The Old Maid's Tale
by  Starry Diadem

An episode tag for The Kid

To be an old maid, that is fine, but it is cold.

 Victor Hugo  Les Miserables

Reverend Williams' sister lived someplace back east; the same place the Reverend came from. 

"Rockport, Cape Ann," explained Mrs Williams once at a Ladies Aid Society meeting when she was describing their journey west to follow the Reverend's Call.  "It's in Massachusetts, right on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  It's so pretty there, so green…  and the sea…"

Mrs Williams had sounded sad as her voice faded away, and she'd looked out onto the dry dust blowing along Main Street and sighed, before shaking her head and brisking up as if nothing had happened.  She sounded cheerful again as she told of the voyage from Boston to San Francisco and everything that she and the Reverend had seen on the way.  But Dorrie had thought that, maybe just for a moment, Mrs Williams had wished the Reverend had never had a Call at all.  But it would be a wicked thing to set yourself up against the Lord's will and Reverends' wives didn't do wicked things.

Dorrie had never heard of Rockport or Cape Ann.  She had some memories of the world east of McCall's Crossing, but not so far as that.  The farthest east she knew was over the mountains to Utah where she'd lived when Ma and Pa had first moved west, but her Pa's Call had been for land, not the Lord.  She'd been born farther east than that, too, but the south-east corner of the old Minnesota Territory was too far back in memory to be more than a vague sense of trees and water.  She'd never seen an ocean, though the Pacific was a few days' journey the other way, west over the Diablo mountains.  She figured it had to be something like Lake Utah, but bigger. 

Twice a year, Reverend Williams' sister sent a missionary barrel from the Reverend's old church back in Rockport.  Dorrie was at the Williams' house one time when a barrel arrived.  She was helping Mrs Williams with the sewing.  Five children all under the age of ten sure took it out on their clothes, and Mrs Williams was always glad to pay Dorrie a dollar for a day's work, having shirts made or pants mended, tucks let out to lengthen hems or bodices taken in for narrower chests, or just turning sheets sides-to-middle.  Dorrie came at least once a month to work her way through the sewing basket.

Now and again when she was there, Mrs Williams would bring in some of the other girls from church and they pieced gaily-coloured blocks together and quilted them, stretching the joined blocks out on the wide wooden frames, chattering and laughing as a cheerfully-patterned quilt took shape under their skilled fingers.  Dorrie loved the patterns and the names: Churn Dash, and Storm At Sea and Pharlemina's Favourite, all made with scraps of cloth from worn out curtains and dresses and quilted over an old blanket to make something new and bright.

"There's a sermon in there somewhere," said the Reverend once, when he came in for his tea, and saw Mrs Williams had a quilting bee.  He was smiling and kind, as always, and the girls blushed and fluttered because he was a tall and handsome man, and he was the minister and important.  He had a fine education.  He read Latin and Greek, even.

But all Dorrie cared for was the laughing and the stitching and knowing that when the winter came, the Williams children would sleep warm.  Dorrie liked stitching.  She was a good plain sewer; nothing fancy, but she was proud that her seams were straight with tiny stitches that could hardly be seen without Old Widow Tracy's magnifier on its polished mother-of-pearl handle, proud too that she could set a sleeve and that her gathers were the neatest of any she'd seen.  Ma had seen to all that, ripping out bad stitches and resetting the calico practice strips before showing Dorrie again, until Dorrie learned to get it right first time.  Dorrie made her first nine-patch quilt before she was ten.  Its blue and red and green squares still made her narrow bed bright and homey. 

She was grateful to Ma for that patient teaching.  She sewed for more people than the Reverend's wife.  Most weeks she spent one or two days in town, making shirts with the Widow Tracy for the Widow's son to sell in his General Mercantile store, mainly to the local ranch-hands who had no womenfolk of their own to sew for them.  Dorrie liked to work and the money she earned was a help to Pa when times were hard.

Times were mostly hard, it seemed.

So Dorrie was there that one time when the two men from the stage company came with the big barrel held between them, the lid nailed down tight to keep it safe on its long journey west.  Reverend Williams pulled out the nails with a claw-headed hammer.  She was surprised that he did it any old how.  Pa wouldn't have done that.  Pa would've pulled them straight and clean if he could or hammered the bent ones straight if he couldn't, setting them aside to be reused.  Nails cost more than Pa liked to pay or had to spare.

The Reverend didn't seem to care about that.  He pulled the nails quickly and prised the lid off with the hammer's claw, stepping back to let Mrs Williams set out all the good things his sister had sent.  Mrs Williams unpacked the barrel onto the table near where Dorrie sat in the window, her sewing angled towards the light.  Mrs Williams' mouth was tight, and although she made her face not say anything at all, Dorrie knew something was wrong.  There was a sort of patience around her eyes that said so.

"It's very good of Jane," said Mrs Williams, her voice a little high, like it was forced out of her; and Dorrie ducked her head to hide how hot her face had got, wishing she was someplace else.  She thought that her being there made it worse for Mrs Williams, who had to be grateful for the missionary barrel and show Dorrie—and herself too, maybe—humility and how to receive the Lord's bounty with a grateful spirit.

Most of the things, clothes for the children, Mrs Williams set on one side with a murmur about which child might be the lucky one and the tightness round her mouth softened some.  There was a pretty soft shawl in rose and grey stripes that brightened her eyes for a moment, and the Reverend looked pleased when she unearthed a parcel of books.  He claimed them for himself.  Mrs Williams smiled a tiny smile at that and shook her head.

"I don’t know what in the world Jane was thinking of," said Mrs Williams, unpacking a big parcel and staring into the contents.  "I can't wear this!"

Dorrie glanced over and away again, ashamed because it was none of her business and she should just sit quiet and work hard and not embarrass Mrs Williams any more than she did already.  She caught a glimpse of something a bright greeny-yellow—or maybe yallery-green—in amongst the folds of brown paper.

Reverend Williams said something, low-voiced, that Dorrie couldn't quite catch, but when she looked up, Mrs Williams' mouth was hard again and the patience was back.  Dorrie excused herself for a few moments and hurried out back, hoping the barrel would be out of sight when she returned.

It was.  Reverend Williams was in his big chair by the other window when Dorrie came back into the house, one of his new books open on his knee and his face calm and happy.  Mrs Williams was in her own chair near Dorrie's, sewing on the Reverend's Sunday shirt, the baby sleeping in the basket beside her feet under the little quilt that Dorrie had made for a christening gift.  Dorrie smiled at her as she slipped back into her seat, and picked up young Jack's pants to mend the rip in the knees.  Jack was nine and a caution for ripped knees in his pants, just like Dorrie's own little brother.  Andy was 'most two years older than Jack, but he wasn't that much better at keeping his pants unripped.

Mrs Williams said no more about the barrel until Dorrie was rolling up her apron and had slipped her needle though her collar, not to lose it.  But when she gave Dorrie the promised dollar, she hesitated then offered her the big parcel.

"There's a whole dress length here, Dorrie, that I wondered if you could use?  I… Mister Williams' sister is so very kind, but I don't think she realises that a minister's wife… I really couldn't wear something so very colourful.  Folks don't expect a minister's wife to dress so gaily."  She laughed.  "Besides, this is a young girl's colour, not for an old married woman like me!"

Dorrie stared into the parcel, seeing the bright yallery-green sateen that she'd glimpsed earlier.  It had a sheen on it that caught the light, like sunlight on McCall's Pond.

"It will go well with your colouring," said Mrs Williams.

Dorrie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. 

"I'd be glad if you'd take it off my hands," said Mrs Williams, as if she was asking Dorrie for a favour.

"I can’t take it," said Dorrie. 

It was so beautiful.  The rolled fabric was tied with a length of pretty green ribbon and a darker green silk-floss trimming.  She touched the dress with one finger, carefully.  What with helping Pa on the farm and keeping the house, her fingers soon roughened with all the heavy work; without the cream Ma had taught her to make from rose-water and hog lard, her hands would be a disgrace.  Still, she was careful not to snag the beautiful dress, barely letting her finger touch it.

"Dorrie," said Mrs Williams, putting one hand on Dorrie's shoulder and using the other to take Dorrie by the chin and make her look up.  She smiled.  "You're a good girl, Dorrie.  A very good girl."

Dorrie tried hard not to let the tears well up.  She'd never had a dress so pretty.  "I…  oh, I want to, but I can't…"

"I know," said Mrs Williams.  "I know.  So I'll tell you what we'll do.  The Reverend is going to slaughter our pig next week.  If you come and help me with the butcher work, to salt the pork and make the head-cheese, then instead of paying you a dollar, I'll pay you with this dress instead."

"Oh," said Dorrie, and took in her breath in a long sigh.  Earning the dress—that was different.  She'd helped slaughter dozens of hogs and her Pa said no-one could touch her for making sausage and chitterlings and head-cheeses.

"A deal?"

Dorrie nodded.  "Yes.  Oh, thank you!"

"I have some copies of Godey's Lady's Book here, too that Jane sent … Miz Williams, I mean.  This one has a paper pattern in it for a lady's day dress."  Mrs Williams flicked open the pages to show Dorrie the coloured illustration of the dress and looked doubtful.  "It's two years old, though, Dorrie, and the fashion won’t be up to date."

"Do fashions change that quickly, even back East?" said Dorrie.

Mrs Williams just laughed and shook her head.  "I don't suppose it matters."

Dorrie, clutching the yallery-green sateen to her with both hands, agreed.  She didn't care how fashionable the Godey's pattern might be.  She looked down at the beautiful dress length, her eyes dazzled by colours bright as new leaves and yellow roses, and she smiled.

For a week or more, Dorrie kept the sateen wrapped up in its brown paper, and if she ran half a dozen times a day to fold back a corner of the wrapping and stare at the dress… well Pa was out working and Andy was at school, and there was no-one to see her being so silly.  She was careful not to touch the dress though, until she thought her rough fingers had smoothed enough.  Every night she scrubbed her hands in soft brown soap, rubbed Ma's cream well in and teased on a pair of old cotton gloves, too soiled and dingy to be worn in church any more. 

Andy laughed and hooted when he realised she was sleeping with her hands in gloves, until Pa stopped him from his teasing.  Pa's eyes twinkled at her, like he'd like to tease her too.  But he didn’t and Dorrie continued to wear her gloves.  Gradually her hands softened until they looked like Mrs William's hands and Dorrie could think about making the dress.

At first, she wasn't sure about the pattern in Godey's Lady's Book.  The lady in the fashion plate was so tall and willowy and elegant that Dorrie despaired that she herself could ever wear the dress and look so well in it.  She'd look dumpy, instead.

"She looks like one of them critters in the book I got out of the Church Christmas barrel," said Andy one evening, bringing his chair close to her rocker, to see what she was studying in the lamplight.  He scuttled away to the shelf where their few books were, and came back with Marvels of the Animal Kingdom.  He pointed to the picture.  "See?  She's like one of them—"  He hesitated, then said, "One of them gee-raffes."

Dorrie looked at the strange creature in the book with its long legs and long, long neck.  She laughed and agreed, and felt better.  "Godey's say it's a simply-styled day dress that would not offend the most modest taste," she read out, and Pa looked up from the San Francisco newspaper, only a week old, that he'd got from Mr Tracy in town.  She met his gaze and laughed again.  "It has real pearl and diamond buttons, Pa!"

Pa laughed too, and said he wished he could buy the buttons for her,

"I don't need pearls and diamonds," said Dorrie, and looked again at the fashion plate.  If she found some pretty buttons in the button tin, and ignored the six inch deep flounces of real Chantilly lace, the matching parasol and mantilla (whatever that was), and the hoops to hold out the skirt so wide that Dorrie wondered how the lady got through a doorway or sat on a chair, she knew she could make the dress.  She thought she might not look such a dowdy in it, after all.

The tissue paper pattern was as thin as a baby's breath.  Dorrie had to be real careful not to tear it.  She made the bodice lining first from cambric, sewing the whalebones into the seams with tiny, tiny stitches, making sure that it would fit snugly over her stays.  She fitted every piece of that paper pattern to use the fabric with no waste—and a fine job that had been, to match the pattern at the seams at the same time!  There was even enough left over for an extra flounce around the hem and a narrow belt stiffened with scraps of buckram from her ragbag.  But still, when it came to cutting the fine sateen, to putting her scissors to it, she hesitated and checked and checked again.  In the end she took a deep breath and went right at it before she could hesitate again.

When it was done and hanging on the hook in her little bedroom, the dress was beautiful.  She made the bodice tight-fitting with a plain front, letting the soft gathers at the tops of the sleeves be all the decoration it had other than the darker green silk-floss trimming edging the soft, scooped neckline and the pretty little elbow-length sleeves.  It buttoned up the back with a row of little pearl buttons that Mrs Williams had found in her button tin and that came, she said, from the prettiest walking dress she'd had before she even met John… I mean, Reverend Williams she said, and Dorrie smiled to see a Reverend's wife blush.  Dorrie bartered for the buttons with a day's help with the spring cleaning.  The skirt was gathered full all round, double flounced at the bottom, and the bodice buttoned down over the waist band, the buttons holding it in place hidden by the matching belt. 

"It's better with the narrower skirt you've made" approved Mrs Williams, when Dorrie wore the dress for the first time, for church.  Dorrie had run over to the Reverend's house to show her the finished dress before the service started.  Mrs Williams was wrestling little Jenny into her Sunday best as she spoke.  "Hoops and full skirts are all very well back East, but we pioneer women don't need such fol-de-rols."

"Can't use them," said Dorrie, taking Jenny from her to put the ribbons into the little one's hair and letting Mrs Williams deal with Baby.

Dorrie hadn't thought of the Reverend's wife being a pioneer woman, but she hadn't made the skirt narrower because of that.  She just didn't have any hoops and wouldn't waste Pa's money on a set.  She was more anxious about the scooped neckline showing her throat and the elbow sleeves leaving so much of her arms bare, but Mrs Williams said it was perfect and that Dorrie was a wonder when it came to using her needle.  She admired the little belt that Dorrie had added and thought it set the dress off.

Pa and Andy had consulted together, and they'd given her an early birthday present of a cunning little belt buckle, made from metal enamelled dark green to match the trimming.  You're a good girl, Dorrie, Pa had said when she protested, horrified at the cost—she'd seen the buckles in a glass case in Tracy's General Mercantile but she hadn't even dreamed of spending a dollar-fifty on fripperies—and he'd bent to kiss her forehead the way he used to do when she was a little girl. 

The dress was very beautiful.

She'd never had anything so pretty.  She loved it.  She looked nice in it.  Pa said so when she asked him.  And when she went across to the church with the Williams children, Widow Tracy took her to one side.  The widow leaned in to whisper, her breath tickling against Dorrie's ear so she could gossip and be confidential.

"Did you hear what Bill Wilson said?" she asked.  She nodded her head at Dorrie, pleased and smiling, the lace on her cap stirring Dorrie's hair.  "He said that you looked pretty in your new dress, Dorrie.  There's a compliment, if you please!"

Bill Wilson drove the local stage some days and in between stage times, he hauled anything anybody needed hauling with his wagon and his team of big Mamouth mules.  He was probably older than Pa.  Probably, said Pa, laughing when Dorrie told him, older'n sin itself.  Dorrie laughed too, the way she'd laughed and blushed when the Widow Tracy told her, but she hugged the compliment to herself to think on it, sometimes.  No-one had ever said she was pretty before and even Bill Wilson was better than nobody.

But it didn't make no difference what Bill or any other man thought.  

