Journey to Visalia by Sherry

Word Count 26,198

Thank you Chris Petrone for the beta and Diana Littner for reading and making some great suggestions.

Chapter One

Whatever brought his Old Man out to the branding site couldn’t be good. Hadn’t he gone on and on at breakfast about balancing month-end accounts? And like Scott said, “Murdoch Lancer always works the books on branding day.”

“John!” His father’s loud voice carried above the noise of the horses and cattle. Then, waving his arm, Murdoch spooked at least three of the calves they had just readied for the iron. Now, you’d think after working on a ranch all these years, the man would know better. Johnny tightened Barranca’s reins and turned to face his Old Man, impatiently tapping his thigh while he watched him ride closer.

“John!” Murdoch yelled louder this time.

Hell, everyone on Lancer’s hundred thousand acres could hear him. Johnny finally threw a hand up to signal the ‘Tune Caller’ that he had heard him.

A thin fellow trailed behind Murdoch. He appeared to be at least a year or two shy of twenty, riding a bony sorrel. The kid slumped low in the saddle, probably been hitting the trail pretty hard.

Johnny watched as his Old Man bullied and weaved his way through the unbranded cattle. The stranger stuck close behind him, and it was plain to see being in tight quarters with cows made him and his mount nervous.

Riding over to them, Johnny pushed off his hat to dangle by its stampede string, and he wiped the sweat burning his eyes with his forearm. “They could hear you yelling in Green River,” Johnny grumbled, then he took a drink from his canteen and tried hard to calm his frustration. “What brings you out here?”

His father’s brows moved together; the Old Man wasn’t happy with his rudeness. But by his way of thinking, Murdoch’s angry yelling in front of the men started it. And Johnny hadn’t done anything but break his back working all morning.

“John, this is Jim Blackrock; he showed up at the house asking for you––says he has a message he can only give to Johnny Lancer.” Murdoch frowned and studied Johnny for a reaction before he backed his horse enough for the kid to move closer.

So Murdoch must think this boy meant trouble from his past. Hell, no need to act like he had done something wrong just because a stranger asked for him.

“What’s the message?” Johnny stared at the boy. Young and scared, he had dark skin, green eyes, high cheekbones––the kid probably saw it hard. “Who sent you?”

“Th-the girl, at Bella’s Place. She don’t want to be there.” The kid pulled open one side of his worn-out jacket.

Johnny’s hand went to the grip of his gun. As innocent as this one seemed, a man could never be too careful. “She have a name?” Johnny couldn’t think of any girl he knew who might end up at Bella’s other than, well, working girls. But most of them would ask for Madrid, not Lancer.

“She said to give you this.” The kid handed over a folded paper when Johnny held out his hand. It looked like part of a lady’s fan that someone had flattened out, then used for writing paper.

Johnny took it, loosened a glove with his teeth, and ignored Murdoch when he moved closer. The Old Man could be right nosey at times. Then unfolding the note, he began to read.

Johnny,

In trouble. Left Aunt Kate’s, too many rules. Bella said she’d help. I thought she was my friend until we left the stage in Visalia. She has a place here. They won’t let me go. Please, help me. I’m afraid.

M.

“John?”

Johnny folded the paper to put inside his coat pocket, but tapping the note on his thigh, he hesitated. A lot had changed this past year, enough that maybe he and the Old Man could talk about this. Handing it over, he hoped Murdoch would understand him answering her call for help.

Murdoch read it, examined the paper, and looked at Johnny. “Melissa Harper?”

“Sounds like she’s in trouble. I’d best get ready to head to Visalia.” Johnny held his hand out for the note.

“You won’t go alone. Your brother and I will go with you.” Murdoch said it as a fact.

Before Johnny could say different, the Old Man was barking orders. “George, take over here; Johnny and Scott are needed elsewhere.” Murdoch was stretching up in his stirrups and pointing. “Mateo, head to the north pasture, ask Cip to spare a couple of his men to help with branding. Tell him to hire more help if needed.”

“Blackrock.” Johnny might need to push some to find out what Melissa Harper had gotten herself into this time. “You said the girl doesn’t want to be at Bella’s place. Has she been hurt?”

“She, she is afraid.” The kid touched his heart.

With eyes that followed his slightest move, the boy reminded Johnny of an animal ready to skedaddle at the slightest threat. So, he backed Barranca a few paces to give the kid some space.

Turning aside, he watched his father dismount, probably giving George detailed instructions. Words floated over the dust and wind, “…finish by Friday… Let Cip know if you need anything… Send Scott to the house… next group in.” And George, a man of few words, nodded through most of Murdoch’s orders.

Johnny remembered a jelly biscuit he had snatched at breakfast. Sure would taste good about now, but maybe this boy needed it more than he did. Pulling it out of his saddlebag and clicking Barranca up next to the kid, Johnny handed the napkin wrapped bundle over to him. “I’m hungry. Join me.”

The jerky Johnny chewed on tasted better when he saw how eagerly Blackrock tore into the biscuit. The kid must not have had much to eat since leaving Visalia.

The offering seemed to calm the boy enough to talk. So, Johnny figured it was time to find out what he could. “How long has she been there? And how do you know her?”

“Three, maybe four days, more now. She came on the stage with Miz Bella. I work there some––sweep up and clean in the mornings.”

“So, Blackrock, why does Bella have Melissa at her place?” Johnny tried not to sound impatient.

“It’s Jimmy. You can call me, Jimmy.” Blackrock said around his mouthful of biscuit.

“All right, Jimmy.” Johnny drew his name out. Good instincts and reading people, skills that kept him alive in some tight places, kicked in. Jimmy had only told part of the story. He held something back about why Melissa had ended up at Bella’s. “We’ll head back to the hacienda, and you need to tell me everything you know.” Once again, he placed his hand on his side-arm.

Murdoch rode up, noticed right off at where his hand rested, glanced first at Jimmy and then got right to the point with Johnny. “Everything okay here, Son?”

“Fine, we’re fixing to head back. Jimmy, here was just fixing to discuss Melissa’s situation in Visalia. Ain’t that right Jimmy?” The kid paled some when Johnny asked, and his Old Man raised a brow but surprisingly didn’t call him off pushing Blackrock.

“Scott’s crew is due back anytime now.” Murdoch looked toward the west and pulled the plug on his canteen. Johnny watched him take a few sips, knowing Murdoch used the time to wait for Scott. But, after a bit, waiting didn’t make sense.

“Well, George will send him to the house. He shouldn’t be far behind us.” Another glance and his father nodded in the direction of the trail to the hacienda. “Let’s head back; we can pack supplies and get our plan together. Your brother can catch up with us.”

“She asked for me, Murdoch.” Johnny had to convince his Old Man to let him do this one on his own. He worked better that way. Besides, nothing bothered him more than worrying over the safety of this man and his brother.

“That girl almost got you and your brother killed the last time she got in trouble.” Murdoch waved his finger in his face like it was Johnny’s fault.

Well, the Old Man did have a point. Maybe that second time, when they had to chase Melissa down, and she almost died, that came down to him helping her be––how was it she said it? “Be free. Being the woman I am, good or bad. Loving the man that I love …”

Yeah, it turned out he almost got HER killed. And the man she loved was a monster. The feelings Johnny had for Melissa clouded his instincts. Never again. Since that day, he had built a wall around his heart.

“John.” Murdoch’s voice went lower, sounded worried. “Son, that girl took something from you, from us.” The Old Man rode even closer and placed his hand on Johnny’s arm. “I won’t let the problems she has with her father or her aunt harm our family. Now, if she’s in trouble, we’ll help, but we’ll do it together; you aren’t placing yourself in danger, not alone.”

Johnny nodded, letting his father know he heard. But, not wanting to meet Murdoch’s eyes. Instead, he watched a calf chasing its mama, even rifled through his saddlebags for more jerky, hoping the Old Man would ride off. But he didn’t.

Finally, he stopped avoiding his father’s eyes. Johnny needed to talk to him. The mess with Melissa and the Coopers had changed him, closed him off more than ever, and knowing his father noticed, made talking harder. He wondered why that incident still tore at his insides.

“Murdoch, I didn’t mean… back when I made the mistake of helping Melissa leave, it did change me. Rightly so.” Looking up to meet his father’s eyes, he continued, “I learned something, to quit thinking with my heart. I almost got that girl killed.” Johnny tried to think of a way to explain how he felt. Staring beyond the branding crew, hoping to see Scott ride up to help him stumble through this conversation. Not even a swirl of dust signaled his return. So he pulled his hat on and galloped off in the direction of the hacienda.

Chapter Two

Each of the men riding back to the Lancer hacienda carried heavy burdens.

Johnny Lancer knew his father worried about the ranch. Even with capable men in charge, leaving during branding season had to cause concerns, even for him. It was easy to see how troubled Murdoch felt when he caught up with him and Barranca as they made the short ride to the house.

Jimmy Blackrock had information about Melissa’s captivity. But, for some reason dreaded sharing it. Johnny had pushed the boy pretty hard, enough to let him know he had to give up what he knew. Maybe the kid was afraid of Bella’s guard dogs. She kept a hard crew, nothing Madrid couldn’t handle. But, once again, his instincts screamed that Jimmy feared a bigger enemy than Bella.

He had to come up with a plan. Worry for the Old Man and his brother would only slow him down. If he could only convince them to hang back for a day or two, he would have a little ‘Madrid’ visit with Bella that might take care of the situation without involving Scott and Murdoch.

It wouldn’t be hard to convince them of his plan. Visalia was a long distance from the ranch. So Murdoch and Scott could take the stage. He would go by horseback, taking a couple of the horses ready for the Army. Delivery wasn’t till next month, so no problem getting them back in time. Riding hard, changing mounts, he should beat the stage by maybe two days.

Hoofbeats coming up fast behind them interrupted Johnny’s planning. Scott. Slowing some as he neared, Big Brother’s face had concern written all over it. Riding first to Johnny, he looked to the Old Man.

“Everything all right? Johnny?” Firing off questions before either of them answered, his brother stared at the newcomer for a beat before continuing. “George said to catch up with you and Murdoch. Anything wrong?” Scott looked Johnny up and down, probably searching for an injury or something out of the ordinary.

Johnny pulled out the note and figured letting him read it might be the best way to slow the questions. He reckoned Big Brother got it from Murdoch or being in the Army, but sometimes Johnny felt like he’d been brought before a judge for questioning when Scott let loose.

Scott tilted his head, looked at Johnny, then at Murdoch, who’d ridden up next to them. “Melissa?”

Johnny nodded.

“So, she’s gotten in trouble again, and you’re supposed to rescue her? Send the local sheriff.”

“Scott.” Murdoch usually used that tone of voice for him.

“What?” Scott snapped. He sure didn’t like it when the Old Man called him down.

Well, now Big Brother knew how it felt.

“Johnny doesn’t owe Melissa anything. That girl is trouble, and hear me out, Johnny, she doesn’t always give you the whole truth.” Scott was making his case to him and Murdoch.

“Scott.” Johnny used his soft voice. Perhaps that’s why it stopped his brother’s words so that he could explain. “Melissa asked for my help. I plan to give it. I ain’t asking you or Murdoch to go along.”

“John, I’ve already told you we’re all going,” Murdoch said, and when he gave Scott ‘the I call the tune’ look, it was clear he didn’t expect either of his boys to question him.

But Scott couldn’t leave it be. “Murdoch, we don’t owe her or her father anything. Not anymore.” Scott dared to pull up next to their father.

“John, take Jimmy to the hacienda. Let Teresa know he will be staying for supper and overnight. Scott and I will be on shortly.”

“Sure, Murdoch.” Johnny figured it wouldn’t hurt to play nice, at least until he figured out how to put his plan in action. He nodded to Jimmy, who followed when he clicked Barranca to a steady gait toward home.

“Jimmy tell me, who’s really behind all this.” Johnny slowed Barranca, intending to push hard for details while he had this kid to himself.

The boy looked around as if trying to find his best chance of riding away. But thoughts of being lost on Lancer land must have been worse than answering questions because Jimmy settled, grabbed onto his saddle horn, and leaned forward. “This man, he would kill me. You cannot let anyone know that I tell you his name. Please.”

“Give me the name, you don’t have to go back there. Work in Green River, on the ranch, even. But, Jimmy, I need that name.”

“I-it’s Cooper, Bobby Cooper. I overheard things he said to Bella.” Jimmy looked from side to side like someone might hear them talking.

“And what did this Cooper fella say to Bella?” Johnny moved Barranca closer to Jimmy and knew his voice sounded harder than intended.

“I heard him tell her to be friends with a girl in San Francisco––to get her to come to Visalia to Bella’s Place and keep the girl with her until he could get there. He said they were in love, but Bella didn’t know his plans.” Jimmy kept looking around as if he thought the Coopers would show up any minute to kill him.

“And what were his plans?”

“Bella had left for San Francisco, and I went in to put away stock. I hear the man and his brothers drunk and laughing. This man, Bobby, says he will have his revenge after the girl gets there.”

“And has Cooper hurt the girl?”

“He and his brothers are gone from Visalia. He told them they would go back to their home and wait for Bella and the girl to return. I told all this to Bella and Melissa, so she writes you the letter. “

“Listen to me. You don’t say anything about this to my father and brother, not until breakfast tomorrow. You understand?” Johnny pointed in his face to make sure. “Then, tell them what you just told me. Let them know everything.” Jimmy nodded. And when Johnny started toward home again, he fell in behind him.

Would he ever be able to shed the skin of Madrid? Every time Johnny felt like he had settled into the life of owning and working a ranch, even enjoying the back and forth with Murdoch, someone or something brought Johnny Madrid to life––or perhaps closer to his death.

Chapter Three

Bullets and a bedroll, Johnny added them to the items on his bed. Packing for trouble––the chore brought back memories of darker days.

Teresa would call for supper soon, time to wash up. Leaning on the washstand, Johnny looked in the mirror and wondered if he should wait, take the stage with Murdoch and Scott.

No, Melissa’s letter tore open something inside that forced his hand, made him determined to help her. Johnny wished he had time to get his head straight, think this through, maybe use some of Scott’s logic. But dammit, the girl’s life depended on him.

Hanging his head for a minute, Johnny thought back to times he pushed down all feelings to survive. Pouring cold water into the basin, he cupped his hands and splashed his face over and over again. When his cheeks felt numb, so was his heart, he hoped.

They waited for him in the great room with drinks already poured. The air was thick between Scott and Murdoch. It didn’t take a reading from Willie Miller’s fortune teller to know the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on this thing. Johnny couldn’t be distracted by that now, but deep down, it bothered him that his problem, once again, hurt his family.

“John.” Murdoch handed him a glass. “It’s the Kentucky Bourbon that the Carlton’s sent at Christmas.”

Johnny took the amber liquid. “I figured you’d save this for some special occasion.” He swirled it a couple of times before taking a sip.

Scott came closer and took a drink. “It certainly tastes fine enough to keep for a celebration or special toast. So why don’t I make one?” And he tipped his glass first toward Murdoch, then in Johnny’s direction.

It was a sly look about the eyes, a tightening of his lips that hinted Big Brother had a burr under his saddle blanket. Another thing, unusual too, Scott’s eyes were a bit glassy, and his voice slurred just enough to tell Johnny that this wasn’t his first drink. His gut told him Boston hid some hurt because of whatever happened between him and Murdoch after he left them.

Yeah, his brother and father were hurting because of a message sent to him, and it gnawed at his insides. So much for shutting down his feelings; what was it about this family? Always, Johnny Madrid had made hard decisions, never giving thought to another soul. And now, just looking around the room made his belly tighten.

Scott held his glass up to the light coming through THE window––the one Johnny had gazed out of that first day when Murdoch offered them the partnership. Then, big brother made his toast, “Here’s to the foolhardy Lancers.”

“That’s some mighty fine Bourbon, Murdoch. But, I believe I’ll pass.” Johnny set his glass down and stared into his brother’s steely-blue eyes. “Scott, it ain’t foolhardy, not helping someone that’s in trouble, desperate. I’ve been there myself a time or two.”

