Turn the Page
by  Kathy S.


Disclaimer: The Lancer name and characters are the creation of others.  This story is written for entertainment purposes only, and no infringement on the copyright is intended.


Johnny Lancer pressed his heels to Barranca’s sides and after the palomino broke into a lope, he smiled at the easy gait.  He definitely had made the right decision when he chose this horse upon arriving at Lancer.

The sky was lighter to the east but held no sign of the sun yet.  Johnny had begun the ride into Morro Coyo early, leaving before Murdoch or Teresa awoke.  Better to get Murdoch’s chore done and out of the way.   He frowned at the unwanted trip to the bank and recalled the argument he had with his father last night.

Dinner had been fine until Murdoch said, “Johnny, tomorrow I need you to take a transfer order to the bank.”

Johnny set his fork aside and looked down at his plate.  “Scott’s better at bank business.”

“You’re part of this ranch and need to handle the business end as well.”  Murdoch’s voice rose, and his expression darkened.  “Besides, Scott’s not back from riding the north fence line, and this transfer needs to be done tomorrow.”
“Can’t you take care of it?  I planned to break that new mare Cipriano caught last week.”

“The horse can wait.  I don’t have to do everything around here.  You have responsibilities too, and it’s about time you started handling some of them.”

Johnny closed his eyes.  Hold your temper, Johnny boy.  He kept his tone steady.  “Anything else you want done?”

Teresa’s voice was soft.  “Johnny, I need a spool of thread.  Would you mind?” 

He looked into her eyes and sighed.  “All right, I’ll take care of the thread and the banking.”

So here he was, riding into Morro Coyo before dawn.  Neither task should take long, and then he would head back to Lancer.  He planned to be home in time to work with the mare before the heat of the afternoon.

At the outskirts of town, Johnny slowed Barranca to a walk.  The morning light brightened the adobe walls of the nearest building in shades of rose and yellow. The streets were empty, shrouded in a peaceful calm, and Johnny noticed how different Morro Coyo seemed at this time of day.  Most of his trips to town were in the afternoon and evenings.

The palomino’s hooves thudded in a slow cadence down the dusty street.  As they passed the livery, a dog barked, and in the distance, a rooster crowed.  Johnny paused in front of the general store and noted with dismay the “Closed” sign hanging in the front window.  The tools and barrels that normally occupied the boardwalk still were stored behind the locked doors.

“Guess we’ll have to wait to get Teresa’s thread.”  After patting Barranca’s neck, Johnny reined the horse across the street to the bank, but it was closed also.  He dismounted and wrapped the reins over a hitching rail.  Leaning against the post outside the bank, Johnny waited and watched the early morning activities as the small town started a new day.

The blacksmith opened the doors of the livery stable and shouted a greeting to the barber sweeping out his shop.  A wagon hauling eggs and milk rolled down the street and stopped before the cafe.  With lunch tins swinging, children ran from their homes at the sound of the schoolmarm’s bell.  Mr. Balderomo strolled to the door of his general store and bent to unlock it.

“Well, Barranca, maybe we will get that thread before the bank opens.”

Behind him, the shades over the bank windows snapped up, and Johnny turned to see the teller peering through the window at him.  The man checked his watch and removed the “Closed” sign.  Then he slid the dead bolt over and opened the door.

“Morning.”  Johnny raised his hand to his hat in greeting.

The bank teller nodded without saying a word.  He disappeared inside, scurrying behind the teller’s cage.

Johnny took a deep breath and pulled Murdoch’s transfer order from his saddlebag.  With spurs jangling, he entered the bank.  The mahogany counter, polished to a bright shine, spread before him, and the metal railing of the teller’s cage rose to the ceiling.  Behind the safety of the bars, the teller watched him with narrowed eyes.  Johnny stepped forward and placed the paper on the counter.  “I’m Johnny Lancer, and Murdoch wants you to do what this paper says.”

The teller’s face twitched.  “I know who you are.”

“Don’t reckon I’ve been in here before.”

The teller’s eyes darted to the door, and his voice rose an octave.  “Maybe not, but everyone knows who you are.”

Johnny removed his hat and fingered its brim.  The man’s reaction wasn’t what he expected.  “Look, I just need to make sure you take care of Murdoch’s transfer.”

“Oh… oh, yes.”  The man reached for the paper with trembling fingers.

“Do I need to sign anything?”  Johnny felt his own tension growing.  He hadn’t wanted to do this job, and it didn’t help that the man behind the teller’s cage was acting like he was there to rob the bank.

“No.  Give me a moment, and you’ll get a receipt acknowledging the transaction.”  The teller fumbled through some papers, scribbled a note, discarded it, and wrote another.  The pen shook in his hand, splattering ink across the receipt.

Mighty big words he’s using.  Sure is a nervous type.  Johnny’s thoughts traveled back several years to his first visit to a bank.  He actually had some money from a range war job he had done.  He chuckled to himself.  The teller in some worn-out little town south of the border had been just as nervous as this one.  Of course, that other fellow had been dealing with Johnny Madrid, and it was gun money.  Still, he had refused to open an account for Johnny and pointed a pistol at him, demanding that the gunhawk leave.

Johnny shook his head.  He and banks were just not a good combination.  Growing up, he and his mother never had enough money to need a bank.  Guess that’s changed now.

The teller finished the receipt and slid it toward Johnny.  The man quickly pulled his hand away and took a step backwards.

“Thanks.”  Johnny stuffed the receipt in his pocket and left.  As he stepped off the plank sidewalk and onto the quiet street, his thoughts were bothered by the teller’s reaction.  Determined to put the incident behind him, he shook his head.  It’s over!

Johnny’s stomach rumbled and he decided a good cup of coffee and a solid breakfast would help put the unsettling bank experience behind him.  He stepped down the street to his favorite café.  The Widow Peterson, the owner of the small eatery, was in the kitchen when he entered, so he took a seat at a vacant table.  The smell of sizzling bacon floated through the air.

Widow Peterson entered the dining room with a tray of pastries.  When Johnny smiled at her, her eyes widened and she dropped the tray.  He rose to help her clean up the mess.

“No, no.  It’s not necessary.  Really.  I can take care of this myself,” she said in a quivering voice.  “Please, have a seat.  I’ll bring you some coffee.”

Johnny returned to his table, but felt that same tug of uneasiness.  Too many years of relying on his intuition told him something was wrong.  He studied the other diners, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  Some folks hunched over their plates eating breakfast, while a few lingered in their seats deep in conversation.

Widow Peterson arrived with a large pot of coffee and set a mug before Johnny.  As she poured, steam rose from the strong brew.  Then the pot wobbled, and a stream of coffee splashed on the table cloth.

“Can I help with that?”  Johnny reached for the coffee pot.

Her voice betrayed her anxiety.  “I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me.” Her fingers tightened around the handle, and her knuckles whitened.

“No problem.  None of it landed on me.”  He chuckled and flashed a smile.  “It could have been painful.”

“I… I…”  Tears tumbled down her checks.

“Mrs. Peterson, is something wrong?”  He felt that stab of uncertainty again.  Tears over spilled coffee just didn’t make sense.  “Don’t worry about the coffee.  Set the pot down, and I’ll do the rest.”

She placed the coffee pot on the table and ran from the room.  The other dining room patrons watched her go and glanced at Johnny with accusation in their eyes.  Quickly, they turned away and whispered to each other.

Johnny topped off his mug and sipped the coffee, lost in thought.  Things just ain’t adding up this morning.  You’d think there was a polecat loose in town.  He’d been at Lancer for over two months, and people had seen him before.  Never had they reacted the way they were this morning.  It just didn’t add up.  He finished the coffee, and since Widow Peterson never returned, he skipped breakfast, deciding he’d get something back at Lancer.

Distracted by his own uneasiness and pondering the events of the morning, he swung atop Barranca and galloped home.


The conversation at the dinner table swirled around Johnny.  Scott had returned from the north range, and Murdoch was quizzing him about the condition of the cattle on that part of the ranch.  Johnny half listened to his brother’s response, but found his thoughts drifting back to the banker and Widow Peterson.  He had spent the afternoon working with the roan mare, and the spirited animal had taken his full attention.  Now, in the calm of the house, he reviewed the events of the morning and tried to put a name to what was bothering him.


Johnny’s head jerked up at the sharp sound of Murdoch’s voice.  He searched his father’s face for some sign of what had aggravated him.

“Teresa asked you a question.”

“Sorry,” Johnny said softly and glanced at the young woman, who smiled back.

“Did you get my thread?”

Maybe that accounted for the nagging feeling that he couldn’t shake.  “I’m sorry, Teresa.  I forgot.”  Johnny dropped his head, hating to let her down since she asked so little of him.

“That’s okay, Johnny.  It’s not important.”

“Yes it is,” Murdoch said, his face turning a ruddier shade.  “And what about the bank transfer?”

Johnny stared at his father, steeling himself for another confrontation with the older man.  “I said I was sorry about the thread.”  He reached into his pocket and removed the bank receipt.  “I took care of your business.  Here’s the paper from the bank.”

He set the crumpled paper on the table.  Its corners were stained with his sweat and dirt after an afternoon of working with the mare.  The ink had smudged across the crinkled surface of the receipt.

Murdoch smoothed the document flat and examined the writing.  “Is this the way you treat critical records?  And it’s not my business; it’s our business.  When are you going to take responsibility around here?  One day it’s a fence that’s not mended.  The next, cattle that stray or thread that’s forgotten.”

“Murdoch,” Scott said, “Johnny probably didn’t--“

Murdoch cast a withering glance at his oldest son, then glared at Johnny and pointed a finger at him.  “Tomorrow, you’re going back to Morro Coyo and you’ll get that thread for Teresa.”

“It can wait.”  Teresa’s hand reached for Murdoch’s arm.

“No, it can’t.  This boy needs to learn responsibility.”

Johnny fought back his anger and took a deep breath to calm himself.  He talks like I’m some niño.  I made a mistake.  I apologized.  What more does he want?

“I need some barbed wire to finish the north fence,” Scott said.  “I’m going to town tomorrow for that and can pick up the thread.”

Johnny’s jaw clenched.  Scott was trying to help, but it was best if he stayed out of the matter.  This was between him and their father.

Murdoch shook his head.  “No.  Johnny will get the thread and the barbed wire.”  Leaning toward Johnny, he asked with exaggerated patience, “Can you remember that or do you need me to write it down?”

Johnny shoved his chair back and sprang to his feet.  “No need, old man.”  His voice was low and menacing.  “I probably couldn’t read it anyway.”  He stormed to the door and out into the night


Pulling his hat lower over his eyes, Johnny drove the wagon down the main street in Morro Coyo.  He guided the team to the general store and jumped from the wagon seat.  With a quick glance along the boardwalk, he headed into the store.  In contrast to the sunlit street, the interior was dim and he needed a moment to let his eyes adjust.

The shelves behind the counter brimmed with jars of preserves, cans of beans, and bolts of fabric.  Buckets, axes and kitchen gear filled the room.  A jar of peppermint sticks on a nearby table caught his eye, and he remembered wanting one as a kid but having no money to buy it.  The weight of the coins in his jacket pocket reminded him that he didn’t have any excuse not to indulge in one now.  He smiled and wondered if Scott or Teresa liked candy.  He’d buy some for them—a sort of peace offering for his foul temper last night.  He doubted Murdoch would want anything from him.  He probably doesn’t like candy anyhow.

At the counter, Mrs. Balderomo laughed in her usual jovial manner and leaned closer to a young man and woman examining an item of particular interest.  A little boy ran up and tugged on the man’s pants leg, begging his father for a piece of candy, but his plea was ignored.  The boy pointed to the peppermint sticks, and Johnny reached into the jar for a piece.  Crouching to be at the boy’s eye level, Johnny handed the chubby-checked blond the sugary confection and watched the small face light up with pleasure.  The ex-gunfighter grinned at the reaction to his simple gesture.  No one had ever done that for him when he was young.

Johnny rose and tousled the child’s hair.  Then he stepped toward the counter where Mrs. Balderomo was packing supplies for the couple.

“Sí.  It’s the last one I have,” the shopkeeper’s wife said.  “Everyone in town is reading it.  I can’t keep them in the store, they sell fast.”

The boy’s father held up the dime novel and added it to his box of supplies.  “I’ll take it then.  Need something to keep Jason quiet at night.”  He gazed down at his son and noticed the candy.  “How did you get that?”

“I gave it to him,” Johnny said in a friendly voice.

The man scrutinized him and frowned.  “Abigail, take that away from Jason and get him outside.”

“There’s no need to do that.”  Johnny watched the mother grab the peppermint stick from her son’s hand.  Wailing, the boy stamped his feet and reached for the candy.  She patted the child’s bottom and pushed him toward the door.

Johnny felt bad for the little boy.  Having the candy and losing it had to be worse than not having it at all.  “Didn’t mean no harm,” he said quietly.

“We don’t want nothing from the likes of you.”

Johnny stiffened and stared at the man.  “What does that mean?”

The boy’s father shuffled his feet and cleared his throat.  “Nothing.  It don’t mean nothing.”  He took the box from the counter and hurried past Johnny.

Watching the door close behind the man, Johnny shook his head.  Different town, same dislike for half-breeds.  Some things just never change .  He willed his muscles to relax and his breathing to slow, but the uneasiness remained.

“Señor Johnny,” Mrs. Balderomo’s cheerful voice broke his concentration.

“I need a few things, Señora.  Thread for Teresa and a dozen reels of barbed wire.”

“I call mi esposo to help you load the wire.  The thread I have here.”  She selected a spool of white thread from the shelf behind her.  After handing the thread to Johnny, she made an entry in her ledger.  “There is more you need?”

Johnny shook his head, and placed the thread in his jacket pocket.  Then he thought of the peppermint sticks.  “You reckon Teresa might like some of those?”

Mrs. Balderomo clicked her tongue.  “I think a certain hombre with blue eyes might.”

Smiling, Johnny reached in the candy jar and pulled out a handful.  “Add these to the bill, and that one for the boy.  I’m sure Murdoch won’t mind.”  Even as he said the words, he realized he had no idea whether his father would care.  He was still trying to figure Murdoch’s way of thinking.  Many of Johnny’s decision had not satisfied the old man so far.

With light-hearted laughter, Mrs. Balderomo wrapped the candy in brown paper.  “You live dangerously. Señor Lancer worries about every purchase.”

Before Johnny could respond, Mr. Balderomo emerged from the back room and greeted him.  They spoke about the ranch in Spanish, and would have continued to talk, but Mrs. Balderomo called out, “Twelve reels of barbed wire.”  Mr. Balderomo gestured for Johnny to follow him, and together they hauled the heavy reels of wire from the storage area to the boardwalk in front of the store.

While Johnny loaded the reels into the wagon, he pictured Teresa’s face when she opened the package of peppermint sticks.  That should make up for forgetting the thread yesterday.  As he worked, his mind wandered.  Thread and wire--he mused about the difference between the two.  Thread to make useful and fine things, just like Teresa.  Wire with its barbs and stiffness, just like Murdoch.  The wire would rip his shirt when he installed fences, and in Teresa’s skilled hands, the thread would mend the tears.  If only it was as easy to fix the rift between father and son.

When Johnny finished positioning the reels of barbed wire in the wagon, he closed the tailgate.  Glancing at the sun, he decided he had time for a quick drink to ease his thirst.  He removed his work gloves and dropped them on the wagon seat beside the package of candy.  With a swipe of his shirt sleeve across his face, he walked down the street to the nearest saloon.

Conversation stopped the moment he entered the room.  Johnny’s eyes swept around the place, surveying the men seated at the tables, then the patrons leaning against the worn bar.  He knew all of them, but not a single man met his gaze and they suddenly took an uncommon interest in their drinks.  A tingle ran up his spine, and his muscles tensed.  Something’s wrong.  No doubt about it.

In a slow, nonchalant stride, Johnny stepped to the bar.  “A beer, Tom.”  He reached in his jacket pocket and emptied the contents on the stained bar.  The spool of thread and a few coins rolled across the surface.

Tom set the filled mug in front of him, and Johnny pushed a coin toward the bartender.  He raised the beer to his lips, letting the cool liquid quench his dry throat.  Listening to the sound of chairs scraping across the floor, Johnny glanced in the mirror to see one man after another leave the saloon.  He rested his elbow against the bar and watched the last of the departing patrons hurry outside.  “Looks like I’m not too good for your business, Tom,” he said.

The bartender mumbled a response that Johnny couldn’t understand.  He narrowed his eyes at the man, who moved down the bar collecting half-empty glasses and dabbing at wet spots.  Johnny watched him fidget with a wash towel the entire time.

Damn!  Johnny drained his beer and slammed the mug on the bar.  “Anyone been asking for me?”


“Anyone new in town?”

The bartender’s voice quivered.  “No, Johnny.  Only the usual crowd.”

Johnny rubbed his hand over his face.  He wasn’t afraid of a fight.  As Johnny Madrid, he’d had years of gun battles, fist fights and arguments.  He knew how to handle himself against desperadoes and gunhawks.  But who was he to fight here?  His hand lingered over his gun in its holster, his fingers twitching.

Without a word, Johnny left the saloon and returned to the wagon.  The street was empty, but he knew eyes were watching from behind windows.  Driving the team down the dusty road toward Lancer, he couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that an old enemy had arrived in town.  But who?


It was mid-afternoon when the wagon rumbled through the arched entryway to the ranch.  Johnny, his shoulders hunched, flicked the reins across the horses’ rumps, heading them toward the barn.  His thoughts on the ride home hadn’t improved his disposition.

Scott rode over from the corral, where he had been talking to Cipriano.  “Welcome back, Johnny.  Looks like we’ve got enough wire to keep us busy for weeks.”

“No doubt,” he said, without glancing at his older brother.

Scott pulled his horse alongside the wagon.  “I’m sorry you had to pick up the wire.  I was planning to do that myself.”

Johnny tugged on the reins, and the team slowed to a walk.  “It’s done.”  He felt a pang of annoyance with himself; Scott wasn’t to blame, so he lightened his tone.  “I still have time to work with the roan mare this afternoon.”

“She seems quite settled.”  They both studied the small horse grazing in the pasture.  She lifted her head to watch the passing wagon.  “Looks the kind to make a fine lady’s riding horse,” Scott suggested.

Johnny’s eyes focused on his brother, and he grinned.  “Yeah.  Reckon I’ll have Teresa give her a try in a few more days.”

Scott smiled back at Johnny’s banter.

“Whoa.”  Outside the barn, Johnny set the brake on the wagon, jumped down and stretched.  “Where do you want the wire?”

Scott dismounted and motioned to Cipriano.  “One of the hands can take it up to the north line shack.”

Teresa ran from the main house and waved.  “Hi, Johnny.”

“Got something for you.”  He grabbed the package from the wagon seat.

Teresa’s face brightened even more.  She took the bundle and turned it over in her hands.  “I only needed one spool.  How many did you buy?”

Johnny patted his jacket pocket and grimaced.  The image of the thread lying on the bar flashed through his mind.  “Teresa, it ain’t what you think.”

But before he could explain, the barn door swung open, and Murdoch emerged with a vaquero at his side.  Removing his work gloves, Murdoch walked over to Teresa and glanced at the package in her hand before smiling at Johnny.  “You’re back.”

With a wince, Johnny nodded at his father.  Now I’ve gone and done it again.

