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Edge of Darkness by Buckskin

Word count 26,597

Thanks to Cat, Chris, and Rob for the beta

There it was again. Noise. Irritating, grating noise rasped against his brain, leaving hundreds of burrs, sharp and stinging like the devil that prevented sleep. Dios, that hurts! A groan escaped his lips; the noise stopped, and quiet reigned in the room. But the silence wasn’t meant to be; he heard someone say his name as fingers rested on his forehead, then carded through his hair.


Go away, lemme sleep.

More whispers now, like annoying, buzzing insects that prevented him from falling back into that dark, quiet place — the quiet place where there was no pain in his head.

“Johnny, son, wake up.”

Maybe he should tell them to go away and leave him in peace. Eyelids felt as if they were weighted down and would not open. OK, don’t open ‘em. Jus’ tell ‘em.

“… Go ‘way…”

“Son, you need to wake up,” Murdoch softly urged.

“Uh uh.” A gentle chuckle caressed his ears.

What?! Ol’ man’s laughin’! Ain’t too funny from where I’m at…

“Come on, brother, open your eyes, and give us a smile…” Scott coaxed; the relief in his voice was palpable. They’d been worried.

“Eyes’re… tired. Smile’s broke. Go away, an’… lemme… sleep. Yer makin’… head hurt.” Johnny tried to roll over and present his back to them, but the pain stopped his movement, and he groaned again.

“Sorry, Johnny, I need you to wake up so I can make sure you’re alright,” Sam urged. “That head wound is nasty, and I need you to be awake to check you over. I’ll be brief, I promise, and when I’m finished, you can sleep.”

Uh oh, Sam’s here. Guess I hafta wake up. Damn. What happened?

With no way out of it, Johnny struggled to open his eyes. Why did they feel so heavy?

Sam watched the battle and offered encouragement. “That’s right, Johnny, you can do it, son. Keep fighting…”

The lids slit open, and he slammed them shut as the bright, mid-morning sun that lit the room in a cheery blaze pierced his brain. Well, cheery for most of them.

“Uhhh! C-close curtains…” he groaned as the blaze of light sliced through his brain.

“Just a minute, let me check your eyes; then we’ll close the curtains. I think you have a serious concussion, Johnny, and I need to be sure. I’ll be quick, I promise.”

Knowing he would regret the decision, Johnny opened his eyes, and again, pain lanced through his head. He winced as Sam checked the pupils and heard the doctor sigh, knowing he was not pleased with what he saw.

“Johnny, I was right. I want you to listen to me carefully. You need to take it easy for the next week, at the very least. You’ll have headaches for a while, which could be serious; also, bouts of dizziness aren’t unusual, so walking around is out of the question; you’re to stay right here, in this bed, until I say different. We can’t have you doing any work, riding, or navigating the stairs as long as these headaches persist. Do you understand?” He waited on the answer and watched as his patient’s eyes slid shut.

“Johnny, do you understand?”

“Huh? Yeah… unnerstand.” Johnny knew this was a particularly bad concussion but refused to admit it to anyone.

“Good. That’s good. John, how do you feel? Do you have pain other than your head?”

“F-Feel like shit… ev’rything hurts… ‘m cold.”

Scott retrieved a heavy blanket from the armoire in Johnny’s room and spread it over his brother.

“Do you know where you are?”

Sam’s askin’ too many questions. I wanna sleep. “Home, bed.”

“Do you remember what happened to you?”

A tiny frown creased his brow. What had happened? There was nothing he remembered. “Uh uh.”

“Alright, John, what’s the last that you remember? Take your time, and tell me what you remember.”

“Angel’s Nest, Saturday night, bein’ at Angel’s Nest…” A ghost of a smile sneaked across his lips. “Not gonna tell ya ‘bout it, though.” Nope, they don’t need ta know ‘bout the trip upstairs…

Even Murdoch chuckled at Johnny’s answer. Sam smiled, then, “Is that the last you remember, Johnny?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Uh-huh.”

“Alright, son, I’m going to let you sleep now, but your family has instructions to wake you every two hours; don’t give them a hard time about it, young man!” Sam teased.

“K, Sam.” Johnny quickly slid into the dark, quiet place where there was no pain.

Sam nodded to the door; Murdoch and Scott followed while Teresa sat by her brother’s bedside.

The heat from the fire in the great room radiated its comfort around them as the men settled onto the soft cushions. Maria came with a tray of coffee, cups, and cookies warm from the oven.

“Thank you, Maria!” Murdoch said, as the cook left the treats on the coffee table.

“De nada, Patrón,” and with a smile, she returned to the kitchen.

“Alright, Sam, let’s have it. Is Johnny going to be alright?” Murdoch asked, coming to the point.

Sam took his time to answer and sighed. “Head injuries are tricky, Murdoch, you know that, and that’s a nasty gash he sustained. Right now, all we can do is wait and see. His eyes didn’t react to the light as they should, but that young man has proven me wrong on occasion; your son is quite unpredictable, so we might not know anything for a few days. Trouble might not show up for a week. All we can do is keep an eye on him. Well, in this case, being that it’s Johnny, we’ll all keep both  eyes on him!”

Sam enjoyed his coffee for a moment, then asked, “You said Frank found him lying on the river bank?” He responded to the confirming nod from Murdoch. “It’s no wonder that he’s cold. We’ll have to watch him for signs of pneumonia; broken ribs and exposure could induce it; congestion, fever, and cough, too; you know what to watch for. It would be a good idea to put those flat rocks you have warming by the stove by his feet; oh, you might want to put socks on him, too. Teresa has soup simmering for him.”

Murdoch sighed. “I know it could have been a lot worse; he’s covered with bruises, and you said there are two broken ribs, but judging from the looks of him, he’s lucky… if the concussion doesn’t get any worse. I think Johnny can deal with the headaches…”

“Murdoch, the pain from those headaches could be serious — I meant what I said to Johnny: they could make him unstable. I’ve seen grown men standing one minute; their knees buckle the next minute, and they fall and are rendered helpless. Now, you know how stubborn Johnny is, so don’t let him talk you into thinking he’s fine… Because he’s not. When the headaches hit, he should lie down in a darkened room with cool compresses on his head. He’ll probably be sick, so have a bucket close.”

“Do you think he’ll be alright?”

“We won’t know anything until he can talk to us without falling asleep. And, I want to warn you, he might not remember anything. We’re only talking about two days he lost, so it’s not critical, although it would be best if he recalled what happened.”

“We’ll be as ready for it as we can, Sam. Thank you. Will you stay for lunch?” Murdoch asked.

“I’d love to, but I need to check on Mrs. Murphy and get home before dark,” Sam responded as he pulled his coat around his shoulders. “She’s been under the weather, and I want to ensure she’s taking her medicine. But thanks for the offer. Maybe next time. Call me if you need to! Thanks for the coffee!”

“Alright, Sam, thanks for coming out!” Murdoch closed the door, then settled on the couch and enjoyed the warmth of the flames in the fireplace.

Scott stared into the cup of coffee in his hand as a frown etched his brow.

“Are you alright, son?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. But I can’t help but wonder what happened that caused Johnny to wind up on the riverbank, bruised with broken ribs and a concussion. I can’t believe that he fell off Barranca. And where did it happen? That river is pretty rough the further upstream you go, so that would make sense, considering his injuries, that he spent significant time in the water and was washed down to where Frank found him. He said there weren’t any signs of trouble; in fact, there were no tracks at all. Barranca was found miles away from where Johnny ended up. And why would Johnny have been up there where Barranca was found anyway? He was on his way home from the property we bought from Daniel Hendricks; that’s nowhere near Boulder River where Frank found Johnny. It’s miles away. How did Johnny get there? With no tracks around the area, he must have been washed downstream.” Scott sighed.

“Well, Sam’s right. We have to wait until Johnny can talk about it… if he remembers…”

There was nothing else Murdoch could add. Scott verbalized the thoughts that swirled in the patriarch’s head. They had no choice but to wait for answers.

“Scott, I hate to ask you, but with your brother sick, I’m going to need you to help move the herd from the Cutter’s Mountain pasture to the pasture south. Cip and a crew will be at Black Mesa to move that herd to graze at Stoneyrun Creek.” Murdoch knew Scott was up for the task; however, he might need to hire another man or two until Johnny was back on his feet and could work. But there was no sense in getting ahead of himself — they weren’t sure yet how badly Johnny was hurt. Knowing his son as he did, his youngest would be champing at the bit to be up and about in a day or two.

“Yes, I can handle it, Murdoch. I’d rather wrestle ornery cows than a restless Johnny any day! I have the easy job!” Scott laughed as his father rolled his eyes, knowing there was truth in the statement.

“I’ll talk to Cip, and between the two of us, we’ll get the job done.” Scott snorted a laugh. “I’ll have to tease my little brother that he owes me! While he’s lounging in bed, I’ll be out risking my life with those dreaded bovines!”

Murdoch chuckled as he imagined the banter between his sons. He could only hope there wouldn’t be any lasting effects from Johnny’s concussion. His son had always been quick to heal, even as a toddler, and when he suffered the bullet in the back, courtesy of Day Pardee, Johnny was on his feet quickly once the fever subsided. They could only wait and see. There was no crystal ball, no seer to predict what was to happen, only Johnny’s stubbornness and sheer will to get back in the saddle and go to work.

“Murdoch, are you alright?” Scott asked, apprehensive as he caught the concern that shadowed his father’s eyes.

Murdoch, caught in his thoughts, was startled when Scott spoke. “What? Oh, yes, son, I’m fine. Just thinking about your brother. But, like Sam said, we have to wait until he wakes up and can carry on a conversation. I hope those headaches aren’t as bad as Sam described, though. Well, no use in speculating. We’ll deal with things as they happen.”

Dawn won the struggle with the dark and spread her wings over the mountains in a beautiful display of red, orange, and pink as it brightened the sky and prompted the earth to awaken. And awaken Johnny did as the pain cleaved his head in two, and his stomach rebelled. Murdoch held the bucket close with one hand, and the other supported his son as his body fought to turn itself inside out.

A pitiful groan escaped Johnny’s lips as Murdoch tended to the misery, murmuring the things parents say when their children are ill, and although Johnny was no child, Murdoch couldn’t resist that which he’d been denied for so long. He held his son in his arms, cleaned his mouth with a cool cloth, and comforted him in any way he could.

“Johnny, can you hear me?”


Holding a glass to his son’s lips, Murdoch urged Johnny to rinse his mouth, then drink. The task complete, he tucked Johnny under the blankets and began again. “Johnny? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah… don’t … yell…” The eyelids remained closed with no intention of opening.

“There’s some broth on the stove, son; can I get some for you?”

Did he want broth? Not really, but it might be enough to make them leave him alone and not bother him for a while.

“ ‘ll try…”

Murdoch took the bucket and hurried to the door, down the back hall stairs, and into the kitchen to deposit the offending vessel outside. The task done, and with Teresa’s promise to bring the broth to her brother’s room, Murdoch returned to find Johnny on the brink of sleep.

“Son, the broth will be here in a few minutes; can you stay awake for me?” The words continued to flow as they waited; Murdoch asked questions as Johnny mumbled and muttered his answers.

Teresa toed the door open and quietly entered with a tray of broth, biscuits, and ginger tea. “Murdoch, I can feed him; why don’t you go down and get some breakfast?”

“I’m fine, darling, thank you,” he offered her a smile, then began to rouse Johnny.

“Alright, if you say so, but I’ll bring you some coffee and a tray. You need to eat something!” She crossed the room and opened the window, letting the stale air out, then left Murdoch to see to his son.

He didn’t eat much, but the broth stayed down; Johnny settled to sleep, and Murdoch settled in to wait.

Per Sam’s instructions, they woke Johnny every two hours, although Johnny didn’t seem to remember his promise not to give his family a hard time about interrupting his sleep. Why his family insisted on torturing him and not allow him to sleep was beyond him, but then, just about everything was beyond him at that point. Nothing made any sense, and everything hurt. What had he done now?

The day progressed with the irritating intrusions until late afternoon when Johnny opened his eyes at Murdoch’s insistence. He blinked, then stared at his father as if for the first time. “W-What happened?”

Relief flooded Murdoch’s eyes as he moved to sit beside Johnny on the bed. “We were hoping you would tell us, son. Do you remember anything?”

A frown creased his forehead as he thought, then shook his head, and although a small move, it reminded Johnny not to do that again when pain sliced through his brain. The groan that accompanied the pain was pitiful and prompted Murdoch to place a cool cloth across his son’s eyes.

“Thanks, Murdoch,” Johnny whispered.

“You’re welcome. I take it you don’t remember anything?”

“Nothin’. Tell me what cha know. Did I fall or somethin’?

”Or something. Frank found you lying on the riverbank by Boulder River. You were coming home from Hendrick’s Valley but found miles away from there. There were no tracks, human, or hoofprints around, so we thought you went into the river further upstream. That explains your injuries, Johnny. We didn’t name it Boulder River for nothing! Besides a concussion, you have a gash on your head that took six stitches to close, two broken ribs, and deep bruises, so don’t be moving around.”

“Barranca, he alright?”

Murdoch smiled; he half expected that question before now. “Yes, son, Barranca’s just fine,” he answered, assuring Johnny of that which was important to him.

Murdoch waited, watching for a sign that Johnny remembered something, but there was nothing except that frown as if he was concentrating, searching to recall the elusive happenings of that time, something, anything to trigger a memory.

“Johnny, don’t push it. You’ll probably start remembering things when you’ve had sufficient rest. It will come back in time,” Murdoch murmured, hoping he was right.

A sharp bolt of pain seared through Johnny’s head, making him grimace and the frown deepen. Why was it so hard to remember?! It shouldn’t be that difficult to pull a recollection from two days ago!

“Try and rest, son. Give it some time to heal,” Murdoch softly urged.

“Yeah… not doin’ any good this way.” Though whispered, Johnny’s words came out in a rush as he sagged into the pillows to rest. Why was he so tired? His body felt heavy, weighted down, and not his own. Hell, his eyelids felt as if they were tied to anvils; what had happened to him? He drifted into sleep, but not before a flash ignited behind his eyes; then there was nothing.

Murdoch studied the frown that etched his son’s face, wishing there was something he could do to ease the discomfort but knowing he was doing all that was possible for the moment. It was a waiting game, so he settled in the chair to be there when Johnny next woke.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that Johnny Madrid Lancer roused from the exhaustion that had rendered him incapable of thought or action. He opened his eyes, and although they felt scratchy and irritated, he could make out his father and brother seated by the window. The lamp was turned low, for which he was grateful, and it cast elongated shadows of the two Lancer men onto the walls. If he had felt better, Johnny would have laughed at the amusing proportions of their features as they danced and gyrated with their movements. But he didn’t. Instead, he sighed. “You two got nothin’ better ta do than ta sit here?”

Murdoch and Scott turned as one; both smiled and rose to stand at Johnny’s bedside.

“It’s about time you rolled your lazy butt out of that bed, brother! I’m tired of taking up the slack for your laziness!” Scott teased.

Johnny grimaced and laid a hand on his forehead. “I’ll trade places anytime, Boston, anytime.”

Sincerity replaced Scott’s good-natured ribbing. “I know, brother. You just take your time and get well. You took a heck of a fall in that river.”

Murdoch reached out and touched Johnny’s face, relieved to find no fever. Perhaps there wouldn’t be one this time, and he could only hope there wouldn’t be complications regarding pneumonia and congestion. The other injuries were bad enough.

“Can you eat something, Johnny? There is more of that delicious broth.” Murdoch couldn’t help the chuckle, knowing Johnny’s aversion to the bland broth.

Scott didn’t wait for the answer but left for the kitchen before his brother had the chance to decline the meal. It was best to ‘cut Johnny off at the pass’, so to speak, and the big brother in Scott took every opportunity he could to see it done.

Johnny shifted on the bed but suddenly stopped when muscles and ribs protested the move. The dull throb in his head grew to a gut-churning pound, prompting his belly to roll. The groan alerted Murdoch to a potential situation, and he moved the bucket closer to the bed with his foot should it be needed.

“Take a breath, Johnny; breathe slowly as deep as you can.” He hoped the ginger tea Maria had brought earlier was still warm, and he poured a few swallows into the mug. “Here, take some of this. It will calm your stomach.”

Willingly, Johnny accepted the brew, then, with his father’s help, relaxed against the pillows.

After a sigh, Johnny murmured his thanks. He blinked his eyes and forced them to focus, then rolled his head to the left, making contact with Murdoch’s.

There was a brightness in his son’s eyes that wasn’t there before; the nearly vacant, scattered look of previous hours was gone. “You look a little better, Johnny. Your eyes are more focused than the last time you woke.”

“Don’t feel as scrambled as I did; still can’t remember anything, though,” Johnny muttered with a dejected sigh.

