A simple, quick nod of the head was the reply. Sweat rolled down the segundo’s brow, large brown fingers curled into tight fist, thick hard fingernails digging deep into the leathery work roughened hands. A wooden spoon, hastily fetched from Jelly’s saddlebags was covered with strips of cloth and placed shakily between white even teeth.
“You help hold ‘em down boy, right there where I done showed yah.”
The boy moved in behind the injured man’s head, his knees dragging through the grass, staining the white cotton of his pants a brilliant green. Trembling youthful hands were placed on the older man’s shoulders. Though he was frightened, the boy kept his fear hidden behind a mask of concentration, nodding his dark head when he was in place.
The similarity of family, young and old, both fearful and courageous rolled around in the old wrangler’s head as he pulled back the pad of cloth that covered the bullet hole. Had he known what the other two were thinking, he might have been surprised to know that they too placed him lovingly in their minds as being part of that family now, grateful to have the cantankerous man by their side during such a time when others may well have walked away from the frightening task he was about to perform.
Jelly held up the knife, checking one last time by the light of the small campfire they made, that the blade was cleaned and ready to use, sterilized by fire and whiskey. Satisfied that it was, Jelly leaned over the prone man and said, “This is gonna hurt like wild fire.”
Cipriano did not answer. He simply closed his eyes and gritted down on the wooden handle stuck between his teeth, praying the thick wooden shaft didn’t break on him during the operation process. His eyes trickled wet tears when the blade was inserted, his shoulders wanting to buck from the pain raging within his chest.
Jose held his uncle down, a contradictory strength holding the elder man to the ground that appearances would have thought impossible. He watched with dark brown eyes, turned wide with suppressed fear as the knife cut and then probed inside the wound.
It seemed like a lifetime before Jelly finally pulled the knife out with a satisfactory grunt of approval, his free hand cupping underneath the tip of the blade to catch the bloody piece of stunted metal that nearly took Cipriano’s life. Jelly tossed the offending object down to the ground and picked up the flask by his side.
“Just a little more Cip and then we’re all done.” Jelly didn’t wait for an answer from the man lying on the ground. He was near unconscious by the time Jelly had pulled the bullet from Cipriano’s chest, proud that the Segundo had barely uttered more than a few groans for his effort without a struggle.
With blood soaked shaky hands, Jelly tipped the flask and poured whiskey over the wound, not the best medicine for the job, but all they had at present to disinfect the injury. More than one man had survived on less Jelly figured, having done his fair share of playing doctor in his younger days.
When the whiskey was poured over the wound, Cipriano could no longer stifle the agony he was feeling. A tortuous moan rumbled from deep within his belly, the sound seeming more like that of a wounded animal caught in a steel trap. The spoon fell limp to one side as black eyes rolled upward until only the whites could be seen. Unconsciousness wrapped her velvety arms around him like a warm blanket, sparing him any further hurt he might have felt.
Jelly sighed then tipped the flask to his whiskered mouth and drank heavily, finding solace in the fire that slid down his throat after two large swallows to help bolster his flagging spirits. He was thankful to have gotten the bullet out, now he just hoped his work had been enough to save the life of this man who so many loved and cared about.
With no thread or needle to sew up the wound, Jelly took the clean bandages he made from strips of cloth torn from an extra shirt he had and placed them carefully over the ragged hole in Cipriano’s chest. It would have to do for now until they could get back to the house. He knew Teresa had a boundless supply of medicine’s, herbs and the like, to which she could then finish the job he had started. The young girl had sewn more than one wound and would be the next best person without Sam there, to do it right.
“Take that spoon out of his mouth Jose and toss it over there with my bags. We’ll clean up after we get yer uncle …”
His words died on his lips as he and Jose were startled by the sound of two successive gunshots heard coming from the estancia behind them. Too far away to see anything, but having that urge and desire to try, boy and man, jumped to their feet and peered off into the night, their eyes straining to see anything from the distance where they stood.
Jose stepped around his uncle’s head and came to stand next to Jelly, the wooden spoon dropping slowly, quietly to the silken grass beneath his feet. Silently they gazed across the open fields and past the large corrals to where the lights shown brightly, disguising the beauty of the large home with a look of serenity and peace.
Jose’s left hand lifted slowly, unthinking to the old man he promised to look after, finding his newfound courage and responsibility fading to a scant nothing, just as rapidly as the dawn promised to return. Jelly grasped the frightened boy’s hand, squeezing with reassurance though he didn’t feel much of it. When a third shot cracked and vibrated through the air, Jose dropped his hand and threw his arms around Jelly’s waist, burying his face in the cotton fabric of the old man’s faded shirt. Jelly wrapped his arms around the kid, placing a protective hand on the top of Jose’s head. They stood there like that, wrapped in each other’s arms, generations apart in age, yet held together by a bond of faith that kept them secure in their belief that what they were hearing was the sound of life being returned to their home, to Lancer.
Thundering down the hillside on the road that led to Lancer, six men rode at a breakneck speed, fearlessly whomping the sides of their mounts with boots and spurs. Long extensions of leather, reins held in tight fisted hands, flew through the air. Hats were held on with one hand while others were securely fastened beneath grim sets of teeth and hard clamped jaws. Elbows bounced, pumping up and down, with every steadfast beat of the horses’ hooves as a cloud of dust puffed and billowed like a small Texas twister behind the line of riders.
Against the backdrop of a sky that was beginning to lighten, the view was as if the apocalypse were upon them, so in sync were they, one to another. Dark and dangerous, night riders they appeared, descending down onto Lancer land like the great monstrous beasts mentioned in the days of old, a day of reckoning their only thoughts as they got ever closer to their destination.
Those men, law abiding punishers of the wicked, rode to a death defying stop just after they passed beneath the Lancer arch, their leader commanding a halt with a shrill whistle and an arm held high.
Leaning over, Val spit onto the ground then sat straight in his saddle. “Rafe…you and Bill take the right side of the house. Dex and Mooney…you go on in through the second gate at the front entrance. Keep yer eyes open and yer yaps closed once yah get in close. Don’t want these hombre’s to know we’re around if they’re holed up in the house.”
“We’ll go in nice and slow Val, just like yah told us to,” Mooney said, setting his hat just a little tighter down on his head after their long wild ride down the mountain and through the valley.
Val spat again, not feeling like he got all the dirt out of his mouth the first time, “You men certain yah got fully loaded guns?”
A chorus round of yes’ answered Val. “All right then, lets…”
Val’s speech was cut short by the sound of two consecutive shots interrupting his thoughts. All six men turned their heads toward the house in unison. Bridle rings clinked, horses snorted and stomped their feet, chomping at the bit, while saddles creaked under the weight of their owners. A third shot rang through the early dawn causing the horses to get all the more jittery and the men to worry over what must be happening.
“Get goin’ now!” Val shouted, “And remember what I told yah!”
Rafe, Bill, Dex and Mooney took off again, leaving Val and Terrance to take the left side of the house. “Come on El Capitan. You better hope we’re not too late after all that primpin’ and fussin’ you did back in town,”
“I did no such thing Val Crawford,” Terrance retorted, holding a tight rein on his matching black horse.
Val spat again and this time it had nothing to do with the dirt that had been in his mouth, “Yeah well…tell that to the mirror the next time you’re lookin’ in it and slickin’ back that purty hair of yours.”
With spurs and heels to their horses Val and Terrance took off at a slow pace, not wanting to warn anyone of their coming if there was someone looking out for company to come riding in. “I wasn’t slicking back my hair,” Terrance declared in a hiss that Val could hear.
“Yah were too…Just ask the fellas when we get done here. I’ve got me cinco dólares that says they all saw yah slickin’ back yer hair and primpin’ like some city slicker.” Val shook his head, “Don’t know what ever made me think yah was all wicked and dangerous lookin’.”
“You’re just jealous,” Terrance accused.
“Of what?” Val asked. “A trussed up goose in a bandito suit?”
“Shut up Val,” Terrance said.
“We still got us a bet,” Val insisted.
“Good,” Terrance replied, “I’m going to take your money and laugh all the way to ‘my’ bank with it.” Terrance laughed softly, adjusting the red bandana around his neck.
“Not if I win, you won’t…and even if you do happen to win, you’re gonna buy me a coupla beers with that money.”
“Oh you think so?” Terrance asked.
“No I don’t think so…I know so. Now hush up El Capitan…We’re almost there and I don’t want them to hear yah going on and on and on.”
A soft chuckle was heard and the conversation ended, just as quickly as it started. Dismounting near the corral, both men started to make their way toward the back of the house where the kitchen was. They were just nearing the guest house and starting to make their way around the back of it when Terrance cursed out loud and tripped over something on the ground. Catching his footing before falling flat on his face he turned to see what it was and cursed again as he squatted down.
Val heard him and made his way back to his friend, squatting down next to Terrance. Val shook his head, sucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth in a sound made for pity.
“You know who it is?” Terrance asked him.
“It’s Alberto,” Val said, almost sick to his stomach. “That ain’t no way to die,” he said mournfully, shaking his head all the more and pushing the old tattered hat he wore back off his head.
Terrance could just make out the wound in the neck, scowling with contempt for the soul who died from an obvious knife wound inflicted straight through the throat. He touched Val on the arm, “Come on Val…they need us.”
Val nodded his head, pushing back the bile that rose in his throat. He clamped a hand over the front of his neck, feeling almost as if he could sense the torture this man must have suffered. When Terrance stood up, he joined him and together they turned their backs on the lifeless body, unable to do anything for a man who was already dead, both hoping they weren’t too late to help the people in the house after the shots they’d heard just minutes ago.
It seemed that Hell broke loose all at once inside the great room of the Lancer home. Glass shattered and fell all around the back heels of Clyde Willows boots, his body arched and his arms dropped the rifle he had been holding. Splayed hands went slowly, shakily to his back, stepping forward awkwardly like an old man needing a crutch, trying desperately and without success to feel for the wound inflicted on his back, an instinctive reaction that held no salvation for his life or his soul. The sniper’s knees buckled, his chin tilted upward in agony, his long tied back hair dipped into the pooling crimson between his shoulder blades, staining the gray tendrils a bloody red all before he crumpled like a puppet without his strings. Clyde’s last breath whooshed from his body as he landed face forward onto the floor with eyes wide open, unseeing, as the hand of the grim reaper, black and evil ripped his soul away from him forever.
Amidst the frightening melee of death and destruction, screams of abject horror filled the room, panic and terror clutched the hearts of those good, tender hearted souls who found themselves unable to move, unable to do anything other than cling to one another and hide their faces behind hands lifted to shutter and ward off the evilness of what they were witnessing.
The door burst open, creating another reactive frenzy throughout the room. A gun was fired, sending Kirk Means flying sideways, blood gushing from a gaping hole under his ribcage as he landed on the floor and rolled by force into the sidebar behind the sofa. The table wobbled, tilting precariously, causing the model sailing ship that rested there to teeter and sway on the surface as if making its way across the ocean in the midst of a storm. It slid across the slanting plane and landed with a crack on Kirks temple, busting his forehead open with its sharp clean edges, damaged beyond repair when Kirk’s flaying hands swatted frantically toward his head, breaking the mast and shredding the sails. The greedy hand of death raced toward Kirk on black gossamer wings, snatching up his screaming wailing soul before his will had a chance to fight for his life. His body stilled, his eyes turned glass, lost for eternity as death carried him away.
Murdoch jumped from his seat, grabbing the only weapon in sight, the jagged ball of glass put on his desk by a smug and diabolical Bruce Craddock. The angry rancher hurled the sharp serrated orb at a startled Fred Wallace, who backed up against the gonging grandfather clock seeming not to know in which direction he should be pointing his gun, firing off a wild shot that found its mark just before he was nailed in the temple with the shard of glass. Another scream screeched through the air, piercing the ears of those in battle, fueling the courage of men who had been held captive and wanted to fight back.
Fred Wallace sank to the floor, his back running along the wall, scrunching up the vest he wore, rolling it upward as his rear end came to a stop and his head lolled to one side, bleeding from the brow and down the side of his face.
Bruce Craddock scurried behind Murdoch’s desk, pulling his gun from his holster as he watched in stupid fascination the events playing out right before his very eyes, not the least concerned that his plans were falling apart with every passing second of the chiming clock, still thinking until the very last play that all his plans would somehow still work out if he but kept a cool head and took possession of a loved one, gaining a control he was soon going to lose.
Scott jumped to his feet, ignoring the screams that wailed beside him, yanking on Sadie’s arm and fairly shoving her past his body toward Fiona McIntyre. In a blur he would hardly remember later, Scott ran for Butcher Drake who had his arms in the air, knife wielded high above his head, the look of madness etching every line of his burly face. Scott grabbed his wrists, not nearly a match for the hulking man, yet spurred with an unnatural strength that surged through every fiber of his body when he saw that he was only seconds away from losing one of the most precious gifts God had ever given to him.
