by  Karen Campbell

Chapter 1:


The young woman held her shawl wrapped tightly against her and tilted her face to the sky. There was only a slight breeze, but the autumn air was crisp.  A few lanterns spilled puddles of light onto the main street of Green River, but they did little to dim the glitter of the stars above The Travelers Inn. It wasn't really late, but the dark had chased most of the townsfolk into their homes and she had been alone on the planked walk long enough for the sheriff to take notice. Val Crawford was watching from his office window.  Not actually worrying about her--she seemed harmless enough--but watching anyway.  And wondering why, every now and then, her shoulders shook.  Val idly thought of asking her what the trouble was. He could do that, just head out into the dark street, walk right up to the pretty young thing and find out why she was standing in the middle of his town, crying in the night.  Only he didn't.  He stayed right there at his office window, watching the girl and trying not to admit, even to himself, that nothing scared the grizzled lawman quite as thoroughly as a weeping woman. 

A dark figure took shape from the shadows further down the main street and came toward the hotel.  Val squinted the form into focus and recognized the roundness of the man. He was walking with a cane and coming from the direction of the cafe.  Judge Maynard, he figured. Most likely the judge had taken his own sweet time sucking the bones of some of Mabel's fried chicken and scraping the crumbs from a plate of her apple pie. Now the man was heading for his bed. Well, he was all right, too, and Val was just thinking of locking up the office and heading to his own bed when he heard the horses.  

There were four of them pounding down the dark street.  Val wrapped a hand around the pistol at his hip and stepped out into the dark.  The judge stopped dead as the horses swirled around him, sidestepping and snorting and pawing at the dirt.  The men on the horses never even spoke. 

"What....what do you want?" the judge whimpered, and then he dropped his cane, crossed his arms in front of his face and shouted "No!" as four guns pointed toward him.  Val's pistol cleared his holster a half a second after the shots rang out--one, then another, and four more.  And Val's own, six in rapid succession as the horses bolted from the fallen man and pounded again toward the south end of town.  One rider fell. He hit and bounced, rolling and tumbling in the dirt, and his horse galloped on without him, following the others in their escape into the night.   

Later, Val wondered about the timing. Maybe the sound had been there all along.  But it was then, only then, as he walked past the dead judge to the man squirming on the ground that he heard it.  Shrill and lingering, setting lanterns alight all up and down the street.  It was the woman, just a slight young thing, nothing much to her, but she was filling the air and attacking his eardrums with the sound.  Her scream.  The loudest scream he had ever heard in his entire life.



Johnny Lancer held the question he had meant to ask when he stepped into the sheriff's office.  Instead, he walked silently toward the desk and watched the papers fall. 

One by one, the pages were sliding off the desk and floating lazily to the floor.  Val's foot was sending them there.  It was wedged on top of the desk and he was fighting to keep it on the clutter, clinging to his big toe like a handle, grunting and wheezing as he pulled his face closer and closer to it and crossing his eyes to focus on whatever was so fascinating about that toe.

"Val?"  Johnny lifted a brow at his friend and barely kept down the smile that played at his lips.

"I see ya....hang on, almost got this...ow!"  Val  leaned back in his chair, his bare foot still gracing his desk, and held his hand up triumphantly.  His thumb and finger were pinched together and he studied the minute object he held between them.  "Dang...that hurt like a son of a gun."

Johnny set his hat on the desk and bent to scoop the papers from the dirty floor. He glanced at the top page as he laid them back on the surface.  "Uh, Val....this poster is ten years old."

"Might still catch the man."

"I knew him.  The federales hanged him four years ago."

"Well, is that why you're here?"  Val flicked the invisible something from his fingers. "You come to straighten out my filing?"

"Is that what you call this...filing?"

Val lowered his foot to the floor and pushed some papers around on his desk.  A piece of black cloth showed from underneath the pile and he yanked at it, ending up with a sock hanging from his hand.  He stooped over to slip it onto his foot and Johnny struggled to make out the mumbled words coming from behind the desk. "Been busy.  Caught myself one of the Turk gang, you know."

Johnny nodded toward the closed door leading to the cells. "Heard you had some trouble last night.  He in there?"

"Yeah."  Val grabbed his boot from beneath his chair and huffed as he pulled it on.  "Doc dug a bullet out of him last night.  Didn't look so bad and I thought it might be a far sight safer if he stayed behind bars."

A coffee pot sat alone on the stove top, making it the only uncluttered flat surface in the office.  Johnny crossed to it, wet a finger with his tongue and tapped it once against the blue enamel pot.  "When did you make this?"

"You grown particular?  It's hot...help yourself"

Johnny grabbed a cup from the hook and tilted it to examine the interior, then set that one down and took another, shaking it upside down and wiping a questionable rag around its rim. "What about the rest of the boys?"  He poured the coffee and took a small taste, then grimaced. 

"Got clean away."

Johnny settled into a chair, swung his feet onto Val's desk and sucked in the hot drink.  "Which one did you get?" 


A low whistle escaped Johnny's pursed lips.   "Roger, huh?  Old Willie ain't gonna let his baby brother hang, I can tell you that right now."

"Don't think so?"


Val leaned forward, elbows balanced on the stacks of papers, and locked eyes with Johnny.  "And you didn't think I already knew that?"

"Just trying to help."  He shrugged

The smirk was unsettling and Johnny shifted under the sheriff's amused stare.  "Just what I was hoping you'd say." Val chuckled.

"No..." Johnny shook his head and frowned at the sheriff.  He set his cup on the desk and his boots firmly on the floor, wrapped his hands around the arms of the chair and started to push to his feet.

"What do you mean, no?" Val waved him back into the chair.  "Sit down...I ain't asked you for anything yet."

"Yeah...but you're going to."  Johnny sank back onto the seat.  "And Murdoch's got me up to my eyeballs in work around the ranch.  Whatever it is, I'm not gonna do it."

"You ain't even heard what is it."

"Don't matter."  Johnny shook his head again.

"She's pretty." 

Val left those words hanging in the air.  He rose from his chair and poured his own cup of coffee, took a cautious sip and watched Johnny from over the tin brim.  He started to lean back onto the stove and suddenly straightened again, glancing back at the offending hot metal with exasperation.

"Serves you right." Johnny paused for just a second.  He knew he'd regret asking it.  If he had the brains God gave Jelly's goose, he'd get up right now and head straight back to Lancer.  Run away.   Fast.  But Val was watching him and those words just wouldn't be ignored.  "And what do you mean...she's pretty?  Bet she's eighty years old and mean as a pole cat."

"Nineteen.  It's all in the report."  Val took the two steps back to his desk and sorted through the papers scattered there.  "I got that report right here...somewhere."

"You sure she's pretty?"

"Yellow hair just as shiny as a full moon. Blue eyes...at least, I think they were blue.  And a nice curvy shape."  Val set his coffee down, cupped his palms and held them apart, staring into the space in between as if seeing those few particular parts of the girl.  "Not too big, but round in all the right places."

A lopsided grin lit Johnny's eyes.  "So what am I supposed to do with this curvy woman?"

"Just keep an eye on her for the next couple of days."  Val plopped into his chair and risked a long gulp of coffee. "Got a wire from Judge Hansen this morning and most likely he'll be here Friday.  All I need you to do is keep that girl safe til then."

"She have something to do with the Turks?"  Johnny's smile faded.

"Yep."  Val nodded. "She's my witness.  Saw the whole thing happening right in front of her eyes.  She's ready to testify that Roger Turk shot that judge and I mean to see that she gets the chance to do it."

"You think the Turk brothers will try to get to her?" 

"Most likely."

"I don't know, Val."  Johnny's forehead furrowed and his fingers drummed against the chair.  "I'd like to help you and all, but Murdoch will have my hide if I'm gone from the ranch that long."

"I ain't asking you to leave your daddy all that time.  That gal's gonna be a whole lot better off at Lancer, anyway.  Don't reckon the Turks are gonna find her there."

"You got this all figured out, don't you?"  Johnny wagged a finger at the sheriff.  "What if I hadn't stopped in for a bad cup of coffee this morning?"

An impudent grin worked its way across Val's face.  "Already got a wagon hired over at the livery.  Millie and me were going to pay you a visit a little later today...soon as I got a deputy in here to keep an eye on that boy in the cell."

Johnny shook his head.  "No need for the wagon.  Scott's over at the feed store right now loading up our buckboard."

"So you'll do it?"

He scratched his chin and stared Val down for a long moment.  "She's pretty, huh?"

"As a blue ribbon heifer."

"All right."  Johnny pushed to his feet and took his hat from the desk, then shook his hair back and set the Stetson on his head.  "Just give me a chance to let Scott chew on this first."

The sheriff leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms behind his head.  "Meet you in thirty minutes over at the hotel?"

"Yeah."  Johnny grinned sheepishly and headed for the door, turning with his hand on the handle.  "One of these days, Val.... one of these days I'm gonna learn how to tell you no.  You're nothing but trouble...you know that don't you?"

Val snorted loudly.  "I didn't figure you came by just for the coffee." 

Johnny waved off Val's parting shot and left the sheriff's office behind.  The feed store was only a block north and he paced the distance head down and deep in thought.  Murdoch wasn't going to like this much.  There was that fence line to ride, some roof repairs on the west meadow supply shack and at least three days' worth of dead brush to clear from White Horse Creek.  None of them had time to babysit a strange woman, especially not one with the Turk brothers hot on her tail.  Someone had to do it, though.  Wasn't safe for her in Green River and Val couldn't keep a watch on her.  Not while he had Roger Turk stashed in that cell.  Val would have his hands full handling the Turk Gang if they came gunning to get their youngest out from behind those bars. That thought almost stopped him and he skimmed his fingers across the pistol at his hip. Val was good with a gun and smart, too. But there were three of them and one of him.  Heck, Johnny half-heartedly admitted, maybe he should be worrying about the Turk brothers with those odds.  Anyway, he'd made a promise and he'd see it through.  No time to keep an eye on Val when there was a pretty young girl to protect.  One with curves where all the curves were supposed to be. 

Scott was just coming out of the feed store when Johnny spotted him.  He had two thick bags draped over his shoulder and they forced his neck into a tilt.  His mouth and his eyes followed the same slant, narrowed lines both of them, his lips tight and his eyelids lowered to a squint.  His boots made hollow sounds against the boardwalk as he crossed to the buckboard, leaned into it and let the bags fall on top of the load.  The wagon was nearly filled with a double layer of burlap sacks.  Scott straightened, took a bandana from his pocket, wiped it across the sweat glistening on his face and glared at Johnny.  "Thanks for the help, little brother."

Johnny raised a palm and stepped more quickly toward the wagon.  "I know... I promised two minutes ..."

"Two minutes passed a dozen bags ago."

"Just listen." Johnny ran his hand against the wagon as he came around it to Scott's side.  "Val had more trouble than I figured."

"What did he talk you into this time?" Scott shook the bandana out,  rubbed it across the dampness curling the hairs at the base of his neck, then tossed it across the sacks.

"She won't be any trouble."

Scott crossed his arms against the wagon and leaned into them. He lowered his face and shook his head, his hair swaying with the motion. When he raised his eyes again, Johnny had to smile.  The look of exasperation on his brother's face should have worried him and it might have, too, except for that twitch at the corner of his mouth.  The one that pulled at his lips, threatening to stretch the rest of his mouth into a grin. Scott was struggling to hold it back, Johnny could see he was trying, but he was losing the battle and finally he gave it up.  He pulled the gloves off his hands and wagged them them both at Johnny.  "How do you manage it?  You're out of my sight for what...twenty minutes?  And you come back with some sort of girl trouble."

"Nope...I just told you she won't be trouble."

"Who is she?"

"Her name's Millie and she needs a safe place to stay for a couple of days.  Just until the judge makes it into town."

Scott stuffed his gloves into his pants pocket.  "And you volunteered Lancer?"

"Well...yeah." Johnny leaned against the buckboard and started tugging at a frayed cord on one of the feed sacks.

"You're right." His tone was stern. "She's no worry for me, because she's going to be your responsibility.  One hundred per cent.  You and Val aren't getting me mixed up in any of your schemes." 

"Ain't trying to."  Johnny steadied his face into his most sincere expression and turned it to his brother. 

"No?"  Scott met Johnny's eyes and held the gaze.


Scott nodded his head once and smiled again. "When do I meet this girl?"

Johnny grinned and slapped his brother on the back.  One obstacle down, one big one left to deal with back at the ranch.  There were a few more sacks to load, Teresa's thread to pick up at Baldomeros and a package for Murdoch at the Post Office.  From the weight and the shape of the package, Johnny figured it was books.  He wanted to peek under the brown paper wrapping and read the titles.  Shakespeare or Homer, maybe.  Or Hawthorne.  Murdoch had shushed him once or twice the last time he was reading a book by that Hawthorne fellow, so he must have really liked it.  Johnny hoped that was a good omen.  Scott was on his side, Murdoch would be pacified by his books and he'd be left alone to find out if this gal's eyes really were blue.  Things were definitely shaping up.

Val waved at them as Scott drove the wagon up to The Travelers Inn.  Scott drew back on the reins and Johnny jumped down before the horses had even come to a full stop.  The sheriff was sitting on an uneven pile of bags and trunks which hid a wide swath of the boardwalk in front of the hotel.  Johnny eyed the pile nervously.

"All this for one little gal?" He kicked a carpetbag and felt it slide backward a bit, then started adding up the individual pieces of luggage.  He got to five before he lost the count under Val's lanky body. 

Scott had climbed down from the wagon and was at Johnny's side, hands on his hips and eyes moving over the bags, before Val squinted up at the brothers and answered,  "Now, I never exactly said she was all by herself."

Johnny pulled his hat down lower across his eyes and tried to ignore the sideways smirk Scott was aiming at him. "Val..." Johnny pointed a finger at his friend and wished for just that moment that it was his gun instead.  "You know you didn't say anything about anyone but that one girl.  I swear I oughta kick your butt clean to Morro Coyo...."

It was Scott reaching to remove his hat that got Johnny's attention first.  He held the next words and his eyes followed Scott's to the door of the hotel.  And he drew in a breath.  Her eyes were blue.  Clear, crystal blue, the color of a bright morning sky.  They were framed in a delicate looking face, fresh and open and sweet.  Her hair was swept back into a loose braid that glowed with a soft, golden sheen.  And she was smiling.  It was a casual smile, the kind you give to strangers just to be polite, but it had given life to two endearing dimples.  Then she dipped her eyes.  Just a quick, shy motion, only the lowering of her lovely lashes and then the return of that gaze, but Johnny's heart missed a beat.

He stepped over Val's outstretched legs and reached a hand to the woman.  Scott got there first. 

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss...?" Scott took her hand in his own and held to it as he waited for her answer.

"Johnson.  Millie Johnson." She looked up at him and her smile warmed.  "But call me Millie, please."

"Millie, then."  Scott's own smile warmed, too.  "I'm Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny."  Scott glanced at his brother and frowned slightly as his eyes moved to his head.  Johnny's arm jerked up, found his hat and swung it down to his side, and he reached again toward Millie.  Only then did she give up her hold on Scott's hand. 

"My pleasure, Ma'am." Johnny flashed a wide smile and waited for it to take effect as he shook, then lost her hand.

Her eyes flew back to Scott.  "I don't know how to tell you how much this means to me.  When Sheriff Crawford said you were opening your home to me and my family...well, I'd been so frightened.  It was like a prayer had been answered."

"We're happy to have you, Millie.  I think you'll be quite comfortable at our ranch. Did you say you have family with you?" 

"Yes..."  She looked behind her into the dim interior of the hotel.  As if on cue, the sounds of an argument rose from the lobby.

There were several voices, each of them male. "Don't touch me" was interrupted by "can't tell me what to do" and that was swallowed by a louder voice demanding, "both of you, just shut up."  A mild curse followed and Millie sighed heavily, then called back into the lobby, "Josh!"

An almost grown boy burst through the hotel door, nearly crashing into Scott, who took a step back to avoid the collision.  The boy spun around and pointed a hand back into the lobby.  "I'm gonna kill those two, Millie.  Kill'em dead and dance on their graves."

Those blue eyes darkened for an instant as Millie glanced from Scott to Johnny.  He thought he saw a plea in her expression and Johnny took a step toward the boy.  "Hey...is that any way to talk to a lady?"

The boy's mouth opened to answer, then instead he clamped it shut and glared at Johnny, crossing his arms against his chest and flaring his nostrils with each deep breath.  Millie put her hand on the boy's shoulder.  "Josh, help Sheriff Crawford get our bags in the wagon, please."

He huffed, then set to the task, reaching first for the trunk directly under Val and dislodging him in the effort.  The sheriff rose to his feet, shot Johnny an amused grin and began loading the luggage into the buckboard.

"That's my brother, Josh," Millie explained, "and this is Sam..." A smaller boy, all gangly legs and red hair tumbled out of the door, followed immediately by his exact duplicate.  "And Jack."  A few seconds later a pint-sized, dark-haired girl carrying a rag doll made her own dignified appearance.  "And this is Ruthie."

Scott knelt next to the small girl and held out his hand.  "It's my pleasure, Ruthie."  The girl faded into Millie's skirts, wrapping herself in the folds and clutching her doll to her chest.

"It's all right, Ruthie.  These men are our friends."  Millie lifted the child into her arms and Ruthie's arms and legs wrapped around her sister as she buried her face into Millie's shoulder.  "Ruthie is just a little shy."

Millie added her own timid smile to that explanation and Scott stood again, brushed a hand against Ruthie's back and took Millie's arm, guiding her to the wagon.  "We'll just have to take extra good care of Ruthie," Scott said gently.  He glanced at Sam and Jack, who had wandered to the end of the hotel's boardwalk and were just beginning a pushing contest.  "Johnny?" He tilted his head toward the errant boys. 

Johnny bit his lip as he watched Scott lift Millie onto the wagon seat, then he looked from the sullen Josh, still packing bags into the buckboard, to the twins.  One pushed a little too hard and the other landed with a grunt in the dirt of the street.  He came up swinging and knocked the first one to the planks, flailing furiously and landing nothing of substance on his brother's thin body.  Both twins broke into war yelps anyway, bringing the hotel manager running from his quiet lobby and burying Millie's reprimand in the noise. 

Johnny strode across the boardwalk and lifted the upper twin by his belt, dangling him from his right hand, then yanked the lower one up and dragged him with his left.  Dodging their half-hearted swats, he hauled them to the wagon, deposited them both on the feed sacks and stared alternately into each set of hazel eyes.  "Your sister told you to behave.  You two gonna listen to her?"  Each of them answered with a series of finger-pointing and "he started it" accusations. "Stop!" Johnny swatted his hat against the side of the wagon as he shouted the word and the twins did stop, watching him wide-eyed and silent.  "Now, the first word I hear from either of you and...."  Johnny paused and considered his threat, suddenly remembering that their sister was only a few feet away and as irksome as these two were, she might not appreciate his interference.  And despite the way things were falling apart on him, she did have those dimples.

"I'll cut the switch and let Mr. Lancer use it on you." Johnny turned to find that Millie was smiling at him as she filled in the details of the punishment. 

He nodded gratefully at both the show of support and the smile.  "Johnny," he reminded her.  "The name's Johnny."

"Thank you, Johnny." 

And he tried again, settling his hat on his head and tipping it forward just a bit, then letting the grin slide across his face and melt into the crinkles at his eyes.  Millie turned away.  "Josh, we're waiting on you," she said to her brother, who was still standing next to Val on the boardwalk. 

Johnny thought he saw a smirk on Josh's face and knew he saw one on Val's.  He glared at the sheriff, who had the good grace to turn away and cough twice.  "That all the luggage, Val?"  He looked around at the empty boardwalk and then up at the wagon. 

"That's just about all of them," Val answered.  Johnny swore he heard a hint of laughter hiding under those gravely words.

"What do you mean...just about?" Johnny's question was interrupted by a shout from the twins.

"Bear..." first one, then the other yelled.  Josh climbed onto the bags of feed as Johnny searched for the unseen "Bear".  His eyes settled first on Val and he noticed the sheriff's shoulders quivering and the corners of his mouth jerking up and down.  Then a flash of yellow caught the edge of his eye and Johnny twisted toward the alley next to the hotel.  A bundle of fur flew around the corner, launched itself across the walk and made an impressive leap into the wagon, landing in a tangle of legs and tail against the twins.  The big animal righted itself and attacked the boys with its tongue, wedging its head under their ducking faces and thoroughly soaking each in turn.

