Shadow of a Dead Man
Usual disclaimers and I’ve rated it PG13.
It was a near suicidal plan, born of utter desperation. It was the only chance they had. She eased up onto her knees and then, slowly and carefully, she opened the door just enough to see out. There was plenty of moonlight and she could see him lying on the ground near the water trough.
He was so still. She couldn’t tell if he was alive or not. She’d heard the shot… what if he’d been killed by that first bullet.
She prayed that he hadn’t. Without him, they had no chance at all – and Grady was out there with Harner… his hostage.
She sat in the darkness, terrified. She was terrified for her son… terrified for herself… and strangely, she was terrified for that man out there.
He was risking his life for them and she didn’t understand why. All she had ever shown him was the barrel of her rifle. She’d placed him in mortal danger and, now, he had put his life in her hands.
“Now, I’m hopin’ he’ll hold up on his second shot an’ come out to finish me off,” Madrid had said. “An’ when he does, I want you to step out an’ scream…”
“Lancer… it’s Lancer – not Madrid. It’s Lancer! This is my father’s land… and that’s my name… not yours.”
God, he’d been so angry! He had every right to be. She’d left him defenseless against a man who held all the cards… and her son.
She’d face that later. For now, all she could think about was Grady.
Jessamie looked out into the yard. There was no sound… no movement. Even the crickets had gone silent.
His voice echoed in her head. “I only need a split second…”
She peered through the door and looked at him lying on his side… so still. She watched him, hoping to see the rise and fall of his chest. But the moonlight just wasn’t bright enough for her to see that far.
“You’re going to have to go out there an’ face the man who came here to kill you…”
Oh God, could she? Panic rose in her chest and she could feel it strangling her. Grady… she had to do this for Grady… for her son.
“You can do it…”
He was so sure. She wasn’t.
She listened for a sound and frowned as she concentrated on looking for anything out there that moved. It had been so long… moments had ticked by into seconds…
There it was – the soft scrunch of a heavy tread in the dirt. Harner was moving.
She heard more steps and then a shadow slid out of the bushes and moved slowly across Madrid’s body. It stopped, and she held her breath. Her heart raced. Harner stepped out of the bushes, carefully easing up to where Madrid lay.
She got off her knees and stood up, leaning against the wall and holding the doorknob. She was ready, but could she make herself do it?
Then she saw the gun. Harner stood over Madrid, steadying his aim for that finishing bullet – pointing it at his head and ready to fire.
Now… she had to do it now!
Jessamie tensed her body and drew in her breath, then she pulled the door open. She ran out onto the porch and screamed as she ducked behind one of the support posts. She flinched when the expected shot rang out. It hit the post above her head, sending splinters of wood across the porch around her.
A second shot rang out immediately. Her instincts told her not to look up but she had to see who was firing.
Had it been fired at her again? There was only one way to find out.
She lifted her head and turned around a little, still cowering behind the post. Madrid lay on his back now, the rifle in his hands still smoking and Harner took a step back and then hit the ground with a final, awful thud.
Harner didn’t move, but someone did. Out of the bushes, Grady ran around Harner’s body and past Madrid – straight towards her.
She leaped to her feet and ran out into the yard, sweeping her son into her arms and kissing his cheek with all the love and relief she had welled up inside.
Safe… it was over. She held her boy tight against her… so hard that he squirmed until she eased up a little.
Jessamie looked over at Madrid and watched him sit up and then slide himself over to lean against the water trough. He seemed to be favoring his left arm.
“For a moment, I thought he hadn’t missed,” she said to him. “I thought you were dead.”
Madrid looked down at his arm. “He didn’t miss,” he answered with a heavy sigh. “But I’m still alive.”
She stood up and hurried closer to him, kneeling in the dust while her son knelt by his side.
“Hello Grady,” he said kindly. He pulled out a paper from his belt and held it in his hand.
“What’s that?” she asked.
Madrid… Lancer… looked down at the paper. “Well… this is the deed to the land… it’s yours. Take a dollar an’ close it.” He pushed the paper into her hand.
She smiled. “I’ve got that dollar.” Jessamie closed her eyes. The deed… the land was really hers now. No more wondering if the owner would show up one day and turn them out.
“Well then, you’ve got a deal, Ma’am.”
She laughed lightly, relief washing over her till she felt light-headed.
“If you’ll come inside now, I’d be privileged to look at your arm… Mr. Madrid.”
“Thank you… Mrs. Lancer,” he answered ironically.
She helped him to his feet and let him put his arm over her shoulder and lean on her. Then she slipped one arm around his waist to support him, and the other around Grady’s shoulder.
Together they headed for the porch, but she felt him hesitate for a moment. She stopped and looked at his face. He was sweating heavily and, even in the moonlight, she could see that his skin had paled frighteningly.
“Are you all right?” she asked nervously.
“Yeah…” he answered, though he sounded unsure. “Just a little dizzy.”
Jessamie took her arm from Grady’s shoulder and reached around to take a better look at Madrid’s arm. Now that he was on his feet, the bleeding had gotten heavier. She suddenly realized that this wasn’t just the graze that she had first thought.
She felt him lean harder against her, his knees sagging alarmingly.
“Grady, run into the house and put on the lamp for me,” she told the boy as she suddenly felt a sense of urgency.
Her son looked up at his friend and seemed to grasp the situation too. He ran, stopping only long enough to stoop down and pick up Johnny’s pistol off the ground before he raced into the house.
Jessamie took more of the man’s weight and helped him as he tried to step up onto the porch and into the house. He was breathing hard and his steps began to falter as they reached the table. She pulled out one of the chairs and he almost fell into it, clutching his arm and groaning. His head fell forward until she couldn’t see his face any longer.
She glanced down and saw how badly he was bleeding now. A scarlet droplet slid off the end of his middle finger and dropped to the floor, replaced by another almost immediately.
“Grady, put some water on the stove and then get that old sheet from the chest in my room. Bring it here to me, quickly.”
“Yes, Ma,” the boy answered, looking at Madrid. But he hesitated. “Brung your gun for you, Johnny,” he told him proudly.
Johnny turned his head and smiled at the boy. “Thanks Grady,” he said between heavy breaths. “Now run and do as your Ma said.”
Grady nodded eagerly and then ran to do as he had been told.
Jessamie got down on one knee and unbuttoned his shirt, then she carefully slid his arm out of the sleeve. She saw him bite his bottom lip as she moved the arm. “I’m sorry,” she said uncertainly.
“’S alright,” he whispered as he lifted his head to see her. “Do what you’ve gotta do. I can stand it.”
She looked at the wound and frowned.
“I don’t know much about these things, Mr. Madrid…” she stopped and looked into his eyes. “I’m sorry… Mr. Lancer.”
“Johnny’s easier,” he told her with a half hearted smile.
She smiled back at him. “All right, Johnny then. But I still don’t know very much about gunshot wounds.”
He looked down at the arm and frowned. His breathing was labored now and he winced as he shifted position on the chair.
“The bullet…” he said, leaning back and closing his eyes. “Has it gone through?”
She looked at the other side of his arm, hoping against hope that it had. But there was no exit wound. “No,” she told him.
“Can you see it then? If it’s close to the skin there’ll be kind of a lump.”
“I’ll have to look closer. It’s going to hurt,” she warned him, frightened.
“Yeah, I know…” he answered, opening his eyes and looking at her steadily. “Just do it.”
With barely enough light to see by, it wasn’t as easy task. She wiped away as much of the blood as she could with her handkerchief and moved his arm gently towards the light, but she wasn’t able to see the bullet.
He drew in his breath, steeling himself against the movement.
“No, I can’t see it,” she said shakily.
He closed his eyes and nodded. “Alright, you’re going to have to take it out.”
“I… I’m not sure that I can,” she whispered anxiously. Then, in desperation, she suggested, “We could get you to town in the wagon. Maybe someone there…”
He shook his head. “You can do it,” he assured her, looking deep into her eyes. “I know you can.”
She hesitated a moment longer, then slowly nodded.
“Good girl. Now, there’s a knife… a small one…in back o’ my boot,” he told her, panting a little as he let his breath out. “Wash it an’ heat it up…”
She wasn’t going to be able to do this. Jessamie sat back on her heels and silently worried her bottom lip.
Johnny opened his eyes and looked into hers. He was sweating profusely and she watched one heavy droplet roll from his temple down his cheek. She felt an urge to reach out and brush it away but, before she could do it, he wiped it away with the sleeve still covering his right arm.
Her doubts must have shown on her face.
“How far to the nearest doctor?” he asked.
He’d made his point. She closed her eyes and lowered her head. “Not for fifty miles…”
“Then you’ll have to do it, Mrs. Lancer.”
She nodded and lifted her head to look into his eyes. “I guess Jessamie’s easier,” she told him, smiling.
“Guess so,” he answered with a wan smile, just as Grady ran to her side with the sheet she’d asked for.
“Here you are, Ma,” he said excitedly.
She took it from him and pulled him close to hug him. Grady seemed to find this exciting and she was strangely grateful for it. “Thank you, Grady,” she whispered, then she let him go and reached for the back of Johnny’s boot to get the knife.
“Other one…” he said, and smiled. How did he manage to take this so calmly?
She found it and pulled it free. It was small – about three inches of blade – and narrow, and it was razor sharp.
“You okay, Johnny?” Grady asked nervously.
“Sure…” Johnny assured him.
Jessamie got to her feet. “Grady, fetch the lantern hanging on the side of the pantry,” she told him firmly. “Light it and bring it over here.”
Grady looked pleased to be able to help and dashed over to the pantry.
“Will you be all right for a minute?” she asked Johnny.
He nodded. “Yeah… I’m fine.”
She hardly agreed but left him sitting in the chair, holding his arm close to his chest. He put his right hand over the wound and gripped it so tightly that she saw him suck in his breath and pale.
Unnerved, she turned to the stove. The water was boiling and she put the blade of the knife into the pot and let it sit while she went back to the kitchen bench and poured cold water into a basin. Washing her hands carefully, she dried them and then tipped the water out the window, then she went back and took the pot of water from the stove.
Carefully, she tipped the hot water into the same basin, then she took the knife out of the bottom of the pot. It was searing hot.
She looked at the knife and told herself again that she could do this. She COULD do this. She had to do it – there was no one else.
Jessamie carried the bowl and the knife back to the table and sat down in a chair facing Johnny. She picked up the sheet that Grady had brought and tore strips off it, then rolled them into bandages. He watched her without a word. It was unsettling; his sitting there, watching and waiting.
Finally, she looked at him and saw a sense of inevitability in his eyes.
Her son stood behind her. “Grady, I want you to stand beside Mr. Madrid…” She looked at him again. “Beside Johnny, and hold the lantern…”
His eyes flashed for a moment, then went icy cold as they met hers.
“I need to be able to see…” she began, annoyed that his pride was getting in the way of common sense. What would it matter if the boy saw him scream? The boy hero-worshipped him – so what if that changed? Grady would only find out that he was human and there was no harm in that.
“No… find another way.” He glanced at Grady and she caught something in his eyes. “He shouldn’t,” he whispered and it suddenly came to her that it wasn’t foolish pride at all. He was concerned for Grady. “He’s too young…”
“Maybe, but there is no other way, Johnny,” she said sympathetically. “Grady will be fine.”
“I ain’t too young, Johnny,” the boy assured him. “Honest.”
Grady picked up the lantern and stood beside Johnny, holding it up so that it shone on Johnny’s arm.
“You look away, Grady,” she told her son quietly. “Understand?”
He nodded timidly and looked towards the door.
She edged the boy into the right position and then took one of the strips of sheet, folded it up tight and thick and handed it to Johnny.
“You ready?” she asked nervously.
“Get it done…” he answered and put the wad of material between his teeth. He’d done this before…
It had gone deep – almost right through his arm. And it had embedded itself in muscle. From the moment the hot knife had touched his flesh he had struggled to stay still, stoically holding back the scream she knew must be welling inside him.
At first, she was lightheaded and feared she’d faint but, once she started, she forced herself to persevere. She felt the tip of the knife touch something and thought at first that it was bone. But a little careful poking around convinced her that it was metal. Slowly, she edged the bullet back through his arm. The process had been slow… so slow that she couldn’t see how he could stand it.
And then it caught just as it neared the surface. The bullet was close enough for her to see it clearly, but the knife just couldn’t force it out. In the end, she’d had to pull it out with her finger and thumb and Johnny’s body had jerked back and stiffened as she pushed them into the wound. He had finally been forced to let out that scream - muffled though it was by the cloth in his mouth.
She looked at the small, battered chunk of metal in her fingers – fingers that were covered with blood – and she felt the urge to throw it as far away as she could. Instead, she put it down on the table in front of her. She rinsed the blood off her hands in the basin of hot water. She’d have to wash her hands properly later, when she had time. There was blood still under her fingernails when she lifted her hands out of the water and she swallowed hard against the bile rising in her throat.
Jessamie tore of a square of material and dipped it into the hot water. Her fingers tingled in the near boiling water and he gasped again as she touched it to his skin and washed the wound carefully. It was still bleeding heavily – worse than before, but that was hardly surprising after the rough treatment she’d given it. She picked up one of the pads of material and held it tightly against the arm, but the blood soon began to seep through it.
Johnny was breathing heavily and sweat poured off his face. His hair was sodden and clung to his forehead and face. His head hung low as he took a moment to compose himself and then took the cloth from his mouth with a hand that shook despite his best efforts to stop it.
“Grady, go fetch Johnny a glass of water, please,” she whispered to her son, and suddenly she realized how pale he was. He didn’t move for a moment, so she took his arm lightly and reassured him. “Johnny’s going to be just fine, but he’s thirsty.”
The boy nodded his head. “Okay, Ma,” he said quietly and then left them.
Johnny looked down at his arm. Blood had reddened the pad and was already beginning to ooze from it. “You’re gonna have to cauterize it,” he managed to tell her.
“Has…” he stopped and swallowed. Then he gathered himself again to talk. “Has to be done.”
Grady came back with the glass of water in his hand. He held it out to his mother and she put it into Johnny’s. It shook visibly, and she could see how it upset him. Wrapping her hand around his, she helped control the glass while he drank the water.
When he’d finished, she put the glass back onto the table. She looked at the bloodied wad of sheeting she was pressing on his arm and knew with a depressing certainty that he was right.
“Grady, I want you to go and see to Johnny’s horse,” she told her son, still holding the pad tightly to Johnny’s arm.
“But, Ma…” Grady began to protest.
“Barranca’s still saddled, Grady,” Johnny whispered. “You think… you think you can unsaddle him for me?”
“Good…” Johnny stopped and closed his eyes. He took a moment to re-gather some strength to finish. “Good boy… he knows ya… he won’t hurt you, but he needs to be seen to. Maybe some oats, if you’ve got ‘em.”
“I know he won’t hurt me,” Grady assured him, his attention caught at last. “An’ we’ve got some oats. I’ll look after him.”
“Thank you, Grady,” Jessamie said.
He turned to Johnny and assured him eagerly. “I’ll look after your horse for ya, Johnny.”
Jessamie took away the pad and folded another, pressing it tightly to the wound. Her fingers were reddened again with his blood. She had a horrible feeling that she’d never be able to wash it off them.
She took his right hand and lifted it to hold the pad in place so she could do the things that had to be done. It was a strong hand… roughened from hard work, but shaking unsteadily. For a moment, she kept her hand over his and felt her heart beat just a little louder than usual. No, she shook the feeling away. There was no place in her life for that kind of nonsense.
“Can you hold it for a minute, Johnny?”
She stood up and walked to the fireplace on the other side of the room. There she picked up the poker and pushed it in between two burning logs. Her actions were all mechanical. She felt like all choice had been stripped from her. In fact, it had. It was for her to do it or no one.
Well, it had been that way for years – just her and Grady. Worrying about another human being was totally alien to her now – especially a man.
But she owed it to this man. She’d wronged him and he’d been hurt because of her wrong.
Jessamie left the poker to heat up, then walked back to the table and sat down to face him again. “I’m going to get you to the bed,” she told him firmly. “Do you think you can make it?”
He looked down at the pad on his arm. It was oozing freely. “It’s gonna be kinda messy,” he said. “Better do it right here.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said, smiling. “I’d rather you pass out there than here.”
Johnny nodded slowly, accepting that it was likely to happen. She stood up, gently slipped her arm around his waist and helped him to his feet. He wavered and she thought he might lose consciousness right there and then. She’d never get him to the bed if that happened.
But he didn’t fall. He swayed dizzily and leaned most of his weight against her. His shirt still hung half on and half off, but his good hand was holding that pad over the wound, so she left it there. Then he straightened and blinked his eyes a couple of times.
“Are you all right?” she asked anxiously.
“Alright, one step at a time,” she advised him and eased him forward. He took a step but didn’t fall over. Having taken one, he seemed to gain momentum and walked very slowly towards the bedroom.
When they got to the door, he stopped and leaned against the jamb. His breathing was rasping now, and his neck and chest glistened with perspiration.
Jessamie gave him a minute there, and then nudged him into moving forward again. When they reached the bed, he all but fell across it.
She lit the lamp on the battered chest of drawers in the small room and then she pulled and pushed him into position on the bed, with less and less help from him.
She walked steadily back out into the kitchen and picked up the basin of hot water, the bandages and what was left of the sheet. The wad of material he’d had between his teeth sat on the table, staring at her. He’d need it again, so she picked it up as well. She went back in and cleaned the wound again, then stood up, walked out to the fire and pulled out the red hot poker.
God, how he’d screamed! He had tried so hard to make it easy for her, calmly telling her that she could do it while eyeing the red hot poker ominously. Then he’d put the folded scrap of sheeting back between his teeth and turned his eyes away while she hardened herself to do what they both knew had to be done.
