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On Shaky Ground by Winj

Word Count 40,055

Murdoch stood by the hotel desk as Scott leaned against it. Johnny was wandering around the room, looking at the wall hangings he’d seen a dozen times. He impatiently tapped his fingers against his leg and let out yet another sigh. When he glanced at his family, he found a disapproving frown directed his way. He smiled a little at his father and walked over.

“I’m sure they’ll be down soon,” Murdoch answered the unspoken question.

“Well, if this is how society folk from Boston act, how come he’s never late?” Johnny grinned as he tossed his head toward his brother.

“I’m sure they’re just a little disoriented from the trip, brother. Try to have some patience.”

Johnny rolled his eyes at his brother then saw Murdoch straighten himself. His eyes went to the stairs as the older man and young woman descended. He refrained from letting out a soft whistle.

She was lovely. Her skin, milky white, set off the light blue gown; her hair was collected atop her head in loose curls that seemed ready to spill all over her bare shoulders any minute. He noticed her small nose and chin, the full red lips and blushed cheeks. He couldn’t see her eye color yet but Johnny decided right then, while she was a beauty, she was much more Scott’s type than his. She walked like she had a board stuck up her

“Martin, so good to see you.” Murdoch greeted the man, breaking into his rather unkind thoughts.

Martin Harrison was a striking man in his own right. Though he was Murdoch’s age, he looked ten years younger. His dark blue evening suit cut to his trim figure, his brown hair was immaculate, each strand in place. He held himself much like Scott, Johnny thought. His shoes shone with a high polish and Johnny mused they’d probably blind a man once the sun hit them.

He stood just behind and between his father and brother as Murdoch made the introductions. Scott stepped aside so he could reach the man to shake hands and he stepped up. He saw her eyes then, hazel with little gold flecks but it was the expression that got him. When she looked at him, there was nothing but contempt in those lovely eyes. He simply made a gesture of tipping the hat he wasn’t wearing and said, “ma’am.”

“It’s so nice to finally meet you boys. Murdoch’s letters since you’ve returned have been about nothing else.” Harrison smiled congenially.

Scott returned the smile. “We’ve heard a great deal about you as well, Sir.”

“Well, shall we go in? Our table is waiting,” Murdoch suggested, an arm spread toward the dining room.

“Definitely. Helena and I are famished. Come, my dear.” He offered his arm to his daughter and she took it gracefully, smiling at Scott.

Johnny took it all in and thought that smile was a little dangerous. He grinned at his brother who simply raised a brow at him then wrapped an arm around his shoulders as they made their way into the dining room.

Johnny figured he’d choke to death any minute. He’d been wearing this tie for hours now and it didn’t look like he’d get to take it off anytime soon. Murdoch and Mr. Harrison were talking about old times and he knew it would last half the night. Scott was talking quietly with Helena and Johnny smirked. Yep, that was one dangerous female. Â

He heard his name and looked back at his father who was smiling. He returned it and listened with some embarrassment as the old man extolled his horse ‘expertise’.

“You must be quite a horseman yourself, Scott,” Helena spoke up. “I understand you were in the cavalry.”

“Yes, I learned a great deal but I’d already had some experience with horses in Boston ,” Scott replied politely.

“I just love riding through the Common and the trails.”

“Scott’s got a real handle on horses. He can jump about anything you put in front of him,” Johnny said and winked at his brother. Scott laughed but when he looked at Helena , her face was flat. Johnny sighed to himself. Reckon she’s got no use for me, he thought.

“I’m still learning about cow ponies but at least I have an excellent teacher,” Scott imparted.

“Yeah, who?” Johnny quipped.

Murdoch chuckled but thought to put a stop to their shenanigans. He knew it would go on all night if given free rein. “Well, you’re both fine horseman, alright? What I was telling Martin about are the horses that roam Lancer.”

“I’ve developed an interest in breeding lately. Johnny, your father tells me you’re the man to talk with,” Martin explained.

“I’d be glad to help, Mr. Harrison.”

