Morning brought a sense of unreality to the disaster. By dawn, the fire was still smouldering, but held no more risk to the house. Sarah had pulled herself together, gotten dressed and supplied coffee for all the men who had come to help. She had then thanked them all properly, and they had assured her of their help when she was ready to rebuild. With nothing else left to do, they had left to go about the business of running their own ranch.
Their arrival during the night had brought more unwelcome news. Not satisfied with the burning of the barn, it seemed that the raiders had also destroyed the bridge over the stream into the bargain. She had not seen the damage yet, but Rafe Carter had told her that it was virtually destroyed. It was just one more repair job to add to the list, and she didn’t want to think about that right now.
Sarah was left to stare at the blackened remains of the barn and to ponder what she should do next. She had sent the men to clean up at the stream and then told them to get some sleep.
She herself had been unable to sleep. Over the past six months she had been angry, bitter and even worried, but, now, for the first time, she was frightened. This time they had brought the fight right to her very doorstep. The audacity of it chilled her to the bone. What more were they capable of?
In her present state, she could actually think of a lot of things they might be capable of. Maybe the next time it would be her house, or the bunkhouse. Fear began to settle in on her, like an unwelcome guest and she could not bring herself yet to face it.
After a few hours rest, the three men came out to face the task of clearing away the debris. They found Sarah, sitting in a chair on the porch of her house, staring at what had been the barn. The pall of smoke that clung to the air was so thick that they could almost taste it. The smell of wood fire had even drifted into the bunkhouse and the house. There was no escaping it.
They looked awkwardly at each other, unsure what to say to Sarah. Joe and Tom chose not to face the dilemma at all, and had walked over to the wagon to begin checking out properly what they had managed to salvage from the tack room.
Scott walked, instead, to where Sarah sat on the porch and stopped in front of the steps.
“Did you get any sleep at all?” he asked.
She shook her head and whispered “No.”
“Then go and get some now,” he ordered. “We can look after everything here.”
She made no move to go. “I’m not tired,” she whispered.
Scott sighed in exasperation. “Of course you’re tired. And you’re shocked and you’re beaten,” he told her. “But all of that is only temporary. When you’ve had some rest, you’ll feel better.”
Her lethargy worried him. Finally, she looked up and seemed to see him. “I’m not so sure Scott,” she told him.
He walked decisively up the stairs and took her up in his arms. “Well I am!” he insisted and carried her into the house.
She gave him no resistance and he put her on her bed. “You get some sleep,” he ordered and she closed her eyes in sheer exhaustion.
It seemed to take only minutes for sleep to overtake her, but he stayed, in a chair on the other side of the room, until he was sure she had drifted off to sleep. Then he closed the door silently and went out to join the others.
The three of them inspected the smouldering, charred remains of the barn and could find nothing worth the effort of trying to salvage. They found the shovels and other tools that had been stored there, but the wooden handles had burned away, and they were left with useless metal that had been twisted and deformed in the heat.
There were still a couple of posts standing in the middle of the mess, or at least parts of posts, the top halves burned away. They would have to be dug out and the rest cleared away to make way for the new building. Dug out with what? Scott thought to himself. The fire had left nothing.
Well, there was no better time to start than this, so they began picking up charred pieces of timber and throwing them into a pile to one side. They threw other junk, like the misshapen remains of the tools, onto another pile.
They had been hard at it for about an hour when the three of them looked up at the sound of an approaching horse. Scott was wearing his gun belt already, but Joe and Tom walked over to the wagon where they had left their rifles.
To say that they were wary of strangers at the moment would be an understatement. All three looked down the road to see who was coming and waited nervously for his appearance.
When he appeared, it turned out to be Gabe Tessman, riding an elegant roan mare and wearing his Sunday best clothes, despite it not being Sunday. He rode up to the three men and surveyed the ruins of the barn.
“I heard what happened in town,” he said to them. “I thought Sarah might appreciate a friendly face right now.”
Scott stepped up to the front and answered for all of them. “She had a rough night,” he told the man and nodded to the debris behind them, “as you might have noticed. She’s sleeping right now.”
Tessman seemed to take a dislike to Scott’s demeanour, and said arrogantly, “She won’t mind my calling.”
He dismounted and made as if to go towards the house, but Scott stepped in his way.
“Maybe not, Mr Tessman,” he said, as courteously as he could stand to be with the man, “but like I said – she’s asleep. We’ve only just been able to get her to go to bed and she needs the rest.” He smiled amiably. “I’m sure you understand.”
Tessman had no intention of being bulldozed by cowhands. “Why don’t we let Sarah decide?” he said smugly.
“Well, Mr Tessman,” Scott answered, his tone still polite, but with a definitely cold tinge to it, “like I said. Sarah is exhausted and needs the rest. Now if you have any consideration for her, you’ll let her sleep today, and come back tomorrow.”
He looked furiously at Scott, and then at the two men standing behind him. Both of them were armed with rifles, even if they weren’t actually aiming them at him. His face flushed red with rage. “Are you saying you’re stopping me from seeing Sarah?”
Scott smiled. “Now you see, I knew you’d understand. Why don’t you come back tomorrow instead?”
Tessman looked him up and down, and then turned and remounted his horse. He looked down at Scott and said venomously, “I’ll see that Sarah gives you your marching orders for this Garrett.”
Scott still smiled and nodded. “Sure Mr Tessman,” he said, “as long as it’s tomorrow. Today, she’s sleeping.”
Tessman grunted furiously then turned his horse and rode off down the road.
They watched him ride away and then Joe and Tom put up their rifles and put them back on the wagon. Joe turned back to Scott and grinned.
“Scottie boy,” he laughed, “I don’t think he likes you.”
Scott laughed with him. “And I’m all broken-up about it, Joe.”
Jelly stood watching from the barn door as Johnny saddled Barranca in the corral. If ever a man had something on his mind, it was that boy.
Johnny looked distracted. He was going about it mechanically while his thoughts appeared to be elsewhere. He finished and stopped. He took off his hat and ran his hand through he hair then put it back on his head, taking the trouble to settle it comfortably. He didn't mount the big palomino but leaned against the saddle and without turning to face him, asked "You got something on your mind Jelly?"
"Seems like you're the one with something on his mind!" he replied in his terse forthright way.
He got no answer from Johnny but he had a pretty good idea what was bothering him anyway. Everyone in the house was on tenterhooks waiting for a wire from Scott and he wasn't surprised that Johnny was finding the waiting hard.
"I can guess," Jelly said shaking his head. "You're worrying about that brother of yours," he said. "Well it ain't doing a lick o' good. He's full grown and.."
"I know," Johnny interrupted quietly and finished for him "and he's a big boy now, and he can look after himself. I know all that."
"But?" Jelly prodded. He could see that there was something more to it.
Johnny turned to face him and seemed to consider how to answer the question. Finally he replied. "Oh, I dunno Jelly, I've got a bad feeling about it," he said.
"What d'ya mean 'a bad feelin'?" Jelly asked.
Johnny looked uncomfortable. "A gut feeling I guess. Just a feeling. I can’t put my finger on it."
"Like a hunch maybe?"
Johnny nodded. He kicked at the dirt at his feet while he considered Jelly’s interpretation of it. He looked up to see Jelly eying him speculatively. "Yeah, kinda. I don't know how to explain it, but I can't shake it."
Jelly rubbed his bearded chin and thought about it. "Maybe you're just worryin' too much is all," he told him.
Johnny sighed. He assumed that he hadn’t gotten his point across, and it annoyed him. Without replying, he turned back and swung himself up into the saddle. He gathered together the reins and said "Maybe," but he sounded unconvinced. He left it at that though and said "See you later, Jelly," as he rode out.
His father had watched the two men from the portico. He watched Johnny ride out and then walked purposefully over to talk to Jelly.
"What was that about?" he asked him.
Jelly brushed off the question with a short "Aw, he's just worryin' about Scott is all."
Murdoch nodded. "We all are."
Jelly looked at him. "Yeah, well it's different for him, I guess."
Murdoch was surprised. "Why's that?"
Jelly grimaced and said sarcastically "You know Boss, sometimes I think a jackass has more brains than some o’ the people ‘round here?"
If Murdoch was offended he didn't show it. He was used to the way that the surly little man talked to him, and to everyone else. They all were, and no one took offence. Sometimes he had a knack of saying just the right thing, when no one else was game to.
Jelly Hoskins was ranch handyman - a short, brusque little man who could turn his hand to just about anything, but he had no time for mincing his words. He called a spade a spade, and a fool a fool and if they didn’t like it, well then that was their problem, not his. He was, more often than not, seen being followed by his watchdog - a white gander named Dewdrop who had a reputation for scaring off as much of their own stock as unwanted visitors.
He could get away with the things he said just because it was
his way. He even got away with it with Johnny, and he could not say that for himself.
"How so?" he asked him.
"How so?" Jelly mimicked, irritably. "Murdoch, that boy ain't never had to worry 'bout no one but himself most of his life. 'Free as an alley cat' that's what he says. So now, all of a sudden, he's got a home and a family and people to care about. He's still gettin' the hang of it!"
Murdoch looked after his son and thought about it. Jelly was right.
Johnny had been cold as ice when he had arrived at LANCER. He’d handled him badly right from the start. He knew that better than anyone. Murdoch had known, when he sent for his sons, that meeting them would not exactly be a moment for ‘killing the fatted calf’. He hadn’t seen either of them for twenty years, and he had realised that it would not be a happy family reunion. He had been prepared for that. At least, he had thought he was prepared. Johnny’s open bitterness towards him had been harder to accept than he cared to admit.
It had probably been as much his own fault though. Like most people, he had heard stories of Johnny Madrid. It had come as a shock to learn that the gun hawk with the big reputation was his own missing son. It was still hard for him to accept his son for what he was, especially when he was faced with the reality of it.
Johnny hadn’t trusted the world in general, and he certainly wasn’t going to trust a father who he thought had thrown him and his mother out. Scott, he didn’t know then – hadn’t even known he existed.
Scott, at least, had had the genuine affection of his grandfather when he was growing up. Murdoch was grateful for that. But Johnny had grown up with no one to care about, after the early death of his mother. He’d been on his own after that, with nothing to worry about except survival.
It had taken some time for that ice to thaw, but eventually it had. It had been a rocky road, winning the trust of both of his sons, and it sometimes still was. But they had forged a bond over the last couple of years and it had grown strong.
He knew, too, that the bond that had grown between his boys was the strongest. It was strange to think that they had not even known about each other a few years ago. They were two men, with completely different backgrounds and yet with so much in common, opposites and yet so alike. They were more now than just brothers with a blood bond. They were friends.
He watched his son ride out of the yard and realised that Jelly was probably right. He had always known that Johnny found this new way of life hard to settle into, but sometimes he forgot.
He sighed and admitted, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“No, o’ course not,” Jelly said pointedly and turned away in disgust. Murdoch turned his head and watched him as he stalked off into the barn, muttering gruffly, but loud enough to be heard, “like there’s anything new ‘bout THAT around here!”
The men let Sarah sleep on and helped themselves quietly to a meal. Exhaustion and shock had taken their toll of her and she slept through until almost dawn the next day and woke with a feeling of unreality creeping over her.
As the sun came up she got up and dressed and walked out into the yard. In the half-light and the haze of smoke that still hung over the whole yard, she could see the ruins of the barn. There were a few remaining posts, some burnt almost to the ground and one that was still three-quarters upright and standing eerily on its own.
The men had cleared a considerable amount of the rubble already into two large piles, but there was still a lot left to do. Broken beams and half-burned timber lay everywhere. But where they had cleared was strangely empty and left only an ash-covered patch of ground where the building had stood.
She stared at it and considered her options. Yesterday, or was it the day before – time seemed strangely distorted at the moment – she had been frightened. Now she stood watching the sun come up over the ruins and lighting the shadows, bringing them into focus with a kind of stark reality.
She began to feel anger rising within her, rising like a spring bubbling to the surface. They had no right to do this to her! This was her land, and her property! People could have been hurt or killed!
All of the fears and doubts she had been feeling for the last couple of days melted away with the rising sun. No, she wasn’t going to give in to them. She would have to find some way to fight back!
She was unaware of Scott watching her from the bunkhouse. He had risen early and saw her standing outside contemplating the rubble that had once been the barn. He had no idea what she was thinking out there, but he hoped that she had gotten past the noticeable misery she had been through in the last few days.
He became aware that he too was being watched. Tom approached him from behind and quietly said, “Can I talk to you outside?”
Scott stepped quietly out into the early morning light and Tom followed him, closing the door behind him.
“What is it Tom?” Scott asked him.
“I didn’t want Joe to hear,” he told him in hushed tones. “I wanted to talk to you about what you were saying the other day.”
Scott frowned and Tom added to clarify “About Madrid I mean.”
“Sure,” he replied, not sure what to expect.
Tom seemed unsure of himself. “Well I was wondering,” he began and stopped for a moment before continuing. “You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said – that he might not be the real thing.”
Scott stood hopefully waiting for him to continue. Had the seeds he had planted taken root? Maybe Tom was beginning to have doubts. “Go on Tom?” he prompted.