"That it?" Johnny aimed the question toward the now openly laughing Val.

"We're all here," Millie answered. 

"Johnny, are you joining us?" Scott was watching him from the wagon seat.  He was shoulder to shoulder with Millie, who was still holding Ruthie in her lap.  The seat was full and Scott didn't move to make room for Johnny.  "We're ready anytime you are," he added.

Val slapped him on the back as he moved past Johnny toward his office.  "I'll be out to check on you," he called back.

"I'll be waiting for you," Johnny shouted after him and he hoped he'd seen Val cringe at his ominous tone.  Doubted it, though.  Probably was just another chuckle the man couldn't keep down. 

The wagon was full, overflowing with feed sacks and boys and one big yellow dog.  Johnny eyed the load and finally stepped up onto the wheel, vaulted into the bed and sank into the most solitary spot he could find, directly behind the wagon seat.  Scott slapped the reins against the horses' haunches and they were off with a jerk. 

"Everyone all right back there?" Scott's question was left unanswered by the boys in the wagon bed.  Josh was already stretched out near the tailgate, his forearm thrown across his eyes, feigning sleep.  The twins were poking each other and whispering threats of vile actions if the other didn't stop.  Bear was lying between the boys, his head flat against a sack and eyes solidly fixed on Johnny.  He growled at every motion Johnny made, a sound which was low and rumbling and almost lost in the clicking of the wheels. 

"Just perfect."  Johnny looked up at the backs of their heads as he answered. He could hear snatches of Scott and Millie's words as they chatted quietly together and a bit of laughter now and then. His eyes drifted to the clouds as he eavesdropped on the pair and he grew drowsy watching the curvy shapes slowly floating by.  The face observing him drew his gaze back to the seat.  Ruthie's face, quiet and solemn and staring at him from over Millie's shoulder.  Johnny smiled at her and she smiled back for a long moment, then she slid back behind her sister's shoulder and he was alone again.

Nothing but trouble, Johnny told himself.  And he made a silent promise never again to listen to a word Val Crawford said.


Chapter 2


"Well, if that wagon ain't stuffed tighter than my Aunt Hettie's corset!" 

Johnny glared at Jelly as Scott drove the team up to the hitching post.  The old ranchhand was walking beside the buckboard, counting heads in the wagon bed and surveying them all with a sparkle in his eyes.  The twins were whispering between them, aiming fingers at random points on the ranch and giving Johnny sideways glances.  Josh still lay across the feed sacks, determinedly silent and back turned to the rest of the family.  Ruthie was clutching her doll close to her breast again.  Kitty Sue--that was the doll's name.  The introductions had been made shortly after Ruthie had crawled over the back of the wagon seat and squatted next to Johnny.  Now she sat huddled beside him, wedged in between his chest and his arm and wearing his hat.  It tipped and tilted on her head as the wagon jerked to a stop and Johnny reached up to push it from her eyes.

"Who's he?" she whispered into his ear.

"That's Jelly," Johnny answered loudly enough for the man to hear. "Don't mind him.  He's ugly as a two headed goat, but he won't bite."

Ruthie leaned past Johnny to get a closer look at Jelly.  Her look was somber and he responded with a grin.  She ducked back and giggled.  "He's not a goat."

"No?  Maybe it was the smell that fooled me." Johnny wrinkled his nose in Jelly's general direction.  "You sure he's not a goat?"

Jelly hooked his thumbs under his suspenders, pulled on them and twisted his face into a comical grimace.  "Now, don't you listen to a word that troublemaker tells you, young lady. You just come on to your Uncle Jelly..."  He held his arms out to her and Ruthie looked questioningly at Johnny.

"It's all right."  He lifted her up and swung her over the rails to Jelly's waiting hands.  Johnny then prodded Josh with his boot.  "This is the end of the line, boy."

Josh rolled over onto his back and shot Johnny a sour look.  "Don't call me boy."

"That's 'Don't call me boy, sir'." Johnny allowed himself a small, exasperated sigh when Josh turned away and silently clambered over the tailgate. He ignored him though and vaulted from the wagon, landing bent-kneed at Jelly's side and straightening to find Ruthie reaching for him from the man's arms.

"Aren't you tired of me?"  He took his hat back from the girl and set it on his head.  She wiggled her fingers toward him and Johnny grinned, then took her back in his arms and grabbed at her doll as it nearly slid to the ground.  "Whoa...hang on there, Kitty Sue."

The twins tumbled out of the wagon and turned to call their dog.  Bear paced the length of the wagon bed several times, looking over the edge at first the front, then the back, then the side of the wagon and seeming to get more confused every time he heard his name or the boys' hands slapping against their thighs.  The dog whined several times, suddenly spun around to the front, made an awkward leap onto the dirt and landed only a foot or two in front of Murdoch.  He had just come from the hacienda and was standing hands on hip, surveying the motley gang.  Bear crouched and growled, then slunk away to the twins.

"Scott?" Murdoch eyed his elder son and stepped forward to extend his hand to Millie.  He had to reach up, as neither Scott nor Millie had yet moved from the buckboard seat. Johnny watched as Scott seemed preoccupied with waving his arm through the air, sweeping the corrals and the barns and the house into one visual offering for the lady and speaking softly, head bent toward hers.  Both Scott and Millie turned toward Murdoch's voice and Millie took the offered hand.  "I'm Murdoch Lancer.  I'm afraid I have to claim responsibility for these two boys."

"Millie Johnson."  Millie glanced at Scott as he climbed out of the buckboard, then brought her gaze back to Murdoch.  "I hope you don't mind very much, but your sons have promised me sanctuary in your home."

"Sanctuary?" Murdoch raised a brow at Scott, who was just walking around the back of the wagon, followed closely by Johnny and Ruthie.  The twins and Josh clustered behind them.

"The lady was involved in an unfortunate situation last night."  Scott made the explanation as he reached Murdoch's side and lifted his arms toward Millie.  She stepped from the seat and he swung her to the ground, holding her just a bit too closely in Johnny's opinion.  She blushed and lowered her lashes, just for that second, then gazed again at Scott and smiled.  He smiled back.

Johnny hid his crooked grin behind Ruthie's bouncing head as he jiggled her on his hip.  "Can I explain later?" he asked his father.  "We've got a lot of luggage to get inside and this one could probably use some of Teresa's cookies."  Ruthie nodded her enthusiasm for that idea.

"And who do we have back there?"  Murdoch was looking past Johnny to the boys.  The three of them waited self-consciously by the wagon, shifting their eyes from Murdoch to their sister and then to the ground.  Each held just about the same posture, with their hands in their pockets and a slouch in their shoulders. 

"They’re my brothers," Millie explained and the introductions were made, the bags gathered together and sorted into various hands, and the semi-organized gang was shepherded to the front door of the hacienda. 

They almost made it.

Sam shouted first as Bear erupted in a flurry of yellow tail and scrambling legs and made for the corral.  Dewdrop was waddling there. At the sight of the big dog leaping toward him, the goose erupted himself and broadcast a series of screeching honks which sent the ponies trotting circles in their corral.  His neck arched, his wings lifted and spread and the goose pranced first away, then toward the yowling dog, pecking and attacking and flapping.  Bear dodged and thrust, yelping furiously in frustration as the goose held his own. 

Jelly made it half way across the stable yards before Sam and Jack passed him.  His shouts of "What the devil..." were nearly drowned out by their "Down, Bear" and "No.." The boys grabbed at the dog's tail, missed and clutched at empty air.  Jelly came up to the dog swinging his cap and cursing at him unashamedly.  He caught the dog across his haunches and Bear spun the wrong direction and nearly knocked Jack down.  He was tackled for his mistake instead, with first Jack and then Sam landing on him and clinging to handfuls of yellow fur. 

The red-faced man stood over the heap of boys and dog and waited for his raspy pants to draw in enough air.  The goose pirouetted and flapped its wings several times more, then settled them onto his back with a shivering flutter.  "You all right?" Jelly cooed and he slowly followed the goose around the stable yard, back bent over and arms outstretched, until the creature finally came to a standstill. "Poor little Dewdrop," he murmured and he took the gander into his arms and straightened until he stood glaring at Sam and Jack.

"This is a right special goose I'm holdin' here and I don't mean to watch it turned into dinner for that mangy old mutt of you'rn.  Now you boys better keep that dog away from Dewdrop or I'll...I'll be lookin' at him from the end of my shotgun, that's what I'll do."  The goose squirmed and Jelly juggled him for a second until he got a firmer grip.  Dewdrop honked in protest.  "Well...don't just sit there lookin' like you ain't never heard a word of plain English...ain't you got nothin' to say?"

The boys only stared at him.  Bear whimpered and tried to wiggle free, but Jack clamped his head in his arm.

"Well... you just see that you remember that, that's all."  Jelly held his head high, slapped the cap back onto it, turned on his heels and carried his goose away to the bunkhouse. 

Something was tickling Murdoch under his nose and making the corners of his mouth twitch, and he had to finish rubbing that away before he could speak again.  It took a second or two, but then he shouted across to the boys.   "There's some rope in the stables.  I think you should get some of it to leash that dog."

They didn't look happy about it, but Sam and Jack didn't argue.  They stood, took a few disinterested swipes at the dirt on their pants and headed for the stalls. The newly released Bear raised up, shook energetically, and trotted after them, disappearing as they did into the dim interior.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Lancer."  Millie truly did sound regretful and Johnny felt a twinge at the look of desperation her eyes.  She had aimed the apology toward Murdoch and he smiled comfortingly at her, but it was Scott who took her arm and tenderly squeezed.

"Don't worry about Jelly.  His goose has an undefeated record around here.  It's about time he got a little real competition."  Scott guided her toward the door and she went obediently, but glanced back at the stables once.  Johnny thought he heard her sigh, but she was gone into the house before he could make it out for certain.

Murdoch waited for Josh to pass him before he gave up his spot by the hitching post. Josh never had spoken to him, not a word since they'd pulled up in the wagon.  The boy didn't even look up as he brushed by the big man.  His head was down and a wisp of untamed blond bangs dangled in front of his eyes, obscuring almost none of the insolence that showed in the boy's face. Murdoch wanted to say something to him, Johnny could see it in his eyes, but he didn't.  Not after he turned and saw Ruthie.  She was watching him cautiously, her face buried in Johnny's neck and her arms clinging too tightly around it.  Murdoch smiled gently at her.

"Well, little Miss..."  Murdoch's voice was as soothing as he knew how to make it, but it only made Ruthie squeeze tighter. 

"She's kinda shy."  Johnny stretched his neck as he spoke, trying to break the strangle hold the little girl had on him.

"Don't know why she should like me any better than her brother does," Murdoch answered and that sentiment might have worried him, but Johnny saw the laughter flickering in his father's eyes.  He wasn't sure why Murdoch was accepting this invasion with such good humor, but he was glad of it. 

"No reason to feel special where Josh is concerned."  Johnny carried Ruthie past his father and toward the door.  "Best I can tell, that boy has it in for you, me and half of California."  He heard his father snort behind him and smiled wryly.  Val had it easy, he figured.  All he had to face was three vengeful outlaws and their six-shooters.  He'd swap that for one sullen teenager any place, any time.

It was just a bit later, after all the bags had been distributed to the guest rooms, that Millie sat smiling at them from across the kitchen table.  A big pitcher on the sideboard held what was left of Teresa's milk.  Most of it had been poured into glasses and those were nearly empty already.  Sam and Jack were drinking theirs just outside the kitchen door in the garden.  Bear was tied to a post there and the twins were pacifying him with broken-off chunks of cookies.  Neither boy was being overly generous, though, and plenty of the raisin-filled snacks were making their way into their own mouths.  Ruthie was in Millie's lap, pretend feeding her doll and wiping Kitty Sue's mouth again and again with the napkin Scott had given her.  He was in the chair right beside Millie. 

"Should we take something up to Josh?" Scott poked a finger at the doll and Ruthie shifted it away from him. 

"I was hoping he'd come down."  Millie looked wistfully at the empty hallway leading from the kitchen. "He's just been so hard to talk to lately.  Ever since...well...for a while."

Murdoch glanced over the brim of his coffee mug to find Scott's and then Johnny's eyes.  Johnny shrugged slightly.  His brother leaned forward and wrapped his palms around his still-steaming cup.  "Millie and I had a chance to talk on the way out here." Scott paused and considered his next words.  "They've had a hard time of it lately.  Their father died about a month ago and she had to sell their home to pay off his old debts."

"I'm sorry to hear that. What about your mother?" Murdoch asked.

"She passed away three years ago."  Millie stroked her sister's hair.  "It was just after Ruthie's first birthday."  The girl twisted her head at the sound of her name and gazed for a moment at the woman.  Millie smiled affectionately at her and brushed a curl from her eye, then Ruthie went back to tending to her doll.

"They're pretty much alone in the world," Scott added, "except for an Uncle Harry in Silom Springs."

"And Aunt Bea." Millie brightened a little as she mentioned that name.  "She came to visit us once, about two years ago.  Josh was thirteen then and Father and he were fighting all the time.  Just over little things...chores...bedtime...things like that.  Aunt Bea was the only one who could make peace between those two.  The twins liked her, too.  They thought they were getting away with murder.  They kept stealing her pies right out of the kitchen window and never even saw her watching."

Murdoch chuckled softly.  "And she just made more pies?"

She nodded.  "Cherry...apple...gooseberry...anything to fatten up those two boys.  She used to say  they were both as big around as her little finger.  Of course, Aunt Bea is a large woman."  Millie tried to hide the grin that was spreading across her face at the memory of her Aunt Bea's girth.

"Did your uncle visit with her?"  Scott seemed to be enjoying the pleasure on her face, but it faded at the mention of her uncle.

"No." She held Ruthie a bit tighter.  "I've never met Uncle Harry.  He's on my mother's side and I don't think Father cared much for him.  But, he's our only family west of the Mississippi and he did send that telegram, offering to take us in.  So, we're going to Silom Springs."

"With a detour to our ranch." 

Johnny had taken the last cookie from the plate on the table and bit into it as he listened to those  words from his father.  They hadn't been phrased as a question, but he knew Murdoch expected an answer anyway.  And from the eyes turned to him, he figured they had him pegged to provide it.

He wiped a crumb from the corner of his lips and mumbled through his mouthful. "Remember when Judge Maynard sent Seth Turk up for stealing that horse?"

Murdoch nodded.

"Well...the Turk boys must not have been too happy about that.  Last night they rode into Green River and found the judge.  He was ...eliminated."  Johnny had chosen that final word after a brief look at Ruthie.  She was leaning back into Millie's arms and humming a quiet lullaby to her doll.  She didn't look back. "Millie's a witness.  Val's got Roger Turk locked up, but his brothers..." 

Johnny struggled to find a way to tell the story without cluing in the drowsy-eyed girl.  His father had followed the direction of his eyes, though, and stepped in first.  "Is it nap time for our guest?"

"What do you say?"  Millie leaned forward and brushed a gentle kiss across the girl's head.  "You ready for some sweet dreams?"

"Uh-uh."  Ruthie scrunched her face into a frown.

"Uh-huh," Millie answered back.  "You've had a big day today.  Kitty Sue needs a nap."

"No."  Ruthie shook her head and squirmed out of Millie's lap.  She came around to Johnny's chair and crawled up onto his legs, then laid Kitty Sue flat out on the table.  "Sshh.... Kitty Sue is sleeping." 

"No, ma'am.  Upstairs with you."  Millie rose to go after the escaped girl, but was distracted as Sam and Jack burst into the room and skid into an awkward stop.

"It's right now..." Jack squawked breathlessly.

"Jelly told us..." Sam yelled.

"The horse...it's a baby."  They both were waving wildly in the general direction of the stables.

"Come on."  Sam got a hold on Millie's hand and started yanking her from the table.

Millie fought the forward momentum of his tug and knocked at his hands to try to brush him off.  "I can't, Sam.  Give me just a minute to get Ruthie down for a nap."

"No, Millie...you gotta come now!"  Jack was sounding panicky and he spun on his heels, lurching toward the door and back again, running his hand through his hair and searching the faces around the room for deliverance.

Scott took pity on him first. Or took advantage of the opportunity.  Johnny didn't know which it was until just a moment later.  Scott pushed his chair back, stood to slip a hand around Millie's waist and pulled her from her brother's clutches. 

"Is the mare finally foaling?" 

Both of the boys nodded passionately. 

"Well, Millie...I think we can take a moment to experience the wonder of life."  He looked over his shoulder at Johnny, who cringed at the mischief sparkling in his eyes.  "If my brother will get Ruthie upstairs for her nap.  I'm sure it won't be any trouble." 

There wasn't much point in glaring at him.  Scott had turned away before Johnny could even react to the brazen attempt to steal Millie away again.  Johnny mumbled an unkind word under his breath and left it at that.

Millie tried to protest, though.  She found Johnny's eyes and her own were filled with apology, but she couldn't fight the forces propelling her to the door.  Scott's hand at her back, the boys grabbing at her sleeve, the pure enthusiasm filling the twins' whoops of victory--they all swept her out into the sunshine.  The boys ran ahead, leaving Bear leaping and straining at his tether and yapping with the sheer affront of being left behind.

Ruthie turned her face up to his and Johnny tweaked her nose.  "Bedtime, little lady."

"I want to see the horsie."

"Nope."  Johnny grabbed her around the waist and swung her onto his shoulders.  "I'll give you a horsie ride up to bed."  He headed for the hallway and only stopped when her giggles turned to an urgent scream.  "What?" he asked, spinning back to follow the girl's pointing hand.

Kitty Sue was still face up on the kitchen table.  Murdoch picked the doll up and tossed it to the now smiling girl.  She trapped it against Johnny's head and dragged it to her. 

"What do you say to him?" Johnny prompted the girl.  She giggled again and hid her face in the soft confusion Kitty Sue had made of his hair.

"That's all right, Ruthie. You just be a good girl for Johnny, O.K.?"  Murdoch leaned back in his chair and waved a hand as if royally dismissing the need for any sign of gratitude.  Johnny paused just a second to take in his father's expression.  He wasn't really sure which emotion held the upper hand there--amusement or contentment.  They both fought for control of his face, but it was a lazy battle.  Another expectation shot to hell today.  He'd been afraid his old man would raise the roof over all this interruption to their work.  Wrong again.  Johnny figured his father looked about as relaxed as the man had ever been. 

Ruthie kicked against his side and tugged at his hair.  "Giddy up, horsie."

Johnny was just a little bit irritated by the grin that broke out across Murdoch's face.  "I'll be back," he insisted and then he took the girl up to her room, bouncing her on his shoulders and ducking through the door frames all along the way.  

She curled up in her bed meekly enough.  He had taken her shoes off first and tossed them to the floor next to the bed.  She wouldn't have that, though, and she had complained about the messiness until he moved them into two parallel lines beside the nightstand, side by side and only half an inch apart.  Other than that, there'd been no trouble.  Johnny pulled the sheet up over her and ran his fingers across her eyelids. 

"Close those eyes and go to sleep." 

They opened again as soon as his hand left her face.

"Now, your sister says you have to have a nap."

"Tell me a story."  She pulled Kitty Sue from underneath the covers, tucked the sheet around her shoulders and gave the doll a kiss.  Then she looked expectantly at Johnny.

He sat on the edge of the bed and gave her a serious look. "I don't know any stories."

"Yes you do."  She grinned at him.

He appeared to think about that for a minute, doing his best to look contemplative. It seemed to fool Ruthie and she waited patiently.  Finally he shook his head. "Nope... not a one.  You tell me a story."

"All right.  Close your eyes," she ordered.  And he did, sliding his lids shut tight.

"Once upon a time," she started, "there was a princess named Ruthie and a dog named Bear.  The dog kissed her and he turned into a king.  The end."

Johnny opened his eyes again to find her still grinning up at him.  He smiled gently and tucked the sheet more snugly around her.  "Go to sleep," he whispered.

"Nite." She closed her eyes and pretended to snore. 

Johnny finally had to grin, but turned away before he could be caught.  He stepped as lightly across the floor as he could and turned for only a second at the door.  She was quiet now and her lashes still lay across her cheeks. So far, so good.

He glanced up the hall to the half-closed door at the end.  Josh's room.  There hadn't been a sound from that end of the hall since they'd dropped off the bags.  Johnny walked to the door now and pushed it open.  The hinges creaked as the door swung wide, so he knew his presence there was no surprise.  Josh didn't move, though. He was lying on his back, knees bent and both boots planted flat on the bed. His arms were crossed behind his head and he was staring blankly at the ceiling. 