Johnny walked out of the room, purposely bumping his brother’s shoulder as he went toward the French doors. Scott had given him the excuse he needed to skip the meal and get a start toward Visalia.

The thought of deceiving his family almost broke his resolve to go alone. But if fooling them protected them, so be it. He reckoned Scott said it right. Foolhardy––they could carve it on his tombstone if it came to that.

Chapter Four

It felt like leaving forever. The churning in Johnny’s belly reminded him of when he and Wes left Lancer for good; it had been almost two years ago. Why did this feel so final?

Johnny shook off the feeling and headed directly to the outside stairs and his room with a notion to get his gear and be halfway to Merced before they realized he was gone. If those horses were as good as he thought, he’d make Visalia in two days, if a bit sleep deprived.

He rode the greenest of the two horses first. A powerful buckskin, and sure enough, as soon as his weight hit the saddle, he bucked like the day Johnny first broke him. “Settle, remember me? Whoa, none of this. That’s right. We got a long way to go.” It was a wonder he hadn’t landed in the dust before they cleared the Lancer Arch. But Johnny managed to calm him before his bones got too rattled.

The black rolled his eyes, skittered, and shied from the commotion till Johnny tightened the lead. “Come on Black, boy, keep up.” The sound of his voice soothed the nervous horse. “Now you see, Buck, see what you did? No more upsetting Black; he’s backing our play, you know.” Johnny patted his mount on the neck and finally settled them both into a ground-eating, even pace. Buck and Black, that’s what he would call them.

Lord, he hoped more than these horses settled. Knowing His brother and father had upset feelings between them weighed heavy, and what would they think when they found him gone? This mess grew like a flash flood––first, a trickle, then you drown.

Merced, he should be there in three, maybe four hours. Last month, the trip took him and Scott all day. Murdoch sent both of them to buy a bull from Avery Jackson’s Circle J. They rode slow, used the time to joke around, talk some. Days like that, well, they were golden, turned a stranger from Boston into a brother––more than that, a friend; Scott was a best friend, and Johnny would lay down his life for him.

As the sun slipped away, Johnny wished he could bring back some of the heat that made him sweat earlier in the day. This raw, cold air pressing down with the darkness made the night hang heavy on his shoulders.

An old sinking feeling crept in, a black foretelling that used to send him running to Mama as a kid. Johnny eventually learned to accept these peculiar warnings as they landed true too often to ignore. These signs and his instincts for danger had always been strong.

Shivering, or maybe trying to shake off the feeling of danger to come, Johnny slowed the horses to a stop and took a few sips of water, all the time wishing he had brought some tequila along. Or a drink of that Kentucky Bourbon sure would take the edge off. Then, clicking up the horses, they started again.

The night birds must have been molting, and maybe the temperature dropped too quickly for insects, frogs, and such. He could only hear the clip-clop of the horses and the sounds of breathing. And to make the night more chilling, the moon made it partway over Dayton’s ridge, its light shinning through the trees––making shadows that seemed to reach for him, giant fingers trying to pull him away from all that he loved. Johnny shook his head; these dark thoughts overwhelmed him. “Whoa. Easy. Easy.” For a beat, he looked back toward Lancer. Maybe, turning back would be the best thing to do. Johnny finally patted Buck and headed toward Merced.

The day had started out good, damn early but good. Now, all this craziness. Had he made another wrong decision? How else could Johnny protect Murdoch and Scott? One thing for sure; Bella’s crew played rough, and Visalia’s law looked the other way when she slipped them a handful of cash. So, yeah, he needed to do this one alone.

Closing in on the town, Johnny sent up a couple of prayers, one, that his brother and father didn’t get to Visalia until after he had Melissa safe, and two, that he made it to Bella’s place before any Coopers ever showed.

The moon finally topped the tree line, casting its spooky light on Merced’s rooftops. Dark shadows lay over the street when Johnny rode in the west end of town. Lanterns flickered in the livery. Good, he could untack Buck, let the horses eat, drink, and rest while he grabbed something for himself.

“Amos.” Johnny called out, glad that he knew the owner, a good fellow, helpful if a bit bossy. The man reminded him a lot of Jelly. “You still here?”

“Yeah, I’m back here. Who… well, Johnny Lancer.” Amos had poked his head out of a stall. After setting down a bucket of water, he wiped his hands on his shirt. “You going after another bull?” He walked over, held out a leathery hand, and shook Johnny’s.

“Not this time––passing through––thought you might feed and water these two while I grab something to fill my belly.” Johnny nodded toward Buck and Black. “I’ll warn you, they’re both a little green.”

Amos stepped forward, took Buck’s reins and Black’s lead, petted them both, mumbling to them like they were puppies. “I believe we’ll get along. Go on, get some grub. And you ought to get some rest––you look purty tuckered.”

“Ain’t got time. I need to be somewhere.” Johnny said, giving him a grin. Amos had a gentle way with animals and people but carried a load of sadness in his face and eyes. And Johnny knew why, Avery Jackson had told Scott, the old fellow lost two kids in the war. “Can I buy you a drink or a steak?”

A grin split the old-timer’s face. “Naw, I got to feed these ‘ponies’ here, but I ‘preciate it, don’t get the offer much.”

“Maybe when I pass back through.” Johnny patted Amos’ back, slung his saddlebags over his shoulder, gave him some coins, a backward wave, and headed for Rusty’s Saloon.

When had he lost his ruthless heart? Again Johnny thought about being more Lancer than Madrid. Sure, he had closed off some since the thing with Melissa. But Heaven forbid that Murdoch or Scott ever see the Madrid of his past. And even if circumstance called for it, could he ever be that cold again?

Chapter Five

Rusty’s place served the best food in Merced. Avery Jackson had met them there, even treated them to a steak when he and Scott came before. So it could have been a slow night, or a bit late for the early eaters, and too early for the late carousers. But Johnny counted only seven customers, a fellow at the bar drinking a beer, a couple of older guys at a table near the front had papers, probably talking business over a drink, and four gents played cards in the back. He chose a table next to theirs, off to the side. It gave him a good view of the room, not that he expected anything happening here but grub and a beer.

Maybe it was too quiet for the girls to be serving. The owner walked back, wiping his hands on a white cloth tied through a belt loop. Johnny recognized Rusty Andrews as one of the townsfolk Avery Jackson had introduced to him and Scott. “Mister Andrews.” Johnny smiled up at the fellow––must have been nearly as tall as Murdoch, but he couldn’t have weighed half what the Old Man did.

Andrews tilted his head. “It is Johnny Lancer, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

Fishing out a small envelope from his back pocket, Andrews placed it on the table. “Boy from the telegraph office ran in with this ’bout an hour ago. Said if you came in to give it to you.”

Johnny looked at what he knew was a message from Murdoch. So they must have looked for him when he didn’t come back for supper––not part of the plan. Lifting his eyes to meet Rusty’s, he forced a grin. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Glad to see you in Merced––you headed back to the Circle J?”

“Not this time––passing through.” Johnny picked up the square envelope and tapped it on the table.

“What can I get you, something to drink, or how about a steak?” Andrews stuck his thumbs in his pockets and leaned backward on his heels while he waited for Johnny’s order.

“How ’bout both. Keep that steak pink and juicy on the inside. A beer to wash it down would be good.” And instead of opening the message, he turned it tip to tip, flipped it with his thumb, and watched it spin.

“You gonna open that or play with it, not that it’s any of my business.” Andrews put his hands up and backed away when Johnny gave him the ‘Madrid stare,’ but he laughed and said, “Your steak and beer will be ready in a bit.” Then the man left shaking his head.

Johnny laughed too. He might as well open it, see what his orders were.

Wait in Merced. STOP. Scott is coming. STOP.

“Dios!” Johnny needed to keep his family out of this––shouldn’t have let Murdoch read the message from Melissa. Nothing to do but eat his steak and wait on Big Brother.

Not ten minutes later, one of Rusty’s girls brought him a steaming hot, thick steak and a large mug of beer. She moved in real close when she set it down. Her lips touched his ear when she whispered, “I’m Callie, and if there’s anything at all you want, let me know.”

The last thing Johnny needed was this kind of distraction. The girl sure could turn a man’s head. “Thank you. I, ah, maybe a bottle of tequila, guess that will do for now.” But he couldn’t help giving up one of his best grins. And the girl placed a finger on his cheek.

And that’s when his brother said, “He’ll have another steak and a beer for his brother.” Scott pulled out a chair and sat down.

Oh boy, was Big Brother pissed off or what? Scott never lost his manners, but the way he stared waiting for the girl to move on didn’t sit well with Johnny. She left but let them know her anger by the toss of her blond hair, the twist in her hips, and the clicking of her red shoes.

“Pull your horns in, Scott. Ain’t no reason to take out your mad on that girl.” Johnny gave his brother a little of his Madrid attitude, enough anyway to let him know he needed to back off.

Some of the air went right out of Scott. It didn’t last but a beat. His back straightened, and Big Brother went back on his mission.

“You’re just going to ride off to Visalia and handle this alone?” Scott always asked questions that forced him to explain his thinking.

Johnny hadn’t eaten anything but jerky since breakfast. Letting a hot steak sit there while his belly growled didn’t make good sense to him. So instead of answering, he grabbed the knife and fork and dug in. “This is good, almost as good as Lancer beef.” It always bothered Scott if he talked with his mouth full. Mama had smacked his cheeks more than once for it. But right now, making his brother happy didn’t rate high on his chore list.

“Are you going to answer me or ignore what’s important?” Scott tapped a tightly curled fist softly on the table.

“What is it you think I’m ignoring?” Johnny cut another piece of meat and popped it in his mouth. “I’m telling you, this is good.” He turned up the beer, took a big swallow, and set the mug down hard enough to get a little on the table. “Go on.”

“You’re ignoring that you have family to help you.” 

“Oh, you mean the ‘Foolhardy Lancers’?”

Scott scooted his chair closer to the table when the girl returned with his beer. She set it next to him, splashing some out on his beige shirt, probably on purpose.

When Johnny laughed, she touched his shoulder. “Anything else for you, sugar? Anything at all?”

“I’m good, but thank you.” Johnny did squeeze her hand a little. Never could tell when he might stop back in Rusty’s place.

“Oh, and how does your brother want his steak cooked?” The girl again whispered in Johnny’s ear. It seemed she wasn’t talking to Scott. But her low husky words carried far enough to reach Boston’s ears.

“His brother will have his steak rare. And I apologize if I seemed rude earlier. My little brother had my family and me worried. He sometimes brings out the worst in us. Please forgive me?”

Oh boy, Big Brother could turn the charm on, and when he kissed her hand, all her anger melted away.

“Well, I reckon a girl could understand worrying over someone this special.” She winked at Johnny while letting Scott hang onto the hand he kissed. The girl still gave them a nice twist of her hips when she walked away, but no mad clicking of her heels this time.

“That toast, it had more to do with Murdoch’s stubborn attitude than you.” Scott stared into his beer, finally taking a long sip.

“Yeah? And what did the Old Man give you grief about this time?” Johnny took the last bite and pushed his plate back.

“I’m right about letting the authorities handle this.” Scott put up a hand when Johnny started interrupting. “Now, hear me out. I know you want to rescue Melissa. I understand that. And I plan to back you all the way.”

“Scott, I can do this alone.” Johnny scooted closer. “I know Bella, and I can go in without raising her suspicion. Maybe get Melissa out and no one gets hurt.”

“That’s a good plan if the Coopers haven’t shown up. Johnny, they’ll kill you, don’t you understand that? You’ll be dead if those brothers are there.”

“And that’s why I don’t want you there!” Johnny pushed back from the table. Why couldn’t Scott back off and let him handle this?

“Dammit, Johnny! You are as stubborn as Murdoch. Will you listen to me?” Scott started in with his speech and then hushed, nodding toward the steaming plate of meat carried toward him by the now smiling blond Callie.

“Here you go. ANYTHING else can I get you two?” She set the food and a bottle of tequila down then walked behind them to place a hand on each of their shoulders.

“Rusty got any coffee back there?” Johnny wished he had more time. “Bring us two cups if he has.”

“I’ll make a pot for you boys.” She took Johnny’s empty plate when she left.

“So, you and Murdoch got things straight between you?” Johnny took a sip of his beer. Looking at his brother over the rim of the mug, he saw a half-smile appear.

“When we realized you had left, which was not long after you walked out, by the way, Murdoch decided to go ahead and involve the authorities.” Scott met his eyes with that steady, steely stare.

“So, tell me, these ‘authorities’ you and Murdoch are ‘involving,’ how is that going to work?” Johnny kept his voice soft, but his temper flared all the same––never should have shown that note to the Old Man. No telling what kind of danger Melissa would be in if Visalia’s Sheriff got wind of this.

“First, we sent a telegram to Judge Pearson to get an arrest warrant against Bella Davis and William Cooper for conspiracy, kidnapping, and assault. The Pinkertons will serve it, law enforcement agents in the area will be on the lookout for the Coopers.” Scott gave a quick nod, proud of how he and Murdoch had handled the situation.

“Damn your plans.” Johnny said it soft and low, hit the table with his fist, and moved in close. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

“What do you mean, what we’ve done? Johnny, contacting the authorities is the best way to protect Melissa, especially since it will take you, US time to get to her.” Scott also scooted closer; eye to eye, they sat there, and for a moment, neither of them said a word.

The girl broke the tension between them when she returned with two steaming hot cups of coffee. “There’s more, much more, if you boys want it.” And she winked before sashaying off to greet some of the other customers drifting in.

“Dammit, Scott. The law in Visalia is as crooked as a sidewinder in the desert and about as mean too.” Leaning back in the chair, he used the small distance to tamp down the anger. “And I suppose the Old Man is coming right behind you on the stage?” Johnny moved back toward his brother and put his index finger right on Scott’s chest. “You were right—Foolhardy Lancers. Only don’t count me in, I’ll be Madrid for a while. Do you and Murdoch ever consider that I might know what I’m doing?”

Johnny gulped the hot coffee. It burned going down but gave him something to focus on besides his mad. Then, standing, he grabbed the saddlebags from the chair beside him and started toward the door.

Chapter Six

“Where are you going?” Scott’s knife and fork made a clanging noise as he dropped them to his plate. And who was talking with a mouth full of steak now? Johnny snickered, wonder where his Boston manners went.

“Visalia. And thanks to you and Murdoch, getting to Melissa just became a lot more dangerous.” Johnny knew they both meant well. And Boston would dog his trail all the way, but he needed a bit of distance from family right now.

He checked on Scott’s horse at the livery–just the one. “Amos.” Johnny hoped the old fellow had a decent horse for rent. If Scott meant to go with him, he wouldn’t let his brother slow him down.

“That you again, Johnny?”

“Yep, it’s me. Amos, you got a horse my brother could use for a spare. We need to make a fast ride to Visalia.”

“You can buy one of them in the corral outback. They’re saddle broke; most are good cattle horses. Mike Carter said to sell ’em all––he’ll be happy with fifty dollars each. That’s as cheap as you can rent a horse most places.” Amos ran his fingers up and down his suspenders and nodded toward the back door of the livery. “They’s a good looking blaze-faced dun back there. I’d a bought him myself if I hadn’t just got Thunder over there.”

They walked to the corral. Johnny wished he had time to look at this herd. Four or five caught his eye. “How quick does Carter need to sell?”

“Fast. He’s in a hurry to get back East. His father died, left Mike a big inheritance, some kind of business to run. Tell you what, I’ll cut out the top five for Lancer. You can wire the money next week, that is if you trust old Amos to do some pickin’ for you.”

Johnny squatted, reached down into his boot, and pulled out some bills. “Here’s a hundred and a half. That’s all but a hundred on the five horses.” When he stood up, he fished some coins out of his pocket. “This will more than cover the dun for Scott.” He counted out three twenty-dollar gold pieces into the livery owner’s hand. “Keep the change for your time and trouble. And thanks.”

When Amos handed him a halter and length of rope, Johnny climbed over the corral fence made his way to the dun. “Well, Blaze, I hope you’re ready to join Buck and Black. Scott’s riding Burns; let’s introduce you and make a hard ride to Visalia.” He led the well-behaved horse toward the barn where the other horses were waiting.

