not move, the pain in his body was so intense.  He had tried not to react, but that stump never had healed properly.  Now Tom knew his weakest points: his own physical weakness, and his other weakness: Hilary.  In the intense agony of Tom’s assault he had lost his control, had cried out again, this time when he heard another scream from Hilary.  And Tom was still laughing when he turned to her, crouching down in front of her and taking for himself the knife Haskell had using.

Johnny struggled to sit up again, rolled onto his belly and began to crawl forward, heading toward Tom, towards Hilary. The other men were laughing at him, but that didn’t matter.  He was crippled and in pain, but he would do what he could.  He had to.  Haskell, denied his victim, stood and kicked Johnny instead, rolling him over on the ground.  Johnny gritted his teeth on the pain and began crawling again.

Tom, meantime, knelt on the ground in front of Hilary, grinning.  She squirmed backwards, away from him, but one of the other men in the barn moved in to catch her from behind, to hold her firmly, one arm wrapped around her chest and her body pinned between his knees to immobilize her, the other arm gripping her face in vise-like fingers to hold her head still at Tom’s command.

“What say we make your pretty little wife here look just like me,” Tom suggested.

He raised the knife towards her face.  Johnny struggled to a kneeling position, intending to fling himself the last few inches to stop Tom.  Hilary screamed again.

“Johnny!  Move!” 

The voice echoed through the barn from outside, and Tom glanced up, distracted for that one fraction of a second.  At the same time, Johnny dropped to the ground and rolled, and several guns spoke at once.  The man holding Hilary rolled backwards, a bullet hole appearing in his forehead.  Tom’s arm jerked as another bullet struck him there, and then fell backwards as a bullet coming from beyond Johnny struck him in the chest.  The three other men in the barn all had guns out and were firing instantly.  Bullets struck the ground where Johnny had been mere moments before, and more shots flew out into the darkness, towards the flashes of light that told them where the shooting was coming from.  Hilary rolled away from her captor as his grip went limp in death, and Johnny flung himself on Tom’s body, grabbed one of the twin guns in Tom’s gun belt and shot Haskell three times in rapid succession as Haskell took aim at him.  The other men tried to hide in the shadows at the rear of the barn, but one of them  jerked as two, three more bullets tore into his body.  He hit the ground, even as bullets stuck the last man in the leg and the throat at the same time.

Far off, towards where Johnny had parked his wagon, there was a distant exchange of gunfire.  Then a shout, and a voice nearer by said, “Red got him!”

The barn was only dimly lit.  Now vision was even more difficult with the swirls of gun smoke drifting through the lantern light.  Under it, Johnny looked around, counted bodies on the floor, then turned, gun still in hand, to grab Hilary in his arms.  At the same time, Scott, Murdoch, Tex, Ace Bundy and Blondie came into the lamplight.  Scott moved off to check the bodies of the fallen men.  Bundy eased Blondie down against the wall.  Tex and Murdoch both converged on where Johnny and Hilary were still locked together on the floor..

“Ma?”  the kid said in a small voice, crouching down to touch her tentatively on the shoulder and she pulled herself away from Johnny to throw herself into her son’s arms.

“Ma, are you okay?”  the kid asked, his hand clumsily stroking the heavy curls that had fallen loose.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she murmured over and over.  Johnny unbuttoned the shirt he had on and pulled it off, draping it over her shoulders.  The kid tugged it more into position, and Hilary, after one long, shuddering breath,  pulled back from his embrace, wiping her eyes, and slipping her arms into Johnny’s shirt, buttoned it up to cover her ruined shirtwaist.

Murdoch, meantime, helped Johnny to stand, handing him the one crutch he had found nearby.

“I was beginning to think I was on my own,”  Johnny said, hopping unsteadily to catch his balance.  It was hard to stand.  He felt as if he’d been run over by a herd of horses.  And where Tom had kicked repeatedly at the stump of his leg, he felt as if the entire leg were on fire, burning the flesh down to the non-existent bone.

“You told us to keep out of it,” Murdoch reminded him.

“Yeah, but I never really thought you would.  Larissa?”

“She’s safe.  And you?”

“Sore,” Johnny gasped. 

Hilary was just letting Tex draw her to her feet.  Releasing one hand from where they both gripped his crutch, Johnny touched her gently on the shoulder, and she turned from Tex, and wiping at the tears on her face.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean...”

“Ma’am?”  Murdoch said gently, moving closer himself.  “Are you all right?  Do you... need a doctor?”

“Oh, no.  No.  I’m fine.  Really,” she added, trying to smile through the tears at the worried faces of the men all around her.  “They didn’t hurt me.”

“Ma’am,”  Murdoch said, and he cleared his throat.  “Ma’am, uh... There was a lot of screaming...”

“I’m sorry about that,” she said.  “But I thought... well, that man wanted to hear screaming, didn’t he?  If I was brave and silent, he just would have hurt me worse to try to make me scream, so I screamed and screamed.  I didn’t mean to scare anybody...”

  Johnny made a ragged sound that was almost a laugh.  “Good for you!”  he said.  “You always were smart!”

“Your face is bleeding,” Murdoch observed.  Besides the blood, bright red marks marred both her cheeks: fingerprints of the man who had held her.  The kid tugged off his own bandana to press against the wound.  Hilary took it from him and pressed it to her face herself, repeating, “It’s nothing!  Really!  I’m fine!”

“That’s not the only place you’re bleeding,” Johnny said. 

Tex reached for the buttons of the shirt she had pulled on saying, “Let me have a look at that.”

“You’ll do no such thing!”  Hilary said, batting his hands away.


“I’ll do it myself, Texas!”  she said, and she turned her back on all of them to staunch the bleeding herself.   She bent and tugged at the hem of her petticoat, and she did allow Tex to drop to his knees next to her and slice a long section of white linen off for her to use as bandaging.  The men stood around, feeling useless, while she bound the cloth around her chest and buttoned up her shirt.  Her hands automatically went to her hair as she turned back to them, catching the wild curls and taming them at least into a braid which she tied off with a bit of thread from her torn petticoat.

“See?  It was nothing,” she assured them all.

Johnny turned suddenly, cocking the pistol he still held a second before the others heard the sound of a horse outside.

“It’s Red, don’t shoot!”  Red called, even though he was not yet in the firelight.  They waited to lower their guns until they could see him.  He had gone out on foot to circle around and cut off the last two guards when the others disabled the men lounging in the ruins of the adobe wall and then attacked the barn.   He had come back with Johnny’s wagon, which he left on the far side of the fire to walk into the barn and join the others.         

“Get them both?”  Murdoch asked.

“The last two are dead,” Red assured him.  Murdoch looked suspicious, but didn’t question him further.

Scott moved to the edge of the barn and cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting “LARISSA!”.

“She won’t come to that, remember,” Tex said.

“Right,” Scott said, and he shouted, “DEBRA!  COME ON IN!”

“Who’s Debra?”  Johnny asked.

“Are there horses saddled?”  Scott asked.  “I should go after her, not just stand here and shout.

“All the ones in the corral are ready to go,” Red said.  “Come on, I’ll go with you.”

They turned to walk back out into the dark.  Off near the back wall, Bundy was trying to tend to Blondie, who was moaning softly and continually.   Tex let out a long, slow breath, not quite a sigh, and slid his pistol back into its holster.

“Hilary...” Johnny said.

“Hey!  Look out!” Red yelled suddenly.

Pardieu had been shot in the chest, lying limp on the ground, but they saw now that he was not dead.  While they had all tried to wind down from the adrenaline rush of the gunfight, he had had time to gather himself just enough to slide out his second gun.  He had raised himself up on his elbow and was lifting the gun, pointing it, not at Johnny but at the one target he knew would hurt Johnny most: Hilary.

Scott and Red both dropped their rifles to position and fired.  Murdoch whipped his pistol out of his holster and shot.  Johnny drew his pistol, at the same time throwing himself between Pardieu and Hilary and fired.  And Tex drew, fired and threw himself and his mother to the floor all in one move.  Pardieu managed to pull the trigger, even as five bullets slammed into his body.  He fell over, lying still and lifeless on the ground.



Mills Johnson knew he should be grateful to the Lancers for giving him a job.  Not many outfits would hire a one-armed cowboy. Although, he was nearly as good with that one arm and his teeth as most men were with two complete arms.  He could rope and tie a calf, brand, earmark, shoot.  Anything he needed to do, mostly.  In fact, as he sat and thought about it, he knew that it was not his handicap that made it hard to find work: it was his age.  He was getting too old for this life, and he knew it.  And he didn’t like feeling beholden to anyone, but he had found himself thinking that just maybe the Lancers would let him stay on indefinitely, instead of just for the season he had hired on for originally.  He could talk them into letting him stay at one of the distant line shacks, maybe, spend the winter in a quiet little place that would be like his own.  Maybe they’d kind of just forget about him, way out there somewhere, let him stay and watch their back fences as long as he felt like it.  And while drifting had been his way of life since he was no bigger’n that tow-headed Lancer kid, he was starting now to want to stay in one place a little longer.  Starting to want to be comfortable, more and more often.

Until all this trouble started up.  People shooting at the house, lighting fires, laying traps.  No, sir, this was turning out not to be the quiet retirement he had been hoping for.  Standing guard duty around the big house at night was not what an honest cow hand should be asked to do.  And without that little bitch to keep him company, he didn’t like being out here, in the dark.  It was too quiet, too hard to see.

Too... dangerous.

No, he’d be moving on after all.  First thing in the morning, he decided.  He wouldn’t walk out in the middle of an assignment, however he felt about that assignment, but come morning, he’d be asking for his wages, pushing on out of here, looking for someplace a little more peaceful.

He was supposed to stay as silent and as invisible as possible, but he was not happy with the way things were going, and he needed to think things out more.  He needed a smoke, that’s what, he always thought better with a smoke.  From long practice, he pulled out the fixings and rolled himself a cigarette one-handed, clutching his rifle between his knees until he got it all set up and put away again.  He licked the paper, enjoying even that taste, and put the cigarette in his mouth, he was reaching for the matches he kept in his pocket when something stung his neck.  Darn bugs, he thought, swatting at his throat.  But his hand hit blood.  Lots of it, warm and slick, and his neck stung where his hand touched it, like an open cut.

What on Earth?

He turned, finding that he was staggering a little, and saw someone had come up behind him in the dark.  One of those smart-alecky young honyonkers that he had to share the bunkhouse with, no doubt playing tricks on him in the dark.  He’d teach that boy some manners....

But the rifle slid out of his blood slick hand, and he staggered a few steps, wondering why he suddenly felt so weak.  So very weak.  So tired.  All he wanted was to just lay down and rest.  Lay down, but what he did was fall down, and he was grateful for the hands that caught him and eased him to the ground.  He tried to whisper a thank you, but his voice didn’t seem to work.

He still wasn’t sure what was wrong, when he heard a strange voice whisper down at him softly, “Come on, old man.  Dying ain’t that hard.  Hurry it up, will you?”



“I thought you said he was dead,” Murdoch said.

“I thought he was,” Scott said.  He stepped closer to the body, now riddled with multiple holes and cautiously kicked the gun away from Pardieu’s limp hand.  Eyes stared blankly up at nothing, already clouding over in death.  “He’s dead now.”

“Who got him?”  Red wanted to know.

“I think we all did,” Scott said.  “But I’m betting that that shot between the eyes came from the kid.”

“Still,” Johnny said, “I have this feeling that we should cut off his head and drive a wooden stake through his heart – just to be sure.”

“That’s because you read too many romantic novels,” Murdoch said, and he offered Johnny a hand up again.  Johnny, who was sitting on the floor, both hands squeezed tight around his leg, shook his head.  “We may have gotten him, but he got me right back!  Damn!  Figures he’d shoot me in the leg!  And silly me, I forgot to bring a spare.”

Hilary picked herself up off the floor, and dropped onto the ground next to Johnny.

“Bullet still in there?”  Scott asked.

“He’s bleeding on both sides.  I think it went clear through,” Hilary said, her voice very calm and professional.  “I’ll need water...”

“There’s a well,” Bundy started to say.

“Stagnant, mostly,” Murdoch said.  “There a little creek out back of this place, that water will be better.  Scott...”

“I’m going,” Scott said, taking the lantern and an empty canteen he found hanging on a nearby nail, the personal effects, no doubt, of one of the men lying dead.  Hilary reached automatically for the back of Johnny’s neck.

“They took that one first thing,” he said, grinning through a grimace of pain.

“Here,” Murdoch said.  He slid a small knife from his pocket and opened the blade for her.  It wasn’t as sharp as the one Johnny normally carried, but it did the job of slicing away his pant leg easily enough.  She used bits of the material to wipe some of the blood away, but it was flowing freely, and she gave that up quickly and stood, turning her back to the men to reach under her skirt and removed the remnants of her petticoat.  Scott arrived with the water, while with Murdoch’s help, Hilary sliced the garment into several strips of varying widths.  She rinsed Johnny’s wounds well, then lifted Johnny’s leg to place pads on both the entrance and exit wounds and pressed down hard to staunch the bleeding.

“How is it?”  Murdoch asked Johnny.

“It hurts,” Johnny said.

“At least no one’s sitting on your chest, digging a bullet out,” Scott grinned at him.  Johnny grinned back, through gritted teeth, then grunted as Hilary wrapped narrower strips around his leg and used them to snug the bandages tight.  Johnny proffered his own finger for her to tie off the knot.

“Maybe that kid...”  Scott started, but it didn’t seem right referring to him as just ‘the kid’ any more.  He wasn’t some kid, like Ed Casson, that they knew only professionally.  He was family.  And family deserved the respect of a name.  “Maybe Tex will make you some of his famous willow bark tea.”

“I could use some,” Johnny said.  “Where is that kid anyway?”

“Tex is...”  Scott paused and looked around.   They all looked then, all of them trying to remember the last time they had heard him speak...  The second they looked, they all saw him, still lying face-down on the ground where he landed and rolled after that flying tackle that pushed his mother out of the way of Pardieu’s gun.  Without actually coming to her feet completely, Hilary spun away from Johnny to kneel at Tex’s side.  Murdoch was there in one step.  Scott moved up closer to Johnny so he was only a step away from where the kid lay.  Tex’s hat had been knocked askew so it covered any part of his face that might have otherwise been visible.  The jeans and leather vest that presented themselves as up were dusty but unmarred, but there was a definite dark stain spreading below him on the ground, belying Johnny’s suggestion: “Maybe he knocked the wind out of himself.”

“Scott!  Get more light,” Murdoch barked, and he added more gently, “Easy!”  as Hilary moved to turn Tex over.  Murdoch squatted on the ground near the boy’s head to help roll him gently, gently.  One hand brushed the hat out of the way so he could lay the head softly on the ground.  Scott stepped to the post where the lantern was hanging, pulled it off  its nail and brought it back, holding it directly over Tex so the most light possible fell on him.  More clearly now, they could all see that the dark wetness that covered Tex’s whole front was blood.  His vest was sodden with it, his shirt was a solid red-black in the dim light and even front of his jeans was soaked through.

“What is it?”  Johnny demanded, levering himself up on one elbow to look.

“Could he have fallen on something?”  Scott asked, moving the lantern slightly for a better view.  But, except for dirt and weeds and a great stain of blood, there was nothing on the ground where Tex had fallen.

Again, Hilary reached for the hide-out knife behind Tex’s neck.  And again, she came up empty handed.

“Everyone’s getting lax,” she murmured, but before Murdoch could pull his pocket knife out again,  Hilary slid the big Bowie knife out of Tex’s boot and began to carefully cut away his shirt, slitting the seams of his vest so it could be peeled back. “I need water,” she said, and Johnny passed over the canteen that still rested by him.  Hilary rinsed and wrung out a piece of her petticoat leftover from bandaging Johnny’s leg used that to sponge the blood away from Tex’s chest.  While she worked, Red cocked an ear, listening.

“Horses coming,” he said, and he slid out of the lamplight into the shadows at the side of the barn, rifle at ready

“Rider, identify yourself!”  Scott bellowed.

The reply was distant, but still audible.  “It’s me, Pa!  Debra.”

“Who’s Debra?”  Johnny asked again.

Again, he was ignored.  “Ride on in,” Scott called.  “Red, come back inside.”

He wanted to keep an eye on the rustler, and Red understood that.  He came back around the corner of the barn, cradling his rifle in his arms.  They were all still there, the rustlers on one side, everyone else gathered around Tex, when Larissa rode in, dropped the reins of the extra horses, and slid to the ground.

“Pa!  Is everything all right?”  she asked, running to throw herself into her father’s arms.

“Are you all right?”  Scott countered.

“Yes.  I heard shooting, then it stopped, then more shooting.  What happened?”

“Long story,” was all Scott said, cutting off that conversation as Murdoch said, “There!”

They all leaned in, even Larissa, and they could  see now, clearly, where blood was bubbling darkly from a single, ragged hole in the center of Tex’s chest, just below the sternum.  Hilary rinsed and wrung out the rag again and pressed it against the opening, leaning on straight elbows to apply maximum pressure.

“Who shot him?”  Larissa wanted to know.  Scott, his arm around her shoulders,  looked around the ruined barn. The four men who had been with Pardieu were dead.  He had been mistaken about Pardieu, but he was certain about them.  Pardieu himself only got off one shot...

“Don’t look at me!”  Bundy said.  “When the Colonel picked up a gun again, I didn’t fire at him, because I would be shooting towards all of you!  And Blondie can’t hold a gun!”

“All of us were on the same side,” Red said.  “All of us were shooting away from that kid...”

“Tom!”  Johnny said, and for a second, they all studied the layout.  The position of Pardieu’s body, the line from him to where the kid lay – through Johnny!  Both of them had tried to save Hilary, and as a result, Tom managed to hit both of them with  the same bullet.  “The kid got hit with the same bullet that passed through my leg!”

“That has to be where it came from,” Hilary agreed.  “This hole is larger and more ragged than a normal bullet hole...”

Meaning, they all knew, that the lead had already flattened out, passing through something else, before it hit Tex.

“Is it deep?”  Scott asked.  It hadn’t, they knew, come out the back.

“I think it may be,” Hilary said.  “Mr.  Lancer...?”

Murdoch took over putting pressure on the wound so she could check Tex’s pulse.  She laid her ear against his chest also.

“Ma’am?” Murdoch asked.

“His heartbeat is rapid, but still strong.  No sound of sucking or wheezing from his lungs....”

“Can you take it out?”

“I...”  Hilary hesitated, and bit her lip.

“She performed her first operation when she was ten years old,” Johnny said, smiling at the memory.

Hilary glanced at him, but did not return the smile.  “No,” she said finally.  “No, I can’t.”

“Because he’s your son,” Murdoch said with empathy.  “I understand, ma’am.  Scott, let’s see what we can find to dig it out with.”

“I have Tex’s small knife,” Larissa offered.

“The kid’s kit is in his saddlebags,”  Johnny added.  “We can...”

“No!”  Hilary objected.  “No, you don’t understand!”

“Mrs.  Pierce,” Murdoch said, gently,  “I know you’ve had a hard day...!”

“Hard!”  she said back, with a laugh that held no humor in it at all, but did contain a touch of hysteria.  “Hard?”

“Ma’am, please!  I know you’re upset.  We’ll do everything we can to help your son, I promise!  After all, he’s our family too, isn’t he?  Scott, get that kit, and a bedroll to lay him on.  Larissa, we’ll need more water....”

The entire time Murdoch was giving orders,  Hilary was begging him to stop, to listen, but he did not.  Until Johnny said softly, “Dad.”

That one word froze not only Murdoch, but Scott and even Larissa as well.  In the twenty years since he had met his father, Johnny had never called him anything but “Murdoch.”  He was a grown man before he ever came to the ranch, adult, independent.  “Dad” was someone you look up to when you are young, someone you emulate to learn what it is to be a man, someone who provides for and takes care of you.  He was sure Murdoch would have been good in that role, but he was just plain too late, and while he thought of Murdoch sometimes as Father, he never used a word like “Dad” before.

Which is why he knew it would shut Murdoch up now and get him to  listen.

“Murdoch,”  he continued quietly.  “Look at her, at what she’s done so far!  Yes, she’s his mother, but she’s also a trained nurse.  Ask her why she doesn’t want you to operate on him here!”

Murdoch hesitated.  Clearly he thought Johnny was wrong.  He knew how to handle this situation and Hilary was hysterical.  She had to be, why else would she object to taking the bullet out when so clearly it couldn’t be that deep.  But Johnny held his eyes, froze him to the spot with a look cool and direct and commanding, and he decided, if nothing else, they’d get things done more quickly if they weren’t all going at cross purposes. 

“Why don’t you want us to help him, Mrs.  Pierce?”  he asked politely.

“Because of the angle!”  she said.

Hysterical, Murdoch thought.

“Don’t you see?”  she demanded when all the men, and even Larissa, just stared at her.  “He was on the ground when he fired that shot!  Tex was not!  Look!  The exit wound on the back of Johnny’s leg was three, maybe four inches higher than the entry wound!  If it was the same bullet, it would have been traveling at the same angle...”

They didn’t see.  Not immediately.  It was Scott who measured out a span of just over three inches with his thumb and forefinger and measured on his own chest that distance up from the sternum.  His thumb rested right where his heart lay under his rib cage.

“How can he still be alive?”  Murdoch demanded.  “If that bullet hit his heart, he’d have died instantly!”

“It must not have hit it,” she said, calmer now that they were listening to her.  She took a deep breath, cleared her throat.  “The bullet had already passed completely through Johnny’s leg.  It missed the bone, so it likely kept on in the same direction and angle, but it would have definitely slowed down, enough, apparently.  It didn’t make it all the way to his heart, but it must be near it.  And, it’s up inside his rib cage.  Taking it out will be a very involved operation that requires proper equipment and a highly skilled surgeon.  I’m just a nurse.  Even if I had the necessary instruments, I couldn’t perform an operation like that.”

“Then... we get him to a doctor as quickly as possible,” Scott concluded.  He glanced around.  “Johnny’s wagon is here.  We’ll dump out the tools....”

“Pull the seat out, too,” Johnny said.

“Will there be room for Blondie in that wagon too?”  Bundy asked hopefully.

“No,” Murdoch said.  “But there’s a buggy on the road.  You can get him that far by horseback.”

“Do you need a fresh horse for your wagon?”  Red asked.

Johnny considered.  “No.  He had plenty of time to rest and graze -- in the traces, but it’s still rest.  He could use a bit of water, probably, before we go.”

“I’ll see to that,” Red said.  He dropped the tailgate on the wagon and shoved all the scattered tools and equipment that had collected there over the years into a pile on the ground, then started to lead the horse, wagon and all, to the creek.

“Pa,” Larissa said.  “Someone should ride into town and get the doctor so his surgery is all ready by the time we get Tex in there.”

“That would be a good idea,” Hilary agreed.  She reached up under Johnny’s shirt to remove the torn pieces of her bodice.  She also untied and removed her apron, grimy though it was, and began slicing both for bandaging material.

“I’ll go,” Scott said decisively, and he headed for the horses.

“No, Pa, wait!”  Larissa said.  “I’ll go!”


“Pa.  I’m lighter, so I can ride faster.  And I’m not recovering from a bullet wound, so I’ll have more stamina to make a hard ride.”

“My shoulder is all healed,” Scott lied unconvincingly.

“She’s a good rider, Scott.  Let her go,” Johnny said.

“Your horse will be tired,” Scott objected, though her horse was no more tired than the one he had been about to mount. 

“Are you a good rider?”  Hilary asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Then take Showboy.  I assume all your horses have put in some miles today, but that one can put in double what most horses do.”

“That horse is crazy!”  Scott objected.

“He takes a good rider,” Hilary said.  “But he performs when you make him.”

“I can ride him, Pa,” Larissa said.  “Tex let me handle him a little bit that first day.  I know I can do it.”

Scott sighed heavily.  “Okay,” he shrugged finally, and he went to adjust the kid’s stirrups for Larissa.  He immediately decided that was not going to work, and he striped the saddle off instead and went to get Larissa’s saddle off her horse.  When he had it cinched down tight, he gave Larissa a brief  hug, and tossed her up  into the high saddle.

“Straight that way gets you to the road,” he said, pointing.  “Stop for nothing and no one.”

“You know where Dr.  Freeman’s office is?”  Murdoch added.  “On Second street...”

“Not Doc Freeman,” Johnny objected.

“He’s been our family doctor for years!”  Murdoch said.

“I know he’s an old friend of ours Murdoch, but he’s a butcher when you put a knife in his hand!”

“He’s not that bad!”  Murdoch objected.

“Thompson,” Scott said, interrupting the argument.  “That new guy.”

“He’s a kid!”  Murdoch objected.  “Fresh out of school!”

“Fresh from learning new techniques,” Scott said.  “And surgery is his specialty.”

“Right,” Murdoch conceded.  “Thompson it is then.  He’s on the near edge of town, anyway.  Twelfth and Vine...”

“I know where it is,” Larissa assured them.  Already, Showboy was fighting her, anxious to be off.  She gave her father a reassuring smile and then slammed spurs into the big horse’s flanks.  He took off like a shot into the dark, with her bent low over his neck, and Scott shouted after her, “AND RIDE CAREFULLY.”

Her “I will!”  floated back, already faint.

“When did she start acting like a grown up?”  Scott murmured to himself as he stepped back into the barn.  And then it occurred to him for the first time that the saddle he had just handled was not the worn old brown saddle that she usually used.  It was dark out there beyond the barn, but he had felt the carving, seen the flash of lamp- and firelight off the decorative silver conchos.

“And how long has she been using your saddle?”  he asked Johnny.

“Well,” Johnny said.  “Last week, when she was out all day helping us put out fires, it occurred to me that having one saddle for two women wasn’t too smart.  Sooner or later there’d be an emergency – like now – when she’d need one, and Teresa might need one and... Well, I told her to try out mine, see if she liked it.  I’m surprised no one ever thought of it before.  It’s just been sitting in the barn, gathering dust for years.”

“I thought of it,” Scott said.  “But I was hesitant to ask.”


“Because,” Scott said, sounding exasperated – which he was.  With himself.  “We all spend so much time trying to pretend we don’t notice that you only have one leg that we tend to forget that it’s something you can’t ignore.  I was trying to spare your feelings.”

“And I was trying to spare yours, by not making decisions for you for your family,”  Johnny grinned back.

“We’ll have to start being a little more honest.”  Scott said.  Then he added as a thought came to him suddenly, “Where did she get those spurs?”

“They were supposed to be a Sweet Sixteen present. But, since she was using the saddle...”  Johnny shrugged.  “I know Teresa had more in mind a sidesaddle and a riding habit, but a regular rig and spurs are better for this country.”

Hilary, meantime, went to get the saddlebags off the saddle Scott had just dropped on the ground.  She found Tex’s medical kit, noting the reduced amount of bandaging material in it.  There were a couple strips left, nothing more.  She made a large pad from her own clothing, pressing hard on it to use pressure against the flow of blood. 

Bundy saddled a horse for himself and one for Blondie.  He cut Hilary’s buggy horse out of the group in the corral and brought it back around the barn, too.

“I don’t suppose you have coffee boiling on that fire,” Johnny asked.

“Sorry,” Bundy said.  “We was running a kind of greasy-sack outfit.”  In a greasy sack outfit, there was no communal camp or cook.  All the men supplied themselves out of gunny or flour sacks they brought with them.

“We shoulda known no legitimate operation runs this way,” Red commented wryly as he came back from the creek, leading the horse and wagon.  “We shoulda left right away.”

“Why didn’t you?”  Murdoch asked.

“The Colonel was a good man!”  Bundy said, then he looked down at the body on the ground and seemed to reconsider his words.

“He seemed plausible enough,” Red corrected for him. “I’m ashamed to say he had me fooled.”

“Apparently, you’re just one of many,” Murdoch said.

“Makes it worse, not better,” Red said.

“Weren’t there more of you before?”  Johnny asked.  “I recall four, not three.”

“Cal caught a bullet in the neck in that little fracas we had in that box canyon a few days ago,” Red said.  “When he was too hurt to move out when the Colonel said to, Perkins shot him.”

“And that didn’t give you a hint that he wasn’t exactly ‘nice people’?”  Johnny asked, drily.

Red shrugged.  “We were beginning to suspect that anyway.  Thing is, we were kind of looking for the proper opening to get out after that.  The Colonel didn’t strike me as the kind of man you just turn your back on.”

“That part,” Johnny said, “you got dead straight.”

Bundy, embarrassed, went back to packing up for the ride to take Blondie to a doctor, when another thought occured to him.  

“Say, ma’am,” he said directly to Hilary, ignoring the Lancer men.  “There’s a whole lot of bedrolls around this camp, we could put ‘em all in the back of that wagon for more padding for the trip.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” she said, still maintaining pressure.  “Thank you.”

“I’ll help,” Scott said.  “Where...?”

“All over.  Come on,” Bundy said.  He gathered up his own and Blondie’s bedroll and showed Scott the various locations where other men had laid out their gear, preparing to spend the night.  Meantime, Red picked up a sickle he found among the tools dumped out of Johnny’s wagon and walked back to the creek.  The grass by the edge of the water was a variety few animals liked to eat: it was too tough and stringy.  So it was also very tall and plentiful, despite all the grazing that had taken place in this valley over the summer.  He gathered arm loads of the stuff, slicing it off with the sickle, and returned to the barn to spread it in the back of the wagon for even more padding.  Personally, he felt that the kid would never survive the trip in to town to see the doctor.  But, better to ease his last moments as much as possible.  It was no more than he hoped someone would someday do for him.

Murdoch wiped his hands on his jeans now that he was no longer needed for helping with Tex.  He stood and went to help Scott and Bundy with the bedrolls.

“That’s it,” Bundy was saying, looking at the heap on the ground.  “Fourteen.  Leaving off mine and Blondie’s and Red’s.”

“Are you including ours?”  Scott asked.

“You and I weren’t carrying one,” Murdoch said.

“There were a few blankets in the wagon...”  Johnny said.

“Wait a minute,” Scott said.  “Wait.  Fourteen bedrolls, not counting the three of you?  Are you counting some from men that died earlier?  You’re friend Cal, perhaps.”

“We kind split his blankets after we buried him,” Bundy said, looking a bit embarrassed.

“Fourteen,” Scott repeated.  “So you were saying, there were fourteen men in this valley?”

“Yeah, sure,” Bundy said, counting off on his fingers.  “Well, with us, that makes seventeen, but believe you me, we haven’t counted ourselves as part of that group in a long time!”

“We only killed ten,” Scott said.

“Are you sure?”  Murdoch asked.

“I’m sure,” Scott said grimly.  “I don’t take killing lightly enough to miscount!  We killed ten men.  And we only have Red’s word that he actually killed the two guards at the west end of the valley like he said he did.”

“I did,” Red said, coming back around, leading the horse and wagon.

“That makes twelve,” Scott said.  “And now you claim there were fourteen men here, including Pardieu?”

“There were fourteen all along!”  Bundy said.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Lancer!  You killed all fourteen of them other men!”

“Twelve!”  Scott repeated, glaring angrily at the big man.  “There were five men in this barn, counting Pardieu, the one you call ‘The Colonel.’  We took out the two men on guard duty between the trail and here, and Red says he killed the two guards to the west.  That’s nine.   There were two more men at the base of the trail where we ran into you three, and one man guarding the trail....”

“One man?”  Red and Bundy looked at each other in surprise.  

“We were at the valley-end of the trail with Jim and Dobie,” Red said.  “But there were three men up that trail because the Colonel – or whoever he is – was sure you’d come down that way.  There was Buck, Bob Calhoun and Bob Wilder.”

“There was one man on that trail,” Scott said, shaking a finger in their faces.  “We killed one man getting down to where you were.”

