Johnny could smell trouble coming. Well, maybe smell wasn’t the right word. It was more like ‘sense’ trouble. That was it – the old sixth sense kicking in again. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and his spine tingled with anticipation. Something was about to happen.
He took a casual look around him, careful not to alert Scott to anything yet.
The saloon looked peaceful enough. It was a quiet little town, in the middle of nowhere. They’d only stopped in to break the monotony of their long, hot and dusty ride. They were still a couple of days from Lancer and they were thinking it might be a nice change of pace to stay in a room for the night, instead of bedding down on the hard cold ground out under the stars.
It might be good to get out in the open for a day or two, but this had been a long trip and they looked forward to a few creature comforts tonight.
“Mmm that’s good,” Scott sighed, tasting the beer and distracting his brother from his thoughts.
Johnny looked at Scott as he took another sip of his drink and grinned happily.
“Yeah, sure,” he answered him, a trifle diffidently.
Scott turned to him. “Something on your mind, Johnny?”
Johnny grinned back at him, ignoring his disturbing senses. “Just wondering what Murdoch will say when we get home without that bull.”
“Well, that can’t be helped. The bull was dead from Anthrax – what can he say? We’ve got the money back that he paid.”
Scott had the check in his pocket. The rancher had returned the money willingly. He probably couldn’t afford it either. His whole herd was suspect at the moment. They had wished him well and high-tailed it out of there.
No cattleman wanted to be anywhere near Anthrax.
“Yeah, I know. Murdoch always seems to see it as someone’s fault though,” Johnny complained. He took another sip and laughed. “Mostly mine.”
“Don’t worry about it. There’s no way he can blame either of us this time.” Scott looked around him for a moment. “It’s still a couple of days’ ride home. I just want a bed for the night, and worry about all that later.”
Johnny’s eyes glanced to the mirror behind the bar and unobtrusively checked out the room.
The foothills were not much traveled as a rule. There weren’t many towns there, and the ones that did survive there were small and not likely to get any bigger. So the saloon was almost empty. He and his brother were the only ones at the bar, and the only other people in the room were the barkeep himself and a pair of trail hands sitting quietly at a table in the corner. They looked harmless enough, and Johnny didn’t see any reason why he should be worried about them.
Still, that feeling persisted.
“Something wrong, Johnny?” Scott asked him quietly. Trust Scott to pick up on it. He’d gotten to know Johnny too well over the last few years.
“Don’t know,” Johnny answered, just as quietly, and then shrugged his shoulders. “Guess not.”
He tried to dismiss it, but it lingered.
“Maybe we should just finish our beers and get out of here,” Scott suggested. He knew that Johnny’s sense for trouble could be trusted only too well. Why stick around to test it?
“Yeah,” his brother agreed and took a long drink from the glass in his hand.
Johnny heard the creak of the batwing doors and the heavy tread and jangling spurs of a new arrival, but he didn’t look up. He lifted his eyes to look into the mirror on the wall behind the bar, but he couldn’t see enough that way.
The footsteps stopped abruptly just inside the doors and Johnny had the distinct impression that his ‘trouble’ had just stepped in.
“Scott,” he whispered, still without moving. “Don’t look up or anything. Just finish your beer, nice and casual-like.”
“Nice and easy, Scott, just like I said. An’ don’t look around.”
Scott didn’t like it, but he went along with his brother. Johnny knew what he was doing. Or, least, Scott hoped that he did.
Johnny heard the word long before it was said, but the expectation didn’t make it any easier on his nerves.
It was cold and hard, and it echoed around the room. Men looked up, shaken from their reverie and staring at the newcomer.
Johnny ignored it for a moment, taking another casual sip from the glass of beer in his hand and never moving from the seemingly relaxed position he held, leaning against the bar, but every nerve in his body was alive and on the alert.
A change came over him, and Scott saw it happen. He’d seen it before, too often not to know what was happening. It was Madrid. Johnny Lancer had given way to his alter-ego. It was a matter of self-preservation, but a chill ran through Scott just the same.
“Should I know you?” Johnny finally asked the man idly. To look at him, no one would have guessed that he was wound up like a spring and ready for whatever was to come.
“No reason why you should, Madrid,” came the answer from the doorway.
This time, Johnny did look up. He continued to hold the glass and turned his head to take a look at the man who had called his name.
He didn’t know him. He’d never seen him before in his life – he was sure of that.
The stranger was a big man. He topped six feet and he was broad as a bull across the chest. He had the face of a youth, with good looks that went along with his big physique – dark hair, sea-green eyes and the shadow of what he obviously hoped would be a moustache one day soon.
He couldn’t have been older than twenty, but he had two guns tied low on his hips – a real fancy rig for a kid.
It was the sort of rig that mostly appeared in dime novels. Professionals tended to steer clear of them. They were only of any use if you could draw and fire with both hands, and there weren’t many men who could do it.
This kid looked all show, but Johnny had been wrong about things like that before. Hell, he’d bluffed his way through all kinds of fights in his day too. It was just possible that this kid really was good enough to handle twin guns.
“Then why don’t you just get yourself a beer and relax, kid,” he told the stranger coolly. “I ain’t lookin’ for trouble.”
The man sneered. “You ain’t gonna be no trouble, Madrid. You wanta do this here or outside?”
Johnny felt Scott move slightly. He turned his head back and took another sip of the beer, then put the glass down lightly and purposefully on the bar.
“Scott, get back outa the way,” he whispered low enough for his brother’s ears only.
“Johnny, you don’t have to do this,” Scott told him earnestly.
“I don’t want to do this,” Johnny told him, just as firmly. “But I don’t want you crowding me, just in case I have to.”
Scott knew he was right and the last thing he wanted to do was get in the way. He took a step back, very carefully so as not to get any reaction from the stranger. He backed a little further and then casually walked over to the far wall to stand beside the men at the table. They had looked up from their drinks, engrossed in the confrontation, and they looked like they were ready to move at the slightest sign of gunplay.
“I asked you a question, Madrid. Here or outside – it’s your choice.”
Johnny finally turned full on to the youth. “You seem like you’re in a mighty big hurry to get yourself dead, kid.”
The young man laughed. “I ain’t got any plans to die today. I’m better’n you, an’ I can take you.”
“You been practicing, have you? Yeah, I’ll just bet you have. Gettin’ yourself all ready to face off with the first gunfighter to come along,” Johnny answered casually. There was cold steel in his voice, and the words chilled all of the spectators in the room. “Well, maybe you can take me – an’ maybe not. I’m not interested in finding out.”
“You yella, Madrid? I never heard that about you.”
“Nope, just bored. Bored with the whole game, an’ sick of havin’ to leave a nice quiet town like this, payin’ for the buryin’ o’ the likes of you.” Johnny shook his head. “It just gets to be a burden on my pocket, kid. Get used to the idea – I ain’t fightin’ you! I’m here for a nice quiet drink, an’ a bed for the night. So why don’t you save me the trouble an’ just step up to the bar for a beer, on me?”
“Funny ain’t ya? I heard you could talk up a storm. Well I ain’t listenin’ Madrid. I’m bettin’ you’ve got old an’ slow.”
Johnny smiled – a cool calculated smile with no humor in it at all. It matched the icy glint in his eyes and it froze the men in the room that saw it.
“Could be I have,” he admitted with a shrug of his shoulders. The words old and slow reverberated in his mind. He was twenty-six years old. To most men he was still a kid himself, with a whole world of living and experiences ahead of him. But in this game he was just what the boy was saying. He was old, too old for gun-fighting, and well out of it. He didn’t want back in, now or ever.
When he’d been this kid’s age he’d had no expectations of making twenty-five, and he hadn’t really been worried about it. But that had changed when Murdoch Lancer had given him a chance at a new life. He’d taken a while to settle into it, but, in the end, he had reached out and grabbed it with both hands.
Sometimes he thought he really was out of the game. Most days he could forget that there had ever been a Johnny Madrid. Life was good at Lancer. He had family, friends, and a life where the most exciting part of his day was a new colt being born. Sure, Madrid came back to haunt him, but the occasions were getting fewer and fewer. He’d even heard of rumors that Madrid was dead, killed in a stage holdup, or in front of a firing squad in Mexico.
He did nothing to change those rumors. The more people who thought that Johnny Madrid was dead, the fewer there were who would come looking for him, and the better he liked it.
Johnny couldn’t think about that though. He had to put his wife and child out of his head and he had to try not to think about the little one on the way.
He knew this kid wasn’t going to be talked out of it. There was something hard about this one. Johnny had seen his kind before. That pretty-boy face hid a hardened heart inside.
“Could be I haven’t,” he told the kid coldly, his focus never leaving the boy’s eyes. He watched for a sign, the first hint that the boy had finished talking and was making his move. “Could be you’re just another kid, anxious for a reputation, an’ endin’ up in a pine box instead.”
Johnny grinned wickedly. “You got a name? I guess we’ll need to know what to put on the marker.”
The young man got angry. It was the first break Johnny felt he’d had. There was no place for emotion in this sort of dance.
“No more talk, Madrid. Just draw – right here.”
“Not interested, boy,” Johnny told him with a sigh. He started to turn away, hoping the boy would give up, but not taking his eyes off those green eyes of his for a moment. “Go home an’ let me finish my beer.”
The boy took the opportunity. Johnny had suspected that he would.
It was over in the time it takes to breathe out. Johnny’s gun was in his hand quicker than anyone could reckon, and his left hand flew up beside the gun and fanned the hammer back. It held the men in the room in awe, stunned by the lightning speed. One instant of noise and a blinding flash of light and it was all over.
The boy was quick too. His gun cleared leather and he got off his shot just before Johnny’s bullet hit his heart, but it went wild and came to a stop harmlessly in the ceiling. His eyes were still open when he hit the floor.
He’d taken his last breath, but Johnny Madrid was still standing.
Johnny slipped his gun back into the holster in one cool easy motion and stood staring at the boy lying dead on the floor.
Scott watched from the far side of the room. He’d seen it all differently. It had been like slow motion for him and he’d held his breath while he watched. It wasn’t the first gunfight he’d seen Johnny in, but he hoped it would be the last.
He’d hoped that every time though.
He gave Johnny a minute to relax. Madrid had taken over for the duration and his brother had to have a chance to unwind and let Johnny Lancer step back into his boots. Scott was always fascinated when he witnessed that change, but he hated it. Johnny Lancer was his brother, not Madrid. There was no place for Madrid in any of their lives now.
He walked casually back to stand beside Johnny, but he was looking him over for wounds, scanning his body carefully. There was no blood on him from what he could see, but Johnny was good at hiding injuries from him. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just fine,” Johnny snapped back at him. He turned his head towards his brother and realized that he was being unfair to Scott.
“Sorry Scott,” he apologized. “I just hate this. I’m okay, really. I haven’t got a scratch.” He turned back to the boy on the floor and continued to stare at his lifeless body.
“All right, no scratches,” Scott said quietly as he got close to him. “But are you okay?”
Johnny exhaled slowly and purposefully. “Yeah, I guess so. It doesn’t get any easier, Scott.”
“We never did even find out his name.”
“It was Kruger,” the barkeep offered. “Wes Kruger. He’s been hanging around town for a few months now. Nothing but trouble.”
Johnny sighed with resignation. “So, is there any law in this town I should talk to about this?”
“Not so’s you’d notice,” the barkeep told him. “We ain’t got no sheriff in town. And I’m the justice of the peace anyway. I saw how he pushed you into it. It was self-defense all right.”
“Yeah, we saw the whole thing mister,” one of the trail hands in the corner volunteered. He and his friend stood up and walked over to the bar where Johnny and Scott were standing. “We saw how you tried to talk him out of it. I’d swear to it.”
“You got no trouble with any of us, Mister Madrid,” the second cowboy told him, looking down at the boy on the floor in front of him. “He was always gonna end up this way, I reckon.”
A chill ran through Johnny, wondering how many people must have thought that about him when he was a kid. More than a few, he reckoned.
“Thanks,” Johnny answered quietly. He meant it. He’d been in a lot of towns where he’d had to defend himself to the law after just such an incident. Knowing the witnesses were in his favor was a blessing.
“I’d tread careful if I were you though,” the barkeep continued ominously.
Johnny looked at him and frowned, but Scott’s concern was more evident. “Why’s that?” he asked.
“He got family I should know about?” Johnny asked cautiously.
“Not family – friends!” one of the trail hands told him. “You never see Kruger without those three friends of his. All kids - and all of ‘em trouble.”
“Ted’s right, mister,” the second man added. “Kruger was kind of their ring-leader. The others seem to think he’s some kind of hero ‘cause he can handle a gun. He’s been struttin’ around town wearin’ that fancy twin rig of his, like he was Wild Bill Hickock, Wes Hardin an’ Billy the Kid, all rolled up in one. He was the one to watch out for mostly, but they’re always together. They’re just a bunch of toughs. No good – none of ‘em.”
“I heard they were hassling old man Kennedy’s daughter the other day. Wouldn’t put it past them,” the barkeep offered.
“I reckon they’ve been rustlin’ too,” ‘Ted’ added. “Always seem to have money on ‘em, but no one’s ever seen ‘em do a lick o’ work.”
“These others you’re talking about,” Johnny said quietly. “If they travel in a pack, why aren’t they here to back his play?”
“Who knows.” The barkeep shrugged. “But I reckon it’d be a good idea for you two to head out of here before they find out what happened.”
Johnny didn’t like to run out straight away. It went against the grain. He was no coward, but he didn’t want any more trouble either. He’d had enough for one day already.
His mood was somber. He’d just killed a man. He needed a drink – something stronger than beer this time. And he wanted to go somewhere on his own to get his head around it.
But he had to consider Scott as well. If those other three ‘toughs’ were anywhere close, it wouldn’t matter to them which of the brothers had fired the shot. Scott was in as much danger as he was.
Again – he was in danger because Madrid had risen from the dead again.
“If they’re gun hawks, won’t they just accept that Johnny was faster?” Scott asked hopefully.
“I sure wouldn’t count on it,” the barkeep answered firmly. “Not those three.”
“They ain’t gunfighters, mister,” Ted told him. “They’re just toughs, headed for a noose and don’t care. They think the whole world’s afraid of them and they like it.”
“Most of this town is anyway.” The barkeep nodded sadly.
“Guess we’d better get out of here, Scott,” Johnny said quietly. He was thinking fast now. He could still feel trouble, and he had a good idea where it would come from this time. He turned to the barkeep and threw some coins onto the bar. “Thanks for the drinks, an’ the advice. There’s a little extra there to bury the kid with.”
“And thanks to you boys for backin’ me. I appreciate it,” he continued as he turned to the two cowboys in the far corner of the room.
“No trouble, mister,” Ted told him. “Only right. The kid was looking for trouble.”
“And he found it, I guess,” the other cowboy confirmed. “You watch your back.”
Johnny looked towards the door. The batwing doors were closed, but he could see over the top of them and out into the street. There didn’t appear to be anyone outside waiting for them. He wondered where Kruger’s friends were. Had he come alone out of bravado?
Johnny didn’t even know how the boy had recognized him. He seemed kind of young to have seen him down around the border when he was hiring out. That had been years ago now.
Well, he wasn’t going to tell them anything now. He was stretched out on the floor, with a surprised expression on his face, and only a little blood around the hole in his chest. The bullet had taken him square in the heart and had probably blown it apart. The kid hadn’t even had time to blink before he died.
Scott walked over to the doors. Johnny held back, staring at the boy on the floor. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ he thought. It had been close. The boy had been good, nearly too good. The thought gave Johnny cause to think.
“Johnny?” Scott called impatiently from the doorway.
Johnny looked up and shook himself out of his maudlin mood. “Wait up, Scott,” he called and stepped over the body to walk to the doorway where his brother stood waiting for him.
“You ready, Johnny?” Scott asked as he reached him.
Scott held his ground as Johnny peered over the top of the doors and looked around the street. He was used to his brother’s thoroughness, and he hadn’t forgotten the warnings they had just been given.
“I’m going out first,” Johnny told him. “You walk behind me.”
“Just do as I say, Boston.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me. Can you see those men out there?”
“Nope, not a sign of them.”
“Then why the caution?”
Johnny grinned at him. “Cause I’m just naturally a cautious man, brother. You oughta know that by now.”
“Just do like I say, Scott. Don’t argue with me. I want you to walk right behind me when we go out this door. You got it?”
Scott got it all right, and he didn’t like it. But, in this mood, Johnny was formidable, and he wasn’t going to get into an argument here.
“All right. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Good,” he said emphatically. He stopped a moment longer to check the street one more time. It was quiet. He hoped that he was worrying needlessly, but he’d seen this type of gang before. The boys that these men had described weren’t going to let their friend walk into a saloon alone without some sort of back up plan.
Johnny had the feeling that these boys were the ‘you get him for me if he gets me’ type. They were a dime a dozen down around the border and he’d seen it too many times to remember. He’d even experienced it once himself, and he’d learned a hard lesson from it.
“Let’s go,” Johnny said quietly at last. He pulled his pistol from the holster again, cocked the hammer back, and held it up at the ready, and then he pushed the doors open slowly and stepped out onto the boardwalk.
He trusted Scott to do as he’d agreed, whether he liked the plan or not. One thing he could rely on Scott to do was to follow a plan.
The afternoon light was harsh after being in the gloom of the saloon for so long. He blinked quickly to readjust to it and then scanned the street and the buildings across the road.
Sure enough, there it was! He caught the glint of sunlight flashing on metal on the roof of a building and dived sideways.
“Down!” he screamed at Scott, but his brother had already dived to the ground as he too fell and braced himself.
Then all hell broke loose. He felt the dull thump of a bullet hitting his right thigh just before the sound of the gunfire reached him.
Gunshots exploded all around him. A hail of bullets thudded into the posts and the boards on the boardwalk, spitting up splinters all around them.
He fired off a couple of shots at the roof top, but he had no idea whether or not he had hit anything.
There was no cover and he was knocked back by a second shot that found its target and hit his left shoulder, then he felt his shirt being tugged and he was being dragged to his feet.
Their horses were hitched to the rail outside the saloon and it was a miracle that neither of them had been injured in the barrage. Scott helped his brother limp quickly to his horse and then shoved Johnny up and onto Barranca. He leapt onto his own horse as Johnny pulled himself into the saddle and righted himself.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Scott shouted at him.
“Good idea,” Johnny called back with a surprising grin and turned his horse towards the end of the street then spurred him into a gallop, leaving the sound of gunfire and ricochets behind him.
The horses were tiring. Scott could feel the strain in his own and a glance showed him that Johnny’s palomino was faring little better. They’d made plenty of ground and were far out of town now but they couldn’t keep this pace up.
“Pull up, Johnny,” he called breathlessly to his brother who was riding just a little ahead of him.
“Up in the rocks,” Johnny shouted back, nodding towards a group of huge boulders a few yards above them. “We can see the road from there.”
The brothers both slowed their horses and turned them as they headed into the cover of the rocks. Johnny reined in first, behind a massive granite boulder that promised to easily hide Barranca from the road and Scott’s horse with him.
Scott dismounted quickly and ran to Johnny’s side. He hadn’t made any attempt to get to the ground yet and Scott was worried by the pained expression on his face.
He could see the blood stain that covered most of the left side of Johnny’s shirt, but a lot of it looked dry and Scott was hopeful that the bleeding had eased already, but, even as he considered the shoulder wound, his eyes fell on a dark red droplet that fell from the bottom of Johnny’s trouser-leg.
“Damnit Johnny,” he swore as he hurriedly reached up and steadied his brother. “Here, let me help you get down.”
Johnny sat still and didn’t answer him for a moment. He was catching his breath and trying to quell the rising tide of nausea that had hit him like a hammer the moment he stopped. He closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths.
“Just give me a minute. I’m fine.”
“The hell you are!” Scott fired at him angrily.
He pulled him just enough to get him moving and steadied him as he dismounted and then got his balance on the ground. Then he helped him to hobble over into the shade thrown by another boulder above them. He looked down and then behind him and noted the trail of blood that had marked out their path.
“Sit down,” Scott told his brother firmly and held his arm while he stretched out the injured leg and then leaned wearily back against the rock. Johnny sighed and closed his eyes again for a moment.
Scott looked at the wound. It wasn’t particularly nasty. It was quite clean in fact, but bleeding freely, and he could find no exit wound. The bullet was still in there. He left it and took a look at the shoulder wound. It looked like it had almost stopped bleeding, but, again, there was no exit wound.
Johnny had sat still and ignored Scott’s examination, except to wince now and then as Scott got too enthusiastic. But now he spoke up, still with his eyes closed against the aching wounds. “Well, how bad are they?”
“Not too bad, but the bullets are still in both of them, and your leg is bleeding too much. We need to get you to a doctor and a bed.”
Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his brother properly for the first time. His eyes were drawn to the tear in Scott’s sleeve and the blood around it. “You’re bleedin’ yourself,” he said crossly, pulling himself forward. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Scott glanced down at his arm. There was a two inch gash in his upper arm, but the bleeding had stopped long ago. “It’s nothing – just a nick. I’m more concerned with this leg of yours.”
He stood up. “I’ll get the bandage from my saddlebag. Have you got any?”
Johnny smiled wanly at him. “With both Teresa and Celeste to nag at me? Course I have.”
Scott couldn’t help but smile back at him before he got up and went to his own saddlebag and then to Johnny’s to retrieve the bandages and the salve that Teresa insisted all the men carry. Even the hired hands carried the basic supplies now and it had been a blessing more than once. There were all kinds of accidents that could happen every day on a working ranch.
Bullets were usually a rarity, but not today. He glanced at the nick on his own arm. It was throbbing, but the bleeding was minimal. It could wait.
“Hey Scott, bring my rifle too, will ya?” Johnny called over to him.
In his haste to see to his brother, Scott too had forgotten to grab his own rifle. He pulled Johnny’s from its scabbard and then grabbed his own as well, balancing it with the supplies in his arms and managing to unhook the canteen as well.
Considering their situation, it was going to be wise to keep the rifles handy.
He turned and headed back to his brother, carefully laying the guns next to him.
“Can you take that shirt off,” he asked Johnny as he got back to his side. He knelt beside him and gave him a hand as his brother tentatively undid the buttons on his shirt with hands that were beginning to shake a little and shrugged out of it.
Scott pulled his knife from his boot. It was a hiding place he had picked up from Johnny and it came in useful at times.
Cutting the leg of Johnny’s pants away from the wound, it was still hard to see the damage. There was too much blood around it. He poured a little water from his canteen over it and looked more closely. It was pretty clean anyway, kept that way by the blood flowing freely from it, but it was deep.
He gently applied some of the salve and then wadded up part of one bandage and pressed it down hard on the wound, evincing a surprised gasp from Johnny.
“Ow! Hey, watch it, Scott,” he complained as he finished pulling off the shirt.
“Sorry, but I’m going to have to wrap it up tight, Johnny. It’s going to hurt, but we have to stop that bleeding.” He turned back to his brother and forced himself to smile. “You’re not getting soft on me, are you?”
Johnny frowned and leaned back heavily against the rock. “Put a bullet in your leg and let’s see how you like it!”
“Do you think they’re following us?” Scott asked him as he strapped the leg.
“Could be. If they were as tight a gang as those fellas back there said, then I’m bettin’ they’re coming.”
Scott tied the bandage off and checked his handiwork. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the shoulder wound. The blood around it had begun to dry and he didn’t like to change that. Doing too much might start the bleeding again and that was the last thing Johnny needed right now.
He passed the canteen to his brother instead. “Want some?” he asked him casually.
Johnny thanked him and took it from him. He took a couple of mouthfuls and then handed it back.
“Lean forward a little so I can bandage this shoulder up.”
It took a few minutes to tend to the shoulder wound and by then Johnny was looking pale. Scott offered him some more water, then took the canteen from his hand and screwed the lid back down tightly. Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes, sighing deeply.
“How are you doing?” Scott asked him gently.
“Fine, Scott, just fine.”
His breathing, slow and a little labored, as well as the tone of his voice, suggested otherwise to Scott.
“We have to get you to a doctor. We’ll head for the next town.”
Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes opened quickly and Scott knew why. The sound of approaching horses, coming at a fast pace, grabbed his attention. Stopping only to pick up his rifle, he raced from his brother’s side and over to the rocks overlooking the road.
“Stay put!” Scott warned him quietly, and found himself a vantage point from which he could see the road without being seen himself. He settled in and took aim with the gun, just in case.
A scuffle of loose stones and dirt beside him told him that Johnny had ignored his orders and dragged himself over anyway. He paid him no attention and concentrated on the men on the road.
He saw them soon enough - three men, riding hard, on horses that were already lathered up. Those horses would quit on them soon if they kept riding them that hard. They went by without looking up and had clearly not been following any trail, just heading in the direction that they thought Scott and Johnny had taken.
He didn’t get much of a look at them, though one rode a pinto that he thought he would remember if he saw it again. By the time they reached town, those horses would be played out and that would give Scott and Johnny an edge. On the other hand, they might realize, further down the road, that they should have overtaken their quarry by now and turn back to look for them.
Scott watched them until they were out of sight around a bend in the road a few miles further on. Then he lowered the rifle and turned back to his brother.
“I told you to stay put!”
Sheepishly, Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Thought you might need a hand.”
“Are you TRYING to kill yourself?” Scott stormed at him. “I’ve just barely stopped the bleeding in your leg. Do you WANT to bleed to death?”
“Scott, I wasn’t going to sit back there when you might need me.”
“You’ll do as you’re told, little brother. You’re in no position to argue. I’m going to get you home in one piece – with or without your help!”
Johnny’s eyes blazed for a moment, and then subsided to reveal a mischievous gleam. “All right, Boston. You’re the Boss.”
Taken aback, expecting more argument from Johnny, Scott sat quietly staring at him for an instant, and finally replied firmly, “Damned right!”
Johnny changed the subject.
“It was them, wasn’t it?” he asked Scott quickly.
“Had to be. Three men, in a real hurry.”
Johnny leaned back again. “So much for makin’ for the next town. That’s where they’ll be heading.”
Scott shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We get you to a doctor and then find the sheriff. The law can take care of them.”
“As I recall, the sheriff in the next town ain’t much of a help.”
“What do you mean?”
Johnny smiled wanly. He was tiring. “You forgotten? Next town is Hobson’s Crossing.”
Light dawned on Scott. He remembered the overweight, unhelpful, even cowardly lawman in that town from his last visit. The man’s only thought was self-preservation and his will had been bent to keep in line with the wants and desires of Gabe Tessman. If they were looking for someone who would make a stand against those three, he wasn’t going to be the man to do it - that was certain.
“Well, at least we know there’s a doctor there,” Scott answered. And a telegraph, he thought. We need to get word back to Lancer.
“No,” Johnny argued with him. “We’ll cut across country an’ head for home. I don’t want you havin’ to face them alone.”
“Home? Are you crazy? That’s a day and a half ride from here.”
“I can make it.”
“The hell you can!” Scott growled at him angrily. “Of all the stupid plans you’ve ever come up with, Johnny, that’s the worst.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed again at his brother, but he didn’t get a chance to say anything.
“We’ll cut across country all right, but we’ll go to Sarah’s place,” Scott told him with grim determination in his voice.
“Sarah will put us up while we get the doctor to look at you.”
“No!” Johnny repeated furiously. “We’re not layin’ more trouble at her door. I’m surprised you’d even suggest it.”
“They won’t know we’re there.”
“They’ll backtrack when we don’t turn up in town. They won’t have no trouble followin’ the blood trail I’m leavin’, a blind man could follow it.”
Scott thought about that. He had to admit his brother was right. They wouldn’t have any trouble tracking them if Johnny’s leg continued to bleed. But he couldn’t see any way around it.
The last person in the world he wanted to make trouble for was Sarah Connolly. She’d had enough of it when Gabe Tessman and his fake Johnny Madrid had tried to cheat her out of her ranch after her Uncle Tim died a couple of years ago.
But Johnny needed somewhere to hole up and get those wounds tended to. He’d never make it all the way back to Lancer.
“Then we’ll have to be careful not to leave a trail. It might take longer, but there’s nothing we can do about that.”
“Scott, we are not taking this problem to Sarah.”
“Look, it’s not my first choice either, Johnny. But we’ve run out of options. We’ll hide out there while I get the doctor to you, and send word to Murdoch. He’ll send help from the ranch.” He looked his brother over. He was pale, and he looked tired, but he wasn’t too bad yet. He had to get him to help before it was too late, and sitting here arguing with him was wasting time and Johnny’s energy. “Come on, brother, let’s get you up on Barranca and get out of here.”
Johnny shook his head stubbornly. “At least let’s get that arm of yours cleaned up first. I’ll bandage it for you. I’m not going to let you get that infected while you’re worrying about me.”
Madelena Luisa Antonia Lancer was seven and a half years old, with long black hair pulled back in braids, lanky legs covered by her favorite overalls, and a couple of teeth missing while her new ones pushed their way up. She had big brown eyes and a laugh that was contagious on the Lancer ranch. She was a firm favorite with everyone.
But right now she didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.
She knew something was wrong with her father. She could feel it, and it worried her -frightened her. But she didn’t want to take her fears to her mother this time, not with the baby coming. Papa had made it very clear that she was to look after Celeste for him while he was away and not to worry her about anything.
She would have told Teresa, but Teresa had been with Celeste all afternoon so she hadn’t been able to go to her either. Tio was away with Papa, and Grandpa had been busy in the barn with Jelly until now. So there was no one she could turn to yet. She carried her knowledge with a concerned frown on her face that everyone seemed to be too busy to notice.
She had to get one of them away on their own so that she could keep it from Celeste.
She was sure that Grandpa was the best person to talk to about it, but she had no luck getting him on his own.
Now it was getting late, and she couldn’t tell him at the dinner table. Celeste would hear and she was determined that she wasn’t going to worry her.
But Celeste knew the little girl well. She could see something had her upset.
“What’s the matter, Maddie?” she asked, having watched her push her food aimlessly around the plate for the last five minutes. She was sure Maddie hadn’t taken a bite yet. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
Maddie looked up at her and tried to smile. “No, nothing like that. I guess I’m just not very hungry.”
Celeste looked at her carefully, and frowned a little. “Something on your mind, cherie?”
“Oh no,” the little girl answered quickly and took a bite to try to hide her distraction. She thought she caught a look of interest from her grandfather too, and tried to appear unconcerned. She needed to catch him alone after dinner. He’d know what to do.
Maddie made an effort and tried to eat as if nothing was wrong. She could feel them all watching her. Everyone here knew that she could sense things that logically she shouldn’t have been able to.
Logic had no part in it. She had no more idea of how it happened than anyone else did. She knew only that her mother and her great-grandmother had been the same and there was no denying the fact that it happened sometimes.
And right now, she knew that something was very wrong. Papa was hurt and she was sure there was trouble.
It hadn’t been easy getting Johnny mounted again, but they were finally on their way.
At first, Johnny had been able to ride without obvious trouble. As time wore on though, Scott could see that the effort was taking its toll on him.
They rode in silence and Scott kept close beside him now, watching him carefully and keeping a wary eye on his leg to check the bleeding. So far, the bandage was holding it back.
The last thing they needed was a blood trail behind them. They could do a little about tracks, but blood couldn’t be disguised.
Scott knew that, as they got closer to Sarah Connolly’s land, there would be a couple of small streams they’d be able to use to try to confuse anyone looking for their trail. It was going to be time consuming, but he had weighed his options and decided that it was necessary. The time they would lose in hiding their tracks might give them a chance to get to help.
Of course, those three men might realize that they had lost them and simply give up the chase. They might well be going to all this trouble for no reason. It was to that hope that Scott clung.
Like his brother, Scott hated the idea of bringing Sarah any more trouble. She’d had a lifetime’s worth a couple of years ago. He had spent some time there recovering from a bullet and a broken collar bone and he’d gotten help from Lancer to get the ranch back on its feet. She’d built her small ranch up since then and had a few more men to help her run it.
He looked at Johnny’s face again and didn’t like what he saw. He had gotten paler over the hour that they had been in the saddle and he was frowning in concentration. But he was still conscious, and that was important right now.
“How are you doing, Johnny?” he asked anxiously.
Johnny’s answer was predictable, but Scott gauged his condition by the tone of the answer rather than the words themselves. “I’m handling it,” was the reply, and Scott believed him – for now. He was staying in the saddle without help at the moment, but that wasn’t going to be the case for much longer.
“Hold on then. We’ll be at Sarah’s in an hour or so.”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered curtly, and Scott knew that it was because he still didn’t like the idea, but was no longer up to arguing. Scott had a good idea of why he was so against it too. Johnny felt responsible for her problems two years ago. It had been his name and reputation that had caused all the trouble, even though he himself had had nothing to do with it. In fact, he had helped her out of it.
But it was just Johnny’s way to shoulder the responsibility, and Scott knew that he didn’t want to put her in a dangerous position now that she had her life back on track.
Johnny, himself, had had to face facts. For a while there, he had really believed he could make it home. His wounds hadn’t seemed bad, but he knew otherwise now. An hour in the saddle even at the unhurried pace they had been maintaining, had forced him to face reality.
The constant bumping of his leg against Barranca’s side had progressed from throbbing to painful, to downright excruciating. He knew the wound was still bleeding. It had seeped through the bandage already, though it had definitely slowed.
By comparison, the shoulder wound hardly bothered him. He didn’t realize that it too was bleeding again, though only a little.
His whole mind was focused on one thing - staying awake and in the saddle. It was getting harder all the time. He was dizzy now and then, and waves of annihilating nausea swept over him till he thought he would have to stop and heave everything up. But so far, he was fending it all off.
He paid little or no attention to where they were going, leaving it to Barranca to watch his step and keep up with Scott. He had nothing left for worrying about that.
When they came to a small stream though, Johnny looked up at last. Scott led them into the water and followed it for a few minutes.
“Wait here,” he told Johnny and made his way up the bank, leaving his brother in the middle of the creek.
Johnny watched, intrigued, as his brother rode up the bank, leaving clear tracks to follow. Then he backed his horse back into the water and rejoined him. It brought a smile to Johnny’s face.
“Where’d you learn that?” he asked Scott with a hint of a gleam in his eyes.
“I’ve been around you and Cipriano enough to pick up a few things, little brother,” Scott replied with a grin. “We’ll follow this stream till we find some rocks on the bank to hide our tracks.”
“Won’t fool ‘em for long if they’re any good you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Scott admitted. “But it ought to buy us some time. Come on.”
They waded the stream for about a mile before they came across a gravel embankment and left it. Barranca’s careful steps across the rocks were a blessing for Johnny, but the final step up the bank forced a gasp of pain from him as his leg bounced against the horse.
“You okay?” Scott asked anxiously, waiting for him to catch up.
“Yeah,” Johnny hissed back, drawing in his breath deeply and biting his lip to control the pain. It was his own fault, or at least, that was how he saw it. He’d let himself be lulled into a kind of lethargy where he felt the pain less and less, but that one had woken him right up.
He caught the worried expression on Scott’s face and tried his best to smile reassuringly at him, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t succeeded.
And he was right. Scott could see Johnny getting weaker as they went further. He’d noticed his head droop sometimes and his shoulders sagged, and then he seemed to shake it off and force himself to watch what he was doing.
Scott feared that Johnny would lose consciousness soon, and then he’d have to tie him to the horse and risk aggravating those wounds. He wanted to put it off as long as he could. He had been keeping up a pace that would allow Johnny to stay alert, but now they were fast running out of daylight, and they still had some way to go.
He tried to remember every trick he’d learned from Johnny and Cipriano about tracks and false trails. He’d watched them over the years and picked up plenty of ideas, but they had never seemed as important as now.
But it was taking up too much time.
He tried picking up the pace a little. It would be better to risk his brother’s discomfort than to have him faint, or, worse still, have those men catch up with them out here in the open.
Johnny didn’t seem to have even noticed the change of speed. All his focus was on keeping himself in the saddle, so, when he knew they were within half an hour of the ranch house, Scott decided to put everything aside and make straight for it. His brother was conscious, but just barely. Every now and then he would lean to the side, apparently about to fall off, but then catch himself and shake it off.
Scott leaned across and took the reins from Johnny. The time had come to take over for him and let him concentrate only on staying awake and in the saddle.
Johnny didn’t even fight him over it.
The yard was quiet when they rode in. Darkness had overtaken them only a little while ago and there was no one in the yard. There was a little moonlight, but not enough to have made it any easier to find the way in the dark. Scott had been relying on memories of his time here two years ago.
But the lights of the house and the bunkhouse had seemed like a beacon in the night and he found the house more easily than he had thought he would.
He was leading Barranca, with Johnny just barely holding onto the pommel, but he was still conscious. Scott had had to watch him closely. There had been more than one occasion when he had been sure that Johnny had lost consciousness, but he’d woken himself up and stayed glued to that saddle.
They had ridden across the pasture and into the familiar yard without going near the road, so they arrived at the Connolly ranch unexpectedly.
Even so, their welcome was likely to be a lot warmer than Scott remembered from the first time he had ridden up to the ranch house. Despite their desperate situation, Scott couldn’t help but recall the image of the pretty blond girl in blue denim jeans who had confronted him that day with an aged, but all too serviceable Henry .44 pointed at him, and an attitude that had told him that she was willing to use it.
He had been in no doubt where he had stood that day.
As he stopped at the ranch house, Scott called out “Hello the house”. He caught a glimpse of the lace curtain in the drawing room being pulled aside, followed quickly by the door opening. He dismounted hurriedly and started for his brother’s side.
“Scott!” Sarah called in her excitement as she ran out to greet him.
Scott turned his head to see her without stopping. She was in her faded blue jeans as usual and her long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, just as he remembered. Her welcoming smile pleased him more than he had thought possible.
“What are you doing here? It’s so good to see you again…”
She stopped as her eyes finally drifted away and caught sight of Johnny. “Oh my God! Johnny!” she gasped. Even in the moonlight, she could see the blood all over his shirt.
She ran to Johnny’s side as Scott reached him. He put his arms up to help him down, just as Johnny lost consciousness and fell forward across Barranca.
Scott had been expecting it, but it still shook him. He quickly took his brother’s wrist and held his breath while he checked for a pulse. With a gush of relief, he found it. It was weak but it was there.
“I’m sorry about this Sarah, but he needs help.”
“Help him down and we’ll get him inside,” she told him, not really listening to him, and then called out loudly. “Joe, Tom, get out here.”
Joe Nesbitt was already at the door to the bunkhouse. He had heard riders come in and grabbed his rifle out of habit. Tom Rawlings soon joined him there and picked his rifle up, more casually, but with the same idea, ready to back Joe if need be.
They’d heard Sarah’s exclamation of Scott’s name and both visibly relaxed and put their guns back before heading out to join the welcome.
“Ain’t that Johnny’s palomino too, Tom?” Joe had said as they started out of the bunkhouse.
“Likely it is.”
“Well, now I wonder what brings…” Joe began, and then stopped as Sarah’s shout caught both their attention. He looked over to see Johnny lying across the palomino.
With a curse, Joe broke into a run, with Tom right beside him.
Both men hurried to lend a hand, and helped Scott to lower his brother from the horse into their arms. The boy was covered in blood, so they didn’t waste time asking any fool questions, but turned for the porch steps with Johnny held awkwardly, but securely between them.
“We’ll take him, Scott,” Tom told him as they started off. “Miss Sarah, you lead the way.”
“Be careful of his leg,” Scott pointed out to them anxiously, and hovered behind them as they carried him into the house.
Sarah went ahead of them and opened the door to her uncle’s room. It was still mostly unused, but she kept it clean and tidy just the same. She pulled the covers back and moved aside so that Joe and Tom could put Johnny down.
“Get him out of those clothes. I’ll get some water boiling,” she ordered and hurried out of the room to get water, bandages, towels and the salve she kept in the kitchen.
She put water on before running back to the room with her arms full of supplies.
They had his shirt off by that time, but they’d left his pants on him. Scott had had to wrap the bandage right over the top of the trouser leg and he didn’t like to take that bandage off until they had something to replace it with. Once the pressure was off that wound, it was likely to start bleeding rapidly again.
“Dammit Scott,” Joe growled. “I don’t like the looks o’ that leg.”
Blood had seeped through the bandage and was soaking the leg of his pants again, but Scott had been monitoring it closely throughout their journey and he was sure they had left no blood trail.
But Johnny had certainly lost a lot of blood, and that was the bigger worry at this point.
“I’ll send one of the men into town for Dr Barnes,” Sarah said as she put all the supplies down on the table beside the bed.
“I’ll go, Miss Sarah,” Tom volunteered, and started to head for the door.
Scott turned quickly to stop him “No, Tom, wait!”.
Tom halted at the doorway, confused by Scott’s shout.
“Scott, he needs help quickly,” Sarah insisted, shocked that Scott had stopped him.
“I know it, but just give me a minute to explain.”
Scott turned to Tom. “You have to make sure that no one else knows we’re here, Tom. Get Will and bring him here without anyone seeing you – if you can. I don’t want anyone knowing we’re here, and that includes the sheriff.”
Tom nodded. “Sure thing, Scott,” he replied, then turned and left. Scott was surprised that Tom hadn’t questioned that order, but then he remembered, Tom was like that. He was a quicker witted man than first impressions indicated and had probably guessed that they were hiding out from someone.
Sarah’s expression told him that she wanted to know more though, and Joe was frowning at him with the same unasked question obviously on his mind.
He didn’t get a chance to tell either of them any more, however. His brother’s voice, coming faintly from the bed, caught his attention.
Johnny had fought his way back to consciousness, but he was terribly weak.
“Scott?” Johnny asked quietly, but with an urgent need in his voice.
“Right here, Johnny,’ Scott hurried to assure him, and sat down on the bed by his side.
Johnny turned his head in the direction of Scott’s voice, but Scott could see that his eyes weren’t focusing on him very well.
Scott put his hand on Johnny’s arm reassuringly. “Take it easy, Johnny. We’re at Sarah’s now. The doctor will be here soon and you’ll be just fine.”
“Listen to me,” Johnny asked him vaguely, and then stopped to catch his breath. “Get word to Celeste not to worry ‘bout me.” He stopped again, licked his lips to wet them and closed his eyes for a moment to concentrate. “Maddie…she’ll know by now…”
“I know. I’ll get word to them.”
Johnny’s breathing started to become more labored but he forced the words out. “Don’t want Celeste worried…not good…not good for her.”
Scott took his brother’s hand and squeezed it gently. “I’ll take care of everything. I’ll get word to Murdoch and tell him not to let Celeste get upset.”
He watched Johnny swallow hard and try to maintain eye contact with him. He was losing the battle to remain conscious. When he spoke again, it was little more than a whisper. “Look after them. If anything happens to me… Maddie…Celeste…the niño…”
“You know I will, Johnny,” Scott quickly assured him. “But nothing’s going to happen to you. Do you hear me?”
Johnny nodded vaguely and closed his eyes. His battle ended and he lost consciousness again.
Joe helped Scott to clean Johnny up and get him re-bandaged and settled in the bed. Johnny was still terribly pale, but there was already the beginning of a fever.
“Now son.” Joe turned to Scott at last. “You wanna tell us what’s goin’ on and why you didn’t want Tom attractin’ no attention when he gets the doctor?”
Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed. He looked at his brother and sighed. Johnny was still unconscious and had shown no signs of waking again. It was unlikely that he had the strength to at this point.
Sarah began clearing away the old bandages and the blood stained towels and cloths. “I’d like to hear that too,” she said quietly.
He pulled his eyes away from Johnny. “I’m sorry Joe, Sarah. I’m sorry for just landing this on you, but I had to bring him here. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.”
“Forget that part, Scott,” Sarah insisted kindly. “Just tell us what’s going on.”
“Alright, Johnny got pushed into a gunfight. He tried to talk his way out of it. He tried everything he could to avoid it, but…” He stopped, looking at their faces for a trace of judgment in them.
“Go on,” Joe urged him.
“Well, this kid wouldn’t be stopped, and Johnny ended up killing him.” He looked closely for a sign of disappointment, but found it in neither of them. He felt a surge of relief that they didn’t appear to think any the less of Johnny because of it. “The witnesses saw what had happened and they weren’t going to pursue the matter any further, but they warned us that the man had friends.”
Joe nodded knowingly. He had an idea now of what was going on.
“They were waiting for us outside the saloon and ambushed us. Johnny had had an idea that they might be there and was ready for them. We got away and high-tailed it out of town. We lost them on the road to Hobson’s Crossing, and then cut across country to here.”
“And you think they might be in town now?” Sarah asked him.
“Their horses were pretty well played out when we last saw them. They’re probably staying there tonight. Once they realize we aren’t there they’ll most likely back-track to try to find us when its daylight.”
“Of course, they might have just given up and gone back,” he added optimistically.
Joe shook his head. “If they came this far, and did this much damage, they’ll likely look around for you for a bit before givin’ up. I’ve seen their kind before.”
Scott sighed again. “Johnny said much the same thing. Well, I’ll wire Murdoch first thing in the morning and get him here to help. I don’t like to lay all this at your door, Sarah.”
“I’ll do that in the mornin’ for ya,” Joe suggested. “No sense you gettin’ seen in town. All your trouble will’ve been for nothin’. ‘Sides, I can get a feel for what’s happenin’ there. See if them fellas are there or been askin’ questions.”
“I don’t want you getting into anything with them, Joe,” Scott told him firmly.
Nesbitt grinned mischievously. “I’ll just quietly nose around some, son. I’m not one for lookin’ for trouble.”
“It’s not your fight, Joe,” Scott said angrily, knowing how the crusty little ranch hand enjoyed a good fight.
“It’s not yours either, Scott,” Sarah told him determinedly. “Those men have no right to come after Johnny after a fair fight. Surely the sheriff can do something?”
Joe scoffed at the suggestion. “Any other town’s sheriff would. But that no account we got won’t do anythin’. More likely he’d find a reason to go fishin’.”
Scott glared at Nesbitt. “Just the same, I mean it Joe – no looking for trouble. All you have to do is wire Murdoch and tell him what’s happened. Murdoch will come right away. You can count on it.”
“It’ll take him a full day to get here, Scott,” Joe pointed out. “But we’ve got plenty of help right here. We got more boys on the payroll now.”
“And I’m not going to be responsible for any one of them getting hurt. Johnny wouldn’t thank you for getting yourselves hurt or killed for him either. That’s not why we came here. We just want to lay low and wait for Murdoch.”
“Well, of course none of us wants trouble, Scott,” Sarah told him understandingly. “But if those men turn up here, they’re going to get it.”
Scott stood up and looked at her. “I’m sorry, Sarah. We shouldn’t have come here.”
“Don’t be a fool, Scott Lancer. If you hadn’t come here, then I would have been angry.”
“I gotta agree with her there, son,” Joe pointed out with a grin. “If friends ain’t for turnin’ to when you got trouble, what are they for?”
“Now, enough of this foolishness,” Sarah said firmly. “Joe, you sit with Johnny while I tend to Scott’s arm. The last thing we need is him getting sick as well.”
She gathered everything up and started for the door, but stopped there when she realized that Scott had not come with her. She turned back and found him standing indecisively, his eyes on Johnny.
“Scott, Joe will call you if Johnny wakes up or needs you. There’s nothing more you can do for him right now.”
Joe pulled a chair from beside the wall and brought it close to the bed. Sitting in it, he reassured Scott. “Sure I will, son. You go with Miss Sarah. Johnny an’ me will be just fine till you get back.”
Sarah readjusted her bundles, and then walked over and firmly took Scott by the arm. “Come with me, Scott Lancer.”
He finally turned and went with her.
“Sit in that chair. I’ll get rid of these and bring some more water and bandages for you,” she told him when they reached the kitchen.
“It’s not that bad you know, Sarah,” he told her, taking his place at the table nonetheless.
He watched her in the kitchen. There had always been an attraction between them. She was lovely to look at and her grace of movement made her easy on the eye. Now, with a couple of years of happiness and peace, she seemed to have blossomed into womanhood. Even in faded blue denim jeans and a shirt, she had an undeniable elegance about her.
“If you say you’re sorry one more time, Scott Lancer, I swear I’ll slap you,” she cut him off quickly. “I’m happy to have a chance to help.”
She came back into the room and her eyes met his and held them for a moment, before she drew back and added, “Well, we’d better clean that arm of yours up. I don’t want you sick on my hands again. Take that shirt off.”
She turned back to the table and the supplies she had placed there. When she looked back he was unbuttoning his shirt and suddenly stopped, realizing that the shirt sleeve was already torn open from when Johnny had bandaged it for him earlier.
He glanced at Sarah. “I don’t think I need to take this off.”
There was an impish smile on her face and a wicked twinkle in her eyes. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying,” she whispered in his ear as she passed him to get the boiled water.
He caught her hand and stopped her, pulling her back close to him as he stood up in front of her. For a moment, everything stopped as their eyes locked on one another, and there was only the two of them, and that one room seemed like a whole world of their own.
“I wish I’d come back sooner,” he whispered to her, and folded her in his arms in a gentle embrace.
“I’ve missed you, Scott,” she answered quietly, raising her eyes to his.
He lowered his head and softly pressed his lips to hers. Without urgency, or need, but with a warm caress that was all either of them needed for the moment.
And it was only for a moment. Scott pulled back and released her. Sarah took a deep breath and turned away, back into the real world and what needed to be done.