And she had. The dreadful smell of burning flesh still hung in the air and revolted her stomach. She hated to think about what it had been like for him.
But he’d stayed conscious throughout most of the ordeal… through far too much of it. When his eyes finally rolled back and his lids fell closed, she’d felt a surge of relief.
Once she was satisfied that the bleeding had stopped, Jessamie had thrown the iron onto the floor in horror and sat down on the edge of the bed to look at him. His jaw hung slackly open for a moment and she gently took the pad from between his teeth, though she was sure he wouldn’t wake yet. Then he closed his mouth and seemed to sink deeper into the pillow.
Jessamie set herself to work cleaning the blood from around the wound and down his arm. It was then that she found the cut on the back of his hand. The stream of blood flowing from his arm had camouflaged the injury. It occurred to her that he had run out into the yard with his hand already hurt, hoping or expecting to be able to use it well enough to kill Harner before he was killed himself.
She sat there, pondering what kind of self-confidence – or fear perhaps – had pushed him to try it, when she realized that she was still holding his hand. Shaking away the reverie, she set about carefully wiping it clean of blood and she studied it until she was sure that it didn’t need stitches.
She remembered the salve she kept in the house for Grady’s mishaps and fetched it from the kitchen while he lay quietly. She pasted it over the hole in Johnny’s arm before covering it with a clean pad of material and bandaging it carefully. Then she put some on his hand and wrapped it. Now that he was unconscious, she didn’t have to worry about hurting him and she finished quickly and easily.
“Ma? What happened? I heard…”
She turned around to find Grady in the doorway, his face ashen and he was looking at Johnny with eyes full of fear.
“Ma! Is he dead?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“No Grady, he’s all right,” she hastened to reassure him, smiling warmly. “But I had to hurt him to make it better. It’s all over now. He’s sleeping.”
“Is he hurt bad?”
“No, Grady, it’s not that bad,” she told him gently. “But it’s painful and he’s lost a lot of blood. He might be very weak for a day or two.”
His eyes hadn’t left Johnny. “Grady?” she whispered calmly. “Did you finish unsaddling the horse?”
The boy nodded and walked tentatively towards the bed, his eyes on his friend. When he reached her side, she slipped her hand around his shoulder.
“Will he be all right, Ma?”
“Yes, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she told him, intent on keeping her own fears out of her voice. Johnny had lost a lot of blood before she’d cauterized the wound – perhaps too much. “He just needs to sleep for a while now.”
Grady nodded but didn’t say a word.
“Will you help me with his shirt, Grady? I’ll lift him a little and you pull it the rest of the way off.”
She moved further along the edge of the bed and put her hands on Johnny’s shoulders to lift him. He had the strong taut muscles of a man who worked hard and the warmth of his body sent an unexpected thrill through her. She chastised herself again for letting her mind slip from the task at hand and lifted him up a little way off the bed.
He was heavy, all dead weight, and it was hard work lifting him and holding him even only for long enough for Grady to pull the shirt out from under him.
“Got it,” Grady said triumphantly and held it out to show her.
“Good boy,” she said as she lowered Johnny back gently and wiped the sodden hair from his face.
She got to her feet and stood back, suddenly feeling far too aware of the man. Jessamie had never seen a grown man shirtless. She watched his chest rise and fall rhythmically, strangely fascinated for a moment. Then she frowned and moved back to the bed to feel his forehead with the palm of her hand. It was warm… not hot, but definitely warmer than it should be.
“You want me to take his boots off?” Grady asked, barely distracting her.
“Yes, dear…” she answered distractedly, keeping her eyes on Johnny. He needed cleaning up too. His face was streaked with perspiration and dirt. His right hand was covered with his own blood.
Looking up at last, she realized that Grady had already set to work pulling the man’s boots off. He was finding it hard, but persisted with it valiantly. She smiled at her son.
Jessamie was surprised at how he had taken to Johnny. He never met strangers and didn’t have many opportunities to make friends, even with boys of his own age. Was it loneliness? Was he just that he was responding to having a man around? Or was there something about Johnny himself that Grady liked?
Whatever it was, Grady certainly thought of him as his friend. Perhaps, if she’d taken his friendship with Johnny more seriously… tried to understand it rather than take it for granted that she knew better; perhaps, then, none of this might have happened.
But she turned the thought away. She’d had reason to think that she should fear him. The moment the word ‘Laramie’ had come up, she’d panicked.
She picked up the bowl of bloodied water and took it out to the kitchen, throwing it out the window and replacing it with most of what was left in her jug. She’d have to go out to the pump for more once she had Johnny properly settled.
By the time she carried the replenished bowl back into the room, Grady was standing beside the bed with Johnny’s boots beside him and the man’s gun belt slung over his shoulder. She couldn’t help but smile. He looked so pleased with himself.
“Good work, Grady,” she told him and tousled his hair affectionately.
Putting the bowl on the dresser, she set to work wiping down Johnny’s face, arms and chest.
She noticed a scar on his shoulder, then another on his chest, both obviously bullet wounds. There was another long scar over his ribs that she thought might be from a knife wound. Slowly, she came to realize that this rancher, if that was what he really was, had more scars than most men should have. Tentatively, she touched one small, ugly scar on his chest. It was close to his heart and must have been a near thing.
The scar was puckered with age but felt soft beneath her fingers. Slowly, she dragged her fingers away from it, through the curled dark hairs on his chest. She felt another strange new sensation creep over her and warm her.
She jerked suddenly… guiltily aware that her son was still in the room.
Jessamie pulled back and frowned, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring down at the man who had saved them all. She realized that, despite what he had done for them, she still knew nothing about him.
Why had he chosen to call himself Madrid? He could have just said, then and there, that he was Johnny Lancer.
She had no idea what she would have done if he had. There had always been that lingering fear that someone would come one day and take back the land.
It wasn’t worth much. It barely kept them going, but it was all they had.
And had Harner been telling the truth when he’d said that John Madrid was a famous gunfighter?
Yet, Johnny had had the deed. She believed in that piece of paper, if nothing else.
Johnny had screamed at her that Lancer was HIS name, not hers. Yes, she believed him, but she still had to wonder why he’d chosen the name ‘Madrid’, of all names.
“You want me to help get his trousers off, Ma?” Grady asked, drawing her attention. He was still eager to be of help. “They’re all covered in dirt.”
Jessamie felt the warmth of a blush slowly creeping over her face. She hadn’t blushed in years and she grew angry with herself.
“No, Grady,” she said firmly. “I’ll take care of it. You go get yourself ready for bed. I’ll be out in a minute and get you some of that rabbit stew.”
“Aw, Ma! I want to stay with him for a while.”
“No, he’s sleeping. He’ll be fine,” she insisted. “You skedaddle.”
Grady turned and grudgingly left the room, leaving Jessamie to stare at Johnny. He showed no signs of coming to.
‘Well, it’s not getting done this way,’ she told herself and set to work unbuckling his gunbelt. She slipped it out from under him and unhooked the loop at the base of the holster from the silver button on the side of his trouser leg. Rolling it into a neat bundle, she put the holster onto the dresser and turned back to her task
She undid the belt around his waist and slid it out of the loops, putting it to one side. Then she began unbuttoning the trousers.
Despite her determination to be perfunctory about it, her hands shook as she pushed the buttons back through the tough denim and opened them. She’d never stripped a grown man and thoughts of Curtis Hobert kept intruding into her mind.
She pushed away the horror of that night with all the willpower she could muster, but the tremors remained as she opened the last of the buttons and eased his pants down from his waist. A sigh of relief escaped her when she realized that he was wearing drawers and she tugged gently at the trousers, inching them over his hips and dragging at them until they were all the way off.
Placing them on the end of the bed, she turned back and tried to ignore the sneaking warmth in her cheeks. She quickly lifted the covers and pulled them up to his chest, straightened out the creases and tucked them in carefully, then sat down on the edge of the bed looking at him.
Asleep, he looked so much younger than she had thought he was… and so much less threatening. It came as something of a surprise to realize that he was probably younger than she was. She thought about it. It had been a long time since she had bothered to count the passing years, except for Grady’s sake.
She’d been nineteen years old when Grady was born. Now he was seven. Yes, she figured that she would be older than Johnny by a couple of years. But that confident swagger and charming manner, not to mention the gun tied low on his leg, had added years and maturity to him.
There had been a time, short though it was, when she had wanted desperately to trust in him. Looking down at her through the hole in the roof, even faced with the rifle in her hands, his smile had virtually disarmed her. He’d made light of her churlishness and she’d felt almost at ease for the shortest time.
But years of fear and distrust had won out and she’d let the moment pass – a decision she bitterly regretted now.
A lock of his hair, damp with perspiration, clung to his forehead, just over his right eye. Jessamie reached over and gently lifted it and moved it aside with the tip of her finger and thumb. Her finger lingered on his face a moment longer than was necessary, her mind intrigued by the feel of his hair and the warmth of his skin.
He sighed softly and startled her. She pulled her hand back in fright and watched him, but he didn’t wake. So she stood up and waited another minute while she made certain that he was resting easily and then turned away.
Grady was waiting for her at the table. She set a plate of stew down in front of him and remembered that she needed to get some more water from the pump. If Johnny developed a fever, she’d need it through the night.
"Grady, I have to go outside to get some water. I won’t be long, so stay here and finish eating. Call me if Johnny needs anything, okay?”
“Sure Ma,” he agreed, turning his head around to the doorway. She’d left it open for now.
“Thank you, Grady,” she answered with a smile for him. Sometimes her heart just swelled with pride in him and tonight she was more thankful for him than ever.
She took the jug and walked out onto the moonlit porch. Broken glass crunched underfoot – a reminder of the bullets that had smashed her cabin apart only hours ago. She made a mental note that she would have to clean it up before Grady cut himself and then stopped as if struck. Harner’s body still laid out there – a stark reminder of the reality of what had happened tonight. The moonlight shining on his expressionless face gave it a waxy, unreal sheen and she shuddered violently.
Somehow, she had forgotten that his body would still be there. She chastised herself for her stupidity. The man was dead. How could his body just disappear – only because she wanted it to?
Well, she sure couldn’t leave him lying there.
She walked slowly out to the pump, trying hard not to look at the body, and then pumped the handle quickly to fill the jug and get back inside. A terrible thought suddenly occurred to her. Grady must have passed Harner’s body when he came outside to look after Johnny’s horse. She felt tears prick her eyes for the things her son had seen over the last few hours.
When the bucket was full, she turned towards the porch and hurried back, determined not to look back out into the yard.
Once there, she stopped at the doorway and leaned heavily against the doorjamb, breathless with revulsion and the expectation of what she was going to have to do – for she had already decided what had to be done. Leaving him there just wasn’t an option and taking him into town for burial would be even more difficult – not only because of the physical effort to get him onto the back of the wagon but because, while it might seem like the ‘decent thing’ to do, it would raise questions… questions she didn’t want to answer.
Jessamie had spent too many years building up a story of a dead husband and using the name of Lancer to have people wondering why someone had tried to kill her. They might start digging and bring out the truth about her past.
The truth could destroy her son’s life. Perhaps, if it was only herself, she would do this the way that it should be done and bring in the law, but she had to consider Grady and that made up her mind for her.
Besides, the law in Cavitt Springs didn’t amount to much. Like the doctor, it was fifty miles to the nearest ‘real’ lawman. No one actually held the title of sheriff hereabouts. There was only Alby Michaelson, justice of the peace and honorary marshal. Jessamie doubted that he would even know what to do about a hired killer. He’d probably rather not know about it at all.
That meant getting rid of the body here, by herself. Johnny would not be able to help her even if he were to wake up right now, and she had no intention of accepting Grady’s help. He was too young to face this. No, she’d bury him somewhere by herself.
But not on her land! She glanced over to the table where the deed to the property still laid. This was HER land now. No longer did she have to worry about someone coming to claim it back and throw her off the only place she and Grady had known as a home. What was more, if she wanted to sell it, she could now. It opened up all kinds of prospects for them.
She couldn’t bring herself to desecrate it by burying Clovis Harner on it.
If she could just drag him out past the gate, she could plant him outside her property and try to forget that he had ever come here.
Jessamie put the jug of water on the bench and suddenly realized that Grady was no longer at the dinner table. His plate appeared to have been cleaned in record time and she knew where she’d find him.
“Grady,” she whispered from the doorway to the bedroom. Her son had pulled a chair over to the side of the bed and sat there, watching Johnny. “What are you doing in there?”
“I didn’t want him to wake up all alone,” the boy answered gravely.
“And has he?” she asked as she walked over to the bed. She didn’t think that he had and Grady confirmed it. Jessamie put her hand on Johnny’s forehead. She sighed. A fever was the last thing he needed now but it seemed as though that was what he was heading for.
He didn’t stir and she turned back to her son. “Grady, do you think you could watch him for a little longer? I have something to do outside.”
“Sure, Ma,” he assured her eagerly. “He’ll be just fine. I’ll stay right here with him.”
“I’m sure he will,” she told him with a smile. “If he wakes, or if he needs anything, you call me. But you stay with him otherwise. Understand?”
She left them then, trusting her son to stay by Johnny’s side.
Outside, she stood on the porch and leaned against the post. At first, she couldn’t take her eyes off Harner’s body. She thought of the terrible moments earlier when she had been so sure that she’d die, and her son with her. She closed her eyes against the images playing out in her mind, but they were still there - darkness, gunshots and Johnny’s angry outburst… the sudden realization that she had asked the wrong man for help.
When she opened them again, she caught sight of the splintered wood on the post where a bullet had nicked it and nearly killed her – and not by accident. That bullet had been meant for her. She fingered the slivers and finally pulled them away from the post angrily. Splintered – it was just like her life - little pieces torn apart that would never be whole again. That night of terrible violence all those years ago had left her bitter and distrusting; and she wasn’t sure that she would ever be able to change that.
But she resolutely steeled herself against the dark thoughts and prepared for what she had to do. She looked out into the yard again and suppressed a shiver rippling down her spine, telling herself it had to be done – and that she was the only one who could do it.
Resolved, she stepped off the porch and walked to the barn, taking a pick and shovel and heading for the gate. She had to pass Harner and stared determinedly ahead without looking at him.
The ground out by the oak tree, on the other side of the road to her place, was as hard as rock. From the first bite of the shovel, it was tough work and it didn’t get any easier digging a hole big enough to conceal Harner’s large frame. It took a lot longer than she’d thought it would.
Sweating and dirty, her hair straying in tangled tendrils around her face, she turned back towards the gate.
It swung open with a creak that made her cringe and she stood staring at the body of the man who had tried to kill both her and her son. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, they would all be dead… lying there cold and lifeless instead of Harner.
She shivered again. She didn’t want to touch him and drew a deep breath to steady herself.
Jessamie took hold of his ankles and lifted his legs, thankful that his boots meant that she didn’t have to touch his skin. It was harder than she had expected. The corpse had stiffened considerably already and bile rose in her throat.
She forced herself to keep going, pulling hard. The body didn’t seem to budge so she stopped and took another cleansing breath. Then she heaved on the man’s legs with all her might.
He moved. She was sure of it, though it had only been an inch or two. Still, it gave her the confidence to try again… and again. Slowly she inched the body across the yard, stopping often to catch her breath and push her hair out of her face.
She wanted nothing more than to get this over and done with. He was a big, heavy man and it was hard work - but she was used to hard work. It surprised her that she could move him at all, but once started, she found it easier with each yank on his legs.
With infinite patience and dogged determination born of the desperate need to do this, she dragged Harner’s body across the yard. She’d almost reached the gate when she her sweating hands slipped off the leather boots and she fell back into the dust. Tears stung her eyes and her resolved almost disintegrated. She couldn’t do this. It was too hard.
“Damn you!” she cried out in desperation. “Damn you to hell!” She balled one fist and slammed it into the ground, then stopped and sucked back a sob.
Then she realized how far she had come – more than half way. She looked back at the house and remembered that Grady would walk out in the morning and see Harner lying there if she didn’t keep on trying.
“I can do this,” she told herself aloud.
Angry with herself, she swiped the tears from her eyes and pushed herself to her feet. She took hold, again, of the man’s boots and heaved till her arms ached. Soon, she was past the gate and she stopped – exhausted and panting – at the hole near the oak tree.
She prayed that she had made it big enough. Her arms screamed from her efforts and she didn’t want to have to dig any more. So, rolling the man over, she watched as he dropped into the shallow grave and closed her eyes with relief.
When she opened them again, she found herself looking into his stark, unseeing eyes. He’d landed on his back and the moonlight gleamed on the pale waxen face that had been Clovis Harner. His mouth hung slightly open and those eyes stared back at her in surprise. Infinitely confident in himself and in his precautions, Harner hadn’t expected to face death. Madrid had caught him off-guard and the astonishment of it all still showed on that face.
She drew back in shock, caught her breath and felt her stomach turn over, roiling and revolting at the sight. Then she fell to her knees and threw up.
Minutes ticked by. She sat there on the ground dragging air into her lungs and trying to spit out the ghastly taste in her mouth.
Then she forced herself to face her demons and looked back into the hole in the ground. Her stomach clenched, but that was all.
But this wasn’t finished and she knew it.
The shovel lay on the ground beside her and she reached a shaking hand down to pick it up. Trembling, she got to her feet and pushed the blade of the shovel hard into the pile of soil, then threw it into the hole.
The dirt landed with a muffled thud and she cringed. She gritted her teeth and hurled in another… and another – gaining momentum with each shovelful of soil in a near frantic effort to finish it and get away. When, finally, the hole was filled, she patted it down as flat as she could with the back of the shovel and turned away.
It was over now. She walked back to the barn and returned the pick and shovel to their places. There, she stopped and took a deep breath. She looked at her hands. They were dirty, but no longer trembling. Her heart had stopped pounding at last.