Hands gripping, teeth gnashing with fury, the two adversaries fought for supremacy, neither one losing an inch of hold on one another, chest pressed together, the struggle for power, an even balance as they fell to the floor and rolled. Growls of frustration rolled with them and Scott found himself, back to the floor with death staring him straight in the eye. He gripped with all his strength, keeping the hand that wielded the knife well away from his face, his eyes blazing with ferocity, able to push the man away from him until he was the one on top. Scott pounded the knife wielding hand into the floor time and time again, squeezing with all his might until brute force made the man uncurl his hand. The knife fell, clanking to the floor, as another wild surge of energy took a different turn.
Butcher growled loudly, knocking his head forward, cracking skull to skull with Scott’s forehead. The tiny lapse of control was all the Butcher Drake needed. He shoved mightily, pushing Scott off him to his right, rolling away into the table next to the chair. Scrambling for some kind of purchase, he grabbed the table and it went crashing to the floor, splintered and broken under the exertion of his weight. Boots scuffed and pushed him back until he was backed up against the chair Sadie had sat in. The chair moved, scooting along the floor with heavy weight as Butcher found a hold and pushed himself to his feet. Scott got to his knees, brushing the blond bangs off of his sweating forehead, his face flushed and riddled with anger, ready to attack as he curled his hands into tight fists of fury.
Scott got to his feet and made as if to charge the man, too late he realized Butcher had the bigger advantage, a weapon he couldn’t fight against with bare knuckles as the man drew his gun. Half bent and heaving from the physical altercation, Scott closed his eyes, accepting his defeat when he saw Butcher close his finger around the trigger, waiting for the inevitable with a sinking heart, seeing in his minds eye the one and only thing that would make his passing from this world to the next a bearable road to travel. Like a captain going down with his ship for one last time, he waited, the chiming of the grandfather clock echoing in his head, a mournful sound he thought and not at all the last thing he thought he would hear before dying.
The sound of a gun pierced through the room, a loud cannon to him it seemed. Scott’s body reacted, tense and hard as he waited for the pain, lurching his chest when that inevitable bullet found its mark. The grandfather clock gonged its fifth and final chime, mimicking the quietness of the room. Scott wondered if this was what death was like…quiet…somber…no noise whatsoever. And then there was that feeling of a gravitational pull upon his body, upon his legs and his feet and he wondered at that too, thinking death was nothing at all as he might have envisioned it to be.
Shaking uncontrollably, but still breathing, still standing, Scott cracked opened his blue eyes, glad to be alive and choked on the smell of smoke as it drifted to his nose from beside him. He looked down and found Butcher Drake laying on the toes of his boots, the dead gravitational weight he had felt, his big hairy arms splayed far to the right and the left, his unfired gun laying under the loose grip of his hand.
And then it came to him, to all of them, the sound of Fiona and Sadie, crying on the floor with a bleeding Boyd draped across the lap of his wife. She held her hand over a blooding wound on his right shoulder, her other hand caressing and shoving back the hair on his forehead. The man moaned, putting his hand over Fiona’s, stilling the nervousness and frightened cries from both his girls with a lethargic Scottish brogue, “I’m okay, me darlin’…don’t fret…shush now…don’t cry.”
Teresa screamed, clutching at Maria’s arm when she felt a pull on the back of her head. Bruce hit the older Mexican woman on the side of her face with the meaty part of his hand, forcing her to lose the grip she had on the terrified young woman. Teresa was choked from behind with an arm wrapped around her neck. Craddock pulled her lithe body over the back of the chair and planted her firmly between his chest and that of the men who might try and save her. She would be his ticket out of this mess now that things had taken a turn for the worse in his plans. He still thought to get the money Murdoch’s son was bringing home, never once thinking in his warped and crazed mind that he was doing the impossible. Always greedy for more, glad now that he wouldn’t have to share his stolen wealth with anyone else.
Craddock shot a bullet into the ceiling, “Everyone hold your tempers and back up a space or the girl gets it.” He waited and when no one moved Craddock pressed the tip of his gun barrel to Teresa’s temple. Her brown eyes filled with unshed tears never taking them off the man across the room who stared back at her, cold and unfeeling, lost in a world of hate and vengeance directed toward the man who held her with his arm crooked around her neck and pressed up against his side left side now.
“Give it up Craddock…You can’t win this one,” Murdoch told him.
Craddock smiled, his light blue eyes filled with crazed dementia, “I can if you do what I tell you.”
“You’re crazy!” Murdoch half shouted.
“I may be crazy but I’ll get what I came here for one way or the other,” Craddock replied. “Now back up or I’ll shoot…I won’t say it again,” he ground out in clipped short phrases of warning.
“Do what he says Murdoch,” said a deadly voice of calm, quiet reserve.
Murdoch stared eye to eye with the man who dared to continue with the dying game of charades he was playing. “I warned you,” he told Craddock evenly, stepping away after he made the remark, giving leeway for what was to come.
Craddock pulled the pistol away from Teresa’s temple, crushing her harder against his side, “I want the money and I want it now.”
Teresa’s lips quivered, she desperately choked back the sobs that wanted to burst forth from her mouth, squelching the desire to say the name that was on the tip of her tongue. She knew that any sound or movement on her part would only distract and hinder the challenge that arched like lightening between the two deadliest of opponents.
Johnny stood there, his gun hanging loosely at his side, a look of utter indifference plastered on his face. He didn’t answer Craddock about the money or look even remotely like he was going to. Johnny took a step forward; his shoulders relaxed, his stance casual and bored, his eyes a frigid glacial indigo blue that seemed to pierce straight through Craddock’s blackened heart.
Craddock stepped backward, pulling Teresa with him, suddenly cold when an icy chill ran down his spine, his arms, and tingled the tips of his fingers. He knew he was facing death, for he had seen it more than once in his dreams. Of a sudden he was afraid, scared to die by the specter that shrouded the one he had been waiting for all this time.
Without taking his eyes off Craddock, Johnny spoke, breaking the spell and the silence within the room, “You trust me Teresa?”
No longer able to hold them back, tears spilled from Teresa’s eyes and down her cheeks. She swallowed, knowing what Johnny asked of her, giving him her trust as never before, “Always,” she cried brokenly, her eyes flittering to a close, putting all her faith in the one she loved the most.
No reaction could have been faster. The bullet from Johnny’s gun found its mark right between the eyes of Bruce Craddock, killing him instantly. Blood smattered and speckled the girl beside him, his arm dropped from around her neck and to his side. The gun he held, fell and clanked to the floor. Craddock stood there, wavering on his feet, a look of shock and disbelief on his face, his soul cowering with fright when Death raced across the room and spirited him away, leaving his shell for the living to dispose of.
Murdoch raced to Teresa’s side and clamped his arms around her shaking shoulders. He held her slim body upright as she wilted, leaning heavily against the hardness of his chest, reaching for a handkerchief in his pocket, wiping and daubing at the bloodstains that covered her terror stricken face.
Scott hurried to Boyd’s side, checking the wound on his shoulder and finding that it wasn’t that bad, more or less a nasty flesh wound but something that would require the attention of a doctor. It was deep and bleeding profusely, looking much worse than it could have been.
Johnny stood there, watching the spinning haze of movement around him with detached awareness something that very nearly could have killed him if it had not been for the timely arrival of a friend. Behind him, Fred Wallace had regained consciousness and was just leveling his gun on the small of Johnny’s back, when a final shot echoed loudly from the front foyer.
At the sound of the firing, Johnny dropped to a crouch and fanned the hammer of his gun in the direction from where the shot came from, just missing the men who only a split second earlier had moved out of the way. Two holes were blasted into the adobe wall, sending fine shards of sun-dried clay everywhere across the tiled floor and around the boots of Val Crawford and Terrance Littleton.
Smoke billowed from the barrel of Johnny’s gun and though he recognized his friend, he was so far gone into himself he could not gain a hold on what was real and what was not. To him, danger lurked everywhere and he was not yet convinced that there was no more that he had to do to keep his family safe.
“It’s me Johnny boy…Val…You can put your gun down. It’s all over now.”
Terrance backed out of the foyer completely, letting Val take over. There was nothing more he could do now. He and Val had seen it all played out until the bitter end. Now it would take Val’s friendship to bring Johnny round, if the man was able to.
Johnny stared at Val for long lethal seconds, then turned and saw that Fred Wallace was shot dead, clean through the neck. His gun safely dropped from the force of the bullet wound, well away from his hand. He stood up, glancing around the room again, seeing everything but feeling detached from it all, the voices and movements drowned out by the screams and frightful tears he could still hear in his head, his vision clouded by the crimson stain of blood that made everything seem as if the world had turned red.
Everyone seemed to him as if they all moved in slow motion. He saw Milo coming through the French doors, stepping over the body of some man he had shot in the back from outside the house. Murdoch was pushing Teresa down in the chair next to a tearful, hurt Maria. Scott seemed to be talking to him from beside the prone body of which he guessed was Boyd McIntyre, when he saw Milo kneel down beside the man, carefully placing the loaned rifle on the floor next to him.
Maria had her hands out in the air, beckoning him to her side he supposed, kept from leaping from her chair by an anxious Murdoch who wanted to make sure she was all right as he checked out the shoulder where Craddock had hit her. Teresa too, seemed as if she wanted to come to him…but he hoped she didn’t. He hoped she stayed in the comfort of Murdoch’s secure arms because he still had much to do and he felt unclean, disassociated from any good that might have made a difference to him.
When it seemed as if the voiceless figures of Scott and Val were going to get too close, Johnny spun on his heels and left through the glass doors, the only avenue he had for escape while so much was going on. He had to get to Jelly. He promised he would return and the two hours were almost gone.
When Scott made as if to follow his brother, Val grabbed him by the arm and stopped him, “I’ll go…you take care of your family. They need yah right now.”
Scott tried to pry his arm from Val, “Johnny is my family. Someone needs to take care of him too.”
Val tightened his grip, “Not right now he don’t. Let ‘im go. He won’t go far and with the look on his face I just saw, there’s got to be somethin’ else rollin’ round in that head of his that he’s gotta do. I’ll check it out and see iffen he needs help and while I’m at it, I’ll send my men in to help clear this mess up.” Val loosened his grip, “He needs yah here more than he needs yah there.”
Scott swallowed hard, turning to look around at the destruction inside their home. Nodding his head, he relented to Val’s suggestion, realizing that he was probably right.
Val let go of Scott’s arm, knowing how hard it was for Johnny’s older brother to give in the way he was. He knew more than anyone just how much Scott meant to Johnny.
“When I catch up to Mooney, I’ll have him ride to town for the doctor. I know fer a fact that Sam’s in town so it won’t take him long to get out here,” Val reassured Murdoch’s son.
Val started to leave, only to be brought up short by a firm hand on his arm. Looking down at it and then to Scott, he questioned the younger man without words.
Scott looked at him sadly, “Bring my brother home Val.”
Val placed his big hand over Scott’s, understanding what was being asked of him, “I will.”
When Val walked out onto the front portico, Terrance was just walking up. “I have Alberto closer to the house. Dex and Mooney are right behind me,” he said, tossing a thumb over his shoulder. “It’s more bad news Val…they found two more men at the front entrance...dead.”
Val looked disheartened at the news, “Make sure they put ‘em with Alberto. What else did yah find?”
Terrance shook his head, “There’s one more…over there. I was just going to get him when I saw Johnny walking past. It was just dark enough I didn’t know it was him at first and almost drew on him.”
Val rolled his tongue around in his mouth and hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his vest. Looking up to the sky he said, “Well…it’ll be light soon enough…go on and bring the other fella in that yah found. I’m gonna go help Johnny and have Mooney go get the doc.”
“They okay inside?” Terrance asked.
“ ‘Bout as okay as yah can be with everyone either dead or bleeding around ‘em.” Val lowered his head and studied the toes of his boots, “When yah get done bringin’ in the body, they might need yah in there.”
“I’ll see to it Val. You go on and help Johnny out.”
Val lifted his soulful eyes to Terrance, “Thanks El Capitan…for everything,” He smiled, a big toothy grin that spread from one side of his face to the other, a shining flash of momentary humor made to lighten the solemn mood they were in.
Terrace grinned back at him, clamping the scruffy sheriff on the shoulder, “Remind me when this is all over and done with to talk to you about your so called humorous timing, at my expense.”
“Will do,” Val said with a chuckle. He left Terrance then and made his way to the barn, unaware that his humorous timing would indeed be left wanting when he went inside and found the carnage that had taken place within those four weather beaten walls.
Johnny came through the doorway with a wagon hitched and ready for travel.
“Johnny?” Val called.
Johnny walked right passed Val, ignoring the man, pulling on the harness and guiding the two horses into the early morning light. He pulled himself up onto the seat and picked up the reins, “Get those two out of the barn Val. I don’t want to see them when I get back,” was all he would say.
Val didn’t question where he was going, it was enough that Johnny said he would be back. His thoughts turned to the only other man he knew for sure was missing…Cipriano. He figured that explained the gruff response on Johnny’s part and why he was taking off in a wagon. Val sighed, feeling saddened by all the death this night had brought to the Lancer family, any humor he might have tried to resurrect completely eradicated when he walked into the barn and saw two dead men lying in thick pools of crimson blood.
