Time After Time
by  Karen Campbell

Rating:  Rated R for mature relationships and violence.

Sequel:  This story follows Long Way Home. Johnny is married and he’s a father-to-be.


Time After Time  

Chapter 1 

She was out of season.  Not even May yet and they were ripe, hanging full and firm like mid-summer peaches, her freckled fruits swaddled into scant blue velvet and lacy trim and swinging seductively as she grabbed up the empty mugs and scrubbed a towel across the wood.  She eyed the coin left behind by the last customer, took it between her fingers, straightened and tucked it into the tight crevice between her mounded flesh. And then she flashed a ruby-red smile. 

"What can I get you boys?"  

The dark-haired cowboy slouched back in his chair, tugged his hat a little lower across his brow and gave his brother a sideways glance. Scott was fighting back a grin, that was plain to see, and Johnny shifted uncomfortably and smiled himself, just a little.  "Two beers," he answered softly. 

"That all?"  The woman took a step closer, flicked a finger under his brim and tipped the hat back again.  "I could use a drink, too, if you're looking for any company.  Honey, I tell ya, I'm real friendly company."

Those blue eyes were dancing.  Johnny could see them in the edge of his vision, Scott having leaned forward with his arms crossed against the table.  Working to ignore his brother's amusement, Johnny looked evenly up at the saloon gal's rouged face.  "Thanks...but just the beer."

"All right.  How about you, handsome?"  She crooked an arm against the ample curve of her hip and turned her long-lashed gaze to Scott.  "You look like you know how to treat a lady."

"Miss, do you have a brother?"  Scott pulled his gloves off and laid them in front of him.

"Three of them.  You worried about my brothers?"  Her voice deepened to a sultry conspiracy.  "Because I promise you, those boys are miles and miles away from here and they won't be any trouble at all."

"No."  He waved off that misunderstanding.  "I'm talking about sacrifice for family."  His eyes followed the well-defined lines of her body.  "Another day...another time.  Just the beer," he said with a barely audible sigh.

"If you say so, darlin'."  She turned with an exaggerated twist and sashayed across the floor to the bar.

Neither one of them spoke, not until she had leaned onto the brass rail and stilled the pendulum swaying just below her tightly cinched waist, then Johnny pursed his lips and stole another sideways glance at his brother.  "How much?"

A table full of poker players shared some joke and their laughter rose as a challenge to the rest of the saloon, which grew louder by the minute.  Saturday afternoon was in full swing and it seemed as if half the cowboys in the valley were priming themselves for Saturday night. 

Scott leaned casually into his chair and tapped a finger against the table.  "Are you suggesting that I might accept monetary compensation to withhold information from Darcy?  Now, Johnny, you know that honesty is the cornerstone of any marriage."

"How much?"

"You don't want to keep secrets, do you?"

"When they look like that...."  Johnny squirmed again and raised his brows. "Yeah, I think I do."

The grin broke loose across Scott's face. "Truth, brother?  I don't think I can blame you much, not after that fight you and Darcy had last night."

Johnny flinched.  "Heard that, did ya?" 

"I did hear it and I believe there was something said about you being deaf, blind, and of inferior intelligence."

Johnny's brows lifted again.  "The word was idiot."

"Literary license."

Giving in to another small smile, Johnny dropped his eyes to the table and rubbed at a scar in the wood.  "Guess she has a right to get mad.  She's bored, Scott.   You know what her life was back in Hartville.  She had that mill to take care of and all those meetings...you saw her." 

"And now she's a rancher's wife."

"Not so excitin'."

Scott shook his head.  "I haven't heard her complain."

"You did last night."

"I stand corrected."  Scott watched the barmaid turn with her fistful of mugs and saunter toward their table.  "You're buying, brother."

"What?"  Johnny lifted his eyes toward his brother, then followed his line of sight.  "The beer, Scott...that's all I'm buying, just the beer.  And if Darcy asks..."

"The saloon gals here are sixty years old without a tooth in their heads."

He couldn't help but laugh at that and Johnny was still chuckling when the barmaid set the mugs down in front of them and held her palm out. "That'll be two dollars, boys.  And the offer still stands if you start feeling lonesome."

Johnny slipped two coins from his jacket and laid them in her hand.  That silver chased the last coins deeper into her cleavage.

"The name's Nellie and I'll be right over there."  She hooked a thumb toward the bar.  "If you need anything, honey, just whistle." 

This time, Johnny didn't watch her walk away.  Instead, he grabbed his beer, lifted it to his lips and took a long swallow.  It was cool and wet and it flowed right down to the spot where he needed it.  The mug was half empty by the time he lowered it again and wiped a sleeve across his mouth.  He saw her then, already perched on one cowboy's knee and leaning sideways, her arm around his companion's neck and her lips intimately close to that man's ear.

"So what are you doing about it?" Scott asked.

Johnny eyed him and took another sip.  "Darcy?"

"I can't imagine that she'll be as bored when the baby comes."

"That's not for months yet.  If I don't do something before then she'll have my ears blistered clean off."  Johnny felt someone bump his chair and he scooted it forward, out of the way of the boisterous poker players behind them. "Fact is, I was going to ask you for a favor.  You think maybe you could cover things for me, just for a day or two while I take Darcy up to Swift Creek?"

"Is that what she wants?  Just some time alone?"

"I don't know, Scott.  I can't tell you what any woman wants, but I'm tryin' and Darcy likes it up there."

Scott took a big draught of his beer, then stared contemplatively into the suds.  "Wasn't that where you two disappeared to before?"  He turned his eyes to his brother and wagged a finger idly through the air.  "When she first came out?  When you tore three stitches riding all over the ranch before Sam gave you permission to even leave the house?"

"Yeah, we spent some time there."  Johnny dipped his eyes to the table and smiled sheepishly.

"With no chaperone."   

"I remember," he said and his smile spread into a grin.  "And we don't need any chaperone now, either. So...will you do it?"

"You got it."  Scott nodded and drained his glass.

The scrape of chairs against the planks and the sharp clap of hands slapping shoulders drew their attention and Johnny turned to see the table to the right of them empty.  As the strangers staggered out of the way, he caught a glimpse of the man at the table just past theirs.  The man's back was to him, but his face was turned toward the bar and his craggy profile was plainly visible. There wasn't anything to particularly distinguish him.  He had a thin, sun-worn face and a pointed nose, but that and his dark hair put him in the company of lots of the cowboys around Morro Coyo. Only this one wasn't a cowboy.

Johnny slid his chair back and sat with his hands on the arms, ready to push his way out of it.  "You done?" 

"That's it?"  Scott pointed to his mug.  "One beer?  We just got here."

"Well..."  Johnny glanced again toward the other table, but there were bodies in the way again as a new group of men settled into the emptied chairs. "One's all I needed."  He rose then and started working his way through the crowded saloon and toward the batwings.

Scott caught up to him halfway across the floor.  "Johnny?" he asked softly.

"Outside," Johnny said with a last backward look.  That's when he found the second face, the darker one with the heavy eyebrows and the rough whiskers. Charlie never could figure out why any soft-skinned woman wouldn't get near him. Not willingly, anyway.

He hit the late afternoon sunshine and kept walking, heading down the boardwalk toward Baldomero's General Store.  Scott was right beside him, stretching his longer legs to keep up.

"O.K., Johnny...what was that all about?"

"Just saw someone, that's all."


"Couple of old acquaintances.  Did a job with them down in Texas a few years back."

Scott stopped him with a hand on his shoulder just as Johnny stepped down to cross an alleyway.  Johnny turned a bit and had to look up into his brother's face.

"They're friends of yours?" Scott asked, still holding on.  "You know you don't have to avoid those men on my account. If you want to go back to the saloon, I could go find Teresa and..."

Johnny's brittle tone broke through Scott's offer.  "They ain't no friends.  You wanta let me go?"

"All right." 

With Scott's hand off his shoulder, Johnny turned and started walking again, but he slowed to let his brother come up beside him.  He took a deep breath.  "It's a long story.  I just don't want any trouble right now. Let's get the women and head back to the ranch."

He barely heard Scott's answer as he looked ahead to the small gathering in front of Baldomero's.  Their team was waiting patiently, still in the traces of the buckboard, while three women stood in the shade of the store.  Teresa was shifting some packages in her arms, while Señora Baldomero put her hands on Darcy's arms, turned her sideways and stared at her belly.  The old woman was smiling and she must have been saying something that Darcy liked, because she was smiling, too, and looking down at the swelling that was starting to show under her skirt.  Johnny pushed his hat back a little further on his head, eyed the rest of the townsfolk strolling past the storefronts, and wondered  if they'd seen the women, too.  He didn't find much sense in it.   Just the way of things when two people do what comes natural to them.  But he couldn't help feeling his step get lighter and a lump crawl up into his throat. Then he brushed a hand against his Colt, just to make sure it was still there.  If trouble came, he'd be ready.

Darcy looked up as they crossed the street and passed in front of the wagon.

"Johnny, you have to see this!" she called out, her face lighting.  She pulled a box from Teresa's arms and opened it as she stepped down to meet them in the rough dirt road.  She pulled a swatch of something pink from the box and let it hang down. "Isn't it precious?  It's for the nursery curtains.  Teresa's going to help me make them." 

Both men looked toward Teresa, who was smiling indulgently. 

"Help?"  Scott asked, a hint of laughter in his voice.

"Darcy can do it."  Teresa moved to the wagon and dropped her armful onto the feed bags in the bed.  "She's doing just fine with her sewing, and if I hear you teasing her about it, I'll ask her to make you a shirt." Her eyes twinkled with that threat and Scott laughed out loud.

"Make it Johnny's size...and that would be just about his color."

Darcy shot him an amused smirk, but Johnny just ignored the comment.  He had moved closer to Darcy and had the box of cloth in his hands, rubbing the material through his fingers.  He frowned slightly. "Pink?" Johnny said softly.  "Ain't that a girl's color?"

"Maybe it will be a girl." Darcy wrapped her hands around his arm.

"Yeah, but maybe..."

"Are you boys really through with the saloon already?"  Darcy swept the box from Johnny's arms and set it in the wagon bed with the others.  "Or were Teresa and I shopping longer than we thought?"

"We're ready."  Johnny glanced toward the saloon as he took Teresa's arm and helped her up into the wagon seat.  Darcy was next and as he set his hands around her waist and lifted he noticed the changes there again.  She was still light as nothing, but thicker.

Scott mounted Charlemagne and Johnny crawled over Darcy to the middle of the wagon seat, then took up the lines.  With a "Ha!" and a nod to the Señora, he set the horses into a trot and they left the busy town behind.

Later, after they'd had their dinner and there was a quiet moment to talk to Murdoch, Johnny had even more reason to want to get away.  As solid as they looked, the walls seemed awfully thin. 

"That's probably a good idea," Murdoch said as he poured a scotch for both of them.  "I've noticed that Darcy is feeling a little...high strung."  He handed a glass over, then sat heavily on the sofa. 

Johnny stood next to the fireplace and swirled his liquor.  "High strung?  Don't guess you heard that little chat last night, too?"

"Just the more enthusiastic parts."  Murdoch took a sip.  "I've heard worse, though."

"Meaning you and mama?"

Murdoch hesitated for a second, then gazed down into his drink.  "Yes.  It wasn't as bad as you probably think, but there were fights and when we really got going..."  He shook his head.  "I hate to admit it, but there were a few times that your mother and I were so loud, we probably woke up everyone halfway to Morro Coyo."  He lifted his eyes again.  "Can you be back by Tuesday morning? Jed Bellamy should be here to look over those ponies you've been working and I'd like you to handle it."

"Sure."  Two days.  Without even arguing over it.  Things between Darcy and him must look worse than Johnny even realized.  He downed the scotch and set the glass on the mantle. "Oh, and Murdoch...can't say if it means anything, but I saw a couple of gunhawks in town today.  You know of any trouble that might be brewing?"

"No.  I'd think the Cattlemen’s Association would know if anyone was hiring guns and we just met yesterday. Nobody said anything."

"Probably just passing through."

"Did something happen?"

"No."  Johnny pursed his lips.  "It's just that I know those men and they're not likely to come this far north unless there's some money in it.  Charlie had some trouble in Stockton awhile back and he steers pretty far clear of it now...and Hank, well he has a gal down in Sonora who makes it worth his while to stick close to home." 

"You think it's safe to leave the ranch right now?"

Johnny smiled softly.  "Don't see as how Charlie and Hank would give me any trouble, not all the way up there anyway, but I'm not so sure that I shouldn't be watching my back with Darcy.  Been kinda dangerous around her lately."

Murdoch chuckled.  "Can't say that I miss that part of it, but the rest...do what you need to do, son.  If my feeble old memory serves, it's well worth it."

He left Murdoch nursing his scotch and headed up to bed.  Darcy had gotten there first and he walked into a dimly lit bedroom, only one lamp glowing faintly on the nightstand.  Darcy was curled up under the quilt with her hair loose across the pillow.  She turned toward the door as he shut it behind him.

"Will you get the window?" she asked, before a yawn stretched her mouth sideways.

The curtains were billowing out with the breeze.  Johnny crossed to the window, inhaling the cool night air and letting it clear his weary brain.  It felt good.  He slid the window shut, almost, then turned around and tried to judge her mood.  Her head was down on the pillow, half of her face nearly buried in it, but her brown eyes were looking back at him, all drowsy and soft.  "Thanks," she mumbled into the pillowcase, and he moved to her, sinking down to the edge of the mattress and pulling one boot from his foot, then the other, and dropping them both next to the nightstand. 

"Remember that little spot we went to a year back?  Swift Creek?" he started in, twisting to gaze down at her as he spoke.

"Up in the mountains?" She snuggled the pillow closer.  "With the big tree?"

"Yeah.  I was thinkin' we might head up there for a day or two.  Do some campin’ maybe?"  He unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it, tossing it across the footboard.  "Think you can ride if we take it easy?"  Standing again, he unfastened his pants, stepped out of them and then slung them over his shirt. 

"I can ride." 

"You sure?"

"Sure."  Her lips curved gently.

He turned the wick on the lamp, pulled the covers back and slid into the sheets.  "All right if we leave in the mornin'?"

Darcy dragged her arm across his chest and shifted closer, laying her head against his shoulder, then smoothing her hair back out of her face and settling again.   "I remember Swift Creek."

"That basswood tree oughta be bloomin' this time of year."  Johnny worked an arm under her and wrapped it around her back, caressing his hand against the soft cotton of her nightgown.  "Should be smellin' just like honeysuckle."

"That's not what I'm remembering."  She lifted her face to his and in the dark he found her lips, sweet and tender, and she made a little sound, more of a sigh than anything else.  Her forehead brushed his cheek as she nestled in against his neck.  "You didn't shut the window all the way, did you."

"Nope."  He nuzzled a kiss into her tickling, fragrant hair.

"Then keep me warm, cowboy." 

It wasn't long before her breathing deepened into the sounds of sleep.  Johnny did as he'd been told, just holding her as she slept and keeping her warm.  Her leg was pressing against his, that and other parts, parts that were stirring his imagination and he let it float across the possibilities. He could wake her, that was a powerful consideration, but things were easier now and there was no sense in taking any chances.  And besides--as he now knew all too well--the walls were thin.


Chapter 2

“Whoa, there.”  Johnny leaned into the bay’s shoulder and pushed back.  She’d sidestepped into him as he cinched the pack down.  “That’s it…” he said soothingly to the horse, shoving a skillet deeper into the pouch and giving the tie-down a final tug.  “Least if I have my say, that’s all of it.”

The laughter stole his attention away from the horse.  It was the women and they were nearly tumbling out the door, Darcy’s arms full again and Teresa bumping against her, reaching for the cloth-covered package and leaning her head in to whisper conspiratorially.  Darcy laughed again and Johnny couldn’t keep a smile from crawling across his face.

“You gals about got that kitchen emptied?”

“I believe there’s still a stove in there.” Teresa winked at Darcy, before adding innocently, “Shall we get it?”  

“Why don’t I just hitch a team to the hacienda?”

Darcy left Teresa standing by the rail and moved toward him, a bundle in her hands.  Johnny stared down at it.  “That have to go?  There’s not much room left.”

“I made biscuits for our breakfast tomorrow.”  She raised a corner of the napkin and showed him the amber-colored lumps underneath, then gazed up with a drowsy warmth.

“They look good.”  He reached for one and took a bite, chewed it and then nodded appreciatively.   “You made these?”

Darcy edged closer and wiped a crumb from his chin.  “I’m learning.”

Her touch was soft; everything about her was soft.  Her smile curved tenderly and there was a slow music to her voice.  Johnny wondered if she could see it on him, too, the thick as molasses lethargy that had sunk into his bones long before dawn.  That’s when Darcy had started to stir.  He’d tried not to wake her, but there’d been her elbow poking in his side and he’d shifted, then she’d rolled against him and by the time they both were settled again…well, neither one of them had finished their sleep and now she was standing there, looking sleepy and soft.  She tipped her face down and he felt a pinch of regret at the pale rash that showed on her cheek. 

“Wanta put those in your saddlebags?” he asked, as he strolled past her into the hacienda. “I forgot somethin’.”

It only took him a minute to snatch what he was looking for and by the time he returned, Murdoch was helping Darcy up on her roan. 

“You’ll be back tomorrow night?” Murdoch unwrapped Darcy’s rein from the rail and handed it to her.

“Yeah.” Johnny stuffed his shaving kit into his bag, then swung up onto Barranca.  “I expect we’ll be back before dinner, but if we’re not…”  A small smile lit his eyes.   “…don’t come looking for us.” 

Darcy gave that a sideways glance, but Johnny didn’t worry about it.  The morning sun was glinting off her braid and an easy breeze was pressing her shirt against her and he wasn’t worrying about much of anything. 

He took up the packhorse’s lead line, resettled his hat on his head and reined Barranca away from the rail.  Darcy’s roan fell in at his side, with her twisted in the saddle, waving a goodbye and shouting out a “See you tomorrow.”   Johnny took one quick look back himself.  Teresa had her hand up on Murdoch’s shoulder, while the old man leaned against the sturdy post, just watching them go.  Mother hens, he told himself, keeping an eye on their chicks, only nobody would be watching them up in those mountains for two whole days.  Nope, he wasn’t worrying about a thing.

“Take care!” Murdoch shouted out, but Johnny just kept on riding.  Darcy, too.  The mountains were stretched out in front of them, snow-capped and hazy in the distance.  They were aiming for the tallest peak, the one with the white tails snaking down into the high valleys. 

Neither one of them had much to say as their horses trotted through the meadows leading to Swift Creek.  Darcy gave him those glances every now and then and he kept a close watch on her, just to judge her condition.  The horse’s gait was smooth and she moved with it, her whole body relaxed and loose and those wisps of hair floating in the breeze.  They didn’t need to talk; nature was carrying on a conversation for them.  Two killdeer called out as they took to their wings and skimmed across the wild flowers.  Those were everywhere, little patches of violet and white crowding into the forage.  The slow wind was playing with the grass, teasing it into ripples that died out in a long gully that stuck with them to their right. There was a thin creek running through it.  Cool waters, Johnny knew.  Spring run-off from the mountains.  The dragonflies had found it and their long wings whistled in the sun-drenched air. 

As the morning moved on it got warmer and by the time the east pasture was stretched out behind them, Johnny had already shrugged out of his jacket and stuffed it into a tie-down.  He was grateful for the shade of the pine trees when they rode under them.  Those were in the foothills and the horses were laboring by then, already straining with the climb.  Darcy struggled a bit, too, having to lean forward to balance in the saddle, the discomfort showing in her face.

“You need to rest?” Johnny asked, bringing Barranca up even with her roan. 

“No, it’s not much farther, is it?”

“Another hour. Maybe more.”

She shook her head and the ribbon in her braid slipped further.  “Let’s keep going.”

“Rein up.”  Both horses came to a stop, with Barranca so near he was almost touching the roan.  Johnny unwrapped the canteen strap and handed it over to her.  “You’ll tell me if you get too hot or somethin’?”

She took his hand as he started to pull it back and squeezed gently.  “I’m stronger than you think,” she said, then she let go to lift the canteen to her lips and he watched her gulp down several long swallows.  When she passed it back, the cork was still out and he took a swig himself before putting it right again. 

Darcy was gazing up into the mountains when he looked over at her again.  “Johnny, are we really alone?  Jelly isn’t hidden somewhere in that pack is he?”

“Nope.”  He leaned toward her and she met him halfway, their kiss broken when Barranca shifted his weight.  Johnny tugged on the reins.  “We’re alone, just you and me and him.”  His eyes aimed toward her rounded belly.

“Her.”  Darcy’s dimple showed.

“Yeah.  We’ll see.”

She laughed and it sounded right, just as natural as the hawk circling overhead or the warm breeze nuzzling against his face.  It all felt right and for a moment he felt that old familiar, prickling fear.  It worked its way under his skin and grabbed hold of his lungs, making it hard to breathe.  His eyes followed the thrust of the mountain and then lifted higher and into the blue skies beyond.  Let it be, Old Man.  This time…just let it be.  Johnny dragged in a deep chest full of air.  It was fresh and pungent with the smell of pine and when he let it out again some of his unease went with it.  Enough of it, anyway.  He pushed on.

Along about the second switchback, Darcy was hurting.  She didn’t exactly admit it, but it was plain to see in the way she tilted in the saddle. Occasionally, when she thought he wasn’t looking, she’d press her hand against the small of her back and hold it there for a minute. He didn’t even try to ask the question this time.  There was less than a mile to go and he knew what her answer was going to be anyway.  She was fine; she was always fine.  Except when she took his head off.

They made the final climb and he could hear the creek rushing.  The trail threaded through a chain of boulders and there it was, tumbling down through the cut and fighting its way over the rocks, in a hurry to get to the lake below.  The creek was full and what didn’t fit inside it became a fog of white foam above it. 

Johnny let Barranca and the packhorse pick their way to the edge of the creek and dip their noses into the flow.  Darcy’s roan did the same and she shifted in her saddle, finally giving away her secret in a huff of air and a reluctant scowl.  Johnny swung down from his horse and lifted his arms to her.  “Let’s get you down from there.”

“Sounds easy, doesn’t it?”  She pulled her leg over the saddle horn and tipped into his arms.  He set her lightly down on the bank and she leaned into him.  “Maybe that was a long ride.”

“Worth it?”  He brushed the hair from her face when she turned a strained smile up to him.

“It’s beautiful, Johnny, absolutely beautiful. Now, which bush is the outhouse?”

He laughed softly and let her go, watching her walk gingerly up the hill to some scrubby brush. “Make some noise up there.  Could be rattlers.”

“Think they’d dare get in the way of a pregnant woman?”

“Not if they know what’s good for ‘em.”

Darcy disappeared behind a cedar and Johnny gave the meadow a good look.  It’d been a year since he’d been up here and it looked the same--almost.  There were little flowers, thicker near the water, but sprinkled anywhere the sun could find them.  It was green and cool, a lot cooler than the pastures had been, and that big, old basswood tree threw a wide patch of shade just above the creek.  The blooms hadn’t opened yet and their honey-soaked sweetness was still a tightly clenched promise. It wasn’t exactly as he remembered it, but he wasn’t complaining.  He wasn’t complaining at all.


The words were starting to blur and Scott squeezed his eyes tightly, then he stared at the page again.  It wasn’t Thoreau’s fault; blame it on the Sabbath. Even his eyelids were claiming their day of rest.  They weren’t getting any argument from his body, either.  It was fading into the soft cushions of Murdoch’s big leather chair and just holding the pages where he could see them was becoming a pointless chore. So he didn’t.  Scott let the book drop against his stomach, still open to the ponds, and he succumbed to the decadent temptation.  It was barely evening and a nap was sure to spoil his sleep later. Grandfather would never have approved.  Scott smiled gently, laid his head back against the chair and let his eyes fall shut.

He’d almost wandered off into his dreams when he heard the knock.  It took him a second to place the sound and another irritated moment looking around the great room and wishing that Murdoch or Teresa would answer it. The sound came again and he stood, then grabbed at the book that slid from his lap.  He still had it in his hand when he opened the door. 

The stranger standing there wore an affable smile.

“Can I help you?” Scott asked, looking first at the man and then past him to his still-mounted companion. 

“The name’s Garcia.  Charlie Garcia.”

He stuck his hand out and Scott started to reach, but the book had to be shifted, and by the time he’d sorted it out and met the man’s handshake, he was feeling keenly aware that he was ill-prepared for this meeting.  Both of these men were wearing holsters around their hips, low-slung ones with substantial pistols, and all he had in defense was a well-worn edition of “Life in the Woods”.

“Scott Lancer,” he said.

The man hooked a thumb over his shoulder.  “That there’s Hank Trantham.”

Scott nodded, but his attention was on the heavy footsteps moving closer from the great room. “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?”

Garcia scratched at the several days’ growth on his chin.  “Well, I was hoping … I mean, Hank and me were hoping…”  He glanced around at his companion, who just kept staring at Scott.  “What I mean to say is…we heard tell at the saloon in Morro Coyo that an old friend of ours might be living here with you folks.  Johnny Madrid?”  His smile widened, but the eyes under his thick brows didn’t get any softer.  “That’s right…the name’s Lancer now, ain’t it?”

“What do you want with Johnny?”  Murdoch’s voice rumbled across Scott’s shoulder.  His father had taken a position just behind him and Scott could see the barrel of his rifle pointing out at waist level. 

“Old business.”  Garcia looked down at the rifle, but if it made him nervous, he didn’t show it.  “It’s kinda private.  Is Madrid around?”


Murdoch didn’t offer any more and Garcia hesitated for a moment, gazing beyond them into the hacienda.  “I don’t guess you could tell me when he might be around?”

There was a ragged threat in Murdoch’s voice.  “We’ll tell Johnny that you asked for him.”

“Yeah?  Well, that’s sure accommodatin’ of you.”  Garcia half turned toward Trantham, who nodded and shifted his reins to his left hand. “When would that be exactly?”  He brought his dark eyes back to lock onto Scott’s.  “It’s been a long time and Hank and I are mighty anxious to see Madrid.  Do you reckon he might be back tonight?  Or maybe in the mornin’?”

They were almost black, those hard eyes, and they held him in their grip like talons.  Scott met them with his own steely gaze.  “If you’ll excuse us, Mister Garcia, I believe we’ve made it clear that Johnny isn’t here at the moment and as you can probably see...”  He raised his book slightly, although his eyes never wavered from the man’s face.  “I was in the middle of a particularly rewarding chapter.”

