Letting Go

By Sam 



Nestled together, drugged by the warmth of a ripe sun and the heady scent of blossoming wildflowers, Johnny lay in the long grass. Katie’s head fell heavily against his shoulder. Johnny didn’t move though, he almost didn’t breathe through fear he would dissipate this moment before he’d a chance to truly savour it. He glanced down to her hair, wild and wandering, splayed out across his chest, and he could smell now the shampoo she used, taste her lemony fragrance. As he twirled one wheat-coloured curl about his finger, the gold of his wedding band glinted in the sun.

“You remember the last time we came here?” Katie’s voice was soft, still accented with sleep. Johnny knew she was staring out across the lake, no doubt squinting as he now was, shielding her eyes from the rippling glare on its surface. It was a beautiful spot. This was where he’d proposed.

“You mean we’ve come here before?”

Katie tilted her head, looking crestfallen, before it dawned on her that he was teasing. Nimbly she reached for his hat, and swatted him none too gently with it.

“Hey.” Johnny made a mock protest, ruefully rubbing his arm. When Katie went to rise, he reached for her hand, taking it in his own, his thumb rubbing the gold band on her finger. “I remember,” he assured her seriously, tucking a rebellious curl behind her ear. He leant in and their lips skimmed, mutually warm and inviting, lingering in long, intimate proximity.

“Tell me what you’re thinkin’,” he urged her softly.

She kissed him then, deeply, tasting of summer berries. “That I’m happy,” she murmured. His skin tingled as she brushed the hair from his eyes.

Johnny ran a finger over the smooth fullness of her lips, tracing the remnants of their kiss. All morning he’d had the feeling she was holding something back, although he didn’t doubt the sincerity of what she’d just said.

“What else?” he gently prompted.

Her fingers dropped from his hair to his blue flower print shirt, playing idly with his buttons. “Oh, just that when you smile at me as you’re doing now, it reminds me of the first time we met.”

“When you thought I was adorable?”

Katie swatted him with her hand this time. “I wish I’d never told you that, Johnny Lancer. It gave you a big head.”

Grinning wickedly, Johnny captured her in his arms and lowered her gently to the flattened grass. “It’s true though, isn’t it?” he demanded playfully as he straddled her hips, distracted momentarily by the covetous urge of his body toward hers.

“Maybe.” Her smile was beautifully innocent, unlike her hands which roved to his waist, pulling at his shirt, untucking it slowly, inch by inch.


This part of the lake was secluded, and on a hot, breezeless day like this, when the water was temptingly tranquil, it was the perfect place to cool off. Bending down, still standing in the shallows, Johnny scooped up a handful of water and brought it to his lips. His hair was still wet and dripping; little rivets ran down his bare shoulders, drying quickly in the sun.

Katie had spread her dress and his shirt out on the grass, and was now sitting on shore, wringing the water from her hair and the petticoat’s hem. Joining her, Johnny relaxed, lying back with his hands behind his head, his jeans rolled up enough to allow his bare feet to remain partially submerged in the water.

Johnny Boy, you’re one lucky man.

He could scarcely believe how much his life had changed for the better. It had taken him a good while to relax and just accept it. He’d kept waiting for it all to be stolen, whisked away in the dead of the night, or to fade with morning like the dream it had to be. It had been four years since he’d discovered a family that had grown to become the most important thing in his life, and just six short months ago that family had welcomed Katie.  He couldn’t imagine living without any of them now. 

A contented sigh left his lips. Then Johnny smiled. If anyone had told him he’d end up marrying a relative of Val Crawford’s, he’d have laughed in their face. His smile grew irrepressible as he remembered meeting Katie for the first time.

He’d been in Green River and had called in to see Val. If the truth be known, curious for a glimpse of the cousin whom Val had announced, somewhat out of the blue, would be coming to stay with him for an indefinite period. Johnny and Scott had been intrigued from the get go, but Johnny more so. After all, he knew Val of old, and he couldn’t see how the messy, scruffy, self-imposed bachelor of a sheriff would handle living with a woman, even if he did have a heart of gold under all that gruff.

Naturally, Johnny had built up a picture in his head as to what a cousin of Val’s would look like. He’d envisaged a plain looking girl; scatty, slightly plump with a mop of unruly brown hair that was forever fighting its way out of whatever hairstyle it had been set in. Boy was I wrong. Whoever knew that Val could be related to anyone so beautiful or intelligent? Johnny had been so prepared to be unimpressed by Miss Kathleen Crawford that in the face of such a contrast, he had found himself unequivocally tongue-tied. Katie hadn’t let on that she’d noticed then, it had been later when she’d admitted to finding it adorable. Adorable, Johnny smirked. Yeah, I’ve been called that a few times before. He chuckled lightly as he considered how every time he saw the sheriff now, Val would remind him religiously that Johnny owed him one.

Their courtship had been whirlwind, as Murdoch put it. Johnny had thought that only the devil could possess a man, but he’d been wrong. Katie Crawford Lancer could do it, too. With her he felt complete, and for the first time ever, able to lay bare his soul for someone else’s inspection. Katie’s love, her understanding—given without pity, reservation or judgement, had swept away the haunting blackness that had dogged him for so long, severing his last remaining ties to a dark and distant past.

“Johnny?” Katie’s voice coaxed Johnny back to the present; the baking sun and the water lapping at his toes. 


“Come sit in the shade for a while.”

Lazily, Johnny opened one eye. Katie was on her feet, standing just to his side. Johnny shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand. “But I like it here.” He propped up on his elbows. “The view sure is pretty.”

“You can still see the lake from the—oh.” Katie appeared to realise then just where Johnny’s gaze was focused, for he watched her eyes travel down to her petticoat, still wet and clinging to her thighs. She rolled her green eyes, and then with a whimsical note to her voice, a kind of sing-song quality that intrigued Johnny enough for him to sit up, she said, “I have something to tell you…”

“What is it, mi Corazon?”

She was smiling now, at him and for him, excitement shining in her eyes. She tugged at his hand, and he teased her by pulling his feet from the water and rolling his jeans back down to his ankles, but making no move to rise.

“Please, Johnny?” Katie had his other hand now, too, caressing them both, still pulling gently but persuasively. “I’ll tell you once we’re in the shade.”

She released his hands and he rested them upon warm knees, watching as Katie began a backward walk up the slope, her eyes not leaving his until she stumbled, her face grimacing in brief pain before she bent down to remove the offending object from the grass.

“You okay?” Johnny was up and by her side in seconds.

“I’m fine, it was just a rock, see?” She held it out, small but jagged, and he took it, encasing it in his palm for a second before releasing it powerfully. It made it all the way to the lake, skimmed the surface, then sank. He turned back to her, overwhelmed again by how strong his desire was to protect this woman, even from something as trivial as a stone in the grass. Wrapping his arms around her, Johnny went to lift her up only for her to squirm out of the way, taking his hand instead and holding it to her bosom.

“Wait,” she instructed breathlessly.

“Uh-huh.” Johnny hooked that obstinate lock of damp hair behind her ear again as he leaned in to kiss her neck, grazing her cheek, seeking her lips. He fingered the flimsy lace trim of her camisole, still damp from the water, itching to slide his hand beneath it and explore her breasts with the eagerness of their first time together. To his dismay, she forced their fingers, still lovingly entwined, to travel downwards so that his open palm first brushed her ribcage then came to rest pressed against her stomach.

She broke their hectic kiss. “Johnny—”

Johnny sighed. “I know, I know, you want the shade. Boy, you’re real stubborn, anyone ever tell you that?” Grinning, he extracted his hand from hers and started back down the slope.

“Where are you going?”

He looked over his shoulder. “To get my shirt.” She looked simply exasperated before throwing her hands in the air and shaking her head with laughter.

“What’s funny?” Johnny asked, snatching his damp shirt from the grass and mopping the sweat from his chest and back with it.

“Nothing.” She was still laughing. “I do love you, Johnny Lancer.”

Johnny kept grinning, and while Katie turned and headed toward the thicket of trees that offered the shade she apparently so desired, he stuck his arms through the sleeves, and collected his boots under one arm. He’d just thrown his gunbelt over his other shoulder when a sharp crack reverberated across the lake, exploding the serenity of the setting, sending the birds from the trees into a frenzy of squawking and flapping wings.

The sound seemed to originate from everywhere all at once. Instantly Johnny looked up towards Katie, who had reached the top of the slope. For a second she looked surprised, as he did, before she folded to the ground.

Panic seized Johnny then, wrapping about him, squeezing his throat until he couldn’t breathe or move. The world froze. All he could hear were those damn birds. Then suddenly he was running, hammering the grass with bare feet, his only thought to get to his wife and see if she was all right.  He almost made it.

The second shot rang out. A bullet tore through flesh again—Johnny’s this time. And as the burning pain hit him and the darkness descended, he was still running to Katie.


The first inklings of consciousness were cruel, giving Johnny back his senses a little at a time. He could hear birds; noisy in his skull. There was something else, too, and Johnny concentrated hard to identify it—a raspy sound—his own breathing. As for sight, Johnny could see nothing but the flesh of his own eyelids, and just as he was about to force his eyes open, his body’s restoration sped up, and every nerve cell in his body ignited. He went to cry out, but a self-protective instinct kicked in to stifle it, and instead he moaned into the grass, the caress of the soft blades such a contrasting sensation.

“Is she dead?”

A deep male voice startled Johnny, increasing his confusion. What the hell? Johnny struggled to recall exactly where he was, who he’d been with, and what he’d been doing. He’d been shot, he and this pain were too well acquainted not to know that much, but by who, and why?

“I’ll check 'im.”

Johnny played possum, hearing the swish of grass, the heavy tread of boots on hard ground. They stopped just feet away. He tried to curb the rise and fall of his chest, an almost insurmountable task when he was gasping for each and every breath.

“Yeah, I reckon.” The voice sounded flippant. Johnny registered a Texan accent.

“Don’t matter none anyways. The boss said nothin' 'bout killin' 'im.” There was a pause, and Johnny sensed the man rejoin his companion.

Silently, he cursed his incapacity even though he had no idea where his gun lay. He may have dropped it at the waters edge. Groggily he tried to see, only to find his eyelids still reluctant to cooperate. He persisted, finally getting his way, but not able to make anything out at first. He waited, impatiently, for the blurred swirls of blinding colour to settle into a focused image. Then, surreptitiously, he raked his gaze over his two assailants, gunhawks judging by the way they wore their rigs, memorizing every noticeable detail, the hate he felt for them already cauterizing their images in his mind.

The man nearest to Johnny was the shorter of the two, heavyset, with a puffy pink face. Clearly bothered by the sun, he removed his hat and swept the sweat from his forehead back into the curls of his bright red hair. The taller man was scrawny in comparison, rat-like, with dark beady eyes, and long brown greasy hair that stayed still even as he stepped forward a few paces. A limp moustache hung over his lip, and it trembled when he said, “She is dead, ain’t she?”

Painfully, Johnny craned his neck. What he saw made him wish for the shelter of darkness again.

There, lying on the grass just feet away, was Katie.

“’Course she’s dead. What ya tryin’ ta say?” The redhead sounded irritated.

The tall one nudged Katie with his boot, and reached down to callously flip her over. Her head lolled in Johnny’s direction. She was staring right at him, her green eyes wide, glassy and lifeless. 

Madre de Dios. No.


A wave of grief rose in Johnny, gathering momentum every agonizing minute he had to wait to be sure her killers had gone. Only then did it break and batter him. His instincts screamed at him to get up and move. He needed to be with Katie.

After a minute he pulled himself together, gritted his teeth, and channelled all his rage and emotion into sheer brute strength that inched him those few feet that may as well have been miles. His stomach dragged over the grass, torturously slowly, every single blade now feeling like corrugated iron scraping his skin. He was almost there, leaving his life in a stark red trail that glistened in the afternoon sun. If he reached out now then he could meet Katie’s fingertips with his own. He did that, feeling the warmth of them still, and he forced himself that final inch, fighting a losing battle with the darkness that was impatient to claim him. As his hand clasped hers in a final, solid grip, Johnny did something he’d never done before.

He prayed to die.




He’d waited all day for the evening. Every minute had dragged, nervous anticipation brewing in his stomach by the hour. Scott said it was down to the weather. He was waiting for the sun to set, for a welcome breeze that would chase off the afternoon’s heat, and make the ride up here more pleasurable. That part was true. He’d enjoyed the ride. As the ground elevated steadily beneath him, the view grew wider and more magnificent, until his vision was bursting at the seams. Some days Scott could appreciate this beauty. Then on other days, the black days, it meant nothing. Then he couldn’t help but think that a lot of Lancer’s appeal had died almost a year ago.   

After pulling off his gloves, Scott pushed firmly at the iron gate that marked the entrance to what fate and circumstance had evolved into the Lancer cemetery. It opened stiffly, squealing its usual protest before surrendering to the serenity and the silence of the dead.

He removed his hat. There were three graves, the first belonging to Paul O’Brien, who had lain up here for over five years. The second grave was more recent, and it was here that Scott paused and bowed his head. His memories of this man were first hand and lovingly nurtured. Jelly had died three months ago. A heart attack, Sam had said, although Scott suspected a broken heart was more likely. Jelly had been good friends with Johnny. He’d never gotten over his loss.

Lost in the sadness, Scott moved on to the reason he had come up here today. As he approached the third grave, his strides became shorter, his tread softer. His nerves were on edge, it felt crazy, it was illogical. But still he squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that when he looked, he would see what he so wanted and needed to find.   

He opened his eyes to disappointment.

Like the rest, this grave was well cared for, the headstone wiped free of dirt and windswept dust. Fresh flowers lay on the soil; a hand tied bouquet of yellow roses from Teresa’s garden. Scott had watched her pick them earlier. It was a year to the day since Katie had died, but Johnny hadn’t been back. If he had, Scott was certain that there would be some sign; some signature of the poignant love Johnny had held for his wife.

He squatted down and silently paid his respects to the woman who had made his little brother so happy in life, and devastated him in death.

Where is he, Katie?

It was his waking thought each day, and he knew it was the same for Murdoch and Teresa, and had been for Jelly, too. Johnny’s disappearance had left a hole in all their lives that ached to be filled. The not knowing—that was the hardest part. Despite doing all they could to find Johnny, it seemed that he had become a ghost. A thought trespassed through Scott’s mind; perhaps he really has.  As if this wasn’t enough to keep him awake until late at night, there was the burden of guilt that became a heavier load with each passing day. It’s my fault that Johnny went away. 

A lump formed in his throat. His eyes moistened in the breeze. It would be easy to let a tear fall. There was no one around to see. Instead Scott leaned forward, tracing the cold engraving of Katie’s name with his fingertip. She had been twenty-five when she’d died, the same age as Johnny would be now. She’d been gunned down so ruthlessly, and for what—revenge?

He’d been the one to find them. Johnny’s hand still held hers as the sun bid farewell with a glorious descent behind the gathered clouds. The blood trail slicked over the flattened grass, Katie’s lifeless stare…Scott would never forget either image. Discovering Johnny still alive, if barely, had filled him with relief so powerful that it mocked his grief for Katie.

Sounds of a rider made Scott turn, for one moment hoping that he’d been right about his brother returning home on today of all days. He was disappointed again.

“Scott.” Val approached, nodding a greeting, twirling his hat in his hand. He looked to his cousin’s grave with trepidation. To Scott, Val had never been the most open man, but he’d withdrawn further after Katie’s death. Like Johnny, he blamed himself. Katie had come to Green River for protection and Val assumed she’d be safe, they all had, and she was—for six happy, but all too short months. Katie’s violent end was not Val’s fault, just as it wasn’t Johnny’s, but Scott knew it hadn’t stopped either man from taking the responsibility on their own shoulders.

After a moment’s silence, Val looked up. “No sign, eh?”

Scott shook his head, comforted to know that the sheriff had shared his secret hope.

“How’s Murdoch doin’?”

“The same. Since we called off the search, he’s thrown himself into work…” Scott trailed off. His father had always seemed a hard man on the outside, yet softer underneath, a family man at heart. But Katie’s death and Johnny’s disappearance had taken their toll, and once again it seemed like the ranch was the only thing that mattered to him. Scott knew that it wasn’t. He and Murdoch had planned and searched, side by side, for seven long, hard months, only for every avenue to prove a dead end. They were stumbling around in the pitch black looking for a shadow. Nobody had seen Johnny other then Roger Grant, the bank manager at Green River. He had met with Johnny on the morning of his disappearance. Apparently Johnny had withdrawn a large sum of money from his account, but that was where the trail went cold.

Even now Scott kept checking with Roger, hoping that Johnny would need more money and either return or send a wire to the bank. No such luck. The remaining money in Johnny’s account lay there untouched. The most frustrating part was that Johnny had been in no condition to ride far at all, least not far enough to take him to the elusive place he’d ended up in. It had only been three weeks since he’d been shot and almost died. Naturally he’d had no business even being out of bed.  

Scott sighed into the breeze. Injured or not, there had been no trace of Johnny.

“Yuh ain’t heard nothin’?”

Scott shook his head sadly. “No, not a thing, Val. You?”


It was the same conversation they had every time, yet still they performed the routine. It had become a comforting ritual. These words were all they had, and while in the beginning they’d been spoken in hopeful tones, now they left their lips on breaths of despondency. There had been no answers to the situation they found themselves in. Johnny was gone. Maybe for good. 

“I wish we'd got the bastards that did this to her,” Val said suddenly, his voice gruff with emotion.

Scott could only nod numbly. He felt the same; frustrated that there had been no justice for Katie, and none for Johnny.  They suspected the reason for Katie’s murder. Val had tried to make a case, only there had been no evidence. Scott and Val had searched, but there was no provable connection to be found between the man they were sure was behind it, and the men that had fired the two bullets; one fatal, one not. They knew there had been two men, for there were two sets of tracks leading away from the lake. But the trail had disappeared at the boundaries of Lancer land.

Scott and Val had waited anxiously for Johnny to regain consciousness in the hope that he’d seen the assailants. Val needed a description—something to go on. It had been an agonizing two weeks before Scott had been able to ask Johnny some gentle questions, only for all hopes to be dashed when Johnny informed them that he hadn’t seen anyone or heard anything. He hadn’t known where the shots had come from. It had all happened too fast. 

“Now I’m gonna say somethin’, Scott, an’ I don’t want ya gettin’ bent outta shape.”

Scott concentrated on sliding his fingers into his gloves, already sure he didn’t want to hear this. He heard Val scuff his boot on the ground, and when he finally looked up, the sheriff was waiting.

“Johnny’s a good man, a good friend,” Val began uneasily. “But it’s been a year an’ we ain’t heard nothin’…” He broke off and sighed noisily. “Guess what I’m tryin’ ta say, Scott, is…yuh might wanna think ‘bout lettin’ him go. If Johnny’s still alive then he’s tellin’ us somethin’ an’ we need ta face it. Don’t reckon he’ll be back.”

His gloves now on, Scott gazed past Val to the gate, remembering that it needed a firm tug to close properly. Deep down he knew Val might be right, and while clinging to hope could be a good thing, it was also torturous. Something Scott had never felt more so than today. 

“I’ve thought about it,” Scott admitted finally, turning back to the sheriff. “But I just can’t because it’s...”

“Johnny,” Val finished for him with a trace of a smile. 

Warm thoughts of his enigmatic brother filled Scott’s mind until he could no longer contain his own grin. “Exactly, Val. It’s Johnny.”




It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The incessant ticking of that damn clock had been driving him mad for months. Those black hands quivered and counted the minutes of each and every day, reminding him that life went on.

One particular day, Murdoch had been in a darker mood than usual. He hadn’t wanted reminding that life went on, that time marched him forcefully into a future he had already lived through in the past. A past during which he'd had nothing to do but run his ranch and wonder. Wonder what his sons were doing, what they looked like, if they were happy.  He had listened to that clock through all of that time. Sought comfort back then from the recurring tick that kept him company in this large room. But on this one particular day, he’d just found it irritating, and so the Grandfather clock that had stood tall, dark and proud in the great room for years, had been removed from the hacienda. And that had made him happier. For a while.

Now as he sat at his desk, trying to concentrate on the pile of invoices and receipts, writing the figures in the ledger with precision and accuracy, he realised that he missed it. How long had he been at this for example? A sip of the coffee that he’d brought into the room with him suggested it had been quite a while. He spluttered on the stone cold drink. Placing the cup down, Murdoch wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and grimaced. Returning to the task in hand, he spent time putting all the paperwork in chronological order, only to suddenly swipe it from the desk in frustration, sending all of his effort fluttering to the floor.

He stood suddenly, shoving his chair backward so it scraped across the polished floor. He felt like this sometimes; furious; hurt; confused; frustrated. All at once. It was only during these moments that Murdoch did not want Johnny to walk back through the door. He wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to grab his son by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth chattered. Did Johnny have any idea as to the pain he’d caused? Did he even care? Why did he have to be so selfish?

Then, just as always, the anger passed. Over the last year, Murdoch’s emotions had turned carnivorous, steadily eating their way through his insides until he felt a mere shell of a man.  Sometimes it was only the anger that reassured Murdoch he had any feelings left at all. His life had become so monotonous. He went to bed, got up, ate breakfast, worked, ate, and then the whole routine started again.

He missed Johnny.

They all did.

With a weary sigh, Murdoch picked up the scattered papers and put them back in a pile. He sat down again, his gaze straying to the photograph on his desk. A snapshot of his family as it had been—all of them together. Murdoch ran his fingers along the polished silver frame as he stared at the faces, thinking back to the day it had been taken. It had been Teresa’s idea, and Murdoch remembered with a smile, the reluctance Johnny had shown to pose on demand.  Teresa had tried to persuade him, only Johnny had been too busy joking around with Scott. They’d posed for another, properly, but funnily enough it had been the first one that Murdoch had chosen to frame. It showed them as they were—natural and happy.  Lightly, Murdoch traced his finger over the sepia images. Scott was the only one looking at the camera, although it was clear from his expression that he was trying desperately hard to stop laughing. Johnny was standing beside him, one arm slung casually over his brother’s shoulder, leaning in towards Scott’s ear as he whispered something that Murdoch figured he probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear. He himself stood tall, with one arm around Teresa, who peered around his body to smile indulgently at her brothers. Murdoch chuckled at the expression on his own face; exasperation and impatience rolled into one. How he missed those times.

Now life seemed dull and lacking for all of them. Murdoch was concerned for Scott and to a lesser extent, Teresa. At least the young woman had already married before Johnny left. She had started out on the journey of her own future, only now she seemed stuck at a crossroads, torn between loyalty to them and to her husband. Luckily David was a good man and understood Teresa’s need to remain close to her family. If Murdoch was honest, there had been times when her strength alone had held them together. He wanted her to move on though, have children. He knew that was what she wanted. Before Johnny left it was all her and David talked about. But as yet there was no sign of Paul’s first grandchild. Maybe Teresa felt that she did not have the time to devote to a baby, because he needed and depended on her too much. Murdoch felt guilty; he knew that he did.

But Scott, his first born, a son whom any man would be proud to have. Out of all of them, he'd felt Johnny’s absence the most, yet he’d probably handled it the best. Outwardly at least. Murdoch suspected that inside Scott felt guilty. In fact he knew he did. He also knew that Scott hurt because, as close as he and his brother had been, Johnny had chosen to leave without a word of explanation, without even saying goodbye. Scott deserved so much more than this. He had his whole life ahead, yet he’d lost his focus, his zest.  Since they’d stopped searching for Johnny, all Scott had done was work, and it couldn’t go on. As hard as it would be, and as much as it broke Murdoch’s heart to have to think it, perhaps it was time to let Johnny go.


Coming home after another long and tiresome day, Scott took off his hat in the foyer, and stared wearily down at his dusty clothes, wondering if he was ever going to feel normal again. How long had it been since he’d come home to laughter or even a genuine smile—anything to prove that life did indeed go on.

Scott hung up his hat, removed his gunbelt and stepped down into the great room, his footsteps deliberately softening as he made his way toward the desk. Murdoch was seated in his chair with his arms folded and his head resting heavily upon them. When Scott got closer he realised his father was asleep. The framed photograph lay just inches from Murdoch’s fingertips, and Scott picked it up, staring at the images, remembering just like Murdoch, the fun they'd had that day. Returning the frame upright to the desk, Scott placed his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder and shook him gently.

Murdoch came to with a start, sitting straight and flushing with embarrassment at being caught in a nap.

“Why don’t you go and lie down for a while?” Scott suggested. “You don’t want to risk your back by sleeping in that chair.”

Murdoch flashed his son a look of annoyance. “I’m not so old that I need to take afternoon naps, Scott,” he said grumpily.

Scott studied his father with concern. Murdoch wasn’t old, he was not yet in his mid fifties, yet this past year had made him look older. If he hadn’t already had a grey hair for every blade of grass on Lancer, then he surely would by now. There were dark circles under his lower lashes and worry lines etched around his mouth. Murdoch had been pushing himself too hard, Scott knew. It had been all he could do that morning to convince Murdoch to spend the day concentrating on bookwork, rather than being out on the range again.

“Don’t look on it as a nap then.  Look on it as a siesta.” Scott wanted to add, as Johnny would say, but for some reason he couldn’t, although from the sadness that flickered in Murdoch’s eyes, he didn’t have to. Anxious for a change of subject, he enquired, “Have you seen Teresa, today?”

“She was here this morning.” Murdoch rose and stretched, easing the tension from his muscles. “Fussing around me like she always does. I told her that she has a husband now and she should be fussing over him.”

“But she didn’t listen?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Well she did leave then, but only after promising to come back tomorrow.”

“Teresa cares about you, that’s all,” Scott reminded his father.

Murdoch sighed. “I know she does. But she needs to concentrate on her own life. As do you.”

Scott was surprised. “I have my own life,” he defended hastily. But Murdoch didn’t look convinced.

“Do you?” he questioned. “When was the last time you went out and enjoyed yourself? When was the last time that you took the day off, went out and got drunk, just for the hell of it?”

Now Scott looked astonished. “You’re advocating me going out and getting drunk?”

Murdoch nodded eagerly. “Yes, once in a while. You’re still young, Scott, and you should make the most of it. Either that or find a nice young lady to settle down with. One or the other, but you can’t carry on like this. It’s no life.”

Scott considered pointing out that he hadn’t exactly lived like a monk these past twelve months, but refrained. The truth of it was, he didn’t go out much anymore, at least not like he used to with Johnny. Even after Johnny and Katie were married, the brothers still went into town together most Saturday nights. Katie had always ushered them out the front door, telling them both to have a good time, always with a wink in Scott’s direction as she reminded Johnny that his time had better not be too good.

It just wasn’t the same now, and the few times Scott had joined the hands who shared his own age in town, he’d found himself just going through the motions. Even the company of attractive young women only served to lure Scott's mind for a while. Not feeling inclined to admit the truth of his father's words, Scott turned the conversation around to Murdoch. “Well what about you, Sir?” he argued. “You’re working yourself into the ground, each and every day. That’s not much of a life either.”

Murdoch dismissed the point with a flourish of his hand. “I’m too old for anything else,” he stated firmly.

Scott raised an eyebrow. “A minute ago you said you weren’t that old.”

Murdoch pursed his lips. “Don’t get smart,” he said with mock severity. A long-lost twinkle appeared in his eyes, but vanished as quickly as it’d come. “I’m being serious. This past year, it’s been a hard one for all of us. Losing Katie, Jelly and Johnny…” Murdoch swallowed. “But you need to start looking to the future, son. We all do.”

“You mean give up on Johnny?” Scott asked faintly, remembering the conversation he’d had with Val last week.

Murdoch was still for a minute, before his brows furrowed and a frown creased his face. “Give up on him, no,” he said slowly. “But maybe we have to accept that Johnny’s not coming back.”

Scott turned away from his father then, a storm cloud of emotion brewing within. He knew that like Val, Murdoch had a point. Hadn’t he only been thinking the other day that life had to go on, that he, they, couldn’t continue like this forever? Lately Scott thought about this often, yet always his inner voice urged him to hold on, not to give up, to have some faith that wherever Johnny had gone, one day his heart would bring him home again. What Murdoch was proposing, well to Scott they meant the same thing. To accept that Johnny wasn’t coming home was to give up on him. Turning back to Murdoch, Scott looked at his father hesitantly, before voicing the question they’d asked themselves, yet never asked the other. “Do you think he’s dead?”

Murdoch looked horrified, not by the question itself, but at the fact that one of them had finally dared to ask it. “I don’t know.” The words were spoken in the barest of whispers, as if their very descent over the lips was an act of treachery.

No more words were spoken as silence reclaimed the room. Murdoch regretted again, getting rid of that clock.




Johnny Lancer might have lowered the brim of his hat before entering a saloon in this type of town. He’d been adverse to the trouble it could bring should his face be recognised by the wrong pair of eyes. Sometimes it wasn’t recognition; his low worn rig issued the invitation. It didn’t matter to them that he was no longer living that life. They still tried their luck and tested him.

Before Lancer, Johnny hadn’t cared if he were recognised, and the only reason he’d survived those early years was because his talent with a gun was fortunately as big as his mouth. The cocky kid he’d been had craved every challenge like a drug, addicted to the sense of power it gave him. For power had been noticeably absent in his childhood. A bad mood, a few drinks too many—it hadn’t mattered what the reasons behind the beatings were, or whether they’d come physically or verbally. They all hurt the same. It was only later as his reputation grew that Johnny Madrid learnt to avoid those confrontations that were unnecessary.

Today, walking into the dead air of a crowded saloon, Johnny left the brim of his hat alone. He collected a bottle of tequila from the bar, and as he searched the room for a suitable seat, he felt a dozen gazes follow his progress. He wondered if they were curious or more or than that. He’d know in time.

Locating the seat he wanted, Johnny’s dark scowl ensured he got it. He relaxed back, scanning the room with a cultivated laziness, sussing out the potential challengers. He lingered on those who were thinking about it, but they dropped their gazes, betraying their uncertainty, and Johnny wasn’t inclined to bother with them. Instead he rolled his eyes and looked away.

He was content to wait. 

The tequila tasted different this afternoon, fierce on his tongue, and it spread warmth throughout his body. It felt strange. He’d been cold for so long. He poured another shot and knocked that back, too. Drink had been a good friend—a blanket to throw over reality.  But those days had been his darkest, and they’d blurred into nights, weeks, a month and more. He hadn’t shaved or bathed, other than in self-loathing and hatred. He’d hated himself, fate, God, but most of all the bastards who killed Katie.

His breath caught. It hurt like new just to think of her. Often self-protection refused to allow it, and Johnny preferred it that way. Maybe once this was over…once he’d fulfilled his vow.

He looked up slyly when a stranger pushed his way through the saloon’s batwing doors, hesitating just inside them, almost waiting for the obedient hush that descended on the room. Johnny suppressed his smile. This was no stranger. It was no coincidence either.

Cort Jardine. Johnny remembered him from a long time ago. They were around the same age, only Cort looked older with his scarred face and seen-it-all eyes. He’d fought a bloody battle to be the best at their ‘trade’, and from what Johnny heard, he was close. This was unsurprising. When they’d first met, Cort was trying to carve a reputation and he’d been smart about it, too. He’d known his place in the pack, hadn’t gone straight for the big dogs. Too many fools did that and ended up dead. Yeah, Cort’s smart, Johnny considered. He made the right choices, took the right chances.

Until now. 

Expectant stares darted back and forth between the two gunfighters. Johnny knew what folk were thinking. Here were two reputations—one old, one new.

Cort ordered a drink from the bar and drank it quickly, his gaze sweeping the room. When he spotted Johnny, Johnny raised his glass, a smirk dancing on his lips.

“Johnny Madrid,” Cort drawled, sauntering over. “I heard ya was back from the dead.” He kicked out a chair and sat, piercing Johnny with an invasive stare.

Johnny’s smirk intensified. He rocked his now empty glass on the table, privately amused when he saw Cort glance down in annoyance.

“I hear you’re tryin’ ta get back your old reputation. Doin’ a pretty good job, too.”

Johnny smiled openly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d thank ya for the compliment.”

Cort grinned. “Take the compliment, Johnny,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Just know that you’ve got as far as you’re gonna get.”

“That right?”

Cort’s grin withered. Leaning forward, he looked Johnny in the eye, his stare now diamond hard. “That’s right,” he said firmly. He reached out and grabbed Johnny’s tequila, taking a long swig straight from the bottle. “Times ‘ave changed, Johnny Boy. You’ve been outta the game too long. Madrid was a legend, but now he ain’t worth a spit.” He set the bottle back down in front of Johnny with a loud thud, and wiped his mouth with his hand.

Johnny glanced at the bottle and pushed up from the table. “Thanks for the advice,” he said casually. He turned and headed to the bar; knowing Cort would view this as a dismissal. He didn’t bother to hide his smile when Cort’s voice rang out across the saloon. 

“You ain’t good enough ta be what you were before. You know it, an’ I know it!”

Slowly Johnny turned. So far Cort was predictable. He hoped that stayed true to the end.

“You know it, Johnny.” Cort spoke bluntly.

“Well, you see, Cort, that's just it, I don’t know.” Johnny lightly shrugged his shoulders. “Gotta feelin’ I’m ‘bout to find out though.”

“You callin’ me out?” Cort looked surprised.

“Reckon so.”

Cort shook his head. He was smiling. “You got shit for brains, Madrid. You’ll be what everyone thought you were—a dead man.”

The saloon went quiet. A few of the patrons, who had overheard the conversation, were slowly edging their chairs from the potential line of fire. They only moved as far as they thought necessary. The calibre of these two gunfighters made any stray bullets unlikely.

A slight twitch of the eye, the briefest flex of fingers—Johnny saw these signs, but there was no time to hope he was reading them correctly. If he wasn’t then—there was no time to complete the thought before the room exploded in a deafening roar and it was over. The thought remained unfinished.

Grimly, Johnny holstered his gun. His expression revealed no inner turmoil as he stepped over Cort’s sprawled and bleeding body.


The book on Scott’s lap remained unread, open on the same page as yesterday, and the day before that. Opposite him, Murdoch stared remotely into an empty fireplace; the last flames, just like their conversation, long since turned to ash. The arrival of Val at such a late hour broke the monotony of an otherwise dull evening.

“I know it’s late, Scott, but I got some news. Murdoch still up?”

Scott nodded, the hope he still harboured swelling in his chest. He willed himself to keep it in check, not knowing yet if the news was good. As Val joined them in the great room, both Scott and Murdoch’s features were taut with expectancy. They dared not breathe; wanting and not wanting to hear what the sheriff had to say. When Val hesitated uncomfortably, and pressed his hat to his chest, a cloud of bereavement loomed dangerously overhead.

Seeing the colour drain from Scott’s face, Val suddenly realised what they thought. Hastily, he stuck his hat back on his head, and flashed them an apologetic smile.

A mutual exhalation of breath was audible in the room, and once Murdoch realised that he wasn’t about to get the news he dreaded, his patience stood no chance. “Spit it out Val,” he barked, standing abruptly.

“A gunfighter by the name of Cort Jardine was killed a few days ago. Seems Johnny Madrid was the one who killed 'im.”  Val spoke quietly, watching both Lancers’ expressions spring from anxiety, to elation, and then back again.

Scott was the first to speak. “That’s good news, isn’t it?” he mooted, glancing at his father. But Murdoch’s expression was closed, his shoulders slumped. “It means Johnny’s alive.”

Murdoch remained silent. He moved back to his chair, a calloused hand reaching out for the armrest before he sank down to the cushion almost gratefully.  Without being asked, Scott went to the liquor table and poured three measures of scotch.  After each man had a drink, Val nervously cleared his throat. “The thing is, an’ I ain’t got all the details, but this Jardine, he was rumoured to be real good.” Val sipped at the scotch. “From what I hear, Johnny Madrid’s gettin’ one hell of a reputation.”

Again, Scott added silently. He didn’t want to look at his father. Instead he let his pragmatic nature prevail. “Where is he now?”

“Let’s just say that the sheriff down there an’ Johnny got into it. Johnny’s sittin’ on his ass in jail, waitin’ for the judge to show.”

“Where, Val?”

Val looked uncomfortable. “That’s the other thing...he's in Texas.”

The sheriff’s words came down on their heads with the rapid pace of a guillotine, slicing their last hope that Johnny had left simply because he wanted some space. Scott wanted to feel elated that Johnny was alive, but the feeling hovered out of his reach. A dark sense of foreboding had seized his wrists in manacles, preventing him from grabbing the happy news and embracing it to his heart. Yes, they knew Johnny was alive. But for how long? Val’s news was what they’d expected originally, and looking to Murdoch, Scott was dismayed to see that his father’s expression was moody, his lips drawn together in a thin, tight line. Scott knew what he was thinking. It was what they all thought.


Val shrugged. “Jardine was killed in a town called Renù, it’s just beyond the border with Mexico. That’s a good way from Beresford’s territory.”

Scott nodded, digesting the information. Soon after Johnny had left, he and Val had made enquiries to see if Johnny had gone after Andrew Beresford, the man they all suspected was responsible for Katie’s death. But he hadn’t. Was that what he had in mind now—did Johnny want revenge? If that was the case then why wait so long. If it was Beresford who was behind Katie’s murder, then he was where he’d always been, as far as Scott knew.

As he and Val discussed what to do with this information, this first piece of long awaited news, Murdoch remained uncharacteristically silent. He offered no opinions or suggestions. Even later, once Val had left, his unusual silence persisted until finally Scott demanded, “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

Murdoch frowned. “What do you want me to say?” he said agitatedly, pouring them both another drink.

“That you’re happy that Johnny is alive?”

Murdoch’s expression softened and the lines of his face lost their hardness, only to mellow into worry. “Oh, Scott, of course I’m happy about that.”

“Just not the fact that Johnny’s in Texas, in jail, or the fact that he’s going by the name Madrid again.”

Murdoch smacked down his glass and the scotch splashed his trousers. “Of course I’m not happy about any of that. Are you trying to tell me that you are?”

“No.” Scott’s voice was quiet in comparison. “But we have to go and get him Murdoch. He might need an attorney or—” He stopped in dismay when his father shook his head adamantly. “What?” he exclaimed, before Murdoch even had a chance to voice his dissent. “You disagree? We only gave up searching because there were no leads and no sign. Now we know Johnny’s alive, it sounds like he’s in trouble, yet you don’t think we should go to him?”

“I haven’t said that,” Murdoch reminded his son sharply.

“But you were going to.”

Murdoch sighed, relaxing his taught grip on the glass. “I just thought...I hoped...” He gave up on words and drank what was left of his scotch.


“I’m sorry, son.”

Scott leaned forward to rest his hand on his father’s arm. “Sir, we can’t let this go. Johnny might not need help getting out of jail, but he does need us. I hate to think what he’s been going through this past year, what’s happened to him, what might happen if we don’t try to bring him home....”

Murdoch listened to Scott’s words and he closed his eyes. Johnny must have been distraught when he left, not that anyone had seen him on that last morning. He’d been gone by the time dawn arrived to wake the household. It lay heavy on Murdoch’s heart that neither a father nor brother had been able to reach him. Johnny hadn’t wanted to talk, had refused all attempts to share the burden of grief that rode his shoulders, and with what was a foolish strategy in hindsight, they’d given Johnny his space. They had not forced him to talk, and by not doing so, had allowed him to build up those walls, not realising just how high Johnny had made them until it was too late.

Murdoch knew he’d made the mistake of using his own experiences to influence him when it came to Johnny’s grief. When Catherine had died, for the first few weeks and months, Murdoch had found solace in his own company and memories. Finding comfort in a fantasy world of what might have been’s. But perhaps Johnny had not needed or wanted that. Murdoch had not seen Johnny cry, and maybe he’d missed him crying out for help.

Over the past year, Murdoch had feared, wondered, and agonised over the possibility that his son was dead. Somehow that had made the lack of contact bearable. No, bearable was the wrong word—it just sort of explained it. There were no questions to ask that way. Now, in one cutting moment of clarity, Murdoch realised that Johnny had been alive all this time, yet still had not contacted them once, he had sent no word. Murdoch could not help but feel angry that Johnny had gone off on, what, a crusade for his own brand of justice? Murdoch was no fool. Johnny Madrid was in Texas for one reason, only now he’d landed himself in jail.


He opened his eyes. “Scott, it’s late and I’m tired. I’m going to bed.” He stalked around the couch, slamming his empty glass down on the table.

His heavy footfall faded into the silence of the house.

Suddenly Scott felt more alone than usual. Biting his bottom lip, he swirled the amber liquid in the glass, just as the thoughts swirled in his mind. Johnny was alive. He had been all this time. Scott refused to believe that his brother had not thought of them at all. Leaning back against the couch, he closed his eyes. Why had they heard nothing from Johnny—was his grief paramount over all else, or did he blame them.

Is it my fault?

The self-imposed question settled weightily on Scott’s shoulders, and he let out a sigh. It was going to be a long night.




The journey from California to Texas allowed Scott and Murdoch plenty of time to dwell on the reasons why Johnny left, and what frame of mind he would be in when they reached him. They got to El Paso by stage, and from there headed south on horseback toward the town of Renù, where the reported gunfight had taken place. Upon arrival they were disappointed to discover that they’d missed Johnny. In a somewhat mixed blessing, the judge had arrived in town and Johnny had been released.

From Renù they headed east, the direction Johnny Madrid had reportedly taken.

Two days on and as much as he was fighting it, Scott’s hope of catching up with his brother was starting to wane, wilting in the sweltering heat that left both men feeling like they might melt in their saddles. Scott was tired, his muscles were stiff, but that was nothing compared to how his father must be feeling. Glancing over the top of the flickering flames of their campfire, Scott noticed that Murdoch hid his discomfort behind a mask of determination. Determination that had taken a while to muster, yet not wavered once on this arduous journey.

After spreading his bedroll out on the grass, Scott smoothed it out and lay down on his side, propping his head with his arm. The heat of the fire was unbearable in the already sticky night air, but they’d needed it to warm the coffee and eat.

Scott tried to summon some optimism. “What are we going to do when we find him?”

Murdoch picked up a stick from the ground and went to stoke the fire before it died, only to think better of it and discard the stick to the grass. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand. “We’re going to bring him home.”

Scott was comforted by his father’s firm resolve. After his initial reaction to Val’s news, he had feared that Murdoch was going to wash his hands of Johnny. But he’d obviously done a lot of thinking overnight because he woke bound and determined that they would leave for Texas as soon as it could be arranged. Scott had been relieved to hear it. He’d already decided that he would go alone if he had to, and while Val had wanted to come, he could not leave the town for an indefinite amount of time and as the sheriff had pointed out, Johnny didn’t like to be crowded. If the truth be told, Scott wanted his father by his side. He needed Murdoch’s support, and Johnny would, too, when they found him.

It had been relatively easy to find out more about the gunfight. Those who had been in the saloon that day talked loosely through liquored lips. Scott and Murdoch were subjected to exaggerated tales—at least Scott hoped they were exaggerated—that chronicled the apparent resurrection of Johnny Madrid in Mexico, and his journey through the border towns all the way into Texas.

While it had been easy to find this out, it had not been easy to hear. For Murdoch especially. Scott knew that Johnny’s past as a gunfighter had once been a thorny subject between father and son, more because of Murdoch’s suppressed guilt than anything else. While he had accepted that the past was just that, and no mere mortal had the power to change history, Scott knew that Murdoch was struggling to accept it this time. If the truth be told, so was he. It seemed that Johnny Madrid was back with a vengeance, and a persistent little fear nibbled away at them both; if they caught up with Johnny, would it only be because he could no longer run?

“Do you think Johnny really is going after Beresford?”

Murdoch lowered his gaze to the flames; even dying they highlighted the tension in his pale eyes. He frowned, the lines on his forehead deepening into weary creases.

“I just don’t understand why he waited so long or why he couldn’t have let us know he was all right. I mean if Beresford is the reason Johnny left, why not go after him straight away? Or at least sooner than this....”

“I don’t know.” Murdoch got up and stretched to the stars, then mirrored his son and settled on his bedroll.

“Maybe that wasn’t the reason,” Scott murmured.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Murdoch said perceptively. “Both of us could have done better by Johnny. It wasn’t what you said.”

In the fire-lit darkness, Scott let out a sigh, and rolled onto his back, cradling his hands behind his head. The night sky was a dotted canopy of stars that looked so small, like little grains of sand sparkling on a sunny beach, yet they could be seen for miles. Others like him, and nothing like him, were looking up at the same stars right at this moment. How many wishes battled their way through the humidity toward the heavens? How many reached their destination, and how many died before they got there, falling back down to earth to be trampled on by careless feet, ground into the dirt without a hope of ever coming true.

“Get some rest, son. We’ll make an early start in the morning.”

Scott nodded, and as he listened to Murdoch shift around for a comfortable position, he looked back to the stars. Was Johnny one of the others who saw them on this night? And which of the others was he; like him or nothing like him. Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid?

The stars slid from view as Scott rolled over. The fire had almost burned itself out now, the amber glow bowing out to the silvery light of the moon.

It wasn’t what you said. Murdoch’s reassurances replayed in Scott’s head and he closed his eyes in a vain attempt to sleep, only a haunted face hovered in his mind, forcing him yet again to revisit that day:

Pushing the door open with barely a sound, not wishing to disturb Johnny if he was asleep again, Scott took first one tentative step into the room, and then another. When Johnny turned, Scott’s heart almost broke at the sight of his little brother.

Johnny was in bed. Never his favourite place to be when he was ill, but this wasn’t even *his* bed. They had thought... guessed…that he might not want to be in his bed, his and Katie’s, and if they’d got it wrong then Johnny would tell them once he’d regained consciousness.  But Johnny hadn’tt commented on the fact and he was sitting up, his back supported by pillows, thick white bandages strapped over his shoulder and chest. The departure of fever had left his skin so pale that if it wasn’t for the blatant contrast between his dark hair and the snowy white of the pillows, he would have virtually blended in.

“May I come in?”

At Johnny’s nod, Scott crossed the short distance between door and bed. He sat down on the edge of the mattress, and his hand automatically went to Johnny’s forehead in reassurance that the fever had indeed gone for good.

Johnny shirked the contact and grimaced. Such a move must have tugged his stitches. “I’m fine,” he snapped irritably.

Scott fought the urge to raise his eyebrows, for of all the circumstances in which Johnny could insist he was fine, this was the most ludicrous of all. Instead he studied his brother, noting again the lingering pallor of his skin, and the dullness of his usually vibrant blue eyes. Although Johnny had been conscious for a while now, it had only been a few days since the fever had gone, and Johnny had started to slowly regain his strength. The family had been under Sam’s strict instructions not to force Johnny to talk about anything, and they had obeyed doctor’s orders.  


“Has Val been here?” Johnny interrupted. 

Scott nodded. “Sam told him to come back when you were stronger.”

“And why the hell did you agree to that? Someone kills my wife in front of me and it can wait? Wait for what exactly, me to get over it?”

Scott was taken aback by the accusing tone. Anxiously he sought the right words to pacify his brother. “You were unconscious for a long time, and then there was the fever. Sam didn’t want you upset more than—”

“More than I am already?” Johnny said bitterly.


He scowled and turned his head.

“We have tried,” Scott reassured. “Val’s spoken to all the hands, trying to ascertain if anyone saw anything. He’s spoken to people in Green River, Morro Coyo, and Spanish Wells.”


Scott bowed his head. “There’s nothing.”

“How can there be nothing? We know why she died. It don’t take a genius to work it out. Who would want her dead other than Beresford?”

“There’s no conclusive evidence to link Katie’s death to Beresford,” Scott said with a sigh, for the absence of a link was a source of great frustration for him, too.

Johnny snorted. “Conclusive evidence, what the hell is that supposed to mean? He threatened to have her killed during the trial!”

Scott could see his brother was getting worked up, a sweat was breaking out on his forehead, and his knuckles turned white as tense fingers gripped the bed sheet tightly.

“Johnny, you need to calm down.”

“Don’t patronise me. Beresford’s behind this and we both know it.”

“Val suspects that, too. He contacted the law down in Texas, but they’re not cooperating. Beresford knows the right people so they didn’t want to know, least not without some sort of hard proof. Val and Murdoch even tried to get an extradition order from the state judge in Sacramento, but he refused, stating that our evidence wasn't even enough to be categorised as circumstantial.”

“Beresford had a motive, what more evidence do they need.”

“The judge didn’t agree. He said, he suggested...” Scott’s voice trailed off as he suddenly felt unsure whether or not to tell Johnny what Val had been told.

“Don’t be keepin’ things from me.” 

Scott swallowed. “The judge in Sacramento knew about Madrid. He told Val and Murdoch that it was outrageous to consider that a man like Andrew Beresford would risk all that he has by killing Katie. He considered it more likely that it was someone from your past; payback for something you’ve done. He implied that you were the one they wanted dead, and Katie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Johnny’s eyes threw daggers. His mouth opened as if to speak, but closed without a word. He manipulated the cotton sheet into a knot and held it inside his clenched fist. 

“Val and I were hoping you’d seen something?”

Johnny stared at him intensely, unblinking. The room was quiet as Scott waited for him to speak, trying to read his brother’s thoughts but finding that he couldn’t.

Finally Johnny turned away again, this time toward the window. “I didn’t see or hear nothin’. Leave me alone now, Scott.”

Scott searched his brother’s face. Johnny’s expression was taut, his jaw clenched, his eyes blank. The anger in his tone spoke volumes, and Scott guessed what he was trying to do.

Reaching out, Scott went to lay his hand on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder, only for his brother to pre-empt the move, and jerk away. 

“I said get the hell out.” Johnny’s eyes were now flashing angrily. Sweat gathered on his forehead. Damp, dark bangs started to curl around his face.  

Undeterred, Scott reached out again, applying just enough pressure to prevent Johnny moving away. He looked his brother straight in the eye. “You don’t have to do this.”

Johnny swallowed, the movement reflected in the bobble of his Adam’s apple. Scott could see he was struggling with his emotions, unshed tears doused the flames of blazing anger that had occupied his eyes only seconds before. “Do what?” he uttered faintly, as if he knew he couldn’t trust his voice right then.

“You don’t have to hide it from me, Brother. You’re not hiding it.”

The Adam’s apple went again, and Johnny sank further into the pillows, exhausted, bowing his head quickly, but not quickly enough for Scott to miss the rapid onslaught of tears that threatened to fall.

Scott’s heart did break when he moved closer to his brother and Johnny leaned in, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort of his healing wound. With Johnny’s head heavy on his shoulder, Scott felt the wetness of tears on his skin as they seeped through his shirt. He didn’t care. For one precious moment they stayed like that. Two men; best friends and brothers; Johnny in the clutches of sheer grief, Scott just feeling so desperately inadequate that he could do nothing more than simply hold him. He could feel the tremors course through Johnny’s body and he ached to empathise, although he couldn’t truly understand what his brother was going through.

Eventually Johnny drew back, and Scott could see the flush of embarrassment on his tear-stained cheeks, ironically the most colour they’d possessed since the fever had vacated his body. Swiping at his face with the back of his hand, Johnny couldn’t look Scott in the eye. “Sorry,” he muttered, lowering his gaze to his lap.

“No, I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m so sorry for you, Katie and the baby....”

Johnny’s head jerked up, confusion clear in his eyes. 

“Baby? What baby?”

Scott first felt it then—the tremendous weight which settled on his shoulders and forced his heart down into the pit of his stomach. Johnny hadn’t known.

He opened his mouth to say something, but the words refused to form, his brain no longer possessing any confidence in his abilities to say the right thing, the full horror of what and how clumsily he had told his brother, shrouding him in misery.

“Scott, what baby? What are you talkin' 'bout?” Johnny asked him desperately, his voice wavering, imploring Scott to tell him the truth, or more importantly to tell him he’d made some kind of dreadful mistake.

“I...Oh God, Johnny. I thought you knew, Sam thought Katie had told you....”

Johnny stared at him then with a look of pure and heart-wrenching anguish, a low moan of complete defeat escaping on his ragged breath.

Now, in the darkness, Scott drew a ragged breath of his own. No matter where he was, it was that look on Johnny’s face, and that sound which haunted him relentlessly. Johnny had shut down after that, refused to barely speak, increasing Scott's sense of remorse day after day until finally Johnny had slammed the door shut on Scott’s prison of guilt, pocketed the key and vanished. Leaving him trapped.

As sleep started to encroach over the memory, Scott asked the same question he did every night.  Was his thoughtlessness and insensitivity the real reason why Johnny had left, why he hadn’t said goodbye, and why he hadn't contacted them in all this time?




The bed sheets were damp with perspiration, a symptom of the sheer Texan heat rather than any physical exertion on Johnny’s part. His body was covered in a fine mist of sweat that belonged not to him, but to the naked woman who sat astride him. Toes twitching, breath quickening, fingers moulding hungrily into the soft curves of her buttocks, Johnny rode the crest of the wave that her sliding, rotating movements created until finally the wave broke, sending him crashing back down into calmer waters with a satisfied exhalation of breath.

The girl; dark-haired, for they couldn’t look like Katie, collapsed onto his stomach, her tongue seeking his, wanting more, but Johnny jerked away.  Pushing her off, he got up and reached for his clothes, feeling disgusted by her, disgusted with himself, just as he’d done on every occasion like this since.

He dressed with haste, not sparing a second glance for the woman who had worn herself out in an effort to please him. He shook his head to dispel memories that threatened to snare him like a lasso that would only draw tighter around his neck until he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe now, and so he stumbled from the room and down the stairs, claustrophobia biting at his heels. He’d felt much the same stuck in that small flea pit of a jail.

In the evening air, Johnny cursed the climate. It was so damn hot here; there was never a break from it. Heat clogged his lungs, dust made him rasp for every breath. He was aware that his guard was lower than it should be, yet he felt physically unable to pull it up. He had planned on spending a second night in this town, craving the freedom that had been withheld from him for days spent staring at iron bars, and a very smug looking sheriff, only he couldn’t. Right now he was feeling vulnerable.

Walking over to the livery where Barranca waited, Johnny cupped his hands beneath the lukewarm water of the horse trough and splashed it on his face. The act refreshed his senses, and he felt in control. He needed to leave, move closer to his final destination. Send that bastard to hell. He was ready now. Cort had been a calculated risk, and one that for the most part had paid off, if Johnny discounted the fortnight spent locked up. He couldn’t go on getting called out by any wannabe gun hawk who thought him past his best. Killing Cort had proved that he wasn’t. Johnny Madrid was not dead, Johnny Madrid was back.

Saddling Barranca, the horse regarded him silently, liquid brown eyes staring unblinking, as if wondering just who Johnny was these days. After checking the cinch, Johnny swung up into the saddle and left town, kicking Barranca into a gallop that sent the dry dust spraying through the air.  It was late, he was tired, and thanks to his own moment of weakness he had nowhere comfortable to spend the night.

Barranca’s speed conjured the breeze Johnny craved and he relished it on his face, bringing moisture to his eyes that had been dry for so long.  Silently he cursed his reaction back at the brothel. It was only a kiss, surely what he’d done with the girl already was the sacrilege, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The lustful, impersonal encounters he could cope with, for he remained in control. He was doing the taking and giving nothing of himself. He was incapable of anything more.

Slowing the pace, Johnny forced the memory away. Just like all the others. For the past year he’d buried his grief and memories deep inside, only recalling them to fuel his determination. Needing a little determination now, Johnny allowed his mind to wander into forbidden territory, just for a while. That night, after Scott had told him about the baby, Johnny had struggled out of bed and made his way through the shadows toward his and Katie’s room, pausing at their door. It was such a simple movement; a twist of his wrist was all that was required, yet Johnny hesitated, fearing the host of emotion inside. Finally he forced himself to enter.

Her clothes still hung in the wardrobe, her hairbrush lay on the dressing table. Moonlight poured through the uncovered window and was captured by the mirror that Katie had sat in front of every evening as she battled the curls in her long hair. Johnny always sat on the bed, watching, the sheets scrunched up around his waist, catching her eye in the glass and sharing a smile. Beside the hairbrush lay her perfume, and Johnny had picked up the bottle, closing his fingers around the cold glass. Without thinking he daubed some on the corner of his undone shirt and wandered to the window, raising the material to his face and inhaling deeply, the scent almost bringing her back to life.


The tears came again without permission, staining his cheeks with weakness. His fingers wound tightly around the fabric of his shirt and then he let it fall from his grasp. He was scared, alone, and facing a dark and uncertain future. How could he go on without her?

He’d had to fight for every good thing in his life. Even the initial reunion with his family had come with a price, a condition of sorts. And when at last he had what others took for granted, it had been wrenched from him bloodily. Johnny just couldn’t let go. Couldn’t let his wife and unborn child be taken from him and just accept it. Johnny Madrid would never have let them die in the first place. He would have been on his guard at the lake. He should have sensed the danger. What the hell happened to my instincts?

From the window, Johnny stared numbly across Lancer, seeing only the places he’d been with Katie, now bathed in a haunting glow. Places where they talked, loved, kissed and laughed. She’d been expecting his baby—news that should come with a customary sense of joy had instead been the last thing he wanted to hear.

Even with its vast acres, Lancer was now too small and controlling, corralling him into his prison of grief. He’d retreated into a world of silence, refuting all attempts at conversation other than abrupt yes or no answers. His family who loved him and who he loved so much were not enough to stop him suffocating on memories and the unquenchable thirst for vengeance, the need to do what the law was not prepared to do, and make Beresford pay.

It was in this haze of conflicting thoughts and by the first rays of dawn slicing through dismal clouds that Johnny had escaped to Mexico; a place that had been home for a lifetime. A place that held mixed memories.

He did have friends there. Well friends might be too generous a description, but there were some nice people who felt they owed Johnny Madrid a debt of gratitude, and so years down the line, he’d turned up to collect. He’d stayed at a farm he had helped defend for no remuneration, not long before the rurales had decided it was his time to die. The couple who lived there were old, they asked no awkward questions, just let him stay for as long as he wished.

Giving into his grief, for the first couple of months, Johnny had lived in drunken oblivion, his dreams haunted by his family, visions of Katie lying in his arms or sometimes crumpling to the ground with a bloody gaping wound in her chest. Sometimes he’d wake drenched in alcoholic sweat to the sound of a baby crying, only to realise that there was nothing to hear but the wild thumping of his heart and head in torturous harmony. If there was such a thing as hell on earth, then for a while Johnny had found it. He had reached his lowest point, with not even the promise of death to free him, until finally a phoenix had risen from the black depths of his despair; the same feeling that had first laid claim to him after the shooting. It was the need for justice, the deeply engrained instinct to fight back, that had given Johnny strength to begin the laborious journey back to reality.  As the alcohol cleared from his system and the murkiness dissolved, Johnny spared no thought for his family. They had become his weakness, conjuring emotion he didn’t want to feel. Weaknesses were not something that Johnny Madrid could afford. All his energy was focused on the one thing he could so something about. He had to be strong.

Johnny remembered Katie as strong, never lacking in courage. She had testified at the murder trial of Tommy Beresford, a young man who she witnessed committing a vicious murder, a man whose father was prepared to do anything to save his son’s neck. Andrew Beresford had threatened Katie’s life, but she’d testified regardless, and Tommy had been found guilty. He had been spared the hangman, but strung himself up three months into a long prison sentence. Johnny knew that Andrew Beresford held Katie responsible. He’d wanted revenge and had got it.  Now Johnny needed his.

Several miles out of town, Barranca jerked his head as if he, too, sensed the unease that suddenly slithered over Johnny and set his nerves on edge. Why? Johnny had seen nothing that worried him in the town he’d left behind. Only now there was a challenge, Johnny could smell it like sweat in the clammy air. He knew he was being followed. He could turn around and look, but he didn’t. It would be an invitation and Johnny did not wish to extend this until he had an idea who he was dealing with. He had no intention of getting back shot either.

Johnny guided Barranca off the main trail. A few feet through the long brush and they’d disappeared into the trees, Barranca weaving his own way through the wooded area until they reached a clearing. There horse and rider stopped; both sets of ears pricked for the sound of the follower. After what seemed like a lifetime, Johnny heard it; the unmistakeable sound of dry twigs snapping under a horse’s hooves. Dismounting, Johnny patted Barranca reassuringly, before smoothly drawing his gun, the sound of metal departing leather slicing through the silence.



Scott had been following Barranca’s tracks incessantly for the past hour, but was yet to catch another glimpse of his elusive brother. As the sky got darker, the light of the moon was a poor substitute for the glare of summer sun, and it was difficult to pick out the tracks at a fork in the road. He had ridden miles today and his eyes were dry and starting to sting. He and Murdoch had arrived in the latest Godforsaken town to find that, yes, Johnny had been there, but, no, he hadn’t stayed. At the shabby building that passed for a boarding house, they’d gone inside to see about a room for the night. They’d been successful, and Murdoch had gratefully sunk down onto one of the beds, tugging off his boots and permeating the room with the unpleasant odour of sweaty, socked feet. Scott had escaped to see to the horses.

It was then that he saw Johnny. Only like a mirage, he couldn’t be sure it was him at first, until his brother swung up onto his horse. The fluidity was distinctive, as was the way he held himself in the saddle. Scott called out, but if Johnny heard then he ignored him. When Scott’s shout to his father also went unheeded, he was momentarily torn between fetching him and going straight after his brother. Swayed by the knowledge that it would take time for Murdoch to put his boots and any other clothing he may have now shed, back on, Scott decided on the latter action, and set off after Johnny, only to find that he had all but disappeared.

Through a squinted gaze, Scott looked again at the road and selected the direction his tired eyes told him to take. He needed to make a decision. He either turned back now or spent another night in the wilderness and the company of the stars, thus facing the seeming inevitability that he’d lost his brother, for who knew how long this time.

Just as he was about to turn back, he noticed that Barranca’s tracks abruptly ceased, and for some reason Johnny had left the road. Hoping his brother was stopping nearby for the night, Scott guided his own horse to follow. Amongst the trees, the moon only penetrated the thick canopy of foliage in shards, casting silver white strips over the leaves, twigs and grass on the ground. It was impossible to tell now which way Johnny had taken, but Scott had a feeling he was close. Dismounting, he called his brother’s name.

When he got no response, Scott walked further into the trees. They were denser here, blocked all light, and he was surrounded by branches that reached out to draw him deeper into the dark. He stopped and listened, only hearing the steady hum of nocturnal insects and his own breathing. To his left, through the thick trunks and heavy scented foliage, he could see a patch of moonlight, and Scott headed for this clearing, hoping his instincts would find his brother. A movement ahead caught Scott’s eye, and he grinned when he saw Barranca.

Almost at the clearing, a gnarled tree limb hacked at him with sharp wooden talons, scratching his cheek, and he tripped; pitching forward to sprawl on his face. The earthy aroma of grass wafted up his nostrils, the drone of insects ten times louder now he was closer to them. He flattened his palms, preparing to push up, when he heard a footfall and realised who had tripped him. Before he could turn around, a pistol was pressed firmly to the back of his neck.

Scott twisted his head slightly, holding his breath until he heard the voice he’d missed every day for the past year.

“That was real stupid, Scott.”

As Johnny stepped back and re-holstered his gun, Scott scrambled to his feet, desperate to look his brother in the eye and satisfy himself that this wasn’t a dream. Here he was; the man he’d missed like the other half of his soul. Scott raked his gaze over Johnny, grabbing his arm and tugging him from the shadows. He hadn’t changed much. He’d lost a little weight, needed a haircut, a shave, and as Scott pulled him in for a quick, fierce hug, he discovered his brother also needed a wash. 

“I’ve missed you, Brother,” Scott admitted. “We all have.”

For a second, Scott was sure Johnny panicked, certainly he appeared to flinch. He took an urgent step backward, crossing his arms defensively across his chest.

“How’d you find me?”

Scott frowned at the brusqueness. “Val got word of the gunfight and the fact you were in jail. Murdoch and I have been trying to catch up with you ever since."

“Murdoch’s here?” Johnny whirled around, scanning the trees.

“No, he’s back in the town. He’s desperate to see you, Johnny.”

“Well I ain’t headed that way.” Johnny kept his head down and turned to walk away.

“Now wait a minute. It’s been over a year. Surely you’ve missed us?”


Johnny’s bluntness bumped Scott back against a tree trunk; the rough bark providing him with a stability that would otherwise be absent. The prison of guilt that he’d felt locked in for so long had suddenly shrunk; cell bars edging closer from every direction. Johnny may well have lobbed the key as far as he could throw it, into the wilderness, lost. The question that Scott desperately needed to ask hovered tentatively on his dry lips. He forced it into the stuffy air. “Is it my fault? Because I told you about the baby?”

Johnny looked startled, then defensive, before he seemed to register Scott’s torment. “What do you mean?”

“I swear, Johnny, I thought you knew, I never meant to make things worse....”

“Is that what you’ve been thinkin’?”

“I let you down. I should have thought it through, and then I could have told you in a different way...” 

“Scott,” Johnny was beside him in an instant. “It wouldn’t have mattered how I was told. I needed to know ‘bout the baby, I guess. No easy way of hearin’ it. You weren’t to know that Katie hadn’t got around to tellin’ me before...” His voice trailed off and Scott imagined a swallow. “That isn’t the reason I left. The baby was just part of it...but in no way was it your fault, you hear me?”

Scott met the steadfast gaze, the sincerity of his brother’s tone winching the burden of guilt slowly from his shoulders. “Then why?” He searched Johnny’s face desperately, only to see his barricades rise swiftly back into place. “Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving, why not say goodbye?” The words sounded pathetic to Scott, like he was the younger brother; a child whining for an explanation.

A sudden tension hogged the air and Johnny turned his back. “I wasn’t thinkin’ straight then,” he muttered. Scott had to strain to hear him.

“Look, I know how much you loved Katie…”

Johnny spun around, a scowl marring his face, his eyes awash with anger. “I don’t wanna talk ‘bout her.”

“Why?” Scott pressed. “Katie’s death is the reason you’ve returned to how you used to live, isn’t it?” He gestured to Johnny’s gun. “Only you don’t have to live like that. You still have your family and a home.”

“Listen to me, won’t ya?” Johnny growled in frustration. “It ain’t you, it ain’t any of you. I just can’t go back to Lancer. Not now, not yet.”

“When then—after you’ve killed Andrew Beresford?”

Johnny’s expression tightened and he clenched his hands by his sides. His narrowed eyes were slices of darkness, his top lip lifted in a sneer, and Scott could feel the radiating hate.

“Because that’s what you’re planning on, isn’t it; revenge?” Scott deliberately softened his tone in the face of such animosity. “If it’s not about what I said, then Beresford is the reason we’re here.”

