The Reunion by LindaB (Kona)

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Word count: 38,865

Thanks to my betas, Janet and KC.

1st in the Reunion Series

Chapter 1

It was hot for so early in the season and Johnny slipped his shirt off, letting the warm sun dry away the river of sweat that ran down his bare chest.

Sinewy muscles flexed beneath dark tanned skin as he grabbed the sledgehammer and began pounding fence posts into the hard packed ground. Muscles that had been trained only to be lithe and cat-like in his Johnny Madrid days, were now strong and well defined, capable of wielding a sledgehammer or drawing and firing in the wink of an eye.

This was the third day he had been working this stretch of fencing. A storm had formed over the Sierras, and instead of breaking up as most storms did as they moved down the foothills, this one had gained momentum and unleashed its fury on the San Joaquin Valley.

Every Lancer hand was out, working from sunup to sundown repairing the damage. Torn fences and downed trees littered the landscape. Ponds were turned into lakes, and brooks were turned into rushing streams. Dams ruptured, marooning cattle on small islands of land mere inches above the water.

Johnny looked up at the sky and wondered if Scott had caught the luckier job of overseeing the damaged footbridge over the swollen Aqua Azul steam. He chuckled to himself when he thought that Scott was probably thinking the same thing.

He gauged the sun and decided he had another three hours of good light left, then tomorrow he would finish the last of this section of fence. He didn’t want to think of the remaining fences. But unfortunately, they would be waiting for him. Death, taxes and fences. You couldn’t escape any of them.

***

As Johnny worked on the fence, he didn’t notice the two riders hiding in the shadows of a huge oak tree on the ridge above him, watching his every move.

“Wooeee…ain’t he a pretty one?”

Jezebel shushed the young girl sitting beside her. “Hush child. You keep them eyes where they belong. This here one is fer your sister. If’n she’s a wanting ‘im. Cain’t see why not…he looks ta be a healthy fella. But yer sister has the right ta pick the man she’s a showin’ at the reunion. It’s a cryin’ shame that gal ain’t got herself a man yet. It’d be plum embarressin’ fer her…nigh on ta eighteen and still without a man ta bed her. Ain’t natural. Ain’t natural a tall.”

“He’s a looker, Mama.” Halley leaned forward on the saddle, leaning her elbow on the pommel. “Prettiest thing I ever did see. If Pearl don’t want ‘im, then I’d take ‘im, Mama.”

Jezebel slapped her arm, hard. “You ain’t old ‘nough ta take a man. Ya got’s ta be at least thirteen. Ya got time ta wait child. Now ya go find Pearl fast, ya hear? I want her ta meet her perspective, make sure he’s a right fer her. Cain’t see what she could find not ta like though.”

Jezebel kept her mount steady as Halley quietly walked her horse out of Johnny’s range of hearing, then kicked it into a full gallop.

***

Johnny was on his last post when he heard the two horses approach. He dropped the sledgehammer and instinctively slipped the safety loop off his gun.

With their backs to the sun it took Johnny a moment to realize two ladies were riding toward him. Ladies may have been a kind description, Johnny decided. They were both dressed in ragged clothes that looked like they would disintegrate if they touched a drop of soap and water. Their hair, beneath moth eaten hats, was long and straggly.

“Can I help you?” Johnny asked. He eyed them warily, women could be just as lethal with a gun as any man.

“Name’s Jezebel Harkins and this here’s my girl Pearl. We been watching ya from up yonder,” the older of the two women said, nodding toward the oak tree. “Yer not afeard a hard work boy. That’s good.”

“I’m not afraid of a lot of things.” Johnny squinted up at her, the sun bright behind their backs. “You ladies have business here? You’re on private land.”

“Don’t believe in private land. It’s all God’s country. He ain’t never put no fences up. My way a thinkin’, that means he don’t hold with hordin’”

“Well the law sees it differently. This is Lancer land, as far as the eye can see. So you best be moving along.”

Johnny felt a shiver run down his spine as Jezebel Harkins looked him over as if he were a prize bull at auction.

“Ya look ta be a smart boy,” Jezebel looked toward his gun hand, “so I’m betting ya ain’t dim witted ‘nough not ta know yer left hand from yer right, cause I see a marryin’ ring on the wrong hand.”

Johnny grinned, but there was no laughter in his eyes. “Like you said, I’m smart.”

“Ya see.” Jezebel slapped the younger woman on the arm. “I told ya he didn’t look womanized.”

The younger woman smiled, revealing a mouth filled with rotting teeth. “He be the one Ma.”

Johnny took several steps backwards reaching for his shirt.

“Don’t put that shirt on account a us,” Jezebel grinned. “It’s been a month a Sunday’s an then some, since we seen good man flesh. Our kin men ain’t nothin’ ta brag ‘bout.”

Johnny hastily slipped his shirt on, but left it unbuttoned. He didn’t want his hands occupied with the buttons. He had a bad feeling about Jezebel and her daughter.

“Ya got a name boy? We gave ya ours…ain’t polite not ta reciprocate…”

“Johnny Lancer,” Johnny answered, picking up the sledgehammer with his left hand. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got this fence to finish before sundown. You head east and you’ll be off Lancer property in two hours.”

“Johnny…” Jezebel seemed to taste the name then turned to Pearl and nodded. “John…good strong name from the Lord’s book.”

Jezebel and Pearl shared a knowing glance then without another word turned their horses west. Johnny watched them disappear over the hill and he slowly slipped the safety loop back over his gun. He went back to work but couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that he was going to be seeing those two again.

***

By the time Johnny finished with the fence and the ride back to the hacienda, he was too tired to do more than soak in a hot tub for an hour then eat dinner. He meant to mention his encounter with the two women, but he fell asleep on the couch before he had the chance.

The next day found him again on the fence line. He spent the day surreptitiously searching the hills around him for his visitors from the day before. By the time the last strand of barbed wire was strung in place he was convinced that yesterday’s encounter was nothing to worry about. He headed home with thoughts of Maria’s dinner.

***

“I figure we’re more than half way finished with the repairs,” Murdoch said as he passed the biscuits around the supper table. The men have done an excellent job, partly because they see you two working so hard.”

“You know Murdoch,” Johnny threw a wicked grin toward Scott, “I always thought that a boss did just that, bossed. Didn’t get his hands dirty or his fingernails broken.”

Murdoch looked at his youngest son with an exaggerated grin. “You mean you didn’t read the small print on the deed you signed?”

“You mean the paragraph that says the youngest brother does all the grunt work?” Scott grinned as he popped a biscuit into his mouth.

Johnny grinned back, taking the bait. “Yea? Well I think you had better re-read that deed big brother, cause it says plainly that …

“Boss!” The front door flew open and Jelly was standing beside the table. “Sorry ‘bout interrupting your dinner, but Johnny, ya got some lady callers outside.”

Scott smiled toward Johnny. “Lady callers? What would a lady want with my little brother?”

Johnny looked apprehensively toward the door. “Tell them to go away, Jelly.”

“I’m not sure I can do that, Johnny.”

Murdoch laid his napkin down next to his plate. “Where are your manners Johnny? When a lady comes calling…”

“Oh boss, ya got ta see this. You ain’t gonna believe your eyes.” Jelly couldn’t keep the mirth out of his voice.

Curious, Murdoch and Scott rushed to the door, with Johnny lagging behind.

***

Murdoch wasn’t sure what to say. The two women who sat atop the two mangiest horses he had ever seen reeked from five yards away. The older woman had a burlap sack slung over her saddle that she untied and threw at Murdoch’s feet.

“I figure ten skins got’s ta be fair payment fer that boy a your’n. He bein’ a good worker an all. I know ya be missin’ his strong back.”

“I beg your pardon?” Murdoch stared from the older woman to the younger one. A layer of dirt an inch thick covered her face. Her longing eyes looked past him to Johnny.

Johnny stood rigidly still at his side. Murdoch didn’t miss the fact that Johnny had strapped on his gun belt before meeting the ladies.

“I be Jezebel Harkins and this pretty littl’ thing be my girl. I told yer boy yesterday that my Pearl is in need of a man fer the reunion. Poor child, she never been bedded by a decent man, only her cousins…them ain’t marryin’ material. But yer boy is.”

Johnny stepped forward, kicking the sack back towards the women. “I told you yesterday,” he warned, his voice cold, “this is private land and you’re trespassing.”

“Hush boy,” Jezebel snapped. “It be your daddy I be talkin’ to. We gots us a deal, Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch found it hard to keep a straight face. “I’m afraid my son isn’t ready to marry anyone at the moment. But thank you for the kind offer.”

Jezebel sat up straight in the saddle. “Ya tellin’ me a Harkins ain’t good ‘nough fer yer boy?”

“No.” Murdoch’s smile faded. “I’m telling you that Johnny is not ready to get married to anyone.”

“He’s marryin’ age ain’t he? My way a thinkin’ he’d be a fool ta turn down a pretty girl like Pearl here.”

“And you’re free to think the way you want. Now, Johnny politely told you you were trespassing. I may not be as polite if I don’t see you heading off my land in the next two minutes.”

Jezebel nodded to Pearl and the young woman slipped off her horse to retrieve the sack. She handed it back up to Jezebel and took a long moment to stare at Johnny, her eyes devouring him.

“This ain’t over,” Jezebel warned, and yanked her horse’s reins hard to the right then kicked the nearly dead horse into a fast trot as she and Pearl passed beneath the Lancer arch.

“Oh Lordy…” Jelly clucked. “We got us a big problem brewing here.”

***

Scott followed Murdoch and Johnny back into the house. “I’m not sure what’s going on here,” he said, following the two men into the great room.

Murdoch poured three generous glasses of bourbon and handed one to each of his boys. “Johnny?”

Johnny dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs and swirled the liquor in the glass. “I saw them yesterday while I was mending the fence. Told them they were trespassing. That’s all.”

“You mean you didn’t lay on the Johnny Lancer charm?” Scott laughed. “I mean, that Pearl looks like a real…”

“That’s enough Scott,” Murdoch warned. “This is serious. They were hill people.”

Scott looked to Johnny for help. “Hill People?”

Johnny shrugged, studying the amber liquid in his glass.

“No one knows for sure where they came from,” Murdoch explained. “They settled in small groups and inbred among themselves. They’re scattered throughout the hills, from California to Kentucky. Most of the time they only spell trouble. Johnny…” Murdoch raised his glass towards his youngest, “I don’t want you working the fences tomorrow. “

“Murdoch, I’m not going to hide.”

“I’m not asking you to hide, I just want to be cautious. In fact, I think it would be a good idea to send Jelly into town and tell Val about this.”

Scott nodded. “I guess we can be thankful that Teresa is in Stockton.”

Murdoch looked out the picture window behind his desk at the land he had worked so hard to make his. The land he rightfully shared with his sons. But he had a feeling that he would once again be fighting for what was his. And this time it had nothing to do with the green pastures that slowly faded in the dimming light of dusk.

***

Johnny refused to alter his plans and headed out to the stretch of downed fencing near the southern edge of Lancer property. He didn’t travel alone though. Murdoch insisted on having two men with him at all times. It galled him that Murdoch wanted to protect him from two women, but he knew that those two women most likely had a lot of ‘men folk’ behind them. But he would not run and hide. He would not cower behind the four walls of the Lancer hacienda. That was not Johnny Madrid’s way.

He caught himself, surprised that, at that moment, he so easily fell back into the mode of Johnny Madrid. He must have been more spooked than he thought. The thought of ‘bedding’ a woman like that…no he couldn’t even call her that, more like an animal, turned his stomach.

“Johnny…” Jess’ voice pulled him from his reverie as the tone in the ranch hand’s voice made him slip the safety loop off his gun. “Looks like we got an audience.”

Johnny followed Jess’ line of sight and saw the two men staring down at them from the top of a knoll some thirty yards away.

“Want me to shoo ‘em off, Johnny?” Phil asked, reaching for his rifle tucked beneath a blanket in the back of the buckboard.

“No…” Johnny pursed his lips and looked toward the two riders. “There’s more than just those two out there.” He dragged out two shovels and pickaxes from the wagon and handed a set to Jess. “Phil will take first guard. I’m betting they’re just trying to make us nervous.”

Jess snorted. “They’re doing a pretty damn good job of it then.”

Johnny chuckled. “Let’s get this fencing done. I think I’ll stay closer to the house tomorrow.”

The rest of the day was uneventful. With Jess and Phil’s help, Johnny finished the section of fence early enough to start working on the section west of them.

By the end of the day Johnny was tempted to jump into the back of the buckboard and sleep his way home.

He washed up and sat down to dinner, relieved to be sitting at the table. At times during the day he wondered if he would ever make it back to the house. Jess was right, they did do a good job of making him nervous.

“How long do you think they’ll keep this up?” Scott asked.

Murdoch sighed loudly. “Until they get what they want or get killed.”

“Surely we can talk some sense into them. I mean, they have to understand that Johnny has no intentions of marrying one of those women.”

Johnny smiled darkly. “They don’t see things the same way we do, Scott. I’m afraid Murdoch’s right. They’re not going to back off until they have what they want.”

Murdoch and Scott both turned their heads, not able to look Johnny in the eyes. It was Johnny they wanted. And before this war was over there would be blood spilled.

“Boss…” Jelly had his head stuck in the front door. “Riders coming. Lots of ‘em.”

Murdoch stepped out of the house, holding his rifle across his chest. Scott and Johnny flanked him on each side.

“You be Lancer?” The oldest of the rag-tailed group asked. Murdoch counted eleven men and three women. All of them reeked as badly as the two women.

Murdoch nodded. “I’m Murdoch Lancer.” Murdoch noticed his ranch hands spilling out of the bunkhouse, guns drawn. “State your business then get off my land.”

“You be the daddy to the dark one there?” the old man asked, pointing a filthy finger toward Johnny.

Murdoch felt Johnny’s hand edge toward his gun. “Easy,” he whispered.

“His name is Johnny, and yes, I’m his father,” Murdoch replied brusquely.

“Name’s Jeddah Harkins.” The old man nodded toward the two women who sat on either side of him, their mounts looking as dirty as they did. “This here’s my woman, Jezebel, and my girl Pearl.”

“We’ve met.”

Pearl smiled and Scott felt his stomach churn. Never had he seen a more disgusting set of teeth.

“Pearl here is nigh on ta eighteen, an she still don’t have her a man. 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,” Harkins 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.”

Johnny felt Pearl stare a hole through him. “I told your missus and your daughter yesterday, this is private land, and you’re trespassing.”

“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.”

Jeddah 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.”

Scott didn’t know whether to laugh or run or hide. “I appreciate the offer. 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.

***

Murdoch and Scott didn’t move until they saw the last horse disappear in the distance. He spotted Cipriano standing by the stable with rifle in hand, and motioned him over.

“Cipriano. Post guards around the perimeter of the house. The rest of you keep your eyes and ears alert. They’ll most likely be back.”

“What are we going to do?” Scott asked.

Murdoch looked behind him at the closed door. “Keep an eye on Johnny and pray that they change their minds.”

.

Chapter 2

Two hours north of the Lancer hacienda in a small arroyo hidden from view behind a wall of boulders and tall brush, the Harkins clan made ready for the coming night. The cooking fire was stomped down to a small flame, allowed to burn hot enough to cook only at dusk when the air was hazy from the setting sun and the smoke couldn’t be seen. Small islands of light dotted the camps where families settled in for the night.

The sounds of the night birds and insects, usually a welcome sound to Pearl Harkins after the heat of the day died away, only made her restless tonight. She had never felt the tingling sensation in her stomach before yesterday when she laid eyes on Johnny Lancer. Now she couldn’t think of anything else. She had memorized every line of his face, every curve of his muscles as he stood sweating in the hot sun. The thought of him lying beside her, his tanned body stretched out naked beside her, and only her, made her loins ache for him. She had felt Clive and Riley take her, satisfy themselves, then crawl back to their women. But she knew that Johnny would be different. He would be gentle and kind. He would caress her with tender hands, speak softly in her ear, kiss her mouth with his soft lips, fulfill her most intimate dreams. He wouldn’t need to hurt her just to feel like a man. Because he was more man than any Harkins could ever dream of being. And he would be hers soon.

She crawled inside the old Conestoga wagon that had long ago seen its better days, careful not to make any noise, and found a small knitted bag beneath a pile of cowhides. She pulled out the delicate wedding veil that her ma had pilfered from the trunk of a stagecoach passenger some twenty years ago. She didn’t need any light to know what it looked like, she knew every inch of the lace and pearl veil. The years had turned it yellow and the moths had eaten holes in the fabric, but it was the veil she dreamed of wearing someday. And now she had a man to marry. She smiled, thinking of how jealous all the women would be at the reunion when they saw Johnny Lancer on her arm.

She buried her face in the veil, happier than she could ever remember. Pa promised she would have her man by sundown next day. That would be just enough time to teach him the ways of the Harkins before they made their way back up into the hills and headed for Oregon and the reunion.

***

“I’m not gonna be a prisoner in my own house!” Johnny shouted. He reached for his gun belt hung over a peg next to the front door, but Murdoch’s strong hand grabbed his arm.

“I know how you feel son, but this is the only way. Hopefully they’ll change their minds in a few days.”

Johnny yanked his arm free. “And what if they don’t? What if they hang around for a week or a month?” He buckled the holster low over his right hip and drew his gun, checking the shells and slipping it easily back into the holster. “I’ll make sure I stay close to at least two hands. But I won’t hide.”

Murdoch watched Johnny once again slam the front door behind him. He had a gut feeling that this was not going to end peacefully.

***

Johnny headed for the stable to find Jelly. With all the destruction from the storm and now the appearance of the Harkins he hadn’t been able to give Barranca his full attention. The palomino had come up lame just before the storm hit and for awhile Johnny feared that his beloved horse would never recover fully. But Jelly’s careful nursing had brought Barranca back to him, now he only had to make sure the horse took it slow and easy as he regained his strength. Funny how alike they were. Neither could stand the restrictions of recovery.

He smiled at Barranca’s welcome whinny. The palomino leaned his head over the stall and nuzzled Johnny’s cheek.

“Feeling better ain’t ya amigo.” Johnny smiled, rubbing the soft muzzle. “We’ll have you outta here in no time. Jose,” Johnny turned to the young stable boy, “you seen Jelly this morning? We were going to let Barranca run for awhile today, see how that leg holds out.”

“Si senor. He takes the chuck wagon to see the men by the Aqua Azul. He brings them food for lunch. He says to tell you that you and him can run Barranca in the afternoon. And soon he will como el vioento, run like the wind.” The boy’s eyes sparkled with the thought.

“You hear that Barranca?” Johnny asked. “Como el vioento. Jose will take good care of you today and I’ll be back this afternoon.”

“Si Senor. And Senor…”

Johnny saw the worry in Jose’s eyes and it both warmed him and angered him. There wasn’t a person on the ranch who would not endanger his own life to protect him, and the feeling frightened him. Never had so many people cared.

“Yes I know, Jose, I’ll watch my step. Besides, I already promised Barranca that you would have the second ride when he is back in shape.”

“Me, Senor?”

“Si, you.” Johnny squeezed his shoulder. “You earned the right. You’ve done a fine job of caring for Barranca.”

“Thank you, Senor Juanito. Thank you.”

***

It was well past noon and the hot sun was beating down on Johnny and Scott as they slowly walked the fence line looking for breaks. They could feel them watching, following them for hour after hour. The Harkins never showed themselves, they didn’t have to, nature did that for them. From the startled birds in the trees to the snap of a branch Johnny knew their every move.

Texas Rob, named because he had a drawl so thick not everyone could understand him, brought up the rear, his rifle casually draped over his thigh, but his eyes raked the hills and valleys. He knew they were there too.

“How long do you think they’re going to keep this up?” Scott asked, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

“They’re trying to get under your skin.”

“They’re doing a pretty damn good job of it.”

“Don’t let them see it, Boston. They can smell fear like dogs.” Johnny looked behind him at Texas Rob, “Let’s take a look at that stretch of fence by Newberry Crossing, that should give them a little trouble, there’s not much to hide in over there.”

Texas Rob’s face split into a grin that touched ear to ear. “I swear Johnny Lancer, you are just about the most wicked fella I know.”

Johnny grinned back. “I try Texas, I try.”

***

Murdoch heard the sound of the chuck wagon rumbling toward the stable and hurried outside. Jelly should not have returned until late in the day if he had reached the men and fed them. His gut told him something was wrong. He rushed toward the stable, his fear rising as he saw the team pulling the wagon in an erratic pattern, telling him that the driver had lost control of the reins.

He saw Jose rush out of the stable and catch the harness of the right hand horse, talking the skittish animal to a stop.

“Senor Lancer!” Jose cried, and scrambled up onto the seat. Murdoch reached him just in time to see the stable boy helping a dazed Jelly to sit up on the wagon seat.

“What happened?” Murdoch demanded, reaching up to help the old man down. Jelly crumpled when his feet touched the ground and Murdoch lifted him easily in his arms rushing him toward the house.

***

“Jelly, can you tell me what happened?” Murdoch asked, as he gently put a cool compress on the handyman’s forehead. Jelly had a nasty bump above his left eye and what looked like rope burns on his wrists.

“They stopped me boss,” Jelly sighed. “I’m sorry. I tried to outrun `em.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about, Jelly. Who stopped you?” Murdoch really didn’t have to ask the question but he needed to hear it from Jelly.

“Them Harkins’ bunch. They told me ta tell Johnny they wouldn’t be so easy on the next poor soul they caught. Boss…” Jelly grabbed Murdoch’s arm, “Ya can’t let Johnny know `bout this. I don’t know what he’d do.”

“I know,” Murdoch said bitterly. “He’d run right into their trap.”

“Ya can’t tell him.”

“What am I going to tell him Jelly? You can’t hide a lump like that.”

“Tell him I was feelin’ the miseries and I fell getting out of the wagon.”

Murdoch shook his head. “He won’t buy that, Jelly.”

“You got ta make him buy it. Or they’ll have `em just like they want. They’re a mean bunch, Boss. One man don’t stand a chance against `em. Not even Johnny…Madrid.”

Murdoch sat back in the chair facing Jelly and closed his eyes. He felt like he was on a run-away horse with no way to stop it.

“Alright Jelly, we’ll try. I’d better go talk to Jose before Johnny gets back”.

***

The rest of the day went uneventfully. They lost their shadows around Newberry Crossing but picked them back up again on their way home. When they got within sight of the hacienda, Johnny saw the riders stop and wait.

They passed beneath the Lancer arch and Johnny nodded at the two men standing guard. He leaned closer to Scott and whispered. “Somethin’ must of happened. Cip wouldn’t put Carlos and Wade out here without good reason.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the three black figures on horseback sitting atop a knoll overlooking the ranch. Things were going to get ugly very soon.

***

“Who did it Jelly?” The seething anger beneath Johnny’s voice made Jelly take a step backwards, the back of his knees hitting the edge of the couch and he flopped onto the cushions, his hand reaching for the bandage wrapped around his forehead.

Johnny lashed his hand out, grabbing the sleeve of Jelly’s shirt and staring at the red circles around the old man’s wrists where the ropes had scraped his skin.

