Strays by Annie


by  Annie Seville

Disclaimer:  I don’t own the Lancer characters (just one of life’s little tragedies).  Whatever I write about them is for fun, not profit.
Rated PG-13 for violence, a smattering of language, adult situations.
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 ONE  

      If she could tote a big name like Emma Victoria, she could tote this rifle.  Carbine.  Russ said that.  Russ knew guns.  Mama said he knew them too well and that’s why Sheriff Donelly had locked him up.  Guns, brawling, whiskey…  Mama stopped short there, looking like she wished she hadn’t said that much.  Russ had told Emma sometimes the baby growing in Mama’s belly made wrong-hearted things come spewing out of her mouth.  Emma didn’t understand that at all but she’d gone along laughing with Russ.  Laughing she could do with him.  He wouldn’t let her hunt, or even just shoot, except once when he had that smell Mama called liquor on his breath.  He took her out back then and showed her how.  And she remembered.  Emma Victoria remembered everything, and she was big enough to tote this carbine.

      Now whether she could hit something worth eating with it was another matter.  But she had to try.  That baby must’ve been churning up all the food in Mama’s belly, because today Mama said she felt too ill to go hunting herself.  Mama hated guns anyway, or at least she did now.  Russ said–when he had the liquor on his breath–that Mama used to like them well enough.  Back when he was what he called fast.  Emma knew he meant fast with a gun, not fast like a rabbit or a deer.  She knew because sometimes he let her set up tin cans so he could practice his draw.

      Emma’s mouth watered at the thought of rabbit or venison.  Since Russ had stopped working the farm they hadn’t had much meat to eat, and she’d wearied of eggs and beans long since.  And milk, though the cow was producing less of that now.  She wanted to wring the neck of one of the chickens but Mama said they were down to the rooster plus five hens–Emma knew that, she could count–and a live chicken made more eggs than a dead one made meat.  Emma figured she might have trouble hitting something as small and zigzag-running as a rabbit, but a deer, well, deer came past this spot this time nearly every day, barely on to dusk.  And Emma knew that if she waited here, quiet as a fawn, one would pass this day, too, and then she’d have her meat.

      So she did, crouched amid the underbrush and rocks, near the gnarled trunks of a pair of big old trees.  Waited patiently, she had lots of patience, especially for a nine-year-old.  Mama always said she did and that she must’ve gotten it from her pa.  Her pa was dead.  He’d passed on when she was a baby, so she had no pa now, unless she counted Russ.  But though she could laugh and maybe someday hunt with him, and though he was Mama’s husband now, she didn’t think he’d make all that great a pa.  He laughed a lot but he got mean, too, and you never knew which it would be.

      Minutes crept by.  Emma had come early, before the sun set, and hunkered here silent and still, waiting, waiting.  Until now, when finally the smooth brown hide, the finely tapering face with its comically large soft ears, the long delicate legs picking tentatively along the forest floor; finally the deer seemed to form in place, exactly where she’d known it would.

      Slowly, soundlessly, Emma Victoria raised the muzzle of the gun.  Despite the danger of such a thing she had readied it earlier.  She could not risk the click alerting the deer.  Her finger, miniature compared to Russ’s, soft-skinned and still plump compared to Mama’s, curled around the trigger, and pulled.

      The report cracked through the trees, a single thunder snap.  The butt of the carbine kicked backward, a hoof to the fine bones in Emma’s shoulder, knocking her flat on her backside on the ground.  She yelped in surprise and then she heard the deer crashing through the woods.  And something else.  A frightened whinny, then more hoofbeats, heavier ones, pounding away from where Emma sat, stunned and confused.

      Johnny Lancer scrambled from the ground to a crouch, right hand snatching the pistol from its holster, eyes darting around the forest as Barranca tore off and disappeared among the trees.  Gasping for the breath the gunshot’s impact had driven from his lungs, he waited for more shots, every sense sizzling and alert.  He’d never felt the danger, had no idea anyone was there.  Getting soft, he thought, soft and careless.  So long since anyone had come gunning for him that he’d begun to think the past might really have become just that:  past.

      No such luck.

      Then again, no more shots.  No sound, either, except the evening birdsong and insects starting up again, a breeze ruffling the trees, a muted scurrying as some night creature ventured out from its daytime hiding place.

      His arm hurt.  It more than hurt.  His side did, too, up near his chest.  Seeing nothing moving in the woods, he risked looking away from the trees to glance down at the wound.  Wounds.  He’d only heard one shot but somehow had managed to end up with three holes.  One into the outside of his right bicep, or maybe deeper, scraping the bone, the second as the slug burst through on the inside of the arm, the third as it did double duty and slammed home into his ribs.  He still couldn’t breathe right and figured that if anyone really did want him dead or incapacitated, they were just listening to him strain for air and waiting for him to collapse.  Which he suddenly felt in real danger of doing, as the forest turned grainier than dusk and his head began to spin.

      He sat down, and as he settled onto the ground he heard a rustle somewhere in front of him.  He thought to raise the pistol but it suddenly seemed to weigh a ton and bending his arm sent flame coursing up to his shoulder and down to his hand.  He forced his swimming vision to stabilize and saw a waiflike form moving toward him through the trees, a little girl.  He wondered if he had already lost consciousness.  But no, she came on, and he saw the carbine clutched in her hand, though not aimed anywhere, pointing mostly down.  She dropped it then and Johnny felt relieved as it slid to the ground.  The pistol rested in his hand, which lay in his lap, and he made sure not to point it toward her.

      The child’s mouth worked but she seemed unable to speak.  She had a long face with skin he thought he could see through, porcelain skin though maybe the pallor stemmed from fright.  He wondered why she hadn’t run off rather than approaching him.  She looked only eight or nine and he would’ve expected a kid that age to bolt.  He thought that since she couldn’t seem to speak just yet, he ought to do it for her.  But he found it difficult, too.  He could breathe a little better now, which reassured him because it meant the bullet had only knocked the wind out and not pierced his lung.  Only.  Bad enough.

      “Hey,” he said, gently.  “You okay?”

      He could see now that her eyes were saucer-big, some light color he couldn’t make out in the dusk, not with his own vision wavering.  After a moment she nodded.  He saw her big round eyes shift to take in the blood on his arm and side.  He wasn’t wearing his jacket–the day had been warm so he’d tied it onto the back of the saddle with his bedroll–and the thin, faded red cotton of his shirt did little to absorb the blood.  The stain was growing and he could feel the warm sticky liquid pulsing from the wounds, especially the one in his arm, only to cool as soon as it hit the air.  Suddenly it seemed downright chilly, and a shudder rippled through him.  Damn, he thought.  Gotta stanch that blood.  Reaching toward his waist with his left hand, he tried to undo the buckle on his belt.  His fingers were shaking and he needed both hands.  He moved the right one and bit back a curse.  The blood seemed to flow faster.

      The girl spoke, startling him.  “You need to get that belt off?”

      He nodded.  She took a step toward him but then hesitated.

      “It’s okay,” he said.  “I ain’t angry with you.  I won’t hurt you.”

      She hesitated only another second and then came to kneel in front of him.  He let her undo the leather belt and helped her tug it free from his pants, then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.

      “What’s your name?” he asked her.

      “Emma Victoria,” she told him.  Then, in a smaller voice, “Really just Emma.”

      Despite himself, Johnny smiled.  She reminded him a little of Scott’s stepdaughter, Nicole, though Coco was half her age.  Brave one minute, shy the next.  And skinny like Coco, too.  Coco would not be at all happy to find out her Tio Johnny had been hurt.  Neither would Scott.  He’d willingly put up with their scolding and even a minor fuss if he could make it back home.  Trouble was, Lancer lay three days’ ride from here.

      “Okay, just Emma,” he said, regretting that the only way he’d get anywhere was with this child’s help.  “What we need to do now is fold this cloth and wrap the belt around it on my arm, then cinch it real tight.  Can you help me do that?”

      “I think so.”

      “Good.”  Leaving the Colt to lie on the ground under his leg, Johnny lifted his arm a little and the pain intensified, vertigo close on its heels.  He only had the one square of cloth and she didn’t have any, so he held it against the exit wound rather than the entrance one.  Carefully, her small hands deft, Emma looped the leather belt around his arm, wrapping it more than once and slipping the end through the buckle.

      “Now tighten it up,” Johnny said, and she did.  “Tighter,” he told her, gritting his teeth as the belt squeezed the wound.  Must’ve hit more than blood vessels and muscle, he thought; the nerves were screaming at him.  When she finished he let his chin fall to his chest and tried to draw a slower, deeper breath, no easy trick with rib ends jabbing his lung.

      “I think your horse is coming back,” the girl said, and he raised his head and nodded wearily.  He peered into the ever-deepening dusk and saw the creamy forelock and mane shimmer into view.  If the child hadn’t seen Barranca and said so, Johnny would’ve believed him a mirage.  He called softly to the horse, who came on with tentative steps, bobbing his head up and down, uneasy at the scent of both the child and blood.

      “Come on, boy,” Johnny repeated.  “That’s right.  No time for nerves, Barranca, I got enough without you going spooky on me.”  He looked at the girl, who was glancing uncertainly from him to the horse.  Reaching out with his left hand, he urged the tall palomino to take another two steps, until he could catch the stirrup.  Okay, he thought, now up.  Gathering his legs under him, he dragged himself to his feet and leaned against Barranca’s sturdy bulk, his head resting on the golden hide of the horse’s neck.  Emma stood, too.  When Johnny looked at her and at the ground he saw he had left his revolver there.

      “Emma?” he said, sounding for all the world like someone on the very edge of sleep.  “Do you think you can put that gun of mine back in its holster?”

      Without a word, she lifted the pistol.  It was a Colt, a customized Peacemaker, snub-nosed with a cutaway trigger guard, relatively new.  Not the gun he’d used all those years ago, years he couldn’t forget but which he had finally managed to put behind him.  He thought.  Getting shot was bringing back more memories than he cared to deal with right now.  Or any time.  He felt the piece slide into its leather sheath, and then he felt a small hand on his back, warm and gentle, and the sweetness all but choked him up.

      “How you gonna get on that horse, Mister?” she asked.  “He’s awful durn big.”

      Johnny shook his spinning head.  “I don’t know, honey.  Guess I just will, that’s all.”  And he did, somehow managing not to fall off the other side as soon as he made it onto Barranca’s back.

TWO

      Hannah Skinner hurried toward the place in the woods where she thought Emma had gone.  She had been dozing on the cushioned settle when the shot awakened her.  She’d sat bolt upright and all the nausea she had felt earlier in the day had abruptly fled, subverted by fear for her daughter.  Not that she thought anyone had shot the girl; she noticed right away that the carbine was gone.  Damn gun.  Damn Russell.  He just had to show Emma how to shoot.

      Partway into the woods she thought she saw movement ahead.  The rapidly fading light made it hard to tell.  Then she heard the slow, heavy footfalls of a walking horse.  Her apprehension edged up a notch.

      “Emma?” she called.

      “Mama–”  There was hesitancy in her daughter’s voice.  Hannah hurried on, one hand beneath her swollen belly.  She worried about tripping in the dark but more about why Emma had a horse with her.  She drew closer and now she could make them out, along with an indistinct form on top of the horse.  Emma walked in front but not leading the animal.  As they drew nearer yet, Hannah noted the slumped aspect of the rider, a man, now she could see it was a man.  Close enough to touch, she stopped and Emma and the horse did, too.  The man straightened in the saddle but only partway.  She also thought she could see dark patches on the sleeve and side of his shirt.

      “Emma, what–” she began, but got no further as her daughter suddenly jumped toward her, wrapping her small arms as far as she could around what had until recently been Hannah’s waist.

      “I didn’t mean to do it, Mama.  It was an accident, I promise.  The deer, he–“

      Once more Hannah looked up at the man.  Now he wasn’t sitting so straight.  In fact, he listed threateningly to the right, and Hannah had to disentangle herself from Emma’s grasp and hurry to him, raising a hand to urge him to stay in the saddle.  When she touched his arm, he flinched.

      “Try to stay on,” she told him.  “The cabin’s not far but we can’t carry you.  Okay?”

      He nodded.  He’d looped the reins around the saddle horn and she unwound them and began leading the horse, which bobbed its head until the man quieted it with a murmur and a half-hearted pat.  Hannah kept glancing back at him but knew she could do little if he fell.

      “Almost there,” she said.  “Emma, are you all right?”

      She got no answer but thought she saw the child nod.  The cabin came into view, its windows glowing gold, a curl of smoke from the chimney catching the last of the outdoor light.  Hannah had never liked it here and had yet to think of it as home, but it looked pretty welcoming at the moment.  She led the horse directly to the front porch and turned to do what she could to help her visitor down.  The saddle creaked and he began to topple.  She tried to slow his descent but he ended up mostly falling, catching himself at the last minute with a muffled exclamation of pain, his left hand going to his blood-soaked side.

      “Come inside,” Hannah urged, taking hold of his good arm.  She helped him cross the shallow porch, leaving droplets of blood along the way.  “Emma, get the door.”

      He barely made it into the cabin before collapsing to his knees and doubling over.  All Hannah could see of him was tangled dark hair, sun-bleached red shirt wet with sweat and blood, shaking shoulders.  She couldn’t see his face.  Then he raised his head and looked into her with deep blue eyes that brimmed with pain.

      “Oh Emma,” she said, horrified, “Emma, child, what have you done?”

      The man spoke, with difficulty.  “‘S all right, ma’am.  Just an accident.  Musta been behind that deer.”  His blue gaze shifted toward Emma but he seemed now to have trouble focusing.  Even so, the ghost of a smile crossed his lips, and when Hannah looked at her daughter, she saw Emma give the merest of nods in return.

      “We should get you to bed,” she said, reaching once again for his left arm, to help him up.  She wished she could do more but it seemed every bit of exertion left her feeling crampy the past few days.  With Russ under arrest, not to mention just being Russ, it might not be the worst thing to lose the baby, but a part of her railed against this thought, besides which she knew losing the child would jeopardize her own health, even her life, and what would Emma do then?

      “What’s your name?” she asked.

      “Johnny,” he said, or gasped.  “Johnny Lancer.”

      Lancer.  It sounded familiar but she decided not to pursue it for now.  Instead, as gently as she could she steered him toward the bed she had shared with her husband.  The cabin had two rooms and a loft, and the bed was in the smaller of the rooms, with the sitting and cooking areas in the larger.  Emma slept above.  Hannah had no idea where the baby would sleep when it was old enough to leave her and Russ’s bed.  Then again, it might never be Russ’s bed again so it really didn’t matter.

      Johnny sat on the edge of the mattress and Hannah began to tug off one of his boots.

      “You don’t have to do that,” he said.

      Ignoring him, she continued to work the boot off, then moved to the other, the spurs jingling as she pulled.  Underneath he wore thick white socks, new and fairly clean.  His boots were of a high quality though much worn, comfortably broken in and well maintained.  He still seemed to be shaking slightly so she left his socks on, hoping he would stay warmer that way.  She reached for the buttons on his shirt; its intricate embroidery looked Mexican, and so did he, to a degree.  Not those blue eyes, though.  She’d never seen a Mexican with eyes like that.

      “Ain’t there a doc nearby?” he asked, ill at ease, fumbling at a button himself with one hand.  The other lay in his lap; despite the tightly cinched belt, blood continued to spread down his arm, drenching his sleeve to well past the elbow and dripping onto the bed.  There was also a sizable amount on his side, though it appeared to seep much more slowly.

      “I’m afraid not,” she told him regarding the local doctor.  “It’s a long story but you’d better let me help you for now.  Here, I’ll get those buttons.  I don’t want to loosen that belt until we have to, all right?”

      He nodded slightly, head drooping.  She could see he badly needed to lie down, that he was close to fainting.  He wasn’t breathing well at all, panting too shallowly and fast.  After tugging his shirt loose at the waist, she finished the last of the buttons.  She thought of undoing the gunbelt and pants but decided against it.  He wore his gun low, she noticed now, and the holster looked finely made, the gun even better cared for than the boots and all the more deadly for it.  A gunfighter, she thought.  Another gunfighter.  Wasn’t one enough?

      “Emma,” she said, aware of the child standing off to one side, watching anxiously, “do you think you could see to Mr. Lancer’s horse?  Put him in the barn and take off the saddle, all right?”

      “It’s Johnny,” the man reminded her.  “That horse is a handful and the saddle’s too heavy for her.”

      “She’s good with animals and stronger than she looks, aren’t you, sweetie?”

      Emma nodded, the hint of pride Hannah wanted to see peeking through, and headed outside.

      “Okay, Johnny,” Hannah said, her tone turning clipped.  “I have to take this belt off your arm.”  She grabbed some strips of cloth to use for bandages and began unbuckling the belt.  Johnny drew a sharp breath.  Hannah unwrapped the sticky, reddened leather and pulled the handkerchief from the wound.  Glancing at her patient’s face, she saw cold sweat break out on his skin, which had gone a nasty putty-like shade.  Working as quickly as she could, she slipped the ruined shirt off his shoulders and wrapped a temporary bandage around his arm, padding it thickly at the holes in hopes the pressure would slow the bleeding until she could get other supplies together.  The belt just wasn’t doing enough.