Jessamie walked over to the water trough and thrust her hands into the water. She rubbed and washed till most of the dirt was gone, then pulled them out and dried them on her skirt. She looked around her at the house, the barn, the windmill and the dusty earth beneath her feet.
It was hers now, but would it ever be the same?
Jessamie walked into the bedroom and found her son still sitting where she had left him, in the chair by her bed. But his head was tilted slightly askew, his eyes closed.
She realized now that she’d been outside for a couple of hours – much longer than she had expected. She hadn’t meant to leave Grady in charge of Johnny for so long.
Quietly walking past her sleeping son, Jessamie put her hand on Johnny’s forehead. It felt like his temperature had gone up a little but he jerked his head away so quickly that she couldn’t be sure. She frowned, then sat down on the edge of the bed and tried again.
This time, he laid still long enough for her to realize that a fever was starting in earnest. He was too warm and let out a heavy sigh when she touched his cheek with the back of her hand.
“Shhh…” she whispered and brushed his cheek soothingly; not at all sure that he would hear her. “It’s alright. Lie still.”
Whether he heard or not, his head drifted to one side and he seemed to relax.
A soft sigh behind her made her turn around. Grady was rubbing his eyes and sitting up.
“Hi, Ma,” he said, then he caught sight of the man in the bed. “Is he better? I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“It’s alright, Grady,” she assured him. “I didn’t mean to be gone so long.” She glanced back at Johnny. “And he seems to be fine. You run off to bed now and I’ll watch him for a while.”
Grady nodded sleepily, apparently far too exhausted to resist the idea of his bed. He’d had too much to deal with and she worried that it would take its toll on him. So far though, he appeared to think it was all an adventure.
Suddenly, he frowned. “You’re all dirty, Ma,” he told her. “Whatya been doin’?”
“There was some cleaning up to do outside,” she explained vaguely. “Now, off to bed with you.”
He glanced towards Johnny and then nodded. “Okay, ’night, Ma,” he said quietly and padded across the room to his bunk.
He climbed up into his bed while she walked over and pulled the blanket up over him. Kissing her son’s forehead lightly and running the back of her hand fondly down his face, she whispered, “Sleep tight, Grady. Everything is going to be alright now.”
“I know, Ma,” he answered confidently, nodding his head and smiling at her. “Johnny will look after us. You’ll see.”
She smiled back at him lovingly. “Go to sleep,” she whispered and drew away. She pulled the curtain between their beds closed and found herself alone again with Johnny.
Looking down at herself, she realized why Grady had remarked on her clothes. There was dirt and blood all over her clothes. Even worse, all her effort to move and bury Harner had resulted in a stale smell of sweat that had permeated her clothes. It offended her nose.
She couldn’t stand it any longer.
First, she checked Johnny once again. He seemed to be resting quietly now, sleeping. But that fever, and his reaction to her touching him, worried her. She hoped that it wasn’t the first sign of worse to come.
She took the bowl of water to the front door and hurled it into the yard. Then she went back and filled it again. She found a clean cloth and returned to the bedroom.
Something hard and cold tripped her. Catching her breath and frowning, she reached down to see what it was and froze. The poker lay there, right where it had landed when she’d tossed it aside earlier. It was cold now – cold and heavy as she picked it up. The sight of it shocked her more than she would have believed possible.
Fighting off the images it conjured; she walked back out to the fireplace and put it where it belonged. With a final shiver, she turned away and went back to the bedroom.
She decided to wash and change quickly so that she could sit with him. It looked as though she was going to have a long night and, if that fever worsened, she might not get a chance later.
Pulling the closet door open quietly, she took out a dress and she pulled open the drawer of her chest to get clean underwear. It creaked, ever so slightly and she turned to take another look at Johnny. She was sure he was asleep and she was sure he’d be fine until she came back in.
Jessamie picked up the clothes, as well as the basin and a towel, and went to the other room. Glass crunched under her shoes as she passed the broken lamp and she shivered at the reminder of the horror that had swept through their lives only hours ago.
She wasted no time finishing up and hurried back to the room, taking the basin with clean water and cloth back with her. But, when she put it down on the dresser, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the chest of drawers.
She saw how tangled and untidy her hair was. The mirror had a crack in the bottom corner but, even so, she could see just how much of a mess she looked. Annoyed, she picked up the hairbrush and set to work, irritated still more by the constant drag on her scalp as she forced the brush through the matted tangles.
Finally satisfied, Jessamie found a ribbon on top of the chest and tied it around her thick red hair. Red hair! She hated it. At least Grady had been spared the dreaded red hair and the awful freckles that she’d put up with at his age and for years after. She put her fingers to her nose and looked carefully into the mirror, frowning heavily to see in the dim light. It was funny that she had never noticed that the freckles were gone now.
Surprised, and a little annoyed with herself for even thinking about it, she put the brush down with a determined thud, then quickly glanced over her shoulder to make sure that she hadn’t woken him.
Johnny hadn’t moved but he seemed to be resting more easily. His head was turned away from her so she couldn’t make out if his face was flushed. The light would make it hard to tell anyway, she acknowledged to herself.
Her fingers brushed his face and she worried about the heat she found there. She dunked the cloth in the bowl and wrung it out, then she wiped his face gently before placing it on Johnny’s warm brow.
Anxiously, she tried to think everything through. He’d lost a lot of blood, but he was a young man – apparently healthy and strong. She’d seen that for herself. He’d been through a terrible ordeal when she had removed that bullet and stopped the bleeding though, and he’d worked a long hard day so he must have been worn out even before the tension and the fear of the confrontation with Harner.
She thought back to her awkward attempts to get that bullet out and closed her eyes against the memories. She hoped she’d cleaned it well enough after to avoid serious infection.
Had she done everything she could? She owed that much to him.
Quietly, Jessamie stood up and pulled the chair over closer to the bed. Sitting in it, she made sure that she was within reach of him should he need her quickly. Then she leaned back and rested her head against the back of the chair.
It was so quiet. Even the echoes of the gunshots and the glass smashing had died away. It left an almost unnatural silence about her; an eerie silence in the darkness.
It was a single word, spoken in what was little more than a murmur and it was so quiet that she wasn’t even sure what he’d said. Yet it shattered the silence in the room as surely as those bullets had shattered the glass in the door.
Jessamie leaned forward quickly, but Johnny’s eyes were still closed. Whatever it was that was going through his mind that had prompted him to speak, it would stay with him. He seemed to be still asleep.
She took the cloth, now warmly damp from the heat in his skin, and dunked it again in the basin. Wringing it out, she smoothed it over his face and then replaced it on his brow. Then she sat back in the chair and sighed heavily.
All the tension, stress and fears of the last twenty-four hours began to seep out of her, leaving her more tired than she remembered being in years. And tiredness was something she was used to living with – out here with only Grady to help her to run the farm and with him to look after as well. But this was different. The gamut of emotions that she had seen tonight was finally taking its toll.
Her eyes began to slide closed of their own accord. There was a delightful peace in the darkness behind those lids but she forced them open again and resettled herself, determined to fight away the cloying desire to sleep. She had to be there for Johnny.
Something was wrong. She could feel it. Jolting her eyes open, she realized it was daylight. She had fallen asleep, despite her determination not to.
Johnny’s eyes were on her – open and remarkably blue – staring back at her with unmistakable curiosity. They almost took her breath away.
She’d noticed them before when he’d looked down at her through the hole in the roof. If the truth were to be told, even when he’d first arrived they had caught her attention. But this morning, locked on her own eyes, they were almost irresistible.
“Mornin,” he said, his voice a little husky but otherwise clear.
She reached forward and touched his forehead. The cloth had fallen away but the fever didn’t seem to be any higher than before. He was still too warm but there wasn’t the raging fever that she’d been so worried was coming.
“How do you feel?” she asked nervously.
“Pretty good,” he told her and she shook her head.
“I don’t believe you, Mr. M… Johnny,” she said. “You have a touch of fever and you can’t tell me that your arm doesn’t hurt.”
He looked away from her then. “A little, I guess.”
He suddenly looked worn and pale. “You must be thirsty,” she said gently. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
She started to get up.
“I’ll get it, Ma,” a small voice behind her called out. She turned in time to see Grady emerge from behind the curtain. He was still in his long johns, straight from bed. His hair was tousled and there was still sleep in his eyes.
“Thank you, Grady,” she answered with a smile. Turning back to Johnny, she located the washcloth and soaked it in water. When she’d wrung it out, she leaned forward and wiped his face lightly.
“Thanks,” Johnny said quietly and she pulled away self-consciously. Exasperated with herself, she wet the cloth again, folded it and laid it across his brow.
Grady was back; beaming with childish eagerness and holding a glass of water for Johnny. “Here you are, Johnny,” he said and held it out for his friend.
Johnny tried to pull himself up in the bed, but Jessamie caught the grimace of pain on his face when he tried to use the injured arm.
She stood and moved to his side. With a little assistance from her, he eased himself up enough to lean against the head of the bed and she did her best to fluff some life into the sad old pillow behind him. When he reached out a hand that shook unsteadily, she took the glass from her son and held it for Johnny instead. So close to him, she could almost feel his discomfort while he let her hold the glass to his lips.
“That better, Johnny?” Grady asked, naively unaware of the awkwardness between them.
“Sure is, Grady,” Johnny replied. “Thanks.”
“You should get dressed, Grady,” Jessamie suggested. “There’s eggs to be collected before breakfast.”
“Sure, Ma,” he answered cheerfully. “Want me ta milk Rosie, too? That way, you can stay an’ look after Johnny.”
“Thank you, Grady.” She beamed at him proudly. “You go on and milk Rosie.”
Her son tilted his head and took stock of his friend, scowling. “You do look kinda poorly, Johnny,” he remarked at last.
But Johnny only grinned. “Nah, I’m fine. I’d milk Rosie for you myself, only,” he stopped and turned his eyes on Jessamie, a hint of embarrassment in his voice, “seems like I’m not dressed for it.”
Before she could answer, Grady explained. “Ah, you was passed out. But I pulled off your boots for ya, Johnny,” he told him with an eager grin. “Ma took your pants off for ya.”
“Grady…” Jessamie gasped, startled. But she didn’t miss the gleam of amusement in Johnny’s eyes.
He turned his head slightly and looked at where he was lying. “Seems I took your bed last night, too,” he remarked. “Sorry.”
“Nah, you can sleep in Ma’s bed anytime, she don’t mind. Ain’t that right, Ma?”
There was no hope of stopping the blush that crept up from her neck and warmed her cheeks. It wasn’t helped by Johnny’s laugh.
“Grady, go get dressed and fetch the eggs,” she told him firmly and looked away to hide the rising red on her face. Then she remembered to add, “And make sure you put your shoes on. There’s still a lot of broken glass out there.”
“You want me to clean it up, Ma?”
“No, I’ll do it. You just watch out for it.”
“Okay,” he agreed and hurried off with more energy than she thought she would ever have again.
With Grady out of the room, Jessamie folded her arms across her chest and scowled at Johnny. “I think you enjoyed that a bit too much,” she told him in an aggrieved tone.
But, again, he only grinned back at her in that infuriatingly disarming way of his. He leaned slightly towards her and told her, almost conspiratorially, “You look real pretty when you blush.”
He was teasing her, and she knew it. But, to her fury, she felt the heat rising in her cheeks again. Before she could snap an angry retort at him, he added, with unadulterated mischief sparkling in his eyes, “And I like the ribbon.”
Unconsciously, her hand went to her hair and touched the ribbon that held it back. “It’s better than that bandana thing you wear,” he finished.
“If you’ve quite finished, Mr. Lancer,” she said, as coolly as she could. “I think I should change the bandage on your arm.”
“Ouch,” he said, with a frown, but a wicked gleam in those eyes of his, “Time to get even, huh?”
She wasn’t going to play. It was time to take back some control of the situation. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She reached over and put her hand to his forehead. “You have a fever and it has to be coming from somewhere,” she told him firmly. “Best I make sure there’s no infection in that wound.”
Jessamie swept the shards of glass into a neat pile in the kitchen and scooped it into a dustpan. It was one less reminder of last night and she tossed it into the garbage pail with a sense of relief.
Already she had chipped the broken remains from the windows and from the door. It was like chipping away at the memory of the bullets and the stark terror.
Her thoughts went back to the man lying in her bed. Awake, he was certainly a different proposition to what he had been when he was asleep. While he was unconscious, she’d let sympathy and gratitude blind her to the danger that he presented. Her instinctive distrust of strangers, of all men, suddenly reared up and reasserted itself.
Questions came into her mind. Why had he been so willing to stay and work for her when, all the while, he had known that she wasn’t who she said she was? With that deed in his pocket, he could have thrown her off her place at any time. Yet he hadn’t. Why? What did he want from her?
And why had he given that name of all names? Why Madrid?
She told herself that she would have to be more careful. Already she had felt unfamiliar stirrings within her – feelings that were new to her. They frightened her. She knew that she was attracted to him and that it had to stop before she got herself hurt.
She went back to the stove and turned it down, then poured the hot water into the small basin on the table.
Gathering up the strips of sheet that she had rolled into bandages, Jessamie made her way back into the bedroom. He was still awake, but he looked worn and pale. The mischievous gleam had gone from his eyes when he turned his head towards her. He was tiring already.
Stopping for a moment, she hardened herself against those eyes before walking in.
She avoided his gaze and pulled the chair close to the bed, unwrapping the bandage on his arm carefully so as not to hurt him more than she needed to. He said nothing, but she could feel him watching her every move. It felt vaguely uncomfortable.
He grimaced as she reached the end of the bandage and found it had caught fast to the wound.
“I’m sorry,” she said with regret. “The bandage is stuck. I’ll have to wet it down to loosen it.”
He only nodded his acceptance and she dampened the cloth in the warm water she’d brought with her. Dabbing lightly, she worked at it while he closed his eyes and stoically let her do what she had to do.
It was little more than a whisper and it came so unexpectedly that she stopped what she was doing and looked at him. He was staring straight ahead, not at her, and he was sweating.
Jessamie recalled giving him leave to use her name but, now that he had, it touched something raw inside her. It was so personal – too personal. It seemed as though it had been years since anyone had said her Christian name out loud. She’d been cut off from friends and family ever since she’d left Laramie and the people she knew in Cavitt Springs had never gotten close enough to her to call her anything other than Mrs. Lancer.
But that had been her own choice. She made a point of keeping herself aloof from them. Her own distrust and fear had barricaded her from the world.
She tried to ignore the feeling and went back to work moistening the bandage.
“It’s a pretty name,” he added, breathing heavily.
She couldn’t keep on ignoring him. “Thank you,” she replied awkwardly and concentrated on her task.
He was quiet for a moment, then spoke again. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
A little surprised, she glanced at his face and noted the frown and the beads of sweat. A thought suddenly occurred to her. Perhaps he was trying to sidetrack himself from the pain.
“I suppose not,” she finally said and went back to dabbing at the piece of bandage. “My ma liked unusual names, I suppose. My sister is Rosamund.”
He smiled a little. “I like yours better.”
From nowhere, a question formed itself and she asked, “Why did you choose Madrid of all names?”
He didn’t answer for a minute and she looked at him, concerned. But she couldn’t read his face.
“Why do you ask? Did Harner say somethin?” he inquired quietly.
“Only that he’d heard the name all the way down to the border.”
He sighed. “Yeah, he would have, I guess.”
“Then why use that name?” she asked, more curious than ever.
He didn’t get a chance to answer. The bandage was finally damp enough to loosen from the wound. She put the cloth aside and lifted the bandage carefully. It came away, but he closed his eyes against the pain and pushed his head back further into the pillow.
As the material came away, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“How’s it look?” Johnny asked, his eyes still closed.
“I’ll need to clean it up a little more before I can tell.” She looked over to him. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’ve had worse,” he answered with a wan smile. Yes, she could believe that. The scars were right there on his chest to prove it. He opened his eyes and turned them on her, all but dissolving her resolution to be wary of him.
She caught herself and set about wiping away what was left of the salve she had applied last night.
“I know it was hard for you,” he continued. “Takin’ the bullet out.” He turned his head back and laid it down into the pillow. “I want you to know how grateful I am.”
She thought about brushing that aside, but he was right - it had been hard. And she knew that he would know she was lying. “Well, I haven’t ever had to do anything like that before,” she admitted. “But it had to be done. I’m just glad I was able to get it out.”
“So am I. Thanks.”
“It seems like the least I could do,” she admitted. “I nearly got you killed.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not the first,” he said, with an awkward attempt at lightheartedness. He looked back at her. The frown had returned to his face. “And Grady… is he okay?”
“Grady still seems to see all of this as an adventure,” she assured him. “He’s alright. Now stay still and let me finish. I’ve got some rabbit stew out in the kitchen. If you think you can handle it, I’ll get some for you when I’m done here.”
He was quiet, frowning heavily.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she reminded him, hoping to take his mind off the wound. “Why did you say your name was Madrid?”
He seemed to take a deep breath before he spoke. “I didn’t just pick the name outa nowhere,” he finally said. “I am Madrid.”
“I am Madrid.”
It took her so much by surprise that she stopped what she was doing and stared at him.
“But you said…”
“My name is Johnny Lancer, just like I told you,” he explained with a firm note in his voice. “Least it is now. But I used to call myself ‘Madrid’.” He sighed heavily. “Things… changed.”
“You’re a gunfighter?” she asked warily. Had her instincts been right after all? Should she be worried about having him here in the house with her - with Grady?
“Used to be,” was what he answered.
“I… I don’t understand,” she stumbled. Too many thoughts raced through her head to be able to firm any one of them down. “You had the deed…”
“Because I am who I say I am,” Johnny told her. “My name is Lancer. Murdoch Lancer is my father.”