After she opened the package to display the peppermint sticks, Teresa squealed in delight.  “Oh, Johnny.  Thank you.  Look.”  She held the candy out for Scott and Murdoch to see, then gave Johnny an impulsive hug.

Johnny looked over her shoulder at his father.  Here it comes .

“Did you remember the thread?”  Murdoch’s face was stony.

Backing away from Teresa, Johnny dropped his head and wrapped his arms across his chest.  “I bought it.”

Murdoch’s voice was harsh, his brow furrowed.  “Where is it?”

“I left it in the saloon.”  He scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt, and his eyes darted to Teresa.  “I’m sorry.”

“There’s probably some reason you did that, but I don’t want to hear it,” Murdoch said.  “Saddle your horse.  You’re going back to town right now for that thread. You need to learn responsibility.”

Johnny’s head shot up, and he glared at his father.  “I’ve been responsible for myself since my mother died.”

“Being responsible to others is what I’m talking about.  And it doesn’t seem like you’ve learned that at all.  Scott, ride with him and make sure he finishes this task.”

His anger rising, Johnny stepped forward.  “Look, old man—“

Murdoch turned his back and slapped the work gloves against his thigh.  “Get it done.”  He left his sons and marched to the hacienda.

“Murdoch,” Teresa called after him.

Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “He doesn’t mean—“

“Leave it, Brother.”  He pulled away from Scott and trudged into the barn to saddle Barranca.


Teresa watched the dark-hired man who was like a brother close the barn door behind himself.  Twirling around to face Scott, she grabbed his arm.  “What’s going on?”

Scott shrugged, troubled by the exchange between his father and brother.  “Johnny and Murdoch butting heads again, I suppose.”

“The thread isn’t that important.  I can get it the next time I go to town.”  She closed the wrapping around the peppermint sticks.

“I think this is about more than thread,” Scott said, running his fingers through his hair.

With a shake of her head, Teresa looked toward the barn.  “Have you noticed that something’s bothering Johnny?  It’s not like him to forget things.”

Scott recalled his recent conversations with his brother.  “No.  I can’t say I noticed anything different.  He can be moody at times.”

“He seemed distracted at dinner last night, like there’s a problem.  Only he hasn’t told any of us about it.”

“What sort of problem?”  Scott had been tired at dinner last night, and except for the exchange about the thread, he couldn’t think of anything unusual.

“I don’t know.  Maybe someone from his past?”

The barn door flew open on its creaky hinges and banged into the wall.  Scott and Teresa turned to see Johnny vault into the saddle and urge Barranca forward.  The palomino galloped past them with the rider leaning close to the horse’s neck.

“Keep an eye on him,” Teresa said, watching Johnny ride through the Lancer arch.

Scott gathered his horse’s reins and mounted.  “I’ll see what I can find out.”

Twisting the package of candy in her hands, Teresa watched Johnny and Barranca disappear in the distance.  “You better hurry.”


Scott raced after Johnny, but it took him some time to compensate for Barranca’s lead.  Once he was close enough to be heard, he shouted, “Slow down, Brother.”

As Johnny sat back in the saddle, the palomino’s pace eased.  Scott brought his horse alongside and glanced at his dark-haired brother.  “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

Johnny didn’t say anything for a few moments.  Then he sighed.  “Nothing.  I just don’t measure up to Murdoch’s expectations.”

“That’s not true, Johnny.”

Johnny’s eyes locked on Scott’s, and he pulled up the palomino.  “Isn’t it?  Then why are you tagging along on this trip for a spool of thread?”

Scott flinched, at a loss to explain why they were heading into town.  “Murdoch’s just…”

“Yeah, Murdoch’s just Murdoch.  Drop it, Scott.”  Johnny turned his head forward, and urged Barranca into a ground-covering lope.  Scott fell in beside him, and they rode together without speaking.

When the town buildings appeared ahead, Scott decided to try a different approach with his brother.  “Do you mind if I stop at the barber shop?”

“Got to improve those pretty-boy looks?”

Scott recognized the playful teasing in Johnny’s voice and parried back.  “You could use a trim too.”

“Says who?”  Johnny smiled, and a mischievous glint sparkled in his blue eyes.

With a chuckle, Scott felt relief course through his body.  This was the side of Johnny he enjoyed.  Today they would get the thread and put this incident behind them.  He’d talk to Murdoch and smooth the whole thing over.  Little Brother, you and our father are two of the most stubborn men I’ve ever known.

They slowed to a walk and passed the first buildings on the edge of Morro Coyo.

“Teresa sure liked the candy,” Johnny said softly.

“Yes.  It was a very thoughtful thing for you to do.”  Scott marveled at his brother.  What a confusing mix of gentleness and strength .

“She deserves it, putting up with the likes of me.”  Johnny straightened his back and lifted his head.

Scott caught his brother’s movement out of the corner of his eye.  “Something wrong?”

“No.”  Johnny pulled his hat forward, shielding his face from the sun.

Watching him, Scott knew better.  Johnny had become wary, his eyes roving the street.  His face was immobile.  With the slightest shift, his hand rested on his gun.  It sent a chill through Scott to see the change in his brother.

In front of them, a few people crossed the street, hurrying out of their way.  Scott studied the town folk but saw nothing unusual until he shifted in his saddle.  Then, he noticed men ducking into doorways behind them.  Raising an eyebrow, he looked over at Johnny.  “Sure there’s no problem?”

Johnny guided Barranca to the hitching rail in front of the saloon and dismounted.  “Meet you at the barber in a few minutes.”

“Johnny?”  Scott got no answer.  He waited until his brother entered the saloon.  Wonder if I should go in with him?  Johnny didn’t need him riding herd over a spool of thread.  He was not one to be kept on a tight rein.  Scott shrugged and continued down the street to the barber, pondering whether Teresa was right about someone from Johnny’s past being in town. It wouldn’t be the first time Madrid’s reputation had caught up with him.  Maybe that explains why he tensed up when we rode into town.


Johnny leaned against the bar.  “Tequila.”

The bartender placed a glass in front of him and poured the clear liquid.  “You want the whole bottle?”

“No, Tom.  This is all.”  He lifted the glass and raised it to the bartender.  “Here’s to twice in one day.”  He smiled, thinking of his own carelessness in forgetting the thread.  “Did you find something I left behind earlier?”  He drank the last of the tequila and set the glass down.

Tom nodded and reached for a box of lost and found items.  He put the box on the bar and rummaged through it.  Johnny regarded the strange assortment of trinkets, guns, gloves, and mementos left by drunken cowboys and visitors.  The bartender seemed flustered, but he kept at his task.

Drawn by the sound of agitated voices, Johnny studied the two men at the other end of the bar.  The older cowboy was Andy Reynolds, foreman at the Triple T Ranch.  Johnny had played poker with him a few times and judged him to be an honest man.  The younger man with the curly red hair was new to Johnny, but he bore a strong resemblance to the owner of the Triple T Ranch.

The young man’s words were angry and sharp. “See that, Andy?  It’s Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny felt the familiar tug of his past life.  Despite his efforts to leave the gun days behind, they were still with him.  He sighed and put both hands on the bar.  “It’s Lancer, Johnny Lancer.”

The young man stared at him.  “Yeah, sure.”

“You’re one of Danny Sullivan’s boys,” Johnny said, keeping his voice quiet.

“And you are Murdoch Lancer’s half-breed cur.”  The young man’s face reddened, and he pushed away from the bar.  For a moment, he hesitated; then he lunged toward Johnny.

“Easy now, Brad.”  The Triple T foreman put an arm across the young man’s chest, pulling him back.

The redhead struggled against Andy’s grip, but the foreman didn’t budge.  Brad’s voice rose in volume, and he pointed at Johnny.  “We got ourselves a real mean rattlesnake here.”

“I found it,” the bartender said in triumph, pulling the spool of thread from the box.  He rolled it along the bar in Johnny’s direction. 

“Andy, look!  Didn’t picture a desperado like Madrid for a seamstress.”  Brad’s laughter filled the room.

The foreman glanced at Johnny.  “Brad, that’s enough.”

“Better listen to him,” Johnny said in a soft drawl.  He picked up the thread and examined it with infinite care, hoping the Sullivan boy would back off.  He’s too young for this.  With some sadness, he realized he had been much younger when he shot his first man.

“Or what?  You gonna back-shoot me like you did all those others?”

Johnny wanted to punch Brad Sullivan, but he kept his emotions in check.  The man’s accusation confused him.  He wasn’t a back-shooter.  In all the gunfights--in all those dark years--he had never sunk to shooting a man in the back.  No, he met his enemies head on.  He was ready to meet this one head on too, but the prospect of losing all that he’d come to love about being Johnny Lancer stopped him.  He tightened his fingers around the spool of thread.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Johnny said.

“You’re a killer, Madrid.”  The redhead’s lips curled into a sneer.

Andy positioned himself between Johnny and Brad Sullivan.  “We need to be going.”

“I’ll go when I’m ready.  Another beer,” Brad demanded. 

Johnny slid the thread into his jacket pocket and turned away from the bar.  His every nerve hummed with pent-up energy.  If something’s going to happen, now’s the time.  He reached the door and silently thanked Andy for his help.  Brad Sullivan was in over his head.  The saloon doors swung shut behind Johnny, and he took a deep breath, relieved he didn’t have to show the kid how good he was with a gun.

Brad’s words carried into the street.  “Madrid, this isn’t done.” 


 “Scott, you ready to go?”  Johnny paced around the barber shop.

An older gentleman waiting for a shave dropped his dime novel and bent to retrieve it.  He coughed and said, “I’ll be back later.”  He scurried out, glancing over his shoulder as he left.

“Just a few more minutes, Johnny,” Scott said.  “Why don’t you have a seat?  You’re making everyone nervous.”

Johnny settled into the chair the older man had vacated.  He watched the barber trim around his brother’s ears.  To Johnny’s way of thinking, the man’s hands were shaking so badly, he shouldn’t be holding scissors near anyone’s head, let alone his ears.

“Do you want a trim, Brother?”

Another glance at the panicked expression on the barber’s face convinced Johnny he’d go without a haircut today.  “Maybe another time.”

Turning his head, Scott studied his reflection in the mirror.  “Did you get the thread?”

“Yes.”  Johnny patted his pocket and felt the spool.  He was tired and wanted to be on Barranca riding away from town.  The people and buildings seemed to be pressing in around him.  The tension and nervous energy were wearing him down.  A sigh of exhaustion escaped his lips, and he dropped his head.  “I’ll meet you outside, Scott.”

“Be with you in just a minute.”


Johnny handed Scott the reins to his horse and gave him a crooked smile.  “Don’t you look smart.”

“You’re just jealous, Little Brother.”  Scott mounted and backed his horse away from the hitching rail.

Shaking his head, Johnny gathered Barranca’s reins and placed his foot in the stirrup.


A cold stillness filled Johnny.  He knew the routine, and this time he knew who he was dealing with.  He had no wish to kill Brad Sullivan, but Scott was in the line of fire and too close for him to do anything other than shoot to kill.  Removing his foot from the stirrup, Johnny dropped the reins and stood still, his back to the young man. 

“I’m calling you out.”  Brad’s words grew louder.  “Madrid!”

Johnny judged the direction and distance from the sound of the approaching voice.  He flexed his fingers.

Scott edged his horse closer.  “Johnny, what’s this about?”

“Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.”  His eyes met Scott’s.  “Get out of the way.”

“Madrid, I’m gunning for you.  Now turn around.”

“I’ve got no quarrel with you,” Johnny called over his shoulder.  Why is he doing this?

“You’re a filthy, murdering half-breed.”

“I’m riding out of here.”  Johnny bent to retrieve Barranca’s reins, giving him a view of Brad Sullivan.  The young man’s hand hovered near his side and inched toward his gun belt.

“No, you’re not.”  The redhead pulled his pistol.  A female bystander screamed, and the people remaining in the street ran for cover.

In one fluid motion, Johnny dropped to his knees and drew his gun.  He fired once, his bullet striking Brad in the center of the chest.  The roar of the gunshot echoed down the street.  Terrified horses snorted and pawed the ground.

The young man staggered, and his fingers loosened, dropping the unfired gun back into its holster.  He fell face down in the dirt and lay motionless.

Every detail blazed in Johnny’s mind.  The final moments of a gunfight always seemed to last forever.  Slowly, Johnny rose to his feet.  His gun remained ready for any other challengers.  He called over his shoulder, “Scott, you okay?”

“I’m fine.”  Scott dismounted and ran to his brother’s side.  “What was that all about?”

“I wish I knew.”  Johnny walked over to the limp body in the street, certain his opponent was dead.  He crouched and rolled Brad onto his back.  The young man’s vest flapped open exposing the blood stain growing on the front of his shirt.  A folded roll of paper stuck out of an inside pocket in the vest.  Johnny removed it and unfolded the dime novel.

“It wasn’t Johnny’s fault,” Scott said, his shadow falling over the dead body.

Johnny looked up and realized his brother was speaking to Andy Reynolds.  The foreman nodded in agreement.  Johnny glanced at the novel, tucked it in his gun belt, and went to retrieve Barranca.

Scott followed him.  “Johnny?”

Johnny took a deep breath and mounted.  Looking back at the crowd gathering around the dead man, he frowned.  “Fool kid.”  He pivoted the palomino on its haunches and spurred the horse into a gallop.


Murdoch turned up the wick in the lamp, and the flame brightened the papers spread before him on the desk.  He returned to adding the column of numbers, but the figures seemed to change even as he looked at them.  He put the pen back in the inkstand.  What’s the use?  You know the problem isn’t the light.

Danny Sullivan was a friend, a good friend.  He had come over from Ireland about the same time Murdoch had emigrated from Scotland.  In their own ways, they carved a living out of the land by years of hard work.  While Murdoch built his estancia by himself, Danny had his sons to help him.  Six.  Six strong boys.  Each the image of their red-haired father.

Murdoch tried to recall the names of Danny’s sons.  Brad was the youngest—a good boy and just turned eighteen.  His heart ached for the pain Danny must be in over his son’s death.  A death caused by his youngest son.  What if it had gone differently and Scott had come home with Johnny’s body slung over Barranca’s back?  He shivered.

A log popped in the fireplace, and Murdoch’s gaze fixed on the wavering flames.  They cast a warm, irregular glow around the room.  His eyes traveled to Johnny, sitting on the sofa, absorbed in the novel he was reading.

Shaking his head, Murdoch returned to the column of numbers, but his mind wandered to the look on Johnny’s face when the boys returned from town.  As soon as he saw his sons, he knew something was wrong.  Scott assured him that Johnny had acted in self-defense.  The confusion and sorrow on Johnny’s face told him what he needed to know.

Why?  What would possess Brad to pull a gun on Johnny?  Murdoch rose from the desk.  There was no use working on the books tonight.  He went over to the fireplace and stared at the burning logs.

Once again, he had overreacted at the news of trouble.  Despite Scott’s assurances, Murdoch had attacked Johnny, questioning him over and over about what he had done to provoke the Sullivan boy.  There had been no answer, and his son looked so hurt.  Why can’t I talk to that boy without both of us losing our tempers?

He was surprised Johnny was still here.  After the angry words this evening, he expected the boy to ride off like he usually did.  However, for some reason, he stayed.  Murdoch was relieved but puzzled.

The sound of paper crinkling intruded on Murdoch’s thoughts.  He shifted positions and watched his son turn the page of the novel.  Johnny’s forehead was furrowed in concentration, and he leaned forward, clenching the book in a tight grasp.  The pages were worn and dog-eared.

Murdoch was glad Johnny had some schooling.  Maria had at least seen to that.  “What are you reading?”  He waited, but Johnny gave no reply.

“Looks like one of those dime novels.  Never wasted any of my time on those.”  Murdoch realized his words sounded insulting.  “You know, Johnny, we have plenty of good books on the shelves over there.  Help yourself any time you want something to read.”

As Johnny turned another page, his expression grew angry.  No , Murdoch decided.  He looks bitter.  It was time to stop this before it went any further.


Johnny’s head jerked, and he jumped to his feet, reaching for his gun.

“Easy, son.”  Murdoch’s heart raced.  What has gotten into him?   “I’m sorry, Johnny.  I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Johnny blinked, and his eyes focused on Murdoch.  Then he glanced down at the novel in his hands and tossed it in the fire.

“Hey, there was no need to do that,” Murdoch said.  He stepped closer to this son, putting his hand out to touch Johnny’s arm.

Johnny’s voice sounded far away and cold.  “Trash.”  He whirled around and left the house.

Now what?  Why can’t I talk to that boy without setting a match to the powder keg?


Scott entered the room and found his father leaning over the fireplace with a poker in his hand.  “Mind if I join you?”

Murdoch pulled the charred remains of a novel onto the hearth.  He stamped out the flames and set the poker aside.

Scott laughed.  “Have we taken to burning your books for heat?”  When he first arrived at Lancer, he had been amazed at the size of Murdoch’s book collection.  He certainly hadn’t expected his father to be an avid reader, but then there was much he didn’t know about the older man.

“No, Scott.  Johnny was reading this.  He looked so…  He threw it in the fire.  I thought maybe…”

The tone of his father’s voice concerned Scott.  He bent down and examined the smoldering novel.  Tiny wisps of smoke curled from the charred edges.  Carefully, he lifted the book, and bits of burnt paper dropped to the floor.  “Johnny took this from Brad Sullivan.”  His eyes met Murdoch’s.  “After the gunfight.”

“Well, then he should have given it back to Danny Sullivan, not burned it.”

Scott thumbed through the pages, glancing at the remnants of words and sentences that were still legible.  His eyes widened, and he sat down.

“I hope the fight wasn’t over this,” Murdoch said.  “These dime novels are a waste.  Johnny even called it trash.  Most of what’s in them isn’t true.”

“I hope none of it’s true.”  Scott’s mind was churning through the meaning of what he had read so far.


“Listen to this.”  Scott tilted the novel so more firelight fell on the page.  “Madrid’s eyes were black, empty and without feeling.”  He flipped a page and scanned the charred paper.  “A scar turned Madrid’s lip into a permanent sneer.”  Scott looked at this father and turned another page.  “Madrid kicked the lifeless body…  And there’s more just like that.  It’s sickening.”

 “That doesn’t sound like Johnny.”  Murdoch took the novel from Scott.

“Exactly.  But there are those who don’t know him like we do.”  He recalled his brother’ smiling face and soft laughter.

Murdoch stared into the fire.  “Or maybe we don’t really know him.”

“You can’t believe this… this rubbish.”

“No.  I suppose not.”  Murdoch sighed.  “Tomorrow I’ll visit Danny Sullivan.  Maybe I can…  I don’t know.  Maybe apologize.”


Murdoch Lancer and Danny Sullivan stood beside the freshly-dug grave.  A wooden cross bearing Brad’s name marked the mound.  It joined an older, weathered slab with faded letters.

“’Tis true, Murdoch.  Me own foreman told me the way of it.  Pity of it was Brad thought he was doing right.”

Murdoch breathed a little easier.  Danny seemed to be taking the situation better than he had expected.  “Johnny wanted to come talk to you, but I thought it best if I spoke with you first.”  He was stretching the truth a bit.  Johnny had not offered to come.  Murdoch hadn’t even seen him since he stormed out of the house last night.

“You keep that devil away from me.”  Danny rested his hand on the cross.

“He’s a good man, Danny.  It doesn’t make Brad’s death any easier, but Johnny was only defending himself.”