"Your brothers are out in the stables meeting a new foal.  Think you might want to get out there, too?"  Johnny waited for some sort of answer, but there wasn't even a grunt from the boy.  "Hey, I'm talkin' to you..."  Still nothing. 

"Suit yourself."  Johnny still paused just a second longer, then shook his head and left.

He picked up his pace, eager to see the new foal himself, and only gave a quick glance to Ruthie's room as he passed it.  Then he grabbed the doorframe, just catching it before his momentum would have carried him past.

She wasn't in her bed.  The sheets were thrown back and the mattress was empty. Johnny's eyes swept the room and he had just muttered his first Spanish curse when he spotted the bit of cloth.  Red cloth, just the color of Kitty Sue's dress.  It was on the floor, barely showing from underneath the bed.  Johnny strode into the room, dropped to his knees and bent over to peer under the bedrails. Ruthie was huddled there, her hand wrapped around Kitty Sue's neck, her head on a pillow, legs drawn up below her and her rear end stuck up as far as the bed slats would allow.  Her eyes were closed at first, but they flickered open as he watched. 

"That where you want to sleep?" 

"Nite, Johnny."  She closed her eyes again.

He thought on it for a minute, but couldn't see any harm in sleeping on the floor.  Teresa kept all the woodwork scrubbed clean enough and he knew she'd crawl out of there if she really started getting cold.  Johnny left her to her oddly secluded spot and headed back down to the kitchen.

"Any trouble getting her down?"  Murdoch still had some of that irksome grin smeared across his face.

"Nope.  She's down all right."  Johnny took a bowl from the cabinet and filled it with water from the pewter pitcher. 

"What's that for?"

"Bear."  He grabbed a cookie from the plate Kitty Sue had left behind and carried it and the bowl out into the garden. Murdoch followed as far as the doorway, leaning into the frame and nearly filling it with his bulk.

"Here, boy."  Johnny set the bowl within reach, whistled softly and held the cookie out for the dog to take. Bear lay at the far end of his rope, body and head flat against the stone walk and one ear cocked.  Only his eyes moved, flicking between Murdoch and Johnny, and tilting his brows as they did.  "Got something for you..."  Johnny's tone was soothing and he crouched with the cookie, stretching his hand out and waiting. 

"Don't think it's going to work."  Murdoch's words rumbled through the garden and a tremble ran across the dog's yellow coat.

"Sshh..." Johnny kept his voice low as he inched forward. "Never met a dog yet that didn't end up eatin' out of my hand."

Murdoch's voice was a bit softer now.  "I’m not sure this is your day, John."

"Ruthie likes me."

"No accounting for taste."

A crooked grin lit Johnny's face. His eyes were still on the dog and Bear's eyes were only on him.  "Good, boy..." Johnny crept forward again, only two feet from the dog now.  The growl was low, but the curl of the lip left no misunderstanding and Johnny dropped the cookie and jerked his hand back.  Bear's head lifted and he barked twice as Johnny backed off to his father's side.

"Well, that worked well."  Murdoch chuckled and laid a hand on his son's shoulder, shaking it gently.

"At least the dog will talk to me." Johnny rolled his eyes at his father.  "That boy upstairs would sooner shoot me than admit I'm in the same room."

"How long will they be here?"

"Judge Hansen will be through on Friday.  Val needs them back in Green River by then." Johnny was watching Bear sniff his way to the cookie and take it in one inhaling bite.

"What are the chances of getting a visit from the Turk gang?"  Murdoch had left his hand on his son and Johnny wasn't sure if it was that or the sympathetic tone in his voice that left him feeling just a bit less anxious about the Turks.  Or maybe it was just a bit less anxious, period.

He counted up his worries.  One man-eating dog.  One obnoxious teenager.  Twin menaces and their strong-willed little sister. Three outlaws on a life or death mission to save one of their own.  And the woman he had sworn to defend was nowhere to be found.

Murdoch asked again.  "Do you think we'll have some trouble?"

"Trouble?"  Johnny grinned back at his father.  "Nah, no trouble at all."




Chapter 3


She stood again in the moonlight.  Sheltered in the muted shadows of the redbud tree, immersed in the sweet perfume of rosemary.  Johnny had stepped into the garden to toss a scrap of beef to the dog and he found her there.  Alone.  Finally alone.

He watched her silently, feeling a twinge of guilt at simply being there, unseen, on the very edge of her solitary retreat.  She was so still.  Her head was bowed as if in prayer, and he idly wondered if that made his sin worse.  If God had spied him at it.  Invited to that garden by her petitions and finding him there, caught red-handed and not even properly remorseful.  Because he wasn't, not any more than that single twinge.  Not enough to send him back into the kitchen, away from the moonlight dappling through the redbud leaves and falling gently on her face.  And not enough to wrestle his eyes from the shadings cast by that same generous moon, caressing the curves of her and contouring with hollow darkness the most tantalizing of her feminine charms.

If he was going to hell, then this was the sin he wanted to send him there.

The rumbling growl brought her from her reverie.  Bear raised from where he had been sleeping by the redwood bench and he stood at her side, warning Johnny from the woman.  Millie slipped a hand to the dog's head and looked toward the kitchen.  She had to squint against the house's light shining behind him.


"Yeah."  He stepped closer to her and deeper into the dimly lit garden.  The dog greeted that move with a long, drawn out growl. 

"Hush, Bear."  She grabbed at the leash around his neck and held the dog.  "I don't know what's gotten into him."

Johnny remembered the meat scrap in his hand, threw it to the dog and watched him snap it up in mid-air, then wiped his greasy fingers against his pants.   "Guess it ain't been easy for any of you." 

Millie sank onto the bench and Bear sat, too, leaning against her legs.  Johnny kept his eyes on the dog as he took the other end of the wooden seat.  The animal tolerated his presence, but laid his head possessively over the woman's knee.

"I can go if you'd rather." Johnny leaned sideways and plucked a daylily from the side of the path, forcing the closed petals apart and stripping them one by one from the stalk.  "Looked like you were thinking."

"No...stay."  She laid a hand on his arm, but it was gone again almost as soon as his eyes found it.  "I was just remembering the way things were and feeling sorry for myself.  There isn't much point in that. I'm glad you came out.  I've been wanting to thank you for all the help you've given us."

"I haven't done anything."

"Just given us a safe place to hide out from those men."  There was a small tremble in her voice and she stroked Bear's head slowly.  "Do you think they'll find us out here?  I mean...those men...they wouldn't look all the way out here, would they?  That poor judge was just walking down the street...he wasn't hurting anyone...and they shot him..."

Johnny dropped the flower stalk from his hand, slid closer to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.  She laid her head against his neck, sighed deeply and allowed him to hold her like that for several long, slow breaths.  Then she pushed away and straightened again, wiping the back of her hand against her eyes.

"I'm sorry."  She sighed again and her voice became firmer.  "Father always said that tears are the devil's way of blinding our eyes to the Lord's blessings.  And I've been blessed with your hospitality."

He snorted softly.  "Lady, your folks died, your home's gone and now you're hiding out with a bunch of strangers...I'm not sure I'd go calling that blessed."

She didn't answer, but he saw a smile lift the corners of her mouth.

"Unless you're thinking of my brother when you're using that word."

The smile grew wider and he almost made out a blush in the soft light. 

"Scott's been very kind to me."

"Well..." Johnny reached a hand across to scratch the side of his face. "That's my brother.  You can always depend on him to help, one hundred percent."

"I think you're laughing at me." 

"No, not you.  But Scott..." He gave a vague shrug and smiled.  "Yeah, just a little."

"We probably both deserve it, leaving you alone so much with the boys and Ruthie.  Were they as much trouble as I think they were?"

"No. The twins are just a little active."

"Two little dust devils, that what my father always called them."

"Yeah, well, I think Jelly has a couple of words for them, too. Ruthie's sure got a mind of her own."

"She said I'm supposed to tell you some bedtime stories."

"She did, huh?"

"So you'd know some.  When I was putting her to bed tonight, she said you didn't know any stories.  Apparently, she's decided your father never told you any and she feels sorry for you."

Johnny didn't say anything.  He was torn between two thoughts. The memory of all those years growing up with no father to keep a roof over his head, let alone tell him tales of princes and dragons and damsels in need.  Or the suggestion of this sweet-smelling woman sitting beside him on his bed, her hands pressing the blanket against his body, her lips whispering in the dark, speaking of magic beans and fairy princesses or anything her heart desired. The second image won out and he coughed softly and tried to reclaim his composure.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yeah."  He coughed once more.  "I'm fine."

Bear sighed and slid down to the ground, stretching out against the still warm flagstone.  Millie reached down to scratch him behind his ears and his tail wagged, beating the aroma from a bed of thyme and basil. "Hey, Bear..." she threatened, and she slapped the dog's rump until he curled into a ball and wrapped his tail around him, safely away from Teresa's herbs.  For a moment she simply gazed down at the dog, combing her fingers through his fur, and then she finally asked, "Why did Sheriff Crawford ask you to watch over us?"

"You weren't safe in town."

"Why you, Johnny?"  She turned from the dog and he could see her eyes searching his face in the dim light. 

"It's a big ranch."  He tried to keep his tone casual, but he didn't think he was fooling her. "Guess Val figured the Turks wouldn't get to you here."

"That's not what he said.  The sheriff said the Turks wouldn't try anything against you...not the ranch, but you."

"Did he say why?"

"No, but I thought maybe you were some sort of lawman."

Johnny hung his head toward the garden walk and grinned.  "Lawman, huh?"

"Or something like that."

He dug the heel of his boot against a rock, dislodging it and rolling it back under the bench as the grin faded into a melancholy smile. "Nah...gunfighter.  At least I used to be."  He glanced up at her face and tried to find a reaction.  "I don't hire out anymore, but Val just thinks that means he can get my services for free."

"Are you good?" 

"Good enough that I'm still here."  He realized where his hand had wandered after it was too late.  To his pistol, still strapped to his hip and resting on the wooden bench between them.  He hadn't taken it off all day, not since Val had sent them off with that smirk.  Now he moved his hand slowly away from the gun and back to his lap, wishing for a cloud to darken that damned moon and hide the motion from the woman.  She didn't seem to notice, though.  She was looking past him, squinting again into the light of the kitchen.


The boy stepped from the shadows. "I wasn't doing nothin’."

Millie tensed.  "Where are the twins?" 

"Playing checkers with that man you been slobbering over..."


"Playing checkers."  The boy hooked his thumbs into his belt and stared down at a bed of chrysanthemum and daisies.  He didn't move from the edge of the garden. "You comin' in, Millie?"

"In a minute," she answered. "Why don't you tell Sam and Jack to get ready for bed?"

"They don't listen to me much."  Josh shifted and a subtle shaft of light caught his face.  Johnny noticed his eyes.  Although his head still hung low, those eyes were moving, aiming first toward the ground and then toward them, him and Millie.  Only not as high as their faces and Johnny couldn't quite make out what the boy was trying to see. 

"Tell them I said so."  Millie stood and took a step toward the boy, then Johnny rose and turned too.

"I can make 'em."  Josh's head came up a little and his eyes locked onto their target.  He stared for only a second or two, then he turned away and shuffled back into the kitchen.

Millie sighed.  "Josh has just been lost since our father died.  I hope Uncle Harry can straighten him out, because I'm at my wit's end."

Johnny still watched the spot where Josh had disappeared into the house.  "How long was he out here?"

"I don't think he meant to eavesdrop on us."  She sounded defensive and Johnny softened his tone.

"He was looking at my gun."  Johnny's hand wrapped around the handle of his pistol and he rubbed his thumb against the smooth metal. "It's been on me all day and he hasn't hardly looked at me once, but just now he was staring right at my gun.  Think he heard what we were talkin' about?"

"You mean about you being a gunfighter?"

"Yeah."  Johnny nodded.

"Do you think it scared him?"

He hung his head.  "Does some people."

Her own tone softened and she laid a hand against his arm.   "I'm not scared of you, Johnny.  I didn't think...I mean...you've been wonderful to us."  His eyes raised to hers and she smiled softly.  "If it keeps those Turk boys away, you can be the most notorious outlaw west of the Rockies and I wouldn't care."  Then her smile widened to a mischievous grin.  "You aren't, are you?"

He chuckled softly.  "Guess you'll have to take your chances."  Johnny wondered how this woman's eyes could sparkle like that, even in the dark.  Blue eyes, definitely blue.  This time her hand didn't leave him and his senses were awake to her touch.  Achingly aware of the scent of her, the nearness of her and the way the sweet moonlight draped across her form.  Johnny cocked his head boyishly and slid his most disarming smile across his face. "Millie..."

Scott's voice lured her eyes away.

"Hope I'm not interrupting anything," he said.  Scott was standing just outside the kitchen door, underneath the lemon tree.  Millie's hand lifted from Johnny's sleeve and she took a step toward Scott as he followed the stone path into the darkened garden.  Scott took her arm when he reached her side and she smiled shyly at him.

"What's the matter, Scott?  Did you get tired of gettin' beat at checkers?"  Johnny scratched his thumb against his nose and fought back the almost irresistible force tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"Those boys cheat."  The answer was intended for Johnny, but Scott's eyes were only on Millie and she returned the attention. 

"Them, too?" 

Millie gave him a puzzled look, but Scott barely spared a glance in Johnny's direction. 

"Well..."  Johnny looked around as if there was something more to find than a sleeping dog and two would-be lovers. "Guess I better go protect Murdoch from the Johnson gang." 

He strolled through the garden to the kitchen door and turned for only a second.  Scott was already leaning against the redbud tree, with Millie standing close in his shadow.  Her head was lowered and her eyes were watching his hand caress her own.  Scott's face also bent downward, eyes dropped and lips murmuring something that didn't reach Johnny's ears but which was obviously making the woman smile.  Johnny simply watched them for that moment, then he shook his head and grinned.  And he left them to the moonlight.

The shouting from the twins found him even before Johnny made it into the Great Room.  "Crown me!"...maybe that was Jack's voice, and then, "Good move, Jack," coming definitely from Sam. 

They were huddled together on one side of the ottoman, Jack tilting forward over the checkerboard and Sam just behind, elbows bent against his shoulders and head stacked on top of Jack's.  Murdoch faced them on the other side.  He was on the floor, his long legs splayed around the ottoman and his cheek distorted by the fist it leaned against.  His hand was on a black checker and it lingered there for the longest time.  Johnny waited for his father to finish his move and examined the expressions of the twins. They were fascinated by the suspense.  Eyes locked onto the old man's hand, mouths hanging halfway open and, for the moment anyway, both perfectly silent.  That ended when Murdoch lifted his fingers.

"Get'em," Sam hollered and Jack did, jumping two of Murdoch's checkers and taking them from the spaces with big, dramatic gestures.  Jack whooped and stacked the pieces with the rest of his bounty at the side of the board.

"Looks like you're gettin' whupped."  Johnny stood over the board and assessed Murdoch's strategy, which pretty much looked like open surrender.

"The resilience of youth."  Murdoch looked straight up into Johnny's amused face.  "These boys are taking advantage of a tired, old man."

"Need someone to ride shotgun for you?" 

"You really think you could save this game?"  Murdoch waved his finger at the remaining black checkers.  There were only two against a force of five red ones, three of them crowned.

Johnny set his hands on his hips.  "Guess I could stir up some sort of distraction while you make a run for it."

The twins snorted at the suggestion, obviously delighted by their unavoidable victory.  Sam leaned a little too hard against Jack and he elbowed his brother off of him.  The boy fell sideways onto the sofa, crashing a shoulder into Josh, who pushed him back and slid an arm's-length away.  Johnny watched the boys settle their territory dispute and saw those eyes again, Josh's eyes, darting toward the gun at his hip, then looking away. 

"I win!" Johnny had missed his father's final move, but Jack's infectious glee wouldn't let that oversight stand.  He loudly slapped his red pieces into the empty squares between Murdoch's tokens, then swiped those final spoils of war from the battleground, tossing them to his brother and dropping back spread-eagled on the floor.  He grinned and shouted to the ceiling, "The checkers king!"  He raised his head and turned toward Murdoch.  "One more?"

"Afraid not." Murdoch was already loading the game back into its box.  "That was the one more you asked for a few minutes ago.  Remember?  You promised you'd go to bed."

"Just one more? Please?"  Jack sat up and manipulated his face into his most winsome look. 

"Bedtime."  Murdoch said it with finality, then he stood to punctuate the command.

They pleaded some more, both Sam and Jack coming up with new arguments, each in turn.  It was too early, they weren't tired, one was hungry, the other thirsty and then Sam needed to check on Bear.  But Murdoch competently deflected all of their hopeful efforts and herded them upstairs, leaving Johnny alone with Josh.  The boy watched them go, then studied the floor as Johnny sank into the leather chair.

"Hey."  Johnny watched the boy raise his head and wondered at the intensity in his eyes.  It was the first emotion he'd seen there, unless you count apathy as an emotion.  He didn't get to see it long, as the boy jumped to his feet and started pacing the room, walking to the veranda doors and back to the sofa, then covering the same path again and again and finally leaning on the back of the couch and staring at a spot somewhere around Johnny's boots.

"You got somethin' to say?"  Johnny sank a little lower in the soft cushion and crossed an ankle over his knee. 

It still took Josh at least half a minute to find his voice.  Finally he pointed a finger toward Johnny's middle and sputtered the words.  "I wanta know how to use one of those...a gun.  My daddy...he wouldn't teach me.  I'm a man, Johnny...bout time I had me a gun.  Ain't that right?  You're a gunfighter...heard you say so.  You know what a gun means to a man."

Johnny's jaw tensed, but he held the steady look in his eyes.  "What makes you think you're a man?"

"I'm fifteen years old.  Had my birthday four months ago."  Josh straightened to his complete height, nearly reaching the full measure of a grown man, but looking almost comical in the scrawny poverty of his frame.

"That old, huh?"

"Ain't no call to laugh at me."  The boy frowned and looked away for just a second, then spun back with an angry glare. "I got those outlaws comin' after my sister.  I need me a gun." 

"What does your sister say about that?"  Johnny hadn't lost any of the slumped relaxation he had adopted when this conversation first started.  It was only his fingers that gave him away and those only on one hand.  His right hand.  They played rhythmically against the chair's arm, flexing and stretching and then caressing the smooth leather.  "I'm guessing Millie doesn't want you pickin' up a gun."

"What does she know? She's just a girl."  Josh came around the back of the sofa and dropped onto the ottoman.  "Johnny, I'm askin' you to show me how to use that pistol.  You gotta do it."

He shook his head slowly.  "Nope.  I promised the sheriff I'd watch out for your sister and I'll keep that promise.  But I'm not going to help you get yourself killed."

"Nobody can hurt me if I got a gun." 

Johnny raised an eyebrow.  "That the way you see things?"

The boy nodded confidently.  "Ain’t that the way it is?"

It was a weary smile, sad and small, that softened the look in Johnny's eyes. "No boy," he mumbled, "that ain’t it at all."

Josh was just opening his mouth again when they heard Murdoch's footsteps on the stairs.  He wiped the question from his face and threw himself back onto the sofa.  Johnny watched the boy cross his arms and hide his eyes under his lowered lids. He was gone again, lost into the emptiness of his apathetic slouch.  Fifteen.  Not nearly a man, but no child either.  Fifteen.  And Johnny remembered how he was at that age.   All swagger and arrogance and half his weight in the Colt on his hip. 

“Well, I think I got Sam and Jack settled.”  Murdoch was just coming into the Great Room, looking bone-tired.  “Believe I’ll call it a night, too.  I swear, trying to keep those two from destroying this ranch has just about worn me out.  You boys going to be all right down here?”

“We’re fine,” Johnny answered.  “Night, Murdoch.”

Josh didn’t say a word, but slowly his eyes lifted.  Just a bit.  Just enough to rest again on the gun at Johnny’s side.  And as Murdoch made for his bed, Johnny contemplated the boy.  Scared and adrift and looking for the answers in a gun.  And only fifteen.  And for a moment, only a moment, he wondered if God truly had seen him after all.  Earlier in the garden.  Caught in his sin and paying for it already.  Judgement's sentence here and now.  Looking at himself, at fifteen, and wondering just what in the hell he was going to do with this boy now.