Ma had been dead ten, twelve years now and Dorrie'd been Ma to Andy for all that time, all the Ma he ever knew or remembered.  Dorrie couldn't remember Ma real well now either, it had been so long.  There'd been three more between her'n Andy, but they'd all died with Ma in the fever that time, Mary and Eliza and Tom, and it had just taken the heart out of Pa to have to leave them all behind when he and Dorrie and Andy came west over the mountains from Utah, looking for a new start.  Dorrie had been fourteen, and Andy was more'n twelve years younger.  He'd still been a clutcher and a staggerer, following her around the cabin or around the campsites as they followed the migrant trails, one hand wound in her skirts as he found his feet.

It was like he still was clutching and holding on to her, like the baby learning to walk.  She couldn't leave him or Pa, even if a man had come a'courtin.  Not Bill Wilson, of course, but no man could have done it.  She had her duty to look after Pa and Andy, and there was an end of it.

Still, knowing that Bill Wilson had said she was pretty in her yallery-green dress was better than no-one ever saying it at all.

Andy was just fourteen when Pa was killed, three years later. 

It didn't rain much that spring.  It was hard for the big ranches around the town to find enough water for their cattle.  The ranchers and the farmers didn’t get on, even in good years.  The rancher liked the range open and free, the farmer liked fences to keep the deer out of his crops.  The two sides never talked much.  When the ground started to dry, the ranchers wanted to drive their herds to water across the famers' lands and the farmers wanted to stop them.  Pa wouldn't be bullied, not by the likes of Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks.  He tried to stop them and he died doing it.

They said it was an accident, that Pa caught his foot in his horse's stirrup and got dragged.  They said there was nothing they could do.  And they said they were sorry.

Marvin and Jencks offered her and Andy a different piece of land, 80 acres of good farmland with its own spring and a mile or more closer to town.  They gave her a whole two hundred dollars when she signed the land deeds.  She had never dreamed of seeing that much money all at once. 

She wasn't Pa.  She couldn't fight them or organise the other nesters the way Pa had been doing.  She had to do what was best for Andy.  It was a sort of blood money, she knew, but she took it for Andy's sake, banking it to pay for his schooling later.  She didn't want Andy to be a farmer all his life.  Pa used to say that it was a fine life, wresting a living from the land, but Dorrie knew that he'd been whistling down the wind.  She wasn't afraid of work, not for herself, but she didn't want Andy ground down by it, old and worn before his time, poorer than the dirt he worked in.

They built the house on the slope of the hill near the spring.  The water ran down to the river where Pa had died.  Bill Wilson and his mules hauled over the old farmhouse, and some of Dan Marvin's hands put it up again.  Dan Marvin made sure they rebuilt it strong and neat, and Toby Jencks sent his hands to lay out the corral and put up a small barn for the stock.  They brought the water to the house from the spring in a long, lidded wooden trough and made it so she could pump the water straight into the kitchen.  She would never have to carry it to the house or to her vegetable garden, ever again.  It was the sort of contriving thing that Pa would have done, and she had a hard time of it thanking Jencks's men and not showing them anything but politeness and pride.

They had bad consciences, she thought.  She believed them when they said that Pa had been dragged by his horse accidental-like, but Jencks and Marvin had been fighting the farmers, trying to drive them off the land.  They'd been there when Pa had been dragged.  They didn’t do nothing to stop it, she reckoned, and now they felt bad.

Lucky Morgan was supposed to be Toby Jencks's top hand but everyone knew he was a gunman, pure and simple, brought in to frighten the farmers.  Dorrie thought, sometimes, that Lucky might be kinda sweet on her.  A little bit.  Maybe.  When Lucky came with Jencks's hands to oversee the work, he didn’t swagger and puff out his chest, the way he did in town or when he was facing down the farmers, as if daring them to face his fast gun.  He was quiet and respectful, and he took his hat off the instant he saw Dorrie, and called her Ma'am or Miz Cutler like she was a lady like Mrs Williams.  Lucky was the one to come up with ideas to make things easier for her: building the little barn in just the right place, making the hands chop a couple of months' worth of logs, setting up her cookstove for her, even putting in the water trough and the pump.  Lucky did all that. 

She and Andy had stayed at the Widow's in town while the house was hauled, and on the last day, Lucky came and helped her load the wagon with everything they owned.  Andy stood off to one side and sneered and brooded, hurting bad for Pa, she knew, and refusing to do anything.  Lucky didn't drive them to their new home, though.  She'd been able to drive a team since Andy was a pup and she didn't need him or any other man for that.  So Lucky had touched his hat with his hand, real respectful, and stepped back.

"I'm real sorry about what happened to Mister Cutler," he said.  "Send word if you need anything more, Ma'am." 

"Thank you," she said, though the words burned.  She kept one hand on Andy's arm to keep him silent and sulky beside her.  She nodded to Lucky and clucked her tongue to signal to the horses to start off.

She didn't think she'd send.


Andy disappeared a few weeks after Pa died, with no more than a note left to tell her not to worry and that he'd back with help, real soon.

For the first time in years, Dorrie didn’t know what to do.  She was too frightened to think.  Andy was fourteen now, and thought himself a man grown.  She didn’t think that, but she knew he wasn't a little boy any longer.  She was trying hard to let him be the man of the house now it was just the two of them, but all she could see was the little round-faced toddler who'd clutched at her skirts as he learned to walk.  Her heart couldn't ache more if he'd been her own child.

Sometimes she thought that he was the only child she'd ever have.

"Help?  What help?" she kept saying, on her fruitless trip to town to seek advice from the local law officer. "Help with what?"

Mrs Williams put her hands over Dorrie's, stopping them from their endless writhing over each other.  Dorrie's hands shook in her friend's kind grasp.

"I don't know, Dorrie."

"He can't have much money.  He took this week's egg money, but that ain't much.  He can't go far, can he, with just a few dollars?"

"I'm sure he can't.  What does the Sheriff say?"

"That boys do run off and nothing comes of it.  That Andy'll be back when he's finished kicking up a lark."  Dorrie shook her head.  "It's not like that.  It's not.  He doesn't do them kind of things.  He wouldn't leave me just for a lark.  And he ain't been right, not since Pa…"

"John," said Mrs Williams, and the Reverend walked behind Dorrie on his way to the door, and touched her shoulder as gently as Mrs Williams held her writhing hands.

"I'll talk to Sheriff Kinsey," he said, took his round hat from its peg and was gone.

Dorrie barely noticed, all her mind on Andy.  "He's been so mad since Pa died.  I can't talk to him.  He doesn't mind me the way he used to."  She choked out a laugh that was more than half a sob.  "He's getting too big for me to whale him.  He's near on as tall as me now."

Mrs Williams smiled at Dorrie's funny little laugh.  "I thought when I saw him in church that day, how much he'd grown this last year." 

Mrs Williams didn't need to say which day; the day they'd buried Pa in that closed-up casket.  Dorrie hadn't been let to see Pa, and when the Sheriff and the Reverend told her Pa'd been dragged, she knew why they'd got the undertaker to seal the lid down real tight on the plain pine box.  It had hurt Andy so badly, though, that he couldn't say goodbye.  She remembered him standing beside her in the church in his Sunday suit, rigid with a grief he refused to show.  He'd cried a little when she'd given him Pa's watch, and even then he'd jerked away from her and run out to the barn where no-one could see him.  Dorrie's heart ached for him, but she didn’t cry much either.

What couldn't be cured must be endured.  Ma used to say that, and she was right.

"Andy… Pa was Andy's hero, you know," said Dorrie.  "It's eatin' at him, that Pa died and the Sheriff said there was nothing he could do.  Andy blames Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks." 

She choked down the words that Andy had tossed at her so many times since Pa had died: that Pa was murdered, that Marvin and Jencks had dragged Pa deliberate-like, that the two ranchers had to pay for what they'd done, that he'd darn well make them pay.  She feared for what Andy might do, what help he'd gone to find.  No-one in McCall's Crossing would sell Andy a gun, of course, but the Lord alone knew what might happen in a bigger town where folks cared less.

"I know things are difficult," said Mrs Williams.

"I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know who's to blame.  All I know is Pa's gone and I have to keep Andy safe.  He's so angry…"  She let her voice falter and for one dreadful moment, thought that she might cry in front of the Reverend's wife.  She blinked back the tears and said no more.  She let Mrs Williams fuss over her.  She drank the sweetened tea that Mrs Williams made for her and she even let Mrs Williams touch a linen handkerchief, drenched in lavender water, to her hot and aching temples.

The Reverend came back within the hour, and by that time Dorrie was calm and thinking hard about what she could do. 

"I talked with Bill Wilson," said the Reverend, taking the chair opposite Dorrie's and looking at her, his face calm and grave.  "He said that Andy got on the stage yesterday evening—"

"The stage?" repeated Dorrie.

So it seems.  He headed south towards Fresno.  Bill says he didn't think much about it—"

"He wouldn't," said Dorrie, not scornfully but just because that's the way it was.  Bill was built like one of his Mamouth mules but he wasn't anywhere near as smart. 

"Bill doesn’t know where he went after that, but I talked to Sheriff Kinsey and he's sent out telegraphs to as many lawmen down there as he can.  If Andy's in the area, they'll find him."

Dorrie nodded.  "I've been thinking," she said.  "I could go after him, but I don't know where to go.  I could miss him.  And if he comes home and I'm not there…"

The relief on Mrs Williams face was almost funny.  "I think you're right, Dorrie," she said.  "Why, I'm sure that Andy will be found and brought home in a few days.  You're much better off waiting for him there."

"Yes," said Dorrie.  She got to her feet, looking around rather blindly for her shawl.  "I'd best go back."

"The Reverend will drive you home," said Mrs Williams, giving the Reverend as grave a look as the one he gave Dorrie.  "And as soon as we hear anything, the Reverend will come and tell you."  She hesitated, then kissed Dorrie's cheek.  "Let's pray, Dorrie."

They did, right then, all three kneeling in Mrs Williams' pretty living room, and afterwards the Reverend drove Dorrie home to the emptiest little house in the world.

The only way Dorrie knew to keep busy was working.  With Pa gone and Andy the Lord alone knew where, she worked and worked to tire herself out.  Each night she was almost too tired to pray before falling into bed and despite the gnawing ache, she slept without dreams.

Dorrie cleaned that house and everything in it as if it were to have a visitation from the Lord Himself. 

She washed every sheet, blanket and quilt that they owned; even Ma's treasured wedding quilt was taken from its careful wrappings, lavender sprigs shaken from its folds and taken to the tub.  There was something comforting about the rhythm she set up, pushing the big quilts into the hot, soapy water again and again, watching the colours brighten as the dust washed out of them.  She was a strong girl, sturdy with a lifetime of keeping house, but her arms ached with lifting the heavy quilts soaked and dripping from the tub to put through the wringer Pa had made from two logs, shaped and smoothed and fitted on a crank handle like the boughten ones he'd seen in the stores.  She lugged out the straw ticks, emptied them and washed the covers and when they were dry she filled them again with fresh sweet-smelling hay from the stack behind the barn.  While the sun warmed the ticks and the hay, she scrubbed the bedsteads and then the floors until the boards were white.  She scrubbed walls and polished windows until they glittered.  She scrubbed the chair and table, scrubbed the kitchen shelves, blacked the stove every single day, and washed every dish in the house.  She scrubbed everything once, and when Andy still wasn't home, she got up the next day and started all over again.

She was almost angry at Lucky Morgan for his contrivance to pump water into the house.  She would have welcomed the labour of taking the milk yoke and trudging backwards and forwards to the spring with heavy buckets of water.  One day, the third full day that Andy was missing, she did just that,  She pretended the hand pump in the kitchen wasn’t there.  Instead she forced herself to carry water until her legs trembled with weariness beneath her and her shoulders bowed under the weight of the yoke.  The little pains made the greater one more bearable, somehow.

What can't be cured, she'd say to the quiet house. 

What can't be cured.

And then she'd start cleaning again.

Throughout her labours, all she saw in her mind's eye was Andy, sleeping safe and warm on the hay-filled mattress, under the bright quilts that had dried in a sun that shone through windows pure as clear air.

There was no word from the Reverend. 

On the sixth full day since Andy had taken the south-bound stage, Dorrie was once again washing his few clothes—the strong workpants and the shirts she'd made him—when he came back.  He didn't come alone.

He brought a gunfighter home with him.

Dorrie didn’t know who the man with Andy was then, of course, nor what he was. 

The first few minutes after Andy jumped down from his horse and ran to her, her little baby brother was all she could see.  She held on to him, shook him, scolded him, and almost disgraced herself by crying over him.  He was startled, she could see that.  Maybe, boy-like, he just hadn't thought about how worried she'd be, how much his not being there would rip and tear at her.  He stammered and squirmed, but he hugged her back in a way he hadn't done for a while now, not since he decided he was too grown for his sister's hugs.

The man watched them from the corral fence, leaning against it as free and easy as if it were his own.  When he saw her looking, when she stepped back from hugging and scolding, and Andy introduced her, he swept his hat off his head and bowed to her with a graceful flourish. 

"This here's Johnny Lancer, Dorrie," said Andy, and his tone was filled with the same respectful worship he'd once kept for Pa.  "Johnny's come here to help us.  You should see him handle a gun!"

Dorrie couldn't hold back the little gasp.  And just like that, all that anger and fear she’d kept in check through hard work surged right through her, sharp as a knife.  It made her sharp, too, and unfriendly to the stranger, and even so hard with Andy that he didn't stop to argue when she sent him into the house.  He made a little move to go towards Johnny Lancer, the man she should see handle a gun, but she tugged him back and swatted at him, and he went inside, grumbling but minding her.

Dorrie and Johnny Lancer stared at each other.  Widow Tracy would have said that he was a well-favoured man, she thought; a year or two younger than her maybe.  At first she'd thought he was Mexican with his pants with their silver conchos running down each leg and his shirt… she blinked.  The shirt was almost the same pink as her work dress, the front plackets heavy with embroidery.  He dressed Mex, but when she looked closer she saw that his eyes were a deep blue; a startling colour against his tanned skin.

He was more than well-favoured, she realised; he was downright good-looking.  Too good-looking.  She was annoyed to realise that her hands were smoothing down the front of her apron and she only just stopped them reaching to smooth her hair as well.  She pushed them into her apron pockets where they couldn't betray her, her arms rigid and her hands formed into fists, straining against the fabric until she felt the apron strings tighten.

"The boy said you had trouble," said the stranger.  He had a soft voice, and she had to listen hard.  He didn’t have a Mex accent.  "He said you needed some help.  I figured I might be able to do something."

She couldn't help but look at the gun on his right hip.  Most of the men she knew in town wore guns.  Most of them, though, didn't wear their guns so low on the hip.  She'd read somewhere—or had Andy told her, from one of them dime novels he used to hide from Pa?—that men who made their living by their guns wore them low, to make the gun easier to draw fast and deadly. 

Dorrie wet her lips.  "I think we'd better talk, Mister.  Come on inside."

She saw the little grimace he made but he followed her without a fuss.  She knew he was there, walking behind her, but she had to strain to hear him.  Even with them fancy spurs on his boots, he didn't make much noise.

Andy was sitting at the table when she walked in.  His face lit up when Johnny Lancer followed her into the house.

"Go and see to the stock, Andy," said Dorrie.

"Aw, Dorrie—"

"Don't whine!" she snapped.  "You left me here for near on a week to do all the work, including all your chores, Andy Cutler, and you will go and see to the stock right now.  Do you understand me?"

Andy looked shocked.  She had never been so sharp with him.  Never.  He opened his mouth, but Johnny Lancer stepped in before he could say anything.

"Water Barranca and the bay for me while you're at it, will you, Andy?  We rode them pretty hard to get back here.  They could do with it."

Andy glowered at Dorrie for a moment but then he straightened up his shoulders and turned away from Dorrie as if she weren't there.  She'd hurt his pride, she knew, when he got himself all puckered up like that.  "You want me to unsaddle 'em, Johnny?  I reckon Barranca'll let me,"

"I reckon he will, too," said Johnny Lancer, "seein' how he let you steal him right from under me.  No, don't unsaddle him yet.  Go check on things like your sister says."