“And I guess the miseries caused these rope burns too?” Johnny growled.

“Please Johnny,” Jelly pleaded. “It weren’t nothing big. They just tried ta scare me is all. If ya go after them now ya just be playing right into their hands.”

Johnny released Jelly’s cuff and took a step back, feeling everyone’s eyes on him. “Don’t worry. I’m not going after them. Yet…”

“Well, get that dang fool notion out of yer head, boy. You ain’t never goin’ after them. That’s exactly what they want.”

“Jelly’s right,” Murdoch agreed, his hand laying gently on Johnny’s shoulder. “You are part of this family, Johnny. This is a family fight. We’ll post double guards around the house, and no one goes anywhere until we can figure this out.”

“Murdoch, this is a working ranch. You can’t just…”

“I can do anything I want or need to do to protect my son. Now, please do as I say. I sent Rodriguez into town to tell Val what was happening out here.”

“How much can one man do?” Johnny spat.

“Not much,” Scott agreed. “But if he brings a posse out with him then maybe the Harkins will back down. Strength in numbers, brother.”

Johnny nodded, resigned to the idea that his family was right on this one. And just the thought of being within ten feet of Pearl Harkins turned his stomach. “I’m going to check on Barranca. I guess his run will have to wait for a couple days.”

Scott moved to follow Johnny but Murdoch’s voice boomed out. “Let him be, Scott. He needs time to think.”

“But he might take off.”

“No. I don’t think so. He knows what kind of people he’s facing.”

Scott watched the door slam shut and wondered when this nightmare would ever end.

***

Johnny headed for the stable, his anger rising with every step. He promised Scott and Murdoch that he would wait for a couple of days, and he would keep his word. But after that…He felt the anger in him harden and he felt just a little of Johnny Lancer disappear. Harkins had crossed the line. He had hurt Jelly…an innocent in all this.

His resolve to stay weakened as he thought about Jelly. The old man understood him like no one else. There was no pretense between them, no expectations…just a loyal friendship. He didn’t deserve what the Harkins had done to him.

Johnny entered the stable and he was immediately on alert. He stood stone still. Something was wrong. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck shift, sending a shiver down his spine. He drew his gun, his every sense on heightened alert. He listened, putting a name to every sound. The mice in the hayloft, the warble of a bird in the rafters, the buzz of flies, the drone of mosquitoes. There was a foulness in the air that played at his memory. A foulness that made his stomach turn. He took another step inside. The heat from the day hung heavily in the empty stalls and open tack room, rising toward the rafters where particles of hay floated in the sunlight peeking in through the half closed hayloft doors. Empty stalls…

Barranca…His stall was empty. Jose would never have taken him. The palomino trusted only one other person, Jelly. He felt something slam into his back, between his shoulder blades and he heard his breath whoosh out of his lungs and then nothing more.

He didn’t feel himself plowed into the hay covered floor beneath the weight of a hundred and fifty pound mastiff, or the dog’s owner yank his arms behind his back and lash them together. If he had been conscious, he would have felt himself lifted and dragged through the stable between two of Harkins’ boys and thrown stomach first over the back of a saddle. If he had been conscious he would have known that he was riding into the depths of hell as the horse was led away from the Lancer ranch without a single soul inside knowing he was missing.

.

Chapter 3

Pearl hurried to prepare for her man’s arrival. She laid a second blanket down on the ground next to hers, smoothing it out carefully. The thought of him lying next to her made her blood run hot. She would have a man of her own at last. No more crude remarks by the men or taunting by the women for not having her own man.

She double-checked the stake Digger set in the ground and tested the chain. She knew Johnny wouldn’t be happy with the wrist chain at first, but he’d get used to it in time. Darla Ann had still had to chain her man at night, and he’d been there for six months or more. It was too bad he up and died on her.

She started a small fire and cooked enough meat and beans for two people. It felt good to be cooking for two. She’d always sat with Ma and Pa and Halley. But now she had her own man to tend to. She found an old wooden bowl tossed in the dirt and wiped it out with her filthy skirt then dumped the meat and beans into it. Dusk was falling quickly and the cooking fire had to be broken down to a small flame, just bright enough to light the bedding.

They would be here soon. She could sense it. She thought about what she would do. He would probably be angry and a little scared his first night, so she wouldn’t bed him tonight. She would give him a day to get used to his new home.

“He’ll be here soon, child,” Ma said, walking over from her campsite. “You ready?”

Pearl nodded. “I bin ready fer a long time.”

Ma Hawkins sat down beside her daughter and handed her a little pouch. “Put this here herb in his water if’n he starts ta acting up. Ya know he ain’t gonna be happy at first. All them uppity ways them people has. But he’ll come `round in time.”

Pearl looked up at the sound of horses approaching.

“Here they be,” Ma said, patting Pearl’s knee. “He’s yourn ta take care a now. Make him happy.”

Pearl stood and brushed her skirt down, pushing her matted hair back under the floppy moth eaten hat, and waited.

Her heart leaped at the sight of him. Laying across the saddle, he was wearing the same pink shirt that she first saw him in. She waited for Zeke and Rufe to pull him off the saddle and he landed face first into the dirt, motionless.

Zeke cut the ropes binding Johnny’s wrists and shoved him onto his back, noticing Pearl’s worried look. “He hit his head when Dawg jumped `im,” he said. “He’ll come `round soon `nuff.”

“Take his shirt an belt,” Pa ordered.

“An them boots is mine.” Zeke pushed past Rufe before his cousin could claim the prize.

“Then them fancy pants is mine.” Rufe shouldered into Zeke, grabbing at Johnny’s legs, fingering the shiny Concho buttons.

“Nuff said!” Pa grabbed both men by the shoulders and shoved them to the ground. “Zeke gets them boots…he called it fair and square. Rufe…them pants would’na fit yer left leg…” Rufe looked down at his thick thighs, he weighed more than two Johnny Lancers put together. “Ya kin have his belt.”

“Won’t fit him no more’n the pants would,” Digger complained.

“Silence!” Pa ordered. “Zeke and Rufe brought `im here, so’s they gets the boots and belt. I’m a taking them socks and shirt fer myself. Holster goes ta Digger.”

Pearl watched her cousins pounce on Johnny like mad dogs, stripping him of everything but his pants. When Darla Ann dove in to snatch the ring off his finger Pearl grabbed her by the hair and flung her back. “That be my ring!” she shouted.

Darla Ann scrambled to her feet, her eyes wild with rage. “He be your’n only if ya tame him. He be mine if ya cain’t.”

Pa grabbed Darla Ann’s arm and swung her away from Johnny. “You had yer man and ya kilt him.” He looked at the Harkins clan, twenty strong, circled around them, eager to see a fight. “This here’s Pearl’s man,” he announced, the authority in his voice unmistakable. “Why she’d want a half Mex like `im I ain’t ta knowing. But she’s got the right ta pick. Now git about your own business.”

Pa turned to Pearl. “He be yours now, girl,” he said, watching Zeke and Rufe drag Johnny over to the blanket and lock the wrist cuff in place. “Cain’t see what ya sees in him, but he be yourn. Treat `im kind, but strong.”

“I will Pa.” She dropped to her knees and ran a dirty fingernail down her man’s cheek. She traced the outline of his lips, and wondered how sweet and tender his kisses would be. She felt the roughness of a day’s growth of beard and decided she would have Zeke or Digger shave him everyday. She was gonna keep him just the way he was. He was so pretty it took her breath away. She yearned for him to open his eyes and look longingly upon her- for him to want her as much as she wanted him. In time he would. In time they would be happy together. In time they would make fine babies together.

***

Murdoch draped a throw blanket over Jelly and watched the old man’s eyes slide closed. Jelly was nearly as close to Johnny as Scott, something that irked him at times. He should have been the one that Johnny came to to talk out his problems, to share secrets that belonged between father and son. But he had put up a wall that first day they met and he was still trying to tear it down. It had cracked a little, at times looking as if it would tumble into fine dust, but it was too strong. Murdoch Lancer was good at building walls to protect himself. Too good.

“Ah, Jelly…” he whispered. “I envy you at times.”

Suddenly the front door slammed open and Scott was standing in the center of the room, a gun hanging loosely at his side…Johnny’s gun.

“They got him,” Scott said in disbelief. “They got Johnny.”

Murdoch stared at him then the gun…”How…?”

Scott began to pace. “The stable,” he barked. His fear and anger growing by the second. “Jose is still out cold. They must have used Barranca to lure Johnny into a trap. He was hobbled in back of the stable.”

“Were there signs of a struggle?”

Scott shook his head. “Cip said it looked like they took him by surprise. You can see where his boot heels were dragged along the floor and to a waiting horse. Cip is forming a search party right now. We ride in fifteen minutes.”

“Good. The trail will still be fresh. Sam should be here anytime to look at Jelly, have him tend to Jose first.”

There was an uncomfortable silence as father looked at son, their fear and guilt shared for a moment. They should never have taken their eyes off Johnny.

“If they hurt Johnny…” Scott’s voice trailed away.

Murdoch took Johnny’s gun from Scott’s hand, wrapping his hand around the grip as if the cold metal could bring his son closer to him. He cleared his throat. “I’ll put this away for Johnny. He’ll want it when he gets home.”

“We’ll find him,” Scott said softly, almost too low to hear.

“And I’m a comin’ with ya.” Jelly struggled to uncurl himself from the blanket.

“No Jelly,” Murdoch said. “I want you here with Maria.”

“But boss…”

“Jelly. I need you here. I need you to tell Val what’s happening.”

Jelly hung his head and nodded. “Sure Boss. But you’ll let me know when ya find him.”

“Of course we will. Now you get some sleep. Sam will be here soon. You can fill him in on everything’s that’s happened.”

Jelly nodded and settled back on the couch.

“I’ll get my gear,” Scott said heading for the stairs.

***

It was morning before she saw his eyes open. He looked around confused and scared. She wanted to hug him, to take him in her arms and feel his arms wrapped around her.

“It’ll be all right,” she said gently. “You be safe here with me.” She watched his eyes fall on hers and she saw little laugh lines form around his eyes as he smiled at her and she felt warm all over.

“I was hoping it was you,” he whispered. “None of them other girls are as pretty as you.” He reached up with his free hand and pulled her down to him, his sweet mouth kissing hers. She felt weak as he caressed her throat, his kisses still devouring her. He gently laid her down beside him. His face was so close to hers. She ran her hands through the ringlets of dark hair on his chest and was lost in the pleasure of his body.

“I love you Johnny Lancer,” she whispered, her voice catching in her throat. “I love you.”

“And I love you, Pearl Harkins. The prettiest girl this side of the moon.”

She thought her heart was going to explode with happiness….

“Pearl!” Ma’s voice startled her.

She snapped her head up. Her heart plummeted; it had only been a dream. Mere minutes had passed, not a whole night with her man finally by her side. She touched her lips, the sweet taste of Johnny’s kiss seeming to still linger there.

“You ain’t got no time to daydream there child,” Ma scolded. “That man of yourn needs tendin’. He most likely addled his brains a mite when he hit the ground.”

Pearl ran her fingers through Johnny’s thick black hair and her fingers found a lump encrusted with dried blood on the right side of his head.

“Fix a poultice so he don’t get no brain fever. He up and dies and this be all fer nothin’.”

Pearl leaned forward and kissed her man gently on the cheek. “He ain’t dieing, Ma. He’s gonna be mine fer ever an ever.”

***

A pounding in his head was the first thing that Johnny was aware of as he slowly regained consciousness. Wisps of memories played at his befuddled brain, there one moment then gone the next, leaving behind just a lingering hint of what he should have known, what he needed to know.

He heard a soft moan and knew it was his own. Damn, the more he tried to think the harder his head throbbed.

“Yer all right, Johnny…” Johnny jerked at the sound of the voice so close to his ear. He felt something cold sting the right side of his head and he tried to move away from the pain but strong hands clamped his head in place. “Ya got a bad gash here, Johnny. Yea don’t want no brain fever do ya?” The voice was a woman’s and the accent sent a chill down his spine.

Johnny suddenly remembered- remembered everything until he walked into the stable and saw Barranca’s stall empty.

He fought back the panic that was welling up inside him. He couldn’t let them know that he was awake. If he feigned sleep, then maybe, after dark, he could slip away. But where? The realization that he didn’t have a clue where he was nudged at his panic.

He forced himself to think, to listen. Voices rumbled all around him, indistinct words, but the cadence was there. `Hill People’ Murdoch called them. The putrid smell of foul bodies reeked all around him. A dog lay nearby, panting. The smell of campfires and food filled the air.

“Ya got ta wake up now, Johnny. I bin waitin’ on ya all day. Made ya vittles and got yer bed fixed for ya.”

Johnny’s stomach roiled at the thought of eating food with these people. He would sooner starve than take one mouthful. The table scraps he used to steal behind rat-infested restaurants in Nogales when he was a boy were more appetizing then the slop he would find here.

He heard the swish of a skirt stopping beside him then his left hip exploded in pain. “He bin playing possum with ya Pearl.” He recognized that voice…Jezebel Harkins. “He bin awake since ya started tending ta him. Look…”

Johnny felt something crawl across his cheek, toward his mouth. It wiggled at the corner of his lips, trying to burrow its way into his mouth…

He couldn’t stand it another second. His eyes flew open and he swatted it away with his right hand. A roar of laughter went up around the camp.

“It just be an ol’ mealy worm…” Jezebel snorted.

Johnny tried to scramble to his feet but his left arm was jerked back and he saw the shackle around his wrist. He yanked at it again, desperate to get away.

Pearl sat back from him, a bloodstained cloth in her hand, and stared at him, anger and betrayal flashing in her eyes.

“Ya bin so cow eyed over `im, ya thought he’d a just come siding up ta ya like a lost pup,” Ma scolded. “Well he ain’t. He be needin’ trainin'”

She grabbed at Johnny’s hair and yanked his head back. “Ya hear that boy? Ya needs ta learn our ways…Pearl here’s your woman…Ya got ta make her happy.”

Anger and fear exploded in Johnny and he lashed out, catching Jezebel behind the knees and she screamed in surprise as her legs were swept from beneath her and she fell backwards against Jeddah.

“No!” Pearl yelled, trying to catch Digger as he ran past her, hunting knife in hand. He landed on Johnny, driving him into the ground hard. “No!” Pearl was on top of them both.” Don’t hurt `im,” she screamed grabbing Digger’s right hand. “He just be scart!”

Johnny tried to hold him off one-handed, realizing for one surreal moment that Digger was wearing his gunbelt. He felt the knife draw blood, just below his rib, and waited to feel the blade plunge deep into his side, but Ma was on her feet and men were hauling Digger off him.

“Git `im cooled off,” Ma ordered, grabbing the knife from Digger’s hand. “There be no killin’ here less’en me or Pa says so.” Digger was dragged from the circle.

Pearl was on her knees next to him, her putrid breath in his face. “It be all right. Ya ain’t hurt bad.”

“Get away from me!” Johnny tried to heave her away with his right arm but someone grabbed it and he felt the bite of cold steel locked around his wrist and his arm was stretched backwards to meet his left arm.

“Ya got lots ta learn here,” Ma said, lashing out with her foot to catch Johnny in the rib. “First thin’ ya learn…treat your woman right. Pearl bin waitin’ fer ya.”

Johnny closed his eyes against the throbbing pain in his head and the sting of the cut on his side. How long would it take Murdoch and Scott to find him? `Dios…help me.’

.

Chapter 4

The search party rode two abreast with Cipriano leading. At first the trail was easy to follow…three unshod horses and a dog. But after two hours the terrain changed and trampled grass gave way to rock and hard packed ground.

Cipriano dismounted for the third time in the past fifteen minutes to crouch down and study the ground. He saw the tell-tale sign of one hoof print and stood up slowly to look up toward the rocky hills above. “They hide up there, senor,” Cipriano said.

“They could stay hidden up there for days, weeks if they had a mind to.” Murdoch adjusted his weight in the saddle, his back protesting. The sun was already beyond the horizon and dark shadows began taking shape in the craggy hills.

“It would be wise to stop, senor. What is left of the trail could be destruido by our own horses.”

Murdoch reluctantly agreed. “We’ll make camp here tonight, and start out at first light. Cip, have a man ride back to the hacienda and tell Jelly where we are.”

“Si. I will have him return with more supplies.”

“Good idea.” Murdoch eased himself out of the saddle and didn’t protest when Scott unsaddled his horse for him and laid out his bedroll. There was no use in trying to hide his discomfort. But he would not leave the search party until they found Johnny. He looked up into the hills. Damn, why didn’t he insist on Johnny staying in the house? He knew these people were capable of almost anything.

Camp was set up in silence, each man contemplating their role in Johnny’s abduction. Each one felt a portion of the responsibility-deserved or not. Johnny Lancer was one of their own, and each and every one of them would fight to the death to bring him back home.

Soon the fire was built and the smell of hot coffee filled the air. Murdoch looked up into the black hills just a few miles beyond them. Johnny was up there somewhere. And the old ache in his chest returned…the pain of losing a son…the not knowing…He saw the halo of light behind the hills as the moon ascended in the sky. It would be a cold, crisp night. Was Johnny warm enough? Was he hurt? The questions that chafed at his mind, night after night, for how many years? Twenty? And it never got easier. Now the old haunts returned…but they were far worse because now Johnny was not just a dream, a memory of a small black-haired child with eyes as blue as the sky. Johnny was a living, breathing part of his life now. A man he was proud to call son. A man he was proud to stand beside.

“We’ll find him, sir.” Scott’s voice broke the silence. But there was no conviction in those words.

Murdoch looked across the campfire. Scott sat watching him, a hot cup of coffee sending tendrils of steam toward his face. He had questions, but he was afraid of the answers.

“It’s not your fault,” Scott said softly. “No one could have known they would get past the guards.”

“I should have known. I should have insisted your brother stay in the house until they were gone. I know what they are capable of when they want something.”

“And Johnny? You think you could have kept Johnny in the house?”

“I should have ordered him to.”

Scott snorted. “And where would that have gotten you? In another fight of wills? Johnny would have taken off there and then…”

Murdoch snapped. “Maybe it would have been better.”

Scott smiled sadly. “You know that’s not true. Could you have lived with never knowing? Never knowing if he just took off and disappeared for good this time or that he had been taken by these people. Murdoch, we have an idea where Johnny is. We have men here, and more to come when Val organizes a search party. We’ll find him. We’ll find him and bring him back home. Then we’ll do something to make my little brother not so damned attractive to anything in skirts.”

Murdoch stared at Scott for a long moment then a smile creased his face. “I don’t think there’s much you can do about that charm.”

Scott nodded, and he fell silent with the rest of the men.

***

Johnny listened as the camp settled in for the night. Jeddah and Jezebel ruled their flock with an iron fist. With one word from Jeddah, they had scattered back to their small campfires, their voices muffled.

The stench of unwashed bodies, human refuse and rotting food hung heavy in the air, assaulting Johnny’s nose and threatening his stomach.

Pearl sat by his side in silence. She had bound his side to stop the bleeding. It was a minor cut, but Johnny knew the danger came with infection from Digger’s filthy blade. She had tried to get him to eat, but he refused. He also refused the water, but at some time he would have to drink. He could live without food, not so water.

Darkness fell upon the camp and it frightened him as the shadows deepened. The night had always been his friend, hiding him from enemy and friend alike. Protecting him from looks of hatred and pity. He hated both. But now the darkness only brought the unknown. He didn’t know these people. They were more like animals…no, worse than animals.

He tried to lift his head far enough to see beyond Pearl and the campfire, but the effort sent spikes of pain through his constantly throbbing head and he laid back down with a soft moan.

He felt Pearl shift and lean closer to him, her hand reaching for the still oozing cut on his head. He flinched and tried to move away from her touch but his arms, chained behind his head, held him fast.

“Ya keep yer head still, ya hear?” she whispered. “Yer still a hurtin’.”

Johnny yanked at the chains. “I’d feel better if you took these off,” he hissed.

“Ya brought it on yerself, Johnny. When ya starts ta behave…”

“I’m not a dog!”

“A course ya ain’t.” She ran her hands through his hair and he struggled to move away from her filthy touch. “Yer my man. Ya just has ta get used ta the idea. In a few days we be headin’ fer the reunion…ya be better by then.”

Johnny looked away, trying to ignore the touch of her hands on his face.

“I kin see it now. You an me…I kin take care a ya, Johnny. I bin told what makes a man happy…”

He felt her hands caress his face and move down to his bare chest, inch toward his waist. “I kin pleasure ya when you’re well agin…I kin…”

“Get your filthy hands off me!” Johnny railed.

“Ya don’t mean that.” She leaned down to kiss him on the chest.

Johnny whipped at the chains, pulling his knees up to his chest and shoving her off. “Get away from me!”

“No!” Pearl fell back, stunned. “No. I bin waitin’ fer ya fer so long…don’t ya know? Ya bin the one…I know’d it when I seen ya out by the fence. Ya smiled at me. Yer my man.”

Johnny tried to strike out again, panic turning to desperation. He could feel her filth all over him.

Strong hands grabbed his ankles and jerked his legs straight.

Someone lit a torch and Johnny looked up into Digger’s face, his knife glinting in the flame.

“Ya got learnin’ ta do boy…”

“No!” Pearl screamed, leaping onto Digger’s back. “Don’t kill ‘im. Don’t kill ‘im.”

“He needs ta learn…” Johnny saw the blade slice toward his throat.

“Enough!” Jeddah roared, grabbing Digger’s wrist. The knife fell from his hand, nicking Johnny in the shoulder. “He be punished!” Jeddah yelled. “But not by your hand.” He turned to Pearl. “Pearl…he be your man.”

“No, Pa…he be scart.”

“He needs learnin’.” He handed her the leather strap. “If’n ya cain’t do it…”

“She don’t deserve ‘im if’n she cain’t train ‘im,” Darla Ann shouted from the crowd that circled them.

Pearl looked down at Johnny, his chest heaving from the exertion, his face glistening in the torch light. His eyes were on her. If she didn’t do as she was told she’d lose him to Darla Ann.

She held out her hand and took the whip.

A roar went up as Johnny was rolled onto his stomach, the cuffs digging into his wrists as the chains criss-crossed.

“Ten lashes,” Jeddah ordered. “An if’n any of ‘em be weak, Digger takes over.”

Johnny steeled himself for the pain to come. His head was ready to explode…he prayed for unconsciousness to take him away, but he felt the first lash and bit back a scream. They would not hear his pain.

***

Scott looked up at the star filled sky. Billions of twinkling lights dimmed by a full moon that grew smaller as it slowly made its ways across the heavens. Was there life on that round ball up there? Was someone looking down on them as he looked up? Could they know the torment he was in?

Jules Verne suggested it in his satire on reaching the moon. From the Earth to the Moon had been another enjoyable book his grandfather sent him upon publication. He remembered reading parts of it to Johnny and watching his brother’s eyes widen at the exploits of the brave travelers. He had even asked with a straight face if Scott thought someday anyone would reach the moon. He had laughed at the child still inside Johnny Lancer. An enigma if there ever was one. A hardened gunfighter with a reputation that no one could match, and a young man full of life, enthralled by the sight of a brilliant sunset or the taste of a licorice stick. There was no one kinder or more gentle than Johnny Lancer, and no one harder or more dangerous than Johnny Madrid.