      Johnny looked up at her and though she tried to avoid meeting his gaze she couldn’t help it.  He frowned, confusion and wariness joining the pain in his eyes as she helped him lie back, noticing also the scars that marked his lean, well-muscled torso, souvenirs of a seasoned gunhawk, though in truth he didn’t look old enough to be seasoned, no more than late twenties, same as her.  Then again, for many gunfighters that age didn’t mean seasoned, it meant dead.

      In any case she had no intention of explaining how she felt about him now that she had figured out his trade.  He hardly seemed cold or callous, but neither had Russ.  Neither was Russ, but that didn’t make him a man to count on, to live with, to waste one’s life and time on.  Russ could be jovial, but the next instant he could turn mean.  Exciting or volatile; which way a person saw him depended on what she needed at the time.  And he was good-looking too, in a different way from Johnny Lancer, ruddy where Johnny was dark, but that didn’t matter.  It had taken Hannah just a little too long to learn that Russell Skinner was a man who charmed women by night but ate their hearts for breakfast, with a backhanded slap or a shove into the wall tossed in for extra spice.

      Turning away, she set water to heat on the stove and fetched towels and more bandages, then hunted in a cabinet for salve and carbolic acid, wishing all the while that she had some laudanum or even whiskey or rum.  They’d never kept opium in any form and Russ had drunk the rest, then headed into town for more, into trouble and Sheriff Donelly’s custody from there.

      “Try to hold still,” she told her patient, returning once the water had warmed, wiping as much blood as she could from the areas around the wounds without unwrapping his arm, fearful of releasing yet more.  She tried not to touch the side wound or even look at it until she had to.  He held still, watching her at first, which made her nervous, then closing his eyes.  She finished with the washing, satisfied that the side wound wasn’t bleeding too badly but still concerned about the other, which she now unwrapped.

      “I’ll make this as quick as I can,” she said.  And without waiting, without giving him any chance at all to anticipate or prepare for the assault, she poured the fiery carbolic over first the holes in his arm and then the one in his ribs.  This time he cried out, his features twisting, his skin flushing, his left hand darting toward his side.  Rushing to salve and rewrap the arm wound, Hannah hastily shoved the hand clear.  He settled, skin going from flushed to chalky in a heartbeat.  Pressing on both sides of his arm as hard as she could, Hannah took a closer look at the other wound and sighed.  Johnny opened his eyes.

      Hannah knew the bullet had to come out and from the way he was eyeing her, so did he.  She was pretty sure it hadn’t gone all the way in, but it was deep enough that she couldn’t make out any telltale bulges of lead under his skin.  What she could make out were two badly broken ribs that had to be digging into his lung.

      He didn’t ask her if she could remove it, at least not out loud.  His eyes did, though, however reluctantly.

      And she didn’t answer, either.  Instead she rose abruptly and left him and his question, left the cabin and walked outside.  No, of course she couldn’t do it.  Couldn’t; shouldn’t have to.  Save a gunfighter’s life?  How much better they’d all be if every pistolero just up and died.  Leave us in peace, she thought.  Don’t give us the chance to get fooled by your charms.  Not many of you are any more than frozen shells of men, but the ones who are, well…

      Emma was coming out of the barn.  She approached her mother silently, and Hannah regretted the way the child had to gauge the moods of adults before speaking to them.  Did she warrant that or was it just Russ?

      “Did you fix him up?” Emma asked.

      Hannah sighed.  How to tell her child she just couldn’t take care of this man?  No good way, she thought.  “There’s not much I can do for him, Emma.  I think he’ll have to get help somewhere else.”

      “But Mama!”  Emma was distraught.  “We can’t just turn him out–“

      “Emma–“

      “It’s not right!  He can barely sit his horse.  He’ll—“

      “Emma, I said there’s nothing I can do.  I’m not a doctor.  There is no doctor.  Your stepfather saw to that.”

      “You blame Russ for everything, Mama!  But he’s not the one who shot Johnny.”  Her voice grew reedy and small.  “I am.”

      Rubbing her weary brow, wondering what one good thing she had done in her life to deserve this caring, conscientious child, Hannah bowed her head.  She just felt so tired, all the time.  And no matter what Emma said, this was Russ’s fault.  Without him gone Emma would’ve been reading or drawing, not hunting, not limited to eggs or beans instead of real meat day after day because Hannah felt unwell and there was no money to buy food and no one else to hunt it in the woods.  Without him at all they’d be living in a decent-sized town, Emma going to school and playing with other children rather than isolated on this godforsaken excuse for a farm.  Russ got the blame for all of that, and more.  But Hannah could only blame herself for taking up with him in the first place.

      As if reading her mind, Emma spoke again.  “No matter whose fault it is, Mama, it’s not Johnny’s.  He was just out there riding past–“

      “I know, sweetheart,” Hannah said gently, a hand on her daughter’s head.  The hair was soft, baby fine, straggling in a wispy halo from its thin, fraying ribbon.  “You’re right.”  She sighed deeply.  “I guess we’d better see what we can do for him.”

      And so they returned to the cabin, each grabbing an armful of wood from the dwindling pile on the way and depositing it by the cast iron stove before returning to the bedroom.  There, to Hannah’s surprise, they found their supposed patient sitting on the edge of the bed, tying a clumsily applied bandage around his ribs.  Seeing them, he stood on shaky legs.

      “What are you doing?” Hannah asked, amazed that he could stand at all.

Sweat dotted his forehead and a drop trickled down one side of his face.  Swaying, catching the bedpost for support, he said, “If you can’t take this bullet out, I gotta to find someone who can.”

      “But–“

       “If you’ll get me my shirt, I’ll just–“

      “Mr. Lancer.  Johnny.  I’m not getting you your shirt.  It’s ruined, and even if you could ride, there’s not a doctor within sixty miles of here.”

      He swallowed, his knuckles white on the bedpost.  Already blood had colored most of the bandage around his arm and begun to spot through the one he’d just applied.  “About that,” he said.  “I know there’s a town not five miles south.  Used to be a doc there–“

      “Until Russ shot him,” Emma offered, to Hannah’s dismay.

      “Russ?”

      Hannah intervened.  “I’m not getting you your shirt.  Now if you’ll just lie back down–“

      “I have to go,” he insisted, and Hannah knew that although he couldn’t have heard her discussion with Emma outside, he’d picked up on the change in her attitude earlier.  And whether he was a gunhawk or not, she felt bad about that.

      “Please–” she began.

      “It’s all right,” he told her.  “Really.”  And took two steps, only two, before his knees began to give way.  Rushing forward, Hannah and Emma herded him back onto the bed.

      “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, breathless and sickly pale, as his head once again sank into the pillow.  “I know you don’t need this…  Not in your condition…”

      His voice trailed away and Hannah thought he had passed out, but when she lifted his foot and pulled off his boot once more, he tried to hold it up for her, and the other one as well, and then shifted so she didn’t have to do much of the work of getting his legs onto the bed.  As before she became conscious of Emma looking on, hanging back apprehensively.

      “He’ll be all right, sweetheart,” she reassured the child, hoping but not really believing she could make it so.

THREE

      Johnny watched as the woman gathered more supplies.  He felt as though he were squinting through a haze, the kind that blanketed the land before certain storms, charged and fuzzy around the edge.  Nothing fuzzy about the pain, though–his arm throbbed and so did his side, and he knew it would get worse very soon.  Much worse.  The idea of going through that at the mercy of a stranger set his teeth on edge and scared him more than the prospect of the agony itself, especially considering her abrupt turn of attitude toward him when she’d gotten a good look at his gun.  He’d rather deal with this on his own, or, better yet, under Sam Jenkins’ care and the numbing influence of chloroform.

He’d rather be at Lancer, period.  He’d nearly made it, too.  After weeks on the trail attending to this bit of outlying business or that, he’d concluded matters at their newly acquired timber holdings, his last stop, and then set off, tired but satisfied and ready to be home, for the final week-long ride.  Determined to arrive earlier than planned, he’d chosen to thread the mountain trails rather than the longer main roads.  He’d spent several crisp nights up high before reaching what ought to have been the relief of the foothills’ lower elevations today.

      He knew the kid’s name but not the woman’s.  He worried about her.  She seemed capable enough, so why wouldn’t she be out hunting instead of the child?  A couple times he thought he’d seen her body sort of hitch, as though at a cramp, and he’d seen her hand go to her belly.  He wondered how far along she was and put it at close to eight months.  She was thin to the point of gauntness, which made her pregnancy all the more prominent.  He wondered who this Russ was and what he had to do with anything besides the unfortunate lack of a doctor–both for the woman’s sake and Johnny’s own.  He figured there was more to it.  A long story, the woman had said.  And he’d seen the look on her face when the child mentioned the man’s name.  The child:  Emma.

      “Can’t let you poke that knife in me unless I know your name,” he said to the woman as she brought in a fresh basin of steaming water.

      “It’s Hannah,” she told him, setting the basin on the table by the bed.  Already she had laid out additional bandages, scissors, needle, thread, and the blade.  Also the carbolic, which Johnny dreaded almost more than the knife.  Almost.  “Hannah Skinner.”

      Suddenly he felt more alert.  The haze remained but caution cut through it.  “Then Russ–“

      She pretended to busy her hands, but in reality she’d done all the preparing she needed to.  Emma had been sent to bed in the loft and Hannah had closed the bedroom door.  Johnny had no intention of hollering, but still.

      “Please tell me you don’t know him,” Hannah said.

      He drew a breath, or as much of one as he could get without grimacing.  He knew Russell Skinner all right.  Or he had, during an extended stint protecting a big Texas spread, not long enough ago.  Lady’s man, always boasting that someday he’d leave the rest of the hired help in the dust, have a fine family of his own, get rich.  Maybe he meant it, but Johnny had never thought so except for the last part.  They’d worked together only that once, and although Skinner was fast, he jeopardized himself and the others by constantly wanting that little bit extra, never taking what he could and quitting while he was ahead.  Fact was, he’d nearly gotten Johnny killed by trying to take out one too many opponents, going for the glory rather than settling for the victory.  Plus he’d tried to seduce the daughter of the rancher who’d employed them.  She was even younger than Johnny at the time, maybe seventeen, and when Johnny realized Russ wanted her only so he could secure a permanent place on her father’s payroll, or better yet in his will, he’d warned her, saving her from Russ and earning a nice bonus himself–not in money, but in two memorable nights with the girl.  To this day he didn’t know if Russ had ever found out, because he’d taken his own advice and steered clear of Skinner himself.

      “I knew him, once,” he told the man’s wife now, careful to keep his tone neutral.  “If it’s the same man.”

      Her hands stopped their fussing and she said ruefully, her gaze straying to the gunbelt still buckled around Johnny’s hips, “It’s the same man.”

      “So he shot the doctor?”

      Her eyes met his.  Gray eyes, large and fringed with wheat-colored lashes.  She had an angular face to match her body but a softness to her manner that offset it.

      “Yes,” she said.  “He shot the doctor.  Killed him instantly, I’m afraid.  It was an accident, or so he claims.  He was taking target practice while a bunch of men from town placed bets, and Doc Boshay happened into the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was drunk–Boshay, that is, though Russ probably was too…  You get the picture.”

      Johnny forced a smile.  “Well if the doc was drunk, I might prefer you gettin’ this slug out after all.”  He shifted a little and instantly regretted it.

      The woman–Hannah–must’ve noticed, because she said, “I don’t think we should wait any longer.  You ready?”

      “Yeah.  Drunk doc or not, too bad you have to do this.”

      “Too bad my daughter shot you.”

      He managed a small shrug and she smiled, only a quirk but reassuring just the same.  Her mouth was wide and, he thought, sensual.  He wondered why he thought that, just now.  Then she carefully moved his injured arm away from his body and ducked her head, peering at the wound in his ribs, from which she had already unwrapped the bandage.

      “Maybe it would be easier if you turned onto your side,” she suggested, so he did, teeth sunk in his lip at the pain.  Once more she leaned over him, only to hesitate again.

      “Do you need something to bite on?”

      “No.  Best just do it, huh?”

      He heard her draw a deep breath and fixed his gaze on a knothole in the wall.  She laid one hand on his ribcage and her palm felt warm and comforting against his clammy skin.  She did not tell him to hold still this time.  He felt her press the blade of the knife–a small knife, one she probably used to peel potatoes–against him, touching the outside of the wound.  It felt neither cold nor hot, and it didn’t feel so bad, at first.  Then she sliced into the ragged, tender flesh, and all he wanted to do was scream.

      Instead he balled both fists, crushing handfuls of bedlinen in his fingers.  Pain snaked up and down his right arm as the damaged muscle there bunched.  He tried hard to stay focused on that knothole but sweat streamed into his eyes and he ended up squeezing them tightly shut.  A strangled groan made it through, then another as the blade probed deeper, digging under the misaligned rib ends.  He knew it didn’t matter what he did or how much noise he made so long as he held still, but that was getting harder every second.  He must’ve flinched, because she said, “Please don’t move.  Please,” and the desperation in her voice was as raw as the pain he felt.

      So he held still, for what seemed like forever, hoping and praying for her to say she had it, that it was over.  But it never seemed to end, and then unexpectedly the blade bit where it hadn’t before, into something that hurt more than ever, more than he could bear.  It sent repeated lightning strikes through his side and he couldn’t take that, no one could take that.  The electrified haze closed in on his body, igniting every nerve he had.  It seemed to lift him right off the bed, upward into the knife, but it wasn’t the knife anymore, it was her hand, her finger, digging in the hole the blade had made, seeking the slug, the fingernail worse than the blade, the finger thicker, rougher against mangled muscle and skin.  He continued to spiral upward, dizzy, sick, God if it didn’t end in two seconds or less he was going to throw up everything inside him and the thought of that was worse than anything else so far, he couldn’t do that.

      But he did.  He couldn’t help it.  His stomach convulsed and he barely managed to rasp at her to stop, to wait, before his whole self turned inside out.

      He was only dimly aware of her holding a basin in front of his face and that she must have pulled her finger out of the wound.

      “Did you get it?” he whispered when the last of the retching passed.

      “Not yet,” she said.  “It’s wedged between the broken bones.”

      With a soft groan, he let his head fall back onto the pillow, beyond exhausted.  Now Hannah was pressing something against his side, a cloth it felt like, at least it wasn’t the blade or her finger inside the wound again.  Then she took the cloth away and the air on the moist patch of skin felt cold.  Too soon she went back in.  The agony returned, but this time it didn’t last long, as he fell almost instantly away from it, into a pitch black void.


      Hannah sat back and closed her eyes.  She had finally gotten the bullet, a ball of lead less than half an inch in diameter, but one which at high velocity could do unbelievable damage, and had.  She had done her best but her hands had trembled throughout, stilled only by bracing them against her patient’s wound.  Her patient.  Oh God, she didn’t need this.  Couldn’t do this, she thought for the hundredth time.  But she had.  She’d dug out the slug and stitched all the wounds closed and wiped up the blood and the sweat and the vomit and even her own tears, tears she’d wept near the end when she thought she’d never pry it loose and only kill him trying.

      Not that she cared about Johnny Lancer, she reminded herself.  Any more than she did about anyone else, less than most in fact.  But she couldn’t just let him die, and, thanks only in part to Emma, neither could she put him out.  Russ had pretty well extinguished any inclination she may have had to trust attractive men who were quick with guns, but he hadn’t turned her into a monster or even a bitch, and in truth, if this night were any indication, he had chilled her heart far less than she’d feared.

      She looked at the man on her bed.  He still wasn’t breathing well, but the additional bleeding her coarse surgery had caused had slowed to an ooze, and his arm seemed to have stopped bleeding for the most part, too.  Her back aching, her belly cramping, she had left him on his side, figuring that if he woke suddenly and got sick again, she wouldn’t have to move him.  She had removed his gunbelt and looped it over the back of the chair, but still left his pants on, figuring he’d object if she took them off, too.  His dark hair had fallen across his forehead and cheek, and she brushed it back, noticing that his skin felt warmer now than it had but not warm enough to worry about.  She would’ve liked to immobilize his arm by binding it to his chest, because she had the sense it could start bleeding again at the least jolt or strain, but she needed to be able to get at the side wound and didn’t want to awaken him in any case, if she even could.  She hoped he was sleeping but thought it more likely he remained unconscious.

      Tiredly, she rose from her chair and carried the last of the bloodied rags to the kitchen, where she dumped them into a tub for washing the next day.  She had no idea where she would find the energy for that.  It was all she could do to dig an extra pair of blankets from the chest at the foot of the bed, stretch out on the thin cushions of the settle, and draw the covers over herself.  She slept instantly and deeply, without dreams.