“You distinctly said you’d killed three!”  Bundy said.  “When you threatened us, with that boy’s knife...”  His words trailed off suddenly.  “Oh,” he said.

“Oh?”  Scott said.

“He didn’t tie up Jim and Dobie, did he?  When you said three... you meant.... Oh.”

“There’s two more men out here somewhere,” Scott said in a low, tight voice.  “Isn’t there?”

“Mr.  Lancer, I didn’t....!”

“Right.  You forgot!”  He grabbed Bundy by the front of the shirt, dragging the man’s face close to his to hiss,   “How many more are out there?  Does my daughter stand a chance of getting to town, or were there others lying in wait all over the place?”      

“No sir!”  Bundy said.  He was younger than Scott, and heavier, but he was terrified by the ferocity of Scott’s attitude.  “God is my witness, Mr.  Lancer!  There’s just those two.  And I forgot, I honestly forgot...”

Scott released him so suddenly that he staggered backwards and almost fell.  Scott turned and grabbed his horse, swinging into the saddle in a single motion, and turning the horse around.

“Scott!  Where are you going?”

“After Larissa!”  Scott said.  Then he hesitated, and recalled they had left Teresa and the boys alone at the ranch.  “Teresa!”

“You go after her, I’ll go after Larissa,” Murdoch said, grabbing the reins of his own horse and climbing, a little slower, into the saddle.  He spurred his horse in one direction while Scott took off in the other, the sound of their horses hooves fading slowly in the still night.      

“Are there more men we should know about?” Johnny asked.

“Just the three of us,” Red said. “That really, honestly was just a misunderstanding, Mr.  Lancer.”

“Let’s not have any more of those, shall we?”  Johnny said with a mildness that belied his anger.

“We’ll try to keep it to a minimum,” Red agreed. 

“Can you also help get me and this boy into the wagon?  My father and brother seem to have had pressing business.”

“Yes, sir.  We’ll get you set up, soon as we pad that bed as much as possible.”

They added the blankets that had been in there before and Tex’s bedroll to the fourteen rolls of blankets they had gathered.  Slickers went on the bottom, then piles of woolen blankets and quilts.  Bundy and Red lifted Johnny in first, while Hilary wrapped her apron strings around Tex’s back and tied the pad in place for a bandage.  They sat Johnny sideways across the front of the wagon box, in front of where the seat had been before they took it out.  He gathered up the reins, testing the feel of them in his hands, sideways as he was.  He wouldn’t be able to use the brake too easily, but then even with the seat in place he wouldn’t have been able to step on it. Not with a hole running through his thigh.  This would have to do.  The two rustlers lifted the kid then, handling him as gently as they could.  He still cried out in pain as they lifted him up to the wagon bed.  They put him in diagonally, but the small box was still way too short.  He let out another cry of pain as they attempted to shift his feet over the edge, but Hilary scrambled into the wagon, sitting in the back corner, taking his head and shoulders into his arms so he fit more comfortably.  Johnny flicked the reins and started the wagon moving with another painful lurch.

“Ma!”  the kid breathed in a low, ragged voice.

“Hush, Texas!”  she said, softly but firmly.  “It’s alright.  I’m here.  You just rest.”

“Can’t... Got to tell you...”

“You don’t have to tell me anything.  You do need to rest.”

But the kid let out his breath in almost a sigh, shook his head and tried again.  “Ma!  He came back!” 

“I know all about it, Texas.”

“You... do?”

“Yes.  And it’s all right.  It’s all taken care of.  You need to rest and let us take care of you.  Texas...?”

“Is he...”  Johnny asked when the kid’s voice faded to nothing, and found he was unable to complete the sentence.

“No,” Hilary said.  “But, he’s not good either.”

“We’ll get him to the doctor,” Johnny promised her.



“Hey!  The cake didn’t fall!”  Gene said, sounding pleased.

“It’s a matter of taking your time,” Teresa said, as if such things as perfect cakes happened frequently in her kitchen.  She tipped the steaming, golden circle onto the cooling rack, as Gene brought her the second pan from the oven.  The kitchen was warm.  Hot, in fact, despite the cool evening breeze that came in from the window.  And it smelled of yeast and flour and warm dough.  The dinner she had prepared earlier -- a great pot of stew -- still stood on a corner of the stove, bubbling itself into porridge by this time, she supposed.  They had been baking for some time now, ignoring it.  The baking was a way to keep the boys occupied, to keep herself from wondering why Larissa and the men had been gone so long, why it was so quiet.  What was happening. 

They had made cookies.  They had baked the cake.  Teresa didn’t feel she was quite equal to the task of making donuts, especially after the delicious ones Tex had made the other day, but she had let Gene make dough for fried bread, the way, he insisted, Uncle Johnny had taught him, although it didn’t look quite right to Teresa.  And if it didn’t come out good, she thought, what difference did it make?  Busy work was what they were mainly engaged in at the moment.

Jack brought the heavy cast iron frying pan and dropped it on the stove with a clang that made the bitch in the corner jump in surprise.

“Sorry,” he said.

“That’s all right,” Teresa said.  “Now, go down to the cool room and bring up that small barrel of lard.”

She poked at the stove, fussing with the dampers as she piled on more wood.  Gene dropped the two soiled cake pans in the wash tub that was already full of dirty dishes and worked the pump handle to splash more water over the load.

“When’s Pa and Uncle Johnny gonna fix the water tank?”  he asked.

“When they are sure that no one’s going to come by and tear it up again,” Teresa said unsympathetically.  “Meantime, be thankful you have water in here and you don’t have to go draw it from the well.”

“Yeah.  That would get old fast,” Gene agreed.  He had been wanting to ask questions all night, questions about all the strange happenings,  the secret conferences.  This afternoon’s odd events when Pa and Uncle Johnny and Grandpa and that ranger all took off at once.  He had been holding his tongue, assuming that his mother would not want to share information with someone as young as Jack, but now that Jack was in the cellar, he thought maybe he’d get some explanations.  But even as he opened his mouth to ask, Jack popped back up the ladder and started spooning lard into the frying pan.  Opportunity missed.  Gene brought the second lamp over closer to where he was working, setting it right on a corner of the work table, and started making little balls with his dough.  It stuck to his hands, unlike the dough Uncle Johnny had made the other day.  He was scraping it off his fingers when  he heard an odd, low rumbling.  He looked around, finally focusing on the corner from which, he realized, the sound was coming.  The bitch, who had her lips pulled back off her teeth, raised her ears and thumped her tail once as if in apology for scaring him.  But the puppies were clamoring for food, and the bitch was sitting upright on her blanket, looking at the door.  And she laid her ears back and growled again, showing, under her velvety muzzle, her long, ivory fangs.

“Mama,” Gene said softly.

Teresa had already noticed.  She felt naked, suddenly, realizing that in the darkness outside, anyone could look in through the lighted window and see everything they were up to, while she couldn’t see out, even if she stepped up and peered out.  Instead, she glanced around, patting floured hands at her hair, as if she had lost the rolling pin again.  What she was looking for was the pistol she was supposed to be carrying everywhere.  It hadn’t seemed a good idea to wear it around a hot stove, and anyway, it was very heavy, so she had set it down... There.  Clear across the room on the bread table!  She stepped around the work table and went to pick up a measuring cup that had been left there, intending to take it to the bread table as an excuse for walking that way in case anyone was looking in, but before she took another step, the kitchen door burst open suddenly.  Jack straightened from where he had been bent over the stove, watching his grease heat, and spun around, grinning, “Pa!”

But it wasn’t Scott.  It was someone they had never seen before, a big, barrel-chested man with several days growth of black beard on his chin and a gun in his hand – leveled at Teresa.  There was another man crowding in the doorway behind him.

“I ain’t your pa, kid,” the big man said, grinning. 

“How dare you come into my house without knocking!”  Teresa said, trying – and succeeding – too sound more outraged than frightened. 

“You don’t need to go pretending, Missy,” the man grinned easily.  “We saw all your menfolk ride out of here hours ago – and judging from the shooting we heard down at that ruined barn, they ain’t coming back.”

“Twenty men work on this ranch!”  Teresa said.  “They’re all of them in the bunk house...”

“Where they’re gonna stay.  Bobby and me rolled that old chuck wagon right in front of the door, so no matter how much noise you make, ain’t no one coming to your rescue.”

“You leave my mama alone!”  Gene said, insinuating himself between Teresa and the man.

“Gene....”  Teresa said softly, but the man had already reached out and swatted Gene aside like a fly.  As the boy hit the floor and rolled, he yelled “NOW, JACK!  THE CASTLE!”  At the same time, the bitch came up off her blanket and launched herself at the big man, growling and tearing at his leg.  He screamed.  And Jack, realizing at once what his elder brother meant, grabbed the big frying pan off the stove and swung it with all his might, spattering hot grease across both men and letting it go at the last second so it crashed into the second man’s head, making him drop the gun he had been aiming at Gene.  Both men were screaming now.  The bitch growled savagely, head snapping back and forth as if she were trying to rip a large piece out of the man she was attacking.  And Gene rolled, intentionally crashing into the work table so that the kerosene lamp standing on the corner tottered and fell.  When it hit the floor and shattered, kerosene and flame splattered across the room, lighting the table, the curtains and the floor -- and the hot grease Jack had flung.  Jack ducked out of the way as the man nearest him burst into a ball of flame.  The bitch yelped and jumped back, whining, snapping at her own flaming fur.  The man still standing roared in fury and fear and began beating at himself, the gun he still held forgotten as he struggled with the flames.  The man on the floor writhed and screamed, and Jack dove to slap out the flames on the bitch.   The man still standing now had the flames that had licked at himself out, and he turned, in fury and agony, raising his pistol towards the cleanest target: Jack’s head.  Gene rolled to his feet and grabbed the nearest thing to hand: the tall stool Jack still used to reach the high work table, and he swung it, slamming the big man in the stomach.  The man let out a surprised “Ooof!” and turned, cocking his pistol as he leveled it now at Gene.  There was an explosive sound as a gun went off in the kitchen, but it wasn’t his gun: it was Teresa’s. With the distraction the boys had caused, she had been able to dive across the room and snap it up.  The man she had shot staggered backwards, tripping over his fallen and flaming comrade, and she shot him again, knocking him backwards through the door where he crashed hard into the dust of the dooryard, dead.  The second man, his clothes mostly gone, his skin blackened, his eyes wide and red and crazed, made it to his hands and knees, and grabbed for Jack, trying to drag the boy into the lingering flames on the floor.  Gene lifted his chair for another swing and Teresa lowered her pistol to shoot down at him.  Both blows came almost simultaneously as Gene’s swing brought the man’s head up and around, and Teresa’s bullet propelled him backwards out the door as Jack, who had clutched at the heavy work table to save himself, was jerked out of his grip.

Scott had ridden into the dooryard at a fast gallop, having heard gunshots coming from the kitchen.  The door was open, and the light that blazed out of it flickered in ways  lantern light usually does not.  He reined his horse in so hard that it skidded to a stop on its rump, flinging himself to the ground even as the first man fell backwards out of the kitchen.  Another man, still smoking and burning, followed, and he shouted, “Teresa!” and leaped over the bodies into the kitchen.  

The fire was spreading quickly.  Teresa, seeing who it was, dropped the pistol and threw her arms around Scott’s neck.  Scott swung her away from the spreading flames and instead of returning her hug, slapped her hard on the back where the fire was starting to creep up her skirt.

“Water!”  he shouted.

Gene grabbed the heavy washtub, with the dishes and all, and flung it at the fire, pelting his mother and the floor with plates, pans and cutlery as well as cold water.  Jack screamed, fearing the combination of water and flaming grease, but the grease, by then, had mostly burned up, and Scott pushed Teresa onto the floor where he beat out the fire on her skirt with a rag rug.  There were still small fires flickering here and there, but the main blaze had guttered and died under the onslaught of wash water, dishes and flatware, and Scott lifted Teresa into his arms and held her, opening the embrace to gather in Jack and Gene as the boys crowded around.  They were still kneeling there, in the burning kitchen, when the another man stepped into the smoky room, rifle in his hands.

“It’s me, Mr.  Lancer,” Red said mildly as Scott clawed for the pistol in his belt.

“Come to finish us off?”  Scott asked, giving up the race.

“Come to help,” Red said.  “Once I got your brother loaded into the wagon and Bundy hauled Blondie off, I figured you might need some back up.  Reckon, though,” he added, glancing at the heap of bodies in the doorway, “you handled things all right.”        

“I didn’t have to do a thing,” Scott said.  And he kissed Teresa’s hair, Jack’s and Gene’s heads and held them all tighter.

“Got a bucket?”  Red asked, watching the flames flicker and rise up again.

“Behind the door,” Teresa said, struggling for freedom, but Scott was not ready yet to let her or the boys go.  Red stepped around them, filled the bucket at the pump, and tossed it on the fire, returning to the pump for more water. 

“I’m sorry,” Scott said, burying his lips in Teresa’s hair again.  “I’m so sorry, we should have come back, but...”

“They said there was a lot of shooting,” Teresa said.  “They said you were all dead.”

“There are a lot of dead mean down at the old Benevidez place,” Scott said.  “But from their side, not ours.  But I should have been here.  With you.”

“That’s okay,” Gene said.  “We took care of it.  We defended our castle, just like Uncle Johnny said.”

Teresa was still shaking, from the action, from the fear and anger that flooded her all at once during the confrontation. She was inclined to yell at the boys for interfering, for putting themselves at such risk.  But it dawned on her slowly what they had intended to do, and what they had done.  Defended their castle.

“Yes, you did,” she said, breathing deeply now that they were all safe.  “You both did, didn’t you?  Good work, Eugene.  And good work, Jack.”

But, to her surprise, Jack suddenly burst into tears and buried his face again in Teresa’s shirtwaist. 

“There, there,” Teresa said, patting the smooth dark hair.  “It’s all right.  Everyone’s all right now.” 

Scott also stroked and tried to sooth the boy.  But Jack did not stop crying.  Nor did he explain why he was crying.  It was several long seconds before Red, taking another bucket of water to soak the area around the fire, tripped on the frying pan and swore, and Teresa realized what was wrong.  She unwound Jack’s arms where they clutched at her and peered at his hands in the dim light of the one remaining lantern.  One hand had minor burns, mostly in the inside of the thumb and forefinger.  The other was already severely blistered.

“You’re even braver than me,” Gene said, a statement partly true, and partly meant to help Jack to stop crying. 

“Me?”  Jack asked, peeking at his brother.

“Shoot, yeah!  I’d have dropped that pan before it burned me.”

Teresa stood and filled a pan with cool water.  She righted the stool and set Jack up on it next to the work table, where he could soak his hand.  Medically, it wouldn’t help, but the coolness eased the pain of the burn for the moment so that other things could be taken care of.  A fresh lamp was brought from the pantry and lit.  Red drug the bodies of the two dead men out of the doorway and  laid them in the stable.  Scott left his family long enough to go out to the bunkhouse and free the men trapped inside.  A quick search turned up the body of Mills Johnson, which was then laid with the outlaws in the cool stable. Which left Red to explain to Teresa all that had happened at the Benevidez place.

“Is Uncle Johnny gonna loose his other leg?”  Gene asked, an odd picture floating to his mind of his uncle, crabbing around at floor level like some kind of misshapen toddler.

“I reckon  he’ll be okay,” Red assured them.  “But that blonde boy is in a bad way.  They took him on into the doctor to see if they can operate on him.

“We’ll go into town then,” Teresa decided firmly.

“Ma’am...”  Red objected.  But then he shrugged.  It wasn’t his family, or his problem.  He dumped one more bucket on the floor of the kitchen to make sure no new fire would light, and followed Gene to the stable to help the boy saddle horses for the family.

“What about this mess?”  Jack asked, looking at the burned and ruined kitchen.

“We’ll worry about it later,” Teresa said.  And she left him soaking his hand while she went to pack a few things for an overnight visit to town.

Scott, meantime, had a few things to say to the gathered ranch hands.  “We discovered,” he said, “that we had one traitor among us.  Now, it’s none of my business who a man chooses to work for, whether it’s an honest rancher, or a murdering lunatic.  But I do believe that you can only ride for one brand at a time.  I’m going to be gone until morning at least.  If any man among you is not here when I get back, I won’t go looking for him, I won’t ask any questions.  I’ll just assume he made his choice – a choice to leave the county – and leave it at that.  But if any man here did choose up sides with that man who called himself Perkins or Palmer or whatever, don’t think I won’t find about it.  And don’t think I’ll forgive it.  Have I made myself clear, gentlemen?”

There was a soft murmur from the group which sounded to be an affirmative.

“Good.  Then for those of you – all of you I will assume – who helped us out during these past two eventful weeks, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks.  And, I think, a bonus.  Hazard pay should be what?  Double wages?”

Several heads perked up at that suggestion and one or two nodded tentatively.

“Double,” Scott affirmed then.  “Double pay for the entire month.  It’s the least we can do.  And, gentlemen: let me assure you that this is all over.  It’s over.”

“Sir?”  One of the hands stepped forward as Scott turned to leave.

“Yes, ‘Nando?”

“What do we do now, sir?”

“Same thing you always do,” Scott said.  “Watch the cattle.  We’ve been neglecting our back fences.  We need to put line riders out, we need someone to go check on the line shacks, make sure things are all right there, and take them more supplies.  Scout the water and grass, move the cattle if necessary.  All the usual.  Nothing that can’t wait until morning, though.  If I’m not back, you can see to sending out the men.”

“Uh,” Nando said in surprise.  “Yes, sir.”

Scott went into the stable to get a fresh horse for himself.  He was surprised to find Gene and Red in there already, saddling up horses for the entire family.

“We’re going with you,” Gene announced.

“You?”  Scott asked Red.

“I thought I’d go back to that barn and kind of tidy things up a bit,” Red said.  “I assume you’ll have the law out there at first light?”

“I think we need to identify all those dead men,” Scott agreed.

“I’d kind of prefer not to come face to face with any marshals or sheriffs,” Red said.  “Likely, I’ll gather my own things and move on.”

“You’re welcome to stay on,” Scott said.  “We can always use a good man, and you’ve proven to be a good man.  And there’s not going to be any need anytime soon for any sheriffs or marshals to look into our bunkhouse.”

“I’ll consider it, Mr.  Lancer,” Red said.



           Too much to think about. 

Hilary was reminded of a dust devil she had watched, just a few weeks ago, whirl down the street on which she and Tex had lived for the past several years.   It had skipped along, blowing dust in every direction, then canted into the neighbor’s yard where it touched a stack of junk the neighbor had piled up after cleaning out his storage room.  Newspapers, old letters, bits of saved cloth and string, photographs and other odds and ends suddenly rose up into the air, swirling madly, and scattered themselves over half a block.

That was how she felt: her mind was a confusion, as if a dust-devil had stirred it all up and it was all still flying about.  Too much too quickly, and all she could do was grasp at images as they whipped past, and the feelings they left in their wake: grief, elation, shock, anger, fear, terror, outrage, shock again, pain, joy, terror, pain...

She tried to erase all the thoughts, write them on a blackboard in her mind and wash them clean away, as she did sometimes at night when sleep eluded her, but she could not.  There were too many, and they were too strong. The only thing she could cling to in the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions was the steady beat of  Tex’s heart under the palm of her hand where she was clutching him to her, leaning his upper body back against her own chest, arms wrapped tightly around him.  Even leaning as she was on the low side of the wagon, Tex was too big, too heavy for her, and the strain on her back and arms was tremendous.  But she embraced the burning and concentrated on that thread of movement her fingers could feel through the pad of bandages she had wrapped there herself.  A little fast, a little weak.  But still steady.  Beating, beating, beating.    She had monitored the beats of many hearts in the past, but this heart was Tex’s heart, whose rhythms she had felt for the first time when he had been laid, still wet and still attached to her through his umbilical cord, on her breast.  It had been a bird-like flutter then, incredibly rapid, yet strong, as his surprised-looking eyes, already dark brown but with a film of blue over them, looked directly into hers.

Many was the time after that when she was aware of his heart beating, of warm life flowing through his body.  She had held him in her arms so many times when he was an infant, feeding him, comforting him, just holding him to her so that neither of them had to be alone.  And as he grew older, he had come to her often, sobbing in her arms when he got hurt, hugging her in apology when she had to punish him for being bad.  And she had found great joy and comfort always in the soft and rhythmic beat that pressed against her own heart, even as, she knew, he had found comfort in hers.  Many times when he was sleeping she would touch his head or his cheek, and slide her hand under the sheet to feel, if not his heart, at least his pulse, throbbing softly in his neck.  Her son.  Her life beating in his body.  Hers and...

But she wasn’t going to think about that now.  She would think about Tex, only about Tex. 

She recalled the incident with the dogs, recalled sitting, exhausted and sweating, in the kitchen of their small rental house.  Tex had taken the lunch basket, and she had a brief moment to rest before starting the preparation for the dinner basket, and she was fanning herself and sitting with her feet propped up, when Virge walked right in the open door, holding Tex’s blood-covered body.  The boy, so big and grown up when he walked out moments ago, looked so small and helpless clutched in the big man’s arms.  Virge had looked ashen and shaken.  Wyatt and Bat and Luke Short had all pushed in behind him, as Hilary came to her feet, and Virge kicked open the door to the bedroom and laid Tex upon his bed.  Tex had been whimpering, trying so hard to be brave.

“Doc’s fetching the doctor,” Virge said.  And she knew she was close to hysterics, seeing her son, flesh of her flesh, lying there, torn and bleeding, his life flowing out through the terrible wounds all over his body.  But instead of succumbing, she went to work.  She grabbed the wash basin, filled it from hot water off the stove, ordered the men in the room to heat more water, to fetch her herbs from the cupboard, to look in the chest for something they could use for bandages.  He had sobbed when she began washing out the cuts, washing dirt and saliva from the deep wounds.  Animal bites were the worst for infection, and she washed him with lye soap that burned and wrenched more sobs from him.  Then the doctor was there, helping, and she could hold onto Tex, hold him tight and feel his heart, so fast in fear and in pain, while the doctor sutured the worse bites and slashes, pressed on bandages.  She had held him then as she had held him now, arms around his torn body, hand pressing hard against his heart, feeling it’s rhythm, letting him lean on her and feel the rhythm of her own heart as well.

As when he had been shot in the leg, a year and a half ago.  The bone was shattered, the leg a bloody mess, and she heard of it only when he was brought to the hospital, to her hospital.  She had been the nurse on duty who had seen him first, propped on an examining table by his comrades, pale and shaking.  His eyes, always dark, had been almost black then, the pain somehow altering them.  No whimpering or sobbing now, he was too old for that, but he had locked his eyes on hers and used her as the anchor to hold himself against the pain as she and the doctor worked on the leg.  He was holding, holding on to her, to himself, but he was slipping, until she had pressed her hand against his chest and held it there, knowing that he could feel the same soft rhythm through that pressure that she could.  They decided to operate, right then and there, and as the doctor administered the chloroform, as Tex’s slid into drugged sleep, he held her hand, his fingers closing not around her palm, but around her wrist, feeling the echo of his own heart in the pulse he could feel there.

As he could feel it now, if he were awake, feel her heart beating against his back.  And she could feel his under her hand, pressed hard against his chest as if that alone could hold in the life that seemed, this time, determined to leak out.

“Why have we stopped?”  Hilary asked suddenly, realizing that the agonizing jolting of the wagon had stilled.  In the dark, she could see almost nothing, but it didn’t look like they were in town.  Black shadows on the black sky: tree shapes, though, not houses.  And how far was it to town anyway?  She had lost all track of time and distance. 

Although she was nearly blind the darkness was so thick, she could feel it when The Man started, shook himself and shook the reins, slapping them against the horse, making the wagon move forward again.  The Man (she would not, could not, bring herself to say, even in her mind, that name, the name that she had clung to for so many years, the name so associated with pain and loss, the name of the man sitting, pressed against her now, in the tiny wagon) said, “Sorry.  Don’t know if I dozed off or passed out there.  Talk to me or something.  Keep me awake.”

“What do you want me to say?”  she asked.

“Anything.  You used to talk all the time.  Just say something I can focus on to stay awake.”

“You shouldn’t be driving,” she said.  “I should be doing that.”

“No.  All I have to do to drive is to stay awake.  I couldn’t hold the kid up like you’re doing.  How is he?”

“He’s alive,” Hilary said.  “I honestly don’t know how he is alive, but he is alive.”

“He’s alive because you won’t let him go,” The Man said softly.  “You’ve got his heart in your hand, and you won’t let him have it back so he can go in peace.”

Odd, she thought, that he would say that when she did, almost literally, have Tex’s heart in her hand.  “You make it sound like something bad,” she noticed.

“No.  It’s not bad,” he said, still sounding soft and distant and tired.  “You held my heart in your hand, you kept me from the blackness that wanted to keep me.”  He sighed then, a soft sound, not unlike the wind moving through the trees around them.  “I wondered, you know, why I was still alive if you held my heart.  You had it, and you were dead, and I felt sometimes like I should be dead to, like the pain and the guilt should just snuff out what was left of my life.  I really didn’t understand why I was still alive, when you were not and you were holding my heart still.”

“Why would you think I was dead?”  she asked, but he suddenly hissed, “Shshshsh!”  instead of answering.  She was furious for a moment: he demanded that she talk to keep him awake, then shushed her?  She opened her mouth to protest, but then realized that he had dropped the reins, was fumbling with the heavy pistol he held in his lap.  He got it in his hands, and raised it, though he was shaking so badly it was doubtful whether he could hit anything he aimed at.  There was a loud metallic click as he cocked the hammer back, a sound that was at once loud, and nearly lost in the soft breezes that were moving through the valley.


With a sigh of relief, Johnny lowered the gun back into his lap as Murdoch appeared out of the dark beside the wagon.  Murdoch leaned over and took the gun away from him, easing the hammer onto an empty cylinder before dropping it into the padding in the wagon bed.

“Larissa?”  Johnny asked.

“There’s no way this old horse and these old bones could catch her, much less keep up,” Murdoch said.  “She must be almost in town already.”

“How far...?”  Johnny asked before his voice gave out.

“You’re almost to the road,” Murdoch said.  “And you’re all used up.  Here.  Give me those.”  He took the reins away from Johnny, who slumped back gratefully as Murdoch moved up to the horse, disconnected the reins, and looped his saddle rope around the horse’s nose and ears in a makeshift halter.  Using the end of the rope as a lead, he pulled the horse and wagon along behind as he headed for the gap in the fence that would put them on the road.      

The wagon was too small for one person, even without the seat.  The three of them were twisted together awkwardly, and Johnny found that there was no place, really, to lay his head and rest.  There was a sound of shifting, and some of the pressure eased away from his leg.

“Here,” Hilary said.  “If you can bend a little, you can lean back.”

He did, and found something soft and warm under him.  “Tex!”

“Is okay.  You’re laying on his legs.”

“Oh,” he said, shifting slightly to a more comfortable position, if it were possible to be comfortable bent practically in half as he was.

“Did Tom... Did those men... um... hurt you?”  he asked.  He didn’t need to keep a conversation going now, and yet he did.  He needed to stay awake, even if he didn’t need to drive.  He needed to hear her voice, over and over.  Her voice.  A sound he had thought he would never hear again. 

“If you are asking euphemistically if I have been raped, the answer is no,” she said, her voice cool and detached.  But then she added, almost thoughtfully, “Not for want of trying, though.  I don’t think your friend with the ruined face was... er... capable.” 

He was silent for so long that she thought he had fallen asleep.  Eventually she heard another soft sigh, and he said, “Probably not, now that I think about it.  You don’t look old enough to be his mother.”

“Thank you so much,” Hilary said dryly.

There was a hint of humor in his strained voice when he replied.  “I meant, that’s the way he likes women: old.  Always has.”

“That was Terrance Palmer, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.  It was.”

“I suppose that fits the profile then.”

“Tex talked to you about his cases?”  Johnny asked.  “That’s not very professional, is it?”

“Tex loves to talk.  You should know that by now.  And he always knew he could tell me anything and not have it spread all over town.”

“Hang on!”  Murdoch called from the dark up ahead, and the wagon slowed, then bounced unpleasantly into the road. 

“Sorry!”  Murdoch shouted.

“S’all right,” Johnny murmured.  He wished he did have some of that willow bark tea Scott had been teasing him about.  Or morphine.  Or at least the contents of the bottle he usually kept under the wagon seat.  Red and Murdoch had removed the seat while Scott and Bundy were collecting bedrolls.  They very likely removed the bottle as well.  Both his legs were a total mass of pain, not to mention the bruises that would blossom all over his body, thanks to Tom’s square-toed, Eye-talian leather dress boots.  But there was another pain as well, one that no amount of medicine or alcohol could kill, one that he turned over and over in his mind, until he found himself blurting the question out aloud.    

“How come you go by your maiden name?”

“What?”  Hilary asked, as startled that he was talking as she was by the question:  she had thought he had dozed off.  Or passed out.

“You are a married woman.  You carried our marriage licence around your neck for twenty years, yet you let everyone think... Well, think the worst of you.  And me.  And Tex, technically.  You could have used the name ‘Lancer’ all along.  Why didn’t you?”

She sighed, looking down at the blonde head pressed against her chest not across at him as she said, “It was all so very long ago, Johnny.  Does it matter now?”

He thought of Tex, looking him in the eye as he announced, “I’m a bastard.”  “Yeah,” he said.  “It does.”  And as a thought struck him, he asked, “Did you regret it that much?”

At that she smiled, a sad smile, he thought, but a smile.  “No.  I never regretted a thing.  Did you?  I mean, I wouldn’t blame you....”

“Blame me?”

“I wouldn’t have come back, either, to someone who’s shoddy doctoring had cost me a leg.  I should have taken you to town...”

“To be hung?  I’m glad you didn’t.   Not much of a memory, though, huh?  It’s the other leg, Hilary!”

“The other..?”

“The other.    If you’d looked close when you were bandaging this one, you’d have seen the scars from the last time.  You took very good care of this leg.  Of me.  I lost the other one a few winters ago when Scott and I got caught up in the mountains by an early snow.  We didn’t want to end up like the Donner Party, so we hiked out.  Scott was numb in several places, but I got frostbite.  You know that routine.  Frostbite to gangrene to blood poisoning.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  But, you never told anyone you were married either, did you?  Your father didn’t know about it.  Doesn’t know about it: He still calls me Mrs.  Pierce.  And you’ve been here... how long?”

“Twenty years,” Johnny admitted.

“I see,” she said.

“No, you don’t see!  I didn’t mention I was married because I thought you were dead!  It was over and past and I didn’t want to talk about it!”

“You said that before,” she recalled.  “But, why would you think I was dead?” 

“Because I spent a night on your grave!”

“Right.  Silly of me not to have known that.  Seriously, Johnny!  How could I have a grave?  I’m not dead!”

“I see that now.  And I’ve been trying to figure this out all afternoon,” Johnny said.  “The kid here... uh, Tex... doesn’t lie too well.  But he does let people jump to conclusions without correcting them.  I don’t recall now who came up with the theory, but... Did your father throw you out of the house when he found out...  When... uh...”

“You can say the word, Johnny. I was pregnant.”

“Did you tell your father that it wasn’t like that?  Didn’t you show him your marriage licence?”

“You don’t understand,” she sighed.  “I did show it to him.  He tossed it in the fire.  I burned my hand grabbing it back out, but he said it didn’t matter, paper or not, I didn’t have his permission so it didn’t count.”

“But...I thought since you were sixteen... You were sixteen, weren’t you?”

“Of course!  And I’m sure the state would have honored it – had it ever been registered.  But I was waiting for you, and you didn’t come back.  Anyway, my father refused to recognize Catholic ceremonies.  ‘Papist mummeries’, he called them, and Black Masses.  He insisted that it didn’t count.  If there even was a ceremony.”