He moved to let Andy out at the door, but stayed on the threshold himself.  He watched her for a moment or two, waiting on her next move.  She didn't know why that made her madder, him being polite and not coming inside without being asked again, but it did.  She caught up an enamelled basin and, for something to do while she chased this man off their farm, she went to the pump to fill it with water to heat on the stove top.  For an instant her hand felt like it was burning as it touched the pump handle and she almost snatched it away.  The hot anger in her rose against Marvin and Jencks, and especially against Lucky Morgan who contrived the water pump for her, who might have helped kill Pa and who might be a little bit sweet on her.

She forced the thoughts aside.  The water ran clear and sparkling into the bowl and she tried not to think of Pa.  Pa would have made something like this to help her, given the chance.  He'd have done it better.

"What did he tell you?" she asked, turning to put the bowl on the cook-stove top.  There was a little hissing noise as droplets of water hit the hot plate, and spat up at her.

"That you were having trouble."

"Well, we're not having any trouble.  And we don't need you or anybody like you."

She turned to get a second bowl.  Andy had looked trail dusty and dirty, and he would be having a bath before she let him anywhere near those clean sheets and quilts.

"Well, I'm real pleased to hear that, Ma'am," said Johnny Lancer.  But he didn't sound as though he believed her.

Dorrie reached for the pump handle.  Her hand was shaking and she was glad to close it around the handle, to have something to grip onto.  She tried to keep her voice from shaking too, staying brisk and businesslike and not let any of the sickness she felt inside show through.

"Bet he was filling you with all kinds of nonsense about our Pa, huh?  How he was killed by Dan Marvin and Toby Jencks?"

"The boy said that your Pa had to scare 'em off your waterhole."

When Dorrie turned, he was still on the threshold, those blue eyes watching her.  She couldn't make out what he might be thinking behind them.  She had to get rid of him.  She had to.  She couldn't let any more trouble come to her and Andy.  She had to keep Andy safe.  She'd always had to keep Andy safe.

"Scare 'em off?" she said.  She took a deep breath, stuck her trembling hands into her apron pockets, and started in on telling the biggest, blackest lies of her life.  "With all due respect, Mister, my Pa couldn't scare flies off biscuits…"

When Johnny Lancer left, she walked to the door to make sure he rode out, forcing legs that felt like jelly under her skirts to move and work.  Her knees were shaking so badly that she had to put one hand on the door jamb to stop herself from falling over.  She was still there when Andy flung himself past her back into the house, after calling for Johnny to come back.  He almost knocked her over and she tightened her hold on the door frame until her knuckles whitened.

"What did you say to him?" demanded Andy, red-faced.  His mouth was working and he looked about ready to cry.  She wasn't sure if he were hurt or just so angry he could barely breathe.  "What did you say to make him go?"

Dorrie made herself walk to the table.  She sat down in her usual chair, the one to the left of Pa's, and stared at Pa's empty place. 


She folded her hands on the table top.  She'd scrubbed the table until the grain had swelled with the water, and the pine was almost white.  She liked to keep the table clean; she used it so much to knead bread on, or mix biscuits, and she was used to seeing how brown her hands were against the whiteness of flour and bleached pine.  She knew her hands were good for work, were strong to wring out soaking wet washing, were skilled with a needle.  They weren't pretty hands—they worked too hard for that—but while they were small, they were capable.  She let her hands clasp together.  Her fingers trembled and ached.

"He's gone," she said, and was surprised at how calm she sounded.  Inside, her heart was thumping and she felt sick again.  Pa, poor Pa!  He'd never had more'n a beer or two in his life, and she'd just told Johnny Lancer Pa was a drunkard and a wastrel and he'd fallen from his horse, dead drunk and…  "And good riddance.  We don't need the kind of trouble he'd bring."

"You had no right!  I hired him to come here to help us get justice for Pa.  Why'd you do that, Dorrie?  Why'd you do that?" Andy's face was redder and his chin was wobbling.  He threw himself into his own chair, opposite her; the chair that had been so empty for the last six nights.  "Dorrie," he said, whining out her name between his teeth.

Dorrie straightened in her chair.  "Andy Cutler, if you ever do anything like this again, I swear I'll take a switch to you and you will not be able to sit down for a week.  How dare you!  How dare you try to make more trouble for us!  How dare you scare me so much—"

She stopped on a choke, as if someone had her by the throat and she closed her mouth very, very tight on the words that would come tumbling out if she'd let them.  The words tasted sour in her mouth.  Andy didn't need to hear those words.  He was too young for the bitter truth about what he cost her and what he'd continue to cost her until he was grown and not her responsibility any longer.

She thought Andy would always be her responsibility.

She made her voice calmer, and quiet when she thought she had swallowed down the bitter words to where no-one would hear them, not even her.  Andy was staring at her, his mouth open.  She had never spoken to him like that before.  Never.

"Andy, I'm real tired.  I've been worried out of my head for you—"

"But, Dorrie, I left you a note," he said, whining again.

"—and I can't be dealing with this foolishness now."  She spoke as if he hadn't interrupted, her gaze on the hands clasped on the table top before her.  "Pa's gone, Andy.  Nothing will bring him back, and you and me, we’ve got to keep on going.  You want to be the man in the house, Andy.  Start acting like it."

She said no more.  She didn't answer Andy's choked out complaining and reasons-why and his See here, Dorries.  She sat there long after Andy had stormed out to the barn to take out his temper by kicking at hay bales.  She just sat and looked at her brown hands clasped together on the whiteness of the bleached pine.  And after a while, she raised her hands to her face and cried for Pa and the dreadful black lies she'd told to keep Andy safe.

She didn't cry for long.  Work cures all ills, Ma used to say, and Dorrie knew that was true.  She didn't have to think of Pa or anything while she kept busy.  She made herself get up and start to get supper. 

Andy came in when she called.  He was sulky at first, but he always liked her beef stew.  His sulks melted away and he started talking again as they ate.  He told Dorrie what he'd left to do, and of his plan to go south to the border towns and find a gunman to help him fight Marvin and Jencks.  She hoped the horror she felt didn't show on her face. 

"It's where all the best guns work," Andy said.  "All the dime books say so.  Anyhows, I couldn't get any further south than Green River, an' I started walkin' …"

Dorrie listened to Andy's tale of trying to steal Johnny Lancer's horse and holding Johnny Lancer up with that old rifle that Pa had given him to teach him how to shoot—"But the firin' pin's broken.  I wouldn't have really shot at him."—and how well trained Johnny Lancer's horse, Barranca, was.

"Johnny whistled and called him, and then that darn pony was bucking like a devil, Dorrie.  He bucked me right off and run back to Johnny, like he was more hound-dog than a cow-pony."  Andy sighed and spooned up second helping of stew.  Whatever adventures he'd had, it sure hadn't affected his appetite any.  "I want a horse like Barranca one day."

"They hang horse thieves," she muttered, pushing the stew around her plate.  She couldn't eat for the lump in her throat.

"I know.  Johnny said so." 

And Andy went on with the tale of Johnny Lancer and Johnny Lancer's ranch ("A hundred thousand acres, Dorrie!  Makes ol' Marvin and Jencks look small.") and Johnny Lancer's Pa ("Johnny doesn't call him 'Pa'.  He calls him Murdoch.  Pa woulda whaled me if I called him Andrew."), and Johnny Lancer's brother and sister ("Scott talks funny and Teresa's just a girl.") and even Johnny Lancer's friend, Jelly, who'd made Andy have a bath ("He's an ornery old goat, Dorrie, who near scrubbed my skin off down to the bone!") and more about how clever Johnny Lancer's horse was ("Johnny says Barranca's the best cow pony in the whole state of California.").

Andy finished his second plate and said, through a mouthful of beef: "I sauced Scott and Johnny some, and Johnny belted me."

He sounded more admiring than mad about it.  Dorrie had never switched Andy, and before this little adventure, she'd have always said that she'd scratch out the eyes of anyone who'd whomped Andy and who wasn't Pa, who had the right.  She was surprised to think that what she felt most was gratitude.  The Lancers had cared, she realised, and Andy might have fared much worse.

She listened to Andy's account of Jelly boasting that once Johnny had been a hired gun—"He said Johnny was the fastest gun west of the Mississippi and east of China.  Well, I knew that I'd never heard of no Johnny Lancer being a gunhawk, but I'd never heard of Lucky Morgan, either, and look at him!"—and Andy explained his cock-eyed plan to steal Barranca again to make Johnny follow him and maybe persuade him to help.

"But it worked, Dorrie.  He did say he'd help us.  He said he'd hire out for short money, and I'm going to pay him twenty six dollars and thirty-seven cents," said Andy.

That brought her head up sharp, to stare at him.  "Where'd you get so much money?" she demanded.

"Oh, Johnny said the most I'd get for Barranca would be twenty-five dollars, seein' as how I don't have a bill of sale.  I already had the dollar thirty-seven."

Dorrie felt her mouth drop open, and she closed it with a bit of a snap.  "A dollar thirty-seven of my egg money," she reminded him, and he had the grace to blush.

He squirmed.  "Dorrie!"

She shook her head.  "All right, I can see that Mister Lancer meant it all kindly.  But listen to me, Andy—"

"It ain't right, what they did to Pa," said Andy.  "It ain't right."

Dorrie felt so very weary.  She pushed her plate away, and managed a little smile for him.  "I'm glad you're home and safe," she said, and saw, satisfied, that the change of subject had startled him.  "I missed you.  I was scared."

He grimaced but got up to come to her.  "I'm sorry, Dorrie.  I didn't mean to scare you."

She accepted the hug.  "I know."  She sighed.  "It's been a long day, Andy.  Go to bed.  You look tired."

He grumbled a bit more, but he was looking tired.  He'd had an exciting few days and a long ride, and she didn't have to do very much to persuade him to trail off to bed.  Dorrie sat at the table long enough for the uneaten stew to congeal on her plate, her heavy head propped on one hand as she tried to think about what she should do.  That Andy was burning for Pa, to do right by Pa, frightened her.  She didn't know what she could do to make him see sense.  She knew he didn't repent his adventure, not one bit.  And she feared he'd do it again.

Andy had been asleep for the best part of an hour, and she had just roused herself to clear everything away, when Johnny Lancer rode back into the yard in front of the house.

"I don’t want any more trouble," she said, when Johnny demanded to know why she'd lied.  She felt sick.  She hadn't reckoned on him going into the town and asking around about what happened.  She folded her arms across herself to stop herself flying to pieces.  She shot another glance at the closed door to Andy's room, praying he was sleeping sound.

"What happened to him?"  Johnny Lancer's voice was gentler.

"He was dragged," she admitted.  "His neck was broken.  He was dead when they managed to stop the horse."

"Marvin and Jencks?"

"I dunno."  She said, with a sudden burst of energy that surprised her: "They said they didn’t have anything to do with it, that it was an accident.  I don't know.  They were nice to Andy and me and gave us this place and two hundred dollars."

"Uh-huh," said Johnny Lancer, his mouth twisting.

"Eighty acres; enough to keep Andy and me going.  I've got to look after Andy, Mister.  This place is all we have.  I've got to take care of him."

"He needs more than this, Dorrie.  He's hurtin' bad over your Pa.  Real bad."

"He'll get over it," she said, having to believe it.

The look he gave her startled her.  It was like he was sorry, so very sorry.  "No, you're wrong.  I was kid pretty much like Andy.  I grew up hatin'."  So fast that she didn't even see his hand move, he was holding his gun and waving it in her face.  She didn’t even have time to gasp.  "I spent all my time learning how to use this gun.  Some education, huh?"

She tried to speak, but the croak that came out didn't sound right.  She put one hand to her throat, the other clenched at her side.

He pushed the gun back into its holster.  Her gaze followed the movement.  He looped the gun back into place to hold it, without even looking.  It was like it was second nature to him.

"Andy's got killing on his mind, Dorrie.  Hate, and killing."

"He's just a boy." she faltered, her voice shaking.

He looked so sorry, and something inside her chest curled and ached.  "It's the boy who makes the man, Dorrie.  I don’t want to see Andy take the road I walked."

The curling, aching thing in her tightened.  Fright made her sharp again.  "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" she demanded.

"Make sure Marvin and Jencks get what’s coming to them, before Andy's big enough to pick up a gun and take them on himself."

Dorrie almost laughed.  She threw out her hands.  "Well, that's good advice!  You tell me how when everyone said it was an accident, and the Sheriff won't do anything and they own half the town anyway—"  Her voice broke and she had to fold her arms around herself again, to hold everything together.

"Well, that's where I come in."  He glanced towards the house door.  "I was going to stay in the hotel in town, but I'd better lay low for a few days.  I'll camp out tonight.  Tell Andy I'll pick him up first thing in the morning.  I'll be here at dawn."

The door to Andy's room wrenched open, and Andy stumbled out, half-asleep.  Dorrie flung out a hand to catch him by the arm.

"What's all the talkin—" Andy started in to grumbling.  He caught sight of Johnny, and the grin threatened to split his face in half.  "Johnny!  You came back!"

"Yeah," said Johnny.  "Your sister and me come to an agreement.  I'll help you find out what happened.  That right, Dorrie?"

Dorrie could have closed her eyes and slept where she stood.  She was too tired for this.  She looked hard into the bright blue eyes watching her.  They were kind and he looked sorry, still.  She glanced at Andy's glowing face.  "But I—"

"The boy makes the man, Dorrie," said Johnny, again.  His voice was very soft and gentle.

Dorrie looked at Andy.  He was as tall as her now, and skinny as a long drink of water.  He was outgrowing a nightshirt that barely reached below his knees, showing his thin white legs.  His feet were bare, his toes wriggling against the night chill.  The sight of him wriggling his toes like a little kid made the lump in her throat so big that she almost couldn't speak past it.

She swallowed hard.  "That's right," she said, in a dragging voice, hoping to the Lord that she was right to trust this man.

A brilliant smile rewarded her.  "Good.  It'll be all right, Dorrie.  You have school tomorrow, Andy?"

"Awww—shucks, I can miss another—"

"Yes," said Dorrie.  "Yes.  He does."

Johnny nodded.  "That's okay.  You can show me some of the lay of the land on the way into town.  Do you have a riding pony?"

"Just the wagon team."  Andy pulled a face.  "They ain't comfortable to ride."

"I'll pick up the bay from the town livery and bring him back here.  I'll be here at dawn.  You be ready, Andy."  He smiled at Dorrie again.  "It'll be fine."

She nodded, and put an arm around Andy's shoulders, holding her boy as close as he'd allow her now he was almost grown.  She couldn't keep him safe, she realised.

Maybe Johnny Lancer could show her how.

Johnny turned in the doorway.  "By the way," he said.  "I don't go by Lancer when I'm workin'."  He slapped his hat against his leg and put it on, before allowing it to fall down his back to be held by its storm strings.  "The name's Madrid.  Johnny Madrid."

He closed the door.

Andy was almost beside himself.

"Johnny Madrid!" he repeated, over and over, dancing around the little room in his delight.  "He's Johnny Madrid!"

Dorrie sat down, before her knees gave way.  They were shaking again, the way they had been when she'd sent Johnny Lancer… Johnny Madrid away earlier.  This time, for a different reason, maybe.

"Now we’ll set things right about Pa.  Marvin and Jencks will really get it now.  Right between the eyes!  Dorrie, you must have heard of Johnny Madrid."

"Yes," said Dorrie.  "I've heard of Johnny Madrid."

Her head was thumping.  She rested her elbow on the tabletop, propping her chin on her hand.

"He's one of the best gunfighters ever," crowed Andy, still dancing.  "Johnny Madrid!"

