Rated R for mature relationships and
This story follows Long Way Home. Johnny is married and he’s a
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.
can I get you boys?"
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.
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."
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."
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."
do you have a brother?" Scott
pulled his gloves off and laid them in front of him.
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."
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.
you say so, darlin'." She
turned with an exaggerated twist and sashayed across the floor to the bar.
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.
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.
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."
don't want to keep secrets, do you?"
they look like that...." Johnny
squirmed again and raised his brows. "Yeah, I think I do."
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."
flinched. "Heard that, did ya?"
did hear it and I believe there was something said about you being deaf, blind,
and of inferior intelligence."
brows lifted again. "The word
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."
now she's a rancher's wife."
shook his head. "I haven't
heard her complain."
did last night."
stand corrected." Scott
watched the barmaid turn with her fistful of mugs and saunter toward their
table. "You're buying,
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..."
saloon gals here are sixty years old without a tooth in their heads."
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."
slipped two coins from his jacket and laid them in her hand.
That silver chased the last coins deeper into her cleavage.
name's Nellie and I'll be right over there." She hooked a thumb toward the bar. "If you need anything, honey, just whistle."
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.
what are you doing about it?" Scott asked.
eyed him and took another sip. "Darcy?"
can't imagine that she'll be as bored when the baby comes."
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?"
that what she wants? Just some time
don't know, Scott. I can't tell you
what any woman wants, but I'm tryin' and Darcy likes it up there."
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?"
we spent some time there." Johnny
dipped his eyes to the table and smiled sheepishly.
remember," he said and his smile spread into a grin.
"And we don't need any chaperone now, either. So...will you do
got it." Scott nodded and
drained his glass.
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.
slid his chair back and sat with his hands on the arms, ready to push his way
out of it. "You done?"
it?" Scott pointed to his mug.
"One beer? We just got
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.
caught up to him halfway across the floor.
"Johnny?" he asked softly.
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.
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.
Johnny...what was that all about?"
saw someone, that's all."
of old acquaintances. Did a job
with them down in Texas a few years back."
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.
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..."
brittle tone broke through Scott's offer. "They
ain't no friends. You wanta let me
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."
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.
looked up as they crossed the street and passed in front of the wagon.
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
men looked toward Teresa, who was smiling indulgently.
Scott asked, a hint of laughter in his voice.
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.
it Johnny's size...and that would be just about his color."
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?"
it will be a girl." Darcy wrapped her hands around his arm.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
stood next to the fireplace and swirled his liquor. "High strung? Don't
guess you heard that little chat last night, too?"
the more enthusiastic parts." Murdoch
took a sip. "I've heard worse,
you and mama?"
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."
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?"
I'd think the Cattlemen’s Association would know if anyone was hiring
guns and we just met yesterday. Nobody said anything."
just passing through."
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."
think it's safe to leave the ranch right now?"
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."
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."
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.
you get the window?" she asked, before a yawn stretched her mouth sideways.
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.
that little spot we went to a year back? Swift
Creek?" he started in, twisting to gaze down at her as he spoke.
in the mountains?" She snuggled the pillow closer.
"With the big tree?"
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.
Her lips curved gently.
turned the wick on the lamp, pulled the covers back and slid into the sheets.
"All right if we leave in the mornin'?"
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."
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."
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."
He nuzzled a kiss into her tickling, fragrant hair.
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.
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.”
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.
gals about got that kitchen emptied?”
believe there’s still a stove in there.” Teresa winked at Darcy, before
adding innocently, “Shall we get it?”
don’t I just hitch a team to the hacienda?”
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.”
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.
look good.” He reached for one
and took a bite, chewed it and then nodded appreciatively. “You made these?”
edged closer and wiped a crumb from his chin.
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.
put those in your saddlebags?” he asked, as he strolled past her into the
hacienda. “I forgot somethin’.”
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.
be back tomorrow night?” Murdoch unwrapped Darcy’s rein from the rail and
handed it to her.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
need to rest?” Johnny asked, bringing Barranca up even with her roan.
it’s not much farther, is it?”
hour. Maybe more.”
shook her head and the ribbon in her braid slipped further.
“Let’s keep going.”
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’?”
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.
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?”
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.
Darcy’s dimple showed.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
it?” He brushed the hair from her
face when she turned a strained smile up to him.
beautiful, Johnny, absolutely beautiful. Now, which bush is the outhouse?”
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.”
they’d dare get in the way of a pregnant woman?”
if they know what’s good for ‘em.”
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.
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.
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.
stranger standing there wore an affable smile.
I help you?” Scott asked, looking first at the man and then past him to his
name’s Garcia. Charlie Garcia.”
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”.
Lancer,” he said.
man hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “That
there’s Hank Trantham.”
nodded, but his attention was on the heavy footsteps moving closer from the
great room. “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?”
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?”
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.
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?”
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?”
was a ragged threat in Murdoch’s voice. “We’ll
tell Johnny that you asked for him.”
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
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.”
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.
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
Johnny that Chandler sends his regards.” He tipped his hat and his horse
lurched forward, galloping after Garcia’s.
