San Francisco to Nowhere by Suzanne

Word Count 85,800

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Chapter One


Barbaric. There was no other word to describe this mode of travel. Six people crammed into a decrepit box that swayed and bumped and lurched. It was simply intolerable.

Even Rosetti’s poems were unable to distract him from cramped, aching shoulders. What he wouldn’t give right now, to be able to stretch his legs without kicking the shins of anyone sitting opposite. Not to mention the dust!  It swirled in, uninvited, through the open windows, travelling up his nose and in his mouth. Before long, the air between them all was a dirty brown and he’d been forced to hold his handkerchief to his face the last five miles.

How tempted he’d been to board a train in the morning…but that’s what they’d be expecting him to do.

He looked around. Good Lord, what a sight they all were. There wasn’t one of them who didn’t look weary to the bone and desperate to get off this rattling contraption.

Correction—maybe one of them didn’t seem to care.

The pretty young thing next to him who’d said, “Oh, you read poetry,” in that disappointed voice when he’d opened his book, had long since fallen asleep. He had to admit, her head resting against his shoulder was one of the less annoying aspects of this trip.

He leaned forward a little to look at her companion; a woman with a beaked nose and bony fingers that were no doubt used for pointing a warning at any man who leered at the fair Eliza. Like him, she’d taken refuge behind her handkerchief. Their eyes met just then and she stared back at him without the least show of discomposure. Even with a flash of amusement. Perhaps there was more to Bony Fingers than he’d first thought?

He removed his handkerchief. “Allow me to introduce myself, William Holdsworth, of Boston.” His old tutor was long dead, so it was unlikely he’d quibble about the use of his name.

She looked at the hand he’d extended, then back to his face. Finally, she removed her handkerchief and nodded to him. “Miss Mirella Minchin, of Saint Louis.”

Miss Minchin then put her hand the other side of Eliza’s head and changed the girl’s position so that it was now Miss Minchin’s shoulder that Eliza rested on. And there, with a whoosh, went all the good will he’d been feeling towards Miss Minchin.

As cramped as they were on his side of the coach, at least they were forward facing and weren’t obliged to squeeze in either side of Mr Branson. Clive Branson. He’d stuck his hand out as soon as they’d boarded, then proceeded to introduce himself to the entire coach, with the air of one who assumed everyone would be tripping over themselves to know him. He seemed to be the sort of tiresome fellow who assumed his well-cut suit and glittering watch would ensure his importance to anyone he happened to come across. After regaling them all with his tales of prospecting for gold back in the fifties, he’d fallen asleep, knees flung wide, with one of several chins resting on his chest and pudgy hands clasped over a bloated belly. Every so often, he’d make a noise in the back of his throat that was half snore and half grunt. Something like the sound of a strangled pig. (Not that he’d ever heard or seen such a thing, but it whiled away a few moments trying to imagine when or where such a noise might occur.)

At least the man on the left of Branson was thin. He had `bank clerk’ written all over him; thinning hair, eye glasses and—his gaze went to the man’s hands—ink stained fingers. Hmmm, maybe a clerk of some kind, if not definitely a bank clerk. But he certainly had the timid look of someone who stood behind a grill and watched other people withdraw money in quantities a humble clerk could only ever dream of.

And that left the last man on the stage, sitting opposite. Travelling in this part of the country you had to expect to be subjected to all types, but if the prospector had eyed this last companion with, well, it was either caution or trepidation, then he had to suppose there was sufficient cause.

He wasn’t quite sure if the young man even spoke English by the way he’d reacted to the ladies. Or rather didn’t react. And really, that was good of him considering he’d only been trying to do them a good turn. One of their pieces of luggage had tumbled off the top of the stage as the driver was trying to toss it up and the Mexican had caught it. Quite deftly at that.

Eliza’s hand had gone to her throat when she’d seen the valise fall as if there was something breakable packed inside it. He only wished he’d been close enough to catch it, then he would have had Eliza looking up at him with that sweet smile and saying, “Oh, thank you, Mr…?”

The Mexican tipped his hat but before he had a chance to get out a word, Miss Minchin was spouting, “Neither Miss Eliza nor myself associate with your kind.”

Eliza went red and maybe that’s why the Mexican was so considerate. Whatever the reason, he simply smiled at her as if he hadn’t even noticed the other woman’s words. It was good form. Certainly went a long way to relieving Miss Eliza of her embarrassment.

Well, they all crowded onto the stage after that. The women arranged their skirts, he’d taken out `Poems’, the prospector announced they should make `good time’ and the Mexican had settled into his corner, pulled his hat low over his eyes, and looked to have gone to sleep.

And all that had been two hours ago. Possibly the longest two hours of his life. Several times his heart had lurched at the sound of galloping horses but they’d passed on by, their riders giving the stagecoach the most cursory of glances before travelling on.

He’d been reasonably sure he’d thrown anyone off his scent. Going to the train station and buying the train ticket had been a stroke of genius, if he did say so himself. And, by George, they were well out of the city, by now.

The tightness in his shoulders was beginning to ease. Yes, things were beginning to look up after an extraordinary couple of days. There was really only one part of his plan that wasn’t quite perfect—he didn’t have the devil of a clue where this stagecoach was bound. From behind his handkerchief, all he could see were fields and farmhouses and trees. And dust of course. Although, that too, was beginning to settle.

He cautiously took his kerchief away from his mouth. The movement caught the eye of the young man opposite. Blue eyes in a tanned face stared back at him from under the Mexican’s hat. There was the hint of amusement in the boy’s eyes. He would almost describe the expression as a knowing glance…as if the young man was used to measuring and weighing the worth of those he came in contact with.

Hmmm…he might have to keep an eye on this one.

Chapter Two

It was the drumming in his head that woke him. No, it wasn’t in his head, it was drumming on the roof of the coach.

Rain. Soaking rain. Exactly what was needed to keep that annoying dust down.

Good God, he hadn’t meant to fall asleep.

He straightened his neck but kept his eyes closed while he got his bearings.

“You want your hat back?”

William opened his eyes. His hat was being offered to him by the Mexican lad. “Thank you.”

“It slipped off your lap when you were asleep.”

“How careless of me. Thank you…?”

“Johnny.”

“Just Johnny?” He put his hat back on his knees, then pulled on his jacket sleeves until the material was smooth.

“Well, folk don’t fuss too much about names out here.”

“I see.”

“You might want to straighten your tie while you’re about it.”

“Oh?” He took in the Mexican’s garb as he felt for his tie…the red, (or almost pink) shirt with its curious stitching. Quite decorative, really. The suede jacket and pants both fitted like a glove. No wonder Miss Eliza had ogled him when he’d sauntered up to the stage. But no, he wouldn’t have thought the young man would be an expert on a gentleman’s attire.

And there was that knowing glint in his eyes again. “I know someone who’s fussy about things like that. Me? Nope, not my style.”

He looked around. Branson and Miss Eliza looked to have been roused by the rain as well. He took his watch out but before he had a chance to flip it open, Branson had brandished his shiny gold one in a big, meaty hand. “Two-thirty, Mr Holdsworth. We oughtta be at the first relay station soon, by my reckoning.”

Even as Branson spoke, the coach began to slow.

“There you go, Miss. You’ll be able to stretch your legs and attend to any business.”

“Oh.” Eliza coloured up, again, then looked to The Minchin for some sort of guidance on the matter.

“Please keep your advice to yourself, where my charge is concerned.”

“Well, I was just trying to be helpful.”

“We’d much rather you didn’t.”

He almost felt sorry for Clive. The Minchin woman was a viper.

“Out you git, folks.” Charlie yanked open the door. “Coffee oughtta be hot. Follow the path to the outhouse out back.”

At least he had the honour of helping the fair Eliza down. Johnny had put out a hand for The Minchin but she’d ignored both it and him and climbed down on her own. Mind you, fate intervened; on the final step, her heel caught in her dress and she certainly would have tumbled into the mud, had not Johnny caught her arm with a steadying hand.

“Gracious, can’t they put decent steps on these old coaches,” she snapped. “Thank you, boy.”

Johnny kept his face straight but over Eliza’s head, William caught his eye and grinned.

“Come, Eliza. Don’t dilly-dally.”

He let Branson and the clerk go ahead of him then waited for Johnny. “Pity about that,” he murmured. “I would have enjoyed seeing The Minchin land face-first in the mud. Don’t be so quick, next time.”

Johnny tilted his hat back, then laughed. “It sure was tempting.”

The stop at the way-station wasn’t nearly long enough. Charlie had lied—the coffee wasn’t hot—but at least the rain stopped long enough for them to all visit the outhouse and get back into the coach.

“Next stop, Sunday Creek. Johnny, you wanna ride up top with me?”

Johnny paused, one foot on the step. Even William knew this was something of an honour. You didn’t ask to ride next to the stagecoach driver—you were invited. If the coach had been full of Minchins, no doubt there’d be no hesitation at all.

“Sure thing, Charlie.” But there was a twist to the smile he threw William’s way and he suspected a few hours across from the fair Eliza might have been more to his liking.

“I don’t know why the driver asked him up there,” Branson told the rest of them, poking his thumb upwards.

Miss Minchin folded her hands. “It may be a privileged position but in this weather, it’s hardly likely to be such. I’m sure that’s why he asked the boy and not you, Mr Branson.”

“No. I think the driver has good reasons for asking him.”

Everyone stared. These were almost the first words the little clerk had uttered the entire trip, other than to introduce himself as Mortimer Smith. He had a squeaky voice but he spoke with surprising authority.

William gave him a friendly nod. “You appear to be something of an expert in the matter, Mr Smith.”

“Me? No. I just use my eyes.”

And that was all he said until they reached Sunday Creek, four hours later.

While the name was charming, the town, unfortunately, was not. You couldn’t even call it a town, in his book.

Johnny must have seen the look on his face as he grabbed his saddlebags from Charlie. “It ain’t much, is it.”

“I confess, my visions of a quaint village have been somewhat dashed.”

“Yeah, well, it’s really not much more than a relay station. The ranches are further out. But Mabel always cooks the best stews.”

“At least we’ll have Eliza to brighten the evening.”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up on that score. I heard Miss Minchin telling Mabel they’d take supper in their room.”

He groaned as he followed Johnny into the ‘Sunday Creek Hotel’ which was a much grander name than the building warranted. The ground floor consisted of a motley collection of tables and chairs, none of them matching. One corner over by the front window appeared to be a dumping ground for parcels and disused mail bags. A door at the back presumably led to the kitchen, where, he had to admit, a very pleasant aroma seemed to be emerging. Eliza and The Minchin were already disappearing up the flight of stairs.

“You’d best head up and grab a room if you aim to sleep tonight.”

He lifted a brow.

“Last time I came through, the roof over the bed leaked in the end room on the right.”

“Any other warnings?”

“If you want to sleep alone, don’t choose the other end room, either.”

“Should we warn The Minchin?”

Johnny seemed to consider the matter as they trod up the stairs.  He stopped at the landing and scratched the back of his neck. “We…ell, where would be the fun in that?”

“We’d warn the fair Eliza of course.”

“Uh huh.”

As it turned out, the ladies had taken the middle two rooms, so he and Johnny took the two rooms either side of the stairs.

The stew turned out to be as tasty as Johnny had predicted, if somewhat runny and lacking in meat, but the potatoes made up for that. They both had seconds and mopped up the gravy with chunks of Mabel’s freshly baked bread.

The world was looking decidedly cheerier by the time he leaned back and lit a cigar. He’d offered one to Johnny but he shook his head.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do?”

“Folk out here don’t—.”

“Don’t tell me, ‘They don’t like questions about their business.”

He grinned back at him. “But I ain’t one of’em. I’m a rancher.”

William couldn’t stop his brows from shooting up. “Now that’s not the answer I expected. Although, I suppose it’s the line of work most young men do out here.”

“What were you expecting me to say?”

He sat back even further, before blowing out a puff of smoke. There was something about the boy that intrigued him. Even calling him a boy seemed out of place at times but he was surely not much older than twenty? All the same, he carried that air of experience like a well-worn cloak. But it wasn’t just that. For all his boyishness, Johnny had a certain stance and way of looking at the world, that said this one has known danger. Perhaps was even dangerous?

“Oh, I don’t know. A school teacher, perhaps?”

He didn’t get the laugh he was expecting. Instead, it was a quizzical look on Johnny’s face. The boy was good. Too intuitive, for his liking. That was William’s line of work.

“I’ve got a feeling that idea didn’t really cross your mind. Besides, most school kids know more than I was ever taught.”

“Cards?” He took a pack out of his pocket.

Johnny half-smiled, then he cocked his head. “Are you a card sharp, Mr Holdsworth?”

“Hah. I’m many things, Johnny, but a card sharp isn’t one of them.”

“Okay, that’s good enough for me. Sure. You deal.”

Johnny was a steady poker player. Astute, but not brilliant. After a very enjoyable hour and a bottle of whisky, they called it a night, neither one having triumphed over the other.

The hotel was in darkness as they made their way up the stairs, candles held aloft. With no carpet, and a squeak on every second board, it was impossible to be quiet.

“See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Johnny.”

Once in his room, he noticed how the wind had picked up.

He was sure he’d only been asleep mere minutes when he woke. The room was pitch dark and rain was beating against his window.

No doubt, it was the rain that woke him.

Or maybe not?

He sat up, ears straining. There it was again. Those wretched stairs were squeaking. Someone must have gone down to the outhouse.

He lay down again, thumped the lumpy pillow several times, then closed his eyes. Only, every time he closed his eyes, he was back in the stagecoach, rocking and grinding its way over every boulder it could possibly find.

At least he’d spend another day in the company of the fair Eliza. If he could only remove The Minchin for a half hour! Then again, perhaps she preferred someone closer to her own age? At thirty, he was hardly in his dotage. He had noticed her eyes wandering over young Johnny, though, with his flamboyant taste in clothes and that well-oiled gun belt holding a gun that had probably seen considerable use.

A derringer was more his own style. The type of gun that wouldn’t ruin the fit of a man’s jacket…

Damn, there it was again. How on earth was anyone expected to sleep around…

This time he heard voices. A man’s and a woman’s.

Interesting.

He got up and crept closer to the door but with the damn wind and rain it was impossible to make out who it was he heard.

He was just about to try easing his door open when the board outside his door squeaked and he froze. Next he heard footsteps, then a door closing. At least, it sounded like a door closing. Someone was trying to be very quiet.

Curious.

He’d have to ask young Johnny if he heard anything.

Unless…unless Johnny was the night walker?

He tapped a finger against his top lip. “William, you told yourself you were going to keep on eye on him. After all, do you really believe this story of him being rancher?”

Chapter Three

It was still raining the next morning. The constant plop, plop, plop as the rain splattered into the iron pots was most definitely not music to his ears. What he wanted right now was a bath and fresh clothes. The humidity had risen to the point that his shirt felt almost damp when he put it on. Most unpleasant.

There was no sign of The Minchin or Eliza when he came downstairs. Mortimer Smith had his head stuck in a book and Branson sat at another table with a newspaper whose news must be at least three months old, if the grease marks and torn edges were anything to go by.

Johnny was slathering butter on his biscuit as William pulled up a chair. “Morning, William. And before you ask, the ladies are taking breakfast in their room.”

“I shall blame The Minchin for ruining my morning, in that case.” William sat back to allow Mabel room to put his plate in front of him.

“There you go, Mister William.” And she bobbed her grey head, before heading off to the other tables to offer more coffee.

Mabel’s biscuits weren’t as tasty as her stew and the bacon was cut too thick for his liking. And the coffee was lukewarm. He managed a few bites and a few sips before pushing the plate away.

Johnny squinted across the table at him. “Don’t tell me the bed bugs travelled south? Or the roof leaked?”

“No. Neither.”

“Well, that’s good news.” A moment later, Johnny was eyeing him over the rim of his coffee. “You sure you’re okay? You don’t look so chipper this morning.”

“Mmmm.” He sipped at his coffee. “What about you? Did you sleep well?”

“I always sleep well.”

“There speaks the voice of untroubled youth. You didn’t hear anything in the night?”

Johnny paused a beat, then picked up his coffee again. “Rain. Just plenty of rain.”

“Is that normal in these parts?”

“Nope. And I hope it doesn’t cause any trouble. Charlie’s looking a mite worried.”

“Is that why he dragged us up out of bed so early?”

Johnny started grinning. “Boy, you sure are grumpy when you don’t get enough sleep. You going to eat that?” He eyed the untouched biscuit on William’s plate.

“Be my guest.” And he pushed the plate further across the table. “So, where are you headed to, Johnny?”

“You mean, where am I leaving the stage?”

“Yes.”

“Morro Coyo.”

“Morro Coyo.” The name didn’t quite roll off the tongue with the same style as when Johnny said it. “So what’s waiting for you there?”

“A ranch.” He talked through his mouthful of biscuit then gulped down some coffee. “Our ranch, I mean.”

“I see.” But his switch to the possessive pronoun was rather odd. Or maybe not? Perhaps he was becoming too suspicious in his old age? He’d seen that happen with others and he’d always prided himself on being clear-headed and not seeing intrigue where there was none.

“What about you, Holdsworth? Where are you heading for?”

“Somewhere with a train.” At least he could answer that part, truthfully. “To be honest, this trip was a spur of the moment decision and I’m beginning to regret it.”

“You could get a train at Cross Creek? Hire a buggy in Morro Coyo, then head south. I could show you the way?”

“That’s beginning to sound promising.” He took out the pamphlet the stage line gave him when he bought his ticket, unfolded the sheet, then spread it out on the table. “According to this, we won’t reach Morro Coyo until…tomorrow evening!”

Johnny nodded. “That’s right.”

“Good grief.” His plan didn’t look quite as convincing as it had yesterday. Perhaps he should have had it out with Van Heusen’s men instead of trying to throw them off his scent?

“And if I don’t get off at Morro Coyo?”

“Well, you’d better get off somewhere.” Johnny stood up and dropped his hat on his head. “Unless you aim to end up in St Louis.”

This time there would be no avoiding the rain as they went outside and huddled under the Sunday Creek Hotel’s porch.

Puddles had formed on the road, between all the ruts the various wagons and coaches had made. In one hole, a pile of manure rose from the water like a volcanic island. He damn well hoped it didn’t explode. Just one of the many joys of life out West, no doubt.

The women had probably used their umbrellas on the trip to the outhouse but the men just splashed through the puddles. At least it wasn’t cold. Spring had been unseasonably warm and in a few weeks they’d all be baking in the heat of summer.

“Ladies.” William bowed as they came out to the porch but he wasn’t close enough to relieve them of their luggage. Johnny did that after murmuring his ‘good mornings’. The Minchin wore the same grey dress but Eliza had changed from her tartan ensemble into one of dark blue, trimmed at the neck with white lace. Somehow the colour highlighted her eyes, which were the palest shade of blue. Almost grey.

Johnny’s hat was tilted downwards, probably in anticipation of the rain, but, if William wasn’t mistaken, he had an admiring quirk to his mouth as he put their luggage down near the top of the steps.

Branson rubbed his hands together. “We’ll be in for a time of it, today. No doubt about it, with all this rain.”

After so little sleep, Branson’s voice was much too loud to deal with, especially after lukewarm coffee. And Branson should really speak to his tailor; the sleeves on his tweed jacket were far too short.

“Charlie’s an experienced, driver.” Mortimer Smith’s voice had a tinge of annoyance in it, which William could totally understand. “You don’t need to be worrying the ladies.”

“Oh dear.” Eliza peeped out from the umbrella she held in readiness to board. “But it is prodigiously wet out there, isn’t it.”

“Eliza, didn’t I tell you to wear your boots? I had them out, ready for you.” One of The Minchin’s bony fingers came out to point. He half expected Eliza’s feet to curl up and wither on the spot.

“Oh dear. How silly of me.” And she looked down at her feet—as did all the men. Peeping out from her skirts was a petite foot in a cream leather shoe with bows and diamantes on top.

It was possible she didn’t have a brain in that pretty head but her childishness was very endearing. “What a pity I don’t have my cloak to throw down for you to walk on, Miss Eliza.”

“I don’t think that would be an exceptionally good idea for the wellbeing of your cloak, Mr Holdsworth.”

“It would be nothing to carry you, my dear.” And Branson flexed his arm as if to prove he’d been using it every day for carrying young women through puddles rather than mostly bringing food to his mouth.

“Nonsense. She’ll walk like everyone else and if she ruins her shoes, so be it. Lesson learned.” And Miss Minchin opened her umbrella with a snap.

To be honest, there was a good deal of sense to what The Minchin said but only the hardest of hearts would agree when they saw the penitent expression on Eliza’s face.

“Here’s the stage.” Johnny came forward, hefting his saddlebags again.

The four horses looked fresh and keen to get moving, tossing their heads and making the harness jingle. Charlie set the brake and jumped down. “Howdy folk. Time to load’er up.”

That set about a scurry of activity for everyone to get their bags loaded on top. At least the rain had eased until it was more like a shower but Branson and his fellow passengers didn’t look in the least bit eager to help. He couldn’t blame them. Sitting all day in wet clothes was hardly conducive to one’s comfort. And honestly, William didn’t feel like being a martyr, either.

“’Scuse me, ladies.” Johnny came forward in his suede outfit, saddlebags on his shoulder, and took the couple of steps onto the road. When he got to the stage, he tossed them up to Charlie. Hands on hips, he turned around to the others, sheltering under the awning.  “Whose bag is next?” Apparently Johnny didn’t melt in the rain like everyone else. Well, good luck to him.

Branson passed his carpet bag down to Johnny, then Johnny took it across to the stage and tossed it up to Charlie. And so it went on until all their bags were stowed, covered with a canvas tarpaulin, then tied down by the two of them. Johnny gave a good tug on his side of the roof. “She’s nice and tight, Charlie. You’d need a stick of dynamite to scatter this lot.”

“Okay, we’re ready to go.” Charlie clambered down and stood by the door. “All aboard.”

William shuffled down from the porch with the others. Johnny and he would board last as they sat either side of the door. No-one thanked Johnny for his service, he noted, as Charlie handed The Minchin into the stage. William sidled up to Johnny. “Thanks for stowing the luggage. I could have helped but…”

“Well, it would be kinda foolish for us both to get wet, wouldn’t it.”

And Johnny didn’t sound worried about the lack of help, so that twinge of guilt didn’t last long.

Eliza waited until Minchin, Smith and Branson had boarded before making her way down the steps, holding her dress in one hand and parasol in the other and expertly dodging puddles. As she came abreast Johnny, she passed the umbrella to Charlie, then lifted her skirts to reveal a very pretty set of ankles. When he saw where Johnny’s eyes went, as did his own, he realised that perhaps he hadn’t given the fair Eliza enough credit? He started smiling to himself. A pair of sensible, black boots wouldn’t have been nearly as alluring.

“I do hope my shoes won’t be ruined.” And she lifted her skirt an inch or so higher. “It was so forgetful of me not to change into my boots.”

Well, if Johnny hadn’t noticed now, there was no hope for the boy. Even old Charlie looked mesmerised.

Ah yes, Johnny had noticed, all right; he took his sweet time pushing his hat back off his face. Finally, he took her arm to help her into the stage. “Miss Eliza, I don’t think—.”

And that was as far as he got before she screamed.

Good God. William swung around, his hand diving into his jacket, but even as he turned he heard three gunshots.

Or was it one?

His eyes swept for danger, down the street or behind the hotel? And then he was glad he hadn’t got his gun out—he let go of the derringer and took his hand out from his coat.

The danger had passed—and the victim was well and truly dead.

And to tell the truth, if it wasn’t for his experience, he might be standing there like Eliza, wide-eyed with his mouth hanging open.

Johnny twirled his gun then slipped it back into the holster. He had Branson, Minchin and Smith, staring at him from the stage. He waved a hand at them. “It’s okay, folks.” Then to Eliza, “Sorry if I startled you, ma’am.”

Eliza’s mouth was still open but the fear on her face had turned to wonderment. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Please don’t be sorry. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. How did you ever get so fast?”

His smile was slow this time. “Ooh, that would be with practise. Lots of practise.”

“Eliza, what’s happening?” So much for the controlled Miss Minchin. She was shrieking like an alley cat.

“It’s all right, Miss Minchin. Johnny just killed a snake.”

Charlie slapped his knee then went across and peered at the snake. “Whoee, that was some nice shootin’, my boy.”

Johnny walked across to the porch and toed his victim with his boot. The snake didn’t really look like a snake anymore, unless you could see where the head landed. It hadn’t been very big to begin with, which made his accuracy and skill all the more impressive.

Eliza followed him over. Apparently she needed the assurance of Johnny’s arm to protect her from a dead snake. “My goodness, I’m so grateful. I hate those slithery things.”

William walked across with Charlie.  The snake had come out from just under the porch but such had been the skill of the shooter, that not one splinter of Mabel’s porch was missing. “Funny time for a snake to be around, isn’t it? I thought they came out in the day and sunned themselves on rocks?”

Charlie shook his head. “Nope. That feller’s been holed up all winter. They like the spring rains, ‘specially when its warm like this morning. He woulda been out looking for a mouse that got flooded outta his home, just like this snake got flooded out. He’s probably been living under this here porch through the cold.”

“You seem to know a lot about them, Charlie.”

Charlie pointed to his head. Sure enough, he had a snakeskin band on his hat. “I’m kinda fond of ‘em. They’re interesting critters and mostly leave us folks alone.”

“Oh. I feel sorry now that I screamed.” And Eliza did sound genuinely contrite.

“Nope, Mabel woulda been glad to see the last of it. She hates the dang things. Well, that’s the end of the entertainment. I won’t even charge extra for it,” Charlie added with a wink.

William looked up at the sky as they walked back to the stagecoach. It had stopped raining and no-one had noticed.

Johnny deserved the honour of handing Eliza in so he left him to it. Besides, he wanted a word with Charlie.

Those in the stage had to settle themselves again and he could hear The Minchin chiding Eliza for her ‘unladylike scream.’

“After you,” he said to Johnny. “Impressive shooting, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

He waited until Johnny had climbed inside, then he said under his breath, “Who the hell am I travelling with, Charlie?”

Charlie’s face crinkled. “Dontcha know? I thought mebbe he’d introduced himself. That’s Johnny Madrid.”

“Madrid? The gunfighter? From down around the border?”

“Yep. Course he’s—. Hey, git outta that. Darn kids.”

Charlie made a dash for his team. A few town kids were standing near the lead pair but William couldn’t see if they were up to no good so he climbed in himself.

There was a curious silence as the coach rolled off. Branson and the Minchin wore varying degrees of unease on their faces, Smith was looking vaguely triumphant and Eliza…well, his chances with her, even if he was still interested, were undeniably doomed. She had clearly discovered a hero.

Johnny Madrid himself didn’t appear to have a care in the world as he watched the world roll by. Saving beautiful maidens was probably all in a day’s work for him. No doubt, any minute, he’d assume his usual pose of arms crossed, hat pulled down, and look, for all the world, as if was asleep.

But William was beginning to wonder if Johnny Madrid ever slept.

Perhaps Johnny’s ears were burning because he half turned his head and gave William a nod. Nothing boastful about it. He was simply a craftsman, who knew his trade.

Damn, if he didn’t admire the boy’s attitude.

Not to mention his speed and precision.

The stage started to pick up pace and almost  in tandem, the rain started to come down again. The Minchin was already directing everyone to close the leather blinds to keep them all dry.

The rocking of the coach was starting to make him feel relaxed, sleepy even, after all the excitement.

Johnny Madrid, eh? Well, well. He mulled a few options over in his mind. Perhaps young Johnny might be useful…?

                                              Chapter Four

The road that took the stagecoach over Sunday Creek itself, was about a half hour out of town.

Johnny, across the way, had assumed his predicted position, but as the stage slowed he pushed his hat back and pulled the blind aside.

William was still feeling lazy. “Why are we slowing?”

“We’re about to cross Sunday Creek.”

There was something in his voice that sent a spark of unease up his spine. “Is that a problem?”

“Not usually. Take a look out your window.”

Of course, his words had everyone pulling the blinds aside to peer out.

“Gracious,” Eliza murmured, peering over The Minchin’s shoulder.

Gracious indeed. It wasn’t a creek they were looking at. This was a fully fledged river, dirty brown and flowing fast. Branches, big and small, were being propelled downstream at a worrying speed. “Sunday creek?”

Johnny winced. “Not at the moment, it ain’t.”

“Will we be able to cross?” Branson tugged at his tie, as if it was choking him.

“Charlie will let us know if we can’t. He won’t risk the stage.”

“The flow looks strong.” Mortimer had a matter-of-fact way of speaking. William could imagine him behind his grill if a bank robber appeared. He’d probably ask in that monotone of his, ‘Will that be hundreds or thousands you’ll be taking with you, sir?’

Johnny was saying, “We have weight on our side. And it depends how deep the water is.”

Even as he spoke, the stage slowed to a walk, then lurched sideways, making even the controlled Minchin gasp.

Johnny pulled his blind up and kneeled on the seat to half lean out.

William stayed seated. He didn’t want to alarm Eliza. “What’s happening, Johnny?”

“We’re in the water. You’d better lift your feet ladies. We might get some water inside.”

It wasn’t just the ladies who lifted their feet. William wasn’t going to let his new shoes get water-logged.

“We’re half-way through. Whoa.” Johnny’s hand clutched the bottom of the window.

That was enough to make William tug his blind aside and stick his head out. A large branch, no it was actually a log, was being carried by the force of the rushing stream, straight towards them. Oh hell, that wasn’t good. “Get us, moving, Charlie. Faster. Faster.” A log that size could dislodge the stage and knock it onto its side.

The water was lapping at the bottom of the door, now. Rivulets were running onto the stage floor.

“This is damn-well preposterous,” Branson choked out, looking through the door’s window. William had a half a mind to tell him to sit down in case his weight tipped the stage over.

“Language, please, Mr Branson. And if we intend to complete our journey, then the stage must get through.” Minchin’s voice sounded higher than was usual.

Even through the noise of the rain on the roof, he could hear Charlie. “Hya, hya, hya.” He could see the whip sailing above the team’s heads. The horses didn’t need much urging. They picked up their pace, and the stage lurched forward. It was going to be close. That log had enough force to push the stage sideways or smash through the door, right where he was sitting.

A quick glimpse showed Johnny looking tight-lipped, watching the log get closer and closer.

Good God, it wasn’t just a log, it was a whole damn tree.

“What’s happening out there?” It was Eliza’s voice, concerned but doing her best to hide it. Good girl.

The horses’ heads were bobbing in rhythm, as their legs surged through the water, manes flying. William slapped the side of the stage. “Get going. Get going.” That log was about to hit them at any moment. The first pair was up on solid ground, then the second pair reached land but the log was mere inches away, heading straight for his window.

What the dickens! There was a squirrel on the log, looking right at him, its tiny eyes wide with fear. Could he save it? Don’t be a fool, William.

The log was inches away. He clutched onto the side of the stage, ready for the impact, then yelled at those inside. “Hold on, everybody.”

The stage lurched sideways. Good God, they were going to go under.

Good Lord.

Unbelievably, the horses had done a monumental effort to drag the stage from the water and as William looked back, log and squirrel rushed past their stage, missing them by a hair’s breadth. He dropped his head with relief.

“We’re good,” he heard Johnny call to the others.

But what a pity that little fellow was probably going to drown with a fierce current like that.

“Look at that.” Johnny’s voice brought his head up. The squirrel had managed to jump onto a branch that was hanging low over the water. The plucky fellow was jumping from branch to branch, making his way up the tree. “That’s one lucky squirrel.”

William grinned. “That’s one lucky us.”

“That was expert handling by Charlie. I’d say skill, rather than luck.”

They both sat back inside. William slumped down into his seat. “Well, that was some unlooked for excitement. I hope Charlie won’t charge extra for that, either.”

Eliza laughed, even though her face was pale but The Minchin’s lips were rigid. “It’s a disgrace. An absolute disgrace.”

Johnny leaned back in his seat and gave her a wry look. “Ma’am, I don’t see that the stage line can do anything about the weather. I mean, it ain’t exactly on their timetable.”

“I’ll just be happy when we’re off this contraption.”

He had a certain sympathy with her, there. Stopping at this, Morro Coyo place, if what Johnny said was true, was sounding more and more promising by the minute.

Up top, they could still hear Charlie urging the team on. His eyebrows went up as he looked at Johnny, who was clearly thinking what he was thinking; what was the big hurry now?

Johnny looked at William then leaned forward to shake his hat out. William leaned forward to straighten the leg of his trousers. The rain was so loud on the roof, it was almost impossible to think let alone anyone hear them. “I think Charlie’s worried about King River. We’re meant to stop at the relay station, once we’ve passed over.”

William winced. “Surely, not another creek?”

Johnny grinned. “Don’t worry. This one has a bridge.”

If the lurching had been bad yesterday, it was worse today. And when you combined that with the stuffiness inside and the incessant rain pelting down on the roof…well, the journey was turning into something of a nightmare.

Mortimer Smith seemed to be suffering the worst. His face, normally so white, was looking increasingly green. And that made everyone nervous.

Finally, Minchin poked his leg. “Stick your head out for some air, Mr Smith. We’d all much rather be wet than…well, anything else would be quite unpleasant.”

Smith at least looked grateful as he pushed the blind back far enough to let the wind rush over his face.

And that little bit of air coming into the stage was a relief for everyone. The men had taken their jackets off. Even Johnny.

Branson’s white shirt was soaked with sweat and his face had red blotches all over it. He elbowed Johnny. “When is our next stop?”

“We should be there around noon.”

“Will there be food?” William regretted that he hadn’t swallowed more at breakfast.

Johnny frowned. “From what I remember, it’s a swing station.”

“What does that mean, Johnny?”

Eliza was being really brave now, by using Johnny’s name. Would The Minchin scold her once they were alone in private?

“Well, the stop we did yesterday, before Sunday Creek, was a swing station. Just a small place. Usually just a cabin and run by a couple of fellers. It’s usually just a quick stop to change the horses and stretch our legs.”

“No food?” William’s stomach was already rumbling.

“Coffee, if we’re lucky.”

Eliza smiled at him. “Don’t worry, Mr Holdsworth. I’ll ask if they can make you coffee.”

“I suspect you’ll get further than me regarding that request, Miss Eliza.”

Johnny was right. Once they reached the ‘swing’ station, there was scarcely enough time to rush out of the stage and run through the rain to the log cabin. Sadly, there was no Mabel to bustle out and greet them but hostlers, Dwayne and Dan, the red-headed brothers who ran the station, were industrious young men and they offered coffee and cornbread for two bits. And when that was gone, Johnny shared his jerky. To be honest, he would have eaten pig slops right now he was so hungry. Mind you, the way they ogled Eliza, they probably would have killed the fatted calf if she asked.

Neither he nor Johnny felt like sitting as they ate and there were no chairs to sit on, even if they wanted to; the ladies were using the two chairs at the table, escorted there by Dwayne. Or was it Dan?  He looked at the table, then murmured to Johnny, “Which one’s which? Is that Dwayne or Dan?”

Johnny looked around. “That’s Dwayne. Um…the one with the beard? No, I think that’s Dan.”

“You would make a very annoying brother. You know very well they’ve both got beards.”

Johnny grinned into his coffee. “Well, tell the truth, I’ve been told I’m annoying, from time to time.”

“Anyway, whichever one it is, he’s got an awful lot to say and The Minchin looks like she’s about to strangle him.”

“Miss Minchin’s in fine form since we stopped here. She’s already hollered at Branson over something he did. She was tearing strips off him.”

“This jerky is really chewy, by the way.”

Johnny started grinning as he chewed, coffee in one hand, jerky in the other. “This is how you learn not to skip a meal when its offered, especially if you don’t know where the next one is coming from. If at all.” His smile twisted on those last words, as if a memory pushed it sideways.

William tore off another piece of jerky. The rain, the stage, the travelling…even the growling stomach—yes, he had memories that could make a smile slip sideways, too.

*

All too soon, Charlie was calling them and it was time to board again. He and Johnny walked outside and stood under the cabin’s porch, looking out at the rain.

Johnny tipped his head then dropped his hat on. “Boy, I can’t say I won’t be happy when this trip is over.”

They both moved aside as Eliza came out, her umbrella at the ready. She sighed as she looked at the rain, but then she nodded, as if she was bracing herself for the unpleasantness of the journey. “I’ve been thinking,” and she turned to them both, “I think it’s a good idea to try to find a bright spot in every situation.”

“You sure are my bright spot on this journey, Miss Eliza.”

Well, who knew a gunfighter could sound bashful? Eliza seemed to like it, though. Well, William would give her some Boston charm. He bowed low. “And that’s exactly what I was going to say.” Without Johnny’s yokel appeal, of course.

They both earned a grateful look from her. “Well, I’m very glad the two of you are here.”

He flicked a glance at Johnny. Had he seen that flash of unease in Eliza’s eyes? Perhaps she was worried about the rest of their journey? It was amazing she’d escaped the clutches of The Minchin. He looked around, but there was no sign of her. “If there’s anything we can do for you, Miss Eliza—?”

“Eliza. Come, child.”

Sure enough, there was Miss Minchin, appearing out of nowhere, like the witch she was.

“All aboard.” Charlie had his watch out. Dan—or Dwayne—had finished harnessing the fresh team and now Charlie looked eager to go.

He hoped the last team got an extra helping of oats for all their hard work. They were steaming when they drove into the station.

The Minchin escorted Eliza to the stage, umbrellas open. Branson and Mortimer Smith followed, both of them running to dodge the damned, incessant rain.

He was just about to make a dash for it with Johnny when Dwayne—or Dan—threw a buffalo robe at him. “Here, take this. Charlie keeps’em on the stage.”

So, sheltering under the hide, they walked side-by-side to the stage and managed to stay dry, for once.

Once abreast of Charlie, Johnny stopped. “How bad do you think the weather is up ahead?”

“Ooh, ‘bout the same as this, I’d say. This damn rain is widespread. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it since the spring of ’62.”

“Did you get through that year?”

“Don’t you worry about that, boys. They don’t call Charlie ‘Jehu’ for nothin’. I always gets through.” And with those words, he climbed up on his box.

William looked at Johnny. “Ole Charlie always gets through.”

Johnny stuck his bottom lip out and nodded. “That’s what they say.”

But for once he didn’t look any more confident than William felt.

*

Mortimer Smith seemed to have regained his colour, much to everyone’s relief, probably. There were even a few moments when the rain eased and almost stopped. Other than that, they were travelling through a wet, steamy, world where conversation was almost impossible thanks to the noise on the roof, even if anyone wanted to speak.

At least he had Eliza back on his shoulder again, and this time The Minchin didn’t move her off. Mind you, it wasn’t quite as comfortable as it had been yesterday because the heat of her body only served to make him feel even hotter and he tried to do his best to protect her from all the jostling. It also meant she hadn’t read the set of rules posted by the company where you bought your ticket, covering issues such as snoring and using your neighbour’s shoulder for a pillow.

His favorite piece of advice was always the one concerning run away horses; something about remaining calm and passengers were advised not to panic and leap from a moving stage.

Johnny had jammed himself into the corner away from Branson but Mortimer Smith wasn’t faring so well on the other side.

Every so often, William would pull the blind aside to see where they were and he’d hear Charlie, up on his box, calling to the team. “Hyah, hyah, Up, up, up.”

And upwards they were going. The stage had been climbing for several miles, through a forest, and that added a level of concern as what goes up, has to come down. Traversing a slippery road with a full stage would no doubt require a lot of skill.

Even as he had that thought, the stage lurched sideways; enough to throw Branson onto Johnny and Eliza onto him. She woke and sat up but Johnny had to use considerable effort to push Branson off him because the big man was still asleep. William suspected it was due to the amount of whisky he’d secretly guzzled at their last stop.

Other than Johnny, the others all looked a little worried as they straightened their clothes and emerged from their benumbed state. There’s nothing like the jolting of a stagecoach ride to turn your brain into mush.

Minchin started the questions, wanting to know where they were, then Mortimer Smith and Eliza joined in.

Interestingly, the other passengers, even himself, began to look to Johnny for assurance and William didn’t think it was entirely due to his skill with a gun. No, he was one of those men who appeared highly capable; that he was likely to handle whatever trouble came his way, with a clarity of mind and common sense.

Another lurch made Eliza gasp. “Oh gracious. I thought the wheel had fallen off for a moment.”

“No, it was just my purse falling off my lap,” The Minchin sounded even more annoyed than usual.

Johnny reached down and picked up The Minchin’s ticket that had ended up near his boot. “It’s just a hole in the road. Nothing to worry about.” And he handed the ticket over. “At least Charlie didn’t tell us to get out and walk as we went up that last hill.”

Eliza looked shocked. “Would he do that to paying passengers?”

“If the paying passengers want to get to wherever they’re going he would. Sometimes the team is struggling with the weight and it’s too much for the horses. So…”

William smiled at her. “So, we walk.”

“I hope that won’t happen to us in this weather.” Perhaps she was finally regretting her choice of shoe.

“Don’t worry, Miss Eliza. That usually only happens up in the mountains.” For once, Mortimer sounded kind rather than remote. Was he beginning to thaw? William could imagine him going home every night to a small house with an elderly mother and a cat. A tabby cat. A tabby cat who sat by the fire. He seemed to be a lonely fellow. Quite solitary.

The stage must have crested the hill as it was definitely going downhill now. Every so often the rain would ease enough for him to hear Charlie calling to his team, “Good lads. On we go. That’s the way.”

Johnny stuck his head out the window for a few minutes before reporting, “We’re heading down into the valley.”

William took a look as well. The rain seemed to have washed away the top layer of the road. Rivulets of water were streaming down it in every direction. Once inside again, he locked eyes with Johnny. He damn-well hoped Charlie was as good as he said.

Eliza tugged on his sleeve when he sat back in his seat again. “What’s happening, Mr Holdsworth? You look concerned.”

He patted her hand. “Nothing to worry about, I’m sure.”

But the stage was beginning to gather speed.

Branson had woken up and was noticeably sweating. “I was in a stagecoach that turned over once. It was—.”

“It was something you walked away from, Branson.” Johnny almost growled. “No need to scare the ladies. The drag at the back of the stage will slow us down.”

“It’s not the ladies who are scared.” Minchin stared at Branson.

“I was just trying to pass the time,” Branson mumbled.

William could hear a grinding sound as Charlie worked the brakes.

Johnny leaned forward. “That’s a good sign, Miss Eliza. It means Charlie’s slowing the stage so that the team stays in control. He’s been doing this for a lot of years.”

“He does look very experienced, doesn’t he…Johnny.”

“And I just wish it would stop raining.” The Minchin spoke over Eliza’s last word in a loud voice. Far louder than was necessary to be heard over the rain.

William stared at her. “You speak for us all on that point, Miss Minchin.” He’d been so tempted to say something scathing but…well, Eliza needed to learn how to stand up for herself where the Minchin was concerned.

William tried to ignore what was happening but they were definitely gathering speed and he’d seen the state of the road. If the wheels should lose traction and they slid…? He pushed that thought down. No reason to think the worst.

But the coach began rocking more and more. It was like being tossed and buffeted in a boat on stormy seas—sometimes sideways, often straight up and down.

There was little talk now. They were probably all hanging on for grim death as the stage rattled and shook.

At one point, the stage hit something and William bounced so hard his head almost touched the roof. Branson’s definitely did. Eliza was clutching William’s arm, now. Johnny had had to take hold of the leather strap on the side as did Miss Minchin and Mortimer in their seats.

Branson had sweat running down his face. He mopped at it with a white handkerchief.

Still the stage travelled down and down. Brakes on, with that grinding sound like shrieking souls in hell, then brakes off and the stage would start to careen again as if it was out of control. Each time Charlie took a corner, they were forced against their neighbour, then they’d struggle to sit up and find their own seat again. It would have been humorous at any other time.

How long had it been? Was this hill ever going to end? And still the stage lurched and bumped and lurched and groaned and squealed and then—.

He almost yelled out loud. They were losing traction. The back wheels were sliding or skidding or…or…

William looked at Johnny.

He seemed to be listening, intently.

And then—Johnny nodded.

Thank God. There was no doubt about it—they’d finally come to the bottom of the hill.

“Are we down?” Eliza let go of his hand.

William had the sense that everyone had started to breathe again. Even though there were still being jostled, it was clear that the stage was back on even ground because they were no longer tilted.

Johnny had his head out the window again, then he turned to William with a frown. “We’re stopping.”

The stage indeed slowed and then it came to a sudden halt.

“Is it a relay station? We’re meant to be stopping at King River Station. That’s what it said on my timetable.” William stuck his head out.

By this time, Charlie had got down but he was walking towards the head of his team.

“I’ll go check.” Johnny was already opening the door and William followed him.

“The rest of you had better wait here. We’ll go and see what’s happening.”

It was almost dark outside. The rain had stopped but every tree and bush around him was dripping with water. William’s legs felt strange, as if he was back on land after sailing all day.

But the storm hadn’t abated. Up ahead, he could hear distant rolling thun…der?

He stared ahead into the dark but damn, none of it made sense. It couldn’t be?

Johnny, just up ahead of him, swung around. “I sure hope you’re a strong swimmer?”

Charlie waited until William had caught up and the three of them were standing side, by side. “Gentleman, this ‘ere,” and he waved his hand in front of them, “is the King River.”

William shook his head. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t right, at all. “The bridge? Where’s the bridge?”

Johnny put his hands on his hips. “We…ell, I’d say it’s either under all that water—or it floated off, downstream.”

For a moment, William felt almost faint. He put his hands on his knees and sucked in a breath of the cool, night air. When he straightened, he put a hand on Johnny and Charlie’s shoulders. “I don’t suppose either of you knows Moses?”

Chapter Five

“So, we’re stuck here, Charlie?” William stared at the surging water. It was hard to tell how deep it was but, much like Sunday Creek, it was a dirty brown and he could see how fast it was flowing by the way branches raced by as if they were nothing more than dried leaves. He hated begging but, “Please tell me you’ve got something up your sleeve.”

Johnny took his hat off and slapped it against his thigh. Even he was looking despondent. “Yeah, Charlie. Like a different bridge, maybe?”

Charlie showed them his rolled up shirt sleeves. “Sorry, fellers. I got nothin’ here ‘cept my two arms.”

Johnny took a few more steps towards the river and tried leaning forward to gauge just how bad their situation might be. “Well, just how deep is the river, Charlie? We got through Sunday Creek okay.”

“Well, boys, what if I told you the river bank is usually about—ooh, let me see—probably nigh-on six feet above the river, around here.”

“What?” Johnny and he both said the word at the same time.  It was impossible to see where the river usually ran, let alone see a river bank.

“Yep. And that’s why there’s a bridge. Well, there was one. Can’t say I’m not surprised it failed. It wasn’t built for the weight of stagecoaches in the first place.”

William knew he was grasping at straws, but it was worth trying. “I know Johnny was probably joking but do you think one of us could swim?”

Charlie made a choking sound. “I guess one of us could—if he wasn’t planning on seeing the morrow.” It was only when Charlie slapped his leg that William realised he was laughing. “Young feller, only a fool gets into a flooded river. Why, the current and undertow would be strong enough to drag you under, not to mention all the logs and the-devil- knows-what the current is taking along with it. No sirree.”

Johnny came back. “I’ve seen full grown steer drown in flooded rivers. Charlie’s right, William. It would be a fool’s mission.” He looked at Charlie. “So, what do you suggest we do?”

“We ain’t got much choice other than to make camp here for the night. The ladies can sleep in the stage. You fellers can rig up a shelter outside.”

William had slept outside more times than he could count, but given the choice, he’d choose a bed every time. Even a mattress stuffed with straw sounded tempting right now. “There’s no ranch or farm in these parts? A barn we could shelter in?”

“Oh sure. There are plenty of those—.”

Johnny straightened up. “Boy, why didn’t you…”

“Across the river.”

“You don’t need to sound so darn happy about it,” Johnny muttered.

William rubbed his forehead. This was beginning to sound worse and worse. “We could be stranded here for days, in that case, Charlie?”

“I reckon, if this rain stops, and there ain’t been too much rain upstream, the water level oughtta drop in a day. Mebbe two.”

Johnny dropped his head and nodded his agreement but he was looking about as happy as William felt. 

Only, weren’t they forgetting about something? “I hate to break it to you two, but if there’s no bridge, how do we get the stage through?”


Charlie stared at him as if he’d just escaped from bedlam. “Mr Holdsworth, sir, we’ve got no way of getting’ the stage through. Nope, we won’t have a stage getting through here for a month or so, I’d say.” And he must have seen that William was about to strangle him because he quickly added, “But I’m pretty sure there’s a smaller bridge ‘bout ten miles or so, downstream. It’s not wide enough for the stage but I could get a horse across and go for help.”

“Would someone kindly tell us why we’ve stopped and when we’ll be moving again?” It wasn’t a pleasant voice. And it sounded closer to a shrill demand than a polite request.

He and Johnny looked at each other in commiseration, then Johnny put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Miss Minchin is all yours, Charlie.”

“That’s all right, boys. I can handle the likes of her.”

Such bravado in the face of danger was impressive. William gave Johnny a wink as they followed Charlie, through the many puddles, back to the stagecoach.

Yes, their driver was brave. Charlie just ambled right up to the stagecoach, to where The Minchin’s head was poking out of a window. “Hey there, folks,” Charlie called out. “Sorry to say, I’ve got bad news for ever-one. This is as far as we’ll be going tonight. The river’s in flood and it looks like we’ve lost the bridge.”

“What?”

Everyone piled out of the stage with those words. The Minchin’s expression said she was only going to believe Charlie if she saw the evidence for herself. Branson looked slightly less sceptical as he lumbered on behind, Eliza looked bewildered and Mortimer Smith appeared resigned, as if this sort of occurrence was a regular feature of his daily life.

“Oh my.” Eliza put a hand to her cheek as she stepped down from the coach with William’s help, and stared ahead. The rushing noise of the water was scary enough, let alone seeing how far the river had spread.

The Minchin looked too shocked to speak, for at least a few seconds, as she stood there with skirts held high, trying to avoid her hems from being soaked in the puddles. The silence didn’t last long, of course. “This is preposterous. What do you mean, we can’t go on? I demand my money back. What kind of a business are you running here?” It wouldn’t have surprised William if her tirade could be heard across the water and all the way to the King River Station, another ten miles further south.

Charlie had let her rant and rave for quite some minutes now and she still hadn’t run out of breath. William eyed Johnny. So much for Charlie knowing how to handle—.

Good Lord, William almost jumped he was so startled and that was unusual for him. But he’d been watching the Minchin and wondering when she’d finally stop.

 It turned out, Charlie had put a whistle to his lips and blew on it.

Loudly.

The Minchin stopped in the middle of whatever complaint she was up to, and her mouth squeezed close, as if she was in some sort of physical pain. It was an unusual reaction. Not what William expected.

Charlie jumped in with, “Ma’am, on behalf of the company, I apologise, but I can’t do anything about the weather. Or the bridge being gone. Now, if you’ll kindly wait, I’ll find the best place to leave the stage then get the horses settled.”

The Minchin spoke through her teeth. “Well, all I can say is this: I’ll be writing a letter to the company, as soon as we reach St Louis.” True anger, naked to the eye, was always ugly. And right now, he didn’t like what he saw on Miss Minchin’s face. Until now, she’d just been a tiresome woman, full of prejudices and self-importance. Perhaps he’d been wrong?

“…Mr Holdsworth?”

Mortimer Smith was looking at him. “I’m sorry, Mr Smith?

“I was saying, you can’t fight the elements. No point in even trying.”

“Very true, sir.”

“Absolute nonsense,” Branson growled and he started to spout his outrage, much of it along the same lines as Miss Minchin.

He might have earned a blast of the whistle from Charlie as well, if it hadn’t been for Eliza touching him on the arm. “Really, Mr Branson, I don’t see that we can blame our driver for the weather. Especially as he’s done wonderfully well in getting us this far, safely.”

And how well-said of her. William gave her a warm smile. “That’s very true, Miss Eliza.” He really should have thought of that, himself. “Charlie, we’ve been remiss in not thanking you for your expert handling of the team.”

“It’s what I get paid to do, Mr Holdsworth. But, if I do say so myself, I ain’t no shavetail. And there be plenty of drivers—not with Our Company, of course—who woulda found the going tough on a day like today. But I ain’t lost a passenger yet and I don’t aim to start.”

Johnny held his hand out. “I’ll give you my hand on that promise of yours, Charlie. And my thanks.”

Charlie shook Johnny’s hand then cleared his throat and murmured something about not wanting any fussing and that everything was settled. “I’ll move the coach to higher ground, just so as there’s no chance of the river catching up to it. Then I could use some help unharnessing the team.”

“But what about food? And where shall we sleep?” Miss Minchin clutched at her scarf. She didn’t even notice that she’d dropped her skirts, and her hems were draping in the mud. It was probably the most honest reaction he’d seen from her yet.

Charlie was already climbing up on his box but Johnny answered. “Charlie said you ladies can sleep in the stagecoach, ma’am.”

“We’ll be safe in there, Miss Minchin.” And Eliza took her hand.

But Branson put two hands to his coat lapels and drew himself up. He was a big man. At least a head taller than Johnny. “Are you telling me that you expect me to sleep outside? Do you have any idea how much my ticket cost me?”

Johnny nodded, as if was considering the question. “Well, Mr Branson, I’m not entirely sure what you paid for your ticket but I guess if you paid the most, then it would be only fair for you to sleep in the stage. You could ask one of the ladies if they’d swap, or would you like me to ask for you?”

Branson clenched his fists and took a step forward but if the big man was hoping Johnny would flinch, he was destined for disappointment. The only thing he got from Johnny was that same, polite half-smile—the one William could see was designed to enrage. Of course Branson backed down, but it was too late for him. “No. That won’t be necessary, boy.” He emphasised the last word, but he’d been made to look like a self-centred fool by Johnny. And everyone saw it.

Johnny looked at the sky. “It’ll be dark soon, so we’d best get ourselves organised before we lose the light completely.”