FOUR

      Emma woke when she usually did, at dawn, fully alert and aware, recalling every detail of the day before.  It was always like this with her, an enviable skill that Russ teased her about, saying he wished he had that much energy before Hannah got the coffee on.  Well he might’ve been a groggy bear in the morning, but Emma suspected he always knew exactly where he was and what had gone on before.  Except when he had liquor on his breath, his eyes were sharp and keen and missed nothing, no matter the time of day.

      She didn’t especially like Russ, though he had been fun at first, laughing at silly things that made Mama roll her eyes, swooping Emma up onto his big bay horse and lighting out across the fields at a fast gallop, flapping his hat and whooping along the way.  He liked excitement and so did Emma, but sometimes it seemed to tire Mama so, especially now with that baby inside.  This worried Emma, to the extent that she had become wary of Russ and his antics.  With good reason, it seemed, given what happened with the doctor and now eggs or beans every day, all the time.

      She sighed.  Collecting the eggs was one of her chores, and she had to do it first thing.  Except that this morning she would look in on Johnny before that.  So Mama wouldn’t have to, she told herself.  Soundlessly she descended the ladder from the loft.  The cabin had chilled, the fire having gone out, but she left rekindling it until later, knowing the scrape of the cast iron hinges would wake Mama for sure.  Instead she crept on stockinged feet to the bedroom, past her mother sleeping still in her dress on the settle, and ventured through the open door.

      She was most startled to find Johnny Lancer watching her, his blue eyes maybe a little glazed, kind of like Russ’s with the liquor, but intent.  He lay on his back, his head and shoulders propped up on two pillows, his left arm lying along his side, his right arm bent at the elbow with the hand resting on his stomach.  Both bandages sported generous bloodstains, especially the one on his arm, but the blood had turned a rusty brown and looked dry.  She couldn’t have woken him, she thought.  Mama always said she was quieter than an owl on the wing.

      After closing the door behind her so as not to wake her mother, she said formally, “Good morning, Mr. Lancer.”  She already thought of him as Johnny but was trying to remember her manners.  Mama said manners would get her places that other attributes would not.  She did not know what attributes meant but had gotten the message anyhow.

      His lips quirked and she saw a little spark as the smile touched his eyes.  She was fascinated by those eyes, drawn in, trusting automatically though other things told her not to.  His gun told her not to, and the way Mama had hesitated to help him last night.  There were aspects to him that reminded her of Russ, and Russ she definitely couldn’t count on, not anymore.

      “It’s Johnny,” he said, as he had before.  Like hers, his voice was quiet, but she thought that was because he lacked the energy to speak up.  He was awfully pale, except for a rosy patch on each cheek, and the morning light glinted off the skin of his face and body where sweat made it shine.  The sun had only just begun to filter through Mama’s pretty lace curtains, so the bedroom remained as cool as the other.  Even so, Johnny had thrown off the blanket and lay there barechested with only the bandages for cover on his upper half.  The one on his arm looked uncomfortably tight, the skin swelling and darkened above and below it.

      “Good morning, Johnny,” she amended.  “You feeling better?”

      His gaze flickered away.  “Sure,” he said, and she wondered why adults so often told her fibs, as though she were a baby who couldn’t see the truth.  “‘Bliged to you for helping me, Emma,” he added, his voice croaky as well as quiet.

      “Maybe you’d like some water,” she suggested, seeing the pitcher and cup by the bed.

      He nodded, briefly closing his eyes, and Emma saw his dark brows draw together the way Mama’s sometimes did these days when she felt poorly.  She poured the water and handed him the glass, and when he took it a tremor passed through his fingers.  It seemed hard for him to lift his head and he only managed one sip before lying back.  Emma saw the cup begin to tilt and snatched it away before it could spill.

      “Thank you,” he said, but he sounded more worn out than grateful.

      “You’re welcome.”

      When he said nothing more but rather lay still with his eyes closed and that slight frown, Emma figured she’d better leave him alone.  Maybe he had a headache, and grownups could get awfully snappish with those.  Or maybe his wounds hurt him, more likely this, she supposed, wishing for the thousandth time that it weren’t her fault.  As silently as she had entered, she tiptoed from the room, leaving the door open in case he needed to call for help, though something told her he’d rather do anything than that.  She had hoped to spend longer with him, maybe working her way around to apologizing for putting him into such a predicament–she liked that word, the way it toyed with her tongue–but he seemed too weak even for listening.  Why was it, she wondered, that all the grownups in her life were suddenly so sick or hurt or badly behaved that no one could even talk to her?  Or play checkers.  Or bake cookies.  Or anything.

      With a sigh, she shoved her feet into boots already too snug and headed for the barn.  As she walked outside into the early morning sunshine, she remembered she had left the carbine in the woods.


      Johnny dozed.  Although he detested taking laudanum he might’ve given in now, just one sip, anything to ease the fire in his arm and side.  He’d slept horribly, hurting when he moved but unable to lie still, feeling a fever creep into his system and begin to climb, slowly, inevitably.  He couldn’t tell which wound brought it on because both hurt the same.  Chances were it was the one in his ribs; though he assumed Hannah Skinner had eventually dug out the bullet, maybe a fragment of cloth remained, or just a bit of dirt.  Even with the carbolic it didn’t take much, and he knew from when she’d stuck the damned knife into him that the wound was deeper than he’d first thought.

      His arm had swollen and the puffed flesh strained against the bandage.  He’d tried to untie it but the swelling had tightened the knot.  As for his side, his ribs grated every time he so much as breathed.  Dios, what a fix!  And he’d wanted to ride out today, figured that by letting Hannah patch him up, he’d at least be able to make it to Lancer if he rode slowly enough.  Now he could barely hold up his head.

      Maybe if he rested the morning he’d be okay by afternoon.  He knew Hannah didn’t want him here, could well understand her dislike if she’d linked up with a man like Russell Skinner.  Poor woman.  She wouldn’t be the first.  Still, she had an intelligent, even educated way about her, and the kid spoke fine English, too, kind of like Scott.  Both were clean if somewhat threadbare in their dress, and had treated him civilly, even kindly, despite not wanting him around.  Then again the child seemed pretty eager for company, lonely even, and he wished he hadn’t faded so fast on her.  It was the mother who wanted him gone, and he fully intended to comply.  Just not right now.

      The sunlight fell across the bed, worsening the sick headache Johnny already had.  Lifting his left arm, which had somehow turned to lead overnight, he covered his eyes.  He still felt terribly thirsty and he needed to piss but both would have to wait.  Once more he drifted off, hoping when he woke he’d feel stronger, or better yet, that all this would turn out to have been a bad dream.


      Hannah Skinner woke feeling stiff but reasonably well rested.  The baby poked tentatively, then a heel or an elbow traveled across the inside of her womb.  Smiling, she traced the moving bulge with her finger.  She felt none of the previous day’s cramping but didn’t feel wholly well either, and the temptation to lie here all morning, just herself and this burgeoning life, beckoned seductively.  But unfortunately she had much to do.  Bake bread, hunt for berries, wash the rags in the tub.  And care for the man her daughter had shot.  Oh Emma, she thought.  Oh Russ.  Curse you, Russ.

      Sitting up, she tamped back a rolling swell of nausea.  It hadn’t been like this with Emma, she’d passed through that pregnancy effortlessly, with Emma’s father and Hannah’s own family doting on her every step of the way–stifling her, in fact, or so she’d thought at the time.  Even the delivery had gone so smoothly that the midwife commented on how fortunate Hannah was to have a minimum of pain.  Well, she’d thought and still did, if that were the minimum she’d hate to have a tough go of it.  Which she feared she would this time if the past several months were any indication.

      But she couldn’t trouble over that now.  Reluctantly, she rose from the settle, smoothed the rumpled blue fabric of her dress, and made her way to the bedroom that was supposed to be hers but had been given over to yet another gunfighter.  Stop thinking like that, she told herself.  He’s a human being and he’s hurt.  But a small voice inside insisted that he could still hurt her, one way or the next, and she knew she had to tend him well if for no other reason than to see him on his way.

      As far as she could tell he was asleep, not unconscious, and this she took as a good sign.  He must have awakened in the night and stuck the second pillow on top of the first, because it hadn’t been that way when she’d left.  Standing over him, she assessed his condition:  sweat-dampened hair, flushed cheeks, bandage biting into his upper arm, blanket tossed aside.  No fresh blood on the bandages, at least, and no discolored discharge either to indicate infection, though from the flush he likely had one somewhere, and she questioned whether she should have left that side wound open to drain rather than stitching it closed.  Well, she sure wasn’t going to reopen it now.  He looked pretty pathetic for a gunhawk, she thought, helpless and feverish.  Reaching out, she felt his forehead, only to recoil when his eyelids flew open and his right hand jerked to his hip.  The sudden movement ended in a grimace and a grunt, and for a few seconds the flush drained from his face.

      “Dios!” he exclaimed, a strangled whisper, holding his right arm with his left, his blue eyes glittering with pain.  “Please don’t do that, okay?”

      She’d snatched her hand away and taken a step back.  “You gunslicks!” she snapped before she could stop herself.  “You’re all alike.  It’s not there anyway.”

      He drew a breath, which seemed to catch in his throat as it deepened, and she thought he hid another wince but at the moment didn’t really care.  “I know.  Can’t seem to help it.”

      “Old habits die hard?”

      He regarded her for a second before saying, his coolness now matching hers, “‘Fraid so.”

      He struggled to sit and she forced herself to help him, though she felt his muscles tense as though rejecting her aid.  He reached for the cup of water by the bed and this time she let him get it himself.  He drank a few sips before setting it aside, and she thought he should drink more but did not say.  She figured he needed to lie down again and could use some help doing it but instead she turned away, unable to face those expressive blue eyes.  Expressive some of the time.  Most likely in response to her judgmental tone, he’d shuttered them now.  Disconcerted by the switch, Hannah fished fresh underclothes from a bureau drawer and her only other loose-fitting dress from a peg on the wall, and made for the door.

      “I’ll be out of here by later today,” he said to her back.

      “No you won’t,” she replied, without turning around.  And more’s the pity, she thought, but had no need to say, certain he already knew.


      Moments after the woman left him, Johnny heard the front door close.  He thought Emma might have returned but the cabin fell silent and he realized Hannah had gone out, too.  Good, he thought, needing to cool off and not just from the fever.  He resented the way she kept lumping him in with Russ, just naturally assuming he was not only a cold-hearted gun-for-hire, still working, but probably an opportunistic bastard as well.

      He badly needed to relieve himself but sure as hell hadn’t wanted to ask her to help him with that.  Gathering what strength he could, he swung his legs over the side of the bed.  He had to wait for some of the resultant dizziness to pass, and when it did he stood, waiting again.  There was a pot on the floor but he didn’t want to use that.  What he wanted was to check on Barranca, and take a look at his surroundings during daylight hours.  He had to hold on to whatever furniture or walls he could, but gradually he made his way across the wide-plank floor to his boots.  It took some doing getting his feet into them but he succeeded finally and continued toward the front door, then out into the crisp but sundrenched day.

      Neither Emma nor Hannah was anywhere to be seen.  Left arm extended toward the wall of the cabin, Johnny made his wobbly way around back, then gave up the wooden support and took a few steps unaided toward the trees.  There was a small, crudely constructed barn a short distance from the cabin and a sizable garden in need of tending on the south side of that where some trees had been cleared.  There was no other indication of what livelihood Russell Skinner might have taken up besides shooting people.  If he’d meant to carve out a farm, he’d done a mighty poor job of it.

      After accomplishing the tricky business of rebuttoning his pants one-handed, Johnny turned toward the barn.  A wave of dizziness nearly knocked him over and he groped blindly for a treetrunk, his fingers digging into the rough bark.  He rested there, head bowed, willing the world to hold still.  When it more or less complied, he continued on his way.  By the time he reached the inside of the barn, he was both sweating and shivering.  Not a good sign.

      “Hey compadre,” he said to Barranca as the horse nosed his shoulder in greeting, working his lips in search of a treat.  “Lo siento,” Johnny told him, “nothing for you today.  From the looks of it, not much for us humans either.”

      He glanced around the interior of the building, noted a small roost where four scrawny chickens pecked at a fifth, plus two other stalls, one with a hipshot brown cow chewing her cud.  No pigs, no goats, no dogs or cats, not even a wagon, and what hay and straw there were smelled of mold.

      “You get any oats?” he asked the horse, knowing he hadn’t.  He scratched behind Barranca’s ears and told him not to worry, they’d head out soon.  Still, no matter how Hannah Skinner felt about him, he couldn’t help but worry about leaving her and her daughter stranded here:  there was no other horse, no way for them to get into town unless they walked.  Emma was too young for that–how would she tote provisions back even if she could get there?–and from what he could tell, Hannah was less fit to make the trek than the kid.  And if Russ stayed gone, what the hell would Hannah do when the baby came?

      Frustrated, he sighed.  How did he get from the one needing help to knowing these people needed it more, at least in the long run?

      Before leaving the barn, he located his saddle and gear and dug his other shirt from the saddlebags.  Unfortunately it was as filthy as the red one, though not with blood, stiff and rank with sweat and grime from his trip.  He stuffed it back into the pouch in disgust, then gave Barranca a final pat and walked back outside, still sticking close to whatever support he could on the way.  As he reached the sunbright clearing, he saw Emma emerge from the woods with the carbine resting on her thin shoulder.  Spotting him, she skipped into a run.

      “Johnny!” she exclaimed, her long face lit for the first time since they’d met by a bright, happy smile that he couldn’t help but return.  She looked like a whole different kid, and he had to admit it felt good to find someone glad to see him.

      “Hi, Emma.”

      She fell into step next to him, patiently matching his halting pace.  “Checking on your horse?”

      “Uh huh.  You really get that saddle off all by yourself?”

      “I sure did.”

      “And he didn’t try to bite you?”

      She laughed, the loveliest sound he’d heard in days, maybe weeks, since he’d left Lancer and Scott’s growing brood.  Two and counting, but Coco had the best laugh, a merry cackle that made even cantankerous old hands like Jelly melt.

      “Of course not,” she said.  “He’s gentle as a lamb.”

      “Not usually.  You must have the magic touch.”

      They had reached the cabin, and none too soon, as without warning another wave of vertigo struck, putting an abrupt end to the pleasant exchange.  Johnny caught hold of a post and held tight, his strength draining fast.

      “You all right, Johnny?” he heard Emma ask.

      “Uh huh,” he managed, “jus’ need to rest a bit–“

      But not here, or he’d drop where he stood.  Before his legs could betray him, he stepped onto the narrow porch and more or less staggered inside, where he collapsed onto the settle.  His shivering worsened and now he felt chilled rather than hot, but he didn’t have enough energy left to light a fire in the stove.  Maybe in a few minutes, he thought, lying on his good side but keeping his feet on the floor because he still wore his boots, an awkward and uncomfortable position that set his ribs to grating again.

      He was dimly aware of Emma asking why he didn’t go into the bedroom instead, and of wanting to tell her he couldn’t continue to take her pregnant mama’s bed, that Hannah needed it more.  No, he thought, don’t say that, it will only scare her.  He couldn’t say it anyway, or anything else.  The brief stroll had him plumb tuckered, and he soon gave in to sleep, but not before he felt those soft little hands slipping his boots from his feet and lifting his legs, one at a time, onto the settle.  And covering him with a blanket, for which he was as grateful as he’d ever been for anything in his life.


      Hannah walked back to the cabin surrounded by birdsong and sunshine that filtered through the trees.  In her pail she carried a quart of blackberries, plucked from the bramble patch not a quarter mile away.  The day had finally warmed and she’d crossed paths with her daughter on the path to the berries, trading a hug and a kiss good morning.  Emma had said she’d collected the eggs and milked the cow, and that one of the chickens was getting henpecked to death by the others and couldn’t they please, please have it for dinner tonight?  Hannah had agreed, and already her mouth watered at the thought of a real meal.  She had a few potatoes left and if she cut away the green parts they’d do for mashing.  As if in anticipation, the baby inside her kicked eagerly.

      She tried to feel cheerful but despite her surroundings, could not.  She envied Emma’s ability to ignore the big problems and concentrate on the small delights.  She indulged herself in the wish that she was once again Emma’s age, starting over.  She’d do it all differently except one thing:  Emma herself.  She’d never change that, and she’d put up with all measure of suffering–past, present, future–if it meant she got to have Emma in her life.  She wondered if she would feel the same way about this new child.  Probably.  Mothers usually did.  She wondered how gunfighters’ mothers felt about them.  She’d never met Russ’s and Russ scarcely mentioned her.  She wondered about Johnny’s.

      In the barn she found Emma feeding bits of hay to Johnny’s horse, which, she noticed now as she saw the animal in daylight for the first time, was a tall, striking palomino whose brown eyes held an interesting mix of feral and inquisitive.  Hannah declined to stay and pet him, leaving that to her daughter, but she did feed him a few berries, which he lipped off her outstretched palm.

