(A sequel to PROMISES)

by  Ros


Hello everyone,
This is a sequel to PROMISES. I want to say a big thank you to my betas KC and Linda whose encouragement is priceless and their beta-ing is fabulous. Thank you also to my French teacher Fay, and to Lacy for her last minute edits.

I know we don't usually do this, and I will say it only with this opening chapter, but the title comes from a person near and dear to me. Dad had it inscribed on my mother's wedding ring and she had it inscribed on his cemetery plaque. Love you Dad - Always.

Hope you like it. I have rated it PG though there is nothing explicit in it.

cheers Ros



It was dark, past midnight, in the most fashionable part of Boston. The gas lit street was hushed. Not a soul stirred, but a single candle dimly lit an upper window in one of the most elegant houses on the street. 

Into the stillness, a carpetbag was dropped from the window. It landed with a dull thud that echoed noisily through the night. For one brief moment, the noise shattered the stillness in the air, and then everything was quiet again. 

Then one fashionably shod little foot followed it through the window, feeling carefully around for a rung of the vine-covered trellis that graced that side of the house. 

Once firmly supported, it was joined by a second foot, and then a young woman cautiously climbed all the way out. It was a little awkward. Her skirts made it hard for her to find her footing at first. She was dressed in an inexpensive, but fashionable skirt and jacket, and she clung to the trellis, praying that it would hold her weight. 

It had been a long time since she had used it – years. She had been only a child back then, and she had been a whole lot smaller and had not had to contend with the voluminous skirts she wore now.  

It had been her escape to a wonderful world of adventure then.  

Now it was just her escape. 

She held her breath and got her balance, not daring to move as the timber creaked and moved ever so slightly. When she realized that it was indeed holding her weight, she took a tentative step down first one rung and then another. 

There was no time to waste on her fears. She had gotten this far without detection and exposure now would be disastrous. The vine’s tendrils tugged at her skirt and she had to stop to unhook herself more than once, but she resolutely made her way down the wall and stepped off thankfully at the bottom. 

The soft carpet of grass beneath her feet felt wonderful - solid ground again - but she took no time to linger and relish the feeling of relief. She took out her handkerchief and wiped the sweat from her forehead. Whether it was from the effort, or from fear, she had no idea, but she tucked the cloth back into her pocket and sighed deeply.  

Her adventure had begun. She picked up the bag and turned and hurried off down the street.

I did it! I really did it! She told herself over and over. She was exultant and frightened all at once.

She made her way through the streets quickly, keeping an eye open for a cab. It was late, and she knew it was unlikely that she would find one, but she was hopeful nevertheless.

She had to be at the railroad station first thing in the morning. She was to meet Mrs. Beecroft there.

Poor Mrs. Beecroft, she had hated lying to that nice old lady, but giving her her real name would have been foolish, even dangerous.

She had answered an advertisement the elderly lady had placed in the newspaper. Rosemary Beecroft had been looking for a genteel companion to accompany her on a trip to San Francisco.

The advertisement had been like manna from heaven. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, so she had dressed in her least elegant attire and paid the elderly lady a visit. She greeted the lady with a story that she was an orphan, in straitened financial circumstances, with relatives in San Francisco who were prepared to take her in.

The old lady had eagerly accepted her for her companion. 

So she spent the next couple of weeks surreptitiously purchasing inexpensive clothes. She certainly could not wear the expensive and elegant gowns that hung in her closet. They would attract far too much attention, and would have required explanations that she could not give.

She had packed her purchases in a trunk that she had kept hidden away in the attic. The allowance her parents allotted her was more than adequate for those needs and the train tickets and other more expensive items, she purchased with money from Grandmere’s legacy.

The trunk had been smuggled out of the house by a bribed servant and taken secretly to the railroad station two days ago. Then she had packed her last minute needs into the carpetbag. She had left all her jewelry and expensive items behind so that she would not make Mrs. Beecroft suspicious; though she had kept the cameo locket that Grand mere had left her. She wore that around her neck now and would never give that up.

Next, she had left a carefully worded letter for her parents. She knew there would be an uproar when they found her missing, but she assured them that she would be in touch and that she would be safe and well.

She knew her actions would be considered scandalous to say the least, but that couldn’t be helped. She had made great plans for this moment and she was not letting anything get in her way now.

In less than two weeks she would be in San Francisco. After that, she would find her way to the little town she had heard of – Morro Coyo – to Scott.




Ramon Cipirano watched over the little group of children in his charge. At fourteen, he considered himself far too old for school, but his parents and the Patron had other plans for him. It seemed that the teacher thought he was clever enough to one day go to college and the Patron had talked it over with his parents and was going to pay for his schooling.

Ramon’s own ambitions had never been more than to grow up to be like his father – a vaquero - a ‘top hand’. Most of his friends had already left school and were working as ranch hands and he had wanted to do the same, until he had talked to Senor Johnny.

Senor Johnny found him sitting, moping on his own, and he ended up confessing to him that he wanted to leave school but did not have the heart to disappoint his parents.

“I see what ya mean, Ramon,” Johnny said sympathetically. “Didn’t have the chance myself, so I can’t say what I’d a done. But Scott went to one o’ them big fancy schools, an’ he knows an awful lot ‘bout lots o’ things.”

“Si Senor,” Ramon replied thoughtfully. Senor Scott was certainly a very smart man.

Johnny looked at the boy, considering him for a moment. “Ya know, Ramon, there ain’t a man on this ranch with your way with animals.”

The boy was pleased at the compliment. “Gracias Senor Johnny,” he answered with a beaming smile.

“Maybe you could learn to be a vet or somethin’ at one o’ them fancy schools? Maybe even a real doctor?” Johnny smiled and clapped the boy on the shoulder before getting up to leave. He turned back first and added, “Think on it, Ramon.”

            He had indeed thought about it. So here he was, still going to school and watching over the little party of youngsters riding with him. 

He always rode at the rear. That way he could watch them all at once. His little brothers, Miguel and Enrique, led the way, and in the middle rode the littlest ones, Emily and the little senorita, with the dog trotting beside her.

Ramon took his responsibility very seriously. Senor Johnny trusted him with the safety of his little chica, and he was not letting him down. Ramon watched over her like a hawk.  

She had grown taller and thinner since the day she had turned up at Lancer, but she had the face of an angel. She had a laugh that rang through the ranch like music and he smiled when he thought about how much the estancia had changed since she came. It seemed like there was always noise, squealing and laughter, and always mischief for her to find. 

Senor Johnny had made her wear dresses to school. They had all heard about that argument. She preferred her overalls, and had told him so, but he had won. He usually did. 

He had not won when it came to the dog though. Ramon looked at it, trotting happily by her side, and he remembered the day he had first seen it. 

            It had wandered into the barn, starving, sick and frightened. It snarled and snapped at everyone who went near it, but Senorita Maddie was determined to save it. She and Enrique came running to him for help. 

When they got back to the barn, Jelly was there. He didn’t like dogs much, especially when they looked like that one. 

“I ain’t havin’ no wolf in my barn,” he growled.

“He ain’t no wolf, Jelly,” Maddie insisted, with a petulant stamp of her foot.

“Madelena!” came a commanding voice from behind them. A voice she and everyone else recognized instantly.

They all turned at once, Maddie with a surprised look on her face.

“Yes, Papa,” she said guiltily.

“You don’t say ‘ain’t.”

Her big brown eyes flashed defiantly. “You say it, Papa.”

“Well you ain’t me!” he told her firmly. “An’ unless you wanta spend the rest o’ the day in your room, thinkin’ on why you sassed your ol’ man…”

“Oh no, Papa. I’m sorry,” she replied quickly.

Johnny managed to keep the grin from his face somehow, but with a willful gleam in her eyes, his daughter added, “But he still isn’t a wolf!”

“Who isn’t?”

“The dog,” she told him. “Jelly says he’s a wolf.”

Johnny looked past the children to the scrawny, filthy animal lying in the straw. “Don’t look like a wolf to me, Jelly.”

“Lot you’d know,” Jelly huffed. “It’s part wolf anyways. Look at its color. ‘Sides, it’s too far-gone to save. Better ta put it out of its mis’ry.”

“No!” Maddie shouted in horror, and was joined by Enrique and Ramon in pleading with Johnny for the dog’s life.

“Well, I ain’t havin’ no wolf in my barn, Missie,” Jelly reiterated. “You shoulda seen it, Johnny, snappin’ an’ snarlin’ like a wild thing. Them kids’ll get hurt for sure.”

“He’s frightened, Jelly,” Maddie pointed out.

“He’s frightened!” the old man exclaimed. “Seems like we should be the ones frightened.”

“Ramon, what do you think?” Johnny asked the boy.

He looked at the animal from where he stood. It might take them some time to get it to trust them enough to get close and clean it up.

“I think some food and some care would do it, Senor Johnny,” he decided.

“All right, but none o’ you kids get close to it. Jelly, get some rope an’ I’ll tie it up.”

“You ain’t serious?”

Johnny frowned at him. “Get me some rope will ya, Jelly.”

“Huh!” Jelly huffed and hitched up his pants angrily. He ambled away complaining of frightened stock and missing fingers until he was out of earshot.

Johnny turned back to his daughter. “Now you mind me Maddie. Don’t go gettin’ close to that dog.”

            So the dog stayed. 

As it had fattened up, they realized that it really was a dog, a young sable German shepherd, and Jelly was the only one who still persisted with the belief that it was part wolf. No one blamed him. He had good reason not to like dogs like that much after the run in he had had with Sheriff Gannon and his wolf-dog. He still carried the scars on his arm from that experience.

Maddie and Ramon did get close to it though. He remembered Maddie wanting to keep it in her room when Jelly finally got his way and turned it out of the barn. Senor Murdoch would not have it in the hacienda so it eventually took up residence outside the kitchen door and followed Maddie wherever she went.

She named him Drifter. Senor Murdoch had said that she should remember that the dog had drifted in and might just drift away when it was well. It hadn’t though. It had attached itself to Maddie and went with her everywhere.

Then Maddie started school, and Senora Chalmers had a very strict rule at her school – NO PETS.

The whole ranch had watched the uproar that followed.

            On the first day, Senor Johnny tied the dog up to keep it from following Maddie to school. The dog chewed through the rope and ran off after her. At Recess, the children found it sitting patiently outside the schoolhouse door. Senora Chalmers was not impressed.

 The second day, Johnny locked him in the barn, but he dug his way out under the door and found his way to Maddie again.

 By the third day, after an awful interview with the schoolteacher that had left him feeling like a naughty schoolboy himself, and with his own patience worn thin, Johnny closed it in the storage shed, with a threat to shoot it if it got out again.

 Drifter whined and scratched desperately and Johnny left, with a grin on his face, thinking that he had finally beaten ‘that dang dog’.

 An hour later he found the door open. Scratch marks on the door and tooth marks on the doorknob told him that the dog had done it again.

 By the time Johnny reached the school he fully expected yet another tirade from that dragon of a schoolmarm, but instead he found her full of praise for the animal. It seemed that Drifter had killed a snake that had gotten too close to one of the children and now they all thought he was a hero.

 The dog stayed again. 

            So now, Drifter went with them every day to school and he sat outside waiting for them uncomplainingly. 

Ramon heard the girls giggle. Senorita Maddie would be seven years old soon and it felt like she had always been at Lancer.

 She laughed again and Ramon smiled. He knew why she was so happy.

 Of course she was happy. Senor Johnny would be home in a few days.




Johnny had had his eye on the young woman ever since San Francisco.

 He had left a few days earlier than he’d planned, but then, he didn’t much like the city. It was crowded and dirty and noisy in his opinion. There were just too many people with too much to do to nod hello or smile at a passer-by.

 He had finished his meetings with Murdoch’s friend, Frank Townsend, and they had agreed to the purchase of the new stud bull from Townsend’s ranch up north.

 He had made arrangements for the animal to be sent by rail to Cross Creek in a couple weeks and they’d meet the train there and take it home to Lancer.

 Johnny had liked Townsend. The man knew San Francisco well and he had shown Johnny a good time. But Johnny had quickly had enough. Besides, it would be nice to surprise Maddie by coming home earlier than expected.

 He had noticed the woman at the station. He had heard her ask about Morro Coyo as he passed the ticket office and it had caught his attention. The man in the office had never heard of the place and wasn’t being very helpful.

 So Johnny had taken off his hat respectfully and went over to help.

 “’Scuse me ma’am,” he said politely, “but did I hear you askin’ ‘bout Morro Coyo?”

 The lady turned around to him and Johnny met with the bluest eyes he had ever seen. His own were blue – deep dark blue, and Scott’s were a kind of gray-blue, like Murdoch’s. But these were blue like the sky on a fine morning after rain.

 “Why, yes, I was,” she answered, surprised. “The gentleman doesn’t seem to know of it.”

 Johnny smiled. “Not surprisin’,” he told her. “It’s kinda small an’ outa the way.”

 She flashed him a lovely smile. “You know it then? Can you tell me how to get there?”

 “Sure. You gotta catch the train to Cross Creek. There’s a stage goes from there to Morro Coyo.”

 Her eyes gleamed. “Oh how can I thank you? I was beginning to think I’d never find my way there.”

 Something about the way she spoke was familiar. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

 He waited for her to arrange her ticket, and when she turned around to find him still there, hat in hand, she appeared delighted.

 He was well aware that he looked different from most of the other men in town, dressed in his Mexican-style bolero jacket and pants. He felt a little self-conscious about it, but nothing would get him into the monkey suits they wore in town.

 “Are you traveling alone?” he asked.

 “Yes, I’m going to visit a friend,” she answered happily.

 Johnny was surprised. Where he had grown up, along the Mexican border, beautiful young senoritas, like this young lady, never went around unchaperoned, not the respectable ones anyway. Their duenas had been the bane of his youth. Getting past them had been a real challenge.

 And beautiful she certainly was. That smile of hers lit up her eyes and Johnny was soon lost in them. She had a straight little nose and gracefully curved lips, and her skin was milk white with a lovely red blush in her cheeks. He guessed she was about twenty years old.

 She was tall, slim and dressed in style. She wore her honey blond hair dressed elegantly high on her head under a pretty little hat that matched her dress. She walked with an easy grace and she held herself up straight with dignity.

 There was just a wisp of perfume in the air as she joined him. Johnny shook himself back to the present.

 “A friend?” he asked. “Maybe I know ‘em. I know a lot o’ folks ‘round Morro Coyo.”

 “Well, I’m surprising him,” she told him conspiratorially. “He has no idea I’m coming.” She frowned a little and continued. “I do hope he’s not too cross with me.”

 “He?” asked Johnny, a little shocked that she was traveling such a long way to visit a man. Well, perhaps he was a relative who lived nearby. He couldn’t think who, in Morro Coyo, could possibly be related to this elegant young lady though.

 “Yes,” she agreed with a smile. “But he doesn’t actually live in Morro Coyo, but somewhere near it. His family has a ranch there.”

 Johnny started to feel uncomfortable. He suddenly remembered where he had heard that accent before. He’d been around it for so long now that he had stopped noticing it.

 “A ranch?”

 “Yes, that’s right. It’s called Lancer and that’s his name too – Scott Lancer.”




Just my luck, Johnny told himself. He ain’t even here an’ he’s cut me out!

“Do you know him?” she asked, when he said nothing.

“Oh yeah, I know him,” Johnny sighed.

“Really? Why that’s wonderful. Quite a coincidence isn’t it?”

“Sure is. You haven’t seen him for a while?”

“Not in years,” she confessed. “He came out here to meet his father and he stayed. I have to admit, I was surprised he didn’t come back to Boston.”

“Have you kept in touch?”

“No, not really. His grandfather and my father are business associates. We practically grew up together.”

Johnny started at the mention of Scott’s grandfather. He and Harlan Garrett weren’t exactly fast friends. Johnny was all too aware that the man resented Scott’s not returning to Boston, and Johnny looked at the woman again. Was she another of Harlan’s plans? Had he sent her to try to lure his grandson back to him? She wouldn’t be the first.

“That right?” Johnny answered, a little nervously.

“Well, since there’s no one to introduce us, I suppose I should do it myself. My name is Celeste Duval. I’m so pleased to have met you.”

“I’m Johnny,” he told her, “Johnny…Madrid.”

He didn’t know why he had said it, but it was done now.

She smiled warmly. “How do you do, Mr. Madrid?” she said pleasantly. To his relief, the name obviously meant nothing to her. “So, how do you know Scott?”

“Oh, most everyone ‘round Morro Coyo knows about Lancer, Miss Duval,’ he replied evasively. “It’s a pretty big ranch, an’ the Lancer family are pretty well known.”

“I really don’t know what to expect,” she told him, honestly. “Mr. Garrett, that’s Scott’s grandfather, came out here to visit him, but he didn’t say much about it when he came back. At least, not when I was present. I think he told Papa more.”

Bet he did! Johnny thought, but aloud he only said “Maybe.”

“How well do you know him?”

“Scott? Oh, pretty well I guess. I see a lot of him.”

She looked at him eagerly. “Really? Is he well? Does he really like it out here?”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, he’s fine. I reckon he likes it. He stayed, so I guess he must. He’s gettin’ real good at ranchin’ too.”

The woman laughed. “I just cannot picture Scott Lancer with cows. He really hates getting his hands dirty.”

“Oh, he gets all mussed up a lot,” Johnny laughed. “We got him ropin’, brandin’ an’ buildin’ fences. He’s the best man I know with a rifle, an’ he’s gettin’ better with a six-gun.”


Johnny realized his mistake. “I kinda work at Lancer,” he told her quickly.

“Really? Then you will have to tell me all about it,” she said with a smile and slipped her arm nonchalantly through his as they walked away towards the train.



During the journey, Johnny had talked to the young woman a lot but, after a while, he began to see that he was doing all the talking. She had plenty of questions about Scott, the ranch and Murdoch, but she was telling him nothing about herself. Once or twice he tried to lead her into telling him more about Boston and herself, but she always steered him back to Scott and the ranch.

 He began to think that she must have it pretty bad for big brother Scott, but he couldn’t recall Scott ever mentioning her to him.

 They traveled together, more or less, all the way to Cross Creek, and by the time they arrived, he found he really liked her.

 But that bothered him. She had come a long way to see Scott. Surely that meant that they were more than just friends. Scott hadn’t sent for her, of that much he was certain. She had told him that her visit was a surprise. But she obviously felt confident enough of a warm welcome to travel all the way from Boston.

 He could not, and would not, come between his brother and a woman. Scott had come to mean too much to him to risk losing him now.

 So he stepped back a little. He determined not to fall for those lovely blue eyes of hers, but it was going to be damned hard.

 By the time they reached Cross Creek, he was also sure that Harlan Garrett had not sent her. She seemed genuinely interested in everything he could tell her about Scott and the ranch, and he had to wonder what Scott would say when she arrived.

 Johnny couldn’t wait to see his face when he saw her.

 He had not corrected his introduction either. It got harder and harder to do it the longer they were together, and besides, it was kind of fun. Seeing Scott through her eyes was enlightening, and he was not sure she would have been so open if she had known who he was. In fact, he was certain that she didn’t know Scott even had a brother.

 He did, however, take responsibility for seeing that she stayed safe. It was the least he could do for his brother. He didn’t like the fact that she was traveling alone, although he had managed to find out that an elderly lady had accompanied her from Boston. He couldn’t figure out why her family would let her travel so far unaccompanied.

 At Cross Creek he took her to the stage depot. He had already made up his mind to take the stage himself, since he was back early. If they had known he was coming, Scott would have been here with Barranca, but he was looking to surprise them himself. Of course, he could hire a horse and ride back, but since the girl was going by stage, he’d do the same.

 It would be an interesting homecoming.

 At the depot, he led the way in, but went to the counter alone. He was known here, and he was hoping that he could keep them from giving away his name. He wanted to tell her himself when they got to Morro Coyo. He felt a little guilty that he hadn’t introduced himself correctly right from the start. It probably wasn’t really fair on her but it would be fun to see her reaction when she found out that he was Scott’s brother. For now, anyway, he was enjoying the game.

 “Howdy, Jake,” he said, leaning across the counter at the depot. He tilted his hat to the back of his head and grinned. “You got a coupla spare seats on today’s stage?”

 The man looked a little surprised, but smiled cheerfully. “You goin’ back by stage, Johnny? I’d have thought they’d be here to meet you.”

 “Yeah, I’m early.”

 “Well, sure, I got a ticket for you.”

 “Two, Jake. One for the lady,” Johnny corrected him, indicating his companion.

 Jake looked past his shoulder to where Celeste Duval was standing. He was impressed. “My, my. She a friend o’ yours, Johnny?” he whispered, leaning closer conspiratorially.

 Johnny shook his head. “Just goin’ the same way,” he told the man casually. He didn’t want any gossip and Jake was just the man to start it, if he wasn’t careful.

 The lady in question walked over to the counter to stand beside him with her bag in her hand. She had heard what the man had asked, and she had heard Johnny’s answer.

 “Thank you for showing me the way here,” she said to Johnny, keeping to his story. “Are there any seats on the stage?”

 “Yes, ma’am,” Jake told her. “Plenty of room. Last I heard it was on time too.  Leavin’ in about an hour.”

 They each paid their own fares, and Johnny felt confident that Jake did not think anything more of it. And he’d managed to keep him from mentioning his name as well.

  “Thanks Jake,” he told him and stepped back from the counter.

 He turned around and walked to the door. He looked around and then went back and sat on the bench. He opened his saddlebag and pulled out his spurs, and put them on. Then he pulled out his gun-belt and stood up to strap it on. He finally felt dressed again. Scott and Murdoch had pressed him over and over again not to wear them on the train, and he felt kind of naked without them.

 Johnny threw his saddlebags over his shoulder. He traveled light and it was all the baggage he had with him. He pulled his hat forward on his head and walked over to the doorway where Celeste was standing, gently fanning her face against the heat and the dust with a stylish lace fan. His spurs jangled as he walked and she turned towards him.

 “It’s kinda hot an’ dusty out today. The stage won’t be real comfortable,” he warned her.

 “I’ll survive,” she answered with a smile, and then turned back to survey the street outside. “I’ve never been west before.”

 “Is it what you expected?” he asked her.

 “I’m not sure what I expected, Mr. Madrid,” she told him candidly. She noticed the spurs and the gun on his hip. She felt he had changed somehow and felt a little awkward with him.

 Johnny noticed the way she looked at the gun. “Don’t worry ‘bout it,” he said with a smile full of charm. “It only bites if I tell it to.”

 The girl laughed, and he continued, “I’ll go see if your luggage has come over from the station.”

 “Thank you again, Mr. Madrid,” she smiled, and watched him step off the sidewalk and walk away.

“Excuse me, Miss,” someone said from behind her as soon as he had gone.

 She turned to find a middle-aged couple next to her. It was the man who had approached her. He looked nervous.


 “I’m sorry, but did I hear you call that man ‘Madrid’?” he asked her nervously. “Johnny Madrid?”

 “Yes, that’s right. Why?” she answered, puzzled.

 The man didn’t answer her question. He looked towards the woman, presumably his wife. She had gotten flushed and looked worried.

 “Oh Henry, can’t we wait for the next stage?” she asked anxiously.

 “The next one isn’t for two days Ruth,” he told her. “We’ll have to take this one.”

 “I don’t like it, Henry. I don’t like it at all,” she declared fearfully.

 “Is something wrong?” Celeste asked them uneasily.

 The woman nervously looked at the doorway. “I don’t want to travel with that man, Henry. He’s a killer.”