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.
it wasn’t.” Murdoch let the
rifle hang down.
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
too dangerous. There’s some steep
could walk Charlie up those.”
turned toward him. “How do you
know those men wouldn’t just follow you?
They could be watching.”
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.”
But tomorrow’s soon enough.”
stared after the gunslingers, watching their horses diminish to dark fragments
on the horizon. “I’ll leave in
the morning then.”
Murdoch nodded thoughtfully, before giving Scott a wan smile.
“Besides…I don’t think your brother would appreciate any company
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.”
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.
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.
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.
stepped over the log and knelt beside him on her bedroll.
“You didn’t burn the one I caught, did you?”
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?”
you’ll eat them.”
hungry…and they smell good.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
in that creek ain’t easy.”
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.
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.
Her voice was faint.
He watched the flames lick at the branch.
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?”
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
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?”
stared into the fire again. “You didn’t exactly sound happy.”
not the first time, either.”
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.”
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.”
smiled wryly. “Yeah, I think I
heard somethin’ about that.”
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?”
what did I just say?”
saying I’m an idiot.”
did not say that.”
grinned. “You did the other
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
“You go right on.”
not my face.”
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.
that.” One dimple flirted with
him as Darcy straightened her top again. “I’m
trying to have a serious discussion here.”
I’m gettin’ serious, too.”
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.
you going to stop worrying?” She scooted closer.
You going to stop nagging?”
brushed her hand against his smooth cheek and laughed lightly.
“I doubt it.”
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.
drew a knee over his leg. That
shirt was all she had and it wasn’t covering much.
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?”
nuzzled into his neck and kissed it. “One
hundred and three,” she said tenderly.
that?” His hands searched the
soft skin under her shirt, familiar and changing, more of it now.
More of her with their baby growing.
leave you when you’re one hundred and three.”
He half laughed, but she was unbuttoning his shirt and working her mouth
down his chest and he was losing his concentration.
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.”
kissed her gently. “How about a hundred and four?”
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.
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.
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.
a moment, he was still. “You
never told me how your back is doing.”
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…
hands stopped. Darcy clenched his shoulders and she trembled.
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
cold?” he asked, still struggling with his breath.
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.
came much too soon.
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.
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.
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.
I can wait.”
cowboy, a girl’s got her priorities.” She
filled her mouth again.
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
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.”
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
does it get warm up here?”
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.”
I’m cold.” She tucked
the blanket tighter around her shoulders.
got a cure for that.”
dimple showed. “You do, do
He burrowed deeper under the blanket, too.
“You got all those priorities done?”
He found her buttons, undoing them easily.
that your cure?” She laughed
but I’m gettin’ there.” He
slid a hand under her shirt and pulled her close.
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.
might want to get yourself covered,” he said reluctantly.
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.
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.
grin crawled up the corner of Johnny’s mouth and he raised his Colt higher.
“Want me to get rid of him?”
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.”
your pants on first.”
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.
performance faded away as Charlie plodded toward them.
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.
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
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
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?”
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
hungry?” Johnny asked, turning
back to his brother.
resettled his hat. “No.
I had breakfast before I set out this morning.”
good.” Johnny nodded
thoughtfully, then he cocked his head and asked, “Why did you set out this
know a man named Chandler?”
men from the saloon showed up at the ranch yesterday and Trantham had a message
for you. He said Chandler sends his
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.
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.
you get the cooking stuff cleaned up and packed?”
laid her hand on his knee. “What’s
going on, Johnny? Who’s
hired out to him once, long time ago.”
be. Enough that I want to get you
back to the ranch.”
are you going to do then?”
forced a smile. “I’m going to
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.
pulled up ahead of them and then he took his rifle from its scabbard and
balanced it across his saddle horn.
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.
lone rider faced them from the bottom of the hill. He was dark and grinning and he had his own rifle cradled in
time, Madrid!” Charlie Garcia shouted.
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.
off,” Johnny whispered loudly to his brother.
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.”
this all about, Johnny?”
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.”
any shooting starts, I want you to take Darcy and get the hell out of here.”
want to know why.”
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.”
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 nodded and gave Garcia cold smile.
“Heard you had a message for me.”
look good, Madrid.”
say the same about you.”
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.
did have a smart mouth, didn’t you Madrid?
Almost makes this visit entertainin’.”
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.
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.”
smile hardened. “Not to my way of
it was--you can believe that, Madrid. And sooner or later we all pay for our
today, Charlie. You wanta get off
right glad to, just as soon as Hank and I get what we came for.”
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
dark eyes narrowed.
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.”
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.
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…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?”
‘em,” the far off voice hollered.
nodded. “You wanta toss that gun down now, Johnny boy?”
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.”
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.”
touch her and you’re dead.”
best be worryin’ about your own health, Madrid.”
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
stopped her a good ten feet from Johnny.
up there, Lancer.” Hank swung
down from Scott’s horse and turned to Garcia.
“Got the rope?”
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.
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
cinched the knot. “Can’t be
helped,” he said softly.
don’t need her, Hank. Let them
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.