      When she returned to the cabin, she noted that Johnny lay curled on the settle, eyes closed, lashes long and dark against his flushed cheeks.  He’d pulled a blanket tightly around him, clear up to his neck, and breathed a little more deeply now that he slept.

      Working quietly, Hannah set the berries aside and busied herself stripping the linens from her bed, sighing over the bloodstains there.  Knowing it would likely bring on the cramps if she tried to carry the whole tub of laundry outside at once, she took it in parts, lugging the tub last.  Under the intensifying sun, she took a cake of rough brown soap and began scrubbing first the sheets and some undergarments of hers and Emma’s, then, less vigorously, the rags.  She soon tired but kept it up.  She had told Johnny his shirt was ruined and it basically was, if he minded wearing it mended and permanently stained with his blood, of which there was so much that she could not begin to get it out.  She wondered how he’d survived, bleeding like that, but if his scars were any indication he’d done it before, and more than once.

      A breeze kicked up and tugged at the laundry as she pegged it to a line stretched from the barn to a tree.  She liked the sound of the snapping cloth and she liked the trees, though she knew that if Russ had done what he said he would, they’d have fields instead.  So much for that.

      Again returning to the cabin, she prepared to bake a fresh batch of bread.  Emma had disappeared into the woods–without the carbine this time, Hannah made sure.  She liked to build fairy houses like the ones Hannah had read her about in a book and could spend hours alone out there, not far from the cabin and barn.  Hannah worried about her spending so much time by herself.  She needed other children, other adults.  Family, friends.  Maybe now with Russ likely headed for prison they could move into a town.  Not this town, as it was small and rough with no families to speak of, and in any case she supposed its residents wouldn’t exactly welcome the wife of the man who’d shot their doctor.  But some town, somewhere else.  A new start?  Possibly, or was she deluding herself about that as she had deluded herself about Russ?

      Shoving aside her thoughts, she lifted the lid to the flour bin and groaned in dismay.

      “Bugs?” a soft voice said, making her jump.  She whirled around to find Johnny standing not four feet behind her, the blanket draped across his shoulders.

      “If you don’t want me to sneak up on you, then don’t sneak up on me,” she said curtly, swallowing her fright.  He moved more quietly than Emma, and that was going some.  “Okay?”

      “Okay,” he agreed, drawing out the word, his head tilted slightly to one side, eyes a bit narrowed, perhaps the hint of a smile at one corner of his mouth.  Assessing me, she thought, and felt discomfited.

      “Yes,” she told him, to be civil, “there are some bugs.”

      “They sift out.  Want me to do it?”

      “You?”

      His smile broadened, his teeth very white in the middle of a day’s shadow of beard.  “Well, my older brother claims I’ve tried to kill him with my cooking, but I reckon I could sift those bugs without causing any harm.  Then we could fry ’em up for dinner and–“

      She thought of answering sharply but found herself smiling, too.  That glint in his blue eyes made it almost impossible to do otherwise.  Then she thought of Russ, who had once had a similar effect, if not so pronounced, with eyes as green as Johnny’s were blue.

      “I don’t think so,” she replied, sobering.  “And you’re supposed to rest, remember?”

      “So I can ride out.”

      “So you can get better.”

      He shook his head.  “You know, ma’am–Hannah–you ain’t got the faintest idea who I am.  Or whether I just came from a gunfight or deliverin’ a baby–“

      “You didn’t come from delivering a baby.”

      “True enough.  But I know Russell Skinner, and the fact is we’re just not the same man.”

      She felt her chin lift.  In her hand she still held the lid to the bin, and the fingers of her other hand were dusted white from sifting the flour through them.  “I never said you were.  But your rig tells anyone who cares to look that you’re a gunfighter, and that’s all the warning I need.  I won’t turn you out until you’re ready, but the truth is I’ve had enough of your kind to last me three lifetimes, and I don’t intend to ever get friendly with one again.”

      “Was.”

      “Excuse me?”

      “I was a gunfighter.  I’m not anymore.”

      She considered this and, inclined to believe otherwise, shook her head.

      “And another thing,” he added, despite her response, “We’re not all alike.”

      “Actually,” she countered, “now that I think about it, you’re right.  You’re not all alike–some of you are worse.  All of you kill for money, but at least some don’t pretend to be more than the rattlesnakes they are, don’t pretend to be charming or responsible or even kind…”  Her voice trailed off and she stood silent, glaring at him, caught.

      Again the smile quirked his lips, and, God help her, she couldn’t keep from noticing what a nice mouth he had.  To go with the rest of him.  No, she told herself.  No, do not do this, it’s no more real in him than in Russ, do not let that pistolero charm rope you in.  You are not some half-witted heifer at roundup time.  It’s Russ all over again, he might as well have used that silver tongue on the sheriff and waltzed right out of that cell, which, she reminded herself, he could very well do.  But this one really did seem kind, and then there were those eyes.  And shoulders, and arms, and chest–bullet wounds notwithstanding–and, damn it, she really had to stop thinking like this.

      “Charming, huh?” he said, and set the blanket aside.  For a moment Hannah felt alarmed, then she realized he only meant to help her with the flour, since he was reaching for the strainer she kept on the table and dipping it into the bin, rather than reaching for her.  Well, what else did she expect?  The man was a stranger, and a wounded one at that; he’d known her less than twenty-four hours and chances were all he wanted from her now were clean bandages and a sling for his arm, and if charm or deceit helped him get those things, he’d use it without a qualm.  Pulling out a chair, failing to completely conceal a wince at the effort, he sat.  “Got a bowl?”

      Saying no more, she plunked one in front of him and hurried away, intent on seeing if, by some miracle, his shirt had already dried.  If not she’d give him one of Russ’s, whether or not she could stand to have him remind her that much more of the man she had once loved.

      She was about to pass through the front door when Emma burst inside.  They would’ve collided had Hannah not caught the child’s arms.  Her customary dignity entirely gone, Emma jabbered madly about something, someone coming.  She’d seen someone coming through the woods, and Hannah couldn’t tell whether she was excited or scared or both, and wasn’t sure Emma knew, herself.

      “Slow down,” she said, aware from the scrape of the chair on the wooden floor that Johnny had risen and come to stand, once again, behind her.

      Emma drew in a big, shaky breath and looked from her mother to him, then back at Hannah.  “It’s Russ,” she said.  “I saw him.  He was riding through the woods on his horse, and he’s on the trail that leads back here.”

FIVE

      “Hannah, darlin’ mine, look how you have grown!” Russell Skinner hollered from the center of the clearing, holding out both arms while his horse pawed the ground behind him.  Johnny watched from inside the door as Hannah walked—reluctantly?–into her husband’s embrace, Emma close on her heels but hanging back at the last minute, and something inside him that had nothing to do with bullets or broken bones hitched.  All he could think of was that rancher’s daughter back in Texas, pretty girl, naive, willing to let this man have everything she had to give, which, between her father’s ranch and her own simpatico self, came to quite a bit.  He wondered whether Hannah had been that naive.  If she was as educated as she sounded, maybe she came from a background with resources Russ thought he could get his hands on.  At this point it sure didn’t look like much.

      Johnny stepped onto the porch and Skinner looked up from the deep, sloppy kiss he’d imposed on his wife.  He had a ruddy complexion and a face a woodcarver might have chiseled but not refined, almost too rough, plus a good fifty pounds on Johnny, mostly in muscular bulk and some in height as well.  He was a bull of a man, tough but eager to display a tender side to the ladies when it suited him.  The scroll-engraved silver handle of his revolver gleamed in the sun; it was a showy piece, worn low and tied around Skinner’s treetrunk of a thigh, now that he’d dismounted from the horse.

      “Madrid?” he asked, clearly shocked.

      In his arms, Hannah turned.  “No,” she began, “He’s–“

      But Skinner wasn’t listening.  “Johnny Madrid?”  He released his wife and a grin spread over his rugged features, though not to his eyes.  “God in heaven, boy, I never thought I’d see your face again.  Fact, I heard you was dead.”

      Johnny moved to the edge of the porch, keeping near a post in case the weakness he already felt got any worse.  As Skinner more or less barreled toward him, he worried the big man would bear hug him the way he had his wife.  He couldn’t decide which he’d hate more, the pain or the hug itself.  Fortunately Skinner halted a pace away and looked him up and down.  Johnny’s shirt was still too damp to wear and Hannah hadn’t had time to get him another, but he figured it was just as well if Skinner could clearly see his reason for staying here.  Of course, if his legs gave out on him like they were threatening to do, that would give a pretty good indication, too.

      “So two questions, compadre,” Skinner said, still with that grin, his loud voice boosting Johnny’s nagging headache a notch.  “What the hell did you do to yourself, and why the hell did you do it here?”

      Johnny gave a little smile and though he needed to hold on to that post, he remained standing on his own.  It was okay to provide Skinner with some evidence, but he hated appearing as vulnerable as he felt.  Unlike Russ, he wore no gun–couldn’t buckle it, didn’t want to ask Hannah or Emma to, and couldn’t draw in any case.  “Picked up a stray,” he said.  “Emma found me and your wife patched me up.”

      “A stray, huh?  As in a stray bullet, not aimed at you?”  Skinner rubbed at his jaw, which Johnny noted was cleanshaven.  His hair was freshly trimmed, too, and he smelled faintly of men’s cologne, something clove-like, which meant he’d taken time to visit the barber between jail and here.  Hadn’t given the same consideration to his wife and the child, though:  his saddlebags weren’t exactly bulging with provisions.  Even the fact that he had the horse with him instead of leaving it for Hannah indicted him for what he was, a self-centered son of a bitch.

      “That’s about right,” Johnny said.

      “About.  And this happened when?”

      “Last night.”

      Russ gazed at the bloodstains on each bandage in turn, and Johnny felt like he was poking at the wounds.  “One bullet, you say?”

      “Just one.”

      Again Skinner put on his grin.  “Well, Johnny boy, you always did like to conserve those slugs.  Aim carefully, hit what you’re aimin’ at.  Not that you’ll be hitting much with that shooting arm for a while yet.  Got any idea who plugged ya?”

      “Pretty good one, yeah.”  Despite his resolve not to, he leaned his left shoulder against the post, trying to make it look intentional and casual at the same time and knowing Skinner wasn’t fooled.  Hell, the bastard was probably drawing this out on purpose.  “But don’t worry, Russ, I ain’t a target now, no harm’s comin’ to your wife and kid.”

      “I wasn’t worried.” 

      “I didn’t think so.”

      Skinner’s green eyes narrowed and Johnny wished he’d been able to hold his tongue.  But he just felt so awful and this man was the current cause, and all he wanted to do was get rid of him so he could lie down.  Or fall down.  Whichever came first.

      “Well, Johnny,” Skinner drawled, “you’re looking a mite peaked, so maybe we oughtta all go on inside, huh?  Let Hannah here tend you some more if that’s what she wants.”  He glanced over his shoulder at his wife, who had stayed where she was, her arm around the little girl.  “That what you want, darlin’ o’ mine?”

      Without replying, Hannah came to stand next to her husband, Emma still sticking close but clearly wary of her father.  Or whatever Russell Skinner was to her, Johnny thought, stepfather most likely.  A cloud slipped in front of the sun and it was all he could do not to shiver visibly.  He let his gaze meet Hannah’s, if only for an instant.  Though he planned on telling Skinner he no longer went by Madrid, he appreciated her keeping the information to herself.  Then again–

      “My husband’s right, Mr. Madrid,” she said, an edge to her tone as she emphasized the name, “how about I change those bandages and make you a sling, then you can get some more rest?”

      “And for God’s sake get him one of my shirts,” Russell Skinner added.  “Coolin’ off right quick out here, don’tcha think?”


      Hannah snatched up the hen she planned to cook for dinner.  The poor bird was already half plucked, thanks to her ill treatment at the hands of the rest.  She wondered where the rooster had gone off to.  He hadn’t crowed this morning, though God knew he let loose at erratic times even when he did decide to stay in the yard.  No matter how securely she tried to wire the coop, somehow the wily bird slipped through.

      With a single angry twist of her wrists, Hannah wrung the hen’s neck, thinking first of Russ and then of Johnny, unsure which of their necks she’d rather be wringing instead.  Johnny Madrid.  Good God.  She’d heard of him–who in Russ’s circle hadn’t?–a border legend that just kept growing, whether he was actively adding to it or not.  He’d said he wasn’t and Russ had thought him dead, so maybe he was telling the truth after all.  Once inside the house he’d told Russ he didn’t go by Madrid anymore, though that could’ve been to string Hannah along.

      “It’s Lancer now,” he’d said.  They were sitting around the table in the cabin, all four of them.

      “Lancer?  You mean like that big spread over in the San Joaquin?”  Russell had laughed.  He had many laughs, this one decidedly unkind.  “Coulda picked a less known name, Johnny.  You know, like Smith, or Jones?”

      Johnny had smiled but Hannah had noticed that ever since Russell’s return, his eyes had resumed their shuttered look.  Cold, measuring, a quiet form of intimidation that she figured worked pretty well when he was in good health.  At that point, however, she’d been soaking the bandages off his wounds, trying to peel away the cloth without hurting him too much.  She knew Russ had deliberately picked this juncture to continue their discussion, and though her regard for Johnny had dipped lower than whatever it might have been before–a question that still had her confused–her regard for Russ had dipped lower than that.  No provisions, barely a hello to Emma, and baiting an injured man.

      She wondered why Johnny had declined to further discuss his choice of a name.  If it was his choice.  Now she knew why Lancer had sounded familiar to her last night; had she been less worried and fatigued, she would have recognized it immediately.  Plus, like Russ, she assumed an apparent gunhawk and people like the Lancers just didn’t match up.  But though the possibility of him being related to such a prosperous family seemed farfetched, it wasn’t entirely out of the question.  She had to smile.  Look at herself, only in her case it was the reverse, riches to rags.

      Above board or not, whatever Johnny Madrid’s reasons for taking the Lancer name, he had said nothing more.  So Russ, who was halfway through the last loaf of yesterday’s bread and had made a sizable dent in the berries, had switched to what had to be an overblown account of how as soon as the judge got to town he’d visited Russ in jail where, upon hearing Russ’s side of the story, he’d promptly chastised Donelly for hauling him in in the first place, then treated the released prisoner to a whiskey over at the saloon.

      Johnny had sat through this account and the accompanying cleaning, salving, and rebandaging of his arm and ribs patiently, smiling in a bemused way when the story merited it, occasionally blanching and clenching his left fist, which was under the table where only Hannah could see.  By the time she finished applying the sling he was wrung out, uninterested in eating bread or fruit, with no option left but to give in and sleep.  Not in the house, though; this time he insisted on using his bedroll here in the barn, where he was now, still out, not even stirring at the chicken’s death squawk although he had opened one eye a slit when Hannah entered, doubtless to make sure she wasn’t Russ.

      Hannah herself had laid down for a desperately needed nap on fresh sheets Emma applied to the bed–with Russ’s clumsy assistance, amazingly enough, though probably only because he wanted her to let him lie down with her, not that he got anything but a nuzzle out of it.  She’d slept two solid hours and awoken feeling not only refreshed but also grateful to find Russ sitting in the sun on the porch rather than still in bed, and Emma, bless her helpful heart, pulling a bunch of the stunted carrots that grew in the garden.  After forcing herself to give her husband the obligatory kiss–why wasn’t he out hunting dinner, anyway?–and suggesting to Emma that she bring in the last of the chard along with the carrots, Hannah had proceeded to the barn.  She felt stronger than she had in a while, and was grateful for both her renewed vigor and the timing of it.

      Sitting on a bench, she began plucking what feathers the hen had left.  Because the two horses and the cow occupied the only three stalls and needed all of the dwindling supply of both straw and hay, Johnny had spread his blankets on the hardpacked floor.  Seeing how much younger and more vulnerable he looked in sleep, Hannah’s heart softened, and she had to admit she appreciated the way he’d kept to himself that Emma was the one responsible for his injuries.  Then again, this may have been more for his own benefit:  the great Johnny Madrid, felled by a nine-year-old?  Hardly the stuff of legend.  Hannah reckoned he’d already had his share of men gunning for him just to prove their prowess.  If folks heard about this, and Russ would make certain they did, he’d have a whole new crop of would-be pistoleros after his hide.  The way that right arm kept swelling, not to mention paining him more than a flesh wound should, Hannah had to wonder what damage Emma’s slug had really done and whether his vaunted speed was now a thing of the past.

      All of which would become moot if infection and fever carried him off.  She thought his temperature might have climbed but didn’t dare touch him to find out, especially since he now had that snub-nosed Colt within reach, having brought it from the house.  Instead she kept an eye on him while gutting the plucked chicken.  She hadn’t made much further progress when six loud, percussive bangs brought her instantly to her feet.  Johnny jumped up, too, gun cocked and ready before the third shot sounded.  An impressive feat, Hannah registered somewhere off to the side, especially considering he held the gun in his right hand despite the hindering sling.  Still clutching the dead chicken, she ran toward the door, but Johnny beat her there, shifting the gun as he went.  He seemed intent on blocking her exit from the barn but she skirted around him, temper on the rise.