Johnny’s whole demeanour changed then, and Scott realised that his brother had transformed into a man that Scott had only seen a couple of times in the past; before Johnny had let him go. Even back then, Madrid’s appearance had never been for Scott’s benefit, never had this coldness been directed at him.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “You seem to have all the answers,” he said coolly.

“No, Johnny, I don’t. All I have are questions.”

“Well I ain’t answering ‘em for ya.” Johnny headed back toward Barranca.

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say to me?”

Johnny didn’t look back, although a flippant, “Yep,” was thrown over his shoulder.

The callousness hurt and Scott had to fight to hold his temper. To lose it would achieve nothing. “Have you any idea what we’ve been through? Was it too much trouble for you to even let us know you were alive?” He couldn’t prevent storming after his brother and wrenching him around.

Johnny’s hand went instinctively to his gun, his fingers freezing just millimetres from the draw. His eyes were blank and cold.

“You know now.”

Scott looked from Johnny’s face to his fingers which had come too close to drawing. He didn’t know this man. The realisation hit with the same ferocity as the bullet would’ve done. “What’s happened to you?” he asked faintly.

Johnny’s expression was unfathomable. There was no thaw to those frozen eyes, no sign of the brother Scott knew, yet he must still be in there somewhere. Scott had to believe that.

“Let go of me,” Johnny ordered.  

Scott did, letting his arm fall limp to his side. For once he had no idea what to say or how to handle Johnny. His shoulders, which had felt weight free for the first time in months, were suddenly unable to support this new feeling, this new burden of failure that slammed down upon him, causing him to wilt beneath its pressure.

As soon as he was released, Johnny ducked under a tree branch and reached Barranca. Fleetingly it crossed Scott’s mind to tackle his brother, knock him out if he had to, and take him back to the town. But the presence of Madrid made the idea implausible. 

Johnny was leaving again and there was nothing Scott could do to stop him.

“Johnny!” Scott made a final attempt as Johnny swung into the saddle. “Murdoch and I will be spending the night in town, should you reconsider.” 

“I won’t.”

“I’m not going to give up on you, Brother, whether you like it or not.”

Johnny stared hard at him before giving a single, brief nod. Holding the reins with one hand, his other dangling loosely by his side, Johnny and Barranca gradually disappeared from view.


It was late by the time Scott got back. A drab boarding house had never looked as inviting as this one did right now. He and his horse were verging on exhaustion. He trudged back from the livery, by now consumed with his sense of failure. Murdoch was going to be annoyed. These past few hours he’d been left without a clue as to Scott’s whereabouts, and Scott just hoped that by some miracle, he’d gone to sleep. At least then the inevitable could be delayed until morning.

Hoping proved a waste, Scott realised as soon as he entered the room that Murdoch had rented them. His father sprung to his feet, looking older, as if the past few hours of worry had chiselled new lines in his features. “Explain. Now.”

Scott shut the door, dismayed to find that the obstinate heat that tortured him outside possessed the room in equal measure. He removed his hat and gunbelt and crossed to one of the two beds. After brushing down the blanket, he sat and listlessly pulled off his boots. “How about Johnny, Sir. Is he a good enough explanation?” There was a touch of sarcasm in his weary tone, Scott knew, such was his tiredness. 

“You’ve seen your brother?” Murdoch asked in astonishment. “Where is he? Did you speak to him?”

The barrage of questions made Scott’s head ache. He placed his boots neatly together on the floor and swung his legs up onto the mattress. “He was leaving on Barranca as I approached the livery and, yes, when I finally caught up with him, we talked.”

“How is he? Why didn’t you bring him back?”

Scott let out a sigh, just hoping that Murdoch would not be angry when he heard of his failure. Rubbing at his face, Scott positioned the pillow against the unforgiving headboard and slumped against it, trying to ignore the protestations of his heavy, sleepy eyelids. “Physically, he seems to be alright, although he has lost a little weight.”

“And in other ways?”

Scott sighed again, longer and louder. “Not good,” he replied honestly. “At least, he’s not acting like the Johnny we know, Murdoch.”

Murdoch frowned. “Did you ask him to come home?”

“I did,” Scott said quietly. “He refused.”

Murdoch watched his son, noting the dejected posture, hearing the sadness in his voice. In an uncharacteristic move, he went and sat beside him on the bed. Scott looked at his father in surprise but nevertheless shifted closer to the wall to accommodate him.

“Tell me everything,” Murdoch suggested gently.

And so Scott did. He gave his father an account of exactly what had been said, and Murdoch listened without interruption. When Scott got to the part where he’d asked Johnny about the baby, Murdoch offered a silent thank you to his younger son for reassuring Scott that this was not his fault. As Scott’s account continued, Murdoch had the overwhelming urge to pace, his bare feet going splat, splat on the wooden boards as he marched the few feet to the window and back. Several times, his posture stiffened and he balled his hands into fists. He was finding this hard to hear.

Only when Scott was done did Murdoch return to the mattress space by his side. “Johnny just rode away?”

Scott nodded guiltily. “I didn’t know what else I could do or say, but I did tell him that I wasn’t going to give up on him, whether he likes it or not.”

Murdoch smiled inwardly as he detected Lancer stubbornness.

“I should have tried harder though, I should have—”


The sharp reprimand caused Scott to look surprised again.

“Don’t you dare start blaming yourself for this, too,” Murdoch admonished. “There’s been enough of that this past year. Is that clear?”

Scott hesitated and Murdoch grasped his son’s arm. “I’m proud of how you handled it, son. Honestly I am. Neither of us is giving up on Johnny.”

Murdoch got to his feet, resuming the pacing. “He’ll get himself killed if he goes after Beresford. The man practically owns that whole town and the people in it. You heard what Val and Katie had to say about him. If he can track Katie down to California and have her murdered just because she stood up and told the truth about that murdering son of his, he’s not going to think twice about killing Johnny.”

“I know that, and so does he. I think Johnny knows exactly what he’s up against, he’s thought this through for months. That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing. He wants to be as good as he was; knows he needs to be. He’s going to take his justice and get his revenge on Beresford.”

“Even if it means getting hurt or worse?” Murdoch vented.

Scott looked down at his hands. “I don’t know...perhaps.”

Murdoch frowned and folded his arms across his chest, his gaze steely with resolution. “Over my dead body,” he said firmly.




Johnny had been riding since first light, his stomach persistently reminding him that it’d been ages since he ate a decent meal. To add to the hunger, he was tired. He’d hardly slept and the times he had drifted off were filled with such vivid dreams that they left him exhausted. His brother would never know it, but Scott’s heartfelt words had ruptured the defensive dam that Johnny had built to staunch his flow of emotion. Last night, long after their brutal encounter, Johnny, possibly the only human soul for miles around, had laid out his bedroll and curled up in the dark.

I know how much you loved Katie…Scott’s words had saturated his mind, launching him on a lazy river of memories. He’d closed his eyes, almost daring himself to summon the guts and think of her without anger, to ignore the thirst for vengeance that made his throat drier than a desert. The lazy river fed into choppier waters as other vivid images arrived; Katie’s eyes glassy and lifeless; her last breath while he lay unconscious. Over and over they played, the river water churning and frothing, until Johnny couldn’t take it. He sat up quickly, his chest heaving with repressed grief.

“Damn.” Johnny raked his hands through his hair. He’d not been prepared to face Scott and he knew he’d hurt his brother tonight and the past year. Hurt his whole family. In retrospect, Johnny could see what it must’ve done to them to find him gone without warning or explanation. But he couldn’t tell them why it had to be that way. They wouldn’t understand and he couldn’t be talked out of it. He’d invested too much time in this. The years spent at Lancer had lost him his edge. His instincts had become blunted by contentment. Hate was a driving force, yet on its own not enough. But combine it with skill and determination—that was what Johnny strived to achieve. It was the combination that kept him alive before, and so he’d practiced his draw repeatedly, until his arm and shoulder burned and ached, his fingers turned numb and blistered.

He intended to be in complete control when he met Beresford and the other two. He was close to them, he knew it, and he was going to shoot them down like the scum they were. If Johnny shut his eyes he could see the men who killed Katie, their faces had remained engraved in his mind. But Beresford, Johnny longed for the day when he could etch features into that soulless face. He knew with dark certainty that he wasn’t going to care about a fair fight. He was going to hold his gun to Beresford’s head and listen to the bastard confess. Then blow his brains out.

Grimly, Johnny forced himself to stop thinking about it. He had journeyed down the lazy river too many times in the past, albeit under different circumstances, not to know that before long there would be a raging waterfall with nowhere to go but over the edge. Lying back, Johnny had glared up at the night sky. Going over the edge was inevitable, but he was damn sure he wasn’t going alone.

It was early afternoon before he reached the next town. Hot, dirty and too tired, he knew he had to stop. He rode down the main street, covertly noticing everything from the women with baskets who fanned themselves in the searing heat, and men with large stomachs hanging over their belts wiping the sweat from their brows with bandanas of assorted colours, to a drunken man who fell in the street and scrabbled around in the dirt for his spilt bottle of liquor.

Johnny passed the small store that doubled as a barbers; the elderly proprietor was brushing shorn hair out onto the boardwalk. The saloon had a couple of tables positioned in the shade out front, and a few men were partaking in some much needed refreshment. Johnny was aware he drew a few wary glances, but no more than that. Finally he saw what he was really looking for—a small hotel just across the road.

Compared to being in the sun, the rundown hotel was heaven. The walls were unpainted, the floor boards unpolished and the Indian rug beneath Johnny’s feet threadbare in places. Not that any of this mattered more than the prospect of a bath and bed. You’re goin’ soft, Madrid, Johnny told himself as he sauntered over to the desk, hoisting his bag up on the wooden surface and smiling disarmingly at the young girl who greeted him. Bright and cheery, she made up for the décor.

A dose of charm later and Johnny had a room and a bath sorted out. The girl even promised him a cooked meal later on. When he’d registered the look in her eye though, he’d thanked her with a smile that was not so charming. She was too young, and even if she’d been older, he wasn’t in the mood.

After depositing his bags in the room, Johnny came straight back down. The girl had been joined by an older woman, dark and similar looking, her mother, Johnny figured. This woman obviously did not share her daughter’s attraction to him, because she stared with unveiled suspicion, instantly making up her mind what she saw.

Indifferent to her disapproval, Johnny left the hotel.

The drunk had now reached his destination; groping his way up the steps to the saloon. He fumbled for the doors with arms outstretched, and practically fell through them. Shaking his head, Johnny realised how close he had come to being that man. It was no way to live; you might as well be dead.

Inside the saloon, it was a degree cooler, but still stuffy. The floor was dusty but the tables were wiped clean. Only a few of the chairs were occupied, not by anyone of interest, Johnny noted casually. Two old men chewed tobacco and grasped tatty playing cards to their chests, throwing suspicious glances at each other before one of them laid down his hand in triumph. The drunk had collapsed haphazardly in a chair, a fresh bottle of whisky in his scrawny grip, and Johnny would have barely noticed him this time, was it not for the smell he oozed into the air.

After a refreshing beer, Johnny was considering a return to the hotel when the drunk lurched into him, grabbing wildly at his shirt for balance. Liquor-laden breath and the stench of old vomit assaulted Johnny and he hastily shoved the inebriated fool.  The drunk stumbled back and once he’d regained his balance, Johnny got his first proper look at him. He found himself fascinated by the greasy brown hair, matted and messy, the ends of his limp moustache now merged with a nit infested beard. For a moment Johnny was struck dumb by a vision of this man reaching down to callously flip Katie over. His brain tried to refute what the cauterised image in his mind insisted on. This was one of them. This drunk was one of the men he was going to kill.

Johnny could see his features clearly now, they all matched except the eyes. As the man staggered toward the exit, his right hip smacked into the table, bringing forth a muffled curse of pain and irritation, and Johnny realised what was different. He stared after him, rooted to the spot, the scenario he’d predicted with white-knuckled fists and teeth grinding together so hard he thought they might crumble, was now distorted beyond all comprehension.

He’d envisaged facing this man down, looking into his eyes and seeing his soul. For every man’s soul was visible in that last moment. He’d seen many things revealed by the eyes of those about to die; regret; the discovery of a conscience coming that fraction too late; fear that they’d renounced God and so He in turn would renounce them; defiance; acceptance—the list went on and on. Johnny hadn’t known what he’d find in the eyes of Katie’s killers, but he’d imagined fear, because only a coward could have done what they had.

Now what am I supposed to do? The man was blind! Blank shutters were permanently in place over the windows to his soul, and he didn’t even wear a gun anymore. Jesus! Johnny pounded his fist on the bar, attracting alarmed glances from the two old men.

It was almost like fate laughed. Happy that it had cheated Johnny again, robbed him of all that mattered.

Narrowing his eyes, Johnny inched his fingers toward his gun, not touching, just lingering in vacillation. Comfortingly close.

No stealth was required to follow a drunken blind man home and progress was slow, much to Johnny’s chagrin. He used the time to really study his quarry, noticing that the intoxicated stagger disguised a limp, a dragging of the man’s right leg. Evidence of yet another disability just incensed Johnny further. As the man shuffled on, Johnny wondered how he found his way to the saloon and back so easily, before realising that this was a journey he probably did every day.

The man’s home, or hovel, was on the outskirts of town. The shack was in a poor state of repair; two of the window panes were cracked, but were also suspiciously clean, as were the torn drapes that hung either side. There was a tub of dirty laundry water and an assortment of male and female clothing drying in the sun. To the left of the shack was a ramshackle shed that could house a horse. There was no horse there now.

The drunk had gone inside and Johnny peered through the window, noting that the room was sparsely furnished with a table, two chairs and an unmade bed in the corner. A curtain separated what Johnny guessed as the only bedroom. He pushed the front door open slowly to avoid the alerting creak. The drunk was slumped in one of the chairs now, his injured leg extended out to the side, his chin almost on his chest as slumber beckoned. His eyes had just closed when suddenly he was awake again, his skull jolting dangerously into the gun that was pressed to his temple.

“Wha ther 'ell—” he slurred, gripping the sides of the table as he tried to stand.

Johnny’s firm hand on his shoulder pushed him back down. “No, you ain’t in hell...yet.” He kept the gun pressed against the man’s sweaty, grimy and rapidly paling skin. “Who else lives here?” he asked sharply, jabbing the barrel harder against the man’s slippery temple

“Ma si, sisher,” the man slurred again, his fingers making a sudden move for the whisky bottle.

Reacting quickly, Johnny knocked it from the man’s shaky reach. He muttered something inaudible and then suddenly retched where Johnny stood, the putrid stench of alcohol and stomach contents rising from the puddle he produced on the floor. Johnny, who had nimbly avoided getting his boots covered, stared in disgust as the man almost fell off his chair. Seizing him by the scruff of his neck, Johnny physically hauled him from the shack, ignoring the stream of oaths and curses which came in a garbled babble. The man’s stink caused Johnny’s senses to recoil, urging him to release the man immediately, but he ignored them, dragging him to the washtub where he forced him to his knees with a firm prod of his gun and then plunged his head beneath the dirty water. The man struggled, his arms flailing.

Johnny watched bubbles of breath float and pop, only to be replaced by fresh ones. He wondered how long it would take before there were no more bubbles and no more breath. The temptation to wait and see was overwhelming, yet he wanted this man alive, if only for a short while. Johnny pulled the man’s head up by his hair, letting him take a much needed breath before returning his face to the bottom of the tub. He repeated this exercise several times. Finally, Johnny stopped, holding the back of the man’s neck tightly while he heaved and choked.

“Wha, wha d’ya want?”

The words were gasped this time as opposed to being slurred by the effects of drink, and Johnny decided that he had sobered the man as much as was possible. Returning to the shack, he let the man limp inside, the Colt embedded firmly in his spine to convince him. Once through the door, Johnny kicked it shut and gestured to the chair, before realising his error and voicing his command in tones that while quiet, left no room for negotiation.

The man hobbled back over to his seat and sank down. Still breathing hard, he faced the direction he assumed Johnny was, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded less fearful. There was even the slightest edge to it, a remnant of the man he’d once been, Johnny thought darkly.

“What the hell d’ya want with me?”

Johnny sat down in the other chair and coolly surveyed him. His hair was sopping wet and clung in matted clumps to his forehead and the sides of his face. Water dripped from his beard, creating a small puddle in front of him. Johnny put his gun down on the table. “I’m gonna kill you.”

The man’s features pinched before he gave a small laugh or cough, it was difficult to tell which it was. “Well you’re a big man ain’t ya? Comin’ ta kill a blind cripple!”

Johnny chuckled, but there was no humour in it.  “If a man’s got his mind set on a killin’ then it don’t matter none. A blind man, a cripple, hell, even a woman. Ain’t that right?”

The man took his time before answering and when he did it was with a noncommittal shrug. “Who are ya?” he asked suspiciously.

Johnny didn’t answer, he just reached for his gun and spun it lazily in a circle, the metal jarring against the wood loudly in the tense silence.

The man licked his lips nervously, his hand dragged across his mouth. The spinning gun went on and on.

“Who are ya?” he asked again, a trace of anxiety clear in his tone.

Johnny covered the gun with his hand, stilling it instantly. “Madrid,” he answered casually. “Johnny Madrid.”

The man looked briefly puzzled before a fresh sweat broke out on his forehead. He reached up to peel the matted hair away from his face. “The Johnny Madrid?”

“That’s right.”

The man’s tongue flicked over his lips again. “You were good,” he said warily.

Johnny smirked. “Still am, not that it’s gonna matter against you.”

“Why d’ya want me dead, Madrid? Who sent ya?”

Johnny sat back. “You ever been to California, Mister—?”

“Price,” the man croaked. He cleared his throat, phlegm rattling from the depths of his chest.

“Ever been to California, Price?”

Price slowly nodded.

“Remember it?”

“I did a job there.” 

“Went well did it?”

Price coughed again, and his hands began to fan out across the table, his fingers searching anxiously for the whisky. Moving his gun to his lap, Johnny watched Price pad the surface frantically.

“I asked you a question.”

Raising his head, Price’s blank eyes stared fruitlessly. “We got the job done.”

Johnny leaned in closer. “Who’s we? Who else did Beresford hire?”

The look of surprise was as clear on Price’s face, before his expression darkened. “I need a drink,” he muttered desperately.

“Answer the damn question!”

“Please…” Price whined, getting to his feet, arms outstretched across the table before finally his hand knocked against the bottle and his fingers coiled thirstily around the neck. Before he could lift it from the table though, Johnny’s hand shot out and grasped the bottle firmly.

“Who else did Beresford pay to kill the woman?”

Price tugged at the bottle fretfully before sinking back into the chair, defeated, his face twisted as if he was in physical pain from being without a drink for more than a few minutes.

“Frank McColl. Beresford said she had ta die, paid us well, too. Who the hell sent ya, Madrid?”

A knot of infernal rage tightened in Johnny’s stomach. He shoved the bottle over to Price. Every man deserved one last drink.

Price seized the bottle victoriously, bringing it to his mouth, lips closing around the neck greedily. He flung his head back, tipped rather than drank, until his stomach and throat rebelled and sent him into a mad coughing fit. Johnny watched with a deepening sense of loathing. Whatever had happened to turn Price into the man he now was, it was neither regret nor any shred of a conscience, just self-pity, pure and simple.

“The man with the woman,” Johnny growled. “He sent me.”

Price eventually stopped coughing and just looked confused. “The husband? He was dead.”

“No, he ain’t,” Johnny said quietly, before his voice took on a sneer. “Guess your aim ain’t as good as McColl’s, huh?”

Price scowled. “Sonofabitch. So he hired ya?”

Johnny glared, his stomach clenching with the desire to send what little brains Price possessed to decorate the wall. “He’s really pissed off. He wants you dead. To know what it feels like to be hunted down and blown away.”

Price swallowed. He’d heard the click of the Colt’s hammer. Suddenly he burst out laughing, tears of frustration and longing seeping from his useless eyes, the pain in his leg crying out for the relief that death would bring. “Do it!” Price urged manically, his unfocused eyes widening with excitement. “For God’s sake just do it!”

Johnny kept his gun level as the manic laughter rang through the shack. He wasn’t surprised by the reaction any more than if Price had started to beg for his life.

Slowly he got to his feet.

Price’s laughter died on his lips. He started to look panicky. “What ya waitin’ for, Madrid? Do what you’re here for. Pull the damn trigger!”

The tortured words were heard by the part of Johnny that wanted this, craved it as much as Price craved the drink. Alcohol was this man’s drug and killing him now would be Johnny’s—a chance to heal, to numb some of the pain that had gnawed at his soul for months. A cool calmness settled over him and suddenly Johnny felt in more control than he’d ever done. His arm was steady as he raised the Colt from Price’s heart to his head. At such close range even someone who had never handled a gun before wouldn’t miss. The bullet would find its target and spill black blood just as Johnny had pictured it.

“Do it!” Price begged again. His hands gripped the table. His expression was pleading.

Johnny’s gaze swept over Price’s anxious face, wanting to relish and remember this moment. He squeezed the trigger. The gunshot sent tremors through the wooden shack, and brought a grim smile of satisfaction to Johnny’s face.



Johnny did glimpse Price’s soul. Not in the man’s defunct eyes, but written on his face instead. He was scared, not at the prospect of death, but of life. Of living out his days as a shell of the man he once was. Now as Johnny slowly holstered his gun, the fear on Price’s face changed to horror. He sat still; shock seizing his body like rigor mortis would have done, should Johnny not have subtly shifted his aim.

Price opened his mouth and wailed. The bullet had teased him with its closeness, driving the promised end to his suffering straight into the wall. Despite his distress, the bottle remained tight in his grasp. The only salvation he had left.

“Why didn’t ya do it?” he moaned.

Johnny asked himself the same question, his sense of satisfaction fading with his smile. He’d been prepared to do it, spent months getting to a place where he thought he could, but somehow, this had just seemed better, more appropriate. Hell on earth could rival any kind of hell some place else. Johnny knew that for certain, he’d lived there for a time.

“Cause you’re already dead, Price. I think you know it, too.”

“What do you care?” 

“I don’t. Not ‘bout you.”

At the front door, Johnny paused and looked back. Price still sat, slumped and trembling, his fingers glued to the bottle. His head shook from side to side and his lips moved with inaudible speech.

“Hey, Price,” Johnny called out, and Price looked hopeful. “Have a drink. You look like ya could use one.”

Johnny left then, shutting the door and collapsing against it. He took several deep breaths, unable to prevent his last trace of satisfaction escaping. Price was suffering and would do so until the day he died, Johnny’s hand in that was not required. Yet, somehow, Johnny couldn’t displace the feeling that had conquered him in the saloon. He had been robbed and cheated. So far he had done nothing for Katie. Fate had intervened where Price was concerned and if it continued to do so, where would that leave him?

Squeezing his eyes shut, Johnny guessed the answer. He would become just like Price—a man with nothing but bitterness and a bottle.


“How far before the next town?” Scott asked as he tugged his shirt away from his chest, a half-hearted attempt when there was no air to circulate. Sweat gathered on his upper lip, dripped into his mouth, and his hat offered barely any comfort; rendering his hair damp and tousled. Glancing at Murdoch, Scott waited for an answer. He took some consolation that obviously it wasn’t his Boston roots that made this temperature so difficult to bear. Even Murdoch, who had lived with the hot Californian sun for years, was struggling to maintain his composure beneath the unrelenting rays.

“Not that far. If Johnny did spend the night out here then it’s likely he’d have to stop soon. If he pushed on through the night, then I expect he’ll be long gone.”

Scott sighed. They’d set off first thing, not certain that this was the right direction, just that this was the road Johnny had been on the day before. In keeping with his firm refusal, he had not returned to the town where Scott and Murdoch spent a restless night.

They arrived at the next town early in the evening and dismounted outside the livery, knowing that, whether Johnny was here or not, this was the end of the road for them today. Made more pungent by the heat, the smell of hay and manure assaulted their nostrils. A large sweaty man, the livery owner, ambled over with his rake and bucket. 

Leaving Murdoch to negotiate the horses’ stay, Scott retreated into the shade of the stables. He ran his fingers through his damp hair, trying to bring it to some resemblance of order. It frustrated him that the sun had begun its descent in the skies, yet the temperature showed no sign of following. While the rays no longer toasted him, the muggy air ensured he remained uncomfortable. He scanned the stalls and when a pale horse caught his eye, he blinked, unwilling to trust what he was seeing. Heatstroke, Scott thought wryly. Only it wasn’t. It was Barranca.

Murdoch went to see if Johnny was at the hotel, and Scott agreed to check the saloon. Inside, he anxiously searched faces. Discreetly he made enquiries, using a description and no name. Scott had no intention of announcing that Johnny Madrid was in town should people not know it already. The barkeep just shrugged, said he’d only just started his shift.

Refusing to feel deflated because Johnny was here somewhere, Scott entered the hotel in time to hear Murdoch exchanging curt words with the lady behind the desk.

“You know what kinda man he is, don’t ya? We don’t want no trouble.”

“I know that he’s my son, Mrs. Hawkins.” Murdoch looked relieved when Scott appeared at his side. 

The woman managed a stiff smile as she pointed to the staircase. “He’s in room three. You’re in five.” She handed Murdoch a key. 

As they headed for the staircase, Murdoch turned to Scott. “I’d like to talk to Johnny alone.”

Scott nodded. He looked downcast and Murdoch tugged on his arm, stepping out of Mrs. Hawkins’ earshot. “It’s not for the reason you’re thinking.”

Scott looked at him with tortured eyes. “Isn’t it? I couldn’t get through to him could I?”

Murdoch studied his son. This was so unlike him, but Scott’s confidence had been shattered where his relationship with Johnny was concerned. Last night had done more damage. “Scott, I thought I made myself clear. You have to stop blaming yourself. Your brother is his own man, always has been, you know that. He’s stubborn, hard-headed and right now going through hell. Not getting through to him is not your failure in any shape or form.”

“I know how Johnny is, Murdoch, but—"

“There are no buts. The reason I’m going up alone is because if Johnny feels crowded, like we’re ganging up on him, then the conversation will go nowhere fast. And I need to do this, Scott.”

Scott swallowed. Whether it was both of them or one of them that went up those stairs, whatever Murdoch was hoping for seemed unlikely. “Okay,” he conceded, oddly mollified by the reassurances. “I’ll go across to the store, buy those provisions…”

Murdoch gripped his shoulder. “Just give me half an hour or so,” he suggested. “Then come up.”


Unable to eat even though hungry, Johnny put the untouched plate on the floor. He’d chosen to stay in the hotel room rather than revisit the saloon, not sure who he’d find as the sun went down. Since he’d left Price, Johnny had done nothing but berate his own weakness, but was now coming to the conclusion that there was a lesson to be relearned from the experience—he couldn’t afford to let emotion influence his actions. Johnny bolstered himself with what he knew. He had a name to put to the face of the other killer; Frank McColl, and confirmation that Beresford was behind Katie’s death, not that he’d been one to ever doubt it. It had occurred to him that he could’ve asked where he would find McColl. He should have asked a whole heap of questions. It don’t matter none.

Johnny’s gaze strayed to the tub that the girl, in keeping with her word, had organised for him. He didn’t care about a bath anymore. He just wanted to sleep.

Allowing for the climate, Johnny estimated that he was about five days ride from the town of Widow’s Creek. He’d spent time there before, years ago, when the job he’d done ended with a bullet, and he’d needed somewhere to recover. He would stay overnight there, and then ride on to his final stop—the town of Winston and Andrew Beresford.

Johnny lay down on the thin mattress, not bothering to undress. He stared blankly at the wall, listening to his breathing, and his senses burned with the desire to feel Katie’s hands on him, exorcising the tension from his shoulders with her fingers. He’d loved her so much. Still did. Never again would he experience that kind of love. He didn’t want to; the cost was too high. There were times, in his deepest, darkest moments, that he wished he’d never met her. Johnny closed his eyes. It would have saved this pain.

He turned his head from the wall as firm knuckles rapped the door. He slipped his hand beneath the pillow and withdrew the gun.


Murdoch reached the top of the stairs and paused at the door to room three. He couldn’t wait to lay eyes on Johnny again. He had missed him so much—the man this time, not the cheeky, irrepressible toddler that at one time had been the only Johnny he knew. Murdoch’s hand, poised to knock, hesitated and then froze. Now he was here, he felt suddenly unsure. So much rested on his shoulders. He was embarking on a tightrope, where one foolish move or one wrong word would see him topple, and lose Johnny for good.

He looked back to the staircase. Scott’s recounted conversation with Johnny tumbling around his mind. His confidence still wavered. If he couldn’t get through to Johnny then he would struggle to take his own advice and not view it as failure. He steeled himself, praying that the right words would come, the words needed to help his son and bring him home. Sensitivity and tact would be required around the issue of Beresford, but first Murdoch needed to know how much of an issue there was. He frowned as he considered what he knew of the man—none of it pleasant. Beresford had spent most of his adult life on the political stage. He had lived in Galveston for a time and had been thought highly of in certain circles, even running for state senate. When he’d lost the election to a black politician, he’d reportedly become disillusioned and bitter, and withdrawn from political life. Taking advantage of the favours granted by city government to wealthy businessmen, he bought up land, acquiring the whole town of Winston, some sixty miles south of Austin, suspiciously, in a very short space of time.

According to what Val had found out and Murdoch's own enquiries, Beresford was a ruthless man, intent on creating his own empire by acquiring more and more land in the surrounding areas for next to nothing. Stories of violence surrounded his purchase of valuable land from farmers who became poverty stricken tenants of their former property. He’d retained some powerful connections, and Murdoch suspected that Beresford had the law sitting snugly in his back pocket, beside a fat wad of dirty money. But his currency had not saved his murdering son from justice.

On occasion Murdoch wished that it had.

He rapped his knuckles against the door. “Johnny?”

There was only silence and Murdoch was about to knock again when the door opened just wide enough for him to greet the gun in his face.

“Johnny, it’s me,” Murdoch said quickly, meeting the wary eyes of his cherished son, and noticing that they held no surprise, just caution. “For heaven’s sake, John, lower the gun.”

Johnny complied, but made no move to grant Murdoch admission, nor did he look pleased to see him.

“Are you going to let me in?”

Johnny hesitated. Voices could be heard from downstairs. In the room opposite a woman and child were talking. “It ain’t a good time, Murdoch,” he said finally.  

“Johnny, please. I just want to talk to you, see for myself that you’re alright, son. It’s been a year...”

Through the door, Murdoch thought he heard Johnny sigh. When the door was opened, he found himself motioned inside with a steely flash of the Colt.

“Aren’t you going to put that away?”

Johnny did and Murdoch stepped forward, planting his hands on his son’s shoulders while he scoured him from head to toe. Johnny tensed and Murdoch noticed that his arms remained rigid at his sides, unresponsive and impassive. It was like the two of them were strangers instead of the close father and son they’d fought hard to become. When Johnny tried to pull away, Murdoch reluctantly let go, but found his parental urge not so easily satisfied. Reaching out, he lifted Johnny’s chin, so that Johnny had to meet his concerned gaze. Blue eyes that once sparkled with mischief and humour were dull and weary, Murdoch noted sadly. Johnny’s cheeks were black with grime and stubble, and as he stepped back quickly, increasing their distance and shirking the contact, Murdoch dropped his hand to his side. “You could use a shave.” 

“I know.”

“And a wash.”

Johnny looked annoyed. “Well, I just spent two weeks in jail.”

“I’m worried about you.”

“I take care of myself.”

“It doesn’t look that way.”

Johnny sighed. “Look, I told ya it ain’t a good time. I was ‘bout to take a bath.”

Crossing to the rumpled bed, Murdoch sat down. “Don’t let me stop you.”

He watched Johnny’s jaw clench, and waited for an argument, surprised and relieved when he got none.

When Johnny moved to the tub, Murdoch surveyed the room, noticing the plate of untouched food on the floor beside the bed. As Johnny stripped off his shirt, he cast a further glance over his son. He had lost weight, just as Scott said. Not too much, but enough to backup the worry that Murdoch had spent the past twelve months nurturing. When Johnny caught Murdoch staring, he narrowed his eyes, moving his hands pointedly to the waistband of his black, dusty pants. Obligingly, Murdoch turned his gaze to the wall.

He heard Johnny settle in the tub and when Murdoch looked over, his son was lying back with his eyes closed, deceptively relaxed. He folded his hands in his lap, wondering what Johnny was thinking. He cleared his throat. “Scott told me what you said.”

Johnny dunked his head beneath the surface and shook the excess droplets from his hair. He wiped the water from his face and finally looked at Murdoch. “I told him, I ain’t goin’ back to Lancer.”

“Is that still how you feel?”

Johnny reached for the soap and plunged it into the water with a splash before lathering it up and scrubbing furiously at his scalp. “Yeah, Murdoch. It is.” He drew the soap roughly over his chest and stomach, raising first one arm then the other.

“Oh, Johnny.” Murdoch paused when Johnny rinsed his hair with water from the jug beside the tub. “It’s your home. It’s where you belong.”

Johnny, who had now picked up his razor and was scraping it down the side of his face, visibly tensed at Murdoch’s words. “Not anymore,” he said tightly.

“I know it’s difficult for you, knowing that’s where Katie died. But think about all the happy times you’ve had there.”

Johnny’s grip on the blade intensified at the mention of Katie and he cursed in Spanish. He pressed a finger to his cheek, drawing it back spotted with blood, and he turned to Murdoch with a look as sharp as the razor. “Katie didn’t just die there, Murdoch. She was murdered, gunned down in cold blood. That makes a difference. Least it does to me.”

Murdoch chose to say nothing more until Johnny had finished shaving. He heard him emerge from the tub, dry himself off and get dressed.

“Johnny, come home.” No matter that Johnny was a grown man, Murdoch still worried for him fervently. Maybe if Johnny had settled somewhere, carved out a new, safe life, then Murdoch might have accepted the situation. But not like this, not this way. It was just such a waste.

Johnny shook his head firmly, studying the buttons of his shirt as he did them up one by one.

“So what are your plans? To throw everything away and return to the way you used to live?”

“This time ain’t nothin’ like before,” Johnny said grittily, fastening his gunbelt around his hips and then balancing first on one leg then the other as he pulled on his boots. 

“It seems that way to me,” Murdoch said, unable to help the trace of bitterness that crept into his tone. “How many gunfights have you been in, John? I’m sure there are more than just the ones Scott and I’ve heard about.”

Johnny looked curious. “How many you heard ‘bout?” 


“Sounds ‘bout right.”

“Are you trying to get yourself killed, is that it?”

“If I wanted to die then I wouldn’t have made it through twelve gunfights, Murdoch,” Johnny replied softly, avoiding eye contact as he reached for his saddlebags and stuffed his dirty clothes inside.

Murdoch watched this, his anger stoked, Johnny’s blasé attitude doing nothing to dampen the rising flames. Johnny crossed to where he was sitting, picked up his jacket and casually slung it over his shoulder. “I’m leavin’. Least now you’ve seen me, you can stop worryin’.” He flicked his hat off the coat peg, catching it deftly with his left hand, his right grasping the handle and pulling open the door.

Before Murdoch had a chance to think it through, he strode across the room and smacked his palm forcefully against the wood, slamming the door shut and wrenching the handle from Johnny’s grasp. “Stop worrying about you?” he demanded incredulously, trying to rein in his temper as he towered over his son. “This is the first time I’ve seen you in over a year, after months of wondering if you were alive or dead. Having to see the rest of my family, of your family, fall apart through grief, not only for Katie but for you as well.

You’ve spent five minutes in my company, offered no word of explanation and now you think you can dismiss me just as you did your brother?”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably, his gaze darting around Murdoch to the door. He looked vulnerable and agitated, ready to bolt at the first opportunity. Murdoch sighed dejectedly. He wanted to help this son who was living in a world of hurt, seemingly out of reach. If he was a different father…Johnny a different son…then Murdoch would’ve gathered his boy into his arms. Instead he leaned against the door, blocking Johnny’s route of escape.

“I’m not talking about your need to get away. I understand that. But you didn’t even let us know you were alright. Not a single word, nothing! Have you any idea how hard that was?

Shooting people, killing people, revenge—none of that is going to bring Katie back.”

Johnny’s angry gaze shot up to meet his father’s. “D’ya think I don’t know that?”

“Let me tell you what I know, Johnny,” Murdoch said firmly. “I know that you’re risking your life, constantly having to look over your shoulder despite having worked so hard put all that behind you. Why go back to it now, do you really think that Beresford is worth all this, that you’re worth so little?”

“This ain’t ‘bout me.”

“Well it must be,” Murdoch said testily, taking a step forward. “Because it isn’t about anyone else.”  Before Murdoch could continue, Johnny shoved him aside, agilely reclaiming the door handle and opening it to leave.

Murdoch lunged, his fingers encircling Johnny’s bicep like a shackle. He hauled him back and once more slammed the door shut. Johnny whirled on him and Murdoch stared in bewilderment at the transformation that came over his son. If he didn’t know Johnny Lancer then he would think that this was all the man in front of him was about; emotionless and cold and completely unafraid. Earlier, Murdoch had considered Johnny’s eyes dull. Now there was life in them—the cold glitter of a hardened man. A gunfighter? Murdoch wondered crazily if he should be fearful of the man his son had become. Fighting between this feeling and renewed anger, Murdoch took a deep breath and relaxed his hold on Johnny’s arm. “I know you’re hurting but you don’t need to do this. You don’t need to handle Katie’s death by yourself. Let us help you. That is what families do.” For a moment he thought he might have succeeded in getting Johnny to listen and his heart withheld a beat, only to resume and quicken its pace when Johnny threw him a smirk.

“Look Old Man, if you’re so hell-bent on giving me some sort of lecture on family values, d’ya think you could keep your voice down? I’m tryin’ to rebuild my reputation, but with you shootin’ your mouth off so the whole world can hear, I may as well go down them stairs with a sign sayin’ shoot me ‘round my neck.”

“I’m not trying to lecture you. I just want you to know that I do understand, more than you realise.”

Johnny snorted. “I doubt it. You wouldn’t know the first thing ‘bout all this shootin’ people, killin’ people, revenge…” He sneered as he mimicked Murdoch’s words. His tone dripped insolence like warm wax from a candle.

Murdoch looked sadly at his son. “Johnny, stop this.”

Johnny feigned innocence. “Stop what, Old Man? Stop tellin’ it like it is, or just stop talkin’? You just can’t stomach that I ain’t like you!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m nothin’ like you, Old Man.” Johnny ignored his confusion. “You may’ve been content to lose people from your life and not do a damn thing ‘bout it, but I’m not. I won’t forget what I’ve lost, the things that really mean somethin’. The only time you were prepared to fight was when your precious ranch was in trouble, and even then you didn’t have the guts to do it yourself—”

“Johnny, that’s enough.”

“You figure that I still got my third so that should be enough. To hell with losing Katie! After all, it was enough for you. Who cares ‘bout a couple of wives, a couple of kids…But I ain’t a coward like you—”

Murdoch wasn’t prepared to listen to any more of this. His growling temper broke free of restraint, and he hit Johnny. Hard.




Johnny was stunned. He thought for a moment he’d hit the floor before realising only an element of him had, the element he needed and which should have seen the backhander coming. He’d been deliberately pushing Murdoch into losing his temper so he’d want to let him go. He’d hated doing it, but Johnny knew his father couldn’t understand the burning need that drove him onward through every torturous minute. Only Johnny hadn’t counted on this reaction. Murdoch had never hit him before. In the early days when they’d argued, one of them would end up storming out on the other, and Johnny had banked on Murdoch doing so this time, too. His eyes threatened to water as his cheek and mouth throbbed in unison. He touched his fingertips gently against his lip and stared in fascinated disbelief when they came away slicked with blood.

“Get over there,” Murdoch bellowed, and, at his not-so-gentle shove, Johnny stumbled forward. “Sit down.” Johnny sat on the unmade bed, the heat of his father’s glare compelling his gaze down to his boots.

“Here,” Murdoch said gruffly, forcing a rumpled handkerchief into Johnny’s line of vision. “Hold this to your lip.”

Johnny drew a shaky breath, his emotions threatening to wash him away with their intensity. It felt like he used every ounce of courage he possessed to raise his head and look at his father. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, accepting the cloth.

Murdoch nodded. The anger in his pale eyes diminished slightly, placated by the apology. With a heartfelt sigh, he sat beside Johnny, the bed ropes creaking with the addition of his weight.  “Are you going to tell me where all that came from?”

Johnny couldn’t answer; too busy fighting an independent battle against the sense of defeat which was indescribably close to conquering him. He pressed the handkerchief to his mouth.

“Talk to me, Johnny,” Murdoch pleaded. “Is this all about Beresford? Because if it is, Son, then you’re playing a dangerous game.”

Johnny looked sharply at Murdoch, and crumpled the handkerchief in his fist. “I wouldn’t call this a game.”

Murdoch sighed. “No, game was the wrong word to use. But it is dangerous, Johnny. How can you be sure that Beresford was behind Katie’s death? I know it seems the most likely scenario, but there is no evidence, no proof. Do you not think that if there were any then Val would have done something about it? Do you not think that he would be the first to ensure that justice was done?”

Johnny got up, the balled and bloodied handkerchief falling to the floor. He was aware that his heart was thumping faster in his chest. While half of him still wanted to walk out, oddly, the other half wanted Murdoch to understand. Johnny silently cursed that half even as he spoke. “Look, I saw them, I heard them, alright?” he admitted.

Murdoch looked puzzled. “Who?”

“The men who shot Katie. I saw them that day, heard their accents. Texan accents, Murdoch. They were talkin’ ‘bout how the ‘boss’ wanted her dead—”

“Wait a minute.” Murdoch held his hand up, incredulity sharpening his tone. “You saw and heard them, yet you didn’t tell Val?”

Johnny folded his arms across his chest. “There wasn’t any point,” he muttered, choosing to study the plate of untouched dinner on the floor rather than face his father’s disappointment. “I know Val did his best and tried to have Beresford brought in over it. I know what response he got, too.”

“It won’t be enough to convict Beresford in a court of law.”

“The law,” Johnny mocked. He raised his chin and glared at Murdoch defiantly. “The law ain’t interested. Least not since they found out Katie was married to me.”

“Do you blame yourself?”

The question caught Johnny off guard. There was no way he should be getting into this with his father. He was already having far more of a conversation than he’d intended, wanted, or knew it was safe to have. His reply was quick and sharp. “No.”

“So you’re going after Beresford now. And you’re going to do what when you see him; kill him without evidence, without proof?”

“I’ve got all the proof I need.”

“What you saw and heard that day? You still can’t be sure, Johnny.”

“Yes Murdoch, I can,” Johnny insisted. “I already found one of ‘em and he admitted it. He admitted Beresford paid him to do it.” He was pleased when Murdoch looked shocked.

“When? Where is this man?”

Johnny’s stomach clenched and his gaze narrowed. “He’s dead,” he said coldly.

“You killed him.” 

Murdoch’s words, tinged with dread, formed a fist that almost knocked the breath from Johnny’s body. Dios, even my old man expected me to kill 'im.  Winded by his failing, Johnny numbly shook his head.

“And Beresford? Johnny, you need to reconsider whatever it is you’re planning. It’s not going to make you feel better, it won’t bring Katie back. You’ll wind up dead!”

“You’re wrong Old Man. It will make me feel better, and I ain’t plannin’ on lettin’ Beresford kill me.”

“Andrew Beresford is a powerful man around here. You know what Val and Katie told us. When he finds out who you are, he’s not going to let you within feet of him!”

Johnny confidently held his father’s gaze. “Oh he’ll let me. Beresford’ll welcome me with open arms.”

Murdoch got up from the bed and in one stride was in front of Johnny, seizing him by the shoulders with large hands that felt heavy and rooted him to the spot. If Johnny wanted to still hold Murdoch’s gaze then he had to look up. Right now he hated that.

“Johnny you don’t need to do this,” Murdoch implored him. “Your anger...it’s understandable, but if you do this...it can’t be what you want for yourself? It’s not what Katie would have wanted for you.”

“Don’t bring Katie into this. Don’t use her to make me go back!”

“Using her? I’m not using her. But it is true—Katie wouldn’t want this for you. She wouldn’t want you to go looking for revenge.”

“You know nothin,” Johnny spat bitterly, trying unsuccessfully to shrug off Murdoch’s grip. 

“I know nothing?” He gave Johnny a shake. “Did you honestly mean what you said before, that I didn’t feel this grief when I lost you, Scott, your mothers? Do you not think I wanted someone to pay?”

“It ain’t the same,” Johnny ground out, agitation gnawing at the already frayed edges of his nerves.

“The circumstances aren’t, but the principle is. If you kill Beresford, what then? Have you given that any thought at all? You’ll still be the same man who lost his wife. Katie will still be dead, and you could end up being hung for murder!”

Johnny hesitated. Honestly, he didn’t care about what happened after, but if he confessed that now, if he admitted that he was going to see Beresford dead by whatever means possible, to hell with the consequences, then Murdoch was never going to let him go.

“I’m not stupid.”

“No, but you’re not thinking this through properly. It could end up costing you far more than you’ve lost already. I don’t think you’ve thought about that at all. No, Johnny, I can’t let you do this.”

“It’s not your decision.”

“Let Scott and I come with you then?

“No. Havin’ you and Scott along will just make it harder. And that ain’t fair, Murdoch.” A well of panic begin to open inside of Johnny, a deep, dark, bottomless pit of nothingness that wouldn’t hesitate to claim him, should he give this up. He tried to prise himself from Murdoch’s grasp, but still his father refused to yield. “Just let me go...please,” Johnny asked desperately.

Murdoch bowed his head. Thinking, Johnny guessed. He wanted to take the opportunity to flee, but recognised that Murdoch had pre-empted the move by keeping his hands firmly on him. After what seemed an age of silence, Murdoch did let go. He slowly rubbed his jaw.

“Grown man or not, letting you walk out of this room goes against every instinct I have.” Murdoch paused, and it appeared to Johnny that he had to force himself to continue. “But if you can promise me, look me in the eye and tell me that this need for revenge you have, this need for justice, that it’s not going to make you reckless, that you’ll do everything in your power to keep yourself safe—”

“I told you I can take care of myself,” Johnny interrupted irritably.

“Promise me that you’ll stay on the right side of the law and won’t go against everything you’ve always believed in. If you look me in the eye and do that then I won’t try to stop you leaving.”

Johnny’s first inclination was to snap a retort about Murdoch not trusting him, but he didn’t, couldn’t, even though it seemed the only way out of the pen that Murdoch’s words herded him into. Once again that dark abyss beckoned and all the hate stored inside of him rallied against it. Gaze sloping to the floor, Johnny muttered, “I promise.” The potential untruth of his words scraped painfully at his throat. 

“I said look me in the eye, Johnny. Not at the floor.”

Johnny’s head shot up. The look of determination on his father’s face realised his fear. Murdoch and Scott were incapable of understanding, and if they talked him out of this then he would have nothing. His wife and unborn baby would still be dead, no one would pay, and he’d have to live every day of his life with regret. 

“You’ve never had a problem looking me in the eye and justifying your decisions before. Not when you know what you’re doing is right.”

Johnny was strung with tension. He felt close to panic and it terrified him. He couldn’t repel Murdoch with words; he’d tried already and failed. He dropped his gaze without a word.

“Johnny you’re not doing this, boy, do you hear me?” Murdoch’s voice was panicky, too. His  hands clamped down on Johnny’s shoulders again, and Johnny blinked, his throat constricting, his feelings comparable right now to a cornered animal looking for a way out, knowing its only chance was to fight. “If I have to physically drag you back to Lancer then so help me I will!”

The sheer determination on Murdoch’s face, the conviction in his tone—Johnny recoiled with the realisation he was trapped with nowhere to go but to the unthinkable. With immense will, he regained his composure and his instincts, until drawing on Murdoch was as natural an act as breathing.




Scott approached the town’s only store a few minutes too late. The elderly shopkeeper peered through the shop window and jabbed a shrivelled finger toward the closed sign. Not inclined to persuade the man to let him in, Scott sighed and surveyed the street. Without provisions to buy, he had nothing to do but wait and hope. Wait for the outcome of the conversation between his father and brother, and hope it was not preordained as he feared.

Returning to the hotel, he sat down on the bench outside and removed his hat, weighing it in his hands. The setting sun glinted on the upper window panes of the buildings opposite with brightness so sharp it made him squint. He kept his gaze at ground floor level, looking for something interesting to take his mind off what was happening in the hotel. Half an hour or so, Murdoch had said, and Scott frowned at his pocket watch when only five of those minutes had passed.

What was happening upstairs? Could his father succeed where Scott had failed, and convince Johnny to come home?

A buggy approached and the female passenger smiled at him. Scott smiled back, she bore a passing resemblance to Teresa, and he found his thoughts drifting to the ranch and home. He missed Lancer already, even without Johnny. With a sigh, Scott checked the watch again. Ten minutes had now gone by and neither Murdoch nor Johnny had come storming out. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

He tried to picture the scene. Was Murdoch getting through to Johnny, saying the right words that a father should automatically know, or had he lost his temper? Scott had seen that happen often enough and it was nearly always counterproductive. So often in their early days, Scott had played peacemaker when Murdoch and Johnny went to war. But as the months passed, they’d either mellowed or started to understand each other until Scott’s assumed role gratefully became a redundant one. He hoped they weren’t arguing now, because being the voice of reason between his father and Johnny Lancer was gruelling enough. Scott wasn’t sure he held the ability or emotional distance required to mediate between his father and Johnny Madrid.  

He got to his feet, needing a distraction, something to prevent him satisfying his curiosity too soon. If Murdoch was making progress with Johnny, then an intrusion may ruin it. Scott didn’t think he could carry that burden. It was a peculiar feeling, to lack in confidence when it came to communicating with his brother. They usually got on so well, had done almost from the start.  Scott had been the first one to penetrate Johnny’s tough shell, not realising what an achievement that was until much later.

As Scott worried, he walked, across the street to the saloon where he ordered himself a beer. Settling down at an unoccupied table, Scott took a sip, resigned to an impatient wait.


Murdoch felt all the blood drain from his face, and he didn’t move. He couldn’t, shocked as he was.  Desperately he searched Johnny’s eyes for an explanation, a shred of uncertainty, some sign that Johnny was as horrified. But there was nothing. His son’s gaze was as steady as the Colt he pointed at Murdoch’s chest.

Scott knocked on the door, calling their names.

Forcing himself to breathe again, Murdoch slowly removed his hands from Johnny’s shoulders. Even when they heard Scott enter, Johnny didn’t so much as twitch. This calmness and the absence of any distress or panic only unnerved Murdoch more. He risked a glance toward Scott, whose reaction mirrored his own. But Scott’s shock faded faster and he found his voice. “Johnny, for God’s sake…” He took a tentative step into the room, not taking his eyes off his brother. 

“Back off, Scott.” Johnny’s hard stare didn’t leave Murdoch. His aim didn’t waver.

“So you want to shoot me now…” Murdoch’s mouth was dry as he inched forward. “Is that how it is?”  

Johnny tilted his head and shook it. “No, I don’t want to, Murdoch,” he drawled softly. The metallic click of the Colt’s hammer replaced a beat of Murdoch’s heart. “But I will.”

Murdoch blinked. He swallowed. He may not know his son right now, but he believed him.

“Johnny, think about this.” From the doorway, Scott beseeched his brother.

“I’ve done my thinkin’, Scott.”

Scott was concerned to see Murdoch make his way to the bed on unsteady legs. Johnny watched this impassively, and only once Murdoch sank down gratefully onto the mattress, did he lower the gun. He retrieved his belongings from the floor and brushed by his stunned brother.

“Hey!” Furious, Scott reached out and grabbed his brother by the arm, mindless of the gun still in Johnny’s hand. Johnny’s gaze dipped to Scott’s fingers and then back up to squarely meet his brother’s eyes.

“Scott, leave him.”

Still confused and appalled by his brother’s behaviour, Scott turned incredulously to Murdoch. “Leave him? I haven’t even started with him yet.” He glared severely at Johnny, tightening his grip. Right now he was so mad it was taking all his self control not to lay Johnny out cold. Gun or no gun; grief or no grief; Madrid or not.

“Let him go.”

Murdoch lowered his head and rubbed at his temples, and Scott was torn between going to his father’s side, and giving Johnny the hiding he deserved. As he lingered in vacillation, his fingers unconsciously relaxed their grip, and Johnny tore his arm free without a second’s hesitation, the sound of his spurs jingling down the hall and Murdoch’s ashen face, the only signs he’d ever been in the room. Scott went to go after him, but Murdoch raised his head. “Scott,” he said sharply, and when he got his son’s attention, his voice dropped to a disconsolate murmur. “Just let him go, son.”

Reluctantly, Scott obeyed, staring at his brother’s retreating back, watching the dark hair that these days curled against Johnny’s neck, disappear down the staircase and vanish from sight. Still furious, he itched to go after Johnny, and haul him back to face what he’d done. It was only Murdoch’s face that stopped him. So pale. Scott didn’t think he’d ever seen his father look so defeated.

Closing the door, Scott hastened to the bed and sat down, his sense of concern deepening when he realised that Murdoch was trembling. “Sir, are you alright? I don’t know what to say….” 

It appeared that Murdoch didn’t know what to say either. He reached down and picked up the discarded handkerchief, turning the bloodied white cotton in his hands.

“Did you hit him? Is that why Johnny pulled his gun on you?” The fury that urged Scott to knock some sense into his brother was waning; replaced by a fear for Johnny that twisted his stomach into knots. When Murdoch looked at him, Scott was troubled by the unshed tears in his father’s eyes; a glistening sheen of confusion and self-reproach. Shifting on the bed, he pointed to the handkerchief. “Johnny was bleeding, Murdoch.”

His father sighed heavily. Releasing the material from his grasp, Murdoch rubbed at his temples again, massaging his fingertips deep into his silvery hair. “No, that wasn’t why, at least I don’t think so,” he said wearily.

“Why then?”

“Why, what?”

“Why did I just walk in to find my brother pointing a gun at my father?”

“Because he felt trapped, I suppose,” Murdoch conceded quietly. “I was asking him questions that he could not or would not answer.”

“Such as?”

“I asked him how he could be sure that Beresford’s responsible. Apparently Johnny found one of the men who shot Katie, and this man admitted that Beresford was behind her death.”

Scott was confused. “But how did Johnny know where to find him? How did he know who he was?”

Murdoch frowned. “He saw them. Johnny saw the men who shot him and killed Katie.”

An image came back to Scott of Johnny lying in bed the day they’d had the conversation about the baby. He’d asked Johnny then if he’d seen anyone. Scott remembered the silence before his brother’s reply, the coldness of his eyes. Eyes that couldn’t look at him...Now Scott knew why—Johnny had lied. He hadn’t trusted him even then.

Searching for the positive, Scott found hope for the first time since entering the room. “Well that’s good isn’t it? If this man could be persuaded to testify…” his voice trailed off along with the hope as soon as Murdoch shook his head.

“No, that’s not going to happen, Scott. He’s dead.”

“He’s dead? But if Johnny spoke with him…”

“Johnny says he didn’t kill him.”

Relieved, Scott spoke firmly. “Well if Johnny says he didn’t, then he didn’t.

If Johnny knows for sure that Beresford’s behind this, then it’s no wonder you couldn’t persuade him to give this up,” Scott reasoned. “Maybe that’s where we’ve gone wrong. We shouldn’t be trying to stop him, we should be there supporting him. Beresford shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this…”

Murdoch got abruptly to his feet. “You think I don’t know that?” he said tightly. He walked over to the window and stood gazing out with his arms folded. “Johnny doesn’t want us to be part of this, Scott. He said it wouldn’t be fair on him. It’s something he needs to do alone.”

Scott sighed with indecision. Perhaps Johnny was right. Maybe they were wrong to have tried to steer him from this path. Maybe they weren’t giving him enough credit, and their presence would only make things more difficult. Scott didn’t doubt Johnny’s skill or ability in any way, but guessed that this situation was unlike anything Johnny had faced before. This was personal. Possibly too personal for Johnny to think clearly.

“Johnny’s hell-bent on this, Scott. I didn’t realise just how much.”

“Well then we really don’t have a choice. We have to trust him.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I want to,” he said earnestly, “But I asked him to promise me, and he couldn’t.”

“Promise you what?” Scott asked uneasily.

“I asked him to promise that he wouldn’t risk his life, that he’d stay on the right side of the law and not go against everything he believes in just to see Beresford dead.” Murdoch looked over his shoulder, his expression grave. “He couldn’t do it, Scott.”

“No...Johnny wouldn’t just kill Beresford. It would have to be a fair fight.”

“I didn’t want to believe it either, but you saw him, he’s so damn angry. He’s not thinking things through at all. He’s given no thought to what might happen if he fails or if he succeeds...the potential consequences.”

Scott leaned forward, rubbing his cheeks as he considered Murdoch’s words. Always, Scott had believed that a man had a right to make his own decisions, and that by doing so he accepted the consequences, whatever they might be. He had always held the view that if you could honestly justify your decision and your actions, if you could say hand on heart that you’d thought it through, if it was what you believed—then it was right. For the years he’d had the privilege of knowing his brother, Scott had always supported Johnny’s choices, sometimes quietly, other times vocally when faced with opposition from a certain person, because Johnny did that. No matter how rash his decisions sometimes appeared, no matter how reckless, Scott knew they were usually no such thing. This time though, Scott had to agree with his father and question whether Johnny had really thought this through at all. 

Oh, he’d thought about the practical things, the requirement to be at his best. He probably even had a plan in place as to how he would get to Beresford. But if he hadn’t considered what would happen afterward…Did Johnny honestly think that killing Beresford would heal his pain?

Scott didn’t want to believe that Johnny would kill in cold blood, yet the thought gripped him like a rabid dog, tearing at his conscience as if it were a fleshy bone. Johnny did sound truly fixated on this, determined, and he was fuelled by hatred. Already Johnny had done things Scott had never thought him capable of. Like pulling his gun on their father. Just how far was he prepared to go?

“So what do we do now?”

Murdoch returned to the bed and sat down heavily. He did not have an answer and the force of his despair was contagious. Scott felt it seep across the slim gap between them, wheedling its way beneath his skin. It came down to a difficult choice and one that Scott was struggling to make. Did he do everything in his power to steer Johnny from this path, even if it meant fighting against his brother. Should he disregard what Johnny wanted and continue to trail him, even if just to watch his back? Or should he and Murdoch return home, taking with them the hope that while Johnny didn’t think he could say it, he would uphold the promise Murdoch asked him to make?




The wooden planks vibrated with the heavy footfalls of drunken men attempting to dance with wild women wearing silky dresses that left little to the imagination. Arms and legs were flung this way and that as they kept up an inebriated rhythm with the old man at the piano. He sat on a stool with his head thrown back, swaying side to side as his shoulders jigged with the rapid movement of his hands across the keys. The piano was in desperate need of retuning, and as Johnny slouched sullenly in the chair he’d occupied for the last two hours, he wondered if he was the only one in the saloon thoroughly annoyed by it. Beneath the wavering notes was a constant buzz of voices and loud raucous laughter. Men grinned toothily or leered with lustful smiles at women who fluttered their eyelashes and giggled saucily.

The eyelashes and giggles had approached Johnny several times, but on each occasion he’d looked them over and then rudely waved them away, his face darkening into a scowl as he curled his fingers tightly around his bottle, the only company he desired tonight.

Johnny drained his glass again. He’d stopped tasting the tequila a while back. He dragged his knuckles across his mouth and his fingers brushed the cheek that had remained tender for days after Murdoch struck him; a tangible reminder of their confrontation. Johnny didn’t blame his father for lashing out. He’d been pushing his luck, not expecting Murdoch to react physically. And damn he can hit hard.

When Johnny left the hotel room that day, he walked down the stairs with his writhing emotions carefully disguised beneath a veil of indifference. Johnny didn’t look back once, but his body remained tense, half expecting to feel Scott’s strong grip on his shoulder spinning him around to reacquaint Johnny’s mouth with his fist.

Dios! Johnny’s heart screamed at him. What kind of a son pulled a gun on his father? Not a son worth having, that was for sure. Why did Murdoch have to push so hard? Johnny knew the reason and it was something he’d wanted all his life; Murdoch loved him. Or at least he had. Johnny didn’t think for one moment that Murdoch would ever forgive him for what he’d done.

When he reached Barranca, Johnny lowered his head into his hands and let his fingers trail down his face as if trying to physically pull his mask back into place. He’d been successful and for five days he rode east, snatching sleep beneath the stars, always with gun firmly in hand. Every waking minute, every hour, Johnny felt nothing but the slow burn of anger; directed at himself for what he’d done, and his family for putting him in that position in the first place.

He arrived at the penultimate town on his journey, just as the sun was beginning its descent and staining the evening sky pink. Widow’s Creek was as he remembered. Nothing had changed much over the past six years. It was on the stage route, a stopover town for travellers, cowboys and occasionally gunfighters on the road to wherever. Although fairly small, the town was heavily populated and as a result busy. He rode in on the main street, passing the whitewashed church, a blacksmith’s, general store and a dressmakers; all of which were closed up for the evening. Passing the town jail, Johnny was reminded of a crazy night years ago.

At the saloon, he paused and scanned the street; a casual survey to the naïve bystander, but an assessment of danger to anyone who knew what he was. All he saw were locals; people on their way home for their evening meal. He stared down the street to the last house, situated almost on the town’s boundary. Later, Johnny told himself firmly. I’ll think ‘bout that later. Right now he just wanted a drink. More than one I reckon.

And more than one he had. Johnny poured another shot of tequila just as the pianist switched to a different tune, upping the tempo and inspiring a tall fat man to drain his mug of beer and join the dancing. As he stomped his boots with surprising enthusiasm to the music, he lost his balance and lurched into Johnny’s table.

“Watch it,” Johnny growled darkly.

The fat man glared before a tug on his hand and a feminine plea of, “C’mon Pete,” sent his focus back to dancing.

Johnny scowled and poured another drink, his mood souring with every taste and swallow. Downing this shot, too, Johnny dropped the glass on the table. Picking up the bottle, he made his way out of the saloon, his dark and dangerous appearance parting the throng of patrons. It was a mistake. As soon as he stepped outside, the evening air pounced; rendering him dizzy and lethargic. Slumping against the wall of the saloon, Johnny took a few deep breaths to stop his world from spinning. He closed his eyes and battled a wave of nausea.  He was drunk; he knew it and for once couldn’t care less.

“Stan, Andrew Beresford has practically saved me I tell ya!”

The mention of Beresford was sobering. Johnny pushed off the wall, struggling to align his senses and put a face to the man who dared to speak well of that bastard. Two men were ambling across the street in Johnny’s direction.

“Are ya sure ‘bout that, Ed? I mean folks ‘ave thought that before, but you know they ain’t doin’ so good.”

“Bull!” The man called Ed snorted. “Andrew Beresford is my saviour. I just dunno what I’m gonna do with all them dollars in my pocket!”

“Well, ya can buy me a beer for a start,” Stan grumbled as he and the man, Ed, stepped onto the boardwalk, mindless of Johnny’s presence. “Sides, it ain’t that much, Ed, not when ya think what that land’s really worth, an’ how long it’s gotta last. How’s that money gonna support you, Mary-Beth, and the kids, ‘specially when ya ‘ave ta start givin’ Beresford a share of the profit?”

“Oh, y’all are just jealous. Now, ya gonna join me in raisin’ a toast to Andrew Beresford or not?”

Stan seemed to concur at the prospect of a drink and the two men entered the saloon. Johnny, his curiosity peaked, his mood sliding into dangerous territory, brought the bottle of tequila to his lips and drank what was left so quickly that little rivulets spilt from his mouth and trickled down his chin. Discarding the empty bottle over the side of the boardwalk, Johnny stalked back inside.

Wanting to hear their conversation above the noise, Johnny slid into a chair nearby and listened hard, his fingers drumming on the table slowly, rhythmically, getting steadily faster and more frenzied as he endured a toast being raised to the man that had killed his wife, if not by his own hand, then upon his order.

“God bless Andrew Beresford!”

That was it. With a vicious swipe Johnny knocked the glass from Ed’s hand and it smashed on the floor. Grabbing the startled man by the front of his shirt, Johnny lifted him from his chair. Around them the ruckus continued, nobody except for Stan noticing the incensed dark-haired young man whose fingers gripped and twisted Ed’s shirt so tightly that the material strained uncomfortably beneath the dumbstruck man’s armpits.

Finally Ed’s voice came back to him with an indignant splutter. “Get ya hands off me!” he protested hotly.

“I might if you shut up ‘bout Beresford for five minutes.”

Stan clamped a thick hand down on Johnny’s shoulder. “Now wait a minute, Mister,” he began, only to be silenced abruptly when Johnny turned and shoved him. As Stan fell backwards into a crowded table, spilling drinks and scattering cards, Ed seized the opportunity to attack Johnny; swinging a chair over his back. Johnny faltered under the blow but managed to get back up, retaliating with a square punch to Ed’s chin.

The saloon was fast descending into chaos as intoxicated men took exception to having their drinks spilt or their feet stomped on. One cowboy was thrown heavily against the piano causing the old man to finally give up playing. The women who considered themselves ladies darted anxiously out of the way while the wilder ones who just didn’t give a damn, waded on in there to defend their men. 

Someone grabbed Johnny from behind and so he drove his elbow back, hearing the grunt of his assailant and feeling the grip slacken. Turning, the world lurching dramatically, Johnny tried to focus. Only after his assailant’s fist made contact with his jaw did Johnny recognise Pete—the fat fool who had spilt his drink earlier.

As the fracas grew, Johnny found himself invigorated by the opportunity to unleash his long pent up aggression. He launched himself at Pete, realising too late that he’d picked on the wrong person. Pete’s bulk kept him standing and he sent a hammy fist smashing into Johnny’s face. The explosion of pain sent Johnny down hard to greet the sticky and dusty floor. Groping through blurry vision for a table leg, Johnny heaved himself up. Pete charged him then, locking his powerful arms around Johnny’s midsection and propelling the pair of them toward the entrance. As they fell through the batwing doors, Pete released Johnny and smacked him in the face, spinning him around so that Johnny fell headfirst down the steps of the boardwalk, his face scraping painfully against the wooden railing. 

Johnny hit the dirt street with a thud. His jaw throbbed, cheek blazed and his knuckles stung, yet still he felt strangely exhilarated. The feeling wilted when the stars spun crazily and rolling onto his side, a brutal and successful bout of nausea assailed him.

Three men fell through the swinging doors, a combination of flying fists and drunkenness driving them straight into Pete. The full weight of the man crushed Johnny, forcing the air from his lungs.