 “Oh, Ruth, don’t be so melodramatic. He’s just another passenger,” her husband assured her.

 Celeste frowned. “I don’t understand. Why don’t you want to travel with Mr. Madrid?”

 “The lady’s right Miss. He’s a killer,” a second man said from behind the couple. He was dressed in a black suit and a string tie, and carried a gun on his hip as well. “I saw him draw on two men down in Sonora, ‘bout five years ago. Like lightning he was. Fastest I’ve ever seen. Killed them both and walked away without a scratch.”

  “Are you saying he’s a gunfighter or something?” Celeste shook her head, disbelieving. “Oh no, I’m sure you must be thinking of someone else.”

 The man in the black suit shook his head firmly. “No, Miss. He’s Madrid all right. I’d know him anywhere. Haven’t heard much of him for a couple of years. Thought he was dead. But that’s Johnny Madrid all right.”

 “But he’s been so kind.”

 “Kind is not what I’ve heard about him,” the woman insisted emphatically. “He’s a killer. Nothing less.”

 “Well, we have to travel with him, Ruth, so I suggest you don’t say another word on the subject,” her husband pressed her.

 “All right Henry,” she agreed rather reluctantly, “but I don’t like it at all. I wish we had an alternative.” She turned to Celeste and whispered to her, “You be careful dear.”




By the time Johnny got back the stage had pulled in. The dust had barely settled when the driver dropped nimbly down to the sidewalk and stopped in front of Johnny.

“Well, well, will ya look who’s catchin’ a ride today,” the craggy little man laughed.

 “Howdy Jed,” Johnny grinned, slapping the driver on the back, and then fanning away the cloud of dust that he had raised from Jed’s shirt.

 “Howdy yourself, Johnny. Headed home are ya?”

 “Yep, got in early. Thought I’d surprise ‘em.”

 The driver dusted himself off a little and threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Well boy, I haveta tell ya, it’s a good day to have you with us too, Johnny,” he confided.

 Johnny looked up and noticed that the ‘shotgun’ had not gotten down from the rig. It could mean only one thing and Johnny wasn’t pleased.

 “Strongbox?” he whispered into the driver’s ear.

 The man nodded and smiled. “Glad you happened along today, boy,” he said again, and slapped him on the back. He walked off nonchalantly and left Johnny wishing that he had let his family know they were coming after all.

 The prospect of traveling with a full strongbox on board would not normally have had him worried, but he had Celeste to think about. He took off his hat and resettled it comfortably on his head. Then, out of habit, he casually drew his gun and checked it thoroughly.

 He was unaware that he was being watched.

 In fact, he had quite an audience. The two men and Ruth watched nervously, while Celeste watched with a bemused frown.

 He seemed different somehow. From the moment he had put on the gun belt he had seemed different. The man she had traveled with had been funny, pleasant and charming, and she had felt completely at ease with him. Now she was unsure.

 He was harder somehow. She couldn’t describe what she was feeling, or why, but the warnings she had gotten from the other passengers had not helped her unease.

 She found it hard to believe that the man she had been with on the train could possibly be a gunfighter, but the man in front of her now certainly fit the bill. He handled that gun with an all too casual ease. She began to wish that she had asked him more about himself.

 But what would a man like that possibly be doing working at Scott’s ranch? The Scott she remembered was a man of strong principles and he would have had nothing to do with him. She could not believe that Scott could have changed that much.

 It was all just too confusing for her. She tried to ignore her doubts and hoped that they didn’t show.

 But Johnny did notice. After years of seeing suspicion on people’s faces, Johnny could pick it up right away. He saw it on the faces of the other passengers and he brushed it off. But when he saw it in Celeste’s eyes, he felt a pang of disappointment.

 He opened the coach door and helped her inside, but he noticed that she was quick to withdraw her hand once up the step.

 Someone had said something. She knew about Johnny Madrid and his damned reputation. He was sure of it. He looked at the other passengers and knew that they knew as well.

 Well, he had only himself to blame. His little game had gone sour now. If he had told her he was Scott’s brother earlier, it would never have come to this. Now, he doubted that she would believe him anyway.

 Johnny took his own seat last and sat with his face to the window. The man in the black suit sat beside him, looking him over every now and then. Celeste was opposite him and the married couple sat beside her. He found that it was easier to watch the passing view than to have to see the doubts written on Celeste’s face.

 He was surprised how much it hurt.




The stagecoach lurched from side to side on the rutted road to Morro Coyo. There was no room for the air to circulate, so inside the coach was stiflingly hot. Dust blew in through the open windows and the glare of the sun forced him to squint to see anything.

Johnny was used to it, but he had never liked it much. He’d rather be on horseback any day. The few glances he sent in Celeste’s direction told him that she wasn’t enjoying it much either.

She was avoiding meeting his eyes when he did look towards her. The one time that their eyes had met since leaving Cross Creek, he had seen her misgivings. He had looked away before she did. The look on her face ate at his insides.

He figured it was going to be very uncomfortable when she found out who he really was.

He wanted to tell her now, get it over and done with. He wanted to explain about Johnny Madrid. Suddenly, it was important to him that she didn’t think badly of him. He wasn’t sure why, maybe it was just because of Scott.

But he couldn’t tell her in a crowded stagecoach. It would have to wait until they got to Morro Coyo after all.

The passengers traveled in complete silence. It was almost unnerving. Not one word had been spoken since they had left Cross Creek, but Johnny caught surreptitious glances being cast his way by all of them. He was well aware that he was the reason no one was speaking. If he hadn’t been there with them, he would have BEEN the topic of their conversation.

It wasn’t anything new. It was just something that he hadn’t experienced for a long time.

It hadn’t bothered him in the old days. Hell, back then, when he had been young, he had even gotten a kick out of it. In his wild and reckless days, he had thought it gave him ‘standing’ when people showed their fear of him. Now he just plain resented it.

There was nothing he could do about it though, so Johnny watched the view as they passed more and more of the places that he knew like the back of his hand. He knew the moment they began to pass through Lancer land. They passed the spot where he had stopped the coach on that first day he had come home. He smiled remembering that day. He had almost landed right in Boston’s lap when the coach started off.

The road left the river and wound into open country. The low green hills rolled by lazily on either side and he knew that the hacienda was only a few miles away on the other side of those hills. Home – Scott, Murdoch, Teresa, Jelly and Maddie – family. He still wondered at the magic of it sometimes. Right now, it took the sting out of the atmosphere within the stagecoach and he smiled. His luck had finally turned. He had something to look forward to at the end of the road.

Life was good.




Johnny heard shots. There were two of them and the coach unexpectedly accelerated at a dangerous rate. The horses were bolting and the stage felt like it was out of control. Instinctively, Johnny jerked back from the window and drew his gun. The man beside him did the same and they each looked carefully out of the window beside them.

There were riders coming down from the hillsides on both sides, one on Johnny’s side and two on the other. Both men started firing, the stranger firing off quick rounds and running out of ammunition just as fast. He hit nothing for his efforts and the riders separated. One stopped the horses and the other stopped at the door on that side.

Johnny had had no better luck, though he took careful aim with each shot. The clumsy rocking of the speeding coach played havoc with his aim. Before he could get a clear shot, the coach was hauled to a standstill and everyone in the coach was propelled forward.

Celeste threw her arms out and only just managed to avoid falling into Johnny’s lap, but the lady beside her fell on the floor in an untidy pile of skirts and petticoats. Celeste helped her up and back to her seat as a voice, muted by the bandana the man wore over his face, ordered the men to drop their guns.

Since the words were backed up by a gun barrel pointed through the window, neither Johnny nor the stranger beside him could see any point in arguing. They both dropped their guns to the floor.

The door closest to Johnny was opened.

“Everyone out, now!” came a muffled order.

Johnny looked around him. Both of the women wore terrified looks on their faces, and the nervous woman’s husband didn’t look much better. They were white with fear.

Under the circumstances, ‘ladies first’ hardly seemed polite, so he stepped out slowly into the open and then turned back to help first Celeste and then the other lady, to the ground.

As Celeste stepped down past him, he whispered softly to her, “Just do as they say. Don’t do anything silly.”

She looked at him gratefully and stepped over beside him. She was frightened to death.

The others piled out behind them and lined up beside the coach. They looked just as scared as she did, although the stranger was trying to bluff his way through.

To the casual observer, it would never have been obvious, but Johnny was doing pretty much the same. He held his head up and looked the bandito in the eye, but he remembered all the things he had to lose and wasn’t going to do anything stupid, not unarmed. Before anything else, he had to consider the girl beside him – Scott’s girl. She was his responsibility and nothing was going to happen to her while she was with him.

Johnny kept his eyes on the man with the pistol aimed at them. He had dismounted and was standing just out of their reach, a black bandana pulled up to hide his face.

The other two riders came around from the far side of the stagecoach and pulled up a few feet back from the passengers. They too had bandanas over their faces, and they had their guns drawn, covering their odd-looking little group of hostages from horseback.

“Well, well, will you look who we got here, boys?” the rider wearing a red bandana remarked, staring at Johnny.

“Yeah, an’ without his gun too,” the other rider answered. Johnny didn’t have to see the grin on the man’s face to know it was there. “Don’t look so tough now, does he?”

“Where is his gun?” Red bandana demanded abruptly.

“In the coach,” the man on the ground told him.

“Well, get it you idiot! You want him gettin’ a hold of it?”

The man quickly did as he was told, retrieving Johnny’s pistol, along with the second one that the stranger had been using, lying on the floor of the coach where they had dropped them.

Johnny watched as the man tossed them both as far away from them as he could, and he hoped that his disappointment did not show. The dull thuds and the small cloud of dust they raised as they landed seemed to accentuate the desperation of his predicament. They were too far away for him to have any hope of reaching them. He felt completely defenseless now and he didn’t like the feeling much.

“Now get the strongbox, an’ be quick about it,” Red bandana ordered the man on the ground. It was clear to all that he was running the show, and Johnny figured that he was the one to watch. He had his men on a tight rein, and Johnny knew that their lives depended on just how strong was that man’s control of them.

The other man clambered up onto the empty driver’s seat without any hesitation, and Johnny guessed that both the driver and his ‘shotgun’ must be either dead or seriously wounded. There was no sign of either of them, so he figured they must have fallen somewhere back on the road. The first two shots that they had heard had probably taken them out.

Johnny regretted Jed’s death. The grizzled little driver had done the Morro Coyo run so many times that both Scott and Johnny had gotten to know him. Johnny remembered him mentioning something about a grown daughter somewhere. He hoped someone at the stage line would know how to get in touch with her to let her know of her Pa’s death. The man deserved that at least.

“You,” red bandana said to the second rider, beside him. He didn’t take his eyes off the passengers and his gun was leveled unwaveringly at Johnny as he spoke. “Go unhitch them horses an’ run ‘em off.”

That man also did as he was told without question. He stayed on his horse and unhitched the horses quickly from his place in the saddle, and then he fired two quick shots in the air and stampeded the already terrified animals.

The strongbox landed on the ground with a dull thud and a swirl of dust and the man on top of the coach cheered his success.

“Jest too easy,” he shouted down to the other bandits and climbed lithely back to the ground.

“Get it tied on yer horse an’ don’t waste any more time, idiot,” red bandana commanded angrily and once again the man jumped to obey. He secured it firmly to the saddle of his own horse and then turned back to face the row of passengers.

The second rider rejoined the man with the red bandana who said quickly, “Let’s get outa here. Someone might have heard the shots,” but this time the man on the ground didn’t listen.

He had a look in his eyes that Johnny didn’t like, and he was looking right at Celeste. Johnny stood up straight and his eyes turned hard.

“Yeah, in a minute. I wanna get me a l’il souvineer first,” the man on the ground told his boss.

“Well, make it quick,” he was ordered, “we ain’t got all day.”

Johnny eyed the man on the ground narrowly, and he frowned as the man headed in Celeste’s direction with a swagger in his step that had the girl frightened too.

As he got close to her, Johnny took a step forward, putting himself between them.

“Get outa my way, boy,” the man sneered and looked him in the eye threateningly.

“Leave her be,” Johnny ordered, his voice soft and smooth, but fraught with the threat of violence.

The man laughed and put his gun up under Johnny’s chin. He cocked it and held it there. “You don’t scare me, boy. You ain’t so wonderful without that toy o’ yours on your hip.”

Johnny’s heart pounded in his chest, but his eyes held the gunman’s with an icy blue stare. He didn’t blink but held his breath. If the man decided to pull that trigger, or if his finger slipped, there would be nothing he could do to avoid his own death.

“Put the gun away and get on with it,” Johnny heard red bandana order impatiently.

The man ignored him for what seemed like forever but was probably only a second or two, and then he slowly pulled the gun away and un-cocked it. When he turned his head towards the girl again, Johnny closed his eyes for an instant and let out a breath of sheer relief.

He’d gotten away with it again. How many more times would he be able to cheat death in his lifetime? He didn’t want to count – he used up more than a cat already.

Forget it! He told himself. Look out for Scott’s girl.

The man walked away from Johnny towards the girl. Her eyes were wide with horror and unshed tears glistened and threatened to fall.

He put his hand to her throat and ran his finger down to the locket, then wrapped his hand around the chain, ready to pull on it.

“Please don’t,” she begged him, putting her hand on the locket to protect it. “Please don’t take it. It was my grandmother’s.”

Something inside Johnny snapped. Whether it was her plea, or watching the man toy with her, he didn’t know and it didn’t really matter. He threw himself at the man and shouted “NO” as they crashed against the side of the stagecoach.

The man fought back and pushed Johnny back away from him. Johnny was thrown back against the door of the coach for just long enough.

Somewhere, far away, Johnny heard the unmistakable explosion of a bullet fired from a pistol. There was a scream from somewhere far away, and a rush of wind in his ears, but it was the last thing he heard.

He didn’t actually feel anything, just a sudden surge of weightlessness and a glare of blinding white light before him.

He heard the throb of his own heartbeat in his ears and it seemed to echo in his brain. He was momentarily fascinated by it. He heard it slow down and a part of his mind registered that the rhythm changed and stopped and then started again.

The blinding light disappeared, replaced by a chasm of darkness that opened in front of him and he felt the heartbeat fade away. His eyes closed and his knees buckled beneath him as he slid slowly to the ground.




The scream took everyone by surprise. It came out of the blue, cutting through the quiet in the room like a bell clanging in the night. There seemed to be no reason for it, but it was ear piercing in its intensity and it went on interminably. 

The children looked up in surprise and fright, and the teacher turned from her place at the blackboard in shock. She ran to the little girl’s side, but Ramon Cipriano had already beaten her to it. He took the child by the shoulders and turned her towards him, but she didn’t seem to recognize him. The scream went on.

She barely stopped to breathe and it was appalling to see the cold terror on her face.

Outside, Drifter leapt to his feet and, for the first time, ignored the rules and raced into the schoolroom. He stood beside the child and whined and pawed at her. But that didn’t work either. She continued to scream.

Rose Chalmers had been teaching for ten years and had never been faced with something like this before. She took hold of the little girl and shook her until, finally, the screaming stopped, only to be replaced by a pitiable look and a strangled sob.

“What is it, Maddie? What’s wrong?” she begged of the child. Her heart went out to the little girl, but she had no idea what had caused the outburst or how to console her.

Suddenly, tears fell from the child’s big brown eyes and began to roll down her cheeks. She sobbed piteously but she was able to get out three strangled words.

They were in Spanish, but the teacher knew enough of the language to understand them.

Ramon knew them instantly and turned to the teacher in horror.

He reached over and took the little girl in his arms. He glared at the teacher, silently defying her to try to take the child away from him.

She was his responsibility. Senor Johnny had entrusted her to his care. Maddie looked up at him and took hold of his arm. She held onto him with what felt like a death grip and leaned against his shoulder, sobbing hysterically and repeating the same three words over and over.

“I think we should take her to Dr Jenkins, Ramon,” the teacher suggested in desperation. She didn’t try to wrest the child from his arms. Maddie seemed to take some comfort from him. “He might know how to deal with this.”

“Si Senora,” the boy agreed and picked the little girl up in his strong arms. He was tall enough, and sturdy enough, to carry her in his arms with ease and she clung to him like a limpet shell.

The boy started out the door while the teacher appointed one of the older children to supervise the class. Without waiting for her, he carried the little girl out of the schoolyard and down the street, followed by the dog, fast on his heels, and then finally by the teacher as she scurried to catch up with him.

The Nina sobbed pathetically into his shoulder, and he wished he knew what had happened to set her off.

“El es muerte!” she repeated again and again. Who is dead? He wondered.

With a sinking heart, he feared that he knew.



        Scott Lancer reined in his horse and turned in the saddle to where Hank Sorrenson was working about a hundred yards away. 

“Did you hear shots, Hank?” he shouted.

 “Sure did, Scott,” the big man called back and spurred his horse over to join his boss. “Sounded like they came from over that hill.”

 Scott looked at the hill. It was where he thought the sounds had come from too.

 “That’s where the road is,” he told him.

 “Yeah. Sounds like someone’s in trouble,” Hank agreed as he pulled up his horse next to Scott. “Maybe we better go see.”

 “Come on,” Scott replied turning his horse quickly towards the hill and urging him forward at a gallop.

 Hank did the same and the two men rode in silence until they got halfway up the hill.

 Another shot rang out, and then nothing - just a deathlike silence.

 Scott came to a stop, and Hank reined in beside him. “I don’t like the sound of that, Hank.”

 Hank listened for a moment, and hearing nothing more, he answered. “Whoever it is, that sounded like they finished him off, Scott. Could be we’re too late to help.”

 “Let’s go take a look, but be careful. We don’t want to bust in on something unprepared.” Scott replied and pressed his mount on up the hillside, with Hank close by his side, rifle already unsheathed and ready for trouble.




        “Fool! Idiot!” red bandana shouted viciously over the screams. “What the hell did you go an’ do that for?” 

The man on the other horse beside him holstered his smoking pistol and turned to him. “Why not?” he shrugged. “I’ll get me a real good reputation outa that,” he added with a sinister grin.

“Why not?” the man raged at him. “Them Lancers will chase us to hell an’ back for killin’ him. A reputation won’t do you much good at the end of a rope.” He turned back to the man on the ground. “You, Idiot, get on your horse an’ let’s get the hell outa here. Pronto!”

The bandit didn’t need a second telling. He glanced again at the man on the ground and then ran to his horse, mounting in one quick action and turning away to make off. The others did the same and were gone as quickly as they had appeared, a cloud of dust following in their wake.

They left behind a small, terrified group of people, shocked and leaderless. Celeste dropped to her knees beside Johnny in horrified silence. The men didn’t move, and the other woman finally stopped screaming and sobbed ruthlessly into her husband’s shoulder instead.

Celeste looked at the body of her defender and choked back a cry of despair.

A formidable red stain had already spread across most of his chest and the tears that had remained unshed before, now flowed relentlessly down her cheeks. No one had ever done anything like that for her before. He had only been trying  to protect her. He hadn’t even been armed. What sort of place was this that held life so cheap?

She stared at the body through her tears. His blood was still warm where it had sprayed onto her face and arm, and the stain continued to grow on his shirt, a visible reminder of what he had given for her.

Then, suddenly, she stopped. Was it imagination, or did she see his chest rise and fall, ever so slightly? With the back of her hand, she wiped away the tears that clouded her sight and looked closer.

She was right - she had seen it. She leaned forward and put her trembling fingers to his throat. She held her breath and waited. It was there. It was so weak that she nearly missed it, but it was there. The thin throb of his heartbeat. Johnny was alive.

She hastened to action. Every second might count now, and she owed it to him to keep that fine thread of a heartbeat going.

“He’s alive!” she shouted to the others, but they didn’t seem to notice or pay any attention to her. She turned back to them and screamed, “I said, he’s alive. Someone help me, please.”

The married couple ignored her as the woman sobbed and her husband tried to comfort her. The stranger in the black suit merely shook his head. “Sorry Miss, but he’s a goner. That bullet’s plumb in the heart.”

“It can’t be, or he wouldn’t be breathing, and he is. Please help me.”

The man walked over and bent down to look for himself. He held his fingers to Johnny’s throat and found the same fine beat that she had. “Reckon you’re right, Miss,” he agreed sympathetically, “but he won’t be for long.”

Celeste lost all patience with him. “Well, he certainly won’t be if we do nothing.”

As she watched, blood literally oozed from the frightful hole in his chest. Celeste had nothing to use other than her bare hand, so she put it over the wound and pressed down with all her might to try to slow the bleeding.

“Well, I guess we can at least make him comfortable,” the man told her begrudgingly. “There’ll be shade on the other side of the stage. We should move him ‘round there.”

Celeste looked down at Johnny. His face was already sickeningly pale. “I don’t know, do you think we should move him?”

“I don’t think it can hurt him much, Miss. And this sun’ll take a lot out of him if we leave him here.”

She sighed, resigned that it was for the best. “All right.”

“Move aside and I’ll take him,” the man said as he pushed his arms under Johnny and lifted him with surprising ease. Celeste hurried behind him, anxious to return to her place beside him when the man put him down.

He was right, there was shade around the other side. Celeste watched the man gently place him on the ground and hurried around to Johnny’s side. She knelt beside him and put her hand back on the wound, pressing hard.

It wasn’t working. She could feel the thick warm blood flowing between her fingers, slower perhaps, but not stopping. She looked up at the man above her desperately.

“We need something for bandages. There must be some shirts or something we could use in the luggage somewhere.”

The man looked to the rear of the stage and agreed. He walked around behind the coach, pulled back the canvas and started to look through the luggage. If nothing else, he knew he would find what he wanted in his own bag.

“What are you doing there?” the older woman called out from the other side of the coach, forgetting her distress as he threw one of the bags aside. “That’s my bag.”

“Lookin’ for something to use for bandages, Ma’am,” the man explained quickly.

“Well, there’s nothing you can use in there. Get away from it.”

The stranger scowled at her, but then he found his own carpetbag and opened it up to take out a spare shirt. He changed his mind and took the whole thing back to the girl instead. He gave her two clean shirts and then closed the valise and lifted Johnny to put it behind him. He carefully leaned him back against the bag. It might not be much of a cushion, but it supported him and Johnny seemed to be able to breathe more easily.

Celeste looked to him gratefully as she picked up the first of the shirts and rolled it into a thick pad and placed it over the bullet hole. “Thank you, Sir,” she told him sincerely. “You’ve been very kind. I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Think nothin’ of it, Miss, and I’m Chance Harding,” he answered awkwardly. “You’ve doin’ just fine. Don’t know as he has much of a chance though.”

“I’m not going to let him die. Not if I can help it anyway,” she told him, with more determination than faith in her ability. “My name is Celeste Duval, by the way.”

“I think his coat is in the coach. I’ll go fetch it an’ you can roll it up for a pillow.”

“That’s kind of you, thank you,” she said, and he turned to leave. As he got to the back of the coach, he heard a ripping sound and glanced back to spy a shapely turn of ankle as she lifted her petticoats and began tearing strips off the hem to use as bandages.

He smiled and then turned back and continued to the other side of the coach to fetch the jacket. By the time he got back, she had amassed a series of long strips of cotton fabric.

“Will you lift him while I put this on?” she asked.

“Sure, Miss,” he said and did as she asked. She was a deft hand at it and got the job done fast. She quickly wrapped the makeshift bandage around Johnny’s chest to hold the pad in place firmly, and then she tied it off to secure it.

He lowered the gunfighter back against the bag so that he was in a half-sitting position, and then he rolled the coat up to provide a crude pillow for him.