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
voice barely carried through the heat-shimmering air. “Darcy Lancer.”
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
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.
you goin’, boy?”
didn’t have time to answer, because Scott moved next, inching closer to Garcia
and breaking off the murderous glare hanging between the men.
wanta be dead?” Garcia turned to
Scott. “Cause you move one more
muscle and you’re gonna be.”
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.”
what?” Garcia waved his rifle
toward him and Scott backed up a step, moving closer to Darcy’s roan. “I’m
much are you making on this job?”
just make your offer.”
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?”
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
right…Charlie. Do we have a
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.
not taking the deal,” Johnny said.
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.
leaped forward, Johnny’s spurs in his flanks.
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.
him go,” Scott said. The rifle
barrel appeared, only inches above Garcia’s head.
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.
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
all right,” Johnny said and the effort scratched his throat.
He coughed again. “Why didn’t you take off?”
hoofbeats came pounding across the range.
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.
knelt behind Garcia, aiming and firing, and a bullet sprayed up dirt inches from
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.
sprawled in the grass and let two bullets fly toward Trantham.
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.
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.
wouldn’t do that, Johnny.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
was I to know Madrid had gone plumb loco?” Garcia stood and held the rifle on
the still kneeling Scott.
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
not bad,” he offered hopefully.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
are we headed?” Johnny asked, with a backward glance at Trantham.
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’.”
are we waiting for?” Scott shifted in his saddle, ending in the same
uncomfortable position. “This
Chandler you keep mentioning?”
ignored that question. “How far
is she?” he asked instead. “The
baby, I mean…summer?”
Johnny stared down at Barranca’s neck as he answered, watching the pale
mane flutter in the wind. “Late July, maybe.”
that?” Scott asked.
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.
sounded almost sorrowful. “Because
your brother won’t be around come late July.”
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.
still with us?” Johnny asked softly, resettling his hat and taking up the
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?”
what I’m figuring. Maybe two miles.”
nodded and left his head tilting down, his eyelids sliding almost shut again.
Garcia’s voice boomed out from behind them.
you remember Ellie, back in El Paso?”
let that question hang in a too-short moment of silence.
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
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.
your gal remind you some of Ellie?”
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.
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.”
up, Charlie,” Hank shouted back. “Chandler
isn’t paying me to listen to you run your mouth off.”
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?”
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.
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?
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?”
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.
Garcia stated the number with loud satisfaction. “Ellie sure gave you
hell for that, didn’t she, Madrid?”
Trantham tell you to be quiet?” Scott
squeezed his eyes shut. “You’re not helping my headache any.”
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.”
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.”
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’.”
go,” Trantham ordered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
all right.” Scott blinked
heavily, then shook his head. His
eyes seemed to focus.
Scott tilted his head toward her roan and straightened.
“I can make it.”
clicked and Johnny swung his eyes around to Trantham. His Colt was waist level
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.
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
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.
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.
so scared.” She trembled and her
breath came quick and warm against his neck.
know.” Johnny brushed a kiss
against her temple. “I’m scared, too.”
not true,” she whispered. “What
that man said about the boy…I know you, Johnny.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
some jerky and a little bread.” He nodded at Darcy. “Ma’am, are you hungry?”
thank you.” Darcy’s answer came
strained and small.
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.”
raised his eyes to Trantham’s. “Then
let them go.”
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.
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.”
I do. I mean to give Mister
Chandler every little penny’s worth, don’t you worry about that.”
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
turned toward the door, but twisted back around at the sound of Johnny’s
cold smile flickered across Trantham’s lips.
“Somebody put you in charge here, Johnny?”
asking you, Hank. Send Garcia.”
do it. The sorrel’s no good.
Reckon you know how that happened.”
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
was part of it, Hank. Garcia was
there at that cabin.”
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
girl?” Trantham asked. “You
know something about that, Charlie?”
sniffed and raised his head from his hand, using it to scratch at his nose
instead. “Course not,” he
drawled. “You know me, Hank.”
know you.” Trantham let out a
disgusted sigh. “How old was she?”
sure that I asked. That weren’t
exactly the topic of conversation.”
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,
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.
Hank,” Garcia said, with an agreeable nod.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
shook her head and the loose hair fell across her eye.
“I don’t want any.”
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.
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,
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.
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.”
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.
boy? Care for a nip?”
He shook the flask in the air. “Just a little one?”
don’t drink after swine.”
snorted. “Suit yourself,” he
said, and then he sucked back two good gulps and drawled out the name.
about him?” Scott scowled and
dropped his head back to the cot.
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.”
was fifteen, Garcia.”
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.”
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.
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.”
up, Garcia.” Scott shifted again,
rolling further onto his stomach and grunting with the pull against his arm.
Johnny asked softly.
didn’t look right, not pale exactly, but not right.
think I’m going to be sick,” she mumbled.
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.”
go.” Darcy yanked her arm back,
but he held tight.
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.”
fought the ropes, but they ate into his wrists and he watched helplessly as
Garcia dragged her toward the door.
voice was barely more than a whimper. “No.”
gal,” Garcia said, low and husky.