She brought the water over and found Scott sitting again. Businesslike, she took his injured arm and removed the soiled and bloodied bandage. The gash was about two inches long and deep enough to have bled for some time, but not seriously. She turned his arm over a little and checked it carefully before setting about gently cleaning it, applying salve and re-bandaging it.
“I think you’re going to need some stitches in that,” she told him when she had finished. She screwed the lid back on the jar of salve and continued. “We’ll get Dr Barnes to look at it when he’s finished with Johnny. There’s no point in letting it get infected.”
Scott seemed to ignore the whole process, except for a wince or two, though she knew she had to be hurting him. His eyes were on her most of the time, but strayed to the door to where Johnny lay every now and then.
When she had finished, she looked up at him and smiled. “Alright, go back to him. I know that’s where you want to be.”
He smiled back at her, stretching his arm tentatively. “Thank you Sarah. It feels a lot better.”
“Liar,” she threw at him, playfully. “Go to Johnny. I’ll be in too, in a moment. I just need to clean up here a little first.”
When she returned to her uncle’s room, she found Scott sitting where they had left Joe, in the chair beside the bed. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his clasped hands as he contemplated his brother. He glanced up at her as he realized she had returned, but his concern was all for Johnny now, as she knew it should be.
“I sent Joe to bed,” he explained as she stopped beside him.
“I know, he told me,” she replied. “He didn’t go. He’s sitting in the drawing room, with a rifle, watching the yard.”
She placed a bowl of clean cool water on the table. “How is he?”
“He’s pretty warm. I think he’s in for a fever.”
Sarah put the back of her hand on Johnny’s brow to check for herself. He was warm all right, and in his present condition, that was probably to be expected. But it wasn’t going to help any. She folded a cloth and wet it, placing it gently on Johnny’s forehead.
“Thank you,” Scott said quietly.
“Stay with him, and try to keep that temperature of his down,” she answered. “I’ll get some coffee going for us. It looks like it’s going to be a long night.”
He nodded and looked back to his brother.
As she left the room, she looked back over her shoulder at them. She’d seen that same single-minded devotion in Johnny when Scott had been hurt two years ago and lay right here in the same bed. She knew their history – Scott had told her a lot when he’d stayed on to recover from that bullet wound. And they had written to each other a few times as well.
She knew how close the two of them were. She knew about Johnny’s marriage to Celeste and that it had done nothing to change the bond between them, from what Scott had told her in his letters. She was glad of it. If anyone could help Johnny right now – it would be Scott.
It was a good two hours before Tom returned with Dr Will Barnes. The two men hurriedly dismounted and headed inside, finding Joe Nesbitt and Sarah waiting for them.
“How’s he doing?” the doctor asked quickly, almost without breaking stride.
“He’s unconscious, Will,” Sarah answered calmly. “His leg is still bleeding, and he already has the start of a fever.”
He shook his head and walked with Sarah into the room where Johnny lay. On seeing Scott Lancer, he stopped for an instant. Scott looked up and in one swift glance Will Barnes took in the torn and bloodied shirt sleeve and the bandaged arm, and the worry in his eyes as they met his own.
Scott stood up and shook hands with the man he now considered to be an old friend. “Hello, Will,” he said quietly.
“Scott,” the doctor replied, acknowledging him quickly. The last time, it had been Scott himself who had been wounded and who had worried them all. It had been Johnny who had ‘persuaded’ him, at gunpoint, to defy the odds and come to help Scott. He had been afraid of Johnny then, but quickly learned that the young man could be a good friend. Once he realized that, he had accepted him completely and without reservations. He liked him.
Now it was Johnny lying there, and in real trouble by the look of him.
“Are you okay, Scott?” he asked quickly.
Scott answered with a nod of his head and added, “Yes, I’m fine. It’s just a scratch, but I’m worried about Johnny.”
He moved aside to let the doctor get closer. Will could see the bandaged shoulder easily and took a cursory look at it, moving the bandage aside a little.
“Tom said there was a leg wound as well.”
“His right leg. We’ve slowed the bleeding, but we haven’t been able to stop it.”
“All right, let’s have a look at it then,” he told him and pulled the blankets back. They had cut away Johnny’s underwear from just above the wound to make it easier to get at. The bandage was already blood-stained, indicating that the bleeding had still not stopped.
Scott watched as Will checked the injured leg, and the frown on the doctor’s face did nothing to set his mind at rest.
Will went back to the shoulder wound and cut away the bandage. Johnny moaned softly a little and moved.
“Scott, go around to the other side and hold him still for me,” Barnes ordered and waited for Scott to settle himself on the bed, one hand gently holding his brother’s good shoulder, and the other reassuringly stroking Johnny’s forehead.
As the doctor proceeded with his examination, looking at the shoulder wound some more, and then moving on to carefully remove the bandage from Johnny’s leg and look more closely at that wound, Johnny moaned again.
Barnes heard Scott’s whispered reassurances to his brother and soon realized that Scott was holding his brother’s shoulder more firmly now.
He went ahead quickly and efficiently, noting that the leg wound was clean, with no sign of the infection that he had seen starting in the shoulder. But Scott was right. The bleeding had not stopped, and that was his foremost concern right now.
“How long ago did this happen, Scott?” he asked as he pulled the covers back up over Johnny.
“Late this afternoon.”
“And how long were you riding with him like this?”
“A few hours I guess. We stopped for a little while so that I could bandage him as best I could. We stayed there until we lost the men who attacked us and then rode on here.”
Barnes frowned. “Well, I know it had to be done, but it hasn’t made his condition any better.”
Scott nodded. “I know it, but I had to get him to help.” He turned his attention fully on his brother as he felt him move under his hands, and tried to hold him still.
“Take it easy, Johnny,” Barnes heard Scott say firmly and more loudly as Johnny murmured a curse and tried to move again. “He’s coming to, Will.”
“Yes, unfortunately,” the doctor replied, finishing his examination. “Well, those bullets have to come out. They’re both in deep, and I have to find where that bleeding’s coming from in his leg and stop it. There could be some delicate work in fixing that, and I’m not doing that with him conscious. Are you up to helping me with the chloroform?”
Barnes looked him over carefully. He was a little pale too. “Are you sure? I don’t want you passing out in the middle of it.”
“I’m sure,” Scott told him again, a hint of anger in his tone that both reassured and amused the doctor.
“All right, let’s get started.” He turned to Sarah who was patiently waiting behind him. “Sarah, you know the sort of things I’ll need – hot water first, towels, bandages.”
“Of course, Will. I have everything ready.”
“Good girl,” he said with a smile at her. “Well, let’s see if we can’t get this boy more comfortable then.”
Murdoch sat in one of the big comfortable chairs in the Great Room, staring into the coals of a near dead fire. He wasn’t really comfortable, nor was he cold, but he couldn’t sleep. Maddie’s ‘hunches’ were too often correct to be discounted easily, and she’d finally come to him and told him what was on her mind.
It was well after midnight now and everyone else in the house was in bed asleep – even Maddie. Getting her to sleep hadn’t been easy though. It was finally her confidence in her Uncle Scott, her Tio, to help Johnny out of whatever trouble had befallen him that had allowed her to nod off.
He had total confidence in Scott himself to do just that, but he felt totally helpless, and he hated it. Somewhere, his boys were in trouble. He had no idea where, or what had happened. They could be anywhere between Lancer and Harrison’s ranch. It was frustrating and terrifying at the same time.
How could he even look for them?
A soft voice behind him dragged him out of his reverie.
He turned around enough to see Teresa walking in behind him. She was dressed in her nightgown, with a wrap around her shoulders and her feet bare.
“Sweetheart, what are you doing up at this hour?” he asked her quietly.
“That’s what I came down to ask you,” she replied as she reached his side. She looked at the empty glass beside him and the fire burning low. It was obvious to her practiced eye that something was bothering him.
“I’m sorry, Teresa, I didn’t think you were awake.”
She frowned. “I thought I heard a glass rattling down here and guessed it was you pouring a drink.” She picked up the empty glass. “It looks like I was right. What’s wrong?”
“I’d like to hear the answer to that myself,” came another soft voice behind them.
Teresa looked up as Murdoch turned around again. She put down the glass. “Celeste, you should be in bed,” she said, noting that she too was dressed in a nightgown and wrap. The small bulge made by the baby was more obvious dressed as she was.
“We should all be in bed,” Celeste replied curtly. “But obviously something is going on. Maddie wasn’t hungry and she seemed distracted all night, and now I find you both up in the middle of the night.” She frowned and pushed back a stray tress of her honey blond hair that was annoying her. “Murdoch? Is it Johnny? Has Maddie sensed something?”
Murdoch turned back towards the fire and sighed. This was what he had hoped to avoid. It was what Maddie had been trying to avoid.
“Murdoch Lancer, you answer me right now. I’m not a fool. I know something is wrong,” she demanded, a trace of fear in her voice.
“She didn’t want to worry you, Celeste.”
“Then she has told you something.”
He nodded. “Yes, she thinks he’s hurt. But Scott’s with him. He’ll look after him.”
Celeste blanched at hearing her fears confirmed. “And, of course, you’re not worried,” she said sarcastically. “You’re down here in the middle of the night because you think everything is just fine.”
“Celeste, there’s no point in getting upset until we know what’s happened.”
“You should have told me, Murdoch,” she said in a shaky whisper.
“I know, but since we don’t know if she’s right…”
“Murdoch,” she interrupted impatiently. “You know as well as I do – better than I do for that matter – that she usually is.”
“When did she first know?” Teresa asked anxiously.
“This afternoon – late,” he answered. “She told me tonight after dinner. She was trying to keep you from worrying, Celeste.”
“Scott’s with him,” Teresa said confidently, but hiding the fears that she felt. “He’ll get him help, and he’ll let us know what’s happening – as soon as he can anyway.”
“I know. I’m counting on that,” Murdoch replied. “I’m hoping we’ll hear from him tomorrow, otherwise it’s going to be a lot of ground to cover looking for them.”
He looked at both of the girls and added firmly, “But look for them is what we will do. And we will find them!”
Scott was glad when it was finally over. Despite everyone’s reassurances, Johnny had been awake enough to fight them when they started the chloroform. Even semi-conscious, Johnny had made it hard.
He’d struggled with more strength than Scott would have thought he could find, but they had won out in the end.
It had been just as well too. Taking the bullet out of his shoulder had been easy enough, though it would have been painful had he been conscious, but the doctor had had to spend a long time working on that leg wound.
Fortunately, Barnes had found the damaged vein, and Scott had marveled at the delicate work needed to fix it.
Now Johnny was sleeping soundly, still under the influence of the chloroform. Barnes had told them that he wanted to keep him sedated for a while. He wanted to avoid damage to the stitches in Johnny’s leg.
Scott sat in the arm chair that Sarah had led him to in the drawing room, a little drowsy himself from being close to the chloroform. It was well into the night now too and today’s tension only added to it.
“Let’s have a look at that arm of yours now, Scott,” the doctor said and Scott simply nodded wearily and let him do whatever he liked.
He must have nodded off for a minute though, and awoke with a start at a soft touch on his shoulder. His first thoughts flew instinctively to his brother.
“Johnny’s fine. He’s still sleeping,” Sarah’s calm voice assured him. “I’ve got a clean shirt for you and then you should get some sleep somewhere more comfortable that this old chair.”
With his good hand, he rubbed his eyes to wake up properly and then he leaned forward. He was surprised to find his injured arm in a sling.
Sarah must have seen the surprise on his face. “Your arm needed a few stitches. Dr Barnes figured that he could do it while you were affected by that chloroform. He wants you to rest that arm for a few days.”
“I didn’t realize I was that drowsy.”
“Well, he said it’s not unusual for chloroform to affect by-standers and he took advantage of the moment,” she explained and handed him the new shirt. “This one was in your saddle bag and I freshened it up a little for you.”
“Oh, and Tom saw to your horses. He cleaned them up, fed them and put them in the barn. I finally convinced Joe that nothing was likely to happen tonight and got him to go to bed,” she continued. “Now let me give you a hand with getting out of that torn shirt and getting into the clean one.”
“What about Johnny? How is he? Who’s with him?”
“Dr Barnes is with him. He’s doing okay, though his temperature’s still up a little.”
“What time is it?”
Sarah smiled at him. “It’s a little after three am.”
“What? How long have I been asleep?”
“Only an hour or so,” she said, as she pulled him to his feet and unbuttoned his shirt for him. She helped him pull his good arm out of the sleeve and then gently lifted his injured arm out of the sling and pulled the shirt the rest of the way off.
“I’m afraid this is beyond repair,” she told him, holding what was left of the shirt up to look at it. There were blood stains all over it and the sleeve was torn right to the shoulder.
“I do have others,” he assured her with a touch of irony.
“Good, because this one needs burning,” she informed him and threw it aside to get the clean one and help him into it.
When the process was finished, Scott’s arm throbbed angrily and he stretched it out cautiously. “I think it hurts more now than it did before Will fixed it.”
“Then put it back in that sling and leave it there,” she ordered him with her usual forthright logic.
He smiled at her and did as she suggested, unwilling to admit that having the weight off it was actually a relief. “Yes ma’am,” he said mischievously.
Sarah frowned and glared at him for a moment, then broke into a smile. “Don’t call me ma’am, Scott Lancer,” she said cheerfully.
Scott’s smile faded. “Sarah, seriously, we need to talk. Our being here could bring trouble.”
Sarah sighed. “Sit down, Scott,” she told him and pulled a chair from the dining table over to face him, and then sat down herself. Waiting for him to sit down as well, she continued. “You two are friends of mine. Do you think I’m worried about the consequences of helping you? I’m not you know.”
“I know that Sarah, but if anything were to happen to you or to any of your men…”
“And what options did you have? Johnny needed somewhere to hole up. Well – he has it.”
“And I thank you for it, but what worries me is that these three men are pretty cold blooded from what we’ve seen of them. They want Johnny, and they might not care who they have to go through to get to him.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
Scott thought for a moment and then sighed. “I’m going to wire Murdoch and tell him what happened and where we are. Then I’m going to check around town. If they’re not there, that’s fine. But if they are…’’
“No!” Sarah exclaimed, stopping him cold. “You’re not facing them. You’re injured yourself, and you said there are three of them.”
“I’ll see the sheriff first.”
She shook her head grimly. “No, Joe was right about McAllister. He’s a coward with a tin star pinned on him. He won’t help.”
“Well, I can’t sit here and wait for them to find us,” Scott insisted.
“Yes, you can. If I have to tie you to a chair, you will. By the time they realize you’re here, your father might already have arrived. You said you lost them on the road and no one in town will know you’re here.”
Scott sighed. “I lost them, but if they backtrack and look for us, they’ll find us if they’re any good. I took some time to lay a few false trails. Maybe that will slow them down some.”
“There, you see. There’s no need to rush off into town and look for trouble,” she told him with determination. “Now, that’s enough of that subject.”
Scott nodded. “I’d like to see Johnny, Sarah. Maybe sit with him for a while.”
“You should get some sleep. You’re exhausted, and Johnny is in good hands with Will.”
“I know, but…”
“I guessed you’d want to sit with him,” she said with a smile. “And I’m sure the doctor would like a break too.”
She led him quietly to the room and let him walk in ahead of her. Johnny was still asleep but he looked flushed from the rising fever. Scott didn’t like it at all.
Will Barnes looked up and caught the concerned frown on Scott’s face. He stood up to talk to him.
“He’s not as bad as he looks, Scott. That fever is under control at the moment. It’s from the shoulder wound – it’s slightly infected. The leg wound is okay so far. A little fever is not exactly unexpected.” He stopped for a moment to let Scott take it all in, and then he continued. “I’m more concerned by the amount of blood he lost.”
“How bad is he?” Scott asked uneasily.
“Well, if we can keep that fever at bay, and keep him in bed long enough to recover from the blood loss and let that leg heal a little, he’ll be fine.”
Scott sighed. “At least one of those ifs is going to be harder than you think. My brother does not like playing the invalid.”
Barnes clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll just have to see about that, Scott. Now, why don’t you sit right here with him while I go get myself a cup of coffee?”
“Thanks, Will,” Scott answered, truly grateful. He took the chair the doctor had vacated and sat down, pulling it closer to the bedside. He checked his brother’s forehead, and, finding it hotter than he remembered, he retrieved the towel the doctor had been using to cool him from the basin of water on the bedside table. He wrung the water out of it and wiped Johnny’s face and throat, then folded it into a compress and placed it on his brother’s brow.
The cool towel evinced a soft sigh from Johnny, but he showed no further signs of waking, so Scott leaned back in the chair and watched him.
How had a simple business trip gone so horribly wrong?
Right from the beginning it had been trouble. And it was all for nothing, anyway. The bull was dead when they arrived to collect it.
Johnny hadn’t really wanted to go in the first place. With Celeste six months into her pregnancy, he hadn’t wanted to leave her. But Scott had been watching her lately. Johnny’s over-protectiveness was getting on her already fragile nerves, at least in his humble opinion. He was pretty sure that a short break from each other would circumvent a very loud explosion of ‘French’ from Celeste.
She’d been patient enough, but it was certainly coming!
But now they had good reason to worry. Scott was certain that Maddie would know that Johnny was hurt. She wasn’t eight years old yet, but she was so close to her father that she always knew when something was wrong or he was hurt. She’d alerted them to trouble a few times.
Scott hoped that she hadn’t conveyed her fears to Celeste. Johnny might well be right to worry about the effect that would have on her and their unborn child.
A murmur from the bed got Scott’s attention. He’d been on the verge of succumbing to his tiredness when he realized that Johnny seemed to be coming round.
He reached for his hand and held it firmly and watched as Johnny fought his way back to consciousness.
“Take it easy, Johnny. I’m right here with you.”
He watched him lift his eyelids slowly, but he couldn’t sustain the effort and, for a moment, they dropped shut again, only to lift once more and reveal his striking blue eyes.
“Scott?” he whispered, just loud enough to be heard.
“I’m here, Johnny.”
Johnny turned his head slowly towards Scott’s voice. His eyes were glazed and unfocussed, and he frowned as he concentrated and searched for his brother’s face.
“Where are we?”
“We’re at Sarah’s ranch. The doctor’s been and you’re doing fine.”
“No,” Johnny sighed, turning his head away. “No, you shouldn’t have brought me here.”
“Well, it’s done,” Scott told him with finality. “Are you thirsty?”
“Yeah. Kind of hot too.”
“That’s because you still have a fever,” Scott explained. He poured some water into a glass and lifted Johnny’s head enough to take a few sips. “Now, rest a minute while I fetch the doctor in here.”
Scott hurried from the room, returning a few moments later with Will Barnes in tow.
Will went straight to the bed where Johnny lay with his eyes closed again. At first he thought that the boy might have gone back to sleep, but then he noticed a small fluttering of his eyelids.
“Hello, Johnny,” he said quietly and watched his reaction.
Johnny turned his head to see the doctor more clearly. “Hello, Will,” he said faintly, but distinctly. “Good to see you again.”
“You too,” the doctor replied, sitting down on the chair beside him. “You didn’t need to go to this much trouble to do it though.”
He checked Johnny’s temperature and pulse as he spoke, and then pulled out his stethoscope to check his heartbeat.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Johnny asked quietly.
“If you’ll be quiet long enough for me to finish, I’ll tell you,” the doctor chipped him sarcastically.
Johnny’s breathing was slow and heavy. He was still exhausted, and probably wouldn’t be awake for long if they could get him to take something for the pain that he must be in.
He folded the stethoscope and put it aside, checking the bandages on Johnny’s shoulder and on his leg.
“Well, you looked damned awful when I first saw you, Johnny, but you’re doing a whole lot better now,” Barnes told him with a grin. “You gave everyone a real scare, but from here on, a lot of it is up to you. How good a patient are you?”
Johnny opened his mouth to answer that, but then saw that his brother was standing behind the doctor and likely to contradict anything he said anyway.
“Why?” he asked instead.
Barnes hadn’t missed any of it, and grinned for a moment. “Alright, let me lay it out for you. You lost a lot of blood and you still have a fever. So you’re going to be as weak as a kitten for a while. The fever is from the shoulder wound. There’s a little infection there, but nothing serious. The leg looks good so far, but I’ve got a lot of delicate stitches holding you together in that wound. I put a lot of time and effort into you, boy. You’re going to be staying in this bed for some time, and I have to know that you’ll stay there – nice and quiet.”
“Doesn’t look like I have a lot of choice then, does it?” he asked, a hint of resignation in his voice.
“Oh, you have choices alright. You can stay here, do as you’re told – and I mean everything you’re told – or you can ignore all my advice and risk breaking open those internal stitches and bleed to death. Personally, I’m hoping you’ll take the first option.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Doc,” he said, his voice beginning to fade as he tired. “Now, tell me – how’s Scott’s arm?”
“I put a few stitches in it, so he’s a little sore, but he’s fine.”
Johnny closed his eyes wearily and rolled his head back to the middle of the pillow. His strength beginning to fail, he said faintly, “Thanks Doc.”
Barnes gripped his arm gently and answered him with a smile. “Any time Johnny, now get some rest. I’m going to leave some laudanum with Scott and Sarah for the pain. I’m told you won’t like it, but you need to get some sleep to fight off that fever. So I don’t want any arguments about it.”
“Sure,” Johnny said vaguely.
“Good,” Will said, taking a small glass and pouring a dose of laudanum into it. “Let’s make a start right now. Drink this down for me.”
He lifted Johnny’s head and saw a flash of rebellion in his eyes. But Johnny was tired now – too tired to fight. So he drank it down without a fuss and then swallowed a sip or two of the water he was offered to wash it down. Then he drifted off to sleep.
Will picked up his bag and turned back to Scott. “Come outside with me. I want to talk to you and Sarah.”
Scott looked again to make sure that Johnny was resting easily and then followed the doctor out of the room. Sarah was waiting for them in the drawing room.
“I’m heading back into town now,” the doctor began. “There’s not much more I can do here at the moment. I want someone with him at all times, and you have to try to get that fever down. And keep an eye on that leg wound. It’s holding, but I want you both to keep checking for any signs that it’s started to bleed again.” He picked up his hat from the dresser and turned back to them. “If there is any change in his condition at all – any bleeding or if that fever spikes – send for me right away. I don’t care what’s happening here at the time. Do you understand?”
“Will, you have a right to know what’s happening,” Scott began to tell him.
“It’s alright; Sarah and Joe told me while you were sleeping. If anyone should come asking questions, they won’t get anything from me. It’s why I’m heading back now, before it gets light. I’m less likely to be missed this way.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, Will,” Scott told him, shaking his hand.
“Remember that when I give you my bill,” Barnes answered with a grin and a wink. “Now, you get some sleep, Scott. You’re way past exhaustion, and you might need to be wide awake later. You won’t be any help to your brother without taking care of yourself.”
“Sure,” Scott answered.
“And you, Sarah – there’s plenty of laudanum in there if Scott tries to argue. Use it!”
Sarah smiled. “I promise.”
“Good, now I’ll be back this afternoon to check on Johnny. If you need me before then, send for me.”
He left amid more thanks and farewells, leaving Sarah to chase Scott off to bed in her room while she stayed up to look after Johnny. In the end, Scott hadn’t needed much persuasion. He had left a note with Sarah to tell Joe what to send in the wire to Murdoch and told Sarah firmly to make him understand that that was ALL he wanted him to do.
Then he had checked again on Johnny and headed for bed. The doctor was right. He had to be awake to help if there was trouble. The way he felt, he was going to be of no use to anyone. His arm hurt and wouldn’t be good for much, and he was tired to the point of exhaustion.
There was only about an hour till daybreak, and he knew that he wouldn’t have much time for sleeping. He forced a promise from Sarah to wake him if anyone did come looking for them, and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Sarah sat with Johnny, wondering what the daylight would bring. She was tired herself, but Scott was far worse, and needed the sleep badly. Will had been right about that.
Her own emotions were in a muddle. She was worried, frightened, and even just a little bit happy – happy that Scott was back. But she hadn’t yet sorted out which of those feelings was the strongest. She didn’t want to face any of them really. There would be time for that when all of this was over.
She leaned forward to replace the cool compress on Johnny’s forehead, and then checked the leg wound to make sure there was no bleeding. She pulled the covers back over him carefully and sighed.
She began to think about what she had to do when daylight came. Joe and Tom knew what was going on, but the other men had a right to know as well. She’d have to speak to all of them and tell them that there was a good possibility that there would be trouble at the ranch. They were good men, all of them. They were hard workers and they were reliable, and they had a right to know what was happening. Some of them might want to leave, and she meant to give them the choice, but she had a feeling that most of them would stay and stand by her and her friends.
Will Barnes rode quietly into Hobson’s Crossing and took his horse to the livery stable. He took care of the animal himself and led him to the stall where he kept him. It wasn’t yet daylight, so he lit a lamp and set about bedding down the horse, wondering what the new day would bring.
As he walked out of the livery, he noticed that there seemed to be more horses there than usual. One good looking animal stood out among them – a handsome pinto.
Three men, well, not much more that boys really, descended the stairs from their rented rooms above the saloon and walked into the bar. It was just after daybreak and nothing and no one much was stirring yet.
The only sound in the room was the jangle of their spurs – big Spanish roweled spurs that all three wore on their boots.
They swaggered across the room, all with well oiled gun belts and an air of self-importance. They were all tall, though one of them stood a good couple of inches over the others. He had untidy fair hair that badly needed cutting, clothes that had obviously been slept in, and a face so adolescent that he hardly looked old enough to shave.
His friends were both dark haired and equally in need of a barber. One had a decent moustache that he tended to stroke now and then with teenage pride. There was something very pleasing about the fact that he could grow one, while his friends tried in vain to do the same.
The third looked like he had Indian blood in him. He was darker than the others, with high cheekbones and dark eyes. Like his friends, he was reasonably good looking, and none of them was older than twenty-two years.
They strolled over to the bar and leaned against it with a sort of exaggerated casualness.
“Hey, barkeep, where you at?” the tall, fair one called out.
The others laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Shhh Tait, you’ll wake up the town,” his darker friend admonished him, still laughing.
“This town needs wakin’ up, Chas,” Tait retorted. “Never seen such a quiet little hole. Nothin’ to do at night. Bet they all go to bed at sundown and sleep half the day too.”
“Yeah, reckon even the dogs are too lazy to scratch ‘emselves,” Chas answered snidely. Then he jumped up onto the bar and swung his legs over to the other side. “Hey, since the barkeep ain’t here to serve us, we’ll just have to help ourselves.”
He dropped to the floor and pulled out glasses for each of them, and then he opened a bottle of whiskey and filled them.
All three tossed the drinks down quickly and slammed the glasses back onto the bar.
“Oo-ee, that does go down smooth this early in the day,” Tait gasped, while the others laughed and clapped him on the back again good-naturedly.
“So what do we do now, Tait?” Chas asked him, taking a more serious tone.
“Well, I reckon they must’ve turned off somewhere on the road back there. We lost ‘em somewheres an’ we have ta figure out where.”
“I still think I hit Madrid yesterday. I saw him go down, an’ there was blood on the sidewalk,” the third boy told them caustically. “If we’d looked out for a blood trail instead of riding all the way here, we mightn’t have wasted so much time.”
“Rafe, if you think you can find us a trail, then you head on back an’ look for it. Me? I still reckon they’re around here somewhere,” Tait answered belligerently.
“We need to find out if there’s a doctor in town. He’d be the first one Madrid’d go to with a bullet in him,” Chas suggested.
“Yeah, well, let’s nose around here a bit, an’ if we can’t turn ‘em up, we’ll backtrack and look for a trail,” Tait decided for them.
The bartender came in from his room at the back of the saloon. They’d made enough noise to wake the dead and he’d woken up snarling. The boys had kept him up late last night too, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be.
“You boys plannin’ on payin’ for them drinks?”
"Hi there, Pops. Come join us," Tait offered with a cheerfulness that belied the malevolence behind his invitation.
The barkeep stepped behind the bar a little nervously. The three young men sounded like they were in a good mood, but something about them implied danger. He wasn't even sure what it was that made him wary, but that was the impression he got.
"Kind of early for most of my customers," he told them as pleasantly as he could make himself. He didn’t want to get them upset. There was no telling what they might do.
"Yeah, well, we ain't 'most people', Pops," Tait replied with a grin that didn't help the barkeep's nerves.
The kid picked up the bottle and refilled his glass, leaning forward until he was close to the man's face.
"Now, I was wonderin' if you had any other customers stay the night," he said. "Anyone come in from outa town 'sides us, last night?"
The barkeep shook his head. "Nope, no one."
"You wouldn't know a man goes by the name of Madrid, now would ya?" Chas asked quietly, still behind the bar and far too close for Jack Thorn’s comfort. The boy was looking into his glass casually, as though the question was of no real importance, but Jack got the impression it was very important to them.
"Madrid? Johnny Madrid?"
"The one an' only," Chas replied, looking up at the man.
“Well, I dunno ‘bout that.”
“What d’ya mean by that,” Chas asked him quickly.
“Well, we used ta have a fella round here went by that name. Couple of years ago, it was. He made lots o’ trouble, made a big deal ‘bout who he was an’ how fast and how tough he was, but it turned out he wasn’t really Madrid.”
Tait laughed. "He wasn't the real Madrid? How do you know that, Pops?"
The barkeep looked nervous. "Well, the real one turned up one day and put a stop to it."
"Now that musta been funny," quipped Chas.
"You know where we could find 'the real one'? You seen him 'round here lately?"
The barkeep shook his head quickly. "No sir, ain't seen him since. He just left an' he ain't been back."
"Well, I guess we'll just have to find the bastard ourselves," Tait informed his friends. "Come on, let's get out of here an' find him."
The three of them finished up and left, leaving the barkeep to his own thoughts. Mostly, those thoughts were of Sarah Connolly. It was no mistake on his part that he had neglected to tell them that Johnny Madrid's real name was Lancer, or that, if he was anywhere around here, it was likely to be at Sarah's ranch.
He went to the door to see where they were headed and saw them laughing in the empty street and making their way to the doctor's office. There was something about that laughter that didn't ring true. Those boys were trouble - that was certain.
He wondered if Will knew anything. If Johnny Lancer was wounded like they had said, he might even have been out there.
Well, he sure hoped that Will had the forethought to say nothing about the Connolly ranch.
Years of getting up at daybreak meant that Joe Nesbitt had an inbuilt alarm clock that seldom failed him. It didn’t this morning either, even though he had been up so late. He sat up on his bunk and started pulling on his boots, noticing that Tom Rawlings was doing the same.
“You wanna come with me an’ find out how he’s doin’?” Joe asked him.
“Yup,” was all the reply he got. He didn’t expect any more. Tom rarely said more than he thought would do the job.
They left the others in the bunkhouse just waking up and getting ready for the day and together they walked over to the house and knocked on the door. They didn’t wait for an answer. Instead they opened the door, walked in and waited in the drawing room.
Sarah came out of her uncle’s room, looking tired.
“He’s asleep,” she told them quietly. “So is Scott. I finally got him to go to bed a couple of hours ago.”
“How’s Johnny doin’, Miss Sarah?” Tom asked.
“Apart from the fever, he’s doing just fine,” she answered with a smile. “Now, I have a note for you, Joe, to send to Murdoch Lancer. And Scott is adamant that you stay out of trouble in town – so am I.”
“I’ll go with him, Miss Sarah,” Tom added.
She looked at him and shook her head. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? I don’t want either of you looking for trouble.”
Sarah passed the note to Joe and then continued. “I want to talk with the men this morning before you go. I think they should know what’s happening here. They have a right to decide if they want to stay or not.”
“Sure, I’ll get ‘em together, Miss Sarah,” Joe offered, and then frowned. “An’ I think you oughta get some sleep too. I c’n sit with Johnny when I get back, so’s you c’n rest.”
“I agree,” Scott said, walking out of Sarah’s room unexpectedly. “Except that I’ll sit with Johnny while you get some rest, Sarah.”
“Scott, you’ve only had a couple of hours yourself.”
“Well, it’s a couple of hours more than you’ve had. I’m awake now, and you need some rest.”
“I’m going to talk to my men first then.”
“Alright. I’m going to sit with Johnny. And Joe, you stay out of…”
Joe slapped his hat against his thigh loudly. “A man’d think he couldn’t be trusted the way you two keep at me.”
Will Barnes heard the knocking on his door and cursed. It hadn't been much before dawn when he had gotten to bed, and it was just his luck that someone would want a doctor this early in the morning.
He threw on some clothes and went through to the office and then the front door, kicking his toe on the leg of a chair and cursing again. The knocking had gotten louder and more insistent so he called out angrily "Yeah, hang on. I'm coming."
He opened the door to three young men, looking amazingly healthy considering the urgency with which they had demanded his attention.
"Yes? What can I do for you?" he asked edgily.
"You the doc?" the tall, fair cowboy demanded.
"We're lookin' for a man who might be wounded. Thought you might know somethin'."
Barnes hoped that his face wasn’t showing how much that had unnerved him. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out, trying to relax and think fast.
"Probably has a bullet in him," the young man answered casually.
“A bullet? Some kind of accident?”
“You might say that, Doc.”
"Well, I don't think I can help you. I've been out most of the night on a call, but I don't know of anyone in town who's wounded."
"What kind of a call?"
"Got called out to deliver a baby," the doctor replied quickly, hoping the lie would work.
"Well, ain't that sweet," the young man commented, with anything but a 'sweet' tone in his voice. He sounded a little suspicious. "A boy or a girl?"
"Neither, as it happens. It was a false alarm," he lied. "Which is why I'd like to get back to bed. I'm liable to get another call tonight to go deliver it. So, if you boys aren't dying yourselves, I'll say goodbye."
The young man grinned. "Sure, Doc. You go right on back to bed. We'll ask around some an' if anyone comes lookin' for ya, you just make sure you come an' let us know."
“This fella a friend of yours?”
“We just wanta catch up with him,” Tait said with a malicious grin.
“Well, maybe you oughta see the sheriff. He might know something,” Barnes suggested.
“An’ maybe you oughta just keep this to yourself, Doc. I mean, I don’t think the town would want ta have ta get a new doc, just cause you can’t keep your nose outa other folks’ business.”
Barnes decided against pushing them any further and nodded.
“An’ like I said, you let us know if you hear anythin’, won’t you?”
"Sure, I'll do that," he answered, trying to sound a little nervous. It wasn't really hard actually. He closed the door carefully and leaned back against it. Did they believe him? He thought so. He hoped so anyway.
They were so young! But there was an air of violence about them. They hadn't really threatened him at any stage, but he had felt the threat there just the same.
Tom and Joe rode into town just as the streets of Hobson’s Crossing started to come alive.
The stores were open and people had begun to get out and about, looking to their daily business. The school bell rang over and over - a last warning to the late-comers - and then finally stopped.
There was a loud clanging coming from the blacksmith's shop as he started work at the anvil, and two ladies were standing at the door to the dressmaker's store chatting animatedly.
The town looked quite normal.
Tom reined in at the general store. The mail and the telegraph were both there. He dismounted, taking a casual look around him, and seeing nothing that indicated that anything had changed in town today, turned to Joe.
"You go on in. I'll wait here."
"Sure. This won't take long."
Joe dismounted beside him and stepped up onto the sidewalk. He took the note from his shirt pocket and walked past Tom and into the store.
Tom watched the street, taking little interest in the people passing by. He knew very few of them, even though he had worked at the Connolly ranch for years. He didn't get into town much and spent most of his time with Joe or one of the other ranch hands when he did.
What he was looking for now was quite different, and he finally spotted them.
Three young men walked out of the saloon and threw their saddle bags over their mounts. They looked like ordinary cowboys from where he was standing, but the fact that there were three of them, all strangers in town, suggested they were the ones Scott had told Joe and Sarah about.
He watched them quietly, not wanting to attract any attention to himself, as they mounted and headed their horses towards him on the way out of town. They rode slowly past him, talking amongst themselves and paying him no mind, and he got a better look at them as they rode past.
One of them, a dark-haired boy barely out of his teens and sporting a moustache, was riding a good looking pinto horse. He looked familiar and Tom looked more closely as he got level with him. Nothing much shook Tom Rawlings, but that kid did. The resemblance was uncanny.
There was only one person he could be. He stood up straight and made a quick decision.
"Chas?" he called out as the boys rode past.
The boy pulled his horse up and turned to see who had called his name. But the others rode on for a short distance, before they too stopped and turned around to watch.
"Do I know you, mister?" the boy asked, frowning.
Tom stepped out into the street and walked over to the boy.
"Chas. That's you, ain't it?"
"I asked you a question, mister," Chas answered antagonistically.
"Yeah, I reckon you're Chas. You look real like Kit. He had a big dumb moustache just like that at your age."
“Who the hell are you, mister? You seem to know an awful lot about me,’ the kid growled at him. He was bright red from a mixture of embarrassment and fury.
Tom just shook his head. “I’m Tom Rawlings, boy,” was all he said, a little sadly.
The embarrassment vanished from the boy’s face, replaced by plain fury and a startled expression.
“Well now, what d’ya know? So what d’ya want me to do? Get down an’ kiss your feet or somethin’? You ain’t nothin’ to me, mister, an’ I’ll thank you to get outa my way.”
With that, he spurred his horse viciously and rode past his friends and out of Hobson’s Crossing, leaving the other two to catch him up. And leaving Tom Rawlings standing alone in the middle of the street.
“You wanta tell me what that was all about, Tom?” Joe asked him hesitantly, when he stepped off the sidewalk to meet Tom at the horses.
“Well, who was he?”
Tom didn’t answer. Instead, he glared at Joe, shrugged his shoulders and untied his horse’s reins.
He did it without a word, but with no room for argument. Joe knew enough about Tom to know when he wasn’t going to get anywhere, so he let it drop. But his curiosity was well and truly piqued.
Joe was pretty sure that they were the three who had attacked Scott and Johnny. It was too much of a coincidence to be otherwise. But what was the connection with Tom?
“Maybe we should go over to the saloon an’ find out what we can about ‘em,” he suggested.
Joe took a deep breath and sighed. Tom could be the most uncommunicative cuss he had ever known, but he had never known him like this.
They walked the horses over to the rail outside the saloon and tied them. Then they strolled in. There was no one there this early - at least, no one but the barkeep, sweeping the floor aggressively.
“Mornin’ Jack,” Joe greeted him as he walked in.
The barkeep looked up and stopped his sweeping. “What brings you boys into town so early?”
“Had ourselves an errand for Miss Sarah,” Joe explained. He glanced at Tom, but he had nothing to say.
“You lookin’ for a drink, Joe? It’s kinda early.”
“No, not exactly, Jack. We was wonderin’ about those three boys that just left.”
“Huh, them young toughs,” the barkeep scoffed. “Trouble, that’s what they are.”
He remembered their questions suddenly, and stared at Joe and Tom curiously. “They had a lota questions this mornin’,” he added.
“’Bout what?” Tom asked, speaking at last.
“About Johnny Madrid,” he answered quietly. “They seemed to think maybe he was hereabouts, an’ maybe hurt. You boys wouldn’t know nothing ‘bout that now, would you?”
“What did you tell ‘em?” Joe asked, ignoring the question.
“Well, I ain’t dumb. I figured if they’re lookin’ for him, he likely doesn’t wanta be found. I ain’t seen him anyway, an’ that’s what I told ‘em.”
“Did ya tell ‘em anythin’ else?” Joe persevered.
The barkeep shook his head quickly. “No, Joe. I sure didn’t tell ‘em ‘bout Sarah’s place or even what his real name is. Didn’t tell ‘em anythin’ much. I ain’t got nothin’ against Johnny. Scott an’ him cleaned up one damned awful mess for Miss Sarah.”
“That they did, Jack. Miss Sarah doesn’t want those boys nosin’ ‘round the ranch now that she’s gotten back on her feet.”
“I kinda figured as much,” the barkeep told him. He could read between the lines and thought he had it figured out. If Johnny was at the ranch, Sarah sure didn’t want them out there looking for him. “They went to see Doc Barnes when they left here. An’ I think they were askin’ at the livery too. I ain’t sure. They mighta just been gettin’ their horses.”
“What happened at the Doc’s? Did they go in or anythin’?” Joe asked him anxiously.
“Nah – I watched the whole thing from here. They were only there a few minutes. Didn’t even get in the door.”
“Well, we best be headin’ back anyway. Thanks Jack,” Joe told him, but before he turned to leave, the barkeep spoke to him again.
“Listen Joe, Tom, I dunno what’s goin’ on – don’t want to. But I’ll tell you this much, them boys are trouble. If they’re lookin’ for Johnny, an’ he ain’t in a position to help himself – you know, wounded like they said – well, I don’t think they’re lookin’ for a fourth to play poker. You know what I mean?”
“Sure,” Joe answered for both of them. “An’ I thank ya, Jack.”
They walked out into the daylight. It was time to get back to the ranch and let Scott know what was happening.
The barkeep followed them to his door and watched them mount and ride out, convinced now that they knew where Johnny was. He knew too, and he was sure glad those three boys had ridden out of town and weren’t likely to ask him again.
Scott sat by the bed, watching Johnny. He’d taken the sling off so that he could use his arm more. He was getting worried about that fever. Not only had it not gone down, it had risen a little more, although it was still a long way from being too high yet.
Nevertheless, Scott was trying to keep his bother’s face cool and bring it down.
Johnny hadn’t woken again yet. With the effect of the laudanum to consider, he was probably unlikely to for a while. It was just as well. That shoulder wound seemed to be troubling him even while he slept. The few times that he tried to move, he frowned deeply and moaned a little.
Sarah had come back from talking to her men. She’d been pleased that none of them was leaving. In fact, they had insisted on finding work close to the house today. They’d been surprised by the news, but it seemed that she had a good crew, and they were as ready to protect her as Joe and Tom were. It didn’t make him feel any better about the risks he had brought with him though.
When she got back, he’d chased her off to bed. She had been up all night and fell asleep right away. He’d checked on her since and she was fast asleep.
He had been up for most of it himself, of course, and he was tired. But he couldn’t sleep now anyway. Apart from the fact that Johnny’s condition had worsened, it was daylight now, and trouble could swing by any time.
Around mid-morning, he heard horses outside. He left Johnny and went out to the window in the drawing room. He was relieved to see the business end of a rifle poking around the side of the barn and realized that one of the men was there covering them, but he soon recognized both the horses and their riders.
Joe dropped down from his horse just outside the house and Tom was right beside him. They came inside, knocking first to warn Scott and Sarah.
“Hi Joe, Tom. Did you have any problems in town?” Scott asked quickly as they walked in.
“Nope,” Joe answered for both of them. “We sent the wire, just as you wrote it. But we did see three fellas leavin’ the saloon and ride outa town.”
He stopped and looked at Tom at that point, but Tom didn’t appear to want to add anything so he went ahead. “They stayed there for the night, an’ they were askin’ questions about Johnny.”
“Do you know if they found anything out?”
Joe shook his head. “Nope, they didn’t find out anythin’ from what we was told. The barkeep, he didn’t mention the ranch, or Johnny bein’ a Lancer these days. They went to Doc Barnes too, but it ain’t likely they found anythin’ out there. He didn’t even let ‘em in the door.”
“You say you saw them?”
“Yeah, we saw ‘em. Three young fellas – one ridin’ a pinto. They was ridin’ outa town.”
“A pinto? That’s them. I remember that horse.”
Joe looked again at Tom, but still he had nothing to say. He seemed, instead, to find something interesting to look at on the floor.
“They must be going to back track. If they’re any good, they’ll find the trail.”
“One of ‘em looked part Indian. He’s likely to be pretty good at it.”
“Then we’d better be ready for them. Johnny’s not going to be in any condition to help,” Scott told them with a sigh.
“How’s he doin’, Scott?” Tom asked, finally finding something to say.
“Well, the bleeding has stopped, but that fever isn’t getting any better. If it gets much worse, I’m going to send for Will Barnes. I know he said he was coming this afternoon, but I’m getting worried.”
Tom looked at him, and then looked out of the window, apparently thinking. He said nothing for some time, but both Scott and Joe could see something was on his mind.
Joe couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Come on, Tom, out with it. Who was that kid?”
Scott frowned, wondering what he meant. “What kid? What are you talking about? Tom, what’s going on?”
“Tom knew one of ‘em, Scott,” Joe told him, and glared at his silent friend. “An’ you know Tom – b’n talkin’ my ear off ‘bout it since,” he continued sarcastically. “Can’t get a word outa him.”
Scott looked at his friend. “Tom?”
“I’m sorry, Scott - real sorry. I do know one of them, though not very well.” He still hadn’t turned back to face them. “Not as well as I should,” he finished, dropping his head sadly.
Neither of the other men spoke. Neither knew just what to say, and silence seemed like the easiest course of action.
“Ain’t seen him for years. Not since he was a little kid.” He turned around to face them and both were shocked by the emotion in his face. “He’s my kid brother. Chas Rawlings.”
“Murdoch? Is it from Scott?” Celeste asked anxiously.
“Yes,” he answered, scanning the piece of paper quickly. He was still standing on the portico, where he had accepted the wire only a moment ago. He wished he’d had some time to read it privately before Celeste found out that he had it, but she’d heard the rider come in.
Actually, she’d been hovering around the Great Room, watching through the big window all morning. She had obviously been hoping for news. She had almost beaten him to the messenger. That was the last thing he wanted. If there was bad news in that wire, he wanted to break it to her gently.
Teresa and Maria had both tried to distract her several times throughout the morning, but to no avail. Johnny was all she could think of right now. Even the baby, still barely able to make its presence known, was secondary. Though, on occasion, Teresa had noticed her sitting sadly, with one hand on the small bulge, patting it - as if for comfort.
“What does the wire say?” Celeste asked him uneasily.
Murdoch sighed, reading it. “He says that Johnny is hurt, but recovering. He can’t travel yet, so they’re staying at Sarah Connolly’s ranch for now.”
“Does he say what happened? How badly is Johnny hurt?”
He shook his head. “No, but he doesn’t sound too worried, Celeste,” he reassured her.
“How far away is this ranch?”
“Hobson’s Crossing – it’s about a day’s ride from here.” He turned to her decisively. “I’m going to go up there to see how Johnny is.”
“Then I’m going with you,” she told him resolutely.
“Oh no, you’re not,” he said, shaking his head determinedly. He turned and began walking into the house. “No Celeste, that’s out of the question. It’s too far.”
She followed him in. “I could use the buggy. I wouldn’t ride all that way. I would be careful, Murdoch. I just have to know how Johnny is.”
“No, that would take too long. It’ll be quicker for me to ride up there and I’ll send word back.”
He turned back to her and stopped.
“Celeste, I know you’re worried, but the trip is too long and too risky for you. Just stop for a moment and think about it.”
She sat down in the nearest chair - one of the big arm chairs in the great room. She sighed deeply. “I suppose you’re right, Murdoch, but I can’t stand not knowing.”
He smiled patiently at her, pleased that she cared so much. “I don’t blame you, but Scott hasn’t said that it’s serious. I’m sure he would have told us if it was. You have to try not to worry and look after that grandson of mine. I’ll go and look after my sons. Okay?”
His smile – his confidence – gave her some comfort. She could see that he was right. She would only slow him down if she went with him.
So she was going to have to stay behind and wait for news.
The thought of it irked her. The idea that her husband was lying hurt and needed her was driving her to distraction.
“I can’t promise you that I won’t worry,” she reluctantly agreed. “When are you leaving?”
His smile broadened. “Good girl. If I leave shortly, there’s still enough light that I might make it there by tonight. I’m not really sure, but if I don’t, I’ll camp out and get there first thing in the morning.”
“Promise me that you’ll send word right away about Johnny, Murdoch,” she begged him. “Even if it’s not good – I want to know. I’m tired of everyone not wanting to worry me. I have to know or I’ll go crazy.”
“I promise. You’ll have word as soon as I get there,” he told her, and leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “Now, I’m going to go see Jelly, and then get a few things together. I should be ready to go soon. Don’t you worry about anything, alright?”
She shook her head in frustration. Zut! She thought angrily. Men!
Murdoch turned and left her there. He strode quickly across to the barn to find Jelly Hoskins, tucking the piece of paper safely into his shirt pocket. There was no way he wanted Celeste or Teresa to read it. He hadn’t told her everything that was in it.
“Jelly?” he called loudly as he got to the barn door.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside, but when he didn’t get an answer, he called out again.
“Keep ya shirt on,” came a gruff reply from inside the barn. “I heard ya.”
“Jelly,” he called to him, stepping inside and finding him walking towards him. He lowered his voice. “Saddle my horse, will you? I’m going up to Hobson’s Crossing. Johnny and Scott are at Sarah Connolly’s ranch,” he hastily explained. “And can you round up about four of the men, quietly. I don’t want Celeste to know I’m taking anyone with me.”
“What’s goin’ on, Boss?”
“I got word from Scott. He’s up at Sarah’s place with Johnny. Johnny’s hurt and it sounds like they’ve got trouble.”
“How bad’s Johnny hurt? Did he say what sorta trouble?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any answers, Jelly. He says that Johnny’s recovering but can’t travel, and he asked me to come - with help.”
Jelly rubbed the unkempt whiskers on his chin, contemplating the news. “I don’t like the sound o’ that.”
“Neither do I. Something must be very wrong if he’s asking me to bring help.” He shook his head angrily. “Well, there’s no time to think about it now. I want to get going as soon as I can.”