As the brawl moved from the saloon into the street, the face of law and order was mooching toward the scene. Sheriff Josh Whittaker was a man in his early fifties, with a head full of wiry grey hair that curled beneath his ten gallon hat, and a portly frame that gave away just how much he liked his food. He had been the sheriff of this town for more years than he cared to remember and he liked things quiet and uninteresting. A ruckus in the saloon was neither and he cursed the fact that his Saturday night had been disturbed.

“Y’all just break it up now,” he drawled unenthusiastically, planting his stocky arms on corpulent hips as he surveyed the fight. When unsurprisingly the brawling men took no notice, the sheriff rolled his eyes, drew his gun and fired a single shot into the night sky. The noise reverberated off the buildings. The fists stopped flying and Johnny registered the gunshot briefly before Pete, who had picked himself up and straddled Johnny, sent one last punch into his face.

The brawlers that were capable picked themselves up from their various states of disarray and brushed down their clothes, panting hard. Only two men didn’t get up—Johnny and another.

“Right,” Josh said assertively, certain that he didn’t want to go to the trouble of arresting anyone, especially when he knew almost every one of the men involved. Their hangovers and the aches and pains that would follow would be more than enough punishment. “Ain’t y’all got homes to go to?”

As the street cleared, Josh’s eyes lingered on the men who were physically unable to get up, a dark-haired stranger and young Todd Sykes, who never could handle his drink. He was sorely tempted to leave these two out in the street to sober up, but a bruised and dishevelled Ed Weaver came marching up to him, pointing an indignant finger at Johnny’s still form. “That’s ‘im, Josh,” he said indignantly. “He’s the one responsible for this.”

Josh stared down at the unconscious man. He walked over to Johnny and gently nudged him with the tip of his boot. “I’ll take this one to the cells, then. He might need the doc, too.” Whittaker sighed resignedly. “Ed, you get Todd on his feet an’ get him home.”

With one last glare at Johnny, Ed walked over to Todd and slapped the young man around the face until he came to. Helping him to his feet, he slung a gangly limb around his shoulders and as the two men stumbled away, Josh squatted down beside the unconscious Johnny. Something about this young man’s battered face seemed eerily familiar. The sheriff looked up when another familiar face emerged from the shadows.

“Now, Josh, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll take care of him.”

Josh raised his head at the confident, insistent tone, and he frowned. “I ain’t sure that’s a good idea,” he replied hesitantly.

“You just leave him. Me and Madrid have unfinished business.”




Pain welcomed Johnny’s return to consciousness, the flutter of his eyelashes casting spider-leg shadows on his cheeks. He groaned. He hurt. His head pounded and felt groggy. Johnny couldn’t determine if this was due to the numerous spills he’d taken, or because he was still drunk. But he could feel someone touching…no…torturing him, and he immediately tensed, his body bucking away from the inflictor of torment, his right hand groping frantically at his hip for his gun. When it wasn’t there he panicked, tried to open his eyes and sit up, only to be pushed back against something soft. Pillows?

“Johnny, just lie still.”

The voice was hauntingly familiar, and when Johnny tried to look again, he found that one eye opened wider than the other which had already started to swell. A colourful reminder of this night for days to come, no doubt. Even once his vision adjusted, Johnny was left disorientated. He’d expected to wake up in a jail cell or worse, a doctor’s office. Instead he lay on a large bed with the sheets pulled back, and not only was he missing his gunbelt, but his boots and shirt, too. A woman leaned over him and from this angle he could see down the front of her dress. He hadn’t time to be appreciative for it was her fingers killing him, probing and pressing his bruised stomach and ribcage. She smelt of lavender, and Johnny relaxed despite his discomfort and darkened disposition. A sly smile crept lazily over his face.  

“You can wipe that grin off your face, Johnny. Seems the only time I see ya is when I need to bail you outta some kinda mess.”

He tried sitting again, only for his ribs to remind him that it wasn’t such a wise move. He felt like he’d been sat on by the fattest heifer, and he groaned again as he remembered that he had been, kind of. Instantly he regretted starting that fight. Sinking back against the pillows, Johnny kept his gaze locked on the woman. He could smell her perfume strongly now, and the fragrance transported his mind back to a time when things had been different, although in many ways just the same.

“Yeah, but you know I’m worth it, Ellie.” Johnny croaked the words, each one chafing his throat like sandpaper.

Rolling her coffee brown eyes heavenward, Ellie straightened and folded her arms across her chest. “What you doin’ here?” Her shimmering lips pressed together as she stared at him intently.

Johnny briefly closed his eyes, only to reconsider when the room started to revolve. He slowly ran his tongue over his lip, tasting blood, realising it had split for the second time in the space of a week. “You tell me,” he murmured. “Last I knew I was outside the saloon.”

Ellie raised a thin eyebrow, and shook her head. “Well you look like shit,” she observed, and it was a pretty accurate assessment. In addition to the black eye and bruised body, there was an ugly, bloody scrape across Johnny’s left cheek courtesy of the abrasive wooden railing. Turning away, Ellie retrieved a small hand towel and threw it over to him. “Clean yourself up. I don’t want no blood on my sheets.”

Johnny deftly caught the towel and held it to his lip.

“Your cheek, too,” Ellie instructed, moving across to the dresser where she picked up a bottle of whisky and poured a glass. Just one, Johnny noticed, before the sick feeling in his gut reminded him he’d drunk more than his share.

Sliding open a drawer, Ellie removed a small leather pouch of tobacco and set about rolling a cigarette. Johnny watched her in silence. The soft lamp light of the room bathed Ellie’s skin in a flattering glow, and coated each strand of her auburn hair with different shades of mahogany and red.

As if sensing Johnny’s gaze, she turned and looked at him expectantly. When Johnny didn’t say anything, she just shook her head again, and struck a match. Going to the wicker chair that was positioned beyond the foot of the bed, Ellie sat and crossed one leg over the other, resting the glass of whisky on her knee as she inhaled deeply from the cigarette.

From somewhere within the house, Johnny could hear laughter and muffled groans, accompanied by the thump, thump of a headboard shunting relentlessly against a wall. The sound made him uncomfortable, and seemed to heighten the tension in the room.

“Barranca. My horse. I think I left him outside the saloon.”

“I’ll get someone to take care of it,” Ellie replied brusquely, sipping her drink.

Johnny nodded. She was mad at him, he could tell. Thick black kohl and heavily lacquered lashes failed to disguise the deliberate coolness of her gaze, which she refused to direct at him, choosing instead to stare past him to the window. Johnny got the impression that Ellie was waiting for him to say something, although he wasn’t sure what. “I was gonna come see ya,” he offered lamely, taking a shot in the dark as to the reason for her mood. 

Ellie flicked her gaze toward him then, drawing once more on the cigarette, breathing out a smokescreen that hid the shift in her expression. “Oh, don’t do me any favours, Johnny.”  

Johnny sighed. He hadn’t a clue why she was angry, and he didn’t have the patience to fathom it out either. Attempting to get up, Johnny grimaced with pain. “I should leave,” he muttered.

“Yeah, ‘cause you’ll get far,” Ellie snapped sarcastically. “Just rest. I should’a fetched the doctor to look at those ribs. I don’t think they’re broken…”

“No doctor,” Johnny said firmly.

“That’s what I figured,” Ellie said with a sigh. She rose to her feet and extinguished her cigarette in an ashtray. After washing her hands in the washbasin, she poured more fresh water from the jug into a bowl, and took it back to the bed along with the bottle of whisky and a cloth. “But your cheek needs cleanin’ up proper, an’ you might need some support ‘round them ribs.”

Johnny didn’t have the strength to argue. Lying back, he let Ellie press the wet cloth to his cheek and gently wipe away the dirt and dried blood. As she tended to his face, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.

“I heard you were dead. I believed it.” Ellie spoke sharply, her words laced with accusation and something Johnny couldn’t decipher. She was looking at him questioningly.

“I almost was,” he admitted quietly.

“So what happened?” Ellie asked as she withdrew the cloth from his face.

Johnny bit the inside of his cheek and closed his eyes. Silent, he considered how to answer that question, fearful of where an honest answer might lead. “It wasn’t my time, I guess,” he said eventually. 

“And the last six years?” The fact that Ellie chose to ask this question at precisely the same time she pressed the cloth she’d just soaked in whisky to his face, was not entirely coincidental. Johnny swore loudly, jerking his head away as the fiery sting brought tears to his eyes. “Sorry,” Ellie said, her eyes wide and innocent looking, although there was the faint twitch of amusement on her lips. 

Johnny glared at her irritably. “You done?”

“You ain’t answered me yet.”

Johnny sighed and looked away. “I tried somethin’ new.”

“But it didn’t work out.”

“No, not like I wanted it to.”

He tried to move again, and this time a wave of drunken dizziness pushed him back.

“For God’s sake, Johnny, will ya ever learn not to fight more than one man at a time?”

Johnny winced at the memory. “It was only one man when I started it,” he muttered regretfully.

“Sure it was darlin’.” Ellie rose from the bed and went to the door, the long skirts of her burgundy dress rustling as she moved.

“Where’s my gun?”

Ellie picked up Johnny’s gunbelt and handed it to him. Returning to the door she paused with one hand on the knob. “You can stay, long as ya like. You know that.”

“I know, but I got somewhere to be,” Johnny said determinedly, a dark, disturbing look settling on his face.

“Not in that state you ain’t.”


When Ellie returned she helped Johnny sit and bandaged his chest, figuring that if he was the man she remembered then he’d be up and about before he should. At least this way his injured ribs would get some support. When she was done, Johnny eased back to the pillows, still complaining that his head was spinning. His eyelids looked heavy with exhaustion. 

“Are you going to tell me why you’re here?”

Johnny stared past her, his expression void of a clue. “It’s a long story,” he said cagily.

Ellie sighed, recognising of old the sign not to push. “Well it’s nice to see you,” she said softly, a small smile gracing her lips.

Johnny looked at her then, but didn’t return the smile. “Jess not around?”

Ellie’s smile wilted. “She died three years ago.”

“Sorry,” Johnny muttered.

“She left me this place you know. I guess Jess figured I’d earned it.”

“Yeah, well, you probably did.”


Ellie stayed downstairs well into the early hours. When she did return to her room, the first specks of dawn were lighting the night sky. Extinguishing the lamp, she drew the drapes together, and stared down at the sleeping form on the bed, watching Johnny’s bandaged chest rise and fall steadily.

As always, he was an enigma to her, despite there being so many parallels in their lives, similarities that years ago had drawn them together, and ensured it couldn’t last. They had too much baggage, separate but shared pain, and now who knew what it was they shared? Nothing really after all this time. Except perhaps a degree of trust. 

When Ellie had last seen Johnny, he’d been nineteen-years-old and an accomplished gunfighter. She’d been eighteen and an accomplished whore. Now he was twenty five, still a gunfighter, and she was not such a regular whore, but one nonetheless. Still, Ellie was proud of what she’d become. This was her profession, what she knew, and she was damn good at it, too.  She looked after her gals, she looked after the men, and she ran a successful business. There was probably no other life that would suit her, no other life that she’d imagined since childhood. Did Johnny feel the same way about what he did? Ellie had always felt there was something better out there for him. Johnny wasn’t like the others, although he could be when he wanted, when it was required. As Ellie watched him sleep, she wondered what else it was that he had tried, and why it hadn’t worked.

Her fingers worked silently at the buttons of her dress, stepping out of it and relishing being able to breathe easily for once. Slipping her robe around her shoulders, Ellie knotted it tightly at the waist and unpinned her long hair before crossing to the washstand and scrubbing the heavy make-up from her face. Once done, she moved back over to her bed, and settled down beside Johnny.

Even while injured and asleep, he was surrounded by an aura of mystery and power, only it seemed different this time. Ellie couldn’t put her finger on it, but he’d changed. Johnny as Madrid was the only way she’d ever known him, but there had always been something; a light in those blue eyes perhaps, a dazzle of mischief that would emerge when they were alone. She had seen no light or dazzle this time. Ellie felt their absence just like she had for the past few years.

After all this time, she was still impeccably drawn to Johnny. Lying here with him now felt surreal, resurrecting memories she’d tried to bury when she’d heard he was dead. How many nights had he spent with her in this bed; kissing her, his body moulded to hers hungrily—so different than with all the other men. How many times had he lain next to her exhausted from their lovemaking, only to surprise her with reenergized passion every time she felt herself succumbing to sleep.  

In the semi darkness, Ellie let out a sigh. She would never tell him though. Ellie would never let Johnny know just how much he’d hurt her when he hadn’t come back like he’d promised.  On the day he’d made the vow, Ellie had wanted so much to believe it, allowed herself to become spellbound by the fantasy. It had hurt months later when she’d been forced to realise what it must have been; Johnny’s attempt to show that he respected her, and that what they’d shared meant more than just sex. Ellie had berated herself for being so silly; she of all people should’ve understood that their lives weren’t mapped out that way. There could be no happy-ever-afters or hand-in-hand walking off into the sunset for a whore and a gunfighter. Just over a year after he’d left, she heard he was dead.

But before that, Ellie had hoped, not realising quite how much until she’d laid eyes on him tonight. Now Johnny was back in her bed, a familiar place for him to be, and it both disturbed and haunted her. Compelled to do so, she reached out, wanting to brush the dark hair from his handsome face. Before she could make the contact, Johnny’s hand shot up and grasped her wrist tightly, forcing her hand down to the mattress.

“Go to sleep, Ellie,” he commanded gruffly, without even opening his eyes.

Ellie gasped at the sudden movement, just thankful that his hand had relinquished the gun before he made his move. As his fingers uncoiled from her wrist, she rubbed it ruefully then turned over to stare at the far wall. Damn Madrid anyway, she angrily thought. She’d let him go once, and when Johnny left this time, she’d do it again.




When Johnny finally succumbed to sleep, it was deep and dreamless. He didn’t stir until shortly after noon, awaking alone with the irrepressible urge to vomit, which he did, painfully, straight into the basin that Ellie had the foresight to leave beside the bed. Afterward he collapsed gratefully against the pillows, his throat stinging and an acidic taste in his mouth. The heat in the room brought forth an uncomfortable sweat, his head raged with the mother of all headaches, and his body throbbed everywhere. All Johnny wanted to do was surrender back to sleep; only there was another persistent and potentially irrepressible call of nature that demanded his attention first.

While successful, the laborious task of persuading his body to cooperate and get up from the bed to do what was necessary, slammed home just how stupid he’d been the night before. He’d spent so long preparing to meet Beresford, and now he was in no condition for the kind of confrontation he wanted. Not for any confrontation at all, Johnny was forced to admit as he staggered to the washstand and stared bleary-eyed at his reflection in the mirror. Just as he’d predicted, his left eye was a colourful reminder of last night’s events—the purple bruising testament to a fight he’d started, but hadn’t exactly finished. The scrape on his face had scabbed, and would probably be gone before the bruises that smattered his cheek and jaw. Ellie had said he looked like shit, and she’d been right. He hadn’t planned on staying in Widow’s Creek any longer than overnight, but now he had to reconsider. There was no sense in meeting Beresford like this. Presently he wasn’t strong enough to even attempt the ride.

In a half-hearted attempt to feel better, Johnny leaned forward and splashed some cool water on his face. The move was costly; he winced as his ribs protested. He didn’t have a choice—he’d waited this long to meet Beresford, he could wait a few more days.

The door swung open and Ellie breezed in. She screwed up her nose when she saw that Johnny had made use of the basin, but her face quickly transformed with an amused grin. “Sufferin’ are we?” she enquired sweetly. Not waiting for his answer, she crossed to the window, threw back the drapes and raised the sash, letting bright sunshine erase the merciful shade.

He shot her a dark look which she countered with a cheery smile. “You want somethin’ to eat?” she asked, straightening out the bed, a pointless act considering Johnny was planning on returning to it any second. When Johnny just shrugged, Ellie took that as a yes. “You gonna come downstairs then?”

Johnny shook his head.

“I’ll bring somethin’ up for ya then, shall I?” Ellie said, realising that this was destined to be a one-sided conversation when all she got was another shrug. Picking up the basin, Ellie planted her free hand on her hip. “Thanks, Ellie. That’s real kind of ya,” she said sarcastically.

When Johnny just lowered his head into his hands, rubbed at his temples and muttered something incoherent, she let out a loud sigh.

Johnny heard the door click shut behind her, and he raised his head, searching the room for his shirt before deciding that Ellie must have taken it. From downstairs he could hear the faint sound of female laughter. He wondered idly if Ellie was happy, and realised he hadn’t asked.

His head was aching and his stomach remained undecided as to whether it could entertain the idea of the food Ellie was preparing. Restless, he dragged himself to the open window, his eyes squinting against sunshine’s assault. The town was busy, filled with people going about their everyday business. Mothers escorted children along the boardwalk, dealing out the occasional swat to a misbehaving young backside, while the large wet patches adorning men’s shirts paid testament to their hard work. Life was going on. It hadn’t stopped. Murdoch’s words echoed in his head, reminding Johnny that it would always be this way. Even once Beresford was dead, Johnny’s life would have to continue.

His gunbelt was on the bed and Johnny picked it up, sliding the Colt from its holster. The very weight of it in his hand felt reassuring, the gun the only thing that Johnny felt a connection to. It would take him one way or the other, but nevertheless it promised to take him somewhere. Away from a place he didn’t want to go.


A short while later, Johnny stared at the plate of food Ellie had brought up, not entirely sure he wasn’t going to be reacquainted with its contents later on. Picking up a biscuit, he leaned back on the bed and took a tentative bite, chewing slowly. His eyes roamed Ellie’s bedroom, memories coming back to him through the foggy pain in his head. The room could have been cocooned from the passing of time was it not for little signs that said otherwise. The pink floral wallpaper was yellowed, faded, and peeling in places. The bedspread was different, too. For some reason he remembered that being pink, whereas now it was a pale blue with a loud pattern that made his head hurt when he stared at it. His thoughts drifted to Ellie. She was still the same—radiant, spirited and temptingly attractive—despite the poor hand life had dealt her. Years ago she’d taken good care of him when he’d been shot, they’d got on well, and for the briefest time, Johnny had actually considered not leaving or leaving with her. He smiled wryly as he remembered wrestling with the possibility that he might be in a love, being both petrified and awed by the concept at the same time. It had certainly been different with Ellie than any woman who’d come before her.

He shook his head and pushed the plate away. He might have gone back to Ellie; he’d meant it when he promised her that. But events outside his control had prevented it. He hadn’t forgotten her though, not until meeting Katie had placed what they’d shared in context. Relegated it to what it could only have been—nothing but an amorous yet futureless encounter of youth.

As Katie pushed Ellie from his head, thoughts of his wife renewed Johnny’s anger. What had he been thinking last night? He’d been there already and had fought hard to leave the alcohol soaked nights behind. And the brawl?  Johnny smacked his hand down on his thigh, hard. If Murdoch and Scott could see him now, their expressions would firmly say, ‘I told you so.’ Johnny knew he hadn’t been thinking clearly. Anything could have happened; anyone could have taken him out. What the hell is wrong with me? Still, it felt good to release some anger, Johnny couldn’t discount that. He still held so much of it inside though. Like a natural spring it flowed constantly, and for that Johnny was glad. He was going to need it.

The rest of the day passed by slowly, and in an uncharacteristic move, he spent the hours dozing infrequently in bed. At any other time he would hate to be still, but he wasn’t going to make the mistake of pushing himself too hard and leaving himself weak. He wanted to be out of here as soon as possible. Beresford’s town of Winston was a day and a half ride away. He wasn’t going to turn up there physically drained from the ride alone.

In the early evening, Ellie got a bath ready, and at Johnny’s insistence left him to it. Lowering himself into the tub proved an uneasy task, but Johnny just gritted his teeth and got on with it. He spent a long time soaking his sore body, letting the hot water relax his muscles and clear his head. He stayed in the tub until the water turned cool, then when it started to get cold; he decided he’d better get out.

He’d just gripped the sides of the tub, his face contorted with a grimace of effort, when he sensed a presence and looked up, startled to see Ellie in the doorway, a bundle of his clothes in her arms.

“Let me help,” she offered, throwing the clothes down on the bed and starting toward him.

“You sneaking up on me?” Johnny growled. 

Ellie stopped and held up her hands. “No,” she said quickly. “You just look like ya could use a hand.”

When she started to move, Johnny looked at her incredulously. “You mind?”

Ellie laughed. “What? Since when’ve you been shy?”


She put her hand to her mouth, stifling her amusement. “Okay, okay. Look, see, I ain’t peeking.” She squeezed her eyes shut and with arms outstretched as if blindfolded, made her way unsteadily toward him.

Johnny stared. The urge to laugh was so perfidious it caused him to bite down on inside of his cheek. Shaking his head, he muttered, “You’re crazy, you know that?”

Ellie kept her eyes shut tight and just nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“I can manage, Ellie.”

Still with eyes closed, Ellie grinned. “If ya say so.” Obligingly, she turned her back and picked up his towel from beside the bath.

Gritting his teeth again, Johnny hissed his breath as he got to his feet, the water running from his body.

“Lookin’ for this?” Ellie turned and held the towel out to him, her eyes wide and dancing with mischief.  Johnny snatched it, ignoring her laughter, a sharp pain robbing him of any quick retort or rebuke. He wrapped the towel hastily around his waist before holding his breath again to step out of the tub. Back on the bed, he closed his eyes, listening to Ellie move about. When he looked she was standing by the bed, folding his clothes which judging by the sight and smell, were freshly washed. When Johnny asked, she said, “I washed all your clothes. Just be thankful they were still there last night…’long with your horse.”

“Thanks,” Johnny muttered sheepishly.

“No problem.” Suddenly she was grinning again. 

“What’s funny?”

“Oh I was just remembering Josh’s face when he realised who ya were.”


“Sheriff Whittaker. Surely you ain’t forgotten old Josh, Johnny. I’m surprised ya still don’t have a lump from where the two of ya butted heads last time.”

She plonked herself next to Johnny on the bed, and her amusement was contagious; a vague smile flitted across Johnny’s face as he did remember the grumpy sheriff. “He sure weren’t happy when you showed up,” he recalled.

“Nope, but it was the least I could do seein’ as how you were just defending my honour an’ all.”

Their eyes locked for a moment before Johnny ducked his head. He played with the frayed edging of his towel. “I was expectin’ to wake up in jail this time,” he admitted. “Guess you talked him out of it?”

Ellie smiled. “I still have Josh wrapped round my little finger,” she said warmly. “Bless him. He’s always been fond of me. He keeps the churchgoers off my back, all them moral crusaders who’d rather me out on the street than runnin’ this place.”

“What does he get in return?”

Ellie frowned. “It ain’t like that, Johnny.”

Johnny looked back up, staring, before he shrugged. “Don’t matter to me.”

Ellie’s frown deepened and she got up from the bed. “Do you need a hand getting dressed?” she asked curtly.


“I’ll be downstairs then.” She left then, closing the door firmly behind her.


Half an hour later, the sun was setting beyond the window pane, sending hues of pink and gold to enliven the room. Johnny was on his back on the bed, watching the sun’s descent paint its colours on the ceiling. He had the clean black pants on, but just that—a simple task—proved arduous and painful, leaving him consumed with frustrated anger and cursing his own stupidity. Bringing his fingers up to his face, Johnny felt the bruises on his skin. He pressed them until they hurt. He was trapped here, not just by his physical restrictions, but by the sting of memories that attacked like a swarm of bees; crawling over his skin and buzzing in his mind.

The Johnny Madrid of old had always walked just shy of the border with hate, staying close enough to draw strength from the emotion when required, yet not crossing that invisible line. When Katie died he’d found himself shoved violently across the line with no desire to regain his previous footing. Hate and anger were the norm now. Anything else; laughter, love, connections—they were iniquitous, yet here or in the company of his family, they tempted him with the proffered apple, and he found himself wanting to reach out and take a bite. Squeezing his eyes shut, Johnny’s hands clenched into fists by his sides as if physically trying to keep whatever semblance of control he had left. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He should be in Winston with the bitter end in sight, not spending a second night here with Ellie.

He didn’t acknowledge her return to the room. Instead he lay on the bed in dark meditation, summoning back the steely determination to refocus his mind on Beresford and McColl, and just how tantalisingly close they were.

After a few minutes he opened his eyes. Ellie stood in front of the mirror, brushing her hair and touching up her makeup. 

“You heard of Andrew Beresford?”

Ellie glanced at Johnny’s reflection in the mirror. The question had come from nowhere, especially as she’d resigned herself to a silence that could be considered companionable at best. “Sure I heard of him, darlin’. There ain’t many folks ‘round here that ain’t.”

“What d’ya know ‘bout him?”

She put her hairbrush down on the wonky shelf below the mirror and turned around. Johnny’s expression was dark, his eyes glinting with the same suppressed anger she’d seen the night before. She wondered if Andrew Beresford could be the ‘something’ she detected in Johnny. Why he would be, she had no idea.

“He’s an ass,” Ellie said bluntly. “Drink?”

At Johnny’s nod, Ellie poured two glasses of whisky and handed one over. She dragged a chair to the bed and sat down, smoothing her skirt. “Andrew Beresford throws his weight ‘round like he’s still a big shot politician. He’s bought up most of the land ‘round these parts for next to nothin’, an’ he’s bleedin’ our farmers dry, taking a greedy share of their profits. Leavin’ folk with nothin’ more than a pot to piss in at the end of a month.”

“What else?”

“Well, he owns the whole town of Winston and so far he’s mostly bought the land east of that.  I doubt it’ll be long before he starts on Widow’s Creek. He already got one of his men to make me an offer for my business.”

“What d’ya say to that?”

Ellie looked at Johnny in surprise. “What the hell d’ya think I said? I told him where to stick his offer. I doubt he liked it, but I ain’t lettin’ him do the same to my gals as he does to the farmers.”

“What ‘bout Frank McColl, you ever heard of him?”

Ellie raised the glass to her lips while she considered this. “Don’t know the name,” she said with a shrug. “You got a description?”

“Short, weighty, red curly hair. He’s a gunfighter, or at least he was. He works for Beresford.”

“Well if he was a gunfighter, then you’re more likely to know him than me, honey,” Ellie said casually as she took another sip of whisky, surveying Johnny over the glass rim.

“D’ya think you know him or not?” Johnny snapped impatiently, knocking his drink back in one go as he glared at her. 

“What’s with all the questions, are you in some kinda trouble?”

He handed her his empty glass and she put it on the floor. “Just answer my questions, Ellie,” he said tersely. 

Ellie’s brow furrowed as she regarded him critically, not sure what else she had to tell. “He might’ve been here a few times before, but, hell, I see a lotta men.” Ellie’s face relaxed and she teased him; “Not all of ‘em make an impression like you, ya know.”

The compliment was wasted on Johnny. “C’mon, Ellie. You’ve always known more than you should. Does McColl come here or not?”

“I’ve told ya. He might, but I don’t know.”

“So what ‘bout Beresford. Don’t tell me you know nothin’ more ‘bout him either!”

Ellie felt her temper rise as she matched Johnny’s glare. She had no idea where all this hostility was coming from, but she wasn’t about to sit back and bear the brunt. Cradling her glass, Ellie looked Johnny in the eye. “Well I hear he’s shit in bed, but figured that wouldn’t interest ya.” She gasped as Johnny leaned forward and grasped her by the forearms, his fingers digging into her flesh as he shook her violently.

“Don’t play games with me.”

“Johnny, let go!” The glass slipped from her hands and fell with a thud and a crack, whisky pooling on the floor. The anger seemed to have possessed him, and it sent an icy chill quivering down Ellie’s spine. She lowered her eyes, unable to take the fury in his stare, wondering what on earth had happened to turn him into a man she hardly recognised, a man like so many others she’d known in her life. “Johnny, get off. You’re hurtin’ me!”

Johnny scowled and released her.

Ellie’s fingers caressed the soreness from her arms, too many experiences at the hands of rough men screaming at her to flee. She stared in bewilderment as the thought went to war with the fact that this was Johnny and he wasn’t, couldn’t be like that.

“Beresford’s bad news, but all I can tell ya is what I’ve heard,” Ellie said slowly, forcing herself to continue. “He’s an evil man, a coward, an’ he hires others to do his dirty work for him, men who share his lack of conscience. Since he moved out here a few years ago, he’s controlled that whole town. No one steps foot in Winston without Beresford knowin'.” She paused and looked at Johnny who was listening with his head bowed, dark hair flopping across his brow. “He’s forcin’ men off their land or forcin’ them to sell, allowing ‘em to remain in their homes only if they supply the labour, sweat and toil just so he can send in his men to collect his profit. If there ain’t a profit…”

“If there ain’t a profit, what?”

“He gets payment some other way.” 

As she talked, Ellie noticed that Johnny’s disposition got darker if that were possible, and his jaw clenched, his hands balling repetitively into fists. “Why the interest in Beresford?”

“I just wanted to know a bit more ‘bout him, although what you’ve told me, I’d kinda figured for myself.”

“Are ya gonna tell me why?”

She fairly shivered from the chill that radiated from Johnny’s eyes, as cold as the Arctic.

“I’m gonna kill him.”

The words were said so bluntly, so matter of fact…Ellie looked at Johnny in amazement initially, before that gave way to concern. “That ain’t a wise move,” she cautioned. “If Beresford thinks you’re gunnin’ for him then he’ll have you shot where you stand. Hell, you won’t even have to turn ‘round, or even be awake.”

“I didn’t ask what you think, Ellie,” Johnny snapped. “Seems I’d know more ‘bout it than some whor—” he caught himself, but not quickly enough.

“Now don’t go gettin’ all well-mannered on my account, Johnny. Just go ahead an’ say it. After all it’s the truth ain’t it?” Ellie rolled her eyes and got to her feet. “An’ you’re completely right. What the hell would I know? You’re the gunfighter an’ you’re good, least you were. I’m beginning to think you’re nothin’ like before.”

“I’m still as good,” Johnny growled.

“Oh, well, at least one thing ain’t changed,” Ellie sniped, no longer afraid of Johnny as her temper got the better of her. “’Cause I don’t recognise any other sign of the Johnny Madrid I used to know; the one who made me laugh, the one I could talk to, the one I—” She stopped abruptly, realising that her chest was rising and falling quickly, that she’d almost said too much. Resurrecting her glare, Ellie composed herself. There was no way she was getting into all that.

“The one you what?” Johnny asked tersely. 

Ellie took a deep breath. She’d never been one for open sentimentality and wasn’t about to start now. “Oh, hell, it don’t matter.” She sat back down beside him and examined her fingernails.  

“If you’ve got somethin’ to say, Ellie, say it.”

She sighed, her eyes locking with Johnny’s challenging gaze as she wrestled with herself.  Eventually she smiled crookedly. “Okay,” she said reluctantly. “But this is gonna make me sound like one of them church-going virgins…” 

Johnny’s anger abated and he snorted. “I don’t reckon you could ever pull that off.”

Ellie made a face. “Just that I used to think you were kinda… oh dammit,” she muttered under her breath, dropping her gaze. “I used to think you were pretty special.” The words came out in a rush as she tried desperately to ignore the unfamiliar flush that crept up her cheeks.

When she lifted her gaze to Johnny, he’d placed his palms flat out on the mattress and he looked at her sideways for a long, bewitching moment. “Special?” he repeated eventually, a charming grin defying a long drought to break out on his face. 

“Yeah, all right, you can stop grinnin’,” Ellie muttered.

His grin faded and Johnny closed his eyes, suddenly not sure what he was supposed to say, how he could even consider explaining.

Then he felt it—the cool touch of her fingertips brushing softly over his lips. He reached up to remove her hand, but instead found he ignored better judgement to rub his thumb tenderly across her palm. He heard her shift, felt her lean in, and then her lips were where her fingers had been, skimming over his so lightly that he could barely feel them. Yet he wanted to....

The fear of losing control swept over him again and Johnny fought against his body and senses to regain it. If he couldn’t then it was over, he wouldn’t be able to deal with Beresford like he wanted. He would be betraying Katie. When Ellie’s lips closed over his fully, Johnny realised that he was about to betray Katie in a completely different way altogether and he reacted defensively to the intimate act. He shoved Ellie, knocking her to the floor. Running a hand through his unruly hair, he scowled.

“Jesus, I don’t need this,” he snapped harshly. “I thought girls like you knew it’s never special. When the hell did you become so deluded?”

Ellie looked up at him, stunned and hurt. She’d let her guard down, had told Johnny a little of how she felt, and he may as well have finished what he’d started earlier and dished out the customary backhander to the face. Picking herself up, she glowered at him. “Oh, I don’t know, Johnny. ‘Bout the same time you turned into such a cold, unfeeling bastard?” Her brown eyes had ignited in fiery outrage and she turned sharply, her skirts swishing around her ankles as she stormed to the door.

Johnny sighed and bit down on his scabbed bottom lip, only for his teeth to release it immediately when he could still taste her kiss. “Ellie…” he said wearily, only for her to toss her hair defiantly and whirl to face him. 

“You can go to hell, Johnny,” she said coldly. She jabbed a pointed finger at the spillage on the floor. “But you can damn well clean that up first!” 

She slammed the door on her way out so hard that the frame shook, and Johnny stared in confusion and anger, lashing out with his foot to send her chair toppling. He buried his fingers in his hair and tugged at the roots in frustration, not sure what had just happened, knowing only that he’d managed to push someone else away.




Johnny hadn’t moved from the bed, he still sat where Ellie had left him. With his head supported by his hands, he scowled at the floor and tried to ignore the creak of straining bedropes through the thin wall and the searing image it created of naked flesh, entwined limbs and guiltless pleasure. The walls, the murmured prelude to copulation…they all closed in on him until he thought he might choke on faded pink wallpaper and lustful thoughts. Taking his gun, Johnny escaped into the corridor, the covetable noises fuelling his own quest for satisfaction. To hell with it, he thought angrily, to hell with feeling guilty. Katie was dead, and Ellie, well, she meant nothing to him anymore. Briefly it struck him as odd that he was even considering Ellie in this. Katie would be the one he was betraying, desecrating her memory that little bit more with every bittersweet thrust.

He remembered the layout of the house from years ago, and he could hear voices downstairs which were far better than the sounds on this floor. Reaching the bottom of the staircase, Johnny prowled the hall. He didn’t know where Ellie was and ordered himself not to care. He’d been unfair to her—but she was just another person to add to the list, he reckoned.

The back room was richly lit and scented by the burning oil of a turquoise lamp. On the solitary couch lounged a Mexican woman, average looking but with a voluptuous figure that heaved against the confines of a low cut blue dress. She looked up when he entered and put down her drink, studying him curiously from beneath a fringe of black lashes, a sultry smile playing on her full, rosy lips. He knew at once she was what he wanted.

“Usted debe ser hombre de Srta. Ellie,” (you must be Miss Ellie’s man) she murmured appreciatively.

Johnny closed the door, keeping his eyes fixed on her. “No.” The word was uttered sharply, defensively, and caused the woman’s eyebrows to arch inquisitively.


Above them the lusty noises that had urged Johnny downstairs could still be heard. He took a step forward and put his gun on the table. Smiling knowingly, the woman rose and stood before him, indecently close. “Usted está lastimado,” (you are hurt) she whispered, her gaze trailing his face and the bruises on his body as she toyed with his partially undone shirt.

“He tenido peor,” (I’ve had worse) The noises above taunted and teased him now, and his reaction was acknowledged by her licentious grin.

“¿Y ahora used tiene la mejor, sí? (And now you have the best, yes?) Her hands wandered to Johnny’s belt, her lips to his mouth. When he turned his face away, she targeted his neck instead, her breath exciting even bruised flesh as she worked her way lower. Her knees had just made contact with the rug when the door opened.


After walking out on Johnny, Ellie had gone to make herself presentable, scolding her reflection for being so ‘deluded’ and cursing Johnny Madrid for being right in that respect. In fact ‘deluded’ was an understatement, she considered as she held her skirts from the floor and descended the staircase. Clearly over the years she’d embellished her memories where Johnny was concerned; for the man upstairs bore little resemblance to the man she’d loved. Had he always been that cold, just hidden it well to get what he could from her—for free?

She shook her head, plastering her anger with a smile as she set her mind to the hours ahead. Trade was good, most of the time. When the evenings and nights were slow, she and the others would go to the saloon to entice business. Only occasionally did her girls make the most of the quiet times—sharing a drink and talking of discarded aspirations. Ellie considered herself fortunate to not have many of those. Much like Johnny, she’d learned her trade young, finding this life when barely fourteen. Jessica had run the brothel then and she’d taken Ellie in. When Jess died, she left her this house. Now Ellie rarely worked in the literal sense of the word. She did occasionally, when circumstances dictated or on the odd night when she felt particularly lonely—when company was company, no matter what it entailed. Mostly she made sure things ran smoothly, that the girls were all right and the men left satisfied.

Tonight looked promising for business. Three of the girls were already occupied and the fourth and fifth were flirting and giggling, playing their game as they pandered to the egos of two men who had just bounced through the door. Ellie flashed the men a smile which wilted slightly when she realised that if the others were busy, the next man might fall to her. As appealing as it was to take a man up to her room just so that Johnny would see, Ellie knew she wouldn’t do it. If there was one thing she hadn’t been for years it was childish. Realising that Rosita was unaccounted for, she set off in search. 

Her calls unanswered, Ellie tried the back room. “Rosita?” She opened the door and stuck her head inside, startled by the sight that awaited her.

Johnny stepped back from Rosita urgently, tugging his shirt down and ducking his head. If it wasn’t such a slap in the face, Ellie might have laughed at the action, but instead she hid her feelings behind a professional mask. "I didn’t realise you had a customer, Rosita,” she emphasised carefully. She stared hard at Johnny but he refused to look. Directing her gaze back to the woman, Ellie said coolly, “Make sure he pays you.”

At Rosita’s nod, Ellie withdrew from the room and closed the door quietly. Leaning against the wooden panel, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath, hating the feeling of personal rejection that swarmed through her. Pull yourself together Eleanor. She stepped away from the door. It’s your own fault. You should’a let Josh lock him up.


When Ellie didn’t yell or so much as slam the door on her way out, Johnny was surprised, the suspiciously calm reaction only adding credence to the thought that he’d betrayed her somehow—betrayed himself. Once the door was closed, Rosita looked at him questioningly, and feeling awkward, Johnny shrugged. “Sorry, Rosita, I ain’t in the mood no more.” When he reached into his pocket, she held up her hand and shook her head.

“Entiendo,” (I understand) she replied. “Pero usted no dijo la verdad. Usted es el hombre de Srta. Ellie después de todo,” (but you did not tell the truth. You are the man of Miss Ellie after all)

Johnny picked up his gun off the table. Looking at Rosita, he shook his head. “I didn’t lie,” he said firmly.

“A mí, no. Pero a si mismo, sí.” (To me, no. But to yourself, yes.)

As fast as his body allowed, Johnny moved toward the door.

“Un hombre obstinado escucha su cabeza,” (a stubborn man listens to his head) Rosita said loudly, causing Johnny to pause with his hand on the door knob. “Un hombre sabio escucha su corazón.” (a wise man listens to his heart)

Unsettled, Johnny used the last of his energy to slam the door and attempt escape outside. To his annoyance, Rosita’s confident words followed him, echoing around his head. She was wrong of course. Rosita didn’t know anything about him or his relationship with Ellie, so she couldn’t make such an outlandish presumption.

At the rear of the house, Johnny rested against the wall. The night sky was illuminated by a full moon and the heat enveloped him in a humid hug that painted his skin with light glistening sweat. The wooden boards beneath his feet were scratchy, dry and still warm from the sun, and all around him the whine of mosquitoes made Johnny itch with paranoia.  Apart from the insects, the night was peaceful, taunting Johnny with disparity to how he felt. He surveyed the landscape. To the left he could see the black crest of a hill silhouetted against a midnight sky. Out here the world was large and open, yet he’d never felt more trapped. All he wanted was to sate his desires, forget his pain with a nameless woman. But he wasn’t even allowed to do that! Each time he was made to feel guilty and this time was no exception. Only there was one difference. Scarily, this time it wasn’t Katie saturating him with the usual waves of guilt.

But Rosita was wrong, Johnny told himself firmly, although his inner voice didn’t sound as certain as he would have liked.

Tired, his battered body reminding him why he was still here, Johnny reached to the arm of the porch’s wooden bench for support. Sitting down he considered that staying with Ellie was stupid, not that he’d initially had a say. Like his family, her re-emergence in his life was distracting. Only the diversion Ellie forced upon him was different. Johnny shut his eyes as a picture of Katie materialised in his mind. His longing for her was a wound that couldn’t heal. His desire to return Ellie’s kiss was the start of a treacherous road.

Johnny knew that he needed desperately to get out of here. Staying was just making him confused and vulnerable. The sense of control he needed seemed to move further away as Beresford got closer. If he could just hold out until the morning, then he could go. Holding out would mean facing Ellie. 

He sighed into the night.


After witnessing the brutal preview of Johnny and Rosita’s plans for the evening, Ellie escaped to her room, feigning a headache. She swore loudly when she narrowly avoided a trip over the fallen chair into the whisky spillage that Johnny was supposed to clear up. Shaking her head in disgust, she took care of the mess, telling herself that tomorrow morning she was going to kick Madrid out on his good for nothing behind. He thinks he doesn’t need this? Hell, I don’t need it.

Rolling a cigarette, Ellie dragged the chair to the open window and sat, leaning against the sill, letting the effects of the tobacco calm and soothe her. Just who did Johnny think he was? He had grabbed her roughly, hurt her, not exactly a new experience at the hands of a man, but certainly a new and unexpected experience when it came to Johnny. Well no man who behaved like that should be trusted or get a second chance. It was usually the start of something more sinister, a harsh lesson she’d been taught in the past. Then there was what she’d walked in on downstairs. Ellie watched the smoke wisp and coil into the still night air before fading like a ghost. Seeing Johnny with Rosita hammered the last nail into the coffin of memories she was determined to bury once and for all.

The door opened and Ellie tensed.

Quietly, Johnny entered the room, noticing that Ellie didn’t acknowledge his presence even though she was fully aware. She sat with her elbows on the ledge, staring out the window, her only movement being to bring the cigarette to her lips and away again. His eyes swept the floor for his boots and gunbelt and he picked both up with difficulty, tucking the boots beneath his arm and laying the gun belt over his shoulder. He turned to leave.

“You were quick.” Ellie’s words were cutting, giving away more of her feelings than she'd intended, and Johnny hesitated in the doorway, leaning against the jamb as he struggled with the urge to just shrug and walk out.

“I’ll leave in the mornin’.”

A heavy sigh heaved across Ellie’s shoulder blades and her mind screamed out a silent, I don’t know you! in Johnny’s direction. Aloud, all she said was, “Good,” as she discarded the cigarette to the street and ducked her head in through the window. “That’ll save me the bother of kickin’ you out then.” She brought the sash down with a thud that made the pane rattle, and drew the drapes across sharply. Still refusing to look at him, Ellie stalked to the dresser and poured herself a glass of whisky, downing the contents swiftly and pouring another. 

Not knowing what to say, Johnny moved to leave only to stop when Ellie slammed her drink down.

“Just what the hell is your problem, Madrid?” Her hands were planted firmly on slim hips, Ellie’s eyes alive with the same fury Johnny had witnessed earlier in the day. “You show up again after six years, clearly with no intention of even lettin’ me know you’re alive. You get drunk, start a brawl, then when I do you a favour, keepin’ you outta jail, you act like this is the worst place to possibly be!”

Inwardly, Johnny groaned. Boy, she sure has a temper. Johnny figured he should’ve remembered. “Ellie, I don’t need this—” he began wearily, hoping to cut her off before she really got going. He couldn’t deal with it right now.

“Tough. I ain’t done yet,” she snapped sternly. “You ask me all them questions but don’t say why. Then have the nerve to make me feel like I’m hiding somethin’.

You grab me, push me around…” She paused and pointed a finger at him, her eyes narrowing. “You’re damn lucky I didn’t black your other eye for that!”

A stinging retort was burning his lips, but shame compelled Johnny to bow his head. He leaned harder against the doorframe. “I’m sorry—"

“You’re sorry?” Ellie snorted, shaking her head. “You really do think I’m deluded.”

“I never meant that, it’s just that you were gettin’ things wrong...”

“I sure was,” Ellie snapped. “But it’s hard for a gal to figure seein’ as how when I kiss you, I get knocked to the floor, but when Rosita bats her eyes, you drop your pants!”

“Nothin’ happened,” Johnny ground out, lifting his chin to glare at her. The temptation to walk out was strong; the instinct for flight feeling like it was one of the few he had left at present. “You don’t understand.”

“Explain it to me then,” Ellie challenged him. “Why have you changed into a complete selfish and violent bastard?” She held Johnny’s gaze, noting that he looked panicky. He was tense and it was visible in every line and angle of his body. His vivid blue eyes had turned smoky; a warning that his fiery anger had reignited within. He was defensive, the fingers of his free hand gripped hold of his bicep, working at the muscle through the material of his shirt.

Ellie knew their conversation was over and she smiled sadly. “You can’t do it. You either don't have an explanation or you ain’t got the guts.”

All trace of panic vanished as Johnny narrowed his eyes. “We done here?”

She lowered her hands from her hips and picked up her glass, letting the warm liquor wash away the remnants of her anger. “More than you know, Johnny,” she said wearily, walking to the bed and sitting with her back to him. “I don't care where you go tonight, but tomorrow you get the hell outta my house.”

When he went, she marched to the door and turned the key with a click of satisfaction. The locked door gave her a feeling of being in control and Ellie liked that, she needed it after her feelings, and her ego, if she was honest, had taken a battering tonight. Let Johnny spend the night with Rosita, with anyone. She was done with him.


Missing the energy required for any measure of creativity where his sleeping arrangements were concerned, Johnny gingerly stretched out on the couch in the back room and tried to settle his turbulent emotions. He’d hurt Ellie, he knew, no matter her attempts to camouflage it with anger. Like him, she had defensive walls to protect her when necessary. They’d never needed those walls with each other before, and while Johnny had returned with his already up, he felt ashamed that he’d forced Ellie to raise hers. She didn’t know the reason why, because he hadn’t told her. Deep down he wanted to apologise. She had been good to him—letting him stay, but an apology was never worth a lot without an explanation and Johnny had no intention of explaining.

Eventually, exhausted from the mental struggle, he fell into a fitful sleep, his fingers wrapped firmly around the gun that lay on his stomach, envying the weapon for the eternal coldness it possessed.

He came to with a start, not knowing what had woken him, just that something had. He curled his fingers around the gun, his gaze searching for a disturbance in the shadows. The room was still. He shifted on the couch and as he tried to get comfortable, more sounds broke the silence. Through the wall filtered voices—male and angry, female and frightened.

Gun firmly in hand, Johnny went into the hall. Next door, the only ground floor bedroom he presumed, the sounds of a struggle were distinctive. He swiftly turned the handle, threw open the door, and swore at the sight.

“Get out. ..I’ll tell ya…when I’m done.” The words were gasped between savage thrusts as a man, his eyes glinting with a violent lust, used his bulk to pin one of Ellie’s girls to the bed. She was still struggling, her cries, more like whimpers, muffled by a filthy hand smeared with blood that streamed from her nose. The window was wide open. The man’s gunbelt lay on the floor where he’d hastily discarded it.

“You’re done now.” Johnny held the Colt steady and the man froze as the situation registered, his gaze flicking to his gunbelt, then back to Johnny. Before either could make another move, one more of Ellie’s girls appeared in the doorway, gasping loudly at the sight. Her shock only lasted a second before, outraged, she attempted to charge the man. Quickly, he produced a knife from the bedcovers and held it menacingly to his victim’s face. Johnny reached out and dragged the girl back, ordering her sharply to, “Go get the sheriff.” When she hesitated, struggling against Johnny’s grip, he yelled at her, still keeping his eyes firmly locked on the man.

Reluctantly the girl nodded and with one last look at her friend, departed swiftly. Johnny gestured with his gun. “Put the knife down and get off the lady. There ain’t nowhere to go.”

The man’s gaze darted to his knife and then he shot Johnny a resigned glare. The knife clattered to the floor as he slowly got up. The girl, only about sixteen, Johnny reckoned, scrambled desperately to the head of the bed, drawing her knees up, chest heaving, fear still wild in her eyes. Walking slowly toward her, Johnny kicked the man’s gunbelt and it slid under the bed.

“What’s your problem? Me an’ Susie were just ‘avin’ a little fun.” The man was stuttering nervously, backing away as his thick fingers struggled to button his pants. His eyes never left the Colt still in Johnny’s hand.

Johnny directed his voice to the girl. “That right, Susie?” he asked softly, not taking his gaze off the man.

“No, he…” Susie’s voice broke off, trembling.

“You know how to use one of these?” Johnny asked her, waving the Colt and causing the man to shrink back against the wall.

“Yes.” Susie’s tone sounded steadier now.

Johnny nodded. “Good, ‘cause I’m gonna give it ya, and I want you to use it if this feller turns out to be as good at beatin’ on men as he is women.” He sidestepped to the bed and handed his gun to Susie. She clutched at it gratefully, raising her head and glaring at her assailant with contempt.


By the time Josh arrived, Susie’s attacker was prone, dazed and bloody on the floor. Johnny stood over him, breathing hard, leaning slightly with one arm holding his stomach, the other hand trying to stem the blood from his nose. Reading the situation instantly, Josh grudgingly wondered if this was the side to Madrid that often turned Ellie from a strong, capable woman into a silly young girl without a shred of sense.

“Where the hell’s Ellie? You’d better get her down here,” Josh suggested gruffly, looking to the girl who’d fetched him as he hauled the beaten man to his feet and shackled his wrists. Once Josh dragged the man away, the girl remained glued to Susie’s side.

Johnny looked up, and swallowing the ache to his gut, he said kindly, “Go get Ellie. I’ll stay with Susie.”

When the girl hesitated, Susie nodded. “Go Madeline, it’s alright.” As Madeline left the room, Johnny staggered toward Susie, who held his gun out to him. “Thanks,” she whispered.

With difficulty, Johnny lowered to a crouch in front of her, accepting back his gun and placing it on the floor. To her chagrin, Susie began to cry, the tears slipping down her face, mingling with the blood that still dripped from her nose. “I’m sorry,” she sniffed, struggling for composure.

“Ssh, it’s alright.” Johnny reached out and held the trembling girl for a few minutes before drawing back and gently brushing back the hair stuck to her wet cheeks.

After a moment, Susie wiped furiously at her eyes. “So, ya reckon my face’ll look like yours in the mornin’?” she asked, forcing a faint smile.

Before Johnny could reply he heard footsteps. Ellie’s horrified voice filled the room. “Get away from her, Johnny! My God, what the hell have you done?”




“No, Ellie, that’s not what—” Madeline tried to explain as Ellie rushed past and seized Johnny, wrenching him away from Susie.

“How could you?” she accused as Johnny lost his balance and fell from his heels to his backside. Quickly, Ellie snatched his gun from beside Susie’s feet and pointed it at him. “Don’t move,” she ordered, willing her hands and voice to stop shaking. “I know how to use this, you taught me, remember?”

Both Madeline and Susie were mute with shock, as were the other girls who crowded in the doorway. Johnny was stunned into silence, too. His face drained of colour, his eyes clouded with confusion before realisation dawned with a breeze that swept the clouds away. “You think I did this?” he asked quietly. “Ellie?”

Ellie ignored the question and what she saw in his eyes. He’s fooled me enough. “Go get Josh, Madeline,” she commanded tersely. “Now.”

Johnny made a move to get up, looking to Susie. “Ellie, listen—” he began, the rest of his sentence lost when she pulled the trigger. “Jesus!” he yelled, turning to look at the bullet embedded in the wall behind his head.

Madeline sprang from the bed. “Ellie, it wasn’t Johnny who did this!”

For the first time, Ellie dragged her gaze from him. “What?”

“It’s true.” Susie spoke softly from the bed, pulling her nightdress over her shoulders, suddenly conscious of the audience she’d acquired. “Some man snuck through my window when I was sleepin’. I was with ‘im earlier…I thought he was gonna kill me ‘til Johnny arrived...”

“I got Josh,” Madeline explained tearfully, returning to the bed and curling her arm around Susie. “Johnny took care of the bastard ‘til he got here. I’m sorry Ellie, I should’ve explained better.”

Horrified, Ellie closed her eyes. Helped along by a generous amount of whisky, she’d been solidly asleep until Madeline hammered on her door. She’d flown downstairs in a panic, mad at not being there to stop Susie being attacked; mad at Johnny for coming back and throwing her life into disarray. When she arrived in the doorway and saw Susie on the bed, her face battered and bleeding, nightdress torn and hanging from a mauled shoulder, Johnny holding her by the hair…Instantly Ellie had recalled Johnny shaking her, his earlier anger as he’d shoved her to the floor...

Sinking to the bed, Ellie opened her eyes just as Johnny disappeared through the door. “No, Madeline, I should’a heard, should’a been around, not caught up in my own stupid troubles. Damn Johnny, damn him…” She reached for Susie’s hand and squeezed it, swallowing a hefty dose of guilt for thinking Johnny responsible. What did he expect?  He wasn’t anything like the Johnny she knew; in fact he resembled more the dark figures from her past. I don’t know him. Ellie’s gaze dropped to her lap, to his gun she held there, and it occurred to her that the shock she’d felt at reaching her mistaken conclusion actually proved she did. 


Johnny stumbled out of backdoor, the gunshot resounding in his ears. The look in Ellie’s eyes had been unmistakeable; categorising him alongside brutal men she’d known. Is that what his actions had brought her to thinking—that he was the type of man who’d not only darkened her life, but also his own? Visions of men knocking his mother around rose from the murky depths of his mind, slapping him in the face with their stinging similarity. They had been angry men, consumed with hate although probably not with reasons comparable to his. But did the reasons why really matter? Hating Beresford was one thing, but what about everyone else—they didn’t deserve his wrath, yet he’d pushed them away.

Resurrected by guilt, his conscience eagerly conjured images in his mind—the shock on Murdoch’s face as Johnny held his gun on him, the horror on Scott’s—they’d looked at him with identical thoughts emblazoned in their eyes. The same look that Ellie had worn as she stared at him down the barrel of his own gun. They didn’t know or like what they saw.

Johnny's stomach heaved. As he retched onto the grass, dizziness reminded him that he’d hardly eaten for days. His stomach contracted violently, dispelling little more than foul tasting bile and self-disgust. A wave of pain rushed him. The world tilted and spun. Johnny passed out and hit the ground.



Ellie’s eyelids snapped open, her nerves still frayed. Bright sunshine sliced the drapes to cast golden streaks down the opposite wall, and she rubbed the night from her eyes. Beside her on the bed, Johnny shifted restlessly. Turning, she looked to see who he’d spoken to, but Johnny seemed to be asleep. His body was unnaturally tense; his eyelids flickered and his hand gripped the sheet. 

Madeline had helped her look for him, knowing he wouldn’t have strayed far without a gun. They found him a few feet from the house, unconscious in the grassy field. Unable to get him inside, Madeline fetched Josh, who was unimpressed to be hauling Johnny Madrid up to Ellie’s room again.

“You should’a just left ‘im,” the sheriff huffed as he dumped Johnny on her bed. Ellie had said nothing, aware that Josh was waiting for the familiar scolding that usually followed a disparaging remark about Johnny. Tonight she was simply too tired. Looking at Johnny on the bed, remembering what she’d thought…Ellie was appalled to feel the hot sting of tears in her eyes and she tried unsuccessfully to blink them back.

“Oh, Ellie.” Josh sighed awkwardly and patted her shoulder. Overcoming his awkwardness he drew her to his chest and, for once, Ellie allowed someone to comfort her, sure Josh’s arms were amongst the safest she’d known.

“Madrid ain’t no good, when ya gonna see it, gal?”

Ellie pulled away, hastily wiping her tears into black streaks. “Don’t, Josh,” she said wearily. “You saw what happened tonight.” 

Josh removed his hat and scratched beneath his ashen hair. “Yeah, but that ain’t all I see,” he said gravely. “He’s hurtin’ ya, Ellie. What made ya think it was him, eh?”

Ellie pursed her lips. “I never told you he hurt me, Josh,” she replied tightly.

“You didn’t have ta.”

Ellie changed the subject abruptly, enquiring instead about the man who had attacked Susie, and Josh left soon after. Johnny came round long enough to confirm he was all right before he fell into a restless sleep.

She’d sat beside him for ages, silently peppering him with questions that he was never going to answer, until eventually she’d crawled to the other side of her bed.

Concerned now, Ellie stared at him. “Wake up, Johnny,” she said loudly, but he didn’t, just shifted again on the mattress, turning his head sharply on the pillow as if attempting to shake off a bad dream. His gun sat on the bedside table and Ellie leaned across and pushed it away. Satisfied that it was out of immediate reach, she grasped Johnny’s arm and shook him. “Johnny, wake up,” she repeated sternly.

Johnny’s face contorted with confusion. “Katie?” he murmured sleepily.

Ellie frowned and tugged his arm again. Johnny sat bolt upright, forcing her to spring back before their heads collided. His eyes were panicky and disorientated, and it took him a moment to blink away the sleep and focus.

“You were having a nightmare,” Ellie offered when he looked at her in bewilderment.

Johnny nodded, his chest rising and falling rapidly, sweat visible on his brow.

“What was it ‘bout, can ya remember?”

“No,” Johnny lied, sinking back against the pillows. He waited for his breathing to regulate before asking, “How’d I get here?”

“I found you unconscious behind the house. Josh brought you up.”

Johnny closed his eyes, feeling sick to his stomach again as the memories resurfaced. He frowned. “Bet he loved that.”

When Ellie made no comment, he looked at her. “What time is it?”

“It’s early.”

“Sorry if I woke ya.” 

“You’re sorry ‘bout a lot of things lately.”

Johnny met her eyes. “Ellie, ‘bout last night…I swear I’d never do anythin’ like that.”

She bowed her head and when he sensed her battle to decide if she really knew what kind of man he was, Johnny felt like the smallest person in the world. Reaching out, he brushed his fingers over her hand, and she raised her gaze to him, eyes moist beneath her lashes.

“I’m sorry, too,” she whispered. “I should’a known you’d never…” She looked to Johnny for understanding. “It’s just how you’ve been actin’ since you came back…It’s brought back a few things I try to forget.” Ellie fell silent, attempting desperately to slam the door shut on her past while Johnny contemplated prising his open.  Having more success with her door, Ellie found a stronger voice.

“You’ve scared me, Johnny."

“I’ve scared myself,” Johnny murmured. He sighed. “Ain’t the first time either.”

Ellie glanced at Johnny’s long, tanned fingers resting gently on her paler skin. “You can talk to me. You know that.”

Johnny peered at Ellie. Suddenly he did want to tell her, wrench open the door and let the past tumble out. The words hovered dangerously on his lips. He wanted to say that he realised the man Ellie thought was special was still inside him; bruised definitely, scared probably, but nevertheless here and starting to fight. Not to resume complete control, but to regain equal footing with the other aspects of his personality, the aspects that made Madrid; helped keep him emotionless and cold, previously only when required, lately all the time. He wasn’t, had never been two people—Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer were one and the same, but it was a question of balance, and the ability to control that balance which Johnny needed to rediscover.

He wondered deep down if he was ready to bare his soul. To open that door, to talk about Katie—Johnny feared where it would lead. He still wanted Beresford to pay. Someone had to pay for Katie’s death. Talking wouldn’t help. It was just enough to recognise that the part of him he had tried so hard to bury and destroy was at least fighting back.


He returned from his myriad of thoughts. A decision made to leave the door to his past alone. “I know, Ellie, but it ain’t gonna help none.”

“It might.”

“It won’t.”

Ellie sighed. There was much more to this, there was a story behind Johnny’s anger, but she didn’t know what, and had to accept that Johnny wasn’t going to tell. She suspected it had to do with Andrew Beresford, the other man Johnny had mentioned, and maybe, the woman whose name he’d uttered in sleep. Maybe she’d hurt or betrayed him with these men. Ellie felt an instant dislike for this mystery woman.

“You know, it sure has been a while since I was facing the wrong end of my gun,” Johnny remarked casually, bringing his hands to rest on his stomach. “The last time I was just a cocky kid,” he paused and a smirk tugged his lips. “That was a darn angry woman, too.”

Ellie looked at him in exasperation. “Oh, Johnny, it’s not funny.” 

“It sure wasn’t, she didn’t miss.”

Open-mouthed, Ellie studied him, not sure he wasn’t telling the truth even when she saw the twitch of his lips and seconds later a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. She remained serious. “You know I missed on purpose?”

“I figured.”


“I don’t teach many people how to shoot, Ellie. But when I do, I teach ‘em to hit the target, not miss.”

Ellie smiled faintly.

“’Course, I ain’t sayin’ I wasn’t a little worried,” Johnny admitted with a sheepish grin. 

Ellie’s faint smile hesitated before gradually transforming into a grin of her own. “No need worryin’,” she assured. “When I learn to shoot, I learn not to miss.”

Johnny smiled and she turned around to settle against the pillow beside him. With her head resting against his shoulder, Johnny felt sleepy again. The light-hearted veil they’d thrown over what had been a traumatic situation for them both lifted of its own accord, leaving emotions too raw and exposed to talk about.

“You ain’t up to leavin’ today,” Ellie remarked quietly.

“No. But I shouldn’t stay here.”

“Stay, Johnny. Who else is gonna put up with ya?”




A fly landed on Scott’s nose for the umpteenth time and he swatted at it with growing agitation. Shifting uncomfortably, he stared ahead at the long road. He’d been in the saddle since morning, and in this heat, with only the horse to talk to, it was already becoming unbearable. What he wouldn’t give to ditch his clothes, even in a messy heap, and plunge into a cool creek. Scott knew if he stumbled on so much as a puddle, he’d be hard pressed not to sit in it. Wearily, he reached for his canteen and took a long drink of tepid water. He closed his eyes and pictured being home, sitting out and watching the sun set with a glass of cold lemonade or something considerably stronger.

Sighing over pointless longings, Scott removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. As the golden strands separated and trailed between his fingers, he realised he needed a haircut as well as the longest, most relaxing bath imaginable.

“I don’t know why you do it, brother,” Scott muttered as he stuck his hat back on. He wasn’t talking about the lack of home comforts, but rather the self-imposed isolation, the loneliness; night after night, day after day spent travelling alone. It was usually something Scott avoided, knowing from personal experience that it was dangerous, near soul-destroying, to be too long alone with your thoughts.

This time, travelling alone had been Scott’s choice. He could have stayed in the town with Murdoch, and his decision had been met with heated resistance. After Johnny had walked out of the hotel, Scott and Murdoch had talked and mulled into the night. At first, no answer seemed right, but eventually they’d come to a decision. A unanimous one to Scott’s relief—they would continue after Johnny just to watch his back. They’d set off the next morning, certain where Johnny was headed, only for the hand of fate, or to be precise, an overzealous dog, to step in and throw their plans into disarray.

The dog had come running out of a house on the street, barking excitedly, its teeth snapping at the fetlocks of Murdoch’s horse. The horse reared and Murdoch was thrown. At first it looked like all Murdoch was suffering from was injured pride. He lay on the ground muttering about the stupidity of keeping a dog that couldn’t behave around horses. It was when he tried to get up that they realised he couldn’t move. His back had given out. With the assistance of a remorseful dog owner, they’d got Murdoch back inside the hotel where a concerned Mrs. Hawkins had immediately sent for the local physician. The doctor arrived several hours later and his diagnosis was no permanent damage done, but Murdoch would not be moving around for several days.

“I don’t want you going after Johnny alone. I’m close to losing one son. I don’t want to risk another.”

Scott was torn, but stood his ground, reasoning that time was not on their side. Eventually Murdoch acquiesced, albeit with reluctance and the knowledge there was no argument to sway Scott.

"I know your brother. Don't let him use what happened yesterday as another reason why he can't come home."

Scott assured Murdoch that he wouldn't, and then he left, promising to send a wire when he came to the next town.


When Scott finally arrived at Widow’s Creek, he welcomed civilisation after the five day ride. It was afternoon and the sun had reached its summit; unrelenting rays scorched any part of Scott’s skin that was uncovered and unshaded. He was tired. Exposure to continuous sun, dust, and insects made his head ache and his eyes dry and itchy. Both he and his horse were slicked with sweat—they’d run out of water a few miles back. 

Scott had pushed his horse hard, always conscious that Johnny had a day on him. He once again felt he was chasing the shadow of Johnny Madrid, alone this time, but still determined to be there for Johnny whether he wanted it or not. Johnny Lancer wasn’t the only one with a protective older brother. When the occasion called for it, Madrid had one, too, and if Johnny didn’t realise that yet, then he was about to find out.

The town was busy and Scott rode down the main street, searching for a livery and locating one a short way into town. Dismounting, Scott arranged for his horse to be taken care of. He took a quick look inside the stables, hoping to spot Barranca, pushing dejection aside when there was no sign. He hadn’t expected Johnny to still be here anyway.

He enquired of the livery worker where he could get a room for the night and the man pointed him in the direction of the hotel. Scott thought him much the town publicist, for he also advised him where to find the saloon, bathhouse, and less helpfully, the local whorehouse—the latter coming with a sly nod and wink. Scott had thanked him politely, adding the temptation of female company to the list of comforts he would indulge in once home. Shaking his head in annoyance, Scott considered that Johnny had a hell of a lot to answer for.

Booking into a room, Scott surveyed his surroundings. The decor was drab, like all rooms were in these stopover towns. He comprehended then that he was utterly homesick, and the concept both amused and saddened him. He’d spent the last year not really appreciating home, existing rather than living, and now it was the one thing he wanted in the world. Well not quite—he wanted to catch up with his brother and knock some sense into him first. Removing a shirt from his saddlebag, Scott frowned at its crumpled state, and then rolled his eyes, figuring it hardly mattered. He tossed it on the bed, before changing his mind, picking it up and hanging it from the bedpost in the hope that some of the creases might drop out. That was the sort of action that if Johnny was here, he’d have laughed at, Scott mused. It seemed like a lifetime since he’d heard his brother laugh. He wondered if it was a sound he’d hear again.

An hour later, as he sat in a bath, Scott pushed Johnny from his mind and instead offered silent thanks to the livery worker. It was not quite the same as being at home, but it was close. He relaxed back, his arms draped over the side of the tub, and dozing, he could almost imagine he was at Lancer.

When the heat faded from the water, Scott resisted the urge to request more, knowing that he had to send a wire to Murdoch. First though he wanted to see what he could find out about Johnny. Standing, Scott grabbed a towel and rough dried his hair and body, before getting dressed in still creased clothes. Creases or no, Scott couldn’t deny that he felt better, human, ready to step outside into the heat of the afternoon, and start to sweat all over again.