She'd just agreed to let Johnny Madrid take on Marvin and Jencks.  She'd just agreed to let Johnny Madrid help her get Andy settled.  Johnny Madrid.  She had to shut her teeth against the fear that surged up and tightened her throat until it hurt.

"And I talked to him about hiring Jack Slade and Wes Hardin," said Andy.  "He's faster than Jack Slade.  He's faster than Wes Hard…  leastwise, I'll bet he's faster than both of 'em.  Johnny Madrid, Dorrie!"  He stopped his capering about, grinning at her.  She hadn't seen him so happy for weeks, like the kid he was and should be.  "Don’t you know about him?"

"I've heard of him," said Dorrie, again.

"I've got something—"  Andy shilly-shallied, dancing from one foot to the other, then said, "Out in the barn.  Can I go get it?" 

"In the barn?" Dorrie looked up and stared.

Andy squirmed.  "I got five or six dime novels out there," he said, like he was shamed.  "I know you and Pa don't like them."

She gave him a long look until he squirmed some more, then nodded.  He darted into his room to pull on his boots and ran out to the barn with the lamp from the table, leaving her in the darkness.  Dorrie almost laughed, he looked so comical in his short nightshirt, thin white legs and heavy boots, but she was still all awhirl with the thought that Johnny Madrid—Johnny Madrid, for landsakes—wanted to help her and Andy.  She pressed the heel of her palms against her eyes to stop the stinging.  What was she doing?

She thought she must be a little bit crazy.

Andy came back a few moment later, waving a couple of thin soft-covered books at her.  "This here's Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Showdown at Judson's Landing, Dorrie, and this one's Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Vengeance at Bitter Creek."

"The Border Hawk," said Dorrie, feeling like all the world was tilting on her.  She raised her head and took the book that Andy shoved at her.  The cover showed a drawing of a big man, big as Bill Wilson maybe, pointing his gun at three smaller fellers.  The man had a big moustache and wore a sombrero.  "That doesn't look like Johnny," she said.

"It's about Johnny going to Bitter Creek to looking for some outlaws who killed his girl.  It's a real good'n.  He kills them all in a gunfight in the Silver Lady Saloon."  Andy pointed his forefinger at her as if it were a gun.  "Bam!  Bam!  You're dead!"

"Andy Cutler," said Dorrie.

His ears went pink.  He dropped his hand, looking shamed again.  "They're real bad men, Dorrie.  They get what's coming to 'em.  Promise."

She opened the book.  For a moment or two she was silent as she read about Johnny Madrid riding into a town to find the local bully and his gang of toughs abusing Ella, a working girl from the Lucky Break Dance Hall.  Johnny Madrid in the dime novel was soft-spoken and dangerous.  He outdrew the bully in the first few pages and rescued Ella like a real gentleman, before going to have a knock-down fight with the villain in The Buffalo Wallow Saloon.

Dorrie sighed, and flipped over a few more pages.  When she read the part where Ella thanked Johnny Madrid for his help—and how—she closed the book with a snap and glared at Andy.

"Andy Cutler, what are you doing reading this trash?"  She dropped the book onto the table and wiped her hands on her apron.  "You should be ashamed.  No wonder the Reverend preaches against these dime novels.  No wonder you hid them in the barn.  Give me the other one.  Give it to me right now."

Andy, red faced, handed it over.  "They ain't mine, Dorrie.  They're Billy Moomey's."

"Then when you get to school tomorrow, you'll give these right back to Billy Moomey, do you hear me?  And if you ever borrow one again, I will speak to Billy Moomey's Ma about it.  I won't have such things in the house."  Dorrie turned Showdown at Judson's Landing face down on the table, so she didn't have to look at the cover drawing of a man ((was it meant to be Johnny?) and two ladies of the kind that Dorrie could never speak about and could never speak to.  Andy should not be looking at such pictures.

"They weren't in the house.  They were in the barn," said Andy, and it was all Dorrie could do to hustle him off back to bed before coming back to her chair and laughing quietly; because if she didn't laugh, she was pretty sure she would cry.

Dorrie didn't go to bed.  She was tired, tired right down to her bones, but she sat in her rocker beside the stove and waited for the dawn, rocking back and forth with her hands idle and folded in her lap, or walked about the room until she was tired enough to fall into the rocker again. 

She didn't spend a lot of time thinking about Pa.  She didn't think he'd be too mad with her for doing anything she could to keep Andy safe.  So, no, she didn’t think too long about him except to tell him she was sorry for what she'd said.  Instead, she thought mostly about Andy, who might be going wrong, and about Johnny Madrid, who'd gone wrong years before.

She'd always thought that gunfighters were dangerous, wicked men.  Pure evil, the sort of men no decent person—and certain-sure, no decent woman—could bear to have near them.  Johnny Madrid was one of the most famous guns in the whole of the west, the kind that no lady should meet.  By rights, she should have closed the doors against him.  Yes, and locked up Andy before she'd let him even see, much less speak to, a man who killed for money.

But she was sure she hadn't dreamed how sorry Johnny Madrid had looked, or how kind his voice and eyes were.  And there was no mistaking how much he'd meant it when he'd said that he didn't want Andy walking the road he'd travelled.  Now that she knew who he was and where his road had led, she prayed.  It frightened her that he saw something in Andy that reminded him of himself.  She didn't want Andy to turn to the gun for vengeance.  She wanted her boy back.

Trouble was, there wasn't anyone else she could turn to.  Except Reverend Williams, of course, but somehow she couldn't see Andy dancing a jig because the Reverend was going to help them. 

As the night dragged on, she often glanced at the dime novels on the table.  She wasn't so dumb as to think they were real and true, but there was something… the Johnny in the novel hadn't seemed to be a heartless killer.  He was kind hearted and gentle, like the man she'd met.  On one of her wanderings around the room she picked up the book and read the pages again.  How much had the writer made up?  How much was Johnny Madrid in the book like the real one?  In the book, Johnny was helping the weak and fallen.  Well she wasn't weak and she sure wasn't fallen, but still she knew she needed a man's help to get Andy straightened out.  Maybe only someone who'd walked the road, who knew exactly how the boy would make the man, could give her that help.  He sure knew enough about it on his own account.

She tightened the grip her hands had on each other, and rocked.

Johnny arrived, as promised, while it was still dark.  Dorrie watched from the window as he rode up, a bowl held in the crook of her left arm as she mixed dough for the breakfast biscuits. 

She stuck the spoon into the biscuit mix and opened the door as he swung down from the saddle.  He had the bay horse with him, as he'd promised.  She watched him tether them to the hitching rail.  She didn't speak.

He paused in the doorway and took off his hat.  "Mornin',"

She nodded.  "Come along in."

"I wasn't so sure you'd let me in again," he said.

"You know I'd do it for Andy.  You know I'd do anything for Andy.

He nodded, grinning.  Then more serious, he asked, "All right?"

"I thought about nothin' else all night," she said, and stood aside to let him in.  She held his gaze with her own.  "Did you mean it?  That you'd try to stop Andy following the road you took?  Because right this moment I'm real scared that you're right, and he'll do something, get himself all twisted up until he can't get free.  He thinks you hang the moon and if anyone can do help him, maybe you can."  She shook her head, putting down the bowl.  "He's a good boy, Mister Madri… Lancer—"

"Just Johnny," he said.

"Johnny," she said, and nodded.  "He is a good boy and Pa brought him up right, but he's getting to thinking he's a man and that he doesn’t need to mind me the way he used to.  He won't listen to me about Jencks and Marvin, because he thinks that's man's work and I'm only a female."  She managed a smile.  "He'll listen to you."

"Maybe.  I hope so.  Listen, Dorrie, I'll have to find out what happened, see if we can set his mind at rest and get some of that hate and anger out.  That means I'm gonna shake things up a bit and see what falls out.  I'll keep you and Andy out of it as much as I can, but—" 

"But Andy will want to help or he'll know you ain't serious?  I thought about that last night, too.  Will it be dangerous?"

"Not if I can help it.  I'll keep Andy right on the edges of it, I promise."

She sniffed and pointed him towards Pa's chair.  "I know you'll try," she said.  "But that boy…"

Johnny laughed.  He sat down and watched her for a few moments as she worked the dough with her hands, floured the board and rolled out the biscuits.  He reached for the dime novels on the table, turning them over.  He had long fingers, she noticed; real nice hands. 

"You been reading this shi— trash?  I don’t know who pays those writers for this stuff.  It's all lies, you know."

"Andy had them."  She cut the biscuits, put them onto the baking sheet and into the oven.   "He hid 'em out in the barn where I wouldn't find them.  He showed me last night, when he was talking about who you are."

"The barn's not the best place for them.  Me, I'd put 'em in the outhouse.  My brother Scott, he's always teasin' me over these darn books.  He says because he's my big brother, he's duty bound to set me right about them."

Dorrie put the coffee pot onto the stove.  "Seems to me," she said, "that if you set out to hear the sound of your own name, you gotta expect folks to make somethin' of it."

"Yeah, well, there's a few padres around who'll agree with you, if you're meaning that my sins will find me out."  He tossed the books to one side, just as Andy bounded out of his bedroom, more lively than Dorrie had ever seen him that early in the morning.

"Johnny!  You came!" 

"I said I would."

"I know, but—" Andy gave Dorrie a sidelong glance, and rubbed his hands together.  "When do we start?"

Johnny tugged him into a chair and tousled his hair for him in a way that not even Pa would have done.  "Right after breakfast—" he said.

Andy beamed.

"—and right after you've done your morning chores."

Andy sagged.  "Awwww, shucks," he said.

Dorrie caught the grinning look that Johnny gave her, and the little curling thing that had ached in her chest all night, unfurled and faded.  Maybe it would be all right, after all.  Maybe Johnny Madrid would find a way.

"He got to school all right.  I saw him into town and to the school door."  Johnny smiled.  "I stayed well back.  I don’t like school rooms, 'specially since I taught school once.  Those kids scared me."

Dorrie had been startled from a doze when Johnny had reappeared at her door.  She looked at him, confused.  She'd just sat down for a minute, she was sure.  She glanced at the window trying to see where the sun was.  It was mid-morning, she thought.

"Andy," he repeated, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  "Gone to school.  He whined about it some, but he went.  He promised he won’t say anything about me."

"Oh," said Dorrie.  She pushed her hair back out of her eyes.  One of her pigtails had come loose and she scrabbled for the tape to retie it.  "Yes."  There was a knot in the tape she had to loosen with her teeth. "Andy knows not to say anything."

He nodded.  "Good.  I don't want anyone to know I'm here yet."

Quick as she could, Dorrie smoothed her hair with her hands to make herself look respectable.  What must he think of her, sleeping in her chair like that?  It wasn't decent.  "I wasn't looking to see you back so soon."

"No sense in rushing these things."  Johnny took Pa's chair.  "You start them slow and easy.  I just cut fences and haze a few cattle over boundary lines on the first day.  Takes me nigh on a week to work up to stampedes and shoot-outs."

She looked at him, uncertain, but the smile tugging at his mouth widened until she smiled back at him.  She wasn't sure that he was joking.

"I've done enough for today, chasing some of Toby Jencks's cows onto the Marvin spread to eat some of Mister Marvin's fine grass.  So, Miz Cutler, what do you need doing around the place today?  Point me at it."

"You didn’t come here to work as a hand," she said, getting the tape back around her hair, all fingers and thumbs.  She wished she could have got to the mirror and her hairbrush first.  She must look a dowdy fright.

"Dorrie, I've been working a ranch for more'n a year now.  I can handle horses, move cattle, and string fences as well as I cut 'em.  Fact is, for a while there I figured Murdoch thought all I was good for was stringing fences, but these days I get to do the whole she-bang."  The smile grew even warmer, and mercy, she hadn't thought that was possible.  His voice was gentle.  "I don’t reckon that you've been sleeping much these last few days, worryin' about Andy, and you've had this whole place to look after while he was gone.  You go rest, and I'll do the chores."


"But what?"

"But you're Johnny Madrid."

"Just Johnny.  Lancer or Madrid… well, they’re just names, Dorrie."  He stood up.  "Go and sleep and I'll do the work."  He paused at the door and turned back, grinning.  "Mind you, I draw the line at those chickens of yours.  Chickens are meaner with their beaks than a rattler with its sting.  You want eggs, Dorrie Cutler, and you'll just have to get 'em for yourself."

For the first few days, Johnny stayed well away from town.  He wouldn’t sleep in the house—wouldn't be right, he said, when there was only Andy there.  But he slept in the barn each night, in as comfortable a bed as Dorrie could contrive for him short of taking Pa's old bedstead out there.  She did take Pa's quilts out for him, making up a bed in the hayloft where it was warm and the hay pile was soft and fresh.  Johnny said it was as fine a place to sleep as he'd ever had, but Dorrie suspected he was just being polite.  Andy had told her how grand and big the Lancer house was.  The Lancers lived rich, Andy said.

Every morning Johnny had breakfast with them.  Dorrie smiled behind her hand most days to listen to him talk to Andy about what they'd both be doing for the day.  He sounded like Pa, never making what he was sayin' sounding like preaching.  He tried his best to get Andy to see reason, and if he hadn’t managed it yet, still she thought that Andy was softening.  After breakfast, Andy went complaining to school and Johnny went off to do whatever it was top gunhawks did to stir up trouble between two ranches. 

Every day he came back to help with the work around the farm.  He wasn't afraid to get dirty doing hard work, she saw, and he was handy with stock or tools.  He was a good worker and didn’t complain if the chore was to muck out the pig's sty or milk the cow.  He was cheerful about either.  And despite what he'd said about her prized chickens, he presented her every day with a basket of eggs for her to wash clean, ready to be taken into town to be sold to Mr Tracy for selling on to the townsfolk in his Mercantile.

He was very careful of his hands, though, she saw, whatever it was he was doing.

Every evening over supper he'd tell them what he'd done to stir things up: hazed a few cattle across a boundary, cut more fences, scattered a remuda, or taken out a line shack.  He was making it all look to Dan Marvin that what was happening was to Ol Toby Jencks's gain, setting them at each other.  Dorrie's heart felt like it jumped into her throat when he told them about shooting at Dan Marvin's round-up camp, and she stared at him, frightened, until he smiled and said that he'd made darn sure that all he'd hit was a pitcher or two.

"Milk, mostly," he said.  "Mind, I'm pretty sure Dan Marvin got some syrup as well.  You should have seen him scramble to get under that table."

"I wish I'd seen it," said Andy, giving Dorrie a little glower.  She made him go to school each day and he resented it, and her.

"I usually hit what I'm aimin' at, Dorrie," said Johnny, and the smile deepened.  "Don't worry."

He had a nice smile.  Not what she'd have expected from a deadly gunfighter.  He was said to be one of the fastest guns in the business and whenever she thought about what that meant, that he'd killed men—a lot of men—she shied away from it.  Johnny didn’t seem like a killer.  He was gentle and kind, and his smile wasn't cold and twisted into a sneer, like the smiles of killers in those dime novels.  It was open and sweet, and not at all dangerous. 

She smiled back.

Years ago, Pa had found a spare piece of board lumber, and made a triangular shelf to fit across one corner of her bedroom.  An old curtain hung from the shelf to keep away the dust made a neat dress closet.  Her one and only hat, four years old now, sat on the shelf in its smooth round box.  She was proud of that hat box.  The cardboard was still bright with colour and it made that corner of her little room gay.  When Dan Marvin's men rebuilt the house for them, they fitted the shelf in its old place. 

Her four dresses hung behind the curtain on a couple of hooks, her best dress swathed in another old curtain to keep it clean.  She sat on the edge of her bed in her stays and petticoat, and stared at the rest.

Pink.  They were all pink, except for her pretty dress.  Plain pink, pink sprigged with white and the pink check calico that was the best of all her work dresses, only two years old.  It was the proper colour for a girl, Ma had said when Dorrie was small, and she'd always stuck with it. 