When she didn’t say anything more, he added, “It’s a long story, but I don’t hire out any more.”
It wasn’t what she’d wanted to hear. Harner had been afraid of Johnny Madrid. The man had lied about a lot of things, but he had seemed to be genuinely worried about facing Johnny Madrid. She had gotten that impression strongly enough from him to still believe that it had been true.
Then Johnny turned his face to her. “Listen, I used to be a gunhawk, but don’t put me in the same basket as Harner, Jessamie,” he said, very quietly. There was almost a plea in his voice. “I was never like him. I’m not sayin’ that I didn’t do things that… well, things I shouldn’t have done. There’s a lot of things I regret, but I never hunted men for the bounties on their heads. I never went after women or kids.”
Jessamie dropped her eyes away from his. She couldn’t think clearly with them on her. She felt a strong urge to get up and walk away. Harner’s voice, his fear of Madrid, rang in her ears.
But there was something in Johnny’s voice that made this easier to accept – a touch of regret, she thought, or perhaps it was something even deeper than that. She wondered about that ‘long story’ he had mentioned and thought she might like to hear it when he was ready.
Pretend – that was her answer. That was what she’d do. Pretend that he hadn’t told her anything; pretend that none of her fears existed.
She finished cleaning the wound and took a closer look at it.
“Well?” he asked.
“I don’t know a lot about bullet wounds,” she told him. She wasn’t sure that that was the question he had in mind, but it suited her to answer as if it was. “But it doesn’t look too bad.” She stared at the gaping hole in his arm and hoped, for his sake, that she hadn’t paled. There was some inflammation around the edges of the wound, but otherwise it was clean and that was a relief.
She looked up to find that his gaze was on her. The gleam of mischief had long left his eyes. There was no sparkle in them at all, but a depth of sadness that wrenched at her. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m puttin’ you to a lot of trouble…”
“Now you’re talking nonsense again,” she said brusquely. “None of this is your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I shouldn’t have trusted Harner.”
And that was the truth. She shouldn’t have. Why had she? She still didn’t understand it. She hadn’t trusted anyone since Laramie, but she’d been so desperate for help. She caught her breath at the thought of what might have happened because of her mistake in judgment. “I nearly got you killed,” she whispered. “I nearly got us all killed.”
Jessamie dropped her head. She couldn’t meet his eyes, but she could feel him looking at her. The bedsprings creaked a protest and she looked up to see him hitching himself up in the bed. He winced and avoided using his injured arm then he turned and leaned towards her.
“Jessamie, listen to me,” he said firmly. “You’re not the first person who didn’t trust me. And you had every reason to be frightened.”
“Not of you.”
“No, but you weren’t to know that,” he persisted. “I’ve been wrong about people myself, lots of times. Don’t fret about it.”
She suddenly wanted to forget that this conversation had ever happened. Lifting the small jar of salve, she put a little on her fingers and smoothed it over the wound, then picked up the clean bandage and set about re-binding the arm. The muscle tightened under her fingers and she stopped for a moment, turning to see him wince slightly. It was a strong arm, built for hard work… or a fast draw.
“I am Madrid.” The words kept echoing in her head. She pounded her fists into the dough and let the words reverberate around her head once again.
She’d finished re-bandaging his arm and then his hand, tried to get him to eat a little of the stew and then let him drift off to sleep. Exhaustion had caught up with him.
Jessamie had sat watching him sleep for a few minutes. While he slept, it had been easy to pretend that he was just plain Johnny Lancer – a rancher’s son who had risked his life for her and her son.
It was easy to pretend that he had never said those three words.
Then she’d walked out of the room on unsteady legs and set about dragging her life back into some semblance of normality, finally returning to the bedroom for his shirt and her clothes. She stopped for a moment to make sure that Johnny was still sleeping soundly and put her hand gently to his forehead.
The fever was almost gone and his sleep seemed peaceful enough, so she left him and went back to her work.
Later, out in the yard and hard at work scrubbing the blood and dirt from her skirt, she watched Grady emerge from the barn. He had something in his hands, too tiny for her to see.
“What have you got there, Grady?” she asked him, brushing aside a straying lock of her hair with the crook of her arm.
“Scratch cat is back,” he told her with a huge smile. “She’s got babies.”
He held out his hands and revealed a tiny bundle of fur. “Ya think Johnny’d like to see it?”
“Johnny’s asleep and you’re going to leave him that way,” she told him firmly. “And that kitten should be with its mother. It’s far too young to be away from her.”
“I wasn’t takin’ it far.”
“Well, now you’re taking it straight back,” she said. “Did you feed those horses?
“Yeah, Ma,” he answered. “An’ I brushed ‘em down too. Johnny’s horse is really somethin’, ain’t he?”
“Isn’t he,” she corrected absently. “And yes, he’s a fine looking animal. Now, take the kitten back to its mama.”
He dropped his head and turned obediently, leaving her to smile as he walked back towards the barn. He didn’t come out again and she guessed that he was too engrossed with the cats to finish his chores for a while. She didn’t mind. She had the uncomfortable feeling that he thought that Johnny would stay.
She banged her hands into the dough and rolled it over to knead it some more. “I am Madrid.” He had said it. He had told her that he was a gunfighter.
Why couldn’t she get those words out of her head? No matter how she tried, they stayed and screamed at her.
She dug and squeezed and rolled the dough over and over, trying to keep from thinking.
Suddenly, Grady came in through the door at a run. She smiled. Grady did most everything at a run. He called a “Hi, Ma,” as he passed and headed straight for the other room.
Looking up from her work, Jessamie stopped him. “Wait up. Where are you going, Grady?”
He came to a stop just as he reached the doorway and he turned innocently towards her. “Ta see Johnny,” he answered cheerfully.
“He’s asleep,” she told him. She’d checked on Johnny when she came in after finishing washing out her clothes and his shirt. He’d still been sleeping then and the fever had all but gone. “I don’t want you waking him up.”
It had been hard work washing all that blood and dirt from the clothes, but hard work had been keeping her from thinking too much. She suddenly realized that she’d been seeking distraction in work all day.
“I won’t wake him, Ma,” Grady assured her. “Promise.”
“Have you finished your chores?”
“You still have your lessons to do,” she nodded towards the books she had laid out on the table.
“I can do ‘em later,” Grady told her, a plea in his voice. “An’ I won’t wake him.”
“Alright, see that you don’t.” She watched him go in and went back to kneading the biscuit dough. She let him go, wishing now that he wasn’t quite so attached to Johnny.
It was their daily routine that he would sit at the table and do the lessons she set for him while she baked. Since Johnny’s arrival though, Grady had become so engrossed in helping him that he’d been neglecting his schoolwork.
She did what she could to teach him. Jessamie had enough schooling to pass on the basics to her son, but he was a bright boy. Soon he would need more than she could give him. The few books she had in the house weren’t going to do him.
There was no school in Cavitt Springs. The nearest ‘real school’ was far away in the same town as the law and the doctor. There wasn’t much of anything in Cavitt Springs, just the general store, the saloon and the livery cum blacksmith. The town was so small, so far away from everything, that she had thought it would be the perfect hiding place.
And it had been. For seven years she had kept herself to herself, avoiding friendships and close ties. No one had bothered her. No one knew she was here except her sister. Her mother had passed away not long after writing the letter warning her about the bounty that Hobert had put on her head.
So how had Harner tracked her down?
Well, perhaps it didn’t matter now. She had the deed to this place. She could sell the land, if that was what she decided she wanted. She could move closer to a town with a school and doctors and everything else Grady should have. If the letter from her mother had been right, and Mack Hobert was dead, and Harner was dead, then she was free for the first time in years.
Johnny had done that for her. He had saved her life in more than the physical sense. So why did she still have these nagging doubts? Why did the word ‘gunfighter’ scare her so much?
She wondered if she would ever be able to live without the defenses she had learned to build around herself. Chief among them was ‘distrust’. It had become instinct… part of her. Would she be able to change?
She took a handful of flour and tossed it over the dough, then went back to her work. But her mind dwelt on the enigma that was the man sleeping in the other room. He had risked his life for them. He could have given her up to Harner and gotten out of there, but he’d stayed and fought for her instead. To be afraid of him struck her as terribly ungrateful, but she had to admit that the feeling was there. She couldn’t get away from it.
Jessamie dug her fingers into the biscuit mixture, venting some of the pent up frustration that had her chest tightening and her blood pressure rising. She glanced up as Grady dashed out of the room and out the door, noting mentally that it hadn’t taken long for her son to tire of sitting and watching his sleeping friend.
Grady would miss him when he left, that was certain. In the couple of days that he’d been here, Johnny had shown her son what he had been missing all his life – what it was like to have a man around. Johnny hadn’t had to work very hard to influence Grady. Just mending fences and fixing the roof and windmill had been enough to make him a hero in her boy’s eyes.
Johnny had a natural charm. She’d seen it and felt it for herself – that smile he flashed so readily, those hooded blue eyes. His very physical presence was temptation in itself.
Temptation! Oh Lord! Jessamie smashed her hands into the biscuit dough so hard that her fingers went straight through and hit the board underneath. Was that it? Was it possible that she wasn’t afraid of the gunfighter lying in there – but of the man?
No, it wasn’t. She squeezed her hands in the mix and closed her fists tightly; and told herself that that had nothing to do with it.
She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, only to open them again at the sound of small running footsteps.
Grady stomped into the cabin again, hurrying past her towards the bedroom. She frowned.
“Grady Lancer, where are you going with that?” she called to him and he stopped in his tracks.
He held Johnny’s shirt in his hand like some sort of treasure. “Johnny asked me ta get it, Ma,” he answered blithely. “He wants ta get dressed.”
“He says he feels fine now,” Grady told her happily. “He’s gettin’ up. Just needs his shirt is all.”
She dragged her hands free of the mix and wiped he hands on her apron. “Does he?” she asked, though she didn’t direct the words to her son.
Grady ran ahead of her into the room as she walked determinedly after him. He’d already handed the shirt over to Johnny by the time she got there and Johnny had slipped it over his injured arm. He stood beside the bed, only about a foot away from it. And, from the look of him, he might fall back into it at any moment.
Jessamie stood facing him. Somehow he had managed to pull on his pants and was on his feet, but his face was ashen and beads of sweat trickled down his face.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” she demanded angrily.
Johnny’s eyes locked with hers, boldly defiant. “Gettin’ dressed,” he answered curtly.
He was barely staying on his feet, swaying ever so slightly while she watched.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” she told him crossly.
“I’m fine,” he answered calmly.
He grimaced, his hand visibly shaking as he pulled the shirtsleeve over his bandaged arm. His breath caught and the blood drained from his face.
“You don’t look very fine to me, Johnny,” she persisted, her hands on her hips while she glared at him. “You should still be…”
He pulled the sleeve up to his shoulder, winced and frowned. He closed his eyes and then, to her horror, his knees buckled and he started to slide towards the floor.
Jessamie reached him in an instant and wrapped her arm around his waist to support him. He all but fell into her arms and leaned heavily against her. His head dropped onto her shoulder and he breathed a soft sigh.
She could feel the warmth of his body and the beat of his heart against her own. A shudder passed through him that she felt but, with her support, he seemed to regain some control over his legs and she sat him on the edge of the bed. The shirt was hanging from his arm so she gently eased it back over the wound and off.
Tossing it aside, she helped him to lie down and pulled the pillow closer so that his head rested on it. She put her hand anxiously to his brow and sighed heavily with relief. At least the fever was still down.
“Grady,” she said, turning around to where her son still stood behind her. His eyes were wide and staring at his fallen hero. “Grady, fetch a glass of water for Johnny.”
He nodded, then turned and darted out of the room.
“You fool,” she chastised Johnny. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
He didn’t answer. His breathing was coming in short heaving gasps. A quick check of the wound showed her that no harm had been done there. It wasn’t bleeding, but he was sweating heavily from the effort to stay on his feet. She dunked the washcloth into the basin that still sat by the bed and wrung it out, then washed the perspiration from his face.
Johnny was awake, but breathing hard. His eyes were barely open.
“You’ve hardly beaten that fever, Johnny,” she said angrily, dunking the cloth again and wringing it out. “You lost all that blood last night. What were you thinking?”
Still no answer, but before she could push him any further, her son came bounding back into the room.
“Here, Johnny,” Grady announced, holding a glass filled with water.
She held out her hand to her son. “Give it to me, Grady.”
Jessamie slid her arm under Johnny’s shoulders until, with his head resting in the crook of her arm, she raised him enough to help him to drink from the glass. At first, he drank the water eagerly, but then he seemed to tire. He leaned back and closed his eyes.
“All of it, Johnny,” she encouraged him quietly. “You need to drink just a little more.”
He opened his eyes again, but he didn’t look at her. Instead, he did as she asked and finished the last of the contents of the glass. His face was ashen as she laid him back and slipped her arm out from under him.
“You don’t look so good, Johnny,” Grady told him naively. It evoked the smallest attempt at a smile from Johnny. “Maybe you oughta rest up a bit more,” Grady continued. He picked up the end of the quilt and pulled it over his friend.
Jessamie watched him and smiled proudly, then took over from him and straightened the quilt, pulling it up over Johnny’s chest.
“Good boy, Grady,” she whispered. “Now go and do your lessons. I’ll be out soon to help you.”
“Will you be okay, Johnny?” he asked, a frown creasing his small brow.
Johnny finally breathed a heavy sigh and spoke, though it was little more than a murmur - and an exhausted one at that. “Sure, Grady,” he said. “Do like your ma says.”
“Okay.” He turned and trudged out of the room, leaving Jessamie to turn her attention back to her patient.
“Well?” she asked firmly.
He didn’t answer. He stared wearily towards the ceiling. His silence bothered her more than she cared to admit. She tucked the quilt around him deliberately; then she studied his face and her anger drained away.
Something she saw there touched her, more deeply than she had expected. She brushed the hair from his forehead and ran her hand over his head, soothing him in the way that she had comforted her son so many times.
Finally, he turned his face towards her, his vividly blue eyes almost hidden under half closed eyelids.
“Why, Johnny?” she asked softly. “You lost so much blood last night and the fever isn’t even completely gone yet. You’re still far too weak to even get out of bed. You must have known that you wouldn’t get far.”
“No, but far enough,” he answered quietly.
She left her hand where it lay, her fingers gently stroking his hair. “But why?”
He was quiet while he appeared to think about his answer, but he finally spoke up. “Because you’re afraid of me,” he said with certainty.
She pulled her hand back, stunned.
“Don’t try to deny it,” he continued with a sigh. “I saw it in your eyes this morning. I’ve seen fear often enough to know it.”
His voice was calm which, considering what he was saying, surprised her. She couldn’t find words to answer him.
“This is your home,” he said, sighing. “You shouldn’t have to be frightened here any more.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she told him firmly. What shocked her was that she meant it. All of her fears and doubts had dissipated. She wasn’t sure when it had happened or why, but she knew this man would never hurt her. Suddenly, she felt comfortable with him.
“Jessamie…” he began, disbelieving her.
“No, I mean it, Johnny,” she insisted quickly. She dropped her eyes away from his for a minute. “Well, you’re right. I was frightened of you this morning. But I’m not now. I don’t even know why I was afraid.”
She placed her hand gently back on his head and smoothed his hair again. The contact soothed her as much as she hoped it comforted him. “Stay here for as long as you like. I really don’t mind, and Grady certainly won’t. And you need to rest and get your strength back.”
He stared at her, searching her face. So she smiled and he appeared to accept her change of heart. “You’re wearing that bandana thing again,” he suddenly said.
“I was cooking when you started this nonsense.”
He sounded so childishly hopeful that she laughed. “Yes, as a matter of fact. You can have some later. Right now, you should get some more sleep.”
She didn’t need to tell him a second time. He’d dozed off before she even left the room.
When Johnny next woke, it was dark. He’d slept for hours, peacefully and with no sign of the fever returning. Grady had been sent off to bed, disappointed that his friend hadn’t woken to say ‘good night’.
Jessamie was with Johnny when he finally stirred. She was sitting in the chair with the lamp turned low and focussed on her hands so that she could see as she put the final touches into the mending of his shirt. She heard him sigh lightly and looked over at him.
He opened his eyes slowly, frowned briefly and then seemed to realize where he was. The reflection of the lamplight glittered in his eyes as he looked back at her.
“Hello,” he said sleepily.
“Hello,” she answered quietly. She put the shirt down on the arm of the chair and reached over to touch his brow. “The fever’s gone,” she told him.
“I know. I feel a whole lot better, thanks.” He pulled his right hand out from under the quilt and rubbed his eyes; then he sighed again. He looked around him. “It must be late. There’s no need for you to be sittin’ there.”
“Oh, I was just doing a little sewing,” she explained, showing him the shirt. “I thought I might as well darn the hole in the sleeve. Couldn’t very well send you home with it like that.”
He took his hand away from his eyes and looked at her again. “Thanks,” he said, recognizing the shirt. “It’s kind of a favorite of mine.”
“I thought as much,” she answered, smiling. “It’s been mended before.”
He smiled back. “Yeah, more than once.”
“It’s very neat work.”
“Don’t look at me. That’s Teresa’s work,” he explained.
“She’s my ol’ man’s ward, kinda like a kid sister. She’s always mendin’ something.” He eased his elbow underneath him and pushed himself further up in the bed, wincing and quickly drawing in a breath.
She thought again of the scars that marred his body, his cool handling of the gunshot wound and, of course, his previous way of life. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she answered sadly. She got to her feet. “I think you must be hungry by now, Johnny. You didn’t eat enough to feed a bird this morning.”
“It’s late and I’m really not that hungry,” he said softly. “I can wait till tomorrow.”