And his brother waited there too, leaning against the support post, studying Johnny and the three horses. “How many horses does it take to get you to Visalia?”

“I need one and a change-out; you need a spare too. Give Burns a rest. Put your gear on Blaze here.” Johnny handed the lead to his brother and walked toward the hitch where Amos had tied his horses.

“Blaze. You rented him for the trip?”

“Bought him. So, be good to him.” Johnny couldn’t help being a little bossy. Thinking how much easier this would be if Scott and Murdoch had listened to him and let him make this trip alone.

Johnny gave Scott his back and began saddling Black. The horse pranced some, and Johnny pushed on his neck a couple of times to settle him down. “Easy. Easy now.”

The sound of his voice soothed him, and by the time Johnny tightened the cinch, both horses seemed ready to hit the trail. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Scott had the dun tacked up and ready to go.

“He’s a fine horse. I’ll sell him to you for a hundred, but only if you have the cash on you.” Johnny winked at Amos. The horse would still be a deal at that price, and he would be in the clear for the ones still to be picked out.

“He’s easily worth more.” Scott hesitated only a beat before he dug out some coins and bills and counted out the payment. “You’re leaving me a little lean for this trip.” And he fingered though his remaining bills, straightening the corners, folding the money neatly to tuck back in his pocket. But then he petted Blaze and smiled, pleased with his purchase.

Feeling a nudge on his shoulder, Johnny turned and found Amos grinning with a hand stuck out. Then, with a laugh, he handed the money over. “Pleasure doing business with you.” Shaking hands, he asked, “You got anything to write on? I’ll send word to the ranch, and they’ll have the horses picked up.”

“Here you go.” Amos dug a pencil and pad from his pocket, turned a few pages with figures scratched on them, and tore out a clean sheet for Johnny.

Once Johnny had written a note for Cip to arrange to get the horses, he handed it back. “If you’ll get this to the telegraph office, someone from the ranch will take those ponies off your hands. And thank you, Amos.” Then, again, he shook the older man’s hand.

Sure enough, Boston walked over to see what he wrote down for Amos. Johnny guessed Scott inherited the Old Man’s nosiness. But, on the other hand, it might have been a good idea to mention the purchase of the horses to his brother, him being his partner and all.

“The horses in the corral outback are a quick sale––fifty each. Fine herd too.” Johnny explained.

“Fifty! You charged me double!”

“Well, you can see right there how much Lancer already made on the dun you’re riding, enough to pay for another horse.” Johnny tapped Scott on the belly and mounted Black, who pranced just enough that Boston had to move backwards.

“Johnny.” Scott said, drew his name out like the Old Man did when he forgot and said a cuss word at the table; only his father usually said “John.” So he figured it was a good time to hit the trail.

When Johnny had ridden about a quarter-mile, Scott caught up. Neither of them said a word. And though his druthers would have been to have Boston safe at Lancer, having Big Brother along lifted his spirits. Though still dogging his trail, the shadows didn’t seem so heavy as before.

“I looked over the herd––gave Amos a promissory note for three more of those horses,” Scott said, finally breaking the silent ride.

Maybe he shouldn’t have over-charged Scott for Blaze. But Johnny couldn’t help snickering a little to himself––sure had paid off Amos in a hurry, and Big Brother didn’t seem to mind too much.

“Johnny.”

“Yeah, Scott.”

“In the future, if you need money to seal a deal, ask me. Don’t trick me, your brother, out of my last dollar.”

“Scott, no tricks, you got a good horse for a good price, and Lancer made money,” Johnny said, and when Scott didn’t answer, he added, “But, hey, I hear you. Next time, I’ll use your money up-front and save my cash for other things.”

“Johnny, you can wipe that grin off your face, or I’ll do it for you. How you lived this long without getting beat to death, I’ll never know.” Scott said, shaking his head.

“Well, Big Brother, it’s been close a time or two.”

“What’s been close?” Scott.

“Me getting beat to death. I guess I might have had it coming on occasion––been told I got a smart mouth. But other times, weell, we won’t go into that.” Johnny didn’t know what made him open his mouth about it. Because Scott stopped Blaze, blocking the road in front of him, and for sure, he’d be asking questions.

“I’m sorry, what I said before, Johnny, I meant it in jest.” Scott looked at him as if he felt sorry for him.

“Scott. I don’t want your pity. Do you want me feeling sorry for you––over being in that prison during the war?”

“Johnny, I didn’t mean…”

“No, I don’t think you do, and I don’t want sad looks from you and Murdoch. I took care of myself, and by the way, I still can.” Johnny didn’t mean to get his back up––didn’t even know why he did. And now, Scott’s back had gone straight as a fence post––his eyes darker. Why had he mentioned the war and prison? Dammit, this mess had the hand of the Devil stirring in it.

As the thought of Satan entered his mind, the sound of thunder roared in the distance. Dark clouds boiled up and hung in the sky ahead of them. While the rumbling raged like a war in the next valley, Johnny thought the storm would blow east of them.

“I’m sorry. Scott, I ain’t used to people caring. And I ain’t used to caring back.” Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. Still no answer. Scott must be mad or worse, thinking about the war. Dammit, he hadn’t meant to bring up dark times.

“We both went through tough things. If only we could wipe out the bad things from the past.” He reined up, and so did Scott. The silence seemed loud to Johnny. His brother’s eyes were sad, and he felt responsible. “But we can’t change what’s already happened to either of us. And I don’t reckon either of us wants pity from the other.”

“You’re right. After the war, I hated seeing the pitying looks in the eyes of friends and family. Somehow, it made me feel inferior or less than I once was.” Scott’s eyes had a faraway look like his mind had settled in that time.

The rumbling from the storm had grown louder, and the flashes of lightning more intense, but Johnny still didn’t think it would head toward them. Instead, angry clouds threatened in the distance, like a loud-mouthed gun-hawk itching to dance but not sure he’s fast enough to approach.

They still had some light from the moon, but that damn war in the sky made the hair stand up on the back of his neck when his brother jumped at every rumble.

“Scott, I shouldn’t have brought up the war. A few words from me and you’re thinking on bad memories. I’m sorry.” Johnny clicked up the horses.

They needed to move on before clouds moved in to cover the moon. “We ought to be able to travel another four hours before losing light.” Johnny glanced up and then toward Scott, who was still silent, probably lost in a time best forgotten. Damn his quick tongue.

The long hard ride gave Johnny time to think. They hadn’t spoken for a couple of hours. Scott sometimes needed space after a disagreement. It wasn’t like they’d argued, but from the time Boston and Murdoch had their ‘discussion,’ his brother had taken some rough blows, not with fists; but sometimes words hurt worse, Johnny knew all about that.

It was damn cold––should have brought his other coat or wool poncho. Scott had a warm jacket on; he must be okay, or at least no complaints, nothing, since Johnny ran his mouth about the war and that prison.

When they began to lose light, Johnny figured it must be nearing three or four in the morning. “Scott.” No answer. His brother rode slightly slumped, maybe sleeping in the saddle. Riding ahead, Johnny guided the horses to the place just off the road; they could rest here until daylight.

Dismounting, Johnny went to Blaze’s side, where his brother shook his head. “Scott, you awake…”

Before Johnny could finish, Scott leaped onto him from the horse and slammed him onto the ground. Damn, if his brother wasn’t choking him to death! “Sc-Sc-o -Scott!” Johnny finally broke the chokehold, but fists were everywhere while he tried to suck in some air. Then, a hard punch to the side of his head, and everything turned dark. Before he could recover, a boot landed in his ribs. To hell with this! Johnny managed to rise to his knees, downed his head, and like a billy-goat, knocked his brother in the belly, hard enough that he seemed to come to himself. Then, Johnny rolled to his side, and coughing, he drew his legs up to protect himself. Just what he needed, a busted head and broken ribs.

“Johnny?”

Scott’s face hung over him, but he tried to scoot away, not sure if his brother had come to finish him off or what.

“Oh God, what did I do?”

The look on Scott’s face, well, he wasn’t going to add to his pain. Johnny forced a laugh. “B-Brother, you f-fight p-pretty g-good -for a-s-sleeping -man.” No way would he make Boston feel guilty for something he hadn’t started in the first place. This happened because he ran his mouth and brought up dark times from the past.

“You’re hurt.” Scott grabbed him around the shoulders and helped him sit. Then with shaky fingers, he touched a place at the corner of Johnny’s lips. They came back bloody. “Johnny, I-I…”

“Scott, I-I’m fine. I -used -t-to see b-brothers fighting in the dirt, rolling around y-yelling at each other. And I wished I h-had a b-brother to fight with; n-now I do.” Johnny said, and he laughed but had to grab his ribs when a sharp pain knifed through his side.

“Let me see.” Scott started pulling at his jacket and shirt.

“It’s f-fine. I p-promise.” Johnny pulled the shirt from Scott’s fingers. “Help m-me up. We’ll w-water the h-horses. Sleep f-for a couple hours till sunrise.”

Scott studied his face as he pulled him up. Johnny managed to hide any reaction to the pain. But on standing, it took him a minute to steady himself, quiet the ringing in his ears, and get himself moving. He could do this. Then the darkness swirled in, and when he reached out to grab onto his brother the ground slammed him in the back.

Chapter Seven

“Johnny, wake up.”

The voice seemed far away. Johnny’s head and body hurt too much to crawl out of the dark place. Someone moaned, and that made his head pound harder. Maybe it was him moaning. Something important he had to do––that’s right, gotta get up and go to Visalia.

“Johnny!” Scott wiped his face with cold water.

“Scott?” Johnny opened his eyes, reached for the cold cloth, and placed it on the part of his head that pounded the worst. Then, rolling to his side, a pain in the ribs caught him. NO, not now; he didn’t want to be sick, not in front of Boston. Cold sweat covered his face.

“What can I do?” Scott grabbed the cold cloth and put it on Johnny’s neck.

All Johnny could do was shake his head and try not to puke. Scott eased his head down lower.

“Give me a few minutes. I think I have something that will help.”

Johnny nodded. Right now, he’d eat a cow patty if it got him on his feet. Oh boy! Scott had a right hook that could lay a man low.

“Here, I’m wrapping those ribs whether you like it or not.” Scott pulled some bandages from his saddlebag.” But when he squatted beside Johnny and helped him remove his jacket, Boston stopped the doctoring. “Maybe you’d better drink this first.”

Again, Johnny only nodded his agreement. Talking just made his head worse, and the pain made his stomach sicker.

The next thing Johnny knew, Scott held a cup of hot liquid to his mouth. “Small sips––it’s peppermint, ginger, and willow bark. It will settle your stomach and help with your pain.” Scott handed him the cup and replaced the cold cloth on his head.

After he had gotten the cup of herbs down, Johnny felt some better.

“I made a whole pot. Here’s some to take with us if you’re able to ride.” Scott filled and corked the canteen and then poured the rest of the herbal concoction into Johnny’s cup. “Drink some more while I wrap your ribs.”

When they got the shirt unbuttoned, Scott’s face went white. “Dammit. I’m sorry, Johnny. I swear, I didn’t know it was you. You have to believe me.”

“I know that; you weren’t even awake.” Johnny reached out and cupped Scott’s shoulder in his hand. “Hey, it’s my fault. I was the one who brought up the bad memories. I had it coming.”

“What? No!”

“Hear me out. I run my mouth without thinking sometimes. These bruises––they’re nothing but a good reminder to think before I spout off.” Johnny tapped Scott on the cheek to snap him out of blaming himself for something he couldn’t help. “Besides, I bet your belly don’t feel too good where I head-butted you.” He gave up a big grin, hoping it would help break the tension.

Scott shook his head and started wrapping. “This needs to be tight if you’re going to try to ride.”

“Ain’t no try about it, Big Brother. You know we have to get to Melissa before the Coopers do.”

“What about your head? It’s pretty swollen on the left side. Your eye’s already black. I probably gave you a concussion.”

“If I had a brother that could fight like you, growing up, whoo whee, no one would have messed with me.” Johnny rubbed the tender spot on the side of his head. Yeah, that might be the culprit that had the trees spinning and the contents of his belly in his throat.

“I’ve made a mess of things all the way around, from contacting the authorities, to this.” Scott said and waved his hand over Johnny.

“Maybe if I’d stayed at the ranch, and told you my plan, none of this would have happened. So don’t put it all on yourself. Dammit, Scott, that’s too tight.” Johnny wasn’t sure he could breathe the way his brother had him trussed up.

“It has to be tight if you’re going to ride.” Scott split the strip of cloth with his teeth and tied it off. “How’s the head and nausea?”

“The tea helped. I’ll make it if you help me up and saddle the horses, we need to go. The sun’s coming up.” The sky had turned pink toward the east. Riding hard, they could be in Visalia sometime tomorrow.

“Give me a minute to see to the horses.” Scott started saddling Burns first, then Buck.

While his brother took care of their mounts, Johnny drained the rest of the tea, kicked some dirt over the fire, and pulled his saddlebags over one shoulder.

Scott returned and stretched his arm around Johnny’s waist. “Easy now. Take your time.” Once Johnny stood upright, his brother had a hand at the ready should Johnny falter.

With his first step, the landscape tilted. Johnny felt more like he had placed a foot in the stirrups of a bucking bronc when, in fact, he had only put one foot before the other one to get to Buck. “Give me a minute.”

“You can’t ride like this.”

“I stood up too fast. Get me on the horse, I’ll be fine.” Dammit, if he could make it through the day, maybe by the time they reached Visalia tomorrow, he would feel better.

“You’re sure you don’t want to rest here for the day, then ride hard tomorrow?” 

“No. I’ll be fine once we’re moving.” Johnny told Scott and hoped he could stay on Buck. The horse had settled plenty, but right now, a smooth ride on Barranca would be mighty welcome.

Johnny grabbed onto the saddle horn and leaned heavily onto Buck. “Easy boy. Don’t let me down, now.” The strain in his ribs somehow sent spikes of pain through his head when he pulled himself up into the saddle.

Damn, if he couldn’t hear Murdoch banging away on that anvil of his, it felt like Johnny’s head the Old Man was hitting. But, Lord, if he could keep from puking. Maybe a sip of the tea. Johnny took a swallow. “Scott, mount up. We need to go.” Johnny said, his voice sounding weak.

Scott patted his leg, let out a sigh, and got on his horse. “Johnny, give me Buck’s reins. All you’ll need to do is hang on.”

“I can make it.”

“I’ve heard that before, right before you passed out, and I had to carry you over my shoulder.” Scott reminded him of the day Pardee shot him in the back.

“Well, a gunshot’s different than a roll in the dirt. I’ll be fine. We should make Fresno by dark.”

Scott gave a short nod. “Then you’ll see a doctor there.” And they started their long day’s journey.

Chapter Eight

Johnny didn’t think he would live to see Fresno. They’d stopped three times for him to puke. After that, there remained nothing left to come up but tea, but still, his belly turned itself inside out.

“Johnny, we have to stop.”

After a clumsy dismount, they staggered down a path to the water. Johnny hit his knees by the stream, and Scott’s arm went around his shoulder. “You can’t go on like this, Johnny.”

And, Johnny wondered if maybe Scott had it right. He thought his head would explode if his ribs didn’t break him into pieces first, or if he didn’t quit puking, his belly might come flying out his throat. “I gotta go on. Melissa. They-could-kill-her.”

“Damn. What have I done to you, Brother?” Scott pulled him back against himself and used a spare shirt dripping with the cold creek water to wipe his head.

“I’ll-make-it-to Fresno. Get me up.” Johnny wondered if death wouldn’t feel good right now.

“Wait here.” Scott scooted from behind him and placed the wet shirt on his head.

“I ain’t going anywhere.” Johnny mumbled. If only he could sleep this mess off. It felt like a ten-gallon hangover, yeah, and throw in a saloon brawl where he had come out on the losing end.

“Here.” Scott lifted him a bit. “It’s laudanum. I keep some in my saddlebags in case someone at the ranch gets injured.”