“What do you mean by that?  You were there!  Surely, you remember...”

“I remember being scared.  I remember dark and men pounding on doors.  And a few short words spoken in Spanish.”


“The priest didn’t speak English, Johnny.  Remember?  I am fairly fluent now.  But I didn’t know much Spanish then.  You and that priest could have been saying anything, just like you told that man this afternoon!”

“Tom?  I was lying through my teeth when I talked to him!”

“You were pretty convincing.”

“I had to be!  I was fighting for your life!  Hilary, think about it.  Why would I marry you just to get you to help me?  You’d already helped me, you’d already given me everything --without ever once asking anything in return.  Hilary: I married you because I wanted to, because I wanted you...”

“I’ve been to Catholic weddings since.   They are a lot more involved.”

“We did the short version,” Johnny said.  “If you recall, we were in a little bit of a hurry.  But you don’t have to hold High Mass to have a legal wedding!  You just have to have the priest’s blessing.  And we did.”

“We did,” she agreed to that.  But then she asked, “But, did you know, when you told me we’d register the marriage when you came back and that you’d come back by winter, that the license was only valid for thirty days?”

“No,” Johnny said.  He considered that.  “But, that’s probably between getting it and getting married.  I don’t think there’s a statue of limitations on registering it.”

“You don’t know, but you think?”

“That’s how it worked when Scott got married,” Johnny shrugged.  “He had a limited amount of time between buying the license and going through with the ceremony.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter if it was recorded by the county or not.  It was legal and binding the second the priest made the sign of the cross...”

“And then you left.  It was never consummated.”

“I think we took care of that in advance,” Johnny said.

“But you left!”  she repeated. 

“If I hadn’t, I’d have been dead before dawn!  I know I said I’d come back...”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I did!”

“Oh, right,” she said.  “I forgot that part.”

“I came back!  But, it was already October.  You were gone...”

“Easy to claim now,” Hilary said.

“I did!”  Johnny insisted.  He tried to think of a way to convince her, and recalled the words Tex had spoken when he woke up briefly as they loaded him into the wagon.  “Don’t you see, Hilary?  That’s what Tex was trying to tell you!  The kid’s dying, but he wanted to clear that up with you: ‘He came back’.  He wasn’t talking about Tom – Palmer, whatever you want to call him!  He was talking about me!  I did come back!  But it was too late.  And I’ve had to live for twenty years with the guilt of knowing -- thinking anyway --  that my lateness cost you your life!  I know it was a shock when you saw I wasn’t dead.  That’s why we all came running after you, how we found Tom’s note before it was too late to respond to it.  And, I know what you’re thinking about me now.  But it’s not true.  I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to know you were still alive.  But...”  He hesitated.  Sighed.  “But,” he repeated softly.  “I still have to wonder why you let people think all those years that you were the kind of woman that... that...”

“But lots of women do ‘that’,” she said softly.  “It’s not nearly as uncommon as you seem to think.”  She shrugged.  “But, you were dead.  Or so I’d heard.  And it was over, over before it ever started, really.  A widow is a person who has known her husband, at least a little while.  I didn’t feel like a widow.  I just felt like a girl who was all alone.  It felt like a lie and a fraud to take your name when I had nothing else of you at all.”

“You had Tex,” Johnny said.

“I had Tex,” she agreed, looking down again, her fingers lightly touching the soft hair, silver now instead of gold in the faint light.

“Why’d you name him that?”  Johnny asked suddenly.

“Because that’s all we ever had,” she said softly.  “All we would have had, anyway.  Remember, Johnny?  We were going to live together in Texas.  But then you died.  But, in a way -- in him --  we were still able to live together in Texas.”

She felt it again, that steady rhythm under her hand, rapidly weakening.  That pulse of her life in Tex’s body.  Her life and Johnny’s.   She would say it now.  Think it anyway: Johnny.  Who had been executed in Mexico.  But who wasn’t dead.  It was Tex’s legs he was leaning on, but it was her leg and hip and side that he was propped against also.  She could feel the heat of his body through their combined clothing, and recalled all too vividly what it had felt like without the clothing, and her thoughts started to fly and scatter again.  She held on to Tex, pressing her hand hard against his heart, feeling that rhythm, letting that bring her mind back to a professional calmness that was the only way she could ever deal with what had happened today, what was still happening.

They would live together in Texas.

If Texas would live.



Blondie and Bundy had arrived at the doctor’s house well before Murdoch rode in, leading the small cart with its tangled up burden.  He tied the horse at the post next to the rented buggy, and ran up the steps and into the frame house that was a combination of office and home.  The door should have been locked, the front waiting area should have been dark.  But a lamp was burning, and Bundy was sitting on a dainty wooden chair, turning his hat over and over in his hands.

“Where’s my granddaughter!”  Murdoch demanded, grabbing Bundy by the throat.

“She’s safe!  She went to wake up a nurse to come and assist.  He’s in there right now, working on Blondie!”

A woman appeared in the doorway that lead to the back of the house, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Mr.  Lancer?”

“Yes,” Murdoch said.

“I’m Mrs. Ortiz, Dr. Thompson’s housekeeper.  He said we could disturb him as soon as you arrived.

She opened the door to the surgery then, and Murdoch pressed in behind her as she entered the room and made introductions.  The doctor was nearly done with Blondie.  He was stitching some skin over the end of the last missing finger.

“Pardon me if I don’t shake hands,” he said.  “Your granddaughter tells me you have a very hurt man coming in?”

“He’s here,” Murdoch agreed.  “And there’s two of them.  One of my sons was shot.  And... my grandson.”

The doctor looked around.  There was only one high table in the room, and Blondie was stretched out on that at the moment.

“I’m only equipped to take one at a time,” he said.  “Seemed silly to make more space, I only have one pair of hands.”

“Johnny might be able to sit up,” Murdoch said.

“All right then.  Bring him first while I finish here.  Get the chaise lounge from the sitting room and set it up there behind where I am now.”

Murdoch, with Bundy’s help, transported a large, upholstered seat in from the waiting room.  It was perfect for the job, having a backrest instead of an armrest on one side, and being flat and open on the other.  Once they got that in place, they went outside and lifted Johnny from the wagon and carried him inside.    The doctor finished packing and bandaging Blondie’s hand, and Bundy and Murdoch helped him upstairs to a spare room the doctor used sometimes for recovering patients while the doctor scrubbed down the table he had been working on.  He had it clean and had draped a fresh cloth over it by the time Murdoch and Bundy returned, carrying Tex’s limp body between them.  Hilary came in with them and supervised laying Tex on the table.

“You can go now,” the doctor said.  When Hilary made no move to leave the surgery, he added, “You too, ma’am.”

“I’ll stay,”  Hilary said.

“I can take care of these men perfectly well by myself,” the doctor said.

“No, you can’t,” Hilary said.  “And I am a trained surgical nurse.  I will stay and help.”

He looked up, taking in the condition of her clothing.  “That blood all over you...”

“Is his,” she said, pointing to Tex.

“All right.  Well.  Put on an apron.  You’ll find one in that second bottom cupboard there.   I guess you can start prepping that patient while I look at this one.”

“Mrs... Miss..  Um, Hilary,”  Murdoch, who was still standing in the doorway, interrupted softly.  “You said before...”

“I said before that I was incapable of removing that bullet without the proper surgical skills or tools, Mr.  Lancer.  You are the one who interpreted that as meaning I would faint at the sight of blood.  I won’t,” she added, looking back to the doctor. “Not only was I trained by the Sisters of Mercy, and have been a surgical assistant for eight years, but I have assisted in operations on this particular young man before.  If you need more references, I currently work for Dr.  Boniface in El Paso...” 

The Dr.  Boniface?”  Dr.  Thompson was clearly impressed.  “Dr.  Emilio Boniface?”

“You’ve heard of him?”  Hilary asked.

“Who hasn’t!  His new amputation techniques are required reading in most medical schools!  All right then!  You can lay out the surgical tray as well.”

“Yes, doctor,” Hilary said.  She closed the door on Murdoch and turned to do as the doctor requested.

Dr.  Thompson meantime, sat himself down on a low stool in front of Johnny.  “How bad is it?”  he asked, looking at the dirty, bloody bandages.

“It’s taken care of,” Johnny said.

“I washed it with creek water and field dressed it, doctor,” Hilary said.  “It needs to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and you will probably want to insert a drain...”

“Drain?”  the doctor echoed.

“The bullet passed through his leg completely.”

“Ah!  I see.  Good thinking!”

When the doctor reached to remove the bandages from Johnny’s leg, Johnny flinched back.  “I really... really!... don’t want to be touched again tonight,” he murmured softly.

“I have just the thing for that,” Thompson said.  “Hang on a second.”  He filled a large hypodermic needle with fluid from one of the glass bottles in his cupboard and came back towards Johnny, flicking air bubbles out of the fluid as he came.

“What is that?”  Johnny asked suspiciously.

“Topical anesthetic,” the doctor said.  When Johnny just looked at him, he explained.  “It’s fairly new, but it works quite good.  It kills pain, but only near where it is injected.  It’ll numb up that leg nicely before I work on it, though it might sting a bit going in.”

“Does it work?”

“That man Blondie seemed quite pleased with the results.  I cut back, stitched and dressed the wounds on his hand with nothing more than this.   Modern science, Mr.  Lancer, is progressing rapidly these days.”

Johnny nodded his agreement, and watched Hilary move about the room so he wouldn’t have to look at the long needle as it approached his skin.  He jumped when he felt the prick of the needle, and tensed, but relaxed again as the doctor slid it out. 

“If this went clear through, let’s turn you over and give you a dose in the other side,” Thompson suggested.  Johnny half-turned himself, still watching Hilary.

First she covered her dirty, blood-soaked dress with a thick surgical apron.   Then she moved about, opening drawers and looking into glass-fronted cabinets.  When she seemed to feel she was familiar with the lay-out of the place, she took a basin, filled it from a bucket that was steaming nearby, and poured disinfectant into it.  Instead of a Bowie knife, she located a thin, very sharp pair of scissors and used them to cut all the clothing off  the kid’s body.  While he waited for the anesthetic to take effect, the doctor helped for a moment, cutting apart the kid’s boots with a larger tool that looked a bit like bolt cutters.

“Coulda pulled them off,” Johnny commented.

“Feet tend to swell badly with certain types of injuries,” the doctor explained, and he came back to start peeling and slicing away the bandages from Johnny’s leg while Hilary continued her work.

She covered the kid with small cloth, and proceeded to wash him, starting at the feet.  She worked under the cloth without removing it when she reached it, then moved up, cleaned the area around the bandages very thoroughly, cleaning his neck and face, arms and hands, last.

“Ow!”  Johnny said.

“Still sensitive?”  the doctor asked.


“I’m afraid that even with the anesthetic this will cause you a bit of pain.  Not nearly as much, let’s hope, heh?” 

He washed the wounds on the front and back of Johnny’s leg, and here and there Johnny could feel the sting of the disinfectant.  Hilary, meantime, had thrown out the water she used to wash the kid, but still used a whole new basin for more warm water and disinfectant.  She dropped tools into this solution, and when she felt satisfied, she laid out a tray, disinfected it also, covered it with a clean cloth from the stores she had found, and began laying the instruments out on the cloth.  There was a very unpleasant looking array of knives and other sharp objects, some of which reminded Johnny uncomfortably of tools that were used in butchering animals.

“Ow!”  Johnny said again.

“I wasn’t touching you!”  the doctor said.

“You bumped the other leg, there,” Johnny said.  “It’s a bit... sensitive.”

“Always?”  Thompson asked with interest.

“Yeah.  But especially after someone kicks it repeatedly.”

“Ah!  I think we can spare you a bit more of this.”  He injected another needle full of medicine into the stump of Johnny’s other leg, right through the sewn-shut trouser leg that covered it.  Then he found a long piece of rubber tubing in one of his drawers, slit it in half  lengthwise, and rinsed it well with disinfectant.  He caused Johnny great discomfort as he shoved the rubber, first into one end of the bullet hole, then into the other, pushing each piece in as far as he could.

“Nurse?  I could use a hand now.”

Hilary was ready with heavy gauze pads and several rolls of bandages.  She helped wrap and tape it all in place, then threw a thin blanket over Johnny’s bare leg and turned to help the doctor with Tex.  As the doctor began cutting away the bandages, she took what he cut back,  and tossed them in a bin in the corner, helping also to peel things carefully as the doctor worked.  Soon they had all the stiff cloth removed and the doctor carefully lifted the compress, edging a fine scalpel between Tex’s body and the bandages to loosen and cut away bits that were stuck.  The compress peeled back.  The wound was exposed.

“Interesting,” he said, leaning over to examine it more closely.  “The bullet went in straight, I assume?  Perforated the stomach, perhaps?  There’s no corresponding exit wound...  Hmm.  The odor is not what I would have expected...”

“The bullet went in at an angle,” Hilary said.  “We estimate it is perhaps three to four inches above the entry wound.”

The doctor straightened up.  “That would put it right in his heart!”

“In that area, yes,” she agreed, coolly.  She looked and sounded very professional, and the doctor didn’t seem to notice her nervously rubbing her fingers against her thumbs, trying not to fidget.

“I can’t do anything about that!”  Thompson exclaimed.

“I was thinking,” Hilary said as if she hadn’t heard, “that once we get the bullet out...”

“We can’t get that bullet out!”  Thompson said.  “I don’t know why he isn’t dead already, but... I can’t cut into his heart!  He’ll die instantly!”

“Obviously,” Hilary said drily, “if it was in his heart he’d already be dead.  It must be near...”

“Near or in, it doesn’t matter!  I can’t reach it!  Not without killing the patient!”

“Doctor,” Johnny said.  “If you could just try...”   

“No,” he said flatly.  “Look, I appreciate that you are all upset, and that you brought the boy all the way in here hoping for a miracle, but there’s nothing anybody can do about this!  Don’t you see?  The bullet is inside his chest!  Look,” he said desperately when Johnny just stared at him.  “All your most vital organs are in this area, and nature has gone to great lengths to protect them.  You have heavy muscle in here, and ribs!  The bones are all tight together, protecting that cavity.  There’s no way I could squeeze between them to reach in there and take a bullet out!”

“Dr.  Boniface opened a man’s chest once,” Hilary said.  “I was assisting.  He didn’t try to squeeze between the ribs or reach up under them, he broke them, several of them, to be able to reach in between them.”

Johnny and the doctor both looked at her thoughtfully.

“How did he manage that?  An amputation saw would rip his whole chest apart.”

“You need a tool that will slip under the rib, small and curved, and cup it while you press down with the cutting blade.”  Hilary said, demonstrating with her fingers the required shape and action as she spoke.

“I don’t have anything like that,” the doctor said, looking at his tray. “Maybe we can improvise something....”

“Bolt cutters,” Johnny said.  “There’s some in my wag... Oh.  I forgot.  They emptied the tools.”

“I think the real question here,” the doctor interrupted, “is did the patient survive?”

“No,” Hilary admitted.  “But that patient was in a very bad state.  Tex is much more stable, his heart beat is weakening, but it is still strong.  He has lost blood, but it’s not too severe, he has no fever.  The only way this could be more optimal is if we could have gotten him here earlier.”

“Doctor,” Johnny said.  “What if we leave the bullet in there?  Murdoch has bullet still lodged near his spine somewhere that they could never get out.”

The doctor shook his head.  “There’s too much soft tissue in a chest cavity.  And something in there is already bleeding.  See.”  He touched Tex’s abdomen, and Johnny could see that it was swelling and slightly discolored from the blood leaking behind the skin.  “Bullet or no bullet, my guess is that unless we could get in there and close things up, he’ll be dead by... daybreak at the latest.”

“And if you do operate,” Hilary said softly.  “Will he be more dead, or less dead?”

“That’s not a fair question!”  Thompson objected.

“But it’s true, isn’t it?  I mean, it doesn’t really matter if the operation kills him,” Hilary said.  “He’s no more dead if you do operate than he will be if you don’t.  In fact, his chances can only go up.  From zero, to...”  she shrugged.  “One in a million, perhaps.”

“One in ten million more likely,” the doctor said.  “Or a hundred million, or...”

“But it’s still one,” Hilary said.

"Okay, okay!"  the doctor said, throwing his hands into the air.  "I'll make an effort."

"A serious effort,"  Johnny advised.

"A serious effort,"  he agreed.  "But I'm telling you right now, it's a lost cause."

"But it's always better to try and loose than just to sit and watch someone die,"  Hilary said.

"Yes, nurse,"  he agreed with a sigh.  "Yes it is.  You’ll have to be more than a nurse if we try something this grandiose!  You’ll have to assist me.   In fact, we could use another pair of hands.”

He went then to the door of the surgery and jerked it open to find that the crowd in his waiting room had swollen tremendously.

“If there’s another emergency, you’d better go see Doctor Freeman,” he said crossly.

“This is family,” Murdoch said.  “How is... are the patients?”

“One is fine.  The other most definitely is not.  You there, young lady!  You’re the one I sent for my nurse, aren’t you?”

“I knocked and shouted until the neighbors woke up and told me to be quiet,” Larissa said.  “No one came to the door!  I don’t think anybody’s home.”

“She’s probably home, she’s just a heavy sleeper,” Thompson said.  He looked around the group gathered and sighed.  “I don’t suppose any of you have any medical experience.”

“I’ve bandaged wounds,” Murdoch said, and Scott and Teresa muttered similar thoughts.

“Lissa doctors animals,” Eugene offered. 

When all eyes rested on her, Larissa admitted, “I did stitch up a cow once...”

“Are you going to faint if it’s human blood you see?” the doctor asked.

“I watched a man die today without fainting,” Larissa said.

“Surgery is more personal than death,” the doctor warned.

“I held a boy’s hand while he died this afternoon,” Larissa elaborated.  “Served as bait to catch a killer, stabbed a man in the eyeball, then watched him bleed his life out on my feet.  I think a little thing like cutting people open will seem minor by comparison.”

Nearly everyone at least smiled at that.  “I’ll do the cutting,” the doctor assured her.  “Go to the kitchen and get us some more hot water, then come in here and scrub up.  Oh, wait,” he added as she started to leave.  I’m going to need a tool...”  He thought it over and decided, “Pruning shears.”

“Excuse me?”  Scott said.

“Pruning shears.  There’s a pair in the shed out behind the kitchen.  Ask Mrs. Ortiz to help you find them.  Oh, and tell her to get me some hot blankets, like we use for shock.  She’ll know what to do. And get back here as quickly as possible.”

He closed the door again, and Hilary said, “Are you sure that’s a good idea doctor?”


“Well, isn’t it better to operate with the patient cool?  That way the blood withdraws...”

“From the extremities, yes, but when it does that, it pools in the center of the body – right where we have to work.  I figure, keeping him warm might help us.”

“Good thinking, doctor,” Hilary said.        

Johnny, temporarily forgotten, was able to lean back on his settee and watch while Hilary began to anesthetize the patient.  She put a few drops of liquid from a formidable looking bottle onto a thin cloth and held it over Tex’s mouth and nose.

"Don't breathe it in yourself!"  the doctor warned.

"I know,"  she said softly.  He struggled at first, but very minimally.  Soon his breathing slowed even more, and she left the cloth near his nose and covered his nose and mouth with a black rubber cup that was attached to a bag.  When she squeezed the bag, his chest rose.  When she released it, it sank again.  The extra air made blood bubble from the wound again.  Larissa came in, and with the doctor’s help, she spread the warm blankets over Tex’s limbs and pulled a clean apron over her own clothes.  They cleaned and disinfected the pruning sheers, then he showed her how to scrub her hands and arms while Hilary continued pumping air into Tex’s lungs, over and over.

“Okay,” the doctor told Larissa.  “Your job is to hand me the tools.  I’ll have my hands full, and I can’t be scrabbling around for them.”

“I don’t know all their names,” Larissa said, looking uncertainly at the tray.

“I’ll try to be descriptive.  Now, you, nurse.  I want you to...  Damn!”

“What?”  Hilary asked.

“If you’re doing that, you can’t be helping me.”

“I can...”  Larissa started.

“No.  I need you where I put you. Great time for Nurse Planchet to sleep so soundly!”

"How about me?"  Johnny said.

“How do you feel?”  The doctor asked.

“Weak,”  Johnny admitted.  “Tired.  But I’m not hurting any more, and that’s helping a lot.  And I can lean back while I’m doing it.”

He could, but the chaise was low.  Hilary solved that by putting a used basin upside down under each of the four legs. 

“Just don’t move around much,” the doctor said.

Hilary showed him how to work the bag that would help Tex breathe through the operation.  "Just like this.  Squeeze slowly for five seconds.  Release for at least five seconds.  Be sure to let him exhale.  No, no, not so fast.  Count, slowly...."

Meantime, outside in the waiting room, Murdoch was pacing restlessly.  “I feel so helpless!  I wish there was something else we could be doing!”

“We can pray,” Teresa suggested.

Murdoch stopped his pacing to stare at her.  “Yes,” he decided.  “We can pray.  We can do that much.”

Murdoch reached into his pocket, but came up empty.  Scott pulled a string of rosary beads out of his jeans pocket and handed them to Murdoch, the head of the family, to lead the prayers.  Murdoch knelt down on the hard wooden floor of the waiting room floor, and the others, including Jack, knelt with him.  He ran the beads through his hand, found the starting point, and began, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit....”



Tex’s body was completely covered with drapings of clean cloth, except for the bleeding wound in his chest, which had a pad over it for the moment, to soak up the blood.  The doctor  checked Tex’s heart rate, blood pressure  and temperature.

“He’s not getting any better,” he said, grimly.  “We’d better begin.

Johnny counted slowly: five in, five out.  He winced, and had to look away for a moment when the doctor’s small, sharp blade sliced into Tex's chest.  When he looked back, he saw that the doctor had made an incision that went from the bullet hole, all the way to the collarbone.

“Nurse, clamp this off.  Get another one.  Young lady...”

“Lissa,” Larissa said.

“Lissa, then.  That tool the nurse has in her hand, that’s a clamp.  Get me two more.  I’m going to cut through the muscle now... There!  See that!”

“It looks bruised,” Larissa commented.  “Can insides be bruised?”

“If you’re bleeding under them, they certainly can!  We go straight down from there and we’ll find what we’re looking for, I’ll wager.  Saw!  Er... pruning sheers!”

The tool went into the gaping hole in the boy's chest, and there was a sickening crack of bone snapping.  Johnny winced and closed his eyes.  Another snap.

"Good catch, nurse!  Never occurred to me they’d spring out like that.  It’s not going to be easy putting him back together, is it?  You there!  Watch that bag!"

Five seconds, Johnny reminded himself.  One, two, three, four, five.  And release, two three four five.  He looked down at Tex's face, so he wouldn't have to look any farther down.  The sickening slaughterhouse odor of blood and internal organs was already filling the room, a smell he had never minded before, but that was nauseating now.  Count, don't think.  One, two, three, four, five.  Release, two, three, four, five.

This was his son.  The words went through his head again, this time with a bitter longing.  All the long years he had watched Scott’s family growing up, he had longed for one of his own.  He had wanted to see his children grow, like Scott had.  Watch them sleep, teach them nursery rhymes and how to read, watch them laugh and play.  And cry.  He'd missed all of that. He had never seen this young man as a baby, as a child, growing into the manhood that fit him so comfortably now.  All he had was this: the vision of dark lashes laying softly on skin gone pale under its tan, of dusty, blood-flecked gold hair, and a mask covering the rest of the face. 

"I can't see there's too much blood!"  the doctor said.  Then, "There.  That's better. Can you get another one, Nurse?  Excellent.  Keep up the pressure.  Lissa, hand me a scalpel, the small one.  Little knife, long handle.  That’s it.  I need more pressure, this isn’t working!  He’s bleeding to death!”

“Lissa!”  Hilary said.


“Yes.  Get that pad there, with the tool like I’m doing.  Bring it in.... excellent.  Press it there.  Better doctor?”

“Better for me.  I can’t believe we have five hands in this boy’s chest!  If he survives this, he’s going to be very uncomfortable for a very long time.  You have one hand free don’t you?  Grab this scalpel... Okay, hand it back.  Got it.  Excellent nurse, excellent, Miss.  Look!  There's his heart!"

Johnny looked and nearly lost his lunch.  Tex's chest was an open  mass of blood, bone and organs.  He could see the gray, feathery edge of one lung peaking around the hands that were stuffed, impossibly, into the small hole.

"Do you see it?"  the doctor asked. 

"Yes,"  Hilary murmured.  Johnny leaned closer, and could barey see the edge of something moving, regularly.  Rhythmically.  Tex's heart.  Still beating.  Still going strong. He'd seen hearts before, butchering animals.  But this wasn't an animal heart, it was his son's heart.  And it was still going.  He eased back down in his chair feeling dizzy all over again.  Not sick this time, though.  Astounded.  He could almost understand the excitement in the doctor's voice. 

"Let me get that... there,"  the doctor murmured as he worked.  "No sign of the bullet yet, let me widen that a little... and..  Good God in Heaven!”

Johnny looked again, saw what they were all staring at.  He could see then, something roundish and dark and definitely not organic, pulsing in and out with the beating of the heart.

“It’s in his heart!”  the doctor breathed.  “It’s in his heart and... his heart is still beating!”

“It must have lost all momentum and barely hit it,” Hilary said.

“Let’s get it out!”  the doctor said.  “Miss!  I need... That!  The long-nosed, scissor-like tool.”  Larissa passed the tool with her free hand, and the doctor slid his fingers into the handles, reached in and gripped the bullet carefully, and pulled.  Tex moaned and thrashed.  Johnny caught one flailing arm, almost dropping the breathing bag.

"Pick it up, keep that air bag going!"  the doctor shouted.  “You there, you have two hands!  Put another drop of cholorform on that cloth.  And don’t breathe while you do it!”

Johnny trapped Tex’s arm with his shoulder,  pulled the bag off quickly, held his breath to put another drop of liquid on the cloth under the bag, sealed the bag and went back to squeezing it.  Tex quieted.  Larissa, who had leaned her hip to pin his other arm against the edge of the table, backed off.

 "What happened?"  Johnny asked.

"It's stuck in there.  That little tug hurt him enough to almost wake him up,"  the doctor said, blinking sweat out of his eyes.  "Miss, wipe my forehead , and the nurse’s.  Thank you.  You just keep him breathing up there.  Nurse, you'll have to cut the muscle back a bit to get it out."

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,”  Hilary said.

“I only have two hands, and they’re both occupied just now!”  the doctor said.  “You’ll just have to...”

“You don’t understand.  Look at it, Doctor.  It’s stuck in is the heart wall.  That’s why his heart is still going: it’s acted like a plug.  If you pull it out...”

“I see what you’re saying.  I think you may be right.  Okay.  This is what we’ll do.  You there, with the bag.  Reach over here, take that pad from the young lady... I know it’s awkward, but can you keep that pressure up?”

“Yes,” Johnny said.

“And keep squeezing!  Okay, nurse, get the small surgical scissors ready, not a scalpel.  We want as much control as possible.   Miss.  Have you ever put your finger on a string while someone tied a package?”

“Yes,” Larissa said.

“Good!  That’s what I want you to do.  Put your finger up against that bullet.  Closer.  Press down...  No!  Not on it!  Next to it!  Good.  Okay, pressure, but flow with the beat of the heart, don’t fight it!  Now, when I say,  Nurse, you’ll clip back the tissue a little so I can  yank that bullet out, and  Miss, you’ll slide your finger into that hole as I do, like the Little Dutch Boy at the dyke?  Okay?  Okay, everyone.... Now!”

Hilary snipped, the doctor yanked, Larissa slipped her finger into the hole, and there it stayed, the heart muscle clenched around it, the heart pulsing like a small animal breathing, warm and wet against her flesh.

“There it is,” the doctor said, holding up the blood-slick bit of lead.  It had flattened unevenly, so that it had a sort of lip on one side, a thin semi-circle of flat metal.

“That’s why it didn’t want to come out,” the doctor observed, turning it so that they could all see it. 

“And that’s why it stayed wedged in there, even after that long drive into town,” Johnny added.

“It might have been able to stay in there indefinitely,” the doctor said.  “A plug, like the nurse said.  But can you imagine having that in your chest for the rest of your life.”  He dropped it onto the surgical tray where it landed with a loud clang!, and he glanced up again at Larissa before continuing.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes... I... Yes, I am.”           

“Okay.  Good.  We’ve got some serious patching up to do here.  This will take awhile.  Nurse, I can’t move my other hand.”

“Do you want me to slide mine in there...”

 “No.  Forget it.  Too awkward.  You set up the suture.  The small one.  That’s it.  That very fine thread.  Can you make a stitch there, right next to the girl’s finger...”

"I've sutured flesh before, but never muscle tissue,"  Hilary said.

"Same principal.  How good is your vision?”

“Perfect with my glasses.  Even better close up with out them.”

“Get rid of them, if you need to.  Put your nose right into that wound if you have to, but make stitches so small you can’t believe you are managing it.  Can you do that?”

“Yes.  Yes, I can,” Hilary said.

She closed up Tex’s heart, one stitch at a time, making infinitesimally small stitches, extremely close together, tying each one with tweezers as she went.  After several stitches, Larissa had to slide her finger out a little.  Then a little more...

“You have your hand back,” the doctor observed.  “Grab this.  Okay.  We’re back in business.  And the patient, God only knows why, is still alive!”



It was well past sun-up before the surgery door opened again.  Larissa, arching her back against the stiffness of her muscles stepped out, followed by the doctor.  In the waiting room, the family was sprawled, mostly on the floor where they had kneeled, hours ago.  Jack was sleeping, his head in his mother’s lap.  Teresa had her legs bent next to her, not under her, as the feeling came back into them in pins and needles.  Murdoch had given up kneeling and was sitting flat on the floor, his back braced against the wall, as he counted the beads through his fingers.  Scott still knelt, leaning his elbows on a chair next to Gene, who had his head resting on the chair seat, sound asleep.  Larissa lowered herself stiffly to a chair while Murdoch and Scott both pushed themselves to their feet.

“Tex?”  Murdoch asked cautiously.  He did not like the drained look on Larissa’s face.

But the doctor didn’t look drained, he looked exhilarated.  "It was absolutely amazing!” he said, gesticulating excitedly.  “I would never have even guessed it was possible!   I actually saw a man's heart beating, inside his body!  Incredible!”

“How is the boy, doctor?”  Murdoch asked, interrupting his tirade.

“Very bad!”  the doctor said.  “What can you expect, with a bullet actually in his heart?”

“In it?”  Scott asked.  “Is it even possible to survive that?”

“It is, when you have the greatest surgical team in the west!”  the doctor crowed, high on the thrill of the operation, even as he was exhausted from the duration of it.  “Actually, no, it’s not possible.  But we did it.  He did it!  Incredible!  Absolutely incredible!”

“And Johnny?”

“He helped at first, but he’s resting now.  Has been for better than an hour.  He’ll be fine.  Need to watch for infection, but it looked clean.”

“And Tex is going to survive?”  Teresa asked again.

“We won’t know,” the doctor said, more seriously.  “For a very long time we won’t know if he’ll survive that.  His chest was wide open.  His heart has a hole in it! But, he’s alive now, and that’s more of a chance that I would have given him!  I’m going to keep him sedated – not as heavily as for an operation, but sleeping – for at least the rest of the day.  Maybe longer.  The longer he doesn’t move, the greater his chances of that tear in his chest healing.  For now, that’s all we can do.”

“And Mrs.... Your nurse,” Murdoch said, still not certain what he should call the woman.  He had, after all, over heard the conversation between her and Johnny in the wagon.  They were married!  Perhaps.

“I’m going to have a very hard time chasing her out of there,” the doctor said.  “She absolutely refuses to leave his side!  Perhaps you can talk her into getting some rest.”