Garcia glanced down and smiled.  “Good readin’, is it?” When he turned this time, he kept moving toward his horse.  “Don’t let me keep you from it.  Lord knows a man doesn’t get much time to enjoy the finer things, not in this life, anyway.”  He mounted and backed the sorrel away from the rail.  “Now the next one…I figure we’re gonna have all the time in the world.  But I ain’t in any hurry to get there…right, Mister Lancer?  I don’t guess any of us are rushing into that kingdom come, but it’s gonna get us…all of us…sooner or later.”  He reined his horse away from the hacienda. “Hank and me, we’ll mostly be at the saloon in Morro Coyo.  You be sure to tell that to Madrid, you hear? And I do thank you for your hospitality.”  He kneed the sorrel into a trot.

Trantham sat a moment longer, just looking down at them.  Scott felt his father’s presence, still solid behind him, and saw the rifle barrel lift almost imperceptibly. Finally, Trantham turned his horse, too.

“Tell Johnny that Chandler sends his regards.” He tipped his hat and his horse lurched forward, galloping after Garcia’s.

Murdoch stepped forward and Scott edged over to give him more room in the doorway.  “Why do I think that wasn’t a friendly visit?” Scott asked.

“Because it wasn’t.”  Murdoch let the rifle hang down.

The sun was sending long shadows across the corrals and Scott studied them, weighing his decision.  “There’s maybe an hour left of daylight.  If I push hard, I could be in the foothills by then.  Do you think the trail is marked well enough to follow in the moonlight?”

“It’s too dangerous.  There’s some steep climbs.”

“I could walk Charlie up those.”

Murdoch turned toward him.  “How do you know those men wouldn’t just follow you?  They could be watching.”

Scott’s jaw clenched tighter. “They could be watching when Johnny and Darcy ride home, too. There wouldn’t be any cover out there on the range and with Darcy along, I just can’t see Johnny handling any gunplay alone.  No.”  He shook his head and looked Murdoch in the eye. “If there’s a chance of an ambush, I think they should be warned.”

“Maybe.  But tomorrow’s soon enough.”

Scott stared after the gunslingers, watching their horses diminish to dark fragments on the horizon.  “I’ll leave in the morning then.”

“Good.”  Murdoch nodded thoughtfully, before giving Scott a wan smile. “Besides…I don’t think your brother would appreciate any company tonight.”

Scott dropped his eyes to the book in his hands, and then lifted them again to his father’s.  “I just hope he doesn’t get any.”



Chapter 3 

The fish were sizzling, but Johnny didn’t even hear them.  He was stretched out by the fire, his back against the log and his head twisted around, looking down at the creek.  Darcy crouched there at the river’s edge, facing away and shifting in the hazy twilight.  She was mostly covered by the blanket slung around her shoulders, but she struggled to manage both it and her cold water bath.  The blanket kept sliding and when it fell one last time, she just left it.  She lifted her hands over the creek instead, wringing the water from her flannel cloth and running it across her neck.   Her hair was swept up in a loose pile, but that was falling, too, and the loose tendrils clung damply to her bare back.  Her skin was pale.  Even in this concealing light, she seemed delicate…small…and Johnny simply watched her.

She picked up a shirt from the creek’s bank and slipped into it, stood and buttoned.  The shirt hung nearly to her knees and the sleeves covered her fingers. His, Johnny knew, and he smiled a little.  Darcy bent to pick up the blanket and turned her face to him, then she smiled, too, a soft smile and warm. She started toward him.

His frying hissed and Johnny jerked his head around, grabbed at the skillet and let go again, then reached for a towel and tried it again.  He pulled the skillet from the fire, set it on a flat rock and poked at the fish with a fork, pulling the burnt skin free of the hot iron. 

Darcy stepped over the log and knelt beside him on her bedroll.  “You didn’t burn the one I caught, did you?”

Glancing toward her, he caught her easy grin and then he poked at the fish again.  “You mean the one I tied the fly on for you and I landed when you wouldn’t touch it?”

“Fish are slimy.”

“But you’ll eat them.”

“I’m hungry…and they smell good.” 

She wrapped her blanket around her and settled back against the log, then stared up into the sky. Johnny looked up, too.  There was still a mellow glow to the west, toward the ranch, but the night was pushing against it. Above them, in the deepening black, the stars were out.

He dug a potato out of the coals, set it on her plate, then shoveled some fish on, too.  “Here,” he said, passing it over.  “Watch out for the bones.”

She stretched forward and took a fork from the supply sack, then leaned back again.  Johnny grabbed his own plateful of dinner and took his place next to her, slumped against the rough bark.

“How’s your back?” he asked, picking at the fish.  “When we head home tomorrow, we’re taking breaks, you know.  At least two good long ones.”

“When did you do that?”  She brushed a thumb against his face. “You have some blood…wait.”  She took a corner of her blanket and wiped at the spot. “It’s dry already.”

“Shaving in that creek ain’t easy.”

“You shaved?”  She dropped her hand and stared at him for a long moment, then went back to her eating.  Johnny chewed, too.  That’s all he could do.  He knew there was something going on inside her head, but it was like guessing which way a bronc was going to buck.  Even when he thought he had it, the next move was likely to throw him.

He gazed into the fire as he ate.  The rest of the meadow was disappearing anyway, taken by the darkness.  All that was left up on that mountain was the fire, him and Darcy, and the stars overhead.  A log broke at its crimson middle, falling in halves into the hot coals and scattering crackling sparks into the air.  Johnny set his plate aside and grabbed up a stick, stirred the ashes and shoved the wood into a more productive arrangement, then tossed the kindling into the fire.  

“Johnny?”  Her voice was faint. 

“Yeah?”  He watched the flames lick at the branch.

“Why did you bring me up here? I know the ranch is too busy to spare anyone right now.  Today’s Sunday, but tomorrow…why aren’t you getting up at sunrise and branding calves all day or fixing fences or whatever it is you do until dark? How did you even get Murdoch to let you go?”

“That was easy.”  As soon as those words were out of his mouth, he wished he could grab them back.   “Murdoch, he heard…”  Johnny hesitated and filled the time by lying back against the log and stuffing a saddlebag under his head.  “Well…he heard that fight.  Two nights ago.”

“He did?”  She sighed and laid her plate next to the fire.  “But I still don’t understand.  You made it perfectly clear then that you don’t have any extra time.  Not right now, anyway.  I’m not complaining, this place is perfect and being here with you…”  She swept a hand against his arm, then drew it back again. “Was it because of our fight?”

He stared into the fire again. “You didn’t exactly sound happy.”

“I wasn’t.”

“It’s not the first time, either.”

“So?  People argue.”

“That’s what Murdoch said.”  Johnny tilted his head against his makeshift pillow and watched Darcy’s face.  “He and my mama used to go at it, I guess.”

“I can imagine they did.  Your father isn’t always the easiest man…”  Her voice trailed off, then she sat up suddenly.  “Johnny, is that what you think?”  She twisted around on her bedroll, facing him and tugging her blanket to cover everything that her loose shirt didn’t.  “Your mama ran off.”

He smiled wryly.  “Yeah, I think I heard somethin’ about that.”

“But that’s what you think…that if we fight I’m going to take off like she did?  Is that what this trip is all about, you trying to keep me happy?  I don’t need all of this.  You even shaved in the middle of the day.”  Her voice grew louder and her arm came out from under the blanket, waving through the air.  “When are you going to stop worrying about everything?  I’m not going to leave you and nothing’s going to happen to this baby.  You’re just looking for trouble.  You always do that and I want it to stop.”  The arm swung wild again and her blanket slid. “Are you listening to me?”

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“You’re saying I’m an idiot.”

“I did not say that.”

He grinned.  “You did the other night.”

Darcy’s cheeks reddened and she raised her palm in defeat.  “That you heard. The one time you actually listen to me and it has to be that.”  She dropped her hand to her lap and sighed.  “I can’t help it.  I feel fat and I’m tired all the time and you’re always out there on the ranch somewhere and…Johnny?  Are you hearing any of this?”

“You go right on.”

“Look at me.”

“I am.”

“That’s not my face.”

“I know.  That shirt don’t fit you right.”  He grinned again, looking up into her frustrated expression and then dropping his eyes back to where they started from.  The blanket wasn’t the only thing that had slipped; her shirt wasn’t buttoned near enough.  It was hanging to one side, showing a pale shoulder and the soft roundness underneath, smooth and shadowed by the firelight.  He reached to the shirt and tugged it lower.

“Stop that.”  One dimple flirted with him as Darcy straightened her top again.  “I’m trying to have a serious discussion here.”

“Yeah?  I’m gettin’ serious, too.”

He reached again and she slapped his hand away, but both dimples flickered this time.  “Come here,” he said softly, taking her arm and pulling her down beside him. 

“Are you going to stop worrying?” She scooted closer.

“Maybe.  You going to stop nagging?”

She brushed her hand against his smooth cheek and laughed lightly.  “I doubt it.”

Johnny followed the line of her shirt, skimming a finger from the hollow at her shoulder to the rise of her breast and listening as her breathing deepened.  His own breath came harder, too.

Darcy drew a knee over his leg.  That shirt was all she had and it wasn’t covering much.  She shivered.

“You’re cold.”  It was awkward reaching across her and he wasn’t sure but that he’d leaned too hard, but he grabbed her blanket, anyhow, and dragged it across her, tossing the corners out to cover to her feet.  “Better?”

She nuzzled into his neck and kissed it.  “One hundred and three,” she said tenderly. 

“What’s that?”  His hands searched the soft skin under her shirt, familiar and changing, more of it now.  More of her with their baby growing.

“I’ll leave you when you’re one hundred and three.”

“Yeah?”  He half laughed, but she was unbuttoning his shirt and working her mouth down his chest and he was losing his concentration.

“Yeah.”  She laid her head against him, her fingers still caressing and tugging gently at the hairs there.  “You won’t have any teeth then and you’ll probably make me repeat everything I say.  Old people don’t hear very well, you know, and they drool a lot.  I hate it when grown men drool.”  She tipped her face to him.  “So I’m giving you notice now, cowboy.  You’re stuck with me until you’re a hundred and three.”

He kissed her gently. “How about a hundred and four?”

“All right.”  She closed her eyes and their lips met again, a deeper kiss and slow and lingering, and she moaned, that same, sweet sound that he loved.  Her hands were restless on him, in his hair and at his neck and brushing at his shoulder, and his palm slipped across her, finding the small of her back and sinking lower, shaping to the firm curve there and pulling her close. 

“Johnny,” she said, his name one with her breath, and he found the buttons still joined on her shirt.  The press of their bodies was in his way and his fingers fumbled at the task, but one by one they came undone, and he had all of her against him, nothing swaddled or laced, but his and natural and right.

“Hold on, darlin’.”  He had to pull away and his hands moved faster this time, freeing himself of his boots and socks and pants and shirt.  Darcy was smiling at him the whole time, lying back with one hand pushing her hair from her face and the other petting at him every time he came close enough for her to reach.  He slid out of his underwear, already difficult under the circumstances, and felt her arms slip around his waist. 

For a moment, he was still.  “You never told me how your back is doing.” 

Darcy dragged him down and he nearly fell on top of her.  “Stop worrying,” she murmured and he did, filling his senses with her instead, with the supple yield of her breast in his hand, in his mouth, fresh with the scent of lavender, and the hungry arch of her back, lifting to meet him, wanting.  He slid inside her and she was moist and warm and they were together, wholly.  Their shadow flickered on the log behind them, cast by the firelight and moving slowly, seductively at first, then faster as her gasps came into his ears and he felt her fingers gripping at his back.  “Johnny,” she said again and he felt her voice, too, an aching whimper, and he found her mouth, taking it and being taken, and she moved with him, joining and separating, flesh on flesh.  Her swelling pressed against him, full with their child, and he braced his arms and lifted away, afraid and losing the touch of her, the cool night air grazing his chest instead, and then her hands were there, soft and moving, stroking, drawing him down, and the stars went away and the world went away and there was only this, the urgent need to hear her moaning, to drive inside her, again and again, drunken with the rhythm and waiting…waiting…

Her hands stopped. Darcy clenched his shoulders and she trembled.

Johnny closed his eyes and he pushed hard into her, wanting that moment, that sweet, sweet moment, until her gasping sobs came and they came and she turned limp with her pleasure.  And he was lost, drowning in the sensation and panting and driving, desperate and driving, and then it was there, all of it there, hot and intense and inside her and there and he groaned, sinking.  He fell at her side.  When his eyes opened again, Darcy gazed at him, flushed and languid, and she reached, her fingers barely caressing his face, his eyes, his mouth, until he pulled her to him and they curled as one, their bodies finding a familiar fit and arms and legs folded together. 

“You cold?” he asked, still struggling with his breath.

“A little.”

He pulled the blanket up around their shoulders and wrapped her in its warmth. Her hair was tickling his chin and he brushed it back, then held her close and listened.  The breeze rustled the leaves on the basswood tree, making a quiet music that played along with the drone of the creek.  After a while, Darcy added her voice, soft and whispery, and he listened to that, too, answering a question here or there and or asking his own when he thought of one. Mostly, though, he just listened, with the stars overhead and his arms full of the woman he loved. The moon came out and the breeze died away and they were still awake and touching and talking.

Morning came much too soon.

The sun was well above the mountain before they stirred, either of them.  Darcy was the first.  She lifted the blanket and slid away and Johnny blinked back the daylight, groping at the cover and pulling it tighter.  It was cold.  He eyed his clothes, piled in a rumpled mess next to the bedroll, and gave them some consideration, but Darcy was running up the hillside, her bare legs dancing between the rocks and that too-big shirt flapping all the way.  She’d need some warming when she got back.  He let his clothing lie.

Darcy grabbed the biscuits before she crawled back under the blanket.  “You want some breakfast?” she asked, and she dropped the loosely wrapped package in her lap, stuffing a big bite in her mouth before she’d truly gotten settled against the log. 

“Mornin’.”  Johnny smiled. 

She finished chewing, a slow smile lighting her eyes, and after she’d swallowed and wiped a finger at the corner of her mouth, she leaned down to him.  “Good morning.”  Her voice was as tender as the kiss that followed.  “But I’m hungry,” she said, leaving him grinning up at her.

“Guess I can wait.” 

“Listen, cowboy, a girl’s got her priorities.”  She filled her mouth again. 

Even laughing seemed like too much trouble, but he did, a soft, easy laugh that felt good against his lazy mood. “All right, seein’ as how you’re eatin’ for him, too.”

She smirked at him, then dug into the packet and handed over a biscuit. “Here…you need to keep your strength up…and it’s a she.”

He left that challenge unanswered, but he took the biscuit.  A day in the saddlebags hadn’t done it any good, but Johnny ate his breakfast and washed it down with a long swig from the canteen. Darcy finished hers and tossed the empty towel at their feet, then scooted lower under the covers. 

“When does it get warm up here?”

Johnny looked over his shoulder, to the east, and tracked his eyes up and over the mountain.  Mid-morning from the blue sky seeping under that sun.  “I don’t think it’s going to.”

“No?  I’m cold.”  She tucked the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

“I got a cure for that.” 

One dimple showed.  “You do, do you?”

“Yeah.”  He burrowed deeper under the blanket, too.  “You got all those priorities done?”  He found her buttons, undoing them easily.

“Is that your cure?”  She laughed lightly.

“Nope, but I’m gettin’ there.”  He slid a hand under her shirt and pulled her close.



“Somebody’s singing.”

All he could do was look at her for a second, her brown eyes filled with confusion, and then he lifted his head to listen. It was faint, but there.  And it was off-key. 

“You might want to get yourself covered,” he said reluctantly.

She slung his clothes at him first, before crawling to her saddlebag and digging out a pair of pants and something white and feminine.  Johnny struggled into his underwear and shrugged into his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned as he heard the voice grow closer.  He reached next to his bedroll and slid his Colt from its holster.

Darcy nearly tripped, one leg still working its way into her pants, but she managed to grab his arm.  “No, Johnny…I think that’s Scott.”  She held on as they both stood still, ears turned to the muffled singing, and waited until a good, strong chorus started up.  It was a particularly enthusiastic rendition of “John Brown’s Body”, with only a hint of a Boston accent on the high notes.

A grin crawled up the corner of Johnny’s mouth and he raised his Colt higher. “Want me to get rid of him?”


Darcy leaned into him, giggling, and Johnny wrapped his arm around her and kissed her forehead.  “Guess I’m gonna have to explain a few facts of life to my big brother.”

“Put your pants on first.”

He let her go and took that advice.  Darcy did the same, almost managing to look presentable by the time Scott’s horse rounded that last boulder. Her hair was still down and her shirt only half-stuffed into her oversized slacks, but she’d found her boots and that was more than Johnny had done. He was still standing there in his bare feet, tucking in his shirt and strapping the gun belt around his hips. 

Scott’s performance faded away as Charlie plodded toward them.

“You lost?” Johnny shouted.  He managed a smile, but he knew it was feeble. His morning ease was gone already, sucked into the improbability of his brother showing up anywhere near Swift Creek.  Scott hadn’t needed any lectures for years-- not that kind, anyway.   And he hadn’t made that ride for the fresh mountain air.

“Thought you two might be getting lonely.”  Scott rode Charlie right up to Johnny, looking down at him with his hat pushed to the back of his head.  “Is the coffee on?”

Johnny glanced at the charred sticks and grey ash still smoking lazily in their fire ring.  The coffee pot was on its side a few feet past it.  He shook his head and brushed his hand through his hair.  “Nope, we hadn’t gotten around to that yet. There might be a biscuit or somethin’.” 

He twisted around to face Darcy.  She was on her knees by the bedrolls, grabbing the evidence and sorting and folding.  “We got any breakfast left?” 

She sat back on her heels and searched around, finding the towel finally, and crumpling it into her pocket.  “The biscuits are gone.  Maybe I could get some bread out?  There’s cheese, I think…and some apples.”  She pulled her hair back and braided it loosely as she rattled off those possibilities. 

“You hungry?”  Johnny asked, turning back to his brother.

Scott resettled his hat.  “No.  I had breakfast before I set out this morning.”

“That’s good.”  Johnny nodded thoughtfully, then he cocked his head and asked, “Why did you set out this morning?” 

“You know a man named Chandler?” 

“I know him.”

“Those men from the saloon showed up at the ranch yesterday and Trantham had a message for you.  He said Chandler sends his regards.”

Something sour rose up in his throat and Johnny dropped his head, waiting for the sudden sickness to pass and pushing the image from his head.  The broken down cabin, the blood.  And those eyes--brown eyes and young. Too young.   


“Yeah, Scott…give me a minute.”  Johnny walked carefully back to where Darcy was still kneeling, feeling the rocks and cold ground under his feet.  He squatted in front of her and took the pile of blankets from her arms.

“Can you get the cooking stuff cleaned up and packed?”

She laid her hand on his knee.  “What’s going on, Johnny?  Who’s Chandler?”

“I hired out to him once, long time ago.”

“Is he trouble?”

“Could be.  Enough that I want to get you back to the ranch.”

“What are you going to do then?”

He forced a smile.  “I’m going to handle it.”

They broke camp and got the horses headed down the mountain, Scott taking the lead and Johnny and Darcy following behind with the packhorse.  It was faster coming down and by the time the sun was overhead they were already leaving the pines behind.  The heat beat into them.  Johnny kept an eye on Darcy, watching for any sign that her back was bothering her again, but he didn’t find it.  He scanned the pastures, too, searching for a movement, a glint of metal.  There was nothing, just the rippling grass and that gully. That’s all he saw for miles, until they started up a gentle slope.

Scott pulled up ahead of them and then he took his rifle from its scabbard and balanced it across his saddle horn. 

“Wait here.”  Johnny dropped the packhorse’s line and glanced at Darcy, but she’d already reined her roan to a standstill.  He pulled his Colt from the holster, heeled Barranca into a lope and came up on Scott’s side. 

A lone rider faced them from the bottom of the hill.  He was dark and grinning and he had his own rifle cradled in his arm.

“Long time, Madrid!” Charlie Garcia shouted.




Chapter 4


The sorrel was cropping at the grass, his legs splayed and his tail flicking away the flies.  Garcia seemed in no hurry to interrupt the horse’s leisure.  He waited, leaning lazily forward in the saddle with his arm braced across the horn.  It’d been awhile.  Five years, no…six, Johnny calculated. They hung heavy on the man, etched into the furrows at his eyes and dragging his face down into his whiskers.  Slowing him, maybe.  Maybe not.  Garcia was watching Johnny, too, nonchalantly, with that irritating grin.  Making his own allowances, Johnny knew.  Well, times might be different, but the game was still the same.  He gripped the Colt and aimed it at Garcia.

“Back off,” Johnny whispered loudly to his brother.

“No way.” 

Johnny spared one glance at Scott, finding the tight clench of his jaw and the determined eyes boring down into Garcia, then he scanned the scrubby pasture.  Grass, that’s all he saw, just the thick blade grass shivering in the breeze.  The ground fell off into the gully and he searched the rough edge of that embankment, before bringing his eyes back to Garcia.   “Darcy’s alone back there and I don’t see Trantham.  I need you down there with her.”

“What’s this all about, Johnny?”

“Pay back.” Johnny heard the anger catching in his voice and he took a deep breath.  The next words came out flatter.  “Chandler doesn’t like me much.”


“If any shooting starts, I want you to take Darcy and get the hell out of here.”

“I want to know why.”

There wasn’t more than a few second’s silence as Johnny shaped the memory into words.  “Chandler’s boy needed killing,” he finally said, “and I took care of it.”

Johnny kneed Barranca forward, leaving Scott at the top of the hill. He kept the palomino’s gait slow, giving his brother time to consider things and in the end he heard the sound he was waiting for, the clumps of the bay’s trot fading over the hill. Half way down the slope, Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop.  Garcia straightened and he lifted the rifle from his arm, leveling it at Johnny’s chest. 

“Charlie.”  Johnny nodded and gave Garcia cold smile.  “Heard you had a message for me.”

“You look good, Madrid.” 

“Can’t say the same about you.”

A killdeer fluttered up from the gully, followed closely by a second bird.  Both called shrilly.  Something tightened in his gut and Johnny watched Garcia’s eyes, waiting for a sideways motion that didn’t come.  The man laughed instead, looking right at him and holding his gun steady as could be, but choking out that hoarse, ugly laugh.

“Always did have a smart mouth, didn’t you Madrid?  Almost makes this visit entertainin’.”

“Is that why you’re here, Charlie?  You lookin’ to be entertained?”  The sounds were ricocheting through his brain…those killdeer cries dying across the fields, the breeze whispering through the grass and fragments of the voices on the other side of the rise, Darcy’s soft and wavering and Scott’s deep.  The sounds wouldn’t lay quiet and his gut twisted again.

Garcia croaked out another laugh.  “I told you, Johnny boy.  I told you old man Chandler wasn’t gonna like that much. Of course he’s too cheap to do much about it, not at first anyway.  Guess it kinda ate at him, though.  Shootin’ his boy, now that was a mistake.”

Johnny’s smile hardened.  “Not to my way of thinkin’.” 

“Oh, it was--you can believe that, Madrid. And sooner or later we all pay for our mistakes.”

“Not today, Charlie.  You wanta get off my land?”

“Be right glad to, just as soon as Hank and I get what we came for.”

No trees.  There weren’t any trees in this pasture, no outcroppings, nothing for Trantham to hide behind, but he was there, Johnny could feel him.  “Scott,” he called out.  “Check the gully.”

Garcia’s dark eyes narrowed.

From the other side of the hill, off to the gully side, a voice floated across the meadow. “Drop that rifle,” it said and then, rapidly behind that, “Now, Lancer. Drop it.”

There was a distant thud and for an instant Johnny’s finger wavered on the trigger.  The slightest movement, just one squeeze, that’s all it would take.  Easy.  Just one smooth pull and Garcia would be dead.  Do it, a silent voice demanded…do it. 

“Scott!” he shouted instead, barely holding back the panic, and Barranca folded his ears and tossed his head.  Johnny reined him in.  The hill loomed like a mountain behind him, with Darcy and Scott on the other side, hidden, and Johnny listened hard, his heart thumping in his ears, and he raised his Colt higher.

“Uh, uh…you pull that trigger and that brother of yours is a dead man.”  Garcia made sure the next words could be heard over the rise.  “Right, Hank?  You got ‘em?”

“Got ‘em,” the far off voice hollered.

Garcia nodded. “You wanta toss that gun down now, Johnny boy?”

He hesitated a second more, calculating his chances, then Johnny did as Garcia said and released the hammer, dropped his hand and let the Colt fall into the grass under Barranca’s legs. “Leave them out of it, Charlie.  You got me.”

“Them?  I was wondering why your brother took off like that.  You got your lady back there?”  Garcia stood in the stirrups, craning his neck at the impossible task of seeing over the hill.  “Couple of cowhands were real friendly back at that saloon, filled us in just fine.  I been right anxious to meet your gal.”

“You touch her and you’re dead.”

“You best be worryin’ about your own health, Madrid.” 

He heard the slow plodding behind him and Johnny twisted in the saddle, watching the crest of the slope.  Scott was the first to come over it, on foot.  His head was hanging down and his eyes met Johnny’s, holding them for a long moment.  The look was filled with regret.  Not your fault brother, Johnny wanted to tell him.  He wanted to say a lot of things, but Trantham came over the hill next, mounted on Scott’s bay with Darcy at his side and all Johnny could see, all he could think, was her.  She sat straight in her saddle, head high, but still small next to Trantham, her neat roan a full hand shorter than the bay and Darcy’s body dwarfed by the man.  Her lips parted slightly and her chest rose with each breath, quick breaths, and she watched him, too, her eyes wild, but the rest of her quiet.   

Trantham stopped her a good ten feet from Johnny. 

“Hold up there, Lancer.”  Hank swung down from Scott’s horse and turned to Garcia.  “Got the rope?” 

Garcia dug into his saddlebags and tossed a twisted length of rope to his partner.  Hank holstered his pistol and shook out the tangled lines, separating them into two pieces.  He tied Scott first, gathering his hands in front of him, then binding them together and giving a rough yank to the knot.  When he was finished, he moved to Johnny, leaving him on his horse as he reached up to tie his hands.

“Let them go.” It was useless; Johnny knew it was useless before the words were even out.  Trantham wouldn’t even look at him.  “That was a long time ago, you know that, Hank.  It’s got nothing to do with them.  Let them go.” 

Hank cinched the knot.  “Can’t be helped,” he said softly.

“You don’t need her, Hank.  Let them go.” 

The only answer was a final tug on the bindings, then Hank turned away and grabbed Johnny’s Colt up from the grass.  “I’m going after my horse.  Keep your eye on them,” he said to Garcia, as he swung up onto Charlemagne and galloped off.  Garcia did watch them, one of them anyway.  He held his rifle aimed at Scott, but he was looking straight at Darcy.  A leering grin twisted his face.