The frustration was plain to see as Murdoch studied the pale features. “Well, son, it’s still very early. Sam said it could be a while for you to remember that lost time.” Murdoch could feel Johnny’s apprehensions and, like Scott, wanted to ‘cut him off at the pass’.

Johnny frowned, alerting Murdoch to troubling thoughts. “Johnny?”

“Nothin’, it’s nothin’… only it feels like there’s somethin’ waitin’ ta… explode… somethin’ just below the surface…”

Murdoch thought to distract Johnny from forcing himself to remember. “How’s your stomach? Any better?”

“Yeah, thanks. Just wish I’d stop wonde’rin’ what happened.”

Murdoch smiled, trying to lighten the mood, and patted Johnny’s leg. “Time, my son, give it time, and until then, get all the rest you can. I’ll wager that your brother will make you pay for your time in this bed!” He had to laugh, had to make his son laugh, although he knew Johnny couldn’t let the troubling thoughts go that easily.

“Murdoch, ya don’t need ta sit here. I can sleep without ya watchin’ over me.” In truth, the attention was making Johnny uneasy. In the years he spent alone, he was used to caring for himself, and now with a family, it left him feeling conspicuous and vulnerable. Vulnerability was death for someone like Johnny Madrid; he knew he was safe at Lancer, but it was ingrained too deeply for him to disregard and be comfortable with the attention.

Murdoch resisted the urge to do something other than offer his support, his comfort to his sons when the occasion presented itself. He had been denied the privilege of raising his sons, and now, even though they were grown men, he needed to make up for those lost years. But he was beginning to understand, especially Johnny’s apprehensions.

“Well, if you’re sure you don’t need anything, there is much bookwork to do. I’ll leave the door open— call out if you need something. Maria and Teresa are in the kitchen, and someone will hear you.” At the door, he turned and smiled at Johnny. “Get more sleep, son.” Johnny returned the smile, and Murdoch left, but not because he wanted to, only because he was accepting the fact that Madrid would always be there, and he was now learning to appreciate who his young son was and what it had cost Johnny as he was forced to survive on his own.

As Johnny lay in the quiet of the room waiting for Scott to bring the soup he really didn’t want, he tried to remember, but there was nothing but a black void… and… what? Anticipation? He wasn’t one for premonitions, but, at the moment, he felt like he was expecting something to happen. Damn, I wish I could remember!

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time! Not an hour into the day and Jay Carpenter quit leaving Lancer short-handed. Two hours later, Hayes Cooper’s horse fell, pinning Hayes under it, and both suffered broken legs. Scott knew it had to be done, but pulling the trigger and ending a horse’s life was always difficult. Ending the suffering was necessary… and heartbreaking. Just before noon, Scott drove the wagon to the bunkhouse and helped to get Hayes settled and wait for Sam to set his leg. Isidro left the ranch, his horse raising huge dust clouds as he hurried to town for el medico. 

Scott left Cooper in the competent hands of Jed, the bunkhouse cook, and left for the hacienda, needing to inform Murdoch of the events of the morning.

“Scott! I didn’t expect you home. Is everything alright, son?” Murdoch asked when his oldest son came in the back door.

“No, it’s not. Jay Carpenter quit this morning, and I just brought Hayes Cooper in with a broken leg. I sent for Sam, and I’m sure he’ll come in with his report after he’s finished.” Scott sagged into a chair at the table while Maria set a plate in front of him.

“Thank you, Maria, I appreciate it,” Scott mumbled as he sighed.

“De nada, niño.” She smiled and brought him a cup of coffee.

“Guess I’ll ride into town and see if I can hire another hand or two. With the busy season fast approaching, we can’t get any farther behind than we already are.”

Now it was Murdoch’s turn to sigh. “Yes, you’re right. We need to stay ahead, and with Johnny down, that leaves three men we’re now short, and from the things Cip has told me, that new man we hired two weeks ago isn’t working out very well. Maybe Val knows of someone who needs work. Check with him first.”

“I’ll do that.” Scott finished his food, then left for town with hopes he would find a few men in need of a job.

Scott opened the sheriff’s office door to find Ben Stanley sitting behind Val’s desk. Ben stood to greet Scott and answered the question before Scott could ask. “Val’s gone to Modesto on business an’ asked for me to keep an eye on Green River while he’s gone.”

Scott shrugged. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Nope, he got a wire from Sheriff Thornton, sayin’ he needed to talk. It sounded important, an’ Val left right away. Somethin’ wrong at the ranch, Scott?”

“No… well, yes, there is something wrong,” Scott smiled, “but nothing to worry about. Johnny’s hurt, a hand quit this morning, and Hayes Cooper broke his leg, so at the moment, we’re down three men.”

“Johnny gonna be alright?”

“He’ll be fine, Ben. Guess I’ll go to the Angel’s Nest and see if I can hire some help. See you later. Oh, would you let Val know about Johnny? I think he’d like to know.”

“Sure, Scott, I’ll tell him when he gets here.”

Scott nodded then left the office. He flipped Remmie’s reins from the hitchrail and walked across the street to the saloon, not having much hope for finding any help; mid-week and early afternoon did not make for successful hiring.

Bartender Henry served a customer at a table on the back wall; Scott crossed the saloon and caught Henry’s attention.

Henry’s smile spread wide across his face. “Hey, Scott! What are you doin’ in town at this time of day? Is Johnny comin’ in, too?” Henry enjoyed having the Lancer boys frequent the saloon. Unlike others in the valley, they were favorite customers and treated the working girls with respect. Oh sure, they were involved in the occasional dust-up, but more often than not, it was to stop a fight before much damage was done. But then, there were the times when some idiot tried to tempt Johnny into a fight, beginning with a brawl, then the inevitable challenge. If Johnny couldn’t talk the soon-to-be-dead man out of the idea, the young Lancer took it into the street and out of the saloon.

“No, I’m afraid not, Henry. Johnny’s hurt, but that’s why I’m here. He’s not up to work. Frank found him lying on the riverbank by Boulder River with a concussion, broken ribs, and covered with bruises…”

“Scott! I saw you walk in here. What are you doing here at this time of day?” Doctor Sam Jenkins asked. “Were you looking for me? Is it Johnny?”

“No, Johnny’s been sleeping most of the time… Didn’t Isidro find you?”

“No, but I just got back into town,” the doctor spoke softly. “We lost Adeline Murphy during the night. I’ve been with her and haven’t been home. Why? Do you need me at the ranch?”

Scott felt the tug at his heart; Adeline Murphy was among the first to welcome him and Johnny home to Lancer. She was a kind, sweet woman, and Scott would miss her terribly, just as he knew Johnny would. Johnny teased her until she blushed like a schoolgirl, and she loved the attention from both of the handsome Lancer sons.

“Hayes broke his leg this morning, and right now, he’s suffering through Jed’s doctoring. I know you’re tired, Sam, and I hate to ask you to come out to Lancer, but it’s a bad break.”

“Scott, I didn’t get into medicine to get sufficient sleep. People get sick at all hours of the day and night. By the way, how’s Johnny’s memory?”

“No change, Sam. He can’t remember anything. I’m here to see if I can hire a few men in the meantime.”

“Let me stop by my house and pick up a few things; then I’ll get out to Lancer. See you out there, Scott!” Sam headed for the door.

“Thank you, Sam!” Scott turned to Henry. “Well, you heard what I told Sam. Pass the word that Lancer is looking for help, would you, Henry?”

“I sure will, Scott. Say, is Johnny gonna be alright? He’ll get his memory back?” Henry’s concern warmed Scott’s heart; his brother had touched many here in Green River and the surrounding towns, but there were those who continued the biased attitudes, the prejudice toward the gunfighter, not to mention Johnny’s mixed blood. Still, most of the residents liked him from the moment they realized that Johnny Madrid was largely responsible for ridding the area of Day Pardee.

Scott pulled a face. “Sam said he might regain it, but there are no certainties regarding head injuries. Right now, it’s a wait-and-see game. He might remember those two days, and he might not. Well, I need to get going. I’ll tell him you asked about him, Henry; he’ll appreciate that.” Scott turned to leave, then noticed the young man at the table that Henry had just served. With a genuine smile, Scott had to ask. “You wouldn’t be looking for work, would you?”

The young stranger looked up from his drink and offered a smile. “Ta tell ya the truth, I was just passin’ through, but thanks for the offer.” He turned back to his glass, dismissing Scott and potential work.

“If you change your mind, come out to Lancer; we could use the help.” Scott returned the smile.

Henry offered Scott a sympathetic shrug. “You were in here about two weeks ago an’ hired that fella — how’s he workin’ out?” The memory was distinct in Henry’s mind as he remembered the man that smelled like trouble, but when a body worked at Lancer, they put in an honest day’s work — how was that working out? Lancer was fair with their men and expected a fair day’s work in return.

Scott’s smile faded. “I don’t know that we’ll be keeping him. He’s not exactly a ball of fire when it comes to working. Thank you, Henry; I guess I’d better look elsewhere for help.” Scott left The Angel’s Nest, wondering where to look next.

Perhaps he’d ride over to Spanish Wells and talk with Sheriff Gabe; the ongoing feud between the Turner brothers could benefit Lancer if any charges had been recently filed against Cletus and Bo. They constantly fought between themselves, and jail was not an unfamiliar ‘residence’. If Cletus and Bo occupied the cells, fines would be involved, and they should jump at the chance for a good paying job. They were good workers, and each was strong as an ox. They just hated each other’s guts… With the amount of work at Lancer, keeping them separated would not be a problem. 

Funny thing, though, as Scott thought about the situation between the Turner brothers, he couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips. He’d never wished for anyone to be at odds before, and now, that was precisely what he hoped for — that the Turners had been at each other’s throats and were now in need of a job to pay any fines levied against them. Lord knew poor Widow Turner didn’t have the money for bail.

The Widow Turner was a tiny woman, shorter than Teresa, and couldn’t weigh more than ninety pounds, but she had a firm hand on her boys, and when she said “Jump!” they asked, “How high?” No one knew how she did it or how she maintained control over the big louts, but she did… when they were in her sight. Gabe had thought to make her his deputy for the occasions when her boys rode into town, and Scott chuckled. If Gabe deputized the Widow Turner and Val deputized the Widow Hargis, California would be forever changed and safe for all that lived there!

Spanish Wells appeared quiet as Scott rode to the Sheriff’s Office, tied Remmie at the hitchrail, and went inside. Besides the dark, cool interior, the first thing that Scott noticed was the offensive argument that thundered through the door that shut off the cell area from the office. The next thing Scott noticed was Sheriff Gabe with his hands covering his face as he leaned on his elbows on the desk. Although it was not truly funny, Scott had to rein in his amusement as Gabe looked up with a strained, pathetic, and frustrated expression.

Dispensing with formalities, Scott couldn’t resist the remark as he contemplated his good fortune. “Let me guess — ‘Turner Trouble’…?”

Gabe groaned. “If the Widow Turner doesn’t get here quick, I’m goin’ fishing!”

“Well, I might be able to help you out. We need help at Lancer…”

The door opened as the Widow made her entrance, walked directly to Gabe’s desk, retrieved the key to the back room, and went inside. The dispute from the back stopped immediately, and after a short silence, the Widow returned to the outer office and laid the keys next to Gabe’s white-knuckled, clenched fists.

“Sheriff, I am sorry those boys have caused trouble for you. I want you to know that whatever punishment you deem necessary is fine with me! I think a good long stay in jail is exactly what they need!”

Gabe panicked and wanted to scream NOOOOOOO! But he held his silence until he regained a modicum of self-control. “Do they have sufficient funds to pay for the damages?”

The Widow, clearly embarrassed, bowed her head and mumbled, “No, I’m afraid not…”

It was then that Scott spoke. “Mrs. Turner, perhaps I can be of assistance. We need help at Lancer, and if you can talk to your boys and convince them to behave themselves, they can work off the fines.”

Olivia Turner breathed a sigh of relief as the generous offer was made. She raised her head and met Scott’s eyes, looking as if tears would start any minute. “I’ll make sure of it! Thank you, Scott! Bless you! I don’t know why those two can’t be more like you and Johnny! Where is he? Did he come with you?”

“No, I’m afraid not. He isn’t feeling the best right now, which is why we need help, but he’ll be fine. Thank you for asking.”

“I’ll remember him in my prayers.” Olivia cleared her throat. “Thank you again, Scott.”

Scott nodded as the Widow reached once again for the keys on Gabe’s desk and let herself into the back where she would have ‘the talk’ with her rowdy sons.

“Scott, what happened ta Johnny?” Gabe asked, hoping it wasn’t serious.

“We don’t know, Gabe, and Johnny can’t remember what happened. Frank found Johnny lying on the riverbank of Boulder River. There were no tracks anywhere, so the only way he could have gotten there was if he was washed down from further up the river.”

“Boulder River?! He’s lucky to be alive! That water runs fast, and those rocks look like they could slice a body to pieces!”

Scott winced. “Yes, I know, that nearly happened. He’s got a wicked gash on his head that Sam had to stitch, and there are a few broken ribs. Murdoch and I have had those precise thoughts. Nightmares, more like it! He’s got a severe concussion and can’t remember anything for the two days prior. Sam said his memory might come back, but we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, he’s battling a substantial headache and covered in bruises.”

Gabe subconsciously laid his hand on the back of his head. “Yeah, I can imagine!”

The Widow entered the room and motioned to Gabe that her sons were ready to be released into the guardianship of Scott Lancer. He didn’t know what their mother told them, but the now meek as lambs Turner boys stood properly subdued and waited for the cell doors to open.

Gabe stared at them, then began the lecture that would hopefully sink into their thick skulls and keep them from finding their way back into his jail. It was the same as before— the words rolled off Gabe’s tongue from memory as Cletus and Bo suddenly found their boots quite interesting but nodded at the appropriate time, promising to behave and not make any more trouble. They agreed to work at Lancer until their debt to society and the damages to the saloon window… and tables, chairs, and doctor bills were paid in full. And while at Lancer, if they even looked sideways at the other, Scott had permission from the law (and the Widow) to lock them in the guardhouse and throw away the key.

The Turner brothers agreed they would act like the men they were supposed to be and work off their dues. With the legalities finished, they bid their mother goodbye and mounted their horses as the Widow called out, “You mind your manners and stay out of trouble!”

A duet of “Yes, Ma’am” floated behind them as they followed Scott to Lancer.

He jolted awake, feeling as if he’d been kicked in the head by a bull. Piercing, white-hot pain lanced through his brain, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the lightning that pierced his skull. Damn! This’s gotta stop…  What had disturbed his sleep and shocked him into wakefulness? Johnny didn’t know, but he was tired of the feeling that covered him like a shroud. He didn’t remember having a nightmare, but that feeling was there, a shock or scare waiting to be remembered, but he couldn’t bring it to light. It hid just beyond his ability to recall and forcing it would explode his head off his shoulders.

There was no going back to sleep; he waited for the sparks to diminish behind his eyes. And he took the chance. Easing to the side of the bed, Johnny levered himself to a sitting position, swung his legs over the side, and sat, taking stock of his body. What the hell is that smell? And he couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. Damn! It’s me! A good soak in a tub of hot water sounded like just the thing he needed. He knew if he stayed as he was, it would prove embarrassing. Teresa was learning to knock, but it was only a matter of time before she came bursting through the door without offering the consideration of a warning tap.

Johnny slowly got his feet under him and struggled to stand. Dizziness assaulted him. He closed his eyes to battle the swirling in his head, then reached out to steady himself as he leaned on the headboard of his bed. Muscles stretched that weren’t yet ready to be tested, but he knew that was the nature of the beast. The broken ribs and tender muscles didn’t hold back in their protests, and Johnny prepared himself for the discomfort.

Shuffling to the armoire, he grabbed a pair of pants off a hanger, sat on the edge of the bed, and fought to pull them on. It wasn’t until he eased across the room to the washstand that he got a good look at himself in the mirror —Dios, what happened? Vivid bruising shadowed his body, and it oozed down his face in bright, vivid colors around the gash that extended across his forehead and into his hairline. It wasn’t making him feel any better to see the mess, but he knew he’d been worse a time or two in his life.

The doorknob began to turn, but it wasn’t his sister who entered the room… and he wished it was. Doctor Sam Jenkins was not a happy man as he watched his patient risk further injury to his person as he once again disobeyed the strict instructions that would be to his advantage if he only gave them a chance.

“John Lancer! What do you think you’re doing?” Jenkins was furious. “I’ll not hesitate to tie you to the bed if you don’t start taking this seriously! Johnny, a fall and another blow to your head could cause irreparable harm!” He set his bag on the table by the bed, then helped Johnny to sit on the mattress.

“Sam, don’t yell… por favor…”

The plea was pathetic, and Sam felt sympathy as he observed the grimace that crossed Johnny’s face. “Johnny, what are you doing on your feet? You need to…”

“I need ta get up, Sam. I need a bath an’ I’m sick of bein’ in bed.”

