Part Two

by  Ros


“Well, you look a little more presentable,” Scott said, grinning and stepping back from his brother to look over his handiwork.

Shaved and dressed, Johnny felt more human, though he’d suffered the indignity of needing his brother to help him dress and he’d been alarmed at how many notches he had had to pull his belt in.

Scott noticed the way he was fidgeting with the belt, and guessed the reason. “In a week or so, you’ll have to let that back out again, little brother. Teresa and Maria are already planning how to fatten you up.”

“Yeah, kinda scrawny, ain’t I?”

Johnny sat on the side of the bed and leaned forward to look underneath it for his boots. “Where the hell are my boots?” he finally demanded in frustration, sitting back up straight and looking around the room.

“You’re only going downstairs. You don’t need them anyway.”

“Hey, Boston, I ain’t goin’ nowhere without my boots,” he growled.

Scott shook his head, checked the closet and pulled out the missing footwear. “Here,” he showed him, carrying them over to his brother and helping him pull them on. “Now settle down. The way you’re going, you won’t even get downstairs. You’ll use up all that energy you’re so determined you have and end up right back in that bed.”

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me gettin’ outa this room, brother,” he declared with certainty.

“I guess not. How’s that rib?” Scott asked him.

“Just fine. Doc strapped it up real good,” Johnny answered with a scowl. “Now quit fussin’ will you? You’re like a mother hen.”

There was a light knock on the door, and then they heard a soft voice ask, “Can I come in?”

“Sure Celeste,” Scott answered for both of them. “Come on in.” As she opened the door and entered the room, he added, “What do you think?”

He stood aside, so that she could see Johnny clearly. He was pale, and the dark circles around his eyes emphasised just how thin his face was. He still looked sick, but there was a spark of animation about him that had been growing persistently since the moment that Dr. Jenkins relented and told him he could try spending a day on the couch downstairs.

The stronger he became, the more irritable he had become, cooped up for days on end in his room. They’d all tried to entertain him. Celeste and Teresa had read to him. Jelly had sat with him, telling him endless anecdotes about what was going on around the ranch.

Maddie had played checkers with him till he thought he’d go mad, and talked his ear off to top it off. And Scott and Murdoch had played chess with him and tried to interest him in reading himself. But none of it had helped soothe his rapidly fraying temper.

He was bored and impatient to be back on his feet, and was constantly frustrated by his weakness and dizzy spells, not to mention the fact that drawing a deep breath or moving too suddenly still hurt like hell.

Celeste ignored the evidence of his illness and smiled and answered Scott. “I think he looks just fine,” she told them, and then added a stern warning. “But remember, Johnny, you only go as far as the couch.”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Another one,” he groaned.

“Another what?” she asked.

“Mother hen,” Scott informed her with a smile.

“Oh,” she said, swallowing a laugh and trying to maintain her severe expression. “Are you ready to go then?”


“Scott, can you help him up?”

“I don’t need no help,” Johnny told them irritably. “I can make it on my own.”

“Sure you can, right up to the moment when you fall flat on your face, brother,” Scott retorted testily. “Don’t be pig-headed.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny persisted curtly, and slowly pushed himself off the bed to his feet, secretly glad that this time the room did not spin.

“Scott, why don’t you go on ahead? I’ll go with him.”

Scott was ready to protest, but a look in her eyes suggested that she knew what she was doing, so he let it go.

“All right,” he said and left them alone.

Johnny followed him out of the room, with Celeste close behind, watching him critically all the way.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Celeste asked Johnny as they neared the top of the staircase. It suddenly looked like a long way down.  

"Yeah, I can do it."

  "All right. But I'll go down with you, and if you think you need it, take my arm," she told him firmly.

  He held the rail tight but the first step down jarred his rib unexpectedly and he winced painfully. He caught his breath, but stopped himself from grabbing at his chest with his spare hand. He was not going to let her see it and continued down more carefully. He'd been stuck in that room for way too long to let a little thing like a knife stabbing in his chest stop him now.

  Celeste stayed beside him, step by slow and painful step, watching him closely. She'd learned, from recent experience, just how stubborn the man was, and she wasn't at all confident that he would turn to her for help even if he needed it.

  By the time they neared the bottom of the stairs, Johnny’s face was white and he was breathing hard and sweating, so Celeste threw caution to the wind and took his arm to support him, answering his black look with a sweet but determined smile that dared him to refuse.



  Johnny stretched out on the couch, while Celeste brought over a blanket and tucked it in around him. He was too exhausted to protest at her fussing, and closed his eyes to re-gather his strength.

  When he opened them, he found himself the focus of attention from his whole family.

  “Thought you folks had a ranch to run,” he said crossly, and the frailty of his own voice annoyed him still more.

  “Johnny…” Celeste began, but Murdoch cut her off abruptly.

  “No, he’s right Celeste, and he needs to get some rest.” He grabbed his hat and turned to go outside. “Scott, are you coming?” he called from the doorway.

  “Be right there, Murdoch,” Johnny heard his brother reply as he followed him. Scott turned to take a last look at Johnny, not at all happy that he was leaving him. He knew his brother well enough to suspect he would disappear if they didn’t watch him like a hawk.

“Get outa here, Scott,” Johnny finally told him. “I’m not goin’ nowhere.”

He saw Scott’s hand gently placed on Celeste’s shoulder as he passed her - a light touch that hinted at familiarity. “Keep an eye on him for me, Celeste,” he said thoughtfully and she looked up and smiled at him. Scott added, with a mischievous grin at his brother, “Don’t let him do anything stupid.”  

“Of course,” she told him.

  Scott turned and left to go after his father, and Celeste’s eyes followed him out of sight, before turning back to Johnny.

  Johnny found himself looking into Celeste’s crystal blue eyes as she sat on the edge of the couch beside him.

  “You shouldn’t push them all away, Johnny,” she whispered to him, her voice soft and melodic. “They’re only worried about you.”

  Johnny sighed deeply, closing his eyes against the pain in his chest until it subsided to a more bearable level. Then he opened them again and found his temper had cooled. “I’m still getting used to it, I guess,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

  “I’m not the one you need to apologize to,” she told him gently but firmly.

  He found himself looking at her as he had that first day in San Francisco, before he knew anything about her, or who she was. She was strikingly beautiful all right, and a man could drown in those eyes, but now he knew she was a lot more than just a pretty face.

  She was like a rosebud, with a calyx of cast iron – soft, sweet and fragile with the first blush of morning and a suggestion of the blossom still to come, held together by the strength of her personality and a mind of her own.

   Johnny closed his eyes and leaned his head wearily back into the pillow.

  She was lovely.

  And she was Scott’s.


  Scott got outside to join Murdoch just in time to see Val Crawford dismount and tether his horse at the hitching rail in front of the house.

He wasn’t surprised to see him since Val had visited Johnny a couple times during the last week, but this time, he looked distracted. He looked like a man with something to tell them.

“It’s good to see you, Val,” Murdoch said, as he approached him. “What brings you out here this early in the day? You must have left Green River at day break.”

“That’s about right, Murdoch,” Val answered, dusting himself off and tipping his hat further back on his head. He looked gravely at them both before grinning and continuing. “I got some news. I think we got ‘em.”

“The men who shot Johnny!” Scott exclaimed.

Val put his hands on his hips and nodded. “Yeah, I reckon it’s them.”

“Where? How?” Scott demanded excitedly.

‘Whoa there Scott,” Val interrupted him. “It’s kind of a long story.”

“Come inside and tell us about it, Val,” Murdoch volunteered, but Scott leapt to stop them before they went anywhere.

“No, Murdoch. Johnny’s downstairs, remember. I don’t think he needs to hear any of this just yet,” he insisted. “Val, just tell us what’s happened, and then we’ll decide what we think Johnny should know.”

“Johnny’s downstairs?” Val asked. “He doin’ better then?”

“Much better thanks Val,” Murdoch answered quietly. “Now tell us what happened.”

“Well, I got a wire from the Sheriff of a little town called Blackwater, down south,” Val told them.

“I know of it,” Murdoch answered. “It’s about four days ride from here.”

“That’s it. McKendrick got the wire I sent out like I said I’d do. He’s an old friend o’ mine from way back an’ he took notice. So now he’s locked up three desperados down there that match the descriptions of our boys.”

“Those were pretty vague descriptions Val,” Murdoch said with a frown. “What makes him sure they’re the right men?”

Val shuffled his feet uncomfortably and looked away from them for a minute, unsure whether to say what he wanted to say.

Scott could see he had something more on his mind. “Spit it out, Val,” he told him decisively.

Val looked back to them and drew in a deep breath. “All right, they caught his attention ‘cos they were real drunk an’ one of ‘em was braggin’ real loud to anyone who would hear,” he told them uneasily.

"Bragging about what?” Scott asked him. There was a hint of aggression in his voice that the Sheriff didn’t like.

"Braggin' that he'd killed Johnny Madrid."

The three men were silent as they considered what he'd said. Val watched their reactions closely.

Murdoch paled and looked like he'd been kicked in the stomach, but Scott's fists were quickly balled up in rage.

It was just the reaction that Val Crawford had feared he’d get from Scott, and he waited for the inevitable explosion.

"He was bragging about it?" Scott exclaimed in fury.

“Yeah, well, he wanted to make a name for himself I guess,” Val told him, coolly. He felt a cold rage inside himself, but he stomped on it until he could control it. Losing his own temper was only going to inflame the situation now, and Scott was angry enough for all of them.

Besides, it was all just too close to being true. That bandit nearly had killed Johnny Madrid.

"What did he have to brag about? He didn't even draw down on him. Johnny wasn't armed. What sort of a reputation was that ever going to get him?” Scott demanded loudly.

Val Crawford sighed. "Yeah, well. You can bet he left that part outa the story," he said disgustedly.

Murdoch put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Settle down Scott,” he warned him quietly. “You said it yourself. Johnny is just inside. I don’t want him hearing you shouting.”

He turned back to Val. “So what happens now, Val?” Murdoch asked, hoping to distract Scott long enough for him to get his temper back.

“I'm on my way now to get ‘em an' bring 'em back for trial in Spanish Wells. I just thought you'd want to know ‘bout it before I left."

"You are?" Murdoch answered quickly. "Why you? It happened in Gabe’s county and that’s a long way from Green River."

"Gabe is still outa action after that hoedown in the foothills right after the stage was held up, Murdoch. He can't ride with that bad leg of his," Val explained. "An' there ain't no one in Spanish Wells to go in his place. So I'm goin'."

"Alone?" Scott asked. "With the three of them to bring back?"

Val grinned. "They'll be in chains, Scott. I can handle the three of 'em with my eyes closed."

“You won’t have a chance to close your eyes on the trail with them alone,” Murdoch told him firmly. “Take a couple of the men from here. There’ll be plenty who’ll volunteer if you ask them.”

Scott made a spontaneous decision. "I'll go with you," he told him quickly.

Val looked dubious about the suggestion, but Murdoch was first to respond to it. He definitely didn't like it. 

"No, son, I don't think that would be a good idea."

  "Why not?" Scott asked him. "It's a long way for one man to be alone with three killers."

"I agree," he answered calmly, "I just don't think that you should go. Maybe Val could..."

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't go with him," Scott demanded.

"You're too close to the situation, Scott," Murdoch told him frankly. "It's your brother who was shot."

"He's right, Scott," Val added. “Better if you stay here an’ let me handle it.”

"If I’m too close to it, then you shouldn't be going either. You said yourself that he might be my brother, but he's been your friend for years."

"That's different altogether," Murdoch said testily, his patience nearly at an end. "Val represents the law."

“That doesn’t make him any less human,” Scott persisted. “Val, are you telling me that you haven’t thought about what you’d like to do to them if you could get your hands on them?”

Crawford took off his hat and rubbed his hand through his already untidy hair. “Yeah,” he admitted, “I’ve thought about it. But I’m still the law, the only law ‘round here for now. That means it’s my job to bring ‘em back.”

He looked right into Scott’s eyes, and added, “It ain’t yours.”

“Besides, Scott,” Murdoch interrupted, trying to sound reasonable. “Johnny’s not back on his feet yet. He needs you here.”

“He doesn’t need me any more Murdoch. He’s doing just fine now.”

“What about the ranch then?” Murdoch continued. “I need you here.”

Scott stared at him furiously. "I'm going with him, Murdoch, and that's that."

"No!" Murdoch declared.

"No? What kind of an argument is that?"

"It's not an argument, Scott," he told him stonily. "It's an end to it. Johnny doesn't need to be worrying about you right now."

"You're afraid I can't look after myself, aren't you?" Scott flung back at him in a black rage.

Murdoch eyed him furiously. "No, that's not what I'm afraid of Scott," he retorted. "I'm well aware that you can look after yourself. But I don't want you anywhere near those men."


Val answered for Murdoch. "'Cos he don't want you hangin' for killin' 'em," he said flatly. "And he's right."

Scott stopped cold and stared at them. "I have no intention of killing any of them. All I want is justice for Johnny and for the men who were killed," he informed them, trying to keep a lid on his anger. "It's too far for one man to have to watch three, Val. I'm coming with you."

He turned and stalked into the house, going straight to his room to pack for the trip, and leaving Val alone with Murdoch.

"Johnny ain't gonna like this, Murdoch," Val commented, shaking his head to emphasize his point. "He ain't gonna like it one bit."

"I know, Val. But we'll have to tell him."




“Howdy Val," Johnny called across the room as his friend entered. "What brings you here?"

"Howdy John," Val replied jovially. “An’ why wouldn’t I come see ya?”

He walked across the room and took a place in a big comfortable chair facing his friend. "You're lookin' a whole lot better than the last time I saw you, buddy. Bein’ waited on hand an’ foot must agree with you."

Johnny smiled and then watched silently as Murdoch followed Val into the room and stood by the big fireplace.

His father looked like he had something unpleasant to say.  Johnny had seen that look too often not to know it. And Val’s cheeriness was just a little too hard to swallow. The grin on Val’s face looked like it had been painted on.

“Val, you two look like you’ve got something on your minds,” Johnny told them edgily.

He glanced from one to the other, frowning. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the way Scott just shot up those stairs, would it? You want to tell me what set his tail on fire?”

Val looked to Murdoch first, but the man gave him no sign that he was going to answer his son. He sighed deeply. It was going to be left up to him.

“Johnny, you reckon you’d recognize those men who held up the stage if you saw them again?” he asked, leaning forward and playing distractedly with the hat in his hand. He spun it around on his finger, then stopped it and ran his fingers around the battered edges.

“No, they had their faces covered the whole time,” Johnny told him frankly, watching his actions uneasily. “But I’d know the voices.”

“You sure?” Val asked, looking up at him and stopping his fidgeting.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Why?”

“I got a wire from George McKendrick, the sheriff in Blackwater. He’s a friend o’ mine. It sounds like maybe he’s caught the boys that shot you.

 I’m on my way to Blackwater, now. Gonna check ‘em out an’ if it looks like them, I’ll be bringing ‘em back here for trial.”

“Blackwater? That’s a long way off,” Johnny replied, frowning. “An’ why you?”

“’Cos Gabe’s still laid up, an’ I said I’d go.”

“So who are you taking with you? You’ve got someone to back you up haven’t you?”

“Well, there weren’t no one jumpin’ up to go along when I left Spanish Wells. They had enough o’ those boys the last time.”

“So you’re going alone? With the three of ‘em to watch?” Johnny asked apprehensively. “I didn’t think you were that big a fool, Val.”

Crawford glanced at Murdoch again, and sighed. “Well, that was my plan…”

“Was?” Johnny asked, curiously.

Val didn’t answer immediately.

Murdoch stood up straight and faced his son. He finally realized that it was unfair to lay all of this in Val’s hands.  “Johnny…”

“ Who…?” Johnny interrupted, but realization struck him almost immediately and he sat bolt upright, oblivious, for the moment at least, to the pain that stabbed at his chest.

“Oh no, not Scott. You’re not taking him with you, Val. You promised me.”

Val shook his head firmly and told him, “I promised you I wouldn’t let him go off on his own an’ he ain’t.

 Besides, he’s made up his mind an’ he ain’t listenin’ to any arguments. Your ol’ man an’ me already tried.”

“He’ll listen to me,” Johnny asserted angrily and threw back the blanket, trying to get up.

Val jumped forward and had only to grab his shoulders to stop him, but Johnny fought against him with all the strength he could summon. He struggled against Crawford’s powerful grip, making no headway at all.

“Let me go, Val,” he shouted furiously, a dark look in his eyes as he glared at his friend, and tried to fight past him.

Murdoch strode forward to help the Sheriff, but Val called him off. “I got him, Murdoch. He ain’t got the strength of a newborn cat,” he told him, “an’ even less sense.” He turned back to Johnny he added, grimly, “Now you stop fussin’. You’ll end up hurtin’ yourself the way you’re going.”

With a final shove, he pushed Johnny back down onto the pillow.

“Now you listen to me, Johnny. Scott has a mind of his own, an’ he’s made it up. He’s a good man to have ‘round in a fight an’ these boys will be in chains the whole time anyways. Scott will be just fine.”

Teresa and Celeste walked into the room from the kitchen, just in time to catch the last of what the Sheriff had to say, and blanched. They stopped halfway across the room and listened, appalled, to what was going on.

Johnny laid back on the couch, panting and sweating from the exertion, the Sheriff pinning his shoulders to the pillow. His face showed all of the frustration and the desperation that he felt knotting up inside him. He felt physically sick as his stomach tightened with tension.

“You don’t understand, Val,” he said quietly at last.

“Is that right?” Val answered. “Well how ‘bout you tell me what I don’t understand.”

Johnny looked past the Sheriff to his father. “You’ve seen him Murdoch. You’ve seen how he reacts every time they’re mentioned.”

He looked again into his friend’s face and whispered, “He’s after blood, Val. That’s what I’m worried about.”

“Son, this is Scott we’re talking about,” Murdoch told him quietly. He wasn’t sure who needed the reassurance more, himself or Johnny, because the same thought had been in his own mind. “He knows right from wrong.”

Johnny tossed his head to the side angrily and turned an icy glare on his father. “Hell, Murdoch, I know right from wrong too, an’ it’s never stopped me.

That don’t mean a thing to him right now. If it was him they’d shot, I know what I’d be doin’, an’ I’ve seen that same thing in his eyes.”

He stopped to catch his breath and silently cursed the fact that his body would not let him do what he wanted to do. He wanted to get up and go upstairs and lock his brother in his room if he had to. Tie him to a chair… even knock him out cold it that was what it took - anything to stop him.

“Val, if he does what I think he’s got in mind, it’ll eat him alive. You an’ me, maybe we could do it an’ live with it, but not Scott. He’d regret it the rest of his life, an’ it’d tear him apart.”

Celeste moved closer to the couch as she saw the distress becoming visible on Johnny’s face. He was losing the ability to hide it from them as his control was sapped by exhaustion, and that wasn’t good. He was supposed to be resting quietly down here, but that seemed to have gone out of the window.

“Give me a little credit, Johnny,” Scott said coldly, as he entered the room.

Unheard by any of them until now, he had his saddlebags thrown over his shoulder, a bedroll in one hand and his rifle in the other, ready to go. He threw the bedroll to the floor in disgust. “All I want is justice.”

“Are you sure about that, Scott?” Murdoch asked him bluntly.

Scott turned on him angrily. “All I want is to see those men stand trial, and pay for what they did.”

“And how will you feel when you face them?” Murdoch persisted. “How are you going to feel riding with them for a week, facing them day after day?”

“I can handle it,” Scott answered coolly.

“You think they won’t try to goad you into doing something stupid? What will you do if they brag about getting the better of Johnny Madrid?” his father continued stonily.

Scott scowled angrily, confirming his father’s fears as well as Johnny’s. He wanted revenge, plain and simple, but he wouldn’t admit it.

“I said I can handle it,” he repeated.

“I’m not so sure you can,” Murdoch told him candidly.

His eldest son turned on him furiously. “Would you rather Val go on his own?” he argued and then turned back to his brother, “Is that what you want Johnny?”

Johnny was played out. He wanted to argue with him, but he couldn’t seem to think straight. He closed his eyes and focused on his thoughts.

“Don’t see why anyone has to go at all,” he finally said halfheartedly. “Let ‘em go an’ be damned. I don’t care. It ain’t worth riskin’ any more lives.”

“Are you speaking for Jed Harmon and his guard when you say that?” Scott asked him shortly. “Do you think you have the right to deprive them of their justice?”

“Justice won’t bring ‘em back Scott. Leave it,” Johnny answered faintly. “Let it go, both of you.”

“And what about the next stage they hold up?” Scott persevered angrily. “How many people have to die before it’s worth it? They’ll keep killing, Johnny. You know it.”

Johnny rolled his head to the side and hid his face in the back of the couch. “I don’t know…” he whispered, and even to his own ears, he sounded defeated and hurt.

“Scott, please,” Teresa called from the other side of the room. Even from there she could see how badly Johnny was being affected.

“That’s enough,” Celeste cried out, suddenly appearing beside the couch and pushing her way past Val to sit down on the edge as if to cut him off from the barrage of emotion he was being faced with. “He’s exhausted, Scott.”

She’d seen the torment in his face and heard the distress in his voice. He was panting desperately and she had a real fear that his lung would give out if he continued this way. And if he was to have any dignity left, they had to leave him alone now. She unconsciously took his hand and turned angrily on the men around her.

“What do you want from him, Scott?” she asked furiously. “Do you want him to give you his blessing to go and risk your life?”

“Celeste…” Scott began, stunned by her outburst, and suddenly brought to the appalled realization of what his loss of temper was doing to his brother.

“No Scott, that’s enough. If you’re going with the Sheriff, I want you to give your word to Johnny and your father right here and now that you won’t let your feelings get in the way of bringing those men back here to face trial.”

“Celeste,” he argued, offended, “I have no intention of doing otherwise.”

“I didn’t ask what your intentions are, Scott Lancer. Promise them now.”

“All right, if that’s what it takes, I promise,” he conceded quietly.

She choked back a tear that would have made a mockery of her stance. Instead she stood up and went to him, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Then go, and be done with it. But please be careful.”

“I will,” he told her, hugging her with his free arm. The schoolgirl he had known in Boston seemed to have grown up all of a sudden.

“And you make sure that you look after Johnny for me,” he answered with a grudging smile.

“I will,” she smiled sadly, and turned away as he released her.