Could the night have been any longer or any more dark and dreary than it had been? Could it have been filled with more violence or terrifying ugliness? Johnny didn’t think so as he made his way to where Jelly awaited him. The wagon steadily rolled along, rocking back and forth, jolting every nerve ending in his body, reminding him time and time again how tired he was. When was the last time he had a bath and a decent meal in his stomach or a good nights sleep, three…maybe four days ago? He couldn’t remember, but thought that he should.
His blue eyes scanned the field in front of him, the brim of his hat bobbing up and down with every rumble and shake of the rolling wheels. With worn out frustration he pushed the hat off his head, let it fall to his back, feeling haunted and cold inside. He couldn’t, wouldn’t think about what had happened back at the house, knowing that if he did he might just scream with pent up rage. No, Johnny wouldn’t think on it, for in doing so, it meant that he had to face the man inside of him that was capable of killing without remorse, of doing the things he thought Johnny Lancer could never do in a million years. Or so he tried very hard to convince himself.
Damn but his stomach hurt. Gut shot…that’s what it feels like he thought miserably, shutting his eyelids in weariness as the horses rambled on. He shivered despite the growing warmth of the rising sun just beyond the peaks of the nearby mountain range. His eyes opened, was it already morning? He couldn’t remember it ever being night. When did it pass him by he wondered, no longer conscious of anything that had taken place? Like all the other monstrous times in his life, the memories of this night was pushed away, locked in a place for later inspection, unable to deal with the aftermath of bloody visions that could tear him up in two if he let them.
Johnny alternately scratched then rubbed at his hands and arms, mentally fighting back the raging pit of fire in his gut, suppressing his discomfort and all that came with it, effectively putting his anxiety and distress down to being overly tired and hungry. He slammed the door on the persistent little voice that told him this was not the real reason he felt sick inside and out. Dual personalities fought for internal control, a battle of wills that would never declare a supreme victor.
He switched his thoughts to other things, needing to dispel the mood he was in. There was still so much to do and so many people who needed his help. And then too, he had to go get Barranca. He’d left his horse tied up in the stand of trees, just as tired and just as hungry as he was, more so was his thought. Barranca was the one who carried him home, did all the work. He had simply been a passenger. No work there he mused half-heartedly.
Off in the distance he saw a tendril of smoke rising into the clear blue morning skies. A good sign he thought. The persona of hope rising, while ribbons of golden sunshine thrust into the sky behind him, washing away the stars, fading them from sight, exposing the white fluffy clouds that looked more like cotton candy in the sky. Why was it that the day looked…what would Scott call it…glorious…yes that was the word…glorious? It seemed strange to him. The skies should be dark, windy, filled with ominous black thunderclouds and streaks of white lightening. A better image to how he felt than this…this glorious coloring meant to uplift spirits and send joy to the heart. He had no heart…no heart…no heart, his thoughts repeated over and over again. Johnny sighed, feeling empty and disconnected from life, hating the monster that dwelled inside him, hating the repeating self-portrait of a man with no soul worth saving after all the things he had done. No man could save him and no God could forgive him. Why should they, when he couldn’t save or forgive himself?
He could see them now, Jelly, his friend, his mentor in some respects, standing, waving to him, making sure that he saw where they were. The old man impressed him with his stamina and Johnny felt his heart swell just for knowing that they were friends. He didn’t deserve him…and yet, he loved the old man just as much as he loved any one of his family members. Johnny was overwhelmed by the loyalty and devotion the man gifted to him time and time again, he sighed wistfully, wishing Jelly had been in his life all along.
You’re not as bad as you think, a voice in his head told him. If you were then you wouldn’t feel a thing for anyone, let alone…love. A man with a soul unworthy to save cannot…love. Johnny shivered again, feeling as if he had an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.
He wondered, as the horses pulled ever closer, if having someone like Jelly in his life when he was young would have made a difference. His thoughts went to his mother and he thought not. She wouldn’t have allowed it. Maria had been hell bent on ruining her life just as surely as fate had his all violently mapped out for him. He didn’t deserve Jelly he thought…he didn’t deserve anyone after what he had done.
His life seemed hopeless, his soul bleached and barren like an arid dessert terrain, despite the merciful voice in his head that tried to reason differently with him. The pain in his stomach and on his arms intensified the closer he got. But like any other tool of his trade, Johnny switched gears like a professional, hiding that part of his personality that constantly debated his self worth with a most viperous tongue against the forgiving one that insisted unconvincingly he was worthy of love and more. You have no heart…no heart…no heart, the stronger, malignant voice repeated inside his head.
He pulled the wagon to a stop, shutting off the taunts, all seeing as Jelly made his way to the side of the wagon. “I knew you’d make it back. Heard the shots and figured you was settin’ ‘em all straight.”
Johnny stared at the back of his hands, was that what he had done…set them all straight? A funny way to look at it he thought, coming from someone who had no idea at all just what he’d had to do ‘to set ‘em all straight’. He swallowed the lump in his throat, chased away the memories that fluttered violently in his minds eye. Jelly had no clue, no clue at all what he was capable of doing. He was a killer, an apprentice of the devil, disguised in human flesh and bone.
Why was he still here? What purpose was it for him to remain on this earth when he had nothing to contribute other than a fast draw and the ability to kill? He had taken the road less traveled, the road to perdition and he hated it. He felt lost, unable to find his way back, caught up on a path of self destruction that ate at his soul yet left him alive to suffer day in and day out with the consequences of his actions. To add to his troubled thoughts, his skin burned and ached even more. He turned his hands up, dropping the reins to the floor of the wagon, flinching inward when he saw bloodstains on the palms of his hands. Psychological bloodstains only he could see and feel.
Jelly lost all patience of a sudden, worry clamping his heart the farther Johnny seemed to drift mentally away from him. It troubled him deeply to see the changes that one terrible night had inflicted on the boy. Where was that joking, laughing young man who teased him unmercifully, who smiled so bright that the sun seemed to rise and set in those deep blue eyes of his. He touched Johnny’s arm tentatively, a glimmer of hope filling his soul when the boy looked down at him with the faintest hint of a bitter smile. Better than that stone cold stillness that had him so afraid. “You comin’ down boy?” he asked, noting with some concern that Johnny pulled his arm away as if he had been scorched by his very touch.
Stretching his eyes open wide, Johnny sighed and then rubbed at them with hard pressing fingertips. “I’m comin’,” he answered wearily. “Just give me a minute.”
“A minute’s ‘bout all yah get before Val gets here,” Jelly replied looking out beyond the back of the wagon.
Johnny twisted on the seat looking over his shoulder. Sure enough Val was riding straight toward them, Barranca at his side. He sat forward, picked up the reins and wrapped them loosely around the brake, jumping down to the ground just as Val reached the makeshift camp.
He waited next to Jelly as Val dismounted and tied his horse and Barranca to the back end of the wagon. “Got here as fast as I could. That horse of yours ‘bout gave me the fits when I tried to get ‘im to trail with me. Don’t know what you see in that big fella. He’s ‘bout as ornery as you Jelly,” Val teased the two men.
Jelly pursed his lips and snorted through his nose, “You’d be ornery too iffen yah was up all night and the day before too. I ain’t had any grub in so long, my ribs are startin’ to tickle my backbone.”
Val put his hands on his hips and grinned, leaning over at the waist as he kicked a clump of grass near the toe of his boot, “Didn’t say you had no cause to be ornery Jelly. Just that yah are is all.”
Johnny walked away from them, rubbing at the soreness on his arms, not really caring one way or the other about anything they had to say. He was glad to have Barranca with him again. It meant he didn’t have to go get the horse himself. One less obligation he felt compelled to finish, finding it more and more difficult to keep himself from just crashing down to the earth with exhaustion.
Val watched his friend walk away and asked Jelly with his head bent near the older man’s ear, “He out of sorts as much as I think he is?”
Jelly took his cap off and swabbed at his balding head with a bandana, “Seems so. He ain’t said much since he got here. We’re both wrung out like two wet cats on a clothesline. It ain’t no wonder that either one of us is still standing up straight or for that matter, thinking right in the head.”
Val scratched his bristly chin and clamped Jelly on the arm, “Let’s get Cip in the back of the wagon. Sooner we get ‘im home, the sooner he can deal with all this.”
“Was it bad?” Jelly asked.
“ ‘Bout as bad as it can get,” Val replied.
“Yah got Craddock and his men…that’s eight and then there’s the hands that got killed before y’all got here…that’s seven more.”
“What about Murdoch…Scott and Teresa?”
“They’re fine…a might shook up but doin’ all right. Boyd McIntyre got winged on the shoulder, but he’ll live. The women folk were fussin’ over him right before I took off.”
“Anyone gone to get doc?” Jelly wanted to know, “Cip is gonna need some stitchin’ up and tendin’ too. Not sure if it’s the sort of thing Teresa can handle on her own.”
Val shifted and stood a little straighter, “Sent Mooney Farmer to get Sam. Should be here in no time flat if Mooney can catch ‘im before he heads out on his rounds. It’s early so I ‘spect he’ll catch ‘im in time.”
“Rusty and Jake Fletcher in with that bunch?” Jelly asked, jutting his chin crossly in the direction of the ranch house.
Val nodded his head, watching as Johnny knelt down next to Cipriano. “Yeah.”
Jelly slapped his hat back on his head angrily, “I knew it! Them varmints was…”
“Hold up Jelly. We can do this later,” Val said, apprehension growing when he saw Johnny bow his head and cover his face with his hands.
Val walked over to Johnny’s side and knelt down beside him. He kept his hands to himself and also a comfortable distance that wouldn’t spook the boy away from him. He spoke softly, carefully to his old friend, “You okay Johnny.”
Johnny drew his hands down his face and slapped his palms on his thighs, “I’m fine.”
“You ready to get Cip in the back of the wagon?”
Nodding, Johnny said, “Yes.” For such a small word, Johnny drug it out, the tone of it sounding more like defeat to Val’s ears than agreement.
Jelly made his way to Jose’s side and gently shook the boy awake. Jose yawned widely, rolling away from the warmth of his uncle’s body, having curled up with fatigue and drowsiness just before the early morning dawn. He rubbed at his eyes with tight fists and sat up, disoriented and groggy, looking small and bedraggled wearing Johnny’s too large jacket on his frame, completely unaware that he was being watched by anyone other than Jelly. For that space in time he forgot where he was, wondering why he was outside, until he glanced beside him and saw his uncle lying on the ground, wounded and unconscious.
Though the sun was shining brightly, highlighting the gold and green colors of the world around him, fear returned and stabbed at his heart, slicing through the haze of sleepiness, reminding him of the nightmare he had witnessed the night before. Jelly quickly gathered the boy in his arms, once again a paragon of strength when he had so little left to give.
Jose wrapped his arms around the old man he was supposed to be taking care of, his brown eyes welling with tears. Jelly shushed his silent cries and crooned to him softly, melodiously, a vast difference in character when compared to his usual cantankerous personality Val thought as his heart went out to the pair.
Val coughed, feeling a bit uncomfortable with the tender moment, feeling more like an intruder than an observer. Nudging Johnny with his elbow he said roughly, “We should get goin’ Johnny.”
Jelly heard him and said to Jose, “Now you go on there and dry up them tears. Johnny’s back and we need to get your uncle to the house. You think you could help me load the wagon while these two get Cipriano.”
Jose bobbed his head up and down against Jelly’s chest, sniffled and wiped away at the tears running down his face, “Sí Señor Jelly.” He twisted his head away from the comfort of Jelly’s beating heart and saw Johnny for the first time since he had left them.
Jose made as if to go to him but was stopped by a firm hand holding his arm, “Leave him be for now Jose. Johnny needs to help your uncle first,” Jelly said, noting the look of alarm in Johnny’s eyes when Jose started to lurch for him.
The look disappeared as soon as Jose settled down and Jelly knew he had done the right thing. He stood up, his knees popping with the effort, keeping a strong hold of the young boy until he was completely upright. “Go on over there and saddle up my horse. Daisy May needs someone with a gentle touch.”
Jose pulled the jacket Johnny had given him to wear a little tighter around his middle, nodding his head as he took one last long look at his uncle and then Johnny. He wanted to help, to be near them, but knew that it was not possible just now. Solemn faces stared back at him, expecting him to obey without question and like a man full-grown he did.
Jelly spread a blanket in the back of the wagon and by the time he was done Cipriano was ready to lift. They carried him, Johnny at his head and Val at his feet, carefully straining with every step, for Cipriano was a very heavy man, until he could be placed onto the wagon bed. Jelly grasped him under the shoulders, holding tight until the other two men could climb aboard and help move him over the blanket. It was hard going but they managed to get him in without Cipriano waking up or feeling any pain from their effort.
“Jose, get Daisy May and tie her to the back of the wagon,” Jelly called out to the young boy. He looked at Johnny and Val saying, “I reckon me and the boy can take it from here. You two ride on back and make sure they got a bed ready for Cip when I get there.”
“I can drive him back Jelly,” Johnny said.
“I’m sure yah can. But I’m not gonna let yah. Get on back to the house. I’m sure your pa is ‘bout ready to have a conniption worrying ‘bout yah. So do like I tell yah for once in your life and go home.” Jelly’s eyes softened and he said, “I’ll be right behind yah boy. I won’t let nothin’ more happen to him and I’ll be right careful drivin’ back.”