“I doubt it,” Teresa said.  “You wouldn’t be able to talk me into leaving if it were one of my boys.  She is Tex's mother."

The doctor's grin faltered.  He looked at Teresa, then at the others in the room and saw that no one seemed to be joking.  "No one mentioned that before we started!  I would never have allowed her to assist if I had known!"

"And the boy would be dead now, wouldn't he?"  Murdoch asked quietly.  

The doctor shook his head.  “That is some woman!   Cool, poised. Unbelievable!  I would never have even attempted such an operation without her!  I wonder if I can entice her to stay here instead of going back to El Paso.  Say, what was she doing here anyway, if she lives in El Paso.”

“It’s a long story, doctor,” Murdoch said.  “For now... Is there anything else any of us can do?”

“There’s nothing you can do but worry, and you can do that at home."  

“We can help you watch...”  Teresa answered.

“Thank you, but my regular nurse should be arriving very soon.  Mrs.  Ortiz has prepared a meal for myself and my patients.  I believe we’re all set for now.  But, from what I understand of last night’s events, you all may have some business to take care of.”

“Yes,” Murdoch agreed. 

Teresa groaned as she stood, finally, arching her stiff back as Larissa had earlier.  She was thinking of the long ride back, the horrible mess in the kitchen.  But Scott said, “Why don’t we all go get some breakfast, then get us a couple rooms at the hotel?”

“We’re staying here?”  Larissa asked.

“For now, I think it’s a good idea,” Scott said.  “We’ll be closer to the wounded, and we do have to deal with the marshal’s office.  The ranch will run itself for a day or two while we get things straightened out.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever live long enough to hear you say that the ranch could do without you,” Teresa said, leaning into him as he put out his arm. 

He wrapped her against his chest and said, “A man always wants to think that he’s needed for something.”

“You are needed,” Teresa murmured.  “Very needed.  Right here.”

“Good,” the doctor said.  “Then you’ll all be going...”

“Oh.  Not yet,” Teresa recalled.  “We do have one more injury.” 

“You people have had a busy night!”  the doctor said.  There was no place in the surgery to put Jack, so he brought a kit out to the waiting room and cleaned and dressed the burns out there.

“Is this serious?”  Teresa asked, holding Jack in her lap while the doctor worked.

“Burns are always serious,” the doctor said.  “Especially blistered like this.  I’m glad you’re staying in town.  I’d like to keep an eye on him for a day or two, check this every day for signs of infection.  But for now, he can go get some sleep.”

Jack had not slept through the treatment.  He had sat huddled on his mother’s lap, biting back cries and whimpers as his damaged flesh was scrubbed and disinfected and bandaged.  Tears had trickled silently down his face, though.

“Now, for my very bravest patients,” the doctor smiled at him, reaching into his bag,  “I keep something special around.  How’s this?”

He produced a long brightly-striped candy stick.  Jack’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at his mother, and accepted the candy only when she nodded.

“Take the kids and get us a room,” Scott said to Teresa.  “A few rooms.  Murdoch and I will be along in a minute.  The doctor may need help moving patients around.”

“I do.  Thanks for staying,” the doctor said, snapping his bag shut.

Teresa herded the children out of the door, pleased to see Jack snap pieces off his big candy and pass them around to his older siblings as they went.

“You deserve it, Jackie,” Gene said generously, though he was hungry, and that candy looked very good.  “You were brave about that burn.”

“And you fought that man in the house,” Jack said.

“You helped,” Gene said.

“We all helped,” Teresa said, and to her surprise, Jack handed her a piece as well.  She put it in her mouth, and glanced at Larissa, who was sucking a small piece of candy that Jack had given her.

“Larissa helped the doctor,” Jack said, as if an explanation was necessary.

“Yes, she did,” Teresa said.  “I suppose now you want to be a nurse, like Mrs.  Pierce?  Or a doctor?”

“Not really,” Larissa said.

“Was it pretty bad then?”  Teresa asked.

“Did you really get to see his heart?”  Gene demanded.

“No, and yes,” Larissa said.  “That part was interesting.  It’s just...”

“What?”  Teresa asked.

Larissa hesitated.  “I don’t really want to be a doctor.  But,” she added, quickly as if that would make saying it easier.  “I have always wanted to be a veterinarian!”

“A veterinarian!”  Teresa exclaimed.

“I know you had your heart set on me attending that ladies’ college in Sacramento, Mother, but could I... I mean, do you think I could eventually get into the university there?  To study veterinary medicine.  I always thought about it, but now... do you know there are veterinary surgeons?  Just like Dr.  Thompson, only for animals!  I know it’s expensive, Mother, but I could get a job to help pay for it.  And I’d work for the ranch for free forever after, if I could.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”  Teresa asked, staring at her in surprise.

“I’m very serious,” Larissa said.  Then she sighed.  “Although I suppose it’s far too expensive, isn’t it?”

Teresa thought suddenly of the money, banked in her name for the grazing rights on her property for seventeen years.   “It’s possible,” she said, “that if you really want to do that, that the money could be found.”

“I really, really do, Mother!  Now more than ever!”

“Then, I think that we should have a family conference about it soon.  Your father knows more about universities and such than I do.”

“Do you think he’ll be upset?”  Larissa asked.  “I mean... it’s not very lady-like.”

“I think,” Teresa said, putting an arm around her daughter and giving her a warm hug as they walked down the street towards the hotel, “that he’ll be so proud, I’ll have to re-sew all the buttons on his shirt!”   

“What’s a vegetenarian anyway?”  Jack asked.



Murdoch and Scott followed the doctor back into the surgery where they saw Hilary busily cleaning up, Tex lying still on the table, and Johnny sprawled on the chaise. 

“Where do we put this one, Doctor?”  Scott asked, nudging the foot of the chaise with one toe.  “Load him back in the wagon and take him to the hotel...?”

“No, I have two rooms upstairs for recuperating in.  We’ll just put him in the second one.”

“What about Tex?”  Scott asked.

“I don’t want him moved, not that much anyway.  I have a surgical recovery room behind this one.  We can wheel him right in there and shift him onto the high bed with very little jarring.

There wasn’t much room for maneuvering, so Murdoch stayed in the surgery while Scott helped the doctor with Tex.  Hilary moved to follow them, but Murdoch stopped her with a touch on the arm.

She looked much worse for the wear than she had when he had first seen her yesterday  afternoon.  Her neat nurse’s veil was long gone, and though her hair was tied back in a loose braid and was also partially covered with a cloth tied like a scarf to keep it out of the way during the operation, the riotous dark curls were still trying to escape, some of them clinging to her neck with sweat.  Her plain gray dress, hanging limp now without a petticoat and half-covered by Johnny’s shirt,  was sweat and grass stained, dirty and splattered with blood.  Her eyes looked sunken and were darkly circled by exhaustion, and besides the cut on her face, covered now with a sticky bandage, marks were starting to show that would soon be bruises on her face and her neck and her arms.

“Excuse me.  I need to go with Tex,” she said, looking down at his hand.

“You can go in there when they come out,” Murdoch said softly.  “I’d like to speak to you for a moment first, if I may.”

She looked impatient, despite her obvious exhaustion.  “Yes?”

“I... Well, I just wanted to tell you that I do understand the rush of emotions you must be dealing with right now.”

“Oh, I doubt that, Mr.  Lancer!”

“Murdoch.  Please.  I overheard that conversation you had with my son in the wagon,” Murdoch explained gently.  When she started to say something, he drowned her out.  “Now, I don’t know all the details, and I’m not asking for them at this time.  I just want to say that I do know its much more complicated, you two finding each other after all this time, than just a happy reunion.  Whatever your relationship is now with Johnny, that’s something you’ll have to work out, in your own heart and with him.”

She nodded, her head moving in tiny jerks.  Her eyes were still cast downward and he could see her worrying her lip with her teeth.  He reached out and caught her hands, aware as he did of a drop of warm wetness falling onto his hand: tears.

“For now... Remember in the barn when I said you’d had a hard day?”

She nodded, and the sound she made was much like the sound she had made then.

“The best I can say about that remark is that it was a severe understatement.  You woke up, I’m guessing, on a train...”

She nodded.

“One of several trains you had been riding for days, ever since you received the mistaken telegram telling you that your son was dead.  You made the journey out to the Lancer Ranch, expecting nothing more than a chance to see where his body was laid.  Instead, you discovered that he was alive and well, and further, that his father was alive and well, and that must have been quite a shock.  Before you could even begin to assimilate that information, you were kidnaped by a raving lunatic and tortured, heard terrible things said about you, and survived not one but two gunfights, the second of which left your son at death’s door.  You then had to bandage his wounds and carry him to this office, where you pushed and prodded to get the doctor to perform an impossible surgery, in which you assisted, causing you not only even more stress, but to be on your feet for hours.  Your day so far has been well over twenty-four hours long.  Twenty-four hours of incredible strain, tension, fear, hope, challenge, adversity and unwavering strength.  I just wanted to ask you not to make any judgments on Johnny or any decisions until you’ve had a chance to recover just from the events of today.”

She nodded continually through his speech, but as it wound towards a close, her breath also caught in short gasps as she tried to hold in tears.  She nodded, sniffed.  Nodded again.  The swirl of wild emotions she had successfully kept at bay by concentrating on Tex, on helping Tex, were let loose again now that Tex was resting and out of the room.  Without him to anchor her, with Murdoch’s words to remind her, she found herself unable to keep control any longer.

“Hilary,” Murdoch said gently, and the flood burst forth.  All the overwhelming wash of emotions she had had to hold in in order to deal with the stresses of the day, burst out, along with her fear and her worry and her exhaustion, and she fell into Murdoch’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably. 

“There, there, now!”  Murdoch murmured, holding her against him, stroking her hair.  “There, daughter, you are not alone!  We are here for you!  We will always be here for you now...”

Words, spoken softly and for comfort, but words that were sincerely meant.  Their honestly and caring made Hilary sobs stronger and she sobbed out not only the horror and pain of the past twenty-four hours, but the loneliness of the past twenty years.  She cried until Murdoch began to worry for her health.  She cried until her whole body was soaked in sweat and shaking from the effort, and Murdoch’s shirt front was wet through.  She cried until the doctor, who had been hovering nearby for some time, finally pulled out a small hypodermic needle and injected her with something that, slowly, made the sobs stop as she slipped into drugged sleep in Murdoch’s arms.

“Can’t hardly blame her,” the doctor said.  “I’m feeling a little ragged myself.  And I didn’t go through half of what you described there.”

“You were listening?”  Murdoch demanded.

“It’s a small office,” the doctor said.  He sighed and looked around.  “Too small, all of a sudden!  If we put her in the upstairs room, where do we put you?”

Murdoch and Scott followed his glance, and they all saw that Johnny was awake and watching the entire scene over the back of the chaise.

“The hotel...?”  Scott suggested again.

“Her room,” Johnny said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, even though I plan to inject you just like I did her,” the doctor said.  “A strange man and a strange woman sharing a bed?  No!”

“She’s my wife,” Johnny said softly.

“She...?  Then that kid in there is... ?’

“Our son,” Johnny agreed.

“I let both his parents assist in the operation,” the doctor moaned to the ceiling.  “Please don’t tell me the girl I had assisting is his sister?  Wife?”

“First cousin,” Scott said.

“Of course!  That makes it all better!  You people are crazy.”

“Can I put her down somewhere?”  Murdoch asked.  At his age, carrying young ladies alone was a little more than he could handle.

The doctor led the way to the second upstairs bedroom, with Scott helping Murdoch carry Hilary.  They laid her gently on the bed and went down to get Johnny while the doctor went back to keep watch over Tex.

“You’re sure about this?”  Murdoch asked.

“I want to be with her now,” Johnny said.  “And she needs me.”

They stretched him out on the bed beside her and turned to leave.


“Yes, son?”  Murdoch answered softly.

“Send the doctor up here.  With that little bag of his.”

“He said he’ll come in a bit to give you a shot,” Murdoch said.

Johnny shook his head.  “Not for me.  For her.”

“I don’t think I...”

“When she kept insisting that she was all right, when she told the doctor the blood on her shirt was Tex’s... She was lying,” Johnny said.

“I’ll make sure he comes right away!”  Murdoch promised.



“Who did this bandaging?”  the doctor asked, cutting the cloth back and trying to peel it off.  Blood and forming scabs stuck to it, making it tear, and fresh blood ooze as he opened the wound.

“She did it herself.  She wouldn’t let anyone help her,” Johnny said.

“Not even her husband?”

When Johnny didn’t answer, the doctor glanced up at him from under his eyebrows, then turned his attention back to his work.  “You weren’t lying to me, were you?”

“No.  I wasn’t.”  Johnny pushed himself up on his elbow to look as the doctor finished peeling back the bandages.  There was a purpling bruise on her shoulder and more marks on her chest.  A deep cut that would need stitching echoed the surgical incision they had just made on Tex.  There were a couple more shallow cuts, but what made Johnny suck in his breath was the clearly defined initials carved into her left breast: TP.

“Can you... make that go away?”  he asked.

“No, I can’t,” the doctor said.  He was cleaning the wounds, and the smell of antiseptic was strong.  “I’ll need to stitch them, but that won’t make them go away.  There will be scars...”

Before he realized what Johnny was doing, Johnny had snatched a sharp scalpel out of the kit he had sitting on the bed and slashed two, three times at Hilary’s exposed breast.

“Are you out of your mind?!” 

It wasn’t difficult to wrestle the scalpel away from Johnny: Johnny was too weak to put up much of a resistance.  The doctor put his bag on the floor, well away from where Johnny lay, and set about cleaning and staunching the new cuts.

“That does it!  You are not staying here!”

“I don’t care,” Johnny said, leaning back into the pillow and closing his eyes.  “It doesn’t matter now.  Now, when she does take off those bandages and sees her reflection in the mirror, there won’t be some maniac’s initials carved in her skin.”

The doctor peeked under the gauze, then pressed it down again.  The extra slashes had turned the whole thing into just random lines, not initials.  So, there had been reasoning behind the move.  Still....!

“Do you suppose he carved them backwards on purpose so she would be able to read them in the mirror?”  the doctor asked.

“Maybe.  No.  No, he always had trouble with letters.  Saw them backwards or in the wrong order or something.  I don’t know.”  Johnny sighed, and rolled over again to watch as the doctor stitched the cuts where they needed it and bandaged Hilary.  He even helped shift her so the doctor could reach the bandages all the way around her and tie them on.

“There.  Now,” the doctor said.  “Any more injured family members I should know about?”

“I think that probably covers it all,” Johnny said, and he grunted slightly in surprise as the doctor stabbed another needle into him.

“You people,” the doctor said again, “are crazy.”



She was dreaming.

She knew that she was dreaming, but it was a pleasant dream for the first time in a long time, and so she clung to it, wrapped it around her, and didn’t let it go.  The dream was based on a memory, a memory of lying in the early spring grass, with tiny flowers bobbing in the soft breeze and aspen leaves rustling like running water over head.  The day was cool, but the sun was warm, and it baked through the dark-colored dress she wore so that she was warm: more than warm, she was hot.  Sweat beaded up and trickled down her cheek and she was tempted to move to the shade.  But, he was here.  The warm sun felt good on his healing wounds, he’d said, and she turned now to look at him and found him propped on an elbow, looking at her.

“Hi,” she said, feeling her mouth curve into a smile at seeing his face.

“Hi,” he said back, and he smiled too, smiled and touched his finger to the tip of her nose.  “Spring cleaning is going to be the death of you yet.  You may have to give it up.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that!  A house smells so musty and stuffy after being closed up all winter, you know.”

“I don’t think I do know,” he said.  “I don’t think I’ve lived in one place long enough to know.”

“That’s very sad,” she said.

“Is it?”  He touched the tip of her nose again.

“Yes, very sad.  Maybe what I’ll have to give up is you.”

“I don’t think I can let you do that,” he said, poking her nose again.

She wiped at her nose, at the tickling feeling his finger left, and it was wet.  Not his finger poking her gently, but sweat, trickling down and dripping off the end.  Because it was hot.  Very hot, and there was no sound of wind in the aspens but the sounds of a city street drifting up and in the open window.  She opened her eyes, and for a moment, dream overlaid her mind still because she saw him there, facing her, smiling softly.

Only, it wasn’t the him she remembered.  This was a grown man, not a youth of eighteen, a man with a few thin strands of silver laced through his dark hair, with a moustache over his lip, and sweat trickling down his own face.

“Good morning,” he said.

She was so surprised that a mild curse escaped her mouth even as she sprang up, clutching at the sheet to cover herself.  It wasn’t morning, it was evening, but they were alone in a room she had never seen before, together in the bed...

“How dare you!”  she snapped furiously.  She jumped to her feet, still clutching the sheet because the bandages around her chest – not the bandages she had tied there herself! -- didn’t cover the more personal parts of her body, and she looked around frantically, dropped the sheet only when she had her back to him and was picking up the grubby, bloodstained shirt she had been wearing last night.

“Hilary, wait!”  he said.

Buttoning his shirt, she turned to glare at him furiously.  “You!”  she spat angrily.  “How dare you!  You are not the person I remember at all!”

“Calm down!”  He sighed tiredly.  “They gave me the same shot they gave you!  We were both dead to the world all day!  Besides which I’m in far too much pain to go around molesting anyone.”

“How did I end up in here?”  she demanded, still shaking in her anger.

“You needed rest, I needed rest. There weren’t a lot of beds available.  And Hilary.  We are married.”

“That makes a lovely excuse, doesn’t it, for conning people to help you trap a strange woman in your bed!”

“You weren’t trapped, you were sleeping,” Johnny said.  “Sleeping, Hilary!  Nothing else!”

“It doesn’t matter!  It was sneaky and it was... wrong!  Why would you do that!”

“Because I knew that once you were rested you’d spend all your time with Tex – which is as it should be.  He needs you.  But, I wanted to see you again, Hilary.  To get a chance to talk to you.  And I’ve wished for twenty years that I could wake up and see you lying there next to me.”

“So you lied to do it!”

“I didn’t lie!  We are married!  We belong together.”

She was shaking her head. 

“You don’t really believe what you said last night, about it not being a real ceremony, do you?”  he asked.  “Please tell me you haven’t spent the last twenty years thinking I had for some reason faked our wedding?”

“No,” she admitted.  “No, I never thought that.”

“Then why did you say it?”

“Because I was hurt, Johnny!  I spent twenty years mourning your death.  And then, there you were.  Alive and well, talking, laughing.  Living in that grand house, with the father you once said you hated.”


“I know, Johnny!  I know.  I believe you.   If you say you went back, then I believe you went back.”  She hesitated a moment before asking, “Was there really a grave?” 

“Yes.  There was a grave, and a hand-made wooden cross, with a date carved in it that was less than two weeks old.”

“I used to wonder if I should contact him, introduce his grandson to him.”  she mused softly.  “Now I’m glad I never did.  How dare he turn a child out on the world, then pretend he was a grieving father and accept condolences and sympathy from his friends and neighbors!”  She took a deep breath, swallowing the anger that had momentarily welled up.   “At any rate,” she continued.  “It was quite a shock seeing you there, and I really didn’t know what to think, what to feel.  I was hurt, but I was already slowing down the buggy, preparing to turn and go back, when that man appeared.  I knew there had to be some explanation.  Of course, it did occur to me that perhaps you had just left, gone to a better life.  After all, I didn’t know you that well, did I?”

“You knew me better than anyone has ever known me, before or since.”

“Yes, but, considering the circumstances, I couldn’t believe that any more, could I?”

“But you were coming back.”  Johnny clung to that notion.  Why?”

“Because when I saw you, you were standing there talking to Tex.  And he seemed to be relaxed, to have accepted you.  He’s a very intelligent young man.  Not at all what you’d call gullible, even concerning something like a chance to meet his father.  And, he’s a very determined investigator.  He knew all about you, of course, or at least all that I knew.  He even looked up the record of  your death a year or so ago when he was in Mexico on other business.”

“Yes, he told us.”

“And you got a chance to meet him, to know him a little.  Do you think, if he felt he had cause to hate you, that he would have worked with you so calmly?”

“I think,” Johnny said, “he was much more likely to have slit my throat if he suspected I had intentionally hurt you.  Although, he didn’t have all the details himself until after you came to the house.”

“Part of what makes him a good investigator is that he’s a very good judge of character.  Even without the facts, he gave you the benefit of the doubt, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Johnny said.

“Then, clearly, I could do no less.  Though logic doesn’t make the hurt go away.”

“No,” Johnny agreed.  “It doesn’t.  But I wish I could make that hurt go away.  I wish I could make the past twenty years go away, start over.  Start fresh.  You and me together, they way we were supposed to be.”

“But you can’t, can you?”  Hilary said softly.  “Those twenty years happened, and you can’t wish them away.  I know what you want, Johnny.  I want it too: to be who we were then, to be able to start our lives together like we planned to, then.  But it isn’t possible.”

“We can start over fresh, now,” Johnny said, but she was shaking her head again.

“No.  We can’t.  We’re total strangers now.  We share a bit of history, but nothing else.  We are twenty years from where we started.  A very full twenty years.”

“But, we are married,” he insisted.

“I’m sure, given the circumstances and what happened afterwards, that it will be fairly easy to annul that marriage,” she said.

Johnny felt as though ice water had just been injected into his heart. “You want to annul me?  To annul us?” 

“I think it would be for the best, don’t you?  I’m a woman with a grown son, with a home and a very rewarding career in another state.  You have a home here, and family.  And a life.  And... we don’t really know each at all, do we?”

“We do know each other!”

“We knew each other,” she conceded.  “But, Johnny.   I am not a sixteen-year-old child who spends half her life hiding out in a...  a playhouse in the mountains to avoid an overbearing and sometimes abusive father any more than you are a romantic, young desperado, angry at the world and hiding from the law.  We’re total strangers.  It just wouldn’t work, Johnny.  And when you start seeing me, start seeing both of us, for what we really are and not for what you wish could be, you’ll see that I’m right.”

“Hilary!’  He said in pain.

“Good bye,” she said softly, and she left the room, closing the door behind her.

She wasn’t sure where she was.  In the doctor’s house, she supposed.  The upstairs hallway was little more than a landing, with three doors opening off it so it was easy enough to locate the exit: the staircase leading back down to the first floor.  She found her hands were shaking as she used the hand rail to guide herself down the narrow steps.  All the rest of that endless drive into town last night, she had been thinking the same things that she had said to Johnny upstairs just now.  All through the drive, and in moments during the surgery when she had time for thoughts to flit around in her brain.  She had prepared herself, so she thought, for the hurt to herself and the pain in his eyes.  But she had not realized actually saying it would be so hard.

But it was done now.  Over.  The confrontation was as much a thing of the past as their brief romance twenty years ago.  She shrugged off the burden of it, and stepped into a kitchen that was every bit as hot as the upstairs bedroom.  The kitchen was at the back of the house.  Tex, no doubt, was at the front.  She turned to head up the hallway when a voice called out to her, “Hilary, I presume?  I am under orders not to let you leave this room!”

She turned, and saw a woman sitting at the kitchen table.  This was not the housekeeper she had seen briefly bringing water into the surgery last night.  This woman was about her own age, taller and more slender, wearing a light summer blouse and skirt, her hair piled on top of her head in an elegant up-sweep that Hilary immediately envied.  The woman stood up, smiling, and held out a hand.

“Hi.  I’m Mrs. Lancer.  Teresa Lancer.”

Hilary stepped closer, but hesitated before accepting the hand.  “It wasn’t my idea,” she said softly.

“Excuse me?”  Teresa asked.

“That we were in the same... room,” she couldn’t say bed, not to this woman.  She didn’t know whether to be shocked or hurt or embarrassed, seeing her here, and Johnny insisting that the two of them were legally married!

“Oh!” Teresa said. “Let me clarify.  I’m Mrs. Scott Lancer. Johnny’s sister-in-law.”

“S-sister,” Hilary repeated.  “Oh, I...  Yes.”  Confused, she accepted the offered hand, finally.  “Pleased to meet you.  I’m sorry, I didn’t know Johnny had a brother.”

“That’s all right.  He didn’t either until he came here.  Mrs. Ortiz went out to the store, but since I was here, she passed on her orders from Doctor Thompson to me.  Orders are, you are not to visit the sickroom until you have had a bath and a meal.”

Hilary glanced down at her filthy clothes in embarrassment.  “Of course.  “I’m sorry...”

“That wasn’t meant to be insulting!”  Teresa said.  “Look, the bath is drawn already, it’s behind the screen in the corner there.  And when Murdoch told me you had come out here without even packing anything, I took the liberty of picking up a few things for you.”

“You shouldn’t have troubled yourself...”

“It was no trouble I promise you that! Now, I can’t guarantee the sizes, since I never met you, or even laid eyes on you until now!  But I’m sure it will all do until we can go shopping together.  Now, it’s a hot day, hot in here and upstairs, so I didn’t think you’d want too hot of a bath, but the water is warm, and there’s more hot on the stove.  And once you’re all cleaned up – and feeling better, I’m sure – Mrs.  Ortiz left a plate of food here for you.  When was the last time you ate anything?”

Hilary didn’t actually know the answer to that.  “I bought a sandwich on the train,” she recalled, but when?  Yesterday morning?  The night before?  She suddenly realized she was hungry.  And the smells in the kitchen were making her mouth water.

“Bath first,” Teresa said.

“Oh!”  Hilary said.  If she was hungry, how must Johnny be feeling?  When was the last meal he’d had?  Yesterday noon?  Yesterday morning, was more likely.

“Johnny....”  she started.

“I’m way ahead of you,”  Teresa said.  “If you’re up, I can assume he is also, and I have a tray here for him.  You get started on that bath, and I’ll take Johnny’s dinner up to him.  Do you need any help with anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” Hilary said, and as Teresa gathered up a tray, Hilary stepped behind the screen that blocked off one corner of the kitchen.  She dipped her fingers in the bath water and found it to be warm, as promised, but not hot.  There was a chair sitting next to the tub on which was folded a light gray skirt and a pale blue calico blouse printed with tiny pink rosebuds.  And clean under things: not just a petticoat, but clean, fresh undergarments from the skin out.  And stockings and garters.  And a brand new comb and brush set, a paper of hair pins as well as a pair of tortoise-shell hair combs, and a bar of lavender-scented soap, still in its tissue paper wrapping.  She picked it up, and inhaled the fresh, clean scent through the tissue and blessed Mrs. Teresa Lancer for her thoughtfulness and foresight!

Hilary quickly skimmed out of the few garments she still had on, but could not reach the bindings on the bandages that were wrapped tight around her upper chest.  From the prickly feel of the throbbing flesh under the bandages, she assumed she had received a few stitches sometime recently, and she knew that she should not wet them: it could loosen or tear them and was inviting infection.  She hesitated a moment, then decided she didn’t care.  She stepped into the tub and sank, with a sigh, in up to her chin.  She had not had a bath in ... she didn’t know how long.  Well over a week.  Sweat and dirt and blood and coal-smoke seemed to permeate her every pore, and she didn’t soak long before she started to scrub.  She was scrubbing herself for the second time when Teresa came back and called “How’s it going?”

“Wonderful!”  Hilary said.  “But, I’m going to need some fresh bandages.  I’ve gotten mine all wet.”

“Of course!  Murdoch mentioned you were hurt, too.  The Doctor is taking a nap right now, but his nurse is sitting watch with Tex.  I’ll go ask her.  Be right back.”

She left again, and Hilary stood up out of the now-dirty bath water, enjoying a shiver as the air from the open window touched her wet skin.  There was a towel hanging over the back of the screen, and she dried herself and began dressing.  The clean linens felt wonderful pulled over clean skin.  She was very worried about Tex, but she was pleased that the doctor had left this “prescription” for her to follow.

“I’m back,” Teresa announced unnecessarily.  “I asked about Tex, and Nurse Planchet said he’s doing fine.  And how are you doing back there?”

“I will need help with the bandages,” Hilary admitted.

Teresa stepped around the screen.  Hilary was completely dressed from the waist down, but she had unbuttoned and pushed down the top of her chemise and the cloth bands the doctor had wrapped around her last night were dripping water down her back.  Teresa unfastened the soggy wrappings and helped Hilary dry her back.  Hilary dried her own front, then pressed gauze pads over the stitches and held them in place while Teresa wrapped and tied on the bandages.

“That man Tex was looking for did that to you?”  Teresa asked.


“I’m so sorry you got mixed up in our troubles, Mrs... I’ll just call you Hilary, if you don’t mind.  Rumors are flying, but I’ll let you explain it all on your own time.  Meantime, there’s tamales and beans and fresh-made tortillas.  If you like that kind of food.”

“I love it,” Hilary said.  She replaced her chemise over his bandages, and put on her blouse before coming around the screen to find that Teresa, meantime, had laid a place for her at the table: all the promised food, plus cool well water, a cup of coffee and butter and jam for the tortillas.

“Now,” Teresa said, sitting down opposite Hilary at the table.  “I never thought of myself as much of a gossip, but I never had anyone to gossip with before.  Well, there’s our cook, of course, and she’s pretty good at it.  But she doesn’t know much that I don’t already know.  And I have been dying, for years, to find out Johnny’s story.  He’s so reticent about some things!”

“It is his story,” Hilary said, unwrapping a tamale and inhaling the sweet, spicy steam. 

“But, it’s yours, too, isn’t it?”  Teresa said.  “So, you can tell it to me.  And I can tell you my story, which includes my side of Johnny’s story.  Do you want to start, or shall I?”

“There’s not really much to say,” Hilary said.

“You eat,” Teresa said.  “I’ll start.  I lived with Murdoch Lancer since I was about nine years old....”



The sun went down.  Cool night breezes cut through the heat in the kitchen, and Hilary found herself talking to this woman, telling her more than she had ever told anyone, even Tex.  Teresa talked while Hilary ate, and her story loosened Hilary’s own desire to talk, to share the years of pain and loneliness with someone who would understand.  And Teresa did understand.  Their lives were very different, and yet – not so different, in some ways.  Hilary had the excuse of needing to work all the snarls out of her thick, curly hair and that took plenty of time for her to begin sharing her story.  They asked each other questions.  They compared feelings.  They talked out all the years of needing someone of the same age and sex to share things with, and finally, as Teresa stood to light a lamp against the growing darkness, Hilary knew she had talked too long.

“I must check on Tex,” she said.

“Yes, I know.  But you needed this little break first, didn’t you?  What are you going to do?” Teresa asked softly.  “About... you and Johnny, I mean?”

“Right now,” Hilary said, “All I plan to do is try to save my son’s life.  I don’t want to think about anything else at all just yet.”

“I understand.  Oh!  Murdoch gave me this to give back to you, and I washed it, but... I’m not really sure what it is.”

Teresa handed over a white piece of cloth, stitched to a band in narrow pleats and hemmed at the bottom.  The band had a button, but she had not figure out what it was meant to button to, until Hilary put it over her head and fastened the button behind her neck, covering her hair with it.

“It helps you keep our hair out of your eyes when you’re working, and it helps keep things sanitary at the same time,” Hilary said. 

“Nurse Planchet doesn’t have anything like that!”

“Different schools of nursing use different designs of head coverings.   The Sisters of Mercy use this because it’s similar to their own habits.  I prefer it because it’s the only way I can keep all this hair out of my way!”

“You have beautiful hair,” Teresa said.

  “You’ve never had to get all the tangles out of those tight curls!”  Hilary said.  She reached across the table and grasped Teresa’s hand.  “Thank you.  For everything.”  

“You’re welcome,” Teresa said.  “We’ll be in town for awhile at least.  You let me know if you need anything else.”