“Madrid ain’t got no manners, ma’am, so I reckon I better be introducing myself.  Name’s Carlos Leonidas Trujillo Garcia, but my friends call me Charlie.  Right, Madrid?  And you be…?”

Her voice barely carried through the heat-shimmering air.  “Darcy Lancer.”

“Well, Miss Darcy...”  Garcia lifted one hand to his hat just long enough to tip it. “It’s my pleasure.  And I do apologize for this…inconvenience, but Hank and I don’t aim to keep you long. You just do as we say and I expect we’ll get along fine.”  His eyes drifted down her body.  “Real fine.”

“Charlie.”  The name came out jagged and even Johnny’s horse was unsettled by it and stepped forward.  Garcia stiffened and swung the rifle barrel toward him.

“Where you goin’, boy?”

Johnny didn’t have time to answer, because Scott moved next, inching closer to Garcia and breaking off the murderous glare hanging between the men.

“You wanta be dead?”  Garcia turned to Scott.  “Cause you move one more muscle and you’re gonna be.”

“Now, take it easy,” Scott said soothingly.  “I just want to know what you have planned for us.  You seem like a reasonable man, and if this is all about money, I think we have some things to discuss.”

“Like what?”  Garcia waved his rifle toward him and Scott backed up a step, moving closer to Darcy’s roan. “I’m listening.”

“How much are you making on this job?”

“You just make your offer.”

“Two thousand dollars.”  Scott lifted his bound hands enough to punctuate the offer with two raised fingers.  “I bet that’s more than this Chandler is paying, right Mr. Garcia?”

“That’s Charlie.”  His shoulders relaxed and the man leaned forward, his arm resting against the saddle horn.  The furrows around his dark eyes deepened and a grin spread under his mustache. 

“All right…Charlie.  Do we have a deal?”

“Two thousand?” 

The blue-tick hound, that’s the image that flashed through Johnny’s mind.  Half starved and one leg dragging, whimpering, and Garcia with his rifle, playing at his shots. One right behind the animal and two more to the side, just watching the old hound circle on itself and grinning that same arrogant grin. 

“He’s not taking the deal,” Johnny said.

Scott turned to him and Johnny could see it in his eyes.  He knew; they all knew.  There was only one way out of this.  Darcy hadn’t been tied and that was in their favor.  The roan might be small, but she was fast when you asked her.  Would Darcy ask her?  He wasn’t sure and that kept Johnny waiting, weighing it out, that and the rifle still pointing at Scott--but he knew Garcia.  There was a fair chance and that’s more than Charlie would give them.  Johnny gathered his reins taut against the bit and he tensed.  His heels canted backward, in position, ready, and his eyes narrowed.


Barranca leaped forward, Johnny’s spurs in his flanks. 

Garcia jerked his rifle around and the first shot split the air, close above Johnny’s head, and by the second they were colliding, a flailing mass of bodies and screaming horses.  Garcia’s sorrel fell backward on its haunches and Barranca twisted over him, stripping Garcia from his saddle.  Johnny kicked free of his horse and vaulted after the man, grasping at his shirt and rolling with him, jackknifing away from the hooves that sliced above them, and rolling again.  The sorrel found its legs, snorting and blowing, and Johnny raised away from Garcia and swung his bound fists into the man’s face.  They both fell sideways, under the prancing horse, and its hoof gouged his side as it hopped over them, Johnny barely even noticing the flash of pain as he swung again, hard, into Garcia’s cheek.  The man spit his blood, cursing and thrashing until he found Johnny’s neck and his big hands wrapped around it and he pulled him closer, securing his hold and tightening, squeezing.  Johnny clawed into Garcia’s face, trying to push him away, the roar in his ears growing and his lungs desperate for air, and he felt the horses moving and then he heard Scott’s voice, commanding, firm.

“Let him go,” Scott said.  The rifle barrel appeared, only inches above Garcia’s head.

Garcia let go. 

Johnny fell to the man’s side, coughing, and he slipped the Colt from the man’s holster, then rolled to his back.  Scott seemed to tower above them, and for a moment that’s all Johnny could see, just Scott’s determined face hovering in the blue sky far above him, almost disembodied, and then the blood came rushing back into his head and he remembered and his eyes searched beyond his brother.  Darcy was already off of her roan, scrambling toward them, and a second later she had his head in her lap. 

“You could have been killed,” she mumbled, too distracted to fully form her words as her hands searched the tear in his shirt and pressed against the wide, oozing wound.

“I’m all right,” Johnny said and the effort scratched his throat.  He coughed again.  “Why didn’t you take off?”

The hoofbeats came pounding across the range.

“Get down,” Johnny told her and a bullet sang above them.  Johnny yanked Darcy away, the both of them falling and crawling toward a shallow depression in the ground.  “Stay,” he said, as his eyes searched back toward his brother.

Scott knelt behind Garcia, aiming and firing, and a bullet sprayed up dirt inches from his leg. 

Trantham came riding fast, his own black under him now and Scott’s bay running loose behind him.  His shots were unreliable under that hard gallop, but he was coming closer.

Johnny sprawled in the grass and let two bullets fly toward Trantham. 

Scott grunted.  Johnny jerked his head toward him and saw his brother grappling for the rifle.  It was lying on the ground and Garcia was going for it, too.  Garcia lurched toward it and wrapped both hands around the barrel.  Scott struggled to keep control of the firearm as a fresh red stain poured down his sleeve.

A bullet hit and furrowed the soil only inches away, and Johnny rolled and fired toward Trantham, then leveled his gun at Garcia.  “Drop it,” he said and Garcia froze, the rifle still clutched in his fist and his face turned toward the rapidly approaching horse.

“I wouldn’t do that, Johnny.” 

Trantham.  His horse jarred the ground with its stiff-legged halt and Johnny jerked his eyes back to the man, finding the hollow end of the Colt pointing straight at him.  He heard Scott wince and knew Garcia had the rifle. 

“It’s over.”  Trantham’s voice was out of place, as placid as the warm breeze, and Johnny struggled to comprehend it through all the images swirling through his mind—Darcy crouched in the meager shelter of that depression—Scott wounded, bleeding—Garcia, grinning again, he knew he was grinning again, that ugly, leering grin.  “Now,” Trantham said and Johnny did as he wanted, flipping the barrel of the Colt into his hand and pushing up from the ground.  He took a few steps closer to the black and handed the pistol over.

“That’s a right smart decision.”  Hank stuffed the Colt in his waistband.  “Charlie, what’s the matter…can’t you handle two unarmed men?  Or maybe it was the lady that got the drop on you?”

Darcy came up on his side.  Johnny couldn’t hold her, not with that rope knotted around his wrists, but she clung to him anyway.  “Scott’s hurt,” she whispered, and she leaned against him for only a second, her hand wrapped into his shirt and her face buried in his shoulder, eyes closed.  “He’s hurt,” she mumbled again, and then she slipped away and waded through the tall grass.

“How was I to know Madrid had gone plumb loco?” Garcia stood and held the rifle on the still kneeling Scott. 

The blood had drenched his sleeve and it was turning the ropes red where they bound Scott’s hands together.  His face was pale and he grimaced as Darcy knelt at his side and tore the wet hole in the sleeve wider. 

“It’s not bad,” he offered hopefully. 

“The bullet went clean through,” she said softly, then, looking past Garcia to Trantham, she called out, “I’ll have to bandage this and Johnny’s bleeding, too.  It’s his side.”

Hank pursed his lips and nodded. “You do what you need to, ma’am, but just be quick about it.”  He glanced up toward the sun.  “The day’s moving on and I still got one more guest coming to this party.”

Darcy tended to the wounds as Garcia rounded up all the loose horses.  Scott mounted first.  He wavered in the saddle, tilting forward and having to grab the horn to steady himself.  Johnny swung stiffly onto Barranca, testing the horse on the first few strides, watching for any lameness that might be left over from his miserable attempt to break free.  The horse was sound and he brought him even with Charlemagne.

His worries were stretched out in a line, Scott at the lead, Trantham right behind them and Darcy at the rear, hauling the packhorse behind her and in turn being hauled behind Garcia. They were riding away from the ranch.

“Where are we headed?” Johnny asked, with a backward glance at Trantham.

“Saw a shack a few miles back.”  Hank wiped his sleeve across his sweaty brow.  “Figured your lady might be a more comfortable there while you’re waitin’.”

“What are we waiting for?” Scott shifted in his saddle, ending in the same uncomfortable position.  “This Chandler you keep mentioning?”

Hank ignored that question.  “How far is she?” he asked instead.  “The baby, I mean…summer?”

“August.”  Johnny stared down at Barranca’s neck as he answered, watching the pale mane flutter in the wind.  “Late July, maybe.” 

“Too bad.”

“Why’s that?” Scott asked. 

Johnny felt Scott’s eyes on him as he asked the question, but he left his head hanging down and his own gaze buried in the mane.  He knew the answer anyway, and when it came he just kept riding.

Trantham sounded almost sorrowful.  “Because your brother won’t be around come late July.”




Chapter 5 

Barranca’s shoulder rippled when the horsefly landed.  This one was persistent, though, and it hung on until the horse shook it off, the bit rattling as his head jerked and the reins tightened in Johnny’s hands.  The damn thing took off for Scott’s arm then, crawling across the rip in his sleeve to the soaked-through bandage underneath.  It stayed put there, just a winged black spot against the sheen of Scott’s blood.  Johnny worked Barranca closer, wrapped his reins around the saddle horn, took the brim of his hat in his bound hands and swatted the air above the fly.  It dropped away and droned off across the field.

“You still with us?” Johnny asked softly, resettling his hat and taking up the reins again.

Scott’s eyes flickered open and lifted above the bay’s head to the scrubby range in front of them.  “I’m here,” he said, his throat sounding raw.  “The shack up at the Indian caves?”

“That’s what I’m figuring. Maybe two miles.”

Scott nodded and left his head tilting down, his eyelids sliding almost shut again.  Garcia’s voice boomed out from behind them. 

“Madrid, you remember Ellie, back in El Paso?”

Johnny let that question hang in a too-short moment of silence.

“I do swear, that pretty little gal could smell a dollar on a man and she made him right proud to hand it over.  Course, I ain’t tellin’ you anything, am I, Madrid?”  Garcia coughed out a strangled laugh. “Poor old Miles, he’d been making her work for it, I do remember that.  Thought he’d had her bargained down, too, and already had his hands full of half of what he was paying for, then you come walking into that saloon. Shoulda’ seen his face, I tell ya.  Miles was hurtin’ and little Ellie she just leaves him sittin’ right there.  Just sittin’, all lonesome, while she goes on upstairs with Madrid here.” 

Charlie’s chuckle faded and another silence settled in between the riders.  Johnny looked again at Scott, seeing him slumped forward in the saddle, and grimaced when Garcia started up again.

“Don’t your gal remind you some of Ellie?”

Johnny twisted in the saddle, searching behind him and past Garcia to the quiet face on the roan.  He hadn’t chanced looking at her before, not since they’d started out for the shack.  He could tell Garcia was watching.  He’d been eying him then, too, all those years ago.  Maybe he knew what was in that cabin and maybe not, Johnny hadn’t really cared.  Chandler was enough and he’d handled that.  But now Johnny watched Garcia tow Darcy’s horse behind him and, even in the heat of the afternoon sun, a chill washed through him. 

“Hair’s just about the same color, ain’t it? And Ellie weren’t much bigger. I could put my hand clean around that girl’s arm.”

“Shut up, Charlie,” Hank shouted back.  “Chandler isn’t paying me to listen to you run your mouth off.”

“Now, Hank, I’m just tryin’ to be friendly,” Charlie drawled.  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with talkin’ over old times.  Bet Madrid never told these folks about Ellie or that squatter’s boy, neither.  Did ya, son?  Huh?  You tell them how you shot that kid?”

The sorrel jogged forward and closed the gap between the horses, bringing Garcia’s smug grin almost even with Johnny.  The roan’s line snapped taut behind him and the mare trotted to keep up.  Darcy’s neck jerked with the sudden change in gait and she had to grab at the saddle horn. 

“Blew a hole in that boy’s shoulder and knocked him clean off his wagon.  Never heard such a commotion.  His mama starts screaming and the little ones go off next.  Five of ‘em, weren’t there?  All of ‘em just a cryin’ and going on and that mama the worst of ‘em.”  Garcia gave an exaggerated shake of his head and tilted his head back toward Trantham.  “Pure shame, that’s what it was.  Their daddy only a day in the ground and everything that little family had piled up in that wagon, and now they got a boy bleedin’ all over the ground.  How old was he?  Eleven? Twelve?”

Johnny stared ahead at the spindly grass bowing with the wind.  “Hank, can we hold up a minute?  Give Darcy and Scott a chance to get a little water in them?”

“Rein up.”

Trantham kept a close watch as they all took a few swallows.  Scott grunted as he lifted his canteen and Johnny watched that he drank in enough.  He fumbled with the cork and his fingers clawed at it several times before he got it securely into the mouth of the canteen.

“Eleven.”  Garcia stated the number with loud satisfaction. “Ellie sure gave you hell for that, didn’t she, Madrid?”

“Didn’t Trantham tell you to be quiet?”  Scott squeezed his eyes shut. “You’re not helping my headache any.”

“No?  Well, that’s not very hospitable of me is it?  And after you were so accommodatin’ back at that ranch, too!”  Charlie tipped forward in his saddle, looking past Johnny to Scott.  “You best be minding your own business, Lancer.”

“This is my business.”  Scott turned toward Garcia and leveled a cold stare at the man.  “You made it my business when you came after Johnny and you’re going to regret that decision.”

“That right?  Well, I ain’t the one that shot that kid, Lancer.”  The pistol hung loosely from Garcia’s hand as he nonchalantly wiped some water drops from his mustache.  “I ain’t the one that killed his daddy, neither, or laid out Chandler’s boy.  You got a problem and you better take it up with your brother here, but you might oughta to do it quick.  Lessen of course, you wanta finish that conversation in hell.”  He aimed the Colt.  “I can arrange that meetin’.”

“Let’s go,” Trantham ordered. 

Johnny held his breath as Garcia kept the pistol steady, but finally the gunman gave in. Garcia smiled amiably, lowered his gun and clucked his sorrel into motion.  They all started plodding toward the far hills. 

Their shadows were lengthening and Johnny knew his stomach should have been grumbling for some lunch.  It wasn’t though.  Even the water was sloshing disagreeably in his belly, giving nagging competition to the pain prickling under the bandage there.  The least of his troubles, Johnny knew.  Scott’s breathing had turned ragged and his head drifted downward, but he kept himself in the saddle.  Darcy was just behind them, riding next to Trantham.  She was quiet, too quiet, and time after time Johnny had to swallow hard, losing his concentration in his fear.  There wasn’t any way, not any he could see.  Just that line shack and whatever Chandler had planned for him. Pay back, only they weren’t part of the bargain.  The sky hung above him, no clouds, nothing, just an endless blue.  Johnny felt it pulling at him, tempting his eyes up into the emptiness and he surrendered to it for a moment, just a moment, then dropped his eyes again to the parched ground. No sense in wasting good prayers on deaf ears. 

He kept riding. 

The shack was in a thicket of cedar trees, with a mossy pond just below.  The horses picked up their pace as they came closer and they headed straight for the pond, nosing their muzzles past the green algae edging the bank and into the water.  Johnny swung down first and helped Scott next, the both of them stumbling when Scott hit the ground. 

“Whoa, brother. Can you stand?”  Johnny did the best he could with his hands tied, grasping Scott’s shirt in his fists and bracing him against Charlemagne.  “I got you,” he said softly.

“I’m all right.”  Scott blinked heavily, then shook his head.  His eyes seemed to focus.

“You sure?” 

“Darcy…”  Scott tilted his head toward her roan and straightened.  “I can make it.”

Metal clicked and Johnny swung his eyes around to Trantham. His Colt was waist level and cocked. 

“Move,” Trantham said.

Scott did, slowly.  He looked a little drunk and the uneven ground nearly tripped him on the first step, but he was managing.  Johnny watched his back for another couple of steps, then he swept his gaze across the Colt and into Trantham’s face.  He held his eyes.  They were grey, just as he remembered, grey like twilight.  Trantham didn’t say anything and Johnny let a breath out and turned toward the roan, walking methodically toward Darcy. 

“Johnny…”  His name stretched into the low rumble of Trantham’s voice, but Johnny didn’t stop.  Darcy watched him from her saddle and he saw her eyes shift frantically from him to Trantham’s gun. 


He heard Trantham’s threat, but Johnny smiled gently and he kept going and this time, when she looked at him again, the thin line of Darcy’s mouth softened and she didn’t look away.  He stopped just short of the mare and raised his bound hands to her.

“Come here.” 

She slid stiffly from the horse, with him guiding her down.  Johnny draped his hands over her head and brought her into the circle of his arms.  He couldn’t hold her properly, not with his wrists knotted together like that, but she didn’t have any restrictions and Darcy buried herself against him. 

“I’m so scared.”  She trembled and her breath came quick and warm against his neck. 

“I know.”  Johnny brushed a kiss against her temple. “I’m scared, too.”

“It’s not true,” she whispered.  “What that man said about the boy…I know you, Johnny.”

He clenched his eyes shut.  “If you get a chance, Darcy, any way out of here, take it.  You hear me?  Just forget about Scott and me and go.”

“Well, ain’t this nice,” Garcia walked up behind them and poked his rifle into Johnny’s back.  “But I think Hank gave you an order, boy.  Move.”

She was gone then. With one deep sigh, she ducked out of his arms, brought herself erect and pushed the hair from her face.  Darcy smiled bravely, but the fear was still in her eyes as she linked her arms into his and they climbed the slope to the shack.  Garcia followed behind with the rifle, while Trantham found something else to keep himself busy.  Johnny wasn’t sure what.

He found out after Garcia had them sorted out in the shack.  Scott was lying on his side on the cot, his hands tied behind him now.  Darcy had a chair at the table and she was bound now, too, her hands clasped together on her lap.  Johnny was trussed up on the floor, arms crossed across his back and ankles held together with some wire Garcia had found wound up in the corner.  Trantham came through the door, looked around silently, and tossed an armful of saddle bags on the floor.

“There’s some jerky and a little bread.” He nodded at Darcy.  “Ma’am, are you hungry?”

“No, thank you.”  Darcy’s answer came strained and small.

“All right, then.”  He lowered three canteens from his shoulder and set them next to the bags.  “Charlie, your horse has a scrape on his hind leg.  I cleaned it up, but you’ll want to take a look at it.”  Hank swept his hat from his head and dragged his sleeve across his brow.  His crooked his arm onto his hip, letting the hat dangle from his hand, and stared at Johnny.  “You couldn’t make things easy, could you.  Supposed to be a simple job, but you had to have them along.” 

Johnny raised his eyes to Trantham’s.  “Then let them go.”

Garcia scooped up a canteen from the floor and dropped into the second chair. “They ain’t no problem I can’t handle.”  He poured the water into his mouth and the spittle from it ran down his whiskers.

“I saw how you handled them, Charlie.  You better be doing a lot better than that.”  Hank stepped toward his partner and jabbed his finger into the air.  “And Chandler’s paying for the pleasure.  You remember that.”

“Oh, I do.  I mean to give Mister Chandler every little penny’s worth, don’t you worry about that.”

A muscle jerked a taut line into Trantham’s cheek.  He resettled his hat on his head and rubbed his thumb against his holstered pistol.  “You just stick to the plan, Charlie.  I’ll be back…four, five hours, maybe.  Before dark, anyway.”

Trantham turned toward the door, but twisted back around at the sound of Johnny’s voice.

“Garcia can go.”

A cold smile flickered across Trantham’s lips.  “Somebody put you in charge here, Johnny?”

“I’m asking you, Hank.  Send Garcia.”

 “Can’t do it.  The sorrel’s no good.  Reckon you know how that happened.”

Scott shifted and resettled on the cot. His blood was still seeping through the bandage and he looked to be out of it, his eyes closed, but his face still strained with the pain.  More evidence of his stupid mistake, Johnny knew, and now it was going to cost them again.

“He was part of it, Hank.  Garcia was there at that cabin.”

Trantham flicked his eyes to the gunfighter sprawled casually in his chair, one leg stretched out toward the door and his elbow braced against the table, head leaning in his hand.  Garcia shrugged.

“The girl?”  Trantham asked. “You know something about that, Charlie?”

Garcia sniffed and raised his head from his hand, using it to scratch at his nose instead.  “Course not,” he drawled.  “You know me, Hank.” 

“Yeah…I know you.”  Trantham let out a disgusted sigh. “How old was she?”

“Not sure that I asked.  That weren’t exactly the topic of conversation.”


Trantham looked annoyed more than anything else and he glared down at the sound of his name. “What, Johnny?  What the hell do you want me to do?”  He pulled his gun from his holster, spun the cylinder, then slid it back into the leather.  “It’s a job, you know that.”  His eyes moved to Darcy and Trantham sighed again.  “Charlie, get up.”

Trantham spun on his heels and headed for the door, his boots clunking heavily against the planked floor.  Garcia watched him for only a second, then he pushed himself awkwardly to his feet and followed Trantham out into the sunshine.  Johnny could see them still, the both of them, but he couldn’t hear Hank’s words.  Hank leaned in close, his face tense and barely inches from the shorter man’s, and he looked back into the shack as he waited for Garcia’s answer.

“Sure, Hank,” Garcia said, with an agreeable nod. 

Johnny didn’t catch the next words, but Garcia nodded again, then Trantham moved past him, leaving Garcia standing in the doorway and staring at him as he went. 

The wall behind him was smooth.  Johnny tried it though, moving his hands against the wood, searching for a loose nail or a rough splinter, anything sharp enough to work against the ropes.  He tested the knot, but it held tight.  The ropes were biting into his wrists and his hands were already tingling with the lack of blood. They’d be numb soon. 

He swept his eyes across the shack.  One filthy window.  The cot.  The table and chairs.  Some shelves against the far wall, filled with dusty jars and pots and tools.  The stove, a small one in the corner.  Darcy was looking at him and finally his eyes rested on her and they stayed.  Her hair had fallen again.  A long wisp of it hung across her face, but she didn’t seem to notice.  Her hands were tied, but that wouldn’t stop her.  She could just reach up and push the strand aside, but she didn’t and Johnny wanted to do it for her. For one foolish moment he forgot.  He tried to reach, but his hand was trapped in the rope and it wouldn’t budge and then the time, the place, came pouring over him and he sank back against the wall.   Her hair fluttered in the breeze from the open door. 

Garcia stepped back in and took his chair again, then he dug a flask from his pocket. He twisted the cap off and raised it up.  “To your health, Madrid.”  He took two big gulps and offered the flask across to Darcy.  “Never did like drinkin’ alone, ma’am. Maybe you’d oblige me?”

“I don’t drink.” 

“No?”  He snorted a laugh.  “Seems to me that this just might be a good time to start.”  He leaned across the small table and shoved it into her hand.  “Try it.  This ain’t no cheap rotgut, honey, I treat my friends real well.”

Darcy shook her head and the loose hair fell across her eye.  “I don’t want any.”

“Leave her be.”  There was no mistaking the threat in Johnny’s voice, but he knew it was pure bluff.  Without a gun in his hand, it wasn’t likely to matter much.

It didn’t.

“Drink,” Garcia said, aiming a smirk at Johnny.  He took the flask and tipped it to Darcy’s lips, dribbling the liquor down her chin when she turned away.  “Now you’re just wastin’ good whiskey and you don’t wanta do that, now do you, darlin’?”

“Chandler won’t like that.”  Scott’s voice was shaky and Johnny tore his eyes away from Darcy for just a second to find him. He looked weak, but he’d lifted his head from the mattress. 

“What do you know about Chandler?”  Garcia grabbed the back of Darcy’s neck and held her, forcing the flask into her mouth this time and waiting until she’d swallowed.  He laughed.  “There you go…good for what ails you.” 

Darcy bent into a coughing fit, finally wiping her fists at her mouth.  Garcia just watched her until it was over, then settled back into his chair and held the whiskey out toward Scott.

“You, boy?  Care for a nip?”  He shook the flask in the air. “Just a little one?”

“I don’t drink after swine.” 

Garcia snorted.  “Suit yourself,” he said, and then he sucked back two good gulps and drawled out the name.  “Chandler.”

“What about him?”  Scott scowled and dropped his head back to the cot. 

He seemed to be considering his answer.  “Fact is,” Garcia finally said, “I don’t know much about Mister Chandler.  He’s got money, that’s all I care about.  Now Miles…I knew Miles Chandler and we did have us some fun.  Like that gal.”  Garcia raised a brow.  “Can’t say that you were in any hurry either, Madrid.  Miles kinda figured you’d be right along after we left you at that cabin, but I told him you wouldn’t pass that up.” 

“She was fifteen, Garcia.”

“Ain’t buyin’ that, Madrid.  You tellin’ me you’re that particular?  Well, I guess with something like that waiting for me every night…”  His eyes drifted to Darcy.  “Reckon I might get choosy, too.”

Johnny leaned his head against the wall and watched Darcy.  She was silent, just staring down at nothing, and he wasn’t sure how to read the look on her face.

Garcia tipped forward and pointed the flask at Johnny.  “Maybe she was just a mite short of full grown, but wasn’t she a pretty little thing?  Scratched me up good, but I taught her for that. Sounded like Miles had a little trouble, too, but I bet she was sweeter by the time you got to her…right?”  He swigged from the whiskey.  “Right, boy?”  The chair scraped on the floor as he tilted it back and bellowed out a raspy laugh.  “Yeah, that’s what I figured.  Madrid always did have a way with the ladies.”

“Shut up, Garcia.”  Scott shifted again, rolling further onto his stomach and grunting with the pull against his arm.

“Darcy?” Johnny asked softly.

She didn’t look right, not pale exactly, but not right. 

“I’m think I’m going to be sick,” she mumbled.

“Hold on, honey.”  Garcia shoved the flask back in his jacket, clenched his Colt and pushed to his feet.  He grabbed Darcy’s arm and jerked her up.  “I’d be right proud to escort you outside, just don’t go decoratin’ anything until I get you there.”

“Let go.”  Darcy yanked her arm back, but he held tight.

“Easy, gal.”  Garcia wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him.  Bending his face near, he caressed her cheek with the barrel of the pistol.  “You just behave yourself and I ain’t gonna hurt ya none.”

Johnny fought the ropes, but they ate into his wrists and he watched helplessly as Garcia dragged her toward the door.