Chapter 4


It was the third time he'd wandered out to the corral that night.  This time even the sorrel didn't raise her head, leaving only her rump to face him as she huddled with the other ponies.  Johnny leaned against the rails and felt the breeze curl under his open shirt.  And he listened.  There were crickets, but they were quieter now. And that one far off coyote, still telling his woes to the moon and getting cold sympathy for his troubles.

He'd tried to sleep.  There'd actually been those forty or fifty minutes, maybe more, passed lying flat in his bed and trying to get his thoughts to settle. It hadn't worked, though, and finally he'd had to give it up.  Pull his pants on and then his boots, push his arms into his sleeves and head back into the night.  He wore his holster slung across his shoulder, where he could feel it slapping against his side as he paced the empty stable grounds.  But now he was still, watching those unmoving rumps and listening for the beat of hooves.  He didn't really expect to hear them.  The Turks wouldn't try anything at the ranch. Too many good hands around, three of the best watching right now from their posts.  Scott had seen to that and had personally inspected their rifles.  No, it wasn't the Turks that had Johnny missing his sleep.

He slid his pistol from its holster and cradled it in his hands. The weight of it was a familiar comfort now.  The curve of the handle fitting his palm, the length of the barrel balanced for his aim.  It hadn't always been like that and Johnny remembered when he first learned the ways of the Colt, just as a boy learns the ways of a woman.  Coming to move with her, to judge her sweet response and to hold for that moment, that singular moment of faultless release. Losing yourself every time and, now and then, not really finding your way back again.

Johnny watched the moonlight gleam against the well-oiled metal, but it was Josh's eyes he saw.  Josh's eyes, anywhere he looked.  Coveting this gun tonight in the garden and again from the sofa. Well, it wasn't his problem.  Just keep the Turk brothers at bay and deliver Millie safely to Judge Hansen on Friday, that's all he had to do.  Pure protection.  He could do that; it's what he knew. 

Slipping the pistol back into its holster, he pushed off from the corral rails, turned on his heels and strolled almost nonchalantly back to the house.  Bear made him lift his head.  It had been hanging down, but now he looked intently toward the garden, listening to the dog's half-hearted woofs and smiling just a little.  Poor, scared dog.  Threatening everything and everybody, but hoping like hell to just be left alone.  And he did leave him alone, heading into the house and up the stairs to the bedrooms.

There was a light showing under Josh's door.  Johnny stood at the far end of the dark hallway and considered that glow for a short time, but finally he walked only to the first door, Ruthie's door.  It was slightly ajar and he pushed it open all the way, finding her bed easily in the moon brightened room.  The white of the sheets gave it away. They were gaping wide open, tossed back and empty of any child-sized form.  He knew where Ruthie was and he might have just left her there again, except for that whimper.  He barely heard it at first, muffled as it was by the thick mattress.  But it was there and he heard it again.

This time when he leaned down next to the bed, the holster on his shoulder slid down his arm.  He had nearly forgotten it was hanging there and now he caught it just before it would have hit the planks of the floor.  It only took a second or two to straighten a bit, remove the holster and set it on the bed stand.  Ruthie was quiet through those seconds and when he finally did duck his head below the bedrail and focus through the shadowed darkness, he found her lying cheek to cheek with Kitty Sue, the doll squashed against her face and hiding one eye.  The other was open and looking right at him.

"Did I scare ya?" he asked softly.

She didn't answer, but her face snuggled even closer to the doll, leaving Kitty Sue with a bent over neck.

"You wanta come out of there?"

Still no answer.  Johnny stuck his arm under the bed and took hold of the girl.  He felt her wrap her own arm around his and he dragged her across the smooth floor, then sat back on his legs, making a lap of sorts.  She took advantage of it, crawling up into his loose embrace.  One of her hands held onto the doll, while the other fingered the buttons on his open shirt.

Johnny leaned down and whispered into her hair.  "Did you have a bad dream?"

"I wanta go home."  She wiped her eyes across the doll's head.

"I wish you could," he said, and he pushed a damp curl from where it hung across her face. "I guess it's scary without your daddy."

"My daddy's in heaven." 

"Yeah."  He wasn't sure what he could say to make her feel any better.  Nothing, he decided.  So he held her for a minute more, just letting her tug at those buttons and feeling the warmth of her cheek against him.  Finally, he gathered her more firmly into his arms and tipped back onto his heels, then stood with her and carried her to the rocker near the window.  She clung to his neck as they both settled into the chair, letting Kitty Sue dangle over his shoulder. 

There was a narrow gap between the sill and the window and the breeze coming through it had a chilling bite. Johnny tilted toward the fluttering curtains and awkwardly managed to budge the reluctant window, then slid it closed.  When he leaned back into the rocker, Ruthie twisted in his lap, hanging her legs on either side of his and sinking back against his chest, her head wedged under his chin and his arms draped across her middle.  She stroked the doll's tufted rag hair and swung one foot back and forth.  Neither of them spoke for a while.  Johnny simply listened again, this time to the sharp, nasal whistle coming in rhythm with her breath. 

He thought she was asleep.  The foot had stilled and she had settled into a loose-limbed relaxation before he heard the whisper. 

"Where's my daddy?"

He held her just a bit tighter.  "Heaven.  Remember?"


"Don't know why.  He just is."


It wasn't as if he hadn't asked that question himself a thousand times on nights just like this. Lying sleepless in the dark, waiting for the hours to pass, remembering her.  Wanting her.  Just a kid and not knowing any better.  But there weren't any answers then and he didn't have one for her now.

"I've got ya, Ruthie," Johnny murmured.  "Go to sleep." 

"Don't wanta."  She curled in his lap, bringing her legs up into her nightgown, snuggling her face into his chest, and letting Kitty Sue dangle by one leg from her hand.

"Sssh...."  Johnny shoved the doll headfirst into the girl's arms. He thought about the question for a moment, then quietly asked, "Why do you sleep on the floor?"

"Cause."  Ruthie yawned loudly.

"Cause why?"

She was getting heavier against him as her body fell limply into sleep.  Her voice wasn't any more than a whisper. "That man."

"What man?"

"Took my daddy."  Another slow yawn clipped the end of that last answer and Johnny didn't ask anything more.  Instead, he waited for her soft snores to tickle the hairs on his chest and still he waited a little longer, just to be certain, just to know that she really was asleep.  Safely, deeply, solidly asleep, before he took her back to her bed.  And finally she was, but he didn't move then either.  He rocked instead, letting the motion lull his lids closed, feeling the darkness drag him into slumber and finally being still, slack arms still draped around the girl, head tilted precariously over hers and thoughts silenced by his dreams. 

He wasn't sure what woke him.  It might have been the chickadee outside his window, repeating his staccato song with monotonous perseverance. Or maybe it was the creak of the bed as she sat on the edge of the mattress.  He saw her there as soon as his eyes opened.  Her hair was loose around her shoulders and she wore a velvet trimmed, red robe tied modestly around her.  She had draped it across her legs so that only her satin slippers showed beneath. The early morning light gave the room a hazy glow and her with it, making her seem even younger than her nineteen years, all fresh and new and innocent. 

"Did she have a bad dream?"  Millie smiled at him, but there was a soft sadness in her eyes.

Johnny rubbed a palm into his own eyes and blinked away the sleep.  "Yeah...she was crying."

"She hasn't slept well since our father died."  Millie slid from the bed, took the two steps to the rocker and leaned forward to gather Millie into her arms. As the weight lifted from his lap, Johnny breathed in the sweet scent of lavender.  Millie's scent.  And he was suddenly aware of his shirt, still lying open across his chest.  He fumbled with the buttons as she laid Ruthie across the bed sheets and pulled the quilt over her. 

"Where's the pillow?"  Millie turned back with that question and Johnny pointed under the mattress.

"Down there." 

By the time she had dug under the bed and come back up with the missing bedding, Johnny had finished dressing and run a hand through his hair.  She didn't try to slide it under Ruthie's head, but instead sat on the edge of the mattress again and hugged the pillow to her.  Her eyes looked past him for a moment, tired and unfocused and seeming on the edge of tears, then she breathed in deeply, arranged her expression into a more passive mask and smiled again.

"Why does she do that?" Johnny asked.

"Do what?"

"Sleep under there...” Johnny wagged a finger toward the floor behind Millie's feet.  "She said something about a man."

The mask faltered for a moment and Millie's voice trembled with her answer.  "I don't know what to do."  She paused for a few seconds and then sighed deeply. "I thought she was in her room when the undertaker came, but she saw him.  She's only four...just four.  She wanted him to wake up again and then that undertaker put him in a box and took him away."

Johnny stared at the sleeping girl, looking so peaceful now with her mouth hanging open and her arms splayed across the sheets.  "She hidin' from him?"

Millie nodded.  "She thinks if she doesn't sleep on the mattress, then the undertaker won't find her. I'll take her to bed with me tonight, she always sleeps better there."

"How about you?"  Johnny's eyes moved to Millie's face. "You're up awfully early.  Guess you're not sleeping too good either."

"I'm all right," she insisted with a yawn.

Johnny glanced at the window and judged the hour.  There was only the earliest glow of dawn, seeping into the dark in an ambiguous balance of day and night.  Still half an hour or more from real morning.  "Guess you got plenty of troubles to keep you awake."

"You mean those Turk brothers?  It'll all be over with tomorrow."  Millie pulled her legs onto the bed, arranged her robe to carefully cover them, then lay sideways next to Ruthie and stuffed the pillow beneath her head.  "Guess I should be thanking you again."

"What for?"  Johnny wanted to push the hair from her cheek.  It was falling forward onto her face and he had to fight the urge to go to her and brush it back.

"For taking care of Ruthie."  She swept the hair back herself, then gazed at him with those blue eyes.

"No need." 

Millie smiled warmly and closed her eyes.  Johnny wondered if she was falling asleep and decided to leave her to it.  He stood and stretched, then rubbed his eyes again.  The holster caught his attention.  He had almost forgotten about it, sitting there on the nightstand.  Now he picked it up and dangled it from his hand, feeling its weight again and remembering Josh's eyes. Millie didn't stir and he walked softly across the room, hesitating just a moment at the door. He opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and simply hefted the holster onto his shoulder and left the motionless woman and child behind.

Maybe he should have caught a few more minutes of sleep himself.  He was still dabbing at the blood on his cheek when he poured himself a cup of coffee.  Shaving cut.  Couldn't even handle a razor this morning, so how in the heck was he going to keep a gun steady enough if the Turks showed up? 

The knock at the kitchen door made him jump.  Johnny set the cup on the table and slipped his pistol from the holster slung around his hips.  He stopped just at the door, wrapped his fingers around the handle and leaned into the wood at the edge of the frame.  "Who's there?"

"It's me.  Now let me in and get me some coffee."

Johnny holstered his Colt and pulled the door open.  "Val, you sure got a lot of nerve showing your ugly mug around here."

"Well, good morning to you, too."  Val flashed a crooked grin as he brushed past Johnny and headed for the cups at the side of the range.  "This hot?"

"You grown particular now?"  Johnny slumped into a chair at the kitchen table and rubbed his fingers across his eyes.

"Nah." Val poured some of the dark, steaming liquid and slurped a mouthful of it. "Ummm... Teresa does make a fine cup of coffee."

"Teresa's still at that wedding in Sacramento.  I made that."  Johnny frowned at the sheriff and pointed a finger at his sleeve. "What happened there?"

"This?" Val tugged at a red-stained tear, opening it wider and making the white bandage underneath it even more visible. "Somebody shot at me last night.  Missed, mostly."

"The Turks?" 

"Well, a brainy man might think so."  Val took another big swig of coffee.  "The whole gang of them took off again before I could do much about it."

"Anybody else hurt?"  Johnny leaned forward and wrapped his hands around his cup.

"Happened pretty late.  Townsfolk were all sleepin', I reckon." Val twisted a chair around and straddled it. "Had me two deputies guarding Roger Turk.  Buck Trotter and old man Todd's son, Riley.  You know those two play an awfully mean game of five-card stud?  Nearly wiped me out of a month's wages, just last night alone.  I tell ya', I'm gettin' a real hankerin' to catch me those Turk boys.  They owe me."

Johnny snorted.  "They owe you?  What about that debt you're rackin' up with me?  She's pretty...yeah, her and her three brothers, little sister and that wild animal they call a dog."

"Well, she is pretty."  Val gave him that smirk again, then quickly hid it behind his cup.

Johnny grimaced and scratched his chin.  "What are you doing out here, anyway?  You must have left Morro Coyo before daylight even."

His expression lost its humor as Val stared down at the table.  "Riley heard some talk in the saloon last night.  Rumor is the Turks know you got Millie holed up out here at Lancer."

"Well, that just about figures."  Johnny pushed his cup away and glared at Val.  "You're running this show.  What do you say we do now?"

"I'm waitin' for another wire to make sure Judge Hansen really is gonna be there in the morning. No sense moving her before I know for sure.  Just keep an eye on things out here, then we'll take the whole lot of 'em into town." 


Val winced just the slightest bit as he crossed his injured arm over the back of the chair.  "I'll take my chances with Riley and Buck watching the jail again.  Think you can get a couple of your hands to help you, me and Scott ride shotgun for the Johnsons?" 

"Sure."  Johnny nodded and glanced again at Val's ripped sleeve.

"I've already set you up at the presidential suite at the hotel," Val said.  "The softest beds this side of New York, velvet chairs so thick your bottom will think it done died and gone to heaven." 

"Did you get a doctor to look at that arm?" Johnny stood and leaned over the table, poking at the bloody sleeve with his finger.

"Get your paws off of me."  Val slapped his hand away and scooted his chair back. "I don't need no doctor for a little scrape like this."

"Val, you'll get that thing infected.  I've seen what you call washin'." Johnny reached again and Val stood up too quickly, spilling his coffee as he stumbled backward.

"Now see what you gone and made me do." Val swiped at the dark splotches down his front.

"Well, if you'd just sit still..." Johnny made a move to come around the table, but Val stopped him with a raised hand and set his cup down noisily on the range.

"Ain't sittin' still for no mother hen..."

"I'm just tryin' to help you..."  Johnny's tone had become exasperated and Val's matched it with its own prickly edge.

"Well, stop trying."

"All right, all right."  Johnny spread his palms at his side and gave in.  "When should I have Millie and the kids ready?"

"Can't say for sure. You just keep that gun of yours handy today, you hear?"  Val slapped him on the back as he crossed to the door.

"And you keep your eyes open." Johnny followed him as far as the doorframe and shouted his final warning.  "And stay out of those poker games."

Even the dust from Val's horse had settled long before the kitchen began to fill with the messy business of feeding the houseful of empty bellies.  Maria was the first to sweep through the room, arriving with an apron of shiny, brown eggs and a beaming, "Buenos dias, Jaunito."  The coffee was started fresh, a slab of bacon was turned into a platter of appetizingly fragrant, crisp meat and bowls of biscuits and scrambled eggs were added to the pitchers of warm milk and saucers of butter and honey scattered across the table. The eating came in shifts.  First the twins attacked the supplies, favoring the biscuits, but piling impressive amounts of food onto their plates and managing to finish all but the few scraps they stuffed into a napkin for Bear.  Scott and Murdoch were next, joining Johnny in more moderately portioned plates of the offerings, although Johnny did take one more honey and biscuit as he filled them in on Val's early morning visit.  Millie and Ruthie made their well-groomed appearance before the men had left the table.  Millie took the seat Scott pulled out for her, next to his, and Ruthie found her way to Johnny's lap. 

"Good morning.  Did you sleep well?"  Scott draped his arm across the back of Millie's chair and she glanced at Murdoch and Johnny before giving Scott a shy smile.

"Very well, thank you." She turned to Ruthie and pointed across to the plate Johnny was filling for the girl. "Don't give her very much honey.  You'll be wearing it if you do."

Murdoch leaned back comfortably in his chair and smiled indulgently at the girl.  "So Ruthie, what do you want to do today?" 

"Horsie ride," she shouted.

"On Johnny or are you hoping for a better trained mount this time?"

Ruthie giggled and looked up over her shoulder at Johnny.  "Real horsie."

The explosive slamming of the door brought all their eyes around to the twins, who collided off each other in a desperate dash through the kitchen to the Great Room.  "I'm red!" Sam hollered a half a second before Jack's even louder "I'm red", and then their "Mine" and "Get off of me" and "Stop pushing" became an indistinguishable chaos of overlapping voices accented by the sounds of bodies hitting the walls.

Murdoch's bellow nearly stopped it in time.  Nearly.  "Boys...come here," he shouted, filling the kitchen with threatening echoes and making Ruthie cringe into Johnny's arms.  The crash came next, only a second later.  And then total silence.

The look in Murdoch's eyes made even Millie bite her lip and simply watch him rise from his seat.  Scott and Johnny gave each other nervous glances, then watched him, too, rising themselves and following him into the Great Room.  Ruthie wriggled down from Johnny's arms and ran back to the kitchen as the two men stood at Murdoch's back and looked past him to the twins.  Sam and Jack clung to each other next to the couch and stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the object they had just sent plummeting to the rug.  Pieces of it had skittered across the floor and their eyes swept those, too, bouncing from one splinter to another and then landing back again on the bulk of the problem.

It was the ship.  Murdoch's ship.  The one that always looked as if it were ready to launch from the table behind the sofa.  The one Murdoch regularly inspected for a piece of dust or a misguided spider's web.  Johnny had never asked his father exactly why he kept that ship at the center of their family space, but he knew he didn't want to ask the question just then, either. 

Murdoch's voice was quiet, but deep.  "Will you boys leave me alone with Sam and Jack, please?"

The twins' eyes weren't on the ship anymore.  They were directly on Murdoch and the faces surrounding those eyes were as pale as the sails that draped across the clutter on the rug. 

Scott nudged Johnny and they backed away, then each turned on their heels and retreated to the kitchen, leaving the twins to the mercy of Murdoch.



Chapter 5


Millie hadn't moved.  She was looking at them expectantly, her forehead lightly furrowed and her fingers twisting nervously through her sister's curls.  Ruthie gazed up at them somberly, then jerked and pulled away from her sister as Millie's fingers twisted too tightly.  Millie didn't even seem to notice.  She simply looked directly at Scott and asked the most obvious question.   "What happened?"

"It's not good," Scott said softly as he slid into his seat next to Millie.  "It was Murdoch's ship."

"Is it broken?"  Her voice quivered slightly.

"I didn't get a very good look at it," Scott answered, "but yes, it's broken." 

Johnny had been lingering near the hallway, head hanging down and ear tilted toward the Great Room.  He glanced back at Scott and shook his head at his brother's raised eyebrow.  "Can't hear a thing," he whispered across the room. 

"I should apologize to your father."  Millie started to rise, but Scott's warning look made her sink back into her chair.  "What do you think he'll do to the boys?"

Scott turned back to Johnny, who answered with a shrug.  "I don't know," Scott said.  "I've never had an opportunity to observe Murdoch with a misbehaving child."  

"He yells.  A lot."  Johnny gave up his useless eavesdropping and fell into a seat across the table from Scott and Millie.  "Only we'd hear him if that's what he was doing.  I don't like this.  It's too quiet."

"Is Muddo going to shoot my brothers?"  Ruthie's words were muffled by her doll's head.  She had clasped Kitty Sue more tightly to her chest and the doll now hid the lower half of her face.

Scott smiled gently at the girl and shook his head.  "No, sweetheart.  Murdoch won't hurt your brothers."

Johnny glanced quickly at Scott, pursed his lips and then turned to Ruthie.  "Think you might want to show Millie the horses?"

That was all it took.   Ruthie slid down from Millie's lap, grabbed her hand and leaned backward, pulling with all her meager might.  "Come on, Sissy.  Wanta to see the horsies."  Her feet slid on the well-scrubbed kitchen floor and she shuffled backwards to get position, yanked again and then smiled broadly as Millie rose to her feet and smoothed her skirt.  "Can we see 'em?" 

"We're going."  Millie held to Ruthie's hand, her arm swinging with the girl's exuberant prancing.  "You'll let me know if your father needs me?"

Both Johnny and Scott smiled reassuringly at the blue eyes that looked toward them, although Scott's smile was the more convincing of the two.  "We know where to find you," Scott said, then he followed it with a "Have fun" as the two of them left the kitchen for the bright morning sun.

Alone now, with only the silence from the Great Room to interrupt them, the brothers waited.  Johnny had picked up a fork and he drummed it against the edge of the table, losing his rhythm and picking it up again each time the twitch in his jaw reappeared. 

Scott was the first to speak.  "Murdoch's a reasonable man."

"Yeah?  You know how much he fusses over that ship." 