Hilary agreed, and went down the hall to the front of the house.  The waiting room was dark and deserted, and a sign stuck to the window announced that the doctor was unavailable today.  She went through the empty surgery, and opened the door beyond it, under which a thin ribbon of light was showing.

“I told you before, no visitors in the sick room!”  a cross voice said.

“I’m not a visitor,” Hilary said, pushing the door full open.

“You’re not to come in here!” 

Hilary ignored the woman, and looked over the scene in front of her.  Tex was lying flat on his back on the high, hard, table-like bed.  Beyond him, a single lamp burned, and a woman she assumed to be Dr.  Thompson’s regular nurse, Miss Planchet, was sitting close to the light with a novel in her hands.  Even in this dim light it was obvious that Tex’s face was flushed, yet despite the afternoon heat still trapped in the room, he was not sweating at all.  His heavily bandaged chest rose and fell still, but in an uneven rhythm, each breath so labored that she had heard it even before she opened the door.

“You have to leave here at once!”  Miss Planchet, who was several inches taller than Hilary, a large-boned, strong-looking woman, stood threateningly to her full height, glaring, but still remembering to keep a finger tucked in her book to keep her place.

“No, you have to leave here at once!”  Hilary said back

“Just who do you think you are?”  Miss Planchet demanded, sidling around the table to confront the smaller woman face-to-face.

Hilary did not back down.  The possibility never crossed her mind.  “A professionally trained nurse,” Hilary said instead.  “And you studied with...?”


“I suspected as much!  How dare you pass yourself off as competent to care for the sick!  You are the one who has no business being in this room, in this room or any other room in which people require care.”

“I’m the nurse here!  I work for Dr.  Thompson!  Who do you think you are?”  Miss Planchet’s voice rose, but Hilary talked right over her, ignoring her completely.

“This young man is much worse off than he was this morning, thanks to your ‘nursing’ skills!  His current condition is deplorable!  Tell me, do you really work for Dr.  Thompson, or are you secretly employed by the local undertaker?  Is this how you drum up extra business there, pretending to be a nurse here so that patients die in your care, and you can make money off the funeral?”

Miss Planchet screeched in fury and dove at Hilary who neatly sidestepped, tripping the bigger woman who staggered, off balance against the door frame.  Hilary shoved her through the opening and slammed the door shut behind her.  Miss Planchet immediately began pounding on the door, yelling, demanding to be let in, threatening to call the marshal.  Teresa, Mrs. Ortiz and Scott, who had come to fetch Teresa and walk her back to the hotel, all came running at once and tried to find out what was happening, but all they got from Miss Planchet was screams and threats, loud enough that Dr. Thompson himself came downstairs, still belting his dressing robe about himself.  He pushed through the crush around the recovery room door and knocked on it himself.

“Nurse?  It’s Doctor Thompson!  What are you doing in there.”

Hilary opened the door, and stood in the doorway calmly, hands folded in front of her, while behind the doctor, Miss Planchet was red-faced in fury and from exertion, her bosom heaving, her eyes wide and furious.

“I am attempting to undo the damage done by this woman’s incompetence and take care of the patient, Doctor,” Hilary said.

“I didn’t do anything!”  Miss Planchet shrieked in protest.

“I can vouch for that,” Hilary said, bending a poison look towards the other woman.  “She did nothing.  Probably all day.  She sat in that chair reading romantic novels while Tex’s temperature climbed steadily and his breathing became so labored he is scarcely able to draw a breath!  I was told Tex was being taken care of.  If this is your idea of care, Dr.  Thompson, then my son will be leaving here immediately!  Mr. Lancer, if you could procure us some means of transportation, Tex and I will be moving to the hotel.”

“Now, Miss... Nurse!”  Thompson said.  “Calm down.  You know as well as I do that he should not be moved!  A bit of temperature is not uncommon after surgery, and as to his breathing... Well, I should have been informed...”

“Informed?  You, sir, are at least in part responsible!  Why is this patient lying down flat?”

“Excuse me?”  the doctor asked, looking as confused as he felt.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

Hilary sighed impatiently.  “You have treated people for multiple broken ribs before haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Thompson said hesitantly.

“Then surely you know that the lungs can full up with fluid, and if the patient is not elevated, he can drown in his own bed!”

“This patient has a bullet removed, he wasn’t kicked by a horse!”

“Did you forget how many of his ribs we broke ourselves while performing the surgery, doctor?  However it happened, he does have broken ribs. And in fact, his condition is much worse than just broken ribs because of the great, gaping hole in his chest!”

“You’ll have to forgive me, nurse,” Dr.  Thompson said.  “I’ve never done anything even remotely like this before.  I don’t know all the protocols.  Now, if you would be so kind as to stop threatening my nurse and allow the patient to remain here, I will come in and check him over and decide on how best to continue his treatment.”

She nodded, and Dr.  Thompson glanced over his shoulder long enough to say, “The rest of you can leave now!  You too, Nurse.  I won’t be needing you any more tonight.  Mrs.  Ortiz, we’ll need extra pillows.”

He stepped into the recovery room then and closed the door solidly behind him.  He moved at once to the head of the bed, drawing a stethoscope off the nearby table to listen to Tex’s heart and lungs.

“Doesn’t sound too good, does it?  Help me lift him up.”  It took both of them to lift Tex’s torso up off the table, and Hilary braced herself to lean his weight on her shoulder while the doctor listened to his back.

“Can you hold him there for a moment?”

“I have him, Doctor.”

“The head of this bed can be cranked up higher, but it is much easier when there’s no weight on it.  There.  That’s better.  Stay put,” he added and he went to answer the soft tap at the door.  He came back with an assortment of pillows which he propped around the elevated table and he helped Hilary ease Tex back onto them.  He was not quite sitting upright now, but he was much more elevated, and he seemed to be breathing easier already.

“That should help drainage,” the doctor said.  “I hope.  I’ll mix up a powder to help the fever.  I take it you plan to stay and administer to his care from now on?”

“I’m just sorry I wasn’t here all day!”

“You needed your rest,” the doctor said.  “You wouldn’t do him much good if you passed out on his chest, now would you?  Do you think you can get him to swallow this?  I’ll dissolve it in water.”

“I get it in him, doctor.”

“And bathe him with cool water, try to get his fever down.  You’re right, it is way too high.  Did you get dinner?”


The doctor yawned.  “I think I’ll have mine now.  And since I’m up, I might as well look in on our other patients.  If you need anything, let me know.”

“More light would be nice.”

“There are three other lamps in the cupboard, and a gas light overhead.  Matches in the drawer there.”


“Where you found them yesterday.  And Nurse?  I understand how upsetting it must have been to come in here and find your son in this condition, but in the future, try not to take your anxiety out on my nurse.  She’s not used to that kind of treatment.  And you know that there’s very little she could have done.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“‘Yes, doctor,’  ‘No, doctor.’  You were very well trained, I will say that.  Which doesn’t seem to stop you from having an opinion – and a temper!  Have you ever considered relocating to California?”

“No, doctor, I haven’t.”

“Interesting, considering your husband lives here.  He is your husband, isn’t he?  He keeps claiming he is.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Which I hope to hear some time.  Meantime.  Dinner.  Patients.  Oh, that reminds me.  I should have a look at your stitches as well.”

“I can do it myself,” Hilary said.

“I know you can.  But as long as I am the doctor here, you will permit me to at least go through the motions of doing my job.  You can strip down and let me check them now – all very professional, of course.  Or we can call your brother-in-law in here to help me get you to cooperate.”

“Make it quick,” she said, intentionally omitting the formal response of “Yes, doctor.”  “I have work to do.”

When he left, finally, she stepped out to the surgery to get an apron and tying it around herself, she stepped back into the sickroom.  There was a pitcher of water, for drinking, apparently, as there was a glass next to it.  She found a basin, poured the water into it and sponged off Tex’s arms and legs and face and neck.  His skin was so hot!  Hot and dry, but he stirred a little as she worked, and she stopped to pick up the glass of water the doctor had dissolved his powders in and worked on getting Tex to swallow some.  She got a few sips into him, a start anyway, when he made a face and turned his head away.

“Ma?”  he said.

“Yes, Texas?”  she said, clutching hopefully at his hand.

“Ma, I’ll paint the fence tomorrow, I promise!  It’s just too hot today.”

She patted his hand, picked up her rag and rung it out in the water again.  “Of course, Texas.  I understand,” she said, and she began wiping cool water on him to reduce the heat in his body.



“You again!”  Dr.  Thompson said as he came into his own kitchen and found Murdoch Lancer sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee that Mrs.  Ortiz had poured for him.  “You realize that hanging around town isn’t going to make that boy get better any faster.”

“I know,” Murdoch said. 


“And.  I just stopped by to see how he is.”

“He’s breathing.  That’s about all I can tell you for now.”

“And Johnny?”

“Is another problem entirely,” the doctor said, looking more thoughtful and less exasperated.  He sat down at the table himself, accepting the steaming cup that Mrs.  Ortiz immediately plunked down in front of him.  She went back to work, unobtrusive as ever, and the doctor took a sip, then looked up at Murdoch and said, “I was just upstairs checking on your son.  Normally, I’d say you can take him home if you want.  But there is a complication.”

“Infection?”  Murdoch thought with a touch of panic.

“No, no.  The wound is clean.  But, I did want to ask you, since you’re here, just how long has he been complaining about the pain in his leg?”

“Probably since the bullet tore through it,” Murdoch said drily.

“The other leg,” the doctor said.  “The missing one.  He’s, uh... having a little trouble.  I think he may be drying out from some serious alcoholism.”

Murdoch ducked his head in embarrassment, but didn’t comment.

“I asked him about it,” the doctor continued.   “He did admit he’s been drinking heavily for several years.  He says it helps the pain in his leg.”

“Yes, he’s mentioned that,” Murdoch said.  “I know it’s impossible!  But, then I think that if I were... if I were a cripple, like that, I’d make up pains in my missing leg too.”

“Why do you think he’s making it up?”  the doctor asked.

“Well.  Maybe not intentionally.  But it is all in his head, right?  It has to be!  He never says the stump hurts, it’s his toes or his ankle or his knee!”

“So?”  the doctor asked again.

“So, he doesn’t have a leg, doctor.  How can it hurt him?”

“Ah!”  the doctor said.  “I see now.  Do you know what nerves are, Mr.  Lancer?”

“I butcher animals all the time.  I’ve seen nerves!”

“Okay.  Well.  As you may or may not know, we have nerves all over our bodies, most of them too small for you to see.  And these nerves carry sensations, messages, from our extremities back to the brain, where the brain interprets them as pressure or heat or cold.  Or pain.”

“I know.  But, the leg...”

“Is gone, yes I’ve noticed.  But the nerves aren’t, don’t you see?  Oh, he lost the ones in his leg when he lost the leg, but there’s... I guess you could say ‘stumps’ of the nerves still there, still sending signals to the brain, even though there’s nothing below them for the signals to be coming from.  Does that make sense?”

Murdoch considered it for a long time before asking, “You mean, he really has been in pain for all these years?”

“Yes.  I believe so.  He’s told me that sometimes it’s bearable, he can almost ignore it.  Other times... Well, he described it as fire ants eating the flesh and muscle off the bone.”

“Dear God,” Murdoch murmured.  No wonder, he thought, Johnny had always called Dr.  Freeman a butcher.  He had always thought it was just anger that the man had decided to take the leg in the first place. 

“It’s not uncommon for amputees to describe sensations of pain in the limbs that are now missing,” the doctor said.  “Usually once it’s healed it’s an occasional twinge or a sudden flash, not a constant thing.  The thing is, Mr.  Lancer.  I think we can help him.”


I may have mentioned before that I have been studying the work of Dr.  Emilio Boniface.  He was a surgeon in the Civil War some twenty-five years ago where he necessarily performed thousands of amputations.  After the War, he became interested in ways to make the loss of a limb cleaner, easier, more healthy.  He’s been working for years on what he calls ‘reconstructive’ surgery as well, working on those old amputees to give them more ease and comfort.  I’ve read all of his articles.  And, now I have his own surgical assistant here to help me...”

“Surgical nurse,” Murdoch corrected.

“So she keeps reminding me,” Dr.  Thompson said.  “But I went to school with men who had far less skill than that woman.  She knows what she’s doing in an operating room.  I was just on my way to get her and ask her to take a look at that leg.   Now, there isn’t much left where the doctor took your son’s leg off:  he cut it right at the hip.  But I think, I’m pretty sure in fact, that we can operate on it and ease his pain considerably.”

Murdoch sipped his coffee.  “Have you talked to Johnny about this?”

“Yes.  We discussed the possibilities just now.”                        

“And what did he say?”

“He said, if we can do it,  he would like to try it.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

“Because, Mr.  Lancer, all surgery carries a certain risk.  I can’t imagine any reason your son would not survive the operation, but things do happen.  The body sometimes reacts unfavorably to the anesthetic.  Or, infection sets in, despite proper precautions.  I think it’s worth a try, but I cannot guarantee it as absolutely foolproof.”

“If he does survive the operation...”

“And I’m certain he will!”

“If he does,” Murdoch repeated.  “What are the odds that he will be in more pain, rather than less?”

“Pretty much nonexistent.  It might be that we can’t cure the pain that he has – although I think we can at least reduce it!  But I don’t see any reason to suspect we would create more.  And, if the surgery doesn’t cure the pain, we might be able to find some substance other than alcohol to treat it with.”   

“It’s Johnny’s leg,” Murdoch said finally.  “I suppose, if he wants to try it...  When would you be doing this?  Immediately?”

“Might as well do it now, while he’s laid up anyway.  But not immediately, no.  I’d say we should wait at least a week.  I’d like to get his temperature back down to normal first, and I want all that alcohol completely out of his bloodstream before I try pumping anesthetic or other drugs into him.”

“Well,” Murdoch sighed.  “Okay.  I guess... Okay.”

“And Mr.  Lancer?  There really is no reason for your family to wait in town until then.  Johnny will be fine in my care.  I’ll let you know when the operation is ahead of time so you can come back, if you want.  And as for your grandson... We were able to get some liquids in him today, that’s a very good sign.”

Murdoch nodded.  He knew that sitting in town wasn’t helping, but it felt so wrong to leave....

“Can I see Johnny before I go?”  Murdoch asked.

“Certainly.  You know the room.” 

Both men stood, and shook hands across the table, and the doctor went to the surgery to check on Tex again while Murdoch mounted the narrow staircase to the second floor.  He tapped on the door before entering, but was shocked to see Johnny when he stepped into the room.  Johnny’s eyes were badly bloodshot,  sunken and ringed with dark circles.  His hair, in bad need of washing, was standing wildly on end.  The thin sheet was mostly kicked off, and even though the early morning air was cool and crisp, not hot as it was in the late afternoon, the sheet was dark with sweat stains, and more sweat rolled off Johnny’s face and bare chest.  Sweating, shaking, hollow-eyed, and he was breathing as though he were straining against something.

“Johnny?”  Murdoch asked cautiously.

Johnny looked up and tried to grin, but the effect was fairly ghastly.  “I didn’t realize,” he gasped.  “Murdoch, I didn’t know...!”

“I didn’t either, Johnny.”  Murdoch said softly.  He approached the bed and sat down in the single wooden chair that sat next to it.  He reached out and took Johnny hand, appalled at how it shook.  “It’s my fault, Johnny.  I...I  never believed you.”

Johnny made a ragged sound, almost a snort of laughter.  “All this time, I just thought you were an unsympathetic bastard.”

“We’ll get you through this,” Murdoch said. 

Johnny shook his head.  “Doctor’ll get me through it.  I’d rather no one else saw me like this.”

“You don’t want me to stay, then?”

Another head shake.  “No.  I’m sorry, Murdoch, but no.  Please leave.”

Murdoch nodded.  He gave Johnny’s hand a firm squeeze and a  pat and stood up.  “If you change your mind...”

“I won’t.  I got a feeling it’s going to get a lot worse.  And if I start begging you or Scott or Teresa for a drink, you’ll probably give it to me.”

As they had, Murdoch realized, for years.  They had all been embarrassed more than worried about Johnny’s drinking.  Embarrassed, he thought now with a deep sense of shame, because it somehow reflected on them.  And instead of doing what the doctor was doing now, locking him up and cutting off his drink, and they had kept a steady supply of liquor in the house.

“I am sorry, Johnny,” Murdoch said again.  “I truly am so very sorry...”

“Then you have a little bit of an idea of how I feel,” Johnny said.

“About what?”

“About leaving my wife and son to struggle on their own for all these years while I lived the good life at Lancer.”

  “That wasn’t your fault, Johnny!”

“And this isn’t your’s,” Johnny said.  “And yet, they both are our fault, aren’t they?”

Murdoch nodded, even more deeply ashamed now, and turned to leave.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a rosary on you, would you?”  Johnny asked.

“Uh... no.  Why?”

“It helps... helps to get through the worse of it.  But, I keep losing count .”

“I’ll send one,” Murdoch promised, and he left the room, more shaken than he could ever recall. 

Downstairs, the doctor shook his head as he pulled the stethoscope out of his ears.

“You’ve been bathing him all night?  And he drank that powder?”

“Yes, and all of it,” Hilary said.  She looked tired after her overnight vigil, but  grounded in professionalism, she automatically assisted the doctor in his examination.

“Has he spoken at all?”

“He talks quite a bit,” Hilary said.  “But it’s all of it nonsense.  He’s delirious.”

“Which is about what you can expect from a fever like this!  Well, wipe him down one more time.  Then, if you don’t mind, come upstairs with me for a moment.”

“I’d rather not leave him.”   

“I don’t blame you.  But as things stand, a few minutes won’t make any difference.  We may need to do another operation soon, and I want your opinion.”

“I’m not a surgeon, doctor.”

“So I hear.  But you’ve seen more of this than I have.  Ready?  Let’s go.”

Murdoch Lancer was coming down the stairs as they went up.  He looks like I feel, Hilary thought, seeing the haunted look in his eyes.  And she understood where that look came from when they stepped into Johnny’s bedroom.

“I said I don’t want anybody in here!”  Johnny snapped.  He looked up, and hesitated only briefly when he saw the doctor.  But then he saw Hilary, standing behind the doctor.  If he didn’t want his family to see him like this, the feeling was double for her! 

“Some things we don’t get a choice on,” the doctor said, and he sat down on the bed.  To Johnny’s great humiliation, he threw back the sheet.  Johnny caught it and pulled it over himself, and the doctor compromised, tucking the sheet carefully, but exposing the stump of Johnny’s missing leg.

“We’re doing freak shows from five to nine,” Johnny said, bitterly.

“Shut up,” the doctor said amiably.  “Nurse?  What’s your opinion?”

Hilary stepped closer, and Johnny turned and glared angrily out the window so he would not have to see the revulsion on her face at this close up view of his most personal pain.  Had he looked, he would have seen her study the wound, which was beginning to bruise under the scar tissue from Pardieu’s treatment of the other day, her brows furrowed thoughtfully, but there was no sign of revulsion on her face.

“My son Tex and two other Rangers once had to take a man’s arm off with a Bowie knife in the field,” Hilary said.  “When he finally returned to town more than a week later, and was brought to the hospital, I helped in the surgery.  That wound, doctor, looked far better than this one.”

“Specifically,” the doctor demanded, and even Johnny turned far enough away from the window to glance at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Specifically, you can see for yourself, doctor.  This happened seven or eight years ago as I understand.  Yet the scar tissue is still thick and purple.  It should long ago have shrunken and faded to white, but it still looks like this.  And the angle and... Do you suppose he unhooked the ball joint somehow, or just sawed it off right at the joint?”

“I can’t tell without opening it up,” Dr.  Thompson said.  “But, as a candidate for Dr. Boniface’s reconstructive surgery... what do you think?”

“There’s so little left,” Hilary said, and Johnny found himself looking directly at her, as she bent over and studied the scars critically,  keeping her hands carefully behind her back.  “I suggest you call El Paso and discuss the case with him personally.  He can give you more information than I can.  But I would think we... you, I mean, doctor, can at least remove this old scar tissue and try to reconstruct it so it heals more cleanly.  That alone would help tremendously.”

“Exactly what I was thinking!  And I will try contacting Dr. Boniface.  There are a couple telephones in town I could use.  Meantime, it seems that Miss Planchet refuses to set foot in my office again as long as you are inside the building.  So, you now have two patients to take care of, Nurse.”

“But, I can’t...!”

“I really don’t have anyone else who can,” Dr.  Thompson said, tugging the sheet back in place and standing up.  “Unless, Mr.  Lancer would like his brother or sister-in-law...”

“No!”  Johnny said sharply.

“One patient is unconscious, the other can mostly take care of himself.  Mrs.  Ortiz will keep you supplied with fresh linens and will deliver and pick up meal trays, and anything else you need.  Besides,” he added when Hilary opened her mouth to protest again, “Your husband, your son.  Your job.  I suggest you get yourself some breakfast, Nurse.  I have some cases in town I need to visit.  I’ll see you this afternoon.”

After he left, Johnny looked up and said, “I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

She studied him cooly, taking in the sweats and shakes and sunken eyes and diagnosed his trouble at once.  “You don’t need much care,” she agreed, “But you will need some looking after.  And I am a professional, Johnny.  I can handle this quite impersonally.”

He tried to laugh.  “Boy, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not!”

“It is,” she said.  “It’ll keep us both from getting hurt.” 



The doctor’s house was a simple pine building, the ceilings in the upstairs bedrooms slanted since they also formed the roof.  Which meant that there was nothing more than planking between the walls of the house and the heat of the afternoon, and that the hot summer sun was beating down directly on the boards over Johnny’s head.   Through the open windows came the sounds of the town below, dust and odors of animals, cooking and garbage, but very little relief in the form of breezes that could cool the room.  It was an oven.  He was tempted to lick a finger and touch it to the ceiling (if he could have reached it from where he lay in bed) to see if it would hiss and sizzle, like testing an iron pan to see if it was hot enough to cook in.  This was hot enough.  He was sure of that.  He had proof.  He was cooking up here.

He was thirsty, and the pitcher next to his bed had been empty for some time.  But an even more pressing problem than that was his immediate concern.  He glanced across the room to where the flowered china pot sat against the far wall, and sighed.  Again.  He had refused, hours ago -- last time Hilary was up here -- to let her assist him in the use of that pot.  He had had enough of that kind of humiliation twenty years ago, and despite his own insistence that they were husband and wife, the fact was, she was right: they were strangers. 

Where was his mind?  What had he been thinking when he had sent his father and his brother away, refused to let them help him through this torment?  Perhaps he had thought that the doctor would spend more time up here.  But the doctor was visiting other patients:  Tex downstairs,  Blondie, now moved to the hotel.  Unknown patients about the town.  And that left him to the mercy of a woman who had an agenda that did not include him.  Hilary and Tex had been family all these years.  Tex was where her loyalties would lie first.  And admittedly, Tex probably needed her help more than he did.  Tex had a hole in his heart, literally.  Johnny just had one figuratively.  And the beginnings of a feeling of things crawling across his skin.  He had assumed at first it was the sweat that poured continuously off his body, but it was beginning to feel more like small, clawed feet.  He brushed and brushed at his skin but it wouldn’t go away.

And he needed to use the bloody pot!

Through the floor, he could hear voices.  He couldn’t quite make out the words, but he knew the tones, knew them better than he knew the tones of his own voice.  The light high pitch was definitely Hilary, the deeper rumbling was Tex.  They had been carrying on some conversation forever, near as he could tell, and meantime he was up here.  Alone.  And helpless.

No, not completely helpless.  He wished he knew what had become of his crutches.  He was certain that with them he could get up and get around, not quite as mobile as normal, but how bad could it be?  The leg was healing.  It would hurt to put weight on it, certainly, but with crutches to help distribute that weight, not put it all on the hurt leg, he could walk.

Except that he had no idea of what had become of his crutches.  Well.  Okay.  So, he had no crutches, and no one to help him.  He still wasn’t complete helpless.  He wasn’t a baby, after all.  There was a narrow ladder-back chair on the far side of the bed.  If he could get that around to the same side as the bedside table, support his weight between the two, slide the chair slowly across the floor.... That should get him to his goal.

He got hold of the chair, twisting around in the bed to grasp the sides of the ladder.  It was hard to lift it from that position, and he was weaker than he had expected.  On the other hand, he had excellent arm strength from years of hauling his old carcass around.  He lifted the chair, swung it across himself and the bed, and set it down on the other side.  Step one accomplished.  He paused, brushing again at the clawed feet, unable to make them go away.  He’d try to ignore them.  He had to ignore them.  He hitched himself to a sitting position in bed and flung off the sheet.  Using his hands, he scooted himself to the edge of the bed and swung his bandaged leg over the side until his foot rested on the floor.  It hurt, hurt massively to even do that much, and he sat for a moment, breathing hard, sweating.  When he found himself swiping at invisible tormentors again, he knew he had to keep trying, if only to keep his mind off other things.  He gripped the chair firmly with his right hand, found an angle for his left hand on the table top that would best allow him to put his weight down on it.  Pushing with one hand, pulling with the other, he drug himself upright.

And collapsed to the floor, moaning in pain, blood leaking again from the wound he had ruptured by the effort.  He was still there, rolling on the floor, when the door bust open.  Hilary dropped down next to him.

“Did you fall out of bed?”  she asked, clutching him, supporting him, trying to get him back up.

He batted her hands away irritably, managed to position himself so that he could lean back against the bed for support.

“No, I didn’t fall out of bed!  I’m not an infant!  Leave me alone!”

“You’ve opened the wound,” she observed.

“I don’t care!  Go away!”

“What were you trying to do?”  she asked.

“Go away!”  he shouted.  “Just go away!  I don’t need you here!”

And she left.  Just like that.  Left him sitting on the floor, as far from his goal as he had been in bed, bleeding, naked.  Helpless.  Some nurse!  Time swam backwards for a moment.  He was young and angry and struggling to walk, she was still practically a child, watching. 

“Leave me alone!"  he shouted.

So, she did.

He tried to sit up, and finally he managed to roll and get to his hands and knees, to crawl back to the open end of the ruined house.  What was wrong with that girl anyway?  Couldn't she see that now he did need her, now he couldn't do it alone? 

"If you're going to be that useless, you should just leave,"  he said, when he could.

He shook his head.  That was then, not now.  Now he didn’t need her help.  He didn’t have bullet wounds in his side and arm and foot, just this one, in his leg.  Not that big of a deal.  Or it wouldn’t be if fire ants weren’t having a picnic on the other leg, and these insects would stop crawling all over him.  He wiped at his skin, over and over, to no effect.  He felt them, even when he knew they weren’t there.  And sometimes, he wasn’t sure which was real, that they were there or that they were not.  He shook his head again, gave himself over to the torment of the insects, and rolled over on his belly.  Slowly, dragging his useless leg, he pulled himself across the room.  It was a distance of perhaps five feet.  It felt like over a mile.  He was sweating not just from the heat but from the effort by the time he reached his goal and he had to lay for several seconds, panting, exhausted, before he was able to put it to the use he had intended.  He was lying on the floor next to the china pot, face down, spent, when Hilary returned to the room just a moment later, carrying a basin, a pitcher, clean bandages, and other supplies.  She set down her burden on the table, and without a word moved the used pot out into the hall and closed the door.

“You could have mentioned what you needed,” she said, coming back to sit next to him on the floor, bringing the basin with her.

“You didn’t ask,” he gasped at the floor boards.

“I did, actually.  I can’t get you back in bed myself, and you’re in no shape to help much right now.  We can just change the bandages here on the floor, and then I can change your sheets without you on top of them.  Is that all right?”

“Can I have the sheet?”  he asked.

She took the soiled top sheet from the bed and spread it over him, then helped him as he turned around, propping himself in a sitting position against the wall.

“Sorry,” he said as she began cutting away the bandages on his leg.  “Sorry.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“You never were a good patient, were you?” she asked mildly.

“No,” he agreed, making a poor effort at laughing at himself.   “Makes me cranky I guess.”

“That’s not uncommon.  Particularly among men.”

“Women make better patients?”  he asked.

“No.  Not necessarily.   They’re just more likely to complain and fuss than to bark.  This is looking good, at least.”

“Is it?”

It didn’t look so good to him.  There were yellowish stains on the bandages she had taken off, along with the fresh seep of blood.  And the wound itself was gaping and open.

“Yes.  It’s draining nicely.  Keeps the infection down.”

She poured water into the basin, bathed the wound, wrapped it again, all in silence.

“You used to talk all the time,” Johnny commented.

“And you used to complain that I talked too much.”

“Did I?  I do remember being irritated, actually.  But then you were gone, and I remember missing the sound of your voice.  It was soothing.  Like listening to a water fall.”

“That meaningless?”

“Waterfalls aren’t meaningless.  You’ve lived in dry climates enough to know that.”

She didn’t respond to that, just took the opportunity, since he was on the floor, to wash the rest of the leg.

“I can manage the rest of it,” he said when she had reached as high as the bandages.  She handed him the rag she was using, tossed the basin of soiled water out the window into the side yard below, and added more cool water from the pitcher.  She stood then, and went to change the sheets on the bed, keeping her back to him as she worked, cool and impersonal as she had promised.

“Did you give up talking?” he asked, beginning to get irritated with her silence.

“Not entirely.  It’s just... living with Tex I’ve gotten more used to listening, I suppose.”


“I can call the doctor,” she said, “Or you can crawl back over here and I can help you up into bed myself.  If you have the energy.”

“Call the doctor,” he said, slumping back down against the wall.  He wondered if he was losing his mind.  He hated her being here.  He hated it when she wasn’t here.  He hated her prattle.  He hated her silence.

She stopped to fill his water pitcher from the pitcher she had brought up, gathered her things again into the basin, and started for the door.  She hesitated, holding the basin on one hip, hand on the door knob.  “I'm sorry if I haven’t been attentive enough,” she said.

“I don’t need babying.”

“You are my patient.  I’ve handled wards full of men before, I should be able to handle the two of you. I’ve... let myself become  preoccupied with Tex.  I’ll come up and check on you more often.”

“How is Tex?”  Johnny asked, more of an automatic politeness than a genuine inquiry.  He had heard the two of them talking: the kid had to be doing pretty good.

“Tex is dying,” Hilary said in the same cool professional tone. 

He looked up in surprise.  “Dying?”

“I can’t get his fever down.  And the wound looks to be infecting.”   

“But... I can hear him talking.  I’ve heard the two of you talking all afternoon!” 

She looked down at him thoughtfully.  “Can you hear what he’s saying?”

“No.  Not the actual words.  Just the sounds.”

She nodded then.  “Ah!  Well, yes, he has been talking quite a bit,” she said.  “He spent nearly an hour explaining to me how the inventor of the nickelodeon had traveled to the island of Lilliput and enslaved tiny actors, put them in little boxes and forced them to perform plays whenever someone put a nickel in their box.”

Johnny stared at her, wondering which of them had gone insane.  “Surely, he doesn’t believe that,” he said finally.

“Oh, I’m sure not.  Not really.  It’s fever dreams.  He’s quite delirious.  I need to check on his temperature, but I will get the doctor to help get you back in bed, and I’ll be back in just a moment.”

She left then, stepping out into the hall with her basin, closing the door behind her, and Johnny was left sitting on the unfinished board floor, to ingest this new bit of information.  He had been angry with her for not being more friendly and talkative!  Of course she wasn’t feeling talkative, not with her only son downstairs dying!  He had been so wrapped up in himself that he hadn’t seen how tired she looked, hadn’t noticed until she spoke those quiet words, “Tex is dying,” the haunted look in her eyes, the deep circles under them, the strain in keeping that calm, cool composure she had developed.

The doctor came in, followed even before the door shut all the way, by Mrs. Ortiz with his dinner tray. 

“Had a rough afternoon, did we?”  the doctor said.  “You need to call for help to get out of bed.  I don’t want that leg infecting.  It would be more than a shame to cut it off, too, wouldn’t it?”