      “It’s just Russ,” she snapped.  “Target practice.  Isn’t that what you gunfighters do in your spare time?”

      He didn’t answer, just reeled alarmingly.  Before she could catch him, his eyes rolled back, his neck lost all ability to hold his head upright, the gun slipped from his hand, and he crumpled to the ground.  Dropping to his side, Hannah called his name and gently shook his shoulder, making sure to move the Colt safely out of reach first.  She got no response.  She was about to call to him again when another set of gunshots shattered the calm.  Again getting to her feet–Johnny made no move this time–she strode angrily to the back of the cabin where, sure enough, Russ was taking target practice.  To make matters worse, he had Emma helping him, tossing tin cans into the air.

      “Stop it!” Hannah shouted.  “Damn it, Russ, if you have to shoot something, why can’t it be dinner?”

      Unperturbed, Russ twirled his shining silver sixgun, returned it to its holster, hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt and regarded her–and the dead bird that still dangled from her hand.  “Well, Hannah, darlin’, why would I go out huntin’ when you already went to all the trouble to wring that poor hen’s neck?”

      Hannah drew a deep breath, and two more, forcing her temper to recede, forcing herself not to fire back that he could’ve gone hunting before she killed the hen.  It had never done any good to yell at him and it wouldn’t do any now.  If he were sober he responded with amusement and platitudes; drunk, he got violent.

      “Johnny passed out in the middle of the barn,” she told him, “and I need your help getting him back to bed.  Which, by the way, should be in the house, not out there.”

      Russ shook his head, a nasty grin spreading over his face.  Hannah detested that grin.

      “Sad to see someone that good lose his edge,” he said.  “First he gets hurt without even tryin’, then he faints when I ain’t even shootin’ at him.”  He turned to the child, who held another can but seemed unsure what to do with it.  “Some gunfighter, huh kiddo?”

      “Just help me, okay Russ?” Hannah said.

      “Sure, darlin’.  Only, about him bein’ in the house or the barn, it was his choice, not ours, remember?  Man that bad hurt, I’d be glad to let him take my comfortable bed.  As I figure he done before I got back.”

      Ignoring the pointed remark, Hannah led the way back to the barn, only to find Johnny lying between his blankets as though nothing had disturbed his rest, the Colt once again close by but not in his hand.  Russ stood directly over him and he cracked his blue eyes open.

      “You always were too loud, Skinner,” he said.

      “Sorry to disturb your beauty rest.”  Russ could’ve squatted down but he remained standing, towering formidably over the injured man, though if Johnny felt intimidated he gave no sign.

      “What the hell, you probably need the practice after that spell behind bars.”  He yawned, or pretended to.  Hannah didn’t think he could get that deep a breath but he made it look real enough.  “Hope you’re up to defending the place, ‘cause I ain’t done nappin’.  Now go away.  I need some peace.”  And he closed his eyes and rolled onto his side, facing away from them, as though he took a nice long siesta every afternoon.

With a derisive snort, Russ sauntered from the barn, Emma in tow.  Hannah lingered, gazing down at Johnny, who appeared to have fallen immediately back to sleep.  She was somewhat surprised to find herself wanting to stay by his side, soothe away the hurt and protect him so he would not need to put on such a costly show for Russ, but she felt helpless in this regard.  When she could no longer justify staying there with him—-to herself or her husband–she reluctantly returned to her chores.


      That evening they all ate dinner together.  Hannah had offered to bring Johnny’s food to the barn but this time he had insisted on joining them inside.  She suggested that if he was intent on getting up when any fool could see he needed to lie still for longer than two hours at a stretch, he might as well stay inside for good.  But he told her he felt better after resting and not to fuss so much.

      Russ made a show of relishing the hearty meal and pressing extra portions on their guest.  Johnny had walked in from the barn wearing his own shirt, which had finally dried.  Hannah had not mended it but the sling hid the holes and most of the stains.  He quietly declined Russ’s offer of seconds and from his increasingly greenish cast, Hannah had to wonder how he was keeping any of it down.  So much for bravado, she thought, but continued to feel for him just the same.

      “So Johnny, what’s it been, ten years?” Russ asked, tipping back his chair and rubbing his belly appreciatively.

      “Something like that.”  Johnny pushed a piece of chicken an inch or so in one direction with his fork but did not pick it up.

      “Texas,” Russ mused.  “Quite a turn of events.  Some spread, too.  Think that hombre really needed all that land?”

      Johnny eyed him a minute before speaking.  Hannah looked at Emma, sitting on the edge of her seat, hanging on every word.  She hoped this wouldn’t get out of hand.

      “Don’t know whether he did or not, but it weren’t the other one’s to take, either way.”

      Russ let his chair come forward, the front legs thudding.  “Huh.  You always was the fairminded one, even then.  What were you, all of eighteen?”

      Johnny shrugged and took a bite, perhaps going a bit greener still as he chewed but his blue eyes giving nothing away.  “This is good, ma’am,” he said politely, reaching for his cup, which Russ hastened to refill.  The men were drinking whiskey.  Might ease the pain a bit, Hannah thought, but it couldn’t be sitting too well.

      “Sorry no tequila,” Russ said.  “I’da known you was here, I woulda got some of that, too.”  So far he hadn’t had too much but Hannah grew more nervous with each gulp.  “You musta been just a mite older’n that rancher’s daughter, right?”  He leered.  “Remember her?”

      “Sure,” Johnny said, as though it meant nothing, while from Russ’s tone Hannah figured it meant quite a lot.  “Pretty girl.”  He looked at Emma and smiled, and Hannah couldn’t help but notice what a sweet smile it was, gentle and genuine.  “Like you, Emma, only older.”

      Emma smiled in turn, shyly.

      Before Russ could say anything more, Johnny pushed back his chair and stood.  “Like I said, mighty fine meal, ma’am.  Now if you don’t mind, I’m gonna tend to my horse and then turn in.  I’d like to get an early start.”

      Hannah frowned.  “Early start?”

      “Are you leaving tomorrow, Johnny?” Emma asked.

     “Yeah, miel, I figure it’s time.  I’m obliged for all you’ve done, though.  You and your ma fixed me up real good.”

      Hannah glanced at Russ, who was taking in the exchange with a self-satisfied expression.  Johnny turned and walked to the door, more surefooted than Hannah would’ve bet he felt.  As he opened it Russ called, “Pleasant dreams, Madrid.”


      Johnny closed the door behind him and moved across the porch at the same steady pace he’d affected inside.  Once he’d stepped away from the boards, though, he stumbled toward the woods, where he doubled over and threw up every bite he’d just eaten and every drop of whiskey he’d drunk.  Hannah’s dinner would’ve tasted delicious and he needed nourishment badly, plus he’d counted on the alcohol to take the edge off the pain, but he’d known as soon as he took the first bite that there was no way he could keep it down.  Damn Russell Skinner, he thought as he continued to retch, his insides jerking against his busted ribs.  Damn the son of a bitch to hell and back.

      Exhausted, he staggered a few steps away from the reeking remnants of his meal and dropped to his knees.  He was still there a short while later when he felt a consoling hand on his shoulder and turned his head to see Hannah standing over him.  He could barely make out her face but he read the concern in her touch.  He couldn’t believe he’d let her creep up on him like that.

      “Johnny–” she began, “I’m sorry.  Truly.  He has no right–“

      “He has every right,” he said, his voice strained, his throat raw.  “It’s his house, you’re his wife.”  He wanted nothing more than to cover her hand with his own, but instead he only shook his head.  Truth was, Skinner had good reason to feel threatened, or he would have if Johnny were still the kid he’d once been.  Clearly he’d found out what happened with that girl in Texas, and just as clearly he thought he saw something in the way Hannah treated Johnny, or looked at him, or maybe just said his name.  Johnny saw it, too, though it seemed to come and go.  If she hadn’t been another man’s wife, Russell Skinner’s wife, not to mention pregnant with that other man’s child, he might have responded in kind.  Skinner had surely picked this up, and even though Johnny had neither the strength nor any intention of acting on anything at all except getting strong enough to leave this place and its troubled family, it didn’t bode well.

      “You can’t ride out of here tomorrow,” Hannah said, reading his mind, though not all of it, he hoped.

      With a groan, he forced himself to his feet.  “Not much choice.”

      Her teeth caught a glint of light as she smiled.   “Exactly.  And I don’t want you sleeping in the barn, either.  You’ll catch a cold.”

      “A cold, huh?  That’s all I need.”

      And though he despised the weakness that made him lean on her as much as he despised Russell Skinner, he let her help him away from the woods.  Not to the cabin, he held firm on that, but to the barn, where at least he’d have the loyal and trustworthy company of his horse.

      “Let me stay with you a while,” Hannah said, lighting a lantern and hanging it from a hook.  “You have a fever, Johnny.  You need someone here.“

      He just looked at her.  He was leaning on the door to Barranca’s stall, lamenting inwardly that he lacked the strength to tend the horse as he’d said he would.  Not that Barranca was suffering, but still.  “That wouldn’t work, Hannah,” he returned.  “Otherwise I’d be in the cabin.”

      She held her ground for a bit and he was mightily tempted to give in.  He was hurting, really hurting, and she was right, he needed her there.  Her, or someone.  Preferably her though, whether he wanted to admit it or not.

      “Go on in, now,” he urged anyway, when the silent dispute got too much.  He didn’t have to add that if she stayed any longer, Russ would come looking.  He had no idea how long she’d been with the man, but she had to know him that well.

      Hannah ducked her head and rubbed at her temple, then looked back up, and the desperation Johnny could see in her eyes only made him hurt more.  He started to reach out to her, if only to comfort, or maybe just brush away the few strands of wheat-colored hair that had straggled loose.  He stopped himself halfway and dropped his hand to his side.  His fingers kept working, though, rubbing lightly together on their own.

      “Go,” he said again.  “Please.”

      And this time she did, turning quickly and rushing away.

SIX

        Emma raced from the barn to the house.  Early morning rain pelted her face and plastered her hair to her head, but she didn’t care.  She had to get Mama, right now.  Feeling frantic, she banged on the closed bedroom door.

        “Mama!  Mama!  Mama, wake up!”

        She continued pounding until Russ jerked open the door, with Mama right behind.  His dark red hair was mussed and poked in all directions and his green eyes were both bloodshot and angry.  Emma didn’t care.

        “Mama–” she began.  “It’s Johnny.  He’s–“

        Mama slipped past Russ.  Emma thought she had an odd look on her face.  Sad, but also something more.  She didn’t have time to consider it now.

        “I know, sweetie,” Mama said.  “He told us last night he’d be leaving, remember?  He probably wanted to get an early start, before the trail gets washed out–“

      “No, Mama!”  Emma’s voice shook.  She was trying hard to hold back tears.  She hated to cry, especially in front of others.  “He’s not gone.  He’s sick.  He’s real sick.  He’s tossing on the barn floor and ranting and I can’t understand a word he says and I couldn’t get close enough to stop him.  I tried but he nearly slugged me.  You have to help him, Mama.  Please–“

      Mama said to give them a minute to dress–she wore a robe and Russ his longjohns–and they’d be right there.  Emma ran back to the barn with them both shouting after her to wait.  She stopped several feet from Johnny, who still writhed on his pile of blankets, heels digging at the floor, gasping words Emma couldn’t understand.  It didn’t sound like English, and for a moment she wondered if a demon had got hold of him.  Reminding herself how Mama said superstitions were nonsense, she decided the only demons here were hurt and heat.  And maybe Russ.  He’d looked pretty vexed when Mama said they’d help, and Emma could tell he didn’t have the least regard for Johnny, though it puzzled her as to why.

      Mama and Russ caught up with her.  Russ swore and Emma knew things were serious when Mama didn’t chide him for it.  Instead she hurried past Emma and knelt by Johnny’s side.

      “Stay clear of him, Hannah!” Russ shouted, though he himself made no move to help.

      “What’s he saying, Mama?” Emma asked, kneeling as well.

      “I don’t know, he’s speaking Spanish.  Johnny?  Johnny, can you hear me?  It’s Hannah.”  She reached toward him, setting his pistol aside with one hand, touching his shoulder with the other, then his hair, which Emma saw was soaked with sweat and streaked with dirt from the floor.  At the sound of her voice he stilled.  His head turned and his blue eyes flickered open, but the look Emma saw in them was wild and faraway.

      With his left hand he gripped Mama’s arm.  “¡No los mates!” he cried, his voice broken and hoarse.  “¡Por favor, no los mates!  ¡Son niños, son inocentes!  ¡Enrique, no!  Son a los otros a quiénes tú buscas!  Escúchame, Enrique…”

      His voice trailed away and he clenched his jaw and pressed his head back into the floor, hissing through is teeth, which Emma noticed were tinged red; his lower lip was swollen as though he’d bitten it.  The blankets formed a twisted, lumpy tangle beneath and on top of him and his shirt was once again filthy, this time with both dirt and fresh blood.  The sling hung uselessly around his neck, no longer cradling his injured arm.

      “What’re we going to do?” Emma asked, scared.

      “Get him inside, first,” Mama said.

      “Yeah?” Russ cut in, “Then what?”

      Mama turned on him.  “Well, you could ride for the doctor, but I don’t think that’s an option just now.  We’re it, Russell.  We clean him up, find out why he’s bleeding again, fix it if we can.  And try to bring his fever down.”

      Russ snorted.  “The only way that fever’s comin’ down is if he gives up the ghost.  Which, by the looks of it, is exactly what he’s fixin’ to do.  Whether you bring him inside or not.”

      Her heart in her throat, Emma looked from her mother to Johnny, who had settled a little but was breathing very fast through his teeth and pressing his left arm across his eyes, his fist tightly balled, the knuckles there white.

      “Carry him into the cabin, Russ,” Mama said, a kind of iron in her voice that reassured Emma.  Russ made himself out to be the tough one, but sometimes Emma thought him a bully, and everyone knew bullies had no real strength.  Except that he did have strength, the muscle kind, and only he could carry Johnny inside.  “Please,” Mama added, but the iron remained.

      Swearing again, Russ stepped forward.  “I suppose you want him in our bed, too.”  He squatted down and, grunting with the effort, shifted Johnny into his arms and stood.  “Damn, he’s heavy!” he complained, staggering under the weight.  Johnny tried to twist out of his grip and Russ swore again and told him to hold still, to no avail.

      “Want me to get his feet?” Mama offered as they stepped from the barn into the stinging rain.

      “No,” Russ growled.  “Emma, run ahead and open the door.”

      And so she did, flinging it wide so they could get Johnny into the cabin, then following close behind as Russ dumped him onto the bed, where he clutched his side and ground his head into the pillow–Emma supposed they’d have to wash the pillowslip again, not to mention the sheets–and resumed muttering a whole new set of phrases she could not understand.  Except one word.  Now and again she heard a name, Scott, not a Mexican name at all, and she wondered who Scott was.


      Having sent her disgruntled husband and anxious daughter from the room, Hannah cut away Johnny’s shirt and the bandages around his arm and ribs.  Now the shirt was well and truly ruined, no chance of mending; a shame, Hannah thought, given its fine embroidery.  Deep in delirium, Johnny proved less cooperative than Russ, tossing fitfully and shoving at her when she tried to examine him.  She did not call Russ back to hold him down, preferring his absence to his complaints.  She’d suggested he go hunting and he’d stalked off in a huff.

      “Hold still, Johnny,” she pleaded, one hand on his chest, where she found the skin hot and damp, the other holding his injured arm away from his body.  As she peered at the side wound, searching for evidence of infection, his back arched and his chest lifted under her hand.  “I know, I know,” she soothed.  “It’ll be all right.  Just try to relax.”

      She doubted he could hear her.  And she could see no sign of infection leaking from the wound.  Her sutures had held, though once again she questioned whether she should have put them there in the first place.  The area around them was darkly bruised but from what she could tell it was not unduly inflamed.  His arm bore no outward sign of sepsis, either, and the swelling had even diminished a bit.  The stitches on the inner part had ripped, accounting for the additional blood, though that had slowed to an ooze by now.  All of which meant, she thought, that her earlier conclusion remained correct:  whatever had taken hold of him came from within, and she dreaded the prospect of fixing that.

      “You’ll have to open him again,” her husband’s voice said from the doorway.  “Go back in.  Let it drain.  The side wound, I’d bet, not the arm.”

        She turned to face him.  She felt nauseated and weary; not at all up to this, any of it.  “I can’t do that, Russ.”

       “I know, darlin’.  And you shouldn’t have to.”  His green-eyed gaze dropped to her pregnant belly, where the baby kicked as if to drive home the point.

       She sighed.  “You didn’t go hunting, did you.”

