Gem by LindaB. (Kona)

Word Count 78,653

Thanks to my betas, KC, Whistle and Ros. You, as always, have saved me. <g>

2nd in the Reunion Series

Chapter One

Dolly Chamberlain thought of herself as a pretty good judge of character. She had lived most of her sixty odd years in and around Boston and New York. She had been widowed twice and had more children and grandchildren than she could count. All of them living their own lives…as it should be…but she was left alone and lonely. Most of her friends had succumbed to old age and the younger folk really didn’t have time for an old lady. So she had accepted her fate to live out the rest of her years in her modest home in Boston’s South End. That is, until a serendipitous encounter with her first husband’s business acquaintance, Harlan Garrett. 

She liked taking a cab to Beacon Hill on Sundays after church, and then walking to the Common. On that day she found herself walking on the same path as Harlan Garrett. Introductions and shared memories led to Harlan admitting he too was lonely now that his grandson was in California. She had always wanted to travel, and with little persuasion she found herself sitting on a train six weeks later, heading for the biggest adventure of her long life. 

Harlan had written to his grandson, Scott Lancer, and asked if he would find a house and staff for her stay. His reply had been kind and within a month everything was ready and waiting for her arrival.

This last leg of her journey was far less comfortable than the train rides for which she had purchased private parlor cars. Now she could only try to find a comfortable position in the insufferably hot and dusty stagecoach as it rocked and bucked over land that was not fit for man nor beast. To her dismay a landslide outside the small town of Placerville had covered the tracks and it would take weeks before they could be repaired. Either she waited in the one hotel in town, questionable at best, or she traveled on by stage. It seemed at the time that a three-day stagecoach ride would be better than waiting in Placerville for weeks for the train to run again. Now she wasn’t so sure of her decision.  

Luckily there was only one other passenger, a young woman sitting across from her. Even in this horrible heat she looked cool and comfortable in a light pink and white dress. Her blond hair was piled up on her head with ringlets framing her lightly tanned face and huge blue eyes.

“It’s not very comfortable,” the young woman said softly. “How far are you traveling?”

“To a town called Green River. I must say I didn’t expect this dust and heat. Is it always like this here?”

The young woman smiled. “This ain’t nothing. It’s still early spring. Wait ‘til summer when you kin fry an egg on a rock.” The girl blushed, ironing her skirt with her hands. “I mean, it gets very hot in the summer.”

“I hope Green River is not this hot.”

“I’m afraid it is. All the San Joaquin is like this. But you get used to it. Are you just visiting or are you planning to stay?”

Dolly found the young woman delightful. It was obvious she was trying her best to make a good impression. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. Ah, to be twenty again…

“How far are you traveling, young lady?”

“Same place. Green River. I’ve been away for a couple of years. But I’ve been told not much has changed. You traveling alone, Ma’am?”

“Yes. I have always wanted to travel, and …well… I thought I had better start doing it now. I’m not getting any younger. And what about you? Why is a pretty young thing like you traveling alone?”

The young woman blushed and dipped her head. “I’m meeting my man. We’re going to be married. I didn’t have much education and his daddy thought I was too young to get married so I spent two years in New York learning to be a lady.”

Dolly reached over and took the young woman’s hands. “I respect a woman who tries to better herself. And I’m sure your husband-to-be will be very pleased with the lady you have become.”

“I hope so. I never want to be a disappointment to him.”

“Nonsense. How could you ever be a disappointment? You are a lovely child.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“Oh, you can call me Dolly. And what is your name, dear?”

“My name be Pearl. Pearl Hawkins. But it’s going to be Pearl Lancer real soon.”

“Lancer? Your betrothed isn’t Scott Lancer by any chance?”

“No. No, Ma’am. I’m marrying his brother, Johnny. Johnny Lancer.” 


Johnny grabbed the last biscuit on the table and stuffed it into his mouth. “What happened to that old lady your grandpa saddled you with?” he asked around a mouthful of biscuit. “I thought she was supposed to be here by now.”

“Firstly,” Scott said, placing his napkin on the table next to his plate, “I hope when she arrives that you refrain from calling her ‘old lady’. Her name is Dolly Chamberlain. And the train was delayed in Placerville, for weeks most likely. A hillside gave way and the tracks with it. It will probably take four to six weeks to get the trains running again”

“This Dolly Chamberlain of yours, is she going to sit around Placerville for four to six weeks?”

Scott looked at the snide smile on his brother’s face. 

“The only other way to get here is by stagecoach,” Scott mumbled. Looking up at Johnny he added, “She wouldn’t take the stage. The woman is in her sixties.”

“Didn’t seem to stop her from traveling all the way from Boston.”

Scott had the feeling that he didn’t have as much time as he thought to get everything in order for Dolly Chamberlain’s visit. “I got the telegram three days ago…”

Johnny nodded, a grin making its way up to his eyes. “Just enough time for the stage to get from Placerville to Green River. I’d say you better get into town as fast as you can, Boston. The stage arrives before noon.”

Scott noticed that Johnny was enjoying himself all too much. He knew how to take his brother down a notch. “You know Teresa’s been waiting for her. She has all these ideas about dinner parties to introduce her to the neighbors. That means dressing up for dinner and being on your best behavior. I hope you remember the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork.”

Johnny didn’t take the bait as he slapped Scott on the shoulder on his way toward the door. “I’ll just make sure I get a job that’ll keep me out late enough to miss dinner. You better hurry, that stage will be here before you know it.”

Scott watched Johnny buckle his gunbelt, grab his hat and disappear out the door. Scott wished he were going with his brother. He had no idea what Dolly Chamberlain would be like, but since she was a friend of his grandfather’s, he feared she and Johnny would not see eye to eye. With a long drawn out sigh, he headed for the kitchen. Teresa would have to know that they had a possible dinner guest tonight. Maria had hired Mrs. Jacobs to cook for Mrs. Chamberlain, but with the train being delayed she didn’t think she was needed for another month and was out of town. Besides, Mrs. Chamberlain couldn’t be expected to cook for herself even if there were supplies there.


Dolly climbed back into the stagecoach. Each stage stop seemed worse than the last. Thank heavens the driver promised this was their last stop before arriving in Green River. She had to admit the trip was not all insufferable. Pearl was a sweet traveling companion and they had talked a lot about her intended, Johnny Lancer. Dolly felt like she knew him before she had ever met him. Of course she was seeing him through the eyes of a girl in love.

“Are you staying with the Lancers, dear?”

Dolly saw Pearl blush. “No, Ma’am. That wouldn’t be proper, not until we’re married. I’m going to stay in the hotel in Green River.”

“Nonsense! You will stay with me.”

“Oh, no, Ma’am. I couldn’t.”

“Firstly, we agreed that you would call me Dolly, remember? And secondly, I would welcome the company. The nights out here are far different than the ones in Boston. You will be doing me a favor.”

“Thank you, Ma’…Dolly. That would be very nice.”

“That’s settled. Now, about that future husband of yours. Is he expecting you?”

“Oh no, Dolly. It will be a complete surprise. I don’t even want him to know that I’m here until I can plan a big surprise for him.”

“Ah, young love. It is all so romantic. Perhaps we can plan a dinner at my house and invite him.”

Pearl beamed. “That would be perfect. Just…well, if Scott sees me…”

“We will take care of that. Don’t you worry.” Dolly patted her knees. “I have some old tricks up my sleeve. Believe me, your Johnny will be very surprised.” 


Scott made it to town just as the stage pulled in. He spotted Val slouching in the doorway to the stage office. The sheriff always liked to know who was coming into his town. If Scott was lucky, it wouldn’t be Dolly Chamberlain. But luck would not be with him this day. He saw an older woman look out the open door. She wore a dark green traveling suit and a stylish green hat with a white feather wrapped around the brim. She tended toward thin, but not spindly. 

Scott pulled up beside the coach and hurriedly ran around to the open door, reaching out a hand to the lady. 

“Mrs. Chamberlain?”

“Yes, my boy, and you must be Scott Lancer. Your grandfather described you very well, expect for perhaps the dusty clothes and deep tan.”

Scott couldn’t help but instantly like this woman. “My grandfather would have a fit if he saw me after a day’s work. Ranching is not done in three piece-suits and a bowler.”

“I dare say not. I came out west to see cowboys not eastern fops. I’ve withstood a lifetime of them…including two husbands.”

Scott wasn’t sure what to say. This was not his grandfather’s usual taste in women. He had expected a sophisticated and demanding old dowager. “I’m sorry I’m late, Ma’am. I didn’t expect you today. With the train not running I thought you would stay in Placerville.”

“Heavens no. Why would I wait four to six weeks for the train to run again when I could travel by stage? I must admit, it was an experience.”

“I’m sure it was, Mrs. Chamberlain.”

Dolly took Scott’s hand and stepped from the stage onto the wooden boardwalk. “Enough with the Mrs. and Ma’ams. I am Dolly.” She looked over Scott’s shoulder at his horse. “I had hoped to experience this untamed frontier…but not on the back of a horse.”

Scott looked over at Val and saw him snickering. Johnny would hear every bit of this…with Val’s own personal seasoning.

“No, Mrs….no, Dolly. I had planned to rent a buggy to take you to your house.”

“Wonderful. Then we had better get started. Opal…?”

Scott saw the stage rock as another passenger followed Dolly onto the boardwalk. She was young, blond and her face was hidden beneath a dark veil. 

“This is my traveling companion, Opal. The poor dear, she can’t stand the sun on her sensitive skin. Even in Boston she had to wear a veil when she was out in the sun. Here it is much worse. If I had known how terrible the sun was here, I would never have allowed her to come with me.”

Scott tipped his hat toward the young woman. “Miss Opal, if the sun is a problem, we can wait until dusk to drive out to the house. I can send someone ahead to light the house for us.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. But that won’t be necessary. I can travel as long as I wear this veil.”

There was something vaguely familiar about the young woman’s voice, but he could not place it. He dismissed it as being just one of those voices.

“Then I’ll hire a buggy right away.” He turned to Val and saw the sheriff’s face turn red. “Val, here, is our sheriff. I’m sure he can keep you company until I have arranged for the buggy. Won’t you, Val?”

“Ah…why don’t you watch the ladies and I’ll get the rig?”

“Nonsense,” Dolly said, walking toward Val. “I would love to talk to an authentic western sheriff. I’m sure you have many memorable stories you can regale us with.”

“What?”

Scott laughed as he called back over his shoulder. “Some of your tall tales, but keep it clean. These are real ladies.” 

Seeing the terror in Val’s eyes, Scott headed for the livery. Maybe this day was worth it.

.



Chapter Two


Scott had been relieved to find that Ned had not rented out the new covered buggy he had purchased a few months back. It turned out to be a popular carriage and was almost always spoken for. Dolly sat in front with him and Opal sat in back, her arms folded tightly around
herself, her face hidden beneath the dark netting. There was something so familiar about her, but for the life of him he couldn’t put his finger on it. It would come to him.

“I was so pleased when Harlan said you had found a house for me to rent. I will have to send a note of thanks to the owners.”

“That would be Anna and Charley Baker. It’s a small plot of land, only a hundred acres, but they made do, and were happy until three months ago. Influenza hit the valley hard and we lost a lot of good people. We nearly lost my brother.” Scott heard a small hiss of surprise come from Opal, but when he looked back she was just as she had been; sitting rigidly with the dark veil covering her face. How he would like to see under that veil. Looking back to the road he continued, “But the Bakers were not so lucky. They lost their son Owen. Anna couldn’t cope any more and they moved back to live near family in Missouri. Charley couldn’t bring himself to part with the
land he had worked for the past fifteen years. He hoped that Anna would come to miss their home and want to come back. We agreed to watch over it.”

“That was very thoughtful of you, but from what Harlan said of your father, I wouldn’t expect him to be that magnanimous.”

Scott grinned. “My grandfather’s opinion of my father isn’t very high.”

“I gathered that. Your grandfather is very like my Ralph, my first husband. Bound by his own strict set of morals. And any man who didn’t see life as he did was not tolerated. Sad really, to have that limited a view. It appears you don’t hold with your grandfather’s philosophies.”

“I try to keep an open mind. And believe me, I’ve had to work hard at it at times.” Scott steered the horse off the main road twenty minutes out of town and down a long path that eventually led to a two- story farmhouse. Painted white with green trim, it was surrounded by
a crop of apple and walnut trees. A barn and corral sat to the left. A large chicken coop sat to the right away from the prevailing winds. Everything was well maintained, yet cold and lifeless.

Scott pulled to a stop in front of the large front porch and hopped down. “As I mentioned before,” he said as he guided Dolly to the ground and then onto the porch, “you caught me at short notice. Everything is ready inside but Senora Alto, the cook, is out of town today. Johnny will round up the rest of the help tomorrow. “


“Round up?” Dolly laughed. “But my, you already sound like a cowboy. Harlan would have a fit.”

Scott bowed his head, realizing that he had not only picked up on some of Johnny’s colloquialisms, but also his mannerisms.

“When in Rome,” he quipped.

“Touché.” Dolly laughed.

Scott turned to Opal, wrapped his hands around her slim waist and lifted her out of the buggy onto the porch. He felt her stiffen beneath his hands. He would have to remind himself that she was from back east and most likely terrified of her new surroundings.

He opened the door and allowed Dolly and Opal to enter. He watched Dolly’s reaction at seeing the simple furnishings and thought she was disappointed. Scott suddenly realized that Murdoch might have been right when he suggested the Clayton estancia outside of Spanish Wells. But to Scott it seemed too big for just one woman…well, two now, but it was nearly as big as Lancer and it was a three hour ride into town.

“It’s lovely,” Dolly said as she began to rush from room to room. Opal followed on her heels, and Scott followed behind feeling relieved that he had worried for nothing.

“It must have been terribly hard for the Bakers to leave a home that they had obviously put so much love and care into. Thank you, Scott, I will be very happy here.”

“Your bags will be here shortly, and…” Scott began but Dolly flew by him again and headed up the stairs.

“There’s no need for you to babysit us, Scott,” she called down from the top step. “We will be fine. As you said, our bags will be here shortly.”

“Yes, but I can’t just leave you two here alone.”

“Nonsense. You have work to do at Lancer I’m sure. If you would send a buggy for me this evening I will take you up on your kind invitation to dinner. I’m sure your cook will have enough to send a meal home for Opal.”

Scott noticed that even though they were inside now, Opal had not taken off her hat and veil. Suddenly he thought that the young woman might have been disfigured in some way and didn’t want him to see her face. He smiled inwardly. It might take time, but Opal would learn
that looks didn’t mean that much here.

“Go now, go,” Dolly insisted as they climbed back down the stairs. “We will be fine. And please, tell your cook I do not require a special meal. Whatever you are having is fine with me. As
you so aptly said, When in Rome…”

Scott laughed as he was pushed out the front door. If he were only a few years older, and Dolly were a lot of years younger…





Teresa was in a tizzy. She knew Scott had rented the Baker house for Dolly Chamberlain, a friend of his grandfather’s, which meant she must be high society. For the past month the estancia had been in a perpetual uproar. Maria had brought in extra help to clean every
room, polish every knife, fork and spoon. There was not an inch of floor, wall or ceiling that hadn’t been scrubbed. Carpets had been beaten until every man at Lancer thought they could hear them cry out in pain. Extra candles had been poured. Fresh flowers had been brought in every day to fill the house with their sweet aroma. At least with the train being delayed she had time to discuss menus with Maria. She wanted to show Mrs. Chamberlain that California was not
the uncivilized land most easterners thought.

Then Scott had rushed in just minutes ago to inform her that Mrs.Chamberlain was at the Bakers and he had invited her to dinner.

If looks could kill, Scott would have died on the spot. How could he have done this to her? She sent daggers in his back as he hurried past her to alert Murdoch on his way to the bath house. No! No! No! That gave her two hours until dinner was served, and today was Thursday. She nearly screamed in frustration. Thursday was Johnny’s night for Mexican food. Maria had been cooking all day, preparing the hot spicy meals Johnny enjoyed so much. And Maria was already gone. Murdoch had given her the evening off to celebrate her granddaughter’s birthday.

She only had time for steak and potatoes, and to be brutally honest, she couldn’t make either. She could bake the best chocolate cake in the valley. Even Maria admitted she made the best biscuits and cookies. But steaks…Even Johnny who ate just about anything cringed at her steaks.

What would Mrs. Chamberlain think of enchiladas and tamales? This was a nightmare and Scott never even stopped to think. Men!

Wiping her hands on her skirt, Teresa realized she was not dressed for dinner. No! No! No! This nightmare couldn’t get much worse.




Johnny dug the stone out of Barranca’s left hind hoof and examined the bruising. “Lo siento, Barranca,” he sighed. “This is deep. Dios! This day couldn’t get much worse.” First he’d had a run in with some barbed wire that had left his left shirt sleeve in tatters and his skin ripped…nothing serious, just a nuisance. Then he had lost his lunch to a swarm of bees. He could almost taste the roast beef sandwiches, sweet red apple and huge slice of chocolate cake. His
stomach rumbled its displeasure. “I guess we’ll be walking back to the ranch today.” They were still two, maybe three hours away from the house, depending on how fast Barranca could walk.

Thank God it was Thursday and Maria cooked all of his favorites. He only hoped Scott wouldn’t be too mad at him for sending him on a wild goose chase. There was no way a highfalutin Boston lady would take a stagecoach all the way from Placerville to Green River. Johnny
chuckled at the look on Scott’s face when he mentioned the lady might be on the stage today. He just hoped Scott would let him eat before he laid into him.

“Come on, Barranca, we got a long walk ahead of us.” Johnny let Barranca decide on the pace that was best for the horse and headed toward home.




“This is breathtaking, Scott.” Dolly could feel the pride surround Scott like a cloak as she uttered those words. It was a most breathtaking sight indeed. She was not sure what she had expected to
find here, in the so called Wild West. The Bakers’ house was actually more than she had expected to find. But the house that sat in the valley below was beautiful. The architecture was Spanish style adobe. She had seen some paintings of them and had thought they were small
and rudimentary. Neither was the case. This was a large two story house. A barn and corral sat off to the side and another, less formal building sat beyond the corral. There were a dozen people going about tasks in the courtyard and around the corral and barn. This was a working ranch, exactly what she had come to see.

Scott swept his arm in a wide arc. “As far as the eye can see, this is Lancer land. One hundred thousand acres.”

“I had no idea. Your grandfather…well, he appears to have a totally different idea of what Lancer looks like.”

Scott nodded. “I’ve tried to describe it to him, but he has his owns ideas.”

Dolly was growing to realize that Harlan Garrett knew nothing about Lancer or his grandson for that matter. She liked this young man. He had acquired none of his grandfather’s arrogance. She wondered what part Murdoch Lancer played in the man who sat beside her. Hard work
never hurt a man, and more times than not, made him into a man. From the painting Harlan had of Scott hanging in his parlor, Dolly never would have expected this rugged yet refined man who sat beside her. It would be interesting to meet Mr. Lancer. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what the man was really like. Harlan’s description of him was far from flattering. But most of all she wanted to meet Johnny Lancer. Pearl was so in love. It had been many years since Dolly
could recall feeling that rapture of young love. And she felt a youthful excitement at the thought of bringing those two together again. She would have to be careful not to let anything slip. She
wanted to see Johnny’s reaction when he saw Pearl again.

Scott snapped the reins lightly and they began the slow descent to the valley below.




Teresa rushed through the house. Everything was as prepared as it could be. She only wished the spicy aromas coming from the kitchen were from a succulent roast or baked chicken. Well, it was all Scott’s fault, and she would make sure Mrs. Chamberlain knew that.

She heard the sound of a buggy pulling up in front of the house and she yelped. “Murdoch! They’re here!”

Murdoch looked a little uncertain himself. He was not happy that Harlan had put them in the position of looking after a friend of his…because there was no way around it, once they had agreed to find a house for Mrs. Chamberlain to rent, they had taken on the obligation
of looking after her. He had met enough of Boston’s elite when he had courted Catherine, and again when he went on his unsuccessful trip to bring Scott back home, to know what they were in for.

He took a quick look in the mirror over the liquor cabinet to make sure his string tie was straight and his hair was neat and turned to Teresa. “Shall we?” he asked.

Teresa nodded. But “No” was in her eyes.

The front door opened and Scott entered with an exceedingly attractive older woman. Barely reaching Scott’s shoulders in height, he wore a modest, yet stylish, light brown dress and her gray hair was pulled into a casual bun at the nape of her neck. Murdoch instantly respected her. When she could have worn an expensive dress to flaunt her money and her status, she had chosen a sedate gown, in respect to the house she was visiting. Murdoch could feel Teresa’s
hand relax in his.

“Murdoch, Teresa,” Scott announced, “May I introduce Mrs. Chamberlain.”

Murdoch watched in amazement as Mrs. Chamberlain pulled her arm free of Scott’s and walked deliberately over to stand in front of him. “You must be Murdoch. Harlan told me so much about you.” There was a twinkle in her eye that banished all his thoughts of an old spinster. “But I like to make my own assessments. So far, Harlan has been exceedingly wrong.”

Murdoch was trying to come up with an appropriate response but Mrs. Chamberlain was already past him and offering her hand to Teresa. “My dear, your house is lovely.”

Teresa did her best curtsy. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

“I will have none of that. My name is Dolly. Not Ma’am or Mrs. Chamberlain. And what is that wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen?”

If the earth opened up at that very moment, Teresa would have gladly jumped in. “I am very sorry, Mrs…Dolly. We didn’t expect you today and this is Thursday and Maria went to see her granddaughter and this is Johnny’s night and…I’m sorry, I wanted your first meal here to be
special…I….”

Dolly quickly grabbed Teresa’s hands. “Nonsense. I don’t need a special meal. In fact, this is what I am here for, to experience a new way of life. And what represents a culture more than its food?”

Murdoch laughed. “I’m sure it will be an experience you will never forget. Teresa, why don’t you make sure we have plenty of milk.”

“Milk?” Dolly asked. “I’m afraid I’m not much of a milk drinker.”

Scott escorted Dolly toward the great room. “You may change your mind tonight.”




Johnny finally saw the Lancer arch. The last few miles his feet had begun to hurt; his boots were made for riding, not walking. And his arm was throbbing with every step. He looked up at the sun and calculated that he was at least a half an hour late for dinner. His Thursday night dinner.

He was barely into the courtyard when Jelly came running out of the
barn. “What ya do this time?”

Johnny handed Barranca’s reins to the old man. “Barranca picked up a stone a few miles out. Been walking most of the afternoon.”

Jelly looked at his ripped sleeve. “Looks like more than a stone got to you, Boy. Ya better let Teresa clean that up `fore that gets infected. Oh, and by the way, ya got a house guest.”

Johnny looked at the covered buggy and had a terrible feeling that he knew exactly who the guest was.

“She’s real nice, for a back East lady. But Scott’s been out here a handful of times looking for ya. They been waiting dinner as long as they can.”

Johnny sighed heavily. This was the last straw. On top of everything else his Thursday dinner would turn into some highbrow affair. He half thought about saddling another horse and taking off for the night, but Scott was coming out of the house with a look Johnny couldn’t quite understand.

“Hurry up,” he called from the door.

Johnny reluctantly walked toward the house. His brother was wearing his Sunday best and here he was in a sweat and blood stained shirt. Probably not the best first impression Scott wanted his guest to have of his brother.

“I’m tired, Scott. Why don’t you see to your guest and I’ll meet her tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”

“Oh no, Brother. You saved my hide today. If I hadn’t ridden into town to check the stage Dolly would have been stuck in Green River.”

“Dolly?”

“She’s not what you think, Johnny. Come on and meet her. I know you’ll be surprised.”


Dolly noticed Teresa looking from the front door to the kitchen apprehensively. She felt sorry for the poor dear. To have a guest arrive with only a couple of hours warning, a guest she had so
obviously wanted to impress.

Scott was standing by the fireplace, his glass sitting on the mantel, still half full. He looked much different now, dressed in a crisp tan shirt and dark trousers. The only concession to his new lifestyle was an open collar instead of a tie. She thought again how much this life looked like it suited him. But he too seemed preoccupied with the front door, glancing at it surreptitiously every few minutes. Were these two young people or worried about the arrival of Murdoch’s
younger son? Harlan had nothing good to say about him. In fact, if he was as Harlan described, she would be meeting a hardened killer, a “mongrel pup devoid of moral principles.” A description that was diametrically opposed to Pearl’s description. Somewhere between the
two stilted views she would find the real Johnny Lancer.

Scott cleared his throat and nodded toward Teresa. “There’s no telling when Johnny will be back. And I’m sure Dolly is hungry after her long trip today.”

“Nonsense, I can wait.” Dolly looked over to see Teresa’s harried look and casually walked over to the girl. “Teresa, dear, I would love to see your garden.” Dolly threaded her arm through the crook of Teresa’s elbow and walked with her toward the French doors. Looking out through the open doors she could see the riot of color from a beautifully maintained flower garden. She knew without asking that this was Teresa’s sanctuary. Everything inside the house was large and bold, a reflection of the man who had built it. As they passed through the French doors, Dolly took a deep breath; the soft scent of roses and ginger filled the air, reminding her of her own garden. A
felled tree trunk had been honed into a bench and sat beneath a trellis of sweet peas.

“This is lovely, Teresa. I wasn’t sure what I would find here, in the `wild and dangerous west’. You should have heard my friends when I told them of my plans. They always thought I was a bit daft…and this only proved them right.”

“I think it was very brave of you to come this far, Mrs…Dolly. I’ve only been as far east as Denver, and that was with Murdoch and Scott.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. You have plenty of years left to travel. Enjoy what you have right here. Travel does not replace family. My family moved away, pursuing their own lives. It has been a hard transition. And recently I found myself waking in the morning with no
plans for the day and going to bed at night, having accomplished nothing. I didn’t want to live out the remainder of my days simply existing.”

“I hope I am as brave as you when…” Teresa suddenly blushed.

Dolly laughed, patting Teresa’s folded hands, “When you are as old as I am? I hope you are too.”

The sound of voices reached them in the garden and Teresa frowned. “I think Johnny’s home, but I didn’t hear a horse ride up. I hope everything’s all right.”

Dolly followed Teresa along a path lined with strawberry plants. All around her she could see carefully tended beds of basil, rosemary, thyme and sage. There were plants heavy with green and red peppers she had never seen before baking in the hot sun. Fruit trees were
filled with ripening fruit. Some she recognized, while others were a complete mystery.

She kept on Teresa’s heels, a little out of breath by the time they made their way around the side of the house to stand beneath the covered patio. Teresa held out her arm, keeping Dolly behind her, making sure they were both hidden from view.

Dolly watched, silently, over Teresa’s shoulder. If the tired looking young man who handed the reins of his horse to the old stable hand was Johnny Lancer, then she had envisioned him all wrong. As much as she hated to admit it, she had let Harlan paint a picture in her mind
of what Johnny Madrid Lancer would look like. Pearl had talked about “Her Johnny” nearly non-stop since they met on the stage, but, to her surprise, Dolly realized that the girl had said nothing about his looks, his personality, only how much she loved him – and how much he loved her. She smiled gently. Pearl was not only in love, she was infatuated.

She studied the young man. A faded red shirt was still visible beneath a thick layer of dust. His black pants, accented with a row of silver buttons running down the outside seams, were just as dusty. His hat hung down his back on a leather thong and his dark hair was caked with sweat and dust. The left sleeve of his shirt was torn and dark stains looked ominously like dried blood. But it was the gunbelt that sent a small chill down her spine. He wore it lower on his hip than most of the men she had seen wearing a gunbelt, and the way he so easily rested his hand on the handle of the gun made it look like it came as second nature. If Harlan’s description of Johnny Madrid
was even the tiniest bit accurate, then that gun might have been the weapon that had cut men’s lives short.

But she couldn’t justify that image, not when she saw the almost boyish slump of the young man’s shoulders and his heartfelt sigh as Scott tried to rush him into the house. “I’m tired, Scott. Why don’t you see to your guest and I’ll meet her tomorrow. It’s been a long day.”

“Is that Johnny?” Dolly whispered.

“Yes,” Teresa whispered, grabbing her arm gently and pulling her back toward the garden. “He wouldn’t like us spying on him.”

Dolly saw the young man cock his head just a little toward their hiding place. A tingle of excitement scurried down her back. Had he seen them? Pushing the thought aside she chided herself for acting like a schoolgirl. Perhaps, she laughed at herself, her friends were right, she was going daft.

She followed Teresa silently back into the great room. She caught a glimpse of a faded red shirt and the sound of jingling spurs dart past the kitchen door and by the sound of it, Johnny was running upstairs to clean up and change for dinner. She felt guilty that she was imposing on the young man. But she could not deny that spark of excitement. Dinner promised to be an interesting affair.



Chapter Three

Johnny found the wooden tub sitting in the center of his room. The water had lost most of its heat, a testimony to how late he was, but he was thankful for his brother’s thoughtfulness. Then again, he knew that Scott wanted him to make a good impression on the old lady from Boston. Damn, if Barranca hadn’t picked up that stone, if he hadn’t been bit by that barbed wire, he would have remembered to send a hand in to check to see if their ‘guest’ had arrived. Now it looked like the joke was on him. 

Stripping off his clothes, Johnny stepped into the water. It wasn’t warm enough for a long soak, the kind he really needed. They were waiting on him for dinner. Why today? Why his Thursday?

He hissed when he submerged his left arm under the water. He would have Teresa look at the deeper scratches after dinner, when the old lady was gone. He sighed deeply then took a huge gulp of air and slid beneath the water to wet his hair.


Johnny sat at his customary seat to the left of Murdoch. He didn’t remember how it had become so natural, this seating arrangement. It had never changed, not since the first uneasy meal they ate together when two strangers descended on Lancer at the same time- Murdoch to his right, Teresa to his left and Scott across from him. 

Tonight was different though. Mrs. Chamberlain, from Boston, sat next to Scott. She was older than Johnny expected, at first glance too old to take the long trip from Boston to California alone. But the sparkle in her eyes, the easy way she leaned toward Scott to answer a question spoke of a woman half her age. And she wasn’t putting on any high airs like he’d seen other rich ladies from back east. He’d seen a few of them in San Francisco and couldn’t run in the opposite direction fast enough.

But she was a friend of Garrett’s, and Harlan was no friend of his. Garrett despised the ground he walked on, and if hatred and prejudice alone could kill, he would be six feet under.

He sat down at the table, all eyes on him, feeling like he did when he was late for class at the orphanage – on the few occasions he stayed long enough to go to class…Dios, if he could just be anywhere but here.

Scott was all smiles across the table. “Johnny, I’d like you to meet Dolly Chamberlain.”

Johnny nodded toward the woman, waiting for the condescending smile, the too high pitched voice that never came. 

“Johnny, it is very nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Johnny lowered his eyes. “I’m sure you have,” he muttered softly. The half breed, the gunfighter. He was sure she knew all about him.

He could suddenly feel the tension around the table. He had done it already.

“Young man.”  Mrs. Chamberlain’s tone was not demanding or demeaning and Johnny couldn’t help but look up. “I make my own mind up on who I like and dislike. And I try very hard not to make assumptions from other people’s opinions.”

“You mean Harlan Garrett,” Murdoch said, and Johnny heard the edge in his father’s voice.

The smile that came to Mrs. Chamberlain’s face surprised Johnny. “If I were to believe Harlan Garrett, I would be sitting across from a vile outlaw stuffing food into his mouth with one hand while holding a gun on me with the other.”

The image was so outrageous that Johnny couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “Ma’am,” he said quietly. “I never stuff food into my mouth, its bad for the digestion.”

Murdoch snorted and Scott just shook his head, but a quick wink from his brother told him that he was doing okay…so far.

Teresa began bringing in the serving dishes. She was wearing her Sunday best dress, and her hair was pulled back and tied with a bow. But she had an odd look on her face and Johnny suddenly realized his Thursday meal was not what she had wanted to serve her guest. Dios. She was looking forward to that big special dinner she’d been talking about for days.

“Lo siento,” he whispered as she sat down next to him.

Arranged on the table were his Thursday favorites: tamales, enchiladas, chile rellenos, frijoles and a heaping plate of tortillas. 

Mrs. Chamberlain looked at the dishes, and to Johnny’s surprise, she nodded and turned to Teresa. “This looks delicious, my dear. You must give my regards to your cook.”

Johnny wasn’t sure if she would think the same after eating the spicy food. It had taken Scott several gallons of milk to acquire the taste for Thursday’s menu. 

Then Mrs. Chamberlain turned her gaze on Johnny. “I understand this is the food you grew up on, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded. Why did he feel he had to apologize? More than anything, this was what made him know that he belonged here; that his past was every bit as important to the family as Scott’s or Murdoch’s. 

But there was no condemnation in her voice when she looked around the table. “I think it’s wonderful that a tradition can be carried on. We so often lose touch with our roots.” She breathed the aromas in deeply. “And they all smell so good. What is this one?” She pointed to the tamales. “These look like corn husks. Do you eat them?”

Teresa began to explain but Johnny saw Mrs. Chamberlain squeeze her hand gently and smile toward him. “Please, Johnny, I would love to hear from you. This is, after all, your special dinner.”

Johnny was completely thrown off center. His expectations turned head over heels by this woman he found sitting across from him. If her skin was darker and she wore the clothes of an abuela, she could have been one of the old ladies who cared for him in his village when his mama was not around.

Scott’s smile was wide enough to split his face as he handed Johnny Mrs. Chamberlain’s plate. Johnny didn’t know why he felt so comfortable. He rarely opened up to strangers right away, especially highbrow ladies from Boston. But there was something about this lady that put him at ease.  

As he put small portions on her plate, he found himself telling her how they were made and his fondest memory of each dish. He easily switched from English to Spanish and back as his soft drawl drew everyone in. He put a small amount of arroz rojo on her plate. “This is arroz rojo,” he continued to explain. “It’s rice in a chile sauce. It is muy picante – very spicy.” With an evil twinkle he suggested that she ask Scott about muy picante dishes.

“No need to worry, Dolly,” Scott laughed. “Maria makes our dishes on the mild side. Johnny’s on the other hand, it’s a miracle the fork doesn’t melt.”

When she asked why some of the dishes had small wooden spears in them, Johnny grinned at Scott and nodded for him to explain.

“Maria makes Johnny’s food like he likes it…hot!  The first day I sat down to these dishes I was determined to prove to my little brother that I could eat anything he could. I learned my lesson. The hard way.”

Johnny shoved the pitcher of milk closer to Mrs. Chamberlain. “Might want to have this handy Ma’am. Just in case. It’s the only thing that cuts the heat.”

“Please, Johnny, call me Dolly.”

Johnny shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Abuelas deserve more respect than that.” Johnny didn’t know why he had said that. It came out of his mouth so easily. She was still a stranger to him, still a friend of Harlan Garrett’s, and yet he felt like he had known her for years. 

“Abuela?” Dolly asked.

Murdoch cleared his throat and shot Johnny a look reminding him that he still didn’t know the proper manners around rich eastern ladies. 

“It means grandmother,” Murdoch translated, his voice tinged with apology. 

Dolly looked at Johnny for a long moment, making Johnny feel like hightailing it from the room and eating oats and hay with Barranca. 

Johnny waited for the irate explosion, but instead, the old woman’s eyes turned shiny. “Young man, I believe I have never been given a finer compliment.”

He wasn’t good at compliments…and that was a big one, but Scott jumped in, and Johnny thanked him silently. “Maria also made apple empanadas. It’s become one of my favorite desserts.”

Johnny watched Mrs. Chamberlain pick up her fork and take a small bite of the tamale he had opened for her. There was silence around the table as they waited for her reaction. Each bite was followed by a sip of milk, but she seemed to enjoy it. She was hardier than she looked. She ate everything with only a slight blush until she got to the arroza rojo.


Dolly took the last bite of tamale and put down her fork. She couldn’t help but laugh at the faces that looked at her around the table. “It was delicious,” she declared. “I have never had anything quite like it. I hope Maria can give me some of her recipes. I used to be a decent cook, I’m sure…”

“No disrespect, ma’am, but you won’t find this kind of cooking in a book,” Johnny said.  “I’ve seen some of Teresa’s cookbooks. All of them tell ya to put this much of one thing in and that much of another. Maria learned to cook when she was a nina, learning from her mama and her abeula.”

“None taken, Johnny. Cooking is a true art. And Maria is lucky to have someone who understands that.”

Silence again filled the room, but this time it was a comfortable silence. A dinner that had the potential to turn into a disaster, turned into a meal Johnny would not soon forget.

“Dolly,” Scott said, “I hope your introduction to Mexican cuisine has been memorable.”

Dolly laughed. “It is the very reason I traveled all this way. Forgive me, Teresa, but this was a far better dinner to introduce me to the American and Mexican influence I see everywhere. I have had roast and pork and lamb more times than I could count in my lifetime. But never anything like this. And Johnny…” She waited until Johnny looked up. “I enjoyed it all the more because you honored me with your personal memories. Someday when you are as old as I am, you will understand just how much that meant to me.”

If Johnny had looked embarrassed before, he looked like he was ready to crawl under the table. Now she saw why Pearl was so much in love.  Pearl!  She had forgotten about her. 

She put her hand on Scott’s arm. “I’m ashamed to say that I forgot about Opal.”

“Opal?” Murdoch looked from her to Scott. 

“My traveling companion. I’m sorry I didn’t mention her before. The poor child was exhausted from the trip and begged to stay home.”

“I thought you were traveling alone,” Teresa said, as she set out the dishes for their dessert.

 “I was at first. But I met Opal on the stage and we just hit it off so famously. I asked her to stay with me until…until she found different arrangements.” Oh, she had almost given it away. She must be more careful. 

Murdoch swung his gaze toward Scott. “You left a woman alone at the Baker house?”

Scott shook his head. “Ben is staying in the bunkhouse in case she needs anything. I asked him to stay the night until the staff arrives tomorrow.”

“Really, Scott, we can take care of ourselves.”

“No, ma’am, you can’t.” Johnny looked at her and now she saw a hardness in his eyes that she had not seen before. “You don’t know the first thing about this land. You may think this is all an exciting adventure…”

“What Johnny is trying to say,” Murdoch said hastily, “is that this is not Boston. It is a dangerous land with dangerous animals…and dangerous people. Ben will stay the night.”

“Then I hope there is enough food left for Opal and Ben.”

Teresa giggled. “Maria always cooks for an army.”

With coffee and dessert served in the great room, Molly found herself feeling very full and just a bit tipsy. Exhaustion from the long trip, fine wine and a very full stomach left her feeling more content than she had in a very long time. There was something about this house that made her feel warm and welcome. And it had nothing to do with the fire blazing in the hearth. This was a happy and content home. The only thing she could think that would make it even more perfect was Pearl sitting at Johnny’ side.

She felt a little wicked flutter and decided to be just a little mischievous. She looked from Scott sitting on the sofa across from her to Johnny sitting on the floor next to the fireplace.  “You two are young, handsome and part owners of the largest ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, I’ve been told. I’m surprised neither one of you has been snatched up by a pretty young thing.”

Scott laughed and Johnny blushed. “She knows.” Scott laughed and winked towards Johnny.

“There is someone,” Dolly said with a twinkle in her eyes. “I knew there must be. Tell me about her, Johnny.”

“Yes, Johnny, tell us about her.” Teresa urged delightedly. 

“There’s nothing to tell. She’s not here anyway.”

“Are you two engaged?”

Johnny shook his head and Scott slapped him on the back. “Not that she didn’t try to get a ring out of him before she left. But my brother is ring shy.”

“She must be a lovely girl, Johnny. I hope you are reunited soon.”

Dolly didn’t miss the slight sigh as Johnny nodded. “It’ll be good to have her back.”


Pearl was waiting at the front door, her veil back in place, as Scott escorted Dolly into the house. She had hoped Scott would just drop Dolly off at the front porch, but she knew that was not the kind of thing a gentleman did. And Scott was a gentleman…too much of a gentleman for her liking.

She was nervous to be this close to him again. She knew that Scott had never forgiven her for what happened to Johnny. And he was right, in a way. She was the one who wanted her Johnny. But after awhile, Johnny wanted her too. She knew he had sent her away only because he was forced to. Both Murdoch and Scott Lancer knew nothing about real love. 

Scott carried a picnic basket in and set it on the small round table next to the door. He dipped his head and smiled, offering his hand. Pearl gently pressed her fingertips against his palm like she had learned. She wondered if this was a test. Most men didn’t offer to shake hands with a lady in New York, and most ladies didn’t shake a man’s hand. But things were a bit more casual here in the west. The last thing she wanted to do was make an obvious mistake and make Scott suspicious. 

“I’m sorry you couldn’t join us for dinner,” he said. “I know how exhausting a long trip can be.” 

Pearl wondered if he would be so gracious if he knew who she really was. 

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. I hope I didn’t offend your family by not accepting your gracious invitation.” Pearl touched the veil covering her face, wondering what he must think of her, hiding behind the netting. “I look forward to meeting your family.” 

“They will love you.” Dolly winked conspiratorially, her eyes dancing with mirth. No matter how much trouble Murdoch and Scott Lancer tried to give her and Johnny, Pearl knew that Dolly would stand beside her. 

There was an awkward moment as Scott stared at Pearl a little too long, as if he knew who she was but just couldn’t place her. She was sure her accent, or lack of one, hadn’t given her away. It might just be that he was curious about the veil.

Finally Scott said his goodbyes, checked with the man he had staying at the bunkhouse and he was at last on his way.

Pearl could barely contain herself. She whipped her veil off and grabbed Dolly’s hands. “How does he look?  How does my Johnny look?”

“Oh, I can see why you are smitten, Pearl. He is a fine young man. And he can’t wait for your return.”

“He can’t?” Pearl was stunned. Had he been waiting for her all this time? Pearl felt like she was ready to explode with excitement. “Tell me everything, Dolly,” she said as she pulled Dolly over to the sofa and pulled her down to sit next to her. “Everything he said. The last time I saw him he was still so sick.”

“Sick?” 

No, no, no, no, no! She had to be careful what she said. Dolly would never understand. Now that she was an educated woman, she could hardly believe what she and her family had done to Johnny. But she didn’t know any better back then. Johnny understood that. He fell in love with her anyway. Now that he was waiting for her, meant that he forgave her for all the pain she and her family put him through. 

.

Chapter Four


Johnny’s arm was stiff the next morning, but only because Teresa had sewn the stitches so tight. He always knew that little girl had a mean streak in her.

Realizing he had overslept, he washed his face quickly to get the sleep out of his eyes, threw his shirt and pants on and bounded down the stairs to find everyone at the breakfast table already.

“Sorry I’m late,” he mumbled as he took his seat, snatching the platter of bacon and eggs before Scott could take seconds.

Murdoch eyed him through the steam rising from his second cup of coffee. “If it’s your arm that made you late for breakfast then you can stay around the house and work with Jelly.”

Johnny shook his head. “It’s fine.” He looked across the table at Scott and grinned. “I just got to bed late is all. Scott wouldn’t stop talking once he got back from Mrs. Chamberlain’s place last night. I yawned politely.” Johnny dipped his head toward Teresa. “Like you taught me. But he never got the hint.”

Scott nearly choked on his eggs. “Now wait a minute…”

Murdoch raised his hand for silence. “I don’t care who did the talking.” The smile he tried to wrangle into submission belied his tone of voice. “Though I have a hunch that a lovesick son did most of the talking, you both have a full day ahead of you. Johnny, one of the men reported finding a dead wolf by the creek near Twin Rocks. Check it out. Make sure the water isn’t tainted. If it isn’t obvious why the wolf died, take a water sample into town for testing. Scott, I want you to make sure Mrs. Chamberlain is settled, that the staff is there and she has everything she needs.”

Teresa jumped to her feet. “Oh, Scott, can I come with you? Dolly and I hardly had time to talk at all yesterday.”

Johnny lowered his head and eyed her through his eyelashes. “You two didn’t have enough to say while you were spying on me from the patio?”

“You saw us?” Teresa asked in humiliation.

“And heard you,” Johnny added.

Teresa’s face turned red. “You had no right to let us think that you didn’t see us. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why should I? Your two were the ones who were spying….”

“Enough.” Murdoch stood and Johnny found it hard to keep a straight face. It seemed that it was inevitable that Dolly Chamberlain’s visit would try his patience.

“If it is all right with you, Scott, Teresa can go with you. At least that way I might get some work done.”

“Have fun,” Johnny snickered as he dug into his food. Two women, no three…there was Mrs. Chamberlain’s friend, the one with the mysterious veil…three women carrying on about everything and nothing. He didn’t envy Scott for a minute.




Johnny arrived at the creek. It was the only creek on Lancer property that ran year round. In wintertime it overran its banks. But the natural bowl it sat in kept it from flooding. To Johnny it was the most beautiful section of land on Lancer. He had asked Murdoch once why he hadn’t built there when he first arrived. To Johnny’s surprise, Murdoch had told him he hadn’t owned that parcel yet. That came much later when he had the money to reinvest into more land. But now it was Lancer land and he planned to show it to Abby when she returned.

He dismounted, leaving Barranca ground tied. It had been months since
it rained, yet the water was as clear as glass, and he could see the
fish darting beneath the surface, the sun glistening off their fins.
Whoever reported a dead wolf here was either seeing things or was a
downright liar. There were no signs of wolf tracks, but he did see
signs of other animals walking up to the water and walking away. If
things went his way, in a few months he would be sitting on the porch
of his own house, with Abby beside him, drinking his morning coffee
while he watched the parade of animals drink out of his creek.

But someone had put the idea in the old man’s head that the creek
might be tainted, and he knew Murdoch would never be completely
satisfied until a water sample was tested. Sitting on his haunches, he
stretched his right hand out over the water to collect a small sample
in a bottle. Johnny again cursed the tight stitches Teresa had sewn in
his left arm as he screwed the lid on the bottle. He knew his arm hurt
more than it should, but it was Teresa’s fault and he would talk to
her when he got home.