Before giving into sleep, Johnny examined his body, almost certain that he could see bruises forming on his bruises, least it felt that way. As he contemplated how much longer this would keep him from Beresford, Johnny grudgingly admitted that at least this discomfort was the result of more admirable actions.

He stirred a few hours later. Ellie had spent the morning with Susie, but now she was back, Johnny could hear her moving about the room, humming softly. He opened his eyes as she was changing, slipping her robe from bare shoulders. She had her back to him but that was enough. He caught the contrast of rich auburn hair tumbling down over lightly freckled skin, the soft curve of her breast as she reached for something. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut, but the image remained. He tried to dislodge it; no easy feat considering every rustle and caress of Ellie’s clothing against her skin seemed magnified to his ears. Eventually Johnny risked another look. Ellie was in front of the mirror now, dressed and scrutinising her reflection, a powder brush poised in her hand.

Johnny breathed his relief and adjusted the bed covers.

“Why do that?”

Ellie turned. “Do what?”

“Put all that paint on your face?”

Ellie wrinkled her nose. “Johnny, if you’re gonna tell me I’m pretty enough without it, I might rethink shootin’ ya.”

Johnny laughed, the sound echoing guiltily in his ears, the action hurting his ribs and sobering him instantly. “I wasn’t gonna say that,” he said seriously.

“Gee thanks.”

“I’m curious.”

Ellie tilted her head and studied him, before giving a casual shrug. “We all have our masks, Johnny. This is mine.”

Johnny nodded, he wasn’t about to disagree. When Ellie turned back to the mirror, he stared vacantly, his mind returning to last night and yesterday, considering how part of him was fighting to re-establish itself. He wondered if he had the strength to do it—if laughter and other thoughts were the result. They didn’t feel or sound right, not after all this time.

“I’m goin’ out,” Ellie announced, seemingly satisfied with her appearance. “I’m gonna see Josh, to thank him for last night. I was a little off with him when we talked.”

“I guess you should pass on my thanks, huh?”

Ellie chuckled. “Johnny, ya know full well that the only expression of thanks Josh wants from you is your butt ridin’ outta town.”

Johnny rolled his eyes.

“You need anythin’ before I go?”

“I’m gettin’ up.”

Ellie shook her head. “Don’t overdo it, Johnny. You’re the one who wants to get outta here, remember?”


Feeling chirpy in the sunshine, Ellie glided along the boardwalk, oblivious these days to the varying reactions she received. Some folk called out cheerful greetings which she returned likewise. Others; women, and some men, frowned at her disapprovingly. Ellie didn’t care, knowing full well that the women were worried about where their husbands spent their money and their nights. As for the men who made a show of disliking what she was—Ellie felt their eyes glued to her backside and the sway of her hips, long after she’d passed by.

Approaching the saloon, she responded professionally to whistles from the local cowboys, flashing them a coy smile, her eyes sparkling with wicked suggestion from which they could derive their own cheap little fantasies. A tall blonde cowboy, who’d pushed his way through batwing doors as she drew near, turned at the sound of male appreciation just as Ellie passed the saloon, dropped her act and rolled her eyes.

When she realised the blonde had seen and was now staring with an amused yet quizzical expression on his face, Ellie bit her bottom lip and smiled sheepishly. He smiled back, a nice smile, Ellie noticed, not a leer. Drawing level with him, she looked up into his face, liking his blue-grey eyes. “You lost darlin’?” she asked boldly. 

Scott grinned. “Not exactly…I was just thinking.”

“D’ya always think in the middle of the street?”

“No, not usually.” He laughed. “Tell me; what’s the sheriff like in this town, Mrs...Miss?”

“Ellie,” Ellie said, and when he looked surprised, she realised he’d expected her last name. “Miss Eleanor Thomas,” she corrected with mock haughtiness, her face blossoming into a broad smile. “Boy, I ain’t said my whole name aloud in years.” She winked at him. “So…you got a name?” she asked pointedly, holding out her hand.

“Scott Lancer,” Scott said accepting her handshake. The young lady curiously amused him, and he couldn’t help but notice she was pretty, with wide warm eyes that were sparkling again, genuinely this time.

“Well it’s a pleasure, Scott Lancer,” Ellie said brightly. “Now what d’ya wanna know ‘bout dear Josh?”


“The sheriff.”

“Oh, right, Sheriff Josh.” Scott grinned again; Ellie’s beaming smile was strangely infectious. “I’m looking for someone.”

“Josh is a real good man, Scott Lancer,” Ellie assured. “I’m going to see him now, you can walk with me,” she offered.

As they walked along the boardwalk together, Ellie snuck a sidelong glance at Scott. “You’re a long way from home ain’t ya?”

Scott nodded. “Too far, Miss Thomas,” he said wearily.

“So who ya lookin’ for?”

Scott looked uneasy, and Ellie shrugged. “Just thought I might be able to help.”

“I’m looking for my brother. I heard he had a run-in with the sheriff.” It had been pure chance that he’d heard about Saturday night’s brawl while casually eavesdropping in the saloon. Two elderly men at an adjacent table had been discussing how some crazy son-of-a-bitch kid, who couldn’t handle his liquor, had started a saloon brawl over a toast to Andrew Beresford. Scott hadn’t needed to hear more. There were lots of crazy ‘kids’ in the world, but the chances were only one was starting fights over Beresford.

“Older or younger brother?”

“He’s younger.”

“Ah, so you’re the older, wiser brother whose gonna blister his ears when ya finally catch up with him?”

“Something like that.”

They reached the jail then and Scott opened the door for Ellie to enter first. Liking that, she smiled.

Josh nodded a greeting when Ellie entered his office, but frowned when a stranger followed her in. “I weren’t expectin’ ya today, Ellie,” Josh said gruffly. “I thought ya might be…busy.”

Ellie sucked in her breath and blew it noisily from her nose. “Don’t start, Josh,” she warned, placing her purse on the desk. “This here’s Scott Lancer. He’s lookin’ for his brother. Be nice to him.”

Josh rolled his eyes, and Ellie chuckled. She crossed to the stove and picked up the coffee pot, touching her hand to the side to check it was hot. “Y’all want coffee?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Josh grumped while Scott politely declined.

“Tell me ‘bout this brother, then.” 

Scott glanced uncomfortably at Ellie, but her back was turned as she poured the coffee. “He’s—"

“Lets start with a name shall we, son? Your name first.”

“My name is Lancer, Scott Lancer. I believe you had my brother in your jail.”

Josh sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I jail a lotta men, son,” he drawled. "But none by the name of Lancer.”

Scott hesitated as Ellie strolled over with the coffee, setting one cup down in front of Josh and raising the other to her lips. “Well, no, he wouldn’t go by Lancer...”

“Spit it out,” Josh huffed impatiently.

“His name’s Johnny,” Scott said quietly. “Johnny Madrid.”

Josh sat back and folded his hands across his ample stomach while Ellie, who’d just taken a sip of hot coffee, suddenly spluttered, the china cup slipping from her fingers and breaking into several pieces on the floor.




Ellie stared at the broken china, aware that Scott was looking at her in alarm. She felt her cheeks warm, a blush spreading like the spilt coffee on the floor, drawing attention at a time when she needed to play it cool and just think. Her lips were parted in surprise and so she pursed them, pretending to examine the splash marks on the hem of her dress.

“Damn, woman! How many times I gotta tell ya I like my coffee real hot?” Josh slapped his large palm on the desk, almost knocking over his own cup.

Ellie raised her head, the gratitude in her eyes for the sheriff only. Clapping her hands to her rosy cheeks, she groaned, “I’m sorry,” before bending over to pick up the fragmented china. “It didn’t feel that hot in the pot.”

Josh sighed noisily, and Scott, distracted from Johnny for the moment, crouched on the floor to assist. Once all the pieces were gathered, he raised his head as Ellie did.

“Are you alright, Miss. Thomas?” he asked. “You didn’t scald yourself?”

“No…I…” Ellie trailed off as she studied Scott’s face, just inches from her own. Is he really Johnny’s brother? She was inclined to think not, yet she found herself searching Scott’s face for any similarity to support his claim. Johnny’s mother had been Mexican, and Scott sure didn’t look like he had Mexican blood. He was fairer, taller than Johnny, a leaner build, and just, well, different. The only similarities Ellie could see were that both were handsome with blue eyes, but even they differed in shade and expression. There was the smile, she supposed. Scott was smiling at her now; a cute, curious smile, probably wondering why she hadn’t given him a proper answer. She dropped her gaze. Johnny hadn’t smiled enough lately for her to draw a comparison.

“I ain’t hurt, just clumsy.”

They stood at the same time and Ellie cupped her hands so that Scott could deposit the china pieces into her waiting palms. When she turned to dispose of them, Scott dragged his attention back to Josh.

“As I was saying, I heard Johnny was involved in a fight in the saloon Saturday night?”

Knowing life around Ellie wouldn’t be worth living if he made any revelations, Josh rested his coffee on his stomach and thoughtfully scratched his cheek. “I seem ta recall havin’ Madrid coolin’ his heels in the cells. Nasty temper that boy’s got. Dangerous reputation. He ain’t the sort you want hangin' 'bout,” he emphasised for Ellie’s benefit. “You still set on claiming him as kin, Lancer?”

Scott frowned. He leaned forward with one hand on the desk, locking gazes with the sheriff. “I’m still set on it,” he said firmly. When Josh shrugged, Scott stood straight and folded his arms across his chest. “Was he hurt?”

Josh rubbed his jaw. “Well if he was, then he weren’t ‘bout to admit it,” he groused.

Sounds like Johnny. Scott sighed wearily. “When did you let him go?”

Ellie stood listening; a silent party to the conversation although her mind was talking ten to the dozen. She'd watched Scott, seen the defensive flicker in his eyes when Josh made the pointed comments about Johnny. There had been conviction in Scott’s tone. As Josh lied for her, telling Scott he’d let Johnny go sometime yesterday afternoon, Ellie perched on the edge of the desk and distractedly leafed through some of Josh’s paperwork. “Does your brother know you’re lookin’ for him, Scott?” she asked casually, raising her head to gaze at him.

“No…not exactly.” Scott sighed then and Ellie caught a fleeting sadness on his face. “It’s a long story.”

“Well…I wish ya the best of luck finding him,” Ellie said pleasantly. Reaching for her purse, she regarded Josh gravely. “Ya still got the bastard who hurt Susie?”

“Don’t worry. He ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Good.” Ellie rose from the desk. “It’s been nice meetin’ ya, Scott Lancer,” she said politely. “Real nice…” She smiled sweetly and, after giving Josh a loaded glance, left his office.

“Goodbye, Miss Thomas,” Scott said distractedly, thinking that if Johnny had been released yesterday then he’d probably have gone straight to Winston. Scott wasn’t sure on the distance, but figured he’d be almost there. After thanking the sheriff for all his ‘help’, Scott left the jail. In the street, he looked up at the late afternoon sky, knowing he still had to wire his father, eat, and then rest a few hours. First thing in the morning he would set out for Winston.


Ellie hurried home, kicking a different thought up in the air with each step she took. Was Scott, Johnny’s brother or not? Six years was a long time and Johnny said he’d tried something new. Was Scott part of that? There was only one way to know. She entered her house, her thoughts as tangled as threads in her rarely used sewing basket. Upstairs, Ellie was surprised to find her room empty. Her heart sank until she noticed Johnny’s boots carelessly slung across the floor. Straightening them, she went to find him.

In her kitchen she found Madeline at the back door, captured with wonderment at something outside. Joining her, Ellie followed the other girl’s gaze. So much for takin’ it easy, Johnny. A few feet from the house, beneath the shade of the large, leafy oak, Johnny faced an invisible enemy across the field, drawing repetitively, magically producing the Colt in his hand time and time again.

“I think your sharp shootin' made him nervous,” Madeline said with a grin.

Ellie walked out onto the porch and hesitated on the steps. Johnny didn’t acknowledge her presence, but that wasn’t to say he didn’t know she was there. Ellie did nothing to break his concentration; she just watched the graceful movements which to her eyes looked flawless. Johnny obviously didn’t agree because after a few minutes he holstered the Colt and smacked his palm against the oak. Ellie watched as he gingerly lowered to the ground and sat with his back against the trunk. He plucked a strand of grass and weaved it through his fingers.

As Ellie made her way towards him, Johnny heard, but kept his head bowed. His body was still sore; it slowed him down, not a great deal, but a fraction. There could be no fractions. No margin for error. What he needed was to feel the satisfaction of a bullet hitting its mark, to at least know he had accuracy, even if his draw was off. With a sigh, Johnny twirled the blade of glass between his fingers, feeling his body protest at his position. Extending his legs, he attempted to get comfortable. What he wanted would have to wait. The last thing he should do was attract attention with some target practice, no matter how much he needed it. Fortunately Ellie’s house was so far providing him with the sanctuary he required, just as it had done six years ago. He figured no one knew he was still here except for the other girls and the sheriff. Johnny wanted it to stay that way.

Ellie stopped in front of him, shielding the sun, and Johnny smiled briefly. “How’d it go with Josh?”

“I ain’t thanked him yet.”  She plonked herself down, mindless of her dress. “Someone else was there, askin' 'bout Johnny Madrid. Or should that be Johnny Lancer?”

The blade of grass snapped in two.

“Is that who ya are, Johnny?” There was no challenge in Ellie’s voice, her quiet question almost lost beneath the chirp of crickets in the field. Johnny didn’t speak. His heart beat wildly as he realised what this meant. 

“Scott don’t look much like you.”

Johnny’s gaze flitted over Ellie’s shoulder. He half expected to see his brother waiting for him on the porch with folded arms, ready to kick his butt probably. “You didn’t tell him I was here?”

“No. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but it’s true, ain’t it? He’s your brother.”

Johnny’s expression was pinched. “Was it just him or someone else, too?”

“He was alone when I saw him. Who else would there be? Lancer, is that your father’s name then? Is he the someone else?”

Johnny avoided her gaze, staring instead at the cloudless sky. It was no surprise that Murdoch hadn’t come. But Scott had, he was here, and Johnny didn’t yet know what he would do about it.

“So this is the somethin’ new you tried—the somethin’ that didn’t work out?”


“Don’t y’all get on?”

“It ain’t that.” Johnny planted his hands on the ground and tapped his fingers against the dry earth.

“Why didn’t it work then? Why are ya so angry? Is this to do with Beresford, where does he fit?”

The swarm of questions jabbed like sharp needles at his skin, and Johnny ceased his finger tapping, instead his nails sank in the soil as if dropping anchor to keep from drifting to the past.  “I don’t wanna talk ‘bout this, Ellie,” he warned. 

“Don’t want to, or can’t?”

Johnny broke anchor. He pushed to his feet, ignoring discomfort, heeding the instinct that told him to flee Ellie’s questions. He could feel her closing in, her curiosity hunting him down like a predatory animal with a mind set on a kill.

Ellie sighed as Johnny made his escape. Reaching out, she picked up the two blades of grass and idly touched their ends together, making them whole again, before crossly discarding both. She got to her feet, her gaze boring into Johnny’s back as he stalked toward the house.

“Maybe I’ll ask Scott!” she shouted after him, pleased when Johnny stopped, worried when he turned on her with an angry scowl.

“No you won’t. You’ll stay away from Scott, Ellie, and mind your own damn business!”




Evening came quickly for Ellie. As the sun snuggled into the horizon, she and her girls congregated in the kitchen, drinking whisky and talking dreams. The doors were locked, the drapes drawn. There would be no men interrupting tonight. Jessica would never have approved, Ellie considered as she listened to the friendly chatter. Even after what happened to Susie, Jess would’ve insisted they pick themselves up, put on enough makeup to cover the bruises and carry on as before. But I’m not Jess, and I’m too tired to care.

When it got late, the girls bade goodnight until Ellie was alone in the kitchen. Hesitant to follow them upstairs, she took the whisky bottle and her cigarette out to the porch. It was a still night; the air was sticky and vibrated softly with the hum of insects. She dropped down onto the bench, curling a leg beneath her body, and gazed out across the moonlit field that stretched for miles. There’s a whole world out there, I ain’t seen. It had never bothered her before, but now, encouraged by the warmth of whisky, she pondered her wasted opportunities.  

It was not long before Ellie sensed Johnny’s presence. Like her perpetual ghost, he appeared, easing himself onto the bench beside her. She hadn’t seen him all evening, she’d avoided him, or he’d avoided her. Earlier, she’d toyed with the idea of carrying out her threat to seek Scott Lancer for answers, but had decided against it. Johnny knew he could talk to her, yet he chose not to.

“Ya know, I thought ‘bout tryin' something new once.” Ellie uncurled her leg, resting her drink on her jean-clad thigh. Her feet were bare and she skimmed her toes over the wooden boards of the porch. “When Jess died, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. She’d been there for me from the start.” Ellie glanced at Johnny, who was leaning back and listening. He turned to her, dark hair flopping on his brow, his gaze intense and watchful.

“When she took me in, one of the first things she said was, ‘Eleanor, men have exactly what ya want. It’s just figurin' how to get it from ‘em." Ellie shook her head, smiling. “I never got what she meant then, but I learned quick.” She sipped her drink. “When she died, I wondered...”

“Wondered what?” Johnny asked softly.

Ellie drew from her cigarette and sighed smoke. “Oh, if money was all I wanted from ‘em. Figured I might be deservin’ of more.” She offered her empty glass to Johnny, who accepted it, pointing at the bottle. She reached to get it for him. “When Jess died I could’a sold this house. Started over some place else, lived a respectable life. D’ya think that would’a worked for me, Johnny?”

Johnny swirled the liquid around in his glass before bringing it to his lips. “Yeah, I think so.” He passed the bottle back.

Ellie frowned. “Well, I told myself it wouldn’t, so three years later, I’m doin’ the same as I always done. Can’t help thinkin’ now though,” she added wistfully. “It would’a been better to try somethin’ new and it not work, than never try at all.

Is that how you feel about the new life you tried?” 

Johnny stared down into his glass. “Sometimes.”

Ellie chewed her bottom lip, cursing her inability to leave it alone. “Johnny, who’s Katie?”

Johnny froze. His fingers tensed around the glass. “Scott tell you ‘bout her, too?” he asked icily. “Seems you and my brother had quite a talk.”

“Scott didn’t tell me. You did.”


“You said her name this mornin’, before ya woke up. Who is she Johnny? Is she someone who hurt ya?”

He hesitated for a long time, and Ellie waited for his anger, sure that any minute he’d walk out on her again. She had to swallow her surprise when he didn’t.

“Only if you call dyin’, hurtin’ me.” Johnny put the glass down and walked to the porch railing, leaning against it as he stared into the night. “Katie was my wife.”

Elle’s breath caught in her throat. This admission was so far from anything she’d expected, it rendered her speechless. Johnny had married. He’d fallen in love and had a wife. No wonder he hadn’t spared a second thought for her, shown no interest in renewing their acquaintance. The news hit Ellie like a slap in the face, only she wasn’t sure why. She supposed she’d considered Johnny too…too what? Scarred; self-protective; too much like me?

“Was Katie…” Ellie hesitated, unsure how to phrase what she desperately needed to know. The reason she’d accepted Johnny not coming back was because of what she was. If Johnny was about to tell her that it didn’t matter…that it hadn’t stopped him falling for a similar type of girl and marrying her, well, Ellie didn’t think she’d be able to listen to whatever else he had to say. Finally she found her voice again. “How did you meet?” Without realising she was doing it, Ellie squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath in anticipation of his answer.

“Katie was the cousin of a good friend. She came to stay with him in Green River…”

Ellie opened her eyes and breathed out simultaneously. “Green River?”

“California. That’s where I’ve been for the last few years. Livin’ the life of a respectable rancher,” he added dryly.


Johnny turned around. “Well, there were moments,” he said with a faint smile.

“Tell me what happened.”

The railing of the porch slotted into the curve of Johnny’s spine as he leaned against it, silhouetted by the moonlight, the heels of his hands resting on roughened wood. He’d decided to tell Ellie, only now the moment was here, his instincts screamed at him to shut down. He couldn’t look at her and instead concentrated on the floor; a narrow crack between the boards where there was nothing but darkness beneath. He stared at it with tunnel vision, unblinking, until tears formed in his eyes. Words, when they came, were unguarded, unplanned, sounding to Johnny like they were spoken by someone over which he had no control. All he could do was listen in wretched silence, trying not to choke on the dust that rose from banished memories.

Briefly he told Ellie how he’d accepted death as inevitable, only for his father to make an offer he’d been in no position to refuse. How he’d settled into a family, discovering a brother who became a best friend, and a father who’d tested and challenged him before they found understanding and respect for the men each of them were, as well as the men they’d once been. Johnny told Ellie about Katie, how he’d loved her with all he possessed for six short but happy months until one day...

Johnny’s voice dropped to whisper, forcing Ellie from the bench. She mimicked his position against the railing, close but not crowding, although Johnny was unaware she’d even moved. The words chafed as he skimmed through the day at the lake; keeping the intimacy he and Katie had shared sacred. He described her walk toward the shade, his reluctance to leave his position in the sun, and Johnny’s voice wavered as he told Ellie about the shot that came from nowhere.

He closed his eyes then, squeezing his lids tightly, biting down on his bottom lip as the images flooded his mind. The night air was suddenly filled with the sounds of birds squawking and the porch was illuminated with blazing sun. He was running toward Katie, only this time he knew there was nothing he would be able to do. Then the second gunshot rang out.

He didn’t realise he was still speaking aloud until he sensed Ellie in front of him, felt the warmth of her embrace. They stayed like that for minute, before Ellie reached up to quickly wipe the tears from her cheeks. She drew back, one hand falling to his waist, the other reaching to brush the dark hair from his eyes.

“Why was Katie killed?”

Johnny’s face twisted into a scowl and he pulled away.

“Because she did the right thing,” he said bitterly. “Andrew Beresford’s son…” Johnny virtually spat the words. “…was a murdering bastard. He and Katie had been out together, but on their way back, he tried putting his filthy hands on her…” Johnny broke off, the heat of his anger rising so rapidly that each word singed his lips as he spoke. “When her friend intervened, Tommy Beresford killed him. Katie was the only witness, the only one who had the guts to stick around. Andrew Beresford threatened to kill her if she testified at his son’s trial.” Johnny turned back to face Ellie, his stare challenging. “And later, after Tommy killed himself in prison, he carried out his threat.”

Johnny’s anger was palpable; the strength of it overrode the humidity to hang heavily in the air, and Ellie could feel it pulsating between them like an invisible barrier she wasn’t sure she could traverse. “So this is why you’re so angry,” she said bluntly.

“Angry?” Johnny snapped. “It’s a hell of a lot more than that.” He took a deep breath and let it hiss from between clenched teeth. Here was one emotion he had no problem summoning, he didn’t have to wrench the door to his past open to release the hate he harboured for Beresford. It was there all the time. Like an acrid smoke it seeped perniciously into his lungs, replacing oxygen as his sustenance.  “I hate him. I hate Beresford and the men he sent to do it.” This was the first time Johnny had said this aloud and the words rolled off his tongue with a comforting ease that disturbed Ellie.

“You didn’t think I’d understand?” she asked. “You don’t give me much credit.”

Johnny’s stared at her. He’d been expecting a speech on how this wouldn’t help, how he wasn’t thinking, how he needed to ignore the most powerful of emotions and get on with a life that these days meant so little. Returning to the bench, he sighed. “It weren’t just you, Ellie.”

She joined him, folding her hands in her lap.  “You talkin’ ‘bout your family? I take it you’ve been just as pleasant to them?”

Leaning back, Johnny studied his hands.

“Why the need to push everyone away?”

Johnny chewed softly on his thumbnail. As the seconds ticked by, Ellie realised he wouldn't or couldn't answer her question.

"This is why you want Beresford dead."  

Johnny glanced at her sharply, the anger proving more powerful than the remorse he felt over his treatment of others. “This is why he will be dead.”

Ellie sighed. “Beresford ain’t the same as you, Johnny. Like I said before, I ain’t sure he’s the kinda man to face you. He’s more the type to shoot you in the back, or get someone else to do it.”

“He either faces me or he don’t. His choice.”

“What if he won’t?”

Johnny got abruptly to his feet and stalked across the porch. His hands gripped the railing tightly. By his posture alone, Ellie could tell he was struggling to control the anger that radiated from him in waves.

“Like I said, it’ll be his choice. Either way, he's gonna pay for what he did to Katie.”

"Just like Katie had to pay."

Johnny whirled around, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "What the hell d'ya mean by that?" 

"All I'm sayin' is that Katie testified, and ‘cause of that Beresford's son is dead. Beresford was determined to protect his son, like any father worth his salt would be. His son died, so Beresford decided it was his right to make Katie pay."

Johnny opened his mouth to say something, but Ellie didn't give him the chance. "What I don’t get is why Katie testified at all." She feigned confusion. "Most people would’ve just walked away, protected themselves above all else.”

“Well, Katie weren’t most people,” Johnny snapped. "She believed in doin’ right."

"So she couldn't let Beresford's son get away with murder 'cause it weren't right? ‘Cause it was murder, no matter the reason?" Ellie’s gaze was uncompromising as she kept her eyes firmly on him, refusing to yield until she was sure her meaning had been understood.

Johnny received her meaning loud and clear and he fought it, breaking eye contact immediately as if somehow that would remove Ellie’s words from his head.

Johnny was rarely transparent, but in this moment he was; Ellie could see clearly the internal battle that raged inside. She thought she understood some of what he was feeling at least.  “Johnny,” she said tentatively. “What do you want?”

Johnny looked at her sharply. “I’ve already told you.”

“After,” Ellie said gently. “What d’ya want from your life?”

Johnny stared, remembering how he hadn’t cared. I don’t care, he reminded himself, although it didn’t sound convincing. But what was there for him now? While he had Beresford and McColl to concentrate on, he had a purpose, the strength to continue fighting through life without Katie.  “I can’t let this go, Ellie,” he said calmly. “I won’t.”

“I know. I wouldn’t expect the Johnny I know to either, but you still ain’t answered me.”

Johnny let out a ragged breath and he turned away again, running a hand through his hair. He’d never been one to go through life feeling sorry for himself. He’d always been stronger than that. No matter how tough he’d had it, there were always people worse off. Johnny knew that, he’d seen them. He’d seen too many good people buckle beneath the weight of self-pity they’d let sit on their shoulders. Johnny was no longer sure he had the strength to avoid becoming one of those people. When first his family, then Katie, had come into his life, he hadn’t seized the opportunity for happiness without a second thought. He’d had to find the courage to accept it, and the self-belief to dare to deserve it. Was he strong enough to ever do that again?

“I don’t know…”

“You’re not the first man to lose someone you love, Johnny.” 

“I know that!” 

“But it hurts.”

“Yeah, it damn well hurts. How else is it supposed to feel?”

“It’s not. That’s it.” She rose from the bench and stood beside him. “Losing someone you love, hurts. It hurts them that’s left behind, ain’t no gettin’ away from it. So what I don’t understand is…” Ellie turned her body to him, her expression determined. When Johnny didn’t look at her she tugged on his shirt until he did, “…so what I don’t understand is how ya can consider hurtin’ everyone who loves ya in the same way?”

Johnny jerked away, glaring at her furiously. “You’re right, Ellie, you don’t understand,” he said bitterly, turning to leave, only for her to wrench him back by his shirt.

“Let go.” 

“No. Not ‘til you listen real good,” Ellie said fiercely, temper lighting her eyes even in semi-darkness. She noticed the shift in his expression, a cool countenance replacing his anger, but she was unperturbed. “I know ya want Beresford to pay. Like I said, I understand. But what I don’t get is why you plan on being so selfish?”


“You know you much it hurts to lose someone, you just told me. Yet ya don’t seem to care. Not whether you live or die, or whether you even get a say in it. ‘Cause if you kill Beresford in cold blood you’ll end up swingin’ from a rope, and even if you got away with it, you’d still be dead, Johnny, dead inside, and everyone who’s foolish enough to love ya would be hurtin’ just like you are now!”

She lowered her voice then and looked at Johnny earnestly. “Chances are that when Beresford finds out who you are, why you’ve come, then one way or another, he’s gonna try to kill ya. The Madrid I know, he’d let him try. Then you’ll get what you want.”

As Ellie outlined the basics of his plan, Johnny closed his eyes and breathed out heavily through his nose. There was still an element of doubt he harboured; what if he couldn’t hold it together when he saw the man responsible for the murder of his wife.  Hate had spent the last year urging Johnny to shoot Beresford down with the same disregard he and McColl had shown for Katie’s life. Not caring if he lived or died, Johnny worried that the temptation might prove unavoidable. After all, he’d just be exchanging one hell for another.

But he couldn’t deny the truth of Ellie’s words. They refused to budge from his mind; seeking comradeship with similar words spoken by his father and his conscience.

“I’m sure Katie would understand why you need to do this,” Ellie said quietly. “But wouldn’t she want ya to remain the man she loved? Katie would want ya to be happy again one day, to be able to move on once this is over?”

Her words shattered the last of Johnny’s defences and he was simply too exhausted to fight. When he opened his eyes, they were awash with such raw, vivid pain that it left Ellie breathless.

“I miss her.” Johnny was barely audible as he fought to retain his composure. Without a word Ellie stepped forward, encircling her arms around him, holding him tentatively at first, more confidently when he didn’t resist. Her head rested against his chest and she listened to his heartbeat, understanding that Johnny was not just a man who’d lost his wife, but a man only just beginning to grieve for his loss. While he’d had to face up to a few cold, harsh facts tonight, Ellie realised it was time for her to do the same. Johnny’s heart belonged to someone else; a dead woman, whom she could never compete with.




Memories tumbled into his mind like an avalanche. Johnny dislodged one pivotal boulder so they all fell; plummeting down in a grateful rush, leaving him inundated with previously forbidden thoughts. Some rolled gently to rest in his head, bringing a fond smile to his face; quirky memories that would mean nothing to anyone else, while others impacted with the full force of their momentum, physically painful to feel, causing Johnny to squeeze his eyes shut as they pelted his heart with glancing blows.

He didn’t know how long the avalanche lasted, only that it was long after Ellie left him on the porch, sitting on the bench with his head in his hands. He’d feared this, shied desperately and aggressively from it, yet rather than feeling the weak, vulnerable wreck he’d anticipated, Johnny found he felt stronger for confronting his fears. The rope drawn taut around the neck of his emotions had slackened, giving him room to breathe and space to think.

Johnny raised his head. The stars were invisible against a suddenly lighter sky and he realised he was tired. He yawned. Even though he felt physically worn, Johnny knew sleep would elude him.

He had to make a decision about Scott.

Behind, through the partially open door, darkness called, beckoning him inside the house with whispered promises of protection. Johnny didn’t like hiding, even though that was essentially what he’d been doing for the past year. If he stayed hidden then what might Scott do? He knew where Johnny was headed. He knew all about Beresford. The last thing Johnny wanted was for Scott to go riding into Winston looking for him and find trouble instead.

Part of him longed for the companionship of his brother. The temptation was to face Scott, accept whatever his brother intended to dish out, and then embrace the support that Johnny knew would be there for him. But he couldn’t. What I got in mind is pretty much of a one man deal. Johnny smiled briefly as he remembered telling his brother the same thing a few years ago. Scott hadn’t been impressed then, so it stood to reason this time would be no different.

The whisky bottle stood on the floor and Johnny nudged it with his boot. It rolled across the rough wooden boards and came to rest by the railing. He needed to stop Scott going to Winston. The open door beckoned again with its offer of sanctuary, and this time Johnny heeded its call. Inside the house was silent, for once free of the debauchery which on any other night, haunted the rooms and scented the air.

He found Ellie sprawled on her bed with her eyes closed, the sound of her breathing soft and steady. The jeans she’d worn were discarded and she lay above the covers in the same oversized white shirt she’d had on earlier. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, Johnny reached to gently shake her.

Her eyelids flickered and she frowned, swatting Johnny’s hand away before nestling further into the pillow.

“Ellie,” Johnny said softly. “I know you’re awake.”

She groaned and put the pillow over her head. “No, I ain’t.”

Johnny sighed and leaned back, letting the soft mattress embrace his tired body. His head found a flat cushion on Ellie’s stomach and he stared up at a ceiling already tinted with soft tones of dawn blue.

Peeking from the pillow, Ellie watched him. He was staring vacantly upward, the soft light filtering through the drapes drawing a glossy sheen from his dark hair. His hands were folded across his stomach and the line of his jaw worked steadily. Propping the pillow behind her head, she gave into impulse and trailed her fingers through his hair, her fingertips gliding through the fine mist of sweat on his brow. No matter how tired she felt, she’d been unable to sleep. Her mind kept too sharply awake by the brutal reality that haunted the man before her, a reality that brought him into her bed, yet further away than he’d ever been. “What you thinkin’?” she whispered.

“Oh…’bout Scott,” Johnny said eventually, turning slightly to look at her.

“Are ya gonna go see him?”

Johnny was silent for a long time before finally shaking his head. “It ain’t a good idea.”


“’Cause he won’t listen to me. He’s convinced I ain’t thinkin’ straight—"

“Are you?” Her hand stilled in his hair. “Did you listen to me?”

“I listened.”

“Then explain to your brother,” Ellie advised. “Put his mind at rest.”

“It’s not that simple. What you said downstairs, ‘bout me hurtin’ those I love, well it’s true. I’ve done and said things…unforgivable things…Scott won’t be in the mood to understand or listen to me. Not no more…”

“You’re scared to face him!”

“It’s not that,” Johnny insisted fiercely. “I know my brother, Ellie. I know how stubborn he can be. As soon as he knows I’m here, that’ll be it. He’ll stick to my tail like a fly to shit.”

“Is that so bad?”

“Yeah.” Johnny levered himself into a seated position. “I’m pretty sure Beresford don’t know Katie was married to Johnny Madrid, but he’ll know she died a Lancer. That could land Scott in serious trouble. I need to keep him from Winston.” He reached for the bed sheet and rubbed the thin material between his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t get me wrong, my brother can take care of himself. Any other time I’d be glad to have him watchin’ my back. Hell, he’s saved my hide when it really mattered in the past…but he don’t think like Beresford.”

“So what you gonna do then?” Ellie questioned. “If you won’t talk to Scott, how ya gonna stop him?”

“I can’t,” Johnny admitted. He angled his body toward Ellie, looking at her intently with eyes wide and vivid. “But you could.”


“You could go see Scott, tell him I’m okay…”

Ellie firmly shook her head as she sat against the pillows. “Nope. That ain’t my place. You need to talk to your brother. You told me how close y’all are. Surely you can make him understand?”

Johnny sighed in frustration. “You said yourself that when Beresford works out why I’m there, he’ll try to kill me, ain’t that right?” His eyes flickered with challenge when Ellie hesitated. “Ain’t that right?”

“Yeah, but…”

“But nothin’. I have to do this alone, Ellie. If Scott follows me, I’d be lookin’ out for him, I could get distracted…D’ya want me to get hurt?”

Ellie was stricken. “But if Scott won’t listen to you, he ain’t gonna listen to me.”

Johnny took her hand, encasing it softly between his warm palms. “Tell Scott the truth—tell him ‘bout the fight, how I got busted up, and how I ain’t ready to face Beresford yet. Tell him I left town the way I came…”

“I’m not sure I could lie—”

“You lied yesterday,” Johnny cut in. “You lied to Scott then!”

Ellie wrenched her hand away. “That ain’t the same,” she declared hotly. “I was lookin’ out for you!”

“So now I’m askin’ you to help look out for Scott,” Johnny coaxed. When she remained unsure, he frowned. “Damn it, Ellie, it ain’t lying for lying’s sake.”

He reached for her hand again, squeezing her fingers passionately. “Have you any idea what it would do to me to see another person I love get hurt?” 

Ellie wavered. “Scott’ll know ya didn’t leave town on the west road,” she pointed out. “You’d have passed him.”

“Where’s Barranca?”

“I told ya, I got someone to take care of him.”

“Yeah, but where? Not the livery, Scott’ll see him and know I’m still here.”

“No, he’s not in the livery. Me an’ the livery owner don’t see eye to eye. Well…more like me an’ the livery owner’s wife don’t.”

“Ellie, I know I ain’t got the right to ask more. But Scott would believe you.”

She sat further up in bed, dragging the bed sheet over her bare knees. “It’s gettin’ light outside, Johnny. What if he’s already left?”

“Well if he’s gone then I’m goin’ after him. But if there’s a chance he can be stopped, that we can keep him safe…”

Ellie looked down at her lap, struggling with indecision. Johnny touched her chin, raising her head so she met his pleading eyes.

“Ellie, please…”

She swallowed. Johnny’s imploring gaze penetrated her as his fingers tenderly caressed her cheek. She did know what it would do to Johnny if anything happened to his brother. She’d seen what it had done to him to lose his wife. I’d just be keepin’ Scott safe. Taking a deep breath, she nodded. “What d’ya want me to say?”


A shouted greeting, a fainter reply, the rolling rumble of a wagon’s wheels, horses’ hooves churning up the street—the sounds reached through the partly open window, rousing Scott from the fitful slumber he didn’t remember succumbing to. Waking to bright sunlight first thing each morning would usually cheer the soul, but as Scott sat and peeled the damp sheet from his body, he considered the novelty was fast wearing off. He’d lain awake for hours last night, too hot to sleep, the worry that he was not destined to catch up with his brother, circling his mind. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stretched.

He’d wanted to be up earlier than this, to make a head start toward Winston just as the sun rose. Grabbing his pants, Scott gave them a shake before pulling them on, his skin already suffocating beneath the material. He stood before the chipped mirror that hung askew on the wall and he straightened it, trying to ignore the lingering tiredness in his eyes and the shadows cast on the delicate skin beneath. He reached for the jug and poured clean water into the basin. Despite the fact it was tepid, the water refreshed him and he didn’t bother with a towel, just let the droplets trickle down his face and neck. He ran wet fingers through his hair, flattening the sleep induced tufts into order. He finished dressing, pushing his arms through the sleeves of his blue shirt and buttoning it, his mind drifting to the ride ahead.

By the time Scott checked out of the hotel, the whole town had come to life.  As he waited to cross the street, an old man on a buckboard rode past sending a mushroom of dust into the air. The blacksmith was open, the steady clank of metal on metal assaulting Scott’s ears. He paused to fill his canteen at the water pump, and near the jail, his thoughts turned to Johnny. He knew his brother was hot headed at times, a common trait in all Lancer men, but it was unlike Johnny to start a brawl. No, that’s not quite true, Scott corrected with a wry smile. It was like Johnny to start a brawl, just not as a result of being drunk. Johnny never got drunk and violent. Instead he got merry and flashed far more lopsided grins than normal. He also developed the annoying habit of singing at the top of his lungs the nearer they got to home, while Scott tried desperately to shut him up. The wry smile became a full on grin as Scott considered how Johnny did that on purpose, knowing that every time they woke Murdoch and his sleepy, but nevertheless thunderous voice, would roar down the stairs, Johnny could claim incoherence, leaving Scott to mumble the apologies while trying to get his brother to bed without further disturbance.

The Johnny, Scott knew never got drunk and violent. The fact that these days he did launched concern firmly ahead in the battle to be Scott’s predominant emotion. His grin banished, Scott left the jail and the saloon behind, and the smell of horses and freshly raked hay heralded his arrival at the livery. He was just about to enter when he heard his name being called urgently. He looked up in surprise to see a woman hurrying toward him, her loose hair flying.

Pushing the hat back on his head, Scott watched Ellie approach; not even sure if it was her at first. Yesterday she was well dressed, her face made up and hair neatly pinned. Today she was wearing jeans and a shirt that was too big, her hair wild. The only colour on her face was the rosy tint of exertion as she came to an abrupt stop in front of him, breathless and flustered.

“Scott…I’m so glad I caught ya,” she said, fanning her hand rapidly in front of her face.

“Miss. Thomas,” Scott said in greeting, unable to stop himself noticing that the natural look suited her more. “I was just about to leave town.”

Ellie nodded, still breathless. “I know, but there’s somethin’ I need to tell ya.”

Scott scanned her expression, noting it serious, and so he pointed to the livery entrance where the only nearby ears were those of the horses. “Shall we?” he suggested politely.

“It’s ‘bout, Johnny,” Ellie blurted out as soon as they were inside.

Scott nodded, he’d guessed as much. He could think of no other reason why a woman he’d met just once would fly down the street to stop him leaving. “Tell me what you know, Miss. Thomas.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

Scott fought back the urge to smile at that remark because it wasn’t the time to get embroiled in this young woman’s quirkiness, as intriguing as it might be. “Okay, Eleanor,” he amended. “What do you know about my brother?”

Ellie’s eyes darted around the stables, willing to focus anywhere it seemed, but on his face. “I wasn’t straight with you, yesterday,” she began, finding eye contact at last. “Johnny never was in jail. He would’a been, but he was unconscious after the fight so I convinced Josh to let me take him instead.”

Scott looked at her suspiciously. “Why would you do that?”

“Because I knew Johnny Madrid a long time ago. We were…friends,” she said awkwardly, her eyes looking for Scott to comprehend her meaning.

“Go on.”

“When we met yesterday…well, I didn’t know if you were Johnny’s brother. I never expected…you’re not what I imagined…” her voice trailed off and she cleared her throat before tossing her hair. “Johnny told me he had a brother, but never said no more than that. He didn’t give me a name or nothin’, an’ he told me not to tell anyone he was here. I know what kind of life Johnny leads, Scott, so I wasn’t ‘bout to start tellin’ the world where they could find him.”

Scott hesitated. He understood why Ellie would be reluctant to divulge Johnny’s whereabouts to a stranger, even if that stranger was claiming to be his brother. It also made sense that Johnny wouldn’t have gone into detail about his family—he didn’t talk about anything he didn’t want to. “But you’re telling me now, Eleanor. Why the sudden change of heart, why tell the world now?” 

Ellie chewed on her bottom lip for a moment before replying. “Well, I went home an’ thought ‘bout it, see,” she explained. “I thought how you seemed real nice an’ all. How you sounded real concerned about your brother. I reckon I’m a pretty good judge of character, Scott. I was just shocked at first. Once I had time to think it over…”

“So you know where Johnny is?”

“No…not exactly.” Ellie shrugged. “But I know where he’s headed.”

Scott sighed then and leaned back against the door to his horse’s stall. “I already know where he’s headed,” he said wearily, and then he looked up when something she’d said occurred to him. “You said Johnny was unconscious. Just how badly hurt was he?”

In a gesture that surprised Scott, Ellie placed her hand on his arm, looking up at him with warm eyes. “Oh, Johnny ain’t hurt bad,” she assured. “Just sore. He figured he needed more time before going to Winston, so he changed his plans.”

“Johnny told you he was going to Winston?” Scott questioned, standing straight and looking at Ellie in surprise. “Did he tell you why?”

“Yeah, he told me,” Ellie admitted softly. “Johnny told me ‘bout Katie and Beresford. We had a long talk before he left. I think Johnny’s realised that when he does go after Beresford, that it’s gotta be done, well, right, ya know? He ain’t gonna do nothin’ foolish.”

Scott was unable to mask his astonishment. His brother, who had put everyone through hell in an effort to avoid talking, had spilled his heart and soul to a woman that was probably nothing more than a willing bed partner. Johnny had said nothing about his family, a family that had worried themselves sick for months, other than to casually mention their existence.  This was the same brother who had pulled a gun on their father when confronted with the question of just how he was going to deal with Andrew Beresford when the time came. For the life of him, Scott was unable to muster any other kind of reaction to Ellie’s revelation. His horse shifting impatiently in the stall, the smell of hay…everything faded until all that was left in his head was the hurtful realisation that he was absent from Johnny’s life in more ways than one.


Realising that Ellie’s hand was still on his arm, Scott brushed it off quickly, not liking, but unable to help the resentment he suddenly harboured toward her. Folding his arms across his chest, Scott asked, “Where did Johnny go, if not to Winston?” He knew his tone was sharp—he was unable to help that either.

“He took the west road outta town. ‘Said he needed to lay low for a while, ‘til he was back to his best…”


“First thing yesterday mornin’.”

Scott shook his head. “No, I’d of seen him,” he said firmly.

“Not if he didn’t want ya to, I reckon.”

Scott looked at her sharply. “You do know Johnny,” he said derisively. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to grip his thoughts and feelings. He felt guilty for treating Ellie so offhandedly. This wasn’t her fault. Clearing his throat, Scott said, “Thank you for telling me, Eleanor. I appreciate it.”

“You’re his brother. It’s the right thing to do.”


A few minutes later, Ellie watched Scott lead his horse from the livery and mount up. Nervously she waited when Josh stepped out of the jail and said something to Scott, but it was a brief conversation, whatever was said, and she breathed relief as Scott rode out of town in the direction he’d come. It’s the right thing, Ellie reminded herself. Scott was out of harms way like Johnny wanted. She didn’t like having to lie, but what was the alternative, when Johnny insisted that Scott not know he was here? Ellie had to look on this as the lesser of two evils. If she’d refused Johnny’s request and something had happened to Scott in Winston, how would she live with that on her conscience. More importantly, how would Johnny?




Outside in the glaring light of day, Winston seemed like any other town. An assortment of timber and brick buildings hemmed three sides of a large central square, bathing the boardwalks in an oasis of shadow. There were the usual conveniences; a saloon; general store with a sign advertising everything from confectionary to kerosene, and further down the boardwalk, barred windows indicated a local jail. On the far side, situated for prominence, stood a house that was easily the grandest home Winston had to offer. A dry stone wall surrounded the property, shielding most of the ground floor. Only the entrance was visible; three steps led up to dark wooden doors with fancy iron handles and stained glass panels. Within the perimeter there were several tall elm trees, their leaves skimmed a balcony that ran the width of the house. Drapes hung over the upstairs windows and doors, offering no view inside, but a sneaky view out.

People went about their everyday business. Nobody gave Scott a second glance as he dismounted from his horse, removed his gloves and then his hat, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm.

Inside the saloon was a different story.

Men stared slyly from beneath hat brims or sat back in their chairs to gaze with open hostility. Even participants in a tense game of poker looked up from the pot to assess him. Refusing to be intimidated, Scott headed to the bar, aware that most followed his progress.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked gruffly.

“I’ll have a beer.”

It was set down in front of him heavily, flecks of froth flying from the glass mug. The bartender produced a cloth from his pocket and ran it along the wood.

“Is there a hotel here?”

The bartender raised his head slowly and jerked his thumb toward the exit. “We got one place that lets rooms, there’ll be some available. Always is.”

Scott was hardly surprised. “Where can I find this place?”

The bartender looked at him like he was stupid. “Town square,” he said bluntly. 

“Of course,” Scott muttered. The bartender turned his back leaving Scott to feel that either there was something about his appearance that looked odd, or this town simply didn’t like strangers.

He leaned against the bar and took a long drink, his mind returning to yesterday, and how close he’d come to falling for Ellie’s story. She’d seemed genuine, Scott liked her, yet even as he led his horse from the livery, he’d been besieged by doubts about her honesty as his hurt feelings surrendered to sensibility. It made no sense for Johnny to retreat, injured or not.

Stupid girl. She’d do anything for Madrid. Josh’s words, spoken as Scott was leaving town, echoed in his mind. They’d not been for his ears, Scott knew. They’d been muttered to the dirt before the sheriff stalked back inside the jail.

Before Johnny left for Winston, he’d obviously persuaded Ellie to send Scott on a false trail. It was a simple yet effective military tactic; divert the enemy and then attack. It hurt Scott to comprehend that he’d become an enemy, when all he wanted was to be Johnny’s strongest ally. They’d always trusted each other and like a bridge it spanned their backgrounds and personalities, connecting them more than shared blood alone could. Lately Scott had been forced to face the fact that trust no longer existed between them.

He sighed and stared into his beer. The mug half empty.

He supposed Johnny thought he was being clever, and the temptation to say to hell with him was strong. Every single thing Johnny had done since he’d left home was for himself. But if Scott returned to his own bed, his books, familiar faces who actually wanted him around, then he’d just be returning to the way it was before—the uncertainty, the not knowing, waiting for the knock on the door or the telegram that would announce the end of Johnny, one way or another.

Gone were the days when Johnny would go without leaving a ripple.

On the periphery of his vision, a man arrived at the bar, muscling into an open space. Scott could feel his unfriendly stare. Not wanting trouble, he turned and took his beer to an empty table by the window.

Staring out toward the grand house, he wondered if that was where Andrew Beresford lived. Ellie said Johnny had realised that Beresford had to be handled ‘right’, that he wouldn’t do anything foolish. But whose definition of foolish was she talking about—her own or Johnny’s?  Scott knew the hate Johnny harboured for Beresford, evident from his actions as well as words.

He needed to find Johnny, but where to start, how to go about it? Scott had chosen the saloon as the most likely place for Johnny to be. He’d checked the livery, but had not found Barranca. Would Johnny hide? Scott figured not. That wasn’t Madrid’s style and he’d certainly had made no effort to hide so far, except from his family. Johnny told Murdoch that Beresford would welcome him with open arms, so Scott assumed Johnny Madrid would lure Beresford to whatever showdown he had in mind. Apart from this small speck of insight, Scott had no clue to his brother’s plan.

Softly drumming his fingers on the table top, Scott tried to think like Johnny; a task made harder by his shaken faith that he knew his brother at all. After a frustrated sigh, he finished his beer.


Despite the greeting, the voice was gruff and unfriendly and belonged to the customer who’d stood next to Scott at the bar—a short, stocky man with a full round face, bushy brown moustache and eyebrows. He imposed himself over Scott with his thumbs hooked into his belt, one hand just slightly over to the right, nearer his gun. Raising his gaze from the man’s hands, Scott noted the shiny badge pinned to the lapel of his jacket.

“Something I can help with, Sheriff?”

The sheriff tilted his head back slightly in recognition of his title, sweat swimming on his forehead, trickling from beneath his large Stetson to trail down sun burnt cheeks. He puffed out his chest. “You ain’t from ‘round here.” 

“That’s very perceptive of you,” Scott remarked wryly, before mentally reminding himself that while he was supposed to be thinking like Johnny, perhaps it wasn’t the smartest idea to wind up the local lawman.

The sheriff narrowed his eyes. “Stan tells me ya were askin’ ‘bout a place to stay?”

“I was.”

“What’s your business here?”

“I’m just passing through,” Scott said casually. “Need a place to stop and rest. It’s the heat, you know, when you’re not used to it, it can be pretty hard to take.”

“And ya name?”


“And just where would ya be passin’ through to, Garrett?”

Scott curled his fingers around the empty mug. “Have I missed something, Sheriff?” he asked, forcing a light tone.

The sheriff stared impassively at him, his fingers deliberately flexing closer to his gun. “No,” he said after a pregnant pause. “Just look on this as an introduction of sorts. I wanna make it clear to ya, Garrett, that I’m the law of this town, therefore all law matters come through me. All matters,” he emphasised. “Understand?”

Unease stirred in Scott’s stomach, but he didn’t let it show. “I understand,” he replied with a nod, even though he didn’t.

“Good,” the sheriff said briskly, his stance relaxing. “You just stay outta trouble. We don’t tolerate it.”

Scott considered pointing out that they clearly didn’t tolerate strangers either, but instead he smiled. “Sheriff, you won’t even know I’m here.”  

“Glad to hear it.” The sheriff’s expression was void of the emotion he proclaimed to feel, and Scott watched him leave the saloon, the doors swinging in his wake. He wondered if the sheriff had encountered his brother yet and if Johnny had received a similar welcome.

Rising to his feet, Scott headed outside. He scanned the buildings, pondering Johnny’s sleeping arrangements. Would he get a room or make camp on the outskirts of town? He collected his belongings from his horse and located the small hotel. Walking inside, Scott was unfazed when the elderly proprietor shot him a look of suspicion. He couldn’t help but wonder how on earth this man survived in business if this town didn’t encourage anyone to stay more than a few minutes. 

“You wantin’ a room?” was the crotchety question as Scott approached.

Removing his hat, Scott set it down on the desk top and sighed. “Yes. If it’s not too much trouble.”

The proprietor shrugged. “No trouble,” he said, producing a register with a well worn cover and sliding it across the counter.

Before signing, Scott skimmed the other names, but couldn’t make half of them out. “I’d also like something to eat,” he said pointedly.

“There’s a café. It’s—”

“On the square? I’ll find it. Thanks.”

After paying the man, Scott went upstairs and inserted the key in the lock. The room smelt musty and Scott went to the window and lifted it, thinking that hot air was better than none at all. It was late afternoon and he was hungry, but the thought of sitting still and eating, sitting still and doing anything, seemed wrong somehow when he must be so close to finding his brother. Where are you? Scott asked silently, frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t even ask around for Johnny Madrid. Scott was here to watch his brother’s back, not land Johnny in danger. The only danger Scott intended exposing Johnny to, would be his wrath when he finally caught up with him. 

Scott opened his wallet and removed the crumpled drafts of telegrams he’d sent from Widow’s Creek. The first one had been to Murdoch, advising him to stay put until he heard from Scott again. Scott mused whether Murdoch would actually do that. When it came to a dislike of following orders, sometimes it was easy to see where Johnny got it from. Screwing the paper into a ball, Scott dropped it into the waste can and he was just about to do the same with the second, the one he’d sent back home, when knuckles rapped sharply against the door.

“Mr. Garrett?”

Recognising the voice of the elderly man from downstairs, Scott placed the draft on the table and went to open the door.


The glass pane of the door felt warm to the touch and his sweaty hand left fingerprints that trapped the sun rays like a prism. He pushed at the door and it opened with a squeak of un-oiled hinges. The heat had warped the wood and so it grazed the floor of the balcony, leaving a perfect crescent in the dust. Andrew Beresford stepped outside, grasping hold of the iron railing with tanned hands, the leaves of the trees creeping over the end of the balcony to brush the left side of his body; from his shoulder to his boots. He cut an arresting figure from the elevated vantage point of his home, his posture while not physically imposing, exuded confidence and calm control.      

He only stood out here when he had something on his mind; usually at dusk or dawn when Winston was quieter. From here, Beresford could watch the whole town, his town, and draw solace from all he’d achieved.

Today, thanks to Sheriff Bill Marvin, Andrew Beresford had something on his mind.

Shielding his eyes from bright sunlight, he monitored Marvin’s progress across the square, his stride that of a man on a mission. Beresford licked his fingertips and smoothed his sideburns as he considered what he would do if Marvin was right about the stranger.

It had been easy; buying up land around here, all his negotiations over profit sharing had gone smoothly. There had been the odd man who’d put up a fight, but they’d all been persuaded in the end. It had come as an unpleasant surprise a few months back, to find out that somehow the farmers had hoarded enough money to hire an attorney to fight their cause. The pompous lawyer had posed questions to important people, took statements, giving the fools misguided hope. He’d been stopped, but it had been costly, and Beresford was in the business of making money, not throwing it away to protect what should never have been threatened in the first place.

Marvin said the stranger, Garrett, was not from around here, talked “proper”, and while Beresford did not truly believe that the farmers would be stupid enough to hire another man to fight their cause, it paid to be careful.

Marvin has a suspicious nature, Beresford reminded himself with a smile. Not a bad trait to have in a loyal sheriff. But if he’s right…Beresford gripped the railing tighter. If Garrett was here to cause trouble then some serious questions would be asked. He didn’t pay his men to allow the farmers enough money to fight back. If it had happened again, a stronger point would have to be made. Clearly the fate of Price; beaten to within an inch of his life and left blind and useless, had not hammered the message home to the others.

When Marvin disappeared into the hotel, Beresford withdrew from the balcony. In addition to the suspicious side of Marvin’s nature, the sheriff had a sadistic streak. He was a little man longing to exert whatever power he could whenever Beresford let him off the leash. There was no doubt that if this stranger had come with any purpose other than just ‘passing through’, then Marvin and a few others would gladly take the opportunity to prise the truth out of him.




It sounded like an inept attempt at music initially; someone was playing drums loudly and they must be doing so right next to him such was the pulsating rhythm in his head. There was another sound; a brash, metallic melody that Scott couldn’t place. After a moment or two, he realised these sounds couldn’t be considered music at all, rather they were a composition designed to torture. One that made him want to slip back into the deaf cloak of darkness. As Scott’s senses came back, it was easy to pinpoint the location of the drummer—he was in his head which throbbed and pounded, making his eyelids too heavy to open. Scott couldn’t explain the other noise. Perhaps his ears were ringing—that would account for it, only it seemed too loud and real.

He was lying on something relatively soft so it wasn’t the ground, yet it was not comfortable enough to be a bed. And he hurt. Not just the ache in his skull which could be traced to the back of his head, but his arms too; a heavy weight pinned them, preventing his fingers from examining any injuries he might have.

The unidentified noise stopped. Scott opened his eyes to sunlight which like the thrust of a red hot poker, sent a hiss of pain through his head. He shut his eyes and tried again to move, realising that the heavy weight that pinned his arms was his own body. His discomfort was a result of lying in this position; on his stomach with his hands clasped together. Pins and needles pricked his skin and Scott rocked slightly, gathering enough momentum to roll onto his left side. He attempted to prise his deadening arms free. When he was unable, a seed of panic sprouted and Scott struggled, feeling what could only be shackles biting his wrists.

His eyelids flew open and he squinted until they adjusted to the beam of light from the window positioned high in the wall, a window with bars...

At first he was relieved to realise he was in jail, but then he remembered the bump on his head and reconsidered his relief. The cell was narrow and with the exception of the wall with the window, all around him were iron bars. There was a corridor leading out to the sheriff’s office, Scott guessed. He was lying on a blanket that was torn and filthy, and Scott shuddered to think he’d had his face pressed against it. Still on his side, he felt the chill of metal against his back. He tried to think. He couldn’t have been unconscious for long, but any length of time was bad, and he lay still, trying to clear his foggy head.

Fogginess gave way to a snowstorm as the whys and wherefores fluttered into his mind, merging together to form a crisp blanket of restored memories. He could remember being in the hotel room...the knock at the door...the elderly proprietor asking him if he would like the jug refilled with fresh water. Scott had said yes, turned to get it, heard movement behind him, and then his knees were buckling…a cushion of darkness waiting to embrace his fall.

Who knocked me out and why? The elderly man’s face flashed into his mind, and Scott pictured his slight stature—he seemed too frail—but then it didn’t take brute strength to hit a man from behind. What reason would he have? What reason would anyone, unless somehow they know I’m a Lancer…or Beresford has Johnny…the thought made Scott cold with concern.

Slumping onto his front, he began to edge his legs off the cot with the intention of getting to his feet, only to freeze when he heard approaching footsteps.  He shut his eyes again, hoping to peer through his lashes at the person, before they realised he was awake.

The footsteps stopped outside the cell door, and when that metallic melody started up again, Scott could contain his curiosity no longer. He risked a peek.

A large man; tall, heavy set, and practically bald, stood outside the cell, casually running his gun back and forth along the metal bars, playing them like a xylophone, only the note never ascended the scales. He wore a bored, frustrated expression and wasn’t looking at Scott, just staring into space, lips moving silently as he muttered to himself.

Opening his eyes fully, Scott rocked back onto his side and inched his legs forward, managing to plant his feet on the floor as he pushed himself up into a seated position by using his left elbow.

The man stopped his torturous symphony and turned with a sneer. “You awake now, boy?”

Scott glared at his unexpected jailer. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?” he asked. “Why am I here?”

The balding man rubbed at his chin with mock thoughtfulness, his eyes hooded by thick, brown brows, his right hand still clutched the gun. “Well, if I were ta take a wild guess, I’d say you’ve been arrested, Garrett.”

“I can see that,” Scott said, trying to keep his temper in check, knowing he was not in any position to unleash it. “And is this the usual way of arresting someone in this town—knocking them out cold?”

The man grinned wickedly, but didn’t answer.

“Well, I have the right to know why,” Scott continued, as patiently as he could. “What am I suspected of? What charges are you planning to fabricate?”

The man chuckled deep in his throat. “Now, Garrett. D’ya really think the sheriff would haul ya to jail without a good, lawful reason?” The man shook his head in mock disbelief. “Why, ya were mindless on drink, boy! Maybe ya threatened ole Lenny at the hotel, or maybe it were one of the women at the saloon...maybe ya got all violent when the sheriff went ta talk to ya ‘bout it. Could be any of them things, I reckon. Guess that’s what comes of spending your afternoons drinkin’ in the saloon now, don’t it?”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “Now wait a minute,” he said with more calmness than he thought he should possess right now. “I was not drunk. I didn’t threaten anyone...”

“Save it, Garrett. The sheriff has witnesses—any number of good men who’d be willin’ ta swear to whatever he decides ya did. Perhaps ya need a lawyer, Garrett. How good are ya at representin' yourself?”

“What are you talking about?” Scott said wearily, his head still pounding.  

“I’m talkin’ ‘bout you being an attorney.”

Scott laughed before he could stop himself. “You think I’m an attorney?” he asked in disbelief. “Why would you think that?”

The man scowled in the face of Scott’s amusement, but said no more, just examined his gun with menacing fascination.

Scott sighed. “I want to see the sheriff. Where is he?”

The man shrugged. “He’ll be back. He’s gone ta see the boss.”

Beresford? Scott sucked in a breath, wondering again if somehow they knew. If they had his brother…if Johnny was in trouble or worse...Scott forced himself to remain calm. “I’m telling you,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I was not drunk and I’m not an attorney. There has been a misunderstanding.”

The man opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another voice answered. “You know, I reckon he might just be tellin’ the truth…least ‘bout them things.” The sheriff stepped through from his front office and lifting the ring of keys from his belt, unlocked the door and entered Scott’s cell. The balding man stepped in behind.

“But there is somethin’ ya forgot to mention, ain’t that right?” Sheriff Marvin looked hard at Scott. “Like maybe ya ain't called Garrett.” He handed the set of keys to his sidekick who promptly locked them all in.

Scott gingerly rested his head against the bars, his gaze following the sheriff’s movements as he paced the cramped cell before coming to a standstill, imposing over Scott in much the same manner as he’d done in the saloon. He reached into his jacket and removed a piece of paper which he unfolded and dangled in the air. “D’ya know what this is?”

Scott stared at the draft of the telegram, inanely hoping it wasn’t real…that he couldn’t have been so stupid as to leave it on the table while he answered the door. But he had and his stomach clenched. It was there in the sheriff’s hand—tangible evidence of his stupidity, of a personal connection to the ranch, to the name Lancer. It took all Scott’s composure not to let his feelings show.

Marvin watched his prisoner intently, looking for some sign that he had him, but the blonde wasn’t giving anything away, least not yet. Bringing the paper down in front of him, Marvin cleared his throat and squinted at the handwritten words on the page. “Everythin’s okay,” he read out. “No need ta worry. Will keep ya updated…” Marvin paused, stroking the stubble on his chin. “This is the bit I find most interestin’…” He glanced at Scott in victory. “Be home before you know it. Scott.”

Marvin threw the paper at Scott with a challenging flourish. “Home,” he said, folding his thick arms across his chest. “The Lancer ranch, Morro Coyo. Yah sure are a long way from home, Scott.”

Scott stared at his handwriting, the only consolation being that it wasn’t the one to Murdoch that mentioned Beresford, Johnny and Winston. Fortunately this one was deliberately vague and general. They’d already sent word that Johnny had been released from jail following the gunfight, and what more had there been to say? Scott could have told them that Murdoch was hurt, or that they’d spoken to Johnny but he hadn’t listened and refused to come home. Scott had wanted to reassure them. He knew it couldn’t be easy running the ranch in their absence. The last thing he’d wanted to do was give more to worry about.

He considered his options. If the sheriff had already shown this to the boss, who Scott presumed was Beresford, then the sheriff may know about the Lancer connection, if he hadn’t before. Scott had no intention of telling them anything. He swept the telegram from his lap, before meeting the sheriff’s eyes, wishing just for once to borrow Johnny’s mask of casual indifference. “I’m afraid I still don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen this piece of paper before. It has nothing to do with me.”

Marvin raised a bushy eyebrow. “That so?” he drawled.

Scott looked closely at Marvin. “Yes. I’d barely been in that room a few minutes when you arrested me. I’m not sure what is going on here, but first you accuse me of being an attorney, then you change your mind and decide I’m sending telegrams to a place I’ve never heard of. I don’t know who it is you want me to be or why, but I’ve told you my name and my reason for stopping in this town. Quite frankly, anything else about my life is none of your business. I may not know as much about the law as I would if I were an attorney, but I know enough. If you are going to insist on keeping me here and charging me with something that we both know is a lie, then I’m at least entitled to some legal—"

The blow was a fierce one, jolting Scott’s head against the bars, the rest of his sentence washed away by the coppery taste of blood that trickled into his mouth. The drummer in his skull gave a curtain call, pounding away with renewed gusto, and Scott swallowed, his tongue automatically seeking the blood source.  He glanced to the other man, assessing his chances of escape, realising they were limited. He could bring his fists up right now and smash them into the underside of the sheriff’s jaw, tempting, but there was no feasible way to take on the other man, get the keys, and out of the cell before the sheriff recovered. 

“Let me make it clear how this conversation is gonna go,” Marvin said coldly, rubbing his knuckles. He leaned forward, his breath smelling of onions and strong coffee, making Scott want to retch. “I ask the questions an’ you answer ‘em with the truth. If I don’t figure I’m gettin’ the truth then I get mad.” He grabbed a fistful of Scott’s hair and tugged on it. 

“I’m telling you the truth,” Scott ground out.

Marvin straightened, removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “No, you ain’t,” he said casually. “But you will.” He handed his hat to the balding man, who since Marvin’s arrival had become a silent observer. When the sheriff peeled off his jacket, he found his voice again and gave another deep, throaty chuckle. The sheriff grinned. “Well, ya know Mary. She hates it when I get blood on my jacket.”

The second blow came like the first, only this time Scott figured he had nothing to lose. He retaliated swiftly and with reckless energy, balling his hands into fists and launching them at the sheriff’s face. Marvin staggered backward with a satisfying cry of pain that echoed around the cell. Blood poured from his nose.

It was the last time Scott lashed out and the last time he got to his feet.

Later, as he lay where he’d been thrown—on the floor, in the darkness, his shirt splattered with his own blood—that fleeting moment of satisfaction seemed painfully surreal. The blows had rained down hard after that, the sheriff and his sidekick taking it in turns to hold him until no restraint was necessary because Scott was too exhausted to fight. They knew what they were doing. Every backhander, kick, and crack of bone against bone was designed to cause maximum pain without delivering him into the shielding arms of unconsciousness.