“I want you to understand how serious this could be, Johnny. Don’t risk making it worse. How about I have one of the boys bring a tub in here, and I’ll help you with a bath?”

Johnny’s independence was threatened, but he knew he couldn’t refuse; Sam wouldn’t leave him alone to bathe in private. If he wanted a bath, Sam was going to be there. Johnny Madrid Lancer had no choice.

It was the price he had to pay, but the hot water felt pretty damn good. As he soaked in the tub, Sam and Murdoch brought in a screen to shield the bath while Maria changed the sheets on the bed, then left the men alone. Sam suggested he’d wash Johnny’s hair to keep the soap and water away from the stitches that held the gash together and clean away the dried blood that matted the thick mane.  Never had a bath felt so good, but just when the thought entered his mind, he heard Sam tell him it was time to get out of the tub.

He looked up in time to see both Murdoch and Sam watching him. “I can get outta here, Sam. Been takin’ a bath by myself for a long time now,” he murmured self-consciously.

Murdoch suddenly realized his son’s discomfort and stepped away to tidy up the room, occupying his attention elsewhere but on his vulnerable son.

Sam insisted that he stay close, held the towel for Johnny, and assisted in drying him off, then settled his patient on the bed to wrap the ribs. Finally, Johnny was tucked between the clean lavender-scented sheets. Before Murdoch had time to hand Johnny the nightshirt he placed on the pillow, Johnny tossed it to the foot of the bed as Sam finished his bandaging.

“How do you feel, John? Better?”

Johnny nodded, wondering why he was so tired after spending three days in bed. A bath wasn’t that strenuous… was it? But he felt the pull of sleep lure him away.

“Yeah, thanks, Sam, Murdoch…”

A flash, sudden and bright sparked in his head; it was dark when Johnny opened his eyes, and he listened as his heart thundered in his chest. But there was nothing to threaten the comforting warmth of his room; the only sound, other than his heart and the crackle of the fire in the hearth, was the rain drumming on the window. Nights were becoming chilly with winter closing in, and darkness descended earlier, leaving light and dark to share equal time — a battle between worthy adversaries.

Slowing his breath, he gingerly rolled his head across the pillow, spied a shadowy figure slouched in the chair, socked feet propped on his bed, and chuckled, knowing that Scott would wake with a crick in his neck.

“Hey, Boston, wake up,” he murmured and nudged his brother’s foot with his toe. “Scott, you’re gonna have a stiff neck if it ain’t there already. Wake up.”

The nudge woke the sleeping brother, although Johnny hated to do it. Scott was covering Johnny’s workload and needed to sleep, but it would be worth the interruption if it kept the painful muscles from knotting.

“Hmmm…” Slate blue eyes slit open, then widened as Scott realized Johnny was awake. “Johnny, what’s wrong?” Scott sat forward and winced as his hand went to his neck.

Too late, Johnny thought. “You’re what’s wrong. Wanted ta wake ya before ya got a stiff neck; besides, what’re you doin’ here? You should be in bed, not sittin’ here — ain’t got enough work ta keep ya busy during the day, huh?” He couldn’t hold back the chuckle before it escaped.

Scott snorted. “I’m here because you can’t follow doctor’s orders and stay in bed like you promised you would, little brother!” The truth of the statement held only a touch of sarcasm. “How’s the headache? Need anything for pain?”

“No, I’ll sleep through it… maybe.”

“What woke you, Johnny? The rain?” Scott knew Johnny wouldn’t be honest about why he was awake and not sleeping… not yet anyway, not until he remembered what happened.

“Thirsty.” It was only a half-truth, but Johnny hoped it would be enough. Boston would give him more time to straighten things out than Murdoch tended to do.

Scott helped Johnny with the drink of water, then settled him back in bed.

“Go ta bed, brother. I’m fine.”

Consulting the timepiece on the table, Scott smiled. “I’ve got ten more minutes on my watch; then, you’ll have our father in here with you!”

Johnny knew he’d lost another battle, first with Sam, now his family. What was happening to Johnny Madrid? No one took him seriously anymore! So, with an indignant huff, he resigned himself to having a guardian to watch him sleep. Now, as he lay trying to slip back into that dark, painless comfort, all he could do was wonder why the feeling of anxiousness shrouded him. The constant anxiety held him tight; it made him want to be up and looking for… something… not waiting for something to happen. But what? He had no clue. What was it? Torture— that’s what it was!

It was only a matter of time before Johnny would be up and about. Murdoch did his level best to delay the inevitable talking about anything and everything to keep his son occupied and those wandering thoughts of leaving this room at bay. He knew his son’s habits — once he was up, there would be no keeping him down again. Distractions ranged from Murdoch telling Johnny of his early life in Scotland to the first years at Lancer and the obstacles he faced.

He knew Johnny was interested, but he could see something else in those blue pools — something that gripped his son in the sharp talons of the unknown. Yes, it’s just a matter of time.

“Scott went into town yesterday afternoon to see about hiring another hand or two,” Murdoch said but regretted the statement as soon as it left his lips. Of course, Johnny would take the blame for the inconvenience, and Murdoch watched as he bowed his head and mumbled, “My fault.”

Murdoch shrugged. “No, Johnny, it’s not your fault! Do you think you hurt yourself on purpose?”

“I dunno what ta think, Murdoch. There’s nothin’; it’s like those few days didn’t happen.” But I know somethin’ did!

Murdoch saw the frustration — it was unmistakable.

“I was going to tell you that Scott went to talk to Val while he was in town, but he wasn’t there; Ben Stanley said he’d let Val know about you when he returned to Green River, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come out in the next day or two and check on you.”

“Thanks, it’ll be good ta see his ugly face,” an’ tell him… What? I got nothin’ ta tell him… Mierda, Madrid, you’re gettin’ stupid! “Scott find any help in town?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Yes, Cletus and Bo Turner are now employed at Lancer.”

Johnny had to close his eyes and hold his breath. “Murdoch, don’t be makin’ me laugh — it hurts enough without laughin’,” Johnny whispered. Then, “Those boys are good workers… if ya can keep them apart so they don’t kill each other.”

Murdoch chuckled again. ”The Widow Turner gave us permission to lock them in the guardhouse if necessary.”

“Guardhouse ain’t big enough for that. She’s a nice lady,” Johnny mumbled, but wondered how that nice lady had birthed those two rowdies!

“I’m sure that between Scott and Cipriano, they’ll be able to control those boys. Like you said, they’re good workers — just not tagether.”

Murdoch noted the far-away stare as it replaced the irritation of moments ago.

“Johnny, do you want to talk, or would you rather sleep? We don’t have to carry on a conversation all afternoon.”

“Tired of sleepin’, an’ if I can’t move around, talkin’’s good. What attracted you ta Maria?”

The question was a shock, and Murdoch felt his belly flip over. Was it time to tell the story that both sons deserved to hear? Past time! Murdoch admitted to himself. He knew that one day he would have this talk… but it was so sudden! He’s a grown man! Tell him!

“The first thing I noticed about your mother, Johnny, was her beauty. And so did every other man that saw her.”

Johnny nodded. He already knew that Maria Lancer Quintero was an exquisite beauty, and he knew all about… the other men.

“She possessed an innocence at first, but it quickly changed to fire. She challenged me; she made me fight to win her heart. And when I did, the sparkle in her eyes was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen! There was only one time that she was prettier — the night you were born. She was exhausted, but she was never more beautiful!

“Maria had a natural… energy… a fire about her; a spirit that brought out the best in me, and I loved her for it.” Murdoch was suddenly filled with remorse. “I only wish I knew what made her so unhappy that she left here.” He turned to Johnny, eyes begging for answers. But Johnny had none.

“Sorry I brought her up, Murdoch,” he murmured.

“It’s alright; you should know these things. It’s part of who you are.”

Abruptly, the air in the room became close, and what had been a pleasant conversation turned uncomfortable.

“Murdoch, you have better things ta do besides sit up here. I’m fine. Supper should be ready before too long; go down an’ eat. I’ll be good, I promise.”

Murdoch laughed aloud. “Oh, I can, can I? Didn’t Sam and I catch you up and about yesterday when he instructed you not todo that?”

Johnny sighed. “Go an’ eat, ol’ man, then you can have Maria bring me supper an’ a big piece of cake!”

Maria announced that dinner was ready, and as Murdoch made his way to the table, a knock sounded on the front door. The short detour to the foyer revealed Sheriff Val Crawford looking like he’d spent the last three days in the saddle.

“Mr. Lancer, I jus’ heard about Johnny — he alright?”

“Sheriff, come in! Yes, he should be. Would you care to stay for dinner?”

The thought of dinner hadn’t occurred to Val, but when Murdoch made the offer, Val’s belly growled a loud and empty protest. Having the grace to be properly embarrassed, Val muttered an apology, then accepted the offer, making the Lancer patriarch laugh.

“Johnny be joinin’ us at the table?” Concern for his amigo, first and foremost on his mind, Val gleaned the information he could.

“No, not yet. He has a serious concussion, and Sam doesn’t want him on his feet yet. Dizziness and headaches will be a problem for a while, so we’re doing our best to keep him down.”

Val snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that!” he said as he claimed the place next to Scott at the table. “Got any idea what happened? How’d he wind up on that riverbank?”

Murdoch placed a spoonful of potatoes on his plate, then passed the bowl. “We don’t know, Val, and Johnny can’t remember. He’s lost a few days; Sam doesn’t know if they will return.”

Val grunted. “Bet that’s makin’ ‘im crazy, ain’t it?”

“Yes, he’s trying too hard to remember, and all he’s doing is making the headache worse. His condition is out of his control, and Johnny isn’t used to that vulnerability, so we’re doing our best to keep him distracted. Conversations haven’t been very successful with the fatigue that seems reluctant to leave him. After dinner, why don’t you see if you can talk with him? He responds to you differently than he does with me…” Murdoch’s voice faded, painfully aware of the fragile relationship between him and his younger son, and although much stronger than in those early days after the boys arrived at Lancer, it wasn’t as solid as Murdoch would like it to be.

Val read the anguish on the father’s face; he knew it would take time for Johnny to settle into being a part of a family, to come to terms with trusting a man he grew up hating, and where Johnny Madrid had come a long way in overcoming the lies he’d been told, there was still a way to go. Trust was something that had never been easy for Johnny to build with another person. But Val knew it would happen… just not as soon as Murdoch hoped it would. 

Uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going, Murdoch changed the subject. “Is everything alright with Sheriff Thornton?”

Val grunted. “He’s been havin’ trouble with things. A string of robberies an’ a few other unsolved crimes. He asked for my help, so I went ta give ‘im a hand.” And now it was Val that wanted to change the subject. “Miss T’resa, this pie sure is good! Guess I’ll be takin’ ol’ Johnny a piece of this when I get up there!”

Teresa giggled. “Oh no, you won’t! Sam doesn’t want him to have any heavy food just yet! There’s soup on the stove for him!”

Val couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. Nope, Johnny ain’t gonna be one bit happy with no soup!

The knock on the door was soft but enough to rouse Johnny out of the blank space between consciousness and sleep.

“It’s open,” Johnny mumbled, then grinned when he saw who entered his room. He also caught the grimace that flitted across Val’s face when he saw the bruising that covered his eye and began to seep down over his cheek.

“Hope ya feel better’n ya look, amigo,” Val said, not entirely joking, as he pulled the chair close to Johnny’s bed.

“Pfftt! I’ll be better once I can get out from under these blankets an’ get some solid food in me! Did ya bring me anything?” Johnny asked as he searched Val for contraband.

“Uh uh, it was made plain ta me that you had soup on the stove, and that’ll be ready in just a few minutes. T’resa’s makin’ up a tray for ya right now. Sorry Johnny; I tried…” Val nearly chuckled at the expression of hope that wilted on Johnny’s face. “So, tell me, what’s the last ya remember.”

“Bein’ at the Angel’s Nest. Don’t remember the trip home either, so there’s time before whatever happened ta me that’s gone. Val, I hafta tell ya, this is damned strange. It’s like there’s somethin’ gonna come, some memory waitin’ ta be remembered, but it ain’t happening. There’s a big black hole, an’ I’m standin’ on the edge between light an’ lookin’ inta the dark. I just keep waitin’ for it — there’s a feelin’ that somethin’’s gonna explode, an’ I don’t know what it is.”

Johnny groaned in frustration. “Hey, what’d ya go see Thornton about? Everything alright up there?”

“Nope, it ain’t. Haven’t told Murdoch yet, T’resa was around, an’ I didn’t want ta scare her. But there’s a missing woman, an’ I was helpin’ Dan track down some leads. He knew that you an’ me had experience with that type of thing, so’s he asked for a little help.”

“Find her?” Johnny asked, interested now in something to think about other than his lack of memory and aching head.

“Nope. Nothin’. It’s like she was never there.”

“Are ya sure she didn’t up an’ leave on her own?”

“Ain’t sure of anything!”

The door opened as Teresa came in with a tray. “I’ll leave this, Johnny, unless you want some help eating.”

“Been feedin’ myself a long time, T’resa. I can manage.” Family thinks I can’t give myself a bath or feed myself!

Teresablushed, aware she’d embarrassed Johnny in front of Val. He was uncomfortable enough without the unwanted attention.“Well, I’ll leave it on the table then. Call me if you need anything, Johnny,” then she left the men alone.

Val snorted. “That’s alright, Miss T’resa; I’ll take care ‘a the ornery cuss!” The comment and the ear-to-ear grin relieved the stress of the moment, and Teresa returned the smile as she went into the hallway.

“Damn,” Johnny said, “ornery’s right. She didn’t deserve that…”

Oh, he don’t like that fussin’ over ‘im! He better hurry up an’ get better before he’s got ‘em all ready ta skin ‘im alive! Val helped arrange the pillows behind Johnny’s back and put the tray across his lap. “Well, I gotta tell ya, amigo, this ain’t what we had for dinner, but this soup looks damned good!”

Johnny met the sheriff’s hazel eyes, then asked, “Yeah, an’ what’d ya have for dinner?” he challenged.

Val knew he was caught. “Uh, beef roast, taters, an’ roast vegetables, an… pie.” The word ‘pie’ was whispered; maybe Johnny wouldn’t hear it.

But the cold stare told another story. And it made Val laugh aloud.

“Fergit it, amigo, you ain’t scarin’ a fly lookin’ like ya do! Eat yer soup an’ put Madrid away till ya can stand up without fallin’ down!” Val’s laugh did not encourage any civil heart-to-heart chats, and Johnny promptly told Val what he could do with his sense of humor.

“Hey, amigo, I know yer havin’ a hard time, but at least it’s only a coupla days we’re talkin’ about. Could be worse. R’member ol’ Lenny Brewster when he got smacked in the head? Hell, he never did r’member what happened ta him.”

Lenny Brewster was a rowdy loudmouth back in their range war fighting days and had made so many enemies he didn’t get through those weeks of a lost memory before he was shot dead, not knowing said enemies were all around him, and that was exactly what Johnny worried over. If someone came looking for Madrid, would his family wind up in jeopardy?

Although Val hadn’t done anything to ease Johnny’s feelings of what was just beyond his recall, waiting to ambush him when he least expected it to show, it was good to talk to him — Val understood… everything. His family meant well, and he appreciated their efforts… kind of, but they didn’t understand, couldn’t grasp the worries that careened around inside Madrid’s head.

“Hey Val, before ya leave, let Murdoch an’ Scott know about that missing woman. I don’t want them lettin’ T’resa out alone.”

Val nodded, thinking it was a good idea. “Well, I best be getting’ back ta town. I’ll see ya in a day or two, huh? Oh, an’ do me a favor, will ya?” At Johnny’s nod, Val Crawford continued, “When ya r’member what it is that’s tryin’ so hard ta come out, lemme know. It’ll come out, Johnny; that head a yers is too fulla holes- it’ll fall outta there sooner or later!” With a chuckle, Val left Johnny trying to force something to the surface that he couldn’t remember.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and walked into the great room, thankful that Teresa was nowhere to be seen, then took a seat on the couch.

“I’d like ta talk ta you two.” He looked around, making sure they were alone. “One a the reasons I was with Thornton was cuz there’s a missin’ woman from Merced an’ he wanted some information ‘bout how me an’ Johnny used ta handle that when we was workin’ the range wars. Johnny said ta tell ya ta not let T’resa be ridin’ anywhere by herself, or any a the women here go out alone. I think it’s a good idea, too. There could be any number of reasons why the woman went missin’, but ‘till we know for certain where she is an’ what happened ta her, well, jus’ be careful, alright?”

“Yes, we will, and thank you, Val, we won’t let her out of our sight!” Murdoch didn’t need any more to worry about, but worries don’t always ask when it would be a convenient time to strike…

Val stood to leave, and Murdoch followed him outside. He shook the reins from the hitchrail, then turned, wanting to help the father understand how things were. Val knew there were times when Murdoch worried about Johnny settling down to life as part of a family. Would Johnny one day suddenly leave, tired of the monotonous routine of ranch life? Would he return to the wild days of Madrid?