Johnny hesitated, hating the hazy and out-of-control feeling it caused. It with the tea might get him to Fresno––then with a few hours’ sleep… “Scott, you’ll have to tie me in the saddle.” Turning the bottle up, he took a good-sized dose.

“Whoa, not too much. I’m not even sure you should mix this with that concussion.” Scott took the bottle back.

“Get me up and help me on the horse.” Johnny reached up for help, and Scott pulled him to his feet, taking care of his injured ribs. Once they had him mounted, Scott stood with his arms resting on the side of Johnny’s saddle.

“You can’t do this.” Scott shook his head.

“It’s okay. Done it before. Here, put this around my waist. Last thing I need is to fall off a horse.” Johnny handed him a coil of rope and sat as still as he could while his brother tied him to the saddle.

The drug began doing its work. The sharp edge of the pain eased, and with it, the sickness. So, maybe this might work. “Less go.” 

After that blurry command, Johnny thought his body seemed light enough to rise above the horses. And the birds, all the sounds of early morning, sounded like music that he could absorb inside himself.

Taking a breath reminded him of his hurt ribs, that these feelings were from the pain killer, how he hated it, loved the high, and despised the source. Mama did some bad things to buy laudanum and cheap whiskey. That memory soured any pleasurable high from medicine or getting drunk. And he reckoned that might be a good thing cause it sure shot holes through the temptation either put before him.

So, he rode in a slightly dulled agony and drug-dulled haze for a few hours, aware only of hurting and constant movement. The once unbearable clanging in his head now plodded with the horses’ hooves. Johnny laughed to himself at how his pains kept time with Buck’s steps.

“Johnny. Are you awake?” Scott rode up closer beside him.

Johnny nodded his head, then wished he hadn’t. “Mmm-I’m awake.” Damn, it hurt to move; it even hurt to talk––if Scott would just leave him alone.

“We’ll stop here, water the horses. We’ve made good time, considering.” Scott had gotten off his horse and fumbled with the ropes that still held him to the saddle.

“I-I can do it.” And Johnny managed to untie the last knot that released him from Buck. But the attempt to dismount turned into a tumble to the ground, softened by Scott’s arms.

“You can’t do it. Not by yourself.”

Finding himself in his brother’s lap, Johnny felt almost as helpless as a newborn colt. “Hell of a mess we’re in with four horses, moving slower than Jelly does to dig an out house. It’s my damn fault too.”

“And how do you figure that, brother? I do believe I’m the one who did the damage.” Scott studied Johnny’s eyes, flicked up one of his eyelids. “Look at me. I’m sure your biggest problem is a concussion. We can’t be too far from Fresno. You need a doctor.”

“No, the biggest problem is rescuing Melissa,” Johnny’s head had felt like this after more than one saloon brawl––hadn’t felt much better after that mess with Pardee. The worst of it always wore off in a day, two at the most. “Get us to Fresno. I’ll be good as new by the time we make Visalia tomorrow.”

“I can’t promise anything until you see a doctor. Here, take another sip of this. Rest while I see to the horses.” Scott pulled a bedroll from Buck and folded it behind Johnny’s shoulders. Then he walked the horses to the stream.

Johnny hated this, seeing his brother’s head hung with guilt. Scott had acted out of instinct, coming awake and sensing a threat; he’d probably been in the middle of a nightmare, what with the thunder sounding like cannons firing off in the distance.

“I’ve done worse, you know.” Johnny thought about that posse when Val went after the Stevens brothers.

“I beg your pardon.” Scott had returned and had the laudanum bottle out.

“I said I’ve done worse. I almost killed Val that last posse I rode on.” Johnny hung his head, picked at his fingers some, and as bad as it hurt to think about, maybe if he told Scott what happened, it would help.

“We rode hard for over a week. Everyone but me and Val turned back.” Johnny looked toward the stream. The sound of water rushing over the rocks took him back to that cold night when he and the sheriff stopped to rest the horses by a creek near Oaji.

“We hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since we left Green River. I reckon we’d stayed on the trail for seven, maybe eight days. Living on the edge again like that must have set me off.”

“Set you off?” Scott looked puzzled.

Johnny put his hand up, not wanting to explain before telling what happened. “Ever been so tired that you could sleep standing up?”

Scott nodded.

“I must have dozed off sitting there eating some jerky. But, hell, we’d had three cold camps in a row, trying to sneak up on the Stevens. And let me tell you, they were a hard bunch to find; then Newt and Mack circled ‘round and almost got the best of us when we did track ’em down. But that’s another story.” Johnny rubbed the side of his head where it hurt the most. Then he closed his eyes for a beat.

“Why don’t you rest. Here, take this.” Scott again waved the bottle under his nose.

“No.” Johnny pushed it away. “You need to hear this.”

“Then lie back. Put this on your head.” Scott wet his bandanna with cold water from the stream where he had just filled their canteens.

“Feels good.” Johnny adjusted the cloth and continued. “Anyway, I reckon I dozed off sitting there trying to fill my belly with a dry stick of beef. It must have been time to go.” Shivering to think about what happened next, Johnny took the cold kerchief off his head.

“Scott, I never meant to do it. But Val kicked my boot to get me up, and I must have been dreaming. You know how sudden I can be; I must have had my gun out of its holster before knowing where I was.” Closing his eyes against the memory, Johnny took a breath, grabbed his ribs when they protested, and continued.

“Val said I didn’t know him, that I was on my feet, had him by the collar with my colt stuck up his nose before I ever woke up.”

Scott stood up. “You hadn’t slept properly in days. I’m sure Val understood.” Then his brother walked over to the path that led to the stream. He picked up some sticks and a larger piece of a limb that had fallen there. “I’m going to start a fire.”

“That’s all you have to say?” Johnny felt like he’d bared his soul, and Scott acted as if he’d told him about spilling soup on Val’s dirtiest shirt.

“Is there something you’d like for me to say?” Scott said it so politely.

“I sure wish my best friend hadn’t found out firsthand what it’s like to look down the barrel of Johnny Madrid’s sixshooter. You could say you’re glad I told you about it.”

“I’m glad you told me, Johnny.”

“Scott, what’s gotten into you?” Johnny rolled to his side. He needed to get up.

“I highly recommend that you remain still. Give those ribs and your head some rest so you can ride in a couple of hours.” Scott said.

Why would Scott treat him as if they were strangers? For some reason, his brother had decided to distance himself. And maybe, not only in showing his feelings.

Johnny had a sinking feeling that Scott might be planning to take himself away from Lancer. Cause that’s how he’d felt after drawing on Val––thinking that leaving was the only way of protecting his family from himself.

It still made his knees weak to remember the look on Val’s face when he came to himself. He’d dropped the gun in the dirt, and the next thing he knew, his friend had a bottle of tequila at his lips, yelling for him to drink.

So yeah, he knew exactly how his brother felt. But he found himself in poor shape to help Scott deal with his guilt. And they still had to rescue Melissa. What a mess.

Chapter Nine

He must have drifted off to sleep or maybe passed out. It was a raw hitch of pain from breathing in and out that woke him up. Johnny kept his eyes closed. Someone had given him laudanum, and until he remembered who, he’d play ‘possum. Damn, if he didn’t feel like one of Murdoch’s cows stuck in a bog.

“Johnny. You awake?”

Oh yeah, his brother had given him another dose when he tried to get up to set him straight over hiding his guilt behind that poker face of his––might as well get this done.

“Yeah, trying to get that way.”

Damn, it hurt to move, but nature called, and they needed to ride. There had been plenty of times when Johnny Madrid had ridden further, hurt worse than this.

When his eyes finally focused, Scott’s concerned face hung over him. The look quickly changed. Boy, if Boston could throw a blank face like that playing poker, he and Val would owe him their next year’s wages.

Scott held out a hand to help him up. No arm of brotherly concern went around his shoulders. Dammit, how would he get his brother to snap out of being this stranger? Johnny despised those cold frozen eyes that didn’t seem to see him anymore. They didn’t belong to his brother.

Johnny shook off the hand once he made it to his feet. Two could play this game. And no one could best Johnny Madrid when it came to shutting everything out. Hell, he lived that way for nearly ten years.

“Where’s the rest of the laudanum?” Johnny kept his voice steady.

“Why?”

“Cause I need some.” Johnny answered, throwing Scott a look that let him know not to ask stupid questions.

Scott’s jaw jerked sideways, then squinting his eyes as if trying to figure Johnny’s game, he picked up the saddlebags rummaged through them until he found the medicine bottle.

Scott studied him for a minute. “What’s changed? We usually have to beg you to take anything for pain.” He hesitated but handed it to Johnny.

“You changed. I can too.” Johnny took the bottle and put it in his jacket’s inside pocket. “Could be I’ll need this more now.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Scott’s eyes flashed.

Well, a spark still burned. Johnny figured to fan it. “What’s it to you?” He said it and patted the place where the medicine rested in his pocket. Then he turned his back on his brother, did his best to ignore the dizziness, slipped into the edge of the trees, and took care of business.

When he returned, Scott waited at the horses. Thankfully, he had saddled Black and Blaze. Johnny didn’t want to think about lifting a saddle, but rather than ask his brother to do it for him, he would have.

“Johnny.”

“Scott.”

“Dammit, I’m trying to talk to you.” Scott raised his voice.

Ah yes, a little more fanning; the sparks had caught the kindling on fire. It wouldn’t be long till Johnny had a blaze going.

“Like I tried to talk to you? I should have saved my breath. Why don’t you save yours.” With that, Johnny started to mount his horse. No way would he let Scott know how bad his head and ribs hurt when he threw his leg over.

Busting a wild mustang wouldn’t have made the place flip and flop any worse. Johnny’s ears rang, darkness started closing in, and he grabbed onto the saddle horn and gripped it like a little kid taking a first ride. No telling how green his face went. But Scott noticed and started toward him.

Nope, not yet. Johnny kicked and snapped the reins. Black galloped off, and he could only hope it was toward Fresno. The next thing he knew, Scott had caught up with him, took the reins, and slowed his horse down to a walk.

“What the hell are you’re trying to do, kill yourself?” Scott yelled.

His brother’s voice was loud in his ear. Boston seldom yelled, and Johnny wished he hadn’t picked now to get loud. His head felt like it might explode.

“What’s it to you if I am? Put on your damn poker face and get me to Fresno. Then take a stage to where the hell you wanna go. I’m tired, I’m hurting and I ain’t got time for your stupid guilt.”

“Johnny, dammit, I’m sorry. Sorry I hit you and sorry I acted like such an ass.” Scott dismounted and added his horse to the string line.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Johnny tried to see, but his ribs caught him.

“We’re riding double to Fresno. I’m not watching you fall off that horse and finish breaking the rest of your bones. Move up.” Scott tapped his leg, pulled it out of the stirrup, then reached around him and swung his leg over.

Johnny sucked his breath in; the movement had hurt some, but once they started moving, he had to admit leaning back against Big Brother made for less pain than the constant unsupported banging of the last several miles. But his head still pounded, and the motion brought out a groan he hadn’t meant to make.

“Scott.”

“What is it? Here, take a sip of your medicine.” His brother was fumbling in his pocket for the bottle of laudanum.

“Stop! I can get it!” Johnny pawed the hand away, pulled out the bottle, took a sip, and replaced it. “Satisfied?”

“Satisfied, isn’t the word I’d use to describe my emotional state. What did you want?”

“When?”

Scott sighed, impatient like he usually did, and Johnny figured the old Scott was back.

“When you said my name. You said ‘Scott’ right before you took the medicine.” Boston sounded like he was talking to Jelly when the old fella started getting on his nerves, and he had that crease between his eyes while he stared. “Why are you grinning? How much of that medicine did you take?”

“Scott.”

“What is it, Johnny?” This time his brother asked in his quiet voice, and when he stared down at him, his silvery eyes had a softness about them.

The spark was back, and Johnny could drift off, let the medicine do its work. “S-Scott.”

“Yes, Johnny.”

“Keep the spark alive. Gotta fan it sometimes – to keep it going.” Johnny knew what he wanted to say, but what part of his brain Scott’s roundhouse hadn’t rattled seemed fuzzed up by the laudanum.

Scott must have understood because he answered, “I know, Little Brother, I know. We’ll keep the spark alive.”

Chapter Ten

An earthquake jolted him to awareness. Or at least that’s what it felt like happened inside his head. The blinding pain unsettled his belly, which rolled with the movement of the horse he rode. Even as sweat ran down his face and neck, a cold breeze sent shivers through his bones, and other than the warmth at his back, Johnny figured there’d be no comfort coming his way soon.

“How long have you been awake?” Scott gently shifted him upward.

“Just now. I must have slept a long time.” Johnny rubbed his eyes. Damn, that left eye was sore; the whole side of his face ached.

“Almost two hours. You needed the rest. I tried to rouse you once. I hope Fresno has a good doctor.” Scott sighed when he said it.

Johnny looked up to see his brother. Yeah, he had his worried face on, and that wasn’t what he wanted, but it was a damn sight better than that blank poker face that Scott pulled back at the camp. So, he grinned, even laughed a little.

“What’s funny?” Scott leaned sideways, trying to see his face.

“Nothing. Don’t be such a worrier, Brother. I promise I’ll be fine. Keep me in the saddle. By the time we reach Visalia, I’ll be good as new.” Johnny tried to move his head around to eyeball Scott, but it hurt too bad.

“Scott, I need to be riding my horse alone when we go into Fresno. Wounded gunfighters don’t live long. And don’t let anyone know I’m hurt.”

“The side of your face is three shades of blue. Hard to convince anyone you aren’t hurt.” Scott placed his fingers gently on the side of his head.

Johnny pushed his hand away. “Makes me look mean, is all. But I’m telling you, In a place like Fresno, I show up as Johnny Madrid, feeling fine.”

“That’s all well and good, Little Brother, but you’re seeing a doctor.” Scott had stopped the horse.

“Make a sling out of that bandanna; put your arm inside it. Then, if anyone notices us going to the doctor, they’ll assume I’m taking you.”

Scott dismounted and stood there shaking his head. “Johnny, how are you going to pull this off? You can barely sit a horse.”

“Watch me.” Johnny reached in his coat pocket and brought out the laudanum. Then, lifting the bottle toward Scott, he said, “Here’s to my performance.” And he took a small sip, replaced the cork, and tucked the bottle back inside his jacket. “You ready?”

His brother was already tying the sling, and when he had finished, asked, “Is the costume appropriate for the first act?” And Scott took a bow like a traveling performer.

**********

The north end of town had a general store, livery, an undertaker, and a cafe tucked in with a few houses––one had a boarding sign up, and a small church stood off by itself. So Johnny figured they’d have to look for a doctor in the center of town, and if he could convince Scott, he would rather keep riding after getting feed and water for the horses.

“Let’s head to the livery.” Johnny nodded over toward the small barn next to the undertakers. Again, a chill went down his back. Lord, he hated these weird warnings.

“You all right?” 

“Scott.” As a reminder not to treat him like he was hurt, Johnny said his name like Murdoch did when he wasn’t too happy about something and then as an additional nudge asked, “How’s your arm?”

Big Brother gave him that short nod, the one that meant I don’t like this, but I’ll do it.

A boy had a pitchfork mucking out stalls at the livery––a good sign that the place stayed clean. “Hey buddy. You have room to feed and water four horses; maybe keep them here for an hour or two?” Johnny didn’t mean to scare the kid. He dropped the pitchfork and took a step back.

“Let me get my Pa.” The boy ran out an open door in the back of the barn. A taller version of the kid came back, carrying a saddle which he placed on a rack before turning to talk with them.

“Randy says you need to feed and water some horses, rest ’em for a bit?” The man looked sideways at Johnny’s face and then at Scott’s arm. “You boys ain’t running from the law, not in any kind of trouble, are you?” And then he looked at Johnny’s gun.

Scott stepped forward and put out his hand. “I’m Scott Lancer, and this is my brother, Johnny. We own a ranch near Morro Coyo, and we’re delivering some horses to a ranch near Visalia. We broke them ourselves, thus the injuries.” And he pointed to Johnny’s face and then his arm.