Dorrie was tired of pink.  Maybe that's why she loved the greeny-yallery dress so much.

She kept the pink check for when she was going into town to work at the Williams' house.  But today, she decided to wear the check at home and instead of just doing her hair any old how, she pulled it back into a single pony tail and added the wide pink ribbon that Andy had given her at Christmas. 

It was a shame to smother up the dress with her big apron while she got breakfast, but when Johnny had mentioned Dan Marvin getting syruped, he'd shook his head and said he'd shared Dan Marvin's pain: he surely liked pancakes and syrup himself.  She didn't want any of the pancake batter to splash on her dress.

Andy stared for a second or two when he saw her, but he was too taken up with Johnny to care what she was wearing.  Johnny smiled at her, but didn't say nothing neither.  Dorrie sniffed.  She thought that both of them were too used to her looking like a farm girl in coarse calico dresses and with her hair in pigtails tied with old tape. 

Andy mentioned some of the town gossip.  "I heard Mister Tracy say that Dan Marvin is badmouthin' Toby Jencks over town.  No-one knows how it got to this."  His eyes sparkled with mischief.

"I don't know how you did it, Johnny," said Dorrie.  "You've caused more ruckus around here in a few days than we've seen in five years."  She forked an extra pancake onto his plate and he smiled at her in thanks.

"I never thought anyone could get a real range war going inside of a week."  Andy shoved almost an entire pancake into his mouth.  "But you done it, Johnny."

All Johnny said was "Pass the butter."  It was a minute or two before he said, "You don't want a thing like that to happen."

Andy frowned.  He turned his head to look at Dorrie, puzzled, before turning back to Johnny.  Johnny just poured syrup over his pancakes and ate his breakfast, not looking at either of them.

"Ain't that the general idea?" asked Andy.

"A man could get killed in that sort of fracas."

Andy snorted.  "Well?"

"Andy, don't you ever get to the point where you take killin' lightly.  It's not a good thing to do to kill a man or cause a man to be killed."  Johnny's already soft voice dropped even further.  "Makes you sick inside."

That little, curling, aching something inside Dorrie's chest was back; hurting and tightening so hard that she let her mouth open and gulped in air to try and cool it.  She turned her back to them quickly, so Johnny wouldn't see her face.  Her fingers shook as she put the plate down beside the stove.

"Well, gawsh," said Andy.  "Wha—?"

Dorrie turned on her heel, wanting to get that sound out of Johnny's quiet voice.  "That's enough, Andy.  Finish your breakfast."  She got to her chair somehow.  How she didn't stumble, she couldn't guess.  "And listen to Johnny."

Johnny gave her a strange little smile, the corner of his mouth lifting.  Andy, frowning and puzzled looking, stared down at his plate.

"We’ve started something now," said Dorrie, and to her shame she could hear how the trembling that had started in her fingers had reached her voice.  "How will it end?"

Johnny glanced at Andy.  "I don’t rightly know that yet," he said.  "But tomorrow, Johnny Madrid's goin' to ride into McCall's Crossing.  It's time to raise the stakes."

It was quite something, seeing Johnny Madrid get ready to ride to town.

Dorrie washed and ironed Johnny's pink shirt, and he cleaned his soft suede pants—calzoneras, Johnny said they were called in Spanish—even polishing the silver conchos that buttoned up the sides of each leg until they glittered.  He groomed Barranca until the palomino shone pale gold while Andy polished the saddle and tack. 

"It's all about making sure folks see me," said Johnny, when they were finished.

"They won't be able to miss you."  Dorrie was sorry straight away.  It wasn't ladylike to be so tart. 

Johnny just grinned.  "Yeah.  That's kinda the point.  See, up until now Marvin and Jencks haven't had any idea who's been causing them trouble.  Now each one of them's going to see Johnny Madrid in town and think the other one hired me.  It just adds to what my brother Scott calls a mel-ee.  They're going to be so confuzzled, they won't know themselves in a mirror."

"The whole town's likely to be confuzzled," said Dorrie.  "We don’t get many gunhawks in McCall's Crossing."

"The boys at school won't know what to do," said Andy.  "Why, I'll bet they'll play hookey to come stare at you when they know who you are."

Johnny's mouth turned down.  He shook his head and blew out a noisy sigh.  "That's the worst of it," he said, real quiet.

"I wish I could tell 'em you're working for me," said Andy.  "Oh, and Dorrie, too."

"Well you can't.  And you'd best not play hookey either," said Dorrie.  "I have to be in town today, remember," she added.  "I need to take the eggs in to Tracy's and I've got a day's work sewing.  I'll go in with Andy."

Johnny nodded.  " I won't be coming into town until maybe noon or later."  His mouth twitched, as if he were trying not to smile.  "When there'll be a lot of folks about to stare."

Dorrie was bound and determined that she wouldn't be one of them. 

"Did Andy tell you why he ran away?" asked Mrs Williams, spreading out the length of thin lawn over the table with a deft hand.  The lawn was sprigged with tiny white flowers over a pale blue ground.  It was very pretty.

Dorrie wiped her hands with the rough towel one more time, to make sure that they were dry.  Mrs Williams' store bought soap smelled of roses and lavender, and left Dorrie's hands soft enough to work with the lawn without snagging it.

"I was really very pleased when John—Reverend Williams, I mean—told me that Andy was home safe.  He said he saw Andy going into the schoolhouse last Friday.  I'd hoped that you'd be in church on Sunday." 

"Andy came home Thursday," said Dorrie.  She felt her face grow hot.  "I don’t like missing church," she added.

"I know."  Mrs Williams smoothed the pretty lawn one more time and looked up, smiling.  She didn't look mad at Dorrie's backsliding, but her face looked like she was waiting for Dorrie to explain.

Dorrie hesitated.  She could hardly say that she and Andy hadn't come to church because Johnny Madrid had said that getting the Marvin hands all riled up on their day of rest would be a good thing, and mean more than if they did it on Monday.  Johnny had asked her for the powder flask that Pa had used with his old single-shot Henry rifle and, when she took it from its hiding place, begged a square of butter muslin from her.  He'd grinned a lot when he put the gunpowder in the twist of muslin.  He wouldn't say why, and he and Andy had left while it was still dark.  By the time they got back, there'd still been time to come into town for the service, but Andy wasn't fit to be near church-going folks.  He'd had come back sniggering about the outhouse on the Marvin ranch and Johnny, who was just as dirty, had still been grinning.  But all Johnny had said was that he'd never met a ranch hand yet who liked digging.  Dorrie hadn't asked what they'd been up to.  But she wouldn't let the pair of them into the house until they'd had baths.

She didn't mind Johnny Madrid keeping Andy on the edges of things, she'd said, but she did mind him bringing him home smelling like he'd rolled in a hog pen.  Johnny had just laughed and borrowed one of Pa's shirts while she scrubbed his own free of muck.  She wondered how that pretty horse could have stood to carry him home and when she wondered out loud, Johnny had let out a great crack of laughter and Andy had snickered, and Dorrie couldn't help herself.  She couldn't stop herself from laughing, the three of them sharing the joke.  She hadn't felt so young and light for a long time.

But no.  She couldn't tell any of that.

"I was awful tired," she said, and that was no lie.  The weariness had taken a long time to seep out of her.  "I couldn't seem to settle while Andy was gone and if I scrubbed everything in the house once, I did it three times."  She laughed, but it didn't come out right.  "Still I won't have to do the Fall cleaning."

Mrs Williams pressed Dorrie's hand, just a little.  "Where did he go?"

"Morro Coyo way.  It's more'n fifty miles south; nearer sixty."  Dorrie glanced out of the window onto Main Street and moved a little to the left.  She had a better view of the road out of town. 

She re-checked Mrs Williams' dressmaker chart and the set of measurements they had for Jenny.  She'd used them to do the figuring and make the paper pattern for Jenny's dress but she always liked to check again before she pinned the pattern to the lawn and took the dress shears to it.  Not that it mattered too much for a little girl like Jenny.  But when she'd been six, Dorrie had liked her dresses to fit and not just be the loose shifts-and-aprons some of the other nester children wore.  She didn’t think that Jenny was any different. 

Her attention wandered back to the view beyond the window and she put down the chart again.  "It was to do with Pa." she said.  "He had some fool idea that he could get help, seein' as how Sheriff Kinsey says it was an accident and Andy not ready to believe that yet.  He thought that the Sheriff wouldn't listen."

"He was looking for another lawman?  For help, you mean?  But surely, he'd find one much closer if he'd gone to Merced, or Modesto."

"I don't think he was thinking too well," said Dorrie.  She felt bad about deceiving Mrs Williams.  The Reverend and his wife had been kind friends in all her trouble.  "He… he was lucky.  A rancher near Morro Coyo came upon him and brought him home."

"That was kind."

"Yes it was.  Real kind.  I was grateful."  Dorrie gave herself a little shake.  Little Jenny's new Sunday dress would never be made if she didn't stir herself.  It was still hours till noon.  She picked up the dressmaking chart again. 

"Would you like Reverend Williams to speak to him?"

Dorrie blinked, surprised.  She shouldn't be surprised, not really.  Mr Williams was a preacher, and preachers always thought they could cure everything with words.  "Andy's still real twisted up about Pa," she said, doubtful.

"Perhaps Mister Williams can help," said Mrs Williams, her voice very gentle, as if she were frightened of spooking Dorrie.  "A word in the right season can do a lot to soothe a troubled mind, and remind Andy of his duties here, too."

Dorrie didn't think Johnny would try reminding Andy of his duties.  She didn't think Andy would like it, if he did.  Just seeing Johnny at work about the farm had Andy scrambling to do his part and no words were said or needed.  She didn't think the Reverend would understand that, but she couldn't see how she could get out of Andy having a talk with him.  "We'll be at church on Sunday," she said.  "Maybe after service?"

She picked up the paper of pins and put the first pattern piece onto the lawn, smoothing it down.  "I've been figuring," she said, slipping the first pin in to hold the paper in place.  "I think we can put in three or four rows of tucks to let down as Jenny grows, and there'll still be enough lawn left over to make a sun bonnet for the baby.  If you still have some of that pretty lace, I could trim the bonnet with it."

She put in the second pin, and the third.  She looked up and stared down the road out of town. 

It was empty.

Andy arrived home, disappointed.

"He's there," he said.  "I saw him sitting on the hotel porch in a rocking chair, but I didn't see him ride in."

"I didn't either," said Dorrie.  She'd been so busy that she hadn't been able to look for minutes at a time, and she'd missed seeing Johnny pass by the Reverend's house.  She cut Andy an extra slice of fresh bread and set it beside his plate of stew.

"I was hopin' I'd see him.  I wanted to see what a town looks like when Johnny Madrid rides into it.  But I didn't play hookey to go look for him."

Dorrie wasn't surprised.  Mr Ford, the schoolmaster, hadn't listened to Andy's excuses for his absence, and Andy had come home that first day rubbing at his backside and whining about it.  Andy knew better than to miss school again without leave from Dorrie or the schoolmaster.  She should thank Mr Ford, next time she saw him.  She would thank him.

"Widow Tracy saw him," said Dorrie.  "She didn't know who he is, but she stopped me in the street to gossip and she said that a stranger was in town.  She thinks he means trouble."  She met Andy's grin with one of her own.  "She said he came riding into town like he owned it.  She said everyone was staring but—"  and Dorrie let her smile widen to share the joke, "—she said that she was a good Christian woman and she went about her business and wouldn't give a man the satisfaction of thinkin' she was looking at him.  She was so busy not lookin', she could tell me about every stitch Johnny was wearing and how he looked like he was real dangerous."

Andy laughed, and Dorrie couldn't help but laugh with him. 

"She said Lucky Morgan was loading supplies out of Mister Tracy's Mercantile, and he saw Johnny ride up to the hotel.  She said Lucky didn't look too pleased."  Dorrie stopped laughing.  "Andy, I've just thought.  We never warned Johnny about Lucky Morgan."

Andy snorted.  "Johnny Madrid doesn't need to bother about the likes of Lucky Morgan."

"Still," said Dorrie.  "I don't know why—"  She let it drop.  She pushed stew around her plate.  If it came to shooting, if Johnny couldn't get Andy to see sense before then… Dorrie sighed and stuck her fork into a lump of potato, twisting the tines around and around.  She didn't want anyone to be shot.

Not even Lucky Morgan.

"Sure is quiet without Johnny," said Andy.  "I kinda got used to him being here."

Dorrie pushed her plate away.  She wasn't hungry.

"Well don't," she said.  "Johnny's just come here to help us out.  He won't be staying when it's over."

Dorrie went to town again the next day. 

She sent Andy in for school, but didn't leave the farm herself until after she'd done the morning chores.  It took longer, with no-one there to help her, and it was mid-morning before she set out.  It was such a fine day for walking, she didn't hitch up the wagon, cutting cross country and only joining the road a half-a-mile out of town.  That was probably how Johnny had done it, too, to stay out of sight until the last minute.

She had just reached the lumber yard, almost in town, when Dan Marvin and two or three of his hands rode into town.  Dan Marvin did no more than glance at her as he passed.  They rode right on up to the hotel. 

Dorrie stood in the shade of the lumber yard's office and storefront, where no-one would notice her.  She watched as Dan Marvin stepped up onto the hotel porch and stayed there, talking to someone.  Johnny, of course.  They didn't talk for long.  A few minutes later Johnny stood up and she could see the brightness of his pink shirt, standing out against the browns and tans Marvin and his men wore.  Johnny left Marvin standing on the porch. 

Dorrie walked on up the street and passed the hotel.  Dan Marvin was still standing on the porch with his men, staring after Johnny.  She glanced sideways at him.  He looked real angry.  No.  That wasn't right.  He did look angry, but he looked scared, too.  Whatever Johnny had said, scared him.  Johnny had scared him without even drawing his gun.

What was it like, having a name that folks were scared of?  Did Johnny like having that sort of sway over folks?  Did he like it when big shot ranchers like Dan Marvin were mad and scared?

Dorrie turned her head away.  She looked down as she walked the last few yards to Tracy's Mercantile, watching the little dust clouds that her feet kicked up.  The dust settled on her skirt hems, and she gave them a quick shake when she stepped up onto the sidewalk.  She didn't want to track dirt into the Widow Tracy's room.

The Widow met her with a little cry of delight and a kiss, pulling her into the quiet room at the back of the store where the Widow did all her sewing.  Young Mr Tracy, the Widow's son, just grunted something at her as she passed him, that might have been a greeting.  Dorrie couldn't tell.  The Widow's tongue almost tripped over itself to tell her about the dreadful heathen who had ridden into McCall's Crossing to do the Lord alone knew what wickedness, and Dorrie couldn't hear much above the flood of words.

"And bless me but what are we coming to?  And bless that soft old fool of a Sheriff for not chasing a clear-cold killer like Johnny Madrid out of our town.  Are we or are we not God-fearin' folks, Dorrie?  May the Good Lord protect us from the evil that's walking in our midst.  And mind you, I'm not saying that he ain't a well-favoured man, because he is, but a black-hearted villain can have a fair face, the Good Book says so.  And… "

Dorrie nodded and murmured and shook her head at all the right times.  She didn’t laugh.  The Widow said all the things Dorrie had thought about gunfighters.  She just didn't think them about Johnny.  It was hard to remember he was a gunfighter, sometimes, until she thought about the look on Dan Marvin's face. 

It was more than an hour before the Widow remembered to bring out the lengths of plain white cotton and Dorrie was able to cut out the Widow's new nightgowns, made high at the neck and with long sleeves.  

When the shooting started, the Widow jumped, so that her hands jerked up and the little box of pins she was holding jerked with them.  Dorrie's heart thumped so much it felt like it was coming up through her throat.  She stood very still while little silver pins, their heads catching and winking in the light, showered all around her.