She went back to Johnny and sat down at his side again, quietly taking his hand and gauging his reactions to her words. If he was angry that she had interfered, he certainly didn’t show it.

Val stood up, satisfied that everything was finally sorted out, and eager to get going so they could get a good start on the journey. “I’ll see you in about ten days or so, buddy,” he said, awkwardly. “I expect to see you on your feet by then.”

Johnny turned back to face them, pain and frustration written all over his face. “Yeah, all right,” he answered faintly. “I don’t like it, but… look out for each other.”

“You bet.”

Scott bent down to pick up the discarded bedroll and then went over to his brother’s side. He regretted the whole scene, but he believed that what he was doing was right.

“Johnny, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to argue with you,” he said sadly. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that.”

Johnny met his eyes and saw the downcast look on his face. “I know,” he told him quietly. “Forget it. Just make sure you keep hold of it when you’re with them prisoners. That’s exactly what they’ll be wantin’ ya to do.”

“I know what I’m doing, Johnny. Trust me on this one, will you?”

Johnny nodded and answered weakly. “Yeah, go on. I’ll be fine,” he told him reluctantly. “Just don’t let ‘em prod you. Ignore anything they have to say.”

“Sure,” he smiled, and then added, “and you behave yourself while I’m away. Don’t do anything stupid, right?”

He got a wisp of a smile for an answer. “I’ll be ready to arm wrestle ya by the time you get back,” he told him challengingly.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Scott replied, and knew it was time to go. “You do as you’re told and get your strength back, and I won’t feel bad when I beat you.”

He pressed his hand to his brother’s shoulder silently for a moment before saying, very simply but intensely, “I’ll see you later, brother.”

“Hasta luego, Boston,” Johnny replied and watched as Scott turned and left, with Val beside him.

“Well, if they have to go, they’ll need something to keep them going,” Teresa told them coolly. “I’ll put a few things together for them.” 

She turned on her heel, after giving Scott a last quelling look as he headed for the door, and went back to the kitchen to get them some provisions.

Murdoch watched his injured son follow them out the door with his eyes and sighed deeply. It was far from being an ideal situation, and he wondered how Johnny was going to handle his brother’s absence. But Celeste was right. If they couldn’t stop him, at least they had to let Scott go without further argument and try to reassure Johnny.

“I’ll go see them off, Johnny,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Sure, Murdoch,” Johnny answered faintly.

He closed his eyes again, desperately trying to come to terms with the knowledge that he had no way of stopping his brother. In his heart, he knew that Val Crawford would make sure that Scott stayed out of trouble if he could, but he felt the need to be there himself.

And Scott was right – Val Crawford needed help. Three to one, even with chains on them, were bad odds. He didn’t want Val getting hurt either. Hell, why couldn’t they both just do like he said and stay out of it?

He cursed, again, the interminable weakness of his body. Sometimes it felt like there was no end to it in sight.

He knew he was improving, slowly able to do a little bit more every day, but it wasn’t enough. It was happening too slowly. His mind felt trapped in a body incapable of answering his even most basic instructions – to sit up, to speak, sometimes to even think straight.

This time he swore aloud, angrily hitting the couch beneath him with his fist.

Celeste ignored him and went to the jug of water on the small table next to the easy chair. She poured a glass of water and, putting it down for a moment, wet her handkerchief as well. She took the glass over to Johnny and silently offered it to him.

“Sorry,” he whispered, suddenly embarrassed that he had forgotten that she was even there.

She smiled sympathetically at him and helped him elbow his way up to a sitting position. She waited for him to take the glass and hold it. It shook in his hand and she steadied it for him until he could hold it unaided and drink from it.

When he had finished, he thanked her quietly and let her take it from him.

Lying back against the pillow, he didn’t remonstrate with her as she wiped the perspiration from his face with the handkerchief. He felt beaten.

Celeste said nothing at all, but the lavender fragrance from the cloth filled his senses and he relaxed a little.

“Better?” she asked with an engaging smile.

His breathing was a little easier. He was calm now and he looked back at her and smiled briefly. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Good,” she answered him, still wiping the damp handkerchief over his forehead, even though the perspiration was long gone. It seemed to soothe him, and she looked deep into those sapphire eyes of his and cried silently for the hurt she could see there.

Following an impulse that came from nowhere, she leaned forward and lightly touched her lips to his forehead.

The touch of her lips was as soft as butterfly wings and, if he was surprised, he accepted it with nothing more than a deep sigh as his senses began to fade.

“Get some sleep, Johnny,” she told him gently, as his eyes met hers.

Then she stood up to leave the room and go outside to join the others in watching Scott go off to she knew not what.


The fire crackled and spat as the tinder burned and broke and finally disintegrated into fine ash and hot glowing coals. The two men laid stretched out on bedrolls with their saddles and gear close by and their horses hobbled and grazing – three of them.

By the time they had left Lancer, they had ended up with a packhorse for all the supplies that Murdoch and Teresa had thrust upon them. They’d been grateful by the time they got hungry though. Teresa had thrown in some fresh made biscuits that went down well.

Both of the men were worn out. Used to being in the saddle for long stretches, it had, nevertheless, been a long ride without a break and on a trail that they were only vaguely familiar with. It would be an early night for them and an early start again at daybreak.

Val would have liked to have gotten further today than they had. He knew that he would have if he hadn’t stopped off at Lancer on his way south, but he was happy that he had done the right thing. They’d had the right to know that the bandits were in custody. He’d even hoped that it might bring Scott some sort of relief. He was mad keen on making them pay for their crime.

And that was another worry. He had heard Scott swear not to seek revenge on those men, but when the time came and he was face to face with them, the man would have to work hard to keep that pledge.

He watched Scott in silence, wishing he knew him better.

Scott put his hands behind his head and lay back on the ground. He’d gotten used to camping rough at night now. He tolerated the cold hard ground, with its annoying stones and the ants and other insects that sometimes drove him half mad at night, but he still marveled at the night sky above him. The stars always seemed to burn brighter out here. They seemed somehow closer too.

Back in Boston, the glare of the street lamps and the smoke of hundreds of chimney flues blurred the night sky and dimmed the brilliance of the stars. He sometimes thought that he had never really seen them properly until he had come west.

“You want some more coffee, Scott?” Val asked him, bringing him back from his reverie.

“No, thanks,” Scott answered lazily. It would only keep him awake now, and tomorrow was going to be another long day in the saddle.

He sat up and watched as Val rose and went to the fire to take the coffee pot off the coals. “You know, Johnny told me you only drank coffee made in a frying pan,” he grinned.

“Used to,” Crawford admitted with a lopsided smile. “He bought me the pot. Told me it was ‘uncivilized’ to make coffee my way.” He looked at Scott. “Don’t tell him, but I gotta admit it tastes better.”

Scott laughed. “Your secret’s safe with me, Val,” he told him. He looked at the Sheriff curiously. He and Johnny were good friends, but they seemed like an odd pair – maybe even stranger than he and Johnny were as brothers. After all, Val was a lawman, and Johnny had been a gunfighter, and yet they had apparently been friends for some time.

“How long have you known Johnny?” Scott finally got up the nerve to ask him.

Val Crawford thought about it. “On an’ off, quite a few years I guess. Knew him a way back before he got that big reputation of his. He wasn’t much more than a kid, but you wouldn’t have known it. I was headin’ down that same road as him then. I ended up goin’ one way an’ he went the other.”

“You were a gunfighter?”

Val grinned cheekily. “Had an idea I could be,” he told him. “I wasn’t bad with a gun, but I guess I was just too darn lazy.”

Scott leaned forward, curious at his choice of words. “Lazy?”

“Yeah, lazy. It’s hard work practicin’ long hours to be good enough to get yourself a reputation. An’ then there’s all that play actin’ – I weren’t no good at that.”

“Play acting? What do you mean?”

Val looked over at him solemnly. “A real good pistolero, he’s as much an actor as he is good with a gun. First he’s gotta convince folks that he really is mean an’ a killer. He has to face down a man who wants to kill him, an’ a lot o’ the time, it’s all bluff. It’s always better if they just back off scared.

Don’t go up against a good pistolero in a card game,” he grinned.

“Like Johnny?”

“Yep. He’s a mean card player that boy.”

Scott laughed and thought over the words. “I’ve always thought Johnny pulled on an invisible mask when he became Madrid.”

“Scott, you ain’t never really seen Madrid, not in action. But you got the right idea.”

“So what made you decide against it?”

“Well, I turned up for a couple o’ little range wars, but I guess it just weren’t my style. Decided to try somethin’ else. Figured I might live a bit longer.”

“Meaning you became a lawman?” Scott grinned. It seemed like a poor choice of profession if he wanted to live longer.

“Not right away. I did a lot o’ things. Drifted for a while, did a lot o’ cowpunchin’. Then I got a job as a deputy in El Paso for a while. I took jobs as Sheriff in a couple of small towns after that. That’s how I know Mac. You know, McKendrick from Blackwater. I was his deputy in El Centro a few years back. Then I ended up in Green River.”

“Where you ran into Johnny again.”

“Yep. Took me by surprise too. Him bein’ a respectable, hardworkin’ rancher an’ all nowadays,” he grinned.

“And you hadn’t run into him in all that time?”

“Nope,” he answered briefly and grinned at Scott. “Kinda glad I didn’t. Takin’ on that boy woulda been like grabbin’ hold of a tiger by the tail back then. An’ I ain’t that stupid.”

“You mean it wouldn’t be like that now?” Scott asked him, unbelieving.

“Hell no,” Val replied quickly, his grin widening. “He’s tamed down some these days.”

“I don’t think Murdoch would believe that if you told him.”

“Yeah, well, Murdoch Lancer didn’t know him back then. He always had somethin’ to prove. I never did find out just what, but he was hell bent on doin’ it.”

“I didn’t like leaving him like that today,” Scott confessed. “He’s just so damned stubborn sometimes. He still thinks I’m that greenhorn who came in on the stage that day. He’s wrong. I wasn’t green then and I’m certainly not now.”

“Hell, Scott. He knows that. He just likes to look out for ya, that’s all.”

Scott frowned and glared at him. “I don’t need to be ‘looked out for’ all the time. I’m a big boy Val. I can look after myself.”

“Sure, an’ you don’t look out for him too, I suppose,” Val asked him impishly.

“Well of course I do, but that’s different,” Scott rounded on him. “You know what he’s like. He’s a magnet for trouble.”

Val nodded his head slowly, understanding what he was getting at. Johnny was his best friend, but he had to admit that the guy could find trouble in his sleep. It followed him everywhere.

“Sure, but he can usually look after himself too. Doesn’t mean that you don’t both have to worry over each other a little.”

Scott laughed. “I suppose so. He called me a ‘mother hen’ today you know.”

The sheriff chuckled; amused at the image that Scott’s words conjured up. “Yep, that’s Johnny all right.”

Scott stared into the fire, thinking about his brother. He suspected that Val Crawford knew more about Johnny than he would ever know, and a twinge of envy bit him.

“Val, did you know about Maddie, or his wife?”

Crawford shook his head, and stirred the coals to keep them from going out. He put a couple more pieces of firewood on and waited for them to catch.

 “Nope, he never told me,” he said quietly, looking into the fire. “Coulda knocked me over with a feather when I heard.”

“Maybe with Maddie to think about now, he won’t be so quick to leave the next time he takes it into his head,” Scott mused.

“Maybe,” Val agreed. “Hard to say with Johnny, but I don’t think it’d be his kid that keeps him at Lancer.”

He looked at Johnny’s brother, a little puzzled. It never failed to amaze him that none of them could see Johnny properly, even though there was no denying that they loved him.

“Ain’t none o’ you figured out yet that he likes it there, likes havin’ a family. That’s why he was so all fired set against you comin’ with me.”

Scott nodded appreciating Val’s point of view. “Yes, it’s strange, I suppose, how close we’ve become as brothers so quickly.”

“Huh…brothers,” Val said, almost contemptuously. “Being brothers ain’t got much to do with it, if you ask me. Brothers can grow up together all their lives and still hate each other’s guts, Scott. What you two are is friends. You got to be friends first, an’ then bein’ brothers just naturally came along later.”

Scott looked at Crawford in amazement. He thought of Val Crawford as a tough, cynical man. At least that was the impression he’d always had of him. His insight stunned him and left him wondering what else there was about the man that he had missed.

“I suppose you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Scott answered him.

Val left the fire and went back to his bedroll, making himself comfortable before answering.

“Yeah, well, just remember, I’m takin’ you at your word that you ain’t got nothin’ in mind for those boys in Blackwater but bringin’ ‘em in. I don’t wanta have to watch you as well as them. I ain’t got enough eyes to do that.”

Scott eyed him carefully. “You won’t have to,” he answered with a scowl.

“Glad to hear it,” Val said unflappably.

There was an uncomfortable silence between the two of them. The Sheriff was still not sure he had done the right thing in letting Scott come along. While he was glad of the help, Johnny would never forgive him if he let anything happen to him.

They had ridden most of the way today with very few words between them. Polite conversation had been the order of the day. Neither really knowing the other well enough to joke or carry on a deep conversation.

And then there was the tense scene at Lancer before they left. Both of them carried it with them and replayed their part in it over and over in their minds, and both of them hoped that Johnny had finally accepted it and would get on with his recovery without worrying about them.

On the other hand though, Val did need someone to back his play. He hadn’t been able to get anyone he could trust in town to come with him, until Scott had offered. But he had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to let them get away with it. He felt just as strongly as Scott did, but he knew how to keep his feelings under control.

At least, he was pretty sure he did.

“Been doing some thinking on the best way to do this,” he explained to Scott.


"I’m thinkin’ we should get ourselves a wagon. It’ll be easier to hogtie ‘em and keep ‘em under control that way than if they were on horseback. Might be kinda hard to keep an eye on all three on horseback.”

Scott nodded agreement. “Yes. Three horses, three different directions they could take off in, and only two of us. It would be too easy, wouldn’t it?”


“It’ll make the trip home longer though.”

“Can’t be helped, Scott. I think it’ll be worth it.”

“Yes, I agree. It’s worth an extra day on the trail.”

Val lay back down on the ground and rolled onto his side. He crooked his arm under his head for a pillow. Val Crawford did not need much to be comfortable.

He looked covertly over at Scott and watched him lay back down again. He’d often wondered how much the Boston bred Lancer really liked sleeping rough. He had to admit that Scott handled it better than he had thought he would.

It was odd that Val had not really had much to do with Scott Lancer. Johnny was the common denominator in their relationship, if you could call it that. He was Johnny’s friend, and Scott was Johnny’s brother. That was about all they had ever needed to know about each other. There had never been any reason for anything more than that.

Now they were plunged into this little adventure together and had to learn damned quick to know and to trust each other. He had meant what he had told Johnny though. He knew that Scott would be handy to have around if it came to a fight. Even Johnny admitted that Scott was one of the best riflemen he’d ever known.

He grinned mischievously as he watched Scott swat at a bug on his face. You can take the boy out of Boston, but… he thought.

“Better get some sleep, Scott,” he finally said and rolled over himself to do the same. They had three more days of riding in front of them, and they’d better get all the rest they could on the way down, because the trip home would be long and exhausting. There’d be a lot less chances to sleep on the way back with three bad men to keep an eye on.



        “Teresa, I can’t find Johnny,” Celeste told her frantically, hurrying into the Great Room. “Have you seen him?”

        “Don’t panic,” Teresa said quite calmly. She was standing by the big glass doors in the Great Room, staring out into the yard. “He’s out by the corral,” she told Celeste.

      “Good heavens, how did he manage to get out there?”

      Teresa smiled a knowing smile. “Oh, you have to learn to expect the unexpected from Johnny.”

      Celeste joined her at the windows and watched him, anxiously.

       “He’s okay,” Teresa assured her, but not taking her eyes off her ‘brother’. She’d been watching him walk across the yard, quietly worrying, but letting him have his way and allowing him to think he was getting away with it.

      “He’s overdoing it, Teresa,” she answered, exasperated with him.

      “I know, but believe it or not, this will do him good. Johnny doesn’t like feeling vulnerable,” Teresa explained. “It goes back to the way he used to live, I suppose.”

      Celeste suddenly decided that now might be a good time to broach that subject. She hadn’t known who to ask about it. Asking Johnny was out of the question. She’d seen how he reacted when she had talked about the Stage depot.

      And she found Murdoch Lancer was too aloof to even consider.

      She would have asked Scott had the opportunity presented itself, but as yet it hadn’t and they couldn’t expect him to be back for more than a week.

      She gathered up her courage and asked. “Why did he live like that? I mean, he had all of this…”

      Teresa looked blankly at her and Celeste saw the surprise emerge on her face. She shook her head sadly. “No, he didn’t grow up here. Didn’t Scott tell you?”

      “No, things have been so tense that we haven’t really had much time to talk.”

      “Oh I see,” she replied. “Well there’s no big secret really. Johnny’s mother left Murdoch when Johnny was just a baby,” Teresa explained, briefly. “She took him with her and Murdoch didn’t see him again for twenty years. He searched for years but couldn’t find him because he was using the name Madrid. He finally did track him down and sent for him at the same time that he sent for Scott. They arrived the same day, on the same stage, in fact.”

      She smiled secretly to herself. “You should have seen their faces when I told them they were brothers!”

      “I can’t imagine the shock they got.”

      “I think the only thing they had in common was a dislike for Murdoch,” Teresa told her sadly.

      Recalling some of the things she had heard Scott say about his father in Boston, Celeste considered that ‘dislike’ was probably an immense understatement.

      “Well, if he didn’t grow up here, where did he grow up?”

      Teresa turned back to stare out at Johnny again. Thinking about Johnny’s childhood always brought her a great deal of sorrow. If things had only been different, all of their lives might have been changed. She would have known Johnny all her life if he had been at Lancer, and there would have been no secrets hidden back in his past to haunt him.

      If he had been there, perhaps Murdoch would have made a stronger move for Scott as well. It could all have been so different.

      Well, there was no going back and changing it now. The three of them had their pasts and their secrets. Now they had futures to think about – together.

      “Border towns mostly,” she finally answered forlornly. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but what we do know…” She paused for a moment, reflecting on the cruelty of that twist of fate. “What we do know is not good. He had a rough time.”

       “’Survivin’,” Celeste whispered, understanding finally dawning on her. “That must be what he meant.”

      “Excuse me?”

      “Something he said to me once,” she replied. “The gun fighting, he said it was his way of surviving. I didn’t understand then.”

      They watched him and saw him sit down on a hay bale, obviously exhausted.

      “It’s time he came back in,” Teresa decided.

      “I’ll go and get him,” Celeste volunteered, and then she smiled at the dark haired girl she had come to like so much. “He won’t like it, will he?”

      Teresa giggled. “Oh, you can count on that.”



      “What are you doing out here, Johnny?” Celeste asked, with a slightly reproachful smile, as she neared him.

      He was leaning against the corral rail, watching the horses and inwardly envying them their vigor. He particularly watched one, his golden coat gleaming in the morning light as he threw his head up and ran arrogantly around the other animals, nipping them occasionally and throwing his weight around.

      He was pure joy to behold.

      Against everyone’s advice, Johnny was pushing himself quickly. He knew it himself, but that wasn’t going to stop him. Once he’d made it downstairs again, he was bound and determined to get outside. Scott had been gone for two days now, and he had finally managed to escape everyone’s attention long enough to sneak out for a while.

      The touch of the sun against his skin had brought him an amazing feeling of freedom. He’d been locked up in that room for too long.

      And seeing Barranca, and all the restrained power in the animal’s stride as he circled the corral and looked longingly out at the hills, Johnny wanted nothing more than to get on him and ride out into the range, loosing all the pent up rage he was battling to control.

      The urge was overwhelming, and if he had thought he might manage to get on the palomino’s back without embarrassing himself by falling back off, he’d have been gone by now.

      Just getting to the corral had sapped his strength though. He’d had to find a bale of hay to sit on while he re-gathered enough energy to stand up again, and he railed against the injustice of his situation.

      Celeste’s appearance was enough to remind him of his weakness and he found it maddening.  He was tired of all the fussing. He was sick of submitting to ‘doctor’s orders’. And right now, Celeste Duval represented all of that and more.

      Johnny did not like to answer to anyone for his actions – he never had done and it wasn’t in him to start now. It was his biggest obstacle to a real relationship with his father. Murdoch Lancer had still not come to grips with how to handle the untamed creature that lived in his youngest son. And Johnny Madrid Lancer was not going to be broken like a wild colt.

      So they bumped heads occasionally.

      “Needed some air,” he told her curtly.

      The girl seemed oblivious to his terse response and joined him at the fence.

      She was a quick study and had already learned that you didn’t deal with Johnny Lancer by arguing with him. That just got his back up and brought out that famous Lancer stubborn streak so that he dug his heels in. No, you had to skirt the issue a little bit, approach it carefully, sometimes even sideways. But Celeste was quick enough to do just that.

      “Well, you’ve had some,” she answered with a smile. “Maria has lunch ready and you’re keeping her waiting.”

      He ignored her for a moment, and then interpreted for her. “You mean, you think I should go in and lay down, don’t you?” he answered, not fooled at all.

      Celeste sighed. “Truth?” she asked frankly. “Yes, I do. You’re not ready to be out here for long.”

      He made no move to do as she suggested so Celeste leaned against the rail beside him, her arms folded on the rail, just as his were. She saw him watching the big palomino prance around the corral.

      “The palomino – is he yours?”

      “Yeah,” Johnny replied quietly.

      “He’s a beautiful animal, Johnny,” she told him, admiringly, and meaning it. The sun brought out the bright contrast between the golden hide of the horse, and its white-blond mane and tail.

      Johnny turned his head to look at her and his heart skipped a beat. The sun glistened on her own blond hair and brought a blush to her cheeks, and he ended up turning away and studying his feet instead.

      “Yeah, beautiful,” he agreed, a little awkwardly. Then he looked back up towards Barranca. “You wanna meet him?”

      Celeste smiled at him. “I’d love to.”

      Johnny whistled, a short shrill sound, and the horse stopped and pricked up his ears immediately. He tossed his elegant head in the air and shook it, his blond mane dancing. He whinnied once and then turned his head towards the sound.

      Barranca lifted his tail proudly and trotted over to the rails where Johnny was standing, waiting for him.