Danny put his hat on and walked away from the grave.  “Me boy was wrong to go at him like he did.  But you’re the one need be worrying.  ‘Tis not a good thing to have a cold-blooded renegade like him near the likes of Teresa.”

Walking beside Danny, Murdoch paused before responding.  “Johnny wouldn’t do anything to hurt Teresa.”

Danny stopped and faced Murdoch.  “Like those wee ones he slaughtered in Sonora?  ‘Tis the last thing Brad told me about him.  Killed those children while they begged for mercy.  Sure did.”

“You’re wrong.  My son would never hurt a woman or child, but if I catch anyone even suggesting such a lie, well they’ll have to deal with me.”  Murdoch felt his face redden.

“Have you asked him?  Do you know for true the deeds he done?”

Murdoch swallowed hard.  “I better be going.”  He shook Danny’s hand.  “I am sorry about Brad.”  He went to his horse and mounted slowly.

“I’d be keeping an eye on Teresa,” Danny said.  “You have the devil himself living with you.  You do.”

Murdoch waved farewell, unsettled by the conflicting emotions he felt.  This tragedy appeared to be due to misconceptions in a dime novel, but Danny’s questions hit home.  How much did he know about Johnny’s actions?  The Pinkerton report had gaps and unaccounted blanks of time.  Was some of what was in the novel true?


Johnny ran the brush along Barranca’s back.  He stroked in a steady, even rhythm.  The horse’s coat gleamed in a golden hue under the mid-day sun.  He paused in his brushing as Murdoch rode up to the corral fence.

His father dismounted and leaned against the upper rail.  “I spoke with Danny Sullivan.  His foreman backs up your story.”

“It wasn’t a story, Murdoch.  It’s the way it happened.”  Johnny began brushing Barranca again.  His strokes were stronger and faster than before.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

Johnny stopped himself from firing back the words that raced through his mind.

“Son, Danny asked me what I knew about your past.”

“What did you tell him?”  Johnny finished with the brush and turned to face his father.

Murdoch dug at a splinter in the railing.  “I didn’t answer him.”

“Didn’t your Pinkerton agents tell you everything?”

“Not everything.”

Johnny walked over to the fence.  He was getting annoyed with the cat-and-mouse questions and answers.  “So what do you want to know?”

Murdoch hesitated.  “Is there anything you should tell me about Sonora?”

“I spent a lot of time in Sonora.”  Johnny’s temper was getting the better of him, and he flicked his fingers against his leg.  “Ask me straight out what you want to know.”

“Can you tell me anything about some children in Sonora that might have been killed?”

A chill spread through Johnny’s body.  “You think I killed some children in Sonora?”  He lowered his head.

“No.  But Brad told Danny something like that.  I realize it’s probably just that dime novel nonsense, but…”

“But you’re not sure.”  Johnny recognized two things instantly.  Murdoch knew about the dime novel.  How did he find out?  And his father couldn’t tell whether the hateful words in it were true.

“I had to ask,” Murdoch said.

“Is that what you think of me?  That I kill children?”  Johnny pulled his saddle from the fence and placed it on Barranca’s back.

“No, Johnny.”

He tightened the cinch and gathered the reins.  In one fluid motion, he swung into the saddle.  “It’s best if I leave.  Tell Teresa and Scott…  Just tell them I’m gone.”  He had been a fool to think this would last.  Even if the novel were full of lies, he would always be Johnny Madrid.  There was no getting away from that.  But he could get away from Lancer.  If he stayed, someone was going to get hurt.  He wouldn’t be responsible for that.  Despite what Murdoch thought, he did understand about being responsible for others.  He rode hard, putting distance between himself and Lancer.


Scott escorted Teresa along the boardwalk in Morro Coyo.  He smiled down at her, aware that she was keeping up a brave front.  In the five days since Johnny left, she had shared with Scott how much Brad meant to her.  They had been schoolmates, danced at the town socials, and she baked him a pie for the church’s last picnic.  It must be hard for her.

“I thought I would get Johnny some new shirts,” she said.  “I tried to mend his white shirt, but it was so torn and stained.  That’s why I needed the thread.”  She stopped walking.  “I wish I never asked him to get that thread.  Maybe none of this would have happened.”

Resting his hands on her shoulders, Scott looked directly in her eyes.  “It’s not your fault.  The thread had nothing to do with it.”  He recalled Murdoch’s order that Teresa not be told about the novel.  Yet, it didn’t seem right to hide that from her.

“Then why, Scott?  Why would Johnny and Brad have a gunfight?”

He glanced away.  “It’s difficult for Johnny Lancer to escape from Johnny Madrid’s past.”  Even more difficult when that past is being exploited in a dime novel.

Teresa gave him a puzzled look, but he took her arm and led her toward the general store.

“I thought maybe two or three shirts,” she said.  “He might not like what I pick out, so I don’t want to buy too many.  But that white shirt is a rag now.  You men need to be more careful with those barb wire fences.”

“He may not come back, Teresa.  Not this time.”  Scott hated the sound of his own words.

“I know, but I don’t want to believe it.”  Her expression brightened.  “Here we are.  Balderomo’s.”

Scott followed her into the mercantile store.  While Teresa chatted with Mrs. Balderomo and selected shirts, he wandered around the crowded shop.  Unlike the merchants in Boston who specialized in a particular line of goods, the Balderomos carried a little of everything.

Teresa waved to him from across the store.  “Scott, I need your opinion.”

With care, he slipped past the brooms and shovels and stepped around a crate of dishes.  Teresa stood by Mr. and Mrs. Balderomo with three shirts draped over the counter.

“What do you think of this blue one?  I like these two print shirts.  Do you think Johnny would wear these?”

Scott raised an eyebrow.  “Well, he’s not afraid of colorful attire.”  I’d never be caught wearing Johnny’s favorite shirt.

“I think I’ll take all of these,” Teresa said.

Mrs. Balderomo grinned and began folding the blue shirt.  “Sí, Señorita.  All are good choices.”  She lifted both print shirts off the counter to add to the package.

Scott froze at the sight of the display rack that was uncovered when she removed the shirts.  His chest tightened.  Rapidly, he scanned the titles emblazoned across the dime novels.

“What is it, Scott?”  Teresa sounded concerned.

He grabbed the nearest novel.  Madrid’s Revenge was printed in bold red letters above a black and white drawing of an angry man with a gun drawn.  He flipped through the pages, stopping to glance at a passage or two.  His disgust grew.

Scott dropped the book and seized Mr. Balderomo’s shirt.  “How can you sell these?”

Mrs. Balderomo cried out in protest.  She pleaded in Spanish words that Scott did not understand.

“Stop!  Stop it!”  Teresa urgently tugged at his arm.

Scott’s eyes narrowed, but he released the storekeeper.  “Look at what he’s selling.”  He pointed at the novels.

Teresa read the titles.  “Madrid’s RevengeThe Guns of MadridMadrid: Walking Dead Man.”  Her eyes widened.  “Are these about Johnny?”

“Yes.”  He jerked his finger told the Balderomos.  “And they’re making money selling lies about Johnny.”

The shopkeepers clung to each other.  Mr. Balderomo shook his head.  “Señor Lancer, the man in the fancy suit say we sell many.  People buy fast.  He is right.”

“I thought you liked Johnny.”  Scott could not figure out why they would do this to his brother.

“Sí.  Johnny is bueno hombre.”

“These dime novels tell a different story.  They make people hate him.”

Nervously, the shopkeepers exchanged glances.  “Señor Lancer, we do not read English words,” Mrs. Balderomo said in a trembling voice

Scott took a deep, slow breath.  “You don’t know what these say?”

“No,” the Balderomos said in unison.

Teresa picked up one of the novels.  “What do they say, Scott?” 

“I’ll tell you on the way home.”  He turned to the shopkeeper.  “Right now, I want to buy every one of these you have in the store.  Promise me you won’t sell any more.”

They both nodded in agreement.  Mr. Balderomo lifted a box half full of the novels from behind the counter.  “Tell Señor Johnny to come see us when he returns from his trip.  We want to apologize about this.”

“His trip?  You’ve seen him?”  Teresa’s voice rose in pitch.  “When?”

“Cinco días.  Five days ago.  He bought some supplies—a canteen, bedroll, and bullets.”

Scott recalled Murdoch saying Johnny had left without packing anything.  Stopping for provisions made sense only if he wasn’t planning to return home.  “Did he say where he was going?”

“No.  He left in a hurry.  There was another gunfight,” Mr. Balderomo added.

Teresa gasped.  “Was he hurt?”

“No, but the other hombre, he is at the doctor’s office.”

Scott picked up the box of novels and package of shirts.  “We ought to be going, Teresa.”  He guided her back to the buggy.

She didn’t say a word, but Scott could tell from her expression that she was worried.  He was worried too.  Johnny needs to stay out of sight and go into hiding until…  Until when?  Until the novels go out of print?  He knew his brother was not the type to hide, and novels did not go out of print when they were selling well.


Patiently, Teresa sat in the buggy heading back to Lancer and waited for Scott to tell her what was going on.  The miles rolled by, and he remained silent.  She was tired of being protected by all of them.  “Well, are you going to explain about these dime novels, and what they have to do with Johnny?”

“Sorry, Teresa.  I was thinking about this whole mess.”

Teresa reached into the box under the seat and pulled out one of the novels.  She studied the cover of The Guns of Madrid and frowned at the shadowy image of a gunman.  Opening the novel, she began to read.  The words blurred, and tears filled her eyes.  “Johnny wouldn’t.  He couldn’t.  This is awful.”

“Teresa, don’t.  I haven’t read any of these, but the little I saw was hateful.”

“This says he used puppies for target practice because a dog bit off the little finger from his left hand.  He wouldn’t do that.  Just last week he helped me with the kitten that one of the cows kicked.  He was so gentle with it.”  She fought back a sob.

“We both know Johnny has a soft spot for animals and he has all his fingers.  He never did what that novel said.  It’s pure fiction, made up by some author who…”

“What is it, Scott?”

“Who’s the author of that book?”

Teresa examined the cover of the novel in her hand.  “Dusty B. Wrangler.”  She grabbed the other novels from the box.  “They’re all written by Dusty B. Wrangler.”

“Look for the name of the publisher, or where they were printed.”

Teresa could tell from Scott’s tone that he had something in mind.  Her fingers fumbled with the cover.  She checked the inside front cover and the back cover as well.  “Grand Adventure Publishing.  They’re all by the same company, located in San Francisco.”

She saw the corner of Scott’s mouth turn upward and felt a twinge of excitement.  “You have a plan.”

“Teresa, do you mind if we take a detour?  We need to send a telegram.”

“If it’ll help Johnny, what are we waiting for?”  She tossed the novels back in the box.  He would never do such horrible things.


Johnny ducked behind the water trough and searched for a way back to Barranca.  The palomino was standing outside the cantina, reins draped over the hitching rail.  Three men with rifles separated him from his horse, and they were coming in his direction, slinking from doorway to doorway.

Peering around the trough, Johnny squeezed off a shot at the closest man, who grabbed his leg and collapsed with a cry of pain.  That was the last bullet!  He needed a protected spot and a little time to reload.

Judging the distance to the nearby alley, Johnny rolled to this right and scrambled to his feet.  He ran down the alley and raced behind the wooden buildings.  Rifle shots blasted through the air, but the bullets slammed harmlessly into the ground.  He dodged around an outhouse and shimmied between two storage sheds.  Panting, Johnny pulled cartridges from his gun belt and slid them into the chambers of his pistol.  With a loaded gun, he was back in control.

Johnny eased away from the shed, jumped over a low wall, and crouched beside the rear door of the cantina.  Cautiously, he nudged the door open and slipped inside.  The kitchen was empty, obviously deserted when someone had recognized Johnny Madrid in the dining area of the cantina just a few minutes ago.

Johnny licked his lips when he smelled a steak simmering by the fire, but the acrid aroma of tortillas burning on the griddle made him wrinkle his nose.  With a painful twinge, he realized he missed the meals at Lancer, the generous portions and family conversation.  Being on the run meant beans in a can warmed at the campfire and hasty meals in a dark cantina.  He snorted in disgust.

He was on the run.  His life down on the border as Johnny Madrid had never been as bad as this.  Back then, people had feared him and turned away from him, but this was different.  He had been a gun for hire then.  Now…  Now he was a fugitive, running from everyone.  People were willing to shoot at him without the benefit of calling him out.  Could words in a novel make me more dangerous than all those years of hiring out my gun?

Pull yourself together, Johnny boy.  You knew it was stupid to come here.  He advanced through the kitchen and into the dining area, grabbing his half-eaten tortilla as he made his way to the front window.  Barranca was right there, dozing outside the door.  Eating the cold tortilla, he glanced up and down the boardwalk.  He whistled softly, and the horse’s ears twitched forward.  Good boy.

With his pistol drawn, Johnny sprinted to the hitching rail, grabbed the reins, and vaulted into the saddle.  The palomino swung around and charged down the street.  Gunshots rang out, and Johnny bent low against Barranca’s neck.  Thundering out of town, they galloped past the cemetery.  Not this time.  Not here.  But probably very soon.  Johnny chuckled at his own grim humor.


Murdoch Lancer stood before Sheriff Val Crawford of Green River.  “You’re his friend.  Can’t you do anything?”

Val shifted uncomfortable in his seat.  “He’s not wanted by the law, Mr. Lancer.  There’s no evidence that the events of those dime novels ever happened.”

“I know that.”  Murdoch slammed his fist on the Sheriff’s desk, knocking a stack of papers on the floor.

“It’s vigilante action.  People are scared of Johnny Madrid because of what they’ve read in those books.  We both know it’s not true, but they don’t.  For the past two weeks, I’ve been getting reports that he’s had gunfights in towns all around here.  He doesn’t start them, but he sure has to finish them to stay alive.”

“Then he’s still in the area?”  Murdoch’s heart raced.  “Maybe we can find him and bring him back to Lancer.  We can protect him there.”

“Mr. Lancer, I know Johnny.  If he don’t want to be found, you ain’t gonna find him.  And if you were to find him, he ain’t gonna hide out at your ranch.”

Murdoch studied the Sheriff’s expression and sighed.  “I know you’re right, but what can we do?”

“Best thing would be for Johnny to head south to Mexico and disappear for awhile.  People will forget.  They are just dime novels for crying out loud.”

Shaking his head, Murdoch headed to the door, but before he left, he glanced over his shoulder.  “Why hasn’t he done that already?  Why is he still in the area?”

Val put his feet up on the desk.  “Reckon Johnny has finally put down some roots.  He don’t really want to leave Lancer.”

Under other circumstances, Murdoch would have been pleased with Val’s observation.  Now, it worried him.  Be careful, Johnny.


From a crouch, Johnny fanned his pistol with his left hand.  His bullets found their marks, and two men lay dead in the street.  On the boardwalk, a third man crawled toward the safety of a storefront.  Johnny scanned the roofline for the fourth gunman.  He rose slowly, his instinct warning him that he was still in danger.

If Barranca hadn’t thrown a shoe, he wouldn’t have come into Spanish Wells.  The mundane visit to the blacksmith had erupted into yet another full blown gunfight.  Two deaths over a horseshoe.  He shook his head at the needless waste of life.

His eyes probed the shadows between buildings, shifting from windows and doorways to the rooftop.  Johnny ran to Barranca, slid his pistol into its holster, gathered the reins, and sprang to leap into the saddle, until a rifle fired.

A sharp burning pain seared his left side, along his rib cage.  It spun him around, and he fell to his knees.  The palomino pranced away from him, and he grabbed the stirrup, pulling himself to his feet.  Awkwardly, he mounted and leaned forward to find the reins.

A second gunshot rang out and Barranca reared.  Johnny kicked the horse into a gallop.  Bullets whizzed by them.  A red hot agony exploded across his back, throwing him against the palomino’s neck.  The report of another rifle sounded close.  Barranca’s stride faltered, and Johnny grabbed a fistful of mane to stay atop the horse.  They raced out of Spanish Wells with the burst of gunfire fading behind them.


Scott clenched the telegram from the publishing company in his fist.  He had memorized every word since its arrival three days ago. Teresa knew he had received the reply, but he had not told his father.  No sense getting his hopes up.

At the sound of hoof beats and wheels rumbling down the street, Scott stepped to the edge of the plank sidewalk and watched the stagecoach roll into Morro Coyo. The cause of Johnny’s problem was due on the afternoon stage.  He wondered what sort of person Dusty Wranger was.  Scott was ready to hate him for what he had done to his brother, but he also prayed the author would have some answers.

The stage stopped not far from where Scott stood.  A thin bespeckled man peered out the stage window.  After tossing the mailbag to the ground, the driver climbed down and opened the door for the passengers.  A young lady wearing a brown traveling dress disembarked first.  Then the man in glasses exited, followed by an older gentleman with a beard.  Unsure which was the author; Scott called out, “Dusty Wrangler.”

“That’s me.”  The young woman held her hand out to Scott.  “I’m Dusty Wrangler.”

“You?”  Scott swallowed hard before shaking her hand.

“Dusty Wrangler is my pen name.  I’m Miss Dorothy Williams.  My friends know me as Dottie.”

“I… I’m Scott Lancer.  I’m sorry.  I expected—“

“You were expecting a man.”

The stage driver unloaded a small valise and an oversized trunk.  Scott bent to lift the trunk.  “Are both of these yours?”

Dottie laughed.  “Mr. Lancer, you are falling into all the standard stereotypes.  Only the valise is mine.”

“Please, call me Scott.  You are full of surprises, Miss Williams.”  He had been prepared to dislike the author immediately, but was caught off guard by this quite charming and very attractive woman.

“My publisher forwarded your telegram.  Your offer to help me meet Johnny Madrid’s family intrigued me.  So here I am.”

Scott guided her to the buckboard and settled her in the seat.  “I thought it might.”  He reminded himself that this woman was the reason Johnny had become a fugitive.


Pain…  Hot, throbbing surges of pain spread from his back and side.  Johnny felt the blood flowing from his wounds, seeping warm and wet through his shirt.  He checked the injury to his side and saw that the bullet had only grazed his ribs.  It hurt like blazes but wasn’t deep.  The bullet wound to his back was another story.  He couldn’t reach it to assess the damage, but it sure was bleeding a lot.  And I just recovered from Day Pardee’s bullet in my back.  This one was higher up; every movement of his arms triggered another wave of pain.

His mind was clear, but he was starting to see flashes of light and his hands felt numb.  He had experienced this sensation before, usually before he passed out.  He willed himself to breathe deeply and concentrate.

Barranca stumbled but recovered.  “Easy, compadre,” Johnny said.  They got you too.  The palomino loped slowly, with a decided hitch to the right side.  “I’d stop to see how bad it is, but I don’t think I could get back on you.  We need to go just a little further.”

After another stumble, Johnny eased the horse to a walk.  The palomino dropped its head, and shuffled with a noticeable limp.  The gait jarred Johnny’s back and sent sharp spasms along his arms.  He clenched his jaw and groaned.

His thoughts spun wildly.  We need a place to hide out for awhile . “Just a little further…”  Blackness closed around him, and he reeled forward, laying across the palomino’s neck.


The wheel hit a rut and the buckboard lurched to the side, throwing Dottie against Scott’s arm.  He reached out to steady her and caught a whiff of rose-water.  “I’m sorry, Miss Williams.  Traveling out here is not without its hazards.”

“No damage done,” Dottie said, brushing a loose strand of auburn hair back into place.  “After that stage ride, this is a minor inconvenience.  And do call me Dottie.”

