#4 in the Ghosts series | Episode 1 of 7
A sequel to The Ghost Of Johnny Madrid, and won’t make much sense unless you’ve read that one first!
Word count: 317,750
Scott walked tiredly out to the porch of Rosti’s Saloon, a warm, freshly brewed mug of coffee in his hands. Outside the doorway he paused, stretched out his cramped muscles and yawned with fatigue. After rubbing his eyes with his free hand, he gazed out across the street, gray in the early morning light. His eyes scanned over the tops of the few buildings that lined the western edge of the wide, dirt road that made up the main street of Soledad, taking in the hazy shapes of the coastal mountains, the morning fog still clinging thickly around their peaks. He took a couple of deep breaths of the morning air, cleansing his lungs and his thoughts of the heavy atmosphere of the upper room where his brother lay. Then, from habit, he crossed to one of the old chairs that Rosti had placed on the porch for his patrons’ use and sat down, leaning tiredly backward. He gave a weighted sigh then quietly began sipping his coffee.
Four nights down.
And how many more to go?
The feeling that he was merely participating in a deathwatch had evaporated at the first sign that Johnny had recognized him, but that had been the evening of the shoot-out. Since then Johnny had yet to recognize him, drifting in and out of either a morphine-induced haze or a pain-filled torment that Scott had been unable to reach through. Granted, DarkCloud had insisted on keeping Johnny fairly sedated, his worry that Johnny had pushed his body to the limit and needed complete rest a real one that neither Scott nor Murdoch could argue with. They’d seen, firsthand, the physical condition Johnny was in, and Scott had found himself haunted by the knowledge…the horrible realization that he’d barely arrived in time to save his brother from the predestined death he’d choreographed in the ill-fated gunfight. And then, to witness an event even worse, something Scott had yet to come to terms with.
Scott shifted uneasily and took a sip from the mug he held in his hand. Last night had been a particularly difficult night. He didn’t like sitting quietly, keeping an eerie vigil over his brother’s unnaturally gaunt form, listening to his labored breathing and random moans of pain that announced the morphine couldn’t take away all of Johnny’s discomfort. It all seemed so futile, so ineffective. He felt he needed to do something more substantial, something that would provide results that he could hang on to, something more than simply changing a bandage or spooning a little liquid into his semi-conscious brother.
Then there was the trembling. In some ways that bothered Scott more than anything else. It would happen without warning. Johnny would unexpectedly jerk and shudder, a small moan issuing forth. Then DarkCloud would jump up, check him over, feel his skin, listen to his breathing, check his eyes. Usually, he determined that Johnny was trying to fight through the medication and that it was wearing off, so he’d have to give him another dose of the morphine.
Scott sighed heavily.
He didn’t like DarkCloud using the morphine, and it bothered him to see his brother receiving the injections. However, the doctor explained that he was using just what was needed to give Johnny a chance to recuperate from his wounds. Nonetheless, it was still difficult to watch, and Scott generally managed to be absent when it was time for another dose.
When Murdoch had asked why DarkCloud wasn’t using an oral form, the doctor had explained that in many ways the injected form was superior, as he’d come to discover that the oral administration of morphine had a substantially less analgesic potency, took longer to be absorbed by the body and was harder to control. And there was no denying that it was doing the job they needed it to do for now—and that was to take away enough of the pain so that Johnny could have a chance to rest and heal.
Then there were the wounds.
Scott closed his eyes and let the warm mug rest against his chest.
Every time he tried to sleep, he kept reliving those horrible few minutes when he believed his brother was dying in his arms—living it over and over again—waking up in a cold sweat of pure panic until his senses were given the time to catch back up to reality. But the feeling of having touched death would continue to linger with him, long after he’d realized it was only a dream, because it had come so close to being a fact.
So Scott had found himself avoiding sleep.
Scott opened his eyes and took another long sip of the strong, black coffee. Then giving a soft groan, he stretched out both legs as far as they would reach, crossed them at the ankles, nestled down a little further into his chair and watched a man who he had come to recognize as Calientes, the owner of the local mercantile store. Scott noticed that despite owning the only mercantile store in the small town, Calientes, himself, had no notions of indulging in new finery. Calientes tipped his worn, felt hat in greeting then proceeded to open up his shop. Scott watched with vague interest, a bitter sigh hissing between his teeth.
Calientes—another friend of Madrid’s.
The entire town was a friend of Madrid’s.
Scott had to admit that, even though everyone was amazingly kind, helpful and considerate—and he was awarded every courtesy imaginable in the small town—it bothered him that it was because he was Madrid’s brother.
He looked down at the thick, dark liquid, took another sip, then closed his eyes tiredly. He just wanted Johnny to get well so that he could dispel the feeling which sporadically crept up on him that everyone knew something he didn’t—that they all shared a common secret about his brother, some knowledge he didn’t possess. He knew it was ridiculous, but it bothered him just the same.
Just like he was bothered by Harley.
Scott opened his eyes to mere slits, took another sip of his coffee, gave a grunt at his own foolishness, and closed his eyes once more.
Hell, you’re jealous of Harley. Admit it Scott. You’re just plain jealous. Like a young kid, finding his schoolyard buddy had a best friend before you.
But Johnny’s not just a friend…he’s my brother…my only brother…my…responsibility…
“Damn it!” Scott hissed.
“And here I thought you were finally getting some sleep.”
Startled, Scott opened his eyes. DarkCloud stood, an amused smile on his face, leisurely studying him from the saloon doorway.
“Um, no…” Scott shifted in his chair and drew his long legs in. “Just resting.”
DarkCloud nodded thoughtfully then crossed to Scott’s opposite side where he sat down in another chair.
Scott cocked his head toward the saloon door. “Should I go up?”
DarkCloud shook his head. “Your father just took over. I told him to get me if there’s any change.” He paused as he noticed Scott glance uncomfortably toward the door. “How’re you doing?”
“Huh?” Scott turned back to DarkCloud, his brows furrowed.
“I asked how you were,” DarkCloud repeated.
“I’m fine,” Scott replied, then feeling the doctor’s dark brown eyes scrutinizing him, he quickly dropped his gaze to his coffee and took a sip.
“I feel sorry for your father,” DarkCloud sighed, then leaned back in his own chair.
“You do?” Scott asked, his face registering concern. “Why?”
DarkCloud somberly shook his head. “To have two such stubborn sons… Must be hard on him.”
A wry smile edged in the corners of Scott’s mouth as he noticed the doctor watching him with amusement. He laughed with a shake of his head.
“You know I’m serious, don’t you?” DarkCloud’s smile, while remaining, was tempered by a serious look. “You’re not looking too well, and it’s not just that shoulder wound.”
Scott nodded, then looked back down at the mug of coffee, now almost empty. “I know,” he murmured. “But I just can’t seem to sleep. Or—or rather when I do, I always dream of…of… It’s just difficult.” Scott paused and looked up at the Indian’s quietly intent expression. “It’ll be four days. Tell me honestly. Is he going to make it?”
Though DarkCloud’s expression remained unchanged, Scott could tell the doctor was having a hard time keeping his gaze steady.
“I don’t know, Scott,” DarkCloud finally replied. “I know that isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s all I can truthfully offer. I just don’t know.” He paused, then quickly continued as Scott started to look away. “I can tell you that he’s still alive—and that’s something. Most men would have given up before now, and Johnny would have, too…before. But you’re here now and he can sense that.”
“But I’m not doing anything,” Scott shot back irritably. “I just sit!”
“And hold his hand, and help me change his dressings, and talk to him—”
“It’s so frustrating,” Scott interrupted. “I want to do more. I want to see an improvement. I want to see him look at me again, to know that he’s aware I’m there.”
“Scott,” DarkCloud leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped. “I know you’re frustrated. It’s hard, I’m sure. But Johnny’s got a long way to go before he’ll be fully recovered. Even—even once the wounds are healed, we’re going to have to deal with the morphine and laudanum problem. We’ve got a long way to go. A very long way.”
“I know,” Scott sighed heavily and looked down at the empty coffee cup he held on his lap. “I know that. I do.”
There was a moment’s silence, then DarkCloud continued, “I am planning to reduce his dosage of morphine today.”
Scott glanced up quickly. “Why? I thought your intention was to continue for another couple of days yet.”
“It was,” DarkCloud agreed quietly as he looked down at his own folded hands. “But,” he paused, and when he looked up, Scott noticed his expression was grave, “I’m really starting to worry about another problem.”
Scott, despite his overwhelming exhaustion, felt a shock of adrenaline surge up through his chest. “What do you mean?” he asked tightly.
“Pneumonia,” DarkCloud stated softly, his gaze remaining fixed. “Johnny’s first injury kept him from taking any really deep breaths and clearing out his lungs for quite some time. He was running a fever off and on constantly, never giving himself a chance to heal. And then, the bruised and cracked ribs, the wound to his chest….” DarkCloud pursed his lips. “It’s going to be very painful for him, and it’s going to take someone being with him at all times, but I need to get him up for short periods. I need to get him clearing out his lungs, otherwise I fear we’re going to be fighting pneumonia soon. And there’s no way we’re going to win that battle, Scott,” DarkCloud finished grimly.
Expressionless, Scott looked off at the distant hills as he absorbed the new information. He didn’t need DarkCloud telling him the futility of Johnny’s body being able to fight off pneumonia. He’d seen enough of it during the War to know how quickly it could attack, leaving death behind even in a perfectly healthy person. And Johnny, in his weakened condition, didn’t stand a chance.
Scott turned. “Have you talked to Murdoch?”
DarkCloud hesitated before nodding. “Just before I came down. I let him know, too, that I was going to cut back on the dosages enough to start bringing him around.”
“When?” Scott asked.
“As soon as you go up and get a few hours of sleep,” DarkCloud countered.
Scott raised his eyebrows.
“Scott, a few hours of sleep would do you a lot of good. We may have a difficult couple of days ahead of us while I’m trying to find an adjustment in the dosage of morphine for your brother. And while he’s awake, he’s going to need all the help we can give him. I want to get him up, walking a bit, but I don’t want to take any chances in reopening that wound. The entrance wound is just finally healing over, but that exit wound is still causing problems.”
“The infection,” Scott murmured with a shake of his head.
“I don’t know,” DarkCloud answered. “He’s running a fever, but I can’t tell if it’s from the wound or if it’s the early stages of pneumonia. The infection finally shows signs of healing, but his fever’s still high.” DarkCloud shook his head sadly, then suddenly erupted. “Dammit! I tried to get him to take care of himself better, but…” He glanced off down the street, his hands tightly clasped. “He just—” DarkCloud shook his head, gaze still averted.
“You did all you could,” Scott interrupted, aware that DarkCloud was dealing with his own feelings of remorse at the way things had turned out.
The doctor turned back and bitterly shook his head, a deep sigh following. “Scott, I really haven’t any idea what I’m doing. This is beyond me.” He rubbed his face, his own exhaustion becoming more apparent. “The infection appears to be clearing up, but his temperature isn’t going down. I don’t like him on the morphine—Hell! I didn’t even want him on the laudanum in the first place, given his history! But now is no time to be pulling him off the stuff. Not until we’ve gotten his injuries under control.” DarkCloud abruptly pushed up from his chair and paced to the edge of the porch.
Scott quietly watched as the doctor crossed his arms and glared out toward the mountains in the distance. His unhappiness at the situation and his role in it were loudly conveyed in his tight stance and bitter words.
Scott stood and walked up next to DarkCloud. He allowed his gaze to linger on the horizon a few seconds before he turned to study his brother’s doctor, who slowly turned to look at him. Suddenly he realized that the man beside him couldn’t be more than a dozen years older than he was. Though his single black braid lacked any gray, and his face lacked any lines, he seemed to possess an ancient spirit, an innate sense of nature’s power, giving him the impression of being much older than he was. Scott held DarkCloud’s gaze, seeing in their earth-brown depths the soul of everything that was good and patient, along with the same frustration and feeling of helplessness which Scott had been feeling. In that moment, he realized just how much Johnny had come to mean to the man.
“It’s obvious that Johnny trusts you,” Scott said softly. “And he isn’t one to give his trust easily.”
Sorrowfully DarkCloud shook his head and looked down at his arms folded against his chest. “Perhaps his trust was misplaced.”
“I don’t think it was,” Scott countered firmly.
DarkCloud suddenly gave a quiet snort and looked up, a tired smile on the bronze face. “I’m sorry, Scott. I shouldn’t have said that.” He paused and closed his eyes a second. “I guess I’m just tired, too.”
“It sounds like you fight pretty hard to get your patients well,” Scott countered amiably.
DarkCloud’s smile widened. “And Johnny’s one patient I don’t plan to lose. He’s cost me too much time and effort already.”
“And I don’t plan to lose my brother,” Scott slowly smiled. “I was just starting to figure out how to beat him at checkers.”
“Then I guess that between us, Johnny has only one path to follow. And that’s to get better,” DarkCloud added.
Scott nodded his agreement, his own smile widening.
DarkCloud turned, nodded toward the door, then put out his hand to give Scott’s back a sympathetic pat. “Let’s get some sleep. Then we’ll both be able to better handle the next few days.”
DarkCloud gave a grimace of a smile, then added pointedly, “And I’m sure you’re well aware that you’d sleep a hell of a lot better if you didn’t drink so much of that stuff.”
Scott glanced at the empty coffee mug he still held in his hands, then looked back up at DarkCloud. “I’ll sleep a hell of a lot better once I have a really good argument with my brother.”
Walking toward the door leading back into the saloon, DarkCloud gave Scott’s back another pat. “Knowing Johnny, once he’s awake, it won’t take long.”
“I hope not,” Scott murmured.
Scott lay on the bed, his hands folded across his abdomen, the curtains drawn against the rising morning sun—and his eyes wide open, staring unseeingly up at the ceiling.
Decreasing the medication. Isn’t that just what you’ve been waiting for? Then how come you’re so nervous? Why? Because you’re afraid it was a fluke? That Johnny once again won’t remember you? Because the few times he’s woken since then, he’s shown no recognition. And though DarkCloud has tried to assure you that it’s probably because of the medication, what if he’s wrong and…?
But mostly, isn’t it because then all the issues you’ve been avoiding are going to have to be faced and dealt with? And what if you find out that the lure to be Johnny Madrid once again, and all the prestige and power that went with it, has become more important than just being Johnny Lancer, Scott’s brother? That Harley and Tucson and everyone else in this town are more your brother’s friends than you ever were?
Scott grunted, then in exasperation he bolted upright and swung his legs off the bed. Standing up, he crossed to the window and pulled back the curtain partway. The small town was now officially awake, though the few occupants he saw moving about attested to the fact that Soledad had a long way to go before it could call itself a real city. Spanish Wells, by comparison, looked positively bustling.
But with the new rail line coming in, all that could change. Scott gave a wry smile and let the curtain fall back into place. He’d heard that phrase ‘just wait ‘til the train comes’ any number of times from different folks since he had arrived. And all spoke with the same amount of optimism and awe—and then added a quick assurance of their undying gratitude to be conveyed to Madrid for making it all possible by taking care of their ‘Wakeman problem’.
It didn’t help Scott’s disposition to find that the same tone of awe was used in speaking the name of Madrid as in speaking of the coming train. Both seen as larger than life, powerful entities, changing or affecting everything they came into contact with—real-life legends.
Where did Johnny Lancer fit into that legend? Or Scott, for that matter? Was there any place for them in that legend? Or was the ghost of Madrid too large?
Scott sighed and walked back to the bed. In uncharacteristic disgust, he threw himself face down upon it.
Then there was Harley. Scott knew in the next day or two that Harley was supposed to be coming back with the sheriff. They’d left for Salinas the second morning after the shootout. It had been obvious to Scott that Harley was uneasy about leaving his friend. But the blacksmith knew that he needed to get his wife and child back home, and Sheriff Hawkins was anxious to get to Salinas where he could wire to Monterey for help in having his prisoners transported. He figured it would take a couple days before the help from Monterey would reach Salinas, but as soon as they showed up, he planned to return. Unfortunately, Harley was quite adamant in reassuring both Scott and Murdoch that he would also return to help out. Despite Scott’s efforts to convince him that it wasn’t necessary, Harley seemed concerned that the Lancers and DarkCloud were able to handle the situation.
For Scott, the blacksmith’s presence only served as a constant reminder of Johnny’s past—and his ignorance of it—cementing the fact that Harley knew Johnny better than his own brother did. Although Scott knew Harley had no thought of malice towards him, it didn’t make the situation any easier.
So, after Sheriff Hawkins had put Tucson in charge of the three wounded prisoners, one of which was Wakeman, he had left with Harley and his family and the one man who had escaped the shoot-out unscathed. Murdoch had also given Harley instructions for a telegram to be sent back to Lancer to inform Teresa and Jelly that they had found Johnny, and that they would be returning just as soon as possible.
Scott pushed up onto one elbow, slid his hand into his pocket, and slowly withdrew a misshapen gold disc suspended on a chain. Once again, as he had a hundred times in the last few days, Scott’s gaze narrowed as he glared intently at the object—the object that symbolized his brother’s greatest fear—dying alone, and in a way, Scott’s greatest fear—losing his brother. An object that had been responsible for saving his brother by stopping the bullet that had been aimed at his chest. The etching of Saint Francis was now obliterated beyond any recognition, but the medallion had since become Scott’s own symbol. A solid reminder to him that he was needed in his brother’s life, that though Johnny might have a hard time admitting it openly, the desire to be wanted and part of a family—to not die the friendless, lonely death of a gunfighter—was very important.
Okay. Harley may know more about Johnny’s past than you do, but you’re his brother. And that’s something Harley isn’t. You’ve never been one to back down from a battle, so don’t start now. Johnny’s counting on you, even if he is too stubborn to admit it.
Still clutching the medallion, Scott lay back down and closed his eyes. DarkCloud was right. The next few days would be a battle, and Scott planned to win it.
In the room next door, DarkCloud lay back onto the bed and took a deep breath. He couldn’t remember how many hours it had been since he’d last lain down and actually slept more than a few minutes at a time. After giving Scott his advice on catching a few hours of sleep, checking once more on Murdoch and Johnny, then looking in on his three other patients, DarkCloud had decided to heed a bit of his own counsel and catch a few winks.
He stretched out his back, sore and stiff from spending most of his time sitting beside Johnny’s bed, yawned widely, linked his fingers behind his head, then closed his eyes.
What he had told Scott was only too true. He really hadn’t any idea how best to go about getting Johnny well. Having him sedated and free from the pain, while making his normally bellicose patient more manageable and finally allowing the wounds to heal properly, left a bad taste in his mouth. He wasn’t fond of the morphine. Granted, it did its main duty of controlling a patient’s pain like nothing else he had available; however, there was the price to pay for that relief, a price DarkCloud feared would be high. Yet in Johnny’s case, there had seemed little choice.
Add to that the new worry over pneumonia. A worry all too real.
DarkCloud unclasped his fingers and roughly rubbed knuckles across his brow, then pressed his palms against his closed eyes. This train of thought was never going to do if he expected to get any sleep. With a groan, DarkCloud sat up and poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher that sat near the bed. It was then that he heard footsteps in the next room. Scott was up and pacing.
DarkCloud wearily shook his head, took a sip of the water, and replaced the cup on the table. With a frown, he turned to look at the wall that separated the two rooms, as if his threatening glare would penetrate through the wall and chase his patient’s brother back to bed. Vaguely he considered getting up and chastising Scott, but knew that unless he resorted to sedating Scott, too, it was impossible to force him to sleep. Then as he briefly contemplated the advantages of giving everyone a dose of morphine and sending them all to bed, himself included, he heard a creaking sound in the next room as Scott settled once more onto his bed.
With a quiet chuckle, DarkCloud lay back down. He just wished Scott’s brother had listened half so well when he’d been given advice.
In another room down the hall, Murdoch quietly slouched his bulky frame down in the large padded chair. Rosti had moved the chair in on the second day, stating that it was a gift from someone in the town, for the men to use while they took turns sitting bedside vigil for Johnny Madrid.
Johnny Lancer, Murdoch mentally corrected.
His elbows resting on the arms of the chair, Murdoch focused through his steepled fingers to gaze at the still form of his son.
Murdoch swallowed hard and closed his eyes.
It had been such a long four days. He could remember few times in his life that had drained him so emotionally. The moment when he’d heard about Katherine’s death and Harlan taking Scott to Boston was one of the worst. The day he had found out about Maria’s unfaithfulness which culminated in his waking up a few days later to find the letter telling him she’d run off with Preston as she could no longer live with a man who loved a ranch more than her. Then the worst moment of them all: discovering that Maria’s vengeance hadn’t been satisfied with merely running off and leaving him, but that she felt she had to take their son away too. The same son, who now lay before him, bruised, pale, thin, wounded—with a fragile hold on life. A hold that Murdoch feared was not too secure.
How many times can a man be beaten down and still have the will to fight?
Murdoch sighed. Those had all been moments that had left him with the same emotional exhaustion that he felt now. Before he’d had the luxury of nursing his own wounds. This time he had two sons who needed him.
Murdoch allowed his eyes to travel down his son’s face, gaunt and pale even through the stubble of a beard, past the neck encircled by a strip of cloth, lingering for a moment on his son’s heavily bandaged torso where support for bruised and cracked ribs also hid the damage caused by a bullet which should have killed. A thin woolen blanket covered his son’s legs, white cotton longjohns just visible at the waist, a disquieting match to the bleached strips of cloth and his son’s waxy complexion. Grimly Murdoch let his gaze continue until it came to rest on his son’s arms, black and blue from the injections of morphine DarkCloud had been using to keep Johnny sedated and free from pain.
Free from pain.
The thought brought a grimace to Murdoch’s otherwise stoic face.
Free from a pain that should never have been inflicted on his son in the first place.
Oh, Maria, don’t you see what you’ve done—what we’ve done? This was not the future Johnny should have had. Don’t you see that? We have a son who’s always being chased—chased by a past that should never have been his. A past that’s now haunting us all.
Murdoch closed his eyes once more in an attempt to block out the vision—and his own sense of failure. Four days of sitting beside the bed of his battered son had given him a lot of time for quiet self-reflection and thought. Time to come to terms with his failings as a husband, as a parent, and as an example to his now grown sons.
Eyes still closed, he brought his hands up to his face and rubbed his forehead sadly in an effort to dispel the headache brought on by the tension of the last few days. It had done him no good, either, to see that his eldest son was acutely bothered by the events that had happened, by the trauma of the last month. Though Murdoch had tried on a number of occasions to talk to Scott, and had actually thought that he had done some good, he was disappointed to see that Scott still seemed disturbed. DarkCloud had also voiced his concern over Scott’s appearance and distraught mood, and had seemed worried about his lack of sleep and disinterest in eating. Murdoch had been relieved when DarkCloud had finally managed to convince Scott to lie down for a few hours before they began to lower Johnny’s dosages of morphine.
The thought of what to come brought Murdoch both relief and dread at the same time. He would be relieved to see his son’s eyes open once more. He just dreaded the possibility of what he might see in their dark depths.
“Oh, Johnny,” Murdoch murmured.
Things should have been so different. Could have been so different. Yet just three years ago…
Three years ago since he had been shot by Pardee, which then began the chain of events that led to his decision to send for his sons. If Pardee hadn’t shot him, he would never have been forced into that decision. In reality he owed Pardee for the return of his sons.
And in a macabre twist of fate, he actually owed Pardee for Johnny’s life.
Murdoch forced himself to study the face of his unconscious son. It was an ironic and terrible truth he had to live with, to know that if he hadn’t been pushed into a corner where he’d needed his sons’ help, he would have stoically and stubbornly gone on his way without ever getting to know his eldest son, and probably would not have known until months too late that his youngest had finally met his death in front of a firing squad.
How many times had he silently thanked the Lord for sending Pardee to put a bullet in his back? If truth be known, too many times to count.
Murdoch didn’t consider himself an especially religious man. But as he came to terms with the reality of the narrow margin by which Johnny had escaped death—spelled out quite formally in black and white in the Pinkerton report—he had found himself, on many a night, silently murmuring a prayer of thanks for the life of his son.
Would he hate me? Murdoch wondered to himself. What would he do if he knew the truth of the situation? If he discovered that I had known where he was—and who he was—for over a year before I sent for him?
The secret weighed on Murdoch’s soul, a constant heaviness solidly planted and growing in his chest. Even under the belief that Murdoch had located him just before he was to be killed by a firing squad, their relationship had been strained. If Johnny were ever to find out the truth… Murdoch shook his head sadly. The truth would irreparably damage their relationship, he was sure.
And now Scott also carried the burden of the secret.
Murdoch abruptly pushed himself out of the chair, stood up and turned to walk to the window. Halfheartedly, he drew the thin curtain to the side and looked out onto the dusty back street. One local farmer was in the process of unloading some goods beside a small barn. He recognized a second man as Calientes, the mercantile owner, who was helping with the unloading.
Murdoch’s gaze settled more firmly on the farmer as the man stood back to survey his supplies and clasp Calientes’ hand in friendship. Then with mutual nods, Calientes headed back toward the main street as the farmer started to lead his team toward the barn. Uncomfortably, the thought that he, too, needed to be returning to his ranch and his duties entered Murdoch’s thoughts.
Murdoch sighed again, let the curtain drop and turned away from the window. When the sheriff and Harley had headed up to Salinas, he’d given Johnny’s old friend a message to be wired back to Lancer. However, given the seriousness of Johnny’s condition, he had kept his message vague, with little more detail than the fact that Johnny had been found and that they would be returning as soon as possible. He knew his imprecise message would do little to relieve Teresa’s and Jelly’s concern, as they were sure to suspect there was more than they were being told, but he hadn’t known what else he could say. So he had sent instructions on various jobs he knew needed to be done, and had promised to send another message in a week or so, with a date of their return. It was all he felt he could do at the moment.
Murdoch crossed back to the bed, pulled the chair up closer, and sat down on its edge.
“You’ve just got to get better, Johnny. You’ve just got to beat this. Scott really needs you. I really need you. There’s a lot that needs to be said, that you need to know…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off, ending in a tightly controlled swallow.
Downstairs in the saloon, Tucson scooped the last of his scrambled eggs onto the piece of toast, popped the whole thing in his mouth then pushed the plate away with a satisfied groan.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Rosti said with a smile as he sat down at the table across from the gunfighter.
Tucson gave a sheepish grin, then nodded. “I could eat like that every mornin’.”
“And you could,” Rosti replied with a look that conveyed the hidden meaning.
Tucson dropped his gaze to his hands before looking up. “You’re referrin’ to what DarkCloud and Angelou were talkin’ ‘bout last night.”
“And why not?” Rosti asked, one eyebrow raised. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Tucson shook his head to himself and chuckled softly. “Sheriff.”
“Well, if Madrid thinks you’d make an able sheriff, that’s good enough for me. Hell! That’s good enough for all of us.”
Tucson gave an amused grin and slouched further down in his seat. Though he tried, he wasn’t able to hide his pleasure at the verbal compliment.
“Well, I hope you’ll seriously consider it. The doc said Madrid seemed pretty settled on the idea.”
Tucson gave a nod, then smiled. “I’d be a fool not to take seriously anythin’ Madrid suggested.”
Rosti nodded, then smiled back. “Well, the pay may not be great at first,” he paused and nodded toward the empty plate, “but you can be assured of a decent breakfast every morning and a roof over your head.”
Tucson laughed. “There’s a lot to be said for a decent breakfast and a roof.”
Rosti nodded, then leaned back in his own chair, his eyes wandering toward the stairs. “Did’ja hear DarkCloud’s worried about Madrid comin’ down with pneumonia?”
Tucson glanced quickly toward the stairs, his brows knit in concern. “No, I didn’t hear that.” He turned back to Rosti. “When did this happen?”
Rosti grimaced unhappily. “I guess last night. His fever’s not comin’ down like DarkCloud had hoped. And he’s also thinkin’ that Madrid’s breathin’s soundin’ worse, too.” Rosti nodded his head toward the back kitchen area. “He’s got me startin’ up a vapor physic and a new tonic for him to take when he’s more awake.” At Tucson’s surprised look, Rosti continued, “DarkCloud’s gonna start decreasin’ his medication today.”
Tucson started rising. “Maybe DarkCloud could use some—”
Rosti put out a hand. “DarkCloud’s layin’ down. So’s Scott. Mr. Lancer’s sittin’ with Johnny now.”
“Oh,” Tucson replied, then sat back down, a wry grimace crossing his face. “I gotta feelin’ Mr. Lancer don’t approve much of me.”
Rosti snorted. “Can’t quite see how Johnny and he get along.”
Tucson laughed. “An interestin’ relationship, that’s for sure.”
Rosti was quiet a few seconds, then he asked, “What’cha think of his brother—Scott, I mean?”
Tucson was quiet a few seconds before thoughtfully replying, “I like him. I really haven’t had a chance to talk to him much. He hardly leaves Johnny’s room, as you well know. He seems pretty close to his brother, though.”
Rosti nodded his agreement of Tucson’s assessment. “Musta been hard on Scott, learnin’ that his brother had forgotten him—gotten that amnesia.”
Tucson sighed. “Can’t imagine it, myself. But Johnny remembers him now, I guess.”
Rosti nodded quietly to himself, then added, “Must be hard on that Mr. Lancer, too. Maybe that’s why he’s not too friendly—worried his son don’t know him.”
“Probably,” Tucson agreed. “I ain’t even family, and I know I’ll be relieved when Johnny’s out of the woods.”
Up in Salinas, Harley was smiling at the sight of Mary carefully wiping little Wes’ face off after the youngster’s foray into breakfast.
“Down. Play,” Little Wes demanded through the cloth that covered his face.
“After I get you washed up,” Mary insisted.
Harley chuckled and stood up. “Come here, Wes.” He leaned over and swooped the small child off the chair and into his arms. “Let’s go feed the animals,” Harley said with a wink at his wife, “and let your poor Mama clean up the mess you made.”
“You’re spoiling him,” Mary warned, though her eyes sparkled with amusement.
“No.” Harley gave her a long look. “I’m spoiling me.”
Mary watched as Harley nuzzled his bearded face under little Wes’ chin, the effect producing elated squeals of laughter. Then the two proceeded out the door, the small child practically obscured behind Harley’s massive shoulders and arms.
Mary sighed. It’d been a rough week. And now her husband appeared determined to leave for Soledad the next morning with the sheriff from Paso and the deputies from Monterey. She wished her husband would stay, as she had sensed Scott was bothered by Harley’s presence. It was something she’d become conscious of the morning following the gunfight.
At first she’d been surprised to sense Scott’s uneasiness regarding her husband.
No, not uneasiness, really. More it was a feeling of jealousy, and perhaps a bit of resentment that seemed to radiate from Madrid’s brother. And it hadn’t been until Mary gave it some quiet thought that she’d come to realize why. Her husband had knowledge about and experiences with Johnny that by all rights should have been Scott’s. Scott saw her husband as a reminder of what he had missed, a confidante in some special secret…a rival for Johnny’s friendship.
Mary knew that she was ignorant of the details of Johnny and Scott’s separate upbringing, and doubted her husband was even aware of the exact situation. But she was certain of one thing; it wasn’t by Scott and Johnny’s choice that they had grown up separately.
It had been all too apparent in Scott’s troubled expressions and subdued, yet intense, manner in which he had sat vigil next to his brother, and the look he had given her husband each time she entered the room with Harley. She noticed that Scott would grow strangely quiet, watchful, subdued. She could sense that it was taking every ounce of control he had to deal with his awkward feelings of jealousy.
Mary had tried to explain this to her husband, but Isaac was a practical man and knew he could be of help. Therefore, he was going.
Mary picked up the breakfast dishes and walked to the sink, then she crossed to the window and looked out. Across the yard she could see Harley kneeling beside their son, his large frame dwarfing the small boy as he helped his son guide a carrot toward the outstretched mouth of the palomino horse—the horse her husband had learned was Johnny’s.
“Oh, Isaac,” Mary sighed, then gave a small shake of her head. “I’m so lucky to have you.”
And in another part of town, the Judge sat glaring menacingly at the water stain on the corner of his desk left by the man who had recently been in his office.
He didn’t know what irked him more—the stain or the news that his son was not one of the men killed down in Soledad. Not that he necessarily wished his son ill. It was just that he’d been prepared to play the bereaved father whose son had been led astray—a distressed, anguished father, who had only tried to do his best for his son, but had been disappointed when his son had spurned the firm and honest values his father had tried so hard to instill.