William dug the remnants of his jerky out of his pocket and held it up. “Can you tell me if you’ve got any food or drink with you. We’d best pool our resources.”

Johnny had some more jerky. Eliza had a box of candies. Mortimer Smith had a bottle of whiskey…

And that left Branson and Minchin. Both just stood there, tight-lipped.

Johnny pushed his hat back. “Branson, you got anything?”

“Me? Nope. Not a thing.” And he said the words with the pettiness of someone who enjoyed being objectionable.

All the same, Branson was either brave or foolhardy to lie to Johnny. Perhaps Branson forgot what Johnny did to that snake, back in Sunday Creek?

William tried his persuasive tone. “And what about you, Miss Minchin. Surely a woman of your experience is always prepared?”

“I’m prepared with clothes, Mr Holdsworth. Nothing else. I was told I’d be able to purchase food and drink each time we stopped.”

Johnny looked like he believed her as far as he could throw her but clearly, like William, he couldn’t be bothered with either of those two. Instead, he walked across to where Charlie had moved the coach back along the road, far enough to escape any further floodwaters. First he grabbed his jacket from the coach, then he called to Charlie while he shrugged it on. “Mind if I use your shotgun Charlie, to rustle us up some grub?”

Charlie set the brake, before calling down. “Sure thing, Johnny. I got it here, stowed under my seat.”

He tossed it down and Johnny caught it. Then came a box of ammunition and Johnny caught that as well. “Thanks, Charlie.”

William folded his arms. It was clear that Charlie trusted Johnny. It was unlikely he’d give his shotgun to just any passenger, especially under these conditions.

Johnny Madrid.

That was quite a reputation Johnny had, especially for one so young.

A few moments later, Johnny joined William by the lead team, holding the rifle aloft to show what he aimed to do. “With any luck, I should be back soon if the rain holds off. See if you can keep’em happy while I’m gone, huh. I’m thinking we might have Branson and Miss Minchin at each other’s throats before the night’s out.” He started grinning but it was soon replaced with a questioning look as he hefted the rifle on his shoulder. “What?”

The black nearest William snorted, looking around for some food as William ran his hand along its neck. “These boys will need a good rubdown and feed after all the work they did today.”

“Yeah, they did real well.” Johnny then looked around, as if he was checking to see who could hear. “But I get the feeling you didn’t get me over here to talk about the team.”

William had seen a flat-footed prize-fighter once—and it hadn’t gone well for the man. Nor for William, who lost a wad of cash. “Johnny, I’m thinking you ought to watch your back around Branson. Big men like him don’t like it when someone makes them look small.”

“I know it.”

William almost laughed outright.  “Yes, I bet you do.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

Johnny turned and walked under one of the dripping oaks. Before long, with the fading light, he’d disappeared between the trees.

Well, at least Johnny hadn’t told him to mind his own business, which was exactly what he should be doing, instead of getting mixed up in the affairs of six people, if he included Charlie, who he’d never met before.

All he had to do, was mind his own business and get back to San Francisco. Preferably by train.

“How hard could that be?”

Chapter Six

“Mr Holdsworth, where’s Johnny going?”

He wouldn’t have minded seeing that kind of disappointment on Eliza’s face concerning his own whereabouts. “He’s taken Charlie’s shotgun and has gone to find you, my dear, your supper.”

“Oh. How clever of him.” And she cast another glance towards the trees, as if hoping Johnny was about to reappear.

“Why don’t we get your valise down from the stage? The temperature is dropping. I hope you’ve got some warm clothes with you.”

Almost from the time Johnny left, a wind had sprung up from the north and blasted away all the unseasonal warm weather they were having. The night would be cold, out here. Very cold. And they’d be needing any extra clothes they were carrying, to stay warm. But at least the wind would help to dry things out. It was so damned wet everywhere. Sometimes the ground squelched where he walked. The puddles were deepest beside the road or on the road itself, where huge potholes had formed.

William had helped Charlie unharness the team and unload the luggage. Then Charlie and he, with some help from Mortimer Smith, used the tarpaulin to rig up a shelter off the back of the stage. They were able to pull the awning tight, high enough to stand under, then they tied it to a tree. Eliza helped where she could, proving to be very handy at tying knots. William stood back and surveyed his handiwork. It wouldn’t provide a great deal of shelter but it was better than nothing at all. “Perhaps not The Palace of Versailles but it will have to do.”

“Ooh, have you been there, Mr Holdsworth?”

Eliza had her hands clasped to her chest and looked so enthralled at the idea that he hated to disappoint her. “I’m afraid not, Miss Eliza.”

She sighed—the sigh of all romantics. “I’d love to go to Europe and see a real castle and a palace where kings and queens lived.”

“And yet, you turned up your nose at my poor little book of Christina Rosetti’s poetry?”

“Oh, no. Not really. It’s just that, at school they made us recite so many poems and although they were often very thoughtful and very pretty, I’ve always preferred to read actual stories about people.”

“With a hero…” And he couldn’t resist adding, “Like young Johnny?”

She dropped her eyes.  “I suppose he would make a fine hero. I haven’t really thought about it.”

But he wasn’t fooled. After all, it was his business to study people. “Then I shall have to be the villain?”

“Oh no, Mr Holdsworth.” At least she looked dismayed at his suggestion. “You could be…” and she put a finger to her cheek as she pondered his fate. “You could be…?”

He started to wince. “I do hope you’re not going to cast me as the domineering father in this story.”

She giggled. “Don’t be silly. You’re far too young for that.” And then she frowned. “At least, I think you’re too young?”

“I assure you, I am. Most definitely.”

“In that case, you can be the worthy friend.”

“Ahh, Mercutio to Johnny’s Romeo?”

She blushed at that. “Don’t be silly. But…no, Mercutio is more hot-headed than you. I see you more as Benvolio. He’s wise and cautious. I think that’s the type of man you are, Mr Holdsworth.”

“Alas, I confess, it’s a blow to my self-esteem to be cast as merely the friend of the hero, but I shall do my best to rise to the occasion.”

Her giggle was the cheeriest sound he’d heard all day, but it was cut short by the boom of two shotgun blasts. William looked around. Mortimer Smith was rummaging through his bag; he could see Miss Minchin in the stagecoach and Charlie was attending to the team…

Where the dickens was Branson?

“Is there something wrong, Mr Holdsworth?”

“I hope not.” Damn it, there was no sign of the man…

And then he heard the murmur of voices inside the stagecoach and one of them was Branson’s deep rumbling voice. When he turned back, he found Eliza watching him, the beginnings of alarm in those pretty eyes of hers. “Nothing to worry about. I’m just dutifully playing my part of second fiddle.”

The corners of her mouth lifted but it wasn’t exactly a smile. She clearly had no idea what he was talking about. “Come on. Let me escort you to your valise, then we’ll kick Mr Branson out of the stage so that you can change and go through your things in peace.”

Johnny strode back into their camp, with two good-sized rabbits, each taken with a clean shot to the head. He offloaded the shotgun to William then looked around. “Where are the ladies? They might not want to see their supper before it’s been skinned.”

“They’re in the stagecoach, so put the rabbits under the wheels near the driver’s seat.” William followed Johnny. “That was excellent shooting, sire.”

“Sire? That’s one of those long-time ago, words, ain’t it?”

“It is, noble Romeo.”

Johnny took a step backwards. “Have you been drinking while I was gone? You sound full as a tick.”

William bowed. “I am Benvolio, to your Romeo.”

“You’re loco. That’s what you are. Where’s my fire?”

“Did you ask for one?”

“Seeing as we have to cook our own supper, I figured someone might have done something about starting a fire.”

William did his best to look hurt. “Charlie and I haven’t exactly been idle. We’ve unharnessed the horses, built a shelter, got the luggage down.” And that was as much of his prowess as he was willing to show to anyone. He supposed he could have made it look like he’d started a fire with wet wood by chance, but that wasn’t normally how he kept himself away from inquiring eyes. It was much safer to avoid drawing attention to one’s self.

“Boy, you must be ready for your afternoon nap, after all that hard work.”

Johnny sounded amused, rather than annoyed.  Out West, he’d come across a lot of men like Johnny; capable men who readily accepted that if a job had to be done, they’d be the one to do it.

“I’m afraid I’m a city boy, Johnny. I’ll leave starting fires in the wet, to you.”

“Here comes Charlie. He can skin the rabbits while I start the fire, can’t you Charlie.”

“I sure can, Johnny.” Then he put his hand up to shield his mouth, for Johnny’s and William’s benefit. “It might stop me from wanting to skin a certain number of my passengers.”

“Not me I hope.” Mortimer Smith pulled his jacket on as he walked up to them and it was probably the first time William had seen him smile. “I’ve skinned plenty of rabbits in my time. If someone has a knife for me to use?”

Johnny bent down and slipped one out of his boot. “Here you go.” And he slapped the handle into Smith’s upturned palm. “When you’re done, I’ll need it back to shave some wood, to get the fire going.”

They left Charlie and Mortimer to the rabbits and were just walking past the stagecoach as Eliza, now wearing a close-fitting jacket with a fur collar, opened the door and came down the steps.

“Is there anything I can do? See, I’ve got my sensible shoes on.” And she lifted her skirt to show she was now wearing a pair of black boots.

Johnny stopped and gazed at her, although William noticed it wasn’t just her boots that he was admiring. “So you have. Well, Miss Eliza, you could help us collect wood for a fire.”

“I’d be glad to help. Besides, there’s not a lot to do other than listen to the river churning over there. It’s still very loud, isn’t it.” And she shivered.

William and Johnny turned and looked at the river, as well. There was no sign of it going down.

Johnny grimaced. “It sure has a fierce flow on it. We’d all better stay well away from the river once night falls. Go head-over-heels into that current and your feet won’t be touching land until you reach the sea.”

“Oh, my.”

She seemed genuinely frightened so Johnny distracted her by detailing how to light a fire when everything around you was wet and dripping, then sent her off to find kindling.

Once she was out of earshot, Johnny turned to William as they started gathering wood. “What did the others do while I was away?”

“Not much. The Minchin sat herself down in the coach in disgust and hasn’t moved. Our friend, Branson, spent a lot of time in there, as well. I kicked him out so that Eliza could change and when I last saw him, he’d gone down to look at the river. Most of the time, Mr Smith helped Charlie and me. By my reckoning, that makes all present and accounted for.”

Johnny eyed him. “You been in the army?”

“Hasn’t nearly everyone?”

“I was in the Mexican Army one time.”

“Not a long collaboration I take it?”

Johnny laughed. “Too many rules.”

“Is this what you’re looking for, Johnny?” Eliza had come back with a handful of twigs.

“Yep, that size would do just fine. But we need a lot more.” He took them from her and tossed them under the awning but as she went to walk away, he said, “Wait a minute.” He took one of her hands, then the other, turning each one over with a careful twist. “Have you got any gloves, Miss Eliza? I don’t want you scratching these pretty hands of yours.”

“Um…?” She was staring up at Johnny’s face.

William rolled his eyes. It just goes to show what blue eyes will do. Damn, what a pity his own eyes were brown. A very ordinary brown, at best.

“Gloves?” It took her a second to break out of her trance. “Yes. Um…gloves. I’ll go get them.” And she ran off, back to the stage.

Johnny watched her for a moment, then went back to collecting wood. He’d just broken a branch off a larger one when he flicked a glance at William. “Well, what are you laughing at?”

William stood up from the bush he’d been foraging under for some dry brush. “Nothing. But I am hurt you weren’t worried about my hands.”

“Aw, shut up.”

Before long, the three of them had armloads of fine twigs and brush. Then Johnny grabbed the spade from the stagecoach and scraped it across a patch of ground under their awning. “We got a newspaper anywhere? Or a book?”

“Miss Minchin has books.” And Eliza turned towards the stage and called, “Miss Minchin. Margaret. Please. We need a book to get the fire going.”

The Minchin stuck her head out. “I don’t have a book, child.”

“But I lifted your valise and you said…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Eliza. I don’t have any books.”

“But…”

Eliza looked troubled but Johnny had already given up on her. “If no-one has a book or a newspaper, I can probably start our fire without some but it sure would’ve helped.”

“Wait a minute.” William crossed to his valise, next to Mortimer Smith’s carpet bag. “I have one.” And he held out the only book he carried with him, to give to Johnny.

“Thanks. But it’s a bit fancy.” As he took it from William, the book fell open and Johnny’s eyes fell on the inscription, still easy to read, even in the dim light of dusk. He looked at William. “No. I can’t burn this.”

William held his gaze. “I’d rather be warm and fed, than sentimental.”

“William…I don’t want to take this. We’ll find something else.”

He snatched it from Johnny. “I’ll tear it apart if you won’t.”

“Here you go, boys.” Charlie came around from the other side of the stage. “I thought I had an old newspaper wrapped around my spare boots.”

“Perfect timing, Charlie.” Johnny took the newspaper and started building their fire. He put the paper underneath, then a big pile of the brush, much more than you’d usually need if everything was dry, then lots of kindling and finally, on top of that, plenty of dry wood shavings Johnny had cut with his knife, when Mortimer brought it back.

When he put a match to the paper, it flared beautifully but he got down on his knees and started blowing. “I could do with your book now, William.”

William passed it to him and Johnny used it to fan the flames. Considering how wet everything was, it was an excellent fire and it would be partially protected by the canvas, if it did rain.

“Johnny, my boy. Come here.”

Johnny gave Mortimer the book before he spoke to Charlie and told him to keep fanning. He wanted the flames to catch hold of the top logs.

William took a stick from the fire and lit the lanterns on the stagecoach, with one eye on Charlie and Johnny. Charlie seemed to be giving him instructions. There was some toing and froing between them but after a few minutes, Johnny walked back to the fire where Eliza and Miss Minchin, who’d finally decided to leave the coach, were warming their hands.

“What was that all about?”

Johnny jerked his head. “Charlie can tell you himself. That oughta do, Mortimer.”

Charlie had pulled on a thick jacket and he was leading one of the big black, horses. “Is ever-one around?“

Almost as if he’d been waiting side stage, Branson appeared from the shadows. He cleared his throat, as if to check everyone was paying attention, then said in a loud voice. “I did a thorough check. There is no possible way for this stage to cross the river. I found the remains of the bridge half a mile downstream.” And he looked at the circle of faces around him, as if he should be congratulated, but all he got were blank faces, from what William could see.

Johnny, knife in hand, whittling the end of a stick into a sharp point, didn’t even bother to look up. “Yeah, we know all that, Branson. Charlie was just about to talk to us.”

“Well, everyone,” Charlie nodded to the circle, “We got ourselves a good fire to stay warm and thanks to Johnny, you’ll all be able to eat supper. I’ll leave you with my—.”

“Leave us? What in heavens are you talking about?”

“Miss Minchin, someone needs to go and get help. I’m going to take one of the horses and see if I can make my way to a horse bridge, further downstream.”

It wasn’t the best plan, but in the circumstances, it made the most sense. “I’m curious, Charlie. Don’t you usually have a partner riding with you?”

“Yep, Mr Holdsworth, I pretty much always do. Pity of it is, I was meant to pick up young Luke at King River Station. Most runs, he’s my pardner and rides shotgun. But his wife just had a baby so I said I’d do the first coupla days alone. Anyway, I trust young Johnny here, to keep you all safe until I can get back.”

Branson pointed a meaty finger in Johnny’s direction. “You mean to say you’re putting that boy in charge?” And he looked around, presumably for someone to say they agreed. His type was never brave enough to stand alone.

It was Miss Minchin who nodded her agreement. “Mr Branson is correct. Charlie, you are our driver and as such, are responsible for the wellbeing of your passengers.”

If someone didn’t strangle the woman, William just might. Instead, he did his best to sound like the man of sense Eliza believed him to be. “And that’s exactly why Charlie is going, Miss Minchin. He’s going to bring back some help. You don’t want to stay here any longer than you have to, do you? Frankly, the sooner Charlie leaves, the better for us all. And you ladies have four strong men to protect you.”

Branson was shaking his head. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t be taking any orders from the likes of him.”

Johnny looked up from the next stick he was whittling. “It’s fine with me, Mr Branson, if you’d like to take charge. Boy, I wasn’t looking forward to staying awake all night and watching for wolves and I already hunted for our supper. Not sure I fancy heading out first light to hunt breakfast as well.”

“Of course I’d be happy to stay awake if that was required and…”

Johnny grinned and held out his knife. “You’ll probably need to use this to catch breakfast as Charlie will be taking his shotgun.”

“And I’d be happy to do that…except for my gout.” Branson almost spluttered in his rush to get his words out.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Mr Branson.” Eliza sounded so kind it was hard to know if she was genuine or not. “In that case, none of us would dream of asking you to stay up all night or hunt for breakfast.”

“Thank you, Miss Eliza.” He patted his leg a few times, no doubt to prove how gouty he was.

Mortimer Smith handed William’s book back to him, then turned to face the others. “Seeing as I want to survive the night, if we’re voting on it, I vote for Johnny. He seems to be the only one here who knows what he’s doing.”

Johnny looked up and gave him a grin.

Eliza put her hand in the air. “I vote for Johnny, as well.”

William raised his hand. “I always bow to the dictates of my stomach and it appears that Johnny is the only one in this group, capable of filling it.”

“Yup, that settles it. It be four against the two of you.” Charlie swung himself up onto the black as if he rode bareback every day, then gave them all a wave.

Miss Minchin muttered something about it being ‘all very irregular’ but then, so were floods and bridges being washed out. No doubt, if they’d all been on The Bounty, she would have mutinied, along with Fletcher Christian.

“Good luck, Charlie. I’ll be praying for you.” Eliza almost had tears in her eyes, as if she was sending Charlie off to his death.

“Now, don’t you worry about me, none, Miss Eliza. All being well, I should be seeing you on the morrow.” Then he turned to the others, “Just sit tight. Young Johnny will keep you all safe.”

It wasn’t long before Charlie was indistinguishable from the shadows, once he was amongst the trees.

“Well, Captain Bligh, what do you suggest we do now?”

Johnny scratched the back of his neck. “Well, I ain’t got a clue who Captain Bligh is, but I guess we oughta eat. Come with me, Mortimer, and we’ll get the rabbits.”

William looked at Branson, and Miss Minchin, both standing there, jaws tight and frowning so fiercely, they both had furrows above their noses. Not an attractive sight, especially when the fire made shadows flicker across their gloomy faces. All the same, he decided he’d best do his part to help Johnny. “I think we’ll all be happier once we’ve eaten. Who knew we’d be in for this adventure when we left yesterday?”

The Minchin gave him one of her regal nods. “We shall have to make the best of things, won’t we, Mr Holdsworth.”

Branson said nothing. Instead he took out his gold pocket watch, and held it towards the fire, presumably to see what the time was. Did it matter? William had a feeling they were in for a very long night.

He took Eliza by the arm. “Let’s go and see if we can help Johnny and Mortimer bring our supper over. They might need some more hands.”

Eliza was about to go when she turned around. “Do you mind, Miss Minchin?”

Her answer was a curt nod so they began walking.

“You just called Johnny, ‘Captain Bligh.’ Who was he, Mr Holdsworth?”

“Ahh…an unfortunate officer in the English navy.”

“You knew him?”

He smiled but didn’t laugh. Probably few knew the story. “My father was English and he was a sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy. He would often tell me stories. That particular one happened nearly one hundred years ago. 1789 to be exact. Bligh…Lieutenant Bligh at the time…suffered the indignity of having his crew mutiny and he was forced into a rowboat with only eighteen loyalists.”

“Goodness. Did he survive?”

“It’s a long story but yes, he did indeed.” He wasn’t going to mention what happened to the rest of Bligh’s crew or the mutineers themselves.

“Do you think there really are wolves out there, like Johnny said?” And she looked out into the night. The river sounded even louder now.

“Don’t worry yourself over that. Even if there are any in these parts, they’re unlikely to come near our fire.”

Besides, in his experience, it was the two-legged variety that you had to watch out for. And he’d be very surprised if Johnny hadn’t learned that lesson as well.

                                             Chapter Seven

William looked around at their little group. It could be worse. Much worse. They might all be huddled in the stage with no food and no fire. Or worse still, Charlie might have overturned the stage and they’d all be dead.

Johnny had dragged a fallen log across to the fire, clearing it of any crawling bugs. Then he lay one of the buffalo robes over it, for the ladies to sit on. Smith and Branson sat on their carpet bags while he and Johnny had a buffalo robe each to use.

Once everyone was seated, Johnny handed out the sticks he’d sharpened to a pointy end. “Just take a piece of meat, and hold it close to the fire, near the coals. Like this.”

Mortimer Smith looked at his spear. “I have to say, I’m impressed. You’ve thought of everything.”

But Branson just grabbed his spear, stuck the biggest piece of meat on it, and shoved it into the fire, like a big, surly bear.

William nodded to the coffee pot. “And we have Charlie to thank for the coffee and cups. Thankfully stage drivers are prepared for emergencies.”

Before long, they were all skewering the pieces of meat onto the end of their sticks and cooking them in the heat of the coals. They all laughed along with Eliza when her meat fell off her stick and into the coals. Even Miss Minchin seemed to be thawing out. Their odd little group was starting to feel like they might somehow, manage to be friends.

“Oh dear.” Eliza tried to look sad in between giggles as she picked up her chunk of rabbit meat. “I don’t think I’ll make a good cowgirl.”

Johnny moved across to her. “Here, let me show you again.” And he moved in close and put his hand near hers to show her how to skewer the meat in several places so that it wouldn’t drop off. William doubted she heard a word Johnny said, especially when, against all Johnny’s advice, she put her stick in the fire, right where the flames were highest. Johnny had to scoot close to her again and guide her stick to the coals. “This way, Miss Eliza.”

“Oh please. Just Eliza will do fine.” She bit her lip as she concentrated on cooking her supper, turning her meat this way and that, watching as it sizzled and the juice started to drip down. She showed Johnny. “There. Do you think it’s cooked?”

He moved across again. “Ooh yeah, you’ve done a fine job.”

She looked around at the others, some barbecuing and others already eating. “So, I leave it on my stick, to eat?”

“That’s right. Unless you want to burn your fingers. Go on. Try it.”

She put the meat up to her mouth, blew on it a few times, then took a bite.

Johnny watched her chew. “What do you think?”

She frowned, with her head tilted. “Hmmm…it’s a little like chicken…but not quite. And the texture is different. But I like it. What do you think, Miss Minchin?”

“I’ve eaten rabbit many times before, my dear.” But her mouth was tight, as though she didn’t want to admit the fact.

Eliza looked around at the others. “It’s so strange. Here we are, all thrown together like castaways on a desert island, with no idea how long we’ll be here and I don’t know any of you. Oops, other than Miss Minchin, of course.”

Branson shoved another piece of meat in his mouth. “Well, I already told you a little bit about myself before but it seems only right I get to know the people I’ll be spending the night with.” As usual, his tone was that of a brawler, challenging everyone to a fight. Or perhaps he was just an ugly drunk? There was no doubt he’d been swigging on something when he disappeared earlier.

“Being in the same proximity doesn’t equate to spending the night with someone, Mr Branson.” Miss Minchin was at her frosty best. For once, he applauded her.

William looked around the circle but no-one seemed ready to leap at Branson’s suggestion. Could it be that people didn’t want to be first at putting themselves forward or something else? The hesitation was almost palpable. “I’ll start, shall I?”

Eliza nodded, even though she was concentrating on cooking her next piece. She was the only one who looked eager to hear about each other’s lives.

“William Holdsworth, of Boston. I’m travelling on business. Originally, I’d meant to take a train but at the last minute, thought taking the stagecoach sounded like it might be educational.” He looked around. “And so it has been, although not in ways I was expecting.”

Mortimer raised his hand. “Excuse me for asking, but you didn’t say what business you’re in.”

“Ahh. My apologies. That would be banking.”

“How interesting, Mr Holdsworth. Eliza, don’t you think so? Your dear papa is a banker.” And Miss Minchin put her skewer to her mouth and took the tiniest bite with her teeth.

“Nothing so grand as that, I assure you. Most of my day is spent with my head stuck in ledgers, and reading figures.”

Branson took another piece of meat. He’d already gobbled down five big chunks, but who was counting? “You and me have something in common, Mr Holdsworth. I made lots of money and put it in a bank.” And he laughed at his own joke. “Yep, I was one of the first to head to Sutter’s Mill in ’48 and I was one of the few to leave with jingling pockets.”

“How fascinating, Mr Branson.” The Minchin made him think of a crow, the way she sat up straight as soon as he mentioned ‘money.’ “I believe it was a very difficult life on the goldfields.” And she tutted in sympathy.

“Yep, some days, up to our necks in mud and other days, so dry we could empty a river.”

“My, my. How brave of you.”

“What about you, Mortimer?” Johnny leaned back on his elbow and chewed the end of his stick.

Mortimer kind of shrank into himself. “Nothing exciting about my life, I’m afraid. I’m just a schoolteacher.”

Darn, that dealt a blow to William’s self-confidence. He’d been sure Mortimer was a clerk.

“But it’s a very honourable profession.” And Miss Minchin bowed her head, as if bequeathing a title on him.

“What’s honourable about it?” With a sneer like that, Branson really should be on the stage.  “We had a teacher like him when I was a kid; all mealy mouthed and real polite but he knew everyone else’s business and he wrote it down in a book and…”

“And, I think it’s quite clear to everyone here that you’ve had too much to drink, Branson, without me writing it down anywhere.” Mortimer didn’t snap back but there was a certain heat in his tone that wasn’t evident at other times. Perhaps he had more backbone than William had given him credit for?

Johnny rammed his stake in the ground.  “Why don’t you let Mortimer speak, Branson. We already heard plenty from you.”

“Thank you, Johnny, but I don’t have much else to say. It’s just a small country school. Only twelve students. All different ages.”

Eliza looked up from the fire. “Well, I think what you do is wonderful, Mr Smith.” And she sounded so warm and enthusiastic that Mortimer was almost blushing. “My mother and I used to go to the San Francisco Orphan Asylum, every Wednesday afternoon and help teach the children. It was such a special time.”

“That’s very kind of you…Eliza.” Mortimer was an odd fellow. His eyes went all glassy, as if he was overcome with emotion.

“Oh no, not kind.” And she put her hand out, warding off any other compliments from him. “They deserve love and food and schooling. All children do, don’t they?”

She was so earnest and spoke with a light in her eyes, that William felt touched as well. But he noticed not everyone was struck with admiration for her and couldn’t help saying, “Not everyone thinks like you, Eliza.”

“My mother inspired me. She was very passionate about caring for them, as she’d been an orphan herself.”

“Does your mother still help there?”

“She died four years ago, Mr Smith.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“But I try to carry on her legacy. It’s very important to help those who have been left with nothing in the world, isn’t it.”

It felt right to be quiet…and ponder what Eliza said. And he was just about to nod when—.”

“Let me introduce myself. Mirella Minchin. I, too, have devoted myself to educating young lives.”

Her voice destroyed the moment for him. Mangled it, even.

“Oh, you’re a teacher, too?” Johnny sounded as surprised as William was.

“A governess. My services have been required by some of the most influential families in San Francisco and St Louis.”

“So, you’re Eliza’s governess?”

“Oh no. I was engaged as Eliza’s travelling companion.”

William was a little surprised at that. He’d been wondering for some time what the connection between them might be. But probably, once a governess, always a governess. Or perhaps Eliza was used to having someone tell her what to do? That was often the way when young girls came out of finishing school.

“That’s right.” Eliza patted the hand next to her. “Dear Miss Minchin is accompanying me. I’m on my way to St Louis, to spend time with Aunt Mabel, my father’s sister.” Then she looked across the fire. “And that just leaves you, Johnny.”

He took the stick out of his mouth and said in his quiet way, “Not much to tell. I own a ranch, with my father and bro—.”

“Hah! A rancher?” Branson almost vomited the word. “That ain’t what Charlie told me and Smith.”

Johnny gave Branson a slow glance from under his hat. “That’s right,” he continued, in his same, unhurried manner. “The Lancer ranch, south of here, near a town called Morro Coyo. And I don’t like the way you’re talking in front of the ladies, Branson.” Johnny’s drawl barely changed on that last line but Branson’s bluster drained away, almost in front of their eyes.

Eliza reached across and touched his arm. “But you didn’t tell us your name, Johnny.”

The sudden shift in the air was almost tangible. Only Eliza seemed to be unaware of the tension her question had caused.

As for Johnny, the centre of it all, he took his time, staring into the flames. Perhaps he knew what they were all waiting to hear…was Charlie right in saying that Johnny was a gunfighter?

When Johnny looked up, his expression was almost amused. “It’s Madrid.”

“Johnny Madrid.” And Eliza seemed to turn his name over in her mind. “Johnny Madrid. I like it.”

William glanced at the others. It was difficult to tell if Miss Minchin knew the significance of Johnny’s name—but Branson and Mortimer clearly did. But how did a gunfighter become a rancher? If he even was one?

“And what’s your name, Miss Eliza?” Johnny was saying.

She sighed. “I don’t really like telling people what my name is. Sometimes I say it’s Collins, or Brown or even Smith. But it’s Eicherman.”

William almost whistled. “Your father is Friedrich Eicherman?”

“Yes.”

“As in Eicherman Bank?” Branson spluttered.

“That’s right.”

“Is that the big bank with the,” and Johnny made a half circle with his hand…

“The bank with the dome. And yes, that’s the one.”

Johnny started smiling. “Well, I don’t aim to hold that against you.”

“The very idea of that would be ridiculous.” Miss Minchin seemed to regard Eliza’s wealth as somehow a point of pride to her own position as companion. It didn’t surprise him.

But Eliza was looking more and more awkward with all the talk of her father. Hmmm…he sensed a story here. But he felt sorry for her and grabbed the pot. “Coffee? We only have four cups, I’m afraid, so we’ll have to take it in turns.”

Miss Minchin, who’d been happily sitting on a log and barbecuing rabbit meat, threw up her hand. “I can’t possibly drink out of a cup someone else has used and neither can Eliza.”

“Oh, I don’t mind at all, Mirella.”

“Nonsense. It’s totally unacceptable for a lady. They shall have to be washed.”

Johnny shook his head. “No ma’am. It’s not a good idea for anyone to go near the river. ‘Specially at night.”

Eliza half-turned towards the river. “Johnny’s right. And you can hear how fast it’s running, even in the dark. When you get close, it’s very scary but kind of exciting at the same time. I saw Niagara Falls one time. Of course, it’s so huge and so breathtaking, but I had that same feeling when I was there.”

“It’s not exciting for me. I can’t swim.” Mortimer held up a cup. “And I’m happy to give up my cup for you, Miss Eliza.” William almost winced. He’d seen grown men like Mortimer do foolish things for beautiful women. Thankfully, Eliza was too innocent to take advantage of all that, let alone have any idea of her power.

By now, William was beginning to regret he’d even suggested the coffee. Trust Minchin to turn the simplest of acts into a Shakespearean tragedy.

As it turned out, Branson said no to coffee, as did Eliza, so that solved the argument about cups.

Eliza was the brightest of their group. Perhaps she was happier now that she’d confessed who her father was? She told them all about Niagara Falls but when he told her Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother had visited them, she was almost as impressed with that piece of news, as she was with the falls themselves.

Johnny didn’t say much. He seemed to enjoy just leaning back and watching Eliza, as the light from the flames lit her face.

Eliza had another admirer as well: the curious Mortimer Smith. Smith sat upright and had nothing of the relaxed pose Johnny had. But he was captivated, all right.

“Eliza, I think it’s time we retired. Don’t you?”

“I don’t think I could sleep, Mirella.”

“Perhaps you’d be so good,” and the Minchin lowered her voice, “as to escort me into the forest? I really don’t like to venture out there alone. You will all no doubt say I’m foolish, but I’ve never liked the dark.”

Eliza gave her a small hug, which Miss Minchin seemed to endure by stiffening her shoulders.

 “Don’t go too far, ladies.” And he jumped up with a lantern. “And I assure you, none of us will look in your direction.”

“Thank you, Mr—.”

But when Eliza went to take the lantern, he didn’t let go. “Surely, just ‘William’ would do, now that we’re virtually old friends?”

“Thank you…” and he let her have the lantern, “William.” She whispered his name, as if too shy to use it. But then she looked up at his face. “And I shall never forget that you told me about Napoleon’s brother.”

William took it as a good sign. Johnny might impress Eliza with that gun of his but it showed that education could be a winning tool when vying for a lady’s attention…

And he laughed to himself: even if you only remember the most trivial of details.

“I admit, you surprised me when you said you were a rancher.”

The ladies had gone to bed. Mortimer had gone off into the forest and Branson was nowhere to be seen; probably finishing off his bottle of whisky. The one he said he didn’t have.

“Is that so.” Johnny poked at the fire with a stick. “What were you expecting me to say?”

“Oh, I don’t know…gunfighter maybe?”

Johnny grinned. “Charlie’s got a big mouth.”

“Then all that part about being a rancher?”

“It’s true. I turned my back on the other life when my old man called me home. It’s a long story.” His drawl was smooth but rich with everything Johnny wasn’t telling him.

William stretched his legs out. “A fascinating tale, by the sound of it.”

“I dunno. I kinda liked Eliza telling us about Niagara Falls. She sure is pretty. And kind.”

Even with the steady churning of the river and the crackling of the fire, the forest around them was starting to come alive with rustling leaves and night calls.  It had been some time since he’d slept rough outside. “I’ve forgotten how noisy it can be at night, away from a city.” Yet another stirring of leaves close by made him turn around. “What would that be?”

“Deer, fox, raccoon, badger…”

“Wolf?”

Johnny chewed on his stick. “Sure. There’ll be plenty of them around. But like I told Eliza, with our fire and this many people, they’re unlikely to come visiting.” He started smiling in that lazy way of his.

“What?”

“Well, when you said you were a city boy, I didn’t really believe you.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Tell you one thing. I sure as hell don’t believe Branson.”

“About making his fortune on the gold fields?”

“I’ve met plenty of men who dug for gold but not many of them got rich doing it.”

“That doesn’t make Branson a liar.”

“Ooh, that’s not a word you say too loudly out here.”

“Okay, perhaps he stretched the truth.”

Johnny stopped chewing. “You notice his jacket?”

This was becoming interesting. “I might have. It’s a very bad cut.”

“And it don’t fit. Sleeves are too short.”

“He might have put on weight?”

“Or maybe he can’t afford a new one?” Johnny yawned. “Not that I care if he wants to make up stories to look good in front of the ladies, but I don’t trust a man who lies.”

“Careful Johnny. You just used that word.”

Johnny grinned as he stood up. “But I carry something to back up what I say.” And he took out his gun, twirled it, then slipped it back in the holster.

It was an impressive move. “You do at that.”

“I’d better check on the horses. We don’t want them getting loose and running off in the night.”

William watched him move off into the dark. Perhaps more impressive was Johnny’s ability to read people? How was it that Johnny didn’t believe him about being an unlearned city boy? That bothered him. Maybe he’d have to be fussier about getting his shoes and clothes dirty next time?

William was only alone for a few minutes when Mortimer came back. He’d been gone quite a while.

“I was about to organise a search party for you, Mortimer.”

As Mortimer came into the light, an uneasy grimace slipped across his face before disappearing. “I like to think when it’s quiet.”

Well, William understood that. “I confess, Mortimer, you let me down.”

“I did?”

“I had you pegged as a clerk. A bank clerk was my first choice.”

Mortimer loosened his tie. “Sorry to disappoint you. I always had a hankering to be a teacher. I grew up in a town where learning wasn’t considered too important come harvest time…or if it rained…or if the rains didn’t come. Well, you get my meaning.”

“I do indeed.”

“Not that I blame my father or anything. Life was hard, eking out a living for a wife and six kids.”

“I’m curious. How did you learn, then?”

“Taught myself mostly. Then my grandfather, on my mother’s side, took pity on me and he paid for me to go to school in San Francisco.”

“Thank heavens for grandfathers.”

Mortimer wandered around the fire. He put a log on…then moved one of the burning ones with his boot, getting it into a better position. William could imagine his school room being neat and ordered.

“That Miss Eliza. She’s a real fine lady, isn’t she. Not many like her around. You know, brought up with all that money. Never knowing what it is to go without. Mostly, rich people like her, just don’t see that poor people around are…”

“Miserable? I know plenty of fine people whose tables are sparse come meal time but I wouldn’t describe them as miserable.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too. My mother had a smile on her face and a kind word for everyone that passed by even though she never had a store bought dress once she married my father. Maybe you’re right?” He took another turn around the fire but he seemed unusually restless. “Well, I guess I’ll try to get some sleep. I don’t think it will be easy though.”

“My advice would be to wear every piece of clothing in your bag. Or sleep on top of the fire.” He patted Mortimer’s shoulder. “I’d better see if Johnny needs any help with the horses.”

Johnny had moved them so that they’d have some grass to feed on, then made sure they were tied to a tree.

Even with his solitary lantern, it was eerily dark away from the fire and lanterns burning on the stagecoach. “There’s just something about being out in the country, miles from anywhere, isn’t there. Although, I suppose you’re used to it.”

Johnny looked up as he checked the last of the horses. “Yeah, pretty much. But every so often, it sort of catches me.” He waved at the sky. “Just how big everything is and how many stars there are and…I don’t know, how small we are.”

William lifted his lantern. “I think I’ll see if the river has gone down any. It’s still very loud.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t like Charlie’s chances of crossing it, even if he finds the smaller bridge. If it’s underwater, he’ll still have to wait for the level to go down.”

With no moon, it was difficult to even correctly establish where the river was. William raised the lantern. “I don’t think it looks any different than before.”

“That’s a bad sign. It means it’s still raining somewhere higher and forcing more water down here.”

When they got back to the stagecoach, Mortimer, in spite of his concerns, was asleep one side of the fire with Branson close by and snoring so loudly, it was amazing the ground didn’t shake.

They’d found some blankets for the ladies rolled up in the box Charlie sat on but the men only had buffalo robes. With the ground being so wet, it was wiser to put them underneath a person rather than for warmth on top. William didn’t think either man looked particularly comfortable.

“That writing, on your book. It’s kinda sad.”

Something took hold inside of him. Should he turn around or just walk away into the night? ‘What are you afraid of, William?’

There was still coffee in the pot. He poured two cups, then held one out to Johnny, who’d sat down, leaning against the rim of the stagecoach wheel.

Johnny stared into his coffee. “‘Course, if you’d rather not talk about?”

No, he didn’t want to talk. But somehow…here in the dark…

He walked a few paces away. “My wife wrote that inscription:

   When I am dead, my dearest, 
   Sing no sad songs for me; 
   Plant thou no roses at my head, 
   Nor shady cypress tree: 
   Be the green grass above me 
   With showers and dewdrops wet; 
  And if thou wilt, remember, 
  And if thou wilt, forget.”

“That’s real sad,” Johnny murmured.

“My book of Rosetti’s poems was her last present to me—before she died.”

He sensed Johnny nodding.  Somewhere, an owl hooted.

“So,” he tried to sound upbeat, “I joined the Union army and tried to get myself killed. Yet, surprisingly, here I am.”

Johnny took a slow mouthful of coffee. “I’m glad I didn’t burn it.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I should…not burn it perhaps but…perhaps it     doesn’t help to carry it with me?”

“The past can tricky like that. Sometimes, I wanna go back to being Johnny Madrid. I don’t know why. I just get a hankering for it, in my bones.”

A particularly loud grunt from Branson made them both jump. Then laugh.

William sloshed the dregs of his coffee around. “Enough of all this maudlin talk. Are you really planning to stay up all night, Johnny?”

“Not if I have someone reliable to share guard duty with me…”

“Would you consider a city boy like me, reliable?”

“Well, you’ve got your army training, if you remember any of it. Here,” and he threw his knife near the fire, the blade sinking deep into the wet ground. Johnny eyed him. “Chances are you got some pretty pea-shooter somewhere, but the knife’s what you need if you have to wrestle a bear.”

“A bear?” William didn’t need to pretend any alarm this time.

Johnny laughed. “Just kidding. You can strip some of that wet bark off those branches I cut before. I don’t fancy being smoked to death while I sleep.”

And so it was that William offered to take the first half of the night. He wasn’t feeling sleepy in any case.

He wasn’t sure why he told Johnny about Alice. All that heartache had been ten years ago, now…days so bad when the grief stabbed at his insides and the world was a black, uncaring and damned dismal, place. Somehow he’d come back from the precipice. He’d learned to put one foot in front of the other again. Perhaps it was the war? Somewhere in those five years, he realised he did want to live, after all.

Mortimer Smith certainly slept the sleep of an untroubled man—Branson that of a man who’d convinced himself of his importance but needed alcohol to blot out the truth.

Johnny was on his back, hat over his face. His breathing was slow so it was possible he was asleep?

William kept himself busy by keeping the fire stoked up and trying to predict which way the smoke was going to blow. The wind was sweeping through the trees now and while he knew there was little danger of a tree falling on their camp, all the same, it was a bit unnerving.

The owl settled itself on a nearby branch and started its mournful hooting again, then a deer stuck it’s head out from the bushes, looking startled to see William in his forest, before running off. He was feeling quite sleepy when a racoon turned up, sniffing the air. William tossed a stick at it, and the little guy scooted away.

In the end, the thought that kept nagging at him, couldn’t be ignored. He went to his valise and took out his book. The blue cloth-cover was battered now but the gold writing on the spine was still clear:

‘Goblin Market and Other Poems’

then underneath the title, the author’s name, ‘Christina Rosetti.’

Dear Alice. Had he honoured her wishes? Would she one day thank him for all his misery?

The river’s gurgling sounded so loud in the night air. Almost like it was calling his name.

Good God, now he was being fanciful. It must be the lack of sleep.

All the same…Alice…Eliza…their faces almost blended into one…

“Johnny?”

“Yeah, I’m awake.” He took the hat off his face, then sat up, rubbing his arms to get some warmth back in them. “What’s the time?”

William took his timepiece out. “I make it to be around three.” He looked at the face. “Out by ten minutes.”

“Coffee hot?”

Johnny stood up and stretched then took the coffee from William. He walked out from under the awning and looked up at the sky, then took a gulp. “Sky’s still clear.”

“And the river’s still flowing.”

They both stopped and listened. River water could be loud at the best of times, when it churned over even the smallest pile of rocks. But the storm had carried down an enormous amount of debris and it was getting caught by the remaining poles from the bridge.

“Bed down, William. You’ve got about four hours before daylight.”

“Just wake me before breakfast. And that will be bacon with my eggs, please, and two biscuits on the side.”

If the first gunshot didn’t wake him, the second crack in the air, certainly did.

William bolted upright and looked around.

He was alone in a grey world. Not quite fully dawn.

The fire was still burning fiercely.

Above him, in the stagecoach, he could hear humming. Snatches of a song he didn’t know.

Branson stumbled into the camp, looking the worse for wear. His shirt was untucked, tie all askew. He saw William, then stopped short.

“Branson. Where is everyone?”

“No idea.” And he reached for the coffee pot like his life depended on it.

William felt foggy. The gunshots were no doubt Johnny hunting down breakfast.

“Good thinking,” he muttered to no-one in particular as he eyed the coffee. “Here, pour me one of those.”

Branson had his usual surly down-turned mouth but he held the coffee pot out. He was just about to let Branson pour the coffee—the first few drops had hit the bottom of his cup—when he threw the mug away.

He briefly glimpsed Branson’s face, mouth open, eyes wide, then they both took off, running.

Dear God.

Another scream.

And then another.

And William ran towards the river…

Chapter Eight

By the time he heard the third scream, William’s heart was almost jumping out of his chest.

He’d run straight towards the river but the trees were thick and all he could see were great pools of water and the early mist that hangs low around dawn.

He caught sight of it, a wisp of colour, a little way downstream. “Eliza. I’m coming.” He didn’t know how he knew it was her. He just did.

“I tried…I tried,” she blurted, as he came close. She stood in a puddle, wringing her hands. The hem of her dress was wet and muddy and she looked just about as miserable as a match-girl in a snow storm.

“What happened?” He took hold of her shoulders and made her face him.

She shuddered, then pointed her finger towards the river. “He’s down there.” She could barely get the words out.

He was able to reach the top bank of the river at this point, thanks to the water receding a few inches. The bridge should be here but what was left were only a few supports. He peered over the edge.

Oh no. No…no…

He scrambled and slipped in the mud so that he could reach down. He pulled and pulled but he already knew he was too late. Far too late. The blood was pooling under the skin in his face; the eyes stared, almost with a blank surprise. Had he struggled. Was it quick?

“I tried…I tried…” Eliza put her hands over her mouth but her shoulders still shook and she couldn’t stop sobbing.

The sadness of it all, hit him, too, as he stared at the body. “Eliza, there was nothing you could do for Mortimer.”

William was about to go to her when something floated up from the body. Something that shouldn’t be there. It was wet and water-logged but everyone would know whose it was…especially Johnny.

It floated near Smith’s body. Accusing him. You’ve abandoned her.

He darted a look around—Eliza was facing the other way—so he grabbed it and pushed it down into the reeds, again and again, further and further, where no-one would find it. That would have to do, until he had a chance to go back.

Eliza was still crying into her hands when he went to her.  “There was nothing you, or anyone could do. Not now. He’s been gone for some time.”

“He said he couldn’t swim. We should have warned him better. Johnny said…” Who knew what Johnny had said, because she was drooping in his arms and he had to grab hold of her. “I’m all right. Really.” She tried to push away but it was a weary, half-hearted effort, at best.

It was a relief to see Johnny and Branson headed his way, each from different directions. Johnny had his gun out, but he slowed and put it back in the holster as he saw William and Eliza.

William jerked his head in the direction of the river and Johnny took the couple of steps through the mud and looked over.

Branson stared over the bank, as well. “Sheesh. Is Smith a goner?”

Considering Mortimer Smith was lying face down in the water, caught up against the weeds, Branson’s question was somewhat superfluous.

William locked eyes with Johnny, over Eliza’s head. It was hard to read what he was thinking but William had the sense he was filing away every detail he saw as he stared at Mortimer’s body, then looked at Eliza, then scanned the area around the river. It was almost unnerving.

Eliza’s crying was subdued now but where was the Minchin when he needed her? Surely she’d heard all the screaming?

“Branson, give me a hand,” Johnny was saying. Together they managed to haul the body out of the water but there was nothing graceful about it. Smith’s waterlogged clothes added to the weight of his inert body.

“Oh, poor Mr Smith.” And Eliza buried her face into his shoulder again. “We should have looked out for him. Warned him. He told us he couldn’t swim.”

“Well, he’s taught his last class, hasn’t he.” Branson grunted the words as they managed to carry Mortimer, one arm dragging on the ground, away from the river’s edge.

“You’re all heart, aren’t you, Branson.” Johnny looked like he was about ready to punch him in the mouth.

If Johnny didn’t, William just might. “Branson, why don’t you take Eliza back to the stage. Find Miss Minchin and get her settled.” He managed to keep a civil tone but it was an effort.

“All right.”

Eliza could have Branson as her villain. The man rarely smiled and with that square jaw, he’d look perfect in a black, swirling cape, as he locked young innocents in castle towers.

Eliza started to protest—and he couldn’t blame her—but William held firm. “Go with Mr Branson. He’ll take you to Miss Minchin. Johnny and I will see to Mortimer.” There really wasn’t any other option.

Good God, what a start to their morning. He kept an eye on Branson as they started back towards the stagecoach, Eliza putting more distance between her and Branson with each step. Sensible girl.

William went over to Johnny, crouched beside Smith’s body. It was a depressing sight. “I don’t understand.”

“Me neither.” Johnny was trying to push Smith onto his side. “Smith told us he couldn’t swim. Hell, why would he go anywhere near a river like this, at night? Give me a hand, will you.” William squatted down on the other side of Smith and helped hold the body while Johnny felt around the back of his head. “No sign he was hit or fell.”

William’s eyebrows shot up. “Were you expecting he’d been hit?”

“Nope. Just checking.”

“How long do you think he’s been dead?”

Johnny looked around, as if there were clues to be found out here, in the middle of nowhere. “A few hours, maybe? Hard to say. Water does funny things to a body.”

“You were on watch.” And that came out more like an accusation, than a statement.

Johnny stood up and appraised William, as if he was trying to decide whether to take offence. In the end, he just sighed. “Yeah. I was. Mortimer got up some time before dawn. Said he couldn’t take Branson’s snoring any longer. Took his buffalo robe and walked off.”

“Towards the river?”

“I don’t know.” Johnny lifted his hand then let it drop again. It was the first time William had seen him at a loss.  “He went behind the stagecoach. I didn’t think anything of it. Branson’s snoring was driving me crazy, as well.”

It had been a while since William had come upon death. In a war, you were used to it. Expected it, even. But out here, by a flooded stream, with the birds chirping their morning song, it felt harsh. Unlooked for. “I was beginning to like him, too.”

Johnny was looking around. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We need to find the buffalo robe. He took that with him, like he was going to find another place to snooze, until dawn. Come on.” Johnny started walking along the river bank. “Stay behind.”

William did what he was told. “You think he fell in somewhere upstream?”

“Don’t you? The body was wedged against those broken bridge supports. I’d say it was carried by the current and then got stuck.”

William couldn’t help but notice the murky river beside them as he followed Johnny. A river of death. “There was no moon last night. What about sleep walking? Is that possible?”

“Wouldn’t you wake up, soon as you hit the water? ‘Course, Branson wouldn’t, drunk like he was.”

Johnny slowed, then stopped and looked around. Even though the water had receded a few inches, it still broke its banks in many places. From what William could see, there was no way of knowing where Mortimer had waded through the flood.

William went to walk around Johnny because they’d come to the road but Johnny snapped, “Hold it.”

“Do you see something?”

Johnny started to walk in a half circle, eyes on the ground.

William held his breath. If there was something to find, he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnny found it.

But for all his efforts, Johnny shook his head. “Damn this rain. We’ve all walked along here and looked at the river. Charlie, you, me, Eliza. Even probably Branson and Mortimer Smith.”

“I know. There’s something irresistible about watching a fast-flowing river.”

“Dammit.” Johnny dropped his head, then sucked in a breath, like his ribs were broken and he’d twisted too fast.

“What’s wrong?” Had Johnny missed something? Was he in pain?

“It was on my watch. Why didn’t I follow Mortimer? I should have followed him.”

“Why would you? He said he was just going somewhere else to sleep.”

Johnny slapped his thigh. He looked dissatisfied. “One thing I do know, until this water recedes, we’ve got no way of knowing if he was alone when he went in.”

William stared at him. “Are you sure you’re not looking for an excuse? Some way to absolve yourself? This isn’t your fault, Johnny.”

“I’m just saying we don’t know, for sure, what happened.”

“Members of the jury,” and he clasped his lapels and used his best orators voice, “When a man, who can’t swim, drowns, would you not agree that death by drowning, misadventure, would be the obvious cause of death?”

He raised the hint of a smile. “Maybe, Mr Lawyer, but I’ve got a friend who’s a sheriff. Val says a lawman’s an addle-headed fool if he thinks two and two always makes four.”

“Ah hah. And what do you think?”

“Me?” He shrugged. “I hate spittin’ at the wind.” And he tugged his hat down lower and moved off.

They looked around some more and eventually found the buffalo robe under a tree, not too far from the stagecoach.

William went to pick it up.

“Wait a minute.” Johnny’s voice was sharp.

“Wow, you really are the suspicious type, aren’t you.”

Johnny walked around in a wide circle while William shoved his hands in his pockets. Patience didn’t come easy when he’d much rather be soothing Eliza than placating Johnny.

Johnny crouched down, searching every blade of grass before his gaze moved upward, to the trees. At long last, Johnny seemed to be done, resting his elbow on his knee and chin in his hand.

“Well, did you find anything?” He didn’t bother to keep the impatience out of his voice.

“Nope. Same trouble as before. We’ve all been tramping around here since last night.  The ground’s too wet to work out which tracks are fresh and which ones are old.”

Some of William’s unease washed away. “Well, I guess that’s that, then. It’s not as if Mortimer Smith was anyone of importance.”

Johnny stood. “He was to somebody.”

Johnny’s tone brought him up short. “I didn’t mean it like that, Johnny. I meant—.”

“Sure, I know. But a man oughtta have someone to shed a tear for him, when he’s gone.”

“We don’t know that Smith doesn’t? We might find something in his bag? Something that says where he lives or the school he taught at?”

“I guess so.” But he didn’t seem too hopeful as he picked up the buffalo robe. “Maybe he—.”  That was as far as he got. They both stared at what rolled out from under the buffalo skin. “Will you look at that.”

William touched it with his boot. He knew that yellow label. “’Old Taylor Bourbon. Here’s our answer. Mortimer told me he had a bottle of whiskey in his bag.”

“Coffin varnish.” Johnny picked it up and turned the bottle upside down. “Never was a truer word.” Not a single drop of whisky flowed out. “Pity he wasn’t big on sharing.”

“Like you said, a man who was blind drunk could fall in and never know what hit him.”

But Johnny just stood there, bottle in his hand, eyes off somewhere in the distance.

“Come on, Johnny. Doesn’t this mean two and two makes four? Why is it any of our business, anyway?”

Johnny seemed to shake himself out of it. He tossed the bottle to William and picked up the buffalo skin. “We can use this to cover up the body.”

At last they were getting somewhere. Eliza would be wondering what was taking them so long. “Now what do we do?”

“We dig a hole.”

They went back and dragged poor Mortimer’s body well away from the flood water and covered him with the buffalo robe.

Even as they walked back to their camp, William noticed Johnny scanning the grass, the trees, the mud…and anything else that twitched or moved. William rolled his eyes. “There’s no giving up with you, is there?”

William got a grin from him, so perhaps Johnny wasn’t even aware he was doing it?

Branson had made himself useful by making a fresh pot of coffee. He barely looked any healthier than Mortimer with his grey stubble and sallow cheeks. William could practically hear the virgin in the tower calling to be rescued.

Eliza sighed when she saw them both. “Poor, Mr Smith.” William suspected it was the twentieth time she’d that while they were gone.