“It’s dangerous for a woman to be traveling by herself.”  He stole a glance at her ivory complexion and delicate features.  Especially a beautiful one.

Her laughter was musical and genuine.  “Father brought me up to face life without fear.  I guess he raised me like the son he never had.  He taught me to pursue whatever I want with conviction.”

Scott mulled over her words, impressed with the confidence the woman obviously possessed.  She was not at all what he expected, and he felt unsure about how to approach the subject of the dime novels.

“I’m not foolish enough to think that a woman traveling alone is safe.”  Dottie’s hand disappeared into a fold of her skirt and retrieved a small Derringer, displaying it for Scott.  “Father insisted that I know how to protect myself.  After all, I couldn’t tell what a fine gentleman would be meeting me at the stage.  He might not have been one with such excellent manners.”

Scott flushed and flicked the reins to hasten the team along.  “Your father sounds like a wise man.”  Her warm smile set his heart to beating faster.

“I’ve traveled with him and my mother quite a bit and learned how to handle myself in different situations,” Dottie said.

As the miles rolled by, they each shared stories of sights they had seen.  When Scott learned that Dottie had spent some time in Boston, the conversation turned to sailing on the Charles River and evenings at the symphony.  He imagined himself strolling through the Common with Dottie on his arm.  He chided himself for his revelry.  What am I thinking?  This is the author who wrote all those lies about Johnny.

“Scott.”  Dottie’s voice interrupted his thoughts.  “Would you teach me how to do that?”

“What?”  Scott looked into her hazel eyes, puzzled and embarrassed that he had not followed her conversation.

“I’d like to take the reins.  Will you show me how to drive the horses?”

He looked at her tiny hands, clothed in white cotton gloves.  “The reins can be tough on your hands.”

“Don’t coddle me, Scott.  I’d like to learn.”

He couldn’t resist her beguiling smile and pleading eyes.  “Dottie, I’ll show you, but there’s something we need to talk about.”

“Certainly.  However, first things first.  Can I take the reins?”

Scott shook his head and chuckled.  “You are something else.”  He leaned over to place the reins in her hands and caught the fragrance of rose-water again.  His eyes lingered on the fullness of her lips and curve of her throat.  She was breathtaking and definitely not what he had expected.


Johnny’s eyelids fluttered open and he lay still, trying to recall what had happened and where he was.  I must have fallen off Barranca.

When he attempted to roll to his side, shards of pain shot through his body.  He lay on his back on the rocky ground and gazed at a bank of clouds in the sky.  You looking down on me, Dios?  He wasn’t one for prayer—never had been—but he wondered if this was the end.  He had been in bad shape before and recovered.  However, this felt different, hopeless.  The events of the past two weeks were senseless and a piece of his mind hoped it was over.  A nagging thought persisted that to give in now would hurt Murdoch, Scott and Teresa.

Black shapes appeared against the white clouds, spiraling down in his direction.  Johnny cursed and closed his eyes.  Vultures, birds of death.  Well, I ain’t dead yet.  Clenching his teeth, he rolled to his side.


The pounding on the front door continued and grew louder.  “Señor Lancer!  Señor Lancer!”

Murdoch opened the door and followed Cipriano out through the courtyard.  The man’s anxious face and hurried gestures filled him with dread.  Since Johnny had left, everyone at the estancia seemed edgy.  However, he trusted Cipriano’s instincts and knew the stoic man must be concerned with good cause.

Squinting, Murdoch studied the late afternoon sky in the direction the Mexican pointed and saw a flock of vultures circling like a column of dark smoke.  “Something’s dead.”  He sighed at the loss of another steer, possibly a calf or an older cow.  “Have a couple of vaqueros throw a few shovels on the back of a wagon and go bury whatever it is.”

“Sí, Señor.”  Cipriano mounted and signaled several cowhands to follow him.

Murdoch thought about joining them, curious whether coyotes had attacked the steer.  Watching the wagon pull away from the barn, he shook his head and turned to return to the books.


Barranca?   Johnny shuddered at the thought that the vultures might not be gathering for him—not yet—but for his palomino.  He rose to his elbow, gasping for breath at the sharp jab of pain.  About twenty feet ahead, he caught sight of the golden hide of his horse sprawled across the ground.  His voice was barely above a whisper.  “Barranca.”

The horse whickered and lifted its head.

“Lo siento.”  He pulled himself forward on his elbows, inching closer to the palomino.  His movements were slow and tortured, with blackness threatening to overtake him several times.  Filled with purpose, he continued to crawl forward.  If the horse’s wounds were bad enough, he would put the animal out of its misery.  I won’t let you suffer, compadre.

With trembling fingers, Johnny reached for the gun at his side.  He groaned from the effort, feeling jolts of pain with each movement.  Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and upper lip.  Pulling the pistol from the holster, Johnny called out to his horse again.

Barranca whinnied and attempted to stand, but dropped back to the ground with a jingle of metal and creak of leather.  Johnny cocked the pistol and blinked away the tears that suddenly filled his eyes.  “Rest easy, compadre.”  The words caught in his throat.

Johnny felt a whoosh of air and heard the sweep of wings as a vulture flew close.  The dark brown bird circled lazily overhead, near enough for the ex-gunfighter to see its bare head and neck in detail.  It settled to the ground by Barranca’s muzzle with its hooked beak open and wings spread.

His vision swirled, and Johnny fought to focus.  The gun wavered in his unsteady hand.  With the last of his strength, he pulled the trigger and collapsed.


Murdoch’s hand was on the doorknob when he heard the sound of a gunshot in the distance.  Guess it wasn’t quite dead.  He pictured Cipriano firing a bullet into the brain of the dying animal.  He swung the door open but froze in place.  They didn’t have time to get to where the vultures were circling.

Fear tightened around his heart.  “Johnny?”  No, probably another cowhand came across the steer and ended its misery.  He tried to be rational, but the feeling of foreboding would not leave.

“Teresa,” Murdoch called out.  “I’m going to help Cipriano.  Be back shortly.”

He hurried to the barn and tossed a saddle on his horse.  His fingers fumbled with the bridle and he told himself he was being a foolish old man, but he had to know what or who was out there.


“You’re a natural.”  Scott admired how quickly the lovely lady at his side had mastered the finer points of controlling the team of horse.

“Thank you, kind sir.”  Dottie blushed slightly.

He found the pink tinge of her checks entrancing and sitting next to her arousing, but he reminded himself that there was more at stake than his emotions.  “We need to talk, Dottie.  Let’s stop under that tree ahead.”


Murdoch pulled his horse up sharply and jumped down.  From a distance, he had recognized the golden coat of Johnny’s palomino and knew the body on the ground that Cipriano and the others were bent over had to be his son.  “Is he…”

“He’s alive, Señor Lancer,” Cipriano said.  He waved the others aside and moved away so Murdoch could kneel by the prone figure of his son.

“Johnny.”  Murdoch’s tone was soft and hesitant.  He watched but there was no sign that his son heard him.  “Put him in the wagon,” he ordered.  “Gently.”

As the vaqueros lifted Johnny into the wagon, Cipriano walked over to Barranca.  The palomino snorted and raised its head.  With regret, Murdoch pulled the rifle from his saddle and followed Cipriano.

“I heard the gunshot,” Murdoch said.  “Johnny must have wanted to put Barranca down.”  He raised the rifle to his shoulder.

“No, Señor.  See.”  Cipriano pointed to a vulture laying in the dirt several feet away.  Its head had been shot clean off its body.

Slowly, Murdoch lowered his gun.  Even as badly hurt as Johnny was, his aim was amazing.  He looked back at the wagon, wondering whether he would ever understand his son.

“Go, Señor.  I can handle Barranca.”

Murdoch nodded and climbed into the wagon beside Johnny.  As they headed back to the hacienda, he examined the wound to this son’s side, relieved that the bleeding had stopped.  He checked for breaks or injuries to Johnny’s arms and legs, but found none.  Finally, he rolled Johnny to his side, and his muscles tightened at the sight of the bloodstains across the back of his son’s shirt.  The wooden planks of the wagon were wet with blood.  Carefully, Murdoch laid his son down again.  Fighting his fear, he ground his teeth together. 

Murdoch cradled Johnny’s head in his lap and stroked his dark hair.  “Hang on, Son.”  The motion of the wagon rocked them and Johnny moaned.  Murdoch bent closer and placed his hand on his son’s forehead.  “We’ll have you home soon.”

Johnny’s eyes opened a crack and his voice faltered.  “Murdoch?”

“Yes, Son.  Don’t talk.  You’re going home.”

Johnny groaned and slipped into unconsciousness.

Feeling older than he ever had before, Murdoch closed his eyes.  Hold on.  I can’t lose you now.


Johnny fought against the black numbness that engulfed him, and he tried to open his eyes.  The pain pounding through his body was harsh, and his eyelids were so heavy.  For a moment, he wanted to retreat back to unconsciousness and surrender to its oblivion.  He clung desperately to the thought that a gunfighter had to be in control.  He needed to know where he was and what had happened.  With a hiss, his breath escaped through clenched teeth, but his eyelids refused to move.

Cold.  So cold.  As he shivered, tremors gripped his body, shaking his limbs.  He attempted to move his arms closer to his chest for warmth, but they refused to obey.  Then a weight bore down on him, pressing him against a soft surface.  In his dazed state, Johnny realized he was in a bed and someone had covered him with a blanket.  Wes, you taking care of me again?  I’m so cold, buddy.

Johnny heard voices, but they were muffled and distant.  He strained to listen, to understand what they were saying, to make out who was talking.  One was a woman’s voice—her tone soft and concerned.  Mamá?   He remembered his mother singing to him, taking his mind off his empty stomach and driving away the hurt when the other children had called him a dirty half-breed.  Sing to me, Mamá.  He wanted to ask her to ease his pain, but he did not have the strength to speak the words.  Turning his attention to the other voice, he heard a deep baritone and knew there would be no comfort from the owner of that voice.  None of Mamá’s men want me around.  Something about the voice worried him, but he was too confused to figure out why.

Johnny tried again to open his eyes, but his mind drifted in a semi-conscious stupor.  While his head filled with a loud roar and a steady pounding, the blackness threatened to swallow him once more.  I need quiet.  I could handle the pain in the quiet.  A noise like the rush of air hammered against his ears until his brain was ready to explode.  Struggling to avoid the pain, he held his breath.  The sound in his head stilled and the sharp ache in his side relaxed.  At the same time, the voices grew louder and closer, their tone more insistent.  Someone was calling his name but the words began to fade.

His shoulders were moving.  No.  Someone’s shaking me.  The motion drove hard jolts of pain along his back, and he gasped.  As he inhaled, the roaring noise started again, and he realized his breathing was the source of the sound in his head.  Let me alone!  Let it end!

The blackness drew tight around him.  He was in a deep, dark hole with no way out and the walls were closing in on him.  It was getting hot now, hard to breath, difficult to think.  Mamá, I’m so thirsty .

The woman’s voice was near and filled with pleading.  Johnny smelled her aroma—a blend of cinnamon, apples, and lilac.  Her words were muddled in his mind but her fragrance was soothing.  He sighed and let the darkness wash over him again


Teresa leaned over Johnny’s inert body and held a wet cloth against the back of his neck.  She gazed at the dark-haired man propped on his side, and turned the cloth over.  “He’s awfully hot, Murdoch.  We’ve got to get his fever down.”

“At least the bullets didn’t do any internal damage,” Murdoch said.

She nodded, knowing the older man was right.  “But he’s lost so much blood.”  She recalled her horror, when they had brought Johnny home, at the sight of how much blood had soaked through his shirt and stained the planks of the wagon.  Once Johnny had been settled in his bed and she cleaned the wounds, she was relieved to see that neither bullet had lodged in his body.  The worst injury was the deep furrow a bullet had dug across his back.

Murdoch went to the window and watched the road to town.  He pulled out his pocket watch and studied it before snapping the cover closed.  “The doctor should be here soon.”

Carefully, Teresa lifted the sheet to examine the bandage wrapped around Johnny’s torso, just above the scar from Day Pardee’s bullet.  She had padded the wounds with extra wadding, and it seemed to be keeping the bleeding to a minimum.  “I think he’s going to need stitches to close the back wound.”  She bit her lip and settled the blanket high around Johnny’s neck.

Murdoch grunted, shifting position by the window.  “Someone’s coming in a buggy, looks like the doctor.  I’ll go bring him in.”

Alone with the injured man, Teresa brushed a lock of hair from his fevered forehead.  “Johnny, we need you.”  During the past two weeks since Johnny left, Murdoch and Scott had been almost impossible to live with.  It’s hard to believe it was a little more than two months ago that you came to Lancer.  “Johnny, can you hear me?  The doctor will be here in a few minutes.  Everything will be fine.”  She blinked back a tear and continued bathing his neck and brow with cool water.

A low moan brought Teresa closer to Johnny’s face.  His eyelids fluttered open slightly to expose glassy blue eyes.  His lips parted to form a word but no sound came out.  Relieved that he had regained consciousness, she gently lifted his head and offered him a sip of water.  When he finished a few swallows, he sighed and closed his eyes.

“Rest easy, Johnny.  You’re home, and we’ll take good care of you.”  She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and squeezed his hand.

Dr. Spencer entered the room with Murdoch trailing behind him.  “Well, Miss Teresa, what has our patient gotten himself into now?”
“He just came around for a moment.  Long enough to drink a little water.”  Teresa rose from her position beside Johnny to make room for the doctor.

“Very good.  Give me some time to make a more thorough examination.  If I need anything, I’ll call.  Now out.”  While the doctor waved them from the room, his kindly smile reassured Teresa.  “He’s a stubborn young man, if I recall properly.  Didn’t expect I would be seeing him again so soon.  Not to worry, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m through.”

She nodded and reluctantly followed Murdoch out of the room.


Scott ushered Dottie into the great room and set her valise near the arched doorway.  “I’m not sure where everyone is.  However, you must be tired and would probably like to rest.”

“I hate to admit it,” Dottie said with a weak smile.  “The rigors of the trip are catching up with me.”

At the sound of footsteps hurrying from the kitchen, Scott turned to see Maria carrying a water pitcher and an armload of towels.  Her face bore a worried expression.

“Señor Lancer,” Maria said breathlessly.  “Your brother has been shot.”

“How bad?  Is he here?”  Scott remembered the agonizing moments of panic when he thought Day Pardee had killed Johnny.

“Sí, Señor.  The doctor just left.”  Her eyes shifted to the woman standing behind the blond Lancer son.  “Pardon, Señorita.”  Maria bowed quickly, then hastened out of the room.

Scott wanted to follow her, but his responsibility as a host stopped him.  “I’m sorry, Dottie.  This is not the introduction to Lancer than I had planned.”  He cringed.  None of this was going as he had expected.  “Let me get you settled in the guest room so you can relax.”

She nodded.  “And you need to be with your brother.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Scott said and picked up her bag.  As he led her down the hallway, he realized with growing anger that the novels written by the woman trailing behind him were most likely the reason Johnny was hurt.  He quickened his pace, anxious to learn more about his brother’s injury and get away from the author.

He dropped her valise on the bed and wondered if bringing her to Lancer was a mistake.  “I’ll send Maria in a few minutes to see if you need anything.”  He didn’t wait for a reply, but rushed to Johnny’s room.

Opening the door quietly, Scott peered into his brother’s bedroom.  Teresa sat on the bed wiping a cloth across Johnny’s forehead, while his father stood by the window, a shoulder leaning against the casement, watching something in the distance.  Scott slipped into the room and stepped lightly to the bed.  Johnny lay on his side, pillows propped under his chest, and a swatch of white bandages wrapped around the dark skin of his torso.

“How is he?”  Scott whispered, studying his brother’s motionless body.

Teresa glanced up at him and dipped the cloth in a basin of water on the bedside table.  As she twisted the cloth, falling drops of water splashed back into the basin.  “The doctor says he’s lucky.  He was shot twice, but neither bullet hit any organs.  It took a lot of stitches to close up his back.”  Her voice faltered.

Murdoch moved away from the window.  “He’s lost a lot of blood.”  He reached a hand toward Johnny’s dark hair.  “If he hadn’t managed to almost make it back to the ranch, it might have been…”

Scott swallowed hard.  “Did Johnny tell you what happened?”

“No.  He’s been unconscious most of the time,” Murdoch said, shaking his head.  “Scott, there’s something I’d like you to do.”

Concerned, Scott looked away from Johnny and met his father’s gaze.  “What is it?”

“When you were in the cavalry, did you have any experience with wounded horses?”

“Some.”  Scott wondered where his father was heading with this question.

“Barranca was down when we found Johnny.  I don’t know how bad it is.  Cipriano stayed behind to put it out of its misery.”  Murdoch returned to the window and jabbed a finger toward the horizon.  “But the vultures are still circling.  See if you can help him with Barranca.  Maybe he needs an extra set of hands to bury the body.”

“I’m sure it would mean so much to Johnny,” Teresa said.  Her lower lip quivered and she turned back to bathing Johnny’s face.

Scott wanted to stay with his brother, to be there when he roused, but he knew Teresa was right.  “Where are they?”  The airborne vultures meant the body hadn’t been buried yet, or the horse might still be alive.  He clung to the latter thought.  The palomino was so much a part of Johnny that the thought of his brother without the golden horse hurt.

“Take the road for Spanish Wells.  They’ll be on the left, just beyond the large stand of pine trees.”

Scott leaned close to Johnny’s ear.  “I’ll take good care of Barranca for you, Little Brother.”

Teresa grabbed Scott’s arm and their eyes met.  He knew the question she wanted to ask, but this did not seem like the time to go into details.  Scott hadn’t told Murdoch about bringing Dusty Wrangler to Lancer.  Teresa knew, of course, and understood why he had gone into Morro Coyo without an explanation.  He gave her a wink and a partial smile.  How am I going to tell them about this?

Scott pulled away from her grasp and headed to the door.  Before he left the room, he turned back.  “By the way, Murdoch, I brought a guest to visit.  Her name’s Miss Dottie Williams and she’s in the guest room.”  Scott saw Teresa’s wide-eyed reaction, but his father never looked away from his vigil at the window.


Eyeing the flock of vultures, Scott followed the road for Spanish Wells and rode to the location where Johnny and Barranca had been found.  From a distance, he spotted Murdoch’s horse, which had been left for Cipriano, and then noted with relief that Cipriano was not digging a hole.  Instead, the seasoned ranch hand knelt beside the palomino’s head, stroking the flaxen mane while murmuring to the animal in Spanish.  With a sigh, Scott dismounted and pulled his rifle from its scabbard.

Cipriano shook his head.  “Señor Scott, it is not as bad as it seems, but I have no water for him.”

Scott had seen many injured horses during the war and wouldn’t put any animal through unnecessary suffering, but Cipriano was a knowledgeable vaquero and Scott trusted his opinion.  Carefully, Scott examined the palomino for bullet wounds.  He pointed at several nicks and Cipriano nodded in agreement that these were not life-threatening injuries.  With practiced precision, he ran his hands along the horse’s legs and felt the heat and swelling of an inflamed tendon in the horse’s right front leg.  He whistled quietly and pushed his hat back.  Then he went to retrieve the canteen from his saddle and stow his rifle.

Cipriano jumped up and removed his sombrero.  Taking the canteen from Scott, the Mexican poured water into his hat and offered it to the horse.  With a snort, the palomino raised its head and lapped at the water.  “Muy bien!”  Cipriano flashed a smile at Scott.