Oh boy, what a smooth performance. Johnny grinned and stepped forward to shake the man’s hand. “We want to deliver them in good shape. So we’d appreciate some good feed, and if your son could rub them down, there’d be an extra dollar for him, with your permission.” Black was prancing a bit. Johnny grinned. “There’s still some fire in him, but he won’t give any trouble if you talk soft and offer him a treat.”

“Can I, Pa? It’s a whole dollar.” The kid’s eyes were big with excitement.

“Sure, Son, only make sure you finish your other chores.” The man smiled. “He’ll do you a good job. My name’s Matthew Wilson, and this is my son, Randy.”

“Randy, this is Black and Buck. That dun over there behind my brother, he answers to Blaze, and the one next to him is Burns.” Johnny introduced the horses to the boy like friends come to visit.

Matthew Wilson had leaned back on the saddle rack, had his head cocked, and seemed to enjoy the getting acquainted session. Scott grinned and shook his head.

“What? He needs to know ’em if he’s going to groom them.” Johnny wondered what the big deal was.

Matthew’s grin widened. “You boys take your time. Your horses will be cared for and ready when you need them.”

“Oh, Mr. Wilson, do you have a doctor in town who might take a look at my arm?” Scott tapped the sling.

“Doc Tillis; he has an office in the alleyway, two blocks down from the cafe.” Wilson looked toward Johnny. “Ought to let him look your brother over too. Landing on your head ain’t nothing to ignore. Tillis is a fine doctor. He’ll fix you both up.” Before Johnny could protest, Scott thanked the man, and they left. It was a good thing too.

As soon as they walked outside the livery, Johnny dropped down to a rough board bench. “Just give me a minute.” He couldn’t catch his breath. It hurt too bad to get the air he needed, and right now, his fear of passing out in the street kept him sitting and panting. Putting his hand up, he pushed Scott back some, not having the wind to say more.

“Johnny, what can l do? Let me borrow a buggy to take you to the doctor.” Scott offered and started back toward the door to the livery.

“No!” Johnny, still breathing hard, didn’t want to use up his precious air with words. So instead, he threw his brother his best Madrid stare, not that it would do much good, but perhaps Scott would settle enough to give him a few minutes. Then he could make it. He’d be fine.

Returning to Johnny’s side, Scott dropped down beside him. “Do you still have that bottle of tequila you bought in Merced?”

Johnny nodded and patted the saddlebag that hung across his shoulder.

Scott opened the pouch to find the bottle Johnny bought from the blond waitress. Now that seemed a lifetime ago.

“Here, drink enough to relax your efforts to breathe. I’ll get you to the doctor, keep you on your feet.” Scott held the open bottle near Johnny’s lips.

Nodding, he took the tequila from his brother’s hand. Then, after a small sip settled, he took two more. Finally, Johnny took the cork from Scott’s fingers and popped it into the bottle. With his breathing smoothed out, he nodded toward the alley where Wilson said they’d find the doctor’s office.

He remembered a time, down in El Paso, he had to show up tough while hurting bad like this. It had been when he faced off with Mason Huxley and two others who turned up to back the cabrón.

Johnny had made his play through a haze of pain. Huxley’s nasty mustache had twitched like a fuzzy black caterpillar as he kept up his taunting. “The halfbreed’s so scared he’s sweating.” It was then the culero’s buddies moved out of the shadows to show themselves.

Old Huxley had it wrong. Johnny hadn’t even thought of being afraid, hurting so bad he didn’t even care how things turned out. “Make your move, Hasty.” Huxley had hated that nickname. Johnny knew he had picked it up when he short-changed a whore in Nogales. Once she had claimed in public that he didn’t even get his pants down before the date was over, the ‘Hasty Huxley’ legend had begun, and the name stuck. Nothing set the man off like throwing down his nickname.

“You’re dead Madrid.”

“I’ll take you with me.” And when Huxley went for his gun, Johnny pulled and fanned the hammer, taking out not only ‘Hasty Huxley,’ but wounding both his partners.

Yeah, he could do this, just like he had forced himself to face Huxley in El Paso; Johnny would handle the Coopers in Visalia.

“Johnny.”

Had Scott called his name more than once? “Yeah, brother?”

“Are you with me? You seem lost in thought. Maybe I shouldn’t have given you that tequila on top of the laudanum.” Scott placed a hand out to steady him when he misstepped. Johnny pushed him away.

“Scott, I’m fine. There’s the office. Let’s get this over with.” Johnny nodded at the sign that spelled out ‘DOCTOR AVERY TILLIS.’ It hung next to a neat house sporting another sign beside its doorway. This one could be flipped front to back to read that the doctor was in or out. Luckily, it read ‘IN.’ “After you.” And Johnny stretched his arm out.

“You’re the patient.” Scott backed up so Johnny could go first.

“No, not to anyone who might notice. So get on in there.” He gave Scott a nudge and heard a bell chime as his brother opened the door and stepped in.

Meaning to follow, but Johnny needed time to catch his breath and instead leaned against the doorframe, hoping any passers took his stance for a man bored, maybe waiting on the doc; but in reality, he couldn’t get his breath. Scott must have tied the bandages too tight. He had to stay upright long enough for the darkness to clear, Dios.

“Johnny? Dammit.”

“Give me a minute.” Johnny knew his voice didn’t sound right. So, he laughed a little. This mess had gotten so out of hand that it struck him as funny. If Melissa’s life didn’t depend on him, he would finish that bottle of tequila and laugh the day and tonight away.

“There’s nothing funny about this situation, Johnny. You can’t breathe. Your head’s so bashed in, you can’t even see straight. And who beat you up? Me! Here we are stringing extra horses. And to top it off, you say a girl’s life depends on us getting to Visalia. How can you laugh?”

“I can’t hardly.”

“Here, let me help you.” Scott snorted out a little laugh of his own. “Believe me, no one’s looking. If they are, they’ll think you’re drunk.”

When Scott pulled him off the doorframe, everything did go black, and for a minute, Johnny figured he might not hold on to consciousness. But things cleared as they made their way into the doctor’s place.

“Bring him in here.” An older man wearing spectacles and a suit motioned them to a room with a small bed in it. Someone kept the place mighty clean. “Lie back.”

With no breath to spare, Johnny didn’t argue with him. But he hated this helpless feeling. When Scott came to stand next to him, it settled him some.

“I’m Scott Lancer, and this is my brother, Johnny. I’m afraid he might have a concussion and broken ribs.”

“So you are a doctor? I’m Doctor Avery Tillis; most folks here call me Doc Tillis. And do you have medical training?”

“Some. I was in the Army. I learned rudimentary medical skills, and I attended lectures on clinical sciences at Harvard. But no, I’m not a doctor.” Scott answered.

“You been holding out, brother.” Johnny never ceased to be impressed with how much Scott knew about everything. But still, he didn’t live like most men who had a lot of book learning. No, Boston jumped into the thick of things––no one else he’d rather have at his back.

The doctor shook his head. “You are brothers?”

“It’s a long story. But yes, we are brothers. Now, can you help him?” Scott seemed impatient.

“Yes, yes, of course.” The doc pulled each of Johnny’s eyelids up and peered into his eyes. When he started to undo his shirt, Scott pushed his hand away and undid the toggles himself. Oh boy, Big Brother had taken over, and Johnny couldn’t say he minded much.

After they removed the bandages, Johnny’s pain came back in waves. If asked, he would have had to flip a coin to say which pain hurt worse, his ribs from trying to breathe or the pounding in his head.

“Son, you have two broken ribs, right here under your left breast.” Tillis nodded toward Scott. “You see this swelling, and the bleeding pooled beneath the skin?” The doctor rubbed two fingers over a black and blue area that did poke out a bit. “This is not a good indication. We can watch it for a few days, but if his breathing becomes more labored, we should operate.”

“Now, wait a minute. That ain’t happening.” Johnny tried to sit up, but Scott pushed him back.

“Easy.” Scott’s wrinkled brow sure didn’t match what he said.

“Easy! Ain’t nothing easy about this.” Johnny knew he needed to calm down, but dammit, he had to get to Visalia. Somehow, he had to convince his brother and this doctor of that. “Doc, you patch me up as good as you can. Then we’ll be on our way.”

“Johnny, you can’t go to Visalia with broken ribs and a concussion.” Scott placed a hand on each of his shoulders. “Listen to me; this is serious. A punctured lung, or other damage from a piece of bone, we can’t mess around with this.” Scott sounded pretty desperate.

“We! There’s no ‘we’ in this, Brother; it’s me that decides.” Johnny thought Scott had understood. This sawbones needed to keep him on his feet until Melissa was safe, that’s all.

“Doc, you wrap me up, give me something to take the edge of the pain. After that, I’ll be fine.” Johnny pushed Scott’s hands off his shoulders. “Help me up so he can bandage these ribs.”

“What makes you think I’ll help you up so you can die? Because you know, Johnny, if you do, it will be me that’s killed you.” Scott said, his voice had gotten loud, and his brother never raised his voice, not unless he lost control of a situation.

“Scott, you ain’t killed me yet. If I die, it won’t be you that’s to blame. Now, you know we got to help Melissa, or she’ll be dead, or worse.” Johnny tapped him on the shoulder. “So, be a good brother and help me, please.”

“Doctor Tillis.” Scott said it like he’d given in.

“You’re not going to let him go to Visalia like this, surely you know the dangers.” Tillis started his speech to convince Scott and Johnny to stay. The doctor stopped talking when he looked at Johnny. “I could sedate you.”

Johnny’s gun instantly appeared in his hand. “I can do some sedatin’ too. Now, let’s keep this friendly. I told you what I need.”

“Johnny.” Scott drew his name out like he’d been a bad boy, and could be, he had, but no one was going to drug him up without his permission.

“Dr. Tillis, I don’t think threatening Johnny is the proper course of action. If you’ll do as he asks, we’ll be on our way.” Scott told him, and then he helped Johnny sit up so the doctor could bandage his ribs.

“Who are you, really?” The doctor nodded at the gun Johnny had replaced in its holster.

“He’s my brother, I told you.” Scott answered before Johnny could.

“That’s right. I’m Johnny Lancer, Scott Lancer’s brother” Johnny stared down at his hands. Then looking up, he said, “More than anything I’ve ever been, I’m this man’s brother.” Not taking his eyes off of Scott’s when he said that part, but seeing the caring way his brother looked back made him close his eyes for just a beat.

When Johnny opened his eyes, he directed them toward the doctor, and while he kept his voice soft, somehow his words came out sounding dangerous when he said, “But I’m Madrid too, Johnny Madrid.”

The room went deathly quiet until he continued, “There are times that part of me pushes and pulls till I gotta do a thing. And going to Visalia, it’s one of those things I have to do.” When he turned to his brother, Johnny felt like something hard inside himself melted. “Whatever happens, Scott, it ain’t on you.” Johnny had finished his speech, and the room stayed silent for more than a few seconds.

The doctor and Scott looked at each other, and they started wrapping and taping ribs. The two men worked on Johnny in silence until the Doc placed a spoon full of medicine at his lips. “Take this. It will help the pain. I’ll give your brother a bottle of it and some laudanum, and you may need cough syrup as well.” Tillis wrapped three bottles in a cloth, placed them in a sack, and handed them to Scott.

“How much, Doc?” Johnny eased off the table and had his hand in his pocket.

“I’ve got this, Johnny.” Scott placed his fingers on Johnny’s hand to gently stop him from searching for money to pay Tillis. Then he generously pulled out a twenty-dollar gold piece and put it on the table. “Doctor, that should more than cover the bandaging and medicine. Please keep the change. And thank you.”

“I’d sure feel better if he followed my advice. Watch his breathing. Pneumonia is a worry. Oh, here are some salicylate pills, and this is a mint and ginger elixir––my own. Give him the pills if he spikes a fever, then a good swig of this,” The Doc held up the bottle of elixir. “It helps if the pills upset his stomach.”

“I’m standing right here, Doc. You can give this stuff to me.”

Tillis looked him up and down. “Right. You are. But your brother is easier to talk to, more sensible, and if you continue on to Visalia, you won’t be in condition to administer any of this to yourself.”

Johnny got the idea that Doctor Avery Tillis didn’t care very much for him. Or maybe he didn’t like him not following his advice. Doc Sam was like that. Boy, did he get all puffed up in a hurry when Johnny went against his medical orders.

By the time they left the doctor’s office, Scott had a large sack of medicinal items that would hopefully keep him going long enough to save Melissa from the Coopers.

Johnny felt like a stagecoach had rolled over him. His brother didn’t say a word as they walked toward the cafe to get some grub. The silence almost felt like a wall between them. And forcing Scott’s hand on this didn’t set well. But he saw no way out of going to Visalia; still, waves of guilt rained down on him right along with the pounding pain.

Chapter Eleven

The room spun a little, and Johnny could swear he might float from his seat. Grabbing the table’s edge, he wondered what drug the sawbones had given him. Or it could be the mixing of laudanum, tequila, and whatever the doc put in that spoon combined together that messed with his mind. Looking around the room, he tried to concentrate and clear his head.

Only a half dozen customers still hung around drinking coffee or eating a late breakfast at the small cafe. Coffee would be good. Johnny hoped the biscuits wouldn’t be hard. At least the food smelled good, like Maria’s kitchen at Lancer. But to tell the truth, his appetite had pretty much left him back when his head started hurting. Still, to get back in his big brother’s good graces, he would try to eat.

“Can I get you gents something to eat?”

The girl was young and pretty, dark-headed, and wearing a blue gingham dress. It reminded Johnny of the one T’resa wore to church last Sunday, not that he had gone with them, but when he lifted her into the buggy, a puff of wind had blown blue and white checks into his face making them both laugh.

“Sir?”

“Johnny?”

“Oh, uh, coffee, and whatever he’s having.”

“Then we’ll both have eggs, biscuits, and coffee for me too.” Scott watched Johnny while he ordered the food.

“Johnny, are you okay? You seem distracted, certainly not like yourself.”

And Scott was right. He felt as though his head didn’t belong to him anymore. “What did…” Before Johnny could get the question asked, his thought left him. What the hell?

“Johnny?” Scott must need something.

“W-what is it?” He tried to get up, but Scott pushed him back down. Damn, he hadn’t felt this strange since years ago when some kids tricked him into eating soup doctored with peyote. “S-Scott, th-that medicine, it’s messed me up. I c-can’t think.

Scott came closer. “We should go back to the doctor. Johnny. Open your eyes.”

“Yeah. N-no. No more doctoring. Coffee. Some food. S-See how I feel then.”

“Johnny. Are you allergic to any medicines?”

“What? We c-can’t go back to Merced. M-Melissa’s in Visalia.”

“No, not Merced, medicine.” Scott’s face floated close to his now.

“Medicine B-Bow? N-never been that far north.” Nothing his brother said made sense. “Is s-something wrong with my head?”

“Here’s coffee, drink.” Scott helped him with the cup. Johnny instinctively knew being this helpless in public could be dangerous.

“Scott, we need to get out of here.” He hoped he had whispered.

“I know. Drink the coffee, eat a biscuit, and we’ll go. I think it might help.”

Johnny didn’t even remember the girl bringing the food, but their plates were on the table. Scott stuffed some egg inside a biscuit and handed it to him. Never had he wanted to be at Lancer’s kitchen table more than right now. He took the biscuit, chewed, and thought of home.

A fellow Johnny worked with had a bout of homesickness, or that’s what he called it––said he longed to be back where he belonged. So the following day, the boy took off.

The incident had seemed so strange to Johnny, the very idea of having a place that you loved that much. But right now, he understood the feeling. And sometimes, he thought the devil himself tried to keep him from home and happiness.

“Finish your coffee and we’ll go.” Scott peered into his eyes. “Here, drink the rest of mine.” He pushed the thick white mug over to Johnny.

“The room ain’t tilted quite so much. I think I can walk out of here on my own.” Johnny held on to the table, and Scott helped him get his saddlebags on his shoulder, then he stood slowly.