Sliding it under his head carefully, he was amazed to see the young man’s eyes flutter open and look unerringly at him. He had never expected to see that deep blue gaze again.

“Howdy, Madrid,” he said gently. “Thought you was a goner.”

“Johnny,” Celeste whispered, surprised, but grateful for the chance to talk to him. “I’m so sorry. I know this is all my fault, but I’m going to take care of you.”

With just a hint of a weak smile on his lips and a gleam in his eyes, Johnny managed to say, “Worth it then.”

Celeste couldn’t help but smile back at him. “You lie very still then, and don’t try to talk. Save your strength and we’ll get you some help.”

Johnny closed his eyes and gathered his strength to answer. “Lancer…” he said when he could. “Near…”

Celeste looked over to the man who had helped her so much already. “Lancer is a ranch. It must be somewhere near here.”

“I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know where it is.” He looked around him and shook his head. “It’s a long walk in any direction, Miss. I reckon we’re better off headin’ up the road instead.”

“Yes, you’re probably right. We can’t have been too far from Morro Coyo.”

A screech, coming from the other side of the coach, tore their attention away from the subject.

“They’re coming back! They’re coming back for us!” the woman shrieked hysterically.

Harding ran around the back of the coach to where the couple stood. He looked over to the hillside beside the road and, sure enough, there were riders coming. But there were only two of them, and they were coming from a different direction from the one the bandits had taken when they left. 

“No Ma’am. They’re not the same men,” he assured her. “I reckon we might have some help comin’.”

“Oh, thank heavens,” she whimpered, leaning limply against her husband. “I just want to get away from here.”

“Well, I think these two might know how we can get some help, ma’am.”

He went back around to the other side of the coach to give the girl the good news.

“Miss Duval,” he said quickly, “riders comin’. I reckon they might be able to get us some help.”

She looked up and thanked him, and then turned back to her charge. “Will you be all right if I leave you for a couple of minutes?”

“Yeah,” he sighed slowly and closed his eyes wearily.

“I’ll be right back,” she assured him tenderly and got to her feet.

Celeste looked down at her hands and was shocked at the amount of blood on them. She hadn’t really noticed it before this. She wiped her hands on her skirt. Characteristically, her first thought was that her clothes were ruined, but then she chastised herself angrily for her self-centeredness and ran around to the other side of the coach to meet their rescuers.

She got there just as the two riders came to a stop. The men dismounted and walked over to the little group of passengers.

For a moment, she thought her heart had stopped. She wasn’t even sure it really was Scott, not at first. He was so tanned, his hair was longer than usual and he had gained a little weight, though it looked to her like it was all muscle. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, his collar open and he wore a hat that was sweat stained and beginning to look a little battered.

And he was wearing a gun-belt.

He was not the well-dressed man about town she remembered, but she had to admit that she liked the change. He looked well, and, though she wouldn’t have thought it possible, even more handsome than she recalled.

“Scott,” she cried out and ran to his arms.

Scott turned in astonishment and threw his arms around the girl in a instinctive action. When she had stopped hugging him a little he disentangled her arms from around his neck and pulled her away to see who it was who had attached herself to him.

He looked at her, and then looked a little closer. She looked familiar, and it took a moment to recognize her. If he was right then it had been years since he had last seen her, and she had changed a lot in that time.

“Celeste?” he asked, tentatively.

She nodded and he laughed. “What in the world are you doing here?”

She laughed despite the strain she had been under and then suddenly recalled her dilemma and took hold of herself. “Oh, please Scott, we’ll talk about it later. There’s a man badly wounded around the other side of the stagecoach. He needs help quickly or he’ll die.”

Scott looked over to Hank, who knew immediately what he wanted.

“Sure Scott, I’ll go see to him.”

“Thanks Hank,” he said and turned back to Celeste as Hank made his way around to the other side of the coach. “Now what on earth are you going here?” He looked at the blood on her hands and clothes. It was even spattered on her face. “Are you all right? What happened? You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No, not at all. None of this is my blood. But you really have to help him, Scott. He was protecting me from those awful men and now he’s terribly hurt. If he dies, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get him some help. We’ll fetch a wagon and get him into town to a doctor.”

“Thank you Scott. I knew I could rely on you. And besides, he said he’s a friend of yours…”

Scott stopped her there. “Hold it! Wait, just a minute. A friend of mine?”

“Yes, he said he works at Lancer and he seemed to know all about you. Though I can’t understand why you would want to have a gunfighter around at a ranch…”

Scott froze. “Gunfighter?” he asked, his blood running cold.

“Yes, but please don’t let it make a difference, Scott. He’s been good to me and he got shot helping me. I don’t care who or what he is, you have to help him.”

Scott’s face had drained of color. Celeste finally noticed it and stopped her prattling. “Scott, what’s wrong?”

Scott ignored her. He seemed to be dazed.

“No,” he said to himself, in a terrible anguished whisper.

He shook his head disbelievingly. “No, he’s not due home yet,” he told himself aloud.

“Scott?” the girl repeated, but she could see that she wasn’t getting through to him.

He suddenly pushed her away, with a strangled cry of “NO!” and he ran for the back of the stagecoach.

Hank met him there on his way back to find him. He wrapped his arms around Scott to stop him. Scott tried in vain to force his way past the mountain of a man, but Hank was just too strong and determined to hold him.

“Let me go, Hank,” he demanded angrily, and tried pushing past him again.

Scott was a strong man, but Hank was bigger and stronger than most men and he held Scott in an iron grip until he stopped fighting him and leaned against the big man’s chest.

Worn down by the futility of his efforts and his own emotions, Scott looked into Hank’s face. He knew by the pitiable look on the man’s face that he was right.

“It’s Johnny, isn’t it?”

Hank nodded sadly. “Yeah, I’m sorry, Scott.”

The big Swede loosened his grip and Scott leaned back against the coach, his face ashen with fear for his brother. “How bad?”

Hank let go of him and lowered his head for a moment. It was enough to tell Scott what he needed to know and his face fell in despair.

“He’s real bad, Scott. Real bad,” the big man said forlornly. “An’ Scott, I think he knows it. He’s awake, so you gotta pull yourself together before you go round there. For his sake.”

Celeste had followed Scott and stopped when she found him with his friend. The expression on his face tore at her heart.

“Scott?” she said quietly, but he didn’t hear her, or perhaps her words simply didn’t register on him. She watched in awe as he bunched his hands into fists and furiously swung around and punched the back of the coach.

“Why?” he cried out in anguish. “Why?”

Hank let him get it out of his system for a moment, and then pulled him back to face him.

She thought her heart would break as she watched him, but Hank took him by the shoulders, and said firmly, “I know it ain’t fair, Scott, but you gotta pull yourself together an’ go to him. He needs you.”

It took a moment, but Scott let the words sink in. He straightened his back and forced himself to let his military training to take over.

“You’re right. Thanks Hank,” he said firmly, pushing aside all the turmoil in his gut. He made himself think with his head instead of his heart, and plans began to take form.

“I want you to go back to Lancer and tell them what’s happened. Teresa will have to have everything ready for Doc Jenkins. Send Jelly back with a wagon and then send one of the men to Spanish Wells for the Doc and the Sheriff. The Sheriff can look after these people. We have to worry about Johnny.”

Hank nodded as Scott gave his orders. “Right Scott, I’ll take care of it all. You stay here an’ take care of Johnny.”

"Thank you, Hank,” he said slowly, as the confidence began to wear off. The big man turned to leave, but Scott stopped him. “Oh, and Hank, can you leave your canteen?”

“I’ll go fetch it for you,” he said and added quickly before he left, “And good luck.”

Scott didn’t move. He stood still with his eyes closed trying to fight back the panic that he could feel rising within him again. He did not want to face this – the one thing he feared more than anything in the world – the prospect of losing his brother. His head swam dizzily and his stomach was cramped with tension.

He opened his eyes and took a deep breath to clear his head and then he turned and walked calmly to where Johnny laid waiting for him. He was propped awkwardly against a bag, with a makeshift bandage around his chest. It did nothing to disguise the bloodstains that had soaked through his clothes. There was blood everywhere, too much of it. Scott cringed inwardly, but knelt down beside him and smiled.

“Hello there,” he said, surprising himself at how calmly he made it sound. “What have you gone and done this time, Johnny? I just can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can I?”

He was appalled at the amount of blood that Johnny had lost. It had taken his breath away when he first saw it, and he prayed that Johnny hadn’t noticed.

Johnny’s eyes sparkled and he tried to smile. “Nope,” he answered quietly and glanced towards Celeste as she hesitantly approached them.

She was carrying a canteen that Hank had left for Scott. “Your friend left this for you, Scott,” she told him nervously. She didn’t want to interrupt them. Whatever Johnny was to Scott, it was obvious that Scott cared deeply what happened to him. She wasn’t sure that she understood it, but she sensed that she should let them have some time alone.

Scott seemed to become aware of her presence only when she spoke. He looked up hurriedly and took the canteen from her.

“Thanks,” he said quickly and looked back to his brother.

“Be polite, Boston,” Johnny admonished him softly.

“I wasn’t very polite to you, Johnny,” the girl told him apologetically. She still stood back from them but stepped a little closer. “I misjudged you terribly. Can you ever forgive me?”

Johnny smiled faintly. “…not the first,” he replied, breathlessly. “Forget it.”

She sat down on the ground by his side, and then took his hand and held it tightly while Scott checked the bandage. She pushed aside the bangs from his forehead with her other hand, and she smiled at him, determined not to let him see the tears that threatened to fall.

Scott decided not to risk moving the bandage. Disturbing it might start the bleeding again, and it did seem to be slowing it.

“Guess I really did it this time, Scott,” Johnny whispered.

Scott looked up at him and snapped back, "You talk too much, Johnny."

He looked back at his brother, and immediately regretted his words. "I'm sorry, Johnny. Didn't mean to yell at you."

"De nada, brother," he murmured. "Glad you're here."

"Yes, well you need to rest and stay quiet. So shut up and save your strength. It looks like the bleeding has slowed," Scott assured him.

Johnny eyes closed wearily. He struggled to talk again.

"Bad?" was all he was able to ask.

Scott took a good look at him. His brother was pale and his skin looked waxy under a fine sheen of sweat. He was breathing rapidly and he seemed terribly tired. He’d lost far too much blood.

For a minute, Scott considered lying to him, but Johnny was no fool. He already knew he was in trouble.

“Looks like it, brother,” he told him grudgingly, “but it’s nothing that Sam can’t fix. He’ll be waiting at Lancer when we get you there. We’ll have you home in no time. Hank’s gone for the wagon already.”

“Is it very far, Scott?” Celeste asked, aware that time was of the essence.

He shook his head for answer. “A half hour’s ride over that hill, that’s all. It’ll be longer in the wagon, but …”

Johnny seemed to gather some strength and lifted his head to stare into his brother’s eyes. “Listen to me,” he managed to say clearly but desperately. “Scott…need you to promise me…Maddie…”

This time Scott did get angry. “And what do you think we’d do, throw her out?” he yelled at him, disappointed that Johnny felt the need to ask. “She’ll be fine, you should know that without having to ask, but she doesn’t need us, she needs you.”

Johnny leaned back, his reserves of strength spent. “I know,” he sighed. “I know…don’t want to leave her…”

“You’re not going to leave her, Johnny,” Scott declared firmly. “You’re not getting out of it that easy. You’re not going to die. I’m not going to let you.”

A hint of a smile graced his brother’s lips and he let his eyelids fall in exhaustion. “Big brother has spoken…”

“You’d better believe it. And I expect you to obey me, boy!” Scott replied roguishly. “Now shut up and rest.”

Celeste watched the interaction between the two men in confusion. They seemed like an odd pair of friends – a Boston-bred gentleman and a gunfighter. But it was plain that they were close. Scott was utterly distraught.

“Scott, why did he call you ‘brother’?” she quietly asked him at last.

He had almost forgotten she was there. He looked over at her and then back over to his brother.

He hadn’t been paying attention to her but that time what she had said suddenly rang a bell. He grinned at his brother. “You didn’t tell her who you are, did you, Johnny?”

Johnny managed a sheepish smile. “No, don’t know why not. Just havin’ fun was all,” he sighed. “Was goin’ to…but…”

“He told me he was Johnny Madrid,” Celeste told Scott.

“He is, or he was, once. Now he’s Johnny Lancer – my brother.”

She had known Scott Lancer for most of her life, and that didn’t make sense. “You don’t have a brother, Scott.”

“My father married a second time after my mother died. She was Johnny’s mother.”

It was a lot to take in, but understanding at last, she answered sadly, “Oh Scott, and you never knew.”

“Neither of us did.”

“You should have told me, Johnny,” she admonished him.

“My little brother likes to play games,” Scott explained cheekily, but then his attention was grabbed by his brother’s rapid change of condition.

A tremor shook Johnny’s body and Scott leaned forward to hear his brother’s stifled words. 

“Cold…Scott. So…so cold.”

Scott’s stomach tightened with fear. He quickly pulled the coat from under Johnny’s head and threw it around his chest and shoulders, leaning forward to hold him tight.

“Easy, Johnny,” he whispered desperately to him. “Stay with me…please.”

His brother’s breathing was shallow and fast and barely audible. “C…cold…”

“Johnny, you listen to me…” Scott began, panic grabbing his heart and squeezing it so hard that he could barely breathe himself. He was shocked when his brother abruptly opened his eyes again.

They were glazed and unfocussed, and they looked straight past him, over his shoulder. Something behind him had Johnny’s attention, but a quick look revealed nothing.

Johnny’s face suddenly took on a rapt expression. He relaxed and seemed almost to smile.

He drew a deep breath and let it out, slowly and unsteadily.

His eyes opened wide and gleamed as he said, clearly and contentedly… “Luisa,” and his voice seemed to trail away to nothing.



            “Oh, no you don’t, Johnny!” Scott shouted at his brother, as the enormity of what whas happening hit him like a hammer. 

The cry didn’t get his brother’s attention. Scott knew he was losing him. He reached forward and took hold of his brother’s shirt collar with both hands and pulled him up off the makeshift pillow.

 "Don’t you dare give up on me, brother!” he demanded, but he sensed it was futile. He could see Johnny slipping away from him, and his brain screamed in desperation. There had to be a way to get through to him. If he could get through, maybe he could keep him.

 Johnny continued to look straight past him and he breathed the word “Luisa…” once again.

 Scott took Johnny’s jaw firmly in his hand and dragged him back to face him, but his eyes were still looking away. The look in Johnny’s eyes tore at his heart.

 “Johnny, listen to me,” he yelled at him, but his brother’s gaze was fixed over his shoulder.

 “So beautiful…” Johnny breathed softly. “She’s so beautiful, Scott…”

 When he saw he still didn’t have his brother’s attention, he repeated forcefully, “LISTEN TO ME!”

 “Just like I remember…”

 “LISTEN TO ME!” he shouted angrily.

 To his relief, Johnny slowly turned his eyes back to face him. They weren’t focused. In fact, they didn’t even seem to recognize him. He screwed up his courage and held his brother’s face firmly in his hand. He prayed that if he could just get through to him, maybe he could make a difference. Maybe he could keep him here.

 Scott spoke with a voice that Celeste didn’t recognize. It was fraught with fears and hysteria, but it was single-minded. He was going to keep his brother alive, no matter what.

 “Now, you listen to me, brother,” he demanded fiercely. “You are not giving up. You’re going to fight this. Do you hear me? You’re going to stay with me.”

 Johnny’s eyes started to wander away again, and he slowly murmured, “No … wanna … go … with …”

 ‘NO!” Scott all but screamed at him. “She’s dead, Johnny! Do you understand me?”

 “”Luisa….” Johnny repeated, his thin voice cracking with despair.

 Scott ignored it soullessly. “SHE’S DEAD,” he repeated roughly. “She’s dead and buried! We’re not! Think about Maddie. Think about me, and Murdoch and Teresa. You’re wanted here.”

 Scott’s voice finally broke and he repeated emotionally, “You’re wanted here, Johnny.”

 Johnny closed his eyes, panting and exhausted.

 “Did you hear me, Johnny?” Scott asked him.


 Scott’s heart surged as he finally got a response from his brother. Now he had to hold him to them. “Are you going to fight?”

 There was a long pause as Johnny fought for the strength to answer. “Yes...”

 “Swear it, Johnny!”

 Johnny’s eyes opened and Scott could see him trying to focus them on him, but he didn’t answer.


 Scott watched his brother struggle against a rising tide of exhaustion that was threatening to drown him. Johnny’s chest heaved as he used all the strength he could muster to answer. His face was bathed in sweat from the effort.


 “That’s enough Scott,” Celeste forced herself to say at last. She put her hand on his and pulled it gently away from his brother. “No more,” she whispered. “He can’t take any more.”

 Scott lowered his brother tenderly back against the makeshift cushion and looked into his brother’s deep blue eyes and smiled feebly. “I’m going to hold you to that, little brother.”




Celeste stayed with Johnny. She wet her handkerchief with water from the canteen and soothingly washed away the perspiration from his face.

She looked over at Scott and her heart broke. He had stood up without a word as soon as he had wrenched that terrible pledge from his brother, and walked off to lean against a tree a few yards away.

The girl had never seen Scott so overcome by emotion. He suddenly let his head fall forward and he slid down the trunk of the tree to his haunches. He held his head in his hands and she left him to himself to let everything out in private.

She turned back and looked down at the young man who lay beside her, so desperately ill. What was it about him that had touched Scott so deeply? These two were so different.

On the face of it, they had little in common and they had known each other for such a short time. What had triggered a bond between them that was strong enough to drive Scott to such lengths to keep his brother alive – a bond strong enough to have forced Johnny to answer him?

        She looked again at the dark haired young man in her care. Johnny hadn’t closed his eyes. It amazed her that he was still conscious. He watched her every move in a kind of tragic silence as she checked the bandages and bathed his brow, doing what little she could to help him establish a toehold on life. 

When she was done, she took his hand and held it firmly to comfort him.

She watched his eyes seek out and finally find his brother and then he turned his head slightly towards her. His eyes locked on hers and she saw a silent plea in them.

"He'll be all right. Just give him a minute and he'll be back here with you," she assured him. Somehow, after being in their presence for even so brief a time; she wasn’t surprised that Johnny was concerned about his brother even though he must be in considerable pain himself.

“Help...him..." he whispered softly. It was barely more than a breath and she hardly heard the words.

Tears pricked her eyes and she gently placed her other hand on his cheek. "Of course, I will, but right now, he needs to be alone. Just worry about yourself," she told him. "Now rest. You have a promise to keep."

He closed his eyes and Celeste thought he had drifted off to sleep. She stayed by his side, turning now and then to keep an eye on Scott, until Scott finally seemed to get himself under control and she concentrated all her efforts on his brother.

Celeste heard footsteps behind her and turned to find Scott approaching. He looked nearly as pale as his brother and his eyes were bloodshot and swollen, but he smiled at her when he saw her turn to him.

“How is he?” he asked quietly as he knelt down beside Johnny again.

“He’s resting,” she answered, taking her hand from Johnny’s face. “And he’s worried about you.”

“If you’re gonna talk about me,” Johnny said, in a thin frail voice, “do it quiet, so’s I don’t have to listen.”

“You’re not supposed to be trying to talk,” she remonstrated with him, and was granted a small wisp of a smile in return.

“Johnny, I’m sorry,” Scott said ruefully, as he knelt back down beside him. “I hope, one day, you’ll forgive me for what I said.” Then he looked his brother in the eyes and added defiantly, “but I’ll do it again if I have to.”

Johnny hesitantly lifted his hand and took his brother’s arm “’s okay. Stay with me,” he whispered, his words only just discernable over his labored breaths.

“Bet on it, boy,” Scott grinned, absurdly happy in the circumstances. “Now, do us both a favor and shut up and rest.”




        At the sound of a horse approaching at full gallop, Scott left his brother with Celeste watching over him while he went to see who was coming. 

He wasn’t surprised to find that it was his father, Murdoch Lancer.

Murdoch was going to be shocked when he saw his younger son, and Scott wanted to prepare him for what he would find.

Johnny had lain in silence for some time now. He was conscious, aware of what was going on around him. They both knew that because his eyes seemed to be following them all the time, but he was quietly accepting whatever small measures of help they were able to offer, too exhausted to care or complain.

It was so unlike his brother that Scott couldn’t help but feel unnerved by it.

“Scott,” Murdoch exclaimed breathlessly, as he leapt down from his horse. Fear was written all over his face. “How is he?”

Scott straightened his shoulders and answered. Putting it into words seemed to cement all his own fears for his brother. “Bad, Sir,” he told him concisely. “He’s been shot in the chest, and he’s lost a lot of blood.”

Scott stopped there for a moment, before clarifying it for his father. “He’s lost too much blood, Murdoch. It looks like we’ve stopped it for now, but he may be bleeding internally as well. We don’t know if there’s any other damage. There’s no way of knowing.”

Murdoch winced at the words. Hank had told him that Johnny was badly hurt, but Scott’s face told him a lot more than words ever could.

“But he’s alive,” Murdoch said with hope in his eyes. Ever since he had saddled his horse and started out, he’d been trying to avoid thinking that he might get here too late.

“Yes, and he’s conscious, but he’s too weak to say anything.  At least, he doesn’t seem to be in much pain now.”

“How bad is the chest wound itself?”

“Close to the heart,” Scott told him candidly. “Just a hair to the left and he’d have been dead before he hit the ground.”

Murdoch nodded his understanding of the situation. “Jelly’s right behind me with the wagon. He’s loaded it up with plenty of hay and blankets to soften the ride for him.”

“And Sam?”

“Hank went for him himself. He wouldn’t let anyone else do it. Changed horses and went straight into Spanish Wells. I’m hoping Sam’ll be at Lancer before we get back.”

“I hope so,” was all Scott replied with, and Murdoch got the impression that there was something he was keeping back. He looked enquiringly at him, but Scott added nothing more.

“Take me to him, son,” Murdoch said sadly.

Scott nodded quietly, but he didn’t move. Not yet. He looked his father in the eye. “Murdoch, it’s not good. You’d best be prepared…”

Murdoch looked away for a moment. He took off his hat and slapped it angrily against his leg in frustration. He wasn’t going to be ‘prepared’ and he wasn’t going to lose a son. He sighed deeply before turning back to Scott.

“If he’s alive, we’ll find a way to keep him that way,” he finally said, gruffly and clasped his arm around Scott’s shoulders. “Now show me where he is, son.”

Together they walked past the other passengers without a word. The woman, Ruth, tried to step forward to ask them something, but Scott was glad to see that her husband pulled her back, whispering, “Leave them be, Ruth.”

Murdoch had thought he was ready for what he would find, but the white-faced young man, drenched with blood and holding tightly to the hand of a pretty, young blond woman he had never seen before, pulled him up short. Even before he reached his son’s side, he could hear the short, shallow breaths Johnny was laboring to take.

He knelt by Johnny’s side slowly, and Johnny opened his eyes and stared into his own.

“Don’t worry, son,” Murdoch told him. “We’ll have you home soon.”

His son said nothing, but he was sure he could read understanding in his eyes. “You just hang on, John,” he continued.

Johnny lowered his eyelids again, the effort of keeping them open too taxing for his depleted reserves of energy.

Murdoch noticed, again, the young lady holding so tightly to Johnny’s hand.

“This is Celeste Duval, Murdoch,” Scott said, hurrying to introduce them. “Celeste, my father, Murdoch Lancer. Celeste is a friend of mine from Boston. She was on the stage with Johnny.”

