Just A Matter Of Time by Buckskin

Quote from a Laredo episode included in this story.
Thanks to Cat for the beta

Word count: 19,270

A twig snapped, sounding like canon-fire in the still night. Barranca stomped and whinnied at the interruption. Johnny knew someone was out there, beyond the light cast by the low burning campfire. Instantly, his pistol was in his hand, cocked, ready, and waiting. Alert now, he began running options through his head. Where would he go when it came time to roll out of the blanket? How was he going to handle whoever was out there? How many were out there? And why were they there? There was movement behind him, too.

At least three men were coming in from different sides. His only chance to get away would be to throw himself over the steep embankment leading down to the rapidly flowing river. There would be no way to get to his horse, and he could only hope that Barranca would find his way back to Lancer.

All night sounds had stopped. No owls hooted, and the coyotes left for quieter territory, places with no intruders. Whoever they were, they moved well in the dark, and they were getting closer. Johnny had to think of something and be quick about it, or they would be on him in minutes.

When he spread out his bedroll before turning in, he kicked a few rocks out of the way, and they rested within reach as he lay on the ground. Carefully he closed his hand over a sizable stone and swiftly lobbed it away from camp. Suddenly the night erupted in gunfire, and Johnny, crouching low, ran for the cover of the boulders and trees that stood between him and the steep embankment to the river.

Bullets filled the air; one struck the tree next to Barranca, and he snapped the tether; now free, he galloped into the dark, trailing the line behind him.

Johnny stopped as he heard the thunder of hooves and knew that Barranca had broken loose and hightailed it for parts unknown. He sincerely hoped it would be for home, but he knew they were far from Lancer, and the odds would be against that happening. He’d always claimed Barranca was the smartest horse he ever had; maybe the animal would come through for him. Well, Johnny couldn’t wait around; these assholes were getting closer, too close to stay here any longer.

“Hey, Cody, let’s try over here. I think he took off over this way!” the voice whispered, close enough to Johnny for the announcement to be heard.

Johnny froze. He could reach out and touch this fella if he wanted to, so he did. When the butt of his Colt connected with Vin Decker’s head, Johnny stepped forward out of the rocks that hid him and caught the man before he hit the ground and alerted the others with the thud. Grabbing Decker under the arms, Johnny dragged him into the jumble of rocks and out of sight, then grabbed the man’s gun, unbuckled the gun belt, and slipped it over his shoulder. Tucking his Colt into his shirt, he slipped Decker’s revolver into the holster. He also took the knife that hung from a scabbard on the assailant’s belt.

“Hold it! Drop your gun an’ turn around, Madrid!”

Son-of-a-bitch! Johnny thought. When would this ever end? Johnny stopped and threw Decker’s gun on the ground, then used the dark cover of night to slide the knife up his sleeve. Keeping his hands away from his body, he slowly turned and saw three men standing in front of him, all armed with weapons aimed at his heart.

“Thought we’d never find ya, half-breed,” one of the men snarled.

Johnny tried to see his face, but the darkness prevented any identification. He did sound familiar…

“What’d ya do with Decker?” the snarl continued.

Refusing to talk, Johnny nodded his head off to the side in the direction of the rocks. The leader motioned for the other two to drag Decker out from the cover.

“I oughta just shoot ya where ya stand, Madrid!” McCall railed, thinking he had the upper hand. “Just like ya shot my brother! His name was McCall, but I bet ya don’t even remember him, do ya?”

The light in Johnny’s brain kicked in, yup, he remembered… “Yeah, I do. I remember your brother was gonna take a shot at my partner, in the back.” Johnny fingered the knife, positioning it in his hand, getting ready to throw. He had to make it quick; the other two had found Decker and were dragging him out of the rocks.

Cody McCall looked over to them, and with a mistake he would never make again, took his eyes off of Johnny.

Johnny exploded into action. The knife left his hand, and a split second later, the blade buried itself to the hilt in McCall’s chest. He grabbed the man’s gun and pulled the knife from the body as he ran past, then he threw himself over the ledge and tumbled down to the river, hitting every rock and boulder in his descent.

The two men up above began shooting blindly over the edge, firing their pistols into the dark. Did they hit him? They wondered but didn’t follow. They would scout the river banks come daylight and hopefully find Madrid’s waterlogged and fish eaten body floating face down, and then it would be over. Their long journey would finally be over.

Johnny kept falling, tumbling down the rocky slope, slamming into immovable objects. The wind had long ago left his lungs, and he couldn’t breathe. He felt as if he had hit every solid object on the steep embankment, and then the river was there and swallowed him in one large, icy cold gulp. It dragged him under and tossed him around like he weighed an ounce. The water was cold, shocking him with shards of frozen needles, impaling him, then threatened to wrap him in merciful blackness, but he fought to stay afloat and rode the river, hopefully, to safety.  

He floated on the surface, bobbing like flotsam, drifting wherever the river would take him. As long as he stayed out of the hands of the men after him, he would be alright. Chilled to the bone, Johnny drifted with the wild current. Just stay ahead, and go with the river, go with the river…

The day was beautiful, the sky was crystal clear and the air crisp with the coming fall. Snow had already fallen in the higher elevations, and it wouldn’t be long before the small valleys and mountainsides were covered in mantles of the pristine white flakes. Winter was not long in coming. But as the morning passed, warmth blossomed and spread across the valley floor. A pleasing and comforting heat created a gentle relaxation unless you were wet and had been in the river all night. Johnny groaned as he tried to sit up in the shallow water at the edge of the calm pool where the river had flared out, and the white water calmed.

He was battered and bruised, sore and stiff from head to toe. Pain shot showers of sparks in his brain when he moved; he knew he had to get out of the water and dry off. Oh, what he wouldn’t give right now to be sitting on the patio back at Lancer. It would be worth the aggravation listening to Murdoch’s chastising and Maria’s fussing…

He touched a sizable lump on the back of his head and opened blurry eyes, then slammed them shut as the glare of the sun pierced the fog and cut into his brain. What the hell happened? He wondered, fighting the urge to close his eyes and drift off, sleep for a week and pretend this never happened, until a chill tore through him, igniting more shards of pain throughout his body. Mierda! Everything hurt! He tried to recount the events of the night before. Damn! Someone’s lookin’ for Madrid, again. Well, I can’t stay here. Gotta move.

Johnny hauled himself out of the water to a sheltered spot out of sight, then scanned the tree line for signs he wasn’t alone. Sensing no immediate danger, he took stock of the aches and pains. He was sore but didn’t think there was any permanent damage.

Now in the sun, Johnny pulled off his boots and turned them upside down to empty the water that filled them. The more he moved, the more discomfort he felt. Well, he’d had headaches and bruises before, and he would again, so he shoved what he could to the back of his brain to concentrate on his course of action. Continuously scanning the ridgelines for signs of the uninvited company that invaded his camp during the night, he again assessed his bruises, assuring himself there was nothing too serious that would need tending.  

The gunbelt slung over his shoulder was lost in the river, but Johnny was amazed to find the gun he’d taken from the body of the man he killed still strapped in his holster. His Colt still tucked safely inside his shirt, and the knife that he quickly shoved into his boot should be enough weapons. Now, he began to clean and dry them off with stiff, shaking fingers. How they had managed to stay with him on the rough tumble down the embankment was a mystery, but he wasn’t going to overthink it. What was it that he’d heard a Texas Ranger say? ‘Someone gives ya a horse, ya leave his mouth alone…’ And that definitely applied here.

The sun commenced to warm him, and he began to dry. The shivering tremors became less, but he knew he needed to get moving. Miraculously, there were no broken bones, only bruising and, albeit deep bruising, there was nothing serious, only a knot on his head. He didn’t know where his assailants were. Had they followed him down the steep bank, or were they taking their time traveling along the river in hopes of finding his body floating face down? In any event, he had to move, or he would die.

When somewhat dry, Johnny picked himself up and started his trek in a southerly direction. He hoped to find someplace with a telegraph office to let his family at Lancer know what happened. He figured that he’d only been asleep a few hours before his night had been interrupted, and not having any time to take any necessities with him, his chances were not looking good. Well, he’d been in tight situations before and came out of them alright. All he could do was the best he could and add to the list of ‘And Then There Was The Time…’ experiences in his life.

The unknown could present opportunities that, at the time, you wouldn’t count as an opportunity, but it taught you things. Things that could keep you alive; you learn to depend on no one except yourself and make sound decisions. Johnny had much experience with this kind of thing. So, he walked all that day and into the evening and always watched for ‘company’.

Dusk fell, and the air began to chill. Finding a suitable campsite, Johnny gathered firewood and got a small blaze going without the aid of matches. Growing up poor and living with the Indians honed his knowledge of surviving under extreme conditions to a sharp edge, making it possible for him to make do where most could not.

Heat reflected off the boulders and chased away the chill. The fish he caught and wrapped in mud were roasting on a flat rock near the fire. Johnny felt as though his belly was grinding against his backbone with hunger, but hunger was no stranger to him, and he’d always made it through. Eating raw acorns wasn’t all that appealing, so he took the time to stand in a shallow part of the river to catch fish. It was a better option than raw acorns and much less chance to make him sick. It was times like this that he really appreciated Maria’s cooking, and when he got home, he would tell her so.

After a night’s rest by a warm fire, Johnny got an early start the second day out. It was another clear day, not quite as chilly. The sun flooded the surrounding mountains with a blanket of bright, cheery light. If the circumstances weren’t as dire as they were, Johnny would be having a good time. He was used to solitude, had even sought it out many times since arriving at Lancer. But those times had been his choice; this was not. He had to rely on all the knowledge, all the experiences in his life to get through this one. Just keep walking; it was the only thing he could do.

The valley floor was getting hot, and the heat allowed Johnny to look for different food options. The chances of finding something edible growing down in this small hollow were better and quite possibly offer more than one or two choices. Choices? Whatever he found, he would eat.

He almost missed it, but through the trees, a clearing opened, and there, standing alone, was an apple tree. How it got there, Johnny didn’t care, didn’t question. He was just glad it was there. The season was late, and there weren’t many apples left, but it was enough to satisfy the hunger until he found something more. The fruit that remained was overripe, but he ate his fill, then was on his way, crossing the valley and started to climb higher.

Changing his plans, Johnny stopped earlier this night and stayed lower in elevation. The night wouldn’t be as cold, and he had no warm jacket; a fire would be the only thing to keep away the chill. Again, he caught fish and wrapped them in mud, then waited for his meal to cook.

Johnny wondered about the men that tried to kill him. Had he lost them in the mountains? Yes, they had the advantage on horseback and a supply of food and should have caught up to him by now, but they hadn’t found him yet, and he wouldn’t let his guard down. Johnny Madrid knew better, so he stayed vigilant and alert.

He hunkered down in a comfortable position next to the fire and let his mind drift. Thoughts of the last few years at Lancer and having a family that cared about him was unlike anything he’d experienced before. Johnny’s life had taken an opposite turn from kill or be killed to one of a wealthy rancher’s son. He’d grown up wild and unrestrained, and it had taken a tremendous effort on his part to conform to the regimented and sometimes confining limits of ranch work and family dynamics.

Responsibilities were a challenge at first, and to be held accountable for the situations ranch life dictated, well, he’d done the best he could. The days of reckless and rowdy behavior were now long gone. But every once in a while, the longing for the ‘old days’ called out for a visit. They came unexpectedly, and at times, such as this, Madrid’s past rose up and kicked him in the gut.