She was sitting next to Miss Minchin, on the log, holding hands like two shipwreck survivors. Both faces were strained and pale.

Having bodies lying everywhere didn’t help; the rabbits Johnny shot earlier, were still near the fire where he must have dropped them when he heard Eliza’s screams. Was Branson a completely, insensitive, fool? “Branson, why don’t you take those away.”

Branson picked them up by the ears and took them out of sight, behind the coach.

Eliza looked up at both of them. “If only there was something we could do.”

Johnny held up the bottle. “I’m afraid not, Eliza.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We found this under the tree where Mortimer went to spend the rest of the night. It was empty.”

“You think he walked into the water because he was inebriated?”

“It sure looks like it.”

Neither lady had a cup in their hand, so William poured coffee into two of the mugs. “Here. It will bring some colour back into your cheeks.”

Miss Minchin took a cup without hesitation but Eliza shuddered. “I don’t think I could.”

He crouched down in front of her. “Please, Eliza. Won’t you drink some? She started to shake her head again. “For me?”

Her lips trembled but she took the cup and put it to her lips.

“Just drink it, Eliza, like Mr Holdsworth asks.” The Minchin’s voice was even harsher than usual.

“She’s had quite a shock, Miss Minchin.”

“I realise that, Mr Holdsworth. Why do you think I sat here, holding her hand for the last half hour?”

It looked like they were holding each other’s hand, to him. Miss Minchin looked equally ill at ease.

Johnny came back, holding Charlie’s spade. Eliza’s eyes went wide when she saw it. “Are you going to…?”

“It’s the kindest thing to do. Out here, a wolf would… Well, you wouldn’t want that for Mortimer, would you?”

“Oh no. How awful. But shouldn’t we tell someone? The law?”

“The law’s a long way away out here, Eliza. When we get to the next town, if there’s a sheriff, I’ll report it. If not, Charlie will send a wire to the company. I know it’s sad, but it ain’t unusual for a person to die on a stagecoach.”

William looked at Johnny. “I think we both need coffee before we do that.” And he held out a cup.

Silence fell on their little group as they drank. Death, when a surprise like this, is rarely welcome. But William suspected they all felt bad because it was Mortimer Smith. He’d never said anything to offend. He’d tried to help last night and had made himself useful in any number of ways. William had seen him cleaning those pretty shoes of Eliza’s and he’d escorted Miss Minchin when she wanted to see the river, then insisted on taking the other pot to fill with water so that the two ladies would have some drinking water.

Branson, on the other hand, had hidden himself from the rest of them and spent his time, getting drunk.

Several times, Eliza’s gaze wandered to the river. “Can we say a prayer…when we bury him, I mean?” Her voice was very small.

Johnny smiled at her. “Sure, we can that.”

Even though it had been many years since he prayed, William added, “I think Mortimer would like it.”

Eliza half closed her eyes. “It’s so strange…I keep seeing his face…”

“Try not to think about it.”

“No, I don’t mean in an awful way. It sounds so stupid but…he reminds me of someone. And I never thought that when he was…you know…”

“Alive?”

“Yes. It’s all so strange.” Her bottom lip trembled. “We were having such a happy time last night.”

Johnny finished the last of his coffee. “Ladies, will you be okay here while we…?” Johnny held up the spade.

“Of course.” The Minchin was the picture of practicality, especially since she was onto her second cup of coffee.

“Branson.” Johnny waved him over. “You can help.”

William got up and stood by Johnny. Branson didn’t look excited at the prospect but he slouched over to them. When he got close, William wrinkled his nose, then followed Johnny as he moved off. With any luck, he could keep Branson down wind.

Johnny spent some time scouting a site for their burial, finally stopping under a tree, away from the flood waters. He slammed the spade into the dirt so that it stood upright, then called them over.

They all took turns to dig. There was no hint of the humour he’d seen in Johnny’s eyes last night. But then, William wasn’t smiling either. It was grim work; a necessity nobody relished. Who wants to be reminded that one’s mortality lay hinged on a whim of fate?

Branson was the most unaffected. They hit a few roots, which was annoying, but Branson had the strength of an ox and rammed the sharp edge of the spade through any that impeded their progress.

Johnny was fussy about how deep the hole had to be. When Branson protested, more than once, Johnny growled back, “I don’t plan for Smith to be buzzard bait, so keep digging.”

They were almost done when Johnny put a hand on his shoulder.  “Come on. We’ll let Branson finish the hole while we prepare the body.”

“Prepare it? Good God, I’m no undertaker, Johnny.”

“Not that sort of prepare. Seeing as Smith was a passenger on the stage, they’ll probably want some sort of evidence from us.”

“Oh.”

“I dunno.” He tipped his hat back. “I’m just trying to think what Charlie would do, if he was here.”

Time hadn’t improved Smith’s appearance any. Even Johnny grimaced. “I guess we’d better check if he had any valuables on his person.”

It wasn’t much fun going through the pockets of a drowning victim. Everything was soggy. His skin was wrinkled and ugly and an uncanny blueish-red. Definitely, the stuff of nightmares or ghost stories told around the fire on stormy nights.

“T’is a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,

When men are unprepared and look not for it.”

Johnny rested his arm on his knee. “Mortimer Smith was unprepared, all right. Is that from your book of poems?”

“Shakespeare. Richard the Third.”

“Who’s he when he’s at home?”

“Shakespeare. Or Richard?”

At least that raised a smile. “I’ve got a brother who likes to quote stuff. You and him would get on well together.”

“Is he…er…?” He pointed to Johnny’s gun.

“A gun-hawk?” Johnny’s smile got even wider. “No.”

His smile didn’t last long as they went back to their task. Johnny found a cheap, cotton handkerchief in one pocket. William then pulled out a wallet and a small, leather coin bag.  He undid the drawstring tie. Johnny showed his palm and William tipped the coins onto it. The total sum was thirty-six dollars and another dollar or so, in silver.

Johnny stood, jiggling the coins in his hand as he considered the body. “Charlie could help identify him from his jacket. Maybe we oughta keep that and bury him in his other clothes?”

William couldn’t see that it mattered either way but then, he wasn’t used to how they did things out here.

They put the money back away, then Johnny tugged at the jacket sleeve. “We’re going to have to turn him to get this off.” He put both hands under Smith’s shoulders…and then he stopped.

“What is it?”

“What about his hat?” Johnny started looking around. “Did you see that anywhere?”

“No.” His answer was short, not just in word.

“I think Smith had it on when he left the campsite. Could you check? Maybe it’s in the river somewhere? We need to find that hat.”

“Johnny, this is becoming tiresome and I don’t see that it matters, but, seeing as you’re like a dog with a bone, I can check if you like.”

William walked along the bank, where the water allowed him to get close enough, at any rate. But he wasn’t searching for anything at all. Let alone a hat. He knew a wild goose chase, when he was sent on one.

What on earth was young Johnny up to?

It only took him few minutes to walk up and down the river. “No hat anywhere.”

Johnny had Mortimer laid out on his back, hands over his chest and eyes closed. He looked quite peaceful, in a cold, blue, dead, sort of way. “Remind me when I die, not to drown, Johnny. It’s no good for the complexion.”

“Come on. Let’s move him before he starts to stiffen up.”

“We might need Branson’s help for that.”

“Nope.”

“Okay.” Something had shifted in Johnny’s attitude but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Or maybe…

“I just don’t want to hear Branson’s voice right now. You take the legs.”

Well, there you go. That explained it. He didn’t want one of Branson’s oafish remarks.

It was awkward and unpleasant moving Mortimer. Now that he’d been out of the water for over an hour, the signs of the body breaking down were starting to accelerate. Between the two of them, they got Smith’s body over to his grave and dropped him in without much decorum.

Branson was leaning on the spade. “You two took your time. He sure is an ugly corpse. Funny how he kind of looks different when he’s dead, isn’t it.”

“I hadn’t noticed.” After what they’d just been through, looking at Mortimer’s face was the last thing on his list.

Johnny pointed to the spade. “Start filling it in, Branson.”

“Okay, okay. But who made you two the boss of this outfit?”

William’s jaw tightened. “Charlie made Johnny the boss, if you remember.”

“Well, Charlie’s just a stage driver,” Branson muttered, but he started shovelling.

Once they got Mortimer covered up and placed any rocks they could find on top, William went and got the ladies, still sitting on the log. There didn’t seem to be much talk between them.

“Are you ready?”

Eliza gave him a tremulous smile but the Minchin simply stood up, ignoring the arm he’d offered to her as well.

He escorted them across to the gravesite, Eliza clasping a small book. “Oh my, a willow tree. How perfect for Mr Smith.”

“That was Johnny’s choice.”

She squeezed Johnny’s hand. “How thoughtful.”

William saw the look on Johnny’s face and almost laughed. He clearly had no idea why a willow was so ‘perfect’ any more than William did, but he was happy to accept the compliment.

It turned out the small book was Eliza’s ‘Book of Prayers.’

“Mr Holdsworth, could you conduct the ceremony?”

“Me?”

“I think it would be fitting, don’t you?”

And that’s what he got for wearing a suit. “All right, but I warn you, it’s been some years since I stepped inside a church.”

She handed him the prayer book, marked with a ribbon where she wanted him to read from, then placed a hand on his. “The Lord sees what’s in the heart, William.”

She took a few steps back from the grave, then bowed her head. Miss Minchin did the same.

William cleared his throat.

“I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Johnny stood there, head bowed, Eliza had tears running down her cheeks and the Minchin looked stoically ahead, as if she’d made a pact with the devil never to cry at a burial. Branson could have been watching a snail, for all the interest he took in the proceedings.

Eliza nodded at William to continue.

“We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

There was something else from the Book of Job about worms destroying the body but that was a little too close to the truth right now. “Perhaps we could finish with the Lord’s Prayer?”

Both ladies recited the prayer, as did he, while Johnny and Branson listened on. Then they all finished with a strong, ‘Amen.’

Eliza found a few wild flowers growing close by and had just placed them on the grave when she suddenly said, “We don’t have a cross for Mr Smith.”

Johnny took her arm and helped her to her feet. “Don’t worry about that, none. I can make one up after we’ve eaten.”

And for that promise, he earned her undying affection, if that adoration in Eliza’s eyes was anything to go by. Dammit. Johnny had stolen a march on him, yet again.

Branson went back to complaining as soon as they got back to the stagecoach. Supposedly, he’d done ‘all’ the work on an empty stomach, then more or less demanded to know when they were going to eat.

 Johnny looked around, then turned to William. “Have you seen the knife? I need it to skin the rabbits. I left it with you, last night.”

“That’s right. I used it to strip the bark, just like you asked.” He looked around their camp but as soon as Johnny mentioned the knife, he’d had a sinking feeling inside.

Branson started moving their bags and looking under them. “I’m just about ready to eat a bear after everything that’s happened.”

William winced inside. Food was the last thing on his mind right now but he joined in the charade by looking through the half dozen logs he’d shaved to put on the fire. It wasn’t a big knife, Johnny kept it in his boot, after all, but anyone would know it for Johnny’s because of the carved handle.

Embroidered shirts…knives with carved, ivory handles…Johnny Madrid certainly had a flair for the exotic. It was an interesting combination when you considered those watchful eyes and that understated way he had about him. No wonder Eliza was—.”

 “What the hell is this?”

Surprise, confusion, anger—it was all there in Branson’s voice—cracked in the air like a clap of thunder.

Even William was startled.  He jumped up, log in hand. What the hell was Branson up to, now?

“Give me that, Branson.” Johnny’s voice couldn’t have been more at odds to Branson’s hysteria, if he tried.

“You think I don’t know what I’m looking at?” Branson held up Mortimer Smith’s jacket, for them all to see.

“Please, Mr Branson.” Eliza shivered. “You’re scaring me.”

“And so I ought to, Miss, because one of us, is a murderer.”

William looked sideways. Johnny had his eyes on Branson but Johnny didn’t say a word. Not even a muscle twitched in his jaw.

Pinpricks were starting on the back of William’s neck. “What are you talking about, Branson? Smith drowned.”

“And would that have been before or after he was stabbed?” With all the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Branson held up Smith’s coat, pulling the light-coloured material tight at the back, for everyone to see the slit.

Miss Minchin gasped and jumped to her feet.

William started to feel ill, himself. The slit in the jacket was small, no more than a couple of inches, but it was the darkened, stained patch around the slit, that was the most damning.

Even more worrying was Branson’s face. He’d gone from white to almost purple. This wasn’t good. Things were escalating way too fast.

Branson shook the jacket, raging at them all. “Don’t it seem odd that Madrid can’t find his knife of a sudden? He had you all fooled, didn’t he. But not me. No sirree. Not Clive Branson.”

“Branson. No!” He was too late. Branson threw the jacket at Johnny’s face and somehow pulled a gun from under his jacket.

Johnny side-stepped towards William as Eliza screamed and jumped to her feet.

Johnny went for his gun…

There was no time for anything else. William struck hard.

He had a brief glimpse of horror on Eliza’s face before he threw the log down.

Johnny wavered. He started to raise his left hand towards his head…then his knees buckled as he dropped his gun.

William darted forward.

Somehow he managed to catch Johnny under the arms—right before he hit the ground.

                                              Chapter Nine

“Johnny.” Eliza was at Johnny’s side, even before William had a chance to lie him down. His hat had fallen half over his face and she pushed that away as William did his best to lay him on his back without his head lolling back and hitting the ground.  It was a bad sign that he was out cold.

“Johnny. Johnny?” Eliza shook his arm but there was no response. All the blood had drained from his face and he was so still that William looked closely at his chest to make sure it was rising up and down.

Surely, he hadn’t hit him that hard? “Give him time to come around, Eliza. It might take a few minutes.” He had his fingers crossed it would be minutes—and not hours—before Johnny woke up.

He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye but he was ready for it. “Don’t you dare.” Branson stepped back but he was still eying Johnny’s gun where it fell. William picked it up, instead. “Damn it, Branson, drop your gun, you damned fool.”

“Why would I do that?”

William pointed Johnny’s gun at him. “Because I’m holding a gun on you and I don’t particularly care, right now, about asking you politely. You’re the one who caused all this trouble in the first place, with your wild accusations.”

“How do I know you’re not in league with the gun-hawk?”

“And how do any of us know you didn’t kill Mortimer Smith? Now do what I say.” Branson didn’t move, so William pulled the hammer back on Johnny’s gun. “You damned fool. I probably just saved your life a minute ago. Did you think you were going to outshoot him—or have you forgotten the demonstration at Sunday Creek?”

That ugly jaw tightened but William could see a glimmer of sense in Branson’s eyes. “Okay, okay.” He tossed his gun down but Branson’s eyes narrowed as he threw Johnny a look. Nothing would make a man like Branson back down. You’d find more class and good sense in a mule.

William kicked it away. “Now stand back, so that we can attend to Johnny.”

Eliza had fished a handkerchief out of her pocket. “Mirella, wet this for me.”

The Minchin took a step backwards, staring at Johnny as if he had the plague. “Eliza, keep away from that man.”

“Mirella, I swear, if you don’t help me, I’ll…”  She shook the handkerchief at her, “I’ll…leave you at the first town we come to.”

“Well…really.” Miss Minchin stuck her scrawny neck out, but stalked across and snatched the handkerchief from Eliza then dipped it in the small pot that held the water they’d boiled for drinking.

 “Don’t wring it out all the way. It needs to be wet.”

The Minchin pinched her lips but she did as she was told, then dangled the cloth at arm’s length to pass to Eliza.

“You might want to hold your breath, too, Miss Minchin,” William muttered under his breath.

Once Eliza had the cloth, she started dabbing Johnny’s forehead. “Oh, poor Johnny.” Then she flung at William, “How could you do this to him?”

And what could he say? Eliza had already decided Johnny was innocent. But William needed time to think…look at the facts…analyse the information. His first thought had been to take the heat out of a situation that was fast getting out of hand, thanks to Branson and his stupidity.  The ends justifies the means, right? Sentiment plays no part in decision making?

William started pacing.

Only now, this young man—a tough young man, even a worthy opponent—was stretched out on the ground, dead to the world. Someone’s son. Someone’s brother. And somewhere, a family was waiting in a place called Morro Coyo, and they deserved to see him walk through the door.

“My goodness, I don’t feel at all well.” Miss Minchin put her hand to her throat, as if she was struggling to breathe.

“Not now, ma’am. Can’t you see we’ve got a man down? Have some water, for God’s sake.”

He didn’t look to see what effect his words had. The Minchin shut up and that was all that mattered. Especially as he had Eliza glaring his way.

“He’s down—thanks to you,” Eliza fired at him. “I thought you were his friend.”

“We only met on the stage two days ago. Remember?”

“Oh, hush up and give me your coat.”

“Why should I do that?”

“Because Johnny needs a pillow for his head, and seeing as you broke it, giving him your jacket is the least you can do.”

William did as she asked and handed it to her. She folded the jacket so that it would make a reasonable pillow, then he knelt down and lifted Johnny’s head for her. Once she’d slipped it under Johnny, she went back to dabbing his forehead.

This was worrying. Johnny should be conscious by now.

He’d struck hard because of Johnny’s hat.

He paced some more…

No, that wasn’t it. He struck hard—because that’s what he always did.

When he turned, he found Eliza following him with her eyes. “I hope you’re feeling guilty, Mr Holdsworth.”

“I am, if it’s any consolation to you.”

“It’s not me who needs consoling.” And she went back to her nursing.

The Minchin, somehow, had Branson wrapped around her pinkie. He’d helped her over to the log and she was now, in a weak voice, suggesting some coffee might help. The fluttering lace handkerchief was being used to great effect, first she dabbed at her lips, then her temples. The look on Branson’s face was almost ludicrous. Give him a day and he’d be her lap dog.

“Sure thing, ma’am,” Branson was crooning. “Coffee will be just the thing to cheer a lady like yourself.”

At least coffee was the one thing they had plenty of. “Good idea, Miss Minchin. Perhaps make a fresh pot, Branson? We could give one to Johnny, when he wakes up.”

That earned him another glower from Eliza. “First you hit Johnny over the head, now you want to give him coffee. You’re a very strange man, Mr Holdsworth.”

A mix between a groan and a sigh made them all look at Johnny. He was turning his head with a grimace, but his eyes were closed.

Eliza took his hand and squeezed it. “Johnny. It’s me. Eliza.”

He swallowed slowly, opened one eye, then the other. “Have you got a twin sister?” His words were a little slurred.

“No.”

“That’s a pity…because the girl by your side looks awfully like you.” He reached behind to feel the back of his neck. “Dios, what the hell hit me?”

“That would be, Mr Holdsworth,” She gave William one of her dark looks. “With that.” She thrust her arm out, to point an accusing finger at the log he’d thrown away.

Of course, there was a good chance she wanted to pick up that log and whack him on the neck, as hard as she could.

“What? Dammit, William, what did you do that for?” Johnny struggled up on his elbows, and closed his eyes again.

“You had a gun and Branson had a gun and any minute, one of those guns was about to go off.”

“Boy, you sure coulda hit Branson, instead of me.”

“Unfortunately, you were closer.”

Johnny’s speech was slower than usual but the fact he remembered what had happened was a good sign.

“You think I’m gonna start a fracas, with ladies about?” 

That earned him another of Eliza’s piercing stares. “You see, Mr Holdsworth—you totally misjudged Johnny.” Then she turned back to Johnny, wincing at the look on his face. “Does your head hurt very much?”

“It doesn’t tickle.” He lay back down again, manoeuvring the jacket so that it sat right. “Where’s that cloth?”

“Here, let me do it. Lift your head.” She wet the cloth in the pot again, then put it on the back of his neck.

“Ow.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not very good at this. Daddy will never let me near a sick room.”

Johnny caught her hand. “But I sure appreciate you trying, ‘Liza. Really I do.”

William called over his shoulder, “Branson, have you got that coffee ready?”

“I don’t like the way you’re ordering me around, Holdsworth.” He came across and stood near William, his eyes fixed on Johnny. “You boys can get your own coffee.”

Johnny stretched his legs out. “What are you lookin’ at, Branson?”

“You know, boy, I’ve never seen a gun-hawk swing before. I’m just picturing it—in my mind.”

Eliza knelt back on her heels and swept her eyes over Branson, with all the contempt a young lady her age, could muster. “I don’t like you, Mr Branson. You’re a very cruel man…and if anyone were to ask me, I’ll tell them it was you who murdered poor Mr Smith.”

“That wouldn’t be too clever, girl.”

Johnny got up on his elbows again. “She just might have my backing, Branson, so I’d keep your mouth shut, if I were you.” Then he turned to William. “Where’s this sidewinder’s gun?”

“Here.”

Johnny eyed it. “Taking his gun was probably the only sensible thing you did all morning, William.”

Branson took a step forward. “I’ll take you on with my fists, boy, any time you like. You just call it.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe I’m calling it?”

Johnny jumped to his feet…Eliza grabbed his arm…and William leapt up to block Branson…

“No, Johnny.” Eliza grabbed at his arm again.

“The horses. Listen. Listen. Listen.” The worry in Miss Minchin’s voice made them all stop.

William could hear it now…the neighs…the whinnies…the hooves pawing the ground. Something was scaring the horses.

Johnny looked around, the same concern on his face that William was feeling. “Has anyone checked on the horses lately?” No-one answered.

William was only a few feet from Branson. “Quick, why don’t you go check on the horses? Please.” The last word nearly choked him but he managed to get it out.

“Why should I?”

“Because they’re our ticket out of here, in case you’ve forgotten. And I don’t want any more trouble.” No way was William leaving Branson alone with Johnny—or Eliza, for that matter. At least the horses had calmed down, now. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as urgent, after all?

Branson grinned at Johnny. “You haven’t seen the last of me, Madrid.”

William blocked him. They were almost the same height. “We’re all stuck here, so why don’t we try to get along with each other until Charlie gets back and we can be on our way?”

Branson shook a fist in William’s face then stalked off.

Eliza shivered, grasping Johnny’s arm even tighter. “I don’t like him. I don’t like him at all.”

“You just keep away from him.” Johnny put his hand over hers. “I won’t let him hurt you. Whoa, just give me a minute. I think I oughta sit down. Where’s my hat?”

William didn’t dare offer any help but Johnny managed to sit down, rather than fall down, scooting back to lean against the rim of the stage wheel.

Eliza was at his side, again. No wonder her father wouldn’t let her in a sick room—she’d be so attentive; she’d worry you to death. “I could get you some coffee?”

“Eliza. Eliza. Please come here. You’ll be ruining your dress sitting on the ground, like that.” Clearly, The Minchin, on the other hand, would love the attention.

“Mirella, it’s already ruined. And some things are more important than clothing.”

“I’m okay. Really,” Johnny told her. “You go to your friend.”

“I don’t feel at all well.” The Minchin sounded petulant. Annoyed. The handkerchief was fluttering again. “How can you be so unfeeling? First Mr Mortimer is dead and then all this violence and I don’t feel at all well and you won’t even accompany me into the forest.”

Eliza went across to her. “Mirella, there’s no need to be hysterical. Why didn’t you say you wanted me to go with you? Of course I will.”

“If you trust me, I’ll stay here with Johnny.” Perhaps he could get back in her good books, that way?

“No, I don’t trust you, Mr Holdsworth. But I have no choice, do I? Come, Miss Minchin.”

Johnny grabbed the cloth and lay it along the back of his neck.

“Here, try this.”

William held out the coffee but Johnny just squinted up at him. “I’ve seen everything, now. You try to kill a man and then you give him coffee.”

“I didn’t try to kill you. I tried to stop you.”

“From what, exactly?”

“If I remember correctly, Branson had just called you a murderer and pulled a gun on you and you were about to shoot him.”

“Dios, you’ve got a lot to learn about how we do things out here.”

“My only thought was how to de-escalate the situation.”

“Well, I don’t take too kindly to the back of my head being the—what’s the word—a ‘de-escalator.’

“I’m sorry. I really am.” He held out the coffee again.

This time, Johnny took it. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you laced it with arsenic,” he muttered, before blowing on it a few times. Once he’d had a few gulps, he closed his eyes.

William went back to the coffee pot and poured one for himself. “You knew about the damage to the jacket, didn’t you.”

It was a moment before Johnny opened his eyes. When he finally did, he seemed to be determining how much to say. “Yeah, I saw it. What I’m wondering is, when did you?”

“Not until Branson held it up.”

“You’re not as good an actor as you think you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“All that, ‘members of the jury’ talk. I’ve been in a court room, from time to time. I know when they’re talking gibberish.”

“Johnny, I’m telling you the truth. I didn’t know about the knife wound until Branson held up the jacket. I was just as surprised as anyone.”

Johnny wasn’t looking his way, now. He was frowning, off into the distance. “Something didn’t feel right from the very start, when we found Smith.”

“I agree.”

 “You agree, huh? Is that because you killed him or because your nose was telling you something stunk, like mine was?”

William raised his coffee. “Perhaps you and I both have well-trained noses?”

“So, how come you were doing your best to convince me everything was hunky-dory?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps because I don’t like to be rushed into things? I like to have time to think?”

“So, hittin’ me over the head gave you time to think, huh?”

“I felt like things were getting out of hand.” Like they were right now.

Johnny stared into his coffee, but when he looked up, that gaze of his was razor sharp. “Just who are you, really…Mr Holdsworth?”

“I got the horses sorted out. Took ‘em down to the river, for a drink and tied them somewhere fresh.” Branson stood there, glowering down at them both.

Johnny flashed a look of annoyance at the interruption but for once William was happy to see Branson—until he saw the set look on his face and the piece of rope in his hand. “What’s that for?”

“It’s for Madrid, here. I intend to tie him up.”

William stood and tossed the last of his coffee out. “We’re not tying anyone up.”

“You’re not talking about tying up Johnny, are you?” Eliza came back, followed by Miss Minchin. Right now, you only had to mention the name ‘Johnny’ and Eliza was ready to explode.

Branson pulled the rope in his hands, taught. “I’ve got news for you ladies. Your Johnny is no rancher. That’s a load of bull-dust. Charlie told me and Mortimer who he was, when he shot that snake. He’s Johnny Madrid. A gunfighter. Roamed border towns the last few years.”

“A gunfighter?” Eliza spun around. “Is that true?”

William couldn’t tell if Johnny was embarrassed or ashamed. Neither by the look of it. He simply shrugged.

“I used to be one. I’m a rancher now. My father called me home, oh, ‘bout six months ago.”

“A gunfighter? Really?” Even if the earth opened up and swallowed her, Eliza couldn’t appear more astonished.

Johnny nodded.

“Gracious. Oh my. I’ve never met a gunfighter before. I thought they weren’t real. Just characters you read about in dime novels.” She blushed. “Not that I read them…well, hardly ever.”

Well, that was that. All his hopes for her being turned off Johnny exploded in a puff of gunpowder. He was hard put not to laugh.

“Eliza, come away from him.” Miss Minchin started lifting her skirts and stepping back as if Johnny was contagious. “Of course he should be tied up. How can any of us be safe, otherwise?”

Johnny pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the hand William offered. He was good, William had to hand it to him. Other than a white-knuckled grip on the wheel, no-one would know the world was probably doing cartwheels.

“There’s one problem with that, Miss Minchin,” Johnny was saying. “What if you’re wrong? What if I’m not the one who killed Mortimer? What if the real killer sneaks up and knifes you, too, because you put your trust in the wrong man?”

The Minchin put a hand to her mouth and her eyes went wide.

“He has a very good point, Mirella. Besides, I know who I trust.”

Branson grinned. “You’re pretty, Miss Eliza, but you know doodly-squat about the likes of him.”

“I know all I need to know.”

Johnny started smiling. “Sure, Branson. Go ahead and hogtie me. But who’s gonna protect you if you’re wrong? What about fancy-pants from Boston, here? That bottled courage you’ve got stashed away some place, ain’t gonna save you.”

Branson started chewing on the inside of his mouth.

Johnny held his hands out, ready to be tied up. “Are you willing to bet your life on it?”

Branson started looking at William and that made him smile. Two could play this game. “Then again, maybe you’re the one the rest of us should be looking out for, Mr Branson? Wanting to tie up Johnny or me makes you look awfully suspicious. They say the guilty always make the most noise.”

Branson threw the rope down. “You two think you’re so damned smart, don’t you. Well, if we’re not tying him up, I want my gun back.”

“You have a point, there, Branson. We’ve got two choices, gentlemen. We either lock our weapons in Charlie’s box or each of us keeps his gun, for their own self-defence.”

Johnny shrugged. “Either way suits me.”

“Well, it don’t suit me. I vote we keep our guns.”

William thought Branson might say that. “Okay, if we keep our guns, I’d suggest going everywhere together, in pairs, and we let everyone know what we’re doing. That way, there’s accountability. It’s a lot harder to kill someone if everyone knows you were the only one with that person.”

“I don’t like this idea, Mr Holdsworth.” Miss Minchin was wringing her hands with some sort of emotion. Fear, most probably.

No fear in Eliza’s voice, though. “Mirella, I think it’s the only sensible idea there is. I vote that you all keep your guns.”

Johnny stuck his hand up. “If I have a choice, guns.”

William took his Derringer out of his pocket. “So that everyone can see. This is my weapon. I vote, guns.” He handed Johnny’s gun to him, then held Branson’s out—who snatched it back, of course.

Johnny took his gun and pointed it downwards, then half-cocked the hammer. “Just one thing,” he murmured, as he spun the cylinder and checked each chamber, “I’ve seen a person die of a knife wound.”

Johnny must have known he had everyone’s attention now, as he spun the cylinder for the last time, then looked up. “Begging the ladies’ pardon, but a man bleeds like the dickens.”

“Just what are you getting at, Madrid?”

 “Mortimer was wearing a light-coloured jacket, so how come there wasn’t blood all over it?”

“That’s simple.” The Minchin waved a hand. “It was in the water. I’d imagine it all washed away?”

Eliza was frowning. “I don’t think it would. I don’t really like to think about these things but, as Johnny says, if there was a lot of blood, it would go everywhere. Blood always stains. It’s almost impossible to wash it out with soap, let alone, without.”

“Branson.” Johnny pointed. “Hold up the jacket again.”

They all looked closely at the gash in the jacket. It was vertical, if you held the jacket up. The blade possibly struck Mortimer Smith somewhere between the shoulder blades? All William could see, was a small amount of blood flowing to the right of the gash. And he knew that was strange.

Who knew a gunfighter would be so well-versed in knife wounds?

“So, if there’s very little blood…?” Eliza was looking scared.

Johnny rubbed his nose. “I’m no expert on these things, but my guess would be, someone stabbed Mortimer…after he was dead.”

Eliza looked almost relieved. “So he wasn’t murdered?”

“That’s the confusing part, ain’t it. Why would someone stab him after he was dead? Possibly when his body was stuck in the weeds?”

“That’s terrible.”

“It is terrible.” And it might have been better if Johnny hadn’t spelled this out for everyone. But it was too late, now. They all had a right to know what they were facing. “What Johnny is saying, Mortimer, could have been pushed and then stabbed. Or he could have drowned by accident, and was then stabbed.”

Johnny slipped the gun back in his holster. “It also means, if he was pushed, well, that’s the sort of thing anyone could do. It wouldn’t take a lot of effort. Begging your pardon, ladies.”

The Minchin started laughing. “This is preposterous. You can’t be serious?” But her laughter had all but stopped by the time she got to her last words.

“It’s just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

Everyone started looking at each other with fresh eyes. Well, probably not everyone. There’d be one person who wasn’t.

Branson balled the jacket back up again and threw it over near the bags. “You’re just saying this to take the heat off yourself, Madrid.”

“Believe what you want, Branson. It don’t matter to me, none.” He sounded weary.

A chilling awkwardness had fallen over the rest of them. William stoked the fire up. “This is a great way to start a dinner party, isn’t it.”

At least he earned a smile from Eliza for his joke—not that it deserved one, as pathetic as it had been.

Miss Minchin clasped her hands together. “We’re all very hungry, Mr Holdsworth, so I’d prefer you didn’t speak of food.”

“Well, if I had a knife, I’d skin those rabbits.” Johnny went across to the fire and poured himself another coffee.

William raised his finger. “I know this is a delicate point, but does anyone else have a knife? Anyone? I can resort to checking though everyone’s luggage, if need be.”

“Check through mine, all you like.” Branson tossed his bag over with a smug look, as if he was somehow proving he hadn’t killed Smith.

He was about to open it up when Eliza stepped forward.

“Um…I think I can help.” Eliza brought her hand up from the folds of her dress then held it out.

She might have been holding a ruby, the size of her palm, the way they all stared. In her hand, was a knife, with a carved, ivory handle.

“That’s my knife. Where’d you find it?” Johnny sounded cautious.

“When Miss Minchin and I went out to the forest, we couldn’t go to our usual place, because Mr Branson had moved the horses there, so we had to walk a little further. Didn’t we, Miss Minchin?”

The Minchin nodded, but like Branson, she only had eyes for the knife.

“Anyway, I saw this little copse and I ran in there and…I didn’t see it at first and then I thought it was just the dew on the grass but something made me go over and check and…here it is.” She gave Johnny an apologetic look and her voice wavered. “I wasn’t sure what I should do?”

“No, you did the right thing, Eliza. But boy, I’d sure like to know how it got there.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. Do you want it back?”

Branson lunged forward. “Hey, you can’t give it to him.”

Even William wondered about that. “If it’s the murder weapon…shouldn’t we hand it in, with the coat?”

Johnny put his hands up. “Go’on. Check it. All of you. Anyone see any sign of blood on it?”

William took it from Eliza. “It could easily have been wiped clean, in the grass?” He touched his finger to the blade. “Well, I just proved that it’s sharp.” It was only a small cut but he grabbed his handkerchief to stop the bleeding.

“Here. Give it to me.” Branson turned it this way and that. “Nothing I can see on it.”

Johnny held out his hand. Branson was obstinate, as usual, but he was no match for Eliza, who snatched it from his hand and passed it to Johnny.

Johnny balanced the knife on his finger, like it was an old friend. “Now that I’ve got my knife back, if no-one minds, I’ll skin those rabbits. It’s gonna be midday before we get to eat.”

Branson’s stomach was more important than anything, so for once, he didn’t protest.

“I’ll go with Johnny. Do you all agree?” William received nods all round, but then a thought struck him. “We should all keep in mind, that just because the knife was thrown away, it’s not conclusive that this knife was used on Smith.”

.

Johnny grabbed one of the rabbits then squatted, knife in hand. He was slick. He knew exactly where to make the cut to remove the skin cleanly.

“You’ve done this a few times, I see.” William stood by.

Johnny grunted and kept at it. He’d finished with the first one, and had just started on the second rabbit, when he stuck his knife in the ground and changed to a kneeling position and pressed a hand to his forehead.

“Are you okay?”

“No thanks to you,” Johnny mumbled.

“I feel bad, I…”

“Aw, shut up. Just shut up. I’m stuck miles from home, thanks to a flood, and the only person I thought I could trust, bushwhacks me.”

“Can I help with the rabbits?”

“Nope.” He’d finished the second rabbit then wiped the blade on the grass and stood up. “Here, hold these.”

Johnny held out the two rabbits and William took them by the feet. “They’re slimy little devils, aren’t—.”

It wasn’t until William was sprawled on the wet grass that he even realised what had happened.

Johnny stood over him. “I figured you had that coming.”

William rubbed his jaw. Johnny wasn’t the only one seeing double. “I guess I did. Does this make us even?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe.”

“Good, because we need to talk…if my teeth aren’t rattling. That was some wallop you gave me.” Johnny still had fire in his eyes. “I know. I had it coming.” William dragged himself to his feet.

“What are you wanting to talk about?”

“I’ve been thinking about Mortimer Smith. Murders are rarely random occurrences.”

“So?”

“So, someone on this stage must have a connection to Mortimer Smith.”

“How do I know Smith doesn’t have a connection to you?”

“You don’t of course. Nor I, you. I’ve been trying to think this through. Mortimer was still alive on my watch.  Right?”

“Yep.”

“You said he got up some time before dawn and left the campsite?”

“That’s right.”

“Who else left the campsite around then?”

“Me.”

“You?”

“I was on watch, remember. I didn’t think I was protecting the camp from one of the passengers. The horses were restless. I got up to see why. I heard some noises. Thought they were wolves.”

“By the river?”

“Nope. Other direction.”

“How long were you gone for?”

Johnny gripped the knife in his hand. “Long enough for anyone to kill Mortimer Smith.”

They didn’t barbecue their meat with the same sense of camaraderie as they had last night. In fact, they were quite a glum little group.

It appeared Eliza had decided Johnny was the only one she trusted and she sat close to him, but she was quite the expert now, at cooking her meat.

“Drat, this smoke.” Miss Minchin got up and moved her position for the third time. She did seem to have the uncanny ability to attract it, wherever she sat.

William waited until everyone was eating. “There’s a few things we need to clear up, seeing as it’s quite possible Mortimer Smith didn’t die by accident. I’d like to pinpoint the time he actually died.”

That put a dampener on any sort of goodwill that might have been floating around. “If no-one has any objections?”

He wouldn’t say they looked happy about his suggestion but he ploughed on, anyway. “Mortimer was still alive when I swapped with Johnny around two o’clock. Johnny said Mortimer got up around four o’clock because Branson was snoring. He took the buffalo robe and that was the last time Johnny saw him. Did anyone see him after that?”

“I never saw him again. I was in the stagecoach with Eliza, all night.”

“Poor Mr Smith.” Eliza sighed. “I didn’t see him.”

“And you Branson?”

“Of course, I didn’t see the teacher. I was asleep the whole night.”

Eliza pulled her meat out of the fire. “No, you weren’t, Mr Branson. I looked out the window and you weren’t there and neither was Johnny and neither was Mr Holdsworth.” She frowned for a moment. “Now I come to think of it, there was no-one by the fire, at all.”

                               

Chapter Ten

William nearly choked on his meat. He looked closely at Eliza. “Eliza, are you quite sure about that?”

“Yes, Mr Holdsworth.” Her eyes couldn’t have been wider and more innocent if she tried. “It was a little stuffy in the stagecoach, so I put my head out the window. I was quite surprised to see there was no-one around the fire.”

“The chit’s lying because she wants to protect pretty boy, Madrid.” Branson’s snarl was meaner than some fighting dogs he’d come across. “I didn’t leave the camp all night. She damn-well knows it.”

Johnny looked up from the fire. “I don’t like the way you’re talking to Miss Eliza.”

If Branson had any sense, he’d recognise that tone; lazy but threatening. A cougar hidden in a cocoon.

“What about you, Holdsworth? What were you doing?” Johnny’s gaze had shifted to him.

The use of his surname was telling, and to be expected, considering Johnny’s aching head.

William looked Eliza in the eyes. “Well, if Miss Eliza says I wasn’t in the camp, by the fire, then I wasn’t. My absence can be explained by my answering a call of nature. Briefly.”

He could see more than a flicker of interest in Johnny’s eyes. “Well, then, you must have left the fire when I went to check on the horses.”

Branson’s face was red. Perspiration dotted his forehead. “The team weren’t ten miles away, Madrid. How long did it take you to do that?”

“Long enough. I figured you wouldn’t want a pack of wolves scaring the horses.”

“How do I know you’re not just making that up? I didn’t see any wolves.”

William tut tutted. “Ah, but you were asleep all night, weren’t you, Mr Branson.”

Johnny took his meat and checked it again. “There are wolf tracks all over these woods. A five year old could pick out their paths. I found some fresh droppings. There’s probably a den in an old log somewhere. They like to be close to the water.”

“Wasn’t that asking for trouble, Mr Madrid?”

The Minchin had been unusually quiet, now that he thought about it.

“No. More often than not, a wolf will run when he sees people.”

“Then why go looking?” Branson sweated some more.

Johnny looked amused. Whether that was because he found Branson funny or the half-smile was designed to enrage, William wasn’t sure. Perhaps both?

Johnny took his time taking his meat off the skewer. “Well, Branson, sometimes four legged animals make more sense than some people I know.”

“You think you’re real smart, don’t you, Madrid?”

“No, Mr Branson. Just smarter than some.”

Branson’s face got even uglier—.

“Miss Minchin,” William cut in before things got ugly, “You haven’t said if you woke up last night?”

“Eliza can tell you, Mr Holdsworth. I was with her all night long. Wasn’t I, dear?”

Eliza tilted her head. “I suppose so. To tell the truth, it was so dark in there that I couldn’t see anything at all. But I’m sure you were.” And she smiled brightly at them all.

William smiled, too. Well done, Miss Eliza. You just made everyone a suspect. What exactly was she up to?

“I’m not at all happy about this. What makes any of us,” and the Minchin pointed her skewer at each one of them, “judge and jury?”

Well, this was quite a change of tune. “You were happy enough to accuse Johnny and go along with Mr Branson in tying him up?”

“Well, he was the one with the knife…and the past.”

“I’ve never heard of someone’s past physically killing a man. It requires an actual body to perform the task.”

“You’re quite right, Mr Holdsworth. However, a woman has to err on the side of caution. Poor Eliza and I have been placed in a very difficult situation.”

Eliza fanned some smoke away from her face. “My mother always said, ‘A diamond with a flaw is better than a common stone that is perfect.’”

He couldn’t resist adding, “And don’t forget, ‘Everyone is sociable until a cow invades his garden.’”

She frowned at William. “I’m not sure that has anything to do with what we were talking about?”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t. I just like that proverb.”

That raised a smile from Johnny as he licked some grease off his thumb.

The Minchin shook her head. “It’s all Mr Smith’s fault. If he hadn’t been drunk he might still be alive and then we wouldn’t be sitting here, wondering if someone killed him.”

“Mirella, aren’t you being a little harsh to poor Mr Smith?”

“Eliza. Aren’t you scared?”

This was yet another surprise for the day—the sight of the Minchin in tears. And they looked genuine, too.

Eliza moved across and put her arm around her shoulders as The Minchin dabbed at her eyes.

“Ma’am,” Johnny chewed his meat and swallowed, before saying, “Only one of us knows if Mortimer actually drank that bottle of whiskey.”

A fresh chill seemed to settle on everyone again, with Johnny’s words. Branson even stopped shoving meat in his mouth.

“He might have been drinking because he was troubled about something?” William tossed his skewer down. He was getting very tired of rabbit without gravy or a sauce.

“Maybe, we’ll never know? Like you said, Miss Minchin, it’s something for the law to decide, ain’t it.”

She’d stopped crying and Eliza shifted back to her place, closer to Johnny. “Daddy says if someone isn’t used to drinking, it can make them drunk very fast.” She looked across at the bottle they’d found on Smith’s buffalo robe. “Old Taylor? Hmm…I think my father said something about it having quite a kick. I was probably asking if I could try it and he always said no. Is it a Scotch whiskey? That’s what he mostly collects. He even went to Scotland to buy some, last year.”

He wasn’t sure if Eliza was trying to impress or she was babbling on because she felt on edge. How was a young girl meant to feel on finding she was possibly trapped with a murderer?

He smiled at her. “Your father collects whiskey? I shall have to meet him sometime.”

“I don’t know much about it. He talks about his collection at his club. Daddy has so many bottles that he keeps them in a room downstairs. Like a vault. I think that’s silly. I was so cross with him once, that I went down there and took some bottles and poured them into the gutter and he never even noticed.”

William happened to glance at Miss Minchin. She looked disgusted. More than that…incensed? Sometimes, the very idea of throwing something of value away, was tantamount to sacrilege, when you’d known nothing but want. She balled her fists in her lap and he could almost see The Minchin physically forcing her usual composure back onto her face. “What of Charlie, Mr Madrid? When will our driver return? I don’t recall him saying when he thought he’d be back.”

“Charlie didn’t know, ma’am. First he had to find a place to cross the river downstream, and then he’d have to get to the relay station at King River and that was ten miles from our bridge that broke. Who knows how far he’s had to travel to cross? Or if he was even able to?”

“Johnny’s right. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had to stop and wait for daylight. And that black is trained for pulling a stagecoach, not being ridden bareback.” And all of that made their situation very precarious.

“Well, Charlie knows what he’s doing. He knows we’re waiting for him, so he won’t try anything foolish. I guess if he doesn’t return before nightfall, I could always take a horse and go look for him.”

“Oh yeah, Madrid, and soon you’d be half-way to Mexico and none of us the wiser.”

“Branson, I’m gettin’ real tired of you.”

“Now, Mr Branson, as difficult as our situation is, I think we need to try to remain civil to each other.” The Minchin nodded at him in an encouraging way.

William nearly choked. Branson and civil were two words that would never be a pair.

Johnny grabbed his hat. “We ain’t gettin’ anywhere talking. I’d better check on the horses.”

“I’ll go with you. We need to go in pairs. Remember?” Eliza went to stand, then it turned into a leap, to her feet. “What’s that?”

Johnny leaned over to see what was crawling on the log. “It’s just a black beetle. He won’t hurt you.”

“I usually squish crawling things.” She shuddered.

“Here you go, little feller.” Johnny was already scooping it onto a leaf. “Why don’t we let him live another day, huh? Until he finds some other pretty girl to scare.” He got up and let it go, away from the campsite.

“This place is alive with bugs and spiders. Look, there’s another one.” She was so busy backing away from the twin of the beetle Johnny just removed, that she almost overbalanced. Johnny reached out and steadied her and she grabbed his arm as if she had no intention of letting go. Ever.

When he turned around, Miss Minchin was watching Eliza walk off with Johnny, and again, he was struck by the look on the Minchin’s face. Was it jealousy? The Minchin would be closer his own age, than Johnny’s.

Branson was the only one still eating and swigging down coffee, as if this might be his last meal on earth. If he kept prodding Johnny, it damn well might be.

William collected up their cooking sticks. If Charlie wasn’t back by nightfall, they’d be using them again.

“Excuse me, Mr Branson.” The Minchin buttoned up her dark grey jacket as she addressed him.

Branson was deaf as well as stupid. He just sat there, gulping his coffee.

“If you don’t mind, Mr Branson. I usually take a morning constitution.”

This time he looked at her—with a blank face.

“I mean, I usually go for a walk after my midday meal. Would you be so kind as to accompany me? It was suggested we stay in pairs. Mr Holdsworth, you are my witness.”

“Of course, Miss Minchin.” William bowed.

Branson stumbled to his feet. “Oh, yes, ma’am. My pleasure.” He put his arm out as if they were taking a turn around the park and they walked off.

That left William alone in the camp.

He’d made a damn mess of things. Johnny was suspicious and Eliza would scarce look at him. Then there was The Minchin and Branson and he didn’t consider either of them as friends. And what a curious pairing. Why would The Minchin trust Branson?

Branson’s carpet bag was the other side of the fire, where Branson had slept. It was battered and stained, yet it had a padlock. Curious. He did a quick check. There was no-one around, unless he counted a family of brown, speckled ducks making their way towards the river.

His grabbed his jacket from the ground and put it back on. Unlike Branson’s jacket, it was a handsome fit, even if he said so himself.

He could hear the murmur of voices, but it was Johnny and Eliza, over near the horses. A quick glance up the road showed Branson and the Minchin walking slowly, avoiding puddles and no doubt having a learned discussion concerning the opening of the Musikverein in Vienna and France declaring war on Prussia. Exactly the topics an erudite man like Branson would enjoy.

It took a matter of seconds to slip his hand into his pocket where he kept his device, then insert it into Branson’s padlock. It clicked open with the ease of a sliding drawer.

William’s nose wrinkled. Branson wasn’t a believer in cleanliness, if the state and smell of his clothes was anything to go by. He held up a shirt and another jacket. Each was crumpled, well-worn and he’d either owned them for many years or Branson had bought them from a thrift shop.

Next he took out a box of ammunition and a small leather bag containing a shaving kit and that was about it. William ran his hand along the sides and the bottom, in case he’d missed anything. No, nothing…wait a minute…

He slipped his hand in again and this time he pulled out a thin bamboo stick, with a hook attached to the end. The entire thing was just the right length to slip beneath the sleeve of a jacket. He’d seen something like this before. Many times, in fact.

Was that voices coming closer? He shoved everything back in the bag and snapped the lock closed…damn.

He was tempted to look around but that would make him appear guilty, so he sauntered across to the fire and added another log.

Then another.

No-one appeared.

And his heart stopped racing; it must have been Eliza’s laugh ringing out, making it sound as if she was on her way back.

How he’d love to check through the rest of their luggage but he wasn’t sure how long everyone would be gone.

He might as well make himself useful. Perhaps he could get back into Eliza’s good graces that way? He stoked up the fire to the point where he had a good blaze, then grabbed the pot they used for collecting water.

And if the path he chose happened to make its way past the horses, so be it. The ducks marched that way, so why shouldn’t he?

He’d only walked a short distance when he could hear voices quite clearly. Eliza’s more so than Johnny’s. Eliza seemed to be waxing lyrical about the horses and Johnny mentioned something about them being a fine team and so the conversation continued with polite nothings that meant little to him. He turned away. He might as well give up and keep—.

“Johnny, I haven’t been honest with you.”

And that was enough to make him stop completely. There were plenty of thick bushes around, so anyone would have to look hard to see him but he had a reasonable glimpse of both Johnny and Eliza, through the leaves. ‘Dammit, Johnny, keep her talking…’

He could see she’d caught Johnny by surprise. He’d been checking the hind leg of the nearest horse but he stopped what he was doing and straightened up. William had an idea he was entertained rather than perturbed. 

Eliza had her hands clasped in front of her, as if she was tied to the tumbril and on her way to the gallows. “You see, I…I’m running away…and Miss Minchin is helping me.”

If she was expecting a big reaction, which he suspected was the case, she’d be disappointed.

“Yeah?” Johnny was clearly a man who took revelations like this in his stride. “Who are you running away from?”

 “My father. He wants me to marry a man I don’t love.  Albright Chester, the third.”

“With a name like that, no wonder you don’t want to marry him. What does he do—other than dragging a name around that’s liable to choke him?”

She giggled. “It’s awful, isn’t it. His father, Albright Chester, the second, builds railways.”

“You know, I think I’ve heard my old man talk about him.” Johnny whistled. “He’s probably got deep pockets.”

“Well, I don’t care for him or his father’s money. I don’t love him.”

“So, you hopped a stage for St Louis, huh?”

“I have an aunt there. My mother’s sister. We’ve always been very close and she said if I ever needed anything, to come to her. And she’s very good at standing up to my father. I haven’t even told my father I’ve gone.”

“Won’t he be worried?”

“I don’t know if he’ll even notice I’m not there. He doesn’t check my room like he checks his whiskey and his wine and his ledger sheets.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, I’m sure. My mother only married him because her parents wanted the marriage. She told me he was different when they were courting. Couldn’t do enough to make her happy. Then I was born and my mother nearly died and she was unable to have any more children. My mother said Daddy never forgave her for not giving him a son.”

“I’m real sorry, Eliza.”

“So you can see why I don’t want to marry Albright. I’d rather…I’d rather join a convent and spend my life in an abby on an island, than marry him.”

“That don’t sound like a whole lot of fun.”

“If you had a father like mine, you’d understand. I hate him.” She moved across to the same horse, and ran a hand down its nose.

“No. You’re too pretty to hate anyone. I know…well, I don’t know a lot about this sort of thing…but I know my father can be hard to understand sometimes. You sure your old man doesn’t want the best for you?”

“I think the only one he wants the best for, is himself.”

“Maybe you should try having it out with him? Talking about it? Someone suggested that to me once and it woulda saved a lot of heartache if I’d had the sense to listen.”

“No. No. It wouldn’t make any difference. I just can’t love him anymore.” She buried her face in the black’s mane. “Not after what he did to my mother.”

Johnny sighed. “I know how you feel, ‘Liza. But that kind of hate will twist you up inside.”

“I know. I am twisted up inside. It’s horrible. I want to hurt him for hurting my mother. I think about it. All the time.”

“’Liza,” he put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle shake. “No, you’re not that bad. It takes a whole lotta hate to change a person and make then something they don’t wanna be.”

 She turned around to Johnny, looking up at him, then her hand grabbed hold of his jacket. “I’m not a good person, Johnny.”

William saw it coming. Saw the way she gazed at Johnny. Even saw the hesitation on Johnny’s part…

William turned and ran—and nearly smacked himself into a tree because he was trying to not see what he’d just seen.

Good God, he wasn’t trying to be a peeping Tom. How was he to know Eliza was going to do that?

He slowed, once he thought he was far enough away. He had a horrible feeling he’d made as much noise as a herd of cattle. He crossed his fingers that neither Johnny nor Eliza had been paying any attention to their surroundings while he was blundering through the undergrowth.

And then William started to laugh. He must have looked like a schoolboy, spying on a teacher with her beau. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so awkward.

“Damn you, Johnny.”

How was William meant to compete with…with whatever it was Johnny had that made the Eliza’s of this world, fall over themselves to be noticed by him?

He took his time making his way to the river. There was little reason to hurry.

Right now, he wasn’t sure if he gave a damn who killed Mortimer Smith. It’s not as if it was front page news. People wouldn’t be talking about his death on street corners. He’d be just another of the many who slid into rivers, never to be seen again. At least  Smith had had a burial, and even a prayer, so he was better off than many.

His speckled-duck family had pitter-pattered their way out of sight. They had somewhere to go. A purpose. Last night, he thought he’d discovered his again—but it hadn’t lasted very long. As of now, he couldn’t go back and he couldn’t go forward.

“Damn you, Johnny Madrid.”

And now he was repeating himself.

But it felt damn good.

He should curse some more. Get everything off his chest. Scream at the top of his lungs. Scare The Minchin!

He enjoyed the vision of that for some time—until he remembered where he was and the dilemma facing them all.

Besides, in spite of his annoyance with Madrid, the truth of it was, this whole thing with Smith ate at William. Was Smith drunk? Did he fall in, or was he pushed? And the knife wound? It made no sense. Knives and passion often went hand in hand but neither The Minchin nor Eliza looked like Smith’s jilted lovers. Was he stabbed by someone who didn’t know he was dead? Or because they wanted to throw suspicion on another? But that was strange, too, because the obvious conclusion that he’d got drunk and fell into the water by accident, would make the most sense. Who would argue with that?