"Practising," said Dorrie.  She shook her head.  "Good Lord.  He scared half the town into fits."  She frowned at Andy.  "How do you know he was practising?"

"It’s all over town that he's Johnny Madrid," said Andy.  "We all went over at noon recess.  Billy Moomey says Johnny's the fastest gun there is and all the boys from school just wanted to see him.  Just standing in the street looking at him, you know."  He sighed.  "I had to pretend I didn't know him."

"And keep pretending," warned Dorrie.  "Johnny's setting Marvin and Jencks against one other, and we have to stay out of it.  It's important, Andy."

"I know."  Andy scowled at her.  "I'm not a kid, Dorrie."

She let that slide.  She'd hurt his pride enough, she reckoned.  "How did you know he was practising?" she repeated.

"Because he came over and asked us where he could get hold of some bottles and cans.  And I was the first one to jump up and say I'd get some for him.  So he told me to go get them and I could set them up for him in the empty corral round the back of the livery."  Andy sniggered.  "Billy Moomey was so mad with me for getting' in first, that he tried to fight me when we got back to school and Mister Ford whopped him one and made him stand in the dunce's corner until afternoon recess.  All the boys were green, Dorrie, and wishin' they'd had the sense to jump up first."

"It was very clever of you," said Dorrie.

"We planned it all out before he rode into town, you know.  He said he wanted to be able to get a message to you."

"Oh," said Dorrie, feeling a little warm.  "Did he have a message?"

"He saw you coming into town just when Dan Marvin did."

"I didn't think he'd noticed me," said Dorrie.  She loosened her collar. 

"He said to tell you it all went fine with Marvin and he expects to see Jencks any time now.  He said he was sure missing your cooking and he'll come over to supper tomorrow night when it's dark.  He said to make sure there's apple pie."  Andy took a big bite out the fruitcake Widow Tracy had given her and said, mumbling through it, "I'm going to watch him practise again tomorrow.  Same time.  Same place.  You should come in to town again and come watch him.  He never misses.  Every bottle, Dorrie, shot straight through the neck."

"No," said Dorrie.  "I don't think I'll go back into town until it's all over."

Andy stared at her for a moment, then shrugged.

"Get your lessons done for tomorrow, Andy.  That's far more important than any practising."

"Awww, Dorrie…"

"And you be careful, Andy.  Be real careful."

Because Dan Marvin wasn't a man who'd scare easy.  And that worried Dorrie.  It worried Dorrie a lot.

As well as the dress closet that Pa had made for her, Dorrie had an old three-drawer dresser in her room with a piece of looking-glass hanging over it.  She'd hung the glass to make sure that it caught the most light, but truth to tell, she didn't get a lot of satisfaction out of it. 

She stared into the little looking glass, frowning at her reflection. 

She was a plain Jane, and there was no arguing with that.  If she had the time to do something with her hair and do more than wash her face with home-made soap, it might improve matters some.  The soap did its job of getting the grime off her face but it didn't make her pretty.  Whenever she looked in the mirror, all she could see was that her hair wasn't smooth and shiny, the round collars of her work dresses didn't do much to flatter her face and the soap left her too pink and clean-looking.  Her cheeks were red as apples some days and the pink calico of her work dresses made it worse.  Her Ma had said that she always looked clean and wholesome. 

No man would be interested in wholesome.

She wanted to look less like a worn-down farm girl, and more like… more like… well, just less like a poor farm girl.  But all of her work dresses were washed out and shrunken and even the pink check was a skimpy, dowdy thing.  She turned herself about in front of the glass.  It was too small to see her whole reflection, of course, but what she could see didn't please her.  Even pulling at the skirt and tweaking at the bodice where it met the skirt waist didn't seem to do much to make the calico lie better.

But, of course, it wasn't like she didn't have another dress.

Dorrie had only ever worn the greeny-yallery dress on Sundays, for best.  When they lived at the first farm and Pa was still there, and when he was beforehand with the farm work, Pa would hitch up their wagon and take Dorrie and Andy into town for church.  Other times he'd just shake his head and Dorrie would think about the four-mile walk in the heat and dust, and go back inside to change into one of her calico work-dresses that wouldn't spoil and rehang the pretty greeny-yallery dress on its hook in the corner of her bedroom. 

She took good care of it.  She steam-cleaned and pressed it every two or three months and even after three years, it was still almost perfect, its colours undimmed.  She'd had to refresh the matching ribbon for her hair, but that was all.

She slipped out of the pink check, and pulled on the sateen skirt.  It swirled about her ankles in a very satisfying way, the bottom flounce just touching the soft leather of her best black shoes.  The bodice still fitted like a glove, and if it annoyed her to have to reach around to fasten the little pearl buttons, it was worth it to get the smooth effect of the pretty sateen over her bosom.  It was the work of a moment to button the bodice down over the waist and cinch on the belt.  She patted the cunning little enamelled belt buckle, remembering Pa's face when he and Andy had given it to her wrapped in a twist of fancy paper.

Poor Pa.  He would have given her pearl and diamond buttons if he could.

She turned back to the looking glass and picked up her brush.  Most days she scrunched her hair into two pigtails, which kept it out of the way but wouldn't flatter a schoolgirl, much less a woman who was past her first flush of youth.  She wore her hair up and braided around her head when she went into town Sundays, for church, of course.  And even then the braid made her head ache and would work its way loose, so that little strands hung against the sides of her face and around her ears.  She was always a mite worried about putting up her hair too tightly.  A lady never shows her ears, Ma had always said.  So she let it swoop down over her ears before catching it up and braiding it.

She put up her hair, and after a moment's thought, pulled out the pins again.  Braiding up her hair on a weekday would make Andy do more than stare.  He'd say something to put her to the blush, that was for certain.  But she'd like to wear the ribbon.  In the end, she left her hair loose, gathering the top portion and the sides into a little pony tail that she could tie with the green ribbon.  Feeling daring, she let her ears show a little.

When she'd finished, she looked at herself in the glass again.  The greeny sateen toned down her high colour and it made her hair brighter.  She looked less wholesome, less like a rosy apple.  And even old Bill Wilson had once said she was pretty in this dress.  She smiled at her reflection.

She wrapped herself in the biggest apron she owned and went to make the best supper she could think of: one of her young cockerels fried, with new peas and little potatoes from her garden and apple pie to follow. 

Johnny had said he wanted apple pie.  She'd hate to disappoint him

Johnny was there when she came out of her room, sitting at the table with Andy, one of Andy's schoolbooks in his hand.  She stopped in the doorway.  She hadn't heard him ride up.

" 'Evening," he said.  His smile seemed extra bright.  He put down Andy's book and got up when she came in, as if she were a real lady.  He was always so polite.  She liked that about him.

She felt her face grow hot.  She tried to make her answer sound calm and like she didn't have little prickles running up and down her back.  Andy stared when he noticed her, but one sharp look from her and his open mouth closed with a snap.  He fidgeted with his school books.

"Have you finished?" she asked him, tying her apron strings a little tighter and smoothing it down over her dress.

"Mostly," said Andy.  "I was just asking Johnny about something."  He looked at her sidelong and added, in a sort of burst, before she could stop him: "You're wearing your best dress."

Bless the boy, did he think she didn't know that?  "It's three years old, Andy.  Go finish off in your room.  I need to set the table."

"But that's your best dress, Dorrie." 

Dorrie stared at him.  Would that boy never be quiet?  Her cheeks burned.  She glanced at Johnny. 

She said the first thing that came into her head.  "It was the hog."


"The hog."

"Our hog?" said Andy, frowning.

Which other hog did the fool boy think she meant?  Safely hidden by her skirts, Dorrie's foot tap-tappity-tapped.  Her face had to be redder than a turkey cock. 

"What's the hog got to do with your dress?"

"That hog sure can crowd a man," said Johnny.  "Chooses to do it soon as he's had a wallow, too."

Dorrie felt very warm.  "Yes," she said. 

"Leaves his dirt all over you," said Johnny, nodding.  The corner of his mouth might be lifting up into that funny little smile of his, but he ducked his head before she could be sure.  "Caught me Monday.  Or maybe the day after."

"That blessed pig pushed me right into the dirtiest corner of the pen."  She blinked away the hotness pricking against her eyelids. 

"I've never seen you change into a different dress for supper," said Andy.

Dorrie's hands itched, but Andy was out of reach on the other side of the table.  Why in tarnation wouldn't he let it lie?  "I can't eat supper in a dirty dress.  We have a guest."

Johnny glanced at her, his eyes bright in the lamplight.

"It's only Johnny," scoffed Andy. 

"Hey," said Johnny, pulling a face at them.

"Andy Cutler!" 


"Well, he's been eatin' with us all week."  Andy shook his head and said something she couldn't catch.  But he collected his schoolbooks and his slate, and took them through into his bedroom, giving her another frowning look as he left.  Dorrie never thought she'd be glad to see the back of him, not after losing him for almost a week.  But if he hadn't minded her right then she would have pushed him out of the door herself.

And boxed his ears when she did it.

It was awful quiet without Andy and his foolishness.  She couldn't quite meet Johnny's gaze.  "He don't mean to sauce you like that," she said.

Johnny laughed.  "I guess it's a bit like me and Scott.  I'm pretty glad I'm not an older brother.  I was pretty glad to see you, too.  Andy got the drop on me when I came in and I figured I'd have to shoot him to stop him asking me about his schoolwork."

Dorrie managed a laugh.  It sounded odd.

"Do you know anything about a President called Poke, or somethin'?" 

"No," said Dorrie.  "Was he important?"

Johnny shrugged.  "Andy said he was.  Something to do with the history of California.  You know, I'd have thought I’d have heard of him if that's the case, but I guess he wasn't that important to Mexico.  The nuns never mentioned him."  His grin broadened.  "Maybe they were too busy prayin' to worry about gringos."

"I didn't get much schooling."

"Nor me."

She wasn't interested in presidents.  Or nuns.  Johnny was looking at her and she couldn't tell what he was thinking about Andy's foolish talk.  Supper.  She had to get supper.  She'd killed and plucked the cockerel earlier and it had spent the day cooling on the stone slab in the larder, chopped into pieces.  She only had to roll them in flour for frying.  Everything else was almost ready. 

"I'd best—" She gestured towards the stove.  "We're having fried chicken."

"I thought it might be pork," said Johnny.  The corner of his mouth was turning up again.  "Dependin' on how mad you got with that hog."

Johnny told her that she had a mean hand with fried chicken.  He ate three pieces.

"Toby Jencks came by today," he said after she'd cleared the plates.  He added, grinning, "He had ol' Lucky Morgan with him.  Now there's a man I haven’t seen in a whole month of Sundays."

Dorrie looked up from cutting apple pie.  "Oh, we forgot to tell you about Lucky.  I remembered about him yesterday and meant to tell you."

Johnny grinned.  "It's easy to forget about Lucky Morgan."

"Do you know him?"

"Well, sorta," said Johnny.  "I've seen him around.  He knows me, anyway.  You remember, Andy, when you told me you wanted to hire a gunhawk and I said your twenty six dollars might buy you—"

"And thirty-seven cents," said Andy.

"Yeah, let's not forget those thirty-seven pennies.  Anyhow.  Remember I said that you might get a broken down third rater for that sort of money?  I might just as well have given you Lucky Morgan's name."

"I'd never heard of him," said Andy.  "I've never seen any dime novels about Lucky Morgan."  He looked at Dorrie, kind of sly.  "I think he's sweet on Dorrie.  And I think she's sweet on him."

Dorrie gasped.  But before she could speak, Johnny cut in with: "That's not right, Andy.  You don't say things like that about a lady."

Andy sniggered as if he didn't care. 

"And do you think your Pa would like you to talk about your sister like that?  He'd expect you to take care of her, Andy."

"Well, shoot," muttered Andy, the grin wiped off his face.  The tips of his ears went red.

That would sting.  But Andy deserved it.  He was getting far too big for his britches.  Dorrie shaved a half off the slice of pie she had just put on the plate for him and returned it to the tin, before putting the plate in front of him.  She tweaked one of Andy's ears as she went back to the stove to get Johnny's plate, and took no notice of his yelp or the little choke of laughter that Johnny made.  She added the extra bit of pie to Johnny's plate.

Andy looked mad.  She stared at him until he looked away and the redness moved down his ears and neck.

"What did Jencks want?" she asked.  The pie was good; rich and spicy.  The pinch of cinnamon she'd added made all the difference to the apples and sultanas.

"Oh, he said he'd pay me twice what Dan Marvin's payin', to back off."  Johnny grinned.  "Dorrie, this is one tasty apple pie.  Thank you."

"I'm glad you like it," said Dorrie.  The tips of her ears grew warm.  "So he thinks Marvin hired you?"

"And Marvin thinks Jencks did it."  Johnny smiled.  "It's good when it all works out like that, with both of them euchred." 

Andy snickered.  "Wait till they know who really did it."

Johnny took another mouthful of pie.  "I talked with a few people around town today.  Tracy at the Mercantile, for one, and that barber.  I learned a lot about Dan Marvin and Tony Jencks.  Did you know that they were the first ones into this country after the Mexican War?  They opened it up, made it safe.  Fought Indians…"

"But that don't give them the right to chase people off their land and kill them when they don't run."

"No," agreed Johnny, and his voice was soft and kind, so kind that Dorrie had to bite her lip to keep quiet.  "But it kinda explains how they feel about things, doesn’t it?  Suppose you build up a big place, with all kinds of trouble, and then a bunch of people start moving in and putting up fences, keeping your cattle from water, ruining your graze—what would you do?"

"Why, I'd massacre 'em.  I'd—"

Johnny nodded at Andy.  "Yeah," he said.

Dorrie's heart ached when she saw Andy's face.  He looked like the moment she'd had to tell him Pa was gone.  He was white and shocked and trembling. 

"But that doesn't give them the right to kill my Pa!"  Andy pushed to his feet so fast that his chair skittered across the floor.  He slapped away the hand that Johnny put out to stop him and slammed into his bedroom.  The little house rattled.

Johnny grimaced.  Dorrie put her face in her hands for a moment so he wouldn't see what it was saying.  If she pressed hard enough with her fingers, the burning in her eyes felt better.  She'd been so sure that Andy was better.  He was like a boy again, admirin' Johnny and believing in him.  She'd been so sure that Andy was beginning to listen.


She was fooling herself.

She hadn’t been sure, not really.  She'd just hoped.

Something touched her shoulder.  Johnny's hand, and only for a moment; she felt his fingers curving over the bone, heavy and warm through the thin sateen. 

"Sorry," he said.  A squeeze and the warmth on her shoulder was gone again.

She raised her head.  It wasn't his fault.  He was doing the best he could, trying to show Andy that killing wasn't the way. She'd hurt Andy's pride, treating him like a kid in front of Johnny when she knew how much he wanted Johnny's notice.  He'd been too mad to listen.  "I made him mad, too, over the pie and all," she said.  "I shouldn't have done that."

"He was outa line, Dorrie, and he should mind you better.  He's not a man yet."  Johnny's mouth twisted.  He got up to go.  "He just thinks he is."

"I know.  Are you sure we're doing the right thing?"

She watched, fascinated, as he put on the plain leather gunbelt.  She'd watched it a few times now, seeing how he tugged and tugged on the leather until it was tight against his hips.  Johnny liked bright things but it was the plainest thing about him, that gunbelt; just smooth brown leather.  She never wanted to see Andy put one on.  She never wanted to see Andy tug and tug at the leather to get it tight, or tie down his holster so it wouldn't move.  She never wanted to see Andy become Johnny Madrid.

"The man who says he's sure of anything has to be a fool," he said.  "Let's just hope Andy gets the bitterness and the anger out of him."

"How is it all going to end?"

He paused in the doorway.  "We'll know tomorrow.  I sent a message to Marvin and Jencks to be in town at ten."