However, since his son had survived, everything had changed. It was going to be hard to play the grieving father while his son went to trial and spent the next 20 years in prison. Even worse, it was going to be a bit difficult to make a realistic play for the state senate now, too.
And then there was the water stain.
The Judge growled quietly under his breath, stood up, crossed to his office door and jerked it open. “I’m going out for a few minutes,” he announced curtly to the aide who was seated at a desk near the door. “I expect my desk to be polished before I get back.”
The Judge continued out to the hall, down the steps, and out to the main street of Salinas. He needed some time to think. He needed a new plan. Time to go over all the players and find a new weakness…some information, which could be skillfully used by an astute person who knew how to take advantage of its knowledge.
On a small ranch outside of Soledad, Matthew stepped up to the porch of the small cabin, sloshed his hands through the basin of water that stood on a stool near the door, splashed his face liberally twice, then quickly dried off. As he opened the door he heard Jamie’s unmistakable footsteps running across the yard behind him. He turned.
“Matthew!” Jamie yelled, as he hurriedly jumped up onto the porch, ignoring the steps. “We goin’ into town today?”
Matthew fought down the urge to grab up his brother in a huge hug and instead gave him a relaxed smile. Even though it’d been four days since the shoot-out, he still found himself breaking out into a sweat whenever he realized just how close he and Grace had come to losing their younger brother. But he knew he couldn’t smother Jamie; it wouldn’t do him any good…plus he knew Jamie would never stand for it.
In fact, it seemed the whole kidnapping episode had overwhelmed Grace and him much more than it had Jamie. Jamie appeared to have come through the whole ordeal barely affected. His unshakable faith that his friend, Madrid, would save him seemed to have been all he had needed. The only lingering difficulty now came from the fact that Jamie knew his friend wasn’t well. And Matthew and Grace were trying their best to keep him from finding out just how unwell his friend truly was.
Matthew took a deep breath. “No, Jamie. ‘Fraid we can’t go in to town today. I’m still trying to catch up on all those chores that I neglected over the past few weeks.”
Jamie grimaced dramatically. “I really want to go see Johnny. Couldn’t I go by myself? I know the way.”
“No, you’re not!”
Jamie and Matthew both looked up to see Grace standing in the doorway, her arms crossed fiercely in front of her chest.
“Don’t ‘Grace’ me, Jamie Viera! Now you get yourself cleaned up and come in for lunch!”
Jamie sighed heavily and went to the basin of water. Matthew watched him for a second before entering the cabin. After the door had closed, he murmured, “He isn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer forever.”
Grace sighed. “I know, but DarkCloud said he’d send word when Johnny was doing better.”
“Yeah, and it’s already been four days. That can’t be good,” Matthew muttered as he went to the table and picked up his mug. He took a long drink before turning back to his sister. “And I’m gonna have to go into town here soon for some supplies, and I’m sure you’re gonna need—”
“I know,” Grace interrupted unhappily. “I want to find out how he is, too. Let’s give it another couple days. Then we’ll go into town even if we haven’t heard from DarkCloud.”
Murdoch looked up at the sound of the door opening. DarkCloud paused in the doorway and gave a slight nod, his dark eyes swiftly appraising his patient before he turned and quietly closed the door behind him.
“How you been doing?” the Indian asked informally as he sat his medical bag on the table then crossed over to the bed to lean over Johnny’s still form.
“He hasn’t stirred more than the usual,” Murdoch replied as he drew his feet off the seat of the extra chair.
DarkCloud, his form still bent over his patient, cast Murdoch a slightly amused look. “I asked how you were,” he enunciated softly.
Murdoch gave the doctor a slight smile then shook his head. “I’m fine. How ‘bout you?”
DarkCloud straightened up and rested his hands on his hips. “Better after a nap.” He turned and crossed back to the table. “I just checked in on Wakeman and his two men.”
“And how are they?” Murdoch asked, twisting in his seat to watch DarkCloud at the table.
DarkCloud sighed. “I’ll be glad to turn them over to the sheriff. I hope he’s back by tomorrow.”
“He’s expected to be,” Murdoch said, then paused. “Wakeman being a problem?”
DarkCloud glanced wryly over his shoulder. “Let’s just say he has doubts about my abilities as a doctor.”
“Oh,” Murdoch replied simply, aware that there was more to it than what the Indian had decided to impart.
“I’d like to get fresh bandages on Johnny’s wound while he’s still unconscious,” DarkCloud continued as he gathered supplies. “Since I cut back on his last dosage, I’m running a guess that we will have about an hour before he’ll begin to come around.” The doctor turned, the new bandages and ointment in his hands. “Once finished with this, I’m going to give him just over half of what I’ve been giving him.”
Murdoch stood up and pushed his chair back and out of the way, enabling them both easy access to the side of the bed. “How rough you expect it to be?” Murdoch asked as DarkCloud sat the items on the small bedside table.
The doctor gave a faint sigh. “I don’t know. The medicine has had him pretty incoherent and disjointed. It’s having the effect I wanted of letting him rest and heal without the constant pain, but even when we’ve given him liquids and managed to get a little food into him, he just doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.”
Murdoch nodded his understanding.
“I don’t know, Mr. Lancer. I’m experimenting with this. But we’re going to have to cut back enough so that we can get him to come around, without risking the healing that’s taken place. And I don’t know how much that’s going to be, or how much pain he’ll be in then.” He paused. “I hate to admit it, but I really am just guessing here.”
Murdoch held the doctor’s gaze for a moment. He could sense DarkCloud’s feeling of inadequacy and realized that the man was burdened by Johnny’s condition. Searching for the right words, Murdoch put his hand out and clasped the Indian firmly on the shoulder. “Unlike Wakeman, I have every confidence in you as my son’s doctor.”
DarkCloud tilted his head to the side and regarded Murdoch with some surprise before a smile crossed his face and he nodded. “Since I get the distinct impression you’re not a man given to easy praise, I will accept that as the highest compliment.”
“Do so,” Murdoch affirmed, giving DarkCloud’s arm a pat before stepping back.
DarkCloud smiled then nodded toward the basin of water. “Go get washed up and let’s get this son of yours better.”
At Murdoch’s nod, DarkCloud bent over Johnny’s form and carefully untied the bandage from around his neck. The burn caused by the bullet was still red and raw, but the swelling had finally started to go down. Murdoch held the jar out as the doctor dipped his fingers into the ointment and carefully applied it to the wound. Then deftly he tied a fresh bandage loosely around his patient’s neck.
Next, DarkCloud picked up a knife and cut through the bandages that covered Johnny’s chest and side while Murdoch helped him pull them off. Though he’d helped every time the bandages needed to be changed, Murdoch still couldn’t help mentally cringing at the disturbing sight of the ugly wound in the middle of Johnny’s chest, knowing that his son’s entire life had depended on a small, golden medallion. The visual impact managed to startle him each time.
As DarkCloud cautiously felt around the wound, gently testing the ribs in the area, Murdoch watched him out of the corner of his eye. After helping DarkCloud tend to his son over the last few days, he had been able to develop a pretty accurate reading of Johnny’s condition by the expression on the doctor’s face. This time he was relieved to note that DarkCloud seemed satisfied with the healing of the chest wound.
Murdoch held the open jar ready and waited as DarkCloud finished cleaning off the old medicine and applied a new layer. Next the Indian moved down to the first wound Johnny had received. The wound, Murdoch grimly reminded himself, caused by a bounty hunter who was now simply another statistic of Madrid’s gun.
You don’t know that for sure. You don’t know what really happened…
But with four dead bodies, I can make a damn good guess…
Murdoch shook off the disturbing thoughts and concentrated on the task at hand, watching as DarkCloud worked on changing the dressing covering the entrance wound, his expression remaining unchanged and professional. Murdoch, though no doctor himself, could easily tell the wound was also healing properly, the rest and medicine winning that battle.
Finally the doctor glanced up at Murdoch, a silent signal to help roll Johnny gently to his side in order to expose the more serious back wound.
Murdoch pulled back the thin woolen blanket, then carefully slid his hands underneath his son’s hip and leg while DarkCloud supported his upper back and head. Together they gently rolled Johnny onto his side.
The grim sigh told Murdoch all he needed to know. DarkCloud was not pleased. The damage done to Johnny’s side and back from the horse’s hooves a week earlier just accentuated the inflamed and raw area of the bullet wound.
DarkCloud gave a grim shake of his head and began to gently wipe away the old ointment.
“It’s no better, is it?” Murdoch asked.
Without looking up, DarkCloud shook his head. “It’s only been a few days, though,” he replied.
Though Murdoch could hear the false optimism, he found himself agreeing. “True.”
But they both knew Johnny could wage a war on only so many fronts before one of his defenses collapsed.
He found himself in a saloon…a saloon like many he’d known…and forgotten…only this time…
Johnny glanced slowly around the room, taking in the shadowed faces of the hunched card players, a couple of full and stained spittoons standing near opposite ends of the bar, the bent back of the bartender filling a mug, the thin form of a piano player, whose head was nodding in time to the music, the large, smoky mirror that hung across the wall behind the bar, the—
Johnny paused. Something was wrong.
Quickly he scanned the room again. Something he’d just seen wasn’t right. Something was wrong.
Suddenly he found himself staring straight ahead toward the large, smoky mirror. Transfixed, he took two paces forward then stopped once more and stared.
He wasn’t there.
He had no reflection.
“Where am I?”
“I don’t know,” a voice answered. “Where do you think you are?”
Johnny jerked his attention away from the empty mirror and toward the sound of the voice.
He watched as the bartender slowly stood up and turned around, a full mug of beer in his hands.
“Reveles,” Johnny gasped, astonished. “Reveles! What are you doing here?”
Reveles raised an eyebrow and sat the mug on the counter with a nod. “Pouring beers. What’s it look like?”
“But I thought…”
“That you’d killed me?”
Johnny wanted to look away, but couldn’t. “Yes.”
Reveles shrugged his shoulders. “Then how come I got a reflection and you don’t?”
Johnny glanced at the mirror. The back of Reveles’ figure shown distinctly in the mirror, yet where his reflection should have been, it was still empty.
“I don’t understand,” Johnny answered.
Suddenly a discordant chord sounded from the piano and the song stopped in mid-tune.
“Oh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!” a familiar voice chuckled.
Johnny quickly pivoted, disbelief crossing his face. “Wes!”
The piano player turned, a lop-sided grin on his face. “Johnny, ol’ friend! I wondered when you’d show up!”
“Wes, what are you doin’ here?!”
Wes stood up. “Jus’ waitin’ for you, Johnny-boy!” he said as he sauntered over to the bar. Discretely Johnny stole a glance at the mirror. Wes, too, had a reflection.
Wes took the beer that Reveles had sat on the bar, raised it in acknowledgement toward the older gunfighter, then turned and grinned at Johnny. “I knew you’d show ‘ventually.”
Johnny noticed Reveles glare darkly at Wes, though the older gunfighter said nothing.
Confused, Johnny glanced again in the mirror before turning to Wes. “How come I don’t have a reflection?”
Wes grinned and sat his beer down. “Oh, that’s easy to remedy,” he said and casually gave his own reflection an appraising eye. “You jus’ gotta decide who you are.”
“Who I am?” Johnny asked, his brows knit in confusion. “What do you mean? You know who I am.”
“Well, ‘course I do,” Wes tore his gaze away from his likeness and grinned again at his friend. “But it’s now time for you to decide.”
Johnny shook his head. Everything had become so confusing.
“What was the one most important thing I tried to teach you, Johnny?” Reveles tersely cut in, slapping his hand on the bar in a sharp punctuation.
Johnny turned. “The one most important thing?” he echoed.
Reveles nodded, his eyes staring, heavy with meaning. “The most important thing, Johnny.”
Johnny took a breath, pausing as his mind raced through all the possibilities.
“How to shoot,” he finally stated.
Reveles shook his head. “Think, Johnny.”
“How to modify and design my own weapon?”
Again Reveles shook his head.
“How to out-think my opponent? Search out his weakness?”
Once again Reveles shook his head, his expression becoming strained. “No, Johnny.”
“How to sense the enemy? How to track?” Johnny guessed, suddenly frantic that his answer to the question seemed so important to Reveles, yet eluded him.
And at each guess, Reveles shook his head.
“How to play the part?”
“No, Johnny, no,” In obvious disappointment, Reveles sighed and closed his eyes, an action that Johnny found disquieting.
Johnny turned to Wes and was surprised to see a satisfied smirk cross his friend’s face, a look that irritated Johnny without his really understanding why.
Johnny turned back to Reveles and put his hands on the bar. “Reveles, what is it? Tell me. I can’t remember.”
Johnny watched Reveles open his eyes to study him sadly. “I can’t tell you, Johnny. You have to discover it yourself.”
“Who are you, Johnny?” Wes cut in.
“What?” Johnny asked, his attention once more drawn away from Reveles.
“Who are you?” Wes repeated.
Johnny blinked. “Wes, I—”
“Who are you?” Wes enunciated forcefully.
His heart beating uncomfortably, Johnny dropped his gaze. “I—I don’t know,” he whispered.
“Sure you do,” Wes argued tightly. “You know. Just like I know. Just like every single man in this saloon knows.”
Eerily Johnny felt the room grow silent, and he sensed rather than saw every head in the room turn in his direction. And all of a sudden he knew what he’d find. And though he didn’t want to, he found himself unable to stop from looking up….
…and seeing all the void, blank stares of the men he’d killed….
“I knew you were one of us,” a familiar voice echoed.
Johnny felt his chest tighten as he slowly turned around to find Isham, his cold, hard eyes appraising Johnny as he leaned against the far end of the bar. “I knew you’d be back,” Isham added coldly.
Johnny quickly turned away. “Reveles…?”
And he froze…. For now he had a reflection—and it was Madrid’s…
It was always the same…
He’d been through it so many times that he knew…
…he knew in his soul it wasn’t real…
But it didn’t matter…
It made no difference…
He had no control of the situation…
He could only play his part…
…and dash out into the street in what he knew was a vain attempt to once again stop the inevitable…
And his brother would turn and look at him in confusion…
…and the guns would raise…
…and he’d feel the bullet graze his arm…
…and he’d see the blood well up along his brother’s neck…
…and he’d suddenly be suspended—frozen in time—watching as his brother turned to face the guns…
…and in a heart-wrenching flash, he would suddenly feel the impact as Johnny fell back against his chest…
…and Johnny would be in his arms…
…the circle of blood slowly spreading—staining…
…and the life in his brother’s eyes slowly fainting away…
…his breath raspy…
…and Scott would feel the body grow cold—a cold that seeped into his own hands—spread up his arms—across his own chest
…and Scott would know death…
Scott woke with a start, his heart beating heavily against his chest and one word frozen on his lips.
With a lingering sense of urgency, he pushed himself to a sitting position. As he did so, he realized that he still held the medallion tightly in his palm. Hurriedly, he slid it into his breast pocket then thrust his hand into the jacket that was hung over the bedpost and drew out his watch. He flipped it open and noted with some amazement that he’d been asleep for at least five hours. He then shoved the watch back in the pocket, stood up and rubbed his face with both hands in an attempt to suppress the last echoes of the recurring nightmare. If what DarkCloud had said was true, it was a good thing he’d managed to get some sleep, regardless of the dream. Even so, he still felt exhausted.
Scott stretched out his shoulders, giving an irritated wince as the movement pulled at his wound, then turned and left the room. Out in the hallway he walked to the end of the corridor. After Johnny had been wounded, DarkCloud had decided he wanted his patient in the very last room which faced east overlooking the rear of the saloon, as not only was it slightly larger, but it was also quieter and cooler. The rest of the rooms were taken up with the three prisoners, a room for Murdoch and he to share, a room for Tucson, and a room for DarkCloud.
No more room in the inn, Scott mused.
Outside the door, Scott paused with his hand on the doorknob. Inside he could hear the vague murmurings of DarkCloud’s and Murdoch’s voices. Closing his eyes he took a deep breath and prepared himself. He always felt the need to do that now. Even after four days he still needed to mentally prepare himself for the shock of seeing his younger brother, who’d always been so dynamic and full of energy, lying pale, thin and helpless.
Murdoch sat back down in the chair, relieved to be finished with the sorrowful task of caring for Johnny’s wounds. Every time the job was finished, Murdoch had a deep desire to pour himself a drink—a very stiff drink.
As DarkCloud put away the supplies, Murdoch took a deep breath, fixed his attention on the still form of his youngest. Uneasily he admitted that he, too, was becoming increasingly worried about Johnny’s continued shallow breathing and the unrelenting fever he’d been running. DarkCloud’s concern of pneumonia seemed to becoming more of a reality. It tore at his heart, seeing his son like this, aware that he had been so close to refusing to accompany Scott, believing his son had returned to his former life by choice. If he hadn’t come, and Johnny had died, he’d never have forgiven himself.
Murdoch became aware that DarkCloud was standing beside him. Self-consciously, he drew his gaze away from his son and nodded toward the empty chair. “Have a seat.”
Murdoch noticed a meditative look pass over DarkCloud’s face as the doctor glanced first at Johnny, then dropped his gaze to his hand. Murdoch followed the look. In the doctor’s hand was a folded piece of paper. Murdoch looked up at DarkCloud, troubled by the Indian’s sudden uneasiness.
“Mr. Lancer, I…” DarkCloud paused and worried his lip while he seemed to force himself to complete a decision that had already been made. “I wasn’t sure if I should show you this, but…” He paused again and held the paper out. “I thought maybe you would want to…. That perhaps it’d be best if you saw this. It might be good…or helpful…to know what Johnny was going through just before you arrived—what he was feeling…”
Murdoch took in a slow, deep breath, his eyes locked with DarkCloud, as the comprehension of what his son’s doctor was trying to say added another stone of regret to his already burdened chest.
“You mean, Johnny left a … a note.”
Though it wasn’t a question, DarkCloud nodded. “Actually three,” he replied softly. “One I gave to Harley. Remember when you first showed up?”
Murdoch nodded, remembering the note DarkCloud had handed over to Harley just before the shoot-out. He hadn’t given it another thought since then, preoccupied as he’d been with Johnny’s injuries.
“You said he left three?” Murdoch pressed.
“Harley’s,” DarkCloud replied. “One for me, and one for a Father Francisco.”
“Cisco,” Murdoch breathed, then closed his eyes for a moment.
“You must remember, at the time, he didn’t remember you,” DarkCloud said apologetically. “But I thought you should see it. I leave it to you to decide if you should show it to Scott.”
Murdoch tried to keep his face impassive as he reached for the note, but he knew DarkCloud had noticed the slight tremor of his hand. He quickly drew the note down to his lap and unfolded it with painstaking deliberateness, aware that DarkCloud had backed away in an attempt to give him some privacy.
Slowly and cautiously, Murdoch read, painfully aware that these had been the last words expressed by Johnny Madrid—the gunfighter—his son. A gunfighter who had no memory of a family or a place to belong. A gunfighter who’d taken a job simply because he needed a horse and some money to keep moving.
As he drew to the end of the note, Murdoch realized he’d been holding his breath. His eyes still locked on the tightly formed words, their measured uniformity slowly disintegrating by the end of the letter, a testimonial to the physical distress Johnny had been under and the effort it had cost him to finish.
The quickest way to get yourself killed is to try too hard to stay alive. So, I guess if I’d been so worried about staying alive I’d have been dead long ago.
…collect on the $4,000 bounty…
….perhaps he could say a Mass for me…
His eyes once more went toward the top…
You did everything you could—more than anyone has done for me for a long time.
I’ve been expecting this…
“Does the letter surprise you?” DarkCloud’s voice, though soft, broke Murdoch’s concentration.
“I—” Murdoch faltered, his eyes still drawn to the words on the page. “Yes, yes, I guess it does. I didn’t realize…” He took a breath and forced his eyes upward, away from the page. “He almost sounds…”
“Relieved to be dying,” DarkCloud supplied.
Murdoch nodded simply.
DarkCloud sighed, then shook his head, his own gaze trailing to Johnny’s unconscious form. “When I told you before that he was planning to die, I wasn’t exaggerating. He truly did want to die.” DarkCloud turned back to Murdoch. “I still don’t understand what the history is here, with you, or Scott. Or how he became the gunfighter that he is. But I do know that immediately on meeting him, I came to the conclusion that he wasn’t what I had expected, even though I had heard of some of his border exploits and his habit of championing underdog causes. I felt that he’d been disappointed by people many, many times…used by them for their own causes, had his trust shattered. Yet underneath the cool and hardened mask that he wore, I felt there was still just a young …” DarkCloud faltered, searching for the right words. “…a young man hoping to find acceptance and love…a place to belong…”
Murdoch quickly looked away, DarkCloud’s description stinging him. He wondered if DarkCloud comprehended just how deeply those words had cut into his heart.
“He was stolen from me when he was only two and a half,” Murdoch replied softly. “I tried to find him, but didn’t succeed until just a few years ago when I hired the Pinkertons.”
Murdoch paused, a desire to tell DarkCloud to mind his own business was tempered by a desire to have the man, who was responsible for keeping his son alive, understand.
“When Scott was born, his grandfather took him back to Boston to be raised. I hadn’t seen him either until a couple years ago.”
DarkCloud seemed to consider the information. “Then Scott and Johnny didn’t know each other?”
Murdoch sighed. “Until I sent for them, they didn’t even know the other existed.”
DarkCloud crossed over to the empty chair and sat down. He leaned forward slightly. “Scott seems to be having a difficult time. I’m worried about his lack of sleep—his inability to focus on anything other than his brother. I even have to remind him to eat.”
Murdoch nodded grimly, looked down at the note and subconsciously began to fold it. “I know. He wasn’t prepared to find his brother like this.”
DarkCloud’s gaze shifted to Johnny and back again. “What? Injured?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No.” His eyes also trailed to Johnny’s still form. “He wasn’t prepared to find Madrid.” At DarkCloud’s raised eyebrows, Murdoch continued, “Though I confess to trying to bury my son’s past, I am able to admit that it existed. Scott, on the other hand, prefers to ignore that side of his brother. He refuses to acknowledge that Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter, was…is… actually his brother.”
“So, all of us, this whole town—”
“A constant reminder that Johnny really did have this other life—a life of a gunfighter and a killer—a life Scott could never hope to understand…or be a part of.”
“Which explains his behavior toward Harley.”
DarkCloud pushed back into his chair. “Yet you seem to accept it.”
For a split second, DarkCloud saw a flash of indignation color Murdoch’s face before the older man dropped his gaze. “Just because I accept it doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Murdoch replied tersely. “Every time I look at my son, I see my failure in keeping his mother happy so that she wouldn’t leave. I see my years spent futilely looking for him.” Murdoch paused and took a deep breath in an attempt to check his growing anger. “I see my two year old son growing up to be a hired gun, a wanted man, the hunter and the hunted, who’ll probably never really know a day’s peace until he’s in his grave.” His eyes shot back up, narrowing in anger. “I’m not happy about it—I’m disgusted and I’m mad! But I’ve accepted it as a fact. And that’s where Scott and I disagree. He thinks if we ignore it long enough, it’ll cease to exist—that Madrid will cease to be. While I know the truth. The best we can hope for is to make peace with Madrid, and help Johnny to do the same, because he’s always going to be there, whether we like it or not!”
DarkCloud studied Murdoch calmly, absorbing his words and his meaning, contrasting the older man’s usually reserved and controlled manner with the sudden outburst he’d just witnessed.
“Did you know that the Pinkerton agent got to Johnny just before he was to be shot by a firing squad?” Murdoch suddenly asked.
“No, I didn’t, though I’d heard he’d escaped from one,” DarkCloud replied.
“Well, that’s how he got away. And how do you think that makes me feel to know he came so close to dying? That if I had waited just a little longer in finding him, that’s where it would have all ended—in front of a firing squad? Do you know the pain it causes me when I come upon him out laying fence or clearing out a wash, and he has his shirt off, and I see all the scars he bears, imagining what he must have gone through. Or when I learn that he’d once been shot up so bad that he’d had to live on laudanum just to get through the day and…and that when all these things were happening to him, not once did it ever occur to him to come to me for help.” Murdoch’s voice cracked and he dropped his gaze once more to the folded note in his hand. “I used to dream of my son coming home, of his making the decision, once he was old enough, of returning on his own…of searching me out. But instead it took the Pinkertons and the promise of a thousand dollars to bring my son back to me.”
At DarkCloud’s confused look, Murdoch paused, the letter clenched tightly in his fist, his voice harsh. “That’s right. I had to promise my own sons one thousand dollars each, just to get them to meet with me for one hour.”
“But they did come, and then they made the decision to stay,” DarkCloud asserted softly.
Murdoch closed his eyes and gave a derisive snort. “Johnny didn’t.” He cast a glance at the bed before looking away. “Even after I upped the ante to one-third ownership of the ranch, he still left. The first time was after only about two months.”
“Well, that’s to be expected, I guess, given the different life he had been used to. It was probably difficult for him at first.”
“Difficult is an understatement. Even though he’s tried to adjust, to adapt, I can tell he often feels ill at ease. And now, well,” he gestured vaguely, “he left again.”
“You don’t know that for sure, do you? With his loss of memory—”
“No,” Murdoch shook his head. “I know he left. We had words. We’re always having words…”
Before DarkCloud had the chance to reply, the door to the room opened. He turned in his seat to see Scott enter the room, his eyes already on his brother.
Scott, after seeing there had been no visible change in Johnny, closed the door, then gave both DarkCloud and his father a quick nod of greeting.
“How’s he doing?” he asked.
“We just changed his bandages. I’m expecting he’ll be coming around soon. I just don’t know to what extent,” DarkCloud explained. “As I’ve told your father, I’m cutting back on the dosage, but I hesitate to cut back too much, too quickly, as he’s going to be in a lot of pain.”
Scott nodded grimly and crossed to the bed, ready to take his place in the silent vigil, while Murdoch carefully slid Johnny’s note into his pocket.
He stepped off the boardwalk, his eyes suddenly drawn to a small group of men huddled self-consciously in the doorway of the general store, their eyes focused down the street.
And though Johnny had just glanced in that direction as he had stepped out of the hotel, he knew…
He knew it was too late.
The shot exploded as his hand found his revolver’s grip, his body propelled forward by the shock and force. A second explosion echoed immediately behind the first, and as he felt himself falling forward he managed to twist his body to the side…
Vaguely he wondered why there was no pain.
Even as he was hitting the ground, he felt nothing but a total numbness and the reverberation of the shots resounding in his ears.
As he landed on his back, Johnny noticed dimly that his hand was raised.
Looking past its outline, he could see the figure of the man who’d shot him….
…and the look of surprise on the man’s face as Johnny found the strength to pull the trigger…
…and the flash of disbelief as the man realized he’d been shot between the eyes…
Then his arm suddenly fell away from his field of vision…
…and an intense roaring filled Johnny’s ears…
…and his vision began to tunnel…
It was then that he suddenly felt the pain…
…more pain than he’d ever imagined could exist…
…and he cried out…
And the reality that he was going to die overcame him…
…die in this God-forsaken town…
…for no reason…
…for no one…
Dammit, Harley! Why weren’t you there to watch my back?!
He couldn’t breathe…
…and though shadows seemed to be filling his vision…
…he couldn’t focus on them…
But then he realized it didn’t matter anyway…
…soon he’d see Laura…
I just didn’t know it’d hurt so much…
Johnny suddenly gave a moan as he gasped for air.
“He’s coming around!” Scott exclaimed as he quickly moved to Johnny’s side while Murdoch and DarkCloud hurriedly joined him.
“Johnny,” Scott whispered as he put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
He felt Johnny flinch, then gasp again, his eyelids twitching.
“Johnny,” Scott repeated, his voice low. “It’s Scott. Try to relax.”
Dismayed, Scott watched as Johnny fought to open his eyes, shaking his head with a moan.
“It’s okay, Johnny,” Scott tried again, leaning in closer.
Johnny raised his left hand weakly, his face showing confusion and panic as his eyes continued to dart about without focus. “Harl,” he rasped.
“No, it’s Scott,” Scott enunciated clearly, then shot a confused look at DarkCloud.
DarkCloud stepped up, his face troubled.
“Damn——-you,” Johnny whispered suddenly as he began to roll out from under Scott’s touch.
“No, Johnny!” Scott exclaimed. “No, you have to stay still.”
DarkCloud firmly grasped Johnny’s shoulder while Scott quickly moved to put a hand on his brother’s leg.
Johnny moaned again, the sound ending in a whimper. “No…”
Scott could barely make out the choked cry, dry and raspy with pain.
“Murdoch!” DarkCloud barked as he glanced behind him. “Take over!”
Murdoch quickly moved in to put a restraining hand on his son’s shoulder while DarkCloud grabbed for the syringe that sat on the table.
“Johnny,” Scott moved a hand up to Johnny’s arm to allow Murdoch more room. “Please stay still. Don’t fight it.”
With growing alarm, Scott watched as Johnny continued to resist their attempts to keep him down, even though each movement brought a moan of pain that ended in a strangled gasp.
“He can’t seem to breathe!” Scott exclaimed.
“Dammit!” DarkCloud hissed as he moved in between the men. Then he continued in clipped tones, “This isn’t working! We can’t have him damaging that wound anymore. Hold him down! I’m going to try to just give him a small dose.”
With a silent curse of his own, Scott pushed his struggling brother back onto the bed while DarkCloud leaned over and firmly grasped Johnny’s arm. Scott added his support as DarkCloud quickly and efficiently grasped Johnny’s upper arm, inserted the needle and released the serum.
Scott felt Johnny stiffen, then moan softly. He turned his eyes from his brother’s bruised arm and instead focused on his face. In a matter of seconds Johnny’s eyes lost their frantic look and Scott saw him blink slowly, though they still lacked focus.
“Johnny,” Scott said softly.
Gradually Johnny’s eyes trailed downward, then paused blearily on Scott’s face.
“Johnny,” Scott whispered again as he placed one hand in his brother’s palm. “I’m here. It’s okay. We need you to relax.”
Scott watched as Johnny continued to stare through him, no recognition or awareness showing on his face. Then he sluggishly blinked, seemed to try to focus, but was unsuccessful as he succumbed to the effects of the drug.
Scott lowered his head with a sigh. He could sense Murdoch and DarkCloud’s disappointment.
His expression one of defeat, he looked up. DarkCloud’s face was grim as he gave a sad shake of his head. “We’ve got to keep trying. But I wish he didn’t fight so. I don’t want to end up back where we started.”
Scott turned back to his brother whose black hair was now damp with perspiration, his breathing labored and harsh despite the fact that he was asleep.
Was the nightmare ever going to end?
Scott leaned against the bar deliberately nursing a scotch. In the back room of the saloon he could hear the clank of a pan as Rosti prepared a couple of meals for Scott to take up to the room.
Scott sat the drink on the bar and began to trace his finger around the rim of the glass, his thoughts weighted with the feeling of failure in reaching to Johnny an hour earlier.
“How’s he doin’?”
Scott looked up to see Tucson regarding him with a concerned yet hopeful expression. Scott gave a half-hearted smile and straightened up. “Not so well,” he answered heavily. Then noticing Rosti emerging from the back room with a tray, he downed the last of the scotch and sat the glass on the bar.
“Here,” Rosti said as he sat the tray on the counter. “If you’ll take this, I’ll go back and grab the vapor that the doc had me make up.”
“I’ll help,” Tucson offered. “I feel as if all I’ve been doin’ is sittin’ and waitin’.”
Scott bit back the urge to reply that that was just how he felt, but instead he gave a nod to Tucson, indicating his help would be welcome.
Rosti hurried back to the kitchen, returning with a heavy earthenware container wrapped in a thick length of wool fabric. As Scott accepted it, he noted that despite the fact that the container had a lid securely fitted over it, a pungent aroma, sickly sweat in its intensity, immediately assailed his senses causing his eyes to water.
“What the hell’s that!” Tucson exclaimed in an exact quote of Scott’s own unspoken thoughts.
“Eucalyptus, onion, garlic, Jalepeno oil, and some various other herbs DarkCloud gave me,” Rosti answered with a noncommittal shrug. “And if you think that’s bad, you should smell my kitchen now! Hell! It’s probably seeped into the flavoring of your food, too!”
Scott blinked back the tears welling in his eyes and held the pot as far away from him as his arms would allow. “I don’t doubt it.”
“What’s it for?” Tucson asked in a voice that indicated that he was being careful not to breathe through his nose.
“For Johnny,” Rosti answered, then gave a grimace as he glanced at the container. “The doc says it’ll help with Johnny’s breathing. S’pose to help fight off the pneumonia, too.”
Tucson turned and started toward the stairs. “Hell, it’d fight off an Indian attack!”
