Long Way Home
by  Karen Campbell

Chapter 1

"All that Glitters Is Not A Cold"

Somebody at the Butterfield Overland Stage Company had a powerful sense of humor.  That's all the irritable cowboy could figure as he tried to lean his head into the stagecoach window and felt the shade come loose one more time.  The tie-down wouldn't hold, couldn't hold--not on this kind of bumpy ride and not with the shortened cord somebody had left behind--and every time that cord let go the shade would come whomping down again and wrap itself around his head. 

It was downright annoying and Johnny Lancer wasn't in any condition to be annoyed.

He pushed the leather flap off his head and sneezed again, hard.  He'd been doing that since they'd left San Francisco that morning, either sneezing or blowing his nose or coughing or just feeling flat-out miserable and he was getting darned tired of it. 

"Mr. Lancer, I do hope you're not catching your death from that vile cold, but please, can't you manage to cover your nose when you..."  The next sneeze stopped her in mid reproach and Mrs. Archibald Coopersmith raised her own handkerchief to her face and turned into her husband's good-sized shoulder.  "Really..."

"Sorry, Ma'am."  Johnny didn't even try to make his apology sound sincere, any more than she seemed to mean that bit about not letting the cold do him in.

"Here, Martha."  Mr. Archibald Coopersmith squeezed himself a little tighter in the corner of his seat, giving his wife another inch or so to move further away from Johnny. She already had her valise entrenched on the seat as a marker between their bodies--her pure world on her side of that bag, and his filthy, disease-ridden one on his.  "I'm afraid that's as far as I go, though." 

It didn't seem possible that the man could have made his body as small as he had. Johnny figured the coach must be bulging on the outside from the bulk of that man's body pressed into its side.  He didn't look particularly tall or overly fleshy, just thick.  Like a man who'd done a hard day's work most all of his life and had the muscles to show for it.  Farmer, most likely, but what he was doing in that well-worn suit on the stage from San Francisco was anybody's guess.  Would've figured he was running away from the woman, except she was latched onto his side. Damned poor luck for a right decent man.

Johnny tried the window again, closing his eyes and leaning his temple against the hard edge of the frame, this time with the shade left down.  The leather slapped against his head, but there was no helping it.  All the weight in his body had been steadily moving to his skull and holding it up any longer was asking for more than he had left to give.  His head wouldn't stay put, though.  It bounced with every bump of the road, lifting from the window for a disorienting second and then whacking back into place.  The driver was aiming for every rock in the road, Johnny knew it.  In cahoots with the man in charge of shades, no doubt.  Just one more cruel joke from the employees of the Butterfield Stage. 

"Maybe this would help."  The voice seemed almost disembodied, but the touch against his arm was real.  And it was her. Johnny opened his eyes to find a folded up shawl in an outstretched hand.  It was a lovely hand, small and delicate, yet not too pale.  A hand that saw the warmth of the sun often enough.  The sleeve above it was a well-tailored, soft green wool, the same graceful fabric which covered her from her polished boots to the gold locket at her neck, skimming closely at her trim waist and draping with modest suggestion at her curves.  Johnny had noticed those curves.  A woman's curves, not a girl's, despite the face that smiled above them--that was young.  Nineteen, maybe twenty.  Brown eyes, the kind that looked all soft and melting.  Freckles, just a few of them, scattered shyly across her cheeks.  Light brown hair, smooth complexion and dimples, little ones that flirted there at the corners of her lips.  And those lips.  Sweet and inviting and full of possibilities. 

He smiled.  And then he sneezed again, a big one that barely let him raise his handkerchief in time.  He had to blow, wiping the wetness from his nose and most likely leaving a sheen behind.  "Sorry."

"It doesn't matter."  She pushed the shawl into his lap.  "You can use it as a pillow."

"Thanks."  He rubbed a hand across his bleary eyes.  "But I'm not so sure you're gonna be wantin' this back after I've been breathin' on it."

"I'll take my chances."  She leaned back against the cushioned seat, barely wedging her shoulders into the narrow space left to her by the two men at her right.  The older one was grey-haired, wrinkled and fat.  He had one of those chins that puffed out from his stiff, tight collar and wobbled every time he turned his head.  He was on the window side and that left the middle space to his son--and that man didn't look a whole lot like his daddy.

"Excuse me," she murmured, flicking her eyes up to the chiseled face next to her.  "I've never been very good at just sitting."

"Not much elbow room in here I'm afraid, but please make yourself comfortable."  The smile the man gave her had at least some of its intended effect and she dipped her eyes demurely. "I assure you the only thing I find disturbing about you, Miss Poole, is your beauty. Have I told you how fortunate I am to share this coach with you?"

He had.  Seemed like he'd done nothing but lay out sweet nothings like that ever since they'd left the city.  It was sure working on Mrs. Coopersmith, who was watching the couple with a thin-lipped smile, obviously relishing her view of young love in bloom or some such romantic bull.  Johnny pushed the shawl between himself and the window, poked at it until it gave him some semblance of support and let his head sink against it.  He closed his eyes in disgust.

"Tell me about San Francisco, Mr. Sloan." 

"Carl.  Please call me Carl."

"All right--Carl.  And you can call me Darcy."

"My pleasure, Darcy."

His voice was too polished, too clipped and the name came out flat.  It didn't do her justice at all and Johnny scowled at the sound of it. 

"Is San Francisco as wonderful as it seems? My aunt wouldn't let me go to Chinatown, but it sounded so exciting.  Have you been?"

The old man answered first.  "A horrid section of the city.  Absolutely overridden with the vermin of society.  The city would be better served to burn that whole section straight to the ground and just build it up new again."

Carl jumped into the story.  "My father lost some valuables from his pocket during our visit." 

"That's terrible," Darcy said.  "How much did you lose?"

"Just a few coins," Carl told her.

"Seven dollars in gold."  If it had been the family heirlooms, the old man couldn't have sounded more indignant. "Took it right out of my pocket.  Those filthy, yellow hands in my clothing..."

"Father."  Carl's tone wasn't exactly disapproving, but it did silence the old man for a second.  Just a second.

"I don't know what we're going to do about California. If it's not the Chinese in the north, then it's the Mexicans down in the south, stealing everything a man ..."


Johnny turned his face toward the Sloans and half opened one eye.  Daddy Sloan was jiggling again, his two or three chins quivering with the motion of turning from his son to the Coopersmiths.  He seemed to be looking toward them for support, but they didn't say a word.  Darcy did, though.

"I'm sure you don't mean that, Mr. Sloan."  Darcy leaned forward to see past the son and look the father square in his eyes.  "It's this constant rocking...it makes you say the most idiotic things." 

It didn't help that Mr. Coopersmith laughed right out loud.  He even slapped his knee when the old man turned crimson and mumbled a chopped off, "Well, if that isn't the rudest..."  Mrs. Coopersmith nudged the farmer with her elbow, but it didn't stop him and that made it even harder for Johnny.  He fought back his own laughter and finally lost it into a strangled cough. 

"Are you all right, Mr. Lancer?" 

Darcy had her cool gaze focused on him now and Johnny squirmed just a little.  "Yeah."  He smiled sheepishly. "I'll live...and as long as we're all using first names, that's Johnny."

"Johnny."  The gaze warmed. 

"Have you been to Telegraph Hill?"  Carl reclaimed the woman with a manicured hand on her arm.  "It's absolutely lovely up on that hill at night with the lights of San Francisco spread out around you.   Like a thousand fiery diamonds tossed out across a black velvet blanket."   He swept his hand through the air, drawing her eyes into the dusty air of the stagecoach.  "Just imagine that sweet sea breeze blowing through your hair, the sounds of the crickets singing in the grass and those jewels shining in the night just for you.  All of it just for you."  His voice softened.  "I would love to show you sometime."

They all heard Mrs. Coopersmith's sigh.  Old Man Sloan just huffed and turned to the window, pretending to find something interesting in the solid line of trees and dirt moving past it.

"Do you get to San Francisco often?" Carl leaned his head closer to the woman's.

Maybe it was there and maybe it wasn't, but Johnny would have sworn he heard a touch of amusement in Darcy's voice. "No, I'm afraid I don't. My father doesn't let me out of Hartville very often.  There's all those ledgers and business meetings and dozens of completely mundane duties to keep me away from your jewels.  Did you call them diamonds?  I've always preferred turquoise, it suits me better." 

"You're a business woman, then?"  Carl sat a bit more upright. "Such a shame to waste those beautiful eyes on a column of numbers.  You should be enjoying life."

Darcy's lips curved slightly.  "It is a challenge making my female brain concentrate, but I find a certain amount of satisfaction in my work."

"Of course you do."  Carl had lost his smile.  "I didn't mean to question your intelligence." 

"I'm sure you didn't."

"You'll be leaving our company soon?  I believe Hartville is only another hour's ride." 

"Unfortunately, yes."

Johnny grabbed at his handkerchief, but it was too late.  A sneeze exploded and he tried to corral it in his little corner of the coach, but every face turned toward him again.  He glanced sideways at his traveling companions, swiped a sodden cloth across his nose and shrugged his shoulders. "I tried...”

Thank God the shawl had fallen into his lap at the first jerk of that sneeze.  It had been saved from the worst of the spray, but Johnny still brushed his hand across it and tried to reshape it into some sort of order.

"And when will you be leaving us?"  Old Man Sloan asked haughtily.

"In a hurry to see me go?"  Johnny cocked his head and returned the man's stare.  "You're out of luck.  I'm headin' to Green River."

"Indeed."  The man managed to fill that one word with an impressive amount of repugnance.

Darcy leaned across and took the shawl, refolded it and handed it back to Johnny.  "Maybe you could try sleeping again."  Her breath caught as the driver found a boulder and the stage lurched, bouncing them all an inch out of their seats.  Darcy lost her balance and she fell forward, landing a hand on Johnny's leg and hovering just over him, swaying with the motion of the coach.  Johnny took her arm to steady her and their eyes met.  Darcy blushed a subtle pink. 

"Thank you," she said, pulling away and dropping into her seat again.  "I guess that's why my father keeps telling me to sit still.  I really should learn to do what he says."

"Can't see that happening."  His hands were moving, folding the shawl one more time, stuffing it between the window frame and his head and poking at it again, but Johnny's eyes never left the woman. 

She smiled, that's all, but it was a genuine smile and promising.  Johnny shoved his borrowed pillow one more time and closed his eyes.  An hour.  Not much he could do about it in an hour.  Especially not with those hammers banging away in his head or the fever he could feel simmering inside him.  Couldn't look like much either, not with his nose turning red from the sneezing and blowing or his eyes all runny with this cold.  Wrong time, wrong place...hell, more than likely the wrong woman. None of them had seemed to be right lately.

He tried to drift off and finally did manage a hazy stupor.  There were voices floating around inside it, her voice and all the others. Mrs. Coopersmith must have gotten bored, because she got all chatty.  Thirty three years last Friday, that's how long she and the poor farmer had been married. They'd left the youngest of their seven children to milk the cows and headed off to Frisco to see how the other half lived.  Left two days earlier than they'd planned because Mrs. Coopersmith thinks the other half pays way too much for a bed, when there's a perfectly good one back home, and food shouldn't cost nearly that much either, not when beans and cornbread can fill your stomach just fine, thank you.  Mr. Coopersmith didn't have much to say or maybe he did, Johnny really wasn't sure because the voices floated away again.

There were a couple of more snippets of conversation--the old man bragging about his law practice, the son making time with Darcy and Darcy laughing at anything that struck her fancy.  She laughed a lot and it sounded good.  Then there was nothing for a long while, just that woozy silence, until suddenly everything was moving forward. Johnny's head flew off his pillow and he woke with a start.

"It's Hartville."  Darcy's fingers brushed his knee and she looked into his eyes as she offered that explanation.  Johnny nodded, but it really didn't register for a second. The stage had stopped, he knew that, and there were people standing in the coach. He rubbed a fist into his eyes and watched the Coopersmiths follow Old Man Sloan out onto the boardwalk.  Carl was next, but he stopped just outside the stagecoach door and offered his hand to Darcy.  She hesitated for a second and gazed back at Johnny. 

"You awake now?"

“Yeah.”  Johnny squinted at her.  “I’m awake. Here...”  It had finally dawned on him that her shawl had fallen on his lap and he stood and handed it to her.  “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”  She turned then, allowed Carl to assist her from the stage and disappeared from Johnny’s view.

He had to duck a bit as he took the two steps across the coach, then straightened when he hit the sunlight and made the awkward leap down to the boardwalk.  “The cafe’s two doors down,” a rough voice shouted from above and Johnny looked up to see a bearded man standing on the stage and pointing north.  “Stage leaves again in forty five minutes.  Anybody not on it gets left behind.”

The Coopersmiths and the Sloans began their migration toward the cafe and Johnny contemplated his choices.  There’d be fried chicken at the restaurant.  This time of year, probably some strawberry pie to go with it or maybe blueberry.  And a nice, tall, cool glass of water.  That was some temptation, but not the only one.  There was Darcy, too, standing just to the side of the stagecoach, hanging onto an older man and filling his ears with her chatter.

“Hey, cowboy...catch.”  He heard the gravely voice and Johnny looked up again.  This time a leather bag came sailing down from the top of the stage.  It hit him in the chest and he staggered a step backward as he caught it.  “Hers.”  The man crooked a thumb toward the woman. 

“Anything else I can do for you?”  Johnny scowled up at the man, but it didn’t do any good.  He’d already looked away, busy checking the ropes anchoring the remaining luggage to the stage. 

Looked like his choice was made, so Johnny resigned himself to it.  It wasn’t exactly difficult. 

The man saw him first.  Johnny tried not to disturb them while they were still in that embrace, but he had to cough --couldn’t help it.  That brought the man’s eyes up from Darcy.  They weren’t anything like the woman’s.  Clear blue where hers were dark.  Small and intense, while hers were warm.  And the face was different, too.  Harsh and furrowed. Age, Johnny figured and he tried to tell himself that’s all it was.  Just age.

“Can we help you?” the man offered, amiably enough.

Darcy kept a fistful of the man’s sleeve in her hand, but unwrapped her other arm and turned toward Johnny.  “My bag...”  She glanced from face to face.  “Father, I’d like you to meet one of my traveling companions, Johnny Lancer.  Johnny, this is my favorite man in the whole world, Nicholas Poole.  My father.”

Johnny set the bag next to the man and offered his hand.  “Nice to meet you, sir.”

“My pleasure, young man.”  Mr. Poole had a firm handshake, an occupational advantage for an obviously successful businessman.  “Do I have you to thank for bringing my daughter home in such high spirits?”

“Don’t know about that, but she sure kept things interesting.” Johnny nodded toward the woman.  She was smiling at him and her father didn’t miss that fact.

“I do believe you, Mr. Lancer.”  Mr. Poole wrapped an arm around Darcy and pulled her protectively to his side.  “I know my daughter and I can promise you life is never dull when she’s around.  That’s why I’m glad she’s home.”  He planted a loud kiss on the woman’s forehead.  “Come on, sweetheart.  I have a pot of coffee in the office and half an hour before my next appointment.  I want to hear about every little thing you did in San Francisco.”

“All right, but not everything.  A girl’s got to have her secrets.”  Darcy laughed as her father took her bag and led her away, then tossed a parting smile back over her shoulder. “Take care, Johnny.” 

He watched them for a minute or so.  Her father let her go as soon as they passed the first alley, almost forced to as they stepped down off the boardwalk and he had to balance her heavy bag.  She swayed a little as she walked, just a little.  Just enough.  Definitely a woman’s curves.

Johnny sighed and looked around him.  There was a trough in front of the stagecoach office, so that solved the problem of that long, tall drink.  It only took a few strokes of the pump to get some fresh water flowing and he drank his fill of it, then dipped his hands into the stream.  He cupped a good supply of water up and onto his face and did it again and again until he was dripping with the cool comfort.  That helped, but his head was still complaining and he eyed that office.

It was quiet when he walked in.  The elderly man behind the counter didn’t even look up, buried as he was in his books. There was a pile of them in front of him and he pushed one aside, picked up another, shook his head at it and found a third.  That one satisfied him and he set to the numbers in it.

Johnny’s footsteps sounded loud against the dirty planks of the office floor.  Guess that man likes his figuring more than his sweeping he decided, but it really didn’t matter.  All Johnny wanted was those chairs on that far wall.  There were three of them, each as hard as the other, but as least they weren’t jerking and bouncing and dropping shades down on his head.  He picked out the middle chair, swung it in front of another and dropped into it.  He lifted his feet, set them on the chair across from him, blew his nose once more and slumped down.  For the next forty five minutes, he was home.

Closing his eyes, he wallowed in the stillness. No Mrs. Coopersmith, no Sloans, daddy or son.  No Darcy.  He could still feel the swaying of that coach, the back and forth and side to side, moving in his memory.  And as he slipped into the fantasies of slumber, he saw the swaying, too.  Her swaying.  And then he slept.



 Chapter 2

"Chicken Soup for the Sole Cowboy" 


The 2:20 stage was right on time. 

Darcy slowed as she heard the big whip crack above the team and the driver shout a loud, "Hah!" and then she waited, standing firmly in place on the boardwalk of the Blue Rooster Cafe.  The horses pounded past her, lurching the coach behind them.  She watched it go, staring after it even when she should have moved out of its cloud of dust.  The coach was gone in only seconds, rushing past the row of storefronts and rounding the stables at the end of the street, then heading south and away from Hartville. Darcy brushed her hand against her waistcoat and shook the dust from her skirt, then lifted her eyes again toward those stables.  For several minutes more, several unaccountably still minutes, she stood and contemplated the empty road. Finally she looked down at the package in her arms and shook her head at nobody in particular, then stepped into the street and headed with a purpose toward the Hartville Land and Savings.


It was at least an hour later when the wizened clerk closed his ledger. He laid his spectacles on the desk, rubbed his eyes vigorously and stared across the office at the man in the chair.  Actually, it was two chairs, and he was dangerously close to falling off of them both.  One knee splayed to his side and looked about to drop. His dark head lolled in the same direction, pulling his shoulders with it and dragging his entire upper body into an unfortunate descent toward the floor.  He was alive, there was no question about that.  He was snoring. Not the deep, window-rattling snore that proves the habit, but more of a congested, raspy snore.  It wasn't that the sound was particularly disturbing, it was just that the clock was moving closer to four o'clock--closing time at the offices of the Butterfield Overland Stage Company.  It was this man's job to make certain that all the entries were in their assigned columns, all the monies were counted and everything was in its proper place before the door was locked for the night.  And the stranger on the chairs was definitely not in his proper place. 

"Excuse me." The clerk cleared his throat and waited for his efforts to take effect. They didn't.  "Sir," he called, more loudly.  "You can't stay here. Sir?"

If anything the snoring grew louder.  The clerk hesitated for a moment, glanced again at that clock, then slid his ledger into its cubby hole below the desk. Being a slight man, his footsteps barely disturbed the quiet of the room as he skirted around the furniture and crossed to the chairs.  He paused when the Colt caught his eye.  It wasn't tied-down as the fancier pistols sometimes were, but it hung low on the stranger's leg.  Too low to risk just shaking the man awake. 

He tried coughing again, this time starting with a big lung full of air, but that didn't accomplish a thing. "Mister..."  He stared down at the gun.  "Mister... you have to leave."  Still nothing.  There was no other choice.  The clerk took a step behind the man, squinted his eyes, stretched out his arm and poked one tentative finger into the cowboy's shoulder.  That had no more effect than the coughing.  He hesitated a few seconds more and then leaned forward, his mouth only inches from Johnny's ear, took a deep breathe and shouted, "Excuse me, Sir."

Johnny sat straight up, kicking against the chair as he did and knocking it teetering on one leg, then banging back against the wall.  For a disoriented moment, he looked bleary-eyed around the office, his gaze moving from the desk to the time tables on the wall and finally landing on the clerk. "Time to go?"

The clerk nodded.  "Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir."

"All right..."  Johnny yawned loudly and scratched the back of his head.  "Just give me a second."  He blinked a couple of times and finally focused on the lumpy object at his feet, shoving it with the toe of his boot and feeling it give just the way he expected it to.  Couldn't quite figure out why it was there, though. Shouldn't be...he didn't put it there.  "How'd that get in here?" he mumbled, pointing down at his own saddlebags.

"It is yours, isn't it, sir?" 

"Yeah, it's mine. But who took it off the stage?"  Johnny bent to pick up the bags, then slung them over his shoulder.  The clerk didn't answer right away and from the scared look on the man's face, Johnny was afraid he wouldn't answer at all, so he pushed a little.  "Well, how'd it get here?"

"The big man brought it in, sir."  The clerk jerked his eyes to the clock on the wall, then looked back at Johnny.

"The big man."  Johnny sat back and fixed the clerk with a red-rimmed stare.

"Yes, sir."

Johnny scowled.  "What big man?"

"Your companion, sir.  The large, elderly man.  I believe he said his name was Slane?"


"Yes, sir.  That's right.  The man's name was Sloan and he said you'd be taking the next stage and you'd be wanting your bags."

Next stage?  Johnny jumped to his feet and walked quickly to the office door, pushing the curtain aside and searching beyond the window. There was no coach waiting, just lots of empty street, a portly man strolling down the boardwalk and one scraggly dog sniffing near the trough.   He spun around and glared at the clerk.

"Where's that stage?"

"Gone, sir.  Left at 2:20, right to the minute."  The clerk began straightening the chairs, setting them back in their line against the wall.  He seemed reluctant to let go of the last one, preferring to leave its slat-backed paltry protection between him and the stranger. 

Johnny eyed the clock and confirmed the obvious. It was later than 2:20.  Much later.  "Why didn't you wake me?" 

"Mr. Sloan said..."

"Yeah, yeah...Mr. Sloan said..." Johnny's interruption made the man flinch and he softened his tone a bit.  "When's the next stage goin' south?"

"Tomorrow morning.  8:45."

"Figured."  Johnny rubbed a finger under his nose.  "This town got a hotel?"

"Across the street, sir.  The management's standards are somewhat relaxed," the clerk added, his eyes falling again to Johnny's holster, "but I believe it will be comfortable."

Johnny coughed.  Not a small one either, but a big, rumbling cough that made his shoulders shake.  The clerk found his escape under the cover of that explosion, scooting the chair into its space against the wall and sidling past Johnny to scurry back behind the desk.  He retrieved his ledger from its cubby and opened it, peering too quickly over the pages and flipping several sheets before pawing at the spectacles still lying on the desk.  Finally grasping them, he set them on his head, lifted a hand to his mouth and covered his own nervous, dry cough, then asked, "Will there be anything else, sir?"

A sideways glance was all he got, as Johnny folded his handkerchief into his pocket one more time and let out a disgusted sigh. Wasn't accomplishing anything here and there had to be a nice, soft bed waiting somewhere at that hotel, so he resettled the saddlebags on his shoulder, pulled the door open, and stepped into the late afternoon sunshine. 

The warmth felt good.  By the time he had crossed the boardwalk and stepped down into the dusty ruts of the street, the heat was soaking through his jacket and down into his achy muscles.  The fresh air felt good, too, as he took as deep a breath as his clogged-up nose would allow and felt the oxygen hit his soggy brain. Maybe a night in Hartville wasn't such a bad idea after all.  The town didn't look too lively and that suited him just fine. Gave him a better than even shot at finding a hot meal and backing it up with an undisturbed eight hours spent just staring at his eyelids.  What was the worse that could happen?  He might catch up to that pretty, brown-eyed gal and lose an hour of two of his shuteye. Maybe three. Well, that was a sacrifice Johnny was willing to make. He smiled a little half smile, stepped around a fly-infested horse dropping and bounded up onto the hotel's boardwalk with revived optimism. And then he coughed again.

It was that distraction, head down and hacking into his fist that made him miss it.  Darcy had stepped into the sunshine, too, four doors down at the Hartville Land and Savings.  She moved to the edge of the boardwalk, lifted her skirt slightly with one hand, and scanned the street first toward the north of town and then toward the hotel. Her gaze settled on Johnny.  She stood quite still for a moment, simply watching him, and then her mouth curved into a dimpled smile.  And she stepped lightly into the road and away from the office.

He got his soft bed.  It came with a few questions from the kid at the registration desk, just the regular ones--where was he heading, how long was he staying and what was he doing in Hartville.  Wasn't sure how to answer that last one, but it didn't really matter--the kid was only asking out of boredom.  Might have been seventeen.  Blonde hairs sparsely filling a poorly trimmed mustache, splotchy blemishes where his skin was punishing him for being so young, and a restlessness.  All of his seventeen year old energy cocooned into an outgrown suit and a string tie that he kept yanking at.  Johnny signed his name to the ledger, noting the fine calligraphy of the 'Hurley Hotel' inscribed at the top of the page, and asked the boy for his name.  Hurley, the kid said.  Clancy Hurley. Johnny smiled wryly.  No choosing your folks or the life they hand you, just gotta figure a way to get comfortable in it or move on.

He left Clancy Hurley to the confines of his hotel lobby and found his room, number 23, upstairs at the end of the hallway.  It was just a room, nothing fancy, but it was clean and that mattress looked thick enough.  He tossed the saddlebags next to the bureau, then slipped the gun belt from his hips, refastened the buckle and slung it over the bedpost.  His boots were next and he dropped them to the side of the bed, one falling on top of the other and each being covered by the jacket he shrugged out of.  He was gone again almost as fast as his head hit the pillow and he didn't hear a thing until the knock on the door.

It wasn't dark yet. There were still shafts of light hitting the far wall, shadowing an outline of the window on the wallpaper above the bureau.  The sun had to be low, probably hanging just over the horizon. Johnny lay there, judging the hour and wondering if he really had heard that knock, then it came again.  He swung his stockinged feet to the floor and slipped the Colt from its holster, then stood and crossed to the door, leaning into the wall to its side.  With one hand on the knob, he pulled the door open just a sliver.

"Do you always answer a knock with a gun in your hand?" 

It was Darcy.  And she looked on the edge of being annoyed--brown eyes aiming down at the pistol and mouth set into a frown. 

Johnny let his gun hand drop to his side.  "Only on days I feel like living."

"So I guess this is still one of those days?" 

"Maybe.  It's improving some." 

Darcy rewarded him a quick smile.  "Sounds like you're feeling better.  Hungry?"  She glanced down toward a tray she held at waist level.  It was covered by a checkered towel, with several roundish lumps underneath.  "It's chicken soup. Don't worry, I didn't make it."

He gave the door a push and let it swing open, then shoved his Colt into his waistband and took the tray from the woman.  "You brought me soup?"  He knew it was a lame thing to say.  Of course she had, he was holding it in his hands and the unmistakable aroma was seeping up through the cloth and working its way through his stuffed-up nose.  It's just, of all the questions that came to mind, that was the only one he wasn't scared to ask right then. 

"It's good and hot.  Our housekeeper cooked it up fresh today...and there's some of her bread there with it.  I hope you like peach preserves." 

"Yeah, I do."  Johnny nodded slowly, then filled in the silence.  "I'd invite you in..."

"But it wouldn't be proper."  Her smile had faded some and she didn't seem certain where to land her eyes, skipping them from his face to the tray and back again.  "How do you feel?  Are you really better?"

"Don't I look it?" 

"No."  She laughed softly.  "You look terrible."

"I've heard that before."

She laughed again, but it was a hesitant sound. There was a moment when her face seemed unable to settle, as emotions surfaced and flickered across it.  Then they set.  She moved half a step closer and lifted the back of her hand to his forehead.  "You're warm."  Her hand slid to his cheek and rested there.  "It's not bad, but you do have a fever. Sit down."

The tray was gone again before Johnny even realized she had taken it back.  He was still feeling her hand against his skin and knowing only that sensation as she carried the food across to a small writing table and slipped into the chair next to it. "Well, are you going to eat or do I have to tell Mamie that her good soup went to waste?" 

Even being chided felt good from a voice like that, light and musical and almost as caressing as the hand.  Johnny wasn't sure why her tone had gone so soft, but he wasn't complaining, either.  And he wasn't taking any chances. He took out the gun, slid it into its holster, then went obediently to the table.  There was a second chair on the other side of the table and he sank into it. 

Darcy had laid the napkin to the side of the tray, revealing a deep, lidded bowl, a big hunk of bread and a small jar of preserves. As she lifted the lid, a heavy cloud of steam rose from the soup, fragrant with rosemary and thyme and warm and comforting.  Johnny breathed in the head-clearing richness and suddenly felt starved.

"Smells good."  He picked up the spoon and slurped up a mouthful.  "Not bad."

"Well, like I said…I didn't make it."  Darcy leaned more comfortably into her chair.  "Missed the stage, huh?"

Johnny cocked an eyebrow at her.  "Seems the 2:20 actually leaves at 2:20.  Slept right through it."

Her smile was teasing.  "And here I thought it was just my company that was putting you to sleep."

He didn't rise to that bait.  Instead he slurped another spoonful of soup and followed it with a ripped off bite of bread, chewing thoughtfully for a moment.  "How'd you know to find me here?"

"Saw you come in."

It was getting dimmer in the room.  The sun must have set and the twilight left behind wasn't doing much to light the two of them.  There was a small wooden box on the table and Johnny opened it, took a match from it and struck it against the rough wood. It burst into a sudden, bright flame and he lit the candle from it, bathing the dinner in its subtle, shifting light.  Bathing her in that light, too.

"Is it a problem?" she asked.

"What's that?" he mumbled, stuffing more bread into his mouth.

"Losing the time.  Being stuck here in Hartville for the night."

"No."  He shook his head and was surprised that the motion didn't set off any of the hammers that had been working in there all day. "Not really. Murdoch will just have to wait one more day to get those north line fences restrung."


"My old man.  We have a ranch about a day's ride south of here."

"The Lancer ranch."  Her eyes widened with that sudden recognition.  "My father did some business with your father a few years back. You had a stand of oak trees that we harvested for our lumber mill.  I wanted to go with him on that trip, but someone had to handle the payroll while he was gone and so I got stuck here.  Do you remember my father?"

"No."  His answer came too fast, but she didn't seem to notice.

"Father told me all about it.  He said your ranch is the biggest in that part of the state and has more cattle than he'd seen since the Chicago stockyards.  And your father...well, you should just hear him talk about that negotiation.   Father said that Murdoch Lancer could out-deal the devil by a dollar and get a soul back in change."

A grin stretched across Johnny's face and he poised his spoon in mid-dip. "That's Murdoch, all right.   And the soul..."  He dipped his eyes down to the bowl.  "Well, I guess that's about right, too."

"What were you doing in San Francisco?"  Darcy reached across to swipe a bit of his bread and began to nibble at it.

"You mean besides catching this cold?"

She nodded and brushed a crumb from her lap.

"Taking Teresa to visit a friend."


There was a satisfying disappointment in Darcy's voice and Johnny savored it for a moment, lifting the spoon and swallowing another measure of his soup before he answered.  "She's kind of a sister.  Scott and I watch out for her.  Scott--he's my brother."

"Oh...your family."  Her face brightened. "It must have been nice growing up with a real family.  There's just my father and me." 

He almost told her then--why that wasn't right and why his eyes found that bowl again. Almost.  Stupid, though. Tomorrow he'd be on that stage and Darcy Poole would be a memory.  A sweet memory, but only that.  So he let her assumption stand and looked back into her eyes.  "No mother?"

Darcy shook her head.  "She died when I was a baby.  I know I'm supposed to be sad about it, but it's hard to miss what you never had.  You know?"  She looked toward the bureau and the pitcher sitting there, then rose and poured two glasses of water. "Father was always there, though. He tucked me in at night, kissed my knee when I skinned it up, even started taking me to the office with him when I got big enough to reach the desk. I think my first bedtime stories were tales of his business negotiations."  She set his glass on the table and took a long drink from hers. "My father always wins."

"Like father like daughter?" 

She was quiet for the moment, but her vague smile gave the answer. 

His spoon clinked against the china as Johnny tried to scoop up the last tidbits of chicken. He wanted to just pick up the bowl and tip it to his lips, but one more glance at Darcy made him rethink that temptation.  She was gazing at him with those big brown eyes, soft and subdued, aglow with the reflection of the single candle.  The curve of her lips was sensually tender and Johnny was drawn into their suggestive lines, lost into the elusive promise of that smile.  His imagination came alive and with it sensations that didn't belong in a candle-lit hotel room--not with a respectable woman, anyway.

So he coughed.  It wasn't the rumbling cough that had been wearing him out all day, but it did the trick.  He pushed the tray toward the middle of the table and gulped down his glass of water. "Thanks. That was good."

"Feel any better?"

"Yes, I do."  It was an honest answer, and not only because his sneezing seemed to have vanished with the passing of the day.  "But I think it's time we got you home to your daddy."

Leaning over the desk, Darcy began organizing the dishes on the platter and covering them again with the napkin. "Sure you're through with all this?"

"No."  Johnny didn't even try to disguise the direction his eyes were following, straight to those curves hovering so close above the tray.  Darcy noticed, she had to notice, but her smile didn't fade. "But I still think we ought to be going," he added. 

"I think maybe you're right."   She took the tray and straightened with it.

Johnny jumped to his feet and reached to take it.  "I'll get that.  I want to make sure you get home all right, any how."

She was laughing as she looked down at this feet and it took him a second to realize why.  And then he looked down and laughed a little himself.  He was still in his socks, his boots lying somewhere over there by his bed.  It somehow made him feel half naked and he had to resist the urge to curl his toes under and out of sight. Didn't make much sense--they were only socks.  But he felt his cheeks growing warmer and he tried to hide it, bringing an elbow up in front of his face and running his hand through his hair.  "Just be a second," he said, bending over and grabbing up his boots.  He tugged them onto his feet, eyeing his pistol all the while, not feeling right about that either, but making his decision. He lifted the rig from the bedpost, slung it around his hips and fastened the buckle, then slipped into his jacket.   "I guess I'm decent enough now to walk a lady home."

"Your nose..." 

Darcy had her hands full of tray, but she tilted her head toward him and Johnny brushed a finger against his nose.  "Damn," he muttered and immediately regretted it, casting a quick glance at Darcy.  He grabbed his handkerchief and dabbed at the moisture, ending with a powerful blow.  "Sorry.  You know, I don't always do this.  There's some that say that on my better days I'm not exactly unattractive." 

She just grinned and walked past him to the door, tossing back over her shoulder as she went, "Well, Johnny, this isn't one of your better days." 

She didn't live far, only four blocks from the hotel, but the walk was long and leisurely.  Johnny carried the dishes for her and after the first block her hand found its way around his arm and she held on, letting go just long enough to let him cough once, then clinging again when he was done. 

Her house was large, a two story Victorian style with a wide, wraparound porch. There was a huge yard, filled with the orderly shadows of shrubs and flowery beds.  The home itself was almost totally dark, with only one oil lamp showing in what was most likely the parlor window.  Darcy slowed even more as she pushed open the gate to the picket fence and guided Johnny down the cobblestone path. 

"Father's not home," she said with a hint of concern.

"How do you know?" 

"His lantern isn't lit. The one in his office upstairs."

"Do you need to find him?"

"No."  Her voice lightened.  "He's working late.  That must be it.  He has some big project that's been taking all his time.  I'm sure he'll be home soon."

They were on the porch when she stopped and took the tray from him, setting it on the planked floor.  "Sit with me," she insisted, tugging him toward a swing on the other side of the porch, the darkened side, away from that parlor window. 

"What about your father?"

He could hear her smile. "Are you afraid of my father?"


"Just sit, you big chicken."  She yanked at him again, dragging him to the swing and plopping down onto it before he settled in beside her.

"Tell me," she said.

"Tell you what?"  Johnny crossed his ankles and slumped down into the seat. 

"Things.  People.  Dreams."  She curled her legs into the swing and laid her head against its back, then added contentedly, "Just tell me anything."

And he did, for a while.  Only small things at first--the way that Murdoch sounds when he gets a lung full of mad, the dance you do with a buckin' bronc, the reason why tortillas are better than Mamie's homemade bread.  And then more, just a little bit more.  The colors of the sunset over the ranch, the easy quiet around the hearth on a winter night--things like that.  And she talked too, rattling on about her friend Mabel and her endless heartbreaks and the way her father sings when he drinks--off key and loud.  And the boy she whipped when she was six and he was seven and how her father lectured her about it for a week. 

And finally they were silent, both of them, just sitting and listening to their thoughts. Darcy's eyes were on the sky and Johnny's followed hers there.  The stars were out, thousands of them huddling together in the blackness, shimmering.  And the moon, only a sliver dipping into the dark and spilling its whispery light into the night. A dew-dampened breeze blew through the honeysuckle and the sweet fragrance was carried with it, catching at their clothing and adding its scent to the one that was Darcy's own.  Johnny had caught only fleeting whiffs of it before, distance and his cold working together to make him miss this irresistible detail of the woman.  She smelled heavenly, exotic and sensual, and here, sitting so close that body pressed against body, the perfume threatened to overwhelm him.

And then she took his arm.

He could no more have stopped that kiss than he could have stopped the moon from shining.  He surrendered the one arm to her, but took her with the other, brushing a hand up the softness of her neck and into her hair, pulling her closer, holding her closer, and lowering his face, lowering his mouth and, eyes closed, finding her lips and kissing her deeply, thoroughly and well.

It was over too soon.  "I'm sorry," he murmured and he pulled back, sliding inches away.  "I shouldn't have..."

She stopped him with a finger to his lips and whispered breathlessly, “Do that again."

And he did, softer this time, slow and lingering.  Wanting.  Her arms wrapped around him and his around her and she moaned, a sweet, yearning moan...and he was lost again.  Swept into the scent of her, the touch of her.  Adrift within her kiss.

This time she pushed him away.  He let her, feeling her slip from his arms and losing her warmth into the night air. 

"What are we doing?" she said softly.  "You have to leave tomorrow." 

He sighed and reached for her hand, stroking the back of it with his thumb.  "That ranch is waiting." 

"Johnny?"  She slid her hand away, brushing it against his cheek, and he leaned into her touch, so gentle and light. "Your fever.  You're still warm."

"I'm all right."

"You could stay.  Just one more day. Mamie has some more of that chicken soup and she could make up a poultice for your chest.  Father always swears by Mamie's cures. It'd only be one more day and then you'd be better. Just one more day."  She found his hand again and linked his fingers between her own, moving them restlessly, caressing and linking and letting go once more.  "What's one day?"

"Can't," he whispered.

"Do you want to?" Her eyes were on him now, dark and quiet against the night.  "Would you stay if you could?" 

"Yes," he said and he let his answer settle into the space between them and fill the stillness with the possibilities of that one word. They touched, hand to hand, holding and longing, neither wanting to let go.  Until finally Johnny did, making some vague promises of a visit to Hartville, a long one this time--after the roundups and as soon as Murdoch could let him free.  And he left her sitting on the porch swing, knees drawn up to her chest and arms wrapped around her legs, the bench swaying with the motion of his rising and the chains creaking her goodbye. 

He hardly saw the street below his boots.  His eyes were down, staring at those shallow ruts, but he was seeing only her.  The sounds were distant, too, pushed from his head by the thoughts of the night, thoughts of her kiss, memories of her voice whispering in his mind.  Seducing him to stay.  He felt warm and he knew it was the fever, coming back to him now that she was gone, and he was tired.  His bed was waiting and he picked up his pace, stepping up onto the boardwalk and walking briskly toward the lights at the Hurley Hotel. 