Then again, he’d met enough criminals in his time to know they were rarely intelligent. Hadn’t he himself, jumped on the stage without thinking it through? So there was intelligence for you.

And here he was, now, wandering around the woods, probably lost.

“Mr Holdsworth?”

He stopped dead. He must be dreaming. Why would Eliza be calling him, after what he just saw? He turned around. Of course it was her. There was no-one else in their party with the voice of a cooing dove. “You should have someone with you, shouldn’t you?”

She looked guilty. “I had…women’s business…and then…I thought I’d go for a walk.” She’d taken her jacket off and didn’t look unlike a dove, with the soft grey of her dress and the white of her sleeves.

None of her excuse sounded truthful but he wasn’t going to spoil the moment now that she was here. “I’d be happy to have your company. That gives us each an alibi when Johnny turns up dead.”

“Mr Holdsworth.” She’d been about to put her hand on his arm but now withdrew it as if she’d touched a red hot poker. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“Sorry. Perhaps too much Shakespeare? The Bard, does, after all, frequently kill off his heroes.”

She frowned over that. “But they aren’t really heroes, are they? Macbeth kills Duncan, Hamlet murders Claudius.”

“But Hamlet is avenging his father’s death. Isn’t that what all heroes in those books you read, would do?”

He definitely struck a chord with that comment. Her mouth went tight and she looked almost…guilty? “I don’t believe in vengeance, Mr Holdsworth.” She was at her most prim.

“It’s certainly started a lot of wars.”

“Let’s not talk about Shakespeare.” She slipped an arm through his. “I was wondering…if you know anything about…oh…gunfighting.”

Her efforts at dissimulating almost made him laugh out loud—but for the sting in her question. He smiled, but it wasn’t his brightest. “Gunfighting in general…or, more precisely, about gun-fighters?”

“Well, sometimes…in books…”

“Those dime novels that you’ve only heard about?”

“You’re making fun of me, Mr Holdsworth.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“It’s just that you’re a man of the world…and I thought you would know about such things?” She had a sudden fascination for the ground, as they walked.

“Hmm.” It crossed his mind to tell her a gunfighter is a ruthless, killer with no soul. “From what I know, they take money for,” he was itching to use the words, ‘killing people,’ but instead chose, “for protecting people and their interests.”

“Does that include…killing people?”

Perhaps he should have used those words, after all? “It might. Depending on the situation and the morals of the gunfighter himself.”

“I see.” They walked on a little further. “I don’t think Johnny would be that type.”

“Why? Because he saves beetles?”

“You’re making fun of me again, Mr Holdsworth, and regardless of what you think, to my mind, that says a great deal about Johnny.”

He’d heard a lot about border towns and how wild and lawless it was down there. But should he disillusion her? How was it she hadn’t seen what lurked in those eyes, no matter how blue they might be?

Then again, perhaps she saw the danger and liked it?

They’d reached the river now. It was frustrating to see how slowly the water was receding. There must be torrents of rain somewhere upstream, in the mountains, causing them a lot of trouble, down here.

Eliza took hold of his arm. “It’s scary, isn’t it.” Even as they watched, the body of a cow was carried along by the river, legs sometimes sticking up as the current turned it this way and that, almost as if the poor thing was performing some macabre dance.  She buried her face in his arm.

He put a hand on her head. “It’s all right. It’s gone past, now.”

“I don’t like it here. I don’t like to think that Mr Smith took his last breath, alone, in the dark, fighting to live. Why didn’t he call out? Why did someone hate him so much that they pushed him in?”

“We still don’t know if that’s what happened. He might have fallen?”

“There are too many secrets here. Sometimes I feel like the leaves are whispering to me.”

“That’s very Shakespearean of you.”

“Please don’t make fun of me, Mr Holdsworth.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” He’d lived with secrets for too long, now. They’d even made him insensitive to Eliza’s hurts.

“I think Johnny is the only honest person here.”

And it struck him, that she was probably right. How ironic, that Johnny, with the murkiest past, was the one who was the most open about it.

Eliza screamed and for just a second, even William almost jumped; her white sleeve was covered in splotches of red.

“It’s all right. It’s from a bird. Bird droppings.”

“Oh my.” She started laughing…and crying…and of course, he put his arm around her.

“It’s been feasting on red berries, by the look of it.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Holdsworth. It seems I’m always crying on your shoulder by the river.”

“Here.” He got his handkerchief out. “Let me wipe that for you.”

“I’ll need to wet the cloth in the water. We’ll work together. You fill the pot and I’ll soak your handkerchief.” She gave him a brave smile and he watched her for a moment as she walked away.

She might have just kissed Johnny but that hadn’t banished her fears. Murder was a nasty business. He shouldn’t be surprised if either Eliza or Miss Minchin were on edge and teary. In fact, it would probably look very odd if they weren’t.

He filled the pot but when he looked up, he saw Eliza had walked downstream, where the reeds were, where it was easier to reach the water…

It was too late to tell her this was where they found Smith. Hopefully, in broad daylight, she wouldn’t recognise the site.

She’d wet the handkerchief and he could see her standing up.

He called out, “Are you ready?”

At first he was confused by the look on her face…until he realised what had happened.

She was ready all right—ready to see him hang.

She had his handkerchief in one hand. But the other held his book. His soggy blue, book. The one he had pushed into the reeds. The one that had been under Mortimer Smith’s body. The one he had tried to hide.

“Eliza…I can explain…”

That was as far as he got, before she turned and ran.

Chapter Eleven

“Johnny. Johnny.” Eliza had taken off running like the hounds of hell were after her. She’d run into the trees, through the long grass and only heaven knew where she was going.

“Eliza. Stop. Let me explain.”

But she wasn’t slowing down and if he kept running after her, she was likely to think he was chasing her for a more nefarious reason, rather than just wanting to talk and explain to her about the book. The last thing he wanted to do was frighten her any more than she already was.

He followed, but at a slower pace, so that he could keep her in view, but eventually, he had to stop and look around. This wasn’t good. She’d run away from the path that led to the stagecoach. William tried to get his bearings. By his calculations, they were heading downstream.

He ran a hand across his mouth. For once, indecision gripped him. He didn’t want Eliza any more scared than she already was but at the same time, if he didn’t follow, she might end up hopelessly lost?

Dammit. Where was Johnny when he needed him? That boy could track a fly through a sandstorm.

Eliza was getting further and further away from him, by the minute. As the forest became thicker, she was little more than a flash of white between the trees.

Going back to the stagecoach to get Johnny would take too long. He’d have to follow her. Hopefully talk some sense to her. And surely she’d get tired and run out of steam?

He kept going. She seemed to have followed a narrow track but the undergrowth crowded in and thorny bushes pulled at his trousers. She’d chosen a track all right—but it was a very narrow one.

Uh oh…a very worrying thought just came to him.

Johnny had talked about wolf tracks.

He said there were plenty about…

William stopped and stared ahead. He was starting to feel that uncomfortable tingle of desperation.

There wasn’t a sound to be heard. No birds…no rustle in the bushes…no running feet.

Perhaps that was a good sign? Eliza had a good set of lungs. Surely she’d scream if she was in danger?

Was that her?

He’d caught a glimpse of white flashing past some fallen trees. He was sure that was Eliza’s white blouse.  Thank God, she’d finally stopped running.

He moved closer, until he was only fifteen feet or so away. It looked like she’d finally exhausted herself. Now, if he could just get her to listen…without some hysterical outburst.

He opened his mouth, had even taken a breath, ready to call out, but—.

This wasn’t right. Why wasn’t she moving?

He edged closer. “Eliza?” He spoke quietly. The last thing he wanted was to startle her.

Nothing. No answer back. No signal she’d heard him. She could have been some Grecian statue.

“Eliza?” He whispered this time, edging forward through the bushes a few more feet.

Finally she slowly turned her head, as if her neck was attached to some rusty old hinge. She didn’t say a word—she didn’t need to—her eyes said it all.

And anyway, he could hear it himself now. A low growl…a very deep, menacing growl…

William slipped his hand into his jacket and brought out his Derringer as he edged the last few feet towards her, but he might as well be carrying a slingshot for all the good it was going to do him.

Grey wolves. Each of them magnificent specimens. And all of them, very very, angry at being disturbed.

Probably four were males, six feet long and at least a hundred and fifty pounds of pure strength. The other two were smaller, but not by much and most likely, females. Those two beauties alone were big enough to make your blood freeze, let alone adding the other four to the mix.

William swallowed. The ferocity, every time they growled, sent shivers right down to his toes.

“Don’t move.” He didn’t need to say that—Eliza was frozen on the spot—but it helped him pretend he was less scared than she looked to be.

He had to do some fast thinking.

Johnny said wolves didn’t always attack…but these ones certainly looked like the attacking kind.  Every snarl said they wanted to tear him and Eliza, limb from limb.

It was the whimpering and howling he could hear above the snarling that spelled even more trouble for them. He shot a quick look behind the females. Just as Johnny predicted, the wolves were protecting wolf cubs, tucked away in a hollowed log.

Even as he watched, a tiny head peeped out, emitting a cat-like growl. Any other time, Eliza would be oohing at the cuteness but not with Mamma and Pappa about to rip them both to shreds. “Try taking a step back.”

She was starting to shake.

“Eliza, just take a step.”

She slowly slid her foot back but as soon as she moved, the male nearest her side, growled even deeper and moved closer, as if sensing her fear.

“No,” she whispered, freezing again.

“Okay. We’ll think of something else.”

He could try shooting in the air? But his gun only had two barrels. Would that be a waste of one of his two shots? And with their den so close, filled with cubs, he had no idea what their response would be. Would it be suicide? Would they go crazy and attack?

“I see you two found yourselves some kinda trouble.” The words were no more than a murmur on the breeze but they were the sweetest words he’d heard in years. He looked around and saw Johnny wander in, as if he was out for an afternoon stroll, but that gun in his hand looked awfully comforting. He didn’t know where Johnny had come from or how he knew to find them here, but he was ready to hug the boy.

“Johnny.” Eliza’s voice trembled, then her whole body started to shake, as if her knees were about to give out on her.

Dear Lord, he hoped she had enough sense to stand still and not run to Johnny.

“It’s okay, ‘Liza. Heck, I’ve been in worse holes than this.” His voice was quiet and soothing, like he was calming a flighty horse.

There was such a calm confidence in his voice that William started to feel a sliver of hope. He waited while Johnny gradually worked his way into the clearing, eyes on the wolves at all times, until the three of them were standing almost in a horseshoe formation, with Eliza in the middle.

William took his eyes off the wolves for a second. “Do you have a plan, Johnny?”

Johnny’s lips barely moved. “Divide and conquer. That’s what my brother says.”

“Can we run?”

“Nope. That’ll make’em chase. You become their prey. We don’t want that.”

“No, we most certainly don’t.” He breathed the words out, like a prayer.

“First, we gotta stand up straight. Make yourselves look as tall as you can but whatever you do, don’t look’em in the eye. They’ll take it as a threat.” He reached down slowly and picked up a stick from a fallen branch by his feet. “Go’on. Off you go.” He spoke slowly, but he could have been talking to a disobedient dog. Every wolf had their eyes on Johnny, now. “Go on.” He threw the stick…and two backed away…

But they didn’t like it. They didn’t like it at all. Pretty soon, all four males had crowded in closer, snarling and growling, saliva dripping from their teeth.

Eliza was shaking so much, it looked like she was about to faint.

Johnny threw her a glance. “You’re doing just fine, Eliza. Just wait until I tell you what to do. You’re doin’ okay.”

She nodded her head, in a frozen kind of way and who could blame her. The constant growls were making his insides shake as well. And now the two females had started a kind of bark/howling noise and that set the males off, even more.

God, he wished they’d shut up. Their growls and snarls alternated between vicious and ferocious and after that came, ‘I’m going to tear you between my teeth and kill you.’

Johnny turned to William. “How accurate are you with a gun?”

William didn’t like the sound of this. “Reasonable to fair.” And that was when he saw they had real trouble; Johnny was holding his gun but he wasn’t wearing his gun belt.

“Then I guess, reasonable will have to do.” Johnny slowly held his gun out, and that set off a more ferocious snarl.

“No, Johnny.” William knew exactly what he was planning to do. A thick overcoat could stop his Derringer bullet when fired from a distance. You’d have to be damned close to stop a wolf.

“Hush, up and take it.” Johnny’s breathing had sped up. It was a tell-tale sign he was feeling the pressure. Or was just plain scared, like William was.

William was really worried, now. “Okay.”

“I’ve got two bullets in the chamber.” With the same slow, cautious movement, Johnny leaned across Eliza and handed William his gun. “Now you give me yours. Two guns are better than one. And I’ve got more hope of doing damage with this pea-shooter of yours than you have.”

It wasn’t a fair exchange but he had a point. Johnny could fire with pin-point precision. William, with less accuracy, could rely on the higher calibre of Johnny’s gun, to do damage.

Once their guns were exchanged, Johnny said, “Take your jacket off, William. Get ready to wave it above your head.”

William slipped his arms out, keeping a very sharp eye on the wolf closest to him. It seemed to take umbrage at any movement William made. Those teeth of his could do an awful lot of damage if he sunk them into William’s arm or leg.

“Okay, Eliza, we’re gonna make a lotta noise and you’re gonna turn and run, just as fast as you can and don’t look back. You hear? I want you to follow the path behind William and me. It’ll lead you straight back to the stagecoach.”

She nodded but tears clung to the edge of her lashes.

“William, you know what you’ve gotta do?”

“I do, but I don’t like it, Johnny.” He held the gun in his right hand and the jacket in his left.

“With any luck, two of ‘em will want to protect the cubs more than go after us. I’m gonna make a lotta noise.” Johnny slipped his jacket off and wound it around his left hand. “If I go down, you fire.”

Oh, God. “Okay.”

“Ready?”

“Not really.” Johnny’s gun felt heavy in his hand. And it wasn’t just that. Their best chance of escape had been put in the hands of a relative amateur when compared to Johnny’s skill.

“Eliza, you ready? Eliza?”

“Yes.” At least she looked determined and scared now, rather than simply terrified.

Johnny threw them both a look. “On three. One…two…three… Run.

As soon as Eliza moved, the wolf closest her lunged but Johnny yelled and waved his jacket and the wolf changed tack. Johnny kept edging backwards, but that snarling mouth was getting closer and closer. The wolves were becoming more bold.

William yelled and screamed every curse word he could think of as he swirled his jacket above his head but the four males followed him and Johnny, step for step, growling viciously the entire time. If they turned their backs, they’d be set upon. You can’t outrun a pack of wolves. Even he knew that.

“Keep edging back, William.” Johnny sounded calm but a quick glance showed the strain on his face. He was looking as tense as William felt.

The two female wolves were still baring their teeth but they seemed to be staying closer to the den.

Then the wolf closest to William seemed to be losing faith. William yelled at it some more and it cowered back…snarling all the way…

Maybe the tide was turning?

They both yelled some more and William swung his jacket even wider above his head. “Hya, hya, hya.”

He’d almost got to the start of the track but Johnny was still in the clearing. The young fool. He was making himself the target. He tightened his grip on Johnny’s gun. “You damn curs. Get…get…get. Hya.”

It was working…the wolves were still snarling and baring their teeth but the two males in front, weren’t closing in and the other two on Johnny’s left were almost still.

William started to breathe that little bit easier.

They’d done it.

This was going to work—.

It was no more than a blur to his left. Then another.

And before he knew it, they were in the middle of hell.

Johnny must have seen the first wolf out the corner of his eye because his right hand went up. Fire at him Johnny! The wolf was mere inches away.  The Derringer fired and the wolf yelped then fell to the ground but the two in front lunged forward, straight for Johnny. Johnny fired again and another one jerked mid-air before falling.

Good God. Everything was a blur of fur and snarls and teeth. He brought Johnny’s gun up and fired. But the wolves were fast and fierce and damn, he knew as soon as he fired, he’d missed. And he only had one more shot.

No he hadn’t! He hadn’t missed. The wolf dropped back, licking his leg and whimpering.

William yelled and yelled and swirled his jacket above his head at the two females who’d now surged forward. They were coming at him…angry and vicious…and he didn’t know what the hell he was doing but he ran at them. Then again. They crouched low and growled with such intensity, he knew he’d done the wrong thing. William, you fool.

And then they put a foot back, then another, then another and he almost couldn’t believe it, but they were slinking back to the den.

William spun around. Hell. Johnny was in trouble. He had his jacket wrapped around his left arm and he was holding it out as a shield and then damn, the wolf lunged into the air, two huge paws landed on Johnny’s chest and knocked him flat.

Johnny stuck his jacketed hand up and shoved it at the wolf’s mouth, while his other hand threw away the derringer and tried to grab hold of some fur. Anything to stop those teeth. “Fire, William. Fire.”

The wolf was everywhere. Stretched out like this, it was longer than Johnny. He couldn’t get a clean shot if he tried. He’d end up shooting Johnny.

Johnny clawed at the wolf’s head. “Shoot him!”

He only had one chance. Aim. Breathe. Fire.

Johnny’s gun kicked in his hand and William stopped breathing.

The wolf had his jaws on Johnny’s jacket and the weight had forced Johnny’s hand back onto his chest. They were eyeball to eyeball, the wolf’s mouth was open, hot, stinking breath all over Johnny’s face.

William picked up a stick and screamed at it, then screamed some more.

God, an awful anguish engulfed him. How could he have missed?

And then, as if William flicked a switch, the wolf went limp and the huge head dropped onto Johnny’s face.

Johnny was underneath it—and he wasn’t moving.

“Johnny?” William whipped a quick look around. He couldn’t risk being jumped on. But the two females were growling and guarding the den, one male was whimpering in pain and hopefully, the other three were dead.

He shoved Johnny’s gun into his belt and ran across. “Johnny? Johnny? Come, on, boy.”

Johnny’s feet moved and he turned his head sideways, away from the fur. “Get this thing off me.”

Between the two of them, they pushed the wolf away. William held out his hand and Johnny took it and staggered to his feet. “Let’s get outta here.”

“Believe me, I’m not dilly-dallying.”

William picked up the derringer then followed Johnny. The females still snarled with the same ferocity, in front of the den, but they weren’t rushing forward.

All the same, William and Johnny kept an eye on them as they edged their way, backwards, out of the clearing.

That was almost the hardest thing William had done; everything inside him wanted to run…and run…and run…and not look back. Did Johnny feel the same?

They were well up the path before the growls finally went silent.

“I think we’re good,” Johnny said, trying to catch his breath in between gulps.

William’s breath was just as short. “If that was good…” and he tried to laugh, “I don’t want to know what bad is.”

Johnny put a hand on his shoulder. “Me neither.”

“I tell you what, Johnny…” That was as far as he got. It hit him out of the blue. He had to stop and put his hands on his knees and keep his head down. All he could see was the wolf at Johnny’s throat. That was one shot he hadn’t wanted to take.

“William, you okay?”

He lifted his head…and laughed. Well, it was meant to be a laugh. “You’re a damned, cool customer, Johnny. You know that.”

Johnny wiped a finger across his forehead with a grin. “You know, I thought for a second there, you weren’t gonna take the shot. Those wolf fangs look mighty big up close.”

William shook his head as he straightened up. “I think next time, you have the gun and I’ll play decoy. Ooh,” he winced at what he saw and grabbed hold of Johnny’s arm. “That’s a nasty scratch down your face. And there’s blood all over your sleeve.”

Johnny put a hand to his cheek. “Not much blood there. I think his claws got me when he jumped. Kinda caught me unawares.”

“What about the rest of you?”

Johnny patted his chest and felt around his body and moved his arm around. “I’m in one piece. That’s wolf blood.” He unwound his jacket. “Well, the lining’s come to grief but better that, than my skin.”

“Johnny, you saved us.” Eliza ran up and threw her arms about his neck but what caught William’s eye was his blue book, still in her hand.

He’d forgotten all about it.

Johnny nearly staggered back with the force. “It’s okay. You’re okay, now.” Johnny ran his hand down the back of her head, soothing her. “Come on. It’s all over, now.” He slung his jacket over one shoulder, then put his hands on her shoulders and stepped back to get a good look at her. Perhaps all the tears had been scared out of her, because she nodded and he took her hand. “Let’s get back to camp, huh.”

They were a bedraggled lot when they trudged back into camp. Johnny’s shirt was a mess with wolf blood, Eliza’s dress was ripped near the hem and she’d never wiped off the red bird droppings that had caused all the damn panic in the first place. She sat on the log, without saying a word. Whether that was thanks to her wolf encounter and their near escape or his book, William wasn’t sure.

Johnny went straight over to his saddlebag, resting on a boulder near the back of the stage. Next to it was his gun belt and cleaning kit. The first thing he did was load his gun and strap his gun belt on.

“Do men in your line of work usually walk out half-dressed?” William pointed to his gun belt and smiled. “Not that I’m complaining. You saved our lives out there.”

“Ah, no.” Johnny looked embarrassed as he slipped the belt around his hips. “When I heard Eliza calling my name, I didn’t know it was that sort of a call.” Do gunfighters blush? Johnny seemed very interested in doing up the buckle of a sudden.

He was tempted to ask what was the other sort of call he got from young ladies but instead, William held out his hand. “You saved our lives out there, Johnny. That’s not something I’ll forget. Thank you.”

Johnny finished with his buckle and took William’s hand. “You probably would’ve figured something out. Besides, you took that wolf out, so I owe you one.” He grinned. “I guess that makes us even.”

“I wouldn’t say that. If you hadn’t turned up, Eliza and I might have become supper for those wolf cubs.

Johnny looked around. “What happened to Branson and Miss Minchin?”

Johnny clearly wanted to change the subject but it did bring William up short. “They’re not back, are they.” He looked around.

“I haven’t seen either one of’em since I checked the horses.”

“That’s odd. They were just having a walk.”

“Do you think they’re missing?” Eliza seemed to sag, as if this might be the straw that would obliterate the camel.

“No, your Miss Minchin is no doubt enthralled by Branson’s company.” He certainly hoped that was the case.

“She’s not actually ‘my’ Miss Minchin. Why would you say that?”

“I thought she must have been a long-time companion, or a governess?”

“No. I haven’t known her very long, at all.”

Johnny seemed to be taking in this news with interest, as well. “Then how did she come to be escorting you on the stage?”

“I hired her. It’s not correct for young ladies to travel the country on their own, is it.”

“I guess not.” Johnny took a teal coloured shirt out of his saddlebags. “Guess I’d better change, huh. S’cuse me.” He took the shirt and walked around to the other side of the stagecoach.

William turned to Eliza. “Where’s your…jacket,” he’d started to say.

Eliza was holding her hand out. “I believe this is yours, Mr Holdsworth.”

He stared at it. This wasn’t what he expected.

“Take it.” She held it out further.

And so, here he was, holding his book, again. The one he’d never expected to hold again.

“You don’t want to say anything?” No accusation? No cry of ‘murder most foul’?

Eliza folded her hands. “I think if there’s anything to say, you will say it, when the time is right.”

Johnny came back around, tucking in his clean shirt. “I’d like to offer something with more of a kick to it, but all we’ve got is coffee.”

William clapped a hand to his forehead. “I’ll have to go back down to the river to get the water. I left the pot down there.”

Before he left, he opened the stagecoach door. Eliza’s jacket was on the seat. 

“Here. Put this back on. You look chilled.”

“Thank you, Mr Holdsworth. I’m really very grateful for what you did out there. You and Johnny, both.”

“I think Johnny’s the one who saved us both.”

At least she managed to smile at him. “I’d best go get the water.”

As he walked away, he saw Johnny had his gun out again, checking the cylinder. Considering he’d only just reloaded it a short while ago, he had to assume Johnny was either more rattled by their near escape than he wanted to let on—or he was worried about some other danger?

Eliza had become very quiet since they’d got back. Gone was any bright chatter. It worried him.

But no doubt, Johnny would be able to comfort her, better than he could.

Johnny had stoked up the fire and Eliza was now wearing her jacket but there was nothing between them to suggest his return had interrupted anything.

He’d done a lot of thinking on his way back from the river.

Johnny had pulled his buffalo robe closer to the fire and was chewing on the end of his skewer as he stared at the flames.

William waited until they all had their coffee, then he stood and held up the book for them both to see. “Goblin Market and Other Poems, by Christina Rosetti.”

Johnny stopped chewing.

“Eliza found this in the river. That’s why she was yelling. It was in the reeds, where Smith’s body was found.”

Johnny’s gaze didn’t move from his face. “I know.”

“You saw it?”

“I saw it when we fished Mortimer’s body out of the reeds.”

“Then all this time you thought…?”

“I didn’t know what to think. Still don’t. Maybe it’s time you cleared the air?”

He wished it was that easy.

“I rarely speak of this. The first time, in many years, was last night, by the fire, with you, Johnny.” He turned to Eliza. “I told Johnny that Alice gave me the book. My wife. She knew she was dying. She’d been wracked with consumption for months. It left her fragile and…and so weak she could barely speak more than a few words at a time.” This was harder than he thought it would be. “Alice was…she was young and bright and fun. She loved riding and walks as the sun came up. She used to strip off her stockings and play dare with the waves, even in January.”

He started pacing. “I…ah…I’ve carried this book with me everywhere since the day she gave it to me. See.” He held it up and showed them a tear on the front cover. “It came through the war with me. Kept me company at night. Even helped stop a splinter from a cannon ball.”

Eliza clutched her jacket. “It’s almost as if she was watching over you.”

“Not a day went by that I didn’t think of Alice. And then, last night, I can’t even explain it, but I just knew the time had come and I had to let go. I had to let her go. So, I took Johnny’s knife with me, down to the river, and I did this—.”

He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket, then passed Eliza the folded page.

She opened it up and read the words out loud. Her lips trembled. “That’s so sad.”

William tried to smile. “I couldn’t quite give all of her up. So I kept this part and threw the book into the river. I thought it would eventually end up in the sea.”

“But it ended up in the reeds, with Mr Smith.”

“I saw it there, this morning. For a second I thought it was Alice—oh, I don’t know. Some sort of retribution? I shoved it into the weeds. No explanations were needed that way. But our eagle-eyed gunfighter, here, saw it. And you didn’t say anything?”

“My old man told me one time, that it ain’t wise to jump to conclusions.”

“So, you used Johnny’s knife to cut the page out? Then how did it come to be where I found it, in the woods?”

“I’ve no idea. I was just as surprised as you when I saw it in your hand.”

Johnny tipped out the dregs of his coffee. “Kinda foolish to leave my knife by the river, though, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes.” He wasn’t going to tell them he’d been—to put it politely—overcome. They were the first tears he’d shed in ten years. “I was agitated at the time. I walked back here, not knowing if I should feel guilty or relieved.”

“So, how come you didn’t own up when Branson was accusing me, saying I was the only one with a knife?”

“I knew where I’d left the knife, Johnny. Not what had become of it.”

“You don’t trust too easy, do you, William?”

“I think we might have that in common, don’t you.”

Eliza had fallen silent. Gone was the stylish girl who boarded the stage. Her hair had come loose from the ribbon, and her dress would never recover.

Johnny stood up. “I’d better go out and look for the other two.”

That seemed to bring Eliza out of her daze. “We all should. But I don’t want to go alone. Mr Holdsworth, would you mind accompanying me?”

That was a surprise, after what he’d seen earlier. “Of course, Miss Eliza.”

Johnny grabbed his hat. “Which way are your going?”

“Nowhere near the wolves.” Eliza was very definite.

“Very wise. Johnny, we’re going in ‘that’ direction.” And he pointed upstream.

“It seems strange they should be gone so long.” Eliza was beginning to sound worried. “Do you think they’re lost?”

“I’m sure they’re fine.” But the shadows were lengthening and it was quite some time since he’d seen them. They hadn’t seen the sun all day and it was now a gloomy late afternoon.

“I don’t like Mr Branson.”

“That’s something we agree on.”

They walked on some more, both keeping their eyes open for any sighting of the missing pair. To be honest, if he never saw Branson again, he’d be a happy man.

“Mr Holdsworth, do you mind if I speak to you on a person level?”

What would he be getting himself into if he agreed? He wasn’t sure he was ready for any more confessions, but? “Of course.”

She didn’t speak immediately. He had the sense she was weighing her words.

“I think,” she began, taking a deep breath as if she was about to dive under water, “I think I’ve misjudged you, Mr Holdsworth. I was very touched by your…you know…what you did last night. I understand how hard it is to move on. I felt that way when my mother died. It was four years ago and still, sometimes at night, I think I smell her perfume and imagine her coming in to say good night.”

They walked on in silence. How could he tell her a pair of pale blue, almost grey eyes, convinced him it was time to let go? That was one of the many ironies in his life, wasn’t it.

“I was very cross with you for hitting Johnny. He didn’t deserve it at all, especially when that odious Branson was telling those despicable lies.”

“You’re right. I felt bad about that.”

“When I found the book…I thought…I thought that maybe you…?”

“And what do you think, now?”

She tilted her head. “I don’t know. I’m almost sure you didn’t…um…”

He smiled at her. “’Almost sure’ will suffice for the time being, then.”

She nodded, in a satisfied way. They’d come to a particularly dense section of bushes and trees. “Would you mind waiting a few moments?”

“Of course. But don’t wander too far into the bushes.”

“And you must turn your back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He walked a short way down the track they’d been following, so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed.

“Mr Holdsworth…William.”

He spun around. She couldn’t possibly be finished so quickly.

Eliza was running towards to him.

“What is it?” Damn, he was a fool. He should have reloaded his derringer. Wasn’t that the first thing Johnny had done?

“Mr Holdsworth, I found Miss Minchin and Mr Branson.”

“You did?”

“And you’ll never guess what I saw.”

“I’ve no idea.”

“They were kissing.”

Chapter Twelve

Eliza was in a rush to get back to Johnny and tell him what they’d seen. It was funny the way she shushed William, as if the Minchin and Branson would see or hear them, as she took his hand and dragged him away.

“Eliza, they can’t see us, and with this wind starting to blow, I doubt if they could hear us.” Not that he minded her holding his hand.

“Oh. You’re right, of course.”

She was probably thankful for the gust of wind that meant she had to let go his hand and clutch at her skirts. At least there was some colour back in her cheeks. Nothing like a juicy piece of gossip to spark up a young girl and help her forget her terrors with wolves.

*

When they arrived back at the stagecoach, Johnny was leaning against the stagecoach wheel, hat pulled down low, working on a branch he’d cut up. “You two have any luck? I couldn’t find any sight of Branson or Miss Minchin.” He didn’t look particularly upset by this fact.”

“Johnny, you’ll never guess what we just saw.”

He squinted up at them both. “No, probably not.”

“Well, William and I were looking for Mirella and Branson over there…” She pointed. Somewhat wildly.

“I think you mean over here.” William guided her arm until her finger was directed at the swaying bushes and trees they’d just passed.

“Oh, yes. Anyway, I went a little way into the bushes and what do you think I saw?”

“Isn’t that what you’re about to tell me?” Johnny held the wood up to check his progress. He’d been whittling the end to a point.

She stamped her foot. “You’re spoiling it.”

William leaned in. “Johnny, you’re meant to be all agog, with interest.”

“If my head didn’t feel like it was about to fall off, I probably would be.”

“Oh, Johnny, I’m sorry about your head,” and she put a hand on his shoulder, “but this is serious.”

“Okay, I know it. So tell me.” He put his knife and the wood down.

“Mirella and Branson…were kissing. In the bushes.”

William was pretty sure Eliza would have been impressed with Johnny’s reaction this time.

“They were what?” Johnny looked astounded.

“I know.”

He looked at William. “Did you see’em, too?”

“Just Eliza.”

“Wow.” He whistled, long and low. “Well, I never saw that coming.”

“I have to confess,” Eliza grimaced, “the thought of kissing Mr Branson makes me feel quite repulsed.”

William had to agree with her, there. “I’d be concerned for your sanity, if that wasn’t the case.”

She shuddered. “He really is a most objectionable man.”

Johnny was shaking his head. “You know…there’s something about Miss Minchin I’m trying to remember.”

William’s ears pricked. “What?”

“If my brain was working, I’d tell you. My head aches like the dickens ever since you whomped me.”

He winced. “I’m sorry, Johnny. That wasn’t one of my better decisions.”

Johnny threw his apology off with a wave. “Don’t mind me. I’m just feeling ornery. Nothings gone right all day.”

“If we ever reach civilisation, I’ll try to make it up to you. How about the best meal money can buy?”

Johnny laughed. “Seeing as the first ‘town’ we’ll be coming to is Morro Coyo, that meal won’t set you back, much.”

“Well, I’d better include your family as well. Prove to them I got their boy home safely.”

“Ooh, yeah, that’d swing some weight with my old man. He’s always expecting me to get into some sorta trouble.”

Eliza dropped her head. “That must be nice. I don’t think my father will even know I’m gone.”

Johnny caught her hand and gave it a shake. “Sure he does. Fathers notice all sorts of things we don’t expect them to.”

“Yours perhaps. Not mine.”

William leaned against the stagecoach door and folded his arms. “Eliza, just how did you come to employ The Minchin?”

She giggled. “You call her that?”

He grinned. “Only in my dreams. But, seriously, tell us about her.”

“I was very upset.” She went through everything she’d told Johnny regarding Albright Chester, the third. “Daddy said marrying him was what my mother would want. I knew that was a lie. My mother only wanted me to do good in the world and marry someone I loved. Not having to go through…well, what she went through with my father.”

“Your mother sounds like a fine person.”

She gave him a grateful smile but it was a sad one. “I remember I was down in the dungeon, this particular day. That’s what I called it, anyway; Daddy has rooms downstairs where his clerks work and where he keeps his whiskey collection and other stuff he thinks is important. I’d been arguing with him for weeks about Albright. This particular day, I was very upset…crying. There was just no talking to my father. I ran out outside and Miss Minchin was sitting in the park opposite, and she saw me crying.”

“Had you seen her there before?”

“No. I don’t think so. Anyway, this day she was very sympathetic and took me to the tea rooms and I ended up telling her all about the marriage. I told her I wanted to go to my aunt’s. She offered to accompany me. I’d never travelled on a stagecoach before and she was so kind and sweet about everything. She booked the tickets and helped me pack. She wasn’t even going to take any money, until I insisted on it.”

Johnny murmured, “Can’t jail a lady for being kind.”

“Why would you jail Mirella?”

“Not saying I would.” He grunted and shifted his position. “Don’t mind me.”

But William shook his head. “We should consider all options. What if Miss Minchin was always close with Branson? Perhaps they already knew each other?”

Eliza wrinkled that pretty nose of hers. “I can’t imagine Mirella being involved with someone like Clive Branson. I’m sure she’s just feeling…” her eyes went to Johnny before she quickly looked away, “Confused or uncertain or worried?”

“Let’s wait and see what they say—if they say anything—when they get back. Perhaps they’ll announce an engagement?”

“Ew, William, that’s a horrible thought.”

Johnny picked up the other stick he had next to him, and a piece of string. “You wanna help?” He held them both up for Eliza to see.

“Johnny, you remembered! You’re making a cross for Mr Smith.”

“Do you want to tie the string or hold the wood?”

“The wood.”

“Okay. Sit down next to me.” Johnny positioned it so that the cross piece was a third from the top. “Keep it still, now.”

William left them to it. They didn’t need his help. But they’d all need some more wood for the fire.  He’d just bent down to pick some up near the front of the stagecoach, when Eliza’s voice carried to him.

“Everything is so confusing. Who do you trust, Johnny.”

William, half bent, took a quick look under his arm, so that he could see them both.

“Ooh, you mostly.” Johnny tweaked one of her curls then pushed the rest of her curls, back off her face. “Careful. Your pretty comb is loose.”

She pushed it back in, then leaned in close. Fortunately for William, her whisper was so loud his duck family, happily pecking for grubs a few feet away, almost flapped their wings in fright. “And do you trust Mr Holdsworth?”

Johnny stopped winding the string, then stared at the ground for a good, few seconds. He sounded thoughtful when he finally spoke.

“I’m workin’ on it.”

The Minchin’s laugh could be heard by all three of them as she got close to the camp. They walked in, with The Minchin’s hand on Branson’s arm, and her giggling like a school girl with a crush on her teacher. It was nauseating. And odd. The Minchin struck him as having more sense than to be enamoured with Branson.

“Eliza. Oh my dear, look at you. Whatever happened? And Mr Madrid. Is that a scratch on your face?”

Eliza was still holding the cross, as Johnny tied off the last of the string.

“Mirella, Johnny saved William and me. We accidently ran into a wolf den.”

“How very brave of you, Mr Madrid.” Her tone was patronising as she looked down at Johnny, to say the least.

Eliza jumped to her feet. “I don’t think you understand, Mirella. It was exceptionally dangerous. How would you like to be surrounded by, oh my goodness, I was too upset to even count them—six or seven—huge, angry wolves?”

“I’m sorry my dear. Of course, I wouldn’t.” She was about as sincere as Branson would be, saying he hated whiskey.

Where was the kind companion, Eliza had hired? Perhaps The Minchin had decided Branson was a better catch? Although, it was darned hard to imagine why. Surely she hadn’t believed his nonsense about making a fortune on the goldfields?

“Yeah. Madrid was so brave he decided to go through my bag when I’m not around, didn’t he.”

Branson…the man was so damnably annoying. William thought he’d left everything pretty much as he found it in Branson’s bag—except for one important thing of course.

Johnny stuck the cross in the ground and got to his feet. “I’d do it while you were here, Branson, if I thought it was important.”

Branson looked less certain. Flummoxed even. But then, the man’s brain wasn’t particularly big. Johnny’s reply sounded almost bored, nothing like a man who’d been caught in the act of searching Branson’s belongings. Which, of course, he hadn’t.

William kept his mouth closed for the time being. He wasn’t quite sure he wanted to disclose what he’d found just yet?

“Well, what about your saddlebags?” Branson flung his carpet bag down. “Maybe you’ve got something in there you’d like to hide?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I say we check everyone’s bag.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” Johnny sounded disinterested in the whole proceedings.

“Not the ladies of course.” Branson bobbed his head to The Minchin. “We’ll start with you, Madrid.”

Johnny smiled at that but he went across and picked up his saddlebags. He tipped one side out first, then the next. Onto the ground spilled his shaving kit, the dirty shirt he’d just changed. Some maps. A pair of socks. A couple of oily rags. A box of ammunition. A hair brush. And the very last item was a brown leather pouch, cylindrical in shape.

Branson pounced. “What would that be?” He went to pick it up.

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you.”

Branson’s hand stayed right where it was.

“It’s a present—for my father.” Johnny opened the pouch and slid out the contents. It was a knife; the blade a gleaming silver, with a polished walnut handle. And it looked like an inscription had been etched into the shiny blade.

William was impressed. “Beautiful workmanship. That must have cost a pretty penny.”

Branson looked like he was ready to shout, Eureka. “And you still expect us to believe a word you say, Madrid when you’ve got a knife, hidden in your bags?”

“Branson, you can see it’s never been used. It’s still got the price tag attached to the handle.” Johnny slipped the knife back into its pouch. “Like I told you, it’s a present for my old man.”

“You could have thought up a better line than that, Madrid, if you wanted folk to believe you. A present for your father, huh?” Branson spat a ball of spit into the fire. “Now, who, in his right mind, is gonna respect a man who hitches up with a Mex?”

Branson was an idiot. Perhaps he was fooled by Johnny’s smile but it didn’t take a genius to see the smile hid a volcano that was about to erupt.

Johnny’s first punch, with his left hand, hit Branson full in the gut, sinking fist deep through the blubber. The second, was a right hook to his jaw. Branson flew backwards and hit the ground, landing on his butt.

Johnny stood over him. “No-one talks about my old man, like that.”

William hoped that was an end to the brawl. He doubted Johnny was on top of his game, no thanks to William and a wolf trying to tear him apart. And Branson stood a head higher than Johnny and was twice as wide.

Branson shook his head, like a dazed bear and got halfway up, then stumbled forward, like a tree about to fall.

Good. It looked like Branson was down for the—.

Oops, no he wasn’t. Branson was charging at Johnny, head first, like a bull.

He’d fooled William. Johnny, as well.  Johnny didn’t have a chance to side-step and get right out of the way but he stepped backwards and let himself go with the flow of Branson’s push.

Branson was a skilled brawler. No doubt about that. He grabbed a fistful of Johnny’s shirt and swung a right hook at Johnny’s jaw. William closed one eye but when he looked again, Johnny was rolling away, almost into the Minchin, who shrieked and jumped back. Branson lumbered after Johnny but Johnny got his legs under him and sprang to his feet.

Branson swung again, feinted a left hook but switched to a right. Ye-ow, Johnny’s head snapped back but he didn’t go down. His answer was a fast right hook of his own. Johnny stepped in and got another punch into Branson’s gut but the big man nearly pole-axed Johnny with a two-armed crunch on his neck. Johnny went down, landing at William’s feet.

William showed Johnny his derringer under his jacket. “Have you had enough? I can stop this.”

He spat some dirt out of his mouth. “Nope.” Then dragged himself to his feet. They were both breathing heavily and swaying as they faced each other.

Johnny swung his right fist again and Branson ducked…but as he stood, he grabbed a log from the pile of firewood.

Now that wasn’t playing by Hoyle’s rules. William slipped his hand into his jacket. “Hey. Play fair, Branson.”

Branson looked across at William with an ugly smile…

Big mistake. As soon as he looked away, Johnny let loose; a right hook with all his weight behind it. His momentum almost landed him against Branson.

Branson’s head snapped back. It was a beautiful sight. And then he toppled.

The Minchin screamed. “Clive.” She scrambled over to his side.

Johnny stood there, breathing heavily, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. Then to Eliza, “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be sorry. I was ready to join in.” And she meant it. She’d picked up one of the logs next to the fire.

Johnny laughed. “That wouldn’t be too ladylike.”

William passed him the pot of water and Johnny scooped some out with his hand and splashed his face a few times.

He could have been on the deck of a ship in wild seas, the way he walked across to Branson, but he got there, then poured some water onto Branson’s face.

Branson’s eyes sprung open.

William lifted the buffalo robe he’d been sleeping on last night. “You might want to sit up, Branson. I’m holding something you might be interested in.”

Branson sat up, staring like a barnyard owl. Blood oozed from a split lip. His gaze finally fell on the stick in William’s hand. “What the hell is that?”

“You ought to know. I got it from your carpet bag.”

“You had no right to—.” The way his mouth clamped shut was almost comical. “That ain’t mine. I don’t even know what it is.”

Eliza was looking at it with a frown. “What is it, William?”

Johnny had started to laugh. “You mean to tell me, our Mr Branson here, is a petty thief?”

He turned to Eliza. “Johnny’s right. Thieves and pick-pockets hide these up their sleeve, then, when they see their target, they let them slip down…” and he showed her, “and then use the hook to ‘lift’ whatever it is they’re trying to steal. It might be something from a shop window or the handles of a handbag.”

She looked fascinated. “Oh, my goodness. I had a purse stolen one time when I was out shopping.”

The Minchin looked up from dabbing at Branson’s lip. “Eliza, I’m sure Clive didn’t steal your handbag. That’s preposterous.”

“Well, if it wasn’t him, it was probably some relative of his. No doubt thieving runs in his family.” She put her hands on her hips, looking thoroughly incensed. “And to think he’s been accusing Johnny all this time.”

Branson pushed the Minchin’s hand away. “He’s lying, I tell you. That isn’t mine.”

William bent the stick until it was in the shape of an arch. “Birch. Cleverly made. I’ll swear in a court of law that I found this in your bag, Branson.”

His face had lost some of its colour but then, he sat up that little bit straighter. “Even if that is mine, you sure can’t stab a man with a toothpick like that.” He looked at Johnny. “Madrid has the reputation—and the knife to go with it.”

Eliza moved forward, as if the was ready to kick him but Johnny grabbed her arm. “Well, that’s ridiculous. I’m sure Johnny’s not the only one with a knife. Why, even I’ve got one.”

“You?”

“Well, not a knife as such. It’s a letter opener. My father brought it back on one of his travels. But it’s very sharp. I cut my hand on it, once. I’ll get it out and show you.”

Well, this was an unexpected turn of events. William waited, as did everyone else for her to come out of the stagecoach.

“Here it is.” William handed her down the steps. In her hand was a red velvet box, about twelve inches long. “I keep it in here, with my writing things.” She undid the latch and lifted the hinged lid…but then she frowned. “That’s strange. It’s not there. I’m sure I brought it with me? Do you remember, Mirella? You were with me when I packed.”

Mirella had moved across to the log, where she sat down. “I don’t remember, my dear. I saw it on your writing desk but I don’t remember if you packed it or not?”

Johnny started putting everything back in his saddlebags. “What about you, Branson. You expect us to believe you don’t carry a knife? A man in your line of business?”

“He went through my bag, didn’t he.” And William earned himself a very nice snarl that would have made those wolves proud.

“Yeah, but what about your boot?”

“I told you. I don’t have a knife.”

Johnny shrugged. “You can either take’em off, or we’ll take them off, for you.”

“You touch me again and I’ll kill you. There’ll be no lucky punch, next time.”

William cleared his throat. “I don’t want to appear indelicate, but I happen to know the head of police in San Francisco and unless you’d like your name on a wanted poster, from San Francisco to New York, I suggest you do as Johnny asks.”

Branson’s eyes had a murderous light as he looked at William.

William smiled at him. “It’s your choice.”

“Clive, I’m quite tired of this whole conversation. If you have a knife, show them. We both know you had nothing to do with Mr Smith’s death. Delaying only makes you look guilty.”

 Minchin had the magic touch. Branson seemed to shrink before their eyes. He muttered to William, “I…er…sometimes I carry one. I don’t remember if I did this time.”

“Then I suggest you check.”

Branson put a hand into his right boot, then held it up.

“Lo and behold. What do we have here?” It was a knife all right. Old and well used, too, by the look of it.

Eliza shook her finger at him. “So, all this time you accused Johnny, because he had a knife—but you have one as well.”

“Now, now, Eliza. Let’s be fair. What about Mr Holdsworth’s bag?” This time he earned her frosty stare. “He seems to be very quick at going through people’s things.”

“Like Johnny, I have nothing to hide, Miss Minchin. You’re welcome to check my bag.”

“Hello the camp.”

William swung around. As did everyone else, probably. Coming along the road, was Charlie, still riding the big black from the team.

“Howdy, folks.”

Johnny tossed his saddlebag down. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Charlie.”

“I hope you’ve come to rescue us.” Robinson Crusoe himself, wouldn’t have looked happier than Eliza, right now.

“Yup. I found us a way to cross the river.”

Branson lumbered to his feet. “It’s about damn time.”

Charlie sat there on the black, looking at them all, before he slowly swung a leg over and slid down the sleek coat. “It looks like you’ve been havin’ a time of it, while I was gone.” He nodded at Johnny, then tapped his cheek.

Johnny got the message and put his hand to his face. That scratch had started bleeding again. “Yeah, I’ll tell you about it, later.”

“That’s wonderful news, Mr Charlie. When can we leave?” The Minchin was sounding very composed for a woman marooned next to a flooded river, now facing a possible rescue.

“Whoa, not so fast. We have to backtrack. There was a fork about twenty miles up the road. If we follow the other road, we’ll meet the river downstream. I checked the bridge there. It’s still in one piece. That coffee in the pot? I could sure do with some.”

“Charlie, let’s start packing up.” Eliza, on the other hand, was already hitching her skirts, ready to leave.

“Nope. Sorry, ma’am. I can’t risk missing the fork in the dark or we’ll end up all the way back at Sunday Creek. It’ll be nightfall afore long. And the way this wind is starting to blow, well, it jest wouldn’t be wise.”

Her face fell.

“No, we’ll set sail at first light. Hopefully, I can get you folks to the relay station tomorrow, for some hot food and the likes. Ain’t we missing someone?”

“Mortimer Smith.” Johnny’s mouth turned down. “Pour some coffee and I’ll tell you about it.”

William looked around the circle of faces. Smith’s name had sent a pall over Charlie’s return but everyone had generally looked happy at the idea of restarting their journey.

Save one.

Chapter Thirteen

“Mortimer Smith? Dead?” Charlie took his hat off and scratched his head. To William’s surprise, he was almost bald, save the hair that grew around his ears.

Johnny pointed to the log. “Take a seat, Charlie and we’ll tell you about it.”

Charlie was sharp. He was looking from Branson to Johnny.

“Poor Clive. He’s in a bad way.” The Minchin made this announcement, as if she was expecting someone to care.

Branson looked just as ugly as he’d always been. Admittedly, he was sitting hunched up, as if he was in pain.

“I’m okay, Mirella. Just wish I had a steak to put on my jaw.”

Eliza pursed her lips. “If we had a steak, Mr Branson, we’d be eating it.”

“Ain’t that a fact, Miss Eliza.” Then Charlie nodded at Branson. “I have to say, if you was fool enough to take on young Johnny here, no wonder you ain’t doin’ so well. Mind you, to be fair, it looks like Johnny’s gonna have a shiner or two.”

Johnny tipped his hat to Charlie with a bit of a grin, then poured the coffee.

The Minchin stood up and smoothed down her skirts. “I think you should come down to the river, Clive. I’ll bathe your head down there.”

‘Poor Clive’ didn’t look at all interested in this romantic gesture. Was there ever a more sullen brute? He almost felt sorry for The Minchin if she was pinning her hopes there.

“You might need a fresh pot?” Johnny handed the cup to Charlie.

“Nope. Hot is all I need.” He took a few gulps. “Now, what’s this I’m hearing about Mr Smith?”

“Clive, you really should come with me.” The Minchin took his hand. “You don’t look at all well.” And neither did she, for that matter.

Clive lumbered to his feet but he threw a scowl at William. “I know what you two are up to. I’m not the only one with friends in San Francisco. Only they’re on the Barbary Coast. And my kind are more powerful than any police chief.”

The Minchin patted his arm. “Come Clive. I’m sure everything will be sorted out correctly. Let me get my bag. I’ve got some arnica for those bruises. Eliza. You look worn out. Perhaps you should try to get some rest before supper?”

Eliza looked at the Minchin as if she couldn’t quite believe her ears. “I don’t know if we even have any food for our supper tonight.”

“Oh well. Be that as it may. I believe a rumbling stomach is good for the soul.”

William almost laughed out loud as they walked away. He couldn’t imagine Branson would be happy with that motto.

Charlie looked up at the sky, then called out, “Be back before dark, ma’am. Wind’s picking up. It don’t look like this storm is done with us yet.”

“If it rains, will that stop us from crossing at the other bridge?” Eliza’s mouth dropped.

Charlie ran a hand across his stubble. “I surely hope not, Miss Eliza. Now, what’s all this about Mr Smith?”

Eliza stood. “I don’t think I want to hear about Mr Smith. Would you excuse me? I’m going to rest in the stagecoach for a while.”

William handed her in. Hopefully she was just tired. She seemed downcast of a sudden. Perhaps the knowledge her trip with Johnny was almost at an end, was to blame for that?

“So fellas.” Back at the fire, Charlie eyed Johnny. “I left you in charge, my boy.”

William walked across. “It wasn’t Johnny’s fault.”

“Smith got drunk and fell in the river.”

“Aw, hell. He drowned? Tarnation. I ain’t ever lost a passenger to drowning. I don’t know what the company will say ‘bout that.”

Johnny glanced at William. “There could be more to it than that. Drowned or pushed. Take your pick.”

They told Charlie about the knife wound…that Smith appeared to have been stabbed after he was dead.

“Where is he now?”

“Where the wolves won’t dig him up.”

“We-ell, I figure there weren’t much else you could do. All things considered.” He looked from one to the other. “I’m guessing you got yer suspicions?”

Johnny shrugged. “That’s just it. There’s not much to go on. Branson’s ready to string me up.”

“Pshaw. The man’s a fool. Unless you got some reason to go snuffin’ Smith’s life out?”

“Nope. Never met him until now. He seemed like a nice enough feller. Said he was a school teacher.”

“That so?”

He gave William one of his stares from under the grizzly eyebrows. “And what about you, sir?”

“No. I’d never met Smith, either.” He remembered his first impressions of the man. “He seemed like an unassuming man. I tipped him as a bank clerk. Shows what a poor judge of character, I am.”

“What’s with those two?” Charlie jerked his head in the direction of the river.

“Branson and Miss Minchin? Apparently they’re in the throes of a budding romance.”

“Well, she’s a fast worker, ain’t she.”

“She certainly is.”

“I mean, with Smith’s death an’all.”

William stared at him. “What do yo mean?”

Charlie scratched the back of his neck. “Gimme some more coffee, Johnny.”

“Sure.”

Charlie had to wait until his cup was filled, all the way to the top, then he started talking about liking sugar in his coffee.

When he finally paused for a breath, William jumped in. “You were saying?”

“‘Bout what?”

“About Miss Minchin.”

“Oh. Yeah. I thought it odd at the time but then it was probably jest one of those things. You know. Two people find something in common and get to talking.”

“And? Did they?”

“Afore we left San Francisco, I was getting the stage ready and such. I like to make sure she’s all clean and shipshape for my passengers. Anyway, there’s a café opposite and I noticed a couple sitting by the front window. I tend to take notice of who comes and goes over there. I like to play a guessing game…you know, trying to pick which folk are likely to be travelling on my stage.”

“And?”

“Well, that’s when I saw them.”

“Minchin and Branson?”

“No, Miss Minchin and Mortimer Smith. They were talking over their tea, kinda like they knew each other. But when they came across to the waiting room, they sat opposite each other and never said a word, so I figured I was wrong.”

William raised his brows. “Interesting.”

But Johnny was shaking his head. “I don’t see how this helps us any…except to make my brain hurt.”

 “Where is C. Auguste Dupin when we need him?”

“If he ain’t real, we don’t need him.”

“Well said, Johnny. And you’re right. A man who solves mysteries in novels is no help at all to us now.”

“There’s nothing else you remember about Smith, Charlie?”