So, tonight he thought about his life, the beginning that shaped the man he was, and now, the present that he hoped would continue with his family. A father that had always wanted him and a brother that was such a part of him now, he knew he wouldn’t want to live without. Finally, he thought about the future and hoped there would be one.

He watched as the flames flickered and danced on the dry wood, sparks drifting upward toward the clear, midnight blue sky. The heavens were spectacular this night, and Johnny watched the sparkling of the stars. The Old Man in the moon was smiling as if reassuring him of a safe passage home. But if Johnny could have seen his whole body, the fingers were crossed behind his back, and what should have been a good and promising sign was plagued with danger and uncertainty. Do not trust the old Man in the moon; he could be fickle and menacing.

Johnny allowed his eyes to close, and immediately, he was asleep. The rugged travel and sparse food were taking a toll, so he slept and was unaware. Unaware, that is until the scream tore through the cold night air like the scream of a woman under a brutal attack and knowing she was going to die.

Shrill, piercing, and unearthly, the shriek penetrated the night, slicing through with razor-sharp talons leaving cold, quiet, and ominous silence in its wake. Jolted awake by the cougar’s fierce report, Johnny knew this could be trouble. With no horse and armed with only handguns, any contact with the cat would be in its favor. It would have to be at close range to kill a beast such as that with a pistol. And Johnny spent the rest of the night keeping the fire going and watching for the cougar.

Dawn brought the start of a beautiful new day as the brilliant pinks and oranges turned into a bright blue sky; Johnny’s spirits lightened with the change. Again he began to walk; however, he could tell he was wearing down. The cold at night went through to his bones, and he needed more nourishing food. The few fish he’d caught were not enough to keep up with the energy he was using. Maybe he could scare up a couple of rabbits today. Just keep walking, and who knew? Perhaps he would stumble across something more substantial.

It was later in the afternoon, not soon enough to stop for the night but clearing a low ridge, he looked below him, and there was a small herd of mule deer. Their attention fixed on a spot Johnny couldn’t see, ears straight and twitching. They looked frightened and skittish as if they’d gotten a scent of danger. Johnny watched them move and spotted a crippled buck. A buck that would not make it through the winter and, no doubt, would end up on the short end of a battle with the big cat.

He took his time and moved downwind of the herd. He got as close as he dared, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. Using the Colt, it took two shots at this distance, but using two shots was better than no venison, so he wasn’t going to quibble. The rest of the herd sprinted off over to the other side of the aspen-covered hill and out of sight. Making his way down to the buck, he sent up a promise to the god of prey to not waste this meal, this gift, and to do it honor as he learned from the Apache people. They had taught him well, taught him to appreciate and acknowledge that which had given up its life for him.

Kneeling by the carcass, he gutted it and cut a few chunks of meat to roast over a fire, and making an earlier camp tonight was necessary. Johnny wished he could take more of the venison and cook it to eat along the way, but he was forced to leave much of it where it fell; it wouldn’t go to waste. Nothing in the wild did.

With the fire started and the meat cooking on a spit, Johnny sat waiting, took in his surroundings, and tried to come up with a plan. The only option open to him was to keep going. Until he found help, there was nothing else to do.

Finally, the venison was done, and he ate his fill, then ate more. He would take as much of the meat as he could, not knowing when the next meal would present itself. Johnny had to make do with what he had when he had it. Just after sundown, he banked the fire and settled in as exhaustion took over. Having a full belly and a few extra hours of rest, he just may feel halfway human tomorrow. And that night, the sleep was sound and peaceful, healing his aches, both mental and physical. The Old Man in the moon was still grinning, but what was he up to?

Waking in the morning, he ate cold venison and watched as the sun flooded the mountainside with hazy rays. The contrasting temperatures, warm sun meeting cold earth, created fog. Tendrils of vapor twisted and swirled upward, reaching for higher elevations. It had gotten cold during the night, and Johnny scooted as close to the fire as he could. His only protection against the elements was his short bolero jacket that wasn’t fit for travel in the mountains. His heavy coat ripped off his body with the tumble down the steep bank and the subsequent wild ride in the white water. The suicide scramble into the river when he vacated his camp after his nighttime callers tried to murder him left him cold and vulnerable.

He didn’t know where he was and didn’t know how many miles of mountainous territory there was between him and any help. The sun was high in the sky, it was midday, and he still had a long, long way to walk. The only thing he could do was to keep going and hope that he would have enough bullets to last until he found that help and hoped that the cougar would find other suitable prey.

Sure now he wasn’t followed by the two-legged enemies, he began to relax as much as possible. Relax, but remained alert. He was confident he could survive, and thoughts of his heavier coat still teased in his brain, but all he could do now was to keep going and put as many miles as he could between himself and those who had interrupted his sleep and tried to kill him.

He was now thinking in terms of finding the bastards that jumped him, but he knew that would take a miracle. He had no idea where they’d gone. It could have been anywhere. But, he did recognize the voice and knew a name. When he got back home, he would have a talk with Val Crawford, his longtime friend, and sheriff Green River. Between the two of them, they would put an end to the ugly mess. But he had to get out of here first. He kept walking southeast, toward Lancer, toward home.

Johnny’s stomach rumbled. Getting’ soft, Madrid! All the regular meals at Lancer had spoiled him, and now, only an hour or so after noon, his belly began to speak up. But finding something to eat would have to wait; he needed to get as many miles covered as he could.

Suddenly he froze in mid-stride. There on the ground was a track, not a human track but that of a cat, the cougar. It was fresh, and it was huge, more significant than any other cat he’d ever seen, and he was reasonably sure that he was the intended next victim. He would have to be alert to any sound, any movement if he wanted to get out of these mountains alive. He checked the two revolvers and kept walking.

He finished the last of the meat yesterday morning. He’d been hungry many times in his life, even as a small boy when his mother had no food for them, so hunger was not unknown to him. He was sure he would find something, although it couldn’t come too soon.

The day was warm and quiet, but no birds sang, and the stillness was deafening. Johnny took off his jacket and suddenly found himself knocked to the ground as if hit from behind by a train, stunning him with the impact. The blow knocked McCall’s pistol from his hand to fall in the dirt. Impact with the hard ground pounded the air out of his lungs as he made a grab for his gun in the holster. As he looked up, he stared into the enraged, blazing yellow eyes of the cougar as it opened the massive, razor tooth lined jaws in a snarl.

Disoriented by the scream at the close range, all thoughts fled, and momentarily deafened, Johnny wasted precious seconds pulling himself together. There was no time to plan; he had to act and now, or he would be dead.

Roaring loudly and with the claws on its front paws fully extended, the cat pounced, giving Johnny only a split second to turn his body. That turn saved his life as the cougar bit down, sinking his teeth deep into Johnny’s shoulder, shredding muscle and severing veins and sinew, bottom teeth in his upper chest and top teeth into his back, instead of his neck. Shock saved him from debilitating pain. His instincts battled to stay alive, giving him the ability to grasp his pistol and level it at the massive chest. He pulled the trigger twice. All two hundred pounds of the enormous cat went limp and collapsed on Johnny’s body. The fetid breath gagged him, and the vacant eyes glazed, wild with rage for all eternity.

Johnny’s sight grayed around the edges as black dots danced and jumped in front of his eyes. He couldn’t move, trapped in the teeth still clamped tightly on his body, his entire shoulder caught in the big cat’s mouth. Fierce, intense agony exploded in him like never before as he wrestled with his right arm to pull the cavernous mouth away, prying the two-inch-long teeth out of his flesh, ripping pieces of skin and muscle that resulted in massive blood loss.

Moving bit by agonizing bit, he could only hope the cat had not broken his shoulder with the crushing power behind the lethal jaws. A scream erupted from his throat as he pulled the fangs out of his body, taking with it chunks of muscle, burning as if red hot pokers were lancing through him. Blood covered the large teeth and dripped from the gaping mouth.

He struggled to roll out from under the monster cat as excruciating, white-hot shards continued to explode throughout him like jagged lightning bolts. He could feel his blood pooling around him. The numbness wore off, and his back was suddenly on fire; he knew that four deep and ragged gashes ran from upper left to lower right waist, bleeding profusely through his shredded shirt. His left arm was immediately soaked from shoulder to hand, and blood dripped from his fingertips.

Johnny’s head pounded as he tried to stand. He staggered and went down to a knee but valiantly raised to his full height only to take one step and fall face down, rolling twice and coming to a stop less than five feet away from the dead cat. The sun blinked out, and blackness claimed him.

Echoes from the shots traveled far in the thin mountain air. The reports reverberated off the granite rock between the mountain peaks. For an older man, Daniel Reed had excellent hearing, but one did not need acute listening abilities to know that there was trouble. Dan had been in these mountains the better part of twenty years, and in that time, only once had anyone stumbled across his vast mountain home. Well, he better check it out so there wouldn’t be any serious issues to come and take him by surprise.

 He hefted his pack onto the animal’s back, shouldered his rifle, then gathered the rope to his mule, Birdie, and made his way across the meadow to where the shots originated. After more than an hour of travel, ol’ Dan came across a sight that chilled him to the bone. Lying in the grass, covered in blood and blood pooling around him, was a young man, deathly white and slowly bleeding out. A few feet away lay the carcass of the biggest cat he’d ever seen in these mountains.

Tying off Birdie, Dan hurried to the young man’s side and checked for signs of life. Slow and faint, the heart still pumped in his chest, but it wouldn’t be long until it would give up and quit if he did nothing to staunch the flow. Dan inspected the shoulder wound, then gently lifted the young man and saw the deep, ragged tears in the flesh across his back. He quickly doffed his shirt to wrap around the young man’s body the best he could and make an attempt to get him back to the cabin as fast as Birdie could get them there.

Pulling the bindings tight around the young man’s torso and up over the punctured shoulder to create as much pressure as possible on the wounds, Dan worked quickly, knowing that time was running out. It had taken a little more than an hour to reach this spot, but the return journey would not take as long. With the scent of blood in the air, Birdie would make short work of the distance that separated them and the cabin. He retrieved the two Colts, then tied a rope around the cat, behind the front legs and around the chest and back, then dragged it home.

The trip back to the cabin was tiring, and as the day progressed, the temperatures dropped. Late afternoon and evening would be cold, and he didn’t think the young man would have made it through the night out on the mountainside. The cabin soon came into view, and Dan halted Birdie at the door. He slid from her back and lifted the injured man down into his arms.

The stranger had not made a sound since Dan rescued him from the other side of the meadow, and Dan wondered if he had been in time to help.

He could feel the fever growing; the heat radiated from the limp body in his arms. Pushing open the cabin door, Dan crossed the room with his burden and gently laid the young man on the hide in front of the fireplace. Quickly, Dan wrestled a narrow cot from the back room, the cot once used for Dan’s and his woman’s son, gone these last five years from fever. He wished Running Deer was here. She was knowledgeable in healing; she would know what to do. Well, Dan would do what he could until she arrived.

He cleaned the injuries to assess the damage. The kettle of water simmered on the hook over the fire, but, looking at the extent of the slashes and bites, it wouldn’t be enough. Fetching down a jug of his moonshine, Dan set to work. For the first time, he noticed the holster tied low on the hip and knew that this young man was no stranger to trouble, especially after taking stock of the scars on his body and the callouses on the right hand. Now he would have many more scars to add to his collection… if he lived.

Wish you’d wake up, son, ya could drink some a this here belladonna, it’d help with the fever, pain, too. Dan pulled the remnants of Johnny’s shirt off his body, not having to unbutton it, so tattered it was with rips from the deadly claws and teeth. The punctures were ugly and deep, and both he and Running Deer were going to have their hands full to keep him alive, but they would do the best they could.