After collecting supplies from his saddlebag, Scott applied liniment to the leg and wrapped it in a bandage.  The palomino blew loudly through flared nostrils and lifted its head.  “Easy, boy.  I’m sure this hurts, but it needs to be done.”  Scott dabbed ointment on the bullet wounds.  Rocking back on his heels, he surveyed the completed work.

Following another trip to his saddlebag, Scott returned with a small sack of oats.  At the scent of the grain, the palomino neighed and rolled to the side, pulling its left front leg under its belly.  Scott held out a handful of oats, and Barranca devoured them.  “You have an appetite just like your rider.”  Scott grinned at the thought of Johnny at the dinner table, but grew somber remembering the recent sight of his brother’s unconscious body.

“It’s working, Señor Scott!”  Cipriano gestured toward the palomino’s feeble effort to stand upright on three legs.  On the second awkward attempt, Barranca succeeded in rising.  The palomino’s head hung low and its sides heaved, but the horse was up.  Cipriano offered more water and the horse drank deeply.  “Good job!”

Scott smiled, uncertain whether Cipriano meant he had done a good job or Barranca had.  Let’s hope Johnny has the same heart to stay alive like his horse.  He looked skyward to say a silent prayer and was pleased to see the vultures were gone.


Johnny awoke with a desperate need to locate his pistol.  The sense of urgency set his heart to racing and he took a deep breath, which sent a sharp pain radiating across his back and down his side.  With practiced control, he stopped the moan that threatened to escape.  Before he opened his eyes, he pieced together what he remembered and what he could tell about his current situation.

He knew he had been shot.  Ambushed in Spanish Wells.  Barranca had needed a horse shoe.  He relived the memory of the bullets hitting him, and an involuntary shudder shook his body.  Barranca?  The vultures…  He forced his thoughts away from the image of the palomino helpless on the ground with the vulture’s bulging eye leering at it.

Taking a slightly deeper breath, he tested the extent of the pain.  He was tired, bone-weary tired, and too weak to lift his gun, even if it were within reach.  He listened to sounds, searching for information.  The rustle of fabric, soft breathing and the faintest creak of wood told Johnny someone was sitting near the bed, probably a woman.  He caught the fragrance of lilac.  Teresa?  Scott had given the young woman a bottle of lilac essence some time ago, and she used it every day.  Cattle bawling and working ranch noises drifted in from outside.  Johnny relaxed, certain he was home.  Then, fear gripped him, fear for his family.  They weren’t safe with him around.

Johnny opened his eyes and tried to smile at Teresa, but he was pretty sure his expression must have been more like a grimace because she looked at him with such distress in her face.

“Johnny, thank goodness.”  Teresa dropped her sewing and rose from the wooden armchair to sit on the edge of the bed.  “We’ve been so worried about you.”

He ran his tongue along his dry lips and took a deeper breath, ignoring the pain.  “How long?” he rasped.  From the angle of the sun filtering in through the window he figured it was early morning.

“Murdoch brought you in yesterday afternoon.  The doctor says you need plenty of rest and lots of water.”  She lifted a glass from the bedside table and supported his head while she held the glass to his mouth.

The water flowed down his throat and he gulped for more.  He was parched, thirstier than he had been in a long time.

“Easy, Johnny.  A little at a time.”  She pulled the glass away and lowered his head to the pillow.

“My gun?”

“It’s right here,” Teresa said in a hushed voice.  “Hanging on the bedpost.”

Johnny closed his eyes, comforted that the pistol was near.  He knew he was in no condition to use it, but he would rest better knowing where it was.

“Get some sleep.  I’ll let everyone know you came around.”  She patted his arm and turned to leave, her skirt swishing with the motion.

“Teresa,” Johnny whispered.  “It ain’t safe for me to be here.”

“Don’t worry.  Murdoch and Scott have warned the men and set a guard outside the house.  You’re safe here.”

Johnny didn’t have the strength to argue with her.  He wasn’t concerned about himself; it wasn’t safe for his family as long as he was here.  Once he was rested in a day or two, he would move on, maybe ride back to Mexico.  Barranca?  He banished the thought of his beloved palomino, the finest horse he had ever owned.  It was no good getting attached to anything or anyone.  Johnny Madrid doesn’t deserve a family.  With a sigh, he surrendered to sleep.


Teresa stirred the simmering chicken soup and glanced at Scott, who sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee.  “You should go back to bed for a few hours.  Between tending to Barranca and sitting with Johnny, you couldn’t have gotten much sleep last night.”

“I don’t think any of us had much rest last night.”  The blond man stared into his coffee.

She nodded.  They each had taken turns sitting with Johnny throughout the night, watching the fever burn itself out.  “Johnny seemed a little better when he woke up this morning.  At least the fever broke.  The doctor says he’ll be in pain for some time, and the most important thing will be to keep him from moving too much.  Otherwise, he’ll rip open the stitches.”  She shivered, thinking about the number of sutures the doctor had used to close the angry bullet wound across Johnny’s back.

Scott chuckled and rose from the table.  “That should be a challenge.”

Teresa pulled a loaf of bread from the warming oven and tapped the crust.  Her thoughts turned to the other patient.  “How’s Barranca doing?”

“That horse is just like Johnny and doesn’t stay still for long.  Cipriano and I agree the leg just needs more time to heal.  By the time Johnny is up and around, Barranca should be full of himself and ready for light duty.”

She studied the anxious expression on Scott’s face.  “So what’s wrong?”

“Sorry, Teresa.  I was thinking about our guest.”

“Miss Williams?”  She was bursting with questions, and now that Murdoch was keeping watch over Johnny, this might be the chance she needed to grill Scott about the woman who wasn’t one bit what she had imagined Dusty Wrangler would be like.

“Yes,” Scott said.  “Have you seen her yet today?”

Teresa recalled their brief encounter last night, but everything had been so frenzied that she had spoken with the sophisticated lady for only a few moments, and had no time to talk to Scott privately.  “She rose early for breakfast and has been in her room ever since.  She told Maria she had work to do, writing I suppose.  Is she really Dusty Wrangler?”

“She claims to be.  We had a long talk yesterday and she explained that she took a pen name because people wouldn’t believe gunfighter stories written by a woman.”

“That makes sense.  But did she say why she wrote all those horrible things about Johnny?”   How could she?  Johnny might have been killed, and all because of her stories.  Teresa stood before Scott with her hands on her hips, her eyes searching his for answers.

“She said some of the novels are based on information from a Mexican who—“

“Teresa!”  Murdoch’s voice boomed from the stairway.

Teresa feared the worst, but as the tall man bounded into the kitchen, she was relieved to see the smile on his face.  His good spirits were contagious and she grinned.

“Johnny’s awake and says he’s hungry.  Says he hasn’t had a decent meal in two weeks.”  Murdoch placed a hand on Scott’s shoulder and stroked Teresa’s hair with the other hand.

“Well, he can start with some chicken broth.”  Teresa returned to the pot of soup and filled a bowl with the liquid, careful to avoid any large pieces of chicken.

“I don’t think that’s what he had in mind,” Murdoch said.

Smiling, she shook the ladle at her guardian.  “He starts with broth.”

“I can hear his complaints already.”  Scott shook his head and held his hands up at the bowl she extended toward him.

“Scott’s right, Teresa.  Maybe it would be better for you to take that to him.  While Johnny’s eating, Scott and I will check on Barranca.  I’m sure he’ll want to hear how his horse is doing.”

“Cowards.”  They all laughed, and she waved them out of the kitchen.  She was looking forward to hearing Johnny complain; it would be a welcome change from the delirium of last night.


The air in the barn was warm and still, except for the steady drone of flies and the rustle of straw.  Lazily, the palomino chewed a mouthful of hay and swished its tail across its flanks.

“Good boy, Barranca.”  Scott rose from examining the injured leg, rubbed his hands together, and smiled at his father.  “The swelling is definitely going down and it doesn’t feel as hot as it did the last time I checked.”

“Do you think he’ll be lame?”
Scott patted the palomino’s neck and left the stall.  “It’s hard to say, but let’s hope not.”  Images of his brother racing across a meadow astride his golden horse flashed through Scott’s mind.

“Right.”  Murdoch sounded distracted.  “For Johnny’s sake, we’ll be positive.  Shall we go give him a progress report?”

Scott was anxious to talk to his brother about what had happened.  Last night Johnny had been too incoherent to give any details about the events of the past two weeks.  The bullet wound to the back meant it wasn’t a face-to-face gunfight like Scott had witnessed with Brad Sullivan.  Even Barranca’s injuries suggested Johnny must have been fleeing from trouble.  More problems caused by those blasted dime novels.

As Scott followed his father out of the barn, he realized this was probably the best time to discuss the author of those novels.  “Murdoch, we need to talk about Miss Williams.”

“Sure, Son.  She seems like a well-educated young woman.  I’m afraid this hasn’t been a very pleasant visit for her, what with everyone so worried about Johnny.  Is she an old friend?”

“Not at all,” Scott said sharply.  At the sight of his father’s raised eyebrow, Scott stopped walking and took a deep breath.  “Remember that dime novel you pulled from the fire?”  When his father nodded, Scott continued.  “It’s part of a series of stories about Johnny Madrid.  All of them full of more lies and exaggerations, sickening things.”

Murdoch dragged his hand over his face.  “When will this end?”

“All the stories are written by an author named Dusty Wrangler.  I wrote to the publishing company in San Francisco, thinking we could stop them from printing any more of these novels.  I suggested the author might want to meet the family of Johnny Madrid, so the record could be set straight.”

“When did you do this?  And why in God’s name didn’t you tell me?”

Scott swallowed hard.  “I didn’t know if I’d get a response.  In truth, I wasn’t sure if it would even do any good.  You were dealing with the death of Danny Sullivan’s son and Johnny leaving, so I didn’t say anything.”  Holding his breath, Scott locked eyes with his father.

Minutes seemed to crawl by.  Finally, Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Did you get a reply?”

“Yes.  The publisher sent a telegram saying Dusty Wrangler would take me up on my offer.  The author would be arriving on –“

“Rider coming!”  The vaquero posted to watch the Lancer entrance shouted the warning again.

Scott and Murdoch scanned the horizon in the direction the ranch hand was pointing.  Scott spotted the galloping horse and rider first and squinted.  “I think it’s the Sheriff from Green River.”

It always puzzled Scott that Johnny had such a strong friendship with Sheriff Val Crawford.  His brother, the ex-gunfighter, had admitted to being no stranger to the inside of a jail cell, and Murdoch’s Pinkerton agent had rescued Johnny just minutes before he would have been executed by a firing squad.  Why Johnny and the law officer were friends was one more mystery about this younger brother that Scott hoped would be explained one day.

In a cloud of dust, Sheriff Crawford pulled his foam-speckled horse to a halt and dismounted in front of the Lancer men.  “Got news you may want,” he panted.

“It’s okay, Sheriff,” Murdoch said.  “Johnny’s here.  He’s been shot, but we’ll keep him safe from now on.”

“I didn’t know he was here.  Had hoped he went down Mexico way.”  Sheriff Crawford removed his hat and brushed the dust from his shirt and pants.

“So what news do you have?”  Scott had a feeling the law officer’s hasty arrival didn’t bode well for his brother.

“There’s a poster out on Johnny.”  The Sheriff went to his saddlebag and retrieved a folded sheet of paper.

Scott stepped closer to Val’s side.  “A wanted poster?” 

“Well, sort of.  It offers a $500 reward for information about Johnny Madrid.”  The Sheriff opened the document and passed it to Scott.

With trepidation, he read the words and handed the poster to his father.  “It doesn’t say he’s wanted for a crime.”

“Exactly.  It also doesn’t say who to contact to claim the reward.  Most wanted posters tell you who’s posting the reward.  How you gonna collect otherwise?”

Examining the paper in Murdoch’s hands more closely, Scott noticed the small print at the bottom of the page.  “Grand Adventure Publishing.”

“That’s probably just the name of the company that printed it,” Murdoch said.  “But maybe they can tell us who’s behind these things.”

I wonder if Miss Williams knows anything about them.  It’s the same publisher of her novels.  Scott ran a finger along his temple and tried to sort out his feelings toward Dottie.  She was attractive and charming, but she was responsible for the novels.  And now this?

“A poster like this could be a big problem for Johnny ‘cause it’s gonna bring out a lot of dull blades,” Sheriff Crawford said.

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone who reads this ain’t as smart as you two.  Some yahoo will take it into his fool head that he can make $500 quick by killing Johnny and hauling his body to the nearest law officer to claim the reward.  Then the dull blade ain’t gonna like the answer he gets.”

Murdoch took a threatening step toward the Sheriff, and Scott slid between them to avoid any trouble.

“Sorry, Mr. Lancer,” Val said.  “Just telling it like I see it.”  He gathered his horse’s reins and mounted.  “Tell Johnny to be careful.  Best if he loses himself down south for awhile.”  The Sheriff tipped his hat and rode away.

Scott stood with his father and watched the horse and rider disappear in the distance.  Once he was gone from sight, Murdoch tossed the poster on the ground and stomped toward the house.

Quickly, Scott picked up the paper, folded and stuffed it in his back pocket.  I’ll see what Miss Williams knows about this.  After catching up with Murdoch, Scott glanced at his father and sensed his tension.  “Let’s tell Johnny how much better Barranca is doing.”  He tried to sound upbeat, but he knew the poster was going to pose even more difficulties for his brother and the whole family.  There’s no way I’m letting Johnny run off to Mexico like a wanted criminal.


Teresa bustled out of Johnny’s room with the empty bowl in her hands and headed toward the stairs to the kitchen.  A smile danced across her lips and she wanted to sing.  Johnny had complained about the broth as she expected, but it was so good to have him back at Lancer and recovering.  Her high spirits faded at the sound of the guest room door opening.

Miss Williams stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind her.  “Hello, Teresa.  I’m sorry I’ve been such a hermit.  Is there anything I can do to help?”

For a moment, Teresa wrestled with her emotions.  “No thank you, Miss Williams.  Did you have a good night’s sleep?”

“Please call me Dottie.  I slept wonderfully, and I used the time this morning to jot down my reflections about the trip here.  It was an amazing journey.”

“I can imagine,” Teresa said, trying to sound neutral.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to wash this bowl and start working on dinner.  Perhaps you would like to walk in the garden or make yourself comfortable in the great room.”

“Thank you, Teresa.  You have been a most gracious hostess, and your home is so elegant.  However, you must have your hand’s full.  I hope I’m not putting more of a burden on you.”

Teresa wanted to hate this woman for all the pain she had caused Johnny with her stories, but she seemed so friendly.  “You’re not a problem.”  Did I really say that?

“How is Scott’s brother feeling?”  Dottie’s voice was low and she nodded toward the open door of the room Teresa had just left.

“He’s getting stronger.  Last night was difficult, but he seems much better today.  He even finished some broth.”  Teresa paused, considering her next words.  “Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?”

“That would be wonderful.  I’ll be down in a minute.  Let me get my notes from the trip, maybe you can answer a few questions for me over tea.”

Teresa watched Dottie return to the guest room, before continuing on her way to the kitchen.  What am I thinking?  I’m going to have tea with the author who wrote all those awful things about Johnny.


Dottie collected her journal and box of writing implements from the table by the window.  Again, she studied the rolling hills and distant mountains visible through the open window.  A herd of cattle grazed in the nearby field, and a mounted cowboy rode away from the ranch.  She noted every detail, thrilled at the opportunities this trip had presented.  I’ll have so much authentic material for my next book.

Father had been concerned about her traveling alone, and bringing the Derringer was the agreed-upon compromise.  However, the prospect of meeting Johnny Madrid’s family was too good to miss.  Scott Lancer still had not told her when she would be introduced to them, but the blond rancher had assured her that when the time was right he would make the appropriate introductions.  Scott had even hinted that he might be able to arrange a meeting with Johnny Madrid himself, but he made no promises.  She shivered at the idea of facing the dark gunslinger in person.  His brooding eyes and angry sneer filled her with fear.  Interviewing the murdering half-breed’s family was as far as she wanted to go.  With Scott at her side, she would be safe with Madrid’s family.  She was sure Scott would not be enough protection from Madrid, so she had no plans to press him for that meeting.

The blond Lancer son was an unexpected surprise.  Who would have thought I would find a Boston-raised gentleman here at a cattle ranch?  Maybe there’s another series of stories I could write based on his life.  Handsome gentleman turned cowboy rancher.  She smiled at the successful writing career that lay before her.  Father is helping, of course, but if you have connections with the publisher, why not use them?

The Lancer family was being gracious to open their home to her, especially under the circumstances, with Scott’s brother being injured.  No one had told her very much, but she could understand that this was a private matter.  Still, as an author, her curiosity was at work.  What if Scott’s brother had been shot by Madrid and managed to escape?  Would Madrid come hunting for him to finish his murderous act?  Her imagination worked over the possibilities.

Dottie interrupted her own revelries, reminding herself that Teresa was waiting downstairs to have tea.  Deliberately, Dottie clasped the journal and box of supplies, hurrying from the room.  In the hallway, she hesitated and wondered if there were more than one way down to the kitchen.  A large house like this surely has more than one stairway.  Being a writer seemed like a good excuse to go exploring.  After all, it is research .  She walked down the hallway in the opposite direction Teresa had taken, passing the carved doors of what she assumed were bedrooms.

She paused outside the open door of the injured man’s room and peeked in.  The afternoon sun cast a warm glow in the modest room.  She saw a large bed against the far wall, with a rumbled mound of sheets and blankets in the center of the bed.  An armchair was pulled close to the bedside table.  Dottie took a step into the room for a closer look at Scott’s brother.

Dottie was shocked at the dark hair tousled across the white linen of the pillowcase.  She had expected to see a blond man.  Scott’s complexion was fair, and while Murdoch’s hair was graying, it too seemed light as compared with the injured man’s. 

Scott’s brother was sleeping, and Dottie quietly advanced to stand beside the bed.  He looked young, younger than Scott by several years.  She studied the long eyelashes and bronzed skin, noting strain lines around the corners of his mouth.  He must be in terrible pain if it’s bothering him even while he’s asleep.

Her eyes turned to the gun belt hanging from the bedpost and the pistol within easy reach.  Her Derringer was light and she wondered how heavy the larger gun might be.  Holding her journal and supply box in one hand, she leaned forward to pull the pistol from its holster.  Her fingers touched the polished grip and curled around the smooth, well-maintained wood.

A strong, dark hand clamped onto her wrist, and Dottie screamed, pulling away from the bed.  Wide-eyed, she looked at Scott’s brother, who was now sitting up.  His blue eyes met hers with a puzzled expression.

“I’m…  I’m sorry.”  She dropped her journal and tugged against his hold.

He relaxed his grasp on her wrist and released her.  With a grimace, he slowly sank back onto the bed.

“I’m so sorry,” Dottie stammered.  Her heart was racing and she felt flush.

“You smell like roses.”  His voice was weak, and he closed his eyes.

Dottie stooped to recover her journal and held it to her chest.  Without a word, she fled from the room and found her way down to the kitchen, passing Scott and his father on the stairs.


“She certainly is in a hurry,” Murdoch said, looking back at the retreating figure of Miss Williams.

Scott nodded, growing more concerned that he had made a mistake in inviting her to Lancer.  He hurried up the stairs to Johnny’s room.