The scream brought him from his reverie.  It came from somewhere beyond the hotel and Johnny watched intently toward that spot.  A second scream--a woman's scream--and he was running to the one lantern glow showing from that row of storefronts. There was a door hanging partly open and the light was coming from within that building. Voices were coming from it too.

"Don't..." The woman's tone was high-pitched and frightened and there was a man's voice, too, angry and low, too low to make out the words which piled upon themselves and twisted together unintelligibly.  She yelped and Johnny made that out, it was a sharp and wounded sound, and he pulled the Colt from his holster and slammed a shoulder into the door, bursting through it and seeing now beyond that first room and into a second, an inner office where a man and a woman were struggling.  The man held her in front of him, his arm around her throat, and she was kicking at his legs and clawing at his arms, her face red and her mouth twisted into a grimace.

"Let her go!" His pistol was pointed right at the man and Johnny was calmer now, advancing slowly toward the couple and coming into their room, shaping his words into a cool, convincing command.  "I said, let her go."

The man kept his hold on the woman and looked over her shoulder at Johnny.  He rushed out a warning.  "He's got a gun..."

And then everything was dark, as Johnny felt something hard crack against his head and the voices were gone, the room was gone and the only thing he knew was the unyielding floor slapping against his face and then it was gone, too. 


Chapter 3

"Dead Men Tell No Tales" 

Pain was the first thing he knew.  It was stuffed into his skull and it wanted out, shoving against his eyeballs and sending explosions colliding through his brain. There wasn't any room left for thinking, but Johnny tried.  He tried hard.  There was a woman, he remembered...and a scream...then that man.  Johnny laid his hand against the back of his head and felt a sticky wetness oozing from it. He couldn't come up with why he was bleeding, not at first, not with those sharp sticks poking the hurt further into his brain every time his heart beat.  So he gave it up. 

The toe of a boot made him try again.  He felt it kick into his side, not hard, but hard enough.  Johnny grunted, rolled onto his back and opened his eyes.

He was staring straight into the barrel of a gun.  It was barely two feet from his face and pointing right at him, steady as could be.  His eyes moved up the gray steel and found what he figured would be there--the hammer cocked and ready for business.

"Bout time you woke up." 

Hard to say why that voice was hollering so loud.  Johnny had to squint against it.

"You want to tell me why you did it?" 

He forced one eye open wider.  "Did what?"

The man waved his Colt toward the floor beyond Johnny.  "Killed Joshua Poole."

"What...?"  Johnny twisted his head to look.  There was a body there, all right.  Bloody and twisted, with his arm lying under him where he fell.  His face was slack and empty and a large crimson stain had spread around him, connecting the red rosettes on the carpet into one large ugly flower.  There wasn't any visible wound, so Johnny figured the hole was in the chest the dead man hid against that rug. 

Johnny tilted back, flicking his eyes over the badge on the gunman's vest and his own Colt shoved into the sheriff's waistband.  "Poole?"

"You mean you don't even know the name of the man you shot?"

"I didn't shoot anybody."  Johnny started to get up, but the sheriff stopped him with a foot on his stomach.  It was a big foot. 

"Now ain't that a surprise. Never met a killer yet who just fessed up right from the get-go." 

Johnny fought to ignore the pain in his head long enough to concentrate on the sheriff. Hard to say how tall he was from this angle, looking straight up. Least six feet he guessed from the size of that boot. Big Swedish sort, with a relaxed look about him--as if this wasn't the first time he'd stood on top of a suspect, watching a corpse cool.  The aim of that gun hadn't moved though, and that worried Johnny a lot, especially with that hammer still cocked. 

"You don't have a nervous finger, do you?" 

The sheriff's mouth lifted into a small smile and he tipped the pistol up, released the hammer, and then held it loosely downward.  "Guess you ain't going anywhere lessen I say so. That head hurtin' you some?"

"Pounding hard enough to wake the dead."

The smile widened. "Well, that'd be a neat trick.  Maybe you can get ole Poole back up among the livin' and I won't have to hang you after all." 

"Told you I didn't kill him."  Johnny pressed against the tender spot on his head and looked at his hand, grimacing at the smear of blood.  "You mind if I sit up?  This floor isn't as soft as it looks."

"Just take it slow, mister." 

The foot lifted and Johnny pushed up from the floor, glancing up at the sheriff when he heard the hammer cock again.  Still sitting, he slid against the wall.  "Guess my bleeding on their wallpaper won't make no difference," he said, with another look at the stain seeping out around the dead man.  The body seemed absurdly misplaced in the well-organized office, an oil lamp, candy jar and one perfectly aligned stack of papers the only accessories on the desktop, file cabinets all closed, not a sign of struggle anywhere around, just a normal late night workplace --all except for one inappropriately bloody body.  "Poole, huh?  Any relation to Nicholas Poole?"

"Brothers. You know Nicholas Poole, do ya'?"

"Met him this afternoon.  I rode in with his daughter on the afternoon stage."

"Darcy."  The sheriff grinned.  "Betcha her aunt was sure glad to get rid of that little gal. Keepin' track of her must be like tryin' to saddle up a bobcat."

Despite it all, Johnny had to smile.  "She does seem to have a mind of her own."

"Odd way to get to know a woman--killin' her uncle and all."  The sheriff squatted and yanked Johnny's head forward, poking at the gash on his skull.  "That's gonna bleed some.  Ain't gonna kill ya, though. You wanta tell me what happened here?"

His nose was running again and Johnny had to take care of that first, choosing his sleeve over his handkerchief this time.  The Colt's hammer was still back and reaching into his pocket just then seemed more suicidal than polite.  "I heard a scream," he finally said. "That man there..."  He wagged a finger toward the corpse.  "He was fightin' with a woman and he had her by the neck.  I pulled my gun, told him to stop and the next thing I know someone's whacking my head open."  He felt again at the oozing cut and wiped the blood off on his jacket. 

"Who hit you?"

"I don't know.  Didn't see anybody else."

"What were you doin' here?"

"Told ya'."  Johnny scowled up at the sheriff.  "I heard her scream."

The blond head shook slowly. "Awfully late.  Hartville is a nice, quiet town. Most folks have two or three hours of snorin' in before midnight, but you're tryin' to tell me you were just out wandering around and you heard some woman scream?"

Johnny decided to state the obvious.  "You were up."

"Yeah, but that's my job.  What were you doin' out so late?"  The sheriff grunted as he stood again.

The pain had faded a little, but Johnny still rubbed at his head, hesitating.  Couldn't see any way to keep her out of this. Hell, it was her uncle lying there and there was no way on God's green earth that she wasn't going to find out.  Either she'd be telling the story or he would, so Johnny sighed and blurted it out.  "I was with Darcy.  We were talking on her porch and I told her goodnight and was headin' back to the hotel.  That's it." 

"Uh huh."  The sheriff nodded.  "Reckon I better be gettin' you over to the jail."

"I didn't do anything."

"Like I said...ain't the first time I've heard that.  Hanged the last man who said it three months ago."  The sheriff jerked the gun toward the door. "Now put those boots under you and get to walkin'"

Johnny just looked at him.


There was nothing relaxed about that tone and Johnny surrendered to it, using the wall to help him reach his feet and then leaning against it, waiting for the aching in his head to quiet again.  It took a minute and that must have been too long for the sheriff, who poked the gun into his side and gave his order once more.

"Now, mister." 

The sheriff's office wasn't far--only a few doors down.  Johnny wondered why he hadn't seen a lantern in that window earlier, when he'd burst into the dead man's office, but it didn't matter...there was a light lit now. The rest of the town was dark.  Sound sleepers, the good citizens of Hartville.  He was shoved into a cell, the door locked behind him, and then the sheriff set his lantern on the floor outside the bars, sank into a chair and started asking questions.  Lots of questions, starting with Johnny's name and moving on through the chicken soup and the midnight walk and the dead man on that office rug.

Johnny told it as best he could, trying to squeeze his answers out around the edges of his headache, but the shadows kept distracting him.  Long shadows, cast up from the lantern and dancing wildly with every movement the sheriff made, looking just as grotesque as that corpse had been.  It was still there, Johnny knew.  Just lying there and getting stiffer by the minute, while the sheriff got his questions asked and he stretched out on the cot, yawning and coughing and sneezing a couple of times, and watching those shadows sway. 

He fell asleep once and opened his eyes to the sheriff standing over his cot, shaking his shoulder.  He was asking about Darcy and Johnny came wide awake at that subject.  Why her, the sheriff wanted to know.  Why the daughter of the richest man in these parts?  Johnny tried to tell him honestly. . . that he didn't need her money and that she had found him, really.  That it was her knocking on that hotel door, her dragging him onto the porch swing, her begging him to stay and talk.  But that wasn't the whole truth and Johnny hedged at what was left.

Yeah, he confessed, he'd been more than willing. 

That was worth a laugh from the sheriff, one of those snorting laughs that grate on a man's nerves.  No surprise, he'd said, the only thing that didn't make any sense to him was what in the hell Darcy Poole was doing with a stray cowboy in the first place.  Maybe that was why Johnny didn't mention the rest of it--didn't tell him about the kiss.  More than likely he wouldn't have let that secret slip, anyway.  It was private, just between him and Darcy.  And he didn't have to tell, because finally the questions ended and the sheriff left him alone to wake all the necessary people, taking the lantern with him.

Johnny couldn't sleep, though.  He just lay there, staring into the dark, too many thoughts jumbling through his mind to slip away again.  The sheriff seemed decent enough.  Smart and friendly, even if his finger had been awfully tight against that trigger.  Couldn't blame him much for locking him up, not with one man dead and him still breathing.  But why?  That's what kept Johnny up through that long stretch of black hours, just trying to piece it together.  What was Joshua Poole doing beating up on that woman?  Who was she and where was she now?  And who was waiting behind that door, ready to send him sprawling?

And the only question that really counted--how was he going to get those answers from inside this cell?

No telling what time it was when the sheriff came back, but it wasn't morning.  The little window above his cot wasn't showing any daylight yet, its bars merely obscure outlines against the blackness of the night sky.  There was a second voice, muted by the closed office door, and Johnny struggled to place it.  The day before maybe.  Nicholas Poole...that made sense.  The dead man's brother come to see what kind of man his killer is.  Only the sound of the muffled words nagged at another memory, a darker one from only hours ago, and Johnny wondered just how much the Poole brothers had in common besides the sound of their voice.

He was only a shape when he walked through the door, the sudden brightness of the lantern swallowing everything but the vaguest shadows.  Johnny laid a palm against his eyes and squinted through his fingers, waiting for the man to move out of the lantern's beam and come into focus. When he did, standing at the cell bars and grasping one in each hand, Johnny worried at the difference a few hours had made.  Nicholas Poole had aged.  It wasn't just that the wrinkles were deeper, lining his forehead and sinking down into his jowls, but the eyes were older, too.  Small and weary.  And they stared at him for a long, silent moment.  That's all...just stared.

Johnny sat up on his cot and leaned against the wall, gently settling his head against the rough brick of the cell.  Then he let out a sigh and waited.  The question finally came.

"Did you kill my brother?" 

Couldn't see what good it would do, but Johnny gave him the answer anyway. "No."

"All right. Then tell me who did."  Poole massaged his eyelids and grabbed the bars again.  "You must have seen something."

"Just a woman." 

"The blonde."

"The sheriff told you?"

Poole nodded. "According to Karl you claim Josh was fighting with a woman."

"Ain't no claim."  Johnny turned his head and sneezed, rubbing his nose afterward.  "That's what happened."

"Doesn't sound like Josh.  Did he say anything?"

"I don't know. Heard them arguing, but I couldn't make out the words."

"Did Josh hit you?"

"No." Johnny tugged at a loose thread on his blanket.  "That was somebody else.  Didn't see who, just felt something hit."

"So you didn't hear anything?"

"Not much."  The thread came loose and he twisted it between his fingers.  "Just that woman's screams."

Poole looked down at the chair near the bars, pulled it closer and sank into it.  "Tell me about this woman.  What did she look like?"

Johnny closed his eyes and tried to picture her.  The twisted mouth was all he saw at first, lips stretched into a grimace, teeth white against the desperate red of her cheeks. Blood red on the arm around her neck, streaks of red clawed into his skin, hair loose across that arm, across her face.  Blonde hair--ash blonde, like Scott's, only long and wild and hiding her eyes, hiding her age.  Hiding her.  "Blonde," he finally answered, leveling his gaze again on Poole.  "Not sure I can tell you much more. She was blonde and scared."

"You think you'd recognize her if you saw her again?"


"But you're not sure?"

"I'd know her."

Nodding again, Poole sighed and stared downward, toward the floor near Johnny's boots.  He was quiet too long and Johnny was getting tired.  He laid out across his cot, crossing his arms behind his head and cradling the lump on his skull.  It still hurt, but it was a duller pain and he could think through it. Didn't want to though. All he really wanted to do was to fall asleep and wake up again with that stagecoach shade slapping against his face, making this town, this cell, all of it just a bad dream.  Almost all of it.  Poole kept him from that sleep with his next words.

"He never learned how to swim."

Johnny lifted his head slightly, turning it to find Poole's face.  The eyes were half-closed, still gazing down into empty space.

"We all tried to teach him."  Poole's expression softened with his small smile. "Mama, Father, me--all of us, when he was little...my little brother.  We just got wet doing it.  Josh wouldn't float...he'd just sink...right to the bottom. Didn't stop him, though. I've seen him come up all muddy, spit up half a river and then jump right back in.  It was the frogs--he loved frogs.  Always trying to catch one.  Don't ever remember him getting one."  The smile faded.  "Always thought drowning would take him in the end.  Never thought..."  Poole sighed and rubbed at his eyes.

There were two sounds that made both men turn toward the sheriff's outer office.  The first was a door slamming and the crash of it echoing through the jail. The second was a woman's voice, low at first, then louder as the sheriff's words mixed into hers and both struggled to get the upper hand.

"You can't make me do that, Karl." 

Darcy.  Johnny closed his eyes again, willing her to go away.  The morning--he could face them all again in the morning--if she'd just leave him be right now. 

"Darcy, this ain't your daddy's parlor and I ain't gonna let my prisoner entertain guests in the middle of the night. Now, I told you to go home."

"Is Father in there with him?"

"Yes he is, but that's different and you know it."

The voices came closer.

"Take your hands off of me, Karl." 

"I will when you start doing what I say."

Poole rose slowly from his chair and started toward the door.

"I just want to see him for a minute," Darcy said.

"Morning's soon enough."

"I'm here now."

Laying his hands on either side of the doorjamb, Poole blocked the passage with his body.  It didn't do much to muffle the voices, but he did keep back some of the light from Johnny's cell.

"And you're leaving now, too," the sheriff said.

"I am not, so just let go..."

Her skirt appeared first and just a flash of her hair.  Her father hid of the rest of her, as his arms lowered, grasped her shoulders and held her still for once.  Johnny had one glimpse of two brown eyes, lifted by tip-toes over her father's shoulder, then there was only the voices again.

"What did I tell you?" Poole asked.

"To stay home."  Darcy's tone was softer now.

"So you did hear me."

"Of course I did.  But Karl said he hurt his head."

"Karl also said that boy killed your uncle.  I don't think you need to worry about him."

Poole's hands fell when Darcy slipped loose, ducked around him and slid past.  "Johnny didn't kill anybody," she insisted as her worried face appeared in the shadowed light of Johnny's cell room.  "And I'll just be a minute." 

Her father allowed her go, turning in the doorway and watching her cross to Johnny's cell.  When the sheriff came up behind him, he stood guard, too, locking his eyes on Darcy as she settled into the chair and bent forward.  Her head leaned against the bars and she whispered through the dimness, "Are you always this much trouble?"

Johnny flicked his eyes toward the waiting men, then sat up, scooted to the end of the cot and ran a hand through his hair.  "Sorry about your uncle," he said softly, "but I didn't do it."

She smiled gently.  "Does it hurt?"

"My head?"

She nodded once.

"I'm all right."

"Sure you are."  She turned to the men at the door.  "Karl, get me a wet towel."  The sheriff didn't move and Darcy's eyes narrowed.  "Well...what are you waiting for?  I'm not leaving until I get something to clean up his head, so if you plan on getting any sleep tonight, Karl Swenson, then you better be getting me that towel."

The sheriff still hesitated for a second, looking at Nicholas Poole and seeming not to find anything to stop him, then he left the doorway and Darcy turned back to Johnny.

"What else do you need?" she asked.

"Out of here." 

Her smile didn't get any bigger, but it spread, reaching into her eyes and softening them again.  The candlelight, Johnny remembered, her eyes looked just like they had in the candlelight, quiet and alluring.  Her hands were moving against the bars, though, restless as before, grasping higher and then closer to her, sliding against the dull iron and holding for just the moment, seducing him to take them in his own and keep them still.  And he forgot for a fleeting second, forgot everything but those hands.  He was just starting to reach toward her when the sheriff pushed past her father and tossed a cloth to her. She let go of the bars to catch it.

"Thanks, Karl."  She flashed the sheriff her smile, then dragged her chair a few feet to the right, even with Johnny's cot.  "Come here," she ordered him.  "Just pull the bed over." 

He did, having to lean over to grab the side of the cot and feeling the pain in his head complain, then cringing at the high-pitched scraping noise the bed frame made against the floor, a squeal that knived into his brain.  When he had the cot wedged against the bars he sank onto it, leaning back against his iron cage, breathing deeply and needing to cough.  That hurt, too.

He barely felt her fingers brushing his hair aside, but the towel was cold.  Didn't feel bad, just cold.  She wiped at his scalp, refolded the towel and wiped again before she said anything more.

"Karl should have gotten the doctor."

Slumping further against the bars, Johnny just muttered, "I'm all right."

"You already said that."

He managed a small smile.  "Will you do me a favor?"

"You know I will."  She hung the damp towel across the bars.  "It's there if you need it.  What's the favor?"

"Send a telegram to my old man."  He sighed, wishing there was another way.  Maybe he could talk some better sense into that nosy sheriff. Or maybe some piece of evidence would turn up in the morning light.  Hell, as long as he was wishing, maybe the killer would show up with a confession and a cup of coffee.  "No, make it Val Crawford in Green River."  Val could break it to Murdoch.  Bailing him out of a fix one more time--the old man would have his hide for putting him to the trouble.  It made his head throb again, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.  "Just tell him I need a little help."

"Get some sleep, O.K.?"  She was stroking his hair, caressing the painful, swollen spot at the back of his head.  "Do you like your eggs scrambled or fried?"

"You don't have to do this."  He pulled away from her hand, lowering his head to the blanket and crossing his arms behind him again, staring up at the ceiling.

"Scrambled or fried?" 

There was a tickle on his face and he looked sideways to see something white dangling from her fingers.  "What's that for?" he asked.

"Your nose.  Blow."

He hesitated, then did as she said, grabbing the clean handkerchief, pressing it to his nose and blowing hard.  It was soft and he was tired, sore and sinking fast into exhaustion.  Felt like his fever was coming back, too.  "Thanks," he whispered.

"Scrambled," she murmured.

Her voice was soothing and Johnny nodded and closed his eyes. 

She rose then, he could hear that, and he listened to her footsteps against the floor.  He tilted his head when the door clicked shut, but it was too late.  Darkness had filled the room again, that and the muted sound of the conversation outside the door.  Even those voices were gone within minutes and Johnny was left alone with a cool breeze blowing through the barred window.  It stirred the scent of her handkerchief, still lying against his chest, and he breathed in what he could of the perfumed air. It was her scent, sweet and sensual. 

He stuffed the cloth into his pocket and stared into the darkness, waiting for the sleep that would not come.  



Chapter 4

"The Sun Usually Rises" 


It wasn't the first time he'd watched the dawn wake from the wrong side of prison bars.  Johnny shoved at the too-flat pillow, wedging it under his neck and away from the soreness at the back of his head, then he focused again on the window.  Slowly the bars took on definition, contrast coming to life with the daylight and black on black fading to an opal blue striped by grey iron. The muffled chortle of a cock broke the new-morning quiet, calling a reveille that the town didn't answer.  Too damn early.

Murdoch would be having his coffee about now, Johnny figured.  Black, in the cornflower cup with the small crack just by the handle. Slurping it, most likely.  The first cup was always too hot to drink proper, but his old man wouldn't wait--daylight might be wasting.  Odds are Maria would be sliding the pot off the burner, letting it cool a bit. That's if she was up and it was best if she was.  She'd be making excuses for him and Johnny half smiled thinking of the lies the old senora might be inventing right then just to save his hide.  Road washed out by a flood or maybe Murdoch's tired old brain had lost track of the days.  Wouldn't fool the old man much.  He'd just mutter some worn-out cuss words and wonder whether the pretty gal who'd held him up was a blonde or brunette.  Well, there wasn't any soft-skinned woman warming his back last night, but at least there weren't any roaches, either.  Or lice.  Just the thought of them made him itch and Johnny sat up and took a good look around his cell. 

There wasn't anything to see. Not much, anyway.  Just one half-filled tin water bucket sitting by the cell door and the cot he was lying on.  At that, it was a far sight better than the cells down in Mexico, especially that last one.  Wasn't water in the bucket there, and not half-filled, either.  And the rats--hell, he'd been almost grateful for the rats.  Least they'd been company, even if they did keep gnawing at the rag those rurales tried to call a blanket.  He grinned sheepishly, hoping nobody would walk through the door just then and catch him being so unaccountably cheerful.  No reason really, just that things were looking up since he'd left Madrid behind in those border towns.   Still stuck rear-deep in trouble, but at least he was waking up in a better class of jail cells. 

And he had some breakfast coming.  Scrambled, that's what she'd promised.  Couldn't say why she was bothering, it wasn't like they even knew each other.  Twenty four hours, that's all it'd been.  Heck, not even that long since he'd climbed into that stagecoach and headed toward Hartville.  Didn't know much more about her now than he did then--just that she had those big brown eyes, an easy laugh and she couldn't sit still any more than he could rope the morning sunshine.  And she could kiss.  Not one of those stiff-lipped kisses some women pass out like some sort of prize, but a real and truly impure kiss. But there'd been that moonlight then and all those stars.  That kind of light gets in a man's eyes and makes him see things that just aren't there, like intentions and tomorrows. Johnny eyed the lightening sky outside his window and sighed.  Well, tomorrow's here and things weren't always so easy in the light of day.

A door slammed in the outer office and Johnny twisted his neck to eye his cell room door.  Karl Swenson threw it open a second later.  He looked like hell.  It wasn't just the bleary glaze in his eyes or the dark circles under them, but the way his head hung down, sliding toward the horizontal, even if the man himself was still walking around upright.  He fell heavily into the chair, making it scrape backwards an inch or two, and then stared at Johnny.

"Well?"  Johnny sat up and pulled his legs, crossed Indian style, onto the cot.

"Why'd it have to be midnight?"  The sheriff scratched the back of his head and left the hair there sticking straight out.  "Can't anyone do their shooting at a more civilized hour, like the mornin'?  That'd give me all day to get the doctor and ask those questions . . . poke around.  Daylight--is that too much to ask?  Rest of the town gets to sleep at night."

"So what'd you find?"

The sheriff furrowed his brow.  "Least ya' could pretend to have some sympathy."

"Be happy to trade places," Johnny offered, flicking a finger across his bars.

Swenson shook his head and half smiled.  "You said that woman scratched him up pretty good?"


"Doc found the scratches."  Swenson stuck his feet out and crossed them at the ankle.  "Some on his face, too."

"So you believe me?"

The sheriff held up his hand.  "Not so fast.  Still only one gun in that office and that was yours."

"I didn't shoot anybody."  Johnny folded Darcy's handkerchief in half, then folded it twice again before rubbing his thumb absentmindedly over the laced edge.  "Did you check my gun?"

"How many bullets were you carrying in that Colt?"


"Only three in the cylinder now. Betcha your bullets match the ones in Poole's chest."

Johnny sighed and shoved the handkerchief into his pocket.  "What about the woman...any idea who she might be?  Or the one who whacked me? Either one of them could've taken my pistol and shot Poole."

"Or maybe you killed him." Swenson shrugged deeper into the chair and yawned.  "Could be you're lyin'."

"That what you think?"  Johnny tried to find a reaction in the man's expression, but found his eyes sliding.  The morning sun was reaching across the cell, slipping through the bars and draping long, fuzzy shadows across the wall and the sheriff.  One ran the length of his face and down the front of his chest, neatly spearing the badge that hung on his vest.  There was a dent in the lower half of the metal, a good-sized one, and Johnny was lost for a moment, wondering what sort of violence had scarred that badge and just how this easy-going, drowsy sheriff had handled it.

"Don't know."  Swenson shifted and the badge moved out of the shadow.  "I just ask the questions, Judge Marsden sorts out the answers."

"Find anything else?"

"The file drawer was empty. . . the one in his desk."  He laid his head back against the chair.  "Know any reason why that might be?"

"Nope."  Johnny spread his hands away from his body. "You want to search me?"

"Already did."  Swenson yawned again, smothering it with his fist this time.  "While you were out.  You had a hotel key, a money bag in your boot--twenty three dollars in there-- and a handkerchief that they don't pay me enough to touch.  Got the money and the key back there on my desk. Wondered just a bit about your gun belt, though."  He looked intensely at Johnny. "You wear it kinda low.  Any reason for that?"

"You asking how I make my livin'?"  Johnny tried to keep his tone even.

"Had wondered." 

"I'm a rancher."  A cough stalled his answer and Johnny raised his arm to aim it into his sleeve.  When it was finished he took a deep breath and stared at the sheriff.  "Ask Darcy, her father did some business with the Lancer ranch. Now, what about that woman?"

"What about her?" the sheriff mumbled, his eyes sliding shut.

"Any idea who she is?"  The cough had reawakened a pounding in his head and Johnny couldn't keep the irritation from his voice.

"Blonde, huh?"

"Already told you that."

The sheriff opened his lids again and stared at Johnny.  "Guess you didn't sleep, did ya'." 

"I asked about that woman."

A small smile worked its away across the sheriff's mouth.  "How's that lump on your head?"

"That mean you ain't got any idea who she is?"

"Nope."  Swenson shook his head. "Josh's wife is blonde, but had to get her outta bed to give her the news."  His expression darkened.  "Rather take a bullet than do that part of my job.  Nobody likes seeing me at their door in the middle of the night.  Juliette was white as a ghost before I even told her, then she passed right out.  Had to catch her."  He sighed.  "I guess Nick will take care of her, but it's just a damn shame."

"She the only blonde in town?"

"We've got plenty of blondes.  Fat ones, old ones and a couple that would turn a preacher's head, but you're gonna have to give me a little bit more to go on than just that she's blonde.  And that's if this woman is even real."

"She's real." Johnny closed his eyes and rubbed his palm against his forehead.  "Remember those scratches?"

The scrape of the chair against the floorboards got Johnny's attention and he turned his head to see the sheriff walking toward the door.  "Where you going?"

"Need me some coffee," Swenson shouted back. "Just what you need, too.  Guaranteed to cure that headache, so you just get ready for the blackest cup you ever poured down your throat."  The sheriff passed through the door, letting it swing almost closed, and left Johnny staring into the empty space stretching out to his office.

The cock crowed again and this time its alarm was answered by a second rooster.  Glancing at the window, Johnny confirmed their claim--it was morning, good and proper.  The sun was streaming through the bars and warming the air inside his cell.  Outside, the town was starting to wake.  There was a wagon clattering down the street, the horses' hooves clumping a fading rhythm through the stillness.  A cat yowled from someplace nearby and then a woman's voice, high-pitched, shouting her 'scat', and immediately a dog barked, slowly and insistently, and then that ended, too.  Swenson made his own noises, clanking metal to metal and yelping an "ow" once, then a "damn, that was hot" and Johnny smiled.  Leastways, the coffee wouldn't be cold.

And it wasn't.  The sheriff brought it to him in an enamel mug, unlocking the cell long enough to hand it over and shoving Johnny's head forward, then pressing against the swelling at the back of his skull.

"Bet that hurts," was all he said, then he was gone. 

And Johnny was alone again.  He slid lower against the wall and contemplated the dust specks dancing through the shaft of light.  Alone . . . that was something he'd had plenty of.  Wasn't the same this time, though.  Alone goes a whole lot better with a hot cup of coffee and the promise of a pretty girl.  Johnny sipped the black liquid, sucking in the warmth and feeling it dull the aching in his head and his mind wandered again, back to before the killing, back to that moonlit porch and back to her.  Back to that kiss.

He was only half finished with his coffee when he heard a rattling coming from the front office.  Swenson was snoring and the man was a blue-ribbon, snorting kind of snorer, but Johnny wasn't complaining.  There'd been were too many dark hours in the night just past to mind a man just trying to catch some shuteye. Could just stretch out and close his eyes himself, but he didn't.  Instead, he emptied his cup and set it on the floor next to the cot, then he concentrated on the reason for that sleepless night--first the scream, then the struggle and finally the slug on his scalp, reliving the scene over and over in his head and grasping for the clue he knew he'd missed.  There had to be a clue, but each time he went over it all, it came out the same--him lying on the floor, the woman gone and Poole hiding his secrets in a puddle of blood.  And even when his eyes did close and his head slumped forward onto his chest, Johnny swept the scene into his slumber and chased the woman through his dreams, blonde and faceless and desperately clawing, the woman of the midnight scream.

He started when he felt a hand against his shoulder and his eyes opened to find hers, soft and weary, looking down at him.  "Darcy," he mumbled, pushing a fist against the mattress and trying to sit more upright.

"Just set it down," Swenson demanded, his voice sounding disconcertingly deep against the tenderness of Darcy's eyes.  The sheriff was standing behind her and either he looked monstrously tall or she looked like a child, Johnny wasn't sure which one it was.  She was only a slight young thing. He hadn't realized that before, not with the way she was always moving, but now she seemed so small, even looking up at her like this and even with those womanly curves. 

Darcy turned, the cloth-covered tray still clasped against her waist.  "Hush, Karl.  I told you I'd be just a minute and you can just wait until I'm ready."

"I'll do it."  Karl took the tray from her hands, having to tug to free it from her grasp, and set it roughly on the cot.  "Now git."


Johnny saw the glare the sheriff gave her, but Darcy didn't.  She was too busy slapping away the hand Swenson reached out to her and sliding in next to Johnny. "Let me see," she whispered and she lifted her palms to either side of his head and gently tilted it, making him face away.  He could feel her fingers combing through his hair and hear her sighing softly.  "Doc Grant would have put stitches in this, if Karl had let him see you last night. Guess there's not much we can do about it now."  That was said loudly enough to have its effect on the sheriff and a sideways glance proved that it had.  The man moved his hands to his hips and he glowered down at the woman, but kept his mouth shut. 

She smoothed Johnny's hair with a single gentle downward stroke, her hand moving tenderly across the swollen lump on his skull, and then swept her touch to his cheek, lingering there for a moment.  "Well, you don't have any fever.  Feeling any better?" she asked.


"You sure?"  She frowned a bit and he didn't bother to answer this time.  Didn't look much like she believed him, anyway.  She stood and, taking one step in front of him, pulled the cloth off of the breakfast tray.  Johnny gazed up at her again, saw the towel still dangling from her hand and wondered at her expression as she stared down at the plate.

"Mamie had the morning off . . ." she explained, "and I never said I could cook. The bread's good, though, and the strawberry jam . . . it's just those eggs . . . I tried three times."  Her eyes moved to his and Johnny had to smile.  And then those dimples showed, as her own smile lifted the worry from her face and softened her gaze again.  "Guess if that bump on your head didn't kill you, my shells won't do you any harm."

"Looks great," Johnny murmured, and he reached for the towel, their hands touching and his fingers encircling hers for a moment before sweeping the cloth away. "Thank you, Darcy."

"Now will you get outta here?"  Swenson took her arm and pulled her away, guiding her toward the open cell door.  "He could be a killer, ya' know."

"Don't push . . . just stop it, Karl."  Darcy stumbled to the door and turned to glare at Swenson when she reached the other side of the bars. "You're nothing but a bully, you know that?"  She wagged her finger at him as he shut the door and turned the key in the lock.  "And if you think you're ever coming to Sunday dinner again, then you can just forget it."

"You cooking?"  Swenson grinned and ducked his head to hide it, then slid the key into his pocket and headed toward his outer office. 

"What's that supposed to mean?" Darcy complained loudly.

"Nothin'."  The sheriff chuckled, then added, "Shout at me if he gives you any trouble."

Darcy stared at the sheriff's disappearing back, then turned again to Johnny.  "Are you going to eat?" she said, pointing her finger now at his breakfast.

"Yes, ma'am."  Johnny swept his eyes over the tray, finding a barely steaming cup of coffee, a plateful of eggs, sausage and bread, and a small cup of strawberry marmalade.  He picked up the plate and his fork and tested the eggs first. The first bite crunched, an unpleasant sensation, but he chewed through it and swallowed hard, pouring a big swig of coffee down after it.  "Coffee's good."

"Father made that."  Darcy glanced behind her and grabbed the chair, pulling it sideways against the bars at the end of Johnny's cot.  "You didn't say anything about the eggs."

He poked at them again, hesitating before he raised another small forkful to his mouth.  "Not bad."

Sinking into the chair, she folded one leg under her and took the bars with both hands.  "They're not good, either."  And she smiled again. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah," he lied. "Slept just fine. How about you?"

"I slept a little." 

She brushed a stray hair from her face and Johnny watched it fall again.  She was properly dressed for the day--but just.  Her hair was swept back into a loose, uneven braid and the brooch at her neck was slightly off-center.  Hadn't spent much time in front of her mirror this morning, Johnny figured, or enough time in her bed last night.  "You look tired," he said.

Darcy swept the hair back again, this time tucking it behind her ear, and grinned self-consciously.  "I thought a gentleman was supposed to say I look beautiful." 

Johnny bit a scrap of crust from the bread and chewed it thoughtfully as he watched her wait for his response.  And then he leaned his head back against the wall and softly said, "You know you do." 

Her grin melted into a tender smile.  "So what do we do now?"

The choice of words didn't slide past him, but he ignored the 'we' and tipped his head toward the sheriff's outer office.  "Your friend doesn't seem inclined to let me go, so guess I wait for Murdoch."  He set the plate on the cot beside him and turned back to Darcy.  "Did you send the telegram?"

"Father did. I left him at the telegraph office on my way here."

"Your father sent it?"

"Yes."  Darcy pulled her other leg up into the chair and tugged her skirt down around it. "Is that a problem?"

"No problem."  Johnny shook his head.  "Just didn't seem like your father believed me much."

"Uncle Josh was his only brother."  She paused and looked downward, dropping her hand and reaching through the bars to his cot, running her fingers across the pillow.  Her voice was smaller when she spoke again. "It's hard on him, that's all--he didn't get to his bed last night.  Aunt Juliette just fell apart and Father had to sit up with her."

He watched her fingers move against the linen, following a crease and smoothing it, then doing it again with a second wrinkle.  "They have any kids?"

"No, they were only married two years ago.  She's a lot younger than Uncle Josh and they were hoping for babies . . ."  She slid her hand back again and took hold of the bars.  "Well, I guess that's for the best now."


She waved a hand at Johnny's breakfast.  "Eat," she ordered and he reached to the plate and tugged off another piece of bread, shoving it into his mouth and then chewing silently.

"Guess it's hard on you, too," he finally said.

Her only answer was a sigh.

"Were you close?"

"Me and Uncle Josh?  Yes . . . he was a good man.  He used to call me pumpkin."  She dipped her eyes.  "And he did little things for me, lots of little things . . . things Father would never think of.  Like candy--Father never let me have candy, so Uncle Josh would keep a jar full of it for me.  He still does . . . did.  Licorice mostly, then I'd come home with black lips and Father would know, but he never said anything.  Father knew I wouldn't tell on him.  Not my Uncle Josh . . . he and I had taken a pledge of secrecy, we even shook on it, and that made it all right . . . he told me so."  She smiled up at him, but her eyes glistened with moisture.

"I'm sorry," Johnny murmured. 

"I know."  A tear trailed slowly from her eye, following the outward curve of her cheek and then slipping toward her chin. "I still can't believe it, though. Why would anyone kill Uncle Josh? It just doesn't make any sense."  Her voice trailed off and she wiped a second tear from her eye.  Johnny thought that was going to be all of it, just those two wet smears and then she'd be all right again.  He hoped so.  Never knew what to do with a crying woman and this time his prickling sense of guilt made it worse. It was his gun, after all . . . his bullets that had drained the life out of Joshua Poole. 

Darcy gazed down at his pillow, struggling with her emotions and petting again at the wrinkles on the linen, and she sighed.  And then she was lost.  She began to sob quietly, drawing her hands up against her face and hiding within them, rocking slightly back and forth.  Johnny slid to the end of the cot, reaching his arm through the bars separating them and weaving his fingers under the braid at the back of her neck.  She moved toward him, leaning her forehead against the bars and grasping at his jacket, pulling him closer, clinging just as she had the night before and sobbing still.  He tilted his head into hers, cold iron keeping them apart, but hands holding to each other and faces so close that he could feel her breath moist against his skin. 

"I shouldn't be crying like this," she said, in between gasping whimpers.  "It's just . . . he was alive only yesterday, I was talking to him and I was telling him about . . . we were talking . . .and he was alive."  She pulled a hand back and wiped both cheeks with it, taking in a deep breath. "Father wouldn't like this. You can't ever show emotion or the enemy will win."

Sweeping a thumb across her straggling tear, he asked, "Is that your father talking?"

Her answer was nearly lost in a small, strangled sob. "Yes."

Johnny pulled away from the bars and watched her expression.  "Guess that makes me the enemy."

"No . . . no, Johnny.  That's not what I meant." 

"Why not?" He tried to ignore the aching plea in her voice.  "You have to wonder what really happened in that office."

"You told me you didn't shoot him."

"And you believe me, just like that?"  He gazed into her eyes, bracing for the vaguest hesitation in her answer, but not really sure how he'd handle it when it came. 

"I believe you."  It was whisper, only that. Her eyes fell away after her hushed response, and she gazed downward again, the lashes on her eyelids still damp. She was strangely motionless, her hands calm and voice silent, all of her quiet except for a quiver of emotion that passed across her face, and then that settled, too.

He took her hands in his and held them.  "Believing in me ain't nothing but trouble," he softly said.

Her silence stretched for long minutes more, then smiling sadly, she finally mumbled,  "Your eggs are getting cold."

Glancing behind him at the abandoned plate, he answered,  "I'm not hungry."

"I hear that a lot."  She looked up, her eyes still clouded with tears, but her dimples showing at the corners of her lips, and suddenly her hands were restless again, slipping from his grasp and playing at his fingers, twining them into her own and dropping them, then grasping again. He leaned into the corner made by his bars and the wall, still holding to her, and let go of a cough.

He had almost forgotten there was a world outside his cell.  The rumbling brought it back to him, coming from outside his window and growing louder as it came near.  The sounds separated into the pounding of hooves and the clatter of wheels and then they passed, fading away into the distance.

"The stage?"

Darcy drew one hand back and pulled a watch from her waistcoat pocket.  "8:45. It's going south."