If he was curious about the Boston connection or why she had been on a stagecoach on its way to Morro Coyo, Murdoch didn’t ask. He had too much on his mind with Johnny so badly hurt to worry about riddles now.

Instead, he nodded his head courteously and told her “pleased to meet you” rather absently. Then he saw Johnny abruptly clench her hand tighter and heard a sharp intake of breath.

The girl hurriedly brought her other hand over to cover Johnny’s hand and to reassure him, gazing worriedly at his face.

“What is it, Johnny?” Murdoch hurried to ask, leaning close to his son and gently putting his hand on his shoulder.

Johnny frowned and whispered in a distressed voice, “Chest….hurts…hard…to breathe…”

“It’s all right, son,” Murdoch comforted him. “Take it slow and easy. We’ll have you home soon.” He put his fingers to Johnny’s throat and found his pulse. It was racing, far too fast, and his breathing was coming in short, rapid pants now too.

Suddenly, Johnny jerked forward, pulled his hand from Celeste’s grasp and wrapped his arms around his chest, a sharp loud gasp of pain forced from him.

Murdoch caught him and held him, hoping he could bring him some comfort.

Johnny coughed and tried to draw in his breath, but it caught and he writhed in pain in his father’s arms.

Murdoch held him until the worst seemed to be over, and then he laid him back against the makeshift pillow carefully, watching helplessly as the boy rolled from side to side clutching his chest and moaning.

“Johnny, take it easy, son,” he pleaded with him. “Jelly’ll be here with the wagon any minute now. We’ll get you home. Sam’ll be there.”

Johnny opened his eyes on his father, fear blazing in them, fear he could not control. He panted heavily, and each breath seemed to torture him more than the last.

“Lay back, Johnny,” Murdoch urged him, trying to maintain some semblance of calm. “Take short breaths, do you hear me….short breaths.”

Slowly, very slowly, Johnny began to do as his father urged him. His breathing became shallower and faster, but he seemed to have overcome the agony that each breath cost him.

Celeste reached across to take Johnny’s hand again, and he snatched at hers, gripping it so hard that she was sure he would break it. She could hardly imagine the terrible pain he must be in and put her hand soothingly to his face.

He took his eyes off his father and turned them on her, barely focusing and glassy instead of bright and alert. She thought for a moment that he was going to try to talk to her, and she hushed him gently.

“Don’t try to talk, son,” Murdoch ordered him. “Just lay back and we’ll have you home in no time.”

The bullet had done some internal damage, that was certain, and Murdoch wished that there was something more they could do for him.

They had to get him home.

“Where the devil is Jelly with that wagon?” he growled and turned back to Scott. Their eyes locked and each could read a mutual feeling of impending tragedy in the other’s face.




            Murdoch had always taken a great deal of pleasure from driving through the big adobe arch. It bore his name proudly and it meant he was home. But today, it didn’t bring him much comfort. The minutes seemed like hours as they ticked by callously, totally indifferent to what each one of them meant to the life of his son lying in the back of the wagon. 

They had had to move Johnny carefully into the wagon. Every movement had brought a gasp of pain from him. His condition had rapidly deteriorated as the wagon made its way back to the ranch.

The girl still sat with him. He had maintained an almost death-like grip on her hand, until he had finally lost consciousness about half an hour ago. He had been in considerable pain and fighting for every breath before that.

Jelly had piled straw and blankets into the wagon and they had cushioned the ride for Johnny as much as they could, but the half hour trip on horseback was an hour and a half in the slow moving wagon and every bump along the way made it seem longer.

Murdoch glanced back over his shoulder again to look at his youngest son. His face was white and there was a blue tinge around his lips that held a frightening significance, but the bleeding didn’t seem to have started again. The trouble was, they had no way of knowing what sort of internal injuries he had. He might still be bleeding to death and they didn’t know.

Scott was also riding in the wagon with Johnny. Murdoch had nearly argued with him over that, wanting to be there himself, but Scott would not be denied. He seemed to think that he could will Johnny to live by staying with him, so Murdoch had relented and taken the seat instead.

They had traveled as fast as they could afford to. They had kept up a steady pace, trying to find an even balance between the need for haste and the need to avoid unnecessary jolting.

As they finally approached the hacienda, Teresa ran out to meet them, desperate for news. She ran beside the wagon and just seeing Scott sitting beside him reassured her that Johnny was still alive.

“Has Dr Jenkins gotten here yet?” Murdoch called down to her, but the arrival of the gentleman in question at Teresa’s side made it unnecessary for her to answer.

The doctor leapt into the back of the slow moving wagon with a show of agility unexpected in a man of his years. Celeste moved aside eagerly to allow him to take her place. He quickly took in the situation and checked Johnny’s pulse and breathing as the wagon slowed to a stop outside the front door.

Murdoch jumped down from his seat and called some of the men over to lend a hand, and then he turned back to Dr Jenkins.


The doctor wasted no time. “Get him inside quickly, Murdoch…and carefully.”

“How bad…?”

Sam Jenkins cast him a frustrated glare. “Not now Murdoch. Just get him into the house, there’s no time to lose.”

He stepped down from the wagon and helped Celeste to do the same. As Scott got down beside him, Dr Jenkins grasped his arm and took him aside.

“Scott, I want you to clean up and change. Get the young lady something to wear too,” he ordered.

“Sure Sam, I’ll just see that Johnny’s…”

“Now, Scott. Leave Murdoch and the men to see to Johnny,” he insisted. “I don’t want Maddie to see you like that.”

Scott looked down at his clothes, and then at Celeste. Neither of them had realized what they looked like until now. They were both literally covered in Johnny’s blood and Scott understood the doctor immediately.

“Where is Maddie?” he asked the doctor.

“She’s in the kitchen with Maria. I didn’t want her present while we get Johnny inside.”

Scott nodded, understanding. “Thanks for that, Sam,” he told him and started to turn away. But the doctor’s grip on his arm only tightened.

“Scott, there’s one more thing.”

“What is it?”

“I brought Maddie home with me. We were on our way here with her when we met up with your man. She’d had some sort of hysterical attack at school,” he explained.

A terrible thought occurred to Scott. He cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. “Oh no,” he gasped in horror. “Why didn’t I think of that? She knew about Johnny, didn’t she?”

If the doctor was surprised that he knew what had happened, he didn’t say anything. “I don’t know how she could have, but she did, Scott. The trouble is – she thinks he’s dead.”

Scott was surprised this time. “Dead? But she should know he’s not.”

It seemed like an odd thing for Scott to have said, and this time the doctor was curious, but he put his thoughts aside for later and shook his head gravely. “She’s still convinced that he’s dead, Scott. Nothing anyone says makes a difference. She just won’t believe us, not even Teresa. But Teresa thinks she might listen to you.”

Scott tried to shake off the doctor and go straight to his niece. The very idea that she still thought Johnny was dead appalled him. The child adored her father.

“Scott, change first. She’ll be all right for that long,” the doctor insisted.

Scott watched as his brother was carefully carried into the house, Teresa leading the way and Murdoch behind, issuing wholly unnecessary advice to ‘be careful’, and to ‘take it easy with him’. He could see from the grim expressions on the faces of the men helping to carry Johnny that they had no intention of doing him any more harm. They looked nearly as worried about him as his family.

“All right, I’ll go and clean up,” he said at last. Then he turned back to the doctor and looked him squarely in the eyes, searching for something that he needed, some sort of reassurance about Johnny. “Can you help him, Sam?” he finally asked.

“I’m going to do my best, Scott,” the man answered honestly, but there was no real confidence in his voice. “That’s about all I can promise you for now.”

“It’s bad isn’t it?” Scott asked, knowing in his heart what the answer would be.

“He’s still breathing, Scott,” the doctor answered, laying a hand on his shoulder. “That’s what’s important at the moment. While he’s breathing, there’s hope. I’ll do everything I can.”

Scott sighed and gripped the doctor’s shoulder. “I know you will, Sam. Thanks.”

The doctor left him then and hurried after his patient. They had all gone inside and the yard was silent except for the occasional jangling of the harness of the horses. Scott felt more alone than he could ever remember feeling. The stillness threatened to overwhelm him as he stood fixed to the spot for a moment.

He suddenly remembered that he was not alone after all. He looked behind him and there was Celeste, still standing quietly, waiting for him, unsure what she should do now.

Tears glistened in her eyes, but she wasn’t crying. She looked terrible, with dust and bloodstains all over her clothes and hands, and tracks on her face where previously shed tears had traced their way down her cheeks through the dust. But she held herself with dignity, determined not to burden him or his family any further. They had enough trouble, and she would not add to it.

God, how she wished she had never come here.

Scott went to her and put his arm around her waist and led her into the house.



            Scott raided Teresa’s closet for clothes for Celeste and left her in his ‘sister’s’ room to clean up and change. Then he quickly went to his own room to do the same. 

He wasted no time. He wanted to get to Maddie as soon as he could. He could not stand the idea of what she was thinking, so when he had washed up and changed, he hurried down the hall to knock on Teresa’s door.

Scott was surprised to find that Celeste was already dressed. She had cleaned herself up and tidied her hair, and Teresa’s dress fitted neatly although it was a little short at the hem.

For the first time, he looked her over properly. Celeste had been an ungainly fifteen-year-old when he had left Boston – all legs and freckles, with pigtails instead of the neat coif she wore now. She had been like a little cousin and had always come to him with her problems. She’d been something of a nuisance at times.

He’d been well aware that she had worshipped the ground he walked on. How could he miss it when she had followed him around like a puppy?

Of course, he was several years older than she was, and while he had tolerated it with a certain amount of amusement, his friends had ribbed him about her mercilessly.

Well, if they could see her now! He’d be the envy of all of them. That little ugly duckling was gone forever. In true fairy tale style, she had come back into his life bearing all the grace and beauty of the swan in the story.

Scott reminded himself of his need to hurry, but he couldn’t just leave her here, knowing no one and in a household in crisis.

“Do you want to come with me?” he asked tentatively. “I’m going to talk to Maddie.”

It was just possible that she would be happier escaping from the tension in the house by staying in Teresa’s room alone.

“Oh, yes please, Scott,” she agreed eagerly and swept from the room to join him.

They went downstairs together and had to pass through the Great Room. Murdoch was there with Jelly, pacing the room anxiously. Teresa was, no doubt, helping Dr Jenkins with Johnny.

“Scott!” Murdoch greeted him impatiently. He came striding across the room to join him. He acknowledged the young lady’s presence with a polite nod and her name, too preoccupied to think of hospitality at the moment.

“I suppose it’s too soon to expect any news, Murdoch?” Scott asked him, hopefully.

“Sam said it might take hours,” his father answered morosely.

Scott nodded. It was no more than he had expected to hear. “I’m going to talk to Maddie,” he told Murdoch. “You know about that?”

“Yes, I’ve already tried talking to her too, but she just won’t listen.” He sounded troubled and he looked to his son for help. “I don’t know what could have happened. She isn’t usually wrong.”

Scott had wondered the same thing. “Maybe it was the shock of that first impact. If that was what she felt, she might have thought he died. It must have been a close thing Murdoch.”

“You might have more chance of getting through to her. You seem to understand that part of her better than me.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I do have the advantage of having talked to the Senora about it,” Scott told him. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Scott left his father and went on towards the kitchen, with Celeste beside him. She’d put off asking him, but she couldn’t do it any longer.

“Scott, who is Maddie?” she asked nervously, as they approached the door to the kitchen.

“Johnny’s daughter,” he answered briefly, too lost in thought to go into details.

“Daughter?” she exclaimed. “Johnny has a daughter?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, she’s nearly seven. Her mother died when she was born. I never met her.”

"Is she the Luisa he was calling for?”

“That’s right,” he said as he stepped into the kitchen.

Maddie was sitting at the table, toying with a biscuit. She was pulling it apart, piece-by-piece, but she showed no inclination to eat it. Her back was to the doorway and she didn’t see Scott come in.

Maria hovered over her, chattering. She looked up at Scott and shrugged her shoulders sadly. She leaned over the little girl and whispered, “Nina, Tio es aqui.”

The child looked up and spun around. She leapt from her chair and launched herself at Scott.

Scott knelt down on one knee so that he was level with her and opened his arms.

“Tio,” she cried as she fell into his arms. He let her cry into his shoulder for a while before pulling her away to talk to her.

Celeste watched them, her heart breaking for the little girl. She had never seen Scott with a child before and somehow she hadn’t expected him to comfortable around them. She had clearly been wrong. Scott and the child seemed to have melted into one being and she certainly took consolation from his presence.

She realized, with a start, that the little girl was his niece, although there was nothing about her to indicate it. In fact, apart from her coloring, there was not much of Johnny that she could see in the child either.

The girl was tall, and a little thin, but she had the most beautiful face Celeste had ever seen – huge brown eyes, high cheekbones, and raven black hair that cascaded down her back.

“Tio,” she cried, “Papa is…”

“No, Maddie,” he stopped her before she could finish the sentence. “No, he’s not.”

“But I know it, Tio,” she insisted.

“Well, this time you’re wrong,” Scott told her firmly. “He’s hurt, not dead.”

“No, Tio, I know it. Don’t you understand? I know it”

Scott held her by the shoulders and looked into her tearful brown eyes. “Listen to me, Maddie,” he whispered. “Close your eyes for me.”

She did as he told her and closed her eyes. “Now, don’t say anything, not a word. Just listen.”

Scott said nothing. No one said anything. There was silence in the room until Scott whispered quietly, “Tell me what you feel now.”

After a minute, a smile broke across the little girl’s face that astonished Celeste. She opened her eyes and beamed at Scott.

“Papa,” she whispered in awe. “Papa’s not dead.”

Scott smiled at her. “Told you, didn’t I?”

The little girl hugged him tight. “But he’s very sick, Maddie. You understand that, don’t you?”

“I know, I know,” she answered glancing down for a moment. Then she looked up with a smile. "But you and Dr Sam will look after him."

Scott sighed. She had so much confidence in them. How could he give her back her father in one breath and then tell her that she might still lose him in another?

Maddie saw his troubled expression. "Is he really, really sick?"

"Yes, chica."

"Can I see him?"

"Dr Sam is with him, right now. Maybe later, okay?"

"Okay, Tio." She seemed to be so satisfied that her father was alive, that she was prepared to accept Scott’s words without question.  She leaned very close to his ear and whispered, "Who is the lady?"

He glanced over his shoulder, remembering Celeste once again. He smiled and whispered in Maddie's ear, "She's my friend, from Boston."

The little girl's eyes lit up with curiosity and Scott was glad of the distraction.

"Maddie," he continued, loud enough for Celeste to hear, "this is Miss Celeste Duval. She’s come all the way from Boston to visit." He turned to Celeste, and added formally, "Celeste, I'd like to introduce Miss Madelena Lancer."

"I'm very pleased to meet you Madelena," Celeste told her, smiling.

"You can call me Maddie," the little girl said boldly. "Have you come to see Tio?"

"If Tio is Scott, then yes, I have."

"Tio means uncle," she told her. "He’s my Papa's brother."

“So I understand,” she answered smiling. “I didn’t even know Scott had a brother.”

Maddie nodded seriously. “Neither did he. Or Papa. But now…”

Scott stepped in before she got upset again. “Maddie, don’t you like your biscuit? Maria made them specially for you.”

The little girl turned her head back to look at the mangled food on the plate.

“I think it looks very nice, Maddie. Do you think I could have one too?” Celeste added.

Maddie looked back to Celeste. “Maria has lots of them.”

“Then why don’t we have one each and Scott can go and talk to your grandfather?”

The child looked at her uncle, as if for permission, and then nodded again. “Okay.”

Celeste took her hand and led her to the table while Scott looked on gratefully. “Go ahead, Scott. Maddie and I will be fine. We’ll just get to know each other a little.”

Scott left them together and Maria ran to get them each a biscuit and took away the remains of the uneaten one. She smiled at the Senorita and fussed over Maddie. She liked the young Senorita. Anyone who was so kind to her little nina was going to be a favorite of hers.

“Do you know my Papa?” Maddie asked as they sat down.

“Yes, I met him in San Francisco.”

“Were you with him? When he got hurt?”

Celeste nodded sadly. “Yes.”

Maddie looked up at her. “My Papa is brave. He’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

Celeste bit her lip. “Yes Maddie, he is very brave,” she agreed, avoiding her own tears. “Now why don’t I tell you all about Scott in Boston and you can tell me what he’s like here?”

“Okay,” the little girl agreed and bit into her biscuit.




Scott found his father striding back and forth impatiently. Jelly was sitting in one of the chairs. To the casual observer, he looked unconcerned, but Scott noticed the way he was wringing his hands with worry.

“Is she all right?” Murdoch stopped and asked as soon as he saw him.

Scott nodded. “As fine as she can be. She’s frightened, but she believed me. She knows he’s alive.”

“Well, that’s good news anyway.”

“Celeste is with her, trying to distract her.”

Murdoch looked intently at his son. “Just who is that woman?”

“She’s a friend of mine from back in Boston. Her family and mine, that is Grandfather, are business associates. Her grandfather is Francois Duval. He’s a very wealthy wine merchant.”

“Then what is she doing here? And alone?”

“I have no idea, Murdoch.,” he answered blithely.

Murdoch peered curiously at him, but didn’t ask any more questions about the girl. When Scott had something to tell him, he would.

The waiting was intolerable. Murdoch’s pacing got on their nerves and all three of them got irritable as the hours passed.

Sam Jenkins was practically pounced on as he came down the stairs into the Great Room.

Murdoch had almost worn a path across the room with his pacing, and Scott and Jelly Hoskins jumped out of their seats the moment they caught sight of him.

He knew what they wanted to hear, and he wished he could give them better news, but, at least, it was not all bad.

"Murdoch, that boy of yours is testimony to the fact that miracles really do happen," Dr Jenkins announced. " He’s alive, though he has no right to be.  The blood loss alone would have killed a lot of men, but it's not all good news, so hear me out."

Murdoch looked first at Scott and then to Jelly and spoke for all of them.

"Go ahead, Sam."

"Well, first let me tell you that the bullet missed both his heart and his lung. It hit a rib and broke it, but it deflected away. If it hadn’t, the bullet would have hit his heart and he would have died instantly. That's the good news," he explained carefully. "But the bullet nicked a blood vessel and he's been bleeding internally."

"Damn!" Scott cursed, quietly. "I was afraid of that."

"Yes, well, the blood loss is considerable, but there is worse news I'm afraid. The blood had built up in his chest cavity and put a lot of pressure on his left lung. His lung has collapsed."

Murdoch paled and grasped the back of his chair, while Scott quietly sat down in his.

“The problem is that the right lung is now trying to do all the work and that’s putting a strain on his heart. If we don’t reduce the pressure in his chest, the right lung will collapse as well.”

"You c'n fix it though, can't ya Doc?" Jelly asked hopefully.

"Well, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure he’d survive the surgery. He’s come through pretty well considering how weak he was and how much blood he’d lost.

I've removed the bullet and a few fragments of the bone. I'm as confident as I can be that I got them all. I've put a drain in the side of his chest to drain off the blood in his chest cavity. That will alleviate the pressure on his lung and, with luck, allow it to re-inflate naturally over the next few days. It will also take the pressure off his right lung so I'm pretty sure that it won't collapse as well."

He looked back to Murdoch and sighed. "The next twenty-four hours will be critical, Murdoch. He's terribly weak and the collapse of his lung has put extra pressure on his heart and his right lung to work a lot harder than normal.

I'm leaving the drain in his chest for at least a few days. I'm sure I've stopped the bleeding, but I don't want to take any chances."

"What can we do, Doctor?" Scott asked him, anxiously.

"The most important thing for now is that he is not to move. I don't care how many of you have to hold him down, tie him down if you have to - he must be kept completely still. I've got him propped up with pillows to allow him to breathe more easily and so that the drain can work. I don't think he'll regain consciousness for some time, but he's to have someone with him at all times.

He'll need plenty of fluids. We'll see if he can swallow for us but if not I'll have to try other options. I'd rather avoid that at the moment because of his lung."

He frowned for a moment before continuing. "Murdoch, I know he doesn't like laudanum, but we have no choice. He won't know at first, but once he does, he'll fight us."

"We’ll see that he takes it, but you haven't answered Jelly's question yet, Sam," Murdoch said pointedly. He asked him bluntly, "Will he make it?"

The doctor drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out before answering.

"I'll be frank with you, Murdoch. I don't know. Johnny's a fighter and he's as stubborn as a mule. He won't give up easily. That's his biggest advantage at this stage. My main concern is infection. I don't think he has the strength left to fight off a fever."

Scott's mind replayed the scene by the stagecoach. It was a frightening reminder that Johnny had been ready to give in. He had not told Murdoch or the doctor about it, and he prayed that he really had gotten through to his brother.

Only Celeste knew about it and he wasn't sure that she understood the significance of what had happened.

He decided to keep it to himself. Murdoch was worried enough.

"I'm going to stay with him for a few hours, make sure he's stable, and then perhaps one of you could relieve me. We'll organize short shifts, around four hours each. I don’t want anyone overdoing it. We have to stay alert while we’re with him."

"I'll have a room made up for you, Sam," Murdoch told him.

"Thank you Murdoch. I appreciate it," he said wearily. "Oh, and Murdoch, I want one of you to get Teresa out of that room. God knows, she's a strong girl and I couldn't have had better help, but she's distressed by all of this. I think you'd do well to give her a glass of brandy and a shoulder to cry on."




            Teresa walked into the room, her eyes gradually adjusting to the subdued lighting. She walked slowly around the bed, watching Johnny the whole time. He looked no different from when she had left him a few hours ago, but she told herself that that was good news, not bad.

             Sam Jenkins was surprised that it was Teresa who was to relieve him. He had hoped that she would try to get some sleep before taking a shift.

             "Hello Dr Jenkins," she whispered as she approached him.

             "Hello Teresa. I thought I told you to get some sleep."

             "Oh, I couldn't sleep, and I'd much rather be here," she told him eagerly.

             "Well, I hope you have someone taking over for you in a few hours."

             "Murdoch is coming in to relieve me. Is there anything you want me to do?"

             "Just keep an eye on that drain, make sure it doesn't get dislodged, and keep trying to get him to take some water. I got him to swallow some," he instructed. "Oh, and Teresa, any sign at all of fever, or any other change for that matter, come and get me immediately."

             "I promise," she said with a wisp of a smile. "Now, go and get some rest."

             He smiled at the girl. He had brought her into the world and watched her grow into the lovely young woman she was now. He’d watched her being raised by what amounted to two crusty old bachelors, but she had turned out to be a credit to both her father and Murdoch Lancer.

             "You're a real treasure, Teresa," he told her. "I hope these men realize how lucky they are to have you."

             Her smile broadened. "Of course they do. I remind them all the time."

             The doctor grinned and left her alone with Johnny. She took his place next to the bed and made herself comfortable.

 She placed her hand on Johnny's forehead to check for any sign of fever and heaved a sigh of relief that he was still cool. She didn't like his color, but it hadn't gotten any worse since she left.     Teresa took his hand in hers and looked into his face.

"Did you hear that, Johnny?" she said to him. "Dr Jenkins thinks you're lucky to have me."

She sighed and wished that she had gotten an answer. 

"I think we're lucky to have you. I only wish that you would believe it. I don't think you understand how much you mean to all of us."

She knew he probably couldn't hear her, but she took comfort from talking, hoping for some response from him.

"I remember how nervous Murdoch was when he heard you and Scott were both coming home. He was such a grouch for weeks before. It wasn't surprising that he made a mess of it when you did get here.