“Well, I’d heard a few years ago that Madrid had been killed down in Mexico, so when he turned up here – well I wasn’t real sure it was him,” Tom tried to explain.
Scott acknowledged his statement with a nod of his head. “I remember hearing that myself, but it was just a rumour.”
Tom nodded. “Yeah, I guess so, but I didn’t know that then.”
“So…?” Scott encouraged again.
“So when this guy turned up claiming to be Johnny Madrid, I told Miss Sarah and Joe that I thought he was dead. Well, Miss Sarah, she told me that she had heard in town that he had been recognised before he had ever said who he was, and so he must be the real thing.”
Scott was intrigued now. If someone had claimed to recognise the impostor as Johnny Madrid, then that person had to be involved. He tried to appear dispassionate in his response and hoped that the excitement that he was feeling was not showing.
“Do you know who it was?” he asked.
To Scott’s disappointment he said, “No, I don’t know exactly who it was,” then he added “but that don’t matter. What’s got me thinking now is that it was one of Tessman’s men.”
Scott felt like shouting, and hoped that he didn’t show it. He finally had a link to Tessman, something substantial that might go towards proving that he was behind the attacks on the ranch. He tried not to be too eager when he answered.
“You’re sure about this Tom?” he asked him.
Tom nodded his certainty. “Yeah, Scott, I’m sure. It was Gabe himself that told Miss Sarah that he was Madrid. He told her, too, that Madrid is Lancer’s son, though Joe already knew that. Said he’d heard about it a while back.”
“Yes,” Scott agreed. “I don’t think that’s much of a secret,” he added, though he had to admit that there had been times when it would have been better if it had been. Johnny had never tried to conceal his past, but then, it would have been no use anyway. There would always have been someone to come by and recognise him.
“No, but what you said the other day got me to thinking, is all,” he answered. “I didn’t want Joe to hear. He’d probably think I’m plumb crazy, but I can’t help wondering about it.”
Scott looked at the tall, scrawny cowhand and, not for the first time, realised how underestimated he was. He had so little to say most of the time, that no-one saw him watching, and noticing, and thinking about the things that were going on around him. Well, they did say that ‘still waters run deep’ and now he understood what it meant.
“I know, Tom,” he replied cheerfully. “I can’t help wondering myself.”
Tom looked at Scott with an inquiring expression. “Have you ever seen Madrid yourself?” he asked unexpectedly.
Scott considered lying for a moment. He did not want to admit to knowing Johnny at this stage. He was afraid that he would lose the trust that he had established. So he considered carefully before answering.
“Yes, I’ve seen him,” he admitted cautiously, “I’ll know him if I see him.” He added, a little vaguely, “Or at least I think I would.”
“Well, that’s something anyway. At least then we’ll know.” He seemed to stop and think about things for a moment, and then added, “You know, I never could understand Murdoch Lancer being behind this. I always heard he was a decent sort.”
Scott smiled. He felt for the first time since he came here, that he had a chance of convincing them that LANCER was not the source of their trouble. He saw in Tom a prospective ally and was heartened by the idea.
Joe and Sarah would be a different story though. It would not be an easy task to get them to believe anything other that the LANCER story. They were both firmly convinced at the moment, and he would have to find some proof for his theory before taking it to either of them.
“I think you’re right Tom. Let’s keep this between ourselves for now, and just keep an eye out,” Scott told him, then mused aloud. “I think I’d really like to get a look at our friend Mr Madrid.”
Tom shook his head emphatically. “No you don’t. Whether he’s the real McCoy or not, he’s real bad news. He’s fast and he’s mean, Scott, just like Joe said.” He thought for a moment then added, “And if he’s not the real Madrid, then you don’t want him finding out that you might know it. He won’t want you being able to spoil his game, and no tellin’ what he might do.”
He started to turn back to the door of the bunkhouse, but stopped and warned Scott. “You might want to keep that to yourself Scott.” Then he turned back again and went inside.
Scott stood where he was and looked back at Sarah. She was going inside now and he decided to do the same, following Tom through the door.
Tom had a point. It would be best to keep that little nugget of information to himself. ‘Madrid’ was not the only one who might want him out of the way if it got out. His ‘boss’ wouldn’t want him around either.
It was Scott's turn to work around the yard that day, while Joe and Tom went off to check the bridge and see what they could do to repair it. They were going to have to get hold of some tools so that they could start rebuilding the bridge and the barn. All of the tools they possessed had been lost in the fire.
Scott saw them off and then went back to work on what was left of the barn. There was plenty of clean up work there to keep him busy all day. He would end up covered in ash and smelling of smoke again and he was getting tired of it. The heat and the perspiration baked the black soot onto his skin and onto his clothes, and getting clean was a matter of going down to stream at night and scrubbing his skin raw.
The morning was another hot one. He stopped to wipe the perspiration from his face so many times that he was soon streaked with ash. He was more than a little bit pleased when he looked up to see Sarah coming towards him with a cool drink in her hand for him.
"You looked like you could use a cool drink," she said with a glowing smile. She looked around her at the piles of rubble and the shambles that had been the barn. "It looks like hard work on your own. Can I lend a hand?"
He accepted the glass gratefully and smiled. "If you don't mind a bit of dirt."
"Thanks," he said, relishing the cool water then he turned to go back to work, handing the glass back. He watched her turn and walk over to the trough to put the glass down beside it out of the way. The glimpse of her smile had been almost as refreshing as the water. She seemed to have recovered from the depression she had been in for the last couple of days more than he had hoped. A light that had been missing for a while, had returned to her eyes, and he was glad to see it back.
She turned back to him with a broad smile. “I don’t mind a bit of hard work. Where should I start?”
He shrugged carelessly. “Anywhere you like. You’re the boss,” he told her, then added a caution, “but be careful what you pick up. There’s broken glass and nails and all kind of nasty stuff in there.”
She pulled a pair of work-gloves out of the pocket of her jeans. “I came prepared,” she told him with a grin.
He grinned back cheerfully, pleased to see some of the fun back in her. “Oh, and you might want to remember that you friend Mr Tessman will probably be coming by. He came around yesterday.”
She stared at him curiously. “Yesterday? When I was asleep?”
“And you didn’t wake me?” she asked.
“We thought you needed the sleep more than the sympathy. He saw it our way and said he’d be back today,” Scott explained, well aware that he was leaving a few details out.
Sarah tilted her head, looking into his eyes. She was sure that she could see a hint of mischief in them. She suspected something must have happened between him and Gabe while she was asleep. Well, Gabe would certainly tell her if there was anything to tell.
“Well, it was nice of him to come,” she told him. She stopped and considered what she should say then. Finally she added, “We didn’t part on terribly good terms the last time he visited.”
Scott decided against answering that remark. It got too close to her private life. Instead he wiped his brow, leaving a trail of soot behind, and leaned down to start picking up and tossing burnt timber and rubbish again.
Sarah saw the soot and grinned, then turned to go to work herself.
It wasn’t heavy work, but the repetitive bending and standing up was backbreaking after a while. She was soon covered in soot and ash, the same as Scott was. Wisps of her hair came loose from the ribbon that tied it back and they got in her face and eyes, annoying her. She brushed them away irritably and she just knew that her face was probably just as blackened as his was.
They worked in virtual silence. The work was too hard, and the day too hot to keep up a conversation. Scott watched her every now and then, and thought privately that she looked good even in dirty blue jeans and covered in grime.
They’d been hard at it for nearly an hour when they heard the sound of approaching hooves. Scott checked that his gun was in comfortable reach in his belt, while Sarah looked down the trail.
Neither of them was surprised to see that the visitor was Gabe Tessman. He arrived on the same neat little mare he had ridden yesterday, and dressed in a suit. Scott noticed that, again, he was unarmed. He had never seen him wearing a gun-belt and assumed, a trifle maliciously, that he preferred to let others handle that sort of work for him.
Tessman reined up in front of them and dismounted. His surprise at Sarah’s state was patently obvious as he exclaimed, “Sarah, what on earth are you doing?”
She pulled off the gloves and pushed back another stray piece of hair. She smiled at him and answered, “My share, Gabe. I can’t let them do all the work.”
Tessman shook his head and smiled at her. “You’re a constant source of amazement, Sarah.”
Sarah’s smile broadened. She turned to Scott and suggested “Why don’t you find some shade and take a break for a while?”
“Sure,” he replied quietly and pulled his own gloves off his hands. He and Tessman exchanged baleful glances as Gabe took Sarah by the arm and led her towards the house. She picked up the glass as she passed and chatted cheerfully to him as she walked away.
Scott watched them go and then followed behind them from some distance. He saw them go into the house and walked to the porch where he sat down on the step. He leaned back against the railing and settled into the shade.
was right. It was a nice, comfortable spot to sit in when company came
to visit Sarah!
Inside the house, Sarah suggested that Gabe take a seat while she cleaned herself up a little. She went to her room and washed her hands and face and brushed her hair back into place before returning to the little drawing room.As she walked out of the bedroom, she said quietly and a little sadly to him, “I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me again.”
“Don’t be silly Sarah,” he replied with a smile. “I might have left in a bit of a temper, but I’ll always care for you Sarah,” he told her as she came back into the room,
“I hated to disappoint you like that. I hope you understand that.”
“Of course I can, and I would like to apologise right now for the way I acted. I’m afraid I had rather hoped you’d say yes.”
Sarah said nothing to that. She felt there was nothing she could say. At least there wasn’t anything that would make her refusal any easier for him to accept.
“Anyway,” he continued, when she didn’t reply, “when I heard about the fire in town, I came out here yesterday to see if there was anything I could do, but your men wouldn’t even let me get down off my horse.”
“I know, Scott told me this morning.”
“Yes, Scott. I don’t like him being around you Sarah. He seems to have wheedled his way in here pretty smoothly, and I’m not sure you should trust him.”
“Don’t be silly Gabe! He hasn’t ‘wheedled his way’ into anything! And I certainly trust him.”
“I know you do. But for all you know he could have lit that fire the other night himself. You know nothing about him.”
Sarah rose in Scott’s defence. “Of course he didn’t light the fire,” she told him adamantly. “In fact, he risked his life getting the horses out. He could have been killed.”
Tessman realised he had gone too far. “Alright, you might be right. But you still know nothing about him. He’s a drifter, Sarah. You have to be careful when you hire a drifter.”
“Yes, you’ve said that before. I know you don’t like him, Gabe, but having him here is a big help. He’s a good worker.”
“Yes, and that’s another thing. You shouldn’t have to do that sort of work, Sarah,” he said to her.
“It’s my choice Gabe. I needed to do something.”
“Well, I’m surprised that Garrett would stand by and let you do it,” he said truculently.
“Let me?” she argued, affronted. “This is my ranch, Gabe, remember? He doesn’t ‘let me’ do anything!”
“Well, you wouldn’t have known it yesterday. He acted like he owned the place. He all but threw me out at gunpoint!” he told her angrily.
“I’m sure they only had my interests at heart, Gabe,’ she assured him testily.
He sighed and nodded. “Yes, I know Sarah. I wish that you didn’t have to go through this.”
She smiled, and replied, trying to appear cheerful, “I wish I didn’t have to either. Gabe, surely there must be something the law can do for me."
Tessman sighed. "I've tried everything I can think of. Lancer's just too powerful. They're afraid of him."
"Maybe we could write the Governor," Sarah suggested.
He beamed at her. “You really are a fighter aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
She sat up straight and put up her chin defiantly. “I am not going to let Murdoch Lancer win.”
Outside on the step, Murdoch Lancer’s eldest son winced a little. He could hear most of what was being said inside, and that one stung.
Gabe smiled at the suggestion and answered, "Sweet Sarah, sometimes you are so naive. Murdoch Lancer is a friend of the Governor. If Lancer were to get wind of it, things could get a lot worse."
His answer annoyed her. "Just how much worse can it get, Gabe?" she demanded. "They burned down the barn! People could have been killed the other night. Scott nearly was!"
A shadow crossed his face at the mention of Scott’s name, and he said tersely, "Yes, well, he chose to take the risks."
Sarah was shocked by his callousness of his remark. She fired back at him, "How can you say that, Gabe? If he had been hurt, it would have been because of me!"
Tessman realised he had gone too far. "I'm sorry Sarah," he apologised, "you're right. It's just that that man has ingratiated himself with you so much." He tried a wry smile before continuing. "I guess I can't help seeing him as a rival for your affections."
The anger left Sarah's face, but she was far from mollified.
"Well, he's not! I'm sorry Gabe, but I don't see either of you
"Yes, I know that now Sarah," he answered sadly. Tessman appeared to say nothing for a moment, before replying. “Sarah, what if there was a way to beat Lancer and still get away from all this trouble?” he asked her at last.
Sarah looked inquiringly at him. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’ve been thinking about it Sarah. You could sell the land to me, and let me worry about Lancer. That’s one way to beat him.”
Sarah smiled at him kindly, and shook her head. “It’s kind of you Gabe, but I couldn’t do that to you.”