It was nearing dusk as Dan carefully cleaned the wounds. He looked up when the door opened, and Running Deer stepped softly inside. A slim, petite woman, she moved with the grace and agility of her Shoshone Indian heritage. She came to stand beside Dan, looking down at the pale figure on the bed. She’d seen the cat outside, still tied, and had been glad that it wasn’t Dan that had suffered the injuries. But looking at the young man, she felt pity for him and an eagerness to help him live. She put a hand on Dan’s shoulder as he worked to clean away the gore.

“Where did you find him?” she asked quietly as she went for her rawhide medicine bag.

Continuing his work, Dan replied, “Heard shots across the valley, an’ this is what I found. Gonna skin out that cat. If he makes it, he might want that hide. Help me turn ‘im; he got raked ‘cross the back.” Ever so gently, they eased Johnny onto his side. The slash marks made by the wicked claws stopped bleeding but gapped open in grotesque and gruesome crevices across the lean back. Cleaning them would be difficult and painful, and Dan was thankful now the young man remained unconscious.

Running Deer crushed dried leaves into a bowl and added boiling water to steep. It was a vile-smelling brew, but it was the best she had for cleansing, and it would aid in the healing. Preventing infection would be paramount; cougars kept feeding on their kills, sometimes for days. Trapped between their teeth and claws was raw and rotting food that would promote infection in a short amount of time. Keeping a sharp eye on the injuries was crucial.

“Think we can get some belladonna in ‘im before ya start ta sew ‘im up?” Dan whispered, then wondered why he whispered; this young fella wasn’t anywhere near ready to wake up.

“We can try. I will get it ready.” Running Deer left the bedside and shortly returned with a cup. Dan held him carefully, lifting Johnny in his arms as Running Deer slowly tipped the cup to Johnny’s lips and poured a small amount into his mouth. She watched him swallow and poured a bit more into him. Repeating this several more times, Running Deer was satisfied at the amount they were able to get the young man to take. It would be enough to relieve much of the pain and help control the fever.

After waiting a few minutes for the medicine to take effect, she began the tedious and lifesaving task of stitching him back together. She started with the punctures where the fangs had sunk deep into his shoulder. She poured the medicine into the wounds, forcing it deep, massaging it into the holes, working it into the punctures. Over and over, she cleaned until the liquid coming out of the holes was clear with little blood and no debris.

He began to sweat profusely, a side effect from the belladonna, and began to murmur. Dan held him to the bed as the pain began to seep through to his brain, and he thrashed, the movement enough to start the bleeding again, blood he couldn’t afford to lose. Running Deer stopped her ministrations as he fought against the discomfort, then she started again as he settled, having been dosed once more with the belladonna.

It seemed hours had passed that she had been at the task, but finally, with the gashes on Johnny’s back cleaned and tediously sewn together, the front and back of his shoulder cleaned and stitched, she applied a foul-smelling salve and wrapped him tightly with bandages. Dan pulled off the leather pants, long johns, and socks, and after washing him down, they settled Johnny as comfortably as they could in the bed.

The wild dreams invaded his mind, the blazing yellow eyes pierced into his, razor-sharp teeth and claws ripped him to shreds, and he couldn’t do anything about it. Breathlessly, he tried to evade the cat without success as it bit into him, tearing large chunks of his flesh, ripping and gnawing into muscle and bone, its jaws dripping with his blood, then coming back for more. He struggled to get away, to run, but he couldn’t move, and he watched as the cat set itself up for another pounce on his body.

The nightmares plagued him for hours; when he would move to fend off an attack from the hallucinated cat, the stitches holding his body together pulled and tore through the tender skin as Dan tried to keep him still.

The men Johnny killed over the years joined in the fray, with their bullet holes still leaking blood, leers on their faces knowing his torment. They cheered with each strike of the giant cat. The cat joined forces with Johnny’s foes, sitting beside them, rubbing the side of its face against their hands, much like Maudie, the barn cat at Lancer would do. The mountain cat’s tail would flick and twitch, enjoying the touch from the dead men. Over and over, they taunted and jeered, and when they finished, they started all over, and the cat would pounce… again.

It seemed the night would never end. Johnny continued to fight the demons of his nightmares. Dan and Running Deer fought to keep him quiet. Dawn broke with all three occupants in the small cabin, exhausted and in desperate need of sleep. Johnny lay deathly quiet, still fevered but more subdued as Dan gently lifted him while Running Deer checked her mending job; quickly and neatly, she replaced the stitches he’d ripped out during his battles in the night.

She tenderly cleaned away the blood, reapplied the salve, and wrapped him again with bandages. He was now still, no more fighting, and seemed to be resting more comfortably. Hopefully, Dan got to him before the infection had a chance to overpower him; with the blood this young one has lost, I do not think he would survive if the rot set in… Running Deer thought as she trickled more belladonna down his throat.

“Was hopin’ I was gonna see ya taday, Scott, otherwise I’d hafta come out ta Lancer,” Val said, stepping up onto the boardwalk as Scott came out of the telegraph office. They both looked worried. Scott waited for Val to talk, knowing they were troubled by the same issue.

“Come on over ta the office where we can talk in private, no waggin’ tongues or nosy busybodies…” Val took off with Scott at his side; they crossed the street and stepped into the jail’s dark interior.

“Coffee?” Val offered, but heeding the advice from Johnny, Scott refused. It was no secret that Sheriff Val Crawford made the worst coffee in town, no, make that the worst coffee in the state.

“Got a telegram ‘bout an hour ago from Ty Cooper up in San Jose. Says his deputy overheard some rowdies talkin’ ‘bout followin’ Madrid outta town. They slipped outta town before he could stop ‘em. He sent me a wire as soon as he could. He trailed ‘em for a while and found a campsite where it looked like they tried ta take Johnny. There was a body there, the oldest of the remainin’ McCall brothers. Johnny killed one of them before he could put a bullet in my back coupla years ago…” Val watched closely at the blue-gray eyes of the elder Lancer son and saw them turn cold with fear.

“But, no sign of Johnny?” Scott asked, hoping that his younger brother had gotten away. Val shook his head no. Somewhat relieved, Scott started for the door.

“Hey, where ya goin’, Scott?”

With his hand already turning the knob, he looked square at Val. “I’m going to get your horse ready, get some supplies, and the two of us are going looking for Johnny.”

Scott left Val looking at the closed door.

Sheriff Cooper led Val and Scott to the place where the camp had been. It had not rained, and they found tracks, a lot of tracks. After thoroughly searching the area, they retrieved Johnny’s hat and saddlebags. Scott found a pistol, not Johnny’s Colt, where it lay next to where the body had been. Scott picked it up and held it; he looked at it almost as if he thought it would speak to him. He picked up Johnny’s hat, then Val called him over to the drop-off and pointed down to the water.

“Looks like he went over the side inta the river, tried ta get downstream in the dark…” Val let the remark hang, and Scott knew that could be suicide, especially at night.

The river was turbulent, and Val’s horse struggled to get to the far side. They followed the rushing water for several miles, Val on the west side, Scott on the east. Scott agonized, thinking of his brother fighting to stay afloat and avoid being crushed against the boulders that crowded the river.

Val hadn’t expected it to be that rough. With no horse under him, a person floating wouldn’t stand much of a chance of staying alive. But the river was slowing down now; the swiftly running water wore itself out, coming to a slow, even current. And there was no sign of a body, but a low hanging branch caught their eye and held a clue. Tangled in the limb was Johnny’s heavy coat. Scott picked the wrap out of the water and identified it as his brother’s.

The broken reeds at the water’s edge told the story. Here, a man, hopefully, Johnny, had dragged himself from the river.

“Scott! Over here!” Val waved his hat over his head as Scott made his way carefully across to Val’s side.

The long, thick lashes fluttered. It was almost too much to manage as Johnny opened his eyes with tremendous difficulty. His fingers twitched, and finding enough strength, Johnny raised his hand to touch his forehead, trying to ease the ache that threatened split his skull in two.

“Ya just rest easy there, son. Don’t be movin’ ‘round too much an’ rippin’ out any more a them stitches. Here, drink some water.” The voice was soft, kind, but it was unfamiliar.

And Johnny didn’t have the strength to care.

He felt a cup pressed to his mouth, and a trickle of sweet, fresh water glided over his parched tongue and down his throat. He reached for the cup, only to have it gently pulled away.

“Not too much, give ya another swallow if this one’ll stay down. Just a minute…” Dan murmured as Running Deer came to stand beside him.

She leaned down to feel the young man’s face, cooler, but only slightly more than before. The eyes opened further, exposing a deep blue color, the color of the big water that Dan had taken her to see last year to the west. They were glazed and fever-bright, startling… and beautiful. She had seen many white men but never eyes this color. Dan tipped the cup to give him more water; then the eyes slid shut, and he was asleep.

“How is it that Sheriff Cooper knows about Madrid, Val?” Scott asked as they rode, following the trail of footprints. Val snorted, taking a deep breath.

“A coupla years before Johnny came home ta Lancer, we were up around here, don’t remember what job we was workin’ on, but it got pretty bad an’, believe it or not, we started helpin’ the law. Some outlaws were tryin’ ta take over a town, an’ there was some really good people that lived there that wasn’t gonna make it if that happened, so we kinda volunteered ta help.

“The sheriff didn’t know Johnny by sight, but by the time it was all over, he knew more about Madrid than he ever thought he would. Said he’d keep an eye open for wanted posters, an’ if he saw any, he’d get them called in. Yeah, the sheriff’s got a soft spot for ol’ Johnny, ‘specially after Johnny saved his daughter from gettin’ attacked an’ possibly killed.”

Val stopped talking, but Scott needed to hear more. Johnny had saved a young girl from violent death; yes, he needed to know the story. “Well, don’t stop there, Val! Tell me the whole thing!” Scott replied anxiously.

“Cooper’s daughter, Reesa, was walkin’ ‘cross the street when two of the troublemakers stumbled outta the saloon. It was gettin’ later at night, and they’d been drinkin’. When they saw her, ‘course they tried ta get her ta go with ‘em an’ she was puttin’ up quite a fuss. Well, ol’ Johnny heard the commotion an’ stepped inta the street an’ got in between them with Reesa behind him. He kept backin’ up, tryin’ ta shield her, an’ she was thinkin’ Johnny was one of ‘em.” Val laughed as he recalled Johnny with his hands full of a struggling girl behind him and trying to keep the rowdies in front of him.

“Anyways, one of ‘em went for ‘is gun an’ ya know what happened ta him, an’ the other one, full of rotgut, made a lunge for the girl, tried ta go around Johnny and ate a mouthful of teeth. Johnny got the girl home, even snuck her inta the house after makin’ her promise ta not be out at night with these bad guys in town.

“The sheriff did find out ‘bout it when the preacher told ‘im, guess the preacher was watchin’. But Madrid got the girl home safe an’ sound without her getting’ a whoopin’ from her pa. Sheriff Cooper was just so grateful the girl was unharmed, an’ he started takin’ more notice ta the kind of man Johnny was. So he didn’t put much store in the things he heard.”  Val was trying to get the smile under control as Scott watched him. Johnny hadn’t changed much. Always watching out for those in need.

“What about McCall? Had he been after Johnny all this time?” Scott asked as Val pondered the question for a minute.

With a huff, he answered. “Can’t say for sure, but once they seen him, they sure wanted ta get a hold of him. Almost did it, too.”