But it meant so much to him that you came, Johnny. And that you stayed. I know he's not an easy man to live with, but he loves you and Scott so much. He just doesn't know how to show it.

I wish you'd known him like I did, growing up at Lancer. He was like a second father to me. He was always there when I needed him, especially when my father died. I don't know what I would have done without him."

She wiped away a tear that threatened to fall, and her voice caught a little.

"He loves you, Johnny. We all do. Please stay with us."




She was so beautiful. Johnny's heart missed a beat when he caught sight of her.

Raven black hair streamed down her back. The breeze plucked at it playfully and tossed wisps across her face and into her eyes – lovely big brown eyes. Eyes that were so dark they were almost black and a man could get lost in their depths.

She smiled and lights sparkled and danced in those eyes like the sun bouncing off a stream on a bright sunny day.

She turned away and the sun shone brightly over her shoulder. Johnny followed her - out of the darkness that surrounded him and into a field of lush green grass where the sun shone overhead. The grass grew to her knees and played with her skirt as she moved.

He watched the graceful, seductive sway of her hips, the gentle swish of her skirt, and he caught his breath, remembering.

She turned back to him and stopped for a minute. Then she held out her hands to him and her smile broadened to light up her whole face. A mischievous twinkle came into her eyes and when she spoke, her voice was soft and enticing as she issued a playful challenge.

"Catch me, if you can!" she cried with glee and abruptly turned away.

With a hop and a skip, she picked up her skirts and ran away from him, laughing with delight, her bare feet caressing the soft grass as she tripped lightly across the field.

Johnny considered her, curiously, for only a moment and then he laughed aloud and crashed through all the emotional barriers that had held him and tormented him for so long.

He ran after her, laughing like a boy, until he caught up with her. He reached out and grasped her wrist and then he stopped and pulled her around to face him.

He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against him, her firm young breasts pressing against his chest. With no sign of protest from her, he pinned her wrists behind her back with one hand, and tenderly traced the features of her face with his free hand.

Her skin was soft and untouched by the passing of the years, and he remembered every inch of her face – her soft carmine red lips, the high cheekbones and the long soft lashes that fell over her half-closed eyes. Her laughter faded to an alluring smile and her eyes danced playfully as they met his and held them.

He searched them for traces of the same fire he felt, a fire fuelled by years of missing her and  needing her. For years he had held her in his dreams and felt the soft curves of her body close to his. Now here she was, whole, real and wanting him just as much as he wanted her.

In a barely audible whisper, he breathed her name. "Luisa....."



            Celeste stepped nervously down the staircase. The house was quiet this morning. No, she told herself, they called it a ‘hacienda’ here. That’s what Maddie had told her. She’d have to get used to that.

 The child was enchanting and Celeste had enjoyed keeping her mind off the tragedy unfolding upstairs. At least it was a way of helping and she desperately wanted to help.

 She wondered how Johnny was doing, but she was uneasy about asking anyone. She decided that she’d have to wait until she saw Scott. At least she could feel comfortable asking him.

 Teresa had certainly been kind to her last night. She had had a bedroom made up for her and had made sure that Celeste’s luggage had been brought in. It had arrived late in the afternoon from the stagecoach and she certainly felt more relaxed in her own clothes.

 But for all her kindness, Teresa had been preoccupied with Johnny, and Celeste felt like an intruder. She chastised herself for thinking that way – she was an intruder! She had arrived uninvited and in the middle of a crisis, so what else should she expect? For that matter, she felt responsible for Johnny being hurt, and her feelings of guilt over it tormented her.

 She entered the Great Room and pulled up short. Murdoch Lancer was there. He was sitting in a chair behind a huge desk, staring vaguely out through the big windows. He appeared to be lost in thought and hadn’t noticed her arrival.

 He was obviously worried and the last thing she wanted to do was to interrupt. Her courage failed her and she turned quietly and made for the stairs to go back to her room.

 “Miss Duval?” she heard him call from behind her, and she stopped and turned back, feeling like a little girl, caught where she shouldn’t be.

 “Good morning Mr. Lancer,” she said awkwardly, facing him as he stood up behind the desk. She clasped her hands in front of her and stood up straight, pretending, to herself more than to Murdoch Lancer, that she was composed.

 “Please, come in and join me,” he told her politely and walked around to offer her a chair.

 “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to disturb you.”

 “Nonsense,” he insisted, smiling, “I could do with a little company this morning.”

 Celeste took the offered seat and looked over towards him curiously. Everything she had ever heard about this man had been to his detriment. She had heard Harlan Garrett talk of him often to her parents when they had dined together and he had never had anything good to say of him.

 She’d had the impression that he was an uneducated yokel, with a bad temper and even worse manners. Mr. Garrett had claimed that he was an unfeeling, callous man who had sired a child and then abandoned him to his wife’s family to care for. He had bemoaned his grandson’s decision to stay constantly.

 And how many times had she had heard Scott vehemently tell her that he had no desire to ever have anything to do with him?

 From what she had seen, he certainly wasn’t unfeeling towards his sons. And whatever Scott’s feelings might once have been, well, that had been in Boston, before he had come here and met the man. It was obvious that he thought differently now.

 Scott himself was different, and not just in appearance. She thought he was a little rougher around the edges, his hands roughened by hard work and his speech a little less refined than she remembered, but more than that, his whole manner seemed to have changed. He was far more casual than he used to be. And the gun he had been wearing on his hip yesterday had shocked her beyond measure.

 The very idea of Scott wearing such a weapon so indifferently was going to take some getting used to. She knew he had carried one during the war, but that had been exactly that – war.

 But, he was still Scott. The gentle soul she had always trusted was still there. She had told him all her secrets when she was little, and sometimes, just sometimes, he told her his own. Celeste knew that he had been hurt by his father’s ‘abandonment’ of him. She had been one of the very few he had confided that in, and it had made her feel special at the time.

 It was why she had been surprised when he not only agreed to come west to meet his father, but he had stayed on with him, giving up all the niceties and advantages of Boston life.

 She had not known what to expect of  Scott’s father. The truth was, she had barely given him a thought when she had made her plans to come here.

 She certainly had not expected to find the well-mannered gentleman that he seemed to be. He was about the tallest man she had ever seen, with a build to match, and he was good-looking in a mature way. His voice was deep, like Scott’s, his eyes light blue as his son’s were, and his smile was certainly vaguely similar to his elder son’s smile. And he had been kind to her at a time when her intrusion must have been unwanted.

She couldn’t see anything of Johnny in him though, except perhaps that he had blue eyes. But they were not the unexpectedly deep blue eyes that Johnny had. Nor did they hold the twinkle of mischief that Johnny had conveyed to her on occasion.

She shifted uncomfortably and finally found the courage to ask. “How is Johnny this morning?” 

Murdoch sighed wistfully. “About the same, I’m afraid.”

 “Well, at least… I mean…”

 Murdoch smiled at her again. “I know. No news is good news. Isn’t that what they say?”

 “Well, yes, I suppose that’s what I meant. It’s not really true though, is it?” she told him clumsily. “You must think I’m terribly presumptuous, arriving here like this.” She looked down at her hands in embarrassment and clenched them together tightly. “It’s just that I’ve always run to Scott with my problems.”

 “Well, you’ve certainly run a long way this time,” he said with a grin.

 She smiled at him gratefully. “Yes, I suppose I have,” she admitted.

 “Maria tells me that you were very kind to my granddaughter yesterday. I’d like to thank you for that.”

 “Oh no, Mr. Lancer. It was a pleasure. She’s delightful.”

“Yes, she is,” he smiled pensively, “but she did need someone with her yesterday, and I am grateful for your help.”

She fidgeted uncomfortably for a moment, and then continued. “Mr. Lancer, I know you don’t know me, but I’d like to help with looking after Johnny.”

 “That’s not necessary, Miss Duval. You’re a guest here.”

 “I..I know, but I’d like to. You have no reason to trust me with him, of course, but..."

 "Miss Duval,” he broke in firmly. “From what I've heard, if it had not been for you my son would have died yesterday. Trust is not an issue. If you'd like to help, you're certainly welcome to do so."

 He looked up as Scott came into the room. "Scott, any change?"

 "No," Scott replied dejectedly. "Doc Jenkins is with him now. Teresa is helping him. He said he’d be down in about an hour."

 Murdoch nodded.

 Scott glanced in Celeste's direction and smiled enigmatically.

 "I’m glad you’re here Celeste. I think we need to have a little talk," he said to her with just a hint of a warning in his voice.

 She had known that the moment for explanations would come sooner or later, and she had dreaded facing it, but she sat up straight and agreed.

 "I know. I owe you an explanation."

 "I'll leave you two to discuss this alone," Murdoch told them diplomatically, standing up straight and about to leave the room, but Celeste didn't see the need for privacy. There was no point in secrecy at this stage.

 "No, Mr. Lancer. You deserve an explanation just as much as Scott does. It’s your home I’ve invaded. I'd rather you stayed, if you don't mind."

He accepted her decision and leaned back against the desk. He had to admit that he was curious about the young woman who had thrown herself into their lives.

Scott remained standing, facing her, and she could see that he was determined to have the truth. It was fine with her. She had no intention of lying to him.

"I know it was rude of me to arrive unannounced, Scott..."

"And uninvited," he added, a little abruptly, and he got a scowl from his father for it.

 "Well, yes, 'and uninvited',” she admitted. “But I couldn't think of anyone else to turn to and there was no time to ask you if I could come."

 “And I might have said No,” he chided her.

 She had the grace to blush and answered, “Well, yes. But I simply had to talk to you. I need your help.”

 "So you're in trouble again, are you?" Scott asked, as though he had expected nothing less.

 "Yes," she admitted shyly. "It's Mother, you see. She wants me to marry Rupert Foxworth.”

Scott grinned, mischievously. “I hope you said no.”

 “Well, of course, I said no,” she answered impatiently, glowering at him.  “But what good do you think that did? You know what she’s like.”

 “Yes,” he admitted, somewhat reluctantly. “But I can’t believe that your father wants Foxworth for a son-in-law. The man’s a…a…”

He was lost for words, but Celeste had plenty to use. “He’s a fool, Scott. A ‘mama’s boy’!” she protested. “It’s his mother and mine who have hatched the whole thing between them and Father will do whatever Mother tells him. Just like he always does,” she told him angrily. “And besides, Rupert Foxworth is rich!”

Scott nodded. He knew how right she was. Everyone in Boston’s ‘Polite Society’ knew about Margaret Duval. She was a social climber of the worst kind and a harridan to boot.

 It would be just like her to arrange a ‘marriage of convenience’ for her daughter, but Scott also knew that she feared the wrath of only one man, François Duval, Celeste’s grandfather. It was he who held the family’s purse strings, and his granddaughter was his pride and joy.

 “Your grandfather will never agree to your being married against your will.”

“Grand-père is in France, buying wine,” she told him flatly. “He knows nothing about it and he’ll be away for months. Mother planned a big ball to announce our engagement before he gets home. She knows that he would think twice about calling it off once it’s a ‘fait accomplis’. He positively hates scandal.”

“Then why did they agree to your coming here?” Scott asked. He looked at her intently and suspicions began to form in his mind – suspicions that he didn’t like. “They do know that you’re here, don’t they?”

Celeste squirmed uncomfortably in the chair. “Well, not exactly.”

 Scott frowned. “What have you done, Celeste?”

 She looked up at him, pleading. “Scott, in two months I’ll be twenty-one years old. I’ll have all of Grand-mère’s legacy and I will be able to legally do whatever I want. And Grand-père said that he would be home for my birthday, so I just had to keep Mother from moving and making it all final before he gets home.”

She looked up at him with pleading eyes. “So I came here,” she finished lamely. She knew he was cross.

“You just ‘came here’,” he repeated angrily. “You just walked out the door and travelled right across the country to tell me about it?”

 She looked shyly down at her hands and twisted them nervously.

 “Well, not exactly,” she admitted again. She looked up at him coyly. “I climbed out of the window.”

 Murdoch coughed and struggled to choke back laughter. He caught a quick glare of disapproval from Scott, but he was fascinated by the girl’s story. Scott’s obvious displeasure was just as entertaining. His son’s acquaintance with the girl was evidently of very long standing, but, he had to admit that so far he had seen no symptoms of anything more than that in either of them.

 At least the girl had spirit. She reminded him of another pretty blond woman in his life, many years ago – his Catherine – Scott’s mother. She too had been a Boston-bred girl, prepared to dare to defy her family.

 “The window!” Scott exclaimed, and shook his head. “Oh, now let me guess, you climbed down the trellis?”

 She smiled at him and nodded impishly.

 “I don’t know why they didn’t pull that thing down years ago. I would have thought they’d learned their lesson long before now.”

 “I haven’t used it in years,” she told him demurely.

 “Did you at least leave a note?”

 “Yes, I told them not to worry, and that I’d let them know where I am soon.”

 Scott shook his head angrily and turned away from her. "Aren't you ever going to grow up?"

 "Really, Scott Lancer. In case you haven't noticed, I'll have you know I've been grown up for quite some time." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.

 "Oh, I'm not blind, Celeste," he told her impatiently, turning back on her, folding his arms and frowning in frustration. "You've grown into a very beautiful little trouble maker. But have you no thought for what this sort of scandal could do to your reputation? Or to your family’s standing? I thought you had more understanding of the ‘Proprieties’ than that!

 Oh no, Celeste, you might be a beauty now, but what you really need is a good spanking, my girl, and I’m just the man who might give it to you!"

 She smiled coquettishly, her eyes sparkling as she dared to answer. "Why Scott! Do you really think I'm beautiful?"

 "That's it!" he snapped, his temper frayed beyond saving. He unfolded his arms and started towards her angrily. Murdoch decided the time had come to step in, before his son took it into his head to do something he might regret later.

 "Scott!" he called to him indomitably, and his son stopped abruptly and looked over at him. "I think that's enough."

 Scott looked like he was going to continue arguing but a quelling look from his father halted him.

 "Sit down, Scott," Murdoch told him firmly.

             Scott glared first at his father and then at the girl in front of him. Reluctantly, he did as his father had ordered and dropped heavily into the nearest chair, folding his arms obstinately in front of him.

             Murdoch turned to Celeste. "Do your parents know where you are?"

    Celeste shook her head guiltily. Playing with Scott and teasing him was one thing, but she had no right to do it with Murdoch Lancer, so she changed her attitude completely.

     "No Sir," she admitted. "If I had told them, they would have come after me."

     "Well, you'll have to tell them. They'll be worried."

    She knew he was right, but she dreaded sending word to them. Whatever their answer, she would not go home to marry that man. Not even if it meant leaving Lancer and finding somewhere else to hide until she came of age.

   Nevertheless, she resisted answering for only a moment and then said quietly, "Very well, Mr. Lancer. I'll write them right away."

   “You’ll wire them,” Scott threw at her angrily.

   She looked over to him with pleading eyes. “Scott, I only need eight weeks.”

  “No, Scott’s right. Wire your family, Celeste,” Murdoch told her firmly. “You can tell them that we’ve asked you to stay for a few weeks.”

  Scott jumped to his feet in exasperation. “Murdoch!” he shouted in outrage, but it fell on deaf ears. Murdoch’s face told him that the man had made up his mind and was not going to change it.

  Celeste got to her feet and turned to face Murdoch. “How can I ever thank you, Mr Lancer?” she asked him ardently.

 “You can call me Murdoch, for a start,” he told her, with a smile.

Scott shook his head in disbelief. “Well, don’t include me in your plans then,” he told him testily, turning and storming from the room.

Over his shoulder he called back to his father, “If Margaret Duval turns up on the doorstep, you’ll find me at the North Mesa line shack!”



Sometime later, Scott cooled off and returned to find Sam Jenkins coming into the room slowly. Murdoch didn’t like the preoccupied look on the doctor’s face.

“Well, Sam,” Murdoch asked him apprehensively, standing up and walking towards him. “How is he doing?”

“He’s still holding his own, Murdoch,” he answered, a little forlornly. He would have liked to have had more for them by now. “I’ve changed the bandages, and there’s no sign of bleeding, or infection. That’s good news at least.”


The doctor shook his head. “He’s still unresponsive Murdoch. Hasn’t moved so much as a finger. He’s deeply unconscious.”

“There must be something we can do, Doc?” Scott asked in desperation.

“Well, it’s only been two days, Scott. Keep talking to him. You never know, it might help.”

A knock on the door distracted them. Scott walked over to answer it and found one of the hands waiting, hat in hand.

“Sorry to bother ya, Scott, but there’s a rider comin’,” he said briefly. “In a real big hurry too.”

Scott stepped outside and watched the rider coming up the long drive. He certainly was in a hurry, but Scott didn’t recognize him.

He waited for the man to rein in and dismount. As he got closer, Scott finally knew him as one of the locals from Spanish Wells - a man named Hal Green.

“Is the Doc here?” the man asked brusquely, panting heavily.

“Sure, come on in,” Scott told him, and led the way.

Once inside, the man quickly approached Dr. Jenkins. “Doc, we need ya in town. The posse’s got wounded men.”

“The posse? What happened?” Scott asked eagerly.

The man turned back to him and explained. “We trailed them outlaws up into the foothills an’ camped for the night. Come sun up this mornin’, we started after ‘em again an’ they caught us in a crossfire in one o’ the canyons. Tom Logan got hit in the shoulder, an’ Gabe took a bullet in the leg.”

“The Sheriff?” Murdoch asked. “What happened to the posse then?”

The man shook his head. “Mr. Lancer, we was lucky to get outa there at all. We come back with the wounded.”

“What about the bandits? Did you get any of them?” Scott demanded anxiously.

 “They had us dead to rights, Scott. Didn’t have a chance against ‘em. Had to cut our losses an’ turn back with the wounded. We might be able to pick up the trail again, but it ain’t likely up in all them rocks.”

Scott rounded on the man. He took him by the arm and swung him bodily around to face him.

“Wait. Are you telling me they got away? That you let them get away?” he shouted furiously.

Murdoch strode over to his son and put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Scott, let him go.”

Scott spun around to look at him. “Murdoch, the driver and his guard are dead, and Johnny is …is fighting for his life. They can’t just let them go.”

“No one is letting them go, son,” Murdoch soothed him. “They have wounded. You can’t expect more men to die, Johnny certainly wouldn’t.”

“Then I’ll get Cipriano and a couple of men and go after them myself. We can’t just let them…”

“Scott!” Murdoch demanded. “Now you listen to me. What’s more important right now – revenge, or being here for your brother?”

Scott glared at his father, eyes narrowed with fury. He shook his arm free and stormed from the room and up the stairs without a word.

Murdoch heard him stop at his brother’s door. He was stunned. He hadn’t expected that question to be hard for Scott. Johnny was the hot head. Scott was his level-headed son. He could always be relied on to calm the troubled waters in the house.

He frowned with concern. The last thing they needed now was for Scott to take things into his own hands.

“I’ll get my things, Murdoch,” Sam Jenkins said quietly. “I’ll come back here as soon as I can.”

Murdoch turned back to him slowly. “Yes, of course, Sam. Thank you.”

He sighed and looked at Hal Green as the doctor left and went upstairs in Scott’s wake.

Hal looked shaken and Murdoch took pity on him. “I hope you’ll forgive Scott, Hal. He’s worried about Johnny. We all are.”

“Sure, I understand Mr. Lancer,” the man replied sympathetically. “Can’t blame him none.” He shifted a little uncomfortably before asking, “How is Johnny?”

“He’s fighting, Hal,” Murdoch told him despondently. “He’s fighting.”




Murdoch stood at the foot of his younger son’s bed. He had no idea where Scott had gone, though he suspected that he had gone to his own room to try to regain his composure.

He’d seen Hal Green off and farewelled Sam Jenkins after receiving his assurances that he would return as soon as he could. Now, he felt a terrible need to sit with Johnny.

“Teresa,” he whispered. “Why don’t you go and get some breakfast? I’ll watch Johnny.”

“Murdoch, I’m alright. I don’t need you to relieve me for hours yet.”

“I know, honey. I’d like to sit with him for a while, that’s all.”

Teresa smiled. “All right,” she said, understanding.

“Maria has Maddie and Celeste in the kitchen already. You go join them, and see if you can coax Scott into joining you too. And then get some more sleep. You’ve done more than your share.”

Teresa stood up from the chair beside the bed and let Murdoch take her place. She squeezed his shoulder lightly to reassure him before leaving the room. Of all the people at Lancer, she knew better than any of them how much Murdoch’s two sons meant to him.

Left alone with his son, Murdoch took stock of Johnny’s condition.

Sam was right. He hadn’t moved a muscle. He lay there, all but lifeless – his face ashen and his body fighting for every breath.

Murdoch felt a cold fear stab at his heart. A fear that just would not go away. Fear of losing any chance he might still have of mending those bridges that had been burnt all those years ago.

Between them, he and Johnny had managed to build a kind of wary relationship since the boys had come home. Johnny had not only had to learn to deal with the turbulent feelings he had for his father, he had also had to deal with learning the truth of his mother’s lies.

Murdoch knew how hard that must have been for his younger son, but the constant battle of wills they had fought between them had made it impossible for either of them to discuss it rationally.

So they had both left it all unsaid and unresolved, and, right now, Murdoch Lancer regretted that.

“Stay with us, please son,” he whispered. “Scott needs you now. He’s all worked up over this and I just wish you could talk to him.

Hell, son, I need you. I don’t know why it’s always so hard to tell you that. I guess I’m just not a man to say those kinds of things, even when I want to.

Maybe it would have all been different, if your Mother had stayed.

‘If’s’ a mighty big word, I suppose. There’ve been too many of them in my life, Johnny, yours too. – way too many,” he sighed.

He reached forward and put his hand on Johnny’s brow. There was still no sign of fever, and he closed his eyes in relief, then brushed aside a stray wisp of his hair from his son’s face.

“I don’t know how I feel about your mother, John,” he continued. “I guess it must be the same for you. I loved her, still do I think, but I can never forgive her.

She was fiery and passionate, and impulsive, but I honestly thought we were doing all right. Maybe if I’d seen she was unhappy, I could have stopped everything right then.”

He looked into Johnny’s face and wished he would just open his eyes. He’d tell him everything he wanted to hear, if he would just wake up right now and hear him.

“If she’d taken you and given you a good life, maybe I could forgive her, but I can’t excuse her leaving you alone when you could have been here with me. If she hadn’t lied to you like she did, maybe it would have been easier to find you. Maybe you would even have come to me. I could have brought you home and both your life and mine would have been different.”

He ran his fingers through his son’s hair. It still had the soft silken feel it had had when he was a baby. He remembered holding him when he was small, wanting to keep him safe from harm. Had there been someone to hold him like that as he grew older? Had his mother done that for him at least?

He’d probably never know. Johnny was no more likely to tell him than he was to ask. They had both started to realize that those years were lost to them forever. It was now they had to work on. They had the present and the future to look to.

The future – he didn’t want to face it without this boy.

“Just stay with us, Johnny,” he whispered. “I love you, son.”






        Murdoch lowered his son back onto the pillows. Johnny had swallowed the water that he had offered him, so he was pleased, but the boy had still not shown any signs of coming round.

         Out of habit, Murdoch felt his son’s forehead and he breathed a sigh of relief that there was still no change.  So far they had been lucky. There was no hint of fever or infection.

         Sam had been making the trip out from Spanish Wells twice a day, since his other patients in town made it impossible for him to stay at Lancer indefinitely. He was worried that Johnny had still not regained consciousness, but Murdoch clung desperately to the fact that, at least, his son was still alive. That meant that there was still hope.