“Nonsense. I know you won’t have me, but I want to get you out of this. You could get away and go back to San Francisco. Maybe open up a school or something. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”
“Maybe,” she whispered. “I don’t know, Gabe.”
“Just think about it then. You can’t go on like this. It’s too dangerous.”
She was quiet for a while. “Yes, it is dangerous,” she admitted. “I’m not a fool. And I lost a lot with the barn. I might have to go to Green River and see if the bank there will give me a loan to tide me over.”
Tessman shook his head incredulously. “That would be foolish, Sarah. There’s no saying that what you rebuild they won’t burn down again. You’d be throwing good money after bad. It would ruin you!”
“Maybe so, but I think I have to consider it. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Tessman leaned forward closer to her. “You can think about what I said,” he reiterated. “Think about it Sarah. You could get out of here with your pride intact and start over somewhere else. It’s the sensible thing to do.”
Sarah was silent. Outside on the step, Scott feared that she was going to cave in. He had heard the proposition, and it was just what he had expected would happen sooner or later. He felt that his suspicions were confirmed. The charming ‘lover’ and confidante that he pretended to be was a blind for the shark that he really was – a predator who was willing to put her through hell, and smile charmingly while he did it.
Scott fought to keep the rage he felt from surfacing. He too had a part to play for the time being, and he couldn’t afford to let his emotions sweep him away. It was not time to come forward yet. He had no proof of Tessman’s betrayal, only circumstantial evidence - a lot of theories that Tessman’s glib tongue would find answers for in a flash.
So, he waited. He waited for what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, before Sarah finally answered.
“Alright Gabe, I’ll think about it. I promise,” Scott heard her say at last and he heaved a sigh of relief. He didn’t want to see her throw everything away and let Tessman win.
He heard Tessman stand up out of his chair and walk towards the door. “That’s good enough for now then Sarah,” he said as he picked up his hat and stepped out of the doorway.
Seeing Scott sitting on the step enraged him. The smiling charmer was gone again, and his violent temper showed through.
“What are you doing there?” he demanded furiously of Scott.
Scott answered politely. “Just enjoying the shade Mr Tessman?” he replied nonchalantly.
He might have sounded respectful, but the irony was not lost on Gabe Tessman. He kicked Scott’s feet out of his way viciously as he stormed down the steps.
He untethered his horse and turned back to Scott with a malignant smile. “One of these days you’ll go too far, Garrett.”
Scott chose to ignore the threat, but smiled enigmatically when he saw that Sarah had emerged from the house and had heard it.
Tessman reined in his temper enough to bid a civil farewell to Sarah and ride out with his pride intact. Scott stood up and turned to Sarah who coolly invited him in.
"Wash up and come in. I'll put together something to eat, before we go back to work," she said curtly.
The two of them worked for most of the afternoon, taking a break now and then as the heat took its toll on them both. Sarah worked in silence for most of the time. He guessed that she was still annoyed with him for antagonising Tessman again.
Working virtually on his own then, he had time to consider the options open to him to bring Tessman out in the open. It was clear nowthat there was no physical proof except for that original letter that purported to have been signed by Murdoch. He might be able to show that Tessman himself had signed it, but he doubted it. He could certainly prove that the 'Johnny Madrid' who was operating in the area was not the real thing, but that did not prove that he worked for Tessman.
It seemed to Scott that the only option open to him was be to try to provoke Tessman into making a mistake. There was already enough animosity between them to make the idea work. He had to find some way of getting Tessman into the open. He had to force him to make a mistake that would reveal his complicity. As yet, Tessman had been glib enough to actually make himself almost a hero to Sarah, so turning her mind around enough to make her accept that he was responsible for all her problems was a major hurdle.
The only good thing so far was that Tessman did not seem to suspect that he was not what he said he was. When the time came for Sarah to find out who he was, he wanted to be the one to tell her. He felt he owed her that much. But, until he could convince her of Tessman's guilt and that LANCER was in no way involved, it would be disastrous for her to find out.
As the afternoon wore on, he began to feel a little discomfort from the cinder burns he had gotten from the fire the other night. He had been keeping them as clean as he could but they were on his back and hard to reach, let alone see. The burns had been so small that he had disregarded them initially, but they were beginning to annoy him.
He looked over to make sure that Sarah was all right. She was covered in soot from head to toe, and he imagined that he looked just as bad. She was untidy, grimy and her hair had escaped almost completely from its bonds, but he had to admit that she had never looked better.
Teresa got around the ranch all the time in jeans, and he was honest enough to admit that she was a beautiful young woman. But he and Johnny had come to think of her as a little sister. He looked again at Sarah and, no, he did not think of her as a sister!
He began to see, for the first time, that he was staying to help her, not because LANCER was under threat. He was fully aware that he owed allegiance to his father and brother, and to all the people who relied on LANCER for their livelihood. But LANCER was strong, and had powerful men behind her. He watched Sarah working beside him and realised that he would stay until she was out of trouble.
He shook the idea away and went quickly back to work.
Sarah had long ago gotten over her bad humour. The work cleared her head even if it was exhausting. She liked being able to actually do something that took her mind off her problems, not to have to worry about the ranch, or her friends, or her responsibilities for a while. It was a palpable relief for her.
When she did look in Scott’s direction, she occasionally noticed that he seemed to be in some discomfort. She wondered about it at first, and then remembered, with a pang of guilt that she could have forgotten at all, the cinder burns he had received in the barn fire.
“Scott, are you alright?” she asked, seeing him stretch his back for a third time in the last thirty minutes.
He turned around to her. “Sure, I’m fine. Just hot.”
Unconvinced, she asked again. “Are those burns bothering you?”
He shook his head and replied “No,” then turned and went back to work.
Sarah strode purposefully over to him and took his arm, dragging him over towards the water trough. “I don’t believe you, Scott Garrett,” she told him. “Now take off that shirt and let me have a look.”
“Sarah…” he began to protest, but she cut him off with a look of exasperation.
“Don’t argue with me,” she insisted as they reached the trough. “Now take off the shirt and sit down so I can see.”
In the end, he decided that it was easier to do as she said than to argue with her. He took off the shirt and sat on the edge of the trough while she examined the burns, being careful not to touch them. When she had finished checking his back to looked at his chest and found another on his shoulder.
Finally tired of it, he asked, “Have you finished?”
“The ones on your back are pretty raw, Scott, and a couple of them have blistered,” she told him in all seriousness. “I know they’re only small, but you should be careful with them.”
He stood up and pulled the shirt back on. “I’ll be careful with them, I promise,” he said indignantly. “Now if you’ve finished, I’ll go back to work.”
“We’ve done enough for the day,” she replied, just as testily. “Right now, I think you should go down to the stream and clean up. I have some salve that will help those burns.” She began to walk off towards the house, then turned back to call out. “I don’t need you sick on my hands thankyou.”
By the time Scott came back, the sun was getting low and Joe and Tom had returned as well. They were at the house talking to Sarah when he joined them, and he could see that they had not brought good news.
“What’s happened?” he asked as he approached them.
“Tom an’ me took a ride down the fence-line this afternoon,” Joe told him. “All that new fencin’ we put up last week is down again.”
“All of it?” Scott exclaimed.
“Yep, an’ there was already a few head wandering down into the gully. We herded ‘em back in an’ fixed ‘er up best we could. It won’t hold long though,” Joe explained. Scott could not believe how matter of fact he made it sound. All that work down the drain!
“Well,” Sarah said dispassionately, “there’s nothing to be done about it tonight. You two get cleaned up and come on in. I’ve got dinner just about ready anyway.”
She turned and went inside and Scott followed Joe and Tom to the bunkhouse.
Scott could not believe how calmly they were taking it. To him it was the final straw, but they appeared to be ready to just go out and fix it again.
Joe noticed Scott’s frustration. He grinned and joked, “I told ya the other day son, it’s like a game. We put ‘er up and they pull ‘er down. It’s been goin’ on for months now.”
“Well, it can’t keep going on for months!” Scott replied irritably.
Joe washed his hands and, as he was drying them, he answered quite seriously. “No, you’re right. It can’t go on much longer. It’s startin’ to wear Miss Sarah down too.”
Tom joined the conversation at last. “Seems to me, they’ve been pretty busy these last couple of days - the barn, the bridge and now the fence again.”
Joe nodded. “Busier than usual. Maybe they’re tryin’ to finish us off.”
“Seems likely,” Tom agreed. “Miss Sarah’s been holding out for awhile. She’s been pretty down lately. Maybe they think she’ll cave if they push now.”
“And how would they know that?” Scott asked them angrily. “How could they know that now is the time to put more pressure on?”
Tom looked at him and shared a knowing glance, but said nothing. Scott got the impression that he was thinking the same way that he was, but Joe had not reasoned it out that way.
“Dunno Scott, but they’ve probably got it all planned out already,” Joe decided. “An’ if that’s the way it is, we can probably expect another little visit soon. Best we all keep an eye out.” He tossed the towel onto the hook and started for the door. “C’mon anyway, Miss Sarah’s waiting,” he said and led them across the yard to the house.
As they ate, they discussed plans for tomorrow. There was more work than they could manage at the moment, and they had to lay everything out in priority.
“First thing we gotta do is get hold o’ some tools,” Joe decided.
“That means a trip into town tomorrow,” Sarah replied. “We’ll need the wagon. Will it make it across the bridge?”
Tom shook his head. “No, Miss Sarah. It’s good and ruined, but there’s that ford down-stream. It’s real rough going and a long way out of the way, but the wagon could cross there.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea Tom. I think the first repair job will have to be the fence again. Otherwise, we’ll start to lose stock,” Sarah answered. “Then the bridge, and then we’ll have to start on a new barn.”
“That sounds right, Miss Sarah,” Joe agreed. Then with a wink and a lop-sided grin, he added, “that’s if they haven’t pulled the fence down again.”
Sarah grinned back and they all shared in the joke. It was the only way to handle it after all.
When they had finished the meal, and plans had been made for the morning, the three men helped Sarah clear the table and started to head for the bunkhouse to turn in for the night.
Sarah said goodnight to Joe and Tom, but stopped Scott from leaving. “Wait a minute, Scott,” she told him and he stopped and turned around. The other two men turned too, but only for a moment, then left.
“I’ve got that salve for those burns. Sit down and take off your shirt and I’ll get it.”
Scott started to protest but then saw the pointlessness of it. He took off his shirt and sat down again while Sarah went to the cupboard and took out the jar of ointment.
“This might sting a little,” she warned him from behind, and carefully began applying the salve to the burns.
He winced once and said nothing, so she continued as gently as she could. “I’m sorry if I’m hurting you, but these things need to be looked after,” she told him quietly, unaware that he found the soft, soothing touch of her hand anything but painful.
She stepped around in front of him and sat in the chair beside him as she applied some of the salve to the burn on his shoulder. As she finished, she put the lid back on and said to him, “There all finished,” and looked up to find her eyes meeting his.
For a moment their eyes held and, for Sarah at least, it seemed as though the whole world had drifted away. Before she knew what was happening, Scott leaned forward and their lips touched, softly at first, and then with a passion that she had not known she could feel. She had never been kissed that way before. She closed her eyes and was carried away on a wave of pure pleasure.
A wave that crashed down on her as Scott pulled away just as suddenly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, in an agonized tone.
She blinked and looked straight back at him. “I’m not,” she replied with a smile and a glow in her eyes that almost had him doing it again.
He stood up instead and grabbed his shirt. As he pulled it on, he said, “No, this is not the time. You’re too…”
She smiled again, understanding, and finished for him. “Too vulnerable?”
“Yes,” he told her passionately. “Whether you know it or not. I’m not going to take advantage of the situation you’re in.”
She sat up and clasped her hands together on the table, looking away from him. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think I can keep the ranch much longer anyway,” she said sadly and, oddly to Scott’s mind, with no trace of bitterness.
He sat back down in the chair. “Why not?”
She turned her head and smiled patiently at him. “Because I don’t have the money to keep it.” He seemed surprised, and she was right. He was surprised that he himself had not seen that sooner or later money would become a problem for her. Constantly laying out money for repairs had to have been a drain on her resources. With his own background, he had never really had to face the problem, but that did not diminish his understanding of it.
“Don’t be surprised,” she said sweetly. “This place was never a big enterprise, Scott. The money was bound to run out sooner or later.” She looked back at the table and continued. “I thought of trying to get the bank to lend me some so that I could go on, but Gabe is right. I’d be throwing good money after bad.” She looked up at him again, but this time there was a trace of sadness in her voice. “What would be the point?”
He took her hands tightly in his. “You can’t give up now, Sarah.”
“I don’t know, Scott. It seems as good a time as any.”
He shook his head. “No,” he insisted. He considered for a moment and then said, “What if I could get the money you need to keep going?”
Sarah smiled tolerantly at him. “Really, where are you going to get that kind of money? Rob a bank?”
Scott grinned and replied. “I don’t rob banks,” then added with a laugh, “though I did rob a train once!”
Sarah laughed with him. “Scott, seriously, I don’t have the money to rebuild the barn, or even the bridge for that matter. I’m going to sell the place to Gabe Tessman. He’s right, at least Murdoch Lancer and his sons won’t have won.” There was now a touch of bitterness beneath the resignation.