"Toward home."

Slipping the timepiece back into her pocket, Darcy nodded. "Looks like that ranch has to wait, cowboy."

Then her hand came back to his and it was still again this time.  He rubbed his thumb against her soft skin and contemplated his worries.  That murder charge for one. Not much chance of finding the truth while he was stuck just sitting behind these bars.  Murdoch for another.  Almost rather face a lynching than explain one more trouble to his old man.  And Darcy.  Just her knowing that he wasn't no murderer . . . no reason, just knowing.  Thinking on that made his head hurt again and he gave it up.  Hell, when had he ever understood a woman? No particular reason to start now . . . except that this one had those big brown eyes . . .

Trouble, he told himself, nothing but trouble.  And not a damn thing he could do about it but wait and see how much more trouble another day in Hartville would bring.


Chapter 5

"Freedom's Just Another Word"


The outhouse was 22 steps from the jail.  Johnny counted them the second time he and the sheriff made that trip, taking each of them slowly and sucking in the warm sunshine as he went.  The building itself was a rickety shed, with knotholes and gapped boards letting in the light and an old wasp's nest in the corner. At least Johnny hoped it was an old nest. He kept listening for the whir of insect wings as he held his breath and did his business.  All he heard was the sheriff outside the door whistling, and Johnny had to admit that Swenson was reasonably decent. It was bad enough to steal away a man's freedom, but listening in at a time like this was just going too far.  Not much chance of that with the healthy noise that sheriff kept making. 

That was pretty much the excitement of his afternoon, just going to the outhouse.  Darcy had left him hours before with a promise to come back after her work was done.  She'd tried to tell him something about an audit and some books that needed adding up and she'd looked fairly miserable the whole time she was making those apologies, but finally she'd just abandoned him to his cell.  He couldn't ask her to do anything different.  She had places to be, just like he did, only she didn't have those bars keeping her from them. 

There were voices every now and then, not just the sheriff's, but others, too.  He heard a woman's voice once and Johnny wondered about the color of her hair.  And there was one gravelly toned man and a second, younger one.  None of their words were very clear and all Johnny caught were scraps of their conversations, just enough to know the older man was the doctor and that he didn't find anything new when he poked at the dead man again in the light of day.  No telling who the others were, it was a sure thing that the sheriff wasn't saying.  Most of the day he wasn't there anyway, and then the jailhouse was irritatingly quiet. 

That was the hardest part, just lying there alone and staring at the ceiling.  He'd tried to settle in and get comfortable.  His boots were stuck under the cot and his stockinged feet were propped up against the cross rail on the bars.  Darcy's napkin had been knotted into a ball and he tossed that in the air, catching it over and over and over again until he hardly even saw it any more. Just his hands knowing what to do while his brain drifted across his boredom.  And he was bored, totally and completely and beyond any redemption bored, and that made him mad. 

He could do this.  Just find something to concentrate on, that's all.  That's what had kept him from going loco that last time.  Never did know how long he rotted in that cell, just him and the rats.  Six weeks?  Eight?  He'd lost track of the days and the nights, well, those weren't the kind of memory he tried to hang onto anyway.  The ranch, just think about the ranch, Johnny told himself.  How much fencing would it take to get the north pasture ready for spring calving?  Two and a half miles, three strands.  That's more than seven miles of wire, thirty rolls at least, a couple hundred posts and a dozen men to get it done.  Probably take a week and Murdoch would be waiting for the reports every night at dinner.  Murdoch.  His old man.  Johnny gave in to a sad, crooked smile.

That name was on his mind last time, too.  Down there in Mexico, sitting in that filthy cell and trying to hold on to the minutes as they piled up on each other, hours and days with no edges, nothing to say where one began and another ended.  The sun did its part as best it could and the guards helped.  Funny word to think of--helped.  The slop they gave him was the same morning or night and what little he got usually came back up.  Most days that's all he saw of them, just an empty face shoving some food through the hole in his door, maybe the same one as the meal before, maybe not. That was on the good days.  On the bad days he saw a face he knew, one with a fat mustache and thick, prickly eyebrows.  Even the rats knew to find their holes when he showed up.

Johnny held the ball for a moment, squeezing the twisted napkin and testing its resistance against his fingers.  It'd been pink satin, he remembered . . . the cloth the commandante would be holding in his left hand.  Never knew why--maybe it was a gift from some red-rouged prostitute and the man just took a fancy to it.  It was the softest thing he'd ever felt against his skin, except maybe one of those whores . . .no, the satin was softer.  Felt like someone knotting the breeze around his wrists, at least until one of the guards cinched it down, good and tight.  He'd tried to wriggle loose the first time, but that was a waste of meager energy and he hadn't tried again.  After...Johnny squeezed hard against his knotted ball and gazed into empty space, finally letting his breath out in a deep, rushed sigh...afterward it'd been the commandante himself who would untie the sash, kneeling to the floor and kneeing him over until he could reach his long-dead hands.  His face would be close then, so close that Johnny could feel the drip of his sweat rolling off his nose.  And he'd smile, his mustache widening over the ugly hole of his mouth, three missing teeth letting his pink tongue poke through. 

That's the face he'd given Murdoch.  Every time he thought of him--his old man--that's the face he'd seen.  Same small eyes, same scrubby mustache. Lighter skin, of course, a rich white man's skin, nothing like Johnny's mother, but still the same. Lying there at night on his scraggly blanket, flicking off the scratch of roach legs against his skin, he'd contemplated his old man and cursed that face to its own singular place in hell.  It hadn't taken much imagination to know just how miserable that hell could be. 

He tossed the ball again, feeling the satisfying slap against his hand as he caught it above his nose.  Sure was different this time--this cell was different, Murdoch was different, heck...he was different. But he still was purely bored.  How long before Murdoch would show up with some fat-wallet lawyer?  The morning, most likely.  That would mean another night in this cell, but it couldn't be helped.  Hated to admit he needed rescuing one more time, but at least now there was time to spare.  Johnny smiled vaguely, remembering the Pinkerton man and his frenzied wagon ride.  Damn good thing Murdoch's money hadn't bought a slower pair of horses. Damn good thing they'd come at all.

A tickle at the back of his throat made him raise his head and cough, but it didn't go away, so he swung his legs down from the bars and lowered his stockinged feet to the floor. He didn't have to do much more than lean to make it across the small cell to the water bucket.  It dripped down his chin as he gulped it in, feeling it soothe his cough, and he wiped a sleeve across his mouth. His nose wasn't running much anymore, but the cold had moved south.  His throat hurt now, a sharper pain than the one at the back of his head.  That had faded to a dull ache, unless he lay wrong against it and then it yelled at him.

The outer office door clicked shut and that got Johnny's attention.  There were footsteps and voices again, two of them.  One was the sheriff and his voice Johnny knew pretty well by now.  The other sounded like Poole.  Johnny tried to quiet his breathing and stood completely still, leaning against the bars, but even so he couldn't hear enough of the words to make any sense of them.

It was something about Darcy, that's all he could tell.

Well, that was that then, Johnny figured.  Her father was here to put a stop to his daughter and that killer. Couldn't blame him much. Swenson would see to it, too, and Darcy wouldn't be bringing any dinner by tonight.  Probably for the best.  Soon as that lawyer got everything straightened out, he'd be back at Lancer anyway.  And tonight...well, it was kinda frightening thinking what that woman could do to a frying chicken.  It was just...Johnny shook off that thought.  No future in it. 

He leaned over the bucket, cupped his hands into the water and splashed the wetness over his face, sweeping it over his head and down the back of his hair, then did it again, finally shaking the droplets from his hands.  He was still standing over the tin bucket when the sheriff came into the cell room.

"What'd you do to that little lady?" Swenson asked, his face threatening to slide into a frown. "You got some kind of Mexican voo doo powers or something?"

Johnny ran his hands over his hair again, smoothing it back in place.  "You got something to say?"

"Just that I'm settin' you free, is all."

"What?"  Johnny dried his hands against his jacket and gave the sheriff a disbelieving look.  "What happened?"

"You gonna give me an argument?" 

"Nope. Still got any charges against me?"

The sheriff dug the key from his pocket and stuck it in the cell door lock.  "Not exactly.  Just don't be going anywhere til I say so." 

The key turned in the lock and Johnny thought it had to be the sweetest sound he'd heard all year. "Something must have changed your mind about me," he said.

"Someone," Swenson explained, swinging the door open.  "Old man Poole seems to think you're innocent.  I figure Darcy's been working on him, but I ain't got any real good reason to go against him."

"You're the sheriff, aren't you?"  Johnny picked up a boot and slid his foot into it, balancing on the other.  The second boot was tougher and he hopped a couple of times getting it on.  "Not that I'm complaining.  I'll go peaceably." 

Swenson grinned.  "You bet you will.  I got better things to do than entertain guests in my cells."

"You don't think I did it, do you."  He could have made it a question, but he didn't.  He'd seen too many suspicious lawmen to believe this one thought the worst of him.

"Don't know."  The sheriff's grin faded.  "Don't see that you had any reason to kill Joshua Poole.  Time neither.  Darcy told me you two talked near to midnight.  And there's that lump on your head...don't know how a dead man could have put it there.  But it was your gun."

"So I'm stuck in Hartville?"

"Til I find me a killer or the judge comes through town." 

"When's that?"

"The judge?"

Johnny nodded.

"Tomorrow maybe.  Or the next day.  He doesn't keep a real regular schedule."  Swenson left the cell room and crossed to his desk, opening the top right drawer and pulling a big brown envelope from it.  Johnny wasn't far behind, waiting on the other side of the desk and stealing quick glances at the daylight shining on the street outside the window.  The sheriff twisted a string loose from the envelope and started pulling items out.  "Here's your key," he said, tossing it into a clear spot on the desk, "and here's your money bag." 

The envelope was flat, but Johnny didn't reach for his things yet.  "What about the rest of it?"

"You get that back after you're cleared."  The sheriff closed the drawer and locked it.

"You sure this town is safe for a man without a gun?"  Johnny cocked an eyebrow at the sheriff and swept the items off the desk. 

"Guess you're a mite safer if you really are the killer."  Swenson slid the key chain into his pants pocket. "There's a murderer here somewhere, and if you're not him, then I'd be keeping my eyes open."

"But no gun?"

"No gun," the sheriff confirmed, then he sat, rolling his chair closer to his desk and sorting through a big pile of papers. "I got some reports to fill out, so unless you want me to arrest you for loitering..." He looked up at Johnny and waited for a response.

"All right, all right.  I'm gone."  Johnny strode to the door, then turned with the handle in his hand.  "Don't guess you'd tell me where Poole's office is?"

"Lookin' for Darcy, are you?"  Swenson leaned back in his chair and chewed his lip before answering.  "You sure that's a brainy idea?"

"Nope."  Johnny opened the door and squinted against the sunshine.  "But I'm still going."

"That way."  Swenson crooked a thumb over his shoulder.  "The Hartville Lumber office. Only don't tell Poole I told ya' where to find her."

"Thanks, Swenson." 

The man hunched over his paperwork again, tapping a pencil against the blotting pad and ignoring Johnny's parting wave.  The shadows on the west side of the street were already reaching beyond the boardwalk when Johnny stepped out into the town.  That made it late afternoon, four, maybe four thirty, Johnny figured.  Where to first?  Maybe his hotel.  Could check to see if Murdoch had wired him there.  A quick shave wouldn't hurt either, not with nearly two day's worth of beard to tame.  Or the saloon.  Breakfast hadn't gone down too well and there'd been no lunch.  They could always rustle up something at a saloon, even if he just drank his dinner.  And a tall, cool beer sure did sound good just then.  Johnny eyed both of those signs, The Hurley Hotel and the Silver Dollar Saloon.  And then he turned the direction Swenson had pointed, up the street to the Hartville Lumber office.

He saw its sign upstairs over a dress shop and Johnny had to pull up suddenly just at the door of the shop.  There was a lady coming out of it, at least he thought there was.  All he really saw was two hands reaching around a pile of boxes.  The rest of her was hidden, all but that skirt that swished toward him.  She stopped when she bumped against the bulk of his body and a well-coiffed head appeared around the corner of the packages.  The face that went along with that head looked a bit distressed.

"Need a hand, ma'am?"  He would have tipped his hat, but he didn't have one.  Still back at the hotel, he remembered. 

"Excuse me," she said, almost sounding as if speaking to him wasn't one of the most unpleasant requirements of her day.  "I can manage quite well, thank you."  And her face was gone again as she withdrew it behind the boxes and marched forward and down the boardwalk. 

Johnny scowled, then looked down at his clothes.  Still dusty from the stagecoach ride, plus a few splotches of blood.  Could be Poole's or could be his, he wasn't sure which. The shop had a big window, with three headless torsos modeling what Johnny had to assume were the latest fashions.  Not much sense in any of those dresses unless they at least had the claim of being 'in style'.  He noticed the display, but he was really looking at his own face, reflected in the glass.  It wasn't a pretty sight. Hair sticking out where he'd wet it, scraggly shadows wrapped around his chin, a dark bruise where his cheek had slapped the floor and a nose that looked like he'd wiped it with sandpaper.  He had to grin.  Well, if a little thing like a murder charge didn't put the girl off, then him looking like hell wasn't likely to, either. 

He climbed the stairs.

At the top, he combed his fingers through his hair, took a deep breath and knocked.  There wasn't any sound from inside, so he knocked again.

"Come in," a voice called faintly.

He pushed the door open and waited. There was a reception room, with another office leading off to his left.  Cabinets were everywhere, tall ones, lining the walls on three sides.  A big oak desk stood in the middle of the office and boxes set on top of it.  There was only a narrow opening between them, just wide enough to see the woman on the other side.  Her head was down and her braid was falling again, stray pieces of it floating all around her face.  From the angle she was leaning over those books, he guessed that she was sitting on her feet in her chair.  She held her pencil in her mouth, chewing on it and making it jerk back and forth in her loose grasp. 

Johnny leaned his shoulder into the doorjamb and watched her work at her numbers.  And then he broke into a crooked grin. 


She looked up and her face lit. "Johnny.  How...?"

"Broke outta jail," he drawled.  "Threatened the sheriff with your eggs and he handed the keys right over."

"You didn't," she said with a worried frown and a second later it turned into a brilliant smile. "Of course you didn't.  Karl knows my eggs aren't deadly, they just wound you a little."


Her smile faded.  "I am busy.  Payroll is tomorrow and I have to have all these books done by five.  You want to help?"

He laughed, watching her eyes growing softer still at the sound of it.  "You want them done right?"


"Then I ain't helping."   He held his casual stance at the doorway, gazing across the office at her and letting a comfortable silence settle in between them.  She kept her face tilted up to his, her pencil quiet in her hands.  Finally, he cocked his head and said, "Thanks."

"What for?"

"Swenson told me your father talked him into letting me go.  Seems your word carries some weight with your old man."

Darcy's brow furrowed slightly.  "My father?  I didn't know he was going to do that."

"Well, he did."  Johnny glanced at the other office.  "He around?"

"No."  Darcy shook her head. "He had to meet a customer coming in on the afternoon stage and I haven't seen him since.  I hope he went home to get some sleep."

"When you see him, just tell him thanks for me, will ya'?"  He coughed and shifted his eyes down to the floor, then back up to Darcy.  "That cafe any good?"

"Their pot roast is better than Mamie's."  She stuck the pencil back in her mouth, chewing again on the already tooth-pocked wood. 

Johnny poked his thumbs into his belt and looked down again.  "I was thinkin'..."  Her quiet laugh made him find her eyes again.  She was smiling still, a sweet, easy smile, and the freckles on her cheek were showing against a slight blush. "Guess you know what I was thinkin'."

"Seven thirty all right?"  She glanced up a grandfather clock standing near the second office door.  "I need to clean up a little and I want to go by and see how Aunt Juliette is doing.  Father is having dinner with her tonight, just to make sure she eats. I promised I'd stay with her, too, but I don't think she'll miss me.  Aunt Juliette...she and I just never...well, anyway, Father can take care of her."

Darcy was still looking at him with those big brown eyes and he was too lost in them to ask the questions that came to mind.  Later.  There'd be plenty of time later.  "Seven thirty's fine.  Meet you at your house?"

She nodded.  "But if you think you're getting a goodnight kiss, you better find a mirror and a razor before you show up." 

He grinned mischievously.  "That a promise?"

"Are you shaving?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She didn't answer, but he saw the sparkle in her eyes, just before they dipped again to her paperwork.

"See ya' later."  He caught it just as he turned, when she must have thought he wouldn't notice.  She had looked up again and he knew she was watching him walk away.  He was halfway down the stairs when he heard the door open again behind him and her voice call down the steps, "And wipe your nose!" All he did was grin.

It was a fine town.  He didn't know why he hadn't realized that the day before, when he'd gotten off the stage. Now walking down the street to the Hurley Hotel, he took in the well-swept boardwalks, the flower boxes on the front of Hansen's Haberdashery, and the fresh paint on the sign at Martinez Hardware.  There were a couple of horses tied to the hitching posts scattered up and down the street and one sharp-looking buggy headed toward him.  Not too much happening in Hartville, but enough to make it interesting.  And the sun was shining down on the town, getting lower in the sky, but still shining and keeping the air Johnny breathed in nice and warm.  He coughed once along the way and that hurt his throat, but it didn't matter.  It was a fine day, too. 

He started to whistle as he came up to the hotel, but that sent a tickle down the back of his throat, so he stopped it before he even saw the man sitting on the porch, just beside the door, leaning back against the wall and balancing his chair on its two back legs.  His feet were dangling in the air and he had a walking stick balanced across his lap.  There was shade covering the whole of the porch, but the stranger wore his black hat pulled low across his face.  Reasonably well dressed, nothing fancy, but not a cowhand, either.  He had a gun, though, a fancy-looking Colt, tied down to his leg and only one smooth move away from the hand he'd left lying on his thigh. 

Something shifted inside the hotel lobby and Johnny caught a glimpse of Clancy Hurley lurking in the dimmer light there, positioned just where he could see the man.  He had an impetuous desire to call the kid outside to the porch.  Might be the only excitement the boy would get all year and it sure would be a waste to spoil his view.

Johnny slowed his walk to a casual saunter and stepped up onto the porch. "Afternoon," he said, tipping his head toward the stranger.

"Something around here smells."  The man lifted his left hand to his hat, tilting it back with one finger to the brim.  The face wasn't familiar, but Johnny knew that look in his eyes.  "Guess that was you.  Ain't never seen a talking piece of shit before."

If he hesitated at all, no one would have known it.  Johnny kept walking toward the lobby door, his eyes aimed toward the pimply-faced kid, but catching enough in the corner of his sight to see the man swing his walking stick up, arc it rapidly through the air, and land the stick across the doorway.  Johnny came to a sudden stop, just short of the cane, and considered it for a second.  Then he took one step straight backwards and eyed the man.

"You wanta move that?"  He might have been asking Teresa to pass the salt, his voice was that nonchalant. His expression, too, was methodically placid, nothing but a small smile giving away any hint of his intentions. 

"Nah."  The man tapped the stick against Johnny's chest.  "You wanta make me?"

Inside the lobby, Clancy moved a step closer and craned his neck to see the stranger better.

Johnny ignored the boy and ran his eyes across the cane, then he reached out a hand and touched it, sliding his finger up and down the smooth, mahogany finish and whistling softly.  "Nice piece of work here.  Be a real shame to see it get broke."

"Go ahead and try."  The man's mouth curved into a mirthless smile.  "Ain't never shot me a piece of shit before. Wonder if you bleed brown?"

"Do I know you?"  Johnny's hand started to drift toward his hip and he caught himself, waving it instead vaguely toward the stranger.

"Don't think so.  But I know you."  The man's eyes narrowed and he looked down to where Johnny's Colt would be hanging.  "I think you're missing something." 

His mouth opened, but Johnny left the words unsaid.  Clancy had melted back into the shadows again, looking now toward something moving inside the lobby.  Half a second later an older, balding man showed at the door, shoving his way past the walking stick and raising a decrepit-looking shotgun to the crook of his arm. 

"Is there a problem, gentlemen?" 

Old man Hurley, Johnny figured.  His suit was the same fabric, same cut as Clancy's outfit, only this one fit the man. And Daddy seemed hell-bent on making sure that nothing too exciting happened at the Hurley Hotel, Clancy's entertainment be damned.

"Ask him," Johnny answered, turning his eyes to the still-seated stranger.

The gunman leaned forward and let the chair drop to all four legs, then pushing off with his cane, he rose from the seat.  "Me? I ain't got no problem." He took a step forward and stood face to face with Johnny.  "Nothing that can't be fixed later, anyway."  And then he smiled, shifted the walking stick to his left hand, and moved past, bumping Johnny's shoulder as he went. Johnny turned and watched the man walk slowly down the street. 

Could teach him a thing or two. He's going the wrong way, sun would be in his eyes if he had to spin around and use that Colt.  And his jacket was too long.  The hem could slow him down, maybe just a fraction of a second, but that was enough.  This game was played in pieces of a second and using them well could make the difference between earning a reputation or filling up a hole six feet deep. If the stranger thought he could earn his name against Johnny Madrid, then he better be praying for luck, because his skill was going to get him nothing but dead.

But he was still one more trouble, and that's something Johnny already had plenty of.

"Are you a guest at this hotel?" Hurley asked.

Johnny turned back to the man and nodded.  "Checked in yesterday."

"How long will you be staying, mister...?"

"Lancer," Johnny said.  "The name's Lancer.  And I guess I'll be staying a couple more days.  I'm startin' to find this town real interesting."

"If you say so, sir."  Hurley raised his eyebrows at the answer, but he made an obvious decision to allow discretion to override curiosity. 

Clancy, didn't.  The boy's eyes were wide with pleasure and his face showed a pink flush, even in the shadowed lobby.  He glanced at his father, then back at Johnny and he fought back the grin that threatened to take over his face. 

Johnny lowered his eyes to the carpet and ignored Clancy Hurley as he passed through the lobby and climbed the stairs to room 23. If the boy wanted excitement, he was welcome to it.  Take it. All Johnny wanted was a cold beer and the best plate of pot roast in town.  And Darcy...and a shave.


Chapter 6

"If It Weren't For Bad Luck..."


Murdoch scratched his nose and set his pencil to the ledger, staring at the same column of numbers for the third time that hour.  They just wouldn't add up and he swore the digits were playing games on him, swapping places and then crawling back into their proper order.  Finally, he gave it up, tilted back in his chair and watched the clock tick off the minutes. 

He almost wished Jelly would bother him again.  He only had one answer for him--that he had no idea when Scott would be back with news from Green River, but at least it would be a distraction and he could truly use one just then.

His imagination was getting the better of him.  Johnny had been late before and most of the time it meant nothing.  Most of the time. He allowed himself a small, rueful smile and took some small comfort from the fatherly feeling.  Time was when he didn't have these kind of troubles, but those days were long gone. He just hadn't realized how many gray hairs were going take their place.

He half stood when he heard the front door open, then sank back again as Scott walked through it...alone. 

"Any news?" he called across the great room.

"No, sir."  Scott swung his hat from his head and strolled across to his father's desk, peeling one glove off and then the other.  "He wasn't on the morning stage and nobody at the Butterfield office knew anything about any delays.  Apparently, they've been running right on time."

"Did you send the wire?"

"Teresa should have it by now and I expect we'll have an answer in the morning."  Scott slapped the gloves against the brim of his hat, preoccupied in his thoughts for a moment.  "I can't see him staying in San Francisco, though," he finally said.  "Johnny hates those big cities.  The last time we were there he made me leave for the stage depot two hours early."   His mouth curved into a tight smile.  "There was an old preacher waiting for his daughter to come in from Sacramento.   Johnny told him we were there hiring saloon girls and the man spent the next several hours trying to save our souls.  Too bad the stage wasn't on time that day."

An amused look flitted across Murdoch's face, then he lost it into a worried frown.  "Did you see Val?"

"He hasn't heard anything, either.  I guess that's good news. No word of trouble up north."  Scott settled his gaze on his father.  "It's quite possible your original theory was correct."

"That he's found another pretty girl?"  Murdoch pulled the ledger closer to him and focused again on the troublesome column.

"You know Johnny."  Scott headed for the stairs, laying his hat and gloves on the side table as he went.

"Yes, I do," Murdoch answered and a second later he added more softly, "and that's what has me worried."



The water hit his head and splashed, droplets of it spraying into the murky suds and the rest following the curve of his face and pouring down into the steam. Johnny held his breath until the warm rush had ended and then he gulped in air and wiped the wetness from his eyes. 

"Looks like a nasty cut you got back here."

He tipped his head back against the thick cushion of the towel, folded double and draped across the edge of the tub.  He was looking straight up at the barber, a big man with a forehead that wrapped clear around his scalp and glistened with a beaded concoction of sweat and steam, just about as wet as the dark water splotches down his front.  "Someone around here ain't too friendly."

"I reckon," the man mumbled, clanking the empty pitcher as he set it on a marble-topped table and lifted a cup of lather.  "Heard tell that you weren't real friendly to Joshua Poole, either."  His face was hard to read from Johnny's angle, but at least there wasn't any more than a sensible worry roughening his voice.  

"Is that what they're saying?"  The suds swirled aside as he raised first one foot and then the other onto the far end of the tub and sank deeper into his bath.


The barber slapped the brush against his face, slathering the foamy soap across his jaws and cheeks.  It felt cool at first, then soothing as it melted in the steam and it only took a second or two before he felt the first splat of it dripping into the hair on his chest.  He tilted his chin upward just a bit more. "Well, they're wrong," he said.  "I didn't shoot anybody."

"I'll be sure to pass that along."

"Make you nervous?  Shaving a man you think might be a killer?"

"Nah."  The razor made its first kiss against his neck, gliding smoothly across the softened stubble. "Not unless you're hiding more under all those suds than the good Lord gave you.  Otherwise, I'm betting on this razor to settle any arguments you might want to start."

A smile worked at the corners of Johnny's mouth, but he held it back, keeping still as he could for the blade.  Wasn't hiding anything in the tub that wasn't his and every inch of it had been sorely needing a good soak.  "You lived around here long?"

The man wiped a towel across his razor and started in on the tricky swath of skin under Johnny's nose.  "Twenty three years next May. Raised three boys and buried a wife right here in Hartville."

"Then you know most folks in these parts?"


Johnny's hand replaced the razor, waiting just until the barber was done there and then squeezing his nose between his thumb and finger and blowing lightly.  The hot mist had gotten to him, loosening the pressure in his head and letting it leak out of his nose.  He wiped his hand clean, dipping it into the murky water and rubbing it against his leg.  Even that felt good.  The heat was working there, too, seeping through his bones and making its way through the ache in his muscles.  "Joshua Poole have any enemies to speak of?"

"Not that I can say. Seemed friendly enough."

"What was the man like?"

"Mr. Poole?"  The barber made a final cut with his razor, then flipped a towel off his shoulder and wiped the dabs of lather from Johnny's face. "He was like most people, I guess.  Worked pretty hard over at that land office. Went to church regular every Sunday.  Kinda quiet, but I guess that's the way of things--if one brother makes a lot of noise, then the other brother doesn't. How's that feel?  Did I miss anyplace?"

Johnny rubbed his hand against the newly smooth skin.  "You saying Nicholas Poole might have some enemies?"

"Nah.  Ain't saying that--he just swings a lot of weight, is all.  Likes things the way he likes them. Always felt kinda sorry for that girl of his."

"Darcy?  To hear her tell it, her daddy's the perfect man."

"Yeah?  Well, maybe--long as you don't make him mad. So?  Shave all right for you?"

He almost smiled again.  Wasn't his call whether it was close enough, but didn't see as how Darcy had been too particular so far. "Yeah," he said, swiping a palm across his chin.  "I think it just might do.  What did you mean about making Poole mad?"

The man started organizing his equipment, rinsing the razor in a basin of clear water and covering the lather cup with a small saucer. "Had poor Lizzie over at the cafe crying her eyes out over a piece of pie. Wasn't any call for it, near as I could see.  Seems she brought him blueberry when he asked for cherry.  Darcy just sat there the whole time, being real quiet."

That didn't sound right and Johnny stared up at the barber.  "Are we talking about the same girl? I've seen her stand up to her daddy.  She did it this morning over at the jail."

"Did, huh?"  The proper part of the man's forehead wrinkled. "That's something, then. Towel's over there."  He pointed at a sheet of terry cloth draped over a slatted back chair.  "Reckon you can manage the rest without my help." 

Johnny didn't argue with that.  He just scrunched lower in the tub, letting the water lap at his clean-shaven jaw and feeling braced by the gust of cooler air that swept in with the opened door.  The barber closed it as he left and a steamy warmth enveloped the room again.  Johnny leaned his head against the towel and basked in a satisfying, self-indulgent guilt.  He knew he was being lazy...knew it and didn't give a damn.  Felt good and he figured he was owed that.  One good deed, that's all it was, just trying to help a lady in need, and now he was stuck in this town with a long list of questions to answer and that woman to find--not to mention a deadly idiot gunning for Johnny Madrid. Well, it could wait, at least until the seductive warmth had cooled some and the languid sense of floating had stopped turning his troubles to mush. 

He wiped at his nose again, brushing his finger against the soft, moist skin above his lip and breathing a contented sigh.  Darcy.  She'd be testing that shave later tonight, if God had any justice left in him.  Still couldn't make much sense of it, but he'd stopped trying. Just was, that's all. Him and Darcy.  The sweetness of that thought settled over him and he let it, soaking in its easy warmth and ignoring the niggling voice that kept talking through his steamy stupor.  It got louder, though, yelling at him until he had to listen. And he squeezed his eyes tight against it.  Damn, boy, you're getting ahead of yourself. Way ahead.  Still a long road to go before he had that sheriff off his back and things settled with the girl.  Dinner first, then maybe that kiss...no, definitely that kiss.  And the rest of it?  Well, maybe...but he wasn't getting any closer to it just lying around in this tub. 

Holding his breath, he leaned his face forward into the bath and came up again, slinging his hair back and spraying water across the floor, then running his palms across his head.  He put it off for only a second more and finally braced his hands against the tub and pushed his way out, feeling his body grow heavier as it left the water.  There was a thick rag rug to the side and he stepped out onto that, rivulets running down his bare chest and back and tracing paths down his legs. He let them, flipping the towel from the chair and rubbing it vigorously over his hair first, being careful to avoid the swollen lump.  The rest of him got a quick swipe and then he dropped the wet towel onto the rug and eyed his clothes.

Same black, studded pants, swept clean as he could with the barber's short-bristled brush.  A fresh shirt, the blue one, with all those little white flowers.  His leather jacket, wiped clean of the damning blood.  Respectable enough for a night out on the town, maybe even enough to catch a lady's eye if his nose would just stop its infernal dripping.  He was still damp and the clothing stuck to him as he pulled it on, then slid his feet into his boots. After tossing a couple of silver pieces onto the marble table, he stuffed his dirty clothes into his saddlebags and slung them over his shoulder, then left through the alley door.

The windows on the second floor of the bathhouse were glowing orange in the lowering sun, but the narrow passage below already had the look of dusk about it. The shadows were deepening.  There was a stack of boxes leaning precariously against the long wall and something moved beneath it, just a flicker in the dimness. A second motion caught his eye and he watched a rat make its run, covering the open space between trash remnants in a frantic second, then flattening itself to escape into an impossibly narrow crevice.   His eyes scanned beyond the vermin's sanctuary, to where a recessed doorway sheltered even more shadows, and his hand went to the weightlessness at his hips.  And then he took a deep breath.

Not even sunset yet, and already seeing things in the dark. What's the matter, Lancer...lost all your courage along with that Colt?  It's just one little rat.  That's all.  Gonna be wanting your mama next. 

He swallowed hard, feeling it in his hurting throat, and headed into the open main street of Hartville, crossed it and made his way to the Hurley Hotel.  Clancy was in the office when he got there.  Johnny saw him look up when he walked into the lobby, saying something into his father's ear and leaving him hunched over a paper littered desk.  The boy had a gangly walk and going faster didn't help it any.  Neither did the fact that he wasn't watching where he was going.  He stumbled and caught himself, slapping his hand against the registration desk and then peering behind him at whatever was or wasn't there that had tripped him.  Then his eyes came back to Johnny and he made an obvious effort to draw a dignified mask across his face. 

"Can I help you, Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny dropped his saddlebags onto the desk. "Any wires?"

Clancy turned and ran his fingers over the labeled slots in a small shelf.  He stopped at number 23 and poked a finger into it, then twisted back to Johnny.  "No, sir.  Nothing's come in since you asked the last time, but I can have one sent, if you'd like."

"No..."  Johnny hesitated a moment, then shook his head.  "No. That's all right.  Will you get this up to my room?"  He slid the saddlebags a few inches closer to the boy, wondering at the look the boy gave them.  Wasn't quite right to seem so excited over a bag full of longjohns and one sweat-stained shirt.

"Of course, sir.  I'll take real good care of it."

"Just get it upstairs."  Johnny glanced at the register lying open in front of the boy.  There were two more names signed in after his, a mister and missus with a scrawl after it, and a neatly printed Jonathan Barnes.  "Barnes...he wouldn't be our friend out on the porch, would he?"

Clancy frowned vaguely for a second and then gave up his pretense at formality and let his face slide into a grin.  "Barnes?"  He snorted and glanced toward his father, then leaned in conspiratorially.  "Barnes is three hundred pounds of the most unlively man you ever met.  Comes in every other week on the afternoon stage, asks for room number 21 and has his dinner with the Widow Skidmore.  Checks out the next morning and says to me, 'another day, another dollar'. What the hell is that supposed to mean?"  He flicked his eyes to his father again, who was still working hard at moving his papers around.  "Wouldn't you be about ready to blow your brains out if all you ever had to say was 'another day, another dollar'? 

Johnny pulled his handkerchief from his jacket and wiped it at his nose, then gave in to a small smile.  "Guess that depends.  What's the Widow Skidmore look like?"

"She's even fatter than he is."

That drew a slightly bigger smile, but it faded again quickly as Johnny fingered the flap on the saddlebags and tentatively asked, "You seen any more of that man with the gun?" 

"No."  Clancy's voice fell into a whisper.  "Are you going to fight him?"

"What makes you think that?"

"You aren't scared of him, are you?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and pursed his lips. "Maybe. You ever see a gunfight?"

The boy shook his head morosely, then his eyes lit and the pace of his words picked up.  "Almost did.  Last April, down at the saloon.  Bart Taylor and Jed Otis shot it out over Becky Sue.  Jed thought she was his girl, but Bart said she wasn't and he wouldn't leave her alone and Jed didn't like it. Called him out, right there in the middle of the street.  I was stuck here cleaning rooms, but some of the boys saw it happen, said Bart shot Jed dead in the chest, right there."  Clancy pointed to a spot just below the second button on his shirt.  "Jed went down and Becky Sue just turned right around and headed back into the saloon, that's what the boys said."

"Guess she wasn't his girl," Johnny said quietly.

"No," Clancy agreed, then eagerly asked again, "So, you gonna fight him?"

Johnny tipped his head toward the saddlebags.  "Clancy, just get that upstairs, O.K.?"

A little of the air went out of the boy's enthusiasm.  "All right, mister.  Just if you run into him..." One more glance at his father made his shoulders sag lower.  "Doesn't matter.  Got chores to do here anyway."

Clancy was hefting the bags from the counter when Johnny left him and he caught the boy's scowl.  He almost hated to disappoint him, but laundry doesn't weigh the same as a Colt .45 and he couldn't give Clancy that romantic gunfight, even if he'd wanted to...and he didn't want to. Sure had enough troubles without dragging Madrid back into business one more time.

He only gave a quick sideways look as he stepped out onto the hotel's porch.  The chairs lined up against the wall were both empty, just the slightly off-center tilt of the one suggesting that the gunman had been there.  Johnny planted his boots on the boardwalk and tucked his thumbs into his belt, moving his eyes from those chairs to the saloon up the street. 

Too early for Darcy.  She'd be at her uncle's house, consoling her aunt and most likely saying all those awkward things you hear yourself saying when there aren't any right words for it.  Still time for a beer and he was starting to taste it, overpowering the soreness at the back of his throat.  Might learn a thing or two at the saloon, too.  Strangers can get real friendly with a half-empty bottle in front of them.  It was taking a risk, though--one of those strangers might be wearing a low-slung pistol and carrying a slick, mahogany cane.  He contemplated that for a moment, weighing the odds and coming out with one deciding argument--he was thirsty and he'd be danged if any sassy-mouthed, uppity punk was going to keep him from his beer.

There were two horses tied to the hitching rail outside the saloon.  Johnny sauntered down the street and walked up behind the roan, running a hand over its rump and eyeing the lariat looped around the saddlehorn.  Cow pony.  So was the bay, he figured.  Same brand and same red mud flecking their legs and bellies.  Not much to worry about from whoever rode these two horses into town.

He stepped up onto the boardwalk and heard his boots clumping against the planks, sounding louder than the voices on the other side of the batwings. Their hinges squeaked as he pushed them open and stepped inside and he held onto them for a long second, sweeping his eyes across the room and taking in the lay of things.  There was a long bar against the far wall, a shiny walnut one with a polished brass footrail and a big mirror behind it, with a gilded frame.  The bottles reflected there were more than just the usual odd collection of whiskey bottles, lots more.  The bartender looked up at him and nodded.  He was about as stylish as the counter he was working behind.  His shirt was white, a real starched-and-pressed white, and he wore a fancy studded vest with a heavy gold chain hanging out of the watch pocket. 

The kerosene lamps were lit and they added an oily aroma to the smell of beer and cigars.   The tobacco smell was coming from a table near the end of the bar.  Three men were playing poker there, one scrawny little guy with a shock of wild red hair and two bigger men, a respectable-looking well-dressed older gentleman and the fellow with the cigar.  He was sloppy fat, with a wool vest that didn't reach all the way around his chest and greasy-looking thin dark hair. That was the only life in the place, except for the two dusty cowboys at a table in the corner, and they weren't making any strong claims on being counted among the living.  Their hats were on the table, with two glasses and an empty beer pitcher taking up space between them.  One held his chin in his hand and he was staring glumly at a spot just above the far spittoon.  The other was out already, his forehead lying against his crossed arms and a thin line of spit dangling from his open mouth.  The cowhands, Johnny figured.  Those horses were in for a long wait at that hitching rail.

He crossed to the bar and leaned against it.

"What are you drinking, mister?"  The bartender grabbed a towel from a rack behind the bar and swiped it across the counter. 

"Beer."  Johnny gave an exaggerated look around the room. "Kinda quiet, ain't it?"

"Bit early yet," the bartender said, yanking a tap handle and letting a golden stream fill a tall glass.  "The mill shuts down about now, so some of those boys will be coming in.  You looking for a poker game?"  He wiped the towel around the bottom of the glass, then set the drink in front of Johnny.

"Nope."  Johnny lifted the glass and half-drained it in one long chug.  "That's what I was looking for."  He dragged a sleeve across his mouth and kept a hand wrapped around the mug, watching the foam slide back down the inside of the glass and settle into the beer.  "A lot of folks work over at the mill?"

"Just half the town.  You're not from around here, are you?" 

