The Path Well Travelled by Maureen

Word count: 66,455

#3 in The Path Well Travelled series

Cautionary Notes: If the idea of Johnny behaving brutally with a certain amount of callousness disturbs you, please don’t read The Path Well Traveled. To my thinking, as a gun-for-hire who was raised, “trained,” and worked in some pretty rough territory, Johnny Madrid wouldn’t have always had the luxury of “fighting fair,” and he must still possess a dark element in his nature to draw on—if pushed just right. Johnny Lancer’s morality is heavily tested in this story.

Content includes violence, sexual allusions, and some profanity. Rated at least PG13.

Thanks: To everyone who has offered their feedback and encouragement to me so far—most especially Karen F., my wonderful beta who I couldn’t do without! [Any errors you may find are due to my endless tweaking after Karen’s last official edits. Silly me for practicing unguided putzing.] You all have made the process of writing so much easier and enjoyable. Special thanks to Linda B. for her appraising eye and thoughtful insights—Mahalo Nui Loa! And I can’t forget AJ. Also, thank you to Sprite for writing Stockton. I had bits and pieces of this story floating around in my head for a LONG time, but couldn’t find a way to pull them all together. Setting it at the Big Valley Barkley ranch made it work! Well . . . for me at least . . .

It wasn’t planned that way, but this story serves as the proper bookend to what I would consider a complete trilogy – my Little Things, Sharp Edge, and now, The Path Well Traveled. Another tale, Vested Interests, is also related

Quite a few Lancer fanfic stories I’ve read have had Johnny remark to his family, “You don’t know what I’ve done… what I’ve been…”—or variations thereof. Well, what if his family not only found out some of the things he’d done, but got to see Johnny Madrid—at his darkest—in action. Would Johnny Lancer still have a loving family and a home to come back to? And would Johnny Madrid want to go back?

.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

“You sure you can’t make tequila outta grapes?” Johnny Lancer asked again, his voice infused with feigned innocence.

Scott Lancer’s chin dropped to his chest, head weighted by his sibling’s relentless attack of increasingly outrageous questions. He twisted in the saddle and surrendered his civility, shoulders rising high as he heaved in a great breath to exclaim, “You know darn well you can’t!”

Johnny trailed behind his brother and Nick Barkley, his lips fair to bursting with a triumphant smile. To further aggravate Scott he paced his horse to match his leisurely manner. The elder Lancer son had been practicing his best Boston etiquette around the Barkley family, and Johnny had been itching for an opportunity to bring him down a notch. Over the course of their first year together, Johnny had decided that, as the “little brother,” it was his duty to rile his “big brother” up whenever he had the chance. Johnny took that chore seriously, and felt he was doing a rather commendable job.

But he wasn’t totally heartless—just in case Scott had any intention of courting the gracious and fair-haired Miss Audra Barkley, Johnny had been careful not to embarrass his ever-the-gentleman brother in front of the young lady. Yet. But out there in the open, with only rough and tough Mr. Nick Barkley present, Johnny figured Scott for fair game.

“Well, you two seem to have figured out just about everythin’ else you can do with a little ol’ grape,” Johnny said, his compliment anything but. With hopeful optimism he added, “Occurs to me ya’ll could find some way to get ‘em to taste like tequila. I’d be in on the deal then.”

Barkley barked out a laugh, prompting Scott to request, “Nick, please don’t encourage Johnny by finding him the least bit amusing.”

Scott kept his attention on the trail ahead as he fought to regain a modicum of decorum. “Johnny, I waited patiently all day yesterday while you and Heath went over every detail of every horse on this ranch. I don’t see why you can’t extend me that same courtesy. After all, you’re going to need my backing once you get up the nerve to present Murdoch with the breeding program you two came up with. The least you can do is the same for me when I ask him about starting a vineyard.”

“Oh, I’ll back you up all right,” Johnny agreed as the three maintained their easy pace. “My gun is yours anytime you want, no charge. Figure we’ll be needin’ my special skills with a pistol if we hope to get Murdoch to go for either of our plans. Just don’t think I’m gonna go ‘round with you like we been all mornin’, peakin’ under leaves and checkin’ on the ‘blush’ or the ‘fullness’ or the ‘whatever’ of a buncha fruit! Gonna be discussin’ stuff like that we best be talkin’ ‘bout women is all I got to say. I have a reputation to protect you know, and it ain’t got nothin’ to do with a handgun.”

Another bark of laughter erupted from Nick that burst out from somewhere down around his feet. Scott stared at his new friend with a confused look of droll exasperation. “What exactly do you find so humorous about my little brother, Nick? He’s rather dull if you ask me.”

“Reminds me of Heath,” Nick said with a characteristic brusqueness. “Scott, want some advice?” Barkley didn’t wait for permission to hand it over. “Ignore him. The more attention you give puppies the yippier they get. Best to let ‘em cry it out on their own so they can grow up to be mature dogs faster. If I were you I wouldn’t waste any more time on the whelp.”

A hoot of laughter exploded out of Johnny this time. After five days he was finally able to relax around the Barkley men, and could now appreciate Nick’s particular blend of gruff directness and singular wit.

Johnny had started this trip as a reluctant traveler. He’d offered a multitude of excuses to get Murdoch to take only his ward, Teresa O’Brien, and Scott to visit with his long-time friend, Victoria Barkley, and her children Nick, Jarrod, Heath and Audra. But it had been no use—the Lancer patriarch had insisted that both his sons become acquainted with the Barkley family and their extensive holdings near Stockton.

Before they left Lancer, Murdoch confessed that, over the years, he had occasion to share his sons’ disparate backgrounds with the Barkley family. So Johnny had expected a less than warm reception. As anticipated, upon arrival the three Barkley men had proved as wary of Johnny as he of them. It was one thing to accept a Harvard-educated gentleman like Scott into your home, but extending such an invitation to an ex-gun-for-hire was quite another matter, one that Johnny fully understood. He had accepted the fact that, one way or another, he would be fighting his reputation for the rest of his life—but that didn’t make it feel any less trying sometimes.

Jarrod had executed a rather subtle appraisal of Johnny when they’d first met, but the surreptitious evaluation had not been quite discreet enough for the observant gunfighter to miss. The talented lawyer had Scott’s breeding however, so he’d been ever courteous to all his guests—keeping his real opinions politely to himself.

On the other hand, always taking the direct route, Nick had given him an unabashed once over. Concluding that Johnny wasn’t looking for trouble, he hadn’t paid the younger Lancer son any extra mind since.

Audra had initially behaved immaturely whenever she found herself in Johnny’s presence, always overly attentive but switching between tongue-tied captivation and nervous chatterbox. However, Teresa—who loved and considered both Johnny and Scott as close to her as true brothers—had noticed, and took the young woman aside. Miss Barkley’s curious fascination promptly faded, and the ladies had since kept each other occupied with more sensible female matters. Well . . . mostly sensible female matters, if the frequent girlish giggling was any indicator.

And Mrs. Barkley, gentlewoman and veritable lady that she was, had done nothing but make Johnny feel welcome at the estate and in her home.

That had left Heath. About the same age and with a similar tough upbringing, he and Johnny performed a little more cautious circling around each other. But when Heath had witnessed Johnny’s handling of the ranch’s horse stock, their mutual appreciation for the animals ended the quiet hostilities. The pair developed a business partnership overnight, and was fast working toward a true friendship.

Johnny let Scott and Nick extend their lead. He ignored the pair’s resumed discussion of the finer points of winemaking as he relaxed into his saddle and enjoyed the scenery. Johnny valued everything new he learned about ranching from his tour of the Barkley holdings. He considered it a real pleasure to finally hear someone else’s opinions, other than his father’s, for running such an enterprise.

Scott had known little about ranching before coming west. Johnny had known enough to get by as a top hand—his expertise with guns and horses more absolute. He had always been leery of accepting Murdoch’s decisions as indisputable where everything else was concerned, but never had much ammunition to hurl back at him. Until now.

Johnny marveled at the irony of it all. Forcing them on this little trip was going to ricochet on the “old man.” He and Scott were fast studies, and the Barkleys had shown the brothers too much to allow Murdoch to continue riding roughshod over them any longer.

’I wonder how many times I can tell ol’ Murdoch that’s not how the Barkleys do it, before he tries to shoot me?’ Johnny pondered.

A chuckle died bubbling up in his throat. Johnny’s demeanor didn’t alter a bit, but every nerve in his body prickled. Set on edge, he hurried to discern just what had him spooked.

With a reputation with a gun as notorious as Johnny’s you didn’t live long past the age of twenty without having learned a thing or two about survival. Years of necessity had taught him to always be aware of his surroundings.

In a stand of trees off to the left, the birds were kicking up a ruckus. Nervous chirping mixed with bursts of squawking, the din flowing from tree to tree. A flock of sparrows took off en masse, then circled a stately oak before disappearing into its upper branches.

Something shiny, nearer the ground, winked a spark of sunlight back at him.

Johnny continued to consider the situation as he quickened his pace and rode up alongside Nick. “Boys, don’t do nothin’ to draw attention, but we got company.”

Barkley and Scott appeared unruffled at the announcement. Nick asked, “Where?”

“In the woods to the left. Unless you hire men just to keep an eye on you, we’re bein’ followed by trouble.”

“You’re right. That’s the edge of our property,” Nick said. “Anyone lurking around in there doesn’t belong.”

“How many?” Scott asked.

“My guess is one, but can’t be sure. Only way to find out is to split up. Ya’ll keep headin’ up the road. I’m gonna double back and come ‘round behind him. Most likely he’ll keep doggin’ you. Give me five minutes, then break for the woods like you seen ‘im. That should push him to me.”

Without waiting for questions, Johnny gave a quick wave and pivoted away. He took off back down the trail in an easy canter.

********

They gave Johnny his five minutes and then Scott pulled up short and whirled his mount toward the trees. Nick did the same and acted like he saw something, then seized the lead and set a quick pace into the woods. The unmistakable sound of a horse busting through underbrush could be heard, heading away. The pair maneuvered through the lush forest, following deer trails and the new path blazed by the stranger. Scott pushed to keep up so Johnny wouldn’t have to take the trespasser alone.

The woods fell silent. Scott reined up and held out a hand to halt Nick. The horse in front of them had stopped moving. Scott worried for his brother as the pair tried to detect the stranger’s location.

“Scott, over here,” Johnny finally called out.

Off to their right and another fifty feet on, the riders found Johnny on foot at the opposite edge of a small clearing, his revolver aimed on the trespasser—who sat very still atop his horse, gun arm raised. Man and mount were hard worn and layered in the dust from many a mile, but somehow their ragged nature suited them both.

Nick reined his horse to a stop and dismounted. Scott remained saddled but drew his own sidearm, ready to back his brother.

Johnny’s eyes were focused on the man he’d captured. “You know him, Nick?”

“No,” he barked, then snarled at the stranger, “Who are you, and what are you doing on my property?”

The man made no attempt to answer or move. His own eyes never wavered from Johnny or his steadily trained weapon.

Compared to his brother’s usual attire of leather trousers and colorful shirts that Scott considered rather garish, Johnny was plainly dressed for the day. He wore a basic pair of unadorned black pants and a solid greenish-blue shirt, distinctive merely because it needed to be pulled on, buttoning only at the neck. There was, however, the low-slung, tied down holster. Scott stared at the rough-looking stranger and recognized the source for the unqualified attention granted his brother. He’s seen that look in men’s eyes before. Despite his unremarkable appearance, Johnny had been recognized. Maybe not for whom he was, but definitely for what he had been—gunfighter, pistolero, gun-for-hire.

Johnny had made some judgments of his own. With an unsettling calmness and unwavering gaze he declared, “Quiet one, ain’t cha.”

The simple statement provoked a slight but telling reaction. The man on the horse blinked—then licked his lips. Not much to be sure, but Johnny answered with a discerning smile. The man still refused to answer, but Johnny had him paying rapt attention.

Never long on patience, Nick snapped, “You gonna answer me?”

They waited, but the stranger’s eyes stayed on Johnny, his mouth shut.

Johnny spoke for the man, in a restrained drawl. “No Nick. He ain’t gonna answer you. Not just yet he ain’t. But he will. When he’s ready.”

The stranger’s lips suddenly needed two swipes of his tongue.

“Toss the gun and get down,” Johnny said.

The man removed the handgun from his holster and let it drop. With a cautious deliberateness he dismounted, hands at his side.

Nick stomped off a couple of paces, scowling his displeasure for being ignored.

“Step away from the horse,” Johnny ordered the man—quietly.

The stranger moved.

Johnny continued to keep his eyes trained as steady as his revolver on the mysterious visitor. “Scott. Give your handgun to Nick and come over here and search this man. Start by takin’ that knife he’s got in his right boot an’ tossin’ it away.”

“I ain’t got—” The man lifted a foot to step forward. Johnny’s gun barely shifted, but the slight adjustment proved warning enough. The man stopped.

Scott had never seen Johnny behave so audaciously toward anyone they’d ever detained—and he’d also never seen anyone confer Johnny with that much reverential attention. The stranger might have dealt this poker hand, but Johnny somehow knew all the cards being held. Scott just wasn’t sure yet in whose favor the deck was stacked.

He found the boot knife and another larger blade under the man’s coat in a sheath laced to his belt. He tossed both far aside. Little of interest was found in the man’s pockets. Scott moved over and rifled through the saddlebags. He pulled out item after item, but found no obvious clue who the quiet trespasser was and why he might be on Barkley property.

Johnny suddenly said, “Take a better look at that bandana, Scott, and tell me what’s on it.”

Scott stared at the faded black bandana clutched in his hand, and wondered how his brother had managed to see it, Johnny still vigilant to the stranger. He shook the simple square of cotton loose and held it up. “Seems to have some kind of design on it, but I can’t quite make out what it’s supposed to be.”

“Is it a scorpion?” Johnny asked, his voice deeper, tinged with shadow.

Scott rotated the bandana in his hands and peered at the dark red pattern until recognition set. “Yes. That’s exactly—” was all he could utter before Johnny was on the move.

The stranger managed one step in retreat before Johnny backhanded him across the right cheek with the butt of his gun. The wicked blow not only caught them all by surprise but was hard enough to bust bone and send the man sprawling heavily onto the dirt.

“Johnny!” Scott called out.

Nick blustered, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?”

Neither man moved to interfere but Johnny ignored them both anyway. Gun retrained on the stranger, his voice dripped with menace as he warned, “I’m tired of playin’ with you now! What are you doin’ here, and what are you after?”

Scott had never known Johnny to hit an unarmed man first, and the viciousness of the attack left him stunned. Such behavior was out of character for his brother—but then he realized: that wasn’t his brother anymore. Not the one he’d come to know. He’d seen flashes of this man in the past, but Scott had never before beheld him wholly manifest. By something as seemingly innocent as a bandana, his brother had been transformed—into Johnny Madrid.

Madrid. Johnny Madrid. Since his arrival at Lancer, Scott had heard plenty of saloon-bragged yarns about that famed gunfighter, most spoken behind his brother’s back. But he had figured only about half the tales for being anywhere near half true. He could never before justly associate the image of that outrageous western legend as being connected to Johnny, but after watching his recent actions, Scott was left to wonder. He marveled at the difference between the hardened man he saw now and the man he’d joked with just minutes earlier. If he hadn’t seen the stunning change from Lancer to Madrid for himself, he’d have never believed it possible they were the same person.

Scott kept an eye on his brother but moved to stand beside Nick. He not only wanted his gun back, but wanted to be sure his new friend didn’t get involved. Whatever that bandana meant to Johnny, Scott was convinced it represented large-scale trouble. He had no idea what Johnny had in mind, but Scott felt he had to trust his brother.

Johnny again held the full attention of the man on the ground. “Carryin’ the scorpion means you’re ridin’ with Vic Boyd. What’s he after?”

The outlaw was scared, but not quite enough yet to talk. He remained on the ground, silent, his blackening cheek cradled in a hand.

Johnny suddenly relaxed and, for the first time since he’d caught the man, let his gun arm return to his side. Then he smiled.

Johnny’s normal smile was so joyful and charming that it could brighten any mood. Scott wouldn’t have thought his brother capable of altering that smile to hold such a depth of malice he now witnessed.

“I seen you eaglin’ me. Figured out who I am yet?” Johnny’s question was laced with a sinister impertinence. “The name’s Madrid. Johnny Madrid. And if you’re with Vic, then I guess you know what that means.”

Scott watched as the man’s eyes widened, his busted cheek forgotten as his hand lowered to his side. Scott wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if his own amazement wasn’t apparent. Johnny had been trying hard to distance himself from his reputation. Although he never denied it, he rarely boasted about being Madrid. To hear his young brother introduce himself so brazenly as the notorious gunfighter was disconcerting.

“You’re Madrid?” the stranger asked, astonished.

“That’s right. I’m Madrid,” Johnny said. “And I want to know why you’re here.”

The man attempted to maintain a tough appearance, summoning enough nerve to spit out, “If I tell you that, Boyd’ll kill me.”

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll kill you,” Johnny replied.

“Go to hell! I ain’t—”

There was no warning. Johnny raised his gun and shot the outlaw in the leg.

Aghast, Scott and Nick had no time to react as Johnny’s brutal act finally got the man on the ground to answer. “What else do you think Boyd’d be here for!” he shouted in agony, holding tight to his thigh. “He wants that girl!”

Johnny moved. He grabbed the rope off the man’s horse and slung it at Nick. “Tie him to a tree,” he yelled. “Scott, use that bandana to bind his leg while I get my horse.

“And do it quick!” he shouted as he ran into the woods.

The pair were just finishing attending to the wounded outlaw when Johnny returned. “Ain’t you done yet?” he snarled, not waiting for a reply. “Mount up.”

Scott glanced at Nick as they headed for their horses. Nick’s jaw muscles were clenched tight in anger, with Johnny, the situation, or both, Scott didn’t know. But the mention of “that girl” had raised undeniable alarms, and deep down it felt vital to let “Madrid” continue to call the shots. The next question left no doubt.

“What were Audra and Teresa doin’ today?” Johnny asked Nick.

Foot in a stirrup Nick said, “Going riding. With Heath.”

“Where?” Johnny pressed.

Nick settled in his saddle and pointed. “Hawk Meadow . . . that way!”

Johnny rode over to the man tied against a tree. “If you’re lucky, we’ll come back for you,” he jeered, then turned his mount and ordered, “Ride!”

Nick Barkley took lead and headed off, as Scott Lancer and Johnny Madrid followed closely behind.

********

Along the road where they expected to pick up sign of Heath, Audra, and Teresa, the trio spotted a saddled horse grazing and a body just off the path, partially hidden in a tangled mess of brush. Johnny dismounted and turned the dead man over.

“That’s one of our hands,” Nick said.

Johnny left the man where he lay, mounted up and headed off. He led a quick pace.

Less than a mile later they found another body, one Barkley didn’t have to identify.

“Heath!” Nick shouted and sped past the others. He leapt from his horse and knelt beside his brother.

The Lancers joined Nick just as he turned Heath onto his back. With his knuckles bloodied and bruises already evident on his face, it was obvious the younger Barkley had put up a fight. But whatever struggle he’d made had been brought to a near deadly end when someone had plunged a knife into his chest.

“Is he alive?” Scott asked as Nick tore open Heath’s shirt.

“Yes . . . barely,” the concerned brother said as he tugged the bandana off his neck and pressed it against the bleeding wound.

Scott pulled his kerchief out of a pocket and handed it to Nick. The brothers had expected only a morning tour of the ranch, so Nick’s horse was the only one outfitted with any appreciable supplies. Scott untied the bedroll from the saddle and began tearing it into strips.

Johnny leaned over and gave Heath a mere passing glance, then started scouting the area. When Scott looked up again Johnny was marching toward him, replacing the spent bullet in his gun as he moved.

“Scott, we need to leave,” Johnny said, going to Nick’s horse.

“As soon as we get Heath—”

“No! We don’t have time. We have to go. Now!” Johnny shouted. “You’ll need to take Nick’s horse. It’s a better mount, and we’ll need his rifle.” Johnny searched the saddlebag. “Nick, you got any extra cartridges in here?”

Nick rose as Scott finished tearing another strip of bandaging off the bedroll. “You better shut him up, Scott,” Nick growled, “or I swear I’m going to kill that brother of yours!”

Scott dropped the cloth and grabbed Barkley’s arm. “He’s right, Johnny. You’re out of line.”

Johnny almost spooked the horse into running off as he slammed the saddlebag flap shut and took a step forward. “Damnit! Ain’t you two figured it out yet? Scott, if that were you layin’ there, alone, I’d still leave. Do you understand?”

The intensity of Johnny’s rebuke was like a slap, both Scott and Nick finally comprehending the debased wickedness of the situation. The three stood in silence, each man sorting through the hard decisions confronting them.

Brother faced brother, Scott compelled to voice a disturbing thought. “Boyd. You know him, don’t you Johnny? Like Pardee . . . from before.”

Johnny tried to maintain eye contact, but his head dropped to shield himself from Scott’s accusing glare. “Yes,” he answered, looking up to add, “and that’s why I know we need to move. Fast. I don’t think they’re more than a half-hour ahead of us. We can’t afford to let ‘em get any farther.”

Johnny took a couple steps forward and faced Barkley. “Nick, you have to choose. You want us to help your brother, or go get your sister?”

Nick stared at Johnny, his body still taut with anger, his fists clenched. Johnny didn’t flinch.

“You bring them back. Both of ‘em,” Nick said.

“Or we’ll die tryin’. I swear it,” Johnny pledged.

Not another word was needed. Nick bent down to care for his brother—Johnny turned to face his own, his eyes challenging, ‘Are you with me?’

The tense exchange between Johnny and Nick eliminated any reservations Scott had. Johnny Madrid’s methods might be less than honorable, but Scott knew his purpose was just, and he would, indeed, die right along with this gunfighter—his brother through blood—in order to get Teresa and Audra back.

“Let’s go,” Scott said, crossing to Nick’s horse.

Johnny tossed instructions over his shoulder as he headed toward his own mount. “Nick, you follow with a posse as soon as you can. Follow our tracks, not anyone else’s, you hear. They’ll split up soon to confuse things, an’ll lay a false trail. Don’t you fall for it.”

Kneeling beside Heath, Nick didn’t bother to turn around. “I understand. God’s speed. Go!”

“Hah!” Johnny spurred his horse and raced forward. And Scott followed.

********

Johnny led the pursuit with a daring speed. Boyd soon led his large band off the common roads and trails, cross-country, headed out of the valley where the Barkleys claimed their property. The maneuver didn’t surprise Johnny. He knew Boyd all right, knew he’d have scouted escape routes at the same time he searched for advantageous ranches to raid. In preparation for their tour of the ranch, Nick and Heath had shown the Lancers maps of the Barkley holdings and surrounding region. Johnny was grateful. He had been through the area over the years, but not recently. Madrid was drawing on every scrap of knowledge he had about this part of California in order to keep up with—and try to stay ahead of—Boyd and his men.

The brothers traveled mostly in silence, senses intent to the landscape and trail. Johnny repeatedly dismounted to take a closer look at the outlaw’s tracks. To anyone trained well enough to read the signs, Boyd and his men were leaving plenty of useful information behind. Johnny had been taught—and tested—by some of the best.

The kidnappers rode fast, and were not particularly careful covering their trail. But Johnny took no chances and left clear markings of his own to guide Nick and the posse.

As Johnny predicted, just as the terrain became more rolling and forested, the outlaws split into two groups. Boyd left a confused mess of tracks behind. Johnny agonized over the time needed to sort them all out. He finally headed to his horse, assuring Scott, “I know which horses carry the girls. We ain’t lost ‘em yet.”

The pair set off again as Johnny warned, “They’ll cover their sign a little better now, and start stragglin’ outriders. Boyd always thinks he’s smarter than anyone trailin’ him. Bein’ that he grabbed Teresa and Audra with only Heath witnessin’, he’ll think he’s well ahead of any posse. Scott, that’s our advantage—he won’t expect anyone to be after him this soon.

“Made it easier for Vic findin’ ‘em out ridin’ like that. He’d have attacked the ranch to get ‘em otherwise. Gettin’ ‘em without a fight means that, except for that one we caught, he still has all his men in one piece. Don’t reckon Heath got a chance to do much damage.”

Johnny knew Scott had been in the military, and that he’d fought both skirmishes and all out battles during the war. Scott had even handled himself well against land pirate Day Pardee. But Johnny doubted his brother had ever come up against anyone as merciless as Vic Boyd. ‘Dios . . . I ain’t never run into another devil that black hearted,’ Johnny thought.

He slowed his pace and motioned for Scott to draw level. “Scott, you need to understand exactly what were headin’ into. By dividin’ his men, Vic’ll expect to split the posse too. Better his odds. But he’ll trail bushwhackers to slow anyone who might get close. He ain’t gonna take no chances on losin’ the girls.”

“Johnny,” Scott said, “Boyd had to know the Barkley ranch would be well defended. Why did he risk kidnapping Teresa and Audra?”

“Losin’ men ain’t never made a difference to Boyd. And pretty young girls from north of the border are worth more than money to him. If it hadn’t been our women, he’d have found someone else’s—and he might have already taken others, can’t tell yet.

“Vic’s raidin’ a whole lot farther north than usual. It looks like they’re headin’ for the coast, so San Francisco or thereabouts he’ll board a ship, an’ sail ‘em off to Mexico. There . . . well . . . it’s easy to lose track of people over the border. Hell. Took Murdoch twenty years to find me.” Johnny regretted the lingering sadness that colored his voice.

“They’ll ride hard for a long piece, then camp.” Johnny reined his horse to an abrupt stop and turned to his brother. For the first time since the nightmare had started, his desperation went uncontrolled. “Scott, we have to reach ‘em before then! As soon as they stop they’ll . . . the girls—”

Scott reached out a hand and clasped Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny, I understand.”

‘No, brother . . . you only think you do.’

Johnny reached out his hand and grasped Scott’s shoulder in return. He shook off his own fears and once more focused on the pursuit. “You be mindful of everythin’ ‘round you from now on. I’m gonna need you and that rifle, Scott. I’m gonna need you bad. Protect yourself.”

With that, Johnny spun his mount to face down the trail, and again picked up the pace—leaving each brother to dwell on their own tumultuous thoughts.

********

Another hour of hard, vigilant riding passed. Deep in rough unsettled country they came across a small stream and sign that Boyd and his men had stopped to water their mounts.

“Scott, take care of our horses. I’m gonna see if maybe Boyd split his men again.” Johnny unholstered his gun and moved off, downstream.

The horses were allowed to drink then left to graze. Scott drew Nick’s rifle from the scabbard and hefted it in his hand, then checked the sight. Johnny was counting on his prowess with a long-gun—exactly why, Scott didn’t yet know. He wanted to test fire the weapon . . . settled for checking the cartridges. He returned the rifle to its scabbard and pulled his handgun, made sure it was dirt free and fully loaded then returned it to the holster.

Scott grabbed the canteens off both saddles, and crouched beside the stream. As he filled the first, he spotted some of Boyd’s tracks beside him. Vic Boyd. From what little he’d gleaned about the man, Scott was appalled that the outlaw held Teresa and Audra captive. But to his surprise, the knowledge that Johnny knew the man didn’t quell Scott’s revulsion one bit. Johnny had known Day Pardee, too—the gunfighter who had almost cost the Lancers everything they owned. Scott’s mind was muddled with conflicted thoughts about his brother—Johnny’s life as a gunfighter, his association with such desperate criminals, his disturbing ability to block off emotion and react without mercy.

The onslaught of nagging doubts came unbidden, prompted by the fact that, in the short time they’d been together, Scott thought he’d come to terms with Johnny’s past, that he knew and understood his brother. But Johnny’s actions this day had shown Scott that he really didn’t know his brother at all—and, quite frankly, maybe never would.

Despite his uncertainties, Scott recognized the importance of chain of command, and for this fight Johnny was the expert. Scott considered himself prepared to take orders, to do whatever necessary to save Teresa and Audra.

He finished filling the canteens and was securing the last to his saddle when Johnny returned and stood before him. Scott’s chaotic array of thoughts was controlled, at least for the moment. It was time to focus on the rescue. It was a sure bet that Johnny wasn’t going to wait for a posse to catch up. Scott wasn’t inclined to hold back either. He would do his part, but had no idea what only two men could do against so many to free the girls unharmed.

********

Johnny stood before his brother—and hesitated. Time was of the essence, but he bowed his head in concentration, took a moment to strengthen his own commitment to their task. There’d be no going back from here on. He’d made a promise to Nick Barkley that he would indeed keep. His devotion to the innocent Audra was profound, but his fidelity to his father’s ward, Teresa—his sister, not by blood, but through friendship, respect, and love—was unquestionable. He would champion both women to his own end.

What Johnny questioned were his own abilities. He hadn’t had to “work” like this in a long time, and didn’t know if he was still up to the challenge. They would face a band of vicious men, with their leader—Vic Boyd—the most brutal of them all. If everyone Johnny had come to love was to survive the day, he had to reach deeper within himself, go darker. But he worried that he wouldn’t be able to come back from the depths.

It had been too easy for him to shed “Johnny Lancer” today, and that had him frightened. A year at Lancer had shown the cynical gunfighter what living with decent human beings could be like. Above all, he had seen the possibility for his own salvation there amongst his newfound family.

But to live in such a place he had repressed a detestable side of himself that had not gone willing or easy into confinement. Johnny Madrid had come to be for one overwhelming purpose—to help a young Johnny Lancer survive in the bleak and dangerous territories in which he had been raised. And Madrid had done his job very well. But since his father had found him and called him back to life at Lancer, Johnny had been trying to restrain the darkest facets of his nature—the qualities that helped guide and empower the type of man who didn’t belong in “polite society.”

A lot of people thought they knew who Madrid was—a skilled gunman with the penchant for backing lost causes. But Johnny had locked the real essence of Madrid deep within himself, setting only wisps of him free when the need arose. So it had been a disquieting surprise to realize how very close that despised other self had been to total escape.

Johnny knew he needed Madrid’s ability to react without hesitation and his determination to survive at all costs in order to face a man like Vic Boyd—a man who lived by no rules, who gave or took no quarter, and for whom compassion did not apply. Johnny Lancer, who wanted to live as a decent human being, had no business facing such a man as Vic Boyd. But Johnny Madrid already had—and lived.

It was a young Madrid who met Boyd while wandering down a grim path with a black future. And it was Vic Boyd who revealed to Johnny the literal dead end lying in that direction. But on this day, if the brothers had any hope for success, Johnny knew he had to once again tread on vile ground.

And Madrid would not only need Scott Lancer to follow him, but his total allegiance. Scott had served bravely in defense of his country, and fought valiantly to protect the Lancer legacy. But he was a just and moral man. Johnny hated that his brother would face this danger with him—but hated more the grave course of action Scott would have to prepare to undertake.

Madrid would ask, not for his own benefit, but for Teresa and Audra. And if all went well, Scott would be spared the burden of carrying out Johnny’s ultimate command. But the older Lancer son would have to promise that, if it came down to it, he would obey. Because—if it came down to it—Madrid believed in his heart that it would be vital for Scott to do so. But he didn’t have time to explain why.

Johnny could only hope that this man who he had come to respect—come to love—would somehow find it within himself to trust the gunfighter who was so undeserving of such devotion. Because as far as Madrid was concerned, it was not only the girl’s lives that depended on it, but their very souls—and may his own be damned in defense of them both.

‘God, protect us,’ Johnny Lancer prayed—then released his partner in death from captivity.

The real Johnny Madrid lifted his head, and met the unflinching eyes of Scott Lancer.

“Scott, these men are ruthless,” Johnny said, “and Boyd always has at least twenty or thirty with him. He’s cut that near in half, but we’ll have to cull their ranks more if we expect a chance. We have to hit first and hit hard to claim control.

“Me and Boyd go back a ways, and I’ll get him to stop on my terms. But it’s gonna get bloody. Takin’ these men on ain’t gonna be like fightin’ soldiers in a war. You can’t be a gentleman right now, and you can’t let your feelin’s get in the way. We ain’t givin’ no mercy today, ‘cause we ain’t gonna get none—and neither are the girls. That is the only important thing you have to remember.

“Do you trust me?” There it was, the fundamental question.

“Yes.” There was no hesitation.

“We don’t have time to argue,” Johnny pushed. “You have to do everything I say. Can you do that?”

“Yes.” Again, Scott seemed sure.

Johnny outlined his plan—and that’s when Scott began to show doubt. But Johnny forced him to keep his pledge by allowing no chance for dispute. He finished talking and mounted up.

Astride his horse, Johnny made it that much more difficult for his brother to defy his commands. “One way or another, you’re our only chance for gettin’ out of there, Scott. Don’t get caught.”

Johnny Madrid spurred his mount forward and left Scott Lancer no choice but to follow.

********

Johnny relied on hard earned experience to determine where the first two bushwhackers lay in wait. Key to his plan was killing every outlaw Boyd left lagging to ensure his getaway. More than protecting himself, Johnny couldn’t afford to allow anyone to remain alive behind him who might ambush Scott.

It was all about claiming control.

For another hour Johnny followed Boyd’s tracks through a landscape of thick forests and rolling hills. Then the woods started to thin, until the protective tree cover gave way to open ground. Stopped within the trees, near the edge of an expansive clearing, Johnny closed his eyes, and listened.

Madrid knew one of the best ways to sit ambush for a large posse was to keep yourself buried in the tree line on either side of such a clearing, allow the group to get out into the open, then take them from behind as they passed—or in front as they approached. A well-placed man with a rifle could do substantial damage before the trapped riders could get back to cover. Two good men working together could trade off from tree line to tree line and keep a posse occupied over a lot of time and miles.

Johnny bet on his advantage that Boyd’s men wouldn’t expect anyone to be following so soon. They might listen for the considerable noise created by a sizeable posse, but not the quietness of a single rider—and certainly not the silence of Johnny Madrid.

It only took a couple of minutes for Johnny confirm his guess—a horse nickered and then someone quietly spoke to calm the animal. Madrid opened his eyes and stared toward where he’d heard the sound. He scanned the area, dismounted and moved in, noiselessly, on foot, hunting his prey.

Johnny found a man perfectly placed, very near the edge of a hillside that gently sloped downwards to the clearing. The man sat on the ground, leaning back against a large boulder as he enjoyed a meal of hardtack and jerky, which he washed down with sips of water from a nearby canteen. The “picnic” lay atop one of Boyd’s signature bandanas.

The man paid no attention to the surrounding woods. A rifle was within reach, but lay carelessly on the bare ground beside him.

‘Hard’ll come soon enough. I’ll take all the easy I can get right now,’ Johnny thought as he closed the distance on his quarry.

The outlaw chomped another big bite out of the dry biscuit, chewed a bit and then began to cough. He sputtered out crumbs as he grabbed for the canteen, lifted it to his lips and tipped his head back to drink. He never saw Johnny charge out from behind the tree directly in front of him.

Johnny aimed an elbow into the upturned throat as he barreled into the man. The impact was hard, all his weight behind him as he slammed the outlaw back against the boulder.

The canteen dropped as the man’s windpipe shattered. His hands moved to grab at his injured throat, but Johnny’s arm blocked the way. Madrid continued to lean against the man’s neck with enough pressure to ensure that he could draw no air.

The outlaw struggled in silence, and managed to look upward. Unflinching, Johnny stared back at him from only inches away.

The force of Johnny’s weight remained centered on the outlaw’s throat until the man’s hands finally dropped to his side and his eyes began to glaze over. Only then did Johnny pick up the man’s rifle and, without a second look, move off to retrieve his horse and seek out his next target.

Johnny stayed just within the cover of the trees as he skirted around the perimeter of the clearing. He reached the opposite side, looked back across the divide and located the boulder at the edge of the woods where he’d killed the first outlaw. From there he judged where a second bushwhacker might take up position to catch anyone riding through the clearing in a good crossfire. Deciding on a likely location, Johnny pulled a well-aged but comfortably familiar knife out of hiding from his boot and again moved off on foot.

His careful consideration paid off. Another of Boyd’s men sat lookout near the edge of the clearing, behind the tall stump of a long fallen tree. However, unlike the first outlaw, this bushwhacker was paying attention.

********

Clint Wells was in his late-twenties, of medium height, well built, lean, and experienced. He always volunteered for outrider duty, figuring the best person to watch his back was no one better than himself. He didn’t even mind giving up first turns with their female captives. After all, there’d be plenty of opportunities for entertainment later—as long as he stayed alive to enjoy the fun. They’d grabbed a blonde at the last spread, and when his turn came Clint planned on having himself quite a good time with that pretty little lady.

Wells watched the clearing. Mostly. The woods behind him were not ignored. He’d been doing this line of work too long to leave himself open to any back shooter—expected or not. So when the distinct sound of a snapping twig rang out behind him, Clint wasn’t surprised. More unsettled. The raid had been so easy that Boyd figured anyone following would be hours behind—days if they didn’t have a decent tracker along. ‘It’s too damn soon—’

He spun in a crouch and aimed his rifle into the woods. The weapon remained steady, his body still. Only his eyes moved. Wells scanned the trees and underbrush for anything traveling on less than four legs.

Minutes passed, but Wells failed to detect any motion other than a couple of birds flitting between trees. No other out-of-place sound was heard—he couldn’t even hear his own horse tethered deeper in the forest. Satisfied no one was behind him, Clint’s finger came off the trigger, and he returned his attention to the clearing.

Clint’s right shoulder blade seared with pain as the knife bit deep into flesh. His left hand came up and over to grip his wounded arm as turned back toward the woods. He realized the mistake too late. He should have ignored the injury and brought his rifle up to the ready. Wells dropped the useless firearm just in time to catch hold of the man bearing down on him. Clint let his assailant’s weight push them both backward toward the ground. Pain enveloped his shoulder as he hit the dirt hard. Clint kicked a leg up to keep his attacker from falling on him completely. The man from the woods offered no resistance and allowed himself to be thrown, the pair’s combined momentum making him fly right over.

The man fell onto his back but righted quickly and scrabbled on all fours toward Clint.

The heavy fall onto the short hunting knife buried it to the hilt. Clint managed to sit up, but found it a struggle to stay conscious. His attacker came up behind him, reached around with his left arm and secured Clint in a strangling neck-lock. A knee pressed into his back and doubled him over. Clint could do little from that position, and figured his time was up when he felt the knife yanked out of his shoulder. As the knee in his back let up, the arm around his neck tightened and pulled his body backward, choking off his anguished scream. Rendered totally vulnerable, Wells watched the hand holding the knife pass his vision as it crossed his body to once again bury into flesh—this time straight into his chest.

********

Blood from the man’s shoulder wound soaked into the front of Madrid’s shirt. He again held tight to his victim, until the outlaw stopped his shuddering movements and slumped against him. The knife slipped from the man’s body as he flopped to the ground.

Johnny wiped the blood sullying his weapon onto the dead man’s shirt, and then returned the knife to his boot. Ready to press forward, Johnny first retrieved the man’s rifle and left it stationed out in the open as a pre-arranged marker for Scott to advance.

********

A third outrider almost found Madrid.

Fresh trail signs were found, and Johnny knew he was closing the gap on Boyd. He burned to race forward, to catch even a small glimpse of Teresa, to know for certain that she was still alive. But experience prevailed, reminded him that acting in haste would prove unwise. After all, being impetuous is what got him involved with Vic Boyd in the first place.

Madrid always tried to learn from his mistakes.

Since his last victim, each patch of woods traversed was less dense than the last. Good cover was now a premium, for him and anyone sitting ambush. Madrid’s senses were working furiously—and that’s what made him rein his horse to an abrupt stop.

Halted near the base of a small grass-covered hill, Johnny heard pounding hooves, off a ways, but coming on hard. A horse was headed his way, fast, and from the intensity of the sound he figured he didn’t have much time. Spinning his mount in a full circle, Johnny already knew what he’d find—nowhere to go, no place to hide, no time to run. He could either wait for the rider to reach him, or take the fight to the rider.

It was all about claiming control.