“No, but they’ll have beaten you. Do you really want to sell the ranch?”
She shook her head in despair, and all the fight went out of her. “Of course not. I love this place.” She looked up into his eyes and he saw tears welling in them. “But what choice do I have?”
“I’m giving you a choice. Give me some time and I’ll fix everything for you. I know someone who would help you out with the money. Don’t let that be the only reason you’re giving up.”
“Scott, take me away with you. I don’t care any more,” she pleaded, desperation breaking her voice.
He let go of her hands and stood up again. “I can’t Sarah. Not until all this is worked out.” He looked into her face, and saw tears rolling down her cheeks and he came to a decision. A decision that could lose her trust forever, but he would take that chance.
“There are things I need to tell you Sarah - about myself, and what I think has been going on around here,” he began, unsure how to lead into it. “How much do you trust me?”
Sarah gave him a wavering, but reassuring smile and brushed the tears from her cheeks. “Implicitly,” she stated simply.
He returned her smile nervously and hoped that she would still feel the same way when he was finished. “I hope so, Sarah. There’s so much about me you don’t know. I’ve wanted to tell you, but the way things are around here, I couldn’t.”
“Like what?” she asked, intrigued.
“Well, like…” he began but stopped, cut short by the unmistakable sound of gunfire outside.
Scott swung around and ran to the door. He opened it enough to look outside and see what was going on. In moments, he pinpointed the source of the gunfire to the corral. There were riders, mere shadows in the darkness, in the corral and around it – maybe six of them as far as he could see. He could not make out who they were from this distance.
Bright flashes lit up the night as they fired their pistols into the air. The horses in the corral whinnied and shied in panic as the men fired, again and again, around them. They were almost falling over themselves in terror.
Across the yard, he saw Joe and Tom open the bunkhouse door armed with their rifles. Joe had already stepped outside and Tom was in the doorway, so he shouted, as loudly as he could over the noise, for Tom to grab his rifle too. He was wearing his gun-belt, but he would prefer a rifle in this situation.
Tom dashed back inside, so he knew that he had been heard, and then he turned to Sarah, who had run to his side.
"Get back, Sarah!" he ordered. He opened the door to run out and she caught his arm in panic. He took her by the shoulders and told her firmly, "Stay here. Get your Henry and stay inside."
She nodded agreement and left his side to get her rifle, turning back only to call out to him, "Be careful".
He stepped outside cautiously and, taking his chance, ran towards Tom who tossed the rifle to him. He caught it easily and joined him against the wall of the bunkhouse.
Joe was running recklessly across the yard and shouting abuse at the horsemen in the corral. From their position just outside the bunkhouse, they could see the gate was open and the terrified animals were already bolting through it, out into the darkness to freedom.
"Joe, get down!" Scott screamed at him.
"Damn fool'll get himself killed that way!" Tom growled from beside him.
"They're after the horses!" Joe shouted back at them.
Pandemonium erupted as the horsemen, realising their success in running off the horses, turned their attention back to the men. Joe was caught exposed in the middle of the yard with three of the riders bearing down on him.
No longer firing into the air, they were aiming, instead, at the lone man in their path. Joe fired off a couple of rounds before he was bounced off one of the passing horses and fell, sprawling, to the ground.
Scott and Tom looked on aghast as the remaining riders rode out of the corral and headed straight for Joe, laying dazed on the ground and struggling to get back to his feet.
Instinctively, Scott screamed out a warning, but he could see that he had not been heard. He turned quickly to Tom, shouting, “Cover me Tom!” and then he ran out to help his friend.
Tom clutched at him and yelled “No Scott!” but he soon realised the futility of trying to stop him, and began firing at the riders to cover Scott’s dash into the open.
Scott grasped Joe by the collar and dragged him bodily out of the path of those deadly hooves. He crouched beside him and fired once, taking quick aim. He heard a cry of pain in the darkness and saw one of the riders grab his shoulder and struggle to keep his seat in the saddle as he passed by.
In the darkness, Scott could not make out faces, but from somewhere among the riders, he heard one voice that he recognised. His old friend Jess, from the saloon, was with them. He heard him call out to one of the others “That’s him, Johnny! That’s Garrett! Get him!”
So, Scott thought ‘Madrid’ is with them.
Scott peered into the darkness to try to get a good look at the man who was using his brother’s identity. The very thought of it enraged him still more and he fired again towards the riders.
The raiding party regrouped and headed back towards Scott and Joe.
Joe scrambled awkwardly to his feet and slapped Scott on the shoulder.
“Thanks,” he grunted quickly, then shouted, “now let’s get out of here!”
The two of them darted for the shelter of the bunkhouse. As the horsemen bore down on them, they began shooting again. This time, they weren’t firing into the air. Scott heard bullets hiss past him and turned around and fired to cover their retreat.
As the riders grew closer, he was able to clearly see the face of the lead rider. He didn’t know him, but he would always remember that face. He rode a black horse, and he was dressed all in black, just as he had been described to him. Scott knew immediately that he was looking at the man they were all calling Johnny Madrid.
He even saw the pistol in the man’s hand being raised and he knew that he was the target. He darted to the right in an effort to avoid the shot.
Even over the cacophony of noise - the hoof-beats, the gunshots and the shouting, Scott would swear that he heard the dull thud and the crack that came with it when the bullet hit him. It knocked him off his feet and he was tossed backwards to land with a cruel thump against the step of the bunkhouse.
Just for an instant, time seemed to stand still, and then an explosion of pain in his left shoulder and neck crushed him. A muffled roar in his ears dimmed all the noise around him. His eyes blurred as the horsemen galloped past him.
Dimly he saw a pistol raised and aimed at him, and then he heard a shot from behind him and a grunt from the rider that told him that a bullet had found its mark. He tried to stand. He knew he had to move, but his legs would not answer him.
Suddenly, he felt his right arm being grasped and his stomach lurched as he was dragged into the bunkhouse. The pain it caused was devastating and he gasped for breath and fought to stay conscious.
The light in the room dazzled him for a moment, but then he was able to make out the figure of Tom standing looking out of the door on guard, and Joe crouched beside him.
The gunfire and clamour outside seemed to have stopped and he heard Tom tell Joe, “They’re gone.”
Curiously, the pain now seemed to have gone away too, replaced by a numbness that he was only too grateful for. He knew he had been shot, but he couldn’t feel anything but a consuming lethargy. His mind was spinning and he had to focus on the one thought in his mind.
He whispered, “Tom?”
Joe held him as he struggled again to get to his feet. “Take it easy, son,” he heard him whisper to him.
“Where’s Tom?” he asked desperately. He had to tell him before he passed out, and he knew it was coming. He struggled against the engulfing blackness and focussed.
Rawlings looked around and walked over to kneel beside him, saying gently, “I’m here, Scott.”
Joe watched on, as Tom had to lean forward to hear what Scott was trying to say. He could not hear the words himself and Tom would swear to him later that he had not been able to hear them either – but he had.
Before he lost consciousness, Scott had just barely been able to get the words out that he so desperately needed to say. Tom leaned forward as close as he could and heard only three words, faint but distinct.
Scott had said, “It wasn’t Madrid!”
The raiding party had not even left the yard when Sarah dashed across to the bunkhouse. She had seen Scott fall and dropped the Henry rifle where she stood and ran out of the house. She was terrified of what she would find when she got there.The yard was swathed in clouds of smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder made the yard look and smell like a battlefield. She ran into the bunkhouse and found Joe kneeling beside an unconscious Scott, holding the towel he had grabbed from the hook over the wash stand to apply pressure to Scott’s wound.
The slow spread of blood through the towel made it evident that the bleeding was not easing. Scott’s face was pale but covered in splatters of his own blood as was his neck and shirt. Fear gripped her like a vice until she fought it down and got control of herself.
“Let’s get him onto his bunk,” she heard Tom tell Joe.
“No,” she said, “Take him over to the house. We’ll put him in Uncle Tim’s bed. He’ll be more comfortable there.”
Tom stood up and looked out of the doorway and announced. “They’re long gone.”
Then he walked back over and gently slipped his hands under Scott’s shoulders and under his armpits. Sarah took over from Joe holding the towel tight against the wound, and Joe took hold of his legs.
Between the three of them, they carried him across the yard and into the house. She ushered them into what had been her uncle’s room. She kept the bed there made up and the room just as he had left it only because she could not bear the thought of keeping the room empty. The bed was a big double bed with comfortable pillows and clean sheets. When he had built this house, and furnished it, her uncle had made plenty of allowance for the wife and family that he had never gotten around to investing in.
To her this was still her uncle’s room. Sometimes she even imagined that he was still there.
But not tonight.
“You two get him into the bed. I’ll go and heat some water and get some bandages,” she told them as she hurried back to the kitchen. Tears welled in her eyes, and she angrily brushed them aside. There would be time enough for tears later, she told herself. Right now, there was too much to do.
She returned five minutes later with clean rags and what bandages she kept on hand.
“Tom, will you go and bring in the water when it’s hot,” she ordered, “and then there’s an old patched sheet in that linen chest in my room. We’ll need a lot more bandages than this, so you can tear it into strips for me.”
Joe was sitting on the bed beside Scott, with the lamp brought close so that he could look at the damage. They had stripped him out of the blood-soaked clothes and put him into the bed. Joe had taken the blood soaked towel away to reveal blood slowly oozing from a wound in his shoulder just near his neck.
“The bleeding’s slowin’ up Miss Sarah,” he told her, “so it don’t look like the bullet’s hit a vein.” He leaned close and prodded around the wound carefully. “But I think it’s hit his collar bone. Looks like it’s broken.”
He stood up to allow Sarah to take his place on the edge of the bed. She took one of the rags she had brought in and placed it over the wound, holding it down hard to try to stop the bleeding. Joe picked up the towel and Sarah said to him “Take that towel out to the kitchen please Joe, and see if Tom is coming yet with that water.”
He did as she bid, and she found herself alone in the room with Scott. He hadn’t stirred at all, and his face was drained white. As she sat holding the pad on his shoulder with one hand, she ran the fingers of her other hand slowly through his tousled hair, and said a silent prayer.
Joe came back into the room and brought her thoughts back to the situation at hand. He had the bowl of water in his hands and carefully placed it on the table beside the bed. “Tom’s tearin’ up bandages,” he told her.
Sarah set about cleaning Scott up with the hot water and another of the rags. Joe had brought in a clean towel that he had found in the linen chest and laid it down for her to use. He watched her gently wipe away the blood from around the wound and dry it off.
“I’m going to need you to lift him so that I can bandage him,” she told him.
“Sure Miss Sarah,” he agreed and went to the other side of the bed and lifted Scott into an almost sitting position. He held him there while she tightly wound the bandage around his chest and shoulder, and then added his own instructions.
“You’d best strap his arm across his chest too Miss Sarah. If that collar bone is busted like I’m guessin’ it is, he’ll be a sight more comfortable that way.”
She did as he suggested, and then allowed him to lay Scott back down onto the pillow.
“There’s not much more we can do for him right now,” she sighed.
Joe looked at her with consternation. “Miss Sarah, you know that bullet is still in there,” he said at last.
“I know,” she whispered, looking up at him. “We have to get the doctor out here to him.”
Joe stood up as Tom walked back into the room. Joe ran his hand through his unruly greying hair He had concern written all over his face.
“We gotta round us up a horse first,” he said disconsolately. “They ran ‘em all off. They’ll run for miles.”
“We’ll never find ‘em in the dark, Miss Sarah,” Tom added. “First light we’ll both go out and track one of ‘em and head into town for the Doctor.”
Sarah saw the logic, but concern for Scott left her unconvinced. Both of the men could see she was worried.
“Don’t worry ‘bout him too much yet, Miss Sarah,” Joe told her with unaccustomed tenderness. “He’ll be fine till morning, and come daylight, we’ll go get us a horse, or I’ll walk to the Crossing myself.”
Sarah smiled gratefully at him. “Thankyou both,” she said and smiled wanly. “Why don’t you both try to get some sleep then. I’ll sit with him.”
“Sure Miss Sarah,” Tom agreed, and Joe nodded as well. “But if you need anything, you just come yell.”
“Okay, I promise,” she settled with them and ushered them both out of the room.
As they headed for the drawing room to leave, Tom indicated the kitchen table. “The bandages are on the table, Miss Sarah.”
“Thankyou Tom,” she said again and had to all but push them out of the house. She went to the table and picked up one of the chairs, then carried it back to the bedroom and set it down by the side of the bed. She sat down and made herself comfortable. It was going to be a long night.
Sunrise found Joe and Tom already out looking for the runaway horses. Despite their routine precaution of working in pairs, the situation demanded that they split up. They could cover more ground that way. They both wore gun-belts and carried canteens of water, and rope. It could be a long hot walk tracking the horses.
They had left Sarah alone with Scott, after demanding a promise from her to keep her rifle handy at all times. There was no way of knowing what those people would try next. The raiders had become far more reckless, lately, than in the past.
At the house, Sarah still sat by the bed. She had gotten up several times to stretch her legs and to check the bandages, but she had left only once, to get herself some coffee to keep awake. Scott had not stirred during the night though.