"Passing though," Johnny answered.  "Guess Poole's a big man around here."

"Yeah."  Something seemed to click in the man's eyes and he pointed a finger at Johnny, tapping it at an imaginary point in the air.  "That's who you are.  Swenson had you locked up for Joshua Poole's murder."

Johnny turned toward the poker players, who were too engrossed in their cards to have heard that accusation, and downed the rest of his beer.  "Got any more of this stuff?"

The bartender hestitated for a second, then lifted the corners of his mouth and grabbed the glass.  "This one's on me.  Any man who can wrangle his way out of Nicholas Poole's jail deserves a drink on the house."

"Don't think much of Nicholas Poole, do ya'?"

He was silent as he poured the beer, but leaned in as he slid it over to Johnny and lowered his voice to a forceful whisper.  "Only complaint I have is that you killed the wrong Poole."

"I didn't kill Poole."  Johnny took a long, slow sip and kept his voice quiet, too.  "And what makes you call it Nicholas Poole's jail?  Looked like Swenson's cell to me."

"Looks like it, don't it?  But don't fool yourself friend...not sure I caught your name."

"Johnny.  Johnny Lancer."

"Roger Todd."  The bartender stuck his hand out to Johnny's and shook it firmly.  "Money runs things around here and Poole has his hands on just about every dollar a man's going to come across. Tried to buy me out a couple of years ago and didn't want to take no for an answer.  Well, I'm still here . . ."  Todd looked around at the sparsity of clientele.  "But he made his point."

"Anybody else feel the way you do?"

Todd nodded slowly.  "There's some.  Mind you, Poole's smooth.  He's a big man over at the church and everybody knows he keeps the orphans' fund running.  He makes sure they know it.  But the smart ones--they can see right through him."

A stray drop of beer made its way down the outside of the mug and Johnny swiped a finger at it, licking it off before taking another swig from the glass.  "Anyone hate him bad enough to kill his brother?"

"Can't see that."  Todd gave him a hard-eyed smile.  "Like I said, you put a bullet in the wrong one."

"I didn't kill anybody," Johnny insisted in a loud whisper.

Todd winked.  "And I didn't give you any ideas about doing the same thing to Nick."

"Doesn't anybody around here understand plain English..."  Johnny's denial was swallowed into a loud whoop from the poker table, where the smaller man was spreading his cards out on the table and rising from his chair, a triumphant grin taking over his face and adding volume to his voice.

"Read'em and weep, boys."  The man slapped his elderly companion on the back and then locked his hands onto his hips, staring lovingly down at his upturned cards.  There was a wistful tone to his voice when he took in a deep breath and said, "A royal flush. Never thought I'd see one of those.  A real royal flush."  And he shook his head and just kept grinning.

"Jack, you old dog.  You sure you didn't have that ace hidden up your sleeve all afternoon?"  The fat man glowered up at Jack, but his voice held a poorly concealed amusement.  "Know how bad you've been wanting a pot and you got what . . .?"  He leaned over and riffled a finger through the money on the table.  "Two fifty?"

The older player chucked and tossed his cards on the table, then waited until Jack had lowered himself slowly back into his chair and laid a hand on the man's shoulder.  "I've never seen one of those either.  That calls for a drink."  He turned toward the bar and shouted, "Roger, another round of whiskey over here.  Jack got himself the hand of a lifetime and we're celebrating."

The bartender flicked the back of his hand against Johnny's arm and laughed.  "You see that? Damn fine luck, I'd say."  He reached under the bar and came up with a bottle. "Only the finest rockgut for a hand like that." 

Johnny leaned back with his elbows against the bar, facing the open room and watching Todd hoist the bottle into the air and carry it like a trophy to the noisy table.  He had to smile at the focus of their attention.  The bony man was slumped into his chair now, a small stack of coins in front of him and his poker hand sticking up in front of his nose, firmly clasped in his fist.  He had about as much contentment stuffed into his pointy little face as a river boat gambler with a thousand dollar pot.  Least somebody was seeing things go their way.

The sound was muffled by the revelry and Johnny almost didn't notice the staccato click of the cane against the boardwalk, but when he did catch it the noise drew his eyes to the door.  A black hat appeared above the batwings, pulled low across a man's eyes.  The stranger pushed his way through the swinging doors and crossed to the bar, lifting his well-polished boot to the footrail and laying his walking stick across the glossy walnut of the counter.  He hadn't given Johnny more than a cursory glance until he settled in, then he lifted the hat from his head, laid it on top of his cane, and dropped his hand to his Colt, caressing the fancy handle with his thumb.  And he turned and smiled at Johnny, an icy, menacing smile. 

Nobody at the poker table gave a damn, not yet anyway.  They were celebrating and one more stranger wasn't likely to stand in the way of that.  The cowboys on the other side of the room hadn't made a sound, unless you count the slight snore coming from the one. 

They were alone in their deadly game.  Johnny ran his eyes across the man, taking in the nonchalance of his stance and judging the swagger in his eyes.  He was mighty sure of himself.  Too sure.  Either he was a fool or the hour just passed had improved his skill.  Or just maybe, Johnny reminded himself wryly, maybe his courage could be coming from the fact that he was the only one standing at this bar with a six-shooter hanging on his hip.   

Johnny reached for his beer and slowly drained it, waiting for the stranger to speak. And then he did.

"Ready for another?" the man asked, rolling a silver dollar down the bar to clink against Johnny's empty mug.  "Cause I'm buying the first round in hell."



Chapter 7

"Conversing With The Man In The Moon "


"Ready for another?"  the gunman asked, rolling a silver dollar down the smooth bar to clink against Johnny's empty mug.  "Cause I'm buying the first round in hell."

Johnny eyed the coin, then picked it up and examined it closely, rolling it between his fingers.  "Got another one of these?  Too many friends down there to be drinking alone."  He looked from the silver to the stranger and gave him a cold smile. 

"Already cost me more than you're worth."  The man's eyes dropped to Johnny's middle.  "You still forgettin' something?"

Johnny moved methodically, bringing his fingers, coin and all, slowly up to his jacket and opening the coat wider.  He stared down to where his gunbelt should have been slung around his hips and then back up at the stranger.  "Looks like this ain't your day.  But thanks for the drink."  Letting the jacket fall closed again, he tossed the coin onto the counter, then grabbed the handle of his mug, raised the empty glass in the air and called past the stranger, "Hey, Todd.  How about another?  And one for my friend here, too."  That was added with a steady gaze into the man's flinty blue eyes. 

The stranger grinned.  "Pretty cocky for a dead man, ain't ya'?"

"Been told,"  Johnny said softly.  "Not by anyone who's still breathin', but I have been told."

The poker players were still knocking their glasses together and making their 'saluts', but the bartender had moved to stand just behind the gunslinger.  He gave Johnny a nervous look and slapped a hand against the man's shoulder.  "Hold on there, fellow.  No call for any trouble in my saloon."  There wasn't any answer.  The stranger never moved, not even a twitch of his jaw.  Had to give him credit for that, Johnny grudgingly admitted.  He was playing it awfully cool. 

Todd moved around to the back of the bar, poured two glasses and set them both on the counter, then picked up the silver piece and pocketed it. "Well, boys, drink up."

Johnny lifted his mug, tapping it against the second one.  "Never liked drinking with strangers.  You got a name?"

"Buck Connors."  The man moved away from the bar, giving his gun arm the freedom to curve down to his holster and sweep the shimmering pearled handle of his Colt.  "Wouldn't put yourself out trying to study on that name, though.  Don't figure you have the time for it."

Johnny nodded. "Like to oblige you, Connors, but I still don't have a gun."

Reaching into the waistband behind his back, under his jacket, Connors came up with a pistol, then leaned toward the bar and laid it against the polished surface, sending it sliding down the counter to land within easy reach of Johnny's hand.  "Got one now."

"You really that ready to die?"

"Big talk for a lousy coward.  Pick up the gun."

Johnny just eyed the pistol. "Why?"

"Pick it up."

The fat man rose first, scooting his chair loudly against the saloon floor and fading away from the poker table, out of the line of fire. The scrawny one took his glass with him, throwing a big swallow down his throat and then mouthing something to the older man, who'd taken a spot at his side, both of them backed up against the wall closest to the door.

Todd started filling his arms with the fancy-labeled bottles, lining up one after the other between his crooked elbow and his big chest.  One started to slide through and he caught it just in time, then knelt with his load behind the bar.  Johnny could hear the clinks of them being lined up again on those hidden shelves and he waited until the man stood again, moving away toward the big mirror that copied every dangerous move Buck Connors was making.

"You think you're fast, do ya'?" Johnny finally drawled.  "Sure you're fast enough?"

"Only one way to find out."

"I don't have any reason to kill you.

"Don't, huh?"


"Then maybe I should give you one."  The man was good. If Johnny had blinked hard he might have missed the fluid motion of Connors sliding his Colt from its holster, tilting it upward and squeezing off one shot, the bullet whizzing past Johnny's shoulder, close--too close.  Johnny flinched, but he didn't move, not at first, not until he watched the man break into a satisfied grin and relax his gun arm, dropping the pistol to hang loosely at his hip.  Then he dipped his eyes, slowly, tugging at his sleeve and turning his head to assess the scar the bullet had left singed across the leather.

There was still snoring coming from the table in the corner and Johnny twisted his neck farther, catching the open-mouthed stare of the one cowboy and smiling at the staccato snorts coming from the second. 

"Looks like you're dead set on doing this..."  He turned back to Connors, then reached a pointed finger to the Colt on the counter, poking at it and asking, "Care if I check it first?  Not that I don't trust you, mind you..." 

"Go right ahead.  I've never cheated a man, yet.  Don't need to." 

Johnny took the Colt by the barrel, holding it cautiously aimed backwards and handle up in his fist, balanced with an outstretched finger. With his left hand, he spun the cylinder and gave Connors a satisfied nod.

"Told ya'," Connors chortled. 

"Real nice piece,"  Johnny said admiringly and with one silky, lightening-fast move he spun the pistol in his hand, the butt slapping into his palm and the barrel pointing squarely at Connor's chest, hammer cocked.

"How...?"  Connors stammered, "how'd you do that?"

"Empty that gun hand."  Johnny waved the pistol sideways.  "You can set it right there on the bar."

Connors was learning fast.  The wide eyes narrowed and he brought his voice back under control, a flat, casual tone taking over again. "Pretty fancy move."

"Your gun, Connors."

The man obliged, setting his pistol on the bar and pulling his hand back to his side.

"Now," Johnny asked him with a callous glare.  "You gonna leave me be or am I gonna have to show you some more tricks with this pistol?"

"Still ain't told me..."  Connor's words fell off and he sucked in a breath.  It was only a shallow one, but it meant something, Johnny could tell.  The man had been tense before, his shoulders stiff and his jaw tight, but now his chin moved upward and his lips parted.  Nothing too obvious, just that quick reaction and then he caught himself.   "El Paso," he mumbled, and the nonchalant smile was back. 

"I'm getting tired of inhalin' the same air as you, Connors.  There's the door."

Connors eyed the pile of objects he'd left lying on the bar, raised his hand toward them, then halted it in mid-air.  Looking back at Johnny, he asked, "You mind?"

"Leave the gun."

"Anything you say . . . Madrid."  He reached slowly for his hat and lifted it to his head, settling it with a downward tilt of his chin, then just as methodically went for his cane. "Been real educational making your acquaintance."

Nobody made a sound as the man strolled across the room, only the solid thud of his boots on the wooden floor interrupting the unnatural stillness.  That ended with the squeal of the batwings closing behind him.  Loud whispers started up immediately, those poker players' "Did you see that?" and "What the hell..." and the clumsy collisions of their bodies against the saloon chairs layering together with the insistent voice of the one cowboy saying, "Jake, Jake, ya' gotta wake up, Jake, ya' missed it...Jake..."  Jake raised a hand only inches from the table, growled a drowsy "shut the hell up", then settled back into his crossed arms and went back to his rhythmic breathing. 

Todd wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and swore under his breath, then gazed gratefully at his intact mirror.  Johnny was watching out that empty doorway, but he saw Todd from the corner of his eye, noting when the bartender began organizing the bottles again, returning them to their favored places on the shelves, and when the man picked up his rag and started wiping the counter down, making big, curving swipes. He missed the gun disappearing, though.  That must have happened when he'd looked down at the floor for a moment, thinking hard. 

Connors hadn't known.  Couldn't have been aiming for Madrid's reputation, because he'd only just put it together.  That look in his eyes...he'd gone searching for a memory and come up with a name.  Madrid's name.  So if he wasn't a wanna-be fighting his way to the top, why the hell was he so all-fired set on calling him out?  And whose dollar was paying for the trouble?

Johnny turned back to the bar, slid the Colt into his waistband and pulled his mug of beer closer, taking one small sip.  It didn't set well and he licked his lips and set the glass down again.  His eyes moved across the glossy bar to the empty spot where the other gun had been.  "What do you figure?  Twenty bucks?  Twenty five?"

Todd slid the pistol from his pocket and gave it an assessing look.  "Fifteen, maybe.  Be worth more if it'd gotten the better of Johnny Madrid."  The man followed that cold judgment with a friendly smile.  "Course that'd be a nasty shame."

"Why's that?  And I go by Lancer now." Johnny gave him his own reserved smile.

"All right...Lancer.  Cause then Madrid couldn't finish the job you botched last night.  Still think you shot the wrong Poole."

No reason to say it again--Johnny thought it, though. Awfully thick set of skulls around here, the way people kept hanging onto that idea.  He didn't shoot anybody, but telling that to the folks in Hartville was like telling your troubles to the man in the moon.  Might make you feel a fraction better, but you were still a long way from anyone who cares. 

He never did finish that beer, although he sure nursed it long enough.  The poker game broke up while he was still staring into his glass, watching the ivory tendrils of the exhausted suds curl together and drift apart.  Jake finally woke up and got an earful from his friend.  They tried to keep it down, but the cowboys had too much trail dust in their throats to manage a real whisper and their low, raspy voices drove every word across the saloon.  Jake had never heard of Johnny Madrid and that gave Johnny some small comfort, but his friend didn't let it stand.  To hear him tell it, Madrid was seven feet tall, deadlier than a fistful of rattlers and meaner than the devil on Sunday.  He had the count wrong, too, and Johnny gave in to a sad, small smile when he heard the man lay a number to the dead bodies Madrid had left behind. Not near high enough.

The place was filling up and getting noisier by the time Johnny pushed his mug away and tossed a coin onto the counter.  The millworkers had stumbled in and found what must have been their usual chairs.  A couple of them were drowning their boredom at the bar and they only gave Johnny a sideways glance.  Todd was working a table full of the same, three boisterous men, one of them with a barmaid perched on his lap and his hand inching up her thigh.  Todd was pouring the whiskey and the gal was nuzzling at the fellow's ear, tossing her head back and laughing when his mumbled words struck her fancy, then leaning in again to murmur her own secret somethings.  Todd nodded at him as he passed, but stayed with his paying customers. 

It'd gotten chilly. That's the first thing Johnny noticed when he pushed through the lively saloon into the dark town.  The air hit his throat and he swallowed painfully, then pulled his jacket closer around him.  It was harder to see tonight.  There were only a few clumps of stars showing in the sky and the clouds were rolling in on them, too. Felt like rain was coming, he could smell it on the biting breeze. 

Even that couldn't keep him from stepping a bit more lively when he pushed through the picket gate into Darcy's yard.  The house was well-lit, with more than just that parlor light shining from it.  Two windows glowed upstairs.  Poole's office was one of them and that meant that daddy must be home.  Johnny slid the pistol a bit more to the side of his waistband, where the flap of the jacket was likely to keep it hidden, then he tugged the coat square against his shoulders and ran a finger under his nose, feeling a bit encouraged when it came away dry.

He knocked on the door, hearing footsteps a few seconds later.  They were heavy, too heavy to be Darcy's. 

When the door swung open, the face he was expecting glared out at Johnny. The set of Nicholas Poole's mouth was a dead giveaway to the man's mood and it wasn't good.  "You have a lot of nerve coming here, Madrid.  Darcy isn't going with you, tonight, tomorrow...ever.  Now get off of my porch."

His first impulse was to do as the man had told him, just turn tail and slink away into the dark--and keep going, Sheriff Swenson and his suspicions be damned.  But instead he hung his head for a second and then raised his eyes again to Poole.  "I need to talk to Darcy."

"Maybe you didn't hear me, boy.  I'm not used to having my orders ignored.  Leave. Now."

Poole tried to slam the door closed, but Johnny stopped him, taking a step forward and bracing his hand against the heavy oak. "No. I'm not going until Darcy tells me to."

"You know I can just shoot you right here and the law wouldn't do a thing about it?"  Poole's voice had lowered and his hand slid into the pocket of his jacket and came up again, just a hint of steel showing from within his grasp.  It sank back into hiding when Darcy's voice rose up from the parlor.

"Is that Johnny?"  She stepped into the foyer and Johnny looked past Poole to find her face.  It was flushed and the freckles were standing out more against the hot blood in her cheeks.  Her eyes flashed with anger, matching the sharp edge of her voice as she walked up behind her father, laid her hand against his arm and told him,  "It's all right.  I want to talk to him."

"Sweetheart, I don't want you alone with that man."  Poole let go of the door to turn to her and shoved her a step backwards. "It's not safe."

"I'll be all right, Father."  Darcy petted her father's sleeve and drew in a ragged breath.  "I won't be long.  We'll just be right outside and then he'll be leaving."  She looked up at Johnny with those final words and he wasn't sure what he saw there.  Hurt, maybe. A weariness. It made him want to hold her and make things right.  Just hold her, that's all, but that wasn't going to happen and Johnny felt a chill trickle down the back of his neck. And he stepped backward into the lonely shadows of the porch. 

"You're staying inside, Darcy." 

There was a warning in Poole's voice and Darcy hesitated for a second, then flicked her eyes toward Johnny.  "I need to do this, Father."  She slipped past the tense man and moved quietly from the well-lit entry into the damp night air, pulling the door almost closed behind her and leaving a dagger of light falling to the planks.

Johnny leaned back against the porch railing, folding his arms across his chest and staring down at the floor.  He didn't look up as Darcy moved from the light and into the dimness swallowing the porch swing.  The chain creaked when she sat and Johnny lifted his eyes to see her faint form, curled into the far end of the bench, knees bent and pulled close against her, and her arms wrapped tightly around her legs.  Her face was a pale accent in the dark.

"I'm not him any more," Johnny started in. "Haven't been for a long time."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Darcy asked with a small quiver.  "How do you just stop being someone?"

"It ain't easy, but you do. At least, you do when they let you."

"You should have told me, Johnny.  I don't care about it, you know...not that..."  She lifted her hand in the air, gesturing into the dark, then brought it back even more firmly against her. "Father says you're good at it, maybe the best.  How did you think that nobody would find out?  Why couldn't you have just told me?"

"Is that what you're mad about?"  Johnny cocked his head and scowled at her.  "Because I didn't tell you my whole life story over breakfast?  What'd you want me to do, just say sorry about your uncle and by the way, you're feeding your eggs to a pistolero?" 

"No."  She shook her head slowly, looking straight ahead into the empty corner of the swing. "Not that way, but you could've told me.  What did you think was happening?  Do you think I just go around falling..."  She caught her words and stared up at Johnny for a few seconds, then went on in a tired voice.  "Here I've been telling my father that you couldn't kill anyone, not like that.  Not that kind of vicious murder. And then he tells me that I don't even know your real name.  How am I supposed to feel about that?"

"The name's Lancer," Johnny insisted. "It was Lancer yesterday and it's Lancer today."

"I was so sure," she whispered sadly.

"That was your doing, not mine.  I never asked you to believe in me."

He was sorry as soon as he said it, even more so when a strangled sound came from her, half laugh and half sob.  Johnny looked away, his unfocused gaze falling on the gaping door and the shadow that had moved across its light.  Poole. The man must be right at that doorway, eavesdropping and most likely counting another win in his column. 

Darcy's tone cut through the chill of the night air.  "I'm sorry I bothered you.  You have enough trouble and it's plain to see you don't need some silly girl getting in your way."

"That's not..." He sighed deeply.  "Darcy, this ain't right. I don't want you being mad at me.  Can't we just start over."  He moved the two steps to the porch swing, falling into it and bracing against the sway he set in motion. The bench stilled and he reached toward her, catching a fold of her skirt in his fingers and letting it fall again.  "I'm asking you now."  Her eyes lifted to his and he saw the wetness pooled within them, glistening even in this darkness, and he swept his hand against her cheek, brushing away the tear that trailed down her cheek.  "I need you to believe in me. Can you do that?"

Her eyes held his for a long, hushed moment and then they dipped.  "You should have told me."

"Yeah," he mumbled, dropping his hand again and pulling his arms back against his chest. "Guess that's it, then." He breathed in the cool air, concentrating on the rustle of the breeze through the oak trees and letting its murmuring music fill the silence until he finally complained, "Sure didn't take long to get around, did it?  How'd you hear it so fast?"

"Father," she said, wiping her fingers across her eyes and clasping her legs again.

"Sounds like your father knows everything."  Johnny swallowed hard, worrying at the roughness at the back of his throat and forgetting it again as soon as Darcy answered.

"His client heard it.  He came by the house tonight and told Father."

Johnny straightened and slid closer to her, suddenly intensely aware of the man still standing just on the other side of that door.   "His client?" he whispered.  "The one on the afternoon stage?"


"Did the man have a cane?"  Johnny leaned forward, laying his hand on her knee and keeping his words a protected secret, shared only by the two of them in their darkened corner of Nicholas Poole's porch.

"I don't remember."  Darcy's voice had quieted, too.

"You saw him, though?"

"I let him in."

"So you would've seen a cane?"

"I guess."  Darcy's whisper took on a confused irritation. "What does that matter?"

"Did he have a cane?"

She hesitated for a moment, pushing a strand of loose braid from her face, then suddenly blurted, "Some sort of dark wood?"

Johnny nodded.  "Darcy, where was your father last night?" 

"In town, at his office. Johnny, what are you saying?  You don't think my father...?"

She had gotten louder and Johnny raised one finger against his lips and made his own voice as quiet as a breath.  "Just listen...that man wasn't a client... he was a hired gun and he came here to kill me.  Had your father and your uncle had any fights?"

"I want you to leave." 

Poole couldn't help but hear those angry words and he swung the door open and stepped out onto the porch.  "She asked you to leave," he said, the derringer flashing in his hand.

"Father, put that away," Darcy demanded as Johnny rose from the bench.  He just caught his hand as it moved under his jacket, reaching for the Colt tucked away there, but kept his arm curved close to the pistol. 

"I know you heard me."  Poole advanced toward them, the small pistol steady in his hands. "And I'm not telling you again."

"Father," Darcy shouted, and she rose to her feet, coming to Johnny's side and insinuating her body between him and the derringer.  "You're not going to shoot him."

"Go on," Johnny mumbled, gently trying to push the girl aside and whispering again when she wouldn't budge, "You're gonna get yourself hurt."

"Just leave," she whispered back and he slid around her, eying the derringer as he brushed past Poole, then bringing his gaze up to the man's eyes.  They were only narrow slits in his furrowed face, small and hard and deadly, and Johnny felt them burning into the back of his head as he took the steps to the stone path and followed it deeper into the night. 

He turned up the collar of his jacket when the first drops hit him, just sprinkles, but big and instantly chilling.  He could still hear their voices when he passed through the gate and was once again on the streets of Hartville.  Poole was yelling at her in his own way, nothing like Murdoch's lectures. Her father's were quiet, but more threatening. He was telling her that she'd been stupid and childish and that she didn't have the sense to know what she wanted, and she just kept saying that she was sorry and finally she gasped a single sob.  Just one.  But Johnny heard it and he hated the man.

He was halfway to the hotel when a crackle of thunder moved across the heavens and the clouds let loose, the rain falling in thick sheets and rapidly turning the street into a muddy river.  Johnny ran for it, ducking down against the deluge, splashing through the puddles and finding a storefront at last, one with a sheltered boardwalk where he could wait it out.  He shook the water from his hair and faded back into the recessed doorway, into the warmest, driest space there, and hugged his wet jacket closer.  He was shivering and breathing hard and his throat was complaining and he knew for a fact there wasn't a living soul in the town of Hartville that was likely to give a damn. 

Staring out into the pouring rain, Johnny rubbed a hand against his clean shaven chin, and wondered what he'd ever done to deserve God's little joke.  Plenty, he figured, and this was a good one.  The only woman he'd had a prayer with was the one woman he couldn't have.  Not after he proved his suspicions.  Not after he found the evidence that would hang Nicholas Poole.


Chapter 8

"Unto That Good Night"


"Want to see what hit ya?"  Swenson held a chunk of marble up to the light of the window, rotating it slowly in his hands and staring curiously at its base.  As Johnny walked closer, he saw what it was--an elephant.  A carved one, eight or nine inches tall and heavy looking.  Swenson had it upside down and was fingering a dark splotch that wrapped around its edge.  "Looks like blood to me.  Reckon this thing might do some damage to a man."

"You think?" Johnny's sarcastic tone drew only a self-conscious grin from the sheriff.  "Where'd you get that?"

"Over here..."  Swenson pointed to a tall bookcase in an isolated corner of Joshua Poole's office, away from the big desk and behind the opened door. "It was on the second shelf."

"It was just sitting there?" Johnny eyed the shadowed space, imagining how a man might stay hidden there, a desperate man with a solid swing and a good aim.

The sheriff arched a brow.  "Well, it wasn't doing a doo-si-doo."

"I mean, it didn't look like it'd been tossed over there. Someone had set it down, nice and easy."

"That's the way it looked."

Johnny set his hands on his hips and grimaced.  "So your theory is Poole hit me on the head, put that thing..." He waved a finger at the topsy turvy elephant. "What is it?  A bookend?"  When Swenson nodded, he went on.  "He set that thing back on the shelf...and then I shot him.  And I guess after that I just went ahead and passed out on the floor."

"Could happen."  Swenson looked sideways at Johnny and added a crooked smile.  "Or maybe not."

"Can I have my gun back?"  That was becoming a real sore point.  Swenson had confiscated the second pistol, too, last night in the hotel lobby.  He'd been waiting there when Johnny dragged himself in, soaking wet. Hadn't had too much to say about Madrid or the gunslinger from the saloon, and even less to add about Darcy's old man.  Just listened to Johnny's suspicions and gave him a nod, a real thoughtful one, no question about that, and he'd taken his sweet time considering the situation.  And then there'd been that one word...no, not a word exactly.  More of a grunt, just one deep-chested, "humph" and that was it. It was damn infuriating. 

Now Swenson just shook his head.  "Told ya last night, the ladies of the Methodist Sewing Club wouldn't be real happy with me if I let a famous gunslinger go waltzin' around town with a gun on his hip, particularly seeing as how no judge has cleared you for killing Poole."

"Those ladies don't have a hired killer after them," Johnny complained. "I'm not feeling too safe out there on the streets of your nice little town."

"Well, I don't feel real safe with the Methodist Sewing Club."

Swenson put the elephant upright on the bookshelf and swept his eyes over the office.  Johnny followed his gaze, taking in the red stain on the office rug and moving on, noting the general order of the room.  Joshua Poole was a meticulous man.  They'd been in the files already and everything was nice and neat there, all of it properly labeled and following the recommended order of the alphabet.  The trays on his desk held only a few papers and they looked like pretty standard correspondence, an ore assessment from a nearby mine and a letter of inquiry on the possible sale of a farm. The desktop was well organized, with a fancy pen in an inkwell, a mug full of pencils and a large blotter. There were only a few personal effects there, an expensively framed picture of a lady, blonde, and a glass canister full of licorice sticks.

Johnny moved to the desk and lifted the lid from the jar, taking two sticks of candy.  He dangled one from his mouth and held the second piece out to the sheriff.  "Breakfast?"

"Sounds better than Darcy's eggs."

That was another sore point.  He'd lain awake for a long time the night before, half hoping she'd show up at his hotel door and once thinking he'd heard her knock.  Turned out to be the oversized poker player from the saloon.  Barnes, he'd figured.  Too drunk or too drowsy to find his room with any grace.  He wasn't sure if it'd been Todd's whiskey or the Widow Skidmore that had kept the man out so late, but Johnny was putting his money on the widow.  Only seemed fair that someone should have been enjoying a little feminine company that night, even if it hadn't been him.

He bit into the licorice, holding the remainder in his fingers as he turned the photograph toward him.  The woman was pretty, awfully pretty.  She had a delicate arch to her brow, finely-shaped lips and a well-bred nose.  Just like a china doll.  He tried to imagine those eyes terrified and the hair free from its tight braid, but he couldn't bring her to that kind of life.  She didn't look real, as if she was made for a frame, posing for a man's eye.

"You sure his wife couldn't be my blonde?"  Johnny set the picture back where it was and looked up at the sheriff.

"Juliette?  Can't see it, myself,"  Swenson mumbled through his mouthful of candy.  "Just don't believe Poole would raise a hand to that woman.  Near as I could tell he let Juliette get away with murder.  Couldn't blame him for it, she is a looker."

"Maybe somebody else noticed that, too?"

"Nah."  Swenson poked at the stuff on the desk, picking at the pencils and then leaving them alone.  "Too many gossips in town for that, I'd have heard something.  That sewing club doesn't spend much time sewing."  He fingered the blotting pad, moving it slightly askew.

"What's that?"  Johnny pointed at a sliver of white showing under the dark pad.

"What?"  Swenson didn't have time to identify the object before Johnny had snatched it away.  It was an envelope, an empty one as Johnny quickly discovered, poking a finger into the torn opening and finding nothing there.  It had a return address, though, and an intriguing name in the middle of the sheet.  It was Poole, but the wrong one.  The address was Nicholas Poole, Hartville Lumber Company, Hartville, California. 

"What do you make of this?"  Johnny handed the envelope to the sheriff.

There was that sound again, that gutteral 'humph' as Swenson stared at the envelope.  "Don't know," he finally said.  "Looks like maybe Josh was nosing into his brother's business."

"Have you ever heard of the Creede Mining Corporation?"  Johnny craned his neck to see the left hand corner again, where that name and a Colorado address were neatly printed.

"Nope. But it's worth asking Poole about it, I reckon."

It only took a second for Johnny to pull a file drawer open, the one labeled 'A-B-C'.  He riffled through the papers until he was satisfied it wasn't there. "There's nothing here for Creede. Maybe it was in the desk?"

Swenson glanced down to the empty desk drawer.  "Got it over at the office, if it was.  Juliette found a box full of files at the house.  Said Josh was working on them the night before he died and I guess he just hadn't brought them back."

"I want to see those files."

The sheriff folded the envelope in two and slid it into his shirt pocket, then leveled a thoughtful gaze on Johnny.  "Guess it is your neck we're talking about, but can't quite see why I don't just go ahead and deputize you, long as I'm handing over all my evidence."

"Fine...do it."  Johnny took another string of licorice and chewed off a bite, then cocked his head and tried one more time.  "That mean I get my gun back?"

"Soon as I get a more likely suspect," Swenson promised him, heading for the office door.  "Gotta hang someone or the townsfolk will think I ain't doing my job." 

That may not have been the answer he wanted, but he was getting pretty used to disappointment.  Johnny just frowned again and followed the sheriff through the outer office and into the mid-morning sunlight.  He squinted against it and felt a fleeting dull pain pass through his head, working with the ache in his throat.  That cold was damn stubborn, but at least it hadn't gotten any worse with the night's drenching.  He'd live...as long as he stayed out of the sheriff's noose.

"One more thing..." the sheriff was saying and Johnny took a double step to catch up to the man's side.  "Talked to Bert over at the bank yesterday and he had some business that might tie into this.  Seems Joshua was in a couple of days ago..."  His voice faded off as Swenson stared ahead into the street. 

Johnny's eyes lifted, too, and he had a sudden, overpowering need to be anywhere but where he was--standing on the boardwalk of the main street of Hartville, watching that hearse come closer. 

The horses pulling it were real beauties, two matched, high-stepping black geldings, each of them wearing a black plume attached to their headgear.  The driver wore a top hat and a formal, long-tailed suit, looking for all the world as if he were driving royalty to a San Francisco ball, instead of ferrying a dead man through the streets of a lumber town. His expression was severe, but Johnny couldn't help but wonder if the man wasn't entertaining himself counting all the dollars he was going to charge Juliette Poole for burying her husband in such high style.

The curtains were open and Johnny could see the coffin as it passed, an intricately carved oak, almost as dark as the finely decorated wood of the hearse itself.  He dipped his eyes, away from the expensively encased corpse, then raised them again toward the buggy that followed.  Nicholas Poole was driving his team, with Juliette at his side.  It had to be her.  She was obscured by a widow's veil and it fluttered at her face, swept there by the breeze brushing past the couple.  The rest of her was black, just like the veil, black waistcoat, black skirt and even black gloves.  She had one hand on Poole's arm and the other clutched a book.  Her Bible, Johnny figured, and he caught at a memory.   A stage play, over in Sacramento that time.  Teresa had dragged him there, swearing she'd just die if she didn't see it.  The actors had looked like natural folks, mostly.  A bit too bright in their cheeks and too stiff in their movements, maybe. And they'd used those props, bits and pieces of things that didn't look quite right.  Neither did that Bible. 

Nicholas and Juliette looked past him, but Darcy didn't.  Their eyes met, only for that instant and then the rest of the procession was trailing by, but Johnny stared after the buggy for a long time, letting Swenson fidget at his side and seeing those sorrowful eyes.  She'd been crying, that was plain to tell. Of course she had, he reminded himself.  It was a funeral, for God's sake, and that was her uncle lying there in that hearse.  Only she'd looked right at him with her sadness and he knew there was more to it than that.  It was him, too. He stared down at the planked walk and sighed.  Well, he'd be out of her life, out of this town by week's end.  All he had to do was prove that her father was a cold-blooded killer and destroy every shred of happiness the girl had ever known.  Nothing to it.

"Ain't nobody watchin'.  You don't have to look so miserable about old Poole."  Swenson slapped the back of his hand against Johnny's arm and started toward his office again.

Johnny followed in silence at first, then he remembered and prompted the sheriff.  "The business at the bank...what were you saying about that?"

"Oh, yeah...that."  Swenson glanced around first, then waited for Johnny to come even with him.  "Bert told me there'd been some money transferred.  Joshua deposited a check for two thousand dollars."

"So?"  Johnny reached the sheriff's office first and pushed the door open, stepping inside.

Swenson stopped just inside the door and closed it behind him, hesitating for a second before telling the rest.  "Not sure I should be talking about it."

"This have anything to do with Darcy's father?"

"Yeah..."  Swenson scratched his nose absentmindedly.  "The thing is...it was her daddy that signed that check.  Bert transferred two thousand dollars from Nicholas' account into Josh's."

"Does Bert know why?"

"Nope. Says he doesn't ask those kinds of questions."  The sheriff pulled the folded envelope from his pocket, crossed to his desk and tossed it into a tray.  Then he bent forward and came back up grunting, hefting a heavy box of files to the top of the desk, too.  "Bet we find some of the answers in here, though. Might as well pull up a chair and get comfortable."



Scott dug into his pocket and found a silver coin, handing it over to the waiting boy and telling him, "No, there's no reply.  Thanks, Julio."

"Any time, Senor Lancer."

Julio spun his roan around and spurred it into a trot, heading back toward Green River.  Scott leaned against the hitching rail, head down, staring at the telegram Julio had just delivered and debating with himself over his next move.  He was packed already, he'd taken care of that the night before.  He could be saddled and on the trail before Julio was two miles down the road.  He'd make better time by himself, too, cover more of the towns on that stagecoach route. But that meant leaving Murdoch behind and he just didn't know how his father would react to that decision.   Not very well, he guessed, and he felt a gratifying satisfaction at that prediction.  The searching might be easier on his own, but the worrying was a lot easier when it was shared.

He found Murdoch at his desk, holding his pencil motionless against his ledger and frowning into empty air.  He started when Scott coughed softly and then he looked up, dropping the pencil to the page.  "Scott, is there any..." His eyes found the wire in Scott's hands.  "He's not in San Francisco, is he."

"No, sir."  Scott handed the telegram across the desk and into his father's outstretched hand.  "He left two days ago, just as he'd planned."

Murdoch stood and walked purposefully toward the stairs to the upper rooms.  "Get packed," he shouted back over his shoulder.

"I am."

Pausing at the doorway, Murdoch turned and gave him a thin smile.  "So am I.  Guess neither one of us had much faith in your brother staying out of trouble."

"No," Scott agreed. "But he can take care of himself pretty well."  He set Murdoch's pencil in its holder, then strode toward the door.  "And we'll find him before he has to."



The funeral ended as most did, with tables sagging under the weight of the food spread across them and dozens of somber faces filling the parlor of the widow's home. The guests were all clustered together in threes or fours, small circles of black-clad mourners, each of them whispering together at first, then their voices growing louder as they forgot where they were and started enjoying the cakes and ham sandwiches and gossip.  Two men faded into a corner of the room, heads tilted together and their words kept quietly private.  Every now and then they'd laugh and another curious face would join them, until they were too many for the parlor and they moved out onto the porch, a sympathetic gathering of like-minded businessmen, telling jokes and eyeing the dead man's family and wondering when it would be proper to slip away and go back to whatever else life had planned for them that day

Juliette had enthroned herself in Joshua's library, looking small and delicate in his huge leather wingback, her black veil still distancing her from those who were merely mourners.  One by one, she heard their condolences and murmured her acceptance, a lacy handkerchief ever-present in her left hand and her right hand extended to briefly touch her supplicant, signifying that their audience was over. Nicholas Poole would receive them then.  He had positioned himself at the library door, keeping watch over the widow and obscuring his own emotions behind a mask of carefully proportioned sorrow.  His handshake was consistently firm and his words appropriate and when it was over, the guest would escape again to the parlor.

Darcy took the brunt of it then.  The old women were the worst, trying to be motherly and petting at her and forcing her to eat, telling her she looked 'plumb worn' and 'thin as a reed'.  She tried to keep moving, refilling platters from the kitchen and picking up abandoned plates, but they followed her ruthlessly and finally she had to answer some of their questions. 'No,' she told them, she didn't know who had killed her Uncle Josh and 'no', she couldn't imagine why anyone would want him dead.  Eventually their questions turned to him, to the stranger the sheriff had found lying on her uncle's rug, and she wouldn't answer those, murmuring her excuses instead, wiping a tear from her eye and retreating to the kitchen, to where Mamie would drop her dish towel and hold her for a minute and give her the courage to face them all again. 

It was late afternoon before the house had emptied to a few hard-core clumps of mourners and Darcy carried a last platter of stale sandwiches down the hallway to the kitchen.  She slowed as she neared the library door, missing her father at his self-assigned sentry spot, and peeked around the corner.  He was leaning over Juliette and the woman's veil was folded back over her hair.  His hand was on the high collar of her dress and Juliette gazed up at him, frowning and fumbling with her buttons.  The collar fell open and Darcy held her breath.  There were purple streaks across her aunt's neck, dark and ugly ones. They disappeared in an instant, Darcy's father pulling the collar closed, Juliette managing her buttons and the two of them whispering together. She caught only a few words, her father's words, his deep voice carrying softly across the room--something about Joshua and danger and one intimately murmured 'my love'.  Darcy came to her senses then, ducking her head and stepping quickly down the hallway to the kitchen.