      “Not yet.  I, uh, I didn’t think you oughtta be in here on your own.”

      She hesitated, studying him.  His expression appeared sincere and she so wanted–needed–to believe he cared, that he was actually concerned about her, not just mistrustful and contemptuous of their visitor.

      “That’s how this happened, you know,” she said, taking yet one more chance on him, the latest in a very long line, and admitting the truth.  “Emma–“

      “I figured as much.”

      Hands resting in her lap, head bowed, Hannah let her shoulders slump.  “I didn’t know how you’d react.  I–“

      “You could’ve trusted me on that, Hannah.  I’ve never done the kid any harm.  Unless you count getting thrown in jail.  I’m sorry about that.  Sometimes I–“

      “I know, Russ.”  She drew a deep breath and straightened, absently rubbing her sore lower back, wondering exactly how he defined harm but setting aside the question for now.  He’d never laid a hand on the child, she had to credit him that.  “Do you really think you can help?” she asked.  “I mean, whatever ill will you two have from the past–“

      He glanced away, then back at her.  “Maybe, yeah.  But you can’t get all upset if it hurts him.  I’ve seen wounds like this before and it ain’t pretty, okay?”

      “I understand that.  I took the bullet out to begin with.”

      He smiled crookedly, the most endearing of his repertoire of grins.  “Yeah, Hannah, you’re one amazin’ lady, huh?”


      Later, drowsing on the settle, soothed by the drumbeat of rain on the roof, she thought again how badly she wanted it to be real, this conciliatory side of her man.  Not the mocking, baiting, posturing side, but this, accommodating yet strong.  Only someone strong could do what he had today, slice into an infected wound while the patient writhed and shook with agony, until his cutting released a stream of thick pus that poured from the reopened incision.  Russ said he’d seen wounds do this before, had actually lanced one himself, years ago.  Hannah had been unable to stand it.  She had held Johnny down as best she could, stemming his surprisingly vigorous efforts to fend off the tormenting blade, close to weeping herself at the tears that streamed from his tightly closed eyes.  The inner arm wound had reopened yet again and bled profusely under the strain, but it was the sickening stench of released infection that had finally sent her racing to the porch, her stomach rebelling against the smell, the sight, the horror of watching anyone suffer that way.

      Now she thought about Russ, felt unusually reassured and struggled to cling to the feeling, even resisting sleep so that she might perpetuate it.  Moments like this came too seldom for them, and they had become what she cherished most, the only thing beside practical need that made her stay.  Initially it had been the excitement, the promise of release from her stilted life as banker’s daughter and merchant’s widow.  Too soon that wore thin.  Not just because of one drunken slap or unfulfilled ambition too many; as much because the erratic nature itself turned into a constant, boring thing.

      He’d sworn off hiring out his gun as soon as they married, taking a series of jobs that paid less and suited him poorly, shifting Hannah and Emma from place to place, mostly in California, once elsewhere.  They’d been together two years before Hannah became pregnant.  Ecstatic and proud, Russ announced it was time they bought a nice spread and settled down.  He had just been thrown off a ranch for getting drunk and brawling with the other hands.  Swearing to turn over yet another new leaf, he had set about carving the small farm out of this fertile sliver of the foothills, well-watered, scenic, sheltered by woods.  The cabin and barn were already here, and the garden plot; the grizzled ex-miner who’d owned the homestead wished to sell it lock, stock, and barrel, and live out his days in a town.  Hannah expressed reservations regarding the difficulty of clearing the dense stands of trees, but Russ convinced her it would work.  Caught up in his dreams yet again, she’d allowed him to use the last of the money she’d inherited from her first husband to buy the land.  She’d been eager to hang her heirloom lace curtains, her one remaining fine possession, at the bedroom windows–eager to have a bedroom in a place they owned, not on a ranch or in a town they’d leave within the month.

      Sighing, she turned onto her back, but the baby pressed on a nerve inside her hip and so she rolled once again to her side.  Johnny had passed out halfway through Russ’s ministrations and had yet to regain consciousness.  Hannah insisted that someone should sit with him in case he awakened, and when her own eyelids grew heavy and the familiar but frightening cramps returned, Russ took over for her with a minimum of complaint.  She wasn’t sure she trusted him to keep a proper eye on their patient–Russ did love his sleep and he most expressly did not love Johnny Madrid–but she simply could not stay upright, and the only way to ease her discomfort was to rest.

      Of course Emma had offered to sit with him, too.  As ever, Hannah marveled at the child’s tenderness, knowing her concern had more to do with her own gentle nature–and maybe Johnny’s, surprising in a gunfighter, former or otherwise–than with guilt over having shot him in the first place.  But Hannah had sent the child to her loft when Russ had sent Hannah to the settee, where her last thought before sleep was of Johnny Lancer, not Madrid, and whether he would survive until dawn.  She hoped so.  For reasons she did not particularly wish to explore but could no longer deny, she very much wanted to see the light in those blue eyes again.

SEVEN

      Several times during the night Johnny struggled toward consciousness, only to let weariness and pain drive him back into the blissfully numbing void.  But each time the darkness became a little less enveloping, until finally his eyes opened onto a dim, blurry, and very uncomfortable world.  Gradually, he became aware of a familiar noise, familiar and irritating.  He moved his eyes in search of it–all the motion he dared just yet–and as his vision cleared, he saw Russell Skinner snoring in a chair by the bed.  Inwardly, he groaned.

      Glancing around some more, he noticed he was back in the cabin’s bedroom and wondered how he’d gotten here and why.  It worried him but his foggy mind refused to ponder the question at any length.  He felt marginally better, except for his arm, which both tingled and throbbed at the same time.  He didn’t dare move it; it hurt enough when held still.  He thought his fever might have dropped somewhat, and though pain still chewed at his side, it was no longer the firebrand it had been before.  That’s the last thing he remembered:  that firebrand, and the fever it must have caused, the fever burning him from the inside out and chills shaking him like a rag doll, and the way it had sapped every last bit of strength he had.

      He was naked under the covers, and wondered whether Russ or Hannah had stripped him.  He also wondered how much time had passed, and what time it was now.  A single lamp gave the small room a sallow glow, glinting off window panes still black with night, and beyond Skinner’s snores he could hear rain continuing to beat a rhythm on the roof.  On the bedside table with the lamp were a pitcher and cup.  Unbearably thirsty but not wanting to wake Russ, he reached across his body for the cup, having to turn partway onto his injured side to do it and gasping at the result.  He flopped back, defeated.

      As light a sleeper as any other gunhawk, Skinner stirred.  Blinking, he lifted his head from his chest and rolled his neck around, the bones there popping.  After a groggy moment, his green eyes settled on Johnny.

      “Huh,” was all he said.

      “Surprised?” Johnny asked, his voice a rasp.  He cleared his throat.

      Skinner smiled and Johnny noted the lack of mockery in it.  “Yeah, Madrid.  You were in pretty rough shape.  Had to reopen that hole in your side, drain it out.  Still draining, so don’t try to move too much.”

      “Did Hannah–“

      “Not this time, amigo.”

      “You did it, Russ?”

      “That’s right.  Without much help from you, by the way.”

      Johnny tried to draw a deeper breath but as before it hurt too much.  He counted himself lucky not to have added pneumonia to his troubles, breathing like this.  Thinking it might be easier upright, he struggled to sit.

      Skinner cursed disgustedly, reaching to help him, “I told ya not to move.  Here.”  He stuck the second pillow under Johnny’s head and shoulders.

      Johnny nodded his thanks and again reached for the cup.  Skinner handed it over and he drank thirstily.

      “Easy there,” the big man cautioned.  “We’ve had enough to clean up without you losin’ lunch.”

      “Lunch?”

      “Okay, last night’s dinner.”

      Johnny refrained from telling him that was long gone.  The water felt like heaven on his parched throat but sat poorly in his belly.  He moved to put the cup back and Skinner took it from him.

      “Never figured you for a nurse, Russ,” he said, smiling a little.

      “Wouldn’t be, but Hannah, she needs her sleep.”

      “Reckon she does.”  He hesitated, then said, “You got a real good woman there, you know.”

      Russ glanced toward the other room, where Johnny assumed Hannah slept.  His expression was too complicated to read, a whole range of feelings and thoughts, and for an instant Johnny envied him, snaring a woman like that.  He didn’t envy Hannah, though.  By all indications Skinner was still the man he’d always been, about as dependable as a skittish beef, with notions he couldn’t carry through.  Maybe he had his moments, but Johnny thought Hannah deserved much more.

      Either Skinner picked up on this or decided they’d gotten too friendly, because his tone turned defensive.  “You got that right, Madrid.  Good thing you weren’t there this time to warn her off, huh?”

      “Good for her, or you?” Johnny shot back, unable not to.

      “For both of us, amigo.  Case you ain’t noticed, we got a nice little spread startin’ up here.  And you might be hurtin’, Johnny, but this ain’t nothing compared to what I’ll do to you if you turn that woman away from me.  Her or the kid.  ¿Entiendes?”

      “Yeah, Russ.”  He sighed, or as close to it as his ribs would allow.  He was weak as a pup and beyond sore, not up to sparring with Russell Skinner or anyone else, and besides, the compliment he’d paid Hannah had been genuine and well meant.  “I ain’t into stealing other men’s wives,” he said, “and as for that girl back in Texas, hey, can you blame a kid for trying?  All’s fair, you know that.  From the looks of it, you ended up better off anyway.”

      Clearly not buying it, Skinner gave him an unfriendly smile and clapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to make him wince.  “Damn straight,” he said, though Johnny felt certain he’d rather have that Texas spread, whether he loved his wife or not.


      The fever had lessened but not disappeared, so the next morning Hannah spent as much time as she could sponging her patient off, hoping to bring it down further or at least keep it from rising the way it had before.  She had wanted Russ to keep cold compresses on him overnight as she had the previous afternoon, but knew this was too much to ask.

Now, dipping a small towel in water, she wiped not just his face, but his throat and chest, belly and limbs, concentrating the most on places where blood flowed close to the surface.  At first he objected, but she promised to keep him appropriately covered, shifting the sheet around as needed and smiling to herself at his concern, which seemed directed more at her modesty than his own.  Under her care, the tension eased from his muscles until without further protest he let her trail the cool, damp cloth over whatever part of his skin she chose, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.

       Working carefully, slowly, trying to soothe her patient and coax him toward health, she found herself forgetting her sore lower back, her fatigue, the concerns of the farm, Emma, Russ.  She focused entirely on the man who lay in her bed, setting herself the challenge of getting him to breathe easier, of erasing that slight frown of pain.  Though she tried not to, she thought he had an exquisite body, scars and all; they only intrigued her more.  Whatever inner revulsion or conflict she had felt regarding his trade had dissipated for good; more than simple attraction and need, remorse over not having taken better care of him had finally trumped her contempt.  Her daughter had nearly killed him, yet he’d never born them any ill will over it, even after Russ returned.  If nothing else, he deserved her care and compassion.  No matter how he had made his living in the past, he was a good man, one she should’ve been nursing consistently from the start despite his protests, not just now, after it had very nearly been too late.

      She realized her hand had stopped, the cloth under it resting in the middle of his flat, hard stomach, water trickling outward in tiny rivulets.  She also realized he was watching her, an impossible mix in those compelling blue eyes.  She knew she should look away, move the cloth, say something, but could not.  His eyes held her, though she had the feeling he was trapped as well.

      Heavy bootfalls on the porch broke the spell.  Russ, returning from the hunt.  Plopping the cloth back into its bowl, Hannah drew the thin sheet more thoroughly over Johnny’s hips and legs.  The cabin door slammed and Russ clomped to the bedroom doorway, and stopped, taking in the patches of moisture soaking through the sheet from Johnny’s still damp skin, and, doubtless, the fact that the thin fabric outlined every contour of his lower half.

      “Good God, Hannah,” he snarled, “put a blanket on him, will you?”

      Hannah rose from her chair by the bed, brought up short by the outburst.  “He still has a fever,” she said.  “It’s a warm day and he needs to be covered as lightly as possible.”

      Russ’s complexion deepened a shade.  “Well, hell, woman, then why not get rid of the God damned sheet, too?  Don’t you have any pride at all?  And you, Madrid, I told you what’d happen–“

      “I ain’t doin’ a thing, Russ,” Johnny said tiredly.  “And all your wife’s trying to do is get me to where I can ride out of here.  Which if you leave me the hell alone, could be dawn tomorrow, okay?”

      Russ glared but said no more.  Miffed but knowing things would only escalate if she defied him in front of another man, especially this one, Hannah picked up the bowl and carried it past him out of the room to the porch and tossed the water onto the ground.  She waited there a moment, catching her breath and her temper, arms folded above her belly, feeling a single, jolting contraction but no more, until she heard Russ walk away from the bedroom door.  Johnny was right, she thought regretfully, it came down to one sad, simple fact:  the sooner she got him well and out of here, the better for all concerned.


      Johnny slept off and on the rest of the day, aware of Russ hanging closer to the cabin.  The rhythmic thunk of an ax told him his host was replenishing the wood pile, and once, surfacing from a dream about someone stealing Barranca, he realized Skinner was exercising his own outsized bay.  He wondered why Emma had not slipped in to visit and concluded her stepfather had forbidden her to.  The man’s jealousy annoyed him, but he only became truly concerned toward suppertime, when Russ uncorked yet another whiskey bottle and began drinking.  Johnny wanted to join the family at the table–something protective inside urged him to–but Hannah told him she thought it unwise.

      “Match to tinder,” she said quietly, with a glance toward the window, which opened onto the porch.  A few minutes before, Johnny had heard the clink of bottle neck against glass, then bootfalls toward the front door and across to the other end of the boards.

      “I guess,” he admitted.

      “And you shouldn’t be up anyway.  I’ll bring your meal in here.”  She smiled.  “Probably ought to stick with soup for that fever, but I have a feeling you’d prefer solid food.”

      “Yes, ma’am.  And some clothes.”  He glanced at his pants lying folded on top of the bureau, the gunbelt and gun near them.

      “I don’t think–“

      “I need to go outside, Hannah.  It would save a little work if you handed them to me.”

      “I’ll hand you the chamber pot, and then I’ll leave.”

      He sighed.  “I’m doing fine.  Really.”

      Head tilted to one side, hand on her hip, she regarded him.  “Why do I get the feeling you’ve said that before?”

      “Caught.  Okay.”  He grinned.  “Now just give me those pants.”

      He waited while she debated within herself, then finally plunked them down next to him on the bed.  “There.  I know you’ll just get them anyway.”

      With mixed feelings, he watched her leave.  After a few difficult minutes, Russ came into the room, not bothering to knock first, sent by Hannah to help him outside.  Johnny was standing by then, still barefoot and with his pants buttoned only halfway up, mindful of the open but bandaged hole in his side and moving very carefully.

      Skinner wasn’t drunk yet but he was getting there.  “This is a bad idea,” he said testily.  “Just piss in the God damned pot.”  And he picked it up and thrust it at Johnny, then left again, jerking the door shut behind him.

Fine, Johnny thought, what the hell.  Afterward, figuring it was easier to button the pants than take them off, he completed the task and gingerly lowered himself back onto the bed.  Soon Hannah came in to clean up, and the savory scent of venison stew wafted after her.  She checked the side wound and told him the drainage seemed to have ceased and that she’d re-suture it for him later that evening.  She also said dinner was almost ready and he remarked that food sounded better than stitches, then rested until Emma brought in a tray and stood by waiting until he sat up before she set it on his lap.

      “Thanks, Emma,” he said.  “Sure smells good.  You help make all this?”

      “Well, Russ shot the deer this time,” she replied, her long face markedly serious.  “But I helped with the cabbage.  You like cabbage, Johnny?”

      “Sure.  Right now I’d like anything.”

      Her seriousness gave way to a knowing grin.  “I don’t like it much, either.”

      Russ’s impatient voice interrupted them.  “Get on out here, kiddo.  Supper’s goin’ cold.”

      Obediently, Emma turned and left.

      Johnny’s appetite outstripped his stomach’s ability to handle the laden plate but he managed to eat close to half.  He could’ve done with some whiskey but Russ didn’t offer and Johnny didn’t ask.  After a while, Emma returned to collect his tray, but she seemed subdued and they didn’t talk much this time.  Johnny had noticed the strained lack of conversation during the family’s meal–along with the repeated clink of bottle against glass–and felt bad for the kid.

      He dozed again, frustrated at his inability to do much else.  He didn’t think he’d been asleep long when angry voices penetrated his rest, at first mingling with a distressing dream, then becoming real as the argument heated up.  The first clear words he heard were from Hannah, telling Russ to keep it down or he’d wake Johnny.  Oh no, he thought, wincing at her choice of words, certain it was the exact wrong thing to say.

      “Wake Johnny?  Wake Johnny?” Russ fired back, his voice loud and sloppy with drink.  “Why the hell should I give a damn, huh?  He all you care about, you and your little nurse’s helper here?”