“Is the kid dying?”  Johnny asked.

“Probably,” the doctor aid.  “I warned you all before we ever operated on him that he would die, it would just take longer.  You all insisted on prolonging his agony.  What did you expect?  A miracle?”

“I think you should send me home,” Johnny said as the doctor manipulated him back onto the bed.


“It’s too much work for Hilary.  Tex is all she can handle, she doesn’t need to be bothered with me.  And there’s nothing really wrong with me, is there?”

“Yes, there is,” the doctor said.  “You know when a man’s been dependant on alcohol as long and as steady as you have been, it’s not just a matter of will power to break the habit.  It’s a disease.  And you are in as much need of curing as any other patient I have.  I know your family loves you, but I agree with your initial decision on this not to have them monitoring your recovery.  Alcoholics can be cunning, and it’s very easy to give into their demands.  You’ve been in and out of things all day, but it’s getting worse, isn’t it?  And it will get much, much worse before it gets better.  I want you right here where I can keep an eye on you.”

“She can’t handle us both.”

“She could if you were both in the same room,” Mrs.  Ortiz commented.  She had not left immediately after depositing the dinner tray, but had stayed, fiddling with the plates, the napkin.  Eavesdropping, obviously.

“That’s a good idea,” the doctor said.  “Except that it’s not possible.  Two beds won’t fit in that little recovery room. I am not giving up my surgery for them to recover in: I have other patients.  And if we try to bring that boy up this narrow stairway, the whole question is moot anyway, because he’d never survive it.”

“There’s my room,” Mrs.  Ortiz said.  “It’s on the first floor.  It’s the biggest bedroom in the house.  And since my grandson had to stay with me last winter when there was diphtheria in his house, there’s even two beds in there.”

“Mrs.  Ortiz!”  the doctor said.  “I can’t ask you to give up your room!”

“Good.  Because if you did ask me, I would say no.  But you didn’t ask.  I offered.  I’ve always wondered what it was like to sleep upstairs.  And putting both of them in one room – especially one so close to my kitchen – will save me a lot of extra work, too.”

The doctor opened his mouth.  Closed it.  Opened it again.  “Is your grandson nearby today?”  he asked.

Si.  Por que?”

“Could you send him to the hotel to see if the Lancer men are still around?  I’m going to need help shifting these patients.”

The doctor left, to go explain the new arrangement to Hilary.  Mrs.  Ortiz stayed a moment, tugging the table closer to the bed so Johnny could reach his own supper.

“You shouldn’t have made that offer,” Johnny said.  “It’s too much work for her.”

“Women need to stay busy,” Mrs.  Ortiz said, tucking the sheets around him, spreading the napkin on his lap.  “Besides: te necesita.”

She left then, leaving Johnny alone to ponder those words.  Te necesita.  She needs you.  Much as he hated to admit it, to be in this position again, he knew he needed Hilary.  But did Hilary need him?  He had thought so.  Just yesterday he had insisted to be left with her, thinking she needed him after what she had been through.  She hadn’t though, had been angry that he had made the offer.  He sighed, and reached for the food by the bed, looking at the excellently prepared meal with a lack of appetite that bordered on disgust, wondering if all of them had gone insane, or if all this was a fever dream of his own.  Nothing made sense anymore: not  his own reactions, his own feeling, or anything else.



The Lancer men had not moved out of the hotel.  Neither were they there all the time.  There had been a great deal for them to take care of: reports filed with the law, checking on and supervising the clean up of the ranch kitchen, and the mess at the old Benevidez Homestead.  They buried Mills Johnson in the family plot, since they had no idea where he came from or what family he might have elsewhere. And they arranged and paid for Ed Casson’s funeral in town for his family, arranged also to build a house out at the Benevidez homestead, a small but comfortable cabin where they could install a tenant, just to have a presence at that vulnerable spot on the ranch.  The old homestead stood on some prime bottomland.  A small truck garden could be planted, a source of income for the tenant.  And Murdoch offered the place to Mrs. Casson, even before they had drawn any plans for the building.

“We’ll plow it up for you.  You and your little ones can get enough fresh vegetables out of it to make yourselves a decent living.  Shoot, Mrs. Casson, Lancer’ll buy a good portion of anything you can grow.”

“Why’re you doing this for us, Mr.  Lancer?”  Mrs. Casson asked suspiciously.  “I know my boy.  Whatever really happened to him, he likely brought it on himself.  You owe us nothing.”

“I need the vegetables,” Murdoch said.  “And it’s about time that place was used for what the Benevidez’s meant it to be used for: raising a family.  It’s no good to me empty, in fact, it’s a liability, as the events of the past few days have demonstrated.  I’m not asking you to stand guard at my back door, Ma’am.  I just want someone to live there so no one else decides to squat there.”

“I’ll think about it,” was all she’d said so far.  But the chance to live in a house big enough for all her kids, to farm the land instead of taking in laundry until her back ached and her hands burned to try to feed those kids, appealed to her, Murdoch could tell.  An secretly, he had hopes for that woman.  That woman, and the outlaw, Red, who was already out there, fencing in the valley, pacing off areas for vegetables and a house and outbuildings, interested himself in settling down and growing some roots.  So, when the doctor sent for the Lancers to come and help, only Teresa came at first.

“Scott and Murdoch will be along as soon as they come back,” she said.  “For now, I can help move Mrs. Ortiz and set things up for the patients for when you are ready to move them.”

She was put to work at once.  The large, comfortable bedroom off the kitchen downstairs, designed to be almost a private residence in itself, had it’s own fireplace, comfortable chairs, a double bed, and a small single bed that had been used as a couch.   Hilary and Teresa, working together,  rearranged the furniture, putting the two beds side by side as in a hospital ward.  They made up the beds with fresh sheets, carried in extra pillows, and carried Mrs. Ortiz’s personal belongings upstairs to the larger of the two spare bedrooms, the one previously occupied by Blondie.

“Sit down for a moment,” Teresa said as Hilary turned to head back to the surgery when they had finished.  “Have a cup of coffee.”

“I really should....”

“Sit.  The doctor just went in there anyway.  Tex isn’t alone.”

Gratefully, Hilary lowered herself into the chair.  Her knees and hips were stiff from being on her feet so long.  Her back ached.  Her feet were swollen.  Just a long duty shift at the hospital, she told herself, but she accepted the coffee, laced it generously with sugar, and sipped it with a sigh.

“You know,” Teresa said, “I’ve been thinking about the story you told me, about how you and Johnny met.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to fall in love, to plan a life, and to lose everything.  And then, twenty years later, to find it all again.  The thing is... I think I almost know how you feel.”

“What do you mean?”  Hilary asked.

“Twenty years ago,” Teresa said, slowly, turning to look out the window as she did, “I was a foolish young girl full of romantic ideas.  And I fell in love.  But not with a man.  I fell in love with a girlhood dream.  A dream of Happily Ever After.”

“Aren’t you happy?”  Hilary asked softly.  

Teresa turned and smiled at her.  “I didn’t say that.  I said, ‘Happily Ever After’, not ‘happy’.  You see, the dream I fell in love with was the dream of a world where everything is perfect all the time.  Nowhere, do the roses always bloom -- with never a blight or a drought.  Nowhere does your husband always come home loving and affectionate -- never tired from a hard day’s work or snappy and irritated.  Nowhere are the children are clean and perfect and well behaved all the time.  No, in the real world, kids have personalities – they don’t behave just the way you want them to.”

“This I know,” Hilary smiled, taking another sip of coffee.

“I can imagine!  But it’s not just children and husbands.  And brothers, and fathers.  Nothing works out perfectly like in books.  Dishes get dirty, and clothes need to be washed and mended – and made.  People have needs of their own that sometimes go counter to yours.  It occurred to me that for seventeen years, I felt cheated, looking for that dream I had made up as a child.  I only just recently realized I do have Happily Ever After.  It’s just not quite what I expected.  It’s hard work, and it’s caring and giving.  Sometimes it’s frustrating or exhausting.  But you know something?”

“What?”  Hilary asked.

“It’s better, it’s much better than the dream.  If you’re willing to work at it hard enough.”

“For seventeen years you felt cheated,” Hilary said.  “But you weren’t alone.  Teresa,” she added thoughtfully, “if you just met Scott now, if you didn’t have twenty years of memories, if you’d never met him before, and he asked you to marry him, would you?”

“Funny you should ask me that,” Teresa said.  “A week ago, I would have said ‘No!’, with no hesitation at all.”

“A week ago?  What’s happened since then?”

“I started thinking,” Teresa said.  “Thinking about what I did have instead of day-dreaming about what I didn’t.  I’m not perfect myself .  There’s no reason for me to expect other people to be.”  Teresa stirred her coffee and tasted it, using that as an excuse to stop and think, seriously think, about the question Hilary had posed.   She tried to picture Scott as he was now, without, as Hilary said, memories of him laughing and wrestling on the floor with his children, of him sitting up with her, nursing them when they were ill.  Of his hand in hers as she struggled in labor, his other hand gently brushing her hair out of her face even as she tried to crush his hand, trying to emulate the labor she felt with her grip.

Forget that, though.  What if she had just met him now?  She looked at him as objectively as possible, seeing the man he had become: still tall, still broad in the shoulder, even if he was getting soft in other places, his handsomeness fading to an appealing maturity.  He was quiet, he held back his feelings.  And he secretly wrote poetry and hid it in his desk.  He had never said he loved her.  And then flooded her room with flowers when he realized his mistake.  He was strong enough to take the worst she could dish out during her tempers without ever throwing it back in her face, and gentle enough to ease a sliver out of a young boy’s hand without the crying and hysterics Jack was so prone to.

If she met this man today, and he asked her to marry him, would she?

“Yes,” she said slowly.  “I believe I would marry him if I just met him today.  And not because of the roses and poetry and promised vacation.  Because he’s strong, strong enough to be gentle.  Because he has a good sense of humor, and he’s patient, because he works hard always not just to take care of his family but to guide them as well.  And,” she added with a mischievous smile, “he’s not bad looking.”

“He most certainly is not,” Hilary agreed.

“You know,” Teresa added.  “Johnny’s not like this most of the time.”

“Not like what?”

“Well... I haven’t seen him, but Murdoch says he’s... er... not doing well.”

“I would be very surprised if he was.  All alcoholics are not unshaven, staggering old men who sleep in gutters.  Some of them are very decent people.  Johnny is more of a victim in this than a perpetrator, really.  And the choice he’s made is a very difficult path.”

“You don’t have to lock yourself up in a room with a drying-out alcoholic and a dying boy, you know,”  Teresa said.

“Good heavens,” Hilary said mildly.  “What a shocking way of putting it!  In the first place, the door will not be locked!  These patients are both still under the doctor’s care, I will merely be carrying out his instructions and orders.  Secondly.... I need to be with my son right now.  I need him, and he needs me.  I’m sure you understand that.”

“Yes.  I do.”

“As to Johnny... how many alcoholics have you helped to dry out?”


“I have had some experience.  Probably more than anyone else here.  Which means he needs me, too.”

“I’m thinking,” Teresa said, “as a woman who recently came to realize how strong the ties are binding her to a man, of a promise once made, mostly forgotten, but never gone, that perhaps, you might need him too.”

“I don’t have the long-term relationship with Johnny that you have with your husband, Mrs.  Lancer.”

“I know.  And I don’t actually believe in things like fate either.  But it is quite a coincidence, isn’t it, how many times your and Johnny’s  lives have crossed.  You met, you parted.   He went back, but you weren’t there.  You’ve known some of the same people, before and since.  He sent you money, without knowing who it was for.  The Texas Rangers were looking for an outlaw who turned out to be looking for Johnny, and the Ranger who came to get him was Johnny’s and your son!  It feels almost like something is pulling you together, like you were meant to be together, but... somehow you just keep missing each other.”

“It sounds,” Hilary said, “Like one of your romantic Happily Ever After stories.”

“Yes.  But didn’t I just say that Happily Ever After was real?  You can regret the lost years,” Teresa added more softly.  “I regret my own selfishness and anger and the good times that lost for me.  I’m kind of starting over myself just now.  Just...”


“Don’t throw away a chance to start over just so that you can hold on to the regret.”



He was aware.  Sometimes.  Aware of where he was, what he was doing there.  Who else was in the room.  In those moments, like now, he was also aware of memories of what had taken place when he was not so aware.  Memories of screaming in terror of things that might or might not have really been tormenting him.  Memories of pain, of throwing up what little food he was able to take in, of having to be washed and manipulated like an infant.  Memories of anger, and of self-pity, of yelling at Hilary to keep that kid quiet, can’t you?  He’s making me insane!  Memories of having been restrained, tied down to the bed like the animal he was behaving as.

Memories of Hilary, helping him.  Caring for him.  Ignoring his tantrums, always there when he was in need.

When he was in need.

Te necesita, Mrs.  Ortiz had said.  She needs you.

Like she needs ten more impossible patients, just like me! he thought bitterly.  The problem was, she had never needed him, would never need him.  What had she said before?  That her “playhouse in the mountains” was where she went as a child to get away from an “overbearing and sometimes abusive father.”  She hadn’t needed him back then: she’d found her own ways of coping.  And when that overbearing father finally threw her out of that hovel of a house of theirs, she hadn’t needed anyone then either.  Alone in the world, pregnant, still a child herself, she had made a home for herself and Tex, had worked hard, had taken care of both of them.  Alone.  While he had sat in the midst of a loving family, in the lap of comparative luxury, mourning her.  He was the needy one in this relationship, not her.  He had needed her then, he needed her now, and he had needed her all his life.  Small wonder her solution to their dilemma was to annul their brief and long-ago marriage.  She was no doubt tired of his needing her.  Tired of him.



“Hello,” she said.

He looked around, saw her sitting between his bed and Tex’s, where, he was pretty sure, she had spent a great deal of time lately.  She was wringing out cloths from two separate pans of water and placing them on the boy’s body, but she turned to give him a warm, welcoming smile as if she hadn’t seen him in days.

“Uh.  Hi,” he said.

“You’re back,” she said.

An explanation, he realized slowly.  He was back.  He was past the crisis.  It was over.  He sighed.

“I’ve sat with people through morphine addiction and alcoholism.  I really can’t say which is the hardest habit to beak.  They’re both petty awful.  Bath first, or food?”

He stomach was still queasy.  At the same time, he was starved.

“Tell you what,” she said.  “Let’s start by getting you out of bed for a few moments.  Then I can make it up fresh while your soup boils.”

She vacated her chair, shoved it closer to his bed, and with her help, he was able to scoot off the bed and slide down onto the seat, dragging the corner of his sheet with him.  He felt incredibly weak and shaky, yet it was good to sit up again.  Finally.  While he leaned back, eyes closed against the dizziness that threatened, she stripped the bed and dropped everything into a pile near the door.  Then she poured water from one of her basins into the second one, and moved the small table she had been using closer to where he sat.  But when she dipped and wrung out her rag, he caught her wrist, stopping her before she could bathe him again.

“I can wash myself,” he said.

“You’re sure?”

“I’ve been doing it quite sometime now, thank you,” he said.  Colder than he had meant to.  She didn’t react to the tone, however, just made sure the soap and basin and rag were all within easy reaching distance of where he sat, and then she gathered up the soiled laundry and left.  She was gone long enough for him to give himself a decent sponge bath with the warm water she had left him.  He was inclined to skip it, feeling the way he was.  But he didn’t want her to have to care for him like that again.  And he stank from days of sleeping in his own sweat.  The soap and water felt good.  He was leaning back, resting as if that quick washing-up had been a long day’s hard labor, when she came back into the room with a tray of food.  She left it across the room on another small table for a few minutes while she came and had him lean over the basin so she could wash his hair.  Neither of them worried about the stubble on his face just now.  This bath was for his comfort, not because he had to go face the world just yet. 

She exchanged the basin of water for the meal tray, and while he fed himself soup and tortillas, she took the basin outside, came back with steaming hot water in it, changed the cloths she had placed all over the kid’s body, and set about making Johnny’s bed.  All in silence.  But then, what was there to say?  He was highly embarrassed about what had transpired these past few days.  And he was certain Hilary would want nothing to do with him ever again.  He had started out by being particularly obnoxious.  Why did he always act like that when he didn’t feel well?  Particularly to her?  He could still treat Teresa and Scott and Murdoch decently no matter how he felt...

Well.  He couldn’t guarantee that kind of behavior these past few days.  No telling what he would have said to them.  He remembered at some point whining that none of it was his fault.  It was Scott’s fault or Murdoch’s fault or someone else’s fault, not his, why did he have to suffer for it?

“How does your leg feel?”  Hilary asked.  Cool.  Pleasant.  Professional.

“Hurts,” he murmured.

She knelt down on the floor in front of him, to his great embarrassment, and started removing the bandages.

“You don’t have to do that!”  he said.

“Easier here than in bed,” she said.  “And if it makes a mess, you won’t have to lie in it.”

“I don’t want to go back to bed,” he said.

“A little more.  You need rest after what you’ve been through.  This is healing nicely.  Is it starting to itch?”


“Good.  Tender still, I imagine?”


“But, this isn’t the leg you were complaining was hurting you, is it?”

“Well.  It hurts too,” he said.

“Is it very bad?  The other one?”

“No,” he said.  Though it was.  Had been all through his painful drying out.  The fire ants seemed to have decided to call in reinforcements, and there were times when the sensation was more like long claws and hungry teeth ripping into the flesh.  Thanks, no doubt, to Tom’s treatment of it.  He must have ruptured something...


Johnny jumped in surprise.  He hadn’t even noticed Hilary getting up, going across the room, coming back with a hypodermic needle.  Jabbing him with it.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to surprise you.  There.  That should start feeling better soon.”

“I can’t be doing that all the time, can I?”  he asked.

“Until we can work on it surgically, this will help.  And it is better than drinking the pain away, isn’t it?”

“Don’t know if alcohol would even help this,” he admitted.  He leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes.  The pain was intense enough that he was getting more queasy, not less, as he ate.  He pushed aside the tray and waited in silence for the pain to start to ease up.  After a few moments, Hilary came and roused him, helped him back into his bed where he leaned back on a pile of fresh pillows, enjoying the feel of being clean.  He was tired.  Maybe one more short nap would be in order.  At least it would be easy to sleep now, with the silence that had fallen on the room.


Funny, it was the third time the word had popped into his head since he had awakened, yet until now, it didn’t really register on him what it meant.  Silence.  The kid wasn’t, for the first time in days, babbling incoherently about everything and anything.  He’d shut up. 

Johnny opened his eyes and looked across the space between the beds.  The kid was in the bigger of the two, being as he was the larger person, stretched out at an angle because even so the bed was short for him.  For modesty, a towel was laid across his mid-section, but the rest of him was naked and on top of the bedding, which was packed around with towels to absorb the drips as Hilary continued bathing him over and over.  She used water from one basin to swab down his arms legs, neck and face, and from one that let off steam, she dipped rags and laid them on the kid’s chest.

“Why are you putting hot water on him in this weather?”  Johnny asked.  Although this room was downstairs, not up under the roof, sweltering like an oven in the mid-day heat, it was still July.  It was hot and close in here, and had a distinct sick-room odor despite the two windows open for breeze.  He himself was damp with sweat again already, and Hilary’s dress was soaked with it.  But she was dipping her rag in water so hot she could barely stand to wring it out, and draping that over the kid’s chest.    

“Heat is the body’s best defense against infection,” she explained.  “That’s why you run fevers when you are ill, you know.  It’s your own body trying to kill off the infection.”

“I thought fever was what killed people,” Johnny said.

“Well, yes.  It does that sometimes.  The body literally fights to the death, never backing down.  That’s why I have the cold compresses over the rest of him, to bring down the fever.  Heat on the wound for infection, cold everywhere else to fight his own reaction to that infection.”

He watched her working over the kid, then he looked at the kid, really looked at him.  And sucked in his breath in surprise.  It was like looking at a corpse.

He recalled, vivid as a photograph, the first day the kid had ridden into the ranch.  Much as they had all tried to hate him, that youthful vitality he had exuded had engendered a positive reaction from the first.  Tall, rangy, sunburned, full of life and energy, the kid had been a pleasure just to be around.  But that memory was in total opposition to what Johnny saw now.  The kid’s sun-gold hair was greasy and dark with sweat and damp.  His eyes were sunk deep into hollows in his face, a face that had gone gaunt and bony: beyond hungry, it looked like something that had died out in the desert, the bloat come and gone, the sun sucking the flesh and substance out from underneath.  His whole body looked like that: his arms and legs were verging on skeletal.  His rib cage stuck up above the bed like the sunbaked bones of some long-dead animal.  In the silence, Johnny could hear the slow, labored, uneven breaths that rattled that rib cage, each one tortuously difficult. 

The kid was still alive, but he shouldn’t have been.  The fever, the wounds, had long since sucked all the life out of him, but he was, somehow, still hanging on.  And Hilary....


Johnny looked at her again, and realized slowly what was happening.  He had been so concerned with himself, so totally wrapped up in himself, that he hadn’t been aware of anything else.  Now he saw that her attitude wasn’t about him.  Her impersonal politeness, bordering on cheeriness, was a cocoon of professionalism she had wrapped around herself.  She wasn’t acting that way because she was upset with him.  This wasn’t about him.  This was her defense.  She was watching her son die, and the only way she could deal with it was to become someone else, someone not involved.  Nurse Pierce, not Hilary.  She had detached herself from Tex – and from Johnny as well – and at the same time, she was definitely not detached.

“Hilary, stop it,” he said.

She ignored him.  He recalled again having yelled in his own misery.  Frequently.   She was probably too used to unreasonable demands from him at this point to pay any attention.

The beds, to make her job easier, were close together, room in between only for her chair and the small table she kept her supplies on.  It was easy for him to reach out and grab her arm, stopping her in mid-movement as she bathed the kid’s neck and shoulder and arm.  Stopping her.

“Hilary, let him go,” Johnny said softly.

“Whatever are you talking about?”  she asked, in that same warm/friendly/ cool/impersonal nurse’s voice.  The voice she would use -- had used! -- in agreeing with a lunatic who had been raving at her from drug dreams and delirium for days.

“You know what I’m talking about.”  He was weak, but not so weak that he couldn’t maintain his grip.  She tried to shrug him off, but he kept hold of her arm.

“Remember the night we brought him here?  Remember what I said to you then?  That you were holding his heart in your hand.”

“You were suffering from severe blood loss – among other things,” she said.

“Yeah, I know.  But I was right, wasn’t I?  You held on to me, Hilary, years ago, you held on to me and kept me alive.  You held me so hard that even long after I thought you were dead, you kept me from dying – from dying spiritually by falling back into the life I had lived before.  I had enough anger and bitterness when I thought you were gone that backsliding would have been more than easy – it would have felt good.  But you held me.  Just like you’re holding him now.  And it’s time to let go.”

“Don’t be absurd!  I’m his nurse!  I’m doing my job!”

“Hilary, look at me,” he said.  She didn’t move, kept her eyes downcast and her back to him.  “Look at me!”  he insisted.

“You’re raving,” she said softly.

“I’m not, and you know it, Hilary!  Look me in the eye.”  He got hold of both her upper arms, and turned her to face him.  Slowly she lifted her face to meet his eyes.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she whispered.

“Maybe that’s been true a lot lately, but it isn’t now and you know it.  Look at me, Hilary!  I know what I’m saying now.  Look at him.  He’s used up.  He can’t take any more.  You’ve got to let him go.”

“No.  It’s my job...”

“No.  It isn’t!”  He dropped one hand from her arm long enough to yank the veil she still affected backwards off her head.  She clutched at it, but he caught her arms again, turned her to face him, shook her.  “You’re not his nurse! You’re his mother! Act like his mother!  Let him go!  Hilary.”  He gave her another shake, drawing her eyes up to his face again.  “Hilary, let him go.”           

“I can’t,” she said, her voice so soft he could scarcely hear it.  “He’s all there is, all there ever was.   My mother died, my father abandoned me.  You left.  Tex is all I have.”

“I know.  I know that.  But you have to let him go.  Whatever his physical condition , it’s your job, as his mother, to let him go.”

“I don’t know how,” she whispered, dropping her eyes again.  “How do you let go of someone you love so much?”

“You mourn,” Johnny said. 

“Easy for you to say,” she murmured

“No, it isn’t, actually.  I have to do it twice, I have to mourn never having known him and losing him at the same time.  But you do have the bigger job.  I think the bond between a mother and her son is one of the strongest in the world, but sooner or later, that bond has to let go, so he can become a man.  You have to let him be a man, Hilary, and let him rest.  All at once.  You held me these past few days while I let go of something that had me pretty strong in its grip.  For what it’s worth, I’ll be here to help you let go now.  But you need to do it.  He needs for you to do it.  Mourn him, Hilary.  And let him go.”

He held her.  She stared down at her hands, fidgeting with the discarded veil in her lap.  She nodded.  He waited.  Slowly, it came.  He could see it in her face, even with her face turned downward.  He saw the corner of her mouth tug down.  Saw the tear that trickled down her face.  He pulled her close to himself then, pulled her out of her chair and into his bed, wrapping his arms around her to hold her close while she mourned.

There was no big display, like the letting out of pent-up emotions when Murdoch had held her and she had sobbed out the horror, pain, anxiety and tension of that awful day not so long ago.  This was private and personal, very deep and very painful.  There were tears, but no hysterics, a few soft sobs, but no wailing.  She clung to him, held onto him with a grip that would leave marks on his skin for days afterwards, pressed her face to his chest, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart, clinging to that.  To him.  And she mourned, mourned so deeply that Johnny could not help but to cry with her.  He cried for himself: for the lost years, for the son he would never know.  But, mostly he cried for her pain: intense.  Deep.  Intimate.   And he wondered how he could ever have thought that this fragile, vulnerable human being was a pillar of strength who never had and never would need anybody.  Of course she needed!  She had had needs all those lonely years, struggling, raising a boy alone.  She had need now, losing him after so much effort.  It was devastating how intensely she needed.  But he was there for her.  Finally, he could be here for her, and he felt the incredible weight of all her needs as she shifted the burden of all those long, lonely years to him now, felt it, and accepted it willingly, wishing only that it could have been more.  And sooner.


SPANISH WELLS, CALIFORNIA.  JULY 25 - 26, 1890 (midnight).

He slept.  And he knew that she had slept also.  The nighttime breeze entering the room now brought a welcome coolness, but they were both still hot, sweaty, from clinging together in that narrow bed for so long.  And neither of them cared.

“I should check....”  she said.

“Not yet,” he said, refusing to let go of her.  Because as long as they didn’t check, as long as they didn’t know for certain, Tex was still alive.  “Hilary...”


“Did you really mean it when you said that you thought it would be better if we got an annulment?”

She sighed, her warm breath ruffling the hair that curled along his neck, tickling him.  “I did.  It seemed like the best thing, don’t you think?  We’re not kids anymore.  And we don’t know each other.”

“I know you better than you think.  And you know me better than you think, too.  Listen, Hilary.  I know it can’t ever be the same.  We’re not kids, like you said, a young couple starting out in life.  We lost that and we’ll never get it back.  Marriage is a whole different thing when you’re pushing forty then when you’re not even twenty yet.  But it’s still real.  You wouldn’t be getting Johnny Madrid.  You’d be getting a banged-up, aging rancher, an honest, working man, not a rebellious young gun-hand.   But you’d be getting a man who loves you, a man who respects you and wants nothing more than just to be together with you for as long as possible.”

“I don’t know, Johnny.  I think you’re still living on dreams of the past.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.  He traced a finger over her eyebrow, let it slide down the cheek, so different and so much the same as the cheek he remembered.  Her cheek.  Nothing else about it mattered.  “You know, if it’s because of your career, don’t worry about that.  I know you work with a famous doctor, doing important medical research as well as caring for people.  I wouldn’t ask you to give that up.  I’ll... I’ll move to El Paso, if that’s what you want.”

She was silent for several long seconds.  “You can’t do that,” she said finally.  “You have your family here, and they love you.”

“Yeah, but isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  ‘A man will leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife....’  I’ve enjoyed having a brother, getting to watch his family grow up, getting to know my father.  But none of that is the same as having a wife, and it’s not supposed to be.”

“You mean it, don’t you?  You’d really do that for me?”  she asked, pulling away just enough that she could see his face in the pale moonlight coming in the window.

“Of course.  It’s the very least I can do.”

“Actually,” she said, sliding back down into his arms, “I don’t think you’d have to make a sacrifice like that.  The only thing, really, holding me to El Paso now is Tex.  And if he’s....Well.  If Tex isn’t there, I’d rather not be there myself.”

“You could work here,” Johnny said.  “With the doctor.  He seemed anxious to have you.  We could get a house in town....”

“Or, I could choose not to work at all, since I wouldn’t have to support myself and my son any longer.  That little farm of yours looked fairly prosperous the one time I was there.  Maybe I’ll just let you support me.”

“I suppose I could,” Johnny said.  “That ‘little farm’ could probably feed one more mouth.  If we stretched things.  You think you can give up your job, your career, all this?”

“I don’t know.  But I wouldn’t mind taking a little vacation and see how I like not working.  It sounds gloriously decadent.  Realizing, of course, that a ranch wife works very hard also...”

“We’ll give you time off for good behavior,” Johnny teased.  He grew serious, then, twisted around so he could prop himself up on an elbow and look down at her without tumbling either of them out of the narrow bed.  “Hilary?  Are you agreeing to stay with me because you think I’m helpless?”

“Of course not!”

“You did meet me at a very bad time in my life,” he said.  “Twice.  But I don’t need nursing and I don’t need coddling, and I certainly don’t need a surrogate mother.  All I need is someone who loves me, someone I can love, someone who will be with me.  As a wife.”

“That’s what I need, too.  A husband.  Not a patient.”

He sighed then, slid down and wrapped her close in his arms.  “Why were you so stubborn about it?”  he breathed into her hair.

“It was a shock,” she said.

“For me too,” he reminded her.  “I didn’t run away though.”

“No.  But you wouldn’t, would you?  I suppose that’s what I was afraid of....”

“I’ll never leave you again.”

“I didn’t mean that.  I meant...You wouldn’t leave.  You would feel responsible for Tex and for me and you would insist on being there for us – whether you wanted to or not.  You always did have a very strong – if rather odd – sense of honor.”

“This isn’t about honor or obligation,” Johnny said.  “It’s about belonging together, you and me.  When I realized what had happened, that you were really alive, I felt whole for the first time in years.”

“Whole,” she repeated, thinking of the missing leg.

“Whole,” he insisted.  “Losing a leg is definitely inconvenient.  But it’s nothing compared to losing a piece of your soul.  I told you you belonged to me, were a part of me, I meant it.”

He had meant it, she could feel that, and she waited with a feeling of anticipation for his lips to slide down along her cheek, looking for her mouth...

“Ma.”  The kid’s voice was barely more than a whisper, a soft croak of sound but it cut through the darkness very cleanly.  “Ma?”

“I’m here, Tex, just a moment,” she said, and with a smile that promised more than words could have, she slipped out of Johnny’s embrace, lit the candle on the table, and looked for the first time in hours at her primary patent.  She took his hand, held it to her breast and said, “I’m here, Texas,” as she used her other hand to brush the hair back from his face.

“Woke up... was dark,” he murmured.     

“I was sleeping.  I’m sorry, I should have left a candle for you,” she said, slipping back into the character of Nurse Pierce.  She lit a second candle, and felt the water in her basins, both gone tepid.  But she rinsed one of her rags and wrung it out and bathed his neck and arms, automatically.

“Ma, would you ever marry a lawman?”  Tex asked.

“I don’t know that a lawman was ever interested in asking me,” she said.

“Bat was, wasn’t he?”