What the hell happened now? Dios, I feel like shit!  He tried to move, but after a bolt of white-hot pain warned him to be still, he gave up the effort. Don’t do that no more… Instinct flooded over him, and he knew he wasn’t alone. Johnny cracked his eyes open to see who was there. A cozy and warm cabin greeted him, as did the Indian woman sitting next to him. He wasn’t familiar with the pattern of beading on her buckskins, but he knew she wasn’t Apache; Apaches were not this far north. He opened his eyes further and struggled to take in his surroundings.

The woman sat forward and lifted a cup as if asking him if he wanted a drink. Johnny nodded, and she moved onto the edge of the bed. Her concern was apparent as she gently lifted him, avoiding the stitches in his back the best she could.

Again, the cold water tasted like heaven as it flowed through his body. He could feel it travel inside him, refreshing and reviving, replenishing fluid lost from the fever and excessive blood loss.

“Enough,” the woman said quietly, then helped to settle him on the bed. She gently felt his face, noting the heat was lessening, and smiled. “Do you think you can eat?” Kindness filled her dark eyes.

“Maybe later, thank you.” His eyes suddenly heavy again, closed, not able to stay open.

“What do they call you?” Running Deer asked softly.

“Johnny,” he whispered, and sleep overtook him.

Running Deer observed the signs. She knew he would mend and hoped there would be no more stitches to repair; he would heal faster. Her eyes settled on a roll of hide, tanned and dyed with the tannins from the pine roots and animal blood. It was a beautiful shade of rust. She intended to make a buckskin shirt for Dan, but he could shoot another elk for that. For now, this young man needed something to wear, and this hide would serve the purpose. Tomorrow, she would start and be done when he would need it. The rust color would look beautiful with the blue of his eyes and dark hair, she thought as she watched over him, pleased as he slept, a deep healing sleep. Yes, he was resting easier now.

“The tracks are going southeast. Have been for some time now. Reckon he thought he’d run inta somethin’ familiar if he just kept goin’. Hey, Scott! Look at this!” Val said as he jumped from the saddle and squatted, fingering tracks on the ground. “Holy Mother of God! I ain’t never seen tracks this big!” Val whispered with a shiver running the length of his back. Scott looked, not believing what his eyes were telling him. This was a giant of a cougar! Scott’s blood ran cold in his veins. It looked like the cat was trailing Johnny…

“That bastard’s killed two a my brothers, an’ I ain’t gonna put it ta rest till I see his dead an’ rotting body! Now, are you two gonna come with me, or am I gonna hafta go alone?”

The two men thought a minute, then looked at each other before Hayes mumbled: “Well, maybe his hide’s worth somethin’. Must have a price on his head somewhere, what with all the scrapes he’s had with the law…”

It had been three days since Dan brought his charge to the cabin. Progress was slow, but each day, Running Deer was pleased. Dan began to think in favorable terms instead of what he would do with the body. This young fella could have people waiting for him. But it looked as if everything was going to work out. Johnny was awake for more extended periods of time, albeit only minutes; he took more and more liquid, improving rapidly.

Running Deer watched him a few minutes after he’d taken a cupful of water. “Do you think you could eat something now, Johnny?” But he looked doubtful. “I think you need to try…” Not waiting for a response, she left her seat next to him and went to the stove where a large pot simmered.

Dios, Maria ain’t got nothin’ over on her! Johnny thought. He sincerely hoped that his belly would settle and that he wouldn’t be puking; he’d put them both through enough trouble as it was.

More alert than he’d been since waking, he glanced around and was relieved to find his Colt in the holster near the side of the cot. He knew he was safe from Dan and Running Deer but couldn’t be sure about the men that attacked him.

Running Deer returned to his side and resumed her place. He looked at the bowl as if it was an enemy, and Running Deer suddenly laughed at the troubled expression on his face.

“Does it not smell good to you, Johnny?” she asked after gathering her emotions.

Johnny looked down at his hands, not wanting to meet her eyes. Just tell her, Madrid! Everyone’s puked before! He raised his eyes to hers before he spoke. Offering a smile, he said: “Don’t know if it’s gonna stay down, just don’t wanna make any more trouble for ya. You an’ Dan saved my life…”

Running Deer smiled as she lifted the spoon from the bowl and pressed it gently against his lips. “Do not worry about that. I think you will be alright. Trust me, Johnny,” and her dark eyes filled with compassion.

So, he did.

Johnny saw his pants had been cleaned and lay neatly folded on a chair along with his long johns and socks. Could he make it to his clothes without ending up in a heap on the floor? He didn’t know, but he was sure going to try. He was naked under the blankets, and he needed to make this fast in case Running Deer came back into the cabin.

And he almost made it to the chair before the door swung open, and she entered with a basket filled with berries, and a tiny smirk danced across her face.

Stark naked and shivering, making the situation worse, Johnny wanted to crawl under a rock, better yet, into his clothes.

Taking it in stride, Running Deer asked if she could help him. Johnny backed up to the bed, holding his clothes in front of him, and sat down, thinking he should have waited. He wasn’t strong enough yet to be on his feet.

She knew he was embarrassed and couldn’t figure this out. In her culture, nakedness was a normal and natural thing. It was a custom among her people to help visitors dress and was nothing unusual. But then, this man was not of her people.

“I will help you. I do not think you are ready yet to be up. But I have made something for you. Here.” She put the basket down and handed him the buckskin shirt.

It was beautiful, finely stitched, and exquisite with fringes across both front and back yokes and along the arms on the underside seams. The front was open almost halfway down with a rawhide string to lace in a zigzag pattern with the ends hanging down to the belly. The shirt, made to wear over pants, not tucked in, would not hinder an effort to reach for his Colt.

Once he’d gotten back into the bed, and over his embarrassment, he took the shirt, speechless, as he held the butter-soft leather. He looked into her kind eyes and was humbled; his heart touched with her kindness. “I… Thank you! Running Deer, you’ve done so much for me already, I… This is beautiful!”  He was stunned by her thoughtfulness. Could he ever repay them for what they’d done for him? He would have to think of something.

“How’d ya come ta be out here alone, Johnny?” Dan asked that night as they watched the fire dance over the logs.

Johnny breathed out a heavy sigh, the fire reflecting in his dark blue eyes. “Oh, I was on my way home an’ made camp for the night. Woke up when I heard a twig snappin’ an’ my horse was nervous, stompin’ an’ jumpy. Four men were tryin’ ta get the drop on me. A coupla years ago, I had ta kill the brother of one of them. He was gonna shoot my partner in the back, an’ I reckon they thought if they ambushed me in the middle of the night, they could get the job done.

“Long story short, I killed another one, then went over the embankment into the river. Let the water get me away when my horse ran off. After I pulled myself outta the river, I started walkin’, and before too long, I had the run-in with the cougar. Then you found me an’ ya know the rest.”

Dan watched Johnny’s eyes, trying to read if the young fella was telling the truth. He’d never heard of anyone surviving the river at this time of year, especially at night… Then to have come all this way on foot and tangle with a cougar that size, well, that would be one tall tale! But Johnny’s eyes were truthful; Dan read the story there.

Sighing, Dan rose from his chair to lay another log on the fire. Staring into the flames, he leaned a hand on the mantle then turned to face Johnny. “I skinned out that cat. Biggest damned cougar I ever seen! Got it curin’ out back. It’s for you, if ya want it.”

Johnny closed his eyes, trying for the thousandth time to block the cat out of his memory. Opening them, he smiled at Dan. “Thanks, but think I’ll pass on that. I seen all I want of that cat. You can keep it.”

Val’s heart fell to his feet. The story written out in the dirt told of a horrific and ugly scene that had played out here, but studying it over again, Val realized that the end just might not be as bad as it seemed. The puddle of blood was dried, and there was no body, no grave. The footprints here were not Johnny’s. Someone had taken Johnny and the cat and they had gone off across the meadow in the small valley.

Scott’s insides grew cold with dread; the sinking feeling that he would not come out of this with his brother plagued his mind. How much more could Johnny survive and live? If Scott found him alive, he was going to have to throttle him into not scaring him, again; he wouldn’t be able to take much more. They had no clue as to who had taken Johnny, friend or foe, and they would have to be very careful from here on out. Val and Scott followed the trail, not knowing what they would find but hoping it would be Johnny… alive.

The tracks led across a small and beautiful valley tucked between the mountains and protected with tree windbreaks. It was a perfect place for a cabin, but before they could get close, the dirt in front of their horses was chewed to bits, exploding as the shotgun blasted with an ear-shattering report.

“Ya’ll just turn around and get the hell outta here! This here’s private land an’ ya got no call ta be here!” The gruff voice bellowed, sounding strangely like an old bull grizzly just out of hibernation.

Val and Scott met each other’s glare, then Val called out. “I’m Sheriff Val Crawford, an’ this is my deputy! We’re lookin’ for a friend of ours. He’s my deputy’s brother. Goes by the name of Johnny Lancer. Saw a ways back, he tangled with a cougar, found part of his shirt. We ain’t here ta do any harm!”

In the cabin, Johnny could hear most of the exchange. Mierda! That sounds like Val!

“Running Deer! Help me get dressed! That’s my friend an’ my brother out there!” heedless now of his nakedness, Running Deer helped Johnny with his clothes. She was fast and efficient, and soon, with his arm tucked in a sling, Johnny was leaning on her shoulder as she helped him outside.

“Dan! They’re tellin’ the truth! It’s my brother an’ my friend! Don’t shoot any more!” Johnny called, and Dan stepped out from behind his cover.

“Alright, you two, come on in an’ come in, slow like!” he cautioned, not sure about the strangers.

Johnny watched as the two horsemen came through the trees. He tried to hurry to meet them, but Running Deer held him back, uncertainty in her dark eyes.

“It’s alright!” he whispered desperately, but she held him tightly and could feel more weight on her shoulders; this was not what Johnny needed to be doing; he was weak, but he wasn’t giving up.

He slowed but didn’t stop. The two men were soon close enough, keeping their hands visible, not giving Dan any reason to blast again with the shotgun.

Upon seeing his brother, Scott quickly dismounted, and still with hands in plain sight, he went to Johnny. “Johnny! My God! I thought maybe we wouldn’t find you! Are you alright?”

Running Deer saw his eyes. This man was sincere, but he didn’t look anything like Johnny. Could they, in truth, be brothers?

“Yeah, I‘m fine,” Johnny said with a smile.

Scott rolled his eyes. “Yes, I can see that…” Scott turned to Running Deer, taking his hat from his head. “I am Scott Lancer, Johnny’s brother. I assume I have you to thank for saving his life?” 

He smiled at her, but she was apprehensive. Was he was a good man? She nodded to him but kept silent.

Val approached with his broad smile spread across his face. “Lord A’mighty, Johnny, can’t letcha outta our sight for more‘n a minute b’fore ya get yourself inta trouble!” Both Scott and Val extended their hands for Dan to shake, then carefully, they helped to get Johnny back into the cabin.

Apprehensions over, the three men sat talking quietly as Running Deer prepared food. Johnny was tucked back in bed and was sleeping. Dan relayed the story of hearing the pistol shots and his trek across the valley to see what had happened, then finding Johnny in a pool of blood next to the dead cat. Dan stood and motioned them outside.

They followed, and Dan took them to the shed out back where the cat’s hide was nailed to the wall. It was immense and had Val and Scott not seen it with their own eyes, they wouldn’t have believed it, not even from Johnny himself. Both stood in complete and utter awe.

Dan huffed. “Biggest damn cat I ever seen! Mauled ‘im pretty good, too. He lost a lotta blood, an’ he’s still weak. Runnin’ Deer is pretty good with a needle, though, got ‘im all stitched up. He should be alright with a few more days’ rest.”