“None of that, now. It’s Martin.”

Johnny smiled at him and nodded.

“I know you’ve just arrived, but, what do you think of California so far?” Scott asked him.

“It’s very different, I must say. The landscape has been intriguing. It changes almost instantly, it seems.”

“All I’ve seen is dust,” Helena said.

“Well, once we get you to Lancer, I hope you’ll get a better view,” Murdoch replied.

She smiled and blushed a little and Johnny wondered just what she was thinking. Maybe he was jaded, but he couldn’t help thinking of what view she’d like to see. He glanced at his brother. Was he thinking the same thing? Â

“I’m looking forward to it, Murdoch. I want to see just how much embellishment you’ve put in those letters,” Martin laughed.

The ride home was quiet for most of the way until Murdoch spoke. “Johnny, you can pick Martin and Helena up in the morning.”

“I don’t know why they didn’t just come with us tonight.”

“It’s a long trip, brother. I know it wore me out,” Scott supplied.

“What do you think of them?” When neither son replied right away, he looked over expectantly.

“Seems like a real nice man. Friendly,” Johnny said.

“Yes, he’s very nice,” Scott replied.

“And Helena ?” Murdoch pressed.

Scott twisted his mouth for a second. “She’s nice.” He heard a soft snort beside him and looked at his brother with a quirky grin.

“Seemed a little uppity to me.”

“Well, she’s not used to this land. Give her some time to adjust,” Murdoch answered cautiously.

Shaking his head, Johnny laughed. “That’s our father. The diplomat. She’s pretty full of herself, Murdoch. She’s got her sights set on Scott, too. Best watch your back … and front, brother.”

“I will.” Scott looked over at him with a serious expression then, they both burst out laughing.

Murdoch shook his head but, he’d noticed her icy response to Johnny, too. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, really. Maybe she just responded well to Scott because he was from Boston . He let himself believe that and figured she’d warm up to Johnny in time. He was sure, once his son showed her his charm, she’d relax.

Val Crawford squinted as he watched the surrey pull up in front of the hotel. Nope, he couldn’t pass this up, he decided as he walked across the street.

Johnny stepped out and turned to find the lawman grinning at him. “Don’t start.”

“Start what? Just wanted to tell ya what a pretty surrey ya got. It ain’t Sunday already is it?” he asked, eyes roving over the fringed covering.

“I’m pickin up Murdoch’s friend and his daughter. Is that alright with you?” Johnny glowered.

“Fine by me.” He held his hands up in surrender but the smile stayed on his face. The smile faded and his eyes bulged when he looked past Johnny to the young woman walking out of the hotel.

Johnny turned and saw her, then her father and sighed.

“She’s somethin,” Val whispered.

“Yeah, she sure is.” Johnny’s tone was less appreciative than Val’s. He introduced them to the sheriff and was more than surprised by Helena ‘s warm greeting for the man.

He loaded their bags into the back then walked around to where they were still talking to Val. “All ready when you are.”

“It was nice to meet you, Sheriff. I hope we’ll see you again, soon,” Martin said as he shook hands.

“Ya’ll have a nice stay,” Val smiled. When he turned to Johnny, he gave him a wink.

Johnny shook his head as his friend walked away then offered Helena a hand into the surrey. She ignored him and climbed into the back. Martin gave him a weak smile and slid into the front seat. She didn’t speak the entire trip; something Johnny didn’t even notice until they were driving under the arch. Well, can’t like everybody, he thought.

As soon as they pulled to a stop, two ranch hands started unloading the bags. Martin helped his daughter down then turned and looked at the hacienda.

“Well, so far, he’s not told any tall tales. This is a beautiful home.”

Johnny smiled at that. He liked this man. He just wished the daughter wasn’t such a sourpuss. At least, around him. Â Murdoch walked out then and he was relieved to hand over the guests to his father who ushered them inside as Johnny went to work.