“Scott, do you think she is hiding behind that veil because her face
is…I mean…do you think something happened to her?”

Scott resigned himself to a long day. Teresa had barely stopped for
air in between questions. Every question he answered spurred another
question. And he knew it would only get worse once the three women got
together.

“Maybe. And maybe she is just shy. But I don’t want you prying. She’ll
tell you if she wants to.”

“I would never do that, Scott. But…” Teresa played at the pleats in
her shirt. “It is very mysterious, and exciting. I mean…”

Whatever Teresa meant, Scott tuned her out. Instead he thought back to
the night before. He had never seen Johnny so happy. They had sat and
talked about the future, Johnny’s plans for a house, not too far from
the main house, yet not too close. Worry about Murdoch’s feelings
about him wanting a house of his own. He’d almost revealed their
father’s wedding present to the newlyweds. Murdoch knew Johnny had his
eye on the creek as a building site and had already ordered the lumber
and planned to give Johnny and Abby everything they needed to start
the house as a wedding present.

Waylaid by Jelly and a broken corral fence, Scott didn’t steer the
team onto the long driveway until almost noontime. He looked around to
see if any of the hired help had arrived. Smoke from the kitchen stove
curled up into the sky from the stovepipe on the roof. A wagon stood
in front of the porch, staples for the pantry being unloaded by a
Lancer ranch hand. It appeared that Murdoch was taking a personal
interest in making Dolly welcome. Last night’s dinner couldn’t have
gone better.

The Baker house was alive again. Scott breathed in the sweet smell of
newly turned earth and saw one of the workers kneeling over the
freshly turned flowerbed, a large sombrero keeping the hot sun off her
face as she used her trowel to plant flower clippings. Anna Baker
would be pleased to know that her house was being so well cared for.
Anna always had flowers blooming around the house from spring to fall.

With one foot on the porch step Scott heard Teresa gasp and looked
toward the worker as she slowly stood up, patting her cheek with the
back of her gloved hand, leaving a smudge of dirt on her face.

“Dolly! What are you doing?” Scott took two long strides to offer his
hand.

“What it looks like.” Dolly laughed. “Senora Alto is a dear. She
brought over these flower clippings.” Leaning in closer to Scott and
Teresa she whispered, “She’s a very good cook. But she’s not Maria.”

Scott laughed. “No one is. But what are you doing out here in the hot
sun? Someone else…”

“Nonsense. I may be getting along in years, but I can still do a few
things. And gardening is a passion of mine. I can tell you, Teresa, I
am very envious of your garden.” Dolly lifted the sombrero off her
head, “This is a remarkable hat. What is it called?”

“A sombrero,” both Scott and Teresa answered together.

“Sombrero.” She seemed to taste the word then nodded. “Now, come
along, lunch is almost ready.”

Teresa took the basket of cuttings from Dolly and handed it to Scott
who found himself following the two women toward the front door.

“We couldn’t possibly stay,” he heard Teresa say. “We only came over
to see how you were doing. If Scott hadn’t found a ton of things to do
this morning we would have been here a lot sooner.’

“Nonsense. You are here now, and you will stay for lunch. I noticed
Senora Alto made enough to feed an army. More than Opal and I could
eat in a week.”

Scott had forgotten about Opal, but it seemed Teresa hadn’t. Even from
the back he could see her shoulders straighten, and her hand grip
Dolly’s arm just a little tighter. Teresa was circling in for the
kill. By the time lunch was over, she would know everything about Opal.




Pearl parted the curtains and looked down at Scott and Teresa. This
would never do. She might have been able to fool Scott, but not
Teresa. Not another woman. She had spent more time with Teresa than
anyone else at Lancer. She couldn’t take the chance that Teresa would
recognize her beneath the veil.

She gently let the curtains slip closed again, not wanting anyone to
notice her looking out her bedroom window. She began pacing the room.
She was just lucky that Scott hadn’t recognized her yesterday. She had
panicked for a moment when he stared at her a minute too long, as if
he was just about to remember her. But the veil had saved her. Not so
with Teresa. Pearl lifted her hands and studied her long, thin
fingers; they still bore the scars of hard living. She hoped Johnny
wouldn’t mind when he slipped the wedding ring on her finger. Of
course he wouldn’t. He loved her. And now to her surprise, she found
that Johnny was actually waiting for her. Some things were just meant
to be.

She looked over at her valise sitting on the floor next to her bed and
walked across the room to heft it onto the soft mattress. It didn’t
take her long to find what she was looking for. She pulled out a small
wooden box made of fine mahogany, the lid rubbed to a high gloss from
her fingers caressing it so often. She had stolen it from Mrs.
Sullivan, the woman Murdoch and Scott Lancer had sent her to, to keep
her away from her Johnny. She hadn’t stayed long before she made her
escape, stealing the box she had seen on Mrs. Sullivan’s bedroom
table. It wasn’t stealing, really…some things were just meant to be.
This box was meant for her.

She seldom actually looked inside, its contents too precious. But this
time she couldn’t deny herself and carefully undid the small metal
clasp on the front and opened it up. Nestled in a bed of soft dark
blue silk, she touched the delicate wedding veil that she had taken
everywhere with her. Ma had pilfered it from the trunk of a stagecoach
passenger before Pearl was even born. When Pearl found it she had
hidden it away from the rest of her family. They didn’t understand a
girl’s need for pretty things. The lace had yellowed and the pearls
had lost their luster, but it was hers and she would wear it when she
stood beside Johnny when they said their “I do’s.”

Pearl felt a physical pull toward her old life at the sight and smell
of the old veil. Ma and Pa were mean people, but they believed in
family, and took care of their own, no matter what the cost. She knew
it was wrong to kidnap Johnny and try to tame him into being her
man…but Ma must have known something, because Johnny was waiting for
her. She slowly closed the lid, wondering how long it would be before
she was lying by Johnny’s side again, their bodies touching, his hands
exploring her soft skin. She was clean now, all perfumed up. He was
going to be so surprised and happy to see her.




Teresa slowly walked around the parlor, marveling at how fast Dolly
had made this house a home for herself. Small framed daguerreotypes of
young adults and children sat upon tables and hung from the walls.
These were the people Dolly had left behind to pursue her adventure.
Teresa couldn’t help but think there was a kind of permanence to all
this, as if Dolly had no intentions of returning to Boston.

Scott sat in a chair drinking a glass of lemonade and Teresa could
feel him watching her.

“Does everyone in Boston have this many pictures?” she asked. There
were a few oil paintings at Lancer and a few daguerreotypes, but
nothing like this.

Scott chuckled. “There were times when my grandfather had picnics for
the sole purpose of capturing the perfect picture. It was a status
symbol. But I don’t think that’s why Dolly has all these pictures. I
think she just treasures her family.”

“Young people keep me young.” Dolly’s voice startled both Teresa and
Scott as she suddenly appeared in the parlor doorway. “You will find
out someday that it is too easy to fall into the trap of feeling old.
I fight it everyday. That’s why I came out here, to feel young again.”
Looking as if she had said more than she had planned to, Dolly turned
her face to look out the window before looking back at Teresa and
Scott. “I’m afraid Opal is still not feeling well enough to join us
for lunch. She hopes you will accept her apology.”

Teresa was disappointed. She had been looking forward to meeting Opal.
Her imagination had been running wild, and now it would continue to
conjure up new reasons for the elusive woman behind the veil.

“Come,” Dolly said as she motioned them to follow her, “I believe
Senora Alto likes to serve her food promptly.”

Teresa followed Scott and Dolly past the stairs leading up to the
bedrooms as they made their way to the kitchen. She couldn’t help but
wonder who Opal was. There seemed to be something so mysterious about
her. The veil, Scott’s feeling that he knew her but couldn’t quite
place her.

“I hope,” Dolly said as they sat down at the table, “that you and your
family have no plans for this Saturday. Opal and I would like you to
join us for dinner.”

Teresa thought she would explode with excitement. A dinner party and
the chance to meet Opal. The next three days were going to go by so
slowly.




Johnny rode into Green River, the thought of a cold beer and harassing
Val paramount in his mind. He knew the water sample he carried in his
saddlebag would pass all of Sam’s tests, but besides easing Murdoch’s
mind, it gave him a few hours to himself.

He pulled up in front of Sam’s office, half tempted to have Sam look
at his arm. It was throbbing even more than this morning. But he still
thought it was Teresa’s aggressive stitching that was bothering the
wound. In a day or two it would ease up. Besides, he knew Sam, and if
he even hinted at something bothering him the old doctor would have
him in bed for a week. Sam was good, there was no doubt that he had
pulled his ass out of more than one tight spot…but the old man was
still too cautious for Johnny’s taste.

He walked into Sam’s office and saw, to his relief, a sign on the
front desk saying he was out on his rounds. Opening the drawer where
Johnny knew Sam kept his envelopes and writing paper, he wrote a short
note and put the small bottle into the envelope. With luck, he would
be headed back home before Sam got back to town and couldn’t track him
down. Of course, the best thing to do was just simply get back on his
horse and head out right away, but the thought of that beer and
sparring with Val was worth the chance of meeting Sam.

As he stepped out of the office he nearly collided with Millie and
Sally Prescott. The sisters were Teresa’s age and more than likely
knew everything Teresa knew about the ring that was stored safely in
his room.

The two girls giggled and gave each other a nudge.

“Ladies,” Johnny said politely, dipping his hat to them.

“Johnny.” Millie put her hand out coquettishly. “What brings you to town?”

“I bet he’s here to buy Abby a special gift for when she gets back
from Elkhorn. You must miss her so much, Johnny. It was a shame that
her mother took ill.”

The sound of Val’s loud voice calling him from across the street saved
Johnny from the jaws of disaster. He knew whatever he said to the
Prescott girls it would get stretched all out of proportion and they
would have him and Abby saying their “I do’s” the minute she stepped
off the stage.

He quickly dipped his hat again. “Ladies. Nice running into you.” He
didn’t wait for an answer and hurriedly ran across the street to join
his rescuer.

Val’s grin was so wide, Johnny thought it might split the sheriff’s
face. “Nothin’ like a wedding to get the ladies’ jaws a flapping.
You’re the talk of the town, Johnny Boy.”

“Abby and I were counting on a small wedding…just a few friends like
Sam and the Baldameros.”

“Er…are ya forgettin’ someone?” Val asked, swiping his hat off.

Johnny thought and suddenly smiled. “Yeah, now that you mention it, I
should ask Hal. He was the one who introduced us. If he hadn’t needed
help at the store Abby would have headed back to Elkhorn before we
ever got a chance to meet properly.”

“Anyone else?” Val asked.

Johnny thought about it, finding it almost impossible to keep the grin
off his face. “Noooo…I think that’s it, Val. Can you think of anyone
else?”

“Guess not.” Val slammed his hat back on his head and turned to walk away.

Johnny quickly reached out and grabbed his shoulder. “Of course I
could use a little backup. You know, Val, the thought of standing
there and taking those vows gives me the cold sweats. Not that I don’t
want to get married. But everyone will be watching, and…hell, I’d
rather face three gunslingers at once than just one little lady and
the preacher.”

Val chuckled. “You got your hands full with that little lady. With
that red hair you should a known better, should a run as fast as you
could. But now it’s too late. Ya know,” Val leaned in close, “Never
would a thought that Johnny Madrid would be shot down in his prime by
a little wisp of a girl like Abby McClanahan.”

“She may be small, but she’s no wisp of a girl. I figure I’m gonna
have to build an extra strong roof on our house, cause as soon as she
gets mad that roof won’t stand a chance.”

Val scuffed his boot on the wooden slats of the boardwalk before
looking back up at Johnny. “You just be careful there partner,” he
said, his voice quivering with delight. “She’s run ya down and got ya
hogtied…she’s just waiting for that iron to get hot so she can brand
ya. Sorry ta see another good man fall. Come on, I’ll buy ya a drink
`fore the Missis don’t let ya mix with the likes of me no more.”

Johnny grabbed Val’s sleeve, the material so thin it frayed beneath
his touch. “She might have a point. I hope you plan on dressing for
the wedding.”

“Ha!” Val wrapped his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m sure Scott
has another fancy shirt he can let me borrow….”

.


Chapter Five

“What the hell were you thinking?” Murdoch roared as he leaned over Teresa’s shoulder looking at the condition of Johnny’s arm. “There is not one animal on this ranch that you would allow to go untreated with an infected wound like that.” He slammed his hand down on the kitchen table where Teresa had her medical supplies laid out. “When are you going to take better care of yourself? You’re not alone anymore, Johnny. You have a family and friends, and pretty soon a wife. What would Abby say if she knew you ignored a wound like this?  I’ve seen men die with lesser infections!”

Johnny was as surprised as anyone at the extent of the infection in his arm. It hurt. It hurt a lot…but he’d had smaller infections that hurt more than this. He’d truly thought it was just Teresa’s sewing that was causing all the pain. He should have had Sam take a look at it this afternoon. He’d seen the old doc’s buggy pass by the saloon heading toward the livery stable. But the cold beer and Val’s slightly skewed recollections of the times they rode together had him too occupied to leave the comfort of the table in the corner of the saloon. Then came the inevitable question of why he was getting married. It took Val more than an hour to count off a list of reasons why he’d never be caught dead getting hogtied. Johnny agreed with them all…if it hadn’t been Abby he was marrying.

“Johnny, this is going to hurt,” Teresa said with a trembling voice. “I’m going to have to lance the infection. Sam will probably have to reopen all the stitches and clean them out. But for tonight this is all I can do.”

Johnny reached over and gently grabbed her hand. “It’s alright, querida, do what you have to do. It’s my fault for not taking care of it.” He glanced quickly up at Murdoch, feeling guilty that he was once again causing his family more worry. 

Suddenly Teresa’s trembling voice was replaced with one of authority. She handed Murdoch a hand towel containing her medical instruments. “Put these in the boiling water for five minutes.” Turning to Scott, she handed him a small brown bottle. “Give Johnny a teaspoon of this. I don’t know how deep I’ll have to probe to find the infection.”

“Oh no.” Johnny held up his right hand. “No laudanum. You know I don’t like that stuff.”

Teresa looked at him with the best Madrid face he could remember in a long time. “Then you shouldn’t have let your arm get infected. I won’t probe that arm until I know you won’t jump out of your seat when I start digging.”

“I don’t think you have a choice here, Brother,” Scott said, not without a touch of humor in his voice as he filled a teaspoon with the vile liquid. Damn if Scott didn’t just stand there, waiting. Johnny looked from the spoon hovering in front of his mouth to Scott then to Teresa. Hell, he wasn’t going to win this fight tonight. He opened his mouth and gagged down the medicine.

Scott was supposed to be such a gentlemen, filled with all those fancy manners, but right now the only thing his brother was doing was smirking in triumph. Before Murdoch could return with the medical instruments, Johnny felt himself melt like ice on a hot day and he never felt Teresa and Scott fold him over the kitchen table so Teresa could do her work.


Pearl looked up at the ceiling watching the darker shadows slowly move across as the night grew deeper. Her entire body felt like it was being attacked by hungry ants. She couldn’t keep still if her life depended on it. It was Johnny. She needed to see her Johnny. It had been so long…and now he was so close. All the dreams she had lived on for the past two years were about to come true. And most wonderful of all, he was waiting for her. 

She climbed out of bed, shifting the curtain back from the window to look outside. A full moon cast soft shadows over the land. Soon she would be sharing that moon with her man. She sighed deeply. The hungry ants disappeared as she envisioned Johnny standing by her side. Memories of their time together had shifted over time. The ropes that bound him had faded and were replaced by Johnny’s arms freely and lovingly wrapped around her to pull her close beneath a blanket of stars. The beatings and the near starvation were forgotten. Instead there were picnic baskets filled with huge sandwiches and sweet fresh fruit and fine wine to sip and talk over. And Johnny was always smiling and laughing…but for some reason she could never see his eyes. No matter how hard she tried, Pearl could not remember his blue eyes as they should have been, sparkling with happiness and laughter. Pearl pushed the thought aside. She would not allow herself to see the eyes she remembered – day and night – asleep and awake. Haunted, pain filled eyes that ripped at her insides. She needed to see him to vanquish those nightmares. She needed to see her Johnny smiling down at her, filling her soul with the love she knew he had only for her.

Three days. She only had to wait three more days. She climbed back into bed and as she drifted toward sleep she planned what dress she would wear, how she would fix her hair. There were so many things to plan.


“Come on, Johnny, get a move on.” This time Scott didn’t stand on ceremony and pushed the door open. “Dolly expects us early this afternoon so we can visit before dinner.” 

“I told you to go without me. Sam ordered me to stay in bed, remember?” Johnny slumped against his pillows, still wearing a crumpled shirt and well worn pants. He’d been right about the old doctor’s orders after seeing his arm: Bed rest for two days and then light work for at least a week. “I’m just following Sam’s orders.”

Scott raised two fingers. “Sam said two days of bed rest. And having a quiet dinner with Dolly and her friend Opal won’t tax your strength. In fact it will do you good to get out of the house. Now you’ve got thirty minutes to get downstairs or Murdoch will be up here.”

“I’m not good at dinner parties, and you know that, Scott.”

“You did fine the other night when Dolly was here.”

“That’s different. She was in my house. It’ll feel different there. Besides, my arm is hurting. A lot.”

“And whose fault is that?  You’ve got twenty nine minutes now. Do you need help getting dressed?”

Scott staggered when a pillow caught him in the back of the head but he ignored it and closed the door behind him with a soft click. 

Johnny sat back against the remaining pillows and sulked. At least he could have slammed the damn door! He knew he was acting foolish. But his arm did hurt. Sam had cut half his arm open to get the infection out. It was his own fault, he knew. But that didn’t change how it hurt. And now he was expected to go over to Dolly’s place with his arm in a sling and act all happy and eat when he really didn’t have an appetite. He could do without all these manners Scott was always talking about.

Still, there would be no convincing Scott or Murdoch that he should stay home, and Teresa had been talking nonstop about today. He would do it for Teresa. 


Before Scott or Murdoch pounded up the stairs one more time, Johnny was dressed and ready to go. Since it appeared he had no choice in the matter, he decided to dress comfortably. Instead of the suit and string tie both his father and brother decided to wear, he chose a fairly new pair of black pants and the white shirt with red, green and blue embroidery Maria had made for him. The black sling he wore hid part of the intricate needlework, but he knew he would get nothing but grief from everyone if he didn’t wear it.

He made it downstairs only to find Murdoch and Teresa waiting at the front door.

“Hurry up, Son,” Murdoch urged. “Scott is bringing the buggy around.”

“I’d rather ride Barranca.”

“I’m sure you would. But Sam’s orders are no riding for at least a week. Maybe you’ll think about this the next time you get ‘bit’ by barbed wire.”

Teresa had the courtesy to turn her head so Johnny couldn’t see her smile.

Johnny sighed deeply as he followed Murdoch and Teresa out the door. He just couldn’t see anything good coming out of this day.


Dolly couldn’t remember feeling more excited about a dinner party. She and her two husbands had hosted more then their share of formal and casual dinners over the years, but nothing could compare with the excitement of bringing Johnny and Pearl together. 

She had consulted with Pearl on what she wanted for the main course, but the girl was too excited to think coherently. How could she blame her? Two years was a long time to be away from the man you loved as dearly as Pearl loved Johnny. And it appeared that Johnny was just as enamored. It was going to be a most special day.

She could hear Senora Alto singing from the kitchen. Without even knowing the words, Dolly knew it spoke of romance. It was everywhere in the air. Even Camila, Senora Alto’s niece, newly arrived from Mexico, was caught up in the excitement. And as morning turned to afternoon and the Lancers’ arrival was imminent, Dolly looked around the house with approval. Senora Alto and Camila had cleaned the house until any speck of dust dare not show itself. The furniture smelled of beeswax and the vases of flowers brought the sweet smell of the garden inside. Senora Alto had been cooking all day. Together they had put together a menu that Dolly thought would be to everyone’s taste. Although Senora Alto’s suggestion that they add a Scottish dish baffled her, she didn’t pursue it. There were more important things to worry about. She hoped Johnny would enjoy some of the foods that she had planned as much as she enjoyed the Mexican food she had at Lancer. She took one last look at the table and nodded, satisfied. It was not the table she had in Boston with its fine china and European crystal stemware. But Senora Alto had added a few special serving bowls and platters of her own and she could not have felt prouder. But this was not her party; it was Pearl’s and Johnny’s. She hoped they could take their eyes off each other long enough to taste the food. 

Upstairs she knew Pearl was fussing over the dress she had picked. It had been a long three days for the young girl since Dolly suggested the dinner party and the Lancer’s had accepted. There had been wonderful highs as Pearl prepared for the party and terrible lows when the poor girl would awake screaming from another nightmare. Dolly desperately wanted to help Pearl, find out what brought on the nightmares, but the young girl steadfastly refused to reveal what was bothering her. Dolly hoped that when she saw Johnny again he would banish all those nightmares.

Dolly’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of a buggy pulling up outside. She prayed this day would go as planned for both Pearl and Johnny.

Camila rushed to open the door. In Boston Dolly would have had time to compose herself before the door was opened and her guests arrived. But when in Rome as Scott had said.

“Murdoch!” Dolly swept across the room, holding her hand out to him. He was dressed in a simple dark suit, but his huge frame made it anything but simple.

“Dolly,” Murdoch said, leaning down and kissing the back of her hand lightly. “Thank you for the invitation.”

“You are very welcome, Murdoch. But it is you and your family I must thank. A house is not a home until friends have visited. You are my first.”

“But definitely not your last.” Scott stepped in behind Murdoch and took her hand. There was no mistaking the Boston bred manners, but the twinkle in his eyes was all California. She couldn’t help but wonder what Harlan would think of his grandson now. 

“Oh, Dolly, I love the flowers and everything you have done here.” Teresa practically bounced into the house. Dolly couldn’t help but laugh at Teresa’s enthusiasm. “I know Mister and Mrs. Baker would be very happy if they knew how well their house was being taken care of. In fact, I think I will send them a letter and let them know.”

“Thank you, Teresa. That would be very kind of you. I feel very much at home here already.”

The last to step into the house was the biggest surprise. Johnny grinned at her sheepishly, bowing his head as if he were embarrassed by the sling supporting his left arm.

“My goodness, Johnny, what happened? I thought you were only scratched by a little barbed wire. You look as pale as a ghost. Come sit down.” Dolly didn’t give Johnny a moment to protest before she led him into the parlor and sat him in a comfortable chair. 

“There is no such thing as a simple scratch from barbed wire out here,” Murdoch said, and Dolly noticed that Murdoch’s words were not only meant as an explanation for her, but a chastisement to his son. “Barbed wire can be nasty. An infection can start from the smallest prick.” This was meant for her edification. But still Johnny looked guilty. 

“You should never have come if you were not feeling well.” 

“It’s all right, Ma’am. I wanted to come.”

Dolly didn’t miss the look of surprise from Johnny’s family. It wasn’t hard to guess that this was the last place the young man wanted to be this afternoon. But soon he would find it was all worth his while. What better medicine than the love of his life? Things were falling into place better than she could have ever wished for.

“Would you all like a drink before dinner? I hope I ordered the right spirits. My husbands were always in charge of the liquor.”

“As long as it’s not rotgut, it’s fine with me,” Johnny laughed.

“Rotgut?” Dolly saw the disapproval on Murdoch’s face and the embarrassment on Scott’s. 

“It’s just what it says,” Scott said, eying Johnny sternly. “It’s the cheapest whiskey you can find in the less than savory saloons out here.”

“Well.” Dolly turned to the liquor cabinet in the corner of the parlor and selected two bottles she had ordered from Sacramento. They had only arrived on the morning stage, another sign that everything was going as it should. “I hope I can do better than your rot gut.” 

She saw Murdoch and Scott’s reaction to the expensive Scotch she had ordered, but it was Johnny’s reaction that pleased her the most.

“That’s Herradura Anejo,” he said, as if he were trying to convince himself that he was reading the label right.

Dolly nodded. “Senora Alto said she knew someone who was an expert on tequila. She was told this was one of the best.”

Johnny stood up slowly. “Ma’am…”

“Dolly…”

“Dolly…that’s about the best tequila you can buy anywhere. I only saw it once at Don Alejandro’s, and he wasn’t about to share a drop. Not with me at least.”

Dolly knew there was a story there, but she would wait for another time.  Senora Alto brought in a tray with lime and salt and set it down on the small table next to where Johnny was sitting.

After pouring two tumblers of Scotch and one of tequila, Dolly turned to Teresa. “And for us, I have a fine port,” she said. “Will you join me, Teresa?”

She saw Teresa silently ask permission and saw in that simple gesture the love and respect the young woman held for Murdoch. Pearl was a lucky woman to be marrying into a fine family like the Lancers. 

So far everything was going as planned. She looked at the clock on the wall over the fireplace mantel. In fifteen minutes Pearl would make her appearance. It would be the longest fifteen minutes of her life. She could only imagine how excited Pearl was.

Instead of trying to start up some inane conversation, she satisfied herself with watching Johnny dip the side of his thumb in the salt and lick it, bite into the slice of lime then follow it with the tequila. The look on his face told her she had chosen well.

Both Scott and Murdoch sipped at their Scott while Teresa tasted her port. But Dolly’s curiosity was getting the better of her and she could not stay quiet another minute. Hadn’t someone once told her the older you get the more childlike you become? She was about to prove them right.

“Johnny, I guess you are very anxious to see your fiancée again.”

Johnny looked over at her, then down at his drink. “I guess I am. It’s been almost three months now. I’m ready to ride out and bring her back if she doesn’t show soon.”

“Three months…?” Dolly looked from Johnny to Murdoch then Scott. Pearl had said two years.

“Yeah.” Johnny nodded. “She went to Elkhorn to help her ma after her pa died. I said I’d go with her, but she’s nearly as stubborn as I am.”

“With that red hair,” Scott grinned, “she’s even got you beat in the stubborn department.”

“Don’t be mean.” Teresa giggled, the port going to her head quickly. “Abby is a sweet girl. She’s perfect for Johnny.”

“Abby…?”  Dolly felt a wash of cold clamminess travel from her head to her feet. 

She wasn’t a vapid socialite who swooned at the drop of a hat, but suddenly she was seeing Murdoch and Scott jump to their feet. “Dolly! Dolly, are you all right?”

She tried to answer but nothing made sense. Johnny was kneeling next to her, holding her hand. “Dolly?”

“Who is Abby?” Dolly asked desperately, her voice faltering. Who was the woman upstairs?

“Take it easy.” Murdoch urged her to take a sip of her port. 

“Who is Abby?” 

Johnny’s hand gripped hers tighter. 

“Abby Machallan,” Teresa’s voice quivered as she spoke. “Johnny’s future bride. Dolly…?”

“But I thought…I don’t understand. Pearl said you were…”

The look on Johnny’s face made her freeze. Suddenly the quiet blue eyes turned colder than ice.

“What do you know about Pearl?” he demanded, squeezing her arm too tight.

“She said she was coming back to get married. That you were waiting for her.”

“Opal?” Scott said the name as if it were a vile oath. “Opal is Pearl?”

Dolly nodded. “I’m so sorry, Johnny. I thought I was reuniting you two…Tonight was going to be your reunion…”

“Where is she?” Murdoch towered above her, the look on his face frightening. Who was Pearl?

“She should be here now…she was going to join us…”

All four heads turned to see a lone red rose lying in the parlor doorway. Then a shrill scream from outside and the sound of the buggy racing away.

“She heard us!” Johnny spat. “She knows Abby is in Elkhorn.”

Dolly felt like she was sucked in the midst of a maelstrom. Johnny bolted toward the door, whipping the sling over his head. Murdoch and Scott tried to grab for him but he jumped out of reach. Teresa stood beside her, her hands clasping her glass of port so hard Dolly feared it would crack under the pressure. They both raced to the window at the sound of a horse galloping away. She watched Johnny ride past Murdoch and Scott bareback. Oh dear God, what had she done?

.

Chapter Six

Johnny broke the cardinal rule, never gallop past the Lancer arch,
but today rules were not on his mind. Nothing was on his mind but
getting to Elkhorn before Pearl. He fell rather than jumped from the
horse before it came to a full stop in the courtyard. His entrance
had brought Jelly and Cipriano running from the barn and the corral.

“What in tarnation’s got into ya, Boy? And why ya riding Scott’s
horse?” Jelly demanded, grabbing for the lathered horse, but his eyes
were on Johnny. “Ya know you ain’t supposed ta ride yet.”

“Saddle Barranca,” Johnny ordered, pushing his way past Jelly, nearly
shoving him to the ground. “And Cip.” He turned toward the
segundo. “I need food and gear for two days.”

Jelly scrambled around until he was standing in Johnny’s path to the
house. “What are you doing riding bareback and where is your sling?
Murdoch and Sam’ll have your hide.”

Johnny didn’t stop, merely sidestepped the old man. “Pearl is back.
And she knows where Abby is.”

“Pearl! No, can’t be.” Jelly tried to grab for Johnny’s arm. “How?”

“Ask Scott. You best get over to the Baker place as soon as you can.
Murdoch and Scott are stuck there without horses. Now, get Barranca
saddled. I’ll be ready to ride in ten minutes.”

Johnny left Jelly spewing behind him and rushed into the house,
racing up the stairs to his room to collect his saddlebags and the
few things he needed. He hated to waste the time, but he knew from
experience he would only slow himself down later if he wasn’t
prepared in the beginning. Besides, Pearl was in a buggy and he would
be on Barranca. He would catch up with her in a couple of hours. But
just in case, just to make sure that Pearl didn’t somehow get around
him, he was prepared for the two day ride to Elkhorn.

He stuffed what he needed into his saddlebags, hardly feeling the new
stitches ripping in his arm. He grabbed extra ammo from his bottom
drawer and buckled his gunbelt. He should never have gone to Dolly’s
without it. He could have followed Pearl from there, bareback and
all, if he had been armed. Slipping his knife in the scabbard inside
his boot, he felt a surge of anger sweep over him. What Pearl and her
family had done to him had nearly cost him his life. Even after the
wounds had healed he was plagued by nightmares that he thought he
would never be free from. But Abby had soothed his soul and now…he
would die before he let Pearl hurt her.

Ten minutes after he rode into the Lancer courtyard, Johnny was
galloping away on Barranca. He refused anyone’s help. Didn’t want
anyone slowing him down. Or if it came to it, getting in the way of
what might have to be done. Three years of love and acceptance had
pushed Johnny Madrid to the background. In one day Pearl Harkins had
resurrected him.




Scott slammed the door shut behind him. “There’s nothing we can do
until someone comes with our horses.”

The helplessness and anger in his son’s voice echoed Murdoch’s
feelings. The thought that Pearl was back in their lives, and
perhaps, God forbid, the Harkins clan, nearly drove him to his knees.
It had taken Johnny months to recover fully, and longer to get past
the nightmares. Why now? Just when Johnny was truly happy, perhaps
for the first time in his life…what dark star was Johnny born under
that seemed to thwart his happiness at every turn?

“Gentlemen…” Murdoch spun around to see Dolly standing in the parlor
doorway. Her face was ashen, looking years older than she had looked
just an hour ago. “Please, tell me who Pearl is.”

Scott hurried across the room, took Dolly’s elbow and escorted her to
the sofa in front of the fireplace. “None of this is your fault,
Dolly. We should have known that she would return someday.”

Scott’s words drove the guilt deeper into the pit of Murdoch’s
stomach. They should have known that someday Pearl could reappear.
They had let their guard down, had let Johnny down. But they had all
allowed themselves to be swept up in Johnny’s happiness.

Dolly sat on the sofa as if the weight of what had just happened
rested solely on her shoulders. “I invited her into this house, into
your lives.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Murdoch said, his tone sharper than he
meant. But he couldn’t control the overwhelming fear that grew with
each second that passed.

She shook her head. “The warning signs were all there. I just didn’t
want to see them. I was too swept up in all the romanticism. I was
living vicariously through Pearl and loving every minute of it.”

“If there is fault here, it is mine,” Scott said. Murdoch took a step
toward him, but Scott held up a cautionary hand. “It’s true. I knew
there was something familiar about her. Something unsettling. I
should have listened to my instincts. Instead I let myself get caught
up in the mystery of who was behind that veil.”

“I don’t think I will ever forget the look on Johnny’s face.” Dolly
looked from Murdoch to Scott and pleaded with her eyes. “I have to
know. Who is Pearl?”

Murdoch sat down beside Dolly, knowing the retelling of Johnny’s
ordeal would open the wounds wider than they were now.

“Pearl Harkins was born and raised with Hill People. No one knows for
sure where they came from,” Murdoch explained. “They settled in small
groups scattered throughout the hills, from California to Kentucky. 
Most of the time they stay to themselves: But when they want
something, they’ll stop at nothing to get it. They wanted a husband
for Pearl, and Johnny was their choice.

“Pearl’s ma and pa, along with her eleven cousins, paid us a visit
one afternoon after they spotted Johnny working on the fence line.
They were headed for Oregon for a five year reunion of all the clans,
and Pearl couldn’t show up without a husband. I couldn’t even begin
to describe how they looked and smelled. They were all dressed in
clothes that looked like they would disintegrate if they were touched
by even one drop of soap and water. When Pearl smiled I thought I
would be sick. I had never seen a more disgusting set of teeth.

“We should have known, I should have known that they were capable of
almost anything to get what they wanted. Johnny…”

Murdoch remembered every moment of that meeting as if it were
permanently etched in his memory…


//”Pearl here is nigh on ta eighteen, an she still don’t have her a
man.” Jezebel looked toward her daughter with contempt. “She needs
one fer this month’s reunion. She’s taken a shinin’ ta that dark
haired boy o yours…”


“Johnny’s not in the market for a wife. You best find another man for
your reunion.”


“Makes no matter,” Pearl’s father said, “he don’t have ta like it.
Nobody likes getting tied to a woman who cain’t find herself her own
man, but we are a proud family and we ain’t gonna show up at the
reunion without a man fer Pearl.”


“Well you had better look elsewhere, Mr. Harkins, because Johnny
isn’t interested.”


Harkins turned to Johnny. “You got a mouth there, boy?  What you got
ta say `bout Pearl and you getting hitched?  Ya could do a lot worse.”


“I told your missus and your daughter yesterday, this is private
land, and you’re trespassing,” Johnny answered.


“You turning my girl down?” Harkins asked incredulously. 
Johnny nodded toward Pearl and Jezebel. “Can’t say it was a pleasure,
ladies.” He turned smartly on his heel and disappeared into the
hacienda, slamming the massive oak door.


“You heard Johnny,” Murdoch said, his voice hard as steel. “He’s not
interested in marrying anyone. Now get off Lancer land.”


Harkins nodded. “We’ll be seein’ `bout that. Pearl ain’t goin’ ta no
reunion without a man at her side. What about you?” He turned to
Scott. “You look fit `nough. Ya ain’t Pearl’s first pick, but she
ain’t got the time ta be choosey.”


“I appreciate the offer,” Scott said sharply, “but I’m not in the
market for a wife either.”


Harkins huffed. “Suit yerselves…but remember, there ain’t nothing I
won’t do ta make my Pearl happy.”  With that the fourteen riders
turned as one and trotted out of the courtyard.//


A dark silence filled the room, Murdoch’s words hanging in the air.
“I can’t believe you are talking about the same girl,” Dolly finally
said, her voice trembling.


Despite his own despair and anger, Murdoch felt for Dolly. She was an
innocent in all this, duped into a fantasy world Pearl so desperately
wanted to be real.


“Pearl seemed like such a sweet girl. She said she had gone back east
at your request, to learn to be a lady.” She looked at Murdoch and
Scott. “She wanted to make Johnny proud of her when you had dinner
parties and guests to the house. I believed her. And I believed she
truly loved Johnny. And that Johnny was waiting for her.”


Teresa was standing in the parlor doorway listening to everything.
Silent tears traveled down her cheeks. “The sad thing is, Pearl does
love Johnny. Passionately. And she believes that Johnny loves her and
would always want her. She never wanted to hurt him…I think…”

“That’s why she whipped him and nearly stabbed him to death?” Scott
hissed.

“Dear, God, she couldn’t have. Not the Pearl I know.”

“Don’t try to defend her, Dolly. If you had seen his back, flayed
open to the bone. I sat by his bedside and watched him fight for his
life after Pearl drove that knife into his stomach,” Murdoch said
bitterly. “I know she tried to save Johnny in the end, but it was
too little and almost too late…And I can’t forgive her for putting
him in that situation in the first place. A woman doesn’t break a man
to train him to be her husband.”

Scott slapped his hand against the back of the sofa. “It doesn’t
change the fact that she’s back,” he said. “And obviously unstable.
If Johnny doesn’t reach her before she gets to Abby…” Scott let the
rest of his statement trail off.

Dolly stood up, her shoulders set back, indicating the woman she must
be to have traveled this far alone. “What can I do? This is my
fault.”

“There is nothing any of us can do until someone comes with our
horses.” Murdoch reached out for Dolly’s hands. “And you are not at
fault, Dolly. No one is. We couldn’t have known Pearl was back.” He
looked directly at Scott. “We’ll just have to make sure we get Johnny
and Abby back safely.”

“Yes. And until the horses get here I want you both to have something
to eat. I know…I know you are not hungry, but you will be better able
to help Johnny if you keep up your strength. I will have Senora Alto
bring something in here. Please, gentlemen, and Teresa, sit.”

There was no denying Dolly was right. Murdoch reluctantly sat down on
the sofa next to Scott and began watching the clock on the wall
slowly tick away the time.




Johnny kept Barranca at a steady trot. He had sped away from the
ranch at a full gallop, filled with nothing but the need to catch
Pearl. But now he sat deep in the saddle, letting Barranca pick his
pace. Speed was not always better than endurance. Pearl had a two
hour head start on him, but in the buggy her speed would be slower.
If he was lucky he would catch up to her before nightfall.

The shock at hearing that she was back had turned to anger…that once
again his past was going to hurt someone he loved. It didn’t matter
that it wasn’t Madrid that put her in danger, it was him. And if
anything happened to Abby because of Pearl he would never forgive
himself. He had lived beneath a dark cloud for most of his life, but
from now on, he would not let anyone he loved be hurt because of it.

He was beyond the Lancer boundary now and Johnny felt a coldness come
over him. Johnny Lancer had been a dream that was not meant to be. He
had fooled himself into believing it could work. Even after the
gunfights that he had no control over, even after bitter fights he
and Murdoch had, he’d always thought there was a chance that he could
make it. That if his family was willing to take the risk, he was
willing to try. But how many more times could he put the ones he
loved in danger? Never again. He would never look back. It was just
too damn painful.




Johnny had gone another hour before he pulled Barranca up short.
Ahead, stopped in the middle of the road, was the Lancer buggy. It
sat awkwardly, its right rear wheel broken, the horses nowhere in
sight. Johnny’s first thought was that Pearl had released one horse
and rode the second one until he saw a flash of movement from behind
the tree. Drawing his gun he slowly rode closer to the crippled buggy.

“Come out where I can see you,” he ordered, his gun pointing toward
the tree. “Real easy now.”

“I’m not armed, Mister,” came a hesitant voice from behind the
tree. “I’ll come out, nice and easy, if you promise not to shoot.”

The request was almost comical. But Johnny wasn’t in a laughing
mood. “I won’t if you don’t give me a reason to.” Johnny waited, his
disposition growing more sour by the minute until a teenage boy,
dressed only in his red long johns, stepped away from the tree.

“I ain’t got no gun, Mister,” the boy said. He couldn’t have been
much older than fifteen, his blond hair creased where he would have
been wearing a hat. “She done took it from me. And everything else,”
he sighed.

Johnny motioned for the boy to put his hands down. “What happened?”

The boy looked humiliated. “I come across this real pretty lady, she
was dressed fancy like nothin’ I ever seen a fore. Pretty as a spring
day…”

“Nothing pretty about her,” Johnny snapped.

“You tellin’ me? I know that now. Didn’t at the time. She was out
here all alone, the buggy wheel busted, and her horses run off. I
would’a helped her fix the wheel and look for her horses, but the
next thing I know she took my gun and was gonna use it too if’n I
didn’t give her what she wanted.”

“Your clothes.”

The boy nodded. “I think she’d a shot me if’n I didn’t.”

“You did the right thing, boy. What were you wearing?”

“Black jeans and a green shirt. That shirt sure did fit her a lot
different than it did me. And danged if my boots didn’t fit her too.
She left me here like this, said someone would be along sooner or
later looking for her. Looks like she was right.”

“How long ago?”

“Not more’n half an hour. My horse is fast, and she could sure ride,
but I don’t think he’s any match for your horse, Mister. He looks as
fast as the wind.”

Johnny nodded. “He is. Look, I hate to leave you here like this, but
I gotta catch that woman. People are following me who can help you.
Tell them what you told me, and make sure you tell them that she’s
armed now.”

“She do that to you, Mister?” The boy nodded at Johnny’s left arm.
Blood soaked his sleeve.

Barranca pivoted around nervously. Johnny looked up at the sky. “I
don’t have much light left. Make sure you tell them that I’m alright.”

“Ok. But who do I say I was talkin’ to?”

“Johnny Madrid,” Johnny said flatly and rode away.

.

Chapter Seven 

Pearl slowed her stolen mount to an easy trot, letting the horse cool down after a frenzied gallop. She couldn’t travel fast enough to get away from the sound of Scott Lancer’s lies, his words cutting her like a knife. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that Johnny would never betray her like that. Not if they hadn’t told him lies. He’d been hurt and fevered and confused. He must’ a thought that she left him…that…that she was dead. They told him she was dead. That would’ a been the only reason he didn’t come looking for her. Why he’d let another woman put her hands on him. He would never betray her like that. Not her Johnny. After she found the bitch in Elkhorn she would come back and take care of the Lancers – all of them. 

Ma and Pa had been right. If she’d listened to them Johnny would ‘a learned the Harkins’ ways. In time, he would’ a been hers. All them fancy dresses and fancy manners…learning her letters and being able to write her name, they didn’t mean much if she didn’t have her man. Well, she’d have him soon enough now. Looking up at the sky she knew she didn’t have long before night fell. She had the boy’s gun but couldn’t use it good enough to shoot her a rabbit for eating, so she needed to get to town. The road she was on looked familiar. It led back to Green River. She’d just slip in quietly, get some food and get pointed in the right direction to Elkhorn, then be on her way again. Pearl kicked the horse into a fast trot. She might’ a learned to be a lady in Boston, but she never forgot how to be a Harkins.


Johnny felt Barranca’s gait change and cursed his stupidity for taking the palomino when he knew he wasn’t completely healed from the stone bruise. He couldn’t afford to slow down, to let Pearl get too far ahead. He leaned over the saddle, patting Barranca’s neck. “I’m sorry, Boy, we can’t slow down now. You’ve got to get me to town.” Cringing at the uneven trot, Johnny steeled himself against the thought that he might damage Barranca’s foot beyond repair. But Abby’s life was at stake, and hard decisions had to be made. 

Life was made of hard decisions, and no one knew that better than Johnny. He’d made his fair share. No…not fair. Not fair by a long mile. He’d been making decisions, important, life changing decisions, while he was still a snot-nosed kid.  Some right and some wrong. But he learned to stand by them. This decision scarped at his insides. He was taking a chance on maiming Barranca for life. Damn it to hell! If he’d just ridden away after he healed from Pardee’s bullet there would have been no Pearl, no chance that Abby could be hurt by his past. No Johnny Lancer. Mama had been right. The best thing to do in life was to pack up and move on when the ties began to cinch you in. Mama knew the hurt love and friendship caused. She would always move on before they could take a foothold. She’d been right. Look at the mess he had created just because he forgot her Golden Rule.

The sun was casting long shadows on the road as the day seemed to be speeding toward night. He’d only been in the saddle for a couple of hours and already it was becoming harder to ignore the increasing pain in his arm. He could tell by the throbbing that the infection was spreading again, but he couldn’t let that stop him. He couldn’t let Pearl get any further ahead than she already was. Dios! What would he do if he was too late?

He hadn’t thought about Pearl once since he met Abby. Not until today. Not until he thought his heart had stopped beating when he realized the mysterious Opal was Pearl. What would he have done, what would he have said if they had come face to face in Dolly’s parlor?  Johnny had no doubt that Pearl loved him. She had tried to help him. He knew he wouldn’t have made it in the filth and degradation that was the Harkins camp without her. Back at the house he would have died at the hands of her father if she had not helped him. And he was grateful to her. But he didn’t love her. Never did. How could she know, growing up the way she did, what real love was. How he felt when he was with Abby. Abby made him feel whole. Like a part of him that had been missing all his life was finally there when she came into his life. And it killed him to think, no matter what happened, he could never put her in harm’s way again. It was just too dangerous to be a part of his life. Too dangerous for her, for Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, for everyone he loved. 

Pearl’s tracks were leading to Green River, and by the looks of them she wasn’t an expert rider. He saw signs where her horse had lost its gait, or she had overcorrected. That gave him precious time. Pearl would most likely stop for food and directions and that would slow her down too. There was no way she would know her way to Elkhorn without help. But even with the stop she would still be ahead of him. He nudged Barranca a little faster. He’d have to leave him behind at the livery and get a fresh horse. Leaning forward again he whispered his thanks to Barranca and closed his mind to the pain in his arm and his heart.     


The long shadows had turned to dusk by the time Johnny reached town and the Green River Livery Stable. Barranca was covered with a blanket of sweat, trembling from pain and exhaustion. It broke Johnny’s heart that he had to push his friend so hard. He knew the palomino would give him all he, and more, if he asked him. 

Dismounting awkwardly, he stood for a moment, holding onto the side of the saddle, waiting for the world to stop spinning and praying his legs wouldn’t collapse. The last mile had pushed him to the point of exhaustion. Patting Barranca on the neck one last time he pushed himself away and walked into the deeper shadows of the stable. Johnny could only imagine how he looked with his injured arm tucked inside his shirt for support, blood seeping through both the bandages and the shirt. 