Scott’s eyes couldn’t leave the hide, and an involuntary shiver crawled down his spine, leaving him shaking inside.

They talked into the night. Having eaten a tasty meal and relieved at finding Johnny alive, although injured, but knowing he would be alright, they turned in and slept soundly. Scott and Val slept on the floor in front of the fireplace, next to Johnny’s bed. Running Deer and Dan were in their small room off the main living quarters.

Morning came, and Running Deer made coffee, then went to Johnny, and satisfied there was no fever, she started breakfast for the other men.

Dan checked his rifle then looked at Scott and Val with questioning eyes. “You two up for a little huntin’? Gonna see if I can bring in some elk.”

Val and Scott exchanged glances, then Scott shifted his eyes to settle on Johnny’s sleeping form. He opened his mouth to speak, but Running Deer offered encouragement.

“He will be alright. He only needs more sleep to get stronger, and there is no more fever. It will be alright for you to leave him for a short while.”

Her reassurance made up Scott’s mind. Dan, Scott, and Val left in pursuit of elk, leaving Running Deer and Johnny alone in the cabin.

He slept late into the morning before lifting heavy eyes to see the bright sunlight pouring through the open window. With only a slight headache, Johnny pushed himself to a sitting position and scrubbed a hand over his face. Did he dream he saw Scott and Val? Parts of it were vivid; then, he spied Scott’s saddlebags lying on the floor next to his bed and his own leather bags next to Scott’s. No dream, they were here, and with that comforting thought, he sat up straighter. Now, could he get out of bed by himself?

Running Deer came from the small room that she and Dan shared and watched as Johnny contemplated getting up again. She smiled to herself, realizing this was a very stubborn and determined man. She stepped forward and came to his side to help as she saw him wince as the stitches pulled at tender skin. Cold sweat was breaking out on his face, and she put a calming hand on his shoulder.

“Johnny, be still for a time, and I will help you.”

A wave of dizziness settled over him, and he hoped he wouldn’t be sick. Running Deer went to the stove, filled a small dish from the kettle, and joined him again, sitting next to him on the edge of the bed. Dipping the spoon into the bowl, she held it out for him to swallow.

He looked at the spoon, eyes filled with apprehension, then raised his gaze to hers, his expression filled with doubt.

“Johnny, your scars are many. You have been through this before. Do you always fight that which will make you well?”

With a light chuckle, he lay back down on the bed. “When I don’t think it’s gonna stay down… yeah.”

She saw his eyes were unsure. “You trusted me before, and I did not let you down. Trust me again.” She held the spoon to his lips, their eye contact not breaking, he opened his mouth, and the soup flowed down his throat.

“Looks like there’s someone else trailin’ Madrid. Look at these tracks, not too old, either.” Russ McCall studied the prints, as Hayes and Decker watched from their saddles. The youngest McCall mounted his horse, determined that no one would take Madrid away from him! Madrid killed his brothers, and that bastard wasn’t gonna get away with that; he would pay for what he did! So, the three men kept tracking, determined to get their revenge.

The rest of the day, Johnny spent in conversation with Running Deer. Sometimes in periods of silence, she would watch as he began to gain strength. His appetite was better, he only ate small portions at a time, and it stayed put. Late afternoon Johnny got as far as putting on his socks and pants, but that took all the energy he had. He sat on the edge of the bed, his shaking hand tangled in his hair, eyes closed in hopes that the room would stop spinning, and concentrated on breathing deeply.

The cool cloth held to his forehead told Johnny that Running Deer was near. As he looked up, she held the buckskin shirt for him to slip into, although his left arm was still wrapped securely to his chest. She gently pulled it over his head and settled it on his broad shoulders. It fit him well, and she had been right; the color complimented his eyes.

He was trembling, and she draped a blanket around him. Looking into her kind face, he nodded. “Thank you,” he whispered, and she sat next to him for comfort and company.

Knowing that he wanted to be moving, she thought to stay close should he need her, and she knew that he would not be into going back to bed. She was only now beginning to realize just how stubborn this man was.

“Do you want to see if you can stand, Johnny?” she asked, knowing what his answer would be, and she smiled when he spoke the words she knew he would.

“Yeah, hafta see how far I can get…”

The smile did not leave her face. “Then, I need to stay close!” And she laughed out loud when he turned to her with a surprised look of I can do it! in his eyes.

He could do it, and he did, but barely. He walked to the door, then back to the bed, and sat down, breathing deeply with head lowered. She knew he was discouraged. “You are doing well, Johnny. Try it again; it will get easier.”

Running Deer went to the stove for another cup of the brew from the kettle and handed it to him. Johnny had made several trips across the cabin; each time, he felt stronger, and it bolstered his determination. He drained the cup she gave him, then slid down onto the bed, and she covered him with the blanket. He slept for the rest of the day.

“Johnny, is Scott truly your brother?” Running Deer asked. The question had been in her mind since the two white men came to the cabin.

Johnny smiled and nodded. “Yup, different mothers, same father. Scott’s mother died after he was born, an’ his grandfather pretty much stole Scott. Murdoch,” Running Deer looked at him as if asking who that was. “Our father, Murdoch Lancer, sent Scott’s mother away. There were men wantin’ ta run all the ranchers outta the valley, so he sent Catherine away. Her father was going to take her back east till the danger was over. But it didn’t happen that way. She had Scott an’ died. Her old man took Scott ta Boston an’ Murdoch never got ta see him when he was born.”

Running Deer was deeply puzzled. There was something wrong with this story. “Is there not something in the white man’s law to make this wrong?”

“Sure is. Revenge an’ greed make people do some pretty bad things, an’ if ya have a lotta money, ya can do just about anything ya want an’ get away with it. Old man Garrett has lots of money. Don’t matter that it wasn’t legal. It’s called  ‘money talks.’ An’ since Garrett had all this money an’ Murdoch didn’t, Garrett… won. For a while. An’ he lied ta Scott. Told him that Murdoch never tried to make contact. Murdoch lost out on raisin’ his own son, an’ Scott believed that Murdoch didn’t want him.”

“But, your father had you to raise,” she said. Then Running Deer watched as a sadness grew in Johnny’s eyes.

“No, that didn’t happen, either. Murdoch met my mother an’ brought her back ta his ranch a couple a years after he lost Scott. I was born there, but right after my second birthday, my mother ran off in the middle of the night. She left with another man an’ went down around the border towns of Mexico an’ took me with her. So, Murdoch lost two wives an’ two sons.” Johnny spoke softly, and she knew he was troubled by the circumstances and the memories.

“When did you go back to him?” she asked, wondering about the white people, but she could tell that Johnny wasn’t all white. She also knew that with his mixed-blood, he had been at the mercy of others just as she had experienced the prejudiced opinions.

“Oh, it was about twenty-three years later. Neither Scott or I knew we had a brother till we got there. Murdoch was havin’ trouble with outlaws wantin’ ta steal the ranch again, an’ he’d taken a bullet in his back an’ needed help. He offered each of us a thousand dollars for one hour of our time if we’d come an’ talk with him.  And ta tell ya the truth,” Johnny looked into her eyes and smiled widely, “I had no intentions of stayin’. I’d help him out with the trouble, but then I was gonna leave… after I killed him.”

Running Deer was shocked. Her large dark eyes widened, astounded by the admission. “Why would you want to kill your father?” The thought was beyond her grasp.

“Cuz of what my mother told me all the time I was growin’ up. Ever since I can remember, she told me that he kicked us out, that he didn’t want a half-breed for a son. But the truth was, it was her that didn’t want to stay. She didn’t want life on a ranch. She didn’t want the hard work, so she left an’ lied about Murdoch. She never told me why she lied; maybe she didn’t want me ta think it was her fault. Died when I was ten, an’ I been on my own since. But I gotta tell ya, now that Scott an’ I are at the ranch, it’s been good. We all got ta know each other an’ worked out our differences an’… we’re a family. Feels kinda good. Never had a family before.”

Running Deer thought about this tragic story with a happy ending, this man losing both wives and sons. He must have grieved for a long time. But to have the sons back in his life as grown men was not something she could understand. Missing out on raising your sons would have made lesser men insane.

“I think you need to rest; you look tired.”

Johnny watched as she reached for his shirt to gently lift it over his head and help settle him in bed. “I been sleepin’ all day…” he protested.

But she cut off any remarks that would be in his favor. “Yes, and you have lost much blood.” She softened her voice barely above a whisper and continued. “You need more rest.” Then she spread the blanket over him for the night.

“Lights just went out in the cabin, an’ there’s only the two of ‘em in there. I think we should move now…” Simon Hayes spoke softly as the three men hunkered down around the boulders that shielded them from their quarry. Russ McCall, now the leader that Madrid had killed his older brother, Cody, digested the thought.

“No, we wait till daylight,” was all he said.

“Wait? Wait, for what? We take ‘em now an’ no one’ll see us!” Hayes protested.

Russ huffed. “An’ we won’t see so good, neither! We wait!” With the final order given, they settled in, cold and hungry, to wait for daylight.

He came awake with a start. What interrupted the sleep that had only recently begun to be restful? He lay without moving, trying to read his surroundings. Reaching up, he took his Colt from the holster tucked under his pillow. Johnny made sure it was loaded, then kicked off the blanket, and came slowly to sit on the edge of the bed. He felt better physically these last several days but wasn’t sure he was up for any trouble.  

And now he knew there was something brewing. He also knew he wasn’t strong enough to handle whatever it was. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, like bare skin brushing through a spider’s web, and he waited for the fangs to pierce the flesh. He would not let any harm come to Running Deer; he would die to keep her safe. The sun would be coming up soon, and Johnny knew that whoever was out there— and he knew it was who and not a what— would show themselves with the light.

He had to do this and quietly. Heaving himself from the bed, he silently went to the door of Running Deer’s room and knocked softly. He didn’t want to startle her, but they would run out of time if they didn’t hurry. She opened the door, and he saw the flash of a barrel in her hand. She’d heard it, too.

“Ya got a back way outta here?” He whispered, and when she shook her head no, his heart sank. Only windows… Alright, Madrid, come on out any time now… Slowly he removed the bandage that stabilized his left arm and pulled the leather shirt over his head. He felt the stitches pull, hoping they wouldn’t tear out. Masking his pain, he pulled the gun belt from the bed and clumsily strapped it on. Calm settled over him as Madrid materialized as if a shadow or mist wrapped around him, giving him strength. The comforting weight of the Colt in his hand seemed to complete him. Johnny picked up the rifle, making sure it was loaded and within reach, then told Running Deer to keep out of the way and hidden in the shadows of the corner.

The sky was just beginning to lighten as the door handle moved. Bolted from the inside, it was solid and impenetrable, but Johnny knew the barrier wouldn’t be enough to save them. These men were after his blood and would stop at nothing to get it.

The three men fanned out around the front of the cabin, knowing there was no back door. Their hearts pounded with anticipation and trepidation.

“Come on out, Madrid! Cuz if ya don’t, we’ll burn ya alive! Ya got two minutes ta show yourself!” Russ McCall bellowed out.

“Ain’t no reason ta yell, I‘m right here.”

The soft voice came from behind, and McCall jerked around as the sure, smooth tones chilled him through, causing a shiver to trail down his back. Whirling around, as did the other two men, they watched as Johnny, with his Colt in right hand and rifle held with his left, stood casually on one leg and looking as confident as if he had the backup of a full Cavalry unit with him.

The cold smirk did nothing to assure them, even three against one, that they would come out on the winning end of things.