“There’s no need. I’ve got some chicken broth ready for you. I only need to warm it a little,” she told him, walking towards the doorway. She turned back to see him lay the back of his wrist across his eyes. “And it isn’t that late.”
Getting it didn’t take long. She was back within a few minutes with a steaming bowl on a towel and a spoon.
He pushed himself up in the bed till he was sitting up against the bars of the bedhead, catching his breath sharply when he accidentally put pressure on his injured arm. She stopped when she heard him wince and looked over to see him reach across his chest and grab at the wound.
“You’ll have to stop doing that,” she said quietly as she returned to her seat beside the bed. “You keep trying to use that arm and you’ll start it bleeding again.”
“It’s not so bad,” he told her, cradling his arm. “Grady asleep?”
“Yes, and he wasn’t very happy about going to bed without being able to talk to you,” she answered with a smile. “You’ve made quite an impression on him.” She scooped a spoonful of the broth and offered it to him.
“I can feed myself,” he told her firmly.
She shook her head. “It’ll be too difficult one-handed . Your left hand isn’t going to hold anything yet.” She offered the spoon again. “Go on, it won’t kill you to be spoon-fed.”
He looked at her indecisively before opening his mouth and letting her feed him. “Grady’s a good kid,” he said absently when he’d swallowed a mouthful. “A boy to be proud of.”
She offered him another spoonful. “I know he is… and I am,” she told him lightly, but she meant it. Grady was everything to her.
“It must be lonely for him… for you both, out here.”
“Sometimes,” she admitted. Yes, in the early days, when Grady had been a baby and she’d been out here all alone and trying to cope with a baby, a house and a run down ranch; it had been devastatingly lonely. But she’d survived it. Now, it was just a way of life. “But we have all we need here. Though there aren’t many children around Cavitt Springs, not enough to justify a school. I’d like Grady to be able to go to a real school someday.”
“That’s a shame. He’s a smart boy.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “He is.”
She continued to spoon the broth to him. He swallowed it, grinned and said, “It’s good. One of your own chickens, huh?”
“Thank you, yes,” she answered and repressed a laugh. “But she wasn’t a good layer anyway.”
Jessamie sat back in the chair and contemplated him. “I haven’t thanked you properly for what you did,” she told him, suddenly feeling awkward. But she meant to get it said. “For what you did… against Harner. And for the deed.”
He dropped his eyes away from her. She sensed his discomfort.
“Nope, I figure we’re more’n even after what you’ve done for me,” he told her, fingering the edge of the quilt.
She smiled at him. “Forgive me if I choose to disagree. You saved my life. More importantly, you saved Grady’s life. After the way I treated you, I’m surprised you didn’t take Harner up on his offer and leave us.”
“No,” he answered. She barely heard him.
“And the deed…” she continued.
Johnny grinned. “Well, Murdoch did say for me to sell the place.”
“Will he be angry?”
She looked him in the eye. “When he told you to sell the land, I’m sure he didn’t have a dollar in mind.”
The grin on his face broadened. He looked at her and she saw a gleam in his eyes. “A dollar and some biscuits,” he corrected her.
“And some biscuits,” she added. “Not much of a deal.”
“Well, if Murdoch wanted a good deal, he should’ve sent Scott,” Johnny told her, laughing lightly.
“Scott? You called for him in your sleep when you had the fever. Who is he?”
“My brother,” Johnny told him. There was something in his voice that caught her attention. He seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in the word ‘brother’.
So, he had a brother – and a sister too, or nearly. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised, but she was. For some reason, she’d thought of him as a loner, like herself.
“Scott’s the brains of the family,” he quipped. “But Murdoch was bound an’ determined that I should come.”
“Don’t know,” Johnny admitted. “Maybe he figured I’d learn some responsibility. He’s big on that.”
She laughed. “And then you went and sold it for a dollar.”
His grin was disarming. “He said to get what I could for it,” he answered. “I did. Don’t worry, he won’t miss it. He told me that he hasn’t even thought about this place in years.”
That a man could own land and dismiss it so easily was something Jessamie didn’t understand. It might not be much, but this was all she had. It was their home. “I can’t imagine a man forgetting about land he owns.”
“Oh, well,” Johnny said thoughtfully, “I guess he had other things to worry about. Lancer’s big enough to keep a man real busy.”
“Where is it?” she asked, suddenly curious. “Where do you live?”
“It’s about two hundred miles north of here,” he told her. “Up near Morro Coyo in the San Joaquin Valley.”
“Two hundred miles! And you thought you’d just ride out of here in your condition?” She shook her head, suddenly angry.
He looked her in the eyes and smiled. “My ‘condition’ isn’t that bad, Jessamie. Just lost a little blood.”
“Rubbish!” she snapped at him.
He leaned his head back against the bars of the bedhead. “I’ve had a whole lot worse than this an’ ridden away.”
“Well, there’s no reason why you can’t stay here till you’re ready to ride,” she insisted and watched him lower his head again. She wondered what went on in that head of his when he did that.
She offered him yet another spoonful of broth. “Here,” she said and waited for him to look up at him. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad it was you he sent,” she told him.
A wry grin brought life back to his eyes. He swallowed the broth. “No, you would have trusted Scott.”
She scowled at him. “What makes you say that?”
Johnny smiled happily. “Oh, Harvard education, real big city manners… not bad lookin’, I guess. Least, so he tells me.”
She smiled back at him. “I see,” she said thoughtfully. “While you became a gunfighter?”
“Yeah, well, like I said, it’s a long story.”
Jessamie leaned forward and wiped away a stray drop of broth from his chin, then she stopped, looking into his eyes. That sadness was there again and it touched something inside her. “I’d like to hear that story one day,” she said.
And slowly, unexpectedly, he put his fingers to her cheek. For a moment, their eyes met and locked on each other. His touch was so gentle, so light; yet so warm that it washed over her. It was as if her every sense had suddenly come to life. She was aware of his naked chest so very close to her and she could almost feel his heart beating. Her own heart pounded heavily; her breath stopped.
She waited, unsure of what she was waiting for.
Then his hand fell away. Her heart was racing and she pulled back as well, dropping her eyes away from his.
“It’s not a pretty story, Jessamie,” he whispered. His voice was soft, ringing with regret.
She took a deep breath and steadied herself. “They seldom are,” she answered and dipped the spoon back into the bowl.
He was still awake when Jessamie left him, but weary. She lay on the bunk under her son’s and closed her eyes again. She’d been lying there trying to get to sleep for too long, but it continued to elude her.
The touch of his hand on her cheek lingered on – a strong yet heart-stoppingly tender touch that had awakened feelings in her that she hadn’t even known existed. Every nerve in her body had seemed to suddenly pulse with life for those few moments. She’d never felt so alive before.
And she couldn’t deny what had gone through her mind in those moments. Looking into those intense blue eyes of his she’d felt as if he could see into the very depths of her soul.
He’d been going to kiss her. She was certain of it. She’d seen it in his eyes. Not the animal lust that she’d seen, could still see in her nightmares sometimes, in Curtis Hobert’s eyes but something gentle and inviting.
And then he had pulled away. She’d seen something in his eyes then, too – regret, or was it guilt? But why? Was it that he knew about her, about what she’d done? Was she really tainted by Curtis Hobert?
She had wanted him to kiss her. The thought hit her like a shockwave.
She’d wanted him to wrap his arms around her like he had when she’d told him what Hobert had done. But it wasn’t sympathy or pity, or even kindness, that she wanted. No, she wanted more than that.
Oh God! She’d told him everything. In the midst of her terror she’d told him her secret shame. Not another living soul knew that secret. Grady must never know.
Her mother had known, of course, but they’d kept it even from Rosamund. Her sister had been too young at the time to be told and Jessamie hadn’t told her even to this day. When Jessamie had realized that there would be a child, her mother had whisked her away to an uncle in California and put about a story of an elopement with a mysterious suitor.
Rosamund still believed that. When her mother had died, there had been no one left who knew the truth but Jessamie herself. Now, Johnny Lancer knew. Was that why he’d shied away? Damaged goods - that’s what most people would think her and it was why she lived the solitary life that she did. His fine words had said otherwise but, when faced with the chance to kiss her, had he too seen her that way?
She rolled over again and pounded her fist into the pillow, then threw her head back onto it. The sooner Johnny Lancer rode out of here the better, she told herself. From the moment she’d let him get away with fixing that windmill, he’d been wheedling his way into her life.
She should have sent both of them on their way when they first turned up. This little ranch was her life now. It couldn’t change.
Jessamie wondered how long it would be before she became the dried up prune of a woman she was sure she was destined to be; never knowing what it was like to be held in the loving arms of a good man.
Bitterly, she rolled over again and sighed heavily. Above her, Grady’s bunk creaked as he too shifted in his bed. All she wanted was some sleep, some peace.
Grady would miss him and, if she were going to be honest with herself, she would miss him too. She told herself that it was just plain companionship that she was enjoying, then sighed heavily again, suspecting more than that. She felt, again, his arms around her and comforting her; his hand on her face last night; his eyes looking into hers.
Sometime during the early predawn hours, Jessamie’s mind had finally played out and she’d managed to get some sleep. And yet, she’d still woken with the dawn.
Dressing quickly, and noting that both Grady and Johnny were still asleep, Jessamie had tiptoed out and set about her morning routine. She was tired, but there was nothing new in that. She did her work as always and tried not to think about last night. In the clear light of day, with the milking to be done, it was easy to forget that anything had happened.
And nothing really had happened. Carrying the pail of fresh milk back from the barn, she told herself that she had probably imagined it all in the first place. That she had ever wanted him to kiss her had been a piece of foolishness in the middle of the night. To believe that he had wanted to kiss her was nothing less than ridiculous. After all, she’d gotten him shot, nearly killed.
She shook her head dismissively and wondered what could have possessed her to think such a thing.
Jessamie walked through the front door, pail in hand, to be met with her son’s flushed face as he all but ran into her.
“Ma, Johnny’s gettin’ up again,” he told her in a rush.
She put the pail of milk on the table and walked towards the bedroom doorway. Johnny was sitting on the side of the bed. He’d managed to pull on his pants and his shirt already and was slowly doing up the shirt buttons.
“Ma said you was to stay in bed ‘til you’re better,” she heard Grady telling him and she smiled.
“I know,” Johnny replied, just as she entered the room. He looked over at her and answered Grady while eyeing her mutinously, “I’m fine now.”
She looked him over, from his bare feet to his fingers as they pushed another button through the buttonhole. Then she studied his face and decided that he did look better than yesterday. Then, he had been a ghastly shade of white and he had stood there with unsteady legs. He wasn’t on his feet now, but his fingers were steady and his face was only pale instead of white.
‘Fine’, however, was not how she would have described him.
She sighed. It didn’t look like she’d be able to convince him to stay in bed any longer and perhaps he was right, he did need to get up for awhile.
“Alright, but don’t button that shirt yet. I might as well clean that wound and put a fresh bandage on it now.”
The defiance left his eyes. “Thanks,” he said softly.
“When I’m done, you can sit outside for a while,” she told him, expecting an argument, but getting none. “Some sun might do you some good.”
He stood up, a little hesitantly at first, then appeared to find his legs.
“Come to the kitchen table,” she suggested. “I’ll see to it there.”
“Sure.” Johnny looked around, his eyes coming to rest on the dresser. He walked over to it and picked up his gun belt from where it laid on top of his saddlebags. He slid the pistol out of the holster and looked it over carefully before slipping it back into the holster and throwing the belt over his shoulder. Then he took the saddlebags and opened one of them.
Jessamie’s stomach tightened. He was leaving. “I don’t think you’re ready to leave yet,” she said, determined to keep the dismay out of her voice.
He tossed the saddlebags onto the bed and opened one. Then he looked back over at her. “My gun needs cleaning,” he said. There was no inflection in his voice, just a plain statement of fact as he pulled a small cloth wrapped package from his saddlebag. He was doing everything with his right hand, his left still cradled tightly to his chest.
“I can do it for you,” she suggested.
Johnny smiled. “I look after my own gun. Thanks anyway.” He walked past her and out to the table.
She watched him. The unsteadiness in his gait was gone. He walked with the lithe grace of a cat now. He dropped the package onto the table, and then dragged the gunbelt off his shoulder and laid it down beside it. He pulled one of the chairs out and sat down, still cradling the injured arm.
“Ya want your boots, Johnny?” Grady asked eagerly and Johnny turned and smiled warmly at him.
“Sure, Grady,” he answered. “You reckon you could help me with ‘em?”
It was all her son needed to hear. He grabbed the boots from under the bed and hurried out to help his hero. There was no doubt in her mind that that was how Grady saw Johnny – his hero. Until now, it had always been his dead father.
The stories that Grady tended to make up about his father alternately amused and upset Jessamie. Her boy knew nothing about the man he referred to as his ‘pa’, so he pretended. She’d managed to fob him off with uninformative answers when he did ask, but there would come a time when he would want to know more. It was coming soon and she still hadn’t worked out what she’d tell him. The thought of lying to her son appalled her, but how could she tell him the truth?
How could she tell the son she so dearly loved that his father was a rapist? How could she ever tell her boy that she had killed his father herself?
She shook the thoughts away as Grady raced past her. They would have to be faced one day, but today wasn’t the day.
“Here y’are, Johnny,” Grady said, putting them down carefully beside Johnny. “Brung your socks too.”
He plonked himself down on the floor at Johnny’s feet and produced the socks.
“Thanks, Grady,” Johnny said. “But I guess I can handle them.”
“You sure, Johnny?” the boy asked, frowning. “Ain’t your arm sore?”
“A little,” Johnny admitted, though reluctantly. He cast a glance back at Jessamie, almost daring her to say something.
But she ignored it and only watched as he did manage alone but accepted Grady’s help with his boots. Jessamie turned away to pour the milk from the pail into a jug and then put the pail on the floor.
“Grady, when you’ve finished helping Johnny with his boots, you can take the milk pail outside and wash it out for me.”
“I can do it later, Ma.”
Johnny put his hand on her son’s head and playfully ruffled his hair. “Do as your ma says, Grady,” he told him and stomped one foot on the floor, forcing it into his boot. “We’ll talk later if you want.”
“Will ya show me how to make that rabbit snare?” Grady asked. His eyes were alight.
Envy clawed at Jessamie’s heart. Why didn’t her son look at her like that? This man would ride out of here soon and leave her to pick up the pieces of her life. They’d be back to their hum-drum routine and it would be her who would be faced with consoling Grady.
“Don’t annoy Johnny, Grady,” she told him firmly. She saw the glance that Johnny cast her out of the corner of his eye. This time it wasn’t so much defiant as disappointed but, again, she ignored it. “Go get your chores done. There’s eggs to be collected.”
His face dropped and Jessamie felt like crawling under a rock. But she stood her ground. He looked to Johnny for help one last time but found none there and trudged out of the room.
“He wasn’t annoyin’ me,” Johnny told her, leaning back into the chair and cradling his injured arm.
“I know it,” she admitted coolly. “But he’s got things to do. This place doesn’t run itself.” She turned away and went for the bandages and the salve that she had left on the workbench. “Undo those buttons and slip your arm out of the sleeve,” she told him woodenly.
She could feel him watching her, but she said nothing as she poured water into a basin and then headed back to the table. He followed her lead and sat in the chair quietly. He’d done as she suggested and had pulled the sleeve off his arm. It hung behind him, leaving his chest and arm exposed.
Her breath caught for an instant before she clamped down on herself and moved forward. She pulled the chair out and sat down to face him. Then she set about unfastening and unwinding the bandage from his arm. She concentrated on what she was doing. She kept her eyes away from his, afraid of what effect they would have on her.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
There they were – the words she had dreaded hearing and yet longed to hear at the same time. “There’s no need,” she answered without looking up. She gently cleaned around the wound, but he didn’t tense or wince.
“My family’ll be wondering what’s happened to me,” he said lightly. “They’ll think I’m in trouble.”
He was so casual about it that she looked up before she could stop herself. “You were.”
Damn! There were those eyes again – searching, probing. What was he looking for in her?
“You don’t need to leave before you’re ready,” she added and realized that she meant it. Finally, she recognized that Grady was not the only one who would miss him when he left. “Two hundred miles is a long way.”
“I’ll be fine if I take it slow an’ easy,” he said. “I should go. They worry.”
She looked back to what she was doing. The wound looked clean. There was no more redness around it, no signs of infection; just the burned skin and that dreadful hole. She smoothed some salve over it and picked up the bandage.
“You’ve made your mind up?” she asked, knowing that he had.
“Yeah.” He stopped and she felt his fingers under her chin, tilting her head up until she was looking at him. “Jessamie,” he said, in little more than a whisper. “I have to go.”
Jessamie put a glass of milk in front of him on the table. He looked up for a moment, thanked her and then went back to what he was doing. It was fascinating to watch him handling that gun. She had cleaned guns herself, but never so deftly and with only the full use of one hand.
She had rigged a makeshift sling for him from his own handkerchief and a strip of sheet tied together. It didn’t look like much, but it seemed to give the arm some support and that was all that mattered.
His fingers adroitly pulled the gun apart and set about cleaning and oiling it. They seemed almost to caress it and a shiver went down her spine.
Finally, she pulled a chair away from the table and sat down. “Why, Johnny?” she asked boldly. “Why did you become a gunfighter? You had family and…”
“Nope,” he answered coolly. “Not back then.”
“I didn’t grow up at Lancer.” Without looking up, he continued. “Didn’t even know I had a brother.” He laughed a little. “I came as a bit of a shock to Scott, too. He didn’t know ‘bout me either.”
“I don’t understand.”
He kept his eyes on the gun and his hands busy with cleaning it. “Not so hard to figure. My mother left my ol’ man when I was a baby. She took me with her.”