Scott chuckled to himself as he followed Tucson up the stairs.
At the top of the landing, Tucson and Scott walked to the end room. Tucson, hands holding the tray, then stepped to the side to allow Scott to open the door. As they entered, Murdoch looked up from the chair near the bed while DarkCloud turned around from where he was standing in front of the larger round table, his medical bag open and various supplies spread around.
“Good,” DarkCloud exclaimed, his eyes resting on the container Scott was carrying. He quickly came forward and took it from Scott’s grasp, then went to the small side table near the bed and set it down. “I was hoping this was ready,” he stated as much to himself as to the other occupants of the room.
“What is that?” Murdoch asked as he stood up, his eyebrows raised in surprise at the strong odor.
DarkCloud glanced back with a smile. “Smells pretty bad, huh?” He gave a slight chuckle. “Well, it’ll help with Johnny’s breathing.”
“In that case, I think it smells wonderful,” Murdoch replied dryly.
“Thanks,” Scott said as he took the tray of food from Tucson. “I can get this now.”
“Glad to help,” Tucson nodded.
Scott carried the tray over to the larger table. As he sat it down, his eyes uncomfortably wandered among the open medical bag and the various supplies. Among the items, he noticed the bottle of laudanum. Scott closed his eyes and clenched his jaw against the sight—against the reminder of the pain his brother had been in—and his desperation to escape, in any way possible.
“Did you know Madrid wants me to be sheriff here?” Tucson suddenly asked as he walked over to stand beside the bed.
Scott turned just in time to see Murdoch glance at DarkCloud, his manner indicating some shared knowledge. Scott watched DarkCloud closely, but picked up nothing in the doctor’s expressionless face to indicate why Murdoch had given him that look.
“No, I wasn’t aware of that,” Murdoch replied evenly.
Tucson, his head still bent as he stared down at Johnny’s form, continued, “Yeah, DarkCloud told me that Johnny talked to him before he met up with Wakeman.”
“So, are you going to?” DarkCloud prompted.
“Well, I gave it some thought,” Tucson looked up and smiled sheepishly. “And I decided it’s like I said to Rosti. It’d be foolish to go against anything Madrid thinks is a good idea.”
At the name ‘Madrid’, Scott dropped his gaze to the table, an eerie sense that he was being watched by Madrid’s shadow.
“You sure you won’t change your mind?” Mary asked as she rocked little Wes on her hip.
Harley shook his head. “Mary, you know—”
“Yes, yes,” she sighed, but there was amusement in her voice as she continued, “that Johnny needs you. I understand. I do. Really.”
Harley’s beard parted to display a large, boyish grin. “Thanks, Mary.” He turned his attention to Wes, leaned over and gave the child a warm nuzzle, then spontaneously reached out and enveloped them both in his arms. “Now you stay here with your parents and I’ll be back in a few days. Bernie will take care of business for me just fine, so don’t fret none about that,” he said as he reluctantly released his hold.
“I won’t, Isaac. We’ll be fine.”
“And I don’t want you to go anywhere without an escort.”
“Isaac!” Mary interrupted. “James Wakeman isn’t in any position to go causing any more trouble.”
“Perhaps not,” Harley agreed quietly. “But there’s still his father.”
“The Judge?” Mary gave a soft laugh and switched Wes to her other hip. “Oh, be sensible, Isaac. The Judge is a good man—and probably stunned by all that’s happened.”
Harley’s expression didn’t lighten. “Could be. But for now, I’d prefer if you played it safe—for my sake,” he added.
Mary smiled indulgently. “Of course, Isaac. If it’ll make you happy.”
“You make me happy,” Harley said, punctuating his statement with a lingering kiss, then quickly brushed the top of Wes’ head with his lips. “I’d better go. They may be waiting.”
Mary nodded. “Go help your friend, Isaac. And try to remember what I said about Scott, would you?”
Harley rolled his eyes comically. “Sure, Mary. Sure.” He stroked the top of Wes’ head, gave them both another quick kiss then turned and headed toward the corral where his horse was saddled and waiting, while the golden palomino, ears pricked forward expectantly, stood patiently nearby.
A couple hours later, Harley yawned, scratched his beard, his eyes lazily trailing down the length of the Santa Lucias, the coastal mountains which separated the valley from the ocean. The early morning fog still clung to them, and he couldn’t see too far down their length before all became a monotone grayness that blended with the flat land before him. He shifted his focus off to the distant left as he adjusted his weight in the saddle, Hell, it’s been a long time since you put so many miles on your backside, Harley, and continued his visual appraisal of the east side of the valley. The morning fog had crept along the Diablos and Gabilan, twin mountain ranges, which separated the Salinas Valley from the San Juaquin. Here the fog wasn’t as thick and clear areas of golden-brown, dry vegetation patchworked its way through.
It is beautiful out here in the morning… I tend to forget with my head bent over a hot forge … But I’d still rather have Mary and little Wes…
Sheriff Hawkins, a tall, lanky man with a full, dark mustache that filled out an otherwise angular face, did a quick survey of the rest of the party: two mounted deputies, a third in charge of the wagon that would be used to carry back their wounded prisoners, and a blacksmith. He reined his horse over and headed toward the latter.
“Didn’t have much of a chance to talk to you on the trip up,” Sheriff Hawkins’ voice broke through Harley reverie.
Harley turned, smiled pleasantly at the man who had moved his mount up beside him. “Yeah, you were pretty busy with your prisoner, and I was pretty occupied with my wife and son.”
“Understandable,” Hawkins replied. “How are they doin’?”
“Oh, fine. Just fine. I have ‘em stayin’ with her parents while I’m gone.”
“Surprised you’re leavin’ so soon,” Hawkins stated, then added softly, “He must be quite a friend.”
Harley raised an eyebrow and regarded the sheriff with sudden suspicion. “You tryin’ to tell me somethin’?”
Hawkins shook his head. “No, but I guess I’m askin’ something.”
“I’m wonderin’ if I should be advised of any bounty that’s got your name attached to it, too.”
Harley narrowed his gaze and challenged, “Too?”
Hawkins turned his attention back to the uneven road before he nodded. “I know ‘bout Madrid. Val felt it was wise to apprise me of that piece of information…the Kansas bounty.”
“And?” Harley asked tensely.
“Kansas can take care of its own,” Hawkins replied coolly. “Besides, I owe Crawford quite a debt. I’ll not say anything, and I don’t think any of these deputies are gonna care one way or ‘nother. Kansas is a long way away and it was a long time ago. Nobody in these parts gonna know anything about it, I reckon. Thought you ought to know.” Then he turned and studied Harley carefully. “But I kinda like to know who’s ridin’ beside me.”
“I’m just a blacksmith,” Harley replied, then paused. “But, I s’pose, if you dug deep enough, you might be able to scrounge up, say, fifty dollars.”
“Fifty?” Hawkins gave an amused snort. “Hardly be worth my time.”
“Probably not. Unless you got some burnin’ desire to visit Texas.”
“Texas? Hell, I hate Texas.”
“My feelin’s exactly.”
The room was quiet except for the strained sound of labored breathing and the occasional rustle of a page being turned.
DarkCloud, in an effort to give the two men something with which to occupy their time, had brought over an assortment of books, most having to do with medicine and biology, though there were two history books and a collection of poetry works. Scott preferred the poetry, while Murdoch had plunged into the medical books.
To Scott, the poetry had been a mental release, a few quiet moments when his thoughts could gradually relax to a vastly different time in his life, a time of friends and parties, beautiful young ladies and stolen kisses on moonlit walks, gambling and poetry readings.
But then that peace would be shattered, in a disorienting thrust that bordered on the cruel, and he would find himself once more sitting in a dark, oppressive room beside the bed of his unconscious half-brother, in a dirt-poor town a continent away from the life he had once known just a few short years earlier— but to which he could never return. California was home now. And it always would be. For here he had found what he’d been searching for all his life, but could never quite name. The indefinable component that had pushed him to defy his grandfather and join the army in the great War—and had made him one of Sheridan’s more flamboyant junior officers, a ‘risk taker’ who had even gained General Custer’s recognition as an excellent horseman and tactician. A trait of recklessness that would shock those who knew him here as the sensible Bostonian.
Yes, here he had found what he’d been trying so hard to find in his drive to excel at everything, his need to be a perfectionist in all he did. Simply, all along, he’d been missing a real family… and a brother.
It had come as quite a shock to find out that, at the age of twenty-five, he suddenly had a younger sibling. What had proved more startling than anything else, was the rapidity of his adjustment to his new role and the zealousness with which he guarded it. It had been a bit disconcerting to see that his younger half hadn’t immediately taken to his own new role as smoothly. In fact, his younger brother had, at first, seemed to spurn the idea of a family. But, in the same fashion that he had tackled any job he’d ever taken on, Scott had thrown himself whole-heartedly into his new position, telling himself that it was only to be expected, as this new younger brother he had acquired was acting like most younger brothers he’d heard about—like a pain in the ass. And now it was his job, as older, wiser and more mature of the two, to guide and direct his willful sibling. In fact, to this day, he took pride in how he had handled his brother in those first couple months, when Johnny had seemed especially rebellious and totally unmanageable by Murdoch.
Yet, if you’d done such a damn good job of being a big brother, why did Johnny run off without talking to you first?
There was the sound of approaching feet and low voices in the hallway, one of which Scott was sure was Murdoch’s. He closed the book he was reading and stood up, expecting to see both Murdoch and DarkCloud enter, as Murdoch had gone down to get them something to eat and DarkCloud had gone to check on a lady just outside of town who was due to have a baby any day now.
However, when the door opened, Scott was surprised to find Harley’s burly frame filling the doorway.
The blacksmith gave Scott a faint smile and took off his hat. “Your father, here, tells me DarkCloud’s worried ‘bout Johnny developin’ the pneumonia.” Harley’s voice was tight with concern, his eyes darting uneasily toward the bed.
Scott nodded and backed up, the look on Harley’s face communicating the man’s anxiety and need to get near the bed to see his friend for himself.
As Harley made his way to Johnny’s side, Scott had to look away to hide the disappointment he knew was on his face. He had hoped Harley would have been detained and not been able to make the trip down—at least not so soon. Not until Scott was sure he had his brother back.
“Hey, Juanito,” Harley murmured as he pulled the chair up closer to the bed and sat down, one large hand spreading out to cover Johnny’s, the other reaching out quickly to touch along his forehead and cheek. He looked back at Murdoch. “DarkCloud’s right. He’s runnin’ a pretty high fever, his breathing sounds heavy, congested… How is the chest wound?”
Murdoch walked up, his eyes automatically trailing the length of Johnny’s form while Harley turned back to his friend. “DarkCloud says it’s healing pretty well. It’s the wound in his back that’s got us worried. It’s still showing signs of some infection.”
“Damn,” Harley murmured softly. “And you said he’s starting to reduce his dosage already.”
Murdoch nodded. “He’s thinking that he wants Johnny up, walking a bit, breathing deeply. However—”
“However,” Harley cut in sadly, “it’s gonna put him in more pain, and make it difficult to get those wounds healed.”
Murdoch nodded, but was stopped from replying when the door opened and DarkCloud entered. “Well, no baby yet— Harley!” the doctor greeted. “Heard you were in town.”
Harley nodded and smiled. “Couldn’t stay away.”
“I suppose I’ll be able to get rid of my extra patients now.”
“Yeah. They plan to head back up day after tomorrow.”
Scott took a step forward. “Will you be heading back with them?”
Harley, oblivious to Scott’s true meaning, replied without turning around, “No. Told Mary I’d be a few days.”
“Oh,” Scott answered with a disgusted raise of his eyebrow; a look he quickly hid as he noticed Murdoch watching him.
“Those prisoners give you any problems?” Sheriff Hawkins asked Tucson as he sat down to join the gunfighter at the table, the deputies making their way to the bar for a drink to wash the trail dust out of their throats.
Tucson gave a grin. “Nothin’ that a death-look and a growl couldn’t handle.”
Hawkins laughed and took a long drink of his beer. “Umm, that tastes good.”
“When you plannin’ on takin’ them?”
“Day after tomorrow. Give the horses a day to rest. Need to check with the doc that Wakeman and his men are fit for travel.”
Tucson nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem. James is comin’ along fine—if his temper’s any indication. That fella, Swain, is in the worst shape, but DarkCloud said earlier today that he’s healin’ up, though he has him on some medicine for his pain that’s mostly got him sleepin’. Makes him the easiest one to reason with!”
Hawkins laughed appreciatively, took another swallow of his beer, then looked back up. “How’s Madrid doing?”
Tucson shrugged then folded his hands in front of him. “It’s been kinda touch ‘n’ go, I guess.”
The sheriff shook his head sadly, drained the last of the beer and stood up. “Hope he makes it. Never seen nothin’ like that showdown in my life. That was one hell’uva show.”
Scott paused outside the door to his brother’s room and took a deep breath. He could hear the low rumble of DarkCloud’s and Harley’s voices.
After Harley had checked on Johnny, the blacksmith had gone down to the saloon to get something to eat. After he’d returned, Scott had decided to take a trip to the outhouse—partially from need, partially to clear his head of the overpowering smell of the vapor physic, but mostly to escape the scene of Harley attending to his brother.
As Scott opened the door, everyone looked up to nod a quiet greeting. He noted that DarkCloud was going over his notes with Harley on Johnny’s progress and the serum amounts he’d been using.
What? Comparing it to when you helped him off the laudanum? Scott thought in bitter annoyance.
Scott, sensing Murdoch silently studying him, shook off what he knew was a disgruntled look, one he was embarrassed to be caught wearing. In measured calm he went to the unoccupied chair next to his father and sat down.
Come on, Johnny. Time to make a move.
As if in response to his thoughts, Johnny gave a faint moan. Immediately, all heads turned as Scott stood back up and bent over his brother’s form. Murdoch moved to the end of his chair, his book suddenly forgotten, while DarkCloud and Harley came to stand behind the two chairs.
“Johnny,” Scott carefully reached out to draw his brother’s hand into his.
Silent, watchful men astride their mounts…
His own horse trembling beneath his thighs, skittish, sensing the tension…
His hands tied behind his back…
And a rope dangling in front of him…
A man behind him, the mount pressed up close to his, the man’s revolver jabbing painfully into his back…
And though he can’t turn his head, he knows Harley’s nearby, awaiting the same fate…
“So, d’ya think Mr. Forbes is gonna expect the whole body, or will I be able to get by with just the head?”
Hearty guffaws erupt from the three previously silent spectators. The man who’s spoken leans closer in behind Johnny until the man’s foul breath threatens to gag him and he can feel the words vibrate in his ear.
“What’ya say, Madrid? Do ya think you’re worth more whole? Hate to have to haul your entire carcass three hundred miles to Presidio.”
“Hell, at least Mr. Forbes don’t care one way or ‘nother whether he’s alive or not.”
But oddly he feels no panic… Only a concern for Harley. Harley had never wanted to run guns in the first place. It’d been his and Cisco’s idea all along. Cisco, who seemed to know just the right men to talk to on both sides of the border…
And Johnny who was happier the more dangerous the job was…
In fact, after a successfully completed job, when Wes and Harley wanted only to drink and carouse, and Cisco wanted to talk and analyze, go over each and every detail, Johnny merely wanted to quietly raise a toast to beating the odds one more time, and plan for his next foray, the next risky venture…
Cisco would accuse him of being morbid, and Wes would accuse him of being a killjoy and warn against the dangers of all work and no play while Harley would ultimately turn the conversation toward the idea of going into something a little less risky. But while the rest of them seemed to garner some satisfaction from a completed job, Johnny always felt a letdown, a disappointment, like some important component had been missing, no matter how successful the venture had been.
To die by hanging…
Not the way he would have chosen, but then, Reveles said only the lucky got to pick their time, their poison…
And it was a damn sight better than being shot in the back while drunk in a saloon, playing cards.
At least this way, he still had the slim chance to make a play, to go out fighting.
He feels the man behind him shift the gun to left hand in order to reach for the noose with his right.
I need to adjust, shift, careful, just a bit more—got to get it before—come on—come on—almost there…
Damn! Too late! Noose is in place…
“Any last words, Madrid?”
“Yeah—go to Hell!”
As his hand come free, he grabs for the man’s gun with his right and without turning to look, fires—sending his captor sailing backward off his horse, a gaping hole in his chest, the man’s total surprise evident in his soundless death.
Without waiting a beat, Johnny continues, swinging the gun around…
… and the man behind Harley has a split second to scream out in agony…
As the rest of the men scramble for their revolvers…
“Go!” Johnny screams.
Then the horse next to him shies—the smell of his rider’s blood reaching the animal—it reacts instinctively, crowding Johnny’s horse…
And suddenly his horse bolts—
The revolver flies out of his hand—
His feet kick air—
Stars exploding—blackness—a void—
“Off!” Johnny gasped, and though his eyes were open, there was no comprehension in them, just wide-eyed panic.
Scott hurriedly put his other hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny!” he urged. “Johnny, it’s okay. It’s me!”
“No!” Johnny thrust out his right arm, hitting away Scott’s hand as his left tore at the bandage around his neck, his breathing increasing in its harshness and urgency. “Can’t—breathe—damn—Harl!”
“Son!” Murdoch said as he, too, tried to stop Johnny’s frantic grab for the bandage.
“No…” Johnny’s voice had become low and guttural as he forced himself to a sitting position, his grip now tight on the bandage in an effort to rip it off. “Harl—go—” he gasped.
Scott almost felt relief as Harley pushed up next to him, the blacksmith’s large hands grabbing Johnny as his brother continued to twist away from their attempts to calm him. Behind him, Scott could hear DarkCloud grabbing the syringe and vial off the table, swearing under his breath.
“Johnny! Juanito!” Harley commanded as he got one hand around Johnny’s back to help support him while the other grabbed for the hand that clutched that bandage. “It’s Harl. Harl. Calm down, now, Juanito. Relax. I’m here. Harl’s here.”
Though Harley’s voice continued in its same low, soothing tone he’d used days earlier, Scott was surprised to see that it didn’t have the same immediate calming affect. Though Johnny’s eyes did lose their wildness, his breathing continued to come in harsh, dry rasps and his hand still clutched tightly at the bandage.
“Sorry—Harl—” Johnny’s eyes slowly lost focus.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked.
Harley shook his head curtly, his eyes not leaving Johnny’s. “You’re okay, Juanito—”
“Off…” The word trailed off in a strangled moan.
“Get that bandage off his neck!” Harley abruptly ordered, his one hand busy trying to hold back Johnny’s grasping hand, the other embracing his friend’s back in an attempt to support his hunched form.
“Now!” Harley harshly interrupted.
Clenching his jaw, Scott hurriedly untied the bandage; the red, raw sore was swollen though vastly improved from just a few days earlier, a faint residual shine still visible from the ointments DarkCloud had applied.
Suddenly Johnny seemed to relax, his breathing, though still heavy, was not so frantic in its effort.
“It’s okay, Juanito. You’re okay,” Harley murmured softly.
Johnny, his eyes blinking vaguely, nodded, a faint smile appearing. “Tell—Cisco—he’s gotta—learn—to shoot—a damn—sight——better.” Then slowly Johnny’s head rolled forward, Harley’s embrace the only thing supporting him.
Harley gave a heavy sigh, hesitating a moment before he carefully lowered Johnny back against the pillow.
Straightening up, Scott searched Harley’s face as the blacksmith took a deep breath and rose from Johnny’s side. Scott noticed that Murdoch, too, had a puzzled look on his face while DarkCloud had moved up, the syringe in his hands, his expression one of puzzled concern. All three men continued to regard Harley with unconcealed curiosity, waiting for an explanation.
When none seemed forthcoming, Murdoch finally broke the silence. “What was Johnny talking about?”
Harley, his eyes still on Johnny, gave another sigh before he tiredly rubbed his face and turned to look first at Murdoch, then DarkCloud and finally Scott. “A number of years back, before Kansas, we were runnin’ guns across the border.” He paused, crossed his arms and paced to the far side of the room. “Hell, at one time we were sellin’ to the Indians.” He glanced quickly at DarkCloud.
The doctor raised a sarcastic eyebrow. “Thanks.”
Harley glanced away momentarily, shook his head, then looked back at Murdoch. “Johnny and I—we got caught. Forbes’ crew caught us. He was crooked as they came. Runnin’ his own shipments—supplyin’ both sides. But he were sending lousy goods south of the border. Couldn’t stand Mexicans. Cisco got word of it. So we started helpin’ ourselves to a…well…we got hold of some of his extra equipment, you might say. Made a bit of a profit—and evened the score—though Forbes didn’t take kindly to our idea.”
“I s’pose not,” Murdoch answered dryly.
Harley took another deep breath and plunged on. “Well, Johnny and I got caught by some of Forbes’ men, like I said. Forbes had a personal bounty out on all of us…mostly on Johnny. They’d had some history from before… Forbes knew who Johnny was and all—his reputation and his bein’ half-Mexican…well…let’s say Forbes had Johnny on the top of his list…” Harley shrugged. “In any case, Forbes wouldn’t have wanted Johnny to actually stand trial, you know…considering the circumstances…”
“So they were just going to…” DarkCloud hesitated.
Harley nodded. “Necktie social.”
Scott slowly turned and stared at his brother lying on the bed…
…Or was it Madrid who lay on the bed?
“Some way, just as they had gotten the noose around Johnny’s neck, he managed to get his hands free,” Harley continued. “He grabbed the gun from the man behind him, shot him then took out the man who was holding me. While he was yelling for me to get away, he tried to get off a couple more shots at the rest of Forbes’ men, but without warning, his horse shied and took off…”
Abruptly Harley’s voice cracked and his arms tightened across his chest as he dropped his gaze in an effort to collect himself. When he looked back up, Scott had the feeling he was seeing right through to the large man’s worst nightmare—a horrible memory that still haunted him and kept him awake at nights—a moment Harley wanted to forget and never could.
“I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. My hands were still tied behind me—I had no gun. When Johnny’d shot the man who’d been covering me, the fella fell against me, knocking me out of my saddle. I could hear a strangled scream and as I got to my feet, I saw Johnny grabbing for the rope around his neck—his legs kicking.” Harley swallowed tightly. “Then suddenly I realized there were other noises—shots from in the woods—the sound of guns.” He paused again and glanced at each person quickly. “Wes and Cisco had been hidden, watching the proceedings, waiting for a chance… Only Wes and Cisco aren’t that…well, I guess you’d say accurate… with a gun. They were afraid to go dashing in; afraid in all the commotion we’d get killed. But when Johnny created the diversion, they came roaring in, catching the three other fellas unawares… Cisco tried to shoot the rope—six shots and never came close. Wes, in the meantime, had had enough sense to make a grab for a loose horse and get it under Johnny.”
Suddenly Harley gave a soft snort and glanced again toward Johnny’s form. “He never did let Cisco live that one down. ‘That’s right. Leave me hangin’ there while you have a bit of target practice at my expense,’ he’d say. That always shut Cisco up. Though Cisco tried not to show it, I could tell it bothered him. He always prided himself on bein’ the thinkin’ one. But he lost it there. I think the whole thing scared the shit outta him and he just reacted outta reflex. Though he never would’ve admitted it.”
Scott looked at Murdoch. It was clear that this new information was one of those missing gaps in the Pinkerton report. Scott grimly wondered how many other such tales in the life of his brother…of Madrid… were just waiting to be uncovered.
The Judge quietly paced across the expanse of his office, his eyes flicking sternly among the different items in the room, eventually coming to settle on a large framed map of California. He paused in front of it, clasped his hands behind his back and rocked ever so slightly back on his heels.
Quite an accomplishment it had been, being in on the birth of the new state, deciding which Spanish land grants were to be honored—and which weren’t. He had watched and learned much from his father. The way to use a man’s greed for one’s own gain, learning that every man had his own hunger that demanded to be satisfied, whether it was for power, wealth, land, title, possessions… The important thing was to find out what that greed was, and then use that knowledge. And just as important was to identify one’s own greed, so that it could be properly fed.
His was power.
Unfortunately, though he’d been a bright pupil to his own father’s tutelage, his own son had been a shattering disappointment. The only constant greed in James’ life had been wine and women—not a good combination.
There was a knock at the door. Without turning around, the Judge called out a command to enter. The door opened, then closed. He turned around.
“They just left this morning, Sir,” the young man announced. “The blacksmith’s wife is staying with her folks. There was the sheriff from Paso along with three county deputies.”
The Judge nodded but didn’t reply.
“The earliest they’ll be back is tomorrow night, though they may rest up the horses for a day before returning.” He hesitated, waiting for some indication from the Judge. “You—you want me to set up—an accident, or something?”
The Judge blinked. “An accident? You sound just like my son.”
The young man looked down, aware that he’d been insulted.
The Judge gave a deep sigh, then shook his head. “You young men…you settle everything with an ambush and guns.” His expression turned to mild disgust. “No, there are other ways to handle this. Other more subtle ways that don’t leave such a mess to clean up afterwards.”
The young man shifted nervously, unsure if he should inquire what the Judge was referring to, or if his curiosity would be met with a sharp rebuke.
The Judge walked to his desk, flipped open a folder and absently fingered the top sheet. “No, there’s other ways to get what you want. Only it takes a bit more brains—a little thought and planning. Something I’ve found is woefully lacking in my son—,” he paused and looked up, “—and in many of those that he employed.” He let his eyes narrow on the young man. “Mr. Ryan,” he announced thoughtfully. “What is it you want more than anything?”
Ryan blinked, surprised. “Me? Uh, I want to be an asset to you, Sir.”
The Judge snorted and shook his head. “That’s a political answer,” he replied with an indolent smile. “But then, your dad was always a good politician.”
Ryan smiled hesitantly and nodded.
“But what do you want? Really want?”
Ryan cocked his head to the side in a moment of thought, then his smile deepened. “Your job.”
The Judge’s smile broke into a wide grin. “Now that’s an answer I can drink to, Mr. Ryan!” He quickly turned and made his way to the liquor cabinet where he poured two snifters of brandy.
As he turned around, he noticed that Ryan had already walked to the center of the room. The Judge approached him, glasses in hand, and handed one over with a nod of acknowledgement. Ryan accepted it, glancing at the Judge expectantly.
“To the fulfillment of your desire,” the Judge held up his brandy.
“And to yours, Sir,” Ryan answered.
As the Judge took a sip, he mused over how this young man would be perfect for his needs. The ideal, impressionable young man to get the jobs done for him. He figured he’d be useful for about two years before he’d have to suffer an untimely accident.
“So, let me explain, in detail, the rudiments of our operation,” the Judge said as he turned back to his desk, sat the snifter down, and picked up the folder. “We’ll refer to it as the Lancer—Madrid connection.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow, while the Judge gave him a slow smirk. “You may want to read this file over first. I’m sure you’ll find it quite interesting.”
He sat on the bank of a quiet stream, the shade of a large oak extending along the shore and into the stream where the ripples caused the reflection of the massive tree to dance leisurely, glinting in a softly mesmerizing way—bringing the whole scene to a warm perfection.
“There, this should fit.”
Turning, Johnny smiled as Laura held up a circle of clover. “What’s that?”
“Silly, it’s your crown.”
“My crown?” Johnny laughed lightly, then noticed a matching wreath of clover circled Laura’s dark brown hair, the white flowers contrasting strikingly.
“See, I’m the queen and you’re the king!” she said as she leaned over to ceremoniously drop the crown onto Johnny’s head.
And as the wreath of flowers was lowered on his head, they brought along a faint, sweet smell…
…and he smiled at Laura…
…began to laugh….
Then was startled as he noticed that she was regarding him with concern…and suddenly a gray mist flowed up from the bank of the river…
…and he saw her mouth his name, but he could no longer hear her voice…
Slowly the thick gray fog lifted and Johnny found himself, for the first time, able to mentally focus on a task.
He chose to open his eyes.
Laura was gone.
The river was gone.
Instead he was in a darkened room, one solitary lamp lit, its flickering light dancing lazily along the rough wooden ceiling—the effect producing a strange sensation of familiarity, yet different. A memory from a long time ago…sitting on the bank of a lazy river, a large oak, its branches spread out across the river, and…
“Laura…” The word stuck in his throat.
Johnny blinked, drew in a cautious breath and licked his lips. His mouth felt dry, his lips, cracked. His body had a strange, heavy numbness spreading throughout it, a warm lethargic feeling. And he felt like he couldn’t get in enough air. His whole chest felt heavy, weighted, thick…
He tried to take another breath, felt a sharp jabbing pain, and arrested the breath before completion. Cautiously he let the air out, licked his lips once more, and tried to turn his head.
Where was he? What had happened?
He was disconcerted to find that it seemed to take all his concentration just to perform a simple action like moving his head.
What was going on?
As his gaze slowly panned to the side, drawn to the flickering light, he felt something around his neck. Sluggishly he drew his hand up toward his throat, at the same time that his eyes made out the outline of a large form sitting nearby, the bulky, bearded form silhouetted by the light of the lamp.
Harley, chin to chest, eyes lightly closed, suddenly started at the sound of movement. In a flash his eyes were open and he noticed with surprise and elation Johnny’s arm rising slowly upward, eyes staring intently through the darkness.
“Johnny!” Harley exclaimed, pushing forward out of his chair. “Juanito! It’s okay.” Harley quickly knelt his large frame beside the small bed and put out a hand to draw away Johnny’s fingers from their searching grasp toward the bandages. Noticing the look of disorientation on his friend’s face, Harley continued, “It’s okay, Juanito. Don’t touch. You were shot, remember?”
Johnny blinked slowly, swallowed, his brows still knit in confusion.
Harley put his free hand on Johnny’s forehead, his gesture protective, and lowered his voice. “Johnny, it’s Harley. You’ve had a rough ride of it, remember? But DarkCloud’s fixin’ you up just fine. You just gotta take it easy for awhile.”
Johnny sluggishly licked his lips. Harley waited patiently, the look on Johnny’s face clearly stating that he was trying to gather the strength to talk. After a couple of false starts, Johnny managed to hoarsely whisper. “DarkCloud.”
Harley nodded. “That’s right, Juanito. DarkCloud.” He paused, watching Johnny’s face closely. “Remember Salinas?”
Once again Harley calmly waited as Johnny’s brows knit once more and he drew in a tightly controlled breath. He swallowed, opened his mouth as if to reply, then blinked, seeming to think better of it and jerkily nodded instead.
“Good. Good,” Harley intoned quietly, a smile visible beneath his dark beard. “Let’s get you somethin’ to drink, okay?”
Harley reached over to the bedside table and poured water from the pitcher into a cup. As he turned back to his friend, he smiled again, noting Johnny’s gaze had followed his every move.
“I’m gonna support you up a bit more, okay, Juanito? Let me do the work now, you hear?”
Harley waited until Johnny had managed a nod, then he carefully slid his left arm behind Johnny’s neck and shoulders and gently lifted him up a few inches while he held the cup to his friend’s lips.
After the first couple of difficult swallows, the swelling along his neck hampering his efforts, Johnny managed to drink almost all the water Harley had poured into the cup.
Once finished, Harley gently laid Johnny down, a pleased smile on the burly blacksmith’s face. “Feel much better now, don’t you, Johnny?”
This time Johnny’s nod was more controlled. He licked his lips, gave a forced blink that bordered on a nod, the action clueing Harley that he once more wanted to speak. The blacksmith leaned down.
“Jamie,” Johnny whispered, his voice still dry and raspy.
Harley smiled widely. “Jamie’s just fine, Johnny. You faced down Wakeman and his guns. You saved the town.”
Johnny closed his eyes and let out a small sigh. “Feel….like….hell,” he whispered jerkily.
“I don’t doubt it!” Harley chuckled then became serious. “We been worried ‘bout you, Juanito. You been sittin’ on death’s doorstep too long. The doc’s been tryin’ to reduce your medicine, get you awake. You’ve givin’ us all a scare—” Harley’s voice suddenly stopped as he noticed Johnny’s eyes slowly losing their focus, though he was blinking to fight it off.
Harley smiled and gave Johnny’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You get some sleep, Juanito. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“Harley said Madrid woke up enough to talk to him,” Rosti stated as Murdoch approached the bar. “That true?”
Murdoch nodded in answer, then cocked his head toward the backroom. “You wouldn’t have anything cooking, would you?”
“My wife has some oatmeal going. I could see if it’s ready. Should be.”
“Good,” Murdoch replied. “Harley should be down soon, too.”
“I’ll go get a coupla bowls,” Rosti said as he turned and went into the back kitchen.