Johnny pulled the confiscated rifle from his scabbard, reset himself in the saddle, and judged when to make his move. He had no way to know if the person headed his direction was friend or foe, but Madrid didn’t think the odds were good that he’d run into any allies right about now. He was close. He could feel it. Not known for leaving witnesses or taking idle prisoners, any innocent man unfortunate enough to cross Boyd’s path would already be dead for certain.

Madrid gauged the timing, spurred his horse forward and galloped up the hillside.

The rider on the other side never knew what hit him. In a full-out run, he crested the small rise and was headed downhill before he realized there was another rider not two strides ahead of him, rifle drawn, but not to fire. The extended weapon was pulled back, and swung forward in perfect rhythm to catch the man right across the forehead, knocking him solidly out of the saddle. The startled horse responded to the man’s reflexive pull on the reins and reared back in a desperate attempt to avoid an end-over-end spill down the incline.

Johnny felt the impact of the direct hit vibrate down his arm as the rifle shattered. His fingers tingled as he topped the hill. He tossed the broken weapon to the ground and reined to a stop, scanning the terrain in front of him, looking for other riders. Seeing no movement, Madrid pivoted his mount and went to check the man he had felled.

The man lay unmoving, face down on the ground where he’d tumbled. Johnny reined up beside him and slipped from the saddle. He pulled his boot knife as his feet hit ground. Bending over the downed man, Johnny first removed the outlaw’s gun from his holster and tossed it aside, then turned the man onto his back. He was unconscious, his breathing ragged and labored. Johnny figured the outlaw might have broken a few ribs in the hard fall, but that soon wouldn’t make any difference. Madrid adjusted the knife in his palm and aimed the weapon at the man’s chest.

His hand was stayed as the outlaw began to dance beneath him. Gripped by a severe convulsion, the man gasped for breath as his body fought for life. But it was a futile struggle, Madrid’s well-directed blow proving fatal.

‘Just as well,’ Madrid thought as the man kicked one last time, his final breath a guttural hiss.

Johnny secreted his knife away, then picked up the discarded handgun and replaced it in the man’s holster. He gripped the nameless outlaw by the arms and pulled the limp body into a sparse patch of brush. Johnny grabbed some nearby deadwood and threw it on top of the man for added cover.

Madrid returned to his horse and looked back, pronouncing his work good enough to move on. He was edgy, felt the nearness of his prey as strong as the blood flowing through his veins.

The man’s horse had hobbled his way down the hillside, and restlessly pranced about with a decided limp. Johnny Lancer would have checked on the animal—Madrid held off. A lame horse would never make its way back to Boyd to raise a warning flag. A gunshot to put the horse down would simply alert the outlaws that they had company. He turned his back and left the animal to its own survival.

Johnny checked the cinch on his horse, grabbed the lead rein and walked the animal over to the discarded pieces of rifle. He heaved them into the surrounding brush. Madrid considered going back for the outlaw’s rifle, but dismissed the thought. If his plan worked as hoped he would have little use for a long-gun. No—with luck he and Boyd were going have a little conversation, but a rifle wouldn’t be doing Johnny’s talking for him. Scott would hold up that part of the discussion. But Madrid . . . Madrid was going to speak another language entirely.

********

Not more than three miles further, just as he neared the crest of a tall rise, Johnny heard them. Riders—a lot of riders. He maneuvered his horse into a clump of trees at the edge of the incline and calculated the odds.

Boyd and his men had just reached the bottom of the hill and were ready to cross a large meadow. The women were clearly identifiable as they rode bunched together in the middle of the outlaws. Despite his resolve to remain impassive, Johnny’s heart tightened as he caught sight of Teresa’s long brown hair. Audra’s blonde locks were also recognized, shining gold from the late afternoon sunlight.

There was another female form behind them, a woman with straight black hair pulled into a long ponytail that swung methodically across her back as her horse descended the last few feet of the hill. All the women had their hands tied in front of them.

The location was perfect. Boyd’s men were clumped together, the area wide open. He’d be hard pressed to come upon a better place to offer him—and Scott—such an advantage. It had to be now.

From the trees, Johnny steeled his resolve, and made his play.

“Boyd!” Madrid shouted. ‘Welcome to hell.’

********

Vic Boyd felt good. For the first time in years, things were going his way, and he was feeling pretty damn good.

Business had gone sour for him in Texas and Arizona, his reputation preceding him wherever he went. Ranchers had caught on to his unique style of raiding and realized that all the shooting and rabblerousing Boyd’s men did was just cover to ensure that Vic could escape with the women. Any murder or thievery that might happen was secondary to the kidnappings. Now, with only a hint that Boyd’s band might be in an area, ranches and towns would close up so tight he was lucky if he could find any four-legged females left unguarded, let alone any young wives or daughters.

His gang ready to disband, Vic made the decision to try his hand in California. Boyd’s first raid a couple months back netted him four women who had earned him a pretty penny south of the border. He hadn’t seen that kind of payoff in a long time, and his men had been just as eager to try again.

Getting the women to Mexico on ships that sailed out of San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast had proved an absolutely brilliant, and additionally profitable, idea. He could be at sea with his captives, untouchable by any posse, in less than half the time it would take by horse to cross the border into safety. The seamen crewing those ships had often been without female companionship for a long, long time. Unscrupulous to begin with, they were ready and more than willing to earn Boyd extra money for the chance to break in his new whores.

Boyd thought about the women he’d captured and couldn’t help but smile. Choice lot, all three of them—young, pretty, and firm. He was real glad the last two had been practically handed to him at that last spread. He’d had his mind set on the Barkley girl since they’d scouted through weeks earlier. Making their way back to the coast, they’d been prepared to raid the ranch to get her, but weren’t looking forward to it.

“Miss Audra” was most definitely worth it—her ladylike bearing, perfect teeth, youth, looks, and soft, flowing, beautiful blonde hair was guaranteed to bring him double . . . no, triple in Mexico. She’d prove a gold mine to any brothel. But Boyd knew the Barkley ranch was large enough to be well defended. He’d have lost men for sure. To find her out riding with one lone cowboy had been like winning the final pot of a high-stakes poker game, without even having to ante up. The boy king had tried to keep the queen in his hand, but with the cards stacked against him, he’d been forced to fold fast, Boyd’s own knife having cut the kid out of the deck.

And the little blonde had come with a friend—an unexpected bonus, an extra queen to help fill an already winning hand. Boyd knew his men were going to line up for that Barkley girl tonight, but he looked forward to an entertaining evening with the brunette. Both women had put up a fight, but “Teresa,” as Miss Audra called her, had shown a rare kind of pluck. Oh yes. Boyd liked a woman who fought. Standing six foot three and weighing in at close to two hundred and fifty pounds, no little bit of a female ever stood a chance against him—but he loved it when they tried. He knew Teresa would go down swinging, but she would go down.

Positive they were at least a day ahead of any posse, Boyd relished the thought of stopping as soon as it grew dark. All in all, it had shaped up to be a really great day.

But then, from atop the rise, he heard his name called.

Sure it had to be one of his own men who beckoned, Boyd reined up and motioned his men to do the same. One of the horses nickered nervously as a few of the men drew weapons—just in case. Heads turned up toward the small stand of trees on the hilltop, the men listening, trying to spot who hailed.

Moments passed, but silence reigned.

Just as Boyd tired of the wait, the voice again called out. “Hola, Vic. Up to your old tricks, I see.”

No one referred to him as Vic, not even his own men.

Every outlaw drew a weapon, every eye locked on that stand of trees. Three of the outlaws stationed themselves closer to the women, snatching the reins roughly from their hands.

They didn’t have to wait long to greet their guest.

********

Johnny kept his horse at a slow pace as he broke free from the tree cover and steadily made his way down the hillside. Despite the twelve guns trained on him, Madrid made himself appear totally relaxed.

However, Johnny was anything but peaceful. His intent was deadly, his senses alert, his focus sharp. The deliberate pace allowed him precious time to evaluate the outlaws for strengths and weaknesses. Madrid took in every detail of each man and every weapon in sight. When the time came he wanted to be sure who to aim for first—that was if Vic Boyd didn’t end his gambit on the spot by just shooting him between the eyes.

Then there were the girls to consider. He couldn’t let their presence distract him, but Johnny allowed them each a glance to ensure they were okay.

The young woman with the black hair looked agitated. Her eyes darted everywhere, like a frightened rabbit ready to run. Her clothes torn and dirty, Johnny suspected she had been with the gang several days. She didn’t know him, so would have no reason to trust him. Madrid knew if it came down to a gunfight that he’d have to watch his aim around the young lady. In her state she’d be likely to dart in front of a target and take a bullet herself.

Audra was so like her mother in temperament. She sat proud in the saddle, refusing to give in to the baseness of the situation. But Johnny missed nothing. He recognized the strain on her face, fear in her eyes. He also noticed that the top button of her blouse was missing, the button below that hanging on by a mere thread. She’d already been manhandled—Johnny could only hope he’d be able to keep things from going any further.

She caught his gaze and, although he wouldn’t have thought it possible, she actually sat up straighter, silent confirmation of her courage and determination. Audra was at least aware of who he had been. Johnny realized she understood he was there to help them as a professional.

Teresa. Johnny almost couldn’t bring himself to look at his sister. When he did, he found his resolve strengthen—even as the weight of the world crashed down on his shoulders. Johnny saw the bruise on the right side of Teresa’s chin, and the ripped sleeve of her jacket. But it was her eyes above all that caught and held his attention, for an all too brief moment, but long enough for him to see the absolute trust she bestowed on him. Johnny had appreciated that same look in Nick’s eyes just before they’d left him with Heath. But this was Teresa—sweet, innocent Teresa who was entrusting him with her life and salvation. Johnny knew she had to be scared out of her mind, yet despite the direness of the situation, Teresa looked almost serene. Was she that sure of Johnny’s ability to rescue her? How could he dare fail with Teresa’s faith in him so unyielding?

Johnny knew he had to forget Teresa—and Audra and the other woman. He needed to focus on the task at hand, not the mission.

Nothing focused Madrid more than anger. Rather than making him hot, succumbing to his wrath always made him cold. Ice was good. It numbed him, made his heartbeat slow, chilled the blood in his veins. God might pity any man who had Johnny Madrid’s anger aimed at him, but Satan usually got ready to welcome another disciple. Because when Madrid turned to ice, he looked for the most base, ignoble, ruthless, and unsympathetic creature he could find to help warm him. And so he turned his attention to Vic Boyd.

********

Boyd hadn’t drawn his own weapon—yet. He was too astounded. Not much flustered Vic Boyd, but the apparition descending upon him was unsettling. Johnny Madrid had haunted his thoughts for going on six years, and to have him show up now, at this particular moment, was like a nightmare case of déjà vu.

Madrid was the only man to have ever crossed Vic Boyd and live to tell about it. As Johnny meandered down the hillside, Boyd watched the gunfighter’s gaze wander indifferently over his men, then focus on the women—and he knew why Johnny was there. ‘Not this time, Madrid,’ Boyd thought vengefully. ‘Not this time.’ But then those penetrating blue eyes made their way over to him, and Boyd wondered if maybe he’d just made a promise he wouldn’t be able to keep.

Johnny continued to amble forward. Annoyed by Madrid’s nonchalance, Boyd grabbed control and made the courteous introductions. “Some of you boys ain’t met,” he announced. “Gentlemen, this here is Mr. Johnny Madrid.”

Several of Boyd’s men shifted in their saddles, as a couple of the guns were now cocked in readiness. The gunfighter’s reputation preceded him, demanded respectful consideration. But Johnny continued to ignore them, his focus on Vic Boyd.

Ten feet from the outlaw leader, Johnny reined up. Boyd still could not believe who sat there right before him. “You grew up a piece, boy. Never thought I’d see you again, Madrid.”

Johnny smiled. “Would have pleased me just fine to have never laid eyes on your stinking face either. But you been repeatin’ your mistakes, Vic.”

Madrid’s insolent use of his first name was getting to Boyd, but he was certainly intrigued. “And what mistake would that be?” he asked.

“You didn’t scout that Barkley ranch well enough, Vic.” Johnny’s answer smacked accusingly. “From what I hear, that’s becomin’ a bad habit of yours. Can’t imagine what these men think of your decisions. You must be gettin’ slow-headed. Otherwise you would’a known better than to trample on my territory.”

“You was workin’ that ranch?” Boyd asked incredulously.

“Well, you don’t think I’d be invited there as a guest at the big house, do you?” Johnny faced the blonde. “Ain’t that right, Miss Barkley.”

“Yes,” Audra said, nodding as well. “He . . . my brother . . . Nick hired him,” she stammered.

Madrid turned back to Boyd. “And I got a little rule, Vic. When I hire on at a spread, it becomes mine. That means you took my property, Vic. I want it back.”

Boyd threw his head back and laughed at the brazen statement, and a couple of his men joined in. “You ain’t one to go ‘round talkin’ about respectin’ another man’s property, Madrid! You got a lot of nerve. Always lookin’ out for the ladies, ain’t you Johnny. What makes you think I’m just gonna hand these pretty girls over to you?”

Johnny’s casual attitude evaporated. “Because if you don’t, I’ll kill you.”

Now all the men laughed at Johnny’s bold threat. But their amusement was soon reduced to nothing more than nervous snickering, as Johnny’s intense expression refused to waver.

Unnerved by the unblinking fix of Johnny’s eyes on his, Boyd broke the standoff. “Yes, Madrid. You are very fast. You could probably kill me, and maybe even one or two more. But the rest of my men would cut you down, and we’d still have what you want.” Boyd looked over the outlaws and could tell they agreed with how things would unfold if Johnny chose to draw.

“You’re right, Vic,” Johnny said, “but at least you would be dead, and that would suit me just as well. You’ve needed killin’ for a long time, Vic. I’ve regretted every day not puttin’ a bullet into your head when I had the chance. I’d be pleased to make that my last act here on earth. We could travel to hell together.”

Boyd couldn’t tell if Johnny was bluffing or actually willing to sacrifice himself just to see him dead. Feeling increasingly off balance by the unexpected conversation, Boyd again tried to regain control. “You tempt me, Johnny. But I feel there’s no time to accommodate you. You surely have compadres close behind. There’s no advantage for us to linger. I’m sorry but I must—”

“Must what? Run away?” Johnny finished for him. “Thought you’d be chompin’ at the bit to get back at me, Vic. I heard you’d finally stopped lookin’ for me. Well, I’m here now. Don’t worry. There ain’t gonna be nobody behind me for a while yet. Found that Barkley boy you cut up and could tell right away that was your work.

“You truly are losing your touch, Vic,” Johnny goaded. “Heath was hurt bad, but you didn’t kill him. Shoddy as you been gettin’, I didn’t think it necessary to wait around any, wastin’ time gettin’ together a bunch of men to come after you when I know damn well I can take you myself.

“That ain’t my blood on my shirt, Vic. All of your outriders are gone. Look around you. This is all you got left, cabron. But you’re the one I want. I’ll even take you your way if you want. Makes no difference to me how I kill you, just as long as when I leave here, you’re dead.”

Boyd’s anger mounted with each word, and Johnny’s Mexican insult added fuel to the fire. “You challengin’ me, Madrid?”

“Call it whatever you like,” Johnny said. “We could do it the easy way and you can just give me back those girls and go on your way. But I don’t think either of us would be much satisfied with that. You want me, and I want you. Now’s your chance. Winner takes the women.”

Boyd squawked out another laugh. “I already have the women! Why should I fight you for ‘em?”

Johnny smiled and his gaze shifted to engage Boyd’s gang. “I don’t know about you men, but I sure wouldn’t want to follow after no dog that tucks its tail and runs from a fight.”

With even more enthusiasm, Johnny made an audacious offer. “What say it, boys . . . want a show? Buyin’ a ticket is easy. If he wins, you keep the women. If I win, they’re mine and you finally get shed of this mangy cur you been callin’ head dog. I’m sure one of you feels you’re a better man. Let me make it easy for you to take lead.”

Boyd didn’t like it one bit that Madrid wasn’t immediately shouted down. He and his gang had hit a rough patch a few months back, and some of the men had rumbled about moving on. But things had been going good lately. Damn good! He thought he had regained their loyalty.

Devious smiles appeared on his men’s ragged and hardened faces. Boyd was demoralized by their serious consideration of Madrid’s offer. ‘Double-crossin’ bunch of vultures,’ he thought, enraged.

One of the men grew bold enough to voice what most of his fellow outlaws were thinking. “If Madrid’s willin’ to face you without his gun, I’d like to see it. Take him, Boyd!” he urged.

Others echoed their approval, and Johnny’s smile grew.

There was no way Vic could refuse to face him now. Madrid’s goading confidence and easy influence over his men was too much. “This is going to be a pleasure, Madrid,” Boyd announced, as he drew the knife he had used to kill more men than his entire band of outlaws ever had, combined.

No one—absolutely no one—had ever beaten Vic Boyd in a no-holds barred knife fight. ‘And Johnny Madrid ain’t gonna be the first.’

********

Even if he bested Boyd, Johnny knew there was little chance the outlaws would just hand the girls over. But his ploy bought Scott time to catch up and, with any luck, would get Boyd’s men to let down their guard. If he could keep the damage to a minimum, the brothers might just have a chance to get the girls away in one piece.

Besides, Johnny had truly regretted not killing Boyd years before when he’d had the chance. He was buoyed by the thought that he could right that mistake today, and finally send Boyd to rot among the worms, where he belonged.

Johnny prepared to dismount, and sent out a silent plea that Scott be ready to back his play.

********

Scott watched Johnny confront the outlaws with a curious mix of amazement and apprehension. When his brother had outlined his strategy, Scott considered it insane to think that Vic Boyd would simply let Johnny walk in to meet him unmolested—but he just had. There had been no time for Johnny to explain why any of his plan might unfold as thought, but apparently success depended on the bitter past between Madrid and Boyd.

Johnny had also counted on Boyd believing that he had tracked the outlaws alone. Scott was under strict orders not to give his presence away by taking any action whatsoever against Boyd or his gang, even if it meant Johnny’s life. It was hard for Scott to accept, but per Madrid’s command, Johnny getting out of this wasn’t imperative—getting the girls out was. If the first part of the plan failed, until Nick Barkley could catch up to him, Scott would be the only thing left between the girls and a piteously damned fate.

Scott’s duty wasn’t to protect Johnny—one way or another it was to free Teresa and Audra. And Madrid had left a specific set of instructions for just how to accomplish that. Scott hoped this initial rescue attempt worked, because the contingency plan consisted of ever more dire solutions that Scott refused to contemplate.

Positioned atop the hill, at the edge of another small stand of trees a little further south from where Johnny had descended, Scott stood behind a pair of rocks that were tall enough to offer him not only good cover, but a firm ledge to steady his aim. The spot was ideal—the angle down the hillside just steep enough to clearly target anyone he chose. He had Nick’s rifle, and the one Johnny had left for him as a signal back along the trail.

Scott strained to hear Johnny’s verbal exchange with the outlaw leader—until he heard the distinct sound of a gun being cocked behind him.

“What ‘cha watchin’, cowboy?” The voice dripped with sarcasm. “Put the rifle down and turn around.”

Even if he thought he could somehow miraculously turn, fire, and hit the man behind him before he could get his own shot off, Scott knew the sound would mean instant death for his brother. He couldn’t give his presence away, not yet.

The most important thing Johnny had asked him to do was not get caught.

‘Johnny, I’m sorry.’ Scott dropped his rifle.

********

Staging for the fight was quickly set. Madrid raised his gun hand and dismounted. The women were jerked off their horses, a man remaining behind each. Two men wrangled all the extra mounts.

Big Bill Crawford was second in the gang only to Boyd. He stepped down from his horse and tossed the reins to one of the wranglers. Just about as large as Vic Boyd, Big Bill lumbered over to cover Johnny.

Gun in his right hand, Crawford remained silent as he held out his left hand and crooked his fingers a couple of times. Johnny unbuckled his gun belt and started to hand it over.

Right before Big Bill could close his hand on the weapon, Johnny pulled it back, just out of reach. Madrid looked the wary outlaw in the eyes, and with a grin suggested, “Trade ya.”

Crawford had met a lot of crazy men in his days, and already counted Johnny Madrid among the most outrageous. But he admired the gunfighter’s calculatingly bold style, and couldn’t help but offer a smile of his own. He kept his gun trained on Johnny as he reached down to the sheath on his side and pulled out a hunting knife, similar to but not quite as large as Boyd’s.

Madrid held out his hand to accept the weapon, but Crawford flung it into the dirt at their feet. The small smile on Johnny’s face remained unchanged, and he did nothing to acknowledge where the knife had landed.

Crawford laughed, and Johnny handed over his gun belt. But just as the outlaw pulled it into his grasp, Madrid leaned forward and whispered, “You’re next.”

The laughter stopped—cold—as Johnny Madrid’s smile altered to reveal that depth of malice that had so astonished his brother earlier in the day. Right then and there Big Bill’s admiration for Johnny Madrid changed. The gun hawk was not a man to be respected—he was a man to be out and out feared. Crawford decided that if Boyd somehow lost this fight, the gunfighter was still a dead man. Johnny’s threat was not a laughing matter, and there was no way Crawford was going to let Madrid live to come after him another day.

Keeping his eyes and gun trained on Johnny, Big Bill backed away, taking Madrid’s precious weapon with him.

********

Johnny’s horse was led away. Vic Boyd removed his own gun belt and handed it to one of his men, then moved to the center of the ring his gang formed to view the impending knife fight. Madrid watched as Boyd prepared himself, then bent over and grabbed the knife from the ground. He straightened and spared a quick glance to the hilltop above the meadow.

As Johnny wiped dirt off the hilt of the knife, he was disheartened to hear Big Bill Crawford finally speak. “Hey, Boyd. Guess what? Looks like Madrid missed one.”

“Someone signal?” Boyd asked, smiling.

“Mitchell . . . from up top the hill,” Crawford answered.

Johnny’s resolve faltered. ‘God damnit! I missed an outrider!’

Boyd and Crawford shared a hearty laugh. “Looks like you been gettin’ a little ‘shoddy’ yerself, Madrid,” Boyd jeered. Johnny desperately tried to remain calm as the outlaw verified the unthinkable. “You left at least one of my men livin’ to watch our backs.”

Madrid was furious with himself, and he took his anger out on Scott Lancer. ‘Don’t you get caught now, soldier boy,’ Johnny demanded. ‘Not now. Not now!’

Knowing all he could do was go forward with his plan, and hope against hope that his brother was safe and ready to cover him from above, Johnny once again strengthened his determination and turned to face his opponent.

“Don’t matter, Boyd. Told you I come after you alone,” Johnny said, trying to dismiss any further attention about Mitchell. He took a couple of steps forward and added, “And that’s how it needs to stay, Vic. You and me, alone. Tell your men to stay out of this, no matter what happens.”

“Oh, believe me, Johnny boy. I ain’t gonna need their help one little bit.” Boyd made a slow turn so he could address each outlaw in the circle. “You men don’t do nothin’ to interfere, you hear me? Madrid may have a reputation with a gun, but ain’t no one ever bested me with a knife. Don’t ya’ll go spoilin’ my fun now.”

The outlaws laughed rowdily and holstered their weapons—except for the three men guarding the women. Johnny took one more opportunity to look to Teresa and Audra. He knew this was a fight to the death, but it wasn’t only his life on the line. Three women stood in that clearing—two of them dear to his heart. This was going to be the most important battle he’d ever fought.

Where the girls had previously appeared somewhat encouraged, they now both looked worried and afraid. But the tears threatening to fall from Teresa’s eyes were for him, he knew, not for her. He wished he could reach out and wipe them away, but the only way to stop those tears was to stay alive—and kill Vic Boyd.

Johnny knew he had the will, he could only hope he had the strength and skill to find a way to win.

Boyd was ready. Madrid was ready. The time for hopes, wishes, and prayers was over. It was time to fight.

********

Scott slowly faced the man who had the drop on him. The outlaw was only about five years older than Scott but appeared just as tough as the man they’d captured back at the Barkley ranch. He wore one of Boyd’s bandanas tied around his neck.

“Hands up, away from your sidearm, cowboy,” the man ordered.

With no immediate choice, Scott raised his hands.

The man studied him, looking puzzled. Scott soon found out why. “You don’t look like the type who would ride with Madrid. What’s your business here?”

‘Why am I not surprised that this man would recognize Johnny Madrid?’ Scott thought sadly. He calculated a hasty reply. “Nothing with you. I’m after Madrid.”

“Why?”

Scott’s response was an easy half-truth. “He killed my brother. I want revenge.”

Apparently there was just enough honesty reflected in that statement for the outlaw to believe. “Well, you’re too late. The man down there has a score to settle with Madrid too, and from the look of things he’s about to get even. Revenge will be had, cowboy, but not at your hands. Hope just knowin’ that Madrid is gonna soon be dead is good enough for ya, cause that’s the best yer gonna get today. Sorry, cowboy, but you followed Madrid to the end of the road. Now turn around.”

If he wanted to shoot, Scott figured this man’s scruples would allow him to do the job face to face and he’d already be dead. Had to be that Boyd’s men were holding their fire, same as Johnny hadn’t wanted to alert the outlaws that he’d been trailing them. Scott saw the large knife tied to the man’s belt—the one that left no doubt about the outlaw’s intentions. Scott pressed his perceived advantage.

“Wait now!” He kept his arms up but feigned panic—and took a small step forward.

The outlaw counter stepped back. “Stay where you are, cowboy,” the man growled.

“Please. No . . . please.” Step.

Counter step.

“I have to at least be able to watch.” Step.

Counter step. “Don’t make me tell you again. Turn—a—round!”

“I have to be sure he’ll die!” Step.

Counter step.

“It’s important.” Step. Step.

Counter step.

“I have to know!” Step.

The outlaw grabbed for his knife—and Scott lunged . . . .

********

Johnny hefted the knife in his hand and judged its weight, then flipped it once in his palm and checked the balance. Satisfied, he pulled his hat off and tossed it aside, then stepped in toward Boyd.

Madrid had heard of Boyd’s prowess with a knife but he’d never seen him fight. So he moved easy, came at him slow and straight on, approaching just near enough for Boyd to get the contest started so Johnny could watch how he moved, used his blade.

Boyd let Johnny keep walking in, closer, closer . . . .

The knife reached out with amazing speed. For a big man, Boyd was agile, and the long reach of his arms gave him an extra advantage. He wielded the razor sharp knife as naturally as Madrid handled his gun.

But the weapon remained clean. Johnny’s relaxed stance was deceiving, and he sprang easily out of the way of the swinging blade.

Only momentarily surprised, Boyd shook it off. Back on guard, Johnny circled around him counterclockwise, hands at his sides, as if he were doing nothing more than measuring a prize bull for sale. Boyd let the gunfighter continue around until he came abreast of his right arm, when he again slashed out.

The blade once more missed flesh as Madrid twisted out of the way. He dodged beneath Boyd’s knife just as he brought his own up to slice over the back of the outlaw’s right shoulder. Johnny spun off another step before he stopped and stood by. Cool. Calm.

Boyd was left anything but. His men had been hooting and hollering in raucous encouragement, but Madrid’s maneuver rendered them mute. As Johnny waited, relaxed and barely winded, Boyd felt at the wound on the back of his shoulder. His hand appeared in front of his eyes, wet and red. Boyd stared at the sight with disbelief.

Madrid had drawn first blood.

The outlaw had made a common assumption—because Madrid had built his reputation using a gun, everyone considered that the only weapon he was any good with. But Johnny had lived a hard life for a long, long time. A handgun and steady supply of bullets was not something readily available to a poor little half-breed kid trying to survive the brutality of the border towns. But a knife . . . . Hell. A kid could find a knife just about anywhere. The treasured one in his boot had been his very first, bought when he was maybe eleven. Johnny had learned how to defend himself fighting hand to hand long before he’d ever picked up a gun.

Just because he didn’t prefer a knife, didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use one.

Vic’s renowned expertise with a knife hadn’t scared Johnny one bit—no more than any other man’s gun ever had. He knew that big men often favored a knife because they assumed their size always gave them an edge. A smaller man had to be twice as good just to be able to keep up and still stay out of the way.

As Boyd and his men were finding out, Madrid was actually twice as good as Vic Boyd with a knife. But Johnny wasn’t overconfident, the outlaw too formidable an opponent. Madrid watched Boyd’s fury build, and knew his skill would be sorely tested this day.

Boyd now pressed the attack. He moved forward with determination, the blade in his hand manipulated with artful dexterity, pivoting in his palm so it switched from facing out to facing in, making it difficult to guess the direction from which a jab or slash might come.

Forced to take up a defensive stance, Johnny fought as he always did, using battle tested strategy—he ignored the weapon and watched Boyd’s eyes. A knife brandished with Vic Boyd’s skills could change target in a second, but the outlaw’s eyes would tell Johnny when he would strike. Arms still at his sides, Johnny kept his own knife firmly gripped but motionless in his hand, the hilt pointed toward the ground, the blade hidden from view behind his forearm. From this position, whenever he chose to strike, the direction of his own blade would be unknown until it was, hopefully, too late for Boyd to track.

The outlaw initiated a fast series of thrusts and cuts that Johnny avoided. His body danced away sideways and backwards, his flesh kept just out of reach of the deadly blade. But Madrid knew he’d never win if all he did were evade his opponent. So the next time Boyd tried a cut, Johnny avoided the blade, but instead of moving away, he moved in—slamming his body as hard as he could against the outlaw. Letting his right arm drag behind him, Madrid’s knife followed the course of his movement and once again cut into Boyd as it drew over the big man’s ribs.

The unanticipated charge knocked Boyd off balance. Infuriated that he’d just been slashed again, the outlaw leader once more advanced. Fueled by his embarrassment, he came at Madrid with rapid cuts, his knife almost seeming to be in two places at once.

Johnny used his own weapon as a shield to ward off several of Boyd’s blows. Blade clashed against blade until Boyd flicked his powerful wrist and twisted around Johnny’s knife to deftly slash at the gunfighter’s outer right forearm.

Now it was Boyd who danced away in delight. He proudly held his weapon up for his cheering men to admire—Johnny’s blood finally coloring the shining metal.

Madrid had known from the start that he wouldn’t make it through the fight unscathed, so it was easy for him to dismiss the wound. The cut was by no means slight, and bled freely, but wasn’t deep enough to hamper his movements. He kept his focus on Boyd, and seeing him take the moment to revel in his minor victory, Johnny kept up the attack.

The arrogant son of a bitch turned his back on Johnny—and that’s all the encouragement he needed. Madrid knew his weight was no match for the outlaw’s, but he wanted him down. Running forward, he leapt feet first at the middle of Boyd’s back, planted his boots firmly, and kicked out with all his might. The pompous outlaw found himself sprawled face down in the dirt. His knife, lost from his grip, skittered away along the dirt, out of reach.

Johnny landed on his side and rolled, then righted himself and clambered over to plant his own knife into the back of Boyd’s right leg. The outlaw yelled in pain as the blade bit deep. Madrid pulled his weapon out to try for another blow. But Boyd was faster than Johnny expected and rose up onto his knees to turn and grab Johnny’s wrist. Boyd the much stronger man, Madrid could do nothing more than add the grip of his left hand to help steady his right.

Boyd used his weight and pounced on Johnny, sending them both flat to the ground. His arms pushed up over his head, Johnny landed with a grunt, the air forced from his lungs. A couple of ribs on his left side shifted painfully.

The knife was now above Johnny’s head, both hands needed to compete with Boyd’s stronger single-handed grasp. Seeing the outlaw’s other hand moving to help gain complete control over the weapon, Johnny brought his head up and smashed his forehead into Boyd’s nose.

The blow cost Johnny a gash on his brow, but Boyd let loose as his body pulled up and back. Freed, Johnny scuttled from beneath the outlaw, and turned onto his stomach, ready to push to his feet.

Boyd recovered, and Johnny felt beefy hands on his ankles as the outlaw pulled him backwards to scrape along the ground. Johnny glanced over his shoulder, and saw that Boyd was still on his knees. He let himself be dragged, but just as Boyd pulled him close he used every ounce of strength he had to bend his body up and over. Boyd fumbled his grip. Johnny positioned his left ankle and aimed his spur, twisting it so the rowel dug deep into the outlaw’s cheek.

Flesh gouged out of his face, Boyd released his hold to claw madly at the open wound.

Johnny crawled away, but the effort to rotate his body to injure Boyd had weakened him. The ribs on his left side were hurt just enough so the exertion had cost him dearly. He gasped for breath and continued to try and put distance between them before the man could recover.

He almost made it.

Scrambling forward along the ground, Johnny willed himself to stand. But before he could turn to find his opponent, Boyd found him. He’d reclaimed his own weapon and came after Johnny with a vengeance, finally using those long arms to a successful advantage. Boyd slashed out as soon as he got within striking distance. The sharp blade cut a long, diagonal path across Johnny’s back, from his left shoulder blade almost to his right hip.

Arching forward against the burning pain of the severe laceration, Johnny almost stumbled and fell as he turned to face Boyd. There was no time to consider his injury as the outlaw was coming at him again. Johnny used his weapon to block the hacking blade that now assailed him over and over and over again.

In an uncontrollable rage, Boyd appeared fiendishly grotesque as blood poured from the gaping hole in his cheek. His eyes were wild with hatred as he sought to kill the man who had inflicted such unthinkable damage to his body. He limped badly from the deep cut to his leg. Johnny’s continued ability to block his blows made Boyd even angrier. He finally rushed forward, a primal scream escaping his lips as he moved.

Johnny watched the hulking form speed toward him and braced himself, unable to step aside before Boyd plowed into him. They grabbed at each other’s wrists, fighting for control over the weapons as they tumbled together to the ground.

Once more Johnny’s slight body was forced to take Boyd’s substantial weight. His already bruised ribs protested as the pair fell hard. Left breathless, Johnny felt his grip on Boyd’s wrist release.

The big man yanked his arm away and adjusted his position to straddle Johnny, as he slammed the gunfighter’s knife hand down onto the ground. He kept Johnny’s arm pinned up beside his head as he pulled his own weapon back out of reach. Boyd sneered down at his captive. “See how you like it, Madrid,” he said, and then plunged the blade deep into the side of Johnny’s left thigh.

Unable to stifle his scream, Johnny threw his head back in agony.

“Did you hear that, boys?” Boyd shouted in triumph. “That’s the sound of a gun hawk gettin’ his wings clipped!”

Boyd yanked the bloody blade out of Johnny’s leg and released his grip on Madrid’s wrist to clasp both hands to the hilt of his knife. He raised it high above his head and aimed it at the gunfighter trapped beneath him.

Johnny’s survival instincts kicked in and his strength rallied. Madrid took advantage of Boyd’s oversight and adjusted the grip on his own weapon. Before the gloating outlaw could make a downward thrust, Johnny’s hand lashed up and he drew the blade across Boyd’s exposed throat, laying it open with one vicious slice, the vital carotid artery severed.

Time slowed. Boyd appeared unable to move as he stared straight ahead, blood gushing from his neck. Johnny lay beneath him, unsure if he would have the power to ward off the weapon if Boyd made one last effort to take Madrid along with him into the beyond.

Boyd’s gaze wandered downward until he found Johnny’s eyes. Unable to speak, he let the depth of his hatred toward the gunfighter show in his icy glare as death fought to steal his vision. Madrid matched his stare until, to his dread, he glanced up further to the blade still clasped in Boyd’s raised hands—hands that were drifting ever downward with lethal intent.

Lower and lower the blade descended, until it hovered just above Johnny’s heart. Time once again paused, but only briefly. Final satisfaction would be denied the outlaw. Boyd’s eyes rolled back in his head as death claimed him. His bulky frame fell to the side as his famed knife dropped without force, the sharp tip piercing Johnny’s shirt to merely nick at the skin beneath.

Free of Boyd’s weight, Madrid took a moment to gather his strength. But he knew there were more cards to be played.

Rising to his knees, Johnny searched the faces of the stunned men around him. He recognized their confusion, a mixture of disbelief, loss, and something else he’d seen too many times in his life—fear. Fear of him, and the death he brought with him.

Madrid knew men did two things with their fear: they yielded to it and walked away, or they confronted it, which would mean a challenge. Despite their greater number, most of Boyd’s men looked to be at least considering walking away. But then Johnny noticed Big Bill Crawford—and he didn’t like what he saw.

Big Bill was angry, and had the distinctive look of a man set on revenge. Johnny clenched his knife a bit tighter. Simply riding out of there with the girls was not going to be an option, but he played the hand anyway. “I win, boys, and we had an agreement. The women are mine. Let ‘em go.”

All eyes turned to Big Bill, and the leader of the new Crawford gang pronounced his verdict. “I don’t think so, Madrid.” The big man pulled Johnny’s own gun out of its holster. “You put on a good show, but the price of admission is too damn high. I’m afraid I’m just gonna have to hang onto our treasures.”

Big Bill smiled, aimed the pistol at Madrid, and fell over backward—the report of the rifle shot that downed him coming seconds after the fatal bullet hit him square in the chest.

********

It had taken every ounce of Scott’s willpower to hold his fire until that moment.

From his vantage point up the hill, Scott ignored the raw pain from a split lip and bleeding cut to the back of his left hand, as he continued to fire at the outlaws. With shot after shot he covered his brother’s movement, his aim true.

The outrider lay at Scott’s feet, his head twisted abnormally, his eyes now forever sightless.

********

Johnny watched Big Bill drop and blessed his brother for his timing—and aim. The outlaws stunned by the ambush, Madrid didn’t waste the opportunity. He flipped the knife in his palm and positioned the hilt carefully as he twisted around. With all his strength Johnny lobbed the knife at the outlaw gripping Teresa’s elbow. The young woman cried out in fright as the blade sped just past her to bury deep into the man’s stomach.

The precious element of surprise already played out, Madrid didn’t wait for the man to fall, another ten outlaws still between him and the women’s freedom. Scott’s rifle continued to sound. Johnny couldn’t trust his ability to stand on his wounded leg so he rolled forward. He landed beside Big Bill Crawford’s body and grabbed up his own handgun. Madrid took aim, fanned the hammer twice and shot two of the outlaws from their saddles.

Scott had made deadly progress and picked off another two on his own. A third outlaw leapt off of his bucking mount, and drew a bead on Madrid. But as Johnny turned toward him, Scott shot the man in the shoulder, knocking the gun from his hand. When he reached for his fallen weapon, Scott shot him again, dead.

There were only five men to go, but the odds were still with the outlaws. With every man firing over and over, layers of gun smoke mixed with a storm of dust churned up by the terrified horses. The miasma veiled the ground and rose to hover over the battleground. Scott wouldn’t have clear targets much longer.

A couple of the outlaws exchanged their side arms for rifles and fired up the hillside toward Scott. Johnny brought one of those men down, then felt the sting of a bullet as it grazed his left shoulder. Still kneeling beside Big Bill, he didn’t have far to fall as the unexpected flair of pain propelled him to the ground.

The shot had come from one of the two men still guarding the girls. Johnny forced himself back onto his knees and turned toward the captives. As he brought his weapon up to fire, the primary target was obvious. The man holding Audra cowered behind her, his gun drawn but aimed nowhere. But the man who held the woman with the black hair was once again bringing his weapon to bear on Johnny.

The outlaw gripped the woman’s long ponytail and, with a cruel yank, pulled her head tight against his left shoulder, trapping her in front of him. She screamed wildly in pain and fear. As Johnny had predicted, she struggled against her captor in a total panic, the smoke swirling around the couple in turbulent eddies. While her movements thwarted the outlaw’s aim, she made it equally difficult for Johnny to pinpoint the man behind her.

Leaving Scott to watch his back and pick off the rest of the outlaws, Madrid blocked out his pain and all sound and movement around him to concentrate on only one thing—the head of the man hiding behind the black-haired woman. He ignored the man’s weapon. He ignored the woman. All he could see was the edge of the man’s face as his target remained furtively just out of view.

Madrid waited, patient, his weapon in position, ready to fire but quiet. Another bullet flew past him, close, but he took no heed, his sight focused on only that little bit of flesh and beard, obscured, fleeting—then abruptly in the clear!