Talks such as these were too hard for him, and he usually avoided them, but Murdoch Lancer had to know. “I know Johnny ain’t been here long, but he’s ‘comin’ ‘round with this family stuff. He’s been through a lot an’ had ta deal with things on his own. I ain’t sayin’ he made all the right choices in his life, but them choices he did make kept ‘im alive, an’ he did the best he could.

“Ain’t never been one ta stick my nose in where it don’t b’long, Mr. Lancer, but it’ll help if ya know this, cuz he ain’t gonna tell ya. You want more from him as a son, an’ it’ll come… Jus’ give it some time. He’s happy here, livin’ as part of a family; I know that sometimes you have doubts about it. But I think that maybe he’s waitin’ for it ta be taken away, that it won’t last, an’ he’s protectin’ himself from the hurt an’ keepin’ a little distance. He’s lost so much, an’ this’s kinda second nature for ‘im ta do.” Val halted his words, then turned to Murdoch with a frown. “Don’t tell ‘im I told ya any a this, but ya needed ta know.” The sheriff twisted the reins around his fingers, then mounted the horse.

Had the evening turned warm suddenly? The comfort spread across Murdoch Lancer’s large frame as no other words ever had — words of hope for the future, words of a relationship with his son that had, until now, been shaky at best. Murdoch stepped forward with his hand extended. “Thank you, Val; I appreciate what you told me; it helped more than you could know. And, no, I won’t tell him of our talk!” Murdoch smiled.

Val returned the smile and nodded. “I’ll be back in a day or two. Thanks for supper!” Then, he was gone.

Murdoch, enlightened by the knowledge that Johnny was truly happy living as a family at Lancer, entered the hacienda and, although concerned about the missing woman from Merced, felt lighthearted and … happy.

He’d had enough. It was going to end today… now! “Ya gonna help me, ol’ man?”

“Help you do what, son?” Murdoch had been waiting for this moment and tried to delay the matter.

“Get my clothes…” Johnny met the stare, not backing down.

It wouldn’t be put off any longer. Those stormy blue eyes said all that needed to be said. “Alright, Johnny, but I will help you. Those headaches still give you a hard time — I can see it on you, so if you are bound and determined to be up, you will do it on my terms. Is that clear, young man?”

“Crystal.” That was it. He wouldn’t argue and risk Murdoch’s ire this close to freedom. If he had to spend one more day in this room, Johnny Madrid Lancer would go stark raving mad!

He bit back the groan that would have escaped had he been alone and suffered through the indignities of having Murdoch help him get dressed, but it was soon over, and he was on his way downstairs.

A wave of dizziness assaulted him, and without realizing his actions, he leaned against Murdoch as they came down the steps, but once in the great room, seated by the fire, it left him in peace. His sight allowed single vision instead of seeing double and triple of everything. Johnny tipped his head back on the soft cushions of the upholstered chair and sighed.

The bed in his room was the most comfortable he’d ever had, but at this minute, he was happy to be out of it and away from those four confining walls. From out of nowhere, Maria appeared holding a blanket and tucked it around Johnny as he leaned against the cushions of the chair; then, she lifted his feet to rest on the ottoman.

“Maria, I’m fine! Don’t fuss, por favor…” The tug at the corner of his mouth softened the plea as Maria finished her task with the final word.

“You stay, niño; rest. I bring you something to drink.” Without waiting for his reply, she hustled into the kitchen.

Murdoch’s chuckle didn’t help Johnny’s mood, but at least he was out of his room; however, it would be a give-and-take kind of thing — Murdoch was watching him like a hawk. Soon, Johnny thought, soon…

True to her word, Maria was back in no time with a large mug of… tea. The groan was out before it could be called back, making Murdoch look up from the ranch ledgers.


“Nothin’, Murdoch, ‘ m fine.” Johnny wasn’t sure the cover-up was enough to satisfy his father, and he hoped if he made no further comment or expression of disappointment, disgust, or frustration, Murdoch would let it drop. Some battles weren’t worth the effort, and this was one of them, so he resigned himself to settle into the chair and just be happy he wasn’t again confined to those four walls.

Maria stayed long enough to remind Johnny who was in charge with her instructions for him to drink the tea… all of it; then she returned to the kitchen.

He had to admit the tea warmed his belly, radiating outward, pulling him toward sleep. Soft cushions on the chair were comfortable; the thick blanket wrapped him in a cozy cocoon, and Johnny gave in to the invitation and began to drowse.

Murdoch kept a discreet watch, knowing it would be only minutes before his son would succumb to the tender pull of sleep and that he would never confess to the pain that still plagued him. The Lancer patriarch couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips as a memory of an over-tired baby Johnny as he fought to stay awake instead of settling for the night.

Barely conscious, Johnny felt himself drift away. Hafta say this’s pretty relaxin’ sittin’ here with the pop an’ hiss of the fire… His mind began to release its hold; his eyes began to close, and breathing was slow and even. Then a sudden bright flash exploded behind his eyes, and he was startled to full consciousness as his body tightened with a violent jerk. The gasp escaped unnoticed, then turned into a groan.

“Johnny?!” Murdoch was on his feet and headed toward his son. “What’s wrong, son?” Panic began to tangle him in icy tendrils as he watched Johnny’s eyes go wide and stare at nothing; No! That damned concussion!

Shock registered on Johnny’s face; then he paled as a cold rush traveled through his veins. Mierda, what the hell was that?

“Johnny! What happened?” Murdoch witnessed the entire episode, fearing the worst. He watched as Johnny blinked, then blinked again. “Son?”

Johnny let out a breath, squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and looked around; his vision came to rest on Murdoch bending over him. What would he tell him? “’ M fine… Guess a muscle twitched an’ snagged on one a them busted ribs. It’s fine, Murdoch, honest.” Johnny wasn’t about to divulge to Murdoch that a flash ignited in his brain. Murdoch would have Sam out to the ranch to poke and prod faster than Jelly could complain about his aching elbows, prompting Maria and Teresa to force more of that awful tea on him. Besides, what would he tell them other than he saw a flash behind his eyes? What would that prove? Nothin’! Nothin’ but more ‘do this’ an’ ‘don’t do that’!

Murdoch’s piercing stare didn’t waver… not one bit, making Johnny uneasy under the intense scrutiny.

“Murdoch, ‘m fine; stop fussin’.”

“You’re far from fine, Johnny. Are you sure it was just a muscle spasm? Was there any pain in your head?” the father asked, knowing his younger son was usually less than honest with his answers regarding his discomfort.

“Hell, ol’ man, my head hasn’t stopped hurtin’ since I been awake, but it wasn’t that. I told ya it was a muscle twitchin’.”

With nothing more to say that wouldn’t cause an argument, Murdoch sighed, then, “As long as I’m up, can I get you anything, Johnny?”

“Nope, I’m good.” Well, he should say something more, and he did. He turned to meet his father’s eyes. “Thanks, Murdoch,” and offered him the smile that melted the father’s heart.

Murdoch wasn’t sure he believed Johnny with the ‘Nope, I’m good’ response, but relief flooded over him, relatively certain his son was not uncomfortable. Though Johnny was a master at disguising his pain, Murdoch was learning to ‘read’ the signs.

The visit to Molly Malone’s small ranch solved a few issues that plagued Teresa regarding the upcoming church bazaar planned to benefit the orphanage. It had been a hard year in the San Joaquin Valley, and many suffered, leaving orphans with every incident. Spring floods cost many their homes; they were the lucky ones, as many had lost their lives.

A summer blaze caused by sky-to-ground lightning burned over the vast expanses of grass, taking everything in its path. Farms and small ranches suffered the brunt of the devastation when the wind switched direction and guided the voracious flames away from Lancer but toward the area where less profitable homesteads waited for their demise in the path of the storm. Parents sent their children to safety but stayed to battle the flames — and many lost that war, leaving their children alone with nothing.

Then, late summer brought the fever that swept through the valley, killing indiscriminately. The very old, very young, and infirm suffered the most. It was as if the valley had been cursed with death.  But the hardy souls of the San Joaquin stuck together; neighbors helped neighbors, whether with food, supplies, or manpower, to rebuild; they also helped to bury the dead.

The incidents prompted the good ladies of the surrounding towns to jump into service with their charity work.

Teresa O’Brien knew about charity… and love. There wasn’t a day that went by that she did not give thanks to Murdoch Lancer for taking her into his heart and home. Though she was no blood kin, she lived as a treasured daughter and sister to the Lancer family, and she couldn’t have loved them more had they been kin.

The cool wind felt good blowing across her face, and she nudged Cocoa into a gallop, relishing the freedom. It seemed that the last few days, she was never alone; someone was always close by, which was unusual. Lancer was a working ranch — Had something changed? Well, she had things to do after deciding with Molly their best course of action to benefit the bazaar.

The bullet kicked up dust beside Cocoa’s hooves, causing the mare to skid to a bone-jarring stop and rear up on her back legs. Barely hanging on, Teresa grabbed the saddle horn and fought for control, then desperately tried her best to calm the animal. Was that a rifle shot she heard? Who would be firing a rifle at her? And now, suddenly afraid, Teresa kicked the mare into a blinding run, left the road, and took the shortcut across the lush grass of Lancer land.

With her heart pounding in her breast, Teresa risked a look behind her, then wished she hadn’t. A shadowy figure followed at a reckless gallop off to her right side, chasing and gaining on her! Over the hill, just get over the hill, then you’re almost at the back of the hacienda! Cocoa ran as fast as she ever had, sensing danger, and she responded, carrying her mistress to the safety of home. And she did not look back again.

Breathless, Teresa jumped from the saddle and ran into the house. “Murdoch! Murdoch!” Racing through the house, she collided with the mountain that was Murdoch Lancer as she rounded the corner into the great room. “Oh, Murdoch! I was so scared!” she sobbed into his chest.

Johnny stood too quickly as ribs and pounding head protested the maneuver out of the chair where he’d been ensconced only seconds ago. Dizziness assaulted him as he grabbed the chair for stability and watched Murdoch wrap his arms around the girl, trying to calm her and tell him what was wrong.

“Teresa, darling, what is it?”

“He chased me! Someone was chasing me!”

From the corner of Murdoch’s eye, he watched as Johnny struggled to stay on his feet, pale and fighting pain, then gathered himself and came to stand beside them.

“Who, T’resa? Who was chasin’ ya?” Madrid was in the room.

Though soft, the tones demanded an answer; Teresa pulled herself together and told them what she knew, although it wasn’t much.

“I don’t know! He was too far away! I… I was on my way home from Molly’s…”

“Teresa, didn’t I ask you to stay close to home?” He didn’t want to scare her; didn’t want her to know yet about the missing woman in Merced. They didn’t know for certain what had happened; why scare anyone? But Teresa was old enough to do what she was told and old enough to realize the consequences of what could happen if she didn’t. Murdoch held her arms, forcing her to meet his eyes. He had to be firm and make her understand. But how would he do that? They had no positives, only questions, and questions with no answers did nothing but create fear of the unknown.

“Alright, darling, where did this happen?”

“I just crossed Stoneyrun Creek, you know, where it makes that sharp turn by the bridge?”

“Yes, I know the place. What happened next?”

“Someone shot a rifle into the ground by Cocoa’s hooves, and I had trouble getting her settled.” She looked to Johnny, thanking him with her eyes that he’d taught her how to handle her horse in a situation like that.

Murdoch felt the tremors that raced through her body. Johnny’s blood began to boil, furious that a man was on Lancer land and shooting at his family. Both patriarch and brother waited while Teresa told what she had seen — a shadowy figure chasing her.

“Could ya see anything else, querida? What he was wearin’ or what kinda horse he was ridin’?”

Teresa shook her head.  “No, he was too far away, and I panicked when he started after me!”

She could tell them nothing — there was nothing certain to go on; then he turned and walked to the hall tree.

“Where are you going, Johnny?” Murdoch demanded.

“Ta have a look around…”

No, you are not! Johnny, you won’t make it a mile before you fall out of your saddle. I’ll send Frank; he’s a decent tracker; you’ve said so yourself.”

What the hell ‘m I doin’? Don’t even have my boots on! But I hafta go!

“Johnny, I’ll pull Cip off the repair job at the bridge. Between the two of them, they’ll check things out. Johnny…? You know I’m right.” Murdoch could only hope the sense and reasoning got through; his son would move heaven and earth to protect his family, but he was also learning he couldn’t handle everything, that there was help now, and that he wasn’t alone anymore.

Johnny Madrid Lancer rarely gave in, but Murdoch sighed in relief when he read the admission in his son’s stance. Johnny’s head dipped, his shoulders slumped as he fought the dizzy swirls in his brain, and knew if he didn’t get off his feet and soon, his lunch, what little he ate, would reappear.

“Fine, send them, but do it now. Whoever was out there is gettin’ away…”

Teresa left the security of her guardian’s protective arms, then went to Johnny and helped him back to his chair by the fire. He averted his eyes, and she knew he was in trouble. “Johnny, do you want to go back to bed? You don’t look very well.”

He snorted. “Damned invalid. Can’t even stand by myself.”

And now, Teresa felt guilty. If she had listened to Murdoch as she should have, perhaps her brother wouldn’t feel like he did.

Sheriff Val Crawford read the wire again. Dan Thornton made a grim discovery; the missing woman was found… murdered… violated, and butchered. And that wasn’t all. It happened a few weeks before Lucy Taylor disappeared in a town east of Merced. There was nothing to go on; no clues, no… anything, and it appeared the terror was coming this way, maybe already here…

He had no other option than to notify Sheriff Gabe in Spanish Wells and gather the trustworthy ranchers to do what they could. With no descriptions to go on, the murderer could literally be walking among them, and they would have no clue. How can ya catch a killer doin’ that?! Val thought. All ya can do is wait ‘til he tries again an’ jus’ hope ya get ta him before kills anyone else…

The citizens of Green River and the surrounding area were generally good folks, but panic and the unknown could turn good, reasonable folks into damned fools without a lick ‘o sense. He’d seen it happen before.

Damn, sure could use ol’ Johnny on this! But that wasn’t about to happen — not this time. Green River would have to foot the bill and pay Russell Westin for his tracking services. They had done it in the past and would again.

Val’s thoughts were interrupted when the door to the office opened, and Josiah Hadley hurried in, looking as though the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. Hadley and his mountain clan lived on the northern edge of Lancer but kept to themselves with the ‘leave me alone an’ I’ll do the same’ way of existence. And the man rarely came to town, preferring mountain life to ‘civilized’ society.

But today, things were different. There was trouble, and it wasn’t good if Hadley came into town seeking Sheriff Crawford’s help.

“Mr. Hadley, what can I do for ya?” Val asked as he leaned back in his chair. The noisy squeak was drowned out by the mountain man’s ire.

“Ya kin kitch that no good varmint thet took my Laurie, thet’s what cha kin do!”

Val’s heart sank to his feet. He needed Russell Westin… now.

“Patrón, there was nothing. Only the senorita’s tracks…” Cipriano’s report did not set well. Murdoch was not a man to give into speculation and ‘what ifs’; he lived by facts and ‘what was’, but he would not disregard any bit of information that had the potential to harm Teresa or anyone else. Now all he had to do was keep his younger son from attempting to leave the ranch and search for the culprit. Living as Johnny Madrid, his son was the protector of others, giving no thought to himself, and Murdoch had not yet broken through that thick wall Johnny had built. But it wasn’t for lack of trying on Murdoch’s part. How would he convince his son that he was not the only one who could care for his family?

Two days had passed since Teresa’s scare. There had been no other incidents, and everything was quiet. Where the predator had gone was anybody’s guess. Had Teresa imagined the incident? No, Murdoch thought; you don’t imagine a bullet in the dirt by your horse’s hooves, and she was not one prone to something of this nature; still, he watched her closely, not that she would venture off by herself again after what happened. And Murdoch watched Johnny, too. He was quiet, too quiet. Murdoch observed a distinct change in his son; not only was the dizziness dissipating, but he was growing stronger. A noticeable difference in Johnny’s demeanor transformed the unsteady, painfilled man of a week ago into that of a man contemplating a mission. Murdoch knew it was a matter of time before Madrid would slip out of sight to begin his own investigation of the mysterious rider that had scared his sister half to death.

Maria called them to the dinner table, bestowing her niño with a warm hand on his cheek. He turned his smile on her making her beam the affection that filled her heart, then she left for the kitchen. Food was passed, and the familial conversation began.

“Hey, Boston, how’re them Turner boys doin’? Any trouble… yet?” Johnny grinned. It was funny as long as he wasn’t the one to deal with them.