Darcy’s voice was barely more than a whimper.  “No.”

“Hush, gal,” Garcia said, low and husky.

“Darcy!”  Johnny bucked forward, falling sideways onto the planked floor.  “Take your hands off of her!”

Scott swung his legs from the cot and teetered upright, blinking back the wooziness.

“Don’t try it!”  Garcia waved his Colt between them.

A Spanish curse exploded from him and Johnny spat out his demand.  “Let her go, Charlie…let her go or I swear I’ll kill you.”


Garcia turned toward him and Darcy wrenched free of the man, unbalanced and falling.  She hit the floor hard, scrambled to her knees, and crawled and lurched to Johnny’s side. 

“You little bitch…”  Garcia stalked after her.  “I’ll teach you,” he said and he loomed over them, god-like, the gun in his hand feeding him power.  Darcy crouched low behind him and Johnny tried to shield her, but there was nothing he could do and he kicked out, blindly, senselessly, but kicking anyway.  A purple flush darkened Garcia’s face.

“Garcia!” Scott shouted, but the man didn’t flinch.  Garcia stooped closer and clutched a fistful of Johnny’s shirt, jerked him from the floor and slammed the gun into his face.  Johnny’s skull slapped against the floor and in a disorienting second he was hauled up again, head and shoulders suspended from Garcia’s grasp.  The cool edge of steel pressed into his cheek.

“No!”  Scott’s voice echoed against the walls and smaller, almost hidden, was Darcy’s muted yelp.

Johnny squinted up into Garcia’s gleaming eyes.

“You gonna kill me, Madrid?”  Garcia punctuated the question with a click of the Colt’s hammer.  “Guess you know about killin’, don’t ya?  You got that taste in your mouth?  Do ya Madrid?” A slow smile spread across his face.  “Did you taste it when you blew a hole in Chandler?  He never even cleared his leather…too drunk, but you knew that, didn’t you, boy?  The poor bastard couldn’t barely stand and you called him out and shot him.  That what you wanta do to me?” 

He yanked Johnny higher.

“Huh, boy?  That what you wanta do?  Think you’re gonna kill me?”

His hand opened and Johnny hit the floor again.  Garcia aimed the barrel to the ceiling and eased the hammer down.  Rubbing his knuckle under his nose, he sniffed loudly and snorted out a harsh laugh.   “Like I said, Madrid--shootin’ Chandler’s boy--now that was a mistake.”



Chapter 6 

There was fresh bread in the kitchen.  Murdoch sat a little straighter at his desk and breathed in the yeast fragrant air.  Dinner time.  Six twenty-six to be precise. He knew it to the minute because he’d been watching that clock for the last quarter hour, ever since he’d given up at his ledgers.  Six twenty-six and only a few hours of daylight left. 

Anything could have happened.  Maybe a horse threw a shoe.  That would have slowed them, although not for this long.  Maybe late afternoon, but not this late.  There were fish up in those mountain lakes--nice, fat trout.  Could be that they were biting.  Murdoch’s gaze blurred as he tried to picture them.  Scott, his fair son, fair like him and tall, but with his mother’s grace--Scott deftly flicking his line over those waters and patiently luring his catch.  And Johnny, stretched out, lithe and easy under that basswood tree, as dark as the shadows, just watching his brother’s cast.  He tried to find some comfort in the image, only it wouldn’t stay still. Johnny kept moving in his imagination, pacing, restless.  He’d be wanting to get Darcy home and no trout could stop that. 

The clock ticked six twenty-seven.

 “Murdoch!  Dinner!”

He responded out of habit, pushing himself out of his chair and striding methodically toward the sound of Teresa’s voice.  A shuffling sort of noise from the porch made him slow. The sound came again and he detoured to it and opened the door wide.

Jelly had his back to him, walking away. 

“Did you want something, Jelly?”

He spun around. “No, boss…I mean, I was just wonderin’, but didn’t mean to bother you none.  Reckon ya must be havin’ your supper right about now…I’ll just leave ya to it.”  Jelly gestured vaguely toward the stables. “Those stalls need cleanin’ fore Scott and Johnny get back.”  He dropped his hand and took hold of the cap clenched in his other fist, twisting it.  “Bout time I got to ‘em.”

He turned again, but stopped cold when Murdoch called softly to him.  “Jelly?”

“Yes, boss?”  Jelly looked back, the cap still suffering. 

“Have the crews all made it back?”

“All exceptin’ Cipriano’s.  They been workin’ the herd up at Padre’s Mesa.”

The wrong direction.  Murdoch lifted his eyes to the west, toward those jagged mountains.  They shimmered in the failing heat of the day, too distant to hold their edges and losing them in the haze.  “I don’t suppose any of the men saw anything?”

“Not a durned thing.  Course, ain’t a one of ‘em with enough brains to remember seein’ their own mama ridin’ a three-headed toad.”  Jelly slapped the cap onto his head, set his hands on his hips and let loose an exasperated sigh.  “Boss, I gotta tell ya, I just can’t see those boys doin’ nothin’ but hightailin’ it home.”

“I know, Jelly.” Murdoch looked again to the mountains.  At best an hour to the foothills and it’d be dusk by then.  There was no use in stumbling around in the dark.  They’d be home soon anyway, with some good excuse.  Those fish or a whim of Darcy’s, wildflowers maybe, just an impetuous need to gather bouquets of black-eyed-susans for the hacienda.  There were plenty of them up there and Darcy could win her way against the best reason of his strong-willed son.  He’d seen her do it before and there was no cause to believe it wasn’t happening now. Even Scott wouldn’t have a chance against the both of them.  He’d give them all a piece of his mind when they finally came riding in, but now, with the sun sinking, the only prudent thing to do was to stay put.  It simply made sense to wait.


“Yeah, boss?”

“Would you saddle our horses?  And get a lantern?”

The relief flushed across Jelly’s grizzled face.  “Sure thing, boss.  Be ready in a shake, just you see.”  He loped toward the stable, holding his cap from jogging off his head.

Murdoch turned back into the great room, crossed it, and opened the tall, glassed door of a cherry-wood cabinet.  Running his hands across the long barrels, he chose two Winchesters, then took a box of shells and stuffed it into his vest pocket. 

“Are you coming to supper?”

He looked up to find Teresa watching him.  “I’m sorry about your dinner, but I don’t think I’m going to have time to enjoy it.”

“Do you really think you’ll need all that?”

“No, but I’ve always thought it best to be prepared.”  He walked to the desk, slid his Colt and gun belt from a drawer, and moved on.  “That bread smells good; why don’t you put some plates in the oven to stay warm?  I can promise you those three will be hungry when they do make their way home.”

Teresa grabbed his arm as he passed.


He smiled down at her.  They’d made a pact of sorts between them, earlier in the day, silently, neither one of them wanting to breathe life to their fear by speaking of it, but it was there now, shining in the glossy dark of her eyes.  Murdoch bent and kissed her forehead.  “Don’t you worry, sweetheart.  I’ll find our lost lambs.”

“Be careful.”

“I will do that.”  The clock chimed the half hour and he pulled away.  “And put the coffee on.  This could turn out to be a long night.”



“I have to go.” 

Darcy whispered that, softly, and as near to his ear as she could manage.  She was still huddled against him on the floor and her knees weighed against the scrape on his side.  It hurt.  Everything hurt. That stupid wound, the bump on his head, the purple swelling even he could see growing under his eye. His shoulders burned from being stretched by the bindings and his hands were dead.

“Don’t think about it.” Johnny kept his words as low as he could and glanced toward Garcia.  The man was tending to his own wounds, dabbing a wet handkerchief at the distended cut Johnny’s fists had left on his lip.  That escape had been a miserable failure.

“I have to go,” Darcy insisted again.

He swallowed hard.  She couldn’t find those bushes with Garcia, just couldn’t.  There was no arguing with her bladder, not with their baby pushing on it, but she had to wait.  Or be embarrassed, and that was a whole lot better than leaving that shack with Charlie.  Hank would be back soon.  The light was getting dusky already and Hank would be pushing to get back before dark.  He’d be here.

“Darcy…just hang on.” 

“I can’t.”

“Hang on.”

He heard her quiet sigh as Garcia’s voice reached across the shack. “What are you two plottin’ over there? 

Johnny grabbed at the closest diversion.  “Somebody needs to check on Scott,” he said, twisting his face up toward his brother. All he could really see from his angle on that floor was Scott’s blond hair, damply matted.  “I don’t think he’d doing so good.  Mind if Darcy takes a look?”

Garcia considered it at first, and then he nodded. “Suit yourself. Can’t see what good it’s likely to do, but…”  He waved his hand toward the cot.  “Go on, darlin’.”

Darcy gave Johnny a pained look, but he cut her off with his blunt tone.  “Well, go on.”

She did, pushing up from the floor with her bound hands and stepping over him to the cot.  She sat on the edge of the mattress and laid her hand against Scott’s cheek. He stirred and rolled, taking in a sharp breath and exhaling into a low groan.  “Johnny?” he mumbled.

“Johnny’s here; we’re both right here,” Darcy said soothingly, brushing his hair back and testing his forehead.  “You’re a little warm…Scott, will you take some water for me?” 

“Yes…sure.”  His voice was strengthening and Scott lifted his head, searching down to the planks and settling his eyes on Johnny.  He sank back to the cot.  “I had hoped this was just a bad dream.”

“I wish somebody would wake me, then.”  Darcy smiled half-heartedly.  “Mister Garcia, could you untie me so I can rebandage his arm.?  And get me the canteen?” 

“What’s that, ma’am?”

“The canteen.”  She swung her hands toward the stack on the floor and pointed a finger.  “I need one of them.   And one of those linens from the shelf.”

Garcia’s grin was lopsided, all bloated now at the corner.  “Madrid, that what you have to put up with?  You takin’ orders from a little filly nowadays?  I swear, she sure does put me in mind of that Ellie.”  He stood and took a step toward the shelves, then turned again.  “Darlin’, you think maybe you could ask that again, all sweet like?”

“Please, Mister Garcia.”

“Well, now…that is a mite better.”  He reached for the sheet and then grabbed up a canteen from the floor, taking them both to her side and dumping them on top of Scott, who grunted again. “See, Johnny boy, when you train ‘em right most fillies gentle up real nice.”

She held her wrists out to him.

“And here you’re forgettin’ already.”


Her hands never wavered.  Neither did her voice.  Johnny knew that tone, the crispness of it, and a smile dragged against the corner of his lips.  She wasn’t afraid anymore, not much anyway.  Darcy was getting mad.  His girl.  And for a second, only a second, the sense of her washed away the pain and she was there instead, a caress that seeped through him and left him aching.  Just to touch her, that’s all he wanted, just to hold her again, so near against him that there wasn’t any him or her any more or time, either, and then Chandler could have him.  That’s all.  Just once more. 

“Now that’s better, ma’am.” Garcia said.

Johnny jerked at his bindings and eyed the angle of the light falling through the window.  Her eyes were still flashing and Garcia still had that gun, plus ninety pounds on Darcy, and the man was about as unreliable as a rattler.  She didn’t have a prayer against Charlie.  Hank should be there; it’d been too long already.  Where the hell was Hank?  

Charlie loosened the knots and Darcy slipped out of the bindings, shaking the blood back into her hands.  Charlie tossed the rope onto the table where it snaked across the wood, then he turned back and stood over Darcy.  He wasn’t a particularly tall man, but he was thick and he’d moved a little, just enough to make it harder to watch Darcy as she worked on Scott.  Johnny could see her put the canteen to his mouth and lift Scott’s head to drink, and then she was doing something at his arm.  He heard the sound of ripping cloth. 

Charlie leaned forward.  “Ain’t you forgettin’ something?”

“What?”  Garcia must have done something, because Darcy’s hands left Scott and her voice was cool.  “Stop it.”

Johnny leaned up onto his elbow and brought her face into view. She was glaring at Garcia and her cheeks were flushed, the few scattered freckles showing dark against her skin. Charlie stroked her hair and a curse formed itself in Johnny’s mouth, but Scott beat him to it.

“Damn it…let her be,” Scott said, as Darcy slapped Charlie’s hand away.

“Don’t I get a proper thank you?” Garcia petted her again, this time wrapping a loose strand of hair into his hand.  He yanked at it and her head tipped into his grasp.  “What do you say, Miss Darcy?”

“Charlie.”  The name rumbled through Johnny’s low-pitched growl, but it didn’t do any good.  Garcia leaned closer to Darcy.

“Thank you,” she said evenly, and she used both hands to disentangle his fingers from her hair. Garcia let her.  “Now if you’ll just start acting like a grown man instead of a spoiled child and sit down and leave me alone, then I’ll take care of Scott’s arm.  Do you think you can manage that, Mister Garcia?  If I say please and thank you?  Or would you rather I curtsied and bowed and called you your Royal Majesty?”  She grabbed up the sheet, ripped it apart with wide, violent motions, and frowned up at the man. “Sit, Mister Garcia…Please.”

He couldn’t get his breath out. All Johnny could do was wait, staring up from that floor at the back of Garcia’s head and twisting the ropes against his raw skin. 

Charlie didn’t move for a long fraction of a minute.  Darcy kept her face tilted up to the man, her cheeks still blazing. She didn’t say anything, though, not anything more than she’d already blurted out.  Charlie finally scratched the back of his head and then he turned, looking down at Johnny.  He crooked a thumb at Darcy and slid that grin across his damaged lips.

“You teach her that smart mouth, Madrid?”

Darcy went back to bandaging Scott’s arm.  Johnny could see her in the edge of his sight, but his eyes held Garcia’s.  Anything, he told himself, say anything to keep the man’s attention. “Charlie, I wanta know what’s goin’ on.  What happens when Chandler gets here?”

“If she was mine, I gotta tell you that I’d be learning that gal some manners. Ain’t right, boy.”

Johnny tried again, talking fast and listening hard.  There’d been a noise; hadn’t there been a noise?  Hank coming back.  Maybe.  “What’s Chandler planning, Charlie?  I got a right to know…you gonna tell me?”

The grin fell apart, lost into the dark mood sinking into Garcia’s face.  “You shoulda’ taught her, Madrid.” 


Garcia moved smoothly, turning and hooking a big hand around Darcy’s arm, lifting her from the cot and backhanding her across the face. 

Sounds collided.  Johnny’s yelled-out “Charlie!” and Darcy’s yelp came as one with Scott’s groans, constrained and guttural as he curled up from the cot, and then the rushed out air of Garcia’s heavy panting, an animal sound that pushed the others aside and left Johnny with only that, just the rapid rhythm of the man’s breaths.   

Darcy dangled from Garcia’s grasp for a moment and then she found her feet again and pressed her palm against her cheek.  Her fear was back, Johnny saw it in her eyes before they closed, shut tight as Garcia brushed her hand away and wrapped his own around her chin, lifting it higher, closer to his own.

Scott’s boots hit the floor and Garcia jerked toward him.  “Back off, boy.  This ain’t no worry of yours.  You want I should just kill her now?”

He yelled Garcia’s name, but the ropes held and all Johnny could do was watch as Garcia forced his mouth over Darcy’s and she tried to squirm away.  Scott’s eyes twisted to him and Johnny met them for an instant., then Darcy gasped.  Garcia had one hand behind her, holding her taut against him, and he’d found her with the other, pressing and dragging against her shirt, and Johnny heard the curses drain from him and he tasted them in his mouth like bitter whiskey and a yearning filled him, a searing desire to kill the man.  His blood was slick against his ropes and he tried to wrench himself free, but it was no use. Darcy gasped again.

Scott lunged forward and Garcia knocked him to the ground.

“I told ya, boy.  You’re only gonna make it harder on her.”  Garcia threw Darcy to the cot and pulled his Colt from its leather.  He pressed it to her head. “Now, ma’am, you reckon I oughta just shoot you right off, like I promised this boy?”

Her breath trembled.  “No.”

“Then what do you say?”


“All right, then.” His whiskers spread with his grin.  “Sides…I ain’t through with you, darlin’.”

The door creaked open and grey twilight silhouetted the form that stepped into the shack.  Trantham.  His eyes swept across the scene.  Scott lay stretched out on the floor, bleeding again, with the bandage loose around his arm.  Garcia hardly moved, looking almost guilty, like a kid caught snitching biscuits.  His pistol still rested against Darcy’s forehead and her pale skin was pink against the steel.  Johnny left it to Trantham, trusting him to watch them as he squeezed his   eyes shut and sucked in air. It rattled in his throat and he swallowed hard, wanting some water. 

“Hell, Johnny, that’s some shiner.”  Trantham strolled into the room.  “Looks like I missed some excitement.”  He rubbed his thumb against his Colt and Garcia let his gun drop to his hip.  “Charlie, this the way you follow orders?”

“I didn’t hear Chandler give those orders.”  Garcia slunk away from Darcy and he sank into a chair.

Trantham sighed and squatted next to Scott, tugging at the white strips dangling from his bandage.  “That hurt some?”

Scott winced.  “I’ll live.” 

“Yeah…maybe.”  Hank turned to Darcy.  “Ma’am, you hurt any?”

Darcy was still sitting on the cot, her face turned to the floor and her lips quivering.  She was fumbling with her buttons and the top one wouldn’t catch, but she worked at it, trying.  At Trantham’s question she slowly lifted her face to his and her chest rose twice.  Her trembling stilled.  “No, thank you, Mister Trantham…but would there be an outhouse?”

Hank smiled and a crevice furrowed into his cheek.   “No, ma’am, but I reckon we’ll find something in its place.”

They went, Hank with his hand on Darcy’s elbow. A skeleton of a man moved aside to let them pass through the door.  He swept his hat from his bald head and stepped in, staring down at Johnny.  There was a gold chain draping down from his lapel to his vest pocket and it swayed as he crossed the floor and kicked a toe into Johnny’s side.


Johnny squinted up through his swollen eye.  “Chandler.”

“Guess you know why I’m here.”

“Your boy was no good.”

Chandler hiked his pant leg and lowered himself with a grunt, kneeling at Johnny’s side.  “Maybe,” he said.  “But he was my boy.  Charlie?”

“Yeah, boss?”

“You got a good length of rope?”

“Sure do.”

Chandler nodded and stood.  “Then get it ready.” 




Chapter 7 

Johnny’s turn in the bushes came last, after Darcy had already been settled back in her chair and Scott had gone, too, leaning heavily on Hank.  That wire came off his ankles in the shack, but it wasn’t until they were on the far side of a fat cedar that Hank drawled at him to stop and loosened the rope around his wrists. He muttered something as he worked the knots.  Johnny heard the sounds, but with Hank behind him he couldn’t quite make out the words.

It didn’t matter--the Colt was talking for him, poking dead in the middle of Johnny’s back as soon as his hands were free. 

“Get it done,” Hank demanded, but that was a problem and Johnny had to study on it for a minute.  His hands were too numb to do anything. All Johnny could manage was to stare down at them, watching with macabre fascination as they groped at his fastenings.  They were smeared with blood and it made an almost black border at his cuffs. Pinpoints of fire danced through his fingers as the fluids trickled back.  A sleeve lifted when it brushed against his pants and Johnny knew what Hank was mumbling about.  Chunks of skin were missing from his wrist and his raw flesh glistened in the dusky light. 

Trantham shifted his weight and the Colt found a new angle in his spine.  “You needin’ help?”

“No…I can do it.”  Jesus.  Couldn’t even piss without making a mess of it.  Johnny concentrated hard and finally, clumsily, his fingers did his bidding. 

“Bout time,” Trantham said.

The sun was gone.  All it’d left behind was a pearl blush against the clouds, low-hanging ones to the west, toward the hacienda.  Johnny could see the remnants of the sunset through the scrubby trees and the outcroppings and he breathed in the night air, damp and earthy.  It was home—Lancer—and he filled his lungs.  He was almost glad when he was finished and he had to look down again, all his attention needed in putting himself right again. 

“Hank, you can’t let him…”  Johnny swallowed his words and forced himself to start again. “I shoulda’ killed Charlie, too.  He hurt her, Hank, and he’ll do worse.”

“I’ll handle Charlie.”

“Darcy don’t deserve this.”

“You fixed up?”

Johnny turned finally and looked Trantham in the eye. “What are you plannin’ to do with them?” 

“Give me your hands.” 

“You wanta tell me what’s gonna happen?”  Johnny crossed his wrists and held them out, wincing as Trantham looped the rope around them and pulled tight. “Scott ain’t no part of this and Darcy…Do what you need to, but let them go.”

“That’s up to Chandler. Ain’t my say-so.”

Johnny grasped at a vague memory.  Hank--three whiskeys short of sober and voice all soft.  Hair like a strawberry roan’s, he’d said, and shy, too.  There’d been a letter and he’d read it over and over before it was meticulously refolded and slid safely into his pocket.  A name sifted into place.   “What if it was Sarah, Hank?”

“Can’t happen.”  Hank checked his knots, tugging on the bindings and sending biting pains through the wounds on Johnny’s wrists.  “Sarah died.  It was the fever--last fall.”

“I’m sorry.” 

Hank nodded, eyes still downcast.   “Yeah.  I know you are.”  The Colt dug into Johnny’s gut.  “Move.”



“Over here, boss!”

Jelly’s voice carried across the meadow and Murdoch spun his sorrel, galloping to the shadowy form kneeling in the tall grass.  Jelly’s horse shied as he came up on it and it pulled against the lines, jerking Jelly’s arm up.  Murdoch reined up beside him.

“Somebody’s been here,” Jelly said, sweeping a pointed finger across a wide patch of ground.  “See this grass?  What ain’t broken is bent and there’s hoof prints all over.”

“Good man.”  The relief slipped into his voice, but it didn’t last.  Murdoch reined it in, too, taking stock of the situation and not liking it one bit.  “Can you tell which direction they headed?”

“That’a way.”  Jelly turned his finger across the slope, toward the dark hulking shapes in the grey eastern sky.  He started to stand, then sank back to his knees and scooped up something from the soil.  “Boss?”

“What is it?”  Murdoch leaned forward in the saddle, watching as Jelly turned something small in his hand and lurched up again. Jelly offered it up to him and Murdoch knew it by feel even before his hand opened.  It was smooth and there wasn’t any clinging dirt. Fresh then.  A 52-caliber.  Couldn’t be Scott’s...or Johnny’s, either.  Murdoch closed his fingers around the rifle shell and rattled it in his hands.  “Jelly?  Can you follow tracks in the dark?”

“No, sir.”

“Neither can I.”

“I could light the lantern.” 

“Do that.”  Murdoch stared off into the dusk.  “It’d still be slow, though. Where would you go if you wanted to hole up for a while?”

“Ya thinkin’ they’re still around here somewheres?”

“They wouldn’t have gone far.”  It was a wild fabrication and Murdoch knew it.  Those men could have taken them anywhere and been miles and miles away by now.  Maybe toward Mexico, to the border towns he’d lost Johnny to before.  Only they were all gone this time and all Murdoch could do was watch the dark take hold and say the only thing he had the stomach for.  “They’re here somewhere--we’ll find them.”

“There’s the line shack on the east pasture,” Jelly said.  “And the shack up at Indian Caves.”

“You call it, Jelly.  Which one first?”

Jelly put a match to the lantern, then climbed up on his horse and pointed again.  “This way, boss.”

Murdoch nodded.  “All right…let’s go.”




Garcia left the door standing wide open, letting in a chill draft of evening air.  He stepped into the middle of the shack, tossed his hat on the table and turned a thick scowl to Chandler.  “Cedars…nothing but gol-damned cedars.  Ain’t a thing worth stringing a rope over out there.  Found one little fir tree about as tall as this lady here and couldn’t hold a rabbit without faintin’ right over.  Don’t know why you won’t let me handle things.”

“Your way?”  Papery wrinkles folded into the old man’s forehead.  “Don’t think I haven’t considered that, Charlie.”

“Well?”  Garcia turned to Johnny, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Scott on the cot, and gave him a cold stare.

“No, Charlie.”  Chandler patted his vest pocket.  “Judge Gardner said hanging and I’m doing this legal.”

“A judge?”  Scott left his head resting back against the wall.  His voice was weak and gravity seemed to be working at him, pulling him sideways.   Johnny had to brace against his growing weight.  “How can any of this be legal?”

“Court order.”  Chandler slid a folded paper from his vest and waved it in the air.  “I don’t want anyone saying I don’t have my rights here.  Judge Gardner signed this three months ago.  Says your brother here is guilty of murdering my son and according to the state of Texas he is to hang by the neck until he is dead and sent to straight to hell.”  He nodded to Darcy, seated across from him at the small table.  “Excuse my language, ma’am.” 

Darcy gazed dully at the paper quivering in Chandler’s grasp.  She hadn’t been tied again and her boots were wedged onto the edge of the chair, her knees drawn up and her arms tight around them.  There wasn’t any expression on her face and Johnny wasn’t sure if she’d even heard what Chandler said.  Scott’s words drew her attention slowly.  “That’s not possible,” he insisted.  “There wasn’t any trial.  How could you have a judge’s verdict without a trial?”

“We had a trial, witnesses and everything.”  Chandler stuffed the paper back into his pocket.  “Charlie here testified to what he saw and that was all the judge needed to hear.”  He pointed a knobby finger at Johnny. “It was murder and Madrid is going to hang for doing what he did.”

“Hank?” Johnny looked at Trantham.  He was leaning back against the stove, his arms crossed and the Colt dangling from his hand.  “Chandler telling the truth?”

Trantham nodded. 

Johnny felt lighter; the room felt lighter.  “Then you got no call to hold them?  The law can’t touch you and witnesses won’t matter.”

There wasn’t any more than a shrug from Trantham, but Chandler spread his hands benevolently.  “What do you take me for, Madrid?  I have no intentions of harming your brother or this dear young lady.  They’ll both go free as soon as our business is attended to and the sooner the better, in my opinion.”  He leaned over and hefted a coil of rope from the floor.  “Charlie, you think maybe we could use the frame of this shack?  Maybe take off a few shingles and tie it off the crossbeam?”

The rope was dangling from his hand.  Johnny watched it sway, moving shadows across the floor, and he heard Garcia arguing the merits of Chandler’s plan, going on until Chandler let the rope fall.  It was the softest thud.  There were footsteps then, Chandler pacing the shack and Garcia clunking after him until it was finally decided, but Johnny couldn’t have said just how.  They weren’t going to kill them, that’s all he knew.  Scott and Darcy weren’t going to die. 

He had to squint when he lifted his eyes again, the lantern on the table hurting them.  Darcy was staring down at the rope.  She must have felt his gaze, because she raised hers, too, finding him across the room. She was wrung out and her face showed it. There was a red splotch where Garcia had slapped her and her lids were heavy, making her eyes seem small.  Lines were showing around her mouth, tight lines that had never been there before.  She looked old and she was beautiful, achingly beautiful, and something broke inside him.