Scott slid his plate away, stared at it a few seconds longer and then stood and began scraping bits of food from the dishes.  "It's only an object."

"Was an object.  Just junk now."  Johnny glanced back over his shoulder toward the Great Room. "What do you think he's doing with those boys?"

Hands full of dirty plates, Scott paused and smiled at Johnny.  "Probably explaining the laws of physics and the effects of gravity on a finely constructed model clipper."  He carried the dishes to the sink and stacked them neatly on the counter there.

Johnny stared at his back.  "Can you teach those lessons with a belt?"

"Possibly," Scott said, turning toward his brother, "but you might miss some of the finer points."

"Maybe I shouldn't have brought those kids out to Lancer."

"You afraid Murdoch's going to take that belt to your backside, too?"

"Nah." Johnny grinned self-consciously and scratched his nose with his thumb, then he tilted his head and chuckled.  "Well, maybe."

"Do you ever wonder what he would have been like?"  Scott slid back into his seat, looking directly across at Johnny. "I mean, if life had been different and you'd grown up here instead of on the border?"

"Well...yeah," Johnny answered slowly.  "I've thought about it.  How about you?

Scott nodded.  "I've given it some consideration."

Johnny pointed his thumb over his shoulder and toward the hallway. "So how do you figure him?"


"Yeah." Johnny looked down at the floor and smiled slightly. 

"But I think he would have been a good father.  He may not have said anything, but I know he's enjoying all this noise and confusion."  Scott leaned forward across the table and waved his hand toward their unseen father. "He honestly likes having those kids around."

Johnny's eyes swept back up to his brother. "You noticed that, huh?" 

"Have you ever counted all the bedrooms in this place?"

"Nearly got a lost a time or two, before I got my bearings."  A slow grin spread across Johnny's face.  "Always thought this place could make a fortune if we stocked it with some friendly gals and opened a bordello.  You reckon that's what the old man had in mind with all those rooms?"

Scott sat back and shook his head in mock disgust.  "Not likely."  He stabbed a finger in the air toward Johnny.  "But I am gratified to see my little brother using his time so well.  You keep working on those business plans."

The soft laugh that followed almost hid Johnny's next question.  "So how many?"

"How many what?"


"Enough that it would have taken a half dozen sets of twins to fill them up."  Scott leveled his gaze at Johnny.  "Think you would have liked a few more brothers and sisters?"

"I don't know."  Johnny returned the gaze and added a crooked smile.  "I kinda like the one I got...least when he's not stealing all the pretty gals."

"It's called style, brother." Scott smiled patiently and shrugged his shoulders. "Millie's a perceptive woman and she appreciates superior manners.  If you'd just let me teach you a few of the secrets I've learned about women...."

"That'll be the day!"  Johnny interrupted loudly, shaking his head and laughing again. 

"Now, listen.  I could really help you out with the ladies around here..."

Johnny stood suddenly, waved a dismissive hand at this brother and walked toward the hallway.  "I gotta see what's happening in there." 

"Leave it to Murdoch," Scott called out.

"Sssh."  Johnny put a finger to his lips and then disappeared into the hallway.  He was gone less than a minute and Scott used the time to gather the cups and silverware into one organized grouping at the edge of the table. Then he snatched a biscuit from the bowl and took a bite.  Some crumbs fell and he brushed those into his hand, dropping them into an empty cup just as Johnny showed at the doorway.  Scott's eyes lifted to his brother and he waited.

Johnny just pointed back down the hallway, seemingly unable to speak for that moment.  His lips were parted, but not a sound was coming from them.  He looked from Scott to the empty space leading to the Great Room and then back to Scott again. And finally he found his voice.  "They're puttin' it back together."

"The twins?"

"And the old man. He's sitting there with them and the ship is in the middle of the dining table and they got all these parts laying all around them and the twins and him are just talking and sticking pieces together...and I swear I heard Murdoch laugh."  Johnny moved into the kitchen and stood staring down at Scott.  "I'm telling ya'...I don't think I know who that man is."

Scott shook his head and grinned.  "Guess our father is full of surprises." 

"You gotta see this, Scott.  I'm serious."  Johnny pointed again down the hallway, but kept his eyes on his brother's amused expression.  "I wouldn't ever have believed it, if I hadn't seen it with my own ..."

"Your own what?"

If Johnny's brain hadn't frozen at the sound of Murdoch's voice, he might have heard it.  That little touch of humor in the deep rumbling of Murdoch's words.  As it was, only Scott noticed that saving detail.  Johnny himself whirled and took a step back toward the table, bumping into a chair and sending it scooting several inches and being instantly annoyed by the grin his father was trying to suppress.

"You could get yourself shot sneaking up on a man like that."  Johnny waved a finger at his father, then set his hands on his hips, just above the gun belt slung there.

"You think so?"  Murdoch was trying to sound gruff, but it just wasn't working.  Scott was the first to break, dipping his head in a useless effort to hide his smile and allowing a small, but noticed, laugh to escape.

Johnny swung his eyes toward Scott and glared, then brought them back to Murdoch.  "What are you doin' in here, anyway?  Think you can trust those two wild animals in there alone?"

The humor disappeared from Murdoch's voice. "Either of you know where my pistol went to?"

Johnny only looked at him, while from across the table Scott asked, "You're missing your gun?"

Murdoch nodded.  "The one I keep in the desk drawer.  I was looking for some rubber cement and found out that gun is gone.  Johnny?" 

His eyes had dropped as Johnny tried to remember.  It was well into morning already and the twins, Ruthie, Millie--they'd all had their breakfast.  He hadn't thought to notice before, or maybe he hadn't wanted the worry, but it was that lamp light under his doorway --Josh's doorway-- in the middle of the night.  That's the last he'd seen of the boy and he knew nobody else had seen him either, but he asked anyway.  "Josh up yet?"

"I don't know."  Murdoch shook his head slowly.  "Wasn't he at breakfast?" 

"Nope. Don't guess he's been out there with the twins?"

Murdoch left that question hanging as he asked one of his own.  "What makes you think Josh took the pistol?"

There was just a few seconds pause before Johnny softly answered, "Thinks he's a man."

"He said that?"

"Yeah...he said that."  Johnny walked past his father and into the hallway. "Don't figure he'll be feeling so big when I catch up to him."  He threw that back over his shoulder, just before picking up his pace and leaving uncharacteristically loud footsteps echoing against the tile floors. 

Josh wasn't in his room.  All Johnny found there were the kid's clothes crumpled in his carpetbag, the bedsheets hanging half off the mattress and a wet towel lying on the floor underneath the basin.  He might have searched the hacienda, but didn't see much sense in it.  He wouldn't be there, not in the house, not in the stables and not in the garden with Bear.  It was another irritation to have to do it, but Johnny knew where he'd find the answers he needed. 

Cipriano did the dirty work, waking the men who'd already put in their time keeping watch through the long and solitary hours they should have been asleep. Big Jim came to with the loudest curses, making wild claims against his tormenter's mother and then rubbing his eyes sheepishly as his senses finally found him.  Gone east, he'd told them, only an hour or two before dawn.  Hadn't thought to say anything about it.  His orders were to keep the outsiders out, not to worry about one restless boy.  Big Jim had sworn he was sorry and Cipriano had left him to his bed, but only after Johnny had whispered a few words to the grim-faced foreman.  Stable duty, Johnny figured.  That's what the poor man would be facing for at least a week or two until Cipriano forgot to be mad, all because of Josh.  Just because one fifteen-year-old boy couldn't wait to feel a gun in his hand.

He was still chewing on that when they rode out together, him and Murdoch.  The old man had insisted on coming along and there was no getting around him, even though Johnny hadn't exactly been friendly to the idea. Scott was left on twin duty, overseeing the rebuilding of the ship and the second part of the boys' sentence--cleaning out the chicken coops.  Murdoch had detailed his expectations for those cages and by day's end there'd be no finer living for any chicken in California.

They were headed east, into the rolling hills that led to the mountains.  The boy wouldn't have gone that far, though.  He'd be somewhere in these hills and Johnny's eyes swept the shadowed slopes and skimmed the pine-filled ridges, watching for signs of movement and not finding any.  One bird traded a sparse scrub bush for another just like it, but that was it, just about all of it for miles of rocky riding.  They didn't say much.  Johnny was intent on watching for signs of the boy and Murdoch seemed to be listening hard.  Sounds carried far out in these hills and a gunshot could be heard for a long way. If Josh was still working on his fast draw, all they'd have to do is get close and they'd have the kid. So would the Turks though, if they were anywhere around, and that boy hadn't a prayer in hell of handling that gang.  Not one damn prayer.  He'd either be shot down for the fun of it or held for hostage, with Millie as the pay-off.  That thought kept Johnny pushing Barranca into a lope and Murdoch keeping up, but barely. 

When the silence finally was broken, Johnny wasn't sure how to handle it.  Seemed like a simple enough question.  Murdoch had shouted out to him, loudly enough to be heard clearly above the beat of the horses' hooves, "Why does Josh want my gun so badly?"

And he almost gave him the easy answer--because the boy's fifteen and not on particularly close speaking terms with what little brains God gave him.  But he couldn't quite leave it at that.  He knew why Josh wanted that Colt.  Knew that hunger.  Fifteen and no father, no mother, no bed to call his own.  Sick and tired of being kicked around and desperate to do some pushing back.  And seeing that power in a gun.  Only Johnny couldn't tell that to his father, not here, not now. So he pushed Barranca just a little bit faster and kept Murdoch and his chestnut a few paces behind.  Then he called out his answer, turning back over his shoulder for only an instant and allowing his father just a glimpse of the memories in his eyes.  "Thinks he's gonna find something that just ain't there."

Maybe Murdoch would have given some response, but the shot stopped him.  One single echo coming faintly from the canyon off to their left.  At least that's the direction both Johnny and his father turned when they heard the sound. Hard to say for sure where it came from, the way that sound ricocheted off these hills.  Johnny kneed Barranca into a gallop, headed toward the canyon, and heard Murdoch following hard on his horse's flanks.  The second shot was louder than the first and then a third came immediately after. 

It didn't take long to work their way through a dry creek bed and past some rock outcroppings that  guarded the sheltered canyon.  The shots had stopped before they saw the roan standing in the dappled shade.  He was cropping at the grass under a stand of wild cherry trees, but he lifted his head and flicked his ears forward as they galloped closer. 

Johnny reined Barranca to a snorting halt.  "See him anywhere?" 

"No."  Murdoch's chestnut stood solidly at the palomino's side.  He stood in the stirrups and shouted to no place in particular, "Josh!"  No answer came and he bellowed again, "Josh...we're going to find you, you know."

Only the rustle of the leaves and the heavy breathing of the horses followed. Johnny wiped a sleeve against the sweat on his brow and grimaced at his father.  "Bout as stubborn as an old blind pig." 

"Probably scared." 

"Well...he should be."  Johnny scanned the area and then landed his eyes again on Murdoch.  "Just wait till I find that boy."

"Johnny, maybe we should hold off..."

Barranca jerked forward, urged by Johnny's quick signals when he saw Josh walking out into the pasture from the shelter of some cedar trees, gun hanging loosely from his right hand and left hand cupped above his eyes.  The horse galloped up to the boy and came to a sudden stop, haunches gathered underneath him and front hooves prancing on the ground.  Johnny sidestepped the horse into the boy, pushing him back into the shadows of the trees and speaking softly to him all along the way.

"This your idea of acting like a man?"

"Johnny, you gotta let me explain."

"Ya stole that gun.  You gonna explain that?"

"Nobody would teach me..."  Josh stumbled just a little and pushed a hand against the horse to right himself again.

"And why's that?"

"Cause you don't reckon I'm old enough."

Johnny reined Barranca and stared down at the boy.  "You figure you're provin' any different?"

"Hit the target, Johnny.  Hit it nine times already."  Josh gestured wildly toward the clearing behind the trees.  "Been aiming at a branch over there and I was just shredding those leaves.  Wanta see?  I got some bullets left, least ten or twelve, and I can show you."

It wasn't just the rapid tumble of words from the boy or the wonder in his voice that did it.  More likely it was those eyes, the way they swept from the clearing to Johnny's face and back to the clearing again, just about glowing with pride.  Millie's eyes in so many ways, bright and blue and alive and, right now, scaring the heck out of one ex-gunfighter. 

Johnny swung gracefully from Barranca and grabbed the kid by the back of his neck.  "You think you know how to use that gun?  Let's see you in action, boy."

He was pushing too hard and fast and the boy had to struggle to keep his feet under him, nearly falling several times and being jerked upright again as they passed through the shade of the trees to the sunny clearing.  Josh didn't complain, though, and when he finally stood on his own he squared his shoulders, lifted his head high and stuck an insolent chin toward the east.  And he tucked the pistol into his belt, holding his right elbow curved and his open hand poised above his middle. 

"You seen many gunfights?"  Johnny smiled wryly at the stance, looking the boy up and down and making sure that Josh witnessed his amusement.

"I've done some reading." 

"Yeah?  Those books recommend drawing your gun outta your pants?"  He almost laughed.  Would have if he wasn't feeling those missed hours of sleep, lost to worry over the same boy who looked so pathetic right now with his gawky limbs and the fuzzy stubble on his face, just about as much the deadly gunman as Jelly's goose.

"Tried your daddy's holster," Josh explained, "but I cinched it down as far as it would go and it still kept falling off. Couldn't do a fast draw with that gun hanging down to my ankles."

"Guess not."  Johnny pointed to a limb roughly twenty feet across the clearing.  "Let me see what ya got.  That one hanging down by itself...try for the branch."  He wagged a finger toward the pistol. "And take that thing outta there.  You're going to shoot off parts you might be wantin' someday." 

Josh couldn't seem to make up his mind whether to be irritated or not, but finally he smiled vaguely, pulled the Colt from his belt and drew down against the branch.  He held his right arm straight out and the pistol not quite steady, then scrunched his face.  His left eye was closed and his right eye squinted into the sun.

"You already been outsmarted, you know."

Josh kept the sliver of eye open and aimed at the branch. "What'cha mean?"

"That tree got you on the wrong side of this clearing.  It's got a clear shot at you and you're losing it in the sun."

"Should I move?"

"Can't now.  Gotta call the tune before you start the dance."

"So I just shoot?"

"Squeeze the trigger...don't pull it.  And look at your target."


"When you're ready."  Johnny was still standing just to the side of the boy, but he turned now and watched Josh's face, searching for the signal.  And then he found it.  The boy tensed his jaw, just that, and Johnny moved.  His hand went to his holster and in one fluid, nearly invisible motion the gun was moving through the air, and Johnny's body was twisting toward the tree, aiming, firing and straightening again as he watched a leafy twig disconnect from the body of the branch and tumble slowly to the ground.

Josh's mouth hung open, then he stammered and pointed toward the tree.  "What..what'cha do that for?  I was gonna shoot it."

"Why didn't you?"  Johnny calmly holstered the Colt.

"You know why.  You shot it first."

"Think the other man's gonna just stand there and wait for you?"

"Course not."

Johnny gestured toward the gun.  "Then shoot."

Josh looked toward the tree and lifted the pistol.  He gave Johnny one sideways glance before squinting again toward the sight on the barrel.  And his eye narrowed almost imperceptibly. 

"Rifle to your left,"  Johnny said rapidly.

The shot went wild and two leaves sifted through the branches from the top of the tree to the grassy shadows underneath.  "What was that for?" Josh yelled.

"You start aiming at a man and you better know whether or not he has friends."

"All I want to do it shoot the gun, Johnny, I ain't planning ta call anyone out."

"You figure you can carry that thing and pick when you get to use it?"

"No...but, Johnny..."

"That gun makes you a target, boy, just like that branch.  If you're shooting at a man, you better be ready for him shooting back."

"I know, Johnny, but..."

"You ready to die?"


"Cause someone's going to."  Johnny pulled the Colt from his holster and pointed it toward the sky, holding it just in front of Josh's face.  "Real bullets, boy.  This ain't no game.  You know what it feels like to take a bullet?"

The boy backed up a step and pushed Johnny's hand away.  Even though the sun was still bright in his face, his eyes were widening and the color was draining from his cheeks.  "Just forget it.  I don't want to shoot no more."

Johnny grabbed the boy's shirt and held him.  "You don't really feel it for the first few seconds.  You just know something's wrong.  Then the fire hits and maybe you throw up, maybe you don't, but you start worrying about the blood.  Lose too much and you ain't going to make it.  Then the doc has to dig it out and if he ain't got no gas you feel that knife going in and you gotta keep yourself from screaming and maybe you can't do that, either.  Then the fever comes.  And you sweat and burn and sometimes you never do wake up again.  That's if the bullet don't kill you right off."

"Maybe I'll be faster."  Josh was trying to regain some semblance of control.  He stood taller under Johnny's hand, jutting his jaw out again and setting his feet solidly under him.

"The other man will get your bullet?"


"Think you can kill a man and just walk away?"

"Sure." Josh shrugged unconvincingly. "Ain't shootin' at a man less he deserves killin'."

"You some kind of god, boy?  Passing judgment on a man's soul like that and knowin' who should live and who should die?"

"You killed men, Johnny. Had to if you were a gunfighter."  Josh's voice grew stronger with this new argument, knowing he had Johnny cornered with the truth of it.  "You ain't been a grown man all that much longer than me and you already killed those men.  How old were you, Johnny?  When you learned how to use that gun and killed the first one?"

Johnny stared at the boy for a moment, then let his fingers uncurl from his shirt and gave him a push backwards.  The boy stumbled for one step, then found his balance again.  "Get your horse," Johnny ordered.

Eager to escape, Josh turned on his heels and walked quickly across the clearing.  Johnny set his hands on his hips and watched him go, his eyes following the boy into the copse and past Murdoch.  He was standing just in the shade of the trees, one arm braced against a cedar and the other hand hooked into his belt.  Must have been there the whole time, Johnny figured, although he hadn't said a word.  He didn't say anything now, either.  The two of them locked eyes and Johnny found the sadness in his father's face.  And he hung his head and sighed.



Chapter 6


As soon as they caught sight of the hacienda, Josh spurred his roan and galloped toward it.  It was the first time since the clearing that Johnny and Murdoch had been alone.  For most of the ride they'd been nose to haunches, each horse in line with the other and Barranca in the lead.  Josh had come next, trapped between the two men.  Every now and then Josh had glanced back at Murdoch and the holster slung around the chestnut's saddle horn, but mostly he'd ridden with his head low and his bangs hanging down across his face.  Now Johnny watched the boy ride away and reined Barranca, just enough to let his father come even with him.  If the old man had anything to say, might as well have it out now.

There was nothing at first, only an uncomfortable silence.  Murdoch shifted the reins in his hands and wiped a kerchief against the sweat on his face, but that was it until he looked at his son and evenly said, “You calmed down now?"

"You think I was too hard on that boy?"  The words came out clipped and Johnny knew it, but he couldn't help the anger that still ate at him.

"No, but I don't believe that was all about that boy."

Johnny didn't miss his father's meaning, but he ignored it anyway.  "If Josh tries to use a gun against those Turks, he's going to get himself killed."

"No argument there. Do you think you got through to him?"

"Nope."  Johnny shook his head and glanced again at the rapidly diminishing form of Josh's roan.  "That boy's hell-bent on trouble."

"True, but he's a lucky young man."

Johnny frowned at his father.  "How do you figure that?"

"He has his family...an uncle to go to...and you and your brother to watch out for him until the trial is over." 

That didn't get an answering comment at all.  Johnny squinted against the midday brightness and watched a hawk make a wide, effortless circle against the cloudless sky.  The sun hung just to the west, making it past noon.  Maria would have held some lunch for them, maybe just a sandwich, but Johnny's stomach was hoping for tamales or enchiladas.  Not sure why he had such a hankering for them right now, but he did.  Late as it was getting, Val might be waiting for them already--probably wolfing down all those tamales--and that made Johnny mad all over again.  This was all Val's fault, anyway.  If he hadn't shot Roger Turk or tagged those kids on to the promise of one pretty gal, then there wouldn't be any reason to be worrying about Josh right now or wanting his old man to just stay quiet.  And he did wish Murdoch would let the past just be.  But wishes never had been worth much to him, so Johnny said a silent curse against the sheriff and waited for Murdoch to speak again.  He didn't have to wait long.

"Johnny, that question Josh asked you--I was just wondering..."  Murdoch looked like he'd swallowed something sour as he slowly strung the words together.  "Were you younger than that boy?"