Hayes, clearly stunned that Madrid got the drop on them, leaned against the side of the cabin, his legs quivered as his brain ran the stories over in his mind, and he saw now Madrid could take them all down. His knees shook until he saw the door open, and the woman edged out. Decker had slowly backed up, almost around the corner.

“Stay where you are!” Johnny yelled out but too late as Decker quickly grabbed Running Deer as she rammed the rifle’s barrel against his ribs. Yelping, he knocked the gun from her hand, and held her tight, then suddenly the tables had turned.

“You throw down them guns, Madrid, or we kill her right here!” 

Son-of-a-bitch!  Johnny had no other choice, and he threw the guns down then said, still soft and cold: “Let her go. It’s me ya came for; I’ll go with ya; just let her go!”

Coming closer, Hayes kicked the guns out of Johnny’s reach, and now empowered, walked behind Johnny to surround him. With the control now in his hands, Hayes slammed the barrel of the rifle across Johnny’s back and shoulders. Stitches tore through skin, and Johnny went down in a heap.

Running Deer struggled to get to him; she knew he was hurt and bleeding and had just begun to heal from the cougar attack.

Decker felt like he was wrestling a tiger; Running Deer fought against him with surprising strength. He struggled with her and wrapped both arms around her to keep her still.

“Quiet down, NOW!!” he bellowed in her ear.

She winced. “He is hurt. Let me see to him!” She ceased her struggles as she watched Johnny roll onto his side and stop moving.

Russ walked to the woman, and without breaking her stare, she repeated her request. Russ drew back a rolled fist and struck her across the cheekbone; she went limp in Decker’s arms.

“Take her inside an’ tie her up. Can’t let her follow us,” he ordered Decker. Turning to Hayes, he motioned for him to get Johnny on a horse.

What the hell’s goin’ on? Johnny thought as he felt the horse moving under him. His back was screaming in pain as his hands were pulled behind him and tightly tied. He knew stitches had ripped out; his back felt enveloped in flames. It burned fiercely, and he remembered the fire that consumed the bodies in the revolution. Where there flames on his back now? The trickle of blood ran over his shoulder and dripped onto the horse’s neck.

He didn’t know how long he’d been out. Running Deer! He suddenly thought, and he felt sick to his stomach. He wondered if they left her alive. He couldn’t live with himself if they killed her… because of him. He could only hope that Scott and Val would soon return to the cabin and follow their trail.

“How far we gonna go before ya kill ‘im, Russ?” Hayes asked, the ruthlessness showing on his face. His eyes blazed, and he was breathing hard, the lust for killing running rampant through his entire body.

Russ McCall, on the other hand, was enjoying the power, temporary that it was, he had over Johnny Madrid. The notorious gunfighter was in his control, and he was relishing the situation. The excitement of having Madrid in his grasp was burning, sending long-awaited anticipation to his brain. He wanted to savor this moment. He wanted to enjoy every scream, every howl of pain. And when he had reduced Madrid to grovel at his feet and beg for death, Russ McCall would laugh in his face and inflict more pain.

“Just a matter of time, Hayes, just a matter of time…” McCall replied, smiling as he watched Madrid slumped over and hanging limply in the saddle.

It was late morning when Dan, Scott, and Val returned to the cabin. Dan held up his hand for the other two to stop. There was no smoke from the chimney. Running Deer would never let the fire die out. Something was wrong.

The tracks on the ground indicated riders had been there, and that boded ill for Running Deer and Johnny. Staying undercover, Dan dismounted, his heart hammered in his chest as he thought of Running Deer. Was she still alive? He started to panic in his mind, but he kept his control as he crept through the brush to the back of the log structure. He carefully peered in the windows but did not see anything in the main room—no Running Deer or Johnny.

He went around to the side window, and he saw her as she sat in the chair with arms tied behind her back, but still no sign of Johnny. Silently Dan came around to the front door and pushed it open so that it swung back and touched the inside wall, telling him there was no one standing behind it waiting to stick a gun in his ribs. He hurried to Running Deer’s side, taking the gag from her mouth, then sliced the ropes that bound her to the chair.

He went to the door and motioned for Scott and Val. They spurred their horses up to the cabin, then jumped from the saddles and, as one, charged into the cabin. Running Deer took the dipper of water Dan handed to her before spilling the story about the attack and subsequent kidnapping.

“He’s hurt. One of them hit him across the back with a rifle; I know he is bleeding again. We need to find them, quickly,” she said as Dan held a wet cloth to the side of her face to ease the massive bruise that blossomed there.

As the men made the preparations to travel, Running Deer collected her healing supplies. The horses were tired, but they had no other choice. It would soon be dark, but Dan knew the terrain like the back of his hand. They would be alright, and they would be careful, but they had to find Johnny, especially after Running Deer had told them what she heard the three of them plan. It would be critical that they found Johnny, and soon.

McCall, Hayes, and Decker stopped their horses in a small clearing and dragged Johnny from the saddle. Taking him by the shirt, they pulled, letting him fall to the ground in a heap, and ignored the groan of pain on impact.

“Madrid don’t look so tough now, does he, McCall?” Hayes laughed as he kicked the inert body and rolled him onto his back. They watched as consciousness faded, and Madrid went slack. Grabbing his arms, they dragged Johnny just out of the fire’s warmth and tied his hands and feet.

“Hey, McCall,” Decker called to Russ as he noticed Johnny’s pale coloring. “He don’t look so good. Ya better not wait too long, or he might not make it. He just might die before ya get a chance for your revenge.”

Russ McCall looked puzzled. “What the hell’s wrong with him?”

“Dunno, but I see blood drippin’ from under ‘is shirt an’ that squaw said he was hurt.” Decker bent down to lift the rawhide shirt Running Deer made and yanked at the bandages around his body, pulling them away to hang in a loose coil. He drew in a harsh breath at the sight of Johnny’s back.

“Ya better come an’ take a look, Russ. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it b’fore!” Decker couldn’t tear his eyes away from the hideous sight that hid under the shirt.

When Hayes slammed the barrel of the rifle across Madrid’s back, it ripped open many of the stitches that Running Deer so carefully set to pull together the torn skin from the cougar attack. The gaping holes oozing blood dictated time was critical. The days of torture Russ McCall craved, revenge for his brothers’ deaths, were not to be. They would have to finish it this night and be quick about it or risk the chance Madrid died from these wounds instead of the brutal plans Russ conjured up in his mind.

“What the hell done that?”

“We ain’t that far behind ‘em,” Dan said as he examined the tracks left by the horses.

“Maybe an hour is all,” he continued as he stood and scanned the trail ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of movement or a flash of the setting sun reflecting from a buckle, the metal of a bit, or a gun barrel. But there was nothing, and they knew they would need to stop for the night. Their horses were done in. They all needed rest.

Scott was torn, knowing on one hand that his brother was in trouble and he had to find him. The voice on the other, the reasonable one, said to rest for the night; the gang wasn’t getting any farther ahead; they had to stop, too. Scott became restless and agitated, and he knew Johnny was rubbing off on him because, at this very moment, he wanted to charge off after Johnny. To hell with resting!

“He makes ya crazy, don’t he?” Val said with a smile. “Sometimes, I don’t know if I wanna shake ‘is hand or shoot ‘im!”

“Yes, I know what you mean!” Scott replied, wondering the same thing. How can one person get in so much trouble? It seems that I’ve spent the entire time I’ve known him worrying about him! But that was part of who Johnny was. And deep down, Scott was proud not only to know him but to be his brother.

The eyes narrowed and sized him up for the next pounce. The wicked fangs dripped with saliva, and the growl was like thunder, mind-numbingly loud, from high above and reverberating through to his bones. A scream tore from the cat’s throat, shrill and piercing, and he launched himself into the air hitting Johnny’s body and slammed him onto the hard ground. Then they rolled together as the cat, once again, sank his teeth into flesh with the pressure of a hammer crashing down on an anvil.

Johnny’s body jerked involuntarily as a loud groan escaped his lips, and then he lay still. McCall stood and walked to his prisoner’s side; looking down, he saw a cold sweat bead on Madrid’s forehead. Leaning over, he grabbed the front of the rawhide shirt, lifting Johnny’s upper body off the ground. Johnny’s head lolled forward on his chest while Russ assessed his condition. The eyes never opened.

I want him conscious when I take my revenge! I want him to know that he’s gonna die, an’ that I’m gonna be the one ta kill ‘im! I want him ta look inta my face and watch my eyes as I stick my knife between his ribs. Then he’ll know what he’s done an’ why he’s dyin’!

McCall’s breathing was ragged, and his heart hammered in his chest as he fantasized over taking Madrid’s life. The infamous Johnny Madrid was going to die, up here in the mountains, and alone. And McCall would watch it happen; watch as his blood trickled from his body to soak the ground beneath his feet. And McCall would laugh… and laugh.

Maybe he’d beg for mercy! Russ thought as the tantalizing idea tickled his brain. Yeah, I got mercy for ya, just like you had for my brothers! You’ll get none from me ‘cuz you’re goin’ ta HELL! An’ I’m the one that’s gonna send ya there!

It had made no difference to Russ that Johnny had killed in self-defense, to save Val. Russ had lost two brothers to this man, and he now had control over Johnny Madrid, murderer.

He wallowed in the unstable, crazy thoughts that swirled around in his head. His eyes started to glaze with the deranged and mad images of Madrid dying, bleeding out, and he, McCall, would sit back and watch as the life drained away. And he knew how he would do it…

“Hayes, Decker, come‘re!”

The two men obeyed, dropping their chores, and went to McCall’s side. Gesturing to Johnny, Russ said: “Untie ‘im an’ pull that shirt off ‘im.”

Hayes and Decker wrestled Johnny to a sitting position, then cut the rope from his hands, grabbed the shirt, and carelessly yanked it off his body. All three men stared, their eyes riveted to the bloodied, soiled rags that hung on Johnny’s torso and shoulder.

McCall was the first one to speak. “Tie his hands in front of ‘im an’ toss that rope over that limb! Get ‘im to his feet.”

Roughly Madrid’s hands were re-tied in front of him, then they hoisted Johnny up as the rope lifted his body, cutting into his wrists. Arms stretched as far as they would go above his head, his toes barely dragging on the ground.

McCall walked to Johnny and grabbed a handful of hair, jerking his head back. Damn it! He thought as Madrid’s eyes did not open. Stomping over to his saddle, he grabbed the canteen and returned to Johnny’s side. His wicked grin grew from ear to ear as he threw the cold water into his prisoner’s face, then emptied the rest over Johnny’s head, letting it run down his body, chilling him and forcing him to consciousness.

Johnny coughed and choked as the water flooded into his sinuses and down his throat. His eyes fluttered open, unfocused and blurry, glazed with pain and fever. What the hell’s…

McCall didn’t wait for Madrid to clear his head, and he reached to his side, pulling his skinning knife from the sheath at his waist. He waved it in front of Madrid’s face.

A shred of clarity sparked in Johnny’s head as he vaguely saw a knife in his face, then he huffed a hoarse laugh. Eyes unfocused, he tried to blink his vision clearer but failed. “That the best ya can do, bastardo?  See ya in Hell, pendejo…”

And McCall went crazy.

As McCall’s fury bellowed out of his mouth, Johnny had enough. He’s gonna kill me, might as well make it worthwhile… With the little strength he had, he took a deep breath. “Ya sure are stupid… ya know? Not hard ta figure… whose brother you are! You’re as dumb as they were!” Johnny let his cocky grin slide across his face.

I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, ya murderin’ bastard!”  Russ screamed, control now gone.

Head still muddled in debilitating fog, but aware enough to know what was coming, Johnny watched with that grin still in place.