She left, setting the platter on the table and brushing past Mamie, ignoring her calls of 'what's wrong, child' and slipping out down the stairs to the garden.  Stepping through the cabbage and the squash, she made it to the small path behind her uncle's house and followed it to the main road.  If anyone spoke to her she didn't know it, as her eyes were diverted to the ground and she was lost to her thoughts.  Finally she reached her own home, her own porch, and she took refuge in its familiar shelter.

And then she began to sob. Quietly at first, then deeply, her shoulders shaking and her knees growing weaker until she slid down to the planks of the floor. Her hand went to her neck and she watched the cobbled walk leading through the yard to the white picket fence, to the gate her father would open later, when he was home from his brother's funeral.  And she waited, patiently, until her tears had dried on her cheeks and the squirrel in the tree had ceased chattering to the red-winged blackbird, and then she waited still, staring down that path, the path where her father would come.


Johnny shook his head as he eyed the black sky and found the first sprinkling of stars.  Another night in Hartville.  Could be worse, he figured, at least this time he'd be laying himself down on a nice, soft pillow in a nice, comfortable bed.  Had to be a heck of a lot better than that sheriff's cot, even if it wasn't home.  Home sounded good, though, and he had to push that thought right out of his head.  He may not be Swenson's prisoner, but he wasn't a free man, either, and he was still a long way from Lancer.

He gave in to one small cough and stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the Hurley Hotel.  He couldn't resist it this time and stopped just before the door, staring down at the slightly tilted chair and then reaching out to straighten it, making it even with the other.  He took a step back and nodded, then headed into the lobby. 

It was empty and that suited Johnny just fine.  No old man Hurley keeping an eye out for trouble and no Clancy snatching at any danger his daddy might have missed. Johnny stopped at the desk, glancing across the cubby holes behind it and finding the one marked '23'.  It was empty, too, but that's what he'd expected.  Murdoch wasn't coming.  Dumb move, he thought wryly--putting his trust in Nicholas Poole.  Well, that was a mistake he wouldn't make twice.

His steps were slow as he crossed the lobby and climbed the stairs to his room.  It'd been a long day and there'd been nothing more in those files.  He couldn't believe Swenson was in Poole's back pocket, but the sheriff needed a lot more to go on than they'd found so far.  One misdirected letter.  One meeting with a hired gun.  Two thousand dollars in Josh's account.  That's all they had on the man, only that measly evidence stacked against the gun in Johnny's hand.  They hadn't found the blonde and that was eating at him, too.  At least there wasn't any funeral going on tomorrow, and whether she liked it or not, Juliette Poole was going to meet the man who didn't kill her husband.

If Clancy was klutzy just walking across a room, the boy was ten times worse with an armful of towels.  Johnny stood stock still at the top of the stairs, waiting for the boy to peek over his stack and watch where he was going, but it didn't happen.  At least the collision was soft, as Clancy rammed into him and a muffled, "What?" came from the other side of the towels.

Johnny put a hand on either side of the boy's shoulders and pushed him back a step.  "Whoa...you got eyes, boy?"

"Yes, sir."  Clancy juggled the sliding stack back into his arms.

"Think you ought to use them?"  Johnny smiled at the kid and caught at a cloth as it tumbled toward the floor. "Cleaning rooms ain't supposed to get you hurt."

"No, sir."  Clancy took the towel from Johnny with his own grateful smile.  "Run into any more gunslingers today?" 

"Nope.  You?" 

"Nah."  The boy laid his chin on his stack to keep it steady.  "Did see your man from the porch, though."

"Ya did?" Johnny asked nonchalantly, scratching his chin. "He around?"

Clancy tried to shake his head, but it just made the stack of towels jiggle.  "Left on the afternoon stage. The boys told me he was going and daddy gave me the time off to go see.  He still had that cane, waving it all big and fancy like, but I didn't see no gun.  Guess the sheriff's still got that." 

"I reckon."  He wouldn't have admitted it to Clancy, but a little of the worry came off of him just then.  Poole might be a threat, hell, he was a threat--but he wasn't likely to come gunning for him, not with that little derringer, anyway.  His only trouble was the law and Swenson was smarter than Poole gave him credit for.  At least, Johnny hoped he was.  "You through in my room?"

"Sure, did yours half an hour ago," Clancy said, moving past him to the end of the hall and setting his stack on the table there. "Gave you clean towels, a fresh pitcher of water and an extra candle on the dresser.  Need anything else?"

"About ten hours' sleep."  Johnny strolled down the hallway to his door, turning the handle and feeling the door give.  He had just pulled his key from his jacket pocket and he stared at it now, then looked at the kid.  "Hey, Clancy."

"Yeah?"  The boy stuck two towels under his arm and looked back at Johnny.

"Did you leave my door unlocked?"

A confused expression passed over the kid's face and then he looked sheepishly at the floor.  "Again?  Third time this week I've done that.  Daddy says he's going to have my hide the next time."  Clancy gazed pleadingly at Johnny.  "You aren't going to tell him, are you?"

Johnny pursed his lips and rolled the key between his fingers.  "Promise you'll keep it down while I get some sleep?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then you can keep your hide."  He slid the key back into his pocket, pushed the door open and stepped into the darkened room.  There was a lantern on the table next to the bed and a small box of matches with it.  Johnny reached for the box as the door creaked closed behind him, his fingers just wrapping around it when the room plunged into blackness.  He felt for the wooden stick, found the rounded end of it with his finger and struck the match against the door frame, his eyes drawn to the brilliant burst of the fire. 

The air moved.  That's what he remembered later.  Just the slightest flicker of the flame and then that voice screaming in his head, telling him to go for his gun and him reaching, dropping the match and watching the light float toward the floor, dying in the motion, lost into the darkness, and his hand reaching and finding his hip, finding the emptiness there, and the hard flesh clamped across his mouth, across his nose, pushing him back against the door, trapping him there, holding him to the hot fire that thrust into his side and twisted.  He could taste the hand against his face, damp and smelling of whiskey, and he gripped the man's arm, feeling the thick wool of his jacket, a fine wool, and then his knees buckled and he slid, held only by the blade in his side, and then that was gone and he sank all the way down, down to the floor, down into the blackness.

The man rolled him over, reaching into his pockets and finding what he wanted in the second one he searched.  Then he shoved him across the floor, only a foot or two, just enough to step across him to the door.  He slid it open a crack and peered out into the hallway, waiting until he was satisfied, and then he opened the door wider and passed through.  Johnny heard the lock turn from the other side. 

Twisting on the floor, Johnny put his hand to his side and pressed against it.  He knew it wouldn't do any good. The blood was thick already, soaking his jacket and making a slick spot on the wood beneath him.  He had to get up, he'd die here if he didn't, and he tried, dragging an arm under him and pushing, then falling back again.  And he tried a second time, making it closer to the door now, reaching up to the knob and turning it, pulling at the door, pulling harder and remembering the sound of the key in that lock, imprisoning him in the room.

He sank against the floor, gasping at the pain, and gathering what air he could before rasping out a barely audible, "Clancy".  And he listened hard.  There wasn't any sound, not from the rooms next door and not from the boy down the hallway.  Nobody was coming and there was no time to wait anyway, no time to think, and he was fading, falling softly into the nothingness.  He shut his eyes and breathed a prayer to whatever saints might still have a sympathetic ear, but they weren't listening, either, and his senses slipped away and the darkness took him. 


Chapter 9

"Thy Will Be Done"

Even in the dark, Darcy could tell the figure that pushed the gate open and came toward the porch wasn't her father. The shape was too round, the pace too sluggish and the form paused half way up the path to juggle something against a hip.  Darcy watched her from the porch swing, huddled in the corner where the elm tree had blocked her view of the lowering sun.  It had been a lovely sunset, with ebony clouds blushed pink by the fading day, a promise of clear skies in the morning.  But Darcy had been in no mood for anything lovely.  At first, she had closed her eyes against it and then she had picked herself up from the porch floor, rubbed the last of the tears from her lashes, moved to her swing and waited for the sunset, too, to die away.

Mamie had her head down as she climbed the stairs and she started at the sound of Darcy's voice. "Did everyone go home?" Darcy asked.

"Child, what are you doing out here in the night air?  You'll catch your death of cold."  The object at her side proved to be a towel-covered tray and she leaned it against the railing, keeping it steady with a curved arm.  "I gave Agnes Wilson a piece of my mind.  That woman could try the patience of the Lord himself.  It was her, wasn't it?  Poor child...no wonder you took out of there the way you did, that Agnes couldn't stop gossiping if you nailed her mouth shut, and don't think I haven't wanted to."

"Have you seen my father?"  Darcy's voice quivered and she took a deep breath, adding more evenly, "He didn't come home."

"No, baby, I haven't seen him."  Mamie's words were thick with her own worry.

"Is he still at Juliette's?"

"I don't think so.  He wasn't in the library when I told your aunt that I was leaving, but I really don't know.  Hold on a minute."  Mamie took the tray back into her arms and carried it into the house, returning empty-handed a moment later and sliding onto the swing next to Darcy.  She draped an arm around the young woman and pulled her closer, into the fleshy comfort of her side.  "Now, child...what's got you so torn up?  And don't tell me it's your uncle, because I saw the way you looked when you ran out of that kitchen."

Darcy let her head sink into Mamie's soft shoulder and took in the woman's scent, a familiar mixture of lavender and lye.  "He's all I have," she whispered.

"Who, baby?  Your father?"  Mamie hugged her tighter.  "Are you afraid someone's going to come after him, too?"

"No...it's not that."  Darcy was silent for a long moment and Mamie let her be, only the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest disturbing their embrace.  Finally Darcy sat up and pushed her hair out of her face. "You've known my father a long time.  What kind of a man is he, Mamie?" 

"You know your daddy," Mamie answered, her wonder at the question laced into her tone.   "He's a smart man, a tough man.  What kind of question is that, anyhow?"

"I'm sorry."  Darcy turned her face away for a moment, then looked again at the woman. "You've worked so hard today and you shouldn't be sitting out here fussing over me.  I just have some things to think about it."

"Well, that's your trouble, baby.  You think too much, got that from your daddy.  Men do that, you know.  They line up all the facts and worry at them until they get an answer."

"What's wrong with that?"  Darcy pulled her legs onto the swing and hugged her knees to her chin. 

"How many happy men do you know?"

"Not many," Darcy admitted wearily.

"Of course, not.  All they know is what they see and hear.  We women, we have all these feelings talking inside us and sometimes they don't make no sense at all, but there's not a soul on this sweet earth that's ever been happy without listening to them. You have your father's brains, Darcy, but you've got a warm heart, too...stop thinking."

Darcy turned her cheek to her knees and looked sideways at the woman.  "I tried, but everything's gone so wrong.  Father...Johnny.  I believed him, Mamie.  I can't even tell you why, but from that first day on the stagecoach I've just been a hopeless idiot and all I wanted...."  She took in a deep breath and haltingly added,  "It doesn't matter now....it's too late...but I believed him."

"Is that what your heart was saying?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"What's it telling you now, baby?"

She buried her face in her knees and sighed softly, leaving only silence as her answer.  Finally she murmured, "Where is he, Mamie?  I have to talk to Father."

Mamie lifted her arm from the girl's shoulder and stroked her hair.  "He'll be home.  You know that man does things his own way, in his own time. But if it makes you feel any better to worry over him, then you go right ahead."  She grunted as she stood.  "It has been a long day.  Beautiful service, though, your uncle would have liked it.  I'm going to go get these shoes off, but you just come find me if you think you need someone to worry with you."

Darcy looked up as the woman walked stiffly across the porch.  "Mamie?"

Stopping just outside the door and leaning into the wall there, Mamie gazed back at her. "What, child?"

She hesitated and Darcy's voice was soft and wistful when she answered. "I don't even know who he is." 

"Sure you do. He's your daddy."

Letting that answer lie, Darcy just bit her lip and shook her head sadly.

"It's getting chilly," Mamie called to her. "Don't stay out here too long."

She left her then and Darcy stared again into the dark, waiting for her father, watching that empty path and sorting her thoughts into a more manageable order, remembering the library and the marks on Juliette's neck...the client with the cane, the gunman who'd come straight to their home...and Johnny's words as they'd sat together on the swing, asking about her uncle, her father, asking the question she didn't want to think about.  And so she didn't, listening instead to the whistle of the wind through the elm trees and breathing in its fragrance, the honeysuckle scent, drifting on the breeze.  And its sweetness settled in around her and she stretched her legs, loosening her arms from her knees and letting her feet dangle to the floor, setting the swing in motion and tapping her toes against the planks each time it swung past. Until finally she stilled it, bracing one foot against the floor and landing lightly with the other, moving forward and down the steps, down the cobbled walk and through the white picket gate to find the man she didn't really know.


The sheriff didn't even have to consider it, he just gave them a sympathetic scowl and drawled his, "Nah, there ain't been no strangers like that around. Have you tried over in Russellville?"

Scott nodded impatiently.  "Yes, Russellville and Chadwick and Fair Grove, nobody's seen anything."

"Well, maybe he just didn't make it this far."  That rather obvious comment seemed to end the matter for the sheriff, who looked out at his dark town and grabbed up the napkin-wrapped sandwich from his desk.  He stuffed a bite into his mouth and wiped the crumbs from it, mumbling, "You men have any other business we need to take care of?"

"How far is it to Parson's Corners?"  Murdoch braced a hand against his lower back, pressing on it and stretching as he spoke.  "Is the road good enough to travel by the moonlight?"

Chewing quickly and swallowing hard, the sheriff shook his head.  "About an hour, maybe an hour and a half...wouldn't chance it, though. Took some hard rains last night and the stretch up north of Long Creek washed out some.  Be taking a chance on breaking a horse's leg...or your neck." 

Scott jiggled his hat in his hands, then settled it on the back of his head.  "Thanks, sheriff.  Sorry to interrupt your dinner."

"You men still thinking of heading out again tonight?"

Stealing a look at his father's crooked stance, Scott thought better of the nod he had started to give.  "No, I don't think there's any reason to take that kind of risk.  For all we know, my brother's home right now, having a good laugh at us.  Probably getting into my father's good brandy."  He didn't like the determined expression on that father's face, but he headed to the door anyway, already calculating how early the morning light would allow them to hit the trail again. 

Murdoch straightened with a frown and followed Scott out of the sheriff's office and into the streets of Dover Springs.  He caught up to his son leaning at the hitching rail, smoothing the lock of mane that fell between his chestnut's ears and staring up at the starry sky.  He crossed his arms against the rail and leaned in, too.  "My back's just fine.  There's no reason to hold up on my account.  Parson's Corners puts us an hour closer to Hartville and only three from Siloam Mills. I say we try for it."

"What makes you think I'm worried about you?"

"Because I saw that look," Murdoch grumbled. "You ready?"

Scott managed a meager smile.  "At least I know where he gets it."

"What's that?" 

"The knack for getting into trouble. Johnny doesn't think things through any better than you do."  Scott judged his father's expression and then added a more cautious, "Sir."

"Is that right?"  A weary smile worked its way across Murdoch's face, reaching into his voice, too.  "Well, I've managed to survive to this old age..."  He squinted sideways at his son. "Despite not having you around to keep me out of trouble."  He reached across and patted Charlie's neck. "I just hope we're worrying over nothing."

"We'll find him in the morning," Scott promised. "Safe and sound and giving us hell for leaving all that fencing for him to do."

"I'll take it, Scott."  Murdoch pushed off from the railing and laid his hand on his son's shoulder.  "Just so we find him...and then I have a little hell to give that boy myself."


Darcy clenched her hand into a fist, lifted it to the door and held it there, poised and ready to knock.  And after a second, she did, tapping softly at first and then a bit more solidly when there wasn't any answer. 

"Johnny?" she called hesitantly.  "It's Darcy."

With only silence from the other side of the hotel door, she knocked once more, then dropped her hand to her side.  Her eyes fell and she turned away, taking a step toward the stairs and halting.  She looked back again, toward the wet sheen that had caught her attention.  It was under Johnny's door, reaching into the hallway and gleaming in the lantern light.  She kneeled and brushed a finger across the puddle, then held it toward the lamp, staring at the dark red splotched against her skin and tilting it in the light.  Suddenly she jerked upright and shook the knob desperately, twisting and pushing and banging against the door. 

"Johnny!  Let me in...please, Johnny...open the door!"

She took in two deep, gasping breaths and then ran down the hallway, lifting her skirt with her bloodied hand and nearly falling down the steps, calling for Clancy all the while.  He was at the desk when she crashed against the banister and panted her plea.  "Clancy...get the key...Room 23...now, Clancy...get it!" 

She stumbled several steps toward him, but he came to life before she got any closer, shutting his gaping mouth and digging into his pocket for his own set of keys, jingling them as he trotted around the desk and across the lobby, and almost coming even with the woman before she turned and bounded up the stairs again.

"What's wrong?" he shouted, taking the steps two at time behind Darcy.  "I can't let you into that room, you know.  What's going on?"

Darcy waited at the landing, turning back to the boy and staring at those keys, then grabbed at his arm and wrested them from his fingers.  She took off down the hallway, leaving Clancy calling to her again and jogging after her, and she fell against the door, fumbling at the lock, trying to slide the key into the hole and shaking too much to do it, and then finding the slot and turning the key, twisting the knob and feeling the door give.  It opened an inch and stalled.

"Clancy, help me push," she demanded and when he didn't move fast enough, she spun around and clenched a fistful of his sleeve, throwing him forward and into the smooth wood of the door.  "Push!"

They both shoved and it opened wider, until she saw the space she needed and Darcy left the boy again, slipping into the room and sinking to her knees at Johnny's side. 

"Get the doctor," she whispered, her hands tugging at the still form on the floor and her face lifted to the boy's, his head and one shoulder inserted into the room. Clancy's mouth fell open again and his eyes widened, bright with fear or excitement or some emotion Darcy hadn't the time to sort through.  "The doctor," she said again, finding more strength in her voice this time.  "Get the doctor, Clancy...now."

He did as she asked, his face disappearing and his rapid footsteps fading down the hallway, and a bit more light seeped into the room.   Darcy could make out Johnny's features now and all she could do for a paralyzing moment was stare at the closed lids and the slack jaw, the perfectly still countenance, and something wrenched in her chest, something tight and suffocating.  She forced herself to move, flinging his jacket open and pulling at his shirt, finding the soaked rip in the cloth, pulling that aside, too, and not knowing what to do with the wound itself, still oozing Johnny’s slick blood.   And then she made herself face that, too, and she half crawled the few feet to the bed, dragged the pillow from it and tore the case off, crumpling it into a thicker pad and coming back to him, laying it against the wound and pressing hard.  Then she waited.

“Johnny,” she whispered.  “You’re scaring me.  Open your eyes, Johnny…come on, I know you can do it…open your eyes.”

The linen turned wet under her hands and she folded it, pressing again, putting her weight behind it this time and taking in a breath when she heard him groan. 

“I know I’m hurting you, I’m sorry, Johnny…but I have to stop the bleeding.”  She raised one sleeve to her eyes, wiping quickly across them, then renewing the pressure on the pad.  "I'm sorry," she murmured.

He stirred under her hands and moaned a second time and she choked back a sob when his eyes slowly opened, blue even in these shadows, unfocused and frightened and achingly blue.   "Darcy?" he breathed and she answered gently, hushing and soothing him and telling him to lie still.

He did for a moment, falling away again, just for those few minutes, and then he was back, gazing at her and trying to reach for her arm.  She surrendered one hand to him, clenching his fingers in hers and holding tight.  "The doctor's coming.  It's all right, Clancy's getting him and you're going to be just fine. Just hold on, Johnny, I promise he's coming."

"Didn't...didn't think you'd come."

Even those few words had left him weakened and Darcy glanced toward the bed, wondering if she should take the few seconds to release her pressure and make a bigger pad, maybe from the sheets there, one that was fresh and thick and not already soaked through. "Don't talk, Johnny.  Wait for the doctor."

His hand tightened around hers and he arched his back, grimacing against a spasm of pain and then settling slightly.  She gave up any thought of letting go, even for those seconds, and clung to him instead.  "Lie still.  I've got you."

"Why?" he managed to whisper.

"Not now," she said softly.  "We'll talk later, after the doctor fixes you up."

"Not sure...will be..."  His eyes slid closed.

"Stay with me, Johnny."  She lifted her head and looked hopefully toward the door, hearing the faint voices coming from the hallway.  "You owe me a dinner, you know. Remember?"  She squeezed his hand and was heartened when she felt an answering clench.  "That pot roast?  Just you and me, cowboy.  You promised, remember?"

They were coming closer and Darcy could see that Johnny heard them, too.  He relaxed a little and that lightened her worries a bit.  She had to slide him to get the door open, though, letting loose of his hand and dragging him closer to her, giving the doctor the space he needed to squeeze into the room, an oil lamp in his hand and Clancy following behind, toting a black satchel.

Darcy watched the doctor's eyes sweep across them and she knew the sight they made, blood everywhere, smeared across the floor, seeping down Johnny's side and splotching her, too, her red-stained mourning dress an eerily fitting suggestion of what could have been, what still could be, and too much blood yet to give up that fear.

The doctor had to push her away from the wound, flashing Darcy a reassuring smile and stooping over the injured man.  "Let me," he said sympathetically, and she did, giving Johnny over to his expert hands and sitting back on her heels, watching keenly through the quick examination and assisting as she could when the doctor fashioned a temporary bandage and they lifted Johnny onto a blanket, his makeshift stretcher.  Clancy's father helped with that, too.  He had followed them up the stairs, showing in the hallway only seconds after his son, then observing Clancy at the doctor's side and staying out of the way, just like Darcy, until an extra hand was needed.

The four of them got him down to the lobby and out into the street, crossing gracelessly to the doctor's office.  Darcy stumbled some, playing catch up to the longer-legged men, but kept her corner of the blanket tightly rolled into her grasp.  Her hands were hurting by the time they finally made it through the reception room, coming into the inner office and lowering Johnny, blanket and all, to the bed.  She had to shake the cramping from them and flex her fingers and she was disconcertingly glad for the diversion. 

It suddenly occurred to her that despite all her scraped knees and colds and one sprained ankle, she'd never been in the doctor's examination room before.  It was a only a small space, with that bed, two chairs and a glass-front cabinet that stretched to the ceiling and was stuffed with all shapes and sizes and colors of bottles and jars.  There was a small table on wheels and that held a metal tray with the doctor's tools, most of them sharp and shiny.  There was a wash basin, too, and a shelf above it stacked with clean towels and cotton bandages.  A framed painting hung on the wall above the bed, with an angel descending from the clouds, her hands stretched out to greet the injured soul beneath her.  One foot stepped forward, as if to take that final step from her lofty sanctum, and Darcy felt a ridiculous urge to stop her, to keep her there in the heavens, distant in those clouds, and away from the man lying in that bed.  She pulled her eyes from the painting and moved to Johnny's side.

"What can I do, Doctor Grant?" 

"Get them out of here," he said openly, tilting his head toward the Hurley's, who were still standing at the end of the bed, staring at Johnny.  The father seemed useless, but composed.  Clancy wasn't, though.  The boy's cheeks were streaked pink, showing brightly against the linen-white of his face.  He was swallowing hard and wiping his hands on his shirt, not looking down at the blood smudged there, just wiping.

Darcy took Clancy's arm and guided him from the room, with his father following.  They had just reached the outer office when the boy stopped and turned to the man.

"I never saw anything, sir.  Nothing," Clancy said, hanging his head down toward the rug.  "I'm sorry, sir.  I shouldn't have let this happen..."  He gestured toward the examination office and left his hand poised in mid-air.  "I was watching the front desk, this is my fault...I'm sorry, sir.  I'm sorry..."

Clancy was interrupted suddenly, as Hurley took his son into his arms and held him.  "You saved that man's life, Clancy.  You and Darcy.  It's all right, son....it's going to be all right."

"But someone had to be in our hotel.  I should have stopped him..."

"How, Clancy?  We don't even know who did this." 

Hurley looked over the boy's shoulder toward Darcy, his eyes asking the question she had known would come. And all she did was shake her head, not really a lie.  Not the way Reverend Parker would teach it, because she didn't know who was in that room with Johnny, who had stabbed that hole into his side.  Not for certain.

"Thank you, Clancy," she said softly.  "Mr. Hurley."  She left the two of them together, still wrapped together in the father's embrace, and slipped back into the examination room, shutting the door behind her.  The doctor glanced up as she moved to his side, but he didn't stop rubbing his hands with a towel.  There were more lanterns lit now, two of them on the wall and one on his table and the room was bathed with their light.

"Darcy, I need you," he said, tossing the towel in a basket by the bed. "I want you to wash up and help me here.  Can you do that?  You won't pass out on me?"

"I won't pass out," she answered, and she tested that promise with a look at Johnny's unmoving form, stripped to the waist now.  The doctor was peeling off their temporary bandage and washing away the red clots.  New fluids oozed behind it, a slow but steady flow, coming from that deceptively small tear in his flesh, only a few inches long, but spilling too much of his blood already and leaving him pale and senseless.  He lay as if in slumber, his face peaceful and still, and she couldn't help herself.  She reached out to his cheek, brushing her fingers across it, briefly, tenderly, ignoring the doctor's sideways look and not listening to the voice inside her, either.  The one that kept insisting that she did know why he was lying under the angel's welcoming arms and who had put him there. 

She did know. 


Chapter 10

"Sins of the Father"  

There was a scar etched across his right shoulder and another one near his neck, just above his collarbone. The lanterns were all still lit and the marks looked almost purple in the bright light, two dark blemishes that stole her eyes as she waited. There'd been other nights like this, those scars were testimony to that.  Darcy tugged the blanket higher against his chest, smoothed the wrinkles from the hem, and wondered if he'd looked as pale then or seemed so still.  He hadn't moved in hours, not since they'd laid him on that bed.  She took his hand, leaned back against the hard slats of her chair and tried to wriggle into a more comfortable position. Her fingers slid between his, fitting easily into their accustomed place, and she settled her gaze on his face, waiting for those eyes to open, watching his lips part slightly with each inward breath and contemplating just how many scars he could tell about, if only there was time to ask.  

She almost didn't notice the door opening a crack.  It stayed that way for a moment, poised just on the edge of swinging wider, and she looked up to find half a face showing on the other side, the one visible eye staring right at her.   

"Karl, are you coming in or not?" she asked softly.

"Didn't want to wake him."  Karl pushed on through the door and took a few steps into the room, stopping just short of the bed and looking down at Johnny.  "Doc says he's gonna make it."

Darcy tightened her hold on Johnny's hand.  "Did he tell you what happened?"

The sheriff nodded and pulled the second chair closer, sinking into it, leaning forward and lowering his voice.  "Said it was a knife, that's why I'm here.  Already talked to the Hurleys, but I didn't get anywhere. Clancy just kept sayin' there wasn't anybody there.  Did you see anything?"

She shook her head slowly. "There wasn't anything to see.  Just Johnny lying on that floor and all that..."  Darcy looked down at her red-stained waistcoat, losing herself for a moment.  "There was blood, Karl, that's all I saw, just all that blood."

"Did he say anything?"

"No."  She gave the sheriff a quick look, then dipped her eyes.  "Not about that."

"Darcy, I gotta ask...what were you were doing there?"  Karl raised his hand cautiously.  "Now, I know you wouldn't be doin' anything that wasn't proper, but a man's hotel room?  It doesn't sound right."

"Are you worried about my reputation?"  She heard the irritation in her voice and took a deep breath before adding anything more.  "You're too late, you know.  You should have heard all those old women today at the funeral...or was that yesterday?"  She looked around for a clock, but didn't find one.  "What time is it?"

Karl pulled his watch from his pocket.  "Half past twelve.  Your daddy knows you're here, doesn't he?"

"He knows," she mumbled.  "He showed up while Doctor Grant was still working on Johnny.  We sent him away, I mean...Mr. Hurley...he made him go away."

"So why were you at that hotel?"

Caressing a thumb against Johnny's hand, she considered her answer.  "We had a fight," she finally said.

"I know that.  Lancer told me."  Karl slumped back in his chair and slipped his watch back into his pocket.  "Sounds like you didn't take too kindly to him bein' a gunfighter."

"Is that what he said?" The irritation was creeping back.

"Well...not exactly..."

"I told him that wasn't it, I don't care what he was...I don't.  I knew he wasn't listening."  She stopped herself, brushing one hand against her hair, but still clinging to Johnny with the other. "We had a fight and I was upset and...I needed to talk to him, that's all."

"So you went knockin' on his door?"


"And you have no idea who did this?"

She hesitated, finally dropping Johnny's hand and wrapping her arms around her chest.  "I didn't see anybody."  After leveling her gaze on the sheriff, she asked,  "You've had two whole days to get some answers.  What do you know, Karl?  Have you found anything yet?"

Karl looked into her eyes for a long moment, then finally cleared his throat and blurted out his question.  "The Creede Mining Company...was your uncle helping your daddy with that business?"

"I don't know.  I've never heard of it."

"You sure?"

"Why?"  Darcy braced her feet against the rails of the bed.  "What does this Creede company have to do with Uncle Josh?"

"Darcy, do you know why your daddy gave your uncle two thousand dollars?"

"He didn't."

"Yes, he did."  Karl nodded emphatically.

"No, he didn't."  Darcy tilted her head and glared sideways at the sheriff.  "I do all the books.  If Father took two thousand dollars out of the company account, I'd know it." 

"It wasn't the business account, it was his personal money." 

"His personal money?  Why?"

"I was hoping you could tell me."

"No..." She shook her head in confusion. "I can't think of any reason.  Uncle Josh might have known...no, that wouldn't make any sense either."  She paused, finally forcing the question out.  "Have you asked him?"

"Haven't caught up to him," Karl complained.  "Hated to bother a man when he's buryin' his brother and he pretty much disappeared after the funeral.  Guess he's home now, but the middle of the night ain't no time to be interrogatin' anybody."

Darcy caught her words for a moment, not trusting her voice to disguise her worry.  The tears were harder to hide and she stared at the blanket, trying her best to keep from blinking, knowing that would just send them sliding from her eyes.  She swallowed hard and said evenly,  "Talk to him."

"In the morning.  After about half a pot of coffee."  He wrapped his hand around her arm and squeezed it comfortingly.  "You gonna get any sleep?"

A grateful smile flickered across her face.  "Maybe, after he wakes up."

"The man has some damn fine luck, I'd say."  Karl smiled back.

Darcy gave him a puzzled look and wiped the moisture from her eyes, lowering her hand afterwards and slipping it once again to Johnny's side, weaving her fingers into his.  She gazed at   his still face and sighed quietly.  "Have you been drinking?  All Johnny's had is bad luck since he got here."

"Not sure I'd say that."  Karl stood and pushed his chair back toward the wall. "Don't you know that just about every unmarried man in Hartville would give three months' wages to have you lookin' at them like that?  Heck, I know a few men who aren't so eligible who wouldn't be sayin' no.  And I can't remember you ever lookin' twice at any of them.  Even once, mostly."  He took a step toward the door, then turned around slowly.  "Darcy?  You got any idea what you're doin'?"

She almost laughed.   She'd asked herself that same question hour after hour, always ending with the same answer.  "The truth?" she said quietly.  "I'm scared to death, Karl."

He looked down at the floor and muffled a yawn.  "Well, that's it all right.  Been awhile..."  He put a hand on the door and added, "but I do remember. Send somebody, will ya...if he wakes up and knows anything?"  He waited for her nod, then passed through the door, leaving it open a crack behind him. 

Darcy watched him go, then brought her eyes back to those scars, lingering there for a moment before moving her eyes higher and settling on the sweet curve of his lips, remembering the press of them against her mouth, warm and tender and wanting, and she wondered again, asking the same question and finding the same answer as before.  And so she slouched lower in her chair, clung to his hand, and she waited.


Scott peered into the dark, using the measly moonlight seeping through the window to assess each unfamiliar hulking shadow.  Finally one of them moved.  Rubbing at his eyes and rolling onto his back, he called softly to the form.  "It can't be morning."

The shape moved to the hotel window and the vague illumination there gave substance to the worried face that gazed out into the dark. "No. Not for three or four hours yet."

"Can't sleep?"  Scott crossed his arms behind his head and gave some consideration to tugging the blanket up higher on his bare chest.  The air in the room was cool.  "And do you have a window open?"

"Sorry."  Murdoch pushed against the glass, budging it finally and sliding it shut. "It was getting stuffy."

"Is that why you're up?"

"No, it's that bed..." Murdoch waved his arm toward the offending piece of furniture.  "I can't take a soft mattress."

Scott tried to judge his father's posture, eyeing him for signs of pain.  "Is your back hurting?"

"No..."  His big head shook.  "Well, yes...I know I spent the day in the saddle, but...I never could sleep like that."  He sank into the chair at the foot of the bed and lifted his long legs to the mattress, crossing them at the ankles.  "Now, your mother--she would have been happy with one huge pillow that she could sink into.  We fought over that all the time."

"Who won?" Scott aimed a gentle smile toward the ceiling.

"She did.  Women always win, you'll learn that someday, son. They have their ways."

"I'm looking forward to those lessons."

Murdoch's chuckle was cut short, as he finished it with an exasperated sigh.  "If that's what's keeping your brother..."

"We don't know that, sir."

"All right, tell me, Scott...when has it ever not involved some woman?"  He shrugged down into the chair and laid his head back against its soft upholstery.

Grinning now, Scott had to admit the truthfulness of that statement. "Johnny does have a weakness for a certain feminine form."

"He's not the only one, either."

"Guilty as charged."  Scott's subdued laugh was lost into the pillow as he turned over, scrunching the feather-filled cushion under his head and snuggling more comfortably into the covers.  His hair fell across his forehead and he pushed it back with one hand.  "Are you thinking Johnny won't appreciate being rescued from his shapely siren?"

"I don't care if he likes it or not."

Murdoch's voice was weakening and Scott squinted one eye toward him, noting the way his head was lolling to the side.  "That's not going to help your back any," he warned softly.

"Hmm?"  His head lifted slightly, then settled again.  "Just worry about your brother," he mumbled.  "And get some sleep."

Having received his orders, Scott did just that, closing his eyes and letting his imagination drift across the possibilities until finally he'd exhausted all his fears and he was left with only one danger, shapely and swaying, tempting him sweetly and luring him into his dreams.  And he followed.


She was grateful for the snoring from the other room.  The doctor had fallen asleep on the sofa there and he was snorting at irregular intervals.  It wasn't really loud, but loud enough to keep her alert when exhaustion was dragging her under.  She shifted again, but it didn't do any good. Her bones had been in every position possible on that hard seat and there wasn't any inch left in that particular part of her body that wasn't sore. 

Darcy left him for only that minute, just long enough to take a few towels from the stack by the washbasin and fold them into a cushion for her chair.  When she sat back down, she was inches taller in the seat and had to scoot forward a tiny bit to reach his hand.  She settled again, perching her feet back on the rails of the bed, slumping against the hard slats of the chair and caressing his fingers.  And then she lifted her eyes to his face once more.

He was smiling.

It wasn't much of a smile, but Darcy came wide awake anyway, leaning forward and brushing a hand against his cheek, smiling herself and looking into those weary blue eyes.  "Hey, cowboy," she murmured.  "Welcome back."

"Where...?"  Johnny's eyes searched the room, then came back to Darcy's face.

"You're at the doctor's office.  He fixed you up."

She reached for a glass of water she had poured hours before, lifting it to his lips and slipping a hand under his head to help him drink.  He gulped it thirstily, but only finished half the glass before he pushed it away.

"You need to drink," she said.

"No." He shook his head insistently.  "Gonna be sick."

"Here."  She took a cool, damp towel from the table and started washing his face. "Better?"

He only nodded. 

The cloth caught against the coarse stubble on his chin and she folded it over and dabbed it at those prickly spots.  "Guess I missed that shave," she said, and she dipped her eyes, turning away and setting the towel on the tray. 

It was only a small grunt, barely audible, but it brought her gaze back to him and she slid from her chair to his side, perching on the edge of the mattress and bending over him.  "I could get the doctor...he could give you something for the pain."

"No," he murmured, shaking his head feebly.

"I know it hurts, Johnny, I'm sorry..."  She took a deep breath and reached for his hand, repeating softly, "I'm sorry."

"No reason ..to be sorry," he whispered.

She smiled gently.  "Yes, there is...I was acting like a child.  I do that a lot.  Father says...."  She sighed.  "I should have let you explain.  I didn't want you to go...it's just that I thought I knew who you were.  Stupid, isn't it?  I met you what...three days ago?  How could I know anything?"  A tear escaped down her cheek and she swiped at it with her hand.  "I want to, though.  If you'll let me..I want to..."

She was silent then, sucking in a deep breath and rubbing at her eyes.  He reached for her hand when she finished, stroking it with his thumb and rubbing away the moisture her tears had left there.  "I should have told you," he said quietly.

"No."  She shook her head and tightened her hold on his hand.  "There's some things I have to tell you."  It took a minute, as she pulled her thoughts into some sort of order and sifted through them, choosing the most important one first and taking another deep breath before closing her eyes and just getting it said.  "I saw them together...my father and Juliette.  She had these bruises..."  Darcy's free hand gestured toward her neck.  "And father...he knew.  I hate this, Johnny...it's so hard."

"Don't..."  He started to reach up to her and caught himself, groaning at the effort. 

"I'm hurting you," she said, trying to slide away.  He grabbed her arm and held on, but the pain of the effort glistened in his eyes.  "Hush, Johnny," she said softly.  "Don't try to move."

He collapsed back against his pillow, took a few settling breaths, and then smiled wryly.  "Don't think I'm goin' anywhere."

"Not right now, cowboy."  She glanced toward the outer office, hearing the rattle of the doctor's snores and wondering if she should wake the man. "Doctor Grant promised me you'll be fine.  He worked on you some, but thinks it just got muscle.  We'll have to wait to make sure. And you lost a lot of blood.  Can you drink a little more for me?" 

She offered the glass again and he emptied it this time, keeping it down without complaint and managing to wipe his hand across his mouth.  When she lowered him back to the pillow, he stared at her bloodied clothes and mumbled, "You found me."

Darcy nodded.  

"Why'd you come?" 

"To warn you, I guess."  She started combing her fingers through his hair, sweeping it back onto the pillow and spreading it across the white of the linen.  "I waited for Father and he didn't show up.  I love him, Johnny. He's my father and it was just him and me...I do...I love him. But you thought that he had hired that man and then I saw him with Juliette.... "  She was quiet for a moment, her hand holding motionless, too.  "No, I'm not saying it right.  I needed you.  I was scared and lonely and I wanted to be with you. That's the simple truth." 

"I was hoping you'd come.  Not just because of this..." He glanced toward the bandages.   "I just thought...maybe if we had another chance..."

She sighed softly.  "We almost didn't.  Who did this, Johnny?  I don't want to ask, but I have to know.  Was it my father?" 