The last time that she had checked the bandages she had been pleased to see that the bleeding appeared to have stopped. They were heavily stained with blood and really needed changing, but she hoped that the men would find a horse and be able to go to town for the doctor before long, so she had put it off. She would need help to lift him anyway.
She had been awake to watch the sunrise at last, and to watch as Joe and Tom left, then she had barred the door, and got the rifle and put it beside her. She was taking no chances. There was not only her own safety to consider, but also that of Scott.
She watched him as he lay quietly in the bed. His face was as white as the pillow his head rested on. His breathing was shallow but he appeared to be sleeping peacefully. She longed for, and dreaded, his waking at the same time, but she knew that when he did, he would be in a lot of pain. There was not only the bullet wound, but the broken bone as well. She prayed that the men would be able to get the doctor here soon. There was so little she could do to herself to help.
As the morning wore on, she left him occasionally to go to the window. Each time she hoped to see one of the men returning with one of the horses. She knew that it might take some time though. There was no telling how far they had run in their terror. With luck though, once they had stopped and quieted, they might head back here on their own.
So far, however, there was no sign of man or horse. She stood up and went for another look, and then as she came back into her uncle’s bedroom, she heard a soft moan from the bed and hurried over to Scott’s side.
Guessing that his first instinct on waking would be to try to get up, she sat on the edge of the bed and gently, but firmly, laid her hand on his good arm.
Scott fought through the blanket of blackness that clouded his head. He could here a voice softly calling his name, and wanted to answer it, but he couldn’t. For some reason, his whole body seemed heavy and wouldn’t answer any of his commands. He couldn’t understand it, at first, but then he began to sense that all was not as it should be. Was he tied up? He tried to shake his head to clear it, and the movement sparked a blast of pain that sent shockwaves through his body and forced a groan from him that left him gasping for breath.
His whole body stiffened as the shockwaves rolled over him again and again and nausea churned in his stomach. Distantly, he could hear a voice urgently whispering his name, but his mind would not clear enough for him to identify it, or what it was saying.
His eyes flickered open, and as the blackness finally receded and he tried to focus, so did the voice become clearer. While he still fought to control his breathing, he recognised the voice. The blurred face in front of him began to come into focus as well. It was Sarah!
Finally, he was able to understand the words, if not their meaning. “Scott,” she was whispering, “can you hear me? Please, you must lay still.”
She had her hands on his shoulders, desperately trying to hold him still. As his eyes opened, and she saw the confused frown on his face, she placed one hand on his forehead and whispered soothingly to him.
“It’s alright, Scott,” she assured him gently. She stroked his forehead tenderly to calm him, and repeated softly, “It’s alright. Just lay still and rest.”
The frown remained, but she could feel his body relaxing under her hands and his breathing began to even out.
“That’s right Scott,” she said to him as she continued to stroke his forehead gently. “Take it easy and lay still.”
She thought that he was seeing her more clearly. The frown on his face deepened and he gathered his strength to force out the word “What…?
Without stopping the calming stroking of his brow, she lifted her other hand from his shoulder and took his good hand to comfort him.
“You were shot last night,” she explained as calmly as she could muster herself to say it. “But the doctor will be here soon, so all you have to do now is rest.”
She thought he was trying to gather his strength to try to speak again. Aware of what the effort would cost him, she whispered, “Shhh, don’t try to talk, Scott. Just lay still and rest.”
Reluctantly, Scott seemed to accept her advice and relax again. She reached for a mug she had ready on the side table and slipped her hand behind his head to gently lift him off the pillow so that he could sip from the mug.
He swallowed a little and his stomach revolted at the taste of the sweet liquid. He pulled back away from the mug, and she smiled as his eyes glanced questioningly in her direction.
“It’s just honey and water,” she told him with a reassuring smile. “Cures all your ills. My mother swore by it.”
She forced him to sip a little more, then lowered his head back onto the pillow and placed the mug back on the table.
He closed his eyes again, and searched for a way to deal with the throbbing pain in his shoulder. He wished that the darkness would close in on him again and take it all away. But it was gone.
Sarah stood up and went back to the chair. He opened his eyes at the movement of the bed and his eyes followed her without moving his head. She was right about that. Moving brought back the searing pain, so he was better off trying to stay still.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her sit down in a chair beside the bed and make herself comfortable.
She noticed, and reassured him. “You try to rest. I’ll be right here if you need me.”
It was nearly midday before Joe finally appeared. He rode into the yard, looking very dejected, riding bareback on Sarah's own horse,
Sugar. He stopped in front of the bunkhouse, dismounted and disappeared inside, only to reappear a few minutes later with a saddle.
After saddling the horse, he led her across the yard, tied her outside the house and knocked on the door.
Inside, Sarah was already waiting for him and had taken the bar from the door. She opened it quickly and welcomed Joe inside. Hat in hand, he accepted a cool glass of water that she had waiting for him, but he refused to sit, even for a moment, saying instead, "No thanks Miss Sarah. I'll take this drink an’ get goin'."
Sarah thought that he looked exhausted. He must have been walking for hours before finding the horse. Riding boots were not exactly designed for walking long distances and she knew he must be footsore, if not blistered, from the ordeal.
"Had the horses gone far?" she asked.
Joe nodded as he finished the water. "Found most of 'em down by that creek in the south pasture. They was still plenty spooked too. Even little Sugar out there wasn't gonna let me get close. Took some coaxin' I'll tell you!"
"He's still tryin' to get hisself a ride," he grinned. “Last I saw of him he was trying to rope one of ‘em. Then he's gonna bring the others in when he can.”
He put the empty glass on the table, taking just a moment to hold it there, as if it too was going to run off when he let go of it.
Actually he was taking a moment to ready himself to leave. He would have liked nothing better than to sit down by the stream, to take those damned boots off and soak his feet in the cool reviving water. But he knew time was now getting away.
"How is he Miss Sarah?" he asked finally, real concern in his usually gruff voice.
"He woke this morning for a little while, and I managed to get him to take some water. He's sleeping again now," she told him. She had been so relieved when he had finally dropped off to sleep. Even though it was a fitful sleep, he was in less pain that way.
"He's in a lot of pain, Joe,” she told him sadly.
Joe nodded, "Stands to reason with that bone broke as well."
He took his hat and headed for the door. "I'll get goin' for town and drag that doctor out here."
"Do you think he'll come?" she asked. "He wouldn't come out here when Manuel was shot. We had to take Manuel into town to him."
"I'll get him here one way or another, Miss Sarah," he assured her, with grim determination in his voice.
"You be careful. I don't like your having to go alone."
He grinned. "I'll be fine. Don't you worry. I've got eyes in the back of my head when it comes to lookin' after my own skin."
“Don’t take any unnecessary risks, Joe,” she begged him. “I don’t want you hurt too.”
“You c’n count on it, Miss Sarah,” he replied. “Now you make sure to bar this door after I go, an’ keep that ol’ Henry real close by. I don’t like you bein’ here alone either.”
“Tom will be back soon.”
Joe grinned. “If he c’n get one o’ them horses to stand still long enough for him to get a rope over it,” he laughed. “Tom never could rope worth a darn!”
She smiled, and he repeated his warning. “Now you make sure you bar this door after me.”
Sarah nodded. “I promise,” she said with a smile. “And you make sure you keep those eyes in the back of your head wide open.”
Joe grinned, put the hat back on his head and left.
Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk, with his chair turned around so that he could stare out of the window. It was his favourite place when he had some thinking to do.
Through that window he had a view of LANCER that he enjoyed more than any other. He could see not only his land and cattle, but also the day-to-day working of the ranch - the barn, the corral and men busy keeping the ranch alive. It gave him more satisfaction than anything else could.
He had spent the better part of his life building his dream. He had come here with virtually nothing, and carved a fortune out of it. He had loved and lost two wives in the process – his beautiful Catherine, with her elegant manners and gentle ways, and those hooded blue eyes that Scott had inherited from her; and Maria, with her long raven black hair falling down her back and her dark fiery eyes; the Mexican spitfire who had been Johnny’s mother. If he closed his eyes, he could still see her standing there, with her hands on her hips, dishing out a tirade at him. But she had bought out something in him that he had never found again.
So he had thrust all his energy into building LANCER into a hundred thousand of the best beef producing acres in the state of California. LANCER was a living, breathing thing to him. She was demanding and unforgiving – constantly changing, and a source of constant heartache, and constant joy.
He loved nothing on earth more than that land. At least, that was the way it had been. Now he knew it was otherwise. He had his sons. When they had arrived, they had been strangers, but he had offered them a third of his ranch each to stay. He had kept the reins firmly in his own hands though.
He had realised, a long time ago now, that his sons were the best things that had ever happened to him. He would never have admitted it out loud, any more than they probably would, but he was sure that they knew.
Sitting now, staring out of the window, it was not the ranch that he was watching. It was his son, Johnny. He watched him as he unsaddled Barranca and brushed the horse down.
Johnny had not been himself over the last couple of days. His temper seemed to be constantly at boiling point and he had snapped at Jelly and a few of the men, as well as himself and this morning even Teresa had come in for a share, though he had at least had the humility to apologise to her for it.
They were all worried about Scott, but Jelly was right, Johnny was not handling it. It was unlike him. He had a lot of faith in his brother’s ability to look after himself.
After his talk with Jelly, he had watched Johnny a little more closely. After the brooding he had noticed in his son for the first day or so, he had seen Johnny let his temper get shorter and shorter. He was like a time bomb with a short fuse, and it was up to Murdoch to try to defuse him, before the explosion.
Johnny was headed for the house. For a minute, Murdoch lost sight of him as he came through the front door. He turned his chair back to face the room and heard the door open and close, so he called Johnny’s name.
Johnny came lightly into the room. He took his hat off and dropped it onto a table as he walked past, then answered “Yeah?”
Murdoch took the bull by the horns – so to speak. “I think we should talk,” he told him dispassionately.
“About what?” Johnny replied, standing in the middle of the room.
“About what’s bothering you.”
Johnny moved uncomfortably towards a chair that faced Murdoch’s desk, and leisurely took a seat. Finally he answered. “And what makes you think something is bothering me?
come on Johnny,” Murdoch exclaimed in frustration. “In the last couple
of days, you’ve bitten off more heads around here than you have in years.”
it was true. “If you mean Teresa…” he began but was cut off by his father.
Johnny knew it was true. “If you mean Teresa…” he began but was cut off by his father.
“I do,” he interrupted. He stood up and walked around to the front of the desk, closer to his son, and leaned back to sit on the edge of it. “But she’s not the only one. You’ve been like a bear with a sore head for days.”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably in the chair. “I guess,” was about all he would admit for now.
“Well what is the problem? I mean, I know you’re worried about Scott. We all are. But you were the first to admit that he can look after himself.”
“I know,” Johnny told him. How could he put into words what had been going through his head lately when he didn’t understand it himself.
“Then what’s wrong?” his father prodded.
Johnny sat where he was for a moment, then he pushed himself out of the chair in frustration and embarrassment. He strode across the room and turned back to face Murdoch.
“I don’t know exactly, Murdoch,” he began. “It’s just…”
He stopped, unable to find the right words to express the feeling he had been getting.
“Yes?” Murdoch pushed.
Johnny sighed deeply and tried to explain. “It’s just this feeling I’ve got.”
“Feeling?” his father queried.
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” Johnny said angrily and turned to leave the room.
Murdoch stopped him. “Then explain it to me,” he replied, as calmly as he could. He could see the signs of that fuse getting shorter by the minute and he did not want this turning into another one of those times when the two of them ended up at each others’ throats and storming out.
Johnny stopped and turned back to his father. He struggled to get hold of his temper so that he could answer. “Jelly called it a ‘hunch’. I guess that’s what you’d call it. It’s just this bad feeling I’ve got about Scott.”
“And you think that something has happened to him?”
Johnny considered the question for a moment. “I don’t know what to think, alright?” he answered defensively. “I just…can’t stand sitting around. Waiting.”
Murdoch looked hard at his son. He thought about it for a moment and then replied.
“Then I think you should go after him,” he said at last.
Johnny was surprised by the answer. He didn’t know what he had expected, ridicule or disbelief maybe, but not that answer. He said nothing, so Murdoch continued. “Maybe we should both go.”
Johnny answered at last. “No,” he told him. “After all, I could be all wrong.”
“First thing in the morning…” he began to say, but Johnny stopped him.
“Nope, I’ll go now.”
It was Murdoch’s turn to be surprised. “You’ve only got a few hours of daylight left,” he reminded him.
“I know, but I can get a long way in that time,” Johnny replied. “I’ll just sleep out tonight and get there earlier tomorrow.”
Murdoch shook his head to disagree, but Johnny gave him no time to argue. He added instead, “I don’t want to waste any more time.”
Murdoch sighed and smiled acceptance, and then nodded, but he hoped he had not made a mistake. “Alright, you go,” he answered. “But Johnny, be careful. For all I know, I’ve already got one son who might be in trouble.” He looked his son in the eye and said with unexpected emotion, “Don’t make it two.”