Chandler came into the light. “Charlie, got any other ideas?” he asked.

“No.” Scott’s voice was still shaky, but it had the edge of the lieutenant to it. “You can’t do this.”

Chandler nodded.  “Judge Gardner says I can.”

“There can’t be a trial without the accused in the courtroom.  It’s not legal.”

“Scott,” Johnny whispered, “leave it.”

“Leave it?  They want to hang you on the flimsy authority of some judge who never even heard the truth.”

“Leave it.” 

That didn’t set well with his brother.  Johnny heard Scott grunt and he felt him tense beside him, Scott’s weight lifting from his shoulder.

Garcia grinned.  “Mister Chandler?  Reckon we ought to make Lancer happy and let Madrid say his piece now?”

“All right, Charlie.”  Chandler nodded slowly a few times, then gave his head one big jerk and grabbed the empty chair. “I’d like to hear that myself.”  He swung the chair into the middle of the room and patted the slatted back.  “What do you say, Madrid?  Think you can keep that rope off your neck?”

Johnny didn’t move, but Charlie took care of that.  He bent down, yanked him up and dumped him in the chair. The table wobbled as Chandler slid onto it and it made the lantern globe rattle.  Chandler pulled the gold watch from his pocket, flipped it open and looked down at the face.  “Five minutes, Madrid.  You might want to talk fast.”

“You son-of-a …” he started in, before he sucked the words back and dragged in a deep breath.  They were watching him, all of them.  Hank had found a piece of jerky somewhere and he was chewing a big wad of it, seeming almost bored.  Garcia was anything but; his eyes were bright and his fingers twitched against his holstered Colt.  Chandler was smiling, the kind of slow, arrogant smile that should have made Johnny’s fist ball up and it would have, too, except for those ropes around his wrists.  It wasn’t any use.  Wasn’t any use speaking his piece, either.

A hand slapped against Johnny’s head.  “You’re wastin’ time, boy,” Garcia said.

“Charlie?  You want to untie me and try that again?”  Johnny glared up at him through the purple-rimmed sight of his swollen eye.  Garcia reached for his collar, but Chandler’s voice stopped him.

“Down, Charlie.  Maybe he needs something to get him going, like telling us why he hired on in the first place.”  Chandler reached out with his boot, kicking it into Johnny’s thigh.  “Why did you, Madrid?”

It wasn’t much of an answer--hell, even he knew that--but it was the only honest one he could think of.  “It was a job,” Johnny said.

“Burning out the squatters, running off their livestock…that anything that offended your sensitive nature?”

“Wasn’t the first time.”

“No, it wasn’t.  You came with quite a reputation and from what I saw, you deserved it. So why did you turn on me, boy?”

“I didn’t turn on you.”

“Killing Miles wasn’t one of my orders.”

Johnny’s tone flattened.  “Miles asked for that himself.”

“Oh, did he?  And how exactly did my son sign his own death warrant?”

He’d tried not to think of it, all those hours with Charlie just sitting there watching Darcy.  Johnny had wanted those images to stay buried, but they’d taken shape anyway and now they were here, in the shack with him, her rattling breaths echoing in his ears and the gloss of her blood blinding his reason.  He looked Chandler straight in the eye.  “He said she was a lousy lay.  Said she deserved what she got, then he just rode off.”

Chandler’s hairless scalp wrinkled with his scowl.  “That girl?  Garcia told me about that…said she tried to bargain her favors for them sparing the cabin.”

“That what you told him, Charlie?” Johnny tipped his head back and stared up at Garcia.  “You know, lying’s one of those commandments.  The way I heard it, ya ain’t supposed to do that.”

“Killing’s another one, Madrid,” Chandler said.

“Yeah?”  He pulled his eyes back to the old man’s face.  “You ever tell that to your boy?”

“Miles knew the law.”

“Your law.  Miles had that girl, but that wasn’t enough for him.  He smelled fear and he liked it.”  The words were sour in his throat.  “He must’ve kicked her or something, that’s all I could figure.  A man couldn’t do that kind of hurt with just his hands.  He tore her up, Chandler, just beat her into nothing and there wasn’t any reason for it.  Not one damn reason.  He had what he wanted, she was no bigger than a kid and she couldn’t stop that, ‘specially after Charlie got to her first.  He could’ve left it at that, but Miles had to hurt her bad.  She was drowning in her own blood when I found her.”

That barely seemed to register on Chandler.  “Are you saying Miles killed that girl?”

“No.” Johnny shook his head and risked a glance at Darcy.  She looked sick again.  “Killin’s too nice a word for what he did.”

“Then why didn’t the sheriff do something?”

“Guess he didn’t think that’d be healthy, seein’ as how you owned that town.”

Chandler gave that a self-satisfied snort, then he cocked his head sideways.  “So you were judge and jury?

Johnny just looked at him and Charlie whacked him across the ear.  The voices swirled into a deadening hum.  “Answer the man,” Garcia said. 

“You know what happened.” 

“He was drunk,” Chandler said.  “You knew he was drunk.”

It was cold comfort, but that memory came to life, too, pushing the other one away.  Miles--his hands dragging across the table, the glass not quite where his eyes said it should be--and a brand new bottle, good rye whiskey, missing his aim and dribbling wet splotches on the wood.    A bitter smile curved across Johnny’s lips.   “Sure I did.  Miles never could hold his liquor.”

“You don’t draw down on a drunk man, it’s not right.”

“I could have taken him sober.”

“Then why didn’t you wait?”

“He needed to die and I wanted it done, Chandler, plain and simple.”   Johnny found her eyes and held them this time.  Darcy was small in that chair, as small as she had ever looked—legs still bundled up to her chest, the over-sized shirt hanging at her wrists and her loose hair hiding half her face.  She was listening and some raw part of him was grateful.  They’d know finally, her and Scott both--the whole ugly truth of it. There wasn’t any right or wrong to it, just dying, that’s all…just dying. Pack law, like those scrawny coyotes howling up there in the mountains, their bellies wanting the next kill.  He’d survived and back then that may not have been all that mattered, but it was enough. It had to be.

He heard his brother’s voice and Johnny gave in to a worn-out sigh. 

“Chandler,” Scott said, “it sounds like that judge didn’t hear the truth.  If your boy murdered the girl, Johnny couldn’t just walk away from it.  You can’t hold him responsible.”

“He drew down on my boy and he shot him.”

“Johnny, who drew first?”

Hank answered for him.  “Miles pulled his gun.  The way I heard it, Johnny even let him get off the first shot.  Right, Charlie?’

“True enough,” Garcia said, before rasping out a rough laugh.  “Hit the dirt three feet in front of him and scared Miles near to death--before Madrid’s bullet finished the job.”

Scott tried again, his subdued his voice holding Chandler’s attention through to the end. “It wasn’t murder, Chandler, and you know it wasn’t.  I haven’t seen many gunfights, but I know the law.  If a man draws on you, you have the right to defend yourself.  If that first bullet had hit him, Johnny would be dead and your boy being drunk wouldn’t have made any difference.  Johnny had to stop him.

I’m sorry your son died, but that judge’s order isn’t legal and you know it.  Take him back for trial if you have to, a real trial this time, but you can’t hang him.  You know that.  Do the decent thing, Chandler…you can’t hang Johnny.”

One edge of his mouth lifted and Chandler slid from the table, bent low and hauled up the coil of rope. He wrapped it tighter.   “Garcia, get your rear end back out there and find me a tree.  I have to show Mister Lancer just how wrong he is.”




Chapter 8 

Trantham stood watch, his Colt steady in his right hand while he chewed his jerky from his left. The room was only dimly lit.  A stubby candle flickered on the table and threw shadings across his face.  Chandler hadn’t trusted Garcia to do the job and he’d gone with him into the dark, taking the lantern with them.  Every now and then their voices carried through the night air, a loud curse when Garcia must have stumbled and Chandler’s irritated “Charlie!” when the man hadn’t done as he was told.  The crickets drowned out the rest. 

Johnny stared down at the floor, listening to the voices move outside. It was taking longer than he’d expected and he knew it was borrowed time, but he couldn’t grab hold of any advantage in it.  He twisted his wrists, testing the ropes again, but they held.  The table…that might work.  It was light and one quick shoulder could send it flying into Hank.  Johnny aimed his eyes sideways and judged the distance.  Maybe--couple of feet, that’s all.  He’d gambled on longer odds.  He slid his boots more firmly under him and he tensed.  Just had to breathe in once, then do it. Just breathe. 

There was a quick movement in the corner of his vision and Johnny jerked his eyes up.  Darcy was watching him.  Her foot had slipped from the edge of her chair and she pulled it back again, hugging her knees.  He swept his gaze from her face to the Colt, so close--too close--and brought them back to the guarded dark of her eyes.  She blinked and a tear clung to her lashes.

Scott’s voice made Johnny turn toward him.  He was getting weaker and his “Johnny?” came out as a raspy whisper. 

“How’s the arm, brother?”

“Murdoch must be looking for us.”

“Yeah.”  A weary smile drifted across Johnny’s lips.  “Oughta be ridin’ in any minute.”

Scott sat a little straighter on the cot, dragging his back against the wall.  His jaw tightened and he closed his eyes, then let out a slow sigh.  “He’ll come.”


“He’ll come.” 

“Would you tell Murdoch…?”  The room closed in on him and he felt Trantham right there, so near he could almost touch him.  A whisper couldn’t escape the man.  It wasn’t right; none of this was right, but there wasn’t time to leave it.  No time. 

Johnny watched the pain settle across Scott’s face.  “If this goes Chandler’s way…” he started in again, softer this time.  “Tell the old man…tell him that I’m grateful, will ya’?  Scott?”

There was silence. Johnny waited it out, listening again to the voices outside the shack.  Scott was struggling just to stay awake, that was plain to see.  His blood had soaked right through the bandage and it was still leaking out.  His sleeve hung in crimson-stained tatters and dark clots stuck to the hairs on his arm. His cheeks were flushed and his lips already chapped with the fever.  He needed a proper bed and a doctor and Teresa’s good, strong broth and he’d get it, Chandler had said so.  That would come—later.

Scott swallowed hard. “Tell him yourself,” he said.

The voices came closer.

“You ready?”  Hank wrenched into motion, tossing his uneaten scrap of jerky onto the floor and coming around the table.  There was a short length of rope lying on it and he grabbed that up, heading for Scott.

Chandler’s lantern light reached into the room and it lit Darcy’s face with a harsh glow.  There was a sound, a sort of strangled gasp, and she clasped a hand to her mouth and stared at the door.  Her eyes widened.  Johnny watched her and he heard their boots behind him, hitting the floor planks, and then Chandler’s voice, too loud in the small shack.

“Garcia found it,” Chandler said.

Without even looking, Johnny knew that Charlie had that grin again, that god-damned cocky grin, and he kept his eyes on Darcy as Garcia clumped across the room and took hold of her shoulder. 

“A cottonwood,” Garcia said.  “Ain’t a real big one, but all we need is a good ten feet clearance and it’s got that.  Limb’s thick enough, too.”

His hands wrapped around Darcy--those coarse fingers touching her again--and the air wouldn’t move in Johnny’s lungs.  The words scratched against his throat. “Take your hands off of her.” 

Garcia’s hands slid lower.

“Charlie!” Chandler said.

He moved then, leisurely, and rubbed his thumb against his nose.  Johnny watched him take a step back and then he heard Chandler do something off to his side.  The rope came sailing over his shoulder.  Garcia raised his hand and snatched it as Chandler started barking orders.

“Trantham, you’re in charge of Madrid.  If he tries anything, shoot him.  Charlie, make sure Lancer here is wrapped up good and tight.  I don’t want any surprises while we’re taking care of business.”  Darcy’s eyes lifted and Johnny knew that Chandler must have turned toward her.  “Ma’am?  I’m leaving it up to you.  Either you can let Charlie here tie you down to that chair or you can come with Madrid and watch what happens.  Which is it going to be?”

She didn’t hesitate.  “I’m going with Johnny.”

“If that’s how you want it, then.  Hank?  Let’s go.”

It was all moving too fast.  Garcia headed for Scott as Hank stuck his Colt into Johnny’s side and Darcy rose from her chair. Johnny rose, too, not even sure if he’d be able to stand, his heart was beating so fast.  He sucked in a deep breath and held his ground for a second as the barrel dug deeper into his ribs, then Darcy stepped to him and she was there, right beside him, her hand resting on his chest--and it stilled him. 

He leaned his head to hers.  There weren’t any words and neither one of them tried.

“Johnny?” Hank shoved him lightly.

“Yeah.”  The chair was in his way and they had to move around it.  Chandler was waiting by the door, the lantern still hanging from his gangly arm and casting grotesque shadows across his face.  He was bone thin and his eyes were only hollows in that light. He nodded as they came closer.

“You can’t do this!” Scott shouted and Johnny craned his neck to look back at him.  Garcia had him lying on the cot and Scott was lifting his head, searching past the man’s legs.  His eyes were bright.  “You won’t get away with it.”


“This is murder, Chandler!”  Scott bucked against the cot and Garcia pushed him down again.  All Johnny could see of his brother then was from that wounded arm down. “Johnny!” Scott shouted.  

Trantham pushed again and Johnny dropped his eyes to the floor.  “Take care of yourself, brother.”

And they stepped out into the dark. 

Stars filled the sky, millions of them.  Johnny gazed up and he drank them in, letting their silence drown the sounds from the shack.  The lantern lit the earth, throwing a yellowish glow across the rocks and fading off into the cedars. A soft breeze carried their aroma and Johnny drank that in, too, taking it in with the cold mountain air.  Her scent came with it, Darcy’s lavender laced perfume.  She was clinging to his arm and he was half crazy with her touch.  She shouldn’t be there, shouldn’t be anywhere near this place, this moment.  They should never have left the hacienda and it was his fault they had, all of it was his fault, from that first twenty dollar job until this stupid mistake.  Scott shouldn’t be lying in that shack and she shouldn’t have to watch this and Johnny tried desperately to think of a way out of it, any way, but there was nothing. Not a damn thing he could do.  Just too many guns and Darcy in the line of fire.  That rope was going around his neck, he couldn’t stop that, and she was going to see it.  Knowing that twisted his gut and still, God help him, her lavender scent sweetened the breeze and steadied him and he was thankful.  

He kept putting one foot in front of the other, they both did, together.  Chandler led them down the slope and around the pond, climbing the gentle bank to an even spot where a solitary tree cut a pattern into the starry sky.  The lantern lit the pale underside of the leaves like green fire. 

“What do you think, Hank?” Chandler was jovial and he paced under the tree, staring up into its branches.

Trantham only spared the tree a glance.  “How you planning to do this?”

Chandler waved his arm high.  “We’ll just tie a noose and toss the rope right up there and …”  He hesitated for a moment and snorted out a laugh. “Hadn’t thought that through.  Can’t just haul the man up, can we?”  He set his hand on his hip and gave it some consideration.  “No, we’re going to do this proper.  Garcia!”  

He set off again, heading back to the shack and leaving them in the dark.  Trantham’s face faded as the lantern’s light moved away, but there was no mistaking the steel pressing into Johnny’s side. 

“Don’t try it.”  His threat was soft, but deadly serious.  “Just set yourselves down now and be real slow about.”

Johnny sank to the ground and Darcy lowered herself beside him.  She moved stiffly. Hank sat, too, and Johnny knew he was there, just behind them, but the darkness protected them and all he felt was Darcy, her body tilting into his and her fingers reaching up to his face.  She caressed the tender bruise.

“Your back’s botherin’ you,” he whispered.

“No.”  She leaned her head against his shoulder and wrapped her arm around his chest.  Her whisper trembled.  “Johnny…”

An aching swelled inside him and he crooked an elbow over her head, folding her into his arms and pulling her tight against him.  “I’m sorry,” he said, his lips close to her ear and his voice shaking, too.  “I’m so sorry.”  He wanted to touch her, but he couldn’t, not with his wrists still bound together, and he pressed his cheek against her face.   

She took a shuddering breath.  “This isn’t happening.”

“Garcia hurt you.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters.”

“Make this stop.” Something damp fell against his neck and he barely made out the quiver of her words.  “Please, Johnny…just make this stop.”   

Chandler hadn’t made it to the shack.  Garcia met him halfway and now there were two monstrous shadows moving toward them through the cedars, the lantern forming a common point between them.  They were arguing and moving fast and Johnny left his head bowed, resting against Darcy’s, but his eyes were watching those shadows.

There was something about a horse.

“Sure, that would work,” Chandler said, “but the law wouldn’t do it that way.”

“Don’t even have to fool with no saddle,” Garcia said.  “All ya gotta do is slip that noose over his head and give Madrid a leg up.”

“Sounds like a lynching.”

“Well, ain’t it?”

Chandler rounded on Garcia and pushed a finger into his chest.  “I’ve got a court order, Charlie, and we’re doing this legal.  You remember that, if you want your money.  You hear me?”

“Yes, sir, Mister Chandler.”

That wasn’t the end of it, though.  The two of them stomped around under the tree for more long minutes, gesturing and debating the merits of each particular branch.  At some point Charlie got the rope in his hand, Johnny wasn’t sure how.  He must have had his eyes closed when that happened.  There was already a circle knotted into its end and Charlie built up his momentum, swinging it through the air twice, and then launched it toward one of the larger limbs.  It hit and fell back to the ground.  Charlie spat out a curse and gathered it up, threw it a second time and had to duck away as it collapsed back onto his head

Darcy let go for a second and Johnny knew she was wiping her tears away.  He took a deep breath.  “Hank will see that you get out of here.  You’ll have to help Scott, but you’ll make it.  Just head west.  Can you do that?”

Her hand found the bandage around his side and she brushed her fingers against it.  “Yes,” she answered, her voice so small.

“The north star.  You know the north star, don’t you?”

He felt her nod against his chest.

“All right, which one is it?”  He looked up and searched the sky.  The stars were a watery blur and he had to blink back the wetness.  He clenched his eyes and tried again, finding the right curve of stars.  “Up there.  You see it?”

She tilted her head upward.  “I see it.”

“Just keep it to your right, Darcy.  You’ll be fine.”

Chandler’s voice boomed out from under the cottonwood.  “Good man, Charlie!”   The rope was dangling from the branch and the noose swung three feet below it.  “Now, get me a chair and let’s get this thing done.”

Charlie jogged off across the embankment, slowing as he reached the dark beyond the pond.  His body was faint in the dimness, but Johnny could hear his boots knocking against the rocks.  He hung his head again and buried a kiss in Darcy’s hair. 

“Take care of that baby,” he whispered.  “Don’t let her fall for any gunslingers.”

“I can’t let them kill you.”  She was breathing too fast and he brought his hands up to her head, pulling her into him and pressing his lips to her ear again. 

“Do what they say, Darcy…please.  It won’t help me and you’ll just get hurt.  Promise you’ll do what they say.”

“They’re going to kill you.”

“Promise me, Darcy.”

His lips brushed her cheek and he tasted the salt from her tears.  Her face was drenched with them and she shook in his arms, each quiet sob echoing in her body, but she was trying to hold it together and he was grateful. 

“I’ll do what they say.”

Johnny clenched his eyes again and let the world slip away, until all that existed was the rise and fall of her chest against him and the warm rush of her breath on his neck.  His heart slowed with the rhythm.  There were sounds again, somewhere in the darkness, but he pushed them aside and held her as long as he could.  It wasn’t near long enough.

“That’ll do, Charlie.”  Garcia was back and Chandler grabbed a chair from him, spinning it into place under the noose and stepping up on it himself, one hand on the chair back and the other hanging onto the rope.  The chair wobbled.  “Get me a rock,” Chandler ordered as he clambered down. 

Garcia bent over and scooped up something, then stood and handed it to Chandler.  “This do?” he asked.

“Looks about right.”  Chandler stuck the rock under a leg of the chair and put his weight on the corner.  “Fine, Charlie.”  He straightened and turned to face them.  “Trantham, we’re ready!”

The Colt dug into Johnny’s ribs.

“Move,” Trantham said.

Johnny had to let Darcy go to get his feet under him.  Trantham had hold of his shirt and he was yanking him up and pushing him forward.  Darcy struggled up, too, and grabbed onto Johnny’s arm. 

“No,” she was saying over and over again and she twisted her gaze back to Trantham, stumbling sideways and nearly tripping.  “Please, Mister Trantham.  Please don’t.”

“Darcy,” Johnny whispered to her.  Trantham didn’t say anything.  It was too late, anyway, because Garcia had reached them and he snatched her away, wrapping his arm around her waist and dragging her off to the side. She squirmed, but all he did was laugh and put his pistol to her side.

“Best if you calm down a little, darlin’,” Garcia said and he jerked her tighter.

“Hank?  Don’t let him hurt her.”  Johnny stopped just short of the chair and turned around to face Trantham.  He had to look up to find the taller man’s eyes and they were dark in this dim light.  “You didn’t see what they did to that girl and you can’t let anything like that…”  He swallowed hard and willed his heart to stop beating so loud.  “You can’t let Garcia touch her again.”

Hank’s jaw clenched a sharp line into his cheek.  “He won’t hurt her.”

“I want your word.” He sensed Chandler coming up beside him and Johnny forced the words out faster.  “Your word, Hank…” 

His head jerked back.  Chandler had a fistful of his hair and he twisted it, pulling Johnny’s head closer.  He leaned his mouth to Johnny’s ear.  “It’s time, boy, and I don’t like to be left waiting.  You got some dying to do.”  He shoved Johnny’s head forward and thrust a pistol into his belly.    “Now--climb up on that chair.”

Johnny straightened and he sucked in the urge to kill the man. He found Trantham’s eyes again.   “Hank…”

“I said now.”  The hammer cocked.

“So shoot, you damn bastard.”  A fire burst inside him and there was no stopping the words.  Johnny spun around, face to face with Chandler.  “I ain’t playing your game any more.  Pull that trigger now and get it over with.  I did you a favor killing that boy of yours and you know it.  He wasn’t nothin’ but a coward and he beat that girl to death.  I ain’t stickin’ my neck in your rope, so you might as well just decide right now whether or not you’re gonna pull that trigger.”

His pale eyebrows rose and Chandler brought the barrel of his Colt up under Johnny’s chin, the steel cold against his skin.  Johnny braced for the bullet.

“Bold talk, Madrid.”  Chandler enunciated each word meticulously.  “There’s nothing I’d like better than blowing your brains out, but the law says hanging and if you want your brother and that little lady to go safe, then you most certainly are going to play my game and get your sorry ass up on that chair.  Do it, boy.”

He lowered his Colt.  “Move.”

Johnny heard the words through a wild rush of blood.  He took a step toward the chair and then another and then he was there, the rope hanging above him and the chair right at his knee.  He looked up into the tree, judging the girth of the limb.  Strong enough. 

“Up, Madrid.”

The chair wobbled as he grabbed the back with his bound hands, but he steadied it and set a boot on the seat, then hauled himself up. It teetered again and he had to shift his weight, tilting the chair back until it held firm.  He slowly let go and straightened.

The noose brushed against his shoulder. 

“Try it on, boy.” 

The air pressed against his lungs and his throat rattled as Johnny dragged in a deep breath. His eyes searched through the dark, finding a focus—finding her.  Garcia held Darcy in front of him, his arm across her chest and his Colt lying on her shoulder, not really aimed, but ready.  Darcy’s hand lay on the swelling of their child and she was still, perfectly still.  Her face was pale in the failing edge of the lantern’s light. 

“Hank…your word.” 

Trantham’s voice wasn’t much louder than the crickets.  “You have my word.” 



Nothing moved.  Murdoch crouched, keeping his head low under the small window. He crept forward, coming to the corner of the shack and peering cautiously around it.  There were the sounds of the range—the yip of a far off coyote and a whippoorwill calling its name--but he couldn’t hear anything from inside that shack.

They weren’t there. 

He scanned the meadow anyway, sorting the shadows into grass and shrubs.  There was a movement and he lifted his hand, signaling Jelly, then he lurched toward the door and threw it open, twisted into the frame and aimed his Colt into the shack. 

Something small scratched a hurried escape.  That was it.  After the rodent sound, solid silence filled the room, and as Murdoch’s eyes slowly adjusted to the black, he slid the Colt back into its leather. 


A dark form rose up from the meadow. The moonlight glinted from his rifle.

“They must be at the Indian caves!”  Murdoch shouted that in motion, his long legs already swallowing up the ground between him and the horses. “Let’s go.”




Chandler stood behind the chair and held onto its back.  “On the count of three I start shooting, Madrid, and I’m not particular about who I hit.”

“Go to hell, Chandler.” 


Johnny’s arms hung like stone and he had to concentrate hard, willing them to move.


He reached for the noose and the chair wobbled again.  “Damn it,” Johnny said softly and he reached a second time, catching the rope and pulling it closer to him. He held it for a moment, closing his eyes and longing for some way out. 

He couldn’t do this…just couldn’t.  His heart pounded in his chest, so loud that Chandler must have heard it, and his blood flushed hot on his face.  He felt the night floating away.  Not yet, something whispered inside him, don’t lose it now.  Not with Darcy watching.  He opened his eyes and searched again, finding her face. 

The rope was rough in his fingers.  He had to tilt his head to guide the noose across it and the hemp scratched against his neck.

A guttural sound cut through the blood-drone in his ears.  “No,” Darcy moaned and Johnny held her eyes. 

Chandler grabbed hold tight and the chair slid away. 




Chapter 9 

His neck burned and in a splinter of a second Johnny jerked, suspended.  His heart slammed against his ribs. He kicked out into empty air and twisted as the light and shadow churned together.  Something pawed at the noose and he fought to place it.  His hands.  Still bound, frantic, they dug into his neck, but it wasn’t any use and the rope squeezed the breath from his throat.

Darcy was screaming.  The far-off sound knifed through the howl in his ears and Johnny clung to it.  Every pound of his heart drove her fainter and beyond that, there was nothing…nothing.

The dark edged in.

Hank’s voice thudded against the suffocating roar.  “Set it back, Chandler.”

A curse and then Chandler’s voice, infuriated.  “Shoot him, Charlie!” and a gunshot crackled across the pond and then a second.  Something hit Johnny’s boot and sent him spinning. 

Two more shots exploded. 

His toe bumped an object and Johnny kicked wildly for it.  It sank under his foot and he thrust again, landing more firmly this time.  It was the chair, but something wasn’t right and it came to him--the chair had fallen on its side.  Johnny had to stretch, balancing on the rounded edge of the seat and barely keeping his footing.  The rope still choked him, but his fingers found a hold and they yanked.