      Celeste was intrigued by the smile on Johnny’s face as the horse nudged his shoulder and shook its head again. Johnny rubbed the animal’s nose and patted its neck. It wasn’t a proprietorial smile, nor did it appear to be pride in his training of the horse.

      It was more like genuine enjoyment of the relationship he had with the animal.

      “May I pat him?” she asked quietly.

      “Sure,” he answered, and then added, with a wickedly mischievous grin, “Just watch your fingers – he bites.”

      She lifted her hand unhurriedly; palm upwards at first, and then gained some confidence and rubbed the horse’s nose, just as Johnny had. The animal’s ears lay back for just a moment before he accepted her touch and pricked them forward again. He nodded his head up and down a little under her hand, but made no move to nip her.

      Celeste smiled happily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Johnny. He’s a sweetheart.”

      Johnny answered her with a delighted grin. “He is now, but don’t turn your back on him. He can change like quicksilver.”

        She turned her smile on Johnny, but it faded a little as she saw his face change. His eyes lost the sparkle that had been there a moment ago, and they grew cold and distant. His grin disappeared from his face, replaced by an almost emotionless void.

      “We’re a lot alike. We understand each other, I guess,” he said enigmatically and ran his fingers absently through the bangs between the horse’s ears. With a final pat of Barranca’s neck, he turned away.

      “I think I’ll go back in now,” he told her coolly and walked slowly back into the house.

      Celeste watched him go. His gait was steady and she knew he didn’t need any help to get there. But something told her that he did need help in other ways. She had only seen fleeting glimpses of the man she had met in San Francisco.

      She fervently hoped that she was being over-sensitive and that it was only the slow recovery process that was eating at him, but she suspected there was something else.

      Something was turning him in on himself and she made up her mind to find out what it was and help him to fight it.

      Celeste had liked the charming young man she had traveled with. His ready smile and amusing turn of speech had intrigued her then. There had been a wicked twinkle in his eyes occasionally when she suspected that he was teasing her or stretching the truth a little.

      She had caught a few small glimpses of that man over the last week or so, but not nearly enough.

      She wanted to meet him again.



       Two riders, dusty, trail weary and unshaven, stopped outside the Sheriff’s office in Blackwater. It was a small town, even as towns in this part of the country went. It wasn’t much more than a stopover on the way to the next town along the road – just a couple of houses, the general store and livery stable, and the Sheriff’s office and the saloon.

     After four hot, thirsty days on the trail, the inclination to head straight for the saloon to drink something other than tepid water from a canteen had been tempting for both of them. But after checking in with the sheriff, they planned to find a bed for the night, and then clean up and shave. A decent meal and that drink would be a welcome treat then.

     George McKendrick, Sheriff of Blackwater, stepped out onto the sidewalk to greet them. He was an older man, well into his fifties, but tall and straight and still in peak physical condition. He was well respected by his peers and by the local community. They considered themselves lucky to have him around. In his line of work just living long enough to achieve gray hair was a success story of its own.

     “Howdy Mac,” Val Crawford called as he dismounted and tethered his horse in front of the Sheriff’s office. Scott did the same and joined him at the foot of the step.

     McKendrick grinned beneath the untidy moustache he wore. “That you under all that dirt, Val Crawford?”

     Crawford looked down at his clothes and grinned. He took off his hat and slapped it against his body, raising clouds of dust. “Yep,” he answered with a wry grin.

     “Well, speak up son, it’s hard to tell.”

     Val scowled at the man. “You’re just as funny as you ever were Mac,” he replied tartly.

     Scott looked down at his own clothes. He was usually very particular about the way he looked. A year in a southern military prison, with rats and lice and dirt for company, had left him with what many considered finicky habits of cleanliness, and he was quietly appalled by his appearance. A bath and a shave were high on his list of priorities right now.

     Val introduced the man to his companion. “This here is Scott Lancer, Mac,” Crawford told him. “He’s gonna give me a hand with them boys.” He eyed the Sheriff almost suspiciously. “You have still got ‘em I hope.”

     “Sure,” the man answered cheerfully. “We’re getting to be good friends. Been in each others’ company for days now.”

     “Good. We’ll be takin’ ‘em off your hands tomorrow.”

     “Just the two of you?”

     “That’s right. We can handle it.”

     “If you say so,” he answered Val dubiously. “Why don’t the two of you get yourselves a bunk for the night and bed down your horses at the livery. You both look about done in.”

     “Sounds like a good idea to me, Sheriff,” Scott replied approvingly.

     “Yeah, they’ll still be here when you come back,” McKendrick assured them. “They ain’t going nowhere.”

     “Saloon got any rooms Mac?” Val asked.

     “It’s about the only place that does in this town,” the man told him with a grin. “Livery is down the road a bit thataway,” he continued, with a nod that indicated the southern end of town. “And you can get some grub at the saloon too.”

     The Sheriff laughed. “Come on back when I can recognize you, Val.”

     “Yeah, funny,” Crawford growled. He turned to Scott. “You go on over to the saloon and see if you can’t scare us up a couple of beds, Scott. I’ll take care of the horses.”

     Scott nodded. He went to his horse and took his saddlebags and rifle. “I’ll meet you over at the saloon then, Val,” he told him and turned to head across the road.

     He remembered that he wanted to send a wire to Murdoch too if he could find somewhere in town he could do it from. He’d promised to let him know they were there safe and sound, so he stopped and turned around.

     “Do you have a telegraph office in town Sheriff?” he asked.

     “Sure, over at the general store. Ain’t so much an office, as a desk though,” he replied with a grin.

     “Thanks,” Scott nodded and headed off in that direction first of all.

     The sheriff watched the tall young stranger walk away. The lad had a good strong look to him, and he trusted Val as a good judge of character, but he turned a worried look back to Val Crawford.

     “Just the two of you, Val?” he asked, a little anxiously. “I dunno that that’s wise. These boys aren’t first timers you know. They’re hardened killers by the look of them. And that’s one hell of a long way you’re taking them, and with a gallows at the end.”

     Val nodded. “Yeah, I know it. Don’t worry about it. Scott’s a good man. An’ I got some plans for the trip back to Spanish Wells. We won’t be takin’ no chances.”

     “I hope not,” the sheriff answered. “These boys are not the type to let a chance go by.”




        The saloon was a dingy little place, with as much dust on the shelves behind the counter as there was on the floor. The place reeked of stale tobacco and beer, and Scott’s cultured nose was revolted.  

        Its only redeeming grace was the prospect of a bed for the night.

         He walked over to the bar and placed his rifle on the floor propped against the bar and in easy reach, his saddlebags he left slung over his shoulder.

         “Have you got a couple of rooms for the night?” he asked the man behind the bar.

         The man looked up and grinned. One front tooth had been replaced with a gold one and it stood out inelegantly in the man’s pockmarked face. He stood up to his full height – a big, burly man – and he wiped his hands down the front of his shirt.

         “Yeah, I got a couple of beds upstairs,” he replied. “They’re clean an’ all made up if you want ‘em.”

         “Thanks, I will,” Scott told him, not sure that he wouldn’t find the rooms in the same state of cleanliness as the rest of the saloon. He decided that he wasn’t going to wait for that drink after all.

          “I’ll have a shot of whiskey too, thanks.”

         “Sure stranger,” the man grinned affably. He produced the whiskey first and then he pulled the book he used as a register from under the counter. There weren’t many pages used in it, and the last date was only about a week ago.

         There were three names on that date, two of them in scrawling writing that suggested a distinct lack of practice at the art of signing their names, and a third, actually the first one, that held more form to it.

         Scott stared at the names - Tugwell, Ross and what looked like Whiteley. It was hard to tell, the writing was so bad. But he knew immediately who they must be. They had to be the names of the men in jail right now. The men he would be helping Val Crawford escort back to Spanish Wells for trial, and probably hanging.

         The names of the men who had held up the stage to Morro Coyo and sent his family into turmoil.

         He didn’t know which one of them had actually shot Johnny. It didn’t really matter, they had all been responsible in the long run, even if only one of them had pulled the trigger.

         He looked at the names and a cold finger traced its way down his back. His spine tingled and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. One of those names had not only thought so little of his brother’s life that he had shot him when he was unarmed, but then he had bragged about it later!

         He’d find out which one that was soon enough. He was too tired to get angry right now. He just wanted to get cleaned up, fed and into bed.

         He signed the book and turned it around for the barkeep. The man had droned on in conversation the whole time he had been staring at the page and signing it, but Scott hadn’t heard a word of it.

         He handed over money for the room and the drink and then downed the whiskey in one gulp. It burned and bit in the dust he had swallowed on the trail, but it sure felt good.

          “Thanks Mister,” the barkeep said to him. “Take your pick of the rooms, keys are in the doors.”

         “Thank you,” he answered, forced out of his trance at last. “I don’t suppose you have somewhere that I can wash up?”

         “Sure, there’s a tub in the washroom out back. Soap’s there too. You want me to heat up some water for ya?”

         Grateful for small mercies, Scott asked him to do that for him and thanked him again, picked up his rifle and turned to leave. The barkeep stopped him again with more questions.

         “Seen you and your friend over at the Sheriff’s office,” he remarked nosily. “That mean you two are here to take them banditos back for trial?”

         “That’s right,” Scott told him briefly and continued walking. He really didn’t feel like discussing it, and he had a feeling that the barkeep was the fount of all gossip in this town. He wasn’t in the mood to supply him with more to use.

         “Well, now, that’s something, ain’t it,” the man rambled on. He seemed to like the sound of his own voice. “Most excitement we’ve had in these parts for a good long time, Mister. Don’t get many strangers in town. None that stay anyways. An’ fancy them bein’ wanted for murder and robbery.”

        Scott wanted nothing more than to get away and see what sort of room he had to use for the night. He wanted to clean up and eat too. But the man just kept talking.

         “Can’t say as I liked the look of ‘em right from the start,” he continued undeterred by Scott’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for the conversation. “Said to myself, those boys are trouble Charlie. That’s what I said. I was right too. Mac came in and heared ‘em talkin’ and marched all three of ‘em off to a cell. Good man is Mac. Handled ‘em easy.”

         “That’s good to hear,” Scott told him wearily. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ll go on up to my room.”

         “Sure thing Mister,” the man replied and watched him start for the stairs. “Say, is it true what that fella was sayin’? That he killed Johnny Madrid?”

         Scott froze with his foot on the bottom step. The barkeep sounded positively excited, and a cold rage balled up in the pit of his stomach.

         “No,” was all he managed to get out, his jaw was clenched so tight. He didn’t turn back to face the man.

         He didn’t see the frown on the man’s face.

         “Well, now that there’s a funny thing that,” the barkeep said, puzzled. “He was real sure. Spoutin’ off ‘bout takin’ Madrid out in one shot. Clean through the heart he told us. Had a lot to say ‘bout how Madrid wasn’t so tough as folks said.”

         Scott swung around on him. “I don’t care what he said. Madrid is alive.”

         The barkeep stood up straight, unnerved by the stranger’s furious response. “Sure, take it easy, Mister. If you say he ain’t dead, I guess he ain’t.”

         “He’s alive. And your hero, over in that cell, put a bullet in the man when he wasn’t even armed. But he pulled through. Johnny Madrid is not dead.”

         Charlie, the barkeep, had never seen the sort of rage in another man’s eyes that he saw in the slate blue eyes of this stranger. He was not about to argue with him, especially since he was carrying that rifle so handily.

         “Okay Mister, I believe you,” he said nervously. “Guess I wouldn’t want to be him when Madrid finds him.”

         “Oh, he doesn’t have to worry about Johnny Madrid,” Scott told him icily, “but he will have to tread very carefully around Johnny’s brother.”




        “I thought I heard someone in here,” Jelly announced loudly into the shadows of the barn. “You wanna tell me what you think you’re doin’?”

         Johnny didn’t look up. He tightened the cinch strap and led Barranca out of his stall without a word. He was dressed for riding, right down to his spurs and gun belt, and his hat hung around his neck by the strap. Jelly didn’t like it.

         “Johnny, just where do ya think you’re goin’?” Jelly asked him as he sauntered over to his side.

         “Anywhere, just as long as it’s out of here for a while,” he told him irritably. He took a deep breath. He was well aware that this was going to hurt, but he grasped the pommel, put his foot in the stirrup and heaved himself into the saddle. He had tried mounting the horse carefully, but he was still unable to hide the wince of pain in his ribs as he settled into the saddle.

         Jelly saw it too.

         “Johnny, I swear you ain’t got the brains of a grasshopper. You ain’t ready to go riding, an’ sure not on that horse.”

         Johnny could feel that Barranca was fresh. He hadn’t been saddled for weeks and he skittered sideways and tossed his head. Johnny held him, pulling in the reins and whispering softly to him, but his face showed the strain of the effort.

         “I’m up here, ain’t I?”

         “Yeah, an’ you’ll be off him ‘fore you get a couple o’ miles down the road. You’re white as a ghost, boy.”

         Johnny’s hands were shaking and he held himself upright to fight the dizziness that threatened to put paid to his plans. He cursed silently, but iron willed determination kept him where he was. Having gotten this far, he wasn’t giving up now.

         Jelly could see there was no talking to him. He was wasting his breath. Johnny had that look on his face that meant no one was going to get through to him. His jaw was clenched tightly shut, and the scowl on his face was enough to set most men running for cover.

         “Johnny, you ain’t well enough for this,” Jelly pleaded in his own gruff manner. Even as he said it, though, he knew it was a waste of time.

         Johnny pulled his hat up onto his head and settled it comfortably. “I’m just fine, Jelly. Now are you gonna get outa my way, or do I go through you?”

         “Oh, you talk tough, don’t ya?” Jelly argued. “You won’t look so tough when they carry you back here. You really want that? I’d call it plumb embarrassin’.”

         “Jelly, get outa the way!” Johnny told him furiously, and urged Barranca forward.

         The horse didn’t need much urging. He’d been idle for too long himself, and he was just as anxious as Johnny was to get out into the open. He tossed his head and stepped forward quickly.

         Jelly had no alternative but to step aside and let him through. Barranca was a big, powerful animal and he had no intention of getting in his way.

         He chased the horse and rider out of the barn into the corral. Johnny had reached the big gate by the time he got to the door.

         “Johnny!” Jelly shouted after him, but there was nothing going to stop that boy now that he had made up his mind, and had made it into the saddle. He had the smell of fresh air in his nostrils and he wasn’t going to be stopped.

         Johnny reached forward, in obvious pain since one arm was holding the reins and gripping his ribs as he leaned over to open the gate with the other. He pressed the horse on through the open gate and took off at a canter out of the yard and down the drive.

         Jelly was reminded of a wild critter turned loose after being caged. The boy had his eyes on the hills, and he was heading for them.

         “Danged fool!” Jelly said to himself as he ineffectually watched him go. He ran to the corral gate and closed it on his way out, running for the house.

         He charged through the big carved door into the hacienda without stopping to knock, shouting “Boss!” as he ran.

         He found Murdoch Lancer deep in bookwork at his desk in the Great Room. He was out of breath by the time he burst into the room, and he tried to get the words out between gasps.

         “Boss,” he managed to get out at last as he came to a halt in front of him. “Johnny’s gone!”

         Murdoch looked up from his books and frowned. “What?” he shouted in disbelief.

         Jelly swallowed hard and tried again. “Johnny’s gone. He saddled Barranca an’ he just lit out!”

         Murdoch leapt to his feet. “Where to?”

         “Well, I don’t know,” Jelly answered huffily. “He wasn’t in no mood to chat.”

         “Well did you try to stop him?”

         This time Jelly Hoskins took serious offense. “Well, o’ course I tried to stop him,” he puffed. “That’s a dang fool thing to ask.”

         “Well, you couldn’t have tried very hard,” Murdoch shouted at him.

         “An’ just what was I s’posed to do? Yank him off as he rode past?”

         “Yes, if you had to!” he shouted again. “Oh forget it, Jelly. Just get my horse saddled and I’ll go after him.”

         “He won’t listen to you either, Boss,” Jelly reminded him. “He’s bound an’ determined to get away somewhere on his own for a while.”

         “Well, he will listen to me,” he growled. “Even if I have to knock some sense into him.” He strode past the old man and headed for the door, but was pulled up short by a quiet voice behind him.

         “Murdoch?” Teresa called to him, as she came into the room from the kitchen. “What’s going on?”

         Celeste was right behind her, following the noise of the shouting. She stopped beside Teresa and waited for the answer to the girl’s question.

         Murdoch turned around to face them, his face red and angry. “Johnny’s gone off on horseback,” he told them quickly. “I’m going after him.”

         Teresa stopped. “Oh no,” she cried, and then turned on him. “And what do you intend to do when you find him. Knock him out and carry him back across your saddle. A fine help that would be,” she told him crossly, matching his mood with her own Irish temper. “Do you even know where he went?”

         Murdoch fumed, but he had to admit defeat. “No.”

         “Jelly?” she asked, turning to the old man. “Do you know?”

         He shook his head. “He wouldn’t say. Just said ‘anywhere’.”

         “Great,” she said to them both impatiently.

         Celeste remembered something he had said to her. “Perhaps…” she began, and all eyes in the room turned to her.

         “Yes, Celeste?” Teresa prompted her.

         “Well, it’s just that he told me that the first thing he would do when he was back on his feet was to practice his draw.”

         “Pine Crick!” Jelly yelled in triumph.

         “Pardon?” Celeste asked him, not understanding.

         “That’s where he goes to practice his shootin’,” Jelly explained. “Ain’t nothin’ up there to disturb ‘cept a coupla raccoons an’ a few coyotes.”

         “Do you think that’s where he could have gone, Murdoch?” Teresa asked him, anxiously.

         “It’s worth a try,” he answered. “Jelly, get my horse saddled, will you?”

         “Murdoch, wait,” Teresa insisted. “He’s not going to be forced back. You’ll only end up in an argument with him, and that won’t help.”

         “You think you should go?”

         Teresa thought about it for a moment. “No, not me,” she answered carefully. “Celeste. She has a way with him, Murdoch. I’ve seen it.”

         Murdoch considered the suggestion. “I know, so have I,” he conceded, his temper cooling a little. He turned to Celeste. “Do you want to try?”

         “Yes,” she said immediately. She didn’t need any time to think it over.

         “All right then. Jelly go and saddle a horse for her, and one for yourself. You can show her the way, and stick around to see if she needs help with him.”

         “Sure, Boss,” he agreed and left to get the horses ready. As he left, he mumbled under his breath a few well-chosen epithets regarding mule-headed ex-gunfighters who didn’t know what was good for them and threw whole households into chaos just to prove a point.

         “Celeste, are you sure you want to do this?” Murdoch asked her.

          “Definitely, Murdoch,” she confirmed. “Let me talk to him.”

         “He won’t want to listen you know.”

         “Murdoch,” she said with a sweet smile whose hidden meaning he had learned to recognize just as Johnny had. “He never does.”



          Johnny stopped at the dry creek bed that he came to whenever he felt the need to hone his gunplay. It was quiet and out of the way and there was no one to disturb with the noise. It was a solitary spot, far from anyone or anything, and there were times when he came here even without the intention to practice.

         He liked the solitude. Sometimes, a man just needed to be alone – no one for company but himself. When that urge came on him, he came here.

         Well, he’d gotten here. Now he had to get down off the horse. Jelly had been right. He wasn’t ready for this. An hour or so in the saddle and now his chest burned. That damned rib was giving him more trouble than he’d expected. Worse still, his head ached horribly from the strain of constantly fighting off vertigo.

         He took a deep breath and dismounted, finding himself clutching the saddle for support and leaning against Barranca’s side when he got his feet on the ground. His legs were like jelly and wouldn’t support his weight, and he found himself fighting off the urge to just give in and fall to the ground. For a moment, everything went black, but it was only a moment, and somehow he managed to stay upright.

         He stayed that way for a few minutes, until the dizziness and the nausea it brought with it passed, and his legs straightened and held him. Then he stood up and walked over to the nearest likely tree and tethered the reins to it.

         That done, he sat down under one of the trees standing over the creek bed.

         In the spring, this dry bed would be a pretty sight. Water would bubble and trickle gaily down towards the river then, fed by melted snow high up in the ranges. But now, with fall already begun, it was as dry as a bone.

         He waited until he had caught his breath and then groaned as he realized he had to get to his feet again. His legs had stiffened while he sat leaning against the tree. He gritted his teeth and pushed himself back against the tree trunk, then slowly inched his way up and got cautiously to his feet. He stayed there for a minute while he caught his breath again.

         Once he had the pain of his ribs back under control, and his breathing back to what he now considered normal, he strolled across to the other side of the creek bed where he kept his targets. Lining them up on a log, five tin cans in a row, he satisfied himself that they were steady and walked back to his place on the other side.

         Johnny slid his pistol from the holster, checked the chambers and then put it back again. He slipped it in and out of the holster a few times to make sure that it moved easily, and then he tried drawing a few times, nice and easy.

         He was disgusted at the speed of his draw. By his standards, he was positively slow, and he figured that he’d be back here a lot more often before he got back his speed. He thanked heaven that there was no one here to see him and spread the word that Johnny Madrid had lost his touch.

         Finally, satisfied that he could handle it, he steadied himself to draw and fire. He let his arms hang loosely by his sides and flexed his fingers to loosen the muscles he had not used for weeks. He was poised like a cat, ready to spring.

          He counted to three, sucked air into his lungs and then, as he let his breath out slowly and evenly – he drew and fired all five rounds in quick succession.

         Pain seared through his chest. He gasped, wrapped his arms around his body and doubled over. The shock was so great that he barely managed to keep his hand on the gun.

         While the shockwaves rippled through his brain, some primal instinct warned him of impending danger. A noise got through to him and he spun around in that direction like lightning.

         He dropped into a crouch and aimed the pistol steadily at the sound.



         The gun was empty. He’d fired off all the rounds in practice.

         Any other time he would have realized that, and reloaded straight away, and a bolt of self-condemnation raged through him.

         It didn’t really matter anyway. He gasped as the pain renewed itself and reverberated through and through his chest. He dropped to one knee, holding his chest tightly against the pain with one hand, but he aimed the gun steadily at the intruders with the other.

        He stared in horror as his brain finally allowed him to recognize the ‘intruders’.

         “You call that shootin’?” Jelly asked him gruffly.

         Celeste stayed where she was in the saddle, stunned beyond words by Johnny’s actions.