“And your brother? Why didn’t she take him too?”
“Scott’s my half brother. His grandfather raised him, in Boston, after his mother died,” Johnny told her.
“And you? Where did you grow up?”
He finally looked at her for an instant. She thought that she caught a flash of hurt in his eyes but he ducked his head again so quickly that she couldn’t be sure. Then he went back to what he was doing. “Border towns mostly,” he answered indifferently.
His nonchalance didn’t convince her. She could feel his tension as he spoke.
“And that’s the ‘long story’ you were talking about?” she asked kindly.
“Yeah,” he answered, his eyes never leaving the weapon in his hands. “My mother died when I was a kid,” he added unexpectedly. “I grew up kind of wild.”
She frowned. “On your own?”
“Sure,” he answered as if it was nothing out of the usual. “They tried to put me into an orphanage, but that didn’t work out.”
“Why didn’t they send you back to your father?”
“They didn’t know about him. I wouldn’t have gone anyway,” he replied curtly. “As far as I knew, he’d thrown Mama and me out an’ didn’t want us back. I grew up a scrawny little half-Mexican kid with a chip on my shoulder… an’ a whole lot o’ hate.”
He sounded detached from the memories, but she knew better than to believe that. She was a master of masking her own hurt and she could sense he was doing the same. Dropping her eyes, she said quietly, “So you became a gunfighter?”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “I found out I was good with a gun, so I worked at it. Gunfighting came easy to me.”
Jessamie drew back and looked at him. It didn’t sound like him talking, but some stranger instead. “Mr. Harner was afraid of you,” she said hesitantly.
Johnny’s lips lifted into a half smile. “’Mr. Harner’,” he said, with an ironic twist, “Had reason to be afraid of me.” Then he raised his head to face her. “You don’t.”
“I’m not,” she told him firmly.
He suddenly stopped what he was doing. “I saw it, Jessamie,” he said, disbelieving.
She looked down at her hands. “Alright, I was. But not any more,” she admitted and was sorry for it. “I suppose I just don’t trust easily.”
He nodded and then grinned. “Yeah, I know. The rifle was a give-away.”
“I guess it was.” She grinned and relaxed again. She watched him while he worked; entranced by the dexterity with which he handled the gun though only one hand was able to do most of the work. The other he used for balance and small movements.
“You’re very good at that,” she said, deciding that it might be the right time to break that strain on him. Outwardly, he appeared totally at ease but she saw something else behind that quiet, cool demeanor. Jessamie knew about hiding emotions.
He finished, looked the gun over carefully and then snapped it back together. Then he began to reload it. “A man has to take care of his tools,” he said. “His life might depend on it.”
Johnny slid the pistol into the holster and stood up. Pulling his injured arm free of the sling, he wrapped the belt around his hips, buckled it adroitly and pulled a loop at the bottom of the holster over one of the silver conchos on his pants.
He slipped the arm back into the sling, then sat down again and took a long drink of the milk, finishing it and putting the glass down.
Jessamie looked him over. Beads of sweat were starting to appear on his forehead but he wasn’t flushed. In fact, his face had lost some of the color that had returned before. She got to her feet and put her hand to his brow. She was right. There was no fever there. It was effort that was taking its toll of him now.
He looked up at her. “I’m okay.”
“You are at the moment, but you’re still not very strong, Johnny. Perhaps you should rest for a while before you sit outside,” she suggested.
“Nope,” he answered firmly. “I’m okay.”
With that, he stood up again, picked up the chair easily in one hand and headed for the door. His steps seemed steady enough so she followed him and watched him settle himself into the chair on the porch. He leaned back in the wooden chair and put his feet up on the porch railing, crossing them at the ankles. Then he crossed his right arm across his chest and grasped the elbow of his injured arm.
He seemed to be comfortable, but she knew that the ladder-back kitchen chair was hardly that.
“I’ll get you some eggs,” she said and turned back. “It’s time you ate something a little more substantial.”
When she returned, plate in hand, with his breakfast, it was to find Grady with him. In his hand, Johnny held a tiny bundle of fur, no doubt one of the kittens Grady had found.
“Ain’t he cute, Johnny?” her son asked eagerly. “There’s three of ‘em.”
“Yeah, he’s cute all right, Grady,” Johnny agreed, stroking the little creature. It looked even smaller in his strong hand but he handled it with infinite care.
“They’re all gray an’ white like that one, but the patches are different on ‘em so I can tell ‘em all apart,” Grady continued. “You want me to bring ‘em all over to ya so you can see ‘em?”
“You might get an argument from their mama if you try that,” Johnny told him, smiling.
“Well,” her boy answered, thinking hard.
Jessamie stepped onto the porch. “Grady, take the kitten so Johnny can eat his breakfast,” she said and waited for her son to take it.
The kitten squirmed as the boy took it in his hands and he giggled.
Jessamie handed over the plate to Johnny. “Looks great,” Johnny told her. “Didn’t realize I was so hungry ‘til now. Thanks.”
Suddenly, Grady’s eyes widened as he came upon a solution to his own dilemma. “I know, Johnny! You could come see ‘em for yourself once you’re done eating. They’re just over in the barn. Scratch cat has ‘em hidden behind a bale of hay, but it’s real easy to get in close to ‘em.”
“Grady, let Johnny eat in peace,” she scolded him.
Johnny swallowed a mouthful of egg and he smiled broadly. “Give me a minute to finish up here, Grady. Then we’ll go see your kittens.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Jessamie told him sternly. “I only agreed to your sitting out here in the sun for a while, nothing else.”
He scowled heavily at her, then his eyes lit up and a grin broke on his face. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said ironically. “Besides, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I could walk that far right now. I’m kind of tired.”
“Oh, well, maybe you can see ‘em tomorrow,” Grady said, disappointment sounding in his reply.
Johnny’s eyes dropped. “I need to talk to you about tomorrow, Grady,” he said softly. “I have to go home. I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
She’d known it would be hard on her son, but his silence wrenched at her heart. He sat on the floor of the porch, intent on the kitten in his hand. He was patting its tiny head gently.
“Why?” he finally asked without looking up. “Thought you liked it here.”
“I do, but I’ve got a home to get back to,” Johnny replied. “My family’ll be wondering what’s happened to me.”
Still Grady didn’t look up from the kitten.
“They’ll be worried about me. You wouldn’t want that, would you?” Johnny continued.
“No, Sir,” Grady answered miserably. “Didn’t know you had folks.”
“Sure I do,” Johnny replied. “My father an’ brother, and I’ve got a sister too, sort of.”
Grady looked up at Johnny and frowned. “But you’re a grown-up. You can do whatever you want. Can’t you stay a bit longer?”
Johnny laughed. “Oh boy, I wish you’d tell my ol’… my pa that I can do whatever I want, Grady. He’s probably got a whole list of chores for me to do when I get back. And by now Scott’ll be plum tuckered out doin’ my chores as well as his own.”
“What sorta chores?”
Johnny laughed again. “Just about anything you can think of ‘round a ranch. Takes a lot of work to keep a ranch like L…” He stopped, glanced up at Jessamie and corrected himself. “Like ours going.”
“You got a ranch?” Grady asked, surprised. “I thought you was a gunfighter.”
“Nope,” Johnny assured him, forking eggs into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed before continuing. “Just a rancher, Grady. Branding, roping, ridin’ herd an’ mendin’ fences… kinda boring.”
“Then how come you’re so good with a gun?”
“Well, a man’s gotta be good at something,” he answered enigmatically.
Grady thought about that for a while before going on with his questions. “You live far away, Johnny?”
He nodded. “’Fraid so.”
“A few days’ ride north of here. ‘Bout two hundred miles.”
Grady’s face dropped. “That’s a long way alright,” he said sadly. “Guess I won’t never see you again, will I?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Grady. You never know when I’ll get back this way.”
Again, Grady went quiet, then pouted childishly and stated, “Wish you could stay longer, Johnny.”
“I know,” Johnny told him. He meant it. Jessamie could hear the sadness in his voice. “I’m sorry, Grady, but that brother o’ mine will be getting nervous if I don’t get home soon. He’s likely to come lookin’ for me.”
“Don’t he know you can look after yourself?”
“Sure he does. But just because we’re all grown up doesn’t mean we don’t worry ‘bout each other. I’d be worried if Scott was gone for too long too, even though I know he can handle himself.” He stopped there and sighed heavily. “Besides, Grady, I miss them.”
Jessamie watched her son and waited. She could feel his disappointment, his grief. Would he accept what Johnny was telling him?
“You could take the kitten with you,” he whispered.
Johnny shook his head. “No, it’s too little to leave its mama,” he told Grady. “It needs her to feed it an’ keep it warm.”
His words brought back the conversation she’d had with him earlier. He knew what it was like to be on his own far too young. A lump unexpectedly rose in her throat.
“Why don’t you keep it, Grady?” she suggested. “It can stay with its mother until it’s old enough and then you’ll have it to remember Johnny by.”
“I could call it Johnny!” her son answered with a touch of his usual eagerness.
“Sure, why not?” Johnny laughed. “Now, you oughta take it back to its mama. She’ll be worried.”
“Okay,” Grady replied. Holding the kitten carefully in his hands, Grady scrambled to his feet and ran off towards the barn.
“Thank you,” she said with feeling. “I’ve been worried about how he’d react to your leaving.”
“De nada,” he said negligently. He was toying with the food on his plate, pushing it around with the fork.
“Not hungry?” she asked gently.
“Hmm?” He suddenly seemed to come back to the present and looked up at her. “Sorry. I guess I was thinking about something else.”
“Like having a cat named after you?” she asked, grinning.
“Yeah,” he answered and laughed. “I just hope it’s a boy.”
She left Grady at his schoolbooks and went out to check on Johnny. Lunch had come and gone and he was still sitting out there on the porch. He was overdoing it and he was bound to pay for it later.
Jessamie found him with his head drooping to one side, breathing softly and evenly and his eyes closed. She stood watching him for a moment. He was terribly pale, despite having been out in the sunlight for so long. She put her hand gently to his forehead and was relieved to find that there was no sign of the fever returning.
But leaving tomorrow still seemed premature. Awake, he’d appeared stronger than he had since the shooting. Asleep, he still looked vulnerable and unwell.
Well, if he was going to sleep, it should be inside. She nudged his shoulder lightly. When he didn’t wake, she nudged him again and whispered his name.
He woke suddenly and explosively. Before she knew it, he’d jolted forward and had his gun in his hand. He didn’t aim it at her. Realization must have hit him before he reached that point, but she gasped and stepped back in fright just the same.
He slid the gun back into the holster and dropped his head till his chin almost touched his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…”
Jessamie dropped to her knees by his side. “No, Johnny. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have woken you so suddenly.”
He leaned forward, his fingers rubbing his forehead with obvious distress.
She rested her hand lightly on his back, feeling a quiver running through his body that took her by surprise. “Johnny, it’s alright. I startled you…”
He hurled himself out of the chair and stood by the splintered post, clinging to it as if he needed the support. “Please,” he said quietly. “Just leave me. Go inside and leave me alone for awhile.”
“You should rest,” she said, as gently as she could.
“Ma? Johnny? Is something wrong?”
Turning around, she found Grady standing in the doorway. She was sure that he hadn’t seen what had happened.
“Everything is fine, Grady,” she reassured him. “Go back inside and finish your books. Johnny and I will be in soon.”
“What’s wrong?” Grady asked again, unconvinced.
“Nothing is wrong, Grady,” she told him again, more firmly. “Go inside. I just want to talk to Johnny for a minute.”
He looked towards Johnny, but Johnny didn’t so much as acknowledge his presence.
“Sure, Ma,” he said quietly, disappointment obvious in his voice. Then he turned and went into the house.
Jessamie stood up and walked slowly over to stand behind Johnny. He didn’t move; didn’t say a word.
“Johnny, this hasn’t changed anything,” she whispered. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“You should be,” he answered softly and let go of the post. He stepped off the porch without looking back.
She watched him walk away and knew that there was nothing she could do to convince him at the moment. It was too raw.
Johnny walked into the house an hour later. Grady looked up from his schoolbooks with a gleam in his eyes.
“Hi Johnny! Where ya been?”
Sitting beside her son to help him with his arithmetic, Jessamie looked up and caught a quick glance that Johnny cast at her from the corner of his eyes. But he answered Grady. “Just checkin’ on Barranca,” he said nonchalantly. Except for that one clandestine look that he had thrown her way, he acted as though nothing had happened.
She looked him over surreptitiously. He was pale and drawn, his eyes shadowed. He looked tired, but that wasn’t a surprise. He’d been out of bed for far too long.
“Can I finish now, Ma?” Grady asked eagerly. “You said I could spend some time with Johnny.”
Jessamie closed up the books. “You can finish up, but Johnny’s going back to bed,” she answered, eyeing Johnny with stern determination. “He’s tired.”
She stared at Johnny as though daring him to defy her but, to her surprise, she didn’t get an argument.
“Your ma’s right, Grady,” he said wearily. “I’m kind of tired.” With that he turned towards the bedroom and walked away.
She hadn’t gotten much of a look at him, but his gait looked less steady than it had earlier. It was only to be expected after being up for so long. So, she pushed her chair back noisily and got to her feet.
“Grady, I’m just going to check on him – okay?”
“Sure, Ma,” her son said quietly. “Is he mad at me?”
Jessamie smiled gently. “No, he’s mad at himself. He’s tired and maybe just a little bit sick as well. You put your books away and get the rest of your chores done. I’ll see to Johnny.”
He nodded his understanding and packed up his books while Jessamie took a deep breath and went to the bedroom.
She found Johnny sitting wearily on the side of the bed. His shoulders were hunched over dejectedly so she still couldn’t see his face properly.
"You need a hand with those boots?” she asked casually.
He looked up at her then. His face was pale, but he was sweating heavily. She didn’t wait for his answer. Instead, she walked steadfastly over to kneel in front of him and started pulling off his boots. Putting them aside, she stood up and pushed him gently back onto the bed, turning his shoulders so that his head hit the pillow.
"Johnny Lancer, you are a fool,” she told him coolly. “You’re supposed to be resting up.”
“Don’t fuss, Jessamie,” he said, very quietly. He sounded annoyed.
“Well, someone has to,” she answered firmly, helping him to pull his feet up onto the bed. “You’re doing a poor job of looking after yourself.”
She filled a glass with water from the jug and handed it to him, standing her ground determinedly. He leaned on one elbow and drank it with no help from her, so she poured water over a cloth and waited for him to finish and lay back down before wiping the sweat from his face.
He was so pale. His eyes were closed and he barely acknowledged that she was there, but she knew it wasn’t exhaustion alone – not this time. This time he was hurting in other ways.
She finished with the cloth and put it aside on the nightstand. “You can’t sleep with your gunbelt on,” she told him and reached down to unbuckle it for him.
In an instant, Johnny’s hand closed over hers. His grip was like a vice. “No,” he said coldly, glaring at her with ice in his eyes.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and didn’t even try to force him to release her hand. Instead, she turned her own hand over and pressed her fingers around his. She thought his eyes softened a little. “You don’t need help with it?”
“No, I can do it.”
With her free hand, she reached up and laid the back of her fingers lightly on his cheek. Something stirred within her with the touch… something warm and tingling. If only she could wipe away his hurt as easily as she could wipe the beads of sweat from his face.
“Listen to me, Johnny,” she said quietly. “No matter what you think, I’m not afraid of you. I know you wouldn’t hurt me or Grady.”
“Jessamie, I’m tired,” he said, listlessly. He closed his eyes and sank back into the pillow. “Just leave me and I’ll get some sleep. That way I can be outa here in the morning.”
“Are you that desperate to get away from us?”
Johnny opened his eyes at that. “You know better than that,” he told her angrily. “It’s better that I go, before someone gets hurt because of me.”
“’Because of you’ we’re alive, Johnny!” she pointed out grimly. “If you hadn’t been here, Harner would have killed me and my son.”
“If I hadn’t been here, you would never have let Harner get close enough to try,” he countered bitterly.
“Maybe,” she agreed reluctantly. Harner had had a way of insinuating himself into her trust. Would things really have been any different if Johnny hadn’t already made her so nervous? She wasn’t sure, and there didn’t seem to be much point in second-guessing the things that had already happened. “I don’t really know and I don’t care. The point is that it didn’t happen that way. You risked your life for me… for my son. That’s what matters.”
“Jessamie, I could have killed you out there this afternoon.”
“You didn’t,” she answered fiercely. “You drew on instinct, but you didn’t fire either. Everyone has instincts, Johnny. Yours are just honed a little finer than most. You woke up suddenly… in a strange place. And you were hurting. It’s hardly a surprise that your instincts took over.”
“I’m not safe to be around sometimes,” he told her resentfully.
“Johnny, I feel safer around you than I’ve felt in years.”
Johnny woke a couple of hours later, just in time for dinner. Jessamie insisted that he stay in bed to rest but she allowed Grady to spend some time with him while she cooked.
From the other room, she heard snippets of conversation from the two of them as she finished cooking the stew. She smiled at Grady’s fascination with Johnny’s instructions on building a better rabbit snare and savored the laughter that came from the room.
When dinner was ready, she faced their combined entreaties to let Grady eat in the bedroom with Johnny. She shook her head in mock annoyance, but relented with only a token argument and smiled as she left the two of them to their continued discussion of snares and traps.
She ate quietly on her own at the table, thinking about how dull their life would be once Johnny left. She was infuriated by her own ambivalence. Surely, a sensible woman would be pleased with the idea of her life getting back to normal? No more bullets zinging past her in the dark of night. No more bandages to be changed or extra work to be done.
No more disturbing feelings and sensations that she could neither accept… nor deny.