It was mid-afternoon by the time that Joe Nesbitt galloped the little mare down the main street of Hobson’s Crossing, kicking up dust and shaking the quiet little town out of its apathy. He pulled her up right in front of the doctor’s office, attracting attention from several passers-by.
The door was open so he walked straight in and found the doctor sitting at his desk reading.
Being the physician in a small, backwater town like Hobson’s Crossing had hardly been the ambition of the man’s lifetime, and he looked like a man who had been beaten down by time and circumstances. He was not old, only in his forties, but he sure felt like he was sometimes. He had greyed prematurely and he had to use spectacles to read these days.
His clothes were neat, but old and ill fitting and the little grey mustachio he wore needed trimming like his hair. Doctor Will Barnes had planned a great career for himself back in those early days after he had graduated. He could not even remember how he had ended up here, except that he, like so many others, had followed the lure of gold out west to California, and had had no luck.
Luck! That was it. He had never had any! So he had found his way here, and settled down in the little community, where he could just make a living.
When he looked up and saw Joe Nesbitt stride into the office, he knew that ‘luck’ had thrown another complication into his life. If Joe was here, then there must be trouble out at the Connolly place again.
“Hello Joe,” he said looking up from his book. “What brings you here?”
Joe looked at the man insolently. “Same as last time I was here, Doc. We’ve got a man hurt who needs you.”
Doctor Barnes removed his spectacles and carefully folded them and put them down in front of him. “I’m kind of busy at the moment Joe,” he told him.
Joe eyed him angrily and made a point of looking around the room. “I can see that,” he said pointedly, “but this is urgent. He’s hurt real bad.”
“What sort of injury is it Joe?” the doctor asked unhurriedly.
Joe was irritated, but he was determined to keep his temper. He had been through this before. “He was shot last night,” he told him. “High on the left shoulder, near the collarbone. I think it’s broke the bone.”
The doctor considered the answer for a moment. “Well, that hardly sounds life-threatening Joe,” he answered. “Why don’t you bring him into town here and I’ll see to him?”
“We can’t bring him to town Doc. The bridge is down and we can’t get the wagon out,” Joe explained heatedly. “‘Sides, he’s in no fit state to travel.”
The Doctor looked down at the book. God, how he hated this! It went against everything he had sworn to when he finished school, but he had no choice.
“I’m sorry Joe,” he said sadly, “but I have other patients to consider. I have a lot of appointments this afternoon.”
“Sure you do, Doc!” Joe sneered. “Just like all them people who needed you when Manuel was shot.”
Barnes stood up from behind the desk. “There’s no need for you to get riled Joe. You’ll just have to get him into town here somehow.”
Nesbitt saw through his excuses. He had seen through them the night he had ridden into town after Manuel had been shot. Barnes was afraid, that was what it was. He was afraid of what would happen to him if he helped anyone out at the Connolly ranch.
“Madrid and his ol’ man’ve got you plumb scared, ain’t that right Doc?” he sneered contemptuously.
The doctor did not need to answer. The hot flush that reddened his face scarlet was all the answer that Joe needed. When he recovered himself, he tried to deny the accusation.
“That’s nonsense Nesbitt. I’m a busy man, that’s all.” He swallowed hard and continued. “It’s not that I’m refusing to help. You just have to get him here to town and I will gladly be of service.”
“Service, huh!” was the scornful reply he got from Joe. “You’re so worried about your own skin, that you’re willing to let a man die! An’ you call yourself a doctor?”
There had been a few times lately that Barnes had hated himself, and this was one of them. But as much as he wished he had to courage to do it, he could not find it in himself. “I’m sorry Joe. I can’t help you.”
Joe looked at the man in quiet rage. He slowly drew his pistol from his gun-belt and pointed it at the doctor.
“Maybe this’ll change your mind, Doc,” he threatened, grimly.
The doctor looked at the weapon fearfully. “Don’t be a fool, Joe,” he advised. “You pull that trigger and you’ll hang. You won’t do it.”
“I just might for a friend.”
“Would your friend want you to hang for him?” the doctor asked, desperately.
“Don’t suppose he would,” Joe acknowledged coolly, “but since I already owe him my life, I don’t think I’ll ask him.”
The doctor began to feel real fear now. “Joe, it’s not worth my life to go with you.”
Joe was about to answer, when he saw the doctor’s eyes move quickly to the door behind him and back again. Before he had a chance to turn around and see what had distracted the man, he felt the cold, hard jab of a gun-barrel in the middle of his back.
He made no attempt to turn around, or to move at all for that matter.
“Put the gun back where it came from Nesbitt,” came the hard-edged voice of the sheriff from behind him.
Joe did not move a muscle. “You lookin’ for a chance to shoot me in the back if I do?” he asked.
“Nope,” came the reply. “Just do it now!”
With infinite care, Joe slowly moved his hand down to his side and put the gun into the holster. He did not want to give the man any reason to fire.
“Good man, Joe,” the sheriff told him, and pulled the gun-barrel back a little from its position in the middle of Joe’s back. He didn’t move though and kept Joe covered while he spoke.
“Just what exactly is goin’ on here?” he asked impatiently.
The doctor said nothing, so Joe opened up. “Just tryin’ to convince the Doc to come out to the ranch with me. We had a shootin’ last night, an’ we got a man who’s b’n shot.”
“Is that right?” the sheriff asked the doctor.
“Yes, sheriff,” the man answered, with far more confidence than he had had before. “I was explaining to Joe here, that I have too many patients to see this afternoon and they should bring him here to be treated.”
The sheriff nodded, although Joe could not see him. “Sounds reasonable to me, Joe,” he told him.
Joe’s temper was reaching its limit. He snarled at the two of them. “You two oughta be pleased with yourselves. How much is Lancer payin’ ya to stay outa his way?”
The sheriff took umbrage at that. He stepped out from behind Joe and pointed the gun right at him.
That’s enough Joe,” he ordered angrily. “Now you just go on home, and put your friend in a wagon or on a horse and bring him here. I don’t want any more gunplay here in town.”
“And what about out at the ranch?” Joe turned on him furiously. “You plannin’ to do anything ‘bout the barn bein’ burnt down, or the horses run off an’ the shootin’s?”
The sheriff smiled a malevolent smile. “You got proof against someone, Joe?”
Joe snorted angrily and made no reply. He didn’t trust himself to answer.
“No, I didn’t think so,” the sheriff said sarcastically. “Now go on home now, while you can.”
Joe made no move right away, but looked one last time to the doctor. He did not know if he hoped for a last minute change of heart or not, but he got no response except the man lowering his head, hopefully, Joe thought, in shame.
When Joe did not move, the sheriff repeated the order.
“Now Joe,” he said harshly, and Joe turned his head to look sideways at him before turning to walk back out of the door.
Joe climbed into the saddle immediately, and turned the horse for home. The sooner he was out of this town, the better he’d like it. The only trouble was, he had to go back and face Sarah, to tell her that the doctor had forsaken them again. They were on their own once more.
When Sara saw Joe ride into the yard, dejected and alone, she did not have to be told. She knew that the doctor had refused once again to come. He had done the same thing when Manuel had been shot.
Her disappointment did not last long. It quickly turned into rage. When Joe came in he found her storming around the kitchen.
She looked up and saw him enter, and bristled with anger. “So what reason did he give this time?” she fumed.
“Says he’s got too many patients to see,” Joe told her honestly. Hat in hand, he looked on awkwardly as she let loose her temper. His own temper, he had had time to get under control, but he knew exactly what she was feeling.
“He calls himself a doctor!” she raged. ”A coward is more like it!”
Joe nodded calmly. “I know, Miss Sarah,” he answered. “He said he’ll look at him if we c’n get him to town. Same as with Manuel.”
Sarah threw up her hands in disgust. “And just how can we do that? The bridge is out and taking the wagon the long way round is three hours with no road. He’s not up to that.”
“Told him that,” Joe told her. “I even tried getting’ him here at gunpoint!”
Sarah stopped her outburst and stared at him. “You did what?”
Joe grinned innocently. “Well, it nearly worked. The sheriff came in behind me an’ got the drop on me.”
“Are you crazy Joe?” she argued. “They might have killed you. Or locked you up at least.”
Joe shrugged. “It was worth a try,” he told her.
Tom appeared at that moment at the doorway to the bedroom. Sarah saw him and turned immediately.
“You said to tell you when he woke up, Miss Sarah,” he told her, without waiting for the question he knew she would ask.
Sarah went straight to the room, and stopped at the doorway for just a moment to fight for control of her rage. The sun had gone down enough to leave the room in shadow, so she took a moment to light the lamp by the bed. It gave her some extra time to get hold of herself.
She was tired. She had had no sleep all night or today, and that was why her temper was short. The doctor was just the last straw. But this was not the time to lose her grip on things.
She turned to Scott. His eyes were on her, even though his head had not turned more than a little. The pain in his neck was far too much to bear if he moved his head. His eyes followed her as she moved to the bed and carefully sat down on the edge.
“Hi,” he whispered, and was shocked at how hoarse his voice sounded. His throat rasped after the effort of just the one word.
Sarah smiled. “Hi yourself,” she replied and placed her hand gently on his forehead. She hoped that she did not show the concern it brought her. His forehead was already warmer than it should be.
She took the cup of honeyed water from the small table by the bed and lifted his head carefully so that he could sip some of it. When he took only a little, she coaxed him to take more, until she was satisfied that he had drunk enough for now.
After replacing the mug on the table, she took his good hand and groped for the words to tell him what was happening.
“Scott,” she began nervously, “the doctor won’t come out here.”
Scott smiled a little. “Don’t blame him,” he whispered.
“He’s too scared!” she told him indignantly, but quickly put the lid on her temper, lest she lose it again.
“So what now?” he asked quietly.
She sighed. “Well, first we’ll have to change these bandages,” she explained. “I’m going to get Joe to have a look at the wound. He knows more about bullet wounds than I do.”
“Sounds like fun,” he replied, wincing as he inadvertently moved and sent a jolt of pain through his shoulder that felt like a red-hot iron.
“We’ll be a gentle as we can,” she assured him, “now will you be okay on your own for a moment?”
He nodded very slightly and she stood up from the side of the bed, then turned and left the room.
She went to the kitchen for the bandages and then went back to the drawing room where Tom and Joe were waiting.
“I’m going to change his bandages, and I’ll need your help to lift him again,” she told them. Then she looked towards Joe. “Joe, what do you know about bullet wounds?”
Joe shook his head. “I’ve pulled a couple outa men, Miss Sarah, but I’m not so sure about this one.”
“Just take a look at it then. That’s all I ask,” she assured him. Her desperation was obvious, and he relented.
“Okay, I’ll have a look,” he sighed and he and Tom headed into the bedroom where Joe sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Howdy son,” he greeted Scott, trying to sound cheerful. “Gonna have to hurt ya a mite, Scott, but we gotta change them bandages an’see how that wound looks.”
“Sure, Joe,” he whispered, resigning himself to it.
Sarah followed them with bandages and scissors, then went back to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of hot water. She let Joe do all the talking, while he cut the old bandages away and slid them from under Scott carefully.
Joe took control and organised everyone in the room. “Tom,” he ordered, “go round the other side o’ the bed an’ sit down.” He waited until Tom did as he had been told and then he turned around so that he could see Sarah. “An’ Miss Sarah, you come in here closer an’ hold that lamp so’s I c’n see.”
He took the wet washcloth from the bowl and carefully wiped away the dried blood around the wound, revealing an angry red area of skin around the bullet hole, and swelling around the bone.
Scott winced as he touched the skin with the cloth, and Joe suggested, “You hold on tight to Tom, son.”
Joe put the cloth back into the bowl, and then, as gently as he could, he started prodding the area near the wound, leaning in closer and hoping to get some indication of where the bullet had lodged.
The instant he touched the wound, Scott gasped aloud and grabbed Tom’s arm with all the strength he had. His whole body jerked and stiffened as he held on tenaciously. He gritted his teeth and held his breath while Joe inspected the wound, not sure how long he could hold out against the pain.
“Bring that lamp in closer, Miss Sarah,” Joe ordered, and then calmly assured Scott, “almost finished, Scott, just hold on.” He continued with his work as quickly as he could. At this stage, it was better quick than gentle. He finished and wiped away the blood that had oozed from the wound when he prodded around it.
Just as Scott thought he could stand it no longer, Joe sat back and said soothingly, “It’s okay, Scott. I’m all finished. You can take it easy now.”
Slowly, as the blistering pain subsided to an awful throbbing, Scott’s body relaxed and he released his grip on Tom’s arm. He lay back, breathing hard and fighting for control.
“I hope that was worth it,” he whispered through gritted teeth.
“I know son,” he answered and then added reassuringly, “but you did good.”
He turned to Sarah. “Miss Sarah, c’n you bring me some o’ that salve you got in the kitchen?”
She nodded silently, then put down the lamp and left the room, only to return a minute later with the jar.
“Thanks, Miss Sarah,” he said and gently applied some of the ointment to the wound. Scott winced again but held his breath again for the duration of the pain and said nothing. His face beaded with sweat from the ordeal, but he bore it.