Could either survive in the foreign world of the Hill People? He had thought them a joke when he first saw them, offering Murdoch ten pelts for Johnny. It was like a terribly written dime novel complete with Pearl Harkins, possibly the most unattractive woman he had ever seen…but there was something pathetic about the way she looked at Johnny. She truly loved him…wanted him at her side. Scott hoped that love would keep Johnny safe until they could reach him.

A coyote howled in the distance, and Scott felt incredibly lonely. Life would not be the same without Johnny in it. He closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. Tomorrow they would find Johnny…tomorrow life would be return as it was, as it should be.

***

Nine…Pearl drew her arm back and put all her strength into the last lash. Ten…She collapsed to her knees in tears. Pa leaned down and gently pulled the whip from her hand. “Ya done good Pearl. Ya both learn’t yer lesson tanight. Ya got ta be strong if’n ya want ‘im ta be yer man. Now he know ya be the one ta give hurt an comfort.”

Pearl could hardly look at him. Johnny’s back glistened with sweat and blood. She had whipped him hard, but not as hard as Digger would have done. He would have killed him if he could. She could still hear each stifled moan of pain, see his back arch up as the whip ripped his skin open. Would he ever understand that she hurt him to save him?

“He be yer responsibility ta train, child. Tomorrow ya put him ta work.”

“No Pa…he be hurtin’.”

Pearl felt Jezebel lean down beside her. “It ain’t easy teach’n an outsider our ways. That be why we keep ta ourselves…but when ya need’s a man…time child, time and patience…he be yourn someday soon. But ya got ta be strong.” Jezebel looked at Johnny, his face buried beneath his arms. “He be a strong an proud man. Ya picked well.”

Pearl heard a shuddering gasp from Johnny and she jumped to her feet.

Jezebel grabbed her arm. “Leave ‘im fer the night. Let ‘im think what he done wrong.”

“But Ma, he be hurtin’. His back need’s tendin’.”

“He needs ta think on what he done wrong. Digger…turn him over.”

Digger grinned and pried his foot beneath Johnny’s stomach and pushed him over onto his back. Johnny couldn’t contain the cry of pain when his back touched the hard ground beneath the thin blanket.

Jeddah pulled Digger clear of Johnny then turned to the crowd. “There be work in the mornin’…be off with ya.”

“Pa…” Pearl looked down at Johnny. “He be hurtin’.”

“Yer Ma be right. Ya lay next ta yer man tonight…but give no comfort. He must earn it.”

The torch was extinguished and the darkness moved in closer as Pearl laid down on the blanket next to her man, listening to his pain filled breaths. She wanted him to love her so badly. But to go against what Ma and Pa said was to bring the wrath of the whole camp down on her. In the morning she would tend to him. In the morning he would see just how much she loved him.

***

Johnny lay perfectly still, just breathing in and out. His arms cramped, his head still pounded, even his side where Digger’s knife had sliced him hurt. But these pains were nothing compared to the fiery agony that burned at his torn back.

Minutes seemed like hours and he prayed for the light of day so he could start planning his escape. Because he knew he could not survive here, not with these people.

He listened to them sleep. Even in sleep they sounded obscene…guttural snores filled the camp, peppered with the moans of a woman thrashing beneath her man. Johnny tried to close his ears to the sounds, but it just conjured up images of Pearl…and he felt his stomach lurch. The slight movement brought a firebrand of agony to his back and he gasped in spite of himself.

He heard Pearl stir next to him. She lay just inches away, her hand reaching back in sleep to see if he was still there. He would have crawled as far away from her as the chains allowed, but he couldn’t stand the thought of the returning agony to his back. They had not even cleaned it. The thought of the infection spreading in those deep cuts from that filthy whip filled him with dread. If Digger didn’t kill him, infection would.

He shivered, not just from the cold night on his bare chest… Memories of his stay at the jail in Nogales returned to haunt him. Three months…three months he had been in that hellhole. But at least there he was left to suffer alone in an empty cell. The thought that he was actually better off in the hands of the Federales brought an ironic smile to his lips. Maybe someday he would figure out what he did wrong to make life so hard. He thought he had paid his dues…more than once. But, looking up at the moon slowly making its way across the sky above the arroyo, he realized life was not done punishing him just yet.

(***From the Earth to the Moon – written by Jules Verne – 1865***)

.

Chapter 5

Johnny felt water dribble over his parched lips and down his chin and he opened his mouth, gulping greedily at the cool sweet liquid, feeling it soothe his dry throat and fill his empty stomach, resisting the small voice in the back of his mind telling him something was wrong. The water tasted too good, the moment felt too safe… and suddenly he remembered where he was.

He snapped his eyes open, revolted by the sight of Pearl leaning over him, a dirty cup in her right hand. He felt her left hand holding his head up to meet the rim of the cup, and he sputtered what water he had left in his mouth and jerked his head away, regretting it the moment his back exploded in fiery pain.

“Ya got ta drink…” Pearl urged gently, leaning down to lift his head up again. “Yer getting the fever.”

“No.” Johnny instinctively lashed out his right hand to push away the offending cup, only to find that it was now cuffed to a chain around his waist. He jerked his left arm finding it still cuffed behind him.

“I got Clive ta move yer arm.” Pearl smiled. “Ya looked real uneasy the way you was. Now drink this here water…an I git yer vittles fer ya.”

“No. I’m not hungry. And I don’t want any more water,” Johnny growled, turning his face away from her.

It was early morning. There was still a haze in the air from the night’s dampness. His body ached from the cold, but his back was stiff and on fire. Every breath he took pulled on the deep lacerations. He shifted his legs and his bare feet scrubbed the dew moistened ground. He already felt the headache and buzzing in his ears indicative of a rising fever. He wasn’t sure if it was from Digger’s knife or Pearl’s whip. But he did know that he was in trouble.

“Suit yerself…but…”

“Pearl! He cain’t work if’n he ain’t ate,” Jezebel scolded her, as she made her way toward Pearl with a purposeful stride. “Now fix ‘im some vittles. If’n he gives ya a hard time call Clive or Rufe fer help. Don’t see no reason ta call Digger. He’d more’n like ta shove the spoon down the boy’s throat.”

Jezebel looked at the meager remains left in Pearls cooking pot. “Ya kin get some vittles from my kettle if’n ya like. Ya ain’t get ‘nuff there ta feed a sparrow.”

Peal dropped her chin to her chest and slipped away toward Ma’s campsite.

Jezebel clicked her tongue. “That girl gots a lot a learnin’ ta do. But ya be a right fine one fer her ta learn on.” She dropped to her knees and before Johnny could react she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him onto his stomach, wrenching his left arm and digging the cuff deep into his wrist. “Ya gots some learnin’ ta do yerself. Next lashin’ won’t be so easy…”

Johnny gritted his teeth, trying to hold back the gasps of pain as Jezebel poked at his back. “Ya ain’t as tough as our menfolk here. Yer back’s already a worry. But cain’t be helped. After ya eats Pearl kin tend to ya afore ya git ta work.”

Jezebel rolled him back onto his back and Johnny gritted his teeth together trying to wait out the fiery pain. He had to figure a way out of here. If he waited too long he would be too sick to fight. It had to be today.

He looked around him, recognizing the shape of the arroyo, but exactly where in the hills they were was a mystery. He didn’t even know how far they had traveled after they surprised him in the stable. He’d been a fool to walk so easily into a trap like that. In the old days, in the Madrid days, that never would have happened. He would have sensed something wrong before he even entered the stable. But he had become sloppy, relying on the safety of family and home. And he was paying for it now.

He wondered how close Murdoch and Scott were. He knew as soon as they found him missing they would start searching. But how long was it before they knew he was taken? Fifteen minutes? An hour? They knew he had gone to the stable to cool off. Not returning right away would not have alarmed them.

He heard the rustle of a skirt and looked over to see Pearl headed toward him with a wooden bowl of something in her hands. His stomach surged at the thought of eating anything her filthy hands touched.

She dropped to her knees beside him, pushing back her matted hair with her free hand. “It be cold,” she warned, stirring the contents with a tarnished spoon. “But we cain’t have fires durin’ the day. Ma’s squirrel meat an beans. I weren’t sure how much ta cook…ain’t used ta cookin’ fer two, ‘sides she be a better cook,” she grinned.

“I’m not hungry.” He turned his head away again.

“Ya heard Ma, ya gots ta eat.” She set the bowl on the ground with a heavy sigh. “I don’t want ta hurt ya, Johnny, but I gotta do what’s best fer ya. Ma says ya got ta eat, so ya got ta eat.” She ran her finger down Johnny’s chest and he could feel his skin crawl beneath her touch. “Ma and Pa, they be smart. They know what’s best. I know this be hard fer ya. But ya be happy here someday…someday ya will love me as much as I love you.”

Johnny turned slowly back to face her. “If you love me,” he whispered, “you’ll let me go. I don’t belong here, Pearl. I can’t make you happy. I can’t forget my family and friends. You deserve a man who can love you for you. Who can give you the things you need.”

“Yer the only thin’ I need.” She picked up the bowl again and started stirring the contents. “Yer just scart and homesickin’. An hungry too. Ya feel better after some good vittles.”

Johnny watched her spoon up a glop of congealed meat and beans and he clamped his mouth shut. Nothing was going to make him eat that slop. He’d rather be dead….

***

Scott shoved the beans and bacon around his plate absently, lost in thoughts about Johnny and where he might be. He didn’t get much sleep, waking every few minutes, looking up at the hills where Johnny was most likely being held captive. The thought of him being with those people made his skin crawl.

If he had insisted that Johnny stay in the house…hadn’t he just chastised Murdoch for those same thoughts last night? Johnny was headstrong to a fault, and nothing was going to make him a prisoner in his own home. But who would have thought that anyone would be lying in wait for him in the stable?

“Finish your breakfast,” Murdoch called out to the camp. “We leave in fifteen minutes.”

Scott looked up at his father standing beside him, his eyes turned toward the hills. This was killing him. Scott could see the lines of worry on the old man’s face. He knew enough about these hill people to be worried. And Scott feared that his father was trying to save him the pain of knowing exactly how brutal they could be. But Murdoch knew, and Scott hoped to God that he did not have to find out.

“We’ll head north as long as the tracks hold out. Then we’ll spread out,” Murdoch ordered. “I don’t need to tell any of you how dangerous these people are. When they want something they take it and keep it at any cost. Remember, if they can’t have Johnny, then nobody can. They would rather kill him then turn him back over to us.”

Murdoch’s words sent a chill down Scott’s back.

“Cipriano will…” Murdoch’s words faded at the sound of a horse being ridden hard. Murdoch smiled at the sight of Val galloping into sight over the knoll.

“Heard what happened,” Val panted, handing his horse over to Ramon to feed and water. “I sent Jelly into town to round up more men.” Val raised his hands at Murdoch’s look of surprise and anger. “Jelly is fine…Doc Sam gave him a clean bill a health. Said the old geezer was too hard-headed to be hurt bad. And Jose will be fine with some rest. I came out to see if I can help. Heard them hill people was around. I just can’t believe they’d take Johnny.” He looked up toward the craggy hills. “That’s mean country up there. Ain’t gonna be easy finding him.”

“You rode all that way to give us that piece of encouraging news, Val?” Scott snapped.

Val turned to Scott, reset his hat and thought a minute before he answered. “I know Johnny’s your brother, and you’re all worried about him, but he’s been a good friend a mine a lot longer than he’s been your brother. Now, I’m here ‘cause I want to find him as much as you do.”

“I know,” Scott said, contrition in his voice.

Val nodded. “I came out here ‘cause I may know a little more about them hill people than you folks. I’ve had a run in or two with them.”

“They talked about a reunion,” Murdoch said.

“It makes sense then.” Val looked up toward the hills again. “Every five years there’s a big reunion of all the clans west of the Mississippi. I heard it was supposed to be somewhere in Oregon this year.”

“But why Johnny?” Scott asked.

“Cause if a woman is eighteen and not hitched, they think there is something wrong with her. And she’s a shame to her father too. So they take a man…” Val suddenly looked away, not wanting to see Murdoch or Scott’s face.

“Go on Val,” Murdoch urged, his voice dark with rage and fear.

“They train ‘im to be one of their own. They break ‘im. It don’t take long.”

“Johnny…?” Scott looked straight at Val, demanding a truthful answer.

“Even Johnny.” Silence hung heavy in the air. In a softer voice he added, “We don’t get him away from them in the next couple of days…”

“Senor.” Cipriano was standing at Murdoch’s side. “We must be moving. We cannot let them take Juanito.”

Murdoch nodded. He suddenly felt as if his world had caved in around him.

“Mount up,” he ordered. “Cipriano…take the lead.”

Quickly the men moved out, each one of them having heard Val’s words.

***

Johnny clamped his jaw tight. Clive kneeled behind him, leaning over his head trying to pry his mouth open. Pearl straddled his chest, a spoonful of the revolting food just inches from his lips.

He would fight to the death rather than eat the garbage that Pearl held to his mouth.

“Ya got ta eat, Johnny. Else ya be sick. I made some of it myself fer ya.” She tried to force the spoon between his lips. “Ma says…”

Johnny bucked her off his chest, hearing her squeal as half the food spilled from the bowl.

“Now ya done it, Johnny,” she cried. “Ain’t no one allowed ta waste food here.”

Pearl scrambled back on him, squeezing his chest hard with her knees, sending fiery pain across his back. “Yer gonna eat.”

Rufe grabbed his ankles and Johnny was held fast. He tried bucking, but Pearl held him tight like a wild bronc.

Then Clive changed tactics. He released his hold on Johnny’s jaw and began to squeeze his nose. Johnny held his breath as long as he could but his body betrayed him and he opened his mouth to gasp in a lungful of air.

Pearl lowered the spoon to Johnny’s mouth…

“Pearl!” Pa’s voice cracked through the camp like a whip, stopping everyone in their tracks. He made his way around the maze of dead campfires and came to stand behind Pearl.

“He just scart, Pa,” Pearl pleaded. “He don’t know what he done wrong.”

Jeddah stood over Johnny, his face contorted with anger.

“Please Pa…” Pearl reached for his hand but he pushed her away.

“Ya think ya be too good fer us boy?” Jeddah roared.

Johnny stared at him silently. He felt Clive release his hands from his face and sit back. His back was on fire and his head still throbbed, but they paled in comparison to the fear that rose to near panic inside him. This was not a gunfight, or a fistfight. This he could not control. He couldn’t even predict what the man would do. He was alone and at their mercy.

Jeddah reached down and took the bowl from Pearl’s hand and set it on the ground above Johnny’s head, out of his reach. “When yer a mind ta eat, it’ll be there,” he told Johnny. “Ain’t our ways ta waste food.” He turned to Pearl. “That be his food. None else. Give ‘im one cup a water a day. Now, you be getting’ ‘im to his chores. The morn is wastin’.”

Johnny watched Jeddah walk away and took a shuddering breath. He felt Clive unlock his left wrist and Pearl climbed off him. She stood up and brushed her skirt, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “Pa says I got a keep yer right hand chained. Means ya can’t do a lot a chores that needs doing. Side’s yer back is a festerin’. So ya kin fetch firewood fer me an Pa. They be scattered yonder.”

Johnny looked passed the camp. There wasn’t much beyond the circle of campfires. The hot dry days burned the moisture out of most of the trees leaving the ground scattered with bone-dry branches and twigs. These arroyos were considered no-man’s-land. What little water there was would be dried up in a few more weeks. Come the rainy season water from the sierras would flood these pockets of land and turn the trees green again.

The thought that Johnny’s only escape led him into the sun-baked hills, bare-footed and shirtless made him question if he could survive. But the alternative was far worse. The smell of the food above his head made him want to vomit. He would do anything to escape these people…anything.

He saw Pearl offer her hand to help him up but he ignored it, instead he struggled with his free hand to sit up. His back flared with pain, lying on the filthy blanket couldn’t have helped. He somehow got to his knees, panting and feeling the edges of unconsciousness darkening his sight. But he refused to black out. He took deep gulps of air, feeling the cut on his side complain painfully. That too was infected. He had to stay alert…it was his only chance of getting free.

Clive took his arm and hauled him to his feet. Johnny was astounded at how weak his legs felt, he nearly corkscrewed back to the ground, and would have if Clive had not had a tight grip on him. “Ya gots yer work ta do,” Clive ordered, and shoved Johnny ahead of him. “Now, git on with it.”

Johnny staggered across the camp, every eye on him. He spotted Digger sitting by his camp, cross-legged, whittling at a piece of wood with the knife he had used to try to slit Johnny’s throat open. His dog sat beside him, the mastiff’s eyes following Johnny’s every move. The dog might pose a problem when he tried for his escape. He couldn’t forget about him. But not even the threat of that dog sinking its teeth into Johnny deterred him from his one goal – escape.

***

Scott reined back until he was riding shoulder to shoulder with Val.

“What I said this morning,” Scott began but Val brushed off the apology.

“Forgot it. No one’s thinking clearheaded right about now.” He looked over at Scott and a wicked smile deepened the lines in his face. “You could have knocked me over with a feather the day ole Johnny Madrid told me he had made peace with Murdoch Lancer and found a brother ta boot. I was sure if he ever laid eyes on Murdoch that the old man would be six feet under before he could say howdy son.”

“Johnny was a bit of a surprise for me too.” Scott smiled. “I came to Morro Coyo to meet my estranged father and found a brother… a gunfighter no less. That took some getting used to.”

Val sobered. “I guess it did. Ya know…I was one of the few people lucky enough to know the Johnny Lancer side of Johnny. Most people were too afraid or too blind to see what I saw. And I saw something else. I saw how that gun was beginning to bring him down. That he couldn’t escape from it…no matter how hard he tried. There was always someone looking to get a reputation. I think if you and Murdoch hadn’t come along when you did…It wouldn’t have been much longer ‘til Johnny lost the edge, didn’t care enough to keep trying. That’s what that kind of life does to a man. Pounds him into the ground eventually. Yep, you two came into Johnny Madrid’s life just in time.”

Scott looked up toward the hills as they climbed slowly. It was going to be a hot day, already the air was becoming still and breathless.

“I just hope…”

Cipriano suddenly held his hand up signaling everyone to stop. “There are no more tracks,” he announced.

Scott felt hope slip away. Again he looked at those mountains and wondered if they would ever see Johnny alive again.

.

Chapter 6

Pearl watched Johnny stagger past her, his stride off balance with his wrist chained to his waist, and his shoulders hunched forward against the pain in his back. His bare chest already glistened with sweat, and it was still early morning. His fever was most likely climbing. She wanted so much to just hold him in her arms and comfort him, to lay his head against her breast and stroke away the pain. But she knew he had to be taught to behave. If she didn’t take control Darla-Ann would take him from her. She had to prove she could handle him. If only he knew she was trying to save him. There wasn’t much time before they began their trek to the Reunion, and if he wasn’t ready, Pa would not waste his time hauling him with them. She shuddered at the thought of Digger putting him down.

She stood up suddenly, grabbed the empty water bucket next to the cold fire ring and hurried after him.

“Johnny.” She pulled his arm to stop him and the movement brought a gasp of pain from him. “We be needin’ water,” she ordered. “I reckon ya kin do that with one hand.”

She felt his fingertips touch hers as he took the bucket and she felt her cheeks blush. “Waterin’ hole ain’t fer…Clive here ‘ll show ya. Half mile maybe…make sure ya bring it back full.”

Johnny glared at her, his eyes glassy from fever and pain, and she had to turn away. She had to stay strong. He would understand in time. Her love for him would save them both.

She made her way back to their blanket and dropped to her knees. The tears would not stop flowing. She was hurting her Johnny. She only wanted to love him, and him to love her. This was not how it was supposed to be. There was not supposed to be so much pain.

She touched the darkened stain of blood on the blanket. Johnny’s blood. “Love ain’t supposed ta hurt,” she whispered.

She swiped at her tears in anger. If Ma or Pa saw her they would think that she was weak. She would prove to them that she could handle Johnny. She took a deep breath, her resolve strengthening. There was no way Darla-Ann was going to get her hands on her man.

***

Johnny struggled to keep his balance. The pain from his back was threatening to drive him to the ground with each step he took, and the fever was depleting him of the precious energy he needed to make his escape. But he stared straight ahead and moved on. The further he was away from the camp the more chance he had of a successful get-away.

He heard the sounds of the camp behind him fade away as he moved deeper into the sparse stand of trees. Life here in the rugged hills was unforgiving, even for the Sycamore trees and chaparral that struggled to survive through the long hot dry summer. Johnny wasn’t sure what he would find in the way of water. Most years, small ponds still remained until the end of May, then evaporated into dry waterbeds as the full furnace of summer consumed the land. But it had been unseasonably hot since the end of March and already the trees were dropping tinder dry limbs.

Clive walked behind him, nudging him with a solid oak branch he used as a club when Johnny’s gait faltered. The soles of his feet, softened by years of wearing heavy socks and boots, were torn by sharp rocks and brittle twigs. He remembered how tough his feet used to be when he ran barefoot, summer and winter, when food in his stomach was more important than shoes on his feet.

“Keep movin’,” Clive ordered. “Ain’t got all mornin’. Water be that way.” He kicked at the bucket in Johnny’s hand and shoved him to the right.

A few more steps and the trees gave way to a clearing, where a large pond had evaporated to a small pool of water. That too would be gone in another week.

Johnny looked at the landscape around him, searching for an avenue of escape. Huge boulders and towering cliffs surrounded him. Run off from the heavy rains and melting snows of the Sierras had cut a natural flume into the rocks where the spring thaw cascaded into the pond.

“Water first.” Clive pushed Johnny forward.

The soft silt of the dry pond felt good on Johnny’s feet, and the desire to just collapse into that softness was almost overwhelming. But this might be his only chance for escape. Murdoch and Scott would surely be out there somewhere searching for him. He knew from experience that tracking him in this terrain would be next to impossible, but he also knew that they would know he was up here somewhere. If God and luck were on his side, maybe they would meet.

He dropped to his knees at the edge of the water, scooping up a handful of the sweet water and gulping it down. He felt it run down his parched throat. Never had water tasted so good. He splashed it on his face and chest, feeling the rivulets of water running down his chest and soaking his pants, stinging the abraded skin around his waist from the chain.

“That be ‘nuff!” Clive shouted.

Johnny was soaked, and he would have happily fallen backwards into the water to cool off his fiery back, but he knew he’d never manage to get back up again. Besides, the time had come to make his move.

He looked up at the sky. It was mid-morning. The hottest part of the day was ahead of him. On foot and barefoot out in this country was courting death. But life with Pearl and her people was infinitely worse than anything nature could throw at him. He knew this land…knew its tricks. He didn’t know the likes of the Harkins.

He filled the bucket half full, even that amount tugged on his back, cracking open the infected slashes. He had to bite his lip to keep from moaning.