      “Leave her out of this,” Hannah returned, her voice low, threatening.  “Emma, go on outside.”

      But Johnny heard no footsteps from the child, only a scuffle and a gasp, Hannah’s gasp.  Swearing silently, he swung his legs off the bed and reached for his gun, checking it hastily and not surprised to find it unloaded.  Moving as fast as he could, he plucked bullets from the gunbelt and jammed them into the cylinder.  He had to use both hands to do it quickly enough and the jolts of pain in his right arm had him dripping sweat before he was halfway done.  He swore again, a whisper this time, as he heard a yelp and someone stumbling.

     Then Emma began to scream.

      Johnny bolted for the door.  In the larger room, Russ stood over Hannah, one hand tangled in her hair, the other raised.  Hannah yelled at him, the words banging around in Johnny’s head, unintelligible.  And Emma kept screaming:  “Mama!  Mama!  No, Russ, no!”

      Snaking a hand upward, Hannah clawed at her husband’s face.  Her husband, Johnny thought, ¡Madre de Dios!  Shifting his grip to her neck, Russ shoved her head against the wall.  Her screams turned to strangled pleas for help.

      “Stop it, Skinner!” Johnny shouted, trying to penetrate the din of Emma’s ongoing shrieks.  Russ paid no attention.

      Johnny did not want to use the gun.  It had to be a last resort, whether he thought the woman and child would be better off without the man or not.  Shifting the pistol to his right hand, he advanced on the struggling pair, grabbed Skinner by the shoulder and spun him around.

      The man’s eyes were wild with drink and rage, a livid, poisonous green.  Bellowing like the unruly bull he was, he hurled himself into Johnny and drove him to the floor, heedless of Johnny’s Colt, not bothering to draw his own.  He wouldn’t need a gun to kill, this time, and either he knew it or he was too drunk to consider the option.  Johnny went down hard, the back of his head thudding, his ribs stabbing viciously at his lung.  He tried to slam his Colt against Skinner’s head but pain skewered his arm, pinning it to the floor.

      Abruptly, Skinner pulled back and dragged him up.  Johnny was gasping for breath, seeing stars.  He thought he couldn’t take any more, ever, but Skinner hauled back a massive fist and slammed it into his belly, the blow sinking deep, curving upward toward his heart.  He doubled over, his world one giant, pulsating ball of pain.  Somewhere way off he heard screams, but a veil of red had dropped over his eyes and he couldn’t see a thing.

      Then it cleared and he could.  Only it all happened so slowly, as though underwater.  And he couldn’t move any faster.  He could feel each beat of his heart, feel the spurt of agony with each thud.  Still crouched, he swung his head on his neck and saw to his horror that Russell Skinner once again loomed drunkenly over his wife, his pregnant wife, the kind and lovely woman who had saved Johnny’s life and, in the end, treated him as compassionately as anyone ever had.  Another motion caught his eye, and to his greater horror he saw the nine-year-old child, Emma, lifting the carbine that had started the whole mess.  Lifting it, aiming it, preparing to fire, her small, narrow back braced against the cabin’s wall.

      He couldn’t let her do this.  Couldn’t let her begin to chip away at her soul, the way he had, the way Russ had, by killing.  The recovery hurt too much.  If there was a recovery.  For most, there wasn’t, only the slow death that resulted from the deaths of others.  Or from just one.

      Reaching across his broken, breathless body with his left hand, Johnny took the Colt from his right.  Shaking violently, he lifted the gun and pointed it at the man he’d known ten years ago, who, despite every chance to do so, hadn’t changed at all.  Johnny had, but still he couldn’t let the child kill, he had to do it himself.  There was no point shouting a warning or even shouting at Emma not to shoot.  It would only get him killed if Skinner attacked again, or Emma killed if Skinner went for that fancy, scroll-engraved Colt.  So he pulled the trigger, only once, his hand steady as a rock at the last instant, the only one that counted.  And Skinner fell sideways, landing almost gracefully, a tidy hole in his head.  Dead.

      Johnny dropped the gun.  Only at the very edge of consciousness was he aware of Emma darting across the room to her mother, and of Hannah rising unsteadily from the floor.  Both made their way to him, he could hear them calling his name, he could see the shining tear tracks on their cheeks as their faces swam in close.  As he had that first night, only three nights ago he realized with a nudge of amazement, he let himself sit down, heavily, only this time he didn’t stop there.  He fell all the way over, and closed his eyes, and let that little bit of death that came every time he killed join the gunshot wounds and the final blow from Russell Skinner’s fist, and take him under, way, way down.

EIGHT

      Hannah sat on the floor with Johnny Lancer’s head in what little was left of her lap.  She knew for sure now that it was Lancer, not Madrid.  She had seen the hesitation at the end, had seen the remorse; she knew he’d done it for Emma, that he would’ve found another way otherwise, or tried.  But there had been no other way, and Johnny Madrid would’ve accepted that without question and shot Russell at the start, not waiting, not getting hurt all over again.

      Emma sat on Hannah’s other side, hunched in close, the tremors of her sobs coming infrequently now, her head with its silken tangle of hair resting against Hannah’s breast, one small, soft hand on Hannah’s belly.

      As for the baby inside, he wanted to come out.  The contractions had started a half hour before, when she was struggling to loop a rope around Russell’s body so his horse could drag him outside.  Emma had tried to help tie the knot, but her fingers shook so badly that she couldn’t do it.  Hannah didn’t want her to anyway and had asked her to sit with Johnny instead.

      “Will we get the horse to help drag Johnny back to bed?” the child had asked, and Hannah smiled though the innocent question made her eyes smart with fresh tears.

      “No, sweetie, we’ll just have to wait until he wakes.  I can’t lift him and using the rope might hurt him more.”

      Stroking his hair now, she wasn’t so sure he would wake, though she reminded herself she’d harbored the same doubts before and he’d proven her wrong.  She’d already tried to rouse him several times with no response.  It amazed her that he could still breathe after the way Russ had first tackled and then hit him, but apparently he could, though with a bit more effort than before.  She knew that if he’d suffered a punctured lung it would have sounded much worse.

      “Johnny?” she called again, her fingers brushing his forehead, his cheek.  “Wake up, Johnny.  Come back to us.”

      And to her relief, he stirred.  He frowned, his lips parted, and his body tensed visibly.

      “Easy does it,” she coaxed, as he moaned in pain.  “Open your eyes now, okay?”

      He did, after a couple of tries.  His gaze settled on her face and his frown deepened.  Her heart lurched when she saw his eyes fill with tears.

      “Hannah,” he whispered, his left hand lifting toward her face, only to fall back.  “Dios, Hannah, lo siento, I’m so sorry.”

      Now her tears fell, one landing in his hair before she could swipe them away.  “No–” she managed to squeeze past the lump in her throat.  “No need.  You–“

      He swallowed, his throat moving.  Turning his head, seeing the child, he said softly, “Hey Emma, you doing okay?”

      Hannah felt her daughter’s head lift.  Emma nodded, though her chin quivered and she bit her lip.

      Hannah felt another contraction–they were not close together but neither were they like the cramping she’d had before.  Johnny must have sensed her reaction.  He looked up at her, concerned.  “Hannah?”

      She sighed and pursed her lips.  She couldn’t bring herself to tell him the baby was on the way, though God knew he’d figure it out soon enough.

      “Let’s see if we can get you back in bed,” was all she said.

      “Settle’s closer.”

      She suspected he had her welfare in mind but couldn’t deny he was right.  “Okay, then, the settle it is.  How are those ribs?”

      “Been better.  Reckon I’ll live.”

      “I restitched the wound already, while you were out.  You breathing okay?”

      “Sure.”

      Liar, she thought, but kept silent.  Shifting, she helped him sit, and along with Emma they managed to all get to their feet.  Once there, Johnny shook his head and gave a small sigh.

      “Quit a pair, aren’t we?” Hannah said.

      “Uh huh.”  She could tell he tried not to lean on either her or Emma, and she appreciated it as another contraction built.  This one made her gasp.  About to sit down, Johnny stopped and looked sharply at her.

      “They close together?”

      “Not yet.  Not until those two.  Emma, maybe you could put more water on to heat.  Go pump a pailful, will you?”  Emma did not yet understand about the impending birth; Hannah had not said anything, had not been able to bring herself to worry the child further, though heaven knew she’d find out soon.

      Johnny eased himself onto the settle but stayed sitting rather than lie down.  “You sit, too,” he said.

      She did.  He lifted his left arm and put it around her shoulders, holding her silently for a moment before speaking again.  The gesture made her feel safe, when she knew she had little reason to.  At least there had been no bleeding, not even a gush of water as yet, only a mucusy discharge that she knew from birthing Emma was to be expected.

      “You done this before,” he said.

      “Got Emma to prove it.”

      “And it went okay that time?”

      “It went fine.”  She chose not to tell him that this pregnancy had been wholly different from that one.  He didn’t ask if it was too early; he already knew.

      “Still might help to have a midwife.”

      “No midwives around.  No women either, really.”  She hesitated.  “The doctor had a wife, and she did a lot of the delivery work, especially if he was out on another call.”

      “Or drunk.”

      “Or drunk.”  She looked away.

      “I’m sorry, Hannah.  Shouldn’ta brought it up.”

      “No, it’s okay.  It’s the truth, and we can’t get away from that.  In any case, I doubt she’d help, if she’s even still in town.”  She paused.  “We got Russ’s body outside.”

      “Is that what brought this on?”

      “That’s when it started.  What happened before…  Well, that may have had more to do with it.”

      “Do you think he hurt you?”

      “No, not like that.  I don’t think so, anyway.”

      She said nothing for a moment while Emma toted in a full bucket of water and poured it into the large pot on top of the stove.  The look Emma gave Johnny was an odd one, Hannah thought, confused at the least, but before Hannah could say anything besides thank you, Emma mumbled that she’d get some more wood, and left again.

      “We used his horse to drag him,” Hannah continued, her throat tightening.  Swallowing her grief, not wanting to face it now, nor really ever, she added, “Emma wanted to use it to get you back in bed.”

      “Ouch.”

      “I thought so, too.”  As if on cue, another contraction struck, this one intensifying faster, not a gradual swell like the others.  She tensed and felt his grip firm on her shoulders.  He moved his right hand a little in his lap so she could reach it if she needed to, and his willingness to suffer for her caught at her heart.  She did take his hand, but held it only lightly, as much a consolation to him as to her.

      “Should’ve replaced your sling,” she said as the contraction ebbed.

      He shrugged.  “Sam’ll be after me somethin’ fierce about this arm.”

      “Who’s Sam?”

      “Sam Jenkins.  Doc over in Green River.  Friend and all around nag.”

      Emma returned then with several pieces of wood, which she stuck into the stove before heading out to get more.  It bothered Hannah depending on a nine-year-old, particularly one so traumatized, but she could do little else.  For Emma’s sake, she hoped Johnny would be up to helping with the birth, though she hated to consider the further cost to his strength.

      “Is that where you live?” she asked.

      “Not far from there.”

      “On the Lancer ranch.”

      He smiled, and she could see the fondness as, for the moment, it softened the taut lines of pain on his face.  “Yeah.  My father Murdoch, my brother Scott and me each have a third.  Sometimes we have a hard time sharin’, but it’s a pretty big spread so we do all right.”

      She knew he was talking to distract her; she’d figured from the start he wasn’t one to discuss himself.

      “Scott’s your brother?”

      “Uh huh.  Why?”

      “You kept talking about him, yesterday, with the fever.”

      “What’d I say?”

      “I don’t know.  It was all in Spanish except for that.”

      “Oh.”  She heard the grin in his voice.  “Well don’t give him another thought, then.  Ain’t worth it.”

      “I’ll just bet.”

      Emma brought in the rest of the wood.  Again Hannah’s womb contracted, and before she could stop herself her hand did, too.  Through it she felt Johnny flinch.  “Sorry,” she ground out, letting go.

      “‘S okay.  You wanna go lie down on the bed?”

      She shook her head.  “Might be better if I walked around a bit, bring the baby lower–“

      “Is the baby coming, Mama?” Emma asked, her eyes big and round.

      “Looks like it, sweetheart.  Think I could put my hand on your shoulder while I walk?  I’d lean on Johnny but I don’t think he should get up just yet.”

      “And he might fall over again, too.”

      Despite the gravity of the situation, Hannah had to smile.  Johnny snorted and gave Emma a fake scowl, and she actually smiled, too, the tiniest bit.  Hannah stood and they paced the room, hesitating at the contractions, which came faster and stronger now.  It was going quickly, something she had hoped for, though not this early.  The baby would be so small… 

      She realized she had stopped walking and started up again, but suddenly she felt liquid trickling down her legs.  Her bag of waters, breaking.  But then she heard Emma’s gasp and saw Johnny rise quickly from the settle.  With growing alarm, she looked down to see blood spotting the floor.

NINE

      “Come lie down, Johnny.  Here, by me.”

      He raised his bowed head, looked into Hannah’s compassionate gray eyes.  Her face was gray now, too, lighter than the eyes though they were light enough, or maybe they weren’t and it was just the light that shone from them.  She lay propped up with Emma along one side, sleeping soundly with Hannah’s arm around her, and Hannah patted the mattress with her other hand.

      “Please,” she said.  “You need to lie down, and I need you here.”

      So he got stiffly to his feet from the crude wooden chair and sat on the bed with his back against the wall and her long, angular, and now so depleted form by his side.  Smiling though his heart felt squeezed in a cruel fist, he reached across and rested his left hand on the baby boy who lay sleeping on Hannah’s chest.  Without even spreading the fingers his hand nearly spanned the tiny back.  The child rose and fell with the tide of his mother’s breathing, a tide that was receding now.

      Leaning closer, Johnny kissed Hannah’s forehead, and by the time he pulled back, her eyes had slipped shut.  Her mouth shaped the words thank you, and then she said, quietly but with assurance, “I wish I had found you first…”  And, quieter still, “You were right…  You’re not all alike…”  Then no more, after that.


      He couldn’t bury her, couldn’t dig the grave.  And aside from the cow’s thin supply of milk, he had nothing to give the baby boy.  Andrew.  She had named him that.  Because she liked the name, she said, it was strong and he would need strength.  Andrew John.

      He had to get Emma and the infant to Lancer, it was the only way.  Then he could send someone back to see to the bodies.  He considered asking one of the townsmen to do it but with the town to the south and Lancer to the west, he couldn’t afford to chance a wasted trip.

      Before they set out, Emma milked the cow.  Hannah had one bottle with a rubber nipple, so they filled that with the rich, warm milk and Emma held the baby brother she’d already started calling A.J. in her lap and coaxed him to suck down an ounce.  She seemed well-equipped to grow up fast, but Johnny’s heart broke for her, too.  She had woken to find her mother just gone, reached up to trace her hand over the solemn, peaceful features of Hannah’s face, then looked with those too-old, too-wise eyes at Johnny and said, “She’s gone to heaven, hasn’t she?”

      And he had said yes, though barely with any sound, since he couldn’t quite get the word out.

      He knew the trip would be tough but believed he had no choice.  There wasn’t much in the way of civilization between the homestead and the ranch, and so far as he could recall, none of it offered medical help.  He asked Emma if she could ride and she assured him she could.  Then he asked her to help fashion a sling so he could carry the baby, and as she fitted it over his shoulder and around his back, she remarked that he could rest his hurt arm in it along with A.J.  He would need to do that.  His arm was killing him; if he jarred it at all, he felt faint.  And he still had the fever, and he still couldn’t breathe right.  None of that had changed, except maybe for the worse, and why should it, he thought, with only one more day gone by?

      They mounted up, Johnny first, using the porch to start from a higher point.  Emma helped him slip A.J. into the sling and the miniature bundle settled snugly against his stomach.  Then Emma mounted Russell’s big bay, and leading the cow, they set off.  Johnny planned to release the cow as soon as they came across Lancer stock, a sight he craved almost as much as relief from the nonstop pain and a good long sleep undisturbed by fever or fights.

      As they rode away from the homestead, he glanced back, and for just a moment the image of a lean, lovely woman with wheat-colored hair shimmered on the porch, watching them depart, her smile softening what would have all too soon become a careworn face, her gray eyes trusting and kind.  She lifted her hand, and then she was gone.

TEN

      Scott Lancer was riding with two cowboys toward the archway that marked the edge of the ranch’s main compound when he saw the tall palomino and another horse approaching from the east.  Johnny, he thought, returning after weeks away.

      Grinning, Scott spurred Charlie and galloped out to meet his brother, the others close behind.  Still some distance off, he noticed that Johnny sat awkwardly in the saddle, hunched over and bent a little to the right.  He wore an unfamiliar and too-large white shirt much plainer than his usual ones, and he seemed to be cradling something across his front.  Oddly enough, the other rider was a small, willowy child on an immense bay horse.