A burst of childish laughter broke into her thoughts. Grady would certainly miss Johnny when he left. It would be Jessamie who would be left to try to console him and to get him back into his usual routine. It wouldn’t be easy. He’d be lonely.
She frowned at the thought. It was a lonely life they lived here. Grady had virtually no contact with other children. There were very few children who even lived in the area. And he felt it all the more for having no brothers or sisters to play with. Very soon, she would have to consider what, and where, their future would be. The idea was frightening. She’d found a haven here and she was loath to leave it.
Will Thompson, one of her neighbors and the owner of the biggest ranch in the county, had offered her money for her land in the past. She had always had to turn him down, not because it hadn’t been a good offer, but because she held no title to the land.
Now that the land was hers and she had a deed to prove it, she could accept his offer – if it still held. But she’d have to consider it – long and hard.
For, while Grady found it lonely here, she had always felt safe – or, at least, she had until the other day. She knew she was hiding from the world and she was prepared to accept that. It didn’t bother her, or it hadn’t until now. But did she have the right to inflict that same loneliness on her son?
The world outside her little farm was full of questions she didn’t want to have to answer. It was full of people she couldn’t bring herself to face… and expectations. If she ventured out into that world, wouldn’t people expect her to look for a husband?
The very idea of a man looking at her, touching her, had made her physically ill for years. She couldn’t face it. Curtis Hobert had robbed her of more than her virtue. He had ruined her life; made her unable to live like other women. She had none of the feelings or desires that a ‘normal’ woman felt.
Until now… Johnny had stirred emotions and feelings in her that she wasn’t prepared for. She could admit that now, though she still fought it. There was no future in it; not for either of them. He would ride out of here and leave her, whether it was tomorrow or not. And he was right to do it. He had his life to go back to and she and Grady had a life of their own to find.
When the time finally came to break them up and send her son to bed, Jessamie faced protests from both of them.
“Aw, please Ma? It’s Johnny’s last night here. Can’t I stay an’ talk to him some more?”
With a twinkle in his eye, Johnny pleaded Grady’s case. “He’s right, Jessamie,” he said. “Just a little longer? We still have to figure out how to get rid of those rats in the barn.”
“The cats can get rid of them,” she answered curtly, well aware that he was more intent on teasing her than on the rat problem. “It looks like we’re going to have plenty of cats from now on.”
“But Ma, Johnny’s been tellin’ me all about rabbit snares,” her son protested. “You know how many different kinds there are?”
“No, I don’t, Grady.”
“Lots! Ain’t there, Johnny?”
Johnny smiled and nodded. “Yeah, lots.”
She frowned her disapproval at Johnny. “I’m sure there are, but it’s time for bed, Grady. You have chores in the morning, same as any day. And I’m sure you’re tiring Johnny too.”
“Oh no,” Johnny protested with a disarmingly innocent smile. “I’m not tired at all.” But, apparently, he caught her dismay and finally capitulated. “But your ma’s right. You oughta get some sack time.”
“Aw, come on, Johnny,” the boy whined. “Just a little longer.”
“Nope,” Johnny answered firmly. “Best listen to your ma, Grady. Time for bed.”
Grady’s chin dropped and he climbed down from the side of the bed where he’d been sitting. “Good night then, Johnny. Guess I’ll see ya in the mornin’? ‘Fore ya go?”
“I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye,” Johnny assured him. Jessamie’s heart sank at the thought of that farewell, but she schooled herself not to let Grady see it.
He trudged off to his bed and it was a battle to settle Grady. But once he did settle, he was asleep in no time.
So, with her son finally asleep, Jessamie returned to find that Johnny wasn’t in the bed where she had left him. She picked up a light shawl and threw it loosely around her shoulders, then headed for the porch.
Sure enough, Johnny was there, looking out into the darkness. There was a moon, almost full now, and it lit the yard brightly. He must have heard her footsteps for he glanced back over his shoulder to look at her for a moment before turning back to continue what he had been doing.
He was leaning against the splintered post, his hand absently rubbing the injured arm.
Jessamie stopped beside him and looked out over the yard too. There wasn’t much to see. It was the same slightly rundown piece of ground that it had been a few days ago, before either Johnny Madrid or Clovis Harner had come. But there was a difference – a big one for her. It was hers now.
“How’s the arm?” she asked from beside him.
“Pretty good,” he answered distractedly. “I can use it a little.”
“You shouldn’t; not yet. Rest it for a while longer.”
He nodded. “Is he asleep?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, he was worn out. As soon as he settled down he fell asleep right away.”
They stood side by side staring out into the yard.
“Are you still planning to leave tomorrow?” she asked, reluctant to break the silence.
“Yeah,” he answered casually.
“I still think it’s too soon. You have such a long way to go.” He didn’t look at her, but she stared straight ahead as well.
She heard him take a deep breath and then let it out slowly. “I have to get back.”
Dropping her head a little, she said quietly, “I suppose so.” Then she added, “Grady is going to miss you, you know.”
“I’ll miss him, too. He’s a good kid.”
Silence dropped over them again. An owl hooted somewhere, then a flap of wings signaled its departure. Abstractly, she thought that it should be a good night for hunting, with good light to see by.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do now?” Johnny asked suddenly. He turned his head towards her for just a moment, then looked away again. “You don’t have Hobert or Harner to worry about any more.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I know. I’m still finding it all hard to believe. It’s been so long.”
“You can do anything now… go anywhere.”
Jessamie smiled at the thought. A feeling of freedom rushed at her. He was right. It was over and she could do whatever she wanted.
“Yes,” she said slowly. “But I’ll need to think it through carefully. There are so many things I’d like to do. Grady will need a real school soon. He needs other children to play with…” She stopped there. “But I’m afraid, too. Where there are people, there’ll be questions.”
She hated the thought of questions. Here, in Cavitt Springs, she was accepted without explanations. They accepted her somewhat reclusive ways without prying or forcing their company on her. Where else would she find that?
“You changed your life, Johnny,” she stated as a matter of fact. “You say you’ve given up gunfighting and you have a life with a family and friends around you. How did you do that?”
He still didn’t look at her, but she saw him frown. “Not sure that I have,” he said quietly. “I’m still trying… still workin’ at it.” He stopped and then he sighed heavily. “Seems like every time I turn around there’s someone looking for Madrid.”
“What do you do?”
“Walk away from it… if I can,” he answered coolly. “Can’t always. I wonder sometimes…”
She finally looked at him. There was a wistful expression on his face, a lingering sadness. “You wonder what?”
He ducked his head and scuffed the toe of his boot against the boards of the porch. “Oh, just how things might have been if I’d grown up at Lancer, with Scott and Murdoch.”
She could feel the pain radiating from him and felt a strange bond between them. By the actions of others, their lives had been forced along lines that neither of them had sought. “You mean ‘what if..?’” she asked. “Thinking like that leads to bitterness, Johnny. Believe me, I know.”
“It might not have made a difference for me,” he said, very quietly.
She glanced at him and frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if it was me and not the chances I had?”
“Johnny…” she began, but he stopped her.
“No, Jessamie, listen to me,” he continued. “I chose to live by the gun.” There was anger in his voice now. “I could have done things differently, taken other work. Maybe I would have done the same thing if I had been at Lancer. Might be it’s something in me…”
“That’s foolish talk.”
“Maybe not,” he contradicted her. “When I started out, there was a thrill in being the best; building myself a reputation. I liked the respect I got.”
“Did you enjoy the killing?” she asked bluntly.
He didn’t answer, staring into the distance instead and contemplating his reply. Finally, he shook his head. “No, there’s no thrill in killing a man. Not even a snake like Harner. It stays with you.”
“Then you’re not a cold-blooded killer,” she insisted. “I barely know you, but I do know that now. Whatever choices you made, I don’t believe it was because you just had to kill. I won’t believe that.”
He laughed bitterly. “Scott says things like that. Murdoch and Teresa too. But they didn’t know me back then either.”
“Then don’t live in the past. Don’t second-guess your life, Johnny. Live with the opportunities you have now and make the most of them.”
He turned his head to face her and his lips lifted in a lop-sided smile that took her breath away every time she saw it. “I could say the same to you,” he told her. “You gonna take your own advice?”
Jessamie laughed lightly and dropped her head in thought. “Maybe.”
“Well, at least you don’t have to worry about Harner finding you. That’s over.” He stopped and frowned, staring out into the yard. “Where is Harner?”
The question startled her and she looked out into the yard. “I couldn’t just leave him there.”
Johnny turned to her this time and gave her all of his attention. “What did you do with him?”
“Dug a hole for him over by that oak tree out there,” she told him, pointing to the tree beyond the fence. “I refused to plant that man on my property.”
“How? I mean, he was a big man…”
“I dragged him,” she told him, shrugging her shoulders negligently, but shuddering inwardly at the memory of that night. The image of that cold waxen face staring back at her with wide open eyes and a shocked expression frozen on his features intruded in her mind. “It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
But it hadn’t been far from it. She wasn’t going to let him know that though.
“Maybe not, but you shouldn’t have had to do it,” Johnny told her firmly.
“Johnny, I couldn’t leave him lying there,” she answered stonily. “And you were in no condition to help me. It’s done… over.” She looked sideways at him and shook her head. “And it’s no fault of yours either, so don’t even think about feeling guilty about it.”
“Is there any law I should be telling about it?” he asked.
“No. There’s no sheriff in Cavitt Springs. The nearest lawman is fifty miles away, like the doctor.” She sighed heavily. “Besides, I don’t want to tell them why he was here. Better to let him just disappear.”
“If anyone comes asking, you tell them that he was here looking for Johnny Madrid,” he told her firmly.
“He had my picture.”
“Then tell them that he was looking for you to get to Madrid,” he insisted.
She held her head up and glared at him. “I can tend to my own troubles, Johnny,” she told him angrily. “I don’t need you takin’ ‘em on.”
His head dropped suddenly and she tried to see his face. His eyes were closed. “Johnny?” she asked, softening.
A smile broke across his face and took her by surprise. When he lifted his head, he turned towards her. In the light shining through the doorway, she saw a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. “Tamaño fuerte pájarita,” he said and laughed lightly.
Jessamie knew no other Spanish than ‘gracias’ and ‘buenos días’. Johnny must have seen the puzzlement on her face and he translated for her, grinning. “Such a tough little bird.”
She lifted her head defiantly and looked him right in the eyes, but he seemed to find only more amusement in it. Then his mood abruptly changed. His smile faded as his face sobered. Looking into his eyes was like looking into pools of the deepest blue water.
Jessamie stopped, unsure of herself but transfixed by his gaze. He leaned in close to her and she realized that, this time, he wasn’t going to stop.
Their lips touched. Jessamie felt her heart contract as his lips lightly brushed against hers; then he pulled back. She closed her eyes and tried to think.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured and she opened her eyes in time to see him drop his eyes away from hers.
She lifted her fingers to his face and pressed them gently to his lips. “No, please, I don’t want you to be sorry,” she whispered, but he turned away to stare out into the yard again.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Jessamie,” he told her quietly but without looking at her. “This life… stuck out here on your own… There’s so much more you could have. You should be in the arms of a man who loves you…”
She shook her head quickly. “No… no, I couldn’t – not after…” She stopped then, aware of how close to her he was standing and still with the touch of his lips against hers. She felt herself quivering with anticipation.
But the feeling frightened her. What if she let these feelings get the better of her, only to find out that she couldn’t go through with it at the last minute? That wouldn’t be fair to him and she couldn’t do it. “I don’t think I’m like other women, Johnny.”
“Living out here, all alone, you haven’t had much chance to find out.”
She shook her head doubtfully. “I know how I felt…” Stopping there, she looked away. Images intruded onto her consciousness - images that she had feared, but lived with for years. Tears welled in her eyes.
“What Hobert did to you was an act of violence, not love,” he said gently. “Don’t confuse the two.”
“I know,” she told him with a heavy sigh. “But… I’m frightened and, well, no man would want me anyway.” Jessamie stared out into the barren yard beside him. “I’m damaged goods,” she finished bitterly.
“¡Dios!” he said furiously. “You’re talking rubbish, Jessamie. You had nothing to do with it. No more than the victim of any other crime.”
“No, it IS different, Johnny,” she told him sadly. “I am different. I don’t have the same feelings that other women have.” She shook her head angrily. “I don’t think I want them.”
He turned back to face her then, his face so serious and his eyes locked on hers. “By hiding yourself away from the world, he’s winning,” he told her.
Jessamie found herself trembling. She glanced down, her thoughts in turmoil. Then she lifted her eyes to his again, all too aware of the impact of his physical presence on her. It wasn’t just her mind that was affected by him. She could feel her heart beating so much faster than she was used to.
Then he lifted his hand and ran his fingers lightly through her hair. His breathing slowed and the intensity of his gaze on her held her spellbound. His hand gently tilted her head up to his and pulled her closer until she could feel his chest pressed against her breasts.
She closed her eyes and waited, her heart fluttering nervously. Their lips met and touched, then parted.
The world seemed to fade away in that moment. Johnny’s hand cupped the back of her neck and pulled her even closer to him as the depth of his kiss grew.
She didn’t want it to end and so, when his lips closed on hers and he pulled away a little, Jessamie felt a terrible sense of loss. She felt hot and her skin tingled in a way that was foreign and new, but that she wanted to go on.
Lifting her hand to his cheek, she ran her fingers down his face to the point of his chin and let them linger there. His skin was rough and unshaven, but it only served to enhance the newness of the sensation. Her stomach tightened as she finally accepted her feelings for what they were. She wanted him.
And she knew that he recognized it as well. His eyes held hers and they stood together, separate from the rest of the world and everything in it. There was only him and her…
“Are you sure?” he whispered softly.
She searched his eyes and found only limpid pools of desire for her; not the wicked flame of lust she had seen in Curtis Hobert’s eyes that night. It was the final reassurance she craved and she nodded. “Yes…”
“Wait,” he said, quickly and quietly. “I… I don’t want to mislead you…”
She shook her head. “You haven’t,” she told him.
This time, Jessamie put her hand on the back of his neck and gently pulled his mouth down to hers. The shawl slipped to the floor.
He came willingly and wrapped his arm around her waist, crushing her against him until she could feel his heart beating along with her own.
She wasn’t sure when he slipped his other arm free of the sling but, suddenly, his fingers were softly stroking her neck. “Your arm…?” she asked quietly.
“Is just fine,” he whispered in answer. Then he leaned forward and lightly kissed her forehead… her cheek and then her throat. His warm breath on her ear sent a flush of pleasure through her. In mute acceptance, she tilted her head to the side and sighed.
Jessamie found her own desire then. She circled her arms around his waist and ran her hands down his back, reveling in the feel of the taut muscles under his shirt. Her heart raced as his hands slid over her waist and up to her breasts; then she held her breath in anticipation as he slowly opened one button of her blouse after another.
He kissed her again, deep and probing, as his hands found their way under her chemise to her naked breasts. She pulled back a little and quivered at the intimacy of his touch but took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. It lit a longing within her that she had neither expected nor tried to fight.
Instead, following his lead, Jessamie pulled his shirt clear of his belt and slid her own hands underneath it and across his warm skin. She ran her fingers through the mat of hair on his chest, relishing the sensations it aroused in her.
Then he pulled away from the kiss and whispered in her ear. “Jessamie…?”
She understood what he was asking. He was offering her one last chance to change her mind. But there was no need. Her barricades were down and the past was gone for now. While she appreciated his care of her, there was only this moment and the touch of his hands on her skin, the rippling muscles of his chest under her own fingers.
“It’s all right, Johnny,” she murmured in his ear and sighed as he turned her back towards the house.
Jessamie lay beside Johnny, her head resting on his shoulder and her arm stretched over his chest as moonlight shone through the window and spread a blanket of light over them.
She had no idea how long they had been laying there – time seemed to have stood still.
She was physically spent, but languished in the euphoria of delights and desires that she had never known before. She wanted to scream her revelations to the world, but the reality of her son sleeping on the other side of that curtain held her still.
They had come back to the big bed that she had slept in alone for years and she remembered him tentatively slipping her blouse off, her own fingers unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it off.
But, after that, everything was something of a blur as they had both yielded to their passion.
Passion - Jessamie understood the word now. Until tonight, she had thought that Curtis Hobert’s lust had been passion and she had feared it with her whole being. But that fear had dissolved in the wake of Johnny’s consideration for her.
Gently, he had pulled her down to the bed and they laid together - the touch of her body, naked against his, intoxicating. Their hands had explored every curve of each other’s bodies, fondling… caressing… embracing. She remembered his kisses and his warm breath on her skin; his fingertips teasing her into a burning anticipation.
With every new discovery, Jessamie had yearned for more. It had been like a flash flood racing over a barren land, with wave upon wave of sensations and excitements that had swept her along and built to a heart-stopping crescendo of ecstasy.
Johnny was laying on his side beside her now, his fingers entwined in a lock of her hair and one leg thrown lightly over hers. She had only to open her eyes to look into those intense sapphire blue eyes of his. There was a feeling of release in her; of freedom from the torments of her past and the restraints of the society that had ostracized her.
She smiled at him and was greeted with one in return. Right now, in this moment, she wanted him to forget his plans to leave and stay with her instead. She didn’t want to think about tomorrow, or his leaving; but to cling to this night and hold it forever.
He leaned over and delicately kissed her forehead. Jessamie lifted her hand to his cheek and blushed as she felt tears welling in her eyes. She didn’t want them and she shook her head angrily. She had come into this with her eyes wide open, knowing there was no future for them… knowing there was no all-consuming love between them. Yet a part of her wished that there was.
With her fingertips barely touching his skin, she brushed her hand over his cheek and through his hair. Johnny raised himself onto one elbow and locked his gaze on hers. Then he moved forward to press his lips to hers, lightly at first and then long and deep and searching.