“Okay, I’ll get your horse ready first, an’ then go get the men.”
“Jelly,” Murdoch added, remembering Jelly’s habit of saying too much at the wrong time. “Scott also said not to let Celeste worry too much, so I don’t want her to know that I’m taking men with me. You got that?”
“Sure. I ain’t gonna say nothin’,” Jelly assured him brusquely. “When are ya headin’ out?”
“As soon as I get some things together and some supplies from Maria. We might not make it by nightfall, but I want to get as far as we can. Now, as I recall, we have a crew working on that bridge over Saddler’s Creek. That’s not so far from here and it’s on the way. I want you to go out there and tell them that I need four men who can look after themselves. You’d better tell them that we might be walking into trouble. I don’t want them if they’re not ready to face it.”
Jelly nodded, understanding. Murdoch would need good men – men who would be ready to fight for the boss’ sons, and he knew that there wouldn’t be any problem finding them. Scott and Johnny were popular with the hands.
“Okay. I’ll meet them at the north gate. I’ll have Maria throw in enough supplies for all of us, and that way Celeste won’t see me ride out with them.”
“I’ll see to it, Boss. You go get things ready. I’ll get your horse, and then ride out to get the men.”
“Thanks Jelly,” Murdoch sighed. “I knew I could rely on you.”
In Sarah’s little drawing room, all eyes were on Tom Rawlings. They all had questions, but no one spoke – at least not at first.
It took a moment for Tom’s words to sink in.
“He’s my kid brother. Chas Rawlings.” He’d knocked the wind out of both of them with those few words.
Finally, Joe cleared his throat and said something.
“Tom, I’m thinkin’ you need to tell us more’n that.”
Tom shrugged his shoulders – feigning a lack of concern. But Scott and Joe could see otherwise.
“Nothin’ much to tell, Joe,” Tom said eventually. “I was fourteen when he was born, an’ I was gone from the farm by the time he was six. I don’t know him really.”
“But you recognised him?” Scott asked.
Tom nodded. “He had a look about him that I knew. It’s him alright.”
“Tom, would he listen to you?” Scott asked hopefully. “Would he talk his friends out of hunting Johnny down?”
“Nope, I tried talkin’ to him. He didn’t want to give me the time o’ day.”
Scott took a deep breath and thought about what to say now. He hesitated for a moment. He wanted to help his friend, but he had Johnny to consider. It wasn’t himself whose life he’d be betting with - it was his own brother’s.
"Tom, if you want out of this, I'll understand, but I have to think about Johnny. I can't let this change anything."
Tom's expression didn't alter one iota. Nothing about him changed, but he didn't answer immediately.
"I know," he said at last. "I don't expect you to." He thought for a moment, before he continued. "Scott, you an' Johnny are friends of mine. I don't know the kid, or how he got into this, but you didn't ask for any of it – he did. I'm not backing out on you."
"Tom, think about it. Are you sure? I mean, if it comes down to..."
"I know what it could come down to,” Tom snapped at him. It was the first sign of emotion he had given them. “I don't want to have to make any choices, an' I sure don't want to see him dead, but I won't let you down."
It was the most any of them had heard him say at once for years. Scott realized how much it had cost him to say it. And Scott did not want to force him to choose between Johnny or his own brother.
"We'll get him out of it, if we can, Tom. I promise you that," Scott told his friend grimly. He had no idea how, but if there was a way, they'd find it.
“Meantime, Scott, we got some figurin’ to do,” Tom suggested. “How long did it take you to ride ‘cross country from the road to here?”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know exactly – a few hours maybe. I was so intent on covering our tracks and watching Johnny that I didn’t pay much attention to time. And we travelled pretty slowly for just those reasons.”
“If they’re trying to follow a trail that you covered over, then they won’t be comin’ all that fast either,” Joe told then confidently. “Even the best tracker has to get down an’ look around sometimes. I reckon we should still count on a coupla hours.”
Tom nodded his agreement. “Sounds right.”
“Then we need to get ready for them. If they’re following our trail, they’ll come in from the back of the ranch, like we did.”
“We’ll need to set lookouts. Best cover both ways, just in case they come around from the road anyway,” Tom told them. “We don’t want no surprises.”
Scott didn’t answer. He had something else on his mind – something that he had been thinking about for most of the day. He decided now was the time that the subject had to be broached with them.
“There’s something else I wanted to ask you both too,” Scott added a moment later. “It’s about Sarah.”
“What about her?” Tom asked, while Joe looked like he had been about to ask the same question.
“Things could get nasty around here. Maybe we should get her to stay with one of the neighbours or in town, until it all blows over.”
Tom considered the idea, but Joe just shook his head. “I’d like to see ya try.”
Scott looked to Tom for his reaction to the idea.
“Joe’s right, Scott. I don’t think you’d get Miss Sarah out of here without hog-tyin’ her.”
“You’ve got that right, Tom Rawlings,” said a voice behind them.
All three men turned quickly, looking embarrassed at having been caught discussing her in her own drawing room.
“Sarah, I don’t want you to get hurt,” Scott insisted.
She folded her arms crossly. “I am NOT leaving my own home, Scott. I’ve defended it before, and I’ll do it again.”
“You’re not defending your home this time. You’re defending Johnny and me. And I don’t want you to have to. I’d feel better if you were somewhere safe.”
“You would, would you? Well, this is still my house, and you are my guests. That gives me the right to stay here and help.” She scowled at him angrily. “Or don’t you think I can help?”
“I didn’t say that. I’ve stared down the barrel of that Henry and I know you can handle it,” he told her soothingly. “But I’d rather you were right away from it.”
“No, Scott. And that’s final.” She turned away from him and headed into her uncle’s room.
“He’s sleeping. That fever is a bit higher. I’m thinking we should send for Will.”
“Who’s with him then?
“He’s okay. I only left him a couple of minutes ago,” Scott assured her. “We had some things to talk over.”
“What sort of things?” she asked. “Come in here and catch me up on it all.” She turned to her hired hands. “Joe – you and Tom go on out and get the men organized. I want every inch of that yard covered.”
“This is where we lost ‘em,” Rafe told the others as he inspected the area behind the boulders where Johnny and Scott had taken refuge. “An’ one of ‘em is hit, just like I thought.”
“I didn’t see any blood on the road comin’ back here,” Tait replied. “They must have turned off.”
“There’s none leavin’ here either. I reckon he’s been bandaged up pretty good, but there’s a lot o’ blood here. He ain’t goin’ far in that condition, an’ we might pick up a blood trail later.”
“Then they’re holed up someplace near here,” Chas assumed for all of them.
“That’s what I reckon,” Rafe agreed.
“Think you can find their tracks from here?” Tait asked Rafe.
Rafe smiled malevolently. “Sure, it won’t be hard.”
“If it’s Madrid who’s hurt, our job’s likely to be done already,” Chas told them. “Losin’ that much blood, he could be dead by now.”
“Well, he wasn’t dead when he left here. He was still bleedin’,” Rafe answered. “Give me a minute an’ I’ll find which way they headed. They could have played it cute an’ headed back the way they came.”
“Just as likely they watched us ride past,” Tait said bitterly.
“If we’d been watchin’ the road, ‘stead o’ just tryin’ to catch ‘em, we’d never have lost ‘em in the first place. There’s a trail of blood that leads all the way up here from the road,” Rafe told them angrily.
“I hope the bastard is still alive. I want the pleasure of takin’ him out myself,” Tait snarled viciously.
Rafe left them and walked carefully around the area, checking out tracks of both men and horses. He knew what he was doing. He knew he was good at it too. His father had started teaching him how to track when he could barely walk. Those had been the good days, before his Ma had left and his Pa had turned to drink.
Damn! Reading tracks always brought those memories back to him. He scowled and shook his head to clear them away. No good could come of remembering like that. The old man was dead and gone, and that was the end of it.
“Looks like one of ‘em’s draggin’ a leg. Could be that’s where he’s hit. That means he won’t be able to travel far,” he told them.
“Okay, so which way?” Tait asked impatiently.
Rafe looked up with a grin of victory. “The way we just came.”
“Can’t be. We’d have seen ‘em. Where’s the blood trail?”
“You sayin’ I’m wrong, Tait?”
There was a threat of violence in his words that neither of his companions missed. Tait was well aware of what Rafe was capable of, and Chas didn’t trust him either. Their relationship had never been based on ‘friendship’. It was more like a need of each other.
Now that they’re ‘leader’ was dead and gone, Tait had assumed the role, and neither of the others was really happy about it. They tolerated it, and that was all.
“No, but they had to have turned off somewhere,” Tait answered him.
“Yep, that’s what I reckon. So let’s go find out where.”
Teresa walked into the Great Room and found Celeste sitting in one of the armchairs trying to concentrate on some stitching. She didn’t look like she was succeeding and she looked up as Teresa came in.
"Murdoch's gone away for a couple of days," Celeste told her. "He got a wire from Scott this morning."
"What did it say? Did he tell you?"
Celeste put away the sewing. She hadn't gotten more that a few stitches done anyway, and had managed to prick her finger so many times through lack of attention that she knew she was wasting her time.
"Yes, he said that Johnny is hurt, but getting better. Apparently, he can't travel and they're staying at Sarah Connolly's ranch until he can." She tried to sound calm, but her insides were churning with nerves.
"That's all he told me anyway," Celeste answered, with a suspicious tone in her voice.
“Murdoch said he was going to go up there to see for himself and then wire us with more information. He left about an hour ago."
"Yes, I was out riding in the north pasture and I saw them going," Teresa told her as she took a seat beside her.
Celeste stared at her. "Them?"
"Well, yes. He had a few of the men with him."
"Teresa, he didn't say anything about taking men with him. He just wanted to get there quickly. I thought he was going alone." She frowned. “You don’t suppose there’s something he didn’t tell me, do you?”
Teresa thought about it. "He didn't say anything else about that wire? Did he show it to you?"
"No, he put it in his pocket." She looked nervously at Teresa. "You don't suppose they're in trouble and Murdoch has gone to help? That would explain his taking men with him - and why he was in such a hurry."
"No, I don’t think so. Celeste, don't worry about it. I'm sure there's an explanation. He wouldn't have said that Johnny was alright if he wasn't. He doesn't lie to us."
"No, not normally, I know. But everyone is so concerned with me not worrying that I don't know what to think any more. What if Johnny is hurt badly? I don't know whether Murdoch would tell me or not!"
She stood up and paced across to the fireplace, before turning back to face Teresa. “I just want to know what’s happening to my husband. Is that so much to ask?”
Teresa sighed. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, Celeste. And Johnny wouldn’t want you getting upset.”
Celeste stamped her foot. “Upset! Teresa, do you have any idea what it’s like – being treated like this? ‘Don’t worry, Celeste.’ ‘Relax, Celeste.’ ‘Take it easy, Celeste.’ Honestly, I am not a porcelain doll, you know. I’m having a baby, not a nervous breakdown!”
“I know Johnny’s been a little nervous…”
“Nervous? Oh, now that’s an understatement. But he isn’t the only one. Murdoch and Scott are just as bad.”
She walked back to the chair and sat down again indignantly.
Suddenly, she sighed. “Oh, I know what’s behind it, and I can understand why they’re all concerned. I even appreciate that they’re worried about me. I mean, Maddie’s mother, Luisa, died in childbirth, and Murdoch’s first wife, Catherine died having Scott. Naturally they’re worried. But Dr Sam has told them – over and over - that everything is just as it should be, for me and the baby. Heavens, I didn’t even have morning sickness after the first couple of months.”
She shook her head angrily. “I can put up with the patronizing, and I have to admit that it’s nice being treated like a queen, but this is different. I don’t want them keeping anything from me when Johnny is concerned. Surely you can see that?”
“Yes, I do see it. In fact, I wish I knew more too. Murdoch’s ridden off without telling me anything either, and those boys are like brothers to me. I’m anxious for them too. But we’re just going to have to wait to hear from Murdoch when he gets there. What else can we do?”
Celeste stared down at her hands and said, with just a hint of defiance, “Exactly - what else can we do?”
“He’s still sleeping,” Scott told her, very quietly, as they came into the room.
Johnny looked flushed with the fever that so worried his brother, but Scott was certain that he was sleeping – not unconscious.
Sarah put her hand to Johnny’s forehead and frowned. “He wasn’t this hot before. The fever’s getting worse. Has he woken while I was asleep?”
“Just for a few minutes an hour or so ago. I got some water into him, and then gave him another dose of laudanum, so I think he’ll sleep for a while yet.”
She sat down and wrung out the soft cloth in the basin, wiping Johnny’s face gently and then placing it on his forehead. He seemed to sigh and moved his head a little, but made no other sound.
“Did Joe get that wire sent?”
Scott sat down on the edge of the bed, watching his brother rather than Sarah.
“Yes. They didn’t have any trouble, but they saw the three men who were trailing us in town. It’s given us a whole new problem.”
She scowled. “What sort of problem?”
“One of them is Tom’s younger brother,” Scott told her bluntly.
“His brother?” she gasped. “I didn’t even know he had any family.”
“Neither did I. But you know Tom – he doesn’t say much about anything.”
“Well, apparently they haven’t seen each other for years. Tom didn’t say much, but he told us that the kid wasn’t much more than a baby when he left home. I gather the meeting didn’t go well, but I find it hard to ask anyone to side with us over a brother.”
“What did Tom say?”
Scott sighed. “He said he’s sticking with us. He told us that he doesn’t know his brother, and that none of this is our fault, but his. But it’s hard on him. I could see it.”
“Do you think he could talk to his brother? Get him to call the others off?”
“It doesn’t look like it. He tried, but it appears that brother didn’t want to talk to him.”
“Maybe they won’t even find out you’re here,” she told him hopefully.
“Maybe,” he answered doubtfully. “They left town and went back the way they came. Either they’ve gone home, or they’re backtracking to find us. But from the number of questions they asked about Johnny in town, I don’t think they’ve given up.”
She didn’t answer him, wetting and wringing out the cloth again, and then replacing it on Johnny’s brow.
“I really don’t like where all this is going. I hate the idea of Tom going up against his brother, and I don’t want you here either. We should never have come here.”
Sarah looked over at him and then turned back to give her attention to Johnny. “We’ve been over all that.”
“Sarah, I really don’t want you in this. I’m afraid it’s going to get dangerous and you could get hurt. I’d never forgive myself.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“It would only be until it’s over. You could go over to Rafe Carter’s place.”
“Sarah, listen to me…”
“I think you’re right - about getting the doctor for Johnny. I don’t like the way this fever is climbing.”
“Don’t change the subject, Sarah,” Scott repeated in frustration. “Will you listen to sense?”
She finally looked at him. “You’re wasting your breath. I’m not going anywhere.”
Scott stood up abruptly and paced across the room.
“You must be the most stubborn woman ever created, Sarah Connolly,” he growled angrily.
“Well, I am NOT leaving my home,” she snapped back at him. “You can argue all day. It won’t change a thing.”
Scott opened his mouth to answer her in kind, but was stopped.
“You two wanta take that some place else. You’re givin’ me a headache,” Johnny complained quietly, and opened his eyes on them.
“Johnny!” Scott exclaimed, hurrying to his side. ”You’re awake.”
Johnny shook his head, ever so slightly, and answered vaguely. “Who wouldn’t be with the noise you two are makin’.”
“I’m sorry, brother,” Scott said with an apologetic smile, easing himself gently back down on the side of the bed. “I guess I lost my temper. How do you feel?”
“Damned awful,” he replied with a scowl. “An’ hot.”
Sarah poured a glass of water and lifted his head a little so that he could swallow some of it. “This will help,” she told him soothingly.
She was right. It was good. His throat felt like water hadn’t passed his lips in a month. And he was hot and uncomfortable, though he didn’t feel as much pain as he thought he should.
He remembered the laudanum then. They’d slipped it to him before he realized what was happening. He hated the stuff and he made no secret of it. He didn’t like the way it dulled his senses, but he had to admit that it was better than the hurting.
“Thanks, Sarah,” he whispered as she laid his head back on the pillow. He felt a terrible lethargy holding him down in the bed. His arms and legs were like lead.
“What’s goin’ on?”
“Everything’s under control,” Scott assured him calmly. “You don’t need to worry about anything – just rest.”
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t patronize me, Scott. If everythin’ was fine, you two wouldn’t be at each other’s throats. What was that about Tom?”
It was Scott’s turn to scowl. “How long were you awake for? It sounds like you were ‘playing possum’, and that’s just not polite, little brother.”
“You two wanta talk over top o’ me, what do you expect?” He closed his eyes for a moment to try to focus. His head was swimming dizzily and it was confusing his thoughts. He knew that he had heard something about Tom, but he hadn’t been able to catch it properly.
And he knew there were other things he should be asking, but he couldn’t remember them. It was frustrating, and his headache got worse as he tried to straighten it all out.
Sarah must have noticed it. “I know it’s a little soon, but I think you should have some laudanum and get some more sleep. We really do have everything under control here, and you need all the rest you can get.”
“No,” he answered adamantly, with a show of will that took Sarah by surprise. “No more. I wanta know what’s goin’ on around me.”
“Johnny, you need to rest…” Scott began.
“No!” Johnny insisted, effectively cutting him off. His eyes had turned to cold hard ice, and Scott saw it and pulled back in spite of himself.
Johnny regretted the outburst immediately. He knew they were just trying to help him. It was all the fault of that damned laudanum. He’d lost control and unleashed Madrid, even if only for an instant. He didn’t like losing control.
He lifted his good hand shakily to his forehead. He could feel the fever, and he could feel his hand trembling. There was no way he’d be of help to them when the trouble started and he knew it.
It didn’t do anything to improve his frame of mind.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to jump at ya,” he said quietly to Sarah and his brother. “But I don’t want any more o’ that stuff. I…I don’t like…”
He stopped, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to put his fears into words.
“It’s alright, Johnny,” Sarah told him comfortingly. “No one is going to force you. But if the pain gets bad, I want you to say something. Okay?”
“Yeah, thanks Sarah,” he answered, his eyes closed now and his hand pressing hard on them. “My head’s kinda fuzzy.”
Scott must have thought he was losing consciousness and leaned over him. “Johnny?”
“It’s okay, Scott. Just give me a second.”
They responded with silence that gave him time to start un-jumbling his thoughts. There were questions starting to come to him, but too many were popping into his head at once, and they only made things worse.
“The wire?” he said at last, his eyes flashing open, as his worst concern finally surfaced. “Did you get word to Lancer – to Celeste?”
Scott nodded. “Yes. Joe sent the wire for me this morning. I told them you’re hurt and can’t travel, but that you’re okay. I asked Murdoch to bring help as soon as he can, but to make sure Celeste didn’t worry.” He grinned. “Does that satisfy you?”
Johnny actually smiled a little. “Yeah,” he answered with a show of the relief he really felt. “Thanks.” He thought for a moment before continuing. “Any sign o’ trouble yet? Have those boys turned up?”
“Joe saw them in town this morning when he and Tom went to send the wire,” Scott told him. “It seems they were asking a lot of questions, but they couldn’t have gotten any answers. They rode out of town before Joe and Tom left.”
“Was there any trouble?” Johnny asked, watching Scott’s face intently so he could figure out if he was lying, or avoiding the truth. Johnny could usually tell. His brother just wasn’t much good at fibbing.
“No, there hasn’t been any trouble,” Scott assured him calmly.
“But you still think there will be, right?”
Scott looked briefly at Sarah, a glance that Johnny didn’t miss. “I don’t know,” Scott said at last. “They rode out of town, so maybe they’ve given up.”
“No, they’ll back track,” Johnny told him confidently. “So, what was that about Tom? An’ why were you two havin’ at each other?”
“That was nothing, Johnny. Really,” Sarah insisted. “Scott’s just nervous and wants me to leave.” She shot a look at Scott that suggested darts and arrows. “And you needn’t join ranks with him. I am NOT leaving.”
Johnny thought that the frustration on his brother’s face bordered on comical, but he sympathized with him. He had not heard all that much of what had been said between them, only a lot of noise that had woken him, but he figured neither of them was happy with the other.
“I don’t blame ya, Sarah. We shouldn’t have brought trouble to ya in the first place, but I do kinda see Scott’s point.”
Sarah puffed up like a blowfish, ready to go into battle again. But Scott held up his hand to stop her. “Don’t let’s start that again. Johnny, we’re not going to get anywhere arguing with her. Take it from me – she’s as stubborn as a mule.”
He looked over at her, caught the livid expression on her face and smiled cheekily. “Prettier though,” he added gracefully, and disarmed her enough to calm her ruffled feathers.
Johnny took a deep breath to clear his head again. He was not ready to admit to how tired he was beginning to feel. Whether it was still the drug or not, it was a battle just to concentrate now.
“Alright, but what about Tom? You’re both avoiding answerin’ me. I might not be at my best, but I ain’t stupid. You’ve ignored the question so far. So what’s happened?”
“It’s not even something for you to have to worry about. Tom’s fine and he’s made his mind up, so it doesn’t really concern any of us.” He looked down at the bed while he considered what to tell Johnny, but he must have decided that he should know. “He recognized one of those boys when he saw them in town. He tried to talk to him, but he got nowhere, so he wants to leave it at that.”
“Recognized him?” Johnny asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Scott obviously realized that he had to tell him or he’d keep at it and probably get angry, which they sure didn’t want in his condition.
“He’s Tom’s kid brother.”
Johnny felt as though he’d been hit. He closed his eyes and his head seemed to sink deeper into the pillow.
“This just keeps gettin’ better, don’t it?” he commented faintly.
Scott and Sarah shared a moment of panic as Johnny’s face paled beneath the fever. His eyes closed, he seemed to be trying to shut everything out.
“Johnny, you can’t let this worry you,” Sarah whispered to him. “Scott and Joe have talked to Tom. We’ll take care of it.”
“How?” he answered quietly, but a little antagonistically. “It’ll be brother against brother – an’ my fault… all my fault…damn…!”
They could see he was losing the battle to stay awake, and both of them wanted to smooth this over first. It shouldn’t be there to play on his mind.
“Johnny, we’ll do whatever we can to stop that happening,” Scott assured him. “You know I don’t want it either…and it is not your fault. None of this is.”
Johnny’s eyes opened, amazingly clear and bright, and he looked straight at his brother. He was breathing hard, but he seemed to have fought off the lethargy of a moment ago.
“’Course it’s my fault,” he argued, a hard edge to his voice that Scott did not like. “Madrid killed that kid, an’ I’m Madrid. Who the hell else is to blame?”
“You can’t take on the responsibility for everything, Johnny. You were forced into that fight, and you know it. I was there – remember? You did everything you could to get out of it.”
“He was just a kid, Scott.”
“He was a kid packing two guns and an overwhelming desire to kill you. You had no choice.”
On some level, Johnny accepted that Scott was right. But he couldn’t see past the trouble it had caused - trouble for Scott, for Sarah and now Tom, and who knew how many of the men outside as well. Madrid was at the root of it all, and that made it his fault and his problem.
“I wanta talk to Tom myself.”
Without a word, Sarah stood up and turned towards the door. Scott put out his hand and grabbed her wrist to stop her quickly.
“I think he should, Scott. It might help to set his mind at rest.” She sighed. “And maybe he can talk some sense into Tom. I have to admit – I don’t like this either.”
“What? Do you think I do? I don’t want Tom sacrificing his brother for mine!”
Scott blanched. It was out before he realized what he was saying, and in front of Johnny. He wished he could take the words back, but it was too late. He turned back to his brother and tried to repair the damage already done.
Johnny was lying with his eyes closed, and a defeated expression on his face that worried Scott.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m not going to let it come to that. I’ll find a way to stop it,” he promised him.
“I wanta talk to him, Scott, please.”
Sarah didn’t wait any longer, but shook off Scott’s restraining hand and left to get Tom. Scott moved into the chair she had vacated and took over the nursing duties. “You thirsty?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny admitted, and accepted Scott’s help with the glass of water. “Thanks.”
He laid back and relaxed for awhile. “Scott, if Murdoch left when he got that wire, he still won’t be here by tonight.”
“No, I don’t think so. Tomorrow morning is likely to be the earliest.”
“If those boys can track worth a damn, they’ll be here before then.”
The idea was not new to Scott. He’d had to consider it for most of the day and last night.
“I think a show of strength will put them off. They’ll think twice before coming into a yard full of men armed and waiting for them.”
Scott continued to wipe his brother’s face with the cool wet cloth. He wished Johnny would just give up the fight to stay awake. It was a relief that the fever didn’t have him delirious, but he needed the rest. This was taking too much out of him.
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed wearily. “Maybe you’re right. They’d be kinda stupid to try it.” He stopped for a moment before turning his head to his brother and frowning. “But it might be different after dark.”
“They turned off here,” Rafe told his companions confidently. He was standing on the ground, looking intently at the road, while Tait held his horse for him. “They musta headed across-country from here.”
“I don’t see no blood stains,” Tait argued. “Are you sure?”
Rafe turned a look of pure venom on Tait. “You think you can do better?”
Tait bridled at the challenge. “Maybe I could. We’ve only got your word for it that you know what you’re doin.”
“You ever heard of a bandage, Tait?” Rafe asked him sarcastically. “I ain’t lookin’ for blood stains. I’m lookin’ for tracks.”
“Seems like you’re takin’ your own sweet time at it, too.”
Chas sat astride his pinto and casually pulled the canteen from his saddle, listening to the bickering between his two companions. As he unscrewed the lid, he said absently, but surprisingly firmly, “Shut up, Tait.”
Tait turned towards him, stunned by the outburst. But Chas ignored him. They didn’t have all day, and his constant griping was getting on their nerves.
He was getting tired of the man throwing his weight around. He seemed to have just taken over when Wes died. No one had elected him, and neither he nor Rafe liked it. They’d been going along with it because he was a damned big man to argue with.
But he was short on brains and even shorter on patience.
Now, with Wes it had been different. They had all respected Wes’s ability to handle himself, and his guns. There had been something about that boy that gave him an automatic air of authority. He’d been younger than Tait, but he seemed years older than any of them.
Or maybe they had just been afraid of how fast he could draw those guns.
It didn’t much matter now though. Wes was dead – gunned down by Madrid. Chas still had trouble believing it. Wes had been good – real good. And Madrid – well, he was an old man now. How could he have outdrawn Wes? He couldn’t believe it had been a fair fight.
He wished that he had gone in with Wes. He could have backed him up then instead of trying to run down his killer this way. Madrid had had backup, and Chas had to wonder if that was how he had managed to get Wes.
Had the other man distracted him, or gotten behind him? There had to be something to it. Wes was just too fast to have lost, even to Johnny Madrid.
“Rafe, you think it’ll be hard trackin’ ‘em across that ground?” Chas asked the other man.
Rafe rubbed his chin, thinking. “It ain’t soft enough to leave easy tracks, but I can pick ‘em up okay. Shouldn’t take long.”
Chas took a swallow of the tepid, tasteless water from the canteen, wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve, and calmly recapped the canteen. It was getting hot already, and he figured it was going to be a long day.
“Well, we ain’t gettin’ nowhere this way. Let’s get goin’.”
Sarah brought Tom to the bedroom door and stopped him for a minute before they went in. With her hand gently resting on his arm, she said very quietly, “Don’t keep him awake too long, Tom. He has a fever and he needs to rest, but he won’t rest until he talks to you.”
“Sure, Miss Sarah.”
Tom walked slowly into the room. He looked decidedly uncomfortable with his hat in his hands, gripping the brim self-consciously.
Scott got up from the chair to let Tom sit down, but stood behind him while Sarah looked on apprehensively as well.
Johnny had watched him come in, but said nothing until he had taken his place at the bedside.
“Good to see ya, Tom.”
“Howdy, Johnny. Miss Sarah says you wanta talk to me. Don’t rightly know what about.”
“About your brother,” Johnny explained with a sigh.
“They shouldn’t have told you ‘bout that,” Tom told him firmly. “It ain’t nothin’ you need to fret over.”
Johnny looked towards his brother. “Scott, can you an’ Sarah leave us alone to talk for a bit?”
Scott hesitated, but nodded. “Alright, but not for too long. You need some rest.”
He took Sarah by the arm and led her outside as well, regretting that he had told Johnny about Tom’s brother after all.
Johnny watched them leave the room, and when they were gone he turned back to Tom.
“He’s your brother, Tom. I don’t want you to go up against him. It ain’t right to ask you to.”
“You ain’t askin’ me to. Neither is Scott or Miss Sarah. It’s my decision.”
“You have to talk to him.”
Tom shifted uncomfortably on the chair. He shook his head grimly. “No, he won’t listen. Can’t say as I blame him. I left him with Pa an’ Kit an’ the girls. He was just a little kid – ‘bout six as I recall. Pa wasn’t an easy man to live with, but my brother Kit was close to him an’ he kept things together - leastways, until the war came.”
He looked down at the hat in his hands. “Kit died at Gettysburg, an’ Pa went a few months later. Maybe I shoulda gone back, but the girls wrote an’ said they were takin’ care o’ the kid.”
“You haven’t seen him since?”
“No, an’ like I said, he was just a little tyke when I left. I wasn’t cut out for farmin’ an’ got away just as soon as I could. My brother Kit - he was closer to my age. He liked farmin’. That’s why he got on with Pa. He wrote me now an’ then. Let me know how things were an’ all. But I kinda lost touch after he died.”
“How did you recognize him then?”
Tom grinned. “Oh, he’s the dead spit o’ Kit. For a minute, I thought he WAS Kit, but that bein’ impossible, I figured he was Chas.”
“Did he know you?”
“Nope,” Tom told him, a little wistfully. “But I told him who I was. That’s what set him off. Just about run me down gettin’ away from me.”
He stopped and looked at Johnny. “I don’t know the kid, Johnny. He might be blood kin, but you an’ Scott are friends. You’re good folks, an’ I don’t like what the kid is doin’. It’s wrong. So, I’m backin’ you in this one.”
“Even if your brother gets hurt, maybe killed?”
He hesitated and stared down at his hat again. “Yeah, that’s right.”
Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He seemed to have found a spot on the ceiling that he could focus on. He thought for a minute, before he started to talk again.
“Tom, what do you know ‘bout me an’ Scott?”
Tom screwed his face with curiosity. “How d’ya mean?”
“I mean, what d’ya know ‘bout our pasts?”
Tom thought about it. He didn’t really know all that much. A man’s past was just that to Tom – past. He preferred to judge a man by what he saw and heard him do.
“Well, you’re half-brothers, I know that. An’ I heard Scott was from back east somewhere. O’ course, I know ‘bout Madrid an’ all, an’ that your Pa sent for you both.”
“Exactly – Scott grew up in Boston, an’ I grew up on the border,” Johnny told him, his voice fading as he tired, but he was determined to go on. “I didn’t know I even had a brother. Neither did Scott. We were strangers, and when we met, well, I guess you could say we didn’t hit it off right away.”
He smiled faintly at the memory. “But we gave it time, an’ now…” he hesitated, looking for the right words. “Now we’re friends as well as brothers. I hate to think what my life would’ve been like if I’d walked away that day.”
“I know what you’re sayin’, Johnny. But this is different. What Chas is doin’ is wrong.”
“Do you honestly think that Scott has always agreed with what I was doin’?” Johnny told him angrily. “Hell, Tom – I was Johnny Madrid! I got paid to put bullets in people. Scott had to come to terms with that.”
He stopped, breathless, and sank his head wearily into the pillow. Tom poured some water into a glass for him and lifted his head so that he could sip some of it.
Laying his friend back on the pillow, he put the glass back on the bedside table. “No use gettin’ yourself all het up over it, Johnny. I’ve made up my mind. I ain’t turnin’ my back on my friends when they’re in trouble.”
Johnny closed his eyes and rested long enough to get his breath back. Without even opening them, he pleaded, “Tom, stay in here with me, or in the bunkhouse. Hell, go into town if you need to – just run! But don’t take sides against your brother. Not over me.” He opened his eyes and turned back to face his friend. “I couldn’t live with that, Tom.”
Tom stood up quickly and walked over to the window. Without turning around, without letting Johnny see his face and the troubled expression on it, he argued with him. “It’s not the same for Chas an’ me, Johnny. You’ve got this rosy picture in your head ‘cos things worked out real good for you two. It ain’t always like that. The kid is bad.”
“Johnny Madrid was bad,” Johnny told him quietly, and was answered with a short silence.
Finally, Tom turned back to him. “That’s not what I heard,” he answered, but shrugged his shoulders. “It’s too late anyway. The kid’s not gonna listen to me. I tried already.”
Johnny turned to face him, his energy gone and his eyelids heavy now. He barely had the strength to respond to his friend’s words, but he forced himself to focus.
“Try again,” he whispered, only just loud enough for Tom to hear. Then he sighed and couldn’t fight any longer. He closed his eyes and let the darkness in.
Tom checked that his friend was alright before heading back to the doorway.
“He’s asleep,” he told Scott and Sarah. They were waiting anxiously for him in the drawing room, and he hoped they hadn’t heard all that was said.
“Did he change your mind, Tom?” Sarah asked hopefully.
“No, Miss Sarah.”
“Tom, listen…” Scott began, but Tom shook his head determinedly.
“I’ll tell you what I told Johnny. What the kid is doin’ is wrong. He tried to kill you an’ Johnny an’ you two are friends o’ mine. You’re in trouble. I don’t turn my back on friends when they need help.”
“Johnny wouldn’t have liked hearing that,” Scott told him, knowing his brother well enough to worry about how he had reacted.
“No, I guess he didn’t, but he’s okay.”
He frowned and shook his head. “He don’t look good though, Scott. That fever is takin’ a lot outa him, an’ he’s weak already from losin’ all that blood.”
Scott nodded. “I know. Will Barnes is supposed to be coming this afternoon, but if he’s not here soon, we’ll have to send for him.”
“I’m gonna go make sure the men are all in position an’ ready. I don’t want none of ‘em missin’ somethin’ if those boys show up.”
“It’s probably too soon for them to have found us by tracking,” Scott thought aloud. “It took us a few hours to get here from the road, but then, I was trying to cover our tracks and we didn’t travel fast because Johnny was hurt.”
“If their tracker is any good, it will probably take about the same amount o’ time then.”
“I can’t claim to be good at covering our trail either. I just used everything I could remember, but I don’t know how well I did it.”
Tom grinned. “If you made it a bit harder for ‘em, you did fine.”
“Well, this is getting us nowhere,” Sarah decided. “Tom, you go check with Joe and the men – make sure everything is ready outside. Scott, I take it you’re going to sit with Johnny for awhile?”
“Okay then, I’m going to make up sandwiches and coffee for everyone. It might be a long day.”
“And night,” Tom added.
Sarah sighed deeply, and agreed. “And night.”
“So, is this gonna take all day, Rafe? I’m gettin’ real tired o’ this creek.”
The malevolent expression that Rafe turned on him said more than enough as far as Chas Rawlings was concerned, but Tait either didn’t notice it or paid it no mind. He was enjoying himself. He was getting on their nerves though.
Chas had seen him do this before, and those two had come to blows in the past. One of these days, Chas thought, Tait’s gonna wake up with a knife in his back. Rafe was a real patient man, but Tait was going to push him too far.
It was almost like he wanted to see how much it would take to rile Rafe, but Chas figured he’d come to regret it when he did.
Wes had been able to control him, mostly out of fear, or so Chas thought.
“Has he got ya beat?” Tait continued, laughing as Rafe searched the banks of the stream again. He’d been walking up and back for about an hour now. They were losing time and Chas was beginning to think maybe they had lost their quarry, too. “I’m bettin’ he has. The great tracker – who’s he kiddin’?”
“Give it up, Tait,” Chas suggested calmly to the man. “Let him get on with it.”
Tait glared at him with an expression that dripped with the threat of violence.
“I’m gettin’ tired o’ you tellin’ me what to do, Chas. I don’t remember no one makin’ you boss.”
A small smile touched Rawling’s lips as he rolled a cigarette. He had one leg thrown negligently around the pommel of his saddle and sat perfectly at ease, waiting for Rafe to find what he was looking for. He didn’t bother to look up as he answered Tait.
“Don’t remember anyone bein’ elected boss, Tait, includin’ you.”
“Then shut up an’ get off my back.”
Chas looked at him at last. “Then you get off Rafe’s back. The more you distract him, the longer we’re gonna be here.”
“We’ve been here too long already. I reckon he’s lost ‘em an’ just won’t admit it.”
“He’ll find ‘em. Never seen anyone with the patience that man has. He’ll find where they left the creek, even if it takes all day.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. We’re just givin’ ‘em time to get clear away.”
“Not if one of ‘em is wounded. I reckon they’ve holed up somewhere by now. If you let up on Rafe long enough, maybe we’ll find ‘em before dark.”
Tait muttered something unintelligible under his breath in response to that. Chas ignored it. It was likely only cussing anyway.
It was another fifteen minutes before Rafe reappeared. He actually looked happy. Chas couldn’t remember ever seeing his friend look that way before.
“Well?” Rawlings called out as he got within hearing.
“I found where they got out. It’s a ways upstream from here. I followed their trail for a while too. Looks like he’s stopped tryin’ to cover his tracks after they left the creek. It should be easy from here on.”
“You sure he’s not just foolin’ ya again?” Tait asked with a sadistic grin.
“He ain’t that good.”
Tait’s grin widened. “He’s had you pretty bluffed most o’ the day.”
Rafe smiled – something neither of his companions had ever seen before.
“Nah, like I said - he ain’t that good – but he’s cunnin’ – real cunnin’. He tried leavin’ false trails three times up this creek. One time he even made it look like they’d headed back to the road. Yeah – he’s smart, but he ain’t real good at makin’ the tracks look real. That’s what’s beatin’ him.”
“Sounds like you’re enjoyin’ yourself, Rafe,” Chas said with a grin.
Tait shook his head angrily. “Well, while you’re havin’ fun, those two boys are gettin’ away. Let’s get on with it.”
Rafe Little Crow ignored him, as he usually did. Chas had it right though. He was enjoying himself.
'Happy' probably wasn't the way he felt, but it came close. Following someone who knew he was being tracked, and was trying to outwit him, was proving to be a challenge that had awakened his senses in a way he could not remember feeling in years.
It conjured memories of times past - time spent learning the art of tracking from his father - the only pleasant recollections he had of the man who had sired him.
His father had been a scout for the army and Rafe had learned the basics of his trade as soon as he was old enough to keep up with him. He’d followed him like a puppy, eager to be just like him and to prove himself worthy. He learned to tell the difference between the tracks of a stag and a doe, wolf from dog, and to recognize the prints of all the other game that lived in the woods near their cabin.
Then he had graduated to learning how to follow a man. He hadn’t had many chances to put it to good use until now, but he’d never forgotten those lessons.
One memory stood out, brought to the surface of his consciousness by this challenge.
He'd been ten years old and he remembered they had had trouble with a puma getting too close to the cabin that winter. It was proving to be a menace and the old man had taken him with him on the hunt.
The old cat had been difficult to track. It was almost as though it was thinking like a man - wily and experienced - and it had stretched his father's expertise for two days before they had caught up with it.
"Do we have to kill him?" he recalled asking his father when they had finally found it.
"Why else did we hunt it, son? Wastin' our time otherwise. An' it'll be back in the mornin' to take more chickens."
"But he's so smart, it seems a shame."
"In his prime, that old cat was probably a great hunter. Would he have let his prey go after so much effort? No, of course not. And like him, you are the hunter now - and he is the prey," his father had told him. "You should admire his cunning and honor him for the chase, but the hunt can only end one way."
His father had killed the puma and Rafe had learned a lesson.
As the day had worn on, his tracking skills had been needed more and more. This man was obviously inexperienced at covering his trail. He knew what to do, but couldn’t put it into practise well enough to fool someone with Rafe’s know-how.
But what he had been able to do had slowed him down and tested his skills. He respected that in the man.
So Rafe's thinking had undergone a subtle change. He no longer thought about revenge for Wes Kruger. He hadn't thought about it that way for hours now.
This was a hunt - and the men he was following had become his prey. His instincts told him what his father had taught him all those years ago - that there was only one way this could end.
His ‘prey’ was getting more and more worried. Johnny had been sleeping for a couple of hours now, but he was getting restless as his temperature rose.
Will Barnes had not arrived yet, so Scott decided that they should send for him.
Sarah came quietly into the bedroom. At first, she only watched as Scott sat glued to his brother’s bedside since Tom had left, watching him and wetting him down to try to reduce the fever.
She could see that it wasn’t working though. The fever was still climbing.
“Is there any change, Scott?” she asked, gently putting her hand on his shoulder.
He didn’t look up to answer. He simply said “No” and continued wiping Johnny’s face with the damp cloth.
“There are some sandwiches outside for you. Everyone else has eaten already.”
“Thank you, Sarah, but I’m not hungry.”
“Scott, you had no breakfast either. And Lord knows when you last ate yesterday. You can’t go on this way,” she persisted. “I’ll watch him while you eat.”
“No, really. I’m not…”
“I don’t suppose you are very hungry,” she argued kindly, taking the cloth from his hand. “So force yourself to eat, or you’ll end up sick yourself.”
He didn’t move, so she shoved him stubbornly. “I mean it – go.”
Scott stood up reluctantly. “Alright, but I think it’s time to send for Will. Johnny’s getting worse.”
“I know. I sent Joe for him already. So go and eat.”
Sarah sat down by the bed and took over for Scott, turning her head just enough to watch him leave the room.
She ran the cloth over Johnny’s face. His skin glowed with the fever and he turned his head aside, whispering Celeste’s name.
“Hush, Johnny,” she crooned soothingly, softly stroking his burning brow.
Johnny turned his head towards her voice. His eyes opened on her, but they shone with such brilliance that she wasn’t sure that he was awake. A frown appeared on his face as he whispered Celeste’s name again.
“No Johnny I’m Sarah.”
His eyes cleared a little and he sighed deeply. “Sarah, of course.”
“Scott’s just gone out for a minute. He’ll be right back.”
“Is he okay? His arm…?”
“His arm is fine, don’t worry,” she assured him. “I just marched him out to get something to eat.”
She put the cloth back in the basin and poured a glass of water. Lifting him gently, she managed to get him to drink only a little before he leaned back onto the pillow.
“I have some broth on the stove ready for you, too. I think you should have some,” she said.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Don’t think I could keep it down, Sarah. Sorry.”
“We’ll see what Dr Barnes says when he gets here, but I think you should try.” She smiled at him. “I don’t think your wife would be very happy with me if I let you fade away to a shadow.”
“Yeah,” was all he answered.
“I haven’t had a chance to congratulate you on your marriage,” she told him as she put the glass back and retrieved the cloth from the basin. She wiped his face softly. “I hope Celeste knows what a lucky woman she is.”
“Nah, I’m the lucky one,” he replied, opening his eyes on her at last. “You’ll like her.”
“I’m sure I will,” she agreed confidently. He seemed at ease now, so she continued. “I bet she’s pretty.”
“Beautiful, real sweet and elegant…”
“But if she starts up in French, you’d best get out of her way,” Scott added with a wry smile as he came back into the room, coffee in hand.
A small, knowing smile graced Johnny’s lips and a sparkle lit his fevered blue eyes. “Not always, Boston,” he told Scott quietly.
Scott nearly choked on the hot coffee and spluttered once before wiping his mouth with his sleeve and regaining his composure. He walked over and put the coffee mug down beside the basin.
“You must be getting better,” he said with a grin.
“Did you eat something. Scott?” Sarah asked.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied ironically, but she only scowled at him and bit back her reply, knowing that he was expecting it.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?” Scott asked. He was relieved to see his brother awake. The fever had certainly taken a hold, but it wasn’t beating him yet.
“Tired an’ sore, an’ kinda hot” Johnny admitted wearily. “How ‘bout you?”
Scott lifted his arm out of the sling. “What – this? It’s fine. Sarah and Will just want me to baby it a little.”
Something outside distracted him and he turned and went to the window. “Speaking of the devil, that’s Will now.” He turned back to them. “You wait here with Johnny, Sarah. I’ll go meet him.”
There was no one he would rather see at the moment and he hurried outside. He found Will Barnes dismounting. Joe was with him and was just getting down himself.
“Met him on his way out here, Scott,” Joe said.
“Thanks Joe. Will, it’s good to see you.”
Barnes took a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped the sweat from his face, then put it back and stepped up to the door. He walked in with Scott.
“I take it he’s not improving,” Barnes surmised as they reached the cool of the drawing room.
“The fever’s getting worse,” Scott answered anxiously. “It’s been getting steadily higher all day. He’s mostly sleeping, but he’s awake at the moment.”
“Well, that’s something anyway,” the doctor said with a sigh. “Has be been delirious at all?”
“No, but he’s been restless – tossing around a lot.”
“How’s his leg? I hope he hasn’t broken those stitches.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t think so. We’ve been watching him pretty closely.
“Alright, let’s go have a look at him then.”
An hour later, Johnny had been examined, his wounds bathed and re-bandaged and he’d been liberally dosed with laudanum. He’d been too exhausted from fever and the painful prodding and bandaging to argue with them over it.
He’d fallen asleep almost immediately and was resting quietly, so the doctor herded Scott and Sarah out into the drawing room to talk to them.
“His shoulder’s the problem, Scott,” Barnes began, accepting a glass of whisky from Sarah and thanking her. “It’s infected. We’ll have to bathe and re-dress it again later tonight. It’s not weeping yet, but if it does, I might have to re-open it and drain it.”
It was no worse news than Scott had expected to hear. That fever was coming from somewhere.
“What about his leg?”
“The leg wound is fine. The stitches have held and there’s been no more bleeding. It’s quite possible that the bleeding kept it clean – flushed out any dirt or impurities.”
He took a sip of the whisky and let it burn pleasantly down his throat before going on.
“I know it doesn’t look like it to you, but he’s doing better than might have been expected at the moment. We’ll have to watch him carefully though, and keep trying to break that fever. I’ll stay here tonight to keep an eye on the infection.”
“Things might get a little uncomfortable around here tonight,” Scott warned him.
Will Barnes cocked an eyebrow. “Is that right? Well, all the more reason to stay.” He remembered something then. “This morning three youngsters came to my office. They were asking about ‘a friend’ who might be hurt, but it was pretty obvious that they were looking for Johnny.” He stopped and then went on quickly. “I didn’t say anything, of course.”
“I knew you wouldn’t, Will. I appreciate it.”
“Yes, well, they were just kids, Scott.”
Scott nodded. “I know, but they want Johnny dead just the same.”
“And you think they’ll find him?”
“I don’t know. I hope not, but so far they’ve been determined to do just that. I don’t think they’re going to just give up now.”
“Did you get that wire off to your father?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, but I can’t see him getting here before morning, even if he left right away.” He thought for a moment. “Listen, if you’ll watch Johnny for a while, I’d like to see what sort of defenses Joe and Tom have set up out there.”
“Sure, Sarah and I will look after him. He’ll sleep for some time after that laudanum.”
“Thanks Will, but call me if he needs me. And while you’re about it, try if you can to talk Sarah into leaving for the night. She won’t listen to me.”
Sarah heard him and shot an angry look at him. “And I’m not about to change my mind, Scott Lancer.”
Scott thought it wise to let the matter go and went outside to look for Joe and Tom, leaving Will Barnes to argue that one with Sarah this time.
He looked around him when he got out to the yard. He could see a man up in the hayloft of the barn with a rifle covering everything he could see. It was a good spot, and Scott hoped that he was reliable. It was probably the best vantage point on the ranch and they needed someone they could trust not to fall asleep up there.
The other men had found work close to the house for the day. He found Joe over by the corral with Tom and another hand who he didn’t know. It occurred to him that the men who would be laying their lives on the line for him and his brother were strangers to him.
“Hey there, Scott,” Joe called to him. “Come on over here an’ join us.”
Scott strolled over to the corral and leaned against the rail.
“How’s Johnny doin’?” Tom asked.
“About as well as we can hope at the moment, thanks Tom. I wish that fever would break.”
“He’s in good hands with Doc Barnes here. He’ll be just fine,” Tom reassured him.
“This here’s Bob Carroll, Scott. He came on the payroll just after you left,” Joe said, indicating the new man.
“Nice to meet you, Bob,” Scott answered, shaking the man’s hand. “Joe, Tom, it’s going to be dark soon. I think we should make some plans for tonight.”
“Been thinkin’ that myself, son,” Joe agreed. “I put Harry up in the loft to watch for now, but we should work out what are the best places to put everyone else.”
“The bunkhouse has always been a good spot,” Tom put in, reminding Scott of his first visit here. There had been just Tom and Joe to protect Sarah back then, and they had worked out a strategy that had served them well.
“How many men have you got here now, Joe?” Scott asked.
“There’s six of us. Bob here, Harry, Dusty an’ Billy, as well as me and Tom.”
“Okay. Will Harry be alright up there in the loft for the night?”
Joe smiled at Scott’s diplomatic question. “You mean ‘can he be trusted up there?’ Sure he can. He’ll stay awake, an’ he’s the best shot we have too.”
“Good, then you take the bunkhouse like you usually do…”
“I’ll take the side of the house like always,” Tom told him.
“No, maybe Bob here can do that. I want you in the house with us,” Scott said firmly.
“Because it will be our last line of defense. The doc isn’t good with a gun, and I don’t want Sarah in the line of fire. That leaves only me, and I don’t know how good I’ll be with my arm shot up.”