She pulled away then, sitting up straight, drawing her hands into her lap and staring down at them, waiting for the answer. It didn't come at first and she brought her eyes to his, asking the question again, this time in her gaze.  Johnny looked back at her and finally, haltingly, he gave her his answer.  "It was dark," he mumbled, closing his eyes.  "But maybe...I think so. I couldn't see anything at first...but then, he was just standing there, and the lanterns in the hallway...they kinda lit his face and..."  He looked at her again and frowned.   "Don't know for sure...but I think it was him, Darcy.  He had the knife and he took my key and locked me in that room...it was like I was looking through some sorta thick fog...but I think it was him." 

Nodding, she fingered the edge of his blanket and brushed back another tear, then managed a tight smile.  "So what do we do now?"

He didn't have a chance to answer. Darcy felt his hand reach for hers and tighten around it, and his head rolled to the side, jaw clenched and face twisted into a grimace.  She waited, holding her breath and willing the spasm to pass and finally it did, leaving him exhausted and meek against his pillow. 

"I can get the doctor."

His eyes slid shut and he shook his head vaguely.

"I'm sorry, Johnny."

"No."  His breathing deepened and the taut line of his jaw relaxed.  "Not your fault...just tired."

"I know you are," she murmured. "It's all right...it's all going to be all right.  Just sleep."

He whispered the words, quietly, just on the edge of falling into his slumber.  "Lo siento, querida." 

And he was asleep, soundly, once again. Darcy held to his hand, regretting the way things were and clinging to the sound of that word, the one whispered endearment.  It echoed in her ears and drowned out the doctor's snorts, nearly stilling that voice, too, the one inside her that warned her that her fear was real and her father wasn't through, not yet.  Not the man who never lost a bargain.  Not him. 

She slipped away, shaking the doctor awake and telling him that Johnny had taken some water and that she'd be back.  She gave him an impetuous hug when Grant looked at her, unfocused and rumpled and tired, and then she left the office for the dark of Hartville, heading home under the early morning stars. 


Chapter 11

"Those Who Favor Fire" 

The whole house was dark, but it didn't really matter.  Darcy knew the exact distance between the door and the stairs.  She moved without thinking, swaying a hip around the hall tree and lifting her foot precisely at the first step, climbing them all and moving lithely onto the landing, just knowing the ways of the house, fitting into its niches and corners and odd little loose boards.   

There were three rooms on the upper floor.  Her father's was the one to the left and she turned that direction now, not really seeing his door, not yet anyway.  Her eyes took a minute to become accustomed to the nearly total darkness of that hallway.  She stood as still as she could, listening to the dull thump of her heart resounding in her ears and willing it to stop.  Only a few beats, that's all she needed, just long enough to hear her father's heavy breathing.  He always slept loudly and that had been a comfort to her once.  All those nights spent chasing demons through the shadows, she'd clung to the sounds of his slumber then, but she'd been small and she'd believed, if she only tried hard enough, that she could hide within those familiar rumbles.  Now she inhaled deeply and waited...and then it came, muffled but there, and she stepped quietly past the room where her father lay sleeping and pushed open her own door.

It only took a second to shut herself into her room and light a candle. She moved easily through the motions, slipping out of her stained skirt and waistcoat and finding a fresh outfit in her armoire, then dressing again. She hadn't planned to stay long and the glance she gave herself in the mirror was supposed to suffice, and it almost did.  She didn't even touch the brush on her dresser tray.  She simply stared for a few seconds, taking in the dark circles under her tear-swollen eyes and the blush of dry blood at her temple.  And then she remembered her task and set to it.

She took the candle with her, leaving her door open behind her and crossing the hall to the closed room, stopping just outside it and, from force of habit, lifting her hand to knock. She held it poised above the wood, then scowled and dropped her fingers to the knob, twisting it and pressing the door open, then passing through it into her father's office.

The Creede Mining Company.  It hadn't meant anything to her, but obviously Karl had believed it to be important and if her father had anything to indicate why, it would be somewhere in here.  She went to the desk first, setting the candlestick on the top of it and kneeling next to the leather chair. The drawer squealed, there was no helping that.  It had made that noise since as long as she could remember, so she slid it open as slowly and quietly as she could manage. She reached for the candle again, holding it over the files standing in neat order in the drawer and fingering each label. Nothing seemed curious, they were all files she'd seen before, but she flipped through them a second time, just to be sure.  Closing the drawer carefully, she stood and peered around the room.

There was a high bookcase, some chairs, a couple of small tables and a trunk.  She crossed to the shelves next, scanning the spines of her father's book collection and feeling a smile pull at her lips when she saw the familiar title.  Arabian Nights.  Her father had read it to her one summer, the hot summer, when she was only six and even the pillow had felt too warm against her neck. She had fallen asleep with his voice carrying her across the desert, to dark haired men and exotic women and romantic adventures that whispered of the mystery between them. 

The flame flickered and drew her eyes.  She sheltered the candle with her hand and looked back toward the door, not even breathing again until she had watched the dark hallway for what seemed like a small eternity.  Nothing moved, but when she brought her eyes back to the bookcase, she skimmed it faster, finishing her examination and moving on to the larger table, flipping open the cedar box there and shutting it again just as quickly.  She set the candle next to the box and sank to her knees.  The trunk was the last place she knew to look.  Taking the lid in both hands, she raised it carefully, allowing it to settle against the wall and stay tilted there. 

She knew what she'd find. It was her mother's trunk, the one she'd used to store away all the treasures she'd collected.  Her father had shown it to her, once when Darcy was barely old enough to remember, and she'd stolen searches of it every few months since, hoping he wouldn't find the evidence of her having refolded her grandmother's embroidered handkerchief or her own christening gown. Now she dug through the mementos, pushing them to one side of the space and finding nothing that hadn't been there for nineteen years.  Then she did the same thing again, piling everything to the other side and still not finding anything new. 

Darcy sat back on her heels, stared into the clutter and contemplated her choices.  She could give it up and go back to the doctor's office--that was where she wanted to be, just watching Johnny breath.  Or she could go to the office in town and look there, but that would take more time than she could stand. Still undecided, she leaned over the trunk and started organizing the objects back into their original positions.  As she set a silk bag full of fancy buttons into the corner, the bottom of the trunk tipped slightly.  Darcy stared at it for a moment, lifting her candle to where it lit the interior better and following the irregular edge with her eyes.  She moved quickly, prying at the false floor and failing to raise it, then setting her candle down and using both hands to work at it.  It finally tilted up and she ran her hand underneath, feeling for whatever had kept it from lying evenly.  Her fingers wrapped around something flat and she took hold and dragged it out, letting the floor fall back into place and closing the lid quietly.

It was an envelope.  Not a thick one and not large, but it had the weight of some papers inside it.  She stuffed it into her waistband and stood, giving the room one last glance.  She almost left it then, but something made her move to the chair on the far wall, raising the black jacket draped across it and twisting the garment in the flickering light.  It was her father's jacket, the one he had worn to the funeral.  There was a dark sheen on the right sleeve and she brushed her finger against it, finding that it was wet and catching the faint whiff of lye.  She lifted the sleeve to her nose and inhaled the soapy odor.  When the pocket swung heavily against her, she grasped at it, taking a fistful of wool and squeezing.  Something hard and long resisted and she dug out the object, slipping it into the deep pocket of her skirt. 

Her hand was trembling when she reached for the candle and she had to force herself to walk slower, not wanting to lose the flame in the breeze stirred by her motion.  She let the office door swing almost closed behind her as she crossed the hall to her bedroom. There was a shawl crumpled at the foot of her bed and she grabbed it up, throwing it around her shoulders, then turned and left that room, too, still watching the flame waver with each step.


She jerked her head toward the voice, nearly dropping the candle. 


He didn't have a light of his own.  He was leaning into his doorjamb, tying the belt of his robe.  "It's the middle of the night."

"I know."  Darcy pulled her shawl tighter, feeling the envelope rustle underneath.  "I just came home to change clothes.  Doctor Grant wants me back."

"Are you all right, sweetheart?"

"Tired...but I'm fine."

"How's the boy doing?" 

It was almost convincing.  Darcy looked into his eyes, seeming so soft and weary, and felt the pace of her heartbeat slow.  She started toward the stairs.  "He nearly died.  He still could if there's any complications."  She was almost even with her father's bedroom when she added, "I have to go."

"No."  He stepped forward, grabbing her arm and jerking her to a stop.  The shawl slipped and she caught at it, clenching it close to the papers. "You need your rest, Darcy.  Grant can take care of Lancer."

"I'm going, Father."

"I said no."

Those words rumbled with anger and Darcy stiffened under his hand.  "You can't stop me," she said, searching for some strength in her voice and hearing it come out thin and childish. 

A cryptic smile curved across his lips.  "Sweetheart, you're exhausted and you're not thinking straight."

"I know what I'm doing."

His face darkened.  "You're my daughter and you'll do as I say." 

"Will I?" Her voice betrayed her again and she hated the sound of it.  She held her head higher and glared at her father.

"Don't be stupid, Darcy.  The boy's a killer. Everyone's talking about it...my daughter and that murderer.  Juliette was crying last night and all the time you were over there holding hands with that scum."

"I'm sure you were a comfort to her."  This time her words came out just as she intended.

He didn't seem to notice. "What am I supposed to say?"

"You know he didn't..."  She held her breath, then yanked against his restraining hand.  The candle flame dipped and swayed, casting shifting shadows across his narrowing eyes. "Let me go."

He leaned nearer. "What do I know?" 

"Nothing," Darcy mumbled.  "I'm just tired...please, let me go."

"What do I know?"

Darkness took the rest of the hallway as his body loomed over her candle, strange and close and so much taller than she remembered, the familiar furrows of his face deepening and his blue eyes small and dark.  He watched her for an answer and his breath on her reeked of stale whiskey. 

She made her heartbeat slow again. "Leave him alone, Father."

"Be careful, Darcy."  His fingers tightened around her arm. 

"You're hurting me."

"If you think I'm going to let that boy..." 

She pulled loose finally, wrenching her arm from his hand and stumbling to the side, ducking away when his fingers grabbed at her and half running the few feet to the staircase.  The flame danced wildly in the rushing air, dying in the end, and she fumbled for the banister, using it to keep her steady as she landed heavily on every other step, taking them as quickly as she could and listening hard, waiting for his footstep at her back.  She stopped only for a second in the foyer and grasped at the envelope which had loosened in her waistband, clenching it in her hands and dropping the candle in the motion, then leaving it lying on the floor.  She swung the door wide and let it slam shut behind her, running across the porch, down the steps and through the yard. 

She had to stop at the picket gate, tugging at the latch and feeling it stick, then yanking harder.  It came loose finally and she flung it open, turning to see if he had caught her and staring back down the path. There was nothing there. Only the trees, swaying in the wind, and the house itself, solid and heavy and unchanging.  Her eyes moved up to the high window, his window, the one with the faint glow silhouetting a black shape.  She stared up at him, knowing he was watching and feeling suddenly ridiculous.  He hadn't chased her, hadn't hurt her...not really. He'd done nothing. That man with the cane...the marks on Juliette's neck...he could explain it, of course he could, if only she had asked. Why hadn't she asked?

A chill breeze blew through her shawl and she wrapped it tighter, hearing the envelope crinkle in her hands.  She remembered her pocket then, reaching into it and making sure the stolen object hadn't fallen out in her escape.  It was there, buried deep inside the wool of her skirt.  Her fingers folded around it and she hung her head, and then Darcy turned away, into the black hours of the night.


It wasn't the hand he wanted on his forehead.  This one was rough and calloused and Johnny lolled his head to one side, trying to escape its touch. 

"Hold on, son.  You awake again?" 

It wasn't the right voice, either, so Johnny willed it to go away, leaving his eyes closed tight.  He had to breathe, though, and that hurt, every rise of his chest pulling on the ache in his side. He tried not inhaling, just for a second, but then he had to gasp in air and that yanked at the hole and he grunted.

"I know."  The sound of those words was comforting and he didn't fight it when the man's hand slipped behind his head and lifted him higher. "Drink for me," the doctor ordered and Johnny did, taking in a few sips and then several good, long gulps.  The water felt soothing against his throat, but he had to cough afterwards. 

"Damn," Johnny muttered, holding his hand to the bandage on his side.  He coughed again, then laid back, exhausted.

"Did it go down wrong?" The doctor dabbed a towel at his mouth and felt his forehead again.

"No."  Johnny closed his eyes for a second, then looked up at the doctor.  He was an older man, maybe sixty, maybe more.  Wavy grey hair and willful eyebrows, with thick lids that drooped down into his kind eyes.  "Got a cold," Johnny mumbled.

"Well, at least you don't have any fever."  The man smiled down at him. "Darcy showed me the lump on the back of your head, too.  Not sure when I've seen such a sad case before."  He took a bottle from his tray.  "About time for some of this..."

"Don't need it," Johnny insisted, grimacing at the medicine. 

"It's just some laudanum for the pain."

"Nope."  He shook his head and waved the bottle away.  "Don't want it."

"All right."  The doctor set the bottle back on the tray, then gave Johnny a puzzled look.  "But when you're ready, it's here."  His expression turned appraising.  "Other than the fact that you have a big hole in your side, how do you feel?  It didn't look like the knife got anything but muscle, but I couldn't tell for sure.  Any nausea?"

"No...just a little...first time I woke up...when Darcy made me drink."

"Well, son, you can't let that stop you.  You lost a lot of blood and we need to get as much water in you as we can. Can you take some more now?"

He did, letting the doctor lift his head again and draining nearly all of the glass this time.  He glanced over the rim when he was through, catching sight of her just before the doctor lowered his head.  Darcy was half in her chair and half out of it, one leg stretched out to the side, the other tucked under her and her chest lying across the foot of his bed.  Her head was cradled in the crook of her arm.  He could feel her now, pressing against his leg, and it made him smile almost imperceptibly.

The doctor didn't miss it, though. 

"I tried to get her to stay home," he said, tilting his head toward the sleeping woman.  "But she wouldn't have it.  Evidently she doesn't think much of my doctoring skills...thought she better keep an eye on you herself."

"I ain't complainin'"  Johnny crooked an eyebrow toward the doctor.  "She's kinda easy on the eyes."

"Is she?" The doctor smiled.  "I'm not allowed to notice.  Been married thirty-three years and my wife can smell a pretty woman on me. Guess that's a good sign, though...if you're still looking, then you must be doing better than I thought."

"Man would have to be dead..." Johnny mumbled, then gave the doctor a feeble grin, before a sharp twinge twisted it into a grimace.  "Ow."

The pressure lifted from his leg and her head showed above the covers.  She might as well not even have had a braid--all it did was suggest a direction for her hair, which fell in curling wisps around her face instead.  She squinted against the light and the effort lined a furrow across her brow. She had a crease extending straight up from the top of her lip and running just beside her nose, a duplicate of the wrinkle on her sleeve.  Darcy rubbed a hand across her face and seemed to focus for a moment, and then she smiled, a tempting smile that woke the dimples in her cheeks and lit her eyes, warm and gentle eyes, brown and soft and gazing right at him.

"You oughta be home in bed," Johnny half whispered, feeling her hand slip into his and wrapping his fingers around her smaller ones. 

"I've been home," she answered sadly, then turned toward the doctor.  "How is he?"

Grant tipped the bottle on the tray.  "Well, he won't take this.  Seems to like the pain better than the laudanum, but maybe you can talk some sense into him.  Other than that, I'd say he's doing remarkably well.  Make sure he keeps drinking..."  The doctor lifted a pitcher from the table and peered inside. "This is almost empty."  He poured the last of the water into the glass on the table, keeping the pitcher in his hand, and then crossed to the door and paused, looking back.  "Think you can watch over him for awhile?"

"You're not leaving, are you?"

"Just getting some more water." He pulled the door open.  "I'll be right outside, so just shout..."  A yawn muted the rest of his answer, as he left the room and shut the door behind him. 

Johnny watched Darcy for a moment, seeing her move her gaze from the door to him and wondering at the restlessness of her free hand, which was petting at the blanket, smoothing an imagined lump again and again.  He shifted slightly and an awakened pain shot through his side, making him inhale sharply.

"What do you think you're doing?" she scolded, forgetting the blanket and leaning over him, sweeping his hair back and feeling his forehead.  Her touch was light and soothing and he relaxed into his pillow, breathing more evenly and feeling the pain settle a bit.  "Why won't you take the medicine?"

He ignored that question and asked one of his own. "Did you see your father?"

Some emotion flickered across her face and she sighed softly, then slid her hip onto the side of his bed and sat carefully beside him.  "Does that hurt?"  When he shook his head vaguely, she went on. "Yes, I saw Father...and...I found some things."

He closed his eyes for a second, opening them again when her hand left his.  She turned toward the foot of the bed and took something from the blanket there.  When she faced him again, she was looking down at a folded piece of paper in her fingers.

"I'm not sure if I can do this," she whispered, her eyes not leaving that white slip. "He's my father..."  She sighed deeply, then murmured again, "He's my father."

"Darcy, you don't have to do anything."  Johnny laid his hand against her skirt and fingered a fold of the soft wool.  "Let Swenson sort things out."

"Do you know he kissed me every night, right here..."  She pointed to a spot on her forehead, and went on wistfully, "every night, that kiss and then he'd tell me the angels were watching.  I knew which one he meant...my mother.  He misses her..."  She sighed deeply again. "He missed her..."


"No, Johnny...I found this."  She thrust the paper into his fist, crumpling the edges, then stared down at it.  "It was hidden in my mother's trunk.  There were some other papers, too, but this one...it's from Juliette."

He opened his hand and let the paper unfurl from it, smoothing the wrinkles to see the words which were written in a flowing script.  They were hard to make out and he tipped the page to catch the light better.  "She sure writes fancy," he mumbled, with a frown.  "What's it say?"

"It's a warning."

His eyes lifted to Darcy's when he heard her voice, so hurt and small.

"Uncle Josh found out.  Father and Juliette were....close...and Uncle Josh caught her.  He already knew about the Creede Mining Company, it doesn't say how.  I'm still not sure who they are, but Juliette says that Uncle Josh was going to make father pay."


"It sounds like that."

"Still doesn't prove your daddy killed your uncle."

"No...but he had a reason and Juliette has those bruises...and then..."  She swallowed hard and buried her hand inside her skirt pocket, then withdrew it again, empty.  "It doesn't prove anything."

Johnny reached for her hand and pulled it closer to him, caressing a thumb against her knuckles.  "That's Swenson's job, you know." 

"I know...he'll be here in the morning.  I'll tell him everything then," she answered weakly.  "I should have told him before...I should have gone to him yesterday afternoon, when I saw them together.  This is my fault, Johnny...I nearly got you killed, just because I didn't want to believe it.  If I had gone to Karl right then...or I could have told you...I should have done something..."

"Darcy..."  He squeezed her hand.  "Maybe it wasn't even him."

She shook her head desperately and started to deny it, but he raised his palm, making her hold the words. 

"You don't know for sure," he insisted.

Reaching into her pocket, she dragged out something shiny and held it out to him.  It was a key, a long one with an ornate scroll on one end.  "I found this in his pocket," she said in a flat monotone. "The jacket had been cleaned.  The sleeve was still wet."  She looked down toward the blanket and asked, "Is this it?"

He took it from her and rolled it between his fingers.  It had the right weight, the right length. "Has Swenson seen this?"

"Not yet," she whispered through her tight lips.

Considering the key for a long, silent moment, he finally gazed back at her.  "He doesn't have to."

She stared back, uncomprehending for a few seconds, and then shook her head again.  "What are you saying, Johnny?  That I should let him get away with this?"

"He's your daddy."  Johnny laid the key on the blanket and closed his eyes again, bracing against the pain that had suddenly seeped through him.  "Swenson isn't going to hold me.  Soon as I get back on my feet, I can be outta here.  You and your daddy...he can take his chances.  Seems pretty resourceful to me."

"He tried to kill you."

"I don't want to hurt you."  He half-opened his eyes, finding her face and becoming lost in the sorrow there.

"Then don't go."  She grabbed his hand again and leaned closer. 

"They'll hang him, Darcy.  If he killed your uncle, your daddy will hang."

She brushed her fingers against his cheek. "Don't go, Johnny."

"Darcy," he murmured, and he raised his hand to her face, to the hint of red still lingering at the temples, stroking his thumb against that pale blush and looking into those dark eyes, sad and frightened and wet with tears.  "He's your daddy."

"Don't you know?" she whispered, one hand grasping his and the other caressing his cheek, brushing so gently against his skin, her touch no longer a solace, but something more, something private and deep. He could feel the weight of her body, pressing lightly against him, and his hand slid to the nape of her neck and found the warmth nestled there, and he forgot her father, forgot the ache burning in his side, forgot it all and listened only to that hunger that insisted he guide her lower...closer.  She whispered once more, only a breath upon his face, "Don't go" and they kissed, their lips melting together tenderly at first and then truly, intimately, and he was adrift again. 

The first light of dawn found them together. Officially, she was sitting, her chair pulled closer to his pillow and her body leaning across the mattress, her head against his chest.  The doctor had been in earlier and he'd paused briefly at seeing them this way, but he'd kept his thoughts to himself and Johnny had rewarded him by taking the laudanum without complaint.  Now they both slept, with her quiet in his arms and him restless, sleep-talking through his drug-induced slumber and waking himself and falling back into his dreams again...and worrying about the morning.  And wishing that it was one day that just wouldn't come.


Chapter 12

"The Inevitable Law of Gravity"  

A calico cat picked its way delicately through the shards of glass on the boardwalk, then leaped through the gaping window, adroitly missing a slivered piece of frame.  Murdoch tilted forward in his saddle and patted his chestnut’s neck.  He was watching the cat, his eyes intent on the blur of yellow and black and white as it slunk through the clutter, gathered itself onto its haunches and sprang onto the long bar, finally disappearing behind its solid shelter.  Nothing else was moving in the Parson’s Corners Saloon. 

“So, what do you think?”  Murdoch straightened and glanced at Scott. 

“Looks like somebody had a good time.”  Scott's eyes swept across the chairs lying haphazardly just inside the window, next to an upturned table. Something heavy had broken that window and those chairs were the most likely possibilities, those or maybe the cowboys who had last been sitting in them.  “I assume they’re sleeping it off right now.”


Scott heard the odd mix of optimism and hesitancy in his father’s voice and gave him a gentle smile.  "It does look like his work."  He pushed his hat back on his head and stood slightly in the stirrups, trying to get a better view into the quiet bar.  "Wonder how many of them he took on?"

"Do you think your brother would stop to count?"

"He'd do the calculations," Scott admitted, settling back into his saddle and reining his mount away from the window.  "I'm just not sure what his limits might be.  Maybe the sheriff knows."

They had to wake him to find out.  The sheriff was flat out on a cot in his office, lying on his stomach and letting one hand hang over onto the floor.  Scott did the honors, leaning over the man and poking a hand at his shoulder until he grunted a bit and rolled over.  The sheriff blinked twice, then shut his eyes firmly and tried to turn toward the wall.

"Sheriff..." Scott shoved at him again and this time the man dug a fist into his eyes and yawned. Scott stood more erect and stared down at the sheriff, who still took a minute or two to reclaim his senses.

"You fellows got anything against a man finishing his sleep?"  The sheriff swung his stockinged feet to the floor and sat forward, elbows against his knees. "What time is it, anyway?"  His bleary eyes squinted toward the daylight outside his window. 

"Seven thirteen," Murdoch announced, closing his watch with a barely audible click and pushing it back into his pocket.  He was leaning against the desk, stealing looks at the closed door leading to the cellblock.  "We're sorry to wake you, Sheriff....?"

"Gardner.  The name's Gardner."  The sheriff fished under his cot and came up with two boots, which he set side by side in front of him. Raising his hand, he waved off the apology. "Not your fault.  I was up half the night with those crazy..."  He gestured toward the closed door.  "...drunken...brainless..."  With a grimace turned Scott's direction, he asked, "What would you call a gang of cowboys who bust up a saloon and then argue over who gets what bunk until three o'clock in the morning?"

"Difficult?" Scott suggested.

Gardner shook his head.  "I was looking for something a little stronger."  He pushed his foot into his boot, then went for the second one. "What can I do for you men?"

"We're looking for my brother."  Scott took one step back and tipped his head toward the cells. "Mind if we see if he's one of your prisoners?"

"No...just be quiet about it. Those men are a lot easier to handle when they're passed out."

Murdoch got to the door first, swinging it open and walking halfway into the small room. Scott followed just behind him.  There were two cells, each with two bunks and three sodden forms slung on or near them.  Two of them shared one mattress in the nearest cell, while the odd one in the second was stretched out across the floor. The smell of beer was thick and Murdoch rubbed his nose as he scanned the bodies. They seemed almost a companionable bunch now, lumped together in those cells with their snores mingling into an oddly entertaining rattle. They were all cowhands--dusty boots and well-worn jeans and skin darkened by the sun--but none of them were the right cowhand.  The only dark-haired one among them weighed at least 250 and for some inexplicable reason had claimed the top bunk, which swayed dangerously low over the cellmates beneath him.

"Well?" Gardner asked, hanging back in the doorway.  "Any of them you want to take off my hands?"

Murdoch turned on his heels, striding back into the outer office.  "His name is Johnny Lancer,” he said as he passed the sheriff, “and he would have come through on the stage three days ago. He's about your height, dark hair, blue eyes."  He paused just at the corner of the desk and stared down at the papers stacked in a tray there.  “And I guess you haven’t seen him either.”

Scott walked up beside the sheriff and answered his questioning look.  “He was supposed to be home Monday.  He wasn’t.” 

“Which direction was he heading?”

Murdoch raised his head at that question and Scott met his eyes.  “South,” Scott answered.  “He left San Francisco Monday morning.”

“Have you tried Hartville?”

“We were heading there next…do you know something, Sheriff?”

“Maybe.  Heard Sheriff Swenson had a little trouble a couple of days ago.  Traveling salesman name of Barnes came through yesterday and he was talking about a murder over there.  Swenson had some gunslinger locked up for it, but Barnes seemed to think that he’d let him go."

"Did this Barnes mention a name?"

"Said it was Madrid, but that can't be right, heard he was killed down in Mexico.  Wouldn't be the first time a big name got the credit for something he didn't do.  But don't imagine this could have anything to do with your brother...he wouldn't be a gunslinger, would he?" 

The sheriff eyed him suspiciously.  Scott laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and let a relieved grin slide across his face. “No, sheriff…like you said, Madrid's days are long gone.  Did you say the sheriff over in Hartville cleared this man?

That reassurance hardly appeared to comfort the lawman.  “I said he let him go.  That's not exactly the same thing."

A strangled yawn came from the cells, followed by the creak of wood rubbing against wood.  Scott gave a quick glance back toward the prisoners and saw a big, drowsy face grimacing at him from an upper bunk.  Gardner pushed Scott through the doorway, called a quiet, "Go back to sleep, you big ox," and pulled the door closed.

"If you woke those men," the sheriff threatened, pointing back toward the cells, "you can just stick around and play nanny to them.  I'll lock you up with them if I have to and that's a promise."

Murdoch was already heading to the sunshine warming the streets of Parson's Corners.  Scott watched him go, noticing the straighter line of his back and the way his game leg lifted now, almost even with the other.  His father wasn't smiling, but when he looked back at the door, he did have a glint in his eyes that Scott hadn't seen since they'd gone looking for his lost brother.  "You coming," Murdoch rumbled, "or are you planning to take Sheriff Gardner up on his hospitable offer?"

"Coming, sir."  Scott nodded a terse thanks to the sheriff and joined his father at the hitching rail. The horses were standing patiently there, both of them with their heads hanging and ears flicking forward.  Murdoch's chestnut snorted softly as he loosened the reins from the rail.

"Doesn't sound too bad," Scott offered, circling the rail and taking his own reins, then mounting.

Both the saddle and the man groaned as Murdoch swung awkwardly onto his horse.  "Small favors, Scott...wonder if there's any good lawyers in Hartville."

They turned their horses' heads north and Murdoch heeled his into a canter first, with Scott catching up quickly and calling out his response.  "At least we know the sheriff has been keeping an eye on him."

"Am I supposed to thank him or sympathise with the man?"  Murdoch kept his eyes on the ruts leading toward Hartville, but the corners of his mouth lifted for a few seconds, before settling back into his scowl.

"If I know Johnny, that sheriff will be happy if we just take him off his hands."

They pushed the horses, keeping them at either a canter or a trot for miles of rough road.  They knew a bucket of oats and a rubdown would be waiting only an hour away, but each of them had their own worries, too, wondering what else they'd find when they finally reached Hartville.  At least it was close, though, and they'd soon know one way or the other. The end of their trail was near.


They were too big.  The legs of the borrowed long johns didn't matter much, it wasn't like either the doc or Darcy were going to let him out of that bed anytime soon, anyway.  If they reached down over his feet, that just an annoyance, but the waistband hung around him, too.  When he tried to scoot up higher on the pillows, the long johns loitered behind and bunched up under him, making him even more miserable than he was before.  Not only did he have a wound still oozing through its stitches and a pain simmering at his side, but he was in Swenson's underwear to boot.  It was damn embarrassing.

"Can you roll over...just a little..."  The doctor pushed on him, tilting his injured side up.  "That's good...now hold it."  He was quick and gentle, loosening the bandages and cleaning the wound again, before smoothing a fresh layer of ointment over the swollen, tender cut and pressing a clean pad against it.  "That ought to do for a while.  Just let me get it wrapped up again."

Johnny waited it out, sucking his breath in when the doctor poked a particularly sore spot, and staring at the white wall opposite his bed.  He could hear the voices from the next room, but he couldn't quite get hold of their words.  He could guess what she was telling him, though, and that was worrying him a whole lot more than the underwear.  The doctor had chased Darcy from the room as soon as Swenson showed up with his armful of clothes.  She'd put up a fight, but Grant wasn't having it.  Johnny hated to think how much she'd seen of him the night before and he wasn't in favor of her seeing anymore--at least not now, this way--but he didn't like the idea of her facing Swenson alone, either.  The doctor hadn't given him a chance to object, though, he'd just set a hand on her shoulder and kept her moving, right out that door into the outer office. 

Now Johnny's bloodied long johns were lying with the rest of his clothes in a basket on the floor and he was feeling cleaner, but a bit like a dressed-out chicken, washed and stuffed and trussed up.  When he rolled back flat onto the mattress, he tested the new bandages with a deep lungful of air and was gratified to feel the muscles pull, but with only a manageable pain.  Still the laudanum working, he knew.  He had an hour or more before Grant would be trying to pour that down his throat again.

"You through?" he asked the doctor, glancing over his shoulder at the closed door.

"For now.  Missing someone?"  The doctor smiled down gently, pulling the blanket up over his handiwork.

Johnny eyed the doctor, but left his question unanswered.  "I need to talk to Swenson. Can you get him in here?"

"Sure."  Grant finished rolling his leftover bandage into a bundle and laid it on the tray.  He opened the door then, letting it swing wide and peering out into the reception room.  The little half smile on his face was swallowed into a look of concern and he glanced back at Johnny before calling out, "Karl...when you get a second, my patient wants to see you."

He stepped back, making room for two more bodies in the small room.  Karl entered first, grim-faced and fidgeting with something in his hand.  Darcy followed, squeezing past the men and coming around the bed to her chair, the one that was pushed right up beside the mattress.  Johnny watched her expression as she circled him.  She was tired, there was no way of missing that, and she'd been crying again. 

"You told him," he whispered to her. 

She nodded.  "He knows," she said, so softly Johnny almost didn't hear the words themselves, just the sad little music of her voice.

"You want to tell me what you saw?"  Swenson's tone had a hard edge that brought Johnny's eyes around to lock onto the sheriff's.  "Darcy says you recognized him."

"Maybe."  Staring up at the sheriff, Johnny readied himself for a fight.  The man looked like he wanted one at first, but then his eyes dropped and he exhaled softly.  "I didn't see much,” Johnny explained, “just those few seconds with the light from the hallway...but if I had to pick a man, I'd say it was him."

"Seems likely."  Swenson started fidgeting again, rolling something in his fingers.  "Guess I was just hoping I wouldn't have to do this."  He gazed across at Darcy.  "I'll head over to Hurley's first, then if it checks out like we think..."  His eyes fell again.  "Well, we'll see what happens.  You stay here, Darcy.  You hear?  I'll be back, but I want to find you right here."

"I'm not going anywhere, Karl."  She slipped into her chair, wedging her feet onto the edge of the mattress and leaning forward over her bent legs, hugging them to her and resting her chin on her knees.  "Just let me know, will you?  As soon as you know?"

"I'll do it."  His voice had softened and his eyes along with it.  He shoved his hand into his pocket and brought it out again, empty.  "You gonna live?" he asked, looking down at Johnny.

"I'm doing the best I can." 

"Well, I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd just keep breathing.  Seems like Darcy and Nick have enough trouble the way things are."  He looked around at the doctor, nodding toward the doorway.  "Grant?" he mumbled, and then he left.  The doctor closed the door behind him as he followed.

Darcy's eyes were shut.  Johnny watched her and wondered as the minutes passed if she had fallen asleep, still lying against her knees.  He decided to let her be and stared up at the ceiling instead, listening to the sounds in the other room and hearing the outside door shut.  Grant didn't come back, but he could hear him, too, his footsteps moving around in the reception room until finally those became still.  The sun was streaming in through the window and the jangle of wagons out on the main street told him that the day was moving on, a day he had dreaded.  It was turning out to be pretty much what he'd expected.

"You need anything?" 

At the sound of her voice, his eyes left the ceiling and found hers. She tried to smile, but it was a wasted effort and she was left with only a melancholy gaze.  She took his hand, though, letting him hide her small fingers inside his, and she sighed softly. 

"You shouldn't have had to do that," he murmured.  "I'm sorry, Darcy.  I wish I could make it all just go away."

She did smile then, a lost, tender smile.  "I know," she whispered.

"Is there anything I can do?"  He squeezed her hand gently.

She dipped her eyes to his blanket, then stole a quick look at the closed door.  "Did Doctor Grant say anything about finding us this morning?" 

He shook his head.

"I guess it doesn't matter.  I don't have a family reputation to live up to...not any more, anyway."  She leaned sideways, falling softly onto the bed beside him and curling onto his shoulder.  "Just hold me, will you, Johnny?  I need someone to hold me."

He did, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her closer.  The motion strained at his side, but he didn't care.  "I'm sorry," he whispered again and he kissed the top of her head.

"Stop saying that.  It's his fault, not yours.  My father."  He felt her body quiver with a silent sob.  "You know, I knew as soon I saw them together.  You'd think I'd have more faith in my own father, but I knew.  Do you have any idea what it's like...being so ready to believe that your whole life is a lie?"

"I know," he murmured.

"How?"  She brushed her cheek against his arm and he felt the warm tears wash from her face.

"I know."

"You told me about your father.  He's not like that."

"No, but my mama..."  He buried his nose in her soft hair and breathed in the soothing perfume, full of lilac and lavender and vanilla.  "I know."

"We're a fine pair."  She played at the hairs on his arm, twirling a finger through them and softly caressing his skin.  "Does it stop hurting?  I mean...someday.  Do you ever get used to it?"

"No."  His voice, already barely a whisper, was muted by her head against his face.  He wasn't sure she'd heard him, but she was silent anyway, lying quiet in his arms.

"Johnny?" she finally said.


"I love you." 

This time he didn't say anything.  He just held her and she seemed satisfied, nestling closer against him.  He knew he didn’t have the right, not with Swenson over at that hotel, proving the key she’d found was his, finding the evidence that would hang her daddy.  But he couldn’t stop himself and so he held her, knowing her warmth against him and taking in her sweet scent.  And wondering how she’d feel about things then, when his testimony put the noose around her father’s neck. 


Murdoch had finally had it.  He set his hands on his hip, looked around the sheriff's empty office and expelled an expletive that echoed from the walls.

"Feel better?" Scott asked.

"Even when we find him, we don't find him."  He sank into a heavy, wooden chair, laid his head against it and stared up at the ceiling.  "I'm not moving until that sheriff comes back." 

Losing his self-control into a crooked smile, Scott turned discreetly, gazed out the window and watched the comings and goings on the main street of Hartville.  Three women walked together down one boardwalk, each of them with big, feathered hats and the youngest holding a carpetbag in her hands.  A cluster of small boys juggled books loosely in their arms as they chased each other through the mud clumps of the road, while a curly-tailed dog trailed behind them. Several shopkeepers were just opening their doors and putting their brooms to use. There was a mellow haze softening them all as the sun, still low in the sky, burnt off the last of an early morning fog.

“Looks like a quiet little town."

“And Lady MacBeth was just a housewife.”

Scott ignored his father.  He was distracted by the horses pounding down the street.  There was a team of them, four solid looking animals pulling the morning stage behind them.  The entire union of horse and carriage jolted to a stop in a thick cloud of dust.  “We’re not losing you now, brother,” he mumbled into the pane of glass.

"What now?"  Murdoch rose from the seat and came to stand beside him.  “Do you see Johnny?"

“If he takes off on that stage...” Scott left the rest of the threat unfinished, as he took off through the door, crossed the boardwalk in two big steps and launched himself into the ruts of the dirt road, trotting toward the stage stop.  Murdoch limped behind him, nearly bumping into a well-dressed man as he left the sheriff's office. 

"Excuse me," Murdoch mumbled, glancing down at the shorter man. 

"Of course," the man answered, stepping to one side.  He touched the brim of his hat and nodded, but his eyes went past Murdoch into the empty office. 

"He's not in."  Murdoch flicked his eyes from the stranger to the coach.  It was still swaying as it disgorged its passengers.  "I don't guess you'd know when the sheriff might be back?"

"No, Swenson's usually around, though."  The man pulled a pocket watch from his jacket, flipped it open and then shut it just as quickly.  "He'll be back.  If you'll pardon me?"

Mumbling a small thanks and moving toward the coach, Murdoch almost did let the man go.  He actually was several steps down the boardwalk when Murdoch suddenly lurched to a stop, turned and called back to the stranger. "Don't I know you?"

The man slowed at first, taking one more step and then a second smaller one.  He came around gradually, his entire body straightening and his expression settling into a cordial, careful smile.

"Murdoch Lancer."  Murdoch jutted his hand forward and stepped closer, closing the gap between them.

"Of course.  Eighty acres of some of the best oak I've ever had the pleasure to mill."  He took Murdoch's hand and shook it heartily.  "It's good to see you again, Murdoch."

"How have you been, Nick?"

"I keep getting older.  Any idea what I can do about that?"

"Not any idea worth trying."  Murdoch glanced back toward the stage.  "I'm glad I ran into you.  Maybe you've seen my son, Johnny?"

"I didn't know you had a son." 

"I have two. Scott's here with me, but Johnny...we think he may have run into a little trouble here a couple of days ago. Have you heard anything, Nick?"

He only smiled, the crevices lining his mouth barely moving with the effort and his eyes steady.  Then he shook his head.  "You're going to have to ask the sheriff about that. Maybe we can catch up later, Murdoch.  Coffee?  I'd like to hear more about your boys, but right now..."

"I'm sorry, Nick.  Don't let me keep you.  Sure, coffee sounds great...after I've found Johnny." Murdoch stared across the street to where Scott was stalking a small, nervous man.  They were disappearing behind the stage, then reappearing again as the man paced back and forth on the boardwalk there.  "Should I find you at your office?"