And it brought McCall to the edge; he knows he’s gonna die! Why ain’t he scared? I wanna see ‘im beg! “I’m gonna slice your throat real slow, half-breed!” But an idea suddenly struck him, and Russ slid the blade under the bandages that were left and cut them away, exposing the stitched body. Starting at the deep puncture wounds from the cougar’s bottom teeth, Russ slowly probed with the tip of his knife, cutting the threads that held Johnny together.

Johnny immediately went rigid as the blade penetrated the fang wound that had just begun to heal. Blood ran in rivulets down his chest. Cold sweat dripped down to soak his face, and his vision faded quickly. He couldn’t help the howl that tore out of his throat, and his knees gave away. The night dimmed, and his body lost all feeling.

“You hear that, Scott?” Val asked as they settled into their bedrolls. Scott had, indeed, heard the spine-chilling howl but wasn’t sure what had emitted the eerie, unearthly yell.

“Ya don’t s’ppose it had anythin’ ta do with Johnny, do ya?” Val asked.

Scott’s blood turned to ice as he faced Val. “Yes, I absolutely do! Let’s go!” They both were out of their bedrolls, followed closely by Dan, strapping on their pistols and checking their rifles. Silently, they left their camp, leaving Running Deer armed, and with Dan in the lead, they snuck through the brush in the direction of Hell’s howl.

Scott, Val, and Dan made their way through the brush, all their thoughts on Johnny. He was in trouble, more trouble, as they listened to the bone-chilling, pain-filled howl that echoed in the dark.

There had been many tracks around the cabin. Did they belong to the men responsible for his initial attack? Both Scott and Val knew Johnny could hold his own in most situations, but he had not been seriously injured in most situations. What was happening to him? And would they get there in time?

Just as they rounded a pile of boulders, a small canyon opened up, and the sight they saw horrified them, freezing them for a split second, forever living in their mind’s eye for the rest of their lives. Val fired off a shot that knocked McCall’s leg out from under him. Both Hayes and Decker went for their pistols, but neither got far before Scott and Dan made their presence known and backed up Val.

“Toss them guns over here, now!” Val shouted as Scott made his way to Johnny. Reaching up, Scott cut the ropes, and Dan caught Johnny before he fell in a boneless pile on the ground. Easing him down, they straightened him out to access the damage. Scott retrieved the outlaw’s bedrolls to use for blankets and found a canteen. McCall was clutching his bleeding leg, eyes glaring with hatred at the three men that had interrupted his plans.

“Who’re you?” McCall gasped as the pain was now setting in.

Val smiled like a devil with a victim that was doomed. A victim that deserved to be devoured, only after torturing first.

“I’m the law.” And he pulled his jacket aside to expose the star pinned to his chest. It reflected like a beacon in the firelight.

“Get over there, siddown an’ shut up,” Val commanded, brooking no confrontation. Val pulled out handcuffs, and two of them were secured to trees while he tied the third man’s wrists. He then went to Scott’s side as Dan quickly went back for Running Deer.

It was, again, a long night for them as they did what they could to stem the blood flow and re-stitch the angry ripped and bleeding wounds, the wounds that had just begun to heal. Johnny had not regained consciousness, and for that, Scott was thankful. He thought the deep blue of his brother’s eyes would be a very welcome sight. In truth, he was wondering if they would be able to get Johnny back to Dan and Running Deer’s cabin alive. The blood loss had been severe, and there had been no attempt to stop it after he was hit with the rifle barrel. Brother, how do you get yourself into all these jams? Are you going to make it out of this one? Scott thought to himself.

They took turns through the night, wiping Johnny down with cool water. The heat in his body was doing its best to cook him from the inside out, but Running Deer kept up the vigil, and with the help of her potions, powders, and salves, morning broke, and he was resting easier. It was a gift that nature supplied, and Scott was grateful Running Deer was skilled, for, indeed, she had saved Johnny’s life… again.

Val had been watching the prisoners as they did their best to sleep during the night. There wasn’t enough slack in the bindings to get comfortable. They slept in odd angles when they could sleep. Val took the key to one pair of cuffs and opened them from around McCall’s wrists.

“Get up,” he commanded gruffly, and Russ got to his feet, hissed at the pain, and limped on the wounded leg.

“What’re ya gonna do, Sheriff?” Russ asked as he began to worry. The sheriff had a mighty hard and evil look in his eyes, and he was separating Russ from the others.

“Shut up an’ walk. Over there.” Val pointed to a spot where he could question McCall in private. Sitting the prisoner on a rock, Val secured him by the wrist and the other cuff around a small tree. Val sat and stared at the man so willing and capable of hideous and diabolical acts of violence and ultimately murder.

“What the hell is all this ‘bout?” Val asked, his eyes glaring and sharp even in the dark.

“He killed two a my brothers! The bastard! He killed ‘em!” spat McCall. “I was gonna teach ‘im a lesson!”

Val shrugged and with a cold and icy laugh as he remembered running into camp as McCall stood, shrouded in insanity. He remembered watching McCall take his skinning knife to pierce the newly healing wounds, torturing, causing more pain that, in the end, would produce death. Johnny Madrid Lancer would be dead. He still might be. Val’s body shook with rage, and as he watched Russ McCall try to defend his actions, Val knew in his heart it wouldn’t take much for him to kill the bastard with his bare hands. He wanted to see McCall on his way to Hell.

“Yeah, I remember your older brother. He tried ta shoot me in the back. An’ Johnny stopped that from happenin’. An’ I was at the camp where you bastards jumped ‘im. Middle of the night took four a ya ta try an’ take ‘im an’ ya still couldn’t do it!” Val’s eyes were glaring, blazing holes through McCall’s heart.

McCall dropped his head and closed his eyes. “He killed my brother, Cody, that night!” he whispered.

Val’s head snapped around, not believing what he was hearing. He wondered if he heard correctly. “Four of you tried to kill him! Did ya think he wouldn’t protect himself? Just how stupid are ya?” Val raged and then shook his head.  He uncuffed McCall from the tree. “Get back ta camp!” he muttered gruffly and shoved McCall’s shoulder.

The cat was ready for another pounce, blazing yellow eyes full and clear, the tail twitching with nervous anticipation. The growl emitted from its throat turned into a scream that pierced Johnny’s ears.  Ain’t I dead yet? How long is this cat gonna tear me ta ribbons? Dios, I hurt… Hasta stop. Need ta see Scott one last time…

“… S-Scott… Johnny mumbled.

Scott was at his side in a heartbeat. He took Johnny’s hand and squeezed to let him know he was there. “Johnny? I’m here, just relax, it’s going to be alright. Can you drink something, brother? It will help you sleep.” And not waiting for an answer, Scott gently raised Johnny while Running Deer put a cup to his lips, tipping it, so the contents ran into his mouth. Swallowing as much as he could, he raised his hand to indicate ‘no more’. Running Deer took the cup away, and Scott held him upright for a minute to allow him to catch his breath.

“…hurts…” was all he could say. The pain erupted when he moved, it had been bad just laying still, but he felt it explode when pulled to a sitting position.

“I don’t doubt it, but it will be better. We’ll make sure it doesn’t get any worse, I promise…”

And Johnny was asleep.

Running Deer’s eyes softened as she watched Scott care for his brother. Worry lines had etched their way into his face and clouded the blue-gray eyes with tension and apprehension. She felt sympathy for him. She put her hand on his arm, her large dark eyes filled with compassion, and she understood the closeness between these two men.

“If he makes it through the night, I think he will live.” And she smiled into Scott’s agonized stare. He tried to smile back but couldn’t pull it off. If he makes it through the night…

This fuckin’ cat! Son-of-a-bitch! I need ta shoot ‘im! Where’s my gun? Hafta find my gun…

Johnny’s right hand went to his side, and Scott knew his brother was dreaming, more likely having another nightmare. It was incredible to watch the emotions flit across his brother’s face. For hours Scott read the torment in his brother’s body. His breathing would increase to panting; the sweat poured from him. Johnny gasped at the pain and grimaced as it worsened. Then it stopped — only to start again later.

You bastard! I gotcha!! And Johnny pulled the trigger of his pistol, the lifeless carcass fell on his chest, knocking the wind from his body, groaning as, once more in his dreams, he pulled the fangs that clamped on him in a death grip, prying them out of his shoulder.

Scott could have sworn that Johnny smiled. Panicked, Scott leaned forward and listened to Johnny’s heart. It beat with an irregular thud, but stronger than it had hours ago. Scott looked up at the mountain tops to the east and saw a tinge of light, and he began to have hope.

Running Deer smiled, knowing the source of his distress was starting to fade. Scott moved aside to let Running Deer close as she checked Johnny. The fever was beginning to subside, and the bandages told of no new bleeding. She put a reassuring hand on Scott’s forearm, and with a confirming smile, she told him what he so desperately wanted to hear. She moved away and began to prepare something for Johnny to drink. Scott settled himself again, by his brother’s side, and sincerely hoped that this would be the last time Johnny’s past came to haunt him because, at this rate, it would only be a matter of time…

“’M gonna need some help with these yahoos gettin’ back ta town. Ya think Johnny’ll be alright for ya ta leave for a coupla days, Scott?” Val asked as the day blossomed bright and new.

“I think with Running Deer fussing over him, he’s got no choice but to get better!” Scott quipped, and then more seriously replied: “Besides, that will eliminate us having to hear his complaints about having to be still and quiet. You know how he hates that…” Scott couldn’t help but smile. Never had he known anyone so restless, so edgy and agitated at being confined to bed, and after that, even having to stay in the house or close to it. It made Johnny crazy. And if Johnny was unhappy, everyone around him was unhappy. But he knew Running Deer could handle that. She was as adept at handling Johnny as Maria was back at Lancer.

Mid-morning saw Val, Scott, and their three prisoners heading out towards the town of Hollister. Wanted posters were issued for the McCall gang months before. Once at Hollister, Val would turn the prisoners over to the law, and he and Scott would head back into the mountains and pick up Johnny and head home to Lancer.

Home, Scott thought. The word sounded heavenly. And better yet knowing his brother would be with him. Murdoch, he knew, would be worried, more than worried, and Scott planned to send a telegram letting him know what happened. Everything would be fine, and they should be home soon.

Running Deer decided they should remain where they were for a day or two, letting Johnny regain strength and regenerate some of the blood he had lost. They would then build a travois and take him back to their tiny cabin.

Scott warned Running Deer before he left with Val how anxious Johnny could get and to be prepared to deal with his stubborn, obstinate behavior as he healed.

Running Deer only smiled as she scrubbed the stains from the shirt she made for Johnny. He would behave; she dealt with his stubbornness before and would see that he would not do anything to cause him any more harm, then told Scott not to worry. And she kept her promise. After two more days of rest, they headed to their cabin with Johnny in tow on the travois, bundled in blankets and slightly sedated, under protest, of course.

One week later, Scott and Val rode into the small yard in front of the cabin with a horse for Johnny to ride home and a packhorse loaded with provisions to leave with Dan and Running Deer as thanks for their hospitality and excellent care of Johnny.

Dan extended his giant paw, warm and welcoming, clasping their hands with the strength of a bear. Running Deer stood behind them and waited for the men to have their greeting before she stepped forward and welcomed her two new friends.

She’d become very fond of Johnny, even though his stubborn streak had shown itself this last week, she would be sad to see him go. And the warmth she felt for Scott and Val had also grown, something she’d not expected as white men did not usually demonstrate much respect for an Indian woman. But these men had proved that all white men were not the same, and these white men would always be welcome in her heart and her home.