         Johnny himself froze. He’d drawn on them! What if the gun had been loaded? He couldn’t bear to think about it.

         Fury penetrated the pain and the horror and surfaced in an explosive rage.

         “What the hell are you doing’ sneakin’ up on me like that, Jelly?” he fumed as he lowered the gun. “Ain’t you got no brains at all?”

         “More’n you have, I reckon, Johnny,” he answered defensively. “If you’d ‘a been yourself, you woulda heared us comin’ for miles.”

         Johnny’s hand shook, either from the pain or from the shock – he wasn’t sure which, as he slid the gun back into the holster. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, steeling himself against it and struggling for self-control.

         Celeste shook herself out of her own shock and dismounted slowly. She handed her reins over to Jelly and walked steadily over to Johnny’s side.

         As she reached him, he heard her and looked up. He flinched away as she put her hand out to touch him.

 “No,” he said, through clenched teeth. His fists were balled up so tightly in anger that his knuckles were white. The color had drained from his face, but he snapped at her, “Don’t touch me. I’ll be all right in a minute.”

 He dropped his other knee to the ground and sat back on his heels, head hung down and his eyes again closed as he rocked slowly back and forth. He was clutching his arms around his chest against the fire raging in his body. It was easing, slowly, but easing. The fire was dying down to hot embers, but the shock remained.

 “Damn!” he cursed himself furiously. “You might’ve killed them!”

 He flinched back again away from her touch as she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder, but he said nothing this time.

 “He ain’t gonna be able to ride back,” Jelly told her. “I’ll go fetch the wagon.”

 “No,” Johnny cried out. “I’ll be okay. Just give me a little while and I’ll be able to make it.”

 She knelt on the ground beside him, and he finally stopped fighting her off and allowed her to put her arm around his shoulders. She was horrified to find that he was actually shaking all over.

 “Johnny,” she said quietly and calmly to him. “Be reasonable, please. You can’t ride in this state.”

 “I’m not going back in a wagon,” he told her firmly. “I can ride back. I just need a little time.”

 Celeste looked him over. She didn’t like what she saw – his face white and sweating, his body shaking and his eyes closed against the pain.

 “You’re being foolish.”

 “I ain’t goin’ back in no wagon,” he repeated doggedly.

 She sighed and looked up at Jelly, who simply shrugged his shoulders.

 “At least let us help you over into the shade,” she suggested at last.

 “I don’t need any help,” he told her angrily, dragging in gulps of air and grimacing.

 “You’re just being obstinate, and it won’t get you anywhere with me, Johnny Lancer,” she answered firmly. “I can be just as stubborn as you.”

 He had his head lowered, but she could see the perspiration dotting his forehead and his clenched teeth. He was certainly in no condition to ride.

 “Just give me a minute or two,” he said quietly. “I got here, an’ I can get back, soon as I catch my breath.”

 He looked up into her eyes. “Just go on home, I’ll be right behind you.”

 “No, that’s right out of the question, Johnny. We’re not leaving you here alone.”

 He sighed deeply and it occurred to her that that was what he wanted at the moment – to be alone. She guessed that he didn’t want an audience while he was fighting for control, and that’s what he considered them to be – an audience.

 She looked up at Jelly and nodded. “I’ll stay here with him, Jelly. You go on back and tell Murdoch and Teresa that we found him, and he’s all right.”

 “All right, is he?” Jelly harrumphed. “He don’t look it to me.”

 “Jelly…” Johnny growled impatiently between clenched teeth and without looking up.

 “Okay, I’ll head back,” he said, reluctantly. “But I don’t like it.”

 “Thank you Jelly,” Celeste said, smiling up at him, but holding Johnny tightly. He had stopped rocking back and forth.

 With one last backward glance at the two of them, Jelly left to head back to the ranch with the news.

 As soon as he was out of sight, Celeste wrapped her other arm around Johnny as well and he slumped into her arms – exhausted.

 They remained that way for a few minutes, until the shaking had eased off. Then she whispered to him, “Do you think you can get up now? You can rest against the tree over there.”

 “Yeah,” he answered faintly. “Yeah, I can do it.”

 She offered him as much support as she could as he put first one foot, and then the other, on the ground and lifted himself upright. She could see how much it took out of him, it showed on his face all too plainly, and she helped him to walk over to the tree.

 She let go of him and let him slip to the ground against the trunk of the tree, and then she sat down quietly beside him. She took out her handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his face and then left him to fight his own battle for a while.

 For some time, he said nothing at all, but she heard his breathing slowly even out, and the tremors had stopped completely now. Some of the color returned to his face and he seemed to be making some headway against the fiery pain of that broken rib.

 She looked around her, waiting for him to make the first move. Her eyes fell on the log across the creek bed. She had seen him shoot at them, and she had seen him double up in agony when he fired. The cans had all flown into the air anyway. Even in this state, his aim was lethal.

 “I could have killed you,” he whispered suddenly.

 It took her by surprise. “Johnny, you’re not well. Your judgment is off that’s all,” she told him sympathetically.

 “Not the point,” he said breathlessly. “I could have shot you.”

 “Well, you didn’t did you?” she countered curtly.

 He lifted his head and thrust it back angrily against the tree. “I’m fed up with this. I have to get back in shape.”

 “For heaven’s sake, Johnny,” she snapped at him. “You have to let yourself be sick, so that you can get well. Can’t you understand that?”

 He glared at her angrily, but slowly he relented.

“I know, I know,” he admitted at last. “I just can’t afford for it to take too long.”

“Nonsense,” she said indomitably. “All you’re doing is setting yourself back anyway, so you’re better off taking it easy like you’re supposed to.”

He smiled a little, and a hint of the old mischief glistened in his eyes as he looked at her.

“Oh boy, I bet you’ll be a real nag one day,” he chided her, leaning his head back against the tree trunk.

She smiled back at him. “I’m willing to be one right now, if it will keep you from doing stupid things like this.”

“Nope, naggin’ don’t work on me.”

“I don’t suppose anyone has ever been game enough to try it,” she replied with another smile.

“Oh yeah, Luisa could…” he paled and stopped dead.

“Luisa could what? Nag you?”

He didn’t answer for a while. He hadn’t intended to talk about Luisa. It was an indication of how sick he really was that her name had slipped out that way.

“Not exactly,” he eventually answered vaguely. “Not … not really.”

He could see she didn’t understand. “She’d do it kinda jokingly. Made a game out of it.”

“But it never worked?” she asked him impishly.

“Well,” he confessed with a sheepish smile. “Maybe now an’ again.”

He suddenly grinned. “Now, my mama … she could nag. Ooee, hands on her hips, standin’ over me. She’d be at me over an’ over.” He looked wistfully into the distance. “It never worked. I did just as I pleased anyhow, but I kinda missed it when she was gone.

When you’re a kid, an’ on your own, you sometimes think it would be nice to have someone who cared enough to…”

He stopped as abruptly as he had started, and looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”


He looked down at his hands. “Didn’t mean to go on.”

“Talking it out can help sometimes, Johnny.”

“Maybe so,” he admitted hesitantly. “But the past is gone, and it’s best left that way. Mine is anyway.”

Celeste thought that it was a sad way to look at things, but didn’t say anything. It was not the time.

All of a sudden, she noticed that the light was fading. It seemed incongruous since it was still early in the afternoon. She looked up through the branches of the trees and realized that the sun was behind an ominous-looking cloud and panicked.

“Oh no, Johnny, there’s rain coming,” she declared, jumping to her feet. “We have to get back. Do you think you can make the ride yet?”

Johnny looked up at the gathering clouds as well. “Guess I’ll have to,” he answered, pushing back against the tree trunk to support himself as he stood up.




        Scott and Val were cleaned, shaven, fed and feeling one hundred percent better when they returned to the Sheriff’s office. 

McKendrick grinned when he saw them enter.

“So, it was you under all that dust, Val,” he laughed, extending his arm to shake hands with each of the two men in turn. “Feeling better for it?”

“Sure am,” Val told him cheerfully. “So you got them three desperados all set for me to take in the mornin’?”

“Yeah, they’re ready,” the Sheriff answered. “I’ll be real glad to see the end of ‘em too. Be nice to have this town back to the quiet little place it used to be. I picked it out particular, so I could hold out to retire in peace.”

Crawford nodded and grinned. “Sounds like a real nice plan… ol’ man.”

McKendrick’s jaw dropped. “Ol’ man am I, Crawford?” he growled. “Well, old or not, I got your desperadoes for you. Seems like none of you young fellas could do it.”

Val laughed outright. “You got me there, Mac,” he told him whimsically.

The Sheriff grinned with him. “Damn right Val, now do you want to meet them or not?” McKendrick offered.

Val Crawford looked at Scott. The time had come for him to be face to face with them, and it would be better that he met up with them when they were behind bars than in the morning when they were preparing to leave.

“You ready, Scott?” Val asked him quietly. This would be the telling moment. He was going to  face the men he had wanted revenge on since he held his brother in his arms, bleeding to death.

Scott nodded. He had steeled himself for this moment, and he felt ready for it. “Yes, let’s get it over with.”

If McKendrick thought anything strange of Scott’s answer, he said nothing, but led the way to the cell in back of the office.

The three men were all squeezed into the one cell. There was no room for comfort, but then, no one in Blackwater had ever planned on having three men locked up at the same time.

“Fellas,” the sheriff called out as he entered, with first Val and then Scott following, “like you to meet Sheriff Val Crawford. He and Mr. Lancer here are going to be taking you back to Spanish Wells. Thought you might like to meet them – formally I mean.”

The three men leapt to their feet.

“Lancer?” one of them cried out. “You ain’t turnin’ us over to no Lancer, Sheriff. That’s just plain murder.”

McKendrick was nonplussed. “What are you talking about, Ross?”

“Him,” the tall, lean man answered angrily. “You can’t send us back with him. His brother’s the man you’re sayin’ Tugger killed.”

“Thought that was Madrid?” the sheriff asked, puzzled.

“Madrid, Lancer – same thing,” a second man answered sarcastically.

McKendrick turned on Val and Scott. “Is that true?” he asked Scott angrily. “Was the man they killed your brother?”

“That’s a little premature, sheriff,” Scott told him calmly. “They killed a stagecoach driver, and his guard. My brother Johnny is alive, if not well.”

“Alive?” the third man erupted. “He’s lying sheriff. He couldn’t be alive.”

“Tugger, shut up will you?” Ross told him furiously.

Scott actually smiled at the man they were calling ‘Tugger’. Tugwell, that must be his name. One of the three names in the register. Tugwell, Ross and that other one must be Whiteley.

“Yes, that’s right – alive,” Scott said coldly. “Getting better every day too. He’ll be back on his feet before you know it. So you’re not the man who killed Johnny Madrid after all, Tugger,” he said maliciously. “You couldn’t even take him unarmed.”

“Sheriff…” the man named Ross began to protest, but the sheriff already had the situation under control.

“Outside Val,” he ordered, and then grabbed Scott by the arm. “You too. Now.”

He half pulled and half pushed the two men back into his office.

“What the hell is going on here, Val?” McKendrick asked furiously.

Crawford looked a little sheepish. “All right, so Johnny’s his brother,” he answered. “That gives him all the more reason to want to see them face trial, and hang.”

McKendrick shook his head. “Val, I can’t hand them over to him.”

“You ain’t,” Val replied. “You’re handin’ ‘em over to me. Scott’s just along for the ride. You said yourself it was at least a two man job.”

“I know that, but it’s not the point. What if he takes it into his head to get even for his brother?”

Crawford sighed. “The idea ain’t exactly new to me, Mac,” he said quietly. “But I know Scott Lancer, an’ he’s a man of his word. He gave his word to his brother that he would bring ‘em back alive. I was right there. Heard it all.”

“Are you telling me that Johnny Madrid…?”

“Lancer,” Val corrected quickly.

“All right, Lancer then. Are you trying to tell me that he made his brother swear NOT to hurt these fellas?”

Val nodded. “Wouldn’t a brought him along otherwise. An’ Johnny’d be fit to be tied if I let Scott break his word. See he didn’t like it either. That’s why he made him promise not to do nothing to ‘em.”

 So you know him too?”

 "Sure, he’s a friend o’ mine, a good friend. Matter of fact, the stage driver was a friend o’ mine too. But I’m a lawman, Mac. I’m here to take ‘em back, an’ Scott’s here to back me up.”

 I don’t know, Val…”

 Sheriff,” Scott said, at last. “My brother is not the issue here. I am. I have no intention of doing anything but see that those three men face trial. They tried to kill my brother, yes, but they did murder the driver of that stagecoach and his guard. They shot the sheriff of Spanish Wells, and a member of his posse. So are you planning to let them go rather than let us take them?”

 McKendrick ran his hands through his hair in utter frustration. “All right. But if I hear that they wound up dead on the way back to Spanish Wells, I’ll know where to come looking for their murderer.”

 “Fair enough, sheriff,” Scott replied coolly.




“Put your jacket on, Johnny,” Celeste suggested quickly. “It will help keep some of the rain off.” 

“No, I’m all right. You take it,” he replied, as the rain started to fall lightly.

Celeste shook her head emphatically. “Okay, so you’re a gentleman,” she countered sarcastically. “But it’s you I’m concerned about. Put it on.”

It didn’t seem worth arguing over. He didn’t have the energy to anyway, so he did as she told him this time and slipped into the jacket. The air temperature had dropped abruptly with the onset of the rain. It was only a light sprinkle of droplets at the moment, but the cloud above them was growing darker by the minute, threatening to unleash heavier rain when it burst.

They had not gotten far when it started, only a mile or so. She knew that they were a long way from the ranch house yet, as she recalled the ride out with Jelly Hoskins. Johnny was certainly not in any condition to try to gallop part of the way home, but neither was his health going to be improved upon by his getting drenched.

“We need to find some shelter,” she told him.

“I know,” he agreed. “There’s a line shack just ahead. We can be there in about twenty minutes or so.”

“Well, lead on, Johnny. We’ll wait it out there.”

But ten minutes later, the threatening cloudburst came. The rain grew heavier, and it had an icy bite to it.

Celeste kept a keen eye on Johnny, but he was handling the ride quite well at the moment. He was hunched over a little, just as she was, but she believed it was against the rain, not pain.

She couldn’t believe how unlucky they were. There had been no indication of bad weather when they had set out. And getting cold and wet was the last thing in the world the man needed. 

They pressed on relentlessly through the rain. The last ten minutes seeming more like hours as they trudged through the downpour, but they finally came upon what he had described as a ‘line shack’. She’d had no idea what to expect, but at least it was shelter, and from what she could see, it was sturdy shelter at that.

Dismounting outside the little building, Celeste first waited and helped Johnny to get down and then began to lead the horses to the small barn by the shack.

“I can do that,” Johnny told her irritably.

“No,” she answered firmly, and loudly enough to make sure that he heard her over the falling rain. “Go inside.”

He scowled and glared at her but he submitted to her orders yet again, too tired to argue. He trudged into the shack, while she led the two horses into the barn and quickly unsaddled them. They’d have to make do with that for now. She had to get back to Johnny.

It worried her that he wasn’t arguing with her. While she was grateful for it, she knew that it was a sign that he was tired or unwell. She prayed that it was the former. If he was unwell, the dowsing from the rain was going to cause problems.

As she entered the shack, she was agreeably surprised. There was a cot against the wall with a couple of blankets on it, a table and two chairs, a larder with a few rudimentary supplies in it, and a bench and a pot bellied stove.

She thanked heaven for the stove, and Johnny had already lit a fire in it and put a pot of coffee on top.

Celeste found that she was shivering in her cold wet clothes, and she was sure that Johnny was as well. So she closed the door behind her and walked purposefully over to the cot and quietly stripped off her wet clothes, right down to her underwear.

“Celeste?” he exclaimed, but she didn’t bat an eyelid as she grabbed one of the blankets and threw it around her, and then turned to him.

“Your turn,” she told him flatly and with no hint of the embarrassment she felt.

“Oh no,” he protested, holding one hand up as if to fend her off. He shrugged out of his jacket and threw it over the chair. “That’s as far as I go.”

Celeste scowled at him. “This is no time to be coy, Johnny Lancer. I will not have you catching your death of cold after we’ve kept you alive this long, thank you very much.”

She picked up the other blanket from the cot and marched purposefully over to him. As she got close she realized that she was indeed right. He was trembling with cold.

“Either you do it, or I will,” she informed him, not sure how she was going to back up her words, but she was determined to get her way just the same.

He made no move to do it, so, in exasperation, she said, “Oh for heavens sake…” and started towards him.

“No!” he yelled. “I can do it.”

His hands were shaking so much that he had trouble with the buttons on his shirt, but she left him alone to finish. He pulled the wet shirt off and threw it on the table.

“Sit down on the chair, and I’ll help you get those boots and wet socks off,” she told him.

“Boy, you are a bossy one, ain’t you?”

“Yes, now sit.”

He grinned and sat down, watching her as he let her pull the boots off and then pulling off the socks himself. Then he stood up and turned around, his cold, trembling fingers obviously having trouble with the buttons on his pants.

“Here,” she said sensibly, “let me help…”

“Oh no you don’t,” he told her resolutely. “Enough is enough,” and he went back to undoing the buttons.

“Really, Johnny, when you were unconscious…”

“Don’t want to know ‘bout it,” he said, bluntly. “Like you said, I was unconscious, an’ I ain’t now.”

She smiled while his back was turned to her. His embarrassment amused her endlessly, but she was determined that he should not see it. It would only serve to make an awkward situation that much worse.

Finally, with the blanket wrapped around him, he slipped out of the wet pants and threw them on the table with his shirt.

“Happy?” he asked sarcastically.

She wasn’t actually. The stove had started to warm the room nicely, and she felt more comfortable herself, but she could see by the blue tinge around his mouth, and on his fingertips, that he was not warming up.

“Very,” she lied. She moved the chairs over close to the fire. “Sit down and I’ll get us some coffee.”

She left him there by the stove, then pulled a pair of mugs out of the larder and made the coffee, one for each of them. When she came back, he had a little color back in his cheeks and she held out the coffee to him.

He took it with both hands, and her fingers touched his as she passed it to him. They were still terribly cold but she was glad to see that his hands no longer shook.

So she spread the clothes out to dry as much as possible, and then went to the window to check the rain. It was still coming down steadily – more heavily in fact. There was no break in the clouds and she feared that they were going to be here for longer than she had hoped.

She drank her own coffee and went over to join him. She felt warm now, and was pleased to see that he looked a lot more comfortable too.

He yawned and stretched his legs out in an effort to find a more comfortable position, and she finally took her place in the chair beside him, pulling the blanket self-consciously around her a little more tightly.

“You know, if anyone was to see us like this…” he began.

She laughed gaily. “Oh, I’d be completely ruined,” she finished for him. “A fallen woman!”

“Scott’d horsewhip me,” he added, glancing at her with a cheeky smile and a sparkle in his eyes.

“Oh yes, undoubtedly,” she laughed.



Celeste opened her eyes drowsily and blinked in the strange surroundings. It took her a moment to realize where she was and what she was doing there.

She hadn’t meant to doze off, but she was sure that it couldn’t have been for long. It was still daylight outside and a light drizzle of rain was still falling.

She gathered the blanket primly around her and stood up.

A quick glance at him showed her that Johnny had also fallen asleep. His head had fallen to one side and rested on the back of the chair, and the blanket had fallen aside a little to reveal the leg of his drawers. She tugged it gently across without waking him.

He hardly looked comfortable, but he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, so she let him be and wandered over to the doorway to look outside.

The rain was falling in a fine mist, and, under normal circumstances, she would have enjoyed it. She loved the sweet fresh smell of rain, and watching the raindrops dripping off leaves. She usually found it relaxing.

But today it held no joy for her at all. It held them trapped there in that cabin, and they were quickly running out of daylight. There would not be enough light to get home if the rain did not stop soon.

Celeste turned and went back to Johnny. Almost out of habit now, she put her hand to his forehead. This time though, a twinge of alarm went through her. He felt warmer than he should, and he stirred slightly as she softly touched his cheeks and then his forehead again to confirm that his temperature was rising.

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open. After a moment’s confusion, he looked up at her.

“Stopped raining yet?” he asked her sleepily.

“No,” she answered. “But it’s not heavy.”

“If it’s not heavy, then we should head home,” Johnny suggested.

“I don’t think so, Johnny,” she replied. “In fact, I think you should lay down for awhile. Your temperature is up a little and we shouldn’t take any chances, certainly not out in the rain.”

He pulled the blanket close and pushed himself out of the chair to turn and face her.

“We can’t stay here all night, Celeste,” he told her firmly.

She shook her head and smiled. “If you’re worried about my reputation, it’s not worth your getting sick again.”

“I brought it on myself.”

“That may be so, but it doesn’t change anything.”

It was Johnny’s turn to shake his head stubbornly. “No, Celeste, this time I’m serious. I want you to get dressed. We’re going.”

“No, we are not,” she told him, just as determinedly. “I am not going to let you risk your health any further.”

“Dios! Why do you always have to have your own way?” he asked her hotly.

Celeste gasped angrily. “Me? If it weren’t for your pig-headedness, we wouldn’t even be here!”

“Which is why we’re leaving!” he shouted back at her, his temper getting the better of him.

“We are not leaving. You are not going out in that weather.”

“An’ just how do you think you’re going to stop me?” he fumed. “I’ll go alone an’ leave you here if I have to.”

Celeste’s own temper snapped. “Mon dieu, quel imbecile!” she raged, and marched furiously over to the table.

Before he knew what had happened, she had pulled his gun from the holster on the table and turned around to point it at him. She held it steady with both hands and glared angrily at him.

“Celeste…” he yelled at her in surprise. “Put that down.”

“No, you’re not going anywhere,” she snapped at him. “You make one move for that door, John Lancer and I swear I’ll shoot you!”

Johnny’s temper cooled instantly and a grin spread over his face. “What? You’re going to shoot me to stop me catching a cold?”

Celeste’s temper did not cool however, even though she could see the foolishness of the situation. It only frustrated her and made her angrier. She glared at him furiously.

“If I have to! ” she told him doggedly. “I mean it, John. You’re not leaving.”

To her amazement, he walked straight over to her and took the gun out of her hands with no thought whatsoever for what she might do.

He put the gun onto the table and took the edges of his blanket in his hands and turned around to face her.