“God damn you, Trantham!” Garcia shouted.

Darcy shrieked and Johnny saw the blur of their bodies, wrenching apart as her arms flailed against the man.  Garcia’s hand swung down.

The knot slid and the noose came free.  Johnny sucked in a breath and an exquisite pain consumed his throat.  He floated with the sensation, adrift on its aching ecstasy.  The air rasped into him and he coughed it out, violently, and the chair tilted.  He fell and the ground whacked into him. 

There was a body.  Johnny rolled into it as another gunshot echoed through the dark.

Sounds rushed at him.  Hank gasped a feral moan and Darcy argued frantically as Garcia bellowed out his anger.  She yelped and Johnny jerked his eyes to her.  Garcia’s body loomed over her and she was small and struggling and one thought crystallized through the foggy pain.

The Colt.  Get Chandler’s Colt.

He shoved Chandler’s dead weight.  A grey metal glinted in the broken grass and Johnny reached for it, folding the handle into the hollow of his palm and wrapping his finger across the trigger. Even with his hands numbed by those bindings, it was familiar.  His thumb stretched to the hammer, taut against its rough edge, and he cocked it and heard the sweet click of the chamber tumbling.  The world spun dizzily as he curled up and twisted around, raising the pistol toward Garcia. 

He stared into Charlie’s barrel.

An instant split into slow and separate parts.  Garcia’s bullet stung the air above his shoulder and Johnny looked down his outstretched arms, focused, aimed and squeezed the trigger.  The pistol jolted in his hand and Garcia staggered backward.  Johnny cocked and squeezed again.  Garcia’s legs buckled and he fell, dragging Darcy down on top of him.

It was over and the acrid smell of gunpowder scented the chill air.

Darcy crawled away from Garcia and, as she sat back on her heels and pushed the hair out of her face, her eyes found Johnny’s.  She was breathing hard, but that’s all she did, just breathe, and Johnny watched her find herself again.  It didn’t take long. Darcy scrambled to her feet and she ran to him, catching him just as he stood and stumbled forward.  She was trembling and he could feel it in the arms wrapped around his neck and her chest, pressed against him.

“You hurt?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“Johnny…” she whispered and a sob quaked through her body.  She buried her face in his shoulder.

Trantham grunted.  Johnny tilted his head against Darcy’s, looking down at Hank.  His eyes were clenched shut and he made another sound, low and guttural.  Hank held both hands against his belly and they were already dark with his blood.   

“Darcy,” Johnny rasped out.  “Can you get these ropes off…?”

She lifted her face to him.

“My hands…”

“Your hands…?” The sense of his words came to her finally and, with a hitching sigh, she pulled away.  She fumbled at the knots and Johnny bit his lip, wincing as each tug dragged the hemp deeper into his sores.  They came loose and finally he was free. 

Hank needed him and Scott, too.  There wasn’t time for it, but Darcy gazed at him again, those brown eyes wet with quiet tears, and his own need was overpowering.  He laid his hands against her cheeks and pulled her close, kissing her face, her eyes, her lips.  They clung together, but it couldn’t last and this time Johnny pushed free.

“Hank’s hurt,” he said, stepping away and kneeling at Hank’s side.  Darcy laid a hand on his back and crouched beside him.

“How bad is it?” Johnny tried to force Hank’s hands away from the wound, but they wouldn’t budge.

“Gut shot.”

Johnny grimaced.  Hank knew, he could hear it in his voice.  He wouldn’t see the morning.  “We’ll get you to a doctor,” Johnny said, and he shrugged out of his jacket, folding it into a thick pad and shoving it under Hank’s hands.  “Darcy, hold this, will ya?” 

She scooted closer and pressed against the jacket.

“Stay with him.”  Johnny looked off into the dark obscuring the shack.  “I’m going to see about Scott.”

He checked Garcia on his way past, kicking at the man twice.  When there wasn’t any motion, he left the lantern’s glow behind and followed the slope up through the cedars.  There was enough starlight to find his way and he jogged at first, but that hurt his side and he slowed to a walk.  The door was standing open and he could see the feeble candlelight inside as he came closer.

“Scott.”  It was meant to be a shout, but the sound caught in his throat and he coughed again.  That hurt, too.  He crossed the last few feet to the shack and stepped in.

Scott was lying on his side.  His hands were draped together at his waist, still tied, but there weren’t any more ropes holding him down.  He didn’t move, though.  His eyes were closed and Johnny waited a few breaths, watching for a rise and fall of his brother’s chest.  There wasn’t any that he could see.

“Scott!” That was marginally louder, but Scott only lay there as Johnny lunged across the floor and dropped to his knees next to the cot.  “Don’t do this.”  Johnny brushed his hand across Scott’s cheek, feeling the warmth rising from him, then he worked his fingers under Scott’s jaw. There was a pulse.

Relief came pouring over him.  Johnny sank back on his heels and he stared up at a dark corner of the shack, blinking back the tears and waiting for his shoulders to stop shaking. He let out a lungful of air and laughed softly.  It was crazy, anyone would say it was crazy, but nobody was watching and he didn’t even try to stop it—he just laughed.  Quietly, painfully.  Exhaustion filled him when it was through and he wiped his eyes and turned sluggishly back to his brother.  

There was blood at Scott’s hairline.  Johnny combed the hair back and saw a thin crack in the skin just above his temple.  The butt of Garcia’s gun, he guessed.  It was damn lucky Charlie hadn’t killed them all, but they’d made it. All except Hank.  Johnny winced as he remembered Trantham, still lying outside with Darcy, but first things first.  “Wake up, Boston.”

Johnny untied Scott’s hands and he got a canteen, pouring a little water out on his palm.  He slapped it gently onto his brother’s face and Scott’s eyes fluttered.  “That’s it,” Johnny said. “I’m not doin’ too good here, brother.  Open those eyes.”

Obligingly, Scott’s eyes came open.  He didn’t seem to focus for a moment.

“Can you drink for me?” Johnny asked.


“Yeah, I’m still here.”

A slow smile spread across Scott’s strained face.  He reached his hand out and Johnny grabbed it.  “I knew they couldn’t take you.” 

“Yeah?  That why you got your head knocked in trying to stop them?”

Scott let go and rubbed his fingers against the cut. “What happened?”

“Trantham turned his gun on them.”


Johnny looked away, checking the bandages around Scott’s arm.  The bleeding had stopped.  “Don’t know why.  He shot Chandler, though.”


His tone was flat.  “Dead,” Johnny said.  “Look, Scott, I gotta get a doctor.  Hank’s gut shot.  I figure I can get him in here and Darcy can look out for both of you until I get back.  Might be morning.  Can you make it all right til then?”

“You stay with Darcy. I’ll go.” 

Scott wedged an elbow into the cot, trying to rise, and Johnny pushed him back again.  “The doc’s for you, too, you know.  You’re in no shape to make that ride.”

“I’ve got news for you, Johnny.”  Scott laid his head flat on the mattress and looked his brother over. “You don’t look much better.”

Johnny shoved the canteen into Scott’s hand.  “Here.  Get some of that in you.”

He was up again and out of the shack, heading down the slope to the pond.  The lantern was off to the side, just beyond the overturned chair, and the noose hung motionless above it.  Johnny had to step over Chandler to get to the light and he stooped as he passed, taking hold of his arm and rolling the dead man to his back.  He was bones already, just scrawny bits of flesh and bones.  There wasn’t much for the earth to take.  Johnny felt the chill air and he shivered.   He stripped the jacket from Chandler’s arms and yanked it out from underneath him, then picked up the lantern and turned back to the living.

Darcy turned her face to him as he crouched down next to them and her eyes told him the way of things.  Trantham was worse. 

“Thought you might need this more than Chandler,” Johnny said, draping the jacket across Hank’s chest. He took over from Darcy, lifting a corner of their impromptu bandage and then pressing it tight against the wound.  There was too much blood, too much swelling.  Hank was torn up inside.  “It’d be warmer in the shack. Think you could stand being moved?”

“Leave me…be,” Hank mumbled and he squeezed his eyes tight.  When they opened again, he was staring straight up at Johnny.  “I’m not…goin’…anywhere.”

The curses swelled up in his throat.  It was stupid, just plain stupid to have any hope.  Johnny didn’t even know that he felt it until it had died already, sucked into the tremor of Hank’s voice.  Morro Coyo was three hours in the dark--at best, two--and there was no guarantee that Sam would even be there.  It didn’t matter, anyway.  Hank didn’t have hours to spare.  Johnny smoothed the jacket more snugly around Hank’s shoulder and settled in cross legged next to him.  “Damn it,” he muttered, as close to a breath as he could manage, but Darcy heard and she leaned in to him.

They waited, silently.  Hank drifted off for long moments, but then he’d come back with a wrenching groan.  Darcy sank against Johnny’s side, ending with her head on his leg and her body curled up on the cold ground.  Johnny stroked her hair until she was still, but she didn’t really sleep.  She just went somewhere else, someplace warm and safe and away from all the blood. 

She didn’t stir when Hank spoke again.

“You got …lucky.”  His eyes were open, but they stared off into the emptiness above him.

“Why’d you do it, Hank?”  Johnny kept his voice low, trying not to disturb Darcy, and he wasn’t sure Hank had even heard him.

Hank’s mouth opened and closed twice before the words came out.  “Shoulda…done…my job.”

He felt Darcy shift against him and Johnny laid his hand on her shoulder. “It didn’t happen that way, Hank.  There isn’t any way to say…”  His gaze moved down Darcy’s arm, settling where her hand lay against her swelling. He sighed.  “I’m sorry about Sarah.”

Hank nodded.  He licked his lips and they parted again, as if to add something more, but there wasn’t anything.  The rattle of his breath ceased and his eyes stared blankly into the sky.  Johnny watched him for a moment, then he reached forward and laid two fingers on Hank’s eyes, sliding his lids shut. 

Darcy lifted her head.  “Is he gone?”


“What happens now?”

“I get a doctor for Scott.  How are you doin’?”

She hesitated and her head dropped back to his leg.   “I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t, Darcy.”

Her hand wrapped tight around his thigh.  “You’re not leaving me here.”

The moon was out.  Johnny couldn’t remember when that had happened, but it was brighter now and the pond glimmered in the light. The cedars stood watch around it, dark human-like forms outlined against the stars.  A breeze rustled through them.  Just as in those days--the curious, drawn by the fascination of death, standing apart and watching…whispering.  His eyes swept the bodies, three of them now, stiffening on the cold mountain ground. 

He almost couldn’t say it.  “You have to stay, Darcy.  Scott needs you.” 

She twisted over, facing up to the sky and rubbing her fists into her eyes.  “Johnny…I don’t know…” she said, her voice trembling, then she drew in a deep breath, held her stomach, and sat up.  “You’re right.  What can I do?”  She kept moving, coming to her feet and offering her hand to him.  Johnny took it and stood beside her.  He wrapped his fingers behind her neck and pulled her into a tight embrace. 

“They can’t hurt you anymore,” he murmured. 

“You better get going,” was her only answer.  They held each other for a few seconds longer, then Darcy drew away and moved stiffly toward the shack. 

Johnny reached down for the lantern.  “Darcy,” he called out softly, and he trotted the few steps to hand it to her. “Take this…I’ll be right behind you.”

She looked at him dully, but took the lantern and starting walking again.  Johnny turned back to Hank and knelt down to his belt, using the last remnants of fading light to find the knife he kept there and slide it from its leather.  He straightened and walked carefully across the darkened ground, stepping over Chandler again and seeing the thick shadow of the cottonwood trunk.  Raising his left arm in the air, he felt for the stretched out rope, found it, and followed it down to the tree.  He sawed at the rope, half seeing the hemp come apart and half feeling it start to give. The effort hurt his wrists, but he didn’t quit until the rope unraveled into two pieces and the one went snaking through the leaves.  He heard the gentle whoosh of the noose hitting the chair and dragging the rest of the rope after it. 

Johnny tossed the knife into the ground and followed Darcy up the hillside.




There was a light floating through the cedars.  Murdoch slid his rifle from its scabbard and balanced it across his saddle, then, leaning forward, he set his forearm across the horn and watched the orb illuminate the trees. 

Voices carried down the hillside, one so faint he barely heard it and the other deeper, a man’s voice for certain, but too hushed to recognize.  The light receded and vanished, but somebody was moving toward them.  He was on horseback and the dark was in his way.  Rocks clattered down the slope and branches snapped as he lost the trail in the shrubs.  The horse snorted in protest.

“Jelly?” Murdoch whispered.  He straightened in his saddle, nearly standing in his stirrups and trying to peer through the blackness.  “Can you make out anything?”

“Not a darn thing.”  Jelly held his own rifle tightly clenched in his hands.  His reins were looped around his saddle horn. 

A shape appeared in the trees, a dark one atop an oddly pale shadow.  Murdoch strained to find any focus, holding himself in check.  He wasn’t sure—not yet—and his heart quickened as the rider came closer.  He raised the rifle.

The shadow stopped.  “That you, Murdoch?” it asked.

Murdoch heeled his horse forward and lunged through the bushes to Barranca’s side.  The moonlight wasn’t enough for him, but he could see that things weren’t right.  Johnny was slumping forward in the saddle.  Exhausted, maybe.  Hurting, more likely.   “Boy, am I glad to see you,” Murdoch said.

Johnny’s voice was low and raspy.  “I kinda hoped you’d show up.” 

Jelly struck a match and relit the lantern, then walked his horse up behind Murdoch’s sorrel.  Johnny squinted in the sudden light and Murdoch watched him raise his hand to shelter his eyes.  His wrist was covered with dried blood. “Johnny?”  Murdoch swept his gaze over his son, noting the bandage under his torn shirt, the ugly welts on his neck, and his eye, rimmed with shades of purple and swollen nearly shut.  “What happened up here, son?”

“Can I tell ya later? Back at the shack?”  Johnny glanced over his shoulder into the dark.  “I don’t wanta leave Scott and Darcy waitin’ and besides…”  He brought his eyes back to Murdoch’s and the worn-through look of his face wrenched something tight in Murdoch’s chest.  Johnny’s voice faltered.  “It’s been a long day.”




Chapter 9 

Murdoch took charge.  There was a buckboard to send for and Jelly got that chore, grumbling that nobody tells him anything and swinging his lantern off into the night. Scott’s arm came next and Murdoch insisted on rebandaging that himself.  Darcy offered to help, but Johnny held on to her.  The old man could do it; it wasn’t the first time. 

Johnny had eyed the chair when he made it back to the shack, but he just didn’t have the strength for it.  He slid against the wall instead, sinking to the floor.  Darcy followed him down and tucked herself under his arm. She’d found him as soon as he rode back up to the shack and she’d latched on to him, too, clenching a fistful of sleeve or laying a hand on his chest or like she was now, curled up against his side, with her head leaning on his shoulder and the one hand on her belly, the other hooked around his waist.  Maybe she really did go to sleep this time. Johnny wasn’t sure.

She didn’t move when the questions started.  Johnny tried to answer, but his voice was giving out and his hoarse whispers got harder and harder to force past his swollen throat.  Murdoch must have taken pity on him, either that or he’d heard enough.  For long stretches of time, they just waited.  Johnny let his eyelids shut then.  Murdoch was watching, he could feel him, the old man taking charge of that, too.  His gaze carved a hollow in the quiet of the shack and Johnny settled into it, held within it, the feel of it as familiar now as that Colt had been.  Maybe he slept, too.

There were noises.  Darcy shifted when they came and Johnny held her tighter, fighting to place the sounds at first.  They were moans, her moans, muffled in his shirt. He watched her bruised face and leaned his lips in close against her ear, shushing her and bringing her out of her dreams, if that’s what they were. Her eyes fluttered, but they didn’t open, and she lay still against him. 

It was dead of night when the wagon clattered up to the shack.  Scott tried to stand, pushing Murdoch’s hands away, but his knees buckled as soon as he tested them.  Murdoch caught him. Johnny watched them from his vantage point on the floor, the both of them looking like tipsy giants as Scott stumbled toward the door and Murdoch staggered with his awkward weight. 

Jelly stood out of the way until they’d passed, then he stepped into the doorjamb, peering down at Johnny and Darcy and rubbing his hand against the frame.  His eyes had a worried roundness to them and he wanted to say something, that was plain to see from the way his mouth kept flapping open and clamping shut again, but Johnny beat him to it, pushing to his feet and dragging Darcy up behind him.  He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and coughed painfully, bringing her face tilted up to his.  “Let’s go home,” he said.

There were miles to cover, most of it rocky and all of it in the measured light of the lanterns.  Scott and Darcy rode in the wagon bed, with Murdoch at the reins and Johnny beside him.  Cipriano had stayed behind with a crew to bury the bodies, but Jelly was making the journey for a third time that night, leading the way with his lantern.  The light bounced from one side of his horse to another as his arm tired and Johnny added that to his list of guilty charges. Jelly shouldn’t be out here in the dark, wearing himself out.  He should be warm in his bed, they all should be warm in their beds.  Jed Bellamy was coming in the morning to watch them work that string of ponies and the north range creek needed clearing. There was work to do, good honest ranch work, and they were joggling out here in the dark, trying to fix what Madrid had set wrong. 

How many times?  Johnny turned his eyes to the stars and drew in the chill night air.  It burned against his throat. How many times?

Darcy moaned and he twisted around, looking back over his shoulder at her.  She was curled under her covers. The shadows were too deep to see her face, but he could tell that she was awake.  The folds of the blanket angled as she brought her legs up into her stomach and she grunted softly.

“Darcy?”  Johnny grabbed the back of the wagon seat and scrambled over it, knocking into Murdoch’s shoulder and half-falling into the narrow space between her and Scott.  Murdoch was asking something, his deep voice rumbling in the dark, but Johnny didn’t even try to sort the words.  He crouched down beside her, one hand clutching the seat for balance.  “Where does it hurt?” he asked, his other hand searching for a hold on her.  Darcy rolled to her back and her eyes showed in the gentle moonlight.  She was scared.

“What’s wrong, Darcy?” 

“I don’t know…something’s not right.”

“How long have you been hurtin’?”

The wagon bucked under them and Johnny shot his eyes up to his father’s back, swallowing a curse at him, at that damned rock, at anything else he could blame.  Darcy grabbed his hand.  “Like this?” Her voice was strained.  “Couple of hours…it’s getting worse.”

He lifted her some, sliding behind her back and resting against the wagon boards.  She settled between his legs, still curled on her side and her shoulder wedged onto his chest.  Her hands were crossed on her stomach and he tucked the blanket around her, then burrowed his hand under to lay it over hers.

“Why didn’t you say somethin’?” he asked.

“You’d just worry.”

“You shoulda’ told me.”  He whispered that, his face buried in her hair.

Scott stirred, brought to by Murdoch’s voice most likely.  He twisted to his side and grimaced first, then raised his unfocused gaze to Johnny’s face.  “What...?”  He rubbed his hand over his eyes as Murdoch’s rumble became more insistent. 

“Is it the baby?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked up at his father, finding him looking back, his face haggard.  “Yeah.  Jelly sent for Sam, didn’t he?” 

“He said Joe went.” Murdoch’s gaze moved past Johnny to Darcy.  His voice was soothing.  “Don’t you worry, sweetheart, we’ll get you to the ranch and everything’s going to be just fine.”  He turned back to the horses and Johnny heard the lines slap against their rumps.  The wagon jerked and the rattle of the wheels picked up. 

Scott let out a subdued groan and closed his eyes again.  He laid out flat on the wagon bed, flinging the covers back and drawing a leg angled up. He set a wrist across his forehead.  “If those men weren’t already dead…” he said quietly, the words barely reaching the short distance across the wagon.

Resting his chin against Darcy’s head, Johnny just held her.  He knew when her pains came, he could feel them in her body as she stiffened, but she didn’t moan anymore.  The dark stretched out behind them until finally the sky lightened, warming edges into the mountains.  The night was slipping away.

There was a dreamlike haze to the ranch when they drove the buckboard under the arch.  Nothing was moving except the smoke from the bunkhouse stovepipe and Johnny stretched his neck, trying to see over the wagon seat to the hitching post in front of the hacienda.  It was there—the familiar buggy and the same grey mare.  Sam had made it ahead of them.

He stepped forward from the house when the buckboard jangled to a stop. 

“Murdoch.”  Sam nodded and held his hand off to the side, half-raised.  “I hear your boys had some trouble.” 

“I’m sure glad to see you, Sam.” 

The doc walked to the side of the wagon bed and looked in.  Scott was trying to sit up, his hand fumbling at pulling himself up by the edge of the wagon boards.  Darcy’s head was cradled in the curve of Johnny’s arm and she didn’t move. 

Johnny had to cough before he could get any words out.  “She’s hurtin’, Sam.”



“Let’s get her into bed and I’ll see what we can do.”  Sam’s assessing gaze drifted up to Johnny’s eyes.  “Can you walk, John?”

“I’m fine, doc.”

A tired smile softened the worry in Sam’s face.  “If you don’t mind, I’ll make that diagnosis…after I’ve seen to your brother and your wife.”

Three sets of hands grasped at them as they unloaded from the wagon.  Jelly got his shoulders under Scott’s arm and Sam took his other side, the two of them bearing most of his weight as Scott stumbled to the house.  Johnny climbed down and reached back for Darcy, but Murdoch pushed him away, gathering her into his own arms and carrying her into the hacienda, her head on his shoulder.  All Johnny could see of her as he followed was her brown hair showing beside his father’s grey, her arm draped around Murdoch’s neck and her legs, dangling childlike at his side.  Climbing the steps behind them took almost more than he had left.

Sam shut the door for the examination, leaving Johnny on the wrong side.  He slid again, letting his back drift down the hallway wall and bringing his knees up against him, wrapping his arms around them and hanging his head down.  And then he waited, just as he’d done so often in the past day and just like the other times, there was nothing he could do about it.  Not a god damn thing. 

Scott’s door hadn’t been closed and Johnny could see bodies moving around in there, Jelly’s and Murdoch’s and Teresa’s.  He couldn’t even remember Teresa being downstairs at the buckboard and maybe she wasn’t, but it seemed only natural that she was with Scott now, doing what she always did and taking care of what’s gone wrong. 

He closed his eyes and tried to listen through the wall, but no sounds came.

He missed the footsteps.  A hand brushed his knee and he looked sideways, toward the presence he suddenly sensed next to him.  Teresa crouched there and she twisted around, drawing her skirt around her legs and ending sitting bent-kneed, just as he was.  She smiled gently.

“It was crowded in there,” she said, just as gently.

“How’s his fever?”

“He’s warm.”

“He lost a lot of blood.  It wouldn’t stop bleeding.”

“It’s not bleeding now.”

Murdoch crossed in front of Scott’s door and the movement drew Johnny’s eyes.  “He’s going to be all right.”  It was more of a question than he’d intended and Johnny was gratified to feel Teresa’s hand around his arm. 

“Scott’s tough, Johnny…you know that.  I give that fever two days, then we’ll be fighting to keep him in bed.”

Johnny nodded and an imagined sound made him glance toward his bedroom door, but it stayed shut. Teresa’s grip tightened on his arm.

“Darcy’s strong, too, Johnny, and she’s never given up on anything.  It’s all going to be all right.”

“No, it ain’t.”  He clenched his eyes shut and rested his head against the wall. “Wishin’ don’t make anything right…she’s going to lose that baby.  Damn it, Teresa, I couldn’t stop him and he hurt her…” 


The door opened. 

“You want to come in now?” Sam asked.

Johnny left Teresa’s arm hanging in the air as he wrenched free of it, coming suddenly to his feet and lurching toward the door.  Sam moved out of the way for him to pass and Johnny kept going, crossing to stand next to the bed and look down at Darcy.  She was covered by their wedding ring quilt and her hair was spread across the pillow. He couldn’t see any signs of pain in her eyes, but they looked worn, and the bruises Garcia had left on her face were even darker in the low light of the oil lamp. 

Johnny set a hand tentatively on the mattress, then settled on its edge. 

“There’s some spotting, but she’s not effaced, so I think we just might be able to correct this,” Sam said.  He walked to the nightstand and started picking up his tools and dropping them into his black bag.  “If those pains are contractions, we have to get them stopped, but I found a good, strong heartbeat and with a little luck and God’s help, that should hold up.  Are you hearing this, Johnny?”  He laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

“Yeah, doc, but it’s too soon.”

“I know.”  Sam turned toward the door.  “Teresa? Would you get me a clean glass and a bottle of sherry?  Or maybe Darcy would prefer scotch?”  He looked back toward Darcy with that question.  “Which will it be?  Sherry or scotch?”

Her voice was quiet.  “I don’t drink.”

“I know it sounds like some sort of wives tale, but the liquor is for the baby, Darcy.  That child’s trying to be born long before his time and we have to convince him to wait a while.  It’s been my experience that the best medicine for that is a good, stiff drink.”  He nodded toward Teresa.  “Make it the wine. I imagine she’ll get that down easier.” 

Teresa left and Sam grabbed up his bag.  “One small glass for now and we’ll see how things go from there.” He smoothed the corner of her quilt.  “And you stay right there, young lady.  We’ll make sure you get a chamber pot and anything else you might need, Johnny will take care of for you.  All right?”

The doctor headed for the door then and Johnny followed him out, catching him just in the hallway.  He stopped him with a hand against his back.  “Sam?  You saying there’s a chance?”

“A chance, Johnny.  We need those contractions to stop for at least twenty four hours before I’ll breathe easy, though.  Take care of her and I’ll be back to look at you.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

Johnny followed the doc’s orders as best he could.  Darcy’s stomach rebelled at the first drink of sherry, but he made her sip it until the whole glass was gone, then he got her changed into her nightgown and dragged the rocker over to her side of the bed, dropped into it and waited again.

The pains were still coming, but Darcy didn’t seem to mind as much.  She relaxed into her pillows and the liquor started talking, with her going on about the nursery curtains and the last letter she’d had from Mamie and how warm the nights were getting,.  Then she’d hurt again and be quiet and twice Johnny watched her wipe something out of her eye.  Finally, she fell asleep. 

By the time Sam made it back to their bedroom, Johnny was asleep himself.  He woke with a start when he heard the door open and his hand jerked immediately to his neck, rubbing at the rope burns there.  He swallowed hard and forced himself to lower his hand again.

“How’s Scott?” Johnny croaked out.

“Your brother is as strong as a bull.”  Sam went to the far side of Darcy’s bed first, taking his stethoscope from his bag and flinging the quilt back, then listening through her gown to her belly.  He nodded approvingly.  “So’s that baby.  How’s the sherry working?” 