An old man, stooped with age, stood watching him from inside the livery. No one knew exactly how old Leonard Potts was. Some said he was there before the town was a town. He knew everyone, and everyone’s business. But he was honest and fair and good to his horses. Still, Johnny would have avoided him if he could. But he needed a fresh mount and Barranca needed care. 

“Good, Lord, Johnny, what happened?” Old Leo’s toothless gums smacked together making an odd reverberation as he talked. He lit a lantern and held it high above his head to get a better look at Johnny in the advancing darkness. “Ya get yerself bushwhacked or somethin’?” 

“I need another horse, Leo, but I don’t have the money on me. Will you…” Johnny felt like his heart was being ripped out of his chest, but the words came out steadier than he expected, “take Barranca on trade? If I don’t come back then he’s yours.”

Leo studied him, his old eyes rheumy from age. “You in trouble, boy?”

“No,” Johnny answered coldly. “I just need a horse.”

Leo shrugged, grabbed Barranca’s reins and slowly walked the palomino into the stable. “You’re good for it. But it must be something awful important if you’re willing to give up Barranca.” He lit a second lantern and handed it to Johnny. “Take your pick.” 

Johnny took the lantern, holding it in front of each stall as he checked the horses. He knew most of them and none were as fast as Barranca. He spotted a chestnut at the far end, eyeing him curiously. As he stepped closer the horse bobbed his head and snorted loudly.

“I’ll take this one,” Johnny said.

“Not a good idea. Val brought him in a few days ago. The horse and owner parted company, if ya know what I mean. He’s got a mind of his own. Skittish too. Some say downright mean.”

“Saddle him.”

“But, Johnny.”

“I don’t have time to argue,” Johnny barked. “Just get him saddled.” Johnny couldn’t help but look at Barranca, his head bowed and his back foot lifted off the ground. 

Leo took a step closer. “Ole Leo’ll take good care of him, ya know that.”

Johnny nodded. He knew he could trust Leo, but it didn’t make it any easier knowing in his heart that he would never return. He’d already made up his mind. The valley had seen the last of Johnny Madrid.

Leo lifted the lantern and looked at Johnny critically. “Now, while I’m saddling yer horse ya kin go over and get Sam ta take a look at that arm. It don’t look so good. And neither do you.”

“I don’t have time to waste, Leo.”

“Seems ta me ya don’t have much of a choice. That arm looks bad, and that sweat you’re wearing ain’t from the heat. I bet ya got yourself a good fever building there.”

“Just saddle the horse, Leo,” Johnny said coldly.

“Alright.” Leo whistled sharply and a stable boy came running from the tack room. 

“Saddle the chestnut here for Mr. Lancer.”

The boy looked surprised.

“Just get it done,” Johnny snapped.

“Yes, Sir!” the boy yelled as he hustled off to get the gear.

“While Ben is saddling yer horse I can take a look at that arm fer ya if yer not gonna go see the doc.”

Johnny hesitated, but Leo had his hand wrapped firmly around Johnny’s right arm and started leading him toward the tack room. “Jelly said you were about the most stubborn cuss he ever met. I’m beginning ta think he was right.”


“I don’t know about this, Johnny,” Leo said as he dabbed at the infected stitches with iodine. “Ya really need ta see Sam.” 

Johnny sat at an old wooden table in the tack room, his left arm stretched across the battered top. It had already taken too much time for the old man to soak the bandage off before he could begin cleaning the wound. “I don’t have time for this,” Johnny hissed as the iodine set his arm on fire.

“You look like a man who’s looking for someone,” Leo said as he continued the torture.

Johnny nodded. The heat from the lantern was making the sweat run down his face in rivulets. At least he told himself it was the lantern. He would not accept the possibility that his fever was bettering him. “Riding a roan,” Johnny hissed.

“Only stranger I saw was a kid, maybe sixteen or so. He was riding a roan. He stopped at the mercantile, then the saloon. They booted his keester outta there quicker than you could say…” 

Johnny tried to jerk his arm away. “Is he still in town?”

“Nope.” Leo pulled Johnny’s arm back, continuing with the torture. “Took off like the devil hisself was after him.” Leo raised an eyebrow. “You be that devil, Johnny?”

Johnny ignored the question. “How long ago?” he demanded. Every mile brought Pearl closer to Abby.

“Maybe an hour. What’s he done?”

“Nothing. Yet. Damn it, Leo, just hurry up. I told you, I don’t have the time.” Resting his forehead on his right arm, he sucked in short breaths as the iodine continued to burn. “I can’t let her get too far ahead.”

“Her? I thought ya were looking for a boy.”

“Just hurry up, would ya? And, Leo.” Johnny looked up, his expression hardening. “Scott and Murdoch’ll be here in a couple of hours. Tell them to turn back. I don’t need their help.” The truth was he couldn’t afford their help. They would slow him down, insist on resting or camping when he could still go that extra mile, stay in the saddle that extra hour. 

“Don’t be foolish, boy, ya need help and ya know it. If ya was smart, ya’d wait for them to get here.” 

“Tell them, Leo. And don’t say anything about my arm. I want your word, old man.”

Leo nodded, wrapping Johnny’s arm with a thick layer of bandages. “Ya got it. I’ll tell your pa and brother that yer just too blame ornery ta want help. Won’t stop ‘em though, ya know. Those two care too much about ya, Johnny.”

Johnny looked down at his arm, the fresh bandage sealing in the pain of the scrubbing and the iodine. Damn Pearl. She’d ruined everything that was good in his life. Pulled him back to a life he never thought he would have to return to. He wouldn’t, couldn’t pull his family down with him.

Johnny raised his head, slowly making eye contact. “Make them understand,” he said, the venom in his voice freezing Leo’s hands.

Silence hung between them for a long moment until the old man let out a deep sigh and nodded. “Ya still need ta see a doc, Johnny. But if ya won’t then ya best take this with ya.” Leo handed him a small brown bottle.

Johnny knew what it contained, laudanum, and tried to hand it back. 

“Ya might need it, boy. Take it. If you don’t use it you can bring it back when you’re done looking for that girl, or boy, or whatever…”

Johnny cupped the bottle in his hand and nodded. “Thanks, Leo. I owe you.”

“That ya do. And I’ll be here waiting fer ya ta pay me back. Now, I want ya to wear this here sling. It’ll take some pressure off that arm. And when you get ta where yer going, see a doc. A real doc.”

Johnny watched Leo finish bandaging his arm then let him slip the sling over his head. He looked at the old man and realized he was doing it again. Trusting people, letting them get too close. That damn Golden Rule of his mama’s was getting harder and harder to follow.


Leo Potts knew desperation when he saw it. And Johnny Lancer was desperate. He could see it in his eyes. The boy was near to keeling over and yet something kept him going. 

“Sure I can’t talk ya into bedding down for the night here then getting an early start in the morning?” Leo asked.

The answer was a weary shake of the head and Johnny levered himself up from the table. A man had to have reasons for pushing himself that hard and Leo wasn’t about to get in the way. Some things were worth risking your life for. He knew a man was lucky if he had that kind of passion for someone or something in his lifetime. Leo had it once, but she died years ago.

Ben led the chestnut to the front of the livery and waited.

“That horse is a bad idea, Johnny. He’s a handful for a healthy man. With that bum arm…”

“I need a fast horse and this is the one.” Johnny walked up to the animal and took the reins from Ben. Instead of getting the horse more agitated, Johnny’s demeanor seemed to calm the horse. He spoke softly, brushing his hand along the horse’s neck, letting the chestnut smell his head and shoulders. When the horse smelled the iodine and blood on Johnny’s left arm he stepped back but Johnny kept talking to him until the horse calmed down again.

With his arm in the sling, Johnny swung himself into the saddle awkwardly. Leo held his breath as the horse shifted beneath his weight, sidestepping into a stall. Johnny held the reins firmly, letting the horse get used to the new rider. Johnny might have been in a rush, but he gave the chestnut time and Leo could see the horse begin to relax. He remembered when he could set a horse like that, when he could feel every twitch of the animal beneath him. Now he could only look on and admire a man who knew and respected horses as much as he did. 

“I had Ben add an extra blanket to yer bedroll,” Leo said, reaching up to pat Johnny on the knee. “It’ll be cold tonight with that full moon.”

Johnny looked down and for a brief moment a smile played across his face. “Thanks, Leo. Like I said, I owe you one.”

“And like I said, I know ya do. And I’ll be expectin’ ya back. Take care of that arm.”

“I will. And remember… Murdoch and Scott…”

“I know, boy. I’m a man of my word. I’ll tell ‘em to head back home. And,” he added, “I won’t say a word to them about that arm.”

Johnny nodded and dipped his hat before spurring the horse lightly. The chestnut reared up then settled down as if it had made its feelings known to his new rider then took off at a gallop.

“Damn fool kid!” Leo spat on the ground. “He’s bound and determined ta get hisself killed. Here, boy.” Leo handed the lantern to Ben. “You’ll find me at the doc’s office if ya needs me.”

“You hurt, Mr. Potts?”

“Nope. Not ailing neither. Ya settle Barranca down and I’ll have a good look at that leg when I get back.”

“Yes, Sir. But…”

“I made a promise ta Johnny that I wouldn’t tell his pa or brother about his arm. Well, he damn well sure didn’t say I couldn’t tell nobody else. The doc and Murdoch Lancer are old friends. By the time Murdoch and Scott ride outta here, they’ll know everything I know.”

Ben clicked his tongue and Barranca hobbled after him. Leo watched him go. Johnny loved that horse more than most anything else in the world besides his family and Abby. Must’ a been something awfully bad to make him give him up – even for a little while. 

.

Chapter Eight

Scott jumped at the crack of thunder. It shook the walls and rattled the windows of Sam’s office, straining his already frayed nerves. He looked toward Murdoch, bent over Sam’s desk, nodding as the old doctor gave him instructions and filled a small satchel with bandages and medicines. 

“Scott, you need to hear this too,” Murdoch called. Another crack of thunder and the sound of rain, first a light plop on the roof, then a steady roar. It had not rained all summer, not a drop to moisten the parched land. Not tonight….damn it, why tonight?

“Scott, you’re wasting time!” 

Scott spun on his heels, but one look at Murdoch’s face and he swallowed his angry retort. They were both on edge, teetering on the brink of saying something that could not be taken back. 

Pearl had stood between them, like a specter, since Murdoch’s decision to send her away instead of handing her over to Val. It had been an uncharacteristic moment of weakness on his father’s part. He’d fought it vehemently, knowing the woman was unstable, and now his worst fears were coming to fruition. Pearl was back in their lives and Johnny was being hurt once again. But this time there might not be any healing, not if Johnny lost Abby.   

He walked over to the desk and listened to Sam as he went through the scenarios of what they faced if Leo Potts had not been exaggerating Johnny’s condition. 

“Sam, I don’t understand,” Murdoch said, the fear and guilt riding his words. “How could it possibly be as bad as Leo described?”

Sam glared at him. “He had a severe infection, Murdoch. And until that wound healed, and I took out the stitches, there was always a possibility of the infection returning. That’s why I ordered him to stay in bed. Against my better judgment, I let him out of bed early, with the caveat that he stay around the house and under no circumstance was he to ride. I thought it was less likely that he would do something stupid if he was given a little rope. But, I didn’t expect his brother and father to take him over to the neighbors for dinner.”

“He was feeling better,” Scott defended.

“It doesn’t matter.  I don’t give orders just to hear myself talk. That boy needed rest to keep that infection from returning. I suspect, at the rate it spread, and how quickly the fever rose, that the infection was regaining control before he left the house. Something I could have handled if he was still at home where he belonged.”

Another clap of thunder rumbled overhead, lightning flickering through the windows. The heart of the storm was moving closer. 

Sam dropped a handful of medicinal packets into the satchel and closed it, then looked up. “Riding bareback, without a sling, would have torn the stitches. Even with his arm bandaged, dust and dirt could make its way into the wound. A perfect breeding ground for the infection to grow. I’m afraid Leo was not exaggerating.”

Scott could see the worry in Sam’s eyes, far beyond the worry a doctor usually had for his patient. At times Scott felt jealous that his brother confided in Sam, that he didn’t feel comfortable enough to confide in his own brother. He knew it wasn’t trust that kept Johnny from telling him the worst of his life. It was the fact that it was his past and therefore should remain there, not tainting the new life he was struggling so hard to find. Scott knew he was doing the same thing, sparing Johnny his worst memories of Libby. Someday maybe, when they were old and settled, those secrets would not hurt as much as they did today. For now, he was just grateful that Johnny had Sam to turn to. 

“Damn it.” Sam’s expletive surprised Scott. The doctor was always so in control of his emotions. “We were wrong, Murdoch. We were so wrong. We should have sent Pearl away with the rest of her family. We knew she was unstable.”

Scott saw his father react and grabbed the satchel before Murdoch could reply. Murdoch was already beating himself up over that decision. He didn’t need his guilt reinforced. “We need to get going,” he said tersely. “This rain will slow Johnny down, but it won’t stop him. And no matter what he said, he knows we will follow him.”

Suddenly the door flew open, Old Leo losing his grip as the wind caught the door and swung it back against the wall. Scott ran over to push it closed.

“Ain’t seen a storm this bad fer a mighty long time,” Leo sputtered, wiping the rain from his face. “Ain’t fit fer man or beast.”

“Johnny’s out there,” Murdoch growled.

“Yep. An he’s sure ta be holed up by now. Ya won’t do him or yerselves any good traveling in this witches brew. Cain’t track him anyways. Ya more ‘n likely ta ride right by ‘em. If yer horses don’t throw ya first.”

Scott looked toward the window. The rain was pelting against glass. As much as it pained him to admit Leo was right, he could not deny the futility of traveling in this weather. They wouldn’t be helping Johnny if they stumbled in the dark.  “Leo’s right, Sir. We’ll be better off waiting until first light.”

Sam shook his head sadly. “I know how you feel, Murdoch. But I have to agree with Scott. Leo’s right.”

“No! I won’t leave Johnny out there alone.”

My friend, Johnny has been alone most of his life. He has survived without anyone’s help.”

Murdoch looked back at the window. “But he’s never had so much to lose.”


Johnny felt miserable. He was soaked to the bone by an unrelenting rain that had started in earnest an hour ago. Rain spilled over the brim of his hat like a waterfall, the wind whipping it back into his face. Night had come with a vengeance, echoing his own dark, turbulent thoughts. Pain gripped his arm like a vise, throbbing with each step of the horse. He’d given in awhile back and had taken a swig of Old Leo’s laudanum. It deadened the pain enough for him to stay in the saddle, but it gave the dark, storm-tossed night a surreal look. Another clap of thunder rumbled to the east. He counted one one-hundred, two one- hundred and the lightning flashed across the sky. The storm was moving closer. The chestnut suddenly broke stride, spooked and rearing back when a tree branch cracked overhead. Johnny fought to stay in the saddle. He cursed as pain shot up his arm and flared across his chest when the chestnut’s front feet landed back down on the ground with a jaw-breaking thud. Johnny knew he couldn’t hold him much longer with just one hand. He had to find shelter.

Johnny’s clothes were drenched, chilling him to the bone. He should have listened to Leo and waited for Scott and Murdoch. He couldn’t deny that he needed their help. He’d let his emotions override his better judgment. He had just been so afraid that they would slow him down. Now he might not make it.

He forced the chestnut on, the laudanum slowing his reactions. The horse was confused by the storm and the lack of a firm hand. The thunder was now overhead and they were in the heart of the tempest. Thunder exploded again and again until he felt lost in the madness. A bolt of lightning hit so close he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He could feel the electricity in the air, smell the ozone biting at his nose.  The chestnut tried to break free again and Johnny fought to keep him under control.

The night turned as bright as day as another bolt hit somewhere close and he saw a shallow cave through the tangle of trees and mesquite to his right. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. Urging the panicked horse through the thicket of mesquite, he bent down low over the chestnut’s neck and sidled him against the back wall

Johnny slid off the saddle, his legs nearly buckling beneath him. He almost passed out from the pain as he fought with the horse to untie the bedrolls one handed. The chestnut snorted, dancing nervously, its ears pinned back against its head, bumping into his injured arm. Another bolt of lightning showed him there was nothing to tether the horse, but he couldn’t take the chance the chestnut might run off. He dropped to his knees and pulled his injured arm out of the sling, gritting his teeth against the pain. He used the flashes of lightning to untie the bedrolls, thanking Old Leo for thinking about the extra bedroll. With fingers slowed by the cold and swollen by infection, he struggled with the rawhide strings to fashion a hobble for the horse, praying it would hold through the night. 

It felt like it took hours before he had the hobble set and he could slump against the cave, trying to ride through the pain. He needed more of Leo’s laudanum, but the saddle looked so far away now. His eyes began to close…no not yet, not yet he told himself. He had to cover himself with the blankets. He knew if he just sat there he might never wake up. Johnny almost laughed. Didn’t he tell Old Leo that he could take care of himself? He would surely be branded a liar if Murdoch and Scott found him in the morning dead from exposure. 

Wrapping the blankets around himself, Johnny looked one last time at the chestnut, the horse’s eyes wild with fright. “Lo siento,” he whispered, “I know you’re scared. I wish I could get that saddle off you, but even if I could, I’d never get it back on in the morning.” Turning on his right side, he cushioned his arm the best he could and drew his legs up tight against his chest and pulled the blankets over his head. At last he let exhaustion claim him. Thunder rocked the ground again and again, but Johnny drifted off, his last thoughts of Abby. 


The shovel felt heavy in her hand as she dug the grave – Johnny’s grave – deeper and deeper until the only thing she could see was Pa looking down at her, so tall and righteous, it looked like his head could touch the swirling clouds. Pa’s voice came from everywhere, circling around her like a vulture circling its prey. “He be yer man, Pearl, an ya ain’t trained him proper. He be another woman’s man now.”

“No!” she screamed.

“Them fancy books cain’t save yer soul. Or yer man’s. Ya failed, Pearl. Ya gots ta be punished.”  

Someone ripped the shovel from her hand and she was yanked out of the hole. Ma stood by the grave, shaking her head. “Ya always was trouble, child. Ya turned yer back on your own kin for them heathens.”

“They took me, Ma.”

Ma spat on the ground, just missing Pearl’s feet. “Ya let ‘em put their filthy hands on ya, Child. Ya let them send ya away. A real Harkins would a died first.”

“I did it fer, Johnny. Ta take care of ‘im. Ta be his woman.”

She looked down in the grave to see Johnny lying there, still as death. A woman sat beside him, her dress white like a wedding dress, her face hidden beneath Pearl’s wedding veil. “No!” She tried to scramble back down into the hole but Pa caught her arm. “He need me, Pa,” she cried. “He be mine ta take care of.” 

The woman looked up, laughing. “You lost him,” she taunted. “You left him behind and now he’s mine.”

“No!” Pearl screamed. 

“He loves me now. Don’t you, Johnny?”

Johnny’s eyes opened and he smiled up at the woman, like he should have been smiling at her. “I love Abby now.”

“Ya belongs ta me!”

Johnny reached up and touched the woman’s lips with his fingers. “I told you. I love Abby now.”

Pearl felt the knife in her hand, dropped into the hole and felt the blade sink deep into the woman’s heart. 

“He needs ta be punished.” Pa’s voice rang out from above. “He be yer man and he wronged ya. He needs ta be punished.”

Blood began filling the grave, turning the woman’s white wedding dress red.

Johnny looked at her, a soft smile creeping across his face. He reached out to touch her face, his fingers tracing the tears down her cheeks. “I thought you were dead,” he said softly. “I waited so long…”

“By all that is holy!” Pa screamed and he was suddenly behind her, his hand pushing the knife towards Johnny’s heart. “He must pay fer his sins!”

“No!” she screamed. “No!” But she felt the knife sink into flesh again and saw the look of surprise on Johnny’s face. More warm blood spilled onto her hands-Johnny’s blood. 

“No,” she whimpered, and the rain came.

Pearl awoke with a start. Thunder rolled through the sky above. She huddled against a boulder, turning her face away from the blinding lightning. The weather had forced her to stop, her stolen horse too skittish to travel any farther. A chill coursed through her body, not from the fierce rain and wind that buffeted her, but from the dream that had felt so real. She reached behind her and pulled out the knife she had found in the boy’s saddlebag. Johnny would be hers forever after Abby was gone.


Val trudged across the muddy street to Sam’s office, the wind and rain whipping in his face. He’d sworn nothing would bring him out tonight in this mess. But when he’d seen Murdoch and Scott Lancer ride into town like the devil hisself was after them, he had to have answers. “Since Johnny ain’t with’ em,” he grumbled, “ten to one, Johnny’s the reason they’re here.”

He barely heard the annoying bell ring above the door, overshadowed by the peal of thunder racing across the sky like a herd of buffalo. He’s been tempted to swat the damn thing on more than one occasion. Tonight it didn’t matter. Not after seeing Murdoch and Scott huddled over a table listening to Sam, their body language telling him that something was very wrong. A lamp on the table lit their faces as Murdoch and Scott watched Sam close a satchel then just stared at it.

“What the hell’s going on here?” he demanded.

Murdoch and Scott turned as one, searching for the voice in the semi-darkness. 

“Val?” Sam asked, striking a match against the table and lighting another lantern. It was obvious that they had been so involved in whatever was in the satchel that the three men hadn’t noticed the onset of darkness.

“Is it Johnny?” Val asked, waiting for them to say no, not this time. 

“Pearl’s back,” Murdoch ground out. 

“Pearl?” He’d never expected that answer. He’d barely thought of her, not since Abby tore into town and Johnny was roped and branded like a wide-eyed calf. “What is she doin’ back? And where’s Johnny?”

Scott looked out the window as if he could see past the rain running down the window in ever widening rivers. “She’s on her way to Elkhorn to find Abby, and Johnny’s after her.” 

“Abby? Why’s she after…” Memories of the filth that had been the Harkins camp made Val’s stomach crawl. When they’d found Johnny he was more dead than alive. Pearl, crazy as a loon, thinking Johnny was her man. Damn, he’d been against sending her to Colorado instead of locking her up with the rest of her clan. “Damn, Pearl’s more dangerous than a rabid dog.”

“She came here thinking Johnny was going to marry her,” Scott said. “Right now, she blames us, but if Johnny rebuffs her…”

“Don’t rightly know what rebuffs means, but if ya mean what she’ll do if Johnny tells her to take a hike, then she’s gonna want his blood too.”

“She’s got a gun, Val,” Murdoch said, not trying to hide the worry in his voice. “Stole it and a horse from a kid not far from the ranch. Took his clothes too.”

Val nodded. He couldn’t imagine what was going through Johnny’s head. For all the sage advice he gave Johnny on why he shouldn’t get hitched, he knew his friend loved Abby like no one else in his life. He didn’t even want to think what would happen if Pearl got to Elkhorn first.

“Johnny was half an hour behind her when Barranca went lame again,” Scott continued. “He traded Barranca for that chestnut you stabled a few days ago. Leo tried to talk him out of it. But Johnny said it was the best horse there.”

“What the hell did he take that horse for? The chestnut’s plumb loco. Mean as his owner. Buried him in Boot Hill.”

 “There’s more,” Sam said. “Johnny is hurt, possibly seriously. This weather is only going to make matters worse.”

Val looked out the window. No one was traveling tonight, not in this weather. “Johnny’ll have to hole up for the night, so will Pearl. If we leave at first light on fresh horses we might catch up with them. Now, no disrespect meant to you Mr. Lancer, or Scott there, but neither of ya can track a lick. If they stay to the road, that’s one thing. But if they…”

“Your help is greatly appreciated, Val. But you should know that Johnny doesn’t want any help. Not even ours.” Murdoch said.

Val snorted. “The boy never wants any help. But he knows he’s gonna to get it.” 

Sam cleared his throat. “You better get some rest then. All of you. Worry won’t help Johnny, but clear heads will tomorrow.”

Murdoch sat down heavily in a chair by the table. “I’ve done nothing but worry over that boy since the day he was born. Never thought I’d ever see him again after Maria took him. Now that I’ve got him back, no one, no one is going to take him away from me again. Unless it’s Abby on their wedding day.”

.

Chapter Nine

Val tied off his rain slicker and mounted his horse. It was barely daylight but as he looked down the street, his stomach churned with apprehension at the sea of mud before him. The road out of town wasn’t going to be much better, and as he looked toward the east, he could see more clouds moving toward them. By noontime they would be riding the beast of another storm.

The sound of horses’ feet sucking in and out of deep mud behind him told Val that Murdoch and Scott had gotten their mounts from Leo. At last. It had been a rough night. Worry over Johnny had kept everyone awake, despite knowing they all needed sleep. Amid the chaos of thunder and lightning, no one was willing to say outright what they feared the most: Johnny stuck out in the storm alone in his condition. 

“We won’t find much in the way of tracks,” Val said, not looking back. He couldn’t bring himself to see the worry in Murdoch’s eyes. He had all he could handle of his own. “For now, we’ll just follow the road to Elkhorn. I figure, from what Old Leo said, he couldn’t a gotten much more than a couple hours out before the storm would a made ‘im stop.”

“Talking is not going to find my son,” Murdoch barked. “Let’s go.”

Shrugging his heavy coat around him to ward off the cold wind, he looked over at Sam standing on the porch outside his office, his face ten years older than it was just yesterday. “Damn it, Johnny,” Val muttered. “When are ya going ta understand that people worry about ya, and want ta help?”

“Did you say something?” Scott asked, pulling up beside him.

“Naw, just thinkin’ out loud.”

Scott nodded and fell back to ride beside Murdoch. Nothing was going to be easy about this trip. Val knew it like he knew day followed night.


Pearl awoke to the sound of dripping water. Rain. She hated the rain. How it made everyone’s hair and clothes smell, how she’d be knee deep in mud. She listened, waiting to hear the camp come to life. Ma was always the first one up. If Pearl didn’t hurry she knew she’d feel the toe of Ma’s shoe in her back. But she was just so tired and so cold. A drop of water plunked on her forehead and she tried to brush it away as it tickled her cheek on its way to her chin. Her hand touched her sodden hair and she froze. It wasn’t only her hair that was dripping wet; her clothes were soaking as well.

Memories of thunder and lightning tugged at her mind. Opening her eyes, she found herself huddled against a boulder. There was no camp, no tents. Ma and Pa were nowhere in sight. Where there weren’t puddles of water, there was mud. She watched in fascination as tiny air bubbles burst on top of the puddles as the water seeped into the ground.  Water dripped from tree leaves and spilled down boulders and rocks like miniature waterfalls. Everywhere rainwater glistened in the bright morning sun. 

Suddenly Pearl remembered. “Johnny!”  She scrambled to her knees, startled to see the stolen pants and shirt, heavy with mud. Everything came back to her. Dolly and her revelation that the bitch, Abby, had stolen Johnny away from her. Her mad dash from the house, and her encounter with the boy. She smiled at how easily she had handled the boy. Ma and Pa would be proud of her. Then the rain came. 

She pushed away the thoughts; She was wasting time thinking. Murdoch and Scott Lancer would be after her. They still didn’t understand, never would, how much Johnny and her belonged together.

After climbing to her feet she tried to scrape the worst of the mud off her with her hands. She was cold now, but by noontime she would be wishing her clothes were wet again. One thing about living in the mountains, they were never as hot as it was here, down in the valley. Once she and Johnny were married, he would build her a cabin in the mountains overlooking the valley so he could still be reminded of home and never feel homesick. She would always make sure he was happy.

But first she had to get rid of Abby. Abby…Abby…Abby…She would cut the tongue out of the next person, man or woman, who said her name. 

Pulling her long hair back and knotting it at the base of her neck, she reached down and picked up the sodden hat and put it on. She didn’t expect to find anyone on the trail this early, but just in case, it was best she look like a young’n heading home.

She turned to untie her horse from the tree limb she had tied him to the night before and froze. The horse was gone. And so was the limb. No! No, it cain’t be! She’d tethered it good and tight. A sickening feeling spilled over her, colder than the rain drops falling off the leaves. Now what was she gonna do? Johnny would surely know that she was heading to Elkhorn and try to stop…no…why would he try to stop her? He would be appreciating that she loved him enough to get rid of Abby for them. But his family, they would try to stop her.

What was she going to do? Start walking? She didn’t know how far the next town was. Might be a day’s walk, or more, from here. Pearl remembered a house not too far back, with a corral full of horses. She’d head back that way. And if she was lucky, she’d meet someone on the way and steal their horse first. Save her the time of going all the way back. She felt the boy’s gun nestled in the waistband, against the curve of her back, and she had his knife in her boot. Pa always said God provided for them who was strong enough to fight for what they wanted. She wanted Johnny, and she would fight for him to the death.


Johnny hurt. Just about every part of him ached or throbbed. Heat from a fire burned too close, and he shifted to try to get away from it, igniting a pain in his arm so fierce that he couldn’t stop the ugly groan from passing his lips. 

Something was wrong. He tried to make sense of all of it, of any of it. He was cold and wet one second then burning up the next. The answer was just beyond his grasp and when he reached out to touch it…Dios! Pearl. He thought he’d gotten away. That he was safe in his own bed. That Murdoch and Scott were with him…How cruel could a dream be? He couldn’t stand another minute with her, with her disease ridden family. He sank back toward the blackness of unconsciousness and oblivion.

Abby! The name struck like a physical blow, grabbed at his heart and squeezed until he nearly cried out. Abby. And suddenly he remembered. Madre del Dios! Abby. Pearl was back and after Abby.

Weakly pushing the blankets off, Johnny struggled to climb to his knees. Water dripped from the entrance of the small cave he had stumbled on last night, a reminder of the storm that had forced him to stop. He prayed it had forced Pearl to stop too.

The chestnut stood, curious eyes watching him. The rawhide hobble had worked. But how the hell was he going to get into the saddle? He felt weaker than a day old kitten, and his left arm pounded with every beat of his heart. With clumsy fingers, Johnny opened his sodden shirt, and, clamping his teeth against the pain he knew was unavoidable, he guided his left arm back inside his shirt, the heat from the infection hot against his skin. Panting from the pain, he waited, willing his heart to slow its violent beating and to stave off the darkness that threatened to send him keeling over into unconsciousness again.

He waited. Precious time he didn’t have. But he had been here before. Hurt and alone, pushing back against pain and weakness. This time though, it wasn’t just his life he was trying to save…it was Abby’s. To lose her would be a far more painful death than any bullet or knife or…or even a damn spur of barbed wire. 

He waited. Gathering what strength he had left. Making plans. Talking softly to the chestnut making sure the horse wouldn’t bolt the minute he unhobbled him. His heart raged against the time lost. If only he had listened to Old Leo. Scott and Murdoch would have been here, helping. When had he started to allow them to see him hurt or sick – to watch his back, no matter what?  The thought of them at his side…it had become so natural. Why not this time? Why the hell not this time!  

Pushing back the self recriminations, he looked around for a way to get onto the chestnut. A newly fallen tree lay on the ground not far from the opening of the cave, its trunk scorched by lightning. He shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if he was under it when it was struck. 

He drew his knife out of his boot, every move slow and cumbersome, and cut the rawhide hobble. He reached up and grabbed the stirrup and pulled himself up to his feet, his legs nearly buckling beneath him. He only needed to get into the saddle. Only. Somehow that seemed like the funniest thought he had ever had and be began to laugh. Then it wasn’t so funny and he rested his cheek against the side of the saddle and tried not to cry. 

The horse shied back and Johnny fought to keep from being knocked back to the ground.

“Easy, boy,” he said, “you’re gonna have to work with me here. You and me both know I should a waited. But we’re on our own now, and we have to get to Abby in time”

Johnny grabbed the reins and staggered toward the downed tree. The chestnut followed without protest. He knew by the looks of the horse when he had first seen him in the stable that he was an intelligent animal and had been well taken care of. Just what he needed if he couldn’t have Barranca. He had taken a big chance, taking on the headstrong chestnut in his condition. But it had paid off. So far.

By the time Johnny walked the short distance to the tree he was already feeling faint. He prayed he would stay on his feet long enough to climb into the saddle. Positioning the horse next to the downed trunk, he climbed onto it with legs that felt like melting butter. With one tremendous lunge, he swung his leg up over the saddle and pushed himself until he was settled in the seat. The chestnut danced around, startled by the ungainly mount. “Its ok, boy. Its ok,” Johnny soothed. The horse settled and Johnny tapped him lightly with his spurs back toward the road, the chestnut fighting to gain a firm foothold in the slippery mud. He had already lost too much time. He started out with a slow lope, but even that was too much for his arm and he had to pull back to a fast walk. Every part of his being wanted him to kick the horse into a ground breaking gallop, but years of training had taught him to ignore his heart and do what was needed to get the job done. This job was the most important of his life. Settling down into the saddle, he closed his mind to everything but the road ahead. 


Scott was becoming more frustrated by the minute. The going was slow. The mud was thick, in places it was more like a bog. There was no sign of Johnny or Pearl passing this way, no way to tell how far ahead they were, or if they had even reached this far. 

He looked ahead at Val. The sheriff sat relaxed in the saddle, but Scott knew the man was aware of everything around him. He had watched Johnny do the same thing. As he traveled with Val Crawford he realized how much alike he and Johnny were. They were both woven from the same cloth, battered by life but not beaten. Johnny had never told him how they met or how long they had known each other. But there was a trust between them that only came with years of knowing someone. That is what Scott had been denied, and what hurt the most – To know that he’d had a brother, and could have grown up with him if circumstances had been different. No, not just circumstances, if people in their lives had acted differently. If Johnny’s mother hadn’t taken him away from Lancer at two or if his grandfather had not kept the secret that he had a brother. What might have been if he had known Johnny was out there somewhere? Could he have made a difference? Could he have saved his brother some of the pain he had gone through? No one would ever know.

Val held his hand up for them to stop and Scott pulled up next to him with Murdoch on the other side. 

“There ain’t no way of knowing who came through here, or when.” Val shifted in his saddle and Scott followed his gaze back the way they had come. The tracks of their horses filled in with mud as they watched. 

“The only thing we can do is keep going,” Murdoch said. “If Johnny was able, he would have been back on the trail at first light.”

Scott nodded. “We don’t have a choice. We just have to keep going until we reach Elkhorn and pray that we are there in time.”

“While you were getting yourselves together this mornin’,” Val said, turning back to the road and spurring his horse forward. “I woke Simpson up and had him send a telegram ta San Jose. It’s the nearest telegraph office to Elkhorn. If they got the same kind of weather we got it’ll take a rider a day or more to get there. But at least the sheriff can warn Abby. Sheriff Archer is a good man. He’ll do what he can.”

The three men fell silent again. The faint sound of thunder rumbled through the air. Another storm was on its way.


Johnny thought he must have made quite a sight, shoulders slumped and head bobbing to the slow sway of the chestnut’s walk. To the horse’s credit it stayed under him when he’d come perilously close to sliding out of the saddle. Either his owner had had more than one piece of bad luck or he liked to hit the bottle; either way, Johnny was thankful.

A light drizzle had begun to fall again, and now there was the faint sound of thunder in the distance, a harbinger of what might lie ahead. The cold rain didn’t really bother him anymore, he had his fever to keep him warm. Another thought to ponder as he rode along. 

How long had he been riding this time? An hour? Two hours? He didn’t even have the rhythm of the horse’s hoofs to mark the passage of time…they were stolen by a sea of thick mud. He hadn’t made much time yesterday before the storm forced him to stop, and this morning the sun had risen well before he woke up. Not like you, Johnny. Not like you at all. The sudden shriek of a scrub jay was nearly his undoing as he twisted his head up to see the bird. Abby loved jays. Abby…Everything returned to Abby.

One minute life was so uncomplicated, just standing outside Myrtle’s Café while Scott sweet-talked the waitress inside, when a fiery redhead turned his life upside down – nearly taking his head off because she had tripped over his boot. His boot, the boot that had been squarely under him, not stuck out on the boardwalk like she claimed. Boy was she mad. Johnny laughed gently, the memory bittersweet. When he had seen her the next week he couldn’t resist sticking that same boot out. This time she saw it and deliberately walked around it, misjudging the edge of the boardwalk and falling splat into a puddle of mud. The whole town heard her that time. It was Scott who held a hand out to help her up. But she had slapped it away and instead had looked up at Johnny’s grinning face. 

“A gentleman would help a lady, especially if it was the gentleman’s fault that the lady lost her balance.” She was suddenly all sweet smiles, sitting there with her skirt hiked up to her knees soaking up the mud. Johnny’s life had changed forever the moment he reached down to help her up. With a mighty tug he found himself flying through the air to land face first in the mud, Abby laughing triumphantly beside him. 

“There now,” she had said, “you won’t be mistaking me for a lady, will you.”

“I guess I won’t,” Johnny growled.

Johnny had sat in the mud for a long time after Scott helped her up, feeling like he had just been plowed over by a team of horses. He’d watched her walk away, head held high, shoulders straight, daring anyone to say anything about her muddy skirt. 

“Boy oh boy,” Johnny drawled, seeing the horse’s ears twitch at the sound of his voice, “she was mad that day. When you meet her, you mind your manners, caballo, ‘cause she’ll bite your head off if you’re not careful.”

Damn it! He couldn’t lose her. Not now, not when he knew what it felt like to love someone so completely. If she died, he didn’t want to live. 

The drizzle turned to a light but steady rain. He wondered how far ahead Pearl was. A tap of his spurs to the horse’s side and the chestnut picked up speed. It ratcheted up the pain in his arm, down his back, all the way to his legs, but better the pain than the thoughts of what might happen if Pearl reached Abby before he did. Abby was strong, a power to be reckoned with…but Pearl was out and out crazy. Abby didn’t stand a chance.

Johnny tried to reach back and grab the good memories with Abby, struggling to stay awake. No matter how hard he tried, his head still sagged forward, his chin nearly touching his chest. Suddenly another jay squawked and this time the chestnut nickered, suddenly veering off the road behind the blind of trees. Jolted awake, Johnny almost lost his balance and had to hold onto the pommel like a greenhorn. The sound of jangling tack reached his ears and he spotted three horses moving fast despite the mud. 

“Scott!” he yelled, but the name was lost in his dry throat. He tried to get the chestnut to move back onto the road, but the horse must have been well trained to take cover when a possible posse was approaching. 

Johnny jammed his spurs into the side of the horse, watching Scott, Murdoch and Val ride past him. The chestnut reared in anger, twisting toward an oak tree, Johnny’s knee brushing the trunk. Johnny clamped his legs, holding on until the horse rode out its anger and settled back down. By some miracle Johnny had stayed in the saddle, but Scott and Murdoch were long gone, and his one chance to get the help he so desperately needed was already out of sight.


Hating the feel of the wet pants and soggy shirt, Pearl walked along the road, keeping toward the trees, ready to jump behind them for cover. She’d been walking for close to an hour now, and not met a soul. No wonder with the roads as bad as they were. And the warmth from the sun she had expected never showed up. There was a chill to the air that cut right through to the bone. Maybe she could get clean clothes at the ranch house too. She’d catch her death in these wet things. 

As despondent as she felt earlier, she was feeling more optimistic now. She had a plan in mind. A good one. She might be a half day late getting to Elkhorn, but she’d get there, and still ahead of the Lancers. Pa was right. God did help those who helped themselves.

Suddenly Pearl froze in her tracks. The sound of tack jangling was the only warning that there were horses on the road ahead. The mud had muffled the sounds of their hooves and she had to admit her mind was in the clouds. Couldn’t let that happen again. She darted behind a tree trunk and waited for the horses to come into view.

She almost screamed when she saw Murdoch and Scott Lancer riding past her. The sheriff was with them too. He was no better than the Lancers, trying to keep her away from her Johnny. She didn’t expect them to be this close. She must a slept later than she thought. She pulled the boy’s gun from the back of her waistband. She could shoot them all. Kill them dead before they knew what hit ‘em. Murdoch had been mean, but not half as mean as Scott. She raised the gun and aimed at his back. He deserved killing. Johnny would thank her for it. Her finger started to pull the trigger.

It would all be over…except she’d never be able to kill all three. She wasn’t that good with a gun. How she wanted to kill him. To watch him fall off his horse, land face down in the mud where he belonged. But she would wait. Slowly she lowered her borrowed gun. Besides learning to read and write in that fancy school back east, they’d also taught her to stop and think. She had to be smart. Johnny depended on her to do the right thing. 

She would wait for a better time when they weren’t all together. She watched them slowly ride out of sight. Pearl fought back the tears. She weren’t no crybaby either. She’d do what she had to do.  First she had to have a horse. Resolute that she was doing the right thing, she stuffed the gun back in her pants and headed for the ranch house. Even if they made it to Elkhorn before she did, it didn’t mean that she wouldn’t have a chance of stopping Abby from ever being a part of Johnny’s life again.

.

Chapter Ten

“Not a sign of them,” Val growled, looking down at the muddy road, a torrent of rain cascading off the brim of his hat onto his rain slicker. “Either one of ‘em could a passed by here ten minutes ago and not left any tracks in this mud.” 

“But you don’t think they did, do you?” Murdoch asked. He was not the tracker that either Val or Johnny was, but he knew how to read signs. Even in this weather, after the last heavy shower, there should have been traces they had been there. At the very least, manure from two horses. 

“How do you know?” Scott demanded. Murdoch knew his nerves were pulled to their breaking point. As cold and miserable as they all felt in this wind-driven rain, they knew Johnny would be suffering twofold. 

“Manure, for one thing,” Murdoch said. “The last sign was miles back.”

“Then we backtrack and see if we missed something.” Scott started to turn his horse back, but Murdoch caught his arm. 

“And if we don’t find any?”

“We have to try. Johnny might not be thinking clearly. He’s hurt and…”

“Damn it! Don’t you think I know that? But if Johnny’s gone to ground, we’ll never find him.”

“So we just leave him out here, alone and hurt?”

“We do what we can. We do what your brother would expect us to do. We keep moving and pray we reach Elkhorn before Pearl does.”

Scott snatched his arm away from his father’s firm grasp. “It doesn’t take three men to ride to Elkhorn. You two ride on. I’ll backtrack awhile, see if I spot him.”

“No disrespect,” Val said, “but I know Johnny better than both of you combined. He’ll do everything he has ta to get to Elkhorn. But if anything happens to Abby while yer still out here looking for tracks, he’ll never forgive you.”

“I appreciate that, Val,” Scott said, “and I agree. But it still doesn’t mean all three of us have to ride to Elkhorn. I’ll backtrack a few miles…if I don’t see him…If I don’t see him I’ll rejoin you when I can.”

Murdoch nodded. He couldn’t talk Scott out of something he was not one hundred percent sure of himself. “Watch yourself. We don’t know where Pearl is. If you find Johnny and he isn’t fit to ride, get back to Green River and send a telegram to San Jose. We’ll get it somehow.”

“That will take too long. I’ll send a rider out as soon as I can.”

“Scott,” Val nudged his horse closer to Scott’s. “If you see that brother of yours before I do, tell him he’s getting’ a real tongue lashing from me.”

Scott smiled. “I’ll tell him you’re worried, Val. Good luck.”

“The same to you.” Val turned his horse back down the road and walked slowly away, leaving Murdoch and Scott time to talk. There was a history between Johnny and the sheriff, one that neither man seemed willing to divulge. They were so much alike in so many ways. Both were enigmas. They both held their past like a cloak around them. But Johnny had ventured further out of late, dropping many of his Madrid defenses. He was becoming more comfortable being part of a family. Val didn’t have that security. But he did have Johnny. And now Pearl Harkins had come back into their lives. Murdoch prayed that she didn’t destroy all they had worked so hard to gain.

Looking back at his son, Murdoch reached once more for Scott’s arm. “Take care of yourself, Son.”

“I will, Sir. And we’ll get Johnny back. I can’t believe anything else.”

“I know.”  Murdoch watched Scott pull away and turned back to catch up to Val. “I know,” he whispered fervently. 


Pearl had to admit to one thing, wearing her borrowed pants made it easier trudging through the mud than her long skirts. In fact, she was making such good time that she would be at the house in a couple of hours. With a new horse and maybe fresh clothes, she would be on her way again. But this time, when she bedded down for the night she would make sure she had her horse tied up good and tight. Ma always said it was the hard times that made ya strong, that taught ya a lesson. Pearl was learning her lessons…and it was hard. So hard. Her heart ached at the thought of Johnny letting another woman bed him. He was her man. Not Abby’s. She felt the gun pressed against the back of her waist. She also had that knife in her boot. Whichever way the bitch died, she would make sure she knew what she was dying for. 

Step, sink. Step, sink. Take a step, sink in the mud. Take a step, sink in the mud. Pearl’s thighs were beginning to ache. The rain had stopped, for now. But the heavy gray clouds promised more. Step sink. Step sink. Pearl wondered what Johnny was doing right now. Thinking about her – that’s what he was doing. Dolly would be telling him how they had planned that special dinner party. Then afterwards, when everyone, even Scott, realized how happy Johnny was, they would take a walk after dinner and plan a date for their wedding. She could feel his hand in hers…warm and strong. 

She thought back to the night that she had laid so close to Johnny. If it weren’t for his left hand being tied down, he would’ve had both arms around her. Still, that one arm told her everything she needed to know. He loved her. They belonged together. It would’ve been so nice to go to the reunion with him as her man. Best lookin’ man in all the clans.

Suddenly the nicker of a horse startled her from her daydream and she quickly darted off the road behind a thicket of oleander . If it was only one rider she would take his horse…she drew her gun, knowing she would use it if she had to.

Pearl’s heart crawled up her chest to lodge in her throat as she waited. She’d never killed a man before. But she could do it. She could do anything for Johnny.