Murdoch climbed the stairs more slowly.  “Scott, was there something you wanted to tell me about her?”

“Let’s see how Johnny’s doing.  Then we’ll talk about why she’s here.”  Scott was not looking forward to the pending conversation.

They entered Johnny’s room together, and Scott sat on the edge of the bed, leaving the armchair for his father.  Johnny was lying on his stomach, his head turned toward the window.  Scott couldn’t see his brother’s face clearly, and wasn’t sure if he was asleep.

“Johnny?” Scott whispered.

The dark-haired man stirred and shifted position, turning his head toward Murdoch and Scott.  His eyes were open but pain-filled.

“How are you feeling, Son?”

“Been better, been worse,” Johnny said softly.  He attempted to roll to his side but gasped.

“Here, let us help,” Scott said.  “You want to sit up?”

Between Murdoch and Scott, they propped pillows behind Johnny and lifted him closer to the headboard.

“Doc says you need to be careful of those stitches in your back.  No quick moves,” Murdoch ordered.

“I’ll try to remember that.”  Johnny flinched as he leaned against the upper part of his back.  His breathing came in rapid, short bursts.

Scott felt for his brother and wished he could do more to help him.  “Would you like something to drink?”  At Johnny’s nod, he filled a glass on the bedside table with water.  His eyes trailed over the gun belt on the bedpost and noticed the missing pistol.  Offering the water to his brother, he asked nonchalantly, “Where’s your gun?”

Johnny smiled faintly.  “Well, Brother.  I got it where I need it.”  He patted one of the pillows close to his side.

“You won’t need it here, Son.”  Murdoch glanced out the window.  “We’ve got men posted around the ranch.  No one will get to you here.”

“Don’t be too sure.”  Johnny’s expression was cold and reminded Scott of the look he had seen during the gunfight with Brad Sullivan.

Scott decided it was time to change the subject.  “Thought you might want to hear how Barranca’s doing.”  The look of surprise and relief on his brother’s face astounded Scott.

“You mean Barranca’s not…”  Johnny choked and blinked quickly.  “I thought…”

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Scott’s been nursing that horse of yours, and doing a great job.  I think he missed his calling, he should have been a vet.”

Scott grinned, pleased to hear the words of praise from his father, but more satisfied with the gratitude he saw in Johnny’s eyes.

“Thanks, Brother.  That’s the finest horse I’ve ever had.”  A single tear trickled from the corner of Johnny’s eye, and he hastily brushed it away.

Pretending not to notice his brother’s action, Scott continued to describe the palomino’s condition.  “You better not take too long getting well.  That horse is going to be a handful to handle before you know it.”

“I won’t take long.”  Johnny closed his eyes.

“That’s the right attitude,” Murdoch said in a good-natured voice.

Scott wasn’t convinced Johnny’s words meant he was anticipating a quick recovery as much as he would be leaving in a short time.  “Johnny?”

Shouts from the courtyard carried through the window, but the words were unrecognizable.  All three Lancer men turned toward the sound.  Murdoch rose from his chair and went to look outside.  Johnny tried to swing his legs off the bed, but Scott gently pinned his shoulders back.

“Stay in bed, Johnny,” Murdoch commanded.  “I’ll go see what that’s all about.  Scott, stay with him.”

Johnny stopped fighting and relaxed.  “He likes giving orders.”

If there was one thing Scott had learned about his brother soon after they met, it was that Johnny did not take orders well.  With his military training, Scott understood the need for orders for the good of the unit.  He regarded his brother now and wondered about his sudden obedience.  “You sure gave in easy.”

“Got to save my strength.  Think I’ll sleep a little more.”  Johnny closed his eyes and settled into a more comfortable position.  His hand slipped under the pillow by his side.

You’re not fooling me, Brother.  You’re planning to head out soon.  Well, I’ll to be watching, and you won’t be going anywhere until you’re all healed.  Scott pulled the blanket over his brother’s shoulders and studied his brother’s haggard features.  “Sleep well, Johnny.”  He rose and headed to the door.

Like a gentle breeze, Johnny’s voice drifted across the room.  “There was a woman here earlier.  Who is she?”

Scott stopped and his hands curled into fists.  What was she doing in Johnny’s room?  “Get some rest and I’ll introduce you later.”


Murdoch marched out of the house and into the courtyard.  “What’s going on?”

“Señor Sullivan wishes to speak with you,” Cipriano said, holding the reins of Danny Sullivan’s horse.

“Danny, come on in the house.”  Murdoch welcomed his old friend and gestured for Cipriano and the other vaqueros to leave.

“I’ll not be staying, Murdoch.  ‘Tis only one reason I’m here.  Me Brad be buried two weeks now, and I don’t plan on seeing another of me sons killed.  Word around town is that Madrid is back.”

Murdoch stepped closer to Danny’s horse.  “Johnny is a Lancer, and this is his home.”

“’Tis not a fight with you I want, Murdoch.  Me only reason for coming is to warn you to send him away.  I don’t want to bury anymore of me boys.”

“And why would you have to do that?”  Murdoch felt his anger rising.

“Me boys and others are talking of ridding the area of Madrid and his killing ways.  For sure, we don’t need more blood spilt.  Send the devil away.  ‘Tis the right thing to do.”

Murdoch’s jaw tightened.  “The right thing is to call off your sons.”

“You be blinded by that devil.”  Kicking his horse, Danny Sullivan galloped away.

“Cipriano!”  Storming over to the corral, Murdoch began issuing orders.  “Double the guard!”


When Murdoch entered through the French doors from the courtyard, Scott cringed at the look on his father’s face and sighed.  Murdoch must have gotten more bad news .  “What was that all about?”

“I told you to stay with Johnny,“ Murdoch said angrily.

Reasoning that his father’s anger was due to whatever had transpired outside, Scott chose to remain calm.  No sense aggravating him more.  He went to the sideboard and poured a glass of whiskey for his father.  “Johnny’s resting and is probably asleep by now.”

Both men turned at the sound of Teresa’s voice.  “Murdoch!  Scott!  What’s happening?”  She arrived in the great room with Dottie following behind her.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” Murdoch said.  “Just Danny Sullivan relaying some information.”

Scott knew there was more involved than ranching news.  After Brad’s death, Danny wouldn’t come here unless it was important.  If Murdoch doesn’t want to talk about it in front of Teresa, then I'll speak to him later.  But this is my opportunity to tell him Dottie is the author of the dime novels .  Glancing at their guest, Scott handed the glass of whiskey to Murdoch.  “In that case, there is something we need to talk about.”

Murdoch cast a questioning gaze at Scott and downed the whiskey before settling in a chair by the fireplace.  “Go ahead.”

Scott beckoned Dottie and Teresa to join him on the sofa and prepared himself to deliver the news he had wanted to share with his father since yesterday.  “Dottie is our guest because I invited the author of the dime novels about Johnny Madrid to meet his family.  She writes under the pen name of Dusty Wrangler and has published a series of stories about Madrid’s gunfights.”

“You mean lies and insults.”  Teresa jumped to her feet and stared at the other woman in disgust.

“Teresa,” Dottie pleaded.  “They’re only stories, written to get readers to turn the page.  That’s what sells books.”

Scott listened to the two women but watched his father’s reaction.  “I thought,” he continued, “if she came here and learned the truth, she would stop writing these novels.”

“You thought!”  Murdoch’s words exploded across the room.  “The damage has already been done.”  He threw his empty glass into the fireplace, shattering it into tiny pieces.


Johnny’s eyes snapped open at the sound of his father’s angry voice and the breaking glass.  He had fallen asleep as soon as Scott left the room, but the intense noise from downstairs roused him.  Something’s wrong!

Slowly, he sat up, clutching his left side and gritting his teeth at the pain that lanced across his back.  As his legs slid over the edge of the bed and onto the floor, a wave of dizziness washed over him, and he steadied himself against the bedpost.  Fight through it, Johnny boy.  You’ve felt worse, much worse.

With careful, deliberate motions, he located a shirt and pants.  He recognized vaguely that the blue shirt was new, one he didn’t remember.  Putting on the pants was agony and left him covered with a sheen of perspiration.  He stifled a moan and slipped one arm into the shirt sleeve.  The struggle to put his other arm into a sleeve ended with him sitting in the armchair by the bed, gasping for breath.

The raised voices from below continued and sounded like Scott and Murdoch having an argument.  A female voice seemed to be part of the dispute.  Teresa?  What could make her so upset?

With difficulty, Johnny rose and retrieved his gun from the bed.  After the failed attempt to button his shirt, he knew he couldn’t manage the gun belt, so he tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants.  His open shirt fell over the grip of the pistol, hiding it from view.  On bare feet, he shuffled toward the door.  Leaning heavily against the doorjamb, he fought for breath.  The stairs are going to be tough.

Pressing his arm to his left side, Johnny straightened as best he could and called upon his years of working past the pain to make his way downstairs.  With each tortured step, he listened to bits and pieces of angry conversation, catching only part of what was being said.

Beyond the arch of the great room, Johnny paused to assess the situation.  There were four voices involved.  Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa were easy to identify, but the fourth voice belonged to a woman he didn’t know.  He remembered the visitor to his room and wondered, Is that you, Roses?  Only one way to find out.  Johnny took a deep breath and silently stepped into the great room.  Swaying, he walked toward the group gathered at the fireplace.  Move one foot at a time.  Concentrate.

The argument ceased, but Johnny barely noticed.  He was focused on maintaining his balance and getting to the fireplace.


The voices swept around him and merged in a confused muddle.

“Easy, Brother.”

He felt Scott’s arm around his shoulder, guiding him to the fireplace.  Johnny dropped onto the sofa with a sigh, his head spinning and his back ablaze with a throbbing pain.  He also felt satisfaction, pleased that he had accomplished what he set out to do.  Can’t let them see how weak I am.

“I was getting lonely,” Johnny said in a soft drawl.  He flashed a smile and shot a challenging glance at his father.  “Besides, Scott promised to introduce me to Roses.”  Turning his attention to the pale beauty sitting beside him on the sofa, Johnny bowed his head.

“I’m Dottie Williams, not Rose.”  Blushing lightly, she extended her hand.

Johnny steeled himself for the pain he knew was coming as he twisted to shake her hand.  His fingers closed gently around her hand, and he recalled how tightly he had grabbed her wrist earlier.  “Johnny Lancer.”  He let his gaze linger on the auburn locks that curled in tight tendrils around her face.

“You should be in bed, Son.”  Murdoch kicked a piece of broken glass from the hearth into the fireplace.

“Dr. Spencer said you need plenty of rest,” Teresa chimed in.

The concerned look on Scott’s face confirmed that he agreed with their father and Teresa.  Johnny chuckled.  “And what do you think, Roses?”

The woman flushed a deeper shade of red and dropped her eyes.  Her hands tugged on a fold in her skirt.  “My mother says sleep is the best cure for all that is wrong in the world.”

“Hard to get much rest with all the ruckus going on down here.”  He noted the guilty exchange of looks between the others.  “There’s another piece of glass by the poker.”  With a half smile, he watched Murdoch pick up the jagged section of glass.  “Care to tell me what’s going on?”

“We were discussing Dottie’s visit,” Scott said.

“Well, Roses, you must be having some visit.”  He could tell she was flustered from the nervous way she clutched the fabric of her skirt.  When no one said anything, Johnny sighed.  He was too tired to play games.  If I get Scott aside, he’ll tell me what the uproar is all about.  Besides, I really need to rest.  With a good night’s sleep, I should be able to ride tomorrow.

“Scott,” Johnny said, resigned to the lack of response from Murdoch.  His father’s voice had been the loudest and most insistent the entire time Johnny had struggled down the stairs.  “Mind giving me a hand back to my room?  Since things have quieted down here, maybe I can get back to sleep.”

“Sorry about the noise, Son.”  Murdoch sounded truly contrite, but his eyes never met Johnny’s.

“I’ll help too,” Teresa offered.

“Night, Murdoch.  Till tomorrow, Roses.”  Johnny gave her the crooked smile he knew charmed the ladies.

With Teresa on one side and Scott on the other, Johnny labored to his feet.  A faint moan escaped from his drawn lips, and he inhaled slowly to steady himself.

“Can you make it, Brother?”  Scott tightened his hold on Johnny’s waist.

“I can if you can,” Johnny said, but with each step across the room, he leaned more heavily on his brother.  By the time Scott and Teresa settled him back in bed, Johnny had no strength to ask about Dottie’s visit.


Dottie watched Johnny shuffle out of the room, her heart breaking for his suffering.  “Your son is very brave.”

Murdoch’s gaze was fixed on the broken piece of glass in the palm of his hand.  “Yes, he is brave,” he said quietly.  “But stubborn.”

“That’s probably what it takes to be brave.”  Dottie rose from the sofa.  She didn’t understand how the earlier conversation had become so heated.  Why would Mr. Lancer be so upset about the Madrid stories?   She wasn’t sure why, but an apology seemed in order.  “Mr. Lancer, I appreciate your hospitality, but I appear to have upset you.  Perhaps it would be best if I stay at a hotel until Scott can arrange my meeting with Johnny Madrid’s family.”  She was startled by the expression on Murdoch’s face.  Now what did I say to anger him more?

“Miss Williams, you’ve already met Johnny Madrid’s family.”

Her lips trembled and she backed away.  “What are you saying?”

“Johnny Madrid is my son.”

Dottie’s head swiveled back to the direction Scott and his brother had gone.  “That was Johnny Madrid?”

“Yes.  What did you expect?  A devil with horns?”

“I shook hands with Madrid.”  In disbelief, she sat down heavily on the sofa, her heart beating in panic.  I tried to hold Madrid’s gun.  The gun that killed all those people.


A rifle shot rang through the night, and the guard shouted a warning.  Scott sprang from his bed and stumbled across his dark room to the window.  The moon illuminated the landscape and he scanned the area from the barn to the corrals.  Vaqueros with guns drawn raced out of the bunkhouse, pulling on clothes as they ran.  More shots filled the night, followed by a man’s scream.  Scott grabbed his shirt and rifle before hurrying to join the ranch hands.

He passed Teresa in the hallway and shouted, “Stay with Johnny.  Don’t let him get up.”  The last thing he wanted to worry about was his injured brother being hit by another bullet.

Outside, Scott joined Murdoch and Cipriano behind a low wall.  “See anything?” he asked.

Cipriano gestured toward bushes in the distance.  “They came closer, but the guard surprised them.  They seem to be leaving now.”

“Was anyone hurt?”  Scott recalled the scream and wondered if it was a Lancer vaquero.

“None of ours,” Cipriano replied.  “The guard shot one of them.  Don’t know how bad.”

Scott raised a hand for silence and listened intently to the thundering of hooves galloping away from Lancer.  “Sounds like they’re gone.”  He rose cautiously and peered into the darkness.  “Who were they and what did they want?”

“I have a pretty good idea,” Murdoch said.  “Danny Sullivan warned me there might be trouble for Johnny.”

Shaking his head, Scott gripped his rifle tightly.  “Over Brad?  Johnny was just defending himself.”

“Over the stories in those blasted novels.”  The moonlight on Murdoch’s face cast stark shadows over his features.  “Cipriano, thank the men for their help and tell the guards to be extra alert.”

“I’ll be back in a few minutes to help,” Scott said.  “First, I want to check on Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded and together they returned to the house.  Scott was sure he saw Dottie peeking from behind the curtains of the guest room.

“We may have stopped them tonight, but they’ll be back,” Murdoch said.  “Sheriff Crawford called it vigilante action.”

“Do you think he’s right?  Should Johnny go to Mexico for awhile?”  Scott hated the thought of his brother hiding like a fugitive, but he was at a loss how to solve this problem.  Bringing Dottie to Lancer had not given them the solution.  I was a fool to think talking to the author would fix this mess.  He felt helpless, and he didn’t like the feeling.


“No, Johnny.  Stay down,” Teresa begged.  Gently but firmly, she pushed him back against the pillow.  “Scott and Murdoch can handle it with the men.”

The dark-haired man closed his eyes and stopped fighting her.  She sighed in relief and sat on the edge of the bed.  “We don’t even know what the shooting is about.”

“I know what it’s about.” Johnny spoke so quietly she barely heard him.

“It could be rustlers,” Teresa suggested.

“Yeah.  Or someone could be target shooting.”

Teresa saw the white glint of Johnny’s teeth in the moonlight and knew he was joking.  Then the smile disappeared and his voice became serious.

“They’re here because of me,” he said.

“Not because of you, because of the Johnny Madrid in those dime novels.”

“I am Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny’s voice had turned cold with a hard edge, and it worried her.  “You’re Johnny Lancer now, and you’re not like the character in those stories.”

“You don’t know the things I’ve done, the things I had to do to survive, the lives I’ve taken.”

“But, Johnny, you’ve never killed children or used puppies for target practice or shot men in the back.  I know you wouldn’t do anything like those stories say.”

Johnny did not reply and in the darkness of the room, Teresa wondered if he had fallen asleep.  Her thoughts strayed to the decisions other people had made in Johnny’s life and the consequences he had been forced to suffer.  If only Maria had stayed, how different things might have been.  And why did Dottie have to write those terrible stories?  In a soft voice, she said, “I don’t hear anymore gunshots outside.  Maybe it’s over.”

“It’s only just begun.”  Johnny reached out and took Teresa’s hand in his.  “As long as I’m here, you and Scott and Murdoch are at risk.”

Oh, Johnny.  We want to protect you, and you’re worrying about us.   She squeezed his hand and rose from the bed.  “Try to get some rest.”

After leaving Johnny’s room, Teresa closed the door behind her, her emotions in turmoil.  She had experienced the same uneasy feeling when her father had ridden off with Murdoch in pursuit of the horse thieves.  Her father had died then, and she didn’t want the same fate for Johnny.  Batting her eyes, she willed the tears away.  Again, Teresa prayed the silent petition she had been saying the past two weeks since this problem started. 
Father, please keep him safe.


As Teresa pulled the door closed, the well-oiled hinges whispered.  In the moonlit room, Johnny lay still, staring at the door and pondering how Teresa could have so much faith in him.  I may be Johnny Lancer now, but I’ve been Johnny Madrid a lot longer.  The dime novel, whether it’s true or not, tells people how dangerous a gunfighter can be, and they’re afraid.  I’ve used that fear for years, and now it’s turned against me.  But I can’t let fear hurt my family.

It was strange to be concerned about a family, his family, and he felt a mix of pride and terror.  Tomorrow, I’ll do what I should have done two weeks ago I’ll head south.  He felt exhaustion taking hold and closed his eyes.  Tomorrow…

Before he drifted into sleep, Johnny heard the familiar thread of Scott’s footsteps against the floorboards and the creak of the chair as his brother settled in for his shift on the bedside vigil. 
Watch my back, Brother, while I get some sleep.


In the first light of dawn, Johnny studied his father sleeping awkwardly in the chair beside the bed.  The tall man’s legs stretched to their full length and his graying head lulled against his chest, slowly rising and falling with each breath.  Johnny memorized details about his father’s appearance, realizing this might be the last time he saw the man he was still getting to know.

It had been a lie that Murdoch threw Johnny and his mother out.  All those years of hate based on a lie.  Now people feared him because of the lies in that dime novel.  Upon reflection, Johnny realized that even his name was a lie.  Was he Johnny Madrid, a name he had invented for himself, or Johnny Lancer, a name he was still getting accustomed to?  It was so easy to slip from one to the other, perhaps because he was living a lie.