Dorrie stared.  "Will they come?"

"Oh, they'll come.  They know that if they don't, I'll go after them and they sure as hell won't want that.  So yeah, they'll come.  When I get them together… well, we'll see what they have to say about your Pa."  Johnny tapped his gun.  "This helps.  Men facing their end are more likely to tell the truth, I reckon.  They want to live as long as they can and they'll tell me what I want to know."  Johnny reached for his hat.  "Keep Andy at home tomorrow."

She nodded. 

He smiled at her.  "It was a real fine supper, Dorrie.  You make the tastiest apple pie I've had in a long time."

She tried to smile, but knew she couldn't.  "Johnny, Marvin and Jencks will bring their hands with them, surely.  They won't come alone."

"It doesn't matter how many they bring with them.  I'll see you when it's all over."

He smiled at her, but it was a smile that tugged at her.  She didn't want anyone else hurt.  Pa was gone, and couldn't ever come back.  What use would it be if anyone else got hurt, even Jencks or Marvin?  She raised her chin, because Cutlers never gave in and they never showed it when they were scared.  It was going to take every bit of pride that she had to bite back the words she shouldn't say.

All she did say was, "Johnny, you'll be all alone—"

Johnny's smile deepened.  He said, even more gentle than when he spoke to Andy, so very gentle and kind that her eyes burned:  "A man's always alone when he faces a gun, Dorrie.  I don’t know anything lonelier."

She didn't sleep at all.

For an hour or two she sat in her bed, her knees drawn up under the bright quilt, her arms wrapped around them to stop herself from shivering.  Sometimes, most of the time, she rested her head on her knees.  If she turned it slightly, she could see the dress closet Pa had made for her with the hat box above it on the shelf, the red box gleaming in the lamplight.  A little twist and she could see the dresser and the mirror.  She could see most everything she owned.

She couldn't see any way out of this, though.

Whatever Johnny found out the next day, would it make any difference?  Was it already too late?  Was Andy too twisted up in anger and hate to listen?  What could she do?  Oh dear Lord, what could she do?

She put her head down onto her knees again and twisted her hands together until her fingers hurt.  It would be a relief to groan out loud, but what would be the use of it?  Dorrie just didn't do things like that; she didn’t cry or moan or faint, like the ladies in novels.  She was a farm girl, not a lady.  Like Ma had said she must, she endured. 

There was no chance of sleep.  She got up.  She wandered the little house for the rest of the night—walking around the room, opening Andy's door to listen to him breathing and make sure he was still there and safe, walking up and down the porch outside, her nightgown too thin against the night air, going back to her chair.  And after a few minutes of rocking and rocking, she jumped up and started on the whole round again. 

It was a long night.

She let Andy sleep late.  By the time he came yawning into the main room, she'd milked the cow and moved it on its picket line to fresh grass, and the milk sat in tin pans on the stone cooling shelf in the larder.  She'd make butter later, when the milk had separated.  Churning milk made her arms ache and her shoulders knot up.  She'd welcome that, to take her mind off McCall's Crossing and what might happen there.

Andy said something about it being late.  He looked cross and flustered when she handed him a glass of milk, fresh from the cow.

"You never complained about sleeping longer before," said Dorrie.

"I want to go to town.  Billy and the boys will be watching Johnny, if they can get away from their folks."  Andy frowned.  "Billy said his Pa would whomp him if he caught him though.  Billy and all the others were told to stay away from Johnny."

"People don't like gunfighters."

"But it's Johnny."

"They don't know him.  They don’t know that he's a good man.  They only see the gun."

"I'm going into town, though."

"Later, maybe.  After chores."

"Dorrie," whined Andy.  "What time is it?"

They had no clock.  Andy went for Pa's watch to check the time.  Andy was always real careful with that watch.  She wouldn't let him take it to school with him, but every morning he took it from the drawer in the dresser where it lived and wound it.  He only wore it Sundays, to church.

"Dorrie, it's almost eight."

"It's Saturday."

"But I want to get to town."

"Then eat your breakfast."  She'd already planned extra chores to keep him close to the house all morning. 

She made Andy pancakes for breakfast, with the last of the syrup and a big slice of the apple pie to follow.   Johnny had liked her pancakes.  And the pie.

Andy turned pink when he saw the pie.  "I'm sorry for sayin' that about Lucky Morgan.  I didn't mean it."

"It doesn't matter." 

"He is sweet on you though."

"Maybe.  That doesn't matter either." 

Dorrie couldn't eat anything.  She sipped at her coffee but it didn't taste right.  She pushed the cup away and nodded when Andy asked if he could have it.  He was getting old enough for coffee now.  He was getting old enough for lots of things.  Any other morning and she'd have smiled at the face he pulled.  No-one liked coffee when they first started with it.  Johnny liked his black and strong.

"Can I go—?"

"See to the stock, Andy," she said. 

After the night she'd endured because she couldn't cure it, Andy's whining was nothing.  She sat through it without listening until Andy at last did what he was told and sulked his way out of the house to see to the barn work.  He was more upset and jittery and complaining than she'd ever seen him and by just sitting and watching, she knew she made him more so.  Still, he went, in the end.

Dorrie cleared away the breakfast things and took a sunbonnet from the peg on the back of the door.  Maybe hard work with a hoe in her garden would help.  Hard work was the only cure she knew.

Andy was gone.

He wasn't in the barn.  He wasn't out back.  He sure as salvation wasn't washing windows like she'd told him.  He'd gone.  The little devil must have waited until she had her head down in her garden before sneaking off.

Dorrie ran into the house and checked Pa's watch.

Almost ten.

Marvin and Jencks and all their men would be riding into town for a showdown.  Johnny would be ready.  But there were so many of them, all those men coming down the street against one man in his bright pink shirt.  Johnny had said it was the loneliest thing he knew.  He would be there, all alone.

Except Andy had disobeyed again, and gone to town.  Andy would be in town when Marvin and Jencks got there.

Something in Dorrie's ears buzzed.  Her knees trembled and for a moment she had to hold on to the dresser while things whirled and dipped and dived around her.  She could hear her own heart thumping. 

She would not faint.  She would not. 

Her head felt very heavy when she straightened up.  She had to push on the dresser hard to do it, feeling clumsy and slow.  She took in one deep breath.  Then another.  It helped to steady her.

When she could stand without having to lean on the bureau, she got to the door.  Out on the porch, she took another deep breath or two, searching the garden and the hill for signs of Andy,


She got down the porch steps on shaky legs and went to the barn.  It was quiet, with only the horses there to raise their soft brown eyes and look at her.  They whickered at her.  The bay horse that Johnny had let Andy use was still there in its stall.  Andy hadn't risked her hearing him get the horse ready, then.  He'd gone in on foot.

She might be able to catch him. 

She ignored the bay gelding.  She couldn't ride well and it would be better to hitch Molly and Jack to the wagon.  But her hands were shaking so much that she dropped the harness three times.  It took her far too long to back the two horses into the wagon shafts and buckle all the harness into place. 

She hauled herself up into the wagon seat, and started the horses, slapping the long reins over their broad backs until Jack started off with a jerk, pulling Molly along with him.  She slapped at them again and again, until the wagon was bumping along the road.  She braced her feet hard against the footboard, swaying on the seat as the wagon lurched.

She had to get to Andy.

She came upon them a mile out of town.  She couldn't believe what she was seeing.  All that worryin', and there was Johnny on Barranca with Andy up behind him, just as if nothing had happened, and it was like it was any ordinary day.  Oh Lord be thanked they were safe!  Neither of them looked hurt.

But she hauled back on the reins just the same, so hard that Jack almost sat on his rump and Molly snorted.  She jumped down from the wagon before it stopped moving and she just picked up her skirts and ran.  She had to see for herself.  She had to see that Andy was all right.

Johnny stopped Barranca, crowding him into a turn so that Andy could slide down to the ground on the side nearest Dorrie.  She saw the little push he gave Andy with his knee, and then Andy was on his way, running to her with his arms out. 

Dorrie didn't know what to do to him first.  She wanted to hug him and shake him, and even slap him for frightening her so much.  She had never been so scared and the little devil was hugging her back and he wasn't hurt… dear Lord, he was safe. 

"Ow, Dorrie."  He rubbed at his ear.

She didn't care about that.  She hugged him again.  She gave him one more shake and held him at arm's length, looking him over again to make real sure.  He wasn't hurt.  He looked white and shocked and his chin trembled, but he wasn't hurt.

"Oh Andy," she said again, and then she was sitting in the road, in all the dirt and dust.  How in the world had she got all the way down there?

Someone was there, braced against her, holding her up.  Someone bigger and stronger than Andy.

"It's all right, Dorrie," said Johnny.  "It's all right."

She managed to raise her head.  He knelt in the dust beside her, his arm around her shoulder, pulling her against his chest.  What was he doing, holding on to her like that?  It wasn't seemly… she swallowed and tried to take in one of those big breaths that steadied her. 

"No-one got hurt, Dorrie.  It's all over."  He got onto one knee and put his other hand under her knees.  Before she knew what he was doing, he pushed up onto his feet.  He wavered a bit, but got moving, carrying her out of the dirt and dust.   When he set her down on the grassy bank at the roadside, he blew out a big breath. 

She was no dainty lady, that was certain sure.  She could never be like a lady in one of those novels.  She managed to smile at him.  He grinned back.

"That's better.  Don’t faint on me, now."

"I don't faint."

"Good.  You got my canteen, Andy?"

"Here."  Andy stood behind Johnny.  He looked scared and his chin was still trembling.  "Are you sick, Dorrie?"

"She was frightened, Andy."  Johnny took the canteen and offered it to her.  "You've frightened her a lot in the last couple of weeks."

Andy said nothing.  He hung his head and scuffed at a stone.  He had good reason to, the young varmint. 

The water was warm, but it soothed her dry throat and stopped her shaking.  She held out her other hand to Andy.  "Come here."

Johnny stepped out of the way, taking back the canteen.  Andy plumped down beside her.  She took hold of his hand.  She used to do that when he was little, but he hadn't let her for a long time.  She wouldn't let it go this time when he tried to pull away.

"What happened?"  she asked.

Johnny squatted on his heels in front of her.  "Looks like Andy here had his ear to the door last night, and heard me tell you that Marvin and Jencks were coming into town.  He came in to see the fun."

Andy squirmed.

"Fun?" repeated Dorrie.

Andy squirmed some more.  "Aw, Johnny, you know I don't think that way now."

"I hope not."  Johnny shook his head.  "Anyhow, Marvin and Jencks came in alone.  I did catch a glimpse of Lucky Morgan down the street with Jencks, but he turned tail before they got much past the livery.  We talked a bit, that's all.  They told me what happened to your Pa.  I believed them when they said it was an accident."

She looked from him to Andy.  Andy set his chin and mouth and nodded at her.

"Did your Pa ride much?" asked Johnny.

She shook her head and waved her free hand at Jack and Molly.  "You can put a saddle on them, and they're trained to it, but they're not comfortable to ride.  Pa didn't do it often.  He wasn't much of a rider."

Johnny nodded and eyed the two wagon horses.  "Too broad backed."  He looked back at her, his face kind.  "Dorrie, Marvin and Jencks and all their men went to where your Pa was working, to throw a scare into him and maybe try and get him to give up.  He saw them coming, saw that he was outgunned, and tried to mount his horse in a hurry.  He got his foot caught, spooked the horse and got dragged.  I'll say this much for them, Marvin and Jencks didn't want a killing, just to scare him.  I reckon they felt pretty bad when they realised that your Pa was being hurt and they did try and help."

"Too late."

"Yeah.  Too late.  Andy was listening inside the hotel lobby while those two told the tale.  So I called him out and told him to give me the signal to drop the pair of them – they'd worked out by then that neither of them had hired me and I figured it was only right to let them meet the man who had.  But Andy decided not to kill them after all."

Johnny sounded proud, the way Pa used to sound when Andy did something to please him.  Dorrie turned her head to look at Andy.  He was having a hard time stopping himself from crying.  His chin trembled.

"I'm glad, Andy Cutler," she said.  "I'm proud of you, for seeing what's right and doin' it.  Pa would be proud, too.  Real proud.  You're just like him."

Andy flushed bright red.  Then he twisted around to bury his face in her lap and she held him close, bending down to get her arms around him.  It was like he was crying out the last of all the bitterness and hate he'd had since Pa died.  She smiled at Johnny over Andy's head.  He understood what she wanted, because he nodded and walked away to see to Barranca, Molly and Jack, leaving her to comfort her boy.

She pulled Andy closer and leaned down to put her face against his hair.  She closed her eyes.  Yeah, he was her boy now.  Not Pa's, because Pa was gone.  Not Johnny Madrid's, because Johnny Madrid would go too, now it was all over.  Andy was hers.

"Here," said Johnny, handing Andy Barranca's reins.  "You can ride Barranca back to the house.  I'll drive Dorrie."

"Wow," said Andy.  He drew his sleeve across his face.  Dorrie sighed for what she'd be scrubbing out of his shirt sleeves, but at least he'd brisked right up.  Johnny sure knew how to reach a boy to cheer him.  "You'll let me ride Barranca on my own?  You trust me?"

"I guess I do."  Johnny tossed him up into the saddle then reached down to shorten the stirrups some.  He didn't need to do it by much.  Andy was getting tall now.  He'd be as tall as Pa, soon.

"You won't whistle and make him buck me off, will you?" said Andy, giving him a suspicious look,

Johnny grinned. “Not even to make Dorrie laugh.  But mind you don’t steal him.  I’d have to shoot you if you did that again.”

"Huh," said Andy.  "You wouldn't." 

"Don't be too sure."

But Andy just clapped his heels into Barranca's sides, and the pretty golden horse started off down the road at a canter, Andy whooping and waving one arm. 

Johnny reached out a hand to pull Dorrie up and helped her up into wagon.  He was very close.  Almost as close as when he picked her up out of the dirt.  Her face burned when he put his hands on her waist.  Only Pa had ever done that before.

"I can drive it, you know," she said.

"I know you can.  I figured you might want to talk."  He swung up into the seat beside her, then picked up the reins.  He turned Molly and Jack, real neat, and handier than she could do it.  But Johnny just flicked the reins and they started off after Andy so easy, and Jack didn't even start off with a jerk but real smooth.  They never did that for her.

She nodded.  She did want to talk to him.  Andy seemed better, but he would know for certain.  "Are you sure, Johnny?"

He looked down at her, his face shadowed by his Stetson.  "He's going to be fine, Dorrie.  He was all for me killing them till they rode up and he could see they were real, not just the bogeymen he'd made them out to be.  I pushed him pretty hard to make him tell me to start the shootin' and he came to his senses, just like I hoped he would."

"I want him to just to be Andy again."

"He will be.  You've done a good job with him, Dorrie.  It was the hurt tearing him apart, not badness.  You'd have been real proud of him, the way he let Marvin and Jencks off the hook.  They know they're only still walking because of Andy being the better man."

it was good to hear him praise Andy.  It did make her proud.  She sat up straighter.  "They're responsible for Pa dying." 

"Yeah, they are.  Not directly, because I believe them when they say they weren't looking to kill anyone.  But if they hadn't come on him that day, all of 'em, then it wouldn't have happened.  They regret it, Dorrie."  He grinned.  "They won't be so fast to bully the little fellas in future, not if it means they have to face up to me.  This time nothing got hurt but their pride, but they know I've got an interest here and they'll walk a bit smaller now."

She ducked her head to hide her smile.  He sounded so sure of himself.  But Dan Marvin had been very scared and angry, that day in town.  She nodded.  The ranchers probably would walk small.  They didn't want Johnny Madrid mad at them.  "I don’t know how to thank you, Johnny."