Scott smiled, knowing full well Johnny’s thoughts. “Bo has been working with my crew, and I have to say that he is an asset. A stump in Wolf Creek started to dam the water flow; Floyd and Steve were pushing while Juan led the horse to pull it free, but that stump was not going anywhere… until Bo said, ‘Lemme in there! I’ll show y’all how it’s done!’. He charged into the creek, put his shoulder behind it, and, working together, that stump was out of the water in no time flat! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it!” Scott’s imitation of Bo’s less-than-polished vocabulary had them laughing, not because Bo lacked an education but hearing the words come from Scott added another dimension of humor.

“Hey Murdoch, keep them boys around, an’ you can get rid of the draft horses you’re feedin’,” Johnny chuckled.

“I think you’ve got that all wrong, Johnny; those two boys eat more than the horses do!” Murdoch said with a laugh. “Plus, I pay them!”

A knock on the door interrupted the laughter; Scott stood and, walking to the foyer, opened the portal to reveal Sheriff Val Crawford.

“Val, come in. Have you eaten? We just sat down; come join us.”

Crawford hadn’t considered the time, interrupting their supper hour, and regretted his arrival, but he was there now, so he accepted Scott’s invitation. Greetings were exchanged, and Maria brought him a plate. Those around the table passed the sheriff bowls and platters of delectable food when Johnny spoke.

“That ol’ clock in your belly is off by a few minutes, amigo. You’re late for dinner.” Everyone laughed… except Val.

“Ya lookin’ ta spend a few days in jail for yer smart mouth?” Val smiled as he stabbed a large piece of beef off the platter to add to his heaping plate.

Although it was said in good-natured banter, Johnny saw the trouble in Val’s eyes. Something had happened.

“Don’t mind him, Val,” Teresa giggled, “he’s still a little cranky being stuck here with nothing to do!”

The meal progressed with the veneer of humor disguising what might lay ahead. Only time would tell.

The apple pie smothered in heavy cream helped to lighten Val’s mood — for a while. Then dessert was finished and with the appropriate compliments given to Teresa and Maria, the Lancer men and Sheriff Val Crawford left for the semi-privacy of the great room and the customary after-dinner drinks.

“Let’s have it, Val. What’s on your mind?” Johnny asked quietly, taking both Murdoch and Scott by surprise and leaving them to wonder what they had missed.

Val was not a man to mince words. “Got a telegram from Sheriff Thornton in Merced- they found the body of the woman that went missin’… what was left of her. It weren’t pretty… Her name was Lucy Taylor. You know the Taylors, Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch sat stunned. He’d known Ray and Lucy Taylor for years, mainly through horse auctions and ranch business. They were good people… “Yes, I knew them…” he murmured, thinking to send his sympathies to Ray.

“That ain’t all. Billy brought me the telegram bout Miz Taylor, an’ not two minutes later, ol’ Josiah Hadley come into the office lookin’ mean enough ta chew nails. His Laurie’s gone. Jus’ up an’ disappeared. Me an Russell Westin took a trip up that way but didn’t find nothin’.”

Johnny sat tense; dread flooded through him as he thought of Teresa being chased on the road by an unknown man. Dios! Please, no!

Johnny was not alone in his thinking. Murdoch’s eyes widened, and Scott inched forward on his chair.

“Val, two days ago, Teresa was on her way home from the Malone’s, and someone chased her. Whoever it was, fired a shot into the road, trying to scare her horse, but she held on and made it home before he could catch up with her. I sent Frank and Cip back to check it out, but they couldn’t find any tracks. Val, is there a killer on the loose?”

“Well, we know Miz Taylor’s dead, but that’s all… no, that ain’t all. Thornton’s wire said there was another woman found dead east of there. ‘Bout seventy miles away an’ in the same condition as Miz Taylor. Miss Laurie is missin’, but that don’t mean she’s dead. But what it does mean is everyone needs ta stay close ta home an’ watch the women till we have some answers. We have one body, but that’s it… for now. Don’t mean we got a crazy man runnin’ around. Don’t wanna cause any panic, but folks have a right ta know what’s goin’ on. Me an’ Russell wanted ta find out all we could before we let the word out. We took two whole days a lookin’ up by Hadley’s place, but there just ain’t no signs that somethin’ was wrong.”

“Val, when I went into town looking for men to hire, there was a stranger in the saloon. I didn’t get his name, unfortunately, but he had black hair and looked rather tall, probably about two hundred pounds, I’d say, although he sat at the table the entire time I was there, so I can’t be certain. I asked him if he needed work, but he said he was just passing through.”

“Well, he ain’t there now. I talked with Henry at the Angel’s Nest, an’ he mentioned ‘im, too, but said he left, rode outta town the same day. Ain’t been no other strangers around.”

Johnny sat conspicuously quiet; Murdoch, Scott, and Val took notice but kept their comments to themselves, knowing Johnny had something on his mind. But there was no sense in starting an argument if they didn’t have to, and they all knew an argument would be the end result if they questioned Johnny.

“I know we’re all thinkin’ along the same lines here, but causin’ unnecessary panic ain’t gonna get the job done. I figure we need ta take another look-see around ol’ Hadley’s place; mebbe me an’ Russell missed somethin’; that’s a lot a country up there an’ it’d take us more time than two days ta check out everything. I dunno, but it could be that Miss Laurie run off. Like I said, I dunno, but one thing I do is we can’t have people runnin’ around actin’ crazy thinkin’ there’s a killer on the loose.”

“Val, I think I’ll ride over to the Circle C tomorrow and tell Aggie to have her foreman keep an eye open for anything out of the ordinary. Tuck McKay is trustworthy, or she wouldn’t have kept him as the foreman for the last nine years. I know they’ve been up in the high country after strays lately; maybe he can watch for anything unusual.”

“That’s a good idea, Murdoch,” Scott said, “I think I’ll do the same and take Cipriano and Isidro with me and go after a few Lancer strays. The canyon up by Boulder Creek area seems to be a preferred hiding place for our cattle, and perhaps if we go up there again, we might find some sign that Laurie Hadley passed through. It’s worth another trip up there.” He wasn’t about to mention that he would like to find where Johnny went into the river.

“Good thinking, son; it won’t hurt to take another look around.” Then Murdoch thought he needed to give Johnny something to do before he took off to investigate himself. He would find worthwhile things to keep Johnny occupied at the ranch to prevent him from going out on his own. Murdoch was as certain of that fact as he was that night followed day.

Scott had the same inclination, making Murdoch wonder if his older son had read his mind. “Well, brother, are you up for a little assignment tomorrow?”

The stare that only moments ago burned holes into the air with his private thoughts cooled to a simmer as Johnny turned to his brother. “What’d ya got in mind, Boston?”

“That new man we hired isn’t exactly working out. I thought to give him another chance before I fired him and was going to have him do a few chores. Muck out the barn, for one thing; oh, and he could chop wood, you know, things around here, but if you could keep an eye on him, I’d appreciate it. What about it? Do you feel up to earning your keep?” Scott said with a grin.

Johnny smirked. “Sure, I can do that.” He turned his stare into the crackling fire and wondered why that anxious feeling had flared again.

The scream, shrill, a death knell, sliced through his brain; Johnny Madrid Lancer came awake, bathed in a cold sweat and panting, the gasp hoarse as it seared his throat. What the hell was that? A searing, blaze-like pain tore through his head, making him groan; he stared into the darkness, recognized his room, and fumbled to reach for the glass of water on the table at his bedside.

The cool liquid flowed through him and smothered the fire in his parched throat, and he gingerly touched the gash on his head, thankful that Sam had finally removed the stitches. He closed his eyes tightly as if to banish the pain and shut it off forever. Why couldn’t he remember anything? And why was he tortured by the flashes, the fragments that pierced through his brain and left him drained and out of breath?

After several minutes, his breathing returned to normal, and the heartbeats that slammed in his chest only moments ago ceased their pounding; he laid back on his pillow in a futile attempt to sleep.

“Are you sure you’re up to this, Johnny? I can have Jelly stay with you to give you a hand if you need help.”

Johnny stared at his brother and raised his brows with an ‘are you kidding me’ look, clearly insulted that Scott would think he couldn’t manage one lazy cowboy. “Go do what cha need ta do, Boston, an’ don’t worry about me an’… what’s his name?”

“Jerry, Jerry Simmons.”

“Simmons, yeah, I remember now. Well, ol’ Jerry Simmons is gonna get real familiar with that pitchfork an’ shovel while he’s muckin’ out stalls. You think I’ll need help with that?” Johnny challenged.

Scott smiled as much inwardly as he did on the outside. Johnny was feeling better, that was for certain. “No, brother, I know you will be just fine!” Scott grabbed his coat from the hook beside the door and was gone.

“Guess I better get movin’, too, before he comes back an’ hasta walk me out ta the barn…” Johnny mumbled to no one in particular.

“Son, please take it easy today. I know you’re feeling better, but it’s important that you don’t overdo it and set yourself back.” Murdoch threaded his arms through his coat and settled the hat on his head while he watched his son’s face.

Johnny knew that, as hard as this incident was on him, it was also difficult for his family, and he conceded the point. Sighing, he looked into his father’s face as he waited for his son’s response. “Yeah, Murdoch, I’ll take it easy.”

The look lasted a moment longer, and the father wasn’t quite sure he believed the promise, but he let it slide. “I’ll be back after lunch…”

Tyler Davis settled in to watch from his cover as two men left the ranch, going in opposite directions. One of them looked much like the young rancher that offered him a job in the saloon nearly two weeks ago. Tyler wondered what was going on. Well, he would keep out of sight and watch for an opportunity to look around. He had managed to stay out of sight this long; a few more days wouldn’t matter if he was lucky. There was a good chance he would find something; he just had to be patient. Patience had paid off before; it would be again. And he smiled to himself as he watched a third man walking slowly to the barn; he looked injured. Was he the one with no memory?

Jerry Simmons looked at the pitchfork in his hands, turned to the stalls that needed cleaning, then glared at Johnny. “I ain’t no stable hand…”

“Ya are taday. Better get ta work; by the time ya get this finished, I have a few more things for ya ta do an’ none of it’s gonna get done with you just standin’ there. So, the way I see it, ya want a job that pays top wages. Ya gotta work an’ it doesn’t matter what cha do — you’re gettin’ paid.”

“Seems ta me, ya could gimme a hand, insteada just standin’ there lookin’ at that horse,” Simmons griped.

“Talkin’ won’t get the job done.” The words, softly spoken, carried a message, and that message spoke volumes.

Jerry hefted the pitchfork in his hands, snorted, then began the distasteful job of cleaning the stalls. His resentment of authority made him think that the pitchfork might come in handy for taking care of a mouthy boss.

It had been worth the trip; eighteen cows and steers were found lazing in the afternoon sun, tucked away in a secluded spot, protected by high rock formations and thick stands of pines, a living piece of pastoral art created by a practiced hand.

“Señor Scott, I will look up there,” Cipriano pointed to higher ground. “The vacas (cows), I think they do not know to stay on Lancer land!” His chuckle brought a smile to Scott’s mouth.

“Yes, they are an ignorant bunch, aren’t they?”

“Sí, muy estúpida!” The Lancer Segundo nudged Renegado, keeping the steed close to the river. He did not let on that he was watching the ground for tracks, hoping he would stumble on something that told of what had happened to Johnny. Boulder River was rough; it was no wonder Johnny was battered, but he was thankful it hadn’t been worse. Cip pushed the thought from his mind. Johnny was home and healing, and that was all that counted.

Could he afford to waste any more time waiting? Nothing was certain, but he could sit here for hours and not find his target. Hours he couldn’t get back. Then there was movement. A young woman came from the house; long brown hair hung down her back to her slender waist. He bet she was pretty, too. Maybe he would spare another few minutes waiting… and maybe, it would lead to more.

“Johnny? I baked…” Teresa abruptly halted her announcement of cookies fresh out of the oven when she saw that Johnny was not alone. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were alone. I just took a batch of oatmeal cookies out of the oven; do you want to come in the house and get them, or do you want me to bring some out here?”

Jerry smiled ear to ear. “That would be right kind of…”

“Later, T’resa; I’ll come an’ get some when we’re finished here. Thanks.” He had seen the light in Simmons’ eyes as Teresa walked into the barn; just then, a twinge in his head gave him pause — there was no way he would let this man into the house — not with his sister so close. No, if he chose to share the treat Teresa baked, Simmons could have his in the barn, with the manure and flies, or the corral, or the pasture, but he wouldn’t be anywhere near the house… or Teresa.

Johnny would have laughed at the crestfallen expression of the shiftless Lancer hand, but the explosion of pain in his head blasted all reasonable thought out of his mind; his legs buckled, and he went to his knees.

“Johnny!” Teresa screamed as she raced to his side.

The smell was strong; something was dead. The scent of decaying flesh was getting stronger with every step Renegado took, and Cipriano knew he was close to finding the source of the suffocating odor and dreaded what it would be. Perhaps his worry was for naught — mountain lions buried their kills and fed off of them for days. But he would soon know what awaited him.

“’ M fine! Lemme up… T’resa, ‘m fine!”

“Oh no, you’re not, Johnny Lancer!”

Ain’t such a hot-shot boss now, are ya, Lancer? Simmons couldn’t help the smile that crawled across his mouth as he helped to guide Johnny to a wooden crate next to Barranca’s stall. The golden horse leaned his head over the rails, and, baring his teeth, he nipped Simmons’ shoulder. The young man whirled around, drew back his fist, then thought twice about the punch he almost landed on the velvety muzzle.

“Wouldn’t… do that if I was… you,” Johnny said between clenched teeth as he held the Colt rock-solid in his hand.

Jerry Simmons paled as he looked down the hungry blue bore. He backed away and held his hands, palms to the threat, in defeat. “Hey, I don’t mean any harm, but that nag bit me!”

Johnny fought to get his breath, then looked up at the Lancer hand and squinted his eyes. “Yeah, he does that, so now ya know ta stay away from him. Keep that in mind…”

“Johnny, I think you should come in the house now,” Teresa coaxed, worried for her brother but with no luck.

“I’ll be in later, querida, thanks. You go, but… keep the coffee hot, por favor!” He winked, trying to dispel her fear.

Teresa O’Brien knew she wouldn’t talk Johnny into coming inside; she only hoped that Murdoch would be back soon. Nodding her head, she turned to the house, but not before she cast a skeptical eye in her brother’s direction.

Jerry Simmons was left wondering just how badly Lancer was hurt; Must not be feelin’ that great — sure is in a bad mood.

The horse wouldn’t go any further; he tossed his head and stomped the ground with his hooves. Cip would not risk the possibility of Renegado bolting back down the mountain and heading for the safety of his stall at Lancer, leaving him to ride double with Señor Scott. He stepped from the stirrup, tied the bay securely, and went on foot, anticipating the worst. Death was close, and he was not unfamiliar with death; he hoped whatever lay ahead was a natural occurrence. Dios. Perhaps he was spooked by Señor Crawford’s news.

Es malo — los pájaros, no canton… (It is bad — the birds, they do not sing…). And then he saw ‘it’, scattered amongst the rocks and brush — the body of a woman, Laurie Hadley if he had to guess. Her remains, what was left of her, lay victim to the forces of nature. The wild animals and time had done their worst… and so had the murder weapon. Only a knife could have made the wound that nearly severed the head from the torso.

Cipriano turned away and vomited into the brush; it was then he saw the tracks on the riverbank.

This time, there wasn’t just a flash; for a split second, Johnny saw a finger on a trigger. What had happened? Who had taken a shot at him? Where had he been?  The pounding in his head didn’t help his concentration, and he had difficulty keeping his thoughts from scrambling, but he knew a finger on a trigger when he saw one.

Johnny pulled himself together, knowing that Simmons watched him with great interest. Leveling a stare at the lazy hand, Johnny spoke. “Them stalls ain’t gonna get cleaned if you’re standin’ there watching me.”

Jerry smiled, snorted, then said, “No, I reckon they ain’t.” He picked up the pitchfork and began his distasteful task.

Tyler Davis watched as the girl came out of the barn and quickly walked to the hacienda but saw no other activity; no one followed her. Would he make his move now… or wait? Sound carried from the west, and Davis saw two riders approaching the barn. One of them was the large man he had seen leaving the ranch earlier. Together the men dismounted and disappeared through the large stable doors.

Murdoch Lancer noticed the pale complexion on his son’s face but kept any comment to himself, knowing Johnny wouldn’t appreciate the unwanted attention in the presence of a hand. Still, he visually assessed his son and made his decision.

“Frank,” Murdoch called to the trusted hand, “would you take over Johnny’s care of Barranca? I need to talk to him in the house.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. Johnny, your horse is in good hands!” Frank assured the Lancers with his broad smile; the boss’s intention was clear that Frank also watch Jerry Simmons.

And it was not lost on Jerry, either.