Tom glared at him suspiciously. “So why me? I ain’t no better with a rifle than Joe or any of the boys.”
“What difference does it make where you are, Tom?”
“Exactly!” Tom burst out angrily. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to, Scott. You want me outa the way o’ the shootin’ because of Chas. Go on - deny it!”
“I’m not denying it. If I can keep you from facing him, then I’ll do it.
“I told you I’m backing you.”
“I know, and you can back us in the house,” Scott said just as determinedly.
“You don’t trust me, is that it? You want me where you can keep an eye on me.”
“Of course I trust you, Tom. That’s ridiculous!”
“Hey! Hold up you two!” Joe shouted, putting himself physically between them. He turned first on Tom, his old friend. “What the hell is wrong with you? For a man who don’t usually say nothin’, you’ve said yourself a mouthful. Now, I don’t recollect Scott sayin’ nothin’ ‘bout not trustin’ you. Seems to me he’s just tryin’ to make it so’s you don’t have to draw down on your kid brother.”
Tom said nothing, but glared at Joe angrily.
Joe turned to Scott then. “That right?”
“Yes,” Scott answered curtly.
“Alright, now we got enough to think about without the two o’ you yellin’ at each other. Now, shake hands. An’ Tom, you’re in the house tonight. If’n you ain’t worried ‘bout your brother, you can at least think about Miss Sarah in there with Johnny an’ Scott.”
Tom glared for a moment longer, then relented and offered his hand to Scott. “Sorry, Scott,” he said quietly. “Guess I’m a little tetchy at the moment.”
“I don’t blame you, Tom. I’m sorry you took me the wrong way,” Scott replied, shaking hands and clapping his friend on the shoulder. “Now, let’s get the rest of the men positioned.”
“You think they’ll come at us, Scott? There’s just three of ‘em,” Joe wondered.
“To be honest, Joe. I don’t think these boys are the type to come at us head on – day or night. They ambushed us from the rooftops. I’m more concerned that they’ll try to sneak up on us. We’ll all need to be vigilant, all night.”
Joe nodded in agreement. He’d been thinking the same way, and he and the rest of the ranch crew had been talking it all over, trying to make plans.
“But you know Scott, if those boys are smart, they’ll wait it out till the early hours o’ the mornin’. That’s when we’re likely to be tired an’ less alert,” he suggested.
Scott drew in his breath slowly. “Yes, you’re right. I thought the same thing myself. Murdoch should be here with help tomorrow morning sometime. I’m hoping early. But we have to get through until then.”
He looked out across the paddock to his right – the way he had come last night with Johnny. “They’ll most likely be coming from that direction, following our tracks. Harry might want to try to keep a look out for a campfire over that direction, if he can see that far from the hayloft.”
“I’ll tell him. He should be able to see for miles up there,” Joe agreed.
Scott sighed. “Well, we’d better get positioned now and get settled in. Make sure everyone is wide awake, Joe. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
There was a small rise several hundred yards off to the right from the ranch house. It was little more than a gently sloping grassy ridge but it provided relief from cold winds coming off the foothills in winter.
It also proved to be good cover for someone wanting to watch the ranch house and the outbuildings without being seen themselves.
Tait, Chas and Rafe had found themselves a spot to hide there. The three of them lay on their stomachs looking out towards the house. They could see that they couldn’t get any closer without giving their presence away.
"You think that’s where they are?” Tait asked Rafe.
“The tracks lead that way,” Rafe told him.
They had had no trouble following the trail after that last stream. Rafe had been right, their quarry had obviously given up trying to cover his tracks from that point. Even Tait had been able to follow the tracks he’d left and his mood had lightened as he saw the chase ending.
It was too far to see with the naked eye, and too far to try their rifles as well.
“Get those field glasses of yours, Chas. I want to see what’s over there,” Tait said.
“Yeah, sure. We oughta be able to see plenty then.”
“I’m bettin’ they’re holed up there,” Tait said firmly as Chas got up and went to his saddle bag.
Rawlings came back with the field glasses, his only legacy from his brother Kit.
Chas didn’t hand them over. He took a look for himself first. He took his time focusing them, and then looked down at the ranch house in the distance.
A satisfied smile appeared on his face. “Well, well,” he said aloud. “Will you look what we have here?”
“Chas?” Rafe asked. “What d’ya see?”
“That’s where they are alright. I can see one of ‘em right now,” Chas told him, still looking through the field glasses at the house and yard.
“Is it Madrid?”
“Nope, the other one. But if he’s there, you can bet Madrid’s around someplace.”
Tait reached over to take them from him. “Let me see.”
Rawlings made no move to do what he asked. Instead he seemed to have become engrossed in the scene below.
The fair haired stranger that he had seen leaving the saloon with Madrid was talking with a group of men in the yard. He recognized one of them – the tall scrawny one. He was sure it was the man who had stopped him in town – Tom Rawlings – the man who had claimed he was his brother.
He stared at him for some time, trying to deny the truth of the man’s claim. He didn’t want family. He didn’t need family. They’d done nothing for him all his life, and that man least of all. He’d picked up and left when he was too small to even remember him clearly.
Chas silently cursed the luck that had brought him into close range of the man.
He tensed, and Tait saw it.
“Nothin’,” Chas answered, shaking off the unwelcome feelings that had come over him. He had other things to think about now. He was after Madrid, but if the chance came to make Tom pay as well it would be a nice bonus. “There’s a guy wearin’ a sling on his arm. He was there with Madrid yesterday at the saloon. Could be he was the one who was wounded.”
“Nah, he wouldn’t be on his feet,” Rafe told him. “Whoever was hit lost a lot o’ blood – maybe too much. An’ I still reckon I hit Madrid.”
“There were a lot of bullets flyin’ around. Maybe they were both hit,” Chas suggested, finally lowering the field glasses and looking towards Rafe.
“Yeah, could be. Makes things interestin’ don’t it?”
“Chas, hand over those glasses. I wanta see for myself,” Tait demanded.
Rawlings turned around and glared at him, but he handed them over just the same.
Tait leaned on his elbows and concentrated on the ranch yard. He saw the four men in the yard, including the wounded one. He smiled malevolently. “Yeah, he’s one of ‘em. Madrid’s probably in the bunkhouse.”
“Maybe he’s in the house? We should watch from here for a while and figure out how many there are an’ where they are,” said Chas.
“We can’t just ride right on in there, that’s for sure,” Rafe agreed.
“I counted four of ‘em down there that I could see. With Madrid there’s five, an’ we don’t know how many more.”
“There’s one in the barn loft,” Tait added. “That makes six.”
“The odds against us are gettin’ longer every minute,” Chas grumbled.
“An’ longer. There’s another one comin’ outa the house,” Tait said.
“Is it Madrid?”
“No, it ain’t him.” Tait continued watching, and a slow grin began to creep over his face. Chas Rawlings saw it and knew what it meant right away. He’d seen it before.
“Well, look what we got here,” Tait said with a smirk. “Looks like it ain’t seven men after all. What we got is six men an’ a girl.” His grin broadened. “Real pretty little thing she is too.”
“We ain’t got time for that, Tait,” Chas snapped at him. “We want Madrid.”
Tait kept his eyes on the ranch and the smirk on his face. “There’s always time for that, Chas. ‘Sides, if we think on it some, it just might give us an edge.”
“What’ve you got in mind?”
“There’s at least six men down there. Makes things kinda hard with just the three of us. Maybe if we got the girl…”
“Got the girl? You mean snatch her?”
“We could exchange her for Madrid.”
Chas didn’t like it. He frowned and turned his head to see what Rafe thought of the idea. But Rafe didn’t seem to have any thoughts on the matter at all. He shrugged his shoulders negligently.
“I don’t like it, Tait – involvin’ a woman like that.”
“Hey, she’s hiding ‘em. That puts her in the game, wouldn’t you say?” He grinned again. “An’ we just might have some fun along the way.”
Chas had seen Tait’s idea of ‘fun’ with a woman. He wasn’t against having a good time with a pretty girl if she was willing, but Tait didn’t care about that little detail. To him, fun was for the taking, and the more he had to fight for it, the better he liked it.
“We’d have to go in to get her anyway. We might as well just take out Madrid then an’ there,” Chas suggested.
“Nah, we’ll sneak in nice an’ quiet an’ take her. No shootin’, no noise. Rafe’s good at that, ain’t you, Rafe?”
Rafe nodded silently.
“Be kind of a challenge, right Rafe?”
“We should wait until it’s been dark for a while. Let them get comfortable an’ let their guard down – that’s the time to strike,” Rafe told them both.
“Then I think we should get ourselves some sleep while we can. It’ll be dark soon anyway. We’ll get us a few hours sleep an’ go after them in the early mornin’.” Tait laughed. “Right Chas?”
Rawlings looked at him uncertainly, then nodded. “Yeah, right.”
Scott walked Sarah back into the house. The sun was going down now and it was time to start taking serious precautions. One thing he did not want was Sarah out in the open.
Joe and Tom would do a final check around the yard to make sure that everyone was in position for the night, and then Tom would join them in the house.
“I’m going to get coffee and sandwiches made. If we’re all going to stay up all night, we’ll need something to keep us going,” Sarah suggested.
There was less light in the drawing room than there was outside. Sarah lit a lamp and turned back to go into the kitchen.
Scott put his arm out and stopped her, pulling her towards him. The lamplight shimmered off her hair and cast an orange glow on her cheek as she turned her face to his.
“Yes?” she asked quietly.
For just a moment Scott forgot what he had wanted to say, lost in a pair of shining brown eyes. The desire to take her in his arms and kiss those lips was overwhelming, but his head overruled his heart and told him that this wasn’t the time.
He blinked and drew himself back to the problem at hand.
“I don’t want you going outside tonight, Sarah. This could get dangerous from here on in.”
“I know. I’m not a fool, Scott. The same goes for you though. You be careful.” She turned to walk away, but stopped. “It’s kind of nice having you around again,” she admitted.
“Yes ma’am,” he answered with a grin.
She walked into the kitchen but ducked her head around the corner and replied, “It’s still Miss.”
Scott walked into the bedroom. “How’s he doing, Will? Any change?”
The doctor was once again wiping Johnny down with a cool soft cloth, so Scott knew that the fever was still a problem.
“Well, Scott, the good news is that he’s no worse. He’s been asleep all this time – a little restless, but not too bad. How about you? Is everything ready outside?”
“As ready as we can be. I’m still hoping this is all for nothing.”
Darkness fell and the moon rose, doing them no favors. It was just a thin sliver of white that cast no light over the yard at all. The night was going to be long and dark.
The hours dragged on interminably, both inside the house and out.
Tom Rawlings stepped out into the night just before midnight. It was time to check on the men – to make sure that everyone was still alert. They couldn’t afford to take the chance on anyone falling asleep on watch.
Inside, things had not changed much. Johnny was still asleep, restless and tossing, but at least the fever had gotten no worse. Scott was torn between staying by his brother’s side and watching for trouble. He was trying to be everywhere at once, but Tom had talked him out of venturing out into the darkness to do these rounds.
He waited momentarily while his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then he looked towards the loft. He was pleased to see that the barrel of the rifle was still there, pointing out of the loft doors. He walked over there and quietly called Harry’s name.
“I’m right here, Tom. I ain’t asleep,” the man answered just as quietly.
“Good lad. If you think you’re going to doze off, come get one of us. That’s our best lookout up there.”
“Sure thing, Tom. But I’m fine. I won’t let you down.”
He was young to be taking on such a big responsibility, and that played on Tom’s conscience a little. But he was the best shot on the ranch, and he was the most physically fit as well. Young and hardy, he would probably stay awake more easily than any of them.
Rawlings strolled over to the corral and then to the bunkhouse, talking quietly to each man when he reached him. To the casual observer, he would have looked relaxed, but Tom was far from feeling easy about this. His eyes checked every corner and his senses were heightened for any unusual sound or smell.
He found everyone at the posts and wide awake, which didn’t surprise him. They were good men. He left Joe for last and found the man sitting at the door to the bunkhouse just as he expected to.
“Everythin’ okay?” Joe whispered.
“How ‘bout Johnny?”
“The same. Doc’s with him mostly, trying to get the fever down.”
“Okay, you keep an eye on Miss Sarah in there. I’ll be right here, like always.”
Tom nodded and headed back towards the house. He was about to step up onto the porch when he realized he had missed one spot. Dusty was supposed to be behind the house, but he hadn’t shown himself when Tom had come out.
And he hadn’t shown himself now that he was going back in. So where was he?
He drew his pistol and cocked the hammer uneasily, and then he edged over to the side of the house. Sidling through the dark, he got to the back of the house with still no sign of Dusty.
Something was real wrong.
The telltale click of a weapon being cocked behind him told him just how right he was. He froze.
“No further,” a voice whispered in his ear. “Now uncock that gun an’ drop it. Then turn ‘round - real easy.”
Tom Rawlings was no fool. He knew where he stood, but he hoped that Joe had seen him come around back and was waiting for him to come back the other side. If he didn’t show…
He released the hammer and let the gun slip to the ground. In the stillness of the night, the dull thud it made hitting the ground seemed to echo around him. It sounded so loud to him that he was surprised that no one else had heard it.
The man behind him did hear it though. “There’s a good boy, now turn ‘round – nice an’ slow.”
Tom turned around, holding his arms out so the man could see he offered no threat.
He found himself facing Chas Rawlings.
“Well, well, well. I couldn’t see it in town yesterday, but I can now. You really are big brother Tom, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I can see it. You look just like him.” There was a ferocity in his voice that shook Tom.
“You wish,” Chas hissed at him. “No – the old man. Haven’t you looked in a mirror lately, brother? You look just like the old bastard.”
“Where’s Dusty?” Tom asked angrily.
“You mean the man you had watchin’ the house?” Chas smiled malevolently. “He wasn’t any better than you. I took him out real easy.”
“You killed him?”
“Nah, but he won’t be wakin’ up any time soon.” Even with the darkness so thick around them, Tom could see the smile on the boy’s face and it sickened him. The idea of being so closely related to him knotted his stomach. “Now, you an’ me are goin’ into that house. You lead the way.”
“Madrid’s in there, ain’t he?”
Tom didn’t answer. He held his ground and his silence.
“I want Madrid.”
“Well, you’re not getting’ him through me.”
“I’ll get him with or without you.”
“It’ll have to be without me. Johnny’s a friend of mine.”
“He killed a friend of mine,” Chas snapped back at him. “Now get moving.”
Tom took a step towards him and realized that he would have to edge past Chas to get back the way he came. Chas stepped aside to let him pass, and that gave Tom just enough breathing space.
He threw his right hand up in a powerful sweeping stroke and knocked the gun from Chas’s hand. With his left, he threw a wicked punch that hit his brother’s jaw and knocked him off balance. He landed on his butt in the dirt.
Tom picked up his gun while Chas scuffled around looking for his own.
“Don’t, Chas,” he ordered him angrily. “You’re wastin’ your time. Now get up on your feet you damned punk kid, an’ don’t try anything dumb.”
“You won’t shoot me.” Chas sneered at him confidently from the ground.
“You might be right, but I can damned well beat you to a pulp an’ feel real good about it.”
Tom stepped back a pace, just in case the boy thought to use his feet to kick his legs out from under him. Then a sound behind him caught his attention. He kept his gun on the boy, but stepped back against the back wall of the house.
He recognized Joe Nesbitt, even in the darkness. Joe came to a stop when he caught sight of the two men. Tom seemed to have everything under control now, so he grinned at him.
Tom didn’t find anything funny in the situation.
“You took your own sweet time,” he growled.
“I got here didn’t I?” Joe snapped back at him. He looked at the stranger and frowned. “Ain’t he…?”
“Yeah,” was all the reply he got from Tom. It was pretty clear that he had nothing more to say on the matter at the moment, so Joe dropped it. Instead, he looked around him.
“Where’s Dusty? Wasn’t he supposed to be here?”
“Good question, Joe,” Tom said, still not taking his eyes off the boy. “Where is he, Chas?”
Chas smiled and didn’t answer, but a moan from behind them told them anyway.
“Well, at least we know he’s alive,” Joe said. “Sounds like he’s just off to the right over there.”
“Joe, do you think you can see to him without gettin’ your head shot off?”
His friend grinned. “Sure. What’re ya gonna do with the kid?”
“Take him into the house an’ tie him to a chair if I have to.”
“Just keep Scott away from him.”
“I don’t much care what Scott does to him,” Tom replied angrily.
Joe shook his head. “Maybe not, but I don’t want to see Scott hung on account of him.”
Tom sighed. “Yeah, well, go see to Dusty. Get him into the house so’s the doc can have a look at him.”
He watched Joe head off in the direction of the groan, and called to him quietly. “Yell if you need a hand with him.”
Joe just nodded and Tom lost sight of him in the darkness.
“His friends will be around here somewhere,” Tom called after him. “Don’t go walkin’ out there without lookin’ where you’re goin’.”
He turned his full attention back to his brother.
“You’re comin’ inside with me. Now, get in front of me an’ get movin’. And you’d better remember this - one wrong move an’ I’ll put a bullet in you. I don’t care who you are.”
Tom watched the boy carefully as he swaggered to the front of the house and up the steps onto the porch. “Knock on the door,” he ordered him and waited while he did it.
Sarah answered from inside. “Who is it?”
"It’s me, Tom-open up an’ get back out of the way. I’ve got someone with me.”
The door swung open and Tom found Sarah standing well back, with Scott by her side.
He shoved Chas unceremoniously into the room ahead of him and the boy struggled to keep his feet.
“I’d like you all to meet my kid brother, Chas Rawlings,” he said in a satirical tone and closed the door behind him. “Joe’ll be right along with Dusty, Miss Sarah. He’s had a tap on the head.”
“From your friend here?” she asked
Scott took a couple of steps towards the boy, but Sarah grabbed his arm as he passed. “No Scott,” she said quickly. She’d seen the look on his face and she knew that his mind was on his own brother in the next room.
Chas glared at him. “You’re the other one – the one who was with Madrid.”
“That’s right,” Scott answered angrily. “I was with him when you and your friends ambushed him.”
“He killed a friend o’ mine.”
“He was forced to kill him. It was self-defense and you know it. You know he went in there with the intention of forcing Johnny to draw.”
“Madrid couldn’t have outdrawn Wes,” the boy spat back at him furiously. “He was too fast.”
Scott scoffed at him. “There’s always going to be someone faster. That’s what Johnny says, and it’s what your friend found out.”
Chas eyed him warily. “I’m bettin’ you had somethin’ to do with it. So how did you do it? Did you distract Wes or somethin’? Maybe you got behind him while Madrid killed him.”
Scott moved for him. He was quick, but not quick enough. Tom beat him to it and backhanded the boy across the face, knocking him to the floor.
Scott stopped short, surprised by Tom’s reaction and annoyed that he hadn’t been the one to do it.
“Get up!” Tom roared at his brother, but the boy leaned back on one elbow and wiped away the blood from his cut lip. He glared up at his older brother and there was hatred in his eyes.
“Real big man ain’t ya, Chas?” Tom growled at him. “You dare to accuse Scott and Johnny of murder, when that’s what you an’ those friends o’ yours have been planning for the last two days. What chance were you givin’ them?”
“Johnny was faster than Kruger. That’s all there was to it. There were plenty of witnesses,” Scott snapped. “If you’d been there, instead of on a rooftop waiting to kill him, you would have seen that for yourself.”
“Wes was good!” the boy yelled back at him.
“Johnny was better,” Scott told him coldly.
“I don’t believe you. Madrid’s old an’ outa practice.”
Scott actually smiled. “Who told you that? Kruger? Well, he was wrong.”
Chas Rawlings leapt to his feet, faster than any of them was prepared for. He launched himself at Scott and threw a fist at him that connected with his jaw and sent him reeling. But only long enough for him to regain his balance and go after the boy.
The two of them rolled on the floor briefly while Sarah called for them to stop and Tom reached over to pull them apart. The door opened in the midst of the melee and Joe walked in, supporting Dusty. The cowhand had his hand to his head and was unsteady on his feet, but he found himself a chair while Joe dived into the fight.
Between them, Joe and Tom pulled the two combatants apart. Tom pushed his brother roughly to one side and shoved him into a chair so he could keep an eye on him. Joe was having a harder time with Scott though. He clamped his arms around him and spoke into his ear.
"Enough Scott. Settle down.”
If he heard, Scott ignored him and did his best to break Joe’s hold of him. He was still trying to fight him when the door to the bedroom opened.
“What the hell is going on out here?” Will Barnes called out.
Scott stopped then and turned his head towards the doctor.
“I’m trying to keep my patient calm and all hell is breaking loose in here,” the doctor added furiously.
Joe felt Scott relax and released him, while Sarah went into the bedroom to stay with Johnny.
“I’m sorry, Will. Is he alright?” Scott asked hesitantly.
“He’s restless again, and all this noise is not helping.” He caught sight of the boy in the chair and realized what the problem was. “So, we have a visitor do we?”
“Yeah. Can you take a look at Dusty, Doc?” Tom asked. “He’s had a bad knock on the head.”
Barnes looked over to where Dusty sat holding his head and walked over to his side. He had no sooner started to examine him when Sarah cried out from the bedroom.
“Scott, come here, quickly.”
He didn’t need a second call. He raced into the room, followed by Tom and Joe and with Barnes bringing up the rear.
Johnny was trying to pull himself out of the bed and Sarah was forcing him back with all her strength. She was having real trouble holding him, but Scott got to him and pushed him firmly onto the bed and held him there.
“Celeste!” Johnny cried out. “Maddie! Madre de dios, Maddie!”
His voice rang with fear. He fought Scott blindly, but his brother held him tight.
“Johnny, it’s alright. They’re safe at home – at Lancer. They’re safe, do you hear me?”
He writhed in Scott’s arms and called Celeste’s name again, trying once more to get up.
“Johnny, listen to me,” Scott said, as calmly as he could. “They’re both safe. They’re at home.”
Suddenly, Johnny stopped fighting him. He turned his head towards Scott’s voice and, amazingly, his eyes opened. They were glazed and they had a far away look in them, but slowly- very slowly it seemed to Scott – they cleared and seemed to focus on him.
“Scott?” he said, very weakly, relaxing back into the pillows.
“That’s right, I’m here, Johnny. Take it easy. You’ll be pulling stitches out all over the place this way.”
Relieved to see Johnny calming down, Sarah turned around and shooed Joe and Tom away from the door, joining them herself and leaving Scott and Will to tend to Johnny. Tom found himself face to face with his own brother. He was standing behind him, staring into the room at the man in the bed.
“There, you’ve found him,” Tom said angrily. “Take a good long look at him. That’s the man you’re so set on killing. Was it you that put the bullets in him? Were you the one who damn near killed him – from up on your rooftop? Brave, wasn’t it? I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
“He killed Wes,” the boy answered sullenly.
“He killed a stupid kid who pushed him into doing something he hates doing an’ wasn’t good enough.”
Tom looked back into the bedroom. Johnny was awake now, aware that Scott was with him and calmer, but he was pale and weak. It wasn’t over yet.
“And don’t you dare call him Madrid – not around me or anyone else in this room. His name is Lancer, Johnny Lancer. And he’s a whole lot more welcome around here than you are –brother.”
Scott let Johnny slip back onto the pillow and put the glass down on the bedside table. He was awake, but he was terribly weak and that fever still raged. The longer it lasted, the weaker he was getting, and nothing seemed to be working thus far.
Will put his stethoscope back in his bag and completed his examination. “He’s no worse, Scott. I’ll leave you with him while I go check on Dusty, okay?”
“Sure, Will. Thanks.”
The doctor left them together and Scott sat down beside the bed.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered faintly. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “Thanks.”
Scott put his hand on his brother’s forehead, hoping to find the fever reduced. He was bound for disappointment though. It was still high.
“Just a bad dream, I guess,” Johnny continued. “I’m fine.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Johnny closed his eyes. “No,” he said at first, then he seemed to change his mind. He opened his eyes and turned to Scott. “I thought they were after Celeste an’ Maddie,” he admitted.
“They’re perfectly safe at Lancer,” Scott assured him.
“Yeah, I know, I know. It was just a dream.”
“But a vivid one, I’m betting.”
Johnny was silent for a minute, then frowned, noticing the cut on his brother’s cheek for the first time. “What happened to you? You look like you tangled with something.”
“Someone – we caught one of them.”
“One of the men got knocked out, but he looks okay. That’s who Will’s gone to check on now, but I think he’ll only have a headache out of it. It could have been worse.”
Johnny nodded weakly. “Where did you catch him?”
“He was behind the house – a little too close for comfort I guess. Tom caught him.”
“So why do you look like hell?” Johnny asked him with a scowl.
“He had a few things to say. I guess I just wanted to shut him up.”
Johnny looked at him curiously. He had the feeling that Scott was holding something back, and a thought occurred to him.
“What do you mean?”
“Which one of ‘em have you caught?”
Scott sighed. He might have known that the one thing Johnny would remember would be who was with those kids.
“Tom’s brother,” he told him reluctantly.
“I wanna talk to him,” Johnny said firmly.
“No, Johnny – I mean it. I’m not having you anywhere near him. He’s set on killing you and you’re not in any condition to talk to him.” He noted the stubborn expression on his brother’s face and shook his head. “You’re not changing my mind on this one, brother.”
Sarah came out of the kitchen into the drawing room to rejoin the men. Dr Barnes was just finishing with Dusty. They’d moved him into an easy chair in there to make him more comfortable.
“He’ll do Sarah,” he said brusquely. “Won’t you, Dusty?”
The young man nodded. “Sure, Doc.”
“Well, he’s not going back out there,” she told them firmly. “Joe, why don’t you help him over to the bunkhouse so he can rest up.”
“Okay, Miss Sarah, I have to get back there myself. There’s still two more o’ those boys around somewhere.”
He helped Dusty to his feet and the two of them walked back out into the night.
“What about Johnny, Will?” she asked.
“Don’t worry. He wasn’t delirious. He had a nightmare, I’d say. His family is on his mind a lot. Scott’s staying with him for a while. He’ll settle him down, but I think I’d better go back in there and keep an eye on that fever, just the same.”
Sarah nodded and watched him disappear back into bedroom.
She turned her attention to Tom’s brother. She still couldn’t believe that Tom had really tied him to a chair, but there he sat. She sighed and put down the bowl of water she’d brought with her and wrung out the soft cloth lying in it.
She set about cleaning away the dried blood on his face from both his split lip and the small gash over his right eye. She dabbed iodine on the cut and he pulled back and winced.
Sarah stood up then and smiled. “You clean up pretty good, Chas,” she said. She grinned and turned her head over to where Tom stood. “Better than Tom does.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” he answered sullenly.
She shook her head. “Not ma’am- it’s Miss.”
“I think it’s time he an’ I had a little talk, Miss Sarah,” Tom said, walking over to his brother. “I wanna know where his friends are.”
“Gonna beat it outa me - big brother?” the boy sneered.
“I have friends out there, boy. I don’t intend to see anymore of ‘em get hurt.”
“Well, I ain’t givin’ up my friends for ‘em,” Chas answered angrily.
Tom took a step towards him, but Sarah put her hand on his arm and stopped him before he could do something he would regret.
“That’s enough, you two,” she told them firmly. “This is my house and there are certain rules here.” She stood between the two men and gave them both a look of absolute determination.
“And the most important one is - I will not have brawling in my drawing room. Is that understood?”
Tom nodded silently, while Scott smiled with amusement.
“And you, Tom Rawlings, I have never seen you behave like this. And with your own brother?”
“I’m sorry, Miss Sarah, but I just can’t stand to think of any brother o’ mine bushwackin’ and killin’ friends o’ mine.” He turned on his brother. “He shoulda just stayed on the farm.”
“There ain’t no farm,” the boy threw back at him. “An’ you know it.”
It took Tom by surprise. “What d’ya mean?”
“You know what I mean. You told ‘em to sell it.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?” Tom demanded angrily.
Chas Rawlings refused to believe that Tom knew nothing about it. “Kit an’ I had plans for that farm. We coulda made it work.”
“I remember. He wrote me about it. Some plan for milk cows and sellin’ milk in town.”
“I coulda kept it goin’, even without Kit. I ran that place with him gone, an’ I coulda kept right on doin’ it. You didn’t need to sell it.”
“Kid, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Tom told him firmly. “Vi told me that everything was fine when Pa died. She wrote me that she and April were takin’ care of you. I ain’t heard nothin’ from ‘em since then.”
“April married a soldier boy an’ went to live in Baltimore. Then Vi got herself hitched to a doctor an’ decided they couldn’t look after the farm.” The boy looked fiercely at his older brother. “I was fifteen. I coulda run that place blindfolded and on crutches. I’d been running it for a couple o’ years anyway.”
“They sold it then?”
“Told me you’d said they could.”
Tom shook his head angrily. “I didn’t know nothin’ about it.”
“Vi had me live with ‘em for a while. Till they decided I was too much for ‘em an’ they sent me to Baltimore. Vi told me the Captain would know how to keep me in line. But I didn’t give him the chance. I took off.”
“An’ ended up here with a bunch o’ toughs,” Tom finished for him, “bushwackin’ an’ killin’.”
The young man glared furiously at him. “I ain’t never killed no one yet! But Madrid deserves it.”
“Why?” Sarah asked suddenly, surprising them both.
“He killed Wes,” the boy answered coldly.
“It was a fair fight, though,” she told him.
“No, it wasn’t!”
She tilted her head curiously. “How do you know? You weren’t in there, were you?”
“I didn’t need to be. Wes was real good with those guns o’ his. Madrid couldn’t have beaten him fair an’ square.”
She smiled enigmatically at him. “Is that right? Have you ever seen Johnny draw?”
“Well, I have,” she said quietly, leaning forward towards the boy. “And I’ll tell you this – he’s so fast, it’s frightening.”
Chas didn’t quite know how to answer that. He squirmed a little in the chair. “So was Wes.”
She shook her head. “Johnny didn’t murder your friend, Chas. I’m the only one in this room who has seen him draw on someone, and I can promise you this. He doesn’t need to cheat, he’s too quick.”
Rawlings shook his head and whispered “No” with disbelief, but both Sarah and Tom could see that her words had sunk in. He didn’t want to believe her, but it appeared that he was beginning to.
They all looked up as Scott came back into the room.
Sarah stood up and looked into his eyes. “How is he?”
Scott sighed. “He fell asleep a few minutes ago. That fever is taking a lot out of him.”
She walked over to him and took his arm gently. He looked exhausted himself. “He settled down then?”
He nodded and sat down. “Yes, he’d had a dream that they were after Maddie and Celeste. Once he woke up, he realized that they were safe at home.”
The boy asked hesitantly, “Who are they?” and Scott scowled angrily at him.
But it was Sarah who answered. “Maddie is his Johnny’s young daughter and Celeste is his wife. She’s expecting a baby.”
Scott frowned at her, annoyed that she had said anything about them.
Chas Rawlings sighed. “Tait an’ Rafe don’t know about ‘em. They ain’t gonna go after ‘em.” He stopped talking for a minute, staring at Sarah and thinking things over. He seemed to come to a decision and said bluntly, “But they’ll come after you, Miss. That’s their plan.”
“What?” Scott exclaimed.
Chas looked up at him. His arms ached already. Tom had tied his hands behind his back and then bound him to the chair, and he hadn’t made any allowance for family. The ropes were cutting off the circulation in his arms. He couldn’t keep his eyes level with Scott’s. “I didn’t like it. That’s why I’m here on my own.”
“Go on,” Scott demanded.
“What’s to say? The others want to take the girl an’ trade her for Madrid. I thought maybe I could get Madrid myself an’ then we didn’t need to have anythin’ to do with the girl.”
“And when did you plan to tell us about it?” Tom asked angrily.
“I’m tellin’ ya, ain’t I?”
“Where are they? What’s their plan?” Scott asked.
“I waited till they were asleep and came on my own. I don’t know what they’re up to now.”
Scott looked over at Tom. “If that’s true, they could have changed any plans they had by now.”
“Yeah, we’re no better off for knowin’ it. ’Cept we can keep a close eye on Miss Sarah,” Tom agreed.
Sarah finally spoke up. “Well, you can keep an eye on me if you like, but right now I think I’ll get coffee for everyone. There’s still a long time until dawn.”
Celeste didn’t quite know what had woken her. She lay in bed in the darkness, listening intently, but she couldn’t hear anything. Instinctively, she stretched her arm out and her hand rested on the empty space beside her. Lord, she missed Johnny, and she couldn’t help but believe that Murdoch had kept something from her.
She got out of the bed and lit the lamp on the small table near the window. The small French clock on the dresser told her it was after three in the morning, so what could have distracted her at this hour?
Grabbing the wrap on the end of the bed and throwing it around her shoulders, she tip toed out into the hall and started for the stairs. There was no chance of getting back to sleep now, so she might as well go down and find a book to read - something to try to take her mind off the situation.
It was when she passed Madelena’s room that she heard the sound again. As soon as she heard it, she realized that it was what had broken her sleep.
She edged the door open and peeped in. The room was in darkness, so she couldn’t see much more than shadows, but she could her the little girl sniff back tears.
“Maddie? Can I come in, cherie?”
“Yes,” Maddie answered, a catch in her voice. In her attempt to hide her tears, she had her blankets pulled up so high that they almost covered her head.
Celeste stepped quietly into the room and sat down on the side of the bed. She pulled the blankets back a little so she could see Maddie. Now that her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she could see the little girl’s face. “Maddie, what is it? Is it Papa?”
She nodded miserably, but didn’t answer.
“I know you’re worried, ma petite, but Tio says he’s getting better.” Even as she said it, she knew she was trying to convince herself as well as the child.
“But you’re still worried, aren’t you?”
“You should have come to me, cherie.”
“I didn’t want to worry you. Papa told me I should look after you.”
“Oh dear,” Celeste said with a sigh. “Come here to me.” She put her arms out and Madelena sat up and leaned on her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around her and held her close.
“Papa’s sick, Mama,” she whispered. “I know he is.”
“You should know that you can always come to me, Maddie,” she reassured the child. “No matter what they say.” She sighed deeply. “Men! They’re all the same. They think we females are like porcelain dolls and will break at the merest thing.”
Celeste sniffed at the thought. “You know, cherie, you mustn’t believe that. We only let them think it to let them feel good. We women are made of stronger stuff than that, aren’t we?”
“It’s hard to stay home and wait – I know.”
The little girl looked up into her face hopefully. “We could go to him – make him well again.”
“Oh darling, I think it would be too far for you to go.”
“Then you could go. Papa would be happy with you there. He’d soon get well and you can send me a wire to tell me he’s alright.”
Celeste smiled happily at the faith the child had in her. She squeezed her tightly and kissed the top of her head. Then she looked out of the window into the darkness. It was a couple of hours before the sun would start to rise.
The idea wasn’t new to her. She’d been considering how she could do it since yesterday when Teresa had let it slip that Murdoch had taken help with him. She knew that she could be heading towards trouble and she had thought long and hard about the risk, both to herself and her baby. But Dr Sam had given her nothing but glowing reports. She was healthy and strong and convinced that driving up to Hobson’s Crossing would do her no harm this early.
And she knew that Johnny needed her. That was the important thing right now.
She smiled at Maddie. “He’ll be angry,” she whispered to her conspiratorially.
“Uh huh,” Maddie agreed with a nod, and a smile.
A little over an hour later, Celeste was in the barn with Maddie helping her to get the buggy out and hitch the horse to it. It was still dark, but if they left it any longer it would be daylight and she’d be stopped.
They crept around as quietly as they could, saying only what was necessary to get themselves organized, but one alert pair of ears had heard them.
Jelly stopped at the barn door and held his lamp up to see what was going on.
He frowned as he peered into the dimly lit building. “Miz Celeste, that you? What’re ya doin’ in here at this time a night?”
Celeste decided that honesty was called for here. Determinedly, she answered. “I’m hitching the buggy, Jelly. Since you’re here, why don’t you come and lend a hand.”
“You oughtn’t ta be doin’ that in your condition,” he said gruffly as he made his way inside and tried to take the harness away from her.
Celeste held it tightly and refused to hand it over, while Maddie arrived behind him with the horse.
“Maddie Lancer, you oughta be in bed,” he growled at her.
“I’m helping Celeste,” the child told him adamantly.
He tilted his head and studied the two of them, suddenly awake to what they were planning. “Just where do you think you’re goin’ anyway, Miz Celeste?”
“To my husband.”
He shook his head. “No, Johnny’d have my head on a stick if’n I let you do that.”
Celeste stood in front of him, her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. “I don’t remember asking you to ‘let’ me do anything, Jellifer Hoskins. My husband is hurt and in trouble. I’m going to him and you have nothing to say about it.”
Jelly held his hands up quickly. “Johnny’s just fine. Scott said so.”
“Oh, and that’s why Murdoch rode up there with four or five men at his side.” She turned back to the buggy and tossed her bag in. “I’m not a fool, Jelly. I know you’re not telling me everything.”
“You oughtn’t ta get all het up in your condition, Miz Celeste. It ain’t good for ya.”
She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “If you say ‘in your condition’ one more time, I’ll show you just how fragile I am, Jelly. I’m not an invalid, and I will not be treated like one.” She turned around to face him again, fury evident on her face. “And don’t you dare patronize me. I am not a child and I will not be treated like one.”
Jelly scowled at her. “An’ you can keep that fine ol’ temper o’ yours for Johnny. It ain’t gonna work on me.”
He reached over to the horse and took the halter from Maddie’s hand. Then he turned back to Celeste – and stopped dead at the sight of a gun in her hands.
She held the unfamiliar weapon with both hands. Her finger was nowhere near the trigger yet, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
“I mean what I say, Jelly. I am going to Johnny. You can help me or not, I don’t care.”
“Now, now – you just put that gun down, Miz Celeste. It could go off.”
“I promise you, Jelly. I’ll shoot you in the foot or something if that’s what it takes.”
Jelly took a deep breath and let it out real slow. “Alright, I’ll help ya. If’n you’re so set on goin’, I’d better go with ya. It’s a long ways, an’ I ain’t even sure ya know the way.”
He was right about that, but Celeste was not going to admit it right now. She had the upper hand and she was keeping it.
She lowered the gun and put it back into her bag. “Thank you, Jelly.”
Harry nearly lost his grip on the rifle. He shook himself awake and peered out into the shadows. It had been a long, long night, and he was starting to find it hard to stay awake.
He wondered how the others were doing. He could see the barrel of Joe Nesbitt’s rifle sticking out a couple of inches through the door of the bunkhouse. The old guy was still there. Harry knew he wouldn’t let anyone down, and he was determined to do the same.
He scanned the whole yard from his vantage point high above them. Nothing moved. There was no sound but for the hoot of an owl in one of the trees behind the bunkhouse. There was no sign of any trouble, and he hoped it would stay that way.
Harry relaxed again, loosening his grip on the rifle, but keeping it ready. He sat back against the wall and listened to the owl hoot again. It was peaceful if anything.
Joe had told them that they were holding off some men who wanted to kill Miss Sarah’s friends. The whisper was that one of Miss Sarah’s friends was Johnny Madrid. He wondered if it was true. Of course, the story he’d heard was that Madrid was dead, although people argued about how he’d died.
Most people believed he’d died in Mexico – in front of a firing squad after getting involved with some failed revolution.
Others said he’d been killed in a stage hold up only a couple of years ago.
Whatever story was true, it made it unlikely that the wounded man in the house really was Madrid.
A movement caught his eye. Something was moving down there in the yard.
He peered out into the darkness and looked carefully. He couldn’t see anything now, but he could have sworn there had been something, or someone, moving around.
He whistled – a short shrill whistle that they had arranged between themselves last night. It was better to be safe than sorry, and he was sure he’d seen something out there.
“What time is it, Scott?” Tom asked from his place by the window.
“Just after three,” Scott told him, putting his pocket watch back into his pocket.
“Still a couple of hours till dawn,” Tom said. “I thought they would have hit us by now.”
“Yes, me too. On the other hand, there’s only two of them now.” He glanced over at the boy tied in the chair. In a way, Chas Rawlings was better off than any of them. He’d dozed off an hour ago. His chin drooped forward onto his chest and an occasional snore ruptured the peace in the room.
It kept them awake, but it was annoying too.
Tom heard the whistle and looked up quickly.
“You hear that, Scott?”
“I think it came from the loft. Harry must have seen something.”
“Can you see anything?” Scott asked, moving closer to the window himself and looking out into the darkness.
Not for the first time, he cursed the luck that had made it a moonless night. The darkness was thick enough to cut out there.
“No, but Joe’s takin’ a look. Dammit, I hope he keeps his head down.”
Scott watched Nesbitt put his head out and look around. He looked directly across the yard at them and shook his head.
Whatever Harry had seen, or thought he had seen, Joe hadn’t found it.
They both relaxed slightly. It was probably just a false alarm.
“I can take over here if you wanna go check on Johnny again,” Tom suggested.
“Thanks, Tom, but I think it’s better I stay here.” His glance towards the bedroom door told Tom that he really would have preferred to be with his brother, but this close to dawn was the best time for a sneak attack and they both knew it.
Scott no sooner spoke than an explosion split the night.
A bullet slammed into the window sill, only inches away from both men. Instinctively they threw themselves to each side of the window for cover.
It was followed immediately by two more gunshots.
The second shot crashed through the glass of the windowpane and shattered the lamp on the table across the room plunging them into darkness.
Through the shadows of the remaining lamp in the kitchen, Scott saw Chas Rawlings wake with a start.
Fear surged through the captive and he kicked one foot off the floor and pushed the chair sideways so that he landed on the floor, not under cover, but below the line of fire.
The third shot followed the same path as the one before it. It smashed through another windowpane. Scott heard it zing past his ear on its way across the room. In the darkness, he couldn’t see what happened to it, but he heard the creak of the bedroom door and a yelp of pain.
Scott couldn’t breathe. Panic held him against the wall and, for a moment, he couldn’t speak.
When he finally got his voice to work, it came out as an anguished cry that echoed around the room. “Sarah!”
“Oh no, Sarah…’
His tortured words cut into the darkness of the room as Scott scrambled across to where she lay. He couldn’t make out much in the shadows, but he could make out her inert form on the floor by the bedroom door.
There was light coming from the bedroom – just enough to light up her face and glisten on her hair. But the effect now was very different from the last time he had seen her bathed in that golden glow.
This time she was still and pale, and a horrific red stain was spreading already across her blouse. Kneeling beside her, he slipped his hand under her shoulders and lifted her into his arms. Her eyes were closed and her head hung limply, her ponytail and straying wisps of her hair falling behind her.
“Oh God, no Sarah,” he whispered as he put his face against hers. Her skin was still warm – still soft – and he put one hand to her cheek gently.
On his knees, on the floor, Scott felt a constriction in his chest that burned red hot. It blanked out everything else going on in the room around them, until he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He looked behind him to find Will Barnes there.
“Let her go, Scott. Let me have a look at her.”
Scott opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. It was as if his mind wasn’t functioning properly. Tears blurred his vision but he could still see the expression of compassion on the doctor’s face.
It didn’t help.
“Scott, put her down. You have to let me look at her,” Barnes repeated. “Let me help her.”
Scott nodded absently, the words finally sinking in. He laid her back onto the floor very gently. She hadn’t moved or made a sound, but now that he was beginning to feel his senses working for him again, he could hear the soft hiss of her breath. He watched the slow rise and fall of her chest and closed his eyes in relief.
He moved aside to let the doctor get in closer to her and looked up as he heard another voice across the room.
“Cut me loose, Tom,” the boy demanded urgently.
“No,” Tom answered angrily.
Nevertheless, Tom got up and hurried over to him, bent double to stay out of the line of fire. He grabbed the boy, chair and all, and dragged him behind one of the big easy chairs. At least he’d be safer from gunfire there.
“Tom, let me loose. I can help.”
His brother ignored him and ran back to his position by the window. There was another shot fired outside, but it seemed to have come from the loft. Harry must have spotted one of them. But there had been no more gunfire from whoever had fired at the house. He wondered why, but before he had time to think about it another bullet hit the side of the house.
Tom was sure that it hadn’t come from the same direction as the last volley. He took a chance and had a quick look out of the window, but he couldn’t see anything out there. It was still too dark.
They’d picked their time well.
He turned back and looked over to where Scott sat next to Sarah.
“Scott, how’s Miss Sarah?” he yelled across the room, but it was the doctor who answered.
“I can’t tell yet, Tom,” he called back. To Scott, the doctor said more quietly, “Help me get her onto her bed, Scott. I need to get a better look at her.”
Tom sat alone by the window, trying to think things through.
His brother was silent now, and he seriously considered the option of cutting him loose. But would he really help? They could sure use it now. Or would he take the first opportunity to go into the bedroom and kill Johnny?
No, the risk was too great. He couldn’t take the chance.
Another shot sounded from outside, breaking violently into his thoughts. It hit the windowsill again, this time sending up a two inch long splinter of wood that flew past Tom’s face, dangerously close. He flinched as it sailed past him.
Tom turned straight back to look out, hoping to see where the gunfire had come from this time. He saw Joe sticking his head out to look as well and then quickly pull back inside too, and another shot sounded from the loft.
This was getting them nowhere.
Scott came out of Sarah’s bedroom and took up his earlier position on the opposite side of the window from Tom.
“Have you spotted them?” he asked quickly.
“Nope,” Tom answered. “But the shots look like they’re comin’ from more than two places. Doesn’t figure, unless they’re takin’ their shot an’ then movin’.” He looked at his friend’s pale face and asked the question. “How is she?”
Scott shook his head. “She’s alive. That’s about all I know for now. Doc’s working on her.”
Tom sighed and edged closer to the window again. He was seething at the idea of Sarah Connolly being hurt, but he fought hard to control it. One glance at Scott told him that he, too, was struggling against his emotions. But they had to stay alert, or they could all be killed.
“I can’t see nothin’ out there. I can’t even see if the others are okay,” Tom said angrily.
“We just have to hope they are. We have to hang out until daylight. It’s only an hour or so away.”
“Yeah,” Tom answered doubtfully. “You know, if they’re movin’ around, we oughta be able to see them sometime. They have to come out in the open.”
“There’s only one o’ them shootin’,” Chas told them quietly from behind them.
“What?” Scott asked, turning back to face him.
“I said there’s only one of ‘em shootin’. He’s gettin’ off a shot or two, then movin’. He’s makin’ you think they’re both out there.”
“If that’s true, where’s the other one? What’s he up to?” Scott asked.
“He’s probably lookin’ for a way into this house,” Tom suggested.
An awful thought occurred to both of them at once. It occurred to Chas too.
“An’ you ain’t got no one watchin’ the back,” Chas told them.
Scott stood up quickly. “Johnny!” he gasped aloud and ran for the bedroom. With the doctor tending to Sarah, Johnny was in the room alone –and unprotected. And there was a window in there that faced the back of the house.
He got to the door and stopped abruptly. In the darkness, he held an advantage. He’d be hard to see. He stood behind the door and waited, listening, but there wasn't a sound.
Slowly, and very cautiously, he opened it a little more, conscious that it might creak and give him away.
He got it a few inches wider without a sound and he looked in. The lamp in that room was still alight, but it was turned low to avoid disturbing his sleeping brother. He could see Johnny safely sleeping in the bed and edged his head around the door to see the window.
He was nearly satisfied that no one was there when he heard the faintest protest from the window as it opened. It was barely audible and they would never have heard it from the other room. He held his breath and waited.
The window opened, bit by bit. A hand appeared on the windowsill and then another, followed by a leg stepping over it and into the room.
Scott’s gun was in his hand instinctively as he watched the man clamber into the room. He was tall and fair and unshaven and in his right hand the light glittered off the blade of a lethal looking bowie knife.
The man was so intent on his intended victim that he didn’t notice Scott, or even look for him.
Scott’s blood ran cold watching him. He stepped into full view in the doorway, his gun trained on the intruder, and he made his presence known at last.
“One more step and you’re dead where you stand.”
The man froze and looked over at Scott.
“Now, drop the knife,” Scott ordered him.
He made no move to drop it. Instead, a small smile creased his lips.
The smile was unnerving. “I told you to drop it!” Scott repeated.
His hand seemed to relax and Scott fully expected to hear a thud as the weapon hit the floor. But as the hilt began to slip from the man’s hand, he suddenly took hold of it and lifted it to throw it.
Scott heard a shout from behind him.
“Watch the knife, Scott,” Tom shouted and a shot rang out that caught the stranger full in the chest.
A look of shock covered his face as a dark stain spread across his shirt. He looked straight at Scott before he took one last breath and then dropped to the floor.
Scott looked to the bed to check on his brother. Amazingly, Johnny hadn’t woken.
He walked over and kicked the knife away, and then knelt down to make sure that the man was dead. He couldn’t find a pulse, but it was obvious anyway. His eyes were open – staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
Scott looked behind him and found Tom standing beside the window with his pistol drawn and smoking. “Chas said he was a real wonder with a knife. He figured he’d try something.”
Scott’s heart was racing. He took a deep breath and let it slowly out, pulling himself back together. He hadn’t seen it coming. If Tom hadn’t been there…if Chas hadn’t warned his brother…
“Thanks, Tom,” he said when he was able to breathe normally again.
“Don’t have to thank me. I wouldn’t have known either if it hadn’t been for the kid.”