Clive waited for him, his impatience showing.

Johnny got within six feet of Clive when he noticed the bucket was only half full. “Pearl done told ya ta fill…”

Suddenly Johnny lunged toward him, bringing the bucket up shoulder height and swinging around, letting his momentum and the weight of the bucket smash against Clive’s head. Water splashed everywhere.

The impact nearly tore Johnny’s left arm out of its socket, but he had the satisfaction of Clive looking at him in bewilderment for one second, his head and shoulders soaking wet, then dropping like a rag doll the next.

Not taking the time to check if his kidnapper was dead or not, Johnny grabbed the oak club and ran west, toward what he hoped was freedom.

***

Scott pulled the brim of his hat down lower over his eyes. Already the sun was baking the land. He had found the heat the hardest thing to get used to out here. And after three years he still wasn’t acclimated to it. He doubted any human could ever truthfully say that it didn’t bother him.

He felt Murdoch at his side and followed his line of sight up into the hills. The air seemed to shimmer as they looked through the heat at the unforgiving landscape.

“They could be anywhere within fifty miles.” Murdoch’s voice sounded strained, both from the heat and worry.

“Si.” Cipriano nodded. “But they need water.”

“He’s right.” Val pulled his own hat down lower so he could study the hills. “Most times there would still be a dozen or more ponds full to gushin’ this time a year. But it’s been hellish hot already. I bet there’s no more’n three or four left.”

“But where?” Scott asked.

Cipriano dropped to his knees and picked up a stick, beginning to make a map in the sand. “These,” he said, “are where the water spills from the Sierras.”

Murdoch studied the ‘map’. “I figure if we were well into June or July these ponds would be dried up.” Murdoch erased the lines of a half dozen spillways down from the mountains. “These two…” He put a line through them instead of erasing them. “Are probably bone dry too. But they have more trees around them. If I was a betting man I’d say that the Harkins are holding up here, at one of these four arroyos.”

“You’re talking over forty miles,” Scott said, his voice betraying his disappointment. “We can’t possibly…”

“We split up into four groups,” Murdoch answered.

“Sir…that is not a sound tactical maneuver. If we split up into four groups none of us will be strong enough to get Johnny out of their camp.”

“What do you propose we do, Scott?” Murdoch demanded, not meaning to sound so abrasive, but Johnny’s chances seemed to be dwindling by the moment.

“We break into two groups. Four in one, three in the other. The fourth man stays behind to wait for backup.”

Val nodded his head. “Cip, where are we exactly?”

Cipriano drew an X just below the center of the four possible hideaways.

“It would make sense then that they would be here or here.” Scott pointed to the two areas closest to their location.

“Except they may have doubled back, or gone to the furthest one,” Val said. “These people are smart, Scott. They know how to make themselves invisible. And they know we are tracking em.”

“Then we take these first two, and if Johnny isn’t there we move on.”

“Agreed, but…” Murdoch forced himself back on his feet, dismissing Scott’s attempt to help. “We find him we and wait for backup. Send one man back here and report to Domingo.”

“But Senor.” Domingo jumped to his feet. “I want to rescue Juanito also.”

“We need you here, Domingo,” Murdoch insisted. “The rest of the search party has to know where we have gone.”

“Si, Senor.” Domingo lowered his head in resignation.

Scott reached out and shook the man’s shoulder gently. “You are the most important part of this mission. Rescuing Johnny could well rest in your hands.”

“The patron is right,” Cipriano said. “You are muy importante.”

“Si.” Domingo squared his shoulders proudly. “I will do my part to help save Senor Juanito.”

“Let’s get going then,” Murdoch ordered. “Cipriano, you come with Scott and me. Texas Rob, Rodriguez and Carter, you go with Val. Remember, if you find Johnny, send one man back to tell Domingo and just sit tight and wait for reinforcements.”

There were no words between the men, none were needed. They all knew what lay ahead of them. And they all knew as the hours ticked away, that Johnny’s chances of survival with the hill people diminished.

***

The terrain was rugged and with his right wrist chained to his waist, Johnny struggled to climb his way through the jagged rocks and heavy brush. Stinging Fire Thistle burned his feet, adding to the pain of deep lacerations and bruises. He looked back and his heart sank. He was leaving behind bloody footprints. A trail a child could follow. But he couldn’t stop now. Distance was his only hope. If he could stay ahead of them until dark, he had a chance of regaining his strength overnight and starting anew in the morning.

“Who are you kidding, Madrid?” he asked, knowing only the lizards and scorpions were listening. “You’ll be dead by nightfall at this rate. You’re a pathetic sight, ya know that? Ya don’t even have your gun. Johnny Madrid, pistolero…dying with his boots off and his gun hand shackled to his waist. You better hope the vultures get to your dead carcass before them story writers do.”

Johnny’s foot slipped on loose shale and he slid back down the ten feet he had just climbed.

“Damn it!” he shouted. But he wouldn’t give up – not yet. Pearl and her family were somewhere behind him and the fear of going back to them was worse than the pain he felt right now. And the pain was monstrous. The hot sun burned his back. Each move he took pulled at the deeply infected lacerations. And he knew that the sweat that poured off his body like rainwater was not just from the heat of the sun. His fever was rising. He could feel it in his throbbing head and stinging eyes. It wouldn’t be long before his body simply gave out. But until then he was determined to keep going.

He looked up at the towering rocks above him, the sunlight shining back into his eyes, nearly blinding him. He knew where he needed to go, even if he couldn’t see his destination. There was a crude path cut into the rock forty feet above him. If he was right, it would intersect with another path that led down. That is how these hills ran. Millions of years of winter rains coming down from the Sierras had carved their own trails.

Taking a deep breath, he began climbing again, his chest now bleeding from the sharp shale when he slid back down on his stomach.

***

Cipriano pointed toward a patch of darker color in the dry hills some ten miles ahead of them. “Beyond that is the arroyo.”

“That will take us another two or three hours.” Scott shielded his eyes to inspect the copse of sun backed trees. “That’s if they’re camped there.”

Murdoch looked further into the hills. “They could have easily headed straight to the further arroyo.”

“Si. But we have no choice but to check the closest one first. He looked toward Murdoch. “It is a hard ride, senor. We must be careful with the horses.”

Murdoch nodded. He knew the warning was meant for him more than the horses. But nothing would stop him from finding Johnny. “The horses will be fine amigo.”

Scott didn’t miss the give and take between the two old friends, and he felt a glimmer of hope that they may find Johnny after all.

They rode at an easy gait. The Segundo was right. The horses were in for a rough climb up into the hot barren hills. If anyone could survive up there it was Johnny. Even in the hands of the Harkins, he knew his brother would fight until there was no more fight left. Why had they stumbled upon Johnny? Any man would have served their purpose. What did fate have in mind for Johnny Madrid Lancer? Were some men born to be tested? It seemed that Johnny was. Was his journey preordained? Scott couldn’t believe life could be that cruel.

He remembered what Val had said about Johnny traveling down the road to self-destruction. Had fate toyed with him again? Brought him to the brink of death to snatch him away at the eleventh hour?

Johnny had fought hard to become part of the family, to be loved and respected by his father. And he had at last found happiness. But how often would happiness be dangled in front of him, only to be pulled from his grasp? When would he be allowed to enjoy life without looking over his shoulder?

And that was the kicker. Johnny did enjoy life. Despite everything. He enjoyed life like no one else Scott had ever known. He drank in the beauty of a sunset and stood transfixed by the flight of an eagle. He appreciated life…embraced the good because he could compare it to the bad. Did it take the kind of hardship that Johnny faced throughout his life to truly appreciate the beauty around him?

Scott spurred his horse a little faster. He would be dammed if the last thing Johnny saw was the ugliness of the Harkins

***

Jeddah paced the camp. Clive was taking too long. He had taken the boy to get water two hours ago. They should have been back by now. He looked over at Pearl. She sensed it too.

“Digger, take Dawg an find Clive an Pearl’s man. They be late.”

Digger smiled, slipped his knife into the waistband of his filthy pants, and trudged out of the camp…killing on his mind.

Pearl watched Dawg follow Digger and fear washed over her. Digger was a mean man when he was riled. Johnny wouldn’t stand a chance, hurt like he was. She looked over at Pa. He knew what Digger would do, and he was gonna let it happen without lifting a finger.

She grabbed her sack she used for collecting firewood and followed Digger.

“Pearl!” Pa’s voice froze Pearl in mid step. “Where you be goin’, girl?”

“Ta fetch firewood,” she replied. Her stomach churned so hard she thought she’d lose her breakfast.

“Ain’t yer place no more,” Pa said. “You got you a man now. He be fetching the wood.”

“I know, Pa. But Johnny be ailing. He probably dropped on Clive. The fever got him good.”

“The fever got ‘im cause he don’t listen. Now ya put that bag down an wait for Clive n Digger ta bring ‘im back.”

Pearl looked from Pa to the trees beyond the camp. Johnny was in real trouble if Digger found him.

“You hear me girl?!” Pa roared.

Pearl saw Ma walking up to stand next to Pa. “Ya best be listenin’ to yer Pa girl. I see the look in yer eyes when ya looks at that man a yours. I know ya got feelings for ‘im already. But he gots ta be trained first. Ya look weak an he never be trained. Darla Ann says she wants ‘im, and she kin have ‘im if ya cain’t handle ‘im.”

“No!”

“Those are gospel words, Pearl,” Pa warned.

Pearl dropped the bag at her feet. If Digger didn’t kill him, then Darla Ann certainly would. Why was she hurting so much? Johnny was the one who was whipped…by her hands…but she was hurting so much for him inside. She missed him so much…

***

Digger dropped to his knees next to Clive. Blood still poured from a gash on the side of his head. The look of surprise frozen in his dead eyes.

Dawg sniffed around the body, the smell of blood exciting him. “Don’t worry Dawg, yer gonna get yer chance at ‘im.” He patted the dog’s shoulder as he followed the bloody bare footprints with his eyes. “We best take care a Clive first.”

He threw Clive over his shoulder and headed back toward camp. The excitement of the hunt fueling his blood.

.

Chapter 7

Johnny spotted a craggy buttress carved into the side of the hill and climbed toward it. A narrow niche, just wide enough to squeeze in sideways, afforded him some relief from the blazing sun.

He tried to calm his breathing, forcing himself to draw the stifling air into his starving lungs slowly, fighting back the fringes of blackness that played at the corners of his mind. He needed rest…just for awhile…rest and water. Above all, he needed water. But the only water waited back at the pond, where Clive lay dead or dying. Either way, the undeniable truth was that he had forfeited his life for his freedom.

He raised his left hand, shaking with fatigue, to his brow, trying to wipe away the stinging sweat from his eyes, not noticing the broken fingernails and bleeding cuts on his fingers and palm.

The air was hot and breathless…not a breeze to temper the heat that rose up in waves off the sun-baked rocks. This land was not meant for man nor beast.

He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to think clearly. He had two choices as he saw it. Continue on, hoping he could make it down the hill and by some miracle meet up with a rescue party, or go back. Hide out somewhere near the pond and hope Jeddah and Digger would tire of the hunt and move on to their reunion.

He wondered how far he had traveled. It felt like miles. But in reality it was probably no more than a mile. And already the bottoms of his feet were tattered strips of flesh, some gashes reaching bone. He had to put that thought out of his mind. Rest was the most important thing now. He sank down, the narrow niche allowing his knees to bend just slightly, and he rested his chest against the hot stones, exhaustion pulling him down into blackness.

***

Pearl heard Dawg bark and knew Digger was bringing Johnny back. She hoped Johnny hadn’t made too big a fuss about the chores. He just had to start understanding that this was his new life now. And the more he cooperated, the easier things would be for him. A small smile played at the corners of her mouth. Soon he would settle down, and they would be happy together. And when they got to the reunion…she would be proud to call him her man.

“He kilt him!” Digger yelled from beyond the clearing. “He kilt Clive!”

Digger staggered into camp, dumping Clive off his shoulder in front of Jeddah.

“Where?” Jeddah demanded, looking down at the bloody gash on the side of Clive’s head.

“Down ta the waterin’ hole. I brung Clive back…” Digger pulled his knife. “Now I’m a gonna kill me a…”

“No!” Pearl lunged herself toward Digger. “It ain’t his fault…he’s scart. Please…”

“Git away from me girl!” Digger spat, grabbing Pearl by the hair and throwing her to the ground. “He be your man, an he kilt Clive.”

“He don’t know no better,” she cried. “Pa, please…”

“He kilt one of our own…an he must pay,” Jeddah decreed. “An eye fer an eye…the Lord sayith…” He turned to Jezebel. “You take care a Clive. Bury ‘im deep…We bring back Pearl’s man. We be teachin’ ‘im a lesson he ain’t never gonna ferget.”

Pearl scrambled to her feet. “I wanna come with ya. I wanna be with ‘im.”

“It be no place fer a woman.” Pa grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her into Ma’s arms. “She be ta blame as much as her man…see to it that she digs the hole fer Clive. Then she kin dig one fer her man.”

Darla Ann darted across the camp, her face frozen in a heartless grin. “Ya be in mourning fer yer man afore ya bedded him,” she laughed. “I told ya he was too much fer ya. I told ya.”

Jezebel pushed Darla Ann away. “Mind yer own business, Darla Ann.”

“Zeke and Rufe,” Jeddah called out. “You be with me an Digger. The rest of you men spread out. He cain’t have got far with the fever. He be hold up somewheres. Find ‘im and bring ‘im back – alive. He needs ta pay fer what he done afore all of us.”

Digger grabbed the blanket Johnny had been lying on and ripped off a piece, smothering Dawg’s face in it. “Yer after this, Dawg,” he commanded. “Go!”

The dog began to bark, his nose sniffing at the ground, following Johnny’s scent.

***

Johnny awoke with a start, disoriented and hurting. His muscles cried out in the cramped position. Slowly he uncurled himself. The rising fever had claimed a little more of his energy.

His mouth felt as dry as if he were sucking on cotton, and his throat was raw. He had a momentary thought of just giving up. Just sagging back down into oblivion and calling the game over. But that was not Johnny Madrid, and it was not Johnny Lancer. As long as there was an ounce of life left in his body, as long as he…The sound of boots on loose shale brought his breath up short. He squeezed himself deeper into the crevice, his back screaming in pain as the hot rocks touched the infected lashes. He mashed his teeth together, forcing back the cries of pain, letting them die in his throat before they gave him away.

He listened. Only one pair of footsteps. Whoever it was was alone…and he was not concerned about the noise he made. He looked down on the trail he had just taken, knowing he had left a trail of bloody footprints a blind man could follow. Then he saw Zeke come into view.

A plan formed in his mind and he didn’t have time to debate it. It was now or never. He formed a small hill of shale with his left toe, trying to ignore the pain in his foot and when he saw Zeke directly below him he kicked the shale down the hill.

Zeke froze. He looked up the hill and saw the shale still trickling down the side of the mountain…Something had inadvertently disturbed the small rocks above. With a triumphant smile he started climbing, now noticing the bloody tracks on the larger stones.

“There ain’t no place to run,” he called.

Johnny picked up a rock the size of an eagle’s egg with his left hand and waited. He wasn’t left handed. But he had forced himself through the years to practice shooting with his left hand…no fast draw…just accuracy, so he hoped his throw would be accurate this time. If not…he was a dead man, because he would not return to the camp alive.

He waited, holding his breath…the sounds of Zeke’s guffaws filling the air. “You be a dead man, Johnny. Even Pearl ain’t gonna keep ya alive. Too bad too, she really took a shinin’ ta ya. Don’t know why…”

Johnny slipped out from the safety of the crevice and stood ten feet from Zeke.

“Ya giving up, boy?” Zeke asked, amused.

Johnny shook his head slowly, his left arm coming around from his back…the rock sailing from his fingers before Zeke could utter a cry.

The rock hit Zeke dead center on his forehead. The sound of rock hitting flesh then cartilage breaking made Johnny’s stomach roil.

Zeke froze, his unseeing eyes rolling up in his head before he fell backwards head over heels, coming to rest in a tangle of arms and legs on the chaparral covered path below.

***

Scott followed Murdoch and Cipriano’s lead and ground tied his horse before silently moving towards the arroyo. The sun was nearing noon and the heat was sapping them dry even though they made sure that they drank deeply from their canteens before they headed off.

They didn’t say a word. Each man lost in his own thoughts…wondering what they would find at the top of the rise and praying to God that they would find Johnny in time.

Cipriano knew more about the hill people than he was willing to share with Murdoch and Scott, and the thought of Johnny being with them ate a hole in his stomach. And the guilt, earned or not, of letting his Juanito be taken so easily, would rest in his heart for a lifetime.

Scott followed Cipriano and Murdoch, his mind awash with scenarios of what might be happening. But he had a feeling nothing that his mind could conjure up would be as bad as what Johnny was truly experiencing. He feared what Val had said might come true if they didn’t get to Johnny in time. He had seen men broken in the war…left nothing more than shells of who they used to be. He could not…no…would not let that happen to Johnny.

Murdoch above all felt the burden of not protecting his son. He knew enough about the hill people to know that they were dangerous. But he never thought they would get past the guards. Of all the enemies he had fought, none proved to be as dangerous as these pack of wild animals that called themselves human. And Johnny was with them. Forced to do things that his mind would not even comprehend because if he did he would go mad.

Cipriano held his hand up as they neared the crest. On the other side of this hill should be the arroyo – and Johnny.

Scott knew it the moment he saw Murdoch’s shoulders sag in defeat. He scrambled up next to Cipriano and looked down on a small pond…and nothing else.

“Damn it…” Murdoch whispered.

Cipriano wasted no time; he was already heading back to the horses.

“How long?” Scott yelled, running down the hill after the Segundo and mounting his horse without stopping his stride.

“Two hours…maybe more,” he growled. “It will take time to make our way through this country. They knew where they were going. We do not.”

Scott looked back up the hill to see Murdoch still lying on his stomach looking over the crest into the empty arroyo below. The old man was wasting time they didn’t have.

“Murdoch!” he yelled, but Cipriano put a cautionary hand on his leg.

“Give him time, hijo,” he said kindly. “He has many demons to conquer. He needs a minuto…”

“Johnny doesn’t have a minute,” Scott spat back, feeling his horse confused by the mixed emotions his body was giving out.

Cipriano reached up and patted the horse’s head trying to calm him down. “Scott, you must keep control of your emotions. Juanito will need you when we find him. He will need you to be strong. They will both need you. It is a lot to ask of one man…but I know you are fuerte de Corazon…strong of heart. You will be the shoulder that will hold them both up.”

Scott looked down at Cipriano and asked, “Who will hold me up?”

Cipriano smiled gently. “Johnny has many friends, many who love him…they will all be there for you. I will be there for you.”

Scott saw Murdoch slowly stand and then make his way toward them. He was half broken already. What was to become of him if they did not find Johnny? One way or the other…the hill people had changed the Lancer family forever.

***

Carefully Johnny made his way back down the hill, every movement a study in pain. As bad as his feet were, they couldn’t compete with the throbbing pain of his swollen back, every breath he took stretching the infected wounds.

Quickly he checked Zeke. The man was dead. Blood still seeped from the hole in his forehead. He stood over him and the stench from his clothes and unwashed body filled the air. He prayed to God that his plan would work…it was his only hope for survival.

Johnny dropped to his knees, and recognized his own boots on Zeke’s feet. With his left hand, he pulled the hunting knife from a rawhide sheath he knew was inside the boot.

He sat down, pulling his knees up toward his stomach so he could awkwardly cut away his pant legs just below his knees, each movement he made bringing a grunt of pain. He was panting by the time he had both calves exposed to the sun. Turning back to Zeke he began scrubbing the material over the man’s filthy clothes then scrubbing his own skin. He covered his chest, arms and bare legs, the bile rising in his throat. He saturated the second pant leg in Zeke’s blood and rubbed it into his pants, brushing it through his hair. The stench nearly made him vomit, but he forced himself to continue. This was his only chance. He looked longingly at the boots…his boots, but knew he could never fit his ravaged, swollen feet into them. Quickly he cut the concho buttons off the remnants of his pants before wrapping them around his feet …using his manacled right hand to hold one end of the material while he tied it in place.

He wasn’t strong enough to move the body, and needed every bit of strength he had left to make it back to the pond and the water he so desperately needed.

He climbed to his feet, his knees nearly buckling beneath him. He looked up into the blue sky…it was high noon. The next four hours would be the hottest part of the day, but he had no choice. It was water or death.

Sliding the knife behind him, between skin and waistband, and throwing the concho buttons down the hill out of sight, he forced weary legs to move, one at a time…as he slowly began his trek back to the pond, praying his plan would work.

***

Johnny wasn’t sure how far he had traveled. His mind had all but shut down, the only thing that he focused on was putting one painful foot in front of the other. He stumbled again and again over the dry chaparral, forged through thickets of sycamore trees, their dry branches scratching his face and chest. The sun beat down on his unprotected head, sending his fever higher. But still he moved on, oblivious to everything until he heard it…

His heart skipped a beat. He stood swaying in the heat, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to hear beyond the pounding in his head and his labored breaths. There it was again…almost beyond his hearing…but it was there…the bark of a dog…Digger’s dog.

He forced back the panic and looked around. The thicket of Sycamores was thickest a few yards up the hill and he struggled on legs that didn’t want to carry his weight anymore to reach their safety.

Dawg’s excited barks grew louder. Johnny watched through the thick branches, praying that the dog would not pick up his scent. Dawg stopped and sniffed the ground…confused for a moment. Digger yelled for him to hurry and the dog obeyed, running down the trail…toward Zeke. Jeddah followed, his eyes glued on the dog ahead of him.

Johnny knew he didn’t have much time. They would find Zeke’s body any minute now. His only hope was their confusion. He scrambled back down to the trail and began to run. His manacled right hand threw his center of balance off making him right himself to keep from falling. His back screamed at the jerking movements, but he couldn’t stop now.

***

“Damn him!” Jeddah yelled, dropping to his knees to confirm what he already knew. “That be two he kilt!”

Dawg sniffed the ground, circling Zeke in a frenzy, running first one direction and then the other.

“What be wrong with that animal?” Jeddah demanded.

“Lost the scent,” Digger answered, surprised.

“What ya mean? He cain’t a just disappeared.”

“I know, Jeddah. But he ain’t here.”

Jeddah stood up kicking at the confused dog. Dawg yelped and Digger turned on Jeddah.

“You got no call ta kick Dawg…he be doin’ the best he kin. That man a Pearl’s is a smart one.”

“He be hurt and fevered…he cain’t go fer.”

“What we do, Jeddah?”

Jeddah looked down the hill, squinting against the shimmering heat rising off the blistering rocks. “We go yonder aways, see if Dawg kin pick up ‘is scent. If’n not…we head back. He be out there, he be a dead man. Pity, I wanted ‘im ta feel the whip agin afore he went ta hell.”