“We’ll get these bandages on ya’ Scott, an’ then we c’n leave ya to rest,” he told him.
He cut a piece of the bandage and placed it carefully over the wound. Then he looked over to Tom, and told him what to do.
“Slip you arm under his shoulders there Tom, real careful like. Then lift him forward so I c’n get this bandage around him.”
As Tom lifted him gently forward, another loud gasp was wrenched from him. “Watch his head don’t roll back, Tom!” Joe remembered at the last minute.
Joe wrapped the bandage around him as quickly as he could, and then strapped his left arm across his body again to support it. He worked quickly and efficiently, and then nodded to Tom to lay Scott back on the pillow.
Scott unclenched his fist, and snapped angrily while trying to catch his breath, “You do that too often Joe, and I won’t need a doctor!”
“Well, you c’n take it easy now, son, an’ try an’ get some rest,” he answered.
He stood up and gathered up the old bandages, and the bowl of water. With a peremptory jerk of his head at Tom, he said “C’mon Tom,” and headed out of the room.
Tom stood up too and, with a quick, sympathetic glance back at Scott, he followed Joe out.
Sarah took Joe’s position on the side of the bed. She picked up a towel that was on the table and gently wiped away the perspiration from Scott’s face and forehead.
As he slowly regained control of his breathing and the pain in his shoulder slowly changed to a dull, persistent throb, he turned his eyes to Sarah. He could see the concern in her eyes, and as their eyes met, he noticed a tear rolling silently down her cheek.
“I’m so sorry, Scott,” she said emotionally. “This is all my fault. It I weren’t so pig-headed, none of this would have happened.”
He reached across to take her hand with his good one. “No Sarah,” he replied emphatically, “It was my choice to be here. And none of this is your fault.”
She struggled to smile at him. “Thankyou,” she whispered and leaned forward to lightly kiss his forehead.
She stayed, stroking his hair softly and soothingly, until he relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Sara walked into the kitchen, to find that Tom had started to get a meal together for them. Joe was sitting at the table and rose to his feet and pulled out a chair for her.
“Here, Miss Sarah,” he said politely but firmly, “sit down afore you fall down.”
She accepted the chair gratefully and sat down. Sitting again himself, he said to her. “You’ve gotta get some sleep, Miss Sarah. Tom an’ me will watch Scott.”
She nodded wearily, knowing he was right. She was exhausted and couldn’t go on.
“What about Scott, Joe?” she asked.
Joe sighed deeply. “His collar bone is busted alright,’ he answered. “The bullet is down under that swellin’. I won’t touch it.”
“You don’t think you can get it out?”
“Not even gonna try,” he told her with grim determination, and then continued to try to explain his reasons. “Miss Sarah, there could be bits of bone in there with that bullet, an’ I can’t see ‘xactly where it is. If I go diggin’ ‘round, there’s no tellin’ what damage I could do.” He looked squarely at her. “That arm could end up crippled if I do somethin’ wrong!”
Sarah leaned forward onto the table and put her hands to her forehead, trying to think straight. “Then we have no choice do we? We have to risk that drive to town in the wagon.”
Joe shook his head. “I can’t see no way ‘round it,” Joe replied. “He needs a doctor.”
She ran her fingers back through her hair. Her head was beginning to hurt from trying to think. “We have to do something. He’s already showing signs of a fever starting.”
“Looked like some infection startin’ in that wound too,” Joe added.
She was overtired now but she had to figure out a plan for tomorrow. There had to be something she could do to avoid taking him to town.
“Joe, what if I go into town first thing in the morning? Do you think Dr Barnes would respond to me?” she asked at last.
Joe shook his head grimly. “Don’t think so, Miss Sarah. That man’s got a yella streak ‘bout a mile wide down his back!”
“It might be worth a try though. Maybe if I plead with him – appeal to his better nature?”
Joe didn’t think it would work, but he hated to tell her so. “Maybe,” he said finally.
“Tom and I will go into town, then, in the morning,” she decided. “You stay here with Scott. It would be better if you don’t go. You’ve already threatened him.”
Joe couldn’t see the point but anything was worth a try. “Alright, you go on in, and I’ll get the wagon ready just in case,” he told her.
She did not appear to have heard him. Her train of thought was still stuck on going to town and getting help from the doctor. “Maybe Gabe will help. He might be able to talk the doctor into it!” she continued.
“I think you oughta go to bed an’ get some sleep,” he told her gently.
Tom finished in the kitchen and placed plates in front of them both as well as one for himself. “He’s right, Miss Sarah. You look plumb exhausted.”
Sara shook herself out of her reverie and turned to face Tom. He had taken a seat beside her. “Yes, I am. I know. I just want to settle our plans for tomorrow and then I promise I’ll go to bed.” She smiled at them both. It was good to know that they were there for her. Scott was right. They really were like family.
“Well,” Tom replied, “if we have to take him in the wagon, we’ll have to rig up something so that he’s not bounced around too much.”
“We c’n use the mattresses on the spare bunks in the bunkhouse,” Joe added. “There’s pillows there too.”
“Yep,” Tom agreed. “That might work. Be better than nothing anyway.”
Sara seemed to realise that they had discounted her own plan. “I’m going to go to town first, and try to get the doctor to change his mind,” she told them resolutely.
Joe accepted the idea. “Alright then,” he said. “You an’ Tom go into town first thing. I’ll stay here an’ rig the wagon just in case you come back without him.”
Sara approved of the idea. “Yes, that would save time if we do have to go in the wagon. It’ll be a long way, down through the ford.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, I figure ‘bout three hours to town that way.”
Sara rose to her feet. “I’m going to bed,” she said, the tiredness finally defeating her. “Promise you’ll wake me if he needs me though.”
Both men agreed readily and assured her so.
“Good,” she replied and headed for her bedroom. Before going into the room, she turned back to them and said angrily, “He’s just got to come!”
Johnny woke at sunrise. He looked around and located Barranca quietly nibbling close by. Being out on his own like this normally would give him a good feeling, but today all he wanted was to get on his way. After leaving the ranch yesterday, he had been overwhelmed by a sense of urgency. He did not understand where it came from, and had made up his mind not to question it. He just wanted to get to Scott and make sure that he was okay.
He had left almost immediately yesterday, and with the heat of the day easing off in the afternoon and knowing that he would not be riding all day, he had set Barranca on a good pace. He had ridden until he was out of daylight and he figured that he must be nearly half way there already. Stopping had irked him. He wished that he could have gotten further.
He got up and saddled Barranca almost immediately. He didn't bother stopping to make coffee but he did finish off the biscuits that Teresa had forced on him yesterday. He washed them down with water from his canteen and looped it back on his saddle. He cleared up and mounted Barranca and headed off into the early morning sun.
As he rode, he reflected on how much his life had changed in the last couple of years. He was the first to admit that LANCER was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had initially rejected both his father and his brother. His bitterness had made it hard for him to forgive Murdoch Lancer and he and Scott had had nothing in common. Scott had been happy to accept Murdoch's offer of a third of the ranch as a peace offering, but Johnny had seen it only in monetary terms back then.
Even so, he had been willing to pass it up more than once. He had decided to stay on his own terms, but, having made the decision to stay, he had slowly built up a relationship with both Scott and Murdoch. It had been easy enough with Scott. Scott was easy-going by nature and had readily accepted that he had a brother. In fact, Johnny thought that he had been happy to find out, if surprised. Murdoch was more restrained and did not bend easily. He knew, though, that a lot of the time the arguments they had were his own fault. Like his father, he could be stubborn.
Murdoch’s reaction, yesterday, had surprised him. He had not expected him to accept his ‘hunch’ without an argument. That was why he had kept it bottled up for days. And their arguments always ended up with them not speaking to each other until Teresa or Scott smoothed the waters.
Yes, only one person could soften Murdoch Lancer – Teresa. With Teresa he could relax, be himself. He had known her all her life. He had watched her grow from a chubby infant, through gangly childhood and into a bubbly, pretty teenager. Her father had been his best friend for years, and Paul O’Brien had died at his side. So he looked on Teresa as the daughter he had never had.
When Johnny and Scott had arrived at the ranch, she had been that bubbly teenager, and was, even then, looking after the day-to-day running of the entire LANCER household. The boys had easily accepted her as a ‘little sister’. They teased her, protected her and let her boss them around. To her dismay sometimes, they also kept a wary eye on the young men who happened to notice that she wasn’t a ‘bubbly little teenager’ any more, but a beautiful, brown-haired young woman.
She had been born at LANCER, just like himself. The difference was that she had stayed. Once in a while, Johnny even wondered what Murdoch Lancer had been like as a father during that short time he had been at the ranch before his mother had whisked him away. He had no memory of it, of course, he had been a baby, and he couldn’t quite imagine it.He couldn’t visualise Murdoch as a doting young father, so it was easier to put it out of his mind whenever the thought came to him.
He put it out of his mind now, and focussed on getting to Scott instead. He urged Barranca into a trot, and pushed on.
Sara tethered her horse to the hitching rail outside the doctor’s office and walked in. She left Tom outside to make sure that the sheriff, or anyone else, did not come in to interrupt her. She though, too, that he might feel less threatened if she was alone.
She had woken this morning to find Scott had developed the fever she had feared. They had changed his bandages again, and, although he had been conscious, but he had seemed to be less aware of what was happening. When they had finished, she had forced some of the honeyed water into him. It was about all he could manage at the moment. Then she had left him to Joe’s care while she came into town with Tom.
Joe and Tom had taken turns at getting some sleep and watching Scott through the night. She had fallen asleep easily, through exhaustion, and had slept soundly through the night. Now it was the image of Scott in that bed, looking more and more haggard and in so much pain that spurred her on.
She had walked into the office with grim determination and found the doctor alone, filling bottles with tablets he had just made. He looked up as she entered and she swore that she saw him blanch when he recognised her. He put the bottles aside and walked to the front of the office to meet her.
“Miss Connolly,” he said with a warm greeting in his voice.
Sarah forced down the anger she felt from his welcome. “Doctor,” she said, forcing herself to be patient, “I need you at the ranch. One of my men is wounded.”
The doctor looked at Sarah with sympathy. “Yes, Joe told me. I’d come if I could Miss Connolly, but I just don’t have the opportunity.”
Sarah reined in her temper again. “You don’t look busy.”
He smiled, quite charmingly in fact, but the smile had no effect on Sarah. “I have a lot of patients coming in today,” he said. ‘Now, if you bring him into town to me, I’m sure I can make time for him.”
Her temper was not going to stand much more. “Doctor, he’s badly hurt,” she explained, “and he has a fever already. He needs your help, and trying to bring him here in the back of a wagon, over rough country, would be an unnecessary cruelty.”
He shook his head in dismay. “I wish I could help you, Miss Connolly,” he sighed.
Her anger rising, she replied, “All these patients you have coming in Doctor Barnes; are they all seriously ill?”
He shifted uncomfortably. She thought perhaps she had broken through, but he turned and walked towards his desk.
“I have a responsibility to my patients,” he answered weakly, without turning to face her.
“Yes, you do!” she pointed out angrily. “And your responsibility is to the sick and injured. How can you turn your back on him?”
He stood at the desk, immobile, and still with his back to her. “I’m not turning my back on him. If you can bring him here…”
“Don’t you understand?” Sarah pleaded with him. “That trip could kill him!”
“I’m sorry, Miss Connolly,” he said sadly and hung his head sadly. “I’d help if I could. There’s nothing more I can do.” He turned around and she saw real sorrow in his tired face for the first time. “I can’t fight them. If I ride out to your ranch, they’ll kill me.”
“You don’t know that!” she exclaimed.
He shook his head sadly. “I do. They warned me.”
Sarah was shocked by the audacity of it. “Who did?” she demanded.
The doctor obviously did not want to talk about it, and not to Sarah of all people, but he finally relented. “That man, Johnny Madrid. He and a couple of his men came in here and threatened me. Said they’d shoot me if I went out there to help.”
Sarah was amazed. She could not believe that Murdoch Lancer’s son had had the boldness to come right out and threaten the man. He obviously did not fear any retribution from the law.
But that did not count for anything now. She had to fight for Scott and went back on the attack.
“So you’re going to let him die?” she accused him.
The doctor blushed scarlet. “No, like I said, bring him here to me and…”
Sarah exploded. “And he could die on the way! I told you already that it’s dangerous to even try it!”
The doctor dropped into his chair, defeated. He looked at his hands in his lap for a minute or two without answering. Sarah began to think, once again, that he might give in to her.
Finally he said, looking at his hands and not her, and in tones of a man beaten by circumstances and by life, “I know I’m a coward, Miss Connolly. I know I should go with you.”
Sarah’s heart fell. She had lost.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, without looking up at her, and she turned on her heel in a desperate fury and walked out of the door.
Tom was waiting patiently outside with the horses. He guessed the outcome as soon as he saw her face. He said nothing but waited for her to cool down a little first.
She walked over to stand beside him and for a couple of minutes she was speechless with rage. When finally she was able to speak, she announced furiously, “He admits he’s a coward, and by God he’s right! He calls himself a doctor! He’s going to let Scott die!”