Johnny smiled wearily.  “She’s a cheap drunk, but I don’t know as that it’s done any good.”

“She’s still having the pains?”


“Have they slowed?”


“Well, when she wakes up see if you can get another half a glass in her.”  He pulled the covers back to Darcy’s chest, picked up his bag and crossed behind the bed, coming next to Johnny’s chair.  “Your turn, John.  You want to tell me where to start?”

Johnny set the chair to rocking. “Guess Murdoch told you about Chandler.”

Sam set his bag on the bed and sank heavily to the edge of the mattress, then he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and stared into Johnny’s moving face. “Your father said that we’re fortunate to have you back alive.” 

“I almost got Scott and Darcy killed.”

“Not you, John. Those men caused the trouble.”

“I’m the one they were comin’ after.”

The doctor considered him for a moment, then straightened and wagged a finger at his chest. “Take that off and let’s get a look you.”

Unbuttoning and shrugging out of his shirt, Johnny tossed it across the footboard.  The motion burned in his shoulder and he swung his hand up to massage it as he settled back into the chair.  A frown wrinkled Sam’s forehead.

“What happened to your wrists?”  Sam asked.

Johnny set his hands side-by-side and gazed down at them.  He’d forgotten.  They didn’t even hurt anymore, even though they oozed pink-tinged fluids and he could see pieces of raw flesh, glossy in the low light.  “They had me tied…”  His voice fell away and he left it at that.

“Hold still.” 

It was all awkward.  Sam got the basin from the washstand, balancing it on his knees and making Johnny lean forward, then using the bowl to catch the liquid he poured over Johnny’s wounds. It stung and Johnny bit his lip, holding his breath as the doctor swabbed a towel at the scrapes. 

“I’ve just about got it.”  The basin tipped as Sam turned toward his bag and Johnny steadied it for him.  “Thanks, but…here.”  Sam took the bowl from him and set it on the ground, then reached into his bag and took out a roll of bandages. It only took him a minute to wrap the wrists.

Johnny leaned back again. 

“No...”  Sam motioned him closer.  “I need you to sit up  What’s under all that?”  Sam’s gaze fell to the cloths wrapped around Johnny’s waist. 

“A horse tried to stomp me,” Johnny said. 

“And how did that happen?”

“I tried to get away.  All that did was get Scott shot.”

“Come closer.” 

Johnny slid forward and straightened, raising his arms out to each side as Sam reached for the improvised bandages.  A piece of bedroll, he remembered, that’s what it’d been the night before, up there at Swift Creek.  No, two nights before.

Sam started poking as soon as the bandages were off.  “Who cleaned this out?”


“She did a good job.  There doesn’t look to be any infection.”

“She took care of Scott’s arm, too.”

“I could tell. It could’ve been worse.”  Sam doused the towel with the liquid and swiped at the rough skin.  “This isn’t deep, but I imagine it’s painful.”

There was a quiet groan and Johnny looked past Sam to Darcy.  She was still asleep, but her face contorted into a grimace.  Her head twisted on the pillow and she groaned again.

“She’s not getting any better,” Johnny said.  Sam leaned over him as he started wrapping bandages around Johnny’s waist.  The doctor’s arms came around him as he worked, making a loose embrace, and Johnny stiffened.  “She should’ve told me when the pains started.  Maybe I could’ve done something.”

“Like what, Johnny.  What could you have done?”

“I don’t know, Sam…but something.” 

Sam tied off the wrappings and sat back on the mattress.  “Johnny…there was no way you could have helped her when those contractions started.  Those men wouldn’t have let you.”

“Those men?  Sam…you tellin’ me that Darcy’s been hurtin’ since last night?  She told me a couple of hours.”

Sam shook his head and looked behind him at Darcy. She was quiet again, her face turned away and half buried in her pillow.  “I thought you knew.”


“I’m sure she had her reasons for not telling you.”

“Yeah, she was too busy getting knocked around by Garcia or being dragged out to that tree.  That’s why she’s losing the baby, ain’t it, Sam?  He hurt her and then she had to stand there and watch… ”  Johnny held those last words, feeling Sam’s gaze on him.  His eyes were soft, too soft, and Johnny felt trapped again, bound to that chair just as he’d been in the shack. He couldn’t take Sam’s pity, couldn’t take any of it anymore.  The room was turning hot.  He tried to suck in air and had to cough again, feeling it in his chest this time, tight and fluttery.  “Sam?” he asked, hesitating again and concentrating on the odd rhythm beating against his ribs.  When he started in once more his voice was barely more than a whisper.  “Am I going to lose her?”

He knew it was the only answer Sam could give.  “I don’t know, Johnny, but we’re going to do our best to make sure you don’t.”




Chapter 11 

Sam left him with some sort of slick salve on his rope burns. It soaked through his collar and made it stick to his neck and it reeked of camphor oils.

Even Murdoch could smell it.  He didn’t say anything, but Johnny saw him swiping his kerchief against his nose and his father crept closer to the drapes, opening the window a notch and lingering in the meager salvation of the fresher air.  Even so, he looked apologetic when he deserted the room again, mumbling something about Scott and clumping through the door, then closing it soundlessly behind him. 

None of it woke Darcy. The sherry seduced her deeper into her dreams and she twitched with them.  Sometimes she said his name, tremblingly, eyes jerking under her closed lids and hands clenching folds into her quilt.  He leaned forward then, tipping the rocker and reaching to pet her hair, and he murmured whatever he could think of to soothe her, an “it’s all right” or a simple “hush”.  She’d settle again and he’d eye the sherry bottle, sitting on the nightstand next to the oil lamp and Darcy’s carved-wood jewelry box.  It was full when Teresa had brought it up from the wine rack, but, as the morning wore on, the level dropped lower and by noon it dipped well below the arched top of the pasted-on label. 

The sun warmed the room and the bellows of the calves and the shouts of the hands drifted up from the corrals.  Ned Bellamy came and went.  Teresa told him that, the news delivered with a plate of bread and yellow-yolked eggs.  She set the lunch in his hands and held the coffee mug in her own hands, perching on the edge of Darcy’s mattress and offering the mug to him in between his bites.  Cipriano took care of Bellamy and the two paints would be delivered within the week. Johnny nodded at that, wondering why he found it so oddly comforting and stuffing a piece of crust in his mouth. The food swelled in his stomach and he left most of the plate untouched.  He held on to it, though, staring down into the swirl of thick yellow and white until Teresa took it from him. 

Later, all he could remember of the chatter that followed was Teresa saying that he needed a shave and him trying to think how to manage it with those burns on his neck.  Maybe the salve would act like a lather, making the razor glide over those spots.  He couldn’t see how it mattered much, anyway.  His shaving kit was in his saddlebags and those were up at that shack, or maybe Cipriano had brought them down with him.  Where was it?  It could be anywhere.  Teresa kept talking, but all he could think of was that kit, lost somewhere between here and there and him not knowing where to find it. He asked her abruptly, shoving the question right into the middle of her prattle, and Teresa just looked at him for a few seconds, confused.  It was in the kitchen, she finally remembered, stacked in the corner with the rest of the camping supplies. 

She’d get it, she said, and Johnny tried to reach for her, tried to explain, but she was up before he could stop her. There wasn’t any reason, he’d wanted to tell her; it wasn’t the shaving kit he needed.   It was too late, though, and she was gone.

He poured his first drink while she was looking for his razor. 

It went down in two hungry swallows and it flowed into him, too sweet, but cool and bracing.  Johnny clasped the glass when it was empty, feeling the roundness in his hand, and considered the bottle again.  It’d be easy.  Just one more —maybe two.  Just to take the edge off, that’s all.  Nobody could blame him. 

Darcy stirred and she sucked in a pain-racked breath.  Johnny corked the bottle.

The day slid by.  Teresa came with the shaving kit and left again.  Murdoch was in and out and Sam stayed for a long while, examining Darcy and chancing a guarded prognosis—her pains were slowing and maybe, just maybe, that baby was going to stay put.  Sam smiled at that announcement, one of those kindly smiles that melted his wrinkles together, but Johnny wasn’t sure how to take the news. It was too soon and he stored the words away.  Later…he’d believe them later, when they were alone and he could see them in her eyes.  Not now.  

That chance didn’t come for hours.  Darcy was awake plenty, but they weren’t alone.  Even Scott took his turn interrupting them.  He leaned into the door frame sometime around two, maybe three o’clock in the morning.  Darcy had been dozing, but she’d just rolled over, opening her eyes and reaching a hand out to Johnny.  He took it and heard the voice from the edge of the hallway.

“What happened to our wardens?”

Johnny looked over his shoulder to his brother.  He was resurrected.  A crisp nightshirt covered his wounded arm, the gown borrowed from Murdoch, no doubt.  Teresa would’ve put her foot down at his usual nighttime undress, at least while she was nursing him. He’d been cleaned, the sweat and blood and dirt washed from his face and a pink flush replacing it.  There was a bandage on his forehead and a feverish gleam in his eyes, but that was it, the only things that placed him only a day away from the death-like look he’d worn.

Johnny folded Darcy’s hand tighter in his own.  “Teresa’s goin’ to have your hide.”

Scott leveraged his elbow against the door frame and pushed off, bringing himself more erect and shuffling into the bedroom.  His nightshirt flapped against his bare legs. “I’ll risk it.”  He sank carefully into the stuffed chair Murdoch had pulled to the opposite side of the bed, holding his hurt arm close, and he smiled at Darcy.  “They tell me that you’re doing better.  How do you feel?”

“Sleepy.”  Darcy drawled the word, lolling her head toward Scott and smiling weakly.

“That’s understandable.  I’m sure the doctor’s prescribed plenty of bed rest.”

“A week.”  She grimaced.  “I’ll need to borrow a good book or two.  Have you finished your Thoreau?”

“It’s downstairs.  I’ll have Teresa bring it up.” He glanced toward the open door. “I think she went for more broth…Johnny?”  He looked at him with a glint in his eyes. “I’ll make you a fair offer.  I’ll do your work for a week if you can get past Teresa and get me a steak…about this thick…”  He held his fingers gapped inches apart.  “And maybe some of that apple pie I could smell baking yesterday?” 

“I’m not gettin’ Teresa after me, brother.  Got enough trouble without addin’ that to it.”

Scott’s smile faded.  “Are you meaning those men?”

“Chandler? Yeah, sure…him…and the rest of it.”

“That’s over, Johnny.  They’re dead.”

“Yeah?”  Johnny let go of Darcy’s hand and settled back in the rocker, making it creak against the floorboards.  “Guess life’s just goin’ to be easy from now on is it, brother?”

Scott’s brow wrinkled for a moment, but then his face slid into a grin.  “Easy?  Not if that baby is anything like you.  What do you think, Darcy?”  He leaned forward and laid his hand on her mattress.  “Can you see a miniature of my brother just sitting in his crib all day, behaving himself?”

“Not hardly.”  She curled into her covers, tugged the quilt higher on her shoulder and she yawned.  “Teresa’s coming.”

There were footsteps, light ones, coming from the hallway and both brothers turned toward the sound.  Teresa appeared a second later with something steaming on a tray and her dark eyes focused on Scott.  She set her feet squarely in place just outside the door.  “Scott Lancer, if you don’t get back into your bed right now, you’re going to be wearing this broth, do you hear me? And you know I mean it, too, so move.” 

“Yes, ma’am.”  Scott ducked his head down and pushed himself awkwardly from the chair.  He tilted his face and winked at Johnny.  “The warden’s back.” 

“I heard that,” Teresa said.

A smile flickered across Johnny’s lips. 

Holding up a moment longer, Scott softly added, “Come see me.  Wake me if you need to.”  He waited for an answer, his gaze probing for something.

Johnny nodded.  “Go on, Scott.”

“You’ll come?”


“Do it.”  He went then, his naked feet making scuffing sounds against the floor.  “All right, Teresa, I’m going peacefully.”

She smirked at him and grabbed his arm when he reached her, balancing the tray between her other hand and her hip.  “You two are both impossible.”  She leaned her head to his shoulder for a instant as they walked together across the hallway. “Sam makes the orders, not me, but do listen? Of course not.  You’re burning up with fever and I still find you wandering around like that, you’ve no sense, you know.”

“Shouldn’t you be in your bed?”

“And I would be if you could be trusted to do what you’re told.”

“The broth smells good.”

“Don’t change the subject, you’re staying in that bed…”

The voices fell away as Scott’s door closed behind them.  Johnny stared at it for a second more and then turned back to Darcy.  She was watching him and she’d curled again, her knees raising a mound into the blanket only inches from the bed’s edge.  She’d wedged her hand under the pillow and it pushed it into her face, hiding the worst of her bruises.  Her hair was wild, flowing out across the pillow and washing into her face. Johnny grabbed the rocker seat between his legs and dragged it closer and he leaned onto the bed, sweeping her hair back.

“Hey,” he said tenderly. 

She caressed his neck.  “You’re slimy.”

“Doc’s special recipe, guaranteed to cure.”  Reaching to the foot of the bed, he snatched a towel from it and then wiped her hand with it.  “How’s that baby doin’?”

“He’s fine, Johnny.”


Darcy lowered her eyes to his fingers, laced into hers, and she smiled gently.  “After all the fighting he did, I guess it has to be a boy.  He’s as stubborn as his father.”

“You think?”

“I know.  How do you feel?”

“I’m all right.”  The corner of his lips lifted, then settled again.  He squeezed her hand.  “Tired,” he said.  “I’m just really tired.”

“You need some sleep.  You haven’t been in that rocker the whole time, have you?”

He didn’t answer and she shook her head at him.  “You have to sleep.”

“I’ve slept.”

“Sure you have.”  She let go of his hand and brushed her fingers against his chin.

“Teresa says I need a shave.”

Her caress moved to his cheek and he lost the feel of it to the swollen numbness of his black eye.  “I don’t care,” she said. “You’re here…”  Her eyes shut tight and she drew in a shaky breath. 

Johnny grabbed her hand and pulled it to his lips, kissed her palm, and then folded it into both of his hands.  He held on tight.  “I’m sorry, Darcy.  I knew Hank and Charlie were around and I should never have taken you up to that mountain.  It was a fool thing to do.  You shouldn’t have seen that, none of it.  Charlie should’ve never had a chance to touch you…”  It was his turn to take in a deep breath and he didn’t trust himself to do it, feeling the air catch in his throat as he exhaled again.  “I should’ve told you what happened…before you had to hear it that way.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I did.”  His gaze lost its focus, lost her, and he nodded slowly.  “All those years before I found Lancer, I had that gun…”  He shrugged and struggled for the words.  His head tilted wearily.  “That’s all I knew, just hatin’…and killin’.  Darcy, there’s more men like Chandler and some of them wouldn’t like me any better.”  He sighed softly.  “I did some bad things…”

“Johnny, you told me about that life.”

“No…not enough of it.  Not so’s you could know.  You saw what it was like, up there at that shack.  Hank and me…there wasn’t much difference between us.  We did what we were paid to do.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“It’s the truth.”

“Hank didn’t follow orders.”

“Not all of them.  Enough.  I know it’s not pretty …but what Garcia was saying about that boy…he wasn’t lyin’.”  He found her eyes.  “I shot him.”

“Don’t.”  She pulled her hand from his grasp, wrapping her palm around his cheek. “Don’t, Johnny.  Maybe later, I don’t know, but not now.  I can’t...I just can’t.”

His gaze dropped again.  “Sure…you need to rest.”

“Johnny…”  She clutched a fistful of his shirt.

“It’ll wait.  Doc said you need to sleep as much as you can.”

“You, too.  Come to bed.”  She tossed her head sideways, looking at his half of the bed, an empty expanse of flat quilt.  “You can’t be sleeping right in that chair.”

Bringing her face back with a finger under her chin, he smiled softly.  “Can’t, doctor’s orders.  Guess Sam doesn’t trust us much and he says you sleep alone, darlin’.” He lightly kissed her forehead.

Darcy’s quiet gasp shot through him. 

Johnny pulled away, watching her eyes and the panic burning in them.  It was fleeting and she pulled herself together, softening the tight lines of her face and reaching for him again, but Teresa was saying something at the door.  There was a knock, too, and he turned toward it.

“Anyone hungry?”  Teresa had the tray in her hands again and there was another steaming cup nestled in a folded napkin.  “Scott suggested you might want some broth, but I really think he was just trying to get rid of me.  You wouldn’t do that, now would you, Johnny?”  She breezed in with a smile, setting the tray on the bureau and bringing the cup and napkin to the bed and handing it to Darcy.  “Are you ready for something in your stomach?”

Darcy was whispering his name and her gaze followed him as Johnny stood and scratched the back of his head, looking from the quilt to Teresa and not really seeing anything.  “Think you could stay with her…” His voice was raspy again and he coughed into his fist, then started again.  “Darcy wants me to lie down and I thought I might if you’d just…” 

“Go on, Johnny.  Sam’s in the corner guest room, but I made up the middle room for you.”  Teresa perched her hip onto the mattress next to Darcy.  “We’ll be fine.  Oh…and Scott says to remind you to see him.”

“All right.”  He shoved the rocker out of the way and smoothed her quilt, then skimmed his fingers across Darcy’s arm.  She grabbed his hand.  “Thanks, Teresa.”  He backed a step, sliding away. 


He looked into Darcy’s eyes.  They were damp with tears.  “A couple of hours, maybe,” he said, and she nodded. 

The door clicked as he pulled it shut behind him and he was alone in the dimness of the hallway.  A low lamp hung on the wall and it cast hazy shadows across each solidly closed door. Sam’s was at the end, with that bed waiting one room up.  Johnny eyed the guest room and he sighed at the ache seeping through his body.  It’d be dark in there and he could stretch himself flat against the linens, giving it up to their smooth comfort, all of it.  Just sink into the soft mattress and drift away.  The luxury of it was a powerful seduction.

He shifted his gaze, taking a step toward Scott’s door, and he hesitated.  It’s over…that’s what Scott had said. Johnny moved another step closer and reached for the doorknob, fitting it into his palm and staring down at it.  The white of his bandage drew his attention.  It nearly gleamed in the lamplight and he pulled his hand away and twisted his wrist, remembering.  Seeing.  Garcia’s filthy hands taking her, groping, and his mouth…Johnny closed his eyes and made himself breathe in, feeling the burn of the ropes around his wrists, suffocatingly tight and nothing he could do…nothing.  His hair tingled and the rope was against it again, dragging past his face and tightening, jerking…

He staggered backwards and lurched toward the stairs, taking them two at a time and having to grab for the railing.  It slowed him and he found a firmer footing on the steps. 

There were no lamps lit in the great room, but he didn’t need them.  He knew his way in the dark and he crossed the tiled floor and slid the latch from the cabinet, opening it and half seeing the bottle.  He took it and pulled the cork.  It was more satisfying than the sherry, the tequila biting at his raw throat as he raised the bottle to his lips and poured down that second drink. 

Its warmth embraced him.

The leather chair let out its air as he sank into it, making a sad sighing noise, and he did the same, tilting his head back into the cushion and giving himself to the silence.  He grew slack as death, the only living part left his hand around the bottle, clenching it and lifting it when the silence grew too loud, drowning it all again in the wash of the tequila.

The memories lingered and Johnny drank.

It hadn’t seemed possible that his old man could move so quietly, but he was in front of him, standing over him, before Johnny even realized he was in the room.  It was dark still, but he knew him by his size. He couldn’t really be that tall, Johnny idly told himself. Not that invincibly big, that all-powerful.  Now maybe, but not then.  Not when it would have made a difference.

Johnny held up the bottle.  “Drink?”

“How long have you been down here?” 

Murdoch’s voice was irritatingly troubled and Johnny grimaced as his father lit the candle on the mantle. 

“What time is it?” Johnny asked.

“Four thirty.”

“What are you doing up?”  Johnny leaned forward and set the bottle on the tile.  His head swam as he rose up again and he fell back into the chair, closing his eyes against the dizziness.

“Looking for you.”

Laughter boiled up inside him and he let it out, scaring even himself, but not knowing how to stop it.  When it drained away, he rubbed the smile off of his face and stared up at his father.  “Sure you don’t want a drink?” 

“Was that bottle full?”  Murdoch bent and reached for the ottoman, dragging it to a spot just in front of the chair, and he sat.  He picked up the bottle and tilted it in his hands, letting the level of the tequila ebb from one side to the other. “I’m afraid you’re going to have one hell of a hangover, son.”

“Don’t care.”  Johnny reached for the tequila and left his hand hanging in the air as Murdoch twisted around, setting the bottle on the far side of the ottoman.  “I was drinkin’ that.”

“I can see that.  Don’t you think talking about it might be more productive?”

“You wanta talk?  Fine, Murdoch…”  Johnny wrapped his arms across his chest, slouched lower in the chair and angled a leg over his knee.  “Talk.”

“All right…I’ll start.”  He held Johnny’s eyes in his gaze.  “I know what kind of hell that must have been, son, but you’re home now.  Scott’s going to be fine.  Darcy and the baby are going to be fine.”

“That easy is it?  You bring me home and just like that…”  Johnny snapped his finger.  “Everything’s fine.  That the way it is, Murdoch?”

“No, Johnny, not everything; not yet. But it will be.”

“Nobody’s even asked.”

“Asked what?”

“’Bout that boy.”  Johnny looked away, staring at his boot.  There was mud on it and he tried to figure how long it’d been there. Maybe since the shack.  Maybe Swift Creek.  “Darcy…she wouldn’t talk about it.”  He blinked hard, seeing him again, that shotgun almost as long as the kid was tall and its stock pressed against his baby-fat cheeks.  Eleven years old and already tasting it—the taste of killing.  “His old man got in the way.  We were settin’ fire to a squatter’s barn and I had them all lined up…watching…his daddy, though, he musta been hidin’ and he had a rifle.  I had ta shoot him, Murdoch, he had that rifle. The first bullet…” He raised his hand slightly, pointing to a spot somewhere near his head. “I had to.”

Johnny searched his father’s face, wanting something there.  “I had to.”

Nodding, Murdoch set a hand on Johnny’s knee.  “I know, son.”

“That boy… they were loaded up, everything they owned was in that wagon, and he saw me.  A scatter gun, there ain’t no way of facin’ that and livin’.  I put a bullet in his shoulder…he was just a kid.”

“It’s all right.”

“No.  Darcy…”  Johnny let his head loll back, looking up at the ceiling and breathing hard.  “It ain’t right…”

“Darcy loves you.”

He shook his head.  “You didn’t see her.  She was scared, Murdoch…I tried to tell her and then…when I…”  He closed his eyes.  “She was scared.”

“Give her some time.  I know Darcy and she’ll understand.”

“What’ll you know, Murdoch?”  Johnny couldn’t keep the anger from surging in him, so he grabbed hold of it, just as he had all those years, sheltered by its strength.  “What do you know about women?  My mama…you knew her real well, didn’t ya?”

“I did my best with your mother, Johnny.” 

“Well, that turned out just fine, didn’t it.”

Hurt was all he saw in his father’s face.  Johnny stared at him for a long moment, watching for any sign of the fight he was hoping for but there wasn’t any, just that hurt, and it twisted something sharp inside him. 

“Why’d ya let her go, old man?  You could’ve done somethin’, could’ve tried to make her happy… maybe none of this…”  He swallowed hard.  “Chandler…none of it…”


“It didn’t have to be this way…I didn’t have to…” 

Murdoch reached for him and Johnny twisted out of his hands, bracing against the arm of the chair and struggling to his feet.  The room tilted and he sensed his father’s bulk rise beside him.  His stomach roiled.

“Sit down, son.” 

He was trapped by his father’s hand, heavy on his shoulder. “No, Murdoch.”

“Sit, Johnny.”

“No.”  Johnny stumbled away, finding his feet and moving faster, heading for the door.  “I can’t do this…”

Murdoch’s shout followed him as he ran into the night, crossed the paddock yards and threw back the stable doors.  It took all his focus to make his legs and arms do his bidding and he bumped against the stall as he found Barranca’s blanket and tossed it over him. The saddle was harder to handle and it nearly unbalanced him with its weight.

“Stop it, Johnny.” 

The voice was right behind him, blocking his way out of the stall.  Johnny bridled the horse and tossed the reins up across his neck, then reached under for the cinch. 

“Where do you think you’re going? You’re in no condition, son.”  Murdoch stepped into the stall and grabbed Johnny’s arm.  Johnny wrenched out of his grasp.

“Leave me alone, Murdoch.”  He found the cinch and fastened it tight.

“I can’t do that. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“Better me than one of you.” 

There was an awful desperation in his father’s voice.  “Stay, Johnny.  You’re not thinking straight.”

“That ain’t nothin’ new.” Johnny swung himself onto Barranca and he looked down at his father.  Murdoch had his hand on the reins and he was looking back, the worry on his face plain even in that near black.  Johnny felt dizzy again and he grabbed the saddle horn as he kneed Barranca forward.  “I’m sorry,” he said softly, and he was grateful when Murdoch’s hand fell away and Barranca carried him from the stall, through the stable and into the yards.

Alone again, he escaped into the night.



Chapter 12 

An itch moved across his eyelid and he pawed at it, rolling on to his back.  The bed was lumpy.  He shifted sideways on to something sharp, but that wasn’t right and he fought to make any sense of it.  He couldn’t and finally, reluctantly, he opened his eyes.  Green leaves spread out above him, dappling a blue sky.  

Johnny blinked into the brightness. 

The itch had moved to his finger and Johnny held his hand above him, twisting it and watching the translucent edges of his fingers appear and disappear against the too-bright sun.  There was an ant, a glossy black one, trailing drunken lines across his ring finger.  It was looking for something and he gave it what it wanted, bending his knee up, wiping his hand on his pants and watching the ant take off for the earth.  It followed a determined path this time.

He gazed up again.  A breeze played with the branches and Johnny crossed his arms behind his head, watching the leaves lift and flutter.  The easy wind rippled across his shirt and caught on the hairs on his chest, tickling.  It was such a tender irritation.

Afternoon, he figured.  Too hot for morning and the sun was already sliding down toward the thicker branches, the ones that pointed off toward the horizon. He’d slept the day away and he felt it in his stomach.  How long?  Dinner, maybe…no, those eggs.  It’d been noon yesterday since he’d eaten.  Just the thought of food woke a nagging in his belly and Johnny grimaced at the rumbling it made.  His mouth was dry, too, and sour-tasting, but that wouldn’t be a big problem.  He could hear a creek gurgling somewhere nearby and all he had to do was get up to find it.  That’s all.  Just get up.

He didn’t.  He lay there, instead, for a long time, just listening to the leaves rustle.