***

Scott followed Murdoch, letting Charlemagne pick his way through the rough terrain, feeling the horse’s hooves slipping on the loose shale, feeling the bite of the sycamore branches scraping his legs. Cipriano had taken the lead two hours ago and now they were nearing the second arroyo. But it would be another hour before they reached the crest. It was hard to believe just forty or so miles over the hills lay the fertile ground of Lancer. Scott promised himself that as soon as Johnny was up to it he would take him to their favorite spot overlooking the hacienda and lush valley below. He declared it a solemn oath and continued on.

***

Johnny stumbled toward the pond, falling onto his stomach at the edge of the water and gulping the water down until reason returned to him and he realized he would be sick if he drank too much more. Reluctantly moving himself away from the water, he sat on his knees, forcing himself to think. He had to get himself out of sight. With his thirst quenched for the moment, he felt like he had a chance again. A couple days of rest, water within reach. He could do it. He could get his strength back…maybe try and get down the hill again…It was possible. He could do it.

Pushing himself to his feet he staggered toward the safety of the hills above the pond. He only needed to find some shade and sleep the heat of the day away.

Feeling stronger in mind than body, Johnny made his way up the hill before the blackness of unconsciousness began to blanket him. He spotted a large bolder that afforded enough shade to protect him from the sun and hide him from view.

He hurled himself behind the boulder as his world dissolved around him.

***

Cipriano pulled his mount to a stop suddenly, lifting his hands for silence. A grim smile played at the corners of his mouth.

Scott listened…and then he heard it, voices…far away but unmistakable.

Quietly Cipriano motioned for them to dismount.

“We go on foot,” he said.

Murdoch nodded. “If this is their camp then you ride back to Domingo and bring the posse.”

Together they hurried as silently as they could until they were crawling on their bellies to the edge of an arroyo.

“It’s them,” Scott whispered. The squalor below turned his stomach. The stench of decaying food and unwashed bodies fouled the air. A covered wagon sat at one end of the camp, animal skins drying in the sun.

He counted more than a dozen women tending to cold campsites. “There’s Pearl.” He pointed to a small woman digging dirt out of a hole that was waist deep. “It looks like she’s digging a grave.”

“I don’t see Johnny.” Murdoch hissed.

“Something is not right,” Cipriano whispered. “Where are all the men? It is as if they are hunting all at once, that is not like them.”

“Hunting what?” Scott asked, but knew the answer. Cold fear wrapped itself around him and for the first time he admitted to himself that they might not ever get Johnny back.

Murdoch turned to Cipriano. “Go back to the base camp,” he ordered.

“Si. But you must have patience,” the Segundo warned. “It will take several hours to get there and back. “When the men return, you will not be able to face so many alone. For yours and Juanito’s sake, you must wait.”

“We know, amigo,” Murdoch whispered, grabbing Cirpiano’s arm tightly. “Johnny will be waiting when you get back.”

Murdoch heard the Segundo make his way back down the hill then turned to Scott. His oldest son’s expression mirroring his own fears. Were they already too late?

“He’s here,” Scott whispered. “I can feel it. He’s here.”

Murdoch nodded, praying that Scott was right. And that Johnny was somehow alive and safe.

But the odds were not in their favor.

.

Chapter 8

Pearl straightened up at the sound of Dawg’s heavy panting. There was no spark in the dog’s step and a she felt a fleeting moment of hope that they had not found Johnny. She threw her shovel into a pile of dirt and wiped her dirty hands on her skirt, waiting for Pa and Digger to appear. All the other men had returned, except them and Zeke. The longer they stayed out the more hope she had – until she saw the body draped over Digger’s shoulder.

“No…” she moaned, before she realized that it wasn’t Johnny bent limply over Digger’s shoulder, but Zeke. The look in Pa’s eyes as he followed told her that there was no question that Zeke was dead.

“What happened?” Jezebel demanded, watching Digger heft Zeke’s heavy weight off his shoulder and letting him fall spread eagled on the ground.

“Pearl’s man,” Jeddah spat. “He done it agin. Kilt another one of us.”

Pearl approached the group surrounding Zeke, cautiously, afraid that they might turn on her…but more afraid for her Johnny. She had to know.

“An Johnny…?” she asked in a hushed whisper.

Digger turned on her, grabbing her wrist, and shoving her to her knees in front of Zeke, his face covered with dried blood, his dead eyes still staring into the sky.

“Yer man kilt Zeke.” Digger kicked her in the back and she fell across Zeke’s chest. “He kilt him, an he kilt Clive.”

“Leave her!” Jezebel ordered.

Digger stood his ground, a silent war fought between them until Digger finally stepped away in disgust. Jezebel held her place of authority. For now.

Jezebel leaned down and dragged Pearl to her feet. “That grave ya dug fer yer man is Zeke’s now. You go fetch water from the pond. You be doin’ ‘is chores fer ‘im since it was yer man that kilt ‘im.”

Pearl turned to see Etta May staring at her, tears welling up in her eyes. Her and Zeke bedded two years ago. Pearl turned away, not able to stand the condemnation in those eyes.

She felt the stares on her as she picked up the water bucket and walked away from camp. They couldn’t understand that Johnny was only protecting himself. It was kill or be killed.

Tears began to run down her cheeks. Why did she feel this way? Zeke was family…she should have been filled with hate for the man who had killed him…but she couldn’t blame Johnny. She only wanted him alive and safe and by her side.

She sat at the edge of the pond letting the bucket fill slowly. She didn’t want to be there to see them put Zeke in the grave that had taken her hours to dig. Every shovelful of dirt bringing Johnny a step closer to his death…No, God help her, it was better that it was Zeke in that hole. She would never stop hoping that Johnny had somehow…

A black shape in the sky caught her eye…then another and another. She watched the birds…one after the other join the flock of buzzards circling the sky above a huge boulder.

Her heart skipped a beat. They could be after a dead animal…or…for some reason she grabbed the bucket, half full of water, and climbed the hill toward the boulder.

Her long skirts tripped her as she scrambled up the steep hill, the water sloshing in the bucket. Her heart was in her throat. She knew she had found him. She could feel it. She reached the boulder and swung around…

“Johnny…!”

She couldn’t breathe…the world spun away from her and she nearly keeled over. Fear, anger and love assaulted her at the same time and she thought she would explode right there. Never had she felt emotions so raw, so overpowering. The sight of Johnny…her Johnny, lying face down- crumbled like a rag doll on the rocks, brought her to her knees.

“Johnny…” she moaned, reaching out a shaking hand to touch his bare leg. His escape attempt had cost him dearly…his bare calves were scratched and bleeding, embedded with sharp thistles. The remnants of his pant legs tied around his feet were torn and bloodied, the tattered skin once again exposed. She couldn’t look at his back. It was her who had inflicted so much pain on him. If she could, she would have died right there beside him.

She shifted and her hand brushed across a thistle on his calf and his leg jerked.

“Johnny…?” She crawled up to his shoulders, afraid to move him, afraid of inflicting more pain. She carefully grabbed his shoulder and the waistband of his pants and rolled him onto his back.

She saw it then, the smallest rise and fall of his chest, dark with bruising beneath the layer of dried sweat and dirt, telling her that he was still alive.

“Johnny…you be fine,” she cried, the tears nearly blinding her. “You be fine. I keep ya safe. I promise.” She pulled the bucket closer to her, dipped her hand into the water and drizzled it over Johnny’s cracked and bleeding lips. His lips trembled at the feel and he unconsciously turned his head for more. “That tastes fine…don’t it?” She drizzled more water until his lips parted and he began to drink greedily as she cupped both hands in the water again and again until he had had his fill.

She felt his skin. Hot and dry from the sun and the fever. She knew enough doctoring to know that when a body stopped sweating death was on its way.

She carefully lifted his head and shoulders and laid his head on her lap, brushing his hair back from his eyes. “I be right here with ya, Johnny,” she promised. “Ya be safe with me. I love ya…ya know…?”

Johnny’s eyelids fluttered open and glazed blue eyes searched for the voice. “Pearl…?” he whispered faintly.

“Ya be fine, Johnny. Ya rest here…I won’t leave ya.”

“Home…” His voice sounded so weak, so desperate.

“Ya be home with me,” she said softly. “I take good care a ya.” Pearl drew his left hand into hers, appalled by the cracks and cuts covering his fingers and palm. “I kin make ya happy.”

“No…home…” he whispered, and his eyes closed, too tired to fight anymore. Pearl felt him slip away from her, his body gone limp again. Almost too afraid to know the answer, she leaned her ear against his chest and felt his chest move up and down ever so slightly, and the sound of his heart still beating faintly.

“I take care of ya, Johnny…I promise.”

***

Time became nonexistent for Pearl as she gently bathed Johnny’s forehead with tepid water. She couldn’t lift him and move him to safety, and she wouldn’t leave him. She was there for him…soothing him with her gentle voice when his eyes flickered open, lost in the throes of fever and exhaustion. The tears that stung her eyes were from loss and regret. He could have been so happy with her. Shared his life with her…

The sounds of the buzzard’s wings grew louder as their circle tightened and they flew ever closer. They smelled death.

***

Scott and Murdoch watched in silence, counting the men as they returned to camp, gauging their odds of rescuing Johnny if he appeared.

 They had been flat on their stomachs for two hours now, the late afternoon sun beating down on their backs, calculating the time it would take Cipriano to reach the camp and return with help, all the while watching Pearl dig a grave next to a recently filled one. No one offered to help. The implications were clear that she was being punished…but for what?

Murdoch stiffened when he heard a dog’s bark and tapped Scott’s arm, pointing toward the two men following the dog into camp. Scott’s heart skipped a beat until he realized the size of the man draped over the younger of the two men was not Johnny’s.

“Pearl’s man,” Jeddah spat. “He done it agin. Kilt another one of us.”

“Another one?” Scott whispered.

The Lancer men watched Jezebel drag Pearl to her feet. “That grave ya dug fer yer man is Zeke’s now. You go fetch water from the pond. You be doin’ ‘is chores fer ‘im since it was yer man that kilt ‘im.”

“They’re like a pack of hyenas, turning on their own,” Scott hissed.

“They’re worse than hyenas,” Murdoch scowled. “Look.”

Like a pack of wild animals, Zeke’s body disappeared beneath a mass of frenzied scavengers as they stripped the dead man of his clothes until he only wore filthy long johns.

The sight sickened Scott. To think that this is what Johnny had been living with the past two days.

***

Pearl had lost all track of time, lost in the misery of losing Johnny, when she saw the shadow fall cross his face before she heard the sound of Pa’s bitter voice.

“Ain’t it enough he kilt your kin…you gotta drive the knife in an hide yer killin’ man?” Jeddah’s voice cut through the silence, sending the buzzards higher into the sky.

She leaned over Johnny, trying to shield him. “He be dying, Pa. He cain’t hurt no one no more.”

Digger was beside Jeddah now. And so were a half dozen more men, forming a semi-circle around her and her man.

“Please…leave ‘im be,” Pearl implored. “He be mine ta take care of.”

Jeddah nodded and Digger grabbed Pearl and dragged her to her feet. She kicked and scratched at him, trying to break his grip around her waist. Trying to get back to Johnny. She screamed as she watched him lifted by rough hands, his eyes coming open for a moment, searching for her.

“No!” she screamed. “Let ‘im be!”

Digger smacked her across the face, her vision blurring for a moment, her legs buckling beneath her. He grabbed her arm, pulling her behind him. He dragged her down most of the hill, her pain numbed by the sight of Johnny being carried between four men.

***

Murdoch’s hand on him yanked Scott back down on his belly. The sight of Johnny being carried into camp was like a knife thrust into his gut. He watched, his fingers clawing into the dirt. Even from this distance he could see the blood and dirt caked on Johnny’s naked torso. He saw the ragged remnants of the tattered material loosely binding his feet and realized it was part of his pant legs. What hell had he gone through?

Anger so strong that it threatened to push aside all sane thought broiled up within Scott. Only the strong arm of his father kept him from breaking cover and running down to Johnny.

“We can’t just stand by and watch…” Scott hissed, pushing Murdoch’s hand away.

“We don’t know if they have guns. Johnny may have reduced the men down to ten, but those women are just as dangerous. What happens to Johnny if we’re killed? We can’t do anything else at the moment,” Murdoch ground out. “We have to wait.”

***

Val was almost to the base camp when he saw Cipriano racing toward him. “Quickly,” the old Segundo shouted. “We have found the camp.”

Val pulled up next to the lathered horse. “Johnny?”

Cipriano shook his head. “But there were men out hunting. We hope that Johnny is in hiding.”

“Let’s get fresh mounts…”

Val was surprised to find Domingo’s one man camp had grown to a full sized base camp. A large open tent had been set up to provide shade from the unrelenting sun.

Jelly manned a chuck wagon, the smell of beans and coffee filling the air.

“We have found their camp!” Cipriano yelled. “It is a two hour ride from here.” He jumped from his horse ready to mount a fresh one when Jelly shoved a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Ya got time for this,” he ordered. “Ya need to stop and take a breather, Val and his men too. ‘Sides, it gives me time to finish packing.”

“We ain’t got time,” Val began to protest, but Jelly turned on him. “Then make time. I’m a gonna finish packing. Who knows what kind a trouble Johnny’s in. I got a stretcher and medical supplies and water…the boy may need…” Jelly voice trailed off. Cip nodded. Five minutes wouldn’t hurt and Johnny just might need the medical supplies.

Jelly began barking orders, making sure the supplies were securely tied to the pack horse.

***

Pearl smashed her heel into Digger’s knee and fought her way out of his grasp while he was momentarily stunned. She scrambled around the men carrying Johnny and cradled his head in her hands as they lowered him to the ground.

“He be punished ‘nuff,” she cried, slipping to the ground beneath him so his head and shoulders rested against her chest. “Leave ‘im be.”

“He kilt two of our own,” Jeddah roared. “He be punished.” The others crowded in around them, their faces mirroring their anger.

She could feel Johnny’s chest rise and fall against her hands as she wrapped her arms around his bare chest. His fevered body felt so hot against her. She couldn’t stop herself from trembling. Everything that she knew, that felt right, was turned upside down. The man she held in her arms meant more to her than anyone alive…and she knew, as she knew anything in this lifetime, that she would kill anyone who tried to harm him further.

 “Punish me…” she sought out Jeddah. “Please…he be my man…I be responsible…”

“Ya know what you say, girl?” Jezebel asked incredulously. “Ya take the whip fer ‘im?”

Pearl nodded. She felt Johnny move against her, his left hand slowly rising to weakly grab her wrist. “No…” he whispered. “Can’t let you…”

“Be still,” she ordered, kissing the top of his head, feeling the gritty dirtiness of his hair and longing for the way it felt when he was first brought to camp. Remembering the smell of it. The smell of him. Then softer. “I love ya…”

“I know…” he breathed. His body sank deeper against hers, exhaustion and fever pulling him further away from her, and she held him tighter. “…I know…”

“Get on with it!” Digger shouted. “He kilt Clive an Zeke. He need ta be kilt too!”

“No!” Pearl felt the knife hidden behind Johnny’s back and slid it out. “One of ya come near me an my man, I cut ‘em.” She brandished the knife. “I swear ta God…I cut ‘em!”

“Pearl…” Jezebel took a step closer. “Ya don’t mean it, child.”

“I cut you, Ma. I will! Leave us be!”

She felt Johnny trying to gain the strength he didn’t have. She held him tighter with her left arm around his chest and she heard him moan.

“Ya lie still, Johnny. I told ya…I make ya safe.”

***

Scott and Murdoch watched the scene unfolding below them in stunned disbelief. Two men broke off from the crowd, circling behind Pearl and Johnny. Pearl kept the others at bay, brandishing the knife, slashing out at anyone who dared to get any closer.

Scott knew they couldn’t wait. He suddenly jumped up, firing a shot into the ground behind the crowd.

“Scott!” Murdoch hissed.

“Keep out of sight,” Scott ordered. “I’m going to try to buy us some time. Watch out for guns.”

Murdoch kept down.

“The first one that makes a move gets a bullet,” Scott shouted.

“You ain’t got the right!” Jeddah shouted back. “He kilt two of our own. He needs punishin’.”

Carefully Scott began to make his way down the hill, shale skating beneath his boots. “It looks like you’ve already done your fair share of punishing. Now, slowly, back away. I want to see all of you with your hands in the air.”

“You be trespassing!” Jezebel cried.

“Hands in the air. Now!” Scott ordered. He was almost to the bottom. The closer he got the harder it was not to just pull the trigger and blow every one of them away for what they had done to Johnny. He could see the gash on his side, red and swollen with infection. The skin shredded on the bottoms of his feet where the material coverings had slipped away. But most of all he could see Johnny’s eyes, half open, watching his every move. And Pearl, holding him and protecting him, the knife blade catching the sunlight as she waved it back and forth slowly.

The stench of the camp made his stomach roil. He sucked it back, breathing through his mouth. He saw movement to his right and the dog crouched down, baring its fangs.

“You want that dog to live another minute you’ll call him off,” Scott warned.

Digger clicked his tongue and the dog stood down.

He looked at the mass of filthy bodies before him and his mind shouted that he was missing something.

“Everyone back …” The command fell away as Scott saw Johnny’s eyes go wide, and he heard Pearl’s warning cry a split second before he heard the shale rattle down the hill behind him.

The sound of a gunshot reverberated around the arroyo and Scott felt something heavy slam into his back.

.

Chapter 9

Murdoch felt the gun buck in his hand and heard the mountain of a man yelp in surprise as the bullet ripped through his arm, sending the wicked looking knife intended for Scott’s back clattering to the ground. The bullet’s impact sent him hurtling into Scott’s back and the two rolled down the remainder of the hill amid a cloud of dust, their arms and legs entwined until Scott reached out and caught a sycamore branch with one hand, letting his attacker slide down the rest of the way on loose shale.

“Ruff!” Jezebel’s agonized cry came from below and Murdoch pointed his gun toward the Harkins clan.

“No one makes a move,” he yelled, his voice echoing strangely in the arroyo. His eyes darted from the crowd to Scott, who was fighting his way back to his feet.

“You kilt Ruff!” Jezebel cried. “Weren’t it ‘nuff that yer boy kilt two of my kin?”

“Move away from Johnny,” Murdoch ordered. “I won’t hesitate to shoot again.” Murdoch forced himself to look away from Johnny. But the image was burned in his mind. He would forever remember the sight of his son, laying in the filth that was the Harkins’ camp, just this side of death. It took every ounce of self- control he could muster not to mow them down like the pack of rabid wolves they were.

Jeddah nodded and the clan began to slowly back away. But Digger hissed “Attack!” and Dawg lunged at Johnny. Pearl screamed, and slashed at the dog’s leg. Dawg yelped in pain and surprise and limped away, back to his owner. Incensed, Digger lunged toward them himself and another shot rang out. Digger’s body snapped back at the impact, the bullet hitting him in the left shoulder.

“The next one to move gets a bullet through the heart,” Murdoch warned. He watched them pick up Digger, a woman wailing in despair, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his shoulder, as they moved away from Johnny and Pearl.

Carefully Murdoch made his way down the hill, his boots slipping on the loose shale, his gun still aimed at the clan as they stopped and regrouped a few feet from Johnny. ‘Damn it…where is Cipriano and Val? There are too many for just the two of us.’ He reached Scott and grabbed his arm, making sure his son was steady on his feet.

***

“I’m all right,” Scott panted, taking a moment to regroup. He looked to his right. Ruff lay motionless on his back, his sightless eyes staring at the sky. ‘He must have snapped his neck on the way down,’ Scott thought.

They stood on the outer perimeter of the camp, some thirty feet from where Johnny lay and the stench fouled Scott’s nose. Flies hovered everywhere. Scott had to fight to keep the bile from rising. What kind of hell had Johnny been through in a place like this?

With one eye on Johnny and one eye on the clan he began to walk slowly toward his brother. His need to hurry was tempered by the knowledge that if he or Murdoch faltered, Johnny would be at the mercy of Jeddah and his people.

He heard a sharp intake of air and knew that Murdoch had finally gotten a good look at Johnny. He saw his father’s gun hand slip to his side, the gun just dangling in his hand. Scott knew Murdoch was no longer aware of anyone else around him but his son.

“Everyone down on your knees,” Scott ordered. “I want you all kneeling on your hands. One man or woman makes a move, I’ll shoot them.”

“Help ‘em!” he heard Pearl cry, panic in her voice. “He be dyin’…”

Scott felt the gun in his hand, his finger pulling the trigger…NO! He would not be reduced to an animal like them. He would not kill in cold blood. No matter what the reason. He eased the trigger back, seeing the fear on Jeddah’s face.

“He needs water,” Murdoch called, desperately.

Scott looked around; he could not trust any of them to fetch water, but Johnny was in such need.

“He needs water,” Murdoch said again, and Pearl was gently easing herself from beneath Johnny. “I git the water. Ya take care a ‘im. He be special.”

“Ya ain’t no Harkin if’n ya fetch that water…” Jezebel warned. “Ya ain’t gonna have a home, child.”

“You’ll be safe with us,” Scott heard the words pass his lips before he had even thought the matter out. “Get the water now, Pearl.”

Pearl hesitated only a moment, then she was gone, the water bucket swinging at her side as she made a mad dash out of the camp.

“Ya cain’t have ‘er,” Jeddah snarled. “She belong ta us. So does the boy, he belongs ta Pearl.” He raised his hands toward Scott. “I ain’t got no weapons…only the right of God on my side. An eye fer an eye…that be what the Good Book says. Ya leave the boy here with us an we let ya go, peaceful like.”

“The Good Book doesn’t condone kidnapping and torture,” Scott yelled back.

“We got the right ta be procreatin’. We need new blood an we take it. It be our right. It be the law of the land.”

“I’m not sure what land you come from, but it’s not the law around here. Now kneel on those hands again and shut up.”

Scott felt the danger in the air. It was only a matter of time before the Harkins did something. He wasn’t sure if he and Murdoch could hold them off alone.

***

Val raised his hand for silence. The posse stood motionless, waiting for the go-ahead to climb the last two yards to the top of the hill. They had heard the two gunshots and now only silence.

“You men spread out…hold your fire until I say otherwise. There’s no telling where Johnny or the others are.” They should have waited, he thought. That was the deal.

Cipriano tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the ground scuffed up at the top of the hill. “Two men lying in wait.”

“Scott and Murdoch,” Val said flatly.

Val waved his arm and the men crawled up the last of the hill. Val was not sure what he expected to see…but it was not the drama that played out below him. He heard the soft gasp of disbelief from Cipriano beside him.

“Madre de Dios!” Cipriano breathed. “Juanito.”

Val started to rise, but Cipriano dragged him back down. “They must not see us, not yet. Senor Scott and the patron are only two men against a paquete de animals…a pack of animals. They cannot be trusted to act sane.”

“What do you want to do?” Val growled. “Johnny ain’t doing so good down there.”

“Si…But we must be careful? No?”

Val nodded.

“The young woman, she is like a bear with her cub, no? She will protect Juanito.”

“And the rest of ‘em are like a pack of wolves…hungry for the kill.”

“And how would you attack a pack of wolves?”

Val smiled in spite of himself. “I’d distract em. Get ‘em running in every direction.”