That evening at supper, Martin and Helena regaled them with stories of Boston . They and Scott spent a great deal of time talking about places Johnny had never heard of. He hung on every word, watching his brother’s face, reading him like a book for the first time. A smile stayed on his face as he watched them and, sometimes, Murdoch when he’d pipe in with a story of his own. When the old man started talking about meeting Catherine, Scott leaned in close, absorbed with each word.

The supper hour turned into two before any of them realized it. Finally, Murdoch suggested they retire to the living room where he poured brandy for the men and a sherry for Helena .

“Johnny, we must have bored you to death at the table,” Martin suddenly spoke out.

Frowning, Johnny shook his head. “Not at all. It was great to hear about Boston . Scott doesn’t talk that much about it.”

“Oh? I would think you’d be telling everyone about our wonderful city,” Helena said.

“Well, I’ve been pretty busy learning about the land surrounding me now much less reminisce. But, I enjoyed the talk immensely.” Scott smiled and raised his glass to Martin.

“As much as I do love Boston , I’m always interested in different places and cultures. I’d love to hear about Mexico ,” Martin said.

“You should visit, Martin. I’m sure Johnny could tell you all the more interesting sites,” Murdoch imparted.

A sly grin curved Johnny’s lips upward. He glanced at his father and saw the warning look which almost sent him rolling. He maintained his decorum, though, and spoke. “There are a lot of beautiful places in Mexico and some not so nice ones. Just like here.”

“Which ones did you live in?”

He looked at her, stunned she’d spoken to him at all. Seeing the contempt for him still in her eyes, he knew she was baiting him. Why, he couldn’t fathom. “The not so nice ones,” he answered dryly.

Scott, equally stunned at her less than polite question, thought to change the course of this conversation. “Well, you still have Lancer to see before we run you off.” His smile was tight much like his voice as he directed his comment to Martin.

The man looked ready to either explode or pass out, Johnny wasn’t sure which. Whatever her problem was, her father was mortified. He felt sorry for the man and smiled warmly at him when their eyes met, the older man’s with an apology in them. Â

“I’m looking forward to that. We should probably turn in early. I understand ranchers rise with the sun.” He stood and looked harshly and expectantly at his daughter. She stood as well though she avoided his glare.

“We’ll see you both in the morning, then. If you need anything, just let us know,” Murdoch said as he too, stood up.

The clock’s ticking seemed inordinately loud to Johnny’s ears in the aftermath of their retiring. He stared at the floor, perplexed beyond measure. Yet, he wasn’t about to mention any of it to his family. He figured Murdoch would say something, try to explain it away and, he almost wanted to hear that.

“What is her problem?”

Johnny looked at his brother, a bit surprised Scott took up the challenge first. Neither of them wanted this visit to go badly. Murdoch had been so looking forward to spending time with his old friend.

“I don’t know but I’m sure her father will speak to her about it. I just don’t understand what she has against you, Johnny.”

He shrugged as he looked at his father. “Maybe she doesn’t like Mexicans.”

“How would she know? I can’t remember ever seeing a Mexican in Boston in my life.” Scott was angry now with the thought this may be the reason. He could not abide prejudice of any kind.

“Well, whatever it is, I’m not gonna worry about it. I really like your friend, Murdoch.” Johnny smiled at his father.

“I’m very glad. I knew you would. Martin has always been a warm and friendly person. I doubt there’s a soul who’s met him that doesn’t like him. I’m sure Helena will come around.”

Scott stood suddenly and paced around the sofa. “I’m sorry, Sir, but she shouldn’t need to ‘come around’. There is no excuse for her behavior.”

“Scott, look, sometimes you meet someone and you just don’t like them for whatever reason. It’s no big deal.”

“That’s true, brother. However, you don’t treat them so hatefully in their own home, either. I know she was raised better unless her father didn’t raise her.” His eyes went questioningly to Murdoch.

“Actually, I think she spent a great deal of time in boarding schools in Europe .”

“Well, there ya go. She just doesn’t know how to talk to us peons,” Johnny grinned.