Every so often they stopped and asked him for the truth. Each time Scott thought of Johnny and kept his mouth firmly closed. He tasted his resolve in the blood that ran a river from his nose to pool in the ravine of his split lip.

They suspected, but they weren’t sure. If this was what he got on suspicion alone then what fate awaited Scott if he admitted who he was? What fate awaited Johnny? Time slipped away. The longer the beating lasted, the more certain Scott was that they didn’t know anything about his brother.

Beyond the cell window, stars twinkled brightly; silver dots in an inky black sky. They blurred in front of Scott’s swollen eyes. From the depths of his pain-racked mind came a conclusion—Johnny hadn’t made a move. This begged a question that Scott was just too groggy to answer. Where the hell is he then?  


Seated behind the desk with his long legs up, a glass of the finest brandy in his left hand, a cigar smoking in his right, Andrew Beresford studied the now crumpled and bloodstained piece of paper that rested on his thigh. The room was in semi-darkness; rich burgundy drapes banished the moon, the lamp the only source of light. Shadows skulked in every corner, dark ghosts of the past whispered a warning that retribution had returned to haunt his life.

To anyone who didn’t know him, Beresford looked the picture of relaxation, but to Bill Marvin, who sat on the other side of the desk, the frantic puffing on the cigar and the visible tick along his jaw line, belied his agitation.

Lancer. Beresford allowed the word to mingle with the smoke he held in his mouth before letting it escape into the air. He watched as it rose to the ceiling to be claimed by the shadows.

Ever since Marvin found this piece of paper in the stranger’s room, Beresford’s mind had been spinning with the possibilities. Each time he considered the name Lancer, his mood darkened a shade. There was every chance a Lancer was in his town. A Lancer who didn’t want to be known as such and that could only mean one thing. Andrew Beresford didn’t believe it was a coincidence. He believed it was retribution. He knew all about that.

Beresford drank his brandy, licking the taste from his lips. He’d never given real consideration to the family the Crawford woman had married into. It had taken a long time to track her down, but a breakthrough had been made—the discovery of a small-town sheriff cousin. Beresford had been incensed to find that the woman who’d ensured his son was disgraced by a miscarriage of justice, was living her life; content and guilt-free enough to marry a rich rancher’s son and take his name. Just the thought of her being happy had burned like a branding iron against Beresford’s flesh.

The Lancer family had not figured in his plans. Perhaps a mistake in hindsight. The Crawford woman had to die, and when Price and McColl returned with the news that they’d killed the husband, too, well Beresford hadn’t cared. He’d grown to hate the Lancer name by association. It was only later when Murdoch Lancer tried to get the law to investigate, that Beresford gained some insight into just how much clout the rancher possessed in California. Fortunately, Beresford had a lot of clout here and there was no evidence. There never would be. None of the Lancer family’s feeble legal attempts had concerned Beresford. Where the law was concerned he felt smugly untouchable. Maybe the Lancer’s had finally realised this and decided to take matters into their own hands.

Fixing his eyes on the sheriff, Beresford returned his empty glass to the desktop. “You got nothing from him at all!” he accused harshly.  

Bill Marvin folded his arms and regarded his employer carefully from beneath the brim of his Stetson. “He said he’d never seen that before.” Marvin nodded toward the paper still resting on Beresford’s thigh. “His story ain’t changed.”

Beresford scowled and as he reached to deposit his cigar in the ashtray, he kept his cold gaze fixed on the sheriff. “Perhaps you weren’t persuasive enough, Bill?”

The defensiveness of his posture found its way into his tone as Marvin answered the accusation.  “Now hang on,” he said indignantly. “I was as persuasive as ya asked me ta be. Believe me, I didn’t wanna stop...” His lip curled into his moustache as he reached up and touched a thick finger gingerly to his nose. “But if ya wanted any chance of the boy still being able ta talk, then ya oughtta be thankin’ me for stoppin’. ‘Sides...” he said, his tone tentative now. “…perhaps he ain’t who ya think he is? Figure it’s more likely he’s got somethin’ ta do with them farmers…”

“No!” Beresford came to his feet in a furious surge, his fist smacking the desk like a gavel. He crossed the room with long, powerful strides, stopping in front of the marble fireplace, its purpose purely decorative, his head lifting to the portrait of what had been his one and only surviving son.

“No,” he repeated calmly. “He has something to do with the Lancer’s…” Beresford’s voice faded as his gaze lingered on the dimly lit image of Tommy. How old was he there? Beresford tried to remember as he stared at the oil painted features.

“So what d’ya wanna do?” Bill asked. “Ya want me ta have another go at ‘im?”

Beresford didn’t reply, lost in the brown hair and blue eyes of his son, remarkably similar to his late wife. She’d died giving birth to Tommy, the third son she’d bore, but the only one to take his first lungful of air. It had been bittersweet, hearing his newborn unleash his wail all over the house while knowing his wife was too weak to hear it. Minutes later she’d slipped away. Tommy was always destined to be precious. His wife’s death made him more so.

Tommy looked like his mother, but was my son in every other way. Beresford had taken great pride in nurturing those inherited qualities. He had raised a son to be proud of. He’d held such hopes for the boy. He knew Tommy never wanted to leave Galveston and move out here, but Beresford was sick of politics, his faith destroyed when he lost the election. When Tommy started drinking and gambling, Beresford had despaired over what to do with the morose young man. When there had been some trouble with a local girl and Tommy had said he wanted to leave and make his own mark on the world, Beresford had agreed. I should’ve found another way, brought him back into line by force if necessary. But at the time it had seemed like the right decision for a troubled father to make. Tommy had been twenty-four-years-old. I just wanted him to be happy.

It’s not my fault, what happened. It was thanks to that interfering, meddling Kathleen Crawford that his son had ended up paying for his unhappiness with his life. He knew exactly what kind of a woman she’d been; nothing but a licentious tease. A woman who’d led his son on and then single-handedly turned him from the strong man he’d been raised to be, into a weak, pathetic creature like the sons that preceded him. She had destroyed Tommy, forced him to take his own life, to go against everything he’d been taught. Tommy’s suicide filled Beresford with an undeniable rage that possessed him like a demon, manifesting an indomitable determination to carry through with his threat to kill the woman responsible. 

From his seat, Bill Marvin awkwardly cleared his throat, aware that his employer had drifted into bitter memories.

Beresford snapped back to the present and came back to his desk. “He must’ve had a horse—find it and lose it. He must have signed in the hotel register and had some belongings—burn them all.”

Marvin nodded. “So, if he’s one of them Lancer's, what d’ya reckon he had planned?"

Retribution. Beresford pursed his lips. It was sheer audacity that the Lancer’s thought him that vulnerable. It was outrageous and made him furious. Murdoch Lancer still had one son left, Beresford didn’t. No family of that bitch would take more from him. 

He returned to his seat. “That’s what I intend to find out,” he said coldly. “Make sure he’s awake and coherent tomorrow morning. I’ll get my answers.”

Marvin removed his hat and twirled it in his hands. “Ya know if yuh want my opinion, I say kill ‘im. Why wait?”

Beresford’s lips curved in disdain. “When I want your opinion, Bill, I’ll ask for it,” he said frostily, and then his lips thinned to a smile. “First I’ll get my answers. Then you’ll kill him.”




Josh Whittaker was not a morning person. He left his house with his mouth gaping in a wide o-shaped yawn, uncombed hair hidden by his hat, a chequered shirt half tucked in his pants. Ambling along the boardwalk, he grunted in response to cheerful greetings then escaped into the jail and closed the door on sunshine. Tossing his hat on the desk, he wandered to the stove to make his customary cup of coffee. This was his routine. He woke, drank coffee at home and then again here. Breakfast was eaten between his second and third cup, depending when the Widow Simmons, the lady who’d taken it upon herself to see that his home stayed clean and his belly full, chose to pop in with a hot plate. He sat at his desk, spreading out a newspaper, not minding it was several days old. As he read, he curled his thick fingers around the cup and brought it to his lips, blowing lightly, anticipating that first satisfying slurp.

Rapid gunshots caused him to set the cup down heavily, coffee sloshing over the rim to soak the newspaper. “What in the Sam Hill…?”Josh heaved himself from the chair, snatching his hat. Squinting, he scanned the street for trouble but all he could see were usual early morning activities. The locals were opening up their businesses and familiar faces looked at him curiously.

“Good mornin’, Sheriff!” The Widow Simmons hurried along the boardwalk, her generous bosom and hips wobbling with every step. She seemed oblivious to the recent gunfire, a plate in her hand covered with a gingham cloth. With the tempting arrival of breakfast, Josh took another look around then gave into hunger and greeted the widow.

Minutes later he was seated again, the ruined newspaper discarded and his breakfast laid out, the first slurp of coffee sliding nicely down his throat. He’d just lifted his fork when he heard more gunshots. Rolling his eyes, Josh grumbled his annoyance. He doubted there was trouble, but it was early, too early, and he intended to find the inconsiderate resident responsible and remind them he liked a peaceful town.

Outside, one of the locals pointed to the source and Josh followed the finger to the boundary line of the town, to Ellie’s place. He frowned deeply. He supposed he should be thankful that the town’s resident gun hawk was only practising, not shooting men dead in the middle of his street. But the fact that Johnny Madrid was partaking in target practice didn’t bode well for future tranquillity. His frown lifted, optimism washing over Josh’s sun weathered features. Maybe Madrid was planning on leaving soon. Good, Josh thought to himself. Let him make some other sheriff’s life a misery.

Pulling the jail door shut, Josh let the frown repossess him and he heaved a sigh. It wasn’t just another sheriff that Madrid’s departure would bring misery to.


From the back porch, Ellie witnessed Johnny hit the targets he'd set up. He moved swiftly and if she blinked she’d miss it, although she’d hear it. The whole town could probably hear it. Another six shots. In her head Ellie counted them like six tolls of a final bell, hoping selfishly that he would miss, that she would hear him curse and mutter in frustration. 

He didn’t miss. He was ready to leave.

She watched Johnny casually reload, her mind drifting across the fields to the time he taught her to shoot. He’d shown her how to aim, leaning in so close she felt his breath on her ear, his hard chest pressing against her back. Her first shots had been wildly off the mark. Ellie recalled ordering Johnny away, blaming him for her lost concentration. He’d raised his hands in surrender, taking a step back, flashing one of those smiles that awoke the butterfly in her stomach, causing it to flutter uncontrollably and ensure her next shot missed as well.

Heavy boots clomped in the dirt and Ellie blinked the memories away as if they were grains of sand causing her eyes to water. She waited for Josh to appear alongside the house and when he did, she almost laughed at his irritated expression—a familiar look whenever Johnny was in the vicinity.

“You okay?” He joined her on the porch, his caring words a stark contrast to his scowl.

“I’m fine.”

“He’s going then.”

“Looks like it.”

“He ain’t said?”

“Not yet.” Ellie sighed and moved from the doorway. “I’ve got things to do.”

She went into the house, letting the door swing shut, and Josh shook his head. She sounded so casual, but Josh knew that what Madrid said and the way he said it, was going to make all the difference in her world.


Johnny stared critically at the broken bottles, replaying the moment each bullet hit, searching for a flaw, a weakness, anything that would explain the feeling that first laid claim to him yesterday. It wasn’t restlessness, although that badgered at his soul more intensely than over the last few days. As his bruises faded, his need to leave grew. His body had almost healed and his heart cried out for the reciprocal act. This feeling was something else—something intangible that hovered like a dark aura. It slicked his skin with sweat yet felt like a chill; trickling down his neck and shoulders.

He’d wondered if it was a subconscious need for reassurance in his abilities, so he’d come out here to practice. Unlike the scattered brown glass, glinting with fresh sun, Johnny discovered his confidence wasn’t shattered but intact. The feeling lingered; undiagnosed and prominent, and even six more accurate shots did not dispel it. Disgruntled, Johnny holstered his gun and turned to meet Josh’s glare. Ignoring the blatant disapproval, Johnny sauntered past and was about to enter the house when the sheriff’s gruff voice stopped him.

“You’ll be leavin’ then.”

Johnny turned and studied the sheriff, a smirk itching at his lips. “You don’t like me much, do ya?”

Josh’s grey eyes were steely. “No I don’t. You’re too damn smart for your own good, you always were, an’ from what I see, that ain’t changed.”

“Now, Sheriff. You’re gonna hurt my feelings talkin’ like that.”

“I don’t give a damn ‘bout your feelings, Madrid.”

Johnny sighed, not inclined to defend himself to a man who’d made his mind up a long time ago. Staring coolly, Johnny drawled, “Well, I’ll be gone soon so you can quit worryin’.” He turned to go inside and Josh clamped a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“It ain’t me I’m worried ‘bout.”

Johnny spun around, a definite air of Madrid about him. “What then? If you’ve got somethin’ to say, Sheriff, say it, but I suggest you let go of me.”

Despite the warning in Johnny’s tone, Josh didn’t flinch, not intimidated by a man he considered an arrogant kid, even if this kid could shoot him dead before Josh had time to blink. Secretly he’d been impressed by Johnny’s skill, but then that was the only aspect of Johnny Madrid that was impressive. There was one reason why a man was that fast, deadly and skilful with a gun. Because it was his life—what he lived and breathed for. Josh had seen enough of Madrid’s type to know that either these men were incapable of feelings, in some cases of the very basics of humanity, or they considered them a weakness and didn’t permit themselves to have them. So Ellie saw something in Johnny Madrid, something that Josh didn’t and couldn’t see. But that’s women for ya, he considered.

“I want you ta do somethin’,” Josh said firmly, keeping his stare concentrated on Johnny. “For Ellie.”

“Go on,” Johnny said, softening his tone. 

Josh let go of Johnny’s shoulder. “Don’t go promisin’ the gal nothin’. Don’t tell her you’re comin’ back. Not again.”

“'Cause you’d like that wouldn’t ya?”

“This ain’t got nothin’ ta do with me—”

“That’s right,” Johnny stated firmly. “It’s none of your business.”

“Well maybe I’m making it my business,” Josh growled, taking a step closer. “You ain’t no good for her, an’ if ya cared one bit for that gal—”

“Like you do? Seems to me there’s only one reason you want me away…”

“Don’t judge everyone by ya own standards, Madrid,” Josh cut in crustily. “It’s possible to care for a woman without it being ‘bout that. I like Ellie an’ she needs someone to look out for her, someone she can count on.”

“And that’s you is it?” Johnny snapped, the sting of Josh’s words igniting his temper. He sought patience, knowing to lose it would be pointless. For whatever reason, probably to do with their run-ins of the past, Josh just didn’t like him—plain and simple.    

“Well it certainly ain’t you. All ya do is hurt her, even though ya know how she feels!”

“As much as it riles you, Sheriff, Ellie and I are friends.”

“Friends,” Josh snorted. “C’mon, Madrid. You know damn well that she’s in love with ya! And it’s as clear as crystal you don’t feel the same way. So I’m tellin’ ya. Do the gal a favour an’ keep your false promises. Give her a chance to find someone who’ll actually make her happy!”

Johnny opened his mouth to respond, to say something in his defence, but the words weren’t there; carried away on the wings of genuine surprise. He’d known Ellie liked him, as he liked her, but love?

Noticing the look of abject surprise on Johnny’s face, Josh shook his head. “Oh, boy, you’re an idiot,” he said incredulously. “I dunno how ya hit anythin’ with that gun of yours Madrid, because ya must be damn blind.”

“Did Ellie tell you this?” Johnny asked faintly, assailed with the feeling that he should’ve known, that perhaps deep down he had.

Josh frowned. “No. She didn’t have ta. It’s plain ta anyone with a licka sense.” Josh sighed, storing this as more evidence of Johnny’s self-involvement. “Just remember what I’ve said. Don’t keep her hangin’ on no more. Let her go.”

Before Johnny could formulate a reply, he heard Ellie inside the house. Seconds later she appeared between them, her cautious gaze darting back and forth. “What y’all doing out here?” she asked suspiciously, for she knew these two men and amicable chatter seemed unlikely. 

“Nothin’,” Josh grunted. 

Ellie arched a thin brow and turned to Johnny, who didn’t look her in the eye. “Johnny?”

“Nothin’,” he echoed, walking quickly into the house.

Ellie planted a hand on her hip. “Alright, Josh, what ya said?”

Josh rolled his eyes. “Just tellin’ him how it is,” he said cryptically. “Now, you gonna be okay?”

“Of course I am,” Ellie said sharply. “For God’s sake, Josh. Sometimes you treat me like a child.”

Josh reddened. She’d been upstairs and changed clothes, fixed her hair and put on make-up. She looked nothing like a child, just every inch the confident woman she liked people to think she was. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Ellie sighed and stood on tiptoes to plant a kiss on Josh’s cheek. “You’re a sweetheart,” she told him warmly. “But I ain’t gonna go to pieces, just ‘cause Johnny’s leavin’.” She turned and hesitated at the entrance to the kitchen. “He has left before.”

Josh removed his hat, scratching at his scalp. “Yeah, I know,” he muttered, before shaking his head despairingly.


Upstairs in Ellie’s room, Johnny stuffed a shirt into his saddlebags, his face a mask of concentration as he tried to shrug off the conversation with Josh. The timing couldn’t be more inappropriate. Just as he was about to leave, his thoughts carefully contained within the right frame of mind, Josh had opened his mouth and verbally shattered it.

Ellie’s in love with you, Josh said. Not just that she loved him, as good friends might, but that she was in love with him. No, Johnny told himself firmly. Josh has it wrong, I’d have seen it.

“Now this just ain’t polite.”

Johnny looked up sharply, surprised again for he’d not heard Ellie come up. He forced himself to meet her eyes, petrified of what he’d find there, not sure what he wanted to see. She stood in the doorway, her head resting on the yellowing paint of the frame, and her eyes looked no different, just watched him getting ready to leave. “Ellie, I was gonna tell you…”

“I know.” She came into the room and sat on her bed. “You got everything?”

Johnny smiled weakly. “I didn’t have a lot.”

“So what did Josh say?” she enquired casually.

“He wanted to know when I was leavin’.”

“I told him he treats me like a child sometimes,” Ellie said with a smile. “The father I always wanted…” She cast her eyes down and fingered the lace trim of her dress. 

Johnny felt a stab of regret for the father he’d been lucky enough to find and then deliberately lost. “You’re lucky to have ‘im,” he said softly, as he picked up his saddlebags. Ellie nodded, her gaze locked on her fingers.

Johnny realised he was more comfortable when she wasn’t looking at him. It was crazy, illogical, but he was unable to help it. Perhaps he should say something, acknowledge what Josh had imparted in some way, tell her…tell her what? Johnny asked himself. Tell her that if this was another time, another life…that the thought of loving someone else makes me feel so damn guilty it hurts…

“Ted’s place is down the street, about four buildings along. You can go the back way if you prefer…”

“What?” Johnny blinked, confused as Ellie’s words pulled his mind in another direction.

“Barranca. I’m tryin’ to tell ya where he is. D’ya want me to show ya?”

Barranca. Johnny realised he’d given his horse barely no consideration these past few days. Unforgivable really, considering the palomino had been his only friend for almost a year. “No, I’ll find him. I’d better go.”

Ellie rose up from the bed, smoothing her skirts. She clasped her hands together, before changing her mind and folding her arms across her chest, only to bring them back down to her sides hastily. She just wanted to say goodbye, perhaps add some quip about not missing him, but she couldn’t, no words could squeeze past the lump in her throat. Since when am I so emotional? This wasn’t her, it wasn’t who she was. Maybe it was for the best that Johnny was leaving, if this was the effect he had on her. Always she hid everything behind a flirtatious smile or a smart remark. By profession she was public property but her feelings had always been private—open as were anyone’s, to speculation, yet ultimately for her alone and never disclosed.

Johnny stood there awkwardly, hearing Josh’s gruff voice in his head, increasing his confusion, adding to the mystery feeling he’d been able to shake off. His focus was in danger of slipping again; he could feel it being inched from his grasp, torn from frantic fingernails that sought desperately to hold on.

“Right then,” Ellie said suddenly, forcing herself to sound nonchalant. “I reckon it’s the time where you thank me for putting up with ya, Johnny.”

Johnny relaxed at the teasing and a roguish smile played out across his face. Hoisting his saddlebags over his shoulder, he leaned forward and when Ellie automatically offered her cheek, he kissed her there lightly. “Thank you,” he murmured. Their eyes locked as she faced him, their noses inches apart. He saw a flicker of indecision in her eyes.

“Oh, what the hell.” Her hands coiled around his neck, sliding into his hair as she pressed her lips firmly to his. He was stunned for the second time in a morning that was barely hours old. Pull away! He should, he knew. His fingernails were sure to be torn and bloody, he was clinging on to his focus so desperately. The touch of Ellie’s lips, the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume all conspired against him. 

The saddlebags slid from his shoulder and fell with an unacknowledged thud as Johnny’s hands moved lower, disappearing into the folds of Ellie’s dress to cup her bottom. Her fingers strayed to his chest, slipping underneath the material of his shirt, between the buttons, while her other hand went to his hip. “Lose the gun, Johnny,” she murmured breathlessly, their lips remaining in contact, as if both were afraid that any break in the connection would ruin the moment and give reality a chance to seep in.

He did so, fingers fumbling for cooperation while Ellie’s fingers found no such difficulty as they went to work on his shirt, splaying it open so that her hands could rove freely across his chest, trailing lightly down his stomach. Her touch was powerful, overriding everything else. Removing his gunbelt, Johnny groped blindly for the bedstead, feeling for the cold brass before draping the belt over it. 

They stumbled to the bed they’d slept side by side in, night after night, with just the barest of touches; their past, shared and not, both a bond and a barrier. Feeling the mattress against her legs, Ellie let Johnny lower her down and he came with her, four hands delving and stroking where clothing allowed and where it didn’t. Johnny felt the heat in his body, lust making every muscle taut. He moved his thigh masterfully between hers, Ellie tugging at his hair, wanting him closer, to be more intimate than was right for him or fair to her…“I can’t do this.” It took a moment for Johnny to realise he’d spoken, and his senses let out a wail of frustration as he pulled away. Sitting up, Johnny tried to regain control, guilt chiding from all angles.

“I’m sorry…” Johnny whispered honestly. “I want to…” He broke off, knowing the words were lame. He ran a hand through his hair.

Ellie nodded distractedly, her own senses reeling with blunt abandonment. Why did I push it? She’d known, yet he’d seemed to want it, too. She reached for Johnny’s hand. “I do understand ya know,” she said with a sigh.

Johnny looked at her. How could Ellie understand what he couldn’t? He didn’t know why he had to stop; if it was Katie and the betrayal of his wife, if it was the need to leave, get to Winston and do what needed to be done, or if it was what Josh had said—that Ellie was in love with him; a feeling he wasn’t sure he was capable of returning, or a niggling feeling that he was. Johnny shook his head. Maybe it was none of those things, perhaps it was all. He didn’t know. Johnny waited a moment, collecting himself, before rising to his feet.

“I have to go.”

Ellie rose to join him and cheekily offered her hand. “Well it’s been… interestin’.”

Johnny smiled and shook the offered hand. “Thank you, Ellie. For putting up with me and—"

“Just take care of yourself, Johnny, an’ remember what we talked ‘bout.”

Johnny nodded. “Yes Ma’am,” he said softly, letting go of her hand. He looked away. “Goodbye.”

Ellie listened to the sound of his footsteps and the jingle of his spurs until they faded into the past. “Bye,” she whispered to the solitude, realising that this time Johnny hadn’t said he was coming back.




Sleep played coy with Andrew Beresford initially; his mind full of questions and the answers he wanted confirmed. It had been a mistake not to find out about the Lancer family. It had been a mistake not to care. But he wasn’t above admitting to his mistakes and making amends for them. He’d done it with the Crawford woman, and he’d do it now with the Lancers. He didn’t like losing. He wouldn’t lose again.

The arrival of the new day heralded no change to his state of mind. He stepped inside the jail, his air of authority possessing the office, making Hank Petersen and Bill Marvin rise to their feet. The only man who didn’t stand to attention was the one who’d flanked Beresford in his brisk march across the town square. Leon Alvarez seemed outwardly immune to Beresford’s authority. He casually leaned against the jail wall, his dark gaze rolling over Hank and the sheriff. He was a shrewd judge of character and knew a pair of losers when he saw them. He had years of experience at identifying cowards and had no time for them. No time for anyone who wasn’t prepared to face him down the barrel of a gun.

“What ya starin’ at, Alvarez?” Marvin growled angrily, his mutual dislike for the Mexican, obvious. 

“No mucho,” Alvarez drawled. “No mucho en todos.”

Bill Marvin’s Spanish was not the best, but he understood the simple words and their disrespectful meaning. He glowered at the gunfighter, ex-gunfighter, or whatever Alvarez claimed to be now, wishing for just a few minutes alone with him shackled in the cell, instead of the young man who may or may not be one of the infamous Lancers.

“That’s enough,” Beresford snapped impatiently.

Alvarez shrugged. “Tengo cosas a hacer.” He left the jail with one more disparaging glance at Marvin and Petersen.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Marvin exploded. “Why the hell d’ya put up with him?” he asked. “He’s nothin’ but a—”

Beresford held up his hand, stalling the sheriff’s tirade before it begun. He narrowed his eyes. “By all means, Bill,” he said dryly. “If you show me that you can outshoot him, then he’ll become surplus to requirements. Can you do that?”

Resentful, Marvin shook his head. Beresford knew full well he couldn’t. It would be suicide to try. Alvarez was fast with a gun, Marvin had seen him in action, but it irked at him—the obvious respect Beresford had for the Mexican as a result. With a scowl, Marvin sat heavily in his chair and Hank followed suit.

Beresford surveyed the two men coolly.  “Now if we can get back to business? Why is there a Lancer in my town that so far, you two have been unable to get anything from?” Beresford took the other chair and sat down, licking the tips of his fingers and smoothing his already flat sideburns. “I take it he is awake and coherent as I asked?”

“Yeah he’s awake. Much good it’ll do ya,” Marvin muttered.

Beresford raised his eyebrows and looked at Marvin pointedly. “Well if I get nowhere then I’ll gladly relinquish him to your capable hands.” He got to his feet. “Assuming you are capable?”

Marvin smirked evilly and slid open the top drawer of his desk. With a wicked gleam in his eye, he pointed inside.


“Take it easy, Barranca,” Johnny chided as he sat in the saddle, keeping a firm grip on the reins.  Barranca snorted, tossing his head, his pale silky mane shimmering in the sun. Unspent energy surged through the restless animal in spite of an initial run, but Johnny resisted the urge to make full use of the power his horse possessed. The road ahead was long and hot, and if they stayed at their current pace, Johnny figured they’d arrive in Winston by midday tomorrow. There was nothing to be gained from pushing too hard.

Just as Ellie promised, Barranca had been well cared for. That hadn’t stopped Johnny feeling guilty about staying away; a feeling compounded by the enthusiastic greeting he’d received. Oh hell, what’s a little more guilt? Johnny mused despondently as he tugged on his hat, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.

He didn’t know if it was his imagination or his senses, but Johnny swore he could still smell Ellie’s perfume; stronger than the smell of horse and the earthy aroma of the grass and trees which fanned outward on both sides of the road. It kept what had happened earlier that morning emblazoned in his mind; lustful, red hot touches, the softness of Ellie’s skin, the curves of her body. Johnny sucked in a breath and looked at the trees, counting as he passed them. By the time he got to the thirtieth tree he figured himself under control. He’d kissed her. He hadn’t kissed a woman since Katie. “Damn,” Johnny swore loudly, and Barranca’s ears pricked. Trust me, you don’t wanna know.

Johnny didn’t need these thoughts to plague him now; soliciting him with their soul-searching questions. He fought them, storing them in the secure space that contained all his emotion. I ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout her no more, Johnny told himself firmly. He looked to the hill that loomed ahead, fixating on Winston and Beresford—the only chance he had of claiming his life back.


Scott’s mouth felt coated in a thick layer of dust that made swallowing seem impossible. His hands were still locked together and beneath the shackles, rust red grazes and purple bruising circled both wrists like bracelets. He tried to swallow. The scab on his lip pulled taut and then ruptured, giving Scott the moisture he craved as his own blood trickled onto his tongue. The sun had Scott at its mercy and it shone into the cell, drawing precious moisture from his skin in an uncomfortable sweat. Grinding his teeth, Scott inched away from the life-draining glare.

His fingers examined the corollary of Marvin’s sadism; a trail of blood like a dried up river bed began at his nose and continued down his chin. He detected swelling around his eyes, seeing in his head the array of colours he knew were present on his skin.

A while ago, Scott had been woken by a torrent of cold water flung forcefully at his face; stinging his eyes and surging between his partly open lips, shooting up his nose so he struggled to breathe. “C’mon, get up,” Marvin snapped as he hauled Scott into a sitting position by the shirt collar, almost choking him as the material strained against his neck. “Beresford wants some answers out of you.”

Now, Scott sat on the floor of the cell, propped against the cot where Marvin left him. The few precious droplets of water salvaged from his watery wake up were gone and Scott was dehydrated. What saliva he could cultivate was disgustingly sticky. He could hear men talking; one quiet voice spoke Spanish, disappointingly not the voice Scott longed for. He heard the disgruntled protest of the sheriff, talk of a fast gun, but again not the fast gun Scott wanted to hear about. The rest of the conversation gave no insight into what lay in store, just that they were determined he would talk.

A few minutes later, the sheriff and another man; tall and slender, approached the cell. The familiar jingle of keys came as the sheriff unlocked the cell door, pushing it open and striding inside. Walking straight up to Scott, Marvin bent down and slapped him sharply around the face.

“Just checkin’ ya still awake.”

If Johnny Madrid could see the icy chill that radiated from Scott’s eyes right then, he’d be proud. “I’m awake,” Scott ground out. “How’s your nose?”

Marvin’s fingers strayed to his tender snout, before his face reddened in fury and he raised his hand to strike Scott again. Beresford’s voice halted the blow. “Thank you, Bill. I’m sure Mr. Lancer is fully awake and prepared to talk now.”

Maintaining his silence and what composure he was afforded from his humble position on the floor, Scott looked blankly at who he assumed to be Andrew Beresford. “I’ve told you who I am,” he stated firmly, before his head spun to the right as the delayed blow swept in unexpectedly, the back of Marvin’s hand cracking across Scott's cheek. 

Beresford frowned and looking over his shoulder, he called out, “Hank!”

The balding man poked his head through the doorway.

“You don’t expect me to sit on that filthy cot do you?”

“No, Sir,” Hank replied, disappearing for a moment before returning with a wooden chair. He brought it into the cell and Beresford set it down in front of Scott. “Get out,” Beresford commanded tersely and Hank hastily obliged. “Did you not hear me?” Beresford snapped to Marvin when the sheriff remained where he was.

Marvin’s eyes widened. “Yuh wanna be left alone with him?” he asked sceptically.

Beresford smiled thinly. “I think I can cope. Mr. Lancer is not going to give me any trouble. He’s just going to give me the answers I want.” Beresford nudged Scott’s leg with the tip of his well polished boot. “Isn’t that right?”

Scott said nothing. As Marvin left the cell and locked it, Scott assessed Andrew Beresford, not sure if he was what he’d expected. Unlike Marvin and Hank, who shared a brain cell between them, Beresford spoke like an educated man. He was dressed in a white linen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows of his deeply tanned arms and he was clean shaven with dark, almost black hair, specked with strands of a distinguished grey. This was the man whom Johnny held responsible for Katie’s murder, and judging from his recent experience, Scott knew there was no longer any doubt. If he’d not been in such a precarious position—where his own life and that of his brother were more important—then he’d have rendered that white shirt a blood soaked mess.

“Perhaps I should explain myself?” Beresford suggested calmly. “A truth for a truth?”

Scott leaned heavily against the metal frame of the cot, his strength fading rapidly. His head still pounded. “I’ve already explained all I need to.” He struggled not to choke such was the dryness of his mouth and throat.

“Ah, yes. The draft of a telegram that is not yours, the name Lancer, that is not yours…” 

“That’s right.”

Beresford leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his hands dangling between his thighs. Scott noticed bizarrely, how clean his hands were. Clean because everyone else does his dirty work.

“Well, I’ll give you my explanation,” Beresford said casually. “And you can stop me at any time and start telling the truth. I won’t hold it against you.” He gave Scott another one of those thin lipped smiles and rose to his feet, walking to the opposite side of the cell and turning around; his posture perfect as if about to address a rapt audience rather than one shackled man who sat on the floor with no choice but to listen.

“Just over a year ago, I had a son. A bright boy, who met a girl.” He paused and stared hard at Scott. “Do you need me to continue?”

Scott forced himself to nod. 

“He had an eye for good looking women, even if they were cheap. Unfortunately for Tommy, he met such a woman and her name was Kathleen Crawford.” Beresford studied Scott’s reaction, but the blonde was just staring at him coldly. “She was a whore, led him on, and when Tommy reacted like any healthy young man would, she didn’t like it. There was a fight between my son and another man, a man who no doubt had been on the receiving end of this woman’s attentions himself.”

Beresford’s expression darkened dramatically and Scott watched his hands curl into fists by his sides. “Tommy killed him, purely self-defence, but the Crawford woman turned it into something else. She testified in a court of law that my son was a murderer. She destroyed his spirit and in his despair he took his own life.”

Beresford’s hazel eyes glittered and Scott could see his jaw clench and unclench as if it was physically painful for him to accept his last statement. “So…” Beresford returned to his seat.  “…I had her killed. Shot down like the worthless tramp she was.”

A flicker, there was a definite flicker in Scott’s eyes—Beresford set him in the sight of an imaginary rifle and prepared to pull the trigger.

“It took me a while to track her down. She’d run, you see. The guilty do that. Imagine how it felt to know that the bitch was living a life beyond any whore’s wildest dreams?” Beresford’s voice was dangerously calm as the derogatory words rolled from his tongue. “She’d married and quickly, too. As if I needed more evidence of what she was. A rancher’s son — Murdoch Lancer’s son.”

Another flicker and Scott tried to blink it away. Beresford’s finger started to squeeze.

“He was shot, killed I was told. But to be honest, I don’t really know.” Beresford leaned forward. “You see, I didn’t care. Still don’t. Anyone stupid enough to marry that kind of woman deserves to die, don’t you think?”

The rifle exploded in Scott’s face; his eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth; bitter, furious words on the tip of his parched tongue, his body finding a reserve of strength, urging him to knock Andrew Beresford from his chair. This man may not have killed Johnny, but he’d stolen Johnny’s life that day; taking something just as precious as life’s blood—his happiness and the self-belief that he’d deserved it. Beresford had left Johnny to bleed inside until there was little left of the brother Scott knew; the one he’d previously been close to and trusted.

Somehow, and Scott didn’t know how he did it, he managed restraint. Telling himself he needed to save this rediscovered strength for later, or use it to subsidise his determination. All Beresford said, Scott already knew. It didn’t change anything. With difficulty, he swallowed what he wanted to say, his body screaming its frustration that rather than the water it craved, the only thing sliding down his throat was the bitter taste of reined-in words. 

When Beresford failed to provoke the reaction he desired, he almost cursed in angry frustration. But just as Scott had done, he managed to control himself. “I know you’re one of them,” he said coldly. “I know you’re a Lancer. What I want to know is who’s really behind this. Is it Murdoch Lancer? What did you think you were going to do, kill me?” Beresford smirked. “You don’t look like a cold blooded killer.”

“Well, by the sounds of things, you’d know,” Scott choked out, the words battling through the drought in his mouth before he could stop them. He braced himself, expecting Beresford to lash out, but the man just sighed instead; a drawn out, pitying sigh.

“Have it your way, Lancer,” he said, rising to his feet and crossing to the cell door, hollering for Hank to come and unlock it. As the balding man appeared with the keys, Beresford looked at Scott one last time. “I will have my answers,” he said confidently.


Marvin was at his desk polishing his gun when Beresford and Hank emerged from the cells. One look at his boss’s black expression told the sheriff all he needed to know, and he resisted the urge to say I told you so. If a man didn’t talk after a beating then he wasn’t about to talk because he was talked at. If he was truthful, Marvin didn’t understand the need for answers. So Beresford was convinced the prisoner was a Lancer, not passing through as he’d claimed, but making his last stop on a trail of retribution. What did it matter if he refused to admit it? So what if he’d wanted to kill Beresford? All the wanting in the world wasn’t going to help him now. Lancer was a dead man; surely he must know it was inevitable. Marvin didn’t see the need for confirmation. Secretly he was beginning to suspect that Beresford was a man obsessed, but he wasn’t about to voice this opinion. No need to voice it at all, he thought to himself wickedly, as he put down his gun and dived into the drawer, his hands caressing the whip; thinking that it had been a while since he’d used it, remembering the last time fondly.

“Ya want me ta take care of it?” he asked eagerly.

Beresford nodded and watched as Marvin pulled out the bullwhip like a child getting out his favourite toy for play. He held it up, eyes wide with excitement, his hand grasping the thong and running part-way down its length, stroking it as you would a cat’s tail.

“Well?” Beresford said sharply. “What are you waiting for?” 

Marvin grinned and signalling to Hank, the two men made their way to Scott’s cell. They reappeared a second later; Marvin looking slightly sheepish, not a trait Beresford could recall seeing in the sheriff before. “Is there a problem?” he snapped.

“Yeah,” Marvin admitted. “There ain’t enough space back there.”

Beresford rolled his eyes and slammed his palm down on the desk. “Jesus!” he swore loudly. “Bring him out here then!”

The sheriff’s grin returned.


Scott heard Marvin’s voice and he looked around the cell nervously as he wondered what there wasn’t the space for. The longer he resisted admitting who he was; the more helpless and desperate his situation became. Nobody knew he was here. He hadn’t told Murdoch he was going on to Winston, Johnny would assume that he’d fallen for Eleanor’s story. Scott couldn’t fathom it. He’d been here how long now—twenty-four hours? And there had been no mention of Johnny Madrid. But then Johnny had a plan and was probably waiting for the opportune moment to execute it. Well there was never a more opportune moment than right now, as far as Scott was concerned.

How long would they keep him alive if he refused to talk? How long would they keep him alive if he did? Scott’s head was aching, his eyes dry and itchy. It was just so damn hot and he was so thirsty. Looking around the grimy cell again, Scott realised that he might die here and the thought was more despairingly painful than any of the physical injuries sustained so far. He didn’t know if he was afraid of death. He hadn’t been afraid of it during the war. In that kind of situation you accepted it could happen at any time. You learnt to view the end of each day as a blessing. These days it was different; death wasn’t hiding behind every corner waiting to trip him up. Scott had hoped it would call on him in his sleep, years from now, when he was old and grey, or if that was not in his destiny, then it would call with advance notice so that he could ensure he’d said all he wanted to say, done all that needed to be done.

No, Scott wasn’t afraid of dying, but he didn’t want to yet.

Fighting off the morbid thoughts that were trying to prematurely claim his soul, Scott drew frantically on his inner strength he’d discovered earlier and he tried to think calmly and logically. There had to be a way out of this.

“Bring him out here then!”

Beresford’s angry voice met Scott’s ears and he looked up as Marvin and Hank appeared; Marvin unlocking the door, Hank standing behind him watchfully. They were taking him out of the cell. Scott didn’t let his mind wander to what they had planned, for this was his chance to escape. The odds weren’t good but the stakes too high not to try.




As Marvin hauled him to his feet, Scott had no choice but to lean heavily against the sheriff, loathing the dependency but needing it as dizziness assailed his senses and his knees buckled. Even as he got used to standing, Scott didn’t fight. He let Marvin drag him from the cell and shove him towards Beresford, who sat behind the desk. This might be his only chance to escape and Scott was determined to make the best of it. 

“Hold him,” Marvin instructed and Hank obliged, Scott watching them in silent abhorrence as the shackles were removed from his abused wrists. When Marvin discarded them to the desk, Scott seized the opportunity and stomped hard on Hank’s foot. Released, he then drove his fist into Marvin, collapsing his nose with a snap of fragile bone. Scott buried his elbow in Hank’s ribs, making a grab for the man’s gun. He had the reassuring weight of the weapon in his hand when he was pitched forward onto his knees, the gun skidding across the floor, out of reach.

Something had struck him with a loud snap, sending him down with the force and the shock. Material had ripped close to his ear. Pain came like the sparking flame that danced the fuse of dynamite, travelling a fiery line across his right shoulder.

Andrew Beresford looked down at the whip in his hand, impressed that he’d remembered how to use one, unimpressed that he’d had to. Throwing it on the desk, he frowned and dusted his palms to rid them of dirt. He glowered at Marvin who was also on the floor. “Get up!” he ordered, and Marvin did so awkwardly, shielding his broken nose, blood seeping between his fingers to run down his arm. A recovered Hank took charge, snatching up his gun and tapping the barrel against Scott’s skull.

Scott closed his eyes, all the strength he’d found abandoning him in defeat. At a barked order he stood up, the dizziness back, his head pounding. Hank’s gun switched position to press into his spine and Scott looked at Beresford whose expression was one of disappointment, before lowering his gaze to the desk. Suddenly he understood the searing familiarity of the pain across his shoulder. A sickening sense of dread lurched in his stomach.

“Over there,” Hank grunted, grabbing Scott by the arm and prodding him in the direction of barred door that separated this part of the jail from the cells. Marvin strode over with two lengths of rope and Scott was violently shoved against the door. The two men worked together, Hank pinning him, Marvin tethering Scott’s wrists high above his head, where the horizontal and vertical bars met.

Scott felt the rope tightening around his left wrist, biting into the skin harsher than the shackles and he increased his struggles, the bitter stripe on his shoulder a burning indication of what was to come. His dread increased, breaking through Scott’s skin in a frantic sweat as Beresford approached with the whip. A memory that had haunted Scott’s nightmares came to him with stark, vivid reality. Libby. The days spent there were blurred beyond comprehension, but one day was clarified forever, etched in his mind just like the scars, faded now, had been etched onto his skin with dragon breath kisses.

Beresford handed the whip to Marvin and walked away.

“I’m gonna make you sorry,” the sheriff said in Scott’s ear, his voice muffled, distorted by the broken nose, blood soaking into the bristles of his moustache. “I don’t give a damn if ya talk or not.” He produced a knife and slipped the sharp blade into the existing rip in Scott’s shirt, chuckling as it caught the raw tear in his shoulder.

Enjoying himself tremendously, Marvin slowly dragged the knife through the material, cutting it away, letting the blade slip intermittently to slice the skin beneath.

Scott endured the humiliation in silence. But he was tense. Panic was alive and kicking in his throat. His skin was oversensitive to every slip of the knife. He watched shreds of his blue shirt fall to his feet until his upper body was bare. Even though it was warm in the jail, Scott shivered. 

Marvin moved back an appropriate distance. The lightly tanned skin and taut muscles would make a perfect canvas were it not for the crimson line that marred Scott’s right shoulder. Amateurish, Marvin thought arrogantly. Glancing at Beresford, Marvin supposed he’d better go along with what the boss wanted. “You gonna talk, boy? This here’s ya last chance…”

“Go to hell, you bastard.”

Scott’s voice sounded foreign, so dry and brittle. But he’d have spat the words like venom if he’d had any spittle left.

Marvin grinned, Beresford pursed his lips, and Hank just stepped out the way.

You can brace yourself for the first lash. And in spite of fear, you want it to land. Having accepted it as inevitable, the waiting then becomes insufferable. This was until the whip sliced the air with whistling speed and the leather snapped and split his skin. His body jolted. All he knew was white-hot pain.

Scott gripped the bars, imagining his knuckles whitening with the strain, aware that only sheer rigid tension, like an iron rod through his body, kept him from sagging in his bonds. When the second lash landed just below the first, Scott’s front teeth plunged into his already injured lip. Warm coppery blood seeped into his mouth.

At the third lash, the memory of his whipping at Libby transformed from a haunting, fear-inducing foe into a comforting friend; offering Scott assurances that he could get through this. Eventually it’ll be over.

The fourth forced a traitorous groan of pain to escape from between Scott’s blood slicked lips. His mind groped wildly for a thread of thought, anything that would prevent him falling completely into the scarlet abyss of his agony. He found a thread—Johnny—and Scott clung to it desperately; wondering where his brother was and if Johnny really knew who he was dealing with, the lengths to which Andrew Beresford was prepared to go.

The fifth brought Scott to thinking if only Johnny had trusted and talked to him...Why does Johnny have to be so damn stubborn and think he has to do everything on his own?

The sixth lash caused Scott to tremble as the muscles in his back went into spasm, wracked with a pain more intense than anything he’d felt in his life. A guttural cry escaped his throat. Why was he even putting himself through this? Why he had even bothered to follow Johnny? Johnny didn’t care about what he’d put everyone through. Selfish. Unbelievably selfish. His brother didn’t have the guts to face him; he’d got a woman to do it. A woman that Johnny had never once mentioned as far as Scott could recall.

Scott’s anger and frustration branded deeper with each flay. Resentment spilled with his blood.

Encouraged when the separate lashes were no longer distinguishable, Marvin flicked his wrist and sent the whip hurtling from a different angle. When this skin-splitting lash seared through the others, it shattered Scott’s pain threshold. His vision went hazy, his eyes desperate to shed tears that his body just couldn’t produce. Somewhere, someone screamed in piercing agony.

Andrew Beresford held up his hand, signalling Marvin to stop. The sheriff did so reluctantly, bringing down the arm he’d already raised to crack the whip again. He thought Beresford must be joking if he thought this was all it would take, if this was all that the prisoner deserved. He broke my nose for God’s sake!

Beresford frowned in disgust at the sight of Scott’s blood soaked back, but he walked over to him and grabbed him by the hair, forcing his head up to face him. “You can stop this at any time by telling me what I want to know,” Beresford stated calmly. He stared into Scott’s eyes; glazed with pain but vibrant with hatred. He could see Scott’s body going limp; the ropes that tethered him digging further into his wrists as they gradually took the strain of his body weight. Beresford knew it wouldn’t be long before they lost him to oblivion.

He shook Scott’s head vigorously. “Why won’t you admit it?” he demanded. “You’re a Lancer. Murdoch Lancer had another son—you? What do you hope to accomplish by keeping quiet?”

Scott said nothing. He tried to focus on Beresford’s face but it was hard to see past the pain.

“You must know you’re never getting out of here?” Beresford snapped, his patience expiring as he struggled to understand Scott’s silence. “Are you protecting someone, is that it? Who—your father? Someone else? Or is it that the whore’s husband is not dead...” Beresford trailed off, scrutinising every inch of Scott’s battered face. It occurred to him for the first time that this was who Scott could be.

Exasperated, Beresford leaned closer. “I don’t need you to tell me if he’s dead or not, or if you are him. I will find out by other means.” He released Scott’s hair from his fist. “He’s all yours, Bill,” he said coldly. “I have no use for him.”

Scott’s forehead hit the barred door with a thud. Beresford’s words echoed in his pounding skull, Scott’s anger at Johnny smouldered with the fire in his back. Vaguely he was aware of another presence beside him and he forced his eyes to focus.

Marvin was grinning. “If ya pass out,” he told Scott menacingly. “When ya pass out…I’m gonna wait for ya to come ‘round an’ then start over. I’ll keep startin’ over ‘til ‘ventually ya don’t come ‘round no more…”

Scott shut his eyes. He heard Marvin retreat. Any second now he was going to feel his flesh tear again. He just wanted this to end. “No…” he whispered brokenly, and Beresford moved closer to hear. “I’ll…I’ll tell you.”

Beresford smiled victoriously. “That’s a wise choice. Let’s start with your name.”   

“Scott Lancer,” Scott breathed raggedly, struggling not to choke on his next words, hating the taste of them on his tongue. “I’m here for my brother…” 




Scott was dead. He couldn’t remember how he’d died or why, and for an unknown reason that taunted him devilishly, at some time during his life he must have committed an unforgivable sin, because he was backed up against the burning gates of hell, so close he could feel the fire of eternal damnation licking at his skin.

Frantically, he tried to move, find an alternative place to spend infinity. But there was nowhere to go. No hope of redemption in the swirling blackness which prevented him from moving forward and gaining his skin some respite. Red hot claws raked his back, seeking purchase in his immortal flesh to draw out his soul and bury it forever in the fiery pit of penance. The claws moved to his arms, shaking and tugging, not that hard at first but then harsher, more violent—persistent and frustrated—he could hear a voice; muffled, deep and hated. So very hated. Why? Who?

Deeply asleep, Scott balled his hands into fists. He tensed as he braced himself to fight off the enemy who’d been and gone hours ago. He lay on his stomach, his eyelids flickering, a myriad of emotions on his face as he tried to fight his way out of the blackness, and somewhere, within this alternate reality, find the strength to get away, to keep his truths locked tight inside.

When Scott woke, it was only his gasping breath and the rapid rise and fall of his own chest that reassured him he was still alive.

It was dark now and Scott had no idea how long he’d been asleep. He didn’t feel rested. Disorientated and confused, Scott struggled to remember where he was. He lifted his head with effort and registered the glint of moonlight on the steel bars that imprisoned him, making him suddenly claustrophobic. His heart sank in his chest, a wave of defeat crashed over him and Scott lowered his head back to the cot, curling his fingers around the edge of blanket he lay on, taking comfort from it regardless of how tatty and filthy it was.

The nightmare he’d just woken from renewed its hold, transporting him to another time and place. Scott wondered how long he’d been at Libby for now, and if he was ever destined to leave. The war for him was over, only the most difficult battle was still ongoing—the battle to stay alive and not fade away like so many of his comrades—robbed of a noble death on the battlefield—left to die weak and haggard. Good men, so many, losing their lives not to righteousness and belief in the cause, but to rats with sharp teeth and twitching tails, hungry, so hungry, just like they all were. How many nights had he spent in darkness, listening to the eerie march of vaporous soldiers forever imprisoned within these walls? Comforted by their ghostly footsteps, anything was better than the slow, heavy tread that had fallen earlier this day, the day they’d tried to break him, to whip the spirit out of him…

Somewhere a door opened and footsteps could be heard. Real, human footsteps. Paralysis pounced, but Scott fought it off. Shifting on the cot, he tried to lever himself up, only to give up in dismal failure when his limbs refused to cooperate, and his back engulfed in furious pain. Twisting his neck, Scott looked toward a faint, flickering light that now filtered through the barred door that had held him so securely, the shadow of his makeshift whipping post creeping across the floor.


Beresford gripped the iron railing of the balcony, staring down at his town bathed with shadows and the gentle amber glow of late burning lamps. Somewhere in the distance, an animal howled to the crescent moon, a reply mimicked by men who tripped drunkenly out of the saloon, filling the town square with loud, inconsiderate laughter.

Tonight Beresford should be basking in satisfaction. Instead he was a troubled man. For the first time he felt vulnerable. The feeling swarmed like the sweat-inducing heat. He glanced over his shoulder, back inside his home where two men waited for him to issue orders, make decisions, regain control—Marvin with typical impatience, wanting permission to kill Scott Lancer, and Leon Alvarez with the enviable patience he always possessed, to hear what Beresford intended to do about his news.

As Beresford watched his town close for the night, his sharp eyes scanned the shadows. This elevated position was no longer a vantage point, but the ideal opportunity for a would-be assassin. His gaze dropped to the light projected at his feet from the study, and Beresford sidestepped, seeking safe anonymity in the darkness.

His mind was working overtime and he didn’t like what was happening. All these years of living here, there had been no real challenges. Now he was facing two of his biggest, both life-threatening in different ways. He’d started this day with one thing on his mind—Scott Lancer and his refusal to talk. To Beresford’s consternation, the day was ending with the threat of a range war looming like a storm cloud.

So far he’d avoided out and out conflict. The people he was used to dealing with had not the gumption, support or money to initiate a range war. Only this time he’d stepped on the wrong person’s toes. Beresford had acquired the holdings for ten thousand acres of ranch land that came with something invaluable; a lake fed by an underground stream. Beresford had implemented his usual methods to persuade the owners to sell, not expecting to face competition. But George Weston, the man who owned the land to the north, had wanted those holdings too, and it seemed he could be as determined and ruthless. It had taken some ingenious cunning on Beresford’s part to secure the purchase. He’d found out that Weston had to leave his ranch to visit his dying sister and so he’d negotiated the sale quickly while Weston was away, paying off the stage driver to ensure he arrived back too late. 

After the sale, Beresford had fenced off his pastures, including the road that was Weston’s most effective route to the south, a route that had always been accessible via verbal agreement with the previous owners. Compromise was not in Beresford’s nature and he’d dismissed all requests to be reasonable. Now, according to Alvarez, attacks were being made on Beresford’s stock, the lake had been polluted, grass fires set and ranch fences vandalised. It seemed Weston was not a patient man. Yesterday, he’d sent one of his men with a message. He wanted the land and Beresford was to surrender his holdings or be left with nothing more than a steady drain on his finances and a herd of dead or dying cattle. The only alternative was to fight. Weston was hiring guns.

Beresford was not foolish enough to ignore this threat. Looking into his study, his gaze fell on the gunfighter. Alvarez with his experience and skill would be key. There was Frank McColl too; he was already overseeing things out there. But the others in his employ, well they’d been good enough to meet his requirements so far, but this was different. Beresford glanced toward Marvin, who was scowling at Alvarez, looking very much like he wanted to kill the man with his bare hands. Bill Marvin was good for some things, but fighting in a range war was not one of them.

The leaves from the elm tree shaded Beresford even from moonlight and he frowned angrily as he realised what he was doing. He was hiding in his own town, his own home. Deliberately stepping back into the pool of light that sloped across the balcony, Beresford glared defiantly over the square. If George Weston thought he could force him into surrendering that land then he’d been seriously underestimated.

Weston wasn’t the only one to have done so. Beresford’s gaze came to rest on the dark jail. Scott Lancer had finally talked. Beresford pursed his lips, then smiled thinly at the irony. To think he’d suspected Lancer of being an attorney, when all the while he was a man turning his back on the law to seek retribution for the death of his brother and sister-in-law. While the audaciousness continued to infuriate, Beresford supposed that in a way he could understand. After all he’d done the exact same thing to avenge Tommy’s death, only unlike Scott Lancer, he’d been smart about it.

Or have I?

Beresford rubbed his jaw and thought back to what Lancer had said about his family, how, if anything happened to him, they’d never let this go, no matter how long it took. Lancer actually had the nerve to ask him if he could really trust those he relied upon to do his dirty work. This was partly what troubled Beresford now. When Price and Frank McColl had returned from California, Beresford had been confident there was no evidence of his involvement. Since that time though, things had changed. Price for one.

“One of these days I’m gonna shut your mouth permanently!”

Marvin’s raised voice filtered out from the study and Beresford strode back inside. The sheriff was glaring at Alvarez, who appeared completely unfazed, a sly grin sitting lazily on his lips.

“Shut up, Bill,” Beresford snapped as he closed the doors and wrenched the thick burgundy drapes shut. He turned to face the two men, his jaw set determinedly, once more with the control and authority they were used to seeing. He poured himself a drink, and studied them carefully over the rim of his glass.

“Tomorrow I want you to join Frank,” he told Alvarez firmly. “Take Hank, pull the others and head out there first thing. I want to know exactly how many men Weston has and how good they are. We need to know what we’re up against. This could just be a bluff…” he added tentatively, looking to Alvarez for confirmation.

Alvarez glanced down at his hands, spreading his fingers and studying them for a few seconds before looking back to Beresford with black, unreadable eyes. “It could…” he said agreeably. “It would make more sense just to kill you.”

Beresford had not taken another sip, but he swallowed anyway. “Actually you can stay here,” he amended hastily. “Get Hank to tell Frank what I want. Just send him and the others.”

Alvarez ran his tongue over his lips and nodded.

“If Weston’s hiring guns, how long do you think we have?”



“On who and what he wants. If he just wants numbers, then cheap guns aren’t hard to find. If he wants quality then he’ll have to find it and pay for it. That could take a while.”

Beresford nodded curtly and gulped down his brandy. Returning the glass to the table he walked over to his desk and sank down into his chair.

“What ‘bout Lancer?” Marvin asked. “Why the hell is he still alive?”

Beresford leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. “Because that is what I want, Bill,” he said bluntly.

“But why?” Marvin spluttered. “He’s talked ain’t he? He told ya why he’s here. He came ta kill ya, yet you’re keepin’ him alive! Surely it’s safer if he’s dead?”

Beresford ignored the sheriff, turning to Alvarez instead. “I want you to go and check on him.”

Marvin’s brows rose to meet his hairline and he opened his mouth to protest, only to close it again when Beresford held up a stalling hand. “I want Scott Lancer kept alive for now,” he said firmly. “I’m not sure, Bill, that you can be trusted with that.”

Marvin glowered and Alvarez rose gracefully to his feet, grinning at the sheriff as he sauntered out the door. With the Mexican gone, Marvin wasted no time in reclaiming his seat and stared at Beresford like he’d gone crazy. “You said I could kill him,” he whined.

“And you will,” Beresford placated. “But there are things to be done first. I have no intention of answering to a charge of murder on any of the Lancers’ accounts.”

“Why would anyone think ya had anythin’ ta do with it? There’s no evidence he was here, what reason would ya have for killin’ ‘im? No one need find his body.”

Beresford sighed, barely resisting a roll of his eyes at Marvin’s short-sightedness. As good as the sheriff was at his job; sometimes he could be embarrassingly stupid. “The Lancers’ have always suspected me of being behind the Crawford woman’s death,” Beresford explained patiently.  “They’re so sure that one of them came here to kill me. When Scott Lancer dies, are they going to let this go? No they’re not. I need to ensure there is no proof of my involvement in these deaths. I need to make sure that they do not have any proof already.”

“How would they find out?”


Marvin sneered. “That waste of space? He’s blind and a cripple,” he said with a laugh.

“He can still talk can he not?”

“What if he has?”

“Then Scott Lancer may be more use to me alive.”

Realisation dawned and Marvin rubbed his sweaty palms together with renewed interest. “You want me ta pay Price a visit?” he asked eagerly. “Put him out of his misery?”

“That would take too long. Who do we know who is closer?”


Scott listened to the approaching footsteps, noticed how the shadows flickered across the corridor wall as a flame from a candle jiggled its way towards his cell. He wondered which one of them it was and what it meant for him now. He wasn’t sure why he was still alive, although he wasn’t about to complain.

By the dim light, Scott assessed the figure standing on the other side of the bars. The tall man carried a mug and candle, the light from the lone flame dancing in dark eyes that watched Scott intently.

“Buonas noches.”

Gritting his teeth, Scott eased onto his side, sliding his legs off the cot with a barely concealed hiss of pain. He recognised the low drawl from earlier, this man had been here with Beresford and the others, but he’d not been present for the whipping.

The man entered the cell and kicked it shut. Scott noticed the way this man wore his gun; low like Johnny. “Beba esto,” the man said, offering the mug.

Scott stared at it longingly, but no matter how thirsty he was, how desperately he needed to replenish his body with fluids, common sense and suspicion told him not to trust. Obstinately, Scott shook his head.

Alvarez stared at him, before a small smile crept across his lips. “It’s just water,” he told him, offering Scott the mug again.

Scott tried to swallow, but couldn’t, his mouth was just too dry, his lips stuck when he tried to speak. His head pounded and his back was alight. He felt so weak. It had been hours since he’d last had a drink and so, silently cursing his overwhelming need, Scott accepted the mug and brought it to his mouth, letting the cool liquid touch his lips. It was just water, but it tasted so sweet. Scott held the first mouthful for as long as possible before swallowing with difficulty and then taking an urgent sip and then another.

“Lentamente,” Alvarez cautioned as Scott drank too quickly, and Scott showed he understood by giving a nod and slowing down. When the mug was empty, Scott handed it back and studied Alvarez cautiously.

Reading Scott’s mind, Alvarez shrugged. “Usted está de ningún uso, muerto. Lo que usted dijo a Sr. Beresford, ha ahorrado su vida. Para ahora.”

Scott looked blank; his command of the Spanish language, although significantly improved over the years, was not fluent enough to interpret such rapid tongue.

“Beresford wants you alive…for now,” Alvarez translated slowly.


Alvarez shrugged again. “Something you said?”

Scott dropped his gaze to the floor in an effort to avoid the sneer he imagined on Alvarez’s face. He had been so determined to say nothing, but they’d been killing him out there. He’d just wanted it to stop. As Alvarez approached him, Scott tensed, expecting an assault. Instead the Mexican leaned over Scott’s shoulder with the candle.

“Animales,” Alvarez muttered as he took in the state of Scott’s back. He wasn’t a caring man but evidence of such a vicious whipping disgusted him. Marvin disgusted him. Alvarez had lost count during his thirty-five years of how many men he’d killed. He had few morals and even less principles, but those he possessed didn’t condone tying a man and thrashing him like an animal.

Alvarez left the cell, locking Scott in. The sliver of moonlight returned with the candle’s departure, and Scott went to move again, only to wince sharply and almost cry out. Scott’s fingers gingerly explored his back, feeling the slippery smears of blood that told him some, if not all of his wounds, still wept scarlet tears.

Scott curled his bloodied fingers into his palm, his fingernails digging into his flesh as he formed a fist of angry frustration. He hated himself for giving in, even though Beresford had believed what he’d said. Scott knew he’d signed his own death warrant. He’d tried to buy time and shake Beresford’s confidence. Scott thought for a second he had. When he’d asked Beresford who he could really trust, if he honestly thought he could get away with all of this—there could’ve been a tremor of uncertainty in those hazel eyes. It had been erased by a chilling composure before Scott could be sure.

Scott uncurled his fingers and stared down at his crimson hand. He’d told Beresford that his brother was dead, and in some ways he was. Raising his head, Scott stared at the window and out to the night sky. His anger toward Johnny still festered inside, but what he hated most of all was that a part of him had wanted to do the unforgivable. A part of him had been tempted to give Johnny up to Beresford.




Johnny rode into Winston shortly after midday. The sun blazed, perspiration created a two-tone effect on the green shirt he wore. There was a water trough in the town square and as Barranca drank his fill, Johnny scanned the town, assuming that the large house belonged to Beresford judging by its grandeur and the guard on the front steps. Johnny locked gazes with the man in black who was stretched out in the sun, a rifle beside him but both hands in his lap. This man’s languid appearance was deceptive, Johnny decided, but finding no challenge in the intense dark gaze, Johnny dismissed him, raking over the first floor windows instead. Is he inside right now?  Breathless, Johnny had to look away, realising just how hard this was going to be. He’d spent a year developing a thirst for blood and his mouth was bone dry. Johnny wondered if the unidentified feeling that stalked him was this thirst, reminding him it wouldn’t be denied.

He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with dusty heat. Unless he sauntered up to Beresford’s front door, stepping over the sunbathing gun hawk on his way, then Johnny had no choice but to wait.


From his uncomfortable seat on the blistering steps, Alvarez watched Johnny ride in. Cocky, was his initial assessment of the latest stranger to arrive in town, especially when he matched his stare without blinking. When the stranger broke eye contact to blatantly assess Beresford’s home, clearly with a good idea of what was what, Alvarez was delightfully intrigued.

He watched the stranger take his horse to the livery and only when he entered the hotel, did Alvarez look for something else to occupy his interest. He supposed he should inform Beresford that George Weston’s call for guns had been answered quicker than anticipated, and just as he was debating it, Alvarez clocked Bill Marvin trudging along the boardwalk.

The fat sheriff paused outside the jail and tugged at the slouching waistband of his brown pants with one hand, his other caressing his thick moustache. He seemed indecisive, and realising why, Alvarez curled his lip in disgust.


Warm sunlight poured through the cell window, wrapping Scott in its smothering embrace. The fire in his back had stopped blazing and seemed content just to smoulder, so long as he stayed still. Warm and drowsy, Scott lay on his stomach with hands beneath his chin, staring vacantly at the wall. How long have I been here for—two, three days? However long it had been, there was still no word of his brother. Maybe Eleanor was telling the truth. Maybe Johnny had reconsidered his plan. Will Murdoch be worried by now? Scott sighed, almost resigned to his fate.

He groped on the floor for the mug of water, gratefully curling his fingers around its handle. Only then did he attempt to move, slow and easy, terrified of a pain that would paralyse his senses. He brought the mug to his lips, wincing as sweat ran from his neck, seeping with a sting into what he hoped were healing wounds. Scott concentrated on the water, savouring each drop, not caring that it was lukewarm; it slid down his throat like a soothing balm.

Alvarez had returned earlier with more water and some bread—the first thing Scott had eaten in days. He couldn’t figure the Mexican. He wasn’t exactly friendly, but not a sadistic brute like Marvin either.

The jail door opened, startling Scott from his thoughts. Heavy footsteps pounded the floor and he heard the sheriff telling whoever was on duty to get out. Scott’s heart raced, his muscles tensed, and he frantically glanced around the cell for anything that could be used to defend himself. There was nothing. Swearing through gritted teeth, Scott scrambled into a sitting position and planted his feet on the floor, grateful through his haze of pain that no one had thought to shackle him. He stood holding the bars for support, almost passing out at the first wave of dizziness.

“Up an’ around, I see,” Marvin growled. He detached the key from his belt and opened the cell, his gun drawn and pointed at Scott. “Back up, Lancer,” he ordered.

Scott froze, unable to tear his eyes away from what Marvin had looped over the arm that held the gun. He swallowed bile, hating the fear that assailed him. “Back up!” Marvin spat and gestured to Scott with the gun, fully aware that Lancer seemed oblivious; fixated on the whip in a petrified trance. “Are you deaf?” He jabbed the gun into Scott’s chest, forcing him to take a step back. “Turn ‘round an’ place ya hands on the wall!”

Fear conquered Scott, percolating through his veins and dissolving the line of communication between the part of his brain that was screaming at him to fight and his immobile body; already braced for what was to come.

When he failed to do as ordered, Marvin grabbed Scott by the arm and forced him around, shoving him brutally against the wall. “You listen ‘bout as quick as ya talk, Lancer,” he snarled. “Now I know I said there ain’t the room for this, but I’m gonna try provin’ myself wrong. Get ya hands on the damn wall!”

Do something! Scott felt the rough wall beneath his palms as his arms stopped listening to him and started obeying Marvin instead. He looked at his fingers splayed out, poised to claw for purchase in the solid surface when the first lash landed. Marvin stepped back.

Scott curled his hands into fists, his fear morphing into adrenaline. He whirled to face Marvin, whose jaw dropped in startled surprise; his mouth a nice opening for Scott’s perfectly formed fist as it mashed lips against rotting brown teeth that crumbled on impact. Marvin went down hard, the gun slipping from his grasp, skidding to a halt at Scott’s feet.