“He’s not the type of passenger I take much notice of. He’s the kind who sits in the corner and is polite to the ladies, and then leaves, with hardly anyone the wiser he was even there.”

“And that would have been Smith’s life—except we’re noticing him now, aren’t we.”

“Don’t see how I can help with this, fellers. My aim is to make sure the rest of my passengers make it back in one piece. Take my advice. Don’t go stirring up any trouble. Men die all the time out here, with no-one knowing why. It’s safer to keep your nose outta that sort of business.”

No doubt in Charlie’s line of business, that made a lot of sense, but Johnny didn’t look happy about his attitude.

“It doesn’t bother you that maybe you’re hiding a murderer?”

“Sure don’t. Jest as long as he don’t murder me. I’m a stage driver, Johnny. There are some things it ain’t wise for me to see…if you know what I mean. And there are others I choose not to see. The stage line don’t like that kind of publicity. Makes folk scared to travel.”

Johnny plucked at the grass. “Well, I kinda liked Mortimer. He seemed like a good man. Maybe he deserves more than folk who look the other way?”

“Perhaps Charlie is right, Johnny?” After all, didn’t William have enough to deal with in San Francisco, without adding this to his plate?  “What happened to Smith is probably no concern of ours. People get mixed up with the wrong types all the time.”

“And if it’s Branson? You wanna see a bully like that get away with murder?”

“I don’t like Branson. But I have no way of knowing if he killed Smith. Do you?”

“No,” Johnny mumbled, “I don’t know anything.”

“Johnny. Look. The strangest thing just happened.” Eliza was on the steps of the stage, calling to them.

“What’s wrong?” 

William followed Johnny across to the stage.

“I was lying down on Mirella’s side of the coach, and my hair comb slipped out. I couldn’t find it at first and I thought it might have fallen down the back of the seat. So I slipped my hand in between the seat and the wall—and look what I found.”

“Is that your letter opener?”

“Yes. It’s so odd, because I don’t remember getting it out. Yet here it is.”

“Can I see it?” William took it from her. The knife Johnny bought had been worth a lot but this would have been three times the price. The handle was gold, with an intricate leaf design. Just as Eliza said, the blade was sharp. “I doubt this was ever intended to open letters.”

“No, it wasn’t. Daddy said he bought it at a bazaar in Paris.”

“Kind of an odd gift to give a girl.”

Eliza rolled her eyes. “That’s the type of man my father is.”

Johnny looked at it, over William’s shoulder. “It sure is pretty. Why don’t you show me where you were, when you found it.”

She climbed back in with Johnny, while William stood at the door.

“So, I was lying down like this, with my purse on the other seat. That’s why I lay down on this side.”

“Okay.” Johnny sat down opposite.

“I put my hand down here, near my head. That’s where I found it.” She sat up again. “Do you think it means anything? Could Mr Branson have been in here, trying to steal something?” She shuddered. “The thought of him going through my things makes me feel ill.”

Johnny sat for a moment, staring into space, but he seemed to be getting as far as William when it came to working out what this meant. Finally, he stood up. “Look…um…why don’t you try and rest, huh. William and I will try to sort this out. Oops.”  He’d managed to knock Eliza’s purse. The contents spilled on the floor. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay, Johnny. Don’t worry. I’ll pick it up.”

But Johnny had sat back down again, clearly not listening to a thing she said. “Eliza, where did you say you were travelling to?”

“St Louis. Where my aunt lives.”

He looked at William. “I just remembered what’s been tickling the edge of my brain all day. Miss Minchin dropped her bag off the seat and I picked it up for her. Her tickets spilled out on the floor. Two of em. Only they weren’t tickets to St. Louis. They both said, ‘San Francisco to El Paso.”

“El Paso? No, there must be some mistake. The man at the ticket box must’ve given Mirella the wrong ones. How would we even get to El Paso?”

“Oh, you can get there all right. You just change stages further south. Did Mirella ever show you the tickets?”

“No…but…”

“We could check.”

“Mirella took her bag with her. Said she was going to nurse Clive back to health.”

“Maybe she’s been nursing Clive for many years?”

“I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

Johnny hit the seat beside him. “That’s the thing. We don’t have a clue what we’re saying.”

“Eliza, Johnny and I feel we have a lot of puzzle pieces that don’t match.”

Eliza grabbed her jacket and sat next to him. “I can’t rest. I just want to leave this place.”

Johnny put his arm around her. “Charlie said we’ll get going in the morning. You’ve just got to be patient.”

Eliza looked up at the trees outside. They were starting to bend and sway far more than they were before. The eucalypts were the worst. They were tall. Taller than the pines and the wind roared through them, filling the air with dried leaves and twigs. Every so often a branch would thud to the ground.

Johnny looked up. “The stage is probably the safest place to be if this wind keeps going.”

“No. I want to stay with you. I don’t like being alone.”

“I tell you what, why don’t we go and put that cross on Mr Smith’s grave, huh?”

“I’d like that. I think I’d feel like we were tying things up here.”

When they climbed down, William could see Charlie over with the team. At least that was one job he and Johnny didn’t have to think about any more.

Smoke was blowing in every direction, from their fire and there’d be nothing for William to do here. “Mind if I come, too?”

Eliza put her arm through his. “Of course, William.”

Leaves had already half-covered Smith’s resting place but there was no sign of any animal trying to dig him up. It appeared Johnny knew how to dig a grave.

Eliza and he waited while Johnny erected the cross.

“Look at that.” Eliza was pointing at the sky. “Those clouds look like angel wings, don’t you think?”

Johnny pushed the sharpened end of his cross into the earth, then he looked around. A rock, the size of his hand, was close by, so he picked it up and used it as a hammer. After a few good hits, that cross was going to be there for a very long time.

“Did you cut your hand, Johnny?”

He looked surprised. “I don’t think so.” He switched the rock to his left hand and held up his right.

“Oh, Johnny. Does it hurt?”

But he was shaking his head. “That’s not my blood.” Then he held out the rock for them to look at. One jagged point was covered in blood. And possibly hair.

Eliza opened her mouth to yell but Johnny put his finger to his lips.

William didn’t feel at all good about this. “Could it be animal fur?”

Johnny just looked at him, then all three started searching the area where the willows grew, with Eliza clinging to Johnny.

It wasn’t long before Johnny called out, “William, over here.”

Under one of the other willows, lying face down, was Clive Branson.

Johnny looked grim as he crouched down beside him. “I guess we have our answer now.”

“One of them. Is he dead?”

Eliza was standing there, hand over her mouth.

Johnny got down and listened. “I can’t hear a thing with this wind. Let’s turn him over.”

Between the two of them, they managed to get Branson on his back. Johnny put an ear to his chest.

“There’s not much of a heartbeat, but it’s there.”

William turned. “Eliza, run back and get Charlie. We’ll need help getting Branson back to camp. Eliza?”

It took her a moment to drag her gaze from Branson. “I never liked him,” she whispered, “but I didn’t want him dead.”

“I know.” He rubbed her arm. “None of us did.”

But she was shaking her head. “No, William. Someone did.” And she turned and ran back to the camp.

Johnny started examining the leaves and the ground. “Well, I didn’t see this coming.”

William hadn’t either. Right now, he was feeling almost numb.

Johnny kicked a rock. “I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my travels but Mirella Minchin, doing this?” He grimaced. “I thought you said they were kissing.”

“Eliza said she saw it. I didn’t have any reason not to believe her. Johnny, you don’t think…”

“Eliza? No…uh uh.”

God, he didn’t want to think that either…but it was Eliza who found Johnny’s knife. Then she found her knife in the stagecoach.

And why had she lied about no-one being by the fire when she woke up last night?

He was starting to feel ill. It was this damned wind. He couldn’t think straight.

Johnny looking at him that way didn’t help.

They only had to wait a few minutes before Eliza came running back with Charlie. Her face was white and scared.

Johnny called him over. “Give us a hand, Charlie.”

“What happened? Branson’s heart give out or something?”

“Something like that,” Johnny muttered.

It was hard work and William was thankful they didn’t have far to go. William lifted him under the arms and the other two took Branson’s legs.

They dumped him none too gently next to the fire, but Johnny tried to turn his head so that the wound at the back was protected.

Branson’s colour was awful…a very unhealthy grey.

Johnny pulled a buffalo robe over him. “He’s not gonna make it.”

“I carry some bandages with me, in my box.” Charlie ran over to the stage.

Johnny looked around. “Eliza, you wanna help?”

But she backed away, as if she was seeing a ghost.

Charlie came back with a bottle of something and a roll of bandage. “Lift his head, Johnny. We’ll wrap this around it. Maybe stop the bleeding? And you can tell me what happened to this feller.”

William left them to it. He had other ideas.

“Eliza, where’s Mirella’s travelling bag? Eliza.”

Eliza pulled herself together. “Um…it’s in the stagecoach. On the floor.”

William ran over there. Sure enough, a small, leather valise was on the floor. He grabbed it and put it on the seat. Damn. It had a lock. No time for niceties. “Johnny,” he called out, “Grab me Branson’s knife.”

“It was still in his boot,” Johnny said, climbing in the stagecoach and handing it to him. “Is that Miss Minchin’s bag?”

William rammed the knife into the chain. It came away with one blow. “Yes.”

He opened it up and they peered inside.

It was full of clothes. Ladies clothing. But resting on top, was a heavy coil of rope.

“Why would she have that?”

William stuck his hand in and felt around. There. His fingers wrapped around something hard with corners.

When he brought his hand out, he had a red velvet box, identical to the one Eliza had.

Johnny put a hand on his shoulder, to get a closer look. “Well, what d’you know.”

“I don’t know what I know. You said so, yourself.”

He opened the lid. Inside were pearls and brooches and rings.

“It’s like her own private jewellery store.” Johnny lifted a string of pearls.

“Although I doubt very much any of it belongs to her.”

“She might be minding it for Eliza? Didn’t Eliza say Miss Minchin helped her pack?”

“Or maybe she just ‘helped’ herself?”

“Look at that.” Johnny was holding the rope.

“What?”

“See that…and on her clothes.” He picked up a scarf and smelled it. “That’s gun oil. Miss Minchin had a gun in here.”

All this was starting to add up—and whichever way he looked at it, he wasn’t happy. “We need to talk to Eliza.”

“William, are you saying they’re in cahoots?”

“No. I don’t know what I’m saying. But we need to talk to her.”

When they climbed out of the stage, Charlie was there with Branson but there was no sign of Eliza. “Charlie, where’s Eliza?”

He looked up from his nursing. “She was here just a minute ago. She said she wasn’t feeling well.”

“Johnny, we need to find her.”

But he grabbed William’s arm. “Wait a minute.”

Then William heard it as well; Branson was alive. He was moaning at any rate.

Johnny crouched down next to him. “Let’s see if we can get some sense outta him.” He gave Branson’s shoulder a gentle shake. “Branson?”

William got down on the other side. “Branson. It’s William. Can you hear me?”

Branson moaned some more, tossing his head. Charlie had done a good job of bandaging it, but William was very sure it was the type of head wound you wouldn’t want to look at too closely.

“Here, try this.” Johnny pushed a wet cloth into his hands.

William tried dabbing it on Branson’s face but that was useless. “Pass me the water.”

He wet the cloth and this time let it drip onto Branson’s face.

Charlie stood by Branson’s feet. “He ain’t long for this world, by the looks of’im.”

“Hush up, Charlie.” Johnny tried shaking Branson’s shoulder again. “That ain’t helping. We need to find out what happened to him.”

It was creepy, but Branson’s hand started to move…like he was trying to feel where someone was. “Branson. This is William. What happened. Who did this to you?”

His eyes opened but he didn’t appear to be seeing anything. “What happened?”

“Johnny leaned in, closer. “We found you by Smith’s grave with a hole in your head.”

Branson’s eyes closed and William was just about ready to shake him really hard when he opened them again.

“I was talking with Mirella. Dear Mirella.”

“What were you talking about?”

“Flowers. I’m going to buy her flowers.”

He looked at Johnny. This piece of information sickened his stomach too, apparently.

“Was there an argument?”

“I told her I couldn’t do it.”

“Do what?”

“I just couldn’t.” And he started crying or heaving or…William didn’t know what the sound was.

“Branson, we’re trying to help you.”

But he really was crying now. Tears were pouring out the side of his eyes. “I would’ve done anything for her. But not that. Why did she ask me to do that?” He stared, just beyond William’s shoulder, as if he was seeing something. “Eliza. Eli—.” Then his breath gurgled in his throat and he gave a coughing sound.

“Branson…Branson.” William tried shaking him but whatever it was Branson saw behind William’s shoulder, he wasn’t seeing it now.

Johnny put a hand out. “It’s no use, William. He’s gone.”

“Damn it.” And he added some more choice words.

“Can you two fellers tell me what the heck is going on?”

“In a minute, Charlie. Johnny, where’s Eliza?” They both got up and started calling for her, but with the wind blowing their words ten miles down the road, it was almost impossible.

Johnny took his gun out. “You’d better get that pea shooter of yours out again. I think you’re gonna need it.”

“Split up?”

Johnny shook his head. “No. We stick together. I say we try the river. Charlie, you stay here, in case Eliza comes back. But whatever you do, don’t turn your back on Mirella Minchin.”

They started running, bodies bending against the force of the wind, and the closer they got to the river, the faster they ran.

“Don’t come any closer.”

William stopped short. As did Johnny, next to him. He hadn’t seen them at first. It was almost dark and with all the debris blowing in the air, it was hard to make out anything.

“At least she’s not dead.” Johnny didn’t try to whisper. William only had the briefest chance to hear what he said before the wind whipped his words off into the dusk.

The Minchin was standing on the very edge of the bank, where the water rushed by, deep and murky, just a few inches behind. In front of her, was Eliza, with Minchin’s gun pressed hard against her neck, while her other hand had a tight grip on Eliza’s arm.

The Minchin gave them a snarly grin. “Look at that. Our two knights in shining armour, here to protect Eliza. Throw your guns down, gentlemen.”

Eliza gave them a tremulous smile, no doubt trying so hard to brave.

“Ma’am, what the heck are you doing?” Johnny didn’t drop his gun. And no wonder. It wasn’t just that the Minchin’s hair, normally combed and tied back with precision, was blowing every which way, it was the look in her eyes and on her face. Hatred?

“Am I not making myself clear? Throw your guns down.”

This was the last thing William wanted to do but Johnny must have heard the hysteria in the Minchin’s voice, just as William had. Johnny threw his gun down, then raised his hands, nice and slow, to show he was unarmed.

William followed Johnny’s lead. “Miss Minchin, Johnny and I are confused. Surely we can talk through whatever issue you have?”

But it was Eliza who blurted out, “Mirella said Daddy wronged them and they planned to take me to Mexico then wire my father for money.”

Was that what this was all about. Some sort of revenge kidnapping?

Johnny yelled back, “If you want money, I can get you that.”

“I don’t want your money. We just wanted the money her father owed us. Was that too much to ask? I would’ve been happy with that. And everything was fine—until he lost his nerve.”

She was sounding almost reasonable…until those last words stripped away whatever restraint she once had. Why hadn’t he seen what she was hiding underneath? How could he have missed all this?

“Who lost his nerve? Branson?”

“Mr Holdsworth, do you think a woman like me would be interested in a man like him?”

“Smith?” Johnny was every bit as surprised as William.

“You charmed him, too, didn’t you dearie.” She shook Eliza’s arm, nails digging in deep. “He came to me, drunk and in tears last night, crying about how he couldn’t go through with it because you were too sweet and kind. It just about made me sick to my stomach.

I tried to tell Mortimer nothing would happen to her. We’d just leave Eliza in Mexico and we could sail to England or go to Canada. It’s a big world. Big enough for two little people to get lost in.”

Good Lord, she made it all sound so reasonable.

“Just like that, huh.” Johnny sounded disgusted. “So you pushed Smith in the river, when he wouldn’t go along with your plan?”

“His name wasn’t Smith. It was Minchin.”

“Your brother?”

“He was my husband.”

Eliza jumped, like she’d been stuck with a needle. “You drowned your own husband?”

“He let me down,” she yelled back. “He was always letting me down. Why couldn’t he stand up to your father? Just once? And he knew how furious I was but he just stood there, didn’t he. Right on the edge. Like he wanted me to push him.”

“And you stabbed him?”

“Because the damned fool got stuck in the reeds. I had to make sure he was dead, didn’t I? And your knife was there, Johnny. It was as if an angel gave it to me.”

 “William, she’s loco,” Johnny said, out the side of his mouth.  “We’ve got to get closer. Keep her talking.”

William’s mind was racing with a dozen theories. He didn’t dare try running at them. Could they split up and attack from both sides? God, his gut clenched. Eliza might be dead before they’d taken a few steps.

Up in the mountains somewhere, thunder boomed. The wind was so fierce, it could easily blow both women into the river. Every time their skirts billowed his heart jumped in his chest, half expecting them to disappear over the edge.

“Why don’t you let Eliza go? She’s not to blame for what her father did.”

The Minchin smiled at Eliza. “That’s why I was kind to you, dear. It wasn’t your fault your father was dishonourable and mean.”

William edged closer. This was hopeful. Her voice sounded calmer. More reasonable.

“I don’t like him either, Mirella. You know that.” Eliza was doing her best to stay calm, as if they were just chatting over cake in the tea rooms. Good girl. It just might work.

“I know. Sweet Eliza. But then, everything changed when you told your story today. Little Miss Special. So miserable. Remember?”

Prickles started digging into the back of his neck. This didn’t sound like a tea room pleasantry.

The Minchin looked at him and Johnny. “Remember,” she called out, “how Eliza poured the whiskey out and daddy never noticed?”

“Yeah, I remember Eliza saying that.” Johnny edged forward some more.

“But he did notice. And he blamed my Mortimer because of it. Mortimer, who worked in one of those tiny rooms downstairs, for twenty—pathetic—years, endlessly dreaming of being a teacher. Never a bonus. Never a thank you. And do you know what pay he got?”

“I can guess.” Johnny edged closer again. “A bottle of Old Taylor, maybe?”

“But that wasn’t my fault. How I could I know…?”

“How could you know work was hard to come by? How could you know Mortimer would get sick with the worry of it all? How could you know we’d lose our house?” The Minchin’s grip on Eliza’s arm got tighter and tighter.

“I’m so sorry. I have money. I can make it up to you?”

 “And then, I started bleeding. And it didn’t stop.”

“Oh dear God. No, Mirella.” Eliza might have sagged except for the grip on her arm.

“After waiting sixteen years. A little girl. So tiny I could hold her in my hand.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

“All these months, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I’d see Eliza walk out in her pretty dresses and parasol and gloves. And all I had was an empty cradle.”

Was she crying? The Minchin’s face was scrunched up like she was in pain but the gun was still pressed to Eliza’s neck. Was she crazy or grief-stricken? Both?

William had to try something—anything. “Branson is still alive, Mirella. He’s going to live. He’s willing to say he slipped and hit his head on a rock.”

“He is?” Was that a glimmer of hope in her eyes?  “I didn’t want to hit him. I really didn’t. He was kind when I told him what happened to Mortimer and me.”

“I think Mortimer was kind, too, Ma’am. I don’t think he’d want you to harm Eliza.” Johnny took two steps forward.

“Johnny’s right, Mirella. Why don’t you come away from the river?”

“The river?” She sounded surprised. “Mortimer can’t swim, you know.”

“You look tired.” Johnny was almost next to his gun, now. “Why don’t we make you a nice hot cup of coffee?”

“Young man, I am exceptionally tired. I’ve been tired for a very long time. I kept telling Mortimer that I just can’t sleep. Why won’t he listen?”

“Oh, Mirella, I’m listening.” Eliza was able to twist a little in her arms but now the gun was pointing at Eliza’s heart.

“Will you dear?”

This was their chance. William and Johnny started forward. Eliza flashed a look at him and Johnny. She was unsure of what to do.

The Minchin’s arm started to drop and he ran harder.

Was that…a crack…a gun shot?

A scream?

Good God. He was looking up at the sky. How the hell did he get there?

He sat up, then blinked as a flash of lightning blinded his eyes.

Everything was wrong.

All he could see was a wall of branches and leaves and…and Eliza and Mirella were nowhere in sight.

Someone was yelling at him.

Then he realised it was Johnny, running towards the river, yelling into the damned wind. “Eliza. Eliza. Eliza.”

William jumped up…only he didn’t. He kind of lurched. His right arm had a problem.

Johnny was at the river, now and William’s brain started to clear. Oh God, that’s where the girls had been, at the edge of the bank, now all he could see was leaves.  And branches. But where were they now?

A huge gust almost pushed William down again but he kept going.

Johnny was ripping at his gun belt, pulling his boots off, yelling Eliza’s name over and over.

And then he threw himself forward and disappeared…

Into the river.

Chapter Fourteen

William staggered on, fighting the damned wind, every step. The tree that came down was a massive beast. Standing as the girls were, right on the water’s edge…was Eliza even conscious when she went in the water?

“Johnny! Eliza!” His throat was tight. His legs felt numb.

By the time he reached the river, it was almost dark but he thanked the wind for one thing—blowing some of the clouds away. When he looked up, an early moon, even if it was only a quarter, helped him see. The water, rushing by in front of him, was a noisy, hissing, inky black demon, still picking up debris and branches and God only knew what.

‘Look at that. Those clouds look like angel wings, don’t you think?’

“Johnny. Eliza.” He cupped his left hand around his mouth and yelled as loud as he could.

He was running along the bank now…couldn’t see a damned thing.

Eliza was not going to join Alice. Johnny would save her. Johnny was in the water, somewhere. He’d know what to do.

What was that? He didn’t dare breathe. He could see a figure, downstream, hanging onto a log that was half submerged in the middle of the river. Was it Eliza? The Minchin?

He screamed out.

Something. 

A sound.

Into the wind.

God, he had to know. He needed an answer. Now. And it had to be the right one.

He ran further along the bank. At last. That was Johnny in the water, trying to fight the current and make his way to whoever was on the log.

William went to the very edge and strained his eyes. The log was stranded about three quarters of the way across, but it was at the point where the river spanned the widest. Who was it? Could he dare hope it was Eliza?  And if it wasn’t Eliza, where was she? There was no-one else in sight. Just Johnny. Struggling against the current. Trying to reach the other side.

Rope. He needed a rope. But he wouldn’t have time to run back to the stagecoach, would he?

Damn, the indecision was almost cutting him in two. Having to stand by and watch was far worse than being in the river himself.

Johnny was slowly making headway but if the current kept pushing him, he’d be swept past the figure on the other side.

William ran down further. Was there anyone else in the water? Down further, it bubbled and roared over rocks and debris but try as he could, there was no sign of another person, swimming or otherwise.

He ran back to where he could see Johnny.

Johnny was splashing and labouring now. Those leather pants wouldn’t help any.

“Keep going, Johnny. You can do it.” Johnny wouldn’t hear him as he swam, but it damn-well helped William feel better.

Another few strokes and Johnny would be there. Just a few more.

And just as Johnny reached the log, a branch careened into him and he disappeared.

Hell, no. “Johnny. Johnny!”

William counted the seconds. One, two, three, four…

Then a hand came up out of the water and gripped the very end of the log, followed by his head and shoulders. Hand over hand, he made his way along the log to the woman.

It had to be Eliza. It just had to be.

Seeing Johnny, the woman clung to him, arms wrapped tightly about his neck.

Surely that was Eliza? The Minchin would never do that.

Only then, did Johnny turn and look towards where William stood. He waved an arm above his head and William waved back.

William’s legs almost collapsed under him. It was Eliza. He could make out her face now that she’d turned. Sweet, dear, Eliza.

Then William thumped a fist to his head. How would they make it back across? He tried moving his right arm, but the shooting pain almost drove him to his knees.

“Tarnation, what the hell happened here?”

Charlie. And holding a lantern. He almost kissed the man. “Charlie. No questions. Run back to the stage. There’s a rope in Miss Minchin’s valise. Get it.”

Bless the man. No questions. He turned and ran.

William waved at them. “Johnny, we’re getting a rope. Hold on.”

Johnny waved back but William could see the current pulling at him and Eliza.

Oh hell, the log, was starting to move. Their extra weight on the end was dislodging it from whatever it had been wedged against under the water.

This wasn’t good. Not good at all.

Eliza’s dress was causing a drag, and the log was moving accordingly.

William clenched his fists. This standing here, being unable to help, was almost unbearable. “Hurry, Charlie. Where the hell are you?”

And where was the Minchin? Once he saw it was Eliza, he’d forgotten about her. He looked around, trying to see any other figure through the gloom. There was no sign of anyone downstream. But she could be caught up among the reeds and once it was dark, they’d never find her.

No…the log had moved again. Eliza seemed to be fidgeting. Then Johnny dived under water. What was he doing?

Something bobbed up onto the surface. He squinted…it was the skirt Eliza was wearing. Good thinking. It ballooned out, then floated away, downstream. And good riddance to it.

Eliza was grabbing at Johnny and he came back up again. William was almost sure he got a flash of white teeth.

At least the log stopped moving quite so much…but for how long had they delayed the inevitable?

“Here you go.”

He didn’t dare relax, but with Charlie back at his side, he had more reason to be hopeful about all this.

“Charlie. You’ll need to help me. I’m having trouble with my arm.”

Charlie took in the situation. “We need ourselves a handle for them to grab onto.” In a moment, he was back with a short, thick stick. He tied it to the end of the rope, yanking it as tight as he could. “We’re in for the devil of a time getting this across to them. If it’s even long enough.”

“We need to get upstream. Give Johnny some chance of grabbing hold of it, as it floats by.”

He held the rope up, so that Johnny could see it. Then pointed upstream, back the way he’d run. Johnny gave him a thumbs-up.

“What’s your aim like, Charlie?”

“We’ell, I’ve always been good at roping horses.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Let’s hope it was good enough for Johnny and Eliza.

Charlie threw the rope. Immediately, the rope was carried by the current. Johnny had his hand out, ready to grab, but the rope was pushed into the middle of the river and sailed past, well out of Johnny’s reach.

“That was jest a practice run. Let’s give it another try.” Charlie pulled the rope back in.

“No, Charlie. Let’s get closer to them. Just throw it directly at Johnny.”

This time, the rope landed only slightly upstream. Johnny put out his hand and clutched at it. No, he missed. The rope just wasn’t long enough. William was grinding his teeth. “Can’t anything go right!”

And then Johnny was waving at them. Eliza had let go of the log and was now holding onto Johnny’s extended arm. Good girl. This might work.

“Throw it again, Charlie.”

It was a perfect throw, landing directly in front of Eliza and she took it easily with one hand. Hopefully, someone was smiling down at them, at last. He just wanted them both back, on the bank, in one piece. Was that too much to ask?

Charlie walked down until he was directly opposite and that gave them a few more inches. Now Johnny had the rope in his hand and Eliza got on his back and put her arms around his neck.

Damn this cursed arm. But his left was okay. They tied their end to a sapling, just in case it slipped out of their hands. Charlie took most of the weight but William pulled with his left hand. He was seeing stars with the pain, but he kept going.

The force of the current was scary. As soon as Johnny let go of the log, they were both dragged downstream.

Hell and damnation. He called out, “Hold on, Eliza.”

It soon became clear that he and Charlie didn’t have the ability to pull them in. The force of the river was just too great. Instead, inch by inch, Johnny did most of the work, pulling them both in, hand over hand, as he made his way along the rope.

“Charlie, keep pulling.” William got as close to the edge as he could. “That’s it,” he told Johnny. “You’re almost there.”

“Put a hand out, ‘Liza.” Johnny gasped out the words as they neared the bank. He looked spent.

“I’ve got her.” William grabbed her hand and with Charlie’s help, pulled her onto the bank.  His shoulder screamed but it was nothing to the pain he’d feel if they missed her. He took a second to make sure Eliza was clear of the water, then turned around.

Thank God. And he meant it. He could start to relax. “Johnny, your turn.”

He’d barely said the words, when a log crashed into Johnny’s head and he went under. Just like that.

God, no. Surely not. “Johnny!”

“Johnny,” Eliza screamed beside him, almost about to jump in again. “Johnny.”

Charlie started running along the bank. “We’ve gotta catch him.”

William took off as well. Johnny was only a few feet away. The current hadn’t carried him into the middle but it would if they didn’t get there fast enough. Oh, God, he was face down in the water. This wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all.

“Johnny!” And why the hell he called that out as he ran he had no idea because Johnny wouldn’t be hearing a thing right now.

He got in front of Charlie and ran for his life…past Johnny’s body. If he could just reach down and grab his belt as the current carried him…

He’d only have one chance…

No…he was being carried too far…

William lunged…

And…yes!

Then Charlie was grabbing onto Johnny’s belt as well and then his arm. Between them they managed to drag him clear of the water and onto the grass, face down.

Only Johnny wasn’t moving. A horrible dread crawled all over William’s scalp.

Eliza was behind him, crying and sobbing and calling Johnny’s name.

Charlie turned him over and started slapping his face. “Come on, Johnny-boy. Wake up, now. Don’t you give up on us, you hear.”

William fell to his knees. “Johnny, don’t you dare die after all this. Come on. You’re a fighter, aren’t you.”

Eliza’s sobbing got even louder and he snapped. “Eliza, help us here.”

She threw herself down and grabbed Johnny’s hand and started shaking it. “Johnny. Your daddy will be waiting for you. Don’t you leave him alone. He’ll never forgive you if you don’t come home.”

“Charlie, shine the lantern!”

William was sure he’d seen the eyelids flicker. Then again.

And then Johnny started coughing.

“Quick, get him on his side.”

William had seen this before. Sure enough, the coughing turned into a vomit and up came any river water Johnny had swallowed, while Charlie thumped him on the back.

“Hey, quit it, Charlie.” Johnny gasped the words out before he fell onto his back, completely exhausted by the look it.

William’s head sagged; his neck didn’t have the strength to hold it. “That was close. You gave us one hell of a fright, Johnny.” William gave his shoulder a shake.

Eliza threw herself on his chest. “Johnny, I was so scared for you.”

Johnny grunted, but managed to rasp out, “Hey, it’s okay. I’m in one piece.”

William took hold of her shoulders and encouraged her to get off Johnny’s chest. It would be a pity if he suffocated, after almost drowning.

The three of them sat around Johnny, grinning stupidly and no doubt feeling like William; shaky and stunned at how close it had all been. Johnny, for his part, was lying there, trying to recover, one arm over his eyes.

“Here, Miss Eliza. You’d best take this.” Eliza, now dressed in only pantaloons and jacket, was starting to shiver.  Charlie stood and took off his dust coat. He helped Eliza to her feet, then held it for her to slip her arms through.

It was so dark, they really needed the lantern now. “Do you feel okay to stand, Johnny?”

“Nope. But I will. Give me a hand up, Charlie.” Johnny sat up and looked around. “Is she dead?”

William looked at Eliza. Oh, God, the Minchin. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her.”

Johnny staggered to his feet with Charlie’s help. “She was under the tree. She didn’t fall in the river.”

“Oh no. We have to go to her.” Eliza was ready to start running but William took her arm.

“Hold on. It’s dark and treacherous along this bank. We don’t want to have to rescue you again. Charlie, you go first and light the way.”

She grabbed William’s arm, then let go when she saw his reaction. “Are you hurt?”

“Nothing too serious. Take Johnny’s arm, instead. He probably needs the help.”

“I’m doin’ okay,” Johnny mumbled but Eliza took his arm, anyway, and they started walking back to the tree.

William’s legs felt wobbly, so he could only imagine how Eliza and Johnny felt as they stumbled along, following the small arc of light from Charlie’s lantern.

Once they reached the tree, it was almost impossible to ascertain where she might be. Perhaps Johnny was wrong? After all, everything had happened so fast? In the dark, everything was a confusion of leaves. He wasn’t even sure what type of tree it was that had come down.

“Eliza, perhaps you’d better stay back.” He hated to think what a tree might do to a slip of a woman like Mirella.

“No. I need to help.” She took the lantern out of Charlie’s hand and gave it to Johnny. “Here, you hold this, Johnny.”

He noted Johnny didn’t argue; just took the lantern and held it high to shed as much light as possible.

Charlie and Eliza started pulling at any broken branches, trying to clear a path. William did his best, with one arm. All the while, Eliza called to Mirella, trying to listen for a response, in between.

William had just pulled back a big branch when he sucked in his breath. “Shine it here, Johnny.”

“Mirella?” Eliza scrambled over.

Johnny held the lantern even higher, then he groaned under his breath. “Oh, no.”

They all fell silent. A stream of blood trickled out the side of her mouth. There was more blood coming out of her ear. Her breathing was slow and rasping, horrible to hear, but she didn’t seem to be in any pain, that he could see.

“Mirella?” Eliza said her name with such kindness—all he heard was sympathy. She managed to get beside Mirella and take hold of one hand.

He hadn’t expected it, but Mirella’s eyes opened.

The tree lay right across her body, pinning her underneath. Even if she was likely to survive, which he doubted, it would take a herculean effort to remove the tree.

“Eliza?” Mirella’s gaze was confused. She didn’t seem to know what was happening and that was probably just as well.

“You’ve had an accident. But you’ll be okay. We’ll look after you.” Eliza stroked her hand.

“Is Mortimer here?”

“No.” Her voice shook. “But perhaps you’ll see him soon?”

She reached up and touched Eliza’s face. “Such a sweet girl.”

The Minchin barely got the words out before her hand dropped. She gave the longest sigh and closed her eyes. Her hand twitched. And then she was still.

William pressed his lips together to get control. He hadn’t expected to feel this deep sadness. Sad for her, sad for Mortimer…even sad for Branson. What a terrible turn of events, for all involved.

“’Fool that I am…that I did not tear out my heart the day I resolved to revenge myself.’”

Eliza looked at him, through her tears. “The Count of Monte Christo?” He nodded and she looked back at the Minchin. “I just feel so sorry for her, you know?”

They let Eliza sit there for a while, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Dadburnit,” Charlie dashed a hand across his eyes, “that’s another one I’ve lost. If this ain’t the darndest night.”

Johnny put a hand on his shoulder. “At least you saved two of us, Charlie. That kinda even things out.” But Johnny was shivering so much, he had to talk through clenched teeth. And Eliza wasn’t much better.

“Come on.” William touched her bowed head. “We’ll deal with Mirella later. Let’s get you both across to the fire and warmed up.”

Eliza let Charlie help her to her feet. She looked at Mirella one last time, then moved away.

Strangely, the wind, so deadly a short while ago, had died down to random gusts, with nothing like its previous intensity.

“Wait a minute.” Johnny used the lantern to find his gun belt and boots. The belt he slung over his shoulder but he carried the other.

What a sad, sorry little party they must have looked, as they trudged back to the stagecoach.

The first thing Eliza laid eyes on, of course, was Branson, covered in a buffalo robe. Charlie had managed to drag him away to the side, but he was such a huge lump, you couldn’t miss him. She turned to William. “I thought you told Mirella he was alive?”

“Sorry. I was hoping to persuade Miss Minchin into letting you go. You should think kindly of him, Eliza.”

“I don’t think I—.”

“Mirella wanted Branson to take the place of Mortimer and trick you into going to Mexico. He wouldn’t do it. That’s when she got angry and…well, you know the rest of it.”

She put both hands to her mouth. “Mr Branson? Did that for me?”

“He may have been a petty thief and a bully—but he had boundaries he wouldn’t cross.”

Her mouth drooped as she took all that in. “I see.”

Johnny slumped down near the fire. “Don’t look at him, Eliza. Why don’t you go and get changed out of those wet clothes, huh.”

“Yes, I’ll do that.” She sounded drained. No wonder.

They all watched her climb into the stagecoach.

“Land sakes, so that’s what this was all about?” Charlie muttered.

Johnny held his shaking hands out to the fire. “Sure hope she doesn’t blame herself for any of this.”

William sighed. “It might be a miracle if she doesn’t. What about you, Johnny? Have you got a change of clothes?”

He shrugged. “These’ll dry off, soon enough. I’ve got dry socks in my bag.” And he took of the white, sodden ones he had on and tossed them into the fire. They hissed and smoked, so that wasn’t a great success.

William went across to his valise and rummaged through it with his left hand. “Here.” He tossed a shirt and pants to Johnny. “They might be a bit long but better than wet clothes and they’ll stop you shivering.”

Johnny looked like he was about to refuse the offer but in the end, he took them. “Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”

Eliza wasn’t around, so William kept a look out and had him strip down in front of the fire. Once he was dressed, he stood there with his arms stretched out, flapping the white shirt sleeves. They were so long, his hands couldn’t be seen. “You coulda given me something that fits.”

“What, and make you even more of a hero in front of Eliza? I like you this way, just fine, thank you very much.”

“You don’t look so good yourself. What’s wrong with your arm?” Johnny held the lantern up. “She shoot you?”

“I think I got nicked. Nothing serious.”

Eliza stepped out of the coach, in a pale grey dress, just in time to hear his reply. “Oh William, how dreadful. Take your jacket off.”

“There really isn’t much blood.”

They tried to take his jacket off and he yelled. Well, it wasn’t exactly a yell. Who was he kidding—he yelled like a girl.

Johnny pointed to his collarbone. “Is that where it hurts?”

“I thought it was my arm, at first, but I don’t think it is.”

“Collarbone. I’d say it’s either busted or dislocated. Ride broncs enough times and you get to recognise the signs. ‘Liza, get that knife of yours and we’ll cut his jacket off.”

“Wait a minute. You can’t do that. Do you have any idea how much this jacket cost?”

Johnny grinned, even if it was a shadow of his usual one. “Nope and I don’t care.”

William was stoic throughout the procedure; although slightly less regarding his beautifully shaped jacket. But yes, he gritted his teeth when Charlie put his collarbone back in place. At least it was only dislocated. Then Eliza bound up the scrape on his arm and Charlie made him a sling out of bandages from that box of his.

Eliza clasped her hands together. “There, do you feel better?”

“I do. Thank you. Maybe you’d better see to Johnny, now.”

“I’m okay.” He waved his hand from where he was sitting against the wagon wheel, with his back to the rim. The flames from the fire probably made his face look worse. The scratch from the wolves had been bleeding again and he had that look of someone too tired to even blink.

“You’re bruised and battered boy.” Charlie stuck a cup of coffee in front of him. “Here. Drink this. I got one for you too, Miss Eliza.”

“Thank you, Charlie.” She sat down on the log in front of the fire and stared into the flames.

Charlie eyed William. “I gotta feeling I haven’t heard half of what’s gone on here.”

William leaned against the other wheel. “I’ll fill you in later. Right now, it’s just good to be sitting.”

And for once, they could all sit here, not looking at anyone, wondering and guessing if that person had anything to do with murder. What an ugly word, reeking of violence and hate…and revenge. Who would have thought the Minchin capable of such dark thoughts? Grief does strange things to a person.

He was almost nodding off when Johnny got up and stumbled off into the bushes. William winced for him. Hopefully that was from swallowing too much river water and not from a concussion.

William watched him as he came back to the camp. “Are you okay?”

Johnny picked up his coffee and took a gulp. “Sure.” He tried to grin. “Tequila goes down a whole lot easier than river water.”

“I bet it does.”

Johnny slid down the wheel again and William closed his eyes. His collarbone throbbed. Thankfully, the wind had stopped blowing. All he could hear was the constant noise of the river rushing by.

Something stirred him. He looked around. Johnny’s head had dropped to his chest. Eliza was lying down next to the fire, on one of the buffalo robes. Charlie must be on guard duty—he was standing near the stage.

“Hello, the camp.”

Johnny’s gun was in his hand before Charlie could get a word out. A wagon was approaching from the dark.

“Well, if it isn’t young Luke. So you decided to earn your keep, did you. Johnny, put that gun away.”

Johnny did just that, and sat down again.

It felt really strange seeing a new face out here, but Charlie clearly knew these two.

“I was worried about you, Charlie, and you know how we’ve been complaining about this bridge for a coon’s age. I thought maybe you’d all ended up in the drink.”

“Ain’t that the truth. They’ll have to build us a new one now, won’t they, boy.”

It turned out this was Charlie’s right-hand man, the one who’d been waiting for him at King River station. He’d brought an ostler with him, on horseback. Talk about an answer to prayer; William had been trying to work out what they were meant to do with the bodies of Branson and Miss Minchin.

“We’ve had ourselves a time of it here, boys, so I’m real glad to see you both. How’s the baby, Luke?”

“He’s just fine, Charlie but he cries an awful lot. I was kinda glad to get away for a bit.” He shuffled his feet and grinned.

“Come over here. I got a job for the both of you.” Charlie took them away from Eliza’s hearing, in case she woke up, and filled them in on what they had to do. William was relieved. He couldn’t imagine Johnny was in any state to be hauling trees and burying bodies, even with Charlie’s help and William’s one arm. Luke was a strapping young man, broad shouldered, and that was precisely what they needed right now to somehow free Mirella Minchin.

William closed his eyes again. He wasn’t going to think about it. Charlie was a capable man. No doubt he’d have everything well in hand.

Eliza had looked up, just the once, then put her head down again. Johnny’s head was on his chest. And for once, William felt he could close his eyes and not worry about a thing.

William had learned a long time ago to snatch sleep where he could but even he was surprised at how deeply he’d slept. When he woke up, Charlie and the other two were laying Miss Minchin’s body in the wagon, next to Branson, with Johnny, once again, holding the lantern.

William got to his feet and stood beside Johnny, just as Charlie covered them both with a blanket.

“How did they do it?”

“Rope and the horses.”

“I thought you were sleeping, like I was?”

Johnny rubbed his stomach and grimaced. “Nope.”

Charlie closed the back of the wagon, then turned to Johnny and him. “I got good news for you all. Luke, here, says he can find the way back to the station blindfolded, so we’ll get ourselves packed up and be on our way. Josh is harnessing the team so you boys can rest until I say we’re ready to go.”

“Are we leaving here, tonight?” Eliza sat up, with that foggy look of having just woken up.

“Yes sirree, Miss Eliza. I should have you all in Morro Coyo by tomorrow night.”

After everything that had happened, it was hard to believe they were back in the stagecoach and continuing their journey. The road was as rough as before and the stagecoach lurched and bumped its way along, just as it had before.

Luke was up top with Charlie, and Josh, who rarely spoke, drove the wagon with its sad cargo. In all probability, they’d bury the two of them at King River station.

Johnny was stretched out on the seat opposite. Eliza had put a blanket over him and insisted he use one of her jackets for a pillow. This time it looked like he really was sleeping soundly.

At one point, Eliza whispered into the dark, “Johnny saved my life. You both did.” And then she put her head on William’s shoulder.

And wasn’t that just how he’d started this journey with her…a lifetime ago?

So, here he was, back in the stagecoach, and he still didn’t know where he was heading to.

                                        Chapter Fifteen

The stagecoach rolled into King River Station somewhere around two in the morning. William, the only one awake, pulled the blind back and stared blearily outside.

He wasn’t exactly looking at civilisation but he could see lights in the window of a log cabin. An ostler was running out to tend the horses as Charlie pulled up.

“Here we are, folks. King River.”

Eliza stirred on his shoulder but he had to poke Johnny a few times before he lifted his head. “Johnny. King River.”

All three stumbled outside as Luke swung the door open. The quarter moon was a cheery sight, as were the sweep of stars obliterating all but the tiniest patches of black in the night sky.

William looked around. Josh and his wagon had passed the stagecoach at some point on their journey but he couldn’t see a sign of either, now.

Charlie jumped down, looking as indefatigable as ever. “The outhouse is around back. And there should be sandwiches inside for ever-one, courtesy of the company. Eliza, Mrs O’Leary will show you where to clean up.”

“Thank you, Charlie.” Eliza only sounded half-awake as she allowed herself to be spirited away by a small grey-haired woman who’d come bustling out of the cabin.

Johnny leaned against the coach, near one of the lanterns, like he was too tired, or possibly sore, to move. He had his short jacket over William’s clothes and that made it less clear that they weren’t his own. Then again, add a gun belt tied low like that, and who notices anything else? “Josh already here with the bodies, Charlie?”

“Yep. I sent him on ahead, Johnny, with instructions to tell Mrs O’Leary to be ready for our arrival and put the wagon in the barn. I didn’t want Miss Eliza to be seeing them again.”

They both kept their voices low, as people were apt to do when speaking of the dead. Did it somehow make the whole sordid business less upsetting? He thought not.

Johnny looked up at the sky. “It’s a clear night, Charlie. You thinking about pushing on? Making up some time?”

Charlie pulled on his ear. “We-ell, I figured I’d leave that up to you folk. I didn’t know how everyone woulda pulled up after what happened at the river.” He peered at Johnny. “You think you’re up to rattling around in this old boy for another coupla stages? We could make Morro Coyo by mid-morning, by my reckoning, if we push on.”

Johnny looked at William. “What do you think Eliza would like to do?”

“I suspect she’d like to be as far away from here as possible.”

Johnny straightened and put his hat on his head. “Sandwiches and onto Morro Coyo it is, then.”

William followed Johnny as they left Charlie to deal with the team. “And the bodies?”

“They’ll bury them here. Charlie will put in a report to the company in San Francisco and they’ll contact next of kin, if they have any, and pass on their baggage.”

They’d reached the door under the porch when Johnny stopped.

“Are you coming in, Johnny?”

“In a minute. You can go on in.”

Eliza looked a little surprised when she came inside the cabin and he told her they wouldn’t be stopping long, just enough for some food and necessaries. “And Mirella?”

“They’ll give her a proper burial here. With Mr Branson.”

Her mouth wobbled. “I feel like I’m running out on her.”

“Mirella’s not here anymore.” It had taken him a long time to understand that truth with Alice; no-one should feel guilt about burying a body in the ground.

“I know,” she whispered. “I saw that when my mother died. I felt happy she was free from all her pain. I suppose I should think that way about Mirella as well. She had pain, too—only it was the kind you can’t see, in her soul.”

He put his arm around Eliza and led her across to the table with its red-checked cloth and plates of sandwiches stuffed with ham.

Just then, Johnny came in from outside and slid along the bench on the other side.

“Oh, Johnny.” Eliza leaned across and touched his face. The left side was turning into a massive bruise from the temple to jaw.

He helped himself to a sandwich.  “I’ll be scaring everyone in Morro Coyo, if your reaction is anything to go by.” He grinned. “Maybe I oughta hold my hat over my face?”

That earned him a smile but it didn’t last long. “I keep thinking how dreadful it all could have been. Every time I close my eyes and try to sleep, I’m falling in the river again. I’ve never been so scared.”

“You were pretty scared with the wolves,” William pointed out. “But then, so was I. In fact, I was probably more scared than you.”

She poked him in the ribs. “I know you’re trying to make me feel better but I truly want to thank you both for everything you did. And look at you both, now. Johnny’s face is all bruised and he nearly drowned and Mirella shot you, William, and your collarbone was dislocated.”

“But you’ve got to admit, we’re both still a handsome pair.”

Johnny grinned. “Although maybe we’ll have to put off having our photographs taken, for a while.”

“Okay, I give up. I can see that neither of you wants to be serious.” But she reached out and took one of their hands in each of hers. “But from the bottom of my heart, I thank you both.”

“Just one thing.” Johnny slid the red velvet box across the table.

“My writing set?”

“No.”

She opened it up, then gasped. “My jewellery.”

“We figured as much. It was in Miss Minchin’s case.”

Eliza shook her head, as if this was misery piled on misery. “When I was packing, she told me not to take my jewellery. That it wouldn’t be safe from robbers.”

“She was right about that.” Johnny closed the lid. “Let’s eat.”

They didn’t do justice to the sandwiches. Mrs O’Leary wrapped them up in a cloth and pushed a basket into Eliza’s hands as she went to walk out the door. “You might like to eat these later, dearies.”

The road this side of the river was a little less bumpy—so that meant their bones were jarred only five times over a mile, instead of ten. After a while, it was hard to tell the difference.

William’s eyes felt heavy but no matter what he did, sleep just wouldn’t come. Like Eliza, every time he closed his eyes he was back at the river; sometimes running along the bank, looking for her and Johnny or that awful moment when Johnny floated face down in the water. He’d even start to relive the panic, hoping against hope that they’d managed to get Johnny out in time and he was going to breathe…

His eyes snapped open and he took a breath. He hadn’t even realised he’d been holding it in.

Johnny was sitting opposite, hat on his knee. He nodded at William, as if to say, ‘I know exactly what you’re going through.’

A flicker of warmth passed between them. He would’ve given every dollar he had to have someone like Johnny at his side, all those years ago. He couldn’t remember feeling a bond with anyone this quickly. If ever. To think it had been years since he’d trusted anyone, yet now he wouldn’t hesitate to trust a gunfighter, and a young one at that, with his life.

He straightened his tie and moved the blind so that he could get a glimpse of the countryside. It had that other-world glow to it, that moonlight gives. “So, we’ll finally get to see Morro Coyo, where you live, Johnny.”

“I’ve been meaning to say, you’re both welcome to stay at the ranch for as long as you need. I’d kinda like it.”

“Would there be room? We wouldn’t want to cause your father any inconvenience.”

“Yeah, Lancer’s got a few empty rooms you can use. Besides, it will give you both time to decide what you wanna do. My offer still stands to drive you to Cross Creek, where you can pick up the train.”

“I admit, getting off this stage for a few days sounds good to me. As long as you’re sure you father won’t mind.”

“Heck no. He’ll just be happy to see me back home in one piece. And I’d really like you both to meet my brother, Scott.” He smiled at William. “I think you two would get on well together.”

“I’d like to stay, too.” Eliza’s sleepy voice came from the corner on his right.

“Good. It’s a deal, then.”

William rolled the name around in his mind. “Lancer? Is that the name of your ranch?”

“Yeah.” Johnny looked down at his hat. “It’s…ah…it’s my name, too.”

Eliza sat up straighter. “But you told us your name was Johnny Madrid?”

“Well, I used to go by that name until a few months ago when my father found me and called me home. I guess it’s still the name I use when I sniff out trouble.”

“Johnny Lancer.” She looked at Johnny, tilting her head as if she was trying to decide if it suited him. “I like it. It’s a fine name.”

Then again, she might have been wondering how well ‘Lancer’ went with ‘Eliza.’

It didn’t, in his book. Not at all.

They had one more stop before reaching Morro Coyo but Charlie warned them it would be just enough time to stretch their legs, visit the outhouse and get back in again.

This relay station was just another tiny log cabin but it was the sun coming up over the hills in the east that caught his eye, tinging the early morning clouds with pinks and yellows and streaks of red. How often did he take the time to admire a sight like that?

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it.” Eliza came up and stood by his shoulder. “I do hope Johnny’s right about us staying with his family.”

“He sounded quite definite. I’m sure he wouldn’t have offered if he thought his father would mind.”

“But,” and he noticed her glancing at the dilapidated cabin in front of him, “my mother told me that people who live and work on the land are often more generous than city people. She said they’d offer you the shirt off their back. What if they don’t have room?”

“Johnny hasn’t led us astray so far. I think we should trust him.”

“That’s true but I’m telling you right now, I refuse to take someone else’s bed, after all Johnny has done for us. I’d rather sleep on the floor.”

Whatever William was hoping for, Morro Coyo definitely was not it.

They’d rolled up the blinds once the sun was up, so that they could see out. Eliza, especially, had her head at the window, oohing over the cows, and horses, and bunnies nibbling grass on the side of the road. It was good to see her happy, as fleeting as it might be. She’d been through such a lot; it would take more than some farm animals to heal whatever might have been damaged inside her, because her father was a tyrant.

Johnny had said it was a small town—but one hotel and a general store and a livery, doth not a town make. He was starting to seriously wonder what Johnny’s ranch would be like. Perhaps Eliza was right? It might not be any bigger than some of the relay stations they’d been to?

Charlie banged on the roof, then leaned down over the side. “Here we are. Morro Coyo.”

Eliza had a pretty flush to her cheeks as she tied the bows of her hat, under her chin. “Will anyone be there to meet you, Johnny?”

He ran his hat through his hands. “Hard to say. We’re a day late getting in.”

“Oh dear.” She looked down at her skirt. “I’m not really dressed for meeting anyone.”

“You look just fine. Besides, no-one will notice your dress when they see that pretty smile of yours.”

Even William felt a kind of pleasurable excitement. He liked discovering new things and places and he’d never stayed in this part of the country before.

Luke opened the door for them and William climbed out first so that he could pass Eliza down the steps. Charlie was already unloading their bags.

Eliza was wide-eyed as she stepped down. It was dusty but there were a lot of people in the streets, Mexican and Anglo, on horseback and wagons. And this end of town, there were a few more businesses to be seen. “It’s all so quaint,” she whispered to William.

Johnny stuck his head out the door and looked around, before climbing down. He’d only put one boot on the second step, when a voice called out, “Johnny.”

“Murdoch.” His face broke out into the widest grin. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be here or not.”

“When the stagecoach didn’t arrive last night, I stayed in town. I’d heard about King River being in flood. What happened to you?” He pointed at the scratches and bruises on Johnny’s face.

“Ooh, we ran into a bit of trouble. Murdoch, I’d like you to meet some friends of mine. Miss Eliza Eicherman of San Francisco and Mr William Holdsworth of Boston.”

William stuck his left hand out. “Pleased to meet you, sir.” Murdoch Lancer was definitely not what he expected. He wasn’t Mexican, for one. And he was much taller than William. Much taller than most men, probably.

Eliza curtsied. “How do you do, Mr Lancer.” And if she was surprised by Johnny’s father, nothing showed in her smile.

Mr Lancer’s voice softened. “How d’you do, my dear.”

Of course, Murdoch Lancer was smitten with her. How could he not be?

“Murdoch, I asked them to stay with us for a few days. We had some trouble and everyone needs a few days rest.”

If Johnny’s father was surprised, he didn’t skip a beat. “I can see that. Of course, Johnny.” He turned to them both. “It would be my pleasure to have you at Lancer for a few days. Charlie, have you got some luggage to pass me, for these fine folk?”

“Luke’s just getting it down.” Charlie came across and tipped his hat. “It’s been mighty fine knowing the three of you. Hopefully, if you travel on my stage again, we’ll have a little less excitement.”