Johnny bucked forward, falling sideways onto the planked floor.
“Take your hands off of her!”
swung his legs from the cot and teetered upright, blinking back the wooziness.
try it!” Garcia waved his Colt
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.”
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.
voice echoed against the walls and smaller, almost hidden, was Darcy’s muted
Johnny squinted up into Garcia’s gleaming
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
clock ticked six twenty-seven.
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.
had his back to him, walking away.
you want something, Jelly?”
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
turned again, but stopped cold when Murdoch called softly to him.
boss?” Jelly looked back, the cap
the crews all made it back?”
exceptin’ Cipriano’s. They been
workin’ the herd up at Padre’s Mesa.”
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?”
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.”
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.
you saddle our horses? And get a
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.
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.
you coming to supper?”
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
you really think you’ll need all that?”
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
grabbed his arm as he passed.
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.”
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.”
have to go.”
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
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.
have to go,” Darcy insisted again.
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.
heard her quiet sigh as Garcia’s voice reached across the shack. “What are
you two plottin’ over there?
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?”
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
gave Johnny a pained look, but he cut her off with his blunt tone.
“Well, go on.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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
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.”
held her wrists out to him.
here you’re forgettin’ already.”
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.
that’s better, ma’am.” Garcia said.
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?
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.
leaned forward. “Ain’t you
Garcia must have done something, because Darcy’s hands left Scott and
her voice was cool. “Stop it.”
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.
it…let her be,” Scott said, as Darcy slapped Charlie’s hand away.
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?”
The name rumbled through Johnny’s low-pitched growl, but it didn’t do
any good. Garcia leaned closer to
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.”
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
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
teach her that smart mouth, Madrid?”
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?”
she was mine, I gotta tell you that I’d be learning that gal some manners.
Ain’t right, boy.”
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?”
grin fell apart, lost into the dark mood sinking into Garcia’s face.
“You shoulda’ taught her, Madrid.”
moved smoothly, turning and hooking a big hand around Darcy’s arm, lifting her
from the cot and backhanding her across the face.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
lunged forward and Garcia knocked him to the ground.
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?”
breath trembled. “No.”
what do you say?”
right, then.” His whiskers spread with his grin. “Sides…I ain’t through with you, darlin’.”
door creaked open and grey twilight silhouetted the form that stepped into the
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.
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?”
didn’t hear Chandler give those orders.”
Garcia slunk away from Darcy and he sank into a chair.
sighed and squatted next to Scott, tugging at the white strips dangling from his
bandage. “That hurt some?”
winced. “I’ll live.”
Hank turned to Darcy. “Ma’am,
you hurt any?”
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?”
smiled and a crevice furrowed into his cheek.
“No, ma’am, but I reckon we’ll find something in its place.”
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.
squinted up through his swollen eye. “Chandler.”
you know why I’m here.”
boy was no good.”
hiked his pant leg and lowered himself with a grunt, kneeling at Johnny’s
side. “Maybe,” he said.
“But he was my boy. Charlie?”
got a good length of rope?”
nodded and stood. “Then get it
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.
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.
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.
shifted his weight and the Colt found a new angle in his spine.
“You needin’ help?”
can do it.” Jesus.
Couldn’t even piss without making a mess of it.
Johnny concentrated hard and finally, clumsily, his fingers did his
time,” Trantham said.
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.
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.”
don’t deserve this.”
turned finally and looked Trantham in the eye. “What are you plannin’ to do
me your hands.”
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.”
up to Chandler. Ain’t my say-so.”
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?”
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.”
nodded, eyes still downcast. “Yeah.
I know you are.” The Colt
dug into Johnny’s gut. “Move.”
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
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.”
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?”
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?”
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?”
could light the lantern.”
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?”
thinkin’ they’re still around here somewheres?”
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.”
the line shack on the east pasture,” Jelly said. “And the shack up at Indian Caves.”
call it, Jelly. Which one first?”
put a match to the lantern, then climbed up on his horse and pointed again.
“This way, boss.”
nodded. “All right…let’s
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.”
way?” Papery wrinkles folded into
the old man’s forehead. “Don’t
think I haven’t considered that, Charlie.”
Garcia turned to Johnny, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Scott on the
cot, and gave him a cold stare.
Charlie.” Chandler patted his
vest pocket. “Judge Gardner said
hanging and I’m doing this legal.”
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?”
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,
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?”
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.”
Johnny looked at Trantham. He was
leaning back against the stove, his arms crossed and the Colt dangling from his
hand. “Chandler telling the
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
came into the light. “Charlie, got any other ideas?” he asked.
Scott’s voice was still shaky, but it had the edge of the lieutenant to it.
“You can’t do this.”
nodded. “Judge Gardner says I
can’t be a trial without the accused in the courtroom.
It’s not legal.”
Johnny whispered, “leave it.”
it? They want to hang you on the
flimsy authority of some judge who never even heard the truth.”
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.
grinned. “Mister Chandler?
Reckon we ought to make Lancer happy and let Madrid say his piece now?”
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?”
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.”