“Bat was a gentleman, who thought a young boy needed a father.  I don’t think he was ever interested in me personally.”

“He was.  You don’t give yourself credit.  Ma?  Be serious, would you?  Cause I been thinking a lot lately about Cara, but Luke Short said there wasn’t no real difference between marrying a lawman or an outlaw – they’d both lead you to grief.  But, Allie stayed with Virge all those years.  They weren’t really married, cause he was married before and didn’t know where his wife went, but they were like married.  Still are.  And I don’t think she thinks of him as an outlaw.”

“No, I don’t think.... so....”  Hilary stared at Tex, her hand still in the basin.

“What?”  Johnny asked.

“He’s not delirious,” she said.

“Sounds like he is,” Johnny said.

“No.  No.  I... I don’t think so....”  She dropped her rag, dried her hands on her apron and felt of Tex’s neck and chest.  “Fever’s broke!”  she said in surprise.  She placed a hand on either side of Tex’s face.  “Son,” she said.  “Tex.  Look at me.”

He opened his eyes slowly, as if the raising of the eyelids was a tremendous effort, and he smiled up at her worried look.  “Don’t worry Ma.  I ain’t gonna get married right away anyway.  I been kind of waiting for another promotion.  And for Cara to finish school.”

“Baby, you can get married any time you want.  How do you feel now?”

“Hungry,” he said.  “And cold.”

“Of course you are.”  She quickly began removing the damp towels from around him and found a quilt folded up at the foot of the bed to drape over him.  “Better?”

“Hmmm,” was all he said.

“You wait here, I’ll go see if there’s still some soup on the stove.”  She patted his cheek, looked over at Johnny with tears in her eyes and said, “His fever broke!”  and she hurried out of the room.

Johnny found it a little hard to believe himself.  The kid couldn’t possibly survive what he had gone through, no one could.  The doctor had been talking a lot lately about coffins, and would they want to bury him here in the Lancer plot or ship the body back to Texas.  But when he reached across the space between the beds and managed to get hold of the tips of Tex’s fingers, they weren’t hot.  In fact, they were cold.  Cold and limp.

“Tex?”  Johnny called softly. 

There was no response.

“Hey, kid!”  He gave the fingers, all he could reach across the space between them, a little shake.  Nothing.  Johnny rolled back onto his own back and stared up at the flickering candlelight on the ceiling.  It had seemed too good to be true, and he was certain now that it was.  He had seen similar things happen before: men who were unconscious for days, or burning up with fever, suddenly started talking again, or speaking rationally.  Then, when it seemed they were better, they just died.  It was, he had once thought, as if the spirit had to be firmly rooted to the body before death came and ripped them apart, finally and completely.  He still held those cold fingers in his own, not ready yet to let go completely, as he had convinced Hilary to let go hours ago.  The kid needed that freedom from her to move on.  He didn’t need anything from Johnny, so Johnny held the cold hand, stared up and the ceiling, and let the tears of grief for the son he had never had a chance to know, leak out of his eyes and drip down into his ears.

“Here we are.  Sorry I took so long but I did want it to be warm at least.”  Hilary said as she bustled back into the room.  “I brought some for you too, Johnny.  You haven’t eaten in awhile, I thought you might be hungry.  In fact, while I was out there, I made a bowl for myself as well.  I... what?”

She had set the tray down on a table across the room, and come back to clear off the basins and rags and other supplies on the table by the bed so that she could bring the food closer, but the look on Johnny’s face stopped her.

“I’m sorry, Hilary,” he said.  “I’m so sorry.”

She saw his hand holding on to Tex’s hand.  Saw the boy lying still again, sunken eyes shut in his skeletal face.  She stepped up to the bed quickly and began a closer examination.

“Hilary,” Johnny said softly.  “Please...”

“No,” she said.  “No, it’s okay.”

“It can’t possibly be...”

“Yes.  Here.  Feel that?”  She tugged Tex’s arm deeper out of the blankets, and in the space between the beds, took Johnny’s hand and wrapped it around Tex’s wrist, pressing his fingers against Tex’s skin.

“I don’t feel anything,” Johnny said.

“Yes, it’s there...”  She checked with her own fingers again, then pressed Johnny’s where hers had been.  “There.  Now?”

“Hilary, I...”  Johnny stopped protesting.  Very faintly, he could feel something under his fingers.  He could feel the soft thump, thump, thump of a heartbeat.  He stared up at Hilary in wonder.

“He’s sleeping, that’s all,” she said.  “Really sleeping, not unconscious or drugged.  He’s resting.  And the fever has broken.  And the wound looks much better.  Johnny!  He might just survive!”

“If he does,” Johnny said, dropping the kid’s wrist and letting Hilary tuck that hand under the blankets, “Will you go back to El Paso with him?”

“No,” she said, looking down at him seriously.  “I mean, I will have to take care of him for awhile.  But, you said I have to let him go, well...  you were right.  I had no idea he was even thinking about....”

“He’s a young man,” Johnny said.  “It’s natural.”

“I suppose it is.  But he never mentioned it.  You were absolutely right: he has his own life to live now, and he doesn’t need to think he has to take care of me while he’s living it.  I will stay with you.  If you were serious about wanting me to.”

“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”     



Tex’s recovery was far from instantaneous.  Even after the fever broke, he was wracked with problems.  Pneumonia took a shot at him, and the doctor kept him so dosed with heavy narcotics so that his coughing would not rupture his wound or re-break his ribs that he was totally unconscious for days.  Even after that, his recovery was slow.  The fever and the wound and the illness had taken everything out of him.  He was too weak to lift his own head, could scarcely even raise his hand, yet he managed to complain of boredom.

Johnny’s recovery was set back by a week or more when they left Tex in the care of Larissa and Mrs. Ortiz while Hilary and Nurse Planchet assisted Doctor Thompson in over six hours of surgery.  It was a long enough process that just recovering from the time spent cut open and bleeding on the table took a couple days, but much sooner than Tex, Johnny could sit up in bed, hold a book.  And he took to reading aloud to the kid to help pass the time for both of them, giving Hilary some respite from her duties.  She napped at first, then entertained herself for an hour or two every day, shopping with Teresa, gossiping with Mrs. Ortiz, or sitting in the corner quietly knitting, listening to the stories herself.

The day did come, finally, when the doctor declared both his patients at least well enough to travel back to Lancer.  The whole family returned for the occasion.  Scott had purchased a new full-sized wagon for the ranch, and he spread a thick double mattress in its bed.   He and the doctor carefully lifted Tex into the back of the wagon and laid him out flat.  Johnny was permitted to sit up, leaning with Hilary against the tailgate of the wagon, propped around with enough pillows to make the journey comfortable.  Murdoch drove, with Teresa sitting up on the seat next to him, while Scott, Larissa, Eugene and Jack all rode, gathered about the wagon like guards around a gold shipment.  A holiday spirit surrounded the homecoming, and the people of the town seemed to feel it as well.  Everyone they passed in the street as they headed out of town waved and called out greetings and well-wishes.  Some people came to their doors and windows to wave the little parade on by.

Eventually, they left the town behind.  Jack and Eugene raced ahead, enjoying the warm summer afternoon.  The sun was bright, the grass tall.  A few soft white clouds scudded across the sky, leftovers of the brief thunderstorm of yesterday afternoon that had wet the road enough to keep the dust down, but not enough to make it boggy and soft, and left everything feeling and smelling clean and fresh.

“You look in good spirits,” Murdoch commented to Johnny over his shoulder.  “How’s the leg?”

“It aches,” Johnny said.  “But I think that after all the cutting and patching the doc did on it, it’s supposed to ache some.”

“No fire ants?”  Murdoch asked.

“No fire ants,” Johnny agreed.      

“You doing okay back there, Tex?”  Teresa added.  “It’s not too bumpy for you?”

“Naw, feels good to be out in the sun again,” Tex said.  “Though I do wish we had one fewer passenger back here.”

Jack and Gene had presented him that morning with one of the puppies that had been born in their barn.  Not in the least pleased with the gift, Tex had dubbed the critter “Puddles” for his propensity for making puddles everywhere.

“A puppy is just the therapy you need,” Murdoch assured him.  “The way to get over a fear of dogs is to get yourself a dog that can’t hurt you.  You get used to him, and you work your way up.”

“Maybe you think  he can’t hurt me,” Tex said, “but he’s trying to chew my arm off.”          Puddles was, at the moment, growling and jerking its head back and forth, his mouth full of Tex’s nightgown sleeve.  Hilary leaned over and flicked the puppy in the nose and said, “No!”  firmly.

The flick was hard enough that they could all hear it.  The pup yelped and rubbed his nose with his paws.

“You don’t have to be that hard on him,” Tex commented, coaxing the little beast closer to give it a bit of a cuddle.  Over his head, Hilary and Johnny smiled.

“I should have gotten you a puppy years ago,” Hilary said.                

“Shoot, you’re as scared of ‘em as me,” Tex said, bringing a round of laughter from everyone.

“Lissa, go fetch your brothers,” Scott said, and Larissa spurred the horse she was riding and shot past the wagon.  While she rounded up the boys and herded them back to the wagon, Scott turned to Hilary and said, “Johnny tells me you’re not much used to family.”

“”No, not really,” she admitted.  “I lived alone with my father for many years, then alone with Tex for the rest of my life.  I guess I’m not much used to being part of a group.”

“Neither was Johnny when he first came to us.  Certain things really surprised him.  So I thought I should warn you how much gossip goes around in a family group.”

“Gossip?”  Hilary, Johnny, and Murdoch all asked at once.

“We don’t actually call it gossip when it stays in the family,” Scott said.  “We refer to it as ‘sharing necessary information about each other’s problems to better able ourselves to aid that individual.’  For example.  The night Johnny and Tex got shot, you and Johnny had a lengthy and personal conversation on the way into town, most of which Murdoch overheard.  He, of course, told the rest of us about it in minute detail, in case we might be able to offer you some assistance.  And I believe I have now found a solution to the problem mentioned on that occasion.” 

“Funny,” Johnny said, lacing his fingers through the fingers of Hilary’ hand.  “I thought the two of us had managed to work everything out all by ourselves.”

“You would think that,” Scott said.  “That’s a man’s point of view.  As an old married man, I can tell you, women see things differently.  So.  There were a couple points I think are still in question.  Now, your marriage took place in the spring of 1870, right?”

“Right,” Johnny agreed, still looking sour. 

Scott grinned at him.  “In 1868, two years previously, Doña Ana County, which had previously stretched almost from El Paso well into what is now Arizona Territory was divided, and the area around Piños Altos and what is now Silver City was no longer in Doña Ana but Grant County.”

“Yeah.  So?”

“So, the county was split, but the entire area was still under the archdiocese of El Paso.  So to record the marriage in the diocesan records, the priest in Piños Altos had to send the information back to his own bishop in the state of Texas, where it was recorded, legally and officially.”  Scott paused to look down at Tex and said, “Us lawyers are decent investigators too.”

Tex nodded, acknowledging the victory.  “Not bad.”

“Thank you.  Point here being that you were married legally.”

“But the priest never had the marriage license!”  Hilary objected.  “I did!”

“Yes.  So, it wasn’t recorded with the county, but it was recorded in the archdiocese of El Paso – and, legally speaking, in the event that certain events are not recorded with the state, church records are considered legal – and binding.”

“Which I knew,” Johnny said irritably.

“Yes, but Hilary said it didn’t feel real, since it happened so quickly and in a language she didn’t understand at the time, isn’t that right?”

“Well.  I was upset that night...”

“Yes, but it was a legitimate comment.  So, I did even more research.  Of course, you can’t get married again, you’re already married, legally and through the church.  But you can, any time you want, formally renew your vows.”

“Oh!”  Larissa said.  “I see what you’re saying, Pa!  Like Mr. and Mrs. Casteñeda did last summer!  You remember, Uncle Johnny?  It was their thirtieth anniversary, and they had a high Mass, and a ceremony, just like a real wedding, with flowers and guests, and a big party afterwards.”

“Exactly,” Scott said.  “This is just slightly after your twentieth anniversary, which is a more than adequate reason for having that type of celebration.  And when I discussed the possibility with Father Alvarez, he said he thought it was an especially good idea since the entire community knows Johnny as a single man, and a ceremony would plant in their heads firmly the idea that his sudden  relationship with Hilary is completely legitimate.”

The irritation at Scott’s lengthy monologue had faded, and Johnny looked thoughtfully at Hilary.  “It’s not a bad idea,” he said.  When she didn’t respond immediately, he added, “We could have a cake.”

“And a dress!”  Teresa said.  “Hilary, it would be the perfect excuse for you to buy that blue satin skirt they have over at Hillman’s.  I know you liked it!  You looked at it every chance you got!”

“Well, of course I like it!  It’s beautiful!”  Hilary said.  “But it’s also quite expensive, way more than I can afford...”

“But that’s the advantage of doing things out here,” Teresa said with a teasing grin.

“Uh...  What?”  Hilary asked.

“Unlike places like, oh, say, Boston...”  she threw Scott a mischievous grin before continuing, “where the bride is expected the foot the bill for the wedding as if she were buying herself a husband, the Spanish-American tradition , which we still follow out here, is for the groom’s family to pay for it all.”

“Oh, but, I couldn’t ask...!”  Hilary started.

“Blue satin skirt it is,” Murdoch said firmly.  “And anything else you need to make the day perfect.”

“I have a blouse that will match wonderfully with that skirt,” Teresa said.  “It’s fairly new and very stylish, off-white lace.  Then you have something borrowed and something blue.”

“Well, I...”

“And I know the perfect day for it all to take place!”  Larissa said enthusiastically.  “You can have the ceremony in the morning, and a big, big party in the evening with everybody you can think of to invite.  September fifteenth.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Scott said.  “But isn’t that the exact day that this family has been planning a big birthday and coming -out party for you for over a year?”

“Yes!”  Larissa said.  “But don’t you see?  That’s what makes it so perfect!  We’ve already invited everyone we’ve ever known.  And for some of them, it’s a very long trip.  They wouldn’t want to come all the way out to the ranch twice in a short time.  Besides, the closer the time comes for this big party, the more uneasy I feel about it.”

“You never said anything!”  Teresa said.

“I know.  Everyone worked so hard, I didn’t want to just call it off.  But face it, Mother!  Half the people you invited, I don’t even know.  They’re friends of yours and Pa’s, or business associates of Grandpa and Uncle Johnny.  I feel like I’ll be put on display for their entertainment – and I’m not really good at entertaining people!  But, if we shared the party, if it was about them as much as it’s about me, I wouldn’t have to worry so much.  I could sit in a corner with my friends and giggle and talk and have a great time and not worry about ignoring a bunch of people I don’t know anyway.”

“No, you’d leave that up to me,” Johnny said.   

“Come on, Uncle Johnny!  Like the priest told Pa, people need to get used to knowing you as a married man.  The whole town needs to see it.”

“We’ll have to add to the guest list,” Teresa said.  “But there’s still time, for the local people.  Is there anyone you want to invite, Hilary?”

“No one who would want to come all that way,” Hilary said shyly.

“Except maybe Virge and Allie,” Tex commented from where he was laying.  “They’re in California.  And Allie’s been your best friend for years.” 

“If that would be all right...”  Hilary said hesitantly.

“You invite everyone and anyone you like,” Teresa said.  “We’ll work on it tomorrow, get the invitations in the mail as quickly as possible.”

“Besides, I’m sure Marshall Earp will be pleased to know he was mistaken, and that Tex is alive and well,” Murdoch said.

“Alive,” Tex sighed.  “Let’s just stick with ‘alive’ for now.” 

The laughter that comment caused was a laughter of joy that he was alive enough to make it.

“Did you ever have a wedding ring?”  Murdoch asked.

“Uh, no.  I guess I should get one,” Johnny said.  “Two, actually.”

“You can,” Murdoch said.  “Or, uh...  Well.  The one piece of jewelry your mother didn’t take when she ran away was her own wedding ring.”

“She left something that valuable behind?”  Johnny asked in surprise.

“Unintentionally, I’m sure.  I had it with me.  I’d taken it to a goldsmith in Sacramento to reset the main stone, which had fallen out.  I’ve... Well, I suppose you think it’s silly, but, well... I’ve carried it on me ever since.” 

“Secret romantic!”  Teresa teased, while Murdoch shifted on the wagon seat, half standing up to be able to dig deep into his pants pocket.  He came up with not one, but two wedding rings, his own plain gold band, which he handed back to Johnny, and a thin band of deep gold set with a small sapphire surrounded by diamonds, which he handed to Hilary.

“It belonged to Espe’s grandmother,” Murdoch said.  “Came from Spain originally.  I didn’t give it to you when you got married, Scott, because...”

“Because it didn’t belong to me,” Scott said for him.  “It belonged to Johnny.  It came from his mother, and her family.”

“Oh!”  Hilary exclaimed, turning the small ring over in her hand.  “Oh, Mr.  Lancer!  I can’t accept this!  It’s... it’s too much!”

“Too much?”  Murdoch asked.  “Too much to give to my daughter-in-law?  Too much to bind to our family the woman who gave me back my son?  My dear girl, I wish it were a hundred times more!  Even then it wouldn’t be enough!”

“Told you you always underestimate yourself,” Tex murmured.

“You stay out of this!”  Hilary snapped, but then the two of them grinned at each other.  And it was lost on no one that the puppy that Tex had tried so hard not to accept was curled up in the crook of his arm, its chin resting on his shoulder as it looked from person to person, following the conversation. 



Scott entered the house through a small and seldom used gate in the private courtyard behind the rooms he shared with Teresa, intentionally avoiding the kitchen, the dining room and the living room, where there seemed to be an incredible number of women, all talking at once as they helped Teresa and Hilary with the “wedding” and party plans.  Virgil and Allie Earp had arrived two days ago, and were installed in one of the upstairs bedrooms while Allie assisted with the apparently unlimited cleaning and sewing and preparations.  Virge, who they were all surprised to learn had known Johnny years ago, spent his time riding the ranch with Murdoch, Scott and Eugene.  Scott had not been altogether pleased that Virge accompanied him and his son on what was Eugene’s first chance to ride the range with his father.  But, it turned out to be a good thing.  Eugene had gotten a bit cocky lately, and had begun developing a mouth that no amount of admonition from his mother, father, grandfather, aunt or uncle seemed to have any effect on.  But the boy was in awe of the famous lawman, and when Virge – who himself was always a gentleman and insisted on proper manners – turned a stern eye on him and said, “I believe you mean ’yes, sir!’” or “That’s no kind of language for a gentleman to be using!”, Gene corrected himself at once.

When he wasn’t working with Scott, Virge occupied himself helping Johnny on his project to make his attic retreat into a honeymoon suite, a project the rest of the family felt was foolish.

“If you’re going to live in this house, you should fix up one of these suites for you and Hilary,” Scott had told him.

“Thanks, but I don’t really want any near neighbors for awhile,” Johnny said.

“But, you live in an attic!”  Teresa had wailed.

“It will be fine,” Johnny assured her.  And they left him to his work, as they all had more than enough to keep them occupied.  Like emptying, completely, all those little rooms on the south wing, scrubbing and whitewashing the walls, laying board floors over the dirt floors, ordering and installing glass not just for that wing but for the entire east-facing side of the big house.  And the ranch had to get back to business, preparing for winter, preparing for the fall calf sale to the meat markets in the city. 

The whole ranch had been turned on its ear, and Scott was looking for some much-needed quiet for just a few moments.  He was quite surprised to find Larissa standing in his bedroom, examining in her mother’s tall mirror the dress she was holding in front of herself.  She did not, he thought, look happy.

“What’s the matter, angel?”  he asked gently, stepping up behind her.  “Regretting your offer to share your big day?  If you want to back out of that, it’s not too late.”

“Oh, no, Pa!  I’m glad it’ll all be one big party,” she assured him.

“Then why the sad face?”  Scott asked, tipping her chin up so that he could see it.  Tears trembled on the edges of her lashes and her lower lip shook.

“Oh, Pa!”  She couldn’t hold back the tears in the face of her father’s gentle concern, and she threw herself into his arms, sobbing.

“There, now,”  he said, patting her back as she cried into his dusty shirt.  “There, there, baby.  Tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry!” she said, pulling back, wiping her eyes and nose on her hands until he gave her a handkerchief that worked much better. 

“No need to be sorry,” he said, still waiting.

“Oh, but there is!  I know you and Mother spent a lot of money on this ball gown, and I should be ever so grateful to have it, but....”

Scott’s eyebrows went up questioningly.  “But?”

“Oh, Pa!  It’s awful!”  she said, indicating the gown she had dropped onto his bed.  “Look at it!  This party is supposed to be about you and everyone treating me like a grown up, but look at it!  It’s a baby dress!  I know it’s long, but... it looks like something you’d want to buy for a china doll, not for a grown-up woman!”

“I always thought it was a little frilly,” Scott admitted, scratching at his ear as he frowned down at the dress, which was a froth of pink and lavender, lace and ribbons and a huge pink sash.

“I’m sorry,” Larissa said again.  She blew her nose.  “I’m sorry.  It is very pretty...”

“And very juvenile, like you said,” Scott said. 

“Do you think, while Mrs. Miller is here fitting Mother and Allie for gowns, maybe we could ask her to do something to it?”   

“We could,” Scott said.  “Or...  I might have an idea.  Come with me.”

He tossed onto the bed the stack of folders he had been carrying and lead the way back out through the private entrance on the patio, across the yard to where a new little storage shed was holding all the junk that had been moved from the attic to the south wing, and finally out here so that every bedroom in the house could be used.  Inside it was dark and smelled equally of fresh-cut pine and old dust.  Scott moved into the mass of piled objects, looking closely.  Finally he found what he was looking for.

“Give me a hand, Liss,” he said, as he began moving boxes and chairs and other odds and ends out of his way.  “Here it is. I knew I’d seen it when we emptied those storage rooms.”

Larissa helped him, and soon found that they had uncovered an old metal-clad, hump-backed trunk. 

“Locked,” Scott said in disgust.  “Great!  I wonder what happened to the key?’

“Probably that’s it, hanging from the handle,” Larissa said.

“Uh.  Yeah.  Probably,” Scott said, embarrassed.  He unhooked the key from where it hung by a wire from the trunk’s leather handle, and stuck it into the lock.  For a moment he didn’t think the key would do any good on lockworks that had rusted solidly over several decades.  But then, with a loud snap, it gave, and he unlatched the trunk and folded back the lid.  The trunk was half-full, and gave off a distinct odor of mothballs.  Scott began carefully sorting through the odds and ends of cloth that were in it.

“My grandmother sent all this stuff out when your mother and I got married,” he said.  “I took out all the silver and old china, figured your mother would like that.  But this is just some other old clothes and things... Yes!  I thought I remembered seeing this here....”

He stood up then, pulling out of the trunk as he did a long sheath of heavy satin, once blue, faded with age to a soft bluish-silver.  He shook it out gently, and Larissa saw that it was an old-fashioned gown, the kind women wore more than half a century ago, with tiny puffs of sleeve off the shoulder and a gathered bodice that ended just below the breasts.  The skirt hung in gentle pleats, looking straight and plain, all the way to the floor.  But it was so simple that it was incredibly elegant.  Not to mention the intricate beadwork and single panel of hand-made lace that decorated a split in the lower skirt.

“It’s a little low-cut,” Scott commented, looking at it.  “But there’s a kind of light shawl in there to wear with it.  Of course, it’s pretty old-fashioned.  Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

“Oh, Pa!  It’s perfect,” Larissa said, taking it from him, holding it up against herself to see the effect in the dim light.  “It’s the dress Grandmother is wearing in her portrait, isn’t it?”

“I guess that’s why it came to mind, what with Johnny and Hilary using old rings.  It smells pretty bad, doesn’t it?”

“If it was just me and Mother, I’d worry,” Larissa grinned at him.  “But with Mrs.  Winger back, and Aunt Hilary and Allie Earp here, I think we’ll be able to figure out how to cure that.”

“You don’t have to pretend to like it if you don’t,” Scott said.

“But I do!  Oh, Pa, it’s even better than anything I imagined!  I wanted something very stylish and elegant and grown-up, and this is it!  This is really it!  And it was my own Grandmother’s coming-out gown, wasn’t it?  Now I won’t feel so much like I’m all alone when I walk into the party.”

“You won’t be alone, you’ll be with me.”

“And with her,” Larissa said, folding the gown over her arm, smoothing it with her hand.  “She’ll be there with us, too.  Three generations, all together for the first time.”

There were tears in her eyes again, but no trembling lower lip this time.  She grabbed her father and kissed him soundly on the cheek.  “Thank you, Pa!  Oh, I can’t wait to show Mother...!”

“Uh, you might want to wait until I break it to her first,” Scott said.  “Here.”

He handed her the matching thin, beaded shawl and dainty dancing slippers that were in the trunk, and Larissa kissed him again and hurried in through the kitchen and up the back stairs to take her treasures to her room.  Scott went back in through his patio and picked up the pile of file folders he had left on the bed.  From the hallway, he could hear laughter from the living room, someone teasing Hilary about her upcoming “wedding night”, which was more real than one would imagine.  Though as far as Scott knew, Johnny and Hilary had not discussed the subject at all, she was living in a two room suite with Tex at the moment, and he was back to sleeping in the attic upstairs.  The renewal of vows would be a complete renewal, very much like a real, first and only, wedding.

Scott carried his folders into Tex’s bedroom, expecting to find the kid still in bed.  He was worried when he found the room empty, and called softly, “Tex?”

“Out here,” Tex said, and Scott went out onto the courtyard that this suite also boasted to find Tex sitting in the sunlight in the wheeled chair they had bought for Johnny years ago when he first lost his leg.

“Are you supposed to be up and around?”  Scott asked.

“I’m not up and around, just out of bed – for a change!”  Tex said. 

“What me to wheel you out front so you can be part of all the preparations?”  Scott asked with a wicked grin.

“Please, no!”  Tex said in mock horror.  “Anything but that!”

Scott sat down on one of the stone benches that circled part of the inside wall,  and more seriously he asked, “Are you all right with all this?  Your mother getting married... well, re-married?  It’ll be quite a change for the two of you.”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t a kid anymore,” Tex said with an easy smile.  “Ma needs to move on, find something other than taking care of me to occupy herself.”   

Scott nodded.  “You know,” he said, and he hesitated, clearing his throat.

Tex grinned.  “Don’t worry!  Johnny and me had a sort of father-son talk some time ago.  He pointed out to me that he wasn’t all that old, and that Ma wasn’t all that old, and that he intended this marriage to be real in every sense of the word, and that..  Well, there is a possibility that I might not be an only child forever.”  

“He told you that, did he?”  Scott asked, smiling as he thought of his quiet younger brother sharing something that intimate with a stranger.  A stranger who happened to be his son!

“Yeah,” Tex agreed.  “I admit, it was a bit of a shock.  I mean, I never thought of... you know.  She is my mother.  But, I’m happy for them both.  Really.  I’m ‘alright with all this.’  They deserve it.  Both of them.”

Scott nodded.  “Good.  And you?  Do you have any plans?”

“Yup,” the kid said. “I’m going over the wall tonight.  I can’t take being locked up any longer.  I don’t care what the doctor says....”

He stopped the joke, grinning, when Scott laughed out loud.

“Seriously,” the kid said.  “My plan right now is to heal.  They said I can’t get back home, even by train, for a moth at best, and I’ll be on the sick list for a long time even after that.  But it is so b-o-o-o-o-r-i-n-g!”

“I thought it might be,” Scott said.  “So, I brought you a little something, maybe help you pass the time.”  He tossed the folders he had been carrying onto Tex’s lap.  Tex opened the first one curiously and found a number of hand-written documents and bits of paper.

“What is this?”

“I coaxed them out of Marshal Tayback in Spanish Wells, and Sheriff Rodriguez from the county.  It’s the case files on every unsolved crime either of them could dig up, going back at least twenty years.”

“Hey, really?”  Tex asked, looking more interested.

“I thought you might enjoy that,”  Scott said, standing up.  “Anything else I can do for you, let me know.”           

“Well, there is one thing,” Tex said, sticking his finger in the folder to hold the place while he closed it and looked up again.

“Anything,” Scott promised.

“Could someone maybe have a word with my Ma about the proper care and treatment of full-grown sons?   I don’t mind her staying, for now, in the next room, at night.  But I can dress myself, I can feed myself, and I can wash myself.  Taking it easy doesn’t mean I have to be treated like a newborn baby.”

“We’ll have words with her,” Scott said, trying to hide his smile.  “Promise.”

“Oh, and, uh... you think I might be able to send some telegrams?”  Tex asked, looking into his folder again.

“I think that can be arranged,” Scott said, and he left the young man, already engrossed in his case files.



Now this was a wedding, Hilary thought as she waited in the vestibule of the church.  This was what she had imagined for herself when she was a child, dreaming romantically of her wedding day.  That other had been real and legal, while this one was just for show.  But that long ago wedding had been a midnight assignation, a dark and empty church with only the altar candles burning so that it wasn’t pitch black inside, a young Indian captive being trained by the priest as their only witness, herself in a faded gray plaid school dress – the best thing she had to wear to her own wedding --  and Johnny, looking haunted as the sounds of the posse drew nearer, dressed in the worn and stained clothes she had patched up for him.  Now, the church was filled with flowers and people, brightly lit from the morning sun streaming in the windows and the dozens of candles.  There were three attendants for each the bride and groom, elegant clothing, and even big satin bows tied on the ends of the pews.

Of course, it was Larissa’s big day as well as theirs.  Although her Boston-born father had insisted they wait until her sixteenth birthday, there was a Southwestern tradition called a quinceañera, a fifteenth birthday celebration, at which a girl was dedicated to the church, and presented to the world as an adult woman.  And so Larissa went down the isle first, on the arm of her father, and the whole church turned and made sounds of pleasure at the sight.  She was a pretty girl!  And dressed in her grandmother’s plain antique gown, with her gold hair arranged in curls, piled on top of her head and decorated with fresh flowers, she presented an uncommonly beautiful sight.  At the front of the church, Tex, who had been given the honor --  as her first and only male cousin -- of being her escort today, bowed and accepted her hand from her father.  As Scott took his place at his brother’s side, Tex and Larissa genuflected before the altar and received a blessing from the priest.  Part of this Mass would be would be Larissa’s, but part of it would be a renewal of wedding vows, so the young couple parted then to play their second roles:  Tex stepped into the  line behind Johnny, a space removed from Scott Lancer, and Larissa moved to the far left to make room for the rest of the “wedding” party.  Alvira Earp marched down the isle next, to the music of guitars, muted trumpets, violins and flutes from the small band up in the choir loft.  Just as all the men wore the formal black suits that had been ordered and made especially for Larissa’s big party, so the women wore what they would wear to the ball tonight, and Allie looked lovely in her new flower-sprigged gown.  Teresa was next down the isle, in a matronly but elegant ball gown of  lavender taffeta.  It was only fitting that Johnny’s brother be his best man, and as the woman who would now be Hilary’s own sister, Teresa had the honor of being chosen to stand at her side.  Sister!  This was more than she had imagined for a wedding!

“We’re up,” Virgil said.  “You ready for this?”

“I’ve been ready more than half my life,” Hilary said.  Virge grinned.  It was his left arm that had been ruined by a shotgun ambush after the OK Corral affair in Tombstone.  That arm was shorter than the other by a couple inches, and hung uselessly at his side.  But he raised it from the shoulder, and Hilary slipped her hand around it gently.  He cupped the hand that rested on his arm with his own right hand, and the two of them began the long, slow walk down the isle of the church.