William shook his hand. “I’d like that, Charlie. And my thanks for all you did. You saved our bacon, out there.”

Johnny shook Charlie’s hand as well. “That’s right, Charlie. The way I hear it, if it wasn’t for you and William, I’d be half-way to the ocean by now.”

“Well, Johnny, it’d look awful bad on my record if I lost another passenger.”

“Here you go.” He passed Johnny his saddlebags then looked up at Murdoch Lancer. “And I ain’t one to tell a man what to do, but you make sure that boy off yours gets a good rest. He’s done the work of three men these coupla days. You oughta be mighty proud of him.”

Murdoch Lancer looked surprised by Charlie’s words but there was no doubting the affection he had for Johnny as he put an arm around his shoulder. “I’ll do that, Charlie, on the proviso Johnny tells me everything that happened.”

Johnny looked almost bashful. “Sure, Murdoch.”

From gunfighter to beloved son. It was quite a difference.

Eliza was thanking Charlie for all he’d done but Charlie waved it all aside and carried on unloading their bags.

William took his bag then went around to Charlie who was getting a mail bag from the boot. One question had been troubling him for some time. “Charlie, you knew Johnny doesn’t call himself Johnny Madrid anymore—so why did you tell me that was his name?”

“I guess I kinda like boasting to folk that I know Johnny Madrid. There ain’t that many famous passengers that travel on my stage.” It was the first time he’d sounded sheepish. “Besides, I figure bandits are less likely to hold up my stage if they think I’m friends with a gunfighter like Johnny Madrid.” And he gave William a wink.

“You’re a wily old fox, Charlie. You know that, don’t you.”

“I sure hope I am, Mr Holdsworth. It’s the only way to survive out here.”

It turned out Johnny’s father had travelled into town in a wagon, thinking he was only collecting Johnny and a few supplies.

“Scott come into town with you?” Johnny looked around, as if expecting his brother to step out of the saloon.

“No, he’s holding the fort at home.”

Johnny looked at the wagon. “William and I can hire a coupla horses?”

“It’s not a problem, Johnny. I’ll hire a surrey from the livery. One of the hands can collect the wagon later.”

And so it was, they set off for Lancer in a reasonably well-sprung surrey with an awning to protect them from the sun. Compared to the stage, it felt like they were floating along the road, instead of the bone-rattling shakes they’d been enduring for days.

Johnny sat up front with his father, while William had Eliza next to him, behind them. She was having a grand time, asking lots of questions and wanting to know all about cows and horses and did they have sheep. Murdoch answered a lot of her questions. William had the sense he was quite happy to have someone admiring this part of the country.

They’d just rounded a bend, after making their way up a winding hill— and the view below was spectacular. The grass was a rich green, vast fields of it, contrasting with the brown herds grazing down below. And not just a few cows. There were hundreds. Some so far away, they were only brown dots. Everything looked lush and healthy, even the trees looked luxuriant with wide expanses of branches, thick with leaves. A creek ran through the middle of the valley and when you looked ahead, a mountain range rose in the distance.

Murdoch stopped the surrey, as if he knew they’d be captivated.

William swept the view with his hand. “Mr Lancer, if I was an artist, I’d set my easel up right here on this road and spend the day trying to capture this scene.”

Eliza nodded. “It’s truly beautiful. How far to your ranch, Johnny?”

He grinned and pointed. “Well, you’re lookin’ at it.”

“All this?”

“Yep, from here clear to those mountains.”

William was staggered. He hadn’t expected anything like this.

Murdoch pointed. “This is the exact spot where I made up my mind to buy the property.”

Johnny pushed his hat back. “I never knew that, Murdoch.”

“Scott’s mother and I rounded that bend and we pretty much had the same reaction William and Eliza had.”

Johnny was silent as he looked out. Perhaps he was imagining what it was like for his father, all those years ago?

“Oh, my, Johnny. It’s beautiful. I can’t believe you own all this? It’s far prettier than any old bank.”

“Well, Murdoch and Scott and me, own it. If you look down below, you can see how this road we’re on, leads right up to the house.”

Eliza started giggling. “When you said you had a ranch, I was imagining one of those log cabins.”

William grinned, too. The ‘house’ could be more aptly described as a mansion. “So, you’ve got a few empty rooms down there, have you?”

Murdoch was laughing at Johnny. “I think you’ll find John favours an understated way of speech.”

Johnny grinned back. “I don’t see the point in using a whole lotta words when a few will do, if that’s what you mean.”

Murdoch set the surrey in motion again, and they rolled on down the hill, past herds of cattle and men on horseback.

“Is Scott out there, Murdoch?” Johnny scanned the riders, sounding hopeful.

“No, he should be rounding up strays on south mesa.”

Eliza was almost falling out of the surrey, she was leaning so far forward, trying to take everything in. “It’s just like the pictures I’ve seen. If you only knew how many times I’ve asked Daddy to take me out here. I think he thought I’d be swept off my feet by some handsome cowboy without a cent to his name.”

The closer they got to the house, the more surprised they were. It had clearly been built some time ago but the Spaniards knew how to build an impressive hacienda, with its graceful lines and deep porticos to protect the owners from the glare of the sun.

Everything was large; the house, the barn the corrals. Smaller adobe buildings around the hacienda were probably the bunkhouse and other necessary rooms. Johnny pointed it all out to them, saying they even had their own jail.

Murdoch pulled up close to the massive front door, then went to Eliza and handed her down.

It said quite a bit for his and Johnny’s condition that Murdoch was more nimble than either of them. They both eased their way out of the surrey like elderly southern gentlemen.

“Johnny.” A small whirlwind flew out of the house and threw her arms around him.

“Woah, there.” He untangled his arms and pushed her back from his ribs. “I’m a bit sore, honey. T’resa, these are friends of mine. They’re gonna stay a few days.”

Johnny did the introductions. So this vivacious young girl was his father’s ward. Johnny had spoken of her. “How do you do, Miss Teresa.”

She was warm and bright and looked delighted at the prospect of having visitors, especially a young lady only a little older than herself. Her gaze seemed to take in their situation. “I heard about the flood. One of the hands came back from town yesterday with the news and we were so worried. Murdoch promised he wouldn’t come home until he had you with him.”

“Yeah?” Johnny sounded pleased by this news as he grabbed his saddlebags from the surrey, but there was also a touch of disbelief or surprise. It was hard to tell which. “Is Scott home, yet?”

“Oh, he ought to be back soon.” She wrinkled her nose. “And how come you’re dressed like that?” She then linked arms with Eliza. “You poor dear, you must be worn out after sitting in a stagecoach all those hours. Would you like to come upstairs with me and you can freshen up?”

“I must look like a dreadful wreck. I told Johnny I wasn’t dressed for visiting.”

“You don’t have to worry about that out here. You’re lucky you caught me in a dress. When I’m riding and working outside, you’d probably mistake me for one of the hands.”

William shook his head. “I doubt that very much, Miss Teresa.”

She blushed, showing how young she really was, for all her confidence. “Johnny, shall I take Eliza inside?”

Johnny slung his saddlebags over his shoulder. “Sure and let Maria know we’ve got guests for supper. And we all need a bath,” he yelled after her, as the girls disappeared through the door.

Murdoch came back across, after talking with one of the hands. He wouldn’t let William pick up his valise but bade him follow Johnny inside. “Should I be calling a doctor for you two?”

Johnny took off his gun belt and hat, leaving them on the stand by the door. His saddlebags he dumped on the huge table on his way across to the fireplace where he eased his way onto the chair by the fire. “Nope. Just let me sleep for a week and I’ll probably be fine. William dislocated his shoulder and got nicked by a bullet. ‘Course, he’s been bawling about it since we left King River. Biggest baby I ever met.” Johnny grinned and waved him over to take the chair opposite.

Johnny’s father was starting to look concerned. “It sounds like this little bit of trouble was something deeper than that.”

“I’m fine, sir. Just a little sore. Eliza’s the one who suffered the most.”

Murdoch raised his brows. “I think you could both do with a drink?”

“That’s the best offer I’ve had in a few days, Mr Lancer.”

“We don’t stand on formalities out here, William. Murdoch will do just fine.”

Johnny stuck his hand up. “Tequila. Not whiskey. And don’t offer me whiskey while Eliza’s around.”

Murdoch took his hand off the bottle.

Johnny sighed. “It’s a long story, Murdoch. Ole Charlie started out with six passengers and got into Morro Coyo with only three.”

“And it was almost only two,” William added.

Johnny gave his father a very sketchy version of everything that had happened while they drank, but William did his best to fill in the more salient details, like Johnny taking on a pack of wolves then diving into the river to save Eliza.

“So the scratch was from the wolf? Where did that bruise come from?”

“This bruise must be something if everyone’s pointing at it. No wonder the side of my head aches.”

“That would be when Johnny was in the river. A log hit him on the head and knocked him unconscious.”

Murdoch Lancer seemed to be the type of man who was good at hiding his emotions but even he looked concerned with this information.

Johnny waved a hand. “Don’t worry, Murdoch. Charlie and William fished me out.” He grimaced. “Took all night to get rid of the water I swallowed, though.”

“I wish I’d known. I would have said something to Charlie—but at least I can thank you, William.”

“Well, he probably owed me after…” Johnny eyed William and stopped. “Maybe we won’t go into that. We both need a bath or Teresa won’t let us sit down to supper.”

“I’ve already got that organised. Pedro was filling a tub in each room.”

Johnny hauled himself to his feet. “Thanks Murdoch. Come on up, William. I’ll show you to your room. When’s Scott gonna be back? I want him to meet William.”

“I thought I told you? He had a team rounding up strays on south mesa. I’d expect him back in plenty of time for supper.”

“Well, we’ll  go find out which room Teresa’s put you in, William. No sense in waiting down here for Scott to come. He might not be back for some time.” They started walking up the stairs. “I think you two will get along. I don’t have many friends from the same side of the tracks that Scott comes from.” He chuckled. “Yeah, you’re probably the only one.”

It was a good hour later when William came out of his room. Johnny had told him not to hurry as they wouldn’t be eating until the sun went down.

He’d had a marvellous soak in the tub, only getting out as the water began to get cold. Thanks to always being prepared, he had another set of clean clothes in his valise. His shoulder was uncomfortable but Charlie must have done a fine job of easing it back into place because the pain was nothing like he’d experienced last night. He managed to get his shirt on without breaking out in a sweat but he had to forego his jacket.

The room had a mahogany double bed, with a brocade cover and it looked so comfortable that once he’d shaved, he just had to lie on top and give it a try…

His eyes snapped open. For a few moments, he was blank.

And then the events of the last few days rushed back into his head.

He was at Lancer.

And someone was tapping on the door.

“William. You ready yet?”

“Johnny. Come in.” He sat up slowly, so as not to jar his shoulder.

Johnny was smiling at him. He too, was freshly shaved and his hair was brushed and shiny. This time he wore a white shirt with black embroidery and another pair of the leather pants with silver buttons down the side. There was probably a proper name for them, but he had no idea what it was. All William knew was that he’d never get away with dressing like that.

Johnny started grinning. “I just saw Scott ride in. You ready to come down?” He rubbed his fingers then slapped his hands together. “Oh boy, he’s gonna be surprised when I introduce a friend of mine—from Boston!”

William stood up. He felt a little better for that quick sleep. He wouldn’t have minded splashing his face again but Johnny looked so keen to introduce him to his brother, that he didn’t have the heart to stall another minute.

“Okay. Lead on, McDuff.”

There was no-one in the great room but the fire had been built up and the smell of something delicious was coming from the kitchen area.

“Come on. We’ll wait by the fire. You sit here.”

Johnny was so jumpy, it almost made William laugh. The man who could stare down a pack of angry wolves with a pea-shooter was more on edge about William shaking hands with his brother.

Johnny had just pressed a glass of tequila into William’s hands when the deep squeak said the front door was opening. Not trying to stare, William watched the man walk in.

So this was Johnny’s brother. Half-brother by the look of it, clearly favouring his father in looks. What was it with these Lancers? If he couldn’t win Eliza from Johnny he doubted he’d have any more luck with Scott.

Scott came into the room, taking his gloves off.

Johnny jumped up, obviously happy to see his brother and the feeling looked to be mutual. Interesting, seeing as they’d only known each other a short time.

“Johnny. I see you’ve managed to have a good time, as usual.” Scott’s voice was warm, accompanied by a searching glance.

“Yeah, well. You know me. But Scott, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, William Holdsworth.” Johnny swept his hand from Scott towards him. “William this is my brother, Scott Lancer.”

William stood and held his hand out. He’d taken off the sling so that he could tie his tie. They were a similar height and Scott had the easy smile of someone who was practised in making a new acquaintance feel at ease.

Scott held out his hand. “Mr Holdsworth—.” And that was as far as he got. His hand froze, as did the expression on his face, until it transformed into something else entirely.

Murdoch entered the room but Scott had his eyes glued on William until he half glanced at Johnny.

“Don’t trust a thing this man says, John. A man like that could strangle you while you slept and then steal your clothes, wallet and name.”

William didn’t look at Johnny but he could sense his reaction by the sudden charge in the room.

“What the hell are you talking about, Scott?”

Murdoch sounded cautious but not pleased. “Scott, I think you should explain yourself.”

Scott didn’t take his eyes of William.

“I’ve seen this man before, Murdoch. He was a spy. And quite possibly—a traitor.”

Chapter Sixteen

William’s mind was shooting a thousand questions at him. He was sure Johnny had said Scott fought for the Union and that meant they’d been working on the same side. Didn’t it? Then how did that make William a traitor? “I prefer to use the word, scout. ‘Spy’ sounds a little crass, don’t you think?”

Johnny was looking from one to the other. “What are we talking about? You mean the war between the states?”

“That’s right. While we were facing bullets and cannons, your friend, William, was skulking about bedrooms and taverns, tricking people into giving him information.”

“Again, I wouldn’t use the word, ‘trick.’ Most people were all too willing to talk about their plans on how to kill Union soldiers.”

“What’s your problem, Scott? It’s not as if both sides didn’t use’em.” Johnny sounded as confused as William felt.

“Collecting information for money, John, then selling it to the highest bidder, is not my idea of a noble profession.”

“Soldiers got paid, didn’t they? Heck, even I got paid in the Mexican Army.”

“That’s right, Johnny. A soldier earned fourteen dollars a month while spies were paid twice that much. Sometimes fifty dollars for a single piece of information.”

“The way I heard it, spies, or scouts or whatever you wanna call’em, got hung if they got caught, so I figure they earned a little extra danger money.”

Things were starting to look heated between the brothers when Murdoch put his hand up, as if he was trying to stem the flow. “Scott, you’re making some very serious accusations here.”

Scott took a breath. “We were in Hanover County, Virginia. I was with Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg. You might remember him, Holdsworth. I saw you speaking to him that day—although mostly I saw you speaking to Sheridan.”

William bowed his head. “You have an admirable memory, Scott. You even have Gregg’s entire name correct.”

“Thanks to bad information, our unit, which was supposedly doing reconnaissance, ending up in a seven-hour battle. I lost two good friends that day. And even though there were companies close by, Sheridan didn’t call for reinforcements. Why would that have been?”

Good God, he remembered that battle. Haw’s Shop, the blacksmith’s. He remembered Sheridan boasting his men had driven Hampton from the battle and how superior his Union men were. “You’re wrong, Scott. I spoke to General Gregg that day, but it had nothing to do with any information about Confederate forces. I wish it had. I have no idea why Sheridan didn’t ask for reinforcements.”

“No? Well, I have. Word was, he was ill-informed. That intelligence had been given during the battle. I saw you with Gregg. And it didn’t look like you were asking after his health.”

He tried to keep his voice calm. Someone had to. “You’re right about that. I was arguing with him. We had a disagreement over what my worth was to the Union cause.”

“Money?”

“A uniform.”

“I don’t understand.”

“General Gregg didn’t either. I was asking him for a uniform. I wanted to fight.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I didn’t want to live.” He looked at Johnny. “Who can resist a seven-hour battle?” A look of understanding flashed in Johnny’s eyes.

“You can prove it?” Scott was saying.

“Do you have a way of confirming every battle you fought in? I saw men run away that day and hide. Not many. But some did. For all I know, they ended up with medals and none would be the wiser. My horse wasn’t trained for battle so it was the perfect fight for a non-cavalry man like myself, to take part in.”

“Why was that?” Johnny was intrigued.

“Because most of the cavalry dismounted and used the earthworks for protection. That made it easy for me to fit right in.”

Johnny looked at Scott. “He doesn’t have to prove it, brother. I believe him.”

“Thank you, Johnny. But for the rest, Scott is right. I was a spy, and I was good at what I did. So good, that somehow, I survived without being caught. Much to my chagrin. However, unlike Pinkerton, I prided myself on correct information and if I’d given General Gregg information that day, I assure you, it would have been correct.” He couldn’t quite keep the edge from his voice, even though he tried, but after all they’d been through the last few days, having to dredge up old history was not going down well with him. He bowed to Murdoch. “Would you like me to leave, sir?”

Murdoch looked at his son. “Scott?” The man was good. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t letting on to Scott or anyone.

Scott Lancer closed his eyes. And yes, William felt empathy for the man. Blame was often an easy tool to lay hold of when answers were hard to come by. If Sheridan had called for backup, would it have made any difference to those friends Scott lost at Haw’s Shop?

“Scott.” Johnny moved in front of him. “I think you oughta know; William saved my life last night. I’d be face down in King River and floating halfway to the ocean, if it wasn’t for him.”

Scott’s eyes flashed to Murdoch. His father nodded. “We have a lot to thank William for.”

A range of emotion flickered across Scott’s face but eventually, some of the fire died down. “If that’s the case, I certainly have to thank you for saving my brother’s life.” But the words were stiff. The tone unyielding.

Johnny lifted his hand, then let it drop. It was a sign of surrender. “If you’re not comfortable, William and I can head into Morro Coyo. Stay the night there.”

Murdoch looked like he was about to say something but Scott was shaking his head. “No, Johnny. It looks like you’ve done enough travelling these last few days. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going into town.” He turned and walked to the door, but when he put on his hat, he looked at his brother. “And Johnny, don’t wait up for me.”

That last part sounded more like a threat than a suggestion, but Johnny just nodded.

There was silence in the room after Scott left.

In the end, William said, “I’m sorry my presence here has caused tension between you all. But,” and he turned to Murdoch, “I’m not ashamed of my work in the war. Some see it as ignoble, but I considered it a necessary part.”

Johnny slumped down on the arm of a blue winged chair. “Like I said, not as if both sides didn’t use’em. Maybe you oughta try talking to him, Murdoch?”

Murdoch didn’t look particularly hopeful. “I’m not sure what good it will do.” But he headed to the door, all the same—only to stop half-way. “William, for my part, you only have my gratitude. For all I know, you’ve possibly managed to save both my sons’ lives?”

The door closed behind Murdoch, leaving him and Johnny alone in the huge room with its books and paintings and all the things he supposed Murdoch Lancer had collected over the years.

It turned out that longcase clock was a noisy beast. He hadn’t noticed it before. “Well, there’s nothing like a cheery family reunion, is there?”

“Oh, boy, us Lancer are good at those.” Johnny flicked a couple of prisms on the lamp near his chair. “Is that what you meant when you said you joined the army and tried to get yourself killed? You started spying for the Union army?”

William picked up the decanter. “Mind?” When Johnny agreed, he poured a generous finger into his glass. So much for not drinking whiskey around Eliza. “I told you about Alice. I spent a year in the army and never even came close to being killed, much to my chagrin.” He held the glass up to Johnny but he shook his head. “One of my commanders saw I had a certain aptitude for spinning a tale, so he sent me on ahead, in civilian clothes to reconnoitre. And that started my inglorious career.” The whiskey went down like he’d swallowed a chisel. What a damnable situation. “Are you sure your brother wouldn’t be more comfortable if I left?”

“Nah. He’ll get over it. Besides, Scott doesn’t make the rules around here.” Johnny swung his boot. “Although sometimes he acts like he does.”

“I’m sorry about all this. I know you were hoping we’d get along.”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know much about Scott’s time in the war. He doesn’t talk about it. I just don’t understand why he’d lay the blame of this battle at your door?”

“Ahh. That would be the army telegraph system, I assume. I’m sure someone told Scott things went wrong that day because of inaccurate reporting. And unfortunately, he was right in saying that many spies simply sold their information to the highest bidder. I wasn’t one of them, I assure you.”

“Well, he sure coulda given you a chance.”

“If you thought a wrong had been done by someone, for many years, and then you finally meet that person, wouldn’t your first response be to call them out on it?”

Johnny went quiet.

“I understand Scott’s distaste, but I considered my work invaluable to winning battles and saving lives. As your father said, possibly even Scott’s, for all he knows.”

Johnny was still quiet.

William walked across to the fire. “It’s ironic, isn’t it; both sides used spies, yet both considered the act so dishonourable that they shot or hanged us, if we were caught.”

“All the same, it sounds more interesting than having to follow all those rules and regulations the army is so set on.”

He laughed. After what he had just been through with Scott Lancer, he’d forgotten a civilian response might be quite different.

“I did some spying myself a few weeks ago. For Murdoch. I went back to being Johnny Madrid for a while.” There was no sign of Johnny’s laugh now.

“It didn’t go well?”

Johnny’s mouth twisted. “I saved Murdoch’s life. Learned a thing or two about trust.” He sighed. “Anyway, that’s kinda why Murdoch sent me off to San Francisco. He figured I needed to get away for a few days. He made out there was some forms to be signed with his lawyer, but I knew why he was sending me.”

“To see some pretty ladies?”

“Well. Just one. But she’s at school so it wasn’t like that. Her father had been killed by a local rancher.” He stopped and frowned, back in the moment no doubt. “I…ah…I didn’t like having to lie to a man I considered a friend. But, you know, I had to do that to protect Murdoch and then I ended up having to go against Murdoch and…” His voice trailed off in an unhappy manner.

“How did it turn out in the end?” It sounded like one of those affairs where nobody wins.

“I killed him.”

It was a bleak response. Clearly, there was a lot more to the story than Johnny was telling. He must have seen the look on William’s face because he added, “Isham and another gunfighter came here to kill my father. They would have killed me as well.”

“From what I’ve seen, that side of the law has little respect for personal friendships and loyalties.”

“I sure found that out.” Johnny looked up. “So, all that stuff—about you, being in banking?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I never did.”

“Touché, my friend. But I wasn’t entirely lying to you.” He did a quick check because staff were coming in and out, setting the large dining table over near the bookcase, for dinner. “My division works for the Department of the Treasury. My job is to ‘Detect persons perpetrating fraud against the government.’”

“What the heck does that mean?”

 “Mostly, I try to stop counterfeiters. That’s who I was running from, when I boarded the stage in San Francisco. I was undercover and they found out I was working against them and not for them.”

“So, you’re still a kind of spy, huh?”

“President Lincoln signed the legislation himself, forming our agency, at war’s end. I suppose you could say I had such an aptitude for the line of work, that they offered me a full-time position after the war.”

“Wow. I never knew. Everyone’s heard about the Pinkertons but I can’t say I’ve come across a government spy before. That kinda makes spying legal, don’t it.” His eyes sparked at the idea. “Scott’s gotta let go of the idea that someone doing that kind of work can’t be trusted.”

“There was often a general impression that a spy would sell their information to the highest bidder. Some did. That wasn’t my way, though.”

“I think it might help Scott, if he knows about the work you do now? I can’t imagine ole Abe Lincoln hiring a traitor.”

“Unfortunately, Lincoln was in his grave by the time I was hired but…” he eyed Johnny. “I’m really not meant to tell anyone about the work I do. However, seeing as we’re a long way from Washington and if you both promise not to tell anyone else, I don’t suppose any of my superiors will know. I assume no-one at Lancer is in the counterfeiting business?”

Johnny grinned and rubbed his nose. “I…ah…can think of a few men I know who are mighty interested in that line of work.”

“Johnny, I thought I heard Scott’s voice?”

He turned to see Teresa and Eliza coming down to supper. Each had gone to considerable trouble, with their hair curled and tied up in bows. Teresa’s dress was lilac and Eliza’s a sky blue. Both were equally fetching even though Eliza’s style spoke of Paris and New York with its gatherings and lace.

Johnny stood up. “Um…yeah, he was here but he stepped out again.”

“Oh.” She pouted. “I was ready to introduce him to Eliza.”

“Yeah, well, he had something on his mind.” Johnny turned to Eliza. “Scott said to tell you he’s sorry. He would’ve stayed if he could.” But William could see he was doing his best to look brighter than he felt about it all.

“That’s all right, Johnny. Teresa has told me what a busy ranch this is and how hard-working everyone has to be. I don’t want to get in the way of all that.”

Murdoch came back inside but he shook his head at Johnny before turning to the ladies with a big smile. “Well, aren’t we honoured tonight to have two beautiful young ladies, sitting at the table.”

A small, Mexican lady in a white apron came out from the kitchen and stood before Murdoch. “Patron. Dinner is served.”

“Thank you, Maria.”

Murdoch ushered them across to the table, set with polished silver cutlery and crystal wine glasses. William smiled to himself, remembering how he and Eliza had imagined Johnny living in a log cabin.

“Where would you like me to sit, sir?”

“Murdoch always sits there,” Johnny pointed to the head of the table, “and the rest of us fight over the other chairs.”

“We do not, Johnny.” Teresa frowned at him.

“Miss Eliza.” Murdoch held a chair for her, so he held one for Teresa.

William chose a chair across the table from Eliza, so that he had a good chance of determining how she was faring. He didn’t feel he was the best person for her to talk to, but she really needed to talk to someone about everything that had happened. What a pity her mother was no longer alive.

Teresa chattered on and her bright smile and interest in all things San Francisco helped Eliza but the conversation really sparked up when Teresa started talking about the local orphanage and the preserves she was making to sell at the church picnic.

Johnny was quiet but Murdoch was the complete host, making sure everyone’s glass was filled and keeping an easy conversation going, whenever it happened to lag.

But it was soon evident that Eliza was exhausted and starting to fade.

Teresa squeezed Eliza’s hand. “I’m sorry. Here’s me prattling on and you must be so tired. Murdoch, will you excuse us, and I’ll take Eliza up to her room?”

“Of course.”

They all stood and said their goodnights to the girls. It was a pity he hadn’t had even a small moment to talk privately with Eliza but hopefully he’d have that chance tomorrow.

Once they were all standing, Murdoch suggested they go out to the porch with their brandy. William was more than willing but Johnny shook his head when Murdoch offered the glass, choosing to swig down the last of his milk, instead.

The air was cool but refreshing outside, after the heat from the fire. In the distance, he could hear the herd. The bellow of a cow was mournful at night. Or maybe it was just the mood he was in.

Johnny leaned against a pillar but Murdoch stood straight backed, offering a few insights into how they did things at Lancer. It all sounded very different to the life Johnny must have led before. For someone who seemed to thrive on excitement, ranch work must be exceptionally dull by comparison.

“William, I’m sorry about that misunderstanding with Scott.”

Murdoch’s words brought his musings back to the present.

“Yeah, well Scott’s wrong, Murdoch.” At least Johnny sounded certain of that fact.

“I’m not sure you’ll be able to convince Scott, though.” Murdoch put his glass down. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to talk and head on in.” He rubbed his back. “I don’t think any of us slept too well last night. Those beds at the Morro Coyo hotel aren’t the most comfortable.”

William put out his hand. “Good night, Murdoch. And thank you for being understanding, sir.”

“Night, Murdoch.”

Murdoch shook hands with William, then his hand rested on Johnny’s shoulder. “Give Scott a chance, son. It must have been quite a shock seeing William tonight.”

Johnny watched Murdoch walk away, before saying, “How d’you think Eliza’s doing?”

“She looks tired. She’s probably exhausted.”

Johnny put a hand to his ribs. “If she’s anything like me, she’ll be darned sore, too. I swear, every tree in the whole damn valley was floating down that river.”

“Coming to terms with everything that happened won’t be easy for her.”

“Maybe this aunt of hers can help?”

“St Louis is a long way from here.”

“Sure is. But at least she won’t have to travel by stage. Train will be a whole lot smoother.”

A movement in the shadows made Johnny spin around. If he’d been wearing his gun, Johnny would have it in his hand right now. In fact, William half expected it to magically appear.

But then Johnny peered into the dark. “Scott? I thought you were heading to town.”

Scott came closer. “I was. Until I got half-way and turned around.” He squared his shoulders and looked at William. “I came back to offer my apologies to Mr Holdsworth. I’m sorry, sir. It was…”

“Understandable?”

“That wasn’t the word I was going to use.”

“But it’s the one that’s most apt for this situation, don’t you think?”

“No. Not at all, considering the fact I’ve thought wrongly of you, these past five years. I should never have leapt to that conclusion.”

Johnny was studying Scott. “What made you change your mind, brother?”

But Scott turned to William. “My brother here, seems to be a reasonably good judge of character. But I also considered the fact that you’d be unlikely to immerse yourself in the thick of a battle like the one at Haw’s Shop, if you’d given General Gregg incorrect intelligence.”

“I guess all that Harvard learning wasn’t wasted on you after all, Scott.” There was a lot of affection in Johnny’s words.

And in Scott’s response. “I guess not.”

Johnny was grinning and rubbing his hands together. “Come and join us. William’s having a brandy. Wait there and I’ll bring you some food.”

Scott came further into the light of the lanterns and William admired him. These Lancer boys were made of strong stuff. It wouldn’t have been easy, coming back, cap in hand, so to speak, and apologising.

“Scott, I did plenty of things I wasn’t proud of during the war. I didn’t choose that line of work but it turned out I was good at it. I always strived for accuracy and I’d like to think my information saved many Union lives.”

“While we’re being frank, I’d like you to know, I never shared my suspicions. And that’s all they were. I had nothing to go on, other than the rumour of incorrect intelligence and seeing you with General Gregg that day.”

“Well, I sincerely thank you for that.” And he did. He might have found himself unceremoniously hung from a tree if Scott had voiced his suspicions. “Just think, we might have been fighting almost side by side outside Haw’s Shop, and never knew it.”

“It was quite a day.”

That was putting it mildly. For hours on end, all he’d heard was the crack of the musket then that dreadful shrill of a minie ball whizzing past. If you were lucky, they whined overhead, or past your ear before slamming into a tree, the earth, or some poor fellow’s bone. And then you heard the screams. “I saw Custer’s horse shot from under him as he urged his troops on. Brave man that.”

“Here we go.” Johnny came out balancing a tray with three glasses and a platter of bread, cheese and ham. A bottle of red wine was tucked under his arm. He grinned as he set it down on the table by the French doors. “Compliments of the house.”

Scott was all admiration as he poured their glasses. “Murdoch’s best wine. You’re learning, little brother.”

William raised his glass. “To forgetting the past and making new friends.”

Scott raised his glass. “And to surviving.”

Johnny smiled at them both. “To the three of us.”

While Scott ate, they talked a little about Boston.  William’s family weren’t part of Harlan Garrett’s social circle and William hadn’t been back a great deal after the war but they could both laugh over some of the things they did as boys.

Johnny looked happy enough, just to see them getting on.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before talk turned towards their adventures by the river. Scott was clearly wanting to know what had happened.

Johnny’s explanation was brief to the point of nothing but bare bones. Scott shook his head. “William, why don’t you fill in all the parts that Johnny missed out.”

Scott was a good listener and a proud brother. He enjoyed hearing about Johnny’s quick thinking with the wolves. He shook his head a few times, as if he could imagine Johnny standing there with only William’s derringer, facing all that growling and bared teeth.

But it wasn’t easy talking about Miss Minchin and her sad life or Branson’s final act of righteousness or even ‘Poor Mr Smith’ as Eliza always called him.

Johnny mostly listened to William’s telling. They’d tried to make light of some parts, for Murdoch’s sake, but with Scott, he didn’t feel a need to whitewash any of the details.

After that, they got onto some livelier topics. Both brothers talked some more about the ranch with Scott telling a few stories of his mistakes at roping and branding those first few weeks. William found himself warming to Scott, despite the inauspicious introduction. He liked a man who could laugh at himself. Perhaps Scott saw the world in a more serious light than Johnny was apt to? But then, when your own standards are high, you’re liable to expect that of everyone else.

At least by the time the bottle was pretty much empty, there seemed to be a level of friendship between Scott and himself—if only for Johnny’s sake. And William wasn’t asking for any more than that. If you’ve spent years believing a specific person harmed you, all that anger and distrust won’t dissolve with a snap of one’s fingers.

“Well, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bed up there, calling my name.” And it really was. The lack of sleep from the last two nights and the discomfort of his shoulder, was beginning to take its toll.

He said goodnight and left the two brothers alone.

William wasn’t quite sure where he was, when he woke up. The room was dark, and all was quiet.

Until he heard the cows.

And he smiled.

Ah yes, life on a ranch. There was no getting away from that sound.

He got up and pulled the curtains back and a pang of guilt hit him. The sun was already high in the sky. Could he have slept half the day away? Admittedly, he hadn’t had much sleep the previous two nights but he prided himself on being a good house guest.

When he looked at his watch, it was ten forty-five. Oh dear.

The first person he saw when he went downstairs was Teresa. “My apologies, Teresa. It appears I overslept.”

“No. Johnny said not to wake you because none of you had had any sleep the last few nights. How does your shoulder feel?”

“A thousand times better, thanks. Is Johnny up?”

“Yes, but he slept late as well. And I just took a breakfast tray up to Eliza. What can I get you?”

He breathed in. “Just a cup of that freshly made coffee that I can smell.”

She went across to the sideboard and poured him a cup in a white mug. “Johnny’s outside if you want to find him. And here.” She buttered a biscuit for him and put that on a plate as well. “We made another batch so that they’d be fresh when you came down.”

He found himself shepherded outdoors, where she set him up on a chair under the porch. The same place he and Johnny had sat last night. “It’s much nicer out here this time of day, than sitting inside.”

And she was right. The sun was warm and he could look out at the fields and follow the road they’d travelled yesterday; past the Lancer arch and all the way up to the hill where they’d stopped and surveyed the scene below.

Teresa put a hand up to shade her eyes. “Johnny was out here somewhere. He’s probably in the barn. I’ll go check for you.”

Before he had a chance to tell her not to bother, she was skipping down the steps with an energy you didn’t find in city-bred girls.

“William. I see you’re keeping city hours while you’re here. No, don’t get up.” Scott walked outside through the French doors, work gloves in hand. His smile robbed his words of any offence. Perhaps not precisely warm—but friendly enough. He had that Boston stamp of polite behaviour, always the right word for whatever the occasion. He would have been a fine officer.

William, half standing, sat again. “Yes, I’m embarrassed to find I’ve almost lost half a day.”

“Don’t be. From what Johnny said, you haven’t had much sleep. And it’s hard to sleep on a stage at the best of times.” He grinned of a sudden and it made him look younger. “I’m sure I was a worse traveller than you when I came out here.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure on that.” William rubbed his jaw. “I don’t think my teeth have stopped rattling, yet.”

Scott leaned against the parapet and looked out at a small herd in one of the fields, not far from the house. “Johnny told me about your line of work last night.”

“Ah, the banking business.”

Scott smiled. “Yes. Banking.”

Scott wasn’t a fidgeter like Johnny but he was certainly taking his time as he worked his hands into each glove. There was almost a precision to his movements.

“I have a feeling you want to say something?” He hoped not. He thought they’d covered everything last night yet he had a strong feeling Scott was deliberating how to broach his subject.

Finally, he regarded William with a thoughtful face. “I’ve seen the way you watch my brother.”

“I do?”

“You do.” Like any good soldier, Scott faced his enemy, straight on. “I’ve been wondering if you’re thinking of—perhaps enticing Johnny—into your line of work?”

William smiled to himself. Scott Lancer was a wily one, all right. It must run in the family. “Your brother does have some impressive talents.”

“That’s right. He can rope a steer with the best of them, break horses, dig ditches, brand a calf…and all the other things it takes to be a good rancher.”

“He also has a highly intuitive mind, his speed and accuracy with a gun is nothing short of outstanding. And he’s not fearless—I wouldn’t insult his sensibilities by saying that—but he’s damnably brave.”

Scott folded his arms. “He’s also grown up kicking around border towns most of his life. This is the first time Johnny’s known family and stability. Would you reward him for saving your skin against those wolves, by luring him away with an offer of excitement?”

“Ranch life isn’t exciting?”

“It has its moments.”

“Scott, when it comes to intuitive minds, it looks like it runs in the family. I shall have to thank your father for that.”

Scott acknowledged the compliment with a grin but it was one that said he had no intention of being easily placated. He wanted an honest answer and that was reasonable.

“Scott, I confess, it had crossed my mind. And more than once. But don’t you think it should be Johnny’s decision?”

“We’ve only been here five months. I don’t pretend to know my brother inside out. As you can imagine, our lives have been very different up to this point. He’s walked away once—almost twice—from Lancer. Both circumstances involved the death of friends from his past. One of those friends, he shot and killed, defending my father.”

“He mentioned that.”

“And you’re right. Johnny’s all those things you say he is. But he’s also a brother and a son. And I think that’s something Johnny deserves a chance to experience and get to know.”

“Are you saying you know best when it comes to what your brother needs? As you say, you’ve only been together a very short while.”

“No. No, I can’t say that.”

“Are you intending to block every offer that comes Johnny’s way, just because you don’t want him to leave. Would that be right for him?”

“No. And I wouldn’t do that. Nor would he do that to me, either.”

William drained his coffee mug then put it on the small, round table. This was awkward. “You seem to be an altruistic young man. I assume that’s why you fought. Do you realise a third of all money in circulation after the war, was fake?”

“No. I didn’t realise it was as much as that. I knew there were problems with counterfeit bills, of course.”

“We’re doing our best to correct that situation but it’s a huge issue. Johnny could be of great service to his country. And I admit, I’d like him as a partner.”

Scott took all that in with several nods.

“To be honest, Scott, I’ve just spent four days in the company of your brother and I have to admit, I’ve never met anyone quite like him.”

Scott’s smile was pure challenge. “And that’s a problem, then. Because neither have I.”

Chapter Seventeen

William watched Scott Lancer head down the steps and into the yard. He was an assured young man, all right. Probably used to giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed, yet still humble enough to acknowledge he had a lot to learn out here and more importantly, was happy to be taught. He’d met plenty of ‘fine young men’ during the war—and if they’d been teachable, they’d be still alive today.

“Good morning, William. Mr Holdsworth.”

He sprang to his feet. “Eliza.”

She had colour back in her cheeks but her smile looked forced. “How is your shoulder?”

“Much better, thanks. But why so formal this morning?” But he’d felt it as well. What had been so easy between them by the river now seemed to belong to another world or time. Here they were, free of mud, Eliza in her pretty dress and him in shirt and tie, even if not his jacket. Yet it all seemed to bring a restraint.

She looked out towards the corrals and the barn. “Where’s Johnny?”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him this morning.”

She clasped her hands together, as if she had a confession to make. “I’ve been going over in my mind, everything that happened.”

“Go on.” But he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what she had to say.

“Because of my childishness and need to revenge my father, poor Mortimer Smith was fired from his position as clerk and Mirella lost her baby and then Branson was killed. All that happening because of a few bottles of whiskey. How can that be?” She seemed to be sinking under the crushing weight of it all, almost swaying as she talked, like one of those trees by the river.

“From what you’ve told me of your father, if it wasn’t whiskey bottles, he would have found some other trivial matter to fire Mortimer over.”

“I’ve thought about it. I thought about it all last night and in the stage when we left the river and as I had my breakfast and every single minute of the day. But the thing is, he hadn’t fired him. He’d worked for Daddy all those years and was only fired when the whiskey went missing.” Her voice rose on those last words.

“Eliza, don’t blame yourself.”

But she was shaking her head. “I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to return to San Francisco and marry Albright, as my father wants.” She could have been reciting her penance after leaving the confessional.

“No.” That came out a lot stronger than he’d meant. “Eliza, no.” He was more measured the second time but he hoped she heard how revolted he was, even at the idea of her marrying this Albright fellow.  “You can’t punish yourself over what happened. You had no way of knowing how events would pan out. And remember, if The Minchin hadn’t been set on revenging your father, they’d all still be alive.”

She wouldn’t look at him; instead, she stepped down from the terrace, to get a clearer view. “Where’s Johnny? I really need to leave as soon as possible.”

“Eliza, you don’t snap your fingers for a cab out here. I suspect there won’t be a train or a stage for another few days.” He certainly hoped that was the case.

“I need to get back to San Francisco.” She stepped back up on the terrace but nearly knocked over one of the plant stands with her pacing.

He put out a hand and steadied it. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look more like a rabbit running from a fox rather than a young lady who’s made a rational decision.”

At least that made her stand still. “I think that’s very mean of you.”

“Eliza, you played a very small part in a cruel act committed by your father. Even if he thought Mortimer Smith had stolen the whiskey, I doubt very much he gave him any chance to defend himself, which is what a fair man would have done. And without conclusive evidence, he was wrong to judge Smith in any case.”

“I can’t reward myself for having done wrong.”

“How would you be rewarding yourself?”

“Don’t you see that leaving my father and going to St Louis to live with Aunt Mabel would be a reward?”

He stepped closer to her, forcing her to look at him. “Not a reward, that would be a relief and a reprieve. You don’t have to sacrifice your life. You’re too young…too…” Beautiful.

She stared up at him. “Too what, William?”

For a mad second, he almost put his lips on hers. “Far too…sensible.” He stepped back—and this time he almost knocked the same plant over. “Is this what your mother would want?”

“I’ve thought about that. Albright is a very wealthy man. I’m sure he’d let me pursue whatever charitable notions I have.”

“But that’s not a marriage.” He almost spat the words out.

“I know it wouldn’t be what you and Alice had but it might be some atonement for the grief I’ve caused. Perhaps Johnny is inside?”

And before he could say more, she turned and almost ran for the front door.

Well done, William. Good God. This was the most depressing news.

And what did he have to offer her, anyway? Scott Lancer was right. He spent his time skulking around bedrooms and back alleys.

Speaking of which, he supposed he really should send a wire to let his team know where he was. Three days ago, all he cared about was catching Van Heusen and his team of forgers. But now? Now, Van Heusen could damn-well go the devil. In fact, the devil was welcome to have him.

“Howdy, William.” It was Johnny calling to him as he came out of the barn. At least someone looked cheery.

William walked across the fine stones and dust to reach him. At the same time, from the corner of his eye, he saw a young Mexican headed towards Johnny, from the direction of the corral.

“Hey, Señor Johnny.”

Johnny stopped and turned to the boy. “Santiago, what have I told you about wearing your gun tied low like that?”

The boy smiled—his teeth might not be pearly white but he made up for that with his exuberance. “I have been practising while you were gone.”

Johnny took in this piece of news, then looked at the barn wall. “I don’t see a single hole so it doesn’t look like your aim has improved any.”

“No, Señor Johnny. Nooo.” The boy’s face dropped, the dark eyes looked tragic. “I practise behind the old oak. Every day, since you leave.”

“You’d better not let my old man catch you.”

“I wait until Señor Lancer rides to town. You think Santiago is clever, si?”

Johnny ruffled the black hair. “Go hitch up the buggy, for me, huh.”

“Yes, Señor Johnny. I will find you a pair of the fastest steeds.”

“Santiago, I’m not aiming on racing. I’m just taking Mr Holdsworth here for a drive around the ranch. And don’t take Murdoch’s pair or I’ll have you mucking out the pigsty for a week.”

William watched the boy head for the barn with a jaunty step. “You have an admirer.”

Johnny laughed. “I’m just trying to stop him shooting his big toe off. Come on, I’ll show you around while we’re waiting.”

Johnny showed him some of the original buildings, like the jail and the smokehouse. Everything spoke of age, with the adobe walls and the exposed beams but Murdoch clearly kept a tight ship—while the dust would be unavoidable, there were very few spider webs in the corners.

They’d been walking around the barn and other outbuildings and somehow they lost touch with each other when William dawdled over a foal and Johnny got called away with a question by one of the hands.

When he walked out of the barn and into the sun, Johnny was in the buggy already, holding the lines.

“Come on, old man. You want a hand up?”

“I may be a little stiff but I still have my dignity, thank you very much. Besides, I’d be surprised if you were any nimbler than me.”

Johnny grinned. “I’m just better at hiding it.”

“Where are we going?”

“We, are going for a ride around the ranch.” And he widened his arm, like a showman.

As soon as William was seated, Johnny clicked the pair on and they set off. Johnny filled him in on the ranch and how it ran but William only listened with half an ear. He just couldn’t stop thinking about what Eliza had said. He probably should have expected that response from her. But damn it, he’d hoped she’d have enough sense to see that throwing her life away wasn’t going to change anything.

He felt downhearted and annoyed and irritable. And honestly, the more Johnny talked about his life here at Lancer, the more it sounded like an unenviable day, from dawn to dusk, of back-breaking work. What could be in this for Johnny? Or Scott for that matter? He’d be doing Johnny a favour by offering him a new position. He’s a young man. Why should he become old before his time doing this sort of work? All the hands looked grizzled and bow-legged and were missing teeth. All right, perhaps that was an exaggeration, but this life clearly took a toll on a man’s body.

After another period of silence, Johnny said, “Do you think Eliza is okay? I get the feeling she doesn’t want to see us.”

“She plans to return to San Francisco and marry Albright Chester, the third.”

“Why the hell would she do that?”

“She feels guilty. Guilts a damnable thing, Johnny.”

“All she’s doing is playing into her old man’s hands. He doesn’t sound like the type who cares about anything other than getting his own way.”

“That’s why he’s a successful businessman.”

“We’ve gotta do something. Talk her out of it.”

“I tried. I didn’t get anywhere.”

“We’ll have to think of something. Boy, watching her throw her life away because of what her father and Minchin did…well, it just ain’t right.”

Johnny turned left off the main track and drove the buggy along a smaller path that wound its way through a stand of oaks then finished at a very pretty lake, surrounded by rushes. “You want to get out and stretch your legs?”

Johnny’s idea of stretching his legs was finding a section of long grass. He then lay back with a sigh, placing his hat over his eyes. The bruise on his face now extended to his jaw line. Once again, those seconds by the river flashed into William’s mind and his stomach twisted in some sort of sympathy, making the memory feel far too real. Johnny had a remarkable resilience, both physically and mentally. After all, it was only a few days ago that he’d been mere minutes from death.

William sat down beside him and loosened his tie. “Well, we’re a miserable pair, aren’t we?” Johnny seemed as dispirited as William was by Eliza’s decision.

“But we’re breathing. Besides, if I’d hung around the hacienda, Teresa would be fussing around with arnica and cold compresses and the like.”

Well, maybe that showed Johnny wasn’t quite so blasé about almost drowning as he’d supposed? “Are you happy here, Johnny?”

“Well, it’s all kind of different, you know. Takes some getting used to.”

“And this is what you do all day?”

“Oh sure.” That laugh of his cracked out again. “Nope. Most days I spend chasing cows and digging fence holes. If I’m lucky, I get Saturday night in town and Sunday for church.”

“Sounds like hard work.”

“Ooh, you’d better believe it.”

“Charlie tells me you had quite a reputation along the border.”

“Did Charlie say that?” His grin showed, under the hat. “Yeah, I made a name for myself. It was all I knew back then.”

“I suppose it was a little like being a professional soldier?”

“Yeah, but without someone barking out orders all day long. And the pay was a whole lot better.”

William pulled his knees up and took in the view. Oak, pine, eucalyptus…and that was as far as his knowledge of trees went. The fields stretched for miles in every direction, covered in green and flecks of yellow. Then there were the ever-present cows. The herd. It was peaceful—and somewhat smelly—if that was what you wanted. “Do you like ranching, Johnny?”

“Well, I’ll tell ya, you can’t get an animal any dumber than a cow. You can bet your last dollar if you want them to head east, they’ll stampede and head west. And there’s nothing worse than fencing.”

“It must be a big change for you.”

“I used to be able to get up as the sun went down or follow whatever road I wanted. But now…now I follow the bidding of my old man.” He lifted his hat and peered at William. “What about you? I bet chasing those counterfeiters is a whole lot more interesting than chasing cows.”

“It has its moments.” He almost felt like he was on the cusp of closing in on his prey. There couldn’t be a more perfect moment for pitching his case to Johnny, could there? But wretched man that he was, he did have some scruples, more the pity, despite what Scott Lancer might think. All the same, if Johnny wasn’t happy here, that document he’d prepared last night, only needed a signature…

“Yeah, falling in a bog rescuing a calf has its moments, too, but it’s not worth the telling.”

“Good point. I suppose I’ve got some tales worth the telling. You’d be surprised where these counterfeiting operations occur. The Barbary Coast is a hotbed of every kind of thief and crooked deal you can think of, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. ‘Blimey, gov’na, wots that you got?’”

Johnny grinned. “You ain’t from around these parts.”

“No. That’s my Cockney accent when I’ve just arrived off the boat and I’m game for a ‘bit of a lark.’ Add some grime to your face and no-one looks twice at you.”

“Barbary Coast. Now, that’s one place I tried to stay away from. They’ll cut your throat for the price of a cheap meal.”

“Of course, they’re not all found in places like that. You’d be surprised how they managed to pay for some of those mansions on Nob Hill. It’s not all railway money up there. I’ve been a butler and a chauffeur and a riding instructor and then there was the time I was holed up in a brothel for a week.”

“That must have been hard work.”

“Exhausting.”

“I’ve criss-crossed the country, Washington, New York, Boston, St Louis, Kansas, San Francisco and back again, more times than I can count.”

Johnny got up on his elbows and pushed his hat back. “I like travelling. Sometimes, before I ended up here, I’d take a road or a trail, just to see where it went. When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was a Spanish explorer. One of those ‘conquistadors’ I got told about, once. Course, I didn’t have a ship.”

“Something of a drawback, I’d imagine.”

“Yeah. Kinda.” He chewed on a straw. “You must see a lot of the country.”

“That’s true. It gets a bit lonely after a while, though. Always travelling to new towns…sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted.”

“Now that last part I’ve done. Plenty. That’s a gunfighters life.”

“We’d make a great team, Johnny.”

Johnny chewed on his straw some more, before spitting out. “Come on. Time we went back.”

It was a good one-hour trip back to the house and they had to pass the time somehow—but William only told his stories when Johnny asked him. Johnny was intrigued with the workings of the underworld and showed a keen understanding of just how difficult William’s work was. William noticed it wasn’t the towns he visited that took Johnny’s interest but rather the near-misses and the times he wasn’t sure if he’d escape with his life.

It looked like Scott had just ridden in as Johnny drove the buggy up to the barn.

Scott brought his horse over to the buggy. “Did you two have a good time?”

“Not too much, brother. How could I when I knew you were hard at it, rounding up those strays on south mesa?”

“Your thoughtfulness overwhelms me.”

“Señor Scott. I take your horse. I rub him down until his coat shines.” Santiago had come running. He reminded William of a puppy dog, always under your feet and looking for attention.

Scott swung down and handed the boy his reins. “If you keep spoiling my horse, Santiago, he’ll want you to ride him, instead of me. But why are you out here? Have you finished your lesson already?”

“I did two pages, but Señor Johnny is now home and I had to…”

Scott frowned down at him. “You had to what?”

For once he didn’t look eager to tell. “Well, it is a surprise for Señor Johnny.” His face brightened. “But tomorrow, I shall do two whole lessons to catch up. Si?”

“How can you argue with that, Scott.” Johnny eased his way down from the buggy seat. “Here, Santiago, make yourself useful and put the team away, too.”

Scott was giving Santiago a stern look. “I hope this surprise tomorrow doesn’t involve guns.”

“Señor Scott. No. It is a different surprise.”

The boy sounded earnest but Johnny started whistling in the air and that made the boy laugh. “No guns tomorrow, Señors, Santiago promises on the heart of the Virgin Mary herself.”

“Scott, you can’t get any better than that.” He then grabbed the boy by the shoulders and turned him around. “Go’on, off you go before Scott makes you do four lessons tomorrow.”

Santiago bowed, delight all over his face, as he led the team and Scott’s horse away.

Scott frowned at Johnny, doing his best to appear severe. “You know he’s been out practising again.”

Johnny threw his arm around Scott’s shoulder as they walked towards the house. “Shush, keep your voice down. You don’t want Murdoch to hear, do you.”

Scott tightened his mouth but he didn’t look seriously upset. “Did William tell you all about his adventures and all those cities he visits?”



“Yeah. It sounds real exciting. More action than being tucked away here, huh.”

William followed on behind. “That’s right. Johnny had a lot of questions about the work I do.” Hopefully Scott read that as him saying he didn’t go out of his way to talk to Johnny about his work. And damn it, he’d wanted to.

When they rounded the corner, Murdoch was standing by the corral and it was now filled with eight horses, tossing their heads and looking generally displeased about finding themselves there.

“Whoa, Murdoch, where did these beauties come from?” Johnny was straightaway at the fence, one hand held out, hoping to tempt one of them to come closer.

Scott stood next to him. “I’d watch that pinto. He bites.”

Johnny pulled his hand back like lightning, as it was the pinto who was prancing in his direction.

“Thanks for the warning. So you’ve met this feller before?”

“Murdoch and Aggie had one of their tussles at the auction while you were away.”

“William, if you’re looking for someone in your line of work, you should look no further than my father, here. He’s wily as a fox and never gives up a secret.”

“A little respect from you, Johnny-my-boy, wouldn’t go astray. And if you hadn’t got yourself banged up, I was going to put some extra pay in your pocket for breaking this remuda.”

“Give me a few days, Murdoch. I wouldn’t mind showing William how it’s done.”

“I think not, Johnny. It would be best to wait a few weeks until you’re healed up.”

Johnny was like a kid with a new toy. “Which one have you got your eye on, Scott?” The two of them walked around to the corral gate, where the horses had gathered to eat the fresh straw on the ground, leaving William standing alongside Murdoch.

“You have an impressive ranch, sir.”