The rain began again, making the heavy gun slippery in her hands. She needed both hands to hold it steady. The oleander blocked her view to the left and she had to wait. The horse’s head came into view and she pulled back the hammer,


Scott kept his horse to a walk, carefully studying the muddied ground for any sign of Johnny’s horse. He knew it was futile. But he had to try. He looked at every tree, their branches sagging under the weight of the wet leaves. He looked for breaks in the underbrush, everything he knew both Val and his father had done…but maybe, just maybe they had missed something. 

The truth was that he was driven by more than just worry over his brother. The guilt was killing him. He should have recognized Pearl. All he had to do was open his eyes. He’d known she seemed familiar. Why didn’t he pursue that thought? Why had he just walked away? 

Instead he let himself get caught up in Dolly’s arrival. She brought with her a little piece of Boston and her adventure of visiting a new land. It brought back the feelings he’d had when he first arrived. Even Pearl, hidden behind her veil, had added to the excitement. Excitement. Damn it to hell, it might well lead to him losing his brother. 

Suddenly he heard a rustling in the brush to his left, behind the stand of trees. 


Pearl waited until the rider was dead set in her sights, her finger trembling as she began to squeeze the trigger. She felt the cylinder begin to turn…


Johnny heard the report of the gun, felt it singe the top of his thigh. Instinct propelled him out of the saddle. He hit the ground hard, landing on his arm. He cried out in pain, he couldn’t help it. He fought to keep from passing out, rolling onto his back to draw his gun. He searched for a target, his eyes refusing to focus. 

“Johnny!” 

Johnny knew that voice. At first he thought it was Abby and he nearly called out her name. But why would she be ambushing him?

“Johnny!  Johnny!”

A boy ran out of the trees, gun swinging at his side, splashing mud as he barreled toward him. A boy with a gun in his hand was just as deadly as a grown man. Johnny knew that all too well. 

“No, Johnny! It’s me. Pearl!”

The gun wavered in Johnny’s hands. He couldn’t believe what he heard or saw, not with the fever playing with his mind. But the boy kept coming and kept shouting. 

“Pearl?” he asked, knowing his voice gave him away, told anyone, friend or enemy, just how weak he was. 

The boy dropped to his knees, grabbing the gun from Johnny’s hands. Johnny didn’t have the strength to fight him for it. 

“Oh, Johnny, what happened to ya? Johnny?” The boy ripped his hat off and a mop of wet blond hair spilled out. There was no mistaking that face. He’d seen it in his nightmares for months after the kidnapping. He hadn’t been free of her hold on him until Abby came into his life. Abby. If Pearl was here then Abby was safe.

“Pearl?” He reached up with a shaky hand and combed his fingers through her long hair. “How’d you find me, darlin’?” The words tasted foul in his mouth.

Pearl leaned down and kissed him full on the lips. Johnny fought not to gag…but he had to go along with this. It was the only way to keep Abby safe. “My horse spooked durin’ the storm last night,” she said breathlessly. “I was headed back for that ranch house a ways back. What happened, Johnny? What happened to ya?”

“Got bit by some barbed wire.”

“Let me look.” Pearl tried to pull Johnny’s injured arm from the protection of his shirt but Johnny pushed her hand back.

“No. Leave it. Nothing you can do about it here, anyway. What are you doing in that getup?” Johnny suddenly remembered the boy and cursed himself for not thinking about it when he first saw Pearl run out of the trees. If he had known it was her, would he have pulled the trigger? 

“I figured yer folks would be after me, so I traded the wagon for these clothes and a horse. Stupid horse was a feared of a little lightning.”

“That was more than just a little lightning. You’re lucky he didn’t throw you. You could have broken your neck.”  And that would have ended all their problems, Johnny thought. “Help me up.”

“I’ll get your horse.”

Johnny tried to grab her before she jumped to her feet. “Be easy with him. He don’t like strangers.”

“I know how to handle a horse, Johnny.”

As she walked away Johnny twisted his head back to watch her carefully approach the nervous horse. 

“Easy now…ya don’t have ta be a feared of me,” she said soothingly. “Johnny and me, we’re ta be married.” The words made Johnny’s skin crawl. She took another step closer, hand stretched out, palm turned up. Johnny had to admit she knew something about horses. But was it enough to gain the trust of the chestnut? “I lost my horse in the storm last night. But it looks like you took real good care of my Johnny. My name’s Pearl, Pearl Harkins…but pretty soon it’ll be Pearl Lancer. Mrs. Johnny Lancer to be exact.” 

Johnny gasped, the words ripping through him like a hot knife. Not again. Dios, not again. He reached for his gun, felt for it in the mud beside him, but realized she must have picked it up. He squeezed his eyes closed. Maybe this was just his fever talking. Maybe it was all just another bad dream. As much as he wished it was, he knew that it wasn’t.

The mud muffled the sound of the horse’s hooves and Johnny was startled when he felt the warm muzzle of the chestnut touch his cheek.

“He be a fine horse, Johnny,” Pearl said. “We made friends already. He got a name?”

Johnny realized he didn’t know what his owner had called him and he hadn’t taken time to give him a new one. “Don’t know.”

“Ma and Pa, they said all animals are jest that, animals, not deserving a name. But I liked how you named Barranca. It made him special. This here horse is special too. We got ta name him.”

Johnny almost laughed. He was lying here in the mud, his arm feeling like it was about to explode, his thigh burning from the bullet’s graze and a fever so hot he thought he could start a campfire with just a touch of his hand…and yet Pearl wanted to name the damn horse.

“We don’t have time for that right now, Pearl. I need help getting back on that nameless horse, and we’ve got to find some shelter. This storm’s not going to let up anytime soon.”

Pearl nodded. “We need to get to Elkhorn as soon as we can.”

“No!” Johnny dropped his head back into the mud. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t let Pearl know that he was worried about Abby. “I can’t make it that far. We’ve got to go back.”

“We can’t. Yer family don’t want us ta marry. They’ll stop us.”

Johnny forced a smile, the bile rising in his throat. “I won’t let them. We’ll go back and I’ll make them understand that I love you. And always have.”

Pearl jumped to her feet. “Then why was you gonna marry that Abby?”

He couldn’t answer that. Anything he said would just make her hatred for Abby stronger. He grabbed for his left arm hissing in pain. “I’m hurting, Pearl. Please, help me. We can stay in Green River until I’m fit to travel again, then we can go away. There’s no need for my family to know that I’m back.”

“They’ll know. Someone will tell them. That doc…that old man…he’ll tell ‘em. He never liked me.”

“We’ll stay out of sight. I promise. No one will know we’re there. But we’ve got to get going. It’ll be dark by the time we get there.”

“No. No town and no Lancer. But we can stay at Dolly’s. She knows how much we love each other. She was trying to make a surprise party fer ya. It was all planned. Then…”

Johnny saw the anger play over Pearl’s face and he knew he didn’t have a choice. He prayed that Dolly would forgive him. 

“Alright. We’ll go to Dolly’s.”

Pearl nodded. “We kin make it in a few hours if ya kin stand the ride.”

Johnny reached his arm out to Pearl. “I can do it, as long as you’re with me.”

Pearl’s grin spread from ear to ear. 

“Now we just have to figure how we’re gonna get me back up on that horse.”

.

Chapter Eleven

Scott heard a rustling in the brush to his left, behind a stand of trees. He pulled Charlemagne up short, his hand going automatically to his hip. His holster and gun had become so comfortable, so much a part of life, that he didn’t even have to think about it. He drew his gun, fighting to keep his horse steady. More than a tree limb cracking under the weight of the rain had startled the horse. Charlemagne threw his head back, pricking his ears, nostrils flaring. Scott could feel the muscles tense from muzzle to tail. He clamped his knees tightly around the horse. 

A screeching cry sliced through the sound of wind rushing through the trees and the steady roar of the rain. Charlemagne panicked and reared up, throwing himself sideways, slamming Scott against the trunk of an oak tree. Scott’s left shoulder and leg were pinned against the tree for an agonizing moment before the frenzied horse wheeled back in the other direction, whipping Scott out of the saddle. He landed with a bone-jarring splat into the muddy ground and froze. He had only heard the cry of a cougar once in his life, but that was enough. He heard the animal hiss and spit and Scott knew this next encounter might be his last.

As quietly as he could, Scott rolled to his right side, pulling himself through the mud, biting his lower lip to keep from screaming at the pain in his left leg and shoulder. He pushed himself up with his right hand until he was leaning against the tree. Taking long deep breaths to quell the pain and quiet his breathing, he waited. Somehow he had held onto his gun, listening to every amplified sound. The wind howled louder, the rain struck the branches and leaves of the trees harder, pounded the mud with an unrelenting staccato. He swept his gun to the left, following the crack of a branch that was not the sound of nature, but a predatory animal. 

He’d lost his hat and the rain ran down his face, making it hard to see. Another snap of a limb and he smelled wet fur. He watched and waited, forcing himself to breath evenly. Charlemagne was nowhere in sight. The horse would return, in time, Scott was sure of that, but what would he be returning to? He’d seen the remains of a cougar attack on cattle; he guessed it wouldn’t be much different for a human.

Scott heard a low guttural growl, still to his left, but closer now. He steadied his gun, slippery in the downpour, pulled the hammer back, and waited. Would the gun even fire? There was no telling how much mud was in the barrel. He saw a flash of dark tan through the curtain of rain and then the cougar walked out into the open. Scott guessed it weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds. It stood motionless, watching him. He remembered Johnny and Murdoch talking about taking down a cougar. You had to aim for its head. One bullet in the chest would only slow the cat down, not stop him.

Johnny…what if the cat had found Johnny? His brother wouldn’t have been in any condition to fight back. The thought sent bile surging up his throat. No, he couldn’t think that way. He had to focus on himself now. Save yourself so you can help others. It had been a motto he had learned in the army. 

Suddenly the cat screamed and Scott saw the massive body charging toward him. He held his breath, and fired. The cougar screamed as the bullet tore a gash above its left eye, staggering it for a moment. Then powerful muscles bunched and rippled beneath the tan fur as it leapt into the air. Scott saw blood dripping down its face and fangs bared, ready to sink into Scott’s throat as he pulled back the hammer again and fired, hitting it in the throat. The cougar seemed to stall in mid air, then crumpled in a heap, its massive paw landing on Scott’s right leg.

Stunned, Scott looked at the cougar, its dead eyes still targeted on his throat. The flow of adrenalin drained from Scott’s body and left him panting. He had stared death in the face before, but he couldn’t remember facing a more deadly adversary. With a shaking hand he lifted the giant paw from his leg and let it sink into the mud.

Darkness crept over him, deadening the sound of the wind and the rain. He slowly drifted into unconsciousness, his hand falling to the ground, his gun sinking into the mud.


Pearl dropped to her knees and slapped her hands against the mud in frustration. No matter what she tried, she couldn’t get Johnny back in the saddle. She wasn’t strong enough to lift him up herself, and his legs buckled beneath him every time he tried to climb into the saddle.

“You’ll die out here like this,” she yelled, crawling back over to him and lifting his head and shoulders into her lap. The rain was falling again, so hard that she feared the road would flood. “We gotta get ya onto that horse before ya drown. Come on, ya gotta help me.”

She leaned over him to keep the worst of the rain off his face as he pushed his head back on her lap to look up at her. “Can’t,” he breathed.

“Ya gotta. I waited so long fer ya. Here look…” She slid her hand under her soaking shirt and pulled out a crumbled piece of faded white lace. “Here, look, this be my weddin’ veil. On our wedding day, ya lift it off my face and kiss me…and tell me how much ya love me. I been waitin’ a long time, Johnny. Ain’t nothing gonna keep me from marryin’ my man.” She leaned down and brushed away the wet hair from his eyes and kissed his forehead. “Don’t ya see, Johnny? It’s God’s will. He wants us ta marry. Otherwise why would he hitch me up with Dolly? We just have ta get ta her place and everythin’ will be fine.”

Pearl saw his eyes slide closed and she knew he was feeling the same way. She’d seen the love in his eyes. She leaned down and kissed him again. “We’re gettin’ ya ta Dolly’s, Johnny. I promise.” 

After easing herself from beneath Johnny’s head, she grabbed a stack of branches she had gathered and arranged them to pillow his head out of the mud, then pushed herself up. She carefully approached the horse, knowing she couldn’t afford to spook him away now. He was their only chance of getting to Dolly’s. She grabbed the reins and gently stroked the chestnut’s neck while desperately trying to figure a way to get Johnny back into the saddle. There had to be a way.  Ma and Pa always said she was too smart for a woman. Had too many ideas not fitting a woman of the Harkins’ clan. Maybe, just maybe, one of them ideas would come to her now. She had to get Johnny into the saddle, but she couldn’t lift him and he couldn’t get up himself.

Suddenly an idea came to her and Pearl knew what she had to do. She was just tall enough to reach the rope tied to the pommel. She loosened the knot with fingers that were numb from the cold and the pouring rain, and looked up at the umbrella of branches formed by the oak tree. Somehow she had to get the rope over a sturdy branch. Ma said she should a been born a squirrel the way she liked to climb trees and now she was glad she’d climbed all those trees even if it meant a whomping.

Tying one end of the rope around her waist, she quickly climbed the trunk of the oak, finding footholds and small branches for her hands and feet. Never had she been so glad to be wearing pants. When she reached a branch high enough and strong enough, she carefully inched her way to the center of the bough. Clamping her legs around the rain slick limb, she dropped the loose end of the rope to the ground, watching it land next to Johnny, then quickly inched her way back to the trunk.

“I got me an idea,” she panted as she rushed back to Johnny, untying the rope from her waist. “But ya got ta trust me. It’s gonna hurt, but it’s the only way.”

Johnny looked up at her, blinking his eyes against the rain. He trusted her; she could see it in his eyes. 

“Now listen, I only got time ta tell ya once.” She talked while she formed a large noose. “I’m gonna put this rope around ya and then haul ya up into the saddle.”

Johnny suddenly looked scared and she dropped to her knees, caressing his face, leaning down to his lips to kiss away the worry. “Don’t worry none, I know it’s gonna work.”

“Pearl, no…” 

Pearl grabbed his right hand, the hand that he was trying to raise to caress her face. “It’ll be fine. I promise. Ya got ta trust me, Johnny.”

It wasn’t as easy as she had first thought. She struggled against his weight, just pushing him up out of the mud far enough to loop the rope around his chest. He groaned with the pain, and each time he gasped she felt a shock of pain herself. The worst was getting his injured arm out of his shirt where he had it nestled, so she could bring the rope up under his armpits. When she felt certain that the rope was in the right place, she laid him back down and brushed the sodden black hair off his forehead.

“When I get ya up over the horse, you’re gonna have ta move them legs ta sit in the saddle. Ya understand?”

“It won’t work,” Johnny said, his breaths coming in painful gasps. “Please, Pearl, it won’t work.”

“A course it will. We’ll be at Dolly’s before ya know it.” She leaned down and kissed him one last time, feeling his soft lips touch hers. If she had more time she would have explored that mouth more, but there would be time for that when she got him to safety. “I love ya, Johnny.”

If she had thought getting the rope around Johnny was hard, she found that trying to hoist a hundred and sixty pounds of dead weight was beyond her strength. She was only hurting him now, pulling him a little way off the ground, before her aching arms had to let him fall back into the mud again. Panic threatened to seize her, but she had to stay strong. Johnny was depending on her. She ran over to him and dropped to her knees. “Johnny, Johnny are ya alright?” 

“Pearl, please, it won’t work…”

“Yes it will. I just got ta figure it out.” She looked at the horse waiting for them. She needed the horse to pull him up, but then how was she gonna get him in the saddle. She sat for a long time in the rain, gently patting Johnny’s shoulder as she thought. Suddenly she jumped to her knees and leaned over and kissed Johnny full on the lips again. “I got an idea.” 

“I saw Pa do this once when he had ta lift a tree off ole Ezra,” Pearl called back as she grabbed the loose end of the rope and used the knife hidden in her boot to cut off a four foot section. “It were just me and ‘im, an I was too little ta help.” It was hard working with the rope in the rain; her hands were already red and swollen from the rough rope. Tying a slip knot four feet from the end of the rope, she slipped the cut piece of rope through the knot and tied it securely, yanking on it to make sure it would hold. “Ole Ezra ended up dying, his innards was all stove in, but the rope worked.”

Running her hand along the chestnut’s side to calm him, she mounted the horse and wound the long end of the rope around the pommel. “Ok, Johnny, hang on, I’m gonna pull ya up now.”  She eased the horse forward slowly, feeling the slack come out of the rope, trying to ignore the awful groans from Johnny as he was lifted out of the mud. Casting worried looks back at Johnny, she walked the horse over to the next tree, hoping it was the right distance, and tied the short section of rope around the stump of a strong branch.  

Her heart pounded in her chest at the sight of Johnny dangling five feet off the ground, and Pearl prayed her idea would work. She held her breath and cut the rope around the pommel. The section of rope tied to the branch snapped taut as it took Johnny’s full weight.  

“We did it, Johnny!” she cried. “We did it!” Guiding the horse back toward Johnny, she eased the chestnut close enough that his leg was touching the saddle. 

“Come on, Johnny, I need yer help. Swing yer leg over the saddle.”

She could see that Johnny was trying. She helped him lift his leg up and over the saddle and centered the horse beneath him before she cut the rope. He dropped the last few inches into the saddle and she almost lost him as he swayed precariously to the left but she hauled him back. 

 “Ya done good, Johnny. Ya done real good. Kin ya get your feet into the stirrups?” She felt his legs moving weakly, and he groaned with the effort , but he did it and she wanted to kiss him so much. “Now, I know yer not gonna like this much, but I cain’t let ya slip off this horse cause we don’t have enough rope left ta get ya back on.” Loosening the rope just enough so she could slip it down to his waist, Pearl reached around Johnny. She looped the rope around the pommel and back around his waist, tying it off.

“I know yer hurting, Johnny,” she said as she eased his injured arm back into his shirt, hoping the makeshift sling would make the ride just a little easier. “But we’ll be at Dolly’s afore ya know it.”

Pressing her cheek against Johnny’s back, she grabbed the reins and kicked her heels against the horse’s side. “Ya hang on, Johnny, we’ll have ya safe an warm in no time.”

As she eased the horse into a gentle lope, Pearl smiled. It would take a few days for her man ta heal, and then she’d be Mrs. Johnny Lancer.


Johnny couldn’t believe Pearl had actually pulled it off. Somehow he was back in the saddle, feeling her tying a rope around his waist. It seemed fitting. There was no other way to call it; he was her prisoner…again.

But Pearl’s idea had cost him. His arm no longer hurt, it was just a numb weight pulling down at his shoulder, but his chest ached and it was hard to breathe. His lungs already compromised by the fever and freezing rain, ached with each breath. 

She mumbled words behind him, words he couldn’t, didn’t want to hear as she snuggled tightly against his back, her arms encircling his waist. Thoughts of what she wanted from him almost made him sick. He was helpless in almost every way…except that he could protect Abby, by being the man Pearl wanted him to be. He’d do anything to keep Abby safe. Dios, he couldn’t think of Abby now. He couldn’t take a chance that her name would slip past his lips. Pearl was crazy. But she was smart and that made her all the more dangerous. 

As the rain drenched him, making him feel even more miserable than he thought possible, he drifted toward the blackness that would protect him for now. Pearl’s voice and the feel of her hands caressing his chest faded away.


Scott was cold. So cold that he could hear his teeth chatter. How long ago had he found himself propped up against this tree? He couldn’t remember. The dead cougar’s paw lay just inches from his thigh, its eyes still open, glazed over in death. Never would he have thought his demise would come from the fangs of a predatory animal. 

He tried to shift position. His left arm and leg were one mass of hurt. Gingerly he reached over with his right hand and slipped it beneath his rain slicker, feeling for broken bones. Though his arm and leg pulsed with pain, he couldn’t find anything broken. He suspected deep bruising and torn muscles…injuries that could be every bit as painful as a broken bone. Scott sighed in frustration. This was all he needed. Johnny was out here somewhere, and so was Pearl. How was he supposed to find either one of them when he could barely move? And without a horse. 

There was no telling how far Charlemagne had run in his panic. And as long as the cat lay next to him, the horse would not venture close. Steeling himself against the pain, he tried to lever himself up with his right hand, only to have it sink deeper into the mud. Again and again he tried, but his hand and foot simply displaced the mud, the mire quickly rushing in to fill up the ruts. The cat hadn’t killed him, neither would his injuries. But the mud could, and would, if he couldn’t free himself. 

He tried to wipe the rain from his eyes but it was a lost cause. The rain was coming down steady and hard. Already the road was beginning to flood. If it didn’t stop soon he would have more than just the mud to worry about. 

Damn it. He should have stayed with Murdoch and Val. Wherever Johnny was, if he could, he would have holed up somewhere and no one could find him anyway. Now there was a possibility that Murdoch would lose both sons. All because of Pearl Harkins. 

Just the thought of her made his skin crawl. If only he had acted on his suspicions. In hindsight it was so obvious who she was. He couldn’t bear to think what she might do if she reached Abby before Murdoch or Val got to Elkhorn. But he could never have lived with himself if he hadn’t backtracked. What if he found out later that Johnny was within reach of help, his help, and he had not attempted to find him? Sometimes there were worse things than death.

Scott leaned his head back against the tree. “Come on, damn it!” he shouted. “Think! There has to be a way.”

Everything around him was covered by mud. As he watched he could see his legs beginning to disappear. If he didn’t move now he would never have another chance.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he flung his right arm over his left shoulder as hard as he could, the momentum dragging his body away from the tree to land face down in the mud. He jerked his head up out of the mire, spitting the mud out of his mouth. His left side burned like it was on fire, but he didn’t have time to nurse torn muscles. He reached under the mud, searching for something to grab. He found a root of the tree he had been leaning against and pulled himself forward. He searched with his right foot to find something he could use to push against. With painstaking slowness, he inched away from the tree and the cat. Three feet felt like three miles, exhaustion and the cold mud leaching the life out of him. Johnny wasn’t the only one who needed help.


Pearl kept to the edge of the road, ready to dart behind the copse of trees if she saw someone coming. With the rain and the mud there was little chance that she would meet someone else out here today. She tried to think how long it took her to get from Green River to the place she had stopped last night. Probably only a few hours, since it was already getting dark when she had left town. With any luck, even with the rain and mud, she would reach the outskirts of town in a couple more hours. And luck is what she needed. Johnny was getting harder and harder to hold upright in the saddle. Even in the cold rain she could feel the fever through his soaking shirt. He’d come around every once in awhile, giving her hope that he was still fighting. But she could feel that he was getting weaker. He was developing a nasty cough and Pearl knew what that meant. 

She had thought about stopping at the ranch she had seen on her way out, but decided against it. Dolly’s house was where she wanted to be. Dolly would understand that she needed to be with Johnny at all times. She would nurse him and take care of all his needs. That’s what a man and a woman did when they loved each other. Johnny would appreciate her not letting anyone else paw him, even if they thought they were doing good. She remembered what that doctor had done to him when she was at Lancer. Johnny looked worse than dead by the time the healer was done with him. No, it had to be her that took care of him. 

“Come on, Johnny, I’m guessin’ we only got a little ways ta go. Dolly’s gonna be so surprised to see us. Ya know, she wants ta be in our wedding, said she’d give me away, whatever that means. Must be somethin’ special cause she was pretty happy about it.”

She felt Johnny shift in the saddle and mumble a few words. He must a heard her. “That’s right, Johnny. It’s gonna be the most special weddin’. ‘course we got to make sure yer family don’t interfere. Too bad Ma and Pa couldn’t be there. Ya think maybe we could send fer ‘em? I mean, they was wrong in what they did to ya, but it was only ‘cause they thought it was best fer me. Cain’t say the same ‘bout yer family. They just don’t want ya ta be happy. If I had my way, I’d kill the whole lot of ‘em. First I gotta make sure that bitch, Abby, don’t try ta get ya back. Ya don’t belong ta her. Ya belongs ta me.”

Pearl felt Johnny’s shoulders jerk at the mention of Abby’s name. Even her name hurt him. Abby was like a sickness in him.

“Ya don’t worry, Johnny. I’m gonna take good care of ya. No one is gonna hurt you no more.”

As if God was looking down on her and wanted her to be happy, the rain tapered off and stopped. 

“Ya see, Johnny, we was meant ta be.”

.

Chapter Twelve

The rain had tapered off, and now it had come to a complete stop, though it did little to make life any easier for Scott as he struggled to crawl away from the scent of the cougar. Charlemagne might come back, if the horse hadn’t fled too far. The scent of a predatory animal like a cougar overrode any training, and Scott was well aware that his horse could be miles away by now. And with the prospect of no one traveling on roads this bad, Scott knew he was in deep, deep trouble. 

He dropped his head and used his good arm as a pillow. Who was going to rescue the rescuer? Maybe Pearl would come along. That thought struck him as funny and he laughed out loud, the sound drifting away. He thought of her the last time he had seen her, hidden behind the veil. There were a lot of regrets he had in his life, but none as painful as that one. He could have stopped all this if he had only listened to his instincts.

Damn, but he couldn’t do this to himself. Hindsight was a deep hole he couldn’t allow himself to fall into. It had the ability to drown a man in his own guilt. He hadn’t recognized Pearl and that was that. He’d had no reason to think it might have been her, not with her Eastern accent, no matter how poor, and the fact that she was traveling as Dolly’s companion. He would have had to be a mind reader to realize who she was. Still it hurt to know that he could have headed all this off if he had acted on that nagging suspicion that all was not right with the veiled lady. Scott closed his eyes, he was just so tired and so cold. He just needed a little sleep.  Then he’d start again.

“Scott!”

Scott blinked his eyes open. Someone large was leaning over him. Murdoch? Thank God, Murdoch.

“Scott, what happened?”

The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t Murdoch’s. Scott tried to wipe his eyes clear but only managed to smear more mud across them.

“Take it easy, son. What happened? Close your eyes now, let me get some of that mud off your face.”

Scott complied. It certainly wasn’t Pearl, and whoever it was knew him by name.

As his eyes cleared, Scott finally recognized the man hovering over him. “Mr.Rawls?” 

Mr. Rawls nodded. “Your horse came stampeding onto my property like the devil himself was on his tail. Took me a few minutes to calm him down. Thought I recognized him, then when I saw the brand I was sure. What happened?”

“Cougar.”  

“Then you’re lucky to be alive. Did he get you?”

Scott shook his head. “Horse rammed me into a tree when he heard the cougar scream.”

“You’re favoring that left side. Anything broken?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, let’s take a look before I lift you up. Don’t want to hurt you more. What the hell were you doing out here in weather like this? Must have been mighty important.”

Scott gritted his teeth as Rawls began squeezing and prodding his left arm and leg. 

“Looking for Johnny,” Scott managed to say. “He was hurt…”

Rawls sat back on his haunches. “I can’t find any broken bones, but I’m not a doctor.” He flashed a smile, patting Scott on the shoulder. “But I think we can get you on my horse and get you to my place. The missus knows more about doctoring than I do.”

“I was looking for Johnny…”

“So you said. But I didn’t see signs of anyone else out here. Let’s get you fixed up, then we can talk about your brother.”

Scott tried to keep from groaning as Rawls helped him to his feet, giving him time to find a firm foothold in the mud with his right foot. Thankfully, Rawls was a big man, as tall as Murdoch, but leaner, and every bit as strong. With a yelp of pain, Scott found himself shoved up into the saddle. Rawls climbed on behind him, and Scott felt the horse slowly turn around to head back down the road.


Johnny was only half aware. The unsteady cadence as the horse slipped and corrected its steps in the thick mud kept him on the top side of consciousness. Every once in a while he’d feel Pearl’s arm pull him in tighter against her as he listed. He would do anything not to have to depend on her, but she was his only hope of getting the care he needed. If he didn’t make it, he had no doubt that Pearl would still carry out her vendetta against Abby. 

He was too tired to open his eyes. The fever had sucked all his energy out like the sun sucked the moisture out of a water starved plant. He could almost envision himself crumbling like a dry leaf at the smallest touch. 

“We’ll be there soon, Johnny,” Pearl whispered in his ear and he cringed at the feel of her breath on his neck. He almost wished he could fall into the blackness of unconsciousness where he wouldn’t have to think about what he would have to do to keep Abby safe. The only thing that could save the woman he loved was to make the woman he loathed think she was his one and only. 

Johnny felt Pearl pull the horse to a stop. “There be Green River,” she said. And Johnny felt her tug the reins to the right.

“Wait…” He could hardly get the words out and hoped Pearl heard them. “Sam…Sam can help.”

“No!” Johnny felt Pearl wrench the reins harder to the right, the horse dancing in defiance beneath them. For a moment Johnny feared that they would both be bucked off. But Pearl got the chestnut under control and kicked him gently in the sides to get him to move faster. 

“Sam’ll try ta take ya away from me. He never liked me. Blamed me fer everythin’ that happened ta ya. We ain’t safe with ‘im. Dolly…we be safe with Dolly.”

The chestnut settled into a fast lope, reawakening the pain in Johnny’s arm. They were so close to Green River, so close to help, and yet he might as well have been in the next state. Pearl would do what she wanted to do. The only hope he had was that once they reached Dolly’s he would regain his strength before Pearl decided to head back toward Elkhorn and Abby.


“Drink this.” Mrs. Rawls handed Scott a steaming cup of coffee laced with whiskey. “You’ve got to get your insides warm too. Land a gracious, what were you doing out there on a day like this?”

“He was looking for Johnny,” Ellison Rawls said over his shoulder as he held a blanket in front of a roaring fire. Satisfied that it was warm enough, he walked across the small living room and draped it over the mound of blankets already piled over Scott’s naked body. Ellison had stripped him as soon as they got to the house, and, to his Scott’s embarrassment, Mrs. Rawls had helped. 

“Johnny is out in this weather too?  Oh Ellis, maybe you should be looking for him too.”

“I wish I could.” Ellison looked out the window. “It’s already dark. I’ll go out tomorrow.” He looked back at Scott. “Sorry, Son, but there is nothing I can do.”

“Whatever were you two thinking?” Mrs. Rawls sighed.

“It’s a long story,” Scott answered, dejection in his voice. Any chance he might have had of finding Johnny ended the minute he was thrown from his horse.

“Whatever it was, it must have been mighty important.” Ellison dragged a straight backed chair closer to the sofa. “You and Johnny must know what this kind of weather can do to a man who gets caught out in it.” 

Scott closed his eyes, feeling the effects of the whiskey-laced coffee. There was no reason he couldn’t tell Ellison the truth. He had been one of the men searching for Johnny when the Harkins took his brother. “Pearl Harkins is back.”

“Good Lord. How?” Mrs. Rawls asked.

Scott was tired, angry and despondent as he told them everything. When he was done only the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth cut the silence. Scott was finding it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. The only thing that kept him awake was the thought of Johnny. 

Ellison finally broke the silence. “You didn’t see any signs of either Johnny or the Harkins girl?” 

“No. But the weather was so bad…and the cougar…”

Ellison leaned forward. “If you’re worried about that cat getting your brother then rest your mind. If he…well, if the cat had taken down another man he wouldn’t have bothered with you. He’d have been busy with his kill. Whatever happened to Johnny it wasn’t that cougar.”

That thought did ease his mind, a little. But the realization that Johnny was still out there somewhere raked at his conscience. If only Rawls could have found Johnny as easily. A thought came to mind. “Mr. Rawls…how did you know where to find me?”

“You can thank Anna for that,” he said, looking toward his wife with pride. “She noticed the goldenrod stuck to your horse’s saddle. Only one place it grows around here. I took a chance and looked there first. Good thing I did, another hour in that mud and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Now it’s time you got some sleep. We’ll talk more when you wake up in the morning.”

“No, I have to find Johnny…I can’t leave him out there…” 

Ellison pushed him back down into the soft sofa easily. Scott couldn’t fight Ellison and the warm fire the whiskey or his own body’s need for rest.

He fell into a deep sleep, his last thought of Johnny, out there somewhere…waiting…


“I really wish you had gone back home tonight, dear.” Dolly pulled the curtains away from the window and looked out into the blackness. The rain had stopped hours ago, but thick mud still covered the ground. She shivered, and not just from the cold. “Senora Alto is here and Jake is in the bunkhouse. I’ll be just fine.”

She heard the crackle and spit of more wood being added to the already roaring fire in the hearth. She turned to see Teresa looking into the flames. Dolly thought she looked so lost. 

“Everyone has gone looking for Johnny,” Teresa said so softly Dolly almost didn’t hear her. “I’d rather be here, with you, if you don’t mind.”

Dolly let the curtain slide back over the window, crossing the room to pull Teresa into her arms. 

“Of course I don’t, child. Of course I don’t.” Teresa’s shoulders shook as the tears began to flow. Dolly held her close, letting the young woman cry it out. She wished she could do the same. But she didn’t have the right to cry in front of this woman, or even alone. She was to blame for so much of this. If she had not brought Pearl into her life – into her house. Dolly remembered feeling almost paralyzed after hearing what Johnny had gone through at the hands of Pearl and her family. To think that she had been a part of Pearl’s scheme to get Johnny back. It sickened her. 

“Besides.” Teresa pushed herself out of Dolly’s embrace, wiping angrily at her tears. “Senor Alto will be here soon to pick up the Senora. He doesn’t want her here as long as Pearl is around.”

“I can understand his concern,” Dolly said. “You have all lived through a dreadful experience with her and her family. I can’t imagine how hard it is for all of you to relive this nightmare. But we have nothing to fear here, Pearl is well on her way to Elkhorn. I just pray she doesn’t find Abby.”

“I just can’t believe this is all happening. Not when Johnny and Abby…It would destroy Johnny if anything happened to Abby.” 

“We need to stay strong… for them…for everyone. I know it is so hard to wait, but that is what we must do. Now, why don’t we ask Senora Alto to join us until her husband arrives. I’m sure she is feeling just as bad as we are.”

Teresa nodded. “That’s a good idea. I’ll get her right away.” Teresa turned to go then looked back. Dolly saw the emotions play across the young woman’s face, and beneath the red eyes and drawn mouth she saw the courage of a woman twice her age. She walked back to the window and looked out into the darkness and prayed for them all.


The storm had passed and Pearl could see Dolly’s house bathed in the soft silvery light of the rising full moon. Her arms ached from holding Johnny in the saddle. He had moaned softly and melted against her an hour ago. If not for the sounds of his breathing she would have thought he had passed on. 

“We be here,” she whispered into his ear. She clicked her tongue and urged the horse to get a little closer to the house. Light spilled from the downstairs windows, but the upstairs was dark. To the left of the house she could see light coming from the bunkhouse. She remembered there was always one man who kept guard. 

The sound of a buckboard made her pull the chestnut back until she was sure she couldn’t be seen beneath the heavy shadows of a tree. She watched Senora Alto climb onto the seat next to her husband and slowly disappear into the darkness. Dolly stood in the doorway waving her goodbye. It was so good to see her. She was the only friend Pearl had. And Johnny of course. She kissed the back of his neck, wishing she could kiss him like he liked to be kissed, full and passionately as they lay side by side. “Soon,” she breathed, “very soon.”  

Pearl reached behind her and felt for the gun. The man in the bunkhouse could be a problem. She would have to take care of him if he tried to interfere. But the most important thing right now was getting Johnny in the house and warm. The mud was still caked on his clothes and so cold it almost made her arms numb.

She tapped the horse with her heels and walked him up to the porch. 

“We be here, Johnny,” she whispered in his ear. “We be here.”

She looked toward the front door, knowing all would be right once Dolly was there.

“Dolly! Dolly, we needs help!”


“Why don’t I make us some tea?” Dolly suggested. Now that Senora Alto was gone, the house seemed so much bigger, so much colder. She wondered how they would make it through the next few days until they heard word, one way or the other.

Teresa looked up from the sofa, her legs pulled up and hidden beneath her skirt. She looked so sad and vulnerable. Dolly wished she knew the words that would make her feel better, but she was fighting the same feelings. 

“Thank you. That would be nice. Do you need help?”

“Nonsense. I’ve been brewing tea long before you were ever thought of. Now, I know it’s hard, but try to relax. We have a long night ahead of…”

“Dolly! Dolly, we needs help!” 

Dolly’s senses reeled. She recognized the voice coming from outside. Not the accent, but the voice. Dolly looked down at Teresa for a long moment, seeing the recognition dawn on the young woman’s face. “It’s Pearl!” 

“What is she doing back here?” Dolly looked toward the door, her heart hammering in her chest. 

Dolly reached blindly for Teresa’s hand. “We need Jake,” Dolly whispered, not knowing why she kept her voice so low. No one could hear her from outside.

“I can’t leave you alone with her.”

“Yes, you can, and you will. Pearl has no reason to believe that I won’t help her. Now go before…”

“Johnny, he be hurting bad, real bad!” Pearl called and both women froze.

“No,” Teresa breathed, and before Dolly could catch her, she was running across the room toward the door.

Dolly rushed after Teresa as the girl yanked the front door open, and froze. Dolly nearly bowled her over before she too froze. In the light from the open door Dolly could see Pearl’s arms clenched around a man who was slumped forward in the saddle. 

“Johnny!” Teresa screamed, and Dolly saw Pearl whip her hand behind her back. A gun appeared in Pearl’s hand.

“No, Pearl.” Dolly stepped between them. “She won’t hurt you. We won’t hurt you. We just want to help Johnny.”

“She wants ta take him away from me.”

“She only wants to help.” Dolly took a step forward, her hand extended. “We have to get Johnny in the house. But we can’t do it without Teresa’s help.”

Pearl seemed to think about it. But her decision was made for her when Johnny began to slip out of her hold. For the first time Dolly realized that Johnny was tied to the saddle at the waist as he hung like a limp rag doll against the rope.

There was nothing she or Teresa could do to break Johnny’s fall as Pearl cut the rope and  he slid out of the saddle onto the ground. He landed on top of Teresa, all dead weight, and she saw the terror in the young woman’s eyes as she tried to gather him in her arms. Dolly dropped to her knees trying to help her.

Pearl jumped down, gun still in hand and pushed Dolly aside. “He be mine ta take care of.”

Dolly was taken aback at the sound of Pearl’s crude English. This was not the girl she had met on the stage – the one who hid behind her veil in gleeful anticipation of seeing her betrothed. This was a woman completely out of control. A woman who was a danger to everyone 

“And you can take care of him, once we have him in the house.”

Pearl locked eyes with Teresa, and to the young girl’s credit, Dolly saw that Teresa backed down. 

Dolly surreptitiously looked over Pearl’s shoulder at the bunkhouse. Jake evidently hadn’t heard a thing. The door remained closed. Somehow they needed to get to him. 

“Pearl, you and Teresa take his shoulders, I’ll take his legs.”

Pearl took one last glance around then stuffed her gun back behind her and leaned down, her hair covering Johnny face. “It be alright, Johnny,” she said, kissing him on the forehead. “We’ll get ya in ta the house now. I won’t let nothin’ happen to ya. I promise.”

Dolly saw Teresa cringe, and hoped the girl could keep her temper. She had to. 

“Alright, are you ready?” When she saw that Teresa and Pearl had a good hold of Johnny, she nodded and tried to lift his legs. Never before had she realized just how old she really was. She barely had the strength to lift his legs. 

“Dear Lord, if you are looking down on us now, please help us,” she prayed as the three women struggled to carry Johnny towards the front door.

.

Chapter Thirteen

It took all of Pearl’s self control to keep from aiming her borrowed gun at Teresa and killing her for having her hands all over Johnny, tugging at his clothes and feeling his forehead as if he was her man. The way she leaned down close to his mouth to listen to his breathing. She had no right. Johnny loved her, not Teresa or the other bitch, Abby. The only thing that saved Teresa was the memory Pearl had of the last time Johnny was hurtin’. Teresa had helped him then. She was a good healer, and as long as she helped Johnny, Pearl would put a leash on her anger. But she was gonna watch her like a hawk watches a snake. And keep her gun handy too. 

Johnny lay on the floor in front of the fireplace. He hadn’t moved a muscle while Dolly and Teresa helped carry him through the front room to the parlor. Dolly said it would be the warmest room in the house. Pearl wanted to take him upstairs to her room, to her bed. To lay next to him, her body warming his. But Dolly was right, they had barely got him this far without dropping him. The stairs would have been impossible.

He looked so pale in the flickering light from the fireplace. She remembered how he looked as she watched him from her bedroom window as he arrived with his family for dinner, how long ago now? It seemed like years. It was supposed to be so perfect. Her heart had nearly burst with love and excitement. They had been apart for so long…

“Pearl, help us get him out of these wet clothes,” Dolly panted as she pulled Johnny’s mud caked boots off. Pearl dropped to her knees and started unbuttoning the conchos on Johnny’s pants. She was so cold she could barely get her fingers to work the silver buttons loose. It seemed like forever since she had felt warm and dry. Not since Johnny had laid beside her in the camp, his warm body keeping the night chill away. Suddenly warm hands cupped her cold ones and Pearl looked up to see Dolly’s worried face. “You are frozen to the bone, child. Why don’t you run upstairs and change into something dry. We’ll take care of Johnny.”

Pearl pulled her hands back. She’d forgotten that she was wearing the boy’s borrowed clothes. Still soaking wet, there was a puddle of rain water forming beneath her.  But that didn’t matter.  “He be mine ta take care of.”

“Pearl,” Teresa said, beginning to unbuckle Johnny’s gunbelt, “you can’t take care of him if you get sick yourself.” 

“No!” She flung around and shoved Teresa back, satisfied when she heard the girl yelp in surprise when her elbow hit the stone hearth. “Ya leaves him be,” Pearl yelled, “I told ya, he be mine ta take care of.” 

“Pearl.” Dolly grabbed her hands again. “This is not helping Johnny. We have to get these wet clothes off him before pneumonia sets in.”

Pearl looked down at Johnny again, hearing his raspy breaths. She knew that once a man got to coughing and wheezing he was done for. His breathing seemed to get worse after she had gotten him onto the horse. Pearl nodded reluctantly.  But she was still the hawk watching the snake.

They all worked silently together. Pearl used her knife to cut away the left sleeve from Johnny’s shirt, making sure Teresa could see that she knew how to use the blade. Teresa dealt with the sleeve and bandage on his left arm while Pearl lifted Johnny’s shoulders just enough to pull the soaking shirt from beneath him. Dolly had just thrown Johnny’s pants into the pile of muddy, wet clothes when she stopped to look at an angry trough in his left thigh just below his cutoff long johns.

“Looks like he was grazed by a bullet,” Teresa said, glancing at the wound. Pearl felt her stomach flip upside down. She thought she’d missed him. Teresa was looking at her now, accusing her.  Pearl’s anger rose. It wasn’t her fault. It was all Teresa’s fault. If she hadn’t sent her away, if she’d left Johnny and her alone, they’d be wed now, and happy. 

“Pearl,” Teresa said, her voice sending shivers up Pearl’s arms. She felt the borrowed gun heavy against the back of her waist as she watched Teresa feel Johnny’s forehead and cup her fingers around his right wrist. “I’m not sure I can help him. He needs a doctor. His fever is too high and his pulse is too fast. He needs Dr. Jenkins. I promise, no one else but Sam will know you’re here. Please, Pearl, Johnny needs…”

“Shut up!” Pearl pulled the gun and aimed it at Teresa, for real this time. “Sam Jenkins hates me, hates that me and Johnny love each other. He’d kill Johnny just ta keep us apart.” The thought came to Pearl and she saw it in Teresa’s eyes. She’d do anything to keep her and Johnny from weddin’ too. “If my Johnny dies, you dies too.”

“Pearl.” Dolly gently laid her hand on Pearl’s wrist, pushing the gun away from Teresa. “Teresa will do everything she can to help Johnny. She loves him too. Like a sister loves a brother. You can understand that. A sister’s love for her brother.”

“It don’t matter if a woman is kin, not when a man’s hungry.”

Pearl saw Teresa’s eyes flare with anger. “Johnny’s not like that. And you know it! He’s a good a man and he has always treated me with nothing but respect. And he treated you with more respect than you ever deserved.”

The gun rose again, and Pearl pulled back the hammer.

“Stop it, both of you!” Dolly yelled. “Teresa, tell us what we need to do. Pearl, you will listen to her if you want to save Johnny.”

Teresa’s eyes bored into Pearl’s a moment longer, then she was looking down at Johnny again. Pearl eased the hammer back. Dolly was right. She did need Teresa. For now.

“We need warm water and soap,” Teresa said. “There’s a box of medical supplies Maria sent over. We’ll need those too. Sheets to make into bandages and more blankets and pillows. We’ll need cool water to bring his fever down and set a kettle on the stove to boil for willow bark tea.”

Dolly nodded. “I’ll get what we need and be right back. Pearl, Teresa cares for Johnny too. She will do everything she can to help him. But you have to help. Pearl, you have to put your feelings aside for now, for Johnny’s sake. That’s what we do when we love someone. Put your gun away and do what you need to help the man you love.”

Pearl suddenly felt so cold and so tired, and so terribly alone. Johnny was gonna die and she’d have no one. Dolly pulled her close and wrapped her arm around Pearl’s shoulder. Pearl leaned into the old woman. Dolly was like Ma, she understood how much she loved Johnny. And how much Johnny loved her.

Dolly squeezed Pearl’s shoulders one last time, then walked toward the kitchen. Pearl was left with Teresa. Even though she put her gun back behind her waist, the hawk was still watching the snake.  


Murdoch shifted his weight, trying to find a more comfortable position on the hard ground. Since Pardee’s bullet, he found it hard to sleep anywhere but his own bed, and the long ride had just exacerbated the nagging pain in his back. He looked across the campfire at Val. He was a good man, and a good friend to Johnny. The only one, other than Wes, he knew from Johnny’s past. And Johnny trusted him implicitly, not something his son did easily. Whatever happened in their past, they never spoke of it…whether it was too hard to talk about or just not important enough to drag out and air before everyone, Murdoch respected their privacy. When and if they wanted to talk about it he would listen, and try not to judge.