Johnny fired, and the man’s head exploded as the bullet hit him just at the edge of his right eye socket. Blood, flesh, and bone covered the back of the woman’s shoulder. The outlaw toppled backward from the force of the impact. His hand still gripping the young lady’s hair, the dead man pulled her to the ground with him. She scrambled out of his grasp and curled herself into a tight ball, still screaming incoherently.

Scott’s rifle was silent. The gunfire was over. All the other outlaws were dead—except for the one hiding behind Audra Barkley. Her slim form offered absurdly little cover, but still the outlaw clung to her. He peered over Audra’s shoulder, eyes wide and full of fear, gripping her waist so tightly she looked ready to faint from lack of air.

With Vic Boyd’s blood spilled all over him, and his own wounds still bleeding freely, Johnny was coated in a red veneer indicative of utter carnage. Ever so slowly he forced himself to stand, rocking as he gained his footing. He took two limping steps forward and then raised that infamous handgun and sighted down the barrel, aiming at that petrified weasel of man teasing his senses from behind Audra Barkley.

As the smoked and dust settled in a thick layer around him, Johnny looked like death incarnate.

The man who dared call himself “outlaw” looked ready to cry.

‘One more man. Will he come easy or hard?’

A continuous rush of adrenalin was the only thing keeping Johnny upright. He tried his best not to let his gun waver and hoped the man wouldn’t do anything foolish to cause him to have to move quickly.

“You seem to think standin’ behind that woman is gonna protect you,” Johnny called out, his parched throat making his voice raspy. “Didn’t much work for the last two men who tried that, now did it?”

It was a rhetorical question, but still the man tried to answer. Tried. “I . . . I just . . . I just wanna . . . I don’t want no . . . I wanna leave!” The man’s impulse to do just that was so strong he took a clumsy step backward, drawing Audra back with him.

“Fair enough.” Acceptance was unexpected, but Johnny could feel his gun arm begin to shake. He needed the confrontation to be over. Fast. “You want out, you drop your weapon and go. You find any horses you let ‘em be. You turn around before you cross that meadow and I’m gonna have my friend up top that hill blow your head off. You understand?”

“How can I trust you?” The man’s voice trembled more than Johnny’s grip on his gun.

“Only deal you’re gonna get today, so you best take it.”

Still the man hesitated, and Johnny lost his temper. “Now!” he shouted.

Audra was instantly released and dropped to her hands and knees. As tenuous as Madrid’s offer might have seemed, the outlaw tossed his gun forward. He raised his trembling hands high as he backed away.

“Move!” Johnny shouted again, impatient with the man’s unremitting fear. The man started to run before he completely turned around, tripped over his feet and tumbled to the ground. He regained his footing and took off as instructed, never to look back as he made his way across the meadow.

********

The air felt abnormally still compared to the frantic activity of the last couple of minutes, all the time the seemingly endless gun battle had really taken. The woman with the black hair continued to cry quietly, and the few horses that remained nearby whinnied nervously and stamped the ground with unease. But otherwise there was quiet—blessed calm and stillness.

Madrid allowed his arm to drop to his side, then felt his grip loosen and the gun slip from his fingers. He gave in to his sudden weariness and let his body drift downward, first settling on his knees, then back onto his haunches. Finally he followed his weapon and rolled to the ground, onto his back.

He closed his eyes and took careful breaths, assessing the damage and considering his options for continuing on.

Someone kneeled beside him. “Johnny?” Teresa. Her voice wavered, sounded frail.

Johnny needed another moment and kept his eyes closed, but Teresa’s hands cupped his face. He could feel the rope binding her wrists scrape across his shirt, even as her delicate fingers caressed his cheeks, begging for response. “Johnny?” She managed only a whisper.

Her sorrow was too much to bear. Johnny opened his eyes, dismayed to see every emotion he had experienced that day reflected on his sister’s face—fear, sadness, pain, desperation, anger, regret—but most of all, sadness.

Teresa must have recognized his empathy, as she uttered a quiet but heartfelt, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Johnny offered back, then grimaced as pain grabbed at his leg then shot up his back, stealing his breath away as he arched. His ribs and shoulder throbbed dully, but the knife wound to his thigh and long cut across his back burned deeply. Surprisingly, the cut to his right arm seemed the least of his problems—at least for now. Johnny suspected if he allowed himself to rest for too long that he’d stiffen up considerably, limiting his movement.

The spasm passed, and once again Johnny opened his eyes. Teresa’s eyes brimmed with tears, her courage failing, and he remembered—they weren’t home yet. As he had wanted to do earlier, before he’d faced Boyd, Johnny reached up and wiped the tears away for her. But his caring gesture was tempered with a sharp admonition. “No, Teresa. You can’t. Not yet. Our day’s not done.”

Johnny tried to sit up, but felt dizzy and lay back. “There’s a knife in my right boot. Get it for me,” he said.

Teresa found the knife and handed it to her brother. As Johnny sawed through the rough ropes biding her wrists he watched the young woman battle her emotions. She fought off the threatening tears with a deep, hitching breath.

Johnny admired Teresa’s spirit, knowing the demons she faced. “Good girl,” he said as the ropes fell free. “Plenty of time for that later. But you got work to do.” He handed her back the knife. “Go free the others and start gathering up the horses. Audra seems like she’ll be okay, but you gotta get that other woman ready to ride. Go on now.” He finished with a small cough and a tired sigh.

“But you’re—”

“Scott’ll tend me,” he cut her off. “You go on,” he added, more abruptly than intended.

Teresa pulled back, but still reluctant to leave reached forward and again ran a hand over his cheek. He allowed a brief caress before turning away, denying himself as much as her any further comfort. She rose and moved off.

Johnny stared at the sky, concentrated on conserving his energy, readying himself to continue the day’s mission—for it truly was not yet at an end.

********

Scott couldn’t see anyone anymore, the battlefield obscured by the blanket of thick dust and amorphous smoke. The shooting had stopped, leaving him to wonder what the hell was happening below. By his count there was only one more outlaw, but Johnny would have to take him down.

Unwilling to risk distracting his brother, Scott merely stepped out from the safety of his rock cover and listened intently. He heard a woman crying, and Johnny and the last outlaw talking, but couldn’t make out all the words.

“Move!” Johnny’s shout traveled clearly and Scott brought his rifle up to bear. The outlaw broke out of the fog and headed across the meadow in a dead run. Scott tracked his movement until he was positive the man wasn’t going to double back. He pulled the bandana from the dead outlaw’s neck and wrapped it around his hand, stuffing the end into a fold. He mounted up, grabbed the reins of the outrider’s horse, and made his way down the hillside. The smoke had started to lift, and rose to meet him.

Breaking through the haze, Scott was concerned to see Johnny flat on the ground, Teresa leaving his side. He headed straight for his brother, dismounted and dropped to his knees. Johnny’s eyes were open in greeting.

“Good shootin’,” Johnny said, quietly echoing words he’d uttered to his brother once before during their too short relationship.

“Good plan,” Scott offered back with a tired smile, unable to resist adding, “Dangerous, reckless, and unbelievable as usual, but good.”

Johnny smiled back, no words needed to express how happy they were to see the other still alive, knowing full well that the odds had been overwhelming that one or both of them may not have survived the battle. But Johnny sobered, his smile fading.

“We gotta get movin’, Boston. Help me sit up.” Even as he spoke Johnny tried to rise on his own.

Scott restrained his brother with a hand to his chest. “Johnny, wait. You need—”

“No!” Johnny exclaimed, his head tossing in frustration. “Scott, we don’t know where the rest of Boyd’s men were supposed to join back with him. If they’re close, they would’a heard the gunfire. We gotta go. Help me up and get this bleedin’ stopped. That’s all we got time for.”

He hated it, but once again “Madrid’s” judgment seemed correct. “All right. But at least lie here a minute until I can get together some supplies.” He didn’t give Johnny a chance to argue, moving off to search the saddlebags on the horses he’d brought down from the hilltop.

Teresa joined him leading another horse and Scott pulled her into a caring embrace. “Oh, Scott—” she managed to hitch out, almost breaking down again.

“I know, Teresa. I know.” He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “We need to take care of Johnny now and get moving. Help me find something to dress his wounds. Can you do that?”

She sniffed and nodded and moved off to search the other saddlebags.

Audra stepped beside him, her eyes also pooled with tears. Scott enfolded her in his arms and offered her the same silent encouragement he had given his sister.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, pulling away and wiping at her eyes.

“Teresa and I need to help Johnny. Gather up anything useful you can find, and keep these horses together,” Scott said. “We have to be ready to ride as soon as possible.” He nodded over her shoulder toward the other woman, who now sat staring off into the distance. “Is she going to be okay?”

“I think she’s in shock, Scott,” Audra answered. “But I’ll have her ready to ride when you say.”

Scott couldn’t help but smile at the young woman’s perseverance, her courage equal to Teresa’s. He patted her on the shoulder. “Thank you, Audra. We won’t be long.”

Teresa was heading toward Johnny with a couple of canteens, a blanket and a jacket she had found. Johnny was already sitting up, undoing the buttons on his shirt. Scott joined them with a handful of shirts and bandanas.

While Johnny drank greedily from a canteen Teresa handed him, Scott looked over his brother’s shredded shirt and pronounced it unsalvageable. Johnny’s boot knife lay beside him on the ground. Scott grabbed it and slit the shirt up the back, then helped Johnny shirk himself out of it. Teresa wet down a couple of bandanas and handed one to Scott, and then the pair went to work cleaning the blood and dirt from Johnny’s injuries.

Johnny fought to remain still as they worked, paling but stubbornly refusing to pass out. Scott placed a strong hand of support on his brother’s shoulder.

They were finally ready to dress the wounds with an assortment of strips of cloth fashioned from torn shirts and the blanket. Through gritted teeth Johnny’s only instruction was, “Bind ‘em all tight. We got riding to do.”

Arm, shoulder, chest and back swathed in bandaging, Teresa helped Johnny into one of the outlaw’s shirts. Before they could get it buttoned, Scott once again took up the boot knife and slit Johnny’s pant leg open to look at the stab wound to his thigh. Johnny swayed, and his hands groped along the ground as he sought to lower himself before lightheadedness could get the better of him. Teresa helped him lie back, then dabbed at the cold sweat on his face with another bandana.

Scott cleaned the deep cut as best he could. “You’re still bleeding here, brother,” he said as he pressed a pad of makeshift bandaging against the wound.

Johnny moaned and placed an arm over his eyes. “Just wad something against it and get it tied up,” he said. “It’ll have to do.”

Scott wedged a clean pad between the wound and the inside of Johnny’s pant leg. As he wrapped a longer piece of cloth around the outside, Johnny asked Teresa to help him sit up.

“Let me finish that,” Johnny said, taking the ends of the wrapping from his brother’s hands. “Teresa, Scott’s hand needs tending. Take care of it, will ya.”

They’d been so intent on taking care of Johnny’s injuries that the cut to Scott’s hand had been ignored. Teresa removed the blood-soaked bandana and cleaned and dressed the wound while Johnny finished his own bandaging, buttoned his shirt, then slipped his boot knife back into hiding.

Audra joined them with the horses. She’d kept herself busy, making sure that each scabbard had a rifle in place and a canteen was tied to every saddle. The woman with the long black hair was mounted, but still seemed oblivious to her surroundings.

“Help me up, brother,” Johnny said. Teresa hovered nearby as Scott pulled him to his feet. Johnny braced himself against Scott and put weight on his wounded leg. Managing to stay on his feet, he let go and took a couple of limping steps, nodding his approval.

“Teresa, get my gun belt for me. And pick up my gun, too.” She headed off while Johnny started tucking in his shirt and issuing commands. “Scott, you got less than two hours of daylight left. Take the girls and head straight back along the path we came, and move fast. You gotta get as close to the posse as you can. There’ll be a good moon tonight—use it. Soon as it’s light enough, keep goin’. You find a big party of men, make sure it’s Nick before you call out.”

As Johnny lashed the coat Teresa had found for him to his saddle, Scott asked, “And just what are you going to be doing while we’re on the move?”

“I’m gonna trail you, watch your backs.” Johnny held up a hand to cut off protest and dropped his voice down to a whisper. “Scott, until you meet up with Nick, this ain’t over. You remember everything I told you. The other half of Boyd’s band is just as dangerous. Don’t let the girls stop if you can help it. Keep ‘em movin’.”

Teresa returned with not only Johnny’s holster and weapon, but his hat as well. “Thanks,” he said as he placed the hat on his head, adjusting it off the bruised gash on his forehead that he’d received compliments of Vic Boyd’s nose. Johnny groaned faintly as he swung the gun belt around his hips. Scott stared at his brother hard, but Johnny matched his glare, still focused and resolute.

Knowing it would do no good to argue further, Scott merely grabbed Johnny’s elbow. “If you fall off your horse, you come back with us.”

********

Johnny did not fall off his horse, although getting mounted wasn’t quite as easy as the gunfighter had hoped. As Scott moved off to help Teresa and Audra, Johnny’s attention was drawn to the black haired woman.

Dark memories surfaced as he appraised the woman, her face awash with a depth of sorrow that an entire lifetime might not be able to erase. To his surprise, she turned to face him, as if sensing his attention. Johnny shuddered as the woman’s gaze found his. Her stare was horrifyingly familiar to the gunfighter, but Johnny was unable to turn away. She was making a plea that echoed out of Johnny’s past—and he felt compelled to reply.

“These men are dead and the others ain’t gonna get you back,” Johnny said emphatically.

For the first time the woman spoke coherently. “Promise me,” she pleaded, her red-rimmed eyes insisting on the truth.

“What’s your name?” Johnny asked softly.

“Emily,” she replied, fresh tears threatening.

“Emily, I promise,” Johnny said.

She stared another moment, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her features softening as the steady flow of air drew the turmoil from her. Her eyes left his to again stare off into nothingness. But there was now a sense of quietude to the woman that had not been there before.

The brief exchange with Emily had a marked opposite effect on Johnny. Her fate released into his hands, he grew numb, his heartbeat slowed, his blood felt chilled. Johnny Madrid once again turned to ice.

Everyone ready to ride, Johnny addressed his brother one last time. “Don’t wait for me, and don’t look for me. I’ll find you when I’m ready. Get ‘em home, Scott. Go.”

There was no argument to be brooked, and no goodbyes to be had. Just to be sure, Johnny spurred his horse away a couple of strides, then turned and waited for them to leave.

********

Scott feared his brother’s decision to ride off alone. But he’d been given an important charge that he was dead set on completing with success.

“Follow me closely,” Scott said, and each of the girls—including Emily—nodded their understanding. “We’re going to be moving fast, but you need to keep up. Let’s go.” Scott headed his horse out of the meadow and up the hillside, the women following.

At the top of the rise, Scott spared one short look back—and wished he hadn’t. Because he saw his brother—no, Madrid—crossing the meadow, moving away from them, tracking the path of the outlaw they had let go.

With Teresa, Audra, and Emily’s safety in his hands, Scott pushed thoughts of Madrid away and began leading the women home.

********

By the time Madrid caught up to the fleeing outlaw, the man had already found a horse—and a rifle. So technically it was a fair fight. Regretting the day he had ever joined up with Vic Boyd, the man’s last act on earth was to tell the gunfighter the exact number and location of the remaining group of outlaws.

********

The trail back proved faster than the laborious outbound trek, the pace slowed only by the fatigue of the horses. But Scott forced the group forward. Stopping before dark to allow man and beast a rest was out of the question, the threat of recapture looming over them all.

Scott’s concern doubled upon hearing distant gunfire, muffled in the constant breeze. He glanced behind him, but none of the girls had noticed. Scott’s ears had become attuned to such ominous echoes from listening to far off battles during the war. He said nothing, simply pushed the women onward until the last rays of sunlight faded to a ghostly glow.

“Hold up, ladies.” Scott reined his horse to a stop and twisted around to face them. “We’ll rest here until the moon tops the trees. I’ll take care of the horses.”

Teresa closest, Scott helped her dismount first, then Audra. He stepped beside Emily, but she didn’t acknowledge him. She was so focused on the trail ahead Scott had to look for himself to be sure she hadn’t spotted someone. He saw only the shadowy outline of trees, but he understood her longing, her need to keep moving, to run. To hide. “Emily,” he said softly. “We’ll keep going soon, but you need to get down and rest now.”

Emily turned to face him, and Scott’s heart ached. Dusk kindly hid her features, but her despondency was palpable. He held up his hands and she flinched, and he couldn’t help the spasm of guilt that filled him, although he hadn’t been the man who’d hurt her. “I’m sorry, Emily. I only want to help you down.”

Her hand shook as it passed across her eyes, and she sat still for a moment longer. Finally Emily turned and held her arms out. Scott helped her down, but released her quickly, feeling her tension at his touch. He removed the canteen from the saddle and handed it to her. “Please rest,” he felt compelled to repeat. “I’ll let you know when we can continue.”

“Come over here, Emily,” Teresa coaxed from behind them.

Emily hesitated again, as if each decision she made, no matter how small, required great consideration. She finally stepped forward to join the other women.

Scott cared for the horses and speculated on when the posse might have left the Barkley ranch, and where it could be along the trail ahead. He felt certain they had to be on an intersecting course and was disheartened that Nick hadn’t already found them. Despite Johnny’s well-marked trail, the search party would be forced to stop for the night. Scott had the advantage of being able to recognize landmarks, even in the darkness. If they were going to reach the safety of the posse tonight, it would be up to him.

The women stood quietly, clustered together. Scott rummaged through the saddlebags and put together the semblance of a meal, but the ladies refused their meager portions, limiting themselves to occasional sips of water. He felt like an outsider, so busied himself checking the condition of the weapons.

Scott could only imagine how traumatic it would be for a woman to be handled so callously by a man, let alone the ruthless band assembled by Vic Boyd. And what they had planned to do with the girls . . . with Teresa and Audra . . . what they had surely done to Emily . . . .

He shivered, but it had nothing to do with the cooling air. Scott remembered Emily’s haunted look, and wondered how far he would have been willing to go in order to keep such an expression from ravaging Teresa’s face. Johnny had been prepared to do anything to prevent that. Scott knew he would have certainly sacrificed himself in order to save the girls, but a more complicated question remained: Would he have been able to follow the path of his brother, and go further? Sometime, somehow, Johnny had learned that there were things much worse than death one could offer in service to a noble cause—one thing in particular that Scott still couldn’t believe he may have been forced to consider. Ordering professional soldiers into battle had never been easy, but Scott had never been asked to so closely consider the decision of life over death for an innocent human being before—until today.

The land was swathed in darkness, but the moon started to rise, casting an encouraging light blue tint to the heavens. Silver sparks began flickered across the treetops, boughs rippling in the continuous breeze. Scott turned his attention to the night, vigilant for out of place sounds, any indication of riders nearby or more gunfire, and, above all, the appearance of his brother.

What he heard instead, cutting straight through the darkness and right into his soul, were the heart-wrenching sobs of the women. They were trying to be quiet, but their efforts were thwarted by their sorrow. He could just make out their outlines as they now huddled together upon the ground.

Scott moved closer. Emily sat with her head deeply bowed, between Audra and Teresa, who murmured words of comfort as they wept with her.

“Teresa?” Scott called quietly as he approached.

“It’s all right, Scott,” she whispered back with a sniffle. “We’re all right.”

Scott knelt beside his sister. “No. No you’re not,” he said gently. “But you will be.”

He placed an arm around Teresa’s shoulders. She hitched out a louder sob at his embrace and nestled against him. Scott held her close. “You all have a perfect right to be upset, and angry, and any one of a thousand other emotions for what you’ve been through. You just need to stay strong a little while longer.”

The sobbing lessened so Scott offered, “Audra, when we found Heath, we were with Nick. He was going to follow with a posse as soon as he took care of your brother.”

“Johnny was telling the truth?” Audra asked with guarded belief. “Heath is alive?”

“He was when we left him,” Scott said.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Audra exclaimed.

“I’ve been doing some figuring, and I honestly don’t think the search party can be very far from us right now,” Scott said. “We should be able to catch up with them, and hopefully be back at your ranch sometime tonight.”

“Are you sure, Scott?” Teresa asked.

“No, it’s only what I hope,” Scott said with some sadness. “But I’m going to do everything I can to get you all home.

“Emily, will there be anyone looking for you?” Scott remembered seeing a simple ring. “Your husband?”

A deep sob escaped the young woman. Teresa and Audra held her closer. “Yes,” she said weakly, her voice hoarse from her weeping. “But . . . .”

There was a long, empty moment. “What, Emily?” Scott asked.

“I . . . I—”

“You can tell us,” Audra said gently.

“I . . . don’t know if he’ll want me anymore!” Emily cried out, then doubled over and tried desperately to smother her renewed sobs in her hands.

Teresa and Audra once again began to murmur words of consolation.

Scott bent down beside Emily so she would be sure to hear him. “Emily, listen to me. We are not going to leave you on your own. We’ll stay with you, for as long as you need, do you understand? You won’t be alone, Emily.”

Emily continued to weep. Scott was unsure what else he could do or say. “Teresa?”

“She’ll be all right, Scott.” There was a renewed strength in Teresa’s voice, and she reached out to offer him a heartening squeeze on the arm. “We’ll be ready to ride when you say. Won’t we Emily?” Teresa didn’t wait for an answer, simply went back to uttering her calming words.

Scott thought he might have pressed too far and once again felt like an outsider. But Audra offered him reassurance of her own. “Thank you, Scott,” she said softly. “For everything.”

Deeply appreciative for her words, Scott stood. “It won’t be long now. I’ll let you know as soon as we can ride.”

Scott gave them their privacy and walked away, staring at the star filled sky, praying for the moon to hurry in its ascent.

********

The moon finally topped the trees with more radiance than Scott had hoped. The landscape appeared as in blooming dawn, not murky night. It was literally the first bright spot in a long dark day.

Unaccustomed to long days in the saddle, the girls moved awkwardly when told it was time to go. But they all mounted up immediately and without complaint. “We’ll take it slow and easy,” Scott said. “Stay quiet. If you hear anything out of the ordinary, don’t speak, just stop. Do you understand?”

Quiet replies of assent were returned, so Scott led the way, feeling an ever-increasing urgency to get the girls home.

It only took about a half hour to hear them—hushed voices, the creak and slap of saddle leather, rustling brush . . . the abrasively loud snap of a twig. There was a camp being set up near the trail ahead. Scott stopped the second he heard the first misplaced sound. He gazed into the darkness behind him and was pleased to see the women at a complete standstill, following his instructions perfectly.

Scott waved Teresa forward, dismounted and handed her the reins to his horse. He motioned for them to stay where they were, pulled his handgun and moved off through the trees.

Whoever they were, they were running a cold camp, no fires lit. Scott crouched near the edge of a small clearing and listened, peering at the gray silhouettes milling about in the bright blue moonlight, seeking some sign of recognition. Across the way, a tall form moved into the clearing. The man was not only tall but big—and he limped. An old injury of his father’s often caused him to limp after a hard ride. Scott dared to hope, but from his hiding place he couldn’t be sure.

He moved a couple of steps closer but stopped as a distinctive voice barked out a command. Nick Barkley’s tone was subdued, but his gruff voice was unmistakable.

Scott took cover behind the wide trunk of an oak. “Nick Barkley!” he called out. “Don’t shoot. It’s Scott. Scott Lancer.”

“Scott!” Murdoch Lancer’s voice sailed through the night. “Hold your fire. That’s my son!”

Scott holstered his weapon as he stepped out from behind the tree and entered the clearing. Murdoch and Nick ran forward to meet him. “My god, it’s good to see you,” Murdoch said as he grabbed his son up into a fierce bear hug. He released Scott and anxiously asked, “The girls?”

“They’re safe,” Scott said. “Just needed to be sure you were friendly before I led them in. Stay here. I’ll get them.” Scott ducked back into the darkness. Nick’s voice ordering that a campfire be lit rumbled behind him.

All the men were gathered in wait when Scott led his horse in, the women following closely.

A couple of Barkley hands moved forward to wrangle the horses as Nick helped Audra dismount and Murdoch pulled Teresa into a tight embrace. Scott helped Emily down and led her over to the others, a hand lightly clasped around her shoulder. “Murdoch. Nick. This is Emily. She was being held by Boyd as well.”

Emily stood with her head bowed, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze. The men shared a look of understanding, her demeanor and the brief report expressing volumes.

Audra spared the men from an uncomfortable moment. “Emily, this is my brother Nick. Nick, Emily will be staying with us until her husband comes to find her. He should be leading a search party of his own.”

“Of course,” Nick agreed with more gentleness than Scott had heard the man express anytime during their visit. “Miss Emily, you will be most welcome.”

There was no response from the woman except to shrink further into herself, her arms crossing over her chest and her head lowering ever more.

Teresa freed herself from Murdoch’s grasp and went to her side. “Come sit by the fire,” she said. “It’ll be nice to be warm for a bit.”

Emily didn’t acknowledge her, but she let Teresa lead her away. “I’ll go sit with them,” Audra said as she batted away a tear. She took a step away, but then turned back. “Nick, how is Heath?”

“He lost a lot of blood,” Nick said, quickly adding, “but you know our mother. She’s not going to let him give up. Don’t you fret now. Go on and get yourself warm, I’ll be over in a minute.” Nick offered Audra another hug, and then gently pushed her toward the now blazing fire.

The men watched Audra walk away, and as soon as she was out of earshot Nick whispered, “Scott, the girls . . . did they—?”

“No,” Scott cut him off. “They never got the chance to stop moving. Johnny made sure of that.”

“Thank God,” Murdoch and Nick said together.

“Emily however . . . I think she’d been with them at least a couple of days. She’s in pretty bad shape.”

“Where’s Johnny?” Murdoch asked

“He’s alive,” Scott said, “and trailing behind us somewhere. Boyd split his men. Johnny was concerned we might run into the second bunch on the trip back.”

“What happened to Boyd and the rest of those bastards who had the girls?” Nick asked. “That still had to have been a lot of men.”

“They’re dead. All dead,” Scott said grimly. He rubbed at his eyes with his injured hand, as if he could wipe the image of the killing field out of his mind with a massage of his fingers. He knew a flood of questions would follow, but he could feel fatigue enticing him to quit for the night. “Look. I know there’s a lot to explain, but I promised the girls we’d try to reach the ranch tonight. I really don’t think they’d be comfortable spending the night out here in the open, and it may not be safe. Nick, how much further would we need to ride?”

“I’d be able to cut us over to a road from here,” Nick said with confidence. “That would set us back at the ranch within three, maybe four hours at the most, and the travel would be a hell of a lot easier.”

“I suggest we do that then,” Scott said. “The girls are exhausted, but I think they’ll be better served if we can get them sheltered.”

“Agreed,” Murdoch said. “Should we give them a bit of a rest though?”

Scott again ignored temptation. “Not too long. We took a break waiting for the moon to rise, and have only been riding for about a half-hour. Let them get warm, then let’s keep moving.”

“I’ll make it happen,” Nick said, but instead of moving off, he took a step forward. “Scott, this is the first time my family is going to say this, but you can be sure it ain’t gonna be the last. Thank you.” He held out his hand. Scott took it as Nick added, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” Nick turned and walked toward the campfire.

Scott felt he should be emboldened by Nick’s display of gratitude, but somehow the sentiment sapped his energy as the enormity of the day’s activities bore down on him.

“Scott? Are you all right?” Murdoch asked.

Scott didn’t realize his head had started to sag. He looked up and offered a halfhearted smile. “Just getting tired.”

“Your hand is hurt, son. Is it bad?”

“No. It’ll mend.” Scott added gravely, “Murdoch, you should know right now—Johnny was hurt a lot worse. We had to put up a hell of a fight, and he was in the thick of it.”

“Then how could you let him stay behind?”

Murdoch’s voice rose with understandable aggravation, but the accusation slapped—hard. Scott’s own built-up rage and concern for Johnny fueled him beyond his fatigue and he lashed back. “Damnit, Murdoch. You know Johnny! It was his decision, and I had the girls to worry about. He wouldn’t come back with us, said he’d catch up and not to look for him. Stubborn . . . as usual.”

“Scott, I’m sorry. I had no right to say that. I didn’t mean to doubt your decision.” Murdoch placed a strong hand on Scott’s shoulder. “When he gets back, we’ll both have to have another talk with your brother about his mulish nature.”

Murdoch smiled, but Scott couldn’t bring himself to return it. The apology had the same effect as Nick’s show of gratitude. He let his head sag and took a deep, steadying breath.

Murdoch didn’t press the issue, just firmed up his grasp on Scott’s shoulder and turned him toward the fire. “Come on, son. Let’s get you warmed up so we can be on our way.”

********

The men in the posse were all loyal Barkley hands. They rallied around the young women as they sat by the fire, offering the jackets off their backs, good wishes and support. Nick approached the campfire watching the girls closely. It was clear they were overwhelmed by the activity swirling around them—and Emily cringed every time a man got anywhere near.

“Gentlemen,” Nick announced firmly. “We’re heading back tonight. Be ready to ride in ten minutes.” More than used to obeying Nick Barkley’s commands without question, the men scattered.

Nick crouched beside the ladies. “We’re going to cut over to the main road. That should make the ride a little easier for you. But it’s still gonna take us about three hours to get home. I know you’re all tired, but do you think you can make it?”

Teresa and Audra answered “Yes” and “Yes of course” quickly, but Emily just sat with her head bowed. Audra answered for them. “Oh yes, Nick. Please, take us home.”

Nick had never, ever, heard his sister plead like that before. He didn’t like the feeling the entreaty stirred up within him, a combination of passionate protectionism for his sister and deep-seated loathing for the men who had dared steal her away. He was glad the girls had agreed to travel, because all he wanted to do was get Audra home, to safety, back into the arms of her mother and the others who loved her.

“Home it is, little sister,” Nick said as he touched her cheek and then moved off to hurry his men.

********

The journey was slow but uneventful, and quiet. Too quiet. With every sound that broke the night, Scott hoped it was his brother trailing, able to find them and keep up despite their crossover to the road. But with each mile covered he knew his wishes were pointless. Johnny Madrid’s parting words echoed mercilessly in Scott’s mind: ‘Don’t wait for me, and don’t look for me. I’ll find you when I’m ready. Get ‘em home, Scott. Go.’

‘When he’s ready,’ he thought solemnly, remembering the sight of his brother riding away . . . the sound of the distant gunfire—two disturbing pieces of Johnny’s puzzling quest Scott hadn’t yet dared reveal to their already concerned and confused father.

‘What are you doing, brother? What in heaven’s name did you think you needed to do?’

One by one everyone asked if they should stop, wait for Johnny, or go back and look for him. Deep down they all had to know that he’d never be found in the darkness—and in his heart Scott knew Johnny wouldn’t want to be found, not until he was “ready.” So, over and over, until he was numb to the telling, Scott had bid everyone not to stop, to go on.

And Johnny never appeared.

********

Victoria waited on the expansive porch of the Barkley mansion. She had ordered every lamp lit, a beacon to cut through the darkness and call her reluctant travelers home.

She actually held little hope that her daughter could be returned to her that night, a fear that tortured her incessantly. When Nick had brought Heath home, barely alive, she had been beset with an ominous sense of tragedy. But when Nick had uttered the words “Audra and Teresa were taken,” the Barkley matriarch had felt an instant despair overwhelm her to the point of paralysis. Always a strong woman, she had quickly collected herself, for the sake of her wounded son—but a pervasive feeling of desperation had stayed with her all day that she had not been able to assuage.

Nick had come across a couple of hands on the way in and had sent them rushing to Stockton to fetch Jarrod from his office, the doctor for Heath, and to notify the sheriff. Once home he had run off to ready the search party, leaving Silas, the Barkleys’ long-time and indispensable servant, to help her care for Heath.

Frantic minutes passed in a blur until she had realized that Heath still breathed and the bleeding had stopped. Her dear friend, Murdoch Lancer, had stood in front of her then, holding her blood-covered hands in his, offering assurances that his sons would do everything possible to rescue the girls.

“Scott was an officer during the war,” Murdoch had said, “and Johnny—” The pause was infinitesimal, but telling. “Johnny won’t back down from a fight. They’ll find them.”

By the time he had finished speaking, Victoria didn’t know if he had given the testimonial for her benefit or if he had been trying to convince himself that his beloved ward would not only be returned, but that his sons could prevail at what seemed an impossible task.

Throughout the day Victoria had held on to the sliver of optimism Murdoch had offered, praying that God grant the Lancer sons wisdom, strength, and speed during their quest for the safe return of their sister—and her daughter.

The hour was ungodly late when Jarrod and the sheriff joined Victoria on the porch, watching the shadowy outline of riders coming ever closer. She ached for some sign that this was her daughter returning to her safely.

“I see her, Mother!” Jarrod called out, first to spot the golden locks of his sister. “My God, they’ve brought them back. Both of them.” His astonishment betrayed the weakness of his own faith.

A horse darted forward from the group. Audra raced toward the porch and Jarrod caught her as she leapt to the ground. They embraced as he led her to their mother. Victoria enfolded her daughter in her arms, and the flood of tears that had threatened to fall all day was released, the joy and comfort at being reunited too much to contain.

Nick reached the porch next. As he dismounted, Jarrod grabbed him up in a brotherly hug. “How?” he asked simply.

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know yet exactly. They found us along the trail and insisted on coming all the way back tonight. Scott’s too exhausted for giving details right now, and Johnny stayed back as outrider. I’ve left men along the trail to watch for him. The whole story can wait. The important thing is we’re back. Is Doc Merar still here?”

“Yes—and before you ask, Heath is holding his own.”

“That’s the second best piece of news I’ve gotten all day, brother,” Nick said. “Can you go tell Doc I think he should take a look at the girls? They’re a little banged up, and pretty upset. Warn him we’re coming, would you?”

“Right away,” Jarrod said. “It’s great to have you back.” He slapped Nick on the shoulder as they parted.

The sheriff stepped forward, smiling broadly. “Nick, I’ve got men here from all over the valley, but I guess I’ll be able to send most of ‘em home in the morning.”

“Most of ‘em,” Nick agreed, handing the reins of his horse off to one of his men as he scraped a hand over his face.

“Prefer to discuss it in the morning?” the sheriff asked.

“Yep,” Nick answered. “Got better things to do just now.”

“I understand. I’ll let the men know the good news. In the morning then,” the sheriff said and then slipped away, shaking his head at the amazing turn of events.

The others finally straggled in and brought their tired mounts to a rest before the mansion. Her strength renewed by her daughter’s return, Victoria regained control. She broke their embrace but kept tight hold of Audra’s hand to greet Teresa with a motherly hug. Then her attention turned to the young woman Scott led forward.

“Mrs. Barkley,” Scott said. “This is Emily.”

As difficult as it had been for Victoria to take in Audra and Teresa’s battered appearance, in the brightness of the light-strewn mansion it was impossible to miss the shocking evidence of abuse the young woman had suffered. The gracious lady held out a hand, checking her regret. “Emily dear, welcome to my home.”

The warm greeting drew little more than a cursory glance in acknowledgement.

Victoria excused the young woman’s reserve and began issuing commands. “Nick, Emily will take Teresa’s room tonight. I would like Teresa to stay with Audra. Please have Adam and Matt’s wives join me upstairs as quickly as possible. And have some of the men ensure that there is hot bathwater available for the next couple of hours.

“Come along ladies.” She took a firmer grasp on Audra’s hand and placed an arm around Emily’s shoulder. “Let’s get you all cleaned up and comfortable so you can get some sleep.”

An astute woman, Victoria noticed Teresa leaning heavily against her guardian. “Murdoch, could you please escort Teresa up to her room to gather her things for the evening.”

“Of course,” Murdoch said. He hugged Teresa even more closely. “Come on sweetheart, let’s get you settled.”

The pair followed Victoria, Audra and Emily into the welcoming warmth of the Barkley mansion.

********

Nick set off, barking orders, very much in his element delegating men to their tasks.

The girls were now safe in the loving care of Victoria and Murdoch.

And Johnny . . . he was following the path of Johnny Madrid, and where that road led only the gunfighter knew.

Scott Lancer stood on the porch alone. Suddenly odd man out, he felt dazed, unable to decide what his role was now. He finally considered that, just maybe, his work was done for the day. He entered the Barkley home, unsure where he was headed, but seeking a place of peace.

********

Alice and Peg, wives of two of the ranch’s veteran hands, arrived and helped Victoria make quick work preparing the girls for bed. They were bathed, clothed in clean nightgowns, and properly examined by Dr. Thomas Merar.

Emily’s examination was by far the hardest for the caretakers. Seasoned frontierswomen all three, they had never before witnessed that type of brutality inflicted upon a woman. By the end of the exam the young woman had been inconsolable, the doctor compelled to give her an injection of sedative in order to allow her any chance for sleep.

The two assistants charged with Emily’s care for the duration of her stay, Victoria turned her own attention back to Audra and Teresa. The doctor had given them a sleeping powder to help them settle, and he followed Mrs. Barkley into Audra’s bedroom. Murdoch sat in a chair beside his ward, a thumb gently stroking the back of Teresa’s small hand clasped in his as she slept.

“How are they?” Victoria asked quietly as she looked down on her daughter.

“They fell asleep almost immediately,” Murdoch whispered and smiled at his good friend.

“Audra is fine,” Dr. Merar announced as he moved to the other side of the bed to check on Teresa. Murdoch stood and stepped out of the way, joining Victoria at the foot of the bed. He draped an arm across her shoulders and she hugged him back around the waist.

Their relief was mutual, amazed beyond belief that their daughters had been returned to them safely, blessedly untouched, bruised and battered but alive, healthy, and still strong.

“My goodness!” Victoria pushed herself away from her friend. “Murdoch, in all the excitement I totally forgot to thank Scott for what he has done! And Johnny . . . I didn’t see Johnny. Oh, please tell me he’s all right!”

Murdoch took her by the shoulders and moved her away from the bed. He spoke calmly but his own worry was barely contained. “Victoria, settle down. Johnny is alive. Scott did say he was wounded, I just don’t know how badly yet. They were concerned about being pursued by some of the outlaws, so Johnny made Scott return with the girls while he tracked their back trail.

“There’s so much we don’t know yet about what happened today,” he added with a certain amount of frustration. “We just have to remember that Johnny is experienced with this sort of thing. I never thought I’d be happy about him having hired out his gun, but he knows what he’s doing. He’ll be fine.” Murdoch did not exactly sound convinced by his own words.

“You have a son who is a shootist, Mr. Lancer?” Dr. Merar asked, astounded, as he joined the pair.

“Was, Doctor,” Murdoch corrected. “It’s a long story but, yes, my younger son hired out for a time. As for Scott, if you’re done with the ladies, I’d appreciate it if you could tend one more patient this evening. Scott’s hand is wounded.”

“I’d be happy to take a look at it,” Dr. Merar said.

“You’ll stay with the girls?” Murdoch asked.

“Certainly,” Victoria said, leaving the men free to help Scott.

********

It took the men a few minutes to locate Scott. Finding his bedroom empty, they had to go searching. Someone had gone through the mansion dousing the lanterns, leaving the lower level bathed in a subdued glow.

They entered the dining room and found Scott asleep, his head down on the table, a cold cup of coffee cradled precariously in his hands. Murdoch moved the cup away, then gently shook his son’s shoulder. Scott woke with a start. He stood abruptly and overturned his chair.

Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arm and steadied him in time to prevent a fall. “It’s okay Scott. You were just asleep. Everything’s fine.”

Scott ran a dirty hand through his hair and attempted to blink away the cobwebs.

“Doctor Merar, this is my son, Scott Lancer. Scott, this is Doctor Merar. He’s going to take a look at that hand for you.”

“Nice to meet you, Doctor,” Scott said, ever courteous, followed by a huge, decidedly ungentlemanly yawn.

Dr. Merar grinned. “Why don’t I take a preliminary look down here, then you can get him upstairs and cleaned up. I’ll dress the hand back in his bedroom.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Murdoch said.