         Scott would be here soon to relieve him, but he had asked Teresa to stop in and watch Johnny while he talked to Scott first. There was something eating at that boy and he was going to find out what it was.

         His son had been behaving suspiciously for days. Since Johnny had been wounded four days ago, Scott had wanted to be at his side constantly. In itself, that didn't worry Murdoch. He understood his son's need to be there for Johnny, but he was pushing himself towards exhaustion.

         Scott seemed to feel that if he wasn't at Johnny's side, the boy would die - that he and he alone could keep his brother alive.

         Teresa and Celeste had both tried to reason with him, but to no avail. Now, the time for reason was over and Murdoch was going to get to the bottom of it.

He’d had the feeling that Scott was holding something back right from the start, but he hadn't forced the issue. Scott didn’t usually bottle things up like Johnny did and he had waited patiently for Scott to tell him what was wrong. But this time he hadn’t said anything, so Murdoch was going to press him a little.

Teresa tapped very softly on the door and he looked across the room to her.

“Thanks for coming in, honey,” he smiled. “I want to talk to Scott for a few minutes before he takes over.”

“He’s wearing himself down, Murdoch. I know none of us is sleeping very well right now, but Scott’s just not sleeping at all. He’s going to fall apart soon if he’s not careful.”

“I know. There’s something he’s not telling us and I intend to find out what it is.”

Scott stopped at the doorway; surprised that Teresa was with Murdoch. “I thought I was taking over for you.”

“That’s right, son, but I want to talk to you downstairs first.”

Scott looked anxiously at his brother. “What’s wrong? Is he worse? Murdoch…”

Murdoch held his hand up to stop his son. “Nothing’s happened. He’s just the same, so calm down. I just want a few words with you first. That’s all.”

He walked across the room and clapped his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Come downstairs with me, son,” he said and led the way downstairs.

Scott followed reluctantly and sank into one of the chairs in the Great Room. “What’s this all about Murdoch?” he growled wearily.

“It’s about you. I want to know what’s eating at you son?”

Scott stared at him incredulously. “What’s wrong?” he snapped at him. “What’s wrong is that my brother is upstairs, maybe dying. Don’t I have the right to worry?”

 “I know,” Murdoch acknowledged. He sank into a chair in defeat. “I’m worried too. I think that goes without saying. But you're about ready to fall over, Scott. You're driving yourself past your limits. You won't be any good to Johnny if you’re flat on your back yourself."

        Scott sighed heavily. He was forced to admit that his father was right. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in days. But he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Instead he said, "I want to be there if he needs me."

"I know you do. We all do," Murdoch assured him. "But you can't be there all the time. Johnny’s fighting. He'll do that whether you're there or not.

Scott paled and sat staring at his hands. He didn’t answer, and that made Murdoch all the more certain that there was more that he was hiding.

Murdoch noticed his discomfort, and this time, he wasn’t letting it pass. “What is it you’re not telling me, Scott?”

Scott still didn’t answer. He ran his hands through his hair and avoided the question.

“Scott, what are you holding back?” his father demanded.

“What makes you think I’m holding anything back?” he finally answered wearily.

“I know you better than you think. So what is it?”

Scott considered just not answering again, but there didn’t seem any point any more. A wave of exhaustion washed over him. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up the pace he had set himself.

“Okay, you’re right. Something did happen, at the coach, before you got there.”

“What happened?”

Scott looked down at his hands. They were sweating. He rubbed them on his pants while he tried to come up with the words to explain what had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. It hurt too much.

Ignoring his son’s reticence, Murdoch insisted, “Tell me.”

Finally, Scott looked directly at him and blurted it out. “He gave up, Murdoch. He was ready to die – almost happy to.”

Murdoch was stunned, but he schooled himself not to show it. He knew that Scott needed to talk about it, whether he wanted to or not. He’d been bottling it up for too long.

“What makes you say that?” he asked his son.

Scott’s face twisted in pain, and he searched again for the right words.

“He…he was slipping away, and …Murdoch,” he finally cried out to his father, “I swear he could see Luisa! He looked straight past me… like I wasn’t even there.”

He stopped for a moment, sadly reflecting on that scene. “He wanted to go to her, and I stopped him.”

“And you stopped him? How?”

Scott shook his head angrily, and then he stood up and walked over to the fireplace. He leaned one hand against the mantle and hung his head, studying the empty grate.

“It doesn’t matter how I did it, Murdoch,” he said without turning around to face his father. “The point is that I did it. I got him back and now look what he's going through, and he’s going to be in an awful lot of pain when he comes round. Maybe I was just putting off the inevitable. Putting him through unnecessary suffering.”

“I’d have done the same, Son,” Murdoch told him unhesitatingly.

“Oh, I don’t doubt that, Murdoch,” Scott said sadly. He finally turned around to face Murdoch. “But did I have the right to do it? I mean, wasn’t I being selfish? I honestly don’t know whether I did it for him, or for me!”

Murdoch sighed deeply. “You can ask him when he wakes up. Don’t torture yourself over it, Scott. He would have done the same if it had been you.”


“Yes, he would have,” Murdoch assured him. “I’m as certain of that as I am that the sun will rise in the morning.”

Scott was silent, so his father continued.

“Scott, listen to me,” he said firmly. “I believe that Johnny still has a mark to leave on this world. Just like you do. To do that, he has to live and make himself a future. I will do everything in my power to keep him alive, and I expect nothing less from you.”

“And if we fail?”

“I won’t accept failure.”

Scott looked at him in frustration. “I don’t want to think about the possibility, Murdoch, but it’s very real.”

Murdoch stared at him defiantly, but then he relented. “Then he will know that we loved him enough to try.”




        Scott had continued to refuse to explain to his father how he had kept his brother from giving up. He felt it was too personal – too close to what he and Johnny had between them.

So Murdoch had let it go. He was satisfied that Scott had uncorked his emotions for now and sat down at his desk.

Scott wandered over to stand looking out of the big window behind him. The ranch seemed to keep going as usual, despite the battle going on upstairs to keep Johnny alive. It didn’t seem right somehow. 

He glanced down the drive and noticed that a lone horseman was coming.

“There’s a rider coming up the drive, Murdoch,” Scott told him from the window.

Murdoch turned around to face him.

“What now?” he asked gruffly. There had been no good news at Lancer for days and Murdoch, like everyone else at the ranch, was on edge. “Can you see who it is?

“It’s Val,” Scott told him when the rider got close enough to be recognized.

Both Murdoch and Scott went out the door to meet him as he cantered up to the house. Val dropped neatly out of the saddle and tethered his horse to the rail, turning to them and dusting himself off quickly.

“Been outa town and just heard. Came as soon as I could,” he told them breathlessly. “How’s he doin’?”

“Not so good, Val,” Murdoch answered tersely. “Come on in.”

Val Crawford followed them in, taking off his hat and running his hand through his unruly hair to try to tidy it a little. He’d been at Lancer more times than he could count since he had come to be sheriff of Green River. Meeting up again, after a lot of years, with his old friend, Johnny Madrid - now Johnny Lancer and ‘living high off the hog’ as he teased him - had been a pleasant surprise.

It had been particularly pleasant when he realized that his friend had given up his life as a gunslinger and he didn’t have to worry about facing him out in the street one day.

He and Johnny had taken up their friendship right where it had left off and so Val had been here often, but the big hacienda still managed to make him feel uncomfortable.

If he was with Johnny, he could put it aside. Johnny had been his friend for a long, long time, and he just laughed Val’s doubts away. But Murdoch Lancer and his elder son, Scott, well, they were a different proposition – they were friends, but not close ones.

The big hacienda might be a comfortable place to live for the Lancers, but for Val it was still overwhelming. Murdoch Lancer was a big man in the valley, in more than just size, and Johnny’s brother Scott was from back east. His polite manners and his neatness left Val feeling a little uncomfortable.

Val was a man of simple needs. Left to his own devices he wouldn’t worry about his clothes or his hair, or how he spoke to people. It was Johnny who kept telling him that he had to shape up a bit if he wanted to keep his job.

He’d come straight from Spanish Wells, where he had checked on the sheriff there. Gabe’s leg wound had festered a little. The Doc had cleaned it up, and Gabe was on the mend, but he wasn’t going to be on horseback for some time.

He’d gotten the whole story of the stage hold-up from him and came straight out to Lancer to see how his friend was doing.

He was shocked by the change in both of the men in front of him. Murdoch looked like he had aged overnight, and Scott’s eyes were rimmed with black and bloodshot. It looked to him like no one was getting out of this lightly.

Murdoch poured them each a brandy and handed one to Val and one to Scott. Taking a sip from his own, he continued.

“I’m glad you came, Val.”

Val eyed him intently. He began to feel a terrible foreboding. “Just how bad is he?”

Scott answered him. “The bullet deflected off his rib, otherwise he’d be dead.”

"Sounds like there's a 'but' comin'."

“There is. He was bleeding internally, so he lost a lot of blood. His lung has collapsed.”

“Damn!” Val cursed. He finished the drink and put the glass down heavily. "I heard he was hit, but I didn't know he was that bad. What does the doc say?"

"He's doing his best, but it's mostly up to Johnny, now," Murdoch told him, with a quick glance at Scott. "There’s no sign of a fever, but he hasn't come to yet."

He waited for a moment before asking, “Any chance o’ seeing’ John ‘fore I go?”

“Well, like we said, he’s still unconscious,” Murdoch told him, “but I don’t see how it can hurt.”

Val nodded. “Thanks Murdoch, I appreciate it,” he said gratefully, and then added, “Did you hear about the posse?”

“Yes. Someone came for Doc Jenkins. They got ambushed up in the foothills."

"Yeah, I went into Spanish Wells on my way here to find out what happened. They got caught in a crossfire. Gabe's got a bullet in his leg. He’s gonna be laid up for quite a while and so far no one's gone back out to look for tracks," Val explained.

"Oh, that's just great!" Scott burst out angrily. "They'll have gotten clean away by now."

         “Yeah, well, with Gabe outa commission, I thought I’d go on up an’ see if I c’n find anything.”

Murdoch watched Scott’s reaction, but this time he showed no inclination to go after them himself.

“You should take Jose Cipriano with you. No one knows those hills and canyons like he does,” Scott suggested. He hadn’t missed his father’s furtive glances in his direction. “And don’t worry, Murdoch. I’m not going anywhere while Johnny needs me.”

Murdoch nodded, relieved that he wouldn’t have to fight Scott about it again. “Val, you’re welcome to as many of the hands as you need. I don’t think you’ll lack volunteers.”

“Just don’t let them get away with it Val,” Scott told him fixedly.

“Count on it, Scott,” Val answered with a half smile that held no humor at all. He wanted to get his hands on them just as much as Scott obviously did.

Before he could leave to go upstairs, Celeste and Maddie came into the room.

“Well now,” he said with a smile. “If it ain’t little Miss Lancer.”

“Howdy Sheriff Crawford,” she smiled back at him. “Did you come to see Papa?”

“Sure did Maddie,” he answered, but his eyes had wandered to the girl behind her. His jaw dropped. My but she was pretty!

The little girl noticed and grinned at the look on Val’s face. “This is Tio’s friend,” she told him.

“Celeste, this is Sheriff Val Crawford. He’s a friend of Johnny,” Scott told her, by way of introduction. “Val, Celeste Duval from Boston.”

The woman smiled, and Val’s heart skipped a beat. He closed his mouth and managed to avoid expressing the “Wow” that lingered on the tip of his tongue.

“Real nice to meet you, Miss Duval,” he said clumsily, taking her hand and shaking it.

“Thank you Sheriff,” she replied politely, and then turned her attention to Scott.

“Scott, you look exhausted. Why don’t you try to get some rest, and I’ll watch Johnny for you? You can take my shift later.”

“Thanks Celeste, but I’m fine. I’ll go on up and send Teresa down now,” he told her testily. “You coming Val?”

“Yeah, sure,” Crawford answered quickly.

Together they left the room, with two sets of worried eyes watching Scott go.

Scott warned Val what to expect as they walked up the stairs to Johnny’s room, but even so, Val was brought up short by the pale, still form that he found.

In just a few days, Johnny had already lost weight. His face was pale and drawn and his chest rose and fell only slightly as he struggled for each breath. He was propped up with pillows until he was almost sitting, apparently to help him breathe.

“Thanks Teresa,” Scott said to her quietly, leaving Val to come in slowly behind him. “I’ll take over now.”

She stood up and walked over to them both. “It’s good to see you Val,” she told him. “Go over to him if you like. You can talk to him. He probably won’t respond, but we keep trying.”

“Thanks Miss Teresa,” he said politely. He looked at his friend a little uncertainly, and then walked slowly over to stand by the bed.

He stared at Johnny and had to tell himself that this sick young man really was Johnny – he looked like him, but then again, he didn’t. The Johnny he knew was about the wildest, craziest man there was – always ready with a smile or a laugh. A natural athlete, he was willing to back you up to the hilt if you needed him.

The man in the bed was but a pale shell of the man he knew.

Val’s stomach felt like bugs were crawling all through it. He’d been told that Johnny was hurt bad, but he’d seen him hurt badly before. He’d seen him fight off fevers that would have killed a lot of other men. But he had never seen him like this – still as death and twice as pale.

The fear that was heaving around in him suddenly balled up and rose like bile, coming out as anger such as he had never felt before. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes, wishing he had something, or someone, that he could lash out at.

He looked at Scott and wondered how he and his family could bear seeing Johnny like this. How did they manage to keep sane, sitting day after day and hoping for something – anything - that would give them reason to hope?

“Buddy,” he said, when he could control himself enough to speak, “you got everyone here awful worried ‘bout you.”

“Time you come round an’ let ‘em know you’re gonna be all right,” he continued after a moment. He moved closer and sat hesitantly on the edge of the bed. “Tell you what, John. You pull yourself up outa this an’ I’ll get the man who done it. I swear to you, buddy, he ain’t gonna get away with it.”

He looked for some response, but got none. Johnny’s eyes were closed and his efforts to breathe continued without any sign that he had heard one word.

“I’m headin’ out now John, but when I get back I expect to see you sittin’ there sassin’ an’ makin’ life difficult for everyone.”

He wished there had been the answering grin that he would usually have gotten to that remark, but there was nothing. Just the gentle rise and fall of his chest. There was nothing else to show that Johnny Madrid Lancer was even alive.

The silence was unnerving. It was heartbreaking.

Val looked over at Scott. Scott was near exhaustion, and looked like he had lost weight himself. He could see how hard it was on them – sitting here with him hour after hour, day after day. Waiting for some sign that he knew they were there. He envied them the chance to be with him, but he sure didn’t envy them the task.

“You better look after yourself too, Scott,” he told him as he stood up to head for the door. “He’s gonna need you when he comes round.”



        Afternoon wore into night and found Scott Lancer still at his brother’s side.

Doctor Jenkins had been and gone, with no good news to give them, but at least nothing worse for them to contend with. There was still no sign of a fever, and that was the best news of all, but Johnny had still not made a move or offered any indication that he was regaining consciousness.

The longer he was like that, the worse things looked.

Doc Jenkins had given them a word for it - ‘Coma’ - such a little word for the big trouble that Johnny was in.

He’d told them to keep talking to him, keep trying to stimulate his mind. He couldn’t assure them that he could hear them, but if the chance was there, they’d take it.

So Scott talked. He had talked until he was hoarse. He was careful to avoid anything to do with the past. There were too many dark memories there and he didn't know what he might trigger. So he concentrated on the present and the future.

He had gotten no reaction so far, but that didn't put him off.

Scott knew that Celeste would be coming soon to take his place. He knew he was tired and had to get some rest, but he didn’t want to be anywhere but here. If Johnny should come round, he had to be there. He had to make sure that Johnny was still tied to that oath he had made him swear.

“Johnny,” he said softly, “you have to wake up and get well. I don’t know what life would be like around here without you, but we’re not going to find out. You’re going to fight, if I have to sit here and fight with you.

I’m not going to talk about the past. There’s your future to think about. You have one now, Johnny. You have people who care about you, and you have Maddie to watch grow up.

She’s going to be a handful, brother. She’s got your knack for mischief. And you’ll have men coming around here in herds when she’s older, because she’s going to be a beautiful young woman. You don’t want to miss that. I can see you sitting out on the porch in a rocking chair, with a Winchester across your lap waiting for them.”

He found himself smiling at the idea. “And then there’s Teresa. We’re going to have the same problem there, and real soon. Like bees to a honey-pot they’ll be soon. We’ll need your help to keep those bees under control too.

Murdoch’s wearing a path in the floor downstairs pacing and worrying over you. I think he actually misses having you to bawl out. He’s been bawling me out instead. I need you to take some of the heat off me.”

Scott grinned. “I bet you’d love to see it, wouldn’t you?”

The weariness began to crash in on his senses and the emotion began to pull at him.

“Come back to us, Johnny. We need you – I need you, brother.”

He wiped away a tear that had started to roll down his cheek. He was not going to let his fear get the better of him.

Resolutely, he leaned forward to be face to face with his unconscious brother.

“You listen to me, Johnny. I am not going to let you go. We’ve had too little time together, and we both deserve more.

We’ve got a damned fine ranch here, with lots of fat cattle and there are those horses you’re planning on breeding. Think about all those plans you’ve been making for that. It took long enough to convince Murdoch that it was a good idea, and you have to be here to make it work.

Between the three of us, we can take Lancer and make it bigger and better than it already is. They’ll know our brand clear to the east coast.

And I’ll tell you something else, little brother. I plan to get married one day, and you’re going to be my best man. You’ll be uncle to my kids, just like I am to Maddie. And we’ll both sit back and watch Lancer and our kids grow.

You can’t give up on that. I want you there. You’re not going to just be someone for me to tell them about. They are going to know you.

You made me a promise Johnny, and I’m going to see that you keep it. Even if I have to sit here forever.”




Johnny lay back on the grass, watching thin strands of white clouds drift across the bright blue sky above him. He lay back on the ground on a soft cushion of grass, savoring its sweet smell, and the fresh pure scent of the air around him.

Life was good!

Luisa, the lithe, young beauty he had married when they were little more that children themselves, laid nestled in the crook of his right arm, her head on his shoulder and her long silken tresses washing across his chest like a soft cascading waterfall.

He lifted his left hand and softly ran his fingers down her face and across her cheek and then into her hair. He fingered it gently and rubbed it between his fingers, relishing the texture of every delicate tendril.

Oh, how he loved her hair - its feel and its fragrance. He remembered sitting on their bed and watching her brush it every night of the short time they had had together. She would brush it until it glowed, bathed in the flickering light of the lamp in their bedroom.

Luisa sighed and moved in even closer to him, her toes rubbing softly up and down his shin teasingly. He wrapped his arm around her tighter and a lazy sensation of pleasure washed over him.

Their lovemaking had been passionate and fulfilling, fuelled by years of yearning. Each of them knew the needs and desires of the other to perfection, and they had delicately retraced remembered trails and paths along their way.

The fire had been followed by the gentle lethargy of contentment, and they lay, wrapped in each other’s arms, enjoying the bliss of just being together.

"I could stay here like this forever, querida," he breathed softly.

She lifted her finger and ran it lightly down the side of his face and she smiled. "Yes, you could,” she whispered. “You can stay here with me and we can be together forever, querido.”

Johnny played idly with her hair and kissed the top of her head. "I'd give everything to stay with you."

"That's a lot to give up, Johnny," she said with a smile.

"I did it before,” he told her lightly.

The girl sighed. “I know,” she answered. “You gave up your reputation and your freedom. You started a whole new life for me, and never seemed to mind. You did it all to make me happy and to give us a chance of a normal life together. But it was different then, was it not?”

She lifted her head from his shoulder and turned her face to his. She looked into his sapphire blue eyes and told him, lovingly, "You have so much more to give up now, my love. You have family and friends - a future. All the things you always wanted."

"Sure," he replied reluctantly. He rolled over to face her. "I know, but...Luisa, I bring 'em nothin' but trouble. They'll be better off without me."

“Are you so sure?” Luisa asked him. She cupped her hands around his chin and, leaning over him, she whispered with a knowing smile, "My foolish niño, you know they love you more than that. Are you so certain that they would be better off?"

She kissed him lightly on the lips. "It is for you to choose to stay or go, my love, but choose very carefully."

Johnny shook his head vehemently. "No, I won’t go. I can't bear to lose you again."

"Querido, you have never lost me." She placed her hand gently over his heart. "I am right here, my love, in your heart - now and always," she continued, her voice soft and musical. "If you can accept that, then you can let me go."

He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. Suddenly, he felt so tired. "I love you so much, Luisa."

"I know, Johnny. I have always known that," she told him soothingly. "But think about what you would be leaving behind. Our little Madelena needs you. Can you seriously think of leaving her as you were left.  I cannot go back to her, but you still can."

"It wouldn’t be like that with me. She'd have Scott," he said blankly.

Somewhere a sound had caught his attention and distracted him. He couldn't place it, but it seemed to be familiar. He tried to ignore it.

"But he needs you too. He loves you and he wants you in his life." She rolled over and raised herself on one elbow. "But what about you, querido? Think about what you really want. Don't you love them? Would you not miss them? You must think carefully before you decide."

He heard that sound again. It sounded distant, muffled, frustratingly hard to get hold of and annoying, and then it was gone again.

The lethargy creeping over his body was getting harder and harder to defeat. His arms felt heavy and it was a battle just to lift his eyelids again.

He did open his eyes, and he was dazzled again by her beauty - her eyes, her hair, her smooth soft skin caressing his. How could he leave her? Hadn’t he dreamt of holding her like this for years?

"I don't think I've got the strength to go back anyway," he sighed.

She laughed at him. "Por supuesto, mi corazon, it would be easy to stay. But when did my foolish niño ever do anything the easy way?"

He closed his eyes and grinned. She was right about that anyway.

“I made Scott a promise….”

“And is that the only reason you would go back? What of the people who care about you?”

“I think you really know what you want to do, my sweet,” she told him adoringly. “You have already made your choice and I understand it. It is the right choice, my love. Now, you must have the courage to do it.”

“I can’t,” he whispered desperately.

“Courage, querido.”

It was a struggle to lift his eyelids again. "I wish we could have more time..."

"I know, querido. We did not have enough time. Not then and not now." She brushed the bangs away from his eyes tenderly and lightly traced her fingers across his brow.

He heard the sound again. This time he understood it and it took his breath away.

It was a voice, calling his name. He didn't know who was calling him. It was too far away and he didn't really care. He wished they would go away and leave him alone with Luisa.

"Johnny," she continued. "Keep me in your heart. Remember me, but, please, leave room for others. There are people who love you now, and people who will love you. Open your heart to them, my sweet...Now you must decide."

"Johnny," the voice called, tugging at his senses.

"Te amo, querida," Johnny whispered. A single tear slipped unbidden from the corner of his eye.

"Johnny..." the voice repeated, louder now, and insistently pulling him away.

"And I will always love you, Johnny," she whispered sadly and he could feel her drifting away from his grasp. The bright sunshine above him seemed to cloud.

"Johnny..." the voice called, demanding his presence.

He looked once more into the beautiful brown eyes of the woman he had loved more than life itself, and asked himself again how he could face leaving her.


She tenderly placed her hand on his cheek and then, lightly touching his lips with her fingers, she whispered, " Yo siempre estaré con te, mi corazón.”


"Always..." he answered, inaudibly, and he let her go.




Celeste tiptoed into the room, her eyes on Scott as he tried to coax his brother into waking up, leaning over him and calling his name over and over.