They heard a shout from outside. “Everythin’ alright in there, Tom?” It was Joe’s voice.
Tom and Scott looked at each other without answering. Things were far from ‘alright’ in the house, but they were under control for now.
“Yeah,” Tom shouted back, leaning out of the window. “Stay where you are an’ keep your eyes open. There’s only one of ‘em left.”
Scott checked again that his brother was resting quietly. With a sigh of relief, he walked over to where Chas Rawlings was lying on the floor, still tied to the chair.
Without giving the matter another minute’s thought, he pulled his own knife from his boot and cut the ropes around the boy’s wrists. He untied the ropes that bound him to the chair and let them fall.
Chas rubbed his wrists to get the circulation going again. He stared up at the man he would have killed if he had come upon him earlier this morning with a mix of relief and curiosity.
“Why’re you doin’ this?”
Scott shook his head. “I owe you one, I guess. Thank you.”
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
“Why the change of heart?” Scott asked him.
Chas pushed himself up off the floor. “The lady. I don’t hold with hurtin’ women.”
Scott nodded. “Alright, I’ll accept that. I’m taking a chance on you, so think yourself lucky. But if you go near either of those bedrooms, I’ll stop you with a bullet.”
“Sure,” he answered sullenly.
He was looking past Scott into the bedroom where Johnny was lying. Scott realized that he was looking at the body of the intruder.
“He was one of your friends, wasn’t he?”
The boy nodded. “Tait Cameron.” He seemed lost in thought for a while, and then answered, with exaggerated disdain, “But he’s been gettin’ on my nerves lately.”
“Then you won’t miss him?”
Chas shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t see why I should.”
Scott suspected otherwise. The boy’s apparent lack of emotion might have fooled most people, but Scott had seen such performances before.
“Well, I’m sorry anyway,” he said. “What about your other friend – would he listen to you? Would he call this vendetta off if you talked to him?”
Scott sighed. It had been a forlorn hope, but worth a try anyway. “Why don’t you go get that lamp from the kitchen so we can see in here?”
“Yeah, sure,” the boy answered quietly and went out of the room.
Scott looked towards the closed door to Sarah’s room. He wanted to know what was happening in there. Even the gunshot inside the house had not brought Will out. That could only mean that he was too busy with Sarah to leave her.
Meanwhile, he had Johnny to see to. He hadn’t woken and that worried Scott.
“Tom, I’m going to stay with Johnny. Will’s going to be busy with Sarah. That leaves only you to watch the house.”
“Don’t worry about it. Johnny needs lookin’ after. I can handle this.”
“There’s your brother,” Scott suggested hesitantly. “I’ll leave it up to you how much you trust him to help, but if you need me…”
“I know – just holler.”
“Okay. In the meantime, can you help me get him out of there?” Scott said quietly, indicating Tait’s body in the bedroom.
Between them, they picked up the body and shoved it out through the window. They would make better arrangements when this was all over.
Scott took his place at Johnny’s side. Feeling his forehead, he was sure that the fever had risen higher. He started wiping him down immediately and tried to get him to take some water.
He gave all of his attention to his brother, not noticing the minutes were ticking by into hours. Johnny had shown no sign of waking but the restlessness that had characterized his sleep earlier in the night seemed to have eased off.
Only, sometimes, Scott’s thoughts strayed to the other bedroom, wondering what was happening in there.
The darkness was just beginning to give way to morning and Scott was allowing himself to think that the worst was over when another shot rang out.
This time it hit the wall outside the front of the house. Two more shots followed in rapid succession. Then all hell broke loose out in the yard.
Chas ran to the window and ducked down beside his brother.
Gunfire seemed to be coming from every direction in the yard.
He looked out and watched the melee, wondering where Rafe was. He might not be sure of his feelings over the death of Tait Cameron, but he knew well enough how he felt about Rafe Little Crow. He respected him. He even liked him - and Rafe was the smartest of them.
If anyone could get out of that mess out there, Rafe was the man to do it - and he hoped that he would.
Scott came to the bedroom doorway, but Tom turned him back. “No Scott, I can handle things here. Stay with Johnny.”
There was little that Tom could do anyway. Shots were sounding from so many places that he wouldn’t know if he was shooting at the stranger or their own men. What he had noticed was that after that first bullet, none of the shots were coming at the house.
The skirmish seemed to go on interminably to Tom’s way of thinking, but it was only a couple of minutes. Within five minutes it had died down to only the occasional blast.
As the noise lessened, he heard Joe Nesbitt shouting from his position at the bunkhouse door. He was calling for a cease-fire and they appeared to have heard him. The shots stopped altogether and Joe took a chance, stepping out cautiously into the open.
The sun was just coming up. It hadn’t cleared the horizon yet, so there was that eerie half-light that cast dark shadows around the yard. Still it allowed them to see the yard shrouded in smoke. The smell of gunpowder was overwhelming.
Tom looked on as Joe called the men from their hiding places, ordering a search of the buildings to try to find the one remaining kid.
Harry called out from the loft that he had seen the flash from his gun-barrel when he fired on the house and he had returned fire. Bob said the same, and Joe knew he had seen that flash too. That explained why there had been so much shooting.
It seemed strange that the stranger had made a mistake like that after being so careful before.
The search of the yard took them an hour. It turned up damage to all the buildings, and Tait Cameron’s body caused something of a stir until Tom explained what had happened, but they found nothing of the third and final attacker.
He’d disappeared into the night.
“He got clean away,” Joe announced. While he was speaking to Tom Rawlings, his eyes were on Chas. He wasn’t happy that the kid was walking around loose. “He must’ve slipped away while we was all shootin’ at each other. I reckon that’s why he left himself be seen on purpose. He got us all firin’ blind an’ headed for the hills. Well, no matter - come daylight, we’ll look for tracks. We’ll find him.”
“You won’t find any tracks,” Chas told him confidently.
Joe glared at him with open distrust. “Is that right, sonny boy?”
“I reckon. He knows more ‘bout trackin’ than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Shut up, Chas,” Tom ordered him hastily. “You’re not helping.”
The kid looked towards Joe Nesbitt and smiled.
Joe saw it. He couldn’t believe that the boy was actually smiling. He felt that the kid was throwing a challenge at him, and he was ready to answer it – Tom’s brother or not!
Tom thought it wise to lower the tension in the room. “Joe, anyone hurt out there?”
Nesbitt reluctantly dragged his eyes away from the boy. “Nope. Not a scratch,” he answered gruffly.
Tom nodded and sighed.
There was something else that had to be done. He dreaded it, but he had to let Joe know about Sarah. He drew himself up straight and took a deep breath to steady himself. “Joe, I gotta tell ya - Miss Sarah’s been hurt.”
Nesbitt’s jaw dropped and his face paled. “What d’ya mean, ‘hurt’?”
“She got shot in that first volley. Doc’s still with her.”
“How bad?” he asked, his face going whiter than Tom had ever seen before.
“Dunno,” Tom told him dismally. “Doc Barnes took her into her room an’ we ain’t seen or heard from him yet.”
Joe swore and paced furiously across the room. “Damn!” he swore again and turned around to glare once more at Tom’s brother. “You happy now, kid? You happy – gettin’ a fine lady like Miss Sarah shot?”
“That’s enough, Joe,” Tom warned him. “That kind o’ talk won’t get us nowhere.”
Joe eyed him challengingly. He had a few things he wanted to say to Tom about that brother of his, but he relented reluctantly. “What about Johnny?” he asked. “He any better?”
“Scott’s with him. That fever’s still goin’ up. He didn’t even wake when I shot that fella in the same room with him.”
Joe shook his head. “That don’t sound good.”
“No,” Tom answered. “Well, it’s nearly sunup…”
He stopped and turned around at the sound of a door opening. It was Will Barnes and everyone in the room held their breath. They wanted news – desperately – but all of them feared what he had to say.
Tom couldn’t stand the waiting. He asked quickly, “Doc, how is she?”
“She’s just fine, Tom. Now, hold on while I just get Scott out here and then I’ll tell you everything.”
He opened the door to the bedroom where Johnny slept and called quietly to Scott to come out. Then he waited for him. He could feel all the eyes in the room on him, boring into him.
“Sarah’s going to be just fine,” he told them, eager to relieve their anxiety. “The bullet went straight through her shoulder, nice and clean. There’s some muscle damage but that will heal just fine. We’ll have to watch for infection, of course, but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
The relief in the room was tangible. There was an audible sigh from each of them as they breathed in unison.
“She’s awake now,” he continued. He turned to Scott. “She’d like to see you, Scott. I’ve told her it’s alright, but only for a minute. Don’t stay too long. She’ll be the better for some sleep.”
“Okay,” Scott answered him quietly. He wanted to see her desperately, but he had no idea how he could face her and what he would say. When he’d seen her lying on the floor unconscious, for all the world as though she was dead, he’d felt as though the something had died in him as well.
What was worse was that he felt responsible for it.
But before he went to Sarah, he wanted to make sure the doctor was aware of Johnny’s worsening state.
“Can you take a look at Johnny, too? That fever is higher, and not even a gunshot in his room woke him.”
“Sure, Scott, I was planning to have a look at his shoulder and change those bandages anyway.”
“Thanks, Will,” he said. “And if he does wake, I don’t want him to know about Sarah.”
“Oh, I agree with you. He’d blame himself. I don’t want him worrying about anything but getting back on his feet.”
“Thanks again,” he said, and then he hesitantly opened the door to Sarah’s room and went in.
Will Barnes watched him go and waited for him to close the door behind him. Then he turned back to Joe and Tom.
“I don’t know about Johnny, but he looks exhausted,” he pointed out to them.
“Don’t think he knows which way’s up right now, Doc,” Tom agreed. “He’s worried sick ‘bout Johnny, now Miss Sarah as well, an’ I don’t think he’s slept much in the last couple o’ days.”
The doctor considered them both. They looked just as tired as he felt himself.
“We must have some pretty tired cowboys out there too,” he said at last.
“Yeah, I reckon so,” Joe admitted. “It’s b’n a long night.”
“And a stressful one, too. Those men need some rest.”
“We got things to do yet, Doc,” Joe objected. “An’ that third fella’s still loose, even if he has headed for the hills. We can’t leave the place unprotected yet.”
“Joe, why don’t you send half the men to bed for a few hours?” Tom suggested. “They can relieve the others later.”
Joe rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, I guess we c’n do that. Things are quiet for now. I’ll have to get one o’ the boys to see to that dead fella. We’ll have to take him to the sheriff an’ let him know what’s b’n goin’ on here. An’ the rest of us c’n look for those tracks an’ see if we c’n find the bastard.”
“Not you, Joe, I want you to get some sleep too,” the doctor told him firmly. “Tom will have to help in here so that Scott can get some sleep and then you can relieve him. And I have to confess, I could do with some sleep myself.”
“Good luck gettin’ Scott to leave Johnny or Miss Sarah,” Joe said with a grin.
“I’ll slip him something if I have to,” Will Barnes growled. “But Murdoch Lancer should be here today. If he brings some men with him, like Scott thinks, that’ll make things a whole lot easier. He might even be able to get Scott to rest,” Will said hopefully.
He sighed. “Now tell me what’s been happening. I heard a lot of shooting, and one of those shots sounded like it was right in the house. Was that what Scott was talking about?”
“It sure was, Doc,” Tom admitted. “We caught one of ‘em climbing through the window in Johnny’s room. Scott had him cold but he made a wrong move an’ I had to shoot him.”
Barnes raised an eyebrow. “That’s the dead man Joe was talking about?”
Tom nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, with your brother over there, that’s two accounted for. What about the third?”
“He’s high-tailed it, Doc. Guess he figured the odds were stacked too high against him on his own,” Joe told him.
“Then it’s over?
Joe eyed Chas Rawlings warily. He was leaning back against the wall on the opposite side of the room, arms crossed in front of him carelessly. The kid didn’t inspire any confidence in him, but Joe finally said, “Yeah, we think so.”
Scott stood at the door. He’d closed it gently behind him, but he didn’t move any further yet. Instead, he stood quietly watching her.
Sarah lay in the bed, propped up a little by a couple of pillows and with a light wrap around her shoulders.
Her hair hung loose behind her. It tumbled in soft waves of honey colored silk, framing her pale face. He couldn’t remember ever having seen it loose like that. It was beautiful.
She was beautiful
But she was terribly pale. The pretty blue wrap around her shoulders didn’t quite disguise the stark white bandages. It gave her an air of delicacy that he wasn’t used to seeing in her. It had slipped to one side and he caught a glimpse of the soft white skin of her shoulder.
He could see that she was in pain. She was breathing lightly and quickly and her eyes were closed. She hadn’t heard him come in and seemed to be oblivious to his presence in the room. But she suddenly became aware of him. He didn’t know how. He hadn’t moved or made a sound.
When she turned her head towards him she smiled slightly at him. His heart seemed to stop for an instant.
“I hope you’re not going to make me yell across the room,” she said wearily.
He walked hesitantly over and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Sarah, what can I say? I’m so sorry.”
“No, please, don’t do that, Scott. Don’t try to take the blame for this.” Tears gleamed in her eyes.
“If I hadn’t brought Johnny here…”
“If you hadn’t brought him here, he would probably be dead. You know it, Scott.” She took his hand and squeezed it slightly. “And I still say it’s worth it to have you back here for a while.”
He actually smiled a little then.
“That’s better,” she whispered wearily. “You look terrible, you know. You need to get some rest.”
“I’m supposed to make this visit quick so that you can get some sleep,” he said quietly. “So I should get out of here.”
He leaned forward and lightly kissed her forehead. “You gave us an awful fright.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted. “What’s happening outside?”
“It seems to be all over. Everyone’s okay.”
“I’d like to see Joe and Tom, just so they know I’m alright. Can you bring them in?” she asked, her voice starting to weaken.
“Will wants you to get some sleep.”
“Yes, in fact I think he gave me something to make me sleep,” she answered wearily. “But I’d like to see them for a minute – please?”
“Alright,” he relented. “But only for a minute.”
He stood up and opened the door and then called them both in. “Sarah wants to see you for a minute. Just say hello and then we’ll all leave her to get some sleep. Will wants her to rest.”
Both men nodded and within minutes they had said hello and left. They had both appeared embarrassed to be in her bedroom anyway and their discomfort had been obvious even to a very tired Sarah.
The sun was up now and the room was too light so he went to her window and drew the curtains so it didn’t disturb her. Then he went back to the bedside and sat down beside her. By then, she was finding it hard to stay awake.
He sat with her until she drifted off to sleep and he then touched his fingers very lightly to her forehead and assured himself that she had no fever. He ran his fingers down her cheek and leaned over to tenderly touch his lips to hers and then got up and left the room.
Scott stopped at the door to Johnny’s room. He reached out and leaned against the wall as a wave of dizziness hit him. His head spun for a moment. When it stopped, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
Tom was in the kitchen making coffee so he hadn’t seen it, but Scott found himself staring into Chas Rawlings vivid green eyes.
He’d seen, Scott was sure of it, but he said nothing.
Scott knew he was overtired. He’d had only a few hours of sleep since this whole thing started. But Johnny needed him and he wasn’t going to let him down.
He pulled himself together, straightened up and went into the room.
Barnes had already removed the bandage from Johnny’s shoulder and, to Scott’s surprise and his immense relief, Johnny was awake. But being conscious wasn’t doing him any favors. He was feeling every little knock and jar.
Scott went to the bed and sat down on the opposite side to the doctor. He took his brothers hand and held it gently. Johnny looked at him and then he closed his eyes for a moment.
“Howdy Boston,” Johnny managed to say quietly.
“I didn’t expect to find you awake,” Scott said, as lightly as he could.
“You try sleepin’ through bein’ stuck with a brandin’ iron,” Johnny answered with an ironic tone in his voice.
“That’s what it feels like, huh?”
“Well, I’m here now. Think you can hold up, brother?”
“Yeah,” he replied weakly.
The doctor eased the gauze away from the wound, evincing a groan from Johnny. His fragile grip on Scott’s hand tensed till his knuckles were nearly white.
Scott was gripped by an overpowering feeling of helplessness. All he could do was sit with him, maintain his hold of Johnny’s hand and offer him soothing platitudes to try to comfort him.
It wasn’t enough. What he wanted was to take the pain away.
“Isn’t there something you can give him, Will?”
“I gave him some laudanum when he woke up – before you came in. I’m not using chloroform, not in his condition, Scott. It would be too dangerous with that fever.” He picked up a clean piece of gauze and dampened it, then he stopped.
“Johnny, this is not going to get any easier. Hold on tight to your brother’s hand. Squeeze as hard as you need to. Right?”
“Yeah, just do it.”
Johnny endured it better than Scott expected him to. The fact that he was still conscious when it was over was testament to his strength of will.
“You’re doing fine, Johnny,” the doctor assured him. “I’m going to let you rest for a moment, before we go on.” He turned to Scott. “Scott, I need to see you outside for a minute.”
Scott sensed some urgency in his words and he hoped that Johnny was too weak to have noticed it.
“Sure. Johnny, take it easy. We won’t be long - alright?”
Johnny’s face was as white as the pillow his head was sunk into. His breathing was labored but he managed to answer. “Take your time. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
The two men went out of the room. Will ran his hands through his hair and sighed deeply.
“Scott, I was hoping to avoid it, but I’m going to have to open that wound again and clean it out properly,” he explained quietly. “I have to reduce the infection before it spreads through the bloodstream and gets into that leg wound.” He stopped for a moment and then added, “It’s not going to be pleasant for him.”
“You have to give him something for the pain then, Will.”
“I can’t risk it. Chloroform is chancy at the best of times, but with that fever? No, I’m sorry, but it would be too dangerous and it’s too soon for more laudanum.”
Scott rubbed his forehead and told himself that the doctor knew what was best. Before he could say anything though, Barnes continued.
“I have to ask you. Are you up to holding him? I’ll ask Tom if you think…”
“No,” Scott said firmly. “If it has to be done, it should be me.”
Will nodded slowly. He’d been certain that that would be Scott’s response. “Alright, we’ll get this done then. Why don’t you go and stay with him while I get my things ready.”
The doctor watched Scott turn quietly and go back to his brother.
Well, he had work to do, and there was no time to waste now.
Damn, Scott was glad that was over. Johnny had struggled against the pain until he could stand it no longer. Then he had finally lost consciousness and slipped into a blessed cradle of darkness.
“Don’t worry, Scott,” the doctor had reassured him as Johnny’s head fell limp on his shoulder. “Sometimes Nature will do what we mere mortals can’t. It’s the best thing that could have happened.”
Holding him down throughout the surgery had taken all the strength that Scott could muster, both physically and emotionally. Johnny had tensed and strained from the moment the doctor had started to operate and, weak though he was from blood loss and fever, Johnny was a very strong man.
But it was the emotional toll on Scott that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He would have to learn to live with watching the torment his brother went through, and his own part in it.
Scott sat watching his brother sleep. The fever still burned but he looked peaceful. At least he wasn’t in pain now, and for that Scott was certainly grateful.
All Will Barnes’ efforts to get him to leave Johnny’s side were answered with a silent shake of his head.
“Scott, if you keep this up, you’ll be of no use to Johnny, Sarah or anyone else,” he told him determinedly.
But all he got for his trouble was another shake of the head, so he left him there and went to check on Sarah.
Left alone, Scott went back to bathing his brother’s face and trying to bring down his temperature.
“I told Celeste that you’re fine, Johnny,” he whispered, even though he knew that Johnny couldn’t hear him. “Don’t you dare make a liar of me.”
As the morning wore on, Scott tired more and more. He began to be light-headed, but told no one. He sat rubbing his eyes and shifting occasionally to stimulate himself. Suddenly, he began to have an uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched.
He looked up and found Chas Rawlings standing in the doorway staring at him.
Scott sat up straight, immediately alert. “Something on your mind?” he asked caustically.
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Just wonderin’.”
“What were you wondering?”
“Why you’re so set on stayin’ with him.”
Scott glared at him. “What do you mean? Why shouldn’t I?”
“You don’t seem like the type to team up with Madrid.” He tilted his head a little to the side. “You’re from back east, ain’t ya?”
“You’re spendin’ all this energy on him. You reckon he’d do the same for you?”
“Yes, in fact he has.”
“I don’t get it,” the boy told him curiously. “He’s just a gun hawk.”
“He’s not a gun hawk. He was just a man who was minding his own business having a quiet drink when your ‘friend’ called him out.”
“You sayin’ he ain’t Madrid after all?”
Scott sighed. “No, Johnny Madrid is something he lives with, but he’s not who he is.”
“Then who is he?”
“He’s Johnny Lancer - and before you say any more about him, you should know that he’s my brother.”
“Your brother?” Chas said in surprise. “You sure don’t look like it.”
“Different mothers,” Scott explained casually. “He grew up one place and I grew up in another. We met a few years ago.”
A heavy sigh from the bed drew his attention back to his brother, but Johnny was still sleeping. “Easy, Johnny,” he whispered and put his hand on his arm to calm him.
He turned back to Chas. “Is there anything else you wanted to say?”
“No, guess not,” the boy answered and turned away.
Scott was left alone with his brother and his own thoughts. ‘We met a few years ago.’ The words seemed to echo in his mind. Even now it seemed like a miracle. To have gone a lifetime without knowing he existed, and then, suddenly, there he was in front of him. Perhaps not what he would have expected to find in a brother, but that hadn’t mattered.
It hadn’t mattered to Johnny either. The bond they had built between them had been quick to forge and as strong as if they had known each other their whole lives. The thought of losing Johnny now was too much to bear.
The sound of horses coming into the yard outside was actually a welcome distraction. He stood up and went to the window.
He’d know that big hulk of a man anywhere. Murdoch was finally here.
Scott didn’t go out to meet him. He made a considered decision to stay with Johnny. Tom was there to meet him and bring him in, but Johnny shouldn’t be left alone.
He sat down again beside the bed and waited for Murdoch to come in.
“Mr. Lancer?” Tom asked as he stepped out onto the little porch.
Murdoch lowered himself to the ground. He stretched his aching back a little and then walked over to shake hands with Tom.
“That’s right, but I prefer Murdoch.”
“Tom Rawlings,” Tom told him, shaking his hand and taking him inside. Once in the drawing room he introduced the others there. “This is Dr Will Barnes,” he said first and then nodded quickly at Chas. “An’ my brother, Chas.”
Murdoch nodded to each of them, but only one thing was on his mind – had been since he got the wire from Scott.
“Dr. Barnes – we met when Scott was hurt here. I’m glad you’re here now. My sons, are they alright?”
There was no way to cushion the news. He’d know how bad Johnny was as soon as he saw him anyway. “Scott’s just fine, Murdoch. He has a small graze on his arm, but it’s nothing to worry about. Johnny, I’m afraid, is not so good. He’s been shot twice and one of the wounds is infected. He’s running a high fever.”
Murdoch waited a moment while he let the words set in. This was what he’d been afraid of all the way here, but the news that Scott had been hit as well was far from welcome. “Scott’s hurt too? He didn’t mention that in the wire. And the message said that Johnny was doing okay.”
“He was. He’d lost a lot of blood from the leg wound, so he was very weak, but he was doing well when Scott sent that message. The infection has taken hold since then.”
“I see. And what about this trouble they were in? How did they get shot in the first place?”
“Scott’ll be able to tell you how it all got started,” Tom told him. “I do know that there were three men after them when they came here.”
He looked over at his brother before he continued. “They paid us a visit last night.”
“One’s dead, another one high-tailed it out o’ here. The other one…” He looked towards his brother, looking for words. He didn’t feel he should hold back from telling Murdoch Lancer, but he wouldn’t blame the man if he wanted to beat the daylights out of the kid. His own son was in there desperately ill and Chas had had a hand in that.
“The third one was me,” Chas told him, taking the onus off his brother.
“You?” Murdoch bellowed in surprise.
“That’s right.” The boy stood up straight and faced him.
“You shot my son?”
Chas drew in a breath to steady himself. This man was built like a mountain and he looked like he was going to erupt. But he answered him straight just the same.
“I can’t say. Maybe, maybe not. There was a lot o’ shootin’ an’ it’d be hard to say who hit him.”
The two faced each other malevolently.
“Murdoch,” the doctor interrupted calmly. “I don’t think this is the time for recriminations.”
The words had their effect. Murdoch looked away from the boy and back to the doctor. “I’d like to see my sons if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. Johnny’s unconscious at the moment. I’m afraid I had to re-open the wound to clean out the infection this morning. It wasn’t easy on him.” He sighed deeply. “Nor on Scott, to be honest. He’s sitting with Johnny now and he’s exhausted. He’s had only a few hours sleep and he won’t leave him.”
“That sounds like Scott.”
“I’m hoping you can convince him to leave him and get some rest – before he falls over himself,” Will told him, leading the way to the bedroom.
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll talk to him, but if he’s glued himself to his brother’s side it won’t be easy.”
He stopped short at the door.
Scott was sitting by the bed and looked just as exhausted as the doctor had told him. His eyes rested on Johnny though. The bandages were stark white against the flushed and fevered body of his son. His fears were confirmed. Johnny’s condition was obviously serious.
He stood up and faced his father. “Murdoch, I’m glad you’re here.”
“I got here as fast as I could, son.” He walked over to Scott’s side and put his hand on his shoulder. “I brought some men with me to help, but it seems it’s all over.”
“Yes…well maybe. There’s still one of them loose out there.”
Murdoch sat down in the chair that Scott had vacated. He felt Johnny’s forehead and shook his head angrily.
He looked up at Scott. “What about you? The doctor tells me you were hit too. Are you alright?”
“It’s just a scratch – nothing to worry about.”
“Good…good…” Murdoch said absently. He was relieved that Scott wasn’t badly hurt, but his eyes had drifted back to his younger son. “Scott, what the hell happened?”
“Some stupid kid pushed Johnny into a gunfight,” Scott began. He stopped and looked at his father’s face and thought he saw a shred of doubt there. “He tried everything he could to get out of it, Murdoch, but that kid just wasn’t going to back down.”
“I believe you, son. Go on.”
“The kid was fast, but not fast enough. He died. When we walked out of the saloon, we walked right into an ambush by his friends. Johnny was hit in the leg and the shoulder and he was bleeding badly. I had to get him help, but they were following us.
He wouldn’t have made it home. So I brought him here.” He turned away to hide the torment of his emotions.
He turned back to his father abruptly. “It saved his life, Murdoch. I know that. But Sarah’s hurt now, and I put a lot of men at risk last night.”
“Sarah’s hurt? How?”
“She got shot last night. A stray bullet came through the window.” He closed his eyes and bit his lip. “She might have been killed, Murdoch. It would have been my fault.”
Murdoch sighed. “No, it would have been the fault of the men who were after you,” he answered sympathetically. “Is she alright?”
Scott nodded a little. “Will seems to think so. But that’s not the point.”
Murdoch stood up and followed him over to the window. He put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “You made a judgment call, son. Your brother’s life was at stake. Don’t second guess your decision now.”
He looked Scott up and down and squeezed hard. “You’re dead on your feet. You need some sleep.”
“No, I’m alright. I’m going to stay with Johnny.”
“Scott, there’s nothing you can do for him that I can’t and since Dr. Barnes already has two patients to worry about, he sure doesn’t need you making a third.”
Murdoch could see Scott beginning to accept that he had to rest. He added firmly. “I’ll stay with him and I promise you I’ll call you if there’s any change. Now go and get some sleep.”
Scott nodded wearily. “Alright, but call me – even if I’ve only been gone a few minutes”
“I give you my word.”
He watched Scott turn reluctantly to leave and then sat down again beside Johnny. Wringing out the cloth in the basin on the bedside table, he took stock of his younger son’s condition. He wiped Johnny’s face gently and then his neck and shoulders.
The fever certainly had a hold.
When he began to wipe his son’s face again, Johnny moaned quietly and turned his head aside from the touch of the cloth.
“It’s alright son,” Murdoch whispered, still wiping him down with the cool damp cloth. “It’s me, ‘the ol’ man’.” He smiled at the words, despite the seriousness of the situation. He could hear Johnny’s voice saying the words, fire flashing in those vivid blue eyes and a sneer on his lips.
What he wouldn’t give to hear them now.
Scott stopped abruptly at the door. He turned back. “Johnny was concerned about Celeste. He didn’t want her to worry.”
“I told her what you said in the wire. That he was fine.”
“And do you think she believed you?”
“She’s worried, but I think she believed me. We already knew something was wrong because Maddie had sensed it. She tried to keep it from Celeste, but it was no good. Celeste picked up on it anyway.” He saw the expression of dismay on Scott’s face. “I’m sure she’s just fine, son. Teresa will look after her.”
Jelly cussed at just about every rock and hole in the road. He didn’t like this one little bit.
Celeste Lancer sat beside him in the buggy. It was well sprung and it had comfortably padded seats, but it was still a bumpy ride – particularly for a woman in her condition.
But he had to admit that it looked like she was handling it just fine.
“You wanta stop for a break, Miz Celeste. There’s a nice shady spot just ahead there an’ water for the horse. We b’n on the road for hours.”
“I think that’s a good idea, Jelly. It must be nearly lunchtime by now.”
“Near enough ta noon, I reckon.”
“How long do you think it will be before we get there?”
He rubbed his whiskered chin and considered his answer. “’Nother four hours, mebbe five. Slower goin’ in a buggy than on horseback.”
They reached the grove of trees and Jelly pulled the buggy to a stop. He helped her down and took the basket she’d brought with her from behind the seat. Then he found her a comfortable place to sit under an oak tree. After he’d fetched water for the horse, he joined her there.
“Biscuit, Jelly?” she asked, holding one out for him.
“Thanks, Miz Celeste,” he said, taking it. He scoffed it down quickly and Celeste pushed the basket towards him with a smile.
“Help yourself,” she told him.
“You feelin’ okay, Miz Celeste?”
“Yes, I’m just fine. And so is Junior,” she assured him, patting the small bulge lovingly. “I’m not as delicate as you men seem to think, and this is Johnny’s baby, remember?”
Jelly harrumphed. “Bound ta be born stubborn then,” he said ironically. He shifted nervously. “That man o’ yours is gonna be madder’n a wet hen when I turn up with you.”
“If he’s well enough to be angry, I’ll be very happy. But don’t worry, I’ll tell him that I forced you at gunpoint to bring me.”
Celeste smiled broadly at him. “Seriously, Jelly. I’ll tell him that you found me so determined to go off alone that you decided you should go along to make sure I got there safely. He’ll be grateful to you.” She laughed. “I’ll make you quite a hero.”
“Hero nothin’,” he complained gruffly. “More like he’ll try to put a bullet in me anyhow.” He shook his head in frustration. “’Tween you an’ Johnny, a man can’t win. I’m damned if’n I do - an’ damned if I don’t.”
Scott woke out of a deep sleep. Something had woken him, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He blinked a couple of times and tried to make sense of his surroundings.
For a moment, he didn’t even know where he was. He couldn’t shake the sleep that still hung heavily over him. He rubbed his eyes and looked around him. Finally it came back to him.
He’d found himself a spare cot in the bunkhouse. It had brought back memories of two years ago, when he had been here to help Sarah in her fight against ‘Johnny Madrid’ and to clear the Lancer name at the same time.
As he groggily became aware of his surroundings, he noticed that Tom and some of the other Connolly men were also sleeping there.
Tom was just waking as well. No doubt the same thing had woken him.
Suddenly, he remembered what he had heard – horses coming into the yard outside. He leapt to his feet and went to the window to see who was arriving. He saw Murdoch and Joe step onto the porch of the house across the yard, ready to meet the new arrivals.
Three riders had come in and were facing Murdoch, talking to him. Even though they were turned away from Scott, he could hear the voices and knew they were some of the Lancer hands who had come with Murdoch this morning. He recognized Dave Herron’s voice immediately and Miguel Estefan was with him. He was pretty certain that the third was Rob Tanner, but it was hard to tell from behind.
“Know ‘em, Scott?” he heard Tom ask from behind him.
“Yes, they came with Murdoch this morning. He sent them out looking for Chas’ friend. They must have been gone for hours.”
He walked out of the door to join his father and to find out what had been happening since he had fallen asleep. He figured it must be around five o’clock by now and a look at his pocket watch showed him that he had only missed the mark by twenty minutes.
None of the men had dismounted, but Dave leaned forward in the saddle to speak to Murdoch.
“We didn’t find a sign of him, Mr. Lancer – nothin’,” Dave was saying. “We did a full circle ‘round the ranch and buildings, but there were no tracks to be found. Leastways, none that we could find. Cipriano or Johnny might have spotted something, but we sure couldn’t.”
“You did your best, Dave,” Murdoch told him with a sigh. “Can’t ask for more than that. Get yourselves something to eat and take a break.”
From the look on his face, it was obvious to Scott that Murdoch didn’t like the idea of the third man being loose out there, but it sounded like he’d beaten them. He probably wished he had Cipriano here to track him.
Scott didn’t know anyone who could follow a trail better than Cipriano, although Johnny certainly ran a close second. But Cipriano was needed back at Lancer to run the ranch while Murdoch and his sons were away.
“Whoever he is, he’s good, Mr. Lancer. Too good for us,” Dave reluctantly admitted.
“We found where they had camped, Patron,” Miguel added. “But he has not been back there.”
“Well, I doubt he’ll go back to it,” Murdoch answered. “He’s probably long gone from here by now.”
Dave shifted in his saddle, apparently uncomfortable with what he had to say next. “We did find something though, Boss. You might not like it, but they’re right behind us.”
“Right behind you?” Murdoch quizzed him, just as Scott reached his side. “What are you talking about, Dave? Who’s right behind you?”
He didn’t have to answer. The buggy crossed the little bridge over the stream down the drive and emerged from the little grove of black oaks and into view right then.
All eyes turned to the buggy.
“I don’t believe it!” Murdoch exclaimed.
“I do,” Scott answered angrily.
They watched as Jelly drove the buggy behind the horses and brought it to a halt near the porch. He seemed to be studiously avoiding looking in their direction as he climbed down and went around to help Celeste to the ground.
Celeste, on the other hand, wore a smile that gave no indication whatsoever that she suspected that either of them might be upset with her.
“Jelly, what in the hell are you doing here?” Murdoch roared.
Jelly looked at him awkwardly. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. She was gonna come whether I was with her or not.”
Celeste continued for him.
“Jelly thought he should come along with me, Murdoch. He didn’t approve of my coming on my own,” she said simply. “Look, I realize you disapprove of my coming, but please, how is Johnny?”
Murdoch was too angry to listen. “Did you even try to talk her out of it, Jelly?” Murdoch yelled angrily.
Jelly looked embarrassed, but Celeste answered. “Of course, he did.”
Jelly finally found the words to answer for himself. “Well, o’ course I tried. Ya think I want Johnny blamin’ me if anythin’ happened to Miz Celeste?”
“I threatened to shoot him,” Celeste told them. She said it with such naivete that Murdoch was caught short for words.
Scott was not. He knew her too well.
“I pulled a gun on him, so you can’t hold him responsible.” For a moment, she looked like she was at serious risk of losing her own temper, but she took a deep breath and said quietly, “I only wanted to be with my husband, Scott.”
“Don’t bother playing the innocent, Celeste. What are you doing here? I thought you might consider the baby, if not yourself.”
Sarah sighed heavily as she walked towards them and the smile dropped from her lips, replaced by a frown. “Scott, I’m tired, filthy and irritable. Not to mention that, after a whole day sitting in a buggy behind that horse, I have the uncomfortable feeling that I smell like the animal. Now, if you want to stand here and bicker in public, that’s fine. But I prefer to discuss this inside.”
Gracefully dusting herself off and then pulling off her gloves, she walked past them and stepped up onto the porch. She stopped there and waited for Scott and Murdoch to join her.
Chas Rawlings looked up when the lady walked into the drawing room. He quickly got to his feet and had to stop himself from staring at her.
He watched her as she peeled off her coat and folded it neatly over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Then she untied her bonnet and placed it carefully on top of the coat.
She tried to tidy her honey blond hair with her fingertips and then she turned around and noticed him.
The lady smiled at him and Chas was lost. That smile of hers lit up her eyes – beautiful blue eyes that matched the elegant blue gown that she wore. It was cut to accommodate her condition, for she was very obviously with child, but she wore it with style.
“Hello,” she said pleasantly, while Scott and Murdoch Lancer came in the door behind her.
He didn’t answer right away. For some reason he found this lady – and that’s what she obviously was – daunting.
“This is Chas Rawlings. He’s Tom’s brother,” Scott said, introducing him quickly and saving his dignity. “Chas, this is Johnny’s wife - Celeste.”
Celeste moved forward and took his hand politely. She smiled again and answered, “How do you do, Chas? I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Don’t be,” Scott told her caustically. “He just might be the man who shot your husband.”
Her smile faded, but she handled it with more tact than Chas expected. “Oh dear,” she said charmingly. “And he looks like such a nice young man.”
In fact, Chas was pretty sure that she wasn’t much older than he was, but the news that she was married to Madrid took his breath away. How the devil had he found himself a creature as beautiful and classy as she was?
“No more games, Celeste,” Scott said. The tone of his voice had Chas feeling the need to be anywhere but here. Scott was definitely not happy to see her.
She turned back to face Scott, but Chas could still see her eyes. When she spoke there was a coolness in her voice that belied the flash of anger he saw in them.
“Exactly, Scott,” she said quietly. “Where is Johnny? How is he?”
“He won’t be any better for knowing you’ve come all this way,” Scott answered hotly.
“That’s for Johnny to decide,” she said coolly. “And don’t avoid the question. Is he alright?”
For the first time, Scott did look uncomfortable. “Well…he’s running a fever…”
“And when did that start? Or has he been badly hurt the whole time?” she snapped back at him.
“He didn’t want you to be worried, Celeste,” Murdoch told her soothingly. “None of us did.”
Celeste drew in her breath and glared at them. “Oh, I’m sure none of you wanted me to worry. And, of course, I wouldn’t have, would I? Was I supposed to sit at home and relax, knowing that he’s hurt – maybe dying? Did you even send word when you got here, like you promised you would, Murdoch?”
“We’ve been pretty busy all day…”
“Of course. Not to mention that you don’t like lying,” she said, accusingly. “Though you managed to lie to me about what was in that wire that Scott sent.”
“I didn’t lie to you. I told you what was in the wire.”
“You told me PART of what was in the wire,” she corrected. “Or am I wrong in believing that Scott asked you to bring help?”
Murdoch couldn’t answer her, so she turned her attention back to Scott. “And you lied in that wire anyway. You said he was fine, but he wasn’t, was he?”
“I promised Johnny that I wouldn’t worry you,” Scott answered defensively. “It was all he was thinking of – reassuring you and Maddie. But I should have known you’d pull something like this.”
“And just what would you have done if you were in the same position?”
“What do you mean?” Scott asked her.
“Zut, Scott! Are you going to stand there and tell me that you would have sat at home waiting for news if I had sent that wire? No, you would have wanted to be with him. Did it never occur to either of you that I might want to be at my husband’s side if he’s hurt?” She straightened her back and added, with heart-breaking emotion, “When were you going to contact me? When he was dead and it was too late? I can just see it – a nice polite message –‘Sorry, Celeste, we didn’t want to worry you.’”
Neither of them answered, so she continued. “I suppose it’s too late to send one now. There’s still Teresa and Maddie back home wondering how he is.”
“It’s too late today. We’ll send one first thing in the morning,” Murdoch told her.
“I’ll send it. I promised Maddie that I’d be honest with her and send news every day.”
Chas could see unshed tears glistening in her eyes and he hoped that the others could too. Personally, he would have liked to take her quietly to one side, sit her down and tell her that Johnny would be fine now that she was here.
Murdoch relented. “You’re right, Celeste. You had a right to know,” he said at last. “But you have to understand –it might have been dangerous for you to be here.”
“More so than Miss Connolly?”
Scott paled at the mention of Sarah’s name. “As it happens, Sarah was hurt.”
Chas saw the lady looking curiously at Scott. Her anger seemed to have subsided instantly. “Oh no, I’m so sorry, Scott,” she said, with real sympathy in her tone. “Is she alright?”
“The doctor says she will be.”
“Then perhaps it’s just as well that I’m here.”
“I can help look after her. I’m sure she’d appreciate having another woman here.”
“The doctor and I can look after Sarah,” Scott told her firmly.
Celeste smiled. “Then I’d like to see Johnny,” she said quietly. “Where is he?”
Scott opened the door for her and Celeste looked inside. Johnny lay in the bed, swathed in bandages and propped up a little with pillows. His face glowed red hot with fever and his head was turned to one side, his hair hanging damp and limp around his face.
He was sleeping peacefully, but she sighed.
She stepped into the room and finally noticed the man sitting by the bed. He saw her too, and got to his feet slowly. He was about Murdoch’s age, but nothing like his stature. He was tall and thin and his clothes were crumpled and disheveled. His hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in days and he needed a shave badly.
He looked tired to death.
“Will, this is Johnny’s wife, Celeste,” Scott said quietly. “Celeste, this is Dr. Will Barnes.”
“Well, this is a pleasure,” he answered. “But I’m a little surprised to see you here.”
Celeste chose to ignore his last remark, though she didn’t take it unkindly. Her only concern now was for Johnny and she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“How is he, Doctor Barnes?” she asked instead.
“If we can get that fever to break I’d be happy. I changed the bandages again a little while ago and I think the shoulder looks a little better.” He stepped back from the chair. “Why don’t you sit here with him?”
“Thank you,” she whispered and walked over to take the seat he offered. She put her hand to his forehead and was shocked by the heat of it. “Has he been like this for long?”
“The fever had started by the time Scott got him here, but it wasn’t this bad. I was more concerned at that stage about how much blood he had lost. His leg wound was my first priority then,” the doctor told her. “But that shoulder wound is infected. That’s what’s causing the fever.”
“He’s been shot twice then?” she asked anxiously.
“Yes, but the leg wound is okay, Mrs. Lancer. Once we got the bleeding under control, it was of little concern. There’s no infection there, at this stage.”
“Please call me Celeste,” she told him, tearing her attention away from Johnny to look up at him. “Thank you for doing so much for him. You look so tired. Would you mind if I sit with him while you get some rest? You look ready to drop.”
“Actually, I was sitting with Sarah until Murdoch went outside. He was sitting with Johnny, but you’re welcome to stay right there and I’ll go back to her.”
“No, get some sleep,” Scott told him. “I’ll sit with Sarah for a while.”
Will looked relieved. “Alright, that will be good,” the man answered. “To be honest, I’m bushed. But I’ll have to change her bandages when I wake up and I’m not sure…”
“I can help you, Doctor,” Celeste suggested. “Sarah might be more comfortable with me there.”
“Thank you, Celeste,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “Now, both of you, if there is any change in Johnny or Sarah, call me.”
“Naturally, Doctor,” Celeste replied and then looked towards Scott. “Don’t worry, I’ll call you too,” she assured him.
“Thanks, Celeste. Are you sure you’re not too tired?” Scott asked solicitously.
She smiled at him. “No, I’d rather be here than anywhere at the moment. You go and see how Sarah is.”
Both men left the room then. She looked back at Johnny and gently pushed his hair away from his eyes. It wasn’t as if she’d never seen him like this before, but, more than anything, she wanted him to wake and smile at her, then fold her in his strong arms and kiss her.
Instead, left alone with her husband, Celeste blinked away the tears that had sprung to her eyes and went right to work. She wrung the water from the soft cloth in the basin next to the bed and began wiping his face.
He didn’t react at all, but she kept at it with one hand and reached over to take his hand in her other. She squeezed gently and whispered, “I’m here now, cheri. I love you.”
Scott found Sarah wide awake when he got to her room. She looked over as the door opened and smiled brightly when she saw that it was him.
“Come in, Scott. I’m feeling terribly lonely in here.”
She was leaning back on two pillows and her arm was in a sling now to keep the weight of her arm off her injured shoulder. Her smile lightened his mood.
“How long have you been awake?”
“Oh, not long.” She frowned. “I thought I heard horses outside and people arguing.”
Scott pulled the chair that Will had left by the bed closer to her. She had some color back now, though her cheeks still didn’t have the blush to them that he liked to see.
“The men came back from looking for our third attacker. They didn’t find him, or any sign of him.” He shifted in the chair uncomfortably. “Then Celeste turned up.”
“Johnny’s wife?” she cried excitedly.
“That’s right,” he said. There was a note of annoyance in his voice that she didn’t miss.
“And you’re not happy about it?”
He shook his head. “She should have stayed home, not traipsed all the way up here in her condition. But I should have expected it of her. She’s as stubborn as hell.”
Sarah smiled at him. “Then she’s probably a good match for him. But I’m glad she’s here. I can’t wait to meet her.”
“She’s sitting with Johnny at the moment.”
“That’s good. It might help and I’m sure Johnny will be pleased to have her here,” she told him happily.
Scott thought that Johnny was likely to be less pleased with Celeste than Sarah thought, but he said nothing about it.
“And it leaves you free to visit me,” Sarah continued cheerfully. “Did you get any sleep? You look a little brighter.”
“Yes, I slept over in the bunkhouse for a few hours. We’ve sent Will over there now. He’s exhausted.”
“Poor Will. I haven’t made it easier, have I?” She smiled broadly at him. “I’ll have to learn to duck quicker. Now, tell me what’s been happening, Scott. How is Johnny?”
“He still has a high fever. He’s sleeping most of the time. Will cleaned the wound out this morning and he thinks that might help.”
“I hope so.”
“It looks like the shooting is all over and Murdoch got here this morning. He has some of our men with him. They’ll stay till we’re sure it’s safe.” He smiled at her. “Everything’s under control, so there’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Famous last words, Scott Lancer,” she answered with a smile. “Are you looking after that arm of yours?”
“It’s fine. Doesn’t hurt a bit.”
She shook her head, disbelieving. “Will has enough patients. He doesn’t need you as well. You make sure you get someone to change that bandage. I don’t want it getting infected.”
He sighed reluctantly. “Alright, you win. I’ll get Celeste to do it for me later. Happy?” He poured some water into the glass and passed it to her. “My turn to nag you now. Drink up, Sarah.”
She drank most of it before handing the glass back to him. “Thank you.”
“Is there anything you need?”
“Well, a book maybe. It’s boring in here alone.” She smiled. “It would be even better if you’d stay and read for me.”
“I’ll find something,” he answered with a smile. “You must be hungry, too. I seem to recall you had some broth made up for Johnny. I could warm some up for you."
Sarah screwed her nose up in distaste. “No, please don’t,” she begged him and then grinned. “But something more substantial would be nice.”
Scott laughed at her. “So, you can dish it out, but you can’t take it? No, I’ll have to wait for Will to okay anything ‘more substantial’. I’ll bring in some of the broth for you.”
He stood up and turned to leave, but she reached out and took his good arm to stop him. “Are you sure everything is under control out there, Scott?” she asked anxiously.
Scott sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand. He cupped her cheek in his other hand and said gently, “I’m sure. You just worry about getting yourself well.”
He leaned forward and softly pressed his lips to her forehead, but when he pulled back, he was sure he saw an invitation in her eyes. He kissed her lips lightly and left.
Scott found Celeste still sitting with Johnny when he came back a few hours later. It looked like she hadn’t left him long enough to even wash up.
“I thought you might need a break,” he said when she looked over at him.
“Thank you, but I’m just fine.”
He walked over behind her and put his hand gently on her shoulder. “Any change?”
She shook her head. “No,” she whispered, a small catch in her voice. She glanced up and asked, “What about Sarah? How is she?”
“She’s cheerful enough, but she’s not fooling me. She’s in a lot of pain,” he said sadly.
Celeste must have heard something in his tone and put her hand on his sympathetically. “And you’re blaming yourself, aren’t you? Well, don’t. I’m sure she doesn’t.”
“Thanks. She’s resting for now.” He looked down at her and added, “And I think you should get some sleep soon. I know you don’t want to leave Johnny, but you’ve had a long day today and you really need to take care of yourself.”
She smiled. “I know. I won’t overdo it.”
“Good. Are you hungry? Chas is out there cooking.” Scott grinned. “Hope he doesn’t throw in some rat poison.”
“Just what is his story? Did he really shoot Johnny?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he even knows. He was certainly with them, but, on the other hand, his warning last night probably saved my life and Johnny’s too.”
“Well, that certainly puts him back in my good books.”
“Yeah, he’s Tom’s kid brother and he hadn’t seen him for years until yesterday. We caught him sneaking around outside trying to get to Johnny, but… I don’t know…there’s something about him. I mean – I know he talks like he’s as hard as nails...”
“But you don’t believe it?”
“That’s what I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. Then he grinned again. “Maybe it’s from being around Johnny for so long.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed quietly. “But be careful where you put your trust. Every angry young man with a gun is not going to be another Johnny.”
As if on cue, Johnny sighed and tried to roll over in the bed.
Celeste turned back to him quickly, while Scott ran around to the other side of the bed. “Try to keep him from rolling over, Celeste. He has to keep that leg still.”
She sat on the edge of the bed and put her hand on his face, whispering “Johnny, it’s Celeste. You must lay still.”
Scott took his brother’s shoulders and held him down, careful not to get close to the wound.
Johnny moaned softly and tried again to move. He turned his head towards Celeste’s voice and he frowned in his sleep.
Scott watched Celeste try to soothe him, brushing her hand across his forehead and whispering to him. Then she looked over at him and said excitedly, “He’s sweating, Scott. I think the fever is breaking.”