Her pretty blue eyes were ablaze with anger and her cheeks were flushed bright red. He smiled sardonically and lights danced mesmerizingly in his own deep blue eyes.

She stared at him, suddenly very unsure of herself.

Johnny put one arm around her waist, folding her inside the blanket he wore, and pulled her in close to his body. He felt the warmth of her skin on his, then he tilted her chin up to face him and looked into her eyes, searching for a hint of approval. He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers, tentatively at first, and then with more and more passion as his hunger for her grew unbearable.

His hand slid to her throat and then round the back of her neck, wrapping his fingers in her soft blond hair in a tender caress. Her eyes closed and he felt her body relax against his, pressing still more tightly against him as she gently wrapped her arms around him and answered his kiss.

She wished the moment could go on forever, but eventually Johnny pulled back from her lips and smiled tantalizingly into her eyes.

She looked up into his face and whispered in an agonized voice, “You could have been shot!”

His eyes twinkled and his smile took on a boyish magic while he whispered, “Not with an empty gun.”


“I didn’t reload it, remember?”

She pushed him away angrily. “Zut!” she stormed. “Johnny, I will burn your clothes if I have to. You’re still not going out in that rain.”

“All right,” he grinned beguilingly. “All right, I give up. I’ll be a good boy an’ do whatever you say.”

He pulled the blanket back around him and walked over to the cot and sat down. “See?”

“It’s about time,” she said, her temper diminishing again. “You’ll really do as you’re told this time?”

“Sure,” he answered good-humouredly, lying back on the bed lazily. “Just one thing.”

“And what is that?”

His grin broadened mischievously, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in delight. “You might wanna pick up that blanket you dropped.”

Celeste turned around and saw the blanket lying in a heap on the floor and blushed scarlet as she realized she was standing in front of him in her underwear.

She turned a furious glare on him and snapped, “Zut!” then picked up the blanket and angrily wrapped herself in it.

Johnny laughed aloud, but inwardly his thoughts were on only one thing.

Oh boy, he said to himself, my big brother is going to kill me!




Darkness fell quickly that night. There was no twilight with the clouds above them. Celeste cursed their luck. The rain had cleared just after dark, too late for them to get back to the hacienda.

By the time night fell, Johnny’s temperature had risen higher, and even he had to admit that he was going to be in for a rough night. Soon after, he lay back on the cot, under his blanket, feeling listless.

He turned his head, expecting to find Celeste sitting beside him, but she wasn’t there.

Quickly scanning the room, squinting to see through the little bit of light that the lamp threw on the room, he spotted her standing by the open door, hugging the blanket around her, gazing into the darkness.

“Celeste?” Johnny called softly.

She turned towards his voice. “I thought you were sleeping,” she said from the doorway.

“No,” he answered her. “Celeste, bring me my gun and belt please.”


Johnny sighed in exasperation. “Just once, will you do something I ask without an argument?”

Without a word of reply, she walked to the table and picked up the gun belt. The pistol was already securely in the holster. She had put it back when he had lain back in the cot.

She took it to Johnny and handed it over to him and he pushed himself up onto one elbow.

“Thanks,” he told her and pulled the gun free. With the confidence of second nature, he proceeded to load it, even though his fingers were shaking slightly as he pulled the bullets from the belt. He frowned and forced them to do what he wanted.

Finally, he closed the cylinder and returned the gun to the holster. He looked up at her.

“Now, take it and remember – the next time you point it at someone, it’s loaded.”

“I don’t want it, Johnny. What do I want with a gun?”

“Just take it an’ don’t argue with me,” he insisted and pushed it into her hand.

She took it reluctantly, looking at it with distaste.

Johnny lay back down again, suddenly feeling very tired. “Listen to me, Celeste,” he said determinedly. “This shack is no secret. Lots o’ people use it, an’ it’s way out here in the middle o’ nowhere.”

He rested momentarily before continuing. “I’m not gonna be much good to you tonight, so I want you to keep that by you in case you need some protection.”

Celeste sat down on the edge of the narrow cot. She held her blanket closed with one hand and laid the weapon in her lap.

“All right, if you insist,” she told him quietly. She didn’t want him worrying about her in his condition.

“I do.”

“How do you feel?” she asked him uneasily, gently putting her hand on his forehead and hoping that her concern wasn’t too evident to him. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were unnaturally bright.

Johnny smiled at her though. “Honest?” he asked. “Not so good.”

She ran her hand down the side of his face and found it just as hot to the touch. She didn’t like it, and she liked it even less that he had admitted to it. She pulled the blanket back up over his naked chest, and was dismayed to think that the ground he had won back over the last week was being dug out from under him again. He was still terribly thin, but he had begun to put weight back on over the past few days.

“I’ll get you some water,” she told him quietly and walked purposefully over to the bench where the jug of water sat. She rinsed a coffee mug out and filled it with water then turned back to Johnny.

He needed to be warmer. The one blanket just wasn’t enough.

Celeste made up her mind. She put down the mug and walked over to her clothes. The riding habit was still damp, but it would be bearable, so she dropped the blanket and dressed quickly, then picked up the blanket and the mug and went back to Johnny.

“Johnny?” she whispered as she sat down on the side of the cot again.

He’d been resting and opened his eyes at the sound of his name.

“Drink this,” she told him, and he rolled carefully onto his side to take the mug. Celeste watched his hand tremble ever so slightly as he held it to his lips. She waited until he had drunk enough to satisfy his thirst and then gently pushed him back onto his back.

She spread the second blanket over him, pulled it up to cover his chest and tucked it around him carefully.

“Serves me right, huh?” he said quietly, with a lop-sided smile that tugged at her heart.

“Hardly, Johnny.”

She reached into her pocket, remembering the handkerchief that was still there. She pulled it out and poured the rest of the water from the mug over it, then wiped his face with it.

To her surprise, he coughed, not once but twice. Deep rasping coughs that brought a wince of pain from him that he didn’t even try to conceal from her.

A sharp jab of fear stabbed at her stomach. Even when he had been at his worst, he had not coughed like that, and she dreaded to think what it might mean. The possibilities that ran through her mind terrified her.

“You need to get some sleep,” she whispered soothingly to him, praying that he couldn’t see the fear in her eyes or hear it in her voice.

He turned his head back to her and gazed at her. She had loosened her hair and the lamplight fell on it, giving it a soft golden glow. He thought, again, how beautiful she was, but the concern on her face was obvious to him, and he felt a twinge of guilt.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“What for?”

“Takin’ advantage o’ the situation before.”

“Don’t be silly,” she told him with a smile. Her smile broadened and a twinkle lit her eyes. “And besides – I rather enjoyed it.”




        Celeste watched Johnny slip slowly off to sleep. She had never been in a situation like this before and panic almost set in as she realized that she, and she alone, was going to be responsible for him throughout the night.

Where was Scott, now that she needed him? She wished he was here to support her. Above all, she wanted him to talk to. That kiss had given life to an emotion that was new to her.

Her polite upbringing in Boston had hardly prepared her for what she was feeling now, but then again there was French blood in her veins.

She looked at Johnny sleeping and his vulnerability evoked an instinct that she knew was not passion. It was protective, if anything, even maternal. But her reaction to his kiss had been anything but maternal, of that she was certain.

Celeste had never been kissed like that before, swept away by its power and a thrill of desire. It had been as though the world around them had no longer existed. There had been just the two of them, drifting alone, with no sound but the pounding of her own heartbeat in her ears.

Standing up and getting one of the chairs, she told herself not to think about it now. She had to concentrate on Johnny and keeping that fever at bay. She looked in the larder and found a clean towel. It would be far more effective than her handkerchief, so she grabbed it and, picking up the jug of water, and the chair, she brought them back to his side and sat down to watch over him.

She was tired, and prayed that she wouldn’t fall asleep and let him down. But as the night wore on, she had no time to think of sleep, or much else. The night air cooled quickly, and she had to keep him warm.

There was so little that she could do. It was frustrating. She kept his face as cool as she could, and pulled the blankets around him when he tried to push them off, but the fever took hold quickly, and his cough began to worsen.

When a particularly violent bout of coughing brought him painfully to his senses a few hours later, she found herself sitting behind him on the bed holding him in her arms trying to ease his pain.

When he finally lay back into her lap, exhausted, he gasped in agony, and wrapped his arms around his chest. His eyes, when he opened them on her, were brilliant and his face burned red with fever.

She lifted him enough to allow her to get up from the bed and sat down on the chair again. He was disturbingly easy to lift, and he let her do everything for him, without question, adding fuel to her fears for him.

Celeste had the towel thoroughly wet now, and ran it over his face, neck and shoulders, even down his arms, trying to reduce the heat in his body. She pulled the blankets back as the fever rose higher. They had served their purpose, but now they only insulated the heat he was radiating, and she had to bring it down.

She offered him water, but he pushed it away, so she lifted his head to the mug and forced him to sip a little.

“Is it your rib that hurts, Johnny?” she asked him anxiously, as she took the mug away and let his head slip gently back onto the pillow.

He shook his head.

“Don’t think so,” he whispered. “Feels different….hurts to breathe…an’ to cough.”

A chill ran through her. Could his lung have collapsed again?

“Johnny,” she said urgently. “See if you can take a deep breath, and hold it if you can. Do you understand?”

He nodded his answer. He drew in his breath and held it for an instant, before breathing out again. His face twisted with the effort, but he was able to do it. She prayed that it meant that his lung had not collapsed.

Something was very wrong, but at least it wasn’t that.

“That’s good,” she told him with a sigh of relief, bathing his face lightly and soothingly. “Now rest. It’ll be light soon and we can get you home.”

She was only too aware that daylight would bring decisions. She had to get him back to the house as soon as she could, but the question remained – how? She refused to even consider leaving him alone while she went for help, but how would Murdoch and Jelly know where to find them if she didn’t seek help?

She had put off the decision until morning, but as the sun’s first rays began to lighten the room around her, she knew that the time had come to face it.

The last hour or so had brought him some semblance of peace. He still coughed spasmodically, and his breathing was fast and shallow, but his temperature seemed to have leveled off.

Celeste left him sleeping while she went to the doorway to look outside. The weather had cleared to what she would normally have welcomed as a fresh crisp morning, but the dilemma she faced took all of the enjoyment from it, and left her frowning and worried.

She turned to go back to him, and saw that his eyes were open and watching her.

“Morning,” he whispered as she approached.

“Good morning,” she replied, sounding as cheerful as she could for him. “You look a little better.”

“Sure I do,” he answered, with just a hint of an ironic smile. He looked towards the door. “It’s nearly light.”

“Just about.”

He closed his eyes, seemingly trying to gather his thoughts, and then opened them up on her as she sat down beside him.

“Can you saddle the horses?” he asked her quietly.

“Of course I can, but you can’t sit a horse like this, Johnny.”

He smiled at her. “Once I get on, all I have to do is stay on. Barranca will do the rest.”

She shook her head doubtfully. “I don’t know, Johnny. It’s a long ride home.”

“No other choice,” he told her. “Go saddle them…please.”

Celeste looked at him and knew that he was right. There didn’t seem to be any other way. “All right,” she agreed reluctantly. She took his hand and squeezed it gently and confidently. “I won’t be long.”

He nodded in answer and she left him to go to the barn.

The mare Jelly had provided her with yesterday was quiet and easy to saddle, but Johnny’s palomino seemed to take exception to her coming anywhere near him. He made it as difficult as he could for her, but she persevered and finally led both animals out into the daylight.

She tethered them to the hitching rail and went back inside. To her amazement, Johnny was not only up on his feet, but had managed to struggle into his pants and shirt. He hadn’t bothered to button the shirt, and she found him sitting on the chair trying to pull on socks. His hands shook visibly, so, without a word, she walked over and took them from him.

She helped him put the socks on first and then pulled the boots on and buttoned his shirt. He said nothing at all during the whole process, but watched her every move intently.

She decided against helping him into the jacket. It was cool outside, but the heavy material was still very wet and would only make matters worse.

When she finally had him dressed, Celeste put her hand to his forehead to check the fever. To her relief, it seemed to be down a little, but he was still flushed and terribly weak.

“I don’t know about this, Johnny,” she said, apprehensively.

“I can do it,” he assured her, but she took no confidence from his reply. He would say that anyway.

Celeste sighed, accepting that he was right. There wasn’t much choice.

“Come on then,” she finally said. She slipped her hand under his elbow to support him as he stood up. She could feel him wavering unsteadily under her hand, and he trembled while he fought to stay on his feet.

“Let me help you,” she offered softly, and for a moment it appeared that his pride would get in the way of common sense, but he relented.

Not only did he not try to shake her off, but he nodded slowly and said “Thanks.”

Still holding his arm, she wrapped her other arm around his waist and led him to the door.

“My gun belt,” he reminded her.

“I’ll come back for it,” she answered and helped him as he made his way to Barranca.

The cool morning air hit him and started him coughing again. He stopped and fought his way through the attack, then caught his breath and went to Barranca’s side.

Johnny patted the horse and whispered reassurances to him, keeping him steady.

“Johnny?” Celeste asked hesitantly, one last time.

He turned his head towards her and smiled warmly. “It’s all right,” he said confidently, more confidently than his pale face or his shaking body led her to believe.

He lifted his foot into the stirrup and pushed himself off the ground and into the saddle.

Once there, Johnny thought for a minute that he couldn’t possibly stay there after all. His head spun dizzily and nausea almost overwhelmed him, but he had meant what he had said. All he had to do was to stay in the saddle. Barranca would take him home, and Celeste with him.

It wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d planned though. Already he was finding it hard to keep from fainting.

Without a word, he watched as Celeste collected his jacket and gun belt from inside the shack and then ran back out to him.

She ran to his side and breathlessly asked, “Are you okay?”

“Sure,” he answered her vaguely. “Let’s get going.”




        Celeste nudged her horse a little closer to the palomino. She was riding as near as she dared, keeping a wary eye on the man riding him.

Well, riding might be an exaggeration of fact. Johnny had certainly made a desperate effort to stay in control but it hadn’t been long before first his head drooped and then he had slowly sagged forward.

He had lost consciousness entirely after half an hour and Celeste had ridden close by his side ever since, watching carefully lest he begin to slide from the saddle.

So far, he was still safely mounted and Barranca seemed to have sensed his master’s needs. The horse, normally frisky and rebellious, walked slowly and purposefully, apparently heading for home.

Of necessity, their progress was slow. It would be a long ride home.

She marveled at the steady easy gait the horse had maintained. There was a bond, an understanding, between the palomino and his rider, that many people would scoff at, but watching Barranca, there wasn’t a shadow of doubt in her mind that the animal was looking after Johnny.

An hour into their journey, Celeste heard hoof beats approaching from a long way off.

Taking her eyes off Johnny for long enough to see who was coming, her heart leapt to see Murdoch Lancer riding hard towards her. A wave of relief swept over her. At last, at long last, the burden would be shared.

“Celeste,” Murdoch called as he came within earshot.

“Murdoch, thank heavens,” she called back. “We have to get him home, to bed.”

Murdoch reined in his horse and leapt to the ground. He checked his son fearfully, noting his fever with dismay.

“How long has he had the fever?” he asked her quickly.

“Most of the night,” she answered despondently. “We got caught in a rain shower and found some shelter, but it didn’t stop until after dark and it was too late to get him home.”

Murdoch heard the distress in her voice. “It’s all right, Celeste. You did the right thing.”

“He’s been coughing, Murdoch, and he was in a lot of pain. Something is terribly wrong.”

“Jelly’s right behind me with the wagon,” he quickly explained. “He’ll be here in a few minutes.”

He dragged his eyes away from his son to look at the young woman who had stayed by his side throughout the worst of his illness. For the first time since he had met her, he saw tears in her eyes.

“We’ll get him home, Celeste,” he assured her kindly, and then pulled Johnny gently from the saddle. He caught his boy safely in his arms as he fell, and lightly lowered him to the ground.


The wagon rumbled noisily along the deeply rutted road out of Blackwater.

Val Crawford handled the reins with practised ease while Scott rode behind, vigilantly watching the three outlaws who sat in the back of the wagon, jolting uncomfortably with every rut and rock.

They had started out at daylight, determined to make a good start on their journey. All three prisoners were manacled securely to the side of the wagon and their feet shackled. Val Crawford had come prepared to take no chances with his charges.

Both Scott and Val knew that they were dealing with men who had nothing to lose. These men were already facing the gallows if they were convicted in Spanish Wells, so a couple more dead men to their names couldn't make their sentences any worse and just might gain them their freedom. Any chance offered them was a chance they would take, and neither Val nor Scott had any illusions about their likelihood of surviving if they got loose.

The cool air of the morning soon wore off, and so did the novelty of the task they had taken on. Ahead of them lay five days of being constantly on the alert for trouble. It was going to be a hot, dry and dusty trip and one slip on the part of either of them might give their captives a chance to kill them both and escape.

But it wasn’t doing anyone any good to dwell on that. While Scott kept a wary eye on the men in the wagon, a seemingly unconcerned Val had begun whistling a tune that Scott could not identify. Perhaps if Val hadn't been tone deaf, he might have carried the tune better, but Crawford's whistling left a lot to be desired.

"You gonna keep that up all the way to Spanish Wells?" Ross sneered.

Val grinned and stopped whistling to answer. "If I've a mind to," he told him flatly, without turning around. He kept his eyes on the road and happily went back to his whistling.

Whiteley groaned. "Ain't enough he wants to hang us, he wants to drive us outa our heads first." The man shifted position a little and caught Scott's attention.

"Stay put!" Scott ordered him curtly.

"My legs're goin' to sleep," Whiteley called back angrily. "Ain't no way to treat a human bein' - like a sack of flour."

Scott bit back an answer. Human Beings! He found it hard sometimes to look at them and think of them that way. Surely they had given up the right to call themselves that when they had begun taking men's lives so callously.

Instead, he ignored the remark. Val had warned him not to get into arguments, or even conversation, with them. They would probably try to needle him into losing his temper and, with it, his concentration. He had no intention of letting that happen.




“He’s awake now, Murdoch,” Sam Jenkins told him as he came down the stairs and into the Great Room. “I’ve left Teresa with him for now.”

“How is he?” Murdoch asked him anxiously, while Celeste looked on. She looked pale and tired.

Sam sighed deeply. “He has Pleurisy, Murdoch. The fever has weakened him and he’s in considerable pain when he coughs – when he breathes for that matter. But, for the moment, he’s in no real danger.”

Celeste looked hard at him. “For the moment?” she quizzed him fearfully.

“That’s what I said, Celeste,” he replied. “’For the moment.’ The linings of his lung are inflamed and rubbing against each other. That’s why he’s in pain. But it’s the complications that I’m worried about. The real worry is that fluid could build up and bring on pneumonia, or it could cause his lung to collapse again. That left lung of his is still not strong enough to stand much pressure. So, I’m going to have to replace that drain in his chest.”

“That puts him just about back where he started,” Murdoch said despondently.

“Just about Murdoch, but not quite. If we can get that fever under control quickly, and with the drain as well, to take the pressure off his lung, I think he’ll come through this fine. We still have a good chance of preventing things getting worse if we can bring his temperature down,” Sam reassured him. “Right now, I’d like you to give us a hand upstairs, Murdoch. I’m going to have to sedate him to put that drain in.”

Murdoch nodded. “Certainly Sam,” he agreed, and then he turned back to Celeste. “Will you be all right on your own here, Celeste?”

“Yes of course,” she insisted, though she abhorred the idea of waiting alone. “Go ahead. I’ll wait here for you.”

She watched the two men leave and sat waiting alone for a while, and then she stood up and walked around the room. She tried looking through the vast array of books that lined the wall, not really interested enough to take one down to read, just browsing inattentively. Anything to take her mind off the waiting.

The room was huge and crowded with furniture, yet it seemed empty. It needed people in it to bring it alive. It suddenly felt as though it was going to close in around her. There was no sound but her own footsteps, and it grated on her already shredded nerves. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to get out.

She walked out into the courtyard, almost gasping for a breath of air as she stepped through the door, but even the ranch seemed unnaturally quiet. Nothing seemed right.

A small voice tore through the silence and startled her.

“Hello Celeste,” Maddie said softly, looking up at her from her seat on top of the low adobe wall that surrounded the garden.

The little girl looked lost and just as lonely as she felt herself, although Drifter was quietly lying at her feet. She sat in the sunshine; kicking her heels against the wall and lowered her head to watch them in much the same way her father had a habit of doing.

Celeste had come to recognize that, while she didn’t look a lot like her father, the child emulated many of his mannerisms. Whether she did it intentionally or not, Celeste hadn’t yet worked out.

The dog looked up as well when it heard Celeste approaching, but it paid her no further attention, lowered its head and stayed close to the child.

“Hello Maddie,” she answered, as she walked over to join her. “Worried about your Papa?”

“Uh-huh,” the child replied, nodding.

Celeste smiled at her and told her, with more assurance than she really felt; “Dr. Jenkins says he’ll be fine when we get rid of that pesky fever.”

Maddie stared down at her feet, kicking them idly against the wall as though the action gave her something to concentrate on other than her father.

“He was hurting last night, wasn’t he?” she asked enigmatically. The child had a way of getting right to the heart of the matter.

There was obviously no point in hiding anything from her. This child somehow knew things she had no way of knowing anyway. “Yes,” Celeste admitted, putting her arm around the little girl’s shoulders. “But he’s going to get better soon.”

The little girl said nothing but went on quietly studying the rhythm of her heels knocking against that wall.

“Did you know, Maddie?” Celeste asked her candidly.

Maddie nodded silently. “He was cold.”

Celeste was stunned. “How did you know?”

The child shrugged her shoulders. “I just did. Just like Mama and Yaya, I guess. It just happens. I told them he needed us. Grandpa always believes me now, but he didn’t always.”

Maddie seemed to think nothing of it. She was blasé about it all.

Celeste didn’t understand Maddie’s gift, but she felt compelled to accept it as fact.

She’d seen it more than once now, and it was far too much for just coincidence.

Murdoch Lancer had come looking for them this morning. Of itself, that had not surprised her. His son had been out all night in bad weather, so it was natural that he would be looking for him. But she had been surprised that Jelly had been following him with the wagon and that Sam Jenkins was ready and waiting when they got back to the hacienda.

Did Murdoch put so much faith in what the child said?