"That one yours?" Poole asked, following Murdoch's line of sight across the street to the stage office.

"Yes, that's Scott." Murdoch was already sidling away, stepping heavily down into the street and taking several steps away from Poole.

"Nice looking boy, but he's going to wear out that clerk."

"Afraid so." 

Murdoch threw a sluggish wave over his shoulder and jerked his body into motion, jogging awkwardly through the ruts and leaving Poole to watch after him.  He did, still with that same studied smile, watching and waiting as Murdoch met up with Scott and the stage company clerk, circled the two of them and herded the cowering man into a corner.  Poole turned sharply then, striding to the end of the boardwalk, across the alley, and up onto the next set of planks.  He found the office he was looking for and stopped.  Pausing for only a second, he tapped his jacket pocket, nodded vaguely and entered the office.

Doctor Grant stood to greet him. “Nicholas.  I was wondering when we’d be seeing you again.”

The change in him was subtle in those first few seconds, just his eyes growing wider and his voice tightening.  "Get your bag, Grant, Juliette needs you."  Poole gestured toward the door, his arm swinging wide.  "I just left her and she found a letter.  Joshua was warned about that boy...Madrid was after him a month ago.  That gunslinger...."  He stabbed a pointed finger into the air.  "That killer...he was hired to murder my brother.  The letter proves it."

Grant moved toward his desk and left his hand wavering over his satchel.  "Are you sure, Nick?  Darcy seems to think..."

"Damn it!"  Poole's face reddened.  "Of course, I'm sure.  Juliette's been through hell since Josh was shot.  She's falling apart, Grant, I'm telling you...that letter was just one reminder too many.  I don't know what she's going to do to herself if you don't give her something."  He moved toward the desk, grabbing the bag and stuffing it into the doctor's arms.  "She needs a doctor...now."

"I can't leave Lancer."  Grant wedged the satchel under one arm and buried his hand inside it, poking around until he pulled out a small, brown bottle.  "Here...give her a spoonful of this."

Poole wrapped his hand around the doctor's, bottle and all, and held tight.  "No..."  He shook his head ominously.  "You're not going to pick that hell-bent, godless killer over Juliette.  You're coming and you're coming now."  He took a fistful of sleeve and jerked the doctor forward, pushing him toward the door.  "She's going to hurt herself, Grant....are you ready to live with that?  That you let the widow of a murdered man fall apart while you watched over the killer?"

"Nick..."  The doctor held his ground, prying at Poole's hand and leaning away. 

Poole tightened his grip and brought his face close to Grant's.  "She's not a strong woman...she'll hurt herself, I know she will.  She hasn't slept for days, Grant, not for days and she's right on the edge. You have to help her, please, Grant...I'm asking you...it'll only take a few minutes, that's all, just a few minutes...you'll do it, you have to do it."  He tugged gently, luring the doctor toward the door.  "I'll keep an eye on Lancer for you, I promise.  Just go help Juliette."

"I told Swenson I'd stay."  Grant hestitated, standing just inside the door and moving his eyes from the closed examination room to Poole's intense stare.  "I can't do it, Nick. Here, take the bottle."  He tried to dig it out again, but Poole covered the satchel clasp with his palm, pressing the bag back against Grant's chest. 

"You're going, Grant.  Please."  Poole's voice was low and rhythmic and his eyes softened, no longer a threat but a plea, sympathetic and wanting.  "I need you to go.  Juliette needs you to go. Please, Grant, please.  Just go."

"I don't know, Nick..."

"For God's sake, Grant...you have to help her.  Go."

He did then...reluctantly, clutching his bag to his side and slipping backward through the door, his expression uncertain but his body moving.  Poole guided him through, pushing the door closed behind him and holding it, just for a moment longer, just long enough to be certain the man was truly gone. 

When the moment was over, he took a deep breath and crossed the office.  Poole grasped the knob of the examination room door, twisted it and held it that way for a second more, leaning his head against the wood and squeezing his eyes shut tight.  Then he stood erect, swung the door open and stepped into the room.


Chapter 13


Darcy had rolled away before the door even opened. Johnny heard her father's voice and knew that she'd heard it, too.  She stiffened in his arms and then her head came up from his shoulder, twisting back toward the door and staring past him, listening intently.  She left him then, stumbling from the bed and catching herself with an arm against the wall, looking wildly around the room.

"Is there a key?" she whispered, her face growing paler and her eyes jerking desperately from his to the door. 

He didn't get a chance to answer, not before the creak of the hinges let him know what the catch in her breath confirmed. It was too late.  Nicholas Poole was in the room.

Johnny crooked his neck to find the man's face.  He was staring dead on at Darcy.  The angle was hard to judge, looking straight up at the man this way, but Johnny would have sworn that Poole wasn't happy to be there.  His face was hanging heavy again, all those furrows sliding downward and dragging his eyes along with them.  They were small and guarded. 

Nobody spoke and the silence swelled across the room, making the air turn thick and sluggish.  Poole seemed trapped by it at first, simply standing at that doorway, watching his daughter frozen on the far side of the mattress.  Then he sucked in a deep breath and the room swirled into motion again.

Darcy edged toward the foot of the bed, wrapping a fist around the bedpost and glaring at her father.  Johnny eyed the tray full of scalpels and probes and scooted himself backwards, higher on the pillows, knowing he couldn't do a damn thing, but going for any advantage he might wrestle out of the situation.  Poole clicked the door shut, turned, swept his hat from his head and tossed it on the chair.

"What do you want?" Darcy's voice trembled.

"I need you, sweetheart."  Poole took a few steps toward her and Darcy backed away. "Darcy, you don't know what this boy is."  He glanced at Johnny.  "He really is a killer...Juliette found the proof.  There's a letter."

"You're lying."

"No, I'm not."  Poole raised his palm defensively.  "Why would Juliette lie about something like that?  She found a letter in the drawer of his bureau and we know everything now.  Madrid was hired to kill your uncle.  It's true...the boy's a cold-blooded killer."

He took two more steps forward, coming even with the foot of the bed.  Darcy retreated again, backing into the space between the wall and the mattress.

"Leave her be," Johnny warned softly.

Poole ignored him, keeping his eyes only on Darcy.  "He killed him."

Darcy pushed her hair back and shook her head.  "That's impossible." 

"No, it isn't."  Poole pointed a shaking finger toward Johnny.  "He murdered Joshua."

"Why would anyone do that...hire someone to kill Uncle Josh?" 

"Money."  Poole's voice grew deeper, more soothing, and he leaned forward.  "Josh was holding a big debt and the man didn't want to pay.  He died for money, Darcy, that's it...pure and simple.  Your boyfriend here killed him for cold, hard cash.  Juliette found that letter and she read it and she just fell apart."  He held his hand out to her.  "I've sent the doctor, but she needs a woman there, Darcy. Grant won't stay with her, but you can. I need you to go to her."

Darcy's mouth gaped open.  She made a strained sound, something almost like laughter, and she stared at her father's outstretched hand in desperate amazement.  "You want me to leave him alone...with you?"  She shook her head again and took another step backward.  "No...no, Father.  You can't do it. I won't let you...you can't."

"Darcy," Johnny whispered, and she flicked her eyes to him, then jerked them back to her father when he lunged forward and closed the gap between them.

"You're not staying with Madrid."  Poole grabbed her wrist and yanked her to him.  "Juliette needs you and I'm telling you to go."

She struggled against his hand, twisting her arm frantically. "Let me go," she demanded.  "You're not going to hurt him."

"Stop it, Poole."  Johnny rolled to his side, tipped up on an elbow and reached for them, managing to get his fingers around her arm.  "She ain't part of this.  Just let her go."

"Yes, I am."  Darcy looked down at him. "Johnny," she murmured, and he saw it in her face, all the pain he felt stabbing through his side mirrored in the worry there, the sad sympathy of those brown eyes.   "Stay down," she whispered, and he fell back, breathing heavily, clenching at his bandages and trying to think of a way, any way, to get Poole's hands off of her.

"Do what he's telling you. Go," Johnny rasped out, staring straight up at her.

"No."  She wrenched her arm, but Poole clung tight.

"Listen to him," her father said, dragging her around the bed.  Darcy fought him and pulled backward, but Poole's big frame was stronger and he gained ground with every violent jerk.  "You shouldn't be here, Darcy.  Not now.  Please, Darcy, just get out of here.  Juliette..."  He hesitated for a second, then seemed to remember his story.  "Juliette needs you, sweetheart.  Just for a little while."

"No," she whimpered.  "Don't do this."

"Leave her be."  Johnny tried it again, biting his lip and groaning, but sitting all the way up this time.  The room spun around him and he closed his eyes to still it.

"You can come back when Juliette's better, I swear." Poole's voice cut through the drone in Johnny's ears.  "Just go."

When Johnny looked again, they were both on the other side of the bed, closer to the door, and Darcy was sliding nearer by the second.

"Just go," Poole told her.  "You don't belong here."

"Father, you can't." She swept a panicked look toward Johnny and back to her father's face.  "You can't," she said again, and then she drew her hand back and slapped Poole...hard.  The sound of it snapped through the small room.

Poole dropped her.  "Damn you!" he shouted, and he rubbed his palm against the pale splotch on his cheek.  "You ungrateful..."

Darcy tripped backwards and went down, crabbing across the floor.  She crashed blindly into the table, tipping it, and the table, tray and all, slammed to the floor.   The tools poured across the boards and skittered musically.

"You shouldn't have done that."  Poole's voice was low and he moved toward her.

"Don't..." Darcy cringed.

Johnny didn't know how he did it, but somehow his feet were on the floor and he was lunging forward, arcing through the air between them and grabbing Poole's shoulder, turning him and holding, and then they both were falling, suspended for a second, twisting, and they hit the floor.  Poole was on top of him.  He rolled, grinding against Johnny's side, and there was a sound, guttural and deep and hard to place at first, and then Johnny knew what it was and he tried to suck it in, but it slid past his lips again. 

The room faded into the urgent fire in his side and the roar in his ears grew louder.  Johnny only felt him at first, Poole's arm against his hip as he leveraged himself erect, and then finally he came into focus, looming over him and seeming monstrously tall.  Darcy's voice was distant, but Johnny heard her say his name, and he tried to answer. 

Poole twisted toward her and stepped across Johnny's splayed legs.  Johnny searched the floor at his side, sweeping his hand across the wood and finding something hard.  His fingers wrapped around it and he turned his head to focus on the object. It was a scalpel and he shifted it in his fist, strengthening his grip and trying desperately not to laugh, a crazy impulse, but the only one that made any sense.  It was all so ludicrous.  One tiny blade and him weak as a baby and lying on that floor.  He couldn't stand.  He'd tried and that'd been a disaster, but he had to do it. Poole was reaching for her now, right there, bending over Darcy and threatening her with the quiet thunder of his voice.

He forced his legs under him and pushed off from the floor, making it halfway upright, kneeling and leaning against the fallen table and aiming his scalpel out toward Poole.  A blinding spasm of pain shot through him and for a moment the world descended into nothingness.  He held on.  "Let her be," he mumbled, his voice nearly abandoning him, too.

Poole ignored him, grabbing Darcy by her arm instead and yanking her up with one hand.  He backhanded her with the other and her hair flew across her face as it snapped to one side.  Her breath came out in a rush and she flailed back at the man, striking him uselessly with her fist and jerking away as he tried to capture her other arm. 

"Stop it," Poole shouted, then softer, "listen to me...you've got to listen, Darcy.  You don't understand."

"Poole!" Johnny pushed to his feet, tugged at his sagging long johns and swayed toward the man, still clenching his razor-sharp blade. He couldn't look at her, not the crimson flush of her face or the loose confusion of her braid, wild as the blonde's that first night, tangled wisps of it falling across her eyes and veiling the fear shining through them. He stared instead at Poole and demanded again, "Let her go."

The man turned toward him.  His eyes settled on the scalpel and they widened for a second and his mouth formed an unspoken word.  Then the corners of his lips lifted, only a slight motion, and he loosened a hand from Darcy.

"Are you threatening me, Madrid?"  The smile fell away.

"Let her go."

Poole slid the hand into his pocket and brought it out again, the silver barrel of a derringer thrusting from his fist.  "Stay back, Darcy.  Madrid has a knife." 

Johnny tilted and caught himself.  Darcy's voice was cutting through the thickness of his senses, a single word said once and then again, "no."  She was whimpering and the sound of it seeped into his pain, and she pleaded still, "no", and the word itself quieted the trembling in his legs and strengthened him, giving voice to his own hopeless fear.  And then his name, whispered from her lips, drifting gently to him, soft and knowing.  He stood taller.

Poole aimed the derringer at Johnny's head and cocked the hammer.


The Hurley Hotel.  That's all the clerk had been able to tell them, just that a man matching Johnny's description had missed the stage on Monday afternoon and that he'd recommended the Hurley Hotel.  Now Scott and Murdoch were getting their boots muddy again, stepping through the ruts of the Hartville main street and heading to that same destination.

"Who were you talking to?" Scott asked, cautiously avoiding a suspicious clump of something dark and damp.


"In front of the sheriff's office...you were talking to a stranger."

"Oh, Poole."  Murdoch eyed the now empty boardwalk.  "He owns a lumber mill here in Hartville. I sold off some of our standing lumber a few years back and he was the buyer. Interesting man."

They both halted to let a buggy pass.  It was a fringed carriage with a neat little sorrel in the traces. An older lady in sensible grey held the reins, while beside her a young woman sat with hands folded in her lap, staring straight ahead at the rhythmic bouncing of the sorrel's mane.  Her eyes stole sideways as the horse trotted by and Scott nodded.

"How so?"  Scott watched after the buggy and resumed his stroll, tugging a glove off his hand.  He flicked it at his cheek, trying to dissuade a fly that had taken a liking to his face.

"He's self-made," Murdoch said.  "Started out with the shirt on his back and he built a little empire here. I think he's pretty proud of it, too."

A subtle smile worked its way across Scott's lips and he gave the fly one final swat.  "He's not the first man to feel that way."

"No."  Murdoch stepped up on the hotel's boardwalk.  "But with Nick...there's something more. Not sure I can put my finger on it..."  He looked at the door.  The name of the hotel was painted in carefully edged letters on the glass there.  "Well, what are the odds, Scott?"

"Only one way to find out."

Scott opened the door and stepped into the lobby. The boy behind the counter looked up and tugged the lapels of his too-tight jacket.

"Good morning," Clancy called across to them.  "Checking in?"

Scott waited for Murdoch to catch up before they both crossed to the registration desk. He tipped his hat back on his head and leaned into the counter, taking a second to judge the appearance of the boy.  Barely into the day and he looked beat already.  His eyes were dark-rimmed and swollen, complementing the splotchy look of his pale skin and, all-in-all, making him appear singularly unattractive.  Scott felt a twinge of sympathy for the kid.

"We're looking for a man," Murdoch announced.  "The clerk over at the stage office thought he was registered here. Johnny Lancer?"

"Is he here?"  Scott asked, turning the register around and flipping through the pages.

"Mister Lancer?"  Clancy's eyes moved between their faces, then he reached over and grabbed the book, slid it closer to him and snapped it shut.  "It's against hotel policy to release information about our guests."

"Now, listen..." Murdoch started in.

"We've come a long way," Scott interrupted, "and I'm not leaving this desk until you've answered our question." He poked a finger at the guest book.  "Now my brother should have signed in..."

"Monday," Murdoch inserted. "He would have been here Monday and if he's still here, we want to know it and we want to know it now."

"Your brother?"  Clancy's eyes lit and he started to smile, but that was short-lived.  "I...I'm sorry," he stammered, "I...I thought I locked the door.  I told the sheriff...I told him everything I knew. He's going to be O.K., isn't he?  That's what Sheriff Swenson said.  He's gotta be O.K."

Both men stiffened and Scott grabbed hold of the boy's arm.  "What do you mean, 'he's going to be O.K.'?"

"What's happened to Johnny?" Murdoch's big voice scared the boy and he ducked backwards.

"Swenson can tell you."  Clancy's eyes shot to the stairs.  "Sheriff, these men are asking about Mister Lancer!"

Twisting to follow Clancy's line of sight, Scott saw a tall man with a badge descending the stairs.  He had a frayed look, almost as sleepless as the boy, but with a difference.  This man still had some swagger to him, stepping quickly down the steps and striding across the lobby.  He paused just short of the desk, set his hands on his hips and stared first at Murdoch, and then Scott.

"So how are you two tied up in all this?" he asked roughly. 

Murdoch took a step closer to the sheriff, straightened to his full height--hovering inches above the man--and glared down at him.  His voice rumbled across the room and made Clancy wince.  Swenson never batted an eye. 

"Sheriff," Murdoch said. "I've been in the saddle since yesterday morning, slept in a chair, hit the trail again before the sun even thought about shining and now I want some answers.  Where's my son and what kind of trouble has he gotten himself into?"

Swenson reached into his pocket and pulled a key from it, tumbling it through his fingers.  "Your son, huh?  Well, Mister Lancer, that's a kinda long story."


"Swenson's got the key."

Johnny's words hit their mark. Poole's hand dropped an inch, then another. 

"What key?" he asked, almost casually.

"The one I found in your jacket."  Darcy scrambled to her feet and stepped over the tray, moving to Johnny's side and slipping her arm around his waist. She tried to be gentle, he knew she did, but the pressure burned into his side and his knees started to give.  "Oh, God," she murmured as he slid toward the floor.  She went down with him, catching him as she could and both of them collapsing back against the glass front cabinet.  Bottles quivered and clinked and the glass door rattled, but nothing was broken.  Darcy got to her knees and bent over him, brushing his hair from his face and looking into his eyes.  He held her gaze for a second, then he had to squeeze his eyes shut, fighting back the worst of the pain. 

"Where's the key, Darcy?"  Poole's voice was sharp and biting.

"He told you," Darcy said.  "Karl has it. He's going to be back any minute, Father."  Her hand left his brow and Johnny forced his eyes open, finding her back turned to him.  She was looking up at Poole and his jaw muscles were working at his face, clenching and unclenching rapidly.  "You can't win.  Karl knows you killed Uncle Josh."

"I killed Josh...?"  The man's brows edged closer together.  "Is that what you think?"

"Who else?" Darcy shouted at him.  Johnny got a foot planted firmly on the planks and pushed back with it, wedging himself higher against the cabinet.  He felt the cool floor too low against his back and pulled at his waistband, too. 

Poole opened his mouth and grabbed his words back again, nearly unsaid.  "I killed...?"   He eyed his derringer and raised it higher, aiming again at Johnny's head.  "Swenson has to prove it."

"You didn't do it."  Darcy sank back on her heels.  "You didn't kill him, did you?  Juliette did it, that's what this has all been about.  You've been protecting Juliette."

"No."  He shook his head.  "Juliette has nothing to do with this, Darcy. I killed Josh." 

"I saw those bruises."  She ran her fingers across her neck. "And Johnny saw a blonde woman, there in that room, that night. It had to be Juliette."  Her voice turned pleading.  "Don't do this, Father.  I thought they were going to hang you, but it'll be all right.  You'll go to prison for awhile, that's all, but nobody has to die.  I love you...you know that.  Just put the gun down.  Please, Father, just put it down."

"I can't, sweetheart."  Poole's voice trembled now and the derringer wavered.

"She's not worth it, Father." 

"You don't know..."  He sighed softly.  "How could you know...you're just a child. Lancer understands, don't you, son?  You know what it's like to want a woman...to need her. So much, you'd do anything?"

"I know," Johnny answered gently.  "Drop the gun, Poole.  Nobody's going to hurt Juliette.  Just drop the gun."

"I can't."

"You can do it.  Just put the gun down, that's all.  Just put it down."

"No."  He pulled his shoulders back and thrust his hand toward them, the pistol steady once more.  "There's no other way.  Darcy, you're going to do as I say and move away from Lancer."

"Please...I won't let you do this."  She started to stand and tripped on her skirt.  Johnny grabbed her arm and steadied her as she tugged it out from under her foot, then she raised up.  "I love him, Father.  Please...don't kill him." 

"Move."  He waved the gun to the side, tilting his head to imitate the motion.  "I don't want to hurt you, sweetheart.  Just do as I say, and nothing's going to happen to you.  Just step aside."

"I can't."  She took a step forward, farther into the line of fire.  "If you'll just put the gun away, we'll help you, Father.  Nobody has to get hurt, not Juliette...not anybody.  Just put it down."  She moved closer again, almost within reach of him, held her palm out and pleaded gently.  "Give me the gun.  I love you, Father...I'll help you, I promise...we'll both help you.   Just give me the gun.  Please...just hand it to me."

She was finally within reach.  Johnny squinted up at them, losing sight of the derringer behind her body, barely hearing the tender murmurs of her voice and seeing only Poole's face, sad and weary, his eyes buried in his daughter's gaze.  He seemed almost too worn to hold his head upright and it tilted subtly to the side.  They stood like that for a long moment, her voice quietly caressing the air between them and Poole silent, listening.  His hand lifted and he swept the hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear. 

"I'm sorry," he whispered. 

Poole clenched his fingers behind her neck and lifted her like a rag doll, tossing her aside and not even looking when she landed in a heap against the door.  Johnny saw the gun swing back to him and he twisted to the side, rolling away and kicking at the table, knocking it at the man.  Poole slapped it behind him as Darcy fought to her knees.  She lunged across the floor, crawling and falling toward Johnny, screaming his name, and he tried desperately to stand, slipping on the floor and falling back as Poole aimed the gun one last time.

The door swung crazily, slamming back against the wall as two bodies exploded into the room. 

"Drop it, Poole!"

Swenson's gun stretched out in his hand, with Scott's right beside him.  Johnny sank against the planks and curled into his pain.  Darcy was there, her arms wrapped around him, and she lifted his  head into her lap.  Poole still had the gun leveled at them, indecision etched into his furrows.

"Now.  Drop the gun."  Scott's voice, cool and commanding.

Johnny saw the change...Poole's face, determined now, tightening, and he braced for the bullet.

Almost as one, three shots crackled through the air.

Later, those were the things he remembered. The utter certainty of his brother at that door, Scott's familiar eyes looking down at him.  He'd never questioned how, it just was.  Scott, holstering the gun that had given him another day to breathe and watching him with such curious, familiar eyes.  And Darcy, slipping away to her father's side, holding him now, rocking him.  His blood soaking her skirt this time, his body draped across her lap. And her eyes, too, looking at him with such a powerful mourning.

Johnny lay back and left her to her sorrow.


Chapter 14

"Time Heals and Other Fallacies"


Johnny slept at all the wrong times.  They'd hauled him back onto the bed, with him keeping a fumbling hand on his unreliable waistband, and then they'd left him there.  For days.  The doctor was in a lot, poking at him and forcing some sort of awful liquid down his throat, and Swenson came by some.  The sheriff had a couple of questions and a bit more news, but mostly he just complained about Juliette.  The lady had a few things to say about being stuck behind bars and Swenson was getting darned tired of listening to it.  Murdoch was around just about the whole time, all except that one night when Scott wedged himself onto two chairs, his rear end on the first and his stockinged feet on the second.  The chairs kept scooting apart and the scrape of their legs against the floor broke into Johnny's dreams, that and the sound of Scott's curses a time or two, but it hadn't really woken him. 

She came, too.  Sometimes his eyes were open and Darcy would slide into her chair, weave her fingers into his and smile that hushed little smile. She and Murdoch talked a lot. He got the basic who and what from her, but there was a lot more to ask.  Only she and Johnny were never alone and when they were, Johnny was asleep again. He knew she'd watched him while he napped and once he'd breathed in her scent, sweet and near on the pillow beside him. Murdoch must have been gone then, but Johnny couldn't quite stir himself awake and when he had, she wasn't there any more.

They moved him on the third day. It was the same day they buried Nicholas Poole.  Darcy was wearing the black mourning dress and Johnny wondered how she'd gotten it so clean.  Mamie, he figured.  Mamie had brought him his underwear sometime that first day, or maybe it was the second, and she'd dangled them out in front of him, pointing to each pure, white spot where the blood used to be and going on about mineral oils and lye and all sorts of magical concoctions.  Finally Murdoch had shown mercy on him and yanked them from her hands, but not before Darcy had gotten an eye full.  Her dimples had shown then, just for a second, and that sparkle in her eyes had come back, but it hadn't lasted. 

He couldn't quite read the way she looked the rest of the time.  It wasn't just sadness, not exactly. Not like those other women, the ones he'd seen before. Widows and mothers stumbling through the motions, dead to the voices around them.  There was something else in Darcy's face and it nagged at him.  It was still there when she left to put her father in the ground, her expression uncommonly still, somber and tight and old. 

As he watched her go, a breeze tickled the bangs lying across his brow.  It was fluttering the curtains in Mamie's room, too.  That's where they'd left him this time, stretched out across her too-short mattress, with his toes poking through the iron rods of the bed.  There was a crocheted blanket tossed across his legs and another one hanging from the bedpost.  Mamie was awfully fond of yarn.  Huge skeins of it were piled in a basket on the floor, just raw resources for the impressive output that nearly smothered the room. Her work was everywhere--on the pillows piled up behind him, covering the overstuffed chairs, and folded and stacked on the bureau.  Scott had to sort through it just to sit down, moving a mound of crocheted cushions from an armchair and organizing them carefully into a wobbly hill of pink and yellow and blue. 

"Ain't Lancer." 

Scott smiled at the understatement.  "No, brother, it isn't.  But maybe we can get Mamie to show Murdoch how to do some of this." He fingered a bit of the crochet. "It'd be one way to keep him busy in his old age."

"What old age?" 

Both heads turned to see their father glowering down at them from the doorway.  He had a platter in his hands, covered with a blindingly white towel.  Mamie's work again, Johnny decided.

Murdoch moved into the room and set the tray on the bureau. "You boys aren't saying that I'm getting any older, are you?"  A hint of a smile escaped across his lips.  He draped a folded napkin over his shoulder and picked up a steaming bowl, carrying it to Johnny.  "That's just an ugly rumor, I can still turn a lady's eye.  Can you sit up, son?" 

Johnny did, elbowing the pillows behind him and making a firmer support. 

"I guess you didn't see those ladies we passed this morning.  Here..."  Murdoch handed over the bowl and tugged the napkin from his shoulder, spreading it out across Johnny's half-buttoned shirt.  "Be careful, it's hot."

"What is it?"  Johnny stirred the spoon into the soup, swirling dark objects to the surface.

"You mean those women we passed bringing the buckboard over?" Scott's eyes lit.

"Those were the ladies," Murdoch said with a sideways glance at Scott, and then to Johnny, softer, he answered, "Vegetable beef."  His slight smile grew wider. "Oh, and Mamie wanted me to tell you that it's safe to eat...Darcy didn't make it." 

Johnny felt a smile play at the corner of his mouth and he held it back.  Wasn't proper--not now.  Not with that preacher man praying over Poole's body just about any minute. He took a spoonful of soup.

Scott squirmed in his seat and waved vaguely in the direction of town. "Those women?" He laughed gently.  "The two ladies with the parasols?"

"Those were the ladies."  Murdoch returned to his tray and swept the cloth from two impressively large sandwiches.  "I don't like to point out the obvious, but I think they were looking at me.  No, I'm sure of it."

Bringing his smirk under control, Scott nodded. "Now that you mention it, I think you're right, sir."  He took the plate Murdoch handed him and, staring down at it, mumbled, "Of course they were both eighty."

"What was that?"  Murdoch snitched a loose piece of meat from the plate and stuffed it in his mouth.

"Nothing.  Just thanking you for the plate."  Scott wedged the meal onto his lap and struggled to get his hands around the sandwich.

"That's what I thought."  Murdoch took his own plate from the tray, then dropped into an upholstered chair.  He pulled a pillow from behind his back and tossed it on the floor.  His voice was also low when he added, "and they were not."

Johnny saw the amused look Scott shot their father.  He took another spoonful of soup, feeling its warmth slide down.  His throat didn't hurt anymore, hadn't for a couple of days.  He could breathe again, too.  There was an easy looseness sinking into his bones and it felt good.  He wanted to give in to it, just let it be...but he couldn't.  He stirred the soup idly and finally asked, "Scott? You know what's gonna happen with that Creede company?"

Scott's expression turned serious.  "I guess we'll find out tomorrow.  Their wire said they'd be here sometime in the afternoon."

"There ain't no way Darcy's going to take the blame for any of that, is there?"

"No."  Scott's sandwich started falling apart and he set it back on his plate.  "Not a chance.  Swenson was there when we broke into Poole's locked files.  We both saw how surprised Darcy was that her father had that second set of books."

"What do you think's going to happen?" Murdoch asked.  He gave up trying to handle his food and took a pocketknife from his vest, using it to cut the thing in two.

"Creede will take over."  Scott held his hand out.  "May I borrow that?"  Murdoch handed the knife over and Scott sawed at his own sandwich.  "Considering that Poole never bought even half of the equipment or lumber that Creede thought they were investing in and Poole's estate doesn't have the funds to pay them back...I'm sure Darcy will have to sign the lumber mill over to them.  I'll try to help her, but there aren't many options."  He passed the knife back to Murdoch.

"What are you two doing?" Johnny stared as Murdoch shoved the closed knife back into his pocket.

"What?"  Murdoch stared back.

"That knife."  Johnny tapped his spoon in the air, aiming it toward his father.  "Since when does my fancy brother cut his food with a dirty pocketknife?"

"Oh, that..."  Murdoch hesitated, sharing a look with Scott, then launched into his attempt at an explanation.  "There aren't any knives in the kitchen. Mamie's going to borrow some when she gets home." 

"No knives?"  Johnny sought out his brother's face, hoping to make more sense of it there.

Scott smiled gently.  "Darcy had all the knives thrown out.  I think Mamie buried them in the backyard.  Nobody could find the knife he used..."  Scott lowered his eyes to the bandages around Johnny's middle.  "And evidently Darcy couldn't quite accept the idea that she might be eating her dinner with it.  So she threw them all out."

"There wasn't no call for doing that."

"Maybe not," Scott agreed, "but Darcy doesn't seem the type to do things by halves."

"Yeah?"  Johnny dropped his spoon in his bowl and wiped at the dark globs that splashed from it. "You mean like losing her old man, losing the business, losing everything all at one time?"

"I wouldn't call it everything."

"What about this house, Scott?  She going to be able to keep this house or is that going to be gone, too?"

Scott finished chewing a mouthful of sandwich and dabbed a napkin at this mouth before answering sympathetically, "I'm not sure.  She has her lawyer looking into it, but he isn't very optimistic."

"You mean the house is gone."  Johnny set his bowl on the table next to him and slid lower into the bed.


"That figures."  Johnny wadded his napkin and tossed it beside the bowl.

"Darcy's a strong girl.  She'll come out of this all right."

"We'll help her, son," Murdoch added. "We all will."

Johnny's eyes narrowed.  "Some help. If it wasn't for me her daddy would still be alive."

"We don't know that."  Murdoch shook his head. "Besides, the man made his own choices and he paid for them.  Nobody's blaming you."

"Maybe not...but Poole's still dead."

Scott and Murdoch's eyes met, then Murdoch leaned forward in his chair and clearly, commandingly insisted, "That's not your fault, Johnny." 

Almost on top of his father's words, Scott added, "Darcy doesn't blame you, does she?"

"No..." Johnny mumbled, closing his eyes and letting his air out in a quiet sigh.  "I don't know..."

Johnny could feel Scott's eyes drilling into him and he opened his own, matching his brother's stare a long moment.

"What do you mean--you don't know?" Scott complained. "Haven't you asked her?"

"It doesn't matter."  Johnny knew he sounded pitiful and he hated the sound of his words.  He wanted out of that bed, out of the room, out of Hartville, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

"Sure it matters."  Scott bent forward and laid a hand against the mattress. "Talk to her, Johnny."

"When?"  Johnny raised his hand and shrugged vaguely.  "When am I supposed to talk to her, Scott?  While she's out there burying her father?  Or maybe while she's signing over everything she owns to Creede? She ain't exactly had too much time to talk."

"Then you have to make her."

"Won't do no good." 

Scott looked at Murdoch, who was still leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, silently watching Johnny.  His hands were folded together and his chin rested on them, looking almost prayerful.  That's not the way I see it," he said, bringing his eyes back to Johnny.  "From where I'm sitting, it's pretty obvious that the girl loves you.  Are you going to argue with that?"

Laying his head deeper into the pillows, Johnny concentrated on the convenient distraction of the ache in his side.  "I ain't arguing, Scott, I'm just saying...things can change."

"Is that it?  Are you afraid you're going to lose her over all this?"

"Wouldn't be the first time."

Murdoch finally lifted his head from his hands.  His one word was little more than a whisper.  "Mattie."

Johnny didn't answer him.  It was getting easier to lose himself in the pain and he let it melt through him, taking over his thoughts and burying his misery in its persistent burn.

Scott found something to say, though. "That's crazy, Johnny. Yes...sure...Darcy could change her mind like Mattie did, but I've talked to the girl and for some reason she seems to think the sun rises and sets on you."

"Well...she doesn't know me so good."

"You can make jokes, Johnny, but it doesn't change the way she feels."

"I already told you, it doesn't matter."

Scott shook his head. "I can see how much it doesn't matter. Talk to her, Johnny."

He meant to, if he ever got a chance.  Mamie came home without her, though.  She'd stayed until the end of the services and through all the best wishes and condolences and God blesses that had been entrusted to her. They were intended for Darcy and Mamie had promised to pass them on when she found the girl again.  Darcy had disappeared right after that casket had gone down into the earth.  Mamie said she turned around for a minute and the next thing she knew all she was looking at was Darcy's back, heading away into a copse of ash trees.  She hadn't come back home, but Mamie just frowned at him when Scott offered to go look for her.  Leave the girl be, she said. Lord knows the poor child could use some time alone and if she wanted to be fussed over, she'd have come home on her own.

So Mamie fussed over Johnny instead, making sure his pillows were fluffed and refluffed, bringing him hot bowls of soup, and telling him tales about tree houses and love-worn dolls and that puppy Darcy dragged home when she was eight.  Mamie leaned in at the end of that story, whispering her suspicions and casting her eyes sideways into the shadows as she spoke.  Poole had gotten rid of that dog. She knew he had, just as sure as she knew that he had never confessed the truth.  He'd let Darcy believe the puppy just ran away and then he'd held her while she cried her eyes out getting to sleep that night.  Mamie squeezed Johnny's arm when she was through and wiped her own tear from her cheek.  "That man," she said.  "I always knew he had his own mean streak, but after what he did to you and Darcy...well, all I can say is God bless his soul, because I surely can't."

One by one, they finally left him alone.  Mamie took off to her bed first, the one she was sharing in Darcy's room.  Scott nodded off next and Murdoch kicked at his boot, roused him to a drowsy stupor and ordered him up to his cot in the office. He went, stumbling just a bit over a crinkle in the rug and rubbing a hand through his hair. He turned at the door and started to say something, but a yawn cut him off and he disappeared with his mumbled goodnights swallowed into the hallway.

Murdoch was harder to get rid of. He just kept talking, going on about the price of feed, the hands they'd have to hire for the cattle drive next Spring, the shingles he'd ordered for the barn roof and just about anything else he could pull out of some dusty corner of his brain. Johnny nodded and gave him some 'yeahs' for a while, but then he just quit listening and stared at the ceiling instead, watching the subtle shadings of the lantern light play against the plaster.  The silence got his attention, though.  He wasn't sure how long it'd been there, but when he pulled his eyes back to his father's face, Murdoch was staring at him with an odd little frown. 

"What?" Johnny asked guiltily.

"Where have you been?"

"I heard you."  Johnny scrunched lower in the bed.  "The stable's been leaking and you want a new roof on it before winter hits."

"Is that what I said?"  Murdoch rubbed at something under his nose.


"I take it you aren't interested in the petition the association is sending up to Sacramento."

Dipping his eyes, Johnny mumbled, "It ain't that."  He picked at a loose thread in his blanket, then rolled it between his fingers when it came loose. "Guess I'm just tired."

"I can take a hint.  Go to sleep Johnny, I'll be quiet."

"No."  Johnny waved his hand toward the door. "Go on to bed, Murdoch.  I'll be fine."

"And leave all these pillows behind?"  Murdoch grabbed up two of the discarded, crochet-covered pillows and stuffed them behind him.  He leaned back and settled into the cushions.  "I'd be missing the perfect opportunity to see what you and Scott have planned for my old age."

Still concentrating on the thread between his fingers, Johnny smiled softly.  "Those pillows will be there tomorrow...old man."  He raised his eyes to his father's and his smile widened.  "Go on. I got everything I need here...got that pitcher of water, got my pot...I'll still be here in the morning."

"I'll just stay a little while longer."

"Murdoch."  Johnny's eyes fell again.  "I know what you're doing, and I appreciate it...I do.  But I'll be fine...just let me alone for awhile?  Okay?"

There was a moment of silence and Johnny waited it out, still staring down at the bit of tangled blue thread dangling between his finger and his thumb. Finally Murdoch pushed himself out of his chair and arched his back, stretching and breathing in deep.  Johnny watched him take a step forward, tilt the pitcher and peer down into it.

"That's full."  Murdoch slid it an inch or two closer to Johnny.  "Are you hungry?"


"You need any help with the chamber pot?"


"You'll get some sleep?"

"Go on," Johnny said, tipping his head toward the doorway.

"All right."  He lightly tapped Johnny's arm.  "If you need anything..."

"I'll be fine."

Murdoch didn't look convinced of that, but he did go, turning the lantern wick lower, walking slowly toward the door and hesitating just at the edge of the hallway.  "Good night, son...and you stay in that bed."

"I'm not going anywhere."  Johnny tugged the blanket higher against his chest. "Good night, Murdoch."

And he was gone.  Johnny waited until his father's heavy footsteps had been absorbed into the parlor rugs and he kept listening, trying to catch the clump of the big man's feet against the stairs or maybe the groan of the old boards settling under his weight.  There weren't any more sounds, not unless you count the rustle of the leaves outside his window or the far-off hoot of a barn owl. 

In the quiet that settled around him, his body started talking to him.  Three days flat on his rear, with barely a muscle moving, and now his back was complaining...loudly.  Johnny slid sideways, onto a new spot on the mattress, but that didn't help much.  He eyed the chair. 

Pushing off from the pillows and swinging his feet over the edge of the bed wasn't the struggle it'd been a few days before. He sat hunched forward for a minute or two, tugged the waistband of his pants below the bandages and held his arm against his side.  It hurt, but he could handle it.  Then he braced a hand against the mattress and set his bare feet on the floor, shifted his balance to his legs and teetered for a second.  His knees locked into place and he shuffled a foot forward and let himself fall into the chair.  The air rushed out of him and he shot his eyes to the doorway, grateful that it was still empty.  Nobody had seen him.

All he'd done was move the pain.  Now instead of his back nagging at him, he had those needles poking at his side, but he felt more human.  He was looking at the walls now, not the ceiling, and that was an improvement.  There were all kinds of curly vines on the wallpaper behind Mamie's bed and he tried to sort them out, drawing an invisible line where one started and another ended, separating them all with those bursts of violet blooms.  The vines twined into the edges of his meager light and he lost interest, but his eyes didn't move.  He just kept staring at that pattern, wondering at the sense of it, wondering about all of it and waiting for her to come.