Johnny stared down at Barranca's mane and took a few seconds before answering. "Wasn't that all in those papers you keep locked up in your desk?"

"The Pinkerton report?"  Murdoch hesitated, but went on when Johnny didn't even acknowledge his mention of those pages.  "Not all of it, just what they could document.  I've always known there had to be more than just those dates and names.  I was hoping you'd help me fill in a few of the details."

"Like what?"  Johnny fixed an even gaze on his father.  The horses had fallen into a matched gait and they stayed breast to breast, although Murdoch's bigger mount meant Johnny had to look up to find his father's face.

"How old were you when you started learning all those lessons you were trying to teach Josh?"

Johnny dipped his eyes again.  "Murdoch...that was different." 

"How old, Johnny?"

There was another pause before he answered.  "Does it matter?"

"No..."  Murdoch shook his head slowly.  "If you don't want to talk about it, I guess we can leave it at that."

Barranca's ears were folded back.  Johnny noticed that as he watched the palomino's head move with his trot and he idly wondered if the horse could sense his unease. How old?  And what age should he give him?  Should he mention the years he dreamed of a gun, of pointing it at those sneering faces and stilling their casually violent hands?  Or the age he knew the cool firmness of the Colt, the explosive force of those coveted bullets and the exquisite satisfaction of watching them move to his will, shattering the bottles he had lined up again and again and again.  Or maybe the day those targets transformed into one living, breathing body.  A single man whose face he would see forever, smugly annoyed by the gangly boy who stood his ground against him but pitifully bewildered in that one fleeting second between the jerk of the bullet and the blackness of death.  Deity turned to bloody flesh and splintered bone and the awful power of fire and steel bequeathed to a new god just a little bit faster, a fraction more deadly. At only fifteen.

Johnny coughed softly and glanced at his father.  "Can I owe you an answer?"

Murdoch started to respond, but the sounds of hooves made him twist his head around, looking back over his shoulder at the big bay coming closer with each pounding gallop.  It was Val.  The sheriff was alone and as his face came into focus, Johnny could see that he didn't look happy.  They reined the horses and waited.

"You all ready?" Val brought his bay to a stiff-legged halt. 

Johnny handed his canteen toward the perspiring man, but Val waved it off.  "Are we in a hurry?" 

"Well, I don't know about you," Val groused, "but I don't like being a sittin' duck any longer than I hafta."

"Any idea where the Turks are right now?" Murdoch asked.

"Nope."  Val spurred his horse toward the hacienda and shouted back, "And I ain't waiting to find out, that's for durn sure."

Johnny and Murdoch followed on the bay's heels and the three horses came into the stable yards with a swirl of dust and a threatening chorus of yelps from Bear.  Jelly showed at the barn door, sheltering his eyes with his palms and squinting into the bright light.  Josh's roan was tied to the rails just to the side of the stable, still saddled, but the boy was nowhere around.

Murdoch dropped stiffly from his chestnut.  "Jelly, where's Millie and the children?"

"I reckon the twins are still in the bathhouse."  Jelly swung his arm in that general direction.  "Ain't never seen two boys lookin' more like spooks and smellin' more like a week of eatin' beans and cabbage."

Johnny frowned at the roan.  "Josh?"

"Last I saw of that boy he was hightailin' it to the kitchen."

He was just turning toward the house when Johnny heard the urgent thud of small feet against the dirt and suddenly felt two small arms wrap around his leg. "Johnny...come see.  The ship...it's all better! You gotta see!"  He looked down into Ruthie's big eyes, gazing straight up at him and lit with a smile that nearly filled her tiny face. She grabbed fistfuls of his pants leg and tugged. "You comin', Johnny?  Are you comin'?"

"Did you help?"  Johnny pried a hand from his leg and wrapped it firmly in his own.

"Uh huh."  Ruthie stared straight at Murdoch and then looked back at Johnny.  "Muddo doesn't have to kill my brothers now."

Even Val had the good grace to hide his amusement in his horse's neck.  Murdoch paid no attention to the chortles coming from behind the bay, but glared briefly at Jelly's smirk before bending forward, hands on his knees and gently smiling face lowered closer to the girl. "Honey, you don't think I'd hurt your brothers, do you?"

Ruthie slunk behind Johnny, still clinging tightly to his hand.  "No...?" she whispered. 

"That's right.  Now you want to show us that ship?"  Murdoch held his hand out to the girl and waited as she looked questioningly at Johnny. 

"Well, go on," he urged and she finally took hold of the big man's finger and let him guide her a step forward. "Val, want to help Jelly get the wagon ready?" Johnny asked softly and he shot a sideways glance at the sheriff, still grinning from the other side of his horse. He moved as Ruthie's hand pulled him forward, following Murdoch's lead.  The two were linked by the girl, her arms awkwardly mismatched, one curved comfortably up to Johnny's grasp and the other stretched to reach Murdoch's loftier hand. 

The humor was gone from Val's voice when he shouted at their backs, "Don't be long.  Them Turks are waitin'"

There weren't any tamales.  Johnny found that out after he had feigned approval of the ship, poised for launching once again, but now with an oddly tilted main mast.  Murdoch hadn't said a thing, but that twitch in the old man's eye was back--the one Johnny had seen too often--and he was grateful to escape to the kitchen.  Maria slapped his hand when he reached for an old biscuit and made him wait as she cut two thick slices of bread and wrapped them around a hunk of yesterday's roast.  "Eat", she ordered with a gentle pat against his cheek and he mumbled a "gracias" through his mouthful of lunch.  The crumbly kiss he aimed toward her face was lost into the air when she ducked away, clucking her tongue and shaking her head in mock indignation, and then wagged a finger at him.  He flashed her a smile and headed out to check on the wagon.

Jelly had it ready.  A pile of luggage next to the door was growing smaller piece by piece as Scott and Val stowed it into the wagon bed. Millie supervised, in between trying to shepherd the kids into the buckboard.  The twins went meekly enough, still shining around the back of their ears from the scrubbing Millie must have given them.  Ruthie was next, wedged just between a large carpetbag and a small trunk, with Kitty Sue stuffed into the sliver of space left beside her.  Josh slouched near the door until Millie had asked him twice to climb into the bed.  Finally she had to put her hands on her hips and raise her voice to get his attention, but even then he didn't move.  Not until Johnny took a step in his direction, and then the boy climbed onto the hub of the wheel and swung himself over the wagon rails.  He settled just behind the twins. 

There was only one thing left to get into the wagon and Johnny went for that himself.  Bear.  Still tied up in the garden and lying flat on his back, four legs splayed and tongue lolling out of his mouth.  He rolled to his feet when he sensed Johnny coming and growled, low and deep in his chest. 

"Ain't got time for your back talk, dog."  Johnny ignored Bear's warning and loosened the knot tethering the dog to the bench.  He coiled the length of the rope into his hands and led the dog, still complaining, to the wagon, then gave the dog enough of the leash to let him leap into the bed and fall against the twins. His tongue came out again, first to add the finishing touches to the boys' bath and then to hang over his fangs with a nervous pant.  Johnny tossed the coiled end of the rope into the wagon.  "Hang onto that hound, boys," he said, "we don't want to be losin' any of you."

The ride started with a jerk as Jelly slapped the reins hard against the team's haunches and kids and luggage shifted in the wagon.  Millie grabbed tighter to the seat.  She was perched there next to Jelly, while Scott, Val, Murdoch, Cipriano and Johnny all rode their own mounts, rifles ready in the scabbards and pistols loaded at their hips. 

If anything happened, it'd be six against three--the kind of odds that might have made everyone relax just a little, but they didn't.  Jelly kept larruping up the horses, trying to keep them in a trot and getting fidgety every time they'd wear down and slow to a walk.  Cipriano was the calmest, riding steadfastly next to the wagon, eyes on the horizon and face a reassuring mask of determination.  Val and Murdoch were just ahead, twisting their heads as they scanned the clumps of trees near the road, occasionally pointing out a suspicious shadow and each nodding with their shared assessment.  Scott stayed near the wagon, just off Millie's side, where he could keep an eye on Ruthie and the boys and still offer optimistic predictions to the frightened woman. Nothing too flagrant, just a few promises that everything was going to be all right and the Turks wouldn't try anything against all these men and they'd be there before she knew it, anyway. 

Johnny hung back behind the wagon.  He rode with a carefully casual looseness and every now and then he'd smile at Ruthie.  She was watching him from the wagon, making faces to relieve her boredom and then giggling at her own joke.  His eyes may have been on the girl, but he was alive to the sounds and motions all around him.  The call of the blue jay off in that grove of pines.  The bolting of a rabbit from the gully to their right.   A grasshopper dodging the wheels in the ruts. Now and then he'd glance behind him, looking back toward Lancer.  There was no sign of the Turks, not for miles of dusty road.  It was quiet enough that Ruthie finally closed her eyes and fell asleep against the carpetbag, using Kitty Sue as a pillow.  Josh had long before beat her to it, lying with a hat pulled down across his eyes and his body rocking with each bump in the road. The twins were restless, sitting up and looking over Millie's shoulder and then settling again onto the luggage, whispering to each other and poking a rib or a slapping a shoulder when the other made a particularly brilliant observation. 

They weren't more than a mile or two outside of Green River when the riders came into view.  There were three of them. 

Val and Murdoch drew their rifles from the scabbards and balanced them across their saddles, keeping one hand on the reins and one near their triggers.  Scott snapped a warning to Millie, ordering her to hang on and keep her head down, and then he spurred his horse forward to come even with his father's.  Cipriano kept his self-assigned post, but Johnny brought Barranca beside Val and the four of them--the sheriff and the Lancers, father and sons--formed a well-armed wall in front of the wagon. 

They were too far away to make out the faces.  None of them were very big men, though, and neither were the Turks.  Dark hair, what they could see of it underneath their hats.  And a beard on one of them, a thick scrub of whiskers that was visible long before any features could be seen.

Val was staring hard.  He was the last to see the Turk gang and it was up to him to say yes or no, shoot or stand their ground.  Each of the Lancer men kept Val's face at the edge of their vision, but the center of their sight was those three men, riding closer all the time and seeming in no hurry to get there.

One man drew his pistol. 

Jelly yanked back on the reins and brought the buckboard to a stop, then pushed Millie over the back of the seat into the pile of luggage.  She nearly landed on top of Ruthie, who got an elbow in the head and woke up crying.  The twins were quiet the whole time, watching the backs of the men with shallow breaths and pale faces.  They tried to help Millie crouch into a sheltered spot between two trunks, but they couldn't do much without taking their eyes off those backs or the guns sticking out beyond them, pointing at those far off figures--those men who just could be the famous Turks, mere stories to them before and now here in their real and deadly presence.

"Stop right there!" Val reined his bay and the Lancers halted beside him.

The three riders kept moving forward.

"I said stop!"  Val swung the rifle to his shoulder and sighted it on the center man.  Scott lifted his, too, while Johnny slid his pistol from its holster and cocked the hammer. 

This time, the riders came to a stand still. 

"We ain’t lookin’ for no trouble, but we sure won’t run from it, neither."  The bushy-faced one went for his pistol, too. 

Val let his rifle drop and slid a self-conscious grin across his face.  "Damn it, Joe...why didn't ya' stop when I told ya' to the first time?"

"That you, Val?"  The man holstered his gun, then lifted his hat to shade his eyes against the sun and cracked a smile above his beard.  "Ain't you got nothing better to do than aimin’ that rifle at law abidin’ citizens?”

Val snorted loudly.  “Law abidin’? I just ain’t caught you at nothin’ yet.” 

Everything was in motion again, as rifles were returned to their scabbards, horses were heeled forward and Jelly whistled the team up and started the buckboard rolling.  Johnny hadn’t noticed the crying before, but now he heard it. He turned toward the wagon and saw the two female heads tilted together, Millie’s blonde one and Ruthie’s smaller dark one, both of them barely showing above the wagon seat.  Millie was shushing her sister and Ruthie was trying to be brave, Johnny could tell it from the way her crying was quieting into whimpers.  Scott rode up beside the wagon and he added his reassurances to the woman’s, most likely as much for her benefit as for Ruthie’s.  Jack had one arm around his brother and they both were whispering again and pointing toward the three men as they rode past the wagon and kept moving down the road. 

Josh was awake now, more awake than Johnny remembered seeing him since the clearing.  There was something in his eyes--a look Johnny had found before, once at a tent revival down in Laredo.  It’d been a hot, lazy summer night and there’d been nothing better to do than listen to the siren song of that celebration, the shouts of hallelujah and the chorus of unfortunate voices making noises to the Lord. The preacher had been a fine one, full of fire and brimstone and inspired by a powerful force.  Whether that force was the love of God or a fondness for the greenbacks piling up in his collection plate, Johnny wasn’t sure, but then it wasn’t the preacher man that fascinated him anyway.  It was the rapt attention of the congregation that had him mesmerized.  The fear in their eyes, shaken to their bones by the tortures of hell and seeing themselves eaten alive minute after eternal minute by the gnawing demons of this man’s sermon, so very nearly flesh and blood that they fairly danced through the aisles.  That fright was enough to drive them to the Lord, but it wasn’t all the preacher gave them.  There was a promise in his hypnotic trance, too.  A light of expectation that shone in every eye, looking toward heaven and knowing it was theirs.  The immortality of the gods bought for the price of the preacher’s tithe. 

This time the cost was different, but the promise was the same.  Johnny watched Josh settle again into the wagon and stare dreamily at the sky.  He checked the pistol at his side and scanned the hills again, waiting for the Turks.   They would come, he knew it.  Either now or in the night, they would come.  Johnny only hoped that Josh was right and the Colt truly held the power to save them.  It was going to be a long wait until morning.


Chapter 7


Jedediah Merrifield laid his pen across his ledgers, lifted his spectacles into mid-air and sputtered the words across the lobby--"Now....now... hold on there, Sheriff Crawford.  What do you mean bringing that animal into my hotel?"

Jack had a hold on Bear's leash, but it was a battle as to who was leading who. The dog was dragging him toward the richly upholstered furniture, sniffing and pawing at the expensive carpet there, then hacking as Jack pulled mightily and yanked his neck around, aimed again toward their targeted destination--those steps and the Presidential Suite at the top of them.

Jedediah Merrifield was determined to put a halt to that.

"No, young man!"  Merrifield lurched around the counter and waved his scrawny arms at the boy.  "I will not have that filthy creature in my rooms." 

Jack managed to jerk the dog to a stop and stood staring wide-eyed at the hotel manager. Sam knelt next to Bear and rubbed a hand through his fur.

"Out!"  Merrifield swung his pointed finger toward the still-open door and swept his narrowed eyes around the lobby full of luggage and children and rifle-toting men.  "Out with the lot of you, right now!"

"Now, just hold on there a minute, Jed."  Val stepped over a valise and stood next to Merrifield.  He had at least five inches on the man.  Merrifield held his ground well, squaring his shoulders and glaring up at the sheriff, but his petty stature gave his defense no real chance of success.  Even if he had been more formidable, the six pistols waiting in their holsters would have been the last word in any debate.  Val knew that, even if Merrifield didn't.

"We already agreed that the Johnsons would be enjoying your hospitality tonight and I mean to see you keep your word on that."  Val smiled down at the manager. "Now, why don't you just put yourself back behind that counter and keep on addin' up all those figures you got written down.  I got me a witness to get upstairs."

"The dog stays outside."  Merrifield angled his hands onto his bony hips. 

"Nope.  That there dog is a Johnson too and I'm bound to give him the law's protection just like the rest of them.  Now, git."  The sheriff wagged a finger toward the reception desk and glowered at the hesitating man.

Finally he did go, muttering and frowning and shooting menacing looks toward the Johnsons.  Most of what he mumbled was inaudible, but Val and the others did catch a satisfied, "Just wait until the Mayor hears about this!"

Val rolled his eyes and jerked his head toward the steps.  Those who weren't already holding a piece of luggage grabbed one and continued their migration up the stairs and out of the manager's sight. Bear surged forward and pulled the rope out of Jack's hand, then bounded freely up the steps.  He nearly knocked Millie over halfway up, but Scott got an arm around her waist and kept her from falling.  He didn't let go again until they reached the landing.

"Down there..."  Val pointed to the end of the long, red-carpeted hallway.  "Might be a bit crowded, but you're gonna be just as comfy as a possum in his mama's pouch."  The rest of the family trailed past him, with Murdoch and Johnny taking up the rear.  Val grabbed Johnny's arm and held him back.  "I gotta go see about my prisoner. Think you can keep an eye on things here?"

"Sure."  Johnny eyed the rip in Val's sleeve.  "Did you ever get a doc to check out that arm?"

"You just don't give up, do ya?  Never mind about my arm...you just keep all those Johnsons locked up in their room.  Can you do that?"

Johnny gave the sheriff a slight smile and nodded.  "How do you figure those Turks?"

"What'cha mean?"

"They gotta be around; that hole in your arm proves that.  But all those miles on the road and not a single one of 'em shows up.  What do you think they're waitin' for?"

Val shook his head. "Maybe they decided baby brother ain't worth the trouble."

"Well, that's sure true enough, but I still don't believe Willie's going to leave his little brother to hang."

"Just keep your eyes open."  Val handed a valise over and Johnny stuffed it under his arm. The sheriff turned and headed down the stairs, calling his parting words over his shoulder.  "And keep that mutt away from Jed!"

Scott was moving furniture and giving orders when Johnny entered the suite. There were two rooms, each with an exit to the hallway and a connecting door in-between. The parlor held a sofa, two upholstered chairs, a desk and a small dining table with its own slat-backed chairs.  The bedroom was stuffed with its usual four poster bed and a temporary addition of three cots, along with a bureau and several more chairs.  Scott had pulled the beds away from the window and he had Josh covering the panes with a blanket.  Millie was busy lighting the kerosene lamps against the premature darkness of the room. 

"That chair there..."  Scott indicated a heavy wooden armchair and Cipriano began dragging it out into the hallway.  "Here."  Scott handed the man a large key and stepped back into the room.  He listened as Cipriano turned the key and slid the bolt into place.

Johnny walked through the second door and watched Cipriano position the chair with a direct view down the length of the hallway, settle into it and lay his rifle across the arms.  The big man dropped the key into his shirt pocket.  "I guess Lieutenant Lancer gave you your assignment."

"Si, Senor."  Cipriano patted the rifle.  "No man will get past me."

"Gracias, mi amigo."  Johnny gave the man a grateful smile.

"De nada, Juan."  He didn't really smile back, but the look in his eyes was reassuring and Johnny left him to his post. 

Murdoch had found a bottle of sherry and he was sprawled into the corner of the sofa, sipping a glass of the fortifying wine and looking just a bit stiff. 

"You all right?"  Johnny settled into the chair opposite his father. 

"Fine," Murdoch answered unconvincingly.

"Is it your back?"

"I said I was fine."  Those words were snapped, then Murdoch tossed the rest of the liquid down his throat.  He stared out of the window for a few seconds and finally smiled vaguely at his son.  "Yes, my back's bothering me a little."

"Think a nice thick steak would help?"

Murdoch closed his eyes and laid his head back against the sofa.  "Immensely."

"And apple pie?"

"Sounds good."

"I'll have some sent up."  Johnny rose to his feet, walked to the bedroom door and leaned into the jamb.  "Hey, Scott...you got things under control in here?"

Ruthie was jumping on the four-poster's thick feather mattress and the twins were trying to dig Bear out from underneath that same bed.  Millie was handing pins up to Josh as he struggled with the blanket, which was falling almost as fast as he could attach it to the window's flimsy rod.  Scott had his arms crossed on his chest and his eyes were moving slowly from one set of troubles to the other.  He looked at Johnny and cocked his head. "Emerson says nothing is more vulgar than haste.  In time, brother...we'll get organized in time."

Johnny grinned.  "You got until the trial tomorrow."  He ducked his head at Scott's disparaging glare and scratched the back of his head. "I'm heading out to look the town over.  I'll have that manager send up some dinner.  You all hungry?"

Jack and Sam poked their heads up over the mattress and shouted their "Yep" and "Sure am!"   Ruthie collapsed into a cross-legged pile on the bed and added a loud "Yeah!". 

Johnny grinned at the kids, then tossed Scott a knowing look.  "Be back in half an hour."

Scott nodded.  "Keep your eyes open."

There was a pile of ledgers in front of the hotel manager when Johnny made it to the lobby.  He stood there for several seconds and waited for Merrifield to lift his head, but it didn't happen, so he pulled the book out from under the manager's poised pen and readied an easy smile.    The angry stare he was expecting came and along with it a slow, sarcasm-drenched "May I help you?"