She had come to take his place at Johnny's side, but she knew she would have trouble prizing him away. She always did.

"I know you can hear me, Johnny. Come on."

He spoke insistently, demanding his brother's attention and he didn't even notice her until she carefully sat on the edge of the bed opposite him.

"I'm sure there's something different about his breathing, Celeste. I'm sure of it," he told her eagerly, looking over to her. “I think he’s coming round.”

She smiled, thinking that perhaps it was just wishful thinking, but, looking closer, she began to think he might be right. She frowned as she watched Johnny, and Scott misunderstood.

"I'm right, Celeste, I know I am," he insisted, a touch of anger in his voice.

"I know, Scott," she smiled at him. "Look."

He turned back and gasped as he found himself looking into Johnny's startling blue eyes.

His eyes were only half open, and the effort seemed to have exhausted him, but Johnny was gazing steadfastly back at Scott.

The shock took Scott's breath away.

"Johnny," he exclaimed enthusiastically. "Damn but it's good to see you!"

He looked over at Celeste, and forced himself to stay calm and to think.

"Celeste, will you go and get Murdoch and Teresa? Have Murdoch send someone into town for Dr Jenkins."

"Of course," she answered happily and went to the door, getting there just in time to stop Maddie from catapulting into the room. She caught the little girl in her arms. The child was in bare feet and her nightgown. Her hair fell untidily around her face, and she was sparkling with excitement.

“Papa’s awake!” she cried out breathlessly. “He is, isn’t he, Celeste?”

Celeste stared at the child in amazement. For the second time, the little girl knew something that she had no way of knowing. How in the world did she do it? What bond was there between her and her father that gave her a key to his well-being?

She contained her curiosity, telling herself that it was not something to worry about at the moment. She knelt down beside the child, smiling happily. “Yes, he is, Maddie.”

“I knew it,” the little girl bubbled ecstatically. “I woke up and I just knew he was awake. I knew I was right.”

Her enthusiasm was infectious, and Celeste found herself being carried along on a wave of happiness with her, but she tried to calm her a little.

“Maddie, you are right, but he’s very tired. You must be quiet.”

“Oh, I will be. I promise, just like a mouse,” she whispered enchantingly. “Can I see him? Please say I can?”

Celeste looked piteously into the depths of those big brown eyes and found it hard to say no. She looked at Scott for agreement and, when he nodded silently, she turned to Maddie again.

“All right, you can go in and see him, Maddie,” she whispered. “But like a little mouse, remember. He’s very tired.”

The little girl tiptoed quietly into the room, and went to her uncle’s side. Scott pulled her onto his lap and murmured in her ear, “Sit quietly and you can stay for a while.”

Maddie smiled happily at him and turned to her father. She took his hand in her own tiny one and whispered very softly, “It’s all right, Papa. I’m going to stay with you.”

Scott was astonished to see a solitary tear fall silently down Johnny’s cheek as he closed his eyes and rested.



For the first time in days, Sam Jenkins looked pleased. For the watchers in the Great Room, waiting for him impatiently, that was the best news of all. He came down the stairs with more confidence than they had seen in him since the shooting.

And this was one midnight house call that he had been more than happy to be able to make.

“Murdoch, that boy of yours has all your pig-headedness and then some,” he smiled. “That and the lives of a cat.”

Scott jumped to his feet. “Then he’s going to make it?”

“Well, Scott, he’s not completely out of the woods yet. We still have to watch him closely for infections or a fever, and it’s going to be a long time before he’s himself again,” Sam answered gravely, and then he smiled, “but, yes, I think he’s going to make it.”

Scott slapped a beaming Murdoch Lancer on the back and then picked up Teresa and whirled her around, while she choked back tears of relief and found herself laughing for the first time in days.

“I can’t begin to thank you, Sam,” Murdoch told him, checking the urge to grab the man and hug him. Instead he grinned and poured him a brandy, and handing it to him, he said emotionally, “I’ll never forget what you’ve done.”

“Nonsense, Murdoch,” the doctor replied. “You know I took a liking to that boy right from the start.” He laughed and sipped the brandy. “And if it weren’t for that stubborn streak you seem to have passed on to him, well, who knows? But now - to practicalities. I’ve left the drain in his chest, just to be on the safe side. I’ll leave it there for a couple more days, so you have to continue to make sure that he lies still. He’s using that lung a little now, but I want you to encourage him to take deep breaths to get it working properly. I’ll start him out on some breathing exercises that I’ll want you to encourage him to do.

And we will have to continue with the laudanum. He won’t like it, but he’ll need it for a while yet. Breathing will hurt like the blazes, even with the laudanum, especially with that busted rib as well as the bullet wound. Push him a little anyway, but don’t let him get excited. You might find that his breathing might falter and he’ll be trying to catch his breath. Just calm him down if it happens. Don’t let him panic. But that lung of his is not strong yet and could still collapse again, so if he does have trouble breathing, send for me.

Apart from that, plenty of fluids, a little thin broth and watch him round the clock.”

He finished off the brandy with relish and turned his attention to Scott.

“Now, as for you, Scott Lancer. I’m leaving a sleeping draft with your father, along with orders to slip it to you if you don’t go to bed and get some rest. This family has enough on their hands without you making yourself sick as well.”

“Yes Sir,” Scott answered sheepishly.

“Good, see that you do it. In fact, you could all do with a little rest,” he ordered. “And so could I. I’ll drop in again tomorrow and see how he’s doing.”

He picked up his bag and began to walk for the door.

“Celeste is with him now. He seems content to have her with him, so stick with the routine you’ve been keeping. He’ll be too weak to kick up a fuss for a good while yet. He’ll probably sleep for most of the time. Don’t worry if he does. It’ll give his body some time to recover. Try to get some broth into him, and we’ll work that up to heavier food. We have to get some weight back on him.”

“Thanks again Doc,” Scott reiterated, as he held the door for him.

“Any time, Scott,” the doctor replied as he left. “And go to bed.”




Celeste watched the doctor leave the room and then sat down by the bed. The room was suddenly very quiet again and she was left alone with Johnny.

Johnny laid back silently maintaining eye contact with her. The effort just to stay awake was costing him dearly. Perspiration dotted his forehead and she gently wiped it away with a wet cloth, but he was too exhausted to react any more than to watch her as she moved.

She poured a glass of water and lifted his head gently so that he could drink from it. He accepted her help quietly and she laid his head back against the pillow after he had swallowed what he could. She brushed stands of hair from his eyes, and made sure that there was still no sign of fever.

She sat down quietly in the chair by the bed and took his hand to comfort him. He didn’t seem to mind.

"You probably don't even remember me, Johnny,” she said softly to him. “I'm Celeste, Scott's friend from Boston."

She watched him struggle a little for breath and sensed that he was trying to answer her so she hurried to stop him.

"Hush, Johnny. Don't try to talk. Just rest," she whispered soothingly, and to her relief he closed his eyes briefly and settled back down.

"That's better," she continued. "Everyone's downstairs with the doctor so I'm staying with you for a while. Now, I think you should rest. You need to get your strength back.”

Johnny showed no inclination to do as she suggested. Instead, his eyes held hers and followed even her slightest move.

That intense blue gaze was unsettling, but, at the same time, it was reassuring to have them on her. It meant that he was more than just awake, he was aware.

She thought he looked like a lost little boy and smiled at him. His eyes locked on hers and suddenly, she sensed his fear and moved to ease it.

Celeste leaned forward, close enough to whisper to him and be heard. She reached over and gently ran the back of her hand down the side of his face.

“It’s all right, Johnny,” she murmured soothingly. “It’s okay to sleep.

You will wake up, I promise you. You’ll be fine, so just close your eyes and relax.”

She continued whispering her reassurances and softly stroking his face, and slowly it began to take effect. She saw his eyelids slacken and fall and then flicker open once more, only to finally close at last.

            He didn’t stir, and she sat back and watched the frown on his brow fade away as he drifted deeper into a peaceful sleep.

 Murdoch would come in to relieve her in a couple of hours. They had a regular routine of shifts now and she was more than happy to do her part, so she sat back and made herself comfortable.

She watched the gentle rise and fall of Johnny’s chest as he slept. His breathing was still rasping and strained, but it was easier now than it had been. There was still a lot of pain on his face.

She searched his face for any similarity to Scott, but there was none to find. It was not surprising, of course, but it would have been reassuring for her.

The man was an enigma to her. She had found him so charming, so easy to like, and yet those people had been afraid of him. A killer – that’s what that silly woman had called him, and Harding had agreed.

The young man lying in the bed in front of her did not look like someone who could kill men for money. He looked little more than a boy, alone and vulnerable.  And yet his gun-belt hung on the coat rack just inside the door, suggesting something entirely different. 

He had strapped it on with such casual ease at the stage depot, and he had become different somehow. He had looked so comfortable wearing it, strapped low on his hip, with his spurs jingling and his hat pulled low over his face.

Even his walk had seemed to change. He had walked with an almost feline grace, and he had been checking out his surroundings warily, as though he were expecting trouble.

His smile had reassured her a little that day, but the change in him, just from strapping on that gun-belt had been bewildering.

But here were people, good people, who loved him and worried about him.

His daughter clearly adored him, but then she was too young to know anything more than that he was her father. At her age, that was enough. She would naturally trust him completely.

 Murdoch Lancer was his father and she thought it was understandable that his parental feelings would override anything else. He would also have a natural love for his son.

But Scott was nobody’s fool. He had always been a good judge of character. The blood relationship between them as brothers was not enough to account for the bond he obviously shared with Johnny. They had been two complete strangers when they had met only a few years ago, and now Scott was prepared to do anything to keep his brother alive.

The lengths to which Scott had gone, by the stagecoach on that dreadful day, had shocked her. Celeste still shuddered when she recalled them. She had never seen him driven by so much emotion. It spoke well for Johnny Lancer – or Madrid. Whoever he was, he had a relationship with Scott that she had never witnessed before.

But more important than anything else was Johnny’s own behavior. She had treated him badly, listening to the malicious gossip of strangers, instead of trusting her own instincts. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that she had seen disappointment in his eyes when she had turned away that day. She was well aware that she had hurt him.

And yet, when the crisis came, he had been prepared to protect her with his life.

Not for the first time, she wished that she had found another way out of her personal dilemma. She wished that she had never come running to Scott for help, like the silly schoolgirl she used to be. If she hadn’t, Johnny would not be here fighting for his life.

Celeste delicately squeezed his hand in hers, and was surprised by the faintest of answering movements. He responded by gripping her hand just a little tighter, and she found that she was the one who took comfort from it.

At least now she felt sure that she would have the chance to get to know him better. Maybe she could learn what it was about him that drew Scott so close to him. She still had a few weeks here at Lancer, thanks to Murdoch.

And no thanks to Scott Lancer. He had been angry enough to have put her back on the next coach out of Morro Coyo and would have packed her off to her parents to do with her what they will. She thought of all his talk about ‘propriety’ and ‘scandal’ and frowned with exasperation – well, she knew better.

He seemed to have forgotten what Boston Society ladies were like. Gossip was a whole way of life to some of them. He might not have been there for years, but she had been to balls, even recently, where the name Scott Lancer had evoked blushes and giggles from women who had been debutantes when he had last been in Boston.

Well, she had to admit that she could see why. Scott had been one of the most eligible young bachelors in town – charming, handsome and debonair, and with the Garrett wealth behind him. So, while husbands with pretty young wives had kept a close eye on him, there had been mothers all over Boston setting their sights on him as a most suitable young man for their debutante daughters.

And the daughters would have found nothing wrong with the idea, money or no money. Scott Lancer had had delicate young hearts fluttering.

Her own mother had considered it even when she was still in the schoolroom. Margaret Duval had plotted that connection for years, only to have her plans crushed when he left to come west to California. That was when she had turned her attention elsewhere in her search for a good ‘catch’ for her daughter.

Remembering those early plans, Celeste had had an idea of how to keep her mother from ruining her plans now. She only needed eight weeks. She had to keep her mother at bay for just long enough to gain the protection of her twenty-first birthday, and her grandfather’s return from France.

Her carefully worded wire to her parents had been followed by an answer yesterday. Her ploy had worked. Her mother had ‘read between the lines’ of her message and was happy for her to stay for the time being. Even the arranged engagement to Rupert Foxworth had been shelved for now.

She could see her mother plotting already, and she smiled. After all, Scott would be Harlan Garrett’s heir – a rich man one day, and not entirely unsuitable for their daughter!

Maybe Scott could get her out of this mess yet, whether he liked it or not!




            Scott stretched his long legs out and moved in his chair to get more comfortable. He’d been sitting in it for a couple of hours now, and the hard wooden seat had numbed parts of his anatomy that protested loudly. The chair creaked loudly in the silence of the room and Johnny’s eyes fluttered open.

 I thought you were asleep,” Scott told him gently.

 Johnny’s reply was so quiet it was barely more than a breath. “No.”

 Scott had stood by while Dr Jenkins had changed Johnny’s bandages and poked and prodded and lectured him. Johnny had borne it stoically, without a word of protest. It was far from his typical reactions to such treatment and that, in itself, was cause for concern. Only exhaustion would stop Johnny from complaining of Sam’s examination.

 But Scott had seen the pain on his face and the way he had bitten his lip was an indication of the distress he was in. He had been exhausted by the ordeal and had drifted off to sleep soon after Sam had left.

 "I’ll get you some water,” Scott said now, as he stood up and poured a glass from the jug, but when he turned back to his brother, there was a frown and a distrusting expression on Johnny’s face.

 “No thanks,” Johnny answered, as vehemently as he could manage, closing his eyes as if that was an end to the discussion.

 “Why ever not?” Scott asked, surprised. “Doc says you have to drink lots of the stuff.”

 He leant forward and lifted Johnny’s head to the glass, but Johnny tried again to protest, this time moving his head to the side and trying to push his brother’s hand away.

 “No…” he whispered, but he didn’t have enough strength to fight his brother. The pain that stabbed him in his chest was too much to bear. Despite his best efforts, he gasped aloud, and found his breath would not come.

 Johnny’s body went rigid with shock as he fought for air.

 Scott saw it happen. Trying not to panic himself, he quickly put down the glass and put his hands firmly on his brother’s shoulders. He held him reassuringly and demanded his attention.

 “Listen to me, Johnny,” he said compellingly, but Johnny’s eyes were closed tightly against the pain.  “Johnny, look at me.”

 “Look at me,” he repeated and waited a moment until Johnny’s eyes finally opened and locked on his own. “All right, now calm down. Relax, don’t panic. Just breathe in and out nice and slowly,” he told him. “Come on, in and out, with me. Nice and slow.”

 Scott was appalled by the fear he saw in his brother’s eyes as he fought to control the pain in his chest when he tried to catch his breath. He watched and waited as Johnny slowly began to loosen up and return to a more comfortable rhythm of breathing. “That’s it, nice and slow,” Scott coaxed him gently.

 It had happened so unexpectedly that Scott couldn’t think what had caused it. “You okay now, Johnny?” he asked cautiously.

 His brother nodded wordlessly, concentrating on keeping his breathing steady. He could feel his heart racing, pounding in his chest so that he thought it was going to burst.

 “Okay,” Scott said gently. “Just take it easy then. You’re doing fine now.”

 Johnny panted heavily and grimaced as he tried to get out the words that he had to say.

 “No…” was as far as he got before he found himself having to stop and concentrate harder.

 “No what?” Scott asked him carefully. “Water? That’s not smart. You need all you can keep down.”

 Johnny slowly and determinedly shook his head. He frowned and tried hard to focus on the words.

 “No… no laud…”

 Understanding finally dawned on Scott.

 “There’s nothing in it, Johnny. I promise you, no laudanum this time,” he assured him. He watched his brother slowly begin to relax and waited for him to settle completely before continuing.

 “You all right now?” he asked his brother. He hadn’t liked the fear he had seen in Johnny’s eyes while he fought for breath, and he fervently hoped that his own fear had not been evident to Johnny.

 He got the slightest of nods for an answer and heaved a sigh of relief. Johnny was still panting with the exertion, but he seemed to have settled into a regular breathing pattern. Picking up the cloth on the table, he wet it thoroughly and washed the beads of sweat from his brother’s face and neck.

 Scott decided to try again. He had to get Johnny’s trust back, so, putting down the cloth, he picked up the glass again and lifted his brother’s head gently from the pillows.

 “Come on, brother. It’s just plain old water, now drink it.”

 This time, Johnny swallowed a few mouthfuls. He watched Scott the whole time, looking for reassurance, and Scott maintained a firm hold of him.

 “That’s better,” Scott said, taking the glass away and putting it down on the bedside table.

 He lowered Johnny back onto the pillows and watched him close his eyes and re-gather what strength he could.

 “Now that,” Scott told him resolutely, “is why Sam’s giving you the laudanum in the first place. You might not like it, Johnny, but for now, you need it. You have to trust us to know what’s good for you. Don’t fight us.”

 Johnny opened his eyes again. Sapphire blue eyes stared intently into gray-blue, as the two of them came to an unspoken understanding.

 “Trust us, okay?” Scott told him firmly.

 Johnny nodded silently and visibly relaxed.

 Scott sat down and brought the chair as close as he could to the bed. He leaned forward to be heard easily.

 “Look, Johnny, I don’t know how much you remember of the day you were shot….”

 “I remember it,” Johnny said evenly and very quietly, but with confidence enough to convince Scott that he did remember it all clearly. He looked into Scott’s eyes. “Jed?”

 It took Scott a moment to grasp that he was asking about the driver. He was almost ashamed to realize that, in his concern for Johnny, he had given little thought to Jed.

 Scott sighed. “He’s dead, Johnny. So was the guard.”

 Johnny closed his eyes momentarily. “…’Fraid o’ that.”

 “Yes, well, those men will be caught, Johnny. I intend to see to that. They’ll pay for what they did.”

 Johnny stared at his brother, searching his face for something he hoped he wouldn’t find. There was a hard quality in those words that he found disturbing. He’d heard them before, from other men. He’d even said them himself more times than he could count, but Scott was not normally a man given to wanting retribution and it bothered him.

 Scott looked hard at him. “Johnny, about…about what happened that day. I…I did what I thought I had to do,” he told him. “I couldn’t let you just give up.”

 “I know...”

 “I…was afraid that …” He let the thought waft away, realizing it was, perhaps, better left unsaid.

 Johnny tried to smile, but he was only partly successful. It was a lop-sided wisp of a smile, and his eyes expressed it more eloquently than his face could manage.

 “What did ya think I’d do?” he whispered breathlessly, and then took a moment to regather enough strength to continue. “Come after you or somethin’?”

 Scott smiled. “I guess I wasn’t really sure.”

 “No,” Johnny replied weakly. “It’s okay…you did good…thanks.”

 Scott’s relief was overwhelming. He’d been afraid that he had jeopardized his whole relationship with Johnny to keep him alive that day. He didn’t regret doing it, but he’d been worried that Johnny would never forgive him.

 He didn’t get a chance to express his relief. Neither of them had noticed Celeste at the open door so she stepped forward to knock and interrupt them.

 “Excuse me,” they heard her whisper. “Scott, you’re wanted downstairs.”

 Scott glanced at her, taken by surprise, and then turned back to his brother. He knew Murdoch would not send for him unless it was something he considered important, so he slowly pushed the chair back and stood up.

 “I’ll be back soon, Johnny,” he assured him. “Behave yourself for Celeste.”

 He stopped as he passed her at the doorway. “What’s happening?” he asked her quietly.

 “Sheriff Crawford is back,” she explained, just as quietly. She didn’t want Johnny to hear anything. “He and Mr. Cipriano are downstairs with your father.”

 “All right. Will you stay with Johnny for me?”

 “Of course.”

“Thank you,” he answered, looking back at Johnny before finally leaving him in her care. “Watch him close and don’t let him get excited. He’s already had one bad turn. Couldn’t catch his breath.”

 “Don’t worry. I’ll call you if I need you.”

 He nodded and left. She watched him go and then walked slowly over to the chair he had been sitting in and took his place at his brother’s side.

 Johnny looked more alert than she had seen him for days, but he was pale and drawn. His eyes were sunken in his gaunt face and had black rings of exhaustion around them. His hair had lost its luster and hung limp and wet over his eyes.

 She pulled the chair closer and then reached forward and brushed his hair aside, smiling brightly.

 “There that’s better. Now I can see those eyes of yours properly. You’re certainly looking better, though I don’t suppose you think so.”

 “I’ve been better,” he answered faintly.

 “I heard what you said to Scott just now,” she admitted frankly. “I want to thank you. He’s been agonizing over what he said for days. He needed to hear it.”

 “He worries…” Johnny sighed.

 “Yes, well, everyone was worried about you.”

 A hint of a smile lit his eyes. “You too?”

 She smiled again and nervously clenched her hands and rested them on the bed by his side. “Yes, me too,” she confessed. “After all, you did get hurt because of me.”

 Johnny carefully edged his hand close to hers and took hold of them tightly. “No,” he said, as forcefully as he could. “Not your fault…just happened.”

 “No, Johnny,” she said quietly, tears filling her eyes as she remembered it all in minute detail. “If I hadn’t been there…if I hadn’t …”

 He squeezed her hands harder and looked her squarely in the eyes. “No…you helped me…you stayed…no ‘ifs’.”

 She pulled one hand away from him and wiped away the menacing tears with the back of her hand.

 “All right. No ‘ifs’, but no more talk from you either. You need to rest, and Scott will never forgive me when he comes back and finds you exhausted.”




Down in the Great Room, Scott found Murdoch and Teresa already talking to Val and Cipriano. The two newcomers looked the worse for wear – dusty and trail-worn. Each of them held a glass of whisky in his hand, and neither of them looked very happy.

“Howdy Scott,” Val greeted him as he came into the room. There was no welcoming smile with the greeting and Scott’s hopes began to fall.

“Murdoch, we’d better send for Dr. Jenkins. Johnny had trouble catching his breath just now,” Scott told him anxiously, ignoring the other men in the room for the time being. He had a feeling he knew what they would tell him, and he could feel himself getting angry already.

“Is he all right now?” Teresa asked anxiously.

Scott nodded. “Yes, he got excited when he thought I was giving him laudanum, but he’s calmed down and he’s breathing okay now.”

“Sam said it might happen,” Murdoch replied, relieved for the moment. “Jose, will you send one of the men into town to get Doc Jenkins, por favor?”

“Si, Senor,” Cipriano agreed and put the glass down ready to go, but Scott stopped him.

“No, wait. Val, Cipriano, did you catch up with them?” he asked anxiously.

Murdoch spoke before they could answer. “Scott, it was a long-shot from the beginning.”

Scott ignored him and asked again. “Did you find them?”

“Nope,” Val told him straight. “We didn’t find ‘em. Not a sign of ‘em.”

“Then what are you doing back here?” Scott demanded. “Why aren’t you still trailing them?”

“’Cos there ain’t no trail, Scott,” Val replied patiently. “We looked all over them hills and there just ain’t no sign of ‘em.”

“So you just gave up and let them get away with it,” Scott sneered angrily.

“That’s enough Scott,” his father ordered. “You’re out of line.”

“No Murdoch, those bastards are getting away with murder. They killed two men and it’s only a miracle that saved Johnny from being the third.”

“Scott, no one wants ‘em more than me,” Val said vehemently. “He might be your brother, but he’s been my friend for a lot o’ years. We checked every pass an’ every trail Cipriano knew. We found a couple of tracks once, but they disappeared in the hills. It’s all rock and shale up there, Scott. We couldn’t find hide or hair of ‘em.”