The rain had stopped, but it was replaced by a bitter cold wind. He prayed both his sons were someplace warm and safe. A few days ago they had all been warm and safe. He had thought his troubles were behind him when Pardee was defeated and both Scott and Johnny grew to call Lancer home. Then Pearl and the Harkins turned their world upside down. For a time Murdoch feared they would never return to the short space in time when they were all happy. But Abby had come into Johnny’s life and brought with her new hope and a happiness he had never seen in his younger son’s eyes. The whole family loved Abby and she became a part of them so easily that he couldn’t remember life without her. 

“I figure we’ll be in Elkhorn by midday,” Val said, pulling Murdoch back from his reverie. The rabbit the sheriff had caught now roasted on a spit over the campfire. Murdoch was hungrier than he expected, even with his worry over his boys. He knew Scott was right in backtracking, but he would have felt a lot better knowing Scott was sitting beside him. So many things could happen in weather like this.

Val poked the roasting rabbit with a stick, the juices making the fire sizzle. “You figure out what you’re gonna tell Abby when you see her tomorrow?”

Murdoch looked across the fire at the lawman. He’d been plagued with the question since they left Green River. He owed her the truth. He didn’t know where Johnny was. Not if he had holed up through the storm or…“I don’t know,” he said simply.

“Well,” Val said seriously, but there was a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m gonna be at the other end of town when ya tell her. Ain’t never seen a woman so pretty have such a temper. That lady knows her own mind. Johnny’ll have his hands full. Hell, I’ve seen that boy standup to the meanest gunslingers and not blink an eye. Abby winks and he’s like a puddle of water. Never thought Johnny’d ever get wrangled like that. ”

Murdoch nodded. “The boy never stood a chance.”

“Johnny met a lot of girls, none of them caught Johnny like Abby did. Most of them either wanted to get back at their daddys and took up with a famous gunslinger, or they just liked to walk down the street with Johnny Madrid on their arm. Johnny always laughed about it, said it didn’t mean a thing to him. But it did. I could see it. He was afraid that all women would turn out like his mama.” Val suddenly bowed his head. “Ah, sorry, Mr. Lancer, didn’t mean no offence.”

“No offence taken, Val. Maria was a selfish woman. She took Johnny from the safety of his home and threw him into a world no child should have to live in. I know she never expected things to go so wrong, but after they did, she only needed to send Johnny back to me.”

A heavy silence descended over the campsite. Murdoch couldn’t believe that the act of one woman could have touched so many lives…and now another woman had taken up where Maria had left off. Only this woman had death on her mind.

Val suddenly snorted, breaking the silence. “Don’t tell Johnny, but I ordered one of them fancy shirts like Scott’s got. Figured if I was goin’ to his weddin’, I’d better be dressed for it. Mind you, there ain’t nobody else I’d buy a special shirt like that for.”

The sentiment was almost Murdoch’s undoing. He stood up slowly, unwinding stiff legs and aching back, and walked away from the light of the fire. There were some emotions that were just too private to share.


Teresa could barely hear anything but the sound of her heart beating as she looked at Johnny’s injured arm. His hand and wrist were swollen twice their normal size. 

The incision Sam had made to clean the wound was now an angry red and the stitches ripped apart. She couldn’t do this. She wasn’t a doctor. She had helped Sam before, but everything beyond the basic cleaning and bandaging was done with Sam’s instructions. She was on her own and if she did something wrong Johnny could pay for it with his life.

Memories of how he looked when Murdoch and Scott had brought him back from the Harkins camp flooded over her. It had taken all of Sam’s years of training to save him then. What did she have? 

“Ya make ‘im better,” Pearl ordered. “I know you’re a healer.”

Teresa shook her head. “I’m…”

Dolly returned from the kitchen, her arms laden with sheets and blankets and a box Teresa recognized as the medical supplies Maria packed for all the line shacks and for Dolly. “Pearl’s right, you are a healer,” she said. “Here are the sheets and blankets. The water is on to boil and I’ll bring in the soap and water.” She handed the satchel to Teresa. “I found laudanum, coneflower and mustard seeds along with things I didn’t recognize.”

Teresa took the satchel and looked through it. “When the water comes to a boil pour some into a basin and sterilize these.” She handed Dolly scissors, forceps and a sewing needle from the satchel. “Pour this into the rest of the water to steep.” Teresa handed her an envelope of willow bark tea. “It will help to bring down his fever. I also need an egg and two pieces of flannel to make a mustard plaster to ease his breathing.”

Pearl paced the room, dropping to her knees to brush her hand against Johnny’s cheek and then standing up to pace some more. There was a feral look in her eyes that had not been there the last time, even when she was living with her family. Her love for Johnny had turned into an insane obsession. She was a danger to everyone, including Johnny, if she thought Johnny was in love with Abby. 

Johnny moaned softy and Pearl ran to his side again, sinking back down to her knees. “It be ok, Johnny,” she said, her muddy hair falling onto Johnny’s face. “You be safe now. We be at Dolly’s. Teresa is gonna take good care of ya.” 

“Teresa…?” Johnny looked around with fever bright eyes.

Teresa held her breath. If Johnny spoke Abby’s name she didn’t know what Pearl would do. 

She saw that Dolly thought the same thing. Dolly quickly pulled Pearl to her feet. “We don’t have time to wait,” she said. “Teresa has to tend to his arm. We need more light. Could you gather all the lamps and candles you can find?”

Pearl looked between Johnny and Teresa and seemed to make up her mind, though she did reach behind her to remind Teresa about the gun.

Teresa moved in close to Dolly and whispered, “We have to get that gun away from her.”

“I know. But we have to be careful. In her state she could kill us, even Johnny if she thinks he doesn’t want her. For now we bide our time.” In a louder voice, for Pearl’s benefit, she said, “Will you need the laudanum now?” 

Teresa nodded. “Mix a teaspoon with a glass of water. We’ll get as much down him as we can.”

“What is that?” Pearl demanded.

“Laudanum,” she said as she took the glass from Dolly. “I can’t have Johnny waking up while I’m operating.” 

Pearl looked at the glass for a long moment before she grabbed it from Teresa. “I give it to ‘im. He be mine ta take care of.”

Teresa could only watch as Pearl raised Johnny’s head and coaxed him to drink. She prayed Johnny wouldn’t ask if it was Abby caring for him. Johnny drank the laudanum in small sips, and thankfully never opened his eyes.

Teresa took a long breath and looked around her. Everything she needed was lying at her side. The only thing she needed now was courage. She remembered what Sam had said about taking care of the wounded and sick. Sometimes you had to harden your heart and just do what needed doing. She cleaned the wound in Johnny’s arm, using the scissors to cut away the worst of the infection. Johnny barely moved even when she poured the carbolic acid into the wound. She cleaned the wound on his thigh also. It had bled freely for some time and the blood had kept the wound fairly clean. Bandaging the wounds tightly, she sat back, exhausted. She prayed she had done enough to stave off the infection in Johnny’s arm. 

She sighed heavily then looked at the sofa. “He won’t be very comfortable when he comes to on this. He really needs a bed.”

Dolly leaned over Teresa’s shoulder looking down at Johnny. “Would a mattress be better?” she asked.

“That would be much better. Between the three of us we can bring one down.”

Pearl looked from Johnny through the parlor door to the staircase beyond. “I cain’t leave ‘im.”

“It won’t take long, dear,” Dolly said, and Teresa watched Dolly gently pull Pearl toward the door. “The sooner we get him settled the better he will be.” 

“What if he needs me?”

Teresa stood up quickly and headed for the door. “The laudanum will keep him out for a while longer. I want him settled before he comes to. If you really want to help Johnny you will help us with the mattress.”

Teresa saw the indecision in Pearl’s eyes and then her hand go to her back to check the gun before reluctantly walking toward the stairs. 


The mattress proved to be more awkward than heavy, and the three women were panting by the time they had the mattress on the floor and Johnny settled on it. Teresa knew she was asking a lot of Dolly, but the older woman made no complaints and she noticed that Dolly was especially careful to keep the sheet over Johnny’s waist and thighs as they lifted him onto the mattress. It was a simple gesture, but one that Johnny would appreciate. They put extra pillows behind his back to raise him up so it would be easier for him to breathe, and added a heavy quilt to keep him warm.

“We have to keep him comfortable, not too hot and not too cold. He needs to drink lots of water, so whenever he comes around we need to get him to drink.”

Wringing a cloth from a cool basin of water, Teresa started to lay it on Johnny’s forehead but Pearl snatched it away.

“That be my job,” she said. “He be my man ta take care of.” 

The thought of Pearl even being near Johnny turned Teresa’s stomach, even more so since the girl hadn’t changed out of her wet, muddy clothes

Dolly moved closer, gently taking Pearl’s wrist. “I’m sure Johnny will be waking up soon. You want to look your best for him, don’t you?”

For the first time, it appeared that Pearl realized that she was still in the muddy clothes.

“Go upstairs and change into…”

“No! I won’t be leaving Johnny again. You bring the clothes down ta me. And…” Peal pulled her gun and aimed it at Teresa. “Don’t think ‘bout gettin’ help from the bunkhouse. Johnny don’t want no one ta know he’s here.”

Teresa signed inwardly. Another chance for her or Dolly to get to the bunkhouse just slipped through their fingers. They had thought about sneaking off when Pearl was getting the soap and water from the kitchen, but Johnny was too badly in need of attention for either of them to leave. 

“I’ll get your clothes,” Dolly offered. 

Pearl nodded. “An’ git me a bucket of soap and water too. I cain’t be puttin’ on new clothes with all this mud on me. Johnny likes me better when I’m cleaned.”

Dolly rushed out of the room. Teresa looked down at Johnny. “What are we going to do?” she asked silently. He was bound to ask for Abby when he came to. The odds of all of them making it through the night looked darker and darker.

.

Chapter 14      

She was late. Not by much. But enough that Johnny pulled out the pocket watch Murdoch had given him and checked it again. Everything was set. He had unfolded the blanket and spread it out on the grass, carefully making sure each corner was perfectly squared, and set the picnic basket on one edge. Both Teresa and Maria had packed it with loving care. A rope was looped around a tree and the other end disappeared beneath the cool pond, cradling a bottle of wine Murdoch had selected from the wine cellar. 

Johnny Madrid Lancer getting married. Now that was a hoot. Who would have suspected that he’d get caught by a fiery little redhead? 

And that fiery little redhead was late. And not just a few minutes…but well over a half an hour late. Johnny was starting to get that uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong. 

Johnny heard the sound of a horse trotting on the backside of the knoll where their house would sit one day soon, and sighed in relief. He saw the top of her blue straw hat, the one she always wore to keep away the freckles. She hated her freckles. Johnny loved them. He swore that one day he would count each and every one of them. He quickly stretched out on the blanket to make it look like he hadn’t been going out of his head with worry just a few minutes ago, popped a blade of grass into his mouth to complete the charade, and grinned from ear to ear.

He knew he couldn’t fool her, but he kept his eyes closed, waiting for her to drop down beside him and kiss him gently on the cheek. 

“Oh, Johnny, I knowed you’d come back ta me…”

Johnny opened his eyes. Gone were the grassy knoll and the gentle stream. Blue sky was replaced by a white ceiling. And it wasn’t Abby leaning over him, but… “Pearl…?”


Teresa sat, no, more like sprawled, on the sofa. She was near exhaustion. The twinge of sore muscles reminded her how hard it had been hauling the mattress down the stairs last night. It wasn’t so much that it was heavy, filled with goose down as it was, but it sagged in the middle and flopped over on top, very nearly suffocating the three women at times. Seeing Johnny nestled in its softness with a comforter thrown over him made it all worthwhile though. 

She looked at him lying on the makeshift bed. His cheeks were still flushed, but not the hectic red when his fever was at its highest. His breathing still concerned her. She could hear the congestion in his lungs and hoped the mustard plaster would be enough. Oh God, how she needed Sam. 

It had been a long night. Johnny’s fever seemed to rise and fall erratically. He had tossed and turned with delirium, whispering and sometimes yelling, switching from English to Spanish. Thankfully Pearl didn’t understand Spanish when he talked incessantly about Abby, and sometimes to her as if she were lying next to him. “Amo mi gatita roja.” (I love my little red kitten) The words nearly brought tears to Teresa’s eyes when she remembered watching Johnny comb his fingers through Abby’s long red hair, sitting in front of the fireplace, unabashedly saying the words. It was more than the words that spoke volumes about Johnny’s contentment. It was that he felt comfortable with his family, comfortable enough to let them hear those words of affection. 

She looked out the window. The storm had passed, leaving behind a brilliant blue sky. If only the coming of morning could wash away the fear and pain like the sun washed away the night. A chill went down her spine despite the warmth of the room. Pearl was that turbulent storm now, even more deadly with the gun just inches from her fingers.

Making her more dangerous were her mood swings. One minute she would be begging Teresa to help Johnny, the next minute pushing her away. The gun was never out of her reach, and most times it was pointing toward Teresa.

Finally Pearl had settled down, curled up on the floor, her head resting on the mattress, her fingers touching the gun lying between her and Johnny.  It had been Dolly who convinced her that she would hurt Johnny if she lay next to him on the bed. It took a lot of talking on Dolly’s part, but eventually Pearl acquiesced, and contented herself with just holding his hand. 

Dolly sat in the rocking chair close to the fireplace, the slow rhythmic creak of the rocker adding to the disquiet. Teresa had tried to get her to lie down on the sofa but she refused. The ordeal had taken its toll. Her face looked pale and drawn, but when she looked at Teresa there was still determination in her eyes. It gave Teresa hope in a hopeless situation. 

Teresa’s heart suddenly skipped a beat. She saw the first signs of Johnny regaining consciousness. The twitch of an eyelid and a hitch in his breathing told her that he was coming around. She prayed his first words would not be for Abby.

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and Pearl climbed onto the mattress, kneeling by his head. She anxiously pushed his sweat soaked hair off his forehead, whispering into his ear. Teresa’s heart nearly broke when she saw the look on Johnny’s face as he recognized Pearl hovering over him. His first word was a surprised “Pearl?” and then she saw his lips forming another name. She knew she had to stop him somehow. If Johnny uttered Abby’s name she didn’t know how Pearl would react. Slipping off the sofa, she feigned getting her foot caught in her skirt and fell awkwardly against the mattress, her hand hitting Johnny’s left leg. Johnny strangled back a cry of pain and Pearl reacted, backhanding Teresa across the cheek. 

“Ya leaves him be!” Pearl screamed, grabbing the gun and aiming it at Teresa.

“No!” Dolly cried, dropping down beside Teresa. She dabbed at the blood that trickled from Teresa’s cut lip. “Teresa is the only one who knows what to do for Johnny. You need her.”

“She hurt him,” Pearl said, her voice seething with accusation. 

Dolly shook her head. “It was an accident, Pearl. Teresa tripped on her skirt. Please, put the gun down.”

“She hurt him.” 

“I’m sorry, Pearl.” Teresa slowly climbed to her knees, but made no move toward Johnny. “Dolly’s right. It was an accident. I would never hurt Johnny.”

“It be alright,” Pearl said anxiously, kissing Johnny’s forehead. “I be here. I take good care of ya.”

“Pearl, dear.” Dolly quickly moved over to Pearl, leaning down to put her hands on the young woman’s shoulders. “Teresa is only trying to help. Let her take a look at him.”

“I gotta take care of ‘im.”

“I know. I know,” Dolly cajoled, and Teresa watched the way Dolly rubbed Pearl’s back in small circles, calming her down. “But the best way to help him now is to let Teresa have a look at him. Put the gun down and help me make a broth for Johnny. I know you can cook better than I can. Johnny told me so.”

Pearl looked up at Dolly and Teresa saw a small smile tug at her lips.

“He did?”

“He certainly did. He said he was lucky he was going to have a wife who cooked so well. I know he would appreciate having some of your good cooking.”

Pearl looked back down at Johnny and over to Teresa. Teresa quickly dropped her eyes. A wrong look, a misplaced word was all Pearl needed to use her gun on any one of them.

“Oh, but maybe you’re right,” Dolly sighed. “Johnny is more used to Teresa’s cooking. Maybe she should make the broth. Teresa dear, would you mind…”

“No!” Pearl turned toward Teresa. “Ya not be cookin’ fer my man. I be the one.” She leaned back down and kissed Johnny softly on the cheek. “I be back soon. I gotta make ya somethin’ ta eat. Ya be hungry right?”

Teresa wasn’t sure if Johnny understood Pearl, but he nodded slightly before closing his eyes.

“Come now,” Dolly urged, “I think a nice light broth would be the perfect thing for when Johnny wakes up again. I have vegetables and chicken from last night. I’m sure you can make something delicious. Johnny is so lucky to have you.”

Teresa gave Dolly a surreptitious nod of thanks as they passed her on the way to the kitchen. 


Teresa scrambled across the floor to Johnny’s side. “Johnny!” She cupped his face between her hands, trying to make him look into her eyes. The fever still had a hold on him, not as bad as earlier, but she could see him struggling to make sense of what was happening. “Johnny? Johnny, can you understand me?”

Johnny smiled at her weakly, and nodded. “Where’s Abby?”

“No!” Teresa put her hand over his mouth. “Johnny, listen to me. Do you know where you are? Who is here?”

Johnny seemed to think about it. Teresa looked toward the parlor door, wondering how long Dolly could keep Pearl busy. “We’re at Dolly’s house, Johnny. Pearl brought you here.”

“No…don’t want Pearl…want Abby…”

Teresa brushed his hair off his fevered brow, praying that he would understand. “You can’t say Abby’s name. Do you understand? Pearl is jealous. She wants you all for herself. Johnny…Johnny, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to pretend that you want her too until we can get help. Pearl has a gun and she’ll use it.”

“Murdoch…?”

“Murdoch, Scott and Val went after you. If they didn’t find you they were going to go all the way to Elkhorn and bring Abby back to Lancer where she’ll be safe.”

“Abby’s in trouble…”

“Yes. She will be if we don’t keep Pearl here. Do you understand, Johnny?”

Johnny nodded. “Can’t say Abby’s name.”

“That’s right. Pearl has a gun with her all the time. We have to wait until the right time to try to get it away from her.”

“No!” Johnny tried to lever himself up on his right elbow but just fell back again onto the mattress. “No. Too dangerous. She’s crazy…”

Teresa heard the sound of footsteps heading for the parlor. “They’re coming back. Remember what I told you.”

Johnny nodded. 

“Now let me take a look at your arm. I think I did a pretty good job, if I say so myself.” She grinned for his benefit. Inside she was so worried that she had not done enough.

“Thank heavens I’ve watched Sam take care of you and Scott so often. It was like going to nursing school.”

Johnny weakly rolled his head to look at her tending his arm. “Lo siento, Querida. You shouldn’t have to do this.”

“Hush, silly. You won’t be so sorry when I figure out what to charge you for my services.”

Johnny snorted. “I can’t wait.” Then he grabbed her arm with his right hand, squeezing with more strength than Teresa thought he should have had. “Listen to me,” he whispered sharply. “Pearl’s not going to give up that gun easy. You have to know that. Don’t start anything you can’t finish. Do you understand?”

Teresa nodded, a chill going down her spine. She understood. But if she had to kill to stay alive, could she? She prayed to God that she wouldn’t have to find out. “I understand.”

“What are ya doin’?” Pearl screamed from the doorway. “Ya gets away from my Johnny!”

Johnny nodded imperceptibly. “Pearl, that you honey?” he called weakly. 


Scott woke up with the telltale evidence of one drink too many. Pounding head, cotton in his mouth. He tried to remember where he had been and who had prompted him to drink to excess. More than likely it was Johnny. While he prided himself on being able to hold his liquor, he was no match for his brother…

Johnny!  He’d been looking for Johnny. He suddenly remembered Johnny galloping away bareback from Dolly’s house and then his frantic search for his brother. Pearl…the cougar…the freezing cold mud. Johnny was still out there.

He tried to sit up but the left side of his body ignited in pain, taking his breath away. 

“Good, you’re awake.”

Scott waited, letting the pain subside into an angry throb before prying his eyes open to find bright sunshine streaming in through the two windows behind the sofa. To his right, Mrs. Rawls carried a tray with a dish of food and a steaming mug of what he hoped was coffee. She set it on the coffee table next to the sofa he found himself stretched out on.

“Just in time for breakfast.” She smiled. “I was just going to wake you. Sleep is very important, but you also need some food in you if you’re going to gain your strength back. You were as cold as ice when Ellis brought you in yesterday. It’s amazing that you didn’t catch pneumonia. So I want you to eat this breakfast and drink plenty of water.”

“What time is it? How long have I been here?” 

“It’s late morning. Ellis will be back shortly. He went out to see if he could find any signs of your brother. I don’t expect him to get far though, all the roads are still covered in mud. That was some storm. I haven’t seen one that bad in years.”

“Johnny was hurt…”

“I know, dear. But so are you. And we have to get you well so you can get back to looking for your brother. Besides…” Mrs. Rawls’ eyes suddenly sparkled with mischief. “You won’t get far without clothes anyway.”

Scott suddenly remembered both Ellison and Mrs. Rawls stripping him of his wet clothes, and he felt the hot flush of embarrassment color his face.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” Mrs. Rawls smiled. “You’re not the first man I’ve had to undress. I’ve done my share of nursing over the years. Besides, I couldn’t very well wash your clothes with you still in them. Now let me help you sit up so you can eat something.”

His dignity still rattled, Scott drew the blanket up closer to his neck. “If you don’t mind I’ll just rest like this for a little longer.”

“You can rest after you eat. Now come on…”

Scott was alarmed when he found he couldn’t sit up on his own. He was breathless from the pain by the time Mrs. Rawls had him propped up on pillows. 

“There, now that should tell you that you are not in any shape to get up on your own.” Mrs. Rawls leaned over and brushed Scott’s cheek. “I know how much you are worried about your brother. We’re worried too. Johnny is a good friend to Ellis and me. He’s always been there whenever we needed help. You two have been a godsend to us. But you’ll not be helping him risking your own life.”

“I just can’t lie here and do nothing. Pearl is…”

“You will do exactly that. Lie here and do nothing. In a few days the roads will be clear enough for Ellis to take you back home by wagon. Until then I want you to rest. And eat.”

Mrs. Rawls piled two pillows on his lap and set a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon on top making it easier to eat.

“There now. Eat as much as you can. And…” she winked, “I added a bit of whiskey to your coffee to help with the pain and make it easier to sleep. I swear sometimes Ellis gets hurt just so he can have a taste of my special coffee.”

Scott took a bite and to his surprise he suddenly felt hungry. 

“You see,” Mrs. Rawls beamed. “You’ll soon be feeling much better. If you need anything, just call. I can hear you from the kitchen. Ellis will be wanting a hot lunch when he gets back.”

Scott watched her go, grateful for all her help. But the warm food and spiked coffee gave him no relief from the guilt, the not knowing what was happening to Johnny. He couldn’t accept the thought that his brother hadn’t found a way to weather the storm last night. Johnny was one of the most resilient men he had ever met. He just could not forget the look in Johnny’s eyes when he heard that Pearl was after Abby or Leo’s description of Johnny just a couple hours later.  

Damn Pearl. Damn her to hell! She had almost cost him a brother once before, he would not let her finish the job this time.

.

Chapter Fifteen

Elkhorn was not much bigger than Green River. The usual string of buildings lined either      of the street: hotel, saloon, mercantile, sheriff’s office. Everything looked cold and dreary, just like Murdoch’s mood, as he and Val rode slowly down the center of the only street in town. 

Even though the storm had blown itself out, evidence of the drenching rain and high winds left nothing untouched. Water still dripped from roofs and the street was mired in mud. Cold, wet and more tired then he could ever remember, Murdoch pulled his horse to a stop in front of the sheriff’s office. Val looked at him and nodded as they both dismounted slowly. 

They hadn’t found any signs of Johnny or Pearl on the trail. Murdoch prayed that Scott had found Johnny and they were both safe and waiting for his return at Lancer. It was the only thing he had to hang onto. 

Opening the door, he felt a blast of hot air filled with the smell of strong coffee. The man sitting behind the desk was as rough and straggly looking as Val on his worst days. Probably no more than thirty, his short blond hair looked like he had taken a dull knife to it. The heavy stubble, a combination of blond and browns, made his face look like it needed a good scrubbing. A sheriff’s badge was pinned to his plaid flannel shirt and he sniffed loudly as he held his hand up, a crumpled handkerchief in his fist. 

“I wouldn’t get too close,” he warned, his voice cracking. “Got me one hell of a cold. Hate to see one of you catching it.” 

“Sheriff Fuller?” Val asked, taking his hat off and slapping it against his knee, spraying the floor and door behind him with water. “Sheriff Val Crawford from Green River and this here is Murdoch Lancer.”

The sheriff looked at him for a long moment and nodded, dabbing at his runny nose with the handkerchief. “Crawford, huh? A fella rode all the way from San Jose yesterday with a telegram…”  Fuller rummaged through letters and wanted posters on his desk. “Here, here it is.” The sheriff held up a crumpled piece of paper. “Says here that Abby McClanahan is in some kind of trouble. You mind telling me what kind?” The sheriff put the telegram back on his desk and drummed his fingers on top of it. “Abby and her mom are liked around here in Elkhorn. Since her daddy died, the town’s kind of looked after her and Ellen.”

“If you’d just point us in the right direction, Sheriff,” Murdoch said, his voice harsher than he had intended. He was cold and tired and near worried to death over Johnny. 

Sheriff Fuller sneezed several times, blew his nose then settled back in his chair before looking back up at Murdoch. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what kind of trouble you think Abby’s in? I’ve known her since she was in pigtails. Wait a minute. Lancer. You any relation to the Lancer Abby’s sparking? Hear her tell it, Johnny Lancer is pretty close to the second coming.”

“I’m his father.” 

Fuller looked Murdoch over. “Your boy in the habit of sending his daddy to protect his intended?” 

Murdoch felt Val’s hand on his arm, warning him to take it easy. Worry and exhaustion were taking their toll on both men. He knew he shouldn’t blame the sheriff. He and Val were perfect strangers. But it didn’t make the waiting any easier. 

“Johnny was ailing when we left Lancer,” Val explained. “We got separated in the storm, and figured it would be best if we collected Miss Abby and brought her back to the ranch. If Johnny’s able, he’ll make his way back home.”

Murdoch took one step closer to the desk. His patience waning swiftly. “Sheriff, at the moment I don’t know if my son is dead or alive. But I made a promise to him that I would get Abby safely back to Lancer.” The thought that he had not had the chance to say those words directly to Johnny weighed heavily on his shoulders. But he knew it was what his son would expect. “Now where can we find her?”

“She took over the café when Ellen got sick. Her ma had some kind of operation…woman thing or something…anyway, she’s always there. Your telegram sounded serious, so I sent my deputy over to watch the place.” 

Murdoch nodded, turning toward the door.

“But you still haven’t told me what kind of trouble Abby’s in,” the sheriff said, still sitting behind the desk. “Why don’t you two have a seat, grab a hot cup of coffee and tell me what’s going on.”

“Sheriff,” Murdoch barked, “we don’t have time…”

“My deputy can handle things. Now, before I bring you two over there I want to know exactly what’s going on. This is my town. And the people in it are my responsibility.”

Murdoch saw Val nod and knew he approved of the sheriff’s caution. Reluctantly he told Fuller about Pearl and her obsession for Johnny. He didn’t go into great detail, even if he had time he couldn’t relive the worst by uttering the words. But in the end the sheriff seemed satisfied and stood up, grabbing his hat from the back of his chair. To Murdoch’s surprise, he was nearly as tall as himself.

“But it will be her decision if she wants to go with you,” Fuller cautioned, throwing his soggy handkerchief in a pile of crumpled handkerchiefs and picking another one that seemed to have dried out before following them out the door.


Elkhorn Café was two doors down from the sheriff’s office and across the muddy street. 

“That was one hell of a storm,” Fuller said as he trudged through the ankle deep mud. “We get a lot of fog, being so close to the coast, but this was a real gully washer.”

Fuller stepped up onto the raised boardwalk, grabbed a wire brush hanging on the wall next to the front door of the café and began scraping the worst of the mud off his boots. “Ellen doesn’t like her customers dragging mud into her place.”

Despite the circumstances, Murdoch couldn’t help but smile. Johnny was in a lot of trouble if daughter and mother were alike.

Every table in the small café was filled. When they stepped inside Murdoch spotted Abby waiting on a table, her back to him. She had her red hair pulled up into a tight bun, her blue gingham dress covered with a white apron. She finished taking the order and turned, her eyes falling on Murdoch.

“Murdoch!” she cried, rushing toward him. “What are you doing here? I wrote to Johnny last week that I was coming home in a few days. You didn’t have to come all this…” Murdoch could see the light go out of Abby’s eyes as she recognized Val standing behind him. “Where’s Johnny?” she asked hesitantly.

Murdoch felt helpless to answer her question as he stood in the middle of the café, all eyes on him. Abby stopped a foot from him, her face paling. “Where’s Johnny?” she asked again. This time it was a demand.

Fuller stepped around Murdoch and Val, taking Abby by the elbow and gently escorting her toward the kitchen. “We have to talk, Abby.”

Not another word was said between them as they all walked toward the back of the café, excited and concerned whispers filling the room. 

By the time they got to the kitchen, Abby was mad. And no one did mad as well as Abby, Murdoch knew all too well. She turned on Murdoch. “Where is Johnny? Why isn’t he here with you?”

“Abby, calm down and I’ll explain.”

“I won’t calm down. I want…”

“Abby McClanahan, sit down and listen if you want to hear the answer!”

All eyes went to the back door of the kitchen. An older woman, the spitting image of Abby, slammed the door behind her. She wore the same gingham dress and white apron as Abby and her hair was tied back into a severe bun, but the red was mixed with a heavy portion of gray. “Let the man speak.” 

She walked past Abby and shook Murdoch’s hand firmly. “I’m assuming you are Murdoch Lancer.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Murdoch quickly took his hat off and nudged Val to do the same. “And you could only be Mrs. McClanahan.”   

“Call me, Ellen,” she said tightly. “Now tell us why you’re here.” She looked past Murdoch to Sheriff Fuller. “Don’t think I didn’t notice Todd sitting by the front door with that rifle of his sitting next to him all morning. I knew something was up.”

Sheriff Fuller sneezed and then sniffled. “Maybe a hot cup of coffee for Mr. Lancer and Sheriff Crawford. They’re been on the road for two days.”

Abby shook her head, pushing past her mother to stand as close as she could to Murdoch. “Coffee after I know what happened to Johnny.” 

Facing a herd of stampeding horses would have been easier than standing here before Abby. He saw a multitude of emotions play across her face: Fear, anger, confusion. How could he relieve her mind when he didn’t have the answers himself? He gently pulled her into his arms. “We don’t know anything yet, Abby. We just know he was on his way here, and got caught in the storm.”

Abby nodded, quickly moving a stack of tablecloths off a table in the corner of the kitchen, she turned to Ellen. 

“Mother, I think Murdoch and Sheriff Crawford could use some hot stew and some chicken soup for Allan. You know you shouldn’t be out in weather like this with that cold.”

Murdoch recognized the defense mechanism. If Abby kept busy she wouldn’t have to think, wouldn’t have to accept the possibility that something serious might have happened to Johnny. They waited in silence while Abby set the table and placed two plates of stew and a steaming bowl of soup on the table. 

“Thank you,” Murdoch said, and sat down. Never had he felt less like eating. He waited for both Abby and Ellen to take a seat. “Abby, I don’t know how much Johnny told you about Pearl.”

Abby caught her breath. “He told me what she and her family did to him. Though I know he didn’t tell me everything. I know that Pearl really thought she was in love with him.”

“She still does. Abby, Pearl is back. And she thinks Johnny has been waiting for her. When she found out about you…”

“She didn’t hurt Johnny again, did she?”

“No. Johnny cut his arm on a piece of barbed wire and it got infected. Sam had it almost under control when Pearl showed up. Honey, Pearl thinks you were stealing Johnny away from her. She thought Johnny was waiting for her so they could be married.”

“She’s as crazy as they come,” Val added. “And she’s got a gun.”

“But how did Johnny get separated from you?”

“He went after her alone.”

“Alone? Why did you let him ride off alone if he was hurt?” Murdoch saw Abby’s anger turned back to fear. “You aren’t telling me everything. How badly hurt is he?”

“We think his arm is infected again, and he’s running a high fever.”

“But why would you let him go alone? Murdoch, why…”

“Cause he left us without horses, that’s why,” Val said. “You know how lame brained stubborn he can be. It took us two hours to get our horses and get after him.”

Murdoch shot Val a warning look. “We think he got caught in the storm. Abby,” Murdoch reached across the table to encircle his large hands around Abby’s smaller ones. “Johnny knows how to take care of himself. We hope he found somewhere to ride out the storm and then headed back home to wait for us there.”

“Johnny knows you’re here?”

“We never had a chance to tell him. But he knows.”


Abby felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her life had been turned upside down the minute she had met Johnny Lancer. At first she thought he was the most arrogant, self-centered man she had ever met, dressed in his faded pink shirt with its colorful embroidery and the leather pants with the silver studs down the sides. Only a man full of himself…or very sure of himself would wear clothes like that. She had fumed for days after landing in the mud. Even pulling him into the mud alongside her wasn’t enough to dim her rage. But no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get him out of her mind. She found herself looking out the store window hoping he would ride back into town. And when he did, she suddenly realized she had errands that would take her over toward the mercantile where he picked up supplies for his ranch. 

Looking back, she realized she was like a hunter following her prey. And to her surprise, he never made it very hard for her. In fact, at times, she knew he was the hunter and she was his prey. It was a wonderful game. Until they realized they couldn’t ignore the fact that they were both hopelessly in love. 

She looked across the table and saw the worry in Murdoch’s eyes. They wordlessly asked the same question she knew there was no answer for.  What would they do without Johnny? Abby knew she would carry on. Murdoch would carry on too because they were both strong. Her strength was one of the things Johnny said he loved most about her. But her life would never be the same. 

“Damn it, no!” She slammed her hands down on the table making Fuller spill his soup on his shirt.

“Abby! Watch your language,” Ellen snapped.

“My language is not the problem, it’s us. Look at us. We’re moping and carrying on like Johnny is already in his grave. Well he’s not. I know. I would know here…” She patted her chest over her heart. “He’s still alive and we need to get to him. When can we leave for Lancer?”

“Now wait a minute, Abby,” Sheriff Fuller said, pushing his empty soup bowl toward the center of the table. “This Pearl sounds as crazy as a loon…and dangerous. I’m not so sure it would be safe to be out in the open with her out there. Maybe it would be best to stay here until Mr. Lancer and Sheriff Crawford find her.”

“I’m not waiting here while Johnny might be hurt somewhere out there. Murdoch and Sheriff Crawford will see to my safety.”

Abby saw the surreptitious nod Allen Fuller gave her mother. 

“Allan is right, dear,” Ellen said. “You would be safer here. A few more days…”

“Mother, I have been here for three months, when I should have been with Johnny. Do you know how many times I almost wrote him and told him to come get me? How much I’ve missed him?  Do you know how hard it’s been for both of us? He loved me enough to let me come here and care for you. Now he needs me and nothing will stop me from finding him.”

“But you don’t even know where he is. Going back to Green River will only put you in danger. Stay here, at least until Mr. Lancer and the sheriff find him.”

“Sorry, Ma’am,” Val said, looking up from his plate of stew. “You folks wouldn’t know what she looks like until it was too late. She already stole a gun and clothes from a fella along the way. We’d have a better chance of spotting her than anyone here.”

“Sheriff Crawford’s right. And I won’t stay here as long as Johnny needs me. You would do the same for Daddy, and you know it. Mother, I learned to be strong because you were strong. But something happened to that strength when you got sick. You’ve been well enough to take care of yourself for weeks now, we both know it. But every time I decided to go back you had a relapse. Well, no more relapses, Mother. It is time I was there for Johnny.”

Abby saw the stunned look in her mother’s eyes and regretted her words. Not that she’d said them, but that she’d said them in front of others. 

“I’m sorry, Mother. I just have to find Johnny. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try.” She turned to Murdoch and Val. “How soon can we leave?”

Val cleared his throat. “We’ve been on the road for two days. The horses are spent. And so are we.”

For the first time Abby really looked at Murdoch. He had aged since she saw him last. Exhaustion, fear and anger were all evident in his face. She knew wherever Johnny was, he would want her to take care of his father. If there was nothing else she could do for him, she could do that.

“You’re right, Sheriff Crawford. We can travel much faster if we are all rested. The boardinghouse is full, but we have an extra room at our house. I’ll take you there so you can get some rest.” Taking off her apron she dropped it on the table. “Mother, I’ll be back to help you with dinner, but I’ll be leaving in the morning.”

Abby linked her arm around Murdoch’s elbow and led him toward the back door. As they stepped out into the cold drizzle, she felt a painful ache in her heart. Her fear for Johnny scared her to the very core of her being. She could not lose him. He had become a part of her, and she would never be whole again without him.


Johnny hadn’t meant to fall asleep again. The fever and the laudanum conspired to keep him in a half daze. His left arm lay heavy across his stomach, throbbing dully to the beat of his heart. He knew the painkiller was keeping the worst of the hurt at bay, but he didn’t like the way it slowed his thinking. 

He remembered Teresa had told him something important. Something she had whispered in his ear in a panicked voice. What would make her that scared? The answer was right there, just out of reach, taunting him. Next time Teresa or Dolly wanted him to take the laudanum, he’d refuse. Dolly…Dolly was Scott’s friend from back east. She was a nice old lady, liked his Mexican food. She did better than the first time Abby tried it.

The thought of Abby startled him. She was still in Elkhorn but she wasn’t safe. He had to get to her…but he was so tired and the mud was so deep he couldn’t move.  Teresa had told him something important…Dolly liked Mexican food…Abby was in trouble…he had to get to Abby. Sleep called again and he couldn’t fight it. He felt himself drifting away again…he would have to ask Abby what Teresa wanted when he woke up again. Something important….something important…

.


Chapter Sixteen

Fear and the smell of sickness weighed heavily in the parlor.  Dolly’s eyes still smarted from the mustard plaster Teresa had used on Johnny’s chest earlier in the morning.  It seemed to have helped. She no longer heard the terrible wheezing as he fought to get air into his congested lungs.  But his fever was still too high and now Pearl refused to allow Teresa near him. Her watchful eye and ever present gun reminding them both who was in charge

Dolly had no doubt Pearl was devoted to him.  That, in her own world, Pearl thought she was doing the right thing, protecting the man she loved. But her mistrust and jealousy were putting Johnny at risk. What he needed were cool compresses to bring down his fever and his arm to be cleaned and bandaged every couple of hours. But more importantly, he needed to be coaxed awake, to get him to drink water, water necessary to help replace his blood loss and fight the infection.

Shivering, Dolly wrapped her arms around her shoulders. The fire was slowly burning itself out and the room was beginning to take on a chill. She continued to slowly rock in her rocking chair, the sound of the runners keeping time with the clock on the mantel.

Never had her old bones complained so much. The thin cushion on the chair did little to soften the hard seat. But it wasn’t the rocker that left her aching everywhere; it was fear and anxiety that stiffened her muscles. She couldn’t remember being so frightened. 

She stopped rocking and leaned forward, the sudden absence of sound garnering both Teresa and Pearl’s attention.

“Pearl, dear,” she called softly. “The fire is almost out and it’s getting cold in here. You don’t want Johnny taking a chill.”

Dolly watched Pearl look past her to the fireplace, a surprised expression on her face. She quickly pulled the blanket higher up on Johnny’s chest.

Teresa shifted on the far end of the sofa.  “I can do it, Pearl,” she offered. “Let Dolly rest, she’s…”

The gun was suddenly in Pearl’s right hand again, pointed straight at Teresa, her other hand gently stroking Johnny’s fevered brow. “I told ya not to move.”

Teresa sat back quickly, her eyes darting from Johnny to Pearl to Dolly. Dolly could see the fear and the anger rage in her dark brown eyes. “Do as she says, Teresa,” Dolly said, her voice stern. “Pearl can take care of Johnny. Right, Pearl?”

Pearl nodded, the gun still in her hand, still pointed at Teresa. “I think ‘is fever’s settlin’ back down.”

“That is good to hear, dear. But it really is getting cold in here. You don’t want him getting sick again, do you?”

Pearl shook her head, not taking her eyes off Teresa. Dolly could see the anger and jealousy in Pearl’s eyes. One wrong move, one wrong word, and Pearl wouldn’t think twice before pulling the trigger. It seemed an eternity before Pearl made a decision. She grabbed one of the rolls of bandaging sitting in a basket next to the bed and threw it at Dolly.

“Get up,” she ordered. “Both of you.”

Confused, Dolly stood slowly. Pearl waved her gun between her and Teresa. “Give ‘er yer seat,” she ordered.

Teresa looked surprised, but slowly walked around the coffee table.

Pearl’s gun settled on Teresa. “Tie ‘er up.” 

Dolly saw Teresa flinch. 

“Tie her up!” Pearl shouted, again. “I ain’t trustin’ her. She wants my Johnny. I kin see it in her eyes.”

“Pearl, Teresa is the only one here who has medical experience. She’s helped Johnny so far, but she has to continue to care for him. She can’t do that if she is tied up. Johnny needs her.”

“I kin do it. I done it a’fore. Now, ya tie her up.”

There was no doubt in Dolly’s mind that Pearl would carry through on her threat. How could she have been so wrong about the sweet nervous girl she met on the stage?

Dolly nodded toward Teresa. “She means what she says, dear.”

Silently, Teresa sat down in the rocker and Dolly began to tie her hands in front of her.

“No! Tie ‘er hands behind the chair. Tight now. I’ll be checking. If ya don’t do as I say, I’ll do what I should a done when I first got here.”

She looked at Dolly and Dolly saw the insanity in her blue eyes. Whatever grip she still had on reality was slipping away.

Teresa settled back on the rocker and threaded her arms through the back slats. Dolly tied her wrists together, pushing back the tears that welled in her eyes. She tied the ropes just tight enough that Teresa would not be able to slip free. She had no other recourse than to follow Pearl’s demands. Buying time was their only hope. She regretted the missed opportunities she had to get the gun away from Pearl. She had feared the worst would happen if her attempt failed. But was it worse than this? 

“Now sit down,” Pearl ordered, waving the gun at Dolly and walking behind Teresa to test the ropes. Nodding she returned to Johnny, kneeling next to him to brush his forehead with a kiss. “It be all right, Johnny,” she said softly “I get ya well, I promise. Ya don’t need Teresa’s hands touching ya. She wants ya fer herself. I kin see it in her eyes.”

Johnny moved his head, a soft moan escaping his lips. 

Dolly saw Pearl lay the gun down next to Johnny’s pillow. She mentally measured the distance between the far end of the sofa where she sat and Johnny’s makeshift bed. Even a young woman couldn’t have traveled the distance in time to grab the gun.

“It be all right, Johnny,” Pearl whispered and Dolly caught her breath as she watched Johnny’s eyes slowly flutter open.

A weak smile parted his lips and he looked up at Pearl. “Abby…?” 

Dolly froze. Pearl sat back, confusion and betrayal darkening her face. “Johnny….?”

A sudden knock at the front door had all eyes, but Johnny’s, turning toward the living room. Teresa started to scream but it died in her throat as Pearl snatched the gun off the pillow and pointed it at her, pulling the hammer back for emphasis. She grabbed a smaller roll of bandaging and rushed over to Teresa, stuffing the roll into Teresa’s mouth.

She swung the gun toward Dolly. “Make ‘em go away!” she ordered, panic in her voice.

Dolly nodded. Glancing quickly at Teresa, she walked out of the parlor with Pearl on her heels. It was most likely Jake checking up on her. How she wanted to tell him they needed help. She tried to think of a way to alert him without making Pearl suspicious. She reached the door with Pearl standing behind her, gun hidden in the folds of her dress.

Opening the door just wide enough to peek out, she tried to make her smile look sincere. “Jake.”

Jake tipped his hat. “Didn’t mean to disturb you, Mrs. Chamberlain, but I didn’t recognize the horse tied up out here and wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

“Thank you, Jake.  It’s just an old friend I used to know from back east. He’s going to stay with me for a couple of days.”

“Is he alright? I mean, I saw blood on the saddle, and…”

Pearl suddenly pushed Dolly out of the way and swung the door open, pointing her gun at Jake. “Ya should a minded yer own business,” Pearl yelled, pulling back the hammer.

“No! Pearl, please,” Dolly begged, trying to reach around to grab her arm, but Pearl easily shoved her out of the way. 

“Git inside,” Pearl ordered, stepping back so she could see both Dolly and Jake as he slowly walked through the door. Dolly realized that in her insanity, Pearl was dangerously aware of everything. Like a threatened animal, she would react on instinct. Pearl held the gun on Jake. “Git his gun, Dolly, and give it ta me. I ain’t scared of killin’ the both of ya if I have ta.”

Dolly stepped forward, her hand shaking so hard she could barely pull the gun from Jake’s holster. She knew how to handle a gun, though it had been many years since she was in a position to need one. If Pearl had not had her finger on the trigger she might have used the weapon against the girl. As heartbreaking as the thought was, she knew she could and would use it if she had to. But it would surely mean Jake’s life. 

“Put it on the floor and move back,” Pearl ordered, and Dolly had no choice but to obey.

Pearl quickly stepped over the gun to hide it beneath her skirt. 

“Now, ya gets in that closet over there,” she told Jake.  “An don’t think I ain’t gonna use this, cause I will.”

Jake nodded, slowly stepping backward toward the closet. He reached behind him for the knob, not taking his eyes off Pearl. Suddenly he wrenched the door open, whipping his arm around trying to knock the gun from Pearl’s hand.  