The hand was deemed to need stitches. Murdoch ushered Scott to the required bath. His hair still wet and in an uncharacteristic mess, Scott sat dressed in a clean nightshirt on the edge of his bed, his hand resting on a small table. He barely flinched during the painful procedure as the long knife wound was cleaned, closed, and bandaged.

Murdoch was troubled by Scott’s lethargy, the detachment of his normally strong-minded son disturbing to witness. He hadn’t yet heard how his sons had managed to free the girls, alone, against what were surely insurmountable odds. Between Nick, Scott and the girls, the father had gathered just enough snippets of the story to keep his mind whirling with continued concern for all his children, Johnny most of all. He suspected that once the tale was told it was going to prove to have been a horrific battle, and per Scott, Johnny had been “in the thick of it.”

‘Damnit, Johnny. Where are you?’ Murdoch asked himself for the hundredth time that night.

Scott’s split lip didn’t require stitches, but the injury had blossomed into a painful looking bruised jaw. They also found several other rather impressive bruises on his body, evidence of violent hand to hand fighting. Despite the fact that Scott looked ready to pass out from fatigue, Dr. Merar insisted he drink a sleeping draft to ensure uninterrupted rest.

Scott fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Murdoch stood looking down at him, his mind still spinning with worry.

“He’s going to be fine, Mr. Lancer,” Dr. Merar said as he cleaned and collected his instruments. “He’s just exhausted. Give him a couple of days to rest and he’ll be right back to normal.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Murdoch said. “And Teresa?”

“She’ll do fine as well. And Audra. I won’t lie to you—both of those girls are going to seem overly anxious for some time to come. Don’t be surprised if they want to stay close to home, are wary of strangers, and refuse to be alone around men—all completely understandable. But they’ll have a much better time of it than poor Miss Emily. They were fortunate your sons freed them so quickly. Very fortunate indeed.”

Murdoch certainly couldn’t argue with that.

“I’m going to check on them all one more time, and take a look at Heath,” Dr. Merar said. “Then I’m going to try and get some sleep myself, and I’d recommend you do the same. I suspect it’s been a very long day for everyone. Don’t worry about your son and the girls . . . they’ll sleep through the night I assure you. Get some rest, Mr. Lancer.”

Left alone, Murdoch took another look at his son and did a rare thing—he prayed out loud. “Thank you, God, for bringing Scott and Teresa back to me. But please watch over Johnny, wherever he may be.”

Lowering the lamp wick to a dim flicker, Murdoch left Scott to a much-deserved sleep.

********

The good doctor was leaving Audra’s room as Murdoch entered. He found Victoria seated beside the bed, her hand clasped with her daughter’s. Murdoch crossed and stood with a hand on Victoria’s shoulder. She looked up and asked quietly, “How is Scott?”

“Just needed stitches in his hand, thank God. That and a good night’s sleep will do him well.”

“I checked with Nick. He has a watch posted to look for Johnny.”

Murdoch smiled. “Thank you,” he said, grateful that the Barkleys were as anxious as he about his young son’s safe return. “The girls?”

“Fine. They’ve barely moved,” Victoria said.

“The doctor said to expect as much,” Murdoch reported. “He also suggested we try to get some sleep ourselves.”

Victoria looked up at him askance with an amused defiance. “I will if you will, Mr. Lancer.”

“No deal,” he replied, matching her tone, the old friends too similar in demeanor to spar seriously or very long. The diminutive Victoria Barkley may have been only half Murdoch Lancer’s size, but her strength of will was just as fierce—and he knew it.

“Is someone with Heath?” Murdoch asked.

“Jarrod for now. Nick if he’s needed,” she said. “Tom has been given the room at the end of the hall.”

“Can I get you anything?” Murdoch asked.

“No, I’m perfectly fine.” She obviously meant that in more ways than one.

Murdoch patted her on the shoulder and moved to the other side of the bed. He pulled his own chair closer, sat and grasped the hand of his ward. Teresa stirred, her heavy eyelids parting just enough to reveal eyes still full of sleep. “I’m sorry I woke you, dear,” he whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

Teresa’s fingers tightened around her guardian’s strong hand as she allowed her eyes to close in slumber.

Murdoch watched the young woman sleep for a minute, the dark bruise on her chin stark against the whiteness of her nightgown. His gaze wandered down to the wrist of the petite hand held in his. The telling rope abrasions were glaring even in the low light, a further reminder of Teresa’s ordeal. He looked to the opposite side of the bed, and Victoria Barkley stared back at him, reading his thoughts and understanding the depth of parental emotions that were flooding through him.

There was nothing more they could do. The old friends shared a smile and sat back to wait out the night, no desire to sleep, comfortable with the quiet company and soothing silence of the finally settled household.

********

The silence splintered an hour after dawn as an ear-splitting scream broke through the walls of Emily’s bedroom, waking everyone along its jagged path.

Murdoch dozed in the chair next to his ward, her hand still entwined with his. A steadily intensifying murmur of female voices had been nudging him out of a light slumber just before the shriek sliced its way into Audra’s bedroom.

Battling through their own haze of sleep, medicine and fatigue, Teresa and Audra struggled upright. Recognizing the source of the unearthly cry, the girls broke down in tears. Teresa buried her head in her pillow, and Murdoch did his best to comfort his distraught ward. Victoria sat on the edge of the bed and gathered her daughter into her arms. Audra clung to her mother, the young woman’s tears falling against Victoria’s breast.

There’d been no time yet to ask the girls directly, but their distress over Emily’s ongoing lament was clear evidence that they knew full-well what had been in store for them at the hands of Vic Boyd and his men. Their tears were at once indicators of relief and realization that part of their innocence was gone, replaced with the unwanted knowledge of the baseness of man that no woman should ever have to learn.

‘But they’ll have a much better time of it than poor Miss Emily,’ Dr. Merar had said. Those words provided little consolation to Murdoch as he continued to offer what inadequate comfort he could to his ward.

********

Bolting upright in bed, Scott thought he had never heard a sound so soul shaking. Half asleep, he stumbled to the door and opened it to find Nick and Jarrod standing in other doorways along the corridor. One of Emily’s caretakers was running down the hallway in front of the doctor who hurried along behind her, suspenders slapping against his leg as he ran, his shirt un-tucked and medical bag in hand.

Still feeling responsible for Emily, Scott followed the physician to her room, only to stop in the doorway. Alice and Peg held Emily down on the bed as she thrashed about in the grips of a nightmare, the doctor’s strong drugs having failed to keep her demons at bay for longer than a few hours.

As Dr. Merar retrieved a syringe from his bag, Scott turned away, knowing that whatever the physician had to offer would gain her only another temporary respite from her anguish, a false peacefulness. Did Emily’s future now hold nothing more for her than an addiction to opiates? Would she find the strength to persevere after what had been done to her? Had she been saved from one horror, only to be offered another?

Left with not nearly enough rest and muddled by the doctor’s sleeping draft, Scott was too tired to contemplate such weighty questions further. He returned to his room, dressed as fast as his fatigued and bruised body would allow, and headed downstairs. He remembered wanting a cup of coffee earlier, and thought he might now be able to find one.

********

The kitchen was bustling with activity. Silas, the gray-haired black gentleman in the middle of the milieu, was adeptly directing a well-regimented team of women in aprons. They relayed trays and large bowls of food in procession out the kitchen doorway, breakfast for the men from the sheriff’s search party. Their services proving unnecessary, they were being offered a hearty meal before most were sent on their way, back to their own families and ranches.

“Mr. Scott.” Silas spied him in the doorway, and hurried over. “What can I get for you, sir?”

“Good morning, Silas,” Scott greeted. “I’d love some coffee, please.”

“Certainly. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable in the dining room. I’ll bring it to you.”

Scott hated to impose, the servant more than busy. He’d grown up being waited on by men like Silas, but to his surprise, within the Lancer household Scott had gotten used to serving himself more often than not. Their own housekeeper, Maria, was extremely competent and willing to oblige, but it was not the way in the west to have servants ready to wait on you hand and foot. Scott now felt uncomfortable allowing others to serve him. But from what he had witnessed, the Barkley houseman took extreme pride in his ability to juggle multiple tasks.

‘Perhaps it would be best if I just got out of the man’s way.’ “Thank you,” Scott said and headed to the dining room.

Living up to Scott’s measure of the man, Silas not only brought a complete service of coffee, but fresh biscuits, butter and jam. “Can I bring you some eggs, sir?” he asked. “Steak?”

“Nothing more for me, really,” Scott said. “I don’t even think I’m awake yet,” he added with a tired smile.

“I understand completely, sir.” Silas returned the smile. “You just let me know if you require anything further.”

Almost out the door, the servant turned back. He fidgeted a moment, his mouth opening and closing with a timid indecisiveness.

“What is it, Silas?”

“Mr. Scott. I just wanted to say . . . well . . . . I want to thank you myself for bringing Miss Audra back, and Miss Teresa too. And I hope Mr. Johnny returns safely as well.”

Scott was genuinely touched by the man’s appreciation. The servant no doubt shared the same close domestic relationship with the Barkleys that Maria shared with the Lancers. “You’re welcome, Silas,” he said sincerely.

Silas dipped his head courteously and returned to the kitchen, leaving Scott to his thoughts.

********

Nick joining Scott minutes later, looking just about as tired and drawn. Silas bustled in seconds after and loaded the table with platters and bowls filled with eggs and more biscuits, thin cut steak and ham. Nick served himself, but the small portions he placed onto his plate went untouched. He leaned his elbows on the table and sipped his coffee in silence along with Scott.

Murdoch, Jarrod and Dr. Merar soon arrived with a request from Victoria for Silas to bring the ladies breakfast in their room. The men filled their plates and attempted to eat, but no one seemed to have much of an appetite.

Scott found himself staring at his father. In the light of day it appeared that Murdoch had aged overnight. It was more than just a lack of sleep or lingering anxiety—Murdoch actually looked older, like he’d been forced to live many years in one day. Scott could certainly relate to that, and wondered if yesterday’s events had affected him so. He had no doubt that the answer would be yes. Johnny had always appeared to Scott as being far too mature for his younger years. Scott thought he now had a better understanding why, having experienced only one day of a gunfighter’s way of life.

The men’s quiet reflections were interrupted as Silas escorted the sheriff into the dining room. The lawman was in his forties, about as tall as Scott, a bigger man, but not as imposing as Murdoch. He did, however, appear the type who would be fairly competent at his job, and he made it immediately clear that he was there on business.

“Mr. Lancer.” The lawman addressed Scott. “I’m sorry I can’t wait any longer, but I have to know the details about what happened yesterday and how you and your brother managed to get those girls free. The marshal’s not available, so I’ve got some men deputized and waiting to go pick up the pieces . . . if there’s pieces to be had.

“I’ve also got a man—name of Lester Pratt—in custody with a busted face and a hole in his leg, yelling that your brother—” The sheriff hesitated and looked around the room, as if he couldn’t believe what he was about to say. “Well . . . he called him ‘Johnny Madrid’ and claims the gunslinger shot him while he was unarmed.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to look around the room. Jarrod and Dr. Merar appeared curious, knowing little of the story themselves. Nick wore a perturbed scowl, aware of the circumstances that began the chase. Murdoch looked concerned, and understandably so. The details of his ward’s kidnapping and the actions his sons had been forced to take to free the girls would not be pretty. And the inference that Johnny’s reputation might once again lead his younger son to trouble could not be missed.

Scott opened his mouth to speak, but Murdoch cut him off. “One moment, Scott. Silas. Would you mind going upstairs to look after Heath? I believe Mrs. Barkley has a right to hear this.”

Any one of the men could have raised an objection—but they all knew Victoria Barkley and realized that Murdoch was correct. She would want to be there to hear the report. Audra had lived the experience so her mother was entitled to know the details without having to further upset her daughter with questions Scott could answer.

Victoria arrived and took her usual place at the head of the long dining table. Scott was glad he hadn’t chosen the seat at the opposite end—he felt conspicuous enough with all eyes on him, waiting for his tale to unfold. Nick sat beside him, his father in the seat directly across with the doctor to his left and Jarrod on his right.

The sheriff placed himself at the other end of the table—like a judge, waiting for a trial to begin. And that’s exactly how Scott felt, like he was going to have to somehow defend his and Johnny’s actions. He knew in his heart that everything they had done had been justified, but he wasn’t quite sure how it would appear to the others and, especially, in the eyes of the law.

A lawyer who felt very much at home in court, Jarrod seemed to sense Scott’s reticence and confusion for where to begin. “Scott, perhaps if you told the sheriff about your brother first, that might help to clarify things,” he suggested.

Grateful for Jarrod’s astuteness, Scott nodded and took a moment to organize his thoughts. Deciding on a logical progression, with measured words, he began. “Yes, sheriff. My brother did hire himself out as a gunfighter, under the name of Johnny Madrid. But he’s been living with my father and me at our ranch for a year now, and he no longer practices that profession. He’s a rancher, and his name is John Lancer.”

Scott glanced across the table and received a slight nod and a small smile from Murdoch. Unfortunately that was about as easy as Scott could make Johnny’s past sound. Murdoch wasn’t going to be quite as pleased when Johnny’s prior association with the outlaw Vic Boyd was revealed.

“From what I learned on the trail, sometime over the years Johnny had been acquainted with Vic Boyd, the leader of the band of men who kidnapped Audra, Teresa and Emily. I don’t know exactly how they had come to know each other, but I can assure you that their relationship was not friendly. And Johnny’s knowledge of the outlaw’s tactics gave him a certain insight into Boyd’s pattern of behavior, prompting him to act quickly and decisively.”

Scott felt like he was back in the military, reporting to his superiors on the latest scouting activities or skirmish between troops. The experience actually made the process of the telling easier, although the words were still difficult to utter.

“While touring the ranch yesterday with Nick, Johnny caught the man you have in custody, trespassing on Barkley property. He refused to speak, so he was disarmed and we searched his belongings. I found a bandana that Johnny recognized as being used by Boyd’s men as a means of identification. Johnny . . . .” Here Scott finally had to pause, trying to decide how best to explain why Johnny had shot an unarmed man.

Thankfully for Scott this wasn’t a real trial. Nick Barkley could no longer contain himself, and took advantage of Scott’s hesitation, interrupting in his typically brusque manner. “As far as I’m concerned that man was a trespasser, and I was within my rights to have shot him dead on the spot. He’s lucky we gave him a chance to live at all, so you better keep holding him on that charge until I can testify against him!” Nick finished with an angry jab of his finger toward the lawman.

“Nick, I have no intention of releasing Mr. Pratt before a trial,” the exasperated sheriff assured the irate Barkley. “Just get on with the story.”

“I’ll get on with it!” Nick shouted, drawing a cringe from Victoria. “Johnny told that man he knew he was riding with Vic Boyd, and asked him what they were after. Pratt—as you call him—said Boyd would kill him if he talked, and Johnny told him right back that he’d do it instead if he didn’t speak up. When Pratt still refused, Johnny shot him in the leg. That got him talking all right. Pratt said Boyd wanted ‘that girl’—his exact words! Johnny seemed to know that was what the man was gonna say, he just needed to hear it.

“And it’s a good thing we didn’t waste any more time getting to the bottom of things,” Nick added. “By the time we found Heath he was already pretty bad off, and who knows what might have happened if he and Scott hadn’t started tracking the girls when they did.

“Knowing what I know now, I’m just sorry it wasn’t me that plugged that outlaw,” Nick finished with a brisk nod to the other men, as if daring them to tell him he would have done no such thing.

“Is that pretty much what happened, Mr. Lancer?” the sheriff asked directly.

“Yes,” Scott said. “We left Nick to take care of Heath, and Johnny tracked those outlaws just as fast as he could, leaving markers for the posse to follow.”

“They were good signs, too!” Nick again interjected.

“Nick, please!” Victoria exclaimed.

Reined in by his mother’s polite but unmistakable command, the gruff cowboy folded his arms tightly over his chest, as if to control himself through physical restraint.

“Go on,” the sheriff said to Scott.

“Along the way Johnny told me a little about Vic Boyd. He said it was imperative that we catch up before nightfall.” He hesitated only briefly before adding, “I believe you all know why.” Each head around the table either nodded or dipped somberly in acknowledgement.

“Finally we reached a place where Johnny felt we were getting closer,” Scott explained, “and he’d worked out a plan of attack. I have to admit that success seemed impossible,” he added with a disbelieving shake of his head, “but Johnny was pretty confident—although he didn’t have time to tell me why. He made me hang back, and . . . .”

Scott faced his father, knowing what he had to say next was going to hurt the man deeply. “Johnny said that no matter what happened I was not to do anything to defend him. He was going to ride on ahead, and try to find any outriders who might block our path or get around behind us. Then he was going to get Vic Boyd to stop long enough for me to catch up, and cover him with a rifle. But unless it looked possible to free the girls, I was to take no action on my own against Boyd or any of his men. If we couldn’t do it together, Johnny said neither of us would be able do it alone.”

Johnny was notorious for making decisions that disregarded his own survival. Murdoch stared back at Scott, his large hands pressing ever more heavily down upon the tabletop, betraying his anger.

Scott tried to temper Johnny’s request with some reasoning—although, despite the success of the tactics, he still wasn’t quite convinced of the validity of the logic himself. “Murdoch, Johnny insisted that maintaining the element of surprise was crucial. Boyd and his men had to believe he was tracking them alone. He said if we couldn’t get the girls away before dark, that I might as well consider them already in Mexico . . . that there wasn’t going to be anyone else who could get them free untouched—or alive.”

Considering the outcome, Scott left other things unsaid, figuring he’d volunteered enough about Johnny’s reasoning in order to understand why the brothers had acted as they had—and how desperate the situation had been.

“I’ve heard a bit about Boyd over the years,” the sheriff said quietly. He met the solemn gaze of the other men and added, “But I never thought he’d get up into these parts. Now that I think about it, I’ve never heard of anyone ever getting any of their kidnapped women back. Not never.”

Victoria gasped at the sheriff’s bluntness. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Barkley,” he said.

The strong woman composed herself. “Go on, Scott,” she said.

Focused now on only the actual events of the rescue, Scott resumed, uninterrupted until he described how Johnny had found Boyd ready to cross the meadow.

“Are you telling me that Boyd just let Madrid wander on down and talk to him?” the sheriff asked suspiciously.

“Yes, he did,” Scott said, choosing to ignore the lawman’s repeated use of his brother’s alias. “From what I could hear there was a lot of built up animosity between them. They were both rather eager to come to blows. I heard Johnny tell Boyd that he regretted not killing him when he had the chance. He offered him a challenge, with the winner taking the girls, and then started goading Boyd’s men into accepting it.

“I didn’t catch the whole exchange. Johnny had missed one of Boyd’s outriders. He made me drop my rifle.” Scott bowed his head at the difficult memory, and told this part of the story to the tabletop. “I thought I had failed Johnny and the girls. But the man didn’t want to give away the outlaws’ position with gunfire. He tried to pull a knife, and I fought back.”

Scott fingered the bandage on his left hand. “I broke his neck.” No matter the cause, Scott had never taken the act of killing lightly. Taking a man’s life was bad enough—doing it with your bare hands just made it that much more difficult to stomach.

He pushed the memory away, faced the group and pressed forward. “By the time I’d picked up my rifle and was looking back down the hill, Johnny was already fighting with Boyd.”

“There ain’t no way Boyd would agree to a gunfight with Johnny Madrid,” the sheriff declared with unreserved skepticism.

Scott was growing increasingly wary of the lawman’s obvious veneration of Johnny Madrid. “It wasn’t a gunfight, sheriff,” he said with exasperation, “it was a knife fight.”

Amazed and concerned faces appeared around the table. “You mean to tell me that Madrid took on Vic Boyd with a knife?” the sheriff said. “Boyd’s one of the best there is with a blade. That would be suicide!”

Scott faced Murdoch and assured him, “It wasn’t. Johnny held his own, even drew first blood.” Eyes gripped with his father’s, Scott’s account of the knife fight built until finally desperation infused his even tone. “Over and over, I had to make myself remember what Johnny had said and hold my fire. But Murdoch, when Boyd pinned him, I thought he was surely going to kill Johnny, and then we’d never get the girls freed. I was ready to shoot right then and there, but Johnny didn’t give me the chance. He brought his own blade up and slashed Boyd’s throat. It seemed to take forever, but finally Boyd fell over. Dead.”

The room was silent as everyone grasped how fragile success had been.

“Ho—ly—al—mighty!” The sheriff dragged the exclamation out with an awed theatricality. “Madrid bested Vic Boyd with a knife. Most said Boyd would never be beat. But Madrid went and did it . . . with a knife . . . .”

Murdoch watched the lawman’s reaction and then turned toward Scott, his face roiling with a mix of emotions that mirrored Scott’s own. They had just witnessed first-hand how Johnny had managed to become a legend—and the minute word got out, Madrid’s name was going to dog Johnny’s heels harder than ever.

This was exactly what Scott had hoped to avoid. The lawman’s unreserved adulation of his brother was the last straw. Scott put a rope around his temper, but his low-pitched voice shook with rage. “Sheriff, my brother—John Lancer,” he emphasized, “did not go into that fight with the idea of bolstering his reputation. It was the lives of three women he was looking to protect, and it is my family’s sincere hope that you stay focused on that. Johnny has no desire to attract attention to himself at this time, and I would expect you to conduct your investigation in a professional manner. Is that understood?”

The lawman’s eyes widened with the lash of Scott’s rebuke. The Barkleys even looked ready to wallop on him. “All right, all right!” He cleared his throat. “Don’t get all bothered now. If this gets around it won’t be through me. Let’s . . . let’s just get back to your story. Boyd was killed, so what did his men do about it?”

Scott dipped his head for a moment, tempering his anger so he could tell the rest of the tale and get the lawman sent on his way. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looked up and continued. “They didn’t make it easy. Johnny demanded that they let the girls go—and for a minute, it looked like those men might have actually just let them all walk out of there.

“But one of the men finally spoke, and refused to give the women up. He was holding onto Johnny’s holster, and he pulled the gun out and was going to kill him.”

Scott marveled at the memory. “Somehow I knew that was the moment Johnny had wanted me to wait for. I don’t know how I knew, but it just seemed right. I couldn’t tell exactly what condition Johnny was in, but his voice had sounded so strong, even from as far away as I was. So I opened fire, and then just continued shooting.”

The others listened intently as the events flowed out of Scott as if he were reliving them. When he spoke of how Audra had been threatened last, he addressed Nick, Jarrod and Victoria directly. Scott finished the tale, once again lost in remembrance as he added softly, “Audra was released, the outlaw ran off, and then . . . then it was just quiet. Finally quiet.”

Quiet, like the hushed Barkley dining room. They sat in silence, each person contemplating the staggering sequence of events that had allowed the safe return of Teresa and Audra. The success of the rescue mission had been tenuous at best, and had come through a fortuitous combination of Johnny’s experience and reckless daring, and Scott’s intuition and prowess with a rifle. Fate had somehow bestowed each man with the right skills needed to beat the odds against him—brotherhood had given them the strength and will to prevail.

“Mr. Lancer, that was a very thorough report,” the sheriff said. “I don’t believe a formal inquiry will be required.” He looked at Murdoch, then Victoria. “Mr. Lancer . . . Mrs. Barkley. I also don’t think it’ll be necessary for me to have to question your daughters about this.”

“I appreciate that, sheriff,” Murdoch said, adding, “as well as your discretion regarding my son, Johnny.”

“Thank you,” Victoria said. “I can’t imagine Audra having to recount any of what happened in public.”

“Sheriff,” Dr. Merar said, “I, too, appreciate your consideration for the ladies’ feelings at this time. However, I would hope that your concern would extend to Miss Emily as well. Her situation is certainly much more delicate, and at this point I don’t believe she would even have the strength to answer your questions.”

“He’s right,” Scott said. “She was hysterical by the time the shooting stopped. With Audra and Teresa’s help she was able to hold herself together until we got back here.” He recalled the events from the morning and added, “I think she’d be better served if we just waited for her family to show up.”

“What makes you think anyone’d be looking for her?” the lawman asked.

“She managed a few words last night on the ride back,” Scott said. “I think at least a husband might be tracking her.”

Scott shifted his attention. “Doctor, Emily also expressed concern that the man . . . that her husband . . . given the circumstances of her captivity . . . .” Gentleman that he was, proper morals prevented Scott from just coming right out and saying, ‘Emily’s afraid her husband is going to think her no better than trash after being raped repeatedly by a band of heathen desperados.’

Dr. Merar perceived the inferred problem. “I understand, Scott. If I’m here when he arrives, I’ll speak to him before he sees her . . . try to prepare him.”

Scott nodded. “Thank you. I know she would appreciate that.”

The sheriff again addressed Scott. “Mr. Lancer, I understand your brother didn’t return with you. Is that correct?”

Scott looked first at his father and then briefly down at the table, considering just how intuitive the lawman might be. Finally Scott nodded and said, “The outlaws had split into two groups, and we had no idea where they were supposed to meet. Since they might have been close, he insisted on staying behind to make sure we weren’t followed. He hasn’t returned yet.”

The implications of Johnny’s continued absence were left to hover over the small group.

“Well then,” the lawman said as he stood. “I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for him along the trail. It certainly would be something to meet Mr. Johnny . . . Lancer.”

Scott caught the added emphasis, and locked eyes with the sheriff, relieved that the lawman finally understood the family’s concern for the safety of the famed brother.

Murdoch also stood and offered his hand to the lawman. “I’d appreciate your looking for him, sheriff.”

Scott was exhausted again and felt rooted to his chair. As hard as it had been, he was glad he’d told the story to everyone at once. Maybe now the questions would stop for a while.

“Nick, do you think I could borrow some shovels?” the sheriff asked. “Unless we run into what’s left of Boyd’s men, I reckon picking up pieces and buryin’ ‘em is hopefully all me and my deputies are gonna have to do now.”

“Sure,” Nick said. He placed a hand of support on Scott’s shoulder on his way to the door. “Come on. I’ll get you what you’ll need.”

Chairs scraped across the floorboards as the others prepared to leave. Scott forced his own chair back, and stood with them.

“I’m going upstairs to check on all my patients, Victoria,” Dr. Merar announced as he left. At the door he turned back and advised, “I would hope the rest of you will take the opportunity to nap throughout the day. I don’t expect that any of you got near enough sleep last night.”

Victoria joined him in the doorway and patted him affectionately on the arm. “Tom, you continue to go above and beyond your duties.” She favored him with a pleasant smile. “Please tell Silas I will be right up.”

Jarrod Barkley made his way around the table, stood beside Scott, and held out his hand. As they shook, Jarrod said, “Scott, what you and Johnny accomplished was absolutely astounding. I won’t speak for the rest of my family, but I am forever indebted to you for bringing my sister back to us. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Jarrod,” Scott answered quietly.

The Barkley son passed his mother on the way out. Victoria stood before Scott and took his uninjured hand in hers. “I don’t think I have to tell you that my daughter is very precious to me. Having her taken from this family was perhaps the greatest nightmare I have ever faced. Getting her back from those evil men is the most wonderful gift ever given to me.

“I know this wasn’t easy for you, but I am thankful that you and Johnny were here at this time. I would wish the experience on no man, but short of my own sons, I can think of no others who might have prevailed and brought those girls home.

“The words ‘thank you’ aren’t good enough for what I am feeling. Suffice it to say that you and your brother will always have a place of honor in my heart.” She released Scott’s hand and reached up with her own to pull his face down to meet hers, bestowing a light but heartfelt kiss upon his brow.

Her hands cradled his face warmly. “Get some rest, Scott.” She gave him a motherly pat on the cheek, turned and, with an elegant swish of skirts, left father and son alone.

The last Barkley gone from the room, Scott remembered Nick’s comment from the evening before about how grateful he and his family were going to be over Audra’s safe return. He knew they meant well, and their words of support had been tremendous, but with Johnny still missing, Scott couldn’t help but feel hollow about the part he had played in the rescue. Something very important was missing from the achievement.

Scott stared absently toward the empty doorway. He sensed his father step beside him. “I could guess a hundred things at this point, but what’s troubling you most, son?”

All Scott could do was answer honestly. Without turning he replied, “Johnny’s not here. It doesn’t feel right. None of this feels right anymore.”

His father could have said of a lot of things in reply, but most all the responses would have seemed to Scott as empty as that doorway he continued to watch. Instead, the older man did the one thing that brought his son a brief moment of comfort, offered him a momentary refuge from his chaotic thoughts. The big man reached out without words and drew his son to him, pulling him into a power-filled embrace that men only shared in times of greatest joy—or deepest despair.

Scott accepted the touch, rare for his father to give, but offered for the second time since they’d been reunited the evening before. He took the strength offered by the older man into himself, not knowing why he needed such support just then. Scott had been forced to fight before, made his own choice and willingly joined the war effort, then dealt with the consequences basically all on his own—his grandfather’s understanding of what war did to a man severely lacking. But Scott thought he’d left such confrontations behind, in his past, revisited only in the occasional nightmare. The unexpectedness and brutality of the previous day’s upheaval had left him inexplicably confounded.

The whole experience had been bad enough to contend with. But on top of it, Johnny had acted with a single-mindedness that had been frightening to behold. Scott had felt pulled off his feet by his brother’s resolute actions—as if Johnny had thrust his older brother up onto a runaway horse that he never quite felt he could gain control over. Then Johnny had displayed that obstinate stubbornness to continue his crusade against the remaining outlaws on his own, to keep going despite his family’s needs, wishes and concerns. Keeping the gunfighter’s personal errand of revenge secret from the others constantly nagged at Scott. And not knowing just how far Johnny had gone to carry out that vendetta had the older brother deeply worried about his younger sibling—body and soul.

As out of control as Johnny had made him feel, since the moment they’d found the posse Scott had felt two steps behind himself—like that horse Johnny had hauled him onto had thrown and slammed him to the ground, and he was now staggering to catch up to the rest of the world. The sudden deceleration from Johnny’s breakneck speed had left Scott feeling uneasy, off balance, and totally unable to regroup. He just wanted things back to normal—but he had no idea how to get there. The thought of simply picking up a mundane discussion about grapes where it had been abruptly cut off seemed laughingly absurd.

********

Murdoch gripped his son and took selfish comfort as his heart warmed, wrenching the chill from his soul. Listening to Scott describe how the brothers had fought for their sister, the older man realized how very, very close he had been to losing everything that now mattered to him. He would have thought he’d learned from past mistakes, but sadly, he hadn’t realized just how much his children meant to him until they had been taken from him—again.

Murdoch had experienced his own imbalance from the moment Nick had returned with Heath, and the sensation had increased hour by hour until he thought he would topple over from the not knowing. His mind had seemed incapable of new thought, only able to recall snatches of Nick’s devastating report: ’. . . Audra and Teresa . . . taken . . . large group of men . . . very dangerous . . . Johnny and Scott are tracking . . . .’

Then, finally, literally after the descent of darkness, he had heard Scott call out in the night—and it was as if his son’s voice had once again provided him something solid to stand on. With one son still missing, the father still didn’t feel totally stable. But at least he had two children back that he could comfort, offer a distraction from the fear that continued to eat at him that Johnny might once again be lost to him—this time forever.

As eager as he was to help Scott feel right again, Murdoch had no fatherly insight into how to make his son regain his own solid footing. But he sensed that this small gesture of support had given Scott a little piece of what he needed.

Murdoch patted Scott on the back, gripped his son’s shoulders and pushed him back to arms length. “Scott. Victoria Barkley is a wise woman. Take her advice—get some rest. This isn’t like you. I can only guess that you’re still too tired to think clearly. I’m as anxious about Johnny as you are, but let me worry about him for awhile.”

Scott’s head dipped.

“Scott, you’ve done a remarkable job getting close to Johnny over the last year. I’m ashamed to say you’ve done a better job than me. But that doesn’t mean he always has to be your responsibility, and I’m sorry I’ve ever declared otherwise. Johnny made a choice you can’t change right now. Stop trying.”

********

Johnny’s choice. It all came down to that. Success had been achieved through a series of choices his brother had made, paired with Scott’s choice to follow and unconditionally obey. But what if he hadn’t? What if Scott had chose to deviate? Made his own choices? Followed his own path?

Merely beginning to contemplate such questions was draining. He felt that horse starting to gallop again . . . .

A caring arm was draped around Scott’s shoulders as his father took the decision for what to do next away from him. Murdoch guided Scott toward the door, up the grand Barkley staircase, all the way to his bedroom.

“Get some rest, son,” Murdoch repeated.

Scott was left sitting on the edge of his bed, silently contemplating what was, what might have been, and what still might be.

********

As Scott told the tale of the rescue, Audra and Teresa traveled the short distance to Heath’s room. Asked to wait to see him until Victoria returned, Audra succumbed to her anxiety and defied her promise.

She knocked lightly, then poked her head in the doorway. Silas rushed over from his place beside the bed. “Miss Audra! Where’s Mrs. Barkley?” he asked.

“She’s still downstairs. I want to see Heath.”

“Miss Audra, I believe your mother said—”

“I know, Silas, but I can’t wait another moment. Please let me see him.” She sounded more fragile than intended, but everyone’s caution about Heath’s condition only fed her fears.

The old servant took a deep breath. “All right then. But there’s gonna be the devil to pay when your mother finds out.”

“I won’t tell her if you don’t,” she said, smiling deviously.

He shook his head, but was smiling, too. “You know there ain’t a secret in the world can be kept from your mother. Come along then, but he’s sleeping, so be quiet now.”

One look at Heath and Audra knew why her mother had wanted to be there with her. She had never seen any man so pale before; certainly not her normally robust brother. Heath lay sleeping, the only movement the reassuring rise and fall of his chest. His left arm had been bound to his torso, bracing the near deadly knife wound against movement and further injury.

Teresa stood behind her as Audra sat in the chair beside the bed. She lifted Heath’s hand tenderly from where it lay atop the blankets. Cold. Heath’s hand was so shockingly cold that she laid her other hand on top of his to warm it.

“He lost a great deal of blood, Miss Audra,” Silas said, standing beside her. “But he really is doing well. He’s very weak, and has some pain. But there’s been no sign of fever, and Doctor Merar says that’s a very good thing, indeed.”

The bruises on Heath’s face and his overall appearance belied that assessment, but Audra trusted her family.

Heath’s head rolled on the pillow. “Go ahead and talk to him, Miss Audra,” Silas said. “We can try to get him to drink something.”

Teresa placed a hand on her shoulder as Audra grasped Heath’s hand a little tighter. “Heath, wake up, won’t you please? It’s Audra.”

His head rolled again, toward her voice. “That’s it, Heath. Wake up now.”

He opened his eyes, their blueness blinking at her like flashes of bright spring sky between clouds. Making a great effort to focus, he faced her and managed a weak, “Audra?”

She hitched out a sob, Heath’s voice loosening some of her built up tension. Sniffling, Audra said, “Yes, Heath, it’s me. And Teresa, too. Oh gosh . . . it’s so good to see you.”

Heath blinked several more times, and then peered over his sister’s shoulder. “Boy howdy . . . ain’t you two just the prettiest sight.”

Tears were replaced by a bout of relieved laughter.

Silas stepped away and returned with two glasses. He held the first out to Audra. “See if he’ll take this laudanum for you.”

“I need you to drink this, Heath,” she said, lifting his head from the pillow. The rope burns on her wrists peeked out from her dressing gown as she tipped the glass to his lips, and she prayed he wouldn’t notice and become upset. Heath seemed to have barely enough energy to swallow, so she quickly handed off that glass for some water and got him to drink down a little more before his eyes closed in sleep.

Audra lowered Heath’s head as Silas took the glass from her. She stared at her brother, and the awful memories of their capture surfaced—the cruel laughter of Boyd and his men and the nightmare of Heath’s brutal stabbing once again too real. She wiped away a tear.

“That’s enough, Miss Audra,” Silas said. “You’ve had your visit, now Heath needs his rest and so do you.”

Audra stood. “You’ll let me know if anything changes, won’t you?”

“Certainly,” Silas said and walked the girls to the door. “But I’m sure seeing you both safe was good medicine for Heath. He’ll do fine now, you’ll see.”

“Thank you, Silas,” Audra said with a grateful smile, then she and Teresa hurried back to their room.

Teresa curled up on a chair and Audra on the bed, propped against the headboard. They were lost for a time in their own reflections, until Teresa said, “Johnny’s going to need care like that. I don’t understand him sometimes. A lot of times!” She grew agitated as her confusion and frustration flowed. “He should have come back with us. He was hurt so bad. I don’t understand why he isn’t here! He needs to be here, Audra, so we can take care of him!” She buried her face in her hands, tears coming in a torrent.

Audra leapt off the bed and went to her friend’s side. She hugged Teresa’s shoulders over the back of the chair, and let her own tears fall unheeded.

They wept for themselves, but mostly for those who had offered their own lives in order to save them. Heath, Scott and Johnny all had wounds to heal. Until that happened, neither woman appeared to be anywhere near able to heal themselves.

********

Scott couldn’t remember falling asleep. He had uncharacteristically done so with his boots still on, atop the bedcovers. He lay still for a moment, comforted by sounds familiar to all ranchers as they drifted through the slightly open window—cows lowing, the clomp of horse hooves, the jangle of tack. The household itself sounded quiet.

His hand ached, as did his jaw and various other parts of his bruised body. He felt a little warm, and worried a moment about fever, but determined it was probably just the room, heated by the early afternoon sun. There wasn’t much of a breeze.

Although he still felt sluggish, Scott was surprised how clearheaded the nap had left him. Unfortunately that just allowed all the questions in his mind to start yelling at him again as they made their way out of the fog. Scott decided he wasn’t going to dwell on the unbidden and mostly unanswerable questions just then. He finally felt hungry, and thirsty, so after splashing some water on his face he quietly made his way past the other bedrooms and down the stairs.

The dining room was empty and cleared of breakfast. He entered the kitchen and found the large room also quiet, the frantic activity of the morning well past.

He rummaged around and found the makings for a simple sandwich. He thought he had been quiet, but Silas soon appeared, flustered and wiping sleep from his eyes.

“Mr. Scott, you should have called for me! My quarters are just a little further down that hall.” He pointed toward the open door beside the stove. “Let me do that for you.”

Scott held up a hand. “Silas, you’ll do no such thing. I appreciate your offer, but you must be as tired as everyone else. I’ve had a rest, and now I’m hungry. And I can very well serve myself. I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

Silas smiled slyly. “Nothing much goes on in my kitchen that I don’t know about.”

Scott laughed comfortably for the first time in a long day. “Our own cook is much the same. Maria always seems to know just exactly when her territory is being invaded.”

A twinkle gleamed in Silas’s eyes. “She sounds like a woman after my own heart.” The bright moment of levity switched back to the servant’s practiced reserve. He gestured toward the modest meal, still on the countertop. “Mr. Scott, are you sure I can’t fix that for you? I have some—”

“No Silas, I’m perfectly fine. Please, go back and rest.”

The servant hesitated only a moment longer. “I’ll leave you to your meal then, sir.”

The household remained quiet, but having something to do felt good. Scott finished his meal then started making sandwiches for anyone else who might come foraging.

While rinsing the dishes, one of Emily’s caretakers came down the service staircase, looking for something that might tempt the poor young woman into eating. Scott showed Alice the prepared pile of sandwiches, a variety of desserts he had discovered, and the fresh pot of coffee brewing on the stove. They chatted idly as he helped her assemble a tray to take upstairs for Emily and herself.

Dr. Merar wandered down next. Only after he insisted on examining Scott’s stitches did he help himself to the inviting lunch.

Feeling in need of fresh air, Scott left the kitchen and wandered around until he ended up on the front porch. He could tell the Barkley ranch was well run, the few hands in sight going about their tasks with energy and efficiency. He took a seat in the sun and found simple pleasure in just watching the day pass for a time.

Beyond the massive entry gates to the mansion, Scott noticed a small band of men riding in. He stood at the edge of the porch and was joined from the house by Nick. Silas may have owned the kitchen, but Nick seemed to miss little of anything that went on around the rest of the Barkley spread.

“Your men?” Scott asked.