Johnny sighed heavily and rolled his head back towards the soft voice that he seemed to have recognized.
Celeste smiled with relief as she watched him raise his eyelids and blink slowly.
Once revealed, his sapphire blue eyes were glassy and he frowned as he tried to focus them on her, but they sent the same thrill through her that they always did.
She took a deep breath. “Hello, cheri,” she said gently.
The frown deepened when he heard her. “Celeste?”
“Yes, Johnny. It’s me - Celeste.” She twisted the water from the soft wet cloth in the basin and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “You must lay still, cheri.”
“Scott, where’s Scott?”
“He’ll be right back. He’s just gone to get Dr. Barnes.”
He looked confused and Celeste suspected that her own presence might be the reason for it.
“Where am I?” he asked, looking vaguely around him. “Not Lancer…”
She took his hand and tried to set his mind at rest. “You’re at Sarah’s, Johnny. You’ve been sick, but you’re going to be just fine now.”
“I’m here with you, darling. At Sarah’s ranch.”
She heard someone come into the room and looked up to find Murdoch standing beside her.
“Scott said the fever has broken.”
“Murdoch?” Johnny whispered.
“I’m here son,” Murdoch answered quickly, taking his place in the chair that Celeste had left. “Just take it easy, Johnny. Everything’s okay.”
Johnny tried again to move and it drew a gasp of pain from him.
“Lay still, Johnny,” Celeste said again, tightening her grip on his hand reassuringly. “Please.”
He looked at her and blinked again. “You’re really here,” he said hoarsely.
“Yes, I’m really here, cheri.” She looked to Murdoch who seemed to have guessed what she was going to ask for. He was already pouring a glass of water and passed it to her.
She stood up and slipped her arm carefully behind Johnny’s head and shoulders, raising him just enough to allow him to drink from the glass. When he’d finished, she passed the empty glass back to Murdoch and gently lowered Johnny back onto the pillows.
Leaning over him, she pressed her lips softly to his forehead and whispered, “I love you, Johnny.”
He caught his breath and looked into her eyes. “I love you, too, querida,” he said softly. “But you weren’t supposed to be here.”
His head was obviously clearing and Celeste knew that he’d soon be angry with her for coming, if he wasn’t already.
“I know, love, but let’s talk about it later – when you have a little more strength.” She smiled winningly at him. “If we must fight, we should do it well.”
Johnny didn’t get a chance to answer her. Scott came back into the room with Will Barnes right behind him. Will looked even more rumpled than usual, having just been woken from his much needed sleep.
Murdoch and Celeste both got out of his way so he could examine Johnny properly.
“So, you’re awake, John,” the doctor said as he sat down on the bed. “That’s good to see. Now let’s have a look at you.”
Celeste waited with Scott and Murdoch. She stood with her hands clasped tightly in front of her, nervously listening as Johnny quietly answered what questions the doctor asked him.
It took only a few minutes for Will to finish. He folded his stethoscope and put it back into his bag.
“You’re doing just fine, Johnny,” he said at last. He grinned when he saw his patient’s expression. “Doesn’t feel much like it, does it?”
“Well, some laudanum will take some of the edge off it for you.”
“Don’t need it,” Johnny protested stubbornly.
“Let me be the judge of that,” Barnes argued, but he could see that Johnny was set to protest again.
“No arguments, Johnny,” Murdoch told him firmly.
“That’s right, John. The subject is not open for debate. You’ve lost a lot of blood and that fever has taken a lot out of you. I want you to be able to get some rest – get some strength back. Understood?”
For a moment, there was a willful look on Johnny’s face that made Will think that he was going to continue to resist the idea of the laudanum, but Johnny nodded his head reluctantly.
“Good,” Barnes said. “Now, the fever’s broken alright. In fact, it’s almost gone. I’m going to leave you to rest.” He turned around to Celeste. “Will you come with me, Celeste?” he suggested, remembering that Johnny didn’t yet know about Sarah’s injury. It was better left that way for a little while yet.
“Of course,” she answered quietly.
He stood up and walked over to Murdoch, Scott and Celeste and lowered his voice a little, so that Johnny couldn’t hear. “He’s going to be fine, but I don’t want him left alone just yet. Celeste, I’ll get you to help me with Sarah and then I want you to get some rest, too. You’ve had a long day.” He sighed wearily. “I’ll head back to town when I’ve seen Sarah. If there’s any change in either of them, send for me there, otherwise I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon to check on them.”
Celeste took Scott’s place on the chair by the bed next morning and set the bowl of broth on the bedside table.
“There’s some breakfast ready for you in the kitchen, Scott,” she told him as he left the room and then turned her attention back to Johnny. He was awake and staring at her.
“Good morning, cheri,” she said with a smile. “Hungry?”
Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. “What are you doing here, Celeste?”
“John, I’m where I should be – with you. How could I not come?”
“I didn’t want you being worried. I was afraid you’d do this.”
“I know you didn’t want me to worry, but you might as well ask me not to breathe. I had to come.”
“I was thinking of the baby, too,” he answered coolly.
“Oh, and you think I didn’t? Of course, I did,” she told him firmly. “I’ve had nothing but good reports from Dr. Sam. He says I’m as healthy as a horse – and so is the baby.”
“You shouldn’t have risked it,” he said stubbornly, fire flashing in his eyes. “You had no idea what you could have been walking into.”
“I suppose not,” she agreed reluctantly. “But I had Jelly with me, and I knew that Murdoch was ahead of us with some of the men. I thought it would be safe enough.”
“I don’t think you thought about it at all,” he accused her angrily. “I can’t believe you talked Jelly into bringing you.”
Celeste drew a deep breath. Her first instinct was to snap at him, but she was well aware that this wasn’t the time to get into a real argument with him. A string of French epithets were at the tip of her tongue, but she held them back stubbornly.
“He didn’t want me to come, but I convinced him that nothing was going to stop me. That’s when he made up his mind to bring me. He thought someone should.”
Johnny glared at her. “You convinced him, did you?” he asked suspiciously. “How did you convince him?”
She sighed heavily. “If you must know, I pulled a gun on him and told him I’d shoot him if he didn’t get out of my way.”
“Madre de dios! I didn’t teach you how to handle a gun so you could threaten your friends!”
“Don’t get yourself worked up, John,” she told him firmly. “You’re not strong enough yet.” She took his hand in hers and silently held it tightly. “Listen, I’m not looking for a fight,” she told him at last. “I know you worry about me and the baby – and I understand why - but I’m not Luisa, Johnny. And I’m not Catherine Lancer. Sam says I’m fine - and so is he. There’s no reason to think anything will go wrong.”
He lifted his good arm and pressed his hand gently to her face, running his fingers through her hair and looking into her china blue eyes. “I never meant for you to think that way, querida. I’m sorry.”
Tears stung her eyes and she bit her lip to stop them from flowing.
“I know that, Johnny,” she said, half-smiling. “That’s why I’ve let you get away with it for so long. But he’s really okay. He’s been kicking up a storm to let me know,” She put his hand on the little bulge that held their unborn child. “Feel him?”
The baby kicked - not once, but twice – and Johnny smiled. “He’s got quite a kick, alright,” he said. “But this ain’t gettin’ you outa trouble.”
“What if I was to tell you I’m sorry?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
She laughed. “No, I’m not sorry. You needed me and I came. That’s all there is to it.” She tilted her head and smiled again. “Are you really sorry that I’m here?”
“Nope, I guess I’m not.” He looked into her eyes. “Come over here.”
Celeste sat on the edge of the bed.
“Closer,” he whispered.
She leaned forward and smiled. “Yes, cheri?”
He put his hand behind her head and pulled her down to kiss her.
Scott knocked and stepped into Sarah’s room with a smile and a cheerful “Good morning.” He held up the book in his hand. “I brought you something to read.”
“Oh, thank you, Scott. I’ve been so bored. What did you bring?” she answered happily.
“’Vanity Fair’,” he told her, pulling the chair over beside the bed and sitting down. “I hope you like Thackeray.”
“Yes, it’s one of my favorites, though I’m surprised you chose it.”
“Well, I admit I prefer his ‘Henry Esmond’, but I thought you’d like this one.” He smiled again. “Was I right?”
She laughed. “I haven’t read ‘Henry Esmond’, so I can’t say for sure.”
“I have a copy at home. I’ll send it to you if you like.”
She pulled herself up in the bed and sighed, pulling the wrap closer around her shoulders. “Thank you, Scott,” she said, a little sadly. The thought of him leaving wasn’t a pleasant one. “Is it as cynical as Vanity Fair?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d say he was more satirical than cynical,” Scott suggested. “Actually, he was a cheerful man. I met him a long time ago.”
“You met him?”
“He came to dine with my Grandfather when I was just a boy. He was on a lecture tour,” Scott explained. “I remember him being very kind – rather a sweet man.”
“Did you often meet people like Thackeray?” she asked, impressed.
Scott shrugged casually. “Occasionally. Mostly my grandfather brought home business acquaintances to dine.” He grinned. “Mr. Thackeray was more the exception than the rule.”
“It must have been exciting though.”
Scott laughed. “It might have been, if I’d known then who he was.” He turned thoughtful. “I went to a lot of lectures when I was at college though – Holmes, Lowell, Emerson. Lowell was a professor at Harvard when I was there. He’s a fascinating man. It was one of the advantages of living in Boston – all that literary genius close to hand.”
“Who was your favorite?”
“Emerson - without doubt. I heard him at the Concord Lyceum. The man was tall and dignified – he even looked intelligent.”
“I envy you. Don’t you miss it?”
“Not usually,” he told her with a smile. “Murdoch has an extensive book collection at Lancer, and I keep up on anything new. I like it right where I am.” He opened the book he still had in his hand. “Do you want me to leave it for you to read, or would you like me to read for you?”
“Would you read for me for a while? You don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” he assured her with a warm smile. He stretched his legs out and made himself comfortable. “Let me know when you get tired.”
“Bed rest, I’m afraid, Johnny,” Barnes told him candidly. “That’s what you need more than anything now.”
He had arrived to find Johnny awake and looking much better than when he had left him last night. It had been good to see.
“How long?” Johnny asked dejectedly.
“Until those stitches in your leg heal, maybe longer. You have to keep the weight off it for at least another week, then we’ll see about letting you up for a while.”
“Great,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“We’ll see that he stays put,” Celeste assured the doctor from behind him. She smiled at the glare she got from Johnny.
Will finished wrapping the clean bandage around Johnny’s shoulder. “The shoulder’s looking a lot better, but don’t go trying to use it just yet.”
“You can count on it,” Johnny assured him.
Will Barnes grinned. He gently lifted Johnny’s arm and slipped a sling under it and tied it off. “Keep that on for a while. It’ll take the weight off the shoulder wound.”
Johnny sighed. “If I have to stay here, Will, what about some decent food?”
The doctor laughed. “Five minutes ago, you admitted to light-headedness and nausea, Johnny. I don’t think solid food is a good idea just yet.” He helped Johnny to lay back against the pillows. “Now, I’m going to steal this pretty wife of yours away for a while. You get some rest.”
He stood up and headed for the door.
“I’ll be right with you, Will,” she told him and moved over to sit on the edge of the bed. She looked at Johnny with dismay. The little bit of color that he had gotten back through the day had gone.
He was pale and breathing heavily after the ordeal of having the bandages changed. She ran her hand across his forehead and through his hair and found that he was sweating from the strain. She wiped it away with the damp cloth still in the basin beside the bed and whispered, “I’ll send Scott in to stay with you.”
“I’m fine,” he answered weakly.
She smiled at him. “I know, but try to get some sleep anyway.”
Leaning forward to kiss his forehead, she stood up and followed the doctor to Sarah’s room.
Scott was there, talking quietly with her. “I’ll go sit with Johnny,” he said when she came in. “How is he?”
“He’s doing well, Scott,” Barnes answered. “The fever is nearly gone, but changing those bandages took a lot out of him. Try to keep him quiet. He’ll probably drop off to sleep and that’s what he needs more than anything right now.”
Scott nodded and left to join his brother, while Celeste stayed and helped the doctor to check Sarah’s wound and bandage it again. Like Johnny, Sarah was pale and tired when he was finished. She leaned back heavily on the pillows behind her as he was about to take his leave.
Sarah stopped him as he went to the doorway. “Before you go, Will, can you look at Scott’s arm? I’m worried that he’s not looking after it like he should be.”
“He’s next on my list, Sarah. You rest up and let me worry about Scott. I’ll be back tomorrow to see both you and Johnny, but if you feel up to it, you can get up for a while in the morning. Okay?”
She nodded and closed her eyes wearily.
Dr. Barnes left to see Scott, but Celeste stayed with Sarah.
“Is there anything you need, Sarah?” she asked softly. “Anything I can do for you?”
Sarah opened her eyes and looked at Celeste. “Thank you, but no.” She shook her head. “I must look a fright.”
“Don’t be silly,” Celeste said with a smile and sat down in the chair by the bed. She spied the book on the floor and picked it up and put it on the bedside table.
“Thanks. Scott was reading to me earlier.” She smiled. “Actually, he didn’t get very far. We ended up discussing Thoreau and Emerson.”
“Really? Thoreau and Emerson?” Celeste asked. “If you know anything about either of them, you’re better than I am.”
“I love books. It’s nice to have someone to talk to about them.”
Celeste laughed, but she found Sarah’s statement very interesting. It seemed that she had something in common with Scott. “I’m afraid my mother disapproved of ladies reading too much. It’s her belief that men are put off by young ladies who know more than they do.” She smiled and added, “And she thinks reading is bad for the eyes.”
“I thought so,” Celeste agreed hesitantly. She didn’t like talking about her mother. “My mother and I didn’t agree about a number of things,” she added cryptically and changed the subject. “I used to get Scott to sneak books out of his house for me.”
Sarah smiled. “Have you known him long?”
“Most of my life,” Celeste explained. “We were neighbors and our families were business associates.”
“But you married Johnny.”
Celeste smiled. “Well, I fell in love with Johnny,” she told her frankly. “You see, unlike every other young woman in Boston, and aside from a brief schoolgirl crush when I was about thirteen years old, I have never felt that way about Scott.” She laughed at the idea. “He still thinks of me as an annoying little girl, I’m afraid.”
“I can’t believe that. Look at you, you’re so – oh, I don’t know – sophisticated.”
Celeste laughed out loud. “Good heavens, no,” she finally managed to gasp. “I’m sorry, I keep thinking what Scott and Johnny would say to that. Did Scott tell you that I climbed out of my bedroom window and traipsed across the country to run to him for help?”
She sobered a little, and a sparkle came into her eyes. “But I met Johnny, so it was worth it.”
“I have to confess I was surprised when Scott wrote me that Johnny was getting married.”
Celeste was fascinated. “You’ve been keeping in touch then?”
“Now and then.” Sarah told her absently. Her thoughts seemed to be taking a different turn and she frowned. “I suppose he must have been popular with the girls in Boston?”
Celeste was convinced that her suspicions were confirmed by that one question and she sighed happily. “Why do you think so?” she asked provocatively.
The girl closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them and answered dreamily. “Why wouldn’t he be? He’s handsome and educated and…”
She stopped, but Celeste continued for her. “And charming?”
Sarah blushed. “Yes.”
Celeste nodded and smiled. “Yes, he was popular with the ladies – very popular. Debonair – that’s how they used to describe him. He was even engaged at one time, but I never thought she was right for him.”
A quiet “Oh,” was all the reply Celeste received. She looked at the pretty young woman in front of her and wondered if Scott felt the same way as she apparently did.
“Yes, there were hearts broken all over Boston when he left,” Celeste told her cheekily and watched the dismayed expression on the girl’s face. A mischievous twinkle lit Celeste’s eyes. “But I don’t ever remember hearing that any of them had been in correspondence with him.”
She looked surprised and Celeste decided it was time to change the subject.
“You know, Sarah, I imagine it must be difficult to manage even simple things with one arm tied up like that.” She stood up and went to the dresser. Picking up the hairbrush she found there, she went back and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Why don’t I brush your hair for you?” She smiled happily at Sarah. “We could do something nice with it. It will make you feel so much better.”
Celeste’s sudden animation was infectious. Sarah smiled happily.
“Thank you Celeste. You’re right. I can’t do a thing for myself like this.”
“And it’s awkward asking the men for help, I imagine.” She thought for a minute. “You know, I have an idea,” Celeste said happily. “I’ll come in first thing in the morning and brush your hair for you again then – and I’ll help you into a fresh nightgown, too, if you feel up to it.” She put her finger to her chin and thought for a minute. “And do you have another shawl as well?”
“Good, a change will have you feeling more the thing.” She smiled conspiratorially. “And perhaps, just a hint of perfume…”
Scott came out of Johnny’s room to see Will Barnes to the door and heard laughter and giggling coming from Sarah’s room. His first thought was that Celeste was getting Sarah too excited when she should have been resting and he scowled angrily, but then he realized that Sarah was laughing as well.
The doctor heard it too and he smiled.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” he remarked, as he picked up his hat and prepared to leave. “I was hoping they’d hit it off. A woman needs another woman around when she’s bedridden. Modesty gets in the way of us men being of help sometimes.”
“I suppose so,” Scott admitted reluctantly.
He turned to Scott and got serious. “Now, your arm is looking good, but try not to use it too much. One of the stitches is already showing signs of pulling. Rest it a little.”
“Sure, Will. I’ll look after it.”
“Good, see that you do. I also want you to make sure that Celeste gets plenty of rest as well.” He slipped the hat on and headed for the door. “I’ll be back same time tomorrow, but Sarah is doing just fine and I think you’ll find that Johnny will improve quickly now.”
The two of them stepped out into the afternoon sunshine and Scott walked with him to his horse. He put his hand on Will’s shoulder.
“Will, I really can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done.”
“Nonsense, Scott. You know I think the world of you boys. I owe both of you a lot myself. And Sarah is special to all of us.”
“Yes, of course she is, but thanks anyway,” Scott told him sincerely.
“When Murdoch wakes up, have him take over from Celeste and you get some sleep. You can take over from him later in the night. That way I get to keep all of you healthy.” He finished with a grin.
“Will, do you think Celeste is up to all of this?”
Barnes looked surprised by the question. “I don’t see why not. Has she had any problems with the baby before now?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Well, as long as she doesn’t overdo it, I don’t see any problem. She looks perfectly fine.” He tied his bag to the pommel of his saddle and turned back to Scott. “I can check her over if she wants me to, but I don’t think it’s necessary.”
“Okay, thanks again, Will.”
“No problem, Scott,” he answered, mounting his horse. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
He turned and left, leaving Scott to go back into the house. He felt better about things now.
At least, he thought he did. He looked around the yard. It would be dusk soon and everything was getting back to normal. The men were going about their usual routine, even though the men that Murdoch had brought with him keeping an eye on things. There was, after all, still one attacker unaccounted for.
But there had been nothing to lead them to believe he’d be back. In fact, everything pointed to him having taken off while he could.
So why did he have this feeling? Why was there that nagging sensation of being watched tormenting him?
Imagination – that was what he told himself it was. His imagination was running away with him and creating something out of nothing. It was only that it was unfinished.
He turned and went back into the house, casting off the odd sensation as nonsense.
Celeste woke to the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
She blinked and sighed, shaking off the remnants of the first decent night’s sleep she’d had in days, even if it was on a couch.
Chas Rawlings had given the couch up to her and she finally realized that he was the one who was watching her.
“Good morning,” she said as he turned away and started to walk towards the kitchen.
He stopped and turned around to face her and she was certain that he was blushing under that tan.
“Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to wake ya,” he said shyly.
She threw off the blanket and sat up. She’d gone to sleep fully dressed – one didn’t undress to sleep on a couch in a drawing room. Nevertheless, she straightened her clothes and pushed her hair into place as best she could without benefit of a brush or mirror.
“You didn’t wake me.”
“Would you like somethin’ to eat, ma’am? Or some coffee?”
“What I’d like is for you to stop calling me ‘ma’am’. Celeste or Mrs. Lancer would be better.”
He looked embarrassed again. “Sure - Miz Lancer. I’ll get you that coffee.”
She stood up and followed him into the kitchen. “Making yourself useful?”
“Interesting,” she said, leaning back against the table and watching him pour coffee for her. “So, did you really try to kill my husband?”
“I…er…well…yeah, I did,” he confessed and then said stubbornly, “but he killed a friend of mine.”
“Johnny doesn’t kill people without reason. It was a gunfight, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but Wes was real good, real fast. I couldn’t believe that Madrid took him without cheatin’ somehow.”
He passed her the cup of coffee. “Thank you,” she said absently, and then continued. “Do you still believe that?”
He shrugged. “Dunno.”
“Well, I know that Johnny wouldn’t ‘cheat’, as you put it. He doesn’t need to.” She smiled enigmatically. “He’s not that kind of man, not to mention that his pride would never allow him to. You’re your friend found out something that Johnny has often told me - there’s always someone faster.”
“Wes was the fastest I ever saw,” the boy answered proudly.
“Perhaps he was. But you’ve never seen Johnny draw, have you? How can you know that he wasn’t just faster? He survived for a long time in a dangerous game.”
The boy shifted uncomfortably. “That’s just it, Miz Lancer. He’s not as young as he used to be. A man’s reactions slow up over the years.”
Celeste laughed at the idea that Johnny was getting old. He couldn’t be more than five years older than the boy in front of her.
“He’s not that old, Chas,” she said, trying to regain a straight face. “Besides, Johnny keeps in practice. He knows that there could always be some fool who thinks like you and your friend.” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “And I can vouch for his reflexes. There’s nothing slow about Johnny.”
He said nothing for a minute and she watched him while she sipped the coffee.
He seemed to be gathering the nerve to say more and finally he did. “How come a lady like you is married to someone like Madrid?”
She smiled. “I’m married to Johnny Lancer. He’s a rancher and he’s handsome, charming and fun. Why shouldn’t I love him?”
“But he’s a gun hawk.”
“He used to be, I know. Part of him still is, but that’s not who he is.” She finished the coffee and put the empty cup down firmly. “Don’t judge him without knowing him, Chas. You might find you’re very wrong.”
Celeste knocked softly and opened the bedroom door just a little. “Can I come in?” she asked Sarah, once she was sure that the girl was awake.
“Yes, please come in, Celeste,” Sarah answered.
“I have some breakfast for you,” Celeste told her as she placed the tray on the table by the bed. “How do you feel this morning?”
“Much better, thank you. I don’t feel light-headed any more and that awful nauseous feeling seems to have finally gone.”
“Oh, that’s good to hear,” Celeste said with a smile. “I thought I’d die from morning sickness a couple of months ago, so I can sympathize.”
Sarah pulled the tray over to her and started on her breakfast, while Celeste pulled the chair back to the bedside and sat down.
“Do you feel up to changing that nightgown?”
“Oh yes, I’m looking forward to it. They’re in the top drawer over there. Do you think you could get one for me?”
“Sure,” Celeste answered and went to the dresser to choose something for her.
When Sarah had finished eating, Celeste helped her to wash and change.
“That feels so much better, Celeste. Thank you,” Sarah said while Celeste went back to the dresser for a hairbrush.
She returned to the bed, sat down and started to brush Sarah’s hair.
“You have beautiful hair, Sarah. I envy you all those lovely waves,” Celeste said with a sigh. “My mother had my governess tie mine in rags every night to try to get it to curl. I hated it - and the curls always fell out next day anyway!”
Sarah giggled. “I can’t picture you with your hair in rags.”
Celeste laughed with her. “I still have nightmares about it,” she joked and then laughed again. “Maybe I should do it now and see what Johnny thinks of it.”
Sarah laughed and then she sobered a little and became thoughtful.
“Celeste,” she said at last. “I was so surprised when Scott wrote that you and Johnny were getting married. You can’t have known him long.”
“Long enough,” Celeste told her with a smile.
“Was it ‘love at first sight’- like in the books?”
“No, not at all. I remember he was kind and charming when we met, but when I was told about his reputation as a gunfighter, I was just awful to him.” She sighed and stopped brushing Sarah’s hair for a minute. “I didn’t want to believe it. Then he strapped on his gun belt and…well…he was different somehow.”
She frowned and then continued. “Have you ever watched a cat stand up and stretch – very casually? Then it walks away – like it doesn’t have a worry in the world - and yet ready for anything?”
Sarah nodded. “I know what you mean. I saw him do it once.”
Celeste shrugged and went back to brushing Sarah’s hair. “Well, he proved me wrong,” she said with a grin. “And I came to understand that Johnny Madrid is as much a part of him as Johnny Lancer is.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Heavens no.” She leaned forward a little and whispered conspiratorially, “Actually, there’s something very attractive about that side of him.”
The two girls laughed together and Celeste asked, “How about you?”
“Yes. Did you fall in love with Scott right off?”
Sarah blushed and tensed awkwardly. “Oh no, Celeste, I’m not in love with Scott.”
“You’re not?” she asked, disbelieving.
Celeste finished brushing and tied a blue ribbon in Sarah’s hair. She left the hair loose and put a simple bow around it to match the pale blue shawl around her shoulders.
Sarah leaned back against the pillows. Celeste liked Sarah’s natural beauty. With her honey-colored hair, flawless skin and big brown eyes, she had no need of cosmetics or other aids to bring out her loveliness.
“Oh no,” Sarah protested. “He’s my best friend, but I’m not silly enough to fall in love with him.”
“Why not?” Celeste asked curiously.
Sarah sighed and looked down at her hands, clasped together tightly. “Because he always leaves.”
Celeste left her shortly after that and went to Johnny’s room. She found him sitting up and looking much brighter. He even had some color back in his face and heaved a sigh of relief.
Since the fiver had broken, two days ago, he’d made slow but steady progress in regaining his strength.
He’d had a set-back yesterday when they had finally had to tell him that Sarah had been hurt. He’d noticed that she hadn’t been in to see him and had demanded to know what was happening. Johnny could always be relied on to notice the small things.
Unfortunately, his reaction had been just what they had expected – and dreaded. He’d blamed himself for it. They’d reassured him that she was coming along fine and that he was in no way responsible, but they watched him settle into a heavy despondence all day.
It had been Will Barnes who had finally been able to assure him that Sarah was well on her way to recovery; that she would be on her feet long before he was, and that she would be furious with him if he let it interfere with his own health.
“Well,” Celeste said cheerfully as she walked into the room. “You look a lot better this morning.”
Scott stood up from his seat by the bed. “I thought you’d have been here sooner than this,” he said, before Johnny could answer.
“I’ve been with Sarah. She needed help with a change of clothes,” she told him and then turned to Johnny. “Have you had some breakfast?”
“If you want to call it that,” Johnny grumbled.
Celeste smiled and sat down on the chair. “I’ll tell Maddie that you’re moaning about your food when I wire her this morning. She’ll know you’re feeling okay then.”
She looked back at Scott as he walked to the door. “Why don’t you look in on Sarah, Scott? I’m sure she’d like to see you.”
“How is she this morning?” he asked.
“She’s fine. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s up and around before long.”
“Good, I’ll look in on her, then,” he said and left them alone together.
Celeste turned her attention back to Johnny. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly. “Did you know they’ve been writing to each other all this time?” she asked him as she sat down again.
“Oh, I just never heard of him keeping up correspondence with his girlfriends.”
“Well, he was pretty sweet on her,” Johnny told her with a grin.
“But he left anyway.”
“Yeah, well, you know Boston. He likes to think things through – take his time makin’ his mind up.”
“He might wait too long. Why don’t you talk to him – give him a little nudge?”
Johnny shook his head and leaned back into the pillows. “Nope. He’d tell me to mind my own business – an’ I wouldn’t blame him at all.”
Celeste sighed and then stood up and moved to the edge of the bed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” She leaned over and smiled happily. “Maybe I just want them to be as happy as we are.”
Mischief sparkled in his eyes. “Speakin’ o’ which,” he said with a smile. “This big ol’ bed’s kinda lonely.”
Celeste laughed. “Oh, you are feeling better.”
Tapping on the bedroom door distracted both of them and Celeste turned to see Murdoch put his head into the room.
“Hello, Murdoch,” she said cheerfully, leaning back into the chair. “Come on in.”
“How is he this morning?” he asked as he came in.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself,” she suggested with a smile.
“So, you’re awake. How do you feel?”
“I’m just fine, Murdoch,” Johnny told him. “I’ll be up an’ around ‘fore ya know it.”
“No, you won’t,” Murdoch corrected him firmly. “You’ll stay right there until the doctor says otherwise. You got that?”
Johnny sighed heavily. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You’d better guess,” Murdoch persisted. “Or do we have to keep an eye on you every minute?”
Johnny looked him in the eye and Celeste saw fire in them. “He’s only joking, Murdoch,” she said quickly, determined to cut off any argument before it got started. “He knows what’s good for him, don’t you John?”
He said nothing, but Celeste turned a pair of pleading china blue eyes on Murdoch, who took the hint. The last thing Murdoch wanted was to get Johnny riled up.
“Things are going nice and smooth out there now,” Murdoch said, changing the subject. “Our men aren’t needed here any more so I’m sending them home in the morning.”
“You oughta go with ‘em,” Johnny told him. “There’s only Cipriano back there to run the place. I know he can do the job, but one of us oughta be there.”
Murdoch smiled, genuinely pleased that Johnny looked and sounded so much more like himself. “You trying to get rid of me?” He looked him over and nodded. “No, you’re right. Now that you’re doing better, I really should be heading home. Scott can stay until you’re able to travel.”
He turned to Celeste. “Perhaps you should go back now, too, Celeste. You’ll have us for an escort if you go now.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, but I’d rather stay on a little longer, Murdoch. I’d like to stay with Johnny and I can be of help around here until Sarah is back on her feet.”
Murdoch looked at his son. “Johnny? What do you think?”
Johnny smiled. “Don’t look at me. You know Celeste. If she plans to stay, I don’t think you’re gonna change her mind.”
Celeste looked innocently in Murdoch’s direction, but he could see that her mind was made up. She was probably right anyway. She was certainly being of help to Sarah and she wasn’t going to be easily shifted from Johnny’s side now that she was here.
He laughed. “Alright, I’ll get Jelly to stay on for a few more days and then bring you home.”
She smiled at her little victory and said, pleasantly, “Thank you, Murdoch.”
Scott came out of Sarah’s room to find Tom waiting for him. He’d found Sarah looking well. In fact, she’d looked better than well and it had taken him by surprise. His first glimpse of her when he opened the door had taken his breath away – she looked so lovely.
They’d talked about the ranch and the improvements she’d made since he was last here and he had read to her for a while. They’d discussed books again, even arguing at times and then, when he realized that she was tiring, he’d found himself leaving her once more with a kiss.
Finding Tom waiting for him in the drawing room brought him back to earth with something of a thud. Tom looked uncomfortable.
“Tom? Is everything okay out there?” he asked anxiously.
“Sure, the boys are back to their normal routine.”
“Any sign of that last bandit?”
“Nothin’. Not a track to be found,” Tom said with disgust. He was quiet for a minute before he continued. “How’s Miss Sarah doin’? The boys are askin’ for news.”
“She’s doing well,” Scott assured him. He smiled. “She’s feeling up to a good argument already.”
Tom laughed. “Then I guess she is feelin’ better. She b’n givin’ you a hard time, has she?”
Scott smiled. “No, just talking books and authors – that kind of thing. It passes the time for her.”
“Yeah, I guess she’d like that,” Tom admitted. “There ain’t usually no one she can talk like that with. I often think it’s kind of a shame – her bein’ an educated lady an’ all.”
“Well, she’ll be back on her feet in a day or so. No doubt she’ll be back running the ranch by then and I don’t suppose she’ll have much time to think about it.”
Tom and Joe had taken over the day to day running of the ranch in her absence and he nodded. “I reckon you’re right. It’s a shame though,” he said. “Still, I’m glad to hear she’s doin’ okay.”
Scott watched him look around the room uneasily and guessed that he was here looking for more than information about Sarah.
“Is there something else you wanted, Tom?”
Tom seemed to find the words at last. “Chas, is he makin’ himself useful?”
“Yes, he’s been helping out with little things around the place. Staying out of the way.”
“I guess we have to figure out what to do about him,” Tom said awkwardly.
“What do you want to do with him?” Scott asked him.
“It’s not my decision, Scott.”
“Why not? He’s your brother.”
Tom shook his head. “It was your brother who he nearly killed though. I can’t forget that.”
Scott sighed, uncomfortably aware of Chas’ presence in the kitchen. “Come outside, Tom. We’ll talk there.”
He led the way out and stopped on the porch to sit down on the step. Tom joined him there.
“Tom, I don’t want to see your brother go to jail.”
“You don’t think he deserves it?” Tom asked him, surprised.
“Maybe he does, but I don’t know that it would serve any good purpose,” Scott told him. He watched his friend closely. “How do you feel about Chas, Tom?”
Tom looked down at his hands. “I don’t know. I can’t forget that he ambushed you and Johnny. He came here to kill him and anyone else who got in his way.”
“No one expects you to forget it – least of all me. But that wasn’t what I asked you.”
“What am I supposed to do? He’s my brother, Scott, but I don’t know him an’ he don’t know me. If he’s gone bad, I don’t know what I can do about it.”
“Do you really think he’s all bad?”
Tom sighed heavily. “Look, I know he’s had it rough. I wish I’d known sooner. Maybe I could have done something about it. But he’s made some lousy choices. There’s no denying it.”
“Maybe those choices are not irrevocable,” Scott suggested. “Maybe we can offer him something else.”
“I dunno, Scott.”
“Don’t you trust him?”
Tom seemed to be looking everywhere but at Scott for a while. Finally, he admitted. “I don’t know him well enough to trust him. What if we let him go an’ he ends up killin’ people – maybe even Johnny?”
Scott thought about it for a minute. Memories flooded his mind and his emotions were in turmoil.
He took a deep breath to try to clear his mind.
“Tom, you know about Johnny and me. I didn’t even know I had a brother until I met him a few years ago. He was a grown man with a reputation as a gun hawk. So, I think I know what you’re dealing with.”
“Yeah, but you two get along. Chas an’ me just don’t hit it off.”
Scott laughed. “It didn’t happen overnight. Actually, within twenty-four hours we were throwing fists at each other.”
Tom was surprised. “Then how did you handle it?”
“The only way I could. I took Johnny at face value,” Scott told him. “I got to know him and he got to know me and we built a relationship out of it.” He stopped and looked across at Tom. “But it takes time.”
“You sayin’ I should give him a chance?”
“I can’t tell you to do that, Tom. It’s something you have to decide for yourself.”
Tom nodded slowly and thought for a while. “I’d kinda like to hear what Johnny thinks first. It’s only fair. He’s the one he nearly killed.”
Scott could see his reasoning and he agreed. “Alright, I’ll tell him you want to talk to him.”
Far off in the distance - unseen and unsuspected - behind a grassy rise that had once hidden three young men as they watched and considered the best way to attack the ranch and kill Johnny Madrid, one of them was watching again.
He’d been there for some time and he’d stay there for as long as it took. He saw the men walk out of the house and sit down on the porch. He watched them sit there talking and eventually stand up and go inside.
Scott knocked on the bedroom door while Tom stood quietly behind him. Tom hung back as Scott opened the door a little and looked in.
“Hi,” Scott said cheerfully. “How are you feeling, brother?”
Tom couldn’t see Johnny, but he heard the answer. “I’m okay. Come on in.”
“Actually, I have someone with me who’d like to talk to you. You feeling up to it?”
“Sure, who is it?”
Scott turned back and grabbed Tom by the arm. “Tom.”
Rawlings walked into the room quietly and feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable.
He found Johnny sitting up in the bed, a bandage wrapped around his shoulder and chest. He was still pale, but he looked a whole lot better than the last time he had seen him. Celeste sat quietly by his side and smiled.
Johnny’s eyes gave away his tiredness, but his smile was a welcome sight.
“Howdy, Tom,” he said brightly.
“Johnny, it’s good to see ya. You look pretty good considerin’ what you’ve b’n through.”
“I’m feelin’ fine, Tom – just gettin’ bored sittin’ here in this damned bed.”
Celeste stood up and went over to stand beside Scott. Johnny sat silently regarding his visitor for a while, but Tom couldn’t find the right words to start with.
“So, Tom, you gonna stand way over there, with nothin’ to say?” Johnny finally asked him.
“Don’t know where to start, Johnny,” he answered uncomfortably.
“Well, start by comin’ over here an’ sittin’ down. You look awful silly just standin’ in the door way.”
Tom grinned, feeling more at ease. He glanced over at Celeste and Scott, almost for approval, and then walked over and pulled the chair back to sit down on it. “How are ya feelin’, Johnny – really?”
Johnny put his head back and considered his answer. “Hurts like hell,” he told him frankly, lifting his head and turning to meet his eyes. “But I’ve had worse, Tom.”
“You know ‘bout Chas, don’t you?”
“Your brother?” Johnny asked and when Tom nodded silently, he continued. “Yeah, I know about him. Scott told me you caught him out behind the house the other night.”
Tom lowered his head in embarrassment and nodded slowly. “I want to talk to ya about him,” he finally said, without looking at him.
“Shoot,” Johnny answered with a smile.
“That ain’t funny, Johnny. You know what he did. He was one of ‘em.”
“I know,” Johnny answered. “So what now? What’re ya gonna do with him?”
Tom sighed. “That’s up to you.”
Johnny glared at him. “Oh no, it ain’t! You’re not throwin’ that at me.”
“Johnny, he tried to kill you an’ Scott. You have to have some say in what happens to him.”
Celeste made a move to go over to Johnny, but Scott stopped her and shook his head. The air had to be cleared.
“It ain’t got nothin’ to do with me,” Johnny told him determinedly. “I don’t care what you do with him.”
Tom shook his head angrily. “Maybe a stretch in prison would sort him out,” he answered, but his heart wasn’t in the answer.
“He’s your brother. You really wanta see that happen to him?”
He thought about it but finally shook his head. “Nope, I don’t guess I do,” he finally confessed. “But what I want ain’t all there is here. He has to account for what he’s done.”
“You haven’t told Johnny everything, Tom,” Scott said from behind him. He looked over at Johnny. “He warned us the other night. Because of it, I caught one of them climbing through that window over there. I had him cold, but Chas told Tom he carried a knife and was real good with it.”
“And?” Johnny asked, realizing that there was more to the story.
“Tom shot him just as he pulled the knife on me,” Scott finished.
Johnny scowled at Tom. “That’s kind of a lot to leave out, Tom.”
“He seems to think that you couldn’t have killed his friend honestly,” Celeste told Johnny.
Johnny grinned. “Too old, huh?”
She laughed lightly. “And too slow.”
“Great,” Johnny said ironically. “Where is this kid now?”
“In the kitchen, I think,” Scott told him.
“Just hangin’ around out there? Sounds like a real dangerous type,” Johnny answered. “I think I wanta meet this desperado.”
Scott looked at Tom and shrugged his shoulders. “Alright, I’ll go get him.”
He turned to leave, but Johnny stopped him. “No, I mean alone. I wanta talk to him.”
Tom sat bolt upright. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Johnny.”
Johnny turned and faced him. “Don’t you trust him?”
“Not with you, we don’t,” Scott told him instead. “Remember why he came here in the first place, Johnny?”
But Johnny’s mind was made up. “I can look out for myself. Just go get him.”
“No, Johnny,” Scott told him firmly. “You’re not talking to him on your own. I’ll stick around with you.”
“Won’t work, Scott. I need to talk to him alone.”
Johnny looked him straight in the eye and Scott knew he was digging his heels in.
“Scott, I’m not a fool. I know what I’m doin’.”
“You might think you do,” Scott said heatedly. “But…”
Celeste stepped in to prevent the argument she could see coming. “You and Tom go get Chas, Scott,” she said quietly. “Let me talk to Johnny.”
Scott obviously didn’t think it was a good idea, but he turned and left, with Tom following him.
Left alone with him, Celeste walked over to the bed and sighed heavily. “I don’t like this, John.”
“If this kid is gonna go free, I wanta know that I’m not gonna have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life,” he told her stubbornly.
“I know what I’m doin’. I want him to be able to open up to me.”
She turned around and went to the dresser. She pulled the top drawer open and took his pistol from its holster.
Celeste held it out to him and he took it without a word. He broke it open and checked that it was loaded, and then he closed it up and looked up at her. “Thanks,” he said quietly and slipped it under the covers beside him.
“There’s no point in taking foolish chances, cheri,” she answered.
They faced each other across the room – the wounded ex-gunfighter, and the man who had tried to kill him.
The kid stood by the door, edgy and silent, while Johnny sat up as straight as he was able and turned cool blue eyes on him.
There was a tense silence in the room as the two of them sized each other up.
Chas backed up and leaned against the door jamb. He couldn’t go any further back and suddenly he straightened and an expression of rebellion took over his face.
“Close the door an’ sit down, kid,” Johnny finally said. There was an icy tone to his voice that sent a chill down Chas’ spine.
“I’d rather stand,” Chas answered sullenly.
“Maybe, but I don’t fancy havin’ to look up to someone who tried to put a bullet in me. Sit!”
There was something in that voice that made the boy do it. He closed the door behind him like Johnny had told him and then walked across the room to where the chair stood beside the bed. It was too close to the bed for his comfort and he pulled it back a couple of feet before sitting down.
Johnny caught the boy sizing him up. He let him take in the bandages, the pale face and, most surprising of all for Chas, the religious medal around his neck.
When he’d given him what he considered enough time, he opened the conversation again.
“So, you’re Tom’s kid brother,” Johnny said quietly.
“My name’s Rawlings like his, but that’s about all we have in common,” Chas answered coldly, leaning back in the chair and stretching his long legs out casually. He crossed his arms across his chest defiantly.
“Is that right?” Johnny asked with an amused smile.
“Yeah, that’s right, Madrid.”
Johnny looked the boy in the eye and held the stare until he was certain Chas was discomforted. “My guess is that you know my name is Lancer, kid.”
“I know it.”
The boy was determined not to be overwhelmed. Johnny liked that about him, but he wasn’t ready to show it. Instead, he let Chas sit and watch him for a minute or two.
Nothing was said between them.
Finally, Johnny broke the dreadful silence. “You wishin’ you had somethin’ you could use to finish the job?”
“Wouldn’t do me no good, would it? I wouldn’t stand a chance against the gun you’ve got under them blankets.”
Johnny grinned, but didn’t say anything.
The boy continued with a smirk on his face. “I’ve heard a lot o’ things about Johnny Madrid, but no one ever said you were a fool.”
Johnny nodded, still grinning. “That’s good to know.” He pulled the pistol out from under the covers, but he kept it in his hand, laying it flat on the bed. “I’ll hang on to this if you don’t mind,” he said, indicating the gun.
“Sure. I don’t blame ya,” Chas told him and moved uneasily in the chair. That half smile of Johnny’s was getting on his nerves. “Why did you want to see me?” he asked.
“They’ve all b’n sayin’ such nice things about you, that I just had to see you for myself,” Johnny answered sarcastically. “’Sides, how often does a man get to meet someone who wants to kill him as bad as you do? You do still want me dead, don’t you, kid?”
Chas didn’t answer.
“Don’t you?” Johnny repeated coldly.
Chas shifted his weight in the chair again. “I’ve got a right to haven’t I? You killed a friend o’ mine, Madrid. You seem to take that kinda lightly.”
The remark threw Johnny. He stopped smiling immediately and his eyes turned cold and seemed to darken.
“No,” he whispered eventually, raw emotion in his voice. “I don’t take it lightly, kid.” He stopped and looked down for just a moment before looking back into his face. “I never did.”
Chas was stunned, but Johnny’s lapse into emotion was so brief that he almost thought he had imagined it.
“You ever killed a man, kid?” Johnny asked.
“No,” the boy admitted.
“Then don’t go thinkin’ you know what it’s like. I looked into the eyes of every man I stood up against – had to so I’d know when they’d draw.” Johnny glared at Chas. “An’ I remember all of ‘em.”
Rawlings unfolded his arms and sat up, rubbing the palms of his hands together slowly and uncomfortably, but he said nothing, so Johnny continued.
“I hear you think I cheated somehow to kill Kruger.”
“Didn’t think you could’ve done it honestly,” Chas said quietly.
“I didn’t wanta do it at all,” Johnny told him angrily. “I left all that behind me years ago. Tried to anyway. Whose idea was it to wait up on the roof?”
Chas looked down at his hands. “Wes said we should get you if he didn’t come out.”
“Real confident, was he?” Johnny said sarcastically and watched the kid’s face turn red with anger. He didn’t give him a chance to say anything. “Scott an’ Tom want me to forget about it an’ give you another chance. But you weren’t about to give us a chance were you?”
“No, I don’t suppose we were.”
Johnny glared at him. “An’ you didn’t care who else got hurt neither,” Johnny continued. “I ain’t usually the unforgivin’ kind. I could forget about it if it was just me you were takin’ pot shots at, but you damned near killed my brother too.”
The boy still didn’t answer. He looked at his hands and rubbed them together, harder and harder.
“You seem to take that kinda ‘lightly’ boy,” Johnny finished coldly giving him a little of his own back.
Chas leapt up from the chair so fast that it fell over behind him and clattered noisily on the floor. He stared furiously at Johnny, his fists clenching and unclenching at his side.
“Wishin’ you had a gun?” Johnny taunted him.
“Yes,” Chas answered angrily.
“Then why the change of heart?”
Chas stopped abruptly. “What?”
Johnny sat forward and stared boldly at him. “Why did you warn Tom an’ Scott about your pals’ plan? Why warn Tom about the knife?”
Rawlings stared at him. His face expressed the turmoil his emotions were suffering. “I don’t know. It was right after Miss Sarah got shot. I…I didn’t think any of this would go that far. It was all just…just gettin’ outa hand.”
The boy stalked over to the window and stared out of it, his back to Johnny.
“Just what do you want from me, Madrid?” he asked at last.
Johnny sighed and leaned back against the pillows. He was beginning to tire and knew it. He’d been awake for most of the day and he knew now that he should have left this till he had the strength for it.
But he hadn’t –and he had to finish what he had started.
“Get over here an’ sit down,” he told Chas, hearing the weariness in his own voice. “I ain’t talkin’ to your back.”
Chas turned his head and glared back at him, but he walked over slowly, picked up the chair and sat down.
“You b’n on your own long, kid?”
“Long enough,” Chas told him.
“How’ve you been livin’?” he asked him. “You sure ain’t no gunfighter or you’d have faced me instead of hidin’ on a rooftop. So what’ve you b’n doin’ to live?”
Chas shrugged negligently. “Whatever. I’ve worked cattle some and herded horses. I even done some swampin’ in a whorehouse when I was a kid.” He grinned when he finished.
“Then you met up with Kruger, huh?”
“What then? A bit o’ cattle rustlin’, some horse stealin’ maybe?”
“Ain’t none o’ your business,” Chas answered evasively.
Johnny turned to face him. “Nope, I don’t guess it is. But I’ve seen it before. You’re headed for a hangman, I reckon,” he said and saw the disbelief in the boy’s expression. “I know what it’s like bein’ on my own. Bein’ fancy free ain’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Now me, I was good with a gun, but it took a while to earn that reputation o’ mine.”
“Why? Why’d you go out on your own? You got family – good people from what I see. Your brother cares ‘bout ya. An’ that ol’ man o’ yours’ came tearin’ up here when he heard what was happenin’.”
Johnny smiled. “I didn’t know ‘bout Scott back then. An’ as for Murdoch – I probably woulda killed him on sight when I was a kid.” He saw surprise on the boy’s face and realized he’d spoken without really thinking. His tiredness was taking its toll, making him lose concentration or he wouldn’t have said anything about that. Well, he had no intention of saying any more about it. “It’s a long story,” he added quietly, “but what I’m sayin’ is I know what it’s like to have to make it on your own.”
“But you did it.”
Johnny leaned back. “Oh sure. I was doin’ just fine. When Murdoch tracked me down, I was in front of a firin’ squad in Mexico. I wasn’t much older than you are now,” he told him ironically.
“So what happened?”
“My ol’ man wanted to see me. He was offerin’ me big money for my time an’ I wasn’t exactly rollin’ in money then, so it sounded like a good deal.” He sighed heavily, determined not to give in to the exhaustion that was creeping over him before he was finished with young Rawlings. He wanted to know that giving this boy a chance was really doing him a favor and not setting him loose to go back to where he’d already been headed – trouble.
“That’s when I found out ‘bout Scott.” He grinned at the memory of their first meeting, standing beside a stagecoach and Teresa telling them they were brothers. “You shoulda seen him in his fancy duds. He’d come straight from back east - real green, or I thought so anyway.”
He looked at Rawlings again. “But what I really got was a chance, Chas. A chance to be somethin’ more than a gun hawk headed for an early grave. It took me a while to understand what they were offerin’ me an’ what it meant to me – but kid, I grabbed it with both hands in the end.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“You got a brother out there. Tom’s a good man, one o’ the best I know. He could give you a chance like I had. You’d be a fool not to take it.”
“He doesn’t want nothin’ to do with me,” Chas corrected him sullenly.
“I reckon he does. Get the chip off your shoulder an’ look a bit harder. You’ll see that he wants to get to know you, maybe make up for all those lost years.”
Johnny leaned back wearily. He tried to get more comfortable but his leg protested with a sharp stabbing pain and he winced and gasped before he could stop it. His whole body tensed while he came to terms with the pain.