“Si, Senor Scott. You must know I would never give up unless there was nothing else left to try,” Cipriano told him.

“Just wasn’t anything to find, Scott,” Val assured him.

“So you gave up!”

“Scott, that’s not fair,” Teresa accused him from across the room. “They’ve been out looking for two days with no tracks to follow. They’re exhausted, look at them. You can’t really believe that they haven’t done their best.”

“What isn’t fair is that Johnny’s upstairs fighting just to catch his breath and they’ve gotten away with it,” Scott fumed.

“Not yet, they ain’t, Scott,” Val told him, furious, but trying his damnedest not to let Scott’s anger get under his skin. “I’m puttin’ the word out to every Sheriff and Marshall from here to Mexico an’ every county in the state if I have to.”

“If you think a reward will help, Val,” Murdoch suggested. “I’ll put up $5000 right now.”

The Sheriff looked dubious. “I ain’t too fond o’ personal bounties, Murdoch. They can do more harm than good. Too many false leads to waste time on. Let me get the word out first an’ if that don’t work, well, you put your reward out there.”

“All right Val, if that’s what you think, I’ll leave it in your hands for now,” Murdoch relented. He well knew what harm personal bounties could do. Johnny’s own name was on a couple of them.

“Well, I’m not going to leave it at that,” Scott told them all furiously. “I’ll go after them myself. Johnny doesn’t need me now.”

“Don’t be a fool, Scott,” his father retorted angrily. “Where will you start looking? You have no more to go on than Val does.”

“Maybe not, but I’m not just sitting around waiting for them to give themselves up.”

On that note, he stormed out of the house, and disappeared from their sight into the courtyard.

“I’ll go after him, Murdoch,” Teresa said quietly and she followed in the direction he had taken. She wasn’t sure what she would say to him, but she knew that he needed someone to talk to rationally.

“I’m real sorry, Murdoch,” Val told him. “Wish I coulda found somethin’.”

“You did all you could, Val,” he answered. “I’m grateful to both of you for what you tried to do.” He turned to Cipriano. “Jose, Scott is just upset. He knows you’ve done your best.”

“Si, Patron, entiendo. I wish we could have done more, Senor,” Cipriano answered. “If you will excuse me, por favor, I will go now. I will send for el Medico.”

“Certainly, Jose. Muchas gracias,” Murdoch thanked him again and watched him take his leave.

Murdoch and Val Crawford looked at each other uncomfortably, but eventually Murdoch was the one to break the silence.

“There’s not really much hope is there, Val?” he said unhappily.

“No, there ain’t,” Val admitted and tossed his hat onto the couch in frustration. “An’ I gotta say, I don’t like it any more’n Scott does.”

Murdoch sighed. “I know. I don’t like it either. Scott will calm down eventually. He’ll see that you’ve done all you could.”

“Just ain’t enough though, is it?” Val replied forlornly.

He didn’t wait for an answer, asking instead, “How is Johnny doin’?”

Murdoch’s mood brightened a little. “Dr. Jenkins is not giving us any guarantees yet, but Johnny’s doing much better. Why don’t you go up and see for yourself?”

“I’d kinda like that if you don’t mind, Murdoch,” Val answered.

“Go on up now then, Val. You know where his room is.”

“Yep, an’ thanks,” the Sheriff said quietly and went up the stairs to Johnny’s room.




He found the door open and looked inside before making himself known.

Dr. Jenkins might be happy that Johnny was improving, but it sure didn’t look like any such thing to Val. He looked just about the same as the last time he had seen him, propped up in the bed by pillows, with his head tilted back against them, apparently sleeping.

His face was still ashen and there were dark circles around his eyes. He looked even thinner than he had the other day, but at least his breathing sounded easier. Val had been able to hear that thin rasping breath all the way from the doorway when he visited last.

He recognized the girl sitting with him as the pretty young thing he had met when he was last here. He still had no idea where she’d come from or what she was doing here, but if she was helping Johnny, then that was all he needed to know.

Besides, she was a real sight for sore eyes.

The girl at Johnny’s side looked up and said quietly, “It’s all right Sheriff Crawford. Come on in.”

At that, Johnny opened his eyes and turned his head slightly towards the doorway.

“Val,” he said softly. “Come in.”

Val walked awkwardly into the room and stood at the side of the bed closest to the door, running his fingers nervously around the brim of his beaten old hat.

He grinned clumsily. “Well, look at you, buddy. Here’s me, chasin’ my tail around them hills an’ I find you sittin’ here holding hands with a pretty gal. Thought you was supposed to be sick or somethin’?”

“Good to see you too, Val,” he murmured with an attempt at a smile.

Celeste smiled gratefully at Val. “Would you like to sit down here, Sheriff? I can come back later.”

“Oh no, ma’am. You stay right there,” he replied gauchely.

“Where you been?” Johnny asked him quietly.

Val shifted his feet awkwardly. “Been out lookin’ for them bandits,” he explained. “The first posse got ‘emselves cornered, so Cipriano an’ me thought we’d see if we could find ‘em.”

“You didn’t find ‘em, did ya, Val?” Johnny said, bringing him right to the point.

Val sighed heavily. “I’ll tell ya straight, John. No, we didn’t find ‘em. Searched every trail your man Cipriano knew, an’ that was some I c’n tell you, but not a sign of ‘em.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” Johnny told him quietly. “It don’t matter to me.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them, as though something important had suddenly occurred to him. “How’d Scott take it?”

“Oh, he’s madder th’n hell,” Val told him, and then blushed sweetly, remembering his company. “Sorry ma’am, but he’s sure plenty mad at the moment.”

Involuntarily, Johnny’s hand squeezed Celeste’s harder. She looked intently at him and didn’t like the consternation on his face.

“I’ll go and talk to him, Johnny,” she suggested, worried that he was getting upset.

“No need, ma’am,” Val told her, “Teresa’s with him, doin’ that right now.”

“Val, don’t let him do anythin’ stupid,” Johnny demanded urgently, raising his head to press the point. “Don’t let him go after them alone.”

Val Crawford looked crestfallen. “’Course not, Johnny. Murdoch an’ me ain’t gonna let him go an’ do a fool thing like that.”

“Arrest him if you have to Val. Just don’t let him…”

He gasped as he lost his breath again and pain shot through his chest as he fought to regain control.  His eyes closed tightly and his chin dropped as he clutched at his chest with his right arm, holding tightly to Celeste’s hand with the other.

“Johnny!” Celeste exclaimed and stood up quickly at his side. His hand was like a vice on hers and she pressed hard to reassure him. With her free hand pressing his shoulder, she whispered encouragement to him as he threw himself back against the pillows and writhed in pain.

“Johnny, you have to stay still. You’ll make it worse. Just calm down and relax. Come on, calm down. Take it easy.”

Val quickly sat on the bed and pinned Johnny’s shoulders to the pillows. “Come on John, do like the lady says. Just relax an’ take it easy,” he coaxed, taking his lead from the girl, and holding him down.

“Johnny,” Celeste said softly, and melodically, taking her hand from his shoulder now that Val had hold of him. She ran the back of her hand softly down his cheek, just as she had when she had lulled him to sleep once before and repeated her advice.

“Calm down and breathe slowly, Johnny. You can do it. Take a deep breath and then let it out slowly.”

Johnny’s eyes locked on hers. They seemed to be a deeper blue than usual, and the terror in them almost took her own breath away. She held tightly to his hand and said again, “Take a deep breath, Johnny. You can do it.”

Finally he was able to take that long cleansing breath. His chest heaved as he held it for a moment and then slowly let it out.

“That’s right Johnny, now again,” she encouraged him gently.

Slowly he repeated the process. It hurt his chest more than he thought he could bear but he began to find some rhythm. The fear faded from his eyes as he panted with exhaustion - shallow, but regular breaths. He clung to Celeste’s hand and laid back against the pillows in defeat.

She picked up the damp towel near the basin and gently wiped away the perspiration from his face and forehead.  He looked into her eyes again briefly and then closed his eyes as his head seemed to sink deeper into the pillow as he relaxed.

“Johnny,” she whispered. “Is this what happened when Scott was with you?”

Johnny nodded silently, too spent to find the words.

“It’s all right. It’s over now, Johnny,” she crooned softly to him. “Just rest.”

“Are you all right now, Johnny?” Val asked and Celeste turned to look at him. His face was nearly as white as Johnny’s was as he lifted his hands from his friend’s shoulders.

A vague nod was all the reply he got from Johnny.

“I think we should let him sleep now, Sheriff,” she told him and he nodded.

“Sure,” he agreed, but he didn’t get up from the bed right away. She didn’t hurry him. She could see how shocked he was and gave him time to recover from it.

“Sheriff, can you do me a small favor when you go downstairs and ask Murdoch to send for Dr. Jenkins if he hasn’t already? I think he should check Johnny over again.”

Val nodded again, and then appeared to shake himself back into the present.

“Sure, ma’am. You stay right here and look after him,” he said faintly. Then he lightly put his hand back on Johnny’s shoulder. “An’ don’t you worry, buddy,” he added. “No one’s got no intention o’ letting Scott do anything dumb. If I have to, I’ll lock him up an’ throw away the key. So you just rest an’ don’t go gettin’ all het up about it. Okay?”

“Yeah,” Johnny finally managed to say through his panting breaths. “Thanks Val.”

“De nada, Johnny boy,” Val assured him. “Now you just lay here an’ get yourself well.” He grinned and winked at his friend. “The things some fella’s will do to get a pretty gal’s attention.”

Johnny managed a smile that was broader than he’d managed for quite a while, but he didn’t answer.

Val gave Celeste an anguished look and then stood up and, with one last glance over his shoulder to reassure himself, left his friend in Celeste’s care.  


  “Breathe in, Johnny,” Celeste insisted patiently, watching him wince as he drew in his breath and held it. “Good, now let it out slowly.”

  “There’s gotta be somethin’ better you’ve got to do with your day,” he grumbled as he let the air out of his lungs. 

  Celeste smiled. “Not really. Now again, in and then out, and deeper this time.”

  “Feels kinda silly,” he complained, and not for the first time. Now that he was beginning to feel better, he was making sure that everyone knew it. He was already tired of being tied to a bed.

  “Well, if you ever want to get out of that bed, you’ll do it anyway. You have to build up some strength in your lung. Dr. Jenkins said that you have to do it, otherwise you’ll never stop those attacks you’ve been having,” she told him determinedly. “Besides, Dr. Jenkins said that you can sit by the window this afternoon for a while – if you do as you’re told. And that means doing this.”

  “I’d rather go downstairs.”

  “I’m sure you would, but you’re not allowed to,” she insisted firmly, being careful to hide the smile that tickled at the corners of her mouth. “Now breathe in like I said, or you won’t even get as far as the window.”

  “I think you’re enjoying this,” he smiled, and his deep blue eyes lit up with mischief as they hadn’t done since the day he’d been shot.

  Celeste was delighted to see that light in his eyes again, but she didn’t give in to his charms. Teresa had warned her that he would try that to get his own way.

  “Immensely,” she smiled back at him, and then added audaciously, “Now breathe in.”

  With a sigh, he surrendered to the breathing exercises that Sam Jenkins had insisted on. He winced again as his broken rib pulled and the stitches in his chest strained.

 At least that damned drain is gone!” he told himself.

  Teresa tapped on the open door to get their attention, then walked in and joined them.

  “How’s he doing?” she asked Celeste cheerfully.

  Johnny groaned as he saw what she carried with her. “Buttermilk!”

  “Doctor’s orders, Johnny,” she told him and laughed at the disgusted expression on his face.

  “Why don’t we get you over into the chair first?” Celeste suggested.

  It was a suggestion that Johnny happily agreed with. The idea of finally getting out of bed was a relief.

  He threw back the covers quickly, then barely suppressed a groan as the sudden movement tugged at the stitches in his chest and reminded him all too readily of the broken rib as well. He swung his legs around to put them on the floor for the first time in a week, only to have Celeste put her hand under his arm to support him.

  “I can make it,” he told her, glaring at her and trying to shake her off.

  “Maybe,” she admitted patronizingly, smiling amiably at him, and maintaining her hold of his arm nevertheless. “But you don’t have to. Now come on, before we change our minds and make you stay where you are.”

  He got to his feet, the hem of his nightshirt falling to cover his knees, and was mutely grateful for her support as the room spun dizzily around him. He swayed a little, but stayed on his feet and after taking a moment to let the room come to a stop, he made his way the few steps needed to get to the easy chair over by the window and sit down.

  The short trip took more out of him than he cared to admit, and he leaned back wearily, catching his breath and trying to ignore the anvil that seemed to be sitting heavily on his chest.

  Teresa watched Celeste take an Indian blanket from the end of the bed and throw it over his legs, tucking it around him fussily. She had to admire the way the girl handled Johnny. His protests seemed to fall on deaf ears, and his charms had failed him every time. She seemed to have a ready answer to all his complaints and always ended up getting her way. Yet, she did it with a smile and he didn’t lose his temper with her.

  Over the last couple of days, as Johnny’s condition had steadily improved, the ranch had started to return to its normal routine. Scott had been out doing his usual chores, and sitting with his brother when he finished each day. Maddie was back at school, coming in as soon as she got home to tell him all about her day. And Murdoch was back at his books, but dropping in whenever the mood took him.

  Teresa had been unwilling, at first, to yield her care of Johnny to Celeste, even for short periods of time. It had always been her task to look after her men when they were hurt, and she jealously guarded them. But Celeste’s presence in the house, and her eagerness to help, seemed foolish to pass up, particularly as the time had dragged by and exhaustion had set in on all of them.

  And she had to admit that Celeste certainly had a way with her patient.  With the Lancer household to run as well, she had ceded a lot of the care of him to Celeste, and Johnny didn’t seem to mind at all. That had been the deciding factor.

  At first, as he had became more aware of what was going on around him, he had been embarrassed to have her in his bedroom. He barely knew the girl, and having her in the bedroom left him self-conscious and complaining. Teresa had found him exactly the same when she had nursed him after Day Pardee had put a bullet in his back. He didn’t like to be fussed over.

  But Celeste had laughed off his embarrassment and she was even able to coax him into doing all the exercises that Dr. Jenkins had ordered – no easy task.

  Teresa walked over and handed the glass of milk to him.

  “Thanks,” he said as he put it down on the small table beside the chair. “I’ll drink it later.”

  “Oh no you don’t, Johnny Lancer,” Teresa declared, her hands on her hips and a glowering frown on her face. “I know that one. You drink it right now while I can watch you.”

  Johnny looked from her to the sweet smile on Celeste’s face, a smile he had learned to interpret as iron determination, and felt cornered.

  “Outnumbered, son?” Murdoch laughed from the doorway.

  “Oh boy, Murdoch, a little help’d go a long way,” Johnny told him, looking over to see him grinning as he leaned against the door frame. “Can’t you call ‘em off?”

  “I don’t think so. I’d do as I was told, if I were you."

  “Exactly,” Teresa persisted and picked the glass back up and handed it to Johnny.

  “What I wouldn’t give for a minute of peace!” he grumbled. Then, with a sigh, he surrendered, again.  “Salud!” he said quickly and drank the milk while they hovered over him to make sure he finished it.

  “Happy now?” he asked ironically, handing the empty glass back to Teresa.

  She smiled. “Yes, thank you,” she told him sweetly. “It wasn’t so bad, was it?”

  He scowled at her in reply and she laughed and left.

  Murdoch came in and sat on the end of the bed facing him. “It’s good to see you up and around, Johnny,” he told him, looking him over critically. He looked pale again, but getting out of bed for the first time in nearly two weeks would be good reason for that. He was thin and drawn, but over-all, Murdoch could see a lot of improvement in his condition.

  “I’m not exactly ‘up and around’ Murdoch,” he complained. “If you’d let me stretch my legs a little…”

  “One step at a time, Johnny. Sam knows what’s best.”

  Johnny looked longingly out of the window. The corral, the bunkhouse and the yard all seemed to be calling to him. He hated lying around.

  Frustration crept into his voice. “I’m fine, Murdoch. I just need to start doin’ somethin’.”

   “There’s no reason to rush it, son,” Murdoch persisted. “You had a close call, and you know it. You need time to recover. Don’t fight everyone. Just take things slow and you’ll be back on your feet before you know it.”

  He stood up to take his leave and he turned to Celeste and smiled.

  “Don’t turn your back on him, Celeste. He’ll do something foolish if you do.”

  She flashed that smile at Murdoch, the same one that Johnny had already learned to recognize. “I’ll watch him, Murdoch. Don’t worry.”

  Watching her turn that smile on his son, and Johnny’s discouraged reaction, Murdoch had every confidence in her ability to do just that, and he left her in charge happy knowing it.

  Left alone, Johnny watched her tidy the bed and start fluffing the pillows back into shape. He was beginning to feel some discomfort. The easy chair had a straight back and his chest was already weighing heavily on him. The broken rib was making breathing painful.

  “So, was Scott surprised to see you?” he asked her, tiring of the uncomfortable silence in the room. “When you first got here, I mean.”

  “Oh yes,” she laughed, but she didn’t elaborate.

  “An’ do you think he’s changed?”

  “Yes, he’s changed,” she said wistfully, fluffing the pillow absently. “But I like the changes.”

  Johnny saw the faraway look in her eyes and smiled. “He ain’t the dandy he was when he first came here, that’s for sure.”

  “Scott was never a ‘dandy’,” she declared fervently, rearing up and reminding him of a mother bear protecting her cub. “He was debonair, and charming. In fact, if you must know, he was quite the most sought after young man in Boston.” She looked back into her memory to continue. “He had a way of tilting his hat, just so,” she said and put her hands on her head to mimic Scott’s habit. “And he would slip his cane under his arm and sort of swagger down the street.”

  “Sounds cute. An’ I bet the ladies just adored him,” Johnny teased mischievously.

  She smiled happily. “As a matter of fact, they did,” she assured him. “Between you and me, they miss him terribly. They still talk about him at balls. He’s a wonderful dancer you know.”

  “I know, I know,” he grinned. “The girls here think the same. They all wanta dance with Boston.”

  She eyed him suspiciously. “And they want nothing to do with you, am I right?” she teased.

  “I don’t dance much. Never learned.”

  She smiled impishly. “I rather doubt that that would hold you back.”

  Johnny laughed and had to grab his chest where his broken rib ached. “Well, what’s so different about him now?”

  She sat down on the bed to ponder the question. “He’s a little rougher around the edges, and tanned, I suppose, and he’s broader than he used to be.”

  “You mean we’ve fattened him up some,” he intrepreted for her with a cheeky grin. “That’s Teresa and Maria’s good cookin’.  Best pies in California.”

  Celeste scowled. “No, that is not what I said,” she declared. “But he’s certainly filled out a little.”

“I gotcha,” Johnny smirked, teasingly. “All those new muscles he didn’t know he had. That’s cos he does a full day’s work nowadays.”

She stood up and frowned at him. “Do you want me to answer your question or not?”

“Sure I do,” he smiled. “So, what else?”

“Well, he doesn’t dress as fastidiously as he used to.”

“If fastidious means fancy, then you’re right about that. We got him out o’ those back east clothes just as soon as we could.”

She scowled at him. “I will have you know that Scott has always had excellent taste in clothes, Johnny Lancer,” she told him defensively.

Johnny laughed again, and winced. Even through the pain the thought ran through his head that this girl had it real bad for his big brother. He almost envied him.

“Oh, I agree,” he told her sheepishly. “We just don’t let him wear plaid.”

She laughed. “You’re teasing me, Johnny, and I won’t have it. You’re supposed to be a sick man, remember?”

Johnny smiled merrily and watched her go back to her task of tidying the pillows on the bed.

Celeste moved the last of the pillows and cried out in surprise, “Johnny! What is this?”

He looked up to see her holding his spare pistol up by the butt, her thumb and forefinger delicately holding it away from her body.

He smiled. “Actually, it’s a Colt .45. An’ be careful how you put it back down.”

A look of horror crossed her face. “Do you mean it’s loaded?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be much use to me otherwise,” he retorted.

“You keep a loaded gun under your pillow? Isn’t that dangerous?”

She saw a strange bleak look in his eyes. “Old habits die hard,” he replied and looked out of the window, away from her. “Put it back. Carefully.”

Celeste eyed him speculatively. She wondered what he had meant by that remark, but his attitude suggested that it wasn’t the time to ask him about it. The merriment seemed to have left the room suddenly.

She placed it gently back where she had found it, and put the pillows back in their place. Looking back to Johnny, she saw him staring intently out of the window.

She walked over and took Murdoch’s position on the end of the bed.

“Johnny,” she said softly. “Those people at the stage depot that day, they told me you were a … a…”

“Let me guess,” he said grimly, not looking back to her, but still staring intently out of the window. “’A killer’? Or maybe ‘a gun hawk’? So what do you want to hear? That they were wrong?”

“I wish I had never listened to them,” she told him quietly. “You’re not like that at all.”

He swung around to face her and the ice in his eyes stunned her. “You think you know me? Well, you don’t! They weren’t lyin’, Celeste. Johnny Madrid - pistolero – that’s me,” he said brutally. “I hired out my gun just like they said.”

“But why?”

He smiled a strange hard smile, one that she barely recognized. “’Cos I was good at it.”

“I don’t understand,” she whispered.

‘An’ I don’t want to tell you,” he thought. ‘The past is past. Let it lie.’ 

But he found himself saying instead, “It was my way of survivin’. I was fast, an’ I set out to get myself a reputation. Well, I got one, an’ it makes me a dangerous man to be ‘round, Celeste. Remember that.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute, Johnny.”

“Why? ‘Cos right now I’m helpless? Well, one of these days I won’t be. An’ you know what’ll be the first thing I’ll have to do? I’ll have to get back into practicin’ my draw. Just in case someone comes lookin’ to build themselves a reputation by takin’ me out. Or maybe an old ‘friend’ll’ drop by an’ wanta get at me by hurtin’ Scott, or Teresa or Maddie or even you.”

His vehemence was sapping his energy, and he leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.

“It ain’t safe to be ‘round me, Celeste. Please, don’t get too close. People get hurt if they get too close - just ask Scott.”

She saw all the signs she had come to recognize when he was exhausted. Perspiration dotted his forehead, and his color had paled significantly. He had turned his head and was staring out of the window again at nothing in particular, and she noticed the frown on his brow, so obviously trying to hide discomfort.

The ice had gone out of his eyes, and he looked anything but dangerous at the moment. More than anything, though, her heart broke for the pain in his voice – not a physical pain this time, but pain nonetheless.

“Well, you might be a dangerous man sometimes Johnny, but right now, you look like you should be back in bed,” she told him calmly. “Come on, I’ll help you up.”

“No, leave me for a while, will you? I just want to sit here for a bit.”

“No, you’re going back to bed now,” she persisted and lifted his arm just enough to force him to get to his feet.

He was unsteady and reached out to grab hold of the window frame to right himself, so she wrapped her arm around his back to support him.

Slowly she walked him back to the bed and he lay back on the pillows without a word, while she pulled the blankets around him. She wet a cloth in the basin of water by the bed and wiped the sweat from his face gently.

“Don’t get any illusions about me, Celeste. I wasn’t no hero riding off to rescue no maidens in distress or anything like that.” He looked into her eyes and said, coldly, “It was kill or be killed, an’ that’s all.”

She met his eyes coolly. “Maybe so, but it wasn’t ‘kill or be killed’ when you helped me at that stagecoach. I don’t care who or what Johnny Madrid was. I do care about Johnny Lancer. And there are a lot of other people who do too.”


Part Two Part Three

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