Pearl pulled the trigger and Dolly screamed. She would never forget the astounded look on Jake’s face as he clutched at his stomach and then sank backward into the closet.

Pearl quickly kicked his legs into the closet and slammed the door shut, picking up Jake’s gun. “I kin use it agin if I has ta,” she warned.

Dolly thought she was going to be sick. “Dear God,” she gasped.


The sound of a gunshot galvanized Johnny into action. He automatically reached for his gun and found only bare skin. Still confused, he tried to roll to his left to get to his knees and to Teresa, but pain exploded in his arm and he fell back, gasping for air. He squeezed his eyes shut, desperately trying to rid his mind of the pain, the last remnants of laudanum and the fever he could feel burning his skin. He heard Teresa’s muffled sob and cursed his mind and body for their weakness.

“Teresa!” he gasped, and heard her stomp her feet in response. 

His left arm felt like it was nailed to the mattress, but he fought through the pain and levered himself up on his right elbow. Teresa shimmered in a black haze, sitting impossibly far away on the rocking chair. He heard her muffled grunts and realized she was tied to the rocker, and though he could not see her clearly, he knew by the sound of her desperate sobs that she was gagged.

He tried to make sense of what was happening. Bits and pieces of a tangled puzzle taunted him. Then he remembered Pearl. He remembered Abby and why he was on the road in the middle of the worst storm he could remember. He remembered the cave and waking up here, in Dolly’s house. And Pearl, hovering over him, thinking he was her man again. Dolly! Where was Dolly? Suddenly that gunshot had new meaning. 

“Dolly!” He looked around the room, desperate to see the old woman. 

Teresa rocked the chair harder, nodding her head toward the parlor door. Johnny felt the bile rise in his throat. Had Pearl killed Dolly? 

He swung his legs over the side of the bed, surprised that his right leg hurt so much, but even more surprised to find that the mattress was on the floor. He slid off the makeshift bed onto his knees, getting tangled in the blankets. He fought back the blackness that threatened to pitch him face first onto the floor. He hovered there like a horse ridden to ground, trying to drag air into his starving lungs. He knew he was the only thing that stood between Teresa and Pearl, and yet he couldn’t move. 

“No!” 

Johnny heard Pearl’s frantic voice from a long way off. He felt her arms around him, pulling him backwards until his head fell into her lap, his left arm hitting the floor with a terrible flare of pain. 

“Johnny, it be ok. I take good care of ya. I promise. Remember?” She leaned over, kissing his forehead, smoothing away the sweaty bangs from his brow. “Remember how I took care of ya at the camp? Ma an Pa wanted ta hurt ya…but I took care of ya. Ya belongs ta me. We’re ta be wed. Johnny? Johnny!”

Suddenly all the memories of the Harkins camp came back to Johnny in vivid detail. Pearl’s touch repulsed him. He couldn’t stand the degradation at her hands again. And yet he had no choice. He would do anything to save Teresa…even this.

“I know,” he said ever so softly, “and you belong to me. But I’m hurting, honey. I need Teresa. She knows a lot about doctoring.”

Pearl shook her head violently. “No. She been lyin’ ta ya. She wants Abby ta be yer woman.”

With a shaky hand, Johnny reached up and touched Pearl’s chin before his strength gave way and his hand fell back down to his chest. “It’s you I love, Pearl. But we can’t get married if I die here.”

“Ya cain’t die. I won’t let ya.”

Johnny sighed deeply. “I will, darling, if you don’t let Teresa look after my arm.”

It seemed an eternity before Pearl finally shook her head. “No. No I take care a ya. I done it afore.” She slipped Johnny’s head off her lap and tried to lift him back onto the mattress. Johnny couldn’t keep from groaning as Pearl tried to move him. He tried to help but his body was completely played out. 

 “Dolly, help me,” Pearl ordered. 

Johnny felt a moment of relief wash over him at the sight of Dolly leaning over him. But her face was as pale as a ghost.

“Dolly, you alright?” he managed to ask.

“Jake is dead,” she said, a world of sadness in her voice.

Johnny looked up at Pearl.

“Why?”

“Cause he saw yer horse an all the blood. He be runnin’ ta tell the others. They cain’t know we’re here. They wanna take ya away from me. Ya don’t want that, do ya, Johnny?”

“No,” Johnny sighed out. “No, darling, I don’t.”

A smile came to Pearl’s face and between her and Dolly, Johnny was lifted onto the mattress.

“There, ya be fine now,” Pearl said, drawing the covers up over his shoulders. “Dolly’ll make us a fire and get ya some hot broth. I made it for ya. Ma showed me how. And ya be better in no time.”

Johnny felt himself slipping toward unconsciousness, but not before he saw Pearl pick up his gun and point it toward Dolly.

“Dios…”

.


Chapter Seventeen

The parlor felt warm again, but the fire did nothing to ease the cold fear in the pit of Teresa’s stomach. Dolly had started the fire and added more wood when needed. Each time she passed Teresa to tend to the fire she chanced a quick look toward her. It was a waiting game now. 

Pearl still sat next to Johnny. He had not made a move in the past hour and Teresa needed to check his arm and change the bandage. All the work she had done to clean the wound would be lost if the bandages weren’t changed when they became soiled. And she needed to see if Johnny’s fever had come down. He had begun sweating and that was a good sign that his body was fighting the fever, but there was still a blush to his cheeks that spoke of lingering fever. 

She closed her eyes for just a moment. She was so tired. The strips of bandaging tying her wrists were not too tight, but her arms ached from the unnatural position. The gag in her mouth made her jaw ache and left her mouth dry, making her throat catch with every breath through her nose. But it was the worry that gnawed a hole in her stomach. Pearl had proved exactly how dangerous she was and it could be any one of them that said the wrong thing or made the wrong move that could turn her deadly again. Even Johnny. She almost wished Johnny would remain unconscious. 

Teresa glanced over at Dolly. The older woman sat rigidly on the edge of the sofa. Tucked in the folds of her dress, one end just peeking out from its hiding place, was a small log meant for the fire. Teresa had quickly turned away when she’d seen Dolly slip the log into hiding, not wanting to draw Pearl’s attention to her actions. It was the best hope they had right now. But did they wait for Pearl to doze off, or try to lure her close enough for Dolly to use the log? Pearl’s head nodded now and again, but she still had both guns lying next to her, one loosely cradled in her hand. She remembered what Johnny had said about waiting. How it sometimes was the hardest thing to do. He said it took him years to learn the patience he needed to survive. Today his survival depended on her and Dolly. 

Johnny opened his eyes, trying to separate dreams from reality. Had it been a nightmare that Pearl was back? Was Abby truly in trouble? It was all too strange not to be a nightmare brought on by fever. And yet as his vision cleared he recognized the face hovering above him. “Pearl…”

His stomach churned when she leaned down and kissed him, her tongue seeking entrance into his mouth. 

“I knew ya be too strong ta die,” she whispered, kissing him again. Memories of Teresa being tied to the chair and Dolly’s horrified look make him accept her kisses and return them, hot bile rising in his throat. Pearl shifted on the floor next to him, her left hand sneaking beneath the blanket to touch his bare skin. Her right hand still gripped the gun, the heaviness of it lying across his shoulder. 

“When ya be better, we kin wed in God’s eyes,” she said softly, her hand caressing his chest, her fingers playing with the ringlets of chest hair, following the natural path toward his belly. “It don’t take no church man ta make us man an’ wife, jest the good book an’ us sayin’ our I do’s.”

Johnny nodded, repulsed by her nearness. His arm throbbed with each beat of his heart. Her hand continued to explore, past his belly, fingers searching until Johnny couldn’t take it another second.

“No, honey,” he said softly but firmly. “I don’t want it to be this way. I want it to be the right time. Alone in our own house. I have plans for a house you know. It’s a long way from Lancer so we won’t be bothered by family or friends. Just the two of us.”

Johnny would not degrade the special place by the stream that he had planned for him and Abby. That was his dream for the woman he loved, not this vile creature.

“Ya have a house fer us?” Pearl’s lips sought his again, hungry with passion. “I feared that ya didn’t want ta be man an’wife…I feared…”

Johnny reached his right hand up to caress Pearl’s hair, pulling her down closer to him, praying Dolly would act before he was sick. His eyes caught a movement and he saw Dolly standing over them, a small log in her hand. He crushed Pearl’s mouth against his, kissing her with a passion that had nothing to do with love. This kiss was born of survival and the need to protect Abby – at any cost.

He closed his eyes, not wanting Pearl to see the reaction in his eyes as he waited for the log to come crashing down on Pearl’s head. 

Johnny would never know what it was that alerted Pearl. An instinct learned from living like an animal for so many years, a sound, a movement of air. But Pearl’s head suddenly snapped up and she turned to see Dolly hovering over her, the log raised to strike. Johnny tried to grab for the gun that touched his shoulder but Pearl was too fast. Her hand wrapped around the handle before Johnny could grab it and she rolled off the mattress and fired.


“I can ride,” Scott persisted, levering himself off sofa. As much as his leg hurt, he thought that if he had broken it, it would have been less painful. He tried to suppress the hiss but Ellison heard it and grabbed his right arm, carefully forcing him back down on the sofa.

“Like hell you can,” Ellison said. There was no humor in his voice like there had been earlier in the morning. “If you want to get home you’ll do it my way, by wagon. I found you and that makes you my responsibility. And if you know me at all, you know I don’t skirt my responsibilities.”

“I’ve got to find him,” Scott spat, knowing Ellison was only doing what he or any of the Lancers would do if they were in his position. But it didn’t make it any easier.

“I know you do, Son. But it’ll be my way. Now you sit tight, I’ll bring the wagon around for you.”

Mrs. Rawls hurried from the kitchen carrying a basket with a checkered top covering its contents. “Here is something for your lunch, just in case Teresa is still at the Baker house sitting with your Mrs. Chamberlain. I know, I know, you can fend for yourself but with Maria gone, I thought it would be a little easier on you. Fried chicken and apple pie. I’ve never known a man to turn his nose up at my fried chicken.”

Scott could smell the chicken and he thought of Johnny. His brother had an insatiable appetite, never seeming to stay filled for long. His stomach dipped at the thought of where Johnny might be. 

“Thank you, Mrs. Rawls.”

“You are welcome, dear. Now, I have an extra one of Ellis’s jackets here. It may be a bit big, but it will keep you nice and warm. We don’t want you taking a chill after being in this warm house.”

Mrs. Rawls sat on the sofa next to him and helped him ease his left arm into the sleeve. “You wait here now and let Ellis help you up. And I want you to send someone back as soon as you can if you find Johnny.”

“I will,” Scott promised. But in his heart he knew he would not find Johnny there.

Ellison came in, slapping his gloved hands against his arms. “It is colder than a …ah…” 

He looked toward his wife, “as cold as I can remember in a lot of years. You ready, Scott?”

Scott reached his arm up to Ellison. He’d been ready all morning. He wrapped his right arm around Ellison’s shoulder and let the big man take most of his weight as he hopped on his right leg toward the door. He turned back to see a worried Mrs. Rawls. “Thank you, Mrs. Rawls, I don’t know how I’m going to repay you.”

Mrs. Rawls swished a dishcloth toward him. “No thank yous necessary. You and your family would have done the same for Ellison. I just pray that you find Johnny. God be with you, Scott Lancer.”

Scott nodded, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. He prayed for the same thing. As Ellison opened the front door the cold air stunned Scott. No one could survive this kind of cold, especially if he were hurt. 

“Let’s get you home,” Ellison said brusquely, and helped Scott climb onto the seat of the buckboard. “The Missus wanted to make you a bed in the back, but I told her you’d have nothing to do with that.”

“Thanks.”

“We should be there in a couple of hours. The roads are still a mess from the storm.”

Scott held on, hissing with pain when the horses fought their traces before settling down. As they began pulling away from the Rawls ranch, he hoped to God that Mrs. Rawls’ prayers were answered.


Abby rode beside Murdoch while Val took the lead. The heavy mist that covered Elkhorn had lifted as they traveled inland, but even when the sun made an occasional appearance it did nothing to warm the frigid air. Murdoch told her more about Johnny’s first encounter with Pearl and her family. She knew he was not telling her everything and she might never know the entire story. Johnny had told her about his past, but she knew that there were things locked up in Johnny’s memories that he would never share with anyone.

 “I get my hands on Pearl Hawkins she’ll wish she’d never set eyes on Johnny. Crazy or not, I’ll see that she pays for what she’s done to him. I’m afraid there’s no sympathy in my heart for her.” Abby’s voice held a coldness she never thought possible. 

Murdoch looked toward her and she saw the depth of guilt in his eyes. “I made a mistake and thought she could lead a normal life with the right help. I was wrong and now Johnny is paying for it.”

“I don’t agree with what you did, Murdoch,” Abby admitted. “But I understand your reasoning. We can’t always make the right decisions.”

“Some decisions have far reaching ramifications. She could have easily killed that boy she stole the horse from. Now with a gun, who knows what she’ll do.”

“We’ll find her. And we’ll find Johnny.” Abby kicked her horse into a faster lope and joined Val. It wasn’t that she blamed Murdoch, but at the moment she couldn’t forgive him either.


Scott held on with his right hand as the buckboard dipped and bucked its way over the rough road. They’d had to stop a number of times already for Ellison to clear downed tree limbs lying across the road. All the time he searched the still muddy ground, looking through the openings between trees hoping to spot something that would tell him that Johnny was somewhere near. 

“Whoa!” Ellison pulled back on the reins. Standing in the road, head bowed and tail swishing, was a saddled horse. “Don’t recognize him, do you?”

Scott shook his head. “It might be the horse Pearl stole from the kid. If it is, she’s on foot.” Feeling like a target ready to be shot, Scott reached down for the rifle propped against the wagon seat next to his knee. He handed it to Ellison to cock it for him. “Slow now,” he said. “If Pearl’s around here Johnny might be too.”

Ellison clicked his tongue and snapped the reins keeping the horses to a fast walk. The cold air gripped Scott’s aching arm and leg and he found it hard to keep his hand from shaking as he stood the rifle’s butt on the seat next to him, waiting and watching. Another downed tree limb and Scott was on full alert. Was it the wind or was it a trap? Pearl may have been crazy, but she was as smart as they came. 

“You know, she might have headed back to the ranch being this close,” Elision said.

“Or to Dolly’s. She’d feel safer there.”

“Didn’t you say Teresa was there?”

Scott shifted on the seat, more anxious then ever to make good time through the sloppy road. “Yes. And there is no love lost between those two. Let’s head over to the Baker place first.”

No more words were spoken. Scott huddled deeper into his jacket. 


They had already been traveling more than two hours when Scott looked at what was once part of the road ahead of them. The runoff from the mountains had carved a gully across the road too wide for the wagon to cross. Trees on either side made it impossible for the buckboard to maneuver around the gully.

“We’ll have to backtrack,” Ellison growled, “catch the road leading to the Gunderson’s ranch then hopefully cross back onto this road a few miles ahead. I knew the roads would be bad, but not this bad.”

“Just hurry. I have a feeling that Dolly and Teresa are in trouble if Pearl made it there.”

“I know how you feel, Scott, but we can’t make it today. The road to Gunderson’s is five miles beyond my place, we’d make it only halfway before dark. I’m afraid we’ll have to wait ‘til morning.”

“Not if we move fast enough.”

“You know that’s not going to happen. It’s hard enough making it over these roads in the daytime, can’t chance getting us both killed trying to make it in the dark. I’m sorry, Scott.”

“You don’t know what Pearl is capable of,” Scott said.

“I think I do. But we don’t know for sure she’s even there. And if she is, Teresa can take care of herself. Between her and your friend Dolly, I think they’ll be all right for the night. We’ll head back to my place and leave at first light. With luck, we’ll be at the Baker house by late afternoon.”

It took time for Ellison to coax the horses back and forth until the buckboard was finally headed in the opposite direction. When would they get a break? The nagging guilt that this was, in a large part, his fault settled over Scott again. If he had listened to his instincts and asked more questions about the mysterious veiled Opal, none of this would be happening. Johnny would still be safe at home, Abby would be planning their wedding. 

Knowing Ellison was right, Scott fell silent. Watching his breath form small clouds as he breathed, he knew it was getting colder by the minute. By nightfall, without cloud cover, it would be freezing. Damn it. He wasn’t going to go there. Johnny had survived alone most of his life, and he would survive this too. 


Val rode ahead to find a site to camp. They had made good time, better than he thought they would with Abby along. She never complained, never asked to stop to rest. He had a newfound respect for her and knew for sure Johnny had picked the right girl. Even now, as it grew colder by the hour, she never spoke a word of complaint. It was a hard ride in this weather and it would be late in the morning tomorrow before they reached Green River, then another hour or more, depending on the roads, to reach Lancer. So far there had been no signs of anyone else on the road. If Pearl or Johnny had made it this far there would have been some kind of sign. The rain had stopped yesterday, and even though the roads were still sloppy with mud, Val would have spotted new tracks.  He didn’t like the implications of that. If they had not gotten this far then where were they? Johnny was hurt and riding a horse he had no right to be on, and Pearl was more used to walking than riding. He hoped to find both of them camping off the side of the road. He’d kept his eyes out for the signs of smoke, sniffing the air, hoping to smell something besides wet horse, wet trees and mud.

The sound of rushing water caught his attention and he headed to his left, cursing at the cold rain falling from the soaked limbs as he walked his horse through the maze of trees. What was once most likely a small stream was now a river, fed by the rainwater coming down off the mountains. He found a small clearing a few yards from the river where the sun had done its best to dry the mud. It would still be wet and cold, but at least their bedrolls wouldn’t sink into the muck. 

Heading back to lead Murdoch and Abby to the campsite he once again wondered about her. She was sure different from her mama. The old woman had been unable to let Abby go, had lied to keep her there long after she needed the help. Val wondered if Abby would ever tell Johnny that bit of news. He knew his old friend would not take kindly to knowing that they were forced to stay apart because the old woman couldn’t let go. Hell, that’s why Val never wanted to get hitched. Too much goings on with families. Better to have a few close friends and be done with it. But Abby was a strong woman, proved it by sticking by Johnny even when he got himself into the scrapes that seemed to follow the boy like a shadow. Val respected her for knowing Johnny had a wild side, that it was both his good and bad that made him who he was. It took a woman who was willing to take Johnny for who he was – including his past – to make them both happy. But damn if Pearl hadn’t made a mess of everything. If he ever got his hands on the bitch…

Murdoch and Abby came into view and he saw just how cold Abby was by the way she huddled in her jacket. 

“Get a move on,” he yelled. “Found a spot to camp and we’ll have us a fire and fill our bellies with fish before ya know it.”

“Just as long as you don’t fish like Johnny,” Murdoch called back, then memory bringing a painful smile to his face.

“Hell no, Murdoch. I’d use a scatter gun!” With that, Val turned and trotted back to the river with Murdoch and Abby trailing behind. It was good to see a smile come to the old man’s face. Val decided he would do his best to drag another one out of Murdoch, maybe even Abby.


The fire felt good on her face. She held her hands out to the fire, feeling them sting as the heat warmed them. Val had been a man of his word and had three good sized trout sizzling in a skillet. The smell of coffee and beans warmed more than just her cold body. She looked at the two men, each one silently carrying out chores they must have done a thousand times before. She felt like a little piece of Johnny was sitting there with her, just having these two men by her side. She knew how much he loved his father, how hard it was for both him and Murdoch to say the words out loud. But she was learning that words were not always necessary. She and her mother had shared their thoughts freely as Abby grew up, but she knew they were not as close as Johnny and Murdoch had become since he came home. The one thing they had that went far beyond words was trust. And the trust also extended to the gruff sheriff. 

It had taken time for Abby to get to know Val. She still called him Sheriff Crawford instead of his given name. He still seemed awkward around her, as if he didn’t think that he was good enough to be around a woman who wasn’t a dancehall girl or a working girl. How wrong he was. Before this journey was over, no matter the outcome, Abby knew she would call him Val. 

“I’m afraid Johnny never told me about his special brand of fishing…” she said tentatively, almost afraid to break the silence.

Murdoch stared into the fire then looked back up at her, his eyes haunted. But he pushed past the moment, and she knew he was doing it for her, and she loved him for it. “I’m sure there are a lot of things he hasn’t told you, my dear. And that is what a father-in-law is for.”

Abby ate the fish and beans, sipping at the hot coffee as Murdoch began telling her about Johnny’s unique method of fishing. She listened as he told her stories, his voice soft and filled with love. Tonight they only had memories of Johnny – tomorrow Abby prayed she would once again hold him in her arms.

.

Chapter Eighteen

She raised her head up, just enough to take a breath, and felt it: a slight sag in the floor beneath her, a whisper of air above her. Johnny’s arm gripped her tighter, begging her to stay in his arms, lost in their moment of passion. But instinct screamed danger and she grabbed her gun and rolled off the mattress. Above her, Dolly stood, a log raised above her head, ready to strike. Pearl aimed and pulled the trigger a split second before Johnny rolled into her, hitting her arm and sending the gun flying out of her hand. 

The shot went wide, hitting the ceiling to the right of Dolly, the log slipping harmlessly from the old woman’s paralyzed fingers.

“Ya made me miss!” Pearl screamed, scrambling after the gun on her hands and knees. “Ya made me miss!” 

Johnny’s hand weakly grabbed her dress, trying to pull her back. But she kicked at him, and she heard a grunt as her foot connected with his stomach and he released her skirt. She grabbed the butt of the gun, feeling the heat from the still hot iron as she drew it towards her chest, the smell of cordite in the air renewing her strength and feeding her anger. 

She kicked at Johnny again, feeling the satisfaction when she heard another grunt. He’d tried to stop her. She couldn’t believe he could betray her like that. She had been so sure of his love, now… He’d pulled his uninjured leg up to protect his stomach from another kick. She loved him and hated him. Wanted him so much it hurt. But Ma was right, he needed to be trained. She’d thought love was enough, but it weren’t. 

Pearl climbed to her knees and pointed the gun at Johnny. 

“I’m sorry, Pearl…” Johnny tried to reach out for her again, but she shifted away from him. She couldn’t trust him no more. “I couldn’t let you do it. I couldn’t let you kill her.”

“She sure enough aimed ta kill me!  I thought ya loved me!”

“I do. I do.” His voice softened, she let herself drift on each word. “She’s been a good friend to us, Pearl. She set up that party, remember? Our special dinner?”

Pearl remembered the dress she was wearing that night. It was supposed to be so perfect. She’d worked so hard. All the time spent away from him learning to be a lady. Going to sleep thinking about him. Waking up thinking about him. The long train ride with nothing to do but look out the window and think about him. About them together. But never did she think it would be like this. Abby had stole him away from her, and he…he let her. 

“I never got a chance to see you in that dress. But I want to, Pearl. I want…”

“Ya thought I was Abby!” The memory came back hard and cold. It twisted in her stomach, sent scalding hot bile up her throat. “You wanted Abby!”

Johnny didn’t say anything, didn’t try to deny it. 

 “Ya hates me. Ya hates me ‘cause a Abby. She turned ya agin me. I should a seen it. I should a knowed that you an me weren’t the same no more.”

“Pearl…”

“No…She tried ta steal ya from me. She ain’t got the right. Yer mine! No one else is gonna have ya…”

“No one owns me, Pearl.” 

Pearl leaned back, away from the sudden hard edge in Johnny’s voice. “No one owns me and no one trains me. If I love someone it’s…”

“Shut up! Shut up! I gotta think!” 

Pearl climbed to her feet, looking around the room. Teresa stared at her from the rocker, her face as white as a ghost’s. But there were no tears, not anymore. Now only a look of hatred so deep that it make Pearl shiver. She had to look away. Dolly stood motionless, the old woman’s hands gripping the folds of her skirt. Dolly looked just like Ma, her face scrunched into that look of disgust. She was never good enough for Ma. 

“Sit down,” Pearl ordered. She felt a well of satisfaction when she saw Dolly slowly backed up until her legs touched the sofa and she sat down. 

Then her eyes sought Johnny again. Her Johnny. She looked back at him, lying on his side, fresh blood soaking the bandage on his arm. The bandage on his leg showed blood too, but she didn’t care about that. 

Pearl dropped on her knees next to him, pushing him onto his back. She didn’t care that she was hurting him. He deserved the pain. She was in pain too. Her heart was breaking into little pieces, grating at her insides. 

“Yer bleeding,” she said flatly, placing the gun in her lap and gathering a fresh roll of bandaging from the pile near the mattress. She didn’t say a word as she unwound the old bandaging and rewrapped his arm. He didn’t take his eyes off her. The love was gone from his eyes and that hurt too. But she’d change his mind again. He loved her before. He was gonna love her again. She’d train him. But first she needed to get some sleep. She was suddenly so tired.

“Dolly, put more wood on the fire and sit on the floor next to Teresa.”

Dolly hesitated and Pearl aimed the gun at her. “Now!”

Like a sleep walker, Dolly stood up and walked over to the fireplace. She stoked the fire and put several large logs on top of the glowing embers before walking over to Teresa. 

“Hurry up!” Pearl ordered, watching impatiently as Dolly struggled to get down to the floor. “Put yer hands behind yer back,” she said, grabbing a roll of bandaging from the floor.

Dolly did as she was told, her movements slow and reluctant. Pearl walked the short distance across the room looping the bandaging around the leg of the rocker then tying Dolly’s wrists behind her.

“If ya say a word, I’ll gag ya too,” Pearl warned.

Satisfied that the two women were bound tight, she walked back to Johnny, grabbed another roll of bandaging and picked up the log Dolly had almost laid her head open with. She tied one end to the log and dropped to her knees, grabbing Johnny’s 

“What are you doing, honey?” Johnny asked, his voice edged with alarm. “Pearl?”

“Shut up! I plan ta get me some sleep.” She placed the log against the bottom of Johnny’s foot and wrapped it tightly in place. She did the same with Johnny’s right foot. “I seen my cousin keep his boy from roamin’ like this.”

Collecting Jake and Johnny’s guns, she shoved them beneath the sofa and returned to Johnny.

“Now I kin get some sleep.” She carefully pulled the blanket up around Johnny’s shoulders and lay down next to him, crawling beneath the blanket and wrapping her body around his before she closed her eyes. She was so tired. When she woke up she’d take Johnny away from here. Somewhere so he could heal and they could be married. A small smile touched her lips as she drifted off to sleep.


Scott lay awake most of the night, looking through the curtains on the window, the edges of the glass fogged over from the heat of the fireplace inside vying with the frigid temperature outside. He forced himself not to think of Johnny out there. He knew his brother was resilient. He would have found a cave or an abandoned line shack. Built himself a fire and waited until the weather broke and he felt stronger. Old Leo had given him laudanum and an extra blanket. Scott had to believe that because the alternative was not something he could accept.

The thought suddenly struck him that Johnny might have headed for Dolly’s place. If he had started to backtrack, Dolly’s was closer than Lancer. His brother, who found it so hard to open up to strangers, had immediately taken to Dolly and he would feel safe there. The thought bolstered his faith that he would once again see his brother. 

The sun had barely chased the stars away when Scott and Ellison were back on the buckboard. Scott hated the fact that he was forced to ride in the buckboard, taking twice the time to get home as horseback. But Ellison was right, there was still no way he could set a horse. Mrs. Rawls had once again packed enough food for a dozen men and insisted the two men wrap blankets around their shoulders until the sun began to warm the air. Scott knew there would be little warmth today. Winter had a firm grip on the land and would not be giving up easily.

“I was thinking,” Scott said as Ellison steered the horses in the opposite direction from Lancer. “Johnny might have tried to head back. If he did, he could have stopped at the Baker place.”

Ellison nodded. “Could be. But if Pearl ended up there too, it’ll be one hell of a party.”

Scott had thought the same thing. But being with Pearl was better than freezing to death alone on the road. Did his brother ever not jump from the frying pan into the fire?


Val had the coffee going and Murdoch was heating salt pork and beans. Hardly a meal for a nice lady like Abby, but he knew she wouldn’t complain. With each minute he spent with Johnny’s girl, he knew why his friend had fallen so hard. 

She returned from her private time down by the stream, her face freshly scrubbed and the blanket pulled tightly around her to ward off the cold. And it was damn cold. 

Val handed her a cup of coffee, the steam rising like clouds as she carefully sipped at it. 

“Sorry it’s so strong,” Val said, handing Murdoch a cup also.

“I like my coffee strong. One of the first things Johnny and I found we had in common.”

A shadow crossed Abby’s face as she said Johnny’s name. Val couldn’t imagine the worry and the hurt she was going through. He had his own worries. But they were for a friend. Abby’s hurt went much deeper.

Murdoch cleared his throat and handed Abby a plate of the beans and salt pork. “Eat as much as you can,” he prompted. “We won’t be stopping for lunch. I want to get back before the weather changes again.”

Abby nodded. “Do you think we can make it by dark?”

“I was thinking we should stop at Dolly Chamberlain’s place first. If Johnny made it back to Lancer someone would be sure to ride out and tell Teresa. If not…” A long uncomfortable silence ended when Val jumped to his feet. 

“Damn it, Murdoch. Yer doing it again. Yer acting like Johnny’s a goner already. Well let me tell ya something about your boy. I’ve seen him so close to death that the undertaker was ready to put coins on his eyes. But he made it. Cause he never quit. Not even when he didn’t have much ta live for. Now look at what he’s got. A family – a pretty woman who’s about ta say I do. If he fought before, you can be damn sure he’s fighting now. So quit digging a grave for him.” 

Val grabbed a plate and started downing the food, his head bent. Damn it if Johnny didn’t rile him. When he found that stupid son of a bitch he was gonna wring his neck. Putting them all through this. Leaving when he had no right to be on his own. Acting with his heart instead of his head. He had more than a few words to say to Johnny Lancer. A lot more.


Johnny pried his eyelids open. He was surprised to find that he had fallen asleep. The house was still and must have been cold. He couldn’t feel it, not with the fever that still plagued him and Pearl snuggled against him. He could feel the soft rise and fall of her chest next to him, and her warm breath on his neck and he felt repulsed. 

The fire had died out sometime during the night and both Teresa and Dolly sat with their heads bent, sleeping. Pearl had come so close to killing them all last night. They couldn’t afford another mistake like that again. If he could, he’d try to get Pearl to take him to one of the line shacks on Lancer property. There he could heal without worrying about what she would do. Her hatred for Teresa was just too strong, and now Dolly had proved Pearl couldn’t trust her. Pearl was a time bomb waiting to go off, and Johnny would just as soon be away from here when it did.

The morning sun was just beginning to lighten the room. Johnny didn’t dare move a muscle. He didn’t want to wake Pearl. But his arm and leg were aching furiously, and the log Pearl had tied to the bottoms of his feet had them pounding. But he knew the best time to convince her to leave was when she first woke up, before she had time to think about things. Her thinking was what threatened them the most.

“Pearl. Pearl, honey, wake up.” Johnny nudged her with his shoulder. She raised her head slowly, a soft smile coming to her face. 

“Johnny…” She pulled his head towards her and kissed him deeply. Johnny held his breath, trying to keep from savagely pushing her away, but he couldn’t chance antagonizing her. After last night he saw how thin a grip she had on reality.

“Pearl, listen to me,” Johnny whispered. “I don’t want to stay here anymore. I want to be alone with you.”

Johnny could feel her subtle movements, the raising of her breasts, the stretch of her legs against his. Then she clamped her leg over his thigh. 

“I want to be alone with you so we can be together. I’ve waited so long for you. I don’t want to wait any longer. And I don’t want our special time to be here, under this roof. It’s got to be our own place, and since I can’t give you that house yet, I can give you the line shack. Just you and me…Please, Pearl…I need you so bad.”

She moaned deeply, her fingers combing through his hair, her lips kissing his forehead and nose. Her tongue parted his lips, poked at his teeth to open for her. Her hands made their way down to his neck, along his chest. 

“It hurts so much,” he groaned. “My arm. And my feet. Honey, you’ve got to untie my feet. Please…”

Pearl pushed herself away from him and looked down at the blood-soaked bandage. “It’s part of yer trainin’,” she said coldly. 

“Dolly!” she yelled. “I be hungry. I want somethin’ ta eat.”

Johnny watched Dolly raise her head, her eyes meeting his for only a moment. But long enough for Johnny to see the paralyzing fear of last night gone. 

“I can’t like this, Pearl. Not all tied up.”

Pearl seemed to think about it. “OK. I let ya go ta cook. But if ya does anythin’ I don’t like…” She aimed the gun at Teresa. “Understand?”


“I understand,” Dolly said. Her body ached from the cold that had settled into her joints and the cramped position she’d sat in all night. Sleep came in the form of short naps, never longer than a few minutes. She had worked at the bandaging that tied her wrists to the rocking chair, only managing to make the knots tighter. Teresa would move her leg every once in awhile and tap her arm. Dolly was thankful for the small contact throughout the night. 

She’d watched Johnny, every so often moaning in his sleep. Pearl’s hobble, peeking out from beneath the blanket that covered him, looked uncomfortable, and by the way Johnny tried to shift his legs she knew it hurt. It was such a brutal thing to do. Dolly couldn’t imagine the life Pearl had led if this is what she learned from her family. She knew now that what the Lancers had told her about Johnny’s ordeal at the hands of the Harkins clan was not the whole story.  

There seemed to be no end to what Pearl was capable of. But the worst was the look of surprise on Jake’s face as Pearl so callously shot him down like he was less than human. Was that to be their fate? Even Johnny wasn’t safe. Pearl’s emotions changed so rapidly there was no telling what she would do. 

Pearl was nothing like the young woman she’d passed off as Opal just over a week ago. If she had only known – if she had not been so engaged by Pearl’s lies. And what would have happened if she’d not selfishly pursued her dream of coming out west? She had been pampered most of her life. The hardships came when she was young, and her family had to work hard to just keep living. But that had changed with her first husband. And she had never looked back on those days of poverty. 

If she had not come here, if she had been content to stay in her home, live out her years as was expected of her, would this have happened? Pearl would not have had an open invitation to deceive the Lancers. To lure Johnny into her trap. So many lives affected by one decision by a bored old lady.

She looked over at Johnny. She had been feigning sleep and heard Johnny’s entreaties to Pearl. What it must have cost him to say those words. And what he was willing to do to help her and Teresa. Harlan Garrett had been so wrong about the boy.

Pearl crossed the room, picked up a letter opener on the writing desk, and sawed at the ties around Dolly’s wrists. Pins and needles stung Dolly’s hands and she rubbed them trying to get the circulation back. 

“Start the fire first,” Pearl ordered, returning to Johnny’s side and dropping down next to him. 

Dolly hauled her stiff body up from the floor, using the rocker for leverage. Teresa watched her, warning her with her eyes not to try anything. Not yet. They had to bide their time. 

Making her way to the hearth, she stirred the embers until she got them glowing red, then added kindling. She had the fire burning hot again before she headed toward the kitchen.

“Remember what I told ya,” Pearl warned, waving the gun in her direction. 

How could she forget?

As Dolly walked through the living room toward the kitchen she glanced through the two windows on either side of the front door. The horse Johnny and Pearl had ridden on yesterday was gone. Untethered, it had most likely wandered away. Throughout the night she had made plans, some feasible, some outright impossible…plans that would free them all from Pearl’s madness. One thought had been to take off on Jake’s horse and ride back to town. She could follow the road. She’d been so enthralled with the countryside as Scott had driven her and…Opal…to the house, that she wouldn’t forget it. But the horse was gone. Jake’s would still be in the barn, but she would never be able to saddle it, and even in her wildest dreams she knew she could never ride bareback. 

Dreams were one thing, but reality was sobering. For now she had to do her best to keep Pearl calm until some kind of help arrived. 

Dolly walked into the kitchen. She quickly made a pot of coffee and sliced day old bread to toast on the stove top. The chicken soup Pearl had made for Johnny yesterday sat uncovered on the table and it turned her stomach. She gathered four mugs and set them and the toast on a platter she first covered with a gingham cloth. She added a cup of sugar and milk to the tray, and in a small covered bowl she poured an entire can of pepper. She would not go down without a fight.

.

Chapter Nineteen

The sun did little to warm the bitter wind as it swept down from the snow-covered Sierras, whipping the trees into a frenzy. Scott was grateful for the blankets Mrs. Rawls insisted both he and Ellison take. Ellison had his draped over his lap, leaving his hands free to hold the reins. But Scott had his wrapped around him from shoulder to toe. He had learned long ago that a man was a fool if he let pride get in the way of common sense. 

Still sloppy with mud, the road tested Ellison’s skills as the wagon wheels spun and threatened to bog down at times, but Ellison knew how to handle the buckboard and the horses. The older man sat silently, not uttering a word of complaint about the weather, not a hint of censure for traveling on a day that was not hospitable to man or beast. He just turned his head every once in awhile to see how Scott was doing, then went back to reading the road ahead and steering the horses around the deeper puddles of mud where he could. 

The ride was bordering on agonizing, as the buckboard dipped and bucked over the uneven road. Scott’s left leg had cramped on him, and no amount of rubbing was going to get the muscle to relax, not in the bitter cold and not while the wagon was lurching like a crazed bull.

“I was thinking…” Ellison shouted, his words whirling around with the gusts of wind. “If Johnny’s able to head back home, he might stop in Green River first. He doesn’t know Val is with your father, and he’s smart enough to know that he’d need Sam’s help.”

Scott nodded. He had been thinking the same thing. Once he had the idea that Johnny might have stopped at Dolly’s, he went on to think of other things Johnny might do. Green River seemed a likely possibility. “We’ll bypass the town on this road,” Scott shouted back. “But if Johnny’s not at Dolly’s and they haven’t heard from the ranch, then we can send Jake into town to check.”

“I figure we’ll find out in about three hours or so, if we can keep up this pace.” 

They suddenly hit another rut, this one deep enough to unseat both men. Scott whipped his arms out from beneath the blanket to catch hold of the seat before he was bucked off. Ellison kept hold of the reins somehow and the horses barely missed a step.

“You alright, Son?” Ellison asked. 

Scott didn’t answer until he had settled himself back onto the seat. Another one of those and he’d be lying in the back like Mrs. Rawls wanted in the first place.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

Scott saw that slight smirk on Ellison’s face. The hell he was, the smile said.


Murdoch dug out his rain slicker and handed it to Abby. “I know it’s not raining,” he said, waiting while she pulled it over her head. It draped over her like a huge blanket and that’s just what he wanted, “but it will help cut the wind.”

“Thank you.” 

He could see by the way she sat her horse that she was exhausted, but Murdoch also knew that Abby McClanahan would ride until she dropped to find Johnny. He had always known that when his son found the right woman, she would be special. That she would be strong of mind as well as strong of body. That she would fight for her opinions, and yet be willing to listen. And as he thought of these things, Murdoch realized he was thinking of his Catherine. How he missed her. Not a day went by when he didn’t wonder what life would have been like if he had not lost her. But if he had the gift to turn back time, to rewrite the past, he would not change the tragedy that befell them…because without Catherine’s passing, Johnny would never have been born. Murdoch could not see his life complete without both sons with him.

“We’ll reach Green River soon. Maybe it would be best for you to stay there. We can send word back if we find him.”

“No! I won’t rest until I find Johnny. Besides, you said yourself I wasn’t safe with anyone else but you two until we found Pearl.”

Murdoch heard Val snicker, even though he was riding ahead of them. “She’s got ya on that one, Mr. Lancer. Ya won’t have a chance in hell of gettin’ yer way when she and Johnny take sides.”

Murdoch scowled, but he saw the hint of a smile on Abby’s lips. He prayed that he would have the chance to be out maneuvered by Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Lancer.


At times Johnny wasn’t sure if he were still delirious, or if reality could be this confusing. Pearl had put a second pillow behind his head to make it easier to breathe, though his chest was still congested and his breathing labored. Pearl had also changed the bandaging on his arm several times and kept a cool cloth on his forehead. She was the picture of a caring nurse, all except for the gun she had in the oversized pocket of a white apron. 

The apron had seemed to have been the trigger, the thing that had Pearl on a new mission – to be the perfect wife.  

Johnny watched as she circled the room again, dusting every shelf, every figurine Dolly had set out to make this house her home for her stay. She stopped at pictures hanging on the wall and spoke to them silently, dusting the frames and polishing the glass. She swept the rug, kept the fire going and nursed him all morning long. When Johnny fretted over Teresa being without water for so long, Pearl had happily removed the gag from Teresa’s mouth and let her drink until she was full before replacing the gag. When Johnny fretted again that Dolly was old and couldn’t sit on the floor tied to the rocker, Pearl had untied her and moved her to a chair and retied her hands. 

Johnny remembered breakfast and shuddered at how close they had come, once again, to Pearl losing control. She had held court over the parlor, sipping at the coffee, ladling spoonfuls of sugar into her cup along with enough milk to turn the black liquid white, and nibbled at the toast. She had reached for the covered bowl on the tray but at Dolly’s horrified look, Johnny had gasped in pain and Pearl was instantly at his side, the bowl forgotten.

Breakfast could have ended in disaster, with Pearl throwing the rest of the toast into the fireplace and tying Dolly to the rocker again, but lunch was turning into a nightmare in everyone’s eyes except Pearl’s. She had disappeared into the kitchen just long enough to put together a concoction of leftovers from Dolly’s cupboards, seasoned with every spice she could lay her hands on and served on four of Dolly’s best plates. She played the perfect hostess, placing napkins in Teresa and Dolly’s laps. She undid Teresa’s gag and spoon-fed her. Teresa smiled and thanked Pearl for the delicious meal. Johnny’s heart went out to her, but Teresa proved just how strong she could be as she played along with Pearl. 

After feeding Teresa, Pearl replaced the gag and sat down next to Dolly, smiling at the old woman’s pleased expression as she was fed the vile meal. Dolly asked what kinds of spices she used between bites and congratulated Pearl on a delicious lunch. Pearl shrugged and said she knew how to cook. Her ma had taught her. Then it was Johnny’s turn. She placed a napkin over his chest and began to feed him, one spoonful for him, one for herself. He almost gagged, forcing the slop down his throat with a smile. Between the lingering fever and the pain from his arm and leg Johnny, wasn’t sure he could keep it down. But he feared she would see it as a rejection and he fought the nausea back. 

With lunch over, Pearl began her cleaning again, humming a song, the innocence of it turning obscene on her lips. 

“Honey,” he called, drawing her over to him with his eyes. “Pearl, you’re doing a fine job here cleaning, but wouldn’t you like cleaning your own place better? Remember, I told you about the line shack? I know it’s not much, but it would be ours. We could leave Teresa and Dolly here, someone would find them eventually. We’d be happy there, I promise. Pearl…would you at least think about it? We could spend our first night together there tonight. You could start a fire, cook us some more good food. When I’m able I could do some hunting. We wouldn’t need anyone. Just you and me, Pearl. Just Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Lancer.”

Pearl sank to her knees beside him. “Sounds fine, Johnny.” She leaned down close to him, kissing his cheek, his lips. Johnny could feel the heaviness of the gun in her apron pocket, but he knew he wouldn’t be quick enough to grab it yet. “We kin fix it up,” Pearl purred as she ran her hands through Johnny’s hair, “make it all pretty, but not fancy pretty like them houses back east. And then we kin send fer Ma and Pa. A house ain’t right without kin in it. Oh, Johnny, we be so happy. I knowed it. I knowed it would work. Ya just needed time ta think ‘bout things, ta know the right of it all.”

Johnny drew her head down and kissed her deeply. “When, darlin’? When can we leave?”

Pearl giggled, kissing him again before jumping to her feet. “Ya rest first. Ya still looks a might sickly.” 

“I’m fine, Pearl. You’re a good nurse. I’m almost healed.” He lifted his left arm up, keeping it as steady as he could, hoping she didn’t see the pain in his eyes or the sweat that was welling up on his face. He had to get her away from here, away from her ace in the hole, her hostages. Without them to worry about, he could try anything. Anything to keep them safe. Anything to stop her before she came face to face with Abby.

“I know ya feel better. That’s cause I be takin’ good care of ya. But ya could get sick again, real quick. An I don’t want no dead husband. So ya rest fer awhile longer.”

Johnny knew this was just the quiet before the storm. One wrong word could set her off again. And he knew he still didn’t have the strength to fight her, even if she had untied his feet from the log. No matter how many times he asked her to at least loosen the binding, she’d steadfastly say it was part of his training. 

The food, as repulsive as it was, had filled his stomach and he felt his eyes begin to flag as he watched her dusting the coffee table again. Suddenly she stood up straight, looking around as if someone had spoken to her. She looked over toward him and Johnny saw the hint of fear in her eyes. 

“What’s wrong, darlin’?” he asked softly. 

Confusion turned to suspicion and she dropped to her knees to look under the sofa. From Johnny’s vantage point on the floor, he could see the two guns she had shoved under the piece of furniture. He’d been waiting for a chance to get to them, but in his weakened condition he needed extra time to crawl across the floor to reach them. Even at lunch when he thought he might have a chance, Pearl had returned too soon. Thankfully he had only shifted toward the edge of the mattress when she had returned. 

Suspicion turned to anger and she charged toward the mattress.

“I knows what ya been thinkin’. I know ya was jest waitin’.” She grabbed another roll of bandaging and jumped onto the mattress, straddling Johnny’s hips. 

“Pearl…what…?”

“Shut up! I know what ya was thinkin’. I could hear ya. Yer jest waitin’ fer me ta turn my back and ya was gonna go fer one of them guns.”

“No, Pearl, we were going away together. Remember?”

“No!” Pearl screamed and backhanded Johnny across the face. “Ya was thinkin’ ‘bout her. ‘Bout Abby. I ain’t gonna let her have ya. Yer mine. Yer mine!”

“Pearl!” Johnny heard Dolly pleading, and saw her lean forward in her chair, trying to get Pearl’s attention. “Pearl! You are going to hurt him.”

“He done it ta hisself with all his thinkin’.” Pearl quickly tied one end of the bandaging around Johnny’s right wrist.