Val untied their horses and handed Johnny Barranca’s reins, encouraging his friend to take them with a small shove toward his right hand. “Come on Johnny. Jelly’s right.”
Jose tied Daisy May’s reins to the back of the wagon and climbed in. He picked up Cipriano’s head and placed it oh so gently on his lap, a look of triumph on his face when he was done. At last, he was doing something important, helpful for his uncle, a small thing, but something that seemed to make Johnny very proud of him, when he saw the look on his cousin’s face.
Indeed Johnny was proud of him. The boy seemed to be dealing with Cipriano’s shooting very well, holding up much better than he remembered being able to do at that age. Johnny guessed it had to do with having loved ones around to help and support him through the ordeal, something he hadn’t had at that age.
You don’t deserve them, the voice of iniquity whispered in his ear. You have no heart…no heart…no heart. Johnny backed away from the wagon, his hands clenching, burning. He swallowed, his lids feeling heavy, weighted, as sin taunted him unmercifully.
Jelly climbed aboard, settling onto the seat, unaware of the spiritual battle raging inside the young man he loved like a son. He unwrapped the reins and pulled hard to the right, setting the horses in motion, driving off with a click of his tongue, a wave of his hand and a, “See yah when yah get there,” hollered over his shoulder.
Val and Johnny watched him drive away, silence hovering between them like a heavy curtain. Val couldn’t stand the quiet any longer, hating the mounting anxiety he was feeling from Johnny. The boy was in a heap of trouble that was for sure and he knew only one thing that could bring him out of it…his family. “You okay Johnny?” he asked.
Johnny looked away, sighing heavily, “I’m fine.”
“Scott’s worried yah know?”
“Why?” Johnny asked, shrugging and shaking his head imperceptibly.
“Cause yah don’t look fine.”
“I’m tired Val…that’s all…just tired,” he lied, another sin he could add to his growing list of transgressions.
“When’s the last time yah had any sleep?” Val asked.
“Don’t know and don’t care,” Johnny said putting his foot in the stirrup and mounting Barranca. He pulled his hat up and settled it on his head, ignoring any further conversation Val wanted to throw at him, riding off at a gallop, catching up and passing Jelly just as they neared the front gate on the road.
The outside of Lancer was a beehive of morose activity. Johnny recognized Terrance Littleton of the Green River Bank and several other men, various ranchers in the area he met up with a time or two. Val’s posse he figured. Mr. Littleton was conspicuously dressed in black from head to toe, a bright red bandana tied around his neck, shouting out orders, directing with unambiguous authority where he wanted the bodies to be laid. The would be thieves and murderous scum were lain side by side, rolled up like tight little cabbages in canvas tarp next to each other in the back of two separate wagon beds.
The undertaker in town would have a field day with these men Johnny thought. Mr. Greeley, a middle aged, tall skeletal man, his complexion chalky white with inky black combed over hair, would go through their pockets and extract any personal items left behind. He would give it all to Val, no muss no fuss, lay them in a pine box and put them in the ground. If he found that one or two were famous or wanted, he would most likely put the bodies on display for a few days, a most grisly sight, but one that had people coming by his funeral home to gawk at nevertheless. He might even have the town photographer take a picture or two, just for the sake of being able to pocket a few more coins if someone wanted a print. Mr. Greeley claimed on more than one occasion that folks were odd and would pay for the darnedest things and a famous or murderous outlaw fell right into that category, creating a carnival like atmosphere depending on reputation and the amount of reward for the criminal.
Johnny’s heart sank a little lower, acid bile rising in his throat, when he saw several women he knew and cared for kneeling beside the bodies of dead men that were obviously being left behind. They were men who had given their lives to help protect Lancer, men who left women and children behind to suffer the loss of their lives, men who shouldn’t have had to die in the first place if he had just gotten there a little sooner or hadn’t left in the first place.
Johnny cursed under his breath, taking on a world of blame for something he had no way of knowing he couldn’t have prevented. The cause for the vaqueros demise, reckoned with too little too late in his opinion, another hopeless battle that made him feel like he was standing in front of the firing squad once again, about to be riddled with hundreds of bullets aimed at his heart. Grief-stricken waves of chanting anguish curled toward him with a force so strong, he felt dizzy from it and caused him to sway in the saddle. That damned voice taunted him brutally, spitting the words at him with gnashing teeth. You don’t deserve them! You have no heart…no heart…no heart!
He glanced over at Jelly, who pulled up beside him in the wagon, his own brand of sadness swarming like locusts in his head as he watched the activity in the yard. The heartache that faced them wasn’t going to be any better than the violence that greeted them the night before. The day ahead promised to be a trial of dark tribulation, a severe reminder of how short life was and how evil some men could be.
Jelly glanced over his shoulder and saw that at least something was going right. Cipriano was awake, albeit in a great deal of pain; coherent enough to ask how much longer it would be before he was home.
“Just a few more minutes Cip and we’ll have yah in a nice clean bed with Maria fussin’ all over yah,” Jelly told him.
“I think I could do with some...fussin’, as you call it,” Cipriano responded weakly placing his hand over the wounded area on his chest and closing his eyes with a heavy sigh. He felt horrible, his chest throbbing as if he had been stomped and trampled on by a herd of beef. Every jolt and bump of the wagon wheels shot daggers through his chest, and the morning sun made his eyes burn and water. Yes…he would be glad to be tucked in bed, waiting for the doctor with Maria to fuss over him. Not a good way to get some attention in his old age he thought, but at least he was alive to be on the receiving end of it for a change.
With Val trailing behind, keeping and eye on the boy and Cipriano, the trio entered the courtyard. The sound of their arrival echoed through the shattered glass window on the lower floor and in no time at all there were familiar faces coming out to greet them.
Maria ran to the wagon, wringing her hands in a checkered dishtowel, crying with joy when she saw Jose and Cipriano in the back of the wagon. Scott was right behind her and grabbed the harness, stilling the horses while Jelly set the brake and climbed down. He smiled, despite the reason that Jelly was coming home driving the wagon instead of riding Daisy May glad to have this part of his family home again, now that the worst of their troubles were over.
Murdoch clamped the old handy man on the shoulder and helped him as he climbed down, his eyes searching over Jelly’s head, targeting the son who was dismounting with Val at the stone-hitching rail, every fiber of his being screeching at him to make physical contact with Johnny.
“I’m glad you’re home Jelly,” Murdoch said, dropping his eyes with reluctance to the family friend. He was very glad that Jelly was home, more than the old man could ever know, but he so wanted to go to his son. Johnny seemed quiet, distant, pensive even as he made his way to the back of the wagon and climbed inside next to Cipriano, without much more than a quick isolated glance directed straight at him.
“It’s sure good to be home boss,” Jelly declared, rubbing his hands down his front and resettling the cap on his head, movements of which covered his awkwardness of being the center of attention all the sudden by the tall rancher.
“We missed you Jelly,” Teresa said, coming up to stand beside Murdoch, with an arm around his waist.
The old man smiled at her, “Is that all yah got fer a me little gal?” Jelly asked holding out his arms. He had missed the girl and seeing her again was like a breath of fresh air, a welcome respite after the long trip and the apprehension that met them on the way home.
Teresa laughed and dropped her arm from around Murdoch. She stepped into Jelly’s embrace and hugged him, tilting her face up to his, plucking at the whiskers on his chin, giving the coarse gray hairs a playful wiggle. “Is that any better?” she asked knowing that it pleased the man immensely that everyone was glad he was home and was making such a fuss over him, even if he pretended to the contrary.
Jelly hugged her tight, then good-humoredly slapped her hand away from his beard as he held one arm around her waist, “It’s a whole might better and you know it missy.” He squeezed her waist again, blinking away the wash of moisture in his eyes, “Didn’t miss all the gal danged dust though,” he added, swiping at his eyes with one free hand and rolling his head heavenward and back down again as he tried to compose himself.
Maria went to the back of the wagon, holding her arms up high when Jose scrambled out from underneath his uncle’s head, helped with his gangly escape by Johnny as Jose crawled past him to the back of the wagon on his hands and knees. He practically fell into Maria’s arms and she was hard pressed not to cry all over again, so happy she was to see him alive and well. She had worried fretfully when Jose was found to be missing from their home that morning, after a quick search of the premises and the surrounding quarters that housed the main employees. Val’s men had by that time found every man that Craddock and his men had killed, and the foreboding torture of it all had Maria wondering if they wouldn’t find her nephew and her husband dead as well.
Murdoch gave Maria the time she needed to check Jose out from head to toe, smiling as the boy grimaced from all the touching and pulling the older woman was doing just to make sure the boy was all in one piece and not hurt. Satisfied that he was indeed all there and unharmed, she hugged him to her chest and admonished him for having taken off in the first place after he had been sent home to go to bed. Murdoch then coughed into his fisted hand, concerned for his Segundo. They had to get Cipriano inside the house. Sam would be there soon and it wouldn’t do to leave the injured man lying helpless and wounded in the back of the wagon.
“Teresa…why don’t you take Jose inside and the boy can join her later. Get him some clothes to wear and something to eat while we get Cipriano settled in a bed,” Murdoch told her.
The young girl pulled away from Jelly, nodding her head, “Come with me Jose,” she said sweetly with quick understanding, holding out her hand to the boy. Maria reluctantly let him go and Jose clasped her hand and followed Teresa inside the house. They met Sadie in the front foyer, just on her way out. Teresa stopped and told her, “You might want to give them a few minutes. Cipriano is wounded and the men are going to carry him inside the guesthouse.”
“Scott’s helping?” she asked, looking just a little flustered, hearing her father bellow in the background about how he needed something stronger to drink than just water to his wife.
“Yes,” Teresa answered. Sadie looked a little put out by her reply, but there was Jose to think of. The boy was exhausted and hungry, half dressed in what could only be Johnny’s buckskin jacket, too large for his body and a pair of grass stained soft cotton pants, scared after everything he had been through, Teresa knew his needs had to come first until Maria could take him under her wing again. She heard Boyd too, thinking this was most likely the reason for Sadie’s reaction, but having been raised in a house full of men, she thought nothing much of it. It was what it was and sometimes you just had to turn a deaf ear to the whining and know when to turn it back on again. She smiled to herself, realizing this was something Sadie would eventually have to learn if she was going to ever be a rancher’s wife someday.
Sadie smiled though there was a hint of regret upon hearing the answer and followed Teresa and Jose back inside the house. Her mother could still use her help no matter that she wanted to get away from them all for just a bit. Boyd McIntyre was in a foul mood after being shot, a burning graze on his shoulder that left him more and more irritated by the minute. A patient man he was not and it had been Sadie’s hope to take a break from the constant complaints and her over protective brother who had been hovering over them ever since the room had been cleared of the dead bodies.
She understood her family, her father, her brother, and accepted their ways, boisterous, loud, domineering, needy more than anyone would ever suspect. Most people would never have thought it of such big strong men, but that was because of her mother. Fiona McIntyre was the backbone, the foundation of the family, the one person who saw to all their needs, herself included, and made sure that they all got what they needed. Spoiled perhaps, Sadie thought, but it worked for them and one day her husband and her children would have that same kind of undying loyalty and attention that her mother gave to them.
Sadie sighed deeply, plastered a smile on her face, stiffened her shoulders and joined her family once again, while Teresa took Jose to the kitchen.
Cipriano was settled in the guesthouse, with a promise made by Murdoch that as soon as Sam arrived he would be sent to them immediately. Outside the little house, Val bid them farewell, making a promise of his own to return later that day with extra men and they would help with digging the graves for the Lancer hands. The heat was beginning to be felt the higher the sun rose and it wouldn’t do to leave the poor souls outside of the barn any longer than necessary.
“I’ll have Mr. Greeley load me up some pine boxes, that is, unless you want to make ‘em yourself,” Val said as he wiped away the sweat on his brow with the sleeve of his arm and resettled his battered old hat back on his head.
Murdoch shook his head, “No…there won’t be time for all that with the heat. Tell Mr. Greeley we’ll need seven of them and I’ll send one of the boys in later this week to settle the bill.”
“Will do,” Val replied. “Guess I’ll be off then. Terrance will have them hombres in town long before me, if I don’t high tail it out of here now.”
Murdoch reached for his hand, “Thanks for all you’ve done Val.”
Val shook the hand Murdoch extended to him, “No problem, Mr. Lancer…just wished we coulda got here a little sooner. Might ah made a big difference to Johnny if we could ah spared him all the trouble of taken on the whole gang himself.”
They dropped hands, watching as Johnny led his horse to the west corrals, intent on putting Barranca to pasture instead of putting him in the barn as he usually did. Murdoch didn’t blame him for this, for the bodies of the Lancer crew were still lined up in front of the barn, a grisly reminder of what still lay ahead for them and for the loved ones left behind.
“You tell him I said goodbye Mr. Lancer. I’m sure he won’t care one way or the other, but…well…yah know…Johnny’s a friend and all.”