Scott stared at the gun for a moment, the opportunity almost too good to be true. He was about to force his body through pain to retrieve it when there was the sound of another gun being cocked.  

“Not a good idea.” Alvarez’s voice was soft but the Colt levelled at Scott through the bars left no room for misinterpretation. He nodded toward the unconscious sheriff. “Get the keys and bring them to me,” he said calmly. “And make no mistake; I will kill you if you try anything stupid.”

Scott studied the Mexican for a moment, Marvin’s gun still on the periphery of his vision, so temptingly close that his fingers tingled for it. Alvarez must have known, for he shook his head. “Don’t doubt me,” he warned quietly.

Scott nodded, swallowing the recklessness that brewed dangerously within. As he lowered himself to the floor and reached for the keys, he concentrated on the satisfying sight of Marvin’s swollen face and bloody mouth rather than the fierce hiss of pain that consumed his back.

When Marvin moaned and his eyelids fluttered, Scott punched him again. Raising his head, he looked to Alvarez, half-expecting the Mexican to shoot him for that little bit of recklessness. To Scott’s surprise Alvarez just grinned.

“Don’t look so worried. I said I’d only kill you if you were stupid.”

Inappropriately, a faint smile ghosted Scott’s lips and he grasped the keys, got to his feet and delivered them to Alvarez. The Colt didn’t waver as the Mexican unlocked the door and edged toward Marvin’s gun, retrieving it swiftly. It was another form of torture for Scott, as mentally painful as the whipping, to see the cell door wide open yet knowing he’d never make it.

Alvarez gestured to the doorway. “Move,” he said gruffly.

At gunpoint, Scott walked from the cell, relishing the freedom in spite of an uncertain future. Alvarez didn’t hurry him, and Scott took his time, trying to steady himself, assess his own strength and judge his chances of escape for the second time. A sharp jab to the back of his skull dislodged such a notion as Alvarez threw open the door to the adjacent cell and shoved him inside.

After locking Scott in, Alvarez returned to Marvin and gave the motionless sheriff a hard kick. When he didn’t stir, Alvarez shrugged and to Scott’s amazement, left the cell and locked that door, too, attaching the keys to his own belt.

“You don’t like him do you?” Scott’s voice was weak and croaky, and he cleared his throat, wondering if Alvarez’s dislike for Marvin was something he could use. It was clear that the Mexican wasn’t going to help him escape right now, but maybe he could be persuaded.

Alvarez smirked. “No.”

“What about Beresford, do you like him?”

“I don’t like anyone.”

While Scott considered how to respond, Alvarez holstered his gun and left. For a few tormenting seconds, Scott heard the town come to life as the door to the jail was opened. Then grim silence after the door was closed. His chin dipped to his chest in defeat and Scott was left to his thoughts. 


Unlike Widow’s Creek, Winston’s saloon had no annoying piano man and was free from the gaiety of music. The atmosphere was smoke and tension. No man’s guard was down. Johnny didn’t imagine the hush that descended when he entered, or the hooded eyes that assessed him suspiciously. He wasn’t bothered, he even enjoyed the reaction as he sauntered to the bar and took up position with a clear view of the doors.

After collecting a mug of beer, Johnny sat at an empty table, ignoring the stares and whispers, choosing instead to feign interest in a poker game being played in the corner. He remained alert though; his instincts were on the doors before the tall, slim man, dressed in black even entered the saloon. It was the man from outside Beresford’s home, a Mexican, and he joined a group of men seated by the window.

Johnny glanced over as a young man with flaming red hair greeted the gun hawk with a shout of “Hey, Leon!” He handed him a drink and the Mexican clapped the redhead on the back.

The men at the table burst into riotous laughter at something the redhead said. Johnny slyly watched, noting that the young man, a kid really, looked indignant to be the subject of such amusement. Drinking his beer, Johnny considered what to do. He didn’t need to suss out potential threats—there were many in this room, and although he was here for the opportunity, they held no interest. The Mexican was the obvious choice, yet Johnny was reluctant to take it.  There was something about him, yet when Johnny flicked through a catalogue of faces in his head, it was only images of the dead that came to mind.

The laughter at the table ceased. Johnny’s fingers drummed on the table.

“Hey Mister, that’s my seat.”

He tilted his head to look at the redhead; younger than Johnny had originally thought; sixteen, seventeen maybe. He stood looking down on Johnny, his gaze crisp with challenge, yet his posture too awkward to be convincing. Johnny deliberately looked at the chair the young man had just vacated and he noted that the redhead’s companions were watching intently, laughter still visible in their eyes, tugging at the corners of their mouths. The only one who didn’t appear amused was the Mexican. He lounged casually in his chair and studied Johnny intently.

Johnny shrugged and got to his feet, gesturing to the seat. “Take it.”

The young man looked surprised, as did his audience.

Picking up the beer mug, Johnny walked to the next available table and slid easily into that seat, appearing to ignore the redhead, who’d still not taken the seat he professed to want.

Was I ever that young? Johnny asked himself and then amended it to, was I ever that stupid? The answer came on a breath he was still alive to take—no. Although I came close. A faint smile flitted across his face as a memory stirred into living colour. I was, what, fourteen, fifteen? Out the corner of his eye, Johnny noted that the redhead had returned to his original table, much to the others amusement.

Just fifteen, Johnny decided. Fifteen and chasing a reputation. He’d entered the saloon like a lion cub having just discovered its ability to hunt, his sights fixed on the man of the moment, who at that time had seemed ancient, but in retrospect had not been as old as Johnny was now. Brimming with a confidence that back then outweighed his skill, Johnny wasted no time on the preliminaries; he walked straight in and called the man out. In what had been a shocking and humiliating blow to the fragile ego of a fifteen-year-old, the man exchanged looks with his compañeros, and promptly burst out laughing. Johnny remembered being so surprised at the reaction, that he’d stood there, lost.

He’d paid for his inexperience that day, not by taking a bullet, but rather the folded length of a belt across his backside more times than he could count as the men used his momentary loss of control to confiscate his gun and wrestle him face down on the table while the man Johnny had intended killing, thrashed him for being so stupid and then thrashed him again for the stream of Spanish curses and insults that spewed without restraint from his mouth. When the beating was over, the gunslinger handed Johnny his now empty gun, clapped him on the shoulder and informed him matter of fact that he was to return when he was truly good enough to take him on.

Johnny had left the saloon that day humiliated beyond belief and determined that when he did return, he would be the one doing the laughing. He’d never fulfilled his silent vow because the lessons learned that day proved to be among the most useful of his life. He learned the importance of patience and the one thing that proved invaluable over the years—never to be caught off guard by your opponent’s reaction. Two years later when Johnny found himself in the same town as the man, he’d stayed away even though he could’ve easily taken him. That man had saved his life, and Johnny had felt a flicker of sadness a few days later when he witnessed him shot down in the street.    

The redhead was up again, Johnny noticed and he strutted over with regained cockiness, resting one hand casually on the table.

“What d’ya want this time?”

“I decided this is where I wanna be sittin’.”

Johnny let out a long, heavy sigh. He leaned back in his chair, threading his fingers together and stretching deliberately slowly. “How old are ya?”

The redhead was caught off guard by the question and his eyes narrowed into defensive slits. “That ain’t none of your business,” he retorted sharply. When Johnny just raised his eyebrows, the green eyes narrowed even further and he snapped. “I’m eighteen.”

Johnny sighed again. “Too old for a whippin’ then,” he muttered under his breath.


“Don’t matter.” Johnny rested his palms on his thighs. “Tell me what you want, and don’t give me the crap ‘bout my seat.”

“Ya know what I want.”

Johnny pushed up from the chair abruptly, the chair legs scraping noisily across the floor. “It ain’t gonna happen, kid.” Johnny walked to the bar. “Tequila,” he snapped to the bartender who suddenly seemed to be sweating profusely, unable to stop tugging on his string tie. 

“You yeller Mister?”

Johnny bit down on his bottom lip as he turned around slowly. Every pair of eyes was on them, glued to the scene as if it were a theatrical performance they’d paid money to see. This was not what Johnny needed right now. Looking directly into those green eyes, when he spoke, Johnny’s voice was calm yet riddled with warning. “I am tryin’ to do you a favour,” he ground out. “Now go sit on that seat…” he gestured to the one he’d just vacated. “…the other seat, any damn seat ya like. Just stay the hell away from me.”

When the redhead stared at him blankly, Johnny scowled and turned his back. The bartender placed another tequila on the bar and he downed it in one go. Putting the glass down, he caught the flicker of fear in the bartender’s eyes. All Johnny could hear was the sound of the gun sliding from leather as the redhead proved his stupidity beyond doubt.

Johnny’s soul howled in frustrated despair because this was not the death it longed for, not the death it craved from its darkest depths. In the second after the redhead coldly informed him he was a dead man, Johnny closed his eyes and sent a prayer of hope that it was not too late for this kid’s soul. Then he turned and drew; one synchronized motion, and the redhead didn’t notice the speed of it, already fully committed, his finger squeezing the trigger, imagining the impressed look on everyone’s face when he proved them wrong.

The redhead heard only one bullet—his own he confidently predicted—and he smiled with premature victory, not noticing that he was falling backward, saved from hitting the hard floor by the gentle cushion of somebody’s prayer as it scooped him up in heavenly arms, before its dark nemesis could arrive and stake claim to his blood soaked body.

The room fell quiet, the body was still, and Alvarez—he watched with knowing eyes as Johnny Madrid left the saloon.



Twenty Eight

From the open window of his first floor hotel room, Johnny watched a procession of men spill out of the saloon. Some stood with hats pressed to their chests, others with drinks or folded arms, shaking their heads as the kid’s body was loaded onto a wagon.  A woman arrived on the scene, crying hysterically as she flung herself over the blanketed corpse, her face not in Johnny’s vision, but her fiery red hair suggesting she was a sister, mother, or had been until this day.

Johnny shut the window on her grief. He had enough of his own. He drew the drapes, banishing light, and lay down on the bed facing the locked door; one arm crooked beneath the pillow, the other sprawled by the side of him. He didn’t know how long he stayed in that position, but sleep remained elusive.


Alvarez stood amongst the men on the boardwalk and shook his head regretfully. Johnny Madrid. It seemed obvious now and Alvarez wondered why he’d not placed him before. He supposed it had been a long time. Madrid was impressively fast. The fastest draw Alvarez had seen for a while. With one exception, maybe. That time would come, and Alvarez knew he wouldn’t be the one to initiate it either. Johnny Madrid was about reputation. He was also a man that had something to prove.

Alvarez stepped off the boardwalk, his eyes narrowing to ward off bright sunshine that mocked one family’s darkest day. He passed the jail and smirked, wondering if Marvin was enjoying his time on the other side of the bars, sorely tempted to leave him there to rot. Any man with so little self-control was a liability, but Beresford didn’t see it. The sheriff was living on borrowed time, Alvarez figured. Given the opportunity, he was sure Scott Lancer would finish him off. That would work well. Be ideal in fact. Satisfied with this plausible thought, Alvarez walked up the steps to Beresford’s home.

He found his boss at his desk in the study, reclining in his chair with a cigar. The doors to the balcony were open, and Beresford looked up when Alvarez entered, the expression on his face suggested he’d been waiting for him.

“I hope you have an explanation as to why someone is shooting up my saloon and the so-called sheriff is nowhere to be found?” Beresford’s tone failed to disguise his edginess, the feeling that the balance of power was shifting further in his enemies’ favour. What was occurring in his town and life, suddenly seemed out of control. 

Alvarez lingered in the doorway, flicking his hat from his head and catching it deftly in his right hand. He smoothed down his hair and wiped his hand on the leg of his dark jeans. “One shot. One dead man,” he corrected quietly as he slipped further into the room, slouching down in the vacant chair.

“And Marvin?”

“When I last saw the sheriff, he was having a siesta.”

“A siesta?” Beresford uttered incredulously. “Where?”

“The jail.”

Beresford’s eyes narrowed, a frown creasing into his otherwise smooth face. He stubbed the cigar in the ashtray, grinding it until it crumpled beneath the pressure. “I told him to stay away from Lancer until I know what’s going on with Price. I don’t want mistakes made. I want this finished properly, once and for all, with no comebacks.”  

Alvarez smiled. “Oh, I reckon Lancer is safe from Marvin for now.”

Beresford opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again abruptly when a female wail reached through the open door, assaulting his ears with grief-stricken cries. His frown became a scowl of irritation and without a word Beresford got to his feet and slammed the doors shut. Just like Johnny, he couldn’t listen to another person’s grief.

“And the man who fired this one shot? Have you found out who he is?”

“There’s no need. I know.”


Inside the jail, Scott slowly suffocated on hopeless despair. He couldn’t see, but his back remained a criss-crossed mess. The wounds themselves had not all knitted together, his earlier exertion leaving some open and raw, fresh blood seeped between black clots when he moved. Scott was conscious of infection, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing he could do about any aspect of his current situation.

His eyelids were heavy and he was thirsty again. Marvin had regained consciousness half an hour ago and begun informing Scott in a barely intelligible voice, exactly what he was going to do to him at the first opportunity. Scott had stopped listening eventually, consoled when Marvin, exhausted by his presently empty threats, slumped on the cot, scanning the floor of the cell as if looking for something. His missing teeth, Scott decided with a smile. Now Marvin appeared to be dozing. Sweat ran down his grossly swollen face.

When he heard the door to the jail open, Scott didn’t bother moving, but Marvin did, his eyes snapping open as he tried to haul himself up, the look of triumph he tried to conjure failing miserably as a wave of dizziness assaulted him. He lurched back down again, groaning.

A moment later the tall figures of Beresford and Alvarez appeared alongside the cells, and Beresford looked bemused by the state of Marvin’s battered face. Turning to Alvarez, he remarked wryly, “Is that what you meant by a siesta?” He shook his head. “Let him out.”

Alvarez unlocked the cell, and Marvin glared viciously at the Mexican. “Get away from me! I’m gonna kill ya, you're a dead man, I promise you that!”

Alvarez smirked and Beresford folded his arms across his chest. “Shut up, Bill,” he snapped impatiently. “While you two have been at each other’s throats or whatever the hell has happened here, there was someone shooting men dead in my saloon and you…” Beresford jabbed his finger toward Marvin. “…the so called sheriff, were nowhere to be found!”

“Eh? Who shot who?”

Beresford ignored him. “Get him up,” he ordered Alvarez, who obeyed, hauling an indignant, yet dazed Marvin to his feet.

“There will be time for you two to settle your differences when I say and not before.”

“Gerroff me,” Marvin growled, determined to walk out of the cell on his own two feet, fully aware to his fury that Scott Lancer was watching them quietly from the adjacent cell. “Who shot who?” he repeated as he groped along the bars for support until he could be sure his legs were going to cooperate and give him back some measure of dignity.

“The Harris boy tried to outdraw Johnny Madrid. Harris is dead,” Beresford calmly replied as he motioned for Alvarez and Marvin to follow him out of the cell area, nobody noticing Scott’s visible jerk to attention at the mention of his brother’s name. As they disappeared from sight, Scott found himself praying that they wouldn’t leave the jail. Johnny was in town and Scott wanted to hear what else Beresford had to say.

To Scott’s relief, they remained out in the front office and he scarcely dared breathe for fear he’d miss something, anything to do with his brother.

“Who the hell is this Madrid feller?”

Alvarez spoke next. “Madrid is a gunfighter. He’s good. He was perhaps one of the best.”

“Was?”  There was no mistaking the scorn in Marvin’s voice.

“Years ago in Mexico, but then he disappeared. There were rumours he’d been killed, but unless you have a dead man walking, he’s very much alive, and from what I saw today, potentially still one of the best.”

Scott closed his eyes. Still one of the best. Well, Johnny would love to hear that.

Johnny was in Winston. The news he’d longed to hear had finally arrived but what good was it really? Johnny didn’t know he was here. If he did, would it make a difference? That thought snuck into Scott’s head and he wanted to dismiss it as absurd, but it wasn’t that easy. A part of him; the angry, lacerated and bloody part, the hurt and excluded brother he was, didn’t know what to think, didn’t know Johnny at all now, and worse still couldn’t entirely trust him.

From the sounds of things, there was a range war brewing and Beresford planned on hiring Johnny to help. Scott could see his brother agreeing to that as a way of getting close, but couldn’t see him following through on it. There was no way that Johnny would help Beresford. He would have something else in mind.

There was nothing Scott could do to help his brother now. Johnny was on his own. Just the way he’d wanted it.


Eventually, Johnny gave up on sleep. Restless and hot, he withdrew his gun from the pillow and rolled onto his back, laying the weapon down gently beside him. He stared at the ceiling. It was just a matter of time. He had to wait this out, but he wondered honestly how long he could, what it was going to cost him and others. The walls of the drab and dreary hotel room were suffocating, enclosing him in a prison of his own making.

The sun was sinking when Johnny left the hotel. The morbidity of the day’s events still lingered in the air, smothering. The woman’s anguished cries echoed eerily in his ears. He glanced around, alert, not certain that there weren’t others prepared to challenge him, but the town was quiet, the spectacle over, and his gaze searched the buildings, coming to rest on the café. He’d not eaten today.

The eatery was small and empty, save for the lady owner and a younger woman who approached Johnny cautiously, taking his order and scurrying away like a frightened rabbit. Some effort had clearly been made to make the place seem friendly and inviting. The walls were adorned with a series of watercolours, the artist an amateur because they weren’t very good. Each table had a little vase containing hand-picked wildflowers and Johnny couldn’t help but wonder who, if anyone, in this town would appreciate them. It all seemed like wasted effort when the citizens themselves did nothing to promote a friendly image.

As he waited for his meal, Johnny picked up the knife and played with it. The sun’s last beam shone past the red and white gingham curtains to glint off the metallic surface, before sinking behind the buildings on the other side of the square. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the two women whispering with barely disguised suspicion and fear. It was to be expected, he decided. After all he had shot a man dead. No, Johnny corrected. I shot a kid.

The young woman returned, set a plate down in front of him and filled his glass with water, her eyes darting away when Johnny muttered his thanks. When he cut into the steak, the meat parted tenderly; juices leaked across the white china. Red juices. Blood. He bit off the steak, hoping that it would go somewhere to filling the emptiness inside. 

It never got easier. It never would. Was it wrong for him not to accurately recall the number of men he’d shot and killed? Would it be worse if he could remember each and every face, keep count like it was something to be proud of, chalk another tally on his black soul?

The café door opened and Johnny’s moment of penitence yielded to the instinct that would ensure he’d do it all again. His gaze slid shrewdly over the Mexican, and reflexively, Johnny relaxed his grip on the knife so that the shiny utensil did no more than rest in ready fingers.

“¿Puedo sentarme aquí?”

The Mexican didn’t wait for acquiesce before taking the vacant seat opposite Johnny, removing his hat to balance it on his black jean clad thigh. Johnny did nothing but eat, taking another bite and chewing slowly, once more flicking through a catalogue of faces from his past, but finding no match.

When it appeared to Alvarez that Johnny had finished eating, at least while in his company, he leaned in closer to the table. “Era un espectáculo impresionante.”

Johnny’s countenance did not change. He didn’t need to hear approval, not anymore, and certainly not from this man, yet the Mexican had sought him out for another reason and he would get to it.

“Paul era un joven bueno.”

Paul. He had a name. Johnny didn’t need him to have a name. 

“He was a friend of yours,” he remarked quietly.

Alvarez smiled slightly then shrugged, taking Johnny’s cue and switching to English. “He was a good kid,” he repeated. “Stupid though, not asking your name.”

Johnny pushed his plate away.

“If he’d known you were Johnny Madrid, he might’ve done things differently?” Alvarez suggested, the smile still hovering on his lips.

Johnny leaned forward, curling his fingers around the glass of water on his table. “Maybe someone should’a told him.”

More of a smile leaked from Alvarez and he shrugged again. “That would’ve been disrespectful,” he said simply, bringing his hands together in his lap. He paused while the older woman this time, the proprietor, approached their table to refill Johnny’s glass, and while her concentration appeared to be focused on pouring the fresh water from the jug she carried, it was obvious to both men that it was curiosity that had dared her closer. When Alvarez resumed speaking, he reverted back to Spanish, his words gliding smoothly from his lips like silk. “You have to respect a man who chooses his own day to die. Who is anyone to interfere with that decision? And I was not sure until I saw you draw. Then I knew.”

Johnny murmured a thank you to the woman who, unable to hide her dismay at the language barrier, withdrew and left them alone. “So you know who I am,” Johnny said pointedly.

Alvarez grinned and shook his head. “Forgive me,” he murmured. “My name is Alvarez. Leon Alvarez.”

“Never heard of ya.”

Alvarez sighed. “No, you wouldn’t.” He slicked a stray lock of greasy oil-black hair behind his ear. “I wasn’t like you, seeking the reputation. I had no need or desire for it.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes. “You think I did?”

“There is no need to get defensive, Juanito,” Alvarez retorted easily, swivelling round in his seat so that he faced Johnny directly. “It is understandable. You grow up with nothing. You’re beaten, insulted, all because of your blue eyes,” Alvarez paused to gauge the effect of his words, not perturbed when Johnny’s expression provided no clue. “You tire of this. You want respect, yet you get none. But your gun, Juanito, your gun is something people will respect. You learn this and go about proving it, over and over again.”

Johnny swallowed his angry retort as he listened to the patronising character assessment, the rapidly spoken words flaunting their accuracy like a red flag meant to entice. He countered them coolly; a smile gracing his lips with deceptive ease. “You got me all figured, huh?”

Alvarez grinned broadly then. “Almost,” he said with a chuckle as he brought his arms across his chest and sat back. “But the rest can wait. I sense neither of us chooses this day to die?”

The words were spoken with the resounding echo of amusement, but the question hung heavily in the air. Alvarez waited for Johnny to respond; curious yet unconcerned, no matter the response.

“Well if you change your mind, let me know,” Johnny said softly as his right hand dropped to his thigh. “I’d hate to be disrespectful.”

Alvarez’s laughter rippled through the tension and his eyes glinted with good humour as he waved his hand in the air dismissively. “So, Juanito,” he said, his tone conversational. “You disappeared for some time.”

Johnny’s stare hardened. “First of all, that ain’t my name,” he said coldly. “Second, how ‘bout gettin’ to the point?” Johnny's tone was firm, his patience not stretching to casual conversation or carefully posed questions. “What d’ya want?”

“Ah,” Alvarez said with a regretful sigh. “You’re right. The past doesn’t matter. It’s what is happening now that’s important. Tell me Johnny Madrid, are you set on hiring on with Weston?”

“I’d say that’s my business,” Johnny replied cagily, his intrigue at the question well camouflaged.

“Si. But if you were to get an offer more lucrative?”

“I’m listenin’.”

“Senor Beresford…You know the name?”

Beneath the table, Johnny made a tight fist of his hand as he felt a surge of anger. His fingernails squeezed into the flesh of his palms, anything to keep the tension from revealing itself in his eyes. “I’ve heard of him,” he managed.

Alvarez nodded. “Senor Beresford, he bought his land fairly and now Weston is trying to run him off it. All your usual circumstances, only Senor Beresford, he doesn’t like to lose. He wants to keep what is rightfully his and he’s willing to pay to achieve that. Good money for easy…well not easy,” Alvarez corrected with a smirk. “But if I remember right, easy was never a consideration for Johnny Madrid?” He leaned back in the chair, his gaze dark and penetrating. “Beresford, he could use you and he’ll pay…more than Weston.”

When Johnny did not reply, Alvarez raised an eyebrow enquiringly. “Have you met Weston?”

“Nope. Not yet.”

“So you’ll consider this offer.”

“Like I said, I ain’t met the man.” Johnny got to his feet. “Ain't met Beresford, neither. When I do, I'll decide if his offer is worth hearin’. I don't make deals with the hired help.” 

Johnny left the café then, not waiting to see Alvarez’s reaction, not caring what he thought. He strode back to the hotel, through the dusk that had settled quickly in layers of twilight blue. Soon it would be only the slim moon and the lights from the buildings incandescing across the square.

Once back in the hotel room, Johnny lit the lamp and stared at his open palm. His flesh still bore the imprints of his fingernails; small crescent shaped indents from where he’d clenched his fist tight; concentrating the tension and all his anger, fearing that for once, Madrid would let him down. Beresford was looking at a range war, there could not have been a more opportune time for Johnny Madrid to arrive; his motives safely concealed beneath the guise of a saviour. But how the hell would he keep control when he met Beresford face to face, if just the mention of the man’s name sent a tempest of rage through his body? It was happening now, just thinking about it. Johnny’s emotions were colliding, contradicting—beckoning forth an onslaught of bloodlust that threatened to consume him. The road not yet travelled called out to him. He wanted Beresford dead.

Furious, Johnny drove his left fist through the wall, needing an outlet for the anger and renewed indecision he felt. Dust settled like snow on the floor. Sweat leaked from Johnny’s pores and he hoped desperately that it would cleanse enough hate for him to function, purify his soul of a violence that urged him with a forked tongue to kill in cold blood.

He closed his eyes and slid down the wall, conscious for the first time that he felt unhappily alone. He sat on the floor, lost in thought, resting his head in his hands. By saying what he had to Alvarez, Johnny had kept his options open, but the prospect of a range war, what Alvarez said about Weston, it gave him new possibilities—a lifeline tossed into a turbulent sea of hatred. Maybe he didn’t need to be this close. Perhaps there was another way to do this. Johnny raised his head, trailing his fingers down his cheeks. It would certainly make the hard way, easier. He could go see Weston and do what Johnny Madrid had always done—hire out to the right cause. It didn’t matter what this man Weston was about. No one could be worse than Beresford. He wouldn’t be forgoing what he needed—he could still ensure Beresford knew. That it was not about land, not simply business, but justice for Katie and himself.

I’ll leave tomorrow. Decision made, Johnny blew out the flame of the lamp and undressed in darkness. The violent urge lost its voice, confident that it was yet to have its final say.

This time when he lay down on the bed, Johnny slept.




I’m too damn old for this, Murdoch decided as he climbed wearily from his mount and tethered his horse to the sun bleached railing. He looked over the peeling paintwork of the building to the sign hung precariously over his head which simply read, ‘Widow Creek Hotel’. Stepping out from under it, Murdoch placed his hands at the base of his spine and stretched tentatively.

He needed sleep, to feel the comfort of a mattress beneath his travel weary bones, but Murdoch knew his mind would not be easily sedated. He had to spend the night, so he may as well make use of the local amenities and get clean and fed. First though he would visit the telegraph office. He had instructed the operator in the last town to redirect any further telegrams here. He expected there to be a second from Scott and he wanted to read it.

The evening air was warm; the heat swirled with the dust, clinging to him like a second skin as he walked briskly down the street. Someone was playing the piano in the saloon and rowdy voices shattered the peaceful time of day. He caught the telegraph operator as he was about to head home, but was disappointed to find no telegram from Scott. Murdoch couldn’t understand it. Five days had passed since the last one advising him to stay put until he heard from Scott again. Murdoch shook his head. He’d deliberately glossed over that part. He wasn’t a patient man at the best of times, but after this past year his patience was shot to hell.

“Does the telegraph run between here and Winston?” Murdoch enquired, this potential explanation quashed by the operator.

He tried to suppress his worry. He should never have let Scott go on ahead. Damn that dog, the skittish horse, his unreliable back and his old age. Damn it all.


It was getting dark; clouds dragging nightfall swiftly across the sky. With only a soft tangerine glow from the oil lamp to light his office, Josh was feeling cosy. This was peace and quiet. This was what he liked. It wasn’t destined to last though. Already he could hear the noise from the saloon getting steadily louder as patrons drank and enjoyed themselves more.

Lifting the cloth covering his evening meal, Josh beamed as he inhaled the delectable whiff of freshly baked steak and kidney pie. He picked up his cutlery and had the first morsel almost at his lips when the door to the jail opened.


Annoyed at the interruption, Josh let the fork linger tantalisingly at his lips in the hope this was a quick query. If the locals had done more than get merry at the saloon, he would lock the darn fools up this time. With a sigh, Josh studied the interrupter, noting his unfamiliar face and his height. “Yeah, I’m the sheriff. Who are you?”

Murdoch dragged the only empty chair in front of the desk and sat down. “My name is Murdoch Lancer. I want to ask you about my son.”

It took a moment for the name to register with Josh. When it did, he rolled his eyes and returned the fork to his plate with a heavy sigh. “Now which son would that be?” he asked wearily. “The one who got manners, or the one who ain’t?”

Murdoch pursed his lips, but refrained from defending Johnny, figuring the sheriff formed that opinion from legitimate personal experience.

“So you’re actually claiming Johnny Madrid as kin then?” Josh said disparagingly.

“He’s my son. My older son, Scott, wired me five days ago and said you had Johnny in your jail?”

Josh shifted in his chair. “He started a brawl in the saloon. I like peace and quiet, Mr. Lancer, somethin’ I don’t seem to get whenever Madrid…your son…arrives in town.”

“Johnny’s been here before?” Murdoch asked curiously, his train of thought sidetracked.

“He stayed a while, some years back. Started a brawl that time, too.” Josh folded his arms across his chest, shooting Murdoch a look of disapproval. “Seems ta me, he was too young back then to be doin’ what he does for a livin’.”

Murdoch sighed. There was so much he’d never know about Johnny’s past. He’d had no idea that Johnny had spent time in Texas, but then the Pinkerton reports had only constructed a vague picture, a hazy timeline with too many breaks in the chain of events, times when anything could have happened in Johnny’s life. With no intention of explaining the past to Josh, Murdoch moved the conversation on. “I understand you let Johnny go the day before Scott arrived. Scott went after his brother and was supposed to keep me informed, but I’ve heard nothing.”

Josh rubbed his jaw. He could see this man as Scott’s father, not in looks, but in breeding if that wasn’t too fancy a way of putting it. But Madrid? Josh had never given a thought to Johnny Madrid’s father, but if anyone had asked, he’d have guessed at a good for nothing alcoholic, a woman-beater, a cowboy passing through town looking to get lucky. Josh sensed that Murdoch Lancer was used to getting what he wanted, because people respected him, not for any other reason. How did such a man end up with a gunfighter for a son?

“They’re old enough now to take care of themselves, I reckon.”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes Sheriff, they are. However I haven’t heard from Scott and that’s not like him. If he did follow Johnny to Winston, well, there maybe some trouble waiting there.” This was all Murdoch was inclined to say. He didn’t want to get into the whole sorry tale with a sheriff who may or may not be trustworthy. They were close enough to Beresford now for Murdoch to be wary, although if the Lancer name was to be passed on, then the sheriff was sure to have done so upon Scott’s arrival.

Josh studied Murdoch, noting the dark circles beneath his eyes, lines that could be attributed to worry spreading out from his mouth across bristly cheeks. He felt a stab of sympathy for the man. Hell, I’d have sympathy for any man with Madrid for a son. “Well I can tell ya this,” Josh conceded, as he pushed out of his seat, taking one last sorry look at his cooling dinner before throwing the cloth back across his meal to stop it taunting him. “Your son, Scott, he didn’t go ta Winston. He went back on the west road.”

“He went back the way he came?”

Josh nodded, finding to his surprise that he was actually pleased he could offer Murdoch a few words of comfort.

“No, that can’t be right, Sheriff,” Murdoch insisted. “I’ve been on that road for the past five days, I’d have seen him. Why would he ride back?”

“Reckon he thought he was followin’ his brother.”

“Why the devil would he think that?” Murdoch snapped. He didn’t expect the sheriff to have an answer. Rising to his feet Murdoch began pacing, his agitation thumping a rhythm on the floor. “Where is he then?”

Josh caught the flicker of anguish in Murdoch’s eyes and sympathy stabbed again. Inwardly, he groaned. He was sick and tired of covering up for Johnny Madrid, sick of remembering what he was and wasn’t supposed to say. He couldn’t keep track, he was bored to death with it. He only did it for Ellie. Blowing a breath out of his nose, Josh’s fingers tapped an indecisive beat on his belt buckle. “I reckon there may be someone ya should talk to, Mr. Lancer,” he said resignedly.

Murdoch looked at him sharply, his anguish replaced with suspicion. “Who?”

Josh’s eyes flitted to the window, to the dark skies, to the night that brought many a lustful man out to play. He shook his head. “Come back in the mornin’.” 

Murdoch’s suspicion increased. His gaze narrowed. “Sheriff, if there’s someone in this town who knows something, then I’d suggest there’s no time like the present.”

“The mornin’, Mr. Lancer. Take it or leave it.”

They locked eyes, but Josh stood his ground. It was bad enough that he’d incur Ellie’s wrath as it was, without sending over Johnny’s father when she might be busy.

“First thing, Sheriff,” Murdoch warned. “First thing.” 


Johnny stirred, turning to avoid the shaft of sunlight that cut through the drapes. When his eyes opened, he blinked, momentarily lost, before he shrugged off sleep and sat up, waiting for his thoughts to regain their clarity. They did and he cursed, wondering what the time was, hoping it was not too late. He’d wanted to beat the sun this morning, to feel it creeping up the back of his neck as he rode out of Winston. 

He rose from the bed and stumbled to the washstand, accidentally knocking his hand and frowning at the resulting pain. He glanced at his sore knuckles and he saw the hole in the wall, remembering the anger and frustration that had led to his decision to abandon his original plan and join up with Weston. He splashed water on his face, summoning the calm detachment he needed. He washed and dressed, buckled his gunbelt and checked out of the hotel.

The town was already awake, the general store open and Johnny made that his first port of call. He bought a few basic provisions and then went to the livery stable where he found Barranca eager to see him, once again feeling the confinement of his stall. Johnny grinned as the horse almost lost him his balance, nudging and nickering softly. He was about to say something to his horse when he felt a presence. The Colt was in his hand, ready to defend, before the tall shadow of Alvarez reached his feet.

Alvarez propped against the wooden post of the livery, his own gun already drawn and by his side, tapping lightly against his thigh. “Es una mañana hermosa,” (It’s a beautiful morning) he said casually when Johnny came out of the stall, shutting Barranca in.

Johnny didn’t reply, or lower his gun, wondering if he should take this opportunity, sensing the choice was his to make. He didn’t take it. It would give him nothing but delay. “What d’ya want?” Johnny asked coldly.

“I see you’ve made your decision,” Alvarez remarked, his gaze flicking to Barranca.

“Like I told ya before, it’s my business.”

Alvarez shook his head. “You will be a dead man, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny smirked. “Well I’ve been one of those before, ain’t I?” he said nonchalantly. “I still came back.”

Alvarez’s eyes widened and he laughed. “Oh, I underestimated you.” He returned his gun to its holster. “My apologies.”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, it ain’t the first time…now if we’re done.” He lowered his gun slightly.

“I have to give you credit, Madrid…” Alvarez drawled as he pushed away from the post and flicked back the brim of his hat. “You sure had me fooled.”

Expressionless and silent, Madrid slid completely into place.

“One bullet, two pay days…very clever. But tell me, did you even know of Weston before I told you about him?” His eyes remained on Johnny, admiring the way the blue gaze remained steady, the way he didn’t flinch. Alvarez wondered what it would take to get a flicker, some penetration of that self-control. Maybe he was about to find out.

“Senor Beresford, he wishes to meet with you, Madrid. He wishes to meet the man who has come here to kill him.”




While Murdoch rose at the crack of dawn, it appeared the sheriff did not. After waiting outside the jail for twenty minutes, Murdoch decided to get some breakfast, despite not having an appetite. It was hard to feel hungry when he was fit to burst with worry and apprehension. His need was not for food, but sustenance of a different kind. He needed answers.

He returned to the jail shortly after nine a.m. and found the sheriff impatient, as if it was he who’d been up at first light. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” Murdoch demanded as he walked with Josh along the boardwalk, struggling to curb his long legged stride in keeping with the sheriff’s leisurely amble.

“There,” Josh said gruffly, pointing in the direction of the large house situated almost on the outskirts of the town.

“And who are we going to see?” Murdoch pressed, thinking that the sheriff was being even less helpful this morning, if that were possible.


Murdoch hadn’t expected to be meeting a woman. He didn’t dwell on the discriminating tendencies of his thoughts though. Answers were answers.  “And what does Ellie know about my son?” Murdoch asked. Only to be interrupted by the shrill cry of a woman, whose heels could be heard clicking hurriedly behind them.

“Oh, Sheriff Whittaker, you have to come quickly. It’s Ethel Simmons, she’s been robbed!”

The widow! Josh turned abruptly, a frustrated Murdoch forgotten. He listened patiently to the excited woman and then he sighed. “Mr. Lancer, why don’t ya wait at the hotel? I’ll come for ya when I’m done.”

Murdoch glared irritably. “This cannot wait,” he said tersely.

“It’ll wait,” Josh insisted firmly. “Ellie’ll probably be sleepin’ now anyways. Go on back, Mr. Lancer. I’ve said I’ll come for ya, so I will.”

Stand-off. The two men stared at each other obstinately as if doing so would exert their will over the other. Josh broke first, he had no choice; the woman was practically hanging off his arm.

Murdoch watched the sheriff walk away, no longer ambling, he observed with annoyance. As soon as Josh disappeared from view, Murdoch crossed the street and headed toward the house that he’d pointed out. Something wasn’t right. Murdoch still had the sick feeling deep in his gut and it couldn’t be ignored. Perhaps he was worrying unnecessarily, or his paternal urges were going into overdrive—Murdoch didn’t care. If it turned out he was wrong, or overreacting, then fine, he’d feel foolish. Murdoch would readily be proved a fool on this occasion.

The front door was ajar, and swung completely open without a sound, inviting a view of the narrow hall. A staircase led to the upper floor and there was a hat stand just inside the door, with several men’s hats, Murdoch noticed. He remembered what the sheriff had said about the lady sleeping and so he knocked deliberately hard.

He got no response, yet someone was up. Murdoch heard female laughter and a man’s voice and so he removed his hat and stepped inside. There were three doors off the hall, two at the end, both closed, and another to his left which was open.

The sight that greeted him was far from anything Murdoch expected. A man and woman, more of a girl to Murdoch’s eyes, sat on the couch. Only they weren’t drinking their morning cup of coffee and laughing over an amusing article in the newspaper, rather they were…well, cavorting…was the only way Murdoch could describe it. The girl, brunette and slim, was teasingly astride the man, her scanty dress hitched immorally around her thighs and the man, looking like he’d just rode in from a fortnight on the trail, was whispering in her ear, making the girl throw her head back and giggle.

Murdoch wasn’t stupid. The young woman in a dress designed to show more than it covered, coupled with the uncomfortable heat that crept up his neck and made his shirt collar feel tight, told him exactly what kind of house this was, and while he wasn’t a prude, this was not the kind of establishment that he felt comfortable in. He turned to leave, convinced he’d got the wrong house.

“Hey there, handsome, ya lookin’ for a little somethin’?” Reluctantly released from the cowboy’s arms, the young girl rose to greet Murdoch, patting down what there was of her dress.

Murdoch put his fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. “Someone,” he corrected. “Ellie?” He couldn’t resist a frantic tug on his shirt collar.

With a smile that needed no words, the girl sashayed closer, trailing her red painted fingernails down the tan lapel of Murdoch’s jacket. Oblivious to the uptight expression on his face. “She know ya?”

“No, Miss. I…ah…” Murdoch shuffled back a step as the alluring scent of perfume wafted up his nose. “I was told she could help me.” He knew he’d said the wrong thing when the girl gave him a knowing smile and her dark eyes twinkled. Opening his mouth to clarify his remark, Murdoch shut it resolutely when he realised there was no point. What he had to say, he would say to this Ellie woman. “Is she here?”

“She’s here. It has to be her, huh?”

Murdoch itched to pull at his collar again but fought the urge. “Yes,” he managed.

Her smile softened into sweetness. “There’s no need to be embarrassed, darlin’,” she reassured. “Jimmy there…” she indicated the cowboy, frustrated and abandoned on the sofa, “…he prefers brunettes…ya like the redheads,” she shrugged her pale shoulders. “Nothin’ wrong in that.”

Murdoch was not easily mortified, but right now he was; an uncharacteristic red flush sweeping his face.

“I’ll get her for ya.” As the girl left room, she winked, and Murdoch’s mortification was complete. 


The sun streamed through the curtains, the morning well and truly upon them, yet Ellie hadn’t noticed. She felt detached from her body, her mind escaping like it always did when she worked, to another time or place. It would go anywhere; to one of the few happy moments in her life, to the day’s events, or sometimes simply to what she needed to do. That rug is dirty, needs a good beatin’. I’ll do that later. The one in the back room, too.  She concentrated on the mundane while the bed beneath her creaked and groaned. When the invasion of her body became intense, only then did she glance at his face. He was breathing faster and so she moaned, loudly and appreciatively, and wrapped her legs tight around his waist. A few reassurances that he was the best worked as it always did. The grubby cowboy shuddered and then collapsed onto her chest. Ellie squeezed her eyes shut and sighed.

The cowboy, taking the exhalation of breath as a sign of mutual satisfaction, climbed off her and hitched his pants up with a silly, pleased grin on his face. Ellie faked her smile until he was gone. Then, with door to her room closed and its solitude once more restored, she sorted herself out, cleaned up and rearranged her clothes.

More than ever she felt tired. Not from the nights activities, but of this, all of it. Three days Johnny had been gone. Is that all? It felt like more. And he was gone for good this time. Somehow, she just knew, had known it when they’d parted. She’d hoped it would be easy to slip back into her way of life. Last night when Davie Mitchell, his brothers, and a few of the hands had returned from their cattle drive with more on their minds than sleep, Ellie had seen it as a test. It was a test she’d failed.

“Ellie? There’s a man downstairs askin’ for ya.”

Ellie sighed. “I’ll be down in a minute or two.” She stared at her reflection. Her make-up was smudged, lipstick smeared across her cheek from the eager force of unwanted kisses. She fixed her hair and the smudged eyes and lips, her composure complete with a liberal dusting of powder. Why d’ya put all that paint on your face? Johnny had asked her. She’d told him it was her mask. How true that was.


Murdoch had excused himself from the illicitness of the front room to take sanctuary in the hall, and the longer he waited, the more he was unsure that this woman would tell him anything useful. How could she know anything about Scott, unless… Murdoch dismissed the thought.  Scott’s head was fixed firmly on his shoulders. Johnny had to be the connection here. Before he could ponder further, the woman in question came down the stairs.

“Well now, darlin’, ain’t you just the early bird?”

Murdoch watched her descent, uttering a silent prayer of thanks that at least her skirts reached the floor. As the other girl implied, Ellie had red hair, although it was shades darker than Murdoch envisaged. As she reached the bottom step, her eyes assessed him from beneath long heavy lashes, an exquisite, if somewhat teasing smile on her rosy lips.

“Ellie, I presume?” he said briskly, pleased to hear his usual directness.

“Yes.” Ellie sized him up, thinking how out of place he looked standing there. But that was often the case, especially with the older men. He was married probably, or recently widowed.

“I’ve been told you can help me. That you have some information—”

“Information?” Ellie arched an eyebrow. “Honey, this is a whorehouse…the only information I can offer ya is the pricelist.”

Murdoch’s jaw dropped, but he regained his composure. Drawing himself to his full height, he looked down at her sternly. “Miss. My name is Murdoch Lancer. The sheriff told me to come and see you regarding the whereabouts of my sons. Is there somewhere we can talk?”

“Oh.” Ellie’s lips parted in surprise, her initial reaction inclined to be suspicious, until she realised what Murdoch had said. “Josh sent ya?” she checked cautiously.

“If that is Sheriff Whittaker’s name, then yes, he sent me. Now, is there somewhere we can go?”

Ellie nodded, her eyes not giving anything away that Murdoch could read. She turned down the hall, beckoning him to follow. They went into a back room, and Ellie went straight to the dresser and picked up a bottle, holding it up for Murdoch’s approval. At his curt nod, she poured two glasses and they stood there, drinking, in awkward silence.


“Thomas.” Ellie remembered that Lancer men liked formality.

“Miss. Thomas. Both my sons were in this town, Scott Lancer and Johnny…Madrid.” He paused and studied her reaction. It was Johnny she knew, and he didn’t need to ask in what capacity. “Scott and I were separated when I had an unfortunate accident. The sheriff told me that he left this town, days ago, following his brother. He was under the impression that Scott rode out the way he came in. When I queried this, he suggested I speak with you.”

Ellie turned away and to Murdoch’s exasperation, rolled herself a cigarette. “Do ya?” she asked, tilting her head to look at him.

“No, thank you.”

Ellie concentrated on her task. This is Johnny’s father! She scarcely believed it, yet he was just as Johnny described him.  

“Miss Thomas, what is it you know?” The question was asked with a definite edge of impatience.

Ellie lit the cigarette, refilled her glass and moved to the couch. Perched on the arm, she inhaled deeply and blew out the smoke. “Johnny stayed here,” she said slowly, not missing the knitting together of Murdoch’s brows. “He got in a fight at the saloon, got beat up and I suppose I rescued him from Josh.”


“Scott came to town lookin’ for his brother, but Johnny had already left.”

Murdoch noticed she hadn’t looked him in the eye that time, and his own eyes narrowed, not leaving her face. “Miss Thomas, I’ve been on that road for the last five days and I have seen neither hide nor hair of Johnny or Scott. Not seeing Johnny is plausible…but I would have seen Scott, and more to the point, he would have contacted me. I left instructions with the telegraph operator to have any messages for me redirected here. If Scott did as you say, then I have to conclude that he has got into trouble, that something has befallen him…” Murdoch swallowed. “…because he is now missing.

The other thing I don’t understand is why Johnny would go back that way, when I know for a fact this was not what he intended?”

Ellie gulped down the rest of her drink and got to her feet. “I honestly don’t know where Scott is, Mr. Lancer. I watched him leave town with my own eyes. Johnny asked me to…” her voice trailed off, her loyalty to Johnny not easily undone.

“What did he ask of you?”

When Ellie didn’t reply, Murdoch finished his own drink and returned it to the dresser with a thud. “Look, Miss. Thomas, I don’t know what unrealistic notions you have in your head regarding my son, or how well you think you know him…”

“Well I know he didn’t get his charm from his daddy,” Ellie said pointedly, the warmth in her brown eyes flaring.

Murdoch ignored the jibe. “I assure you however, that your loyalty is misplaced. I doubt that Johnny has even given you a second thought…”

“I don’t suppose so.”

Murdoch paused and Ellie sighed. She’d watched Scott leave, so where had he gone? The whole reason she had agreed to lie was to protect him, but if he was in trouble as Mr. Lancer seemed to think he was…“I do know Johnny, Mr. Lancer,” she answered finally, almost wistfully. “I knew him a long time ago…” Suddenly she straightened and turned to face Murdoch. “I don’t make a habit of lying,” she told him boldly. “But on this occasion, I saw the sense in what Johnny said. He wants to protect Scott, going after Andrew Beresford is something he feels he has to do alone…”

Murdoch folded his arms across his chest. “I think you’d better tell me everything, Miss. Thomas,” he instructed firmly.


Murdoch left for Winston shortly after midday, knowing for certain now that this was where Johnny was, yet unable to do anything more than guess that this was where Scott had gone, too. He couldn’t be sure, and that frustrated him, but it seemed logical. He could imagine Scott mulling over Ellie’s story, drawing a conclusion based not on the brother he’d once known, but Johnny as he was now.

Murdoch glanced at his travelling companion, not sure if he wanted company. But he ought to be grateful, not that he’d had a say in it. Neither had the sheriff, really. Josh had joined Murdoch and Ellie’s conversation and had listened, apparently surprised by what Ellie had to say about Johnny and Andrew Beresford.

“Yep, I’d say your boys are in some kinda trouble,” had been the blunt and pessimistic conclusion that Josh had come to upon hearing the whole bitter tale. Ellie had insisted that Josh go with Murdoch, reminding him that if Scott and Johnny were in danger, then he, as the law, had a duty to help.

“I’m the law in this town, Ellie. I ain’t the law of the whole damn state!” Josh had protested, which prompted Murdoch to enquire about the law in Winston, a rhetorical question he’d realised as soon as Josh responded. There was law in Winston, Beresford’s law, and from what Josh had said about his neighbouring sheriff, he had no qualms about implementing it either.

“Exactly Josh!” Ellie used this to press her point home and Murdoch had watched the scene play out, his impatience to leave hindered only by his intrigue in the battle between a stubborn sheriff and a feisty redhead. When Josh had looked like he was sticking to his guns, Ellie had announced she would go to Winston herself. She’d have done it, too, Murdoch decided, not that he’d wanted her along. In fact she’d still been set on the idea even when Josh had heaved a resigned sigh and agreed to go. She had won the first battle but the sheriff had no intentions of letting her win the second and he’d warned her sternly that if she so much as tried to follow, he would have her locked up.

Ellie’s determination, the way she spoke about Johnny, led Murdoch to believe she genuinely cared for his son. Like Scott, he was hurt that Ellie, a stranger, had managed to transcend Johnny’s defences to get inside his head. He’d still been angry, Ellie said, the journey into Johnny’s heart and mind hadn’t been easy. But still it was a slap in Murdoch’s face. His son had been unable to talk to him, wilfully and deliberately shutting him out. Johnny had told Ellie about Katie, when he hadn’t even let Murdoch utter her name. Murdoch wanted to share Johnny’s pain, carry the burden for him, counsel and support like a father was supposed to do, but he’d been denied. And it was hard not to feel that this denial made a mockery of everything Murdoch thought he had with his son.

“Have you met this Beresford?” Murdoch asked Josh, the first words spoken since they’d left Widow’s Creek an hour before.

Josh kept his gaze on the road ahead. “I seen ‘im. More to the point, I seen what he’s doin’, only there ain’t no proof, Mr. Lancer. Can’t do a damned thing without proof…somethin’ it sounds like you already know.”

Murdoch considered that statement. It was true, he did know, and Johnny knew it…which was what this whole crusade was about. Only Johnny being Johnny had to do it his way. If the world needed taking on then only he could do it. Alone. Without family. Murdoch looked to the hill that loomed in the distance. “How long before we get there?”

Josh reached beneath his hat, scratching amongst his thick grey hair. “If we don’t stop long tonight, we’ll be there by mornin’.”

A lifetime then. Murdoch wanted to be there now, his anxieties sure to gnaw at him with every mile. He needed to lay eyes on both his sons, alive and unharmed. Because if Beresford had got to Scott, if somehow he’d found out who he was and harmed him, harmed either of his sons, then Murdoch knew he’d devote the rest of his days to finding the elusive proof that would ensure Beresford was punished…for everything.

“You reckon ya can trust that son of yours, Lancer?”

Josh’s gruff question tore Murdoch from his thoughts. “Ellie…she’ll believe he’s got all his anger under control…‘cause she wants to, but I ain’t so sure.” Josh didn’t add that he doubted anyone could swallow that amount of anger, not after what Beresford was supposed to have done, but he thought it… “It’s a damn fine line, Lancer, an’ Madrid walks it closer than most.”

Murdoch made no reply to that. How could he, when he wondered, too? Ellie said Johnny was thinking clearly now, that he would handle Beresford in the ‘right’ way. But Murdoch had seen the cold anger in his son’s eyes. He’d felt that gun in his stomach. Could such bitter hate and focus be controlled? Josh was right; Ellie believed it could. She’d been right about one thing, Murdoch realised as he’d listened to her speak; she did know Johnny, and what was more, she had faith in him. He envied her that.




They lay on the desk—pieces of the telegram that had been delivered first thing that morning; paper edges torn and tatty, fragmented by a rage that had seen them rise into the air and then scatter. Were it not for Alvarez and Marvin, present at the time, Beresford feared he might have lost control. The telegram was carefully worded, it had to be, but that didn’t stop the words from mocking him, shredding his confidence and destroying his satisfaction that it was the truth dragged from Scott Lancer’s tortured and bleeding lips.  Beresford had grasped the edge of his desk as if the wooden furniture was the only thing that could save him. Should he let go, he’d fall from his chair into a pit of insanity that would ensure he lost everything.

Now he was calm. One by one, he ordered the pieces, left to right, his index finger hovering until he located the fragment he wanted. Then he’d stab at the paper, gliding it around the polished surface of his desk until it was positioned correctly. He was completing a jigsaw puzzle, yet even once the last piece was in place, it would be incomplete. There were pieces missing—the invisible words between the lines.

The last two lines of the telegram were self-explanatory, confirmation that his orders had been carried out and Price was now dead. There would be no trace, no link. But the first two lines, they were ambiguous, and made Beresford wish he’d had more time, enough to personally visit Price and ensure the full story was obtained. But it would have taken too long. It was risky keeping Scott Lancer alive as it was.

Scott Lancer. He was the one who held the missing pieces of the puzzle, yet Beresford doubted he’d give them up, he hadn’t so far. Perhaps he’d been clinging to this truth, the knowledge that while Beresford thought he had the upper hand, he didn’t. Just thinking this enraged Beresford and made his skin prickle with the heat of his fury. The lies Lancer had told ensured that Beresford once again had questions. There were things which made no sense. But there was someone else who could furnish him with answers. Johnny Madrid—the man the Lancers had hired to kill him.

A wheezy cough reminded Beresford that he was not alone. He glanced at Marvin in irritation. The sheriff looked awful as a result of his confrontation with Scott Lancer or Alvarez; Beresford didn’t know which man was responsible for the bruises that smudged Marvin’s cheeks or his grossly swollen lips and jaw. Beresford didn’t care either. If it was Scott Lancer then Marvin would get his revenge. If all went to plan and Madrid filled in the blanks, then Lancer would die.

He heard footsteps then. Alvarez and…Johnny Madrid? Beresford’s hands began to sweat. His heart beat faster. Madrid was a hired killer. Deadly. But this was business and Madrid would see that. There’s only one man with a personal stake in this situation, Beresford reasoned calmly, and that’s me.


Outwardly, Johnny denied Alvarez a reaction. And if Alvarez was frustrated with this, then he didn’t show it either. He’d stared at Johnny with dark eyes seeking to infiltrate, only to be deflected by a confident gaze that didn’t shift.

Alvarez still referred to him as Madrid, not Lancer, Johnny noted in relief. There was no mention of the man he’d been blissfully content just to be for a few happy years. Madrid had never had a wife. Hell, he’d never even met Katie. Of course, Alvarez could be bluffing. He knew something, something he hadn’t before. One bullet, two paydays he’d said, and while Johnny wanted to know what he meant, all he asked was, “If Beresford thinks I came here to kill him, what makes him think I’d change my mind?”

Alvarez shrugged. “Money.”

Money. That’ll do fine.

Johnny went with Alvarez then. His curiosity followed him to the large house Johnny had suspected all along belonged to Beresford. Part of Johnny said this was a bad idea; he already felt a clench in his gut as anger amassed, straining at his self-control. Another part urged him to face the man, to take this opportunity the fates were offering.

They entered the large foyer of Beresford’s home, their boots echoing on the terracotta tiles. The walls were cream and there were pictures; countryside scenes and battles. A carved wooden banister followed a staircase to the first floor and Alvarez paused at the foot of it. “Perhaps you’d like to leave your gun here?” he suggested.

Johnny smirked and Alvarez gestured Johnny to go up first. He did, slowly, his ears blocking out every tread on the wooden steps, trained instead on Alvarez’s movements, listening and ready, although he doubted the Mexican would shoot him in the back. He’d have done so already. When they reached the upper floor, they changed places and Alvarez led the way to the closed door at the end of the landing. He didn’t bother to knock, Johnny noticed, just pushed it open and waved him inside.

This room, a study, was at the front of the house and it had two other doorways in addition to the one Johnny entered through. One, at the back of the room was closed and the other, a set of glass-paned doors, led onto the balcony. This set were wide open, rich burgundy drapes drawn aside to let in the sights and sounds of the morning. In front of Johnny was a large desk and in the seat nearest to where he stood, sat a man who eyed him with distrust, a gun clutched in his lap. Johnny assessed the man, lingering briefly on the shiny badge pinned to his shirt, before coming to rest on his battered face. This ain’t Beresford. 

“What?” The voice was slurred as if drunk.

“I guess you pissed the wrong person off.” While the man glowered at him, Johnny caught Alvarez smirking as he leaned casually against the study wall.

Johnny’s gaze travelled the rest of the room, pausing on a collection of newspaper articles that were framed and hung, their pages yellowed with age. He skimmed the bold headlines, seeing the name of his nemesis proudly emblazoned in each one, getting more of a sense of the man he was to meet; a sense of self-importance that riled Johnny to his core. He knew, indisputably, that even forgoing his bitter hatred, he wouldn’t like this man.

Johnny’s gaze moved to the fireplace and the portraits of a woman and a child.

“Mr Madrid, I presume?”

The other door had opened but Johnny was slow to remove his gaze from the portraits, steeling himself to finally place eyes in the sockets of a black soulless face, to add lips to a mouth that had sneered and taunted him in hate-fuelled dreams or blurry alcoholic hazes. Those nights long ago when he’d thought he might drown in sweat, choke on memories and the vision of a future cruelly denied.

Beresford stood in the doorway, wiping his hands on a towel. He was tall and slim, younger than Murdoch, dark-haired and hazel eyed, and while Johnny’s subconscious noted all these details, he spared them no thought. He didn’t consider if this was what he’d expected. All he saw was the man who killed his wife.

Johnny’s anger which had burned like a forest fire this past year; sometimes raging out of control, other times just smouldering, suddenly revived itself and Johnny felt its heat through his body. His fingers tingled with energy, longing and need. For a moment, he almost gave into it. 

Beresford swallowed. Madrid was looking at him coldly and Beresford felt his clean hands sweat again. He twisted them in the towel. Those eyes, unexpectedly blue, were chilling and Beresford wondered, belatedly, if this had been a good idea—inviting a man paid to kill him into his home. Perhaps he should’ve ordered Alvarez to kill Madrid. Beresford would have if he didn’t need him. And need him he did. His eyes flitted nervously beyond Madrid, to Alvarez and Marvin, to the gun that the sheriff held in his hand, to the Mexican’s hand that hovered close to his thigh. He remembered his own weapon hanging uncomfortably from his hip. Madrid would be outnumbered and outgunned. He would be a fool to try anything here. Madrid could kill him, his eyes assured Beresford of that, but he was certain to die in the process. Determination to see a job through was one thing, but risking your own life to do it was another. Alvarez seemed to think Madrid was smart. Beresford sure hoped so.

“Please.” Beresford gestured to Marvin to vacate the chair. “Won’t you sit down?” He crossed the room, resting the towel on the desk, careful not to disturb the pieces of the telegram that provided Beresford with what he hoped was a deal clincher. He lowered into his own chair and reached for the brandy.

Johnny watched him in cold silence.

Beresford poured two glasses and slid one across the table. When Johnny made no move to accept it, Beresford raised his brows. “You drink, don’t you?”

Madrid smirked as if amused by a private joke, and annoyingly, this unnerved Beresford more than the chilling stare. He raised his own glass and took a comforting swallow. “I suppose that drinking is not conducive with your line of work…it pays to keep a clear head?”

Johnny shrugged. “Don’t make a difference how much I drink,” he said softly. “I still get paid.” He let the statement hang, watched the interpretation take place behind those hated hazel eyes. He wanted Beresford to lay his cards on the table and he would. Johnny lounged in the chair, his body language and expression revealing no trace of the battle that raged in his head. He had himself under control. His fingers, they still itched for the inevitable, but they would wait. They had to. Since he’d sat down, Johnny had paid no obvious attention to the other men in the room, but he knew exactly where they stood. He could picture Alvarez’s posture without even turning around. It would be his own if their roles were reversed. The lawman, a joke if ever there was one, Johnny thought, had moved to stand by the balcony doors, his gun still drawn, his eyes tinged with suspicion. He jumped whenever Johnny moved.

“I want to hire you, Madrid.”

There they were—six words that Johnny had counted on hearing. Six words which, while they meant little right now, would ensure the time came when they were alone. When Johnny could press his gun to Beresford’s temple, listen to his vile confession and then pull the trigger, causing rigid bone to shatter into fragments that would splatter the walls and drip to the floor on a current of black blood. Dios, he’d pictured it. For the first time in his life welcoming the violence of such an act into his head, the murderous voices, those forked tongues, telling him over just how good it would feel. How this was the only way a black and damaged soul could heal.

Only it couldn’t happen that way, Johnny reminded himself.

“Alvarez has told you about the trouble I’m facing with Weston. I’m prepared to pay more than he would offer…” Beresford paused and reached for his drink again. “You will fair better financially and otherwise, Madrid, if you side with me.”

Johnny tilted his head to study Beresford. “Don’t ya reckon that’s a conflict of interest?” He leaned in closer to the desk. “Seein’ as how you figure I’m here to kill you.”

“Do you intend to tell me who hired you?”

Johnny loathed every word from this man’s mouth. They were getting to the crux of the matter; the only element of this conversation that Johnny knew had the ability to surprise him. He braced himself, determined not to offer up a flicker. “Your hired help.” Johnny jerked his thumb in Alvarez’s direction. “He gave the impression you already know that.”

Beresford glanced beyond Madrid, curious to see Alvarez’s reaction to being called the hired help, but he appeared unfazed, leaning easily against the wall, amused or impressed, Beresford couldn’t decide which. Turning back to Johnny, Beresford nodded. “I know about your meeting with Price.”

Price. The putrid smell of alcohol and vomit drifted across Johnny’s senses as he remembered the pathetic excuse for a man. A man who’d long ago almost succeeded in taking Johnny’s life. Perhaps should have taken it. There were so many times Johnny wished he had.

“You went there to kill him. Only you didn’t...”

Johnny’s expression was blank. “There was nothin’ for me to do. Price was already in hell.”

To Johnny’s disgust, Beresford chuckled. “Yes, quite. But had he not been, you were supposed to kill him? After all that is what you’re being paid for Madrid, isn’t it? That’s why you’re here in my town. You’re being paid by the Lancers to kill me, by the husband of the...” He broke off for a second, a dark look crossing his face. “...of the woman who died.”

Johnny’s mind retrieved the conversation he’d had with Price in the hovel he called home. He remembered Price confirming that it was Beresford who hired him and McColl. That they’d returned from California confident that their two bullets had taken two lives. Johnny had enjoyed correcting him on that point…telling him that the rancher they thought dead had survived and was pissed off enough to hire a killer to ensure that the men responsible died, Beresford included.

Silently, Johnny cursed his stupidity, not for what he’d said, but for his weakness, his misguided notion that somehow the satisfaction would be greater if he let Price live in his day to day hell, trapped in a life he no longer wanted to live. Life meant little when the things you held precious were ripped away. For Price it had been his sight and self respect. For Johnny it was his wife, a child that he’d never see born. My whole God damn future.

The fact that Beresford knew about Price didn’t change anything as far as Johnny was concerned. He got to his feet. “I ain’t interested in your offer, Beresford. I’ve already accepted a job as you seem to know...” Johnny smirked. “It just so happens that Weston is a welcome addition, not a conflict of interest at all. In fact it suits me just fine.”

“Would it make a difference if I told you that the Lancers are mistaken in holding me responsible for the death of the woman?”

Johnny tensed, he couldn’t help it. He needed to get out of here before he lost it. “Nope,” he said, as flippantly as he could. 

“This is not personal to you then? Just business?”

Johnny narrowed his eyes, the temperature of his stare plummeting as he sought frantically to dowse his anger, fanned by such close proximity to the truth. This was a mistake. He should have ridden out of Winston when he had the chance, stuck by his decision, made things easy like he’d planned. Not given into curiosity. Jesus...he’d overestimated himself...he just couldn’t do this. He needed to finish it...Beresford was sitting right there, asking him if it was personal. Hell, nothing had ever been more personal than this. Nothing would be...ever again.

Johnny placed the palm of his right hand on the desktop, spreading his fingers over the cool surface, needing desperately to anchor them somewhere. He leaned toward Beresford, his gaze frigidly cold, deadly serious. “It’s never personal,” he replied calmly.

Beresford flinched, realising now what Alvarez meant when he said Madrid was one of the best. It was easy to see how he managed to get the upper hand over those who faced him. If Beresford didn’t have one last card up his sleeve that should persuade Madrid to his side, then he would have truly feared for his life. He watched Madrid turn to walk away, felt Marvin and Alvarez’s eyes swivel in his direction, waiting for the order, the knowing nod that would signal they were to shoot. To shoot and die?

Johnny got as far as the door.

“I’m sure that Scott Lancer would be pleased to hear of your commitment,” Beresford remarked smoothly. “Your loyalty is going to cost you though...I don’t think he’s in any position right now to pay you for services rendered.” Beresford leaned back, more relaxed now as he noted that he had Johnny’s full attention.

“Face it Madrid.” He reached into the desk drawer and produced a wad of dollar bills, casting them across the desk with a casual flick of his wrist. “My offer now seems far more appealing.”



Thirty Two

In the past, Johnny always faced what was thrown at him head on. He’d never turned his back and rarely dropped his guard. Only now his back was turned and he was teetering on a knife edge, caught between the desire to blow Beresford’s brains over the back wall and the quest for reason and lucid thought.

Has he got Scott?

He was vaguely aware that Beresford was speaking again, saying something about his offer, his confidence sickly tangible in the air. Johnny felt winded. Scott’s not in any position right now…Beresford’s words had formed a fist that knocked Madrid right out of him. For the first time in a situation as important as this, Johnny was on the verge of panicking.

Madrid was down, out for the count. Johnny couldn’t do this without him.

For a moment he was tempted to walk away, flee from a confrontation he’d not the confidence to handle. For if he turned…if he faced Beresford now, he’d kill him. Johnny knew he would. The knife edge hovered over the black sea of hatred. Those murderous voices called to him like a mermaid, tempting and luring him into its depths. The temptation was all there; a multitude of reasons existed why Beresford should die without hesitation or ceremony.

Johnny never panicked…never doubted himself when it was a matter of life or death…but this time he couldn’t be sure whose life and death he was facing if he handled this wrong. He couldn’t let Beresford…let any of them know what Scott meant to him…and they would if he couldn’t get a grip. It must be in his eyes…the hatred, the fear… Dios, he was scared…petrified that Beresford was going to take something else from him, another person so irreplaceable—his brother.

Did he have Scott? How had he got him? Why on earth was his brother even here? He wasn’t supposed to be. Damn it, Scott! Why couldn’t you just stay the hell out of it? This was what Johnny had feared. It gave Beresford the edge. This was what Johnny had tried to prevent…only *I* didn’t try. Johnny briefly closed his eyes.


He didn’t even know if Scott was alive. It would be a simple yes or no answer and would dictate Johnny’s next move. If the answer was no…if Scott was dead… then there was no point fighting for control. Would he even get to pull the trigger before they read what was on his face, or would he just feel defeated, numb, incapable of caring. But if Scott was alive then Johnny knew he’d have to handle this carefully. Because nothing else mattered. Nothing. Not even justice for Katie was more important than his brother’s life.