Yeah, the room moved some, but he managed to walk without staggering too much. “How am I-I doing?” He hoped he had whispered. Scott walked close beside him. Hell, he had some kind of paper, pretending to show him something on it. Good job, Brother. Now, if only he could do half as good and stay on his feet.

Once they were out of the cafe, he felt Scott grab the back of his belt. “Johnny, over to the bench. Sit until this wears off.” And they both sat together on a wooden bench next to the boarded walkway leading to the church.

“Can’t be out here like this. Scott, the coffee helped. Head’s spinning some. I ain’t floating like I was.” Johnny could only imagine how frustrated his brother must feel. He hated being sick or depending on someone. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry. Dammit, Johnny. What do you have to be sorry for, your stubbornness and Lancer hardheadedness?” Scott opened each of Johnny’s eyelids and peered at his eyes. Then he rummaged through the sack the doctor gave him, pulled out a bottle, and read on it. “Johnny, you ever taken morphine before? I think that’s what he gave you right before we came to the cafe.”

“Maybe. I don’t know if that sawbones in Nogales used morphine when he took that bullet out of my back. Hell, I’d been out of my head with fever and by the time I came back to myself, I guess they thought I was a goner. Anyway, I didn’t see anyone around; so I put my clothes on, left some money on the bed, headed out so I could find a safe place to heal. Towns ain’t good for wounded gun-hawks. But yeah, my brain felt floaty, like it does now.”

Scott shook his head. “How long did your brain feel floaty?”

“Not long. The next day I headed north—it wasn’t a full-out range-war but a good paying little fracas near Glendale.”

“Arizona territory?”

“Yeah, far enough away, I had time to heal.”

“Hard to heal, riding all day, sleeping on the hard ground at night.” Scott tilted his head and raised a brow like he might know something about being on the move and trying to get well.

One thing’s for sure; Johnny didn’t intend to bring up the war again. “I can do it again. We need to be on our way.” He needed to make some kind of truce with his brother. “Scott, I’m asking for your help, and that ain’t an easy thing for me to do. Melissa’s life depends on me getting to Bella’s place. I can do that with your help.”

“I’m trying to help; though it’s against my better judgment.” Scott leaned in and lowered his voice some. “But dammit, Johnny, watching you torture yourself, for a flighty, self-centered, foolish… She’s not worth it. I’ll only let you sacrifice so much. Not your life, Johnny, not your life. That’s where I step in.”

Johnny wrapped his arms around his sore ribs and hung his head. No, no, no. It’s what he feared most, Scott stepping in. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. He could see it all play out in his mind’s eye. At a dangerous moment, his brother sacrificing to save his worthless hide. He started shaking his head.

“Scott, no! It’s not your right!”

“Johnny.” Scott touched the side of his face that ached so.

When his brother took his hand back, he stared at tear-damp fingers; Johnny didn’t even feel embarrassed. If his fear showed, maybe Scott would understand, back off this fool notion of stepping in this mess.

“It’s not your right either, Johnny, not your right to let Melissa’s poor choices take you from us.” Scott stood up, looked down on him, and shook his head. “Come on; we’re going as far as we can together.”

When he looked up, Johnny knew without a doubt he’d struck gold in big brothers. So on wobbly legs, he stood, and they made their way to the livery arm-in-arm, and only he and Scott knew how much he leaned on his brother to get on this road he was so determined to travel.

Chapter Twelve

He managed fine until the storm hit. It must have been the same one that dogged their trail the night before. And like a bounty hunter on a money trail, the sky seemed determined to beat them to a surrender, or put them end-up over their horses.

Damn, if it didn’t feel like some higher power was out to get him. All the weapons of heaven must have been at the ready. Johnny watched Scott suffer through thunder like cannons and lightning firing down in deadly streaks that even made him and the horses gun-shy. And when that didn’t stop them, the rivers of water did.

“Johnny! We have to wait it out. The horses, you too, we can’t go on.” Scott yelled, but he could barely hear him above the rushing roar of the rain coming down.

He knew Scott was right, but settling Black and getting his feet to the solid ground might take more than a minute, not that he couldn’t do it. “Buena caballo, quédate muy quieta.” When Johnny managed to calm the horse, Scott stood by his side to help him down.

Not much shelter here––what he wouldn’t give to be in the rolling hills of Lancer. But Scott led them to a grassy area off the road and motioned for Johnny to wait on the wet ground while he tied the horses to a string-line.

And Johnny would have none of that. At least he could tie Black, the most nervous of the group. The horse trusted him and settled when he stroked his neck and spoke soothing Spanish words in his ear.

Scott pulled an oilcloth duster from behind his saddle and grabbed their saddlebags. He held up the coat. “It’s the best I can do to shelter us.” They still had to yell to be heard over the hard rain. Then, crouching down to sit on a rain-slick log, he pulled Johnny over beside him and covered them both with the big coat. “Lean against me.”

And Johnny did, leaned into the strength of his brother. The storm had washed away the afternoon heat that had felt so good. Now, the cold crawled over his body like a snake on a cold desert night, looking to steal some warmth. Johnny shook with the chills, and it was then that he knew a fever had started.

“Johnny.” Scott felt his head.

“I know.”

Scott started digging in his saddlebags. “You should take one of the salicylic pills. Here, and sip this with it.”

Johnny sniffed the elixir bottle. “These are the pills that’ll make me puke, right?”

“The elixir is supposed to help with that. We need to keep your fever down.”

Johnny popped the pill in his mouth and took a sip of the elixir. Then just in case, he took another sip and handed it back to his brother.

“How are the ribs, your head, do you need some of the pain medicine?”

“No, not now. I need to think straight for a bit.”

“You need to think about forgetting this whole thing. I promise to find someone to protect Melissa. I’ll do it myself.”

“NO! Scott, you don’t know these people. I do. Promise me. Now, right now, that you won’t do anything without me.” Somehow, he had to get his brother to agree to this. And one way or another, he had to stay well enough to make sure he kept his promise.

“Okay, Johnny, calm down. You’re shaking all over. I’ll make the promise if you swear that you won’t go to Bella’s place without me.” The wind whipped up, almost taking their oilcloth Scott had wrapped around them.

When Johnny nodded, the wind died down. The rain slowed some too. If this storm blew over, they might make Visalia in two, maybe three hours.

“Here, take a sip of the laudanum. At least rest until the storm plays out.” Scott touched the bottle to his lips, and he didn’t refuse. Any strength he had left would go toward keeping his brother safe and rescuing Melissa.

 Chapter Thirteen

Had he been shot? Fighting for breath, Johnny pulled his gun, making it up to his knees, but sharp pains through his ribs and chest caused him to cry out.

“Johnny. Whoa. Put the gun back. It’s me, Scott.” The gun landed on the wet ground, and Scott picked it up, swiped it across his pants, and replaced it in Johnny’s holster. “Johnny?”

The wheezing, his chest moved up and down like he’d been running hard. And Johnny still couldn’t get air. “C-can’t breathe.”

“Sit back down—lean back against me. Easy. When you were lying down, your broken ribs must have pressed against your lung.” Scott moved behind him, and while they both sat on the wet ground––his brother, supported by a tree, held onto him.

Johnny found some air. And while he struggled for a while to get enough inside him, his breathing finally evened out. “Thanks. I didn’t think I’d make it. I ain’t afraid of dying, but I need to get to Visalia first.”

“Johnny. What do you mean, first. You’ll not die in Visalia. Not if I have anything to do with it.” Scott pulled him tighter against his chest. Then he felt his head. “Fever’s back. You need another one of those pills. How’s the breathing?”

“Better.”

Scott moved from behind him, folded the duster, and put it in his place. “Stay right here. I’ll get you some medicine. I’ve got some kindling in my bag. If we can get a fire going, dry off some, you might feel better.”

“Scott?”

“Yeah, Johnny?”

“What all do you carry in them saddlebags? You got bandages, kindling, medicine, I know you got a change of clothes.”

“Well, I learned the hard way to keep some ‘necessities’ handy. I’m a good organizer and a good planner. But, you, Johnny Lancer, travel too light. Never, have you had a coat or bandages, or any other sensible accouterments.”

“I got a coat. I’m wearing it. Don’t have any sensible cute tree mints.”

Scott pulled at the sleeve of his jacket. “Your coat’s soaking wet. Where’s your oilskin? And you know exactly what I said.”

His brother gave him the raised eyebrow like Murdoch did when he messed up. It was funny how much alike Murdoch and Scott could be, but they didn’t favor each other in looks. When it came to who they looked like, Johnny reckoned he and Scott favored their mothers.

“Johnny? Your duster, why didn’t you bring it?”

“Aw, Scott.”

His brother shook his head. “And what did you mean by that comment, that you need to get to Visalia FIRST? Johnny, you scare me sometimes.”

Big Brother always lassoed the bull––first throw. “Did you ever kind of know a thing would go wrong before you did it, but you didn’t have a choice but do it anyway?” Johnny couldn’t look Scott in the eyes as he explained. But, Lord, Boston would know he was crazy if he told him about the weird warnings he had, how they always played out.

“What are you saying––that you’re sure rescuing Melissa will cause your death?” Scott left his saddlebags and dropped to his knees next to him. “Johnny? Talk to me.”

“I’m not sure of anything, Okay? I-I… forget I said anything.” Johnny wished he’d not opened his mouth about any of it.

“No, no. NOT THIS TIME. We’re not moving from this place until I know everything you know or feel. Now tell me.” Scott had his hand on Johnny’s face and turned him so that he had to look him in the eye.

“Maybe it’s just a strong instinct. But Scott, all my life, I’ve had what I call warnings, feelings that have played out every damn time. And they’ve kept bugging me this time. So, I don’t know what to tell you, and you gotta think I’m crazy or that it’s fever talking, but it ain’t.”

Scott stared at him; his eyes narrowed to slits like he might be trying to figure out how this could be so. “You’re telling me that you believe that saving Melissa will very probably cost your life, yet you’re determined to go ahead with this rescue?”

“Scott, what I said, it’s hard to believe.” Johnny started to explain, but Scott put his hand up to stop him.

“No. Not at all, Brother; I trust your instincts and this feeling of warning, whatever it is.” Scott stared at Johnny’s face for a beat before he continued. “But what I do find hard to believe is your persistence in going to Visalia when you know the outcome won’t be good.”

“How can I not? If Melissa dies, it would be on me.” Johnny knew he’d started wheezing. The more he tried to talk, the harder his chest worked on breathing.

Scott lifted him, then leaned him more to his right side and padded his back with the folded coat. “Better?”

The air did come easier. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Johnny, you need a doctor. You’re probably developing pneumonia because of pressure from that rib, or it could be worse.” Scott’s worried eyes met his. “We’re maybe two hours from Visalia. We can ride double.”

“Not into town. I ride alone into Visalia.” Johnny thought his voice sounded weak. He’d drink some of the tequila right before going to Bella’s place; yeah, that might work.

“Fine. But when we get to Visalia, you’re going straight to see a doctor.” Scott’s voice didn’t sound weak.

“Big Brother, you don’t call the tune on me. No doctors. I’m going to Bella’s.”

Scott closed his eyes for a beat. “How? When you can’t even breathe, how are you going to ride into town, swagger into this, this Bella’s place, possibly face-off with the Coopers, and what, save the day?” Scott had almost spit out the last words of his speech.

It wasn’t funny, but Johnny couldn’t help but grin. “That’s the plan, Brother. Now give me one of them ‘salt-a-sick’ pills and that elixir chaser. And I may need a shot of laudanum too.”

“Don’t dare laugh. You forget––you’re not Johnny Madrid, not anymore. Listen to me. You’re Johnny Lancer with a family, people who care about you, and back you.” Scott shook his head. “Being you are so determined to do this; I’m stepping in to change the hand of fate.”

“No. No stepping in; you could get hurt or worse. Scott, I can’t do this worrying about you.”

“You can’t do this without me, Brother. So, I suggest we make a plan. And while you think about that, I’ll start a fire.” Scott pulled a small bundle of kindling from his saddlebag and cleared a dry place on the ground.

**********

Drying out by the fire had been a good idea. The pills brought the fever down, and Johnny could breathe pretty good lying on his right side. He reckoned Scott had it right; the broken rib on his left side messed with his breathing. He’d even slept some.

“You’re awake.” Scott poured a cup of something, probably some of his herbs, and handed it to him. “Drink this.”

“What is it?”

“Something to make you feel better. Teresa and Maria gave me herbs for every ill. Try it.”

“You got that in your saddlebags too. You got anything to eat?”

“You’re hungry? That’s a good sign.” Scott unbuckled one of his bags and pulled out a small sack. “Biscuits––the girl at the cafe gave them to me. They are a little flat, not too hard, though.” He tested one piece of the bread before handing the other over to Johnny.

“Tastes good. The herb tea ain’t bad, coffee would be better.” The minty hot drink went down easy, and he didn’t feel half bad. “About that plan…”

“You got one?” Scott stopped eating.

“Maybe.” Taking another bite, Johnny chewed his biscuit, stared into the fire, and took another sip. His brother wouldn’t like this.

“If you’ve gotta go with me, you can’t go as my brother.”

“Johnny, the Coopers, Melissa, they all know I’m your brother.”

“That’s not what I mean. In your head, you can’t be going in there thinking of me like you’re worried for me. Think of me as a stranger. We both have to shut out all that family you talked about, cause caring too much, taking eyes off the enemy trying to protect each other will get one of us killed.”

It took a minute to sink in, but Scott gave him a short nod. “That’s why you didn’t want Murdoch or me along?”

“It’s best if it’s just me. You see why?”

“Johnny, I can take care of myself. You concentrate on defending yourself.” Scott looked him in the eye until he said, “I’ll do the same.”

Johnny hoped he would do as he said. “If this goes bad, give me your word that you’ll stay out of the line of fire. It’s the only way––your word, Scott, I gotta have it, or I’ll be watching out for you instead of me.”

It felt like his brother’s eyes saw into his soul. “You have my word.” Johnny could barely hear him say it. Scott stood and looked down the road toward Visalia. “I’ll get the horses ready.”

Chapter Fourteen

They had ridden double for most of the way. When Johnny told Scott to pull up, they were about ten minutes from the north end of town. He figured to take some medicine and ride the dun to Bella’s place. Blaze had turned out to be the most gentle-natured of the four horses. “Give me that bottle of Doc’s painkiller, maybe one of them pills that keeps fever down.”

“You still have the laudanum in your coat pocket? I guess you want a sip of tequila too?” Scott sounded disapproving of what Johnny had to do to get himself ready.

“Whatever it takes, Brother.”

Scott pulled the horses to a stop. “You still riding Blaze?”

“According to you, he’ll be the easiest on my ribs.” Johnny leaned forward as Scott dismounted and helped him ease to the ground.

“Here’s the medicine. Easy; you don’t want to repeat how you felt in the cafe.” Scott warned as Johnny took a tiny sip of the painkiller. “Then he traded bottles and gave him the elixir and a pill.”

“You gonna help me get on this horse?” Johnny hung onto the saddle-horn. He didn’t think he could pull up without help from his brother.

“If I get you up there, are you going to be able to get off?”

“Watch me. It’s time to do this thing, Brother.” Johnny clicked to the dun and took the lead. Scott mounted and pulled in behind him, leading the other horses. Funny, with everything he had to think about, Johnny found himself hoping to ride out of this town so he could get these horses back to Lancer.

The town hadn’t changed much since he rode through a couple of years back. He didn’t visit Bella’s place then, but riding into town, Johnny had certainly noticed that it still stood there. For all the world, it looked like a rich man’s mansion, with its white painted fence and pretty orange trees lining the drive off the main road.

And when he and Scott made the turn-off, his brother whistled his appreciation for the place. Miss Bella Louise Davis charged top dollar for her girls. Men came from all over to enjoy a pleasurable evening there. It was a ‘show-me-the-money’ before you come in kind of place.

“Brother, we should clean up before we go in there.” Scott looked himself up and down, then shook his head at Johnny’s shabby appearance.

“You’re right; Bella will be suspicious if we show up dirty, straight from the trail. I know a place we can get a bath and change clothes.” Johnny moved them away from the lane and down the street to a barbershop. “Let’s go around back.” At least this way, Scott could help him back on the horse if he needed him to.