“You okay?” the boy asked nervously.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered edgily. He eased the leg into a comfortable position and then breathed out slowly and leaned back again.
Chas poured a glass of water and held it out to him, but Johnny just looked at it. His left arm was too sore to pull out of the sling now, and his right still held the gun.
The boy smiled at him, still holding the glass for him. “Forget the gun,” he said. “You don’t need it. I ain’t crazy enough to kill you with them all standin’ just outside the door. That’d be suicide.” His eyes sparkled with mischief. “An’ I don’t want ‘em to think I did this to ya.”
Johnny looked at him closely, trying to judge his man. He finally let go of the gun and took the glass, swallowing the water gratefully.
“Thanks,” Johnny said quietly, handing the glass back to Chas. “Sit down.”
Rawlings put the glass down, but he stayed on his feet and glared at Johnny.
But Johnny only smiled coolly at him. “Go on, sit down,” he said, quietly. “I’m not gonna die on you.”
“I’m hopin’ not. Miz Lancer would never forgive me,” Chas said with a grin.
“Oh boy,” Johnny said with a laugh. “Mrs. Lancer would very likely shoot you.”
The young man couldn’t see Celeste Lancer pulling a gun on him, but he laughed anyway.
“I’d better get them then,” Chas told him. “You through with me?”
“Just tell me one more thing,” Johnny said quietly. “What do you want?”
Chas was obviously surprised by the question. He thought hard for a while. “I’m not askin’ for any favors,” he declared proudly.
“Fair enough,” Johnny answered and Chas stood up and went to the door.
He opened it and found them all waiting just outside. It occurred to him that they might have been listening the whole time, but he ignored the feeling.
Celeste was first past him and she went straight to the bed, concerned that Johnny looked so pale and tired. His forehead was dotted with sweat, so she took the cloth from the bedside table and wiped it away. He was barely aware of her.
“I think we should let him sleep,” she told Scott.
He nodded agreement. “Are you okay, Johnny?” he asked first.
Weakly, Johnny answered. “Yeah, just tired.”
Scott turned and glanced at Chas and Johnny noticed that glance. “It’s alright, Scott,” he added. “Nothin’ the kid did. I’m just tired is all.”
“Alright, get some rest now and I’ll talk to you later,” Scott told him gently.
“Sure, Boston,” Johnny quipped wearily. He closed his eyes and seemed to sink into the pillows behind him.
Celeste reached across him and picked up the gun. She took it across the room and slipped it back into the holster in the drawer. Then she returned to his bedside and moved the chair closer to the bed before sitting down to stay with him.
Chas was ready to go back out of the room with Scott and Tom, but he hesitated and then stopped and turned around.
He gave the impression of a man with something on his mind and it was true enough. He had been thinking things over and had come to a decision. He had something to say to them.
“There’s something you should all know,” he said uneasily. “It’s about Rafe.”
“Rafe? You mean the fellow who got away?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, Rafe Little Crow,” the boy confirmed. “I could be wrong about this but…Rafe is about the most patient man I ever met an’ he don’t like bein’ beaten. I think he’ll bide his time as long as it takes.”
Tom and Scott exchanged worried looks. Scott looked over towards Johnny and saw that his eyes were wide open now and staring at Chas.
“You mean, he’s probably still ‘round here somewhere?” Johnny asked.
Chas looked back at him. “Like I said – I could be wrong,” he answered frankly. “But I reckon so. He’s not a man to run off, so don’t count him out yet.”
Celeste turned fearful eyes at Scott, not wanting Johnny to see she was worried. Johnny was out of danger from his wounds now, but he was still vulnerable.
Scott sighed. “We’ll just have to keep our eyes open,” he said to no one in particular. “Johnny, you get some sleep. We’ll take care of this.”
Johnny nodded and closed his eyes again, too exhausted to protest.
Scott ushered everyone out of the room. He was just nudging Chas out when he heard Johnny again.
“Chas,” he said weakly. “Thanks for the warning.”
A small smile lit Chas’ face. He shrugged and answered, “Sure, Johnny.”
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea now, Scott,” Murdoch said as he stood in the early light of the next day. The morning had dawned bright and cloudless with the scent of the new day hanging in the air.
All around then was peaceful and quiet with the exception of the occasional whinnying of one of the horses.
But Murdoch was no longer sure that he wasn’t still needed here.
“There’s no point in all of us staying,” Scott replied. “The men are needed back home and we agreed you should be there too.”
“That was before Chas warned us about his friend out there.”
“I know,” Scott acceded. “But he’s only one man and there are plenty of us here to keep Johnny safe. Besides, Chas could be wrong. He could be long gone, just like we thought.”
“I don’t like it, son,” Murdoch told him uneasily.
“Murdoch, Johnny is fine now. He’ll be back on his feet in a week, maybe less. We’ll get him home to Lancer just as soon as he can travel.”
Murdoch looked away to where his men were waiting. The men from Lancer were down by the corral, their horses saddled and ready to leave.
“I can send the men back and stay here,” he suggested.
“Come on, Sir,” Scott said indignantly. “Everything is as much under control as it was yesterday when you were ready to go. Someone has to run Lancer. It’s not fair to leave it all to Cipriano for too long.”
Murdoch sighed and nodded his head. “You’re right,” he said. “I know you’re right. But I still don’t like it. You make sure you keep a tight lid on things around here.”
“And let me know if anything changes,” Murdoch told him firmly. “Especially with Johnny. I want to know if anything happens.”
“You have my word, Murdoch.”
Murdoch turned and started walking towards the corral. Scott went with him to bid final farewells.
He waited while his men mounted and then did the same with a final word to Scott. “I know I don’t have to ask, but look after him, Scott.”
“He’ll be fine, Murdoch.”
Murdoch nodded and turned his mount.
Scott stood watching him go and then went back to the house.
Rafe Little Crow put the field glasses down on the grass beside him. The grassy rise was still the best place to watch the ranch. He’d spent the last few days hiding and watching. He hadn’t been here all the time though. It wouldn’t be smart to stay in a place that he was known to have been in.
He’d seen them check out the old camp site and waited for them to leave. Once they were gone, he knew it was safe to stay there for a while. They wouldn’t come back too soon, but he knew that he couldn’t take the chance on staying there permanently.
Instead, he’d found a few other places to take cover and had moved from one to another and then back, always trying to keep an eye on the ranch.
Rafe had been doing some thinking too. He had no idea what had happened to Chas. He’d seen his horse in the corral down there at the ranch, but he hadn’t seen any sign of him. Of course, he could have missed seeing them take him into town to the sheriff when he was moving from one site to another.
That was if they had caught him. He had no idea what had happened and it didn’t really bother him.
He’d liked Chas, at least as much as he could like anyone. But he wasn’t a man for feeling much for others.
He sure didn’t miss Tait. He knew that he was dead. He’d seen his body by the house.
His only regret where Tait was concerned was that he’d missed his chance to do it himself. Tait had sure given him enough reason in those last days and he’d been looking forward to sinking his bowie knife into Tait’s soft, hated flesh.
Madrid still hadn’t been out of the house. There’d been no sign of him in all the days he’s been watching. To Rafe’s thinking, that meant that he was either dead or laid up. He didn’t much care which. He’d get his chance at Madrid if he was still alive. All he needed was patience – and Rafe had all the time in the world.
But he had seen the blond. He’d seen him around the ranch a few times and he watched him a lot. If Madrid was wounded or dead, he couldn’t have been the man he’d been tracking – the one who had challenged him so well.
No, it had to have been the other one – the blond.
He watched the men ride out at first light. That reduced the odds considerably, but he was still alone and those odds were pretty big. He’d have to look for his chance.
He picked the field glasses up again and trained them onto the ranch yard.
Slowly, Rafe watched as his prey walked into the house and out of sight.
“Sarah! What are you doing up?” Scott exclaimed as he walked in the door.
She was dressed and coming out of her room with Celeste right behind her.
“I couldn’t stay in bed forever,” she answered with a smile, walking over to stand in front of him. “Has your father gone already?”
“Yes, he wanted to get an early start.”
She sighed softly. “Well, I’m glad I got to say goodbye last night, but I was hoping to see him before he went.”
Her hair hung loose down her back, shining brightly and tied with a ribbon. He wasn’t used to seeing her in a dress either and was pleasantly surprised at the way it became her. But the stark white of the sling supporting her arm reminded him that she still wasn’t well. She looked pale and Scott hurried to put his arm around her waist to help her to stand.
“You really shouldn’t be up, Sarah,” he chastened her, and led her to the couch. He gently eased her onto it and sat down beside her.
“Don’t be silly. Will said that I could get up if I felt up to it,” she told him. “I just need to do it a little slowly, I suppose.” She looked appealingly at him. “I can’t stand just sitting in there any longer, Scott.”
“Then do it slowly,” Scott advised. “Sit here for a while before you try getting on your feet again.” He placed one finger under her chin and tilted her face up until his eyes met hers. “Promise me?”
She smiled. “I promise,” she said. “But you can’t baby me, Scott. I’m feeling much better. It’s just a matter of finding my feet again.”
Those brown eyes and smiling lips were tempting, but Scott was suddenly aware that Celeste was still in the room. He dropped his hand and turned to see where she was.
She was standing near the doorway to Sarah’s bedroom, a pleased smile on her face when he looked at her.
Celeste saw him look over at her and excused herself and then left to go into Johnny’s room.
Something about that smile of Celeste’s had irked him so he turned back to Sarah without a word to Celeste. He stood up. “Why don’t you stay here on the couch? Put your feet up and rest. Don’t rush anything.”
Sarah shook her head. “I’m not going to just swap a bed for a couch,” she told him firmly. “I promised to take it slowly, but it’s about time I started doing something around here. I have a ranch to run.”
“Tom and Joe have been running it just fine and they can do it for a few days more,” he told her.
She got to her feet and eyed him defiantly. “I’m well aware that Tom and Joe can look after the ranch, Scott Lancer, but this is my ranch and I’ll see to it’s running myself.”
Scott stopped and stared at her, then his face broke into a grin. This was the girl who had held first himself and then Johnny at bay with an old Henry 44.
“Yes, I forgot,” he said with a laugh. “Alright, you stay put and take things nice and easy and I’ll have Tom and Joe come in here to get your orders – okay?”
She relaxed and nodded. “Thank you,” she said quietly. Then she asked, “Just who has been giving the orders around here?”
Scott laughed. “Joe thinks he is,” he answered. “But Tom has been quietly running the place.”
“I should have known,” she said with a grin.
The next two days saw a kind of normal routine settle over the Connelly ranch. Will Barnes was pleased with the progress of both of his patients. Sarah was up and around and running her ranch for herself again and Johnny, while still not allowed on his feet, was feeling well enough to be bored and irritable.
However, when Scott and Tom had asked him how his talk with Chas had gone, he had replied with a short “He’ll do,” and then added, “You should put him to work. Keep him busy.”
Scott had agreed. “I think that’s a good idea. He can work around the ranch with you, Tom.”
Tom looked dubious for a moment, but then nodded agreement. When he turned to leave, Johnny added, “And Tom – give him back his gun.”
Tom had turned around quickly. “No, Johnny, not while you’re still here.”
“You have to trust him. And he needs to know you do,” Johnny insisted. “Believe me, I know.”
“Johnny, he came here to kill you,” Tom argued.
“I know,” Johnny sighed. “I know. But do it anyway. I think you’ll find he’s changed his mind.”
“He’s a good kid, Tom,” Scott added. “Get to know him.”
And so they had given Chas both work on the ranch and his gun back. Tom had kept him by his side since then, keeping an eye on him and trying to figure the boy out. He’d tried to talk to him, as best he could – tried to get him to talk to him – but the result had been a very silent relationship so far.
The boy wouldn’t open up and Tom wasn’t sure how to get him to.
They moved him into the bunkhouse and tried to give him all the freedom that Johnny wanted them to give him, but Chas still felt they were looking over his shoulder.
Sarah was feeling the same way. She felt fine and was ready to take the reins again, but the fact that her arm was still in the sling made those around her treat her like she was still an invalid. It soon wore thin.
She found sympathy from Celeste and the two started to spend a lot of time in each other’s company.
She also made time to visit with Johnny as soon as she was on her feet and was dismayed to see the expression on his face when she arrived wearing the sling.
“You can wipe that look off your face, Johnny Lancer, and stop thinking like that. This is no more your fault than it is Scott’s. I’ve told him and I’m telling you now,” she’d said firmly.
“If we hadn’t come…” he began, but she cut him off cold.
“If you hadn’t come, you might have died,” she protested. “And for that I would never have forgiven you both.”
She smiled serenely at him. “Seriously, Johnny,” she continued. “I don’t want you or Scott to start blaming yourselves. Besides, it’s so good to see you both again. And you certainly look much better.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” he answered. “What about you? The shoulder – how bad is it?”
“Not bad at all,” Sarah had told him. “Though I don’t seem to be able to convince Scott of that.” She smiled again. “If he had his way I’d still be tucked up in bed.”
“It’s the mother hen in him,” Johnny said with a smile. “You just have to grin an’ bear it.”
A mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes. “To tell you the truth, I can’t really say that it bothers me, Johnny,” she confessed. “It’s nice to know that he cares enough to worry about me.”
She stopped and watched a grin creep over Johnny’s face and she blushed.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” she said quickly, obviously a little embarrassed.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Johnny answered, managing to keep from laughing outright, but not succeeding in keeping the laughter from his eyes.
“You’re impossible,” she told him. “You’ll be able to travel before long and you’ll all head back to Lancer just as soon as Will gives you the okay. I just want to enjoy the company for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“Nope, nothin’ at all,” he replied, his blue eyes sparkling.
Rafe watched and waited patiently. He watched everyone ride out in the morning and he watched them come home in the evening and he noticed everything in between.
He was getting an idea of their routine and planning.
Chas Rawlings turning out with them had been a surprise. He’d thought Chas had to be either dead or in jail. But there he was, bold as brass. It looked like he’d changed sides for some reason.
It surprised him alright. Chas had been more determined to track down Madrid than any of them, but then he’d sneaked out in the middle of the night and disappeared. He and Tait had assumed Chas had gone off to kill Madrid on his own and got himself caught or killed, but maybe they’d been wrong about that after all.
There was no reason that Rafe could think of for Chas to change sides, yet there he was. He’d shown up yesterday and rode out with the hands.
It sure made no sense, but Rafe didn’t give it a lot of thought after his initial shock. It did nothing to change his own plans, and those plans were starting to take shape. The opportunity was likely to come round pretty soon.
Day by day, he had seen their defenses slackening. After the other men had left a couple of days ago, the sentries had been reduced. They were still there, but they weren’t paying as much attention as before.
Now there was just that one man in the loft, and that was only at night. During the day, there was no one but the people in the house. There were two women there that he knew of. He had seen one of them wearing a sling on her arm and figured that she must have been hit during their raid. And there was the fair-haired man who had been with Madrid. He’d seen a lot of him.
There was still no sign of Madrid either.
Every afternoon the doctor arrived at the house and left after a short visit. Rafe knew who he was. He remembered him from their first day in town when they had asked him about Madrid. Whether he was coming to see the injured girl, or perhaps Madrid himself, he neither knew nor cared. But he was one more person to factor into his plans.
Rafe decided that it was time to test their defenses and see just how close he could get.
“Well, Johnny, that leg is healing nicely,” Will Barnes told him, securing the new bandage firmly. “I think you can start getting out of the bed – as long as you take it easy. I don’t want you walking around on it.”
He looked behind him to where Scott stood listening. “Maybe we could bring a comfortable chair and put it by the window. That’s about as far as I want him going for the time being.”
“I’ll get it,” Scott answered with a smile. He knew how anxious Johnny would be to get up now that he had the okay, so he turned and went out straight away.
Will turned his attention back to Johnny. “Now, you heard me, John. That’s as far as you go. Do you understand.”
“Yeah, I heard you,” Johnny replied. “How do you think I’d get past my jailers anyway?”
Barnes laughed. “I don’t think Scott and Celeste would agree with the term ‘jailers’.
“So when can I get up?”
“No time like the present,” Barnes told him. “Here, let me give you a hand.”
Will helped him steady himself just as Scott came back in with one of the chairs from the dining room.
“Put it over there by the window, Scott,” he told him, holding Johnny’s arm as he swayed awkwardly for a moment. He turned back to Johnny as he got his balance. “You okay? Any dizziness?”
“I’m fine,” Johnny answered, but he didn’t fool the doctor and he realized it quickly. “Alright, maybe just a little,” he confessed. “Just give me a minute.”
Johnny wavered a little, paler than before, and then limped carefully over to the chair with a lot of help from Will Barnes. He eased himself into it and leaned back.
“Scott, can you bring that other chair over here so he can put his leg up. I don’t want weight on it,” Will called back over his shoulder. He made sure that Johnny was comfortable and then went back for a blanket that lay folded on the end of the bed. He threw it over Johnny and propped the leg up on the chair Scott had put there.
He tucked the blanket around Johnny, less to keep him warm than to cover up his indecent state of dress. One leg of his long johns was in prime condition, but the other – on his injured leg – was cut short above the wound. “There, you’re not so open to draughts now,” he said with a grin and stood back to take stock of his condition.
“You’ll do, Johnny,” he said at last. “Just don’t stay up too long. As soon as you start to feel tired, go back to bed. You don’t have anything to prove.”
Johnny nodded silently and the doctor turned back to Scott.
“Well, I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thanks Doc,” Scott replied. “We really owe you.”
Will grinned. “I know. Wait till you see the bill.”
Johnny heaved a heavy sigh of relief. He finally had the okay to get out of that damned bed.
Okay, so he couldn’t go far – only as far as an easy chair by the window, but it was something. He was annoyed to find that he needed help to get even that far. He’d been tied to that bed for so long that he had stiffened up. The stitches in his leg had pulled painfully as he moved it as well and he hadn’t wanted to admit to the dizziness that hit him hard when he stood up.
Scott had left him there, alone with his thoughts, while he saw Will off.
He leaned back and looked out of the window. The room was at the back of the house, but the window was at the side and offered a view of the corral and the barn. There were a few horses in the corral. He picked out Scott’s horse. He’d know that bay anywhere.
And Barranca – his golden coat gleaming in the late afternoon sun – stood coolly aloof from the others. Johnny’s first instinct was to call him, whistle for him. But he knew that it would only serve to upset the animal when he couldn’t get loose to come to him.
A large gnarled black oak partially shaded the corral and was casting long shadows across the ground. The tree showed signs of burning on the trunk and the branches closest to the barn. The scars were old – about two years actually – testament to the violence of their last visit.
The barn was new, built after its predecessor had been burned to the ground two years ago. Lancer had provided men and materials to help build it with Scott supervising on Sarah’s behalf.
A small half-smile crept across his lips. Scott had been smitten with Sarah even then, but he had considered it the wrong time to do anything about it. She was too vulnerable, he had said. So he’d left, but kept in touch by mail.
Now he was back. And if Celeste was right, the two of them were close again. Johnny wondered if Scott was going to find another reason not to make a move this time.
His thoughts were still wandering in that direction when Celeste came in. He watched her walk across the room towards him and wondered, once again, what he had finally done right to have found her. Her elegance and grace emanated in her every move, even though the shape of her body was changing as the child grew.
“I heard you were up,” she said cheerfully as she got close to him. She leaned over and kissed him casually on the forehead and smiled. “Do you want some company?”
“If it’s yours,” he answered with a gleam in his eyes and a smile.
She sat on the floor beside the chair and leaned against him, careful not to bump his leg. Her skirt spread around her, leaving only one ankle still showing teasingly.
She moved to cover it absently, but he protested. “No, leave it mi corazon,” he said with a grin. “Seems a shame to cover up a pretty little ankle like that.”
Celeste laughed. “I wonder if you’ll think the same way in a couple of months. I’m told they’re likely to swell up.” She looked up into his vivid blue eyes. “Will you still like them when they’re fat and swollen?”
Johnny’s grin broadened and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “’Course! You’ll always be beautiful, querida- even with ugly ankles.”
“Zut! You’re impossible, John Lancer.”
She sat back and caught her breath for a moment, rubbing her hand over the little bulge where the baby was making its presence known.
“You okay?” he asked anxiously.
She nodded. “It’s just your son – kicking again. He’s going to be a handful, John.”
He laughed. “You seem awful sure it’s a boy.”
“Oh yes, it’s a boy,” she said decisively. “And just like you. He can’t stay still for more than five minutes. No daughter of mine would tread this heavily.”
Johnny reached out his hand and gently nudged aside the stray tendril of hair on her face. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, cheri. I’m perfectly alright. In fact, I’m better than alright. Now that the morning sickness has gone, I’m enjoying it.” She looked up into his eyes. “Don’t worry so much, love. Enjoy it.”
Scott poked his head into the room quietly, but decided not to disturb them. They looked perfectly content together and he had no desire to spoil it.
He closed the door softly and went back to the kitchen where Sarah was busy starting dinner. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like having one arm in a sling stop her from her chores.
He’d been pleased to see Celeste helping her in the kitchen. Celeste was no cook, although he had to admit that she was improving under the tuition of Teresa and Maria. She’d simply never had a need to learn before, raised in a house full of servants. Her mother would have taken a fit if she had shown any inclination to learn back then.
And he had to give her credit for making a point of getting Maria to show her how to cook Johnny’s favorite Mexican dishes.
Sarah had her hair tied back again, but not in the lazy pony tail she so often wore. It was tied neatly and loosely behind the nape of her neck and emphasized the long elegant line of her throat.
He watched her for a minute before she realized he was there. He must have moved or something because she suddenly looked up and smiled at him.
“Hello,” she said happily. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long. I went to check on Johnny.”
“Is he happier now that he’s up?”
“Yeah, Celeste’s with him. I thought I’d leave them alone.”
Sarah’s eyes went back to the task in front of her, chopping onions, while she talked to him. The sling was obviously a nuisance because she was using that hand anyway. “They seem very happy.”
“Yes, they are,” he answered negligently. He was caught up in his own thoughts. She was engrossed in what she was doing and he took the chance to just stand and watch her some more. Sometimes he felt like he could do it forever. He knew every dimple and feature of her face.
He held his breath for a moment. “Sarah?” he said quietly.
He stopped and changed his mind and, when he didn’t answer, she stopped what she was doing and looked up at him.
Scott walked over to her and took the knife out of her hand decisively. “Here, let me do that,” he said evasively.
“Alright, if you really want,” she answered, curious but amused.
She stood and watched him slice the vegetables and smiled. “A little thinner,” she told him and turned away to go back to the stove.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a mischievous smile that she didn’t see.
She turned back quickly and glared at him. “One of these days you’ll do that once too often, Scott Lancer.”
He turned around to face her and this time she did see the grin on his face. “Sorry,” he said, incongruously. He looked anything but.
“You’re infuriating sometimes,” she told him, shaking her head.
“We’ll be out of your hair before long anyway.”
She stopped and stared at him, and then turned away so that he couldn’t see her. “I’ll miss Celeste,” she said quietly. “It’s been nice having another woman around.”
It had been so easy. He couldn’t believe how easy.
He could have picked them off one by one.
But Rafe could see no challenge in that. He’d managed to creep into the ranch yard and hidden behind the bunkhouse and no one had noticed him. For three hours he had stayed there, watching them before sneaking back out the way he had come.
It was time to make his plans and look for the right opportunity to put them into play.
Chas Rawlings he hadn’t seen, but he’d watched him ride out in the morning so he hadn’t expected to. He had spotted the blond – Madrid’s partner. And then he’d found his bonus for the day. He’d found Madrid.
He’d spotted him sitting by a window towards the back of the house. The stark white bandage covering his shoulder and chest proved he was right about his being wounded – probably at the shootout outside the saloon. That meant that he was right about the other guess too.
It was the blond who had laid the trail.
The knock on the door was barely audible, but Johnny heard it. Celeste had left him alone with his thoughts an hour or so ago.
He kind of enjoyed being alone for a while. There’d been someone at his side day and night for what seemed like forever – all with his best interests at heart but crowding him just the same.
“Come on in,” Johnny called and looked up. He knew who it was without asking and was proved right when Scott walked into the room. “Howdy big brother.”
“You sound okay. How do you feel?”
“I’m just fine.”
“Maybe a little,” Johnny admitted reluctantly. “You here to play mama gallina again?”
Scott looked at him curiously and Johnny grinned. “Mother hen,” he interpreted.
“Oh, thank you,” Scott answered, laughing. He walked over closer to him. “Seriously, I thought you might need a hand to get back to bed. You’ve been up for quite a while and you don’t want to overdo it.”
Johnny wrinkled his nose at the odd odor emanating from his brother. “Phew, Scott,” he said with a frown. “I hate to tell ya, but you smell kinda like… onions?”
His brother sniffed at his hands and smiled. “It just doesn’t wash off, does it? I’ve been helping Sarah with dinner. It’s a little difficult to chop onions with one arm in a sling.”
Johnny laughed at the image of his brother indulging in some domesticity.
“How’d ya get roped into that?”
Scott scowled at him. “No one ‘roped me into’ anything, Johnny. Sarah needed a hand –that’s all.”
Johnny grinned, remembering his conversation with Sarah. So Scott really was ‘mothering’ her, and he was defensive about it too.
He leaned his head on the back of the chair. He might be stubborn and have too much pride for his own good sometimes, but he knew that he was going to need help and that he would have to admit it.
Scott obviously didn’t need to hear the words. He knew Johnny well enough to recognize the symptoms of tiredness in his eyes.
“Come on,” he said decisively, putting his hand out to take Johnny’s good arm and lift him out of the chair.
Admitting defeat as gracefully as he could, Johnny accepted his brother’s hand and pulled himself up. His leg was throbbing and pulled painfully when he put it to the floor. He tried to avoid putting much weight on it and hobbled clumsily the few steps across the room to the bed.
He lowered himself down carefully, keeping his bad leg straight to try to avoid pulling on those stitches too much. With Scott’s help, he swung it up on the bed and got himself settled while Scott pulled the covers over him.
“It’ll get easier,” Scott assured him.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny replied. He leaned back gratefully against the soft pillows. That chair had started feeling like it was made of rock a while back, but he hadn’t wanted to give up his new-found freedom at that stage.
“We’ll have you up and around and heading home before you know it,” Scott told him cheerfully.
Johnny studied his hands and thought silently for a minute. If he was going to do this, he’d have to choose his words very carefully. He made a decision and drew a very deep breath to steady himself.
“You know, you don’t have to hang around here if you want to head home now,” he said, without looking up. “I’ve got Jelly an’ Celeste to take me home when the time comes.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Scott asked him suspiciously. “What’ve you got up your sleeve, little brother?”
“Me?” Johnny answered, turning his blue eyes on him innocently. “Nope, just thinkin’ o’ you. I thought maybe you might be lookin’ to get away.”
“Get away from what?”
Johnny looked back down at his hands. This was even harder than he had thought it would be. “Well,” he said slowly at last. “I know how you hate to be rushed into things, Scott. Maybe it’d be better if you went now. Just in case Sarah goes gettin’ the wrong idea?”
“Just what do you mean by that? Just because I helped her in the kitchen when she can barely fend for herself?” He scowled at Johnny.
“So… there’s nothin’ in it? I’d a sworn you were sweet on that girl for years,” Johnny told him, trying very hard to keep a straight face.
“I don’t really think that’s any of your business.”
Johnny spoke slowly and carefully. “Well, she’s a nice girl, Scott. I like her.” He finally looked up and schooled himself to keep from smiling. “Wouldn’t want to see her get hurt.”
“Oh, and do you seriously think I would? Do you have any idea how it felt – seeing her lying on the floor bleeding?” Scott said angrily. “I thought…” He stopped there. He couldn’t put that feeling into words.
Johnny did know that feeling. He knew it well and he could see the same pain in Scott’s eyes. It confirmed everything he and Celeste suspected. But he was going to finish this.
“Nope,” he said gently. “Not on purpose.” He took a deep breath and looked up at Scott with sympathy. “But you’re a born bachelor, brother. An’ it ain’t like she’s any different from any o’ the other girls… is it?” He could see the surprise on Scott’s face and he persevered. “I mean…well, you left her last time. It ain’t like things are any different this time…is it?”
Scott looked uncomfortable. “Johnny, how I feel or don’t feel…”
“I know. These things take time. You can’t rush into anything, brother.” He managed to keep a straight face, but he wasn’t sure his eyes wouldn’t give him away.
It was time to let it go and leave this thing up to his brother. A little nudge was all he was aiming for.
Chas Rawlings had spent a sleepless night. Actually, it wasn’t the first sleepless night in the last few days, but it was the longest. When dawn finally slowly crept in, he had still been wide awake. He was lying on his bunk in a room full of snoring men and the fetid smells of hard-working cowboys – but he felt totally alone.
He’d been working the ranch now for a few days and he was at ease with the work and comfortable with the other hands. They’d accepted him amongst them a lot easier than he felt he had any right to expect. He even liked them and the work. He’d have been happy to stay if things were different.
No, the problem was Tom Rawlings. He and Tom had been working side by side for days now with barely a word spoken between them. Worse than that though, Chas could feel him looking over his shoulder and checking on him constantly. He knew Tom didn’t trust him.
Part of him understood that lack of trust. After all, he’d come here to kill Madrid, hadn’t he?
But he resented it none the less. If they were to have any sort of relationship, he had to have more trust from his brother. Brother! – it didn’t feel like family. He felt more like Tom was his jailer.
It had become an untenable situation for Chas and he knew had to make a decision about what to do about it before things got worse.
Around sun up he had finally come to that decision. He was going to leave.
He knew he had to. There was no way to stay and try to mend fences with a man who didn’t want to try.
Of course, he’d have preferred to talk to Scott or Johnny Lancer first - seemed kind of impolite to go without thanking them at least. And maybe he should even have said goodbye to Tom.
He felt he owed them that. But he also knew that they’d only try to talk him out of it and he’d be right back where he started – with the total stranger he was supposed to think of as his brother riding him hard.
He was well aware that he owed them a lot - maybe even his life - for giving him a chance and not turning him in to the Sheriff, but he couldn’t go on with it.
He’d take the chance they’d offered him on his own terms though. He had no intention of going back to what he’d been doing.
Johnny had picked it right about how he’d been making a living until now.
He’d been surprised at Johnny. He couldn’t think of him as Madrid any more and he wondered what there had been in his own past that had made Johnny see his own position so clearly.
Well, he wouldn’t ever know because he wasn’t going to stick around to ask.
There was bound to be work at one of the ranches down in the valley and he’d keep out of trouble, if trouble would let him. He’d always found it knocking at his door over the years. Vi and April, his sisters, had told him more than once that he’d been born for it.
Maybe they were right. Could be he was born to hang, just like that husband of Vi’s had said, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t give this his best shot. He’d try to make a go of it, just not here with Tom Rawlings hanging over his shoulder every day.
He rose with the others and prepared for the day as usual, but when the time came to mount up, he made an excuse to stay behind.
“This cinch is twisted,” he complained.
“We’re ready to go, Chas,” Tom complained.
“Yeah, I know. I’ll catch up with you, soon as I get this cinch strap right,” he told him.
“I’ll wait for you,” Tom suggested.
Chas shook his head. He might have known Tom wouldn’t trust him out of his sight.
“No need,” Chas answered curtly. “I won’t be far behind you.”
Tom thought it over as the rest of the hands rode out of the yard and gave in to him. “Alright, but don’t be long,” he said firmly, turning his horse to head out with the others. “We’ve got a full day ahead of us.”
Chas nodded and watched his brother ride out, then he turned and walked back into the bunkhouse to pack his meager belongings.
Jelly Hoskins wasn’t a man to like sitting around idly. He had been trying to keep himself busy around the ranch since he’d arrived with Celeste. He kept finding things that needed fixing – a pump at one of the water troughs, a wagon wheel that had been put aside and replaced rather than being repaired and some of the tack had needed re-stitching.
He was surprised by how much he found to do, but glad of it.
He was heading for the tack room in the barn when he saw Scott come out of the house. He stopped and called to him.
“Hello Jelly, how are you this morning?”
“Fine, fine. How’s Johnny doin’?” he asked.
“Great, Jelly. He’s getting around on that leg a little now.”
Hoskins grinned. “Time to start worryin’ then,” he said gruffly. “If he’s up an’ around, his feet’ll be itchin’ real soon. He’s gonna want outa that room quick smart.”
Scott sighed. “I know. Keeping him still is going to get harder and harder.”
“He’ll be grumblin’ ‘fore long.”
“He’s complaining already,” Scott agreed absently. He’d been distracted. “Jelly, have the men left yet?”
“Rode out a while back, just like usual,” he answered, looking off in the same direction as Scott.
He saw what had distracted Scott. The Rawlings boy was headed for the barn, his saddlebags over his shoulder and his rifle in his hand. His hat was pulled down low over his face and his coat was folded over one arm.
“I seen that look before,” Jelly declared.
“Yes,” Scott agreed. “So have I.”
“He’s lightin’ out.”
“It looks like it.”
“Can’t say as I’m real surprised,” Jelly told him.
Scott looked at him quickly. “Why?”
“Oh, just that him an’ that brother o’ his don’t get along. They sure don’t talk much. Don’t share so much as a ‘howdy’,” he explained gruffly. “Ain’t no way t’ live if ya ask me.”
“No, it’s not,” Scott agreed idly.
“Well, it sure is a shame.”
“I know, and I’m not sure how to fix it.”
Jelly shook his head angrily. “An’ who made it your worry?”
“I know what they’re going through. Johnny and I were in the same position….”
“Dang it, Scott, you ain’t them. Just ‘cause it worked out good for you two don’t mean it will work for them. They’re a whole different kettle o’ fish.”
Scott sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
Jelly looked again at the boy heading for the barn. He had a look of dejection about him. His shoulders sagged a little and his stride was determined but slow. He’d seen Johnny like that once when he’d caught him thinking about leaving Lancer.
He’d managed to talk Johnny into thinking again. Actually, it hadn’t been really hard, but that was because Johnny’s heart had never been in it. He knew that, deep down, Johnny wanted family and a place to call home.
He wondered if this boy’s mind was made up. What did he really want, deep down like Johnny? A word or two from the right person might make a difference.
But he didn’t reckon that Scott was the person that kid needed to hear from.
“Someone needs to knock their heads together and stick ‘em in a room alone for a few days till they have ta talk to each other,” Jelly suggested obtusely. “Too much unsaid, I reckon.”
“I agree, Jelly,” Scott said. “But since Tom’s not here, I guess I should try having a word with him.”
“You gonna go try to stop him?”
Scott sighed. “I guess so.”
“Huh, more likely he’ll tell you ta mind your own business. He ain’t your responsibility, ya know.”
“I know,” Scott said quietly. He seemed to come to a decision. “Jelly, why don’t you make yourself scarce for a while? I’ll go talk to Chas.”
“Sure,” Jelly replied. He turned away to head back to the bunkhouse, but stopped and looked back at Scott. “He’s a pretty good kid, I reckon.
“I reckon,” Scott agreed.
Chas heard Scott come in, but he didn’t look up. Instead, he perversely went ahead with getting his things firmly tied down on his horse and realized he wasn’t going to get out of here as easily as he had hoped.
He slipped the rifle into the scabbard with a decisive thump and his horse shied uneasily.
“Easy boy,” he crooned to the animal, instantly regretting his momentary loss of temper.
Damn Scott Lancer for being around to see him going. Why couldn’t he have just had a few more minutes?
“Hello, Chas,” Scott called casually.
“Howdy,” Chas answered quietly, but he still didn’t look up and went on with what he was doing.
“Going somewhere?” Scott asked when he got close enough that he wouldn’t have to shout. He strolled over to stand about six feet from Chas and waited for an answer.
Chas finally looked over at him. “Guess so,” he said curtly.
“And you didn’t think to say something? Not even a goodbye?”
“Didn’t have time.”
Scott laughed lightly. “You mean you didn’t want to face us.”
Chas glowered at him. “This has nothin’ to do with you, Scott. I ain’t gonna be talked out of it.”
“No, I don’t suppose you are. Seems a shame not to have given it a real try though.”
“What d’you know about it?” Chas shouted angrily. “I’ve tried alright. Tom Rawlings is the one who ain’t givin’ it a try. He doesn’t want anythin’ to do with me, an’ I sure as hell ain’t gonna force him into it.”
“You can’t expect it to happen in a couple of days.”
“I don’t expect it ta happen at all. He don’t even talk t’me except to give me orders.”
Scott smiled. “And you don’t take orders very well, right?”
“That’s right,” he growled and turned back to throw his coat over the top of his bedroll.
“Yes, well, I’ve heard that before - somewhere,” Scott told him cryptically. “But if he won’t talk to you, maybe you should start the talking.”
Chas leaned his head against the saddle, his hands spread to hold the pommel and his bedroll. “He ain’t an easy man to get close to, Scott. I don’t know how to.”
“Do you want to?”
“Give it another try, Chas. It was never going to be easy after all these years, but you can’t just give up on it.”
“Yes, I can.”
“What’ll you do?”
“Look for work – honest work, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he answered. “Don’t worry, I’m not goin’ back to what I was doin’.”
Scott sighed. That was something at least. “Alright, if you can’t work here with Tom, there’s Lancer. We can always use a good man.”
Chas looked across at him, with a surprised look on his face. “Your father an’ brother might have somethin’ to say about that.”
“No, Johnny will be fine with it,” Scott told him confidently. “So will Murdoch.”
Chas nodded. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “I just might do that.”
He looked up, distracted, and peered into the darkness behind Scott. “Did you hear something?”
From the chair by the window in Tim Connolly’s bedroom, Johnny watched the yard and barn with a kind of bored interest.
He’d made it to the chair without help this morning and was pretty pleased with himself. Of course, he hadn’t been able to put much weight on his leg in doing it. But he hadn’t experienced the dizziness that had plagued him that first time or the pain that had accompanied the pulling on the stitches.
Johnny had made a point of trying to walk around the room whenever he was alone over the couple of days. He didn’t like the helpless feeling that went with not being able to get around.
It was a little better, but the leg was stiff and the stitches still pulled. He wasn’t exactly mobile yet and it irked him.
But he had made himself a statement. Today he had struggled into his pants. They felt tight over the bandage and he knew that Celeste and Will would be upset, but he sure felt more human now.
He’d made himself comfortable, with the second chair supporting his bad leg and the tiresome blanket over him. Celeste would be in soon with breakfast so at least he’d have someone to talk to.
He was used to the routine now and he had to admit that having her here made things more bearable, but he was looking forward to getting out of here. He was sick of reading, sick of being alone to think too much and tired of being vulnerable.
Johnny watched the men ride out early. He envied them, even though, under normal circumstances, he’d be more than happy to take a day off. Funny how people were never satisfied with their lot.
He was intrigued to see the men leave Chas Rawlings behind and watched him with interest. The kid stayed at the barn door until the men had gone and he seemed to watch them until they were out of sight.
Tom was the last to go. They’d been speaking about something. He couldn’t tell for sure, but Johnny didn’t get the impression that they were arguing. Tom eventually rode off alone to join the others, so it was strange that the boy was still there.
Johnny looked on as Chas turned and went back to the bunkhouse. He wasn’t there for very long when he re-emerged – complete with saddlebags and kit. Johnny shook his head. It didn’t take much to guess what he was up to.
Well, it was a shame, but the boy was old enough to make his own decisions – bad or good. There was no point in forcing him to stay if he was determined to go. Johnny knew that better than most men.
They’d given him his chance. That was all they could do. It was up to him to make something of it.
Johnny thought it was unfortunate for both of the brothers that they hadn’t been able to make the kind of connection that he and Scott had made. But what was good for them wasn’t going to be the same for everyone. It looked like Tom and Chas weren’t making a go of it.
He saw the boy head for the barn and go inside.
Chas hadn’t been there for more than a couple of minutes when Scott appeared and followed him in.
Johnny grinned wryly. If he knew his brother, and he did, then Chas Rawlings was in for it now. He was very sure that Scott would try to talk him out of going, or drag him back if he couldn’t. Scott seemed to be fond of the kid and wouldn’t give up on him easily.
He leaned his head back against the chair. Actually, he was glad that Scott was there to do something about it. He’d taken to the boy himself and didn’t like to think that he was going to run.
Still, when it came down to it, it was Rawlings’ decision in the end.
He’d taken his eyes away from the window momentarily and nearly missed what happened next. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught just a glimpse of movement.
He turned and paid more attention.
Someone else ran across the yard. He was bent low and looked cautiously around him as he went. He was going into the barn. The figure was moving stealthily and Johnny watched him anxiously.
The man obviously didn’t belong there.
Johnny sat forward and saw the man raise his rifle and duck inside the barn door. He didn’t need anyone to tell him who it probably was. There was still one of them unaccounted for - and Johnny had the sinking feeling that he had just accounted for him.
He looked around him and took stock of the situation. The men were gone. There was Celeste and Sarah in the house with him, but he figured that made matters worse rather than better.
But his mind kept revolving on one terrifying thought. Scott was in that barn.
He was wearing his pistol, just as Chas was, but if, as he was afraid would happen, the man got the drop on them, then those weapons would be useless.
Jelly was out there somewhere, but Johnny had no idea whether he’d seen the intruder. He couldn’t rely on it and actually hoped the old man hadn’t seen anything. Jelly wasn’t as young as he used to be, but it was pretty hard to make him believe it.
He had to do something himself.
Celeste came in and found him struggling to limp across the room towards the chest of drawers. The sling off his arm was lying on the floor where he’d flung it. He was having trouble keeping his balance and the movement was causing more pain than he needed right now. She could see it on his face.
She paled. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Don’t, Celeste – not now. Scott’s in trouble.”
Her heart stopped. “What sort of trouble?” she gasped. “How do you know?”
“Saw him through the window,” he answered, finally getting to the chest and opening the top drawer. “We’ve got a visitor out in the barn an’ Scott an’ Chas are in there with him.”
“What sort of a visitor?” she asked nervously.
“My guess it that he’s Chas’ missing friend.”
“Oh no!” she whispered, shaking her head in disbelief. “Johnny, let someone else do this. You can’t.”
“There is no one else,” he snapped back at her quickly.
Fear dragged her breath from her as she watched her husband strap on his gun belt and buckle it. He leaned down and winced as he tied the holster down.
“Johnny, please – you can’t do this. You’re barely able to stand.”
“I’ll be fine, querida,” he said, taking her shoulders in his hands and kissing her forehead.
She shook his hands off her. “Don’t you ‘querida’ me, John. You know full well that you’re not up to this. How do you expect to be able to draw that gun?”
“Damn you, John. I couldn’t bear it if…”
Johnny grabbed his shirt, cleaned and darned, from the drawer and pulled it on carefully. He didn’t bother with the buttons but tucked it roughly into his pants. “Celeste, you know I can’t leave Scott out there. I have to go and help him.”
Tears sprung to her eyes. She knew he was right. The men were gone and there was no one else to help Scott. And she loved Scott like the brother he was now. She didn’t want him hurt any more than Johnny did.
She straightened her back. “Give me a rifle then. Let me help.”
Johnny stopped and glared at her. “I hope you’re not serious,” he growled. “If you think, for one minute, that I’m gonna let you go out there… madre de dios, Celeste.”
Her head dropped. “Alright, I can see I probably wouldn’t be much help,” she relented. “But Johnny, there must be another way. You can’t do this alone.”
“If there is another way, I don’t have time to think of it.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but she might be right. He could barely make it across the room without staggering. His leg just wasn’t strong enough for this at the moment.
“I don’t know for sure. Maybe in the bunkhouse, or the barn.”
“He’s not in the barn. I would have seen him,” he told her. “Well, never mind, I’ll find him. He’s bound to come runnin’ if he sees me.”
Tears slipped from her eyes and she wiped them away impatiently. “Alright, but…please Johnny, be careful.”
He kissed her forehead again and smiled. “I promise.”
She watched him as he hobbled to the door, putting more weight on his leg and forcing himself to use it. He had to do it, and he had to do it in a hurry. She knew it, but she hated facing it.
He bit his lip and forced back the pain and then called Sarah.
She appeared quickly, apparently already aware that something was going on.
Seeing him dressed and wearing his gun belt, she demanded quickly. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Sarah,” he said quickly when she came into the room. “Do you still have that ol’ Henry 44?”
“Yes,” she answered in little more than a whisper. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
“I want you to get it, fast.”
“Why, what’s happening?” she asked him nervously.
“Scott an’ Chas could be in trouble. I’m goin’ out to the barn to see if I can get ‘em out of it. I want you to make sure that rifle is loaded for bear and aimed at the front door.”
“What sort of trouble?” she asked, her voice shaking with fear. She was frozen to the spot.
“The third man is out there. At least, I’m guessin’ that’s who it is. He followed them into the barn a few minutes ago,” he answered, looking her in the eyes. He saw panic in them. “I’ll get him outa there, Sarah. You know I will.”
She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “You’re not well enough for this, Johnny. You know you can’t make it that far. At least let me help you.”
He shook his head. “Scott’d have my head on a plate,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Listen, I ain’t got time to go through this again, Sarah. I’m goin’ out there to try to stop him.”
She paled in horror. “Can you do anything?”
“Sure,” he assured here. “Now get that rifle an’ keep your eye on the door. Don’t let anyone in who doesn’t identify themselves first. Got it?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He headed for the door, limping heavily. “Good. I don’t wanta have to worry ‘bout you two. I’ll send Jelly in if I see him.” He grinned. “Don’t shoot him.”
She smiled uneasily. “Whatever you say, but Johnny…?”
He stopped at the door. “Yeah?”
“Watch your back.”
Johnny nodded, opened the door and left.
He spotted Jelly over near the corral and hobbled over to him as quickly as his injured leg would let him.
“What in tarnation’re you doin’?” Jelly growled loudly as Johnny got close.
“Shut up, Jelly,” Johnny hissed quietly. “We’ve got ourselves an unwanted guest in the barn an’ he’ll hear you.”
Jelly frowned but lowered his voice to match Johnny’s. “What’re you talkin’ about?”
“Someone followed Scott into the barn – a stranger.”
“Damn!” Jelly cursed. “You think he’s that third bandito fella?”
Johnny nodded. “Anyone come out?”
“Nope, an’ I ain’t heard nothin’ neither.” He scowled at Johnny. “You ain’t thinkin’ o’ takin’ him on alone, are ya?”
“I won’t be alone – Scott’s in there an’ so is Chas,” Johnny told him angrily. “I might only have to distract him an’ give ‘em a chance to take him themselves. But I want you to get your rifle an’ go inside an’ look after the girls.”
“Johnny, I c’n be a whole lot more use ta you in the barn,” Jelly argued.
“No, Jelly. Anythin’ happens to us, Celeste an’ Sarah’d be on their own. I’m countin’ on you to keep ‘em safe.”
Jelly nodded reluctantly. “Alright, but you be real careful. Don’t go walkin’ right in there without thinkin’.”
Johnny half smiled, but there was no laughter in his eyes. They were as hard as blue steel and Jelly knew Madrid was doing the talking now.
“I’ll be real careful,” he said and turned away. He hesitated momentarily and turned back to Jelly. “An’ Jelly, knock on that front door real politely – else Sarah’ll blow that fool head o’ your’s clean off.”
With that he was gone and Jelly was left to run back to the bunkhouse to retrieve his rifle and go and protect the ladies.
“Sure hope he knows what he’s doin’,” he grumbled as he ran.
Chas walked past Scott and stopped just in front of him. “I could have sworn that I heard something,” he said, puzzled.
Scott listened intently, but he heard nothing. “I didn’t hear anything.” He looked around the barn. The light wasn’t all that good in here at this time of the day, but he didn’t see anything out of place. “I don’t see anything either.”
Chas looked uneasy. He was unconvinced, but he was also determined to get on his way without further argument from Scott.
“Well, it was probably just a mouse,” he said with a grin. “Now, I’m gonna get going.”
“I can’t talk you out of it then?”
“Nope, there’s nothin’ for me here, Scott.”
“No second thoughts?” Scott asked him hopefully.
“Nope,” he said and turned to start back towards his horse.
A scuffling sound from the front of the barn stopped him. He hadn’t imagined it. He was sure he’d heard something. He swung around quickly and his hand flew to his gun.
This time, Scott heard it as well and he, too, went for his gun.
But neither of them was quick enough. A shadow in front of them took shape as the man stepped out of hiding and into the aisle between the horse stalls. The rifle in his hands was leveled at them before they got the chance to clear their holsters.
Chas recognized the figure immediately.
“Rafe!” he called out in surprise.
There was no sign of recognition in the voice of the other man. “Hands away from the guns – both o’ you,” the man demanded icily.
Scott looked at Chas for a moment but the boy had stopped dead. He might have recognized him, but there didn’t appear to be any welcome in that voice.
Both Scott and Chas did like he said, lifting their hands out to the sides away from their weapons. Neither was fool enough to try to draw against a rifle that was aimed at them - cocked and ready to fire.
Scott peered through the darkness to try to get a better look at the young man.
The man’s eyes were dark like his hair but, at first, Scott couldn’t see much of his face in the shadows. Scott thought he might well be part Indian. He was young – a little younger than Chas he guessed. He wasn’t very tall and he was very slight of build, but wiry and strong by the look of him.