Slowly, the dark lashes of Madrid fluttered back to consciousness, and he picked himself up from the floor.


Beresford stared at Madrid’s back, disturbed that he still hadn’t turned around or so much as glanced at the money laid out on the desk. He looked to Alvarez for insight, but he too was watching Madrid. Seconds ticked by and Beresford’s confidence drained like fine grains of sand in an hourglass. He called Madrid again, wondering if his offer was about to be refused. He hoped not…he needed him.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” Johnny turned slowly around, pinning Beresford with a calculating gaze.

Beresford tried to smile but it was difficult under such scrutiny. He forced it, determined not to be intimidated by either the piercing stare or the softly spoken words that didn’t disguise their menace. “Why would I do that?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen a lot of scared men, Beresford.” He moved forward to stand just behind the chair, hands gripping the back of the seat. “You’d be amazed at how imaginative they can get when it comes to savin’ their own skin.”

Beresford laughed and his eyes widened in genuine amusement. “Too true, Madrid,” he said jovially, before sobering and folding his arms on the desk. “Lancer showed a little of said imagination himself.”

Inside Johnny, the forked tongues revelled in the antagonism, chanting their mantra, whispering flammable words that sought ignition from his anger. Johnny gripped the chair tighter, his gut clenched. I was wrong, Johnny realised. I don’t want to shoot Beresford, I want to wrap my hands around his throat and choke every vile breath out of him.

“I’m not lying, Lancer is alive. There are questions I want the answers to, questions that perhaps you can answer?”

Relief…negligible in the scheme of things, yet just enough to ensure those forked tongues were denied in their quest. Scott was still alive! The news blew with the cold breath of a far northern wind across the red heat of Johnny’s anger.

Sliding into the chair, Johnny picked up the money and leafed through the bills with ostensible interest. “I think we should get somethin’ straight, Beresford.” Johnny tossed the money back on the desk. “When you say jump, I don’t ask how high. That ain’t how I’ve worked in the past so I ain’t gonna start now. Not for any amount of money.”

Beresford smiled thinly. “Did you explain this to Lancer when you met him?”

“That one of your questions?”

Johnny watched Beresford frown and rise to pace behind his desk, each boot hitting the floor with a loud thud of agitation. “If Scott Lancer hired you to kill me, then why is he here?” Beresford had whirled around to ask the question, his palms hitting the desk with a splat. He leaned over, the suspicion in his eyes boring into Johnny. “He told me he was here to kill me himself.”

“Maybe he got impatient.” Johnny shrugged. “I ain’t exactly made a point of hurrying.” He leaned back and smirked. “After all, you weren’t going nowhere. You ain’t a hard man to kill…”

“Am I not?” Beresford interrupted tersely, the muscles in his jaw visibly working through his skin.

“Nope,” Johnny answered. “And like I said, just ‘cause Lancer was payin’ me, when he says jump…”

“He said his brother was dead, I know now he lied.”

Scott had been trying to protect him. Right now, Johnny dared not consider what that might have cost him. “I don’t know ‘bout any brother.”

Beresford frowned again. “How did he know it was Price? How did the Lancers find out about Price and McColl?”

Johnny’s gaze dropped to the desk, fingers reaching again for the money. He toyed with it in his fingers as his mind worked quickly to answer that question. After a second or two, Johnny looked up. “I told ‘em.”

Beresford looked surprised. “You? How would you know?”

Johnny smiled lazily, encouraged by Beresford’s now fragile confidence. “You don’t know much ‘bout the kind of men you hire, do ya? Believe it or not, we don’t just shoot each other on sight. Sometimes…” Johnny’s smile flickered wickedly. “…we actually talk. Ask Alvarez there, he’ll tell ya.”

Beresford looked to the Mexican, who was listening to the conversation intently, his lips twitching in amusement. Beresford pressed his lips into a thin line and he sat down, folding his arms across his chest. “So you found out about Price’s involvement, and you informed the Lancers of this?”

At Johnny’s nod, Beresford scowled. This was not what he wanted to hear. While Price could no longer repeat his story, this might make the Lancers more determined to implicate him. All because of their disillusioned belief that the life of Kathleen Crawford was worth something. And it was just about that. Her husband wasn’t dead after all. It was what it had always been about—a life for a life—although the two deaths were hardly comparable. The Crawford woman had died swiftly, whereas Tommy, Beresford glanced past Madrid toward the portrait of his son and his fists clenched beneath his armpits. Tommy had suffered, had his spirit broken. She had killed him with her perverted account of the truth, spewing her lies from behind the guise of a respectable woman.

Determinedly, Beresford forced down his anger. “I take it we have a deal then, Madrid?”

Johnny gathered up bills, folded and tucked them into the waistband of his pants. “Yeah, although it seems to me, Beresford, that Weston might be the least of your worries.”

“I don’t need to worry about the Lancers,” Beresford snapped. “They cannot prove anything and I intend to ensure it stays that way. Price had a big mouth, but he’s now dead. McColl’s loyal, he won’t talk.”

Johnny didn’t miss the fact that McColl must still be in the picture somewhere, but he couldn’t care about that now. “And Lancer?” Johnny asked, relieved that he wasn’t choking on the words as he’d feared. “I take it you ain’t plannin’ on keepin’ him alive?”

Beresford clasped his hands. “You presume right, Madrid. I have no further use for Scott Lancer. I have plans to take care of him, just as I do for Weston.”


When Johnny emerged from Beresford’s home, he found the light of day obscenely bright in his eyes, the sky blue and sunny when it should be dark and stormy, pelting him with hailstones, so cold that he would shiver. He’d concentrated so hard on keeping his feelings behind a coverture mask, that at times he’d felt like his skin might split with the strain. There was an ache in his jaw from where he had ground his back teeth, constantly fighting the urge to reveal who he was, forcing himself to talk as if Scott Lancer’s life meant nothing more to him than an abandoned job for which he would not be paid.

A torrent of torturous questions rained down in Johnny’s mind, but he had one of the most important answers of all—Scott was alive—he just didn’t know where they were keeping him. Without prior preparation, Johnny had been unable to think of a way of asking where Scott was, or any legitimate reason for doing so, without sounding like he cared.

If anything, the only part that had come without much degree of effort, was participating in the discussion concerning Weston. This was partially because it was something he was experienced at, and because he had no intention of lifting a finger to actually help. It seemed that Beresford was now foolishly confident and wanted to accompany them out to his ranch to gloat over his anticipated victory. If this were any other job then Johnny would have pointed out how risky that was for someone so inexperienced. He noted however that Alvarez voiced no objection to this either, perhaps he simply couldn’t be bothered or maybe he’d learned it was fruitless to argue.

The discussion of Weston concluded, Beresford had then addressed the sheriff. Johnny, Beresford and Alvarez were supposed to be heading out late afternoon to join up with McColl and the others at dusk, but Beresford had ordered Marvin to stay behind and deal with Lancer tonight. The sick, eager look on the sheriff’s face had heated Johnny’s blood, and for one perilous moment, his furious anger had almost eclipsed common sense. His fingers had flexed again for the inevitable, and it was only Marvin’s responding comment about owing Lancer for what he’d done to his face, that had snatched Johnny from the brink of rage. Scott wasn’t one for giving in or giving up, and so Johnny had clung to the faithful and gritty guise of disinterest, and at the first opportunity, had removed himself from the room.

It was ironic really that the perfect time to kill Beresford and McColl would present itself tonight, yet Johnny would not be taking it. Scott was priority now. Johnny would do nothing until he knew his brother was safe, and so while Beresford had finalised his plans, Johnny had made his own. It seemed that Beresford did not want to be in the area when Scott Lancer was to be killed, but Johnny did. He intended to prevent it. 

Hearing footsteps on the terracotta tiles, Johnny looked toward the doorway just as the sheriff came out and shot him a look that Johnny could tell wanted to be a glare, only Marvin lacked the guts. Johnny watched thoughtfully as Marvin crossed the square and entered the jail. It was possible that Scott could be in anyone of the surrounding buildings, he could even be in the house, but Johnny thought that unlikely and his gaze remained on the jail. He’d just taken a step in that direction when Alvarez’s drawl stopped him in his tracks.

“In my experience, if you’ve seen inside one jail, then you’ve seen them all.”

Johnny stared at him coldly. “What do you want?” As soon as he asked the question, he sensed he was being watched, his instincts offering amends for their recent failure. Johnny looked up, not really surprised to glimpse Beresford on his balcony. Suspicion clouded his eyes as he turned to Alvarez. “He tell you to keep an eye on me?”

Alvarez’s lips twitched. “No…I just thought I’d suggest a harmless way to pass the time.”

Johnny didn’t miss the emphasis and he tried to decipher Alvarez, getting the distinct impression that he was not all he seemed. Johnny thought he’d figured him. Yesterday in the café, he’d been predictable. Now Johnny sensed something. Did Alvarez know Johnny’s secret or merely suspect? Johnny wasn’t sure, and if Alvarez did know, then he didn’t seem inclined to share it with Beresford.

Johnny felt torn with indecision. Half of him insisted he find a way of getting in the jail now, yet with Alvarez here and Beresford’s vantage point from the balcony, it would be risky. What use to Scott would he be, shot before he had a chance to free him, or to even see if he was okay? Once again, Johnny was faced with a wait, only this time for something he had feared, but never envisaged happening. His internal battle had entered its final stages, those whispering, murderous voices tried to seize upon Scott to add to their cause and strengthen their argument, to make their words sound so much sweeter to his ears. Yet Scott…his brother’s life...was also the voice of reason which increased in volume, insisting it be heard over and above everything else. Beresford’s determination to be far away from the town when Scott was to be killed, urged Johnny not to be reckless. He had his plan and he would stick to it.

Decision made, Johnny shrugged. “Like what?” he asked Alvarez.


All sense of time had abandoned Scott. He remained aware of its passing through night and day, and for the most part he slept, or tried to. Sometimes he did, although it was not the dreamless sleep he would wish for, but rather hallucinatory slumber in which he was back home, in Boston, or worst of all back in Libby. Other times he let his thoughts drift, for when they didn’t journey to the macabre, they were his only source of escape.

He’d woken early this morning, opening the only eye he could to harsh daylight and reality. There was no window in this cell for the sun to shine through but it still seemed to be getting warmer. He explored his jaw, feeling the abrasive stubble that had sprouted through what Scott imagined must be colourful bruises. His skin felt dry, the lines on his hands still engrained with rusty brown blood, and if he thought about the dryness, he couldn’t breathe, so he stopped thinking about that and tried to concentrate on something else. None of the alternatives were appealing though. He could think about the pain he was in, or about his brother who was here, but not going to help him.

Eventually, perhaps it was minutes, it could have been after an hour or more, Scott fell asleep again only to wake with a jolt and a ringing in his ears. It took a second to realise he’d been hit, then another couple of seconds for his eye to focus on Marvin who stood leering over him.

“Time to get up, Lancer.” Marvin grabbed Scott’s arm and attempted to drag him up off the cot.

Scott recoiled at the sheriff’s touch and wrenched his arm free. He struggled into a seated position, wanting desperately to hide his pain yet finding it impossible.

Marvin waited until Scott had achieved sitting up before he delivered a blow to the face that sent him straight back down again.

The cell spun and had no time to slow before the sheriff pulled Scott from the cot. He landed on the floor, the jolt sending streaks of agony across his back. It was difficult to breathe, the effect compounded when Marvin booted him in his side.

Marvin drew his gun and pointed it at Scott’s head. “Your time’s up, Lancer,” he sneered.  “You an’ me, we’re gonna take a trip.” Grinning wickedly, he prodded Scott again with his boot. “Have a little fun…” he smirked. “…well, it won’t be fun for you…”

Scott struggled for breath, his side throbbing, his face stinging from the recent blows. He looked up, eyes blazing with an energy he was not sure the rest of him possessed. God, he hated this man. He lowered his gaze, staring between Marvin’s legs to the cell door; open and once again taunting him. If he could just find the strength to get up and move…

“Don’t think ‘bout goin’ back ta sleep,” Marvin snapped. “After I’m done with ya, you’ll have lots of time ta sleep. All the time in the world,” he added with a malevolent grin. 

Slowly, Scott shook his head. “You’re sick,” he whispered. “And you can go to hell.”

Marvin snorted. “You first, Lancer.” 


There was something immensely satisfying about your plans coming together, Beresford considered as he sat alone in his study, lounging in a chair with a glass of his favourite brandy. From his balcony, he’d watched Madrid and Alvarez go off together, Marvin enter the jail. He felt better now, content. That abhorred sense of vulnerability that would creep up his spine, seize the back of his neck and radiate tension across his shoulder blades, had faded now that all his plans were in place and so close to fruition. George Weston would soon realise the mistake he’d made by underestimating him. Johnny Madrid was now on his side, and while Beresford was reasonably confident he’d secured his loyalty, just as a precaution he’d privately pulled Marvin aside and told him to kill Scott Lancer sooner than planned. Before dusk came he’d be dead. 

Beresford sipped his brandy and tasted warm satisfaction. He was guaranteed to emerge the victor in every respect.

Footsteps on the staircase caused him to pause. Someone was approaching his study. If Alvarez was still with Madrid, then it must be Marvin, although he should have left the town by now.  

“Bill?” Beresford called out, only to get no reply, just the same heavy-footed approach. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He put the glass down quietly, his hand groping for his gun, his gaze fixed on the closed door. He watched the handle turn, the door open slowly, and Beresford saw the gun clutched firmly in the hand of a bloodied figure who stepped into his study.  




With a scowl on his face and a walk that resembled more of a shuffle, an injured and frustrated Frank McColl left Beresford’s home and headed toward Winston’s saloon. The hot afternoon meant he sweated profusely beneath his hat and mop of curly red hair and so just had to stop by the pump to freshen up with some of the cold water. Even once he’d cleansed away most of the blood and grime from his sun-reddened face and his skin felt cooler than his temper, the scowl still remained. I rode like the devil to get back, and for what?  I should just cut my losses and get the hell out of here!

One hour ago, Frank had staggered through the door of Beresford’s study, gun in hand, ready to demand some answers and deliver the news his boss didn’t want to hear. Last night George Weston’s men had made their move and, hopelessly outgunned, Hank and the few other men Beresford had ordered to remain at his ranch had been cut down. Frank was the only one to escape with his life.

I was damn lucky! A bloody graze on the temple and a bullet that passed clean through his left arm had been the extent of Frank’s injuries. 

It infuriated Frank that only days before, all Beresford had talked about was destroying George Weston. He was supposed to be hiring enough guns to take Weston and his men down. Frank had waited for Alvarez and others to join him for days to no avail. Frank had wanted to know why Beresford neglected things so badly, never expecting the explanation he received.

“So you see…” Beresford had been on his feet at this point, erratically pacing the floor behind his desk, rapid gestures accompanying every word as he finished bringing Frank up to date on the capture and imprisonment of Scott Lancer and the procurement of his hired gun, Johnny Madrid.

Throughout Beresford’s rant, Frank had listened in silence. In Beresford’s increasingly unstable mind, the Crawford woman and the Lancers were to blame for the fiasco with Weston too. Frank thought this ridiculous, but knew better than to question his boss on such an emotional subject. He’d been there when Beresford’s obsession with Kathleen Crawford had been at its peak, when tracking her down and ending her life was the only thing that kept him going through the grief for his son. Frank had thought the obsession had died when she did.

Standing, Frank removed his hat and with his good arm slapped it against his thigh several times. Damn Beresford and his obsessions.

The one saving grace as far as Frank could see, was that Beresford had come to his senses where Scott Lancer was concerned. Keeping him alive just made Frank uncomfortable. After all, apparently Scott could identify him as a killer and Frank had no intention of swinging from a rope for anybody.

Headed for the saloon once more, Frank was on the boardwalk when the man he sought—Leon Alvarez—sauntered through the batwing doors. The tall Mexican was unmistakeable in his all-black attire, only it wasn’t he who held Frank’s attention, rather the man behind him.

Johnny Madrid, Frank assumed. He knew the name but not the man, and he didn’t share Beresford’s confidence that he’d switched sides so readily. Unlike his boss, Frank wasn’t willing to trust a man who had come here to kill him. Beresford may have ordered Kathleen Crawford’s death, but then he was not the one who’d actually shot her.

Instinctively, Frank sidestepped into the shade between two buildings and watched Johnny, replaying in his head that scorching day by the lakeside. He and Price had sweated it out for an hour or more in that copse of trees, just watching and waiting for their perfect shot. Not that the wait had been all bad. Frank remembered the rising in his pants as he’d watched pretty Kathleen Crawford and her companion cavort, her wet clothes clinging to all the right places. If it wasn’t for what happened next, Frank would have said that Lancer was one lucky son of a bitch. Hell, at least he could say he’d died happy. Only according to Beresford he hadn’t died. 

Frank knew that his shot had been deadly accurate—Kathleen Lancer, as she’d been then, was dead before she even hit the ground. Until today, Frank had always thought Price’s bullet could claim the same.

Alvarez and Madrid spoke briefly and from this position, Frank had a clear view of both men. His mind flicked back to the dark-haired man bleeding on the grass, he stared at Johnny…

It can’t be…can it?

Slowly Frank’s stare turned suspicious and his fingers softly caressed the butt of his gun.  He needed to tell Beresford, he had a right to know who this man claiming to be Johnny Madrid really was, but Frank was worried. If he was right about this, if his mind was not playing tricks, then this might just push Andrew Beresford over the edge.


If you’ve seen inside one jail, then you’ve seen them all, Alvarez’s earlier comment had badgered Johnny all afternoon. It was almost as if he knew or sensed that Johnny was interested in who might languish within those walls. Johnny didn’t like the Mexican gunfighter, nevertheless he had agreed to share a drink with him in the hope he would give something away. He hadn’t and the afternoon had passed unbearably slow until Johnny could stomach no more of Alvarez’s company and had abandoned the untouched drink to return to the hotel.

Johnny had his plan and part of that had been to wait, but something told him time was no longer on his side. The feeling that had haunted him back at Ellie’s had returned. Dark and foreboding, it followed him around. In the hotel room, the clerk not caring that he’d only checked out that morning, Johnny had spent ages fighting down the urge to take immediate action, reminding himself he couldn’t afford to be reckless. He’d cleaned his gun, paced the floor, washed his face—even tepid water against his skin so refreshing and sweet, and then he’d paced some more. But none of these actions proved more than a temporary distraction. And so Johnny found himself here, his left hand on the door handle and his right hovering over his gun, just in case.

Johnny knew this was risky. If caught, what plausible reason could he give for snooping inside the town jail? Especially since they now knew he had a connection to Scott, even if they had no idea of the real truth. So he had taken precautions, left the hotel by the back staircase, emerging undetected from the kitchen. The yard behind the hotel was littered with rubbish and with the smell of rotting vegetables clogging the air and the weight of the setting sun upon him, Johnny wasted no time in navigating his way around the outside of the town square, keeping to the backstreets and the relatively cool shadows of the outbuildings.

He’d wanted to peer through the cell windows first but they were positioned too high in the wall for Johnny to reach and so his only option was to go through the front door. Luckily the town square was still fairly busy at this time of day and Beresford’s balcony was deserted as Johnny rounded the corner. He found the door unlocked and stepped swiftly into the sheriff’s office. The overweight lawman wasn’t around and once the door closed on the sounds of the town, Johnny’s ears met only a bleak silence.

There were three cells out back, all empty.  Wherever they were holding Scott, it wasn’t here.


The road was narrow and fringed with tall cedar elms; the smell of their foliage strong in the air.  Scott sat slumped in the saddle. His leg muscles burned from the effort of keeping him upright and his hands were bound so tightly to the saddle that his fingers had started to swell. His head pounded and he was hot; salty tears of sweat tickled a path down between his brows to drip from the end of his nose. Strangely though, even in this humid heat, the air felt refreshingly cool against his skin and Scott eventually realised that the heat which tortured him came from within.  Swallowing felt forced and unnatural and if he wanted to speak, he wasn’t sure he could; his vocal cords had shrivelled and dried in his throat.

The shirt Marvin had given him to wear didn’t fit. It was too big, yet damp with sweat so it clung to him, the coarse fabric fused to his wounds which were weeping afresh from where Marvin had struck him earlier. It also reeked. Marvin’s foul stench made Scott want to retch every time he breathed.

He risked a glance at the sheriff who rode slightly in front. Ride or be dragged was the choice he’d been given at gunpoint, and so Scott had elected to ride, even though it was practically killing him, sapping what little energy he had. Marvin was enjoying all of this, Scott knew, and he would give anything, even perhaps his own life, just to see the smugness wiped from the sheriff’s face.

Marvin sensed Scott looking and he turned to him and grinned. “Almost there, Lancer. You’d better make your peace with God, boy.”

Scott glared at him, wishing absurdly for some kind of mystical power, some magical force that would enable his eyes alone to boot the sheriff from his saddle. But that was stupid, there was no such thing. He looked again to the road ahead, to the dazzling sunset that made it harder and harder to see, and couldn’t help but consider the sheriff’s words. He was going to die. Scott knew it, but was not at the place yet where he could accept it. He was twenty-eight years-old and when reminded of that fact, when his mind muttered his own age, Scott realised just how insanely young that still was. You’ll be dead before you’re thirty. His own words came back to haunt him, only then he’d been talking to Johnny, who’d replied with the same laissez-faire attitude that governed every conversation about his own mortality or what the fates held in store. It comes to us all… Somehow Scott was unable to share his brother’s sentiment and find reconciliation with those words.

The road curved and turned a corner, becoming more of a path. Rarely used, judging by the undisturbed weeds that had pushed and fought through hard baked soil. Straight ahead was a homestead or what had once been a home, Scott amended silently, as the house, two-storey in construction, was now an empty shell. The windows were smashed; there were still some fragments of glass on the ground and they shone rainbow colours in the sunlight.

“If Beresford wants me dead, why bring me out here?” Scott managed, cursing the weakness in his voice. 

Marvin reined to a halt and turned to Scott, an evil smile twisting on his swollen lips. “Beresford didn’t want ya to die in his town.”

He reached out and slashed at the rope binding Scott’s hands to the saddle, then grabbed him by the shirt and gave a forceful tug. Scott hit the ground hard, his bones jarring, and a whoosh of agonising fire sweeping across his back. The unforgiving earth grated his flesh, ripped the shirt from his wounds, taking sticky blood and skin with it.

He would have cried out, he wanted to, but the impact temporarily robbed him of breath. He blinked frantically, realising that either time had sped up and the sky was rapidly getting darker or he was losing the battle with consciousness. He didn’t want that, he needed to stay awake. He was fearful, deeply fearful, that if his eye slid shut then it would never get the opportunity to open again.

The pain was duller now, he could get up…he could do something…Marvin was standing over him…he needed to stay alert, to give himself every possible chance…Was it actually Marvin? The features weren’t clear…he was an outline, then a mere shadow and now even that was fading…


Frustration fuelled a sigh. Guilt nipped at his conscience. Unable to shake the fear that time had run out for Scott, Johnny left the jail just as Beresford emerged from the grounds of his home.

In another pristine white shirt, Beresford stood in stark contrast beside Alvarez. He wore a gun, Johnny noticed, but even if Beresford proved to be a decent shot, he’d never outdraw him. Not in a million years. Only it wasn’t that simple.

The adrenaline which had begun to brew in Johnny’s veins, ready for the confrontation ahead, started to evaporate at the sight of Alvarez. He worried Johnny, representing an unknown and untested entity. Walking beside Beresford, the other gunfighter’s arms hung loosely at his sides. Ready. 

Quickly, Johnny stepped down from the boardwalk and away from the jail. The two men were talking and whatever Beresford was saying had Alvarez unimpressed. The Mexican was frowning and shaking his head. Johnny couldn’t see Beresford’s expression.

Just then they stopped walking and Beresford turned in Johnny’s direction, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. He said something else to Alvarez and then the two of them were coming towards him. Johnny took a deep breath. He’d have to take Alvarez first.

“Madrid, I was coming to find you.” Beresford pushed the hat back on his head. “You, me and Alvarez, we’re riding out now.”

Johnny hesitated, glancing past Beresford to Alvarez. The other gunfighter had not taken his eyes off him. He was waiting for Johnny to make a move.

“Now? Is there a problem?” Johnny forced from his mind a fervent plea to end this now.  

“No problem,” Beresford snapped. “There’s just something I need to take care of first.”

Johnny tensed. Unease slithered down his spine. “What kind of something?” he asked suspiciously.  

“Lancer.” Beresford did not hide his disdain. “I told you I wanted rid of him. There’s no time like the present.”

Johnny couldn’t miss the manic glitter in Beresford’s hazel eyes. He swallowed. His throat was a desert.

“Are you coming?”

They could lead him straight to Scott. A mirage had appeared in the sand and Johnny swallowed easier.

“Of course if you still feel loyal to the Lancers…”

“I told you, I don’t care who pays me, as long as I get paid.” Johnny stared hard at Beresford. There was a vestige of hope for the first time.


The high-pitched squeak of a rat alerted Scott to its presence, seconds before it ran up his thigh. He moved sharply and the rat fell, just as another scurried toward his face. Scott flinched, jerking onto his back without thinking, and his groan of pain echoed eerily. Pull yourself together, his mind ordered, as Scott tried to think above the pain that had engulfed his body. 

He was in what appeared to be a large disused barn, one of the outbuildings that surrounded the derelict property he had been brought to. It was dark outside now, shards of moonlight cut through the damaged barn roof, and as Scott peered into the shadows, all he could see were hay bales. Rotting hay bales, he realised, as his sense of smell rejoined him.

With gritted teeth, Scott assessed his condition. He wiggled his toes in his boots and moved his legs and arms as best he could, considering his ankles and wrists were now tightly bound. While acutely aware of every muscle, Scott felt nothing to suggest broken bones or permanent damage from the fall. Marvin had not made the most of an unconscious victim unable to fight back. Not surprising really, Scott thought darkly. Marvin seemed to enjoy the responses he got when inflicting pain on others.

He closed his eye. When he stayed still, even on his back, the pain settled to an almost tolerable level. Either that or he was just getting used to it. He still felt hot and was now more aware than ever that the heat that warmed his skin radiated from the inside, out. Well, what’s to fear from fever? It hardly matters given my current situation.

He lay there, wondering. Is this the plan? Has Marvin just left me here in a place no one ever visits?

The rat had returned and when Scott glanced at it, it was scouring the ground for food. Suddenly Scott was seized by a horrible vision of a rotting corpse never to be claimed other than by the rats, hundreds of them, ripping and shredding with razor sharp teeth. The vision acted as a wake-up call, drenching him with an ice cold fear that temporarily cooled his skin and cleared such morbid thoughts from his head. What the hell am I doing?

Scott realised that aside from the rats, he was alone, and who knew how long that would last. He was tied up, yes, but there were no longer iron bars and an unbreakable cell door to keep him here. Knowing he had to make this as easy as possible, Scott balanced on his side and groped around until his numb hands made contact with the ground. He offered up a silent prayer that his dead fingers were not about to snap like dried twigs beneath his weight as he pushed up, his teeth slicing into his lip as his back muscles stretched with the effort. Once sitting, Scott caught his breath. It was useless. The only way he could get up was to shuffle back and use the wall for support. But even if his legs had the strength for such an action, just the thought of his back against the rough timber of the barn walls was enough to rule it out. Scott knew he would pass out before he made it. 

He was contemplating his next move when there was a scrape of wood against wood and the grating sound of a plank being drawn back across the barn doors. In front of him a teasing carpet of moonlight unravelled as the barn door slid open and Marvin stepped into his own shadow, carrying something that Scott could not quite make out.

Marvin didn’t speak, just relieved himself of his load. Only then, did Scott realise it was a medium-size keg of kerosene. When the sheriff left the barn again and returned with another, the reason they had come to an abandoned, out of the way place was suddenly clear. Scott’s stomach lurched. The idea of just being left to die suddenly seemed appallingly appealing.

The kerosene safely deposited, Marvin returned again with an oil lamp which he hung from a rusty hook protruding from a low rafter. A soft orange glow now illuminated the barn.

“I found this,” Marvin said, pointing to the kerosene. “An’ there were you thinkin’ we’d come out here so no one could hear ya scream.”

“If that’s what you’re expecting then you’ll be disappointed,” Scott retorted bitterly, knowing it wasn’t the smartest thing to say. The last thing he should be doing was throwing a challenge to the man, but he just couldn’t help it. Scott hated this man with every fibre of his being and he vowed that, no matter what, he would not give Marvin any more satisfaction. I’ll die first, Scott thought wryly.

Marvin grinned. “I’m sure that’s what ya thought last time.”

Scott tensed. He remembered only too well his own screams and now his cheeks burned with the renewed humiliation.

Marvin closed the barn door, Scott’s only route to freedom, with brutal finality and then approached slowly, the smugness on his face impossible to miss. “You screamed then, didn’t ya, Lancer?” Marvin raised his foot and aimed a vicious kick at Scott’s chest.

Scott anticipated the blow and put his arms out to ward it off, swinging his tethered wrists with as much force as he could muster. He hit the sheriff’s leg with all his strength, toppling him to the ground. Next, Scott lashed out with the heels of his boots, cracking them against Marvin’s shins and causing the confused and grounded sheriff to cry out in pain. Scott lunged forward, an array of colourful stars shooting through his skull as he made a desperate attempt to immobilise the sheriff indefinitely. Marvin was ready for him this time though, and Scott was unable to get out of the way. 

Marvin’s fist smashed into his face, catching him squarely on the cheek and knocking him backwards, the stars exploding in a shower of bright white sparks. Marvin straddled Scott and repeatedly smacked his face with carefully measured force, until his nose and lips were bloody, cheeks streaked and splattered crimson. Scott stopped registering each blow.

The blows stopped and he felt Marvin’s heavy bulk lift from his chest. His eye fought to focus, as much as he didn’t want it to.  He didn’t want to see Marvin’s self-satisfied expression, didn’t want that sight to be the last one he ever saw. As it was, he needn’t have worried. His vision was blurry and the right eye still swollen shut. He had no strength left and was possessed by grogginess impossible to shake. But the shadows of oblivion, the welcome blanket of deep and painless sleep, lingered torturously just out of reach.

And then, through the blood, Scott smelt it; the strong fumes of kerosene. He could hear it now too, splashing and sloshing, as the sheriff moved liberally around the barn. Scott half expected to feel it drench his clothes at any moment, to know then with absolute certainty that there was to be no escape when the match was struck.  Would he scream then? Would he scream as he felt real flames licking at his skin, hotter than even the whip’s lash?

There was a tug on his clothing and Scott could hear Marvin’s voice. It sounded distant and distorted, but he was saying something about Scott’s belt and identifying his body.

He closed his eye and started to drift.

Not sure where this journey would take him, he tried to direct it, conjuring into his mind images of home, of those he loved; his father, Teresa, Johnny…

Johnny had been so close, the same town, yet his brother was many things but a mind reader. He couldn’t know…

It was possible that right at this very moment, he was doing what he thought would make him happy and Scott wondered if it truly would. Would Johnny find solace from Beresford’s death? Was the price Johnny had paid—shutting out his family, losing a brother…was Johnny going to feel like all of this was worth it?

As his pain faded and he drifted into a sudden, gentle sense of peace, Scott realised that he genuinely hoped the answer was yes.




It was dark now. The moon was out. Round, full and whitish, it gave everything a sinister shadow and reflected off shards of broken window, nestled comfortably in the soil. At first Johnny thought the place deserted. The house and outbuildings loomed out of the darkness ahead; derelict and desolate, eerie and deathly silent.

Deathly silent. Any other silence would be better. 

It was only when they stopped in front of the house that Johnny realised Scott must be here. Two horses were tethered to what had once been the garden fence. Maybe they hadn’t left Scott alone. Anxiety knotted in his stomach, but Johnny maintained his charade. Reminding himself repeatedly that if he could get through the conversation in Beresford’s study, then he could do this. Scott was still alive! He had to keep focusing on that.  Somehow, he would get his brother out of the mess he’d landed him in.

Johnny snuck a sideways glance at Beresford. There was an air of superiority about him, a cockiness that made Johnny want to drive his fist into the older man’s face. Over and over. Until he was dead. If there was to be any justice at all, he’d get his chance. 

“So tell me, Madrid. How did the Lancers come to hire you?” Beresford was on the ground, securing his horse alongside the others. Once done he faced Johnny, watching him intently as he waited for his answer. 

Too smug, Johnny thought. 

“I was in between jobs, and like I said, killin’ you is easy money.”

Johnny dropped down from Barranca, not taking his eyes off Beresford, knowing exactly where Alvarez stood.

Beresford smiled, one of his thin-lipped smiles that Johnny already loathed. “I see.” He paused and looked to the shadows. “You remember Frank, don’t you?”

On cue Frank McColl stepped out from the side of the house, his gun already drawn and aimed at Johnny’s heart.  At first, for one peaceful second, Johnny didn’t recognise the face or the name of the man who held the gun on him, but it came to him quickly, so quickly that he felt sick. His cover blown, there was no need for the cool veil of Madrid, which was just as well because the open air had suddenly become too painful to breathe. This was the other man, the son of a bitch who had actually killed Katie. It was this man who had dared to steal Johnny’s wife, his baby! For a moment, Johnny couldn’t catch his breath at all, the realisation killing him slowly like the twist of a knife thrust deep in his stomach.

“I think he remembers,” Frank said to Beresford, his gaze never leaving Johnny’s face, pale with shock in the moonlight.

Beresford’s fists clenched in fury, his fingernails drawing blood from his palms. He hadn’t been sure whether to believe Frank’s outlandish claim, but Madrid’s reaction coupled with the absence of any confusion or denial really said it all. Johnny Madrid was really a Lancer and what was more, he was the one who married the bitch!

“I wouldn’t,” Frank McColl warned, when he saw Johnny consider it. “Even if you’re Johnny Madrid, you won’t make it.”

Alvarez had also drawn and now another man emerged from the shadows. The sheriff; Johnny recognised him from Beresford’s study.

“Drop the belt on the ground and kick it to me,” Frank instructed. “An’ do it slow, unless you wanna get shot. Again.”

Johnny’s shock was subsiding and in its place a rage was building to a crescendo that was likely to get him killed. Only thoughts of his brother kept him sane enough to do as he was told. That and being outnumbered four to one.

Beresford, who by now was attached to his own sanity by a mere spider’s thread, watched as Johnny’s gunbelt skidded across the dirt to stop at Frank’s feet. “I think we should take this inside.” He turned to Johnny. “After you,” he sneered.

Johnny glared at Beresford with unadulterated hate, and when Frank grabbed hold of his arm, the touch of his wife’s murderer and the hopelessness of his present situation proved too much. He launched himself at the bastard, ramming into Frank with a force that sent them both down. Frank yelled out in pain as his injured arm was crushed. Johnny’s fist smashed into his face.

It took Marvin, Alvarez and Beresford to haul Johnny up and away from a bloody and furious Frank. As soon as he was up, Frank retaliated, his meaty fist splitting skin as it made contact with Johnny’s face. 

“I oughta put a bullet in ya, you crazy sonofabitch!” Frank snarled, this time directing his fist into Johnny’s midsection. 

Johnny folded with a wheeze as the air was forced from his body. Blood pooled in his mouth from a cut lip and tongue and once he had his breath back, Johnny spat the blood in Frank’s face. “Well why don’t you try it?” he growled. “C’mon Frank? You and me, right now…”

“No!” Beresford’s voice rang with authority and he clamped a hand down on Frank’s good arm.  “I suppose you think you’re clever?” he accused Johnny.  “You and Scott Lancer…”

Johnny’s glare promised death a thousand times over as he tried, futilely, to wrench his arms away from Alvarez and Marvin. “My brother ain ’t got nothin’ to do with this,” Johnny hissed. “He came here looking for me, that’s all. I swear to God, Beresford, if you’ve hurt him…”

“You’ll what?” Beresford challenged, taking a step away from Johnny’s vehemence and folding his arms across his chest. “You are in no position to issue threats!”

Johnny’s glare was scalding but he knew Beresford was right. Given his present situation, what was there he could do? He’d failed Scott. He’d failed in everything.

“You know Johnny, which is it Lancer or Madrid? I’ll go with Lancer if you don’t mind…I’ve been very remiss, I’ll admit …” Beresford smiled and shook his head.  “I let myself get distracted, sucked into yours and your brother’s unfounded vendetta.”

“Unfounded?” Johnny’s tone was pure, undiluted contempt. 

“Yes, unfounded!” Beresford’s voice cranked up a notch both in volume and pitch. His eyes sparked in the darkness, as if the growing insanity inside was desperate for an outlet, then suddenly, like the flick of a switch, he became calm and his expression mellowed. “I had everything under control originally—the situation with George Weston, Scott Lancer captured before he could even attempt to harm me. You and your family have made a fool out of me!”

He shook his head again and fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt, brushing imaginary specks of dirt from the fabric. “I waited too long, was too generous…I should have had Scott Lancer killed straight away, just like I had that bitch killed…as soon as I tracked her down…”


Beresford smiled at Johnny again and then smoothed his own sideburns. Pleased with himself.  “I’m not going to make that mistake again. More’s the pity for you, Lancer.”

He looked away from Johnny, dismissing him. “Take him inside,” he ordered. “It’s time to reunite Lancer with his wife and brother.”

Johnny struggled all the way, spitting blood-soaked curses, but Marvin and Alvarez got him to the large ramshackle barn. Beresford opened the door and with a hard shove Johnny stumbled inside. Panting, his chest heaving from the exertion, Johnny almost choked as the kerosene fumes shot straight up his nose. The hay was sodden underfoot in places. What were they going to do—burn him to death? The lamp rocked on its hook, providing only a dim light that wavered, creating shadows that danced and merged with the darkness further back in the barn.

“Tie him up.” Alvarez and Marvin acted upon Beresford’s order, seizing Johnny once more by the arms. There were wooden posts in the barn to help support the roof and it was one of these Johnny was shoved against. Marvin pinned him so he couldn’t move, while Alvarez tried to tie Johnny’s hands together with rope, a task impeded by the lack of light and Johnny’s non-cooperation.

“Where the hell is Scott?” Johnny demanded fiercely.  

“Get rid of his horse,” Beresford instructed and Frank obeyed without question, exiting the barn. A few seconds later, the sound of a gunshot, loud and final, reverberated off the walls. Barranca. Johnny bowed his head for a moment, eyes closed. Then he increased his struggles, making Marvin fight harder to keep him still.

“Guess I was wrong about you, Alvarez,” Johnny said bitterly as he put all his efforts into moving his arms around, making it impossible for Alvarez to tie them. “I didn’t figure this to be your style. All that talk ‘bout a man’s right to choose his own day to die, what a load of crap!”

Behind him, Alvarez said nothing at all.

“I figured it of Frank and the lawman here. They’re too dumb to be anything other than Beresford’s lap dogs, but you, I figured you diff—”

Johnny’s head spun to the left when Marvin hit him.

“Shut the hell up, Madrid, Lancer…whatever your damn name is, or I’ll make you scream louder than your brother!”

“Just tell me where Scott is!” Johnny was desperate now. Beresford’s comment about reuniting him with Scott and Katie had struck new fear into his heart.

Marvin stepped aside then, angling Johnny’s body against the post until he was facing the back of the barn. Frank had returned and he grabbed the lamp, tilting it so that its soft orange glow penetrated the darkness, revealing a motionless form on the ground …a motionless form with light-coloured hair.

In that moment, all Johnny’s rage and anger vanished.

Alvarez took advantage of the distraction. 

Johnny felt the roughness of rope encircle his wrists, but didn’t really register it. Scott wasn’t moving. Johnny’s eyes desperately roamed over his brother’s chest but it was hard to see from this distance and in such poor light whether or not he was still breathing. It was not difficult however to see the blood patches on his clothing and a face that would have been hard to recognise, was it not one Johnny knew so well.

“Dios, Scott,” Johnny whispered, not caring or considering that his horrified reaction was giving Beresford what he wanted.

The rope circled his wrists again and Johnny struggled too late. Alvarez was tying the knot and Johnny waited to feel the rope burn and cut into his skin, so tight it would make his fingers go numb and useless. When Alvarez finished the knot and stepped away, Johnny looked at him in surprise.

“Usted no me necesita aquí, yo no deseo estar aquí. Lo qué él dijo está correcto, esto no es mi estilo. Usted tiene Marvin para esto.” Alvarez was speaking rapidly to Beresford, but Johnny barely heard. He’d started to struggle again, more fervently this time, anxious to get to his brother.

Marvin didn’t understand the Spanish, but recognised his name, and as soon as Alvarez left the barn he stalked over to Beresford. “Where’s he going an’ what the hell did he say ‘bout me?” 

“He left. We don’t need him here. Let’s get back to business.” Beresford waved Marvin away. “Perhaps it might be wise, Bill, to show Johnny Lancer exactly what pain that dead and rotting whore continues to wreak from beyond the grave.”

Johnny could only watch, still fighting the rope, as Marvin, smiling evilly, walked over to Scott and heaved him over, tugging the hem of the shirt Scott was wearing up over his back.

Johnny went still. The insult he was about to utter died on his lips. Bile rose rapidly in his throat. Scott’s back was a mess. Some of the blood looked fairly fresh but there was also that which looked eerily black, and Johnny knew. He knew exactly what his brother had endured. He closed his eyes, unable to take the sight, but forced them open again, knowing he had to look. He deserved to see it.

“Was she really worth this, do you think?” Beresford questioned coldly. “Was my son’s death as a result of her actions not enough? Because your brother is dead, Lancer…”

Beresford walked over to Scott and shook him. Scott made no sound, no move that was of his own accord.

Johnny lowered his head, a lump forming in his throat that was no longer bile but the onslaught of grief. He recognised the feeling. Stinging hot tears formed behind his eyelids, salty droplets teetered on the brink of his lower lashes. Scott was dead. His brother was dead and he had done nothing to prevent it. He had not been there, not this time, not for the past year. The last words said between them had been tainted with the force of Johnny’s anger as he’d pushed Scott away.

I’m not giving up on you, Brother, whether you like it or not. The last thing Scott had said to Johnny echoed painfully in his mind. True to his word, Scott hadn’t. He’d followed him to Winston, least that is what Scott had thought.

“Maybe now you’ll understand.” Beresford’s voice cut the air like shards of glass. “What it feels like to have someone you love destroyed. All because of that woman.”

Johnny slowly raised his head, the tears frozen in his eyes. He stared at Beresford long and hard before he spoke, as if waiting until he could be sure his voice would work. “I understand that your son was a murderer, just like you are,” Johnny said softly. “I understand that when he shoulda been grateful for escapin’ a hanging, he killed himself in prison like a coward.”

“My son was no coward!” Beresford advanced on Johnny, almost all traits of the calm and collected man he liked to think he was, the man who didn’t wish to get his hands dirty, vanishing as he raised his hand to Johnny for the first time.

Johnny spat away the fresh blood that spilled from his battered lip. His head rang from the blow. He fixed his cold, reviling gaze once more on Beresford’s face. “He was a coward,” he repeated. “Just like his daddy.”

Beresford hit him again then, harder this time, and he swayed but caught his balance. Scott’s body faded to black as Frank let go of the lamp and went to stand by Johnny, just in case Beresford required his services. 

“Have you finished?” Beresford demanded.

Johnny glanced at Frank then back. He ran his tongue over the blood on his lips but said nothing, the sheer magnitude of his hatred and loathing epitomised in an unflinching gaze. Beresford glared back with just as much hate. There was no mistaking the flicker in his hazel eyes now. He was a man on the brink of insanity, probably already there. Just as Beresford turned away, Johnny spoke again.

“Oh, there’s one more thing.”

Beresford whirled around. “And what would that be?” he asked shrilly.

“I’m going to kill you for what you did to my wife and my brother.”

“Is that so?”

Johnny nodded. “Yep. I’m also gonna kill Frank here for the bullet that actually killed Katie, and then…” Johnny tilted his head towards Marvin who was watching the confrontation edgily. “…I’m gonna kill Sheriff Stupid.”

Beresford shook his head. “That’s more than one thing,” he pointed out sarcastically.

“I guess so.”

Johnny’s expression was deadpan, his tone confident. Amazingly so, Beresford thought, considering this was coming from a man who had no gun and whose hands were tied firmly behind his back.

“And just how do you prop—” Beresford didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence because suddenly Johnny’s arms appeared from behind him and he lunged at Frank. The move took Frank by surprise, for he had been listening to Beresford intently, relaxed in the knowledge that Johnny was helpless. So when Johnny’s right hand, wrist sore from loosening the rope, went straight for his gun, Frank didn’t have time to stop him. His mouth fell open as he went to yell. It was still open when his own bullet dropped him lifeless to the ground.

Beresford froze as Johnny swung around, ready to end this and give his soul what it craved. Out the corner of his eye, Johnny saw Marvin take aim at Scott. The realisation of what this meant surged through Johnny like a current.

The sheriff was oblivious. All he cared about was killing Scott. There was no way in hell that Lancer was getting out of here alive if he wasn’t. He cocked the hammer, the metallic click a single promise of fulfilment. He was going to enjoy this. His only regret would be that he’d not had longer to play. Perhaps he should have—Johnny’s bullet drilled through his head.

Beresford landed a tackle jolting the gun from Johnny’s grasp. Furious, Johnny lashed out, ramming his fist into Beresford’s face. He staggered back, fumbling for his weapon and as he drew, Johnny punched him again, sending him crashing against one of the barn supports. Beresford’s head slumped. He was unconscious. Right now he didn’t matter. Beresford could wait. Scott was still alive, had to be alive, and Johnny needed to be with him.

He ran to Scott and fell to his knees. Scott was breathing; Johnny could see and hear that now. He got up and stripped Marvin’s body of its jacket and took the knife from its boot. He brought both back to where Scott lay, spreading the jacket out on the ground as a protective cushion before gently easing his brother onto his back.

“Scott…Scott can you hear me?” Johnny put his hand to Scott’s forehead, pushed back the matted and bloodstained locks, concerned to feel that Scott was hot. Hotter than Johnny thought he should be. Still, hot was better than dead cold. Johnny carved carefully at the rope around Scott’s wrists, releasing them finally and then going to work on his ankles.

When that rope finally gave, Johnny returned his attention to Scott’s face, shifting closer so that he could gently lift Scott’s head from the ground and rest it on his knees.

“Scott? You need to open your eyes for me,” Johnny coaxed gently and when he initially got no response, the tears in his eyes thawed and threatened to spill.

“Scott…I’m so sorry.” Johnny’s gaze swept once more over Scott’s blood-stained clothing. Still cradling his brother’s head on his knees, Johnny reached for the buttons of the shirt Scott wore, tugging at them until they came undone with a pop and a rip. All Johnny could see in his mind was the ugly image of his brother’s slashed back, and he found himself hoping that at least that could be the extent of his injuries. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or not when he saw no wounds on his brother’s torso other than severe bruising.

“What the hell have they done to you?” Johnny’s hand slid easily over the sweat that dotted Scott’s forehead. Gold tinted eyelashes fluttered ever so slightly before Johnny was finally rewarded by a glazy stare as Scott’s left eye opened. “Scott, it’s me, Johnny,” Johnny reassured quietly, leaning in closer when Scott took on a wild look.

“Johnny?” Scott’s voice was raspy, scratching its way up his throat into the air, and he coughed, his body convulsing with the effort.

“Yeah it’s me, Scott. I’m so sorry I didn’t find you in time…”

Scott blinked, his eye still trying to focus on Johnny’s face. Gradually his brother’s dark head became clearer. Even in this light, Johnny’s usually brilliant blue eyes looked sad and regretful.

“I’d…say…you…found…me…in…time…” Scott coughed to clear his lungs.

“I’ll get you some water,” Johnny promised and as he looked down on his brother, the lump rose swiftly in his throat once again. “Dios, Scott I’m so glad you’re here.”

Scott managed to lift an eyebrow, even though it hurt. “Yeah? That…makes…a…change.”

Johnny ducked his head. “Scott, I—”

Scott held up his hand, wiggling his fingers as he did so, longing desperately for the pins and needles that would signify the circulation of his blood. “Don’t. Not…now.”

Scott coughed again and ran his tongue over his lips. “Are… you…hurt?” he asked when Johnny raised his head and Scott saw the blackening bruise on his face, the slick coating of blood over his mouth.

Johnny grimaced. “No, I ain’t hurt, least not like you.”

Scott closed his eyes. “They…found out I… was a Lancer,” he whispered brokenly. “They…they wanted me to admit it…but… I…”

“Don’t.” It was Johnny’s turn to stall his brother’s explanation. Scott was right, now was not the time.

“The sheriff?” Scott asked suddenly, his gaze darting around the barn.


Scott let out a sigh of relief that seemed to deflate his whole body. “Beresford?”

Johnny looked to the other side of the barn to the place where Beresford had fallen.

He was gone.  




“Johnny, what is it?”

Scott was slowly becoming more aware as his senses regrouped and oblivion faded into the background. It was proving an unpleasant experience, bringing forth the pain of reality—his scorching back, the pounding in his skull, but not yet the welcome sensation of life to his fingers.

Scott stared up at Johnny, feeling the buzz of tension which coursed through his brother as he swept the barn with his narrowed gaze.


Johnny turned back to him then. “Beresford, he’s ‘round here somewhere. We need to get you out of here.”

Scott nodded, already pushing himself up, a multitude of pain making him groan with exhaustion and effort. 

“Take it easy,” Johnny cautioned. He hooked his arms underneath Scott’s and manoeuvred him, as gently as he could, into a seated position.

They both heard the noise at the same time. It came from outside the barn, the sound of something scraping against wood mid way up the wall; somebody, stumbling along in the darkness. Johnny scanned the ground until he located Frank’s gun and he retrieved it, crouching beside Scott and pressing it into his brother’s hands. “Here,” he said in a low voice. He went to get up again, only for Scott to swat him with numb fingers.

“Johnny, there’s kerosene.”

“I know, I can smell it.” Johnny once more curled his brother’s hand around the weapon. “If you have to shoot, just don’t shoot the ground.”

Scott frowned and even though he spoke with difficulty, the sarcasm was bold and intentional. “Because if I had to shoot, the ground would be what I was aiming at.”

Johnny looked at his brother and then nodded apologetically. He did stand then, watching the open doorway of the barn. The smell of fuel remained overpowering if he thought about it, and Johnny glanced down again, unable to make out in the dim light if the kerosene was everywhere. It certainly smelled like it.

“They were planning on burning the place down.” Scott’s voice came weakly from behind.

“With you in it?”

Scott didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Johnny glanced to his left, to Marvin’s prone and lifeless form and the gun that had been released into the hay. Johnny took a few steps back, again watching the door, until he felt the back of his legs connect with the body. He lowered his gaze for a second to the gun at his feet and bent down to retrieve it.

“Don’t do it, Lancer.”

Johnny’s fingers hovered in mid air, close to the gun, but not necessarily close enough.

Beresford was in the doorway, blood dripping from his face down the front of his rumpled white shirt. His hair was dishevelled and his eyes glittered in the soft light, reflecting the golden glow of the oil lamp. He held a gun trained firmly on Johnny, my gun, Johnny realised, and his aim did not waver, just rose steadily as Johnny stood. 

“You should never have come here…either of you. You should have let things be. The Crawford woman killed my son, so I had her killed. It was over. I had my justice, it was finished.”

From his position on the ground, Scott had watched Beresford enter the barn, just as Johnny was so perilously close to getting the gun. Now Scott was frantically wiggling his fingers, trying to conjure the feeling back quicker than his body wanted to allow. The gun lay on his lap and Scott could pick it up, clumsily, but although his brain ordered his finger to curl around the trigger, his digits refused to cooperate and he was completely incapable of applying the required pressure. Horrified, Scott watched his brother take a step forward, and then another, staring at Beresford as if possessed by a crazy, illogical belief that he could not be killed by his own gun.  

Johnny walked closer to Beresford, whose eyes were wide and wild. Suddenly, the gun went off and smoke wisped from the barrel. Johnny felt the searing heat from the bullet as it whizzed past him. Then he charged.

The gun flew from Beresford’s hand as both men tumbled, Beresford feeling the full force of the hard unforgiving ground and Johnny’s weight. He groaned, momentarily dazed from the impact. He had no chance to recover before Johnny’s fist smashed down on his face.

Scott’s fingers still moved frantically. He tried rubbing them up and down his pant legs, all the while keeping check on Johnny and Beresford. Scott lost count of the number of blows that Johnny rained down, but he saw that Beresford had found his own senses and was fighting back furiously. One vicious punch sent Johnny reeling, his hands flying up to his face. Suddenly Beresford was on his belly, scrambling across the ground…lunging for something…

Beresford twisted around as his fingers found the weapon. He pointed the gun at Johnny, determined to kill him, wanting it.

Johnny threw himself at Beresford just as his gun was fired, deafeningly loud in Johnny’s ears. Off aim, the bullet hit the rafter from which the lamp hung and it fell. The glass cover shattered. For a second the barn was plunged into darkness until unexpectedly, swoosh! The light came back.

The ground ignited in a fiery strip that reached upward, almost instantly, with flickering orange tongues. Oblivious to the fire, Johnny and Beresford continued to fight, both men drawing strength from their hate.  Johnny landed two solid blows to Beresford’s jaw before the older man brought his boot up and drove it forcefully into Johnny, momentarily winding him.

Beresford sat up, tired, his chest heaving with exertion. Younger and stronger, Johnny was coming for him again and so Beresford threw his hands up in defence. Still Johnny yanked him to his feet by the shirt, the material ripping as it strained across his chest. Johnny’s knuckles connected with Beresford’s cheekbone and there was a sharp crack. The vision in Beresford’s left eye went fuzzy, the ground lurched beneath his feet.

Johnny slammed Beresford against the barn wall and pelted blows at his face. When Beresford retaliated, Johnny tried to dodge out the way but the firm fist still skimmed his jaw, causing his head to jerk back. Beresford attacked him then, his fingers grappling for purchase around Johnny’s throat, and Johnny spluttered as they found a grip and squeezed. His own breathing now laboured, Johnny grasped Beresford’s forearms and wrestled them away from his throat, forcing him harder against the wall. Threading their way through flailing arms and kicking feet, Johnny’s hands then found their own purchase and squeezed Beresford’s throat with lethal determination.

Wrapped up in vengeance, Johnny was still unaware of the fire. He couldn’t smell the smoke or see anything other than the life gradually seeping from Beresford’s eyes. Time seemed to slow as Johnny watched the tanned skin redden initially before it took on a bluish tinge, hazel eyes whirling for focus, red veins bursting to the surface of his eyeballs, lips moving frantically in silent voice. Beresford’s face was now a deep blue, his eyes bulging as he choked on what little air still remained in his lungs. Beresford’s nails clawed desperately at Johnny’s face, his hands, anywhere that might force Johnny to release him, raking deep scarlet lines in Johnny’s flesh wherever they could.

Johnny felt no pain. Instead a strange sensation of calm had settled over him as he stared pitilessly into Beresford’s desperate eyes.  This was what it felt like then; delivering on the promise made so long ago. He hadn’t expected it to feel quite so liberating and peaceful.

The relentless pressure he exerted continued to take effect. Second by second, the spark of life in Beresford’s eyes was becoming fainter, replaced with resignation as his struggles ceased and his fingernails stopped scratching for salvation.

Johnny knew he was killing Beresford, and the part of him that had craved revenge for so long insisted he carry on, wanting his fingers to press harder and firmer into Beresford’s clammy flesh, to deliberately destroy the man who had destroyed him.

It will make you feel better!  The blood-thirsty inner voices representing Johnny’s desire for revenge urged him on, woken by the struggle, revelling in the violence.

But this isn’t my way, Johnny realised.  

A loud crash startled him and he turned, releasing Beresford, eyes locking with those of his brother.

“Johnny,” Scott was mouthing his name. He was trying to get to his feet, coughing hard, obviously in terrible pain. Johnny’s heart broke. Beresford deserved to die; he could not live. Not after what he had done to Scott, what he’d done to Katie. Johnny’s gun lay on the ground, steel glinting orange from the fire. He picked it up; his steady and reliable companion. It felt so natural in his hand, like an extension of himself. 

Lying helpless on the ground, Beresford coughed violently on smoke as he tried to take large gulps of air.

Another beam from the roof splintered and fell just feet away. It made such a tremendous noise that it startled Johnny, causing him to wonder if he’d imagined pulling the trigger. It wouldn’t have surprised him. He’d imagined it so many times before. 

But this time it was real. Blood pumped from a fatal hole in Beresford’s chest, soaking through every inch of his once white shirt. He stopped coughing on the smoke and began gargling blood instead. And Johnny watched without a shred of pity. Didn’t wonder where his conscience had gone. Unlike with Price, Johnny had not spared Beresford. He couldn’t in the end, not after all the man had done.

With Beresford’s death imminent, those murderous voices fell silent. Satisfied. They had their justice. Johnny had his. “How does it feel, you bastard?” Johnny muttered, almost to himself. “How does it feel?”

The fire was expanding, caressing everything in its path with its flaming tendrils, incinerating the hay as it headed for the doorway. Johnny remained unresponsive, staring coldly at Beresford’s body. The roof fractured again, threatening to cave completely, and from somewhere far away, Johnny heard his name. He looked up, blinking, aware of the thick acrid smoke and the sting in his eyes for the first time.

“Johnny, move!”

Scott was staggering awkwardly toward him, breathless and filthy, his face contorted with pain and awash with sweat. Johnny stared at his brother in confusion as Scott reached out and gave him a firm shove toward the barn doorway. The fire was hungry and consuming, the smoke getting thicker every minute, and it devoured their precious air, diving into their lungs and burning their throats.

Outside, Johnny fell to his knees alongside his brother, coughing and spluttering, his face dripping with sweat, grimy with soot. He managed to get up, but bent over, hands resting on his thighs as he tried to control the intake of air to his lungs. Now he was conscious of pain and he shook his head, amazed to see droplets of blood falling in a scarlet shower on the moonlit ground. He stared at them mesmerized, he hadn’t realised that Beresford’s bullet had caught him. His fingers gingerly brushed at his left temple, feeling the slickness of blood over his torn flesh.

He straightened, turning to stare at the cremation before him, imagining the dead men’s evil souls escaping with the smoke, when they should stay there and burn to cinders for eternity. Johnny waited to feel something; victorious, avenged, horrified, remorseful, but there was nothing. He’d rejected his conscience. Numb and indifferent to it all. Probably just as well for there was no going back. This wasn’t a dream, and while it had not gone the way he’d pictured it, nevertheless he had kept the first promise he’d first made to himself. McColl and Beresford were dead. Price, too, if what Beresford had said was the truth and Johnny had no reason to believe that it wasn’t.

As the smoke coiled into the air, barely visible now against the inky sky, Johnny turned to his brother. Scott had collapsed.



Thirty Six

Scott must have passed out because he couldn’t remember escaping the fire. He still carried its heat. Centred in the feverous wounds of his back, it uncurled like the petals of a poisonous flower, and spread like a toxin through his blood. He coughed, a violent retch that made his whole body convulse. On and on it went, until his eyes bulged and his stomach threatened to turn itself out. He was vaguely aware of his brother’s voice desperately calming him. Scott used this as an anchor, to keep from floating away.

At last his lungs expelled the smoke, although Scott could still taste it. His head felt like it was splitting, his throat was scraped raw. He was on his belly in the grass, some way from the burning barn. Somehow, he was alive. So was Johnny.

It was over.

Above, the stars were out in abundance. It was so hot, Scott shivered.

“Here, drink this.”

A shadowy outline suddenly became his brother as Johnny squatted down and offered Scott a canteen. With effort, Scott took it, and after almost regurgitating the first few sips, drank until the canteen was empty.

“We need to get out of here.” Johnny was looking around almost anxiously. “You need a doctor. D’ya think you can ride with me?”

Feebly, Scott nodded. “How far?”

Johnny turned and stared back at the road. “Winston’s closest.”

“NO!” Scott’s voice cracked with the sudden volume. He was at last free and couldn’t return to the place where he was imprisoned, tortured, that stinking jail, the staring, suspicious townsfolk. His fingers encircled Johnny’s wrist with surprising strength. “I’m not going back there.”

“Scott, we have to, it’s the nearest town, and you’re in real bad shape. You’ve lost blood, and you’re hotter than-”

“No. Promise me.” Scott’s voice was urgent, his arm shaking slightly with his steady grip.

“You owe me, Johnny.” Scott stared him down with the last of his strength. His grip went slack. His eyes slid closed.  

Rocking back on his heels, Johnny swept both hands through his hair in disconsolation. As far as he knew, the hill he could see outlined against the night sky was the hill that overlooked Widow’s Creek. The road they’d travelled in on led back only to Winston. Maybe if they could just make it up the hill, they’d meet with the main road and perhaps cut several miles off the journey in the process. The problem was, the terrain was steep in places, the brush overgrown and darkness was not the best time to travel.

Scott might not make it at all.

The gravity of their situation threatened to smother Johnny. The torn flesh at his temple still blazed like the fire. Blood trickled down the side of his face to stain his already filthy shirt, and his whole body throbbed from the blows Beresford had inflicted.

Behind them the fire still burned, eating the barn at a steady pace. Timbers from one wall had splayed outwards, giving the fire a bridge over which to spread. It was now licking the dry wood walls of the main house. Soon both buildings would be nothing but smouldering ash.

The only way out of here was to ride, but there was no way Scott could do it alone. If Johnny could just get Scott up on a horse, he could ride behind and support him. Fortunately there were still a couple of horses tethered to the fencing. Those that had been ground-tied had fled, and the remaining animals were restless. It occurred to Johnny then that he’d not seen Barranca’s body.

Johnny reassured his exhausted brother that he would be back, and walked unsteadily over to the horses. The water pump had broken Johnny had discovered, soon after dragging Scott away from the fire, and so he went through the saddlebags of both animals, removing the canteens and anything else useful. Setting the smaller horse free, Johnny kept a firm hold of the large black that Frank had ridden, and gently coaxed the nervous horse away from the fire. 

Soothing the horse with gentle whispers, until he was satisfied that it had settled enough to stay; Johnny looped the reins over a low hung branch. A twig snapped underfoot.

He drew his Colt and spun around.

“Get away from him.”

Alvarez raised his hands in the air. He still smirked though.

“Juanito, is this how you thank me for saving your life?”

Johnny stared at him coldly, wanting to check over Scott, but not stupid enough to take his eyes off Alvarez for a second. “Just tell me what the hell you want.” His tone was laced with frustration. He didn’t have time for this now.

Alvarez nodded towards Scott, who was lying on the ground, wallowing in the developing fever. “They took a whip to him two days ago, so the wounds will be infected. You’ll need to soak off the shirt.”

“You don’t say,” Johnny snapped.

“Are you going back to Winston?”

Johnny shook his head, common sense warring with the promise Scott had insisted he make.

Alvarez seemed to study him with black depthless eyes. “Then you need to get your brother to water else he will die. Do you know how to get to the creek from here?”

Johnny stared at the gunfighter incredulously. With only the moon to assist, it was hard for Johnny to read the man. I’ve never been able to read him, Johnny realised suddenly. His mind flitted back to the barn and the tightening of the rope that never came. His sense of unease increased. He shook his head.

“Then you and your brother can follow me.”

“Why’d you come back?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“I saw the fire,” Alvarez coolly replied. “You want my help or not?”


Every so often, with his arm still wrapped around his brother’s waist, Johnny would move his hand up to Scott’s chest, looking for reassurance from the thud, thud of his brother’s heart. They rode the black, following Alvarez, guiding their horses carefully along the narrow and mostly overgrown trail. It was dark, too dark to ride really when the tall trees stretched their limbs across the moon. It didn’t help that the ground had not seen rainfall recently. The earth was uneven and cracked in places, drier than a sandpit. They were risking the horses, Johnny knew, but they would be risking Scott if they stopped. 

Heat radiated through the coarse material of Scott’s shirt, making Johnny sweat for sitting so close. He kept talking to his brother. It stopped him from going to pieces. They had still not reached the promised creek, there were only a few drops of water left in the canteen, and Scott’s fever was escalating. If Scott died, right here in his arms, Johnny didn’t know how he could ever live with the guilt. For this was his fault. If only he’d spoken to Scott when he had the chance, instead of asking Ellie to do it.

Closing his eyes, Johnny bowed his head behind Scott’s and prayed for un milagro, anything other than what it looked like the fates had in store. He deliberately didn’t think about what had happened back in the barn.

Just then Alvarez left the trail. Johnny couldn’t figure him. He didn’t like him and something told him not to trust him either. But he had saved his life in a way—tying his hands loose enough to escape. He’d given him a chance at least. And as Johnny followed through the trees and was greeted by the shimmer of moonlight on shallow water, he realised that Alvarez had now given Scott a chance too.

Between them, they got Scott off the horse and laid him on the cushion of grass. After refilling the canteen, Johnny soaked the bandana from his pocket and wrung it out repeatedly over Scott’s forehead, half-expecting to hear the water sizzle. As he tended to his brother, he spoke words of encouragement and determination, urging Scott to hold on and fight. But there were no signs that he was listening. Scott remained still.

Scott was aware of Johnny talking; he could hear every word, even though Johnny must be steadily moving away. Just what was with this ‘we’ business? We need to get out of here. We need to get a doctor. Since when had Johnny considered them both in the same breath anyway? Deliriously, Scott swatted Johnny’s hand away when he tried to touch him. Something cold and wet hit his face and ran down his chin and Scott jerked his head, swearing when Johnny grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head from the ground, forcing the canteen to his lips. Scott didn’t want to drink. He wanted to sleep. When he woke up later, hopefully Johnny would be gone.

“Scott, just drink will ya!” The frustration in Johnny’s voice was clear and he had a firm grip of Scott’s sweat soaked hair. He was pleading now and pressing the canteen to Scott’s lips again. Scott went to tell his brother where to go and the sweet liquid gushed over his parched lips. Too refreshing to refuse. 

After that Scott just tried to stay afloat in the turbulent seas of his fever. Whenever his eyes were open he felt sick from the motion, so he preferred to keep them shut. He felt hot and cold at the same time, a feeling compounded when he found his body suddenly weightless, immersed in the chilly creek. For one second he relaxed and the fever washed away. Then agony arrived. 


This was supposed to be a shortcut.

Murdoch and Josh hadn’t spoken much over the past few hours, but Murdoch had discovered that Josh had been a lawman in these parts for going on thirty years. It was enough information for Murdoch to trust Josh when he said there was not a trail or pass around here that he didn’t know about. It was just frustrating that Winston was so far. Murdoch wanted to be there now. He wanted to be there yesterday.