As Rosti appeared carrying two bowls, Harley came down the steps. Murdoch slid a couple coins on the counter, picked up the bowls and carried them to one of the tables where he pulled out a chair.
Harley joined him, sitting down with a groan. “I’m beat,” he sighed. “But it’s a good tired, knowin’ that Johnny’s startin’ to come ‘round.”
Murdoch nodded and picked up his spoon. He blew on the hot oatmeal before putting it in his mouth. Despite everything else, he had to admit that Rosti served good food.
“Hope Johnny comes ‘round again soon,” Harley continued, then spooned a mouthful of porridge into his own mouth. “Whooosh!” he hissed. “That’s hot!”
Murdoch smiled. “It usually is.”
Harley laughed. “I know. I’m just so hungry, I got a hard time waitin’.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement, continuing with another couple bites, carefully cooling it first. “DarkCloud’s hopeful that he’ll come around in the next hour or two. He’s thinking he’s getting a better handle on the dosage.”
Harley nodded, his eyes dropping to the bowl sitting in front of him.
Taking another bite, Murdoch quietly regarded the blacksmith, aware that the large man, despite staring at his breakfast, had suddenly forgotten it was there.
Murdoch paused, suddenly his own breakfast forgotten as he sensed what was on Harley’s mind—a subject Murdoch himself had wanted to bring up, but had been unsure how to broach. Once more he found himself wishing to be able to turn from the truth—the truth of his son’s past life. But the return of Madrid had now made that impossible.
Harley looked up, Murdoch’s low voice and troubled expression alerting him before the question was even asked.
“What happened…before, I mean… How did Johnny…?”
“The laudanum?” Harley asked.
Harley looked down at his oatmeal and idly began to stir it. “Was a number of years back. After what happened in Kansas. Wes, me ‘n Cisco, we weren’t with him when it happened. He was riding through Texas when he came to a town that was bein’ terrorized by some of them Blue-Coated bullies—lot of them down South after the War, you know, movin’ in on towns, ‘specially towns where many of the men folk had never returned.” Harley stopped and looked up at Murdoch.
Murdoch nodded his understanding, indicating for Harley to continue.
“Well,” Harley took a deep breath, “seems he went into this here one town that was pretty well under the thumbs of this gang and when trouble reared its ugly head…well, you know how Johnny can get. He just couldn’t let it pass…”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“Unfortunately in all the congratulatin’ and back-slappin’ praise, nobody in that damn town thought to mention to Johnny that there was one man who’d missed out on Madrid’s lesson. So when Johnny came out of the hotel the next mornin’, the man was waitin’ for him and put a coupla slugs in his back. Johnny still managed to get the last word in, though.”
Murdoch put a hand to his forehead and dropped his eyes, a wish to block out the vision of his son, lying bleeding in the dust in some far-off town…alone. And it didn’t help that he could picture exactly which scars told that story. There were two that had shocked him beyond speaking when he’d first laid eyes on them. He knew they should have spelled death, yet his son had survived.
“The town’s doctor did what he could,” Harley continued softly, interrupting Murdoch’s thoughts, “but didn’t expect him to live long.”
“Yet he did,” Murdoch stated somberly.
Harley nodded. “Just barely, though. And pretty messed up. When he was finally well enough to travel, he took off. By the time I’d heard about it, it had been some while, you know. Then by the time Wes and I caught up to him, we… Well, if I hadn’t knowed him so well, I wouldn’t’a’ recognized him. In fact, it was just luck we found him. He weren’t even usin’ the name Madrid.” At Murdoch’s questioning look, Harley added, “Or Lancer, either.” Harley closed his own eyes against the memory. “Juanito, he—” Harley shook his head and looked at Murdoch. “He was in bad shape, Mr. Lancer—in a lot of pain—could hardly work like regular or…” Harley faltered and looked down, his embarrassment plain.
“I know what you mean,” Murdoch stated grimly.
Harley glanced back up, his face somber. “Wes and I, we took him to Cisco’s. He was there quite awhile before…well…until he could go without the medicine.”
Murdoch, lips pursed, nodded slowly and dropped his eyes to his forgotten breakfast.
Murdoch looked back up.
“Johnny, he—” Harley’s bearded face seemed to work for control. “He meant a lot to me—like a brother. And I know there’s quite a reputation attached to the name Madrid, but you can’t believe everything you read…or hear.” He paused, gathering the strength to plunge on. “And what happened in Kansas, I wasn’t there, but I know he didn’t go and kill that girl. I know that for a fact, and—and I just thought you oughta know it, too.”
Murdoch met Harley’s gaze. “I do.”
“I wish I’d been here,” Scott muttered, half to himself and half to DarkCloud who was bent over the table, pen in hand, jotting down notes. Scott slouched back in his seat and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor replied with a quick glance at the blond man. “I’m sure we can expect him to awaken again within a few hours. I’m finally learning how to control this a little better.”
Though Scott nodded, he didn’t take his eyes off his brother’s face.
“He’s still running a fever.”
“I know,” DarkCloud replied grimly. “But each dosage I give him, I’m cutting back a little bit more. I made the mistake at first of thinking I could make a larger change in the amount. So, I’m hoping next time we’ll be able to get him to do more than just sit up and drink.” Suddenly DarkCloud stopped and grumbled under his breath.
Scott turned in his seat. “What is it?”
“I forgot to have Harley or Murdoch get a fresh batch of the vapor. This one’s gotten cold—the effect is dissipating.”
“And that’s bad?” Scott gave a lopsided grin.
DarkCloud returned the look. “Not used to it yet, huh?”
Scott gave a slight laugh. “My eyes still water every time you have a fresh batch brought in.” He stood up. “But, if you need it, I’ll go down and see if Rosti has some ready.”
“Thanks,” DarkCloud nodded. “I’d like to finish getting these notes down.”
“No problem.” Scott picked up the large clay pot then paused. “Let me know if he awakens.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I will. But I don’t expect anything for a couple hours yet.”
Scott glanced once more at his brother, then left.
Why couldn’t he get warm?
Fog everywhere… A damp gray fog….
Wasn’t there some warmth…some sunshine…?
He hated the cold.
He caught a glimpse of light…and tried to move toward it. Perhaps there’d be some warmth there….
He pushed through the thick, heavy mist and opened his eyes, was immediately struck by the brightness… had to fight back the urge to close his eyes.
He blinked twice, then allowed his eyes to open to mere slits.
He tried to swallow, but his throat felt thick and scratchy.
From his half-reclining position he could see that only a blanket covered him, yet he felt like a huge weight was resting on his chest.
He tried to open his mouth, yet only a raspy groan escaped.
Then a face appeared, hovering in his line of sight.
He had to blink again…and concentrate…in order to get the face to hold a shape.
It was DarkCloud.
He tried once more to open his mouth, to acknowledge the Indian’s presence, but only a gutteral sound escaped.
“Shhhh,” DarkCloud admonished softly, leaning in closely. “Take it easy. You’ve been in pretty bad shape, Johnny.”
Licking his lips, Johnny managed to croak, “How…long?”
“If you mean, how long’s it been since you met up with Wakeman, it’s been 6 days.” DarkCloud watched as Johnny’s expression registered some surprise at the news. “You remember the shoot-out, don’t you?” he asked.
Hesitantly, Johnny nodded, then his look became perplexed, yet cautious. “Scott,” he whispered—not a question, nor an exclamation—just a quiet realization.
“Yes, your brother—and father—are here, Johnny,” DarkCloud assured.
Johnny looked away, his brows furrowing in distress.
“It’s okay.” The doctor put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re probably feeling disoriented. The effects of the morphine. But I needed to keep giving it to you, to help with the pain.”
“Pain?” Johnny whispered as he turned his gaze once more to DarkCloud’s face.
“I take it you aren’t feeling any right now, huh?” DarkCloud asked, just a hint of a smile on his face.
Johnny slowly shook his head.
DarkCloud’s smile widened, and he gave Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze. “Here, let’s get this water into you and then I’ll run down and get Scott. He’ll be glad—”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow. “No?”
Johnny slowly shook his head. “No,” he stated quietly, yet firmly.
DarkCloud pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair slightly. “Okay,” he said slowly. He hesitated a second, then leaned forward again, picked a cup of water off the small bedside table and carefully slid his hand under Johnny’s neck. While he supported Johnny, he held the cup to the cracked, dry lips, allowing Johnny slow, measured sips of the water. Once finished, DarkCloud sat the cup back on the table and regarded his patient. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny blinked tiredly. “Eyes hurt… Too bright.”
DarkCloud glanced around the room. The sun filtering in through the curtains gave the room a soft glow, certainly not what he would have called bright. However, he made a mental note of it.
“How’s your breathing?” DarkCloud asked. “Can you take in a deep breath for me?”
Tiredly Johnny raised an eyebrow and licked his lips. “Have to?”
“I’d like you to,” DarkCloud replied, a smile again on his face. “That is, if you don’t want me calling you a mule again.”
Johnny gave a soft sigh.
DarkCloud put a hand on Johnny’s upper chest, careful to avoid the wound. “Try to take a deep one, now. Okay? And let me know if it hurts.”
Johnny shot DarkCloud a look of wearied chagrin. Then, slowly, he tried to draw air into his lungs. But it was hard with such a heavy weight sitting on his chest, crushing his lungs, allowing him no room to draw in a breath. He tried to find a place to force a little more in, but the effort caused him to cough suddenly and harshly. He gave a slight gasp at the overwhelming pain that descended on him from everywhere, and the brutal cough ended in a weak and barely audible moan. Eyes closed, he felt a cold sweat begin to drench his body as he fought to regain control of his thick, forced breathing.
“Good. Good. It’s okay, Johnny. Relax,” he heard DarkCloud murmur soothingly.
Johnny forced his eyes to open.
“Do you think you could do that once more for me?”
Johnny gave DarkCloud a look of disbelief. “No,” he replied tightly, his jaw clenched.
DarkCloud pursed his lips, biting back a mule reference as he noticed the drained and flushed look on his patient’s face. “I’d really like you to give it one more try, Johnny. It’s important.”
Johnny visibly shivered, the cold sweat sending a chill throughout his body.
“Hurts,” he replied.
“I know it hurts, and I know you’re tired.” DarkCloud paused then added. “Would it help if I waited for Scott? He could sit—”
“No,” Johnny shook his head, his eyes focusing more intently. “I’ll—do—again,” he replied in measured breaths.
DarkCloud’s brows drew together momentarily in puzzlement as he thoughtfully bit his lips. Then taking a determined breath, he leaned over and slid his arm under Johnny’s shoulders. “Okay, this time I’m going to help you sit up straighter. Might make it easier to get a deep breath in. That’s important, Johnny. Do you understand?”
Johnny gave a shaky nod.
Feeling DarkCloud’s hand slide beneath his neck and shoulders, Johnny tried to use his own muscles to sit up, but was immediately struck with how inadequate they felt. He gave a soft groan as he felt the pain seeping back in from the numbing barrier that had earlier surrounded his body.
“A big breath now, Johnny,” he heard DarkCloud direct.
Grimly determined, eyes closed, chin to chest, Johnny stubbornly forced his labored lungs to draw in air—forced them to expand past where he thought they could, resolved to burst through the wall of pain that abruptly rose up to block his path.
Then suddenly his body was on fire and he gave a choked cough.
DarkCloud, one hand behind Johnny’s shoulders, one hand gripping his upper arm, watched as Johnny began to draw in a breath through parted lips. Immediately he felt Johnny falter as the congested lungs, and bruised chest and ribs rebelled. But instead of surrendering, he felt Johnny strain for the extra air. For a few seconds, he was successful, then abruptly DarkCloud felt Johnny begin to tremble, suddenly letting out a cry of anguish, which was aborted by a hoarse, painful cough. With a groan, Johnny slumped forward, his breathing raspy and tight, punctuated by harsh moans.
“Johnny!” DarkCloud exclaimed as he rose completely out of his chair to grasp his patient more firmly, his expression one of open concern. “Johnny,” he murmured more softly as he attempted to lay his shaking friend back on to the pillows and blankets. “You can lay down now. It’s okay.”
Cradling his chest with his arms, Johnny shook his head, groaning as a tortuous spasm racked his body, his body fighting its reflexive need to cough while also seeking to avoid the accompanying pain.
DarkCloud pursed his lips, his eyes darting to the syringe on the table as he waited for the spasm to pass. “Lie back down, Johnny.”
“Can’t,” Johnny whispered between sharply halted breaths.
DarkCloud hesitantly released his hold on Johnny’s hunched form as he made a hasty mental calculation of when and how much morphine he had planned to give Johnny at his next dosage. Carefully he drew the new dosage into the syringe, then immediately went back to Johnny’s side where he drew his arm away from its cradling position against his body. Quickly he grasped him under the upper arm and injected the medicine into the muscle.
Johnny had been vaguely aware of DarkCloud releasing his hold on him, yet he didn’t care. All he wanted was to be left alone to battle the pain that was consuming him. He knew that each breath he took ended in a tight, gulped moan, but he didn’t care what he sounded like. He hurt everywhere.
He was conscious of his arm being pulled away from its tight embrace against his side, and was concerned as he felt as if those two arms were the only things holding his insides together. He wished DarkCloud would leave him alone, but he lacked the strength to fight about it. Then suddenly he let out a hiss as he felt the needle prick his already sore and bruised arm. He tried to turn his head to see what was happening, but the pain wouldn’t release its control.
Just as DarkCloud finished withdrawing the needle, the door opened and DarkCloud looked up, finding Scott glaring at him in accusation.
“Johnny! DarkCloud!” Scott’s eyes darted angrily from Johnny’s hunched figure to the syringe in the doctor’s hand.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Scott demanded as he hurriedly sat the large clay pot on the table.
DarkCloud quickly turned his attention back to Johnny, whose breathing was slowly becoming more stable, though his body was still hunched forward in wretched misery. “There wasn’t time,” DarkCloud replied tersely.
“What happened?” Scott asked as he pushed the chair out of his way so that he could reach his brother’s side.
“Help me get lay him back down,” DarkCloud replied as he put the syringe on the small table, Scott’s question going unanswered.
With clenched teeth, Scott carefully helped DarkCloud unfurl Johnny’s now limp form and lie him back against his pillows.
As DarkCloud stood up, Scott looked at the doctor. “What happened? Why didn’t you call me? You know I wanted to be here—”
DarkCloud put up a hand. “I told you, Scott. There wasn’t time. I needed to get some liquids into him. And when I had him sit up, he started coughing. The pain got too much to handle.”
“Did he—?” Scott looked down at his brother. “Did he mention me?”
DarkCloud nodded, though he couldn’t bring himself to look at Johnny’s brother, knowing the expression he’d see on his face. “Yes, he mentioned you,” he replied simply. “Why don’t you scrub up and you can help me check his wounds. I want to make sure he didn’t damage anything.”
As DarkCloud carried the syringe back to the table where his medical bag and papers sat, he hazarded a quick look at Scott who still stood, gazing at his brother.
“Then his memory is back. It’s all back,” he heard Scott sigh.
Yet the thought foremost in DarkCloud’s mind was, why hadn’t Johnny wanted his brother around?
A few hours later, DarkCloud was feeling uneasy with his decision not to tell Scott about Johnny’s reluctance to see him. Though he worked it over and over in his mind, he couldn’t understand why Johnny would act the way he had. He toyed with the idea of mentioning it to Murdoch, but also had the feeling that Johnny had been uncomfortable about seeing his father. It made no sense. So DarkCloud had simply told them that he had managed to get Johnny to sit up and take liquids. He’d also avoided mentioning that he’d pushed Johnny to take a couple of deep breaths, unwilling to let Scott know that Johnny had been awake for longer than he’d first indicated. The entire episode had left him feeling unhappy with his decision and bewildered by his patient’s behavior.
As night wore on, Johnny awoke once more, but the cloud of medication seemed to have taken a firm grip. Between them, they managed to get a few spoonfuls of broth into Johnny before the pain and the shaking began. Though Scott tried, he was unable to make a connection to his brother or to get any response of recognition. Harley managed to secure his focus for a few moments, but even that was thin and fleeting, as the pain came on quickly, forcing DarkCloud to reluctantly give Johnny another dose of the medication.
The next morning found Scott leaning against the edge of the bar, hunched over his drink. The sound of people descending the stairs caused him to glance up into the mirror. Expressionless, he watched as James Wakeman, his wrists manacled, was led under guard, down the steps. His two men walked in front, Swain being supported by one of the lawmen.
Scott noted that Wakeman limped painfully and needed help to negotiate the steps. Once he’d reached the bottom, however, Wakeman shook off the deputy’s help, giving him a lingering look of contempt before he paused to survey the room. It didn’t take long before he noticed Scott watching him in the reflection of the large mirror.
Scott forced himself to hold his gaze steady. The look of the man repulsed him, and he had a very strong urge to walk over to Wakeman and lay him out cold on the floor. Over the past several days he’d felt such an overwhelming animosity toward the man. The thought of what Johnny had put himself through, the decisions he’d felt he’d needed to make, all because of Wakeman’s desire to control a town, had infuriated Scott almost past his breaking point. Scott had literally needed to clench his jaw and force himself past Wakeman’s room every time he’d walked by it on his way to Johnny’s room.
He tried to keep his expression one of disinterest, didn’t even turn around, yet knew by the look he saw in Wakeman’s eyes that the man knew exactly how Scott felt—and was enjoying it.
Sheriff Hawkins and his deputies herded the three men to a table. Then the sheriff sent one of the men out to check on the wagon. Scott listened intently, heard that they were going to load each man individually so that they could get each one as comfortable as possible, given their injuries—and to avoid any possibility of being accused of mishandling prisoners.
It pays to have a judge as a father…
Scott studied his beer, took a couple sips, then heard the deputy return to announce that all was ready. Two of the guards slowly escorted Swain, who appeared in the worse shape and needed to be supported as he walked, toward the door and the waiting wagon. Scott continued to watch from the mirror, and as the doors swung shut, his eyes flicked back to the table, where he was once again surprised and irritated to see Wakeman glaring at him with unconcealed and open belligerence.
This time Scott narrowed his eyes and returned the look, scowl for scowl, death threat for death threat.
Both men held their position until one of the deputies returned, and the two guards prodded the other prisoner toward the wagon. That left Wakeman and Sheriff Hawkins.
Deciding he’d had enough of the childish stare-off, Scott downed the last of his beer and turned around. He gave Wakeman a cool once-over, then proceeded toward the stairs. As he neared the table, Sheriff Hawkins nodded amiably.
“Keep me informed of your brother’s progress,” the sheriff said. “We’ll be a few days in Salinas. Don’t know yet if we’ll be there or Monterey for the preliminary hearing.”
Scott nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
Sheriff Hawkins smiled and touched the breast pocket of his jacket. “I got yours and your father’s sworn testimonies with me, but you’ll very likely be called as witnesses anyway.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Wakeman cut in with a sneer.
Both Hawkins and Scott turned on Wakeman, whose smug expression threatened to bring out the worst in Scott’s long-buried war vocabulary.
“Can you possibly think you have something to say that might interest me, Wakeman?” Scott’s reply dripped with sarcasm.
Wakeman met him unfazed. “If you know what’s good for you, Lancer, you’d get these two-bit lawmen to release me and you’d take that washed-out, has-been, half-breed gunfighter of a brother of yours, and crawl back where you came from.”
Heat rose up along Scott’s back and neck, yet he kept his expression one of bemusement. He allowed a slow, laconic half-smile to grace his lips. A smile worthy of Madrid. “For a has-been gunfighter, he sure outplayed you, out-guessed you, out-maneuvered you and out-shot you, even at your own game. From what I heard, my brother ran such rings around your organization, your men started doubting their own ass-holes.”
Wakeman gave a conceited sneer. “To hear you talk like that, one would actually think you’re proud of having a half-breed gunhawk for a brother.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Oh, but I am, Wakeman. I am very proud of him. And you know why? Mostly because he stood up to the likes of you.”
Wakeman’s sneer widened. “And here I took you for a man of refinement and breeding, one who would certainly be able to distinguish between his equals—and those who are definitely lacking in social position or manners.”
“Believe me when I say that I learned at an early age, in my proper Bostonian education and training,” Scott paused in order to give full weight to the rest of the sentence, “and further in my Classical Studies of Theology at Harvard, a very important differentiation of note that may interest you. For some reason, you seem to be laboring under the misconception that you and your opinion matter, that what you think and do actually carries some import or significance. However, I’ve found that it’s far better to spend one’s time with the truly honorable. And you, Mr. Wakeman, fall far short of that distinction, while my brother has more honor and class than you could ever hope to attain.” Scott shook his head. “I know it’s going to be hard for you to accept the reality. But you’re a heartless, unethical bastard, and I don’t care a damn what you think.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Take it any way you want, Wakeman,” Scott snapped. “But you aren’t worthy of cleaning the stall of my brother’s horse.”
Wakeman gave a curt snort. “I can certainly ascertain your fine Eastern upbringing by your articulate flair for words.”
“Don’t overwork your pitiful excuse for a brain,” Scott laughed. “You’ve got years and years ahead of you to figure out all the ways my brother cut short your pathetic attempt at power.”
Wakeman’s eyes narrowed, the room having grown quiet during the verbal exchange between the two men. Sheriff Hawkins didn’t move, other than to glance back and forth between Scott’s relaxed, superior stance and Wakeman’s tight, rising fury.
“However, I must thank you for one thing, Wakeman.”
“And what’s that?” Wakeman sneered.
“If I ever have a burning desire to know what it’s like to be castrated, I now know who to ask.”
“Damn you, Lancer!” Wakeman seethed as a chuckle spread throughout the room. “There ain’t gonna be a big enough hole for either you or your brother to hide in once the Judge hears what’s happened.”
“Perhaps not,” Scott remarked dryly. “But then again, neither Johnny nor I are much for hiding in holes. However, there’s probably one just big enough for you. And I’d make damned fast use of it before my brother gets better. He prefers to use less words and more bullets.”
With one last glint added to his glare, Scott turned abruptly on his heel and headed up the stairs.
Johnny slowly dismounted. He’d noticed the looks upon entering this small border town situated about fifteen miles north of the Rio Grande, and was pleased to find that even here, people now seemed to recognize him—or if they didn’t actually recognize him, they knew him for what he was.
He casually looped the pinto’s reins around the hitching post, took the single step up to the boardwalk, then paused as he deliberately and thoroughly did a visual sweep of the street. He took his time, enjoying the envious and assessing eye of the men from the town, and the appraising, furtive glances from the women. Standing so that the golden rays from the setting sun caught him and framed him between the porch posts, he casually brushed the dust from his clothes, angled so that his gun-side was in full view. The people expected a proper gunfighter, and he had every intention of making sure they got their eye-full. Satisfied that everyone had had ample opportunity to realize who and what he was, Johnny turned abruptly and entered the saloon.
Once inside, he paused and surveyed the room, repeating on a smaller scale the same scene that he’d just played outside in the street. After the room had quieted, he crossed nonchalantly over to the bar and ordered a drink and a meal. The bartender quickly poured his drink, then disappeared into the back to relay his order.
The room slowly returned to normal, the hum of men talking, drinking, gambling, and the discordant sounds of an out-of-tune piano mixing irritatingly. He was thinking of going over and threatening the piano player, when he suddenly heard his name called out.
“So, you’re Madrid, huh?”
Raising his eyes from his glass, Johnny glanced in the mirror. He was momentarily stunned to see he had no reflection, but his surprise was quickly forgotten when he noticed a young man, about his own age, his reflection framed by the doorway, his hands out to the side in the obvious stance of one ready to draw.
Johnny slowly sat the glass down, moved his hands far out to the side, and carefully turned around. “What’s it to you?”
The young man smiled sarcastically. “Nothin’, ‘cept I’ve been hopin’ to run into you for ‘bout a month now.”
“And why’s that?” Johnny drawled, though by the hasty exodus that had taken place, it was evident even the saloon patrons knew the answer.
Johnny shifted away from the bar then took a few steps toward one end in order to gain more room. The young man adjusted his position, cautiously side-stepping between the tables to stand at the opposite end of the bar.
“Why don’t you fellas take this outside,” the bartender suggested.
“I aim to put an end to this half-breed gunhawk’s reputation he seems to think he’s earned,” the young man sneered. “And I ain’t ‘bout to let him fly off before I get a chance to clip his feathers.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Name the time and the place,” he replied. “I got a meal ordered, and it makes me no mind if you’re my appetizer or dessert.”
The young man gave an appreciative snort. “Here and now, Madrid.”
The men who were still hanging around collectively flinched backwards, the bartender backing up until he was pressed against the back wall.
Johnny and the young man examined each other appreciatively, each studying the other for a sign of weakness.
Johnny regarded his opponent with the same expression that he would use to inspect a bottle of whiskey. One was much the same as the other; use it, savor it, the end result would be the same. He knew his greatest weapon wasn’t his speed, his modified revolver or his youth; it was that he had no fear. And the reason he had no fear, was because he knew in the long run, the outcome of this one gunfight made absolutely no difference to anyone, least of all to himself. Someone would live, someone would die—and the rest of the world would go on, little caring whether Johnny Madrid or his challenger lived to see another sunset.
And as the young man glared at Johnny across the expanse of the saloon, his eyes widened slightly; and he blinked as he realized the same thing.
But he felt the fear.
And the fear took over his senses as he made a frantic and desperate grab for his gun.
And the fear was still in his eyes as he felt the slug from Madrid’s gun exploding through his chest.
And the last thing he heard was the sound of his heart stopping.
And Johnny stood, silently frozen. He’d heard the gasp from the spectators, felt their startled eyes watching him, waiting for his next move.
And Johnny suddenly had a desire to look in the mirror. He turned his head. And in the mirror he saw a seventeen-year-old gunfighter with startling dark blue eyes, raven black hair, his modified revolver outlined darkly, a faint wisp of smoke trailing from its barrel.
And the Gunfighter, Madrid, stared expressionlessly back at him.
Someone had lived,
And someone had died…
He blinked again and slowly raised his eyes, tried to make a connection to his distorted thoughts, veiled and gauzy memories, moments lost in the haze of time…
A room he remembered…from before…?
Angry and frustrated with the effort it took to find the connections to the required muscles, he scanned the room. His searching eyes fell on a form bent over a table nearby, but it wasn’t Harley.
For a moment he couldn’t place the man, grasped for a name, then, “DarkCloud?” he hoarsely whispered.
Johnny’s voice, though low and barely audible, brought an immediate reaction from the doctor who quickly approached the bed. The fact that the smile on his face was tempered by cautious concern did not escape Johnny’s notice.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud greeted as he put a hand to the gunfighter’s forehead. “How’re you doing?”
“Harl?” Johnny asked.
“Harley’s getting something to eat,” DarkCloud said as he poured a glass of water from the pitcher, then sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Now, how about if you drink some water for me.”
Johnny nodded sluggishly and lifted an arm as if to take the cup.
“Here, let me help,” DarkCloud quickly stated as he began to slide an arm under Johnny’s shoulder. Then he stopped, aware that Johnny had tensed. DarkCloud followed to where his patient was staring.
Grimly DarkCloud realized that Johnny’s gaze was fixed on his arm, black and blue from the morphine injections and shaking from the simple effort of raising it off the bed.
DarkCloud put his own hand on Johnny’s forearm and gently pushed it back down onto the bed.
“The pain medication, Johnny. Do you remember?”
It seemed to take a long moment before Johnny hesitantly nodded. “Yes,” he replied in a whisper.
“Let’s get some water in you, then I have a bit of oatmeal here. It’s gotten cool, but I’d like to see you eat a bit.”
Johnny shook his head. “Not hungry.”
Ignoring the protest, DarkCloud slowly slid his hand behind Johnny’s back and adjusted a spare blanket behind his head. Once he was satisfied that his patient had had his fill, he exchanged the cup for the bowl of oatmeal.
“Said I wasn’t hungry,” Johnny rasped stubbornly, then paused as he tightly swallowed.
“You’re gonna have a couple bites anyway,” DarkCloud replied levelly.
With a glare in his eye, Johnny reluctantly allowed the doctor to spoon a small helping of the watery mush into his mouth. At first he’d been leery of eating something that looked so unappetizing, but once it was in his mouth, he was relieved that it was so thin, as he found he had a hard time swallowing.
DarkCloud noticed and smiled. “The neck wound, Johnny. It’s a lot better, but it caused a lot of swelling. You’ve been living on water, tea and broth for the last seven days.”
“Seven days?” Johnny asked.
DarkCloud nodded. “The medicine—the morphine—” The doctor inclined his head toward Johnny’s arms. “It’s got you all confused.”
Johnny blinked, brought a shaky hand up to rub his eyes. “Can’t think.”
DarkCloud nodded, spooned another small helping of the oatmeal and waited for Johnny to lower his hand.
Johnny rubbed his eyes once more, then blinked through his fingers. Sluggishly he lowered his arm, opened his mouth as if to speak. DarkCloud heard Johnny’s breath catch in his chest; and suddenly Johnny wrenched forward, both hands brought around to grip his chest tightly as a series of painful coughs tore through his body.
DarkCloud hurriedly put the bowl down and moved to sit next to his patient on the bed. With both hands he gripped his friend tightly in support as the coughing spasms continued to erupt through Johnny’s chest, each one concluding with a gasp as Johnny tried to force control of his breathing.
DarkCloud wasn’t even aware that anyone else had entered the room until he saw another pair of hands reach out to lend their support. Abruptly he glanced up to see Murdoch, the worry and concern frighteningly visible in a face that was usually stoically reserved. But as the spasms continued to wrack Johnny’s body with sounds so harsh and guttural, DarkCloud found he didn’t have the luxury of indulging his curiosity, and tore his attention away.
For Johnny, the attack had been unexpected. One second he’d been simply trying to piece together flashes of memory—of dreams—hazed and disoriented by a thick fog that seemed to have engulfed his brain…and the next he suddenly couldn’t breathe, no air seemed able to force its way into his lungs…
…and his body fought back, convulsed in a desperate attempt to draw in much needed oxygen…
…and in the battle, his bruised and cracked ribs, his injured side, the damaged chest, all took up arms against him, against the instinctive behavior of his body needing to breathe, to live. And they screamed out in agony.
Through his own gasps of pain, he could vaguely hear voices, fragments of words, but with the panic brought on by the disorienting feeling of drowning, he couldn’t understand what they were saying and didn’t care. He was simply too caught up in his own fight to breathe.
He felt hands on his back, two more gripping his arms… heard a sharp bark of a command, loud and brusque, then all at once the hands were pulling him and drawing him forward. Then in one more act of surprising agony, one of the hands began to smack him hard on the back.
He would have turned and hit the person, bellowed obscenities that would have set the most coarse border thief to shame, and probably would have had a gun to the man’s head to boot, but the suffocation made any such action, no matter how appealing, totally impossible.
Then suddenly he felt a weight loosen, a mass that had long been settled in his lungs making each inhale a chore, abruptly release its hold. He fought to cough it up, felt the hand pound his back again, sending pain screeching along his ribs and side. He made a strangling noise, clutched frantically outward like a drowning man, felt another agonizing thwack to his back, and all at once, in a last spastic cough, the heaviness was forced up his throat.
Murdoch was as close to panicking in a situation as he’d ever been while he frantically watched DarkCloud fight to help loosen the phlegm from Johnny’s lungs. When the doctor had yelled a command at Murdoch to help him pull Johnny toward the edge of the bed, Murdoch had grabbed at his son, desperate to have some action taken. Together they managed to swing Johnny’s legs off the bed as they pushed him forward to allow DarkCloud easier access to Johnny’s back.
Murdoch had complied as quickly as the orders were given, but found himself feeling dismally inadequate as he witnessed his son struggling to breathe and DarkCloud fighting to save him.
Unable to draw in oxygen, Johnny was instinctively fighting off DarkCloud’s attempts to help him, alternatively pushing him away then clutching in panic. Recognizing a way to help, Murdoch leaned down and grabbed at his son’s arms, seeking to contain the wild flailings.
“Dammit, Madrid! You ain’t going this way!” DarkCloud swore loudly as he smacked Johnny soundly on the back for the fourth time.
Without warning, Johnny spasmed and gagged, making DarkCloud’s eyes flash with hope. He turned and grabbed a towel off the table and brought it up to Johnny’s mouth just as he heaved up a large wad of greenish mucus.
Johnny pushed away, gagged once again, but nothing more came up. DarkCloud quickly wadded up the rag and tossed it to the side then grabbed Johnny by the shoulders. Murdoch moved in closer and hesitantly put a hand on his son’s cheek.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud murmured softly. “Johnny, you okay?”