“One is. Pete Wilkins. I had him staked out on our trail, watching for Johnny.”

It was apparent that Johnny was not among the riders. The five strangers were all younger men, each under thirty at least. They looked tired and saddle-sore.

“Howdy, Nick,” Pete greeted as the group reached the porch. He dismounted and nodded to Scott. “Haven’t seen yer brother yet, Mr. Lancer. But these here men have been tracking that Boyd gang for a couple of days now, so I thought it best to bring ‘em in to talk to you.”

One of the men leapt from his horse and came up onto the porch. Appearing haggard and frantic, he said, “I’m lookin’ for my wife. I hear you found a woman and brought her here. Her name’s Emily . . . Emily Campbell. Is she here?”

Scott was stunned at his reaction to the distressed man’s plea: he got angry. Outright livid. Boyd had passed through the Barkley ranch a little more than a day before, and Mrs. Campbell had been abducted at least a day before that. Two days. It had taken the man two days to still be, what was in effect, a day behind.

Emily had never stood a chance. Her husband looked to be nothing more than a farmer or small time rancher, of strong working stock, but naive to combat—in any case, nowhere near prepared to track outlaws with any speed or accuracy, or know how to deal with them had he ever caught up. Scott knew his reaction was irrational, unfair. But he couldn’t help but think that, without Johnny and his intervention, poor Emily would have ended up in Mexico . . . in a whorehouse . . . shamed and degraded for the rest of her life.

Scott smoldered, unable to dampen his feelings enough to talk to the man directly. He turned to Nick and clipped, “Doctor Merar is in the kitchen. I’ll let him know Mr. Campbell is here.”

“Tell him we’ll be in the study,” Nick shouted at his back.

Scott found his father with Dr. Merar. They sat, talking and drinking coffee over empty plates. Standing in the doorway, Scott said, “Doctor, Mr. Campbell is here . . . Emily’s husband. You said you would be willing to talk to him. He’s . . . Nick took him into the study. Could you . . . you need to talk to him, please.”

The older men shared a perplexed look, and Scott regretted the brusqueness of his stuttered request.

“I’ll be happy to speak with him, Scott,” Dr. Merar said, rising.

“Just a moment,” Scott said. “Murdoch, can you . . . .” Scott was beginning to feel foolish, and he ducked his head. But he still couldn’t bring himself to go speak with Jack Campbell. “Could you please go with him. I . . . I can’t talk to him right now . . . and, well . . . he’s bound to have questions.” He faced Murdoch and pleaded, “Will you go?”

Murdoch stood and crossed to his side. “Of course I’ll go Scott. But . . . are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Scott said, but his head dipped again. “I just can’t talk to him right now.”

Murdoch didn’t press, just patted Scott on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it, son. We’ll make sure he gets his answers.”

Scott was left alone to wonder, ‘And where do I get mine?’

********

On their way to the study, Dr. Merar said, “I take it that is not exactly normal behavior for your son.”

“No,” Murdoch said, happy for the chance to voice a concern that had been bothered him since the morning. “I have a feeling that something happened out there yesterday that we haven’t heard about yet. And I’m afraid that maybe we never will.”

“Give him time, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor counseled. “Scott does seem to be carrying a burden of some kind. Hopefully he’ll eventually ask you to help him bear it.”

Knowing how closed-mouthed and private both his sons could be, Murdoch didn’t think there was much chance of that. “I hope you’re right,” he said, and left it at that.

********

Scott exited the house from the kitchen and paced for a couple of minutes, trying to comprehend the source for his wholly illogical anger toward Emily’s husband. With unbridled frustration, he strayed over to the nearest corral.

Pete Wilkins was instructing Campbell’s “posse” on where they could store their gear and care for their horses. Scott leaned on the corral fence and watched the men going about their tasks. He forced himself to look at them closely, to shut off his feelings and focus on the details, the facts.

To a man they looked like they hadn’t slept in days. That they’d pushed hard was painfully obvious—provided that you didn’t look at them with blinders on. Having removed his, Scott noticed how unkempt and exhausted they really were, how gingerly they moved, how little they spoke—and how sad and empty were their eyes.

Their mounts hadn’t fared much better, the animals lathered, done in, ready to collapse from the chase.

These men had given the best they could for Emily Campbell, but their best simply hadn’t been good enough. They weren’t to be penalized for their failure, rather pitied.

Scott’s anger vanished with the realization that he would have most likely fared little better had he led the posse tracking Teresa and Audra; Nick Barkley either. Oh, the two veterans might have possessed better tracking abilities than Campbell’s group, had more men at their disposal, and would have put up a hell of a fight. But they all lacked the perfect blend of knowledge and skill that would have led to the successful release of the women.

Scott remembered how he and Nick had hesitated, however briefly, in order to help Heath. Is that what these men had done—hesitated? Delayed their search? Stopped to assist friends who might have been injured during Emily’s kidnapping? Gotten caught up in civilized compassion when there had been no room for it?

Late. Each and every one of them would have been too late—perhaps not to rescue the women, but most definitely to save the girl’s virtue, their souls.

Given the circumstances, there was probably only one man north of the border who would have acted with the utter determination, speed and ruthlessness needed to stop Vic Boyd and his men—Johnny Madrid.

Decisive. Fast. Ruthless. Impassioned. Cold. Deadly. These were all things that defined Johnny Madrid Lancer. A man Scott Lancer thought he had known. Hoped he had known. No—actually never really wanted to know at all, to acknowledge, or accept. The man properly Boston-bred Scott Garrett Lancer had consistently denied, rejected as real, tried to hide from himself. And would that man have pitied Scott had he failed? Had he been indecisive? Slow. Lenient. Restrained. Emotional. Ethical. Late.

“—Mr. Lancer?” Scott looked up to see Pete just on the other side of the fence, appearing concerned. Lost in his thoughts, Scott had missed the man’s initial attempt to gain his attention.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “What can I do for you . . . Pete, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” Wilkins said. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be headin’ back out to watch for your brother in a bit.”

“Don’t bother.” Scott wasn’t surprised by the confused look on the man’s face. “I have a feeling my brother doesn’t want to be found. Nick has other men on the trail, doesn’t he?”

“Sure does,” Pete said.

“Do me a favor and just bring them all in. If Johnny hasn’t been seen by now, he doesn’t want to be seen. Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir.” The cowboy’s head bobbed vigorously.

“Thank you,” Scott said, then flicked a hand toward Campbell’s posse. “Tell those men that there’ll be food waiting for them in the kitchen as soon as they’re done settling their horses.”

“I’ll do it,” Pete said with a firm nod of his head. Scott returned the nod, then started to walk back to the house.

“Mr. Lancer,” Pete called out, making Scott turn and walk back. “Some of the men was wondrin’ . . . well . . . .” The cowboy hesitated, then moved closer to the fence and asked his burning question in a half-whisper. “Is your brother really Johnny Madrid?”

All his earlier protestations with the sheriff now set aside, Scott didn’t have to think twice about how to answer that question any more. “Yes.” He confirmed the now undeniable fact with no emotion. “My brother is Johnny Madrid.”

********

Mrs. Barkley called Alice out of Emily’s room, eager to join Murdoch and Dr. Merar in the study with Jack Campbell. Nick stood aside awaiting orders. Victoria informed the caretaker of the husband’s presence, but warned that Emily was not to be told he was there until she had talked with him.

“Nick.” He stepped forward. “I sent Peg home. Can you ask her to return to move the remainder of Teresa’s belongings into Audra’s room? I’d also like her to meet Mr. Campbell. Alice, I hope you and Peg won’t mind looking after Emily until she and Mr. Campbell are ready to leave?”

“Not at all, Mrs. Barkley,” Alice said. “Be mighty unchristian to leave her alone just now.”

“You’re a good woman, Alice Walker,” Victoria said.

Joining the men in the study, Victoria added a feminine presence to the serious conversation. The mature adults each brought their personal perspective to the issues surrounding Emily’s kidnapping. But despite their efforts Jack Campbell was devastated by what had happened to his wife. Mention of the potential for pregnancy was his breaking point. Hands against his ears, Jack stamped about the room, until he finally slumped down onto the floor beside the couch, put his hands to his face, and wept.

“Emily can’t see him like this,” Dr. Merar said quietly to Murdoch as Victoria knelt on the floor beside Jack and consoled him. “Her own condition is tenuous at best. She’ll need him to be strong right now.”

“I have to say I understand his reaction, Doctor,” Murdoch said as he watched the young man. “Had they done that to Teresa—”

“I think that’s the key, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor said. “This was done ‘to’ Emily. As long as he doesn’t blame her for what happened, they’ll get through this. But he can’t go upstairs until we’re sure how he feels. I’ve seen men unjustly take out their anger on women for violations like this. Women rescued after capture by Indians, murdered on their return. Emily deserves better.”

It took the better part of the afternoon to settle Jack down, to explain what behavior he could expect from his wife, and what was expected from him in return. Victoria assured him that the Campbell’s were welcome in her home for as long as needed. A reliance on Alice and Peg was encouraged, and the doctor promised his assistance and counsel as well.

Finally calm and clearheaded enough to truthfully answer that he wanted to see his wife, Victoria and Dr. Merar went upstairs first to prepare Emily for Jack’s arrival—a deed more easily said than done. The distraught woman had already convinced herself that she would be unwanted, so it took some persuasion to convince her that her husband still loved her. After the administration of a small dose of laudanum to calm her, Emily agreed to see Jack.

Murdoch remained with Jack in the study, consoling the young man as best he could. They talked about the Campbell homestead. It amounted to no more than a small stake, but was the spark for a young couple’s dreams. Jack almost broke down again as he thought of how his life with Emily would be forever changed on their little ranch. Murdoch didn’t know where he found the right words, but he brought solace to the man by assuring him that, as long as they trusted and loved each other, they would surely once again find happiness.

Hearing footsteps outside the study, Murdoch asked Jack if there was anything else he could do for him. Jack asked if he’d talk to his friends for him, and let them know that they might be at the Barkleys’ for a couple of days. Murdoch assured the young man that he’d take care of that for him. Jack thanked him, then wiped at his eyes, steeling himself for the responsibility before him.

A small table, chair, and footstool had been set in the hallway for Emily’s caretakers. Alice greeted Jack Campbell, and then stood aside as the doctor and Mrs. Barkley escorted him inside. Peg exited and closed the door behind her.

Dr. Merar and Victoria stayed with Emily and Jack for almost an hour, making sure that the young pair felt comfortable enough to be alone. Before leaving, the doctor sedated Emily, then made the exhausted Jack drink down one of his sleeping drafts.

Alice and Peg were given strict instructions on how to handle the couple. Dr. Merar then checked in on Audra and Teresa. He insisted that they remain resting in their room for at least the day. Visiting Heath last, the doctor informed Victoria that he was almost certain that her son would recover fully, given time to heal and the continued good care of his family.

It was late in the afternoon before Dr. Thomas Merar took his leave of the Barkley household, ensuring Victoria that he would return the following afternoon.

********

Told of Jack Campbell’s arrival, the girls grew solemn as they put away Teresa’s things. ‘I don’t know if he’ll want me any more!’ Emily’s sorrowful cry from the dark trail resounded in their memories, evoking questions no young lady should ever be required to contemplate.

‘Why wouldn’t he want her? She hasn’t done anything wrong.’

‘Are men so shallow in their love that they would turn a woman away just when she might need him most?’

‘Will the man I marry ever leave me?’

They weren’t willing to admit it, but both girls were still exhausted from their ordeal. Their dire reflections offered little rest.

********

Scott made sure Campbell’s men were taken care of by Silas, glad they were all too tired to make conversation. He felt restless, the thought of sitting still making him nervous. He wandered around outside for a bit, his quiet musings taking him farther from the mansion than intended. He made it back to the house just in time to see Dr. Merar leave.

Realizing that he hadn’t seen his sister since early morning, Scott ascended to the second floor and first stopped at Heath’s room. He continued down the hallway and, feeling very ungentlemanly, stood outside of Audra’s bedroom until he heard the girl’s voices drifting softly through the door. He knocked gently. “Teresa, it’s Scott. Would you care for a visitor?”

“Certainly. Come right in.”

Scott entered but, abiding his manners, left the door ajar. The girls had been sitting by Audra’s dressing table. Teresa rushed to greet him with a hug. Scott returned the embrace, then walked Teresa back to her chair. “I’m glad to see the two of you looking so well. I just checked on Heath, by the way, and he’s sleeping comfortably.”

“We snuck out to see him earlier,” Teresa said.

Audra added, “But he was so pale. I’ve never seen a man sick like that before.”

Scott pulled another chair closer and sat. “Well, I’m no doctor, and I’m sure it will take some time. But I was told that he’s going to be fine, Audra.”

He tried to steer the conversation into lighter waters. “Should I ask the details of this ‘sneaking’ you did, or will I hear all about it from Murdoch or Mrs. Barkley?”

His attempt at humor didn’t bring quite the reaction he’d expected. Both girls seemed a little horrified. “Oh, please Scott. Don’t tell Murdoch,” Teresa begged.

“We didn’t tell Mother yet, either,” Audra admitted.

Scott couldn’t help but laugh, pleased to find their young naïveté still intact. “Ah, I see. A clandestine affair. Well, let me think of what I might want in return for my silence.” He folded one arm across his chest, then propped the other elbow upon it as his hand went to his face, the index finger tapping at his cheek as he melodramatically contemplated an appropriate bribe.

Teresa only took him seriously for one moment. Recognizing the tease she looked to her friend and rolled her eyes. “Oh you!” Teresa said as she leaned forward and pushed Scott on the shoulder.

“Hey!” He grabbed his arm dramatically, kneading the “injured” limb as if it pained him greatly. “Just for that I’ll tell them at once . . . all deals are off.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Scott Lancer,” Teresa said with a beaming smile. Before he could parry her back, her enjoyment disappeared as she noticed his bandaged hand. “How are you, Scott? Really. Your hand—”

“—Is perfectly fine, Teresa. A few stitches were all it needed.”

“Thank goodness,” she said with obvious relief. But her face darkened with even more worry as she asked, “And Johnny . . . . Have we heard from Johnny yet?”

“No dear. We haven’t heard yet.” He chose his words carefully. “You know Johnny, Teresa. He does things his own way. Always has. We have to trust that he knows what he’s doing now too. He’ll show. Don’t worry.”

Her head sagged. “I do worry though, Scott.” Audra reached out a hand of comfort to her friend.

“I know,” Scott said. “So do I. But we have to have faith. He’ll come back, you’ll see.” He hoped she believed him, because he had little confidence himself.

Determined to again brighten the conversation, Scott spied a bottle on Audra’s dressing table. “I wouldn’t have expected to see fine French perfume this far west, Audra. Wherever did you obtain Fleurs Célestes? ‘Heavenly Flowers,’” he translated for Teresa.

Audra glanced over her shoulder. Her blond locks danced as she turned back and exclaimed, “You’ve heard of Fleurs Célestes, Scott? But of course, you grew up in Boston. Jarrod gave it to me. Isn’t it exquisite?” she asked with an encouraging girlish titter. She turned again and picked up the delicate bottle.

“Have you ever smelled this, Teresa?” she asked, holding the treasure before her preciously—and Scott thought his goal had been achieved. His sister’s curiosity piqued beyond control, both girls were focusing on something other than him, or Heath, or Johnny, or the events from the prior day. Audra pulled the fragile stopper from the bottle and asked Teresa to, “Hold out your wrist.”

Teresa did so without thought, and the mood was again shattered! Extending her arm, those damn rope abrasions appeared from beneath her sleeve and glared at them all. Audra gasped. But Scott was bound to get them past the moment. He gently took the stopper from Audra and grasped his sister’s hand. He applied a drop of perfume onto the pad of skin on her palm, just below her thumb.

“I know many women in high society choose to apply their perfumes here,” he said. “Go ahead and rub it onto your other palm, then smell.”

Teresa hesitated a moment, then forced herself to do as Scott had requested. The potion worked like a magic elixir. As soon as she inhaled her smile was back—and Scott and Audra returned the grin. “My goodness. That’s the most enchanting thing I’ve ever smelled,” Teresa said with awe.

“Well then, I shall have to ask Jarrod where he purchased it and get you a bottle. I’d be pleased to see that look on your face every Sunday. I won’t even wait until your birthday to buy it for you. You know though,” he leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper, “all the other girls around Morro Coyo are going to be incredibly jealous.”

The cheerful atmosphere reestablished, Scott barreled onward with a continued conversation about perfumes, for once his seemingly useless roguish repertoire of ladies toiletries coming in handy for a cause more worthy than simply charming witless Boston beauties. From there the conversation moved to the Boston harbor, where Scott regaled the young ladies with tales of watching ships, laden with items such as fine French perfumes, coming into port.

The conversation easily moved on to the whaling ships that would leave from those same ports, to return sometimes years later, filled to the gunnels with whale oil and exotic trinkets gathered from distant lands.

On and on Scott talked, keeping Audra and Teresa preoccupied with dreams of far away places. The girlish giggling that had been in abundance before the kidnapping was not heard. But at least the girls were avidly asking questions. Scott actually found himself enjoying the distraction just as much.

Three dinner trays were unexpectedly delivered. “Don’t get up,” Victoria Barkley said as she handed Scott his tray. “You tell wonderfully distracting stories, Scott.” He took the hint and stayed where he was. But once darkness fell and the food had been nibbled over, it was clear that Audra and Teresa were both trying to stay awake on energy they really didn’t have. Scott took his leave and promised that their conversation would continue.

At the door and prepared to exit, Teresa and Audra were both suddenly at his side. “Scott,” Teresa said, enveloping him in a warm embrace. “Thank you again. For today, and . . . and for everything.”

Scott smiled as he hugged her back. He caught eyes with Audra. “Yes. Thank you,” she said.

“You’re very welcome, ladies,” Scott said. He pushed Teresa back at arm’s length. “Get some rest now.” He looked at Audra and added, “Both of you.”

“We will,” they said together, then shared a laugh.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Scott said. He withdrew and closed the door behind him.

********

Victoria stepped quietly into Audra’s bedroom. She was pleased to find that her daughter and Teresa had fallen asleep on their own, and hoped they would remain in peaceful slumber the entire night. Just in case, she set one of Dr. Merar’s sleeping powders and a glass of water on their bedside tables. She turned down the lamp wicks and left the young women bathed with a gentle glimmer.

Peg sat sentinel outside of Emily and Jack’s room, and assured Victoria that she didn’t need anything and that the couple was quiet. Murdoch had already turned in, and Heath’s care schedule for the night was arranged.

Mrs. Barkley finally reached her bedroom—but her own sleep would have to wait. There was one last thing she needed to do for the night. One rarely allowed indulgence.

Sitting in the soft chair by her window, Victoria Barkley stared up at the stars—and cried, releasing tears she had kept bound within herself in order to maintain a strong facade for her family. But this was her moment, alone, and she let the emotion flow, releasing all the fear, anger and anxiety that she considered to be of no help to anyone.

Victoria wept to renew her strength, to bolster the resolve that made her the pillar of support for her family and that of her friend. For she knew that there was still a long road to recovery ahead, and she would have to be there in mind and spirit to keep hope strong for those she loved.

********

Scott gave it a valiant effort, but found sleep elusive. After tossing and turning for hours, he conceded defeat and declared the attempt a waste of time. He threw on pants and a shirt then, barefoot, made his way downstairs.

He managed to find the study and lit a lamp, keeping the wick low. The Barkleys had an impressive assortment of liquor available, but Scott noticed the distinct absence of tequila—a staple in the Lancer household due to Johnny’s preference for the drink. He could never understand why his brother liked the vile liquid.

‘Well, I’ll just add that to the long list of things I don’t understand about Johnny,’ Scott thought. He pushed the disparaging reflection to the back of his mind and considered his personal preference of scotch versus brandy. He settled on the brandy.

Scott raised the lamp wick a turn brighter and set his mind on the mundane as he savored his drink and reviewed the books that covered one wall of the room. He was pleased to find many written by authors he admired, detecting Jarrod’s influence prominent among the volumes.

Caught up in the simple activity, Scott relaxed. He wasn’t aware of time passing—or the fact that he’d attracted company. “Couldn’t sleep?” Nick asked, his voice still managing to roar despite the attempted whisper.

Scott flinched and turned sharply. “Yes,” he said, running his free hand through his hair.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” Nick said from the shadows of the doorway.

“Is anything wrong?” Scott asked.

“No, not at all,” Nick said, advancing into the room. “Jarrod just took over watching Heath.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Holding his own. Doc’s been optimistic, and Heath’s a fighter. Still no fever.”

“That’s good to hear,” Scott said, truly pleased. “I hope you don’t mind.” He lifted his glass. “I helped myself to some of your good brandy.”

“Not at all. Had that same idea myself,” Nick said. He stepped over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a whiskey. Glancing over at Scott he added, “You know, for what you did for us, as far as I’m concerned anything you or your brother want on this ranch is yours for the taking. Anything at all.” He wasn’t in any way kidding.

Scott ducked his head. “You don’t have to keep thanking me, Nick. That was our sister out there too.”

“Doesn’t matter, and you know it,” Nick said, pointing at Scott with a finger extended from his glass of whiskey. “What the two of you did was nigh on to a miracle, and this family is never going to forget it.

“Oh I have to admit,” he continued, waving his glass dramatically in the air as he moved to sit on the couch, “I couldn’t help being mighty riled with Johnny for actin’ like he didn’t care a lick about Heath. But seeing Audra and Teresa . . . how upset but relieved they were when we caught up to you . . . and Emily . . . well, I’m just glad he knew what he was doing and found them so quick.”

Scott considered just how very well Johnny had known what he was doing. But Nick mistook his pensive thought.

“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?”

“Johnny?” That hadn’t exactly been his focus, but Scott had to admit that he was still anxious about his brother’s continued absence. “Yes. His wounds weren’t exactly minor. But you saw it yourself—when he puts his foot down about something, you can’t budge him. He insisted we leave him.”

“He’s had enough time to make it back on his own. We’ll get up another search party in the morning, go find him.”

“Thank you, Nick, but that wouldn’t do any good. You know I’ve already called in your trail watchers. If Johnny hasn’t been seen by now, we won’t find him. He’ll be all right.” Scott downed the last of his brandy in one swallow and went to pour another.

“And what about you?” Nick asked. “How are you doing?”

The question took Scott by surprise. The decanter momentarily hovered over his glass as he considered the answer. “Me? Oh, I’m fine.” Scott finished pouring his drink, then held up his bandaged hand. “This scratch is nothing.”

“I’m not talkin’ about cuts and bruises, Scott. You and I were both in the war.” Nick again poked a finger toward him. “I’ve seen that look in men’s eyes before. What happened out there has you shook up a lot more than you’re willing to admit. Like one of those soldiers who’s sorry his best friend just got his legs blown off by cannon fire, you dismiss your own injuries as if they’re minor and meaningless in comparison. You and Johnny both had an important part to play in rescuing those girls. Don’t cheapen what you did Scott, to yourself or anyone else. The Barkley family won’t allow it.

“But I have a feeling you’re most upset over what you saw your brother do, more than what you think you didn’t do. I know watching him change into Madrid surprised the hell out of me. You ever seen Johnny like that before? That persistent? That hard?”

Scott could not believe how precisely Nick had honed in on his own thoughts. He took a slow sip of his brandy and wondered how much he could disclose to ease his mind and still keep his brother’s confidences. “No,” he finally answered. “I’ve seen him fight before. I’ve even seen him have to draw down on a man. But it was always in self-defense.”

He began to pace. “What he did to stop Boyd I wouldn’t have thought possible . . . of Johnny or any other man. He was so cold, Nick. If anything Johnny’s always hot blooded—quick to temper, ready and willing to speak his mind, but open to options. Out there he was so calculating, so ruthless. More than fearless . . . brazen and audacious. And totally uncompromising.” Scott stopped his restless movement and looked at Nick. “That wasn’t the brother I’ve come to know . . . to respect.”

“Men act differently in war, you and I know that,” Nick answered.

“This wasn’t a war, Nick.” Scott spat the words out before he realized he was lying. He’d already made the same analogy himself.

“Not like we’re used to waging, no it wasn’t,” Nick countered. “But I have a feeling it’s the type of battle Johnny’s been fighting for a long time. And war changes a man. You have to consider the circumstances, Scott. Johnny did what he thought he had to do. All I know is my sister may be upset, but she’s alive and those men never—” Nick’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat and added, “—and . . . well . . . my family has the two of you to thank for that. I’m grateful that Johnny was working for our side.”

“Working.” That word brought Scott instant clarity for why his brother’s actions disturbed him so much. Johnny hadn’t acted like he was on a mission to save Teresa—he had merely appeared to be performing a job. The lack of emotion, the coldness—it all came together now. Death and violence were Johnny Madrid’s tools and, like a master craftsman, his brother wielded them as naturally as breathing. And you could either work along side of him, or get the hell out of his way. Scott wondered just how many times Johnny had used his “skills” to “work” for the other side.

Scott had naively defined a “gunfighter” as a man who stood face to face with another man to match him skill for skill, each a willing participant in a contest of life over death with a handgun. Nothing more than one of those fabled shootist’s from a dime novel. But Scott had never allowed himself to sincerely consider what that meant to be a “gun-for-hire.” He was now forced to acknowledge that Johnny had made a living with his gun, the weapon just another tool of the trade.

Maybe they had both acted as soldiers over the years, fighting their own kind of wars. But Scott had served in a legal army, defended a cause thought to be for the greater good, and been honorably discharged. Johnny had been a mercenary, supporting the cause of the highest bidder. The bottom line was that Johnny had trained himself to be a killer—and he was very, very good at his job.

Over the past year, Murdoch had a much more difficult time than Scott accepting Johnny back into his life. Scott thought about the Pinkerton reports he knew his father had gathered on Johnny over the years. Murdoch’s understanding of what his younger son had become was no doubt more informed than that of the older son. The father had a year’s head start contemplating questions Scott was only now beginning to ask himself about his brother.

Why now? That was a stupid question—Scott knew why. Out on the trail, chasing Boyd, Johnny had dropped the mask he’d been wearing at Lancer and allowed himself to be seen as other’s knew him—as Johnny Madrid. Scott thought he could trust Johnny Lancer—but he couldn’t bring himself to trust Madrid. They really were two very different personalities, both unfortunately folded up inside the body of his brother.

It was clear that Johnny had taken Scott’s measure long before there had been any apparent need to do so. The ability to do a good job included knowing the capabilities—or limitations—of the men you worked with. Before he’d outlined his plan against the outlaws, Johnny had warned Scott that, ‘Takin’ these men on ain’t gonna be like fightin’ soldiers in a war. You can’t be a gentleman right now, and you can’t let your feelin’s get in the way.’ Johnny had held no doubt what to expect from Scott, yet Scott couldn’t reciprocate that understanding. The lengths to which Johnny had been willing to go in order to complete his task had taken, and continued to take, Scott completely by surprise.

And Madrid had known his enemies just as well. ‘We ain’t givin’ no mercy today, ‘cause we ain’t gonna get none.’ Is that how Johnny fought all his wars, mercilessly? He hadn’t acted quite as harshly when he’d stood up to Day Pardee in defense of the Lancer ranch. Was that depth of cold-bloodedness reserved for special villains, such as Vic Boyd? Did such ruthlessness cost extra? Did Johnny ever lose any sleep after a hard days “work”?

Luckily for Scott, Nick didn’t have much more to say and left him with his thoughts, alone in the study. It was almost dawn before he returned to his bedroom, exhaustion forcing the cascade of unanswerable questions in his mind to cease as he finally drifted off to sleep.

********

Murdoch Lancer and Victoria Barkley formed a combined front, and gathered their families for a proper morning meal. But looking around the breakfast table it was apparent that restful sleep had been elusive, not only for Scott but pretty much everyone else. Eyes were heavy-lidded, movements slow, yawning the extent of the conversation.

The parents’ plan did not proceed as hoped, the events of the kidnapping too fresh in everyone’s mind. Heath was only in the early stages of recovery, the road ahead of him still uncertain. Emily and Jack remained in their guest room, unwilling to share their pain in public, but their presence nevertheless casting an unintentional pall over the entire household.

And Johnny had not yet returned.

Victoria and Murdoch attempted to set a good example and managed to eat a little. But Scott and Jarrod mostly pushed their food around on their plates, and Teresa and Audra couldn’t even bring themselves to make the effort.

Nick Barkley seemed the only one capable of eating—but by the way he skewered each piece of food and ferociously bit it off his fork, you would have thought he was angrily feeding on the flesh of the men who had so brutally disrupted his family’s life. In this manner he made quick work of half his meal, then abruptly tossed down his napkin, stood, and announced he was heading to the stables.

The others remained together a few more minutes, until Audra said, “I’d like to go up and check on Heath. You don’t mind, do you Teresa?”

By some unconscious agreement, the girls had not strayed far from each other for more than a few minutes at a time since their rescue. Teresa missed the question, her gaze on her plate, her focus someplace far away.

Murdoch glanced knowingly at Victoria, then reached over and gently placed his hand on his ward’s shoulder. Teresa jumped and emitted a startled gasp.

“I’m sorry, Teresa,” Murdoch said.

“No. I . . . I wasn’t paying attention. Did you want something?” she stuttered in embarrassment.

Audra took a deep breath and repeated, “I’m going up to check on Heath. Do you mind?”

“No. Certainly not,” Teresa answered. “In fact, I’ll go up with you. I’d like to go sit and read for a little bit. If you’ll all excuse me?”

“Of course, dear,” Murdoch said.

“You both go right ahead,” Victoria said. “Audra, send Silas down, please. I believe we’re all done with breakfast. We’ll take coffee in the parlor where we can be more comfortable.”

Mrs. Barkley stood and Murdoch escorted her to the parlor with Scott and Jarrod following, as Audra and Teresa headed up the stairs.

********

A half hour later, Nick was back, leading an excited Dr. Merar. The physician searched the faces and found Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer, I believe I may have treated your son, Johnny, last night.”

Scott and Murdoch leapt from their seats to a chorus of “What?” “Where?” and “Are you sure?”

Answering the last question from the cacophony first, Dr. Merar said, “I’m positive. Last night, very late, one of the girls from the Cougar came and got me.”

“The ‘Cougar’?” Scott asked.

“It’s a saloon in Stockton,” Nick answered. “Not exactly the best one in town, if you know what I mean,” he added with disdain.

“Indeed,” Dr. Merar concurred. “I pulled a bullet out of a young man, then cleaned and stitched some nasty knife wounds. The cuts were almost exactly as you described, Scott. No one ever said his name, and I didn’t dare come right out and ask . . . in my profession I’ve learned that in a place such as the Cougar, that’s something you just never do. But I’m sure that was your brother.”

“Why the hell didn’t he come back here?” Nick bellowed. Dr. Merar was the only one taken aback by the outburst.

“Where was Johnny shot, Doctor? Is it serious?” Murdoch asked.

“In the side, Mr. Lancer,” the physician answered. “Removing the bullet was relatively easy. If it weren’t for his other injuries, I’d consider it a minor wound. However—”

“Can I borrow a horse, Nick?” Scott asked, moving toward the door.

“I’ll go with you,” Nick said.

Scott stopped abruptly. “No. If Johnny is hiding under the name Madrid, then the less attention he gets the better. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Doctor, can you wait here until I return?”

The physician took a step forward, his face darkening with concern. “If that was your brother, he was in pretty rough shape last night. I’m not sure he’ll be up to traveling. Shouldn’t I just go with you?”

“Thank you for the offer, Doctor Merar, but if he’s that bad off, Johnny can’t stay in town either. It would be too dangerous for him if anyone found out he was there. Too many men want his reputation . . . do you understand? It would be best if I can get him back here.”

“Of course then,” Tom Merar said. “I can stay into the evening, unless I’m called away. Ask for Linda. She’s the one who came to fetch me and helped last night.”

Victoria came forward with Murdoch and said, “We’ll have his room ready, Scott.”

“Let me go, son,” Murdoch said.

“No!” Scott said, too vehemently, taking his father aback. Calmer, he repeated, “No.” The last thing Murdoch needed was to see Johnny lying wounded in a cheap saloon. And selfishly, Scott had a few questions to ask his brother in private, not the least of which was why Johnny hadn’t returned directly to the Barkleys’. “I need to go, Murdoch,” he begged. “Please, let me do this.”

“All right,” Murdoch said, although he wasn’t at all happy. “Bring him back.”

Scott nodded. “Nick, while we saddle that horse you can tell me where to find the Cougar Saloon.”

********

Scott entered Stockton’s notorious Cougar Saloon and finally understood why his gunfighter brother made it a habit to pause, if only briefly, just inside the doorway of all such establishments. This one was quite unlike any the Boston-bred gentleman had ever before encountered. Although nearing afternoon, the sunlight barely penetrated into the corners of the dark interior. It took Scott a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The windows were dirty and smeared with fingerprints, haphazardly covered in various forms of dusty, moth-eaten curtaining. The only thing the unmatched furniture had in common was its dark-toned hues—whether because of the type of wood or through years of built-up grime was anyone’s guess. A few soot-coated lamps were lit, but the illumination did not spread far from the source.

Despite the early hour, three of the tables were already in use, each occupant rougher looking than the next. To a man, every one of them turned and gave Scott due consideration as soon as he crossed the threshold. Evidently not feeling threatened by their findings, the bar’s patrons went back to their tasks, drinking, card playing, or staring off intently at nothing much at all.

The bartender sat upon a high stool behind the bar with his arms folded across his chest. Scott ambled over that way and tried very hard to contain his urgent need to locate his brother.

“Mornin’,” Scott said.

“What’ll ya have?” His own unique pleasantries observed, the bartender merely sat there and stared.

“Just some information. I’m looking for a girl. Linda.”

“Why?” the man growled—and Scott heard a couple of chairs in back of him scrape against the dirty wooden floorboards.

Scott considered telling the man it was none of his business, but he didn’t think that would get him very far. “She knows a friend of mine is all. Nothing to get excited about.” He pitched his voice a little louder for the benefit of whoever had shifted position behind him.

“Linda ain’t around right now. Come back later,” the bartender said, again uninterested.

“Look, I—” Scott started, but a guttural snarl cut him off.

“The man said Linda ain’t here. You deaf, boy?”

Scott turned with deliberate nonchalance. He propped his elbows atop the bar and kept his hands well away from his handgun.

The man in the darkest corner of the room, at the table furthest away from Scott, was now standing, his hands at his sides and his eyes planted on the tall Lancer son. The other men were staring too, their intentions definitely hostile. He’d either violated some unwritten code for barroom questioning, or Johnny had more than one friend in the establishment.

Scott was saved from having to decide on an answer when a young lady exited from a back room beside the end of the bar. She carried a pitcher and headed toward a nearby staircase.

He took a chance and called out, “Linda!”

She was young, maybe twenty, petite at five foot three, trim but healthy looking, with long blonde hair. But the most striking feature about her was her kind eyes—just the type Johnny would have looked for had he come seeking help amongst strangers. If this was the woman caring for his injured brother, Scott was relieved that she at least appeared to be the cleanest thing in the whole building, a bright spot of sunshine in the up to now grim surroundings.

The woman came to an abrupt stop and gave him a brazen once over. She favored the rest of the men with her gaze, then faced Scott again and said, “Sorry mister. I ain’t your Linda. Come back tonight. She’ll most likely be in then.” She continued her path to the stairway.

The men backed down, ready to, at least outwardly, mind their own business. Evidently they trusted the young lady’s ability to handle herself.

Whoever she was, one way or another Scott was convinced she could lead him to his brother. “Hold up a minute,” he said and took the few long strides needed to reach her.

She stopped, but didn’t look pleased. “Mister, I got a lot of work to do.”

“This won’t take long. I just want to know if you’ve seen a man.”

She smiled and gave a short bawdy laugh. “I work in a saloon, cowboy. See lots of men every day.” The bar patrons suspended their feigned inattention and snickered boldly.

Not to be distracted, Scott lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, this particular type of man you might not see every day. I’m looking for a gunfighter—name of Johnny Madrid.”

She didn’t blink. She also did not choose to lower her own voice as she answered. “Sorry, but I don’t know no Johnny Madrid. Heard of him, don’t get me wrong. But you could be him for all I know.”

Impatient with the game but not ready to tip his hand, he looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Well I’m not him, but I am a friend of his. It’s very important that I locate Johnny.”

The plea apparently earnest enough to make her think twice, she ducked her head for a moment and took a measured drag of air, then let it out slowly. She looked up, and Scott was certain she was going to tell him where his brother was.

He was wrong. “Sorry. Can’t help you,” she said and turned to leave.

“Please!” he demanded. “I have to find him.”

She stopped only briefly. “Mister, I’m tellin’ you for the last time, I don’t know no Johnny Madrid. Now if you’ll excuse me . . . .” She turned sharply and headed up the steep stairway.

Scott gave her just enough time to turn the corner at the top before he followed. He didn’t particularly care if any of the other men chose to trail along behind.

He peeked around the edge of the upper landing and saw the woman making her way down a long dreary hallway. The only light spilled in from a dirty window at the end of the hall. She glanced once behind her and Scott ducked back, until he heard two soft taps on a door.

Scott bounded up the last couple of steps and strode down the hallway. The woman spotted him and ran back down the hall, water sloshing out of the pitcher as she came. Blatantly overloud, she called out, “I told you I don’t know no Madrid! You got no right to be up here!” Scott gently but firmly pushed the young woman to the side and headed for the door she had been prepared to enter. “Johnny!” she yelled in panic-filled warning.

He’d just reached the doorway, but before Scott could put his hand on the knob, the door—behind him—swung open so forcefully it punched hard against the wall. Scott whirled and found a very familiar looking handgun pointed squarely at the middle of his chest.

“Johnny!” Scott snapped out his own warning, genuinely alarmed that his brother might not realize it was him before he pulled the trigger.

The gunfighter’s finger came off the trigger as he angled the weapon toward the ceiling. “Damnit Scott! Ain’t you got any sense at all?” Johnny yelled, furious.

Scott took in his brother’s condition and was sorry he hadn’t been more patient trying to find him. Johnny had no business being on his feet, let alone expending energy he didn’t have trying to protect himself. Pale and sweating, it was obvious he’d lost a good deal of blood and had a fever.

The woman squirreled herself around Scott and went to Johnny’s side. “I’m sorry, Johnny. He wouldn’t shake and followed me up.”

“It’s okay, Linda. I know ‘im,” Johnny said, breathless as his arm fell to his side, the effort to remain standing rapidly becoming a difficult task. Scott recognized the signs and moved in fast as Johnny began to sway.

With Johnny’s wounds widespread, there was no good place to grasp him without causing him pain. Johnny groaned loudly as Scott grabbed him around the chest as his knees buckled.

Linda turned and set her pitcher down as the man from the dark corner downstairs suddenly appeared, took hold of Johnny’s legs, and helped Scott get him onto the bed. Linda pushed the covers aside as the two men lowered the gunfighter to the mattress. Scott couldn’t miss the alarming amount of dried blood staining the sheets.

“Dark Corner” grabbed Scott’s arm and pulled him around. “Who the hell are you, mister, and what do you want with Johnny?”

Scott was more than ready to answer but Johnny’s weak voice interrupted. “His name’s Scott Garrett, Norm. He’s a friend. Let ‘im be.”

Heeding the caution implicit in Johnny’s response, Scott stood easy and let Norm scrutinize him. “Well, that’s good to know. He was actin’ mighty suspicious downstairs.”

Johnny snorted a laugh, which made him cough. “Yeah? Well, that’s Boston all right. Always been on the shady side.” That made him laugh again, but a grimace of pain halted his amusement.

Linda pushed past the pair and sat on the side of the bed. Johnny allowed her to take the gun from his hand, and she set it on the bedside table. She stroked at Johnny’s face with a dampened cloth. “Both of you shut up now and get that door closed,” she said curtly. “One of you fetch me a glass of water.”

Truce called, Norm took a careful look down the outer hallway then shut the door. The room darkened considerably. He moved around the bed and raised the wick of a lamp on a table near the window, leaving the curtains closed. He took up a position next to the bed, his arms crossed over his chest, his own concern for Johnny obvious.