Murdoch nodded his head, pursed his lips and sighed, “I will Val.” There was gratitude in Murdoch’s tone, a thankfulness in his heart that Johnny had had a least one good friend in his life before Lancer.
The sheriff mounted his horse and took off out of the yard at an easy lope. He would catch up to Terrance and the rest of the men and make it back to Green River just as the town was slowing down for lunch. Another day half way over, but one he was glad to finally see arrive. He planned to unload the dead bodies at Mr. Greeley’s funeral home, have a late lunch with Terrance and Cotton Eye Joe, then head back with a new crew and seven new caskets, a sad ending to a miserable day.
Craddock and his ruthless band of cutthroats and thieves had been a menace and a danger to all, to the town of Green River, to Lancer and it inhabitants, but most of all, to his friend, his compadre, Johnny Lancer. He hoped and prayed, though it wasn’t his style to do so, that Johnny Lancer would once again find himself. He feared for the boy, knowing it would be a difficult task to bring him back from that world of self-deprecating loathing that Johnny always went through when he felt that he had lost his soul and Val figured that this time would be the worst of all. His newfound family had been involved, people he had come to know and love, a much bigger poker hand to lose if things hadn’t turned out the way they had. A near miss that could well be the hardest thing Johnny had ever had to face, including his own mortality, for he thought nothing of losing his own life, while he cared more than he should for the lives he took.
As Val rode away, and Jelly went to work putting the wagon and horses in the barn, Scott started toward his brother. He couldn’t stand the wait any longer. The whole time they had gotten Cipriano unloaded and settled in the guesthouse, Johnny hadn’t said a word or looked at any of them. His brother had moved mechanically, withdrawn from any conversation, a mask of indifference and platitude pasted on his face and this had Scott more than just a little worried.
Scott’s advancement toward Johnny however, was cut short, abruptly denied when Murdoch grasped him by the arm and whirled him around in mid stride. Particles of dust floated and swirled around the heels of Scott’s boots. Brief indignation flared, blue eyes, usually so calm and reserved, turned to a frosty winter gray, cold and implacable.
“Let go of me. I want to go to my brother,” Scott snapped placing his hand over Murdoch’s, tying to pry the firm grip off his arm, reacting automatically to the manhandling of his father without thinking.
“I want you to wait,” Murdoch replied with a patience he didn’t feel for the attitude he was receiving. He had his reasons for stopping Scott cold, but the boy was already up in arms before he had a chance to explain anything, not the typical Scott he was accustomed to dealing with. He was sidetracked from the ‘why’ by the sudden hostility in Scott’s eyes and in his tone. That part of Murdoch that didn’t like his authority questioned, kicked in, overriding his original thoughts, and all he would say to appease the young man was, “You can talk to him when I’m done.”
Scott glanced down at the hand gripping his arm, a brewing anger so strong in him that it shook him to the soles of his boots. They were right back to where they started before the accident, he thought. With ice blue daggers shooting from his eyes, Scott slowly lifted his gaze inch by inch until he was eye to eye with Murdoch, “He’s my brother and I’m going to him now, whether you like it or not.” His voice was calm, solid, not anything at all like the way he thought his words were going to sound when they came out of his mouth.
“Damn it Scott! It’s not a question of whether I like it or not…It’s about me…his father, wanting to go to him first. Is that so hard to understand?” Murdoch asked, his ire raising just a notch, a little unsure of himself, as he faced off with his eldest son who normally, placidly even, accepted his orders, his request without this kind of argumentative confrontation.
Scott shook his head furiously. “There’s no reason that I can see for either one of us not to go. Father…brother…doesn’t he deserve both of us whether you go first or I?”
“I want time alone with him,” Murdoch stated plainly, the rational of his simple request very clear in his mind, but not so to the glacial young man who tried to wrench his arm free unsuccessfully a second time from his grip.
Scott mentally counted to ten before he said, “So do I, Murdoch. But I really don’t think it’s going to make a difference one way or the other at the moment what we want. He’ll either talk to us or he won’t, together or separate. The main thing is that he needs his family…both of us. Now will you let go of my arm?”
“No I won’t…because you don’t understand,” Murdoch, replied quietly, penetrating Scott with his eyes, hoping his son would comprehend his impulsive need without having to go into it publicly for the entire world to hear. This was personal, a desire he couldn’t really explain in words, because truthfully he didn’t understand it all himself. But the compulsion was there, nagging at him, a seldom used, age-old paternal feeling that left him floundering in a world of hopeless ideas and impulses he instinctively felt the need to obey in the shadow of Johnny’s gloom.
Scott let out a groan, “I don’t understand?…How…how can you stand there and tell me something like that?” He clenched his hands, “I understand completely that we both want the same thing, that we both want to have time with Johnny, that we both missed him and we both worried about him,” Scott opened his hands, flexing his fingers at his sides, wishing Murdoch would release his arm as he continued his diatribe, “We’re both concerned for his well being…troubled by what might be going on in his head.”
“Will you two stop it!” Johnny said crossly, walking past his brother and father, startling both men nearly out of their boots, as they argued back and forth.
Father and son glared at one another, then turned their heads and watched as Johnny walked away toward the house, his saddlebags thrown over his left shoulder, boot spurs dangling from his right hand, each step a mere kiss on the ground as he crossed the yard, the drive, the front foyer and disappeared into the house through the front door.
“I hate that!” Murdoch complained under his breath, with a fair amount of heat behind each word.
“Hate what?” Scott asked, perturbed, pulling his arm free from the lax hand that had him tethered to his father, like some kind of errant child that had to be restrained for his own good. The first and last time he vowed that Murdoch would get away with such a thing.
“How he damn near gives me a heart attack when he walks up without a sound,” Murdoch retorted, shaking his head, his shoulders shivering from the cold chill that ran down his spine.
They began walking back to the house as if pulled by some invisible force neither man was aware of, side by side, all anger suddenly forgotten, drifting away like ashes in the wind, Scott countering with, “That’s nothing! Let him wake you up in the morning sometime and see how that makes you feel.” He shook his head, smiled at the ground, “Scares me straight up and out of the bed.
Murdoch shook his head, his stride matching that of his long legged son, “That’s not half as bad as when I look up and find him staring at me while I’m sitting at my desk. Try cleaning up the mess I make with the writing ink when he does that. It’s impossible.”
Scott imitated his father, shaking his head, “No…impossible is trying to argue with him.”
Murdoch laughed, snorting through his nose, the sound, strange to his ears, not something he was prone to doing, “I won’t argue that point. God knows we’ve had our fair share of those in the past year,” he admitted as they neared the house. “How’s your chin?”
“I’ve had worse,” Scott answered, smiling with a lopsided grin when he realized what he had just said. With a quick sideways glance at his father, he realized too, that Murdoch must have been thinking the same thing. He shrugged, “Guess he’s rubbed off on me some.”
Murdoch returned the smile as he laid his right arm around Scott’s shoulders, “I think he’s rubbed off on all of us just a little. My temper of late hasn’t been much better than his.”
Murdoch stopped his son just before they got to the door. Looking suddenly embarrassed, he glanced down at the tiled flooring and back up to Scott, “I want to apologize before we go in. I was…out of line and well…I …I …”
“What Murdoch?” Scott asked gently, prompting his father, knowing that apologizing for anything was as foreign to Murdoch as milking a cow would be for him. He understood the effort his father was making to renew himself, to be a better person, to be more communicative in his feelings, something Murdoch had vowed to do before the accident and before the strain of the hellish nightmare they had just come through.
Murdoch choked and swallowed the lump in his throat, “I respect what you said a little while ago…you were right. Not that I’m admitting I was completely wrong, but I could have handled it better I think. I’m not so good at this…” Murdoch said sweeping his arm in an all-inclusive arch that represented his role as parent, Scott and Johnny, his children, his family, “this parenting thing.”
“You know Murdoch…I understand a lot better than you think I do.” Scott touched the split on his lip, swerved his eyes to the front door as if making sure no one was eavesdropping, “What we’re all feeling and going through…it’s still so new. We both love Johnny and each other in our own right…no matter how, when or if we show it.” Scott scuffed the heel of his boot, shifted his shoulders, a little uncomfortable with the conversation, unused to this sort of thing, just as much as Murdoch was. Expressing any kind of feelings other than criticism for another family member was not one of Harlan’s best suits; concern maybe, high expectations certainly, but the emotion of love…rarely. Even his precious Catherine, his daughter, was more of an object, a possession he felt stolen from him, rarely if ever expressing his love for her or Scott other than to place a monetary value upon their status amongst the wealthy and elite of Boston society.
“Shall we call a truce?” Murdoch asked his son.
“I think that’s a given, considering the circumstances. But I appreciate the fact that you’ve apologized…It…It means a lot to me,” Scott said, pressing his lips together into a thin line, his shoulders straight, his posture statuesque, unaware of the fine figure he presented to his father or how proud of him Murdoch was, for standing up for what he believed in.
They would have shaken hands, a pledge of honor, of respect for one another, but it never happened. There was a harsh bellow and a shriek from inside the house, a jangle of metal as it hit the floor, piercing the emotional armor of the two men who had just made peace, shattering the illusion of momentary tranquility as they dropped their hands and hastily ran inside the house.
Running through the front door, Scott nearly collided with his father when the larger man suddenly stopped with his arms stretched out to his sides, hands splayed wide to prevent him from going inside any further. Johnny was standing with his gun drawn, pointed at Boyd McIntyre who held Teresa by the wrist with his left hand, his silver spurs dropped to the floor near his right boot.
“Take your hands off her,” Johnny said, his voice chilling, deadly to all that heard him.
Everyone froze, Fiona McIntyre standing in the hallway entrance, a shaky tray of lemonade in her hands, Sadie next to the end table by the corner chair, Milo leaning against the mantle of the fireplace and Boyd McIntyre, the focus of Johnny’s attention, looking back over his shoulder with a grimace on his face when he heard the lethal command. Time seemed to stand still in that moment as the great grandfather clock ticked off the seconds.
“It’s not what you think,” Murdoch breathed from behind his hot-tempered son, dropping his arms as he moved in closer to Johnny, slowly, cautiously so as not to spook him any more than he was at the moment.
“I don’t care…I said, take your hands off her now,” Johnny reiterated bobbing the barrel of his gun in Boyd’s direction, followed by a quick nod of his head to the hand attached to Teresa’s wrist.
Teresa looked down at Boyd and said, “Let go Mr. McIntyre. I know you didn’t mean any harm but Johnny doesn’t.”
Boyd dropped her wrist and stood up, “Ye’re Johnny Lancer?” he asked, a look of incredulity on his face. He knew this was the man who rescued them, but never did he think that he could have been ‘the Johnny’ he had heard so much about. Boyd thought him to be one of sheriff Val Crawford’s posse, for they had entered the room shortly after the fight had begun, too dazed to hear it when Val called out Johnny’s name while he suffered on the floor with a fresh wound, as his wife wailed over his injury.
Only when Teresa was safely out of Boyd’s reach and coming toward him did Johnny lower his gun, “And what if I am?” he asked, lowering his hand, holstering his pistol, in slow methodical movements.
“Ye don’t look a thing like what my son and daughter said ye would,” Boyd declared, casting his daughter a quick glance with his eyes.
Johnny’s eyes crinkled in the corners, the first sign of any lightheartedness Murdoch or Scott had seen in him since coming home. “Is that so?” Johnny replied, eyeing Milo in the background, silently amused when the bigger man’s eyebrows shot up as if he had been found out about some secret he had no intentions of ever revealing.
Murdoch and Scott moved in closer, the tension of the past minute flickering away as shoulders eased and movement began again. Fiona placed the tray on the table, glad to be rid of the weight in her hands and went to stand beside her husband. “It’s so good to meet you at last Johnny. We’ve heard so much about you.” She ran a hand through her thick auburn hair and Johnny noted that she was just as beautiful as Sadie, thinking briefly Scott was a lucky man to have found such an attractive woman out of something that had started off so bad.
“Apparently you didn’t hear enough,” Johnny replied flatly, shrugging off the hand that Murdoch tried to place on his shoulder, when his father stepped up beside him. Teresa was standing on his left side now and it was all he could do not to whisk her away into another room and tell her how much he missed her. But that nagging little voice in his head said he didn’t deserve her so he refrained from the impulse, keeping a sharp eye on Milo’s father.
“My boy said ye was big as a mountain,” Boyd told him roughly, turning back to look at his son and then back to the Lancers, most particularly at Johnny.
“Haven’t been told that before,” Johnny commented dryly, fingers thrumming his thighs.
“Aye…I’ll bet ye haven’t,” Boyd remarked. “They said ye was fast as a horse too,” Boyd continued.
“I’m fast with my gun,” Johnny countered with a hard edge to his voice and a sudden halt to all motion in his hands.
“Aye…I’ve seen that for myself,” Boyd allowed. “Ye be pretty good with ye’re fist too,” Boyd added, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at Milo.
“Milo would know,” Johnny claimed without conceit.
Boyd rubbed his chin, “Aye…that he would,” the man replied thoughtfully. “You like to drink boy?”