“Si. And that is what we must do. Only we will not let them run. They must pay for what they have done to Juanito…Every one of them.”

“I like how ya think, Cip.” Val turned onto his back whispering loudly. “I want two men that way.” He pointed toward his left. “And two men that way.” – pointing to his right. “On my signal I want you to charge that hill, guns firing. I don’t want anyone hit. But we’re gonna scare the piss out of those animals down there.”

Relief, of a kind, came to all the men. At last they were doing something.

***

Johnny felt Pearl gently ease herself from beneath him and in her place he felt Murdoch’s strong arms. He had lost hope for awhile of ever seeing Scott or Murdoch, of ever seeing Lancer again. He feared he would die here, among these animals.

“It’s ok now, son,” he heard Murdoch say, but he could hear the fear in his voice. “Everything’s going to be fine. Just hang on.”

He tried to answer, to tell Murdoch that he would try. That he would not let go without a fight…but there was no strength left in him, nothing but a sigh slipped between his lips.

“Don’t try to talk,” Murdoch said. “Val and Cipriano are right behind us. And Jelly too. We’ll have you out of here and in your own bed before you know it.”

Thoughts of home and his own bed brought back the memories of what he had been through here. The whipping, the filth, the food not fit for dogs…he thought he was going to die here…in this hell…but now he wouldn’t. Murdoch and Scott….

Suddenly the arroyo erupted in an explosion of gunfire. Murdoch bent over him, trying to protect him from the barrage of bullets that screamed through the air above their heads. Maybe he wasn’t going home after all.

***

Scott saw a man in the back of the crowd raise an axe but before he could react the air was filled with bullets flying in every direction. He spun around to see men spilling over the top of the arroyo, taking the steep hill on the run, Val and Cipriano leading the charge. He dropped to his knees, letting them take care of the Harkins as the clan scrambled madly to avoid the gunfire.

He crawled the few feet over to Johnny and then Pearl was there again, ducking beneath the gunfire, water spilling over the rim of the bucket. “His back be the worst,” she panted. Scott wanted to haul her away from Johnny, with her dress and hair so filthy, but at least her hands were scrubbed clean as she began dribbling water onto Johnny’s mouth until he parted his lips and began drinking down the water.

“That’s it, son, drink all you can,” Murdoch’s anguished voice shook with fear. Scott knew that fear, felt it himself. His own hands trembled as he reached for Johnny’s right hand, still locked in the cuff chained to his waist, cringing at the bloodied fingers. He nearly gagged at the smell of dried blood and filth that covered Johnny’s body.

The sound of angry voices filled the arroyo and Scott heard Cipriano and Val shouting orders trying to keep the posse from beating the Harkins to a pulp. There was not a man there whose stomach didn’t burn with a thirst for revenge.

Johnny opened his eyes again, fever bright and unfocused, searching for something. He spotted Scott leaning over him and a wisp of a smile flickered at his lips.

“Hey there little brother…it looks like you could do with a good long soak in that new bathhouse we just built.” Scott laid the back of his hand on Johnny’s forehead and didn’t like what he found. His skin was fiery hot to the touch and parchment dry. If he didn’t start sweating soon they would lose him. He had seen it happen all too often during the war.

“Help me,” Pearl ordered. “His back needs tendin’.” She began to push Johnny over onto his stomach, ignoring the groan of pain. Scott helped her ease him over, his brother’s head still cradled in Murdoch’s lap.

Neither Scott nor Murdoch were prepared to see what had been done to Johnny’s back. Scott nearly vomited at the sight of the dirt and dried blood and infection that covered his brother’s entire back. Scott had never felt like hitting a woman, but it took all his control not to strangle the life out of Pearl as she so innocently began sprinkling water over the lacerations on his brother’s back. The touch of the water on the fiery wounds made Johnny try to squirm away from the pain but Murdoch’s strong arms kept him still.

“Keep your filthy hands off him!” Scott roared, as he moved to stop Pearl.

But Murdoch’s huge hand caught his wrist. “I have a feeling she is the only reason Johnny is still alive. Leave her be until Jelly gets here.”

“He be fevered,” Pearl said softly, all her attention on Johnny. She didn’t seem to hear the war of words between the rescue party and the Harkins, or see the look of hatred on Scott’s face. The only thing in her world was her man… Johnny.

Jelly came staggering down the hill, a burlap sack filled with medical supplies thrown over his shoulder. He stopped in mid stride, shocked to see the filth of the camp, the Harkins’ herded into a circle just beyond the wagon. But most of all, he was shocked to see Johnny. He looked more dead than alive, lying on his stomach, his head resting in Murdoch’s lap.

“Good Lord,” he gasped, running the rest of the way to Johnny’s side. “What have they done to ya boy?”

Pearl grabbed the forgotten knife lying next to her knee and swiped at the air. “Ya ain’t gonna hurt my man.”

Murdoch grabbed her wrist and squeezed until the knife slipped from her fingers, then swung her away as if she weighed nothing. “Jelly’s here to help.”

“No!” Pearl scrambled back. “He need me,” she cried. “He be mine ta take care of.”

“Ya keep that heathen away from Johnny,” Jelly shouted. “Look at him. He’s as filthy as they are. We gotta get him cleaned up right quick.” He pulled a clean blanket from the burlap sack and threw it at Scott. “Spread this out. Johnny needs ta be on something clean. I never saw such filth in my life. We’re gonna need plenty of water. Good thing I brought some real strong soap with me. Boss…” He handed Murdoch a small brown bottle from the sack. “I know he don’t like takin’ this, but cleaning these wounds is gonna be too much fer him ta handle. You kin give it to him straight.”

Murdoch accepted the bottle reluctantly. He knew Johnny’s aversion to the medicine, but he also knew that Jelly was right.

“Let’s roll him onto his back,” Scott ordered. “We can get these pants off him easier.” He looked across at Pearl, her hands clasped in her lap, her eyes never moving from Johnny’s face. “Give us some privacy.”

She looked up at him, confused. “Ain’t know what that means,” she whispered.

Murdoch spotted another bucket behind her. “We need more water.”

She nodded simply, knowing she was being ordered away from her man, but obeying because she wanted him to live.

“I don’t rightly know why yer still lettin’ her hang around Johnny, Boss. She’s the one who got him into this mess.”

“She risked her life to save him, Jelly. I think we owe her just a little,” Murdoch answered.

“If ya ask me, it just settles the debt straight. She’s not owed anything anymore.”

“We’ll discuss it later. Now let’s get these pants off him.”

Scott used the knife Pearl had dropped to slice the conchos off what was left of his pant legs, and slid the knife beneath the waistband. Johnny had lost enough weight in the last days that Scott had no problem slicing away the usually tight fitting pants.

“Where’s the damn key?” Scott hissed, fingering the chain around Johnny’s waist. “Val…” he shouted toward the lawman. “Find the key to these.”

“Right away,” Val shouted back, yanking Jeddah to his feet.

Murdoch lifted the bottle of laudanum to Johnny’s lips. “Swallow this son,” he coaxed. “I know you don’t like it,” he said as Johnny tried to turn his face away from the familiar smell. “But you need it. Just a little. Jelly’s going to clean you up and it’s going to hurt.”

Johnny closed his eyes. There was no strength left in him to fight. Murdoch gently pried Johnny’s mouth open and drizzled the medicine down his throat and waited, watching his face slacken as the laudanum took effect.

Val ran up to them, dropping to one knee, the key to the chain in his hand. “How’s he doing?” he whispered, barely suppressing his rage.

“Not good.” Scott took the key and quickly unlocked the chain, throwing it toward the Harkins. “Use it on one of them,” he spat.

Val nodded, walking back to the clan, snatching the chain and wrist cuff as he went by.

“This is bad,” Jelly mumbled as he began to unwrap the strips of pant legs from Johnny’s feet. “It ain’t right. There was no cause fer them to put Johnny through all this…just so she could have a man,” Jelly spat toward Pearl. “I ain’t a forgiving man, Murdoch Lancer, when it comes to someone I love. There ain’t nothin’ she could ever do that would change my mind.” The old man shook his head, holding back the tears that were ready to spill.

“He won’t be able to walk fer some time. Boss, hand me that tin of salve.”

Murdoch reached for Jelly’s special salve, but Pearl grabbed the tin first, gently applying a thick coat to Johnny’s feet. Jelly tried to swat her hand away but Murdoch grabbed his wrist. “Let her do this. Johnny needs all the help he can get.”

Jelly reluctantly agreed and continued washing the rest of Johnny’s body.

When they got to his back, even the laudanum couldn’t steal away the pain as Jelly gently but thoroughly cleaned the lash strokes, making sure all the dirt and infection was cleaned before applying his special salve to his back. Johnny moaned in pain and Pearl was there, soothing the hurt.

“We can’t let this continue,” Scott whispered, watching Pearl hover over Johnny. “We don’t know how he feels about her. She’s the reason he’s here.”

Murdoch nodded. “And we can’t leave her here. They’ll kill her for turning on them.”

“Are you suggesting that we take her with us?”

“You already said as much.”

“That was…it just slipped out. I didn’t mean it. Sir, we can’t take her with us. It’s going to be hard enough for Johnny to get past this horror without her around to remind him of it.”

“She doesn’t have to stay at the ranch. We’ll find someone to take her in until we decide what to do with her.”

“Who?”

Silence hung in the air. “I don’t know right now. But I’ll think of someone.”

“I think you’re making a big mistake, Murdoch,” Scott warned.

“We’ll see.”

Cipriano was by their side now. “How is he?” he asked, the concern in his voice catching at his words.

“Not good,” Murdoch hissed. “We have to get him home, into Sam’s care.”

“I will send men to retrieve the stretcher.”

Scott pointed toward the Harkins’ Conestoga wagon. “What about taking him home in that?”

Cipriano shook his head. “The road is long and winding. It would take days to reach the hacienda. It is best that we travel as we came.”

Murdoch nodded. “And have a man ride back to Lancer. Have Sam meet up with us. Teresa should be home by now. Tell him to tell her that we’re bringing the girl”

“To the estancia?”

“Yes,” Murdoch snapped.

“Si. I will do as you say.”

“What about them?” Murdoch asked, nodding toward Val. The sheriff and his men had the Harkins’ sitting on the ground. Jezebel was helping a woman tend to Digger. Jeddah was wrapping a dirty cloth around Dawg’s sliced leg. Neither man nor animal would make it past the infection, Murdoch thought.

“We will leave men here to make certain they stay, then we will make sure that they leave this part of the country. They know if they do not do as they are told they will be killed. It is only your belief in the law that keeps them from being killed like the animals they are.” Cipriano spat out the last three words, his eyes filled with hatred.

“Just let them go?” Scott asked incredulously. “They kidnapped Johnny and nearly killed him.” He looked down at Johnny, his eyes sunken beneath dark circles, the pain showing on his face even through the laudanum. “They may still succeed. They need to be arrested and tried.”

“It would give me great pleasure to see all of them hang for what they did to Johnny. But Val doesn’t have the jail space and I think they have already been punished enough. They lost three of their men.”

“It’s not enough,” Scott growled. “Not nearly enough. But Johnny is the important one now. Let’s just get him home.”

Scott reached over and brushed Johnny’s clean wet hair from his eyes. There would never be enough justice for an obscene act like this. He could only hope that Johnny would survive and somehow move on, beyond this horror.

***

Jelly did all he could for Johnny and now it was up to him to hang on as they made the trip home. They placed him on his stomach on the stretcher, wet blankets covering his back. Several buckets of water had already been carried up to the top of the arroyo where Domingo would be waiting with the wagon.

“Mind your footing,” Murdoch cautioned. “This shale is nasty. I don’t want anyone taking any chances. If the trail is too loose we’ll find another way up. Understood?”

There were a murmur of yeses and six men and Pearl began the steep assent. It was hard going and more than once Johnny cried out in pain when someone’s foot slipped and the litter was jerked. It took nearly an hour to make it to the top, each man soaking in sweat, laboring to catch their breaths.

“God bless him,” Jelly sighed as he saw Domingo driving the wagon up to the base of the hill. “We’ll have you in that wagon afore ya know it,” Jelly promised as he poured more water over the drying blanket on Johnny’s back. “You’ll be home, all comfy in your own bed, with Teresa and Maria fussing over ya.” Jelly knew his words were falling on deaf ears. Johnny had lapsed into a deep sleep, one he could not rouse him from.

Murdoch and Scott each held an end of the stretcher and tried not to look at the dark hair peeking out from beneath the dampened blanket. Jelly’s efforts to keep Johnny’s back comfortable and his body cool kept them from seeing his face.

They reached the wagon and wasted no time in getting on the road. Jelly refused to let Pearl ride in the wagon with him and Johnny, and she in turn refused to ride a horse, so she walked behind the wagon.

Murdoch watched Pearl, her eyes glued to the back of the wagon where she could see Jelly constantly exchanging cool wet towels for the hot ones Johnny’s fevered body warmed all too quickly. He remembered back to her mad dash to the covered wagon in camp, thrashing through a mound of hides to find a length of white lace. Something that delicate seemed so out of place in the filth of the camp.

***

Three hours into their trip Scott saw a dust cloud headed for them and out of it he saw Sam’s carriage moving faster than he had ever seen it move before.

“How is he?” Sam panted, climbing down from his carriage. Two men helped him into the back of the wagon and handed him his medical bag.

“Not good,” Jelly said, the pallor of Johnny’s skin telling Sam all he needed to know. The boy was in real trouble.

Sam felt the wagon begin to slow and shouted for them to continue on. He would tell them when to slow down.

“What have we got here, Jelly?”

Jelly carefully lifted the towels to reveal the infected lashes on Johnny’s back. “And his feet doc…I’ve never seen nothing so bad.”

Doc nodded, looking over Johnny’s back and the bottoms of his feet carefully. “This your special salve?” he asked.

“I had ta do somethin’.”

“You did just fine, Jelly. Let’s turn him over. Easy now.” The wagon hit a ditch and bottomed out but there was no protest from Johnny, he remained in a deep sleep.

Sam began a more thorough examination. “He’s dangerously dehydrated,” Sam said, pulling a black tube from his medical bag.

“Ya got to do that, Sam?” Jelly signed. “He don’t need more torture.”

“What he needs is fluids. And he can’t drink when he’s so deeply asleep. This is the only way.”

Jelly nodded, trusting Sam. “Just tell me what to do.”

***

Pearl’s pace had begun to slow to a crawl as the hot sun and the miles depleted her energy. She was forced to accept a horse from Murdoch and rode the rest of the way beside the wagon. She never got another good look at Johnny lying in the wagon, there were two many heads leaning over him, tending to him, for her to get a good look. She only prayed that they were saving him.

Another hour found them passing beneath the Lancer Arch. Teresa and Maria waiting for them in the courtyard.

Domingo pulled the team to a halt and Pearl jumped down from her horse, but before she could get to Johnny she was surrounded by a half dozen women, all speaking in excited Spanish as she was led away from the house and her man. She fought, kicked and tried to bite the women but they were determined and when she was stripped of her clothes and plunged into scalding hot water her shriek could be heard clear back to the Harkins’ camp.

.

Chapter 10

The mood in the hacienda was tense. Silence prevailed. Everyone, whether it be family or close friends, paced nervously while Sam and Teresa worked on Johnny in his room.

No one had known for sure what Johnny would go through while being held captive by the hill people…but no one expected him to return in such a deplorable state. Fear turned to anger, and anger turned to revenge. Ranch hands were ordered to stay in their bunk houses, vaqueros with families were ordered home. Murdoch Lancer would not allow vigilante justice to prevail…while deep in his heart he knew he would not blink an eye if any one of the Harkins were sent to hell where they belonged.

Maria rushed downstairs, her face flushed, a list in her hand. “The Senor Doctor needs these items from his office in town right away.”

Murdoch took the list. “Morphine…carbolic acid…?”

“Juanito is in much pain, patron, and there is much infection. He cannot continue to give him so much of the laudanum.”

“I’ll see to it right away. When can we see Johnny?”

“When the doctor is finished with the bandaging, I am sure you will be permitted to see him then. Senor Murdoch…” Maria laid a gentle hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “Juanito is a strong man. He has been through much, but his will to live still burns within him. He will fight…I know he will.”

“Thank you, Maria.”

Jelly was at his side taking the list. “I’ll see to this myself,” he promised. “I cain’t stand the waitin’ anyway.”

Murdoch nodded. Words were not needed to show his appreciation.

“When I get back I expect ta see that boy grousing ‘bout stayin’ in bed.”

“I’m sure Johnny won’t disappoint you, Jelly. But it may be a few days.”

“I don’t care how long it takes as long as I see it happen.”

Murdoch watched Jelly stop at the French doors to say something to Scott. It seemed that the strain of Johnny’s kidnapping and now recovery were telling on everyone. Scott’s face was drawn from fatigue and worry. It had been days since any one of them had had a decent night’s sleep.

“Any word?” Scott asked, looking toward the doorway that led to the stairs.

“Sam is still working on him. Is everything going all right out there?”

“You mean Pearl?”

Murdoch nodded.

“You know what I think about her being here, but yes…everything is all right, for now. The women have her cleaned up and are feeding her now. She wants to see Johnny, but she has been told that may not happen for a couple of days. I don’t want to upset Johnny.”

“Agreed. We’ll let Sam make the decision. Meanwhile…I need a stiff drink, care to join me?”

Scott shook his head. “Not yet, Sir. I’m…”

Teresa was standing in the doorway, drying her hands on a towel, her face pale and drawn. “Sam says you can come up now.”

“How is he?” Murdoch set the glass of bourbon on the coffee table, untouched.

“Sam can tell you better than I can.” She stood aside as Murdoch and Scott passed by, taking the steps two stairs at a time.

The room was warm and stale even with the window open and Scott felt a moment’s hesitation before crossing the threshold. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to hear Sam’s prognosis. He remembered the long hours he spent at Johnny’s bedside when he had been felled by Pardee’s bullet. But Johnny had been a stranger to him then. A half-brother in name only. Now…now Johnny was so much a part of him he wasn’t sure if he could endure that kind of emotional pain.

Scott’s stomach dropped at the sight of Johnny, lying motionless in his bed. Sam had wrapped a bandage around his waist to hold the thick pad against the knife wound on his side and layers of padding covered the mattress beneath his back to soak up the pink tinged blood still oozing from the lacerations on his back. His feet were swaddled in white cloth and propped up on soft pillows.

“Sam…?” Murdoch’s voice sounded overly loud in the still of the room.

Sam sat down heavily into the chair by the window, tying the flapping curtain to the arm of the chair before facing Scott and Murdoch.

“The only reason that boy is alive right now is because of Jelly’s quick action. Cleaning those infected lesions and treating them with his salve stalled the spread of the infection.”

“Then he’s going to be all right?” Scott asked.

“I didn’t say that. Johnny has a long road ahead of him. First we have to get that fever down then keep him quiet long enough for the wounds to heal. Frankly, I am more concerned with the lacerations on his feet than his back. Some of those cuts go straight to the bone. I don’t know how he continued walking. I’m not sure…”

“Sam, the bottom line,” Murdoch demanded, not unkindly.

“The next twenty-four hours are critical. If we get his fever under control and keep him hydrated, then I think he will make a full recovery. Physically…I can’t even imagine what lies ahead for him, and you, emotionally.”

Scott stepped closer to the bed. “Whatever it takes we’ll be there for him.”

“I have no doubt about that. Now…” Sam replaced his instruments into his black bag. “I have a few other patients to check in on. Teresa knows what to do, how to administer the medication through the nasal tube. I know, it looks uncomfortable, and it is. But it is necessary. It would be good if you two also learned so you can spell her. I’m also concerned that he may have sustained a concussion from that blow to the head. We won’t know for sure until he wakes up. And that may be a few days. I am keeping him heavily sedated. He needs to lie perfectly still for those wounds to start healing.”

“Thank you, Sam.” Murdoch walked him toward the door. “Why don’t you stop in the kitchen on the way out, I know Maria has food waiting for you in the oven warmer.”

“Thanks, Murdoch. I’ll do just that. Now you get a man to me right away if Johnny’s condition changes for the worse.”

Murdoch nodded, closing the door slowly once he saw Sam heading down the stairs. He leaned his head against the door…Would this nightmare never end?

***

Pearl was bathed several times, and with each new tub of hot soothing water, she became more cooperative. And the warning that she would not be able to enter Johnny’s house to see him unless she was as clean as new fallen rain further calmed her down.

Her hair became such a problem, every comb pulled through the matted hair was soon broken, that it was decided it would have to be cut. Maria supervised the cutting, and in the end, Pearl looked sweet and innocent in a simple light blue dress and her hair not much longer than Scott’s.

Her hair was given an unceremonious burial.

After being cleaned and fed she was taken to a bedroom on the first floor of the house…a house she had never seen the likes of before.

The room…her room…Maria had stated in her broken English, was overly large and filled with things Pearl had no need for. The bed was soft and covered with cool cotton sheets and she found herself lying on them, staring at the ceiling wondering when she would be permitted to see her Johnny…her man. But until she could see him face to face, until she could whisper her love for him, she simply had to comfort herself with visions of him lying beside her, his strong arms holding her close to his chest, losing herself in the warmth of his kindness, feeling his body entwined with hers. She knew he would be gentle when they bedded. He would not hurt her because he loved her just as much as she loved him.

But time moved so slowly. They had told her patiently each time she asked that he was not well, and it could be days before she could see him. She pleaded for only a glimpse…to ease her mind…but she was denied and left watching the changing shadows move across the walls and ceiling.

On the third day she felt frustrated enough to slip out of her room and sneak into the great room. The room was filled with more furniture and shiny brass and wood statues than she had seen in a lifetime. One wall was filled with books, different sizes and different colors. The only book she had ever seen before was the Good Book and Jeddah held that close to him at all times, being that he was the only one in the clan that could read…and there were only a few pages that he could read that he hadn’t memorized.

She took to hiding behind the huge sofa whenever someone walked by. She saw women walking up and down the stairs carrying sheets and towels and fresh bandages. Buckets of hot water and trays filled with steaming mugs.

Pearl began to see a pattern. She got so she could predict when someone would be walking up or down the stairs. She remembered Digger telling her that hunting took time and a good eye. That if you studied it long enough you would know when a critter was ready to bolt before it knew it was.

She waited until she was sure there would be enough time for her to climb the stairs and peek into his room. She only needed to see him for a moment…just to ease the worry in her heart. He had been so sick as they carried him on the stretcher out of the arroyo. She had caught glimpses of him inside the wagon as his father and brother worked with the other men to save him, to bring him back to her.

She reached the top of the stairs, the wood steps polished all shiny like a still pond in the sun, and looked down the long hallway. There were four doors and only one of them was left open. That must be Johnny’s. She tip-toed down the hall, her heart beating in her throat. If she was caught they would punish her…whip her for disobeying. But anything was worth getting a look at her Johnny.

Pearl carefully pushed the door open and her beating heart was now pounding in her chest.

“No!” she screamed. “What you be doin’ ta ‘im?”