“Pearl, no. Please,” Johnny whispered. “I won’t hurt you.”

“Shut up!” She grabbed his hair and yanked his head up, forcing him to sit forward. Before he could stop her, Pearl had pulled his arm behind him and tied the other end of the bandaging around his neck. When she pushed him back down, Johnny had to stretch his arm behind him to keep from choking himself. 

“Ma taught me how ta train my man…” She kicked out at Johnny’s legs. “Ya ain’t learned nothin’ yet!” Another kick and she was gone from his limited sight.

Johnny could barely hear through the roar in his ears. He hurt everywhere and now it was hard to breathe again. From somewhere he heard a voice calling to him. He latched onto it desperately.

“Johnny…”  

He forced himself to take longer breaths, the rope easing up around his throat as he tried to stop struggling.

“Johnny, you have to stay calm.” It was Dolly’s voice. “Johnny…you have to try to relax. Johnny…”

But it was too much. The pain he could take, even the threat on his own life. But not what would happen to Teresa and Dolly. They didn’t deserve this. 

“Johnny, please. If she had wanted to kill you she would have. You have to be ready when she comes back. She lashes out, but she still loves you. You have to make her believe that again. Johnny, you have to stay strong, if not for us, then for Abby.”

Abby. Dios, Abby. It wasn’t just Abby. It was Teresa and Dolly and Scott and Murdoch…everyone who meant something to him could be hurt by Pearl. She threatened everyone who had made a difference in his life. Val and Sam…they could all be hurt. He couldn’t give up. He couldn’t let Pearl win. He couldn’t.  


Pearl returned an hour later, her white apron covered in mud. She brushed back her hair with a muddy hand and left a streak of the mire on her face. 

She stood before them in the parlor, her chest heaving from exertion, her hatred palpable. “I dug the first grave.”


Sam Jenkins handed off his buggy to Leo at the stable and told him to give his horse an extra ration of oats. The old mare deserved it. Sam swore the next cowpoke who told him how hard ranching is, was going to get an earful. He’d been rousted out of bed before dawn because Mrs. Carson decided to give birth when her midwife was birthing another baby thirty miles away, the Fitzpatrick boy broke his arm trying to rope a bull on a dare, and Hannibal Stewart decided today would be a good day to die at age seventy-nine. It all added up to a very long day, and now all Sam wanted was a hot meal and a warm bed. 

It had been a frigid day and promised to be an even colder night with the wind still sweeping down from the mountains. He made his way to his office, fighting the wind. He’d just reached the door when he looked behind him at the sound of horses and saw Murdoch and Val pulling up to the hitching rail with Abby McClanahan between them.

“Hurry,” he yelled against the wind, “get inside.”

“I’ll check with Smithy first,” Val yelled. “He’s young, but he makes a good deputy when I need one. Then I’ll see Leo about some fresh horses.”

“Three,” Abby said firmly. 

Val dipped his hat and smiled beneath the brim. “Yes, ma’am. Three.”

Sam ushered Abby and Murdoch inside, glad to find that his housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Hopkins, had the potbellied stove fired up. “Get yourselves warmed up over there,” he ordered, watching Murdoch help Abby with the rain slicker. There was an easiness between them that told Sam Murdoch was already wearing the mantle of father-in-law. 

“I’ll have Mrs. Hopkins bring us some coffee and something to eat.”

“We won’t have time to eat, Sam.” Murdoch said. “We’ll be leaving as soon as Val gets back.”

“Why don’t the two of you get a couple of rooms over at the hotel and start out in the morning? It’ll be dark by the time you reach Lancer and it’s bitter cold out there.”

“We’ve come this far, we’ll go all the way.”

Mrs. Hopkins came into the office with a tray of cups and a pot of coffee. “Will you be joining Sam for dinner, Murdoch, Miss McClanahan?” she asked.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hopkins,” Abby said, helping the older woman with the tray, “but we want to get to Lancer as soon as possible.”

“I understand child. No luck in finding your Johnny?”

Abby shook her head and Sam saw the grief that was hiding just beneath the surface. Abby was a strong woman, but her strength couldn’t last forever. He hoped someone would be there for her when she needed them. And prayed that there wasn’t a need.

“I’m afraid we lost what little trail there was a couple hours out of town,” Murdoch said, taking a cup of coffee.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I was so hoping you would find him right away. I will continue to pray for his safe return.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hopkins.”

Mrs. Hopkins nodded. “Supper will be ready when you are, Sam,” she called over her shoulder as she disappeared into Sam’s living quarters behind the office.

“Where’s Scott?” Sam asked. 

“Scott decided to backtrack and see if we missed anything. Then he was going to follow us if he didn’t find Johnny. If he did find him he was going to bring him here and then send a telegram to Elkhorn.”

“He hasn’t shown up here yet. Maybe you just missed him, or he’s out at the ranch already.” 

“That’s what we are hoping, Sam.”

The front door opened and Val hurried in, pushed by a gust of wind.

“Got the horses. Smithy ain’t heard anything. You sure you don’t want to stay here tonight, Abby? It’s colder than a…it’s mighty cold out there.”

“I know exactly how cold it is, Sheriff. And if it’s too cold for you, we’ll understand. But I’m going. Shall we, Murdoch?”

Sam couldn’t help but snicker at the look on Val’s face. “You two better get going before Abby here leaves you in her dust. Oh and Murdoch, when you see Jake tell him Amanda was madder than a hornet that he missed dinner with her last night. I swear those two act like they’ve been married for years instead of just recently engaged.”

“I will, Sam.”

“And Murdoch…” Sam looked up at the tall rancher, “You find that boy of yours, you hear? I know it doesn’t look good right now, but if anyone can make it through this, it’s your son. And Murdoch, you let me know when you find Scott too. My hair’s gone from gray to white worrying over those two boys.”

There was no need for further words. Sam closed the door against the wind and watched Murdoch and Val through the window. They steadied the horses as Abby mounted and then they were gone. He turned his back to the door and looked at his office. It was there to help people, to heal them. But at times like these all he had to give was his hope and his prayers. 

.

Chapter Twenty

The wind never stopped. It banged the shudders against the house and rattled the windows, sending the curtains fluttering even though the windows were closed. Teresa couldn’t remember a wind this bad, lasting this long. But then, nothing was as it should be. Not since Pearl came back.

Teresa lifted her head and rested it against the back of the chair, taking long slow breaths through her nose, trying to keep her eyes open. She was exhausted, but the fear that Pearl might shoot her while she slept was stronger than the need for sleep. If Pearl pulled the trigger, would she remember it in the afterlife, if there were such a thing? Would she feel the bullet? Would she, in a crystal clear moment of clarity, see Johnny’s horrified reaction? Teresa had never thought about her own death before. She had buried her father, had almost lost both Murdoch and Johnny, but she had never really and truly feared for her own life…not until now. Not until Pearl thrust her into a living, breathing nightmare, one she could not wake up from. It would forever haunt her – if she survived. 

The rocking chair creaked and Teresa froze. It was becoming harder and harder to stay still, when the slightest movement brought unwanted attention from her captor. Throughout the afternoon Pearl had vacillated between happy and sad, amicable and angry. The slightest thing could turn her volatile.  

Teresa’s hands had begun to throb as they swelled, thin threads of warm blood trickled from her wrists where the rope dug into tender skin. Her jaw and throat ached from the gag, the remnants of Pearl’s lunch still clinging to the cloth. She had lost track of time, and the hope that someone would arrive in time to save them. 

Teresa looked toward Johnny. He had barely moved since Pearl had tied him up. He watched Pearl silently, his face showing no emotion. No pain, no fear. He didn’t say a word whether she kissed him or kicked him. Only in those moments when he knew Pearl wasn’t looking did he risk a nod, a lifeline for Teresa to hold. 

Dusk was quickly descending, and the shadows in the corners were deepening in the parlor. Pearl put more wood on the fire. It looked like they would spend another night teetering on the edge of Pearl’s insanity. 

And tomorrow. What would happen tomorrow? Who would innocently walk into Pearl’s web? Jelly checking to see if she was alright? Senora Alto? Her husband had forbidden her to return until Pearl was no longer a danger, but the Senora had a mind of her own, and a responsibility to Dolly. Too many people could meet the same fate as Jake. And how would she tell Amanda about Jake? It was all so senseless. 

Pearl slowly stood up, looking at her reflection in the mirror above the mantel. She pulled at her long straggly hair, making curls with her fingers, mud still streaking her face. “Dolly, do ya think ya kin make my hair all pretty with them curls…I have ta have pretty hair fer my weddin’.” 

Teresa held her breath as she watched Dolly slowly compose herself. Dolly had been the linchpin in their survival. She was the only one Pearl listened to in her ever decreasing moments of sanity. But the strain was beginning to show. How much longer could she talk the girl down when she was ready to kill any one of them?

“I brought a Godey’s Lady’s Book with me,” Dolly said.  I’m sure there are some hairstyles in there that would suit you very nicely. Have you decided on a dress for the wedding?”

Teresa looked for a reaction from Johnny and found none. Though she knew it was an act, it pained her to see that Pearl had seemingly broken his spirit. But Johnny was waiting, biding his time until he had the opportunity to strike. And that was what Dolly was trying to give him.

Pearl looked back at Johnny, ironing the apron that covered her dress with her hands, the dried mud reminding her of the grave she had dug. “I guess I needs me a real fine dress.”

“Of course you do, my dear.” Dolly sat forward, her bound hands hidden by the folds of her skirt, her voice rising with excitement. “It must be the prettiest dress in all of California, made of the finest satin and lace and pearls to go with your name.” 

“And Ma’s veil. Well, it weren’t really Ma’s veil, she stole it, but I made it mine.”

“It will be lovely. We can add pearls to the veil too.”

 “I cain’t sew.”

“That’s not a problem.” Teresa saw Dolly look toward her eagerly, pulling her into the conversation, making her an important part of Pearl’s world. “Teresa would know all the best stores to shop for fabric and accessories…right, my dear?”

Teresa nodded. 

“Oh for heavens sake, Pearl. Teresa is the one you should be asking. And she can’t very well talk with that gag in her mouth.”

Teresa held her breath as Pearl turned back to the mirror, nodding her head as if her reflection held all the answers. She seemed to come to a decision and turned toward Teresa. “Ya knows the best stores?” she asked.

Teresa nodded again. 

“I kin be pretty fer my Johnny?”

Teresa nodded and gasped as Pearl lunged forward and grabbed the gag, ripping it from her mouth.  

“Where kin I go ta get my pretty cloth?” Pearl demanded.

“Mrs. Kerns has a dress shop in Green River,” Teresa answered, her mouth so dry she could barely speak.

“She kin sew me a dress?”

“She sews the dresses for all the important ladies in town. The mayor’s wife and the banker’s wife too. But they’re not as pretty as you are, Pearl. I know she can make you the perfect dress.”

“I want it white.”

“It can be any color you want, dear,” Dolly said. “It’s your wedding.”

Pearl nodded. “It be my weddin’ and my way.”

Teresa saw Dolly shift forward on the sofa, still keeping her bound hands hidden beneath the folds of her dress. “You won’t have much of a wedding if you don’t have Johnny standing at your side. Don’t you think he has been punished enough?”

“He’s bein’ trained.” The change in Pearl’s voice sent a shiver down Teresa’s spine. Had they lost her again?

“I understand, dear. But with punishment there must be rewards. Untie his arm. I’m sure he’s learned his lesson. If he angers you again, you can tie him up again. Pearl, prove to him how much you love him by trusting him.”

Pearl looked down at Johnny and Teresa could see the indecision on her face. Which Pearl was with them now? 

“He is as weak as a kitten,” Dolly said softly. “He can’t hurt you.”

Nodding, Pearl drew a knife from her apron pocket. Teresa barely suppressed a gasp as she saw the paring knife Pearl must have had in her pocket all afternoon. How close had they come to having Pearl turn on one of them with the deadly weapon? And now she was kneeling next to Johnny, the look of surprise flashing across his face, his eyes following the knife until it was out of his sight. Pearl pulled the binding away from Johnny’s neck and Teresa heard the small gasp as the knife cut the bandaging, nicking his throat. As gently as the lover Pearl professed herself to be, she eased Johnny’s arm from under his back and drew it up across his chest.

“Now ya know what’ll happen if ya don’t mind me next time.”

Johnny nodded and he smiled up at Pearl. Teresa looked over at Dolly and thanked her with her eyes. 


“Damn it, no!”  Scott hung onto the seat with his good hand and watched Ellison jump down from the tilted wagon. They had hit a deep rut and Scott had heard the sound of wood splintering a split second before the left back wheel broke and the rear of the wagon collapsed.

“She’s a goner,” Ellison called back, pulling the collar of his jacket around his throat to ward off the cold wind. “There’s no fixing this wheel even if I could right the wagon myself. You best stay here and try to keep warm and I’ll…”

“No, I’m coming with you.”

“Don’t be a damn fool, Scott. I’ll be riding one of the horses bareback and you’re in no condition to walk let alone ride.”

“We’re only a couple of miles from the Baker place. I can make it that far.”

“No, you can’t. Be reasonable. I can make it a lot faster alone. Then I can find a wagon and come back and pick you up. It’s the best way, boy.”

Scott leaned over the side of the wagon, his face close to Ellison’s. “You tell me what you would do if you were in my place. You tell me that you could just sit here and wait. You swear to God you could do that, then I’ll stay.”

Silence was Scott’s answer. He watched Ellison unharness the team, all the time talking to the horses. The collapse of the wagon had spooked them, now they were out of their traces and confused. 

“They’ve been ridden before,” Ellison said, “but they don’t like it. You sure you want to do this? They need a strong hand…”

“It’s not a matter of want.” 

Ellison shrugged and led one of the horses to the side of the wagon, easing him close enough for Scott to awkwardly swing his right leg over the animal and settle himself before Ellison handed him the reins.

“She’s got a wide back,” Scott grinned. “All I need to do is balance.”

“You’re a fool, Scott Lancer. But I’d be doing the same thing. So let’s get going. I’m looking forward to a warm fire and a hot meal. I sure hope your friend Dolly can cook.”

“Don’t worry. Senora Alto is doing all the cooking.” Don’t worry. Empty words. His worry consumed him. And now they were another night away from Lancer, away from finding out if Johnny had somehow made it back home. And what of Abby? Had Murdoch and Val reached her in time? What would they do if they found Johnny and Abby was lost to them? 

Ellison reached over and tugged at Scott’s jacket sleeve. “I know it won’t do any good to tell you not to worry. But don’t let it get the better of you, son. You won’t be doing yourself or your brother any favors by losing yourself in your thoughts. We’ll be at Lancer by tomorrow. One way or the other, you’ll have your answers.”


As dusk fell, so did the temperature. Murdoch looked over at Abby. She hadn’t said a word, but this time he could see her shivering. As much as he wanted to get to Lancer tonight, it was just too far in this bitter cold. Best to spend the night at Dolly’s. He knew, without a doubt, that Dolly would welcome them with open arms. And he wanted her to meet Abby. Murdoch knew Dolly would always hold herself responsible for what had happened. It was not her fault, but he knew the feeling of guilt. He shared a larger piece of it than she did. 

“We’ll stop at Dolly’s for the night, then go on to Lancer in the morning,” Murdoch shouted over the wind. 

“No.”  Abby pulled her horse up beside Murdoch. “If you are stopping on my account I can make it all the way.”

“I’m stopping because we’re all freezing. And it’s only going to get colder.” Murdoch reached across and squeezed her arm beneath the rain slicker. “We would be stopping even if you weren’t with us. A smart man knows when it’s time to get in out of the cold.”

“Johnny says you call the tune. And that you are usually right.”

“He does?”  Funny how that small phrase had bitten at his heels like a worrisome pup since the day he said it. To hear that Johnny said he was usually right was bittersweet now. 

“But don’t tell him I told you,” Abby cautioned. “Johnny is a proud man, sometimes to a fault. But I guess you know that too.”

Murdoch knew it all too well. He was saddled with that same pride. “Abby McClanahan, if I were twenty years younger, and if my son had not met you first…”

“I would have been a lucky woman. It looks like I was destined to be a Lancer.” Abby suddenly turned her head away and kicked her horse into a faster gait.

He wanted to wrap her in his arms and tell her everything was going to be all right. To protect her from the pain he knew she was feeling. He could only give her empty platitudes…because as desperately as he wanted to hang onto the belief that Johnny was still alive, reality told him that the odds were not in his son’s favor. How could God or fate or life be so cruel to take his son away from him again? He was willing to let go, to see Johnny start a new life of his own if that was what he wanted. But he couldn’t lose him like this. Not to Pearl. Not to a mad woman he had mistakenly felt pity for. 

Murdoch urged his horse to pick up speed until he was abreast of Abby and Val.

“We’ll be at Dolly’s in less than an hour.”

Abby turned to Murdoch and he nodded. “I still believe you are destined to be a Lancer.”


Johnny forced himself not to look at the guns beneath the sofa. Dolly had given him another chance. Had talked Pearl into untying him. But his feet were still hobbled and the lingering fever had leached away his strength. But still he only needed a few minutes, time to crawl over to the sofa and grab the guns and crawl back to the mattress. All he needed was five minutes…but keeping Pearl occupied for five minutes would not be easy. She had taken to pacing the room again. Her spate of good humor was beginning to turn; Johnny could see it in her every move. Pearl Hawkins was about to make an appearance again.

“Pearl, may I talk to Johnny?” Teresa asked. Pearl had made up a set of rules since removing Teresa’s gag and untying Johnny. No one was to speak unless they asked permission first. Being in control pleased Pearl. And a pleased Pearl kept them alive just a little longer.  Johnny waited for Pearl’s answer.

“What do ya want ta know?”

“What he’s going to wear for the wedding. I mean, if you are going to have such a beautiful dress, then he’s going to have to have the perfect suit. Right, Johnny?”

“I guess,” Johnny answered. Teresa was going somewhere with this, he just didn’t know what direction.

Pearl spun around to look at Johnny. “Ya wants a fancy suit, Johnny?”

Johnny nodded. “I only want to look nice next to you. If it means a fancy suit, then that’s what I’ll wear.”

This seemed to please Pearl.

“Pearl, dear.” Dolly sat forward. “Remember, I have my copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book in my room. I could get it, and we could see what all the most fashionable men are wearing.”

“None of ‘em is as good lookin’ as my man.”

“I agree,” Dolly said. “But wouldn’t you like to see what kind of suit he might wear?”

“I guess.”

“Would you like me to bring it down?”

Johnny held his breath. If they could get Pearl out of the room he could get to the guns.

“I don’t know.” Pearl looked toward the mirror again. “It’s getting dark.” Pearl began lighting the lamps, the question about Johnny’s suit seemingly forgotten in an instant.

“Pearl,” Johnny called. “Do you think I could see that book Dolly talked about? I want to look my best for our wedding.”

Pearl suddenly spun around. “There ain’t gonna be no weddin’.”

“What? I thought…” Johnny hoped there was the right amount of disappointment in his voice.

“I ain’t got time to wait fer a dress ta be made. I wanna get married tomorrow. We kin leave fer our new house. We be married in the eyes of God. That’s how Ma and Pa done it. She didn’t need no fancy dress or piece of paper to say she was hitched ta Pa.”

“But Pearl, I want to see you in a fancy wedding dress. I want to see those pictures Dolly talked. It will be my wedding too.”

That seemed to make Pearl stop and think. “Ya wants me ta look pretty?”

“Yes. The prettiest bride ever.”

The excitement was back in her eyes. “Dolly, you go get that book.”

“I’m not sure if I can, Pearl. My legs are so weak from sitting for so long. I’m an old woman…Could you get it and bring it down?”

“There’s a special dress on page thirty three,” Teresa offered excitedly.

“Ya seen that book?”

“Yes. You will really love it, Pearl.”

Johnny watched Pearl, saw the indecision on her face again. 

“Please, Pearl,” Johnny coaxed. 

“OK. None of ya moves…ya hear me? I’ll be right down.”

Johnny watched Pearl head for the parlor door before looking at the guns. Dolly was easing forward on the sofa, ready to help. 

Then they all heard it. The sound of horses outside. 

“Ya tried ta trick me!” Pearl shouted, drawing the gun from her apron. “Ya tried ta get me ta go upstairs so ya could let ‘em in the house. Ya all lied.”

“No, Pearl, we don’t know who’s out there.” Johnny held his hand out to Pearl. “Tell them to go away and we can leave tonight for the line shack. We can be man and wife tonight. Please, Pearl, I want this to be our special night. Tell them to come back tomorrow. Tell them Dolly is resting and Teresa went home.”

“No.” Pearl pulled off her apron. “Dolly and me’ll go to the door.” She took the paring knife out of the apron pocket and draped the apron it over Dolly, hiding her bound hands beneath it.

“Ya says one word to warn ‘em, and Dolly is dead.”

There was a solid knock at the front door and Pearl pushed Dolly out of the parlor. 

.

Chapter twenty-one

Dolly stumbled toward the parlor door, her bound hands throwing her off balance. She was so tired she could barely put one foot in front of the other, yet she had no choice. The muzzle of Pearl’s gun dug painfully into her spine. At one time Dolly may have thought Pearl incapable of murder. But she had been proven wrong, and now there was another innocent victim waiting at the front door.

The soft light from the lanterns in the parlor faded away into the deep grays of dusk as Dolly was pushed across the room. The sound of trees buffeted by the wind outside dimmed in comparison to the pounding of her heart. The temptation to swing around and knock the gun from Pearl’s hand was tempered by the fact that she knew she wasn’t quick or strong enough, even in the best of circumstances. Now she was exhausted and Pearl had youth and the added strength of insanity on her side.  

“Ya gets rid of whoever it is.” Pearl twisted the muzzle of the gun harder into Dolly’s back. She reached around her and opened the door, quickly stepping back out of sight as the wind pushed the door open wider.

Dolly’s hopes crumbled to dust as the door swung open and she saw Murdoch Lancer and Sheriff Crawford standing on the porch. The young woman huddled between them could only be Abby.

“Murdoch!” Dolly fought to regain her composure. The lives of so many people rested in what she would say next. “What are you doing here on a night like this?”

Murdoch had to grab at his hat to keep it from flying off his head. “We were heading back home, but it turned colder than I expected. We were hoping we could spend the night here.”

Dolly panicked. She couldn’t let them in. Not with Abby with them. 

“Murdoch…I…please don’t take this the wrong way, but I am here alone. I sent Teresa home this afternoon. I couldn’t allow two men to stay in my house. It wouldn’t be proper. Especially with…dear God, Murdoch, how could you bring a girl like that into my house? Everyone knows Mary’s reputation. I would be scandalized!”

“Now just a minute here, ma’am.” Val took a step forward. “You ain’t got no right to call…”

Dolly saw the sheriff forming Abby’s name when Murdoch grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He knew. She could see him straining to look into the darkened room. 

“Take it easy, Sheriff. If Mrs. Chamberlain doesn’t feel comfortable with Mary, then she has that right. But no matter what you think of Mary and her profession, it’s still freezing out here. Could we at least stay in the bunkhouse? I’m sure Jake wouldn’t mind the company.”

Jake…Dolly couldn’t help but glance over at the closet door. Pearl had killed so easily, without an ounce of remorse. What would she do to Abby?

“I asked Jake to take Teresa home. I didn’t want her traveling alone.”

“He left you here by yourself? I’ll have to have a talk with him tomorrow.”

“He just did what I asked of him, Murdoch. Besides, I am quite capable of taking care of myself. I traveled the length of this country on my own. I can stay in my own house without a nursemaid. Now, please, you are letting all the cold air in. You can stay in the bunkhouse if you wish.”

“Thank you,” Murdoch said and wrapped his arm around Abby. He was leaving. Dolly’s legs nearly buckled beneath her. “We’ll be leaving at first light,” he added. “We won’t disturb you anymore.”

Suddenly Pearl stepped out of hiding, ramming the gun against Dolly’s neck.

“Where are yer manners, Dolly? Let ‘em in. Ya be talkin’ to my new father-in-law.”

Dolly saw Murdoch’s face turn dark with rage. 


Scott fought past the pain, keeping side by side with Ellison. Once the decision was made to stop for the night at Dolly’s he wanted to get there as fast as possible. Cold weather was not a stranger to him. Winters in Boston were far colder, but this wind felt like a knife slicing across his injured leg. 

Suddenly he saw a movement from the side of the road. A chestnut, still saddled, stood with his head bowed against the stiff wind. 

“Who do you think he belongs to?” Ellison asked, slowing to a stop. “Never saw him around these parts before.”

“It might be the horse Leo gave Johnny. It fits the description of the horse Johnny traded for Barranca.” The implications hit Scott like a fist to the stomach. No one handled a horse like Johnny. If he was thrown then his brother must have been in a bad way.

Ellison dismounted slowly, calling gently to the horse, his words whipped by the wind, but the horse seemed to hear him and raised its head. 

“Careful, Leo said he spooked easy.”

“Me and horses understand each other,” Ellison yelled back over the wind.

Scott watched silently as Ellison slowly approached the horse. “Easy, boy,” he called, and the horse nickered, its ears drawn back, its eyes watching Ellison’s every move. He reminded Scott of Johnny, how he approached the horse, giving the animal time to accept him. No sudden moves, no raised voice. Ellison reached the chestnut and slowly offered his hand, letting the horse brush his nose against the rancher. “That’s the boy. Where did you come from? Your rider around?” Ellison ran his hand down the side of the horse, checking the saddle.

“Blood,” he reported. 

Scott’s heart lurched. “Can you tell how old?”

“Maybe a day.”

“He could have thrown Johnny…he might be…” Scott struggled to dismount.

“Stay on your horse,” Ellison ordered, keeping his voice level. “I’ll have a look around.”

Scott was aware of his own limitations. He would never get back on his horse once he climbed down. It was an agony of another kind to have to sit and wait while Ellison searched the area. The wind whipped at the tall grass and threatened to strip the trees of their leaves. 

Fifteen minutes seemed like fifteen hours before Ellison reappeared. “I don’t see any signs of anyone around here, Scott. He could have been roaming for miles.”

“Johnny could be…”

“We don’t know what happened. It’s getting too late to search tonight. I’ll leave at first light in the morning.” There was a hitch in Ellison’s voice. “I’m sorry, Scott, that’s all we can do for today. Let’s get to your friend’s house. Who knows, you might even find Johnny there waiting for you.”

It was something Scott could hold onto, as flimsy as it was. And he desperately needed something. 


Johnny watched Pearl shove Dolly in the back, the older woman stumbling before she could catch her balance. He cursed the weakness that kept him tied to the mattress, every bit as strong as the ties Pearl had bound him with a short while ago. Once again Pearl was hurting innocent people, and he couldn’t stop her. And now another innocent victim would be looking down the barrel of her gun. Who was at the door? Jelly? Sam? Cipriano? People he cared for, who cared for him. No matter who it was, friend or stranger…he couldn’t stand another death on his hands. Because no matter how he looked at it, it was because of him, and Pearl’s insane need to have him as her own, that Jake was dead. 

He should have stayed, confronted Pearl before she had a chance to ride away from Dolly’s.  Made her understand that he never had feelings for her. At one time he had felt grateful for what she had done after she realized it was wrong. But those feelings were gone, destroyed by her insane need for him.

He listened for a voice, a hint of who had knocked on the door. But the wind battered the house, whistling through the eaves and banging the shutters against the walls. 

He looked over at Teresa. “You all right?” he whispered as loud as he dared. She looked so pale, the dark circles beneath her eyes a testament to how little sleep she’d had since Pearl arrived. But he could also see the defiance in his eyes and he loved her for it.

“Yes,” Teresa whispered back. “What are we going to do?” 

Johnny levered himself up on his right elbow, the pain in his left arm awakening waves of nausea. His feet no longer pulsed with the beat of his heart, and he feared to look to see what damage the bindings securing the log to his feet had done. But he had no time to worry about what might be, he had to get to those guns beneath the sofa before Pearl returned. It was their only chance.

Grabbing the hem of the blanket to cover his nakedness, he tried to roll onto his stomach but the hobble on his feet wouldn’t allow him to turn his legs over. Resigned to the fact that he was stuck on his back, Johnny pulled his legs in tight against his belly, grunting against the pain in his leg, and began to inch his way around until his head was facing the sofa. Then he began to push himself toward the foot of the mattress. It was time consuming and draining. His body was covered in sweat, droplets dripping from his bangs, running into his eyes. He knew he was taking too much time. He looked behind him to see Teresa looking from him to the parlor door, waiting for Pearl’s return. 

He reached the end of the mattress, stretching his arm over his head, trying to grab onto the edge of the sofa to pull himself closer. Only one thing existed now, getting those two guns. He thought he would never be capable of shooting a woman…but Pearl. He knew if it came down to a choice between her and his family and friends, he would pull the trigger without hesitation. His fingers caught the side of the sofa and he clawed at it, trying to dig his fingers into the fabric. 

“Hurry!” Teresa cried. “Someone is coming…”

Johnny walked his fingers down the leg of the sofa until he could garb the bottom and pulled with all his strength, his shoulders slipping off the mattress. He pushed back the fear, not for himself, but for Teresa and Dolly. Pearl would be ruthless in her punishment. His fingers touched the muzzle of one of the guns, and he squirmed his shoulders to inch himself closer to the weapon. He dug the log around his feet into the mattress and shoved himself closer. He could barely breathe, the pain in his arm so intense. Black spots appeared before his eyes but he wasn’t going to give up…not now. He got a firm hold of the gun, the cold iron giving him renewed hope.

“Johnny! Look out,” Teresa screamed and a blinding pain erupted in his injured arm and he fell backwards into a bottomless black hole.


Dolly stood as still as she could with Pearl’s gun jammed against her neck. But she couldn’t stop shaking no matter how hard she tried. It wasn’t just for herself that she was scared. She was old, and if her sacrifice would save these people she would do it willingly. But Pearl would not stop at her and the chance that she could kill anyone else before she was brought down was too great. Brought down…the thought disgusted her to think of Pearl as some kind of wild animal that had to be killed. Yet that is what she was now, feral and dangerous beyond words. And God save her soul, if she had the chance, she would kill Pearl herself.

She saw the surprise on Abby’s face at the mention of Mary, then sighed silently when she realized that Abby understood what she was doing. But Abby had no idea that Johnny was lying in the parlor and when she set eyes on him, Dolly knew she wouldn’t be able to hide her surprise or her anguish.

“Dolly an me weren’t ‘spectin’ guests ta’night,” Pearl said, pulling Dolly backwards a couple of steps, the gun still pressed to her throat. “Take yer gunbelts off an throw em behind ya. Don’t try nothin’. I kilt before…I kin do it agin.”

They couldn’t know what Dolly knew. That Pearl was speaking the truth. That Jake was only a few feet away from them, a bullet from Pearl’s gun ending his life.

Dolly saw the hesitation in both Murdoch and the sheriff’s eyes before they slowly unbuckled their gun belts and tossed them to the ground behind them. 

The wind swept inside the door, playing with Dolly’s apron. She suddenly felt the hardness of the forgotten knife in the apron pocket. She fingered it through the cloth, her bound hands making it impossible to reach it. But it was there, and somehow she had to let someone know. 

“Git inside an’ close the door,” Pearl ordered, backing up a few more steps, dragging Dolly with her. 

Dolly needed a distraction, something that Pearl could think about. “Pearl, now that Murdoch is here, you and Johnny can make plans for your wedding. I know he would want his family here by his side. You would want your Ma and Pa here if they could be.”

The surprised look on Murdoch’s face and Abby’s inaudible gasp slipped past Pearl.

“Johnny’s here?” Murdoch asked, hope and fear reflected in his eyes.

“We’re ta be married. Johnny’s takin’ me to our special house. Ya kin come visit, if yer of a mind, once we settle in.”

Play along, Murdoch, Dolly silently chanted. Play along. It’s our only chance.

“I would like that, Pearl.” Murdoch smiled, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Nothing would make me happier than to see my son married to the girl he loves.”  Dolly saw Murdoch surreptitiously reach over and squeeze Abby’s arm again, willing her to play along too.

Pearl nodded, the gun easing away from Dolly’s neck. Not enough for her to make a move, but it showed that Pearl was listening. 

“But not until he’s a bit stronger, Pearl. After his fever has broken.” Dolly saw Abby’s eyes widen. Don’t give yourself away. Remember, you are Mary. “That should be soon. You and Teresa saved him, you….”

“I saved him! Teresa hates me…she’d do anythin’ to keep us from weddin’. I should a kilt her!”

“No, she’s just worried about Johnny like you are.”

“Shut up! Shut up. Take yer belts off!” Pearl jammed the gun harder into Dolly’s neck, making her cry out in pain.

Murdoch quickly pulled his belt free of his pants, nodding for Val to do the same. 

Abby sought Pearl’s attention and got it, trying to defuse Pearl’s anger. “I wish I had a man who loved me that much. You are very lucky, Pearl.”

“He loves me, an’ wants me,” Pearl said with pride. “He kin barely keep ‘is hands offa me.” 

Surprisingly, Abby took a step forward. “Honey, I always wanted a man like that. I only meet the riff raff that come into town. I’d love to meet this man of yours.”

Dolly felt the gun shift as Pearl thought about Abby’s request.

“Give Mary your belt, Murdoch. You too, sheriff,” Pearl ordered. Dolly felt the muzzle of the gun bite into the side of her throat again. “Or I kill ‘er.”

Abby took the belts and looked back at Pearl. “I don’t understand, Pearl.”

“Tie their hands behind their backs…tight, ‘cause I be checkin’. Then ya kin meet my man.”

Abby began to walk behind Murdoch.

“No! Murdoch, turn ‘round. I wanna see.”

Dolly’s heart went out to Abby as she quickly bound both men’s wrists behind their backs. Was she ready for what she would see inside the parlor? Their only chance for survival now rested in Abby’s hands. 

“Now ya takes it slow an’ easy if ya wants ta stay alive ta see Johnny. An’ if ya don’t believe what I tell ya…Mary, open the closet door.”

.

Chapter Twenty two

Abby opened the closet door and felt the floor and ceiling shift as she saw the crumpled body lying in a pool of blood. The emotionless way Pearl had ordered her to open the door shocked her. She had never met a truly depraved person before, and it stunned her that a young woman could be this heartless and cruel. Pearl was utterly insane, capable of carrying out any of her threats.

Now more than ever, Abby knew she had to play the role Dolly had fashioned for her. She had to convince Pearl she was Mary, no matter what she saw in the parlor. Everyone here was a hair’s breadth away from ending up like the poor man in the closet. 

“Who was he?” Abby asked, forcing her words to sound calm.

“Jake,” Dolly answered, followed by a small gasp. 

“I told ya ta keep quiet,” Pearl warned Dolly. “He brought it on hisself. He jest couldn’t keep ‘is nose outta other people’s business.” 

Abby turned back slowly to look at Pearl. Her gun was still wedged painfully against Dolly’s throat. Murdoch and the sheriff stood to Pearl’s left, far enough away that they couldn’t reach her before she had time to fire her gun. Abby realized what the men must have understood immediately: Pearl had positioned them so they were all perfect targets.

“Can we see Johnny now?” Abby asked. 

Pearl stiffened. “You know my Johnny?”

Panic swept over Abby. Had she said the wrong thing already? With a smile that she hoped looked salacious, she said, “Johnny and his brother aren’t strangers to the saloon.” 

“Ya been with my man?” Pearl demanded, and the gun wavered toward her, leaving an angry red spot on Dolly’s neck Abby could see even in the waning light.

.

Abby shook her head. “No. No woman’s been with Johnny Lancer. Everyone knows that he’s waiting for his girl. I never thought I’d get a chance to meet her though.”

That seemed to make Pearl think. “He been savin’ hisself fer me?” she asked hopefully.

“It was for someone special. He said she had gone away for awhile but would be back someday. He must have been so happy to see you again.”

“We’re ta be married.”

“I’m happy for you, Pearl.” Bile rose in Abby’s throat. How was she going to do this? How could she look this woman in the eyes knowing what she had done to Johnny, what she might have done to him this time? It was an impossible thing to ask of her, yet she had to find the strength somewhere within herself to do it. There was no one else.

The smile that erupted on Pearl’s face was one of pure joy. “Johnny says we kin have a big house someday. With one of them servants an’ a cook. He says I be too pretty ta get my hands all old an’ wrinkled.” Seemingly lost for the moment, she looked at her hand, already rough and scarred.

Abby saw her chance. She took a step forward, her eyes glued on the gun as Dolly inched away. Murdoch and the sheriff saw the same thing, all taking a step toward Pearl.

Suddenly Pearl grabbed Dolly and pulled her back, pressing the gun against Dolly’s head.

“She be dead if’n anybody moves!”

Murdoch and Val froze.

Pearl pulled the hammer back for emphasis. 

“Pearl, please, she’s an old woman,” Abby begged. “She can’t hurt you.”

“She don’t want me an’ Johnny ta marry. None of ‘em wants me ta marry my Johnny.”

“And Johnny?” Abby asked softly. “Does he want to marry you?”  

Pearl nodded. “He kin hardly wait. If’n he weren’t so bad hurt we’d a done it already.”

“Then he is the only one that counts. Let’s go talk to him. I’m sure he’s wondering where you are.”

Abby watched her hesitation, could almost read the hectic emotions swirling in her eyes. Pulling Dolly with her, Pearl walked around until she was behind her three new prisoners. 

“Start walkin’ –  backwards,” she ordered. 


Abby saw the confused look on Murdoch’s face as he turned to face Pearl.

“If ya even look like yer gonna do somethin’, I’ll shoot her first then one of you.” Pearl’s eyes landed on each one of them, daring them to disobey.

Pearl’s tactics were clear now. Walking backwards would not be easy under any circumstances, but with Murdoch and Val’s hands tied behind their backs they couldn’t react fast enough to stop Pearl from firing.

Taking the lead, Abby slowly backed into the room. She fought back the panic, taking hesitant steps into a room she was unfamiliar with, her heart pounding against her chest. Johnny was in this room somewhere. The odor of mustard plaster hung in the warm air and there was no mistaking the smells of sickness. Fear twisted her stomach. How hurt was Johnny?

Murdoch and Val followed her, each step uncertain as they walked backward. They had surreptitiously opened the space between them with each step and Abby could see Pearl, her eyes darting from face to face. Another step, and then another. The wind seemed to gain speed outside as if it were feeding off her fear, gathering strength from her pounding heart.

Suddenly she froze at the sound of a small frightened gasp and looked toward the fireplace. Teresa sat in a rocking chair, her hands bound behind her. She stared at Abby, eyes wide with fear. But it wasn’t Teresa that made Abby clamp down on the scream forming in her throat…it was Johnny, splayed on his back, halfway off a mattress lying on the floor. She fought back the instinct to yell his name. Pearl took one more step into the room and she saw him too. 

“Johnny! Look out!” Teresa’s warning startled Pearl and she shoved Dolly into Murdoch with enough force to drive them both to the floor. Abby tried to grab Pearl but she felt the butt of Pearl’s gun glance off her shoulder, sending her to the ground clutching her arm. But her own pain was forgotten as Pearl reached Johnny, and in an insane fit of rage, kicked at his bandaged arm. 

“No!” Abby screamed, scrambling to her feet, but Val’s boot heel caught the hem of her dress and she couldn’t break free. “Pearl! No! You’ll kill him.” She saw Johnny react to the first kick. Then he was still. God! No! She had thought he was lost to her…now, when he was so close, she chanced losing him forever.

Teresa rocked in her chair, screaming at Pearl to stop. She looked toward Abby desperately, her eyes pleading for help and Abby knew she was about to blurt out her name. 

“Shut up! Johnny’s her man,” Abby lashed out at Teresa. “You can’t have him.”

Teresa looked at her, stupefied.  

As quickly as the violent outburst began, it came to a jarring halt. Pearl turned back toward Abby looking like a lost and frightened child. “I loves ‘im,” she said, tears forming in her eyes, the gun hanging at her side. 

“I know you do,” Abby said gently, taking a slow step toward Pearl, forcing herself not to look at the gun. “It looks like he’s bleeding. I know a little bit about doctoring…you learn those kinds of things in a saloon. Can I help him?”

Pearl looked down at Johnny and her rage seemed to be renewed, but not at her man…she swung her gun around and aimed it at Teresa’s heart.

“Ya should a stopped ‘im,” she screamed. “Ya made me hurt ‘im.”

Teresa shook her head, her eyes not wavering from the gun.

“He don’t know what he’s doin’, ‘im being so sick. Ya promised ta make ‘im better!”

Abby took a few steps closer to Pearl. Her eyes were drawn toward Johnny, no matter how hard she tried not to look at him. He looked so pale, his right arm stretched toward something beneath the sofa, his left arm bandaged. In all the chaos, she couldn’t help but notice the blanket barely covering him from the waist down, and knew what humiliation he must have felt at Pearl’s hands. Abby pushed the thoughts aside. Now her only thoughts had to be getting that gun away from Pearl.

“We don’t have time to worry about Teresa now. You can take care of her later.” Abby looked toward Teresa, seeing her confusion, knowing what she was about to do would devastate the young woman, but she had no choice. Gathering all the hate she held for Pearl, she hurled it toward Teresa. “She never had any time for the likes of me. She was always all too high and mighty to spend time with…” 

“Mary! Leave her alone! She’s just a child.” Dolly’s voice cut through her tirade, and Abby sent her a silent prayer of thanks.

Teresa looked at her, confusion welling up with the tears. Was the young woman too scared to understand what they were trying to do? How could she not be with that gun still pointed at her heart?

Turning back to Pearl, Abby saw that Pearl was once again looking at her captives and Abby followed her gaze.  Murdoch was awkwardly climbing back to his feet, his bound hands making it difficult balance himself. Dolly was standing next to him, her eyes fixed on Pearl. Val stood to the side, a few steps closer to the doorway. Had Pearl noticed? Whatever he had in mind, she had to give him the opportunity to carry it out.

“Pearl, we have to look after Johnny.” Abby waited, praying that Pearl would follow her prompt. 

Pearl nodded, keeping the gun pointed at Teresa. “Ya kin help him?”

“Yes. Will you help me get him back on the mattress?”

Pearl looked down at Johnny, then at the gun in her hand. “I gotta make sure nobody hurts ‘im. They don’t want me an’ ‘im gettin’ wed. They don’t like me ‘cause of where I come from. They think I’m not good ‘nough fer Johnny Lancer. But I am. He loves me.”

“I know. But he needs help now.”

Pearl slowly turned the gun toward Abby. “Then ya helps ‘im. Make him better. We be leaving fer our new house in the mornin’.”

Abby slowly knelt down next to Johnny and gently drew his arm back to lie across his chest then pulled the blanket up. She could feel the heat of fever and hear the rasp of congestion in his chest. How was she going to do this? She felt the tears begin to stream down her cheeks and she swore to him that she would not fail him.


Scott cursed the fates that had led the cougar to him out on the trail and made this journey so slow and painful. His leg had seized on him twice and he’d had to stop to rest. Riding bareback was never easy, and almost impossible with a painful leg. He’d thought about riding the chestnut, but feared he’d never be able to get into the saddle. He hated being the reason for the delay in getting to Dolly’s house. Ellison was hunkered down in his heavy jacket, but it did little to ward off the freezing wind. It howled around them, threatening to knock them off their horses.

Finally the Baker’s house came into view and Scott pulled his horse up short. Something was wrong. He felt it in his gut. He saw three horses standing in front of the porch, heads bowed against the wind. Even in the dim light he recognized Murdoch’s horse. He looked toward the bunkhouse and saw that it was dark. And he realized that was what was bothering him. The house was dark except for the light coming from the parlor. With three guests, Dolly would have had more lanterns lit. Just because she was in California didn’t mean that she would abandon a lifetime of social graces. The lanterns should have been lit in the living room, and at this hour there would have been smoke rising from the stovepipe in the kitchen. 

“What’s wrong?” Ellison asked, pulling up beside Scott, the chestnut following fitfully behind. 

“There should be more lights on in the house.”

Ellison shrugged. “So?”

“She obviously has company. No…something is wrong.”

“What do you want to do about it?”

Scott made a move to dismount but Ellison grabbed his arm. “Best I check things out first before you get down. You won’t be getting back up tonight.”

Scott bit back the caustic reply, knowing Ellison was right. As much as he hated to admit it, he would only be more of a hindrance.  

“You want me to just walk up there and knock on the door? I could say I was cold and wanted to get out of this damn wind. I could ask to bunk down in the barn.”

Scott shook his head. “I want to know exactly what’s going on in that parlor first. If it’s nothing, I’ll feel like a fool… but if it is something…”

“You just wait here. I may be old, but a mouse would be hard put to be any quieter than Ellison Rawls.”

Scott couldn’t help but crack a smile. But the smile faded as he watched Ellison make his way toward the house, fighting the gusts of wind. He reached the horses, careful not to spook them, then crouched down and began to inch his way across the porch until he was beneath the parlor window.

It seemed forever before Scott saw Ellison pull back from the window and make his way back.

“Well?”

Ellison grabbed the reins of his horse and led him to a nearby tree to tie them off. Scott followed, not liking the way the older man moved. He’d seen something that upset him and Scott was almost afraid to ask what.

“We got trouble,” Ellison said, and reached up to help Scott dismount.

Scott tried to push away the helping hand but Ellison grabbed him around the waist and practically carried him to the base of the tree. 

“Shut up and listen,” Ellison demanded, squatting down next to Scott. “Your brother’s in there…”

“Johnny?”

“He’s not alone. Your father and the sheriff are in there too. Teresa is tied to a chair as best I could tell. I’m thinking your friend Pearl is the one with the gun pointed at Teresa. A redhead is looking after Johnny.”

“Abby…Pearl would have killed Abby on sight, unless she doesn’t know who she is.”

“Murdoch and the sheriff have their hands tied behind their backs so they won’t be much help…and there’s an old lady in there too. Can’t tell what’s going on with her.”