Murdoch gently laid his arm across Johnny’s shoulders; this fatherly gesture pleased the son, and as they walked to the house, Murdoch sensed his son’s inner turmoil.

Tyler Davis had seen enough… for now, and he left undetected. But he would be back.

Cip retrieved his canteen to rinse his mouth, then spat the water on the ground. He wiped a hand across his lips, then retraced his steps to read the tracks on the river bank. The sound of the rushing water swirled the thoughts in his brain, making it hard to concentrate. The tracks were not fresh, probably two weeks old, Cip thought, made about the time Johnny was hurt. The rain had done its worst, dulling them, making them impossible to read. What story was written out in the mud, broken twigs, and grass torn from the earth? Was this where Johnny went into the river? If this was the spot, it was no wonder he suffered those injuries; it was a long way from this point to where Frank had found him.

Wasting no more time speculating, Cip turned away from the grisly scene, intent on notifying Scott about the body. The situation was getting ugly — what happened to the girl was no accident.

The cow was stubborn; she avoided Scott’s best efforts to get her back with the rest of the herd. The mountains seemed to agree with her, Scott thought. “Just wait until the snow starts to fly — you’ll regret the decision to stay!” Scott shook his head. What had happened to him? He was now talking to cows!

Finally making headway with the obstinate beast, Scott’s musings were interrupted when Cipriano raced his horse toward him. The man looked sick.

“What is it, Cip?”

“The girl, Señorita Laurie, I think… I found… her.”

Scott coiled his rope and looped it around the saddle horn. “Show me!” Then he followed Cip up the river.

Scott choked back the bile that rose in his throat as he studied the body of Laurie Hadley. He forced himself to memorize the slashes that crisscrossed the corpse, not that he would have forgotten what he saw. It had been burned on his brain… forever. The slash on her neck had nearly severed the head from the shoulders, and that nightmarish vision would stay with him for as long as he lived. Still, he needed to relate what he’d seen to Sheriff Crawford and Doc Jenkins, and although this was visions from a nightmare, Scott forced himself to take in every detail. There was no possible way to bring the body to Green River or Spanish Wells; the deterioration was too great… and there were too many pieces. The best he could offer was a wrap of slickers and bedrolls. He’d sent Cip to the nearest line shack for a shovel; they would bury the girl in a deep grave and pile it with rocks to keep it safe from more predators.

But Scott knew he would have to speak to old Josiah Hadley and tell him that his daughter was dead — brutally attacked and slashed to death. Scott wondered how a father would get over knowing his daughter had met that grisly end. The truth of the matter was, he probably wouldn’t…

It was a long ride into town; there was a lot of time to think, a lot of time to… remember… But those morbid thoughts would get him nowhere.

There were riders in and out of Lancer — it seemed too many for a normal working day, making Tyler Davis curious as to what was going on. Had they found something? Anything? Or would he need to move on and try looking in another place? Speculating was not good; he wanted to know for certain and act accordingly. And he could not get caught; he wondered just how long he could get away with this.

Although he hadn’t done much physical work, Johnny was exhausted. The frustration of defeat in recalling the two lost days was wearing him down. Something would flash in his head; a faded shadow of memory teased and taunted, prompting a splitting headache that turned his stomach inside out. Would this void, this blank page, ever release him and come into the light? Watching over Jerry Simmons hadn’t helped the fatigue. The slacker had done everything in his power to irritate and aggravate Johnny and had come very close to finding himself out of a job. The assigned chores coincided with his deteriorating attitude; apparently, mucking out the barn wasn’t enough to make him toe the line, and now he was digging a new pit for an outhouse.

Johnny thought he’d rather deal with ornery cows any day than put up with this pendejo and his lippy, whiney comments. Wonder how he’s gonna take ta workin’ with Jelly tomorrow? That’ll either shape him up or make him quit… Maybe ol’ Cletus or Bo Turner’d like ta watch him an’ keep him in line. With a shadow of a smile, he’d mention it to Scott later.

It was a fun thought to have one of the two hulking brothers keep the lazy ranch hand in line. Hell, with a threat of doing what he’s told or having one of them sit on him until he understands what he should be doing… and not doing was humorous, but a prickling began to fizz in Johnny’s head; that sense of waiting for something to happen started the anxious boil of anticipation. It had come out of nowhere, the taunt that prompted Johnny’s anger to run rampant; he shoved aside thoughts of the problem hand and concentrated on bringing the blank memory to light.

It was late when Scott got into Green River, having stopped at the Hadley place to report the bad news. Their conversation had mentally and physically drained him. Josiah Hadley stared blankly at first, then bowed his head as a shudder tore through his body. Scott steeled himself for rage but was shocked when the man lifted his eyes to meet Scott’s, looking ages older in those few seconds.

“Where… where is she?” was all the man asked. Scott’s brief explanation seemed enough; Hadley was a practical man, knowing the meaning behind Scott’s statement of “… she’d been there a while…” and it told the man volumes. Scott took him to the grave, then told the man he would help to move her if Hadley wanted. The reply stunned him for a moment, but at the same time, he felt not only relief but a calm surrounding him.

“We’re mountain people, Scott. This here’s a right purty place, what with the river an’ trees. My Laurie…” he struggled with the words and cleared his throat, “my Laurie, she woulda liked it here. This’s Lancer land, I know, but kin she stay here? Don’t wanna disturb her rest no more…” and his voice broke.

The words were difficult to get out, but Scott managed a response. “She’ll be fine here, Mr. Hadley. I’ll help you set a stone maker if you want. Just let me know.”

“No, Scott, my Laurie, she weren’t much for fancies. I think a wooden cross’d be ‘nough for my girl.”

“It would be an honor for us if you let Lancer do that. Jelly Hoskins is a handy man to have around. He’ll do a good job and burn her name into the wood; nothing fancy, but it will be dignified.”

The grief-filled eyes locked on Scott. “Do ya know who did it?” Fire began to build behind the grief.

“No, sir… not yet, but I’d be happy to keep you informed. You can count on it.”

“Thank ya. If ya don’t mind, I’d like ta stay with her for a while.”

“Take all the time you need, Mr. Hadley. Anytime.”

The old mountain man sank to his knees and mourned.

Scott tied Remmie at the hitchrail outside the sheriff’s office. If Val wasn’t there, he would have to go to the small house on the outskirts of town. It seemed fair to wake the sheriff, knowing he wouldn’t get any sleep tonight, so neither should Val. Petty, Scott knew, but it seemed to fit his mood.

“Murdoch, you send Scott out yesterday? He didn’t come home last night.” Johnny asked as he entered the kitchen by the back door, worry over his brother heavy on his shoulders.

“No… I thought he would be in later, and I went to bed but didn’t know he never made it home. I’ll send some men out to find him.” Then, frowning, he took a second look at Johnny and asked, “And why are you up? You’re supposed to be taking it easy, John.”

“Ain’t me ya should be worryin’ over, Murdoch; besides, ‘m fine. It’s Scott that needs…”

Johnny’s words were interrupted when the front door slammed shut, and Scott shuffled into the kitchen, looking like he’d not slept in the last two days. An unhealthy pallor colored his face, and bags hung under his darkened eyes.

“Scott! Son, what happened? Here, sit down!”  Murdoch pulled out the chair as Maria placed a cup of steaming black coffee on the table in front of him.

Johnny studied his brother, knowing there was more bad news.

“Thank you, Maria,” Scott’s words were soft as he picked up the badly needed coffee and sipped the hot brew. “I was with Val most of the night and will be again today.”

Johnny tensed but waited for Scott to gather his thoughts. His gut began to churn as he contemplated his brother’s pale face; the room filled with trepidation, setting nerves on edge.

“Cip and I were hazing the cows out of the Boulder Creek Canyon; he went further up the river… he… he found Laurie Hadley’s body… what was left of it anyway. I’ve never seen anything like it…” Scott’s voice faded away, and he lowered his gaze to focus on the mug of coffee in his hands; then, making sure that Teresa was not around and Maria was out of earshot, he continued. “She’d been… butchered…” A small gasp escaped him with the difficulty he suffered with talking. “We buried her there, on Lancer. I informed Mr. Hadley and showed him the… grave. I sent Cip home and told him I’d talk to you. He was… he was shaken when he found her; then I went into town to talk to Val.”

They were stunned; another innocent woman was murdered! Who would want to harm Laurie Hadley? Murdoch closed his eyes, vowing to extend his sympathies to the family. They kept to themselves all the years they lived in the mountains, never socializing, but Murdoch felt a profound loss for the man. Laurie was Josiah’s only daughter and the apple of her father’s eye.

Johnny bowed his head; the hammer and anvil began pounding mercilessly. Suddenly, he rose from his chair and left out the back door, heading toward the barn and the solace he found with Barranca.

“Scott, why don’t you lie down, son? You look like you could use the rest.”

Scott said nothing, staring at the scarcely-touched coffee in the mug; he knew sleep would not be coming anytime soon. The horror of their discovery would haunt him for a long, long time.

He began to pace, an anxious, aimless walk through the rooms of the hacienda. He’d stop to look out a window, then proceed past the bookcase, glancing at the tomes resting there but not seeing them. He had to get hold of his thoughts, his emotions. Shock was a useless place to wallow — a tight bond of helplessness. Then Scott physically shook himself, fighting that inability to control. He sat down at the desk, attempting to look at the books, to take back that control… but it wasn’t working.

With a sigh of frustration, Scott closed the books in a loud slap of pages, then, taking a lesson from his younger brother, began to clean his Colt. It seemed to give Johnny a sort of comfort, to take his mind off troubling thoughts, or at least occupy those mental wanderings. Taking the pistol from the holster, Scott Garrett Lancer began to disassemble the weapon, thoroughly clean, oil, and reassemble the piece, all the while recalling the ease, the expertise of Johnny’s deft and practiced hands. They moved in a will of their own, as if each finger had a memory.

Murdoch stood in the doorway, watching Scott mirror his brother’s familiar motions. And he couldn’t be more proud; even the pall that shrouded them in dread could not diminish the pride he felt. He would not interrupt Scott in his labor, and he realized that Johnny needed      this time with Barranca. Later, he would get all the time he needed to find his way through the hell that crowded around him.

His sons were so different yet so alike; the thought lent him a strength he’d never known.

Johnny brushed the golden coat, feeling his amigo lean into the tender strokes. Spoiling his family called it. The horse turned, nuzzling a velvety muzzle into Johnny’s shoulder and asking for a chin scratch — that special place that only Johnny could satisfy.

“Hey, amigo, what’s the matter? You feelin’ ignored lately? Don’t blame ya; how about we go for a ride later? I need ta get out an’ do some thinkin’, ya know, maybe ride out by the lake. That sound like a good idea? Just you an’ me.” Johnny chuckled as Barranca bobbed his head, understanding everything that Johnny said.

Tyler Davis couldn’t tell what was happening at that ranch, but something was up. He wouldn’t risk getting caught in his observations and had moved his surveillance position, wondering if he could pick out a target. Lord knew enough people were riding off to who knew where, then returning at all hours. But there was a girl, a young and vibrant girl, and he just might have another chance… Time would tell… very soon.

Johnny threw the brush in the bucket, deciding he needed to get out for a while, to see something other than the inside of his room or the walls of the hacienda, and he would ask Scott to go with him. He thought a ride would benefit both of them. Johnny took his time, walking out a few kinks and taking the long way around the front of the hacienda, using the time to breathe fresh air and hear the birds and sounds of the ranch. He walked through the French doors… and his world fell apart.

Scott polished the gun to a shine that would make his brother proud. He looked at the Colt lying in his hand, then held it steady and aimed, pointing it out the doors… just as Johnny came into the great room and saw a pistol aimed at his head. With a lightning reaction, his arm came up in front of his face as the “NOOO!” tore from his throat: a woman’s scream echoed in his brain, he saw blood… lots of blood; a hand with a gun, and fingers that tightened on the trigger; then a sudden blast, and… nothing — all in a split second. He threw himself to the side, out of the line of fire.

Scott startled at the thundering ‘nooo’ from Johnny as he suddenly appeared in front of his gun and fell to the floor; his panic escalated when his brother grabbed for the Colt on his hip, but it wasn’t there, instead hanging from the hall tree in the foyer. In a split second, Madrid was in self-preservation mode but had no weapon to defend himself.

“Johnny! Johnny, are you alright?” Scott raced across the room to his brother’s side as Johnny heaved himself to his feet, looking wild-eyed around the room — looking for the threat to meet it head-on.

“Johnny…” Scott softened his tone and approached his brother cautiously as he reached out a hand, touching Johnny’s arm. He felt a tremor race through Johnny’s body and noticed the white pallor of his skin. “Johnny, are you alright, brother?” Scott steered him toward the nearest chair, getting him off his feet before his legs failed him, and he fell.

A groan, hoarse, agonized, tore from Johnny’s throat; he opened his eyes and stared, not knowing at first where he was. He remembered… he remembered a scream… he saw a girl and a flash, a flash from a gun… aimed at his head.

Murdoch rushed into the room; his heavy footsteps echoed down the stairway.

“What happened? Scott? Johnny? What…?”

Scott met his father’s worried gaze, then turned back to his brother. “Johnny came through the door just as I was sighting my gun. He yelled; it was reflex, and he fell to the side… I think he remembered something.”

Murdoch laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “John, are you alright?” With a gentle finger, Murdoch tipped his son’s face toward him — the eyes cleared, and the father saw recognition in the stormy blue depths.


“I saw somethin’… a flash, a hand holdin’ a gun an’ a scream, I heard her scream.”

“Who, Johnny? Who screamed?” Murdoch coaxed.

Johnny stared into the fire, transfixed by the flames and held under their spell. “Dunno her name… pretty… dark brown hair, bruises on her face, an’ her dress… ripped…” A vivid picture flared for a second in his mind — the girl struggling for her life as she was attacked and mauled by… who? Her dress was torn in shreds; he saw a tattered pocket on the seat of worn jeans on her attacker… Pain ignited in his head, but he pushed it aside; he had to remember more!

Scott’s heart plummeted to his feet — his brother had been there when Laurie Hadley was murdered and had nearly been killed himself.

“Johnny, did you see who did it?”

Johnny jerked violently, trying to get to his feet; he had to act! And be quick about it- A girl would die if he didn’t do something! Time! He was running out of time!

“Johnny! Settle down!” Murdoch’s hand tightened on Johnny’s shoulder, holding him down and afraid for his son.

“Black hair…” he said in a trance-like state, then Johnny blinked as if to clear his mind, to focus; he squinted his eyes and tried to pull a face from his memory; it wouldn’t let itself be known… but it was there… waiting, haunting.

Just as suddenly as it came, the blaze of fire in Johnny’s eyes faded, and he knew he was too late… he knew he hadn’t saved her and that she was dead. Too late! He hung his head and expelled a harsh breath.

Murdoch poured tequila in a glass and pressed it into Johnny’s hand. “Here, son, it’s early, I know, and Sam would probably frown on you drinking just yet, but I think you could use it.”

Dazed, Johnny took the drink, thankful for it, and drained the glass. “Gracias, Murdoch.” Sonuvabitch! Why couldn’t I have saved her? Dammit, I was there! Hafta remember! But he couldn’t.

Murdoch watched as the guilt wrapped his son in a blanket of condemnation. He had always puzzled over why Johnny held himself liable, accountable, willingly took the blame, and shouldered all responsibility for failing to keep everyone safe. It wasn’t his burden to bear… but he did it. It was part of the man he was.

“Johnny, I think you should go lie down. I’ll help you upstairs…”

“No! ‘ M fine… Just lemme sit here an’… just lemme sit…”

Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances, neither convinced by the younger son and brother’s declaration that he was ‘fine’, but arguing the point would get them nowhere.

“How about if I help you onto the couch, brother; you’ve rested there comfortably enough before. Will that be alright?” There was no answer, but neither was there resistance as Scott urged Johnny onto the soft cushions. “Would you feel better lying down?”

“I’d feel better if you stop fussin’,” Johnny muttered; then another wave of guilt tore through him, and he met his brother’s eyes. “Sorry, Scott.”

“No harm, Johnny. Do you want to talk about it?” Scott wasn’t sure if Johnny would talk at all; he should tell Johnny that he and Cip had found the girl. Perhaps if he did, it would provide the nudge for the return of his brother’s memory, but would that be of benefit? Sure, Johnny wanted to remember everything, but he was blaming himself now, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. But Scott had to wonder how Johnny got to be there, next to Boulder River, when he was coming from Hendrick’s Valley. What drew him to be so far away?

Scott mentally pulled a map of the area to mind, visualizing the valley where his brother had been and where he and Cip found Laurie Hadley’s body. The two areas were miles apart. The trail Johnny would have used to return to the hacienda was further west, although he would have come close to Hadley’s mountain home. Could he have ridden close enough to hear Laurie’s screams or to see something and given chase, only to be knocked into the river and washed downstream before he could rescue the girl? The picture began to make sense; Johnny saw or heard something and followed; perhaps he’d been ambushed and left for dead… just as Laurie had been.