Johnny gave no indication that he’d heard. His eyes were closed, his face and entire upper body were covered in a layer of sweat, his face was red and splotchy though his lips were pale, and his breathing came in loud and fast gasps—reminding Murdoch of a man who’d barely made it to the surface after being in a capsized boat.
“Johnny,” Murdoch attempted. He rubbed Johnny’s cheek tenderly, then lowered his hand to gently touch his shoulder. “Son. Come on. Open your eyes. You can do it.”
Johnny gave a shudder, responded with a slight flicker of his eyelids.
“That’s it. Come on,” DarkCloud added.
This time Johnny gave a groan, paused in his breathing, his face tightening while shadows of pain flickered across. Sluggishly he opened his eyes. They were blood-shot and watery. He blinked, clenched them tightly as he fought back a flare-up of pinching agony, opened them once again and looked at DarkCloud. He started to open his mouth, seemed to want to speak, but then bent forward and closed his eyes again, his breathing arrested by a moan.
DarkCloud jerked his head toward the side table. “Water.”
Murdoch hurried filled the cup and handed it over.
“Here, Johnny.” DarkCloud kept one hand on Johnny’s upper arm as he put the cup to Johnny’s lips. “Here. Take a drink.”
Johnny shook his head and tried to avoid the cup, but DarkCloud persisted by allowing a small trickle to dribble along his lips.
Johnny jerked his head up, opened his eyes, saw the cup and shakily put a hand up to guide it to his mouth, gulping it down in large swallows. He opened his eyes as he felt the cup being drawn away. It took a few seconds for his eyes to find the outline of the form that wavered in front of him, and another couple seconds to get that form to solidify into a face. Then he had to blink a few times to get his brain to connect the face to a name.
DarkCloud was studying him intently, his brows furrowed in somber concern, his dark eyes large and questioning.
He felt DarkCloud’s grip tighten on his shoulder, wanted to relieve the doctor’s distress, but could manage nothing more than a feeble nod.
“Can you breathe easier?”
Johnny blinked, sucked in a deliberately slow breath between his clenched teeth, trembled as if suddenly cold. “Hurts,” he whispered jerkily. “God—it hurts.”
DarkCloud bit his lip, shook his head apologetically. “Sorry. I thought I was going to lose you.”
“I—don’t—want—any—more—pain,” he said, his teeth beginning to chatter as the temperature of the room seemed to drop fifty degrees.
“I know, Johnny. I know. Let me get you some medicine,” DarkCloud replied, releasing his hold.
“No!” Johnny gasped out, shook his head, started to protest again but had to stop, cutting short a breath as he felt his body suddenly flare with heat. He closed his eyes, sucked in a deep cooling draught of air despite the pain that sprung up from his chest and rode around his side to explode out from his back.
DarkCloud gave a curt nod to Murdoch to lend a hand as he quickly stood and went to the large table. There he immediately readied another dose of morphine and returned.
“Come on, Johnny. Let’s get some medicine in you and you’ll be able to get some sleep. You’ll be feeling much better now, I promise.”
Hazily, Johnny watched DarkCloud lean down in front of him, the syringe in his hand. It was then that he realized DarkCloud didn’t possess three hands. He blinked, tried to figure out how DarkCloud was able to be bending down in front of him and at the same time holding him up.
Confused he turned toward the arm holding him and followed it upward—until he came to a face filled with worry, disappointment, sadness, apprehension, grief, and failure…. The eyes of his father staring back at him. And suddenly Johnny felt like his insides had spilled out onto the floor—knew that the man whom he could never please was once again witness to everything wrong about him in Johnny Madrid.
And as he felt DarkCloud unfurl his arm, he saw his father’s eyes travel downward, narrowed in a disquieting way at the same time that the door opened. And he saw Scott appear, his face registering dismay at the scene.
“No,” Johnny mumbled, tried to pull his arm away from DarkCloud’s grasp, a need to stop the looks, the disappointing judgment—the open bleeding of his soul in front of everyone.
“Johnny.” Scott entered the room, coming to a stop behind Murdoch.
Murdoch turned to his oldest and shook his head in warning.
Scott glanced down at DarkCloud, saw that the doctor was having a hard time getting Johnny to relax his arm so that he could get a good grip for an injection. At the same time, Scott was becoming increasingly alarmed at the condition of his brother, the breathing sharp and painful, the jaw clenched in an effort to bite back moans that still managed to softly escape.
“Johnny,” Scott came around to lean in next to his father on the side away from DarkCloud. “Let DarkCloud help.”
Johnny looked up, blinking back sweat that ran into his eyes and feebly shook his head. He made a motion to open his mouth, tried to protest, but his teeth began to chatter so hard that the noise echoed in his head.
“What happened?” Scott hissed to DarkCloud.
Without taking his eyes off his patient, DarkCloud replied curtly, “He awoke…had a hard time breathing…had a difficult time of it…”
“I thought we’d lost him,” Murdoch cut in softly.
Scott shot his father a look of alarm.
“He’s in a lot of pain right now. We need to get some medicine in him,” DarkCloud continued. “I need some help here. He won’t give me his arm. And I need to check those wounds of his.”
Scott quickly went around to the other side, aware that although Johnny’s eyes were following his every move, they seemed disconcertingly vacant.
Johnny had gone from every breath being thick, forced and difficult, to every breath coming at the cost of severe, debilitating pain. He wasn’t sure it’d been a good exchange. He could feel everyone staring—felt so exposed—judged—his soul under a scrutiny that was sure to find it lacking. He could still feel DarkCloud trying to get his arm away from where he fought to hold it tight against his body, felt Murdoch’s hand gripping his left arm and shoulder, saw Scott crossing to come around on DarkCloud’s other side. Knew they were talking to each other…could see their mouths moving…but the pain had brought a deafening roar to his ears and he could hear nothing save for his own moans that echoed up from his chest despite his attempt to hold them in—to keep them buried.
He could see Scott studying him, his face tightly grim, saying something, but had no idea what. He then saw his brother look down, felt another hand grasping his arm.
At the same moment he felt Murdoch squeeze his shoulder, a command to obey. What fragile control Johnny had managed to hold on to exploded, and he pushed forward to his feet, clutching his arms to his chest protectively as the pain tore through him like shattered glass through a thin curtain. He screamed out in a hoarse cry of agony, “Harl!”
His legs couldn’t hold him, the pain had disoriented his sense of balance, and before any of the three men had even managed to get to their feet, he’d twisted weakly to his knees, then collapsed onto his back with a strangled scream that filled the room.
“Get Harl!” DarkCloud commanded tersely as he dropped down beside Johnny.
Murdoch was out the door before Scott could move. Stunned by his brother’s reaction, Scott quickly joined the doctor on the floor beside Johnny.
Johnny’s eyes were open, but they sought out neither man’s face. Instead they stared in undisguised pain toward the ceiling while he took in short, sharp puffs of air, his face pale, his hair hanging limp with perspiration.
“Johnny. Johnny, can you hear me?” Scott said, his voice heavy with concern.
Johnny blinked, rolled his eyes toward DarkCloud. “Hurts,” he managed to gasp out.
“I know it does,” DarkCloud replied, he looked at Scott, nodded. “Help me here. We gotta get some medicine in him. Then we’ll get him back to bed.”
Scott tried to reach over, grasp Johnny’s arm, but once again his brother pulled it in tightly.
“Johnny!” DarkCloud snapped in frustration. “Quit fighting me!”
“No,” he shook his head weakly. “Harl…” Then in a movement of pain-filled hesitancy, Johnny slowly balled himself up tightly.
It was then that Scott saw a small stain of blood seeping through the bandaging on Johnny’s back.
“Damn,” DarkCloud swore.
Harley was busily engaged in the enjoyable task of polishing off a double order of steak and eggs. He’d missed breakfast and had decided to make up for it with a vengeance. Though he was technically facing the door, his entire focus was so intent on his meal that he missed the entrance of three people until the tallest of the three called out his name in greeting.
Harley looked up, a smile immediately crossing his face. “Matthew!”
Matthew approached the table, Grace following behind with Jamie reluctantly holding her hand, his eyes already reaching out across the room toward the stairs in the corner.
“How’s he doin’?” Matthew asked.
Harley glanced at Jamie before looking back to Matthew. He gave the barest hint of a shake of his head while he replied, “Gettin’ better.”
Matthew gave a slight nod indicating that he’d understood before replying, “That’s good to hear.”
Jamie abruptly turned as he tried to pull his arm out of Grace’s gasp. “So, I can go see him then?”
Harley started to rise from his chair just as Matthew put a restraining hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Jamie,” Harley said as he looked quickly from Matthew to Grace, then back to Jamie. He gave a shake of his head. “Johnny’s not up to company yet. He’s—” Harley’s eyes flicked to Matthew for a second. “He’s—”
“Resting,” Grace cut in firmly.
Jamie’s expression grew sourly suspicious. “It’s been a week!” he grumbled. “How much rest does he need?!”
“Jamie!” Grace admonished sharply.
Jamie twisted away and crossed his arms. “Johnny would want to see me if he knew I was here! He’s my friend!”
“Sure he is!” Harley stood up and put one large hand on the boy’s back while he pulled out a chair with the other. Then as he firmly guided Jamie into the chair, he called out toward the bar. “A sarsaparilla for my young friend here, Rosti!” Then he looked at Matthew and Grace. “And you?”
“Same for me,” Grace cut in, then raised an eyebrow at Matthew.
Matthew returned the look before answering. “A beer.”
“Matthew,” Grace admonished.
“Grace, it’s almost noon,” Matthew replied with a sigh.
“Have it your way,” she replied as she crossed to an empty chair near Jamie and sat down.
Harley grinned at Matthew, then turned back to Rosti. “Make that two sarsaparillas and a beer, and get me a refill, too, would you?”
“Sure thing,” Rosti called back.
“Have a seat,” Harley said indicating the last chair as he settled back into his own. “Do you want anything to eat? I was just havin’ a bit of somethin’ myself.”
Matthew looked at Grace. “Anything?”
Grace shook her head. “We’re supposed to be over to the Ramirez’s for lunch.”
Rosti suddenly appeared, sat mugs down in front of Grace and Jamie, then exchanged Harley’s empty mug for a fresh one. “Sarsaparilla,” he announced. “And I’ll be back with your beer,” he nodded to Matthew.
“Sarsaparilla?” Matthew asked Harley, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
“See?” Grace sniffed. “Obviously Mr. Harley is a man of self-discipline and restraint.”
Harley grinned, raised his glass. “Don’t know ‘bout that, Miss Grace. I am, however, a man married to a woman of strong convictions. But even more important, I have a friend upstairs who needs me with all my faculties intact—what little they may be.”
Matthew laughed; Jamie looked confused.
“What are you talkin’ about?” Jamie asked, then his expression turned into a suspicious frown. “Does it have anything to do with Johnny dyin’?”
Harley and Matthew looked at each other in shock.
“He’s not dyin’,” Harley quickly declared.
But Jamie heard a note of hesitancy in the blacksmith’s voice. “Then how come you’re all actin’ like you’re doin’?” Jamie demanded, bitterness in his voice. “Johnny’s my best friend and I gotta see him. I gotta thank him!”
Harley bit his lip while he glanced at Matthew sadly. Matthew gave a sigh accompanied by a slight nod.
“Jamie,” Harley said softly as he put his palm over the small boy’s hand. “Johnny’s not dyin’, but he’s not well. And we’re just trying to give him all the rest he needs right now.”
“But I wanna see him.”
“And he’ll want to see you, once he’s well enough and strong enough.”
Jamie sighed and looked down at his glass. “He’s really, really sick yet, ain’t he?”
Harley nodded, had to swallow before he could answer. “Yes, Jamie. I’m afraid he is. And it’s gonna be quite awhile before he’s back to himself. But he’s getting better. He’s got DarkCloud takin’ care of him, doesn’t he?”
Jamie looked up, gave a half smile. “I s’pose,” then he paused as he became thoughtful. “Harley?”
“Mr. Harley,” Grace corrected.
Harley gave a slight wave of his hand. “No, Harley’s quite fine. If it’s good enough for Johnny, then it’s good enough for Johnny’s best friend.”
Jamie smiled as he looked at Grace triumphantly.
“So, what is it, Jamie?” Harley asked.
“I was just thinking,” Jamie began. “You’ve known Johnny a long time, ain’t ya?”
“Well, yes,” Harley nodded hesitantly. “Quite awhile. But we lost touch the last few years.”
Jamie nodded, pursing his lips a second. “You probably know a whole buncha stories about him, then, right?”
A large smile broke through Harley’s beard, his teeth visible. “You might say that!” he laughed. “Why, I’ve seen Madrid—” Suddenly he stopped as a slightly surprised look crossed his face. He stared at Jamie’s expectant expression as if seeing him for the first time while words from a letter, a letter from a very dear friend, filtered back to him.
“You’ve seen him do what?” Jamie nearly bounced out of his seat.
Harley looked at Matthew, then Grace, before returning his attention to Jamie. “Uh—I’ve seen him do—stuff,” he finished weakly.
“What stuff?” Jamie demanded in exasperation.
Closing his eyes, Harley sighed, rubbed his hand quickly across his face. After a second he opened them again, a smile on his face. “I’ve got a good story for you, Jamie.”
“Really?” Jamie asked.
“Really,” Harley promised. He took a sip of his drink and smiled to himself. Even Madrid would approve.
“A few years back, the four of us were down in Southern California on a job—”
“Four of you?” Jamie cut in.
“Oh, uh, yes, Johnny, Cisco, me ‘n Wes.”
“What sorta job?”
Harley raised an eyebrow. “Uh, we were guarding breeding bulls—there’d been some stealin’ goin’ on.”
“Rustlin’?” Jamie cut in again, his excitement growing.
“Well, not so’s you think. This rancher had purchased a dozen special breeding bulls from Europe—and with open range laws, he was havin’ problems keepin’ some of his neighbors from runnin’ their cows in with his bulls and stealin’—uh—their seed.”
“Huh?” Jamie looked puzzled, then suddenly laughed. “You mean the other ranchers were gettin’ themselves a crop of better baby beevies!”
Laughing heartily, Harley put a hand to his forehead. “You’re one smart fella, ain’t you?”
“’Course I am,” Jamie retorted. “Why? Did someone call me dumb?”
Harley laughed again. “Gosh no! No one in their right mind would call you that!”
“Hey!” Matthew interjected. “How ‘bout we quit interrupting and let Harley finish his story.”
“I weren’t interruptin’. I was just askin’ questions,” Jamie argued.
“Mr. Harley,” Grace cut in softly. “If you please.”
Harley chortled. “Uh, where was I?”
“Them lousy sidewinders were tryin’ to steal your boss’s bull seed.”
Harley and Matthew burst out laughing; even Grace covered her mouth with her hand.
“Of course!” Harley sputtered. “How could I forget? Okay,” he swallowed another bout of laughter. “However, why we were there ain’t important.” He smiled, took another drink, seemed to find his thread. “It were gettin’ on evening. Wes and I had just made supper while Cisco took care of the horses. Johnny was making another quick check around the area. Anyway, the three of us had sat down to eat—Wes bein’ careful of checking out his spot for any ant hills, as a couple nights before he’d found himself sittin’ his saddle end on a pretty large colony who didn’t take kindly to the disruption of their affairs.”
Jamie chuckled at this news. “I bet that was funny.”
Harley smiled. “Well, we thought so. Wes didn’t do no laughin’ ‘til he’d gotten his drawers emptied out.”
Jamie laughed again.
“Anyway, he’d found himself a nice clean spot near a small grouping of boulders, just perfect to lean back against. Johnny, in the meantime, had ridden up, gotten off his horse and walked up to the fire to dish up his own plate. Now Cisco and I were sittin’ fairly near each other, as we were discussin’ some plan Cisco had for us to do after this job was done. He was always thinkin’ ahead, Cisco was.” Harley gave a small shake of his head as if to get himself back on track. “Anyway, Johnny’d just dished up his meal, and I was listenin’ to Cisco talkin’—or, well, I guess I was more eatin’ than listenin’. Anyway, I was lookin’ toward the fire, and suddenly I see Johnny just freeze—not movin’ at all. Like a statue—”
“Or a cat before it pounces!” Jamie exclaimed excitedly.
“That’s it!” Harley pointed, then looked hurt. “Hey! Am I tellin’ the story or are you?”
Jamie laughed. “You!”
“Anyhow,” Harley continued with a suppressed smile. “Anyone who knows Madrid knows when he does that—somebody was gonna be lookin’ a hell of a lot of trouble in the barrel—uh, excuse me, Miss Grace.”
With a bemused smile, Grace shook her head dismissively.
“Yes, well,” Harley sheepishly took a drink.
“What happened? What happened?! Who was he gonna kill?!” In his excitement, Jamie had stood up and was nervously shifting from foot to foot.
“Well, I’ll tell ya.” Harley smiled. “It were three of them.”
“Three of them? Three!” Jamie exclaimed wide-eyed. “Had they snuck up on you? Were they the rustlers after the bull seed? Did he get them all?”
“Jamie, calm down or I’ll have Mr. Harley stop right here,” Grace interjected.
Jamie was down and planted firmly in his seat before Grace had a chance to even finish her threat, but his eyes remained wide with expectant excitement.
“Well, you were practically right, Jamie. They had snuck up on us, or rather Wes, and Johnny did get all three, but they weren’t the rustlers.”
“Then who were they?” Jamie asked in a voice that betrayed his excitement though he was trying to act calm.
“Well, I’ll tell you how it was. See, I noticed Johnny’s posture, but Cisco hadn’t. He was still talkin’.” Harley leaned forward and winked. “Between you and me, Cisco just liked to hear himself talk.”
Jamie smiled. “Got a friend like that, too.”
“Don’t we all?” Harley chuckled and leaned back. “Anyway, Cisco’s talkin’ and I see Johnny motionless, just staring. And I follow to where he’s staring and he’s staring at Wes. And Wes, he’s fallen asleep, his food on his lap—he can fall asleep quicker than a cub in winter—and he’s totally unaware that Johnny looks ‘bout ready to fill him full of lead. Then suddenly I see it—a movement—just behind Wes’ head. It’s a snake—a baby rattler. And then I see another, just to Wes’ right shoulder. I open my mouth to scream a warning, but manage to stop it, aware that any abrupt movement on Wes’ part will only cause more trouble. I glance quickly at Johnny, but his eyes haven’t left the rattlers, though he’s just released the catch off his holster so slowly that to all appearances he hasn’t moved at all. It’s then that I realize there’s a third rattler, only Johnny probably can’t see it. It’s on Wes’ left side, down near his leg. I want to warn him, let him know there’s a third, but I’m afraid to speak. About this time Cisco’s realized something’s wrong, and he’s stopped talkin’ and turned to look. And he, too, is just staring—wide-eyed.
“I know Johnny’s gonna make a move—I can sense it. So I whisper, just loud enough for him to hear—‘Wes’ left leg’. I figure that’s all the information he needs. He doesn’t look at me, but I know he’s heard.
“I’m holding my breath, wonderin’ how he’s gonna pull it off. Cisco and I would be more dangerous than the snakes to Wes if we tried to take a shot at one of them.”
Harley paused, took a breath, smiled when he looked at Jamie, whose lips were tightly clenched between his teeth in a conscious desire to keep himself from exploding. Harley winked at Matthew, took another sip, sighed, “Well, it was unbelievable, I tell you.”
Jamie waited, his eyes growing larger. “Harley!” he finally pleaded.
“Hmmm?” Harley replied innocently. “Oh, yes. Now where was I?”
“The snakes!” Jamie cried, then leaned forward, banging his head on the table in an exaggerated display of frustration.
Harley laughed. “Sorry. Enjoyin’ this too much, aren’t I?”
“At all our expenses,” Grace smiled.
“Oh, my,” Harley blushed, surprise on his face as he realized Grace was waiting for him to continue as well. He cleared his throat. “I was watchin’ his hand, knowin’ it was comin’, wantin’ to help, but knowin’ I couldn’t. And suddenly he sprang, his gun already drawn. At the same time the coffee pot that Johnny’s been holding in his left hand flew through the air to smack against the rock to Wes’ side, distractin’ the rattler. As he sprung up, he fired. Bam! Bam! Then as he touched ground once more he dived over Wes, firing again! Bam! I tell you, it was all over in a heartbeat—from beginning to end, not a second had passed! Three dead snakes—and a very awake Wes hopping around, screaming to high heaven that Johnny’d just gone loco and was trying to kill him!”
Jamie laughed, bent over and slapped the table, Matthew chuckled loudly while even Grace smiled.
“Oh, poor Wes.” Grace tried to wipe the smile off her face. “That must have been terrifying for him to wake up with guns shooting at him and then finding out he’d fallen asleep next to a nest of rattlers.”
Harley chuckled. “Yeah, he quit bein’ so worried about ant hills after that.” Then he gave another slight chuckle and leaned forward toward Jamie. “But you wanna know somethin’ even funnier?”
Jamie nodded quickly, clasped his hands and straightened up expectantly.
“Johnny, well, he got quite a kick out of it, you gotta understand. Especially after all the screamin’ Wes initially done, yellin’ that Johnny had gone loco and all. Well, Johnny, he finds himself one of these rattles—you know—for little babies, and he keeps it hidden in his saddlebag, but every once and awhile, he’d rig it up to shake. Like when we’ve got camp somewhere, and Wes has gone out to use nature’s facilities, and he’ll tie a string to it and loop it over some branch and give it a few shakes, so’s it sounds like a rattler. Poor ol’ Wes’d come dashin’ out of the brush, his pants around his legs, screamin’ about rattlers, and we’d all act nonchalant, like we didn’t hear a thing. Johnny musta played that trick a dozen different times in different ways, ‘til poor Wes was startin’ to dream about rattlers comin’ after him. As far as I know, he never found out we were yanking him, but then Johnny just quit. I think he started feeling guilty when poor Wes began hearin’ rattlers even when we weren’t playin’ him.”
Jamie nodded. “Probably a good thing. Wes woulda probably felt bad if’n he found out.”
Harley nodded. “I think you’re right.”
Jamie sighed, rested his chin on his hands. “Sure wish I coulda seen Johnny though.”
Harley sucked in a deep breath, bit his lip thoughtfully. “Let me tell ya somethin’, Jamie.” He paused, seemed to fight with himself for the right to continue. “I got a million stories about Madrid. But the best one happened a week ago. Remember that. You saw the real thing—not a story gussied up by someone else. You saw Johnny Madrid, in action, at his best. You’re a great kid, Jamie, and Johnny’s mighty fond of you. He wants you to grow up to be someone he could be proud of having saved.”
Harley had barely finished his sentence when he heard a rush of footsteps and the loud, gruff voice of Murdoch Lancer urgently calling to him. Harley looked up to see the elder Lancer hurrying down the stairs, his face lined with anxious worry. With barely an acknowledgement to the others at the table, Murdoch hastened to the table.
Harley was out of his chair and headed for the stairs before Murdoch had finished uttering the one word, “Johnny.”
Jamie walked out on to the boardwalk in front of Calientes’ store, vigorously sucking on a piece of rock candy on a stick. After having lunch with the Ramirez family, his brother and sister had stopped in for a few supplies before heading for home, and Jamie had been allowed the rare treat. He knew part of the reason he’d been given the candy was to mollify his curiosity and disappointment about not seeing his friend; and though he resented being bribed, he wasn’t above accepting the compensation.
He was busy hopping up and down off the boardwalk when he noticed someone come out of Rosti’s. Immediately, he recognized Scott Lancer.
He watched as the tall, blond man stepped to the end of the walk, stretched both arms out and leaned forward to wrap both his hands around one of the posts like he wanted to strangle it. He then lowered his head between his outstretched arms and just stood there, unmoving. Even Jamie could see it wasn’t the posture of someone having a good time.
For a couple of seconds, Jamie waited expectantly. Then he cautiously looked up at the sky and down both sides of the street. He’d long since determined that an earthquake, or at least a thunderbolt, would portent the passing of someone such as Johnny Madrid; and since neither had occurred, Jamie decided that Scott’s behavior, while unsettling, had not spelled doom.
Relieved, Jamie jumped on his pretend horse, gave it a slap on its imaginary rump and rode across the street. Once he’d reached Rosti’s, he dismounted, twirled the invisible reins around the hitching post and stepped up next to Scott.
“Wanna lick?” he asked, holding out his stick of rock candy.
Scott jerked upright, studied Jamie with surprise as if he hadn’t heard Jamie approach, which Jamie thought odd, as his horse was rather a noisy animal. But he took it in stride and continued to hold out the candy.
With a shake of his head, Scott smiled. “No, thank you.”
“How ‘bout this piece that broke off,” Jamie said as he dug into his pocket.
Scott’s smile widened and he made a slight wave with his hand. “No, really. You keep it. I’m not much in the mood for candy.”
“Really?” Jamie asked, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. Then he frowned. “You got a belly-ache?”
Scott chuckled softly then ran the back of his hand against his mouth as he sighed. “Yeah, guess I sorta do.” He took a couple steps and sat down on the edge of the porch, indicating Jamie to join him. “So, what have you been up to today?”
Jamie dropped down beside Scott, stuffed the broken piece of candy in his mouth, sucked on it a couple times before working it to his cheek. “Came into town to have lunch with Zito and his family. I had wanted to see Johnny, though.”
Scott’s reaction was the same as the others. Disturbing silence and averted eyes.
Jamie pulled a face. He wished grown-ups didn’t get that look. That was one of the things he liked about Johnny. Johnny never treated him like he was just some little kid. He treated him like an equal.
“Probably be best to wait a few more days,” Scott replied carefully, his gaze on the stores across the street.
“That’s what Harley told me,” Jamie sighed and rolled the candy around in his mouth, enjoying the sound of it smacking against his teeth.
“Well, Harley’s right,” Scott replied, then turned to look at Jamie. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and patted it, but Jamie noticed that though Scott’s smile was genuine, his eyes were filled with unhappiness.
“I think Johnny’s gonna be okay,” Jamie said seriously.
“Me, too,” Scott replied firmly.
“Then how come there’s no smile in your eyes?”
Scott raised an eyebrow, then dropped his hand and gave a shake of his head. “You don’t miss anything, do you?”
Jamie cocked his head and grinned. “Well, I’ve missed my dinner a couple times when I’ve gone fishin’ and that sure makes my sister mad.”
Scott laughed. “Well, it’s not like you do it on purpose.”
Jamie twisted up his mouth, then leaned over closer to whisper. “Well, I did once. We were s’pose to have left-over liver.”
“Left-over liver?” Scott’s own expression conveyed his complete agreement with Jamie’s decision. Then he, too, leaned over and whispered, “I’d have made myself scarce, too.”
Jamie grinned and straightened up. “You ready to play cards yet? I got mine in the buckboard.”
Scott glanced at the door to the saloon before nodding. “Sure. Don’t see why not. I ought to have time for a game or two.”
Jamie grinned and jumped up. “Be right back.” Then he paused. “Will you watch Thunder for me?”
Scott’s cocked his head with a perplexed look. “Thunder?”
Jamie nodded toward the hitching post.
“Oh, that Thunder,” Scott grinned, quickly assessing the situation. “Of course. I’ll stay right here so he won’t get lonely.”
“Thanks.” Jamie turned and sprinted across the street to the buckboard, jumped up and rummaged around for a second before he hopped back down and dashed back to Scott, a leather pouch swinging in his hands. “Did he give you any trouble?”
“Not a speck,” Scott answered. “He’s a fine animal.”
Jamie nodded sagely. “He must like you. He’s been known to be a bit difficult for people he don’t like.”
“Well, I’d say you trained him well.”
Jamie nodded again, decided Scott Lancer was almost, though not quite, as smart as Johnny. “You got a horse?”
Scott nodded. “I have a couple at the ranch, but I mostly ride Charlemagne.”
“Charlemagne?” Jamie asked as he sat down and began to take the cards out of the pouch. “Why’d you name him that?”
Scott cocked his head. “Well, this officer I knew in the war, his horse was named Charlemagne. And that horse lived through more battles than most men—and he always took care of his rider. I greatly admired both the man and the horse, and I hoped some of the same characteristics would be present in my horse.”
“Ah,” Jamie nodded. “I named mine Thunder ‘cuz he’s kinda loud sometimes.” He grinned, shuffled awkwardly, then began to deal. “Now, it ain’t a hard game. Johnny even learned it.”
“Well,” Scott began to gather up his cards. “If Johnny learned it, then I ought to be able to.”
Twenty minutes later, Scott was losing his third hand and wondering if he were playing under the same rules as his brother had. He rather doubted it. In mock protest, he laid down his last card and shook his head. “You’re a regular card shark, Jamie! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beat you.”
“Johnny beat me a couple times,” Jamie replied, smiling. “But he had to practice quite a bit first.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You wanna play one more?”
Scott cocked his head toward the door. “I should probably be getting back up.”
Jamie nodded, looked at the stack of cards in his hands. “Scott, Johnny’s your little brother, ain’t he?”
Scott paused before answering. “Yes, yes, he is.”
Jamie sighed heavily. “I wish I had a little brother.”
Scott nodded, unsure how to respond. “You do, huh?”
“Yeah.” Jamie looked up. “I once asked Grace if I couldn’t have a little brother.”
Scott had to hide his grin. “And what’d she say?”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “She sent me to the barn to clean out stalls,” he sighed.
Scott almost choked as he held back a laugh.
“I told her I knew it wouldn’t really be my little brother, but I said she could marry Zito’s oldest brother. Jorge’s always makin’ eyes at her whenever we go to visit. Might as well just go have a weddin’ and get it over with.”
Scott seemed to consider it seriously. “Yeah, I guess that’d be the thing to do, then.”
“Yup, then they could have a kid and I could be like a big brother…do the big brother type of things, you know.”
An amused smile on his face, Scott watched as Jamie nodded dreamily to himself, leaned back and looked up at the sky. “I’d love to have a little brother. I could show him all sorts of things and keep him out of trouble and beat up anyone who made fun of him. I’d show him how to ride and shoot and play cards and fish and the best places to hide and…” he stopped, turned. “Did you show Johnny how to ride and shoot?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“How come? Wasn’t that your job?”
Scott’s smile seemed to tighten as sadness crept back into his eyes. “It would have been, I guess. But it was different for Johnny and me. We—I didn’t even know I had a brother until a couple years ago.”
“Oh,” Jamie replied slowly, a frown appearing. “That hardly seems fair.”
A dark look passed quickly across Scott’s face before he nodded solemnly. “No, it wasn’t.”
“Guess he kinda knew how to ride and shoot already,” Jamie said thoughtfully, then cocked his head. “But how ‘bout the other things? How ‘bout fishin’?”
“Well, we did try that, but let’s just say I think it was too late to teach Johnny the patience required to make a good fisherman.”
Jamie seemed to consider that information, screwed his face up thoughtfully, then gave his candy another loud suck. “You ever have to beat someone up for pickin’ on him?”
“Not many people are liable to pick on Johnny,” Scott replied, a bit of a grin appearing on his face.
“No, I don’t s’pose so,” Jamie laughed slightly. “You ever have to protect him, though?”
Scott raised an eyebrow, leaned his head back. “Protect him,” he echoed softly, then sighed. “Well, I guess I try. But it’s sometimes hard to protect someone when they never ask for help—never let you know when you’re needed.”
“He’d rather do the protectin’, huh?” Jamie said.
Scott looked down, nodded. “Yeah, I guess he’d rather do the protecting.”
Jamie glanced down at his feet, scuffled them through the dirt, then gave the stick candy a healthy and loud draw. “Well, then I guess that’s what you can teach him.” Jamie looked at Scott, his expressive, youthful face serious. “He needs to learn how to ask for help. Or it’s mighty hard gettin’ through life, you know.”
Scott’s brows raised in wonder at the simple words, while Jamie suddenly smiled and began to gather up his cards.
“I’ll play you when we come into town again, okay?”
Scott cocked his head to the side. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
The next few hours passed uneventfully. Harley had quickly been apprised of Johnny’s condition and of DarkCloud’s hope that the savage coughing spell had loosened the phlegm from his lungs and that they were now past the most dangerous moment in Johnny’s battle against pneumonia.
As night drew near, DarkCloud cautiously wondered what was going to happen when Johnny came around again. He had made the decision to use smaller dosages spaced closer together as that seemed to give him the most control of the situation.
It wasn’t long before Scott began pacing, his nerves getting the best of him. Harley, his large frame dwarfing the extra chair, sat quietly, though inwardly he wrestled with his impatience, while Murdoch, settled in the larger, padded chair, attempted to busy his thoughts with reading a journal on medical advances made during the War.