It was after midnight when she did.  He'd heard the clock in the parlor chime the hour and he'd almost fallen asleep again when the sound of the front door shutting brought his eyes back to the doorway.  There was still a long moment before he heard her steps in the hall. 


She looked almost like an apparition, her mourning dress moving against the blackness of the hall and her face floating above it, pale and detached.  She moved closer, gaining substance as the lantern light washed over her.  She was almost at his side when he saw her swollen eyes and she became suddenly very real.

"Johnny, what are you doing out of bed?"  She dropped to his side, kneeling on the floor, pulling his shirt open and pressing gently against the bandages.  "You're not bleeding," she said, the relief gentling her voice. "Did Murdoch let you out of bed?"

"No."  Johnny lifted a finger to her temple and swept back a stray wisp of hair.  "This is all my doing.  I sent Murdoch on up to bed."

"He didn't go.  I heard him snoring in the parlor when I came in.  He's asleep on the divan."

The corners of his mouth lifted and Johnny glanced toward the darkness leading to that parlor.  "I guess my old man doesn't listen to orders any better than I do."

"Two of you just alike?"  Darcy settled back onto her heels and leaned her head against the arm of his chair.  "I don't know if I can take that."

The hint of a smile disappeared as Johnny stroked her hair.  "Mamie says you left the funeral."

She sighed.  That's all, just that sigh.  She was quiet after that and Johnny left her to her thoughts, just petting her hair and waiting.  Finally, she sighed again.  "I could hear them whispering. Why do they have to do that?  They had to know I could hear them, how could they not know?  Those old biddies." 

"Were they talking about your father?" 

"Yes.  Him and Juliette...and us."  She raised her head, keeping her eyes toward the wallpaper.  "Beatrice Applequist wasn't so bad, she felt sorry for me.  But the others...it's like they want things to be horrible. They think it's my fault, because..." 

She looked back at him and Johnny softly filled in her unsaid words.  "Because you let a gun hawk near your father."

"I wanted to rip their tongues out."  She got to her feet and stepped over Johnny's toes, crossing to the bed and then dropping onto it.  She grabbed a pillow, stuffed it under her head and curled her legs up under her skirt. "And I hope they burn in hell."

Johnny braced his elbow against the arm of the chair and leaned his head against his hand.  "That why you were gone so long?"

"No, not exactly. I had a lot of work to do before the Creede people show up tomorrow and it took forever.  I couldn't concentrate...I just kept thinking about things."  Her voice softened.  "Johnny? Why were you a gunfighter?  I never really got a chance to ask you...and...I was wondering...never mind, it doesn't matter.  Do you need anything? Are you hungry?" She raised up on her elbow, too, laying her head into her palm.

He gazed at her for a few seconds, then lowered his eyes to the crocheted blue and white of the blanket.  "It's all right, you should know.  I was like your daddy, I guess...I did what I thought I had to do."


"Murdoch and my mama...they didn't get along. She took me to Mexico, she died and I found a way to survive."

"A gun."

"Yeah."  Johnny shifted in his chair and winced as his stitches pulled at his side.  "I was good at it, too, and when you're all alone, that gun...it makes you older."

"How old were you?"  Her voice was caressing and it pulled his eyes to her. There was a sorrow in her face and he looked away again.   

"When she died?" he mumbled. "Twelve."

"And the gunfights?"

He took a deep breath.  No way around it and better now than later.  "The first paid job, I was fifteen."

Darcy's eyes widened and he barely heard her quiet gasp.  "That's just a kid."

"I wasn't no kid. Hadn't been for a long time."  He rubbed a hand at his forehead.  "A kid wouldn't have killed all those men. They were right, you know...all those old women...you shouldn’t be around a man like me."

She rolled from the bed, landing lightly on the floor and reaching for him, taking his hands and kneeling again, this time at his feet.  He could feel her skirt falling across his toes and the press of her body against his leg.  She was looking up him and he let go of her hand to skim his fingers across her cheek.

"Not you, Johnny, you're not that way," she whispered. "I don't care about before, I just know what you are now."

"How do you know?"

She held his hand to her face and brushed her lips across his fingers.  "I know," she murmured. "Now, come on before you catch your death of cold."  She stood and tugged on his hand.  "You're going back to bed."

"All right, just give me a second."  He got his feet set better and wrapped a hand around the armrest.  "I can do it."

"Let me help."  Darcy stood to the side and pulled on his arm.

"Wait...just hold on."  He raised halfway up and she slipped her arm around his back. "Don't push."

"I'm not pushing," she argued.  "Just lean a little."

"I got myself into this chair."

"And I'm helping you back.  Now stop fighting me."

She was under his shoulder now and his arm was around her. He tilted and she braced her foot forward, catching him and guiding him down to the bed. They both collapsed onto the mattress and it bounced under them.

"Did I hurt you?" she asked, disentangling her arm from beneath his body and struggling back into an upright position.  She stared down at him.

It did hurt and he breathed in and out several times, letting the tightness fade away and watching the freckles show against her flushed cheeks.

"Are you all right, Johnny?"

Her hair was loose again, it was always loose.  The braid had fallen to the side and soft waves fell across her face.  The lantern lit her from behind and cast a glow around her, caressing the contours bending so near to him...the arc of her neck, the curve of her shoulder and the rest of her, so close, and her voice murmuring so tenderly.  "Johnny?" she whispered and he lifted himself to her, reaching for her hand, guiding her gently to him.

"Darcy," he breathed, and she was there beside him and his arm was around her, bringing her closer, her body so light against him and her scent filling his senses.  Their lips touched and she melted to him and there was no pain.

The hand against his chest ended that.  It pushed him away.  "Johnny," Darcy murmured, but the tenderness was gone and then she was gone from his arms.  "I can't," she said. "Not right now.  I love you, but I can't. Let me get through tomorrow, okay?  Just tomorrow." 

"Sure," Johnny mumbled. "It’s my fault.  I shouldn't have done that."

"No, I'm sorry."  Darcy slipped from the bed, took the crocheted blanket from the bedpost and fell into the chair. "You didn't do anything wrong, none of it.  It's me...I buried my father today."  She curled her feet under her skirt and wrapped the blanket around her.  "I hate him, Johnny.  I really do...I hate him.  But I love him, too, and he's gone and the Creede people are coming tomorrow and Juliette is over in that jail and...all I want to do is sit here with you." She leaned her head against the upholstered back.

"I wish I could've been there."

"At the funeral?"  She closed her eyes.


"I wish I hadn't been there."

Her eyes stayed closed. He lay back against his pillows and pulled the blanket up, still watching her, her dark form curled up so small in the chair. "You okay?"

"No."  Her head tilted deeper into the cushion.  "I'm tired."

"You oughta go to bed."

"I'm good here.  Just talk to me, Johnny."  She yawned gently.

"About what?" 

"Anything.  The ranch.  Tell me about the ranch."

"It's big," he started, and then he searched for the next words to say.  He could tell it like Murdoch would, by the head of cattle and the price of beef, but that didn't seem right. It left out too many of the sweet details.  Like the way a newborn calf wobbles when it stands, barely part of the world and already fighting its way to its mama's milk.  Or the feel of Barranca under his saddle, a lariat parting the air and floating over a steer's head.  Or maybe the power rippling through him on those Spring nights, the ones when the lightning is splitting the sky and everything is alive. He wasn't sure how to tell her that, so he didn't.  "When you come out, I'll show it to you," he said instead.

"Just you and me?"  She sounded wistful.

"There's some places," he started in again, and he took her there, seeing them in his memory, feeling those gentle breezes on his skin and hearing the low of the cattle in the valley--carrying her on the soft drone of his voice.  She was asleep before he finished and then he was finally quiet, staring at the shadowed ceiling and wondering if those scenes would ever be.  Home...with Darcy. 

He closed his eyes.


Chapter 15

"Reverie Alone Will Do"


Scott gave him daily briefings.  He spent most of his time at the downtown office with Darcy, but he'd make it back for an hour or so every afternoon, suck down a cup of Mamie's coffee and give them whatever news he had. It usually wasn't good.

There were attorneys involved and those Creede folks were threatening all kinds of lawsuits, but--as Scott pointed out--there wasn't much more they could get. Darcy played what cards she had and Scott seemed to think that escrow was her ace in the hole.  With Poole dead, nothing could happen until the courts said so.  On the third afternoon, Scott came home with a goofy grin jumping all over his face.  Darcy had made a deal. For signing some piece of paper and saying she wasn't going to fight them, Creede would give Darcy a ten percent share in the new company. Johnny didn't get all the fancy words Scott was using when he laid out that hand, but he couldn't miss the admiration in the telling.  Evidently, it was all sheer bluff and Darcy worked that room like an Amarillo high-stakes gambler.  No surprise, but Johnny kept asking Scott to tell parts of it again, just to hear the pride dripping out of his voice.  Too bad she's a woman, Scott told him,  because if she was a man she'd be running that company and they'd all get rich. 

Johnny wasn't going that far.  He definitely didn't have any complaints about Darcy being a woman, but he wasn't getting much of a chance to do anything about it.  She ate her breakfast with him every morning, but there was no way of knowing how long she'd be gone after that.  She had files to go through, inventory at the mill, audits and more meetings than God should ask of anybody in one lifetime. 

He waited up for her, at first in Mamie's room and then, when he could shuffle a bit better and Murdoch would let him, on the parlor sofa. When she did make it home, Darcy nagged at him, telling him he needed his sleep and what good was all Doc Grant's work if he didn't listen and he was too hardheaded for his own good, anyway.  He couldn't argue with that, but he tried, just to keep her talking.

After the night on the porch swing, she didn't fight him any more.  It'd been unseasonably warm all day and even at that late hour, Johnny had an uneasy feeling that the air in the house had been all used up. He knew he'd catch hell for it and he armed himself as best he could, hanging one of those crocheted blankets around his shoulders and grabbing up a couple of pillows, then he made his way to the porch. The swing was already creaking back and forth in the stiff breeze. Johnny padded across the planks, tossed his pillows into the corner of the bench, stilled the seat with one hand and sat carefully.  By positioning the cushions just right, he could lean back against the armrest and stretch his legs across the bench. It swayed again and made the sky move with it, a starry patch of black that swung rhythmically past the branches of the oak tree. They were moving, too, floating on the whim of the night air.

An hour or so later, he watched Darcy push through the gate.  She was looking up, her face turned toward those stars, and she paused at the edge of the walk, wrapped her shawl tighter and stood perfectly still.  There was a grace about her, a hushed intimacy that made Johnny want to look away, but he couldn't, not at first, not while the moonlight was whispering around her and she was standing there, so alone. Finally he did, lowering his eyes and waiting for her to move.  She came forward slowly, setting one foot in front of the other with dull determination and dragging herself up the steps. 

"Hey."  Johnny kept his voice low, but her head jerked up.

"Johnny?"  She walked to the swing, put a hand on the chain and gazed down at him.  "You know you shouldn't be out here."

"Yeah, I know."  He bent his knees and pulled his stockinged feet back, making space for her, then wagged his finger toward the empty corner.  "Sit."

"I should be putting you back in bed," she complained.  She didn't even try to, though...she just slid into her corner of the seat.  It took her a few seconds to get settled. She held her skirt down and tucked her legs up in front of her, wedging her feet around his. "Can you move just a little?" He did and she did, too, pinching his leg into the slats.  "Sorry," she mumbled, then she adjusted her foot again. The swing was swaying worse now and the chains groaned.  Johnny grabbed the back of the bench to steady himself.

"You in?"  Johnny asked, letting an easy smile crawl across his lips.

She gave one more pull at her skirt.  "Quite comfortable, thank you." 

"You gonna hold still then?"

Darcy leaned forward and tapped her hand against his knee, then laid her palm out across it.  Johnny let go of the swing and wrapped his fingers around hers.  Finally, the dimples showed, two pinpoints of shadow in her moonlit face. She crossed her arm across her legs, laid her chin against it and held tight to his hand. "Now I am."

It was the honeysuckle.  He got a lung full of it just then and it was the sweetest air he'd ever breathed in.  Johnny wanted to ask Darcy if she'd noticed that too, but her thumb was moving across his knuckles, all light and gentle, and he couldn't think how to put the words together. All he got out was, "Long day?"

She nodded, her chin bouncing on her arm as she did.  "Guess you were pretty bored."

Johnny snorted softly.  "Yeah...some.  Wasn't so bad, though...Mamie has plenty of stories about you."

"Is she getting me in trouble?"

"No...the way I hear it that was Mabel's job."

Darcy laughed and Johnny grinned at the sound of it.  "I never took that boy's pants," she said.  "Mabel Bartosh is an unrepentant liar."

All that sweet air came bursting out and his laughter echoed off the porch ceiling.  "Mamie didn't tell me that one."

"She didn't?"  Darcy's brows lifted mischievously.

"Nope. But you're going to."

"I don't think so."

Johnny tugged at her hand.  "I could wake Mamie, you know.  You going to tell?"

"All right."  She ducked her face down into her arm for a second, then brought her eyes back to his.  "Mabel and I were ten and there were these boys who were always saying mean things to us.  They called Mabel bug eyes.  She really does have big eyes, you'll have to meet her sometime...she does...and they called me Daddy Long Legs.  You see, my legs were really skinny and they thought I looked like those spiders with the long...well, you've seen them."

Johnny just grinned again.

"I guess you have."  Darcy smiled back.  "To make a really long story even worse, it was a Sunday and those heathen boys were getting hot in their Sunday suits, so they snuck out of the church picnic and went swimming in the Johnson's pond.  All they had on were their undies.  Mabel found their clothes hanging over the bushes and she got this awful smile, it was almost frightening, and she started grabbing up all their clothes and throwing them up in the branches of this big oak tree."

"Mabel did that."  Johnny's emphasis was on the 'Mabel'. 

"That's what I said."

"All by herself?"  Johnny was laughing again, quieter this time.

"Well...not exactly."  Darcy tipped her head against her arm and her smile slid sideways.  "I helped...a little.  But my aim was never as good as Mabel's and to get them on those branches, you really had to throw hard.  But I swear that neither one of us had any idea what happened to Jeremy Moyer's pants.  They should've been hanging in that tree...we both looked afterward."

"After what?"

That one dimple was digging in deep, the one that wasn't buried against her arm. "After Jeremy  showed up at the church picnic in just his wet undies and his shirt wrapped around his waist." 

Johnny's grin softened and he gave it a moment's thought, then gently suggested, "Bet your daddy had somethin' to say about that."

Darcy was quiet, too, and the caress of her thumb stilled.  "Yes," she finally said. "I got his public opinion lecture...what will the neighbors think.  I guess he wasn't considering that this time, was he."

"I don't think he was considerin’ much of anything."  Johnny wove his fingers into hers.  "Darcy? What are we going to do about this?"

Her eyes left his face and fell to their hands, still draped across his knee. "Father?"

"Yeah, the way it all happened.  Those knives...you threw away all your knives."

"I had to.  One of those knives did that to you."  Her finger lifted slightly, aiming toward his middle. "You almost died, you would've if I hadn't found you...and there was all that blood...I had to, Johnny."

"I know."  He sighed.  "Your daddy, though...you can't just throw him out.  Not all the memories."

Darcy's voice quivered.  "I don't want to, not all of them. There were some good ones, too, you know.  He wasn't always the way you saw him...but that was..."  She shut her eyes and pulled her mouth into a silent grimace.  Her hand tightened around his and he waited it out, watching her face and bracing for the rest of her misery.  Then her dark eyes opened and looked straight at him.  "I don't want to think about him Johnny, but that's all I can see, every time I close my eyes.  Just my father standing there with that gun, trying to kill you, all because of Juliette...all because of that worthless...I can't even say what I think about her.  It was horrible...he was horrible...and I go to work and I try to make him go away, but he's there, everywhere...and I miss him."  She closed her eyes again.  "And I think I might be going insane."

Johnny tried to reach for her, curling up from his pillows and feeling it in his side.  A hot pain shot through him and he fought to hold it back, but one low-pitched grunt slid past his clenched teeth. He gave up and fell against the armrest again, breathing in deep until the spasm passed.

Darcy's head lifted from her arm.  "You shouldn't be here," she complained, softly and with an emotion he wasn't sure of it.

"I don't have to be," Johnny mumbled.

"What does that mean?"

He hesitated, then slowly said, "You shouldn't have to forget your daddy, not the good things.  Maybe I'm like those knives...maybe it's just too hard with me around."  Johnny pulled his hand from hers and wrapped both arms around his chest. "Swenson wants me here for Juliette's trial, but I can head back to Lancer after that.  It'll only be a couple more days."

She stared at him.  That's all she did for a long time, just stare. He could hear his own breath in the silence, coming harder now, and he tried to focus on that, but she was looking at him and her eyes were so deep and her leg was pressing against his and she was just sitting there...staring at him. 

"Is that what you want?"

There wasn't much in her voice, just those flat tones.

Johnny shrugged. "I want you to be happy."

"And you think that will do it?"

"I don't know."  He held his words for a second, struggling to find the right ones and knowing anything he said would most likely come out wrong.  "I'm askin', Darcy...you tell me what to do, because I see you hurtin' and there's nothin' I can do about it.  How are you supposed to just forget about all that?  Your daddy tried to kill me and Scott...he shot him." Johnny swung his arm into the air, gesturing toward the house and his sleeping family.  "My brother killed your father.  How can you just get over it?  I don't want to hurt you anymore, so you tell me, Darcy...what am I supposed to do?"

He wasn't expecting the smile that brushed across her lips.  "Thank you," she murmured.

Johnny frowned and rubbed at an eyebrow. "What for?"

"For caring...for wanting me to be happy. I don't think Father ever did, not really."  Her hand left his knee and she swept the hair from her eyes.  "He wanted me to be perfect and I just can't do that.  No surprise, huh?"  The dimple flashed in the corner of her mouth. "He bought me a horse once.  For some reason, Father decided that I should know how to ride and he got me this beautiful, bay gelding.  He spent a fortune on it and we kept it out at Mabel's farm.  Every Saturday, we'd go spend hours out there and he'd make me ride that poor thing around and around the corral.  I had to keep my heels down and my shoulders back and if I didn't, I'd hear about it all week long. I hated that horse."

She stopped for a second, gazing at him, then laid her hand back on his knee and wriggled her fingers.  He watched them move, reached for them and squeezed.

Darcy let out a soft sigh.  "Mabel and I would go riding sometimes, all by ourselves.  She'd be on that big bay and I rode her old roan pony.  It was knock-kneed and ornery and I couldn't make it do hardly anything.  Every time I tried to kick it into a trot the idiot horse would try to buck.  It was so much fun."

Her thumb was stroking his fingers again and he was lost in the sensation, barely a whisper against his skin, little more than the breeze.

"Don't leave me, Johnny."

"I'm not goin' anywhere," he drawled.  "Just can't promise I won't buck none."

He knew the look that flashed through her eyes was going to get him into trouble someday.  She smiled.  "I'm counting on that, cowboy."

And that was that.  They settled things, sitting together on that porch swing, swaying a little in the moonlight.  They'd all stay through the trial, then Scott would head to San Francisco to fetch Teresa and get her back to the ranch.  Murdoch was starting to make noises like Lancer might fall apart without him, so he and Johnny would start back a day or two after that.  Darcy could come out later.  There was still the house to sort through and her aunt was coming to help.  It'd take a week, maybe a week and a half, and then she'd be at Lancer, riding beside him on the little pinto he'd been working.  Just one more week. 

Swift Creek, Johnny decided. That's the spot he wanted to show her first, the little cut up in the mountains where that fast running creek went crashing over all those boulders.  There was honeysuckle up there and black-eyed-susans and a piece of grass under a basswood tree where you could lie in the shade and count the bumblebees all day.  Sam wasn't likely to let him do much roping or fencing anyway, and this was one time he planned on using every day of leisure the doc prescribed.  If he looked pitiful enough, maybe Sam might tack on a few more days just for good measure.

Things went on schedule, mostly.  The trial started on Thursday morning and it was over in time for the judge's afternoon nap.  Johnny gave his testimony first, looking straight at Juliette for the first time since that night in the office.  She smiled back at him and he knew then, absolutely knew why Nicholas Poole had taken that fall.

Juliette had changed.  Her hair, so wild the night of the murder, was now delicately curled and slicked and suspended in several intricately carved combs.  And the crimson was gone from her face. Johnny wasn't sure if he'd ever seen a woman with such perfect complexion.  It was almost like some flame burned underneath her skin, making it glow all pink and faultless.  And her eyes--they were lit, too.  There was a fire in them, a heat that seduced a man and made him yearn for the warmth that must lie hidden in her touch.   

Johnny knew it wouldn't make much difference, not with the way the jury was looking at Juliette,  but he told his version of things anyway....that she'd struggled with her husband, that Johnny had been hit from behind, that Nick had used the knife to keep him from identifying Juliette, and that Nick had all but admitted that she was the one who shot Joshua Poole.  Darcy took the witness stand next, adding her part about the bruises and repeating everything she could remember of what her father had said.  Juliette's lawyer made her tell it twice, just to make his point.  Poole had never admitted that Juliette did it. 

The truth was there in bits and pieces, scattered into the testimony and the numbered exhibits and the lawyer's carefully worded questions.  Nicholas and Juliette were lovers and Joshua used the letter from Creede for revenge.  Nick needed time and money to set things right and Josh wasn't leaving him much of either one, so there was an argument, things got out of hand and Juliette fired that gun.  Twice.

Only Juliette didn't tell it that way.  In her story, Nick was the pursuer and the murderer, Josh was the jealous husband and she was the loyal wife. She even managed to work in a few tears.  She made sure the jury saw them, too, dangling an embroidered white handkerchief in her gloved hand and dabbing at her cheek every so often.  Then she'd fold her hands back in her lap, dip her eyes demurely and breathe out a tiny, whimpering sigh. 

It worked.  The jury took less than an hour to come back with the verdict...not guilty.

At least Darcy didn't run away this time.  She held herself together until they got home and it was just the two of them.  Mamie had some coffee brewed and Johnny and Darcy were in the kitchen, pouring out the cups and stirring in Darcy's sugar.  She liked hers sweet. They were sitting in the slat-backed chairs at the table and Darcy had just tapped her spoon against her china cup and lain it down in the saucer, when her face started twitching and a little gasp came out.  Johnny pulled her close and they sat, knee to knee, Darcy with her sobs buried in his shoulder and Johnny wishing he could make it all just go away.  She cried herself out, but she didn't give up her hold on him.  Not for a long time.

She was fine the day they left.  Her aunt arrived on the morning stage and took things in hand.  Mamie didn't seem to care much for that, but Darcy had the both of them fussing over her now and Johnny and Murdoch were just in the way.  Besides, Murdoch was getting jumpy and he'd yelled at Johnny just for leaving a book in the parlor the night before.  Johnny didn't think he could take his old man if he got any more bored.

There wasn't much time for goodbyes, not with all those boxes being crammed full and organized.  Darcy left the older women to it, looking just a bit scared at the prospect, then climbed into the buggy with them and held Johnny's hand all the way to the stage stop.  They should've had a few minutes there, long enough to say whatever needed to be said, but there were storm clouds blackening the southern sky and the stage was headed right into them. The horses were stomping in their traces and shying at any little sound and the driver wasn't acting much better. He yelled at them to climb in as soon as they showed up on his boardwalk.

Murdoch did. Johnny handed up his bags and watched his father slide into a seat opposite a fleshy, gray-haired man with a dusty bowler pulled low across his eyes.  The man gave them both a disinterested look, then swiped a rag across his nose and stuffed it back into his pocket.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw the driver climbing up onto his perch and he turned to Darcy.  "A week, right?"

She nodded and brushed a hand against his bandaged side. "You take care of yourself, you hear?"

"Sure...you, too."

A gravelly voice shouted from the front of the stage, "Make it quick or I'm leaving you behind."

Johnny moved a step closer.  "If you change your mind..." he whispered, and she smiled brilliantly and tipped her face to his.  It was just a quick kiss, then that driver was yelling at them again and Johnny had to leave her and climb stiffly into the coach.  He could feel her fingers on his back, guiding him up, then those were gone, too, and that odd little clerk was closing the door and slapping his hand against the side of the stage.  Johnny had barely dropped into his seat when the whole thing took off with a jerk and all he got was a glimpse of Darcy's face disappearing from the window. 

He remembered that glimpse a week later.  Darcy hadn't come.  There'd been some letters, three of them, and Johnny had read them over and over until he had most of the words memorized.  Creede was taking over the house next week and Mamie was staying on as housekeeper.  Darcy was going to San Francisco with her aunt, just for a few days, just to make the old woman happy.  She'd be at Lancer mid-week at the latest. 

Scott didn't know much more when he came home from his long day's trip to bring their horses back from Hartville.  Darcy had already left for San Francisco and Mamie was happy to give him a rib-squeezing hug, but she didn't know what to tell him about the girl's plans.  Besides, she had the new lumber mill manager and his family to settle into the house and there were three small children and Mamie was working herself into a frazzle baking cakes and wiping faces and hanging little dresses out to dry. 

Mid-week came and went and then the next.  Two more letters showed up, but these were shorter than the others.  Her aunt wasn't feeling well and Darcy didn't know exactly when she'd get to catch that stage.  She'd send a wire when she was able.  It wouldn't be long.

But it was, and finally Johnny couldn't take the waiting anymore.  He had to get out of that house and finally he got his way.  He knew he'd simply worn his old man down and as he led Barranca into the stables, he was sorry that he had.

"Why don't I handle your horse, Johnny...maybe you should just go take care of that."  Scott wagged a finger toward the dark splotch on Johnny's side and wrinkled his nose.  He was walking Charlemagne beside Barranca, only feet away, and Johnny knew he could smell him.  Hell, even the horse was fighting the lead, trying to stay downwind and most likely laughing at him for the trouble. 

"I'll do it."  He held up at Barranca's stall and let Scott and Murdoch go past. The horse nudged his back and he turned to stroke his nose. "I know," he mumbled. "I ain't got no sense, but if you want your oats..."  He left the rest of his threat unsaid, but the palomino seemed to understand and he plodded obediently into his stall. 

Johnny started in on the horse's cinch and watched Murdoch from the corner of his eye.  His father tied his chestnut to his stall, then walked slowly back to Barranca's.  Johnny was just setting a hand on either end of his saddle when the rumble of Murdoch's voice stopped him.

"What do you think you're doing now?"

"Somethin' you don't like, I guess."  Johnny tugged at the saddle and it slid toward him.  The weight shifted into his hands and he tensed, feeling it in his side and barely holding on.  The saddle headed for the ground and Johnny went with it, twisting to the side and landing on one knee in the straw. He would have cussed, but he didn't want to give his father the satisfaction.

Murdoch set his hands on his hips.  "Well, that went about as well as that heifer."

"Carlos was just scaring the poor animal."  Johnny leaned against the slats, raised up and wrapped an arm around his side.  He pulled it back and looked at his hand, then wiped the brown stuff off on his pants.  "Thought I could just get down in that gully and get a better look." 

"A better look?"  Murdoch's face was getting red and Johnny knew what was coming next.  "You tried to push a thousand pounds of Hereford out of the mud.  What the hell were you thinking, Johnny?  Sam wanted you off your feet for at least another week and I let you talk me into one little ride, that's all it was supposed to be, just checking the herd in the north pasture.  You weren't going to do anything but watch, do you remember promising me that?"

"Yeah," Johnny admitted, dropping his head.  "I remember."

"So what did you do?" 

Johnny squinted up at his father. "Ain't that kind of obvious from the smell?"

"It does seem like poetic justice."  Scott threw his elbow over the edge of the stall and leaned into it.  "A little excrement seems to describe this situation quite well."  He was smiling at them, but it faded from his lips as both his brother and father just glared.  The humor was still in his eyes, though, and Johnny had to smile, too...finally...just a little.  Then he looked back at his old man.

Murdoch was anything but amused.  "You could have been hurt. You know how dangerous a stuck heifer can be.  Think, Johnny."

"I been thinkin'."  Johnny turned back to Barranca, taking the blanket from his back and draping it over the stall slats.  "I don't want to think any more."  He picked up the brush and started swiping at the horse.

His father watched him work. "Darcy never said she wasn't coming, did she?"


"Then for all you know she'll be here tomorrow."

"That ain't happening," Johnny answered angrily and he slapped the brush too hard against the horse's flanks.  Barranca's ears lay back and he tossed his head up, shying away.  Grabbing his bridle, Johnny lowered his voice and murmured, "Whoa, boy."

"You're that sure?"  Scott straightened and stared toward the big stable doors.

"I'm sure, Scott. She has her aunt and that pension, what does she need me for?"  Johnny patted the horse's neck and went back to his grooming.  "Don't you two have anything else do?"

"Johnny..." Murdoch started in, but Scott interrupted him.

"Maybe we should leave him alone, Murdoch."  Scott nodded toward the sunshine pouring into the dim stable and his father followed his line of sight.  He let out a sigh. "Shall we?" Scott asked.

He barely noticed when they walked away.  Johnny was seeing his brush move against the golden coat, every rhythmic sweep sending a cloud of dust into the stable air. He was thinking hard and he would have given anything to make those thoughts just scatter like those bits of dust. But they weren't going away.  Her memory wasn't going away.  Neither was the smell seeping out from his shirt.

The voices brought his eyes up over Barranca.  There were three of them and only two were male. 

Murdoch and Scott were standing side by side at the end of the stables and their heads were bent down.  They were talking to someone and he caught a hint of blue, a flash of an arm.  He kept staring at their backs and finally they moved on, Scott laying a hand against her shoulder as he passed.

She stepped through the loose dirt and Johnny leaned onto his horse, just watching her. As she got closer, Darcy smiled.  "They tell me you're not safe to be around right now."  She stopped just outside the stall.

"Yeah?  You could'a told me you were comin'."

"I did," she complained.

"Not today."  Johnny turned toward her, leaving one hand resting on Barranca.  "I think I would have remembered that."

She came into the stall and paused, only an arm's length from him.  "How's your side?"  Darcy reached out and brushed her fingers across that part of his shirt.

"You might not wanta do that," he warned her, skimming a hand across her arm.  "I kinda smell."

"Kinda?"  She laughed and he ducked his head at the sound, fighting the grin that pulled at the corner of his mouth and then just giving in to it.  "What'd you do this time?" she asked, inching forward.

"Well..."  Johnny's grin slid crooked.  "Tried to wrestle a heifer and he won.  Had a little gift hidden in the weeds, too."

She wrapped her hand into his shirt and pulled him closer. "I missed you, cowboy."

"Maybe I oughta get cleaned up," Johnny warned again, glancing down at the dark stain and then gazing back at her.  He knew he wasn't going anywhere, though.  Not with those eyes looking back at him, soft eyes, soft and dark and full of something he'd been missing, too.

"Not yet, Johnny.  I've come a long way to find you and I expect a proper welcome."  She played with a button on his shirt.  "If you're not going to give it to me, then maybe I should just go right back to San Francisco. After all, apparently I have an aunt there...and a pension...and there's no way I could need a banged-up, smelly cowboy."

"You gonna keep talkin'?"  Johnny wrapped his arms around her waist.

"You going to kiss me?"

And he did, tenderly, gently, and when it was through, he leaned his forehead down to hers.

Darcy sighed.  "I thought you were never going to do that."

Johnny hesitated for a moment, and then he barely breathed, "I didn't think I had the right."

"To kiss me?" Darcy asked, sounding just a bit confused.

"No," Johnny murmured.  "To love you."

Darcy melted to him and he held her tighter.  "It's about time you said that, cowboy.  Are you going to make everything as hard as that?"

He laughed softly.  "You gonna nag about everything?"

"There's one way to keep me quiet." 

She turned her face up to his.  Johnny leaned down and kissed her again, deeply this time, and she moaned, just a little, just enough to make it all simply fall away.  And there was no past, no Nicholas Poole, no Madrid, none of it.  Just the right here, right now...a man and a woman and a kiss, sweet and deep...and full of promise.




The flames were dying.  All that was left on the grate was a glowing shell, a deep red frame of a log, filled with dancing flashes of heat and losing itself in pinpoints of crackling stars.  The embers were still putting off a steady warmth, but Johnny tugged at the wool blanket, anyway.  He could get up and add a stick of wood; there was a stack of them piled right there beside the hearth.  He considered doing just that for a moment, then shrugged deeper into the sofa and lazily watched the fire fade away. 

Murdoch did it for him. A cool draft swept through when he came in and the big man moved with it, stepping quickly to the fireplace, flinging two logs on top of the crumbling embers and jabbing at them with the iron. 

"Gettin' chilly out there?" 

Johnny had kept his voice low and he wasn't sure at first that Murdoch heard him.  His father rubbed at his arms, turned his back to the growing flames and slid a tired smile across his face.  "Downright freezing.  How's that cold?"

"Fine," Johnny mumbled.  "It's fine...better, anyway." 

"What did Sam say?"

Johnny's answer was lost into the slam of the front door and Scott's shout across the Great Room, "Murdoch, there's frost on the grass. Do you think we should cover Teresa's rosemary?"  His question trailed off as he got closer and his eyes fell on the sofa.  "Oh...sorry..."  He dropped into a chair and peeled his gloves off.  "How did the doctor's visit go?"

It wasn't worry, not exactly, but Johnny saw his brother's eyes soften with something...concern, he called it. Murdoch's face was showing it, too.  Johnny felt an easy looseness soak into his bones and he lifted his legs onto the ottoman, crossing them at the ankles.  "Teresa already took care of her garden," he volunteered.  "Didn't figure you'd be back from those Cattlemen meetings before she turned in."

"And the doc?" Murdoch prompted.

"Except for a runny nose, she's good."  Johnny stroked her hair as Darcy shifted in his lap and nestled her head back in again. The rest of her was hidden under the blanket draped out across the sofa. "Sam says all this sleepin' is just what they do."

"The first few months."  Murdoch sank down onto the edge of the ottoman and Johnny moved his feet, giving him more room. "Catherine fell asleep at the dinner table one time...barely missed a plate full of stew."  He glanced at his older son.  Scott studied the gloves dangling from his hands for a moment, then lifted his eyes back to his father. 

"I carried her all the way up to her bed," Murdoch added, "and she never even knew it.  Of course, she was up with the sun the next morning, being sick." He looked back at Darcy.  "That shouldn't last much longer, either."

"Sam gave her some tea.  Thinks it might help some."  Johnny's hand found hers and he rubbed his thumb against the smooth gold band.  "How'd the petition end up?"

"We got the signatures, five more than we needed."  A strangled sound broke into his answer and Murdoch stuffed a fist against his mouth, muting the sudden yawn.  "Norm got all the documents put together and Scott's taking them to Sacramento first thing tomorrow morning."

Johnny turned a crooked grin toward his brother.  "You volunteer for that, did ya?"

"Yes, I'm willing to do my duty to the Cattlemen's Association."  A smile played at the corner of Scott's mouth.

"Just your duty, huh?"  Johnny held a laugh in, afraid of disturbing Darcy. "Wouldn't have anything to do with that newspaper gal you met up there last month?  The pretty little brunette?"

"Is that where I met her?" 

Scott's tone was all innocence, but the glint in his eyes made Murdoch shake his head and slip a chuckle in before his second yawn.  "Afraid my bed is calling," he mumbled, rubbing his fingers into his eyes.  He slapped a hand against Johnny's leg, stood and stared down at Darcy. "You two coming up?"

"Yeah, in a minute."

"Well..."  Murdoch looked from one son to the other.  "Daylight's not waiting on either one of you, so don't stay up too late."  He slumped a little as he turned away and crossed the room toward the stairs.

"Nite, Murdoch," Johnny called softly.

"Goodnight, sir."  Scott leaned his head back against the cushioned chair and closed his eyes.

A flame leaped from the newly added logs and the glow of it cast a warm haze around Scott's relaxed frame.  Johnny studied the shadowed planes of his brother's face for what stretched out to be more than a few long, quiet minutes.  The hushed sounds of his slow, steady breathing matched the rise and fall of his chest and finally, reluctantly, Johnny gathered a lungful of air and aimed a loud whisper in his brother's direction.  "Hey...Scott."

"Hmm?"  His head jerked up and his eyes flickered open.  "What time is it?"

"After midnight. Go to bed."

"That late?  What were you doing up?"

"Darcy."  Johnny smiled fondly at the head cuddled in his lap.  "Said she couldn't sleep knowing the two of you were still out there in the cold."

Scott rubbed a hand across his eyes and gave a small, mannerly snort.  "Looks like she managed all right."

"Maybe my company ain't so exciting."

"No argument, there."  Scott turned an amused gaze to his brother, then rose slowly to his feet. "Well, if I don't get to bed I'll be falling asleep on that stage tomorrow."

"Tried that once," Johnny drawled.  He watched Scott move toward the fireplace, separate the logs with the iron and tap the embers down into the ashes.   "Ain't so easy." 

Setting the iron back in its stand, Scott glanced back at Johnny.  "Lived to regret it?

"Somethin’ like that."  The corner of his mouth curved up again and Johnny swept a finger across Darcy's temple, taming another stray wisp of hair.  "Survived anyway...can't say that I regret it."  He tucked the hair behind her ear. "Did Murdoch get that fencing ordered?"

Scott nodded and started across the room.  "We took care of that this morning...yesterday morning.  It'll be here Friday."  He stopped just on the edge of the fire's light.

"Good. I should be through with that string of ponies by then."  Johnny moved his feet back into the middle of the ottoman.  "I can get Walt and the boys started up on the north pasture soon as we have those supplies."

"Sounds fine..."  Scott lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave, yawned and headed off into the darkened hallway. 

The fire popped and sent a shower of sparks skittering across the hearth.  One by one, they died, the crimson points failing slowly to nothingness. Johnny watched them disappear, then dropped his eyes to Darcy.  He laid his hand against her shoulder and shook gently.

"Darcy," he whispered, and then, just a little bit louder, "Darcy...wake up, darlin'."

She snuggled in closer and he shook her again.  "Hey, sleepy head."

Stretching and squirming, she rolled to her back and squinted up at him.  He smiled at the scrunched-up, monkey face she made and fished under the blanket, found her pocket and pulled a handkerchief from it, then dangled it above her. "Here...blow your nose."

She did, and then she swung her feet to the floor, draped a long corner of the blanket over her arm and stood.  Reaching a hand back to Johnny, Darcy yawned.  "Murdoch?" she asked through the twisted sound.  "And Scott?" came out clearer.

"They’re both home," Johnny answered, taking her hand and rising from the sofa.  "Everybody's safe and sound and sleepin'...’cept you and me."

Darcy made some soft, little noise, just an exhausted rush of air, and she tipped forward against his chest.  Johnny pulled the blanket from her elbow, tugged it around her shoulders and wrapped his arms around her, then kissed the top of her head.  "Ready for bed?"

Even in the muted light of the dying fire, the smile she turned up to him was brilliant.  "Best idea you’ve had all day, cowboy.”

They went, Darcy leaning on his shoulder and dragging the blanket’s hem behind her and Johnny hanging on tight around her waist. Behind them, the last of the fire burned to embers and tumbled through the grate.  It glowed red for a long, long time and weakened finally, turning to ash, then--warm still, but languishing--it faded into the dark, sweet night. 




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