"You got a kitchen here?"  Johnny let loose of the ledger and heard it slap against the counter.

"Indeed, sir."  Somehow Merrifield managed to look up at Johnny and still affect a hooded-eye haughtiness.

"Here's what I want...five steaks...your steaks any good?"

"Only the finest, sir."

"Good."  Johnny leaned across the counter, coming closer to the manager and barely suppressing his laughter as the man drew himself backwards an equal distance. "Five steaks, ten baked potatoes, a couple of fried chickens, a pitcher of milk and two apple pies."


"No, the whole pie.  You got apple pie?"

"One may hope."

"Is 'one' writing this down?"

"There is no need, I assure you." 

"Yeah, there is.  I'm hungry.  Write it down and get it sent up." 

Johnny made him record the menu on a slip of paper and read it back to him, then he hoped for the best and headed out to the street. 

The sun was low and sending long shadows across the storefronts.  Johnny walked the boardwalk and scanned the alleys as he went, watching for a movement in the hazy twilight between the buildings.  Every now and then he'd glance upwards, looking for a misplaced rifle barrel in the flat lines of the roofs, but there was nothing.  It was a slow evening and only a few riders passed him on the dusty street.  There were two cowboys Johnny recognized as working a ranch four or five miles north of Green River and a well-dressed elderly stranger, but that was all. 

The stable doors were wide open when he got there and Johnny drew his gun as he entered the darkening barn. It took a second or two to adjust to the lack of light, but Barranca's welcome was hard to miss.  The golden horse lifted his head above the stall rails, perked his ears forward and snorted softly. 

"Hey, boy," Johnny drawled.  "Got any company I should know about?"

A quick saunter down the row of stalls was all it took to know the Turks hadn't been around.  The only horses in the stable were Lancer stock and Johnny gave their feed bins a quick look to make sure the stable hand wasn't neglecting them, then cast a longing glance toward his palomino.  Maybe there was time for a quick curry, just to work those knots out of his mane.  Couldn't take more than a few minutes.  But those were minutes the Turk brothers might be using to their advantage, so Johnny only sighed and stroked the horse's head.

"Sorry, fella," he murmured.  "I promise I'll groom you double tomorrow."

There was no need for his eyes to become reattuned to the light when he stepped back into the street.  In just the few minutes he'd been in the stables, the sun had slipped below the horizon and the entire town had taken on a gauzy dimness.  There were bits and pieces of light spreading across the boardwalk, but most of the shops were closed and dark.  Across the street and down three buildings, a lantern was glowing at the jail.  Johnny gave some consideration to checking on Val and his deputies, but everything looked like it was in one piece there.  Couldn't say how long that good fortune might last, though.  Despite his worry for Millie and the kids, the jail still looked like the most likely target.  One well-armed attack and the Turks could have Roger out of that prison and halfway to Mexico by morning.  Hardly made much sense to go after the witness, when Roger made such tempting bait right there in the jail.  That thought kept Johnny staring at the sheriff's office for several minutes, fighting the urge to add his gun to the arsenal already behind those walls.  But he had to fight it.  Val might be a good friend, but he had two deputies and plenty of ammunition and Johnny had a pledge to take care of.  And it was time to see to that promise.

He picked up his pace as he headed back to the hotel. There was nothing moving on the boardwalk or the street, but that didn't reassure him much.  A knot was tightening in his stomach and it twisted with each dark alley he passed and each shadow that seemed to shift with the fading dusk. He knew that feeling, knew the edge it gave to his senses, making them sharp and deadly. In days long gone he'd craved that fear, hungered for it and used it like a weapon in the battle of mind and skill.  All else falling away but the animal instinct to stay alive.  Only times were different, this fight was different and now his own survival wasn't enough.

Johnny looked toward both ends of the main street of Green River, listening and hearing only the sound of his own boots on the boardwalk.  The town was quiet, too quiet. Everyone was waiting for the Turks.  Holed up in their homes, keeping their families close and safe and waiting for the shooting to pass.  Sensible folk, Johnny decided, and he stepped across the street to The Travelers Inn and into its well-lit lobby. 

The hotel was quiet, too, and Johnny was glad of it as he climbed the steps to the Presidential Suite.  Between the Turks and those kids, he wasn't sure who he expected to cause more trouble, but it seemed to be peaceful now.

"Seen anything?"  Johnny paused for a second just outside the door to the suite. Cipriano was balancing a china plate, loaded with beef and potato, on his knee and his mouth was stuffed full of dinner. 

"Nada."  The mumbled word was barely recognizable behind the man's chewing, but the shake of his head settled any misunderstanding.

"That any good?"  Johnny waved a finger at the plate and smiled at Cipriano's exaggerated nod. "Hope so...my stomach's talking to me."

The door was locked and that gave him a moment's satisfaction.  Scott's attention to detail, no doubt.  His brother would have been a good man to have watching his back during some of those range wars, but Johnny was just as glad he wasn't there.  He knocked and a few seconds later a muffled voice answered.

"Who is it?"

"It's me.  Open up."

The door swung wide and a somber looking Scott stood there, sliding his Colt into its holster.

"Any sign of the Turks?"  Scott waited for Johnny to walk past him to the dining table, then shut the door and turned the key in the lock.

"No.  Just as quiet as a church on Tuesday out there." 

Murdoch walked to the window and used one finger to draw the blanket back, just enough to peer  beyond it to the street.  "Well, I hope it stays that way."

"Milk?"  Millie already had a plate ready for him and she handed it over with a smile.   Johnny took it from her and fell into a chair at the table.  He watched as she filled a glass. There were worry lines that weren't there a few days before, that and those dark circles under her eyes.  She was still pretty, there was no doubt about it, but now she looked more a woman than a girl.  And like the other grown-ups, she was trying to appear just as relaxed as she was able, a transparent facade for the children's sake.  She even kept that dimple peeking out of the corner of her smile.  It almost worked, too, as Johnny smiled back and felt the knot in his stomach loosening just a bit.

Scott and Millie whispered together for a second or two, then both settled side by side on the sofa.  Scott's left arm draped around the back of the coach and the fingers of that hand hung down and skimmed the top of the woman's shoulder.   His other hand curled around his pistol and his thumb rubbed absentmindedly against the gun's handle. 

Murdoch sank into an overstuffed chair and closed his eyes again.  His back, Johnny figured.  Too much riding and too many worries for only one day and the old man was feeling it. The sounds were rising from the bedroom, but that didn't seem to disturb his father.  The children must have finished their dinners and were getting restless again.  Too early for bed and not much else you could do with a bunch of wild kids in this hotel room, so that was something else to figure out before the night was through.  But, for the moment, Johnny stabbed at his steak, listened to the twins squabble and watched his family worry. 

The crash crackled through the suite.  It sounded like glass breaking, but it was lost almost immediately in the shouting coming from the bedroom and then the gentle slapping of Ruthie's feet against the rug.  She made a panicked dash for Johnny's arms and he left his steak half eaten to grab her up. 

"I didn't do it," she stated clearly.

Johnny watched Scott and Millie glance in his direction, then head for the bedroom. "What happened?" he asked the big-eyed girl.

"It fell."

That was all he got as an answer until he saw it with his own two eyes.  Millie and Scott were partially blocking the door, but Johnny pushed through with Ruthie still clinging to his neck.  The twins were huddled on the big bed, perched against the headboard and about as far away from the wreckage as they could get. Bear was lying just under the bed, his head flat against the floor and ears perked to pick up the raised voices. Josh was picking through the shards of mirror on the floor, sorting out the pieces and making a pile of them on the bureau.  The big frame that had been hanging on the wall above it was now broken on the floor, with only a sliced off quarter of the original silvered glass still showing in its slats.

The boy threw a disgusted look toward his brothers and lifted a pointed finger.  "Can I kill'em now?  Can I?"

"No."  Millie's answer was convincing, but Scott's expression didn't do much to back her up.  Both shared the same intimidating stance--hands on hips and shoulders pulled sharply back.  But Millie's face showed an overwhelmed weariness, while Scott's was just plain angry. 

"Clean it up, boys."  Scott glared at the twins and they moved quickly.  "All of it. Right now. And then you're going straight to bed."

Josh's smirk earned him a jab in the back from Sam and he retaliated with a swift backhand to his brother's middle. 

"And you..."  Scott stabbed a finger toward the teenager.  "In the other room."

Josh went and as he passed, Johnny heard the click of the outer door being locked again.  He hadn't even noticed Cipriano peering in, but smiled at the vaquero's good sense.  Probably figured he was safer out in the hallway facing those Turks than in here with the twins and an irate Scott.  Probably right, too.

"Need me?" Johnny tried not to laugh as Scott aimed his icy stare in his direction.  "Guess not."

There were sounds from the bedroom, lots of sounds, but Johnny didn't hear any more shouting after he grabbed Kitty Sue from the bed, carried Ruthie from that room and settled in the only unoccupied upholstered chair in the parlor.  Murdoch was in the other one, now sound asleep and snoring.  Johnny wondered which one of them would have to wake him if any shooting started. Josh was head-down and hands in his pocket as he paced back and forth on the rug, muttering to himself and glancing every now and then at the bedroom door.  They ignored him, as Ruthie tucked her doll into her lap, fiddled with the buttons on Johnny's shirt and asked him for a story.

This time he did manage to rummage up a fairy tale, buried somewhere under a pile of memories.  It was one his mama had told him, all about an evil king and a Spanish princess and how she'd had to dance to save the realm.  He wasn't sure he'd gotten it right and he had to make up some missing action halfway through, but Ruthie didn't seem to mind.  As long as his voice was droning softly in her ear, she seemed to be satisfied.  And slowly her eyes drooped closed and finally she lay slack in his arms. Her nasal whistle blended with Murdoch's deep-chested snores and the night seemed to have started in earnest. 

Except for Josh, who was still pacing. 

He stopped finally, when Scott and Millie came back into the room.  Millie leaned over Johnny and Ruthie, swept the hair from the girl's face and then lifted her from Johnny's arms.  "Come on, sleepy head," she murmured as she carried her into the other room and to her bed.

Scott leveled his gaze on the boy.  "You, too. Time for bed," he ordered.

"Why?" Josh's jaw dropped.  "I gotta help watch out of that gang."

"No, you don't."  Scott jerked a thumb toward the bedroom.  "You're going to bed with the rest of the children."

"I ain't no kid."  Josh had nearly exploded with that denial.  Johnny bent a leg up over his knee, wriggled down more comfortably into the chair and kept his mouth firmly shut.

"Well, you're acting like one right now," Scott told him.

"I know how to handle a gun. I can take my turn guarding the door, just like Cipriano."  Josh was pacing again and making wide gestures with his arm.

"That's Mister Cipriano to you."

"All right!" Josh whirled around.  "Mister Cipriano."

"And you think you're going to take your turn guarding the door?"  Scott sat against the arm of the sofa and frowned at the boy.

"Sure...why not?"

This time there was an edge of frustration in Scott's voice. "Because you're not ready for that kind of responsibility and I'm not trusting the lives of those children or your sister to an inexperienced kid."

"I'm not a kid." 

"Are you going or do I have to make you?"

Josh looked like he was considering his options, but then Scott straightened and took a step forward.  "I'm going..." Josh gave Scott a wide berth as he made for the bedroom door. "But I ain't no kid."

The door closed behind that comment and Scott was left shaking his head at thin air.  He turned to Johnny and gave him a tired smile.  "Can you believe that kid?"

"He ain't no kid."

"No?"  Scott raised one eyebrow.

"Nope."  Johnny stood and took a step to the sofa, pressing down on the cushions and testing the springs underneath.  "He's a demon from hell.  You got any sins you'd like to confess?  Maybe we can get rid of him and get some sleep." He collapsed onto the sofa and stuck a small, embroidered pillow under his head.  "Wake me in a couple of hours.  I'll spell Cipriano."

"So what do you think, Johnny?"  Scott crossed his arms on the back of the couch and leaned into them.  "What are the odds of the Turks showing up tonight?"

"Long.  But it's a hand we can't afford to lose, so wake me up, will ya?"  Johnny closed his eyes and felt an almost immediate wave of exhaustion pass over him. 

Scott's voice floated above him.  "You got it, brother."

He didn't sleep soundly, but he slept.  There were voices sifting in and out of his dreams, first Scott's and Millie's, then Murdoch's deep baritone. And faces, too. Josh's in that clearing. Murdoch's, sad and troubled.  And somewhere in his slumber,  Johnny knew his father was telling the story of the cedars.  His testimony of the boy's desire, witnessed from that copse. Johnny struggled to come awake again and end the telling, but he couldn't do it and he fell deeper into sleep, far and hard.  And all of the voices were gone, until there was only that one that wouldn't be ignored. 

Murdoch was shaking him and there was a single word he repeated over and over until Johnny had to open his eyes.  "Fire.  Fire, Johnny.  Wake up.  There's fire."

Johnny jerked up from the sofa and swung his feet to the floor.  "Where?" he managed to mumble as he rubbed a fist into his eyes. 

"Down the hall."  Murdoch pointed toward the open door and Johnny stumbled toward it.  His father followed him into the hallway.  Cipriano's chair was empty and that took a second to register in his still drowsy mind. The smoke roiling down the hallway made an immediate impact, though, and Johnny tried to clear his thoughts enough to react.

Smoke.  Fire.  Get the kids out. 

The door behind the chair swung open and Scott called out, "Is the hallway clear?"

Johnny turned to answer and gunfire exploded behind him, first one shot and then two more as splinters of wood sprayed around him and he grabbed an edge of Murdoch's vest and yanked him into the bedroom.  They collapsed on the floor, rolling across the rug and into the legs of a cot, tilting it over and sending Jack flying.  Johnny kicked wildly, aiming for the door, finding it and knocking it closed as the bullets slammed against it.

"Lock it," Johnny hissed to his father as he wrapped his hand around his Colt and swung it from its holster.  "Scott?" He lurched up and toward the parlor.

Screaming and crying, a disorienting clash of noises followed him from the bedroom and Johnny saw him before he heard him.  Scott, already crouched behind an overturned chair in the parlor and firing through the wide-open hallway door. "There's three of them," Scott shouted.

Johnny dove and rolled across the parlor floor, twisting away from the bullets ricocheting off the molding and crabbing toward the desk.  He dug a shoulder under it and crashed it over on its side, then blasted a volley of shots over his improvised fort and almost as quickly reloaded. 

"The key," Murdoch hollered from the bedroom.  "Where's the key?"

Cipriano's pocket, Johnny suddenly remembered.  But where's Cipriano?  "Get down," he shouted back, then jerked as a bullet whizzed past his head. He twisted his neck to find his father, crouching now, but unhurt by that one, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Scott's rapid burst of gunfire brought Johnny's eyes back to the hallway, just in time to see two dark forms speed by, unfazed by the flurry of bullets flying toward them. 

"The kids..."  Johnny launched himself toward the bedroom door, hearing the agonized scream as he ran.  The third form, the third Turk, out there in the hallway--that one didn't make it past his brother. 

He rolled again, this time into the twisted pile of cots and blankets and pillows littering the bedroom floor, and fired as he went, aiming at the moving shape in the dimly lit room, hitting him and seeing him teeter and fall, his gun skittering across the floor and landing somewhere near the bed.  Murdoch's gun fired and then a second, this one from behind his father and in a sickening instant Johnny knew where that bullet had come from.  Josh.  The boy had darted forward from behind the bed and taken the gun for his own, kneeling and firing it toward the hallway.  One more Turk was shooting from the shadows beyond that door, a desperate man who had to know that Scott had him flanked.  A man with nothing left to lose but his life.

The flare of Turk's shot burst through the dark and three Colts returned fire.  Something heavy thudded against the wall and hit the floor and then everything grew quiet.  Johnny heard his heart beating in his ears and that's all he could hear for those first few seconds.  He looked at the bloody man lying on the bedroom floor and turned away again.  There was a gaping hole where his eye should have been.  Johnny slowly pushed up from the floor and walked toward the door, gun cocked and ready.  Murdoch followed just behind him and they both nodded at Scott when they found him lighting a candle and staring down at a sprawled out man. 

"Good shootin',"  Johnny said softly.

Scott shook his head.  "I didn't get this one.  One of you did."

"That one dead, too?"  Johnny pointed his Colt toward the third body, lying a little farther down the hallway.

"Yes."  Scott winced as he turned. There was a gash across the side of his shirt, about six inches under his left arm, and his blood had already made a large, glossy stain. 

"Son...you're hurt."  Murdoch's voice was shaky. He walked quickly to Scott's side and wrapped a hand around his shoulder.  "Let's take a look at that."  He guided him into the bedroom and righted a chair while Johnny lit a kerosene lamp. 

Scott lowered himself gingerly onto the wooden seat and let Murdoch unbutton his shirt and pull it open.  There was a deep gash in the muscle just below his ribs.  "That'll take some stitches," Murdoch said with relief.  It was bloody, but the bullet had only gouged the flesh and no lasting damage had been done.  "Does it hurt?"

"Just a bit."  Scott winced again as his father pulled a pillow from its case and pressed the linen to his side. 

"I bet it does." Murdoch pushed a moist wisp of hair from Scott's forehead.  "We'll get a doctor. Johnny?"

He heard his father call his name, but Johnny didn't answer.  He was already halfway down the hall, following the trail of that smoke and finding its source in the farthest bedroom.  There was a burning washtub full of rags.  The flames were dying already, but the smoke was thick and billowing out in potent gusts. Cipriano was stretched out, face down, next to the tub and Johnny opened a window, then dropped to his side and rolled him over, feeling a wave of relief when the man grunted. 

"You shot?" Johnny asked.

"No."  Cipriano put a big hand to the back of his head and sat up.  "Mi cabeza." 

There was a bloody knot on the man's scalp and Johnny felt badly about leaving him to nurse it alone, but there was still the Johnsons to worry about, Millie and the kids.

"Can you take care of this?"  Johnny pointed toward the tub full of smoke.

"Si."  Cipriano struggled unsteadily to his feet, with one hand on Johnny's shoulder, and Johnny hesitated just a moment, then left him to the task and headed back down the hallway to the Presidential Suite.

He stood for a second or two at the door and looked past his father and brother to the far side of the big bed.  Millie and the twins were huddled behind it, still crouched down as far as they could get behind the best protection they could find in that small room.  Millie had screamed herself out in the first few seconds of the attack and now she was drained of color and completely silent.  The twins both had big wet streaks trailing down their cheeks, but they were quiet, too, and they held on to their sister with a death grip. 

Josh sat on the exposed side of the bed, with his back against the wall.  His legs were stretched out in front of him, with one knee bent upward, and he held his left hand tightly around his upper right arm. There was blood oozing around his fingers and seeping down his sleeve.  He didn't look like he was in pain, not really.  He just stared up at Johnny, his eyes blank and his mouth slightly gaping.

Johnny moved into the room, bent and draped a blanket over the gruesomely dead man, and then knelt at the boy's side.  "Here...let me see."  He tugged at Josh's hand, but the boy didn't seem to understand and just held tighter to the wound.  "You gotta let go," Johnny said gently, and finally Josh did.  Johnny ripped the sleeve open and whistled at the wound.  "Boy, when you decide to get yourself some trouble, you sure do it all the way."

The bullet must have lodged against the bone.  There was an entry wound, but no exit.  It'd take a doctor's scalpel to get that bullet out and he'd be darn lucky if the bone wasn't broken clean through.  Johnny tore a length of cloth from the sheet hanging off the bed and started to wrap it around the boy's arm, but Millie was suddenly at his side and her hand on his shoulder stopped him.

"Let me," she whispered, and he did, moving aside to allow her to care for her kid brother.

Finally, Josh found his voice again.  He gasped as Millie tightened the bandage on this arm and then he looked up at Johnny and asked, "Did we get'em?"

"Yeah."  Johnny nodded somberly.  "We got'em."

Millie's hand stopped in mid-air and she started looking wildly around.  "Where's Ruthie?" she asked in a panicked voice.  "I haven't seen Ruthie." 

The girl wasn't there, not behind the bed with the twins, not sitting beside it with Millie and Josh and not anywhere to be seen.  There wasn't even a whimper to give her away.  For a second Johnny felt Millie's panic, but then he remembered.  And he dropped to his hands and knees and ducked his head under the bed.  Four eyes stared back at him.  Two of them came with a growl, but the other two blinked back big wet tears. 