“As I tell the boys, it was nothing but dead scrub and cactus when I bought it. It takes a lot of hard work to keep it from returning to that state.”

“I’d imagine it would. Johnny’s been telling me.” William wasn’t quite sure how to broach his subject. Murdoch was a kind host but Johnny was right, he probably had all the attributes of a successful agent—except for his monumental height. William rested his hands on the railing. He’d have to choose his words carefully. “When I met Johnny, he introduced himself as Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch didn’t seem surprised. “He hasn’t been Johnny Lancer for very long, you know. I expect the name Madrid still comes a little easier to his lips. Hopefully, in time, that will change.”

William took a surreptitious breath. “Sir, I wouldn’t like to go behind your back—but I’d like to offer Johnny, what could be, perhaps, the chance of a lifetime.”

“I think Johnny has that here, already, at Lancer.”

William nodded. Well, he’d expected Murdoch would be difficult to talk to. That slow, measured, baritone was the result of years of hard-won experience while he built his empire.

“I wouldn’t be suggesting he leaves permanently, but in my line of work, Johnny would be invaluable. The government has its work cut out, trying to mould us all into something resembling a united country again. The first thing we have to do is organise our finances into something that’s dependable.”

Murdoch turned his head and gave William a thoughtful look. “What exactly is it you do, William?”

Good Lord, he hadn’t been this nervous since he had to stand up before the class and recite ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’ “Basically. The Secret Service was set up by President Lincoln to…”

“Ah. I’m aware of what your division does, William.” Murdoch went silent, his eyes now on his sons as they looked over the remuda.

William waited. No doubt Murdoch wouldn’t speak idly, but rather, after deep thought.

Eventually, Murdoch turned to him. “I would never hold Johnny back—or Scott for that matter. But naturally, I’m hoping they both consider Lancer their home now. I appreciate your honesty in regard to asking Johnny—but I would take it as poor thanks for my hospitality.”

William bowed his head. “Of course, sir. I wouldn’t dream of treating you so shabbily, which is why I wanted to come to you first. You have my assurance I won’t speak of it while I’m under your roof.”

“And when you’re not under my roof?”

“That would require further consideration.”

“I see.” He then called out, “Come on in, boys. It must be almost time for supper.”

They both turned around when called, one fair, one dark, with that easy familiarity he’d seen in brothers. From what he could make out, they were arguing over who’d get to be the owner of the pinto.

Well, he’d fallen flat in his quest. And it irked him. He should have had enough sense to offer Johnny the position, before now. It was one thing for Scott to be annoyed but quite another for Murdoch Lancer to feel affronted. He couldn’t go against the father’s request.

And now it looked like he was losing out on both Eliza and Johnny.

William made sure he didn’t sleep-in the next morning but even so, the Lancers had already finished breakfast and were out the door when he came down.

“We’re breaking the horses, today,” Teresa told him, as she poured his coffee.

“Who does the breaking?”

“Normally Johnny would do some of them. Of course, he loves anything that involves danger or rolling in dirt. But we have other hands who are good at it. I can’t wait to see Johnny’s face. He hates missing out. He was even arguing this morning about it, trying to tell Murdoch he felt a whole lot better.”

“And Scott?”

“No, Scott will tell you he knows his limitations. He enjoys training them and of course, he’s a beautiful rider. I would have loved to see him in uniform when he was in the cavalry.”

“And Eliza?”

Teresa sighed. “I’m really worried about her. Perhaps you and Johnny can talk to her later.”

“I will.” Although, what good it would do, he really couldn’t say. Perhaps Johnny would have more success?

He could hear plenty of yells and cheers coming from the corral, so he picked up his coffee and walked across to the French doors. The peaceful scene that met his eyes yesterday had disappeared. Clouds of dust were rising from the corral and hands were leaning on the fence, whooping and hollering.

Teresa looked over his shoulder. “You’d better get out there. You don’t want to miss the fun.”

“And you?”

“I’ll keep Eliza, company. I’ve seen this plenty of times.”

William swallowed down the last dregs of his coffee then passed her the cup. He’d seen horse breaking before but not western style. He was looking forward to this.

He’d just stepped off the patio when a familiar figure in a red shirt rose high in the air, one arm above his head.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. How on earth did Johnny manage it? He knew he was resilient, but this seemed fool-hardy. He ran down the steps, keeping his eyes on the corral. He didn’t want to miss the fun.

He was halfway across the gravel when he checked. He didn’t know the first thing about horse-breaking but he even he could see something was wrong…terribly wrong.

Oh, God no. Surely not.

He stood there, transfixed. And just as the horror of what he saw sank in, he heard a voice call out, Johnny, with the most heart-wrenching anguish, he’d ever heard.

William started running to the corral, vaguely aware that Murdoch and Scott were doing the same, somewhere to his right.

The one they called Burke looked at them as they reached the fence, his face contorted. “He wasn’t meant to be riding. We all told him.”

The leather pants…the red shirt…

He’d crashed through the fence.

Murdoch was on his knees, slowly turning him over.

Oh God. For a second everything swam and he grabbed hold of the railing.

Santiago. The boy who emulated Johnny—so much that he was wearing the same style leather pants and red shirt.

Johnny had stopped him from shooting off his big toe—but not from breaking his neck.

William spent the next few hours trying to keep out of everyone’s way. Santiago’s death had affected everybody. Burke was inconsolable. Apparently the boy had jumped on the pinto before anyone had been able to stop him. Johnny had been standing the other side of the corral, in time to hear Santiago call out, “Señor Johnny, watch me.”

One of the hands told him Johnny risked being trampled by the pinto as he jumped the fence and tried to get to the boy.

But there was never any hope for Santiago. Perhaps there never had been?

Sometime later, he watched Murdoch and Scott place Santiago’s body in the wagon, wrapped in a canvas sheet. Teresa placed a small posy of daisies by his head. Johnny was there, talking to them as they climbed up on the seat. Then he stood back with the rest of the hands who’d gathered around, putting his arm around Teresa.

The men took their hats off and bowed their heads, as Murdoch took the reins and the wagon rolled forward. The grief jabbed at William as he bowed his head with the others. It was all too cruel.

With Teresa upset, he went in search of Eliza. He found her in the kitchen, up to her elbows in flour, making biscuits. Bless her, she was trying to help, but from the amount of flour on the flagged stones, she was probably more of a hindrance. All the same, she was doing her best, so he left her to it.

It seemed like the boundary fence around the house and ranch buildings was the only thing holding Johnny up.

William stood beside him. “I’m so sorry, Johnny.”

“Damn fool kid. He’d never broken a horse in his life.” He dashed his sleeve across his eyes.

“Boys his age do foolish things. They think they’re indestructible.”

“He’d only been here a coupla months. Scott found him scrubbing floors in the saloon in Green River and offered him a job with us. Thought he was setting him on the road to something better.”

“With that smile and eagerness to please; he would have been eaten up in a place like that. Scott did the right thing.”

Johnny rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, that’s what we thought. Scott was teaching him to read. Scott knew what he needed. Not me, though. It looks like the only thing I taught him was how to be a damn fool.”

“From what I saw, you were doing anything but that.”

“I shoulda paid him more attention.” Johnny pulled his gun out, hefting it in his hand. “I forgot what it was like to be his age and living on your own. The things that seem…importante.” He holstered his gun and looked out across the fields. “Poor kid, he was always hankering to get into town. Bet he never thought his next trip was gonna be his last.”

Life at a ranch doesn’t stop. He sensed it wasn’t quite as busy as it was other days but work crews still had to go out and stock had to be moved or fed or whatever else had to be done. Frankly, it was all something of a mystery to William. Like Eliza, he wanted to be helpful in the face of such misery, so when he found one of the hands pitchforking a pile of hay onto a wagon, he joined him in doing that. It wasn’t the best thing for his shoulder but it helped the ache he had in his heart for Santiago.

Dinner had been cleared away but many of the dishes went back to the kitchen, half eaten. Except for the biscuits Eliza had made. They weren’t exactly light and fluffy but when Teresa announced that Eliza had made them, everyone made a point of eating at least one of them and congratulating her.

“No, please, I don’t want thanks. I was just trying to help when you’ve all been so good to me.” And she squeezed Teresa’s hand, lying next to hers, on the table.

Scott didn’t stay at the table long, giving his excuses and leaving well before anyone else had finished. He’d been polite to Eliza and shared in some mundane pleasantries but at other times, he frowned at his plate of uneaten beef or stared at his wine glass. Murdoch watched him leave, then his eyes went to Johnny, poking at a potato on his plate. Johnny didn’t have Scott’s manners. He was simply silent.

Teresa finally pushed her plate back, looking at Johnny and Murdoch. “Well, I’m going to say something on the subject everyone else is avoiding. I think we did the very best for Santiago and you should all be proud of yourselves for trying to help him.” Her voice quavered on her last words but she sat down, pressing her lips together as if determined not to cry.

“Thank you, darling.” Murdoch’s smile was kind but tired.

Johnny mumbled his thanks and then he got up, kissed the top of her head, and left. Murdoch’s eyes followed him out the door before he turned to the girls still sitting at the table. “What were you ladies planning on doing tonight?”

“Eliza and I thought we’d just sit by the fire and do our needlework.”

“Good thinking. William, if you’d like to join me out on the terrace?”

“Of course, sir.” He hoped Murdoch wasn’t asking him just to be polite but he let Murdoch pour him some brandy and then he followed him out the French doors. The night was cool. The bellow of a cow from somewhere out there was sad and filled with longing.

A moth fluttered about the lamp on the wall, always trying to get closer. Nature could be damn cruel. Why would it be attracted to the very thing that could kill it?

He really wanted to sit in one of the big wooden chairs next to the French doors and just stare into the night but he could hardly do that with Murdoch standing. He took a gulp of brandy but that wasn’t going to get Santiago out his mind, either.

“I’m so sorry about what happened today, sir. I hope our being here isn’t…”

Murdoch took a sip of brandy as he stood under one of the arches and looked out into the night. “No. Not at all.”

“You all have my sympathy, of course. What a dreadfully sad business.”

“Mmmm.”

A burst of wind stirred the leaves of the tree in the courtyard. The rustling scared a mouse and it scuttled off into the dark.

William turned his glass in his hands. Murdoch was clearly preoccupied. Perhaps he should have just excused himself when Murdoch asked him out here? He was almost ready to suggest he leave when Murdoch turned around.

“William, I’ve been thinking about our conversation. The one we had yesterday.”

Had Scott said something to Murdoch? He felt a rush of guilt. “Sir, I did as you asked. I haven’t mentioned the position to Johnny.”

“Then would you do me a favour—and tell him about it.”

William stared at him. “But sir—.”

“I thought I’d lost my son this morning. Do you have any idea what that felt like?”

William closed his eyes. He could still hear Murdoch calling Johnny’s name…the anguish of it all. The terror that his son was dead. He could only manage to breathe out, “Not entirely.”

“Perhaps it was a warning? Or a sign? I don’t know. But I do know, as John’s father, I don’t have the right to decide which path he should take. My own father fought with me. We barely spoke a word once I told him I was leaving Inverness.” That deep voice paused an instant. “And after all, Johnny would be still in this country, rather than taking a journey across the seas, as I did.”

William swallowed. He could hardly speak for the lump in his throat. “Murdoch, these are not the conditions under which I’d like to speak to Johnny about a possible position in the Secret Service.”

“Why not? When would be a better time?” And he turned on William, sounding almost angry.

The power of the man was undeniable. And William certainly wasn’t going to cross him.

“Very well, sir. If you’d like me to speak to Johnny, I will.”

Chapter Eighteen

Once Murdoch had gone back inside through the French doors, William left his glass on the small round table and walked out into the yard. Although, where he was going, he didn’t have a clue. He could have been walking around in circles in the dark, for all he knew.

It was only his training that made him look around. A light still burned in the bunkhouse. Someone was plucking away on a guitar. A voice started singing but he couldn’t quite hear the words. Whatever the song, it was slow and sad; a lament, if ever he’d heard one.

A sudden death, like Santiago’s, had a way of enveloping everyone in sorrow and regret. If only? Why didn’t I? Even William felt it and there was nothing he could have done.

The moon was bright. But that just made the shadows blacker still. At least the fine stones in the gravel glittered in the moonlight. But who was going to take comfort from that on a night like this?

Not him.

And especially not him when his mind was too full of the conversation he’d just had with Johnny’s father. It had been years since he’d been made to feel like a wet-behind-the-ears private, given his marching orders. He should have stood up to Murdoch Lancer. He tried to…

One of the hands must have come out of the barn because he suddenly emerged from the shadows. He was probably headed for the bunkhouse. No, he was lugging a plank.

William ignored him. He had enough to think about. “Be honest with yourself, William. You want to offer Johnny a contract.”

“I beg your pardon?”

There was only one person at Lancer who spoke with that soft, cultured intonation. And it was the very person he didn’t want to see after his conversation with Murdoch. If he’d known Scott was out here, he would have gone another way.

“Sorry. It’s just me. William. Talking to myself.”

It was a damned pity father and son couldn’t both be on the same track. It would make his life a whole lot easier.

Scott gave him a terse nod as he came closer. Well, he was caught now, so he continued to walk forward in the direction he’d been heading, which, of course, was taking him directly in front of Scott. He pointed to the plank.

“That’s a two man job, isn’t it?”

“I thought Johnny might be out here.”

Hmm, for some reason, that didn’t quite ring true. Nonetheless. “Will I do?”

Scott grunted something that could have been a yes, but he didn’t appear enthusiastic about the company as he strode towards the corral, barely waiting for William to grab hold of the other end. Even then, it was going to be difficult with only the two of them to keep the planks in position as he hammered the nail.

As they got to the fence, Scott stopped. “Drop it, here.”

William let go of his end, and the plank hit the ground, next to another plank that was already lying there.

Scott then picked up an off-cut. “Take this.” He took the off-cut and used it as Scott did at his end, positioning it vertically to rest the new plank on so that it wouldn’t slip as he hammered.

He didn’t know what to say to Scott. He didn’t know him well enough to offer anything other than the most basic of sympathetic words and that seemed inappropriate, not to mention, inauthentic.

So he stood there, in the moonlight, near him. And said nothing. Just held the board as needed and passed nails from the box. Of course, someone could have done this any time during the day but when the men came out, with the obvious intent to repair the two planks Santiago had crashed through, Scott had barked, “Leave it. Just leave it be.”

Burke and another man put the tool box down by the fence and walked away. That was hours ago. When it was light.

He held his end still, while Scott hammered the other end to the post. The noise echoed through the night each time he struck the nail, the wood vibrating in William’s hand.

“Did you tell Johnny about your idea?” Scott’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere.

“No-oo.” William was cautious. He had a feeling any answer he gave at this point, could be the wrong one.

“I’ve changed my mind.”

These Lancers were making his head spin. He’d be laughing if it wasn’t so damned serious. “Have you been speaking to Murdoch about this?”

“No. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything.”

“And what exactly is it I’m meant to be not saying. Could you be a little plainer?”

“It’s not difficult. I simply want you to—.”

“You want him to what, brother?”

“I want him to hold the post still. I could do with another pair of arms, here.” Scott was smooth. He didn’t miss a beat when Johnny appeared out of the shadows.

“Scott trying to make a rancher out of you?” Johnny added his hands to the plank to hold it still.

“It would be a hopeless task, I’m afraid. I’m more suited to the other work I do.”

Johnny kicked the bottom rung with the tip of his boot a few times, in a moody fashion. “Right now, I wouldn’t mind swapping ranch work for the type of stuff you do, William.”

William stole a quick glance at Scott but he just tossed the hammer back into the wooden work box. “I’m heading inside. William, I’ll see you at the burial I take it?”

“Of course.” But he was quite sure it wasn’t the burial Scott was seeking affirmation about.

“Good.” Scott, work box in hand, then walked off towards the barn.

It was all so damned uncomfortable. He could have been back in the war, spying for the Union, all over again.

Johnny watched Scott walk away, thumping the top of the upright post with his fist.

“What is it, Johnny? The burial tomorrow?”

“No, it ain’t that. I don’t know.” He thumped the post another few times. “Murdoch and Scott won’t hardly look at me. It’s like they think what happened is my fault.”

“Johnny, I don’t think they’re thinking that.”

“Boy, it sure feels that way.”

“I think they’re both upset about what happened.” Did he realise they both thought it was Johnny lying right here, with his head at that awful angle.

“Yeah. I guess.  I know it shook my old man, up. He takes that sort of thing real hard.”

“And Scott?”

“It’s been real hard on Scott, too. He’s always wanting to save everyone…make a difference.”

“In what way?”

“Well, you know…he’s got fresh eyes on everything, out here. When a man wears the same boots day in, day out, he kinda never sees the holes—until it rains. And even then, maybe he don’t mind too much. But Scott, he doesn’t just see the holes; before you can take a step, he’s making plans on how to mend’em.”

A whinny from the corral, over near the barn door, made him turn. Staring into the shadows, he could just make out the pinto, standing alone, in the dark.

Johnny turned around as well and watched it, folding his arms along the top rail of the fence.

“What will happen to it?”

Johnny dropped his chin to his hands. “I don’t know.”

He’d had the vague idea that visiting Johnny’s ranch was going to be a chance to get some rest. So far, all he’d done was add to the wear and tear on the floor rug next to his bed. It was a fine piece, featuring a roaring lion and three palm trees surrounded by a border. Mind you, the lion’s roar would be more like a cat’s meow with the many steps he’d trudged back and forth on it, for most of the night.

How was he meant to sit there at breakfast, with both Murdoch and Scott practically forcing him to persuade Johnny to leave Lancer? Before Santiago’s death, William would have said there was no chance Johnny would accept his terms but Murdoch and Scott were almost self-fulfilling the very thing he, William, was quite sure they didn’t want.

The water in the pitcher was hot. Just what he needed for his bleary eyes.  It must have been filled when he went to the outhouse. Once he’d shaved, he soaked the flannel, gave it a good hard twist, then held it to his face, breathing in the heat. “You’re a coward, William. You know that, don’t you.”

He tied his tie, then shrugged his jacket on. His shoulder only protested a small amount but even if it had been worse, he still would have chosen to honour Santiago, as the young man deserved.

In all probability, he wouldn’t have a chance to talk to Johnny until late afternoon, so the elder Lancers could hardly expect him to have an answer before then.

His bedroom was right at the end of the hallway so he was more than surprised to almost bump into Teresa as he opened the door.

“Oh. Excuse me, Teresa.” She had a towel over her arm and he would have moved on except she seemed to be regarding him with some purpose. “Is there anything I can do for you?” Was his shirt untucked? Did he have shaving soap in his ear?

She peered down the hallway, as if checking no-one else was listening. Should he be alarmed or amused? The latter perhaps.

“Um, Mr Holdsworth, do you mind if I have a word with you?”

Only, there was such gravity in her voice that he changed tack. “Is Eliza all right?” It was quite possible the situation with Santiago had brought her sorrows to the surface.

“It’s not about Eliza. It’s about this.”

In her hand, she held a sheaf of white papers. The very ones he’d stayed up half the night, agonising over, as he finished every detail.

“You’ve been going through my things, young lady.” Damn, that annoyed him.

Her eyes dropped but when he shoulders went back and her chin went up he had to give her credit for pluckiness.

“No. I was putting a fresh towel and water in your room earlier. The desk was right next to the washstand and my eyes fell on the papers. Anyone could have seen them if they walked into your room. Even Johnny.”

“This is a matter between Johnny and myself.” He tried to soften the edge to his words. After all, she had no idea what Murdoch and Scott had been saying to him.

“You’re trying to get Johnny to leave Lancer?”

“Teresa, it’s not like that.”

“How could you do that? He looks up to you. I thought you cared about him. About all of us?”

“I do, Teresa. I’ve come to care for the whole family.”

“If you truly cared for Johnny, you’ll never show him these papers.”

She pushed the papers back into his hands with all the anger her sixteen years could summon, and turned on her heels, leaving him standing by the huge window at the end of the hallway.

He turned around and stared outside, just as a pigeon landed on the window sill and turned a beady eye on him. “I suppose you want to stick your nose into this as well, do you, like everyone else at Lancer?”

He rolled up the papers and tucked them into his inner jacket pocket.

Wonderful. Now he was bang-smack in the middle of a family tug of war.

They didn’t bury Santiago at Lancer. After the Mass, he was buried outside Morro Coyo, with all the pomp and ceremony money could buy in a small town like that.

The hearse wasn’t a Boston rig, with long windows mounted between a shiny black frame and a man at the reins in suit and top hat.  This one had a roof (much faded) but no windows, and it had clearly seen better days—or perhaps too much use? However, it was pulled by four black horses from the ranch, and that added a touch of grandeur, as did Santiago’s walnut coffin with its polished brass handles and trim. Every Lancer hand attended, dressed in their best clothes. He assumed the others must be town folk or other ranchers? For a boy still in his teens, Santiago must have had an impact on many.

Teresa and Eliza followed behind in the buggy as the procession left town, but all the men folk rode in pairs. First Scott and Murdoch, then Johnny and him. As it turned out, neither Johnny nor Scott had been at the breakfast table so that aided his digestion. They’d been in the barn, attending to their horses and making the coats shine, just as Santiago would have done for them, had he been there.

Morro Coyo was a dusty town but the cemetery, with its white picket fence and green grass would have been a cheery oasis, if not for the occasion. And its purpose.

Murdoch, Johnny, Scott and Burke carried the coffin from the hearse, placing it on the canvas straps held by the hands, who then lowered it into the ground.

William stood back a ways, at the foot of the grave, letting those who knew the boy, have pride of place. Murdoch, flanked by Scott and Johnny, stood at the head, while the hands stood either side. Mingled between them were the people he took to be either locals from Morro Coyo or perhaps they worked at the ranch as well?

A pretty young girl, no more than fourteen or so, in a white lace mantilla, had tears running down her cheeks. Next to her was an elderly woman, with an embroidered black silk shawl covering her head, hands held prayerfully in front of her. The hands were gnarled and wrinkled but it was her face that caught his attention. Even with the many lines about her eyes and criss-crossing her cheeks, he was struck by her serenity. He’d come across ancients like her before, who spent more times on their knees before the Lord than they did sleeping. Even now her lips moved in a silent prayer. Although, it was Johnny she looked at, not the coffin.

The padre read the prayers, but William’s Latin had mostly been forgotten, so it was a relief when Murdoch came forward to speak. Hat in hand, his eyes took in everyone who’d gathered.

“We come here to farewell our friend, Santiago, and mourn his passing.” His deep, rich voice was a comfort, in itself. “I’m reminded of a line in one of my favourite books:

‘Like that star of the waning summer who, beyond all stars, rises bathed in the ocean stream, to glitter in brilliance.’

Santiago was that shining star; his eyes bright with his joy of life. He had no fear of the morrow and his heart was full of the promise the future would bring. The only thing not in his favour, was his youth.”

He paused, seeming to stare at the cross on the headstone opposite. Johnny shifted his feet. Scott stood perfectly still.

Murdoch went on. “Those of us who have managed to find a way past the recklessness of youth and onto maturity, sometimes make the mistake of trying to protect those who are younger. But we can’t. They have to make their own choices. Some of those will be wise choices. Others, perhaps not.

Santiago, I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to see you grow into the fine young man you were destined to become, but I think every person here agrees that we were blessed to have known you, if even for such a short time. Adios, Santiago.”

A murmur of ‘Adios’ swelled from the mourners gathered around, and then one by one, they moved away, until only Johnny and Scott were standing there.

As he watched, Scott slipped his hand into his jacket and took out a slim book. William had seen that book many times; he and thousands of others had learned their first words on those same pages. Scott leaned forward and gently tossed the book into the grave, before walking away.

Left by himself, Johnny reached down and picked up a handful of dirt. Only he didn’t throw it in. He stood there, eyes on some faraway place, jiggling the dirt and pebbles in his hand as if they were dice and he was about to make his throw.

“Johnny.” It was Murdoch calling, waving him over to speak to the padre. “Johnny, come here.”

It brought Johnny back from wherever he was. He held up his fist and let the dirt slowly trickle out, down into the grave, then he dropped his hat on his head, and walked away.

William was surprised to see the headstone, already made, and ready to be mounted once the grave had been filled in.

                                 Santiago of the Lancer Ranch.

                                         Died 1870, Age 16
                                         A Loyal Compadre
                                           Never Forgotten

Even as the Johnny walked away, the gravedigger was already filling in the hole while the another man was getting ready to mount the arched headstone with two wings along the top, framing a cross. He suspected Santiago would have approved.

Once the padre moved on, Johnny turned, waiting for William to catch up, as Scott and Murdoch escorted Teresa and Eliza back to the buggy.

“Is this send-off the tradition for all Lancer hands?”

“No. Well, at least I don’t think it is. Scott planned all this. He paid double to have the headstone worked on last night so that it would be ready today. He said Santiago always wanted to be someone in life—so I guess he was determined to make him someone in death. You know, give him all the trimmings.”

“Señor Lancer. Señor Johnny Lancer.” It was the old Mexican woman in the shawl and the young girl, who was no longer crying.

“Si, Señora.”

“Poor Santiago. So young.”

“You knew him?” Johnny sounded surprised.

“I want to tell you…he save up his money. He ask me to make clothes for him. He wanted to be just like you. He say to me, ‘Rosita, I going to be the best cowboy at Lancer. Just like Señor Johnny.”

Johnny winced, almost like he wanted to step away, then his head dropped.

Her voice faltered as she searched William’s face for some sort of assurance. He smiled at her. She clearly meant well.

“There is more, Señor.”

Johnny still hadn’t looked up so William nodded at her to keep going. He could only hope that was the right move.

“He say to me, ‘Señor Johnny, he used to be famoso pistolero, but he change. He now a rancher. Santiago used to work in saloon. Not good for Santiago. I now learn to read and learn to ride and learn to shoot so that I can protect the Patron.’” She dabbed at her eyes with her shawl. “He such a good boy. He only want good things. Like all boys, his heart, it bigger than here.” And she tapped the side of her head.

Johnny put his hand out. When the woman took his, he covered her hand with his left one. “Gracias, Rosita. Gracias.”

Once the burial had finished, everyone went across to the hotel dining room where Murdoch paid for drinks and meals all round. Then it was onto the saloon, which was a big step down from the hotel dining room with its wallpaper and matching furniture, where Johnny had declared, “Santiago would’ve been really happy with this. He always wanted to eat in the dining room.”

Eliza slipped her arm through Johnny’s as they were leaving the hotel. “I’m so sorry about your friend, Johnny.” She looked across to where the Lancer hands were going. “What are they doing now?”

Murdoch, walking behind with Teresa, said, “Well, they’re a little subdued in here but once they get over to the saloon, the hands will celebrate Santiago in true cowhand style.”

“Which is?”

Johnny started smiling. “Um…they’ll tell a lot of jokes not fit for a lady’s ear and then get drunk, most likely.”

Eliza took this in without a hint of surprise or distaste. “And I’m sure that’s exactly how it should be. Life needs to be celebrated.”

William was impressed. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to her privately since yesterday, but she seemed to be bearing up well and focusing on being a comfort to Teresa. Teresa, on the other hand, either totally ignored him or sent daggers with her eyes, when no-one was watching.

Murdoch stayed long enough at the saloon to enjoy a drink with the hands but then he escorted Teresa and Eliza back to the ranch.

He had to hand it to Scott and Johnny; despite how keenly they both felt about Santiago’s death, they were equally determined to celebrate his life for the sake of the hands. Johnny got the pianola going, then put his arm around the waist of one of the saloon girls and took her for a few twirls around the room.

“Come on, Burke. Your turn.” The big man jumped up and took over from Johnny just as Scott handed his brother a drink. In no time at all, the place was so loud you had to yell to be heard above the voices and songs.

They were still at it some hours later when Johnny walked outside. William gave him a few minutes then followed. He found Johnny leaning against one of the posts on the boardwalk.

“You ready to go home, William??

“I certainly am. Those cowhands of yours can drink an elephant under the table.”

He’d seen Johnny with a drink in his hand or by his side at the table plenty of times the last two hours but there was no indication he was drunk. Not even tipsy.

“Are we leaving?” Scott came out as well, just as sober as Johnny.

“You think we can trust’em not to tear the place apart in Santiago’s honour?”

“Well, if you’re not there to egg them on, little brother, I think we should be safe.”

Their horses were directly in front of the saloon. Johnny had started to untie the palomino’s reins when Scott grabbed his arm. “Johnny, I don’t want you to blame yourself just because Santiago wanted to emulate you.”

“Sure, Scott.” He tried to shake his arm free and continue mounting up but Scott wasn’t finished.

“Are you sure, though? Do you think Santiago would have modelled himself on Johnny Lancer if you were a man like Day Pardee?”

William took his reins and mounted the roan they’d given him to ride, in time to hear Johnny mutter, “Maybe not.”

“He might have admired your skill with a gun and even the reputation you had but I think it was your good qualities he admired.”

“It sure hurts, Scott.” He rubbed his chest, as if he had a real pain. “I just wish he hadn’t tried to break that pinto.”

“We all wish that, don’t we. Perhaps I should’ve spent more time with Santiago talking about the dangers of ranching instead of pushing him to learn to read?”

“He wouldn’t have listened, you know.”

Scott sighed. “I know.”

It was a quiet ride back to the ranch. He didn’t want to intrude on their grief so William kept quiet and just enjoyed the view as the sun sank down and turned the sky pink. He had enough to think about himself, in any case. In spite of what both Scott and Murdoch said, he doubted very much he’d receive a hero’s welcome if he convinced Johnny to take up a position with the Secret Service.

And what of Johnny’s feelings on the matter? Would guilt regarding Santiago’s death drive him away or make him reconsider his life here? No, William doubted that. Johnny wasn’t a quitter. But Johnny himself had made remarks here and there about his difficulties in fitting in. Was that why he wouldn’t look up when the old lady spoke about Santiago? Did Johnny feel as if he’d tricked the boy into believing he was something he wasn’t?

The ranch felt deserted when they got back, with all the hands still in town. The only one who came out to meet them was the pinto, putting his head over the corral fence as they rode in. William put his hand out as he rode past and the pinto nudged his nose against it. He could have been saying sorry for the sorrow he’d caused.

Scott was quicker at stabling his horse than Johnny. “Do you need a hand, Johnny. Either of you?” They both said, no. “Well, I’ll give you both time to talk, before you come in.” He looked directly at William as he spoke.

Johnny, fortunately, was in the process of leading his palomino into its stall or he might have wondered what in heaven’s name Scott was talking about.

William started to unsaddle the roan. Johnny seemed to be taking a while. Perhaps his ribs were pulling? In any case, William was in no hurry to face Teresa or Murdoch, so he dawdled as well.

Johnny grunted a few times but he seemed to manage okay. He came out of the stall with a bridle slung over his shoulder. “You hungry?”

“No.”

“I thought I might stay out here and clean some tack.”

“I’m happy to help.” More than happy, if it kept him out of the house.

Johnny stripped his jacket off, then disappeared into the tack room at the back of the barn, leaving William to wander up and down the stalls. Scott was clearly expecting him to speak to Johnny. Murdoch had looked at him several times in the day, as if questioning his progress.

“Here we go.” Johnny came back with two bottles of neatsfoot oil and some rags. “You’d better take your jacket off, unless you want it covered in dust and mess out here.”

It wasn’t easy to get his jacket off without wrenching his shoulder a little. He slipped his right arm out first, then Johnny realised his problem and came across to help—and wouldn’t you know, right at that moment, the contract fell out of his jacket pocket and Johnny reached out and caught it, just before it hit the floor.

“What’s this? You carry your work around with you?”

The government insignia was hard to miss when the papers slightly unrolled. Damn, so it came down to who was he more afraid of? Murdoch and Scott—or little Teresa, with that fiery toss of her head?

He slipped the papers back in his jacket and hung it on a hook. “In my line of work, it’s hard to get away from it.” Well, now was the time. “Ah, Johnny, you know how we were talking about the work I do for the government?”

Johnny had moved across to his saddle, wiping it down with a damp cloth. “Sure. How could I forget? It’s a whole lot more exciting than herding cows. You gonna talk or work?” He tossed a rag over.

“In many ways, yes. But to be honest, a lot of the time I spend sitting around, just watching and waiting for something to happen.”

Johnny grinned. “I’ve done quite a bit of porch-sitting myself. You can start on the bridle over there, if you like.” He nodded at some tack hanging on the wall.

William walked across and picked up a bridle. To be honest, he was feeling a little queasy right now. What if Johnny said yes? “A lot of my work, is actually quite boring.”

“Can’t be any more boring than digging a fencepost hole. Boy, do I hate doing that.”

William gave up. It was useless. He’d just have to come right out and say it. “Johnny, those papers I carried were the forms I use for—.”

“Johnny. Teresa wants to know if the two of you are coming in for supper?”

It was Murdoch. Bless him. Murdoch Lancer himself. An eleventh-hour reprieve never felt so good.

“Not me, Murdoch. William?”

“No. I…er…I couldn’t fit in a single bite.”

Murdoch was giving him that look again. He could see where Scott got it from.

“Murdoch, I almost forgot.” Johnny reached into his saddlebags, hanging on the partition. When he brought his hand out, he was holding a leather pouch.

William stepped back. He’d seen this pouch before.

“It’s just…you know.” Johnny was colouring up as he handed it over. “After Warburton an’all.” He must get a crick in his neck from having to look up into Murdoch’s face like that.

William started to wipe the bridle down. At least he was well trained in observing, without appearing to look.

“Johnny. The craftsmanship is beautiful.”

“Well, your other knife was kinda old. I thought the owner of a ranch like Lancer oughta have a decent knife.”

“Part-owner, you mean.”

That made Johnny smile. “I even got your name put on it.” He pointed and shrugged.

“And yours too, I see.”

William knew what it said. He’d seen it by the river. ‘To Murdoch, love from your prodigal son, Johnny.’

“Thought I oughtta do that, just in case you forget it’s from me, sometime, and give Scott the credit.”

Murdoch might be a fine commander on the field, but none of the Major Generals he’d served under could put as much feeling into a smile as this man could. “I won’t forget, Johnny.”

“Well…um…” Johnny half-turned and looked at the saddle he’d been working on.

“Johnny, if you should ever choose to leave here—you know—because you felt called to do something else with your life, I’d understand it. I’d support you.”

Johnny was silent for a moment. “You would?”

“Of course. After all, I left Scotland and came here. It shouldn’t be a surprise to me if either of my sons choose not to lock themselves away here at Lancer for their entire lives. Of course, I’d be hoping you came back again.”

Johnny was staring up into his father’s face. “Thanks, Murdoch.”

“For what?” But William heard the ache in his voice and what it had cost him to say all that.

“Just for explaining, I guess.”

Murdoch nodded, and for a moment William thought he was going to say more. He hoped he was. But instead, he finished nodding and then his nod took in William. “Don’t be out here too long in the cold. You’re both still recovering.” And he walked out of the barn.

Johnny stared after Murdoch, for the longest time…

And all that time, William stared at Johnny.

Well, his way through all this was now clear.

And he knew what he had to do.

Chapter Nineteen

William paced in his room. Dawn had been hours ago, well, at least, that’s what it felt like, and here he was, still waiting.

He’d shaved. With cold water. He suspected the word had gone out that hot water was only for ‘supporters of the cause’ and Teresa had determined that he wasn’t one of them.

Oh well. He’d been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment more times than he could count.

He’d heard Murdoch and Scott go downstairs some time ago. Old houses like this had very squeaky boards and hinges, invaluable for spies like himself. Teresa had been up and doing even before the two men.

“Come on, Johnny. Are you going to sleep all day?”

The lion and palm trees had taken a beating again last night but not for the same reason as the night before. He rubbed his hands together and pulled the lace curtain back to get a good look outside. Ranches were busy places. Early morning down there was much like the arrival of a packed train at a station, with cowhands stumbling from the bunkhouse and work teams saddling up. Even from up here, some of the hands appeared a little sluggish. How many sore heads would there be after yesterday’s send-off for Santiago?

More pacing. And that was getting him nowhere.

He wandered across to the bed and sat on the edge, rubbing a smudge of dust from the small horse figurine on the bedside table. He’d gone over what he was going to say a thousand times; he had an answer in his head for every possible response from Johnny. So why the hell was he feeling so edgy about all of this?

In the end, he got up and peered into the hallway. Johnny’s boots, cleaned and ready for the day, were still in the hallway, placed neatly outside his door, so he definitely hadn’t missed him.

He went across to the desk and was rearranging the papers for the tenth time when he heard the squeak of a hinge. He raced to his door, then into the hallway, just in time to see Johnny about to pick up his boots.

“Johnny, do you mind coming in here?” He had to settle his racing heart; make his words sound casual. “I wanted to speak to you before you went downstairs.”

“Sure.” Johnny might have been surprised, but he didn’t show it. He just picked up his boots then walked along the hall runner in his white socks, to where William was waiting. His shirt was open but his hair looked brushed—in a manner of speaking. Johnny never seemed too fussy about his appearance.

William closed the door as Johnny came in and that finally raised some response. Johnny eyed the closed door. “You ain’t intending to wallop me, are you, just because I made you clean that bridle again, last night.”

“I’d only missed a small amount of mud.”

“My old man’ll tell you that a job half done, ain’t a job done at all.” He tossed the boots on the floor then started doing up his shirt as he took in the room. “So that’s where it ended up.” He was pointing at the floor rug. “It used to be in my room but I told Teresa I was scared to death the lion was gonna jump up and claw me to death in the night.”

He laughed. “I bet you didn’t say that.”

“Well, no. But I told her I hated the darn thing, and the next night it was gone.”

“It’s a very expensive rug, Johnny. All the rage in New York and Boston.”

“That’s funny, because Scott didn’t want it either.” He walked across to the window and peered outside as he started to do up the toggles on that embroidered shirt he wore. “Ooh, there’s gonna be some sore heads down there this morning.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

Johnny turned and grinned. “That why we make such a great team.”

“And that’s the reason I asked you in here.”

Johnny came away from the window, his eyes going to the sheaf of papers William picked up from his desk. “You got a wanted poster with my name on it or something?” But there was the hint of a serious note in his voice, that hadn’t been there before.

William opened them fully, so that Johnny could see the insignia. “I always carry these with me, just in case I come across someone with the skills required for my line of work.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What kinda skills are we talking about?”

“This work requires someone who is calm under pressure, good at solving problems and analysing evidence. Fearless. And being handy with a gun certainly helps.”

Johnny had become very still.

“You’d make an excellent agent, Johnny. One of the best. My position is high up in the division. I have the power and honour of recruiting new agents, where I see fit.”

He held up the papers.

“And what’s that?”

“This, is your contract. Filled out. In duplicate. In readiness for you to sign.”

Johnny stared at it. He was still staring when William put his fingers on the top of the pages, then ripped them completely down the middle. And for added measure, he ripped them sideways as well.

Johnny rubbed his nose. Then he sniffed. Then he looked at William again. “So, you’re telling me that’s my contract to join the Secret Service.”

“That’s right.”

“And you just tore it up.”

“Correct again.” Johnny wasn’t giving anything away. “Would you have signed it?”

“We-ell, I’ll tell you; if you’d offered me the job while I was digging fencepost holes, you mighta had me.” He started grinning—and William joined him.

“Damn, you told me more than once you hated digging those holes. I should’ve thought of that.”

Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, well.”

“So you were never interested enough in my work to consider leaving here?”

“William, I didn’t need to think twice about saying no. I made the mistake once of walking away. I almost did it, twice. I’m not gonna do it again.”

He eyed Johnny with regret. “I understand. From my point of view, I don’t like it, but I do understand. Pass me the matches, will you?”

Johnny got up. “They’re next to the lamp. Here you go.”

“Strike one, please.”

Johnny looked puzzled, but he lit the match and held it up, then William put the edge of the paper on the flame. It slowly took hold and then flared up. Almost too quickly. William threw it into the bowl next to the pitcher. “Oops, almost singed my finger.”

“Wasn’t ripping it to shreds, enough?”

“I have a feeling Teresa will be happier if she knows I’ve totally destroyed any chance of you becoming a secret agent.”

This was clearly news to Johnny. “Boy, does everyone know you were gonna offer me a job?”

“If ‘by everyone’ you mean Teresa and your father and brother…”

Enlightenment dawned in his eyes. “So that’s what Murdoch was on about last night?”

It was hard to tell if Johnny was annoyed by this news. Perhaps he shouldn’t have said anything? Then again, perhaps he just needed to explain all that had been happening?

“I don’t know if you understand how much of a shock it was for your father and brother to see Santiago on the ground like that.” He put as much weight into his words as he could. It worked. Some sort of understanding was already coming over Johnny’s face.  “Johnny, they both thought it was you lying in the dirt, having come off the pinto. Not Santiago.”

“Dios.” Johnny slumped down on edge of the bed. “No wonder they were shook up. I didn’t know they hadn’t seen Santiago’s new clothes.” He winced. “He was real proud of ‘em, too. Pranced around like he was a talk-of-the-town dandy.”

“Then, when we were helping Scott with the fence, you said you wouldn’t mind doing my work…”

Johnny grabbed the horse figurine. “They were just words, William. It didn’t mean anything.”

“Words always mean something, to someone.”

“For a while I felt like maybe if Santiago hadn’t taken such a shine to me, he wouldn’t have jumped on that pinto, but you heard what Murdoch said at the burial, about kids making choices. Nope, no good can come of beating myself up over Santiago’s death. It doesn’t help anyone and it sure won’t bring him back.”

And this attitude was yet another reason why Johnny would have been a good agent.

They both fell silent. He couldn’t see Johnny’s face with him staring at the china horse in his hands like that, but no doubt the misery of Santiago’s death was going to crop up in everyone’s hearts for some time to come…even amongst these stoic westerners.

William walked across to the window. Waiting. Giving him time.

Giving himself time.

Dammit. Why didn’t he have Johnny’s…grit? That ability to accept a wrong and just get up and move on? All these years…living with the pain of a stupid decision…all the while, avoiding what he’d done?

He ran his fingers along the tiny, green, embroidered flowers on the brocade curtain. Alice loved flowers. They’d put a fresh vase in her room every morning…

He heard a muffled sigh from the bed. When he turned around, the horse was back in place and Johnny had picked up his closest boot. “Let’s not get all maudlin, huh. I’ve just gotta learn from it and move on, I guess, don’t I.” He shoved his foot in. “And one day, if I ever make it up there, I’ll grab Santiago by the scruff of the neck and yell at him for causing us so much trouble.”

“I wish I could learn.”

“What?”

He swung around fully, forcing a smile on his face. “Sorry, I meant to say, I wish I could be there, you know, to see you say that to Santiago.”

Johnny’s eyes twinkled. “I guess if all things are equal, you’ll be up there before me, old man.” But then he looked closely as William. “You okay? You’re looking kinda…down in the mouth. You sore at me for not wanting to…?”

“No, Johnny. Not for a minute.” Although that sounded a little squeaky. He brought his voice down to something closer to his usual tone. “You probably caught me wondering what I was going to say when I put in my report. I’ll have to confess to my superiors I just let the best new agent we could ever employ, slip through my fingers.”

Johnny grabbed the other boot and pulled it on.  “Ooh, I’ve got three words for them but it ain’t the type of thing you’d say in polite company, so you’d better be the judge whether you use’em or not.”

Teresa was just placing a plate of freshly cooked bacon on the table when they got to the kitchen. After the stress of wondering how his conversation with Johnny was going to go, it was a welcome surprise to realise he was actually hungry. And there was nowhere more comfortable, than eating in the kitchen. Especially this Lancer kitchen with the enormous, long table in front of the fire and the huge Spanish oven. He could imagine generations of Mexican kids running through this very room and snatching tortillas from the pan.

“Good morning, Johnny.” Teresa gave Johnny a sunny smile. “Mr Holdsworth.” He barely received a nod.

Uh oh. Then again, perhaps he was imagining things? “Good morning, Teresa.” He said it quite loudly as he followed Johnny’s lead and sat down, but she turned her back and headed across to the dresser, only to return with one clean plate—for Johnny.

Hmmm…

“That bruise on your face is looking better this morning, Johnny.” She picked up the pot and poured coffee into the mug by his hand.

He shrugged. “I guess. Mmmm, this all smells real good, T’resa.” He started piling his plate high with bacon and eggs and biscuits.

William picked up a napkin and placed it on his lap. Sometimes, if you believed by faith that something good was going to happen…?

“Here’s your breakfast, Mr Holdsworth.”

Ah hah. There you go. He’d completely misjudged her.

And just as his mouth began to water, she plonked a plate down in front of him containing two cold, greasy eggs and a strip of bacon.

“I had this ready for you earlier. Much earlier.” She said that last part with almost a fiendish pleasure.

He looked at the plate. Then looked at her. She had her hands on her hips and by golly, for a young slip of a thing, she was very good at raising one eyebrow in a haughty, challenging way.

Johnny had been about to stick a fork into his freshly made eggs, when the clatter of the plate hitting the table must have made him look sideways to see what was happening. Johnny looked at the greasy eggs and single strip of bacon plate, rubbed his ear, then he studied William’s face.

At times like this, it was prudent to be tactful. “Teresa prepared this for me. Earlier. Much earlier.” He did his best, but even he found it hard to look at the meal in front of him with any enthusiasm.

Without a word, Johnny slid his plate across to William then transferred the cold plate to himself. “T’resa.” She came across and stood by his chair. “You can perk up now, and stop being such a lunk-head.”

“Well, Johnny Lancer, if—.”

 “I’m not going anywhere. I ain’t leaving.”

“…you think.” Her mouth closed. Her eyes went wide. “You mean you didn’t accept his horrible offer?”

“Noo, I didn’t accept his offer, because William didn’t offer it to me.” He didn’t quite roll his eyes but Johnny clearly had no idea how upset she’d been at the thought of him leaving.

Teresa was just about dancing, though. “You didn’t?” She was looking at him as if she couldn’t believe a word Johnny said.

“I didn’t.”

“Why, this is wonderful news. In fact, it’s the best news I’ve had since…since I don’t know when.” This time the sun came out. “Thank you, Mr Holdsworth.”

He did his best to look penitent. “Can I go back to being plain ‘William’ again?”

“I’m sorry. Of course you can.”

Johnny picked up the cold plate and gave it to her. “And can William have some real food this time and not what you were saving for the barnyard dog.”

At least she had the grace to blush before turning around and getting him another plate.

“Would you like eggs? Bacon? How many biscuits? And coffee?” And before he could stop her, she was piling his plate high with far more food than he could possibly eat. It looked like that dog in the barn was going to have a feast, later.

“Teresa, that’s just fine. Thank you.”

As she poured William’s coffee, Johnny looked around. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, outside I suppose. Eliza’s already been down and had breakfast.”

That news was a surprise. Perhaps she was starting to come to terms with everything that had happened? He hoped so.

And now that he was back in Teresa’s good books, he had every intention of enjoying his meal—even with her interrupting three times to ask if everything was okay.

In the end, Johnny turned to her. “Aren’t you gonna go see what Eliza’s doing or something?”

William almost laughed into his coffee. They might not be related by blood but they certainly talked like siblings.

This time it was Johnny who earned her ire. “And to think I was happy you decided not to leave.”

And before Johnny could say a thing, she’d taken herself off in a huff.

“T’resa.” He tried to call after her but she’d gone. “Boy. Sisters,” he muttered, before attacking his plate again.

“She was very upset at the idea of you leaving.”

He winced. “Okay, I’d better talk to her later. Make things right with her. She’s a good kid.” He swallowed some more coffee. “Besides, I don’t want to get dog food for supper.”

But even William had to admit it was peaceful with her gone. Johnny and he were now able to enjoy a quiet, leisurely breakfast while Maria and another lady worked away the other side of the vast kitchen, cutting up a pile of vegetables and adding them to a pot.

Peace. Something he hadn’t felt in quite a while.

If he could only hold onto it.

But there was still one more item to tick off his list this morning.

Johnny was having no problem wolfing down his plate of eggs and bacon and three of Teresa’s biscuits.

William pointed to his now, empty, plate. “I see you’ve got your appetite back.”

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good this morning.” He twisted this way and that, in his chair. “Ribs are still sore but a whole lot better than they were. What about you?”

“My shoulder feels fine. Much improved, thanks.”

“What do you want to do, today? I’m still on light duties so I’ve got time to show you around some more?”

 “I’d like that later, but what I really need to do, is speak to your father.”

He suspected Johnny was intrigued by this request but he didn’t say anything as he stood up. “He’s probably outside. You want us to go find him?”

William hesitated. He didn’t want to speak to Murdoch in front of Johnny but he did feel a need to clear the air with Murdoch, as soon as possible.

“Come on,” Johnny was saying, as he snagged the last biscuit.

Well, the decision was already taken out of his hands. Johnny was expecting him to follow as he walked out of the kitchen, so follow he did. They exited via the side door, past the courtyard with its seat under the tree, and then further on, towards the outbuildings.

“We’ll check around the barn, first.” As they got closer, Johnny added, “Murdoch might be doing some smithing or…”

William looked at him as his voice trailed off. “What is it?”

“Well, hot dang. What d’you know.”

He followed Johnny’s gaze, at first not quite sure of what he was looking at. Then he realised it was Scott in the corral, with the pinto and his own horse, both bridled but unsaddled. Scott held both reins and was leading them around the edge of the corral. The pinto pawed the ground once or twice, but mostly followed the lead of the roan.

Murdoch was by the corral fence when they walked up to him. He nodded at both men, before saying, “Scott remembered a sergeant in the cavalry who had his own unique way of working with a difficult horse. He thought he’d like to give it a try, with the pinto.”

Johnny whistled under his breath. “Is that all right with you, Murdoch? Some of the hands can be mighty superstitious once a horse has killed a rider.”

“That’s not a mean horse, Johnny. It’s just a horse that hasn’t learned not to be afraid of what he doesn’t know.”

“So, you and Scott are gonna give him a second chance, huh, Murdoch.” There was such a warm affection in his words and in his glance, that it should be no surprise to anyone that Lancer was home for Johnny.

“Everyone deserves a second chance, don’t they, Johnny. Besides, he thinks the horse is worth it. Scott doesn’t think one mistake should cost the horse hislife.”

“I’m sure not gonna argue with him there.”

Scott noticed them standing there as his circle took him around to their part of the fence. “Morning brother. Good to see you could finally drag yourself from your bed.”

“Thought I should make the most of it before I get shanghaied and put to work again.”

“William.” Scott’s expression wasn’t quite as welcoming as the smile he gave Johnny. That was to be expected when Scott was clearly wondering what the outcome of his talk with Johnny had been. Scott Lancer could be a little on the high-handed side. It wouldn’t hurt him to wait a while to receive his answer.

“So, Johnny, are you going to stand around all morning, or do you want to grab a carrot and come and help me?”

“You sure he won’t chomp my fingers?”

“No.”

“Oh, boy.” Johnny turned to William. “It looks I might be adding some other skills to that list you were talking about me having. Hopefully one of’em is how to avoid getting bit.”

Johnny was already climbing over the fence and walking slowly towards the pinto so he didn’t see Murdoch stiffen at his words.

Scott bowed. “Let me introduce you to, Sir Galahad.”

“Sir Galahad, huh? I’ve got a feeling I’ve heard that name before.”

“He was a noble knight. Pure of heart and exceptionally courageous.” Scott ran his hand down his roan’s neck, then, with a little more caution, he did the same to Sir Galahad.

Johnny took a carrot out of the bag leaning against the fence. “Well, that sounds a whole lot better than loco killer.”

“He’s not a killer, Johnny.”

“I know. It’s like Murdoch says; he was just acting out all his fears. That can make the smartest man do a whole lot of plumb-fool things.”

“Get that carrot ready. We’re going to start Sir Galahad off on his new road by showing him some kindness and letting him see that my horse isn’t afraid.”

Johnny was clearly going to be involved with the pinto for a while, and that suited William. “Sir, would I be able to speak to you, in private?”

Not so much as a muscle twitched on Murdoch’s face as he started scanning the yard. “Come over here. I think that might offer us some privacy. And it will give me a chance to show you our latest acquisition.”

William followed him along the fence line to a smaller corral, holding a huge, black bull that lifted his head as they approached. “That’s a very impressive animal, sir.” He was beautifully proportioned. Not that William knew anything about bulls—except running from one when he’d almost walked into it one dark night, during the war.

“He is, isn’t he. Black Angus. A Scottish breed, so I admit to being partial. See that wide, flat back; that’s a good indicator he’s strong. The other thing I look at is the eyes. They need to be alert. And of course, his anatomy for breeding. What was it you wanted to say to me?”

Murdoch was good. One moment they were talking about a bull’s private parts and the next moment he dropped into the conversation the question he’d wanted to ask all along. Nothing rushed. Almost leisurely.

All the same, William heard a steely resolve in that deep baritone.

William squared his shoulders, as he would have done in front of any general.  “Sir, I have to report, that I did not honour your wishes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I did not offer the contract, to Johnny.”

Murdoch seemed to be processing this information. He pushed his bottom lip out and nodded, before bringing his gaze slowly around to William. “You didn’t?”

William took a deep breath. “I did tell him about it, though.”

“And what did Johnny say when you told him about it?”

“To be completely honest with you, after I told him what an excellent agent he’d make, I tore the contract in two. No, I actually tore it into four pieces.”

“Four pieces?”

“I didn’t feel that two were enough, sir.”

“I see.”

“But I did show him the contract and asked him what he thought of it.”

“And his words?”

“Um…he told me to tell my superiors, ‘Go to hell,’ sir.” Then he quickly added, “Not that I’m telling you to go to hell. Sir.”

Good God, the man made him tongue-tied but he was almost sure Murdoch’s mouth twitched. Was he suppressing a smile? He damn-well hoped so. This wasn’t a man he wanted to cross.

Murdoch leaned on the rail, those huge hands of his clasped together, not like Rosita’s at the graveside but William had a feeling Murdoch was thanking someone for an answered prayer.

“Sir, I think you’ll find Johnny never had any intention of leaving here, no matter how interested he was in my work.”