Scott crossed to the dresser on the opposite wall and poured the water, glimpsing a half empty bottle of tequila. He handed the glass to Linda, who raised Johnny’s head up just enough for him to drink. A couple of sips later he turned his head to the side. “Gracias,” he said quietly. She handed the glass back to Scott and lowered Johnny’s head onto the pillow.

“Well that was certainly a bit of excitement you didn’t need,” Linda said as she pushed at the damp bangs on Johnny’s forehead. His eyes closed, Johnny smiled at her comforting touch, but otherwise seemed perfectly happy not to move another inch.

The environs were less than inviting, but Scott was at least glad that Johnny had found friends who were trying to care for him and, more than that, keep him safe. But despite his seeming trust in the couple, by calling him “Garrett,” Johnny had warned Scott that discretion was still necessary. He would have to choose his words carefully in front of Linda and Norm.

“How’s he doing?” Scott asked.

Norm lost his angry edge and said, “He’s tore up a piece. We brung a doctor up last night to tend ‘im. Said he’ll most likely be okay . . . given time to heal proper.”

“I don’t like the fever though,” Linda added as she tossed the damp rag to Norm. “Wet that down again for me, please.”

“Sure,” he said and moved over to the small dresser.

“Bring that bottle back with ya,” Johnny said, his eyes still closed.

Norm questioned Linda with a worried look, but she nodded her approval. He returned with the bottle and handed it off to Linda, then went back to remoisten the cloth.

“Help me sit him up,” she asked Scott. He set the water glass down on the bedside table, got beside his brother and braced him upright. Another barely stifled groan escaped from between Johnny’s clenched teeth.

“You want me to hold it?” Linda asked, waving the bottle in front of Johnny as he caught his breath from the minor exertion.

“No, let me have it,” he answered, holding out a shaky right hand, his left hand crossed over his stomach to clutch at his side. Linda positioned the bottle in his grip, then, along with the others, waited an agonizing minute while Johnny slowly lowered the level of liquid to barely one-quarter full.

Either satisfied or too tired to drink more, Johnny let his hand and the bottle drop to the mattress. Linda grabbed it before it could spill. Scott lay his brother down as Norm handed the moistened cloth across the bed to Linda, trading it for the bottle.

“Better Johnny?” Linda asked as she folded the cloth and lay it on his fevered forehead.

With a contented smile and eyes again closed, Johnny said, “Oh yeah. Right as rain. You’re a good kid, Linda.”

Johnny’s compliment brought a blush to her cheeks and a smile to her lips.

‘She’s not much younger than you, Johnny Boy,’ Scott thought sadly. ‘But you feel like an old man, don’t you brother?’ That’s how the younger Lancer appeared to him just then—old, misused and beaten, tired beyond his years. The vision made Scott angry.

“Johnny, can we talk alone for a minute?”

“Linda and Norm is finally settlin’ down an’ gettin’ married. Did you know that Boston?”

The couple glanced at each other and smiled self-consciously. About Johnny’s height but barrel-chested, Norm dwarfed Linda in size and was at least five years older, but it was obvious there was affection between the unlikely pair.

“No. I didn’t know that, Johnny,” Scott said, barely containing his annoyance at the change of subject. “Congratulations.” He somehow managed to sound sincere.

“Thanks,” they replied in perfect unison, triggering more embarrassment as the worldly-wise pair realized they had sounded like a couple of love-struck kids.

Johnny caught the inflection, and snickered drunkenly. “You don’t deserve her, you know that, don’t cha Norm?”

“Realize that every day, Johnny,” Norm answered, flashing an unabashed wink at his bride-to-be, who dipped her head demurely.

“Take care of her, or I’ll come back an’ shoot ya,” Johnny warned. But his amusement turned to anguish as a flare of pain flashed through him. Johnny’s hand pressed down hard on his side and his back arched off the bed, leaving his three caretakers to stand by, helplessly waiting for the attack to pass.

By the time the breath-stealing episode ended, Scott had seen enough. “Would you two please excuse us?”

“They ain’t leavin’, Boston,” Johnny gasped from the bed.

“Johnny, one way or another you’re going to talk to me. You want me to start asking questions now, or you want privacy? Your call.”

Norm and Linda looked from man to man, waiting to see who’d win the showdown.

“Norm. Go buy your bride a drink,” Johnny said.

“Come on, Linda,” Norm said with as scowl as he made his way around the bed. As the couple stood by the door he added, “We’ll be right downstairs Johnny, whenever you need us.”

“Thanks, compadre,” Johnny said, his eyes closing.

Norm opened the door and took a cautious look down the hall, then ushered Linda out in front of him. Before he closed the door, the gunfighter’s protector shot Scott a stern look. “Take it easy on him.” Then he was gone.

Johnny breathed in deep and let it out slowly, then faced his brother with drooping eyelids.

“Scott Garrett?”

“Trust me Scott, you don’t want to be known as the brother of Johnny Madrid right now.”

‘Too late for that,’ Scott thought.

“And the less attention Lancer gets, the better,” Johnny added.

Scott hated it to the core of his being, but he knew Johnny was right. He also picked up that fact and used it to press his point. “Seems to me Johnny Madrid doesn’t need any extra attention right now either. So why didn’t you come back to the Barkleys’, Johnny? Why try to hide out here—which obviously isn’t working too well for you, since even I was able to find you in less than a day.”

Johnny smiled as he asked, “How’d you do that anyway? Have to say I was mighty surprised to find you on the other end of my handgun.”

“Doctor Merar is out at the ranch right now tending Heath. He’s heard the story of our fight with Boyd. He mentioned treating another patient with suspiciously familiar knife wounds last night, then added something about pulling a bullet out of the young man as well. The last time I saw you, you were only grazed, not shot. What did you go off and do, Johnny?”

The smirking smile left Johnny’s face. “Was just keepin’ promises is all.”

Scott considered his fears about his brother’s vengeful activities confirmed. “So. Another job well done,” he said, bitterness rising. “Well, you’re in no shape now for doing anything more but lying still.” He stepped over and removed the damp cloth from Johnny’s forehead. On the way to the dresser to wet it down again, he added, “You can do that very well in a Barkley bed.”

“I can’t go back there, Scott. Not now.”

Johnny sounded tired, but that only fed Scott’s anger. “Why the hell not?” he bit back. He returned to Johnny’s side and tried to lay the cooled cloth on his brother’s bruised brow.

Johnny grabbed the rag out of his hand and tossed it off the other side of the bed, quickly regretting the movement. “I ain’t fit to be around right now,” Johnny said, teeth again gritted and both hands pressed against his right side.

Scott didn’t notice Johnny’s pain, too impatient for the explanation he felt he deserved. “Oh, but it’s all right for you to be around people like Linda and Norm, is that it? What makes them so special, Johnny?” he practically shouted, his own built-up frustration coming to the fore.

“They ain’t special, but they know better than to barge into the bedroom of a gun hawk,” Johnny gasped.

Still Scott pressed. “Oh. So your family is too stupid to care for you, is that it?”

“No! No . . . I just . . . don’t want . . . to see ya’ll . . . get hurt,” Johnny managed to pant out, then rolled onto his left side and buried his face into the pillow.

Watching his brother’s anguish crest, Scott was horrified at what he had done, selfishly allowing himself to lose his temper and patience, both at the broken man’s expense. He kneeled on the floor beside Johnny’s head and leaned in. “I’m sorry. I had no right to do that. But Johnny . . . you have to let us care for you. It’s what families do. You wouldn’t hurt any of us, you have to know that.”

“There’s more than one way to be hurt,” Johnny whispered, and Scott got the distinct impression that his brother didn’t realize he’d actually spoken.

More determined than ever to get Johnny to return with him to the Barkley ranch, Scott addressed his brother calmly but with a decided firmness. “I know you’re worried, but whatever you’re afraid of we’ll get through together. If you don’t come back with me now, Murdoch will come for you later. Johnny, Teresa is worried out of her mind about you. She . . . .”

Johnny struggled to face Scott, and cut him off. “I can’t see Teresa right now Scott,” he pleaded. “Please don’t make me go back there. Please!” He looked tortured at the mere thought.

Scott didn’t wait to understand why, willing to say anything just to get his brother to agree to return with him. “Johnny, if seeing Teresa again is going to be difficult for you, I’ll keep her away from your room. I’ll find a way to explain it to her. But Murdoch needs to see you. He won’t let you stay here in town, and if you leave, he’ll find you. And so will I. Johnny, please. I don’t want to hurt you any more, but I’m taking you back to the Barkley ranch. Doc’s waiting there for us. We need to get on the road.”

Johnny stared at Scott as his head slowly sank onto the pillow. “Go ask Norm where he put my horse,” he whispered, then passed out.

Exhausted from the unexpected and confusing exchange with his brother, Scott rested his own head on the edge of Johnny’s bed for a moment. Finally, assured that Johnny was in no distress, Scott left the room and headed downstairs.

********

Scott waited at the bottom of the staircase for Linda and Norm to join him. They’d taken good care of his brother so he felt he owed them an explanation.

“Look, I know we just met, but you have to trust me. I have nothing but Johnny’s wellbeing in mind. I’m taking him away from here. Norm, Johnny asked if you’d get his horse.”

Norm looked incredulous as Linda protested, “He can’t ride!”

Scott held up a hand. “He won’t have to ride far, and he’ll be better off where I’m taking him. You two have been good friends to Johnny, and I’ll be forever grateful. But he can’t stay here and get well, I think you both know that. Please, help me get him ready to move.”

Linda gazed up the staircase and Norm stared at the floor in consideration. “I’ll fetch his horse,” Norm said, “but if he can’t get on he ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Fair enough,” Scott said, knowing Johnny typically won that dare.

“I’ll go up and help get him ready.” Her feet were dragging as Linda headed up the stairs.

“I’ll be about fifteen minutes,” Norm said. “Wait for me to get back before you move ‘im. In the shape he’s in you ain’t gonna get him down here without help. Linda’s got spunk, but she won’t be able to catch him if he falls.”

Norm turned to leave, but Scott pulled on his arm and turned him back. He looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Norm, I won’t let anything happen to him. I’ll keep him safe.”

“See that you do,” Norm ordered with a curt nod, then left through the exit beside the bar.

Scott remembered a hard-learned lesson and tapped twice on Johnny’s door, then waited patiently for Linda to answer. She didn’t look happy, and voiced her doubts as soon as he closed the door.

“I got his stuff gathered, then put socks on ‘im. He didn’t move a lick. He’s done too much already this mornin’. You sure this can’t wait?”

Scott took her concerns seriously, and knelt beside the bed. He touched a palm to Johnny’s forehead and found his fever troubling but no higher than before. He lifted Johnny’s shirt, but there was no sign of fresh bleeding. After a moment’s consideration, Scott stood and said, “I think he’s very tired, but it’s more than likely the liquor keeping him asleep. Let’s finish getting him ready to go, then we’ll let him rest until Norm comes back.”

She refused to look at him, staring at Johnny with continued concern.

“Linda, how long have you known Johnny?” Scott asked.

“Just met ‘im,” she snapped, adding with conviction, “But Norm knows ‘im, so that’s good enough for me.”

Scott smiled broadly. “Johnny sure does inspire loyalty fast, doesn’t he?”

She softened. “Well . . . he is a charmer,” she confessed, then lowered her head shyly. “Don’t tell Norm.”

Scott outright laughed. “Yes, yes he surely is that,” he said. He lifted her chin. “Linda, I’ve only known Johnny for about a year myself, but I’m as close to him as a brother. I just want to take care of him. You have to believe that. He’ll be all right with me.” Scott actually felt reassured himself, two days’ worth of doubts assuaged by the overwhelming realization that he really did care for his brother, Madrid’s shadow notwithstanding.

Linda nodded. “Well then, we best get ‘im ready to ride.”

********

The heat from Johnny’s fever seeped onto Scott’s chest as he leaned his brother forward to tuck in his shirttails. The task was trickier than expected owing to the bandages wrapping Johnny’s side, back and chest. The shirt was too big, and Scott suspected it was probably Norm’s. Only an occasional quiet moan proved Johnny wasn’t totally unconscious. He wore different pants than when Scott had last seen him. They were also too large—again, his friend’s—but they did well to conceal the bulky dressing surrounding the leg wound. Knowing Johnny wouldn’t leave the room without his gun belt on, Scott buckled it extra tight to help keep the bagging pants in place. Adding his boots and the coat confiscated after the gun battle with Boyd, Scott considered them ready to ride.

Linda finished lashing the flap of a saddlebag holding Johnny’s meager belongings, just as there was a light tap on the door. Norm opened it himself and quickly closed it behind him. He nailed an appraising eye on his friend.

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, Scott’s hand still clasped to his shoulder, holding him upright. His head rose and he tried to match Norm’s glare, but he managed only a half-lidded squint and a lopsided smirk.

“He may be dressed, but he’s gonna fall off that horse,” Norm said, his glare fixing on Scott. “You sure you gotta do this?”

“I’ll be fine,” Johnny said quietly. “Just sorry we didn’t get a proper visit is all.”

Norm shook his head, placed his hands firmly on his hips, and smiled down at his friend. “Johnny, you are the only man I know who’s gonna wanna throw a party on his death bed.”

Johnny chuffed and with a drunken slur said, “Hey. That reminds me. Scott,” he whispered, looking up at his brother and motioning him closer with a tilt of his head.

“What is it, Johnny?” Scott whispered back, bending closer while keeping a strong hold on his swaying sibling.

“You got any money on you?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Give it over.”

Scott shared a questioning look with the couple, but dug into a pocket and pulled out a small amount of bills. He handed them to his brother.

Johnny took the money in his shaking right hand and let it drop weakly into his lap. He lowered his head and closed his eyes, gathering his strength. “Linda, come ‘ere a minute.”

Linda had to kneel in front of him to be seen. “I’m here, Johnny.”

Johnny opened his eyes and smiled at the pretty woman in front of him. He held out his hand and she grasped it. He released his feeble grip on the money, then let his hand flop back onto the mattress. “I want you to take that and get you and Norm somethin’ nice fer yer weddin’. Make it somethin’ you’d like, ‘cause Norm ain’t usually got no taste,” he added with a snickering laugh.

Linda couldn’t help but laugh back, and Scott and Norm shared a grin.

But the joy turned bittersweet as Johnny added, “Make it somethin’ you’d remember me by. Somethin’ you don’t need.” That last was an afterthought, said as Johnny bowed his head.

“I’ll do no such thing, Johnny Madrid.” Linda sniffled angrily, wiping furiously at her glistening eyes. “I’m gonna buy somethin’ I’m gonna have to use every day . . . like a pot or a pan. And when Norm don’t appreciate me like you told ‘im to, I’ll whop him upside the head with it so’s you don’t have to come back an shoot ‘im. And when you do come visit I’ll make you a stew or somethin’ in it, how’d that be?”

Johnny somehow managed to raise his tired head, offer her a small smile, and nod a couple of times. But then he moaned, gripped at his side and doubled over in pain.

Scott did what he could to comfort his brother as Norm stomped over to the small dresser and grabbed up the bottle of tequila, muttering, “This is stupid. Stupid! Absolutely stupid,” the whole way there and back. Norm waited for Johnny’s breathing to even, then passed the bottle into his vision. The wounded man grabbed at it eagerly, but Norm helped him steady it at his lips as the gunfighter once again cut the level of liquid in the bottle in half.

Norm returned the bottle to the dresser then the trio just stood by and waited for Johnny to call the play. After a minute, Johnny lifted his head, met the eyes of his brother, and said, “Let’s go.”

Linda stood and gave Johnny a peck on the cheek. “See you soon,” she said, then backed out of the way.

“Where’s your horse?” Norm asked Scott as he came around to Johnny’s other side.

“Hitched right out front. A bay,” Scott said.

“Go on ahead of us, Linda,” Norm said, “and make sure no one else has come into the bar. Kyle said he’d stand guard, so everything should be okay. Head out the front and fetch Scott’s horse to the back. I’ll lead ‘em out of town from there.”

Linda handed Norm Johnny’s hat but took the saddlebag with her. She made sure the hallway was clear before she left, leaving the door open.

Norm placed Johnny’s hat firmly on his head, then he and Scott lifted him from the bed, both determined to ignore the groans issuing from their charge. Johnny had agreed to the trip and there was no way to make it any easier. Scott just wanted the move over and done with and Johnny back at the Barkleys’ as fast as possible.

The walk down the hallway was hard, but the descent down the stairs was brutal. Neither man could figure out why Johnny was still on his feet when they hit the bottom step. The other bar patrons kept to their own business, neither helping nor taking advantage of Johnny and offering up a challenge. Scott was now convinced that Johnny had more than one friend there in the Cougar Saloon—although some had a curious way of showing it.

Linda was waiting with the three horses by the time they exited the back door into the alley. She held Johnny’s horse as Norm and Scott helped maneuver him onto the saddle.

Johnny was draped over the horse’s neck, breathing hard. “You gonna be able to ride?” Norm asked, dubious.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered, but he didn’t move. “Just get us out of town. Boston’ll take over from there. Norm—”

“I know, Johnny,” Norm finished for him. “Don’t forget . . . stew’s on when you want it.”

The friends shared a smile. Johnny ordered, “Let’s get goin’.”

As he and Scott mounted up, Norm asked, “Which way?”

“East,” Scott said. He ignored his brother’s weak protest as he reached over to grab the reins of Johnny’s horse and followed Norm’s lead.

********

Linda watched until they were out of sight. She turned to enter the back door of the saloon and her hand slipped absently into her pocket. ‘Johnny’s wedding gift.’

She pulled the crumpled bills out of her pocket and stared at them. She had only known Johnny a few hours but, once again, Linda began to cry.

********

Despite the bustle of Stockton’s mid-day activity, Norm was very careful and managed to get them almost all the way through town without being seen by more than a handful of people. Only one cowboy paid undue attention to the three, and Norm was quick to send the inquisitive young man on his way with a threatening glare. Johnny’s head was buried under his hat and into his jacket, so the interest was deemed nothing more than curiosity, not because the gunfighter had been recognized.

Scott couldn’t help wonder how many other times his brother might have been forced to slip out of a town through the alleys, wounded or sick, unable to defend himself. ‘Did he always have a friend to help? Or was he more often left to manage on his own?’ His own thoughts dipped deeper into melancholy as Scott considered, ‘All part of the job.’

Norm reined up at the eastern outskirts of town, and again took a close look at Johnny. “You sure?” he asked, the sick man’s head still deeply bowed.

“Yes.” Johnny’s reply was barely audible.

Norm changed tactics and turned to Scott. “Are you sure I can’t get you where you need to go? I won’t tell no one where he is, you have to know that.”

“It’s not far now. We’ll be fine. Norm, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve already done. We won’t forget . . . neither of us,” Scott said, truly grateful.

“Well . . . supper’ll be waitin’ for you too, I reckon,” Norm said. “Get ‘im cared for.” With one last quick look at Johnny, Norm was gone, spurring his horse back into town.

Scott pulled on the reins of his brother’s horse and headed toward the Barkleys’.

********

Scott felt like he’d lied not only to Norm, but himself. It really wasn’t that far from the outskirts of Stockton to the Barkley ranch, but with each groan that Johnny tried, but failed, to stifle, the road felt longer and longer. Scott continued to hold the reins of Johnny’s horse and kept his own mount close, so there was no way to overlook his brother’s deteriorating condition. Johnny had so far been able to hold onto both consciousness and his horse, but it was only a matter of time before Norm’s warning of “he’s gonna fall off that horse” came true.

If there was one thing Scott had learned about Nick Barkley, it was that the man didn’t sit still any better than Johnny when it came to obeying orders. Despite being told that his help wouldn’t be needed, Scott had somehow known that Nick would show up somewhere along the trail to lend a hand. And just around the next corner there he stood, throwing pebbles at the trunk of a hapless tree. He spotted the Lancer brothers rounding the bend and dropped his handful of ammunition to run forward and meet them.

“I’m really glad to see you, Nick,” Scott said as he reined both horses to a stop. As he dismounted he ordered, “Grab hold of Johnny.”

Nick caught hold of the bridle to steady the horse and placed a firm hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Nearly lying flat, Johnny only had to turn his head to come eye to eye with the tall Barkley. Johnny blinked a few times, struggling for focus, his greeting a mere whisper. “Hey Nick.”

“Hey yourself,” Nick said, the slight smile on his lips overshadowed by the concern betrayed by his furrowed brow.

“Lost yer horse—” Johnny murmured, then gave a small cough as his eyes closed, “—brought ya another.”

Scott had his own hand of support on his brother, and whispered to Nick, “He’s drunk.”

The confusion left Nick’s face and he nodded. He leaned in closer and said, “Well, Johnny, we’ll call it an even trade then.”

Eyes still closed, Johnny gave a small nod of his own, but then sank even lower onto the neck of his horse.

“Help me up behind him, Nick. He’s not going to make it on his own,” Scott said.

“Knew I should’a brought a wagon,” Nick growled under his breath, even as he pulled Johnny’s foot out of the stirrup to clear room for Scott.

With a secure hold on his brother, Scott looked down at Nick and asked, “Is there some way we can get Johnny into the house without being seen? Your men know who he is now. It would be best if word didn’t get around that he’s laid up there at the ranch.”

“You really think someone would try to come for him?” Nick said.

“Yes, I’m sorry to say. But more than that I think Johnny considers himself a good target right now. He’ll rest easier with less people knowing where he is.”

“All right then,” Nick said. “You keep following the road for another couple of miles. I’ll go on ahead and make sure the path’s clear, then meet you where we’ll need to turn off. You gonna be able to hold onto him?”

“I’ll hold him,” Scott said. “Let’s just get this done.”

Nick wrangled the extra horse and moved off.

Johnny surrendered to unconsciousness the minute Scott climbed behind him. Scott didn’t know whether to consider that a good or bad thing—good that Johnny trusted him enough to get him to safety, or bad that Johnny’s condition was failing faster than he’d guessed. Either way, Scott rode as quickly as he dared to get his brother into the caring hands of Dr. Thomas Merar.

********

Scott pushed the kitchen door open wide. It banged with a resounding whack against a chair set behind it.

Silas turned, startled, the mixing spoon in his hand dropping with a sharp chink into a bowl of boiled potatoes.

“Where’s the doctor?” Scott shouted, giving Silas only a second’s glance before refocusing on the doorway.

Nick entered with Johnny draped across his arms, unconscious.

“Oh, my Lord!” Silas exclaimed. “He’s upstairs with Mr. Heath.” He crossed in front of Scott and started up the service staircase. “I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.”

Scott backed further into the kitchen and pointed toward the stairs. “That way quicker?”

“Too narrow,” Nick grunted, heading toward the door beside the stove.

Scott held the door that opened into a small alcove just off the Barkleys’ expansive foyer. As soon as Nick cleared the doorway Scott raced ahead. Murdoch, Teresa, Audra and Mrs. Barkley spilled out from the parlor, answering his forewarning call.

His face contorted by his dread for the worst, Murdoch held out his arms as Nick passed. “I’ll take him,” he said.

“I got him!” Nick marched onward without missing a step.

Murdoch was left to keep pace and steady Nick from behind as they proceeded up the sweeping grand staircase. “We have my room ready for him,” he directed.

Scott took the stairs two at a time and was halfway up when he heard the rustling of skirts and lighter footfalls of the ladies as they followed. He remembered his promise to Johnny, stopped and clasped his sister around the arms. “Teresa, I don’t think it would be good for you to see Johnny right now.”

“Why?” she protested, clearly confused, her voice rising. “I cared for him before when he was shot. What’s wrong? Is he—”

“He’ll be fine. It’s just . . . he . . . .” Scott gazed into the despairing eyes of his sister and all the reasonable excuses he had made up during the arduous trip back refused to pass his lips. He glanced over Teresa’s shoulder at Mrs. Barkley.

“I want to see him!” Teresa struggled against his grip, her twisting movements threatening to topple them both down the staircase.

“You can’t. Not just now. Teresa!” Scott shook her forcefully, hating himself for it but demanding her attention. “Johnny’s very sick and the doctor will have to work quickly. Do you understand?”

“Scott’s right,” Mrs. Barkley said, placing her arms around Teresa’s shoulders. She met Scott’s gaze and nodded, strengthening her grip as he released his own. “Let the men help Johnny now. You go on, Scott. We’ll be fine.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Barkley.” He faced his sister, her eyes brimming with tears. “It’s for the best, Teresa.” He turned and selfishly fled the heartache he’d caused.

Directly at the top of the stairs, Scott entered Murdoch’s spacious guest room and closed the door behind him. Nick and Silas stood on the far side of the bed where his brother lay, still unconscious, coat off and shirt open. A bright red patch of blood was seeping across the bandage that covered the bullet wound to Johnny’s side.

Doctor Merar sat on the edge of the bed. The room was silent until he pulled the stethoscope away from Johnny’s chest. “How is he, Doctor?” Murdoch asked, hovering over the physician’s shoulder.

“Weaker than he was last night, I’m sorry to say.” Scott moved closer as the doctor stood and faced Murdoch. “I’m also not surprised by the fever or that he’s bleeding again. Mr. Lancer, your son didn’t give me much of a chance to treat him properly. He was rather eager to send me on my way. The conditions weren’t exactly conducive for a thorough exam, either. At the very least I need to clean and re-stitch his wounds, and that’s going to be painful. Johnny was very vocal against it, so I’d like your permission to sedate him. We need to control that fever quickly or I cannot possibly guarantee his life.”

“He’s been drinking, Doctor,” Scott said. “I don’t imagine he has much fight left in him.”

“Even still, I’m asking permission.”

“You have it,” Murdoch said. “Do whatever you need to do.”

“Very well,” Dr. Merar said, removing his coat. “Silas. Hot water and more towels, please.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nick followed Silas to the door. “I’ll give you a hand.”

The doctor turned to the table beside the bed, his instruments already prepared. “Gentlemen, let’s get started.”

********

Scott leaned forward and set his elbows on his knees, interlacing his fingers as he waited, out of the way in a chair at the foot of his brother’s bed. Murdoch held Johnny’s right arm up off the mattress as the doctor wrapped bandaging around the final cut to be cleaned.

The physician grabbed at the small of his back as he straightened. He reached over to the table for his stethoscope, then sat on the edge of the bed and once again considered Johnny’s condition, running the instrument over his chest and lifting a wrist to check his pulse. After a lengthy moment, Dr. Merar stood. “Well, that’s an improvement. I’ll be more impressed if the fever is down in the morning.”

“Will he be all right?” Murdoch asked.

“It’ll take some time, but I believe so, Mr. Lancer . . . unless I’ve missed something or he develops some other complication.”

“That was damn thorough care you just gave, Doc,” Nick said, standing on the other side of the bed. “Can’t imagine what might go wrong now.”

“Well, I can, but thank you anyway for the vote of confidence.”

“Doctor, how long until Johnny might wake?” Scott asked quietly.

“Oh . . . I think it’ll be several hours yet. He’s fairly weak, so most likely longer. I’ll be honest with you both,” he nodded toward Scott then faced Murdoch. “I’m actually considering keeping him asleep for the night. I have a feeling that once he wakes he’s going to insist on staying that way. He certainly needs the rest, but fighting him about it isn’t going to do him much good. I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity while we have the chance.”

Murdoch laughed shrewdly. “You sound like you’ve been consulting with Sam . . . Jenkins, our physician in Morro Coyo. He learned that the hard way.”

“That bullet scar on Johnny’s back provide the education?” Merar asked.

“That would be the one,” Murdoch said, his face a picture of sad remembrance as he ran a hand across his hair. “My younger son has an incredibly bad habit of throwing himself in harm’s way, then ignoring the fact that he refused to duck.”

The doctor chuffed and nodded. “All right. Asleep he’ll stay.”

Scott stood. “If you’re done then, I’d like to speak to my father alone.” Murdoch, Nick and Dr. Merar all turned to face him at once, and Scott realized he’d been unnecessarily terse. “Please. For a little while.”

“Certainly,” Dr. Merar said as he set his stethoscope down, then pulled the covers up over Johnny’s chest. “I’m thinking I might want to poultice that leg. Nick, help me scrounge around in your pantry for the makings.”

“Sure, Doc,” Nick said, heading over to and opening the door. “Almost time for dinner, too. We can maybe steal some biscuits while we’re there.”

“Keep an eye on him, and call me if anything at all changes,” the doctor said as Nick pulled the door closed behind them.

Murdoch faced Scott, his expression solemn. “What is it, son?”

Scott moved to the other side of the bed, giving him distance. “Murdoch . . . I don’t quite know how to explain it, so I’m just going to say it plain. I don’t know if it’s his condition or something else, but Johnny isn’t thinking clearly just now. I guess that’s pretty obvious since he chose not to return directly to the Barkleys’. He thinks he has good reasons for wanting to stay away . . . one reason in particular. I had to make him a promise to get him to come back here . . . a promise I’ll have a hard time keeping, and one you’ll have to agree to as well.”

“What . . . what in the world did he want?”

Scott could hear Murdoch’s infamous impatience building, and braced himself for the storm. “He doesn’t want to see Teresa.”

“He what?”

The shout was barely controlled. Scott looked over at his brother to be sure he hadn’t wakened. He faced his father and took a step forward. “I know! It’s insane, and she’s already upset that I stopped her from following us in here. She won’t understand when I try to explain it, and I won’t blame her. But you have to trust me, Murdoch—if he catches her in his room, Johnny will leave.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to speak, snapped it closed, and just started pacing. He made it to the door and stood there for a moment, grimly silent.

Scott held his tongue, not knowing how to justify Johnny’s request nor willing to come up with excuses for his brother’s behavior. He’d been as forthright as possible, now it was up to Murdoch to decide between his son’s wellbeing and his ward’s feelings.

Finally Murdoch turned and spoke. “Is that why you asked how long Johnny will be asleep?”

“Yes. I’d like to be honest with Teresa, but still give her a chance to see Johnny. What he doesn’t know hopefully can’t hurt him. If she can see him at least once, I’m certain she won’t worry quite as much. But when he’s awake you have to back me, Murdoch. Whatever’s troubling him is serious.”

Murdoch considered another moment. “Do you want me to talk to her?”

Scott’s overwhelming relief for his father’s acquiescence was promptly replaced by repeated trepidation. “No. I made the promise.” ‘And the Lancer men always keep their damn promises.’ “I’ll tell her. You’ll stay with Johnny?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’ll go talk to her now,” Scott said as he crossed to the door. “We’ll be back soon. I’ll knock first to be sure he’s still asleep.”

Scott reached for the door handle, but Murdoch put a firm hand on his shoulder and held him back. “Someday soon Scott, you’re going to have to tell me exactly what the hell happened during that rescue. There’s more to this tale than what you’ve already said. Much more.”

He forced himself to maintain eye contact with his father. “I can only tell you what I know, Murdoch. Johnny has his own version of the story. Good luck getting him to tell it to you.” Scott’s unrepressed bitterness lingered between them.

Murdoch opened the door. “Go get Teresa, Scott. I’ll back you on this, until Johnny is well enough to explain himself. And someday he will explain. I’ll make sure of that.”

‘Like I said,’ Scott thought cynically, ‘good luck.’

********

Scott stood in the hallway outside Johnny’s sick room, and took a deep, steadying breath. He looked to his right toward the curtained opening that led to the rest of the bedrooms, then took a few steps forward and leaned over the balcony railing, overlooking the foyer below. He couldn’t hear anyone in either direction, so headed for the stairs. ‘If she’s not down here, at least I can get a drink before I keep searching.’

He entered the parlor. Audra stood at the French doors, peering out at the veranda, a closed book clutched in her arms. She turned as he entered and stepped forward. “Scott. How is Johnny? Nick said he thinks he’ll be okay.”

He forced a smile. “Yes, we hope so, Audra. Thank you for your concern. I was looking for Teresa.”

“She’s in the study with Mother.” Audra frowned. “She was very upset. I didn’t like it when they wouldn’t let me see Heath right away, either.”

Scott nodded. “I know. I’m going to take her to see Johnny now.”

Audra’s smile returned. “She’ll like that. Tell Johnny for me to please get well soon.”

“I will.”

Scott found Teresa curled up on the study couch, her head on Mrs. Barkley’s lap, her eyes closed. The matriarch stroked her fingers tenderly over the young woman’s forehead and hair. She stared at Scott for a moment, her gaze not accusing, more questioning. She rested her hand atop Teresa’s shoulder. “Teresa,” she said gently. “Scott is here.”

He thought she was asleep, but her eyes opened immediately as she sat up. “Johnny?” Her concern was no less than it had been hours before.

“He’s all right, Teresa,” Scott said, crossing swiftly to sit beside her. He took her hands in his. They were shaking. Her eyes were red and still pooled with tears.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Mrs. Barkley stood and started to go.

“No,” Scott said. “I’d like you to stay for a moment. Please. If you don’t mind.”

“Of course.” She took a seat in a chair across from them.

“Scott, what is it?” Teresa’s voice was tinged with fear.

“Don’t worry, Teresa, Johnny is fine,” he reassured. “I just want to explain . . . try to explain why I didn’t want you to see him right away.” He took a deep breath. “Teresa, when I talked to Johnny in Stockton, he was confused . . . confusing. He said some things that didn’t make sense to me, but they seemed very important to him. He said he didn’t come back here right away because he was afraid of hurting us and, especially,” Scott lied, “of hurting you.”

“Scott, that’s crazy! Johnny wouldn’t hurt me. He saved me! You both saved me.”

“I know that, Teresa. He’d been drinking and he has a fever. He wasn’t making a whole lot of sense about anything, and he doesn’t feel well enough to talk to any of us right now. I can only imagine he’s afraid of saying something that will upset you, so . . . he . . . he had a condition for letting me bring him here.”

Teresa’s brow wrinkled. “What condition?”

Scott tightened his grip on Teresa’s hands. “He doesn’t want to see you, Teresa.” Her tears spilled over and he rushed to cover her in words of comfort. “It’s not anything you did, Teresa, I know that for a fact. It’s something he did or thinks he did, but he’s too sick to face you with it. He’s asleep right now and will be for a while. Murdoch and I want to give you a chance to see him, but he mustn’t know. We feel awful, Teresa, but it’s what Johnny wants. Do you still want to see him? You can say no, we’ll understand.”

She was sobbing uncontrollably, and Scott wasn’t quite sure she’d heard him. “Yes,” she squeaked. “I don’t understand but I want to see him. I need to see him!”

Scott pulled her into a hug and held her tight. “It’s okay, Teresa. It’ll be okay. You’ll see. He’s just sick. Shh, shh, shh,” he crooned. He felt a hand on his own shoulder, and looked up to see Mrs. Barkley standing over them.

“Teresa, dear,” she said evenly, “if you want to see Johnny you must get hold of yourself.” She dangled a delicate handkerchief in her hand. “Dry your tears so you can visit with your brother. Come along now.”

Mrs. Barkley’s entreaty had that magically calming melody only a woman’s voice could hold. Teresa hitched out one last sob and then pushed herself away from Scott’s chest. “I’m okay,” she whispered, then took the handkerchief and in a very unladylike manner, blew her nose. She glanced up at him, embarrassed.

He smiled. “Again,” he said.

She blew—again. And again.

“That’s my girl.” He stood and pulled her up with him. “Are you ready?”

Teresa bit at her lower lip, and after a second’s consideration, nodded twice.

“Would you like Mrs. Barkley to come with us?”

She looked over, and Mrs. Barkley smiled. “I’d be happy to accompany you.”

Teresa released her lip from captivity, and nodded again. “Thank you.” Her voice was hoarse, but sincere and . . . needy.

Scott had never been so aware of Teresa’s severe lack of a motherly figure at Lancer. Raised by her father and then, upon his murder, given over to Murdoch’s care, her role models had all been men. And two adult brothers had joined her at the ranch during a year filled with danger, upheaval, and now kidnapping. Teresa had a strength of will that so belied her few years it was easy to forget that she was only now blossoming into womanhood. It was clear to Scott that the Lancer men would all have to work harder to acknowledge the fact that she was still just a girl, not yet an adult, and badly in need of more women in her life.

Mrs. Barkley was a study in feminine sensibilities. Who else would have thought to move Teresa to Audra’s room so the girls would never be alone in these first few horrible days since the rescue? ‘We owe her,’ Scott thought. ‘We owe her quite a lot.’

Scott draped an arm around Teresa’s shoulders and hugged her close, while Victoria Barkley led the way to Johnny’s room.

********

Victoria sat in silent contemplation; off to the side behind Teresa, ready to offer support but trying not to intrude on the Lancers’ familial visit with their wounded son. The gathering was curiously quiet, wake-like with an abject depth of sorrow that enveloped the room. Johnny was certainly very ill and his recovery still in question, but there was an oppressive air of hopelessness that she had not expected.

Teresa hadn’t let Johnny’s hand go since she’d sat down beside his bed over an hour before. She’d finally stopped crying, a fresh handkerchief from Scott lying forgotten in her lap. The doctor was due to return soon, after he’d had his supper, and if Murdoch didn’t ask Teresa to leave then, Victoria had decided that she would do so. The longer Teresa was allowed to sit vigil beside Johnny’s bed, the harder it would be for her to leave—and not come back.

Murdoch sat in the chair at the foot of the bed. For the most part he kept his head lowered. Occasionally he would glance over to Scott, watch his ward for a few minutes, then focus his attention on Johnny for a time, before finally returning to his own intense reflections.

The Lancers’ visit to her ranch had been Victoria’s first opportunity to see Murdoch interact with his reunited sons. She’d been encouraged by his relaxed rapport with the young men. Murdoch’s letters over the last year had indicated there’d been a thorny start to their relationship. During private talks early in their stay, Victoria had learned just how very important it had become to Murdoch to have his sons back in his life. Teresa’s kidnapping and Johnny’s severe injury were straining whatever tenuous bond the family had managed to develop. She was profoundly worried about her old friend.

Scott stood leaning against the wall beside the door, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked exhausted again. No, not again—still. Victoria wondered if he’d managed any sleep at all over the past few, trying days. It saddened her that Scott had completely lost the dignified air of confidence he’d exuded before the kidnapping. His new dismal sense of diffidence did not become him at all.

Johnny had first entered her home as no more than a polite but quiet observer. But he had slowly warmed to reveal a wholly affable nature that, Victoria had to admit with a blush, had charmed her to her toes. He so reminded her of Heath that the similarities were frightening. Johnny’s current behavior was more than confusing to her, and apparently no clearer to his family. The logic to his seemingly irrational reasoning was anyone’s guess.

She wished she’d gotten the opportunity to get to know Murdoch’s sons better before both families had been plunged into turmoil. Whatever trials the brothers had suffered out on the trail had affected them more than anyone could have imagined.

Victoria was glad that Scott had entrusted her with Teresa’s care. Because she had the feeling that, over the coming days, he and Murdoch were going to be very preoccupied caring for Johnny—but not alone, if she had anything to say about it.

********

Murdoch wrung out the rag over the washbowl and refolded it carefully before placing it back on Johnny’s forehead. Teresa had been led away hours before. Scott was sprawled on a too short settee by the window. Murdoch didn’t have the heart to wake him to go seek a proper bed. The rest of the household quiet, the hour late, he considered the long day behind him and the longer days ahead.

He knew it was the opiate keeping Johnny asleep, but his son’s continued lifelessness was worrisome. His pallor was poorly concealed by the flush from the fever. Two days of nervous waiting had done nothing to prepare Murdoch to receive his son back in this condition.

He’d given up trying to count the stitches that marred his son’s body. Johnny wasn’t bleeding anymore, and that was good enough—for now. There’d be plenty of scars later to remind them all of this day for years to come. Johnny’s left leg lay outside the blankets, propped up on pillows. Murdoch checked his watch, and then lifted an edge of the charcoal poultice the doctor had set. All Johnny’s knife wounds were angry and red, but Dr. Merar felt certain that the deep cut to his leg was the main source for the fever. The poultice would need changing several times daily. It was too early yet to tell, but Murdoch was anxious about how well the remedy was working. The next chance to examine the wound directly would be in the morning—right before the doctor planned to stop the sedation and allow Johnny to wake naturally.