As he stepped out of the shadows, Scott got a better look at his face. There was something in his expression that told Scott that they weren’t going to be able to talk their way out of this. He’d seen determination before, and that was what he could see in this man’s eyes – determination - and something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Now I want you both to unbuckle those gun belts an’ drop ‘em to the floor. One at a time,” he ordered them. “Chas – you first – nice an’ easy.”
Chas sighed and moved his hands towards his gun belt. But Rafe obviously thought he moved too quickly, so he repeated, lifting the rifle higher to reinforce the words, “I said ‘nice an’ easy, Chas. Don’t wanta have to shoot ya this soon.”
The boy did as he was told and the belt and holster fell to the floor with a heavy thud that raised a small billowing cloud of dust.
“Now you,” Rafe said to Scott and watched as Scott also disarmed himself and let the gun and belt drop to the ground.
“That’s good,” he continued. “Nice to see ya know what’s good for ya.”
“Your friend, Chas?” Scott asked quietly. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the man facing them for an instant. With that rifle aimed at him, he couldn’t afford to.
Chas nodded, but he didn’t answer Scott. He talked to Rafe instead. “What’re you doin’, Rafe? You don’t want him. He ain’t Johnny Madrid.”
“I know it,” the man answered at last. “Madrid’s in the house with a bullet wound - right?”
Chas ignored the question. If Rafe knew that already, there was no point in confirming it. If he was guessing, then he wasn’t going to hand over the information he was looking for. “If you think that, why’re you in here?”
“Kinda curious about what you’re up to for starters, Chas,” Rafe said, tilting his head to the side a little. “Ya seem to be in real good with ‘em. You know they killed Tait?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Then what’re ya doin’? You musta been close enough to Madrid to have finished him off lotsa times. How come he’s still alive?”
“I talked with him. He gave me a different story to what we thought. He says it was a fair fight an’ Wes drew first.”
“An’ you believed him, just like that?”
Chas shrugged. “No, not just like that. But there’s somethin’ ‘bout him. Don’t think he got that reputation o’ his from backshootin’.”
“Maybe not,” Rafe admitted. “Don’t suppose it matters much, anyhow.”
“These folks are good people, Rafe. They didn’t turn me in when they caught me.” He looked into Rafe’s eyes. “They’d do the same for you if Scott here says the word.”
“That right?” Rafe asked. “An’ what did you give ‘em so’s they wouldn’t turn you in to the Sheriff? Tait maybe?”
“He didn’t turn any of you in,” Scott told him angrily.
“Then why’re you lettin’ him ride off?”
“It’s none o’ your business, Rafe,” Chas said coldly. “Things changed is all.”
Scott watched the barrel of the rifle as the young man talked, hoping to see it waver – even slightly – so that he could take a chance on shoving it aside to go off harmlessly. But the rifle didn’t waver. It was aimed straight at himself.
“You’ve been laboring under a misconception,” Scott told him at last. “Chas told us that you all figured Johnny had cheated somehow to kill your friend Wes, but he didn’t. It was a fair fight. Johnny was just faster and all this has been for nothing.”
“Never figured any different,” Rafe told him, with a grin that froze Scott to the spot.
Scott was stunned by the answer – too stunned to reply himself.
“Wes Kruger never was good enough to take on Madrid. He was good alright, but he was too cocky. He fancied he was the fastest man alive,” Rafe continued with a grin. “He’d never seen Madrid draw but figured he could beat him.” He shook his head. “That’s plain stupid.”
“Then why did you try to kill Johnny?” Scott asked angrily. “Why follow us here and shoot the place up?”
The man shrugged. “Tait an’ Chas were all fired up, so why shouldn’t I have some fun right along with ‘em? Got boring after a while though.”
Scott thought of Sarah lying on the floor bleeding, his brother fevered and hurt, and he lost his temper. He started to take a step towards Rafe, but Chas reached out and grabbed his arm to stop him. He knew that Rafe wouldn’t think twice about killing him.
“No, Scott!” he said urgently.
Scott turned on him. “He shot Sarah,” Scott told him furiously. “Have you forgotten that?”
“No, I ain’t forgotten it. But there ain’t no point in gettin’ killed right off, is there?”
Scott understood the words, but it took him another moment to get his emotions in check.
“Chas is talkin’ sense, Mister,” Rafe advised him with a leer.
“Why? If you didn’t care about killing Johnny, why go through with all this?”
“Madrid ain’t important t’ me,” the man answered cryptically.
“But, if that’s true, Rafe, why were you so intent on trackin’ ‘em?” Chas asked him angrily.
Rafe Little Crow grinned malevolently. “’Cause I like a good hunt,” he replied. “I knew he couldn’t beat me, but it was a challenge.” He looked past Chas to stare at Scott. “I ain’t been on a good hunt in years.”
“I don’t understand,” Scott told him, curiously.
“You think I hung ‘round to kill Madrid?” Rafe answered. “Revenge gets kinda stale after a while. But a good hunt – now that’s different. That goes on for as long as it takes.”
“Hunt?” Scott asked.
“It was you laid those false trails, wasn’t it?”
“What if it was? So what?”
“You didn’t do too bad,” Rafe told him obligingly. The man’s ego was showing. He puffed his chest out and grinned. “Not great, o’ course, but clever enough to keep delayin’ me an’ to make the chase interestin’.”
Chas began to feel very uncomfortable about the way the conversation was going. Rafe didn’t usually talk this much and he was beginning to worry that he wasn’t going to be able to talk him out of this.
His first thought had been that he could do just that. He’d always had what he thought was an honest friendship with Rafe. Dislike of Tait had held them together, given them something in common. He’d thought that Rafe was with them because of their mutual respect and admiration for Wes Kruger, but apparently he’d been wrong about that too.
No, Rafe Little Crow was a loner. He didn’t care about anyone.
“If you’re not interested in Madrid, or in revenge for Wes, then why didn’t you just take off when ya had the chance?” Chas asked him tersely. “I know you don’t give a damn ‘bout Tait bein’ killed.”
Rafe glared at him and slowly he smiled again. “Nope, you got that right. Only wish it had been me killed him. Always planned to put a knife in him one day.”
His attention was on Scott and he looked past Chas as if he wasn’t there, even while he was talking to him.
Slowly and cautiously, Rafe walked towards them. His rifle was still held steadily so that there was no chance of taking him.
“Never really hunted a man b’fore,” he said distractedly. “Kinda enjoyed it. You gave me a good run.” He seemed to drift off into his own thoughts for a moment. “I remember huntin’ a big ol’ cougar once. He was real smart. He gave me a good run, too. Seemed a shame to kill him when I cornered him. Even thought ‘bout lettin’ him go.”
He looked straight at Scott. “But I put a bullet between his eyes.”
“Well, I appreciate your compliments,” Scott said ironically, a chill going through him at the young man’s cold words. “But I don’t see what it has to do with any of this. Like Chas said, you could have just taken off and no one would have been the wiser. I don’t see why you’ve hung around.”
Rafe walked carefully past them and stopped just behind Scott. The man was close enough to be heard without speaking loudly but he stayed just out of easy reach. His proximity was disturbing, but the rifle was even more so.
“You don’t look like a man who’d be able to lay a cunning trail like that,” he said quietly, looking Scott up and down and apparently evaluating him.
“I had good teachers,” Scott answered. “I suppose I must have picked up a few things along the way.”
“Then you’ve learned from a master,” Rafe suggested.
“One or more,” Scott told him with a wry grin. The whole conversation seemed a strange one to be having in the situation they were in.
“’Admire his cunning an’ honor him for the chase’,” Rafe quoted cryptically, almost absently whispering it in Scott’s ear.
“What?” Scott asked, frowning. He looked towards Chas to see if he understood what the man meant, but Chas’s face showed just as much confusion as he felt.
Rafe grinned – an unnerving, demonic grin that exhibited no joy at all and sent another chill down Scott’s spine.
“A hunter taught me that – an’ more. He also taught me that a hunt can only end one way – when you corner your prey – an’ kill it.”
The words made Scott catch his breath. He suddenly understood what the young man was saying and how he saw him, but he said nothing and Rafe continued to talk.
“All this time you might’ve thought it was over. In fact, I was hopin’ that’s what you’d think so you’d let your guard down,” he whispered evilly, then continued, “but it wasn’t.” His eyes gleamed with his obsession. “I’ve been hunting you for days an’ you never knew. You got any idea how many times I’ve been out there in that yard, watchin’ ya? Watchin’ an’ waitin’ for a chance to finish it.”
He moved back a step and grinned again. “It’s been the most fun I’ve had in years – trackin’ you…stalkin’ you…”
Scott understood now and he looked towards Chas. He could see the frown on his face too and guessed that he, too, was seeing Rafe clearly at last.
The man sounded unhinged.
“Shut up, Chas,” he snapped back and he waved the rifle at him. “There’s only one way to finish a hunt, an’ the time’s come to end it. I just had to face him first and honor him for the chase.”
“Rafe, you don’t wanta do this,” Chas said carefully, still hoping there was a shred of sanity in him that would hear him and listen to him. “You don’t need to do this. You could just walk away. No one will say anythin’.”
“’Course I need to do it!” Rafe contradicted him determinedly, but it was Scott that he was looking at. He eyed him intently, coldly. “You hunt your prey till you corner it, an’ then you finish it off. That’s the only way to end the chase.”
“I take it that I’m your prey, then,” Scott said ironically. He turned his head to look at Chas. Maybe if they kept him talking long enough they might wear him down enough to jump him.
“Well, I’ve been called worse,” Scott added, shrugging his shoulders lightly and smiling incongruously at his tormentor.
“So have I,” said a voice from the barn door. Scott knew the voice immediately and closed his eyes in dismay.
Johnny had been listening from outside the door for a couple of minutes before coming to a quick decision to reveal himself. He didn’t like what he’d been hearing. The man they were dealing with here didn’t sound quite sane.
But what shocked him most was that he wasn’t after Johnny Madrid at all. He was after Scott Lancer – his prey - and he had been for some time. All the time Scott had been looking out for him, protecting him and he had been the one who was really in danger.
He sighed heavily, realizing that it was still his fault that his brother was in trouble. It had all started with that stupid kid in the saloon, forcing him to draw. Johnny asked himself, not for the first time, whether he really had done all he could to avoid that fight. Was there something he could have done to stop it? Why didn’t he just walk away?
He shook his head and forced it out of his head. There’d be time to think about that later – if they survived. If they didn’t –well it really wouldn’t matter anyway.
Right now, there was a madman in that barn and he was going to kill Scott without even a second thought unless he could do something to stop him.
A surreptitious look inside allowed him to quickly assess the situation in there. Scott and Chas had both been disarmed and the stranger, the man Chas had called Rafe, was standing very close to Scott holding the rifle and aiming it steadily at him. He was a few feet from him and Chas stood only a foot or two behind Scott.
They were both facing the back of the barn so he couldn’t see their faces and Rafe stood behind them, facing them, which meant that any move Johnny made into the open would almost certainly be seen immediately.
The three of them were standing well towards the back of the building and any chance he might have had of being able to pick the man off was made all the more difficult because both Chas and Scott stood between him and Rafe – right in his line of fire.
It wasn’t good.
There wasn’t much time to think out some clever strategy now. That lever action carbine was pointed very definitely at his brother, most likely cocked and ready to fire at the slightest jerk of his trigger finger. And the man holding it sounded like he was ready to act any moment.
Johnny also knew that he wouldn’t get very far in there before he was heard. His limp would make stealth impossible and movement awkward. He had no chance of sneaking inside and getting close enough to do any good.
He thought quickly. The only card he had to play was bluff. He had no idea how fast he was going to able to draw with a bad leg unbalancing him and a bullet wound in his shoulder to slow him down, but neither did the man inside.
It didn’t matter much anyway. Even at his best, there wasn’t a man alive who could beat a man holding a rifle already cocked.
No, sheer speed wasn’t going to be the answer this time. He’d have to distract the man and hope that Chas or Scott, or even both of them, could either jump their antagonist and disarm him or dive out of the way if he fired.
Johnny was sure the gun would go off when they moved, but he hoped they would be able to force that first shot to go wild.
What he would have to do was to draw and fire – and strike his target – before Rafe could lever another cartridge into the chamber and get off another shot. He wasn’t even sure he could do that when he was at his best let alone now. Nevertheless he hoped he was up to it.
His decision made, he pulled his shirt across his chest to cover as much of the bandage as he could and made sure that his shirt tail was tucked in out of the way of his gun belt.
Johnny didn’t know if Rafe knew the extent of his injuries. He was hoping that he didn’t. That would make his bluff all the harder.
He stood up straight, drew and checked his gun and then looked to see where the sun was in relation to himself and to the barn door. He slowly drew in his breath. Anyone in a position to see would have been surprised by the change that came over him.
Johnny Madrid stepped from behind the barn door and slipped into the building. He was barefoot so at least he could move a little more quietly, but he’d been right about the limping walk. It wasn’t easy to walk into the barn in silence.
His advantage turned out to be in the situation at the back of the barn. They were so engrossed in conversation – in each other and their own positions – that none of them noticed him.
He stopped about ten feet down the aisle and then made himself known. Scott’s words left an opening for him and he took it.
“So have I,” he said, his voice as hard as steel.
He waited for them to turn towards him. Scott’s face fell when he saw him, but Johnny couldn’t afford to think about that now. Chas simply looked stunned, while the stranger seemed pleasantly surprised.
Johnny hoped that the darkened room would make it hard to see the bandage on his shoulder and chest, but he didn’t realize the image he cast when they looked up. The sun glared through the doorway behind him and threw him into shadow, giving him an ominous presence.
Danger emanated from him like the glow of the sun at his back and it radiated around the room behind him. The temperature in the air seemed to drop as the others in the barn felt the hair rise on the back of their necks and their spines tingled.
“Madrid,” Rafe said quietly, almost in a whisper, but Johnny heard him.
“Heard you were lookin’ for me,” he answered in a tone that echoed his image. “Well, here I am.”
Rafe smiled malevolently. “You’re a nice bonus, Madrid, but it’s your friend here I’m after.”
Johnny looked towards Scott. “Him? Why?”
“Unfinished business,” the man said.
“Oh yeah, your hunt,” Johnny said and then added coolly, “I was listenin’.”
“Then you know I ain’t interested in you.”
“What I heard was you figured he was taught by a master – that right?”
“So that’d be me,” Johnny said with a smile.
“You?” Rafe asked, distracted at last.
“Johnny – no!” Scott protested, knowing he was trying to draw the man’s attention away from him and onto himself. It was a dangerous plan.
But Johnny ignored him. “That’s right. Taught him everythin’ he knows ‘bout trackin’. He was just a greenhorn when I met him.”
It wasn’t entirely true and Johnny secretly smiled at the thought of what Scott was thinking now and what Cipriano would have thought of his taking all the credit for teaching Scott about tracking.
Rafe looked interested for a minute, but shrugged it off quickly.
“It don’t really matter. You ain’t the one laid that trail. I was trackin’ him,” he said perversely. “Nah, he’s the prey I’m after.”
“Johnny, what do you think you’re doing?” Scott demanded angrily. He knew what his brother was up to, but then, Johnny had never expected anything else. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Johnny didn’t even look at him. “Shut up, Scott. I’m here now,” he said coldly. He looked over towards Chas instead. “Seems like your friend has some kinda strange notions, Chas.”
“Yeah,” was all Chas replied, but his face showed his fascination. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Johnny since the moment he’d become aware of his presence. He’d seen Johnny sick, angry, laughing and even cool and questioning, but this was something different.
With the sunlight behind him, Johnny’s face was hard to discern, but his voice was level and it had a knife edge to it. His shirt hung open to reveal the religious medallion that Chas had thought so incongruous when he'd first seen it, but the bandages Chas knew were there were hard to see in this light.
But it was more than that. Johnny looked and sounded like a different man. Even standing half dressed and without his hat or his boots, this man was a gunfighter – hard and calculating.
Chas had found the change in Rafe disturbing – frightening – but the change from Johnny Lancer to Johnny Madrid was chilling. The man emanated danger from every pore.
When Chas glanced quickly at Scott to see his reaction to the change in his brother, he was stunned to see, not surprise, but anger. Scott was furious at Johnny.
And Scott really was furious. He knew better than anyone what this was costing his brother, both emotionally and physically, and he hated being the reason for it.
He was also unusually impressed by the image Johnny had managed to project. Scott was certain that Johnny was making the most of the lighting. He knew him well enough to know that he would take advantage of anything available to him when he was in a tight situation.
But he shouldn’t be here. As he had gotten closer, and Scott’s eyes adjusted to the light, he could see the beads of sweat on his brother’s face. He knew Johnny was hurting and he knew Johnny was nowhere near being in condition for this sort of a showdown. It was more than likely that he would get killed with them.
Scott was livid at the thought.
Johnny saw the anger in his brother’s face and tried his best to ignore it. He hoped that Scott would get past it and understand why he was here and what he was trying to do.
He moved a step or two closer to them all, walking as normally as he could. He had to use all of his strength of will to force his leg to move as naturally as possible – no matter what the cost to him. He didn’t want that limp to show. The less this man knew about his condition the better.
Rafe hadn’t taken his eyes away from Scott and Chas, despite Johnny’s presence. The most Johnny had been able to get so far was a glance now and then in his direction. That rifle barrel was as level as it ever was.
“Stay put, Madrid!” he called suddenly, catching sight of Johnny’s attempt to get closer. “Any closer an’ I end this right now. I can take all three of you ‘fore you can clear leather.”
Johnny half smiled. Scott and Chas both saw a flash of fire in his eyes with it.
“Think so?” he asked coolly.
“You ain’t that good, Madrid,” Rafe answered, laughing.
“Maybe not,” Johnny admitted and then added coldly, “but maybe I am.”
Rafe grinned knowingly. “Not with a bullet hole in ya.”
Johnny caught his breath, but kept the disappointment from his face. Instead, his smile broadened to a grin.
“There’s been others thought that way,” he said, very calmly, and Rafe Little Crow’s grin finally began to fade.
The possibility that Johnny Madrid just might be that good after all seemed to have gotten through to him.
“Shuck your gun, Madrid,” he ordered, finally deciding that it wasn’t worth the risk to leave him armed. But Johnny made no move to obey him. He held his ground.
Rafe turned his head to glare at Johnny. He’d gotten angry now and he growled, “I said, shuck it – now!”
This time, the gun barrel moved with him. It moved just a little bit away from Scott, but it was their first chance – maybe the only one they would get.
Scott took the opportunity and made his move. He reached forward to shove the rifle barrel aside and came within inches of taking it before Rafe saw what he was up to. He swung the gun back quickly and took aim.
Chas saw his finger reach for the trigger. He screamed “No!” and threw himself at Scott like a stone flung by a slingshot.
The explosion of noise that went with the firing of that shot echoed in the barn as the two men fell to the floor in a heap. Chas heard the clicking of the rifle’s lever action and he knew they had only a split second left before Rafe would fire again and finish them.
He was sure he heard the bullet slide into the chamber and he braced himself for the shot he knew was coming.
Johnny heard a moan somewhere in the distance and for one distorted moment he thought it was his own. He fought off the temptation to give in to the blackness that sought him.
He was in more pain than he had anticipated. His shoulder felt like he’d been stuck with a red-hot poker and he was sure that a couple of the stitches in his leg had given way when he had drawn and fired.
But he pushed the waves of pain back and looked around him.
He was surprised he’d even heard the moan over the pandemonium around him. Chas’ horse was kicking the stall in panic and whinnying loudly and he’d set off two other horses in the barn that were kicking up a storm behind him.
The acrid smell of gunpowder smothered the usual barn odors. The smoke slowly cleared in the splintered rays of sunlight that were filtering in through the windows, revealing a tangled pile of bodies where his brother had stood a minute ago.
He had no idea who had moaned and he had no way of getting down there to find out. His leg had given way the instant he’d sprung into action and drawn. He’d gotten a shot off before he’d fallen to the ground in an ungainly heap and now he found that he couldn’t get himself up again.
For all he knew, Scott could be dead under that pile of bodies. Frustration set in and he tried again to get himself off the ground. He eased himself over to a stall and tried to push himself to his feet using the post for support. He got some leverage and thought he was going to make it, but his leg gave way the moment he tried to put any weight on it.
“Scott,” he called urgently, getting himself up to a sitting position and holding his arm to take the weight away from his aching shoulder. He still had his gun in his hand, just in case. Instinct had helped him to keep hold of the pistol as he fell, even with the bad arm. “Scott, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he heard his brother answer. Relief poured over him like a cool breeze and he closed his eyes for a second to catch his breath.
Scott’s voice was muffled by the weight of Chas’ body lying partly on top of him, but Johnny could see him now, trying to gently push the boy off him. “I’m alright, but Chas is hurt.”
“An’ what about Rafe?” Johnny yelled back. “Check him out, but be real careful doin’ it.”
Johnny could see the still form of Rafe Little Crow lying on the ground near Scott and Chas – too close for comfort. He might well be dead or dying, but if he wasn’t, if he was just unconscious, then this show wasn’t over yet.
Johnny held his gun ready to cover Scott in case Rafe was playing possum.
Scott pulled himself out from under Chas Rawlings and crawled over to Rafe’s body. He shoved the carbine out of the way first, on the off chance that he was alive and conscious enough to do something with it. But when Scott reached him there was a tell tale pool of blood under him.
He rolled him over carefully and came face to face with the man’s sightless, staring eyes – still with the wildness of his last minutes in them. It was an eerie sensation, but he ignored it and checked for a pulse just the same. He wanted to be absolutely sure before he turned his back on him.
There had never really been much chance he was alive though. Johnny’s bullet had hit him dead center in the heart. From the small amount of blood beneath Rafe, Scott guessed that he had died almost instantly.
Scott shook his head and wondered at his brother’s skill. It had been an almost miraculous shot and it had taken split second timing, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance. But he’d found his mark just the same.
He stood up and looked over towards Johnny. “How about you, Johnny? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Johnny told him.
“Well, Rafe is good and dead,” Scott told him. “We don’t have to worry about him any more. Can you wait while I check on Chas?”
“I’m okay, too,” Chas replied before Johnny could answer. He was struggling to sit up against a post, holding his right arm.
Scott saw a red stain spreading over the boy’s shirt as his shoulder bled unchecked.
“Sure you are, boy,” Scott said ironically. He walked the few feet over to where Chas sat and knelt down next to him. He opened the boy’s shirt and pulled it aside to check the wound. He eased Chas forward and checked his back. Sure enough, there was an exit wound that was bleeding just as badly. The rifle had gone off at close quarters and the bullet had passed right through the boy’s shoulder.
Chas was breathing heavily and his face was white. He looked enquiringly into Scott’s eyes as Scott pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his pants, balled it up and pushed it hard against the wound. Chas winced hard at the pain, but Scott ignored it and untied Chas’ neckerchief and did the same with that. He made a pad with it and slid it down under the back of the boy’s shirt. The shirt would hold it in place if he didn’t move too much.
At least it might hold until he got him into the house where they could do something better with it.
His actions brought a groan from Chas and the boy closed his eyes against the pain.
“Sorry,” Scott whispered, leaning the boy back against the post to use it to keep the pad on his back in place. He returned to the entry wound and put pressure on it. “I’ve got to stop that bleeding, Chas.”
“Yeah, I know,” Chas answered. He surprised Scott by smiling. “Never been shot before.”
Scott smiled reassuringly back at him. “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
Chas almost laughed and winced again. “Yeah, hurts like hell.” He looked over at Rafe’s body and sobered considerably. “He really dead?”
“Yes,” Scott answered and looked hard at him while he sat beside him keeping the pressure on the wound. “Are you sorry?”
“A little, I guess,” Chas admitted. “He wasn’t always like that.” He leaned his head back and thought about it. “At least, I don’t think he was. Maybe he was crazy all the time an’ I never saw it. Guess I didn’t really know him like I thought I did.”
Scott nodded. He took a deep breath and looked the boy in the eyes. “You took a hell of a risk shoving me like that. You didn’t have to do it,” he said quietly. “I owe you, Chas. Thanks.”
“No, ya don’t,” Chas told him. “I couldn’t let him do it. I owed you for givin’ me a chance at a new life.”
Scott smiled. “Thanks anyway. I won’t forget it.”
“What about your brother? Is he alright?”
“He says he is,” Scott answered, then he admitted. “But then, he always says that.”
“Can’t believe he did it,” Chas said, with awe in his voice.
It was an image that he’d never forget, no matter how old he lived to be. Johnny Lancer, or was it Johnny Madrid? They seemed separate somehow – standing in the shadows one second, looking ten feet tall and bullet proof with that sunlight behind him - and crouched with his gun in his hand a split second later.
The first few seconds seemed blurred. He remembered seeing Scott make a move for the rifle as Johnny tried to distract Rafe, but at the same time he saw the realization of what was happening on Rafe’s face. Rafe had swung the rifle back quickly to shoot Scott and something snapped inside Chas.
These people were the first to have shown him any real consideration in years and he wasn’t going to let either one of them die if he could help him. He’d leapt to push Scott out of the way of the bullet that he knew Rafe would fire.
He’d been right too. Rafe did fire.
Chas knew he’d been hit and the searing pain in his shoulder was like nothing he’d ever known before, but there was no time to think about it. Things were moving too quickly.
He went down with Scott under him and waited for Rafe to finish them both off.
Chas had had no expectation of surviving longer than the next second or two, but out of the corner of his eye he’d spotted Johnny going for his gun. The man had drawn - faster than Chas would have thought any man could - fanned the hammer back and fired off just one shot.
It had been enough. The bullet had taken Rafe in the heart and dropped him like a stone.
“You realize how fast he had to be?” Chas added passionately. “I ain’t never seen anythin’ like it.”
“I know how fast he is,” Scott told him calmly. “I’ve seen it before, remember?”
Chas dropped his eyes, recalling the circumstances that had set this whole chain reaction in motion. “Yeah, sorry,” he said quietly. “Miss Sarah was right.”
“She said he’s so fast it’s frightening.”
Scott smiled. “Did she? Well, maybe he is,” he admitted. “But don’t spread it around. There’s a lot more to Johnny than Madrid or his gun. He doesn’t want that kind of life. He doesn’t need more Wes Krugers coming after him.”
Chas nodded. “I get it,” he said quietly. He looked over to where Johnny was sitting on the floor. Nodding towards the padded handkerchief that Scott was holding to his shoulder, he added, “You know, I c’n hold that if you wanta go check on him.”
“Thanks,” Scott answered gratefully and put Chas’s hand onto the padded handkerchief. “Hold it tight.”
He stood up, turned and walked over to where his brother still sat on the floor. When he reached him, he noted the small bloodstain on his shoulder. The wound had reopened but wasn’t bleeding badly. He was relieved that he wasn’t losing a lot of blood, but annoyed that he’d put himself in a position for it to have happened in the first place.
He couldn’t see any bloodstains on Johnny’s pants, so he was hopeful that any damage he had done there wasn’t too bad.
He shook off the annoyance he’d been feeling as best he could. He had to admit that Johnny had gotten them out of trouble.
“Are you going to sit there all day?” he asked Johnny, grinning.
Johnny looked up at him and smiled. “Guess I can’t get up,” he confessed sheepishly.
“Yeah, I figured as much. I’ve got a good mind to leave you there.”
“Aw, come on, Scott,” Johnny said appealingly and looked away.
“I mean it,” Scott told him emphatically. “You knew you aren’t strong enough to try something like this.”
“Figured I could get by,” Johnny told him quietly. “I’m okay – see?.”
But Scott had already seen the beads of sweat on Johnny’s face. He was pale too. Scott softened a little. “You’re bleeding. Are you hurting bad?” he asked.
Johnny sighed. “Nope, it ain’t that bad.”
“You deserve to be. You know that, don’t you? Pulling a stupid stunt like that.”
“I pulled it off, didn’t I?” Johnny told him, a hint of anger in his voice. He looked back up at his brother and scowled. “’Sides, you gonna tell me you wouldn’t have done the same if it’d b’n me in trouble?”
Both of them knew that he would have. Scott smiled and didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
“So are ya gonna give me a hand or not?” Johnny asked petulantly.
Scott offered his brother his hand. “Come on, brother. Let’s get you back in the house. I’m betting Celeste will have something to say to you, too.”
Johnny grinned back at him and took his brother’s hand. He still couldn’t quite make it to his feet, so Scott bent down and slipped his arm around his waist to help him up.
Johnny hobbled unsteadily for a moment while Scott held him until he got his balance. When he was steady on his feet, Scott clapped him on his good shoulder and laughed. “You’re an idiot, Johnny, but thanks.”
“Chas is the one you should be thankin’,” Johnny told him. “Is he okay?”
“He’s been hit in the shoulder. The bullet went right through and he’s bleeding pretty badly,” Scott told him. “I want to get him into the house. Do you think you can stay on your feet while I get him there?”
“Sure, I’m fine. A little sore, but nothin’ I can’t handle. I c’n walk. Get the kid inside an’ I’ll be right behind you.” He stopped and grinned. “But you’d better knock on the door ‘fore you go in. Jelly’s in there with a rifle, an’ Sarah has the forty-four pointed at the door. Told her to shoot first an’ ask questions later.”
“If Sarah’s got the Henry, you’d better believe I’ll knock first.”
Scott let him go, but waited to make sure he stayed on his feet and then pushed the shirt away from the wound to see how much blood his brother was losing. The bandage was soaked through and he frowned.
“I don’t like the look of that shoulder, Johnny,” he said anxiously.
“It ain’t that bad, Scott,” Johnny told him when he saw his concern. “Go look after Chas. He needs help more’n I do.”
Before Scott moved, running footsteps coming into the barn drew their attention. They spun around together and Johnny lifted his gun ready to fire.
But they recognized Jelly immediately, running towards them with his rifle in his hands. The old man came in puffing hard and looking worried, but he came to a sudden stop when he saw them.
“Heard gun shots,” he said gruffly.
“Dammit Jelly, ain’t ya got more sense than to run up behind me like that?” Johnny replied angrily. He lowered the pistol and slipped it into his holster. “I mighta shot your fool head off. An’ I told ya to stay with the girls, no matter what.”
Jelly lowered his rifle and frowned at him. “Well, if’n you think anyone’s gonna get past that l’il gal with that big ol’ Henry, ya got another think comin’. She’s lookin’ after the house, but we was all dumb enough to be worried ‘bout you boys.”
“Alright, Jelly, you’re here now so you might as well make yourself useful. Can you help Johnny back to the house, while I give Chas a hand?” Scott asked him.
Jelly peered back to where Chas was sitting. “Is the boy hurt bad?”
“He’s losing a lot of blood. He needs more help than I can give him here,” Scott answered.
“Okay,” Jelly agreed. He looked at Johnny. “You alright, Johnny?”
“I’m fine,” Johnny said, still with a hint of anger in his voice.
“Oh, you’re fine, are ya?” Jelly argued testily. “Looks t’me like you went an’ busted that shoulder open. Lord knows what ya done to that leg. Pulled some stitches out, I reckon.”
Johnny leaned back against a post and dropped his head. He was getting tired and didn’t want either of them to know it. The trouble was, he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to hide it from them.
“Maybe,” he replied wryly.
“Yeah, I’ll just bet ya have. You’ll end up right back in bed where ya started - gripin’ an’ complainin’,” he moved across to Johnny and reached out to grab him, but Johnny shrugged him off.
“I c’n make it on my own,” he told the old man ungraciously, but Jelly held his ground.
“Sure you can – ‘bout three feet ‘fore that leg o’ yours gives out on ya an’ ya end up flat on your face.”
Johnny knew he was right and it was frustrating. He shook his head. “Jelly, if you weren’t so old an’ puny…” he began.
“Well, right now I reckon I could take ya with one hand tied behind my back, Mr. High an’ Mighty Johnny Lancer,” the old man said sarcastically. “Ya feel like tryin’?”
Johnny watched him shaping up to him and burst out laughing. “Nope, you’re probably right, Jelly,” he confessed between laughs. “I couldn’t take ya. Give me a hand to get to the house, will ya?”
“Well, I should think so,” Jelly told him huffily and put his arm around Johnny’s waist to give him some support. “Just take it as slow as ya like.”
Scott stood watching them go – Johnny limping heavily and leaning against Jelly while the old man berated him some more. They made an odd pair, but Scott knew how close the two of them were. Jelly Hoskins was one of the very few who could say whatever he liked to Johnny and get away with it. Johnny could never stay angry with him for long.
Satisfied that Johnny was in no immediate danger from his injuries, he turned back and returned to where Chas Rawlings was sitting. The boy was watching the two men slowly making their way out of the barn with a bemused expression on his face.
Chas had been looking on at the scene with fascination. He couldn’t believe that anyone could talk to Johnny Madrid the way that first Scott, and then Jelly, had spoken to him and get away with it.
Johnny’s reaction had been confusing. His seemingly almost meek acceptance of their words had seemed incongruous when he recalled the cold, calculating gunfighter he had seen earlier.
It had taken a few minutes before it dawned on him that neither of them was talking to Johnny Madrid at all. It was Johnny Lancer they had been scolding.
“Do you think you can make it to the house with some help?” Scott asked him.
Chas nodded silently.
“Let’s get you on your feet, then,” Scott said quietly. He didn’t like the look of the young man. His face was pale but beaded with sweat, and his breathing was labored. He bent down to get a grip on him and to help him to stand.
With Scott’s assistance, Chas managed to get shakily to his feet. He leaned back against the post wearily and Scott gave him a moment to get his breath.
“Are you okay?” he asked Chas. The boy had paled even more when he stood up. Scott thought he was probably dizzy, and perhaps even a little nauseous, from the loss of blood. It wasn’t going to be easy for him to walk across the yard.
Chas closed his eyes for a minute and then nodded. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
“Alright,” Scott repeated, unconvinced. He put Chas’s uninjured arm over his shoulder and his own arm around the boy’s waist. “Let’s get you into the house. We’ll take it nice and slow.”
Celeste ran from the house when she saw Johnny emerge from the barn with Jelly supporting him. The two men were half way across the yard when she reached them.
“Johnny, are you hurt?” she asked him anxiously, looking him over quickly and concerned at sight of the blood on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Miz Celeste,” Jelly said, before Johnny had a chance to answer. “He ain’t got no new holes in him. Just opened up a couple he already had.”
Johnny grinned reassuringly. “He’s right, querida. Chas is the one who’s hurt this time.”
“Badly?” she asked.
“He took a bullet meant for Scott,” he told her. “Scott’s bringin’ him. He’s bleedin’ some an’ he needs bandagin’ an’ tendin’.”
“And what about Scott? Is he alright?”
“Yeah, not a scratch,” Johnny assured her, glancing quickly aside as Sarah ran past them towards the barn.
Celeste noticed her too, but paid her no mind. Her priority now was her husband. Johnny was drenched in sweat and he looked pale and tired even though he sounded cheerful enough. So, despite the fact that he didn’t appear to have lost much blood, she wanted him inside where she could look after him properly.
“Jelly, I’ll take him from here,” she said firmly, slipping her arm around Johnny’s waist and nudging Jelly aside unobtrusively. “We’re going to need Dr. Barnes. Can you ride into town and let him know that Chas is shot and Johnny has reopened his shoulder?”
“Sure, I’ll go get him. Have him back here in no time,” Jelly told her, looking first at Johnny to make certain that Celeste was going to be able to manage him. He went to the corral to get one of the horses and head for town.
He saw Sarah Connolly dash past as well and stopped long enough to see where she was heading and shake his head. She was running towards Scott without another thought in her head by the look of her. The girl had an expression on her face just like Miz Celeste had and he figured he knew which way the wind was blowing there.
Scott guessed that Chas was very close to losing consciousness by the time they got outside into the sunlight. The boy was leaning against him harder and harder with every faltering step. It wasn’t surprising considering how badly he was bleeding. The makeshift pads he’d put on the wounds had slipped and hadn’t gone very far towards stanching the flow of blood.
The boy had fallen against him when they’d first started walking out of the barn. He’d gasped in pain and nearly collapsed then and there. No doubt he would have done if Scott hadn’t been handy to catch him.
Once in the yard, Scott saw Jelly at the corral. He stopped and then looked for his brother, knowing that there hadn’t been enough time for Jelly to get Johnny into the house yet. He relaxed when he saw that Celeste had taken over the job and turned to Jelly again.
“Jelly, if you’re going for the doctor, take Chas’s horse,” Scott told him when he saw him at the corral and guessed that he was heading to town for Will Barnes. “He’s already saddled and ready to go.”
One look at the boy, leaning against Scott and bleeding profusely, and Jelly understood how urgent the situation was for Chas. He needed help quickly. “Good idea, Scott. I’ll get the doc out here fast.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” Scott answered as he struggled to keep Chas on his feet.
They had gone only a few steps further when Sarah reached them. She came to a stop a couple of feet in front of them and her face expressed how appalled she was more than words ever could.
“Scott…?” she began, but she couldn’t finish the question.
“I’m not hurt, Sarah,” he assured her, and then he realized just how much of Chas’s blood was on him and what a sight he must present to her. “It’s Chas’s blood not mine.”
She pulled herself together and hurried to Chas’s side. “Let me help you,” she said, adding her arm around his waist from the other side.
“No,” a voice said unexpectedly from behind them.
“I’ll take him,” Tom said determinedly. He edged Sarah out of the way and helped to support his brother. “I thought I heard shots,” he explained, seeing the curious look on their faces. “Came back to see what’d happened.”
Chas heard his voice and looked towards it. He was obviously trying hard to focus on Tom’s face, but he could barely keep his head up.
“Tom…?” he tried to ask weakly, but he didn’t have the strength to finish.
“Take it easy, Chas. I’ll get ya inside,” he assured his brother.
Tom didn’t ask what had happened. Instead he looked his brother over, anxiously checking the boy’s wound and then he shook his head. “This ain’t gonna work,” he said sadly to Scott. “He’s about done in.”
Tom was tall and so slim that he’d been called string bean more times than anyone could remember. But the man was stronger than his slight build made him look.
Tom took Chas’s weight from Scott and scooped him up into his arms. He picked him up as easily as though he had been a child and he carried him towards the house, leaving Scott and Sarah standing and watching him.
Scott felt obtusely pleased with Tom. He approved of his friend’s actions. He appeared to have finally made the first step towards reconciliation with his young brother and without questions. He had no way of knowing yet that Chas had saved Scott’s life in that barn.
He turned towards Sarah and found that she was also watching Tom take Chas into the house. They were left alone in the yard and he put his hand out to put his arm around her shoulder and escort her inside too.
But Sarah shrugged him off and rounded on him.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again, Scott Lancer,” she said angrily.
“What?” he asked in real confusion.
“I thought you were hurt…maybe even dead. You scared me half to death.” she told him accusingly, fighting back tears.
“Well, I didn’t do it intentionally, you know,” he answered with a wicked smile that did nothing to ease her mood.
“Don’t laugh at me, Scott,” she said unreasonably, brushing aside a tear that escaped despite her best efforts. “Look at you – you’re covered in blood. What was I supposed to think?”
He pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her comfortingly. “I know,” he whispered in her ear. He brushed his hand over her hair soothingly and kissed the top of her head. Then he continued teasingly. “I’m sorry. It was all my fault.”
She lost her temper again and pushed him away. “You’re impossible. I don’t even know why I was worried about you,” she told him furiously and started to walk back towards the house.
“Sarah – wait.”
She called back at him over her shoulder without stopping. “Why?”
“Sarah, stop a minute.”
She halted and turned around to face him from a few yards away. “Why? What is it?”
“I…I want to talk to you.”
Scott hesitated. This was harder than he had expected and she certainly wasn’t in the right frame of mind for what he wanted to say. But he’d put it off so many times that he knew he had to keep going this time or it might never get said.
He walked over to her. “Sarah, I know how much you love this place,” he started. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “But maybe you could get Tom to manage the ranch for you if you were living at Lancer.”
“I think Tom would make a good manager. He’d have Joe here to help him out and…”
“Scott, slow down and go back a little. What are you talking about?”
He sighed. “I was hoping you felt the same as I do,” he said quietly.
She shook her head and her anger died away. She even smiled briefly. “Well, maybe I do,” she told him cryptically. “But you haven’t told me how you feel. If you’re saying what I think you’re saying – well, a girl likes to hear the words. You’re treating it like a military operation or some sort of business arrangement.”
Scott stopped and looked at her admiringly. He’d found her fascinating from the first time he’d seen her – even with that damned old Henry rifle pointed squarely at him. Now, it had come to this and she stood facing him with smudges of blood on her cheek and her dress from pressing against his own bloodied shirt.
He’d wanted to find the perfect time, the perfect way to broach the subject. This wasn’t it, but he was afraid that ideal moment might never turn up.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter.
“Sarah, I’ve wanted to say something for a long time, maybe too long. But the last time I was here the timing was all wrong. Gabe Tessman had just been killed and you’d had all that trouble. You seemed too vulnerable then.”
She nodded but didn’t interrupt him.
“And your letters weren’t exactly encouraging. They were so full of news and nothing else.”
Sarah frowned. “Well yours weren’t exactly love letters either, Scott,” she tossed back at him.
He smiled. “I suppose they weren’t,” he admitted, and then sobered considerably. “But Sarah, when I saw you on the floor covered in blood – I think my heart stopped. I knew for sure right then, but I was afraid I was too late.”
She looked up into his eyes, silently willing him to say the words she wanted and had waited so long to hear.
“I love you, Sarah,” he said quietly. “I think I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone before. I want to love you for the rest of my life and I want to have you beside me so that I can share that life with you.” He stopped and smiled. The words were finally easy to say, much easier than he’d thought they would be. “Marry me, Sarah?”
She closed her eyes for a second to let the words sink in, hoping against hope that she hadn’t dreamed this moment. Then she opened them and looked up at him, beaming. “Yes,” she said happily. “Oh yes, Scott.”
Scott took her in his arms and kissed her, softly at first, but then with more passion than he had ever felt before.
“Johnny, are you alright?” Scott asked – a grin beaming at the sight of his brother’s face.
There was no reply for a minute. Johnny just stood there, in the middle of Lancer’s Great Room - dumbfounded.
“Think I’d better go see Celeste,” he finally whispered and headed up the stairs to their room, leaving his father and brother laughing behind him.
When he got to the room, he knocked lightly before opening the door a little. Sam was smiling cheerfully and beckoned him in with a wave of his hand.
He walked in quietly, but found Celeste smiling at him. She looked exhausted, but happy and his heart skipped a beat. Even tired as she was, she was beautiful.
Just for an instant, he remembered her comments about ‘ugly ankles’ and her ‘expanding figure’ and he smiled. He’d even learned not to worry so much over the last few months, or at least, he’d tried not to let her see it.
In the days after the shooting, he’d healed more and more quickly until he chafed against being restricted to bed and being fussed over. Celeste had stood over him, hands on hips and scowling, telling him that she’d been putting up with much the same thing for months and ‘how did he like it!’
So they’d come to an agreement. If Celeste didn’t fuss over him, he’d try not to do the same.
He’d known it was hard on her. Her natural inclination was to help him get about and make sure he looked after himself, but she’d held up her end of the bargain pretty well and he had determined to do the same.
At least, he had until last night, when she had told him it was time to get Sam!
He’d spent the rest of the night, and most of today worrying himself into a cold sweat until the unmistakable sound of a baby squawling had broken the tension in the house.
Celeste looked a little paler than usual now, but her eyes were alight with happiness and he sighed discreetly with relief.
Teresa moved aside to let him sit on the edge of the bed, but he stopped for a minute to peek into the cradle beside it.
He found himself looking into a pair of tiny blue eyes draped by long black lashes and a cherubic face. A little fuzz of silken black hair covered the tiny head and he his heart swelled with pleasure.
“Meet your new daughter, Johnny,” Teresa whispered. “Isn’t she adorable?”
He bent over the cradle and reached in to touch her. She was so small. Her skin was soft and perfect. Johnny couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“What do you think of her, cheri?” Celeste asked gently.
“She’s beautiful,” he whispered, and then shook himself out of his reverie to turn back to his wife. He walked over and sat down carefully on the side of the bed.
“Are you alright?” he asked anxiously.
“I wouldn’t want to do it again too soon, my love,” she told him with a smile. “But I’m tired, that’s all.”
“She’s just fine, Johnny,” Sam confirmed from the other side of the bed.
Johnny looked up and watched him lean over the bed to place a small bundle in her arms.
“Your son, John,” Sam told him with a beaming smile. “They’re both perfect.”
Celeste pulled the shawl away from the baby’s face so Johnny could see him. “I told you I was having a boy,” she said happily. “He’s got your eyes.”
“If he’s like his father, he’ll be a handful,” Teresa said with a laugh.
“They’re kinda small,” Johnny remarked, putting his finger into one tiny hand and marveling at the baby’s grip on it. He was fascinated by every little move the baby made and found himself lost in the dazzling blue eyes that blinked back at him with a scowl lining the tiny forehead.
Sam nodded. “Well, they’re a couple of weeks early, John. But that’s nothing to worry about. It’s not unusual with twins, and they’re both healthy and strong.”
“We’re gonna need another crib,” he told Celeste distractedly, not taking his eyes off the tiny bundle in her arms.
She looked down at the baby, not catching Johnny’s eyes. “Actually, we have one. Jelly’s been making it.”
He narrowed his eyes and frowned, looking up into his wife’s face. “Why’d he do a thing like that?”
“I asked him to,” she answered cautiously.
“Are you tellin’ me you knew there was two of ‘em?”
“Only for the last few weeks,” she admitted sheepishly.
He looked over at Sam Jenkins. “An’ neither of you said nothin’ to me?”
Sam shrugged his shoulders uneasily. “She’s my patient, Johnny. I had to go along with her wishes.”
“And, cheri, you were so nervous about one baby. I hate to think what you would have been like knowing there were two,” she told him wryly.
“Johnny, you look like the cat that got the cream,” Murdoch said mischievously and laughed with the others in the room. From the moment Teresa had called out the news, first that Johnny had a baby girl, and then, minutes later, a son as well, the mood in the Lancer household had taken on a celebratory turn.
Johnny certainly did look pleased with himself, and his grin just got broader as he walked over to join Murdoch and Maddie, Scott, Jelly and Sarah. Teresa was still upstairs with Celeste and Sam.
Maddie edged closer to Johnny and looked up at him. “What are they like, Papa?”
He took her hand and smiled. “Well, Chiquita, they’re kinda small, but they’re real cute. I’ll take you up to meet ‘em soon as Celeste has some sleep.”
He turned back to the others. “She knew!” he told them in exasperation. “Celeste’s known for weeks. Says she didn’t wanta worry me. Can you believe that?”
Sarah laughed. “Yes, I can,” she said firmly. “I’m not surprised at all and I don’t blame her. You were driving her mad with your fussing,” She looked around at the others in the room. “You all were. You probably wouldn’t have let her out of her room, if you’d known.”
“An’ Jelly, she wants you to bring up that other cradle,” he said almost negligently, but watching the old man’s reaction carefully.
“Sure, it’s all ready…” Jelly started, then stopped and looked at Johnny in embarrassment.
Scott frowned at Jelly. “Jelly, you knew?”
The old man stood his ground. “Well, yeah I knew,” he said gruffly. “Knew for a coupla weeks. Miz Celeste wanted another crib made an’ she made me swear I wouldn’t say nothin’ to none o’ ya. She figured Johnny’d get wind of it pretty quick if any o’ you found out.”
Murdoch grinned. “I would never have thought you could keep a secret that long.”
“Well, now ya know, don’t ya?” he answered cockily.
Murdoch handed Johnny a glass of his finest brandy. “How does it feel, son?” he asked.
“Feels real good, Murdoch,” he answered delightedly. “But it’s gonna get kinda noisy ‘round here.”
Murdoch smiled. “No more than this house can stand, Johnny. It was build for a family, and it’s been a long time since there was a baby in it. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Well, there’s more than one, Murdoch. You sure you’re up to it?” Scott put in, accepting a glass from his father.
“Damned right I am, Scott!”
“What about you, Johnny? Three children means you’ll have to be a responsible family man now,” Scott smirked.
Murdoch nearly choked and spluttered brandy at the thought. “That’ll be the day,” he finally managed to say.
Johnny ignored his remark and turned to Scott. His eyes sparkled with mischief.
“It also means you’ve got some catchin’ up to do, big brother,” he told him with a smile.
“Don’t rush us, Johnny.”
Johnny laughed. “Gotta plan it out, have ya?”
Scott grinned. “Well, you can’t rush into these things.”
“Boston, it ain’t somethin’ you have to sit down an’ think about neither.”
Scott pulled Sarah close to his side and wrapped his arms around her. Tom was looking after the ranch for her with Joe acting as foreman and thinking he was in charge. Chas had stayed on, after all. He and Tom had established a good working relationship and were working on their personal one.
He held her tight and Sarah blushed hotly.
Scott grinned. “We’ll do our best, Johnny. Just give us some time.”
She smiled back up at Scott and added, “Just don’t go thinking that we’ll be catching up all at once.”
Scott laughed. “No, ma’am,” he agreed emphatically.
Her lips parted to answer with her usual retort, but she stopped abruptly.
Scott saw it and smiled with pleasure. Looking into her big brown eyes, he said happily, “You’re stuck with it now – ma’am. You’re not a ‘miss’ anymore - Mrs. Lancer,” and he placed a light possessive kiss on her forehead as she melted happily into his arms.