It seemed that he must have. On the way back, he had told her that they had all been confident that she and Johnny would have taken refuge in the line shack. It was the natural thing to do in the rain.

He’d told her that they had not been unduly worried until early in the morning, but he hadn’t mentioned what had changed his mind. Now, it seemed likely to Celeste that it had been Madelena’s fears for her father that had been responsible.

“You must love him a lot to know things like that,” she told the little girl kindly.

At last, Maddie turned her face up to her own. Her big brown eyes were wide with innocence. “He’s my Papa,” she said, as if it were all that was needed for explanation. “I always know if he needs me.”

It was all so simple in the little girl’s mind. There were no questions of how, or why. They didn’t matter. It was all perfectly natural to her.

“I see,” Celeste answered distantly. 

Madelena looked quizzically at Celeste. “Do you like my Papa?”

Celeste didn’t have to ponder an answer. “Yes, I do.”

The little girl smiled inexplicably. “Well, that’s good,” she said firmly, but she added nothing more, and went back to distractedly kicking her heels against the wall.

“Why’s that?”

Maddie smiled conspiratorially. “It just is.”

“Maddie, do you ever ‘know’ about other people?” Celeste asked her, carefully changing the subject.

“You mean, like Tio, or Grandpa, or Auntie Teresa?” she replied curiously. She shrugged her shoulders, and thought about it. “No. I knew about Yaya when she got sick, but not anyone else. Not so far, but maybe I will one day. Yaya knew about lots of people.”

The child nodded her head and continued. “She always knew about Papa, even when he was a long way away. Sometimes she would get very worried about him, but then she would smile later and tell me that he was okay. Then he would come to visit and she would fuss over him.”

Maddie grinned. “He didn’t like that much.”

“Visit? Didn’t he live with you?”

“Oh no, he couldn’t do that and be a gunfighter as well,” she explained innocently. Obviously it made perfect sense to her, but to Celeste, it was one more enigma to try to sort out about Johnny Lancer.

“Tell me about Yaya,” she asked the child. She was curious, but, more importantly; she felt it was distracting the little girl from focussing on her father's illness. “Who is she?”

Madelena smiled. “My abuelita,” she said, and seeing her confusion, she translated. “My grandmother, well really my mama’s grandmother.”

“Oh,” Celeste smiled, understanding at last. “Grandmère.”

“Grandmère?” Maddie repeated, thoughtfully considering the word. “That’s pretty.”

“It’s French,” Celeste explained. “My grandmother was French. She taught me to speak French just like you learned to speak Spanish.”

“Would you teach me some French words?” Maddie asked, her attention caught at last.

“Certainly, if you teach me some Spanish ones.”

“Okay,” she agreed happily and then looked over Celeste’s shoulder.

Celeste turned around to find Murdoch approaching them.

“Hello ladies,” he said, sounding cheerful. “Maddie, are you all right?”

She nodded. “Yes, Grandpa,” she told him. “Is Papa okay?”

“He’s sleeping, honey, and he's doing just fine. You can see him later when he wakes up,” he assured her. “Why don’t you go see Maria about some lunch?”

Madelena looked back at Celeste and seemed almost reluctant to leave, but she jumped down from the wall beside Drifter. “Okay, Grandpa,” she agreed.

She ran towards the door, with the big silver dog running at her heels, and then she stopped and turned back to Celeste. “Hasta luego, Celeste,” she called back with a wave of her hand.

Celeste smiled back at her. “A bientot, Maddie,” she answered, and watched her until she was out of sight. Then she quickly turned back to Murdoch.

The smile left her face, and the worry returned. “How is he?”

“He is sleeping,” Murdoch reiterated. “Sam says he’s doing fine. Now why don’t you come back inside? Sam’s waiting.”

He slipped his arm around her shoulders comfortingly and led her back into the house where she found the doctor waiting.

“There you are Celeste,” Dr. Jenkins said as she entered.

As she got closer, Sam noted the fatigue and the tension in her face. He knew she must have sat up with Johnny all night but he figured that she was exhausted by the stress as much as by the effort.

“We thought you’d want to hear my instructions too, my dear,” he explained as she took the seat that Murdoch offered.

“Thank you,” she whispered uncomfortably.

“He’s going to need around the clock care,” the doctor began. “We have to bring that fever down, and quickly. He’s still weak from that bullet.”

He looked at Murdoch. “Murdoch, can you get hold of some ice if we need it?”

“Yes,” he answered quickly.

“Good, now I’m going to be coming back this evening. I’ll stay the night, if that’s all right with you Murdoch?” he suggested.

“Of course, Sam. Your room is still made up.”

A whimsical smile crossed the doctor’s face. “Keeping it ready nowadays are you?”

Murdoch shook his head grimly. “Sam, since those boys came home, we’ve had to keep it ready for you.”

Sam Jenkins nodded his agreement and then he continued. “Johnny has to be kept quiet and still. Above all, he needs rest so that he can build his strength back up. The only way I can see of ensuring that the pain is minimised for him, and sleep comes easily, is going to be laudanum. We all know that he won’t like it, and you’ll probably have to fight him on it, but we’re going to have to win on that one.”

Both of his listeners nodded their acceptance of the plan. Murdoch silently dreaded having to enforce that decision. He knew how much his son disliked laudanum and he hated the idea of forcing it on him. “Whatever it takes, Sam,” he said morosely.

Celeste had no experience of his abhorrence of the drug, but she knew his stubborn streak and could imagine how much of a battle they would have on their hands.

“And this time,” Sam said emphatically. “He will have to have complete bed rest, until I say otherwise. His body can’t take another set back like this. You give that boy an inch, and he’ll take a mile.”

“I’ll see to it, Sam,” Murdoch told him just as firmly.

Celeste nodded her head in determined agreement. “He’ll stay put,” she added confidently, and both Murdoch and Sam Jenkins were taken aback by the girl’s quiet self-assurance.

“All right. Teresa is staying with him for now. I’ve already told her all this,” Sam informed them. “Murdoch, you take over from her in a couple of hours. And you, Celeste, are going to bed. You’re exhausted and you’re no good to Johnny or anyone else until you get some sleep. Understood?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly. She wasn’t sure how much sleep she would be able to get when she was so worried about Johnny, but she knew he was right.

“Good girl,” Sam told her considerately, and then he hurried her off. “Go on then. There’s no time like the present.”

She smiled appreciatively at the two men and then turned and went up the stairs towards the room she just about considered home now. She turned back to them one last time and said ironically, “Good night gentlemen.”

“Bed,” Murdoch boomed in answer, and got a shy smile from her before she turned and did as she was told.

He and Sam watched her go up the stairs. Tired as she was, she still carried herself with a measure of grace that was undeniable. Murdoch turned away to pour two glasses of brandy.

Still facing the stairs, Sam said with a knowing smile, “She’s a fine girl, Murdoch. You know, you could do worse for your son.”

Murdoch turned around and handed his friend the glass. He frowned gravely as he considered Sam’s words. “I know, Sam,” he agreed. “Trouble is – I’m not sure which son.”



As she reached the top of the stairs, Celeste headed first to Johnny’s room. The door was closed and she tapped lightly before opening it and going in.

Teresa looked up, surprised to see her. She was sitting in the chair beside the bed, quietly watching Johnny as he slept.

“I thought Sam was sending you to bed,” she reprimanded her gently.

“He did, and I am going. I just wanted to see Johnny first.”

“Come on in then, but he’s still asleep,” Teresa said quietly. Even though they both knew that he would not waken from his drug-induced slumber for some hours, they spoke in hushed tones.

Celeste walked slowly over to the bed. He was propped up with pillows again with his chest bare except for the bandages that were still wrapped around him to protect his wound. He wasn’t pale now though, as he had been when he was last in this room. Instead he was flushed with fever and his hair hung limp and wet on his forehead.

She thought it was all so unfair. He’d already fought this battle once, and he had been winning. Now he was right back where he’d started.

He looked so young, much younger than she knew he was. He almost looked like a little boy, desperately in need of help. He was painfully thin, and his chest rose and fell only a little with every quick breath he took.

He coughed a couple of times and frowned. Even in his sleep, the pain was troubling him. Sam Jenkins was right; he would be in a lot of pain when he woke.

Celeste turned to face Teresa. “Will you wake me if you need help?”

Teresa smiled. “Of course, but he’ll be fine. You go and get some sleep.”

When she didn’t go, Teresa stood up and went over to her. She knew from experience how hard it was to hand over the nursing of someone you cared about to another. And, unlike Murdoch, she already knew which of the Lancer brothers had captivated Celeste.

“Go to bed, Celeste,” she told her, taking her lightly by the arm and leading her to the doorway. “I promise I’ll call you if he needs you, but you need to get some rest yourself.”

Allowing herself to be guided out of the room, Celeste finally made her way to her own room. The sunlight streamed through the window, and the sounds of the ranch penetrated the room.

She pulled the curtains closed, effectively darkening the room a little, but it was too warm to close the windows.

She undressed and got into the bed but she knew she would never get any sleep. She was exhausted, but all she could think of was Johnny. She replayed the events of the last twenty-four hours and wished she could relive them and prevent this.

If only she had been watching him when he took it into his head to ride out, maybe she could have stopped him. No, she would have stopped him – with a frying pan over the head if necessary.

But she and his family had been trying to give him some space. Maddie had said it – he hated being fussed over.

But give him an inch….

She laid her head on the pillow, closed her eyes, and remembered nothing more. Sleep came after all.




The morning wore on interminably for Scott. He watched the men in the wagon carefully and listened to Val's tuneless whistling until he thought he would go mad.

He knew each of those men by name now. He'd watched them so closely, for so long, that he knew every feature of their faces and, if anyone was crazy enough to have asked him, he could even have described the badly stitched three inch tear in the right sleeve of Whiteley's faded blue checked shirt.

Ross appeared to be their leader. He was by far the oldest of them, probably in his mid-thirties, and he was tall and thin with a hint of gray peppering his brown hair and moustache. He held a kind of loose authority over the other two. It reminded him of a wolf pack. They did as they pleased, but if they annoyed him, he abused them angrily, and they backed off.

Whiteley's constant grumbling was getting on everyone's nerves. He wasn't as tall as Ross but he was thin to the point of being sickly looking. There was a scar on his face that ran diagonally in a jagged line from his temple to his ear, and Scott wondered idly whether it was from a knife or a bullet. Of the three of them, Scott found him the most disturbing. Perhaps it was because of that ugly scar, or perhaps it was the sneering way he had of speaking. Whatever the reason, Scott felt that he was a man to beware of.

And that left Tugwell. The man they now knew for certain had shot Johnny. He’d made no secret of it in the saloon, so there were plenty of witnesses who could attest to it. His outburst at the jail yesterday had been enough to convince Scott anyway.

Scott had been surprised to realize that the neatly trimmed moustache Tugwell wore was designed to hide the fact that he was little more than a boy. Eighteen or nineteen was what Scott guessed.

Scott thought hard on what would lead a boy into this sort of life. Had he grown up like Johnny? Alone and struggling just to survive? Or had he just been born bad? Maybe he had just been a kid in search of fame and fortune, who thought he had stumbled on to an easy way to make it big?

Whatever the reason, all he was going to find at the end of this road was a hangman's noose and an early grave in the cold, unforgiving earth.

And Scott felt no sympathy for him.

By midday, Val had finally given up the whistling as a lost cause. Scott had sighed with relief as much as the men in the wagon.

They had stopped, for a while, by the side of the road. It was more to give the horses a rest than to eat. Though they had made good time, they weren’t as far along as either of them had hoped to be. It was going to be a good five days back to Spanish Wells if all went well.

If all went well! A lot could happen in those five days, and both of them were going to have to be careful at all times.

Nevertheless, they had let the prisoners out to stretch their legs and Val produced an unappetizing meal of beef jerky for all of them and tepid water from canteens to wash it down.

Scott never had learned to appreciate that particular western delicacy, but hunger had driven him to eat it before today, so he joined them without a word.

When the short stopover was finished, he and Val exchanged positions for the afternoon - Scott driving the wagon and Val riding as guard. The change gave them both a chance to re-awaken their flagging senses and maintain their vigilance. At the same time, it was a respite from the boredom.

It wasn't much of a change though.

Scott now found himself studying the ruts in the road instead of the faces of the prisoners. There was no conversation between them, and not much scenery to look at, even if he had dared. The thought of those men behind him was enough to keep him awake even though the sun and the boredom tended to make a man drowsy.

And so, either way, it was a tedious afternoon. There was only Whiteley's griping and the sounds of the wagon and the horses to break the endless monotony of silence.

It was going to be a long five days back to Spanish Wells.



        Crawford called a halt for the day when they came upon a likely looking grove of trees near a small creek. Scott stood guard while Val took each of the men from the wagon, one at a time, and secured them all to trees. They sure wouldn’t be comfortable sleeping like that, but Val and Scott could not have cared less. 

        The chains jangled noisily as they shuffled awkwardly across the ground under Scott’s watchful eye. He meant to get some sleep without having to worry about them.

By the time they had made camp and fed their prisoners, night had fallen. The darkness brought a new set of concerns for Val and Scott. Both of them were tired from the constant concentration of staying alert all day, but neither of them was happy with the idea of trying to sleep with one eye open, watching the prisoners.

The two men decided to take turns at keeping guard over the men, even though they were confident that they were not going anywhere. There was no point in taking any chances.

So they were soon preparing to get some well-earned rest themselves. Scott would take the first shift, while Val slept for a few hours, and then wake him to take over for the rest of the night.

Val nodded off to sleep quickly and easily. Scott had already come to realize, from their first night on the trail together, that Val Crawford had a knack of being able to sleep whenever or wherever he needed it, no matter how uncomfortable his position. Scott envied him the gift.

But he also snored louder than any man Scott had ever known. It was enough to keep the bears awake through hibernation. And it was just one more thing that Whiteley found to whine about for a while, before he too finally gave in and fell asleep.

Tugwell shifted uncomfortably for a while and stared morosely into the fire, keeping his thoughts to himself. He’d been silent for most of the day, speaking only when he’d gotten tired of Whiteley’s constant griping and told him to shut up. Eventually he too fell asleep.

Scott made himself comfortable, or at least as comfortable as he dared. He had no intention of dropping off to sleep while he had the watch. He sat, leaning against a tree and staring into the darkness, with his rifle resting easily across his lap.

There was no time tonight for gazing at the stars.

He relaxed a little, with two of his charges already asleep, but Ross eyed him speculatively from a few feet away, and it gave him a disturbing feeling.

“Is what you said yesterday true?” Ross finally asked him quietly. “Your brother really pulled through?”

Scott scowled at him and thought seriously about refusing to answer him. “Yes,” Scott answered carefully. He had no desire to get into conversation with the man, and even less to discuss Johnny with him.

The man shook his head in wonder. “Ya know,” he said at last, “I heard tell that he took that bullet full in the chest, an’ dropped like a stone. Seems to me that not many men would live through that.”

Scott snorted angrily. “You ‘heard tell’ did you?”

Ross grinned. “I wasn’t there, remember?”

“Sure,” Scott sneered, and then paused uneasily for a while. Then he continued unexpectedly. “The bullet hit his rib and missed his heart.”

He had no idea why he had explained it, but saying it out loud felt good. It reminded him that Johnny really was alive. Being around these men all day had been a constant reminder of how close Johnny had come that day, and he found it nagged at him.

The man laughed softly, not wanting to waken the other men around him. “Well, what do ya know? I guess that’s what the padres would call a real miracle.”

“Maybe,” Scott acknowledged coldly. “I guess you could call it lucky - being shot in the chest and surviving - but he damned near bled to death. He didn’t exactly get away with just a scratch.”

Ross nodded his head, understanding. “Lucky man all right,” he said, with no hint of an apology. He paused and then added, “Stupid thing for a fella to do, you know, shootin’ an unarmed man like that. Gets people all het up. Now me - I wouldn’t have had any part in that – no sir!”

“Is that right?” Scott answered disbelieving.

“Yeah. Real stupid to go after the girl that way too. Nothin’ gets a righteous lawman more riled up than man-handlin’ a woman. Only an idiot would try that. It just ain’t worth the trouble it causes.”

“You’re quite the expert, aren’t you?”

The man grinned at him and winked. “I b’n around some.”

“What about the driver and the guard? Wasn’t killing them stupid too?”

Ross shrugged his shoulders indifferently. “They knew the risks when they took the jobs,” he answered coolly.

Scott was amazed at the sanguinary attitude of the man. He seemed to have his own twisted set of moral standards. Scott found himself considering Jack Ross carefully. There was something curiously fascinating about him, and he found himself wanting to understand how the man’s mind worked.

“So, how did you come to be mixed up with a pair of idiots like them?” he asked Ross outright, indicating Whiteley and Tugwell with a nod of his head.

Ross shook his head and grinned. “Sometimes you have to take what you can get. Good help is hard to come by these days.”

The answer was a long way from satisfying Scott. “And hard to control too, I suppose?”

“Yeah, you gotta watch ‘em all the time,” Ross replied. “They’re liable to do somethin’ stupid an’ get you into trouble.”

He might have been mistaken, but Scott thought he had caught a warning in Ross’ words.

“So, you’re the brother from back east, I guess,” Ross said, changing the subject.

“How do you know that?”

“Word gets around,” the man answered nonchalantly. “Lancer’s a big spread, an’ Murdoch Lancer is pretty well known. An’ Pardee had himself a pretty big name too. Old Man Lancer suddenly havin’ two sons to help him against ol’ Day had to get people’s attention. ‘Specially when one of them boys is a fella named Johnny Madrid.”

“I suppose so. Johnny has never made any secret of who he is.”

“Wouldn’t hardly be able to I reckon.”

“Yes, I’m learning that,” Scott told him tersely.

“I was back east once,” Ross told him, taking a different tack. “New York City it was. Didn’t like it much. I’ve seen barrios down in Nogales that were cleaner than that place. Couldn’t get away fast enough.”

Scott smiled. The New York City he knew was a socialite’s heaven with mansions and hotels and a social-life that rivalled any in the world. No doubt Ross had seen a different side of the city – one that he was grateful that he had never been obliged to spend any time in.

“So your brother is okay, is he, Lancer?” Ross asked again, after a while.

“He was getting back on his feet when I left,” Scott told him coolly.

“Glad to hear it.” He saw Scott's doubtful expression and added, "I mean it. I saw Madrid in action in Nogales years ago. He couldn't have been more than a kid then, but he was really somethin' to see. Suddenest fella I ever saw - fast as lightning. Took out two gunmen that day, on his own. Woulda been a shame if he was taken out by a punk kid like Tug."

Scott didn't know how to take that. He’d heard bits of that Nogales story before, but Johnny had never seen fit to tell him about it himself. Scott sometimes wondered if Johnny ever would open up and tell him about those days.

It was part of the Madrid legend – ‘mystique’ you might call it - and a small part, deep within him, was proud of Johnny's reputation for Johnny's sake. In many ways, his reputation was about all he’d had back then, and he’d worked hard at both making it and keeping it.

But Scott couldn't bring himself to admit that, not even to himself.

His thoughts turned to the last time he had seen his brother. He hadn’t wanted to leave on that note, but he had known he had to do this. It was for himself as much as for Johnny. He would never have been able to accept the idea of them getting away with what they did.

But, the thought of Johnny getting back on his feet suddenly gave Scott pause to think. He hoped Johnny wouldn’t do anything foolish with him not there to stop him. Once he started to feel better, his wayward brother was likely to push himself too hard and, this time, he could do himself serious harm.

For the first time since starting out, Scott felt a twinge of concern about Johnny. He’d left home feeling secure in the knowledge that his brother was well on the way to recovery, but was he still all right?  Had he gone and done something stupid?

He suddenly felt cut off from them. He wished there was some way of knowing for certain.




Celeste woke up in the dark room feeling totally disoriented. She lay drowsily on the bed and, for a moment, she thought she was still in the darkened line shack and panicked. She sat up and a thought suddenly flashed into her mind and grabbed her attention.


She realized where she was then and she leapt out of the bed and quickly threw on a robe, and then made her way down the hall to Johnny's room.

The door was open and she stopped there and looked in. The lamp in the room was lowered, giving the room a subdued glow that threw dark shadows eerily around the walls. Murdoch sat by his son's side, wiping his face with a cloth.

He looked up as he heard Celeste’s light footsteps.

“I thought you were still sleeping,” Murdoch said quietly to her.

She looked Johnny over anxiously. His face and chest were covered in a fine sheen of perspiration and seemed to glow in the lamplight, and his breath was coming fast and shallow. His brow was creased in a deep frown, although he didn’t appear to be conscious.

“Has he woken at all?” she quietly asked Murdoch, walking closer to the bed.

“Yes,” Murdoch answered. “He woke for a little while a few hours ago. We got some laudanum into him before he knew what it was.”

Murdoch turned back to Johnny and dipped the cloth into the basin of water again, wringing it out and gently wiping down his son’s chest and arms. Then he wet it again and repeated the whole process again patiently.

While she watched, Celeste saw Johnny’s eyelids slowly lift to reveal eyes that were brilliant with fever.

Very faintly, she heard him whisper, “Murdoch?” as he became aware of the presence of others in the room.

“I’m here, son,” Murdoch answered him soothingly. He put his hand on Johnny’s arm to reassure him. “Take it easy, Johnny. I’m right here.”

Johnny coughed and his face contorted with the pain that it brought him. His eyes suddenly took on a wild look and he jerked his head around to face his father. “Gotta stop him!” he whispered desperately.

“Stop who, Johnny?” Murdoch asked him calmly.

His father’s words didn’t seem to get through to him. “Gotta stop him…” he said again and, before Murdoch knew what was happening, Johnny thrust himself forward and tried to throw off the covers.

“Scott…gotta stop him…” he cried out as Murdoch caught him and forced him back against the pillows.

The exertion brought on a fit of coughing that had him gasping for breath and Murdoch turned to Celeste while he held his son down.

“Get Sam, Celeste. He’s in the room at the top of the stairs.”

She didn’t wait to be told a second time. She spun on her heels and ran down the hall, stopping only when she got to the room where Dr. Jenkins was sleeping. She banged loudly on it, barely holding back the panic rising in her. Her heart beat frantically and she fidgeted for what seemed like hours waiting for the doctor to answer the door.

She reached up to knock again, but it opened.

Sam Jenkins appeared in the doorway, dishevelled and unshaven. He looked like he had been sleeping fully dressed, but he was wide-awake now and in a hurry.