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
hand slapped against Johnny’s head. “You’re
wastin’ time, boy,” Garcia said.
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.
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?”
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.
out the squatters, running off their livestock…that anything that offended
your sensitive nature?”
the first time.”
it wasn’t. You came with quite a
reputation and from what I saw, you deserved it. So why did you turn on me,
didn’t turn on you.”
Miles wasn’t one of my orders.”
tone flattened. “Miles asked for
did he? And how exactly did my son
sign his own death warrant?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
another one, Madrid,” Chandler said.
He pulled his eyes back to the old man’s face.
“You ever tell that to your boy?”
knew the law.”
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.”
barely seemed to register on Chandler. “Are
you saying Miles killed that girl?”
Johnny shook his head and risked a glance at Darcy. She looked sick again. “Killin’s
too nice a word for what he did.”
why didn’t the sheriff do something?”
he didn’t think that’d be healthy, seein’ as how you owned that town.”
gave that a self-satisfied snort, then he cocked his head sideways.
“So you were judge and jury?
just looked at him and Charlie whacked him across the ear.
The voices swirled into a deadening hum.
“Answer the man,” Garcia said.
know what happened.”
was drunk,” Chandler said. “You
knew he was drunk.”
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.”
don’t draw down on a drunk man, it’s not right.”
could have taken him sober.”
why didn’t you wait?”
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.
heard his brother’s voice and Johnny gave in to a worn-out sigh.
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.”
drew down on my boy and he shot him.”
who drew first?”
answered for him. “Miles pulled
his gun. The way I heard it, Johnny
even let him get off the first shot. Right,
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
voice made Johnny turn toward him. He
was getting weaker and his “Johnny?” came out as a raspy whisper.
the arm, brother?”
must be looking for us.”
A weary smile drifted across Johnny’s lips.
“Oughta be ridin’ in any minute.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
swallowed hard. “Tell him yourself,” he said.
voices came closer.
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.
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.
found it,” Chandler said.
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.
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,
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.”
hands slid lower.
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
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?”
didn’t hesitate. “I’m going
that’s how you want it, then. Hank?
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.
leaned his head to hers. There
weren’t any words and neither one of them tried.
Hank shoved him lightly.
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.
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.”
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.
pushed again and Johnny dropped his eyes to the floor.
“Take care of yourself, brother.”
they stepped out into the dark.
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.
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.
do you think, Hank?” Chandler was jovial and he paced under the tree, staring
up into its branches.
only spared the tree a glance. “How
you planning to do this?”
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.
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.
try it.” His threat was soft, but
deadly serious. “Just set
yourselves down now and be real slow about.”
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.
back’s botherin’ you,” he whispered.
She leaned her head against his shoulder and wrapped her arm around his
chest. Her whisper trembled.
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.
took a shuddering breath. “This
this stop.” Something damp fell against his neck and he barely made out the
quiver of her words. “Please,
Johnny…just make this stop.”
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.
was something about a horse.
that would work,” Chandler said, “but the law wouldn’t do it that way.”
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.”
like a lynching.”
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?”
sir, Mister Chandler.”
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
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?”
hand found the bandage around his side and she brushed her fingers against it.
“Yes,” she answered, her voice so small.
north star. You know the north
star, don’t you?”
felt her nod against his chest.
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?”
tilted her head upward. “I see
keep it to your right, Darcy. You’ll
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.”
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.
care of that baby,” he whispered. “Don’t
let her fall for any gunslingers.”
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.
what they say, Darcy…please. It
won’t help me and you’ll just get hurt.
Promise you’ll do what they say.”
going to kill you.”
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.
do what they say.”
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
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.
bent over and scooped up something, then stood and handed it to Chandler.
“This do?” he asked.
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!”
Colt dug into Johnny’s ribs.
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.
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.”
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.
if you calm down a little, darlin’,” Garcia said and he jerked her tighter.
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.”
jaw clenched a sharp line into his cheek. “He
won’t hurt her.”
want your word.” He sensed Chandler coming up beside him and Johnny forced the
words out faster. “Your word,
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.”
straightened and he sucked in the urge to kill the man. He found Trantham’s
eyes again. “Hank…”
said now.” The hammer cocked.
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.”
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.
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.”
lowered his Colt. “Move.”
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.
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.
noose brushed against his shoulder.
it on, boy.”
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.
voice wasn’t much louder than the crickets.
“You have my word.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
to hell, Chandler.”
arms hung like stone and he had to concentrate hard, willing them to move.
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.
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.
rope was rough in his fingers. He
had to tilt his head to guide the noose across it and the hemp scratched against
guttural sound cut through the blood-drone in his ears.
“No,” Darcy moaned and Johnny held her eyes.
grabbed hold tight and the chair slid away.
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.
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.
dark edged in.
voice thudded against the suffocating roar.
“Set it back, Chandler.”
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.
more shots exploded.
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.
damn you, Trantham!” Garcia shouted.
shrieked and Johnny saw the blur of their bodies, wrenching apart as her arms
flailed against the man. Garcia’s
hand swung down.