Johnny eased down from Blaze and tied him with the other horses, and he and Scott entered the shop from the backdoor. End-of-the-day business must be slow since the barber sat in a chair, snoring. Johnny slapped one of the red leather chairs to make a noise.

The old fellow snorted, sat straight up, and looked around. “H-How can I help you fellers?”

“We’d like shaves, and baths. Riding through, we saw Bella’s Place. The two of us need to lose some trail dust before exploring the place.” Johnny grinned at the man. “I’m Johnny, and this is Scott Lancer. We’ve got some horses out back that we’re running up north from his ranch.”

Scott stuck his hand out. “We would like a little break from the trail, if you know what I mean.”

“Artie Call.” The man threw out a lean arm and gave them a wink. “Bella’s got a fine place for a break, all right. But you boys better take plenty of cash with you.” Call grinned and sharpened his straight razor on a leather strop while talking. “Good idea to get cleaned up, too. Miz Bella has turned away mor’n a few trail-dirty cowboys. Now, who wants a shave first? There’s hot water in back for whoever starts there.” He pointed toward a door near where they’d come in.

“Johnny, why don’t you get a shave? Come on back when you’re finished.” Scott grabbed their gear and headed toward the door.

It seemed Big Brother planned to be available to help him––not that he didn’t appreciate it. Johnny eased into the chair Artie Call waited for him to take, took his hat off, and propped it on his knee.

“That’s some shiner you got there. I’d best go easy on that side of your face. The other guy look worse?” Artie wiped his face with a warm towel.

“Breaking horses can bang a man up.” No lie there.

“You work for Lancer?” Call stirred lather in a cup and then swiped it over his face; true to his word, the man slowed his dabbing and eased over the bruises on Johnny’s face.

“Yeah, something like that.” Johnny hated talking or explaining his business to strangers. Barbers, bartenders, even whores, always asking questions. Giving them his stare and no answer was ‘impolite,’ or that’s what Boston told him. But he didn’t feel like small talk, not today, and Artie Call must have figured that out. The barber didn’t say much more until he finished.

“Alrighty. All done. You look mighty fine other than them bruises.” With a final wipe of his towel, the man stepped back to admire his work.

Johnny grinned at the skinny fellow, and wondered why most of the barbers he knew were bald. Maybe it was all that tonic they used. Next time, he’d tell them to leave it off and use plain water. “Thanks, Mr. Call. How much do I owe you?”

“That’ll be fifty cents for the haircut, another twenty-five for the bath.”

Standing up made the room dance, but Johnny grabbed the chair arm to catch himself and managed to dig out two dollars. “For Lancer’s too, keep the change.”

“Thank you, son. You okay?” Call put a hand out to steady him.

“Fine. Just trail-tired.” Johnny got his bearings and headed to the baths.

“Scott?” There he stood, pouring heated water in a tub for him. “You finished your bath already?” His brother had on a dark blue shirt. With his damp hair combed, he looked like a new man.

“Your bath’s ready. Soak until I get a shave, and I’ll rewrap your ribs. Leave your old bandages on for support.” Scott talked as he helped Johnny out of his shirt. “Sit here, I’ll take off your boots.”

“I can manage. Get your shave. We should hurry.” Johnny eased out of his pants and into the hot water. He knew Scott waited to make sure he made it into the bath without passing out. But he waved him toward the door. “Go on.” Then he soaped up, ducked his head for a final rinse, and finally propped his elbows on the side of the tub before leaning back to soak.

“Johnny. Wake up.”

Johnny’s eyes flicked open, and his hand found his brother’s instead of the gun he had placed next to his bath. “Dammit, Scott! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“Sorry, here’s your gun. I didn’t want to startle you, maybe end up like Val.” Scott said it with a half-grin on his face.

“Throw me that towel. Don’t want to mess up your outfit.” Johnny hoped he could get himself out of the tub.

“Here.” Scott brought a wooden chair next to the tub with the towel; then, he rolled up his sleeves and helped Johnny stand and move to the chair. “I’ll rewrap your ribs. How are you feeling?”

“Some better. The bath helped.”

“Take this, before I start.” Scott handed him the bottle of medicine Tillis had given them. “Small sip.”

“Oh, I know.” Johnny figured on taking just enough medicine to keep him on his feet. Too much, and he might lose his edge.

“Is that too tight? You need support, but enough room to breathe deeply.” Scott stood back from the chair. “Take a deep breath.”

“It’s fine. We need to go. Give me my clean shirt.” Johnny pointed at his saddlebag.

“You actually brought a clean shirt.” Scott raised a brow, unbuckled the bag, and pulled out a neatly folded, embroidered white shirt. I know Teresa had to have folded this.”

“Just give me the shirt.” Johnny rolled his eyes. He didn’t have time for this. But it did seem nice to have a bit of normal with his brother.

“Scott, thanks for everything.” Damn, his brother’s grin froze. He didn’t mean to ruin their time together. But he wanted Scott to know his appreciation if this thing went wrong.

“Let me help you.” Scott brought the shirt to him, slipped it over his arms, and while Johnny buttoned it up, Scott brushed off his leather calzones. “Johnny, if you genuinely want to thank me, then be careful, and let me watch your back.”

“You promised, Scott.” Johnny slipped on the pants, every movement hurt, but this was no time for noticing pain. “Pass me my coat.”

“Don’t concern yourself about me. I’ll stay safe.” Scott brushed off the jacket and handed it to Johnny.

Johnny felt in the pocket of the coat until he found the laudanum. He took a small sip and saw his brother holding a pill and some elixir.

“You might as well take this too.”

Johnny agreed, but he hated taking this stuff––still if it kept him on his feet. Perhaps all the drugs would see him through whatever waited at Bella’s, but a nagging worry for Scott’s safety dogged him.

As he buckled on his gun-belt, Johnny breathed a prayer, not for himself, because he didn’t even deserve protection, but for Scott; he prayed for his brother.

“Johnny, are you all right?”

“I’m fine; I can make it. Let’s get this mess over with.” And Johnny Madrid smoothed his hair, placed his hat on his head, and swaggered his way to where their horses stood.

“Need any help?” Scott moved next to him, ready to help him mount up if necessary.

“No, Brother. Follow my lead.” Johnny put his foot in the stirrup and threw a leg over. And it hurt, a lot, but he pushed back any notice or thought of pain. There would be time to deal with the pain later, he hoped.

Leading the spare horses and riding to Bella’s seemed to take forever. They rode in silence, and God forbid, Johnny felt like they were traveling to a funeral; such was the mood. Once they cleared the lane and dismounted, some of Bella’s well-armed guards walked toward them.

“You fellows state your business.” The tallest of the three lookouts approached them with his hand resting on his sidearm.

“We’re looking to be entertained for the evening.” Johnny nodded at the man’s gun, showing no hint of pain. “What’s with all the guards and guns? Bella having trouble?”

“What’s it to you?” The man stepped forward, and so did Johnny. The men behind the taller guard came closer, ready to back him if needed.

“If Bella needs help, I’ll help her. We go way back. Someone giving her problems?” When Johnny spoke, he took all authority away from the guard.

“And you’d be?”

“I’m Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

The man backed up, keeping his eyes on Johnny while saying something to one of the men who nodded, left, and went into the large white house. “If you’re who you say you are, then you’ll find out soon enough why we’re out here.”

A chill ran down Johnny’s back. Something had already happened.

Scott came forward and touched his shoulder. “Johnny.”

The fellow came back and nodded toward Johnny. “She wants to see them.”

“Take ’em in, then stand watch here until Stevens relieves you. Have Morgan stay inside.”

The guy issued orders like a general. It seemed his little army protected Bella’s place inside and out, but the question was, from who or what?

“You want to tell us what’s going on here?” Johnny didn’t like being ‘taken inside.’ It was a play of power.

“Bella will talk to you when you get inside.” Then he nodded for his ‘soldier’ to take them in.”

At least they had left them with their guns. Scott’s eyes met his as they walked through the fancy rooms that made up Bella’s place. Johnny had never seen it this quiet. Where were the customers, musicians, the waiters, and the beautiful girls advertising their best assets?

“In here.” The fellow tapped on a door that opened into a large sitting room. Johnny had visited here before, but the room always overwhelmed him. Printed wallpaper, velvet chairs with fringe, rugs, pillows, peacock feathers, fancy lamps, paintings, books, and tiny glass figures covered the room. And all the colors! How did Bella breathe in here? Even Scott seemed to look around for a space. Every spot was filled with something. Johnny grinned at him.

Then he was smothered by pink ruffles and vanilla perfume. And when Bella hugged him, it hurt. “Johnny! I’m so relieved you’re here! And you came before they did!”

“Whoa!” Johnny couldn’t breathe, and when he tried to hold her back from his body, she held on tighter.

Finally, Scott came to his rescue. “Johnny, you haven’t introduced me to this lovely lady. I’m Scott Lancer.” Scott gently turned Bella from Johnny toward himself and kissed her hand. “And you must be Bella.”

Bella turned her perfectly featured face toward his brother. Then she looked at Johnny. “Lancer! Oh no! Why did you bring him here? Who hired you? The Coopers?” She paled off and started backing up from Johnny.

“Bella, what’s going on? Why does the name Lancer upset you? Tell me why you have the place surrounded by guards.”

“It’s that girl and the Coopers. This whole mess, Johnny, it’s a set-up. And you’ve brought this boy right into a trap!”

“Calm down and tell me what’s going on here.” Johnny took her by the arms and led her to a chair.

Scott poured a glass of water from a fancy yellow pitcher surrounded by small glasses and brought it to Bella. Once she drank enough to calm down, he said, “Miss Davis, I assure you, Johnny didn’t ‘bring’ me here. I insisted on coming. Now, if you’ll tell us the whole story, we can plan the best strategy for handling whatever the Coopers have planned.”

Next to the bookshelf, Johnny noticed a decanter of whiskey. Figuring Bella might settle down and talk more with a good drink than a sip of water, he generously filled three glasses and carried two to Scott and Bella, at which his brother’s brow raised. But he didn’t refuse it, and Johnny returned to get his own ‘sipping-whiskey,’ as Murdoch called it.

Bella sniffed beside Scott on the pink velvet chair wide enough for two. His brother moved pillows around, making room for them to sit, and taking her hand; he said, “Bella, you must tell us everything you know.”

Brother could turn on the charm, no doubt using her concern for him being a Lancer to his advantage. “That’s right, Bella. We need to know it all, from the beginning.”

“It all started with me helping Bobby Cooper meet up with his true love, Melissa Harper. I called on her in San Francisco and brought her here, kept her safe so she could meet up with him. She said they had been engaged; there’d been a big misunderstanding, that Bobby lost his temper and made some mistakes. But they had been writing back and forth, and both of them had changed. Melissa said he was her once in a lifetime only true love.”

“So Melissa knew Bobby Cooper would be here. Bella, why did she write this?” Johnny threw the note Melissa had sent him to the table.

“That’s just it. Bobby told me all these awful things he planned one morning while Jimmy was cleaning up, and I noticed Bobby didn’t seem to care if he heard. That kid got set up too. Melissa told me she gave him a note to get Johnny Lancer here. Then I found out that Cooper wants revenge on all the rich Lancers but especially Johnny. I’m glad you didn’t bring him.”

Johnny took a sizable swallow of his drink, needing to feel the burn. “So Melissa, she’s in on this.” The room tilted with knowing what they were risking. Scott’s face appeared through the haze of gray and a wave of pain that suddenly overwhelmed him.

“Johnny, sit down. We’ll figure this out, Brother.”

Bella stood and came closer. “Johnny? What is it?” She turned toward Scott. “Wait. You called him Brother. Johnny? You’re Johnny LANCER?”

Johnny nodded.

“So the Coopers, do they know that you are Madrid?”

“When do you expect Cooper back?” Scott ignored her question.

“Oh my. Bobby Cooper planned to lure Johnny here first, figuring the rest of you would follow. Or at least that’s what he told me. And the fool has no idea who you are. This is delicious.” Bella clasped her hands together. And glancing toward Scott, she said, “The Coopers are in town now. Bobby is waiting for Melissa to let him know when Johnny gets here.”

Closing his eyes, Johnny tried to get his thoughts around the way Melissa had betrayed him. Anger became the tool to shut down every feeling he had. The pain left him, and as for caring about this flighty, foolish girl, who wrecked his world, Johnny could barely stand the thought of seeing her. But he could play games too and see her he would.

Johnny could see Bella’s concern. “She’s a kid blinded by love. But yeah, whatever Cooper tells her to do, she’ll do. I don’t think Melissa knows how evil the man is or that he plans to kill the Lancers.” Bella tried to explain.

Johnny stood and felt none of his injuries. “I want to see Melissa. Where is she?”

Scott and Bella stared at him as if they hadn’t seen him before. Truth be told, they probably hadn’t, not that hard Madrid side of him.

Scott moved toward him. “Johnny, what do you have in mind?”

“Stay out of this. I’ll handle it. Bella, you tell the guards to let the Coopers through.”

Scott stared at him. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

“I don’t think it’s me that’s dying today.” Johnny’s Colt appeared in his hand so fast that Scott backed up a step. “I’m not playing the game as Johnny Lancer—not anymore.”

Bella, with a hand on her chest, said, “She’s upstairs. I locked her in, told her we had some rough customers coming.”

“Send her down to the front parlor. Let her know I’m here. And Bella, if she wants to send a message to Cooper, let her.” Johnny filled his glass with two fingers of Bella’s whiskey and left the room. He knew Scott followed.

Right now, keeping his brother at arm’s length might be the best way to protect him. Heaven only knew what Scott might do if left on his own. So, together they entered the fancy sitting-parlor located at the front of Bella’s house.

Johnny found an oversized blue patterned chair placed against the wall––from there, every entrance and position would be an easy target for his six-shooter. And that’s how Melissa found Johnny, with his gun out, and him checking to see that there were six bullets there. He stood, twirled the weapon, and let it slip back into his holster.

“Melissa.” He touched his hat. He pulled out the note and dangled it between his thumb and forefinger. “You having some trouble?”

She ran and put her arms around his neck. Johnny stood as still as one of those fence posts he put in the ground for Murdoch. He saw his brother sitting in the shadows, watching the performance with a raised brow.

“Johnny?” She tried to stretch up for a kiss, and Johnny stepped back, finding her touch repulsive. “Why don’t you have a drink while we wait?”

“Wait?” She looked toward the door that led outside, giving herself away. “What are we waiting for?”

“Why, your lover, Bobby. And perhaps the rest of the Coopers? You tell me.” Johnny said. He picked up his drink and threw it back. You really should try some of Bella’s Bourbon before your little show starts.

“Little show?” She began backing up.

“Scott, is there an echo in this room? I swear, I keep hearing my words repeat.” She twisted around when he called Scott’s name, then backed a couple more steps and headed toward the door when she saw him.

“Oh no, you don’t.” Johnny pointed his finger at her. “You shuffled this deck, and you’ll stay to see how it plays out.” His anger pushed him forward until her perfume, a sweet fragrance a year ago, was a stench in his nostrils. “Sit down.” He said it in anger but softly, so perhaps his expression scared her because she immediately found her seat. “Scott, lock the inside door. Keep her and yourself from the line of fire.” And Johnny returned to his chair to watch the outside door and promised himself if he got out of this alive, this would be the last time he ever set eyes on Melissa Harper.

“Johnny.” Scott nodded at the outer door. Bobby Cooper brazenly came up the plank walkway that led to the parlor’s outdoor entrance.

“I see him.” Johnny stood and sidestepped to the small bar next to his chair. He hoped his comfortable lean against the highly polished piece hid the anger that pinned down his actions.

Bobby opened the door. “Lancer.” He left the door open. No doubt, to allow his brothers to follow.

“Yeah. I go by Lancer, sometimes. Ain’t the name I used most of my life.” Johnny figured he’d go ahead and throw his reputation out there.

“Meaning?” Bobby glanced to the side as Harmon Cooper moved into the room beside him.