Celeste stepped aside hastily to let him pass.

“What’s happened?” he asked her as they hurried up the hallway.

“He woke up and started raving, trying to get up,” she told him quickly. “Murdoch is holding him down so far.”

They got to Johnny’s room to find Murdoch wrestling with his wild-eyed son, trying to keep him from getting out of bed. Johnny was calling out and cursing his father for holding him down.

Murdoch didn’t look up when they entered the room. Celeste wasn’t sure that he was even aware of their presence until they got to the bedside. All his concentration was on holding his son back.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. Johnny fell forward into his father’s arms and Murdoch held him there for a minute, gently rubbing his back to comfort him as though he were a child. Then he lowered him back onto the pillows.

Exhaustion kept Johnny there this time, panting and sweating profusely, but he was awake and apparently lucid. He closed his eyes while Murdoch moved aside to let the doctor in to examine him and, apart from coughing, he lay quietly, allowing Dr. Jenkins to do whatever he wanted.

Sam held his wrist lightly to check his pulse, and then put his hand to his forehead to feel his temperature. He examined his chest carefully and finally made sure that the drain was in place and not dislodged by his thrashing.

When he was satisfied that no further damage had been done, Sam sat down carefully on the edge of the bed.

“Johnny, can you hear me?”

Johnny’s eyes opened, and they seemed to focus on the doctor, but he said nothing.

“You need to rest, John,” he told him slowly. “I’m going to give you something for the pain, and you’re going to take it. Do you understand?”

Johnny forced himself to answer. “Don’t need it….”

“Johnny, I’m the doctor here,” Sam insisted. He nodded to Murdoch to pour the laudanum into a small glass of water for him. “I decide what you need, young man, and you’re going to do as I say this time.”

A barely discernable movement of his head from side to side was his answer, but he eventually managed to say, “I’ll do what ... whatever you want, but … no laudanum…”

Murdoch stood beside the doctor and handed over the glass to him. In exasperation, he told his son angrily, “Johnny, we’ll force it down if we have to...”

Sam held his hand up to stop him. “Murdoch, that’s not helping,” he told him sternly, and then turned back to his patient. “Johnny, your heart is racing way too fast. You’re in pain every time you breathe, let alone when you cough. You have to get some rest so you can beat this, and you need the laudanum to get some relief.”

Weak though he was, Johnny glared furiously at them. “No, I can handle it.”

Celeste sat down softly on the opposite side of the bed and covered his hand with hers. “You don’t need to handle it, John,” she told him resolutely, and he turned his head a little so he could see her. “And there’s no reason to make your family have to watch you try to. You have got to let us help you.”

“No…” he whispered grimly, but his defences were failing him.

She ran the back of her hand lightly down the side of his face and he closed his eyes at her touch and seemed to relax a little. The heat his body radiated shocked her. It was so much worse now than it was when she had left him earlier.

His hand felt almost fragile in hers.

“Please, don’t fight us, John,” she whispered soothingly. “We only want to help you.”

Sam Jenkins took advantage of the lull in his attention to slip his hand behind Johnny’s head and bring him forward just enough to drink from the glass. Even so, he made a brief show of fighting it, but finally swallowed it. Murdoch handed Sam a glass of water to offer him to wash down the bitter taste, and Johnny accepted it quietly.

He lay back against the pillow once again, and the doctor stood up and beckoned Murdoch to follow him.

“Celeste,” Dr. Jenkins said quietly. “Do you think you can sit with him, while I have a word with Murdoch?”

“Of course,” she answered and went around to the chair on the other side of the bed. “In fact, you should get some sleep, Murdoch. I’ll call you if I need help with him.”

“If he gets delirious again…” Murdoch began dubiously.

“I won’t take any chances, Murdoch,” she assured him. She had seen what the delirium was like and was well aware that if it happened again, she would never be able to hold him on her own. “I’ll call you straight away.”

As the two men left the room, Celeste made herself comfortable. She took the cloth from the basin and began to wipe away the sweat from his face.

His skin was searingly hot to the touch and flushed bright red. His eyes, when he turned them on her, were almost black, and he struggled to focus them on her.

“Stay…” he managed to say faintly.

She reached over and took his fevered hand in hers. “I’m not going anywhere, John.”

He had already begun to settle down, whether just from exhaustion, or whether the laudanum was already taking effect, she didn’t know. His eyes were closed now and he didn’t have the strength to open them, let alone to say anything, so Celeste bathed him with the cool wet cloth and watched as he drifted off to sleep.




“Murdoch, you said you could lay your hands on some ice?” Sam asked him when they left the room. “I think you’d better get it. I want ice packs around that boy by morning. We’ve got to get that fever down, or he’s not going to make it.”

“I’ll get it right away,” Murdoch told him. He shook his head angrily. “Scott should be here but there’s no way we can reach him. I wish I hadn’t let him go.”

“My understanding is that no one exactly ‘let him go’.”

“Maybe not, but it’s playing on Johnny’s mind, Sam,” he said despondently. “I just wish he was here.”

“Well, he’s not,” the doctor said coldly. “What we have to do is bring that fever down so that we don’t have to worry about what’s on his mind.”

“You’re right, Sam. I’ll get that ice.”

Sam nodded. “I’ll go back and stay with Celeste for a while. She’ll need a hand if he gets delirious again.”




“Hey Tug, you disappointed you didn’t finish Madrid off that day?” Whiteley asked him with a malicious grin. He said it loud enough so that Scott would hear him from his position as guard, riding behind the wagon.

Whiteley had given away his complaining for a while when he had discovered a new game. Needling Scott Lancer was proving to be fun, and, who knew, if Lancer bit, he might just give them the opportunity they needed to get away.

They had set out early again. Both Val and Scott had managed to get some sleep during the night, but both of them knew that if they went like this for another four days, they were both going to be exhausted by the end of the journey and their concentration levels would be severely put to the test. 

Val had suggested that if they stuck to the roads, it might take longer to get back to Spanish Wells, but they could take advantage of towns along the way.

He knew of a couple of towns where they could stop over for the night. If the timing was right, that meant there would be at least two nights that he could reckon on when they could borrow the jail cells for the night and get a decent night’s sleep with the prisoners safely under lock and key.

But for now they were back to the same monotonous rut of the day before. They had kept to the same routine and would change over positions after lunch. There was nothing to break the boredom but Whiteley’s voice, and everyone had had enough of that, even Tugwell and Ross.

Whiteley’s grin broadened with satisfaction when he looked at the grim expression on Scott’s face. He didn’t need to hear Scott snap back an answer to know that he was getting under his skin. Scott’s face gave him away and he took malicious delight in it.

“Woulda made you a big reputation, Tug,” Whiteley went on, with one eye on Scott to make sure he heard. He didn’t want to miss seeing his reaction.

“Shut up, idiot!” Ross snarled angrily.

Whiteley only laughed, but was cut off abruptly as the wagon hit yet another bump in the dry dusty road and jolted him off balance.

He struggled back into a sitting position and carried on his baiting of Scott Lancer. It was the only entertainment the trip had afforded him so far, and he was beginning to enjoy watching Lancer’s face set harder and harder.

“Aw, come on Jack,” Whiteley laughed, and turned to Tugwell. “Woulda been free drinks from here clear to Texas, Tug. Everyone wantin’ to hear the story o’ how you gunned down Johnny Madrid.”

He looked back towards Scott to make sure that he was still listening. Scott was studiously ignoring Whiteley, but his jaw was clenched tight.

“Hey Tug,” he continued with feigned excitement. “Maybe they’d even write one o’ them ‘penny dreadfuls’ about it, huh? You’d a been the man who took down the great Johnny Madrid! You could tell everyone how that Mex pistolero wasn’t nowhere near as good as they say.”

“Hey idiot,” Ross snarled angrily. “I said shut-up! We weren’t even there, remember! We don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Finally, Whiteley understood what he had been trying to tell him. “Well, I heard tell that Madrid went down real easy,” he answered absurdly.

“Whiteley,” Val Crawford said dispassionately, and without turning around. “If’n you don’t shut your trap, I’ll gag you for the rest of the trip.”

Scott wasn’t sure who Whiteley took more notice of, Val or Jack Ross, but he did close his mouth for a while, and then went back to griping about his discomforts. Whiteley didn’t seem to acknowledge that he was facing a trial at the end of the road, or that he was likely to hang if he was found guilty.

Scott couldn’t figure out whether it was because he was just plain stupid or because they had something planned between them.

Tugwell and Whiteley weren’t a threat. Both Val and Scott had talked it through and had already worked that much out. They were cold-blooded killers, but they were stupid. They were followers, not leaders. They didn’t have the brains to plan an escape, even between them.

But Jack Ross did.

He was affable, almost friendly at times, but behind those apparently jovial eyes of his, Scott was sure there was the brain of a clever – no devious - man. He’d been in the ‘game’ for a long time, and, if he hadn’t hooked up with idiots like these two, he might still be getting away with it.

If any of them was going to come up with a plan to break away, it was Ross. Scott was sure that he was the one they had to worry about all right.  



Night gave way to the pink skies of dawn, and the dawn stretched out into the day, and still there was no change in Johnny’s condition. The fever still burned, although the ice had brought it down a little. He hadn’t woken again after that one occasion through the night, but neither had he been as violently delirious as he had been then.

Teresa came into Johnny’s room to find Celeste still by his bed, holding his hand firmly with one hand and cooling his face with a wet cloth in the other.

Sam Jenkins had fallen asleep in the easy chair by the window. His coat was off, thrown untidily across the back of the chair, and his vest was undone and fell open on a shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar. He was asleep with his head lolling back uncomfortably and his arms hung limply down by the sides of the chair, so that he reminded Teresa of a rag doll.

         Johnny himself was restless. He was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and his head was turned away from Celeste as he muttered softly in a mixture of Spanish and English.

Teresa walked quietly into the room, carefully edging past the doctor so as not to rouse the poor man, and went to stand beside Celeste.

“Has he been like this for long?” she asked anxiously in a hushed voice.

Celeste looked up at her. “He was worse through the night. Murdoch only just managed to keep him from getting out of bed.” She realized, a little embarrassed, that she was still holding Johnny’s hand in hers and that Teresa had noticed. She blushed a little and explained, “It’s the only way he’ll lay quietly.”

Johnny’s head rolled over towards them and he whispered in Spanish. This time Teresa picked up a few words of what he was saying. “Lo siento, Scott,” and “Perdon.” She frowned and wondered what was going through his mind.

“I don’t understand what he’s saying, Teresa. Do you?” Celeste whispered.

“Yes. He said he was sorry.”

Celeste shook her head sadly and, like Teresa, she wondered what he meant by it. “He wanted to stop Scott from going after those men. I wonder if that’s playing on his mind. Last night he was thrashing around, trying to go after him.” She paused for a minute before adding, “I wish Scott was here.”

“So do I. Maybe he’d be able to reassure him.”

Celeste sighed. “We need more ice, Teresa. His temperature is down a little from last night, but it’s still far too high,” she said, as she pushed Scott from her thoughts.

“I’ll see to it and then take over for you,” Teresa answered. “You must be tired and hungry.”

“Not really, but thank you Teresa,” Celeste said quietly. Tears glistened in her eyes as Johnny coughed again and groaned softly. “I wish this fever would break. He’s getting weaker all the time.”

Teresa put her hand on Celeste’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Maria and I will get those ice packs, and then you get some rest.”



 By mid-afternoon, they realized that the ice was not working any longer. The fever had leveled off for a few hours and the ice had bought them some time, but that was all. It started to rise again and, by late afternoon, he had reached a crisis and his family was sure that his temperature reached the limits of human endurance.

         Teresa and Celeste looked on fearfully while it took both Murdoch and the doctor to hold him down through the throes of his delirium. He threw himself forward over and over and raved wildly in two languages. No one could reassure him or calm him and the coughing fits made it even worse. At times he seemed not to be able to catch his breath at all.

It continued for hours, until all three were exhausted and covered in sweat, but, finally, Johnny’s strength gave out and he collapsed back into the pillows. Murdoch held him down while Sam anxiously checked his pulse. It was racing uncontrollably, and he frowned as he panted himself from his efforts in helping Murdoch.

“Now,” he told them quickly and firmly. “Let’s get him out of that wet bedding quickly. If we can take advantage of this lull, we might get ahead of it - if we’re lucky.”

There was no time to waste. Murdoch and Sam lifted him carefully while Teresa and Celeste replaced the bed linen and then left the men to buff him dry and change him into dry underwear.

When Sam checked him again, his temperature had dropped substantially, and his heart, though still racing, was quieter. The deep rumbling coughs continued, but without the spasms that left him so breathless.

Teresa and Celeste slipped back into the room. It was Teresa who voiced the question on both their minds.

“Has the fever broken?”

Sam ignored her for a moment as he continued his examination. Johnny’s breathing was still short and shallow, and interrupted by coughing, but finally he looked up at her.

“It looks like it, Teresa,” the doctor replied with a heavy sigh. “And none too soon either. I don’t know how much more his body could take.”

Relief brought tears to Teresa’s eyes, and Celeste silently left the room. “He will be all right now won’t he?” Teresa asked nervously.

Dr. Jenkins looked at her kindly. “Barring complications from the Pleurisy, yes, he’s going to be all right. I’ll stay for a bit longer and make sure his temperature continues to drop. And we have to get some liquids into him. He’s badly dehydrated from the fever and the exertion.”

Tears began to fall down her cheeks and she turned to Celeste, only to find that she had left. Teresa went out and found her leaning against the wall outside Johnny’s room. She was pale and tired, but she looked relieved. Tears flowed, silent and unbidden, down her cheeks as well and she looked at Teresa without a word.

“It’s okay, Celeste,” Teresa assured her. “Dr. Sam says he’ll be all right.”

Celeste’s hands flew to her face and she cried openly at last. Teresa took a step towards her and she fell into Teresa’s comforting arms and sobbed desperately.




        Celeste walked into the hushed room and over to Teresa’s side. The outpouring of emotion had given both of the girls a tremendous sense of relief from the awful tension of the last couple of days. It had also brought them closer together. 

When Celeste let go of her pent up fears, Teresa found herself able to do the same in a way that she had seldom been able to do before. She had always put on a ‘brave face’ for the men of the household, but it was hard. So, having a woman close to her own age and who had already formed a strong attachment for the Lancer men, she finally had someone she felt she could reveal all of her own fears and emotions to.

“Has he woken yet?” Celeste asked her quietly.

Teresa shook her head. “No, but his temperature is down now. The fever hasn’t come back.”

Dr. Jenkins had stayed well into the evening before finally confirming that the fever had indeed broken and, with a promise to return tomorrow to check on his patient, he bid them a weary farewell. He’d left them with firm instructions for nursing Johnny and told them that, under no circumstances, was the young man to get his own way this time.

He was to stay in that bed.

Now, well into the night, the Lancer household was quiet again. Murdoch was sleeping off his exhaustion, and Celeste had gotten some rest as well. This time, it was Teresa’s turn to sleep.

“Why don’t you go to bed now, Teresa. I can see you’re exhausted. I’ll watch him for a while,” Celeste told her sympathetically.

Teresa realized she was right, though she could hardly bear to leave Johnny. Finally she sighed and relented.

“All right, but make sure you get him to take as much of that honeyed water as you can,” Teresa advised her as she stood up and allowed Celeste to take her place. “And if he wakes up and seems to be in any pain, give him some of the laudanum. He’ll probably be too weak to fight you over it this time.”

Celeste made herself comfortable in the chair and settled down for a long night. She had barely been there a minute though, when she became aware of Johnny's penetrating blue eyes watching her.

"Hello there," she said, as cheerfully as she could force herself to sound. "Now, hush Johnny, don't try to talk. You've been very ill and you need to rest quietly."

She stood up and picked up the cup of honey-sweetened water, and then, wrapping her arm around his shoulders and making sure his head was supported, she gently pulled him forward enough to drink from the cup.

"Drink a little of this for me, Johnny," she told him softly. "It's only honey and water."

He did as she asked without a word, but his eyes never left her face for an instant. It broke her heart when she thought about just how easily she had been able to lift him. He had lost so much weight that she was able to do it effortlessly. But she was careful that he didn't see it on her face.

She carefully laid him back on the pillows and put down the cup, wiping away a stray drop of the water from the side of his mouth and then flicking his hair out his eyes. She smiled at him gently.

“You need a haircut Johnny,” she teased him reassuringly.

Johnny turned his head towards her slowly and she sat down lightly on the bed beside him. She could see that he was struggling to say something and she took his hand in both of hers and pressed it comfortingly.

“Shh. Everything is all right, Johnny,” she said softly. “You have to rest and get your strength back.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, but continued his struggle to voice his thoughts. “Scott?” he finally managed to whisper. His voice had a gravelly tone to it and was barely recognizable as his, but his eyes held her with what looked like a plea for help.

Celeste sighed with frustration. He wasn’t going to rest until he knew what was happening, and she had so little to tell him. Scott was more on his mind than his own health was, and she marveled again at the strength of the bond they had forged between them in so short a time.

“We got a wire from him, a couple of days ago, telling us that he and Sheriff Crawford had arrived safely in Blackwater. They were leaving the next day.”

She watched his reactions to try to gauge if he was taking the information in. He seemed to understand her, so she continued.

“We haven’t heard from him again yet, but your father says that’s not surprising because they’re on the road. They’ll wire us when they pass through another town, so we should hear from them soon. There’s nothing to worry about.”

He hardly looked convinced. What had originally been concern for his brother appeared to have developed into a deep-seated fear for him.

“Listen to me, Johnny,” she said firmly. “Scott is a grown man. He’s been making decisions for himself for a long time. You are not responsible for him.

It’s all right to worry about him. We’re all concerned. That’s only natural.  But he doesn’t need you to worry yourself to death, Johnny. He’d never forgive you, or himself. So you have to think of your own health right now.”

He looked unconvinced and she felt at a loss for something more to say.

“Maddie doesn’t seem to be worried about him,” she told him in desperation, and she thought she saw a brief look of relief cross his face.

He turned away from her wordlessly and coughed, and that made him draw in his breath painfully. Celeste felt him grip her hand involuntarily and knew that the slight frown on his face was hiding more pain than he would admit to.

“I’m going to get you something for the pain, Johnny,” she told him decisively and he looked back to face her defiantly.

Celeste wondered what he would have said or done if he had been well enough to do battle over it, and she smiled a little.

She read the rebellion in his eyes and ignored it.

“No arguments,” she insisted and poured the laudanum into a glass and raised it to his lips.

He tried fighting her, turning away from the glass, but his weakened state made it easy for her to get her way.

“John Lancer,” she said, resolutely. “We are going to get you back on your feet, even if we have to fight you every step of the way.

She got him to swallow some more of the water and then sat down in the chair by the bed. He said nothing, but she thought she caught just a wisp of a smile as he held his hand out to her.

She took it tenderly in hers and watched him slowly relax and fall asleep.



For a fall day, it was awful hot and dusty riding behind that wagon. Summer had risen from its grave like a phoenix, bringing its fiery heat with it for one last blast before yielding its hold over to the coming winter.

Scott was watching the men conscientiously, but it was harder today than it had been over the last two days. Even Whiteley had been quiet today, probably too thirsty to keep up the constant stream of complaints and abuse. Ross and Tugwell seemed appreciated the reprieve from his voice as well, though the sun was taking a toll on them as well.

Their second night camping on the trail had gone just as smoothly as the first. There had been no incidents with the prisoners and Scott’s and Val’s confidence had grown significantly. They had fallen into a daily routine with Scott riding guard in the morning and Val taking over after they stopped to eat and rest the horses at noon.

Today they traveled a little longer in the morning, in search of shade and water, so everyone’s nerves were frayed by the time they finally stopped.

Nevertheless, the two men were no less alert as they unloaded their human cargo and sat them securely in the shade of the few scrawny trees they had found by the road.

Val Crawford had worked it out that if everything went according to plan, last night might be their last sleeping on the trail. There was a town a few more hours ahead that would afford them a cell for their prisoners, and a bed for themselves. Then, if they made good time tomorrow, they could make it all the way to Cross Creek and stop off there for the night before the final leg of their journey back to Spanish Wells the next day.

That meant they would have two more days on the road after today, but at least with a good night’s sleep to keep them going through the days their concentration levels would be renewed and the chances of slip ups less likely.

Val Crawford was nobody’s fool. He was well aware that while he and Scott were taking turns to sleep only half the night, the three prisoners were getting a full night’s sleep every night. Sooner or later it was going to take its toll on them. Fatigue could kill a man in more ways than one, and a good night’s sleep would see them both back on top of their game.

“We’ll probably get into town well before dark,” Val told Scott quietly. “We could go a lot further ‘fore we run outa light, but I figure it’s worth stoppin’ early to get us a bunk for the night and a good night’s sleep.”

“And a decent meal.”

Val grinned at him. “Don’t like my cookin’ huh?”

“Val, let’s just say, you’re no Teresa or Maria.”

Val chuckled easily. “You’re just spoiled is all. You an’ Johnny are gonna be fat ol’ men if you’re not careful.”

Scott grinned at him. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen you decline the offer of their pies.”

“Nope, an’ I’m lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to some more too.”

“I’m all for it,” Scott answered.

Val grinned boyishly. “Figured you would be.”

Scott laughed lightheartedly. “So, do you think the local sheriff will lend us a cell?”

“Sure, long as it ain’t already occupied,” Crawford agreed. “Hap O’Connor’s okay.”

“Val, do you know every sheriff in California?”

“An’ then some,” Crawford grinned again. “Well, I ain’t never actually met him,” he confessed. “But I heard tell he’s a good man.”

He looked over at the prisoners and decided it was time to get back on the road. The sooner they were safely under lock and key, the better he’d like it.

“We ain’t getting’ there no sooner sittin’ here jawin’, Scott,” he said, getting to his feet. “Let’s get ‘em movin’.”

He didn’t have to give Scott any instructions. They had done this so many times now that they had the routine down pat. 

Scott took up his rifle and went straight to his position as guard, keeping a wary eye and his rifle trained on them, while Val turned Ross loose and marched him to the wagon and secured him in position before going back for Whiteley.

As per usual, Whiteley griped all the way. Val was tired of hearing it, but it was better than having him baiting Scott. He’d had to hand it to Scott, he’d taken all that needling damned well. Had Whiteley kept at it for much longer, Val would have put his fist down the man’s throat himself.