Barranca put an end to that.  He felt the horse’s clumps echoing in the ground as he paced closer, but his reins came into view first, sagging down from the jangling metal of his bit, and then his nose, moist with his breath, dripping.   The horse’s muzzle came at him and Johnny bent his head away, getting nudged anyway.  He looked up into one large brown eye.  Barranca shoved him again and Johnny laid a hand against his head and shoved back.

“Go on, I’m movin’.” 

Dropping his nose, the horse cropped at the grass a foot away.  Johnny rolled, pushing up with his hands and getting a knee under him first, and then bringing a boot planted flat on the ground.  He came up unsteadily and bent forward, leaning onto his knees for a long moment. Standing any straighter was a problem he had to approach carefully and he did, rising up slowly and with one hand to his temple. 

It hurt.  All of him hurt, from the gouge in his side, to his neck, and through his whole body, which was just plain sore. Johnny stretched cautiously, setting a hand on his hip and tipping sideways until he felt it in his back.  That helped, a little. 

He eyed Barranca.  “Boy…you pick this place or me?  Cause I gotta tell ya…”  He rotated slowly to take in his surroundings.  “Lessen you know where we are, we’re lost.”

Barranca flicked his ears, but kept grazing.

There were trees, cottonwoods mostly, and a ridge behind him.  The ground sloped down to a stream and wildflowers dotted the meadow on the other side.  White Horse Creek?  Maybe. There was a stretch up north of the east range that narrowed down like this one did. Or Parson’s Creek, the other side of Morro Coyo.  He’d never seen it in the spring, but it could be. 

Hell, it could be any one of a dozen streams and none of them were where he should be right now.  He ran a hand through his hair and pointed himself toward the water. 

The muddy bank gave way to rocks and Johnny found a flat one and knelt.  His knee soaked through when the stream lapped against it and he bowed his head, bringing handfuls of water up and over his hair and trickling down his back. He cupped his palms together and drank, filling them again and again, and that seeped through him, too, cool and quenching. 

When he’d had enough, Johnny flicked his hands dry and stared at his wrists. One bandage was loose.  The end of it had dangled into the water and it’d wicked the wetness into his sleeve.  He turned his hand over, watching the excess gauze flap, and he was fascinated by the deteriorating wrapping.  He tugged on the bandage and it gave some more and suddenly, impulsively, he started unwinding first that long piece of cloth and then the other.  He wadded them into a ball and aimed it toward the bank, throwing hard.  The ends slithered out in the air and it landed in a shrub, draping out across the weedy branches.

He couldn’t even feel his wrists, not much anyway.  He looked down at his sores and poked at the puffy edges.  They were scabbing over already.  He tried to tell himself that the air was good for them.  They’d heal faster this way.  Wasn’t likely to convince Sam…or Darcy, either, but it’s the best he could come up with.  Anyhow, it was done.

Johnny’s shrill whistle cut though the breeze and Barranca jolted forward, trotting to the crest of the bank as Johnny climbed it.  The horse snorted and tossed his head and Johnny caught his bridle, patting his neck and staring off into the blue sky above the ridge.  He thought hard.  South, maybe he’d headed south.  Maybe.  All he could remember was the dark--black earth beneath him and black sky above him, and the clouds, he was sure there’d been clouds, hiding away the stars and the moon and hiding the way.  Which way? 

He checked the cinch first.  It was slack and he tightened it, took up the reins and climbed into the saddle.  Barranca stepped forward as soon as his weight settled and Johnny turned him toward the ridge, clucking him into a canter and crossing the sparse meadow to where the ground lifted.  He could feel Barranca’s haunches gathering under him as they scrambled up the slope and he leaned into the climb, balancing with the horse and urging him forward.  They came up onto a scrubby mesa and there they were, the mountains, off in the distance, standing guard over the valley. 

And he knew.  It was the knife-edged peak that led him to it.  It loomed up above the others, its craggy face grey against the brilliant blue of the sky.  The lesser mountains flanked it, heading off toward the north, toward Lancer.  Johnny’s gaze followed the line of them and he kneed Barranca into a gentle sweep, turning him into the valley.  The canter became a gallop and the breeze whipped against his shirt and he hung his head, watching the ground disappear beneath them. Every beat of the horse’s hooves pounded into his skull.  Johnny kept riding.

The herd was in the southern pastures and it was the crew there that noticed him first, three of them setting their horses and staring off across the range.  One waved into the air and they all waited until he’d gone by, watching.  He knew they’d turned back to their branding afterwards, work he should be doing, too.  There’d been hard rains this spring and the heifers were growing fat and feisty on the grass the rains had fed.  They could have used another hand.

Lather was flecking Barranca’s withers by the time the hacienda came into view and Johnny let the horse slow, pacing their approach. He saw Cipriano at the corral, leaning on the rails and watching Jake work one of the paints, the mare, and Johnny looked away as he passed.  He could feel their eyes on him and they knew, both of them knew.  Damn, half of Morro Coyo had heard about Chandler and his rope by now.  His hand went to his collar and Johnny tugged it tighter around his neck. 

He reined up at the stables and Cipriano strolled toward him.

“Hola, Juan.  It looks as if you’ve come far.”

“How’s Darcy?”  Johnny swung down from Barranca and turned to the Segundo. “She hasn’t had any more…”

Cipriano’s hand stopped him.  It made a wagging motion in the air, as if to scrub Johnny’s thoughts clean, and his wide face spread into a smile. “The baby, he listens to the doctor and he waits.”  He reached out and took the reins from Johnny’s hands.  “Some oats for our friend?”

“You don’t have to do that, Cipriano.  I can take care of my own horse.”

“Your father, he says the same.  He searched until morning, but finding you, Juan—this is a difficult thing.”

Dipping his gaze, Johnny sighed softly.  “Murdoch went lookin’, did he?”


“He shoulda left it.”

“Ah, but papas—they worry.”

The corners of Johnny’s lips edged up.  “Yeah, I’m startin’ to figure that out.”

“Go, Juan.”  Cipriano turned into the stables, leading Barranca toward its dusky comforts.  “You’ve been away too long. This is my work.”

Johnny didn’t argue.  He just watched them walk away, Barranca’s pale rump disappearing behind the stable door, and he turned slowly, facing the hacienda and gazing up at the bedroom windows. 

They were there, waiting.  To give him hell, most likely, but waiting, anyway.  He tried to remember from before and he couldn’t.  Those faces ebbed away, lost into the grey shadings and dulled images of the past.  Even his mama.  She had brown eyes.  He could see those, looking at him with such a soft sadness.  And she was beautiful, he knew that, too.  It was part of him, an anchor that was simply a fact.  Couldn’t say that he knew a damn thing about her except for that—but she was beautiful. 

It was enough to hold on to and Johnny strode across the yards, coming into the cooler hacienda and climbing the stairs to the bedrooms, to the family that was waiting there.

Darcy’s door was shut, but Scott’s gaped open.  Johnny pushed against it, swinging it wider and stepping into the room.  They were both asleep, Scott covered up in his bed and Murdoch splayed out in the easy chair, his neck cocked at a dangerous angle.  He started, his eyes flying open and his head jerking up from the cushion of the chair.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Johnny…”  Murdoch blinked and rubbed at his face, leaving a small frown behind.  “I was afraid…”

“That I’d run away…again?”

“No.”  His big head shook and his hand moved to his neck, rubbing there.   “I knew you’d be back.”  He looked around, seeming confused for a second, and then motioned to the foot of the bed. “Sit…you have to be dead on your feet.”

“Nope.  I musta slept least ten hours, flat out on the rocks.”  Johnny lowered himself slowly to the corner of the mattress, careful not to jiggle it and disturb his brother.  “Don’t think I even dreamed any.  How’s Scott?”  He watched Scott’s face, more his own color now.  He wasn’t dreaming either, and his face had the slack quiet of a deep sleep.  “He looks better.”

“He is.  Doc says the fever’s down already and that’s a good sign.”

Johnny nodded, moving his gaze from his brother’s face and looking down at the floor, to where his father’s boots set against the planks.  One foot canted sideways and he could see the sole of that boot, pocked with white worn spots.  “Murdoch, I had no call…”  He scratched the edge of his brow, half hiding behind the hand in front of his face.  “Well…for sayin’ what I did last night.  I’m sorry.”

“For what, Johnny?  It was true, wasn’t it?”


“Yes, it was.” Scott stirred and Murdoch glanced toward him, softening his voice.  “It’s my fault that your mother left.  I don’t know why she did it, but I should have known.  You’re right and maybe it needed to be said.  I should have stopped her.”

“Murdoch.”  Johnny’s eyes lifted and he found his father’s face again.  It looked so old.  “You couldn’t have stopped her. Not mama. You knew her, nothin’ made her happy. Not for long, anyhow.  She just…she wanted somethin’.”


His father’s tone was wistful and Johnny wished he had the answer.  He wished it hard.  “I don’t think she even knew.  Just somethin’.”  

Murdoch brushed a finger under his nose and let that answer fade into his silence.

“Guess it would have been easier on you if you’d never been down to Matamoras,” Johnny said after a moment.  “Never seen her.”

“No, Johnny.” The answer shot out of his father.  “I would never have any regrets about loving your mother. Never.  She gave me you, son.  And you and your brother—and now that grandbaby you and Darcy are making for me—no, Johnny, I have no regrets.”

Something tugged at the corner of his mouth and Johnny gave in to it, smiling softly.  “You spent a lot of money looking, you know.  Got any regrets about that?”

Murdoch leaned forward and slapped the back of his hand against Johnny’s knee.  “I just want my sleep back.  These bones are too old to go chasing around in the dark.  We need to find you a slower horse.”

“Yeah…sorry bout that, too.  Guess Darcy’s had something to say about it?”

“You haven’t seen her yet?”  Murdoch settled back again and set his elbows on the arms of the chairs, hands crossed against his stomach. 

“Nope.  Your door was open and…well, I guess I was scared.  Can’t shoot my way out of this one, ceptin’ my mouth, maybe.”  He snorted.  “Kinda scared that’s exactly what I might do.”


Johnny nodded. 

“She’s not like your mother, Johnny.  Darcy knows what she wants.”

“Yeah?”  He cocked his head and grimaced.  “Well, maybe that ain’t what’s good for her.  I nearly got her killed.”

“Not you.  It was those men.”

“Same thing. I used to be just like those men.”

“I don’t believe that. Darcy doesn’t believe that.”

There was more truth to it than they’d ever know, but it wasn’t any use.  Johnny gave up his frustration in a quiet sigh and he searched his father’s face, knowing it now, the pale brows, the broad forehead and every tanned wrinkle, none of it a faded memory, but there and real.  He lowered his eyes again.  “I asked Scott…back at that shack, when I thought maybe…”  He sighed a second time and tried to steady the quiver in his voice.  “I asked Scott to tell you somethin’…and he said to tell you myself.  Guess I got the chance now.  It’s just…it’s just that I’m grateful.  I am, Murdoch.  This ranch…all of it…”   He brought his gaze up to meet his father’s.  “I’m grateful.”

His father leaned closer and his fingers gripped Johnny’s knee this time, clenching it and shaking gently.  Murdoch coughed softly.  “No more than I am, son,” he finally said.

“Yeah?”  Johnny smiled shyly, then glanced over at Scott, still sleeping.  “Well…Darcy’s waitin’ for me.”  His gaze swept across his father’s as he stood and his smile widened.   “You might wanta duck when I open that door.  Can’t promise that she won’t throw nothin’.” 

“I doubt it.”  Murdoch laid his head back against his chair, looking up at Johnny and flashing his own contented grin.

“I don’t.” 

His father’s chuckle followed him as Johnny left Scott’s room, strolled across the hallway and stopped just short of the bedroom door.  He almost wished she would throw something.  Tequila or not, he shouldn’t have run off like that and he tried to find some words to explain it, but he couldn’t.  There just weren’t any.  He took a deep breath, took hold of the glass knob, and he opened the door.

Darcy was sitting up in bed, the quilt tented over her upright knees and her arms bent across them.  Her face was turned up to his and there was a curious shine to her eyes.  Tears, he figured, but that wasn’t all of it.  He leaned into the doorjamb.

“You mad?”

He almost couldn’t hear her answer, her voice was that small.  “Yes,” she said.

“Can we talk about it before you yell or somethin’?”

All she did was nod.

Johnny looked back over his shoulder, seeing his father tilting forward onto Scott’s bed and craning his neck toward the bedroom door.  Murdoch slid back when he was spotted, disappearing.  Johnny turned back to Darcy and he pushed the door shut behind him.

She watched him as he walked across the hardwood floor, each step seeming awkward and too loud and the simple motion of sitting on the edge of the bed self-consciously methodical.  He needed to touch her, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it and he reached out into thin air at first, his hand hovering, and then it settled, pressing the quilt against the sharp jut of her knee cap.  Her arm was there, so he stroked it with his thumb.  It was soft.

“You all right?” he asked.

Darcy nodded again.

“The baby?”

“He’s moving.”


“Here…”  Darcy took his hand and tossed the covers back, then guided him to her belly.  Something fluttered under his hand.  “You feel that?” she asked.

“Yeah…I feel it.”  The sensation ended, but he left his palm against the spot for a long minute, hoping.  Her hand stayed on top of his.  “That the way it happens?  Just comes and goes like that?”


She looked up at him and her eyes were swollen.  A tear slid into her lashes and Johnny brushed it away.   “I should’ve been here,” he said.

“Murdoch said you drank half a bottle. How’s your head?” 

“Hurts.  Kinda deserve it, though, don’t you think?”

A stray hair dangled across her forehead as she shook her head.  “It’s my fault.”

“How do you figure that?”

“I saw your face, Johnny.”  She reached for his shirt, tugging at a button and shifting her gaze to it.  Her head tilted and the hair slid with it.  “You left because of me, didn’t you?  Because I acted like a scared little girl.”

“What’d Murdoch tell you?”

“He didn’t tell me anything, I just knew it.”  She shrugged.  “I guess that means you talked to him before you left?”

Johnny snorted softly.  “Yeah, we talked.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me?”  She gazed up again.  “I thought you’d get some sleep and then we could sort things out, but you left… why didn’t you talk to me?”

“We did talk.”  He took her hand from his shirt and folded his own around it. “That’s what scared you, ain’t it?  All those years I was Madrid, livin’ with that gun?  I shouldn’t have said anything.  You had your work to do, keepin’ that baby quiet, and it wasn’t the time for it. Guess you know how it was anyhow.  You saw it, up there at that shack.  Heard the way it was, too.  That boy that I shot…you heard about him…”

“You called me darling.” 

Her voice cut through his words and Johnny just looked at her.  She didn’t make any sense. 

“When you kissed me.”  She raised her other hand, pointing a finger to her forehead.  “That man called me darling when he had that gun and he said…” 

Johnny gathered her to him, wrapping his arms tight around her cotton-gowned body and bringing his cheek next to hers.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.  “I wasn’t thinkin’, Darcy, and I’m so sorry.”

“I tried, Johnny. I tried so hard to be strong for you.”

“I know you did.”

“He was rough and his hands were touching me.  Johnny, I thought he was going to…he said he wasn’t through with me.”

Her tears were running down his cheek and onto his neck.  All he could do was hold her and he did that, feeling her breath on his damp skin, and hating him again, wanting the feel of Garcia’s neck in his hands.  It was cold satisfaction, knowing that his aim had done the job, that Garcia was dead already and rotting in the ground.  “He can’t hurt you any more.” 

“I was so scared.”

“He’s dead.”

“That rope, Johnny, Garcia had his arms around me and I couldn’t help you and you put that rope around your neck.”  He could feel her heart beating against his chest and Johnny sucked in air, trying to slow the rhythm thumping away inside him, too.  “And you were hanging,” she said, “hanging there and dying and I didn’t know how to do that…how to watch you die.  I can’t do that, Johnny, I can’t watch you die, not ever.  Don’t leave me, Johnny, promise me.  You can’t ever die.”

She was sobbing and her body jerked against his arms, again and again, and he wasn’t sure any more whose tears were on his face, and he listened, waiting for her shuddering breaths to still. They went on and he held her tighter and buried his face into the soft nape of her neck.  She lay against him in the end, limp.  Her breaths quivered. “Don’t ever leave me,” she said.

“I’m not goin’ anywhere.”


“I promise.”

She was quiet for a moment and she rubbed her face against his shirt, then wedged it under his chin again.  He could feel his stubble scratch against her temple and he tried to shift away, but she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and clung to him.  Her voice was muffled.  “You tried to help that girl, didn’t you, Johnny.”

“She was too far gone.”

“But you tried.”

“Yeah, I tried.”

“I never believed Garcia.”

“Some of that was true, Darcy.”

“Not the way he told it.”

“Maybe not that way, but it was true.”

She pulled away, sliding her hands to his collar and holding onto it as she gazed up at him.  “I know.”  She let go to wipe the tears from her eyes and then grabbed hold again.  “You don’t hide it very well, Johnny, that gun of yours.  It’s wrapped up in an old shirt, bottom drawer.”

“You been in that drawer?”

She nodded.  “Sometimes I hold it, just to see if I can feel you there.  I can, you know, I can feel you and you’re hurting.  It’s cold when I hold it, but it’s still you.”

Johnny let his head drop to hers. “It shouldn’t be this way, Darcy.”

“But it is.”

“So what’re we gonna do?”

“You’re going to love me.”

He clenched his eyes shut.  “I can do that.”

“That’s all I ask, cowboy.” 

Darcy tipped her face up to his and they kissed, a slow, lingering kiss.  Her lips brushed his cheek when it was finished, trailing down to his neck and finding the rough skin there, the places that were tender from the rope, and kissing them, too, first one sore and then another and another and an aching stilled inside him. 

“Come to bed,” she murmured.

“Sam says…”

“Come to bed, Johnny.”

And he did, spooning in beside her, him on top of the quilt, boots still on, and her under, but body fitted into body and arms entwined.  He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he did that, too, lying for hours with her and dreaming this time. 

Some of them were good dreams.




She was ripe. That’s the only word Johnny could think of as he watched Darcy squat next to Teresa, surrounded by the rosemary and thyme and those little pink flowers she was always stealing from the garden.  It was hot, the oven kind of hot that made August days a taste of hell, and he knew that she was feeling it.  She’d stripped down to as little as was decent.  She wore a dark skirt billowed up around her knees, with her naked legs and bare feet sticking out, and a long, white shirt.  The sleeves were rolled up high and the collar was open, catching what little breeze there was. The shirt hung down across her shoulders.  His, he figured, and she was welcome to it.  Still didn’t fit her, though. The buttons tugged tight across her belly and that was cradled in her long-forgotten lap, full and round.  She leaned forward, pulling up a wisp of weeds and pushing her hair from her sweat-speckled face, and she laughed.  It sounded good.

Both women looked up as they came closer.

“Scott?”  Teresa called out, “don’t you think Petunia is a good name for the baby?”

His brother gave him a sideways grin.  “I don’t know…what do you think, Johnny?  Do you think your son will mind being named Petunia?”

“Over my dead body.”  Johnny stopped under the redbud tree and slapped the dust off his jeans.  “Sides, I ain’t convinced she’s ever gonna have that baby.  Might have to have your grandchildren name it when it finally comes.”

Scott kept his grin and stepped to the side of a lavender bed. “That the way you feel about it, Darcy?”

“Feel is sure right.”  She turned her face to Johnny as he walked over to her and she held her hand out. He took it and had to lean backward just a little to pull her up.  “I’ve had something poking into my lungs all morning.  Not sure if it’s an elbow or a knee, but he’s trying hard to get my attention. What are you doing back so early?” 

“Scott was hungry.”  Johnny dug a stray piece of grass from her hair and tossed it on the ground.  “Anything in the kitchen?”

“Scott was hungry?  Just like he was yesterday and the day before?”

 Johnny nodded.  “Yeah.” 

She set a hand on her hip and glanced at Scott.  He just shrugged.   “You’re going to get on the bad side of your father, you know.  Neither one of you has done a full day’s work for the past week and you know good and well that somebody would ride out if anything was happening.  You do know that, don’t you, Johnny?”  Laying her other hand on her stomach, Darcy stared up at him, all flushed with the heat.  “Teresa and I are doing just fine here and you can spend the day out there with your cows… or your fence lines…or whatever you’re doing.  You don’t need to be watching over me every minute.  You’re never going to get a thing done this way and I don’t want to be the cause of Murdoch having your hide.”

Johnny gazed down at her.   “How’s your back feelin’?”

“It hurts.”  A grimace flashed across her face and it was gone again, faded into a gentle smile.  “There’s some fried chicken, if you want it.  And Teresa baked an apple pie.”

“That sounds good,” Scott said.  “Teresa, would you have any lemonade to go along with that?”

“Made it fresh half an hour ago.”  The scent of rosemary brushed the air as Teresa rose from the bed and stepped through it onto the cobbled walk.  “I was ready for a break, anyway, and I know Darcy doesn’t mind getting off her feet for a minute.” 

“All right.”  Scott draped his arm around her shoulders as she came up to him and, side by side, they headed for the kitchen.  “I wouldn’t want any pie to go to waste—rumor has it that I’m hungry.”

Left behind, Johnny and Darcy stood together in the garden. “You want something to eat?”  Johnny asked.


“How you feelin’?”

“Hot…bored…”  She dipped her eyes and lifted them again to his. “Happy.  But you really don’t need to check on me every five minutes.”

“I know I don’t, but humor me.”  He kissed her forehead and wrapped his arm around what used to be her waist. They turned toward the kitchen and started walking.  “Murdoch ain’t really mad, is he?”

“Oh…Murdoch wants to see you.  There was a telegram this morning.”

“Who from?”

“He wouldn’t tell me.  He just said to let him know when you came in.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s been at his desk most of the day.  If he’s not there, then he just left it.”

It was cooler in the kitchen.  Teresa had a platter wedged against her hip and a bowl in her hand and she was trying to sidestep around Scott, who almost collided with her as he edged around the table, setting plates out.  There was a murmur of “excuse me’s” and “watch out’s” and Teresa managed to set the food on the table as Scott knocked his foot against a chair, pushing it out from the table.

“Sit,” he said, pointing down at the seat, and Darcy did, setting a hand on the table first and lowering herself with a grunt.  She looked up at Johnny when she was settled and he had to laugh.  It was such a mournful look. 

“Save me a chicken leg,” he told her with a grin and he left her behind this time, strolling through the kitchen and down the hallway.  Murdoch was where he knew he’d be, at his refuge--head down, elbows on the oak desktop and a pencil balanced in his hand.  He was concentrating on something and Johnny slowed as he came nearer, finally stopping just behind the sofa.  He waited.

“I think I’ve gone through these numbers five times already and they’ve added up differently every time.” Murdoch glanced up with a frown.  “These eyes just aren’t what they used to be.”

Leaning against the sofa back, Johnny crossed his ankles and wagged a hand at the papers.   “I could have Darcy take a look at them.”

For one brief moment he even seemed to consider it, but then Murdoch shook his head.  “No, I can manage.”

“Thought you might say that.”  A crooked grin slid across Johnny’s face.

“Is that right?” Murdoch barely contained his amusement.  “At least I’m doing my work.”

“Darcy said you’d have my hide for coming in so early.  Want I should cut the switch for you?”

A smile broke through on Murdoch’s face.  “And don’t think I won’t take it to you, either.”  He set his pencil down and sank back in his chair. “You’re in a good mood.”

“That gonna change?  Darcy said you got some telegram.”

“No…”  He started rummaging about on his desk, moving a stack of papers and then a second one before coming up with the slip of paper.  “I mean, yes, I got a telegram, but it’s good news.”  He stretched his arm over the desk, holding the paper out toward Johnny.  “It’s from Texas.”

“That lawyer?”  Johnny walked to the desk and took the telegram, turning it in his hand and skimming the words.

“It’s official, at least.”

“Judge Hansen.”

“You know him?”

“No, just sounds like a judge’s name is all.”

“I don’t care how his name sounds, as long as he overturned that court order.  It’s done now.”

“Yeah.”  Johnny tossed the paper back on the neat stack next to his father’s arm and forced a smile, raising his eyes to meet Murdoch’s.  “Guess I owe you.”

Murdoch picked the telegram up and slid it into his top drawer.  “I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I am.”

“You don’t look it.”

Dropping his eyes to the floor, Johnny drew an arm across his chest and rubbed at his shoulder.  “It’s just that…one little piece of paper…”  He rubbed a little longer, then cocked his head and sighed softly.  “Maybe you’re right, Murdoch—it’s done.  Hope so.”  He let his arm fall back to his side and the smile was genuine this time.  “You want any lunch?  Teresa’s got apple pie.”

“In a minute.  I have to wrestle these columns into submission first.”

“Well, I’m hungry.” 

He could sense his father’s eyes on him as he headed back toward the kitchen and it was a warm feeling.  A second pair of eyes met him in the hallway.  He saw her in profile as she leaned against the wall, Darcy’s belly taking up half the width of the passage.  Her face was turned to him, but she didn’t move, waiting for him to come to her instead.  Johnny did, walking silently up beside her and laying his hand on her stomach. A lump moved. 

“He kickin’ any?” Johnny asked.

“Nothing but.  Had the hiccups this morning.”  She reached up to his face and brushed the hair from it.  “I guess you know that I heard.”

He dropped his shoulder into the wall and looked down at her.  “You oughta be sittin’.”

“You think there’s more men, don’t you?  Like Chandler—men who want to hurt you?”

Johnny pulled her closer—her shoulder fitting against him, her hand clinging to his arm.  She tipped her head into his chest and he nestled a kiss into her hair.  It smelled of her, of lavender, and it was sweet.  “All I’m thinkin’ about is that baby, Darcy, and gettin’ him born.  You sure you’re feelin’ all right?”

“I’m fine.  Stop worrying.”

“You oughta be sittin’.”

She snuggled tighter.  “Ask me that again, Johnny.”

“Ask you what?”

“How I am.”

Burying his face into her hair, he breathed in the scent.  “Why’s that?”

“Just ask me.”

Johnny laughed softly.  “All right, how are you?”

There was a contented music to her voice and Darcy tipped her head back, gazing up into his eyes.  There was a music to her smile, too.  “I’m lucky,” she said.

“Yeah?  And how do you figure that?”

She stretched up and they kissed tenderly.  “Because I love you, cowboy.  And I’m going to keep loving you until you’re tired of me.”

“That ain’t happenin’.”

“See?”  She dragged her arm around his waist and they turned to the kitchen.  “What’d I tell you?  I’m a lucky woman.”

Johnny’s arm fell around her shoulders and she leaned into him, waddling.  Her belly led the way, bright and taut in that white shirt.  Ripe, he told himself, definitely ripe. 

It was about time.




The End 

Karen “KC” Campbell

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