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.
was a body. Johnny rolled into it
as another gunshot echoed through the dark.
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.
Colt. Get Chandler’s Colt.
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.
stared into Charlie’s barrel.
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.
was over and the acrid smell of gunpowder scented the chill air.
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.
hurt?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
she whispered and a sob quaked through her body. She buried her face in his shoulder.
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
Johnny rasped out. “Can you get
these ropes off…?”
lifted her face to him.
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.
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.
hurt,” he said, stepping away and kneeling at Hank’s side.
Darcy laid a hand on his back and crouched beside him.
bad is it?” Johnny tried to force Hank’s hands away from the wound, but they
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?”
scooted closer and pressed against the jacket.
with him.” Johnny looked off into
the dark obscuring the shack. “I’m
going to see about Scott.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.”
Scott’s eyes came open. He
didn’t seem to focus for a moment.
you drink for me?” Johnny asked.
I’m still here.”
slow smile spread across Scott’s strained face. He reached his hand out and Johnny grabbed it.
“I knew they couldn’t take you.”
That why you got your head knocked in trying to stop them?”
let go and rubbed his fingers against the cut. “What happened?”
turned his gun on them.”
looked away, checking the bandages around Scott’s arm.
The bleeding had stopped. “Don’t
know why. He shot Chandler, though.”
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?”
stay with Darcy. I’ll go.”
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.”
got news for you, Johnny.” Scott
laid his head flat on the mattress and looked his brother over. “You don’t
look much better.”
shoved the canteen into Scott’s hand. “Here.
Get some of that in you.”
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.
turned her face to him as he crouched down next to them and her eyes told him
the way of things. Trantham was
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?”
me…be,” Hank mumbled and he squeezed his eyes tight. When they opened again, he was staring straight up at Johnny.
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.
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
didn’t stir when Hank spoke again.
got …lucky.” His eyes were
open, but they stared off into the emptiness above him.
you do it, Hank?” Johnny kept his
voice low, trying not to disturb Darcy, and he wasn’t sure Hank had even heard
mouth opened and closed twice before the words came out.
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
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.
lifted her head. “Is he gone?”
get a doctor for Scott. How are you
hesitated and her head dropped back to his leg. “I’m coming with you.”
hand wrapped tight around his thigh. “You’re
not leaving me here.”
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.
almost couldn’t say it. “You
have to stay, Darcy. Scott needs
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
can’t hurt you anymore,” he murmured.
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.
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.”
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.
tossed the knife into the ground and followed Darcy up the hillside.
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.
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
Murdoch whispered. He straightened
in his saddle, nearly standing in his stirrups and trying to peer through the
blackness. “Can you make out
a darn thing.” Jelly held his own
rifle tightly clenched in his hands. His
reins were looped around his saddle horn.
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.
shadow stopped. “That you,
Murdoch?” it asked.
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.
voice was low and raspy. “I kinda
hoped you’d show up.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
many times? Johnny turned his eyes
to the stars and drew in the chill night air.
It burned against his throat. How many times?
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.
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.
don’t know…something’s not right.”
long have you been hurtin’?”
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.”
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.
didn’t you say somethin’?” he asked.
shoulda’ told me.” He whispered
that, his face buried in her hair.
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
it the baby?” Murdoch asked.
looked up at his father, finding him looking back, his face haggard.
“Yeah. Jelly sent for Sam,
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.
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.
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.
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.
stepped forward from the house when the buckboard jangled to a stop.
Sam nodded and held his hand off to the side, half-raised.
“I hear your boys had some trouble.”
sure glad to see you, Sam.”
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.
had to cough before he could get any words out. “She’s hurtin’, Sam.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
closed his eyes and tried to listen through the wall, but no sounds came.
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
was crowded in there,” she said, just as gently.
lost a lot of blood. It wouldn’t
not bleeding now.”
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.
tough, Johnny…you know that. I
give that fever two days, then we’ll be fighting to keep him in bed.”
nodded and an imagined sound made him glance toward his bedroom door, but it
stayed shut. Teresa’s grip tightened on his arm.
strong, too, Johnny, and she’s never given up on anything.
It’s all going to be all right.”
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…”
want to come in now?” Sam asked.
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.
set a hand tentatively on the mattress, then settled on its edge.
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.
doc, but it’s too soon.”
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
voice was quiet. “I don’t
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.”
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?”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Scott?” Johnny croaked out.
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?”
smiled wearily. “She’s a cheap
drunk, but I don’t know as that it’s done any good.”
still having the pains?”
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?”
set the chair to rocking. “Guess Murdoch told you about Chandler.”
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.”
almost got Scott and Darcy killed.”
you, John. Those men caused the trouble.”
the one they were comin’ after.”
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.”
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.
happened to your wrists?” Sam
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.
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.
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.
leaned back again.
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.
horse tried to stomp me,” Johnny said.
how did that happen?”
tried to get away. All that did was
get Scott shot.”
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
started poking as soon as the bandages were off. “Who cleaned this out?”
did a good job. There doesn’t
look to be any infection.”
took care of Scott’s arm, too.”
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.”
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.