“When I know the man I’m drinkin’ with,” Johnny replied, reminding Murdoch of that first day home, a hint of that same old temper reflecting in Johnny’s tone.
“Is ye’re boy always so hard Murdoch?” Boyd asked his long time friend.
Murdoch chuckled, knowing exactly what Boyd meant, “Not always,” he responded. “Mostly when he’s tired…as we all are.” Murdoch didn’t try to put his hands on Johnny again, but he did take Teresa by the shoulders and guide her to the formal table, away from Johnny’s side. “I think it’s best to let this drop for now. Johnny…I’m sure, would like to clean up and get some sleep. Sam will be here soon and he can take a look at your shoulder when he does.”
“I’m glad to hear it. The lassie nearly sent me through the roof with her medicinal salve and God-awful tea. She’s almost as dangerous if not more so than the lad here,” Boyd commented with a scowl on his face.
“A conversation we’ve all had Mr. McIntyre. None of us like her tea any better than you do,” Scott commented with a smile, tweaking Teresa’s chin, as he crossed the room and put his arm around Sadie’s waist, “Why don’t we all have a seat, drink the lemonade your wife has brought us? And Mr. McIntyre, I’ll pour you something a little stronger to hold you over until Sam gets here,” Scott directed at Boyd, giving room for Johnny to depart without having to say anything, and Murdoch the time he needed to spend with Johnny if his brother allowed it.
Boyd sat down, “Now that’s a drink I won’t mind havin’ thrust at me,” he declared. “And where do you think ye’re goin’?” he asked Milo when he saw that his son was going to try and leave the room.
Milo stuck his hands in his pockets, “Outside to wait for the doctor,” Milo attempted.
Boyd shook his head, “I don’t think so lad…ye go on and have a seat and tell me what really happened that day you came home all busted up. And I want the truth, no tall tales,” his father admonished, leaving the Lancers to their own devices while Fiona gathered up the tray and handed out the lemonade and Scott poured Boyd a snifter of Murdoch’s finest malt liquor.
Sam came and went. Boyd’s shoulder needed several stitches and the same applied to Cipriano who was doing remarkably well considering, as Sam said, “Jelly isn’t a doctor but he did a fine enough job. As long as infection doesn’t set in, I don’t see why we shouldn’t see a full recovery, especially with Maria and Teresa to fuss over him.”
Murdoch wished him well, helped him into his buggy and waved him off as Sam went back to his rounds. Val had come with several men, announcing just after Sam drove off that he and the boys would be working through the day digging graves. The burial would have to wait until morning. A good thing Murdoch supposed, giving them all a chance to get a good nights sleep to prepare for the long day ahead.
Burying friends…loved ones, was never an easy task on the heart and right now, he wasn’t so sure that any of them could hold up to having to go through the motions after the long sleepless night they’d had. Exhaustion was setting in fast and hard. He wasn’t as young as he used to be and neither were Boyd and Fiona.
Boyd McIntyre was sore and aching from his stitches; more irritable by the time Sam got done with him, but relieved to be able to go off to bed at an early hour, with a small dose of laudanum to dull the pain and help him sleep. Fiona kissed her children, grown as they were, and bid them an early goodnight. She clasped Scott’s hand and said, “Please let your brother know how grateful we are. It may not have come across that we are, but I want him to know.”
Scott kissed her cheek and squeezed her hand, “He already knows Fiona…but I’ll make sure to tell him anyways.”
They left the room, Boyd grumbling sluggishly all the way up the stairs about his son, the big mountain of a man…racing horses…and something about a rematch, much to Scott’s amusement.
He looked at Sadie and smiled, “Your parents are very special,” he told her.
Sadie smiled up at him, “You think so?”
Scott bent his head down to Sadie and kissed her gently on the lips, “Umm Humm…I know so,” he told her pulling his face away, love for her shining in his eyes.
“Ah Humm!” Milo harrumphed from across the room.
Scott holding Sadie’s chin in his hand, looked over her head at Milo’s stern visage, “Milo…” he said complacently, “You need to find yourself a woman.”
For the third time, Murdoch opened the bathhouse door and checked on Johnny without his knowing. The boy was dressed in soft gray trousers, no shirt, no boots, standing at the washstand in his bare feet, wet hair dripping down his back and soaking the waist of his pants. As before, he was washing his hands and arms, to the point that Murdoch thought he would rub the skin clean off if he didn’t stop soon.
Murdoch pushed the door open a little further and made a coughing sound. “May I come in?” he asked.
“It’s your house,” Johnny said rinsing the soap off in the water basin. Murdoch noted he picked the soap up again and rolled the cake between his hands until there was another good lather worked up.
“Our house,” Murdoch corrected, walking up to him.
“Yeah…I…forgot,” Johnny replied nonchalantly, scrubbing and rubbing at his hands and arms.
“How was the drive?” Murdoch asked, hoping to take Johnny’s mind off his mindless attempts to get whatever it was off his body.
“Fine…no trouble. Guess you’re wonderin’ bout the bank draft…the money I was supposed to bring home?” he asked absentmindedly.
Murdoch’s brows arched, “I wasn’t actually, but now that you’ve reminded me…”
“Don’t have it,” Johnny stated quickly, interrupting his father.
Murdoch’s brows furrowed, “What do you mean?” he asked calmly, knowing there had to be a perfectly good reason, not caring though after all that had happened. In the end, it was probably for the best that Johnny didn’t have the money on him.
“I got to thinkin’…on my way to the bank in Stockton…that Mr. Taylor was right. Too much money to be carryin’ around.”
Murdoch still had no idea how much money Johnny got paid, “So you put it in the bank,” he asked mildly, concerned that Johnny was rinsing his hands and arms again while he was standing there, soaping them up for the second time since he had come into the room.
“Yep…had it transferred to Green River. Should be there by now I ‘spect.” Johnny bent his head for closer inspection of his work, diligently scrubbing at hands that couldn’t be any cleaner in Murdoch’s opinion, never once lifting his dark head to look at him as they conversed.
“How was Maxwell?” Murdoch asked Johnny.
“He’s fine…sent yah a letter,” Johnny replied, whipping his chin over his shoulder and jutting it toward his saddlebags, “It’s in there,” he said. “Uncle Max says he expects an invite to the ranch…soon,” Johnny continued in that slow drawl he had, totally unaware that he had used the unfamiliar name that Maxwell Taylor insisted he be called in his office.
“I suppose that means we’ll have to get it sent next time we go to town,” Murdoch suggested.
“That’s what I would do,” Johnny commented casually. “You gonna pay ‘ol Terrance Littleton for that property Grady Owens is given up?”
“First thing,” Murdoch replied, glad that Johnny seemed for the moment to be finding an interest in their conversation, but it bothered him that Johnny was once again rinsing off and soaping up a third time. The compulsive behavior wasn’t like his son at all and it had him flustered and a little worried. He wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject without Johnny turning on him with resentment.
It hit him hard in the chest, that age-old paternal feeling he was unused to, staking a claim on his heart that was hard to ignore. Old memories popped into his head, those of a sparkling, happy two year old, innocent and cherished by a man who had lost so much in the years before Johnny was born. A thought came to his mind, something that came back to him out of the blue, a fond memory he could latch onto and maybe use to help his son.
Murdoch planted the seed and hoped it would take root, “Can’t get it off?” he asked gently.
Johnny abruptly stopped scrubbing, staring at the back of his lathered hands. At first Murdoch thought he wasn’t going to answer. Johnny’s jaw clenched and unclenched, the muscles in his face flexed visibly as he closed his mouth and breathed heavily through his nose. His thoughts were filled with turmoil, the voices of good and evil playing havoc with the last of his reserves.
Johnny turned to his father and looked at him, earnestly, hopeful, every desire he’d ever had asking to be granted in that one quick instant, disappearing in the blink of an eye if Murdoch hadn’t been watching for it. In that one brief second Murdoch saw a memory of the past, a child who thought his father could walk on water, bend steel with his bare hands, fix the world and all his hurts just by being there, until abjection and self-loathing settled like a boulder upon Johnny’s shoulders.
“I don’t think there’s anything that can get it off Pa,” Johnny said shaking his head dejectedly, rinsing his hands and soaping them up again, “I’ve tried over and over again…and nothing…the bloodstains just won’t come off.” He sighed and the sound was so forlorn to Murdoch’s ears, “See what it does…” Johnny said, holding his hands up for inspection, “it worse than before.”
Murdoch’s heart wanted to rip in two for his son. He saw nothing, but knew he couldn’t say that to Johnny. The seed he planted grew, rooted better by the fact that Johnny was willing to explain what it was that he was seeing, reaching out to his father whether he knew it or not.
“Wait here for me son…I’ll be right back with something that will work,” Murdoch said with complete assurance.
“Well I ain’t goin’ anywhere like this,” Johnny mumbled slamming his hands down on the sides of the washstand, frustrated and so tired he wanted to collapse. A small part of him was annoyed that his father was leaving, but the other part of him was hoping against hope that maybe his father could fix the problem.
It seemed like a short lifetime to Johnny but in reality it was only a few short minutes before Murdoch came back into the washroom. He carried a small leather bag, similar looking to Sam’s old doctor bag, but much smaller, brown with lots of light colored creases and the usual signs of wear and tear from over the years. A tinge of familiarity brushed Johnny’s mind, but he couldn’t remember for sure if he had ever seen the little bag before. The sight of it though, brought a comfort to him that he didn’t expect, wondering why he would feel that way about something that was very old and looked as if it had seen better days.
Murdoch set it on the side of the washstand, pulling a clean towel off the rail before he opened the bag. “Before I start, I’ll need some clean water in the basin. Will you get it for me?” Murdoch asked Johnny, expecting him to comply without giving him any kind of look to back up the request, intent as he was on taking out several items from the bag.
Johnny pulled the basin out of the stand and took it to the tub pouring the soapy water inside. For the umpteenth time in one day, he was very glad his brother had insisted on a bathhouse being installed on the lower ground level just shortly after they came to live on the ranch. A necessity Scott called it after being introduced to the inconvenient method they used before to bathe in their rooms, using primitive wooden tubs and pails of hot water that had to be carried up to the second level of the house. One of the few things Scott declared would not suit him at all if he were to remain on the ranch. Not a threat by any means, more a symbolic decree of how loathsome the very idea was to him.
The promise to build one was set in stone not long after the papers were signed making them equal partners of the ranch, as long as Scott promised never to wear his plaid pants again. Murdoch had jokingly said it would scare the cattle and cause a stampede because the colors were so bright. The first touch of humor, more or less, the boys had ever witnessed their father having during those first few months, while the topic was discussed over supper and a few drinks afterward.
Johnny filled the bowl with fresh water from the bathtub spigot then took the porcelain basin to the stand and placed it back into the hole where it was kept. He looked at his father and asked, “You really think that stuff will work?”
Murdoch glanced up from his supplies, noting that Johnny was scratching at his wet arms and hands. He smiled confidently and said, “I know it will work. It has in the past and it will this time too.”
Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat, he so wanted to believe his father but he had his doubts. What could be so special about any of the things Murdoch had setting out that hadn’t worked by him using the most stringent of soaps from Maria’s supply? It won’t work Johnny!…You have no heart!…You have no soul!…the voice in his head screamed at him.
Murdoch gently took one of Johnny’s hands and dipped it into the water and began to lather up the soap, the fragrance, sweet but mild, reminding Johnny of wildflowers in the spring. His father’s ramblings overrode the voice in his head, its deep timber resonating smoothly in Johnny’s ears, filling the heart he thought he didn’t have with special memories his father reminisced about and ones he wished he could remember.
“I used this very same soap recipe on you when you were little,” Murdoch told his son, massaging Johnny’s hand with a gentleness that belied his towering height and brute strength. He laughed as his hands went up Johnny’s arm and down again, “You were the most precocious child…always getting into something. Too smart for your own good.”
Murdoch’s fingers rubbed and slid to Johnny’s palm, washing in short circular patterns, “You could talk fluently by the time you were two…of course…none of us could understand much of your longer sentences, flavored throughout with words you made up and words you could pronounce, some we could understand and some we had to figure out. But you did it…you talked…a lot. What used to surprise me was your flare for expression…you would chatter to all of us, using your hands just as much as your tongue to get across what you had to say, all smiles and animated gestures. I would have thought it was all nonsense at the time, if it wasn’t for the fact that you would come back a second and third time, saying the same thing with the same hand motions in exactly the same way.”
“Did you ever figure out what I was trying to tell you?” Johnny asked, tilting his head a little to the left as he watched his father work on him.
Murdoch nodded, not taking his eyes off his task, “Oh yes…It wasn’t really hard to guess after a while. Inevitably every conversation had to do with wanting to go outside and be around the horses or the livestock. It drove your mother nuts…could be one of the reasons she took off with you,” Murdoch suggested quietly for the first time. “She always worried about you getting trampled on.”
Murdoch lowered Johnny’s hand into the water and began to rinse off the suds he’d made. Johnny was taken aback at the mention of his mother; he caught himself holding his breath, waiting for Murdoch to say more. When his father didn’t start in again as soon as Johnny expected he asked, “Did I ever get trampled on like mama thought I would?”