Bit by agonizing bit, pieces of that horrific time began to make themselves known, teasing Johnny in a most obscene way, filling him with self-recriminations and fiery guilt. Scott highly doubted his brother had anything to feel guilty about, but he knew convincing Johnny of that would be impossible. His innate role of protector was the backbone of the man he’d grown to be and would be there until the day he ceased to draw breath.

Surreptitious glances toward his brother spoke volumes; Johnny grieved for the girl and held himself accountable; of that, Scott was certain. What could Scott do or say to convince him otherwise? The answer was simple… Nothing. All he could do to help was just be there, not say anything; no offering of words would comfort or benefit. But Scott’s presence, his strength might aid in the battle. He sat near his brother, said nothing, but did not leave Johnny alone.

The grumble from the kitchen announced that Jelly had entered the hacienda. Johnny, thankful for the distraction from his failure, pulled himself out of the dark hole where he’d fallen as the handyman stood, observing those in the great room. He cleared his throat and cast an unapproving eye on those who ‘seemed to have nothin’ ta do but lollygag an’ be the shiftless type’.

“Well,” he began with a huff, “hope I’m not interruptin’ nothin’ too important.” The sarcasm was hard to miss.

Three sets of eyes turned on him, and satisfied with the attention, Jelly continued. “Anyone see that lazy Simmons? Took my eyes offa him for two minutes, an when I come back, he’s off somewhere, but I don’t s’ppose any a you saw him… did ya?”

Murdoch sighed. “Jelly, when you find him, tell him to come to the house. I’ll pay him off and send him on his way. The Turner boys are working out well; we don’t have the time or patience to watch every move Simmons makes.”

Jelly’s complaints were far from over. “Can’t figure out these youngsters… You’d think they’d feel lucky ta have a job and do a honest day’s work, but I guess things ain’t like they were when I was young. No siree! When I was that age…” And Jelly droned on… and on. “Ever’ time he goes out with a crew, he sneaks off an’ no one can find ‘em! Happened a coupla times now, prob’ly sleepin’ under a tree.”

The incessant complaining was an irritating screech they tried to shut out. Jelly would have his say. “Why, you’da thought he’d wanna work, what with his clothes bein’ so ragged. Them pants he wears are ripped, pocket’s torn clean off…”

The back kitchen door slammed, and a frantic Maria ran into the great room “Patrón! Patrón!” She was crying; her hands, white-knuckled, grasped an empty basket. “Patrón, Teresa! She went to the huerta (orchard) for manzanas (apples) to make zapatera (cobbler); she has not come back. I find this,” Maria held out the basket, “lying on the ground; she was not there!” Panic seized the woman; those rumors she heard, were they true? Was Teresa in danger?

Memories ignited like firecrackers — a woman’s scream — torn pocket on a pair of jeans  — fingers tightening on a trigger — black hair — Simmons gone — T’resa’s gone! Johnny exploded off the couch and raced for the hall tree and his Colt.

This was it, he was sure. Tyler Davis watched as his prey exited the barn and followed the girl. His instincts had been right, and now they paid off. Having lost the trail for weeks, this was the break he’d been waiting for, but he shoved those thoughts aside. He couldn’t risk losing the young man now as he sat there watching without acting. The man had killed before and would do so again unless he was stopped.

He had planned to keep out of sight, not show his hand until it was too late for escape. And he vowed to himself that he would not let anything happen to the girl. She was innocent… just like his sister had been… and all the others. Tyler swore on her grave that he would catch this bastard, this maniac that raped and used his knife… he would stop the demon, and put an end to the man and the decay he left in his wake.

Davis raced to his horse, then skidded to a stop when a rifle was pointed in his face.

“This is Lancer land. What is your business here?” the voice demanded.

Johnny’s blood pounded in his brain as he charged out of the house to the barn. Barranca stomped in his stall, feeling his master’s anxiety, sensing Johnny’s fear, and fear it was.

It blasted through him, consumed his blood in fire, and burned out of control. Behind him, Murdoch and Scott mirrored his actions as they readied their mounts and headed toward the orchard. It wasn’t far, but it was too far for Teresa to go alone. Why hadn’t she listened?

Then, Madrid settled into place — he pushed aside the familial emotions that had the potential to get him killed and cloaked himself with the cold, calculating shroud of protector. Johnny Lancer was left in the barn — Johnny Madrid went after the girl.

“Hey there, Miss, do you need any help reachin’ them high branches?”

Teresa gasped; she hadn’t seen anyone approach — didn’t know he was nearby. She recognized the young man she had seen working with Johnny, and she knew he was trouble after hearing Murdoch and Scott discussing if they should keep him on the payroll or let him go.

She took an involuntary step back, and he smirked. “N-No, I can do it. They’re looking for you; you’d better go back to work…” She tried to slow the pounding of her heart against her ribs; she was sure he could hear it.

“Ohh, I can’t let a pretty lady like you work so hard without lendin’ a hand,” and he advanced on her.

“Stay away!”

But he kept coming; a leer crawled across his face, prompting Teresa to move. She ran toward her horse as fast as her legs would carry her; oh, why did she come out here alone? Would anyone hear her scream? She filled her lungs to cry out, loud and shrill, but his tackle from behind knocked the wail from her. She struggled; she fought as she’d never fought before but was easily overpowered. Reaching up with her hands, she raked the sides of his face with her nails, leaving bloodied tracks down both cheeks. Livid and filled with rage, he punched her jaw; her head snapped back against the hard earth, and everything went black.

Simmons knew he didn’t have long to get her away — away into higher country. The Lancers might not know yet that the girl was taken, and he couldn’t wait until they came looking for him. Picking her up, he carried her to his horse, tossed her over the saddle, and climbed up behind the limp form. He would find a place, a good place where he could have his fun and evade those who would no doubt be looking for him.

Jerry had watched her as he worked close to the main house, admiring her lithe figure, fantasizing what it would be like to have her writhing under him, to feel her blood, warm and rich, on his hands.

She teased his thoughts as she tended that garden, hung clothes on the line, and often checked on the younger Lancer son. The son that saw him in the mountains… and didn’t remember. How was that possible? But it was and gave Simmons a hold over the bossy son- the son that probably never had to do a hard day’s work in his life. Born into wealth, growing up pampered… acting like an important man. Ha! Jerry snorted; he thinks he’s more’n what he really is, wearin’ that pistol low on his hip… bet he don’t even know how ta use the damned gun. Well, he’s in for a lesson… Yeah, Mr. Big Man, yer in for one helluva lesson!

Boy, bet he’s gonna feel awful stupid if he ever remembers he was there when I had me that little mountain gal. She was a good piece, a real fighter! Simmons looked down at the unconscious body he held and wondered if ‘this piece’ would be as lively. She was out cold and couldn’t fight when his hands began taking liberties with her body. It was more entertaining when they fought, but at the moment, he would take what he could get.

“Look, I don’t mean any harm! I’m after a man that’s workin’ here! I saw him ride out after that girl! Ya gotta believe me! That man, Jeff Carson, he murdered my sister, an’ others, in a awful way, an’ I’m gonna bring him back home ta stand trial! I’m tellin’ ya the truth!”

Something was ringing true; the man knew what had happened, what might yet happen if what he said was fact. He murdered my sister, an’ others, in an awful way… Visions of Laurie Hadley burst into his head, causing Cip to ease up on the trigger. Yet, the names did not match, and he hesitated.

“Look, we can’t waste no more time! He rode outta that barn, followin’ that girl that lives here!”

Cip physically jolted — Teresa! He turned to see the Lancer men bolt toward the barn. “You come with me, but I warn you. I am not convinced that you are not with him. You cross me, and you are hombre muerto!” (dead man) The glare from the man’s eyes confirmed the words he spoke. It was not a threat, but it was a promise.

Teresa’s face ached; the swelling grew and tightened, limiting jaw movement. Her head was pounding. What had happened? She felt a hand clamp over her breast; her eyes flew open, and she struggled. A scream tore from her throat as she saw a fist draw back, aiming for another hit to her face. Using all the strength she could muster, Teresa pushed against her attacker’s chest, widening the gap between them, and lunged to the side, throwing herself out from the arms of the beast and crashed into the hard, dusty ground. Her teeth snapped shut on impact, and she rolled, coming to a bone-jarring stop, dizzy, disoriented. Then, he was on her, leering in his excited state; their struggles fierce as she fought with the strength of a wildcat. Her screams sent his horse bolting, and now on foot, he dragged her into the cover of rocks.

Jeff Carson held on tight, giving Teresa no chance to escape, but she fought with everything she had to delay the inevitable, the violation she would suffer… and knew she would quite possibly die in the process. Then, Lancer pride began to fill her mind and body — she would fight, like Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny fought to save the ranch and everyone at Lancer, including her. And although she was not of Lancer blood, she possessed the Lancer spirit.

Teresa would not submit, cave into panic, and bear the iniquity; she would not let her fear paralyze her into inaction. Keep fighting! You can’t let him win — they will come for you! The mantra ran through her head over and over. How many times had she heard Murdoch say, “Lancer takes care of its own!” And Murdoch Lancer never lied!

Barranca galloped toward the orchard, sensing the urgency that radiated from Johnny’s body. Pausing for only minutes as they stood between the rows of trees, Johnny assessed their surroundings. The horse pranced, sidestepped, and tossed his head; he tested the air, then tossed his head again, picking up a scent, recognizing the connection between his master’s anxiety and the imprint left by Teresa in the orchard.

Johnny spotted Teresa’s horse tied to an apple tree, but she wasn’t there; then he found the hoofprints gouged in the dirt, clumps of grass torn out of the earth that signaled a fast and careless getaway. Time was wasting; Teresa was nowhere around — where was she? Spurring Barranca into a mile-eating run, they followed the trail as his brain boiled in fear for his sister.

Then he heard the scream…

“Yer gonna pay fer that, you bitch!” Carson cursed in her ear as he dragged Teresa to her feet. She was shaken, rattled by the collision with rocky soil.

When Carson’s horse shied away from the violence as Jeff manhandled Teresa to her feet, he was left stranded and more lethal than before. But his desire to make the girl pay for ruining his plans for a quick getaway overruled the logical notion of making a quick retreat. Someone had to be missing the girl by now, and they would come looking. Hiding out would be his only option. Well, he’d hidden out before and had gotten away with it; he would do it again. And now he had a spunky lady with which to pass his time.

Fight! She screamed at herself, trying to pull from his grasp; she struggled through her daze and scrambled to clear the cobwebs. She threw herself to the earth again, doing all she could to slow their progress into the cover of the rocks and trees above. If she gave up and let Carson drag her there, they might not be found, but did anyone even know she was gone? No! She had to fight; she wouldn’t give up! They were coming for her; she could feel it!

Jeff Carson grabbed her arm in a bruising grasp, then shook her mercilessly. “Ya stop that fightin’, girlie, an’ do it now! Don’t be givin’ me no more trouble or ‘ll slit yer throat, watch ya bleed out, an’ have my fun while yer dyin’!”

The thought made her gag, but she wasn’t going to obey. Fight! As long as I’m alive, I’ll fight him! And she did, but her time was running out, as was her strength, and Jeff felt the fire leach out of her. For now, he needed her quiet until he was sure no one followed, but he continued the climb into the rocks with Teresa in tow. He kept a fast pace, and she struggled to keep up the fight, to slow him down, anything to delay what was sure to happen unless help arrived first. Would her family get there in time to save her?

Barranca had outdistanced Murdoch’s and Scott’s horses in seconds; Johnny led the chase, but he wasn’t aware of it. His only thought was of Teresa and what she might be facing. And now he was in the orchard, searching for something to tell him where she was… where they were.

The tracks left by Simmons’ horse detailed a sudden skidding stop, then a scramble; it danced around as if not controlled and unsure of where to go. Then Johnny saw it — the scuff marks in the dirt, boot prints, one small, the other much larger — Teresa and Simmons were now on foot; Johnny scanned the boulders on the hillside above while he quickly dismounted, hoping the bastard he was after had not yet seen the bright flash that was Barranca as the sun’s rays reflected off the golden coat. The footprints in the dirt told a vivid and horrifying story — Teresa was fighting, slowing him down, and Johnny increased his pace. Would he find her in time to save her?

Jeff scoured the scene around him; it was not where he would have picked, but at the moment, there wasn’t much choice for him… other than to let the girl go and take off on foot. Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. She’d teased him long enough, like all the others. They made him feel inferior and worthless, but he showed them — in the end, he showed them all, just like he would show this one.

Teresa’s terror raised another level; Simmons’ eyes glazed, taking on a glassy, crazed look that intensified her heart rate, making it slam against her ribs, and her breathing accelerated; she panted as if she’d run for miles. She couldn’t keep the fear from her eyes and knew she would be sick at any second.

“You waitin’ for help, missy? Well, lemme tell ya what kind a help that Lancer boy would be to ya! He couldn’t help that little mountain gal! No siree! He wasn’t no help ta her at all, jus’ like he ain’t gonna be no help ta you, neither! See, he tried ta save her, oh, he tried, but he wasn’t good enough! An’ I shot ‘im an’ he fell inta the river, then me an’ that little gal, we had us some fun, an’ she liked it; then I slit her throat…”

“No! You’re an animal! You murdered an innocent woman! You probably ambushed Johnny; that’s the only way you could have taken him!”

He wanted her mad and struggling; he wanted her to fight, and he baited her using his ugly words, provoking more reaction — she was almost ready for him… Just a little more!

“Yeah, he wasn’t man enough, wasn’t good enough ta stop me! An’ workin’ with ‘im at the ranch, oh, that was fun knowing it was me that caused him all those hurts an’ he didn’t remember! Workin’ so close ta him, an’ he don’t remember! Hell, I coulda killed him any time I wanted! An’ that Segundo, he couldn’t track me when I chased ya on the road! See, I brushed out them tracks from my horse, so’s there wasn’t a trail ta follow! Then, ya know what I did? Why, I went back ta work an’ no one knew any different!”

Teresa watched the man sink deeper into blackness; unstable, unreasonable, insane… How much time did she have? Keep him talking… Time, I need time! I know they’re looking for me! Could she continue and keep him talking, or would she crumble in terror? Or would he take the question out of her hands and act on his sudden repulsive wants? Murdoch… Scott… Johnny! Hurry!

The leer crawled into place again as he reached for her, attempting to slide his hand under her blouse to touch the warm skin, the tender breast, and Teresa screamed.

Johnny started up the rocky hillside, following a trail of overturned rocks disturbed from their resting places, scattered by resisting, dragging feet. Looking up into the rocks, he spotted a nest of boulders that would provide cover from bullets and prying eyes; was it the place Simmons had taken his sister? He worked his way around, going on instinct and gut, betting that was where the son-of-a-bitch had Teresa.

Johnny climbed, ignoring the protest of his bruised body and broken ribs; the pounding in his head thundered with blinding pain, but he shoved it aside; Teresa was all that mattered now, and getting her back safe and unharmed. Hurry, Madrid!

Murdoch and Scott Lancer followed but fell behind quickly. Had Barranca suddenly been gifted wings that outdistanced him from the other horses? Whatever the cause, the reason, neither Lancer wanted Johnny to get there without them; they knew he held himself accountable for Laurie Hadley’s death; he’d been there but couldn’t help her. How could he? He’d been shot and fallen in the rapidly flowing river, unconscious and battered against sharp boulders for a lengthy distance, possibly over a mile. It was a miracle that he hadn’t drowned. What could he have done? But that hadn’t mattered; Johnny was there and didn’t save her. And it was that fact, and that fact alone, that caused him to shoulder all the blame, ingrained from his days as Johnny Madrid.

Their fear was as much for Johnny as it was for Teresa; the family was threatened in the vilest of ways. Spurring the horses, they gained ground, but would it be good enough?

Then, they heard gunfire…

Rage filled his brain and took control; he aimed for her face with a stinging slap, but she covered her head with her arms, effectively deflecting the blow. His fury rose, and with eyes that blazed fire Jeff Carson positioned himself for more torture; this girl deserved it! She needed to be taught a lesson, and he was just the one to do it. Taking his pistol from the holster, he reached for her hands, dragging them away, and held them in his left, then touched her face with the cool barrel of the gun, running it over her cheeks and across her forehead. He smiled as he saw the raw fear in her eyes.

“Now, little lady, I think it’s time that you pay for what ya done ta me!”

“I’ve done nothing to you! But you’re the one that’s going to pay! When they find you, you’re going to jail!”

“Shuddup, you bitch! I’m gonna show ya how ta enjoy a man! I bet ya ain’t ever had a man before, have ya? Well, ya will now!”

A crazed laugh, like steel grating on steel, assaulted her ears, and Teresa knew he would attack her in seconds. Her eyes filled with tears, and she cursed herself for the weakness, but her fear exploded, running rampant, consuming all her senses. Her blood pounded in her ears in beat with her heart. They aren’t here to save me! I’m going to die!