"There's no need for thanks.  I set out to make Andy realise what killing a man means, and he does realise it.  He's not going to pick up a gun and take the road I did.  That's all that matters."  He slowed the horses, bringing them to a halt. "Dorrie, have you thought what you'll do when Andy's grown?"


"He's fourteen.  Another three, four years and he'll be a man grown, wanting and needing a life of his own.  Do you want him to be a farmer?"

She didn’t even have to think about that one.  "No.  I don’t want that."

"It’s a hard life.  What do you have in mind for him?"

"I don't know what he might do, but I don’t want him to wear himself out on the land like Pa did.  We have the two hundred dollars Marvin and Jencks gave us when Pa died.  I figured on using that for some schooling for him, with whatever else I can put aside."

"And you'll be left on the farm.  It's a lonely place, Dorrie."

What was he getting at?  What else was there but the farm?  "It's ours.  It's all we've got."

"All I'm sayin' is that maybe you should think of selling up and moving into town and making lives for yourselves there.  It's lonely for you and Andy now, living out here.  It'll be worse for you when he's grown.  What will you do then?"

Why in tarnation was he wanting to know all this now?  She pushed her hands into her skirts and made them into fists to stop them from shaking.  She knew what it was like on the farm.  She'd lived on one all her life. 

"I don't know."  She shook her head.  "I don't know.  I never thought past getting Andy grown safe and strong.  I always thought there'd be Pa to look after."

"Well, you need to think about it.  Plan some.  Why don’t you sell up?"

"Johnny, I know how to keep house and cook and clean.  I know how to be a farm girl and look after stock.  The only other thing I know is stitchin', and I don't know if I can make enough to keep me and Andy on that.  We wouldn't get much for the farm, anyway."

"Oh, I don't know," said Johnny.  "I'm pretty sure that if you asked Marvin or Jencks to buy you out, they'd be generous."  The corner of his mouth tugged up in that little smile that she liked so much.  "Very generous.  They'll pay top dollar, more than top dollar, if it keeps Johnny Madrid from visiting these parts again.  Think about it."

"I will," she said.  And she would, when she wasn't so tired.  She'd like to live in town, maybe.

Johnny clucked to the horses to start up, still holding them back, going slow.  She sat back on the wagon seat, turning so she could watch him as they drove, trying to keep her eyes from drooping shut.  He kept his eyes on the road, and all she could see was the line of his nose and mouth under the shade of his hat.  He didn't say anything, letting the silence grow.


He tilted his head towards her.  "I thought you were falling asleep."

"No."  She braced her feet against the footboard and kept her hands hidden inside the folds of her skirts, clenching them again.  If only he didn't get mad.  "Johnny, if Andy hadn't stopped it, if he'd told you to kill them, would you have done it?"

Johnny pushed his hat right back on his head and turned to her.  He looked kinda surprised.  "If I had, what do you think Andy would feel?"

She thought about it.  "I think he'd feel guilty, that he caused two men to be killed.  He'd be hurt by it, terrible hurt by it.  Sick inside, like you said."

Landsakes, but he must know how it feels for himself.  He wouldn't have said that to Andy if he didn't.

He pulled back on the reins and stopped Molly and Jack again.  He turned in the seat to face her.  He was frowning.  "Hurt enough and sick enough to realise the path he was heading down and turn back?"

"I think so."  She nodded.  "Yes.  I think so.  Andy's just a boy.  He wasn't thinking straight.  It'd bring him up sharp."

Johnny nodded again.  His face was real serious.  He'd never looked so serious, but maybe he wasn't mad.  No.  He wasn't mad.  He was as kind as he'd been the night he'd brought Andy home.   "Yeah.  That's what I think, too.  But if we'd done nothing, we'd have let all that bitterness and hurt fester in him until he picked up a gun and killed them himself.  What do you think he'd have felt then?  Worse?"

"Yes.  Worse.  I wouldn't have known him then.  He'd be all twisted out of being Andy." 

"Then there's your answer.  I figure it would have stopped Andy from killing them himself, and it'd turn him from being like me."  He ducked his head to look her right in the eyes, his own so bright blue and so honest.  "Yes, Dorrie.  If I'd had to, I'd have killed them."

Andy was in the barn when they got to the farm, grooming Barranca and crooning to him.  He looked up when Dorrie brought in Molly and he grinned, looking like the kid he should be.  Johnny was right.  Andy'd be all right now.

Johnny followed her in, leading Jack.  He stood and watched Andy with Barranca for a minute and shook his head.  "He's trying to steal that pony from under me."

Andy just laughed and kept on with sweeping the brushes over Barranca's flank.  He was whistling and happy.

Dorrie turned away, taking Molly back into her stall and taking off her halter.  She fastened the box-stall gate and rubbed Molly's long nose when the mare turned and pushed her head out over the top of the gate.  Poor Molly.  There wasn't an ounce of meanness in her.  She was just never meant for a saddle horse, that's all.

Johnny turned Jack loose in the next-door stall.   "All right?"  You've been real quiet."

He was kind and gentle again.  The kindest man she'd ever known, 'cept maybe Pa.

"I've been thinking."  Dorrie glanced at Andy and lowered her voice.  "Marvin and Jencks.  You said their pride was hurt, and you're right.  Do you think they'll leave it be now?"

"Yeah.  They won't bother you none.  They don't want me looking for them for real."  Jack turned in the stall and came to butt Johnny's shoulder.  He laughed.  "Whoa, old fella!" 

Johnny went to the feedbin and came back with a couple of handfuls.  He offered one to Dorrie, pouring the grain into her outstretched hand.  She let Mollie have the treat.  The mare's soft lips tickled as they moved across her palm.

"What else are you thinking about?" he asked, giving the other handful to Jack.

"I was thinking on what you said about… about following through on Marvin and Jencks."

She hadn't meant him to get serious again, but he did.  "It’s who I am, Dorrie."

"It’s who you stopped Andy bein'."  Molly pushed her nose into Dorrie's palm, looking for another treat.  "And mostly I was tryin' to make some sense of it.  I figured I should be upset by what you said."

"Well, ladies and gunfighters never did mix."

She turned away from Molly.  He was leaning against Jack's stall, like he didn’t have a care in the world, but his voice made that little curling, aching thing in her chest come back again.  He was honest as well as kind, and she had to be honest right back.  The Lord knew she was bad at telling lies, anyway.  "Folks would expect me to be upset by it.  Folks like the Reverend, or the Widow, I mean.  Thing is, I'm not upset.  I guess I know what you meant.  You aren't what I expected a gunfighter to be."

"I'm just me," he said, shrugging.

She nodded, looking for the right words.  "A good man.  A real good man, ready to take that burden from Andy."  He shuffled his feet, the way Andy would do if she praised him.  Men were all the same.  They didn't like talk like this, not even in church.   "That ain't what Reverend Williams might think, or the Widow, but I do.  It kind of surprises me, but I do."

"Not many people would agree with you." 

No, they wouldn't.  She'd likely find that out in church tomorrow.  She watched him for a moment as he petted Jack, who snorted all over Johnny's hand.  She smiled at the look on his face.

"Pa would've liked you," she said.

Johnny grinned, his eyes bright, as he wiped his hand clean on a wisp of straw.  "There aren't many Pas that do," he said, and she had to laugh along with him.  He smiled down at her, then turned to Andy.  "Don’t get him too comfortable, Andy.  I'll head home to Lancer today."

"Today?" said Andy.  "But Johnny—"

"I've got to get home sometime," he said.  "I've been gone over a week.  Murdoch'll be piling up the work for when I get back."

Well.  Just what she was expecting.  Like she'd told Andy, Johnny would go home when it was all over.  She just hadn't wanted it to be so soon.  She leaned her head against the gate post of Molly's stall and blinked back the hotness in her eyes.  It would be real quiet with Johnny gone.  It would be terrible quiet. 

"They'll be worrying," she said.  Molly nudged her shoulder and she half-turned back to the mare, so he couldn't see her face.  She knew better than this foolishness.  She knew a lot better.

"Maybe.  If I don't get home soon, Scott'll come looking for me.  And then Murdoch'll get into a real pucker with both of us gone."  By the time she could bring herself to look at him again, she found he was smiling at her.  "How about you make me a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and I'll be on my way.  If I make good time, I'll be home by tomorrow night."

"Shoot," said Andy.  "I wish you didn't have to go, Johnny."

"It isn't that far," said Johnny.  "You can always holler if you need me.  Besides, Andy, gunfighters move on when the job's done.  That's the way it is."

"I guess."  But all the brightness Andy'd been showing was dulled.  He'd lost Pa and now he was losing Johnny.  Poor Andy.

Dorrie tried to smile but her lips felt stiff.  She had never been so tired.  "We'll miss you," she said.

"The ladies always do."  Johnny smiled, and Lord, but the Widow was right.  He was a very well-favoured man.  "That's why Pas don't like me."

"What about the bay gelding?" asked Dorrie.

Johnny fastened his bedroll behind the saddle.    He took the saddlebags she held for him.  She'd put up the rest of the cold chicken for his supper and the last slice of pie.

"I'll leave him with you.  You could do with a riding horse and I'll make better time not having to lead the fool animal home.  He ain't worth that much."

More than she could afford to pay for a horse, she knew.  She owed him so much already.  But how could she say no and not sound proud and ungrateful?

"That reminds me," said Johnny, before she could decide what to say.  "I've not been paid yet."

Andy jumped.  "Oh.  Twenty six dollars—"

"And thirty seven cents."  Johnny held out his hand. 

"I've got the dollar thirty seven right here," said Andy, digging into a pocket and pulling out some coins.  "The rest was—"  He stopped and went very red.

"I wondered when you'd realise.  Seems to me, Andy Cutler, that you need to concentrate on your schooling better, if it takes you this long to cotton on."

"Cotton on to what?" Dorrie could see the little smile on Johnny's mouth, and stored it up to remember.

"That twenty five dollars of the twenty-six dollars and thirty seven cents was the value of my own horse without a bill of sale."

Despite everything, Dorrie laughed.  Andy looked like he didn't know where to put himself. 

"You owe me, Andy Cutler."

"Yes, sir," said Andy. 

"So, what we'll do is this.  Take care of your sister.  She's looked after you all your life, and now it's your turn to take care of her.  You do that right, and I'll take your one dollar and thirty seven cents—" and Johnny held out his hand for Andy to give him the coins, "—and we'll call it quits.  Okay?"

Andy nodded.  He looked shy and his ears were still red, but he stood up a little straighter.  He really was taller than her now.  She didn’t know when that had happened. 

That was a nice thing that Johnny did, treating Andy like a man like that.  A good thing.

Johnny pocketed the coins.  "Then it's a deal.  I'm depending on you.  And Andy, you did a real fine thing today.  Real fine."

"Aww," said Andy, shuffling his feet just like Johnny had in the barn.  Johnny sure did know how to handle him.  Maybe even Pa couldn't have done it better.

"Dorrie—" Johnny stopped, hesitated, then said in that soft, quiet voice that she liked, "I grew up on a farm in Mexico, down south of Tijuana in Baya California.  It was my Papa's place, my stepfather.  It's hard land to make a living from, but every spring when the rains came, everything turned bright green and pink and yellow.  It was a real pretty place, then, with all the flowers.  That's what you reminded me of last night, in that green dress."

"It's very bright," she said.  That's why Mrs Williams had hated the dress when she'd opened the missionary barrel.

"I like bright things." Johnny stooped and kissed her cheek.  His lips were warm against her skin.  "You looked like spring, Dorrie."

They stood on the porch and watched until he was out of sight.  Just before he reached the bend in the road, Johnny turned in the saddle, and Dorrie saw the sunlight catch on the conchos on his hat band as he waved it at them.  They waved back.  And then they couldn't see him anymore.

Andy looked at her sidelong.  "I'll miss Johnny," he said.


"He kissed you."

"On the cheek.  Like Pa would." 

But no man other than Pa had ever kissed her.  Dorrie raised her hand and rubbed the cheek where Johnny Madrid had kissed her.  No.  Where Johnny had kissed her.  Madrid or Lancer, he'd said, were just names and Johnny was who he was. 

"I think he must be a little bit sweet on you, Dorrie."

Dorrie smiled at the hope in Andy's voice, that he hadn't seen the last of his hero.  "No," she said.

"Oh," said Andy.

Dorrie tucked her arm through his.  "No.  He wasn't."  She took a deep breath.  "Andy, how would you like to sell up here and live in town?"

Andy stammered that he didn’t rightly know.  "Shoot Dorrie, what's going through your head?"

She smiled, but didn't answer.  She watched the road.  It was real empty now, nothing to see of him anymore, not even the dust.  Maybe one day, he'd come back to see how they were doing.  Maybe then she wouldn't still be a farm girl.

Church tomorrow, of course, and there would be gossip and stares of the town to get through.  Everyone would know by now that Johnny Madrid had been there to help her and Andy  There would be a lot of talk.  Marvin and Jencks would still be burning from bruised pride, and the Widow wouldn't be able to stop exclaiming and Mercy me-ing, and Mrs Williams would be grieved.  But she and Andy would go to church and hold their heads up high and they'd be proud to call Johnny Madrid a friend.  And on Monday, she'd go into town and talk to the Widow, and maybe see about a job there, sewing full time.  While she was there, she'd buy herself a new dress.  It was time that she had a new one. 

But it wouldn't be pink.

She'd buy herself a green dress, because she'd look like springtime in it.




What Dorrie read: the text of a chapter from Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Vengeance at Bitter Creek


Jake Delaney wheeled and saw a horseman, silhouetted against the western sky. He had been hidden in the glare of the red-gold sun, and Delaney had seen nothing of him until he was almost on them.  The rider came slowly up the street.

Delaney let Ella go, pushing her to the ground behind him.  She fell with a sob, cowering down and covering her head with her arms to ward off the blow she knew was coming. 

"Who is he?  Does anyone know him?" questioned Delaney hurriedly.

One by one his men shook their heads.

The rider reined in his mount and sat regarding them.  He lounged in the saddle, his face shaded by the brim of his hat.

"He's wearing that gun down low," whispered one of Delaney's companions, his voice hoarse. 

"A gun hawk!" whispered another.

The stranger looped the reins over the saddle horn and rested his right hand casually on his thigh.  He stared at them, the glitter of his eyes in the shade of his hat all they could see of him.  Delaney, suddenly nervous, said nothing but glowered back.


"Evenin', ma'am," said the stranger to Ella.  His horse stood like a statue as he removed his Stetson with his left hand and made Ella graceful obeisance with it.   Brilliant blue eyes, glittering like cold sapphires, raked over Delaney and his toughs.  "The lady needs a hand up," he said, his voice soft and silky smooth, and the tone of command made sure no-one there thought it was a mere suggestion.

Ella, trembling, looked up into a face that she trusted instinctively and which riveted her attention.  He was young and handsome, but it was more than that that captivated Ella.  The azure eyes in the darkly tanned face softened when they glanced at her and he had taken his hat off for her as if she were a lady.  His hard mouth curved into a smile that she saw as respectful. 

Delaney saw it as a threat.  He took a step back, placing his boot deliberately on Ella's short satin gown, making sure the dance-hall girl couldn't move.  "Is that right, stranger?  Then maybe you should get down and help the lady."

"Because a dog like you's hurtin' her?  I reckon I need to teach you some manners."

"A half-breed like you can't teach me nothin'!"

The sneer in Delaney's voice made Ella shudder and she cried out a warning to the stranger when she saw Delaney's hand reach for his gun.  But the stranger moved so fast his hand was just a blur.  Before Delaney could clear leather, he was looking down the barrel of the stranger's Colt.

Delaney froze.  There was a murmur of fear from his henchmen.  The stranger waved his gun at them, inviting them to leave and they needed no encouragement.  They melted away, leaving Delaney and the stranger staring at each other.

"Now," said the stranger, his soft voice so menacing that Ella's breath caught.  "Help the lady up."







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