DarkCloud, for his part, stood by the window, watching the reflection of light from the setting sun giving the Diablos in the east a rosy glow among the browns and golds characteristic of early autumn. He became aware that Johnny had awoken by the sudden elevation in tension that seemed to course through the room. Immediately, he turned to see Scott, his arms tightly crossed, frozen in his steps, while Harley and Murdoch had both pushed forward to the end of their seats.
Scott and Harley intoned at the same time.
“Son,” Murdoch whispered.
DarkCloud stood in his spot by the window, waiting, watching as Johnny slowly gazed from one face to the next.
Eventually Johnny’s gaze settled on DarkCloud, and as their eyes locked, DarkCloud registered panic.
Quickly, he stepped forward. Aware that Scott was also moving toward the bed, DarkCloud put a hand out to stop him and promptly gave everyone a warning look that told them to remain where they were.
“Johnny,” he said quietly as he sat carefully on the side of the bed. “How are we doing?”
Johnny’s eyes remained locked on his with guarded suspicion. “We—feel—like—shit—,” he retorted in a throaty rasp.
DarkCloud allowed a half-smile. “Let’s get you some water.” He nodded to Murdoch who quickly filled the cup and handed it over. “Then maybe somebody would go down and bring up some of that broth I had Rosti make up.”
Harley, Scott and Murdoch all looked at each other, though when no one moved, DarkCloud glanced pointedly at each of them, his eyebrow raised expectantly.
Finally Harley made a move. “I’ll go—,”
“No—,” Johnny lifted his hand weakly, his eyes quickly darting from Harley to DarkCloud and back.
Murdoch, noticing the alarm on his son’s face, quickly stood. “I’ll go.” He gave a reassuring smile to Johnny, but was puzzled by the guarded look that came over his son’s face just before he averted his eyes. Confused, Murdoch shot Scott his own look of concern before heading out the door.
Once Murdoch had left, Scott moved up near DarkCloud, anxious to be of help. But he, too, was bothered when Johnny avoided his gaze.
DarkCloud, sensing a barely repressed undercurrent of panic, regarded Johnny intently. “Let’s help you sit up,” he suggested cautiously. “You can drink the water yourself, and it’ll make it easier to have some of that wonderful broth Rosti has cooked up for you.”
DarkCloud turned to Harley and motioned for the extra blanket that was folded at the end of the bed. Quickly Harley gathered it up, gave it to DarkCloud, who then passed it on to Scott, who was standing near the head of the bed.
“Here, Harley, hold this,” DarkCloud said as he handed over the cup of water. He was vaguely amused to see how small the cup appeared in the blacksmith’s massive grip. Then he turned and with a nod at Scott, DarkCloud put his hands once more under Johnny’s shoulders. This time he felt muscles contract as Johnny attempted to raise himself.
“Careful, now. Don’t overdo it,” DarkCloud cautioned.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, yet he said nothing as DarkCloud continued to lend his support and Scott arranged the extra blanket behind his back.
“How’s that?” Scott asked.
“Fine,” Johnny murmured, his indifferent tone and averted eyes once again causing Scott’s expression to register hurt and confusion.
“Here,” Harley held the cup of water out to Johnny.
Scott watched as Johnny shakily reached out to accept the cup, the bruises along his upper arm painfully visible.
As Johnny grasped the cup, he was dismayed to see that even though both hands were gripping it and he was using every ounce of concentration he had, his weakened muscles protested the action and were shaking uncontrollably. Determined to do it himself, Johnny brought the cup to his lips, amazed at how the simple action caused his arms and chest to ache. In the corner of his vision, he saw DarkCloud’s hand raised slightly, signaling his willingness to help at the slightest indication. But despite the shaking and throbbing, Johnny managed to drain the cup of water on his own.
DarkCloud was just taking the cup from him when the door to the room opened and Murdoch entered, a bowl in his hand.
“Good!” DarkCloud exclaimed. “Just what my patient needs.”
Murdoch closed the door and approached the bed. As he handed the bowl to DarkCloud, he tried to capture Johnny’s eyes, but his son stubbornly kept his gaze down. “I—I asked Rosti for just a small helping. Thought it might be better,” Murdoch announced, his voice sounding loud in the small room.
Scott watched as DarkCloud leaned in. “How’s the breathing? You doing okay?”
Johnny lifted his gaze up, then blinked tiredly before he nodded.
“Would you like me to help you eat?” Scott asked as he put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Dismayed, Scott felt a barely discernible flinch under his touch and though Johnny didn’t look at him, he heard his brother murmur a quiet, “No.”
Scott dropped his hand, aware that Murdoch, too, was perplexed by Johnny’s behavior.
“Here,” DarkCloud settled the bowl on Johnny’s lap. “Why don’t you try it first.” Then standing up, he motioned for Scott and Harley to follow him.
Scott shot Harley a quick look, but the blacksmith was already rising out of his chair. Reluctantly, Scott followed the doctor who came to stand in front of Murdoch.
“Mr. Lancer, I could use a new batch of vapors,” DarkCloud said. “Would you be so kind as to go down and get it for me?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow, but nodded and went over to the table to pick up the large container.
“And Scott,” DarkCloud turned. “I’m in need of some fresh bandages. You’ll find some in the back room of my shop in the corner cabinet.”
Before Scott could argue, DarkCloud turned to Harley. “And would you please,” he paused, his eyes darting around the room, coming to rest on the papers spread out on the table, “go get a pot of ink from Calientes? I’m almost out.”
“Sure,” Harley replied, though his expression conveyed his doubt about the validity of the errand.
For Johnny, DarkCloud’s stratagem to draw attention from him had been welcome and he had felt more willing to eat knowing he wasn’t being watched. With slow movements, he shifted his left hand to cradle the side of the bowl and picked up the spoon with his right. He then lifted the spoon to his lips and managed to get most of the broth into his mouth. Though it hurt to swallow, the warm broth felt good as it quickly make its way to his stomach.
He took another slow, measured spoonful, and again managed to get it into his mouth. But with the third spoonful, he noticed his hand had started shaking. Irritated, he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, tightening his grip on both the spoon and the bowl, yet when he opened his eyes, the shaking had not subsided.
In frustration, he glanced up at DarkCloud and realized that the doctor was imparting orders to the others. He tried to listen, but it was getting hard to hear with the pounding going on in his head. His back was beginning to hurt, his side was beginning to throb, his chest felt like it was on fire and his hands wouldn’t quit shaking—and then there was that relentless pounding…
God, he felt awful…
And he just wanted to be left alone…
And he didn’t want anybody looking at him…
And he wanted some more of the damn soup…
And he felt like shit…
And he was so very tired…
He closed his eyes, just as he made out DarkCloud telling Harley to go to Calientes’ store.
Before he could form the thought, his body reacted on its own. His head snapped back and he gasped out, “No.”
He saw Harley look at him, and was aware that everyone else was, too, but his eyes were locked on his friend’s. “Harl,” he rasped weakly.
Scott’s expression changed from surprise to hurt as he realized Johnny’s plea was for Harley to stay. He looked again at the blacksmith, but now Harley had eyes only for Johnny.
As Harley took a step forward, Scott fought the urge to block his way. But he had seen the look on his brother’s face, and he knew Johnny desperately wanted his old friend to stay. As he watched the blacksmith continue toward the bed, a deep feeling of frustration erupted. “Johnny?” he asked, aware that the question sounded plaintive.
Then Scott felt someone grab his arm. Glancing quickly to the side, he found Murdoch giving him a sharp look. As Scott opened his mouth to object, Murdoch shook his head and forcefully guided him out of the room and into the hall.
Once Murdoch had closed the door, Scott shook off his father’s grip and planted his feet firmly. “What is wrong—”
“Not here,” Murdoch growled throatily as he once more latched onto his eldest son’s upper arm. “Come on.”
With clenched teeth, Scott allowed himself to be herded away from the door and down the stairs.
“Outside,” Murdoch commanded grimly as he released his hold.
Squelching the urge to stomp his foot, Scott strode fiercely across the saloon and out the door.
“What the devil’s wrong with Johnny?” Scott fumed once they were both outside on the porch.
Expecting the same frustrated, combative reaction from his father that he was feeling, Scott was surprised instead to see only confusion and sadness.
Murdoch glanced away and sighed. “I don’t know, Scott. I don’t know.” He shook his head. “But it’s apparent we’re making him uncomfortable.” He turned back to his son. “I know you expected him to behave differently, but let’s give him a chance to catch up. He’s been through a lot—and he’s still under a lot of medication. It might take a few days until he’s back to his old self.”
“His old self?” Scott echoed pointedly.
Murdoch looked at him sharply. “You know what I meant.”
“I know what you meant—but I’m afraid of what you said,” Scott retorted.
Murdoch shook his head. “We’re here now. Give him some time.” He paused and nodded across the street. “Go get the bandages DarkCloud asked for.”
“He has plenty—”
“Go get them anyway,” Murdoch countered sharply, then added, “And I’m going to get a new batch of those obnoxious vapors.”
Scott gave his father a faint smile and sighed. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “While I’m at it, shall I go over to Calientes?”
“It’d be thoughtful of you,” Murdoch smiled back.
“Yeah, that’s me. Thoughtful,” Scott harrumphed as he turned and started across the street in the dimming light.
Murdoch was just turning to re-enter the saloon when he saw Scott pivot and call back, “You know, I could have helped Johnny eat.”
“I know you could have. And you would have done a wonderful job, too.”
“Good.” Scott nodded with exaggerated firmness. “As long as somebody around here realizes it.”
After Murdoch and Scott had left, Harley immediately crossed the room to settle in beside Johnny. “Okay, give me that,” he said as he reached for the bowl and spoon. “Lord! The way you look, I oughta be embarrassed to be seen with ya. Skin ’n bones is all you are. What a mess,” he tisked, ignoring DarkCloud, who was watching intently. “Gotta get some meat on them bones of yours.”
“I can do it,” Johnny replied, but even in his increasingly fuzzy state, he could see in Harley’s eyes that his old friend saw right through his words—and it strangely comforted him. With Harley, he didn’t have to pretend, didn’t have to do anything. No part to play, no expectations. He could just be who he was, and it would be okay.
“Course you could,” Harley retorted as he spooned some of the broth into Johnny’s mouth. “But then I’d probably have a mess to clean up.”
Johnny managed a wry grin, lifting his arm weakly in a mock protest. But as his arm came into view, the bruises from the injections once more in the open, he stopped and jerked his arm back in toward his body in a reflexive action.
Harley saw the movement and understood, but made no comment. Instead he continued to quietly and slowly spoon the broth into Johnny, all the while carrying on a one-sided conversation. “You know, Jamie and Matthew were by just recent. Jamie was asking when he could take you on in a game. Seems he’s anxious to make some money.”
Johnny dropped his eyes and followed the spoon as it made another trip to his mouth, both arms now crossed, his hands effectively covering the bruises.
“Jamie… ain’t been here…has he?” he asked softly.
“Hell, no!” Harley laughed loudly. “You think I’d let that little fella up here to be scared to death by some unshaven ap-par-i-tion like you? ‘Sides, I told him you were actually perfectin’ your game on me.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied with a hint of sarcasm that brought a smile to Harley’s face.
For the next few moments, all was quiet as Harley spooned another three mouthfuls of the broth into Johnny. DarkCloud, one ear on the conversation, had gone over to the table under the pretext of looking at his notes, yet he couldn’t help but watch as the large man tenderly and unhesitatingly took over the task of getting Johnny to eat.
“We’re gonna get you better, Juanito,” Harley murmured, aware that Johnny’s gaze was losing its focus and he was starting to blink more rapidly. “Gotta bit of a road to travel yet, but that old doctor of yours, he seems to know what he’s doin’. We’ll have you up and ridin’— Did I tell you I got your horse?” Harley paused to cast a quick look at DarkCloud, who although disappointed to be losing Johnny’s concentration so quickly, gave a curt nod at the broth, indicating to Harley that he deemed getting Johnny to eat the most immediate of all concerns. “I do,” Harley continued quietly, spooning another helping of the broth into Johnny’s mouth. “Damnedest thing! Showed up with some trader, he did. Brought him down with me this time. He’s over at Solero’s stable. He darn near looked in as bad a shape as you do, but he’s right as rain now. Gotta feelin’ he’ll be glad to see you. Damn fine lookin’ horse. You always did like ‘em flashy, didn’t ya? Went with the image, I s’pose…”
Johnny tried to focus on what Harley was saying, but other than one or two randomly spaced phrases, his brain had ceased being able to comprehend any meaning behind the low, warmly comforting words.
He tried to blink—hard—but it made no difference. The sensation of finishing off an entire bottle of really bad wine was the only thing he felt, which he found amusing, as under normal circumstances, he was actually a light drinker. Reveles had been, too. That’s why he was still alive—or—or had been alive until I killed him…
Johnny shook his head.
He was disconcerted to notice that his eyes couldn’t seem to keep up with the movement. Not a good sign.
He felt the spoon push between his lips, bringing the warm broth into his mouth…but he found it had lost its flavor and he had a hard time swallowing it down.
He shook his head again…or tried to. He wasn’t sure what the true movement was that he had accomplished, but now the room slowly kept spinning, though he was sure he’d quit moving his head. Things were not improving.
He felt like he’d drunk way too much and he didn’t like the feeling. Reveles could list all the gunfighters who had taken to drinking and gotten themselves killed, shot in the back by some punk or head-line grabbing sheriff with the hopes of staving off retirement another year or two.
But now Reveles was dead.
But not by being drunk in some damn saloon.
No. Because you shot him down on a deserted road…
Just like you killed the others…
Johnny shook his head again.
Isham was dead, and Wes was dead, and Pardee was dead…
Everything had happened as he remembered….and…
Madrid wasn’t dead.
Would never be dead…
The legend that wouldn’t die…
He felt sick.
He wanted to throw up.
Or at least pass out and never remember a thing…
Harley looked at DarkCloud, his expression registering urgency. “I’m losing him!”
As DarkCloud stepped up, Johnny suddenly slumped forward, totally limp.
Harley caught him and gently eased him back onto the pillow.
Harley straightened up, took a deep breath and looked at the near empty bowl. “At least I got most of the food into him.”
DarkCloud nodded, then added his own sigh. “I wished we’d had him awake longer, but” he shook his head, “his body’s just wore out. He’s paying for that month of abuse.” He paused to sigh once more. “Getting some food into him, letting him sleep and heal, and giving him just enough of the medications to allow that to happen, is our only course to follow right now, I guess.”
Harley nodded. “Next time I’ll try to get him up some.” He paused, then looked away. “I can tell he’s still runnin’ that fever, but I done saw what it was like when….you know…that other time…and it weren’t good. You’re right. He can’t go through that again—not with them injuries he’s got.”
“I know,” DarkCloud agreed grimly. “That’s why we need to take it slow. But I think I’m going to have to cut back a little more. At least if we want to get him up at all.”
Harley, his attention still on Johnny, added, “Johnny don’t like fussin’. Think it’d be best we don’t all hang around here gaping at him. I think we’d do better to take turns.”
DarkCloud nodded. “I’m sure you’re right. I need to be here, however.” He paused thoughtfully. “I’ll talk to Mr. Lancer and Scott. Perhaps it’d be best if everyone took a couple of hours sitting with me.”
Harley finally turned his gaze away and looked at the doctor. “How ‘bout you? You ain’t hardly left here since this all happened. Hell! From what I hear, you ain’t hardly left Johnny’s side since he got back from Salinas.”
DarkCloud shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Well, I’d say you’re wearin’ yourself thin too, DarkCloud,” Harley argued, then he tempered his words with a smile. “But it’s kinda easy to get caught up with him, ain’t it?”
DarkCloud gave a soft snort, “Yeah, you could say that.”
Johnny felt shock, his eyes riveted to the black, formal folder with the gold Pinkerton seal.
“Who are you, Johnny?”
He looked up…
…into the cold, condemning eyes of his father…
“I would have thought by now, you could have gotten rid of Madrid.”
And then his father reached back down into the drawer and drew out another object. He dropped it heavily onto the table.
The gun. His modified weapon. Death, encased in cold metal, waiting to be released. It had saved and it had killed…
He had no words, shame forced him speechless as he glanced back up.
But Murdoch’s expression had become even more rigid.
“You just couldn’t let it go, could you? Deep down, you still want to be Madrid. Admit it. Admit it. Then leave.”
He tried to find a response, denial, excuses, regret… But nothing would come.
And then a heaviness….
Cold….thick fog…then pain…
Johnny opened his eyes. All was dark save for faint, flickering shadows.
His face felt numb and tingly, his arms ached and felt leaden, his breathing was heavy and forced…and his side hurt like hell.
And suddenly it all came back to him in a rush of vivid scenes and sounds more complete and real and lacking the veil of fog that he had felt clouding his thoughts since…well, a long time.
He heard a noise and slowly moved his head toward the sound. Murdoch, head rolled forward onto his chest, his shoulders slumped, was snoring softly, sleeping in a large padded chair.
Johnny closed his eyes; the hurt he’d seen in his father’s and brother’s eyes as they reluctantly left the room echoed back to him. He hadn’t meant to hurt them—he didn’t want to hurt them—yet—yet how could he explain to them how he felt? How could he face them after they’d seen? They knew the truth now. It was something none of them could ignore any longer.
Johnny Lancer. He’d never been Johnny Lancer. It’d all been a cruel joke, an attempt to play the Prodigal Son, only he’d known all along he’d never been worthy of the part. He was still Madrid, and always would be.
Suddenly he heard a faint creak of the floorboards and he opened his eyes once more. DarkCloud was standing between the chair and the bed, leaning forward, his hand outstretched. The doctor paused in his movement and smiled at Johnny’s open gaze.
“I thought I’d detected a change in your breathing,” he whispered softly.
“Those eagle ears of yours,” Johnny rasped.
DarkCloud straightened back up and reached for the pitcher of water. After pouring some into a cup, he leaned back down. “This’ll help,” he said as he slid his arm under Johnny’s neck.
Johnny allowed DarkCloud to hold the glass, the desire to offer a rebuke that he didn’t need anyone’s help was held in check by an even stronger desire not to awaken his father. Once finished, Johnny lay back on the pillow as DarkCloud put the cup back on the table.
“How are you feeling?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “I’ve felt better,” he replied softly.
DarkCloud nodded his head, then rubbed his chin before leaning down once more. “I’d like to get you up a bit. Maybe get you something to eat.”
Before Johnny could answer, Murdoch suddenly moved, the action causing Johnny to freeze, his breath held. DarkCloud gave him a quizzical look, but was forced to turn away as Murdoch suddenly gave a loud yawn.
“Hmmm?” Murdoch mumbled, then opened his eyes, seeing both DarkCloud and Johnny watching him. However he noticed there was a marked difference between the two looks he received. One was of greeting, and the other could only be described as wary dismay. The last look was quickly masked as his son dropped his eyes down in sudden interest in his hands.
“Uh, I’m sorry,” Murdoch straightened up in the chair. “Must have fallen asleep.”
“No problem,” DarkCloud replied. “I’ve been dozing off and on myself.”
“What time is it?” Murdoch asked, reaching for his own pocket watch.
“Just checked. About three o’clock,” DarkCloud replied.
“Hmmmm,” Murdoch nodded and rubbed his face. “Harley should be in soon.”
“Harley?” Johnny looked back up.
DarkCloud nodded. “You’re rather time consuming, Johnny,” he said with a hesitant smile. “So we’re taking turns sitting with you.”
“I don’t need no nurse-maidin’,” Johnny retorted then winced as the harsh reply seemed to tear at his throat. Automatically, he put a hand up.
“No, Johnny,” Murdoch reached out to stop the movement, but his words were immediately arrested by a sharp look from Johnny, his hand pressed against his neck.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud cut in. “Don’t touch the wound. It’s healing.” He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder to emphasize his words.
Murdoch added hesitantly, “Remember, you were creased there, in the shoot-out.”
Johnny once more looked at Murdoch, his eyes tightening. “I remember.”
Murdoch returned Johnny’s dark look evenly, but with a hint of confusion. “Scott’s been worried about you, Johnny. I’ve been worried about you.”
“I can—take—care of—myself,” Johnny replied tightly, his voice low.
DarkCloud put a warning hand out, but paused as Murdoch shook his head. “I know that,” the older man answered softly, his eyes continuing to study his son, his brows furrowed as a flicker of sadness crossed his face. “And so does Scott. But that doesn’t mean we don’t worry,” Murdoch added as he attempted to meet the hardened eyes of his son, a look that all too well reminded him of the young gunfighter who had walked into the Lancer ranch two and a half years earlier.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” Johnny retorted, pushing away from the blankets that had been supporting his back.
“Johnny,” DarkCloud warned as he saw Johnny visibly wince then pull his arm up against his body and lean forward.
Though in pain, his stare never wavered. “I—did—damn—well—by—myself,” he hissed.
“Johnny?” DarkCloud interjected, ignoring Murdoch’s cautionary look as he put a restraining arm on Johnny’s shoulder. “What the devil’s wrong with you?”
Without taking his eyes off his father, Johnny jerked his shoulder out of DarkCloud’s clasp, wincing once more from the action. “What’s wrong—with me?” Johnny echoed, his voice rising. “Why don’t you—ask him!”
The verbal reprimand caused Johnny’s voice to crack, his breath to catch painfully, ending in a sharp cough that left him hunched over, his eyes clenched tightly as he fought to remain in control.
“Damn it!” DarkCloud grabbed Johnny by both shoulders and tried to get him to lean back onto the pillows. “What the hell’s got into you?”
“I thought—you wanted—me up,” Johnny hissed through gritted teeth, his face pale and shiny with perspiration.
“Maybe it’d be best if I got Harley.” Murdoch gave DarkCloud a worried nod before he glanced once more at Johnny’s pain-wracked expression, his eyes closed, jaw clenched in an effort to once more control his breathing.
DarkCloud, hands still on Johnny’s shoulders, more from a desire to be of some support than to actually hold down his patient, gave Murdoch a quick nod that conveyed his own confusion at Johnny’s behavior.
Troubled, Murdoch turned and went out the door to the hallway where he paused to close his eyes, a chance to gather in his emotions, emotions that scared him with their intensity and confusion. He abhorred passionate emotions—the chaos and anguish they wrought. Yet the look in his son’s eyes, the words spoken… The reaction Johnny had to his being in the room…
Suddenly a horrible thought occurred to Murdoch. Perhaps Johnny had discovered the truth about the Pinkertons. Maybe that was the real reason he had left in the first place. The file—it was very thorough. Very complete. If Johnny hadn’t figured it out for sure, he must have at least suspected. The details in the report, if he’d paid any attention, given it any thought, he must have realized…
And therefore, he now knew that Murdoch was responsible for over a year more of living in Hell; that Murdoch had known where he was and had chosen not to contact him until he had needed him—and his gun.
Murdoch dropped his head and covered his face with a hand.
These thoughts weren’t going to help matters right now. They would have to be dealt with, but for now Johnny needed to get well. That was all that mattered. Later they would have to confront each other with the truth.
Murdoch took a deep breath and raised his head. Johnny needed Harley right now, and Murdoch was going to see to it that his son got what he needed. No matter what…
Harley was roused from a light sleep by a short, curt knock at his door. As he bolted to his feet he pronounced that he was up and quickly drew on his pants and shirt. He arrived at the door with neither very secured.
“My turn?” was all he said as he finished buttoning up his pants.
Murdoch didn’t reply right away. But until Harley had finished his task and looked back up, the blacksmith hadn’t noticed Murdoch’s failure to answer. It was then that he saw the odd expression on the older man’s face.
“Johnny?” Harley breathed, the one word holding all his worries, all his questions.
“No, he’s fine,” Murdoch quickly replied. “I—I came for you early.”
“Oh,” Harley gave a sigh of relief and continued buttoning his shirt. “No problem. Don’t mind at all.”
Harley glanced back up as he finished, once again noticing the other man’s expression, one heavy with distress.
“What is it?”
Murdoch opened his mouth, then shook his head. “Nothing—nothing, really. He just…” He gave another shake of his head. “I—I just think he needs you right now.”
Harley paused, his eyes searching the older man’s face. There was a feeling of sadness from the older man, which affected him, though he couldn’t actually place it on the man’s face. He worried his lip, then gave a short nod. “I’ll go right to him.”
“Thanks,” Murdoch answered simply.
“What has gotten into you?” DarkCloud demanded.
“Nothin’,” Johnny snapped, though his voice was still hoarse. “Everything’s fine.”
DarkCloud gave a sarcastic snort. “I believe we’ve been down that road already, Johnny.”
Johnny clenched his jaw and glared at DarkCloud. His eyes registering his defiance, he continued to push himself to the edge of the bed. When DarkCloud put out a hand to offer some support, he pointedly ignored the offer.
“Come on, Johnny. What’s going on? Your father and brother are here to help you and—”
“And I don’t need any help,” Johnny hissed.
“I also think I’ve heard that before,” DarkCloud retorted, his anger beginning to show. “And generally it’s followed by you ending up on the floor.”
“DarkCloud,” Johnny’s voice was icy with warning. “Get off my back.”
“I’d get off your back if you’d tell me what the hell is going on! Why you’re behaving like you are!”
Johnny’s chance to retort was cut off by the sound of the door opening.
“Johnny—” Harley’s greeting was arrested immediately, brought up short by the battle-ready atmosphere weighting the room. “Okay…” he drawled slowly as he quickly assessed the situation.
“Harl,” Johnny greeted softly, then bowed his head.
“Perhaps you can get him to tell you what’s going on!” DarkCloud fumed, hands on hips.
Harley gave a slow blink and shifted his focus back to Johnny. “I think,” he began carefully, “you’ve got Johnny up and awake and instead of arguing about whatever it is that’s got you two cocks in a corner, let’s get him up and something in his belly.”
DarkCloud sucked in a deep breath, looked from the large man, his bearded face hiding all but his raised eyebrows, then at Johnny. “I’ll go get some more vapor and see what’s in the kitchen to eat,” he stated flatly. DarkCloud picked up the large clay pot, giving Harley a pointed look as he walked around the large man, then left the room.
“So,” Harley grumbled as he walked up to the bed and looked down at Johnny hunched miserably over, his bare feet resting on the floor. “Looks like you’re back to your old tricks of making life difficult for your friends.”
“Harley.” Johnny looked up, his expression sour.
“Don’t ‘Harley’ me. I know you too well.”
Johnny blinked and dropped his eyes. “Yes, you do,” he replied, his voice barely above a whisper.
“So how ‘bout you quit actin’ like a jackass and mind your manners?”
“Mules. Jackasses,” Johnny sighed.
Johnny shook his head, then nodded toward where the clay pot had been sitting. “What was that?”
“That stuff DarkCloud just left with?” Harley asked.
“A vapor concoction to help you breathe better,” Harley answered. “DarkCloud’s been worried about you comin’ down with pneumonia. He had this vapor made up. Smells awful.”
“I can’t smell anything,” Johnny said, his voice cracking.
Harley grinned, picked up the cup, filled it with water then handed it to Johnny. “That’s ‘cuz you’ve been breathin’ it for a couple days non-stop. To the rest of us…” Harley gave a loud groan. “Believe me when I say, it had better damn well make you better.”
Harley waited as Johnny drank down the water and handed back the empty cup. After setting it back on the small table, Harley turned to regard Johnny’s weary form. With a wry smile, he held out his large hand. “Let’s get you up.”
Johnny tilted his head back, closed his eyes and responded in a ragged, raspy breath, “Why?”
Harley raised an eyebrow. “’Cuz we’re trying to get you healthy.”
Without opening his eyes, Johnny once again lowered his head, a wretched sigh escaping. “What for?”
Harley frowned. “What d’ya mean?”
Without looking up, Johnny shook his head. “Harl?”
Another sigh escaped. “I’m alive.”
Harley let a crooked grin cross his bearded face. “Yeah, I noticed.”
Johnny gave a careful swallow, his left hand reaching toward his neck. “Harl,” he looked up, his face drawn. “I hadn’t planned to.”
Harley, the smile quickly evaporating, bit his lip as he met his friend’s gaze. He found himself having to blink before he could nod. “I know, Johnny.”
“I’m alive,” Johnny repeated softly. “But a lot of people are dead.”
Harley nodded, dropped his hand to his side then sat down on the small bed beside his friend, being mindful not to jar the bed with his large size.
“I—I remember how Wes died,” Johnny spoke quietly and looked back down at his hands. “And Isham, and Reveles—”
“But you also remember having a family…a brother and a father,” Harley countered.
Johnny nodded hesitantly.
“And that’s a good thing, having a family,” Harley pressed.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Johnny replied softly.
Harley raised an eyebrow, perplexed by his friend’s reply. A sharp bang on the door turned his attention away before he could formulate a response.
Harley stood up, went to the door, and opened it part way. On seeing DarkCloud, hands full with the clay pot, a small plate and a mug, he stepped to the side, allowing the doctor to enter.
DarkCloud glanced quickly at Johnny, then motioned for Harley to take the plate out of his hands. Once relieved of the plate, the doctor walked to the table and positioned the container, the steam visibly escaping into the air. Then he brought the mug to Johnny.
“Here. I’d like you to drink this. And I put together a small tortilla with some vegetables.”
Johnny glanced up and accepted the plate without comment, however his trembling hands made it necessary for him to immediately set it down on the bed. The disgusted look that crossed his face made it clear that he was well aware of the tremors. “Let me guess,” he said ruefully as he regarded the mug which DarkCloud still held.
DarkCloud returned Johnny’s sour expression with a smile and a nod. “Still determined to get you well.”
Johnny paused before reaching out to accept the mug, careful to clasp it with both hands. He gave a small sigh before he brought it to his lips, blew softly on it, then took a sip. Immediately he jerked back, his eyes rising in anger toward DarkCloud.
“Yes, Johnny,” DarkCloud replied evenly to the glare he was receiving from the dark, blue eyes.
“Why?” Johnny hissed, his voice conveying his angry disappointment. “I thought—”
“What?” DarkCloud snapped, then pursed his lips as he paused long enough to control his anger. He felt Harley watching him and knew the blacksmith was close to intervening. “What?” DarkCloud repeated in a calmer tone. “That your decision to use the laudanum could easily be reversed?”
Though Johnny stonily met DarkCloud’s query, Harley could see that he was beginning to lose his concentration, the effects of the morphine wearing off, the fever, the pain slowly creeping back in—all too reminiscent of an earlier time. He controlled the urge to interfere, knew DarkCloud needed to get Johnny to understand what was happening. Yet the desire to help his friend, to be a buffer, was strong.
Johnny slowly dropped his gaze and lowered his arms. Then with the cup clutched tightly in one hand and resting on his leg, he carefully raised the other arm, the bruises visible. “I thought…with this…” he paused, his eyes flicking upward to meet DarkCloud. “How long’s it been?”
DarkCloud dropped his own gaze then, his posture conveying his loss of anger. Grabbing a chair, he pushed it up next to the bed and sat down, his hands clasped tightly in his lap as he learned forward. “Johnny, you must understand. The decisions you made—we made—when we didn’t think you’d…live…” his voice wavered. “There’s a price to pay. And I couldn’t just discontinue… You don’t seem to understand the severity of your wounds—”
Johnny’s quiet snort cut off DarkCloud’s words. “I understood,” he replied softly as he let his hand fall back to his lap. “That’s the reason I made the decision in the first place, remember?”
DarkCloud nodded reluctantly then glanced at Harley before turning back to Johnny. “I’ve talked to Harley. He’s told me…about the other time. You can’t be going through that and recovering. But I’ve been decreasing both medicines over the last number of days.”
Johnny looked down at the mug in his hand. Slowly he tried to raise it, but when the tremors threatened to spill the contents on his lap, he lowered it again, leaving it to rest on his leg.
“It’s going to take awhile, Johnny. As the morphine wears off, we both know the tremors are going to get worse before they get better. And we still have those wounds to be careful of.”
Johnny slowly looked back up. “I don’t like this.”
“Neither do I,” DarkCloud replied grimly, then watched as Johnny turned his gaze toward Harley, his eyes suddenly dark with pleading.
“I can’t do this again,” he said softly.
“Yes, you can,” Harley replied firmly as he took a step closer. “I’m here. DarkCloud’s here. Your family’s—”
“No!” Johnny interrupted sharply, almost spilling the tea as he jerked forward as if to stand. “No…” the word was cut off sharply as Johnny flinched from a stabbing pain that had plunged into his side and chest at the abrupt movement. His face pale, he closed his eyes and pressed his free arm in against his side, his breath coming in quick, measured puffs.