"You wanta come out of there?" Johnny stretched his hand under the bed and Ruthie grabbed it.   He pulled her out and sat cross-legged on the floor, letting her crawl into his lap and hang onto him.  Then he leaned back against the bed rails and wrapped his arms around the girl.

There was one more family member.  Johnny suddenly thought of that and he looked toward Millie and tilted his head toward the floor.  "Kitty Sue still under there?" 

Millie stuck her arm under the mattress, came up with the doll and handed it to Ruthie, who grabbed it tightly by the leg and flung her arms, Kitty Sue and all, once again around Johnny's neck. 

The room was a mess.  Johnny didn't move for awhile, so he had time to contemplate the state of affairs at The Traveler's Inn.  One broken mirror, cots and chairs upended, bullet holes in the walls and the furniture, and bodies and blood scattered everywhere.  Jedediah Merrifield wasn't going to like this one little bit. 

Johnny was still sitting there, with Ruthie snuggled into his arms, when Val Crawford stepped over the dead man in the hallway and appeared at their door.  Murdoch looked up from tending to Scott and Millie laid a comforting hand on Josh's bleeding arm.  Even the twins peeked out from behind the bed.  All eyes were on the sheriff as he took in the disarray and slid his pistol back into its holster.  

"Jed said there was some shootin' going on up here.  Well..." Val swept his eyes around the room.  "Look like you folks sure did have some bad kind of company."

Johnny softly drawled,  "One of these days, Val...one of these days I really am going to learn how to tell you no." 



Chapter 8


He couldn't be still. Johnny tried though, throwing himself into one of the chairs in the doctor's parlor and staying there for long, fidgety minutes.  If he wasn't drumming his fingers on the smooth wooden arm, then he was jerking his knee back and forth, nervously moving until he couldn't take it any more and he was up again, pacing to the window and pulling the curtains back.  There was nothing there.  It was crazy to even think they'd be there.  The Turks--hooves pounding and guns blazing.  But that just couldn't be.  The only living Turk was safely behind Val's bars and the dead ones were laid out in the Presidential Suite, their boots sticking out from underneath Jedediah Merrifield's nice woolen blankets. 

Johnny strode across the flowered rug again, stopped just outside the office door and wished he could look right through it.  Then he whipped around and headed back to the window. 

"You're going to wear that carpet out."

Murdoch didn't even earn a look with that prediction.  Johnny just flicked the curtain back again, staring out into the empty street.  "What's takin' him so long?"

"That was a nasty bullet wound.  I'm sure Sam wants to be thorough and get Josh taken care of properly."   Murdoch sat stretched out in an overstuffed chair, his legs straight out and his head leaning back against the cushion.  His face was haggard and he did his own share of glancing at that closed door.

"Scott's going to be O.K., you know."  Johnny sank into a chair again and watched his father.  "Doc said it wasn't too bad.  It'll get him out of branding next week, though."

"Scott's tough."  There were dozens of cabbage roses woven into the parlor rug, a once fine, but now faded carpet which showed the tracks of many other restless vigils.  Murdoch gazed down toward those modest roses and coughed softly.  "It's just...it's not the easiest thing to see your own son shot."

"I know." 

Murdoch lifted his eyes to his younger son and left them lingering on him for a long, silent moment. Johnny twitched uncomfortably under the scrutiny and finally scowled.  "What?"

There was still a second or two before Murdoch answered cryptically,  "Fifteen."

"Josh?"  Johnny slid further into his chair and angled one leg over his knee. "It's a bit early for that boy to be growing bullet scars."

Murdoch shook his head.  "No...the Pinkerton Report.  It had a name and a date.  Joseph Williams, October something.  You would have been fifteen."

"Sonora," Johnny stated flatly.

"I believe that's what it said." 

Johnny tapped his fingers against the chair and lowered his eyes.  "Cimarron Joe...I remember him."

"You should,"  Murdoch said slowly.  "The report said he shot you."

"We shot each other."  Johnny's voice took on a hint of self-satisfaction.  "But I was the only one left breathing."

"How bad was it?"  The grandfather clock in the corner struck just as Murdoch eased that question out. Two chimes, each echoing through the parlor and accenting the tense silence that followed.

Johnny stretched the muscles in his neck and squinted at his father.  "What did the Pinkerton’s say?"

"They didn't...only that you were injured in a gunfight."

He snorted softly.  "Wasn't much of a gunfight.  I caught him cheatin' at a poker hand and called him on it.  The next thing I know he's goin' for his gun.  Well..."  His lips curled into a slight smile.  "He never got a chance to deal off the bottom of the deck again."

"Where were you shot, son?"

"The leg.  Right up here."  Johnny pointed to a spot high on his thigh.  "Bled like a pig on butchering day."

"It must have hurt."

"Yeah..." He nodded once.  "Some."

"Was there anyone to take care of you?"

"Sure, the doc dug the bullet out and fixed me up."

"No..."  Murdoch lifted a hand off the cushioned arm of his chair and waved it as if to erase that misunderstanding.  "I mean afterwards.  Who took care of you while you were off your feet?"

A sheepish grin slid across Johnny's face and he cocked his head.  "Well, there was this lady I'd done some business with.  She helped me out some for a couple of days...until I could sit a saddle again."

His tone was still weary, but Murdoch couldn't help but smile.  "A business associate?"

Johnny's grin widened. "Yeah...guess you could call her that." 

It only took a moment for Murdoch's amusement to fade.  He looked down again, toward that dreary carpet, and he let out a tired sigh.  "I just wish..."  His voice trailed off, then he took a deep breath and made as if to speak again.  He didn't get the chance. 

"Murdoch." Johnny's tone was quietly sympathetic.  He waited for his father's eyes to meet his own and then smiled slyly.   "Besides...you shoulda seen that little red-head.  I'd sure hate to get her crossways, but when she was sweet on a man..."  He rolled his eyes with the pleasure of the memory.  "Oh, boy..."

A creak interrupted the bittersweet reminiscence.  It was the office door and both heads turned to find Scott sliding through the opening and shutting the door behind him.  He was wearing one of Val's shirts, borrowed to replaced his own bloodied garment, and it hung open, leaving a bare chest and the wide bandage below it exposed.  There was a thin line to his mouth and he moved stiffly, holding his left arm close to his side. 

"Where's Cipriano? No...sit."  Scott shook his head as Murdoch started to rise from the only comfortably cushioned chair in the parlor and then he lowered himself into a rocking chair near the door.  It tilted back and he caught a breath before stilling the motion. 

Murdoch seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts, so Johnny gave the answer.  "Headed back to the hotel.  He was worried about leaving Val alone with the twins and Ruthie."

"Well, I can see why that might concern a man."  Scott shifted, trying to get more comfortable in the rocker.  "Not sure Cipriano needs that headache, though.  Not on top of that crack on the skull he took." 

"Says he's all right."  Johnny lowered his eyes to the bandage around Scott's middle. "How about you?"

Murdoch found his voice again.  "How's it feeling, son?" 

Scott smiled tightly.  "Like someone dug a hole in my side.  Don't ever believe a doctor when he says, 'this is going to sting a bit'"

"How's Josh?"  Johnny flicked his eyes toward the office door, then back again to Scott.

"Sam was just bandaging his arm.  The bone's fractured, but it's not broken through.  Sam thinks that a month in a sling is all the boy's going to need."

"Yeah?"  Johnny was up again, pacing to the window, and his father pulled his feet back a bit to let him pass. Johnny pushed the curtain to the side and looked out at the street. It was peaceful, dark and motionless, with only a few scattered glimmers of lantern light.  There wasn't much to hold his interest, but that didn't matter. That wasn't why he stood staring out into the night, his back to his family and his face hidden in the shadows. 

"How's Millie holding up?"  Murdoch asked.

"Better than I would have thought."  Scott's voice picked up strength with this subject.  "She's been helping Sam with everything, blood and all."

"I bet she's tired, though." 

"She hasn't complained. If anything, I think she's glad to have something to take her mind off the shooting tonight." 

Something in the room moved.  Johnny glimpsed the motion reflected in the windowpane and he twisted around to see.  Doc Jenkins had come into the parlor and both Murdoch and Scott had turned their heads to find him. Millie stood right behind the doctor, looking nothing like the fresh girl who had stepped out of the hotel lobby several days before.  Now her hair fell in untamed wisps from her braid and a smear of blood swept across her brow. The dimples were gone, along with any hint of a smile.  At least they were until she looked in Scott's direction and then the gentle curve of her lips left the smallest of endearing impressions in her cheeks. Scott rewarded her with his own slight smile, but this time Johnny barely noticed the girl.  He was looking past her, beyond the partially open doorway and into the doctor's office. He could just make out one piece of the blanket covering the injured boy.

"I thought you were going to find a bed to lie in?"  Sam tried to give Scott a stern glare, but it fell apart when he had to remove his glasses and rub his tired eyes. "Murdoch, can't either of your sons follow a doctor's orders?"

"Apparently not, Sam."  Murdoch pushed off against the arms of the chair, raised up and took the few steps needed to reach Scott's side.  "Come on, son."  He offered a large hand and Scott took it and allowed the larger man to help him to his feet.  "After all that ruckus, I'm sure there's an empty bed somewhere in that hotel." 

"Wait..."  Scott grunted when Murdoch tried to wrap an arm around his middle.  "Just let me lean a little."  He laid a hand on his father's shoulder and together they started moving toward the door Johnny opened for them.

"Do you mind, Doctor Jenkins?"  Millie brushed past Sam and untied the bloody apron she had used to cover her dress, then draped it across the rocker.  "I'll be back in a few minutes; I just want to check on the children." 

"No, you go on,” Sam answered with an understanding nod. He drew a handkerchief from his jacket, polished his glasses, and then slid them back on this face in time to watch Millie establish herself on the other side of Scott.  She slipped a lighter arm around his waist and, this time, Scott didn't complain.

The three of them moved slowly through the door and into the dark of Green River, headed toward the oasis of light at The Travelers Inn.  Johnny held the door and watched them until they became only shapes in the night, then he slowly pushed it closed.  He turned and settled his gaze on Sam, who had collapsed into Murdoch's chair and had his glasses off again.  The doctor was pressing his fingers against his closed eyelids.

"How's the boy?" Johnny asked softly.

"He's awake."  Sam leaned his head back and exhaled heavily.  "Go see for yourself."

"Why don't you lie down?"

Sam gave Johnny a one-eyed assessment, then closed both lids again.  "Are you trying to give orders to the doctor?"

"No."  Johnny shook his head and scratched a thumb against his nose. "Not tonight.  I'm too worn out to run anyone else's life, so just sit there...or go to bed...or whatever."

Sam smiled, but he didn't try to answer.  Johnny left him to his rest and turned to the office, sliding past the half-open door and finding the slat-backed chair next to Josh's bed.  He settled into it quietly and watched the boy for a while.  Just watched him. There wasn't any pain showing in Josh's face and Johnny figured that was the laudanum’s doing. The bottle was still sitting on the nightstand, ready for a second dose whenever it was needed.  At first it looked as though Sam was wrong and Josh wasn't awake.  He was too quiet, too even in his breathing--like a kid at his dreams.  But then the eyelids flickered and his head turned and Josh was looking at him through his muddled drowsiness.

"Where's Millie?" the boy mumbled.

"At the hotel. She'll be back."  Johnny leaned forward and pulled the blanket a little higher on the boy's chest, being careful not to jostle his arm as he did it.

"She's going to bring me my pants." 

"Yeah?"  Johnny glanced at the jeans folded at the foot of the bed and the corner of his mouth lifted.  "You needin' your pants, are you?"

"Uh huh," Josh insisted.  "I'm going home as soon as I get them."

"How's your arm?  Hurtin' any?"  He knew the answer to that question.  The boy was stone drunk on that little brown bottle and he wouldn't be feeling much of anything until it wore off.

"Nah. That don't hurt none."  Josh squinted his eyes and tried to focus, obviously thinking hard.  "Those men...they dead?"

Johnny nodded his head, but it didn't seem to register on the boy.  "Yes," he said. "Those men are dead."

"Good.  I didn't like'em much."  The words slurred and Johnny smiled again, tenderly this time, and smoothed the wrinkles from the pillowcase.

"Tell you a little secret...I didn't like'em much either." 

Josh swallowed hard and looked down at Johnny's gun.  His right hand lifted from the blanket and he pointed a quivering finger in the vague direction of the Colt.  "You don't need that, ya know.  I shot that ole Turk."

"Mind if I hang onto it anyway?" 

"Suit yourself."  Josh closed his eyes and frowned.



The boy's tone was irritated now.  Wanting his sleep, no doubt, but it couldn't hurt to keep him from it for just one more question.  Johnny scooted the chair a little closer and leaned in once more.  "Josh?"  The boy's eyes opened.  "What about you?  You still needin' a gun?"

He struggled again, scowling with the effort of making sense from Johnny's question.  It took a good long minute before he finally quit wrestling with it.  Johnny was about to ask a second time when Josh finally blurted his answer out.  "I don't want no gun.  People shoot at ya when ya got a gun. Leave me alone, will ya?"

The boy started to roll onto his side, but thought better of it as soon as the bandaged arm moved.  So he simply closed his eyes again, shutting the room, the questions and everything out from the world of his laudanum-laced sleep.  He was snoring softly before Johnny had even leaned back into the chair.

Millie did come back, he could hear her voice in the parlor, hers and Val's.  But Johnny was already asleep in the slat-backed chair, his boots up on Josh's mattress, legs stretched out and ankles crossed.  The voices only floated through the edges of his consciousness and Johnny pushed them out again.  It'd been a long day and if he just ignored them, maybe they'd go away.  At least that's what his overly tired, half-gone brain told him.  And for once, it worked.  He slipped further into slumber and sank into its dreamless depths and finally, mercifully, the voices faded away.




Roger Turk was hanged on Wednesday. 

None of the Johnsons went, they'd had enough of the whole gang long before Turk was dragged out to face those gallows.  The trial had been rough enough.  Scott really wasn't up to it, but he'd been there anyway, giving Millie a hand to cling to until it was her turn to testify.  Roger Turk tried to stare a hole right through her, but she'd told her story despite him and then the defense had waived their right to cross-examine. And that was it, until Val rode out Wednesday afternoon to let them know that it was all over for the Turk gang.  Ruthie and the twins were more interested in the candy the sheriff had stowed in his saddlebags--a sack full of licorice that was gone before nightfall.  Bedtime was a bit more hectic that evening, but by now Murdoch had already established a system and the twins pretty much snapped right into line.

Millie proved to be a gracious nurse and if she wasn't cleaning and rewrapping Josh's arm, then she was sitting and reading to Scott.  She seemed to favor a poet Johnny had heard Scott mention before, somebody by the name of Longfellow. Johnny tried to be sociable and hang around as she rattled off those poems, but they were filled with unnatural words like 'lubrical' and 'refulgent'.  Even the kittenish way she curled into the armchair next to Scott's bed couldn't keep him in the room with that going on.  Didn't matter, though, because Scott and Millie didn't seem to mind his neglect at all.

Neither did Josh.  The boy wasn't exactly as sullen as he was before, but he didn't have much to say, either.  Johnny stopped in on him each night, usually still dusty and sweaty from a day's work, and he tried to think up some new questions each time, anything to start the boy to talking, but Josh stuck mostly with simple yes or no answers.  At least he was a whole lot easier to understand than that Longfellow was.

Both Scott and Josh were up and around by the day of the hanging and by week's end Sam diagnosed Josh as ready to travel. 

There was a crisp breeze the morning they were set to leave. 

Johnny should have been in the north pasture.  It was branding day and Cipriano had taken a crew out just after sunrise, tackling the task early and hoping to get it all done in one long day.  But he wasn't in the pasture, he was standing at the kitchen door instead, looking out into the garden, feeling guilty about his missed chores and watching Millie.  She was standing under the dogwood tree, all alone. The low-hanging sun cast warm rays around her, lighting her hair with a delicate glow and outlining her seductive curves with thorough attentiveness. 

Johnny strolled toward the woman and bounced Ruthie higher on his hip. He had one arm wrapped around the girl as she hung on, fiddling with the toggles on his shirt and leaning her head against his shoulder. 

Millie smiled at them and set her hands on her hips.  "Well, are you about ready to let go of that man, young lady?"  She reached a hand to her sister when they came close enough and flipped Ruthie's collar into place.

"Uh uh." Ruthie shook her head vigorously and giggled.

"Uh huh." Millie took the squirming girl from Johnny's arms and held her tightly.  Then she smiled again, those dimples flirting innocently from her cheeks once more. "Johnny, I don't know how to thank you.  We owe our lives to you and your family."

"No need for thanks."

"Yes...there is."  She shifted Ruthie to her hip.  "Thank you."  It was only a quick peck on the side of his face.  Just a brief hand on his shoulder, a fleeting second balanced on her toes and one soft brush of her lips.  And then that smile. 

A week before he might have wanted more, but that was then--now Johnny just grinned back.  "Can you stay away from gunfights for a while?"

"I promise." Millie laughed and then she was in motion, setting Ruthie on her feet, asking her if Kitty Sue was loaded in the wagon and reaching to untie Bear from the garden bench.  The dog started barking with anticipation and straining at the leash, making it even harder to loosen the knot.  "No, Bear. Stop," she demanded uselessly and she slapped at him.  "Dog...just stop!"

"I'll get it." 

Millie looked up as Josh made that offer and stepped into the garden.  "Can you handle him with your arm?" 

"You don't need to baby me, you know."  Josh's arm was in its sling, but he held onto it anyway as he came closer to the bench.  "I'll get Bear."

"All right."  Millie gave Johnny one worried glance, then she grabbed Ruthie's hand and led her from the garden. "We're leaving in two minutes!" she called back.  Ruthie stared back at Johnny and her brother as she was dragged half-stumbling down the path, then they passed the adobe wall and the girl was out of sight.

"Need any help?"  Johnny flicked a finger toward the knot tethering the dog to the bench.

Josh knelt down and assessed the situation.  The dog crept closer to him and nosed into his hand, enticing the boy to absentmindedly rub his fur.  "Yeah."  Josh looked up at Johnny and squinted against the morning sun behind him.  "I think I could use an extra hand."

"Move over."  Johnny waited for Josh to scoot to the side, then dropped to one knee and worked the knot loose.  He looped the rope a time or two to shorten the leash and handed it over to the boy. "I think you're ready."

Josh took the leash, but he didn't even try to stand--not at first.  Johnny leaned an elbow onto the bench and waited.

"Johnny?"  Josh stared down at the dog and scratched his ear. 


The boy glanced up to Johnny's face, then back down at the dog.  "Why'd you get so mad at me?  That morning when I took the gun?"

"Why do you think?"  Johnny reached a hand out to Bear, too, and hesitated as the whites of the dog's eyes showed and a low rumbling came from his chest.  He kept going, though, and combed his fingers through the dog's coat.  The rumbling stopped.

"It ain't just a gun. That it?"  Josh wrapped the rope around his hand and stood.  "Any kid can make a bullet hit something, but that gun...it makes you do things..."  He bit his lip and pulled the dog to his side. 

Johnny stood too and tapped a finger against Josh's sling.  "You take care of that."

The boy nodded.  "I will."  He turned his head toward the wagon.  "Millie's waitin'."

"Then you better be goin'."  Johnny laid a hand on the boy's shoulder and felt him tense at first, but after just a few steps down the path he'd relaxed again.  They were still walking side by side when they reached the wagon.

Murdoch had the lines, with Jack and Sam on either side of him.  The luggage was already loaded in the bed and Scott was leaning back against a carpetbag, giving his still painful side as easy a ride as possible. Millie was beside him, with Ruthie in her lap.  The girl wriggled out of her sister's arms and crawled to the wagon rails, holding her hands out to Johnny, and he stepped forward into her embrace.

She squeezed tightly around his neck and he squeezed back. "Take care of your sister," he told her and he pulled away.  The girl nodded somberly, then settled back into Millie's lap and hugged Kitty Sue to her. 

Josh and Bear had stretched out in the back of the wagon and the boy was pulling his hat over his eyes as the buckboard jerked away.  He grabbed his arm quickly, no doubt feeling that motion in the bullet hole.  It was healing just fine, but it hurt. Would hurt for a long time.

Johnny resettled his hat on his head, turned on his heels and headed toward the stables.  Those calves were waiting and Cipriano would have the irons good and hot.  Time was wasting and a rancher had chores to do.  By day's end, there'd be a lot more Lancer brands on some wild young stock.



The End


Karen "KC" Campbell



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