“That’s Dolly Chamberlain.”

“Guessed as much. But, Scott, we’ve got a big problem. That little blonde in there has a gun pointed right at Teresa. If we charge the place Teresa will get a bullet for sure.”

“Can we take her from the window?”

Ellison shook his head. “Teresa still gets a bullet.”

“I need to get inside.”

“How?”

“Walk.”

“You’re crazy. How are you going to walk in there? And what good would it do to get yourself stuck in there too?”

Scott searched the ground around him. “Find me something to use as a crutch. Once I’m inside…”

“You’re not thinking clearly, Boy. What good would it do to have one more person in there? Another hostage for your crazy Pearl? Best we figure something out here.”

“If she realizes that’s Abby in there…”

“Well, for some reason she doesn’t know yet. That means they have some kind of plan going on.”

Scott nodded reluctantly. “Did you get a good look at Johnny? How is he?”

“I won’t lie to you, Scott. He doesn’t look good. He’s stretched out on a mattress on the floor. But he’s alive. That redhead wouldn’t be hovering over him if he wasn’t.”  

“I’ve got to get over there, see for myself.”

Ellison nodded. “Figured as much. This wind will cover our approach. But, Scott…” Rawls grabbed Scott’s jacket, pulling him closer. “Whatever you see in there, you’ve got to stay calm. You’ve got to use your head and not your heart.”

“I know exactly what I have to do,” Scott snapped. 

“That’s easy to say now. But when you look through that window you’re gonna have to clamp down hard on your emotions. Johnny isn’t the only one in there.”

Scott knew that; knew he might have to make the hardest decision of his life. Damn Pearl to hell. But even Hell might not take her. 

.


Chapter Twenty Three

Abby sat on the floor next to Johnny, trying to pretend she didn’t care. Didn’t care that his labored breathing nearly took her own breath away, or his infected arm didn’t send daggers of fear through her heart. 

He hadn’t moved at all, not when she had pulled him back onto the mattress or when she had cleaned and re-bandaged his arm. But it was the log bound to his feet that was nearly her undoing. Training – that was what Pearl called it. An abomination was what Abby called it. She had tried to understand what Johnny had gone through at the hands of Pearl and her family, but they were just words and images, so foreign to her way of life that she could not truly understand how appalling life was with the Harkins. Now she had to fight back the tears and the need to strangle the woman, no matter the consequences. Abby had never tasted the bitterness of hate and revenge – until now. 

She looked down at Johnny, his face almost as white as the pillowcase his head rested on, a vivid contrast to the crescent of raven black lashes resting on his cheeks. Her hands shook as she wiped his brow with a cool towel, brushing back the unruly sweat-damp hair that framed his face. She could see the tracks of fever and pain in the lines on his face. A fever still burned his skin, but not as high as she knew it must have been.  

She prayed with all her heart that he would wake up soon, that she could look into those mesmerizing blue eyes and hear the soft drawl that made her weak in the knees. She desperately needed him to tell her that everything would be all right. That she no longer had to keep up this charade. Yet she knew if he did wake up, her make-believe Mary would be exposed and she didn’t want to imagine Pearl’s reaction to finding out that her greatest nemesis was caring for her man.

Her man – the thought repulsed Abby. She surreptitiously lifted Johnny’s hand and cupped it between hers. She had thought of so many things that might have happened to him. But not this. 

The wind continued to howl outside, attacking the house with its never ending fury, banging the shudders and scraping tree limbs against the roof. Yet something drew her attention toward the windows, a cadence to the knocking, a rhythm that was too steady to be just the wind. She looked around the room. Pearl had ordered Murdoch and the sheriff to sit on the floor against the closed parlor room door, cautioning them that if they tried to open it she would see them – and shoot without question. They heeded her warning.  Abby watched Murdoch’s gaze travel between her and Johnny then to Pearl as the girl paced the floor then stood silently looking at nothing. Dolly sat beneath the windows, her feet stretched out before her. Even from this distance, Abby could see exhaustion and worry on her face. 

Abby suddenly jumped when she saw a hand appear on the other side of the window above Dolly’s head, nearly drawing an audible gasp from her lips. 

She quickly glanced at Pearl. The girl was busy putting the two guns she had pulled out from beneath the sofa into a side drawer of a writing desk. She then pushed an end table against the drawer and put a lit lantern on top of the table. Again Pearl had thought of everything. It would take extra, time consuming, steps to get to the guns if anyone got the chance. 

Taking a chance of her own, Abby looked back to the window above Dolly’s head. She studied the glass and disappointment flooded her. There was no hand, no knocking, just the wind playing cruel games with her. Was this the first sign that she was losing control? 

Suddenly she squeezed Johnny’s hand so tight that she heard him moan, a sound that covered her own surprised yelp when she saw a head hesitantly rise up on the other side of the window. Just enough light from the lanterns spilled out onto the porch for her to recognize Scott. He pressed a finger to his lips then dropped out of sight. Abby fought back the flush of excitement. They were no longer alone. 


As Johnny clawed his way back to consciousness, he remembered everything. From the barbed wire tearing his arm to the glimpse he had of Pearl in the wagon, riding away from Dolly’s house. Now he was here again, with Teresa and Dolly in danger because Pearl had picked him to be her mate.

He felt a hand caress his cheek and he nearly succumbed to its softness. It felt so much like Abby’s. Yet he knew it wasn’t hers, that when he opened his eyes he knew he would again see Pearl hovering over him. The thought sickened him, but it was his punishment for putting Teresa and Doll in danger.

The worst part was that he had been so close. He could still feel his fingers curl around the cold iron of the gun beneath the sofa. One more minute and Teresa and Dolly would have been safe. Now the only thing he could do was convince Pearl that he truly loved her. A hard thing to do, as bad as he felt. His arm throbbed with a newly awakened pain. All of Teresa’s earlier ministrations seemed to have been wasted. And it was hard to breathe again, as if his body no longer had the strength to fight back.

He forced his heavy eyelids open, blinking to wipe away the haze, and froze. 

Never had a fever been so cruel – A hallucination so vivid. He saw Abby sitting beside him, watching him. Her eyes shining with unshed tears. Dios, if only it were true. Johnny turned his head away, he couldn’t play the game. Not now. But there it was again, the soft touch, the gentle squeeze of her hand. 

“Abby…” he breathed out, only to have his hand squeezed painfully tight. 

“What’d he say?” demanded a voice – Pearl’s voice – from across the room. Yet someone still held his hand clamped tightly in theirs. 

“I don’t know.” That was Abby’s voice. How could it be Abby? “I think he’s delirious.”

Delirious. That would explain it. 

When he opened his eyes again he would find Teresa or Dolly at his side. Not Abby. Dios, how he wished he could see her just one last time. Tell her how much he loved her and how sorry he was that their dream couldn’t come true. But she was safe in Elkhorn. And if he knew his father and brother the way he thought he did, they would also be in Elkhorn waiting for him. 

There was a rustle of material and something hit the mattress. “Why’d he say Abby?” Another jolt to the mattress and he couldn’t hold back the gasp.

”Pearl, you’ll hurt him!” That was Abby’s voice again. “The fever has him confused.”

Was it the fever that confused him, or was Abby really here? He turned his head back again and opened his eyes. He could barely keep from blurting out her name again. It was Abby. She was sitting next to him, her faced raised up to look at Pearl. Her hair was a mass of unruly auburn curls framing her pale face. How had she gotten here? He tried to wiggle his fingers to get her to loosen her grip on his hand, to reach up to touch her face. 

Abby looked down at him and sighed sadly. “I bet he doesn’t even remember who I am.” She wiped his face with the cool rag and tapped it on his lips. “Remember me, Johnny? Mary from the saloon? You barely gave me the time of day the past two years, always pining away for Pearl. At least I had a better chance with your brother. Scott’s never far away from you.”

Confusion ran rampant in his head. What had happened while he was asleep? Where were Teresa and Dolly? He looked past Abby, looking for Teresa in the rocking chair, and his breath caught in his throat. Murdoch and Val sat on the floor against the door, their hands hidden behind their backs. Dolly sat beneath the window… staring at him …what was it she was trying to tell him?

Dolly suddenly coughed and Pearl swung her gun around to point it at the old woman. Abby leaned down and Johnny fought back the urge to say her name.

“Play along,” she whispered, that red-headed defiance back in her eyes.

He nodded. Abby was playing a dangerous game, one that would get her killed if Pearl realized who she was. It scared him to death to know that she would risk everything to save him – just like he would risk everything to save her. 

Abby’s hand slipped from his and she slowly climbed to her feet. “Dolly needs water,” she said. “She’s an old woman.” 

Pearl seemed to think about it, then nodded. “Ya do somethin’ ta make me mad an’ I’ll shoot.” She pointed the gun toward Teresa, who looked emotionless. His heart went out to her. She had been tied to the rocker for so long, always a target for Pearl.


“Just some water,” Abby promised and walked across the floor, feeling Pearl’s eyes drilling a hole in her back. For the first time since she had gotten here, there seemed to be a flicker of hope. She collected the porcelain water pitcher with a pink flower motif and a matching cup, then squatted down in front of Dolly.

“Are you all right?” she asked softly. She dared not tell Dolly about seeing Scott. Her reaction, no matter how hard she tried to hide it, would give them away.

Dolly nodded, leaning forward to sip at the water. “In my apron,” she whispered. 

Abby saw the bulge of something in the apron pocket and suddenly yelped, the water spilling onto Dolly’s apron. “You stupid old woman!” she shouted, wiping at the spilt water. “I should have known better than to try to help you.” Her fingers curled around a small knife and she dropped it into the water pitcher, holding her breath, waiting to see if Pearl heard the sound before heading back to Johnny and Pearl. 

“The rest need water too,” Abby said, hoping to get a chance to talk to Murdoch. 

Pearl shook her head, at the same time staunching a yawn. The girl had to be nearing exhaustion. And lack of sleep could make her even more unstable. 

“Ya got Johnny ta look after.”

“Pearl…Come over here, Darlin’” Abby looked down at Johnny, but he would not look at her. Instead he stared at Pearl, reaching a shaky hand towards her. “I was dreaming about our house. You want to hear about it?”

Pearl’s smile brightened her face. She almost skipped over to Johnny, sitting on the mattress next to him. 

Abby thought of the knife hidden in the water pitcher. Did she have enough time to draw it out and stab Pearl before the girl got a shot off? And would the wound be fatal or just make the girl go completely insane? If she began shooting who would she hit? It could be anyone, even Johnny. With Scott outside, she couldn’t take that chance. She would do all she could in here until he was able to get inside. 

Bile rose in her throat as she saw Johnny pull Pearl’s head down toward him, her tangled hair flowing over his face onto the pillow as he whispered in her ear. Pearl rested the gun on the pillow, her finger still wrapped around the trigger. But it was still too dangerous to try to grab the gun. Holding the pitcher against her chest, she began to step away.

“Don’t move,” Pearl warned, her voice muffled, but the intent was clear. Abby could do nothing but wait and hope Scott had a better plan than she did.


Scott lowered himself back down to the porch floor, damning the pain in his leg. “Abby knows we’re here, but Pearl’s got her covered like everyone else in there. Where the hell is Jake? He wouldn’t leave Dolly and Teresa here by themselves unless…” Scott didn’t want to finish the thought.

“We need some kind of distraction, something to throw her off guard,” Ellison said. 

Scott nodded. “We have to draw her attention away from the window and the door. I don’t know if she’s smart enough to know what she’s done, but she’s using her hostages to protect every exit. If we charge either the window or the door someone will get in the line of fire.”

He remembered what he could about the interior of the house. He’d only been inside a couple of times and never upstairs. He’d taken little notice of the rooms at the time, never knowing that he would be making life and death decisions according his memory of the house. 

“What if we confuse her?’

Even in the dim light from the parlor window Scott saw Ellison’s look of incredulity.

“More than she already is, he amended. If you sneak into the kitchen and make some noise…pots and pans maybe, then head upstairs and knock some furniture around it might distract her enough.”

“Or send her on a rampage.”

There was that chance, but Scott could think of nothing else, and time was running out.

“You have a better idea?” Scott had to grab his hat as a gust of wind nearly tore it off his head.

Ellison turned his face away from the wind, waiting until the gust subsided then turned back to Scott. “Do you think Johnny’s in any shape to help?”

“I couldn’t tell. He’s conscious. I saw him moving his arm, but I don’t know how mobile he is.”

“What if we find out?”

Before Scott could say another word, Ellison ran toward the horses and slapped the chestnut’s flank.


Abby heard one of their horses suddenly whinny in protest. Pearl heard the same thing and jumped off the mattress, drawing the hammer back on her gun as she ran toward the window.  She pulled Dolly roughly to her feet and used the old woman as a shield as she looked out the window.

Abby plunged her hand into the pitcher and quickly drew the knife out. Throwing back the blankets covering Johnny’s feet, she cut away the log. She got a quick look at the abraded skin around his ankles and the dark tinge to his feet, and hurriedly threw back the cover. She didn’t have time to worry about the damage that might have been done now. 

“Scott’s outside,” she whispered as she crawled to the front of the mattress. “I think that was him distracting Pearl.”

“Are Murdoch and Val hurt?”

“No. Just tied up. I haven’t been able to get over to them.”

Johnny’s grasp was stronger than she thought possible as weak as he was from fever and blood loss. “Don’t do anything foolish. If she finds out who you really are…”

“I know. It was Dolly’s idea.”

A hint of a smile twitched at Johnny’s lips. “They make them smart in Boston.”

Slipping the knife under the mattress, Abby fought back the urge to give Johnny a quick kiss before turning back to see Pearl push Dolly back to the floor and start walking back to them.

“Just the horses,” she said. “Must a been the wind. They spook easy when it be a howlin’ like this.” Pearl suddenly stopped in the middle of the room, listening. Abby’s heart lodged in her throat; had Pearl heard Scott outside?  Pearl began to turn slowly in place, holding her gun with both hands. “Don’t like wind talkin’. Pa says it be the demons howling, comin’ up outta the ground.” Pearl’s eyes grew wider. “Pa says it be the devil hisself that rides the wind.”

Nothing but the roar of the wind interrupted the silence in the room. All eyes were on Pearl, waiting for her next move. She continued to turn, listening to the wind buffeting the house. What was it saying to her? The lack of sleep was feeding her insanity and Abby knew their precarious position was getting worse. 

A tremendous gust of wind hit the house, rocking its very foundation and ripping a shutter loose somewhere, sending it clattering to the porch. Pearl pulled the trigger and the world suddenly stood still…

The smell of cordite filled the air and Abby realized her eyes were closed. She opened them, dreading to see where the bullet had gone, desperately looking around the room. She saw no blood, no one withering in pain. 

All eyes were on Pearl. Abby heard the click of another bullet sliding into the chamber. 

Johnny’s hand sought hers and she clasped it. “No,” he whispered, “don’t try anything. She’s…”

“Gets away from my man!” Pearl screamed, pointing the gun at Abby. “He be mine!” Pearl was on top of Abby before she could defend herself, backhanding her and knocking her off the mattress.

Johnny grabbed for her arm but Pearl blocked his hand as she jumped onto the mattress straddling Johnny’s waist. Abby tried to scramble to her feet but Pearl had her gun pointed at her.

“He ain’t a man fer the likes of you,” she sneered. “He be needin’ a good woman. I should a kilt ya the minute I…”

Johnny smashed his good knee into Pearl’s back and she cried out in pain and surprise but she didn’t drop the gun. 

“NO!” Pearl screamed, “I kill ya…I kill ya!”

Abby froze as she saw Pearl aim the gun at Johnny’s chest – her finger squeezing the trigger.

.

Chapter Twenty – four

At the last second Pearl’s eyes met Johnny’s, and a look of inconsolable grief filled her eyes.  

He felt the concussion of the blast as the bullet drilled a hole in the pillow right next to his head, not in his heart. The heat of it singed his ear, leaving him deaf to everything but the ringing in his ears. He felt suspended in time, not able to speak or move. The culmination of pain, weakness and his fear for Abby and his family left him stunned. 


For Murdoch, time stood still. Even the raging wind outside couldn’t breach the silence that followed the ear splitting report of the gun. He stared at Johnny, at his boy, and his world dissolved before him. He’d been unable to save him. Only half a room away and he couldn’t help his son. He was the cause of all this. He’d let Pearl go two years ago despite Scott’s warning. Now he’d lost Johnny, and he was about to lose Teresa and the woman he had come to love as his future daughter-in-law. The anger and the guilt nearly suffocated him. But his hate for Pearl surpassed the guilt. He’d never hated another human being the way he hated her. If he could, he would strangle her with his bare hands without a moment’s remorse. 

She sat astride Johnny’s hips, a wisp of smoke still curling up from the muzzle of her gun. She stared at the gun as if someone else had pulled the trigger. Suddenly she whipped her head up and swung the gun around to point it at Abby sprawled on the floor.

“Ya tried ta take ‘im from me!” she screamed. 

“No!” Murdoch yanked at the belt binding his wrists behind him but there was not an inch of give. His hands were swelling, cutting off the circulation. He tried again, knowing it was useless. But it wasn’t only the belt that held him trapped in a blanket of escalating terror. It was watching Pearl lose her grip on the slender thread of sanity that had kept them all alive so far. 

Murdoch heard Pearl cock the hammer and saw Abby sit up defiantly, holding the side of her face where Pearl had hit her.  

He had to get free. He took a deep breath and put all his strength into pulling against the belt again. Nothing. No give at all. He tried to gather his long legs beneath him to get to his knees, ignoring the fiery pain shooting up his back. He felt Val struggling beside him, snarling as he yanked at his own bonds, using his legs to try to walk his shoulders up the door. But Val’s boots slipped and the sheriff landed in a heap. 

He nearly cried with the finality of it all. He couldn’t even give Johnny his last gift…saving Abby. He looked at her, hoping she could forgive him. He had promised to protect her – to lead her back to Johnny. All he had done was put her in harm’s way. Put them all in harm’s way because he couldn’t see the insanity that ran deep within Pearl. How could he have read her so wrongly? 

He almost missed it, wallowing in his own self-pity. The subtle shift in Abby’s manner that told Murdoch she knew something he didn’t. Suddenly he saw it too: tousled black hair moved ever so slightly on the pillow. Johnny was alive!

“Pearl!” he yelled, trying to get her attention. Her head turned and her eyes met his the same moment Johnny smashed his knuckles into Pearl’s stomach.

“No!” Pearl screamed, enraged, and she turned the gun back on Johnny. “I kill ya…I kill ya.”

Suddenly Abby exploded off the floor, leaping at Pearl, reaching for the gun and forcing it away from Johnny. They rolled off the mattress in a tangle of arms and voluminous skirts. Murdoch could only catch glimpses of their faces. They were locked in a desperate struggle for the gun.

Dolly gave a choked cry and clambered to her feet, tripping over the hem of her dress, stumbling toward the two women fighting on the floor. She staggered passed them to the coffee table.

Pearl screeched like a wildcat, caught beneath Abby’s weight. She kicked and scratched with her free hand, raking her nails across Abby’s face, drawing blood. Abby fought like a hellion, her hands clamped around Pearl’s gun hand, slamming it against the floor, but she was no match against the insanity that drove Pearl. Pearl grabbed Abby’s hair, smashing Abby’s forehead into her shoulder. Stunned, Abby couldn’t stop Pearl from rolling her onto her back, and now Pearl was on top, her knees clamped around Abby’s waist. 

Abby clawed at Pearl’s face, trying to gouge her eyes, but Pearl struck her left wrist with the butt of the gun and Abby’s hand fell to her side. Pearl used both hands to aim the gun at Abby’s heart, a triumphant grin on her face.  

Murdoch heard a savage groan and looked over to see Johnny heave himself up onto his right side, the effort costing him dearly. His movements were slow and pain ridden. His face glistened with sweat, his eyes just pinpoints of black as he drew a paring knife from beneath the pillow with his injured arm. The four-inch blade caught the flickering light from the fire in the hearth. Johnny levered himself onto his good elbow and Murdoch saw his hand shake as he gripped the tip of the knife with his fingers and threw it. 

He held his breath as he watched the blade made a perfect half-turn in the air before it started to lose momentum. Pearl’s body blocked his line of sight and he only saw her reaction…a startled scream as she whipped one hand around to her back, jumping up to look at Johnny. The blade slid down her dress, leaving a small trail of blood from a slit in her dress just above her waist. It wasn’t a fatal wound, not even enough to slow Pearl down, but it redirected her anger.


Johnny saw the look of surprise and betrayal on Pearl’s face. Tears welled in her eyes as she shook her head in denial. 

“Ya loves me,” she whimpered, looking at the traces of blood on her fingers. “Ya said so. You was gonna built us a house. You and me and our young’ens…”

Johnny could see the emotions play out on her face. But he didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy for her. And he couldn’t play the game anymore.

He chanced a glance at Abby. Her left hand was cradled in her lap. Small rivulets of blood ran down her face from Pearl’s nails and her auburn hair was a mass of tangles. His heart went out to her. He loved her and that meant keeping her safe. But he had failed miserably. If he’d had the strength he would have picked up the knife that lay by Pearl’s feet and gutted her like the wild animal she was.

Waves of dizziness suddenly assaulted him and his elbow collapsed beneath him, but he saw the look in Pearl’s eyes as she raised the gun again and looked down at Abby. 

“Abby! Look out!” he yelled.

Pearl froze – her finger on the trigger, the muzzle zeroed in on Abby’s chest. The name seemed to take all the air out of the room. 

“Abby…?” For a fleeting moment she looked like a lost, confused child, suddenly stripped of the only thing she could call her own. 

Abby slowly climbed to her feet, cradling her broken wrist in her right hand.

“That’s right,” she snarled. “I’m Abby, you stupid bitch!”

Pearl shook her head in disbelief. 

“I’m the one Johnny loves. Not you!”

“He be mine!” Pearl shouted.

“He was never yours. He’s not an animal you can own. He’s a man. Free to love the woman he wants. And he wants me.”

Pearl shook her head. “Ma said he be mine. Gave ‘im to me. Said he was mine. Jest needed ta train ‘im.”

“You can’t train a man to love you. Johnny loves me, for all the right reasons….”

“No! He be mine! He loves me! We’re ta be wedded. He’s gonna built us a house…a big house where we kin make young’ins. He be wantin’ young’ins. He be wantin’ a little one jest like me. ”

Abby shook her head. “You can’t make a man love you just because you love him.”

“I make him love me. Me! Not you!”

Johnny saw Pearl raise her gun again, pulling back the hammer. The knife, he screamed 

silently at Abby, willing her to look down at her feet. The knife rested on the carpet between her and Pearl. But Abby’s eyes were locked on Pearl’s.

He looked frantically at Murdoch and Val. They were no closer to freeing themselves from their bonds then they were when he first woke up. Teresa sat silently in her rocker, her face emotionless. Pearl was going to win. There was no way he could help Abby, to stop the inevitable. He steeled himself for the sound of the shot, knowing it would be the death of him too. Whether he lived or died here tonight, he would never be the same man. 

From the corner of his eye he saw Dolly throw her apron over her shoulder and pick up a small covered bowl from the coffee table with her bound hands. She shook the bowl, upsetting the lid, and it crashed to the floor, breaking in half. She rushed toward Pearl. Johnny heard the gun bark and Dolly stopped as if she had hit an invisible wall. She corkscrewed to the floor, the contents of the bowl spilling over her dress. The smell of pepper filled the air. 

Johnny closed his eyes. “No…”


Pearl felt the impact before she heard the gun fire and the glass shatter, rocking her back on her heels. She looked through the window, stunned to see Scott Lancer, the smoking gun still leveled at her. She drew her hand up to her chest, just above her heart, and felt the small hole in her dress. Strange – she thought it would hurt more, being shot. Instead she felt numb. 

She tasted blood in her mouth and she knew what it meant. She’d seen it before. She had precious little time left to tell Johnny how much she loved him. That everything she had done was for their happiness. Nothing else, no one else mattered. 

Slowly she turned back to look down on her man, knowing the pain she would see in his eyes. She had proved her love to him. He would forever know that she loved him more than life itself. Ma said he was hers, and he was, from the first moment she laid eyes on him.

But those eyes were not for her. He was looking at Abby sprawled at her feet. 

The numbness was wearing off. She could feel the pain in her chest, felt her legs shake as she tried to stay standing. She wouldn’t give up…not now. She’d worked so hard to train him. To make him love her. 

The wind howled outside, blowing in through the broken window, tugging at her skirt, grabbing her hair. She felt it surround her. No – Pa’s words came back to her once again. The devil rides the wind. Pa was right. He was coming for her. And suddenly she was scared. 

Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t wanna die,” she pleaded. If Johnny loved her he would save her. 

He didn’t say anything. He just stared at her. 

“I…I done it fer us,” she said, her words getting mixed up with the blood in her mouth. It was getting harder to breathe. She needed to know that he loved her. That he wanted to wrap her in his arms and cry for her. 

He still didn’t look at her.

No…Someone had to cry at her passing.

Johnny reached his hand out, but it wasn’t to her.

 “No!” she screamed. “Ya belongs ta me!”

She raised the gun one last time. He would be with her forever. 


Scott had watched Ellison sprint away toward the front door. It was not the best plan, but he could think of nothing else. Each time he pulled himself up to look in the window, Pearl was standing where a bullet could easily hit one of her hostages.

The frigid wind raked through his hair, whipping at his jacket. But he didn’t feel the cold anymore, even though he could see puffs of vapor drift from his mouth with each exhalation. Inside he could see the fire blazing in the hearth. Abby continued to sit with Johnny. What had happened between her and Pearl? Scott was sure Pearl would have killed Abby on the spot. The only answer was that Pearl didn’t know who Abby really was. How hard it must have been for Abby to tend to Johnny and not give herself away. Johnny seemed to be aware of what was going on. When Pearl’s back was turned he would squeeze Abby’s hand, or nod. Had Abby told him that there was help on the other side of the window? Scott guessed not since Johnny never once looked in his direction. It was probably a good idea. In Johnny’s condition, one subterfuge was enough for his brother to handle.

Suddenly a strong gust of wind picked him up as if he weighed nothing, nearly tossing him off the porch. He held onto the windowsill, his leg exploding with pain as he fell back down on the deck. Stunned, he lay there for a moment, listening to the house groan under the wind’s assault. Then he heard it. One gunshot from the parlor. He clawed his way back to his good knee, feeling the muscles tighten in his injured leg as he pulled himself up high enough to see into the parlor again.

Driven by a rage that Scott could feel even out here, Pearl jumped onto the mattress, straddling Johnny’s hips. Scott saw her aim her gun at Johnny and pull the trigger.

Hatred welled up inside him, taking away his breath with its intensity. Never had he wanted to kill another human being like he wanted to end Pearl’s existence. He drew his gun, the barrel just inches away from the glass when Abby leapt off the floor grabbing Pearl’s gun hand. 

The two women rolled off the mattress in a tangle of arms and legs. He smashed the window with his gun, the sound of the splintering glass going unnoticed in the melee. He waited for the right moment to fire, his heart pounding in his throat, but Pearl and Abby were too close as they struggled for the gun. Suddenly Pearl had the upper hand and she stood up, towering over Abby, gun in hand.

If she couldn’t have him in life, she would have him in death. And Scott pulled the trigger again. 


To Scott it seemed like an eternity before Ellison rushed back after hearing the gunshots and climbed in through the window to release Murdoch and Val. Now he limped into the parlor between Val and Ellison. It looked like the aftermath of a bloody battle. Pearl lay on the floor next to the mattress where Murdoch had pushed her off Johnny, her back saturated with blood. In death she looked like a broken doll, so small and helpless. It was such a waste. A beautiful young woman tormented by the demons her parents had foisted upon her. It was hard not to hate her for what she had done, but he prayed she would find peace if there was an afterlife.

Dolly lay motionless where she had fallen. Blood caked the left side of her head, staining her gray hair. He’d promised to take care of her. He knew the guilt would follow him for a lifetime. He had failed her.

Teresa sat in her rocker, her eyes fixed on Pearl. She was a ghost of the girl he had left just a couple days ago. No one had reached her yet to untie her. Scott was a victim of his own injuries and couldn’t help her. 

Val suddenly broke away to help Abby to her feet. Scott hadn’t seen her face before and now he cringed at the scratches on her cheeks and her torn dress. She swayed just once before pushing Val’s helping hands away and wrapping her right arm around Scott’s waist, holding her left arm against her stomach.

“See to Teresa,” she told Val. 

Scott waited to see Val’s reaction. He was not a man to take orders easily, especially from a woman, but the look he gave her told Scott that he would do anything for Abby. She had gained his respect and his loyalty. 

They reached the mattress. Scott had only seen Johnny from afar. He wasn’t prepared for the gaunt face or the hectic splash of color on his brother’s cheeks from the fever. Pearl’s blood had spilled onto the sheet where she had fallen and Murdoch was carefully pushing the soiled part of the sheet away from Johnny.

Johnny was trying to look past Murdoch, weakly trying to sit up. “Abby?” 

“She’s all right, Son,” Murdoch said as he moved over for Abby to sit on the mattress. Scott saw her deliberately sit so Johnny couldn’t see her left hand cradled in her lap.

Johnny seemed to melt at her touch. He relaxed into the mattress, letting her wipe the bangs from his forehead. Scott felt his anger rise again. Johnny’s condition was serious, potentially fatal if he had gone another day without proper care. 

“Scott,” Val called and he looked over to see Val hunched over Dolly. “Somebody wants ta talk ta ya here.”

Scott’s leg nearly gave out as he turned too quickly. Ellison grabbed his arm and helped him over to the old woman. She lay on the floor, her head cushioned on Teresa’s lap. The shallow furrow just above her ear showed how lucky she had been. Pearl’s bullet had just grazed her.

“I said I wanted to experience the Wild West, but I didn’t mean it literally.”

“Dolly?”

“Of course it’s me. You see another old woman around here?” She sneezed as Val helped her to sit up and the pepper on her dress floated up in the air again. Val and Teresa both sneezed and he gave her an aggrieved look.

“Ma’am, that was one stupid stunt ya pulled there…but ya distracted that crazy bi…ah…girl, and I thank ya for that.”

Dolly looked over at Pearl and there was no sympathy in her eyes.  “You can say the word, Sheriff. Bitch.” 

Val snorted, “Yes, ma’am.”  He helped her climb to her feet, holding her steady as she gained her balance. He reached down to offer Teresa his hand. But Teresa shook her head and sat motionless on the floor.

“Give her time,” Dolly said. “She has been through more than you could ever imagine. I believe it would be best to just let her come around in her own time. Sheriff Crawford, if you would help her onto the sofa.”

“I’ll ride into town and fetch the doctor,” Ellison said. “Meanwhile that window should be boarded up. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Scott turned toward Ellison but the rancher waved him off. “I got my thanks already, Son, seeing that brother of yours alive.” To Scott’s chagrin, Ellison had the last word as he left the parlor. “Keep that hard headed son off his feet, Murdoch. Both your boys come by their stubbornness naturally.”

Scott looked back at Johnny and saw him slowly close his eyes as Abby whispered words meant only for them. At last he was safe. It would be a long time before any of them would truly be out of Pearl’s shadow. A little piece of her would be with them for the rest of their lives. But in the end, she could not destroy what they had and she sought for all her life: Love and trust.

.

Chapter Twenty Five

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister Pearl Harkins and we commit her body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. Amen.”

The words echoed in his head as Johnny groped through the tangle of memories that morphed into nightmares. He could see Pearl lying in the ground, no wooden coffin to protect her from the dirt as featureless men dropped shovelful after shovelful of dirt onto her body. Johnny tried to look away, but Pearl’s outstretched hand reached up to him for help. Her terrified eyes kept him a prisoner, every bit as strong as the bonds that bound him at the Harkins camp or at Dolly’s house.

“I love ya!” she screamed as her grave continued to fill, covering her blood-stained white wedding gown.

“Ya belongs ta me,” she coughed as dirt began to cover her face. Her last word, as her face disappeared beneath the dirt, trailed away into deafening silence – “Forever…” 

“Johnny… Johnny, it’s over now.”

Johnny felt something cool press against his forehead.  He was so incredibly hot, like he was lying beneath the desert sun. But he felt no pain, only the dull heaviness that came from laudanum. With it also came the confusion between dreams and reality. He was afraid to trust what he wanted so much – to have Abby by his side and Pearl out of his life.

Soft lips touched his cheek. “You’re safe now, Johnny. It’s me, Abby.”

Could he trust what he felt? What he thought he heard?

More voices droned like bees around him. He caught snatches of words, voices he thought he recognized. But he’d been fooled before by fever’s false promises. 

The ground beneath him moved and the sound of the squeaky left wheel of the buckboard surprised him. He was supposed to grease that wheel last week

“Sam was right. He wasn’t ready for this.” He recognized Murdoch’s voice, filled with anger and despondency. 

Johnny began to remember bits and pieces: A room and a bed that was not his own, Sam hovering over him. He’d been arguing with…everyone.

The buckboard hit a rut and he groaned with the pain. Something hard tapped his lips and cool water filled his mouth, tainted with the vile taste of more laudanum. If he’d had the strength he’d have spit it out. But it ran down his throat and what little grasp he had on reality drifted away again.

Scott sat in the back of the buckboard, his injured leg propped up on a mound of soft hay. Abby sat with her back against the side panel of the wagon, Johnny’s head in her lap as they slowly pulled away from the gravesite. It had been a somber service. No tears were shed. They had been there for Johnny, not Pearl. Johnny had remained in the wagon with Scott and Abby while Murdoch and Dolly stood by the grave, heads bent, as the preacher read the words

It was the second funeral in two days. Murdoch and the Lancer hands had attended Jake’s service. In contrast to today, there were more people than the small Green River cemetery could hold. Amanda, Jake’s fiancée, had left Green River this morning. There was nothing to keep her there without Jake. 

Scott looked down at his brother. Johnny had friends and family and a fiancée too. He just hoped it was enough for his brother to move past Pearl. Johnny’s face was pale and gaunt, with a splash of color rising on his cheeks that showed that his fever was rising again since they left Dolly’s house. Sam had been adamant that Johnny not leave his bed so soon. But Johnny was just as adamant that he had to go. 

Scott remembered Johnny’s hand, fever hot and weak, clasping his hand desperately this morning, pulling him forward until Scott could feel his brother’s breath on his face.

“I gotta be there,” he whispered. “I gotta bury this hate. I can’t let her be another one of my ghosts. I can’t let her come between me and Abby.”

“Murdoch and Sam are going…”

“No. It’s got to be all of us. You and Abby and Teresa. We all have to bury the hate or she still wins.”

Scott knew Johnny was right. As difficult as it would be, Abby and Teresa had to lay the specter of Pearl to rest too. 

Sam had agreed reluctantly, admitting the power of the mind could be more healing than anything a doctor could prescribe. Johnny had to mend emotionally as well as physically and he could not begin to do that until he had put an end to this chapter in his life. Pearl’s funeral would be the catalyst. 

“Maria will have his room ready when we get there,” Murdoch said from the driver’s seat, keeping the horses at a slow but steady pace. After only two short days spent in one of Dolly’s guest bedrooms, Johnny was at last on his way home to Lancer. 

“And he will not move one inch from his bed until Sam says he can,” Abby said defiantly. Scott watched her lean down and kiss Johnny’s cheek again. “If he thinks he’s met stubborn before…he has no idea what real stubborn is.”

Scott settled himself more comfortably in the hay. It seemed forever since he felt like smiling. Johnny had finally met his match. Life would never be dull with those two together. 


It was the time of year Johnny Lancer loved the most, when the days were hot, but not too hot, and the nights were warm with just a faint breeze to cool the air.

He leaned against the corral and watched the horses slowly walk around, Barranca occasionally stopping to bend his head over the fence and nuzzle Johnny’s shoulder. In the corner, the chestnut stood watching. He’d paid old Leo a good price for the horse he affectionately called Diablo Rojo. He’d saved his life, and Johnny always repaid his debts.

Johnny didn’t think life could get much better. Who would have thought that Johnny Madrid would be part owner of one of the biggest ranchos in the San Joaquin Valley, or that he would settle into the life of a rancher so easily? 

But looking back it had not been so easy. In fact, it was the hardest thing Johnny had ever done in his life. 

As a child he had survived with his wits and then, as he got older, with his gun. He’d ride in and out of other people’s lives. Never a life he could call his own. There were good people he remembered with fondness, people who had kept him from losing himself in the violent, lonely world of Johnny Madrid. No matter how bad he has seen himself, they had seen something different.  

And there were the people who had only seen him for his gun. Whether they were the ones who hired him or the ones he was hired to face, they were all the same. To them Johnny Madrid was a commodity to use then throw away when he was no longer needed. 

It was not a life most men could live and, for those who chose it, or had it chosen for them, it was a short life. Few died of old age.

Then a summons and a thousand dollars listening money had changed everything.

What would have happened if he had not let anger and revenge lead him here? If he had never learned the truth about Murdoch – never knew that his father had wanted him all those years. And what if he had never met Scott? The only thing they had in common at that first meeting was their father’s blood running through their veins. Was it possible for two brothers to be more different? Yet they had forged a tenuous friendship at first that had grown into something Johnny didn’t have words to describe. Maybe brother was the only word he needed.

Johnny had thought his life couldn’t get any better until he met Abby. She completed him. She took him with all his faults. Accepted his past knowing he was the man he was because of it, not in spite of it. 

“A dollar for your thoughts?”

Johnny swung around, surprised that he hadn’t heard Scott walk up behind him. That never would have happened a couple years ago. Now it was happening more and more often.

“I thought the going rate was a penny.”

“I doubt a penny would cover it tonight, Brother.”

Johnny looked up at the moon. It was just a few nights away from being full. 

“Just thinking.”

“Any second thoughts?”

“About marrying Abby?  No.” Johnny turned around to look at his brother. “I love her, Scott. I don’t know how to describe it. She makes me feel alive inside. And she makes me proud to be me. Don’t make much sense I guess.”

“It makes a lot of sense, Johnny.”

“But I’m scared too. What if my past comes back? What if Abby has to pay for what Johnny Madrid did? I won’t lie to you. I almost rode away a time or two when I got to thinking. And what about our kids? What will they think when they learn about who their pa was? Sometimes I don’t think I have the right to do that to anyone. But I can’t walk away from her, I love her too much.”

“Have you told her your fears?”

Johnny snorted. “Oh, yeah, I told her.”

“And?”

“If she’d had a frying pan in her hand she would have knocked me upside the head.” Taking a deep breath, Johnny looked back up at the moon. “She said there was nothing we couldn’t get through together. That when our kids were old enough, we would sit down together and tell them the truth.”

“A smart lady.” 

Johnny scuffed his boot in the dirt. “Never thought I’d be a family man, Scott. Never thought it was meant to be. I told myself I was better off not getting tied down to a piece of land or a woman. In a way it was easier being Johnny Madrid. No one to care about, and no one to care about me. I just did my job and moved on.”

“And now?”

“Now I can’t see my life without Abby…” 

He felt Scott stiffen beside him. “But…?”

“I still worry about my past. Damn it, Scott. What if someone like Pearl comes after me again? What if I can’t protect her from my past? I love Abby too much to…”

“Pearl had nothing to do with your past. Nothing to do with Johnny Madrid. She was a deranged woman who could have picked anyone. You just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. And if someone from your past does appear, we’ll handle it. All of us. The Lancer family protects its own. And I pity the poor person who tries to go up against Abby Lancer.”

Johnny laughed. “They wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“No, they wouldn’t. And neither will you if we don’t get you back inside. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”

“I know. It was bad enough when it was just Teresa and Maria helping Abby set up the wedding. But with Dolly adding her two cents…Boston, you think Abby would mind if we just eloped?”

“I don’t think you’d have a day of peace the rest of your life if you did that. Besides I have been rehearsing all week. You wouldn’t deprive me of the honor of being best man would you?” 

“I guess not, when you put it that way.”

“Come on, I know Murdoch is waiting inside with a drink and some fatherly advice. I think he may be more nervous than you are.”


Johnny wrapped his arm around Scott’s shoulder and together they walked back to the house, saying goodbye to the quiet, star-fillednight for the chaos that awaited them inside.


Three months later:

Johnny hammered the last nail in place and looked down the fence line, satisfied that the fence posts were straight and the barbed wire taut. It had been a wicked winter so far in the San Joaquin Valley, with a series of storms hammering the area. The last one had carried a one two punch with both flooding rains and damaging winds. By all accounts it was the worst winter most people could remember in years.

This morning it had been hard to climb out of his warm bed, but the smell of strong coffee drew him downstairs. Johnny had to laugh remembering how proud Abby was this morning. Just because she had helped her mother at the restaurant in Elkhorn didn’t mean she could cook. For the first time, the bacon wasn’t burnt and the eggs didn’t cackle. 

It was a hard transition after two years of eating Maria’s cooking and there were other things that made living away from the main house difficult. He had to get up earlier to get to the hacienda in time to go over the day’s scheduling, usually over a cup of coffee and some of Maria’s biscuits with honey or jam. He wouldn’t dare tell Abby. If one of those rocks his wife called biscuits hit him in the head, he’d be out for a month. But life was good, and there was not a day that went by that he didn’t thank his lucky stars that he had run into Abby McClanahan on the boardwalk in Green River that day. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. They had been through so much together. 

Johnny knew the transition had been easier for him than Abby. He hadn’t stopped to think how different her life would be, married to a rancher, living in a house with no neighbors. She had been surrounded by people most of her life, spending her days at her mother’s restaurant in Elkhorn, and her nights at their house, so close to the next house that they practically shared the same walls. Out here, there were miles of open space between them and the hacienda, and then a couple hours ride to the nearest town. 

But Abby was happy. Johnny could see it in her eyes. She was still a spitfire, their arguments just as heated as their love making. She kept busy while he was gone, turning their house into a home, spending time with Teresa and Maria, learning to cook the meals he liked the most.

Yet Johnny knew she still had nightmares. He did too. It would take time to get past what Pearl had done to both of them. Abby refused to tell him how bad it was when he was out of it…but he heard some of it when she cried out in her dreams and it broke his heart that she had to go through so much. That he had been the cause of it. Johnny knew, right or wrong, he would still carry a piece of that guilt with him the rest of his life.

He looked up to see Scott loping toward him. His brother had drawn the short straw this morning and had to clear the deadfall from a stream that was beginning to back up. Scott had taken a five man crew with him, but Johnny knew his brother wasn’t one to sit in the saddle and give orders while others worked. 

“Hallo,” he called, grinning at Scott’s muddy clothes.

“Hello, yourself.” Scott grinned back. “You look like you barely worked up a sweat. I, on the other hand…” Scott opened his arms wide.

Johnny pushed his hat back on his head, squinting up at Scott. “You on the other hand, look like you took one of them mud baths Teresa read about in her magazines from back east.”

“I’ll tell that to Teresa when she has to wash these clothes. Maybe she won’t bite my head off.”

Johnny packed his tools in his saddlebags and mounted Barranca. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

“Neither would I, but it’s worth a try. Hey, is Abby all ready for Dolly’s dinner party this weekend? Teresa’s been spending more time there then at home. Which may be to my benefit…she might not notice the muddy clothes until next week.”

“She’s acting like she’s all excited about it, but I know it’s bothering her. Going back in that house is gonna be hard for her.”

“Since Dolly bought the place it doesn’t look the same. She painted and put up new wallpaper in all the rooms, bought new furniture and had a lot of her things shipped out here after selling her house back east.”

“I know.” Johnny massaged his back. “I helped move some of that furniture.”

Scott’s smile faded. “It will take time, Johnny. Abby went through hell. Not just at Dolly’s place.”

“Don’t you think I know that? But she won’t talk to me. She won’t tell me what’s inside her head. I want to help her, but I can’t until she lets me in. Sometimes I feel like Pearl is still between us. I understand she wants to put this behind her, but I learned the hard way that you have to face the past before you can move forward. It wasn’t until Murdoch and I talked, I mean really talked, that I laid my ghosts to rest.”

“All of them?” he asked softly. 

Johnny turned Barranca around to face his brother. “No,” he admitted. “Not all of them. But enough that I can sleep at night.”

“But it didn’t happen all at once. Even when you and Murdoch talked, it took time. It will take Abby time too. And I think this dinner party at Dolly’s will be one of many steps she will have to take.” 

Johnny nodded, easing Barranca into a slow walk. It would take time. And he was willing to wait it out. If he pushed then Pearl would win. And that he would never let happen.

They arrived at the new trail that led to Johnny’s house a few miles away.

“Murdoch wants me to help him go over the books, we seem to have made more of a profit then he expected this month and he wants to make sure it wasn’t an accounting error. And you know Murdoch. He won’t let anyone into the Great Room until the books balance.”

Johnny snorted. “Sounds like the old man.”

Scott’s laugh told Johnny that his brother agreed.

“Anyway, I might not see you until the dinner party on Saturday night. Sam has been invited, along with Ellison Rawls and his wife. Even Val agreed to come.”

“The second time Val can wear that fancy shirt he bought for our wedding. You know, Boston, he cleaned up pretty good.”

“That he did. But I hate to think what that shirt looks like three months later. See you in a couple of days.” 

Johnny watched Scott gently spur his horse and ride north toward the main house. Johnny looked down the path that would lead him to his new house and the woman he loved more than life itself. No matter what came at them they would get through it together. 

The End
2009

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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or  Email Linda directly.

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2 thoughts on “Gem by LindaB. (Kona)

  1. I liked your story. I enjoy ones where Johnny finally picks a wife. Aby seems like a believable mate for him. I enjoyed your Dolly character too. Of course Pearl was awful. Glad she finally was put out of the picture for good.

    Like

  2. Enjoyed your story. Pearl was truly vicious but there were moments wherein I could feel sorry for her. Her delusions were pathetic and evil at the same time. I do love a happy ending though.

    Like

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