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.”
what, Johnny. What could you have
don’t know, Sam…but something.”
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.”
men? Sam…you tellin’ me that
Darcy’s been hurtin’ since last night?
She told me a couple of hours.”
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.”
sure she had her reasons for not telling you.”
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?”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
poured his first drink while she was looking for his razor.
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.
stirred and she sucked in a pain-racked breath. Johnny corked the bottle.
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.
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.
happened to our wardens?”
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.
folded Darcy’s hand tighter in his own. “Teresa’s
goin’ to have your hide.”
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?”
Darcy drawled the word, lolling her head toward Scott and smiling weakly.
understandable. I’m sure the
doctor’s prescribed plenty of bed rest.”
week.” She grimaced.
“I’ll need to borrow a good book or two.
Have you finished your Thoreau?”
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?”
not gettin’ Teresa after me, brother. Got
enough trouble without addin’ that to it.”
smile faded. “Are you meaning
Yeah, sure…him…and the rest of it.”
over, Johnny. They’re dead.”
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?”
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?”
hardly.” She curled into her
covers, tugged the quilt higher on her shoulder and she yawned.
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.”
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.”
heard that,” Teresa said.
smile flickered across Johnny’s lips.
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.
nodded. “Go on, Scott.”
it.” He went then, his naked feet
making scuffing sounds against the floor. “All
right, Teresa, I’m going peacefully.”
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.”
you be in your bed?”
I would be if you could be trusted to do what you’re told.”
broth smells good.”
change the subject, you’re staying in that bed…”
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.
he said tenderly.
caressed his neck. “You’re
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’?”
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.”
know. How do you feel?”
all right.” The corner of his
lips lifted, then settled again. He
squeezed her hand. “Tired,” he
said. “I’m just really
need some sleep. You haven’t been
in that rocker the whole time, have you?”
didn’t answer and she shook her head at him.
“You have to sleep.”
you have.” She let go of his hand
and brushed her fingers against his chin.
says I need a shave.”
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.
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
didn’t do anything wrong.”
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
you told me about that life.”
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.”
don’t believe that.”
didn’t follow orders.”
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.”
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.”
gaze dropped again. “Sure…you
need to rest.”
She clutched a fistful of his shirt.
wait. Doc said you need to sleep as
much as you can.”
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.”
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.
quiet gasp shot through him.
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.
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?”
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…”
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.”
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.
looked into Darcy’s eyes. They
were damp with tears. “A couple
of hours, maybe,” he said, and she nodded.
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.
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,
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…
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.
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.
warmth embraced him.
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
memories lingered and Johnny drank.
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.
held up the bottle. “Drink?”
long have you been down here?”
voice was irritatingly troubled and Johnny grimaced as his father lit the candle
on the mantle.
time is it?” Johnny asked.
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.
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?”
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,
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.”
can see that. Don’t you think
talking about it might be more productive?”
wanta talk? Fine, Murdoch…”
Johnny wrapped his arms across his chest, slouched lower in the chair and
angled a leg over his knee. “Talk.”
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.”
easy is it? You bring me home and
just like that…” Johnny snapped
his finger. “Everything’s fine.
That the way it is, Murdoch?”
Johnny, not everything; not yet. But it will be.”
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
searched his father’s face, wanting something there. “I had to.”
Murdoch set a hand on Johnny’s knee. “I
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.”
Darcy…” Johnny let his
head loll back, looking up at the ceiling and breathing hard.
“It ain’t right…”
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
her some time. I know Darcy and
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?”
did my best with your mother, Johnny.”
that turned out just fine, didn’t it.”
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.
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…”
didn’t have to be this way…I didn’t have to…”
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.
was trapped by his father’s hand, heavy on his shoulder. “No, Murdoch.”
Johnny stumbled away, finding his feet and moving faster, heading for the
door. “I can’t do this…”
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.
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.
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.
me alone, Murdoch.” He found the
cinch and fastened it tight.
can’t do that. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
me than one of you.”
was an awful desperation in his father’s voice. “Stay, Johnny. You’re
not thinking straight.”
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.
again, he escaped into the night.
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.
blinked into the brightness.
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.
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.
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
didn’t. He lay there, instead,
for a long time, just listening to the leaves rustle.
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.
on, I’m movin’.”
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.
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.
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.”
flicked his ears, but kept grazing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
reined up at the stables and Cipriano strolled toward him.
Juan. It looks as if you’ve come
Darcy?” Johnny swung down from
Barranca and turned to the Segundo. “She hasn’t had any more…”
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?”
don’t have to do that, Cipriano. I
can take care of my own horse.”
father, he says the same. He
searched until morning, but finding you, Juan—this is a difficult thing.”
his gaze, Johnny sighed softly. “Murdoch
went lookin’, did he?”
shoulda left it.”
but papas—they worry.”
corners of Johnny’s lips edged up. “Yeah,
I’m startin’ to figure that out.”
Juan.” Cipriano turned into the
stables, leading Barranca toward its dusky comforts. “You’ve been away too long. This is my work.”
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.
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.
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
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.
didn’t mean to wake you.”