Murdoch nodded and for the first time he saw the façade slip and a weariness in the man. “William, I don’t mind telling you, you’ve given me a few sleepless nights since your arrival.”

“I’m sorry, I–.”

Murdoch held up his hand. “No. Hear me out. Johnny came here to Lancer, only five, almost six, months ago. He was an angry young man. With good reason. Reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time.”

“He told me you’d spent years searching for him.”

“Almost lost my ranch doing it. Those first weeks were difficult for Johnny. For all of us. I wasn’t sure if Johnny would be able to change and knuckle down to all the responsibilities ranching entails.”

William looked across to the boys. At a guess, Scott seemed to be explaining his method to Johnny.

“But I am sorry, Murdoch. If I’d know how things were, I would never have entertained the idea of having Johnny as a partner.”

“William, your presence here has been another nail in the coffin of that old life of his. I saw the look in his eyes when you spoke. He was interested, all right. But the fact that he would have turned you down, if you’d gone ahead and done what I asked,” he added a stern look, “means he’s finally found his home. It’s been a long road back to Lancer.”

 He was silent for a time, watching his boys and the pinto. Johnny was coaxing the pinto—Sir Galahad—to take the carrot. The horse snorted and shook his head, as if he didn’t want to be bribed, but eventually, he took the carrot from Johnny.

Perhaps that would have saved himself all those years ago. He just needed someone to come along with a carrot.

“And what about you, William? Where are you headed?”

It was a simple question. Ordinarily, easy to answer.

And he was about to answer, when he realised Murdoch hadn’t said, ‘where are you heading to?’ He said, ‘where are you headed?’

And that was when it struck him. And he must have sounded like an idiot, but the words blurted out of his mouth.

“I don’t know. I have no idea, sir.” And then he thought some more. “I actually have no idea, at all.”

Chapter Twenty

Where was he headed?

Murdoch’s words echoed around in his head like some ricocheting bullet that never found its mark.

He stood there, vaguely listening as a young ranch hand came up to Murdoch and asked whether he wanted the huge bull turned out with the other bulls. No doubt Murdoch faced a hundred questions every day and yet, here he stood, answering in a thoughtful manner. Respectful even. You could do much worse, than working for a man like him.

After a few moments, William excused himself and moved away. He’d performed his duty to Murdoch. Told him what he needed to know. And now the ropes that were binding him to Lancer were beginning to loosen. And he should be relieved. He was relieved, wasn’t he?

He looked around, feeling kind of aimless. It was never comfortable being the only one with no task to perform, when everyone else was busy.

He wandered back to the corral and leaned on the fence, watching Johnny and Scott for a while.

‘Leading by example’ seemed to be Scott’s theory with the pinto. At first they gave each horse some carrot from their hand, but then they’d stand further back. The roan needed no encouragement to come forward and take the carrot but it took some patience to wait for Sir Galahad to come forward, of his own volition, and sniff out the treat.

Johnny slapped Scott on the back after their first victory. “Well done, brother.”

Watching the two brothers interact, you’d never know they’d only known each other a matter of months, rather than years. After some time, he wandered away from the corral, feeling vaguely…well, he wasn’t sure what he felt. Vague. He’d leave it at that.

He took his time, ambling around the ranch buildings, coming across two Mexican women lugging baskets of wet washing, on their way to hang them to dry on the line. They giggled into their hands when he offered to help, and continued on their way. Their bright skirts and head scarfs made him think of wild flowers that spring up in dry soil, after a good, soaking rain. Most of the cowhands seemed to have ridden out, leaving mainly the Mexican house staff around the hacienda. Two small children with a thatch of dark hair came darting out of the laundry room and he did a quick side-step to avoid them. “Whoa. Careful lads.”

An older man with a bent back, was tending a fenced vegetable garden. He waved to William as he went by, giving him a toothless grin before shooing some chickens away who’d managed to sneak in.

He saw where the smithing was done and then nearly got chased by the scraggly barnyard dog. He shook a finger at it. “You ought to be thanking me you got fed this morning, instead of standing there, growling at me.”

After an hour of nothing in particular and musings that got him nowhere, he went back to the corral. The boys were standing at the far end of the corral now and both horses were trotting up to them for their carrot. In fact, the pinto, was trying to take carrot from both brothers, now that he realised this was where the reward was. He was truly a beautiful animal, with a high step and a regal arch to his neck.

Johnny held up his hand for William to see. “Look. Five fingers.”

“Well done.” William hung on the fence and yawned. The sun was making him drowsy, not helped by how little sleep he’d had for days. At least it looked like the boys were finishing up with the pinto. A hand came out of the barn and led Scott’s horse away. Johnny seemed to be saying something to Scott, then Scott threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulder and ruffled his hair, just as the triangle rang for lunch.

“Boys,” Murdoch called from the over near the house. “Lunch is ready.”

“Come on in, William.” Johnny was already heading out the corral gate but William slowed, letting Scott, who’d jumped the fence, catch up to him.

Scott nodded as he was almost equal with William. He looked hot and dusty—but happy. “Johnny just told me the news.”

“Are you surprised?”

Scott looked towards the house where Murdoch was speaking to Johnny. Murdoch seemed to be laughing at something Johnny said, then the two of them walked into the house, with Murdoch’s arm about Johnny’s shoulder. “I think my brother needs a father.”

“Add in another brother and, voila, you have a family.”

Scott smiled that serious smile of his. “That too. Anyway, thanks for—.”

“You don’t need to thank me. Even if I’d offered the contract, Johnny had no intention of leaving here.”

“Well, in any case, I’m grateful. I think Murdoch would be lost without him.”

And so would Scott. But he wasn’t going to say it out loud. For one, he didn’t know Scott well enough to speak into his life and two, who was he to talk about family when his own experiences in that regard had been so dismal?

Lunch was a hurried affair, as Murdoch and Scott had to ride out to check on the work crews. Eliza and Teresa were rushing to finish theirs; a ranch hand had just brought the latest Godey’s Lady’s Book back from town and they couldn’t wait to pore over it, so they told him.

Johnny and he were both sleepy, although William tried harder to make conversation as they all shared a simple fare of bread, straight from the oven and big chunks of ham and cheese, followed by coffee. Eliza and Teresa were thick as thieves, apparently having already peeped into their awaited treasure. He caught Eliza’s eye just the once when he asked her to pass the sugar, but other than that, she showed no interest in talking to him.

Well, that was how it should be, he mused later, as he and Johnny dozed in the chairs, by the fireplace. If only he could convince her not to marry this man of her father’s choosing and instead, go on to St Louis. It wouldn’t help him any, as he had to return to San Francisco, but it was surely the right path for Eliza…

He woke to Johnny slapping him on the chest. “You gonna sleep all day?”

He managed to find a grin in the fog. “Would you mind if I did?”

“Nope. But you might get swept up by Pablo when he comes in to light the fire and sweep the hearth.”

“In that case…where are we going?”

“I’m gonna check on the pinto. What about a ride?” But even as he said that, he put a hand to his ribs and rubbed them a little. He’d ridden yesterday, when he was clearly still sore.

“Let’s just head out there and see how we feel. My shoulder’s still not quite right.” A small lie wouldn’t hurt.

“You know, I should be thinking about leaving,” he mentioned to Johnny, some time later as they walked into the barn. That thick smell of hay and horse got up his nose and he sneezed. Then sneezed again.

“No hurry our end,” Johnny was saying, only to stop and look towards the door. “This barn just got a whole lot prettier, all of a sudden.”

Eliza smiled at Johnny. Then him. “Here you both are. I thought I’d been abandoned.”

William moved a pitchfork out of her way. “I thought you girls were busy with Godey’s magazine?”

“We were but then Teresa had some chores to do. I told her I’d come out here and see what you boys were up to and talk to the horses.”

Johnny’s palomino stuck his head over the stall gate as she walked up to it. “My, you’re a beautiful boy. I love your horse, Johnny.”

“Don’t say that too loud. The other horses get mighty jealous.”

“Oh, but they’re all beautiful.” She ran a hand along the neck of Johnny’s horse and the palomino leaned towards her, clearly enjoying the attention.

“Why don’t you borrow some duds from T’resa and go for a ride?”

“I’ve only ever ridden side-saddle. Daddy doesn’t let me ride any other way.”

Johnny hung up one of the bridles he was sorting. “Boy, it seems like every time I meet a city gal, I have to tell her that riding side-saddle is a good way to break your neck.”

“Oh?” Eliza arched her eyebrows. “Do you meet many city girls, Johnny?”

“Nope.”

William had to hide his smile. Her coquettish routine was lost on Johnny, for all his ability to see right through a man. “Eliza, Johnny’s right. Let me teach you how to ride, with what Johnny would call, a proper saddle.”

Johnny looked up from his basket of bridles. “Nope. I’d just call it a saddle.”

Eliza’s eyes were starting to light up. “Really? You think I could? I’ve always wanted to ride like a man.”

“It’s the only way Teresa rides. Or any of the girls out here, for that matter.” He pushed the basket aside. “T’resa!” He called out as if he thought she was just outside the barn. “Teresa.” When she didn’t appear, he took Eliza’s hand. “Come on. We’ll go look for her.”

Only, she pulled back. “Johnny, would you mind finding her for me?” She lifted her skirt. “I don’t have my walking shoes on.”

“Oh. Sure.” He grinned at them both. “Don’t go away.”

And that left him and Eliza in the barn.

Alone in the silence.

Except for the snores of the barn dog from over in one of the empty stalls. And the noise of shuffling hooves and swishing tails from the horses that were currently stabled. But it was mostly silent. He knew that for a fact because he could hear his heart beating.

She gave him a little awkward smile, then turned back to the palomino. “This is exactly the sort of horse I could imagine Johnny riding. Don’t you think?”

“I can’t say I put much thought into it. But if you say so.”

“Well, of course it is. It’s eye-catching, like that red shirt he wears and—and—.”

“You don’t need to spare my feelings. Young Johnny is quite the hero, isn’t he.”

She pursed her lips. “That’s not what I was going to say.”

She wandered around the barn, running her hand over the saddles, dipping her hand into a barrel of oats…but every so often, she’d sigh.

The decision to marry this Chester fellow didn’t appear to be making her happy. And it shouldn’t. He ached to think of her ruining her life and running from a bad decision, as he had.

Nothing good ever came of guilt, in his book.

“So, you’re still set on going back to San Francisco?”

She shrugged. “Johnny tried to talk me out of it.”

“Eliza, I wish you’d reconsider.” He put as much weight into his words as he possibly could.

“When I wake up here, I sometimes wonder was it all a bad dream? Then, seeing that poor boy buried yesterday brought it all back again. It really happened. Three people dead. They didn’t even have a decent burial.”

“I know it seems harsh but that’s what happens out here, when an undertaker might be days away.”

“And both Mr Smith and Mr Branson died trying to protect me.”

“Eliza, emptying a few bottles of whiskey shouldn’t be enough to ruin your life. And it will. A loveless marriage is no marriage at all. A shrivelled heart doesn’t beat.”

“Oh, William, that sounds so awful.”

“Awful but true. Marriage isn’t a game, Eliza. Nor should it be a civil contract arranged by your father to suit himself. It’s your life. Not his.”

Her mouth opened as if she were about to take umbrage with him but then, instead, she covered her mouth with her hand, and turned away. Perhaps he was being too brutal—but dammit, he needed to get through to her. He walked up behind her. “Eliza. I’m trying to help you.”

“I don’t know what to do.” She whispered the words, with very little hope in her voice. “I feel so awful about everything. I try to pretend everything is all right but…but what happened makes me feel dead inside.”

“If your father had been a kind man, who rewarded dedication and loyalty, he would never have fired Mortimer Smith…or Minchin or whatever his name was.”

“But what about Mirella and the baby she lost?”

“I had a friend who joined the war with me. The only son of a pastor and his wife. Marcus didn’t make it. When I visited the family in ‘65, his mother was just a shell. They told me she sat in a chair, day after day, staring at the wall.”

“That’s so sad.” Her voice quavered, her head dropped.

He put his hands either side of her arms, near the shoulder. “Sometimes grief does that to people. It changes them. I think it changed Mirella Minchin. The woman we saw in those last few minutes, wasn’t the same one who planned her revenge on your father. I don’t believe Mortimer was ever in agreement with her. He was just trying to placate his wife. Perhaps he knew she was unwell?”

She leaned back, into him. “I’ve tried and tried and tried to work this out. It all makes my head hurt.”

“Eliza…”

“It’s all good.” Johnny breezed in, slapping his hands.  Teresa said—.”

That was as far as he got before Eliza spun around and ran to him. “Johnny. Tell me what to do. I just don’t know which way to turn.”  And Johnny did what any man would do—he wrapped his arms about her, then let Eliza sob on his shoulder.

He looked over her head, to William, before running his hand down the back of her head. “I know this has been hard on you but I think you’ve got to give yourself time to think. This Aunt Mabel of yours, sounds like a real fine lady. I think you outta go to Saint Louis, like you planned, and talk to her.”

“You do?” Her words were muffled, still buried in his shoulder.

“Sure I do.”

William held his breath.

“Aunt Mabel would know how to speak to Daddy.”

“Besides, I can’t see you married to this Chester Albright feller.”

She giggled into his shoulder. “His name is Albright Chester.”

“You see. You’d always be calling him by the wrong name.”

She was silent for a few moments. Johnny raised his brows at William, clearly hopeful, as William was.

Finally, she lifted her head. “I don’t think I could bear to take the stage again.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll take the both of you to Cross Creek. You can take the train to Saint Louis from there.”

The change in her face was like night and day as she gripped a handful of his shirt and looked him full in the face. “Johnny, you’re wonderful. I don’t know how I could ever thank you enough for all you’ve done.” And then, realising how she’d scrunched his shirt, she smoothed it down, patting the material back into place. “And you too, William.”

Well, while he wasn’t exactly basking in the same glow of Johnny’s sun, at least he got to take some credit for standing in his shadow.

Johnny took hold of her hands. “When do you want to leave?”

“I’m having such a good time here with Teresa but I know I can’t hide away here forever. When will the next train be?”

“I’ll check with Murdoch but I’m pretty sure they go Wednesdays and Saturdays.”

“But tomorrow is Wednesday.” Some of that sunshine dimmed for a moment.

“No need to hurry. Wait until Saturday.”

But she was already shaking her head and putting her shoulders back. “No. Would it be okay if I left tomorrow? And could I come back and visit some time?”

“Sure you can. We’d all love to have you back any old time. Even grouchy old William’s allowed to come back.”

“I’m not grouchy.”

“Sure you are. Ever since…”

Something told him he wasn’t going to like what Johnny was about to say. Eliza wasn’t looking his way so he gave Johnny the most ferocious frown he could. “Johnny.”

There was a mischievous light in Johnny’s eye. “Ever since I made him clean that bridle again.”

“Eliza? Are you in the barn?”

“Oh, good, that’s Teresa calling. Will you excuse me? I want to give her the news. And…and thank you Johnny.” She kissed him on the cheek then ran out.

William blinked. He almost couldn’t believe it. Eliza had finally agreed to go to St Louis. Through the barn door, he watched the two girls walk off towards the house, arms linked and heads bobbing together.

“You’ve got the golden touch, Johnny.”

“Nah. I think you softened her up first.” Johnny disappeared into the tack room then came back out with a handful of peanuts. “Want some?”

“No thanks.”

Johnny tossed a couple into his mouth. “That Eliza. She sure is pretty. I think she likes you.”

“Me? You were the one whose shoulder she was crying on and shirt she was grabbing. Besides, I don’t have anything to offer a girl like that.”

“Nothing wrong with love. I would’ve thought that was the only thing you needed.” Johnny munched some more, head at an angle as he watched William. “I guess if you don’t love her though…”

“Me? Pshaw.”

“Yeah? I dunno. I’ve seen the way you look at her. And boy, who wouldn’t want to look at her.”

“Like you, maybe?” He leaned back against the barn post and crossed his arms.

Johnny shrugged.

For heavens sake, the girl was virtually throwing herself at Johnny and all he could do was shrug? “Johnny, have you been paying any attention, at all? It looks like Eliza is very taken with you.”

“Me? Oh boy, she tried to kiss me one time but I didn’t let it go too far. I tried to tell her that sometimes feelings can get confused.” He eyed William. “But you would have heard that if you hung around long enough behind that bush.”

“What?” William almost spluttered and that would have been very undignified.

“Yeah, some spy. You were about as noisy as a herd of buffalos.”

“Dammit.” All this time he’d been so sure Eliza was sweet on Johnny. And then he remembered how he’d almost walked into a tree, trying to get away from the two of them. It was too damned funny. “In my defence, “he tried to sound serious, “I wasn’t spying on the two of you. I just happened to come by and…”

He didn’t bother to go on. Johnny was getting far too much enjoyment out of watching him squirm.

Johnny finished the last of his peanuts then wiped his hands on his butt. “So…are you gonna tell me you ain’t interested? That that smile of hers doesn’t turn your legs to jelly?”

His laughter died a quick death. “I think Eliza is a wonderful, young lady.”

That was as much as he could get out, before turning away and resting his forehead on the barn post. To be honest, he hid his face on the barn post. That same sense of shame was flooding his face. He could feel it.

“William?”

Johnny’s voice was gentle. Coaxing even. But could he tell him? Could he admit how weak he’d been. How selfish?

“It’s just not that easy, Johnny. I made such a mess of everything with Alice.”

“It ain’t easy when someone’s sick and dying.”

“You don’t understand. I was a coward. I ran from Alice when she needed me the most. I told myself I was joining the war to save the Union. God, what a lie.”

He could feel Johnny’s eyes on him. Could imagine the disgust he must be feeling. Well, he’d come this far. He straightened up and turned around. “The reality is, I was too afraid to watch Alice, my beautiful Alice, sicken and die.”

“We all get scared, William.”

“So scared you can’t be with your wife, the only woman you’ve ever loved, the moment she takes her last breath? That’s right. I left before she took her last breath. And then I spent my life running from that decision. I carried that Rosetti book as a penance, not a memory. It was a memorial to my own pathetic, weakness.”

“Dios, William, you said you were only eighteen.” Johnny raised his hands. “Who gets anything right at that age?”


“How old are you Johnny?

“Twenty.”

William laughed. “Twenty going on one hundred.”

“So because of that one mistake, you can’t love anyone else?”

“I…”

“What’s the use of beating yourself up the rest of your life over something that happened when you weren’t much more than a kid?”

“It’s not just that, Johnny. How do I trust myself? Why do you think I work for a government organisation that’s all about not trusting anyone?”

“You’ve gotta talk to her, William. Give ‘Liza a chance to know how you feel.”

“She’s been through so much these last few days. I’d only confuse her more.”

“Girls are always confused. It’s just how they are.”

“Now that is the voice of a twenty year old, speaking.”

Johnny grinned. “All the same, it’s only fair to give her a chance.”

“Johnny, you have a very singular way of looking at the world. I like that in you. But things aren’t always as simple as they look. When someone’s been through such a difficult time, they need a chance to recover.”

Johnny was silent. Eventually, he sighed. “That’s true. And you’re right. Eliza’s been hurt pretty bad in all this.”

“Trust me. I’m not giving up on her. But I need to be sure the time is right. And she needs a chance to get to know her own heart.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I need to be patient. She should go to St. Louis and recover and then I’ll contact her.”

Johnny didn’t look convinced. “Well, you’re older and wiser than me.” He tugged on his ear as he thought some more. “So…so I guess you know what you’re doing. I sure hope you do, anyway.”

After his conversation with Johnny, William made his way upstairs. He’d told Johnny he was going to pack. And he did. In between a lot of sitting and thinking and berating himself, then finally convincing his reflection in the mirror, that his course was set, as it had been, when he left San Francisco, and he was doing the right thing.

He wrote out several notes of thanks for the staff, who’d so kindly washed and pressed his clothes and cleaned his shoes of river mud and blood. He’d check with Johnny if it was appropriate to leave some money as well but he didn’t want to offend. He could always send some gifts from San Francisco?

So, this dinner would be his last evening at Lancer. Would he ever get back here? There hadn’t been many friendships made over the years. Virtually none, when he came to think about it.

In any case, he dressed with extra care, making sure his tie sat just so and his hair was brushed back and shiny.

Would she notice?

Would she care?

Or, in spite of all Johnny had said, was Eliza still pining for a pair of blue eyes?

Chapter Twenty-one

He’d just closed the door to his room when Murdoch’s voice reached him.

“William, I hear you’re leaving.”

He walked further along the hallway, to where Murdoch stood outside his bedroom door. “Yes, sir. I don’t want to outstay my welcome.”

Murdoch gripped his hand. “I…,” his eyes searched William’s face. “Thank you, again, William.”

“Thank you, sir. My stay here has been—to be honest—not what I expected, in many ways, but I shall leave Lancer with a strong envy for everything you have here.”

That searching stare would have been uncomfortable except for the warmth it held. “You saved Johnny’s life. You’ll always be welcome here at Lancer. I mean that. If ever you’re in trouble…we’ll be here for you.”

The sudden lump in his throat caught him unawares, as did a sudden rush of gratitude for this man. He managed to stumble something out about being grateful but it probably didn’t make much sense.

“You’re a good man, William. If I can offer you any words of advice, and this coming from a man who’s made more mistakes than you can poke a stick at,” he smiled, “I’d offer these words: don’t be like that pinto. Fear only holds us back.”

His first urge was to step away. Even be angry. But dammit, he had to admire Murdoch’s insight, not to mention the kindness with which his words were delivered.

“And you’re welcome to tell me to go to the devil and mind my own business,” Murdoch was adding.

He was silent for a moment. A million emotions and thoughts were clogging his brain. Finally, his voice came back. “Murdoch, I have to admit, telling you to go to the devil was my first reaction. But Johnny’s right. You would have made an excellent spy.”

Murdoch’s chuckle was deep and long, starting somewhere near his boots. “I doubt it. Not with my height.”

“I have no idea how you seem to be able to read me so well. It’s a blow to my self-esteem, I can tell you that.”

“Perhaps because I’ve travelled down your road already? William, I have no idea of your story, but for some reason I see glimpses of myself in you. The past can be a desert of misery—nothing but withered grass and bitter water—if we only focus on our mistakes and the mistakes of others.”

He tried to hold Murdoch’s gaze but he couldn’t. “I…ah…I’ve been hard on myself for a very long time.”

“I think you’ll find that’s a well patronised club. Not exclusive at all. I’m definitely a member.” Murdoch smiled. “Do you need a second chance, William?”

“I think I’m too far down the line. You talked about the young making wrong choices. Well, that was me.” He tried to smile. Brush it off. But as always, the truth won out. “Some decisions, like Santiago’s, can’t be fixed.”

“That’s true. But you’re still living, William. Don’t punish yourself with half a life. That’s no life at all.”

Could he? Could he just let go of his betrayal to Alice? Did he have any right to happiness?

“Come on. Let’s go down and enjoy your last dinner here. But I’m hoping you’ll come back and visit us again.”

He pulled himself back from the vase of wilting flowers and the empty bed, still with her imprint where she’d lain. Perhaps Murdoch was right? Why shouldn’t he write to Eliza in St Louis? He could do that…

Oops, he realised Murdoch was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, so he put on his best mask, and followed him.

The evening meal turned out to be an impressive affair. When William and Murdoch walked downstairs, they found a table spread with an array of dishes: corn, string beans, potatoes, roast beef and chicken, gravy, tortillas and sauce. Over on the sideboard, he spied some sort of sweet pies and cake for dessert. Crystal champagne glasses glittered in the candlelight and the silver cutlery looked to have been freshly polished.

“You ladies have outdone yourselves,” Murdoch said to Maria, as she placed yet another dish on the table.”

“Gracias, Señor.”

He turned to Teresa, as she came in with Eliza. “Was this your idea, darling?”

“I wanted it to be special for Eliza’s and William’s last night with us.” The girls had dressed for the occasion; hair curled, pretty dresses with lace and bows. He was glad he’d taken extra care with his own clothing.

William bowed to them. “Ladies. May I escort you to the table?” And he held out his arm for each of them.

“Thank you, William.” Eliza accepted his offer with an almost stately manner, while Teresa simply blushed.

“About before—,” she started to whisper.

He held his head high. “I have no recollection of anything beyond this moment.”

“All the same, I’m feeling very guilty.”

He patted her hand and whispered down to her, “You showed me what family meant—so I’m grateful to you. Really.”

Murdoch peered at the stairs. “Where are the boys?”

“We’re here, sir.”

The word had clearly gone out regarding clothing. Scott looked very dapper in his jacket and tie. Johnny wore his usual pants with the studs but the embroidered white shirt added a touch of elegance.

The ladies were shown to their seats, then the men sat down.

Scott shook out his napkin. “It’s a beautiful table, Teresa.”

“It’s a celebration, even though I’m sorry Eliza and William are going.” And she beamed at them all.

He thought sitting across from Eliza, for this, their last meal together, would be painful, but he just couldn’t stay glum. Murdoch and Scott were both experts at keeping the conversation interesting and amusing. He supplied a few of his own funny anecdotes and Johnny was always worth some humorous words of his own. And Eliza was clearly trying to make this evening a happy one and she joined in all the fun.

Half-way through the meal, Murdoch held up his glass. “To new friends. May this be the first of many visits.”

Scott was quick to take up his glass. “Here, here.”

The glasses chinked, and Eliza said a teary thank you, as did he—albeit, without the tears. By golly, he was going to miss these Lancers.

After dinner, they played charades while Murdoch settled into a corner with a book, every so often putting his head up to offer his guess. They’d all taken turns and as usually happens with this game; it was fast turning into a lot of laughter and yelling.

It was Scott’s turn now.  Four words. He stood in front of the fireplace, seeming to act out being in prison?

Johnny jumped up.  “The Count of…” he snapped his fingers, “Whatchamacallit.”

That made everyone laugh, including Johnny, as he and the girls started yelling, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

“Not close enough, brother. And the correct answer goes to,” Scott had his pointing finger ready and it landed on, “Eliza.” Eliza clapped her hands then jumped up with a little a twirl of skirts.

Johnny slumped down onto the sofa. “Hey, half right ain’t bad. That’s gotta ‘count’ for something.”

Scott groaned at the joke but he was almost drowned out by him and Teresa laughing and calling out, “Unfair. Unfair. Eliza wasn’t first.”

Eliza put her hands on her hips and pretended to pout while Scott looked at Murdoch. “Sir, I think you’ll have to be the judge.”

Murdoch held his hand up. “Oh no. Don’t try and embroil me in all this.”

After more laughing, Teresa and he conceded and Eliza had her turn, but with that flush to her cheeks and sparkle in her eyes, he almost forgot to guess as she mimed her action. Two words. And she seemed to be eating something?

The guesses were coming thick and fast: baking bread, buttering bread, eating hotcakes…no, she seemed to be stirring…or dipping?

“Eating tortillas!” Johnny’s guess.

Eliza grinned and clapped. “That’s right, Johnny. Your turn.” And she grabbed his hand and dragged him to his feet, to stand in front of the fire, so that he could act out his words.

Damn, he should have thought of tortillas. Eliza had been fascinated with them at the dinner table.

The candles were burning low by the time Murdoch closed his book and declared he was off to bed.

Johnny was yawning but Teresa said, “I’m heating up some milk for a cup of hot chocolate, if anyone would like some?”

That made all the ‘young people’ as Murdoch called them, put their hands up. Johnny got the checker board out and suggested they play some games while they were waiting.

It was getting quite warm by the fire. “You others can play. I think I’ll get some fresh air.”

He slipped outside, through the French doors, and took a deep breath of the crisp, night air. It was like drinking from a mountain stream. He stared up at the sky. With all the fun, he’d almost forgotten that tomorrow, he’d be back in the stagecoach.

Where it all began.

Eliza was boarding the train to St Louis while his fate was a stagecoach back to San Francisco. He hadn’t wanted to impose on the Lancer hospitality any longer and he was likely to lose his position if he didn’t get back to San Francisco soon. He had the option of getting a room in Cross Creek and wait the four days for the train going west but that felt like a sad way to end this trip. Besides, he knew the best way to pull a bandage from a wound was to rip it off.

His last night with Eliza. But also, his last night with Johnny and the Lancers. He had no idea how he’d come to care about these people. They’d done something to him. Managed to push their way under his skin in a way no-one had been able to do, in a very long time.

It was uncomfortable. But then, isn’t that always the way with change?

He was still staring at that sky when he heard a rustle of taffeta. Then he had a whiff of jasmine.  It certainly wasn’t Johnny.

Eliza looked up at the sky. “It’s beautiful out here, isn’t it.” Her voice was hushed. Reverential.

“It is. I’m going to miss these skies.”

The rustling came closer.  “William, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.” But his heart was beating faster of a sudden.

“Did you really offer Johnny a position with your bank?”

And the way she said that last word, showed she knew he wasn’t a banker. Either Teresa or Johnny had a big mouth.

“Well—.” That was as much as he got out before she came and stood in front of him, her eyes held a definite challenge as she looked into his.

“Teresa told me everything, you know…about the work you do and how you were going to get Johnny to leave Lancer.”

Well, that answered his question as to who told her. “I wasn’t going to make Johnny leave Lancer.” And yes, he was protesting the accusation.

She frowned, looking a little less certain. “But you wrote a contract for him?”

“The first night we were here. Yes. But it was clear to me, particularly after Santiago’s death, that leaving Lancer wouldn’t be the right thing for Johnny. He’s clearly happy here.”

“Oh.” The fire had died right out of her eyes. “I’m so glad.” Then after a moment. “I’m sorry I accused you.”

“That’s all right.”

She seemed to accept this, as she stared up at the sky, again. “Are you really a spy?” Her voice was almost breathless. Good breathless or bad, he wasn’t quite sure.

“No. I performed that sort of work when I was in the Union Army. Nowadays, I work for the Secret Service, for our government. Mostly I try to catch counterfeiters.”

“Oh.” He definitely heard disappointment, this time. “Daddy would love you. He says counterfeiters are the scourge of our country.”

“He’s certainly right about that.”

She swung around and gave him a frank look. “Teresa was prodigiously angry with you.”

“I know.”

“She also told me she thinks you’re very handsome.”

“Alas, why do I only impress a sixteen year old girl?” And he dared to look into her eyes as he spoke.

“Teresa doesn’t look sixteen. I think she’s very grown-up for her age.”

“It’s a difficult life out here. Instead of sewing samplers, she’s been holding shotguns.”

“I wish I was brave like her. I still remember how scared I was in the woods with those wolves.” She shuddered, but then she tilted her head and gave him a serious look. “You know, I never properly thanked you for everything you did for me that day. I still remember your face when you ran into the clearing and saw all those growling wolves. You looked so calm. I might not have shown it, but you made me feel so much better.”

“I’m glad I was there.” How dull was that! What he wanted to say was, I’d do anything to protect you. If this was one of her romantic novels that’s exactly what he’d say.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how much chance we’ll get to talk tomorrow, so I wanted to be sure you knew that.” She came closer. It was definitely jasmine in the spring. “You do know that, don’t you? That I’m forever grateful.”

He took a step back. “Yes.”

“And you won’t forget?”

“No.”

“The hot chocolate is ready.” Teresa breezed out and took hold of Eliza’s hand. “

“Ooh, lovely.” She let herself be pulled inside, giving a quick look at him over her shoulder, before she disappeared through the French doors.

Romantic novel be damned.“I’ll never forget this moment, Eliza.”

William stood by the steps, leading to the front door. No sleeping in this morning. They’d eaten breakfast while it was still dark, and now, with the hint of dawn streaking across the sky, they were loading their bags into the spring wagon while Johnny was checking the harness.

He didn’t think Teresa was going to let go of Eliza, when it came to say goodbye. “You’ll come and visit us again, won’t you? I want you to promise, now.”

“As long as it’s all right with Mr Lancer. I’d love to come back. And you need to visit me in St Louis.”

William shook hands all around but Teresa surprised him with a hug. “Thank you. And I’m sorry I was so mean. It’s just that…well, we haven’t been a family for very long.”

Scott grabbed his bag just as he was about to pick it up. “I didn’t get a chance to thank you properly.”

“For what? Losing the best partner a man could ask for?”

“For not enticing him away from us.”

“Scott, I think you’ve got a little more to know about that brother of yours if you think I could entice him away. No, I’d say you’re pretty much stuck with him.”

Johnny came back around, this time dressed as William first remembered him as very much the young Mexican, in jacket and hat, and that gun belt sitting low on his hips. He looked older and capable and ready to handle any trouble that arose.

Eliza’s baggage was the last to be loaded and now the wagon was ready for them to climb on board.

Murdoch took his hand in that huge grip of his. “Come back any time, William. I mean it.”

Johnny climbed up and took the lines as Scott handed Eliza in. She gave him one of her prettiest smiles and then took the blanket Teresa passed her, while he climbed in behind them, in the second row.

The air was filled with cries of ‘good bye’ and it was a surprise they didn’t budge all the lingering mist with the amount of hand waving between them all.

Eliza kept looking behind every few minutes, even after the Lancers had gone back inside. But even he made sure to take a final look at the huge white building with the winding road, before the wagon went over the hill.

It was going to take several hours to get to Cross Creek. That meant he only had a few more hours to be in Eliza’s company. What a depressing thought.

No-one spoke a great deal as the wagon rolled on. There were a few comments about the weather but all the merriment they’d had last night, seemed to have left them. Eliza wrapped the blanket over her lap. At some point she removed her hat and put her head on Johnny’s shoulder, and seemed to have fallen asleep.

They stopped just the once, to give the horses a rest and stretch their legs. Teresa had given them a basket of food but no-one seemed interested in eating. Perhaps Eliza was feeling it too—that sense of letdown, like the day after Christmas when the festivities have ended and the grind of the work-week begins again?

Johnny handled the lines with a sure hand, elbows resting easily on his knees, not taking any risks. Well, not while they were in the wagon, at any rate. He suspected Johnny’s trip home might be a lot quicker?

And then, all too soon for his liking:

“Here we are.” Johnny eased the brake on as they were about to descend into the valley via a gently sloping road. In front of them was a reasonable sized town, with a long main street and several streets running either side. The buildings were the usual ones he’d seen out west; timber structures with a wooden boardwalk so that pedestrians could avoid the mud and horse droppings and shopkeepers had a small chance of keeping their floors that little bit cleaner.

Cross Creek was much bigger than Morro Coyo, but then, it was a rail town, and that made all the difference. Once they hit the town, Johnny slowed the spring wagon as he drove down the main street. He pushed his hat back and waved a hand. “Everything has sprung up here since the train line went through and they built a station here. Murdoch said it was just a sleepy hollow before that.”

Eliza was leaning forward in her seat and looking around, pointing out things that took her fancy. “Look at that.” She was pointing to a man playing a harmonica while his little white dog stood on hind legs and danced. She turned to him. “Did you see that, William? How adorable.”

“Very adorable.”

She’d turned back around, of course, which was just as well. His stomach was starting to tighten. Another few minutes, and he’d be saying goodbye to all this.

The stage and the train were leaving at almost the same time but they were going to see Eliza settled on the train first, then he’d head to the stage depot, further down the street. He’d seen the depot building as they drove past. Already there were people sitting on benches outside, ready to board. Damn them. He’d been hoping to find the stage almost empty.

Eliza had straightened her hat. Her hair was piled up but one stray piece curled at the nape of her neck against her creamy, white skin.

All too soon, Johnny brought the wagon to a halt. In front of them, the train station was crowded with people and luggage and packages.

William jumped down and took Eliza’s hand as she descended. “Your train awaits, my lady.”

She smiled but was it a happy one? “After everything that’s happened, I can’t believe I’m finally on my way to St Louis.”

Johnny wound the lines around the brake then grabbed her bags. “The ticket office is just in front of us. Do you want one of us to go with you?”

“No. It’s time I started to do some of these things myself.” And she gathered up her skirt and headed into the little room with the sign ‘Tickets’ over the door.

He had a sudden wild hope that the train would be too full and she wouldn’t be able to board…

Johnny leaned against the wagon while they waited for her. “You sure about this, William? I mean, about not talking to ‘Liza?”

“We discussed this, Johnny. And no, I haven’t changed my mind.”

Johnny kicked the wheel with the back of his boot.  “Boy, you’re a cool one, all right. That ain’t what I’d do.”

Eliza returned just then, waving the ticket in her hand. “One ticket to St. Louis.”

Johnny straightened up. “Okay, let’s get you on board then.”

“No. Not yet.” She took Johnny’s hands. “Goodbye, Johnny. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me.”

“You make sure you come back and visit. And don’t let me hear you left St Louis, huh.”

She hugged him, squeezed him almost. “I never realised you could feel so close to people in so short a time. This is like leaving family. Only the both of you are better than that.”

“And William.” She looked up into his eyes. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too, Eliza.” Where had all his words gone to? Is that all he could say to her?

The engine was hissing and releasing steam.

“You’d better board. Otherwise it might leave without you.”

She was still staring at his eyes…then suddenly, she flung her arms about his neck and he circled his arms about her waist. “Thank you. For everything.” Her breath was warm against his neck and he could have stood there like this for the rest of his life.

“I…um…I…I’ll miss you.”

And then she was pulling away from him but he caught her hand one more time…just to touch her…that moment longer. Finger to fingers trailed…and then, nothing but the air.

Johnny had his arm about her waist, walking across to the train. “Off you go, now. You’ve gotta follow your heart, huh. Just like I told you. And don’t let that old man of yours ruin your life.”

“I won’t.”

William was frozen. He didn’t trust himself to move, in any case.

Johnny handed her into the carriage then passed her luggage to the guard. When she took her seat, it was right in front of them.

She waved. Then blew them a kiss. And the tears ran down her face.

But Johnny was already turning away. “Sorry, William. If you aim to catch that stage, we gotta go now. Come on.”

Eliza was still waving.

“William. We gotta go.”

He turned. He didn’t know where he found the strength, but he turned away from her and started following Johnny. Good God, it must have been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

The two of them weaved through the people on the boardwalk but Johnny was shaking his head. “I thought you mighta said something to her.”

“I wanted to. I just didn’t know what to say. I’ll write to her. I think that would be best. Does she seem happy to you?”

Johnny scratched the back of his neck then closed one eye. “I think she’s happy to be going to St Louis and not San Francisco.”

“I think she’s happy. Who wouldn’t be, leaving that awful father of hers?”

“Yep.”

“I mean, that would make anyone happy, wouldn’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Aunt Mabel sounds like a wonderful, caring person.”

“Uh huh.”

The sidewalk was crowded and he didn’t really know where his feet were taking him so he just walked alongside, or behind Johnny when it was too busy, but everything was a blur. All he could see was Eliza’s face at the window. Had she looked sad? Maybe even just a little? “Oops.” Johnny stopped suddenly and he bumped into him.

Johnny was shaking someone’s hand. William managed to squeeze past two women so that he could see what was happening. Well, of all the—!

“Charlie, what are you doing here?”

“Mr Holdsworth, sir.” He tipped his hat. “And if it’s not Johnny Madrid. They put me on this route until the bridge gets fixed.”

Johnny laughed. “Charlie, you’ve gotta start calling me Johnny Lancer, or you’ll have my old man chasing you down.”

“And how are you two boys. Can’t say I was expecting to see y’all so soon. And where’s Miss Eliza? She’ll brighten up my trip, that she will.”

William winced. “She’s on the train, to St Louis. I’m the only one going with you through to San Francisco.”

Charlie wrinkled his nose. “So that’s how the wind blows, is it? Luke, git here and grab Mr Holdsworth’s bag. ‘Scuse me, fellers.”

William looked at the stage. It was already canting to one side as his fellow passengers boarded.

When he turned around, Johnny was watching him, hands tucked in his belt. “So, ah, about that name of yours.” He rubbed a finger under his nose a few times. “I ain’t the only one around here with two of’em, am I?”

He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You’ve certainly earned the right to know mine, young man. It’s Tully. William F. Tully.”

 “William F. Tully, huh?” He could have been trying it on for size. In the end, he waved his hand. “Nah. I’ll probably just call you Holdsworth, anyway. I got used to that.”

“And what shall I call you?”

Johnny grinned. “I think Johnny Lancer is a pretty good fit.”

“All the same, I’m damned sorry you won’t be joining my team.”

“I had a friend, Wes, and he was always talking about riding over the next hill and finding out what was there. I guess I found out over the next hill was never as good as what I had at Lancer.”

“It takes maturity to know that, Johnny.”

“Well, having a brother and father helps you see which way the road leads the best.” Just at that moment, the whistle blew on the train and they both looked in that direction. “One toot as a warning for all those slow pokes and two to get going.”

“All aboard.” Charlie was climbing up on top.

William held out his hand. “Johnny.” But a handshake wasn’t enough, after all they’d been through, and he grabbed Johnny in a bear hug. “I’m going to miss you.” Then he stepped back. “Goodbye, Johnny.”

“Adios, William.”

The stagecoach was crowded and he had to wedge himself beside a woman who smelt of onions and a large man who reminded him strongly of Clive Branson. There was another older woman opposite but he seemed to be the youngest on the stage. No women his own age to distract him. No intriguing Mexicans with sharp eyes. This was going to be a dreary trip.

The stage started forward with a lurch. He had one last glimpse of Johnny waving and then he was gone.

The ‘Clive’ lookalike said something to another suited gentleman opposite but as they were both speaking German, at least he thought that’s what it was, he had no idea what they were saying.

Come on. He had to pull himself together. The sooner he got back to work and dealt with the Van Heusen family of counterfeiters, the better he’d be. Saving the country—that was his sole purpose in life. And he was damned good at it.

All the same, he couldn’t help straining his ears to listen; two whistles would send Eliza thousands of miles away from him.

The stagecoach rumbled on through town. The man and his little white dog were still entertaining the crowds. She’d called it ‘adorable.’

The stage was starting to rock, as the momentum increased.

He shifted on his seat. Something was settling deep inside him. It made him close his eyes and grimace. It took him a minute but he finally realised what was bothering him—it was his own damn voice. And it wouldn’t shut up.

He should have talked to her.

He should have told her he cared…or something…

Just something.

But he hadn’t done that with Alice, either.

Just rode away…told he how much he loved her…and rode away…

He opened his eyes.

“Does the rocking upset your tummy?” The elderly lady opposite, with the mop cap, was delving into an ancient carpet bag. “I always have a tonic on hand if you should need some, dear.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine.”

“I’m more than happy to share.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m fine. Really.”

Except that he was a liar. He’d never felt less fine in his life.

The stage was starting to gather speed but it still had to manoeuvre its way around the wagons and carriages clogging up the road.

The cowboy opposite, to his right, gave him a grin, but it felt like he was sizing up the cost of his jacket and how much money might be in William’s wallet.

He put a finger to his collar and tugged.

Two whistles and she’d be gone.

I thought you mighta said something to her. That’s what Johnny told him. And now he had that drawl ringing in his ears. No, he’d made the right decision. He had to be strong.

But he wasn’t feeling strong. He wasn’t feeling strong at all.

Oh God, what on earth was he doing?

He stood up.

He stood up and pushed his way past the knees, to get to the door. “Charlie…Charlie. You have to stop.”

“Well, really.”

“Hey mister, we can’t stop. We only just got going.”

“Charlie!”

“You can have my tonic.”

“Charlie.” Any minute that second whistle was going to blow. “Charlie!”

He looked around frantically, and a walking stick was thrust in his face. The German man was smiling at him. “You take.”

He grabbed the stick and by leaning out the window aperture, he could tap Charlie’s leg and then yell. “Dammit, Charlie, I need to get off.”

“Whoa team…whoa team.”

Charlie hung his head over the side. “Something wrong, Mr Holdsworth?”

“I’m not coming. I changed my mind.” The words shot out of his mouth. He pulled on the door handle, tossed the walking stick back to the German with a quick, ‘thanks’, then jumped down.

“Well, that’s kinda sudden ain’t it.”

He threw a quick look at the station up the road. The train was still there. “Just throw me down my bag. Quick.”

“Luke, can you see where you put it?”

The engine was starting to hiss and blow steam, the sort of sound it makes when it’s about to leave. Hell and damnation. “Don’t bother, Charlie—.”

“Nope, here t’is.”

He grabbed it. “Thanks Charlie. Wish me luck.”

“That Miss Eliza is a mighty fine girl.” Those were the last words he heard as he ran down the street and almost straight into a wagon travelling behind the stage. The driver yelled a curse. William dodged him and kept running.

He could see the station in the distance ahead. The train was still there. He only had another hundred yards to go.

Noooo!

Two whistles. Two!

But he kept running. It would take a few minutes for the train to get a head of steam. He’d jump on it if he had to. He’d done that before…he knew…

“Oomph.” He was spreadeagled, in the dust.

A rider. A rider had galloped out of the side street.

“What are you doing, mister, running up the main street of town?”

He jumped up. “Dammit, get out of my way, you fool.” He grabbed his bag and started running…but the train was moving.

He wasn’t going to make it.

He ran and ran and ran…

And as he reached the station, the last of the carriages rolled down the track, on the way to St Louis.

He almost fell to his knees. Too late. He was too damned late. And Eliza was leaving, never knowing how he really felt. Just like Alice dying without him saying goodbye and telling her how much she meant to him.

He was being crushed. Could barely breathe. He staggered back against a post and hung his head. You fool. You stupid, damn fool.

There was no sign of the Lancer spring wagon. Just as well. The last person he wanted to see now was Johnny…and that was exactly who he saw.

Johnny pushed his hat back and stared as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “What the heck are you doing? I just put you on the stagecoach.”

“Johnny, I’m such an idiot. I should have talked to Eliza. I should have told her how I felt. As soon as the stage started moving, I knew I was wrong.”

Johnny shook his head, as though William had lost his mind. “Her train just left. Dios, William! I told you talk to her. What the hell were you thinking, leaving it so late.” He’d never seen Johnny look this angry. He was just about spluttering. He took off his hat and whacked it against the post supporting the station porch.

“I know. I’m a complete fool.”

Johnny blew out a breath in disgust and leaned against the post. “I tried to tell you, didn’t I?”

He couldn’t answer. He was so damned angry at himself.

Finally Johnny straightened up. “I guess you could catch the next train coming through on Saturday? Better than nothing, maybe?”

He sagged against the wall. “I don’t know. Maybe this was all for the best?”

“Oh, no, you don’t. I’m gonna buy you a ticket myself, just in case. Come on.”

He trundled after Johnny, head down, and followed him into the small room where a man usually stood behind a grill, selling tickets.

Johnny drummed on the polished counter, trying to get some attention. “I don’t know what the heck got into you, William. You know you love her.”

“Hell, Johnny, I fell in love with Eliza the first day I saw her.”

Johnny turned around. “I don’t know why the heck you’re telling me that. Why don’t you tell Eliza?”

William stared at him. His heart had completely stopped.

“Well, go on,” Johnny was saying. He nodded at a point, somewhere behind William.

His heart had definitely stopped.

He turned around. Slowly.

And there she stood. In her blue travelling dress. Valise by her feet.

“I…I don’t understand. I saw you get on the train?”

She started to smile. A small, shy twist of her lips. “Johnny told me, if I felt anything for you, I should get off the train. He said if he was right, you’d get off as well—or you aren’t the man he thinks you are.”

Johnny grinned at them both. “This way you can decide together which direction you want to go in.”

William’s head was reeling. Was this really happening? He had to do this right. He couldn’t go to her until he’d told her everything. “Eliza, I have to tell you two things. Firstly, my name is William Tully, not Holdsworth.”

She scrunched up that tiny nose of hers. “I always thought Holdsworth was a stuffy name.”

“And…the thing is…when Alice died, I was weak. I couldn’t bear to see her suffer. I wasn’t with her. I ran away.”

“William,” she came close and put her hand on his arm. “I watched my mother die. I understand how hard that is. You’ll get no judgement from me.”

He stared into her eyes. “Eliza, I’ve never let myself love anyone else. I didn’t think I deserved it.”

“And now?” She barely whispered the words.

“I’m trying to change.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to?”

“I think so. For the right person.”

“Am I that person?”

“Yes, sweet, precious Eliza, you are…if you want me.”

Johnny slapped his hands together. “Well, go on, kiss her. Scott says the only place you can kiss in public, is at a train station.”

And so that’s what he did.

After that blissful moment, he smiled at Eliza. “I knew I liked Scott Lancer.”

And then he kissed her, again. Only much longer.

Johnny said they had to celebrate so he took them to a café but William was starting to realise how awkward everything had become.

“You don’t need to worry. I sorted it all out with Scott before I left. There’s a respectable boarding house where Eliza can stay, until your train leaves on Saturday.”

William groaned. “Why didn’t I think of asking Scott if he wanted to join the Secret Service. He would have been perfect.”

Johnny whacked him on the arm. “Nah. He’s even more stubborn than me. Besides, I’d have to call you out if you offered Scott a job.”

William threw his hands up. “Forget I said anything, in that case.”

All too soon, Johnny said it was time for him to leave and they walked back to the spring wagon, although William felt like he was walking through a fog. It was still hard to believe he had Eliza by his side, with her hand in his. Every so often he’d squeeze it, just to be sure this was really happening.

Once they reached the wagon, Johnny held out his hand. “You know, you and me made a pretty good team out there. Maybe you can call on me if any of those counterfeiters you’re chasing poke their noses around Morro Coyo.”

“I’ll do that, Johnny.”

“Eliza.” He earned another hug from her.

He unwound the lines from the brake. “So, you two worked out where you’re going?”

“San Francisco.” “St Louis.”

They looked at each other—then laughed.

Eliza tucked her hand under his arm. “I’m going wherever William is going.”

“And I’m going where Eliza is going.”

Johnny settled his hat on his head, then gave them his biggest smile.

“And I’m going home.”

He held Eliza’s hand as they watched Johnny head down the main street in the spring wagon. He turned once to wave, then the wagon turned the corner and he was gone from sight.

“Goodbye, Johnny Lancer.”

Eliza pressed her cheek against his arm. “I won’t forget you, Johnny Madrid.”

THE END
April 2022

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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
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 Suzanne directly.

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30 thoughts on “San Francisco to Nowhere by Suzanne

  1. So exciting and intriguing I read it in one sitting. Well worth reading. I’d like to see these two characters return to Lancer to investigate a counterfeit operation. What better place to use than Morro Coyo or Green River? William Holdsworth could pose as a Harvard friend of Scott’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Cynthia, you were quick reading this! Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed it. I take it as a huge compliment that you read it in one sitting! I enjoyed writing William, and Eliza, so I’m very chuffed you enjoyed their characters in our Lancer world. I’ve got so many stories I need to finish, I daren’t start another new one – but who knows, maybe one day they might return? My many thanks, again!

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    1. Hi Tanya, yes, I covered all bases with this one, didn’t I! Thanks so much for your feedback! It’s greatly appreciated!

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      1. Hi Baye, thanks so much for reading and letting me know you enjoyed this one. It really means a lot to me!

        Like

  2. Love this story! Really well written—lots is adventure and nice to see Johnny through William’s eyes. Definitely one of my favorites

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carol, thanks so much for leaving your thoughts on my story. I had fun writing Johnny through William’s eyes, too! That fresh perspective is always interesting, isn’t it. Thanks again, I really appreciate the feedback!

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  3. Wauw, what a GREAT story ! The journey on the stage was like an Agatha Christie story : who did it ? I liked the new character William and the humour. I had to smile many times. Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Caterina, hee, I confess I’ve always enjoyed murder/mysteries. And I’m so happy to hear you liked William as I had a lot of fun writing his interactions with Johnny and the rest of the Lancers. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed my story. It really means a lot to me! 🙂

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  4. What a great read.!
    Who doesn’t like an intriguing murder mystery in a unique setting with plot twists and well written ,diverse ,interesting characters.
    I didn’t want it to end!
    Thank you so much for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Val, wow, the fact that you didn’t want this story to end is high praise indeed! I’m so delighted to hear you enjoyed this one. Thanks so much for letting me know. It’s always such a buzz to hear someone liked my story. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed my story, Anne. I always get a kick out of hearing from my readers! Thanks again!

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  5. This was so very well written. You’ve captured the Lancers exactly as I see them. One of the best Lancer fan fics I’ve read in a while!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Teresa, I try very hard to write the Lancer characters as we saw them in the series so I’m very happy to hear my portrayals of them matches your own. Thanks so much for your lovely encouraging words!

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    1. Aw Debra, how sweet of you. How many ways can I spell thank you! 🙂 You’ve put a big smile on my face. 🙂

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  6. What a spectacular journey you took us on! I was sucked in by the intrigue and mystery right away, but I was also quickly invested in the characters. You made each character from Charlie, to Burke, to old Rosita just come alive and make an impression. You have a such great skill. Thank you for sharing that gift with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Castell, thanks so much for your encouraging words. I’m thrilled to hear you enjoyed my story so much and especially appreciate the comments regarding my characterisations as that’s an aspect of my writing that I very much focus on. Many thanks again – I appreciate you taking the time to comment! 🙂

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  8. Absolutely wonderful murder mystery and perfect characters with many spots of humour. It was intriguing to see Johnny through William’s viewpoint and the friendship that develops. Nice that William got that girl! I would be glad to see the Lancer brothers help William out in an investigation or two, in Boston perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Janbrac, ooh, lovely, I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed this one! It was a little different seeing the Lancers through the eyes of a non-canon character but I was hoping it brought a fresh angle to the story. Hee, yes, love won out. Oh gosh, I have to many unfinished stories that I daren’t start another new one, lol! Thanks so much for your encouragement. I’m very grateful! 🙂

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  9. This was one of the best stories I’ve read in ever. Absolutely fabulous. I live William and Elizabeth. Johnny of course is the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. You bailed all the lancers personalities. The murder mystery, the romance. It was like watching a movie. This is definitely on the read again list. I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, Charlene, that’s high praise indeed! And I absolutely love it when someone enjoys a story of mine so much that they want to read it again. Thanks so much for your encouragement and warm words. You’ve put a big smile on my face! 🙂

      Like

  10. Hi fallfan43, thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed my story. It’s always such a buzz to hear this encouragement! 🙂

    Like

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