He secured Whiteley in the wagon, telling him yet again to shut up, and then went and turned Tugwell loose from the tree. He locked the manacles again and started him towards the wagon, when a shout ripped through the air.


Scott swung around quickly and Val turned his head away from Tugwell for just long enough.

Tugwell leapt behind him with all the agility of a cat, and threw his hands over the sheriff’s head, trapping him by the throat with the chain between his cuffs. He pulled the chain tight against Val’s neck and held him close against him.

Val was pulled back off balance and he dropped the keys. It happened in an instant, and Scott swung back, cursing himself for being so easily tricked.

Ross and Whiteley excitedly jumped up in the wagon, at least as far as they could before their chains stopped them. They were no threat, but Tugwell had Val under his control and Scott trained his rifle in his direction.

“Drop the rifle, Lancer,” Tugwell snarled at him. “Or I kill him.”

He jerked back on the chain and Crawford gasped involuntarily for breath. He gagged as the chain threatened to cut off his airway and choke him, but he didn’t say a word yet. His ear was so close to Tugwell’s face that he could hear the man’s breathing, and no amount of struggling was loosening the grip Tugwell had on him.

“Come on, Lancer,” Tugwell urged him angrily. “Drop the rifle and get the keys like a good boy, or he’s a dead man.”

Scott kept the rifle aimed squarely at Tugwell. He didn’t take his eye away from the sight, and the man laughed out loud in Val’s ear.

“You wanna watch while I squeeze the life outa him?” he sneered with an evil sparkle in his eyes. He was enjoying himself, taunting Scott and choking his captive. For the first time in days, Tugwell could see himself escaping the hangman’s noose.

He pulled the chain harder and laughed as Val gasped for breath, then he released the pressure a little, having proved his point.

Scott watched in horror, but there was no time to consider the situation. The chain was tight around Val’s neck and Scott had no reason to think that there was any other way out of this than to risk the sheriff’s life by trying to take Tugwell with a very risky shot, or giving in and letting them get away.

He wasn’t fooling himself either, by thinking that these men would leave them alive. The only chance the bandits would have would be to kill both of them and give themselves a good head start on any posse that might come after them after someone came across the bodies.

Scott knew he could make that shot. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that he could make it. He could put a bullet squarely between Tugwell’s eyes. But he was well aware that no one else here knew it, not even Val. Johnny would have known, and would have urged him to take it. He was sure of it.

And he wanted to take the shot. He wanted so badly to put a bullet between Tugwell's beady black eyes that he could almost taste it. It was like a hunger that burned into his very soul - hunger for revenge - for what he had done to Johnny.

And it would be so easy. They wouldn’t call it murder. No one would blame him if he did take that shot and blew the man’s brains out. Hell! They would probably hail him as some kind of hero. Val's life was in his hands, and taking the shot might just save him.

"Don't be a fool, Lancer," Ross called out to him from the wagon, seeing that Scott was seriously considering firing. "You don't wanna hit your sheriff friend."

Tugwell grinned malevolently and jerked harder on the chain around Val's throat. Val's face had turned beet red and he was forced back into a backbreaking position against Tugwell, gasping and struggling for breath. He tried to stretch his fingers far enough to get hold of his own gun, but it was impossible in the ungainly position Tugwell had him in.

The coward was using Val as a human shield and the sheriff’s head was pulled just high enough to allow only Tugwell's eyes and forehead to be visible.

There was no room for error, but that was all Scott needed. Johnny might be good with the handgun but even he knew that Scott was a hell of a marksman with a rifle.

He trained the Winchester unwaveringly on Tugwell with unerring precision.

"Put it down, Lancer," Tugwell snarled. "Or your friend here's dead."

Scott didn't answer. He could almost taste the satisfaction he would get if he fired that shot.

He looked into Val Crawford's eyes and tried to work out what he wanted him to do, but he couldn't read him. He had gotten to know him well over the last week, but not that well. Maybe Johnny could have read the message in his eyes, but he couldn’t.


Without even having to close his eyes, Scott could see his brother lying in the dirt by the stagecoach, slowly bleeding to death where the man trained in his rifle sight had left him. He pictured Celeste with Johnny’s blood spattered on her face and arms, and her hands scarlet red from trying to stop the bleeding.

He remembered the terrible loss of blood and he felt again the ice-cold fear that had gripped him when he realized that Johnny was giving up.

His brother had been dying in his arms, and he had been forced to take drastic measures to stop it - measures that would haunt him for a long time to come.

He felt a surge of hatred race through his blood that almost burst his heart. He’d never hated a man like he hated the man lined up now in the sights of his weapon. He’d never seen a man so clearly for what he was as he did now. Tugwell wasn’t just a young kid out looking for a big reputation. He was pure evil, and pure evil had to be stopped.

Scott looked down the long straight barrel of the rifle at the man holding Crawford. Tugwell was sweating now. Was he beginning to worry that maybe Scott really could make the shot?

Let him sweat! For the first time in his life, Scott looked a man in the eye and wanted to kill him in cold blood. He’d never wanted revenge before, but he wanted to kill this man.

Man? He didn't even rate the title. He was scum, and death would come to him soon one way or another. If he killed him now, Scott would only be cheating the hangman of his victim.

But what if, by some miracle, they got off when they were tried? What if, after all this, Tugwell and the others walked away free? Stranger things had happened in the courts. They could be released on a technicality. They could be set free if they weren’t identified or Val didn’t have the evidence he thought he had.

The idea of Tugwell walking away a free man was too much to bear. For an instant, the rifle moved as a tremor of pure hatred shook Scott to the core of his being.

"Ain't no good, Lancer," Tugwell sneered. "You fire an’ you’ll hit your friend here. Last chance, drop it or I pull his head right off." To show he meant business, he jerked hard again on the chain and Val gasped out loud.

Scott exhaled slowly, steadied his aim and fired.  



"Well, you certainly look better than you did last night," Murdoch told his son as he came in and sat down in the chair beside the bed.

Actually, the boy was pale and thin, a mere shadow of the boisterous, reckless young man he usually was. But as far as his father and the rest of the family were concerned, he was alive and recovering and that was all that mattered. The tension and the worry could be forgotten now that he was out of danger, and there was plenty of time ahead to ‘fatten’ him back up.

Johnny turned his head to face his father. His eyes didn’t quite focus properly and Murdoch guessed that he was still under the influence of laudanum. At least they’d been managing to get him to take it. Celeste seemed to have the knack of getting him to accept it, albeit with a fight every time she tried.

“Must look better’n I feel,” Johnny answered faintly, with a half-hearted attempt at a smile.

“You have to start listening to Sam, Johnny,” Murdoch told him firmly. “This time you nearly killed yourself.”

“I know,” Johnny admitted unexpectedly.

Murdoch sighed. “I think we need to talk, son,” he said and he was sure that he saw Johnny close down. Something in his son’s eyes told him that he wasn’t willing to discuss anything.

“Look, I know you’re worried about Scott. We’re all worried about him, but you know he can look after himself. So, I think there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?”

“Should’ve stopped him,” Johnny said abruptly. He closed his eyes and leaned further back into the pillows, a look of frustration on his face. “Should’ve stopped him.”


Johnny turned his head and opened his eyes on Murdoch. “He could get himself killed,” he answered angrily.

“He and Val aren’t fools, Johnny. You can trust them to be careful. I do.”

“I know that, Murdoch …”


“He’s angry,” Johnny told him. His voice sounded strangled with emotion, unlike anything Murdoch remembered hearing from him before. “’Cause of me.”

“You think he’s looking for revenge?”

“Maybe,” he answered, reluctantly.

“Scott’s got more sense than that,” Murdoch insisted, trying to sound confident. The idea had crossed his own mind once or twice since Scott had left. “He told you himself that he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. We’ve been all through this before.”

“He’s angry, and they’re right there where he can reach them, Murdoch.”

His father shook his head decisively. “You or I might think that way, but not Scott.”

“That’s just what I’m worried about.”

“What do you mean?”

Johnny closed his eyes to muster his strength. Murdoch could see how tired he was, but he intended to press him now that he had him talking. The laudanum and his illness had lowered his defences and Murdoch knew that he might not get another opportunity like this.

“Johnny, what do you mean?” he repeated. “What are you thinking?”

Johnny turned back to his father. “Murdoch, if he lets it get to him, if he does get square … it’d go against everything he believes in.” He stopped breathlessly and waited for a moment to get his breath back before continuing. “The guilt would eat him alive. He’d never be the same – never forgive himself once it was done.”

Murdoch looked at him closely for a minute. Johnny’s face reflected the turmoil that his emotions were in, but Murdoch suspected there was more to it than he had admitted. Something about the way Johnny had said it made his father need more.

“That sounds like experience talking,” he said at last, hoping his son might open up.

Johnny was quiet for some time, but Murdoch waited patiently and eventually he answered. “I knew someone once …” he said quietly, turning away from Murdoch. “Wanted ‘justice’ so bad, he was crazy with it. The man he was after deserved to die, ain’t no doubt about that, but….”

He turned back to Murdoch with a deep, troubling sadness in his eyes. “When he got that revenge he’d wanted so bad somethin’ inside him died. He got real hard, real quick.”

There was a note of regret in Johnny’s voice that told Murdoch that he was hearing some of Johnny’s own story at last. He’d wanted the boy to open up to him for a long time, but Johnny never would. Both of them had come to a sort of unspoken understanding that neither would ask the other about the past. When the time was right, it would just happen of its own accord.

But something had been eating away at the boy all through this last illness and he needed to purge himself of it. He had to talk about it, and now was the time.

“Johnny …” Murdoch began, but Johnny wasn’t listening. The laudanum and his own weakness had loosened him enough to keep him talking.

“He deserved to die,” he said with a kind of perfect confidence. “No one else would do it, so I did it. But it was the beginning …”

“Of Johnny Madrid?”

“Practised for months … practised till I was ready to take him on,” Johnny murmured, almost as though he was in some kind of trance. “But when you start down that road, there’s no turning back.”

He stopped, exhausted and suddenly aware of what he was saying. He seemed embarrassed and Murdoch hastened to reassure him.

“You couldn’t have been more than a boy, Johnny,” he told him. “It was a long time ago, and you’re a different man now. And Scott is not a boy. He’s a man, and he can make rational decisions.”

“Even if he’s angry, full of hate?”

Murdoch sighed. “I like to think so, Johnny. But whatever happens, it’s not your responsibility. It’s something Scott has to come to terms with. Do you understand that?”

Johnny was quiet and Murdoch was tempted to try again, but his son finally muttered, somewhat grudgingly, “Guess so.”

“It’s Scott’s choice in the end Johnny. You’ve done all you could – so have I. Now we have to trust him.”

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes, partly from exhaustion, but mostly because he didn’t want to think about it any more. He knew he’d keep worrying until Scott got back. But he didn’t want Murdoch to know. He just wanted to close the subject.

“Yeah, you’re right I guess,” he told him.

“Good,” Murdoch said, placing his big hand on his son’s arm to comfort him. “Now get some rest, son. And don’t worry about your brother. Trust him to do the right thing.”


Tugwell let out a howl of pain and threw his hands up to the side of his face. He jerked the chain around Val Crawford’s neck as he did it and Val seized the opportunity it offered to overbalance them both.

The two men fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs that raised a cloud of dust around them that hid the outcome from Scott and the other prisoners for a moment.

Scott ran over to them, his rifle at the ready.

Val Crawford quickly disentangled himself and slipped away from Tugwell's grasp. He sat on his knees coughing and gasping, holding his hands to his throat.

Tugwell lay on the ground rolling from side to side and holding the side of his face. Blood poured through his hand from the gouge Scott's bullet had traced along his cheek to the nick in his ear lobe.

Scott stood over him with the rifle aimed steadfastly between the man’s eyes. "Don't move a muscle, you bastard," Scott growled furiously. "Just give me an excuse, one little excuse, and I WILL kill you this time."

He stepped back a pace and gave the man some room to move. "Now get up! And do it nice and slow."

Tugwell stopped rolling around and found himself looking right into the barrel of the rifle. The grin had disappeared along with his bravado, and he got slowly to his knees and then to his feet. He watched Scott warily and believed every word he said, so he was careful not to give him any suggestion of the excuse he was asking for.

"You okay, Val?" Scott asked, without taking his eyes off the man in front of him.

"Yeah," Val croaked as he rubbed his neck where the chain had left a raw mark. He felt the telltale wet and sticky feeling of blood on his fingers. His neck hurt and his throat rasped badly when he spoke. But, more than anything else, his pride was hurt.

"Hand over the key then," Scott told him and held out his hand. He didn’t take his eyes off Tugwell, but lowered the Winchester to waist level, while still keeping it aimed directly at his prisoner.

"No," Val said, his voice hoarse and grating. "I'll do it. You keep your rifle on him."

The sheriff got to his feet and walked remarkably steadily over to Tugwell. Glaring furiously at him, Val half-pulled half-pushed the man to the wagon and secured him with the others.

He walked slowly back to Scott and quietly said to him, "Thanks Scott. That was damned fine shooting."

Scott turned to him with an angry scowl. "Are you sure you're all right?" he asked him curtly.

Val nodded. "Yeah," he answered, rubbing his throat. "I'll be fine."

Scott lowered the rifle at last, realizing that the prisoners weren't going anywhere now. He walked over to take a closer look at Crawford.

There was a nasty looking red mark across his throat that was already showing signs of becoming serious bruising, and there was a small cut bleeding in a thin red trickle down his neck. It was probably the result of that last jerk of the chain as he and Tugwell fell to the ground.

Scott took his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the blood from the sheriff’s neck. He didn’t think it was deep enough for stitches but it needed cleaning up to prevent infection.

“Sit down, Val,” he told him firmly, and went to his horse for the canteen, and the roll of bandages that Teresa always insisted they carry in their saddle bags.

“Don’t fuss, Scott,” Crawford complained with embarrassment. “It’s just a scratch.”

“I know it is, but if it gets infected you’ll end up sick and then I’m left alone with these three.”

He went back and cleaned and bandaged the wound for him. The white bandage around his neck stood out a mile against his tanned skin.

“Closest thing I’ve seen to a tie on you, Val … suits you,” Scott laughed.

“Funny,” Crawford growled. He walked over to his saddlebags and pulled out a bandana, tying it over top of the bandage.

He looked over at Scott and saw the question in his eyes. “Well, ya don’t think I want folks to see me with a bandage round my neck do ya?”

Scott smiled, but decided against saying anything further, and Val grumpily pointed to the seat of the wagon and said, “Now how ‘bout you get up on that wagon and we’ll get goin’.”

“I think you should get back up on the wagon,” Scott told him. He was worried that Val was more shaken up than he would be willing to admit. “I’ll ride behind like this morning.”

“Ain’t no reason to change plans. I’m just fine.”

Scott laughed again. “You sound just like someone else I know, and you can bet he’s never telling me the truth either Val, so no arguments – you drive.”

Crawford picked himself up and got up on the wagon. “Suit yourself. You wanna sit in a saddle all day, it’s fine by me. Just hurry up.”

“Good," Scott told him. "Now, let's just get out of here, Val."



        The wagon rolled into town around four in the afternoon. It was early to be stopping. There was still plenty of light and they could cover a lot of miles before they needed to stop, but the prospect of a cell to lock the prisoners in, and a real bed to sleep in, was just too good to pass up.

They drove straight to the sheriff’s office and Val jumped down to the ground, while Scott stayed put in the saddle keeping an eye on the three men in the back.

To say that they were attracting attention from the good people of the town would be an understatement. Shopkeepers, as well as their customers, and just about every citizen around, all came out to watch them, while the sheriff himself seemed to be taking his time.

The man finally emerged from his office and Scott was shaken.

As much as George McKendrick had been the epitome of what Scott considered a sheriff should look like, Hap O’Connor was not. He was overweight, wearing clothes that might have fit him twenty pounds ago, but didn’t now, and he was unshaven. His hair had receded enough to allow the sun to bounce off the top of his head and he would have passed more believably for the town drunk than the sheriff.

Scott’s disappointment was palpable. How could they leave their prisoners with this man? Could he even be trusted to make sure they were locked up?

“Sheriff O’Connor?” Val asked, stepping onto the sidewalk. “I’m Sheriff Val Crawford from Green River.”

The Sheriff squinted in the sunlight and scratched his chin idly. “Is that right? You’d be a long way from home then, Crawford,” the man replied with a wary smile and a faint, but distinct, Irish lilt in his voice.

“Taking these boys to Spanish Wells for trial,” Val explained very briefly. “We were hopin’ you might have a cell we could borrow for the night.”

“Well, I’m sure we can oblige ye, Sheriff Crawford,” the man said cheerfully. “And what would ye be chargin’ ‘em with?”

“Armed robbery, murder an’ attempted murder,” Val told him seriously.

“Well, well. Real bad boys ain’t they?” the man grinned. “Best ye get ‘em in here, then, an’ under lock an’ key.”

Scott dismounted and held the rifle on the prisoners as they were unlocked and marched into the jail. He breathed a huge sigh of relief as he watched them being locked up. It was the first time in days that he felt secure. The strain of having to be on the alert at all times had taken its toll on him, although he hadn’t even noticed it until now.

“Traveled far, have ye?” the sheriff asked as they stood in his office, having deposited their human cargo with him.

“Picked ‘em up in Blackwater,” Val told him. “Oh, an’ this here is a friend o’ mine, Scott Lancer.”

“Lancer, is it?” O’Connor said, extending his hand to shake with Scott. He turned a curious eye on Scott and cocked his head to one side. “Would that be from Morro Coyo?” he asked. “Murdoch Lancer’s son?”

“That’s right,” Scott replied, shaking his hand.

“Heard about that stagecoach robbery up there. These the fellas that did it?”

Crawford answered the question. “Yep. They shot up the posse too and the sheriff of Spanish Wells is laid up. That’s why I’m takin’ ‘em in.”

The sheriff nodded silently, and then scratched his head, thinking. “Seems I heard that one o’ the Lancer boys was hurt in that holdup.”

“My brother, Johnny,” Scott confirmed suspiciously.

“That why you’re with the sheriff, to make sure they get back to stand trial?”

Scott scowled. “I’ve been all through this before with McKendrick in Blackwater. They’ve made it this far and they’re still alive.”

O’Connor smiled, surprisingly charmingly. “Just checkin’ boyo,” he told him.

Scott smiled back at him, more confident in his ability now. The man not only had an astute mind, but he had tact as well. “Fair enough, Sheriff,” he answered. “Now tell me, do you have a telegraph office in town?”

“Across the road at the general store,” the man answered.

Scott looked across at Val and added, “How about a doctor?”

“Don’t need no doctor, Scott,” Crawford complained quickly and adamantly.

O’Connor nodded. “His office is right next to the saloon,” he told them. “Wondered about that stained bandana of yours Crawford. Had some trouble, did ye?”

“Nothin’ serious,” Val agreed, and then he turned on Scott and snapped. “An’ I don’t need no doctor.”

Scott didn’t bother to argue with him as they headed out the door. They crossed the road and went to the general store, each of them sending a wire. Scott wired his family to assure them he was safe and to let them know when he expected to be back. Val sent one to the sheriff in Spanish Wells, advising him when to expect ‘delivery’ of the prisoners.

From there, they headed for the saloon, but as they passed the doctor’s office, Scott grabbed Val Crawford’s collar and dragged him in through the door.

Fifteen minutes later they re-emerged from the doctor’s office. Val’s neck was properly cleaned, touched up with iodine and re-bandaged so that he was as good as new, if badly bruised.

His temper, on the other hand, was far from reclaimed. He let Scott know, in no uncertain terms, that he did not appreciate being ‘wet-nursed’ and that if that was how he treated his brother, it was no wonder that he called him a ‘mother hen’.

By the time they had gotten themselves a drink and a room, though, Val’s temper had cooled. They sat down together for the first decent meal they had had in over a week and Val relished every bite, though he winced every now and then when he swallowed.

Val found himself surreptitiously watching Scott as he ate. He was quiet, and he didn’t seem as interested in his steak as a man who had lived on beans and jerky for days should be. He looked like a man with something on his mind.

“Somethin’ botherin’ you Scott?” he eventually asked him candidly.

Scott finished the steak and leaned back in his chair. Actually, there was something bothering him. It had been eating at him all day, ever since he had looked at Tugwell down the barrel of that rifle.

“Spill it,” Crawford told him firmly.

“Val, have you ever wanted to kill someone?” he said at last. “I don’t mean just thinking about it or saying it. I mean really wanting to do it.”

Crawford wiped his plate with the last of his bread, and then put it in his mouth, chewed it and swallowed it, and all the while, considered the question.

Finally, leaning back in his chair, he answered it. “No, I ain’t never,” he said bluntly. “I’m guessin’ you mean our friend Tug.”

Scott sighed deeply. “Yes,” he said, and then hung his head while he admitted, “I wanted to pull that trigger, Val. I really wanted to put that bullet right between his eyes.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I came damned close though, Val. I nearly did it.”

“Don’t really matter what you nearly did,” Val told him bluntly.

Crawford thought about it for a minute and then leaned forward to cross his arms on the table in front of him. “Look Scott, I love Johnny like a brother,” he said, and then looked up quickly and added, “an’ don’t you ever tell him I said that.”

Scott smiled, despite the seriousness of the conversation. “My word on it. Never.”

“All right then,” Val continued, going back to what he had been going to say. “I saw how bad he was shot up, an’ I gotta admit, I was real riled up. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d gotten hold of them right then. But you, you were with him when it looked like he wasn’t gonna make it. It ain’t surprisin’ you feel that way.

Hell, if I’d held my brother when he looked like he was dyin’ in my arms, an’ then had a bead on the fella that put the bullet in him, I don’t honestly know what I woulda done.

Point is, Scott, you had the chance, an’ no one woulda blamed you if you’d done it. But you didn’t do it. You didn’t put that bullet between his eyes.” He grinned broadly. “An’ I got the feelin’ you could have killed him just as easily as you put that nick in his ear.”

Scott looked unconvinced.

“Don’t go beatin’ yourself up over somethin’ you didn’t end up doin’,” Val persisted. “You did the right thing an’ that’s all that counts.”

He grinned and added, “Hell, Scott, you saved my life doin’ it.”



Part One  Part Three
Submission Guidelines