      Johnny’s head was down but he raised it and squinted at Scott’s approach, and now Scott could see that something was dreadfully wrong.  Coming alongside, jumping to the ground, he reached upward and only just managed to catch his brother as he tilted sideways and slid gracelessly from Barranca’s back.

      “Careful of the baby,” he thought Johnny said, but this seemed so bizarre that he couldn’t be sure.  Until he felt the bundle in the sling, and heard its mewling cry.

      “Oh no, now you’ve set him wailing again!” the little girl lamented as she dropped the long distance down from the bay.  “Is Johnny all right?  Are you Scott?  He talked about you before, when he was raving.”

      Bewildered, Scott looked from her to his brother, who lay in his lap, and the miniscule fisted hand that now thrust from within the sling.  The mewling lessened, but that hand, what…?

      “Want I should ride for the doc?” one of the cowboys asked, cutting through the confusion.

      “Yes,” Scott said.  “Tell him to hurry. I don’t know what’s wrong but he’s fevered and can’t seem to breathe properly.  There’s blood on his arm but I think it’s more than that.”  He told the other hand to fetch a wagon and additional help.  As the cowboys galloped off, Scott returned his attention to his brother, whose eyes were half closed and whose face was beaded with sweat and creased with pain.  His breathing seemed to grow more labored by the minute.  He coughed weakly, and then again.

      “Johnny?”  Scott had to work to keep panic from sounding in his voice.  “Can you hear me?  What’s wrong?  What happened?”

      “He got shot,” the girl said from behind him.  Then her voice grew timid and she bowed her head.  “I shot him.  I’m real sorry.  I was aiming for the deer.  We needed meat.  My mama…”

      Scott shook his head, trying to clear it.  He was having a great deal of trouble taking all this in.  The day had started off so fine, a perfect late September day, Michelle beautiful and vibrant in the sixth month of carrying her and Scott’s first child, Coco bounding into Scott’s arms when he came down for breakfast.  Even Scott’s stepson, ten-year-old Tommy, had managed not to wreak any havoc as yet and had actually sat at the table to eat before racing off to the horse corral.  As for Johnny, he was due back right around this time but since he seldom did anything according to plan, Scott had been pleasantly surprised to spot him approaching the ranch.  Now, well, now–

      He realized Johnny was trying to talk and leaned in closer to hear.  “Not her fault,” he whispered.  “Not your fault, Emma.”

      “Easy, Johnny,” Scott soothed, distressed by the ragged breathing, the deepening grimace of pain.  “Maybe we’d better talk later, okay?”

      But Johnny wasn’t through.  “Gotta bury them, Scott,” he barely got out.  “Hannah…  Go back…”  Then his eyes closed and he relaxed in Scott’s arms, and even the baby grew quiet and still.


      Scott took Sam Jenkin’s place in the chair by Johnny’s bed as the doctor repacked his supplies.  Murdoch stood on the bed’s other side.  Sam had finished operating a short while ago, having repaired Johnny’s shooting arm, cut away infected tissue from the hole in his ribs, and manipulated the broken bones back into place.

      “His lungs must be made of boot leather,” the spry old doctor said.  “How those ribs didn’t poke through–“

      “So they’re all right?” Murdoch asked, tentative relief on his face, his outsized fingers trailing through his unconscious son’s thick, tangled hair.  “His lungs are all right?”

      “Well, not quite.  There’s some fluid, but I tend to think the fever’s from infection rather than that.  We’ll have to encourage him to cough, turn him now and then, let him sit up and even move around the room very briefly as soon as he can.”

      “And his arm?”

      Sam frowned.  “You wouldn’t think it, but that was just as bad.  The bullet nicked the bone and a chip was pressing on a nerve, all but slicing through.  Must’ve given him quite a bit of trouble, but from what I can see that didn’t stop him from using it.  Apparently he’s reopened it more than once and it’s bled a good bit.  I removed the chip and also repaired the blood vessel so it won’t start bleeding again.”

      Eyeing his patient, Sam pursed his lips and shook his head.  “He risked permanent damage using it so much, and I have a feeling he knew it.  Johnny’s about the worst patient I’ve ever treated, but something tells me this time he had no alternative, or at least none he could live with.”  He paused, then put the last of his equipment into his bag.  Scott had often marveled at that bag, a virtual hospital in miniature.  The old doctor had worked many a miracle with its gadgets and potions, and by reading behind his words, Scott figured he’d just saved Johnny his speed with a gun, if not more.

      “If he runs true to form,” Sam continued, “he won’t want to go into detail about whatever happened.  But I can tell you this.  There’s bruising across his stomach that looks fresher than those bullet wounds, like maybe someone hit him there.  A blow like that on top of the rib injury could have killed him, probably should have.  He’s been through hell, pure and simple.  It’s a bona fide wonder he got those children back here in one piece, not to mention himself.”

      Scott looked up at his father as Murdoch briefly closed his eyes, a steadying hand on the bedpost.  Neither spoke for a few seconds, until Murdoch swallowed and said, “So he did what he had to do, for the children if not for himself.  Like he always does.  Now I just want to hear you say it’s over, Sam, that he’ll recover.”  Looking from Johnny to Sam, he drew a deep breath.  “Well?”

      The doctor hesitated before replying and that scared Scott more than anything so far.

      “I hope so, Murdoch.  Because it’s Johnny, I’d say he has a good chance, so long as we can get the fever under control and clear the fluid from his lungs.  He was lucky to find someone who could remove the bullet.  No doctor, judging by the cutting and the thread, but at least they got it without penetrating the chest cavity.”

      “No doctor?” Scott questioned, the images this conjured causing his own insides to clench.

      “Not as far as I can tell.  But as I said, they didn’t do too badly, either; I’ve had to patch up after supposedly trained physicians who did a lot worse.  As near as I can determine, this one even knew enough to go back in and drain the wound later on.  If not for that, he’d be dead.”

      “But–“

      “I know, Scott.  I know.”  He sighed, his eyes on his patient.  “That’s all I can do for now, and there’s nothing more I can tell you, either.  I’d like to stay the rest of the evening, keep a close watch on the fever and make sure he doesn’t suffer any additional damage when we get him to cough and move.  I expect the chloroform will wear off within an hour or so, and then I’ll see if I can convince him to take anything for pain.  In the meantime, you know what to do to try to reduce his temperature.  You say the child told you he was raving before?”

      “That’s what she said.  I haven’t talked to her much since then.  Teresa was going to take her to the barn after she finished helping you–seems she shares Johnny’s affinity for horses.  The baby’s with Michelle.”

      Sam’s face crinkled into a small, sad smile.  “Good.  I’ll have a look at them next.  Too bad Michelle can’t nurse the infant yet–I’ll inquire around about a wet nurse and if there’s no one available, we’ll try goat’s milk.  I’ve had good success with that in the past.”  Ready to leave the room, he felt Johnny’s forehead yet again.  From the way his gnarled old hand lingered there, the gesture seemed to Scott more compassionate than clinical.  “So we have no real idea how this happened?” he asked, no longer the doctor, now the friend, upset by yet another injury done to a man who’d already been through enough.

      “Only that the child said she’s the one who shot him,” Murdoch offered, relaying what Scott had told him.  “Apparently she was hunting for deer.  Oh, and what was it Johnny said, Scott?  Something about returning to bury someone?”

      “Yes.”  He looked at his brother, who lay unnaturally still and waxy pale, his normally tanned skin not a whole lot darker now than the bandages around his arm and ribs.  He wished Johnny would breathe more deeply and knew that Sam did, too.  “I’ll have to ask her, I guess.  I hate to, though.  She seems like a brave little girl, but whatever the story is, she’s suffered a terrible tragedy.”

ELEVEN

      Emma sat on a bench in the garden feeding A.J. milk from the goat that had been brought to the ranch.  The sun shone pleasantly but the cheerful brightness of the day and the flowers that bloomed all around her could not lighten the weight inside her heart.

      Five days had passed, and though she did all right during daylight hours, she could not contain her tears at night.  Sometimes Scott’s wife, Michelle, heard her and came across the hall and into the guest room, and Emma would snuggle into her lap in the cushiony chair by the window until her sobs subsided.  Michelle seemed to know Emma would not want to cry in front of anyone and promised never to tell.

      During the day Michelle organized lessons as well as picnics and games for the children and often joined in them herself, darting about or tossing the ball even though she had a baby growing inside.  Because Michelle helped look after her and also because she had taken an immediate liking to Coco–she had her doubts about the devilish Tommy–Emma made an effort to enjoy these activities.  But in reality she found it hard to laugh and play.  Michelle seemed much hardier than Emma’s own poor mama, but Emma still feared what might happen when the baby arrived.  She did not want Coco, Tommy, and Scott, who had such a tender smile despite his often serious manner, to have to cry at night.

Then again, Emma thought maybe Scott would have acted less grave if his brother weren’t so ill.  Coco had complained that Scott, whom she called Papa, hardly played at all now with Tio Johnny laid up.  Tio meant uncle in Spanish, Coco had informed Emma importantly.  Emma could see Coco was scared for Johnny, which made her feel worse yet for shooting him.  She didn’t think either Tommy or Coco knew it was her fault, though, or else they wouldn’t have wanted to play with her.

      Emma also liked the cantankerous nanny goat, though no one else seemed to, least of all the grizzled handyman named Jelly.  In truth Emma thought he was secretly fond of the goat because he petted her as he groused and sometimes slipped her a slice from his apple.  Emma milked her each morning so that Jelly would not have to and the old man treated Emma with a sort of gruff fondness in return, letting her brush and curry the horses, especially Barranca, and feed them their oats.

      But while she was allowed near Johnny’s horse, she was kept away from Johnny himself.  The pretty young woman named Teresa had explained that Johnny was still too weak to see her, but Emma believed the real reason was that they feared she might hurt him again.  She’d brought the carbine in the scabbard on Russ’s horse but hadn’t seen it since, though the saddle was stored in the tack room of the barn.  So they’d taken the carbine and hidden it heaven knew where, and someone generally seemed to be keeping an eye on her, even here in the garden, where Teresa now pegged washing to the line.  Bandages, Emma saw.  Always bandages.

      By this time Emma had worried herself almost sick over Johnny.  When she plucked up enough courage to ask, the grownups said he was coming along, but Emma could tell they fibbed.  If he was too weak to see her, how could he be coming along?  Plus there was the way the others either hurried to and from his room as though something had suddenly gone wrong, or plodded morosely about the house, faces as long as a week’s worth of rain.

      For Emma, the prospect that Johnny might die was a particularly terrifying one, so terrifying that were it not for little A.J., who needed her care and whom she loved, she would’ve taken Russ’s big bay horse and fled the ranch.  But like her, A.J. had no mama; he was her only family and she, his.  Even so, if Johnny didn’t make it, staying could put Emma at great risk.  They’d jailed Russ for shooting the doc, so Emma figured they’d jail her, too.  And since she couldn’t spin a yarn or drink the liquor like Russ, she hadn’t a prayer of convincing the judge to set her free.  Did they hang children?  She was too scared to ask.  She missed her mama desperately and wanted to see her again more than just about anything else, but not quite yet if it meant going to heaven herself.  Which she might not even get to do.  To add to her fears, she felt fairly certain that people found bad enough to hang went to hell.

      She had to see Johnny.  She had to find out for herself.  Not only could she find out how he really was, she could ask him about jail and hanging as well.  Not that she’d let on she thought he might die, but still.

      Teresa finished with the laundry and walked over to the bench.  “He looks pretty content, there,” she said with a smile.  “Want me to put him in his bassinet?”

      “Yes, ma’am,” Emma answered politely, holding the sleeping baby up for Teresa to take.  He had a drop of milk on his chin, which Teresa smudged away with her thumb.  He was very tiny but also very perfect, Emma thought.  A miniature baby.  Dr. Sam said he was healthy and strong and that with enough of the nanny goat’s milk, he’d catch up on his size right soon.  Emma knew he told the truth about this by the way his lined old face creased into a happy smile whenever he saw A.J.  He’d stopped at the ranch every day, sometimes staying the night.

      Teresa took A.J. inside and Emma followed a distance behind.  When Teresa went off to another room and Emma heard no one else about, she crept up the stairs.  Finding the hall deserted, she made her way to Johnny’s room.  The door was open and she peeked around the frame.  No one in here, either, except Johnny himself.

      She almost didn’t recognize him, almost wondered if she had the wrong room, if some other, thinner, paler man had taken sick.  The cheekbones were too defined, the beard thick and dark, the lips chapped and cracked, the hair limp and without shine.  But it was Johnny.  Even with his blue eyes closed, she knew that.  On silent feet, she tiptoed to the side of the bed and stood watching him.  Cautiously, she extended one of her hands and laid it across his own, relieved to find there the warmth of life.

      She squeezed a little, just the tiniest bit, and felt him squeeze back.

      “Emma,” he whispered, and opened his eyes.  And smiled, that sweet Johnny smile she remembered from before, from even when he was hurting and they’d only just met.

      She swallowed hard.  “Hi, Johnny.”

      “Hi, miel.  Where you been?”  He didn’t sound like he had at her place; his voice was very weak.  A nightshirt hid the bandages now, but she knew they were still there.

      “Taking care of A.J.  And Barranca.  Oh, and milking the goat.”

      “Goat?”

      “Dr. Sam had a nanny goat brought out for milk for A.J.  He said it’s making A.J. strong.  Maybe he’ll give you some, too.”

      “Maybe…”  His eyes slipped shut for a moment and then he squeezed her fingers gently and looked at her again.

      “I miss mama,” she told him with a big lump in her throat.

      “I know, Emma.  So do I.”

      She nodded and looked down, unable to keep a couple tears from spilling over.  She heard the rustle of the sheet and felt his finger on her cheek, catching one.  Looking up, she saw that he had tears in his eyes, too.

      “They wouldn’t let me see you,” she said.  “I thought it was because…  I was afraid–“

      “I’m fine, Emma.  I’ll be fine.”

      “Will you?”

      “Yes, miel.  I will.  Fever’s broke, even.  Just tired, that’s all.”

      They passed a short while in silence, then Emma said, her voice timid and small.  “I was afraid they’d send me to jail.  You know, if you–“

      To her surprise, his body jerked a little against the mattress and his shoulders shook.  Wincing, he grabbed his side.  Emma worried she should have obeyed Teresa and left him alone.  Certain she’d hurt him again, just as the grownups had feared she would, she began to feel panicky, until she realized he was laughing, to the extent he could, even though it made him cough, even though it hurt.

      “Oh Emma,” he said when he got the coughing under control, “You don’t need to worry about that.  No one’s sending you to jail.”  His smile softened and, as they had at the cabin, his blue eyes drew her in and held her fast.  “No one’s making you leave here at all.  You or A.J.  Not so long as you want to stay.”

      Emma bit her lip and thought about this.  She didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but she did have one question.  Maybe she shouldn’t ask it, she thought.  Maybe the answer was no.  But she had to.  Just as she’d needed to know whether Johnny would live, she needed an answer to this.

      Drawing a deep breath, forcing herself to look him straight in the eye the way Mama had taught her to do, she asked, “What if we want to stay for good?”

      His expression turned serious, but the kindness remained.  Extending his left arm, he cupped her chin in his hand.  “Then you’ll stay for good,” he told her.  “On one condition.”

      Her heart, which had begun to race with joy, seemed to lurch to a stop.  “What’s that, Johnny?”

      “That you wait a week before you make me laugh again.  Or even grin real big.  Okay?”

      Now Emma laughed, herself.  For the first in such a very long time, her heart felt light, as light as the sunshiny day outside–or the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes.

      “Okay,” she said.  “O-kay!”

      Johnny grinned, plenty big, and even though he’d said not to make him do that Emma knew he wouldn’t send her away.  Her or A.J.  Ever.

      “Give me that glycerin,” he said.  “The jar there, on the night table.  You keep me grinnin’ like this, I’ll need a whole new supply.”

      So she opened the lid and held the little blue jar out to him so he could dip a finger into it and rub some on his cracked lips.  Then he handed it back to her and she returned it to its spot on the table.

      “I can take care of you, Johnny,” she said.  “You and A.J.  I can help you get all better, and then you can ride Barranca and I can ride that horse of Russ’s, and you can show me your whole big ranch.”

      “I’m sure you can, Emma,” he agreed.  “Emma Victoria.  I’m sure you can.  And maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll even teach you how to hunt.”

      “I know how to hunt, Johnny.”

      “Deer, miel,” he said, “I’ll teach you how to hunt deer.”

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The End
April 2005

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6 thoughts on “Strays by Annie

  1. This is a very special story. Different from any other I’ve read. Your characters became very real to me and even Johnny was the real Johnny. Thank you for writing and sharing this story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I tend to wander aimlessly through the archive and am so glad I found this story. It is a wonderful drama filled with tension, challenges, love, and heartache. Beautiful story with a great cast of characters.

    Like

  3. I love this story; so well written that it brought the characters to life. Thank you for sharing it with us

    Like

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