Hilary knew that she was just a short, plump, near-sighted thirty-six-year-old woman, but on that walk, holding Virge’s arm, she felt every bit as beautiful as Larissa looked.  In part, it was the clothes, the most beautiful she had ever owned in her life.  Her something old was Johnny’s mother’s locket, which she had tried to give back to Murdoch Lancer:  “I gave it to Johnny’s mother, she gave it to him, and he gave it to you.  It’s yours not mine,” he had shrugged.  “But, if you wouldn’t mind me borrowing it for a few days...”  He had taken it to a jeweler who had not only polished it, but had found a new opal to set into the empty space in the middle.  It was a smooth, round, white stone, but she did not understand how Johnny could ever have mistaken it for glass.  It was veined with color, and threw off rainbows of red, blue, yellow and orange when the light struck it just so.  Her something new was a pair of pearl earrings, an elegance she had never dreamed of owning in her life, a gift from her son, who stood at the front of the church now, smiling encouragement at her.  The borrowed lace blouse was the loveliest she had ever seen, and the blue satin skirt was designed to drag slightly on the floor, like a train.  And, with the help of Mrs.  Winger, Teresa, Allie and Larissa, she had managed to tame her fly-away curls into the same sort of elegant up-sweep she so admired on Teresa Lancer.  

But it wasn’t just the clothes, the jewelry, all those people staring at her and smiling.  It was the way Johnny looked at her as he watched her walk towards him that made her feel young and beautiful.  She had debated (the other women had coaxed) leaving off her glasses, at least for the ceremony.  She was glad she had opted to leave them on.  Instead of indistinct blurs at the front of the church, she could see them all up there clearly: Teresa, Allie and Larissa to one side.  Tex, still very thin and very pale, but so tall and handsome.  Scott, that blessed man who had suggested this in the first place!  And Johnny, looking so mature and distinguished in his dark suit.  And that was all that really mattered.  Johnny was there waiting for her.

They reached the front of the church and made a small bow as the priest made the sign of the cross over them.  He did not ask “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”  since they were already married, but he smiled approvingly as Johnny tucked his crutch under his armpit, still gripping the other one securely, and reached to accept the small, strong hand that Virgil placed in his.  Virgil wrapped their hands together, gave them a squeeze as if cementing them that way, then moved to take his own place in the line standing at the front of the church, between Scott Lancer and Tex.

“We have the great privilege today,” the priest said to the congregation, “of being asked to witness two very special events.  Her father and mother present Miss Larissa Ann Lancer today, to dedicate her adulthood to the church.  And also, this couple, married once but tragically separated for nearly a quarter of a century, will today and in front of all these witnesses, renew their vows to each other.  Now, let us begin the celebration of this Mass in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sacti ...”  



“I can’t carry you over the threshold,’” Johnny said apologetically.

“At least you can walk up the stairs yourself now,” Hilary answered.  “That’s quite an improvement.

“True,”  Johnny said, as he hopped laboriously up the back staircase, using crutches and handrail to make it up.

“I can’t believe you go to all this trouble every day!”  Hilary murmured.  “Wouldn’t it have been better to take a room lower down?”

“Easier.  Not better,” Johnny said.  They had reached the top of the stairs, and he put his hand on the doorknob.  “Close your eyes.’

“I’ll trip and fall down the stairs!”

“I’ll catch you.  Close them.”

Hilary did, smiling at the dramatics, and she heard the door open, heard the thump as Johnny hopped the last step up into what would be their private room.  He reached back and took her hand, guiding her up the last step and into the room before he said, “Okay.  Now you can look.”

She opened her eyes.


The wide open space that made up the attic at the top of the house was a huge room, larger than the entire floor of bedrooms below it.  Three tall windows opened floor to ceiling to the east, and a row of smaller windows let in light from high up on the west wall.  In front of one of those tall windows, a sitting room had been arranged.  Two soft, comfortable arm-chairs with matching ottomans and a simple rocking chair were arranged around a large flowered rug.  End tables and book shelves and heavy velvet drapes for privacy completed the “room.”  Draperies hanging from the ceiling made a “wall” that separated the sitting room from a dressing room where there were two chests of drawers and a mirrored ladies’ dressing table with combs and brushes and other feminine items already arranged on the top.  A closet of sorts had been made by hanging a bar from the ceiling, and a standing screen made of carved wood separated a bathing area at the rear of the big room.  On the opposite side, beneath the small, high windows, a large double bed had been set up, with end tables on either side.  A lamp sat on each table, and books were on the shelves below.   Braided rag rugs in soft pastel colors graced the floor on either side of the bed, and the bed itself was covered with a wedding band quilt made of circles of pale, pastel colors on a background of off-white, lace-covered material.

“Wherever did you find this?”  Hilary breathed, amazed at the beauty of it.  “This took years to make, I’m sure.  You couldn’t have ordered it! ”

“Apparently, my mother had a trunk of things from her mother that she had intended to put in her house – when it was finished.  She left before it was.”  Johnny said.  “All these doilies and things... I think my grandmother made them for her daughter’s trousseau, before she ever had a daughter.”

“It’s all so beautiful!”  Hilary said.  “I never imagined....”

“We can live at Lancer, and still have almost our own house,” Johnny said.  “Much better than a couple rooms next to Scott and Teresa, don’t you think?”

“Oh, I do think!  It’s beautiful.  Johnny the whole day has been so... so perfect!”

“It’s not over yet,” Johnny said.  “There’s that big party in a little while.”

“I should go help Teresa,” Hilary said, turning her back on the beautiful room and heading for the stairs. Johnny caught her arm, stopping her and pulling her close to him.  He was not a tall man, but the top of her head came right up to his nose, and he inhaled deeply the sweet scent of her, of the flowers in her hair.

“Johnny, I ...”

“Uh-uh,” he said, balancing on one crutch so he could wrap his other arm around her completely.  Into the softness of her hair he murmured, “I do believe one of your complaints before was that the marriage was never properly consummated.   I intend to see that that isn’t a concern this time.”

He moved his hand up, and began pulling the pins out of her hair.

“Oh, Johnny!  It took four women to get that pinned right the first time!”

“I’ll help you put it back,” he promised, and he kissed her, running his hand through the curls he had loosened.

“Teresa will need me downstairs,” Hilary said, one last, feeble protest.

“From the looks I saw Scott giving her all morning, my guess is she’s occupied at the moment, too,” Johnny said.  He tried working the tiny pearl buttons on her blouse, but one-handed proved difficult.

Hilary brushed his hand away and unbuttoned it herself, sliding it off to reveal the camisole underneath.  She pushed off the suit coat he was still wearing, began unlacing his tie and unbuttoning his shirt for him.

“I suppose, thinking I was dead, you had quite a few female friends over the years,” she commented, not looking in his eyes as she asked.

“No,” he said.

“No?”  she asked.

“I flirted with the idea of other women now and then,” he admitted.  “But, I never wanted anyone but you.  If I couldn’t have you, I didn’t want anyone at all.”   

“Flatterer,” she said.

“I’m serious,’ he said.

“I know.  That’s what makes it flattering.  Twenty years, huh?  In that case, perhaps we should hurry,” she said.

“No,” he said.  “Oh, no, I’ve been waiting for this for way too long to rush.  Party’s not until this evening.  We have all afternoon.”



Candles lit the entire first floor of the Lancer ranch house, and paper lanterns decorated the yard outside.  It was a warm late-summer evening, without the faintest hint of the rain Teresa had so worried would spoil the party.  The food was served buffet style, heaping dishes and platters covering the entire long table in the dining room.  Wine cooling in buckets of ice imported from Sacramento for the occasion stood in strategic corners throughout the house and grounds, and there was a punch bowl in the livingroom for those disinclined towards alcohol.  The same band that had played that morning in the church was pouring music into the night while people danced on the wooden floor laid out on the grass for that purpose.  Larissa made her entrance to the party, sweeping down the staircase on her father’s arm.  She was embarrassed by the loud applause that greeted her entrance, and was very happy that as soon as she reached the living room, Johnny and Hilary came down behind her, to even more applause and cheering.   They all went outside, and the band began playing a waltz tune.  Scott escorted Larissa onto the board dance floor as the other couples moved back out of their way.  With all the grace trained into him so long ago in Boston, he bowed deeply, and took her into his arms for her first adult dance. 

“It should be your first dance, too,” Larissa had told Johnny when they were planning the evening.

“Dancing is one thing I can’t manage these days,” Johnny had said back. 

Which, of course, she should have thought of.  She would have loved to share this moment with Johnny and Hilary, but for now all she was aware of anyway was the proud look on her father’s face as he smiled down at her.  The song ended.   Scott twirled her out of his arms and bowed and, as a whole mob of hopeful young men came up to try to claim the next dance, he handed her off to Tex, who, as her escort, was to be her first dancing partner.  The music started again, and this time other couples joined in as Tex spun her around the dance floor.

“You dance very well!” Larissa said.

“You sound surprised.  Dancing is the most common entertainment out in these parts, you know.” He grinned down at her.  “You, by the way, look lovely today.”

“And you are looking much more healthy.”

Tex laughed.  “I ain’t real good at this being an invalid.  I feel like I ought to be allowed to run around and do what I normally do, but the doc’s probably gonna yell at me just for this dance.”

“You don’t need to run much to do what you normally do,” Larissa observed.  “The marshal told grandpa that you solved half a dozen old cases from your sickbed.”

“Yeah, well.  It was just a sort of mental exercise.  All but one of them were past the statute of limitations, and that one, the perpetrator was already dead.  Didn’t help much.”  Tex shrugged,

“Helped clear up the paperwork,” Larissa said.  In silence, they spun around the floor for a few moments before she asked, “You knew we were first cousins from that first day, didn’t you?”

“Soon as you said that Murdoch Lancer was your grandfather,” he agreed.

“If you hadn’t known,” she said, and she hesitated.


“Well.  When we first met, I did... er...”

“Throw yourself at me shamelessly?”  he grinned.

“Flirt a little,” Larissa corrected primly.

“Of course.  My mistake,” Tex said.

“You were very polite about it,” Larissa said.  “I have to thank you for that.  But... Well... I was just wondering.  I mean, if you hadn’t known we were so closely related....”

“If I hadn’t known we were so closely related, you would have given a certain young lady back in El Paso a definite run for the money,” Tex assured her.


“I told you before you’re a very pretty, very sweet young woman,” Tex said.  “I did mean that.  But for right now, I may have to turn you over to your other admirers.  Seems Doc Thompson may have been right about over exertion.”

“Are you all right?”  Larissa asked with concern.

“Yeah, just tired.  Congratulations, Miss Lancer, on your sixteen birthday,” he said, and bowing low, left her to dance with the next young man in line, a boy she knew from school, who blushed and stammered when he told her how nice she looked.

Tex was tired, but also in some pain.  This was one recovery he wasn’t going to breeze through in a few weeks.  He let several people introduce themselves or just shake his hand and congratulate him, but then he managed to excuse himself by collecting a plate from the buffet table.  He snagged a file folder he had stashed in the office before going back outside to a table already occupied by Virge and Allie, Johnny and Hilary, Teresa, Scott and Murdoch.

“I want you to have this for a wedding gift,” Allie said passing over a small plant to Hilary just as Tex sat down.

“What is it?”  Hilary asked.

“A cutting from a white English rose bush,” Allie explained.

“Try and get it to grow a flower,” Virge suggested.  “Liven up this place.  I‘ve never seen so many dead sticks around a house in my life.”

“Oh, Virge!”  Allie said, elbowing him.  “Those aren’t dead sticks, those are rose bushes!  You know that every blossom for twenty miles around was used today!”

“I know,” he agreed.  “But I like the way you correct me on things!”

Everyone laughed. 

“Now that you mention it, I have a wedding gift myself,” Tex said.  Everyone was curious when he passed to Johnny the battered manilla file folder.

“What’s this?”

“A rose bush?”  Virge suggested.  He grinned as Allie elbowed him again.

Johnny tilted the folder to catch the light of the paper lanterns hanging around the yard, and in that dim light, he read the top document.   “To Whom It May concern,” he read aloud.  “This document certifies than any and all charges ordered by the Territory of Arizona, Pima County, against John Doe also known as Johnny Madrid are hereby dropped.  The previously issued warrants are void.  The reward has been canceled.  Rolando M. Chavez, Pima County Circuit Court... what is this?”  Johnny asked, looking up.

“That’s the first one,” Tex said.  “It’s just a little project I’ve been working on for a couple years now.  Remember, I told you when I was in Mexico on business, I looked up the execution record of Johnny Madrid, just out of curiosity?”

“Yes.  But this isn’t from Mexico.”

“Nope.  But I was in Arizona Territory before I went across the border.  I was doing a little research there, and I came across a wanted poster on Johnny Madrid.  I asked the sheriff if he minded me doing a little research on Madrid, and he told me to do whatever I wanted.  He wasn’t that interested in 18-year-old cases.  So, I started asking around.  I found a dozen eye witnesses to a shooting that took place in that county, and everyone of those people, even the ones that were angered at the loss of a dear friend, said the same thing: the rancher came into town looking for trouble.  He initiated the gunfight.  He drew first.  Clear cut case of self defense.”

Remembering the incident, Johnny felt cold.  “I goaded him into that action,” he said.

“Yeah, but nobody saw that part,” Tex said.  “What the witnesses saw was something that could not hold up in a court of law.  I turned the report over to the sheriff, who turned it over to the judge, who canceled the bench warrant and reward.  I was back in El Paso when they sent me this.  But, it got me to thinking.  I’d never met my father, and as far as I knew then you were dead.  But here was something I could do for you: I could clear your name.  Posthumously, of course, but it would mean something to me.  And to Ma.”

“I understand how you must feel,” Johnny said.  “But, Tex.  I really did commit those crimes.”    

“Sure, I know that,” Tex shrugged.  “But see, I also know the law.  Maybe not as well as your brother here.  But enough to know about loopholes.  I started looking into things then.  You told Ma you weren’t wanted in Texas, but I checked with Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico.  And Mexico.  I came up with three there, but they weren’t interested in clearing your records, on a conna the thing you got caught down there for finally was treason, not just murder.  Anyway, I came up with a total of nine murder charges.”

“Nine?”  Scott asked.  “In all those years?  A hundred dollars a head, that wasn’t much of a living!”

Johnny did not appreciate the teasing.  “A hired gun mostly hired out for show,” he said grimly.  “A lot of people were willing to pay double and triple wages for a cowhand that was known to be handy with a gun, just in case someone wanted to start trouble.  The hundred dollars was a bonus, for anyone you happened to kill in the line of duty.”

“Right,” Tex agreed.  “So a good portion of what you did may not have been moral, but it wasn’t a crime.  Now, this first one, like I said, was cleared.  So, I was wondering how many more of them could be cleared also.  I found two where there were no witnesses at all.  It was just hearsay evidence that they had, and that won’t hold up in court.  After we established that was a fact, the local judges voided their warrants.  One more looked enough like self-defense that those warrants were voided.”

“Seven ,” Scott murmured.

Tex nodded.  “Right.  Which leaves only the state of California.  I had been in touch with various law enforcement agencies here for about six months, but I went to the governor’s office back in July when I came up here to investigate Palmer.  Seems that one was a little harder to clear up, since you were wanted for questioning in the death of your mother and step-father...”

‘They hung her death on me?”  Johnny asked.  This was news to him.

“No.  Neither one, actually.  Like I said, you were wanted for questioning.  But it seems they wanted real bad to grab you and throw you into an orphanage, and there was some kind of runaway warrant out on you for that, on top of the murder charges in another case, and the only way the governor could clear up the runaway thing was a blanket pardon.  There, the last page.  Came just the other day with some other information Scott brought me from town.”

Tex tugged the bottom sheet out of the stack, and Johnny tipped it to the light to read: “Full pardon... John Doe alias Johnny Madrid, for any and all crimes committed in the State of California...”  He stopped and looked up at Tex.  “Did you happen to mention to the governor before he signed this document that the person you were investigating was in fact alive and well, or did he think he was pardoning a dead man?”

“We corresponded on the subject recently,” Tex said.  “He felt that in light of the circumstances that started your life of crime, and the fact that you had been a model citizen of the state for nearly a quarter of a century, that you truly deserved the pardon.  It’s all clean and legal, Johnny.” 

Johnny stared down at the folder.  “It isn’t possible,” he murmured softly.  “It’s not... right....”

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” Tex said.  “None of these papers mean they think you’re not guilty.  Those first ones mean they don’t care to prosecute, and in the state of California,  you’re forgiven.  Like going to confession....”  Tex stopped talking as he noticed Johnny shaking his head.  “You have been to confession, right?  You didn’t go to Mass today and take the Holy Eucharist with mortal sins, did you?”

“Of course not!  In fact, I confessed these particular ones twenty years ago!  But...This is different.”

“Not really,” Tex said.  “Look, let me tell you something a priest once told me.  He said the hardest part about going to confession was forgiving yourself.  Lots of people never do.  They’ve confessed their sins to be free in the next world, but their conscience still bothers them in this world.  The reason for that is that every time you commit a sin, you’re also committing original sin again: you’re eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  You have knowledge of this sin, you have knowledge of what it felt like, what it did to you, what it did to someone else.  You confessed the sin, it’s forgiven.  Wiped clean.  But, you still have knowledge of it.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said, dropping his eyes.

“But, that’s not a bad thing.  That knowledge is what keeps us from going that way again, you see?  You have the knowledge to keep you straight.  And you have the clean soul because you confessed your sins and they were forgiven.  Now, they’re forgiven legally as well as spiritually.”

“Legally,”  Johnny repeated.

“Legally,”  Tex agreed.  “You’re not wanted in any state, territory or possession of the United States.  ‘Course, I do recommend against a honeymoon in Mexico.” 

“And it’s all legal?”  Johnny asked.

“Looks legal to me,” Scott said, taking the folder to leaf through the documents.

Johnny looked across the table at the young Ranger.  “You have no idea,” he said, “how much this means to me.  Especially today.”

“This is something that’s hung over my head all my life, too,” Tex said soberly.  “And it’s my mother’s future we’re talking about.  I think I have some idea.” 

“Texas,” Hilary said, folding her son in a tight embrace.  “Having you was more gift than we ever needed.  This is... beyond words.”

“Shucks, it’s just a little paperwork,” Tex grinned, and he let go of her with one hand to accept the hand Johnny extended across the table.

“And I was just going to get them a teapot,” Teresa sighed, and everyone at the table laughed.

“This,”  Virge said, “is exactly what I was talking about.”

“When?”  Tex asked, wondering if he had missed something.

“Couple weeks ago.  With the California office of the U.S. Marshal.  They aren’t interested in an old fogey like me, especially with this bad wing.  But we got to talking about modern investigation techniques, and I told them about you.  Seems they are very, very interested in you.”

“I’m a Texas Ranger, Virge,” Tex said.

“You know you can’t be back on active duty for months, maybe for a whole year” Virge said.

“But I can go back.”

“California’s got as many crooks for you to track down as Texas.  Probably a whole lot more.  And the marshals’ are opening a special investigations branch.  They’re gonna need men like you, Tex.  Men who can take a chance word spoken by a drunken whore and by that chase down a wanted criminal through a twenty-year-old crime to catch him.  But they would like their investigators to have a little more education.  Times are changing, boy.  We’re almost to the Twentieth Century.  Instead of sitting around waiting to heal, you could be attending university classes to learn more about criminology.  And, if you join their office, they pay for your education.”

Tex looked at him thoughtfully.  “I’ll consider it,” he said finally.  “But not for this fall.  Maybe next term.  For now, I really do have to go back to El Paso.  There’s personal as well as professional matters to deal with there.  I got reports to turn in to the Captain, and Ma, someone’s got to go pack up all your things and send them to you here.  And then there’s the house.  If I decide to stay there, I reckon I can make the payments on it.  If not, “ he shrugged, “we could sell it, I suppose.  But it all does need taking care of.”

“As does a certain young woman who lives there,” Johnny recalled.

“Well, yeah.  That too.  I promise I will give it some thought, Virge.  It does sound like a better way to support a wife than running around after renegades and bank robbers.  But, I like running around after renegades and bank robbers.”

“It would be a pretty big step,” Virge agreed.  “Okay, no pressure then. But consider this.  I went to Central College myself while we were living over in Pella.  Education is worth it.  I can vouch for that.”           

“It would be quite an opportunity,” Murdoch commented.

“If you take them up on it, make sure you take a few law classes while you’re there,” Scott recommended.  “Law men need to know law as much as lawyers.”

“Would be nice to have you a little closer to us,” Hilary said.

“I thought we agreed to no pressure!”  Tex said.           

Everyone laughed.  They were still laughing when Dr.  Thompson found them.

“So glad you could join us, doctor,” Murdoch said, standing up to shake his hand in welcome.

“So glad I could find you,” Dr.  Thompson said.  “This is quite a crowd you have here.  By the way,  this is my friend, Dr. Robert Helsing, from the university in Sacramento.”

“Funny, we were just talking about universities,” Murdoch said, shaking Dr. Helsing’s hand.

Dr.  Thompson made the introductions around the rest of the table, ending with Hilary.  “And this, Bob,  is the woman I’ve been telling you about,” he said, by way of her introduction.

“Mrs.  Lancer,” Mr.  Helsing said.  “I’m very glad to finally get to meet you.  Dr. Thompson has been telling me that you are quite a skilled surgeon.”

“I am a surgical nurse, Mr.  Helsing, not a surgeon,” Hilary said.

“But wouldn’t you prefer to be a surgeon?”  Dr.  Thompson asked.

“I...what?”  Hilary said.

“I am the head of the university’s medical school, Mrs.  Lancer.  We have been thinking for some time of adding a nursing school to our curriculum.  We would need someone like yourself, someone with formal training and a great deal of practical experience, to help us design a program that would give our young women the training and skill they need.”

“I... er... could help you outline a program,” she said, hesitantly, glancing as she did at Johnny.

“Would you be interested in teaching some of the courses?”  Dr.  Helsing asked.

“Teaching?”  Hilary demanded.  “Me?”

“You’d be a great teacher,” Dr.  Thompson said.  “And it would be a great benefit to a lot of doctors out there to have well-qualified, surgically trained nurses.”

“I appreciate your confidence in me, Dr.  Thompson,” Hilary said.  “But, I’ve just started a new life here.  I couldn’t possibly take off move to a new city, start a new job.  Not now.”

“Suppose I told you that instead of cash payments, what we could do is enroll you in our medical school.”  Dr.  Helsing said.

“I’m already a trained nurse, thank you,” Hilary said.

“You could be a trained surgeon,” Dr.  Helsing said.

“Surgeon?”  Hilary asked in surprise.  “Me?  But... I couldn’t do that!’

“You’ve been doing it for years,” Johnny said.

“I am not a doctor!”  she insisted.  “And I never was very good at school....”

“You graduated top of your class in nursing school,” Tex pointed out.

“You stay out of this!”  Hilary leveled a finger at him.

“Admit it,” Johnny said.  “Being a real doctor is something you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?”

“Well.  That is... No.  No, I can’t do it!  Not now!  I’m sorry, Dr.  Helsing, but my husband is here...”

“Maybe, if your husband were in Sacramento, you’d feel more at ease taking that offer,” Murdoch said thoughtfully.

“But, he isn’t!”  Hilary said.  “He’s here!  I belong here!”

“He’s here at the moment,” Murdoch agreed.  “But, we’ve been talking for some time about the possibility of opening a stock-trading office in Sacramento.  The cattle business is changing.  We need more irons in the fire to survive.  I had planned on sending Scott and Teresa to get things going.  But Scott, you’re planning a long second-honeymoon trip this coming spring, and that’s when we’d be most busy if we had an office there.  Maybe it would be better to have Johnny go and set things up, get it organized.  Maybe run it for a few years.”

“We could rent a house out there,” Johnny agreed.  “Or buy one, if we’ll be there for while....”

“What about all the work you did to make your room into our home?”  Hilary asked.

“Honey, it’s just a room!  And this place will always be here for us, whenever we want to come home.”

“Sacramento isn’t so far away since they ran the train line all the way to Spanish Wells,” Scott added.  “You could visit here on all your holidays.”

“We need to know immediately,” Dr.  Helsing said.  “Classes start in a week, and I’d like to have the nursing school up and running by next year at the latest.”

“I always told you should be a doctor,” Johnny said, giving her hand a squeeze.

“Do you think I should, though?”

“Definitely,” Tex said.

“It would take years....”

“Afraid of a little effort?”  Johnny teased.

“No.  Of course not!  I just don’t want to... to ...  Inconvenience anybody.”

“Go ahead and inconvenience me,” Johnny said.  “You’re good and you know it.  Offers like this don’t fall off trees!  You’d be a fool not to snap it up!”

“Dr.  Helsing,” Teresa said, giving Johnny and Hilary a chance to discuss the offer quietly and without an audience.  “Does your university have a school for veterinary doctors as well?”

“Ours doesn’t no.  But I know of one in San Francisco that might fit the bill.  Is this young man thinking of becoming an animal doctor?”  He looked at Tex.

“No, it’s my daughter,” Teresa said.

“Lissa wants to be a vet?”  Scott demanded.

“I meant to discuss it with you, but we got so caught up in the plans for tonight.  But, surely you’ve noticed how her interests run,” Teresa said.  She turned to Dr. Helsing and said, “She’s just turned sixteen, and she finished at the local grammar school this summer.  What would she need to apply to the university?”

“Possibly nothing,” Mr.  Helsing said.  “But it is late for applying for this year.  I would recommend a particular college preparatory school that I know of in Sacramento.  I could speak to the headmaster there and see if I can arrange an interview before the term starts.  I’d say a year with them and she’d be more than ready for the university.”

“She could live with us,” Johnny said.  “We’d keep her out of trouble in the big, bad city, Scott.  At least for this year.”

“If it means we’d get Mrs.  Lancer, I can almost guarantee her a position in that school!”  Dr.  Helsing enthused.

“No you have to go,” Johnny said.  “For Lissa’s sake.”

“Well.  If you really want to live there...”  Hilary said.

“I do,” Johnny said.  “I believe we already established that what I want most is to be where you are.  This could work out.  Two birds, and all that.”

“Agreed, then?”  Dr. Helsing asked.

“Well... uh... Yes.  Yes, agreed!”  Hilary said.

Later, Murdoch wandered away from the party, around to the back of the ranch house where it was still relatively dark and the stars were visible in the clear sky above.  He turned his face to those stars, in the rapidly cooling night air, and thought about the changes this one summer had sparked.  There had been blood and fear, anger and violence.  But from that, he now had another grandson.  And from the looks Johnny and Scott had been exchanging with their wives all evening, he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of more grandchildren in the future.  Johnny was healed, from his alcoholism and from the pain that had haunted him for so many years.  And   Murdoch had also acquired a new daughter-in-law, a delightful woman who would become one day soon (Murdoch was certain) a world famous surgeon.  And whatever had been troubling Scott and Teresa seemed to have evaporated as if it had never been.

Things were changing.  The ranch would have its branch office, finally.  Lissa was leaving home, and in a few years it would be Gene and then...

Then what? 

He had never imagined he would live this long.  Tonight was one of those nights when he felt every one of his seventy years in every bone of his body.  But, he would have to hang on a bit longer, he supposed.  Someone had to stay here, to keep all these rapid changes from breaking apart the family that had so recently been joined together...

“Excuse me, Mr.  Lancer?”

He turned, surprised to find he was not alone, to find a woman standing in the dark nearby.  She was, as were all the women tonight, wearing a ball gown, with a shawl draped around her shoulders against the evening chill.

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch aid.  “Miss...?”

“Mrs.  Kittering,” she said, holding out a hand to him as she smiled warmly.  “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Of course I do.  You arrived last Tuesday with some of Scott’s other relatives from Boston.  We’ll all very honored that so many of you could come. You’re... his cousin?”

“Second cousin, at least.  Once or twice removed,” she laughed.  “But what I meant was, you don’t remember me from before.”

“I’m sorry.  Before...?”

“But then, I don’t suppose you would remember,” she said.  “It’s been, what?  Nearly fifty years since you married my cousin.  At the time, I was just a gawky twelve-year-old, still in pigtails.  Your granddaughter, by the way, looks a great deal like her.”

“Yes, she does,” Murdoch agreed, wracking his brain to remember this woman.  There had always been relatives in and out of the Sebastien’s Boston home, and dozens of them living in the neighborhood.  And it had been a very, very long time ago.  “You don’t look near old enough to have been alive when I married Larissa.”  Murdoch said.

“But you are every bit the charmer you were then,” she said, laughing at his compliment.  “I hated my cousin for years for snatching you up!”

“Is Mr. Kittering here also?”  Murdoch asked uneasily.  “I don’t remember meeting him.”

“He died in the War,” she said, more seriously.

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch said automatically.

“It was a long time ago,” she said, waving aside his concern.

“But, you do have children?”  Murdoch asked.

“I did,” she agreed.  “I had boy who died at birth, and a girl who died of measles when she was five.”

“Now I am very sorry,” Murdoch said.  “Children are a special gift.”

“Yes.  And I was grateful for the time I had with mine, however brief it was.”  She smiled, and looked around at the darkened dooryard, tugging the shawl a bit tighter.  “I’ve put in my time, Mr.  Lancer.  More than thirty years in widows’ weeds, doing acts of charity about the community, helping out now and then in the law offices – if there was no one around to notice.  When the entire family was invited to this gala you are hosting tonight, I decided enough was enough.  I gave all my black clothes to charity, bought a new wardrobe, and decided to come west and see what all the hoopla was about – ‘Go west young man’ and all that.”

“And did you find out?”  Murdoch asked.

“Yes.  I discovered immediately that people love this country because it is so beautiful.  Mind you, I haven’t had a chance to explore much.  I couldn’t let your daughters-in-law do all the work themselves when there was so much I could do to help.  But what I have been able to see is beautiful.  I just wanted to be sure to tell you that.  I am impressed, Mr.  Lancer.  I am impressed with anybody who had the vision to settle in this lonely and lovely country back when you did, and I am especially impressed with what you have made of it.”          

“Since we’re cousins, you should call me Murdoch, Mrs.  Kittering.”

“Then I insist that you call me Abigail.”

“Abigail?”  Murdoch asked, the name suddenly familiar.  “Little Abbie Sebastien?  I do remember you!  Pigtails.  Yes.  Except when you got Larissa to fix up your hair and you dressed up in a ball gown and snuck into the wedding party her parents gave for us.”

Abigail laughed, bending over to put her hands on her knees, she laughed so hard.  “Oh, how awful!  Of all the things to remember!”

“It wasn’t awful at all,” Murdoch said.  “I admired you.  Abigail.  I was thinking.  Perhaps tomorrow I could take you out riding, show you more of this country.  Do you ride?”

“Not terribly well, but I probably won’t fall off,”  she smiled.  “And I’d love to.  If I’m not needed here to help clean up.”

“You are a guest,” Murdoch said.  “And I’m old.  We’re exempt.  We can pack a lunch and make a day of it.  There’s some country around here that is more than just ‘impressive.’”

“I’d like very much to see it.”

“Perhaps I can show you around a little bit right now,” Murdoch said. 

“If you’re not needed at the party.”

“The party will be going on all night,” Murdoch said.  “Look up at that ridge.  See how it’s glowing?  There’ll be a late moon rise tonight.  If we walk up to the tree on that hill over there, we can see Lancer as the moon hits the house.”

“That sounds nice.  I think I should like very much to see that,” she said, and she accepted the arm he offered her.

Murdoch adjusted his steps to accommodate a woman with dancing slippers on, but he couldn’t help but to think at the same time how nice it was to have a woman on his arm again.   A woman who was not a daughter or a daughter-in-law or a granddaughter.  A woman who was a woman, more or less in his age bracket.  A woman who had made sure he knew that she was available.  And interested.  And who could easily come to love this land as much as he did. A woman who was also quite, quite lovely.

  There were, he thought again as he paced slowly up the small hill, a great many changes coming to Lancer in the near future. 



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