She was across the floor before Scott could come out of the chair he was sitting in beneath the window, stunned to see her fling Teresa aside and grab for the black nasal tube snaking up through Johnny’s nose and down to his stomach.

“Pearl, no!” Scott recovered from the shock and leaped toward her, wrapping his arm around her waist. “No! It’s helping him. Its giving him the water and medicines he can’t take while he’s sleeping.”

“It ain’t natural…It be the devil’s work…” She tried to yank it out but Teresa was prying her hand loose, digging her fingers into Pearl’s flesh.

“Leave it be. You’re hurting him!” Teresa pulled the tube from Pearl’s hand and laid it gently along Johnny’s cheek to rest on the pillow beside him. “It’s not hurting him,” she panted. “We would never hurt Johnny…we love him.”

“He be mine,” she protested. “I be the one ta tend ta ‘im. He be wantin’ me.”

“He’s not yours!” Scott shouted. “He doesn’t belong to you or anyone. I knew it was a mistake to bring you here.”

The sound of heavy feet pounded up the stairs and Murdoch was standing in the doorway, his face ashen. “What the hell is going on here?”

Teresa was gently wiping Johnny’s forehead with a cool damp rag, the commotion bringing him to the edge of consciousness. “It’s all right, Johnny, go back to sleep. You rest and get better. You’re home safe and sound. Sleep now…”

Johnny’s body relaxed and he drifted back into a deep sleep.

“She tried to yank the nasal tube out,” Scott spat. “She could have killed him.”

“No,” Pearl cried, fighting to free herself from Scott’s strong hands around her waist. “That be a lie. Johnny!” She struggled harder to release Scott’s grip, flinging her arms, trying to reach the bed. “Johnny…I love ya…I kin help…”

Johnny moaned again, confused by the sounds that drifted through his mind. He tried to raise his head and Teresa was pushing him back down, looking over her shoulder at Murdoch and Scott. “Get her out of here. She’s upsetting Johnny. Get her out or I will…” The threat was unfinished as Maria rushed into the room.

“Madre de Dios!” Her face went white when she saw Johnny begin to struggle, pushing Teresa’s hands away from him limply.

“It’s all right, Johnny. You’re safe. Maria, the morphine.”

“It is too soon,” Maria said, her eyes wide with fear.

“It can’t be helped. He’ll pull all those wounds open on his back. Do it.”

Maria nodded and pulled the exact amount needed into a syringe. Sam had taught her and Teresa how to administer the injection. In moments Johnny relaxed and fell back into a deep drugged sleep.

Teresa turned back to Pearl, her chest heaving from the exertion. “Scott, take Pearl back to her room. We need to have a talk.”

“No,” Pearl protested. “I need ta be with Johnny.”

Teresa said coldly, “You need to be in your room. I’ll be there shortly. You and I have to come to an understanding.”

Scott wrapped his hand around Pearl’s mouth to drown out her cries and dragged her from the room.

Murdoch turned to Teresa. “I can’t let you…”

“Murdoch…this is something that I have to do. Please understand.”

“We should send the perra back where she came!” Maria hissed. “She does not belong in the same house with Juanito.”

Murdoch saw the determination in Teresa’s face. “On one condition. That she is restrained. I will not let that woman hurt you.”

Teresa nodded, turning back to look at Johnny. He had relaxed back on the mattress, but his face was still flushed with fever, his chest heaving with each breath. He was still far from being ok…and most of the reason for him being in that state was the young woman being led downstairs. But she had risked her life to save him. What kind of misguided love drove her? Teresa needed to know for herself and for Johnny.

***

Johnny floated in a world that was neither here nor there. When he felt the first flicker of pain crawl up his back or gnaw at his feet it would disappear almost instantly with the prick of a needle in his arm.

But the morphine couldn’t control the memories, and he relived the nightmare again and again…the foul smells, the hunger in the pit of his stomach. He heard the whip cracking as his back was laid open. He didn’t feel the pain – that was lost somewhere in the drugs – but he heard it and tasted the bile that rose from his stomach.

And his desperate attempt to escape. The stench of Zeke’s blood on his skin, in his hair. He tried to scrub it off with his hands but they were held still and he remembered the manacle and fought harder. Then blackness rescued him and he fell off the world into nothing.

Then he heard her voice…but it wasn’t in a dream, it was close to him, somewhere beyond his closed eyelids. He struggled to lift them, but he didn’t have the strength. Fear clenched his throat, made it hard to breathe…he thought he was safe, he thought Murdoch and Scott had taken him from the hell that was the Harkins’ camp. Was it just a dream that he was lying in his own bed? That he was safe inside his home, inside his room…He struggled to escape from her…from Pearl. The filth of her body, the stench of her breath. Her hands, all over him, pawing at him, wanting him.

And now other voices filled his head. Some angry, some soothing, and the needle stick again…and he floated away.

***

Pearl struggled against the ropes that bound her to the arms of a chair that sat in the center of her room.

“You cain’t do this!” she screamed, fighting at the bonds. “Johnny need me. He be my man…he…”

“He is NOT your man,” Teresa said loudly, slamming the door behind her. “He belongs to no one. Not man or woman.”

“I love ‘im.”

“You have a strange way of proving it,” Teresa shot back sarcastically.

“I saved ‘im. I saved ‘im from Digger and Pa. I love ‘im.”

Teresa pressed her back against the door, reaching for the strength to confront the woman who had nearly killed Johnny. “I’m sure you do,” she managed to say evenly. “Johnny is loved by a lot of people. I love him too.”

“You be ‘is woman?” A dark shadow crossed Pearl’s face. “He be your man?”

“No. Johnny has no ‘woman’. Not yet. Pearl, when Johnny meets the woman that he wants to make a home with, wants to raise children with, it will be someone he chooses himself. Someone who loves him as much as he loves her. Not someone who kidnaps him.”

“But I love ‘im,” Pearl implored.

“Pearl, you don’t know what love means.” Teresa sat down on the bed, facing Pearl. She looked so child-like with her close-cropped hair.

“Yes I do. I be in love with Johnny.”

“You can’t love someone and let him be whipped nearly to death.”

“I had ta do that. If’n Digger did that whippin’ he’d a kilt Johnny.”

Teresa could barely breathe for a moment. She felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. “You whipped Johnny?” she whispered incredulously.

“I had ta. Pa ordered it. Ta punish ‘im fer not obeyin’. He said if’n I didn’t put my back in ta it, that Digger would do it right.”

“You whipped him?”

Pearl nodded. “Cause I love ‘em. Cause I wanted ‘im ta be mine.”

Teresa squeezed the folds of her dress so hard that her hands ached. She had never felt the need to hit someone as much as she needed to hit Pearl. “You don’t know the first thing about love, Pearl. You were raised like an animal and you act like an animal!”

“I ain’t no animal,” Pearl choked back tears that had been threatening to fall. “I do what I kin ta live. I be nigh on ta eighteen and I ain’t got me a man I kin call my own. Digger and Ruff an them…they come ta me when their women be dirty…they be rough an ugly an they hurt me. But Pa says I gots ta do it ‘till I got a man of my own. Then Digger and them others will leave me alone. Ma says Johnny was the man fer me. That I kin train ‘im ta love and obey. That he would love me like I love ‘im someday. “But…” the tears came unabated now, and Teresa’s heart broke for the young woman… “Johnny ain’t never gonna love me like I love ‘im. He hates me. He’s a feared a me.”

Teresa came closer, kneeling next to Pearl’s chair, laying her hand on the rope that bound her wrist. “He does now. But in time…Pearl, there is a whole different world out there…one that doesn’t hurt women but respects them. One that doesn’t look down on a girl if she isn’t married by eighteen. When you leave here you will meet lots of different people. There are more men like Johnny than your father and your cousins.”

“I gotta leave Johnny?”

Teresa nodded.

“But he be all I got. Why does it hurt ta love ‘im?”

Teresa sighed. “Loving someone can be painful sometimes, if they are not the right one.”

“You love ‘im too?”

“I love Johnny with all my heart, but only as a friend and a sister.”

“Kin I be ‘is friend?”

“I don’t know. It’s not for me to answer. Only Johnny can answer that.”

Pearl lowered her head, her short haircut and freshly scrubbed face making her look like a repentant child. “I hurt Johnny. He ain’t never gonna forget that.”

“You’d be surprised. Johnny, above all people, knows that a person can change. Give him time.”

“But I ain’t got no place ta go. I cain’t stay here…an I cain’t go back to Pa and Ma. I ain’t got nowhere ta go or no one ta go to.”

“We’ll find a place where you’ll be safe. Where you can learn to be a young woman.”

“Ya kin teach me.”

Teresa stood up slowly. “No. You can’t stay here. Johnny needs time to heal. He can’t heal if he sees you every day…remembers what happened to him.”

“Kin I see ‘im again?”

“I don’t know. It’s up to the doctor and Murdoch.”

“And Johnny?”

Teresa nodded. “Mostly Johnny. I’ll send someone in to untie those ropes.”

Teresa closed the door as Pearl called, “Ya tell Johnny I love ‘im when ya sees ‘im?”

***

Scott shifted his feet on the edge of the mattress as he tried to find a more comfortable position in the chair he had occupied for the past four hours. He tried to read, but mostly he watched Johnny as he tossed and turned in his sleep.

Sam had lessened his medication, allowing Johnny to slowly regain consciousness when his body and mind were ready. His fever had reached its peak early that morning and now it was slowly, but steadily coming down. He laid his book aside and wrung out a cool cloth to wipe down Johnny’s face and chest.

“When are you coming back to us, brother?” he whispered. “We’re all waiting.”

There was a low moan deep in Johnny’s throat and his eyelids flickered.

“That’s it,” Scott urged. “You’re almost there.”

Then he was looking into Johnny’s blue eyes, still fever bright and unfocused.

“Welcome back, Johnny.”

“How…long?” Johnny asked, his voice only a weak whisper.

Scott shrugged. “Five days. But that was partly because Sam kept you under so you could heal. How do you feel?”

“I would like an answer to that myself,” Sam called as he walked into the room. “It looks like I have impeccable timing, as usual.”

Scott began to move aside for Sam but Johnny whispered, “Stay.” And he did.

“Now, how do you feel, John? And I want the truth.” Sam pulled back the covers and cut away the bandage around his waist.

“Hurt…” Johnny said. “Everywhere.”

“That’s not surprising. Scott,” Sam pointed to a paper on Johnny’s nightstand. “When did Johnny receive his last injection of morphine?”

“Three hours ago.” Scott didn’t need to see the list, he had medicated Johnny himself.

Sam nodded. “Then we’ll give you another one before I do a thorough examination.”

“I don’t need…” Johnny began, but Sam cut him short.

“You need it, Johnny. And I will continue to give it to you as long as you need it.”

Johnny’s eyes were on Sam and so he was surprised when he felt the prick of the needle and turned to see Scott with the syringe in his hand.

“Sorry, Johnny.” Scott grinned. “Doctor’s orders.”

Johnny relaxed into the mattress and Sam knew the drug had taken affect. “This looks like its healing well,” he reported after examining the knife wound on Johnny’s side. “Now Scott, if you would help me turn Johnny over, I can take a look at his back.”

Johnny moaned, despite the morphine, but Sam was quick and they eased him back. “You are healing nicely, John. You still have a fever and there is still infection there, but I’m sure we have it well under control. Now let’s have a look at those feet.”

Scott held Johnny’s hand, feeling him flinch as Sam began to remove the bandages wrapped around his feet.

“You are healing nicely, John,” Sam said, examining Johnny’s feet carefully. “It will take time, but I’m confident that you will have no lingering effects. The main thing now, is rest.”

“That’s no problem,” Johnny said weakly, “I can’t seem to keep my eyes open.”

“That’s your body telling you it needs time to heal. I’ll stop by in a few days. Keep the medications as they are, Scott.”

“Thanks, Sam.” Scott made sure Johnny was comfortable and fast asleep again before following Sam out the door. “I’ll see you to the door.”

“No need. I know my way around here blindfolded,” he chuckled, looking down the staircase. His humor quickly vanished as he turned back to Scott. “I suggest you take a break as soon as possible. You’re not going to help Johnny if you are passed out on your feet. He still requires a lot of attention, and he will need a close watch for some time to come.”

Scott nodded. “I will Sam, thanks.”

“No need, just take care of yourself and that boy. By the way, have you found a home for the young woman?”

“Not yet, but we will. Sam, she wants to see Johnny.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s up to Johnny. If he says yes it should be a short visit. But I’d still wait awhile, until he’s stronger. ”

Scott nodded. “Thanks, Sam. If you don’t mind, send Maria up. I think I’ll take that rest now.”

Sam patted Scott’s shoulder. “Good man.”

Scott slipped back into Johnny’s room, relieved to see him still asleep. The ordeal had been rough on all of them. And he knew it was still not over. It would take time for all of them to heal. And the presence of Pearl downstairs left him feeling on edge. The sooner they found someone to take her in the better.

.

Chapter 11

Pearl walked around the courtyard slowly, feeling the warmth of the sun on her face. She had been here two weeks…that is what Teresa had said last night. In another week she would be leaving Lancer and everything she had ever known, for Colorado, where a family had offered to take her in. Teresa had said it was the best thing for her, a clean break from everything. And the Hoffman’s were a nice family, close friends to Father Sanchez. Father Sanchez was to accompany her. It was a good excuse, he said, to see his old friends again.

So she had one more week to be near Johnny. One more week of knowing that he was just upstairs in his room, so close to her. And yet a million miles away. She hoped he would let her see him before she left. So far he had said “maybe tomorrow”.

Teresa explained why he was so hesitant to see her, that he was still fighting with the nightmares of what had happened to him. Pearl wanted so much to tell him that she was sorry. That she knew she was wrong, and would never go back with Ma and Pa. She ironed her skirt with her hands, feeling the softness of the cotton material. Everything had changed. She had changed.

She reached the heavy oak door and stepped into the coolness of the hacienda. She could hear Maria in the kitchen…how she longed to have Maria put her arms around her shoulders like she did Teresa and speak to her in her lyrical Spanish. But the Lancer’s cook was faithful to a fault. She was like an angry mother bear protecting her cub. She would not allow anyone to hurt her Juanito again. Especially her.

Then there was Scott. He would answer a direct question, but never instigate a conversation. He was civil and courteous, and so damnably cold and distant. Teresa explained that Scott was not quick to forgive when it came to his brother. He had been the one to sit by Johnny’s side the most in the first week. He had given him morphine when the pain was so bad. He had comforted Johnny when his nightmares seemed all too real. He had seen what she and her family had done to his brother, and he would never be able to forgive or forget.

Murdoch on the other had tried to be kind, tried to look beyond the scars that covered his son’s back and feet, to understand that Pearl was almost as much a victim as Johnny was. But she would see his cold stare when he returned from Johnny’s room, and she knew he would never be able to forgive her completely.

So it was good that she was leaving next week. She needed to get a fresh start at life and the Lancer’s needed to get on with the lives they had before she set eyes on Johnny…her man.

She hadn’t realized it, lost in deep thought, but she was half way up the staircase. So close to his room…

She found she couldn’t turn around. She had to see him. Her heart began to beat so fast and so loud she was sure the entire house could hear it. She felt dizzy and turned upside down. Then she heard a sound she had not heard before. As she moved down the hallway, closer to Johnny’s room, his door left slightly ajar, she knew what it was and a surge of emotion nearly brought her to her knees. It was the sound of laughter, Johnny’s laugher.

Quietly, she pushed the door open enough for her to see into the room. Johnny was sitting in a tub of water in the middle of the room while Scott poured a bucket of water over his brother’s head.

“Hey, Boston, watch it.” Johnny sputtered. “Ya trying ta drown me?”

“I’m trying to get the soap out of that mop you call a haircut. I still think we should give Jelly a pair of scissors and let him trim a little here, and a little here.” Scott grabbed huge clumps of Johnny’s wet hair and tugged gently. “You might just impress the ladies for a change.”

“Trim?” Johnny snorted. “Give Jelly a pair of scissors and he’d have me scalped. No thank you brother. I’ll just ride into town when I’m able and get it cut right.”

“Suit yourself.” Scott grinned. “But if you change your mind.”

“No way,” Johnny laughed, and slapped his arms against the water sending it splashing everywhere, drenching Scott where he stood.

“Are you crazy?” Scott shouted. “Both Maria and Teresa are going to have our hides.”

“Your hide, brother,” Johnny said with a wicked grin. “I’m still too sick to be yelled at.”

Pearl thought her heart would explode at the sound of his laughter, at the sight of him bantering so easily with his brother. She wanted so much to walk into that room and take care of him herself. But she stayed where she was, knowing that she had to be content with just looking for now.

Suddenly Johnny began to shiver and all levity was gone.

“You wanna help me out of here, Scott?” Johnny asked, his voice trembling. “I’m feeling tired all of a sudden.”

“Too much too soon,” Scott said. “I’ll get Jelly…”

“No, I can manage with just your help.”

“Johnny…”

“Scott, just do it, please. I’ve been burden enough for too long.”

“You’re not a burden, Johnny, and you know it. There’s not a person here that begrudges the time spent caring for you. We just thank God that you made it back to us alive. But we’ll give it a try. If you can’t handle it I’m calling Jelly. Deal?”

Johnny nodded. “Deal.”

Scott carefully slid his arms beneath the warm water and wrapped his arms around Johnny’s chest, pulling him up out of the water.

Pearl nearly fainted at the sight of Johnny… her man…rising up out of the tub, water sliding down his body, and even though his muscles were softened by illness, they still rippled beneath the water drops. She soaked in every part of him. She felt a flutter inside her stomach. He was so beautiful. Digger or Ruff had never made her feel like this. She longed to wrap her arms around him, to hold him close and kiss him gently.

She watched as Scott began to struggle. Johnny had one foot out of the tub, standing on the floor, but he was unable to put any weight on it and Scott was left trying to balance him and lift him from the water.

“Don’t struggle, Johnny,” Scott snapped. “I knew we should have waited for Jelly.”

Pearl felt the heavy footsteps come up behind her, but Murdoch didn’t say a word, he just passed by her and steadied Johnny as Scott toweled him off and they eased him into bed.

Pearl gasped at the sight of Johnny’s raw back. She had done that to him. Her hand had the wielded the whip, and now as she stood there, she was no longer as sure as she was that day that she had done the right thing, that she had done everything she could to protect him.

“Are you all right son?” Murdoch asked, lifting Johnny’s feet onto pillows.

“Yea. I just can’t seem to get my strength back.”

“It takes time Johnny. I’ll send Maria up to rebandage your feet. Sam says you’re doing well. Do you think you’ll be all right for a few hours tomorrow with just Maria? I have to go into town on business and Teresa has already promised Father Sanchez she’d help with the plans for Sunday’s picnic.”

“And I’ll be gone most of the day,” Scott said. “Cipriano found a section of fence down by the culvert. Work goes on little brother. Enjoy the rest while you can get it.”

“Ain’t nothing to enjoy, Scott,” Johnny said bitterly.

“I know. But it won’t be much longer.”

Pearl saw Scott turn to leave and she rushed down the stairs. She was sure Murdoch would have words with her later. For now she would rather not face Scott. She suddenly had a lot to think about. She had been wrong in what she did to Johnny. Somehow she had to make things right.

***

Lunchtime came and Johnny carefully lifted the tray resting on his lap and laid it on the mattress beside him. He appreciated the work Maria put into making his favorite tamale soup, but he just didn’t have an appetite yet.

It had been two weeks since he had been rescued. He didn’t remember a lot about the first few days, lost in the fog of pain and fever. And now he was feeling well enough to be bored and irritable. But Sam insisted on a few more days in bed, promising if all went well he could rest downstairs very soon.

He was feeling stronger every day. The constant pain in his back was leveling off to a steady dull ache, spiking only when he tried to move. His feet were healing, but Sam insisted that he put no weight on them at all for at least another week. After that another couple of weeks before he could even think of trying to pull a pair of boots on. In the end, he was still looking at a long recovery.

He was thinking more and more about Pearl. He knew she was downstairs waiting. But he wasn’t ready to face her… not yet. She brought with her too many painful memories. And the thought that she loved him so deeply…a love he could never reciprocate, left him with a guilt that confused him. He truthfully didn’t know if he could ever face her.

The memories were still too raw. The stench of her and the camp still lingered in his nose. The taste of fear still sent his heart racing. He had come too close to losing it…to losing himself.

Sam promised in time those feelings would subside. He hoped they would. That he would eventually file this incident in his life away in the back of his mind with all the other incidents in his young, but oh so long, life.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling his expanding chest pull at the healing lacerations on his back, and wondered if this time he wouldn’t be able to put it behind him. If this time the pain and fear was too much.

He heard soft footsteps and the creak of the loose floorboard in front of his door. He looked at the door, left ajar as usual in case he needed someone.

Somehow he knew who was standing on the other side. He could feel her there, waiting, wondering if she should enter. He could have easily put her mind at ease and called her in, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t face her alone. He didn’t trust himself. He didn’t know what he would say, what he would do. He knew she had saved his life in the end, offered to take his punishment.

“Kin I come in?” came the hesitant voice from the hallway and suddenly Johnny felt his world falling away from him. Her voice sent him spiraling back to the Harkins’ camp. All the fear, all the rage, all the pain of being lost in their world with little hope of rescue or escape. He felt her straddling him, the vile bowl of rancid food in her hand, her stench.

“Go away!” he growled. It angered him that just her voice made him feel so out of control. He’d known hard times all his life…felt the gnaw of hunger, the pain of a whip, the ache of manacles…why did he feel so helpless at the sound of her voice?

“Please…? I wanna talk…”

He wasn’t ready. What was wrong with him? He always faced his enemies straight on. He never hid. But this time…

The door slowly opened and Pearl stood in the doorway.

“Kin I come in…?” she asked again.

Her transformation was astounding. If not for her voice Johnny wasn’t sure if he would have recognized her. She seemed so tiny and innocent with her hair cut short and the hem of her too long skirt piling up around her feet.

Johnny didn’t answer right away. He just stared. He saw her eyes studying his feet, still propped on pillows, swaddled in thick layers of gauze.

“I know ya don’t wanna see me…”

Johnny remained silent.

“I…I need ta talk ta ya…”

Johnny lowered his head, looking at his hands clasped in his lap. “I’ve got nothing to say to you,” he replied softly, measuring his words. He couldn’t let her see his fear. “You shouldn’t be here. Where is everybody?”

“Maria `an Teresa, they be cleanin’ the clothes.” She squeezed the folds of her skirt. “Never knew what clean was afore. The men, they be a workin’. Never knew there was so much work ta do…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Never knew much a nothin’. Ma an Pa, they don’t know nothin’ neither. “

“You better go before they find you up here.”

“I was a hopin’…”

Johnny couldn’t get past the voice. She was at the heart of everything that had happened to him. When he raised his eyes to her they were as cold as steel. “I appreciate all you did for me that last day. I know you saved my life…”

“Johnny…”

“But you also put me there.” He cut her off. “You tried to break me, train me like some damn animal. Just so you’d have a man to wed.” The venom in his voice frightened her and she took a step back. “There’s no way I can forgive or forget that.”