She paced back and forth while Tom watched in silence, almost beguiled by this exhibition of a rage he had never before seen from her.
She stopped pacing at last and said decisively, “I’m going to find Gabe. Maybe he can talk sense into the man.”
If Tom thought it was unlikely, he did not say so, but waited as she strode resolutely across the street to the saloon. Tom thought of going after her and going in for her. The Saloon was not the place for a lady. But he figured he would not be able to stop her anyway, and so he waited where he was.
Sarah did not think about it, but strode right in and asked for Gabe. The bartender was more than a little taken aback by her sudden appearance in the saloon, and did not answer for a moment. She repeated her question a little more loudly, her temper ready to snap again and this time she got a response.
“He’s out back Ma’am,” he stuttered.
“Then get him for me please!” she demanded hotly.
He did not have to leave the bar though. Tessman appeared from a back room and looked out to see what was going on. Spotting Sarah, he walked quickly to her side.
“What in the world are you doing in here, Sarah?” he demanded.
“I need your help Gabe,” she told him, reining in her temper so as to be reasonable with her friend.
He took her arm and led her briskly into the back room where he turned to her angrily.
“Honestly Sarah,” he said heatedly. “What are you thinking of? Look at you, dressed in jeans and walking right into a saloon! What will people think?”
“I don’t care what people think!” she snapped back at him. “Right now, all I care about is getting some help.”
He let go of her arm and relaxed a little. He pulled out a chair for her and said, much more calmly, “Alright then, sit down and tell me what’s wrong.”
She shook her head. “Thankyou, but I’d rather stand Gabe,” she said, responding to his kindness and trying to put aside the boiling rage she felt.
She took a breath to calm herself down. She did not want to look like a hysterical female. “Scott is badly wounded, and I can’t get the doctor to come out to the ranch to help,” she explained quickly.
“When did this happen?” he asked anxiously.
“On Wednesday night. The ranch was raided by Madrid and his men and they ran off all the horses and shot Scott.”
He put his arm around her shoulders and led her to the chair despite her protests. “I’m sorry,” he said sympathetically, “I hadn’t heard. Is he badly hurt?”
“Yes,” she answered quietly, but turned around to him rather than accept the seat. “If he doesn’t get help from the doctor, I’m afraid he’ll die!”
“Well then put him in the wagon and bring him into town,” he advised her.
She shook her head. “The bridge is out, remember. We’ll have to take the wagon down through the ford and there’s no road that way. It would be a lot longer and a lot rougher.”
“Well, yes, I can see that. But do you have any choice?”
She looked up at him. “I was hoping you might talk some sense into the doctor. He’s afraid of Johnny Madrid.”
He turned and walked across the room, the turned back to face her. “Sarah,” he said slowly, “I can’t ask the man to risk his life.”
Sarah was dumbfounded by his reply. “But you could talk to him…” she began.
He shook his head slowly. “It’s his decision Sarah.”
“You have men, then Gabe, maybe you could offer to send some with him as protection?”
“Sarah, none of them want to face Madrid either.”
Her temper began to rise again. She could not believe that he was prepared to let her walk out of here without offering some sort of help.
“Scott might die, Gabe!” she pointed out angrily.
Tessman sighed before answering. “I can’t say that I like the man, Sarah, but I don’t want that. You’ll just have to bring him into town. You have no other choice.”
She stood staring at him. She had been so sure that he would help her, but he had let her down. She felt betrayed.
She angrily looked him in the eye and said “Thankyou for the advice, Gabe. I’m sorry to have troubled you.”
She turned and started for the door, but Tessman called her back. “Sarah, don’t be a fool. Of course, I’ll help you when I can, but you must see that I don’t have the right to try to force the man into risking his life.”
She stopped at the doorway, but did not turn around. “Yes,” she said, a little sadly now, “I see that Gabe,” she said and walked out the door.
Tessman waited long enough for her to leave and cross the road to rejoin Rawlings outside the doctor's office, then he turned back and crossed the room to the back door, opened it and stood back to allow
Jess Ryan to enter.
Jess grinned as he came in and said to Tessman, "Well, that didn't go well!"
Tessman shrugged. "No matter. With Garrett out of the way, she'll fold like a deck of cards."
"I thought you wanted her too?" Jess queried.
"She had her chance," he said malignantly. "She's not getting a second one, and it's the ranch I'm after anyway." He smiled a smile that Sarah would never have recognised. He was pleased with himself and with how things were going.
"There won't be much left of it by the time you get it," Jess told him with a smirk.
Tessman laughed aloud. "With the money we'll get from those water rights, it won't matter a hill of beans. There'll be plenty of money to build it back up." He slapped Jess on the back and laughed again.
"Think of all that lovely money rolling in from LANCER. We'll have them by the throat Jess."
Jess laughed with him. "And they get the blame!" he laughed. "I've gotta admit Gabe, it's real pretty!"
Joe was waiting for them when they arrived back at the ranch. He had already stacked all the mattresses and pillows he could grab from the bunkhouse into the wagon. He had had no confidence that Sarah would be able to change that cowardly doctor's mind.
He'd spent a lot of time with Scott as well. The boy was getting more feverish by the hour. He told Sarah as soon as she arrived and followed her into the bedroom.
Sarah noticed the difference in Scott's appearance straight away. He was flushed and restless and when she sat on the edge of the bed, he turned his head slightly towards her and opened his eyes. She put her hand gently on his forehead and he flinched from the touch of her hand.
"I've got the wagon ready, Miss Sarah," Joe said quietly from behind her. "I don't think there's any choice left."
Sarah reached for the face cloth and gently wiped his face and forehead. "I know Joe," she answered despondently.
Neither of them had a chance to think of anything else after that as Tom ran in and shouted "Rider coming!" They both jumped to their feet and ran for doorway.
"Can you see who it is?" Sarah asked as she grabbed her rifle. Joe had picked his up as well and was heading out the front door to take up his routine position at the bunkhouse doorway.
"No, I don't recognise him," Tom called back as he headed out to his position around the side of the house.
Johnny rode towards the house, unaware of the commotion he was causing up at the house. He had reached the town in good time, and had gotten directions from the general store to reach the ranch. He had not stopped in town, preferring to get to the ranch quickly.
The first real confirmation he had that something was seriously wrong here was when he reached the bridge that crossed the stream on the ranch road. The damage done to it was obviously man-made rather than caused by flood or neglect and it appeared to be fairly recent. No one seemed to have made much attempt yet to repair it even though the damage was pretty complete. There were a couple of sturdy bearer beams laying in the water, and planks lay all around, several of them missing and probably washed away downstream.
He urged Barranca into the water and they waded across the stream. The water was well over Barranca's knees in depth, so he was surprised that no repairs had been started. It must be a serious inconvenience for the ranch, having it out of commission.
He looked around as he rode into the yard, and his first impression was that it resembled a battlefield more than a ranch. The barn had been burnt to the ground. He could see that that too was recent. There were nothing left but blackened ruins, but the ash was still thick on the ground and the smell of smoke still hung vaguely in the air.
He looked around the rest of the yard. There were bullet holes everywhere - in the walls of the bunkhouse and the house, and in the sides of the wagon. The wagon also showed signs of fire damage. The sides were singed and the wheels were blackened. His sharp eyes easily picked out the spent cartridges laying everywhere on the ground.
Fear began to grip him. The bad feeling that had tormented him for days started to gnaw at him stronger than ever. If anything suggested that he had been right, this place did.
There was no one obviously in sight as he rode in, but there were horses in the corral and two saddled horses hitched at the rail in front of the house. The place was far from abandoned, and he slowed Barranca to a slow walk as he approached the ranch house.
He did not get the opportunity to announce his arrival. A young woman emerged suddenly from the house, with a .44 Henry rifle aimed squarely at his chest. The rifle he had expected, the lovely blonde behind it was something of a surprise.
He stopped Barranca right at the doorstep and took a moment to carefully look around him. He watched the girl carefully. He had no idea how nervous her trigger finger was.
Go easy Johnny boy, he said to himself.
Johnny made no attempt to dismount. Instead he stayed where he was in the saddle, turning just enough to check around him, and then turning back to face the young woman. He had no trouble in spotting the rifle sticking out of the bunkhouse door, or the second one that poked around the corner of the house. He disliked people pointing weapons at him. He had a nervous tendency towards shooting back, and he rested his right hand easily on his thigh, ready for what might come.
With his left hand he easily steadied the horse, though he was a little skittish. He seemed to sense the tension too, or perhaps he was only reacting to Johnny’s disquiet. Either way, Johnny controlled him without taking his eyes off the woman or her gun.
When the woman finally spoke, he recognised the jumpiness in her voice. She was nervous, and as far as he was concerned, that made her all the more dangerous.
“Stay right where you are, mister!” she ordered him, and he had no intention of arguing with her. “And keep your hands where I can see them.”
She said nothing more for a moment, so Johnny reassured her with a short “Sure, lady.”
She looked him over, and didn’t know what to make of him. She finally asked, “Who are you?”
Johnny smiled and recalled Teresa’s warning to remember that Scott was not using his own name.
“Name’s Garrett, Miss,” he told her, still not moving at all in the saddle.
The girl lifted her head a little to look at him better. “Garrett?”
“That’s right Miss,” he answered, smoothly. “John Garrett. I’m looking for my brother – Scott.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “And what makes you think he’s here?”
Johnny thought quickly. He hadn’t thought up a story. He had expected to find Scott here and not have to. “Well, he was supposed to meet me in Morro Coyo, but he wired us that he was working here for a while.” He smiled to reassure her, and then added “Just paying him a little friendly visit.”
Stick as close to the truth as you can, that was what Johnny believed. It made it easier to remember the story later.
Sarah remembered that Gabe had mentioned Morro Coyo when he had told her about the wires that Scott had sent, but they had been sent to a girl, not a brother. Scott had once mentioned having a brother, but not much more about his family. She couldn’t afford to trust strangers.
Johnny watched her closely as she considered him. She had not taken her eyes off him, nor her finger off the trigger, and the longer it stayed there, the less he liked it.
When she didn’t answer, he added, “Thought I’d drop in and say hello.” His smile was certainly beguiling, but she was far from convinced.
She looked him over, puzzling over his claim. He was tall; at least she figured he would be if he were standing. His hair was dark, and his complexion was much darker by comparison to Scott’s fairness. He did have blue eyes, but they were different from Scott’s just the same. In fact, he looked nothing like Scott.
No matter how hard she tried, she could see that nothing about him that would make her believe he was any brother of Scott’s. With things as they were, she was not going to risk believing him.
“I don’t believe you,” she said at last.
If her answer surprised him, he did not show it. The smile remained and he replied “Well Miss, maybe not, but it don’t change anything. I’m still here to see Scott.”
She thought about it some more.
“You don’t look much like him, do you?” she said, warily.
Johnny’s smile broadened. “Nope,” he said in short, “I take after my mother.” Then a thought occurred to him and he added, “But if you know that, then you must know Scott.” He looked around. “So where is he?”
She said nothing, still unsure whether to believe the man or not. He did not even sound like Scott. Scott had a deep, authoritative voice with an almost cultured tone to it. This man, with his soft, smooth-talking manner, sounded more like a ranch hand than Scott did.
Johnny grew impatient and made the decision to force the issue just a little.
The smile left his face and he said, “Look lady, I’ve been in this saddle all day. I’d kinda like to stretch my legs. So, if you don’t mind,” and he swung himself cautiously to the ground, still watching her and being very careful not to spook her, “I’ll just get down for a bit.”
When he got his feet on the ground, he held his hands up just a little to assure her that he meant no harm. She had made no attempt to stop him, either by word or by action, so he stood patiently by the side of his horse, still holding the reins with his left hand.
He waited for her to say something, and wondered why, if Scott was here, he had not come out to identify him when he heard his voice. He looked around again, this time taking in things he had not noticed earlier. He saw the horse that Scott had borrowed over in the corral, and he suddenly paid more attention to the wagon, loaded with old mattresses and pillows – enough to maybe soften someone’s ride!
He went cold inside. The feeling that had been eating away at him for days suddenly took on a terrible reality. He looked her in the eye and the smile was gone from his voice, replaced by a cool menace that startled Sarah.
“Where is he?” he demanded in that low voice.
She found she couldn’t ignore the straightforward question. Something about him forced an answer from her.
Nervously, she answered, “Inside.”
Inside? he asked himself. Why hadn’t he come out?
Suddenly, he knew why. No one had to tell him.
“No!’ he cried aloud in such anguish that Sarah gasped.
He dropped the horse’s reins and ran past the girl. He disregarded the gun she held. He ignored the other two rifles that he knew were trained on him from hiding.
He ran right into the house and looked around the rooms, running to the first bedroom and, finding nothing, to the second one. He came to a sudden halt at the doorway, staring at his brother. Scott lay there, swathed in homemade bandages, his face flushed brightly with fever, and a pained furrow on his brow. For a moment Johnny just stood looking at him, then he turned and leaned his head in despair against the door.
He cursed silently to himself, Damn! I didn’t want to be right!