Murdoch raised his eyes and there was a world of grief in them, “Not while you were living with me son.”
Johnny flinched but didn’t pull his hand away. He thought of all the times he’d been hurt, ‘trampled on’, as Murdoch would have called his many beatings, his gunfights, his stab wounds, all of which scarred his back, the physical reminders of which had him thrashing with nightmares on the odd occasion that those memories surfaced in his dreams unwanted. “What is this stuff you’re using on my arms?” Johnny asked, pushing away those unwanted memories, wanting to hear more of the good ones his father apparently remembered about him.
“It’s called ‘seasmach dùil’.” Murdoch answered with a brogue that made Johnny want to smile. Hearing the accent made him feel closer to his father for some reason he didn’t understand.
Murdoch took hold of Johnny’s other arm and with patience, started the whole process all over again, “I used this on you when you were little,” he commented quietly.
“Did you have to use a lot?” Johnny asked.
“More than I would have liked,” Murdoch replied. “You were a tough little boy…always running around. You started early in life…up on your feet before you were a year old and after that…it was skinned knees, cut hands and…very little tears,” Murdoch enlightened.
“Are you saying I wasn’t much of a crybaby?” Johnny asked with a hesitant smile.
Murdoch rubbed the sweet smelling soap all over Johnny’s hand and arm; sparing a glance at the bluest set of eyes he’d ever seen in his life, perfect like a cloudless summer sky, “No you weren’t.”
“What did I do then?” Johnny asked intrigued by what Murdoch was telling him.
Murdoch’s frame shook with laughter, but he held onto Johnny and kept up his ministrations, “You got angry. You’re little face would turn bright red and you’d stomp off looking for me.” His fingers quickened as he remembered the past, swallowing the lump in his throat when he remembered his toddler son coming up to him with his chubby little arms held high, expecting to be picked up and taken care of. “Papa…papa…you’d say…and other times…hurt papa, hurt,” Murdoch continued lost in another time, another place. “I would carry you inside the house and set you on the counter in the kitchen. I’d pull out this little brown bag, this ‘seasmach dùil’ and clean you up. When I was all done, I would say, ‘Take a look Johnny…it’s all gone…Papa made it all better.’ The hurt would disappear and you’d be off running around again as if nothing ever happened.”
Murdoch dipped Johnny’s hand in the water and rinsed the soap off his hand and arm. He toweled both arms dry and when he was done, he picked up a small glass jar, filled with a white creamy lotion. A small dollop was placed in the palms of his hands, and Murdoch rubbed them together then spread the lotion up and down on Johnny’s arms and massaged it into his hands. “You know, this stuff as you call it…” Murdoch laughed under his breath, a deep, pleasant, soothing sound to Johnny, “was first made by your great great grandma in Scotland, long before you were born. She used it on your great grandpa…who used it on his son, your grandpa…who used it on me…and now…I’m using it on you…and you can use it on your children someday,” Murdoch told him, his words getting softer and softer as he finished his tale. “Take a look Johnny…it’s all gone…Papa made it all better,” Murdoch chanted tenderly, holding Johnny’s hands in his, encouraging his son by dropping his eyes to look at what he had done.
Johnny looked down and tears sprang to his eyes when he saw that his hands and arms, which had plagued him mercilessly were cleaned…no bloodstains anywhere. His throat constricted, his vision blurred and hope bloomed. He looked up at his father; a wavering sigh passing through his teeth as he bit his bottom lip and sucked the air in through his nose, “Do you think…” Johnny sighed, blinking rapidly, arching his brows, “Do you think you can fix this…my heart?” he asked quickly, while he had the nerve, pulling his right hand from Murdoch’s and pounding his fist onto his chest where is heart beat, “ ‘Cause it hurts Papa…like there’s a big ‘ol knife stuck in here…twisting and turning…cutting me up inside…and I can’t take it anymore,” he cried, shaking his head in anguish.
Johnny dropped his chin, tears of hurt and sorrow spilling down his cheeks, as he tottered backward on the heels of his feet, ripping a hole in Murdoch’s heart and soul. The pain his son was feeling, ran so much deeper, so much wider, than Murdoch anticipated. But intuition kicked in, blessed him with a wisdom he didn’t know he had, as he reached out for Johnny and pulled him into his embrace, giving his son a lifeline to take hold of. Murdoch ran the palm of his hand along the many scars that marred his son’s bare back, crooning nonsensically in a language his son didn’t understand, brushing the top of his head when Johnny placed his cheek on Murdoch’s chest and wrapped his arms around his waist, holding on for dear life as wave after wave of despair wracked his body.
When the tide receded and Murdoch could finally speak without a hitch to his voice, he said, “I can’t fix everything that’s happened to you Johnny…but I can love you…I can be here for you…and do my best to ease your pain. I’m proud of you…for what you’ve done and for who you are… Usted tiene mi corazón.” (You have my heart)
Those words, so longed for in Johnny’s life, soaked into his being, dried his tears, filled him with serenity that was long overdue. Johnny felt whole again, reborn in a sense, alive for the first time since coming home. The voices in his head retreating in defeat; chased away by a cure that no one would have thought possible for an ex-gunslinger with a conscience…Love, pure and simple.
Notes: ‘seasmach dùil’…. ‘enduring hope’….(Scottish Gaelic)
One month later:
The sun was shining, hot and brilliant like any other California day of the week. There was a cool breeze though, a sign of the cooler nights ahead as summer waned and fall kissed the land with its gentle transformation of color and promise of changes yet to come.
Music drifted across the valley…Spanish guitars, clicking castanets, tambourines, fiddles and horns…ethnic gaiety in its finest form as the vaqueros, the women and the children celebrated the end of a profitable season. There was laughter and singing, games and competitions, gunfire and fireworks, barbecue beef, chicken and pork, roasting over an open fire pit and specially made hot Mexican dishes for those who wanted a little more fire, a little more spice in their food. The tables were loaded with cake, cookies, pudding and pie of every kind, accompanied by a variety of local fruits and vegetables to please one and all.
A fiesta! A celebration orchestrated to give thanks and acknowledge the dedication, loyalty and devotion of those that worked hard and made Lancer what it was. A time to relax, have fun, let off steam and think of nothing more than what was happening in the here and now. Tomorrow would come soon enough and with it, the beginnings of a new day, a new era for the peoples who loved this land and lived it and for those who died to keep it safe. A small slice of heaven, the most beautiful place on earth.
Johnny brushed away the tendril of dark brown hair that wisped across his face and then squeezed his arms a little tighter around Teresa’s waist. She giggled, clasping her hands over Johnny’s, filling his heart with more happiness than he thought possible. He held her close, relishing the heat of her body, resting his chin on her shoulder; at peace in a world he now called home without any reservations.
Johnny nuzzled Teresa’s ear, kissed her earlobe for a second time while lacing his fingers through hers, amazed once again at the vast differences between them, her feminine pliable soft curves, fitting nicely into his hard masculine physique. Leather and lace, he thought, not a thing alike and yet so perfect when put together this way.
“You think he knows we’ve taken off?” Teresa asked, tilting her head a little to the right, making it easier for Johnny to keep doing what he was doing.
“Don’t know,” Johnny whispered into her ear, kissing her lobe, moving tantalizingly lower down her neck until his lips found that sweet spot at the back of her hairline. He kissed her, suckled on her skin, then playfully nipped her with his teeth, knowing that she would wiggle from his touch while she sat between his legs. Johnny pulled her closer when she began to squirm her bottom, laughing under his breath when he heard her sigh his name. He loved that…hearing his name exhaled with passion on her perfect pink lips. It sent flames dancing through his veins, red hot with desire; igniting his sexual hunger with a force he had trouble controlling.
He yearned for her like no other woman before…craving her touch, her love, with an obsession that went far beyond the normal boundary of life. This was his way, nothing half measure in anything he did, or said. It was all or nothing…and Johnny wanted it all.
Teresa closed her eyes, savoring the feel of his warm breath on her skin, impassioned with desires that made her feel weak-kneed and out of control. She had to stop this before it went too far. There was a part of her that could so easily turn in his arms and let Johnny take what she wanted to give, but common sense prevailed, screamed at her to stop before it was too late, unable to control the breathless, wanton feelings she had if Johnny continued to barrage her with these kinds of emotions.
Intent on telling him so, Teresa twisted her head around, the words she was going to say completely disintegrating when Johnny captured her mouth to his. He kissed her deeply, long and hard, his mouth probing hers open, his tongue plunging inside, fueling the heat that raged between them. He ravaged her with his tongue, swirling and dancing inside her mouth, sucking in her breath, stealing her heart without breaking for air.
His hands, hard and yet gentle, moved up her thighs, spanned her belly, moving ever upward with slow sensual movements until he cupped the swelling curves of her breast, kneading the hardened nipples with the pads of his thumbs. An animalistic groan vibrated in her mouth, not knowing if it came from her or Johnny. She turned in his arms, their faces never parting, mouths locked together, grinding into one another with a need so hot they both shook from it.
Johnny’s hands plunged into her hair, tugging her head backward so that his mouth could trail down her chin, her throat, pulling her to her knees, pressing on the small of her back until her breast were pressed against his chest, inflaming the heat that raged between her thighs. She wanted this man with every fiber of her being, inexplicably lost in a world of ecstasy and opaque blue seductive eyes that held her captive with longing.
Teresa’s fingers found their way to the back of Johnny’s head, luxuriating in the feel of his thick silky black hair. She pulled him too her, arched her back, and let his mouth burn a path to her breast, reeling with rapture when she felt his hot breath through the cotton fabric of her shirt. The sensation of it made her cry out loud, a frenzy of unintelligible sounds she didn’t recognize was coming from her throat.
Johnny’s fingers found their way to her buttons, slipping them through the holes, desperate in his need to taste the fleshy smoothness that teased and begged to be touched by his wet tongue. He exposed her breast, marveling at the sight, his voice husky when he breathed, “So beautiful.” Johnny dipped his head toward her, his mouth covering the taut firmness of her breast, sucking, swirling his tongue, branding her for all time, leaving a tiny remembrance of his love for her on the fleshy petal soft smoothness of her naked body.
Johnny lay back, pulling Teresa with him, gasping for air as his passion raged out of control, aroused by the feel of her weight on top of his body. He put his hands on the sides of her face, pulled her down to him, kissing her eyes, her cheeks, her lips, as his body flamed with untamed desire, the male hardness in his lower region, instinctively seeking out that primitive connection he knew in the back of his mind would not be sated on this day.
He ground the heels of his boots into the earth and rolled their bodies until Teresa was lying underneath him, propping his elbows in the ground, capturing her face between his hands, his fingertips pushing through her hair. He dipped his head and kissed her tenderly, his voice shaking when he pulled away, “We have to stop querida.”
Teresa closed her eyes, long dark lashes curled against sun kissed cheeks. She opened them, smiling up at Johnny, sighing with regret as she placed a palm against his cheek. “Do you want to stop mi querido?”
Johnny swallowed and smiled back at her, the crinkles in the corners of his eyes deepening, long wayward bangs falling rakishly across his brow, as he shook his head, “No.” He kissed her lightly, commanding the urges of his body to slow down and back off. Not an easy thing to do when he was still draped over her prone soft curves, and hungrily looking down at the exposed breast where he left his purpling mark. “We have to though.”
Teresa ran her hand down the side of his face, marveling just as he had before at the vast differences in their bodies. She could feel him, hard and rigid where her thighs were, masculine in every way. His face was rugged and scratchy beneath the palm of her hand, his eyes so blue, so tender and loving as he gazed down at her. She moved her hands slowly, methodically to the opening of his shirt, removed the wooden toggles from their holes, her hands reaching inside his shirt, feeling of the solid rock hardness of his chest beneath the curls of his black matted chest hairs.
Johnny closed his eyes, reveling in the touch of her hands, flinching when her fingers found the nubs of his breasts, shaking when her hands trailed lower, fingertips burning a path to his waist, bereft when she pulled her hands away, and excited when he felt the tail of his shirt being pulled from the waist band of his pants.
He rolled them over again, and watched her blue eyes widen with the tiniest spark of fear when he grabbed her waist and pulled her to a straddling position over his hips. Johnny let his hands slide to the tops of her thighs, wishing this one time that Teresa was wearing a dress. He could have her then, he thought wickedly, but was glad she wasn’t wearing one. He wouldn’t go that far. He wouldn’t spoil the greatest gift he would ever receive by tainting her with guilt before they got married. He loved her and respected her too much for that. It was bad enough that they were going this far with their actions…any further than this and his father would have his hide, not to mention his head on a platter.
But he could have this for now…this teasing, playful, not so innocent foreplay…a prelude of things to come. He felt no shame in it, knowing in his heart that one day they would marry…have children. He had asked her last night, on her seventeenth birthday, under the silvery moon and the starlit sky and she had said yes…much to his delight and much to his surprise. He had hoped she would say yes, prayed to a God he had lost faith in a time or two that she would accept his proposal…but those old doubts about his self worth still echoed in his mind and he had worried, practically stuttering out the words in his nervousness on bended knee after he asked her to go for a walk with him.