She ran her fingers down his back and then pulled him into an eager embrace. When he broke away from the kiss, he looked searchingly into her eyes. The muscles in her stomach clenched as she felt him stir against her thigh and she smiled.
“Well,” he said quietly, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Looks like I woke a sleeping tigress.”
Her smile broadened. “Any regrets?”
Her answer was to run her hand down his thigh.
Johnny grinned at her and shook his head in mock horror. “Oh, Mrs. Lancer… Ma’am…”
She giggled, surprising even herself. “Oh yes, Mr. Madrid…” she whispered to him. “Yes…”
He leaned down and silenced her with a kiss.
Where once he had taken great consideration of her, this time he let her join him in a feverish rush of sensual delight. Jessamie had no need of his care now, though she appreciated that he had done it for her.
Instead, he led her through a world she had never imagined existed. She followed him, willingly, to a pinnacle of pleasure that left them both flushed with exhaustion. They lay with their arms wrapped about each other, their legs entwined and their heads together on the same pillow.
She could hear the soft steady rhythm of his breathing and knew that he was asleep already. Jessamie sighed and snuggled in closer to him, then drifted off to sleep herself.
When Jessamie woke again, she was alone. At first, she thought nothing of it. She always woke alone. But, as her mind cleared, her own nakedness confirmed for her that she had not dreamed last night.
She looked beside her at the bed where he had lain and wondered where he had gone.
The sun was just rising and the room was full of shadows in the dim gray light. But the dawn would break soon. Grady would wake and there would be chores to be done. It would all be just like any other day.
But it wouldn’t be the same. Jessamie wasn’t the woman she had been yesterday. She slipped from the bed and poured some water from the pitcher into the basin. She quickly washed up and then dressed, thoughts running through her head all the while.
Where was he? There was no trace of him left in the room. His clothes were gone, the revolver and gunbelt missing too – nothing to show that Johnny had ever been here.
Had he already left? Could he possibly have thought that he would save them the pain of goodbye by leaving in the dead of night?
Jessamie felt a dull ache in her heart. If this was the depth of her disappointment, how was she going to explain it to Grady? Her son would be devastated.
But, she couldn’t believe that Johnny would just leave like that. With the final button of her blouse fixed, she straightened her skirt and took a brush to her hair to tidy it. She picked up the bandana from the top of the dresser. Putting it on seemed like the final acceptance that she was going back to her old routine. Nothing had really changed, only her.
Then a thought occurred to her.
She padded softly to the curtain that separated her bed from Grady’s bunk and pulled it aside quietly. Grady was still fast asleep, one foot protruding from the blankets over the side of his bunk.
And, on the bottom bunk where she herself had slept the last few nights, lay Johnny. His clothes were bundled on the floor next to the bunk and his saddlebags lay on top of them. His gun was in the holster hanging from the post at the end of the bunk.
He looked so young. Locks of his hair fell untidily across his forehead and she had her hand up, ready to brush them aside, before she realized what she was doing and stopped. She wanted so much to touch him, but the moment had passed. The night was over and the day was just about to begin.
Jessamie walked out of the room, picked up her basket from the workbench and made her way out to the hen house. She scattered corn for the hens and then collected the eggs in her basket. Suddenly, she realized that she was humming. There was a lightness in her step as she went about the same routine she’d played out for years.
She milked Rosie and then went back to the house where she set about fixing breakfast. It wasn’t long before Grady was up and dressed.
“Mornin’, Ma,” he said brightly.
She ruffled his uncombed hair and smiled at him. “Good morning, Grady. Did you sleep well?”
“Sure, Ma. How come Johnny’s in the bunk?”
“He just wanted me to have my bed back,” she explained quickly.
“Guess he’s feelin’ better, huh?” Grady said as he sat down at the table. Jessamie poured a glass of milk for him. “You think he’s still gonna leave today?”
“I think so,” she answered with a sigh. “He has to get home to his family.”
“I guess he misses them.”
“I’m sure he does.”
Grady took a long drink of the milk and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He stared down at the glass for a moment, contemplating it. “You think he’ll miss us?”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “How could he not miss you, Grady?”
Footsteps, and the sound of jangling spurs, signaled Johnny’s approach. Jessamie looked up and realized that he had shaved and had his saddlebags thrown over his shoulder. His injured arm once again rested in the makeshift sling, but his gunbelt was already fixed around his hips and tied down.
He looked so handsome that he took her breath away.
He casually took the saddlebags from his shoulder and hung them over the back of a chair. Then he looked at her, but she found that she couldn’t meet his eyes and turned back to the stove.
“Take a seat and I’ll get you some eggs and coffee,” she said with exaggerated casualness. Behind her, she heard the scrape of the chair across the floor and knew that he had done as she had suggested.
“You really goin’, Johnny?” she heard Grady ask mournfully.
“Yeah, Grady,” Johnny answered with a hint of regret in his voice. “I’ve been gone too long.”
Jessamie turned back and placed Johnny’s breakfast in front of him. This time, their eyes did meet and she was sure that she saw in them the same uncertainty that she felt.
Her gaze dropped to the sling on his arm. “How does your arm feel?” she asked.
He flexed his fingers and answered, “Pretty good, thanks.”
“Make sure you keep it in that sling as much as you can,” she added and poured him coffee.
Johnny took a sip of the coffee, returning to his silence.
“Grady, if you’re finished, Rosie’s calf is loose again. Can you go out and pen her, please?” Jessamie suggested.
“Aw, Ma. I wanted to talk some to Johnny ‘fore he leaves.”
“I’ll wait for you, Grady,” Johnny assured him.
“Promise, Johnny? You won’t leave ‘fore I come back?”
“Not unless you’re gone ‘til sundown,” he told him and laughed. “Now get.”
Grady’s face lit up as it usually did when he came up with what he thought was a good idea. “Do you want me to feed your horse for ya, too?” he asked Johnny.
“Sure, but don’t get bit,” Johnny warned him, but Grady grinned widely.
“Nah, we’re good friends,” Grady told him. “He sure is a mighty fine horse, Johnny. Where’d ya get him?”
“My father gave Barranca to me,” Johnny answered. “After I broke him. He was bred on our ranch.”
“Wow! Wish I could break horses.”
Johnny laughed. “Well, I couldn’t do it at your age either, Grady. Give you a few years an’ I bet you’ll be able to do just about anything you’ve a mind too.”
Grady’s pleasure was obvious on his face. Jessamie stood watching as her son polished off the glass of milk and then swung around in his chair. He hit the ground running and scampered out towards the barn.
“Thank you for that, Johnny,” she told him sincerely.
“De nada,” he answered quietly.
The uncomfortable silence reared up between them again. Jessamie fussed over the pot on the stove, though there was nothing cooking now. She checked the oven, where she did have biscuits baking.
“Jessamie?” she heard from behind her. She closed the oven door and stood up slowly, then turned around.
“Are you okay?” he asked. The question could have meant anything, but she was well aware of his meaning and she nodded.
“Yes,” she replied and finally felt the urge to smile at him. “I… I woke up and you were gone.” Suddenly, she felt unusually flustered. “I guess I… I didn’t know…”
“What to think?” he finished for her.
She dropped her eyes. “Yes.”
“Jessamie, last night meant something to me. I hope you believe that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I just didn’t want Grady to find us together.”
He was watching her studiously.
“I guessed that when I found you.”
“If things were different…”
“Johnny, I had no expectations – not then and not now,” she told him firmly.
Their eyes met for a long, haunting moment before she broke away. Their time together was over and trying to revive it now would be a mistake.
He nodded and looked back down at the coffee cup in his hand.
Jessamie walked away and poured herself a cup of coffee. Then she came back and pulled out the chair beside him and sat on it, edging it close to him. He looked up at her then.
“I mean it,” she assured him. “You’re a good man, Johnny. Don’t ever think otherwise. You not only saved my life, you gave me back the ability to live it.”
He produced a smile for her that almost had her grabbing him and begging him to stay. But he was right. There was no staying. They had found a moment in time to cherish and remember and it was better to leave it at that.
“I won’t forget you, Johnny,” she said quietly. “Neither of us will. Grady thinks the world of you. I wish… I wish that I’d looked closer at you from the start, trusted his judgement.”
Johnny shook his head and grinned. “No, he’s a kid. They trust easier, sometimes too easy.”
“Not this time,” she told him. She smiled happily. “I suspect that his stories about his ‘pa’ will lean heavily towards you from now on.”
Her smile faded in the face of his serious expression. “Hope not,” he said.
“Don’t let him go makin’ some sort of hero out of me, Jessamie. A gunfighter isn’t someone a boy like him should look up to.”
She sat up, straightening her back and staring at him in surprise. “The man who he’s been around wasn’t a gunfighter. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it earlier for myself. You strung wire, fixed the windmill and mended the roof…”
“And killed Harner.”
She frowned in annoyance. “And risked your life for us when you could have walked away,” she corrected him. “I’ll be a proud woman if my son grows up to be just like that man.”
His surprise was apparent. Johnny didn’t answer her, but stared at her with a bemused look on his face.
“Don’t underestimate yourself,” she persisted. “You’re a good man and don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”
He reached out and took her hand. To feel his touch again sent a warm glow through her that she hoped wasn’t showing.
“You look after yourself, Jessamie. And the boy,” he said. His voice was soft and as gentle as his touch. “If you ever need anything, you can reach me at Lancer, near Morro Coyo.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, Johnny, but that’s not necessary. You’ve done enough.”
“No, I mean this,” he insisted. “If not for yourself, then think of Grady.”
She smiled then. It seemed that he had learned quickly how to appeal to her. “Alright, I promise. Now, I’d better change those bandages before you go.”
Johnny nodded and unbuttoned his shirt, slipping his arm from the sling and then from his sleeve while Jessamie fetched fresh bandages and salve and some warm water. She returned and set about cleaning the wound.
“It’s healing well,” she told him. “But I think you should get it looked at as soon as you get to a town with a doctor. Just to be sure.”
“It’s pretty good,” he assured her. “No need to worry.”
“You lost a lot of blood and then had a fever on top of it,” she persisted. “And I still think you’re leaving before you’re ready. I know you’re feeling stronger, but you have a long ride ahead of you. I want you to see a doctor.” She smiled mischievously. “Now, it’s your turn to promise.”
He sighed and then smiled back at her. “Done.”
Jessamie finished with his arm and turned her attention to the cut on his hand. She cleaned away the remnants of the salve and looked at it closely. There was some redness around the wound but she didn’t think it serious.
She ran her finger very lightly around the cut. “Does that hurt?”
“Not at all,” he said, his voice low. She glanced up then and caught him looking at her but, afraid of where her feelings might lead her, she went back to the task of bandaging his hand.
She heard Grady before she saw him rush back into the cabin. “I’m back, Johnny,” he called from the porch.
“Hello, Grady,” Johnny greeted him warmly. He slipped his arm back into his sleeve and set about buttoning his shirt. When he’d finished, he put his left arm back into the sling. He finished the coffee and put the cup down with a final thud. “Well, I guess it’s time I was out o’ here.”
Getting to his feet, Johnny picked up the saddlebags and dropped them over his shoulder, then he picked up his rifle.
“I c’n help you saddle Barranca,” Grady offered hopefully.
“Sure, why not?” Johnny agreed.
Her eyes met Johnny’s one more time and then he turned and walked out with her son. Jessamie stood up and looked out the window to watch them head for the barn, then she turned back and leaned against the table. She ran her hands over her flushed face and pushed back the bandana from her hair. She dropped it onto the table and smoothed her hands over her head, thinking.
Then she walked back to her room. She opened the dresser drawer and pulled out the neatly folded blue ribbon, then ran the brush through her hair and tied it back.
Back in the kitchen, she picked up a cloth and opened the oven. The biscuits were done so she pulled them out and left them to cool while she went to the pantry. She kept a square of calico there and she took it back to the table, wrapping half a dozen of the biscuits and tying the corners together.
Something suddenly occurred to her. She went to her dresser drawer again and pulled out a small black bag with a draw string. She opened it and pulled out a coin, then hurried back to the table and slipped the coin in with the bundle of biscuits.
Jessamie glanced through the open front door and saw Johnny leading his saddled horse out of the barn and into the yard. Grady tripped along beside his friend, chattering and laughing with him.
Her son looked so happy that she smiled. He had always been a happy, adventurous and imaginative child, but friends to share that with were few and far between. There were a few boys in town, but Grady only saw them when they went in for supplies and that wasn’t all that often.
No, Grady had burst with life with Johnny around. It would make Johnny’s leaving all that much harder. From the moment the man had arrived, it had been Johnny said this and Johnny can do that. She couldn’t bear to remember how she had felt about that. She’d both feared Johnny’s influence over her son… and been jealous of it.
She could admit that now. She’d never felt her relationship with her son threatened until Johnny came. It had been foolish, even mean, but there had always been just the two of them and she’d never had to share him with anyone.
Jessamie knew better now. She knew that Grady had a right to a life with friends and playmates. He had a right to something better than hiding out and living with her fears. Her fears were gone now… all of them. Even if she stayed here, she would make sure that Grady had more contact with the outside world.
They’d reached the porch. It was time.
Staunchly, Jessamie picked up her bundle of biscuits and walked out the door to join them.
“Hi, Ma!” Grady called excitedly. “I helped Johnny ta saddle Barranca.”
“Couldn’t have done it without him,” Johnny said, tousling her boy’s hair with a cheerful smile on his face.
Johnny tied the reins to the porch railing and stepped up beside her. He put his finger lightly under her chin and tilted her face up to look into his eyes. “I have to go,” he said with utter finality. He smiled that dazzling smile of his… the one that lit his eyes in such a heart-stopping way. Then he placed a light, friendly kiss on her forehead and added, “I still like that ribbon.”
She closed her eyes for a moment and clamped down on the stirrings within her. When she thought she could face him calmly, she opened her eyes and smiled back at him. “Thank you.”
He stepped down from the porch and stood beside Grady. “You look after your ma,” he told him seriously. “And you do like she says… even the book learning.”
“Sure, Johnny,” Grady answered. The excitement had left his voice now that the reality of his friend’s departure was setting in.
Johnny turned away and untied the reins, mounting the palomino easily despite the sling on his arm. Leather creaked beneath him as he settled himself comfortably in the saddle and the horse’s tail swished with anticipation. Then he leaned forward and nudged his hat back a little.
“You remember what I said, Jessamie,” he said. “Anything at all, and you know where to reach me.”
She nodded. “Morro Coyo.”
“Right.” He turned his attention to her son and said seriously, “I expect to hear good things about you, Grady. Mind your ma and you’ll grow up to be a fine man.”
“Sure, Johnny,” Grady answered quietly. “You reckon I could write ya?”
“I think that’d be real nice.”
The boy’s eyes finally lit up. “Johnny Madrid, at Morro Coyo… right?”
Johnny lowered his head a little before looking back at Grady and answering. “Yeah, I guess that’ll always find me.”
It was time for him to go and they all knew it. Jessamie stepped forward and held out the bundle of biscuits. “Something to keep from starving,” she said lightly. “There’s a dollar in there, too.”
He took it in his good hand and smelled it, grinning. “A dollar and some home-made biscuits,” he said appreciatively. “I guess that seals the deal. Thanks.” With that, he hung the bundle from the pommel in front of him and leaned back lazily. He moved his hat around on his head until he found just the right spot.
He looked her right in the eyes then. “You have a good life, Mrs. Lancer,”
She waited for just an instant before moving forward and putting her hand lightly on his knee. “And you, Johnny Madrid,” she told him, smiling. “You take care.”
He smiled then – one last smile that brightened his whole face and lit his eyes - one last smile for her to remember. It took her breath away and almost undid her resolve to stay cool and calm.
But she stepped back instead and put her arm around her son’s shoulders, while Johnny turned the palomino around to face the road.
“Bye, Johnny!” Grady called after him as he kicked his horse into a walk.
Johnny turned around and carefully lifted the arm in the sling to wave. “Adios,” he called back. He urged his horse through the gate and Jessamie went with Grady to the road, pulling it closed behind them.
With one last look at them, Johnny turned down the road and pressed Barranca into stride. The palomino leapt forward eagerly and Johnny let him have his head.
Jessamie watched him down the road and Grady shrugged off her arm and ran after him, calling out quickly, “Come back some day, Johnny.”
But Johnny didn’t appear to have heard him. He didn’t look back at them. He was soon too far off to make out clearly, but she stayed and looked down that road until she lost sight of him turning the bend.
And he was gone, really gone. Grady had stopped and turned around and was already at her side. Tears glistened on his cheeks and she put her arms around him and drew him in close.
Jessamie felt a daunting sense of loss. In less than a week, Johnny had changed their lives irrevocably.
She turned around then. She looked at the little cabin and the dusty yard. It was as though the world suddenly opened up in front of her. It might not be much, but it was hers.
She had decisions to make… big ones. But that was a good thing. Jessamie straightened her back and smiled. She opened the gate and they went in. “I’ll close it, Ma,” Grady told her and secured it. She waited for him to come to her side again and then walked slowly towards the cabin.
Her world was different already. She could go on living here, confident that she was no longer hunted and that the place was hers now. Or she could sell up and take herself and Grady out into the world to seek their future.
But there was no rush. She patted Grady’s back comfortingly and nudged him along with her. She wasn’t the same woman that she had been a week ago – before Johnny had come. She felt more alive than she had in years.
She put one hand on the splintered porch post and looked at the doorway. Then she smiled before taking her son inside.
One thought ran though her mind. Her life was in her own hands now. Jessamie Kellehan’s life had effectively ended on that violent night in Laramie all those years ago. The Hoberts had seen to that. But Johnny had brought Jessamie Lancer to life.
Whatever the future held, Jessamie had choices.