Josh had suddenly slowed the pace for no apparent reason, his broad body obscuring Murdoch’s view of the way ahead. “Is there some problem, Sheriff?” Murdoch asked impatiently.

“There’s a horse up ahead.”


Josh looked over his shoulder. “Not ‘less wild horses go ‘round saddled these days.” He pulled over, allowing Murdoch’s horse up alongside.

Murdoch peered through the darkness. Suspiciously, there was no sign of a rider. 

The back half of the lone horse was concealed in the trees, but sight of the platinum mane and the pale gold coat was enough to make Murdoch dismount and start towards it on foot.

“Barranca?” The horse raised his head and took a few steps back. Murdoch tried a whistle like he’d heard Johnny do a thousand times. That didn’t work either. The palomino tossed its head, snorted softly, but fortunately stayed still.

Murdoch crept nearer, maintaining eye contact until he was close enough to sweep his palm down the smooth velvet neck. “Easy boy, easy.” There was no doubt at all now that this was Johnny’s horse. Even if he’d had doubts, the brand and saddle confirmed it. Now broken in good and well cared for, it had been a present from Murdoch to his son. Were he to check underneath he would see the maker and date carved into the leather. All Johnny’s stuff was still tied to the saddle. Even his rifle remained in its sheath; his bedroll, canteen—it was all there. But where was Johnny?

“Mr. Lancer?”

Josh rode up, his gun out and resting on his thigh.

“This is Johnny’s horse,” Murdoch explained.

Josh looked around and listened. There were only shadows and silence. “Maybe the horse wandered off. Or Johnny left him.” He finished his sentence with a shrug.

“No.” Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny wouldn’t just leave Barranca out here unless he had to.” He looked up at Josh. “Are we near somewhere? Anywhere that Johnny could be?”

“Only the old Jackson farm, but that’s been deserted for years. Don’t reckon there’s much left standin’.”

“How far?”

Josh holstered his gun then scratched beneath his hat. “Dunno, another couple of miles? It’s still ways off, I know that. We’ll pass it on our way into Winston.” 

Murdoch nodded. “Let’s get going.”

They were midway down the mountainous hill that separated the two towns when they first smelt it. Smoke. Just a hint. Invisible in the air at first until further on where the trees were sparser and the trail was illuminated fully; then they watched it slither like an endless grey serpent across the moon. Wildfires were not unheard of, especially in such dry, hot conditions, but at night? That was unlikely, they considered, unless the blaze was a big one. Then surely there’d be more smoke than there was.

From somewhere nearby, several cries pierced the night.

Murdoch and Josh pulled up simultaneously. Was that Johnny? Murdoch’s stomach churned, his heart raced. Turning in the direction the cries had come from, he spurred his horse on. 


Johnny sat in the long grass beside Scott, selfishly relieved that at last his brother was quiet. There had been just enough water in the creek to submerge Scott, peel away the foul shirt from his skin and to clean his wounds the best he could. Then, already feeling sick to his stomach, and sure his brother would never forgive him, Johnny had held Scott down as Alvarez poured whisky over the infected area. 

Detachment had been the only way Johnny could cope, for Scott had moaned, pleaded and writhed agonizingly throughout his well-intentioned ministrations. Now the worse was over, Scott’s skin felt reassuringly cooler. Least for the moment.

Giving his brother a few minutes rest before the trauma of getting back on the horse, Johnny realised that he still gripped Scott’s hand vice like, although his brother’s fingers had relaxed when oblivion stole him away.

A noise drew Johnny’s attention and he looked up in time to see Alvarez lob his empty whisky bottle into the creek, then turn back toward his horse. As it turned out, Johnny had trusted the Mexican. There hadn’t been much choice. Scott had needed Johnny’s undivided attention.

“I’ve been tryin’ to figure you out,” Johnny said as Alvarez swung up onto the horse.

“Don’t waste your energy,” Alvarez advised, taking hold of the reins and angling the horse toward the trail. “You’ll need it for your brother.”

Johnny glanced down at Scott whose lips were muttering in silent voice, eyelids firmly closed. Johnny’s gaze returned to Alvarez. He was curious.

“Why’d you help me just now and earlier in the barn?”

There was a long pause during which the two men just stared at one another. Alvarez looked indecisive, as if some secret wanted to spill forth over his lips—the first time Johnny had seen him look anything other than cockily confident. Finally Alvarez simply shrugged and gave the horse a kick. When he reached the gap in the trees through which they’d entered, he turned and looked over his shoulder. “Adiós, Johnny!” In the still night, his voice seemed to echo.

Some minutes later as Johnny prepared to somehow get his brother back on the horse, it occurred to Johnny that Alvarez’s voice was still echoing around the small waterside clearing. In fact the more Johnny listened, the less like Alvarez it became and the more like… Johnny reached up and cautiously touched the still bleeding wound at his temple. Perhaps he was becoming a little feverish, for he could swear it sounded like Murdoch.

“C’mon, Scott.” Johnny had just got his arms around his brother when the black suddenly snorted and tossed his head. He seemed to sense something and Johnny was instantly alert. Gently lowering Scott back to the grass, Johnny pulled his gun as a precaution, heart hammering ten to the dozen in his chest. Who else would be out here in the dead of night? Don’t let there be trouble, Johnny chanted. With Scott in this condition, they wouldn’t stand much of a chance.

Rising to his feet, Johnny strained to see through the trees. Scott chose that moment to start rambling again.

There were horses approaching. Three, Johnny predicted. Then his name came again and Johnny’s heart catapulted into his mouth. Murdoch emerged into the clearing first, followed by Barranca and then Josh.



Thirty Seven

For the first time in ages it was raining. And not just a shower either. It lashed down in torrents, precipitating a flood as the dry ground struggled to absorb the water quickly enough.  The skies were grey, dull and dismal. There would be a storm before nightfall.

Inside Josh’s modest home, not too far from the town jail, Murdoch let go of the mustard colour drape and moved away from the window.  He struck a match and lit the oil lamp, letting its glow warm the oppressive evening half light. Then he sank down onto the hard and uncomfortable chair to be with his sick son.

They’d arrived back in Widow’s Creek several hours ago, after a long and onerous journey. A few times Murdoch had thought he’d lost Scott, as the fever raged and his temperature fluctuated, but perhaps by the work of God, Scott had somehow survived, mercifully out of it.

Now Scott slept sporadically, alternating between total exhaustion and fevered delirium, dosed to the eyeballs with laudanum. The doctor, not long arrived, had only just finished tending to his back and it had almost shredded Murdoch’s heart to see his son in so much pain. Whisky had done a good job of cleaning out the wounds the first time, but the long ride back and the absence of salve and bandages had meant a repeat was required. The hardest part had been holding Scott down and trying not to look as his eyes grew owlishly large with fear. Scott seemed to know what was coming. That just made it worse.

Reaching out, Murdoch let his fingers linger on Scott’s moist forehead. His hair was matted and dirty, his face bruised and battered. His skin would heal in time. Murdoch didn’t know about the scars underneath.

A carriage clock sat on Josh’s bookcase. In the otherwise quiet room, it kept time loudly and endlessly, and reminded Murdoch of the one he’d had at home. That had been a Grandfather clock—louder—precisely the reason why he’d gotten rid of it. Only to find he missed it every day.

Scott’s right hand rested nearest to Murdoch. Dried blood still sat beneath his fingernails.

The doctor said that all they could do now was wait. Murdoch watched his son breathe in time with the clock. Scott was either strong enough to beat the fever and infection or he wasn’t. But he’d lasted this long. That had to mean something, right?

On the way back Scott had rambled a lot, mostly inaudibly, but occasionally with a hint of clarity. The words that Murdoch did understand left him horrified, and unable to look at Johnny with anything other than accusation. He’d held tight to Scott as they’d travelled, not willing to relinquish his care to anyone else. And although his mind had a thousand questions to ask, like what had Scott endured these past few days, Murdoch found he couldn’t venture there yet. If the extent of Scott’s injuries and his few garbled words told a story, then he’d been tortured relentlessly. Whipped and beaten, starved and dehydrated. Whoever was responsible was animalistic. Inhuman. Scott should never have even been in Winston. He should never have been involved. At one point in his fevered babble, Scott had almost been apologetic. Apologetic! Mumbling something about giving in.

Beside the bed, Murdoch clamped his lips over an angry sigh. He hadn’t seen Johnny since he’d helped carry Scott into Josh’s front room. In the whirl of activity, Johnny had gone and hadn’t come back. He was at the brothel with the girl, Ellie, Murdoch assumed. How typical of him to disappear.

This time Murdoch’s anger forced the sigh audibly into the room. When he entered that clearing and saw Johnny, he’d never felt such relief. Since finding Barranca abandoned, all manner of dark thoughts had invaded his mind. But then he saw Scott and his relief had vanished. Concern for his seriously ill son had reigned above all else. Johnny could wait, Murdoch had thought.

Perhaps not any longer.

Scott moved slightly and Murdoch stroked his son’s hair, wringing the cool sponge over his skin with his other hand. He was still far too hot and the sweat glistened, dampening the sheets of the makeshift bed. Yet despite the fever, Scott’s skin grew in pallor.

The doctor came in and, with Murdoch’s assistance, examined Scott again.

“His pulse has gotten weaker. I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but it doesn’t look good now.”

The doctor, a thin, wiry man, stood as straight as his elderly frame allowed. “Coupled with the fever, there’s also the dehydration and blood loss. We don’t know how much, or even when these wounds were inflicted, although they look at least a few days old.

I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor repeated. “Is there anyone else to say goodbye? If so you should send for them now.”

Shocked, Murdoch nodded absently. His fingers still swept through the golden strands of Scott’s hair. It had never occurred to him when they’d left California that it would be Scott he would lose. It had seemed more likely to be his reckless, selfish, gunfighting son. Not Scott. Oh God…

Murdoch bowed his head, pinching the bridge of his nose to stop the tears from forming. He wouldn’t, couldn’t have his son torn from him like this. Not on top of losing Johnny too. For he had lost Johnny over a year ago, Murdoch realised that now. He wondered why he’d been unable to accept it before. It would have saved all this. He should have seen the truth of it and just let go.

Murdoch leaned forward and whispered to Scott. Then he stood and walked around the bed, drawing back the patterned curtain in the doorway.

“Will one of you sit with Scott?” he barked gruffly. “I’m going to get John.”

“No need, Mr. Lancer. I’ll go.” Josh struggled to his feet.

“No.” Murdoch’s tone was commanding. “I’m going.”

The woman, earlier introduced as the Widow Simmons, rose from her chair and smiled at Murdoch with soft green eyes. She had proved her use so far, making up a bed for Scott and assisting the doctor as required. “I’ll sit with Scott, Mr. Lancer. You go get your son.”

Murdoch nodded curtly and stepped out into the rain.


Despite the latish hour and the fact that a few eager customers had already tripped through the doors, the mood in Ellie’s house was dark and sombre. Driving rain rattled the windowpanes in perpetual rhythm and dripped steadily through a hole in the porch roof.

Johnny sat in the kitchen, still in the same clothes, still in the same frame of mind as he’d been when he’d left Josh’s. He hadn’t stayed for the doctor so the wound at his temple still bled. It wasn’t serious, but was obviously going to require stitching at some point.

“Johnny, you need to eat.” Ellie leant across the table and grasped his hand.

He met her concerned eyes for a moment, then dropped his gaze to the plate she’d put in front of him an hour or so before. With a shake of his head, he pushed it away, and pulled his hand out from hers. Then he went back to staring at the rain.

All he could think about was Scott and how he was doing, yet for the life of him he couldn’t bring himself to go across the road again. He didn’t think he deserved to be there. Murdoch sure didn’t want him to be. Johnny would’ve been hard pushed not to see the blame directed his way every time his father looked at him.

The ironic thing was, Johnny had been dreading facing Murdoch again. He’d just not imagined it would be for this reason. As if threatening to shoot his own father wasn’t enough, now Johnny was responsible for almost getting Scott killed too. And Murdoch didn’t know the half of it….

Sooner or later what he’d done to Beresford would have to be addressed. Later, Johnny decided coldly. Maybe one day he might care.

The rain still pelted the window. The backyard was nothing but a miserable blur. Ellie busied herself in her kitchen and Johnny was grateful for her distance.

The sound of voices, one female, one deep, gruff and unmistakeable, set Johnny’s nerves dancing on edge. He waited, frozen to the chair, dazed with apprehension.

Murdoch threw the door open so forcefully he almost broke the hinges. 

As his father stood there, raindrops dripping from the brim of his hat and running down his unshaven cheeks, Johnny couldn’t help but consider just how damn tall Murdoch was, especially when Johnny was seated. In a pretty pointless attempt to feel better, Johnny got uneasily to his feet.

“I knew this is where I’d find you.” Murdoch was angry. He was tired. Johnny could see the dark circles under his father’s eyes. “Hiding here like a coward, not caring one way or the other if your brother lives or dies.”

“That’s not true, I—”

“Don’t give me that. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you since we took Scott to the sheriff’s house. Your brother is dying, Johnny. He’s dying and it’s all your fault.

If you’d had the guts to face Scott instead of sending your whore to do it, then maybe my son wouldn’t be fighting for his life right now!”

Ellie, who had made to leave as soon as Murdoch stormed into the room, took her cue and slipped out the door. Not before Johnny shot her an apologetic look.

Murdoch caught the look as Ellie brushed past and he rounded on his son. “How dare you look at her like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re apologising to her. There’s only one person who deserves an apology, Johnny, and it’s not her.”

It was stupid, Johnny would realise later, but he felt compelled to offer up a defence.

“I didn’t make Scott go. I told you both to stay out of it, didn’t I?”

“Well you certainly did.” Murdoch advanced on Johnny in his fury. He jabbed a finger into Johnny’s chest. “Where were you when Scott was being beaten, where were you when they took a lash to his back? I assume it was Beresford who did this to him?”

Johnny wilted under the onslaught of words. His expression seemed all the confirmation Murdoch needed.

“So Scott paid the price for your vendetta. Christ, Johnny, have you really seen what they’ve done to him?” Murdoch did not wait for an answer. He grabbed Johnny by the front of his shirt and bumped him roughly against the wall. “I ought to break you into pieces. And the only reason I won’t is because Scott needs me right now.” He released Johnny. Murdoch’s eyes were flinty, the lines around his mouth prominent with disgust.

“What happened to Beresford. Did you kill him?”

Johnny looked away. “Yeah,” he said softly.

Murdoch stared hard at him, and then strode to the door. “If you have one unselfish bone in your body, you’ll get across the road, get on your knees and pray for your brother, Johnny. While you’re at it, you can beg his forgiveness, too. Because I swear right here and now, if Scott dies, then you’ll never, ever get that from me.”


Darkness arrived prematurely thanks to the weather. And that storm was coming; it lit the skies above the hill. The rain still fell, pooling on top of Johnny’s hat, swirling and sloshing around his boots. He’d pulled the collar of his jacket up, but was still getting drenched. The cool water showered his face and ran in rivulets down his neck. 

Josh’s house didn’t have a porch; it stood right on the street. Lamplight spilled from the window to splash into the puddles below. Through the gap in the drapes, Johnny could clearly see his father at Scott’s bedside. Murdoch’s shoulders sagged with the weight of his world.

The front door creaked when Johnny stepped inside, and he closed it quickly, quietening the patter of rain.

“Johnny, isn’t it?”

He looked up, dripping, and recognised the woman who had helped them with Scott, although for the life of him he couldn’t remember her name. Plump and homely looking, she had a kind face; her green eyes were full of sympathy.

“Your pa’s through there, with Scott.” She gestured to the room. “Let me take them.” She pointed to Johnny’s jacket and hat.

Johnny removed the sodden items, slowly peeling the jacket from his body, needing just a little more time to get himself together before he walked into that room. The front of his hair felt damp as he ran his fingers through it. He wiped a wet hand across his face.

The woman looked at him expectantly.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Johnny handed her his hat and jacket as he walked by, his eyes not on her, but the doorway; his thoughts already in the room.

The doorway was as far as he got.

The atmosphere inside what was usually Josh’s front room was so bleak and portentous that it filled Johnny with hesitation all over again. The shaken feeling that Murdoch had left him with earlier returned to immobilise him. It turned his stomach over and his boots to lead. Johnny had a feeling he could still bolt if he wanted to. He’d be lying if he said it hadn’t already crossed his mind. He was good at running away, hiding, like Murdoch said. His father had also called him a coward. Johnny thought not, but it was high time he proved it.

“How is he?”

Johnny didn’t care that his voice wavered past the lump in his throat. It would worry him more if it didn’t. Scott lay on the bed, his back swathed in bandages, the whiff of carbolic acid still in the air. Always, that smell had reminded Johnny of injuries he’d suffered in his past. Now it would forever remind him of this.

“Murdoch?” Johnny said softly.

His father looked up, and for one uneasy moment, Johnny feared he was going to feel the force of Murdoch’s frustration again. He needn't have worried—Murdoch’s granite expression crumbled into relief before his eyes.

“Thank you for coming, son.”

I don’t need thanking. I shoulda been here from the start.

“I’m not sure how he’s doing.” Murdoch turned back to Scott and daubed at his face with the cool sponge. “I thought he was fighting it. When the doctor first examined him, his pulse was racing too fast, then it slowed and I got my hopes up. Now the doctor says it’s weaker…” Murdoch’s hand stopped moving. “Johnny, he…the doctor suggests we say goodbye.”

“No.” Johnny surprised himself with the strength of his voice; there was no waver this time. “He’s wrong, Murdoch. Scott ain’t gonna stop fighting this. C’mon, you know him. You can’t think…”

“Johnny.” Murdoch rose from the chair.

The lump that had formed swiftly in Johnny’s throat was now suffocating his words, and it threatened to break him when Murdoch placed a large, calloused hand on his shoulder.

He looked at his brother. How could Scott be dying? It was never, ever supposed to end this way.

His father’s height, intimidating just a short while ago, was now a tower of strength for Johnny to lean against, and he did do, briefly, squeezing his eyes shut as he began to truly comprehend the fallout from his vengeful quest. He was barely aware that Murdoch had both hands on his shoulders now, or that his father was guiding him firmly into the seat he’d just vacated. Johnny didn’t even know Murdoch had left the room until he lifted his head and realised he was alone with Scott.

If you have one unselfish bone in your body, you’ll get across the road, get on your knees and pray for your brother, Johnny. While you’re at it, you can beg his forgiveness, too.They’d been harsh words from Murdoch, but that didn’t make them any less true. Johnny had tried praying, but he’d felt like a fraud.

Johnny knew he’d owed Scott an explanation for a long time, but he’d never figured on giving one like this. He bowed his head and chewed on his thumbnail. He wondered where to begin, if honesty even had a place in his heart anymore.

“Scott, I—” His voice came out hoarse. Johnny cleared his throat and tried again.

“I owe you an explanation, it’s been a long time comin’ and maybe you don’t wanna hear it now. Or maybe you can’t…” Johnny leant back against the chair and sighed dejectedly, rubbing his palms up and down his cheeks. He looked to the window, out into blackness.  

“I know I made you believe I didn’t care, leavin’ Lancer like that, and then pushin’ you away, even when you came after me. But I did, and I do.”

Johnny returned his now moist gaze to Scott. He fingered the damp sleeve of his own shirt. “It’s just that when Katie died…I couldn’t handle it. For the first time I’d believed I had a right to be happy, we were gonna have a kid—”   

Johnny swallowed, and forced himself to go on. “Seeing her gunned down in front of me, there being nothin’ I could do…I’ve never felt that helpless before. I couldn’t protect her, and to know Beresford was gonna get away with what he’d done—it was killin’ me, Scott, eating me up inside. I just couldn’t let it go. I knew I’d kill him and the others responsible in whatever way I could. Enjoy it even. I knew you and Murdoch couldn’t go along with that. I’d never ask you to.

I went to Mexico and for a long time I didn’t know who I was. Then I became Madrid again. I didn’t contact you because I was… well, scared, I guess. Scared you’d stop me or talk me out of it, and I’d be left with nothin’. Making Beresford pay, seeing him suffer, it was something, can you understand?

If you believe nothin’ else, believe that I never wanted you to get hurt. If I could change places with you…

I should never have got Ellie to lie for me; I shoulda had the guts to talk to you. If I’d have done that, then you wouldn’t be so sick, and I…” I might not have earned myself a one-way ticket to hell. 

“The doc, he says you ain’t gonna make it, that I should be sayin’ goodbye.” Johnny reached out and with tentative fingers touched his brother’s face, willing Scott’s eyes to open, his lips to move. One eye at least would remain swollen shut even if he were to wake. “But I just can’t say it. He don’t know you like I do. He don’t know how tough and stubborn you are. C’mon, brother, I’ve lived the past year without you, don’t make me live a lifetime, even if I deserve it…”

Johnny settled his gaze on the bandages cushioning and protecting Scott’s back—wounds that might heal, but that would leave scars for sure on the inside and out.

Even if he does make it, Scott’ll hate me. Every time he catches sight of those scars, he’ll remember.

Johnny slumped in the chair. It was the price to pay, just one of them anyway. Hadn’t he said all along that it didn’t matter about the consequences so long as he avenged Katie’s death? Now it mattered, so much, but Johnny knew he’d just have to deal with it. There was no changing what was done.

He listened for Scott’s breathing, hearing it faintly above the ticking of the clock, and he clung to the sound desperately, for as long as it was there, he had hope. “Sigue luchando, hermano,” (keep fighting, brother) he murmured, taking Scott’s fevered hand in his own.




Voices broke his slumber. The doctor and Murdoch were talking, jerking Johnny from abstract dreams, interrupting the steady tick of the clock that must have lulled him to sleep some time ago judging by the ache in his neck and the soft caress of a blanket someone had draped across him. Drowsily, he cracked an eye open, surprised to find that the longest night was finally over, the storm gone. A weak sun strained to light the room.

“Well, his condition hasn’t deteriorated,” the doctor was saying as he packed his black medical bag. The widow had her arms full of soiled dressings and she left the room to dispose of them. Johnny couldn’t see or hear the sheriff. It seemed Josh had allowed his home to be taken over, and then became scarce.

“And considering I didn’t expect him to last the night, this is a good sign. But his pulse is still too weak, and he’s not showing any signs of consciousness…”

The doctor’s voice faded as he and Murdoch left the room. Johnny, fully awake now and irritated that he’d fallen asleep at all, pushed the blanket off and rose awkwardly from the chair. He went to Scott, concerned to see that his brother’s skin glowed, and his black eyelids twitched as if in the midst of a nightmare.

“You’re awake.” Murdoch came back in, his voice as dull as his eyes, his appearance haggard and worn. All night he’d refused to leave or rest, as if his presence alone could pull Scott through this. He was taking this hard, harder than he’d let on so far, Johnny knew, and while Murdoch had spoken few words since yesterday’s rant, Johnny suspected that once he really took this in, his anger would return and most likely never leave.

Murdoch’s gaze went straight to Scott. “The doctor said he’s no worse.”

“I heard.” Johnny soaked the sponge in the basin of water and wiped the sheen of sweat from Scott’s forehead. “How long was I asleep?”

Murdoch looked to the carriage clock. “About four hours.” Johnny felt Murdoch’s scrutiny. “Not long enough. The doctor told you—”

“Yeah I know what the doc said, but I’m fine.”

They resumed their strained and silent vigil. Absentmindedly, Johnny fingered the stitches at his temple. It had been an awkward few minutes when the doctor tended him. Johnny hadn’t realised just how colourful his top half had turned overnight, and as the doctor had prodded him about, just how sore. The worst part was that Murdoch had witnessed it all, and his eyes had grown wide with unspoken questions. Bruises aside, they were not Johnny’s usual type of injuries. Beresford’s fingernails had raked Johnny’s flesh as he’d clawed desperately for his life. The deep purple marks around Johnny’s neck told a story all of their own, too. Johnny had expected the inquisition then, but Murdoch had held his tongue.

Until now it seemed, as Murdoch cleared his throat. 

“Tell me what happened out there.”

Johnny still concentrated on Scott, but he sensed the shift in his father’s attention.

“I don’t think I’m asking too much, Johnny.” It sounded almost a plea.

Johnny suppressed a sigh, his gaze slinking to his lap. There was a rip in his pants he hadn’t noticed before, from the knee up the thigh, and the smell of smoke still clung to his clothes. He knew Murdoch was waiting for him to respond, and Johnny thought he understood the need for answers. He could even concede Murdoch’s right to some of them perhaps. But as for knowing the whole story…Murdoch had no clue as to what he was asking on that score. There were some things it was better not to know.

Johnny’s demeanour darkened, but he tried to shake it off. Maybe after all that had happened, there was a chance that Murdoch would understand, but there was just as much chance that he wouldn’t. Murdoch was a moral, law abiding man likely to do what was right, even when it felt wrong. Maybe if I had regrets…Johnny dropped the warm sponge back into water and a few drops splashed on the sheets. But I don’t. Never will. Beresford got what he deserved.

His reluctance to answer seemed to last forever, with the clock loudly counting off each and every second. Murdoch seemed prepared to wait him out though, for he offered no further prompt, and this only served to increase Johnny’s agitation. His body ached, his head was splitting. He didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know what happened to Scott, Murdoch. I can only guess same as you.” Johnny finally explained, careful with his words. By the time I found him, he couldn’t talk much, there wasn’t time, and he was hurt.” Johnny looked to his brother, remembering how he’d believed Scott dead in the barn, thought he found him too late—a fear that could still be realised. “Scott said that Beresford found out somehow that he was a Lancer, and when Scott wouldn’t admit to it—”

“They tortured him,” Murdoch interrupted. “I worked that out for myself.” He leant forward in his chair, folding thick arms across his broad chest. “You know Scott was probably trying to protect you.”

Johnny sucked in a breath and looked away, crossing his arms defensively. “You think I don’t know that?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

Johnny lost the battle with the dark mood and slapped his knees in frustration. His head shot up and he glared at Murdoch. “Beresford tried to kill Scott and me, so I killed him. That’s all you need to know. Now just drop it.” Even to his own ears, Johnny’s voice was colder than he’d intended, but he meant what he said. He couldn’t and wouldn’t discuss this.

“And if I don’t? What will you do then, Johnny, draw on me again?”

Guess I deserved that. Johnny bowed his head, fingers raking through his hair. “No Murdoch, I ain’t gonna do that,” he said quietly. Seconds later Murdoch’s heavy footsteps signalled he’d left the room. 

Johnny didn’t bother to suppress his sigh this time; it slipped, despairingly, from his lips.  This is how it would be from now on, he’d never be able to put things right. Not with Murdoch, not with Scott. Johnny’s eyes swept over his brother, just as Scott shifted slightly, fingers gouging further into the pillow. He didn’t wake though, or show any other signs of awareness.

The urge to escape pounced on Johnny, nipping his heels like an excited dog. He could cut his losses and go. But as the voice of reason pointed out, the distance he craved was impossible. Scott and Beresford’s blood had dried on his hands, stained his soul. And there could be no running from that.


Ellie had thought of nothing else but Johnny for the past few days, waiting on tenterhooks for Josh to come back, using all her willpower at times not to ride out after them. She was gutsy enough to, but not stupid, and nobody would have thanked her for it, least of all Johnny. When he’d returned yesterday, no matter the state he’d been in, she’d felt relieved, thrilled even, to see him alive. He’d not uttered a word about Andrew Beresford, and she knew better than to ask.

Now, leaning against the weathered old banister of her front porch, clutching her purse with both hands, she worried at the silver clasp and fought the sudden indecision which halted her. Overhead the clouds were back and they looked heavy enough to burst, their gloom coating the sky with a premature twilight. The step on which she stood was slippery, damp and muddied with different size boot prints. She’d already lit the outside lantern, and a couple of moths fluttered nearby, a little too close for her comfort.  Down the street the town was coming to life, Saturday night was almost here. In a short while the saloon’s music would enliven the air.

She’d not seen Johnny since yesterday when Murdoch had delivered the tragic news that Scott was dying. Ellie didn’t think death had come yet, she’d thought that Johnny would have come and told her… then again maybe not. Quite rightly, she would be the last thing on his mind, and she didn’t want to intrude where she wasn’t wanted. But then whatever was happening would be hitting Johnny hard; Scott getting hurt was what he’d feared most.  Her sigh mingled with the first falling raindrops.

Just a short while ago, she hadn’t even known Johnny had a brother, yet Ellie knew instinctively what losing Scott would do to him.  He might need a friend about now.

Using her purse to protect her hair, Ellie walked briskly for fear she might change her mind. Arriving at Josh’s house, she let herself in out of the rain, and took a moment to flick water droplets from her person before noticing that she wasn’t alone in this part of the house. Josh wasn’t home, she’d seen him earlier and he’d said he was riding out to the old Jackson farm, or what might be left of it. She’d asked why, but Josh wouldn’t say. She supposed it was law business.

“Mister Lancer.” The first person she saw was Murdoch, and Ellie greeted Johnny’s father with hesitation, the expression on his face forced politeness at best. Removing her shawl, she hung it on the peg beside the front door, aware that Murdoch was still looking her way, probably wondering why she’d come. “How is Scott?” she enquired tentatively.

Murdoch frowned. He stood in the small and sparse kitchen area, behind the rickety table and accompanying pair of chairs, a glass of water in his hand. “He’s still alive,” was his blunt reply. He gulped the water and set the glass down heavily.

“Well, that’s good news at least.” Ellie attempted to sound positive as she studied the giant of a man before her. Murdoch looked completely worn out, a far cry from before when he’d arrived looking for his sons, worse even than yesterday when he’d come to her house to yell at Johnny. Her heart went out to him. Crossing the room, Ellie sank to the floor, her dress rustling as she searched the cupboard for Josh’s stash. She found a bottle of scotch, the seal not yet broken, and held it aloft. “Josh won’t mind, honest.” 

“Thank you,” Murdoch responded tightly, taking the proffered bottle.

“Is Johnny—”

Murdoch downed the drink and shot her a sharp look. “Through there.”

Ellie gave a nod of gratitude and walked through to Josh’s front room where she stopped, her gaze falling on Scott first: bruised face still flushed with the fever, hair looking shades darker, wet and matted to his forehead. A lump formed in her throat which she swallowed, wishing again that she’d stuck to her guns and refused to lie, or at least tried harder to convince Johnny there was another way…only what Johnny had said at the time made sense, and he’d caressed her face so gently, and looked at her with those eyes….the same eyes that now peered wearily up at her, dark-ringed and tormented. 

“How is he?”

“He’s fighting it.”

Johnny spoke softly, sombrely, his tone saying more about how he was feeling than a thousand words ever could, and Ellie was at a loss how to reply; every possible response tasted nothing but inadequate on her tongue. She looked to the vacant chair, reaching down to thump some life back into the worn upholstered seat.

Ellie, you didn’t need to come.”

I know, but I couldn’t sleep for worryin’ and you know how I like my sleep.” She sat then, heavily, bouncing on the cushion. “You look done in.”

“Thanks.” He raised his chin and she witnessed the brief twitch of a smile on his lips before he turned back to Scott.

“You ain’t even changed your clothes.”

“She’s right.”

Murdoch had come back in. His expression remained stony, but Ellie noted the scotch had given his pale eyes renewed light, and she was glad. Neither man could go on as they were for much longer.

“You heard the doctor earlier. Go on and get some proper rest, son, you can come back in the morning.”

“No. I’ll sleep here.”

Ellie looked up as Murdoch’s frown of disapproval swung her way. “Maybe you can talk some sense into him, Miss Thomas. It seems you’re the only one John listens or talks to these days.”

“How ‘bout I fix somethin’ to eat instead?” Ellie suggested before Johnny could vocally follow up on the cold glare directed at his father. “I’ll just see if Josh has any food in.” She moved quickly out of the room, out of the line of fire, she couldn’t help but feel.

Johnny and Murdoch let her go, glaring at each other, frustrated by their mutual stubbornness. They could hear Ellie searching Josh’s scant kitchen, and too tired for an argument, Johnny went to help.

“Well at least go get cleaned up.” To Johnny’s chagrin, Murdoch had followed him out of the room. “I’ll tend to Scott, and let you know if there’s any change. It’s not as if I need to ask where you’ll go.”

“I said I’m stayin’ put.”

“Johnny, c’mon, at least get a change of clothes and some fresh air. You can walk me back.” Ellie had given up the search it seemed, and was now at the front door retrieving her shawl. Wrapping it about her, she gave Johnny a small smile, the look in her eyes telling him clearly that he was being unnecessarily stubborn.

Not needing that look to know she was right, Johnny gave an acquiescent nod. As Ellie opened the front door, he peered out into the murky drizzle. His eyes swept the room until he located his jacket and hat. Easing his arms through the jacket, still damp from yesterday’s downpour, Johnny caught his father’s bloodshot eye. Murdoch was frowning, shaking his head as if in disbelief.

“What?” Johnny knew he was snapping. He knew why, but it didn’t mean he could stop himself anymore than Murdoch could.

“Whatever it is she does to you, John, she must certainly do well.”

Johnny wasn’t sure what surprised him the most—what Murdoch had actually said or the barely concealed bitterness that infected his tone. Johnny looked asquint at Ellie in the doorway, alarmed to see she’d heard and was about to reply.

“Not only that, Mr. Lancer, but I cook, too. How’s that for a combination?”

For a second Murdoch looked taken aback, and after catching Johnny’s pained expression, Ellie seemed to instantly regret rising to the jibe for she smiled apologetically. “Josh ain’t got no food here so I’ll fix y’all somethin’ at my place. I’ll bring it over.”

As she ducked out the door and pulled it to, Johnny turned to Murdoch, his voice quiet with controlled anger. “There was no call for that, Murdoch. None of this is Ellie’s fault.”

“I don’t need you to tell me whose fault this is,” Murdoch barked gruffly. “How the hell do you think it makes me feel, damn it, having to ask her to tell me about my own son. I’ve had to listen to that girl telling me how you’ve been feeling all this time, what you planned to do to Beresford, how you planned to do it, everything! And even now you’re shutting me out, ignoring what I ask of you, what I tell you, but you listen to her. It seems she means a whole lot more to you than Scott or I ever did.”

Johnny was quiet following his father’s aggrieved speech. He knew he’d hurt Murdoch with his silence, both before and now. Almost everything had turned out differently than he’d ever envisaged. Johnny didn’t know how to make Murdoch understand, especially when looking back even he didn’t understand all of his own behaviour. How must it look, shutting his family out, but talking to Ellie? They’d had to hear from her what he should have had the guts to tell them himself. Johnny watched as Murdoch stalked back to Scott’s side. No wonder he was mad and disappointed. Johnny suddenly felt compelled to mollify his father.

“That ain’t all true, Murdoch, what you said.” Johnny watched his father resume his place and clutch Scott’s limp fingers in his own.

“Ellie means nothin’ to me. She was just…there.”

Murdoch’s head remained bowed. It seemed he no longer possessed the strength to be angry. On the bed, Scott stirred again, moaning a string of intelligible words. Only once he’d settled again did Murdoch look up.

“Just answer me one thing, Johnny.”

Johnny shifted his weight, wanting to say he would, but wary as to what that might entail.

“Is it over, I mean really over? Beresford, the other men that were involved…there’s not going to be any comebacks, any more vengeance?”

For the first time in a long time, Johnny could look his father squarely in the eye.

“It’s over, Murdoch. All of it.” 




Just as he’d done every night since he’d regained consciousness, Scott woke before dawn, choking on the stuffiness of the room, the air bone dry in his mouth. He fumbled for the matches and got the lamp lit. Only then could he relax, catching his breath until he no longer heard his heart, using the bed sheet to mop up sweat that had nothing to do with the weather.

He wanted to forget but was his own worst enemy. In daytime the memories could be controlled, but in the darkness, when he slept, then they had free rein.

Anger pulsed. Scott closed his eyes.

How many years will it take for these nightmares to fade?

His hand had made a fist of the sheet, and he squeezed until his father’s voice, thick with sleep, travelled from the shadows of their hotel room. “Are you all right, son?”

“I’m fine.” With a sigh, Scott released the sheet and the tension. He eased forward and blew out the solitary flame, knowing he had to find another way out of the darkness.


During the day, the town was busy. Scott had to wait to cross the street while another horse and loaded wagon trundled past, its wheels adding to the furrows in the baked ground. The sun was warm and bright again. People were friendly, smiling as they passed. A few even bid him a cheery good morning. Still, I won’t be sad leave this place. No matter how pleasant, it’s not home.

The street now clear, Scott crossed briskly to the cantina. This was the first time he had ventured out, and to his satisfaction he no longer felt light-headed when he walked. It had taken days to shake off the drug-induced haze and when finally he had, it was like falling back to earth. He felt normal again. Everyday sounds had stopped being too loud, and the bright light of day had ceased to spear him each time he opened his eyes.

It was busy inside the cantina, all tables were occupied. A man with a pipe puffed smoke in Scott’s direction but the smell was overpowered by beefsteaks, bacon, and strong coffee. Thanks to his stature, Murdoch was easy to spot, and as Scott weaved his way through the throng of dining patrons, he composed his face to disguise his shortness of breath behind a positive smile.

“Scott!” Murdoch looked surprised and slightly relieved, waving his fork at the vacant seat opposite. “Where’ve you been?”

Scott removed his hat and hung it on the spare peg behind Murdoch, before easing carefully into the seat and reaching immediately for the coffee pot. “I’ve been to see the doctor.” Scott ignored Murdoch’s increased surprise, concentrating on pouring then setting down the pot, finding he could contain his news no longer. “Murdoch, we’re going home!” There had not been much to smile about these past few weeks, so it felt good, really good, to speak those words at last. They tasted even better in his mouth than the aromatic coffee. It didn’t matter that Murdoch appeared to not share his sense of elation. Neither the consternation in his father’s eyes nor the doubtful gaze could dampen Scott’s spirits now. He couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Texas.

“The doctor said it’s okay to travel?”

“He did.”

In truth the doctor had expressed reservations. It would be a long, wearing journey, and Scott was still weak from the dehydration and blood loss, he had almost died, his body needed more time…. The doctor’s professional opinion had been that Scott should wait, but for once he was damned if he was going to be sensible. One night in his own bed equalled a thousand hours’ rest as far as he was concerned. Just the sight of the hacienda sitting snug in the deep green valley below the crest of that great hill—that was the best convalescence Scott could imagine. He wanted to see the rest of his family, breathe fresh Californian air again. It was his only chance to forget.

Scott met Murdoch’s gaze, hoping for some understanding without words. To his relief he got it.

“We’ll have to take it easy.”

“Murdoch, I honestly don’t care. I just want to go home.”

The older man’s smile echoed Scott’s sentiment. “I’ll make the arrangements.” Murdoch’s smile faltered, and he put down his knife and fork, dabbing the napkin to his lips. “What about Johnny?” he said tentatively.

The carefree feeling that had made Scott’s shoulders weightless for the first time in ages returned with a force that saw him visibly slump.  If it wasn’t for Murdoch, Scott would have no idea if Johnny was still in town. For he and his brother had barely seen each other, not really spoken at all since a short and stilted conversation soon after Scott woke up. It wasn’t Johnny’s fault. Scott knew he’d displayed no desire for his brother’s company. He hadn’t been able to work out how he felt toward him. I still don’t know.  

“What about him. I thought you already asked and he said no.”

Murdoch sat back slowly, obviously considering his words. “I was hoping he might change his mind.”

Scott looked away, across the cantina, gazing blindly through the hustle and bustle and out to the street beyond. 

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

Scott turned back, openly surprised by the suggestion but otherwise guarding his feelings like a state secret. Deliberately he straightened his posture and set his expression neutral. “I don’t see the point,” he said quietly. 

“You must have things you want to get off your chest? It might do you good—” 

“I don’t think so,” Scott cut in curtly. He avoided Murdoch’s look of concern, shaking the napkin and spreading it over his lap. “There’s really nothing to say,” he murmured after a moment’s silence.

“Not even goodbye?” Murdoch suggested gently.


In the livery, muffled footsteps and a tall shadow on the hay-strewn ground alerted Johnny to Murdoch’s presence seconds before he cleared his throat to announce himself. Relaxing slightly, Johnny’s hand came back up from his Colt and as he led a saddled Barranca from the stall, he greeted his father cautiously. Things were better now between him and the old man. They’d done some talking, about the mundane mostly, only once about going home.

“Going for a ride?”

Johnny nodded. “How’s Scott?”

“Better. Least that’s what he tells me.” Murdoch’s hands moved to his waist, thumbs tucking beneath his belt. “Ah, Johnny, I should tell you…Scott and I, we’ll be leaving shortly, heading back to the ranch.”

Johnny turned, closed the stall door and reached for the bolt, sliding it slowly across. Make that two conversations ‘bout going home.

“The doc gave him the all clear, huh?” Johnny forced the words out. He knew his brother wanted little to do with him. It hurt, but was understandable.

“It seems so. He wants to get home. I think it’ll do him good to be back…

I wondered…” Murdoch cleared his throat again, this time waving his hand across his face as if the dust of the livery was to blame. “I hoped you’d changed your mind about coming with us.”

“Scott know you’re askin’?”

When silence ensued, Johnny ducked his head. He scuffed his boot along the ground.  “I haven’t changed my mind.”

“So…what are your plans?” Murdoch was trying to make the question, this whole conversation, sound casual, but Johnny wasn’t fooled for a second.

“Leave. I guess start again some place.”

He dusted off his hands and wiped them on his jeans. Pushing away from the stall, he led Barranca to the livery entrance, and Murdoch followed. Johnny felt awkward, but knew that Murdoch felt the same. This was just too hard.

Down the street, the saloon keeper was opening up, pinning back the shutters to let in what light could penetrate the dusty windows. Josh was ambling along this way, his rotund figure vibrating the planks of the boardwalk.

Johnny was about to say something to Murdoch when a familiar voice rang out across the street, drawing both men’s attention. The voice belonged to Ellie, and it was Josh she was calling, reaching his side with an unmissable spring in her step. The two stood in conversation for a few minutes and Johnny found himself watching her, riveted, forgetting Murdoch was even there.

She was excited about something, her face animated, eyes wide. It was obvious even from this distance, and Johnny was surprised, for she’d not seemed her usual self since he’d returned. Not that he’d seen her all that much in honesty. Yes, he’d stayed in her house, but downstairs, making a bed of the couch in the rarely used back parlour. To take a room at the boarding house alongside Murdoch and Scott had just seemed a step toward family togetherness that none of them were ready for. On the few occasions they’d spent time together, Ellie had been, well, cool, came to mind. Not much like the woman he’d left behind just two short weeks ago. Ellie had always been fiercely independent, but now she seemed so aloof that Johnny found himself wishing she wasn’t. They’d grown close again just before he left. He missed that now…a tiny bit.

“She seems like quite a woman.”

Murdoch’s observation made Johnny realise he’d been staring like a dolt. He averted his gaze quickly, not quite sure where to look now as a faint flush coloured his cheeks. 

“I know I’ve said some things…I haven’t really got to know her, what with circumstances being…difficult.”

“There’s no need for you to know her,” Johnny interrupted hastily. “I mean, there’s no reason why you should.”

“She’s a good friend to you.”

“Yeah, she is.” Johnny glanced toward Ellie again. The sheriff looked happy now, too, and she was on her tip toes, kissing his cheek, throwing her arms around his thick neck. Johnny frowned when the sheriff hugged her back, and then when Ellie tucked her arm through his and the pair of them started back towards her house, still chatting, Johnny chewed his bottom lip to stop a full-blown scowl escaping.    

“When you said you were leaving here, it surprised me.” Murdoch ran a hand down Barranca’s neck. “I thought Ellie might be reason for you to stay.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch like he was crazy. “I ain’t ready for any of that,” he replied tersely, incensed further when Murdoch seemed amused.

“You think you get to decide when it happens?” Murdoch shook his head. “Noo, Johnny. In my experience it doesn’t work that way at all…thankfully,” he added wistfully. He stepped away from Barranca, the wistfulness retreating behind a rigid mask. “The stage leaves at eight tomorrow morning—”

That soon? As Murdoch explained his travel plans, Johnny listened disconcertedly.

“You should talk to your brother.”

“What good would it do?” Johnny was surprised that he actually wanted his father to give him an answer. He turned to the horse quickly before Murdoch could see or sense his imploration. He checked the cinch and went to mount up.

Murdoch’s hand fell on his shoulder, firm and reassuring.

Johnny froze. “There’s nothin’ I can say to either of you except I’m sorry, Murdoch, and that’s just a word. It don’t mean a lot.”

“If it’s true, it might mean everything.”

Johnny turned around. “It is true,” he insisted quietly.

“Come home, son.”

“I can’t.”

“Oh, Johnny. Why are you so hard on yourself?”

“Well I ain’t ever done things the easy way.” Johnny shrugged loosely.

Murdoch looked pained. He sighed noisily. “So…” he said after a time. “This is goodbye then.”

Johnny wiped his face free of feeling. “I guess,” he said softly. 

“Well, we…I…” Murdoch pulled up taller. “Just take care of yourself, son.” He held out his hand and Johnny took it, their firm grip lasting a long moment. It was Johnny who let go, and as Murdoch walked away, he remembered what he was going to say earlier.

“Uh, Murdoch?”


Murdoch turned and Johnny kicked himself when he saw the hope on his father’s face. “The ranch, the partnership—”

Murdoch swallowed and Johnny saw him smother his sadness with a frown. “There’s nothing to say about the partnership. It’ll remain as it has always been. Unless of course you need the money…”

“No, I don’t want money.”

“Then know that you’ll always have Lancer to come back to.”   

Murdoch walked away then, abruptly spinning on his heel and crossing the street. Johnny watched him leave, an unhappiness welling up inside that made his chest feel tight. As his eyes blurred, he could only listen to Murdoch’s quick footsteps pounding the boardwalk. By the time they’d faded, Johnny’s resolve was close to breaking.




The last time he’d set foot in this saloon, it had been to get drunk. And he'd achieved that aim. Johnny stretched his legs out beneath the table and rubbed wearily at his cheek. From this seat he had a clear view out the windows to the railing, still broken from where he'd slid down it painfully onto his face. That had been one hell of a night.

Outside the evening was bearing down; the sunset pink across the sky. Midweek and there were few souls in the saloon, for which Johnny was grateful. He was alert though, just in case, his gaze only occasionally dipping to his beer, not so tempted by it now. He was full up on thoughts, heavy indigestible thoughts that just wouldn't go. 

After talking with Murdoch, Johnny had been left with his resolve almost in tatters. He’d taken Barranca for a run, tempted to go wherever the speed induced wind that whipped at his face and blew late summer dust in his eyes dictated.  The sun had climbed in the sky by the time Johnny slowed the pace, the wind vanishing, Barranca coated in a frothy sweat. They’d turned around and started back, the town hidden from view in the folds of the horizon. It was time to leave Widow’s Creek. Johnny wasn’t sure why he’d stuck around this long.

Because almost everyone I care ‘bout is in this damn town, that’s why. Johnny answered his own question and contemplated his drink. Only not for much longer. Tomorrow morning, Scott and Murdoch were getting on that stage. They were going home. Home. Johnny didn’t know where his was anymore.

He’d thought his future all mapped out. Killing Beresford had condemned him. It should ensure he lived out the rest of his no-doubt limited days as Johnny Madrid—feared, alone, and cold stone dead inside. So why ain’t I feeling it? Even according to the law, the matter was closed. Josh had paid him an ‘official’ visit to confirm that he’d informed the authorities that Beresford and his accomplices had kidnapped Scott, and during the rescue attempt, they’d all been killed. Johnny had the feeling that secretly Josh would’ve liked to make more of it. After all there was no love lost between them. Briefly, Johnny had even toyed with the idea of telling the truth; owning up to shooting Beresford like a dog. He wanted everyone to know what that bastard had done to Katie. But indirectly, Scott had stopped him from coming clean. For whatever reason, Scott told Josh that Johnny had no choice but to shoot Beresford. Johnny was surprised, and maybe on reflection, he was grateful, too.

Murdoch was right; he should talk to his brother. Clear the air. After tomorrow they might not see each other again. But what if Scott didn’t want to forgive him? Johnny cursed the streak of stubborn pride that was going to prevent him from asking.

"Now you look like ya could use some company this evenin', cowboy."

Johnny put his beer down and sat back. He drew the back of his hand across his lips then let his arm fall to his lap, smiling lazily, inviting the company with a nod toward the vacant chair.

"Well I sure don't mind if I do." Ellie slid into the seat and dropped her purse on the table.  Twisting her body, she signalled to the barkeep. "Hey Charlie, bring me a drink will ya?" She tucked a wavy lock of hair behind her ear, her earrings sparkling. "It's quiet in here tonight," she observed. "That wouldn't be due to you now would it?"

Johnny shrugged.

Ellie nodded knowingly. "Yeah, you got everyone worried you're gonna fight 'em, or shoot 'em." Johnny knew she was only half-joking. His presence was an imposition now that folk knew who and what he was. Not exactly the best advertisement for Ellie’s business. The average cowboy tended to get a little shy knowing that a gunhawk resided on the premises. Still it had its plus points, Ellie had explained. No one had tried to get away without paying. No more of her girls had been raped.

Charlie brought her drink over and Ellie thanked him with a flirtatious smile, knocking back the shot in one. When Johnny looked curious, she merely shrugged, her smile vanishing. "Shoulda asked for the bottle."

"It's that bad?"

Her shoulders rose and fell again quickly. "It has been," she replied nonchalantly. She tapped her painted fingernails on the table as if waiting for him to speak.

"I haven't been around much,” he offered.

"No? I thought ya were downstairs a lot of the time."

"That's not what I meant."

Ellie leant back in her chair. Strands of her hair caught the sunlight, shimmering copper. A sudden silence rolled across the table, and Johnny studied her as intently as he could with one eye still on the door. He couldn’t help but remember how she’d looked earlier when speaking to Josh. So unlike her disposition now and recently, she’d looked vivacious, happy and beautiful as she’d thrown her arms around the sheriff. The same feeling that had possessed Johnny then, grabbed him now. Maybe he did want his beer after all.

“Did your father find you?” 

“What?” Surprised, Johnny shifted in the chair. “Yeah, they're leavin' tomorrow. Scott wants to get home."

“Go with them. You've hung around this long. Ain’t it ‘bout time you faced up to the truth? You want your family back. There’s no shame in it so why not admit it?"

“I do admit it. Only things ain’t that simple.” Johnny met Ellie’s blunt stare as he quietly defended himself.

“They ain’t that complicated either. You just make ‘em so.”

Johnny bristled and leaned forward, scowling. “I don’t need a lecture.”

“Fine.” Ellie sighed wearily and got to her feet. “I just came to tell you that I’m leavin’, that’s all. Josh has got this sister…” She waved her hand. “Anyways, I’m riding out, moving on. Gonna try that somethin’ new.”

Johnny stared at Ellie in surprise; he hadn’t been expecting this, which must explain why it felt like he’d just been punched in the gut. She was waiting. He knew when someone was trying to read him, and so he tried to find some interim words, while inside he struggled to sort his feelings.

“Yeah? That’s good.”

It was the wrong thing to say, least it came out sounding wrong. Ellie rolled her eyes and looked away, snatching up her purse, rummaging inside and pulling a coin that she flipped toward the bar. “Bye, Charlie,” she yelled before walking hurriedly out of the saloon.

Johnny noted he didn’t even get a backward glance, and he groaned inwardly, feeling like an ass. Suddenly he wasn’t sure that one beer was going to be enough.


Ellie berated herself all the way home for letting Johnny’s reaction upset her, especially as she’d successfully managed for days now to hide the hurt he’d caused. She purposefully hadn’t told him she was considering leaving to make it as easy as possible to go. And God, she needed to make this easy.

Going straight to her room, Ellie blinked back hot, pointless tears, and was confronted straight away by the battered valise resting on the blue bedspread. This one small case was all she’d be taking with her. It contained only items she thought suitable for her fresh start, an all together different way of living. Ellie smiled faintly, shoving thoughts of Johnny aside. The fact there wasn’t a lot there reminded her that this was going to be scary, but as anxious as she might be at the prospect of a new life, the fighter in her looked forward to the challenge. 

Seeking comfort she changed her clothes, then sat beside the case and reached for her discarded dress, fingering the silky mauve fabric, the rough lace trim that always itched like the devil. Suddenly she felt sad again, alone in the room that had been hers for a decade. Ten years. That’s a helluva lot of memories, a helluva lot of men. She folded the dress and shoved it in the bottom of a sack with the others.

Her door swung open. “I’m sorry,” Johnny said simply.

Startled, Ellie looked up. She hadn’t even heard him climb the stairs but now he stood watching her with those entrancing eyes of his. Ellie knew she could easily sit all day beneath that gaze. Instead she shook her head crossly. “Jesus, Johnny.”

He closed the door and came to sit with her, still eyeing her intently. “So, you gonna tell me why you’re leavin’?” 

Ellie stood and lugged the valise off the bed. It fell with a gentle thud on her worn oval rug and she briskly dusted her palms together. “Does it matter?”

“If this was the other way ‘round, it would.”

Ellie refused to look at him. She had so wanted to avoid this. She attempted to kick the valise under the bed, but only succeeded in stubbing her bare toe. Swearing, she sank to the mattress and focused on rubbing the pain away. “I heard what you said to your father, okay? ‘Bout how I mean nothin’. How I was just there.” She looked at him and shook her head. “And don’t be gettin’ ideas that I’m heartbroken,” she warned harshly before Johnny could speak. “’Cause I’m not. It made me mad as hell, then sad some…eventually it just made me realise that if I stay here, then that’s all I’ll ever be. Nothin’ to no one.” She glanced down at her hands, her nail varnish was chipped. “I want more.”

“I never meant it.” He sounded aghast.

You never meant me to hear it. She slid the rug away with her feet and then planted them on the floor, relishing the cool feel of wood against her soles. “It sure sounded like you did, not that it matters now. Guess in a way I should be thankin’ ya.”

“Ellie.” His fingers brushed her arm and stayed there. “I didn’t mean it. I was trying to make Murdoch…” He sighed heavily. “Just know I don’t think that.”

He spoke softly and with insistence. Ellie bit down on her lip, wanting to repeat that it didn’t matter. Only it did. She risked looking at him and their gaze locked. Her skin tingled. He looked sincere, and she wanted him to be. It don’t change nothin’. 

Beyond the door, faint voices drifted up the stairs. Someone somewhere was laughing. She rose to open the window. The sun had almost set and only a sliver remained on the hilltop, bright enough to make Ellie squint, but no longer enough to adequately light the room. As she liked to do when she smoked, Ellie dragged the wicker chair over and sat down, content this time to just breathe in the town, and drink in the view—a couple of things she’d miss.

“What you gonna do?” she glanced at Johnny, but he just shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He was playing with the hem of her bedspread. He’d found a loose thread and was tugging at it. Seemingly oblivious to the fact it was fraying rapidly. “You were right, I do want to go home, I just can’t.”

"So you’re just gonna keep punishing yourself, an’ everyone else who cares?"

He looked up then, with the same defensive expression he’d had in the saloon, and Ellie braced herself, but no rebuke came. He wasn’t even fighting now.

"Just give yourself a chance to be happy again, Johnny,” she pleaded.

Leaning forward, Ellie brought the sash down, leaving fingerprints in the dust that coated the sill. She’d walked around the bed to light the lamp when Johnny reached out and caught her arm. He gently pulled her down to sit beside him.

“Don’t go,” he blurted.

He was serious. Ellie could see it in his eyes, and it had taken a lot for him to say it, she knew. He’d had to wrestle those words to get them out. But it was too late, she’d made a decision that she should stick to, a decision that she owed herself to keep.

“Johnny, I—” His mouth closed over hers, stealing her protest.

Any minute now, Ellie vowed silently, she was going to stop him. Only this felt nice, real nice. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days and so his stubble grazed her face, a pleasurable pain, and she sensed no hesitation in him, not like before. He hadn’t stopped yet. But there were a hundred reasons why this was a bad idea, not least because the last time they’d tried this, she’d been left hurt and literally alone, and he didn’t want her, not really…

His mouth was warm, he tasted faintly and sweetly of beer, and there was more fervency to their kiss now. Ellie found herself thinking that it wouldn’t hurt, surely, just going along with this for a while. After all it was Johnny taking the risk here, wasn’t it? This was his personal challenge, his test, and if he was using her…then hell, what is one last time?

She stripped his shirt off, sliding the material over hard, powerful shoulders, down his back. She closed her eyes, seeing through her senses as Johnny began undressing her, peeling and thrusting garments aside until she was bare and shivering. She kissed him, breathing the scent of leather, and soap, her own perfume on his skin. She heard the jingle of his belt buckle, the brush of jeans down his thighs. Someone knocked at the door. He covered her with his weight, pressing her into the mattress, ready, she could feel him. Her legs circled his waist. The muscles in his back stirred beneath her fingers. A moan escaped her throat. His hair felt so soft and silky on her skin that she had to play with it. Another knock on the door, and reality hit.

“Just a minute!

Johnny, stop. This is a bad idea.” Ellie moved her hands to his chest, pressing her palms against him until he registered her request and complied, easing away from her, his frustration escaping in an audible sigh.

He reached up and lightly stroked her cheek. She wavered. “What you said before…”

“I meant it.” He answered quickly. There was conviction, she heard it; loud even in his whisper. “Stay with me.”

“Stay with you as what? I need more than just this.” She was whispering, anxious and frustratingly indecisive all over again. Damn you, Johnny.

He swallowed and his hand dropped to the bed. She could see him wrestling again, yet even before he answered, Ellie could tell this time it was a fight he would lose. She would’ve laughed at the irony of the situation, were she trying so hard not to cry. How many times had she idly day-dreamed of this moment? Never had it occurred to her that it would be better in her dreams. For at least in dreams, she never turned him down.

No matter what he’d thought he wanted; Johnny just wasn’t ready.

“It’s not enough for me, Johnny. I’m sorry.” She gently pushed him away, grabbing the corner of the bedspread and covering herself. “I can’t wait for ya to get over Katie. I’ve spent too many years waiting for you as it is.”




Scott’s restlessness must have been catching because Murdoch had great trouble getting to sleep. He’d laid in the darkness, facing the wall, listening to Scott’s frustrated sighs, every creak of the bed as he kicked at the sheets sounding loud in the silence. It’d been like this most nights since Scott regained consciousness and they’d moved from Josh’s home to the hotel. Scott either battled to fall asleep or fought to wake up from nightmares that he hadn’t yet confessed to having.

This evening had been worse, and Murdoch guessed why. Scott had more on his mind than just the past. Not that Scott would admit to thinking about Johnny. He wouldn’t talk about his brother, or say anything other than he was feeling fine and looking forward to going home in the morning. Murdoch was struggling with Johnny’s decision, too. It hurt, but he’d accepted it.

Awake again, Murdoch rolled over in bed and strained to see the form of his sleeping son. It might not yet be the dead of night, but the indigo hue of a darkening sky still rendered the room in shadow. As his eyes grew accustomed, Murdoch made out the neatly made and empty bed.


“Yuh want me ta tell Johnny you’re here?” In the front room of Ellie’s house, the girl looked hard at Scott through owlish eyes that appeared too old for her youthful face. Scott guessed her sixteen at a push. “Ya don’t look much like ‘im.” She was still staring, only she’d propped herself against the door jamb, her eyes now contemplative as they swept him from head to toe. “Bet ya look better without the bruises.” 


She sighed and pushed away from the door. “Wait in there.” She pointed down the narrow hallway. “Maybe once you seen ‘im…?” The smile she produced was too old for her, like her eyes, and it made Scott uncomfortable. He shook his head. She shrugged her thin, bare shoulders, and went upstairs.

The room at the end of the hall was a kitchen and the back door stood ajar to the warm silence of the evening. After waiting a few minutes, Scott wandered out onto the shadowy porch; lit only by the seeping light from the kitchen. The day’s heat still lingered in the air, cosied him, and accentuated his weariness. He should be asleep now. There was a long journey ahead; hence they’d retired early. But just how was he supposed to sleep with Murdoch snoring in the same room? 

He began to descend the porch steps to the grassy field, which at this late hour rolled seamlessly into the sky. The wooden boards squeaked beneath his weight. He reached the ground and inhaled the scent of blossoming buttercups that grew in clumps around the base of the porch; tiny glowing lamps in the twilight. A noise and the shift of a shadow startled him, and Scott’s hand went to his gun. When the rat scurried out from beneath the porch he should have relaxed. Instead the stench of Marvin replaced the wildflowers and in his mind he was back, tied up in the barn. He placed a hand to the railing to ward off the dizziness, alarmed it had come back when he’d thought it gone. He looked up, for an anchor, irritated to find one in his brother’s concerned gaze.

Damn. Instantly Scott composed himself, aware that Johnny’s gaze had not drifted. He started back up the porch steps, wondering again why he’d come. Johnny was staying, they were leaving. What was there to say? Close enough to see his brother, it was obvious he’d just dressed. His shirt was un-tucked, his hair all mussed, and he wasn’t wearing his gunbelt. How unlike Johnny Madrid.

They stared at each other in a silence broken only by the hum of insects and the scratching of another rat beneath the porch. Scott, not immune to the awkwardness, pulled his new gloves from his belt and played with them, manipulating the leather and slapping the pair against his open palm. Talk to Johnny. It had been Murdoch’s recommendation and one that Scott had first dismissed as nonsensical. Not that he’d said it aloud. How could he explain that at times he ached to hate the man who stood in front of him a stranger, and yet at others, like maybe now, all he wanted to do was save him?

“Murdoch tells me you’re not coming with us.” Scott felt better as soon as he spoke. His directness was refreshing; his tone brooked none of the uncertainty or unwonted feelings that churned queasily in his gut.


“Do I get to know why?”

Johnny looked uncomfortable and his fingers began their familiar fidget. “Lancer’s full of ghosts, Scott. I’m not sure I’m ready to confront ‘em yet.”

Scott sighed and it parted the air; noisy and frustrated. It irked him that Johnny elicited such compassion, especially when a part of Scott insisted he was no longer deserving of it.

“You can’t run from them forever.”

Johnny ducked his head. “Reckon I’ll try.”

“So that’s it?” Scott clamped down on his anger. “You know, you could try facing up to things. Murdoch, he won’t say, but this is killing him. Why don’t you stop being so damn selfish. Katie’s gone. She’s dead.” But we’re not.

“I know!” Johnny dropped down onto Ellie’s wooden bench and folded his arms across his chest. A minute passed before he spoke again. “It ain’t just that.”

“What else?”

When Johnny still hesitated, Scott felt his patience evaporate. “Well I’ll say goodbye then.”  He folded his gloves back into his belt. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in dragging it out until the morning. The stage leaves early.” He turned and started back to the steps.

“Scott, wait—”

Scott did. Reluctantly. He gripped the flaking paint of the porch rail, surprised to feel his heart pounding in his chest. “Get it said, Johnny.”

“It’s you.”

“Me?” The enticement was too much and Scott returned to where he’d stood before, looking down on his brother’s dark and bowed head.

“It just wouldn’t work, not now.”

“Tell me.”

Johnny got up. “You’re mad at me, Scott. You really think it’d work, us livin’ and workin’ together every day?”

Scott swallowed. Something stirred within him; the ache, raw and bitter; a feeling he wished away. “I never said that I’m mad at you,” he responded tightly.

Johnny shook his head. “C’mon, Scott,” he sighed exasperatedly. “You don’t want me to go back. You ain’t said a word ‘bout what happened out there, not even to Murdoch. I know it’s eatin’ at ya.”

Scott’s stomach clenched. “Now just wait a minute. You’ve been discussing me with Murdoch? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I haven’t. I just know--”

“You have no right to know anything about me,” Scott said curtly, taking a step closer to Johnny. “Any rights you may have had, Brother, you forfeited a long time ago when you took off without a word.”

“Maybe. But if I’m not around, you’ll be able to deal with it.”

“Have you always been so arrogant?”

“Well you’re actin’ like nothin’s happened!” Johnny was losing his cool. “I got Ellie to lie to you, Scott. I sent you to Beresford and then I killed him when I coulda walked away—”

It felt good to hit him, Scott realised, as his furious punch sent Johnny staggering. Even better when he hit him again and Johnny reeled backward down the steps and rolled to a slow stop on the ground.

“You think I wouldn’t have shot that son of a bitch?” Scott glared down at Johnny, cradling his fist, a slight quickness of breath the only sign that he’d ever been anything but flawlessly composed. “And you’re right, I am angry with you over the rest of it. Having to see you every day would be one hell of a reminder! But it hasn’t even occurred to you that going home together is the only thing that can make what’s happened worth it!”

His anger spent, his knuckles stinging, the tension drained from Scott and he slumped down on the top step dejectedly, blowing out a long, weary breath.

Groggily, Johnny sat up and gingerly examined his jaw. Dragging himself over to the base of the porch, he leaned heavily against it and spat a mouthful of blood into the grass. “Feel better now?” he managed to ask.

“Yes,” Scott replied honestly. Carefully he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, grimacing at the twinges across his back.

“Figure that was a long time coming.”

“I figure it was.”

“Scott, I’m sorry.”

Scott took a deep breath and then nodded. “So am I,” he said quietly.

The light on the porch suddenly increased as someone entered the kitchen and adjusted the wick on the lamp. Both men turned to look through the window as Ellie moved around her kitchen.

“Are you staying for her?” Scott asked, glancing back to Johnny, who just shook his head.

“No.” He sounded sad. “She told me tonight that she’s leavin’.”

“I see.” Scott watched as Ellie left the kitchen. The light went out with her. “I meant what I said. I’d like you to come home.”

He couldn’t see Johnny’s face, it was in shadow, but he heard him shift position on the step. “I meant what I said, too, Scott.

If you could explain to the others, tell Val ‘bout Beresford…”

Scott cleared his throat. “I’ll tell him. He’ll be glad to hear it.” He opened his mouth to tell Johnny about Jelly, but changed his mind. As Johnny said, he already had his ghosts. Reaching for the railing, Scott got slowly up, staring out into the darkness. In just a few short hours he and Murdoch would board the stage for home.

“It won’t be like last time, Scott. I promise,” Johnny said with quiet determination. “I’m gonna find myself a place. Settle, maybe. I’ll write.”

A knowing smile broke out on Scott’s face and he shook his head. “I’ll believe that when I see it, Brother.”

He thought he heard Johnny laugh, softly, but Scott couldn’t see his brother’s expression until Johnny stood, moving out of the shadows. Their eyes met. Johnny was smiling, too.



The End.
May 2007
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