Johnny awake. Murdoch longed for that moment, but he couldn’t vouch for his patience with his son much past then. That Johnny had allowed himself to deteriorate to this degree of illness was bad enough, but his request to keep Teresa from his room was unconscionable. He had hoped that his son thought better of his sister. ‘At least I thought he now considered her as a sister.’ Teresa had been through so much over the last few days, Murdoch could not possibly fathom why Johnny would want to add to her distress—and put Scott in the middle to enforce such a hurtful demand.

Murdoch took a step closer to the bed and watched the steady rise and fall of Johnny’s chest as he breathed in deep slumber. ‘Please get well, son, because, God help me, I am seriously looking forward to tanning your hide.’

********

It was mid-morning before Johnny started to wake—late morning before he managed to keep his eyes open longer than a couple of minutes. In the interim the doctor came and went repeatedly, giving instructions for changing the poultice, managing the fever, and orders that Johnny remain in bed until he said otherwise. Tom Merar finally claimed he had patients to see in town, but after several blurry-eyed yet piercing glares from Johnny aimed in the physician’s direction, Murdoch was quite sure that the doctor was just eager to flee Johnny’s wrath while he was still too weak to actually act on his angry impulses. For one so insistent on standing square in the middle of any fray, Murdoch considered Johnny to be the most truculent patient he’d ever had the misfortune to assist.

Although the Barkley family offered their help, Murdoch and Scott insisted on remaining Johnny’s primary caretakers. Throughout that day they looked after him together, but in an unsettling silence. The family had been reunited in body, but in mind and soul they were still vastly separated. Murdoch had tried to spark conversation, but Scott had been disinclined to conduct any further speculation regarding Johnny’s behavior, and he’d been even less inclined to proffer any additional thoughts of a personal nature. “Talk to Johnny,” he continued to insist.

Given his condition, that was not going to be possible for some time. Johnny slept in fits and starts. He would rest comfortably for a time, then grow agitated and wake abruptly. It was nearing dinner and Scott’s turn at Johnny’s bedside when he once again began to stir. Murdoch stood beside the open window, enjoying a soft breeze, ready to lend a hand but intent on watching the interaction between the brothers, looking for what, the father hadn’t a clue.

A routine already established, Scott removed the damp rag from Johnny’s forehead, and stepped over to set it to soak in the washbowl. He poured a glass of fresh water, and returned to the bed. Scott lifted Johnny’s head and then patiently held the glass as he slowly sipped at the liquid. He set the glass on the bedside table, and turned to wring out the cooled rag.

Johnny held up his right arm and flexed his fingers a couple of times. He let his hand flop down onto the bed, then grimaced as he raised up onto his left elbow and twisted sideways.

“What are you doing, Johnny?” In contrast to his sympathetic actions, Scott’s voice was steeped with a vitriolic impatience. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Didn’t say I was goin’ nowhere,” Johnny griped, glancing up with annoyance before his strength gave out and he fell back upon the bed. “Just tryin’ to get some weight off my back is all,” he panted.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Scott said. He tossed the rag back into the washbowl. It caught the edge of the basin and luckily caused no more than a minor splash. “Doctor Merar doesn’t want you moving on your own. You’ll only pull at the stitches.”

“Well then shut up and help me sit up, will ya!”

Murdoch watched Scott’s face cloud, and he took a step forward. But Scott held up a hand to stop him, setting his hands on his hips for a moment as he restrained his temper. He finally grabbed the pillow on the other side of the bed and set it on Johnny’s lap. He bent down and clasped Johnny under the arms. “Ready?”

“Yeah,” Johnny said quietly. He grunted as Scott lifted him forward, his eyes closing as he pressed his head tight into his brother’s shoulder.

Scott put the extra pillow behind Johnny’s back, then hefted him up and pulled him toward the headboard. He laid him down, and while Johnny caught his breath Scott adjusted the pillow under Johnny’s wounded leg and then straightened the blankets. He grabbed a towel and wiped at the sweat that had beaded on Johnny’s brow.

It took a minute, but finally Johnny opened his eyes and looked up at his brother. “Thanks.” The gratitude was genuine.

“You’re welcome.” The sentiment was, again, true. Scott sat and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Go back to sleep. You look tired.”

“Am tired,” Johnny said softly, but he didn’t close his eyes.

Murdoch went back to leaning against the wall by the window. There was an animosity between the brothers that he had never witnessed before. It was subtle, but unmistakable, and disturbing. The friendship the two disparate men had nurtured over the last year was still evident, but there was an ugly rancor brewing between them.

Within minutes Johnny’s eyelids were drooping. But he started to scan the room, making an effort to focus although sleep was calling loudly. He finally rose up slightly and craned his neck to the left, then the right, examining the headboard. “Where’s my gun?” he asked.

“You don’t need it here, Johnny,” Scott said. “Lie down and go to sleep.”

“I want it,” Johnny said, staring menacingly at his brother.

“Too bad.”

If Murdoch hadn’t known his elder son better, he’d have thought Scott was goading Johnny. A closer look had him second-guessing his opinion. Scott was matching Johnny’s glare, eye to eye, and neither looked ready to back down.

Too stubborn for his own good, Johnny gripped his side and tried to struggle upright. But Scott stood and pushed his shoulders back onto the bed. “Don’t be foolish,” Scott said.

“Get out of my way,” Johnny answered, his teeth clenched.

“That’s enough!” Murdoch bellowed and stamped across the room. Both brothers met his scowl with a wary stare. “You are not setting a foot off that bed until we tell you, and you most definitely do not need a gun!”

Johnny had pressed to his limits, and blinked rapidly to ward off the now inevitable sleep. But it was his smirking smile that chilled Murdoch, not his son’s too pale features. “You got no idea what I need,” Johnny muttered, his eyes finally closing.

In his bleak mood, Scott most likely wouldn’t have answered anyway, but Murdoch didn’t even get a chance to ask what Johnny might have meant. The door slammed with a resounding hostility.

Murdoch stared at the door, then at his unconscious son, and wondered, ‘What do I mend when I don’t even know what’s broken?’

********

With single-minded purpose, Scott strode into the study and blessed God for finding it empty. He grabbed up a glass and poured himself a generous serving of whiskey that he downed in two gulps. He poured another and started toward the French doors leading to the veranda, had second thoughts and went back and took the bottle with him.

Half the second drink was gone by the time Scott stepped outside. It was rare for him to seek respite from a bottle, but he yearned for the numbness the liquor would bring. He was tired. Left shaken and bewildered by a bone deep exhaustion he couldn’t shake. ‘I surrender.’

He sipped at the drink as he moved toward the edge of the porch. He stood beside one of the stately pillars that lined the Barkley mansion and watched a hawk spinning languid circles in the cloudless sky. The bird’s path widened, taking it over the house. Scott stepped forward, watched it appear . . . disappear . . . appear . . . . He caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

Emily’s husband was leaning against the second pillar down. Jack Campbell pushed off and turned to face Scott. He lifted his own glass in silent toast and downed what was left of his drink.

Scott returned the salute and tossed back the rest of his whiskey. He raised the bottle. “Join me?”

Campbell nodded and met Scott midway at the pillar between them.

As Scott refreshed their glasses he couldn’t help notice that Jack had developed that same haunted look that had so tainted Emily’s features. Two lives ruined by Vic Boyd—three if you counted Johnny Lancer. ‘But you’re not going to think about him just now, right Scott?’

The men again hoisted their glasses. Scott took a measured swallow. Jack downed his drink completely. Scott handed him the bottle.

“I want to apologize to you, Mr. Campbell,” Scott said.

“Jack.” Campbell refilled his glass. “Make it Jack.”

“Thank you, Jack,” Scott said with a nod. “I was rather short with you the other day. I can’t explain my behavior, but I don’t excuse it either. I’m Scott Lancer. Make it Scott.” He held out his hand.

Jack lodged the whiskey bottle into the crook of his arm so they could shake. “Pleased to meet you, Scott. It was you and your brother that found Emily, right?”

“Yes. I’m sorry we didn’t get to her sooner.”

“So am I.” Jack tossed back the rest of his drink and poured another.

Scott took the bottle back, but merely sipped at his own drink. He had some catching up to do to match the other man’s tally, but his head was already beginning to swim. He was rather looking forward to indulging in a slow descent into inebriation.

“How is Emily?”

The question was met with a long silence, Jack’s face a battleground of exploding emotions. “She don’t say much,” he finally answered, his hand shaking as he lifted the glass to his lips and took a swallow.

“What do you need her to say?” Scott chastised himself for the probing depth of the question, but was eager to know the answer.

Jack stared at him, considering the question, then faced away and took another swig of fortifying whiskey. “Maybe that she loves me,” he said quietly. “That she don’t hate me for bein’ away when she was taken . . . hate me ‘cause I wasn’t smart enough to find her. Strong enough to protect her.”

Scott sipped his drink. “Do you still love her?”

Tears welled in Jack’s eyes. “Yes. But . . . .” His head dipped.

“Do you blame her for what happened . . . after?”

“No!” His head rose and he shook his head vehemently. “God, no. It’s just . . . . She’s so different. It’s all changed now. How can we go back? I mean . . . things ain’t never gonna be the same.” He finished his drink and wiped his mouth and eyes with a swipe of his sleeve. “We only been married a little over a year. I ain’t sure if what we had is enough to hold onto.”

Scott felt like he’d been slapped. The divine chance that had led him to the porch to swap drinks with Jack Campbell was a shrewd fate. The parallel between Jack and Emily and he and Johnny could not be more precise. How could he counsel Jack and not feel like a hypocrite?

“Jack, out on the trail, Emily said she wasn’t sure if you’d want her any more. She’s confused as much as you are. I don’t imagine ‘what ifs’ can help either of you right now. If you love her just tell her that and take her home. Nothing is going to be fixed overnight, but you have to try. A year of happiness has got to count for something.” ‘Please, God, let it count for something.’

Jack locked eyes with Scott for a moment, then looked off into the distance. Finally he turned back, smiling lightly. “You’re right, Scott. God help me, but I still love her. She’s a good woman who never hurt a soul in her life. I was damn lucky to find her. Reckon she’s worth fightin’ for.”

Scott smiled, pleased that Emily had at least a chance for a happy life again. He held up the bottle. “Need any more of this?”

Jack laughed and shook his head. “Nah. I think we’re gonna head out in the mornin’. Best go let my men know while I can still walk.” His smile broadened, but then he grew serious. “Scott, I can’t thank you an’ your brother enough for savin’ Emily.” He held his hand out again in friendship. The men shook firmly. “How’s he doin’? Your brother.”

“Johnny’s holding his own,” Scott said.

“I’d like to stop by and thank him personal before we leave.”

“He’s not up for visitors, Jack. Don’t worry though—I’ll be sure to let him know how you feel about things. He’ll be pleased.”

“All right, then,” Jack said, his weight shifting from side to side, his eyes darting about like he didn’t know how to leave.

“I’ll take that.” Scott indicated the empty glass in Jack’s hand. “You go ahead and find your men. I’m sure they’ll want to hear the good news.”

Jack nodded and handed over the glass. Scott tracked him, as he walked, not too steadily, down the steps, off the porch into the courtyard. Jack stopped, paused a moment, then turned.

“Thanks again, Mr. Lancer.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Campbell. Hope we get the chance to say goodbye in the morning.”

Jack smiled and gave a short wave, and then set off toward the bunkhouse.

Scott swirled the little bit of whiskey left in his glass and then drank it down. He considered the serendipitous conversation, and the significance to his own future at Lancer. “Nothing is going to be fixed overnight,” that was for sure. But Scott felt renewed in his commitment to try to set things right with Johnny. Despite the circumstances that had threatened to drive a wedge between them, Scott still considered his brother worth fighting for.

His own feet not exactly steady, Scott turned and headed back into the mansion.

********

His own anger dissipated, it brought Scott no pleasure when Johnny remained relatively silent for the rest of the evening. He thought it was a deliberate act of spite directed at him, but by eight o’clock the real reason revealed itself. After remaining steady all day, Johnny’s fever rose sharply. His periods of sleep grew more and more restless, then lengthened until father and brother were convinced that Johnny was actually suffering bouts of unconsciousness. Murdoch was concerned enough to request Mrs. Barkley’s assistance.

The poultice therapy to Johnny’s leg had ended as Dr. Merar instructed, and the injury there deemed to be healing well. Victoria cut away the bandaging around Johnny’s waist, but neither Scott nor Murdoch judged the bullet wound to have changed much, certainly not for the worse. They turned Johnny onto his stomach, and the source for the fever was found. The long slash across Johnny’s back had developed distinct pockets of infection.

Victoria glanced up from where she perched on the side of Johnny’s bed. “Scott.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Ask Silas to make up another poultice . . . one large enough to cover this wound. And bring more hot water, please.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Scott said, and hurried off.

Victoria made sure Scott was gone before she spoke. “Murdoch, we’re going to get this wound cleaned and the poultice set, and then you and Scott are going to bed.”

Murdoch stared at her in shock. “Victoria, how can you even—”

“You have two sons, Mr. Lancer.” Her voice was firm, but her hands continued to move gently across Johnny’s back as she dabbed a dampened rag along the path of the gash. “I realize that Johnny’s health is your primary concern right now, and that is as it should be. But Scott needs your attention as well. He’s exhausted, and in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s been drinking. He has shown immense determination in caring for his brother, but he needs rest. And quite frankly, so do you.”

Murdoch’s rising pique was clearly defined by the tight set of his jaw. “Victoria, I know you mean well, but—”

“No buts, Murdoch!” She stared up at him, not at all intimidated as he towered over her. “I hope you know me well enough to understand that I am not questioning your decisions as a father. Have you looked in a mirror lately, Mr. Lancer? It is a simple fact that neither you nor Scott are any good to Johnny if you fall ill yourself. I believe I am a good judge of character, and I know that if I let you stay, Scott will feel obligated to stay as well. Do you agree with that assumption?”

She knew she was pushing her good friend to make a harsh choice, but she was convinced of the logic to her decision and wanted an answer before Scott returned. That Murdoch did not immediately respond was telling, and strengthened her resolve.

Murdoch was staring at Johnny. “I can’t leave him alone, not like this.” His voice fairly shook from paternal misgivings.

Victoria wasn’t unsympathetic, but realized the true depth of his concern was firmly rooted in Lancer history. Not ready to back down just yet, she stood and grasped his arm. “Johnny isn’t going anywhere, Murdoch. I won’t allow that to happen, and neither will my family. You and Scott are not alone here. Teresa has barely seen either of you all day. Heath is doing well, so you have Jarrod, Nick, and I ready and willing to look after you all. Let me do this for you, Murdoch. Please trust me.”

The old friends stared at each other, one set of eyes pleading, the other set fraught with indecision. Before either could respond further, the door opened, and the pair stepped apart.

Scott entered and crossed to the foot of the bed. His face was beset with concern, his fatigued eyes cupped by dark circles focused only on his brother. “Jarrod said he’d bring the water up, and Silas is working on the poultice. How is he? Any change? Has he come around at all?”

Victoria faced Murdoch, and watched him as he witnessed the strain on his elder son escalate with each unanswered question. He turned to her and, with a barely perceptible nod, acknowledged that she had been right to speak her mind.

“Scott, dear,” Victoria said as she made her way to his side. “There hasn’t been any change yet. But I suspect that poultice is going to work just fine. I have every confidence, so your father and I have been talking, and . . . .”

Victoria Barkley continued speaking, her voice drifting down into that magically calming melody only a woman’s voice could hold. And when all was said and done, during that night it was she who acted as caring sentinel for Johnny Lancer.

********

Dawn broke the night and heralded Murdoch’s return to Johnny’s bedside. Victoria wasn’t surprised to see him so early—she was amazed that he’d been able to stay away as long as he had. She rose to meet him and performed a not too subtle appraisal. Although nowhere near top form, he looked appreciably more rested than the day before. She deemed her efforts a success.

Murdoch stood by her side, anxiously looking down on his unconscious son. “How is he?”

“He’s doing better, Murdoch, really.” She had to admit that Johnny didn’t actually look much better, but she’d been able to witness firsthand the series of minor improvements achieved throughout the night. “I’ve already cleaned the wound again and Silas brought up a fresh poultice. Tom will be back this morning, and we’ll have him examine Johnny first thing.”

Murdoch sat and leaned forward. He stroked a sweat-moistened lock of hair off Johnny’s forehead. “Did he give you any trouble?”

“Not a bit.” Victoria did not consider that a lie, even as she kept Johnny’s nightmares to herself. She hoped that as the fever decreased so would his terrifying dreams. Murdoch had warned her that Johnny might succumb to them, but she had dismissed his concerns. How could she now admit that the young man’s intense delusions had indeed scared her? Johnny had first only murmured incoherently and clutched desperately at the sheets. But then, early in the morning as his fever peaked, he had begun to bang his hands upon the mattress and against the headboard so hard she thought for sure he would raise an alarm. Luckily, in his confused stupor, she and Nick had managed to get Johnny to drink some laudanum, calming him long enough to turn the tide and allow him to drift back into a more healing sleep—the only kind of sleep she wished Johnny’s father ever to witness again.

Victoria sat with Murdoch as he watched over Johnny. He only occasionally stirred briefly before settling. Ever efficient, Silas soon appeared with coffee and a promise to return with breakfast. A short time later, however, there was a quiet knock on the door. Jarrod let himself in.

“Mother. Mr. Lancer,” he whispered, drawing near. “The Campbells are leaving, and they’d like to say goodbye. Scott’s with them now, in the dining room. I’ll sit with Johnny.”

The couple met Audra coming up the staircase as they descended. “Mother,” she said, “I’m going to get Emily a jacket and hat. They’re not going to be able to make it home in one day.”

“Good idea. Get her a pair of my riding gloves as well.”

They entered the dining room and found Teresa and Emily teary eyed and hugging tightly. Peg and Alice, Emily’s faithful caretakers, stood nearby. Scott was talking quietly off to the side with Jack.

“Emily,” Victoria called as she neared. “I hope you don’t think that you have to leave. Please feel welcome to stay longer if you wish.”

Emily only briefly met Victoria’s gaze, before she looked to Jack beseechingly. He broke off his conversation with Scott and came over to take her hand.

“We’re real grateful to you for havin’ us here, Mrs. Barkley. But I think it’s time for us to get home. We got a doctor nearby who’s known Emily since she was born. And I want her to have her own things about her. You’re ready, ain’t ‘cha, Emily? We can stay if you want.”

Victoria was encouraged that Jack was being attentive and more than gentle with his wife, showing just the right amount of care and concern.

Her head now almost continually bowed, her eyes still too reticent to show themselves for long, Emily glanced up at him just long enough to say, “I want to go . . . home.” She managed barely a whisper, but her words rang with honesty.

Jack smiled at her decision, but she didn’t see, her eyes already diverted. “Say the rest of your goodbyes then so we can be goin’,” he encouraged. “Mike and the rest of the boys is waitin’.”

She took a deep breath and looked up, finally meeting Victoria’s gaze. “Thank you. You been mighty kind,” she said.

“You’re welcome, Emily. Please write and keep in touch. I’d very much like to know how you are. Come back and visit us.” Victoria took a step forward and embraced Emily. She was rewarded with a gentle hug in return.

Audra entered and handed Emily the jacket, gloves and hat. “Please consider these a gift,” she said. She, too, enfolded Emily in her arms. The embrace was returned warmly, and lingered between the two young women who had shared so much.

Emily only gave Murdoch a courteous nod of acknowledgement. But then she sought Scott out from among those gathered. She went to his side and, amazingly, actually faced him directly. She spoke, so softly that Scott had to bend down to hear her. Their exchange was brief, but intense, and ended with Scott looking somber and Emily taking a deep, shuddering breath. She was crying again but, despite Scott’s serious reaction, to Victoria’s discerning eye Emily’s tears looked more like those of relief, not sadness. Scott reached out and placed a tentative hand on her arm. Emily’s eyes were again averted, but she reached across and set her hand on top of his before scurrying back to her husband’s side.

“Thanks again, Mrs. Barkley . . .” Jack glanced around the room, “. . . all of you. Thanks for everything you done.” He faced Murdoch. “I wish I’d got a chance to meet Johnny. You thank ‘im for me.” His voice hitched with emotion. “Thank ‘im for both of us. We ain’t never gonna forget what he and Scott did. You make sure he knows that.”

“I’ll tell him,” Murdoch assured, stepping forward to shake hands with Jack. “If you ever get over Morro Coyo way, you come see us, too.”

“We will,” Jack said.

“I’ve got that extra horse ready for you,” Nick said as he entered. “Your friends are waiting, Jack.”

Jack looked down at his wife and put an arm around her shoulders. “You ready?”

Emily merely nodded.

“I’ll walk you out,” Nick said.

All shared last goodbyes and well wishes as the young couple followed Nick. In silence, the group lingered there in the dining room, each reflecting on Emily and Jack’s future.

Scott altered their contemplations. “Mrs. Barkley. How’s Johnny?”

“He’s doing better.” She offered a reassuring smile. “He still has the fever, but the poultice is helping.”

“I’m going to go sit with him.” Scott took a step toward the door.

“Scott,” Mrs. Barkley called. He looked somewhat better than he had the night before, but she wasn’t done caring for the elder Lancer son just yet. “Have you eaten breakfast?”

“I’m not very hungry right now,” he said.

“Go on along, but have Jarrod stay with you. I’ll have Silas bring you both something to eat. And you will eat, Scott Lancer, will you not?”

Her tone brooked no argument and left Scott looking like a maiden aunt had just disciplined him. Murdoch actually laughed out loud. “Scott, I warned you that Victoria Barkley was a force to be reckoned with. I don’t suggest either of us try her patience any longer.”

“Mother does have a way of always getting what she wants,” Audra added with a mixture of humor and awed pride.

Scott smiled and dipped his head respectfully. “I’ll try, Mrs. Barkley. I will try.”

Victoria smiled back. “Very well. Go see to your brother. We’ll send the doctor up the minute he arrives.” As Scott left, Victoria went to her place at the head of the table. “Please, everyone, sit. Alice and Peg, you will of course join us.” And, of course, no one dared refuse the Barkley matriarch—a most gracious force to be reckoned with, indeed.

********

The fever finally did what Scott, Murdoch, Vic Boyd and all his men couldn’t do—take the fight out of Johnny Lancer. He rarely woke, and when he did it was only for brief moments. Asked a question he’d reply with a word or two, but otherwise he was quiet and totally emotionless. Scott much preferred his smart mouthed and impassioned brother to this quiet ghost of a man who didn’t seem to mind if anyone cared for or about him.

Scott and Murdoch were again faithfully ensconced at his bedside when Dr. Merar arrived. He took one look at Johnny’s back, pulled the syringe from his medical bag, and held it up to Murdoch—who nodded solemnly.

“As usual, Victoria was right about the poultice,” the doctor remarked as he finished the lengthy procedure to cleanse and drain the wound. “Keep up that therapy until I return tomorrow afternoon. It won’t happen quickly, but his fever should continue to decrease. I’m really sorry Johnny’s had this setback.”

The “setback” was by no means minor, and affected the entire Lancer family, oddly, Teresa most of all. Mrs. Barkley continued to insist that Scott and Murdoch allow her family to help care for Johnny. Each time Scott was told to take a break, he found Teresa out on the Barkley veranda. Scott caught her there again late in the afternoon. She looked more than dejected . . . resigned. When asked, she matter-of-factly explained, “It just doesn’t feel right inside since Johnny doesn’t want me there.” Her words cut Scott deep, but what hurt him most of all was that the proclamation caused nary a tear to form in the young woman’s eyes.

‘Another ghost,’ he thought.

For some reason Scott sensed it prudent not to try to refute her statement. “Teresa, let’s go for a walk,” he suggested instead. She didn’t answer, but when he stood and held out his hand, she grasped it readily.

They ventured out of the mansion’s courtyard, beyond the sturdy iron gates at the entrance to the Barkley estate. The pair fell into a comfortable, relaxed pace, seldom feeling it necessary to speak.

Their wandering led them down a side path off the main road, where they found a tree with just-ripened apples. Scott made a feeble attempt to knock some of the fruit down by leaping up and grabbing at branches. Teresa began to laugh, and Scott smiled. ‘I’ve missed that sound.’

“You’ll never get them that way,” she challenged.

“I believe you’re right,” he said—and nimbly pulled himself up onto a lower branch, wincing only slightly as the movement pulled at the stitches in his hand. It wasn’t lost on him that such a carefree deed was more the type of thing Johnny would attempt than a Boston-bred gentleman. He began tossing apples down until Teresa had an impressive pile gathered at her feet.

“This is too many,” she said as he climbed down.

“Didn’t think it fair not to get any for our hosts,” Scott said as he flicked bits of bark off his bandaged hand. “And Murdoch will want one . . . or two. Maybe three.”

That got Teresa giggling, and Scott was more than glad that they’d found an opportunity to spend some time together alone. They shared the burden of toting the apples until Teresa found a verdant patch of assorted wildflowers. As she loaded her own arms with a colorful bouquet, Scott was left to juggle all the fruit within the makeshift sling of his shirttails—another act decidedly more Johnny-like in nature.

“It’s very pretty here,” Teresa said as they strolled back to the house.

“Yes, it is,” Scott said. “It’s pretty at Lancer, too.”

“Mmhmm,” she answered distantly.

“I can’t wait to get home,” Scott said.

“You do consider it your home now, don’t you Scott.” It was a statement, not a question, but still she watched him closely for a reaction.

“Of course I do, Teresa.”

“I wonder if Johnny will want to come home. To Lancer. Or if . . . .” She was distracted again, tried to cover the disheartening thought by burying her nose into the wildflowers. She sniffed at the buds idly.

“Teresa,” Scott said. He stopped, and would have clutched her in his arms if the fruit hadn’t burdened his hands. She stopped too, but focused on the flowers, not him. “Johnny will get well, and he’ll tell us what’s bothering him, and we’ll all go home. As a family. Please don’t worry. Things will turn out right in the end. You’ll see.”

“Do you really believe that?” She still wouldn’t look at him.

He took a step closer to her. “Yes, I do. I’ve come to like having a brother, as exasperating as he can be sometimes. And I’m very much enjoying having a sister. Although . . . .” He let that hang intentionally, and she bit, her eyes, full of expectation, finding his.

“Although what?” she begged, a curious smile curling her lips.

“Although . . .” he started walking, his steps purposefully long to force her to keep up. She bounced along beside him, striving to match his pace, the sprightly Teresa he adored coming to the fore. “. . . my sister still barges into my room unannounced much too often. And she burns the bacon at least once a week. And she uses black thread to sew on my white buttons—”

“I only did that once, Scott Lancer!” she shouted, her smile wide and relaxed and joyous to behold.

“And . . . .” Scott continued listing the silliest faults he could think of all the way back to the house. The pair carried their plunder and improved mood into the kitchen where Silas relieved Scott of his bounty.

Scott finished tucking in his shirttails, and then stole a sliver of beef out of a simmering pot on the stove. He was surprised that he finally had his appetite back. “How long until dinner, Silas?” he asked as the servant handed Teresa a large china vase.

“Not more than half an hour now, Mr. Scott,” Silas said. “Will you be down, or should I serve you in Mr. Johnny’s room?”

“I’ll send Murdoch down,” Scott said. He grabbed an apple and held it up. “No hurry for me. This’ll tide me for a bit.”

Scott stepped over to Teresa and kissed her cheek. “Thank you for the walk. Go again tomorrow?” He was astounded that anticipation for another day with a simple walk could hold such pleasure.

“That sounds wonderful,” Teresa said. “Thank you, Scott.” She returned his sibling kiss. They shared a smile.

With lifted spirits, Scott headed up the servant staircase. “Save me some of that beef, Silas. You sure do know how to cook.”

“Thank you, sir! I’ll surely do that.” Silas fairly beamed with pride.

Scott reflected on his time with Teresa as he climbed the stairs. His mood dipped as he reconsidered his assurances that, “Johnny will get well, and he’ll tell us what’s bothering him, and we’ll all go home. As a family.”

‘It’s your turn now, Johnny,’ Scott thought. ‘I just made another promise for you. Don’t you dare make me a liar.’

********

Johnny’s eyes were closed, but he was awake. He had been for a while. Someone was with him. Someone was always with him. He hated the repercussions of being wounded more than the actual injury, most especially the often-lengthy recovery—something he had too much experience with over his years. A familiar melancholy had already descended upon him, churning up uncontrollable mood swings.

More than once he’d wished he’d been killed during the battle rather than have to suffer the indignities and boredom of weakness, of being tended like a helpless child. Never mattered how bad he’d been hurt; he despised having to depend on others for anything. At least his friends knew when to back off, leave him alone, give him peace while he weighed his choice to keep buckin’ on that horse called Life or let the mustang free.

Free. His family wouldn’t ever let him be free, not like he was used to.

Family. A year ago he’d given little thought to what that really meant; couldn’t allow himself that privilege, that dream.

Freedom or family—didn’t much seem like he could have both. ‘Maybe I don’t deserve either.’

“Johnny?”

‘Murdoch. My father.’ Johnny would have laughed at the mere thought of having a father if he didn’t have to consider the pain it would surely cause, physically and emotionally. Some days he still couldn’t believe he hadn’t taken aim at that incarnation of the lies his mother had told him and shot Murdoch at first sight. After much pondering Johnny had come to the conclusion that finding out he had a half-brother, just before he’d faced Murdoch, had saved the man’s life. His curiosity roused, Johnny had gone ahead and allowed the family reunion to unfold. He still marveled at the events that had brought the Lancer men together. Johnny wondered now if they could stay that way . . . together. Family.

“Johnny, I know you’re awake.”

Johnny opened his eyes and found Murdoch leaning forward, balanced on the edge of the ever-present chair beside his bed. “I’m gettin’ too predictable,” he said, followed by a dry cough.

Murdoch reached over and picked up the glass of water on the bedside table. He stood and lifted Johnny’s head so he could drink.

“Thanks,” Johnny said.

With a fluid series of practiced movements, Murdoch set Johnny’s head back onto the pillow and then placed the obligatory palm on his forehead to check the fever. It took all Johnny’s self-control not to flick the hand away.

“Almost gone now,” Murdoch said as he reset the glass onto the table and sat. “Now all you need is to get your strength back. Silas will bring more broth in a bit. He’s looking forward to cooking you something special once you’re up to it.”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile, if only slightly. “He’s a good man,” he said. “Good cook, too. Just about as good as Maria.”

“Hmph,” Murdoch uttered, his smile broad. “They’d be a sight to see together in a kitchen, that’s for sure. Imagine the feast.”

Johnny wrangled a hand out from under the covers and ran it over his left shoulder. From how much it itched he could tell that the bullet graze there was healing fast. He rubbed at it gently, knowing better than to outright scratch and maybe open the wound. He couldn’t remember when they’d removed the last poultice from his back, but he was real glad the therapy had ended. He knew it had been medicinal, but being trapped on his stomach all that time had aggravated his other wounds. No matter which way he lay he couldn’t get comfortable for more than a half hour, then he’d have to move—and fight his caretakers for the privilege. If he had it his way, he’d already be out of bed.

“What’s the matter?” Murdoch said.

“What?”

“You sighed. Rather heavily actually. Is something wrong?”

Johnny hadn’t even realized he’d made a sound. ‘Boyd was right . . . you are gettin’ shoddy, Madrid.’ “Nothin’,” Johnny said. “I just need to turn over.”

Murdoch started to stand. “Let me he—”

“I can do it!”

Murdoch stared at Johnny, his tall frame suspended in an awkward half crouch. He sat down slowly.

Johnny didn’t particularly want to apologize, but he wasn’t ungrateful either. He tempered his angry edge, but didn’t release it. “Sorry,” he said. “Don’t mean to nip. Ya’ll are just reinin’ me back too tight.”

“You’ve also been very sick, John. We don’t want you to have any more setbacks.”

‘John.’ Murdoch only called him that when he was either really concerned—or very angry. Johnny sighed again, but this time he knew it. “I know when I’m ready.”

Murdoch continued to stare at him. He finally leaned back in the chair. “Fine.”

That was it. “Fine.” There were a hundred ways Johnny could read that, but he didn’t care which direction Murdoch had meant. He just grabbed at the liberty and ran with it. Johnny lifted up onto his elbows and choked back a groan, attempting to forestall a biting “I told you so” from Murdoch. He hiked himself higher onto his pillows as he considered whether to turn onto his left side or right—right would face him away from Murdoch and put pressure on his wounded side, left would lean him on his wounded leg and leave him open to further conversation. Johnny flipped right.

He welcomed the silence that followed. In the lingering quiet he forced himself to relax, started to drift off toward sleep.

“Johnny.”

He opened his eyes, but didn’t move. ‘Why did I think it would last?’ “What?” He didn’t try to hide his annoyance.

“You’ve been too quiet, son. You have to talk to us sometime.”

“About what?”

“About what happened out there on the trail.”

“Nothin’ to talk about, Murdoch. What’s done is done. Let it lie.”

“By the dreams you’ve been having, I don’t really believe you’re ready to let it lie.”

‘Damn dreams always betray me.’ Johnny considered what he might say to get Murdoch to stop prying. “Murdoch, do you know how many men I just killed?”

“I have a fair idea.”

“Do you think I take killin’ lightly?”

“No, son, I don’t.”

“You’ve killed, ain’t cha?”

“Yes.”

“Felt much like jabberin’ about it just after?”

The silence returned, and Johnny thought—hoped—he’d put an end to Murdoch’s prodding. He hadn’t.

“What about what’s come between you and Scott?”

That question had been long expected, but still came with a disconcerting jolt that had Johnny fumbling with the silence. He steeled himself for the response and asked, “What did he say?”

“He said to ask you.”

Johnny was real glad he wasn’t facing his father just then, as his emotions flared with intensity he couldn’t hold back. He closed his eyes tightly as his mind reeled with conflicted thoughts.

‘Scott won’t talk about it ‘cause he thinks I was wrong. He didn’t understand.’

“Johnny?”

‘Leave me alone!’ Johnny’s soul shouted. “I got nothin’ to say,” he managed to answer, his fingers curling into a fist beneath his pillow.

“Son, please don’t—”

Johnny was upright and facing Murdoch before he could consider any regret over the movement. “Back off, old man,” he said, his teeth gritted, the warning emanating from his mouth like a low growl from a dark cave. The men stared at each other, Johnny’s harsh glare clashing with Murdoch’s abashed gape. “Just back off,” Johnny finally repeated, quietly, but with no less fervor. He turned away and lay back down onto his now aching side.

The silence returned, but it had distorted into something heavy, malevolent, deafening with implications. Johnny’s maelstrom of thoughts dissolved down to one overwhelming need. ‘I gotta get away from here.’

********

Murdoch stared at the back of his son’s head. He debated whether to back off as Johnny requested, or grab him up off the bed and shake him. Their history together was short but too full of angry moments like this that left the father struggling with restraint while damning all those years his son had been away. Murdoch thought the bond between them had been getting stronger—their relationship still tentative but warming. Johnny had suddenly reinforced walls the family had considered permanently crumbled.

Johnny was always so guarded it made it nearly impossible for Murdoch to read him, and presuming anything about his younger son was usually disastrous—or dangerous. Both outcomes had collided during Johnny’s first days after returning to Lancer. The men had stood face-to-face in Scott’s bedroom, allegiance in the fight against Pardee called into question.

“Are you going or not?” Murdoch demanded, Scott already on his way to execute his strategic battle plan against the land pirates.

“Is that an order?” Johnny pushed.

“There’s only one man that’s going to run this ranch.”

“Pardee is sucking you out in the open. He’ll either cut your cowboys to shreds up in that pass or go for you in this house when nobody’s here. Now you got one chance. Ford up here and wait.”

“For what?”

“Until I find Pardee.”

“Maybe you found him already.”

The inference was not missed. “Well go on,” Johnny challenged.

“What were you doing in Morro Coyo?” The question had been burning at Murdoch’s soul for days, and now there it was, suspended in the air between father and son.

Johnny’s head dipped before he slowly turned away, obviously insulted. But then he quickly turned back, a bitter regret breaking through the gunfighter’s reserve. “Is that what you think of me?”

Too late to take back his crushing accusation but not used to mincing words, Murdoch ignored his raw fatherly instincts and voiced a stinging truth. “I don’t know what to think of you.”

Johnny’s eyes met Murdoch’s with uncompromising will as he marched toward the door. “Think what you like.”

“Where are you going?” Murdoch called out as he passed.

Johnny stopped, but neither man was able to face the other. “I never was much good at takin’ orders.”

And he still wasn’t. Murdoch shuddered at the memory of Johnny leaving the room, alone, angry and disappointed—and determined to prove himself; the father’s mistrust almost getting his son killed. Murdoch had no desire to ever again force Johnny’s hand that ruinously. He’d learned two lessons about Johnny that fateful day: he cared more deeply about what people thought of him than he’d ever admit, and he expected unconditional trust.

A troubling thought struck Murdoch about what might have come between his sons. He considered asking Johnny about it straight away, but telltale deep breathing told Murdoch he’d fallen asleep.

Scott could be just as headstrong in his ideals as Johnny—he was just usually more diplomatic expressing himself. From Scott’s description of the rescue, events had unfolded quickly and Johnny had demanded a dire plan of action. How hard had he fought to have it his way? Had Scott’s own strategy been ignored? Despite the overwhelming success of the mission, was the issue one of lingering resentment? Scott was usually naturally confident, but he had become defensive. Was he questioning his leadership abilities? Scott’s military career had ended honorably but abruptly, with capture and imprisonment, yet he’d shown no hesitation in any previous confrontations. So what had been so damn different this time?

Murdoch was stymied. He felt no closer to an honest answer, but the possibilities had just gotten bleaker. As things stood, neither of his sons was willing to offer insight, and the harder he pushed, the more they both resisted. ‘I gave them my blue eyes and Lancer stubbornness,’ Murdoch cursed, then sobered. ‘God help our home if my sons can’t sort this out.’

********

Johnny went to ground, burying himself in solitude even as others continued to swirl around him. He kept quiet and was deliberately defiant. He ignored what everyone else thought was good for him and pushed his endurance. By the morning he was taking tentative, limping steps around his bed. That night he refused to let anyone stay with him.

‘By the time I leave, I figure everyone’ll be good and ready to see me gone.’

Despite his demands, the following morning Nick Barkley sat gawking at him from that damnable bedside chair. “Havin’ my family fussin’ is bad enough,” Johnny said as he passed a hand through his unruly mane of hair. “I don’t need a nursemaid no more, Nick.”

Nick glared at Johnny, slapped his hands loudly upon his knees and stood. He set his legs at shoulder width and placed his hands dramatically on his hips. “The one thing I have never been mistaken for, boy, is a nursemaid!” He let the reproach echo for several moments, just long enough for Johnny to start to take him seriously. Then he smiled broadly.

Johnny smiled back. “No, come to think of it, you don’t look nothin’ like a nursemaid. My mistake. Fever must’a fogged my eyes.” He didn’t know why he felt at ease around Nick when he was prickly as desert cactus around everyone else.

Nick laughed. “Well, just see it doesn’t happen again.” He reached over to the table, picked up a glass of water and held it out.

Johnny waved it away and lifted onto an elbow.

“I heard you were gettin’ rambunctious,” Nick growled, setting the glass down. “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“Gettin’ up.” Johnny grasped the blankets and tossed them over his hip. “No offense to your guest beds, but my a. . . butt’s tired of bein’ numb.” He grunted with the effort to sit.

Nick reached out a hand. Johnny grabbed hold and was carefully pulled upright. He wore one of Murdoch’s sizeable nightshirts. The folds of the fabric draped heavily down his legs. “Side of the bed is as far as you’re goin’, though,” Nick said. “I already carried you around once. You ain’t as light as you look.”