Carson smelled her fear; the maniacal grin twisted his face as he crouched to reach out and tear her blouse from her body. He grabbed the material as the cold snick of a hammer pulled back halted his advance; his belly turned to ice as he looked above him into the face of death.

Glacial blue eyes seared his brain — and he felt the sizzle under the intense malignant stare. But his hopes began to rise knowing the man who held the gun, the hungry blue steel, was only the younger Lancer son, the son he’d shot before. He would take him again, then… he would take the girl.

“Throw down your gun.” Whispered words; deadly quiet.

They held a threat, but Carson wouldn’t let it scare him. No, he’d see this through and didn’t have a problem killing this man. Seems like ol’ Johnny Lancer ain’t too good at rescuin’ women!

“Now, we both know that you can’t take me; I mean, I got this here gun on this pretty little gal already, an’ I don’t think yer gonna risk a shot…”

The force of the bullet knocked Carson back; his butt hit the dirt as his body fell, and his shot went wide. He howled in pain, crippled by the bullet lodged in his shattered kneecap. He swung the pistol around, aimed with a shaking hand through a pain-filled haze in Johnny’s direction; another explosion sent the weapon airborne, and it wasn’t alone — three of Carson’s fingers accompanied it as another scream tore from his throat.

Teresa launched herself from the place in the rocks, knowing her rescue had come; she reached for the protection of Johnny’s arms as he shielded her from the ugly sight before them. It would serve no purpose for her to see the broken and bloodied man that had nearly been the cause of her demise. He pulled her behind him and felt her arms wrap around his waist, forgetting about his bruised and broken ribs. He steeled himself for the pain it caused if the gesture brought her comfort to hold him close.

Johnny continued the stare, the icy damning from his eyes. He wanted to kill this man, this sonuvabitch that butchered women and used them, satisfying his sadistic lust. How many had he killed? And he’d almost murdered Teresa. Johnny wanted it so bad — to pull the trigger — to end the bastard’s miserable life. His fingers twitched… then he thought of his sister as her sobs wetted his shirt. She didn’t need to witness the justice Johnny wanted to deliver — Madrid style.

But he put her first, forgoing his discomfort. “Ya alright, T’resa? Did he hurt you?” he whispered as the racing blood began to slow in his veins, keeping his Colt aimed at Carson’s head, waiting for an excuse to pull the trigger. Gimme a reason, you bastard!

The pounding of hooves thundered on the valley floor; then Johnny could hear Scott calling out, asking if they were alright. Suddenly they were surrounded — Murdoch, Scott, Cipriano, and a stranger crowded them. Teresa ran into Murdoch’s embrace and cried into his chest.

Cipriano and the stranger covered Jeff Carson as he writhed on the ground, clutching his shattered knee. The man would never walk again, but then, there would be help for him to climb the gallows stairs.

Scott tended his brother, easing him down onto a rock, prying the Colt from his iron grasp. Johnny looked… exhausted was the best description, Scott thought. Weeks of self-recriminations, guilt, and pain had taken their toll, and Johnny had had enough.

“Here, brother, drink,” Scott said as he tipped the canteen to Johnny’s mouth. “Ready to go home?”

The haze in Johnny’s brain began to clear, but he was tired… so tired; he bowed his head and closed his eyes. And it was then he realized that the incessant headache of the last few weeks was beginning to fade.


It wasn’t so long ago in days and weeks, but in Johnny’s mind, it felt like a lifetime. He stood in this spot and tried to help the girl as she bled onto the ground. He remembered her frantic eyes as they searched behind him and off to the sides while he did what he could to stem the flow of blood before he heard someone behind him. He turned, hoping to find help, but all he saw was the finger that tightened on the trigger as a blast ripped through the dark and erased the memory from his mind. Then, two weeks ago, when Jeff Carson was captured in his rabid attempt to commit his depraved and vicious crime on Teresa, it all came crashing back, knocking the wind from his lungs in painful clarity.

Johnny battled through the guilt, knowing he’d let a young girl perish, unable to save her, and let the murderer escape. And to realize the man worked for Lancer and had been there the entire time and working so close to him, never knowing, was like salt rubbed into an open wound.

But Simmons, or Carson, made a fatal mistake in taking Teresa from her home and family; he’d underestimated all that was Lancer, and that error in judgment resulted in a date with the noose. After all, Lancer takes care of its own.

Johnny Madrid Lancer had much to be thankful for… his family stood by him through the long nights as he fought against the nightmares that assaulted him when the sky turned dark, and he couldn’t shut out the ugly demons that mercilessly plagued him, accusing him of his failure to save Laurie. His family had been there, at his side, gently coaxing him to wake and know there wasn’t anything there to haunt his dreams any longer. And they were there now as he stood at the grave of Laurie Hadley.

Jelly had done a beautiful job making the cross they set at the head of the mound of rocks, carefully arranged when Scott and Cipriano had buried her. They had stopped at the meadow below to pick a large bouquet of California poppies and laid them on the grave.

Murdoch stood with his arm around Teresa, giving her the strength to pay her respects to this mountain girl, knowing that she had come so very close to the same fate. Murdoch felt the trembling course through her and pulled her into his protective arms. They could very well be standing at Teresa’s grave had the murderer not been caught when he was.

Scott stood with bowed head, wishing Laurie an eternity filled with peace while desperately striving to banish the gruesome scene from his mind. He had buried her… he would never forget it.

They all watched Johnny, though discreet in their observations, knowing he had taken the incident hard; he had heard the screams during the early evening and followed the horror-filled wails and cries for miles before finding the girl mortally wounded, abused, and waiting for death. He’d lived with debilitating guilt for weeks now as it ate away at his heart and soul. They wondered if it would ever pass and leave Johnny in peace. He didn’t deserve the pain that wrapped around him and held him prisoner.

Johnny fought the demons as best he could. There were no ‘what ifs’, only what was, and he couldn’t change anything that had happened. He knew the girl was dying; there was nothing he could have done for her, but why couldn’t he have found her sooner? The girl could have had a chance; only he hadn’t been in time…

The rustle of brush interrupted their thoughts and respects as Josiah Hadley walked up the trail from his home. He looked years older than when they’d seen him last, and his once sure and long strides were nothing more than shuffling steps. He met their eyes, looked at his daughter’s grave, and nodded approval at the cross that marked Laurie’s final resting place.

“Thank ya for the cross. It looks right nice; my Laurie woulda liked it.”

Murdoch cleared his throat before he spoke. “We were happy to do it, Josiah. It was an honor, and I want you to know that you are welcome to spend all the time here you want.”

Josiah nodded again, finding it too hard to speak, then blinked away the moisture from his eyes.

Johnny stood quietly, turned to face him, and met the mountain man’s stare.

“Mr. Hadley, ‘ m sorry. I shoulda did somethin’ more an’ maybe… maybe she wouldn’t be there,” Johnny canted his head toward the pile of rocks and wooden cross. He was barely holding himself together. This man had lost his daughter because Johnny hadn’t gotten there in time to save her, and he needed to face the grieving father. But nothing would spare him the guilt he felt.

Hadley read the turmoil, the complete remorse that hung off Johnny’s shoulders like a stifling, bright red flag; he couldn’t hide it, and it was suffocating him. Then, in an unexpected move, Josiah held out his hand and waited for Johnny to take it. There was a space of time as Johnny stared at the offering, but finally, the clasp was met, and Josiah held firm.

“Wasn’t nothing ya coulda done, son. I think she’s already gone when ya got here, but I’d like ta thank ya fer ketchin’ him. The hangin’ ain’t gonna change nothin’; ain’t gonna bring my Laurie back, but I need ta know he ain’t ever gonna do what he done ta Laurie ta anyone else.” Hadley’s eyes went to Teresa, knowing she’d come close to being the next victim. Then he turned back to Johnny and whispered, “Thank ya, son.”

The Lancers quietly left the father to mourn in private.

The trial had been mercifully short as testimonies from the victim’s families sealed Jeff Carson’s fate. Tyler Davis was more than satisfied when the jury came back after a pitifully short deliberation with the guilty verdict, and Carson was sentenced to hang and, although he had not been the one to bring Carson to justice, his sister’s death had been avenged.

And now, it was time for healing.

Johnny leaned against the warm adobe wall that surrounded the hacienda. He felt better than he had for weeks, despite the setback that resulted from the reckless ride to the orchard and rigorous climb up the boulder-strewn hillside to get to Teresa. But it was over now, and he was trying to put it behind him. He’d slept last night and hoped it would continue. Well, he’d deal with it, just as he had dealt with everything all his life.

Movement under the Lancer adobe arch caught his eye; he stood erect, wishing he hadn’t left the hacienda before buckling his Colt on his hip, but soon relaxed as he recognized Val’s horse, Amigo, a present from Johnny two years ago, and walked to meet him at the hitchrail.

“Val, what brings you out here tonight? Am I in trouble?” Johnny grinned.

Val snorted. “When ain’t cha in trouble, ya rowdy?” He dismounted and, with a casual flip of his wrist, looped the reins and secured the horse to the hitchrail.

Johnny laid a hand on Amigo’s muzzle; he never regretted gifting Val the horse; a good man needed a good horse.

“No, I come ta tell ya it’s done. Carson hanged taday. Ya know, I think he was crazy. Kept sayin’ he needed ta kill them women, like it was a job, but hell, prob’bly the pain from ya blowin’ his leg an’ hand apart mighta had somethin’ ta do it. Didn’t know ‘im b’fore, but he sure acted crazy as a loon while he was in jail.”

Though there was no grief for the bastard, Johnny bowed his head and scuffed the dirt with the toe of his boot.

“Mr. Hadley there?” he asked.

“Yeah, then he left right after. I dunno, Johnny. I feel bad for him… What say in a coupla weeks we get us a jug a whiskey an’ go sit with him a spell?”

Johnny looked up, abandoning the pile of dirt he toed into place and grinned. “Sounds like a good idea, sheriff.” Then suddenly, Johnny examined Val’s horse as if looking for something.

“What? What’d ya lookin’ for?”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, I’m lookin’ for your stuff. We’re gonna be sittin’ down ta dinner in a few minutes, an’ I figured as much as you’re eatin’ Lancer beef with us, ya outta be movin’ in any time now…”

Val, embarrassed as he was once again there at the family’s dinner hour, changed that embarrassment into a threat. “Alright, you worthless gunhawk, I told ya b’fore, a remark like that’s gonna get ya tossed in a cell for a night… or two!”

Johnny laughed; it was the first heart-felt and carefree laugh he’d had in a long, long time… and it felt good.

February 2023


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40 thoughts on “Edge of Darkness by Buckskin

    1. Hi, Sandy, and thank you! Glad you liked this one. I had no idea where the story would take me, but I guess it turned out alright. It was kind of fun trying to write how Johnny would react in a situation like this, trying to remember what had happened.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!



  1. Ciao Diana,
    Great story. I loved every line, every thought of this intriguing adventure.
    You’ve built a fast-paced storyline with all of our most beloved protagonists:
    Johnny sick but always ready for action, Scott his brother always by his side. Murdoch the father who supports him despite his concern.
    Teresa, the maid in danger.
    And you managed to get Val and Cip in too.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Silvia! Wow! That was fast- and thank you so much for the glowing feedback! Loss of memory for someone like Johnny Madrid was so incredibly dangerous- and not only for him, but his family as well. I’ve not had any experience with memory loss, well, except for ‘senior moments’, but this is what came to mind writing this tale. Thank you again for reading and commenting!


      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was an incredible story. You left us wondering what happened to Johnny and why he was there. Than to bring in the missing women and murders. Couldn’t put this story down.
    Thank you for writing. Looking forward to your next one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there, Ann This story came about when I was thinking, ‘what would Johnny do if this or that happened’. As he always finds trouble (not that we writers have anything to do with that), rest assured that a story will follow! Thank you for letting me know you liked this tale!



  3. What a great story! From the very first sentence, you kept my attention. I loved how you didn’t reveal what had happened to Johnny until we were near the end. That, and the added tension of the murderer, who was a surprise, made for a delightful read. Thank you very much for this piece. Your work on this one is excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, my Friend! That whack to his noggin put Johnny at a disadvantage, that’s for certain. And the anxiety of something just waiting to make itself known but teasing as it fades away back into nothingness was making Johnny crazy (and everyone else, too). I’m very happy you were entertained by this tale, and thank you for letting me know!



  4. A delectable mystery involving the entire Lancer clan! Your muse is working at top speed, Diana. A fun way to spend some free time on Sunday. Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there, RonD! Ooh! I don’t think anyone has ever called one of my stories delectable before, but I like it!. Yes, the old muse kind of kicked my behind on this one. Happy it made for a good Sunday afternoon read! Thank you so much!



  5. I really enjoyed this one, Diana. Poor Johnny, having to cope with what he couldn’t save, and poor Scott, having to cope with what he saw. Your writing is very engaging, and the story well told. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Terri! Yes, both Lancer sons suffered in this story. Nightmares aren’t the same for everyone; Scott had to come to terms with the physical emotions in taking care of the body, and Johnny had the mental issue of knowing that he couldn’t save that young woman. Thank you for your compliments. It means more than you know!



  6. Diana,

    First, thank you for sharing this story. Second, good job keeping the reader guessing about two factors — what happened to Johnny and who was attacking and killing the young women.

    You captured the canon characters very well. Johnny’s stubbornness, guilt, protectiveness, and his not wanting to be “fussed over;” Scott’s ability to read and understand Johnny, his protective, older-brother stance with Johnny, his “take-charge and take-care” way when facing a situation, and his diplomatic dealings with Murdoch and Johnny; and finally, Murdoch – the patriarch/patron in every way – caring for his family, trying to keep everything running properly, and trying to understand his son’s and build a strong relationship with them.

    Well, you had me befuddled with the mystery man in the saloon. I was trying to figure if he was a gunfighter out for Johnny, a family member of someone who lost to Madrid, or the villain. I won’t say more — leave it a mystery.

    The characters you introduced – the widow and her sons, Mr. Hadley, the mysterious stranger, and the lazy new hand were well written and believable.

    I loved Val in this story. He as one of my favorite “guest stars” in the series. I had hoped that if the series had continued, there would have been more episodes with Val. It is so wonderful that you and others work him and Sam Jenkins into stories.

    Thanks again for sharing this story.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Paula! Thank you for that glowing review! I appreciate it very much. The stranger was kind of waiting until the last minute to be determined as one of the good guys or a bad guy. It could have gone either way. Thank you for commenting on the introduced characters… The widow and her rowdy sons just might make an appearance in future stories. I rather liked them. And I share your feeling about Val’s character.- he and Sam Jenkins will always be a part of my Lancer World.

      Thank you again, Paula, I appreciated that you liked this one, and again for the feedback!



    1. Hi, Val! Glad this story grabbed your attention. I wasn’t quite sure where it was going, and it took me along for the ride. Thank you for reading and commenting.



  7. Another terrific tale, Sandy. Baiting us along with the watcher and how he was looking for a dark-haired man was a good twist. Your description of Johnny’s ‘attacks’ made MY head ache, they were so well done. I love a mystery where things slowly unwind like a path in the woods. And, of course, our hero!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, zoeytbear! Oops, this is Diana, not Sandy. No problem! I guess I did my job if you felt Johnny’s attacks of anxiety! Thank you for telling me, although I surely don’t want to cause you any discomfort. Oh, I like that ‘… unwind, like a path in the woods.’! You should try your hand at writing- I bet you would be very good!

      Thank you for reading and the feedback. I appreciate it very much.



    1. Hey there, Debra! Thank you! Glad you liked this Johnny story! Poor guy- we put him through so much!
      Thanks for reading and the feedback!



  8. This was a well-written, professional-level story. A good mystery that intensified at all the right times. Your introduction of all the colorful characters definitely lent something to the plot. Your description of what someone with a concussion goes through was spot-on. And I particularly liked the little talk Val had with Murdoch about Johnny. Definitely a lot to like about this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Viki! Thank you for your kind words. Never having suffered a concussion, the description was a guess, but there had to be something that made Johnny on edge all the time, bothersome and frustrating, just beyond his reach to keep him wondering.

      Thank you for reading and sending feedback. It’s always welcome!



  9. Thankyou, Diana for this Fabulous Story. It kept me wondering where this was going. And Alas. Great ending. Love Johnny and Val together. Thankyou again for such a Great Read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and sending feedback! Yes, Johnny and Val together are a must. I’m happy this tale kept you on the edge of your seat, and as for wondering where it was going, I had no clue until it was typed out.

      Again, thank you for your support. I appreciate it!



    1. Hey there! I’m happy you liked the Turner Brothers- they are worthy of another appearance for a bit of comic relief. Thank you for reading and sending feedback. It is appreciated more than you know!



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