Harley sat back down on the bed and put an arm around Johnny’s shoulder while with his other he took the mug out of Johnny’s trembling hand. “Gotta watch it there, Juanito,” he murmured lightly. “We been through this before…we’ll do it again.”
There was a moment of silence before Johnny mumbled, “I don’t wanna do it again.”
Harley glanced quickly at DarkCloud, who gestured toward the tea. Harley nodded back, drew his arm up to give Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze, then leaned in. “Let’s get this tea into you. That doc of yours claims amazing things with this concoction. Then we’ll get a little food—”
“I don’t think I can eat.” Johnny opened his eyes slowly.
Harley met his friend’s tired gaze and smiled sadly. “I know it’s difficult, Juanito. But you gotta make an attempt…”
“Why?” Johnny asked softly, then turned his feverish face toward DarkCloud, the pale light from the lamp outlining the perspiration on his face and neck “Why?” he repeated, but the word lacked any belligerence or contention. Instead, it was uttered in weary defeat.
Harley could feel the tremors building under his hand, could hear the pain and exhaustion seeping into his friend’s words, and knew that the effects of recent events, increasing pain and the current medications were speaking as much as Johnny was.
“Didn’t the gunfighter finish his job?” Johnny asked, his anguish apparent.
DarkCloud nodded. “And now it’s time to let the doctor do his,” he replied softly.
Johnny bowed his head. “You don’t understand,” he murmured.
“Yes, I do,” DarkCloud replied evenly, his voice subdued. “You thought you’d made an escape from the hell you perceived your life to be—only it wasn’t that easy. You found that you weren’t quite as alone as you thought you were. That your decisions would affect others. And now you have to find a way to deal with that.”
Johnny slowly looked up, met DarkCloud’s eyes, then let his gaze turn to Harley. He sighed softly and blinked, his exhaustion becoming even more visible. Carefully, a small wince still disclosing his discomfort, he pulled his arm away from his side and held out his hand. “I guess it starts with tea.”
Harley’s grin, though small, was enough to bring a tired smile to Johnny’s face. Careful not to spill, he settled the mug in Johnny’s grasp once more.
DarkCloud watched as Johnny deliberately sipped the tea. The gunfighter’s stiff posture and his reluctance to lean toward his injured side indicated that the medication was indeed wearing off. DarkCloud hoped that before the pain and the discomfort became too intense, they’d be able to get Johnny to eat something.
After Johnny finished the tea, Harley reached over and picked up the plate. He could see that Johnny was constantly trembling now, his breathing having become tighter and faster, sharp little puffs punctuated by silence.
“Can I get you to eat some of this?” Harley asked softly.
Johnny blinked, a look of exhausted dismay at the sight of the food. He blinked again and shook his head. “I don’t think…”
“I’ll help,” Harley interrupted.
Johnny watched Harley lift the plate and pick up the fork, his brain sluggishly filling with a dense fog. He didn’t like the feeling, but was barely able to register any concern or real interest. He was tired. The ache in his side, chest and back was building, the intensity surprising him after having felt a numbing throb for so long. But now the pain was making itself known— accentuating in painful thrusts just how real it was.
He saw Harley stab a small forkful of food. He felt like protesting, pleading to be left alone, but he found his brain had forgotten where it kept its words. As the food went in his mouth, he was relieved to note that he hadn’t forgotten how to chew…but he still found it odd that he couldn’t find the storeroom of words. Suddenly he felt hot, yet wondered why he was trembling, shivering beyond control. He once again felt food put into his mouth and wished he could make Harley stop. Couldn’t his friend see that his skin was on fire?
He shivered again, forcefully this time, the muscles in his side and chest suddenly flaring in a gripping pain. He almost choked on the food in his mouth. Then he tasted cool water and felt an overwhelming desire to grab the cup and pour it over his head…anything to stop the heat that was building.
He heard Harley calling to him, but he seemed so far away. When did that happen? We must have gotten separated. That’s it…in the cave…
They hadn’t had a choice…with the men on their trail…gaining ground… The cave had been a godsend in an escape gone all wrong. But it’d been dark, no way to light a torch. They could hear the men…had needed to pull back further into the cavern…
Then Harley had slipped, fallen into a hole…
He’d lost his grip…hadn’t meant to…had tried to keep a hold…
“Stay put, Harley. I’ll get you out. I promise. Just hold on.”
Harley had only managed to get a few bites into Johnny before he could see that he was losing his friend to the pull of the pain and the need for more medicine. When Johnny suddenly choked, DarkCloud had jumped up, grabbed a cup of water and given it to Harley. As the blacksmith guided the cup to his friend’s mouth, he could tell that Johnny was no longer aware of his surroundings. Though his eyes were open, they had lost all focus.
Harley could hear DarkCloud getting another dose of morphine ready. After setting the plate and cup on the side table, Harley kept a supporting hand behind Johnny’s back as DarkCloud came forward.
With a grim nod and pursed lips, Harley moved slightly to allow the doctor access to Johnny’s shoulder. As DarkCloud knelt down to administer the medication, Harley felt Johnny tremble again and groan softly, “Stay put, Harley. I’ll get you out. I promise. Just hold on.”
Harley tightened his grip and closed his eyes. “I will, Juanito. You’ll make it back. I know.”
“Here he is, Sir.”
James Wakeman opened his eyes. His father’s face—or rather the Judge’s face—studied him with measured disappointment from the doorway of the hotel room where he’d been ‘confined’. Sheriff Mackey, Salinas’ head lawman, stood respectfully off to the side.
James sat up, gingerly lowered his feet to the floor, mindful of the injury to his thigh. He tried to meet his father’s eyes, but was unable to.
“Am I to be allowed to talk to…my son…privately?”
James heard the hesitation, the clearly accented disdain in the phrase ‘my son,’ and kept his gaze fixed on his hands.
“Of course, Sir. How much time do you need?”
James didn’t need to look up to know his father was giving the sheriff the appreciative, yet solicitous look he often used on those he wanted to manipulate, without them being aware of it.
“Just a couple of minutes. Five or ten at the most,” the Judge answered thoughtfully. “I’d like to apprize him,” and here he paused to sigh heavily with just a touch of sadness, “that I’ve found a lawyer for him who should be arriving tomorrow. I’d like to make sure he’s doing okay, though it appears you have taken good care of him. And for that, I would personally like to thank you, Sheriff.”
James glanced furtively up, noticed the sheriff smiling at the compliment. “I had the doctor attend to him and the other two men as soon as they arrived. And I see no reason to keep these men locked up, not with them being injured and all.”
The Judge nodded, smiled. Then the sheriff gave a last look around the room and headed out the door.
The Judge watched his retreat. Once the door had closed, he turned a sour eye on his son. “Well, you managed to really do it this time, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Oh, please! If I hear that wretched excuse pass through your lips one more time, I think I’ll save myself a hell of a lot of trouble and shoot you myself!”
The Judge glared, walked to the bed, and smacked his hand against the bedpost. “Good Lord! How is it you can continually mess up my plans?”
“I had a good gun! You know I had a good gun!” James argued, rising with difficulty.
“If he’d been such a good gun,” the Judge glowered, his voice tight and low, “Madrid would be dead now, wouldn’t he? And you wouldn’t be looking at changing your permanent address to a prison cell.”
“There are—some pieces of information I gathered while I was down there that might still be useful.”
The Judge’s eyes narrowed and he gave James a look of contemptible disbelief. “Somehow, I hardly think you’re capable of providing me with any really useful and reliable information.”
“You might be surprised.”
“Don’t toy with me, James. If you’ve got anything at all which might help this situation, if I were you, I wouldn’t spend the few minutes you have playing games.”
James bit his lip, lowered his eyes. “I was right, you know…about Madrid being hurt.” At the Judge’s skeptical look, he quickly added. “And not only was he hurt, he was practically living on laudanum.”
“Oh, that helps your case!” the Judge cut in. “You, your hired gun, and six other men lost a gunfight to one injured, heavily-drugged man.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then I guess you’d better explain it,” the Judge spat sarcastically.
“Yes, he out-maneuvered Kincaid, but in the shoot-out that followed, we injured him again. He’s now—”
“That’s what I heard from your man who came up earlier,” the Judge laughed derisively. “Said Madrid was hit with a slug to the chest. Now that’s one resurrection I’d like you to explain.”
“It’s true,” James argued. At the Judge’s look of incredulity, he quickly continued. “We took him down. I thought for sure we’d killed him! But some damn medallion he was wearing came between that bullet and his heart!”
“Damn!” the Judge swore, turned away and took a deep breath before turning back. “Okay, okay. Let’s get the details…but quickly. We haven’t much time. I know all about his fooling you into giving up a hostage for that paper, only he produced just half of it.”
James nodded. “That’s when the shooting started and then that damned brother of his appeared out of nowhere.”
James’ eyes widened in surprise. “Yeah. Him. How’d you know?”
The Judge’s sour look returned. “I, unlike you, do careful research. I don’t like surprises, especially unpleasant ones.”
James worried his lower lip, hesitated. “So, you’re aware his father’s down there, too?”
The Judge nodded, a slow, contemptuous smile twitched in the corner of his mouth. “Oh, yes. Murdoch Lancer. Actually found that to be of some interest.”
“You know him?”
“More know of him. I believe we’ve run into each other once or twice up in Sacramento.”
James continued to chew on his bottom lip. He adjusted his stance in an attempt to relieve the pain in his thigh. “What’s so interesting about Murdoch Lancer?”
The Judge gave James a patronizing look. “Oh, it’s just that it has occurred to me that we actually have a lot in common.”
“How do you mean?” James asked, perplexed.
The Judge laughed in such a way that James felt as if he were part of a joke. “Don’t worry about it. I’m handling that end.”
James drew a hand across his mouth, felt perspiration beading along his upper lip. He felt a strong need to prove he knew something useful—anything to gain his father’s approval. “Madrid almost died. He’s still in pretty bad shape. That Indian doctor of theirs has him so drugged with morphine that he hasn’t been out of his room. He’s been running a fever, too. They’re worried about infection and pneumonia. Also—”
“And you found this all out, how?”
“I was in a room close to Madrid’s. I could hear them talk. And I also heard that blacksmith friend of his talking to that Indian doctor a couple times out in the hallway. Seems he is none too pleased about the Indian giving Madrid the laudanum or the morphine. From what I could gather, Madrid was a rather heavy laudanum user at one time, after he’d been shot up pretty badly a few years ago.”
The Judge took a step back, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You don’t say,” he murmured to himself. “Must have been Texas. That would fit.”
“What would fit?”
The Judge once more looked at his son. “Fits in with some facts I gathered on my own.” Then he smiled. “Does add a new and interesting element to the mix, doesn’t it?”
James tried to hide his confusion. “You mean, that he’s been in Texas?”
The Judge shook his head. “Oh, he’s been in a hell of a lot more places than just Texas. Our Johnny Madrid has left quite a trail of fascinating stories behind him.” He paused, regarded his son with some suspicion. “You’re sure of this now? He’s not been doing well and he hasn’t been out of his room, correct? And you’re positive about the morphine?”
James nodded. “In fact, according to what I heard that Indian say to Sheriff Hawkins, he mentioned that he was glad he could turn Swain over, as he’d been using some of his morphine on him, and was starting to run low.”
The Judge paced toward the window, then turned around. “Now these are the little details that could prove advantageous.”
James watched his father, pleased that he’d discovered something that his father found useful, though he couldn’t quite imagine what the Judge planned to do with the information.
Scott walked into the room, a plate filled with a stack of flapjacks in his hands. He hesitated at the sight of Harley seated near Johnny, but with true military resolve, he straightened up, assumed a pleasant expression and set the plate on the table. Johnny needs Harley, therefore I need Harley… “I ate already,” he announced. “Thought you might be hungry.”
Harley chuckled softly and lifted his large frame out of the chair. “Thanks. I am.” He stretched his arms up over his head then rubbed his hand through his beard, scratching intently as he reached his chin. “DarkCloud just went down to get more vapor. Should be back any minute.”
Scott replied dryly. “How could I be so lucky? Just in time for a fresh batch.”
Harley snorted. “Well, it seems to be doing the trick. We had him awake quite awhile during the night. And he was definitely sounding better.” He picked up a flapjack, rolled it into a cylinder, and stuffed half of it into his mouth.
Scott walked over toward the bed. “Are you sure?”
Harley mumbled around the food in his mouth. “Hmmm-mmmm. DarkCloud said things are going much better, that he’ll just keep reducing the medicine.” There was a break as the blacksmith swallowed. “Seems we gotta watch him careful, though. The pain from his wounds—the shakes—they seem to come on pretty quickly. Kinda was like that before…” Harley paused, glanced up, the flapjack rolled up between his fingers, his expression apologetic. “Sorry. Know you don’t like hearing ‘bout—”
“No,” Scott put his hand out then let it drop as if in defeat. “It’s okay. I need to know. It’s—it’s just difficult sometimes. Hard to…” He stopped, crossed his arms and turned back to study his brother lying on the bed. “To realize I don’t really understand…relate… But I want to.”
Harley paused and bit his lip, his brows knitting thoughtfully as he contemplated Scott’s resigned form standing beside his brother’s bed.
“Scott’s brother,” he murmured to himself.
“Hmmm?” Scott turned, his head cocked to the side in half-hearted interest.
Harley shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing. Just something Mary tried to tell me.”
Though Scott smiled, Harley suddenly noticed how weary he looked.
“She seems like a wonderful woman,” Scott remarked.
“She is,” Harley nodded, then looked down as he realized he still held a rolled flapjack in his hand. “She really is. Every man should be so lucky.”
Scott smiled again and nodded, then turned back to his brother.
An hour later, Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed, helping DarkCloud cut away the bandage from his brother’s upper chest. It was something Scott had managed to avoid having to do too often. Not that he didn’t want to help, that wasn’t it at all.
No, rather it was the almost debilitating feeling that would come over him at the sight of the wounds, especially the chest wound. Scenes of distant battles, the squeals of horses, the cries of men, the explosion of shells, the high-pitched whine of the cannon balls… It would all come back to him, and then…
Yes, and then…
The worst feeling of all. The scene that would replay itself over and over in his mind forever, a nightmare that never ended…
Running into the middle of that dusty street, seeing his brother look at him, the sudden recognition sparking in his eyes. Then watching the next look pass over his face, the look of acknowledgement of his own imminent death while at the same time filled with anger at the realization that Scott was included in that danger. Then the scream of, “Damn you! Not my brother!” as Johnny brutally pivoted to get off one last shot. A shot obviously meant to save Scott.
There had been no attempt on Johnny’s part to save himself. Scott had seen the truth if no one else had. There had been one man who had turned his gun that fraction of an inch toward Scott while the other two were still aimed at Johnny. But Johnny had chosen. The gunfighter had hit exactly what he’d aimed at. In that infinitesimal heartbeat that would eternally play out in Scott’s nightmares, Scott had witnessed his brother’s conscious decision to die so that he would live; to face an attack that was sure to be fatal with an action that he hoped wouldn’t be futile.
And then…the bullet, slamming into Johnny’s chest, hurtling him backwards just as Scott had managed to get within arm’s reach.
And finally, that solid yet unfathomable realization that his brother’s life was over…slipping away even as Scott clutched at the limp body.
Scott closed his eyes, a small shudder passing through his body just as DarkCloud finished cutting away the bandage.
God, Scott. You do it to yourself. You think too much. You gotta learn to be more like Johnny. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to think…to analyze everything. Sometimes you just need to move forward. Move forward and deal…try to stay ahead of the game…
Scott opened his eyes as DarkCloud thrust the small container of ointment into his hands. He then watched as the doctor first drew the old bandage out from under his brother’s back before cutting away the bandages that encircled Johnny’s upper side.
With a grim expression, Scott dipped his fingers into the container, forced his eyes to the target, and gingerly began to apply a thin layer of the ointment. He hadn’t seen the wound for a couple of days and felt a certain amount of relief at noticing an improvement. It was no longer oozing and inflamed, though the bruising was extensive and an indication that the damage which lay beneath the skin would be very real and very painful. A wound that would probably leave another permanent scar… This time a reminder of the time Johnny Madrid took on eight men in order to save a town and three hostages. And you, don’t forget. Another scar to add to the reputation of Madrid. And a memory of helplessness and devastation for Scott.
Scott closed his eyes again and laid his palm beside the wound, careful to avoid the swollen skin.
But he’s not dead. Remember that. See, you can feel the heart beating. He’s here. He’s alive. And you’re getting yourself all worked up again. Concentrate on the job at hand!
Scott opened his eyes and glared at the wound. Behind him he heard DarkCloud at the table, readying the new bandages. His eyes drifted downward toward the other wound.
Slowly, that wound, too, was improving. Keeping his brother sedated and at rest was finally bringing along some real healing. Healing that desperately needed to take place.
When do we get a chance to let the soul heal?
Scott sighed. You’d better get on with applying the ointment as DarkCloud is going to have the bandages ready and be wondering why the hell you’re just sitting there with your hand on your brother’s chest.
But it feels good. Reassuring. A feeling of hope.
Scott jerked as he felt Johnny’s chest rise sharply, a small moan escaping at the same time. Eyes wide, he lifted his gaze to stare at his brother’s face…the dark blue eyes blinking rapidly, another moan escaping….
A dark void interspersed with swirls of multi-colored lights. He tried to escape, to avoid the confusion, but couldn’t seem to move.
He could hear his heart pounding…a ceaseless echo…growing into a cold, sharp pain that plunged through his chest and spread through all corners of his body.
He wanted to cry out. But gasped as he tried to draw in the breath needed to scream.
Suddenly he realized his eyes were open, was surprised to see Scott, a deeply distressed, tragic expression on his face. He forgot he couldn’t breathe, forgot the pain, thought only of his brother as he watched him sigh and close his eyes, his tired, grim face thin and tense with worry.
Johnny grew concerned, anxious at the sheer fear and anguish displayed, never knew Scott to have looked so unwell, so burdened.
Then he saw his brother open his eyes again, his gaze traveling downward. Johnny tried to follow the movement, wondered at what was causing his brother such distress.
Then he noticed Scott’s hand, realized the palm was pressed against his own chest. And his eyes took in the knowledge of where Scott was staring. And he realized with horror that the pain and suffering his brother was feeling was being caused by him.
No, Scott! No! Don’t look! Go away! Please! You’ll see…you’ll see the truth!
He tried to draw a breath, groaned as pain once more awakened in all corners of his body.
As his brother’s eyes met his he tried to force his way through the pain, to calm his breathing, but he only managed to gasp weakly. He blinked, concentrated fully on prevailing, overcoming….
He saw Scott’s wide-eyed gaze, then saw him turn away and yell something. But Johnny wanted his attention. Wanted him to know that he had to leave. That he MUST leave. That this wasn’t the place for him.
“No,” he managed to gasp out. “Go, Scott.”
Scott turned back to his brother, his hand still pressed against Johnny’s chest. “It’s okay, Johnny. It’s okay. Relax.”
DarkCloud quickly moved up beside Scott and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny, how are you doing?” he asked, his voice rising in concern as he took in Johnny’s frantic look and pallid complexion.
Johnny jerked, flinching at the touch. He shivered then blinked, his eyes resting on DarkCloud’s face.
“Not Scott,” Johnny murmured thickly, then forced his arm up to push weakly at his brother’s hand.
Scott pulled back, surprised. “Johnny?”
Johnny shook his head, then tried to roll away, the effort causing him to gasp.
“Johnny!” DarkCloud admonished.
Johnny focused tightly on DarkCloud. “Make…him…go…” he hissed.
Scott felt his chest tighten at the cold words. He looked at DarkCloud, then back at Johnny, still leaning on his side, his fingers tightly gripping the mattress cover, his face etched in pain—pain his brother was losing the ability to control.
Suddenly Scott couldn’t stand it anymore: the waiting, the guessing, the confusion… “Why?” he exploded. “Why the hell should I?”
Johnny turned and leveled a tight glare on his brother. “Because…I…said…so,” he growled.
Scott flinched as if hit, his eyes held tight under Johnny’s icy stare. Finally he felt his strength buckle and he shifted his gaze to DarkCloud. “I’ll go get Harley,” he said thickly, then turned abruptly and headed out to the hall, slamming the door resolutely behind him.
DarkCloud turned deliberately back to Johnny, but the gunfighter’s eyes were closed, his head slumped to rest on one tight fist.
DarkCloud closed his own eyes and shook his head, his thoughts racing, confused. It’d been apparent that Johnny’s behavior had surprised his brother. It hadn’t taken much awareness to note that Scott had been totally unprepared for the attack. In fact, the expression on Scott’s face had been one of such shock, like he’d never been witness to that side of Johnny before.
But DarkCloud knew the look well, knew the voice. He’d dealt with him quite often in the last month. It was the look of the gunfighter, Madrid.
Johnny tried to lift his head, the pounding behind his eyes, the echoing in his ears, the clawing needles in his body—the pain everywhere. He had a desire to move…to escape. Then he heard his name spoken. He managed to lean his head back far enough to look at DarkCloud, but the light, the brightness of the room, hurt his eyes and he had to fight the urge to close them.
“I—don’t—want—Scott—here,” he gasped out, the words broken with strained silence that signified the fight to stay in control.
“Why, Johnny? Why?” DarkCloud demanded. “I don’t understand.” Then he shook his head. “Never mind. Not now.” He stood abruptly and went to the table, realizing that trying to reason with Johnny at this point was going to do no good; that was readily apparent. He’d miss-calculated again. Had taken too large a step in decreasing the dosage…or…or had been decreasing too quickly…or…
“Damn!” he hissed as he slapped the flat of his hand on the table. He felt like he was in the middle of a high-stakes card game, only no one had taught him the rules. “Damn!” he swore, picked up the small vial of morphine, then practically dropped it when the sound of the door opening caused him to jerk around.
“What’s up?” Harley asked as he quickly closed the door and crossed to the bed. The sight of Johnny, hunched on his side in obvious pain precluded any need he felt for an answer.
“Harl…” Johnny opened his eyes and gave a slight grimace.
“Looks like we ain’t doin’ so hot,” Harley announced as he sat down on the bed and put an arm on Johnny’s shoulder as he watched DarkCloud ready the next dosage. “The doc’ll get you taken care of. Then you can tell me what you said to your brother. He came to me lookin’ like he’d had his guts removed.”
Johnny pushed up onto his elbows. “I—don’t—want—him—here.”
Harley paused, his beard fidgeting around his face as he seemed to work through Johnny’s behavior. Finally he stood up. “You don’t? Why?”
Ignoring the question, Johnny began to haltingly slide his feet toward the side of the bed.
“That really makes no sense,” Harley continued.
“No, it doesn’t!” DarkCloud added, pushing a chair out of his way so that he could position himself directly in front of Johnny. “I thought you’d want him here. Isn’t that what you really wanted all along—when you couldn’t remember? Your family?”
“No!” Johnny snapped back, catching his breath, swallowing painfully, one hand reacting to press against the wound to his chest. He took two slow breaths then tilted his head to fix Harley with a hard look. “Get—him—to—leave.”
“I—I can’t do that, Johnny,” Harley argued, his hands raised in confusion. “Your father, your brother, they…”
“Murdoch’s still here?”
Taken aback, Harley nodded hesitantly. “Of course he is.”
“Damn,” Johnny hissed, lowered his head, lifted his hand to press against his eyes. “I thought—”
“What?” DarkCloud flung a hand toward the door. “He’d just leave?”
“Yes!” Johnny jerked his gaze back up, his eyes hard and unnaturally bright in his flushed face.
Johnny snapped his head back to Harley, his hand falling away. “You can make them go, Harl.”
Harley’s lips tightened, his eyes searching his friend’s face as he leaned down to put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I can’t.”
“Yes—yes you can, Harl,” Johnny whispered. “You understand.”
Harley sucked in his breath and dropped his eyes.
“Well, I don’t understand!” DarkCloud exclaimed. “Good Lord, Madrid. You’re making no—”
Johnny stiffened, once more turning all his attention toward the doctor, his eyes flashing. “That’s exactly why!” He reached up and clasped the bedpost, a groan escaping as he sought to pull himself to his feet.
“What? What in blazes are you talking about?” DarkCloud demanded.
Harley didn’t move, watched as Johnny shakily made his way to his legs. “Madrid,” he intoned softly, then repeated after Johnny had secured his balance, “Madrid.”
Bewildered, DarkCloud looked at Harley. “Now what are you talking about?”
Johnny continued to study Harley, then dropped his eyes as he felt DarkCloud turn toward him. “I—” he looked up, met the doctor’s confused look, blinked, tried to stay ahead of the fog, but felt it gaining ground. He steadied his grip once more. “I don’t want them to see….”
DarkCloud gave a slight shake of his head, shot Harley a quick look then turned back to Johnny. “See what?” he asked quietly. “I still don’t—”
“Madrid,” Johnny murmured, his voice catching as he quickly looked down at the floor. He licked his lips, drew in a ragged breath, then forced his hand to let go of the bedpost. As he did so, he brought his head up, his jaw tight, firm. But Harley noticed the eyes were losing focus.
Johnny took a small step forward, ready to reach out. “I don’t want—” he faltered, took another breath, shook his head. “They shouldn’t be here…see this….” He managed another step toward Harley, wavered. “I tried, Harl. I tried to bury the past. But I couldn’t….”
Harley made a quick grab, catching Johnny just as his balance gave way. Careful of the exposed wounds, Harley guided him back on to the bed.
“You’ll help, Harl,” Johnny mumbled, then winced as his body started shaking.
“I’ll help,” Harley replied.
DarkCloud looked at Harley with disbelief, further confused as the blacksmith ignored him to pointedly nod at the syringe on the table.
Harley shifted to the side as DarkCloud moved in next to the bed, one hand remaining on his friend’s arm. “I do understand, Juanito. I do.”
Twenty minutes later, DarkCloud had finished putting the supplies away, rewrapping the fresh bandages, recapping the ointment, putting away the syringe and bottles of medicine.
In the corner, Johnny was asleep, his breathing heavy yet even.
DarkCloud looked up from the items in front of him and turned to study Harley, the blacksmith’s back toward him, one massive hand resting on the window sash. On first glance, he thought Harley was looking out the window, but on closer examination, DarkCloud noticed that the crown of the man’s head rested on the windowpane, his eyes focused instead on the floor.
The big man sighed and reluctantly turned around.
“Why’d you say that?” DarkCloud asked. “About helping. You can’t—,” DarkCloud paused, searched for a different word, could find none. “You can’t just tell Mr. Lancer and Scott that you want them to leave.”
“I know,” Harley replied, his eyes still averted.
“I’ll take care of it,” Harley answered, shot a quick glance at Johnny before nodding grimly. “I’ll take care of it.”
Once downstairs, Harley paused in the saloon where he made a thorough scan of the room. No Scott. He’d stopped by his room, but only Murdoch had been in, and though Harley had found himself tempted to talk to the Lancer patriarch, he felt compelled to search out Johnny’s brother first.
As he stood indecisively in the middle of the room, Rosti appeared from the back.
“Don’t tell me. More vapor, right?”
Harley shook his head with a wry grin. “No. But it seems to be doin’ the trick. He’s definitely breathin’ easier. We just may have that problem licked.”
Rosti grinned. “That’d be a relief,” he said as he picked up a rag and began to wipe off the counter. “So, what can I get you?”
Harley put his hands on his hips, glanced once more around the room. “How ‘bout a whiskey…and Scott.”
“Scotch?” Rosti chortled. “Or d’ya mean that light-haired Lancer fella?”
Harley laughed despite himself. “Golden Boy.”
“Ah,” Still grinning at his joke, Rosti nodded toward the outer doors. “Believe he’s out on the porch.”
“Well, in that case, make it two whiskeys,” Harley said holding up the matching digits.
Rosti nodded then ducked behind the counter.
“Hey! Rosti,” Harley added, taking a step closer and leaning up against the edge of the bar. “Make that doubles.”
Rosti’s eyes appeared as he looked over the counter. “Doubles, huh? Rather early, don’t you think?”
“Early—late—sometimes the need for a double-whiskey is more important than the angle of the sun.”
Rosti gave a knowing nod and retrieved two glasses and the whiskey.
Seconds later, Harley walked out of the saloon, two filled glasses of whiskey in his hands.
Outside the door he paused as he took in Scott’s lean form slouched in one of the chairs, a cup of very black coffee resting on his chest, his head tilted back against the chair, eyes closed, legs stretched out in front of him.
Harley moved across the wooden porch, the boards creaking under his weight.
Scott opened one eye, then the other, at the sight of the blacksmith.
“Harl,” he greeted flatly, pulling his feet in and straightening up.
“Scott,” Harley nodded appropriately, then indicated the glasses. “Join me?”
“Already have a coffee,” Scott motioned toward his cup.
“Let’s give it an extra kick.” Harley reached over and poured a sizeable shot of the whiskey into the cup, filling it back to its brim, then sat down on the empty chair.
Scott looked at the liquid dubiously and gave a shake of his head.
“Hair of the dog,” Harley toasted then took a sip.
“Skin of the snake,” Scott muttered, took a sip, bit back a cough, took another sip, then sighed.
“Thought you might be catching some sleep,” Harley said.
Scott gave a soft snort. “Not likely.”
Harley looked across the street, knew he needed to respond. “Johnny…he never was a very good patient.”
That’s right. Go ahead. Remind me of the other times I wasn’t there…
Scott resisted the urge to offer a curt retort, bit his lip in order to hold the bitterness in. He knew Harley hadn’t meant it that way. It was obvious the blacksmith had been hunting him out, bearing gifts…going out of his way to open a door….
But it was hard…so hard to ask questions when you weren’t sure you wanted to hear the answers.
Harley waited, rotated the glass in his hand, took another sip. Damn this is harder than I thought. That Scott thinks too much. “He—he seems to be gettin’ better, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Scott sighed and took a swallow of his coffee. Then he abruptly stood and walked to one of the porch columns, leaned against it heavily and glared out across the street.
Harley sighed, looked down at his own drink. He took a long swallow. Shoulda gotten a triple.
As he stood up, Scott suddenly turned, his face troubled.
“Harley,” Scott hesitated, took a quick sip of his coffee, ran his fingers through his hair, then abruptly turned away and leaned back against the post. “Why’s he acting like he is?”
Harley took a deep breath. “Hard to tell, Scott. The medicine and all….”
“It’s more than the medicine,” Scott interrupted. “There’s something else. Something he’s not telling me—not explaining.” Scott uttered a low growl, seemed to thrust his shoulder against the column, like he felt the urge to knock something down, yet a full display of uncontrolled anger was held in check. Suddenly he spun around. “Damn it, Harley! All I thought about for over a month was finding my brother! Just finding him!” Scott paused, seemed to search for the confidence to go on and found it. “I was so worried…” Scott shook his head unhappily. “He’d left under strained circumstances. Even when we heard that he’d returned to his former…occupation, I felt we didn’t know the whole story. That something was missing… But I couldn’t know…all I could do was hope…hope I was right…
“But that’s the way it’s always gonna be, isn’t it? I’ll always be second-guessing. Trying to fit pieces together of a puzzle I can’t ever hope to understand—because I don’t have the whole picture, do I? There’s huge chunks missing in my version.”
Harley let his gaze drop. He’d noticed that the hasty yet thorough revelation had surprised Scott as much as it had himself. As he worked to put together an appropriate response, he heard Scott quietly clear his throat and sigh. Harley glanced up once more. Scott was still watching him, though the look of amazement that had flashed across his face at the disclosure was no longer there. Instead he looked sad and tired.
“I’m jealous of you, Harley. Jealous of the years you spent with my brother. Years that no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to have…and Johnny seems unwilling to share.”
Harley glanced back down, embarrassed. “It wasn’t all that long,” he protested. “I mean, we rode together just a coupla years.”
Scott gave a faint snort. “A couple of years,” he echoed heavily, his shoulders slumping. He ran a hand across his face, took in a deep breath, glanced heavenward. “I’ve been with Johnny over two years, yet you know him better than I do.”
“No.” Harley looked up. “That’s not true. I know Madrid better, not the man who’s your brother.”
“But Madrid’s still a part of who he is—”
“A part he’s trying to bury—to forget,” Harley countered.
“But in order to truly know Johnny—to understand my brother—I need to know Madrid,” Scott argued, his expression becoming strained. “And I’ll never get that opportunity. Not while he continues to push me away! I’ve tried every way I know how, to prove to him that he can trust me, but it just doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“I—I think it’s not so much trust as…as,” Harley paused, searching for the right words, “as he’s uncomfortable with his past. Ashamed.”