Johnny walked out of the cabin after just having gotten up for the day. And he looked much better than when they saw him last. Both Scott and Val were delighted at seeing him on his feet and reasonably mobile, and it was plain that Johnny was glad to see them.

Val turned to Running Deer with a question creasing his brow. “This rowdy give ya any trouble? I know he can be a pain in the as… butt!” Val had the courtesy to blush.

Running Deer looked innocently at them and answered without smiling. “No, he didn’t. But I had to threaten him with the herb that would keep him close to the pot that is under the bed if he didn’t obey me.” She spoke calmly and with feigned seriousness.

Val burst out with a belly laugh, and Scott had all he could do to hold himself together while Johnny could only mumble.

“It ain’t that funny…”

The remark only served to make Val laugh harder. Running Deer motioned them all into the cabin for breakfast, but Scott indicated the packhorse and supplies.

“We felt it necessary to reimburse you for the trouble you’ve gone through. Trust me! I know it wasn’t easy dealing with him!” And he nodded his head in Johnny’s direction.

They ate a hearty meal of eggs, bacon, and homemade bread with honey. Afterward, Dan, Scott, and Val went down to the lake to fish, leaving Running Deer again with her charge.

Johnny stood on the front porch leaning his right shoulder against the roof support, weight on his right leg, staring out over the snow-capped mountains. The timberline cast a green color to the lower elevations while white clouds billowed in the blue sky behind, and the sun lit up the day with its warmth and brightness. It was a beautiful day.

Running Deer came to stand beside Johnny as he watched an eagle circle on the thermals going ever higher in the brilliant sky. She followed his gaze and smiled. He has much trouble settling down… she thought, knowing that his thoughts were with the raptor as it glided effortlessly, drifting on the wind.

She had seen his eyes when he’d been confined to bed, knowing that, should he take it upon himself to leave his incarceration of the blankets, he wouldn’t make it two steps without falling in a heap on the floor. But now that he was up and about, he was anxious to be on his way.

And she would miss him.

She would miss the honesty and humor in his eyes and the integrity in his heart. Johnny was a good man, she knew, and one that understood the plight of the Indians. He told her only a small part of his life living among The People, and she knew that he had suffered a great deal, but he did not tell her any more than that, nor did she ask.

“Do you want to rest, Johnny? I know you will be leaving soon, and you will need to rest before you go.”

“What I wanna do is tell you how much I appreciate what you an’ Dan have done for me. I know it wasn’t easy, an’ I put ya out. Didn’t mean ta be such trouble,” he said quietly and looked down into her large dark eyes.

“You are a good man, Johnny, and I know that you would have done the same for Dan.”

“I’d a done the same for you, too,” he said honestly.

Looking into his eyes, she knew he was telling her the truth.

They all pitched in cleaning the fish, salting and packing most of it away for Dan and Running Deer to have after they had gone.

Sitting around the table for the evening meal, they talked like old friends and even suggested a trip back to visit. They would plan on hunting, too, as Johnny had missed out when Dan, Scott, and Val had gone while he was too weak to join them. Turning in early, they bid a goodnight. Morning would come soon enough, and they all needed sleep. Parting in the morning would be tough; saying goodbye was never an easy thing.

Running Deer had the fire going in the stove as she made a breakfast of the fish they’d caught the day before. Fresh bread and berries she picked were sitting on the table rounded out the meal. They ate their fill when Scott suddenly spoke.

“I wired Murdoch when we got the prisoners into Hollister and informed him what you’d gotten yourself into this time. He did wire back, asking for me to tell you that someone came to Lancer calling on you.”

Johnny’s brows rose in question, hoping it wasn’t anyone else looking for Madrid.

“Yes, a certain blond ran into the yard in a huff.” Scott was enjoying the panic starting to grow in Johnny’s eyes.

What blond is pissed at me now? He wondered, and then a spark flickered. And he smiled a bit. “A he or a she?”

Scott could see the hope build behind the deep blue eyes, and he couldn’t keep from laughing.

“Barranca! He made it home?” Johnny laughed with relief. He wasn’t letting himself think about the possibility of having lost the magnificent horse, but the big stallion had made it home.

Running Deer and Dan watched as Johnny seemed to relax, lighter of heart than he’d been since they’d gotten to know him.

They exchanged questioning looks, but Scott filled them in, and they smiled at this infamous gunfighter having a soft spot for his horse. This fit the man’s personality that they had come to know and care about… care about a great deal.

The horses were saddled, and all too soon came the moment they were dreading. Dan stood with his arm around Running Deer just off the step of the porch. Val shook hands with Dan, thanking them for their hospitality, tipped his hat respectfully to Running Deer, and then swung into his saddle.

Scott came forward, and as with Val, clasped Dan’s hand. “Thank you both for taking care of my wayward brother. He seems to need all the watching over that he can get!” Scott said with a chuckle. He then stood before Running Deer, removed his hat, and looked into her face. “Thank you, Running Deer,” and Scott leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

“Your brother is a fine man, Scott, as are you and Val. Our door is always open to you, and may the Great Spirit smile on you always.”

Humbled, Scott looked down at the ground, then smiled into her face again and squeezed her hand.

Johnny hated this. He never liked goodbyes, and it was difficult to express what was on his mind and in his heart. He couldn’t always say the things he wanted. Words snagged in his throat, coming hard, and his voice would grow husky. Stepping in front of Dan and Running Deer, Johnny met their gaze with bright, shining eyes.

“There’s no words ta thank you, both of you, an’ I doubt that there’s anything I could do ta show ya how much ya mean ta me. Ya saved my life, an’ that ain’t anything that I take lightly. Don’t like goodbyes, so I ain’t gonna say it, but I think that maybe we can make it back for a visit.  Maybe we’ll bring our father; I know he’d like ta meet ya both.”

“And we would like to meet him, especially if he’s anything like his sons,” Running Deer spoke.

Johnny smiled at her, then went to his saddlebags, the bags that Scott retrieved when they came upon the campsite where Johnny was ambushed. Reaching into one side, he dug around for a minute before coming to stand once more in front of Running Deer. He shrugged, then took her hand in his and placed a tiny rawhide pouch in her palm; the beading was exquisite, a delicate pattern in red, yellow, and black beads.

She stared at it and then lifted her wide eyes to his, a surprised look on her face. This thoughtful gesture clearly moved her, and Johnny softly explained, “It kept me safe when I was with The People, an’ I want you ta have it now.” The words were soft and filled with emotion. Johnny extended his hand to Dan, and as with Scott and Val, Dan grasped it in his paw-like grip, shaking it with affection. Johnny then turned to Running Deer and took her in a gentle but heartfelt embrace, hugging her to him, and whispered into her ear.

“Thank you…” Not able to say any more, Johnny broke away and carefully, painfully stepped into the stirrup and up onto the saddle. The three men rode away; Johnny chanced a look back and waved, seeing that Dan and Running Deer stood to watch them ride away.

The fire put out heat and chased away the chill. Scott and Val discreetly watched Johnny, ensuring that he couldn’t overdo and tear out any more stitches. They had been shocked at the sight of his back and shoulder when Running Deer had been tending him, and they knew it could be an issue as they traveled, especially when Johnny wanted to be moving at a faster pace, even though he knew he shouldn’t.

Before they left Dan and Running Deer, she had given them a small bag of herbs to help him sleep at night, and a bit of it in coffee at the midday meal would make him slow down if he got too anxious. And that would happen, they knew. Johnny was always in a hurry to get things moving, get something done, or go somewhere… Now, he was in a hurry to get home.

They watched as his eyes grew heavy, sleep winning the tug of war as his lids lowered, unable to stay open. Giving in to the fatigue, he set his empty cup on the ground, pulled his blanket over his body, and settled back on his saddle with his hat pulled low. But before he closed his eyes, he glanced up at the moon. The smiling face was still there, but now it was a kind smile, and Johnny took comfort in that fact and knowing that in just a few days, he would be at Lancer, home. And the Man in the Moon smiled wider.



Written July 2017
Edited December 2020



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26 thoughts on “Just A Matter Of Time by Buckskin

  1. love the characters of Running Deer and Dan, they were such good people and you developed them wonderfully. I could almost hear the cat the way you described the growl and scream. Great job all around.


    1. Hi, Mimi!

      Yes, Dan and Running Deer kind of worked their way into my heart as well! I have thought about another story involving them, but haven’t come up with anything yet. But I am glad that you found this tale interesting. Thank you for reading and commenting!



    1. Hi, Char! Glad you liked this story. All the trouble Johnny finds himself in is a never ending source of entertainment! Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it!



  2. Enjoyed the story – always love it when Barranca makes his way home – just like his beloved Johnny always makes it back to Lancer.


    1. Hi, Cathie! Glad you liked the story. Yes, we can’t have Barranca not make it home! Great horse for a great man! Thank you for reading and commenting!



  3. Hi Diana….another wonderful story. Your stories are so deep and layered. Love Val’s protective nature when it comes to Johnny and how Scott never gives up on him. Was really hoping that you would bring Barranca back home as well, and you did! Thanks for your writing.

    Sue L


    1. Hi, Sue! Thank you so much for reading! In my stories, and many other’s, Val and Johnny had a history prior to coming to Lancer and I like to carry that thought through. It adds another dimension to the story. And Scott and Johnny were close so it’s fun to add that to the tale as well. Yes, there was no way that Barranca wasn’t going to make it home!

      Thanks for your comments!



  4. Really enjoyed it. Glad that Barranca made it home. I did laugh when I saw that the healing cure had Belladonna since one of the TV shows I liked had used it to almost kill someone. So I found it interesting that is can be used on both sides of the spectrum. Wasn’t sure if poor Johnny was going to survive this one, he did have a really tough time, but I’m glad that Running Deer and Dan were there for him.


    1. Hi, Kathleen! Yes, belladonna, from the research I’ve done, was a staple and where it was poisonous in greater amounts, it was used for fever and pain. In the 18th Century, women used it to make themselves look ‘pretty and seductive’ as it enlarged the pupils. I was told that our heroes probably wouldn’t have survived all the trouble we writers put them through, hey, this is Johnny Madrid Lancer we’re talking about!

      Thank you for reading and commenting. It is appreciated more than you know!


      Liked by 1 person

  5. I always love your stories and this was right up to expectations! Liked the historic research on drugs. I’ve run across mention of belladonna before, but had forgotten. You are painfully descriptive too!


    1. Thank you so much, zoeytbear! I am glad you find these stories to your liking. They are fun for me to write And Johnny is a constant source of entertainment with all the trouble he gets himself into. Yes, he had a nasty time of it with the cougar. I just hope I did the incident justice… to Johnny and the cat!

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!



    1. Hi! I’m very happy you enjoyed Johnny’s visit with the cat! Never know what kind of trouble he’ll get into! Thank you for reading and commenting!



  6. Another good story by you. Glad Barranca made it back home. Johnny was lucky that Dan found him and that Running Deer knew how to treat his injuries.


    1. Hi, Lesley! Thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, Barranca had to make it home otherwise Johnny would have gone looking for him… hmmm, this could have had a second part…

      Thanks again, Lesley!



    1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the trouble Johnny got himself in this time. Yes, I know. I really didn’t want to do that to the kitty, but couldn’t risk having Johnny on the menu!

      Thanks again!



  7. I enjoyed your story! Yes, like Scott said, Johnny keeps us worried and makes us crazy. But we love him anyway! You did a great job with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Kay!I’m glad you liked Johnny’s adventure through the mountains. He never fails to keep us entertained and that’s just one of the many things I love about him!

      Thanks for reading and the feedback!



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