Murdoch blinked and rubbed at his face, leaving a small frown behind.
“I was afraid…”
I’d run away…again?”
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.”
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.”
is. Doc says the fever’s down
already and that’s a good sign.”
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.
what, Johnny? It was true, wasn’t
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.”
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’.”
father’s tone was wistful and Johnny wished he had the answer.
He wished it hard. “I don’t think she even knew.
brushed a finger under his nose and let that answer fade into his silence.
it would have been easier on you if you’d never been down to Matamoras,”
Johnny said after a moment. “Never
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.”
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?”
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.”
bout that, too. Guess Darcy’s had
something to say about it?”
haven’t seen her yet?” Murdoch
settled back again and set his elbows on the arms of the chairs, hands crossed
against his stomach.
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.”
not like your mother, Johnny. Darcy
knows what she wants.”
He cocked his head and grimaced. “Well,
maybe that ain’t what’s good for her. I
nearly got her killed.”
you. It was those men.”
thing. I used to be just like those men.”
don’t believe that. Darcy doesn’t believe that.”
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.
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.
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’.”
doubt it.” Murdoch laid his head
back against his chair, looking up at Johnny and flashing his own contented
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.
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.
almost couldn’t hear her answer, her voice was that small.
“Yes,” she said.
we talk about it before you yell or somethin’?”
she did was nod.
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.
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.
all right?” he asked.
Darcy took his hand and tossed the covers back, then guided him to her
belly. Something fluttered under
his hand. “You feel that?” she
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?”
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.
said you drank half a bottle. How’s your head?”
Kinda deserve it, though, don’t you think?”
stray hair dangled across her forehead as she shook her head.
“It’s my fault.”
do you figure that?”
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.”
Murdoch tell you?”
didn’t tell me anything, I just knew it.”
She shrugged. “I guess
that means you talked to him before you left?”
snorted softly. “Yeah, we
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?”
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…”
called me darling.”
voice cut through his words and Johnny just looked at her.
She didn’t make any sense.
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…”
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.”
tried, Johnny. I tried so hard to be strong for you.”
know you did.”
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.”
was so scared.”
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.”
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.
not goin’ anywhere.”
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.”
was too far gone.”
never believed Garcia.”
of that was true, Darcy.”
the way he told it.”
not that way, but it was true.”
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.”
been in that drawer?”
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.”
let his head drop to hers. “It shouldn’t be this way, Darcy.”
what’re we gonna do?”
going to love me.”
clenched his eyes shut. “I can do
all I ask, cowboy.”
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.
to bed,” she murmured.
to bed, Johnny.”
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.
of them were good dreams.
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
women looked up as they came closer.
Teresa called out, “don’t you think Petunia is a good name for the
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?”
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.”
kept his grin and stepped to the side of a lavender bed. “That the way you
feel about it, Darcy?”
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?”
was hungry.” Johnny dug a stray
piece of grass from her hair and tossed it on the ground. “Anything in the kitchen?”
was hungry? Just like he was
yesterday and the day before?”
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.”
gazed down at her. “How’s
your back feelin’?”
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.”
sounds good,” Scott said. “Teresa,
would you have any lemonade to go along with that?”
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.”
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.”
behind, Johnny and Darcy stood together in the garden. “You want something to
eat?” Johnny asked.
She dipped her eyes and lifted them again to his. “Happy.
But you really don’t need to check on me every five minutes.”
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?”
wants to see you. There was a
telegram this morning.”
wouldn’t tell me. He just said to
let him know when you came in.”
been at his desk most of the day. If
he’s not there, then he just left 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.
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.
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
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.”
against the sofa back, Johnny crossed his ankles and wagged a hand at the
papers. “I could have Darcy
take a look at them.”
one brief moment he even seemed to consider it, but then Murdoch shook his head.
“No, I can manage.”
you might say that.” A crooked
grin slid across Johnny’s face.
that right?” Murdoch barely contained his amusement. “At least I’m doing my work.”
said you’d have my hide for coming in so early. Want I should cut the switch for you?”
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
gonna change? Darcy said you got
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.”
lawyer?” Johnny walked to the
desk and took the telegram, turning it in his hand and skimming the words.
official, at least.”
just sounds like a judge’s name is all.”
don’t care how his name sounds, as long as he overturned that court order.
It’s done now.”
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.”
picked the telegram up and slid it into his top drawer.
“I thought you’d be pleased.”
don’t look it.”
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.”
a minute. I have to wrestle these
columns into submission first.”
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.
kickin’ any?” Johnny asked.
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.”
dropped his shoulder into the wall and looked down at her.
“You oughta be sittin’.”
think there’s more men, don’t you? Like
Chandler—men who want to hurt you?”
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’
fine. Stop worrying.”
oughta be sittin’.”
snuggled tighter. “Ask me that
his face into her hair, he breathed in the scent. “Why’s that?”
laughed softly. “All right, how
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,”
And how do you figure that?”
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.”
She dragged her arm around his waist and they turned to the kitchen.
“What’d I tell you? I’m
a lucky woman.”
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.
was about time.