Johnny merely smiled lightly, too breathless from the minor exertion to speak. To his credit, Nick left him his dignity and just waited patiently. He didn’t try to guess his every need like everyone else. Johnny liked that about the man.

“How’s Heath?” Johnny finally asked.

“Doin’ well, doin’ well. Been askin’ about you, too.”

“Sorry we had to leave you—”

“Don’t be,” Nick cut him off. “I knew better. You just forced me to decide on what really wasn’t a choice. Anyway, when he woke up the first thing Heath asked was if the girls were okay. Being able to tell him they were safe went a long way toward his healing. Wasn’t looking forward to havin’ to fight him to stay in bed. He would have tried to get up for sure if you and Scott hadn’t gotten Audra back. He’s sort of stubborn that way . . . kind of like some other young fool I’ve come to know.”

Johnny snorted a laugh. He’d been too sick to speak much with Nick over the past days, and found himself strangely willing to talk. “I heard about Emily headin’ home. How’s Audra?”

“About as well as can be expected. A little too quiet, a might too skittish. But she an’ Miss Teresa are both strong—young, but smart. They’ll get it worked out. You gettin’ to ‘em quick made it a hell of a lot easier for them. When you make a promise, you make a promise, I’ll say that for you.”

“Nick . . . .” There was a question burning like acid in Johnny’s throat, but he wasn’t sure if it was worth asking. ‘What’s done is done,’ he’d told Murdoch, but he hadn’t meant it. Nick’s straightforward nature, paired with some deeply troublesome doubt, gave Johnny the courage to speak. “What if Boyd had gotten away with Audra?”

“You wouldn’t have let that happen.”

There was no hesitation in Nick’s response. Johnny thought there should have been. He pressed. “How do you know?”

“I know.”

That answer proved unsatisfying, but now it was Johnny who found himself hesitating to push further. He was honored by Nick’s faith in him, but morosely afraid the trust was misguided. “How far would you have expected us to go?”

Nick crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at him intently. “What are you getting at, Johnny? Say it plain.”

Johnny was ready to go all in now with Nick, finished trying to ease his way into confession. He pressed his hands against the bed and pushed himself to his feet. The men had confronted each other like this before, standing over Heath as he lay near death. “Audra had until sundown. You know what faced her after that. Now, how far would you have expected us to go?”

Nick stared at Johnny as he regarded the choices—all of them, right down to the ones that crumpled his brow into dark chasms and narrowed his eyes into contemptuous slits. He finally took a deep breath and let it out with a huff. “My mother has her daughter back. What could’a been was left for carrion out in some meadow. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave it that way.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Nick.”

“Yes, I did. Don’t go lookin’ for trouble that ain’t there, boy. As far as I’m concerned the Barkley family is thankful for what you did. That’s it. You want to tame your demons you talk to Scott. Seems to me that’s where you’ll find your answers.”

Scott. All conversations lately seemed to lead Johnny back to his brother. He had been making a lot of assumptions about what Scott was thinking, feeling. Maybe it was time to tackle his demons head on. Go to the source and lay his cards on the table. He considered himself well enough to travel now if it came to that.

Johnny had lowered his head in contemplation. He again faced Nick square. “Can you give me a few minutes, then tell Scott I’d like to talk to him. Murdoch, too.”

“Sure,” Nick said, reaching out a hand to grasp Johnny’s shoulder. “He’s your brother, Johnny. I know that’s kind of a new thing for you, but it’s important for you to remember. I went down this road with Heath not too long ago. Don’t sell blood short.”

Johnny let that sink in and then nodded once. Nick nodded back and said, “Now get back into that bed before you fall down. I’ll go get your family.”

‘Family,’ Johnny considered as Nick left. ‘This day’ll tell if I still have one.’

********

Honed instincts sending unconscious alarms, Johnny froze, roused with a start out of a half-sleep by a hand on his shoulder.

“John?”

‘Murdoch.’ Johnny blinked several times to disperse the haze and took a deep breath. Murdoch was leaning over him, with Scott standing behind. A moment’s confusion faded as he remembered: he’d found his clothes in the dresser and managed to get Norm’s pants and a shirt on before his leg had started to give out and his strength faded.

With Murdoch’s help he struggled upright to find himself on the settee by the window. The soft morning sun on his back felt good. He ran a hand over an unshaven cheek. “Can I have some water?”

“I’ll get it,” Scott said. He returned quickly and handed Johnny a glass.

“Thanks,” Johnny said. He took a long drink. His hand shook a bit more than expected as he set the glass onto a side table.

“John?” Murdoch again. Concerned.

“I’m okay.” He took one more deep breath and actually did feel better. Ready. As ready as he was going to be. “Sit down. Please.”

Murdoch glanced over at Scott, then pulled an elegantly upholstered wing chair closer in front of Johnny. Scott went and got the chair that had taken up residence by the foot of Johnny’s bed. He set it next to Murdoch and sat down with his back rigidly straight and his arms across his chest.

Johnny’s eyes flicked from the face of his father to his brother before he set his focus somewhere between them. “I first met Vic Boyd when I was ‘bout seventeen,” he said. “I had a friend—name of Tyler. He’d heard tell Boyd was gettin’ together some men, but he didn’t know what for. Boyd was fresh out of the war where he’d done more raiding than actual fighting. He didn’t have much of a reputation then. I was already earnin’ mine. Anyway, word was there was money to be had for joinin’ up, and I sure did need some ‘a that.

“We headed to Laredo, but by the time we got there Boyd’d already crossed into Mexico. Somethin’ was tellin’ me to back off, but Tyler kept pushin’. So we crossed the Grande. It took me a couple of days, but I tracked ‘im down. I was surprised he’d heard a me, an’ he was pretty impressed that I’d been able to trail him. Tyler asked if we could join up . . . and that started one of the worst nights of my life.”

He paused there to take another drink. Over the rim of the glass he caught Murdoch furtively sharing another concerned glance with Scott. ‘At least they ain’t askin’ any questions yet,’ Johnny thought as he set the glass down.

“Boyd said he wasn’t sure ‘bout Tyler, but he’d be pleased to have my gun. I asked what I’d have to do with it to earn my place. Boyd . . . he smiled real big and said, ‘just follow me, aim true, collect your pay, and enjoy the benefits.’ He said it like I’d be a fool not to sign on.” Johnny shook his head dolefully. “My guts were screamin’ at me to leave, but I ignored ‘em.

“The sun had just been down a little while, so the shadows were still gray. I kept seein’ men headin’ off into the woods. Boyd noticed me watchin’, and he started to laugh . . . a kind of mean laugh that set my skin crawling. He asked if I wanted to see one of them benefits I’d get for ridin’ with him.”

“John?”

Johnny hadn’t realized he’d stopped talking, lost in vivid remembrance with a gnawing pain so deep in his chest it was hard to breathe. He swallowed back rising bile. “It’s okay . . . I’m okay.

“Just a few steps into the woods all them men I’d seen was ringed around another man, kneelin’ on the ground. He . . . they had a woman. He was . . . he was rapin’ her. She was cryin’ . . . pushin’ and slappin’ at him, but it didn’t matter. Them men just laughed. Boyd was saying somethin’ about raidin’ ranches, and ransom and sellin’ stolen women to whorehouses, but all I could really hear was her.

“That man . . . he finished and backed off a’ her. She curled up into herself, but another man dropped his gun belt and knelt down for his turn. He grabbed her legs and pulled her to him, and she screamed. I ain’t never heard a woman scream like that before or since. But those men just laughed more. They just laughed . . . .”

Johnny’s hand went to his side as if he were reliving the next moments of his tale. He faced Murdoch. “I don’t know what I was thinkin’, but I drew my gun and pointed it at Boyd and told him to let her go. That stopped their laughin’ all right, but they was all still smilin’. The man who was holdin’ her stood her up and led her over to Boyd.” Johnny’s head shook in disgust as he told Scott, “I was so green, I thought they was actually gonna let her go. But Boyd grabbed hold of her and pulled that knife of his out and held it across her throat.

“That woman . . . she just stood there, naked, lookin’ right at me, right in the eyes. I’ll never forget her eyes. She looked dead. I’d seen Mexican whorehouses before, seen the women who worked there. Never did understand the kind of lifeless look in their eyes until I saw that woman starin’ back at me. Then she mouthed words I’ve never forgotten—‘Don’t leave me,’ she said, and her face changed. She wasn’t scared no more. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her relax, her shoulders drop, her muscles loosen, she even smiled a bit. She’d made her peace. I thought she’d made her peace . . . .”

Johnny’s voice had taken on a profound but dreamy quality as he’d remembered the woman’s plea. He smiled wanly and looked from brother to father. “I knew the odds. Reckon she knew ‘em, too. I was never gonna get her out alive.” He looked at Scott and added, “I didn’t have no one good with a rifle to back me up that night . . . probably wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. I had six shots. If I managed to hit Boyd without him slittin’ her throat, man after man would’a just taken his place. So I made a decision, one I’ve often regretted since. I shot her. Aimed right at her chest and hit her solid in the heart. Then I shot that last man who touched her and then I grabbed Boyd and aimed at his head . . . told him to drop his knife.

“Tyler and some others came runnin’. I sent him to get our horses. We walked out with Boyd, my gun on his head the whole time. He swore he’d kill me if he ever saw me again. I regret I didn’t kill him then. There’s a lot of blood on my hands that spilled down from him ‘cause I didn’t pull that damn trigger. I could’a stopped Boyd that day. Everything he’s done the last five years is my fault.”

It didn’t really surprise Johnny when Murdoch and Scott didn’t argue the point. Their silent denunciation only added to his own burning remorse.

“I learned to be a lot more particular about who I ran with after that, never took another job that I didn’t ask a lot of questions about and took my time decidin’ on.

“I hid out in Mexico for a time. Finally heard that Boyd had tried to raid another big ranch in Arizona, but he didn’t scout it well enough. Half his men got killed and that broke his band up for awhile. I hadn’t heard much about Boyd over the last few years . . . hoped I’d never run into him again. Guess now I can finally stop lookin’ over my shoulder—at least for him.”

“I’d . . . .” Murdoch started. “The Pinkerton report I received said it was rumored that . . . that Johnny Madrid had shot the kidnapped wife of a Texas rancher. But I never believed that to be true.”

Unflinching, Johnny faced his father. “Well now you know different, don’t you?” He thrust his fingers restlessly through his hair. “I’ve questioned myself over the years whether I made the right decision, about that woman and so many other things I done. At Lancer the questions stopped for awhile, the pictures in my head went away. But now they’re all back. That woman’s face is back in my dreams. Only it ain’t her no more . . . it’s Teresa. Every time I close my eyes it’s Teresa I’m shootin’.” Johnny couldn’t look at his family anymore, especially Scott. He stared at the floor.

Murdoch cleared his throat. His words were hesitant, unsure. “Johnny, you’ve . . . you’ve just been through a lot. Once you’re home again—”

“No, Murdoch,” Johnny cut him off. He shook his head and looked up. “My past, Madrid . . . they’re cut deep inside of me. Livin’ at Lancer has been hard. Day in and day out, tryin’ to change who and what I was . . . you just don’t know how hard that’s been. It’s so much easier when you don’t have to abide by no rules. Things go faster, life is faster. You got a lot of rules Murdoch, and it bogs a man down. I know that don’t seem to make sense, but . . . . It’s not the amount of work. There’s plenty to do at the ranch, but it’s all planned, sunup to sundown. Sometimes life at Lancer is so slow I feel like I’m dyin.’ Bein’ a rancher is hard for me.

“But bein’ Madrid . . . .” Johnny felt himself relax a bit just by saying the name he’d once worn daily. “Madrid is easy. Livin’ like I had to, bein’ around men like Boyd, tryin’ to survive, you learn to accept the risks, go lookin’ for ‘em even, before they find you. I don’t know if I can give that up again now. It makes you feel alive . . . at the same time it’s really killin’ you.”

“Then how can you even think about going back to that life, Johnny?” Murdoch said, completely dismayed.

“Because it’s gonna find me!” Johnny practically shouted, days of festering uncertainties fuelling the heated admission. “Word of what we just did is gonna get around. There’s gonna be a whole lot’a men lookin’ for Madrid, to bring down the one who dropped Boyd. Sooner or later they’ll end up at Lancer, whether I want ‘em there or not. I’ve gotten too comfortable there . . . careless. Out on the trail I won’t have no one else to worry about but me. I can maybe see trouble comin’. At Lancer . . . I ain’t sure no more . . . .”

Johnny sighed and his head hung. “I’m tired.” He wasn’t sure if he’d meant physically, with his struggle between Lancer and Madrid, or just with life. ‘Maybe all of it I reckon . . . .’ He felt backed into a corner, trapped, defensive. Tired.

Scott remained eloquently silent. But Murdoch seemed to feel the need to say something—whether he meant it or not. “You’re exhausted Johnny. And you’re still hurting. Once you get your strength back, you’ll be able to think clearer. Why don’t you try to get some sleep and we’ll speak more later.”

“No,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “I got some thinking to do, but me bein’ injured ain’t gonna make a difference. Murdoch, I’d be obliged if you could pay the Barkleys’ for a horse. I wanna ride back to Lancer alone. I need some time.”

“I’ll ride with you.” Scott’s choice for a first comment surprised Johnny.

“I appreciate that Scott,” Johnny said evenly, “but that’s something I gotta do alone. And I ain’t the only one who’s got thinking to do. You just heard about some of the things I’ve done in my life.” He looked at Scott. “And you’ve seen what I’m willing to do. Both of you have considerations—and Teresa, too. Because I need to figure out if I can stay at Lancer, and you need to decide if I’m still wanted.”

Murdoch started to speak, but Johnny held up a hand and held him off. “You can’t be quick about your answers, Murdoch. There’s too damn much at stake, especially for Teresa.” Johnny faced his brother. “Scott, you need to talk to her for me, I can’t . . . not just yet. But she’s got the right to know. Promise me you’ll tell her everything. She belongs at Lancer more than I do, and I can’t live there if she’s gonna be afraid of me, of what I would’a done . . . what I asked you to do.”

“Why would Teresa be afraid of you, Johnny?” Murdoch asked with outright frustration. “You just saved her life!”

“Yes, he did,” Scott said, his tone begging Johnny to drop the subject.

“That was nothin’ but pure chance, and you know it, Scott,” Johnny answered, refusing to back down. “You told ‘em everything else. Why couldn’t you tell ‘em the rest?”

Scott hesitated, then shook his head resolutely. “There was no need.”

“There was no reason not to,” Johnny bit back, “‘cept the fact that you couldn’t stand the thought that I asked. I begged you!”

“It was an unfair request!” Scott stood and paced away a few steps.

“Unfair?” Johnny threw his head back and howled a scornful laugh. “Unfair to who? Them girls? Can’t you see? That’s the difference between us. You would’ve waited until it was too late—I would’ve done it.”

“For heaven’s sake!” Murdoch exclaimed. “Done what?”

“Killed her!” Johnny shouted. “Killed Teresa—and Audra, and Emily! If my plan hadn’t worked, if one way or another I ended up dead, I ordered Scott to use that rifle of his to kill the women.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch said, almost breathless from his horror. “From the story you just told us, I understand what your concerns were. But you had a posse right behind you this time. We would have moved heaven and earth to save them.”

Johnny laughed again, but this time it reflected his bitter insight. “Oh, you would have, would you?” He was mocking them cruelly, but their strategy was dangerously flawed. “Do you know what they would’ve done every time you got close? They would’ve laughed and held those women in front of them, just like Boyd did, and dared you to take the shot. And you would’ve been so concerned about hittin’ the girls that you would’ve backed down, laid back and waited until you had a better chance. Well that chance would’ve never come! They’d be ‘cross the border into Mexico before you knew it. And the girls would have disappeared, thrown into some whorehouse where every damn day they’d wonder why you wasn’t comin’ for them. And if you found ‘em they’d spend the rest of their life wonderin’ if you still loved ‘em despite their shame!

“As much as I love Teresa, right or wrong I would have killed her without a second thought. I’m glad she’s safe, but I’d rather have her hate me now for what I would’ve done than took a chance and left her alive to face what that other woman faced, to look into her eyes years later and seen her nothin’ but walkin’ dead. Madrid would have taken the shot and killed her. And it would have been the right thing to do. Her face can haunt my dreams for the rest of my life, but I don’t have to hear her screams.”

Murdoch sat there, clearly stunned by Johnny’s disclosures. Scott stood nearby, arms clasped over his chest, his jaw tightly set. But his eyes blinked rapidly, irritated with indecision between what was right and what was wrong. The lines had suddenly blurred for them all.

Johnny scrubbed a hand roughly over his cheeks, hoping he’d gotten his point across because his strength was waning again fast. “I know just how low a man can take himself. I’ve seen plenty kinds of snake . . . pulled myself along on my own belly once or twice. I don’t like everything I’ve done in my life. I ain’t always cared to fight fair. But there ain’t no goin’ back and changin’ any of that now. All I can say is I tried to learn from bein’ wrong, tried to keep out of situations where I might have to break the rules. But I have broken ‘em, and it’s me who’ll live with that the rest of my life. Whether that’s at Lancer . . . that can’t be mine to say.”

Silence. The weighty implications of Johnny’s torrent of words seemed to finally bear down on all three Lancer men at once. No matter what their final decision might become for Johnny’s fate, life at the ranch was never going to be the same ever again.

“Murdoch,” Johnny said. “I’d appreciate it if you could give Scott an’ me a minute.”

A profound sadness coloring his features, the Lancer patriarch stared at his younger son. He nodded, stood, and faced his older son, who nodded. The door closed quietly.

“Scott,” Johnny began. “Out there on the trail there wasn’t time to explain all this . . . what I knew. You’re right—that wasn’t much fair to you, but I needed you to trust me. I thought you would. I wasn’t beggin’ just for Teresa. If you’d have waited until night . . . . I didn’t want you to have to live with that. If you’d have got caught or killed, the posse would’ve had no idea there was no other way to save the girls.”

Johnny stood and spent every ounce of strength he had left to face his brother, eye to eye. “And I didn’t want you to leave me havin’ died for nothin’. I don’t mind dyin’, Brother. I made my peace with that long ago. But one of the things I learned from men like Vic Boyd is it’s better to die for something you believe in. I may have been a hired gun, but I always tried to work for a cause. I was ready to fight for those women until my last breath. But with Teresa’s first scream, you would’ve left me havin’ died for nothin’.” Johnny limped heavily to the bed.

The door closed quietly.

********

Johnny was gone the next morning. He’d taken his time and planned his escape well. During the day he let them change his bandages one more time, then claimed fatigue and again pushed everyone away for the night.

Upon finding his room empty, Scott and Murdoch searched the mansion. Sometime during the night, Johnny’s gun had disappeared from Scott’s room. “I went down to the study for a brandy around two,” Scott explained. “He must have taken it then.”

The pair found Silas setting breakfast in the dining room. When asked if he’d seen Johnny, he set down a stack of plates and crossed to the sideboard. He brought back a piece of folded paper and handed it to Murdoch. Scott read the brief note over his father’s shoulder:

Tell Teresa I love her but that dont meen she has to live with me. None of you duz an I will undrstand. Do your thinkin with your heads not your hearts. Its the only way. J

Murdoch seemed unable to draw his eyes from the paper. Scott walked over to stare out the window.

“Mr. Johnny gave me that real early this mornin’,” Silas said. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Lancer, but he made me promise not to tell anyone he was gone until now. I made sure he was well provisioned, even gave him some extra bandages.

“I sure hope he’ll be okay. He seems like such a nice young man.”

********

“I’ll—be—damned,” Norm said in an amazed staccato. Totally flabbergasted, he and Linda stared at each other—then broke into laughter. “Johnny has a brother?” Norm whispered, trying desperately to restrain his astonishment, his eyes wide. He looked more like a schoolboy with a naughty secret burning his tongue than a hardened gunfighter. You’re his brother?”

Scott had to smile at the couple’s unexpected reaction. He glanced quickly around the Cougar Saloon from their table in Norm’s customary dark corner, but no one else—outwardly at least—paid them any mind. “Half-brother, yes—but I’d appreciate it if you could keep that kind of quiet.”

“Oh . . . sure. Sure!” Norm exclaimed, as Linda continued to giggle. “That ain’t somethin’ to be spreadin’ around, that’s for certain.”

Scott had an ulterior motive for divulging the information, but he wasn’t quite ready to tip his entire hand just yet. He’d also come bearing gifts. There was a new set of clothes for Norm sitting partially unwrapped on the open chair beside them; and his own wedding present to the couple was spread over the tabletop between beer mugs—a shiny set of cooking ladles and spoons to go along with Johnny’s gift of pots and pans. His neck still felt pulled a little off-center from where Linda had thrown her arms around him in an exuberant hug. Scott had apparently been fully accepted by the couple as a new but cherished friend.

Although surprised by the gifts, the couple had not been surprised that Johnny had taken off on his own. Both claimed they hadn’t seen him—and Scott believed them.

Scott’s first stop that afternoon had been to the office of Dr. Thomas Merar. Although concerned about Johnny’s choice to leave before he was fully recovered, he, too, had been only sadly disappointed by the news.

Scott took a sip of his beer. “How’d you meet Johnny, Norm?”

Norm scratched a couple of fingers over his chin. “Met ‘im . . . was over near Santa Fe way. We showed up on different sides to help settle a little land dispute, but by the time we got there them ranchers had already exchanged bullets. We was commiseratin’ our mutual wretchedness when this old lady come into the bar. Her husband had drove the local stage route for years between there an’ Albuquerque. Some scoundrels had robbed the coach an’ killed ‘im, and the local law weren’t much good for nothin’. She had just about two hundred dollars saved up to live on, but offered it to the two of us if we’d bring in the men who killed her husband.

“We figured it was an easy enough job, and sure enough, we tracked ‘em down quick and turned ‘em in to that no count sheriff. Johnny—” Norm laughed, shook his head and banged on the edge of the table with a loose fist, “—he took a hundred for himself . . . left me with only the ninety-something that made up the ‘just about two-hundred’ she had!”

He took a sip of his beer. “That night Johnny asked if I could borrow him some money for a meal, and I, of course, asked him why he wasn’t gonna spend his own damn money! Johnny just smiled that smile of his—you know the one—and said he’d ‘lost’ it.” Norm shook his head again and flicked a hand at the air. “I knew he’d given that money back to the widow.” He chuckled. “Next night both of us had to borrow a dollar for dinner.”

“Oh, Norm. That’s so sweet!” Glowing with pride, Linda leaned over and planted a big juicy kiss on her betrothed’s cheek.

Norm surreptitiously reviewed his peers around the room as he wiped at his cheek like she’d just graced it with a layer of grease. A smattering of sniggers and snorts from nearby tables proved that the gesture had not gone unnoticed. “Cut that out, Linda! I was just followin’ Johnny’s lead. That’s what he learned me—you can’t always do it just for the money. Sometimes it’s good to do what you do just because it’s the right thing to do. Johnny earned his reputation, but he never deserved it . . . does that make sense?” Norm asked.

Scott nodded.

The gunfighter hailed another man over. Kyle told the group a similar tale of how he’d met Johnny, his story again illustrating the dichotomy that was Johnny Madrid Lancer—a man who could turn as cold as the most pitiless heart, but was more often filled with warmth and caring. ‘There’s a lot more Lancer in Madrid than Madrid in Lancer,’ Scott mused. ‘I wonder if Johnny realizes that?’

The group shared a hearty laugh over Kyle’s story. Norm finally said, “I ain’t surprised. I heard Johnny almost ended up dead in front of a firing squad, helpin’ out a bunch of no-money peasants under the border.” Norm took a slow sip of his beer, and grew pensive. “I’m glad he met you, Scott, and I hope he finds his way back. I always feared Johnny was gonna die alone, without a penny in his pocket. He’s the poorest gunfighter I ever know’d, but one of the richest men. Sorry thing is, people hear that name ‘Madrid’ and figure all Johnny’s good for is shootin’ that damn gun. Well, I know better,” he announced proudly.

Scott smiled. “And I know better now, too.”

********

“If I don’t see you and your family back here at least once a year, Murdoch Lancer, I shall be highly insulted.” Victoria Barkley had her elbow wrapped tightly around her friend’s as they exited the mansion onto the veranda. Audra and Teresa followed closely, with Heath trailing slowly behind, his arm in a sling.

Murdoch laughed heartily. “Seems to me it should be the Lancers who host the Barkleys’ next. I’ve made an improvement or two at the ranch, I’ll have you know. My turn to show off.”

“That would be delightful,” Victoria said. They stood at the top of the porch steps. Below them, Nick, Jarrod, Silas and Scott were finishing loading baggage into a carriage.

Victoria reached up and clasped Murdoch’s face, pulling it down to her level so she could plant a loving kiss upon his cheek, then they embraced warmly. “I’ll expect a telegram the minute Johnny returns,” she whispered into Murdoch’s ear, no desire to upset Teresa again with further mention of the Lancer son’s disappearance.

“As soon as we hear anything at all,” he murmured back. “We thank you for all your hospitality, Victoria,” Murdoch said aloud as he straightened.

“You are always welcome, my friend.” Victoria turned to Teresa and hugged her tenderly. “Do write to me, Teresa dear. And the next time Audra and I travel to Sacramento, you simply must go with us. There’s a darling dress shop there that every young woman should visit as often as possible.”

“Oh, Mother, that’s an excellent idea!” Audra exclaimed.

“Victoria,” Murdoch growled, but his smile barely waned. “Are you planning on spending all my money on ladies finery?”

“Why Murdoch, I can’t think of a better use for your profits.” The group laughed cheerfully.

“Thank you, Mrs. Barkley,” Teresa said. “I do look forward to visiting with you again.”

Victoria turned and descended the stairs until she stood eye-level with Scott. “It was a joy to meet you, Scott Lancer,” she said, and leaned forward to give him an emotionally charged embrace. “Thank you again for my daughter,” she whispered, then pulled back and kissed his cheek. “You take care of yourself, and we’ll see you soon.”

“You have been more than gracious, Mrs. Barkley,” he said. “Thank you.” He leaned forward and quietly added, “From both Johnny and me.”

Mrs. Barkley smiled brightly and patted Scott on the cheek before Nick chose to—politely—interrupt the farewells.

“Come on, everybody,” he bellowed. “I thought you said all that last night. You’re gonna miss the stage if you keep this up. Let’s go!”

“Does anyone else hear a mule braying?” Heath joshed, stirring up laughter once again.

Victoria grasped her daughter’s hand as they watched the carriage depart, Nick at the reins. Silas had gone back into the house, but Jarrod and Heath lingered.

“Now, is someone finally going to tell me why Johnny really left?” Audra continued to watch the distant carriage, but her voice was insistent.

Victoria’s head dipped in consideration, a small smile playing on her lips in mixed pride and consternation for her daughter’s astute insight.

Murdoch had confided everything to Victoria the morning Johnny disappeared, and her sons had received most of the details directly from her. But exactly what Audra would be told was still being carefully measured.

Victoria and Murdoch had already addressed Teresa. Although Johnny had asked Scott to take the responsibility, Victoria had interceded. The conversation had proved difficult and emotional, but by the end it seemed that Teresa had matured years while they’d spoken. Forced to personally consider Johnny’s continued presence at Lancer, the young woman had grown introspective, immediately comprehending the significance of the alternatives.

And now Audra was demanding the right to contemplate the same weighty considerations.

In annoyance for Victoria’s hesitation, Audra released her hand and turned to face her. “I’m waiting, Mother.”

Victoria knew her answer would be as important to her sons as her daughter. “Audra, Johnny has made some difficult choices in his life – some willingly, others through circumstance. He’s a tough man with a fragile soul. As upsetting as your encounter with Vic Boyd may have been, for Johnny . . . well . . . it has forced him to reconsider his ability to remain at Lancer. He doesn’t feel it would be safe to do so—for him or his family. Do you understand?”

“Oh, Mother!” Audra exclaimed, her dismay clear. “He can’t leave Lancer. It’s not fair.”

Victoria had to smile. Her daughter’s concept of justice was still inexperienced but admirable. “No Dear, it’s not. But Johnny is not one to take his responsibilities lightly. I’ll be forever grateful to him for what he did for you.” ‘What he was prepared to do.’ Victoria was still in turmoil over the knowledge of what might have been, but she couldn’t help but admire Johnny’s determination to spare her daughter from unspeakable acts. “I wish he could just forget his past. But that’s not going to happen soon, and it is a heavy burden for him. We can only hope that his family will find the strength to keep him safe, and near, and loved. Johnny left so he could consider his options privately, but the decision is not his alone. Murdoch will send word when he hears anything.”

“Mother, the day we were taken, when Johnny caught up to us, he told Vic Boyd that he was working here. And he turned to me and said, ‘Ain’t that right, Miss Barkley.’ I . . . I told them it was true. That Nick had hired him.”

“It sounds like you did exactly what Johnny wanted, Audra,” Jarrod interjected from his place off to her side.

“That probably saved his life,” Heath added.

“I know,” she said, “because Boyd believed me. But it made me feel horrible. He was our guest, not a hired man. But . . . it also gave me hope because he was so confident. And how he fought—I’ve never seen anything like that. He’s very good at what he does, Mother. And somehow, that makes me happy. Is that wrong? It feels wrong.”

“Audra, that’s why this will be a hard decision for Johnny. He was . . . is, a professional gunman, and whether he likes it or not, no one will let him forget it.”

“It cost Johnny a lot to save us, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did.” The sorrow in Victoria’s voice reflected her heartbreaking uncertainty for Johnny’s future. “But I have a feeling he’d do it all again without a care for the consequences to himself. Johnny will persevere, but whether he does it with his family or without, well . . . we must have hope.”

********

The sun ebbed and night flowed across the heavens. There were no clouds, so the stars, each first a small glowing ember, one by one flared into brilliant white beacons that blanketed the sky. A half moon rose slowly, as if drifting gently on the waves of starlight.

Johnny normally might stop on a night such as this to take simple pleasure in nature’s show. He liked night best of all times of day. He loved the quiet it brought—the serenity. Night and its black cloak hid the world’s evil for a time, draped it in deep shadows, made it seem like all that was good and godly had a chance. An absurd fancy, Johnny knew, but an indulgence that nonetheless usually calmed his turbulent spirit. But he found no such tranquility this night.

Directly ahead of him on the trail emerged the distinctive outline of the Lancer archway. It marked the final approach to the hacienda. For Johnny, it had come to symbolize home. Now it stood there in the darkness as one of the last daunting obstacles he needed to confront in order to reach the inevitable. The white stucco structure bounced the starlight away, seemed to glow as a ghostly gray shadow that flickered with each step of his horse. It appeared as a living being—one more thing on earth determined to judge him.

Johnny steeled himself and crossed beneath the arch. A gloom descended upon him that was so oppressive he thought it could push him from his horse and pound him into the dust. The ranch meant everything to him—a place of peace and a home that had included a loving family. But that was gone now, past deeds overshadowing a hopeful future.

He compelled himself to keep going. ‘Get it over with,’ he demanded. He had strategically timed his return to use the cloak of darkness. He wanted to be able to slip away in the night. ‘Coward.’

The hacienda grew larger. The warmth of the day lingered and a set of French doors in the great room stood open, spilling light into the courtyard. It looked welcoming. Johnny sighed.

He tethered his horse to the post just outside the courtyard wall. He walked forward, limping more than he wanted, but it couldn’t be helped. His leg injury was proving the most stubborn to heal, and ached him mightily. He needed time to lay low and recover proper. ‘One last thing you gotta do first, Johnny boy.’

The light from the great room spread out before him in greeting, but he stopped just outside its reach, keeping to the shadows. He’d lived his whole life concealing his feelings, but tonight he didn’t trust his self-discipline. Revealing emotion would just make the already difficult that much harder.

“Murdoch,” he called, relieved to hear his voice remain steady. “Murdoch, you in there?”

“Johnny!” his father’s voice boomed, while Teresa’s “Its Johnny!” echoed beneath the thunder. Johnny flinched, such an enthusiastic response unexpected.

Murdoch and Teresa—and Scott—appeared at the open doorway. Teresa moved to run forward. “Johnny! You’re home!”

“Teresa, stop!” he shouted and limped back a step. “Just stay there. Please . . . just . . . stay there.”

“John?” Murdoch said, his brow creased with worry. He stepped forward a pace and put a hand on Teresa’s shoulder. She stood there open-mouthed, her own hand clutched to her chest in confusion and surprise. “John, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said. ‘Liar.

“Come into the house, son.”

“I . . . can’t. I . . . I just came to tell ya’ll that—”

“You came to tell us that you’ve come home,” Teresa said, her voice steady.

“Teresa, did Scott talk to you?” he asked suspiciously. “Did he tell you?”

“I know everything, Johnny. I know what might have happened, what . . . what you did for that woman.” Her voice had begun to waver a bit, thoughts of what could have been obviously upsetting. But then she shook Murdoch’s hand from her shoulder and took a step forward, and to Johnny she seemed different than he remembered—older. Matured. There was no hesitation as she professed, “You were right, Johnny. What you did for that woman. Believe me, you did what she wanted. And I would have wanted it, too. You shouldn’t question yourself about that anymore.

“The Barkleys know what happened, too. Heath said to tell you, ‘we had a deal.’ He said you would know what that meant. And Nick said he expects his horse back because he’s shipping you a much better one . . . that flashy colt you had your eyes on—the bay with the socks. It’s supposed to be delivered sometime later this week. And Mrs. Barkley sent you a letter. You must come inside and read her letter, Johnny.

“You need to stay, Johnny.” Her voice quivered again, and Johnny now saw the glint of tears in her eyes. “You need to stay.”

Johnny thought he had considered every possible judgment he could receive from his family, but in all his miles of reflections he hadn’t anticipated Teresa stepping forward first and welcoming him back. He felt knocked off balance. His carefully considered resolve to leave Lancer faltered.

“Teresa . . . .” His voice sounded weak to his ears. ‘I shouldn’t have come back here at all,’ he thought. “There’s other things that have ta be—”

“Johnny, we’ve thought about everything you asked us to.” Scott stepped forward and took Teresa’s left hand in his, as she wiped a tear away with her right. “All of us. We’re not asking you to stay with blinders on. We understand your concerns and don’t intend to ignore them. But we can deal with them together.”

“Scott—“

“I’m not through yet. I have an apology to make. You were right—I didn’t trust you, and I’m sorry for that. What you asked me to do . . . I couldn’t comprehend doing something like that without an explanation. I would have hesitated. But I should have known that you would’ve never asked without having a very good reason. I’ve come to enjoy arguing with you, Johnny. But don’t ever mistake that for mistrust again. I trust you with my life, and I always will.”

“That’s the point you’re forgetting, Scott! If I stay here I’m gonna put you in danger. All of you.”

“We’re prepared to take that risk. And you’ll teach us what to look for, who could be a threat. I also offered Norm a job here.”

Johnny felt bronc bucked, shook to the bone and rattled in the head. “And what’s that supposed to solve?” he jeered. “Lancer’s hirin’ gun hawks now to protect its gun hawks? That makes a lot of sense.” He turned his back and paced away a couple of steps, his restlessness building.

“No, Johnny, let me finish. He’ll be a regular hand, but will work mostly along side of you when I’m not able.”

Johnny turned. “I can’t be watched all day, every day, and I sure ain’t lettin’ nobody take a bullet for me.”

“We’re not stupid, Brother. You talked about heading off trouble. We know the risks to your safety will be greater now. Norm’s just an extra pair of eyes, an extra set of ears. He won’t be a hired gun—he’s a friend. He said he’d do it, but it’s your call. Say the word, and he and Linda are willing to make the move.” Scott smiled. “It’ll be a new start for them—and I got the distinct impression that Linda would really appreciate it if you would tell them to come.”

Johnny was stunned—by Teresa’s faith, by Scott’s trust, by his family’s concern. But his own doubt was overwhelming. “Scott, I appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do and all you said, but . . . you make it sound like it’s gonna be easy.”

“No, son,” Murdoch said, stepping forward. “It won’t be easy. Not for any of us. But that doesn’t mean it’s not right to try.

“Johnny, I spent twenty years not knowing where you were, what was happening to you . . . wondering every day if you were alive or dead. I won’t live like that again. You can’t ask that of me.”

“You can’t ask me to stay!”

“I’m not asking—I demand it. Johnny, none of us can live in our pasts, and we can’t predict our futures. But we can certainly choose what we do right now. If there are any regrets here, it’s that I couldn’t find you earlier. I’m sorry for the life you had to lead, but if you hadn’t gone down that road . . . the path that led to Johnny Madrid . . . Teresa and Audra may have been lost to us forever.” Murdoch’s voice cracked with an uncharacteristic emotion that ripped at Johnny’s heart and shredded his persistent doubts. “Call it fate, destiny, providence, call it anything you want, but Johnny Madrid was meant to be for a reason.

“It’s your decision, son. But you can’t say you have to leave because of us. Your family won’t allow it.”

Family. Johnny’s stood right there in front of him, patiently awaiting his decision. His decision. He’d spent weeks on his own, weighing his options, settling on what he thought was a fixed course. But now here he was, thinking it over again. He knew what his head told him—that his family wouldn’t be safe with him around. But his heart and soul and spirit were begging him to stay, to listen to someone else for a change and put his own needs first.

“I . . . .” You what, Johnny? Just say it. For once in your life, don’t think. “I don’t know if this can work. I’m still not right with Madrid’s shadow . . . with letting him go. But I want to try. If you’ll have me, I want to try here.”

.

~end~
MP – January 2004-May 2008 . . . a long road it was, indeed

(The) Path Well Traveled Series
Little Things
Sharp Edge
(The) Path Well Traveled

To Author’s Note 

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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
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8 thoughts on “The Path Well Travelled by Maureen

  1. I have read this story more than once as it is so good at depicting the complex character of Johnny Madrid Lancer. He is shown as a darker character than in some stories but with his vulnerability and desperation for a family to offer him trust. I especially like that his friends offer him this without question. He is shown as doing the only thing he felt was right – within a brutal world that only he really understood. I like that the characters of Big Valley are interwoven in the story too – adding an extra perspective. Very clever. It is well written with such a great plot. Thank you for writing this and sharing it.

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  2. Vivi, thank you so much for the thoughtful feedback. I very much appreciate you taking the time to comment. Always appreciated. Maureen

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  3. Oh, Maureen… I’ve just read this story for the third time, and every time I do, I feel so much more than the last time reading of it. Madrid’s courage and strengths are always in the forefront and in this tale, a very dark side is exposed. You have a clue to what it is he told Scott to do, but it isn’t put into words, and one can only speculate. Madrid was dangerously spectacular as he fought against Boyd and Boyd’s men, and you wrote that scene (actually all the scenes) brilliantly. The desperation of the situation has the readers on the edge of our seats, even though we’ve read this story before!

    I raged at Scott for his doubts about Johnny, his impatience and agitation over Johnny’s inability to talk about what happened, but also sympathized with him because he had no answers. He was stranded in limbo… until Johnny was ready to talk.

    Am still wiping away tears of Johnny’s recounting of the rancher’s wife and what he was forced to do. I felt my heart break for all the violence and danger he was forced to live.

    Lastly, Murdoch’s declaration of acceptance and relief/appreciation for Madrid that Teresa and Audra were alive and safe, was just the right amount of comfort, and reassurance.

    I’ve read this three times now, Maureen and will be reading it again… and again. Thank you so much for this fantastic tale.

    Diana

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  4. Just finished reading ‘The Path Well Traveled’ again. It is truly one of my favorite Johnny Madrid strories. The plot of the story is great. This story really shows how Johnny earned his reputation. He showed part of “He did a lot of bad things and …” . I particularly liked their encounter with the first outlaw, showing Johnny becoming Madrid.
    I liked your portrayal of the Barkley especially Victoria and Nick. I can really picture them in your story. So acurate to their TV characters.
    Finally I liked how Johnny had to wrestle with himself as to going back to being Johnny Lancer. Tough change to make again after such a violent event.
    I have read your story half a dozen times and expect I will continue to read it over again many more. Thank you for sharing your writing talent with us!
    Jane

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