“Ashamed? God! He stayed alive!” Scott exclaimed. “Despite some pretty hefty odds, he managed to stay alive!”
“But sometimes, in staying alive, a man has to do things he’s not proud of.”
“Tell me!” Scott snapped angrily. “I was in the War. I saw what men can do. And it’s pretty damn ugly!”
“And he can’t be all that uncomfortable,” Scott continued, his anger growing. “He’s never made any big attempt to hide who he was. Hell! Sometimes he’s gone out of the way to put it out in front—to make an issue of it, even.”
“Because he still is Madrid,” Harley interrupted. “No matter how hard he tries, I think he knows that part of him will always be there, and in any uncomfortable or dangerous situation, he’s gonna revert to what he knows best. And that’s how to be Madrid.”
It was Scott’s turn to pause. Slowly he nodded. “Yeah. I know what you mean. Little things I’ve learned…or noticed after awhile.” Scott hesitated, bit his lip, sensed Harley was waiting for him to continue. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Like letting him walk first into a saloon or any large, strange room for that matter. And when riding into a new town, how he needs those few quiet seconds as he does a quick scan of the streets. Don’t know if he’s looking for faces, or…or escape routes,” Scott gave a halfhearted chuckle. “But I’ve learned that I might as well give him those few uninterrupted moments as anything I say to him will go unheard anyway. And how it’s unwise to startle him from a deep sleep…” Scott paused again, looked down. “Oh, Harley, he was so mortified the first time that happened…the look in his eyes when he realized he was holding his colt to my face. But I hadn’t meant to… Didn’t think…” Scott sighed deeply and looked back up, his expression apologetic. “It never occurred to me.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head tiredly back. “The difference in our upbringing was painfully thrust between us at that moment. But we both just looked at each other, frozen, neither able to speak.” He opened his eyes once more, looked back down. “And I should have. But I was just as embarrassed.”
Harley smiled sadly, looked at Scott. “It’ll work out,” he gently assured. “Give it just a bit more time.”
“A bit more time,” Scott echoed tiredly, then shook his head. “Good thing I can be just as stubborn.”
Harley turned and headed back into the saloon, a decision made.
A few hours later, Harley sat next to Johnny’s bed waiting. Though outwardly he managed a calm appearance, inwardly his heart was pounding heavily. Johnny was due to awaken soon and Harley had asked DarkCloud to give them a chance to talk in private.
Harley had noted that DarkCloud seemed relieved at the suggestion, expecting that the blacksmith was going to take action and get to the bottom of Johnny’s reluctance to have his family around.
Little did the good doctor suspect the action that Harley had decided to take.
Johnny gave a soft moan, opened his eyes and blinked slowly, his gaze at first fixed toward the ceiling until he had found his focus. Then he swallowed heavily, letting his eyes travel down until they found Harley’s face.
Harley smiled, reached over and patted Johnny’s shoulder. “Wanna sit up, have a drink?”
Johnny licked his lips, swallowed with difficulty and nodded.
“Good,” Harley stood up, put a hand under his friend’s shoulder and eased him into a sitting position.
As Harley filled the cup, Johnny attempted to clear his throat. “What time—?” He stopped, his voice cracking. With a nod of thanks, Johnny accepted the cup and drank down its entire contents. Then with a crooked grin, he handed it back and cleared his throat again. “What time is it? What day?”
Harley smiled and settled back down on the chair. “Late morning. It’s Saturday.”
Johnny nodded, stretched back his neck, flinched at the soreness. Instinctively his hand went up, then he flashed a crooked grin again as he caught the action. “I remember. Don’t touch.”
“Good. You are remembering,” Harley replied. “That’s a positive sign.”
Johnny gave Harley a disgruntled nod, then brought a hand up, rubbed his forehead and blinked hard in an effort to clear his thoughts.
“How you doin’?”
Johnny shook his head, looked up and moistened his lips. “Don’t like this, Harl.”
“You are gettin’ better,” Harley replied, hesitated. “I have some food here for you.” He leaned around, stretching backward to grab a plate off the table. “Some fresh bread, a bit of cheese, sliced tomatoes, a few grapes….Rosti’s been goin’ all out tryin’ to find temptin’ morsels.”
Johnny looked at the plate, decided he did feel a bit hungry. He leaned forward, reached out with his right hand, halted, drew it in next to his body and instead reached for the slice of bread with his left.
“Side botherin’ you?” Harley asked.
Johnny gave a faint nod. “I can feel it… It’s…there, but dull.” He pulled a small piece of bread off and put it in his mouth, chewed slowly.
Harley watched him, noticed he seemed to have a hard time swallowing. Without a word, he set the plate beside Johnny and quickly refilled the water cup.
Johnny accepted it, took a long drink, then rested the cup on his leg. “I seem so dry.”
“The medicine,” Harley replied.
Johnny sighed, already seemed tired.
Harley closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. He was avoiding the inevitable and knew it. He needed to get it all said; yet he dreaded the outcome.
“I’m a mess, aren’t I?”
Harley opened his eyes, studied Johnny’s bent head, the slumped shoulders. The subject had been opened. Mary would say that Providence has placed it in your lap. What more of a sign do you need?
Harley brought a hand to his mouth, rubbed his lips, an unconscious gesture to hold back the words he knew needed to be said.
He forced his hand down, clasped them tightly then leaned back in his chair. “Yes, Johnny, you are a mess. What the hell were you thinkin’?”
He watched as his words hit his friend, saw Johnny visibly stiffen, his head raising once more, a puzzled expression on the weary face.
Harley abruptly pushed out of the chair and stood with his hands on his hips. “After what we’d gone through before, how could you get yourself into this mess again?”
Johnny began to rise, faltered, regarded Harley with narrowed eyes. “I—I thought we’d discussed this up in Salinas.”
“Oh, that was a discussion, was it? And what’s this?” Harley growled as he thrust his hand in his pocket and withdrew a folded paper.
Johnny blinked, seemed not to recognize the paper. Harley quickly unfolded it and thrust it under Johnny’s nose.
After a quiet pause, Johnny looked away. “My letter.”
“Yes, your letter,” Harley answered as he held it up. “Your last words to me. You want me to read them?”
“No. I remember what I wrote.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps I should read them just in case,” Harley replied as he turned the paper around, poised to read.
“Don’t,” Johnny said softly.
Johnny looked up, forcefully glaring.
Harley, knowing his friend so well, could read the effort it was costing him.
“It’s not the same, Harl.”
“What isn’t?” Harley demanded.
“What I said…those words. That was before—”
“I would think a man’s last words would still have truth in them a week later.”
“They do!” Johnny snapped, caught his breath, his hands clenched tightly around the forgotten cup. “They do. But I didn’t…didn’t think…”
“That you’d live.”
Johnny dropped his gaze, though his posture remained rigid.
“Write ol’ Harl a letter, then go kill yourself!”
Johnny’s head snapped back up. “That’s not the way it was!”
“Oh, no? Then just how was it?”
“Wakeman had kidnapped Jamie. I had to do something. He even had Mary and Wes. You know that!”
“I know that you could have come up with a better plan than killin’ yourself if you’d a mind to. I know that you began using the laudanum before Wakeman took hostages, before things had gotten out of control. Not for the pain, like you say. But ‘cuz you felt the emptiness…like after Laura was killed—”
“Things got rough and Madrid decided to cash out!”
“Harley!” Johnny jerked unsteadily to his feet. The forgotten cup clattered to the floor, rolling a few inches before stopping, a small stain of water seeping into the rough wood.
“What? You gonna deny it, Madrid?” Harley stood unyielding, waiting, his heart pounding, threatening to escape from his chest, yet he managed to keep his eyes locked firmly with Johnny’s.
Silence engulfed the room.
Harley could see the strain Johnny was under, his unsteady stance, tight breathing, the perspiration lining his face. Vaguely he wondered if his own expression looked similar. He felt sick to his stomach, wanted so desperately to step forward, reach out, take back what he’d said.
Johnny hesitantly shook his head, closed his eyes. “No. No, I don’t deny it.”
Harley felt the breath go out of him, his chest contracting as guilt tore through his body. Seeing Johnny so resigned, the fight out of him and knowing full well that the only reason he had won was because his friend was too sick, too weak, too drugged to make an effective stand against such an unexpected attack, left Harley feeling anguished. Lord, Harley! You’re such a lily-livered coward! Go on! Finish it! You’ve gotten this far! “So, what now?”
Johnny barely looked up, wavered a second. “Huh?”
“What d’ya expect from me, now?” Harley countered. “Good ol’ Harley. He’ll come and pick up the pieces.”
“That’s right. Just expect me to come down here and pull you out of the hellhole you dug yourself into again, huh? Well, Madrid, I already been there. And I’m not sure I wanna visit it again.”
Johnny flinched as if struck, his knees sagged and he put a hand out toward the small table, almost missed, caught it, yet his eyes never left Harley’s face, seemed to bore into him with amazed disbelief.
It took everything Harley had not to back down, to retreat and apologize, as the hurt look continued.
But then Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going on, Harley?”
Harley forced himself to stand his ground and glared back. “That’s what I’m askin’ you.”
Johnny slowly shook his head. “No. The words are comin’ out of your mouth, but it ain’t you talkin’.” He paused, then added evenly as he studied Harley through hooded lashes, “You may know me, Harl, but I know you, too.”
For just a second, Harley lost his composure, and he knew then that Johnny had read his eyes, seen his true feelings.
“Why are you doing this?” Johnny asked.
“Why?” Harley echoed, clenched his fists, angry with himself for losing the upper hand he’d fought so hard to gain. Lord, you’re a stubborn one, Johnny. Always were. But that’s one of the things I like about you. “Why? ‘Cuz you have more’n an old friend from the past willing to help you this time. You got a future and a brother, Johnny. A brother! And he’s desperate to help…just wants you to let him in…let him be a part of your life!”
Johnny shook his head, started to shift backward, but the back of his legs came into contact with the bed. “No. Not this part.”
“Yes! Yes, Johnny!” Harley exclaimed, his index finger jabbing the air. “This part, too!”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Yes, I do. I’m asking you to accept the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
“It’s not that easy, Harl.”
“No,” Harley’s voice softened. “I don’t s’pose it will be.”
Johnny wavered, seemed totally drained. Painstakingly he lowered himself to the edge of the bed, his eyes downcast. “I—I appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, Harl. But…but, I can’t. It’s…it’s too…too….”
Johnny looked up, blinked tiredly, gave a barely perceptible nod as he looked down once more. “I don’t want Scott to see this—to see me. Not right now.” He looked back up, took in a deep breath, winced slightly, the sharp jab of pain causing a bitter expression to pass across his face. “I don’t want him here, I don’t want either of them here.”
“You’ve got a long recovery comin’, Johnny. I think you know that only too well. They should be a part of it.”
“But Scott, he—he—” Johnny shook his head, swallowed with difficulty. “Harl, Scott can’t handle—”
“Yes, he can. He’s seen and knows more’n you give him credit for. He can handle this.”
“Then maybe I can’t,” Johnny whispered. “It’s not only this or this,” he said, his expression grim as he put a hand to his side then touched his bandaged chest, “or even this,” he reluctantly held out an arm to show the bruises.
Harley bit his lip, his eyes drawn to Johnny’s trembling arm.
“It’s that…I was trying so hard to leave it…to change…to become who Scott and Murdoch wanted me to be…wished I was. In those two years I had become almost…comfortable…being Johnny Lancer. I had…had begun to lose Madrid…lose that…that darkness. But now…now he’s fresh again, Harley. He’s back. And I have to admit that he was never gone. I’d been kidding myself. I can never be—” He shook his head bitterly. “It was too easy to be him again…the gunfighter.”
“That wasn’t your fault. You didn’t choose—”
Johnny shook his head, put out a hand. “No. Maybe not. But…but he’s all here now. He’s all back. And everything I had tried to forget, to leave behind…it’s all returned.” He paused, took a ragged breath, blinked away a spasm of pain. “Do you know why I left Lancer?”
Harley shook his head. “No. No one does. Your father and brother…they’ve wondered…worried….”
Johnny glanced off to the side, closed his eyes. “Harl. You remember my gun?”
“You mean your workin’ gun?”
Johnny nodded. “I wanted to get rid of it. Planned to throw it into a lake. Thought it would finally release me from the last hold of…of my old life.”
“And the bounty hunters?”
“Caught up with me on the trail. There were two of them. They wanted to take me back to Kansas. We were cutting through the mountains to San Francisco when two other men who’d joined our company jumped us—or rather the bounty hunters.” He paused to grimace sadly. “Seems they’d heard about the bounty on me and hoped to cash in on it.”
“So you didn’t kill all those men?”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Hardly.”
“Wondered,” Harley replied. “Word’s been Madrid took out four bounty hunters by himself.”
“Figures.” Johnny looked down and shook his head. “What’s four more bodies to a reputation already overflowing with death?” He sighed sadly. “Harl, all I was trying to do was find Johnny Lancer.”
“But instead you found Johnny Madrid,” Harley softly murmured.
Johnny looked up. “Do you see why I don’t want Scott here—or Murdoch?”
Harley studied his friend’s upturned face, the sunken eyes, the dark hair that had become long and unkempt, the tremors and rapidly blinking eyes that declared the use of medicine to control pain, yet brought its own price. The look was so familiar. He could almost close his eyes and imagine being back in Mexico at Cisco’s. Only that time, Johnny had lost a deep love and a sense of purpose, while this time, he’d regained a ghost he’d been trying hard to leave behind. Harley had helped him through the first time, but now…
“Yes, Johnny. I understand why you want your brother and father to leave. I do understand. But I’m not gonna ask them to. In fact, I’m the one who’s leavin’. Immediately.”
Johnny’s mouth parted in shock. He forced himself back to his feet, almost lost his balance, had to use the table once more for support. “Harl,” he swallowed, bit back a groan. “You can’t do that.”
Harley deliberately took a step backward, steeled himself to meet Johnny’s eyes. “It was a mistake comin’ down here in the first place. I shouldn’t of interfered. Mary was right.”
“No,” Johnny shook his head. “No, you’re wrong. I need you here, Harley.”
Harley shook his head. “No,” he replied firmly. “You need your father. You need your brother. This time, it’s their turn.”
“Harley. We’ve known each other a long time. We’re friends—”
“No, Johnny. No. I’m a blacksmith, and you’re the son of a rich rancher—and that’s all.”
“Listen, Johnny. It’s time to give them a chance. Don’t they deserve that much?”
“But you haven’t seen the look. When someone or something from my past…” he hesitated, swallowed tightly, shook his head again. “Harley. I can’t handle the accusations right now. Not right now.”
“Give them a chance,” Harley reiterated. “Things have changed.”
“Harley,” Johnny’s voice rose in frustration as he took another shaky step forward, one hand raised imploringly. “I feel—I constantly feel like Murdoch’s just waiting…watching…expecting me to disappoint him. That I always fall short. He gives me a look sometimes…like…like I’m cursed… tainted.” He dropped his hand, lowered his eyes. “And I am, I guess. I’m shadowed by death.” He looked back up, clenched his jaw before continuing. “Usually I can face it, Harl. I can. I’m used to it. You know I’m used to it…from others. And I’d even come to accept it from Murdoch. But I can’t. Not right now. Not while…while Madrid has such a strong hold again. Not while he’s so raw.”
“No, Johnny,” Harley replied stoically. “Now is the perfect time. It’s the time to let them see the other side of Madrid. The side I know. The side that stood up and faced injustice when others were too cowardly. The side that risked his own life not only for his friends, but also for strangers. Who took jobs that no other gun would take. Who protected people, even if they couldn’t pay. This is the perfect time for them to meet the man behind the legends told by the grateful and the infamy spread by his enemies. It’s time for you to introduce them to that side of Madrid.”
His face totally expressionless, Johnny studied Harley for a long moment. Finally, he shook his head, a slow smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. “Lord, Harley. When I do die, I want you to write my eulogy.”
Harley chuckled softly, then with a shake of his head, met his friend’s eyes. “Give it a try, Juanito. For me.”
Johnny didn’t answer. He could only watch as Harley gave a nod of farewell, turned and left.
But as the door closed, the unfamiliar panic of fear took hold, and he hugged his arms tightly against his chest, his head down. He suddenly felt ambushed, exposed like a trapped animal. And there was nowhere to turn….
Once out in the hallway, Harley drew up in surprise as a shadow moved away from the wall.
“DarkCloud,” Harley greeted, took a couple steps then nodded back toward the room. “He’s in there.”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow, smiled. “Unless you tossed him out the window, I supposed he would be.”
Harley’s brows furrowed. “What?”
DarkCloud shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t see anyone leave,” he explained, then cocked his head as he realized Harley hadn’t appreciated the joke. “Did you find out what the problem was?”
Harley nodded grimly, sighed, glanced back toward the door, then turned to face his friend’s doctor. “Yeah. Me,” he stated simply as he started to walk around the doctor, but was stopped when he felt a hand grip his upper arm. Reluctantly he turned back.
“What are you talking about?” DarkCloud asked. “You?”
Harley nodded. “Yeah, it’ll get sorted out now. I’m leaving.”
“Leaving?” DarkCloud, shocked, released his hold on Harley’s arm. “You can’t be serious. Johnny needs you now; you can’t leave. You’ve been a tremendous help—”
“No,” Harley shook his head. “He needs his father and his brother and he’s been using me to hide behind. And I’ve been a damn fool for not seeing it earlier.”
“But, Harley. Before you came, we couldn’t control him—reach him. He was volatile—”
“Scott woulda learned eventually. Just like I had to. But I took that away from him….from them both. I’m just hoping I’ve realized in time.”
“Are you sure about what you’re doing?”
Harley paused, fixed the doctor with a sharp look.” Johnny’s the best friend I ever had. And if things were different, don’t you believe for an instant that nothin’ short of a command from a burnin’ bush would keep me from his side. But things are different. So I’m leavin’.” He turned, then curtly nodded toward the door. “I’d get on in there. He weren’t lookin’ so well when I left.”
Without so much as a backward glance, Harley continued down the hall to the steps, DarkCloud watching until the top of the blacksmith’s head disappeared from view.
Then with a hiss of dismay, DarkCloud quickly strode toward Johnny’s room.
Quickly Harley pushed through the doors of the saloon and headed straight to his waiting horse. He’d seen Scott sitting at a table, seen the questioning look. He knew it would be a matter of but a moment before Johnny’s brother would wonder why he’d left the saloon in such a hurry. He could only hope to be just a little bit faster.
Harley gave the cinch on his saddle one last adjustment and was dropping the stirrup back into place when he heard footsteps.
Make that a second, dammit.
“Where are you going?”
Without turning around, Harley drew the reins into his hands and put one hand on the pummel. “I’m leavin’.”
Harley didn’t need to see Scott’s face to know the young man’s mouth was gaping in shock. “Why? Johnny’s expecting you to be here for him. He needs you. You can’t go now!”
Harley sighed heavily, slowly turned around. “I may be a simple blacksmith, but I’m not an idiot. I see what’s been happening. Johnny’s been relying on me—when he shoulda been relying on you.”
“Of course he is,” Scott argued. “You’ve been through this with him before.”
“That’s just it. I’ve been through this before. I’m the one who’s seen him at his worst—in those darkest moments.”
“And that’s exactly why he needs you! You can’t turn your back on him now.”
“Scott! Don’t you think this is killing me—tearing me up inside? I love Johnny like a brother. But he’s not my brother. He’s your brother!”
“No! Don’t make this harder for me, please, Scott. You need to go to him—help him.”
“But I don’t know what to do. And you do! You’ve been through this,” Scott protested, taking a step closer.
“But I didn’t the first time. I learned. Just as you will. Besides, this time he needs more’n a friend. He needs a brother…he needs his family. ‘Cuz I’ll tell you right now, it’s gonna get ugly. Remember that.”
Scott shook his head, dismay, concern, washing across his face. “Harl—I don’t think—”
“Scott,” Harley interrupted. “You’ve felt threatened by me, wished to know what secrets we shared. Well, I’ll tell you. We’ve been to Hell and back together. We’ve seen each other at our darkest…at our worst. The most horrible, ugly side of each other we’ve seen—and still we’ve remained friends. That’s our bond. That’s what you envy. So that’s my gift to you. It’s now your turn.”
“But he doesn’t want me around,” Scott disputed.
“Right now he doesn’t know what he wants. And even if he knew, he wouldn’t admit it. He’s hurtin’, he’s stubborn…and he’s afraid.”
“Afraid? Of what?”
“Afraid you’ll turn away. That you won’t like what you see.”
“Johnny’s my brother. No matter what, I’d never turn from him.”
“Then go back up there and prove it to him,” Harley insisted.
Scott took a deep breath, glanced upward toward the second story of the hotel and pursed his lips. “I hope you’re right,” he murmured.
“I am,” Harley replied firmly, started to turn back to his horse, then suddenly paused. He glanced once more at Scott, a frown deepening his expression as he lifted his hand from the saddle and hesitantly inserted it into his vest pocket. Slowly he withdrew a folded piece of paper.
Scott turned as he heard the sound of the paper crackling. He watched, puzzled, as the blacksmith considered it silently for a few seconds, seemingly lost in thought. Then abruptly Harley looked up, his beard twitching, as he seemed to fight through a decision. Then without warning, he thrust the note out toward Scott. “Take this.”
Scott raised an eyebrow, looked at it with suspicion. “What is it?”
“Something I think you ought to read.”
Scott cautiously accepted it, turned it over. He saw Johnny’s block printing, noticed it was addressed to Harley.
“This is to you,” Scott said glancing back up.
Harley nodded uncomfortably. “But…I think it may help you…understand…Madrid.”
“It’s the note he wrote to me when he thought,” Harley paused, vaguely nodded down the street toward the corner where the shoot-out had taken place. “You know. Before Wakeman.”
Without another word, Harley swung up into his saddle and reined his horse around. He gave Scott a quick nod. “Read it. Then get your ass up there to your brother and start fightin’.” That said, he spurred his horse forward and galloped out of town leaving Scott holding a letter from Madrid.
I’m sorry you’re getting this news like this, but really I guess there’s no other way. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Wakeman kidnapped the young boy who was responsible for saving me up in the mountains. You know me well enough to know I always repay a debt. I’m assuming that I’ll take care of Wakeman. You know I’ve outplayed his kind often enough to know what I’m doing, what I’m facing. I may be guessing at his numbers, but even if he uses Jamie as a shield, I ought to be able to take him. Once that’s done, the rest’ll fold. That’s how it always is, you know that. He may have a gun working for him now, and that may be the only real trouble, given my current condition.
I didn’t start this letter to go into details about that, though. I wanted to settle things between us. I know you were upset when I left. I know that you were disappointed that I was using the laudanum again. And you had every right to be. I had made a promise. But you don’t understand what’s been going on, what the last few weeks have been like. And I need it, Harley. It’s my ace, and Lord knows I’m gonna need one this time. You saw the shape I’m in—that I’d never be able to play this game to the end without it. I know you do, I could see it in your face.
And I don’t know why I was given another chance up in those mountains, Harl. It’s something I don’t deserve. But I can’t ignore it. I can’t waste it. And the laudanum will allow me to do my work, do what I know I need to accomplish, what I’m good at. I think it’s a test, Harl. If I can do this right, I think I’ve been given the chance to find a part of me I thought I’d lost. I know this won’t make up for everything. I haven’t enough time…or enough lives for that, but hopefully now I can meet the end with a little of the pride I used to have. Something I haven’t had for a long time.
And I know you think I shouldn’t have taken on this job. But that wasn’t an option, Harley. Try to understand. I have this hole in my head. DarkCloud tells me not to get upset—to give it time. But it doesn’t matter. I know what happened. I know what the truth is—what I’ve become. I’ve killed Reveles, I killed Isham, I killed those bounty hunters and Pardee. They’re all dead because of me. And now I’m scared. And Harl, you know I ain’t never been scared of nothing. But now I am, and the feeling never leaves. It’s inside me, eating at me.
Cisco once told me I was in danger of losing my soul. Well, it’s gone. I can feel it—the emptiness, the darkness. Somewhere in the last couple years of killing and hunting and running, I lost it. I left it among the corpses…I accepted the curse as payment for money and power.
I am sorry you found me like this. It would have been better if you’d continued to think I was dead. But in truth, I have been, Harl. The friend you knew died years ago. And it’s not your fault. You and Cisco both tried to give me other choices, other directions, but I turned away. I chose to continue my path. I blame no one but myself for what I became. So don’t you go startin’ to feel guilty. I know you, Harl. You’d do a fool thing like that. And I ain’t worth the grief.
Lastly, the kid I’m saving. It’d be a favor to me if you avoided him. I don’t mean that to sound in a bad way, Harl. But once again, I know you too well. Even if I asked you not to, you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself and you’d go filling his head with all those blame, fool tales about me. I don’t want that kid hearing any grand notions about gunfighters ‘cuz it’s gonna be bad enough him havin’ to see what I need to do. But I want him growing up like a kid oughta, Harl. You understand. I know you do.
Now I’m asking you one last favor. Destroy this letter and with it any last thoughts of me and what we used to have. Go back to your wife and child. You’re among the living. I’ve merely been a ghost for years.
By the way. You know that legend you were always kidding me about being. I can tell you now, the price was too high.
Scott looked up, blinked as if stunned to see the town around him, the sun shining. Before he’d started reading, he’d walked to one of the chairs in front of Rosti’s, sat down in the shade—a desire to be quiet and alone as he read the letter.
Now he looked back down at the creased sheet in his hand, felt compelled to reread the entire thing from beginning to end…only this time more slowly, pausing every now and then to contemplate the man who wrote it—the gunfighter Madrid, his brother.
Harley was right. It was time Scott met him.
Quickly he refolded the paper, put it in his pocket and stood up. He inhaled deeply, flexed his fingers then expelled the pent-up air in a rush of energy.
Time to mobilize the troops and attack…. And no wavering in the face of extreme obstacles, excessive danger…or Madrid.
He quickly made his way to his brother’s room, pausing outside the door to once more gather his emotions in a deep cleansing breath. He was putting his hand on the doorknob when as he heard DarkCloud’s raised voice, the doctor’s irritation clear and pronounced; Scott could easily guess with whom.
He turned the doorknob and stepped in. DarkCloud stood facing Johnny, whose arms were crossed defiantly, his eyes flashing. Yet Scott could see his brother was having difficulty remaining on his feet—despite the determination in his face.
“I need to give you a dose of the medication before the pain gets unmanageable,” DarkCloud retorted angrily. “Quit being such a mule-headed, stubborn fool.”
“No!” Johnny shook his head, hugging his arms in tighter against his body—a reaction Scott suddenly realized was less defiant than wretched, the miserable response of a person in such increasing pain that the ability to control actions and words was rapidly diminishing.
“I ought to leave you here ‘til you’re heaving your guts out!” DarkCloud snapped. “Unfortunately your insides are being held together with bandages and a prayer. Now I suppose I could go ask Father Alvarez—”
“Don’t you dare,” Johnny hissed.
“Then sit down and give me your arm!”
“Listen to DarkCloud, Johnny,” Scott interrupted as he closed the door.
From the looks he received, Scott realized neither man had been aware of his entrance.
“The medicine’s wearing off—you’re starting to hurt,” Scott continued as he walked into the center of the room.
“Brilliant, Mr. Harvard. Got any other observations you wanna dazzle us with?” Johnny mumbled sarcastically.
Scott kept his face impassive as he turned to DarkCloud. “He’s being his normal warm and cooperative self, huh?”
DarkCloud raised an eyebrow, opened his mouth to reply but was cut off when Johnny interrupted.
“What the hell you doin’ here, anyhow, Boston? I don’t want you around, or didn’t I make that clear enough earlier?”
“Oh, you made it very clear,” Scott answered evenly. “Only one problem. I don’t give a damn what you want. Now you’re gonna shut up and do as DarkCloud says.”
While Johnny blinked in surprise at Scott’s retort, he managed to hold his position, though Scott saw him waver, his hip coming into contact with the bedside table.
DarkCloud’s expression, however, was one of slack-jawed amazement.
His focus still hard and unyielding, Scott demanded, “Now, do I need to get physical, or are you going to let DarkCloud do what he needs to?”
“I don’t want it,” Johnny hissed. “I can go it alone.”
“Did you hear me ask what you want?” Scott demanded. “You need that medicine and you know it.”
“You leave first,” Johnny spat back.
“Damn it, Madrid!” Scott shot back angrily, his brother’s eyes growing wide at the use of the name. “I’m tired—tired of being treated like some sort of pansy-assed, Eastern fob with no more common sense than a schoolgirl. And I’m not gonna stand for it anymore. Now, it’s too damn late to go changing the decision you made when you began using medicine you knew you had a weakness for. It’s done! And now DarkCloud’s trying his best to remedy the situation and get you well at the same time. So you have a choice. You can either let DarkCloud give you the injection or I can do it,” Scott finished off as he stretched out his hand toward the doctor.
Scott sensed DarkCloud looking at him with surprise, but was relieved when the doctor wordlessly laid the instrument in Scott’s palm.
Disbelief registering on his face, Johnny watched the movement, his eyes unblinking, his mouth opening in protest.
“You—you don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout!” Johnny retorted, though his angry words contrasted with his buckling knees.
“Once again, Madrid, you underestimate me. I know exactly what I’m doing,” Scott snapped.
“The hell you do!”
“For your information, I spent time helping out in a field hospital during the war. Spent close to a month taking care of men with wounds far worse than yours,” Scott countered, sharply. “So if you’re trying to impress me with your pathetic circumstances, you’d better come up with something more significant.”
Scott watched his brother waver, one arm dropping to reach out toward the table as his eyes momentarily sought out DarkCloud’s before returning to glare across the few feet that separated them. Scott waited, expecting his brother to simply collapse within seconds. All the color had drained from Johnny’s face, his breathing was now harshly labored, and the simple action of reaching for the table had elicited a soft moan.
Unbelievably, Scott watched as Johnny deliberately shook his head, his jaw tightening. Scott knew he was gathering what little reserves he had for one last stand.
“Go. Away.” The words were hissed, seething with anger.
Scott took a step forward, his own eyes narrowing. “Goddammit, give me your arm before I rip it out of its socket, Madrid.”
Johnny stiffened, let go of the table as he, too, took a weak, yet belligerent step forward. “Quit callin’ me Madrid,” he hissed in a throaty growl.
“Then quit acting like him,” Scott replied in the same tone.
Johnny swallowed, met Scott’s tight gaze with his own hardened expression. “Go to Hell!”
The words had barely rasped out of Johnny’s throat before they were followed by a moan of uncontrolled pain. Scott made a grab for his brother just as his body convulsed and his eyes fluttered upward, focus gone.
With a sigh, Scott brought his brother’s limp body in against his, and for a split second he rested his cheek against the damp hair. “I have no plans to visit it any time soon, Brother,” he whispered. “And neither will you.”
“Need some help?” DarkCloud asked.
Scott gave the doctor a wry expression. “Here, take this.” He shifted Johnny’s weight so that he could hand over the syringe. “Lucky I didn’t jab myself.”
DarkCloud merely snorted his agreement as he took the syringe then moved out of the way to allow Scott access to the bed. He watched as Scott grimly laid his brother’s limp form down, one hand trailing along an arm to come to rest on the marks created by the injections. He heard another sigh, this time slow, deep and heavy. As Scott backed up, DarkCloud moved in, sat on the edge of the bed and pulled one of Johnny’s arms against his leg. In his peripheral vision, he noted that Scott turned away as he firmly grasped under Johnny’s arm and injected the morphine. Once finished, he stood back up and regarded Scott’s rigid back.
“Remind me not to piss you off.”
“Hmmm?” Scott turned around, distracted.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were familiar with the use of morphine during the war. I could have used your help.”
Scott snorted wryly and shook his head, his eyes flickered momentarily to Johnny then back to DarkCloud. “No one ever asked,” he paused. “Plus, I exaggerated a bit. It wasn’t a month, it was barely a week. And I never helped with morphine injections. I mostly filled out paperwork for a bunch of overworked doctors.” He gave a sigh and ran a hand tiredly through his hair. “My grandfather’s idea of trying to keep me out of the action.”
“Didn’t work, huh?”
Scott smiled. “I can be stubborn, too.”
“I hear it runs in the family.”
Outside the door, Murdoch stood listening, unmoving, wondering if there would ever come a time when his sons quit surprising him.
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