“I be wrong,” she said, her voice trembling. “I know that now. Teresa…she tell me how wrong it be.”

“It doesn’t change anything.”

Pearl took a hesitating step inside the room.

“Don’t…come any closer,” Johnny warned.

“I change. I be a better person. Pa and Ma…they was wrong. They tell me I gotta have a man. I gotta be bedded by my own man afore we get ta the reunion. I shame them if’n I don’t. They say pick a man…an I pick you. They say ya would love me like I love you if’n I train ya right.”

“They were wrong. You can’t train a person. “

She nodded, the tears she had held back finally flowing down her cheeks. Her voice was so soft, so filled with remorse. “I know…I be sorry.”

Johnny closed his eyes and Pearl stood before him as she had been. Her hair matted, her dress filthy and torn. “Sorry’s not enough. You treated me like an animal. I can’t put that behind me.”

Pearl sucked back a sob. “Teresa, she say if’n I learn’t ta be good, ta be a lady fer ya, that ya would like me some day. That we be friends.”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”

“I be clean for ya. I learn ta cook an sew an…”

“I don’t need a wife. I don’t want a wife. And when I do, I’ll pick her myself because I love her. Not because she needs a bed partner.”

“I know that now. I…wanna be yer friend.”

Johnny sighed. “Pearl…I need time. I need to heal. Not just here…” he pointed to his bandaged feet. “I need to get right with myself here.” He touched his temple. “I have to get back to being the person I was before you and your family turned my life into a living hell.”

Silence hung heavy in the room.

Pearl’s tiny voice broke the silence. “Kin ya ever love me?”

“Like a man and woman?” Johnny shook his head. “No.”

Pearl dropped her head, her voice muffled by her tears. “I ain’t never gonna stop lovin’ ya Johnny. Ya always be my man…”

“No! I’m not your man.” Suddenly Johnny couldn’t stop the anger. Couldn’t stop the words. “You don’t own me. Nobody owns me. I want you out of my life. I want you and your father and your mother and every damn one of you out of my life, out of my dreams.”

Pearl stared at him, stunned.

He watched her slowly turn around and walk out the door. He wanted to call her back…but he couldn’t find the words. He eased back against the pillow as he watched the door close behind her. She was so much in need, and he hated himself for not having anything to give her. He didn’t even have enough for himself.

He said nothing the rest of the day. Dinner came and he left it untouched. He was angry and ashamed with himself. He had treated Pearl harshly. She was a victim just as much as he was…and he had turned her away. But he didn’t know if he could ever forgive her.

He noticed his left foot was hurting more and more. And sometime during the night he felt people hovering over him, a cool compress put to his burning forehead and the sting of the needle in his arm again. Something was wrong, but the morphine carried the pain away and he was only vaguely aware of Sam’s voice as he sank into the darkness of drugged sleep.

***

Johnny awoke to the sounds of everyday life going on without him, just beyond the closed curtains of his window. He felt overly warm. A shaft of afternoon sunlight lay across his legs, pouring in through a gap between the drapes, heating the light sheet that covered him to his waist.

He had slept very little the night before. His encounter with Pearl two days before had left him staring at the dark ceiling late into the night, thinking until he had drifted off where dreams had robbed him of his sleep, and a low grade fever left him lethargic. One of the lacerations on his foot had become infected again. Sam explored the area and found a tiny pebble lodged against the bone. He bristled at the thought of his recovery being pushed back. He had been healing so well. Now he just wanted to sleep.

So he closed his eyes and dozed again…thoughts of Pearl drifting through his mind again. She was downstairs in the guest room. He once again saw her as she had been, her hair matted and dirty, face hidden beneath a layer of dirt, her dress covered with dust. He even smelled her at times, the stench of her and the camp lingering in his nose, turning his stomach. Then he remembered her tender touch, the sweet water that fed his thirst and cooled the fever burning his skin like fire. He felt confused. He hated her. For the kidnapping, for the whipping…but he pitied her for the life she had been born into. And he owed her, for offering up her life to save his. But…it would take time to forgive her…a long time.

He tossed and turned as visions of the guest bedroom dissolved into the Harkins’ camp and he was fleeing the dog, its hot breath on his heels…its fangs ready to sink into his already torn feet…

Johnny sat up straight, his back protesting the sudden move.

There it was…the noise that had awoken him…a strangled cry. Then silence.

He scooted himself up the bed until his back was against the headboard, trying to ignore the shooting pains in his foot. He tried to see out between the gap in the drapes but saw only a sliver of the mountains in the distance and blue sky.

Had he imagined the cry? He had been asleep…dreaming. It was more than likely – and yet, he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He strained to hear another sound. Maria would be in the kitchen, Pearl in the guest room.

And there it was. The faint scrape of a chair leg on the kitchen floor. The heel of a boot on the terra cotta tile in the entranceway. The creak of the third stair from the bottom…

Johnny glanced at his gun belt slung over the back of the chair sitting beneath the window. Scott said he had found it on the floor of the stable the day he was taken. Johnny hadn’t held it in his hand since. He swung his legs over the edge of the mattress, sucking back the groan of pain. His foot touched the floor and he nearly passed out. It was just ten steps to the chair and ten back. But could he do it?

He took the first tentative step and pain seared up from his foot to his brain. But there was no going back. He had to have that gun.

Then the door swung open and Pearl was standing there, trying to draw air back into her lungs.

“Hide!” she cried, and she was next to him, pulling him toward the door. “They be here!”

He pulled his arm free. “Who?”

“My kin. They come ta take us back. Hide!” She was nearly hysterical. “They come. Pa…he be killin’ mad.”

“My gun, on the chair.” Johnny pointed to the holster. “Bring it here. The holster and all.”

Johnny eased back down on the edge of the mattress. “How many?” he hissed.

“Pa an Digger an two more. They be mad, Johnny. Like I never seen afore”

The fire in his back was reawakening. He couldn’t walk. He wouldn’t get far like this.

“Pearl, listen to me. I want you to get out of here. Hide in the barn if you can.”

“No! I ain’t leavin’ ya. Please, Johnny. I cain’t.”

“You have to.” He snatched her wrist, pulling her close. He could see the fear in her eyes and knew what she had sacrificed to help him. “They’ll kill you for helping me”

“I ain’t important. It be you they want.”

“They want us both.” The fear of returning to their camp was mind numbing. And he knew at that moment he would die before he let either one of them fall back into the Harkins’ hands.

Heavy feet thundered up the stairs. Johnny shoved Pearl toward the chair. “The gun!” he hissed.

She was half way across the room when the door slammed open, the sound reverberating through the room.

Pearl whirled around… “Pa…!”

“We come ta take ya back home, child,” Jeddah said, standing in the doorway, the stench of his clothes fouling the room. Digger, his arm in a sling, slipped by Jeddah to stand on the far side of the bed.

Pearl shook her head. “I ain’t goin’ with ya, Pa.” She looked toward Johnny. She saw him straighten his back, square his shoulders, his eyes taking in every detail of each man until they settled on Jeddah.

“She’s not going with you,” Johnny said softly, the tone of his voice as cold as ice.

Jeddah walked toward Pearl, grabbing at her short hair and shaking her head. “What’d they do to ya child? Where be yer hair?”

“They cut it. I be clean now, like real folk.”

Jeddah shoved her away in disgust. “A Harkins would die afore she be scalped that a’way. Shame is yer name child. Shame.”

Jeddah moved over to Johnny’s bed. “Ya put us through a lot a misery, boy. That sheriff of your’n, he herd us like them cows of your’n. But he don’t know Harkins. We take what is ours. An ya be ours, boy. Ya be Pearl’s man. Ain’t fittin’ fer her ta be seen at the reunion without `er man.”

Johnny growled. “Go to hell.”

Jeddah’s fist was swift and hard as he drove it deep into Johnny’s stomach.

Johnny leaned forward, fighting to keep from vomiting.

“No!” Pearl screamed.

“He be punished fer his insolence. The next hand ta strike`im will be your’n, child. The trainin’ must be done afore the reunion. You kin wear a hat ta cover yer shame. We be leavin’ tanight.”

“No, Pa. I ain’t goin’.”

Jeddah turned on her. “What did ya say, child? Yer disobeyin’ my words?”

“She’s staying right here,” Johnny hissed between gritted teeth. Jeddah’s punch had torn open the deeper cuts on his back. He felt the warm trickle of blood make its way toward the mattress. “You’ll never get us off this ranch.”

“We done it afore,” Digger laughed. Then suddenly he was on the bed, grabbing the sleeve of Johnny’s nightshirt and dragging him across the mattress. “Where be the tall one and ta blonde? They got payback a comin’.”

Johnny slammed his elbow into Digger’s injured arm and he yelped in pain.

Two more bodies jumped on the bed and drove Johnny’s shoulders into the mattress, pinning his arms beneath their knees. He could smell their rancid clothes, smell their vile breath. He was back in their camp again and he nearly puked.

“Hold `im!” Jeddah roared. He grabbed Pearl, throwing her against the bed. ” `is trainin’ starts now.”

Jeddah pulled a knife from his boot and slit Johnny’s nightshirt open down to his waist.

“No!” Pearl screamed, but Jeddah forced the knife in her hand, squeezing her fingers around the hilt.

“Ya teach `im child.”

Johnny tried to kick at Jeddah but Digger had come to his senses and fell over Johnny’s legs, pinning them to the mattress.

“I cain’t!” Pearl cried. “I cain’t hurt `im.I love `im.”

“There ain’t no such thing as love,” Jeddah spat. “Yer a fool, child.” Jeddah pushed her hand down.

Johnny hissed as the blade poked into his stomach. Pearl cried uncontrollably.

“Where yer kin be, boy?” Jeddah asked.

Johnny turned his head away, he couldn’t stand to watch Pearl’s face.

“That were just the tip, boy. Got a damn big knife here. Where they be?”

“Go to hell…” Johnny hissed at the searing pain as Pearl’s hand was pushed down harder. He felt a warm steady stream of blood flow down his side to puddle and soak into the mattress.

“Pa…” Pearl pleaded. “I do anythin’. I do anythin’. Let `im go.”

“Ya picked `im, child. He be your’n. Ya make `im tell us where `is kinfolk be.”

Pearl screamed as her hand was forced down. She could feel the blade sink into Johnny’s stomach. “Tell “im, Johnny…” She screamed. “He make me kill ya…he make me kill ya…”

“No…” Johnny gasped. “He’s doing the killing, not you.” His head started spinning. He felt the blackness of unconsciousness pull at him, but he couldn’t leave her.

Pearl felt the knife sink deeper, the shaft nearly embedded to the hilt in Johnny’s stomach and suddenly there was an explosion of sound. Jeddah jerked and his hands fell away from the knife. Pearl looked around, stunned.

Maria stood next to the chair, Johnny’s gun still smoking in her hand. Pearl felt Jeddah slide from the bed, crumbling lifelessly to the floor. Digger reared up, grabbing for Pearl and another shot rang out and he collapsed back down on Johnny’s legs.

Stunned silence hovered in the room. The acrid smell of gunpowder mixed with the stench of unwashed bodies and blood.

The two men holding Johnny’s shoulders slid to the floor, their hands covering their heads, cowering like the animals they were.

Maria dropped the gun at her feet. Never had she hurt another human being, and now, she had killed two men. She began to shake and dropped into the chair, mumbling incoherently.

Pearl’s hands shook as she pulled the knife out. She cried at the sight of so much blood. She tore strips from her petticoat and covered the wound.

“I be sorry…” she cried. “Johnny…I cain’t live if’n ya die. Johnny…”

Johnny felt the pressure of her hands on his belly trying to staunch the flow of blood. He didn’t know if it was enough.

Her cries floated away as blackness closed in on him and he knew no more.

.

Chapter 12

Scott leaned against the window frame, waiting for Sam to finish his examination before closing the drapes again to block the heat and glare of the sun. It was well into the hundreds outside and little cooler here in Johnny’s room. There was discussion of moving Johnny to another room in the large hacienda that would catch less of the daytime heat, but Sam didn’t want his patient moved yet.

He watched Johnny try to shift into a more comfortable position only to reawaken the raging pain in his stomach. He was at Johnny’s side immediately letting his brother weakly squeeze his hand, riding out the pain while Sam injected the morphine.

They had come so close to losing him. So terribly close. It had happened four days ago and still it felt like it was only minutes ago to Scott.

He barely remembered the ride home from the south pasture, or seeing Murdoch loping beneath the Lancer arch in front of them. It hadn’t immediately registered that the courtyard was too quiet. But he remembered his heart skipping a beat at the sight of the front door hanging open.

Then the moment he could never erase from his mind: Johnny sprawled across his bed, Pearl straddling him, sobbing deeply, holding a blood soaked cloth to his stomach. Jeddah lying on the floor and Digger collapsed over Johnny’s legs. And the soft incoherent whispers from Maria sitting rigid in the chair beneath the window.

The next hour was an exercise in terror. They could not stop the bleeding and Johnny’s body sank deeper into the mattress as his complexion grew whiter by the minute. Sam arrived and they spent long hours waiting to hear if Johnny would survive…and then day after day waiting for Sam to announce that Johnny was on the right side of making it.

On the third day Sam announced that Johnny had more than an even chance.

That was just yesterday. A mere twenty-four hours after Johnny had turned the corner toward living.

“Let me tell them it’s too soon,” Scott urged, wiping Johnny’s sweaty forehead with a cool cloth. “It can wait until you’re stronger.”

Johnny shook his head weakly. “Today…” he whispered.

Scott looked up at Sam beseeching him not to let Johnny do this.

“I’ll watch him closely,” Sam promised. “Sometimes a patient has to heal mentally first before than can heal physically. Johnny needs this. I won’t stand in his way. But…”

Sam turned to Johnny and leaned down close to his patient. “If I feel at any time that this is too much for you, I will call a halt to it immediately. Understood?”

A small smile caught the corners of Johnny’s mouth.”You’re the doc,” he whispered.

“Yes,” Sam chuckled. “I am. And don’t you ever forget it.”

Doc nodded and Scott opened the door. “You can come in now,” he announced.

***

Murdoch stepped into the room and his heart lurched again at the sight of Johnny lying so still on the bed, a light sheet covering him in the sweltering heat. He had ordered ice from the icehouse in

Morro Coyo and hoped that at least half of it would reach them before it melted.

He saw the look of concern on Scott’s face turn to open hostility as Father Sanchez escorted Pearl into the room.

Scott had vehemently objected to Pearl’s visit. He didn’t believe that Johnny was ready. But Johnny wanted to see her, and they could not deny him that right.

“Pearl…” Johnny said, his voice thin and weak.

Father Sanchez held her arm in his and walked her closer to the bed. “I be leaving taday,” she said.

Johnny nodded. “I know.”

“Sam, he say yer gonna be all right real soon.”

Scott shifted next to the window, wondering if she knew that it would be weeks before Johnny would be strong enough to get out of that bed. He could not dismiss her naivety as easily as the rest of the family. She was the sole cause of Johnny being here. Nothing would change that.

“This time next week I’ll be mending fences again.” Johnny’s half grin disappeared as pain broke through the morphine.

“I sorry, Johnny.” Pearl leaped forward but Scott caught her and drew her back roughly. “This be all my fault.”

Johnny whispered. “No…”

Murdoch stepped forward. “Val caught up with the rest of the Harkins’ clan. He’s holding them down by the old mill until the army can arrive. It seems they are wanted by the government for stealing military supplies. Val was assured that they would be imprisoned out of state. They won’t be a worry anymore.”

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment. One worry out of the way.

“John…?” Sam leaned closer. “Are you all right?”

Johnny nodded.

“Johnny, I try real hard ta learn ta be a lady. Someday I learn my letters an I write ta ya. Kin I do that?”

Johnny sighed deeply. “I’d like that. But, Pearl…” Johnny’s eyes closed and he seemed to drift for a moment. “…I don’t want you to come back here.”

“But…” Pearl tried to pull her arm free from Scott. “But I learn fer ya. I be good. I be a lady.”

“It’s got to end here. Now. I have to go on…so do you.”

“I cain’t never see ya agin?”

Johnny shook his head.

Pearl dropped her chin to her chest. “Ya hate me?” she asked, her voice muffled.

“Not you…” Johnny said, his voice fading. “But I can never get past the memories if you’re here.”

Sam stepped forward. “That’s enough. Everyone out of here. Johnny needs his rest.”

Scott grabbed Pearl’s arm and guided her toward the door. “Wait downstairs with Father Sanchez,” he ordered.

He turned back to Sam. “Is he all right?”

Sam nodded. “He’s exhausted. Just let him rest. I’ll stay with him for awhile. Get that girl on her way. It’ll be the best thing for him.”

****

Three Weeks later, Murdoch made his way up the staircase, his old bones feeling older than usual. It was another long hot day, spent mostly on horseback. Picking up the slack while Johnny was recuperating was harder than he had expected, and he cursed the years that had robbed him of his strength and agility.

He found Scott sitting in a chair next to Johnny’s bed, looking tired but far from exhausted. Youth, he thought, is wasted on the young.

“Hey, Murdoch,” Johnny grinned mischievously. “You look like you had a hard day. Ain’t easy pushing them cows around all day, is it?”

“I’ll have you know, young man, that I was pushing cows with no problem long before you were ever thought of.”

“Your point?”

Murdoch looked at his youngest son, exasperated. Then he broke into a full belly laugh. It was so good to see and hear the old Johnny. It seemed for a while that he would never recover. Now it was a daunting task to keep him occupied and in bed.

“Well young man, you look like you’re feeling better.”

“I am. And I want out of here before I plant roots.”

Scott laughed. “Another week, Sam said. Then you can go downstairs for a few hours.”

“Sam’s an old worry wart,” Johnny huffed. “He’d keep ya in bed for a hangnail.”

“Listen to him, son, he knows what he’s doing.”

“Your father’s right.” Teresa poked her head in the door. How are you feeling Johnny?”

“Like I did the last time you asked me. What was that, ten minutes ago? I’m fine.”

“That’s good. And we want to keep you that way. Now you rest and I’ll bring you all up some dinner in a few minutes. Murdoch,” she waved for him to come out into the hall with her. “Could I see you for a minute?”

Murdoch looked down at his ward, standing in the hallway.

“This letter came for Johnny today.” She handed the envelope to Murdoch. “It must be from Pearl.”

Murdoch took the letter and read the return address…Colorado. “It’s the only person it could be.”

“Do we give it to him?” Teresa asked.

Murdoch looked back at the closed door. Johnny was doing so well. Would this letter open up scars that had barely begun to heal?

“Murdoch…?”

Murdoch slipped the letter into his breast pocket. “I don’t believe in meddling in someone else’s business, and I don’t condone reading other people’s mail…but in this instance, I believe it would be in Johnny’s best interest to read it before we give it to him.”

“He’ll be mad,” Teresa cautioned.

“I’d rather have him mad than send him emotionally backwards three weeks. No, I believe I have the right…no, the obligation to read this before he does.”

***

Later that evening Murdoch sat on the veranda outside the great room sipping at a glass of bourbon. A soft pool of light from a lone oil lamp on a small table next to Murdoch pushed the darkness away. The calming sounds of the night that Murdoch cherished so deeply did little to ease the guilt that gnawed at him.

He slowly folded the letter and dropped it on the table. What had he done? How could he have been so blind?

Scott stepped out on the veranda and refilled Murdoch’s glass.

“Teresa said a letter came for Johnny today.”

Murdoch nodded.

“Are you going to give it to him?”

Murdoch took a sip of his bourbon and stared out into the darkness. “Someday, maybe. When this is far enough behind him. He’s not strong enough to read it now.”

Scott nodded toward the folded letter sitting on the table. “May I?”

Murdoch handed him the letter and watched as his oldest son’s features reflected what he read.

To Johnny Lancer,

It is with regret that I have to inform you that Pearl is not doing well. She is overwhelmed by her new home. She is uncooperative and even violent at times. She has spoken at great length about the treatment you received at her hands and her family. Her guilt is destroying her. She has nightmares nightly of the whipping. She is genuinely remorseful that it was her hand that held the whip. I fear that we may not be able to help her.

She speaks of returning to California and being at your side. She is obsessed with the idea of being with you. For that reason I suggest that you do not write to her. She must forget about you.

In closing, I must tell you that she may need professional help. I am sorry that our dreams of retraining her into society may not be possible.

Take care, Mr. Lancer. I hope your recovery is quick and successful.

Yours truly,

Mrs. Sullivan

Scott stared at the note. “She was the one who whipped him?” he asked, his voice trembling with rage.

Murdoch nodded. “I didn’t know.”

“Did you ever ask?”

“Did you?!” Murdoch shot back.

Scott sat back, deflated. “No. My God, Murdoch, what was going through Johnny’s mind when she was with him? Knowing that she was responsible for all his pain. I told you we should never have brought her here.”

“At the time it seemed the right thing to do. Scott.” Murdoch took the letter from his son’s hand and slid it back into his vest pocket. “I was wrong. I’m sorry. But we have to go on from here. We will not discuss this note, or anything in it. If Johnny had wanted us to know about the whipping he would have told us. Let’s let him heal in his own time and in his own way.”

Scott nodded. “But, I think we need to do something about Pearl. If she gets it in her mind to come back here.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Murdoch listened to the night sounds around him again, and thought that they would never be quite the same. The ghost of Pearl Harkins would haunt them for a long time.

****

Johnny leaned heavily on Scott as they slowly made their way downstairs. He was finally free of his room and on the way to a complete recovery.

He allowed Teresa to fuss over him as he was lowered onto the sofa and made comfortable.

He looked out the great room window and thought how long ago it had been since he rode out to that fence line. His life would never be quite the same. But life did go on. Time would heal his wounds. But the scars would remain.

Johnny wondered idly how Pearl was doing. He hoped she would be happy with the Sullivan’s. She didn’t deserve how life had treated her so far. Maybe it would be kinder to her now.

***

Mrs. Sullivan escorted Dr. Crandall up the stairs to Pearl’s room.

“I’m afraid I’m no longer able to handle her Doctor. Her only thought is getting back to Johnny Lancer.”

“Yes. We mustn’t let that happen. She is a deeply disturbed young woman. There is no telling what she might do. I’m afraid an institution may be our only answer.”

“Sad. But true,” Mrs. Sullivan said as she unlocked the door and stepped into Pearl’s room.

“Oh my God, no…” she said as she looked at the empty room and the open window.

“We must alert the Lancer’s immediately.” Dr. Crandall announced, clearly comprehending the dire implications of the young girl’s absence.

“But, she could never reach California on her own.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Mrs. Sullivan. Pearl is a smart girl. If she wants him bad enough she will find a way.”

Mrs. Sullivan crossed over to the small bureau and opened the top drawer. She stared at the empty box where the precious piece of tattered veil had rested. There was no doubt where Pearl was headed.

.

.

~end~ ??

2004

To Gem

.

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One thought on “The Reunion by LindaB (Kona)

  1. Excellent! I love your creativity and descriptions. I could almost smell Pearl and her “family” and could feel Johnny’s pain and confusion along with his family’s anger and fear. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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