Teresa splayed her hands on his chest, ran her fingers down his ribcage, touching, teasing him mercilessly with her fingertips when they reached his flat hard belly. His skin twitched, his stomach fluttered and dipped when she moved still lower, testing his self-control when her fingers found their way under the band of his pants and black leather gun belt. She dipped her head, long tresses of dark honeyed hair cascading around her shoulders, tickling his skin as she kissed him on the neck, mimicking his every move, trailing down his neck and to his breast. He closed his eyes, gasped when she sucked on his hard nipple, bucked when she branded him in the same way, delirious when he felt the heat of her nether regions against his groin.
He rolled his head from side to side, as she suckled and nipped with her teeth, his hands grasping for her waist, his hips lifting off the ground, grinding into her, searching for release, denied by restriction and their own set of proprietary rules, aching with pent up desires he vowed to keep sacred until their wedding night.
The sensations intensified, growing to proportions no longer able to be controlled. Johnny gripped her hard around the waist, picked her up as he sat upright, placing her on the soft grass beside him. He pulled his legs up and laid his arms on his knees, his head bent between his legs as he inhaled deeply and struggled for some semblance of composure. Lifting his head, he looked at her and smiled, white even teeth gleaming with brilliance, “I have to stop Teresa.” He got to his feet shakily and walked in a circle, his right hand on his chest, breathing deeply, in and out, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. “Whew!” he said, placing his hands on his hips, bending backward to look up into the deep blue sky. “We’re gonna be somethin’ else…yah know that?”
Teresa smiled, pulled her shirt together and inhaled deeply, wondering if her face was as red as she felt it was. She knew what Johnny meant. The love they felt for one another was intense, magnified ten fold now that they had a commitment between them. She pushed herself off the ground, unsteady at best, the heat in her loins an uncomfortable and unexpected product of their shared experience. She was an innocent physically, but not so mentally to the nature of what happens between a woman and a man. She was born and raised around men who in one way or another, by virtue of their nature, had her well aware of what took place in the bedroom. There was also the gift of natural understanding because of the babies she helped to birth and the animals that carried on without that burden of human embarrassment to keep them from rutting publicly in the fields and larger corrals. It was a coarse way of looking at it, but very real in her life and Teresa was not one to play stupid about the things that man and nature taught her.
She walked over to Johnny, buttoned up his shirt and stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the lips, “I do know and I can’t wait.”
Johnny laughed and pulled her to him, “I can’t wait either honey. But we better not have another episode like this one, ‘cause I can’t promise to wait ‘til we’re married if I have to go through that again.”
Johnny tucked in his shirt, while Teresa straightened out her clothing just a little more. When they were done they sat back down, the way they were before, Teresa nestled between his legs, her back pressed up against his chest, content for now to be in the circle of his arms as they gazed across the vast expanse of Lancer.
“You think Scott and Sadie are going to get married someday?” Teresa asked idly.
“I think so. He’s awful sweet on her,” Johnny answered. “He hinted that he was thinkin’ of takin’ it to the next level.”
Teresa’s brow furrowed, “What does that mean?”
“Guess it means he’ll ask for her hand in marriage soon.”
Teresa chuckled, “You think he can do that with Milo hanging around him and Sadie all the time?”
Johnny grinned and put his chin on the top of Teresa’s shoulder, “Don’t think Milo’s gonna be doin’ a whole lot of hangin’ round too much longer.”
“Why is that?” Teresa asked, putting her hands on top of Johnny’s, pushing her slim fingers through his and curling them until her fingertips touched the palms of his hands.
“You remember Hector Gonzales?” Johnny asked, swallowing hard as he remembered his friend. “He was trying to court Rosita Diaz, doc’s cleaning lady.”
Teresa nodded her head; she did indeed remember the man who was such a romantic at heart before he was killed. “I remember,” she said.
“Well…Milo met up with her one day in town a couple weeks back. Seems he took a shine to her and asked her to the fiesta. I reckon she’s down there with him right now.”
“How did you find this out?” Teresa asked, surprised that Johnny knew and she didn’t.
“Me and Milo have an understandin’ of sorts.”
Teresa pulled her left hand from Johnny’s and reached up behind her to touch the side of Johnny’s face, “What kind of understanding?” she asked, skimming his cheek lightly with the tips of her fingers.
He laughed and the sound was music to her ears, “We’re friends.”
Teresa pulled away and twisted around to look at him with surprise on her face, “You’re not serious.”
Johnny grinned, the light in his eyes twinkling with merriment, “It’s true….I swear!”
“I don’t know if I believe you,” Teresa declared, swatting at his hand when he reached to pull her back to him.
“I swear on my life…it’s true. We went fishin’ two days ago and last week we went out lookin’ for wild horses…and,” he stressed the word, “we both played poker with Val and Terrance on Saturday night.”
Teresa smirked her lip, “Johnny Lancer, I believe the last two things you just said but I don’t believe for one second you went fishing. You hate to fish!”
“Well I did…now get over here,” he said, grabbing her gently by the arm and pulling her back to his chest, “This is how I like to talk to you…close and personal.”
Teresa laughed, “You can’t talk to me unless I’m in your arms?”
“Not right now, I can’t. I missed you,” he said, kissing her ear.
“Stop that!” she said, “Unless you want a repeat performance.”
Johnny sighed, “Guess you’re right ‘bout that. We have to go soon,” he agreed.
“So why are Robin and Ashley Day at the fiesta…I don’t remember inviting them?” Teresa asked.
“That’s Scott’s bright idea,” Johnny answered.
“Okay…this is getting a little strange. Why was it Scott’s idea?”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders, “Apparently he promised to take them out to lunch.”
“Now why would he do a thing like that? Does he know how catty and gossipy they can be? Mary Rutherford and Charlotte Banks are going to have a fit when they find out those two were here without them.”
“I don’t know why he promised them lunch, but knowing Scott it must have been important or he wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”
“I’m going to have a thing or two to say to them girls if they snookered him into doing this for nefarious reasons,” Teresa exclaimed mildly.
Johnny laughed, “Do you even know what nefarious means?”
Teresa smiled and shook her head, “Nooooo,” she said stretching the word out.
“Scott?” Johnny asked.
Grinning Teresa said, “Who else?”
He laughed, “You can talk to the girls and I’ll talk to Scott,” Johnny said lightly.
“Why are you going to talk to Scott…he didn’t do anything wrong?”
“Yes he did,” Johnny stated.
“What?” Teresa asked.
“He’s got you all worked up and talkin’ like him…can’t be havin’ that,” he joked.
“You’ll do no such thing Johnny Lancer or else,” Teresa returned.
“Or else what?” Johnny asked, kissing her on the neck.
“Or else this,” she said, turning in his arms slightly, kissing him on the lips.
Johnny licked his lips and said, “I’m gonna tell him off as soon as I get down there and when I’m done, we’re goin’ to sneak off so you can give me my ‘or else’.”
“I think you’d do anything for a kiss,”
“Hmmmm…I think you’re right,” he replied bending his head down to her lips, plunging his tongue inside her mouth, tasting her sweetness as they shared a deep satisfying kiss.
They broke apart when they heard a noise from far below the hill where they sat, a jingle of harness straps, the sound of clomping hooves pounding on the drive, blending with the noises coming from the hacienda and the yard.
Teresa sat up straight, placed her hand over her brow and peered intently down the valley. “I don’t recognize the rig and I know that Sam is already at the house.”
Johnny leaned forward, stretching his neck to see over the top of Teresa’s head. He smiled and pulled her back to him, “It’s uncle Max.”
“Maxwell Taylor?” Teresa asked.
Johnny shook his head, “Uncle Max…and he’ll tell you the same thing.”
“I thought he couldn’t make it until next week.” Teresa said.
“That’s what he said at first. Guess he changed his mind after that second telegram Murdoch sent him.”
“What was in the second telegram that would have made him change his mind?” Teresa wanted to know.
Johnny shrugged again, arching his brows, “Not sure. All I know is that when Murdoch went to the bank and found out how much money we made off the cattle drive, he ‘bout passed out in the bank. Hell…I can’t blame him…my hands were shaking like a leaf when I saw uncle Max writing out all them zero’s.”
“And Murdoch didn’t know?”
“Not ‘til we got to the bank. I kinda forgot to tell him,” he said sheepishly.
“Well I’m not surprised about that…you and Jelly did sleep for almost two days straight,” Teresa commented compassionately. “It’s a load off Murdoch’s mind to finally have that property paid off. I’ve never seen him get so excited before…well except for when you and Scott came home.”
Johnny tilted his head and pulled away from Teresa just a little, “Murdoch was excited about us coming home?”
Teresa turned to look at him with a wry grin on her face, “Yessss…” she said, looking at Johnny as if he had turned green, “he was…he just didn’t show it to you boys. But I told you he was glad to have you home.”
Johnny snorted, “Well I wasn’t much in the listenin’ mood back then.”
“Well you must have listened some…cause you both stayed and you both got paid.”
“You know what they say, if the shoe fits…” Teresa trailed off unperturbed by his announcement that he hadn’t been in a listening mood.
Johnny hugged her and nuzzled her neck, “You gonna always keep me in line?”
“When I have to,” Teresa responded, smiling when Johnny nibbled at her neck. Tingles ran down her spine, and she shivered, her stomach somersaulting as she imagined what else Johnny could do to her.
“What do you think about Grace?” Johnny asked, pulling his face away from her reluctantly.
“She’s beautiful, charming, delightful and fun to be around. I think she’s fond of your father,” Teresa replied. “He should think about courting her.”
“Umm hmm,” Teresa said. “She’s good for him. I notice he smiles a lot when Grace is around. And once or twice they’ve gone for very long walks…alone.”
“Do you think if he courts her…marries her…we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mildred Kramer around?” Johnny asked her.
“It’s a given. But that’s not such a big deal. Mildred Kramer is a wonderful lady and I know for a fact that she loves you dearly.” Teresa leaned away from him and looked back into his face, “Val told Scott about you going over to her place and doing all the repairs on it.”
“Val’s got a big mouth,” Johnny said with just tiniest bit of anger in his voice.
“Now don’t be mad at Val for saying something nice about you. For heaven sakes Johnny, if Val or Mr. Hanson or any number of other good citizens didn’t say what all you’ve done for them, no one would know.”
“Isn’t that what doin’ a good deed is all about?” Johnny asked mildly, dropping his head in embarrassement.
Teresa scooted and got to her knees, moving as close as her posture allowed. She placed her fingers under his chin and said, “Johnny…look at me.”
Johnny lifted his head, his eyes filled with a tinge of sorrow. He didn’t do any of the things he did for his friends just to get the recognition from it. He did it because he wanted to, because he was needed and wanted to help.
“Do you know how much I love you?” Teresa asked, surprising Johnny with the question.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he replied.
“Because you can’t Johnny…not unless I tell you…or show you. If I never let you know what I’m feeling in here,” she placed her hand over her heart, “then you wouldn’t have a clue.”
“Are you saying that Val told because he loves me?”
“In a sense…yes. He’s proud of you…he wanted to share…to let someone know what an extraordinary man you are and what a good friend he has.”
Johnny sighed, “Guess I can’t very well be mad at him then.”
Teresa smiled and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on the cheek and then the neck, inhaling his scent, a mixture of leather and soap, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Johnny said, returning her kisses, what anger he had, completely dispelled by her affectionate love for him.
He pulled away saying, “I think we should head back now. Murdoch and Scott have got to be wondering where we are by now.”
Teresa giggled, “I think you’re right.”
Johnny stood up and held his hands down to Teresa, pulling her to her feet with one quick motion that brought her chest to chest with him. He pried the top of her blouse over to the side and kissed the top of her breast, smiling when he was done, satisfied that when she got undressed tonight, there would still be a part of him that she could not forget. But then again, neither would he, Johnny thought, his stomach dipping to the toes of his boots when he recalled the way Teresa made him hers.
As they rode away, they talked all the way home about nothing in general, wondering peacefully if Edna Miller gave Jelly a hard time about being escorted to the fiesta in the fancy doubled seated carriage that the old wrangler picked her up in. Speculating on whether or not Val and Terrance could make it through the day without arguing over something. Laughing about Cotton Eye Joe getting worked up because Whitey had a tendency to stray behind Andy Clark, not realizing that the only reason the dog stayed by the boy’s side, had to do with all the dropped goodies that fell off Andy’s plate every time the boy hitched up his pants.
As they passed through the Lancer archway, Johnny pulled up on the reins and brought Barranca to a halt. Teresa did the same, waiting with infinite patience as Johnny gazed across the wide-open fields to his right and his left, scanning the land and the grand hacienda that belonged to his family with pride. He closed his eyes, and took in a deep breath. When his eyes opened again, he reached for Teresa’s hand, smiling, happy to be home, allowing the music and the voices of those he loved and cared about to seep into his soul. He leaned over, pulling Teresa toward him, kissing her in front of God and his family, if they were looking. For this was his way, nothing half measure in anything he did, or said. It was all or nothing…and Johnny wanted it all. Teresa, his family, his friends, this land…everything. He had love, pure and simple.