“Meaning Johnny went by Madrid before Murdoch called him home. I’m sure you’ve heard of him or even read Johnny Madrid dime novels. Oh, wait, I forgot.” Scott turned to Johnny. “They’re from Juniper’s Camp. I don’t think they have schools up there. Do you boys KNOW how to read?” Scott had jumped right in and answered for him. So much for his staying low and out of the line of fire.

Harmon backed up, looking at Johnny’s rig as he moved back in the direction of the outer door. “Is that right, Bobby? Is he Madrid? Is that the truth?”

“Shut up, Harmon.” Bobby’s brothers were too dumb to hide their fears. Bobby sure didn’t want Harmon opening his big mouth to show what a coward he was.

Then before Bobby could fully take Harmon in hand, they heard beating at the other door with Crocker yelling, “Bobby, open the door. Let me in.”

Johnny laughed out loud. “You heard him, Bobby. Let him in. Let’s get this party started.”

“No, no. Bobby. He’ll kill you. We can leave now, you and me.” Melissa ran to Bobby, and he threw her back. She stumbled to the floor and started crying. “Please, Bobby.”

“Get away from me. You were only bait, my ticket to revenge. Now get out of my sight.”

Bobby’s expression of disgust when he looked at Melissa must almost matched his own. And Johnny didn’t like it at all, never liked feeling this way toward another human being. Still, he nodded at his brother, and Scott pulled her back toward the chair where he’d been sitting. Now, it was up to him to keep any gunplay away from them.

Bobby unlocked the inside door, not taking his eyes off Johnny, and before he could move out of the way, Crocker burst through, his gun in his hand, and after looking around the room, he pointed it toward Johnny and fired, but he was a deadman, and his shot went wild.

Johnny re-holstered his weapon. “Melissa gave you some good advice, Bobby. Leave––with her or without her; and you can walk out of here breathing. If you stay, someone will carry you out.”

Then Melissa screamed, “Bobby, go!” But his hand went to his holster.

Johnny watched Bobby Cooper’s face change when he realized his mistake. The color drained from it when he looked down to see a pinpoint of blood spread to cover the front of his white shirt. As his knees began to give way, Melissa left Scott and ran to him, screaming at Johnny, “You killed him, you killed him!”

Johnny’s arm went limp with his gun still smoking in his hand until a blur, Harmon moving back into the room, caught his eye. No, no, no. The fool had his gun out, aiming at Scott! Johnny made a flying leap to knock his brother out of the line of fire, shooting Harmon in the same instant.

Johnny felt Harmon’s slug push him back against his brother, and he was thankful for it. Knowing Scott had not been shot gave him great comfort.

“Johnny!”

“John!”

“Someone get a doctor!”

The room spun, and two pairs of hands were tearing at his shirt. He couldn’t get air into his lungs. In desperation, Johnny grabbed at some fingers and hung on.

“Murdoch, he can’t breathe! Sit him up.” Scott sounded scared. “Johnny. Johnny! Look at me. Wipe the blood off, Murdoch. Where’s he hit? Listen to me. Johnny, can you hear me?” Scott held his face with his hands. “I think the fall pushed a rib into your lung. It’s why you can’t breathe. Help me pull him back against me, Murdoch.”

“John, easy now.” His father’s large hands gently moved his body. “Son, breathe. You can do it, boy.”

Murdoch had come. Johnny tried to reach for his hand but couldn’t.

“Lean against me so there’s less pressure on your lung.” Scott shifted him so that he finally got some air. But it wasn’t enough. “Damn you, don’t do this Johnny, don’t you dare leave me.”

“There’s too much blood! Help me.” Scott’s voice had gone higher, so sure enough, he had lost control of the situation. “Press down, I can’t stop it. Dammit! Where’s the doctor?”          

“John.” Murdoch’s worried eyes met his. “Stay with me, son.”

Johnny tried to nod, but the darkness swirled in. Not that he wanted to leave, but there were times a man didn’t have a choice.

Chapter Fifteen

“We’ll bring you some coffee and sweets. Are you sure you won’t come down for a full breakfast? I promise to get you if he should wake up.” It was Bella.

“Murdoch, why don’t you go. I’ll stay with Johnny. It’s been three days since you’ve had a decent meal.”

“No, Scott. Winkler said he should wake anytime. I want to be here when he does.”

“Doctor Winkler also said to take care of your health. Now both of you need to eat a good hot meal.”

“Why don’t both of you go and bring me back something.” Johnny figured they would go if he let them know he was awake.

“Johnny!”

“John!”

His brother and father both called out. Then they were all over him, not what Johnny wanted. He needed to think about what had happened. First off, being alive surprised him, then how he’d let himself be played, and in the end, not only had he taken three lives but put his brother’s life on the line. Hell, even Murdoch could have gotten killed.

“Son! I’ll bring whatever you would you like.” Murdoch had tears in his eyes.

“Something sweet? And some coffee?” Johnny didn’t care for anything, but if asking for food would get him the breathing room he needed, then he would force it down.

“I’m sweet.” Bella and her ruffles swooped in to break the moment. “You two go on down. Give him a little time.”

Bella knew him from way back. Shame to say she might understand him better than his own family sometimes did.

“We won’t be long, Son.” Murdoch squeezed his arm.

“Johnny. You and I need to talk––when you’re up to it, Little Brother.” Boston wasn’t too happy about something.

Johnny stared at the different patterns of pink cloth stars on the quilt that covered him, and he just nodded, not even looking up when they left. What was wrong with him? He felt out of place with everyone and everything. Damn Melissa Harper!

After he shot Harmon, the last thing he remembered was Scott and Murdoch hanging over him, begging him to live. Johnny thought death had finally claimed him. Thinking of all he had put his family through, he had to wonder if they’d be better off without him.

When they returned, Johnny needed to talk with them. Whatever his brother wanted to discuss might wait, but he had to have some answers.

“Johnny.” Bella had her hand on his face. He must have drifted off. “I hear your father and brother coming back up. Do you want more time alone?”

Taking her hand, he offered up a half-smile. “No, but I sure ‘preciate the time this morning. It helped to get my head clear. Not that I’m there yet.”

“Let me know if I can do anything for you. I’ve always had a soft spot for you, Johnny Madrid.” She bent down and kissed him on the forehead.

“Oh, so now I see, that big breakfast was a ruse to get Murdoch and me out of the way so you two could be together.” Scott winked at Johnny and squeezed Bella’s arm.

“You’ve caught on to us. Johnny, we couldn’t outsmart them very long.” She smiled and walked to Murdoch. “Here, I’ll take that.” Bella took the sweets and coffee tray from his hands and placed it on a small table next to Johnny’s bed. “I’ll leave you gentlemen alone. Please don’t tire him out.” She gave Scott and Murdoch a stern look and pointed her finger at them before slipping out the door.

“Here, let me help you.” Scott placed pillows behind Johnny’s back and held his coffee for him to take a sip.

“I can hold it.” Johnny carefully took the cup from Scott. And it was a good thing it wasn’t a full cup because he was a little shaky. After the first sip, he did want something to eat. When Murdoch started to help, Johnny pushed his hand aside. “I can feed myself.” And picked up a small square pie and popped the whole thing in his mouth. “This is good.”

Murdoch shook his head, and Scott rolled his eyes. Johnny figured they might not like his manners. But what the hell? With one arm in a sling and waking up from his deathbed, being able to eat at all seemed pretty good to him. The food made him feel somewhat better. Now it was time to get answers.

“So Harmon’s bullet didn’t kill me.” Johnny didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the room went dead silent.

Scott walked to the window and stared out of it for too long to suit Johnny. But he finally turned to lean on the window seat and answered. “Harmon’s bullet hit you in the shoulder. But you lost so much blood… “

Scott never came up short for words, but it seemed like he did now.

“It was close, Son.” Murdoch pulled the quilt up to cover his chest. “There was the collapsed lung, the untreated concussion, and your exhausted condition. That first night, John, well, let’s just say you scared us.”

“I’m lucky to have a smart brother who helped me breathe until the doctor came.”

“And your ‘smart brother’ still needs to have a talk with you, Little Brother.”

“Right. And I need to know, what happened with the arrest warrant for Bella? You know she got played, had no part in Cooper’s schemes.” Johnny looked first at Scott, then his father. “And by the way, if you two had let me handle this alone, the whole thing would have gone down clean.” Some of his anger came rushing back.

“John, we made a decision, a civil decision. You can’t handle everything with a gun. Perhaps if you stayed home and let the authorities do their job, this would have ‘gone down clean,’ as you say.” Murdoch’s voice had gotten louder as he talked. Johnny hadn’t meant to get him riled.

“The authorities would have taken Bella in or probably listened to Melissa and Cooper, and they’d still be out there waiting to ambush Lancers.” Johnny felt his energy drain away.

“Johnny, It’s okay. You had your plan and we had ours. What’s important now, is you’re alive. The doctor said with the rest, letting the rib heal, that the lung seems to be okay.” Scott stepped next to his bed. Looking at Murdoch as he spoke, he took the trembling coffee cup from Johnny’s hand and set it on the tray. “We wired the judge. He reissued the warrant, and Bella is in the clear.”

“Why reissue it? They’re dead.”

“Murdoch wanted to make sure any questions about the shootings would trace back to the kidnapping charges.” Scott said. “You’re in the clear this way.”

“What about Melissa?” Johnny’s voice sounded low. “She still here?”

“She’ll go back to Lancer. James will pick her up there. She’s agreed to go back East. I’m not sure she has a choice after all this.” Murdoch answered.

“No. She’s not welcome at Lancer.” Johnny meant it. If the Old Man insisted on her being there, then he wouldn’t be, maybe not ever.

“Now, wait a minute, Johnny, James is… ” Murdoch started to explain.

But Johnny didn’t care what his reasons were. No reason existed that justified Melissa Harper breathing the same air his family did. “YOU wait a minute. That bitch almost got my family killed. She gets off without so much as a hand-slap––that’s fine. But she’s not sharing space with Lancers. Not if I’m still a third owner, so you decide. Right now, Murdoch, choose the Harpers or me.” Johnny’s breathing came in short gasps, and sweat began pouring off his forehead.

Scott took one of the cloth napkins and wiped his face. “Murdoch, he’s right. I vote with Johnny. Wire James Harper to pick his daughter up here or send her back to her aunt in San Francisco. The Lancers have done enough for the Harpers, too much.”

Murdoch looked at them for a beat, turned, and walked out the door. Scott dipped the napkin in cold water and continued to wipe the sweat from Johnny’s upper body.

“Dammit, I shouldn’t have laid it out like that. The man’s worked all his life to build that ranch, and here I start telling him who he can and can’t have there.” Johnny looked down at his hands, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. “I can stay in a line shack until the Harpers clear out. Tell Murdoch… ” What should he tell the Old Man? “Hell, tell him to forget it. I’m tired, Scott, tired of begging for scraps of affection. Murdoch always cares more about his friends than his family, or at least than he does me.”

“Johnny, you aren’t wrong. You and I are taking a stand on the Harpers coming to Lancer.” Scott quit his wiping and threw the napkin in the basin of water. “And as for Murdoch placing his friends before his sons, that will change. The man’s used to this buddy system where they trade favors like money. My grandfather behaved the same way. It’s another reason I stayed at Lancer.”

“Does that mean you’ll leave if Murdoch doesn’t change?” Johnny knew for sure he would never stay at Lancer if his brother left.

“Johnny, I stay because you’re there, which opens the door to a topic I want to discuss.” Scott went from gentle to pointing a finger in his face, all in one sentence.

“What?” Johnny would have backed up if he had anywhere to go.

“Never, I mean never, jump in front of a bullet meant for me. Johnny, I was out of the way as soon as Harmon pointed the gun. And here you came, flying through the air to save me! We almost lost you.” Scott’s eyes were shiny, and his voice broke as he spoke of Johnny’s near death.

“It happened so fast; I didn’t know if you saw him.” Johnny took hold of Scott’s arm. “I couldn’t let him kill you, Scott.” He felt his own eyes fill.

Scott shook his head and said, “Aren’t you the tough one, Johnny Madrid?”

They both laughed a bit until the door opened, and Murdoch stepped back in. “Boys. I sent a message over to the telegraph office, to wire James. Hopefully, it will catch up with him before he makes Lancer. If not, he can catch a stage to Visalia from Morro Coyo. Either way, the Harpers won’t be visiting Lancer.”

Their father walked to the chair beside Johnny’s bed and sat down. “I’m sorry my sons had to stand against me on an issue as hurtful as this one.” Murdoch held his hand up when Johnny started to interrupt. “Let me finish, Son; I should have been thinking like a father protecting his sons, not as someone doing a favor for an old friend. Please forgive me. Both of you.” 

“Aw, Murdoch, I had my back up. It’s not my right to tell you who you can and can’t have in your home. I can stay in a line shack till they’re gone.”

“John, you’ll not be turned out of your home. You and Scott were right. I was wrong.” Murdoch crossed his arms, and for sure, he had more to say. “But, I’m sure I would have made a better decision if I had proper sleep, that is if my sons had been more careful. I expect that of all of us, that we be clearheaded and careful.” He patted Johnny on the leg. “It seems we’ve learned a lot on this journey to Visalia.”

“This trip sure opened my eyes.” Johnny winked at his brother and figured to tease him a bit. “Well, Scott kind of closed one first. Murdoch, let me give you some good advice; if Boston doesn’t want to get up some morning, let him sleep. Or better yet, throw one of them wild barn cats on his bed.”

“Johnny Lancer, you, or anyone else who throws a wild barn cat on me will find both eyes closed.” Scott pointed his finger at Johnny’s eyes. “But, seriously, I did you some actual harm, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m fine. You took good care of me.”

Scott looked at Johnny. “I learned something too. This little adventure with you gave me some new insight into your abilities. I trust your instincts and I always have your back, anywhere, anytime.”

“Sometimes it takes a journey away from all that is familiar and comfortable to open our eyes to what’s truly important to us.” Murdoch leaned back in the chair, crossed his arms, and grinned at the two of them. “And on that point, let’s make plans for our journey home.”

THE END

Author’s Notes:
The early growth in Visalia resulted in part from the Kern River gold rush, which lured those with a lust for riches. However, disillusioned miners stayed in Visalia when the gold didn’t materialize in a big way. Thus the mindset of a few early citizens to get rich by any means available focused energies toward less than moral means of making a living.

In 1859 the John Butterfield’s Overland Stage made its first stop in Visalia, at 116 East Main Street. Unfortunately, some of the early citizens, nasty individuals, preyed on the travelers along the stage route. As a result, saloons and hotels with a risky reputation sprang up around the downtown stop.

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Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or Email Sherry directly.

18 thoughts on “Journey to Visalia by Sherry

    1. Tanya, thanks for reading and commenting on my story. I am glad you enjoyed the interaction between family. I think the interactions between JML and his father and brother were my favorite part of the Lancer series.

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  1. Well, Sherry, I’ve read this three times now, and liked it better than the first! I felt bad for both Scott and Johnny- first Scott’s guilt when he hurt his brother, and Johnny for being in all the pain and discomfort. But I’m glad Melissa got what she deserved!

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    1. Diana, thank you for reading this story not once but three times. Your suggestions after the first read helped me improve Journey to Visalia, so perhaps that’s why you liked it better on the third reading. Thank you for your good advice, for rereading this one, and for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. Great story. The relationships between the men was the focus and Melissa just a vehicle to demonstrate that which was clever. Thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to future tales, please.

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    1. Pauline, you are exactly right. The story was about the journey and family relationships. As Johnny said, Melissa shuffled the deck, I think the family played the game, and they did it quite well.

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  3. I love all the interaction and dialogue between Johnny and Scott as they traveled. Your portrayal of their characters is gripping. Thank you for a very enjoyable read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ruby, I never trusted her either, and I don’t think she wanted Johnny dead, but Bobby Cooper did, and Melissa was so besotted with Bobby that she did whatever he told her. And perhaps she didn’t realize how evil Cooper’s plan for revenge turned out to be. Thank you for reading my story. I genuinely appreciate your comments.

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