With a steadying breath, Johnny stilled the angry shafts of pain coursing along this back and side.  Last night he had been relieved that Teresa let him wear his shirt and pants to bed.  One less thing to wrestle with this morning.  It’s too soon to be leaving, but I can’t wait.   Quietly slipping out of bed, he collected his gun belt and boots.  After a final glance at his father, Johnny eased out of the room.

He heard Scott talking to someone, but the sound came from the great room, which Johnny carefully avoided.  Luck was on his side and Johnny made it out of the house without being seen.  Once outside, he struggled into his boots and buckled the gun belt around his hips, letting it hang low as always.  There was a comfort in its familiar feel.

Trying not to let the pain show, he moved across the courtyard and toward the barn.  He paused to speak with the armed vaquero watching the house and learned what the man knew about the gunfire last night.  With a slight wave of his arm, Johnny bid the man farewell.  “Got to check Barranca.”

At the barn, Johnny cursed his own weakness.  Opening the barn door left him panting, with beads of sweat dotting his forehead.  I won’t be able to lift a saddle.

“Compadre,” he said at the sight of his palomino.  He had believed his brother and father that the horse was alive, but seeing Barranca with his own eyes lifted a weight from his heart.  Lightly, he ran a hand along the golden coat and examined the horse’s legs.  The strong smell of liniment told him what he needed to know.  “We won’t be making this trip together, amigo.  Rest up and get better.  Maybe one day…”  The words caught in his throat.  You’re getting soft, Johnny boy.   He patted Barranca’s neck and left the stall.

Johnny looked at the other horses in the barn, but could not bring himself to take Murdoch’s or Scott’s horse and Teresa’s wasn’t up to the task ahead.  I wonder if I can handle that little roan mare in the pasture?  She has a smooth gait and a steady disposition.  But riding a half-broke, green horse in his condition might be a challenge, especially riding bareback.  With a halter and lead rope in hand, he headed toward the pasture.


Without a word, Scott loaded Dottie’s valise into the buckboard and helped the young woman to climb aboard.

“Please give your father my regrets,” Dottie said.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to him or Johnny before you go?”  Scott settled into the seat beside her and took up the reins.  Although he posed the question, he knew what she was going to say and could understand why.

“I don’t think your father would want to talk to me.  He made that very clear last night.  And I have nothing to say to the other.”  She smoothed her skirt and stared straight ahead.

“No.  I don’t suppose you do.”  Scott studied her profile and his resentment grew.  “Tell me, Dottie.  How does it feel to ruin a life?  To tear a family apart?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She has to understand what she’s done.  Scott sighed.  “Those stories you wrote about Johnny Madrid aren’t true.”

“Dime novels are fiction, Mr. Lancer.  But the awful things Madrid did in real life are the basis of the stories.”

“But, Dottie, Johnny is a real person.  He had a hard life growing up and he did what he had to do to stay alive.  When he came to Lancer, he left the gunfighter life behind.  Or at least he’s been trying to.  I’ve seen his past come back over and over to haunt him.  And now these books—“

“Mr. Lancer, are you through?  I want to make the early stage.”

Scott lifted the reins and tapped them against the horse’s rump.  “Why did you decide to write about Johnny?  How did a fashionable San Francisco lady learn about a border town gunfighter?”

With the slightest smile, Dottie calmed her fidgeting hands and turned to Scott.  “If you’ll let me take the reins, I’ll tell you.”

She’s doing it again!  She smiles and I can’t help but like her.   He handed Dottie the reins and watched her guide the buckboard toward the main gate.

“My father employed a young Mexican girl in our kitchen.  Sometimes I would sneak down the back staircase and she would tell me about her family and her life growing up in a border town.  She told me about dreadful things that happened in her village, and she mentioned a half-breed gunfighter named Johnny Madrid who was making quite a reputation for himself.  I put all the pieces together and started writing stories.  Consuela—that was her name—would help me with details so the stories sounded authentic.  I write them as cliffhangers to keep readers interested so they will turn the page.”

Scott listened intently, tapping his fingers together.  Johnny’s life has become a made-up diversion for a charming socialite.  He was puzzled about one thing.  “So how did you get them published?”

“Oh, that was the easy part.  My father owns Grand Adventure Publishing.  As a birthday present, he agreed to print my books.  Of course, I had to use a pen name.  Father is a business man and he said the novels would only sell if readers thought they were written by a cowboy.”  Laughing, she flicked the reins lightly.  “I do think Dusty Wrangler is a silly name.”

Scott reached in his pocket and removed a folded paper, opening it so she could see.  “Do you think this poster is silly too?”

“That’s just for publicity.  Father said they would increase sales and they don’t cost much.”

“They may cost my brother his life.”

As they drove through the Lancer arch, Scott heard galloping hoofbeats behind them and he grabbed the reins from Dottie’s hands.  Pulling the buckboard to a stop, he turned and saw Cipriano racing toward them from the hacienda.

“Señor Lancer,” Cipriano shouted.  “He’s gone.”

“Johnny?”  At Cipriano’s nod, Scott wheeled the buckboard back toward the house.

“What about my stage?”  Dottie sounded perturbed.

Shaking his head, Scott cast a sideways glance at her.  “Don’t you feel the least bit responsible for what Johnny’s going through?”

“He’s a cold-blooded killer.”

“You said it yourself.  It’s fiction.”  Scott spoke the words in anger.  “My brother’s not a cold-blooded killer, but you’ve filled people with enough hate for him that they are willing to kill him in cold-blood.  All for the sake of getting a reader to turn the page.”

The buckboard rumbled to a halt just outside the main entrance to the house, and Scott jumped down.  Dottie seized the reins and slapped them across the horse’s back.  The animal snorted and charged forward in a wide arc as Dottie turned the buckboard around.

“I’m going to make that stage!”

“Leave the horse and buckboard at the livery,” Scott called after her.  Good riddance!  He ran into the house, hoping that Murdoch or Teresa had some information on where Johnny had gone.  He’s in no shape to be riding.


Kneading the back of his neck, Murdoch fumed at himself for falling asleep.  “I was supposed to be keeping an eye on him.  When I woke up and saw the empty bed and the missing gun belt, I knew…”

“Any idea how long he’s been gone?”  Teresa looked up at him with those pleading eyes, and he cringed.

“No.  Could be an hour or two,” Murdoch said.

“He couldn’t get far,” Scott said.  “Which horse did he take?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I checked the barn and all the horses are there, including Barranca.”

“Maybe one of the men saw him leave,” Scott suggested.

“I thought of that.  Cipriano’s asking all the vaqueros if they noticed anything.”  Smacking his fist into the palm of his other hand, Murdoch paced before the fireplace.  “Son, let’s go find your brother.  We’ll send men out in all directions until we find him.”

Murdoch and Scott saddled their horses and were leading them from the barn when Cipriano came running.

“Señor Lancer,” Cipriano said.  “Tomas saw Johnny early this morning.  He rode to the south on the new mare.”

“The roan?”  Scott mounted his horse and adjusted his hat.  “She’s not completely broke yet.”

“Sí, Señor.  Tomas also said he rode without a saddle.”

“What is that boy thinking?”  Murdoch rubbed his neck again, before putting his foot in the stirrup.  He belongs here at Lancer.  As Murdoch swung into the saddle, his eyes surveyed the horizon to the south, but it was a cloud of dust to the west that caught his attention.


Dottie hauled back on the reins and the buckboard slowed.  How did this trip get so unsettling?  Scott had been a perfect gentleman, and Teresa a gracious hostess.  The elder Lancer was more difficult, but men of power often were and she was used to it.  Her father was very similar, harsh when he needed to be, but kind and friendly most of the time.

Her thoughts were more confused when it came to the dark-haired man.  Her heart went out to him for the pain he was obviously suffering.  His voice was soft and gentle, and when he smiled or called her Roses, it made her tremble inside.  But he was Madrid, the hated gunfighter.  The conflicting images of the man clashed in her mind.  What had Scott said?  It’s fiction.

When the horse neighed and stopped abruptly, Dottie realized she had lost track of where she was.  A dozen riders rode toward her, blocking the road ahead.  An older man with a hank of faded red hair stopped his horse beside her.

“’Tis a good day to you, Lassie.”  He lifted his hat, exposing more faded red hair.  With a glance at the other riders, he frowned.  “Boys, where be your manners?”

The other men tipped their hats and Dottie noted three more redheads among them.  She smiled back, but discretely checked that the Derringer was still in her skirt pocket.

“You be visiting the Lancers?”

Dottie didn’t like the tone of his question but decided to give an honest answer.  “Yes, but I’m leaving to go home.”

The old man exchanged looks with the other riders.  “’Tis dangerous for a lady to be out alone.  Me boys and I would be honored to escort you.”  The riders closed in around the buckboard.  “But first, we have a wee bit of business to finish at Lancer.”

“I have a stage to catch and must be on my way.  I’m sure I’ll be fine without an escort, but I do appreciate the offer.”  Dottie saw the man’s face darken and her pulse quickened.  They’re not going to let me pass.

“The Lord God himself be smiling on us this morning, boys.  He sent us an angel to use in getting that devil at Lancer.”  The man signaled to one of the riders and smirked at Dottie.  “Me son, Michael, be keeping a good eye on you, Lassie.  Murdoch Lancer is more likely to trade that killing half-breed son of his for a lovely lassie such as yourself.”

Remembering Murdoch Lancer’s anger toward her last night, Dottie wasn’t so sure the kidnapper was right.  A younger redhead dismounted, hopped onto the seat beside her, and took the reins.  She buried her hand in her pocket, gripping the Derringer tightly.  Now what do I do?


The roan jogged in an easy swinging gait, but each stride sent a flash of pain through Johnny.  He slowed the mare to a walk and wiped the sweat from his forehead.  He wasn’t going to get far like this.

Freed from the responsibilities of the ranch, time and distance didn’t matter much now.  It’s not like I have anyplace to be or anything to do.   If he made it to Mexico, he could change his name, pick up a job here or there at places where no one read English and the dime novel would be meaningless.  It was a life without purpose, but he could survive.

Who are you kidding, Johnny boy?  You have nothing you’re going to, and the only people who really care about you are back at Lancer.

Johnny stopped at a stream and let the mare drink.  While he sat there astride the horse, he thought about his family and a place to call his own.  He thought about all the lies in his life.  His mother’s lie about his father had made him Johnny Madrid.  Now, he was letting the lies in a dime novel drive him back to Madrid’s life.

He battled with the notion that he was putting his family at risk if he stayed at Lancer.  That part he was sure of.  Still, to live without them wasn’t much of a life.  Slowly, he nudged the mare forward, heading back toward Lancer.  I won’t be able to live with myself if one of them gets hurt because of me, but I’d rather live what’s left of my life with them.


The grazing steer lifted its head and rambled over to another patch of grass, bellowing at the disturbance caused by the two riders who loped to the Lancer arched entryway.  From his horse, Murdoch eyed the animal, calculating its value by the weight on hoof.  He sighed and was glad Scott rode at his side.  All this—the cattle, the estancia, the Lancer name—was for his sons.

His sons.  Scott was solid, steady, a good man.  Scott’s concern for his brother was obvious.  The blond was ready to fight the approaching group of men to protect his brother.  And Johnny, Johnny was out there somewhere.  The boy was still a mystery to Murdoch.  He had Maria’s dark looks and fiery temper, but a tender heart that was easily bruised if Murdoch was judging him properly.  The boy stirred a strong reaction in Murdoch that he was at a loss to explain.  Where are you, Johnny?  We’ll buy you some time if we can.

Murdoch slowed his horse at the arch, and Scott followed his lead.  “We’ll wait here,” Murdoch said, his eyes fixed on the group of riders advancing toward them.

“Looks like Danny Sullivan and some of his sons.  I see their foreman and a few of their ranch hands.”

Must be getting old, I can’t tell who they are, but I’m not surprised it’s Danny.  “Guess losing Brad was too much for him.”  Murdoch raised his hand to silence Scott.  I know, Johnny was just defending himself.

Murdoch drew his gun and fired a shot in the air.  The riders pulled their mounts to a halt, and Scott looked at him with a quizzical expression.

“Warning shot for Johnny, in case he’s still in the area,” Murdoch said so only Scott could hear.

“Murdoch Lancer, ‘tis no need to be firing at the likes of me and me boys.”  Danny signaled his men to remain behind, and he rode toward the Lancers.

“I wasn’t shooting at you, Danny.  Just letting you know that you’re welcome at our place as long as you’re here on friendly terms.  The way you were riding, I figured you needed a little time to decide if that’s why you came.”

“Truth to tell, we come for Madrid.  I warned you no good would come of keeping that devil under your roof.  I want him.”

“We’ll never turn him over to a lynch mob like you’ve got there,” Scott said.  “He hasn’t done anything to deserve this.”

“Your son has a fury, Murdoch.”  Danny stared at Scott, before looking back at the elder Lancer.

“Scott, stay out of this.”  Murdoch brought his horse closer to Danny’s gelding.

“Me eldest boy, Sean, took a bullet on account of Madrid.”

“Was that him sneaking around our place last night?” Murdoch asked.

Danny glanced away nervously.  “It was on account of that no-good half-breed.”

“Johnny’s my son, and I won’t have you talking about him like that.  Say one more foul word about him and you’ll see my fury.”  Murdoch’s chin jutted forward and he glared at his old friend.


The sound of a single gunshot was muffled in the distance, almost lost amid the birdcalls and leaves rustling in the wind, but Johnny knew instantly it was a pistol shot from the direction of the Lancer house.  Despite the pain, he urged the mare into a slow lope.  Without a saddle, he didn’t dare gallop since his strength was about gone.

As he neared the slope that would give him a clear view of the road to the hacienda, he slowed the mare.  A startled jackrabbit burst out of the bushes and the roan reared.  Johnny grabbed for a handful of mane and tightened his legs around the mare’s sides, but without stirrups, he slid backward, tumbling to the ground.  A sickening sound and burning sensation across his back told him he had ripped open the stitches.  The fall knocked the air out of him and he lay stunned, while the flow of blood from his back dampened his shirt.

In a daze, Johnny staggered to his feet and stumbled to a tree.  With his weight supported by the trunk of the oak, he caught his breath and steadied himself.  The sound of the fleeing mare faded, and Johnny closed his eyes.  I was a fool to take a green horse.

A woman’s scream filled the air.  Johnny straightened and moved his head to better judge the direction of the sound.  Following a second, more desperate scream, he pulled his pistol from its holster and pushed away from the tree.  Cautiously, he lurched from tree to tree, until he spotted a buckboard in the road ahead.

A redhead, Johnny was certain was one of the Sullivan boys, wrestled in the dirt with a distraught woman.  Her auburn hair tumbled around her shoulders and she was kicking and twisting, but the man had her hands pinned to the ground.  Johnny inhaled and stepped away from the shadows.


Dottie screamed and fought against Michael Sullivan’s rough hands.  He smelled of old cheese and sweat.  His unshaven whiskers burned against her face, and she jerked her head away from him.  With her heart pounding faster, she clenched her hands into fists, ready to strike if she could get her arms free.

“Now hold still and we’ll have some fun.  Just you and me.  My pa and the boys will be gone for awhile.”  He leaned harder against her struggling body.

“Get away from her, Sullivan.”  The voice was cold and menacing.

The red-haired man turned to see who was challenging him and released his grip on Dottie.  She gasped and rolled away from him.  Once she was clear of her attacker, she saw the man pointing a gun at Michael Sullivan.  Johnny Madrid!

“You okay, Roses?”

“Yes, I think so.”  Dottie brushed the leaves and twigs from her skirt and pulled her hair back from her face.

“Sullivan, take your gun out real slow and toss it into the woods,” Johnny said, motioning with his pistol.

Dottie watched the redhead obey the command.  Then she turned and scurried over to Johnny.  As she got closer, she saw how the gun shook in his hand and the lines of pain around his mouth.  Yet, his eyes never left Michael Sullivan.  Even in his condition, Johnny Madrid was a man to be afraid of.  This is the Madrid of my stories, but he’s protecting me.


From the corner of his eye, Scott spotted the roan mare trotting toward the pasture fence.  A lead rope dangled from the halter, but there was no rider.  Danny Sullivan doesn’t know that’s the horse Johnny was riding.  Murdoch is trying to get him to believe Johnny is still in the house, probably to give Johnny more time to get away.  But if the roan mare is here, where’s Johnny?

“Danny, call this off,” Murdoch said.  “The things you think Johnny did were written by a dime novel author to sell books.  They’re not true.”

“Enough!  I want Madrid, and you would be a sorry man to keep him.”  Danny licked his lips and waved to his men.  “Bring the little lassie up here,” he called over his shoulder.

With a shiver, Scott knew Danny’s men must have Dottie.  He should have stopped her from leaving by herself.  Now what are we going to do?  With Dottie as a hostage, they’ll expect us to bring Johnny out, only he’s not here.  However, as far as I’m concerned, they can keep her.


“Get in the buckboard, Roses.”  Johnny’s knees wobbled, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he wouldn’t be able to hold a gun on Sullivan.  Sharp pain shot along his nerves, leaving him light-headed, and the stream of blood from his back soaked his shirt.  Don’t think I can stand much longer.

The woman climbed into the buckboard and gathered the reins.  He motioned with his head for her to leave, but she hesitated.  Then he saw the other Sullivans coming, but his mouth was dry and the warning he wanted to shout to her refused to come.  “Get away,” he whispered.  Too late .

One of the Sullivan ranch hands rushed to Dottie’s side and held a gun to her head, while two other Sullivan boys with their guns drawn ran to join their brother.  Johnny panned his gun over the group.

“No good, Madrid,” Michael Sullivan said, grinning.  “You might get one of us, but the lassie is going to get it good and you’ll be gone, just like you done to Brad.”

Johnny pointed his pistol at Michael.  “You’ll be first, and I won’t make a mistake about that.  Now let her go.  Your fight is with me.”

“Once we have you, we don’t need her.”

Johnny lowered his gun, dropping it to the ground.  The Sullivan boys surged toward him, knocking him to the ground.  White-hot flashes shot though his mind and his back spasmed in pain.  He vaguely heard someone say, “Go get Pa.  We got Madrid.”


Scott puzzled over the sudden reappearance of a single rider.  The man had spoken to Danny Sullivan privately, and a wicked smile had crossed the older man’s face.  Scott had a sinking feeling that he knew what the conversation meant.  Then, without an explanation, Danny Sullivan and his ranch hand rode away.

“What do you make of that?” Murdoch asked.

“I think they may have Johnny.”  Scott saw the pain in his father’s face.  “The roan mare—the one that Johnny took—came back without Johnny.”  He pointed toward the pasture at the horse that was contentedly grazing outside the fence.

“Let’s get the men together and follow Sullivan’s group,” Murdoch said.  “If they’ve got Johnny, we can’t lose a minute.”

“You get the men.  I’m going after them right now.  Like you said, we can’t lose a minute.”  Scott met his father’s gaze.

“Be careful, Son.  We’ll be along in a few minutes.”

Scott nodded and urged his horse in the direction Danny Sullivan had taken.


Two of the Sullivan ranch hands held Johnny up, while Michael Sullivan punched the semi-conscious man in the stomach.  The dark head drooped forward and one of the men pulled Johnny’s hair so his face was exposed for a punch by one of the other Sullivan boys.  The well-aimed blow smashed into Johnny’s mouth, splitting his lip.

“Take your revenge, boys,” Danny Sullivan said.  “’Tis for Brad and Sean.”

“Stop!”  Dottie tugged on the older man’s arm.  “I made most of it up.  They were just stories.”

The Sullivans continued to take turns pummeling Johnny’s limp torso with punches.  Johnny groaned, but finally passed out and was silent.

“Enough,” Danny said.  “Let’s finish him and get out of here before Lancer and his men find us.  They be coming sure as rain.”  He leveled his rifle at Johnny’s chest and aimed.

“Please listen,” Dottie begged.  “I wrote the dime novels.  Those stories were made-up for fun.  This isn’t the Johnny Madrid of the stories, and I can prove it.”

The older man lowered his gun and narrowed his eyes at Dottie.  “How can you prove it?”

She thought quickly about each of the novels.  “In The Guns of Madrid , a dog bites off the little finger on Madrid’s left hand.  Look at his hand; does it have a little finger?”

The ranch hands holding Johnny glanced at Danny Sullivan.  “Boss, I kinda remember that being in the book,” one of them said.

“Check both hands.”  Danny walked over to where his men dropped Johnny to the ground.

Nodding his head, the ranch hand kneeling by Johnny looked up at his boss.  “He’s got all his fingers.”

Dottie sighed in relief, but she had not idea if this would work.  “In Madrid’s Revenge, I wrote that Madrid had a scar on his mouth that gave him a permanent sneer.”

“Well, that’s going to be harder to check, seeing how his mouth is all bloody now,” Michael Sullivan said.

“Anyone remember talking to him before?  Did he have a scar across his face or anything like that?”  Danny looked at each of his men.

“Boss, I’ve played cards with him and I never noticed any sort of marks on his face.”  The man paused.  “In fact, most of the girls in the saloon seem to find him right pleasing on the eyes.”

Several men chuckled, talking quietly among themselves.

Looking up the road, Dottie noticed Scott riding toward them.  Quickly, she tossed out another question.  “In all the stories, Madrid is a tall man.  He’s always looking down at people.  Does that sound like this Johnny?”  She wasn’t too sure if this one was going to work.  She’d only seen Johnny last night for the first time, and he had been leaning over in pain, and when he came to her rescue with Michael, she was on the ground, so he had looked big to her.

Most of the Sullivan men were exchanging glances with one another and looking more nervous.

“Well, what do you think, Andy?”  Danny stepped over to his foreman.

With a broad smile, the man shook his head.  “No one could ever mistake Johnny for a tall man.  Ever seen him next to Murdoch?”

“Here let me read you something from the story I’m currently working on,” Dottie said.  She watched as Scott slowed his horse and silently jumped off.  “Do you mind if I get the journal out of my valise?”

Johnny moaned and moved slowly, raising his head.

“Get the journal, Lassie,” Danny said.

Dottie hurried over to the buckboard and fumbled through her valise until she found the notes she was keeping for her next novel.  When she leaned over to pull the papers out of the valise, she felt the Derringer press against her side.  With stealth, she slipped the small handgun out of her pocket and hid it under the manuscript pages.  Then she walked over to Johnny and knelt by his side.

“I call this story Madrid’s Killer Instinct.  This is still a draft, so bear with me if it doesn’t sound too good.”

“Get on with it.  Lancer could be here any minute,” Danny said.

With a loud, steady voice, Dottie read from the paper.  “Madrid’s father was a mean man with a crippled leg.”

“You’re making that up,” Danny said.

“No, here look at what I wrote.”  Dottie offered the handwritten page to the older Sullivan.  Then with her other hand, she slid the Derringer into Johnny’s fingers.  She couldn’t bear to look in his eyes.  If she had to keep reading, she realized what she had written was going to hurt him.  He risked his life to save me.  This isn’t the killer I wrote about.

Danny nodded.  “Murdoch did walk with a cane for awhile after he was shot by those horse thieves, but I wouldn’t call it a crippled leg.”

“Shall I continue?”

“Make it quick.”  Danny seemed to grow increasingly nervous.

Dottie wasn’t sure if he was beginning to doubt his opinions about Madrid or he was afraid Lancer would be riding up.  She hoped the Lancers would come soon.  Scott was nearby and Johnny now had a gun, but what good was that going to do them.

“Here’s a passage a couple of pages later.  ‘Madrid wiped a grimy hand across his face and laughed at his father cowling on the floor.  Callously, with practiced ease, Madrid shot his father’s right eye out and laughed.’”

“Hey,” one of the men said.  “We just saw Murdoch and he had both eyes, and Johnny was back here with Michael and her.”

“Maybe she’s right,” Andy said.  “Maybe he isn’t the Johnny Madrid of those stories.”

“Help me up, Roses” Johnny whispered.

She placed his left arm around her shoulder, but when her hand slipped around his back, she cringed at the bloody dampness of his shirt.  As she struggled to lift him, Johnny leaned on her and pointed the Derringer at Danny Sullivan.

“This ain’t much more than a pop gun, but my aim is very good.  I don’t mind shooting your eye out, Sullivan.”  Johnny leveled the gun straight at the older man’s right eye.

Scott stepped out from behind a tree, his gun targeting Michael Sullivan.  “I’m not sure if I can hit your eye.  But if I miss, it won’t be by much.”

Dottie heard the thundering hoofbeats and knew Murdoch and his men would be joining them soon.

“Put your guns down, boys, and help Johnny into the buggy,” Danny said, his voice thick with regret.  “‘Tis a mistake we be making.  Andy, ride hard to fetch the doctor.”

In a moment, Scott joined her in supporting Johnny, but Dottie could not meet his gaze.  “I’m so sorry.”  If she could sink into the dirt, she would have been gone before they knew it.


Murdoch rode up to the group of men milling together and noticed all their guns had been holstered.  In panic, he searched for Johnny.  Don’t let him be dead.  Murdoch saw Scott waving at him, beckoning him to the buckboard.  The older Lancer jumped from his horse and hurried over.  He exhaled in relief at the first sight of Johnny’s dark hair, but then he tensed.  His youngest son sat propped against Dottie, his face covered with blood. 

“Johnny?”  Murdoch gently placed a hand on his son’s leg.

Johnny opened his eyes and tried to smile, but the effort brought a grimace.  “Murdoch.”

“Let’s get you home, Son.”  Murdoch glared at Dottie.  “Can you handle this?”

With a grim expression, Scott handed Dottie the reins.  “Get going.  I’ll be right behind you in a minute.”

The woman nodded and snapped the reins against the horse’s rump.  The wheels creaked and spun into rapid motion.  Scott ran to his horse, mounted, and raced after the buckboard.  Murdoch watched them go, feeling every year of his life catch up with him.  Wearily, he climbed into the saddle.

With his hat in his hand, Danny shuffled over to Murdoch.  “May the Lord in Heaven forgive me.  Me boys and me made a terrible mistake.”

“Let’s hope that mistake doesn’t cost Johnny his life,” Murdoch said, galloping after his sons.


Sheriff Val Crawford handed the telegram to Dottie.  “I’m afraid it’s bad news.  That’s why I brought it over right away.”

With trembling hands, the young woman took the paper and read it.  “My father is seriously ill.  They think it may be his heart.  I have to go home immediately.”

Scott took Dottie’s arm to steady her.  “I’ll take you to town so you can catch the next stage.”

“No, you need to stay.  The doctor is still upstairs with your brother.  He’ll need you.”

The Sheriff cleared his throat.  “I can take you, if the Lancers can spare a buggy or wagon.”

“Thank you, Val.  I would like to be here.  Johnny wasn’t doing too well when the doctor arrived.  Would you mind, Dottie?”

She smiled and hugged Scott.  “Thank you.  I would like to get going right away.”  Following the Sheriff toward the door, she stopped and turned around.  “I am sorry about all the trouble I caused.  Please tell Johnny I didn’t know…  I didn’t know I was hurting him.”

“You saved his life, Dottie.”

“I put his life at risk because of my stories, but I’m going to figure out a way to fix that problem.”

Scott nodded, but the sound of the doctor’s voice distracted him.  “Have a safe trip, and I hope your father recovers soon.”  He hurried over to the stairs.


“Let’s step outside the room,” Dr. Spencer said in a low voice.

Murdoch rose wearily from the chair by Johnny’s bed.  How many times must I keep vigil from this seat, watching my son try to cheat death?  First Pardee’s bullet, now this.

Scott and Teresa were outside the door with the doctor and Murdoch joined them.  As they waited on the doctor’s diagnosis, the look of fear on Teresa’s face broke Murdoch’s heart.

“Johnny reopened that back wound.  All but a few of the stitches will need to be replaced.  What I can’t tell is how much internal damage was done by the beating he took.  We’ll have to watch him closely over the next few days.”

“Doc, will he make it?”  Murdoch’s throat tightened at the thought of loosing his youngest son.

“He’s a stubborn young man, Murdoch.  Let’s take it one step at a time.  Now, Teresa, I’m going to need some extra sheets and some boiling water.”

As the doctor and Teresa scurried around preparing for the procedures to help Johnny, Murdoch returned to the chair beside his son’s bed.  Johnny lay on his stomach, his head turned so Murdoch could see the swollen side of his mouth.  “Johnny, we’ll get through this together.”

To Murdoch’s surprise, Johnny’s eyes opened a crack.  He had thought the boy was unconscious.

Johnny moved his lips slightly, and Murdoch leaned closer.  “Good… to… be… home.”

“It’s where you belong, Son.”  Murdoch laid a hand on the tousled dark hair and bowed his own head.


In the pale light of dusk, Johnny sat in the courtyard, watching his palomino kick up its heels in the pasture.  The roan mare whinnied and shook her mane.  If Doc doesn’t let me ride soon, I’ll have to start all over again with both of them horses. 

“Teresa, do you like that mare in the pasture with Barranca?  Your horse is getting on in years, and I thought you might help me train the roan.”

“I’d love that, Johnny,” Teresa said.

“Soon as Doc clears me to ride, we’ll start working her for you.”

The recovery had been slow, mostly because any movement seemed to reopen some stitches in his back.  He was trying to be patient, and he reminded himself everyday that his family was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  He was still worried that his being here endangered them, but no one had come hunting for him since the Sullivan incident.


Carrying a small parcel under his arm, Scott hesitated before entering the courtyard.  He felt like the bearer of bad news.  He had picked up the package during his trip to Morro Coyo for supplies.  The label from Grand Adventure Publishing was addressed to Mr. John Lancer.  On the trip home, Scott had been tempted to open it to see what new problem his brother was going to have to deal with, but he had resisted the urge.

Taking a calming breath, Scott strode into the courtyard and sat down beside Johnny.  “How you doing, Little Brother?”

“No complaining here,” Johnny flashed a bright smile.  “Just watching Barranca.  Teresa wants the roan, so we need to get back to training the mare.  She won’t throw me again.  Of course, I’m going to use a saddle next time.”

Scott was amazed that after weeks of confinement, Johnny seemed so relaxed and cheerful.  He had expected his brother to be pacing and irritable by now.  Instead, he was more content than Scott had ever seen him.  So, it was with regret that Scott held the parcel out to his brother.  “This came for you.” 

Johnny took the package and laid it on this lap.  “Thanks.”

Puzzled, Scott glanced at Teresa.  “It’s from the company that published the dime novels.”

“Look at Barranca go.”  Smiling, Johnny shook his head at the antics of his palomino.  “You’d think he’s a colt again.”

Scott followed his brother’s gaze.  “That leg is all healed and doesn’t appear to be giving him any trouble.”

“Thanks for taking such good care of him.  I thought he was gone.”  A shadow of past memories fell across Johnny’s face.

Kicking himself for bringing up the injury, Scott tried to lighten the mood.  “Guess something good came out of all that cavalry training.”  He was rewarded with one of Johnny’s warm smiles.

“That, and a smart looking photograph,” Johnny said.


Teresa watched the two brothers.  She was thrilled with Johnny’s offer to let her help train the roan mare.  He was so good with horses she figured she would learn a lot.  But she was worried about the package on Johnny’s lap.  Scott had said it was from Dottie’s publisher.  Could she have written another Madrid dime novel?  He doesn’t need any more problems.


Stretching, Murdoch rose from his desk and left the unfinished paperwork.  His family was outside before dinner, and he had a sudden urge to be with them.  He wandered outside and studied the faces of the three young people.  Johnny looked relaxed.  If he didn’t know better, Murdoch would say that Johnny seemed to be enjoying his extended convalescence.  However, the other two appeared tense and nervous, clearly worried about something.

“What’s bothering you two?”  Murdoch nodded at Scott and Teresa.

“Johnny got a package from Dottie’s publishing company,” Scott said.


“And he hasn’t opened it,” Teresa added. 

Murdoch felt his muscles tighten.  “Open it, Johnny.  If we have another problem, I’d like to know about it now.”

The dark-haired man chuckled and sat forward gingerly.  He handed the parcel to Murdoch and slowly leaned back in the chair.

Holding the package as if it contained a vile of nitroglycerin, Murdoch studied it.  Then he tore the parcel open and grunted.  In his hand, he held another dime novel by Dusty B. Wrangler.  The title, Madrid’s Redemption, flamed across the cover in bold red letters.  Scott stood and took the book from his hand.  Murdoch pulled a Ladies’ Home Reader magazine from the parcel and frowned, before handing it to Teresa.  Finally, at the bottom of the package he found an envelope simply addressed, “Johnny.”  This he carried over to his youngest son.

“Thanks, Murdoch.”  Johnny ran his fingers along the edge of the envelope.  “Never had many letters.”  He slipped a finger under the wax seal and pried it open.  Lifting the envelope to his nose, Johnny inhaled deeply.  “Smells like roses.”

“Get on with it, Johnny.”  Murdoch furrowed his brow, his fears growing.

Johnny eased the letter out of the envelope and opened it, reading the contents quickly.  Without changing expression, he handed it to Murdoch.

Murdoch took the letter, glancing over at Scott and Teresa.  Scott flipped pages in the novel, apparently absorbed in the story.  Meanwhile, Teresa skimmed through the magazine until she found a particular article that caught her attention.  One more look at Johnny confirmed that he didn’t seem concerned with the contents of the package.  Murdoch held the letter and read slowly, looking for trouble in every word.

“Well, Johnny,” Scott said.  ”Madrid’s Redemption is going to change your life.  This time, Johnny Madrid has met his match.”

Murdoch groaned and looked up from the letter to see Scott grinning.

“Madrid finds God and becomes a monk.  The ladies in town are going to be all over you now, Little Brother.  The older ones are going to expect you at church services every week, and the younger ones are going to be upset that you’re no longer available.”

They all laughed until tears filled every eye.

“When you’re feeling up to it, Johnny,” Scott said between laughing fits.  “We’ll have to get you back in town to repair your reputation as a lady’s man.”

“Scott, you may have a reputation to work on too.”  Teresa giggled.  “There’s a story in this magazine written by Miss Dottie Williams.  It recounts the adventures of a certain Boston gentleman who becomes a cowboy, while romancing all the pretty lassies in town.  Apparently, he is so charming that the woman flock to him.”

“She didn’t.”  Scott grabbed the magazine from Teresa, fumbling through the pages to find the story by Dottie.

“She finally could use her own name,” Teresa said.

Murdoch watched Johnny the entire time.  His youngest son seemed to be joining in the fun.  At the height of the mirth, Johnny had gasped once and eased up on the laughter.  Imagine those stitches are a mite tight for laughing.

With relief, Murdoch reread the letter Dottie had sent to Johnny.  He handed it back to his son.

“What did Dottie have to say?” Teresa asked.

Johnny picked up the letter and unfolded it.  “Suppose you’d like me to read it out loud.”

“Of course,” Teresa said eagerly.

“Teresa, I’m surprised at you,” Scott said.

“Ah, come on, Scott.  You want to know too.  You’re just too much of a proper Boston gentleman to ask.”  Teresa broke into peals of laughter again and wiped the tears from her checks.

Johnny waited for her laughter to stop.  “She wrote:

Dearest Johnny,

I hope this letter finds you well.  My father is recovering from his heart problem and is already back to work.

I apologize in advance if my newest, but final, Dusty Wrangler novel, Madrid’s Redemption , causes you any problems.  It was the best I could think to do to end the trouble I caused with my earlier stories.

Tell Teresa that I am also writing under my own name now.  She’ll find a story in the Ladies’ Home Reader.  If it sounds like Scott, that’s because it is based on his life, more or less.  I was careful not to use his real name!



“How nice,” Teresa said.  “I’m glad her father is getting well.”

Murdoch’s eyes met Johnny’s, and father and son shared a silent moment.  Johnny had not read the last paragraph aloud, but Murdoch couldn’t blame him.  It was personal and would have been difficult for Johnny to share with all of them at one time, even as much as the boy loved Scott and Teresa.


When Teresa left to help Maria set the table for dinner, Scott offered to go along.

“See you at the dinner table, Little Brother.”

“Sure will, Scott.  Make sure you don’t eat it all before I get there.”  Johnny watched Scott and Teresa head into the house.

Alone with his father, Johnny sighed.  “Do you think Madrid’s Redemption will make people forget about all those other stories?”

“Hard to say, Son.  People sometimes have long memories, but other times they just go with the latest trend and forget what was popular yesterday.”

“Suppose so.”  Johnny still worried about his family’s safety.

“The best we can do is continue to be careful and watch ourselves, especially you.  I don’t want you taking any chances.  Understand?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you want me around for a long while.”

“Don’t even joke about that, Son.”

Johnny noticed the look in his father’s eyes and felt warm inside.  “When I left, I realized I was about to lose the most important people in my life.  It took me years to find out what I was missing, and now that I’ve found it, you better believe I’m going to hang on real hard.”

“Johnny, I’m hanging on too.”

Shifting position, Johnny cringed at the twinge that throbbed across his back.  He tried to mask the pain, but his father had seen.

“Can I get you anything?”  Murdoch drew near.

“If the doctor doesn’t release me for riding soon, I’m going to go crazy.  I need something to do.”

“Would you like to read Madrid’s Redemption?”

Johnny hesitated.  “No.  But reading might be good.  You said I could read a book from your collection.”

“I didn’t think you’d heard me, but certainly.  They’re your books too.”

“Is there one you might suggest?  One that’s interesting, that makes you want to turn the page?”

“I can think of a few.”  Murdoch looked genuinely pleased that Johnny would ask his opinion.

“Maybe after I read it, we could talk about it.”  Johnny wondered how many arguments might result from their different points of view, and the image of those disputes over fictional characters filled him with tenderness for his father.

“That would be great.  I’ll find a couple of my favorites.”  Sporting a silly grin, his father moved toward the door.

“Murdoch, before you leave…”  He felt suddenly shy and lowered his head.  “Never mind.” 

“What is it, Son?”

Johnny pondered how little he knew about his family members, and he wanted to change that.  “I was wondering if you like peppermint sticks?”

“Sure do.  When you were little, I’d put a peppermint stick in my hot chocolate on cold evenings and you’d take a sip from my mug.”  Murdoch’s voice cracked.  “Let me go find those books.”

Johnny watched Murdoch disappear into the house.  Smiling, the former gunfighter reread the final paragraph of Dottie’s letter.

The pain I caused will not soon be forgotten and I apologize deeply.  The Madrid I wrote about was a cold-hearted killer.  You are warm and kind, and were willing to risk your life for me.  You deserve the peace of a loving family, and I know you have one at Lancer.


January 2003


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