Neither of the other two found it funny. Johnny rolled his eyes at their scowls. “Look, ignore it. She’ll get tired of turning her nose up sooner or later. Besides, it really doesn’t bother me.”

Murdoch kept looking toward the stairway throughout breakfast. He knew it probably wasn’t going to happen and he couldn’t blame them. They weren’t used to getting up with the dawn no matter Martin’s intentions. He smiled a little thinking of how he’d rub it in when the man did show himself for the day.

Just as they’d finished up, the man in question walked into the room a bit embarrassed. “My apologies. It’s not easy waking yourself at a predetermined time.”

“No problem. I had the same trouble when I first came here,” Scott smiled.

“Boy, did he! I had to go in there and roust him every day,” Johnny laughed.

Scott smirked at him and Murdoch chuckled. “You wish, brother. You weren’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, either.”

“Well, sit and have some breakfast. We can take a ride afterwards if you like. Will Helena be joining us?” Murdoch asked.

“I doubt it. She won’t be up for hours most likely. Johnny, I’d like to apologize for my daughter’s behavior last night. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

“Don’t worry about it, Martin. I’m not.”

“Well, that’s gracious of you,” he said.

Johnny only shrugged and got up. “Well, day’s awastin. Come on, Scott. Let’s see if we can make those cows do what we want today.”

“That would be a feat, brother,” Scott snorted as he joined his brother.

“We’ll see you later, boys. We’ll ride out to the north pasture.”

“He can tell ya it’s sightseein but he’s really just checkin up on us,” Johnny said to Martin and winked.

“Well, he never was a very subtle man.”

Once the brothers had left, Martin turned a bit sullen. “I don’t know her.”

“She’s been away a long time.”

“How did you do it, Murdoch? With Scott and Johnny. How is it the three of you seem so … close?”

Murdoch raised a brow then took a sip of his coffee. “Seems, Martin. Oh, we get along most of the time. Still, it isn’t easy. They’re strangers to me. I know how you feel. Scott is well-mannered and polite but he gets his point across. Johnny is more … passionate, I guess is a good word. He’s a lot like his mother that way. He and I have raised the roof more than once.” He smiled a little at that.

“It’s easy to see they care deeply for you and each other. All the teasing and smiling bears witness. I’m afraid all I get from Helena is polite smiles and pouting. She doesn’t seem to want to talk to me at all.”

“Maybe she needs another female to talk to. Teresa is very good at listening and she’s an understanding girl. Only …” Murdoch paused here. His bright idea was beginning to dim.

“Only what?”

“Well, if Helena has a problem with Johnny, Teresa will stand up for him.”

“As well she should. I would appreciate anything she could do, Murdoch. Helena hasn’t had another woman to talk with since coming home. The girls her age in Boston don’t know her and they don’t easily allow new arrivals into their midst.”

Murdoch smiled and nodded. “I’ll talk to her right now and I’ll tell her to go easy on Helena .”

“Are you sure it doesn’t bother you or was that just for Murdoch and Martin’s benefit?” Scott asked as they sat their mounts overlooking the valley full of cattle below.

“I’m sure. I don’t need everyone in the world to love me, brother. Just a few.”

“Well, I hope you find them someday.”

Johnny looked over at his brother’s smirking face. Scott appeared quite pleased with his comeback. “I’ve already found them. Maybe, I’ll introduce you to them sometime. Maybe.”

Scott pulled a face and smacked him on the arm. “Maybe we should get some work done.”

“If we have to.” Johnny sighed forlornly and pressed Barranca into an easy lope down the hill.

Scott held back for a minute, a slight smile on his face. Johnny didn’t let much of anything get to him unless it hurt his family. Then, heaven help whoever was causing that problem. Heaven help Helena if she did manage to hurt his brother, he thought unkindly. He’d thought this morning of trying to talk with her but, he wasn’t sure that was a good idea. He didn’t know the relationship between father and daughter but he knew how he’d feel if someone tried that with him. Still, no one was treating her badly, not even Johnny who could have easily.

Well, he thought, I’m not getting any work done like this. For a brief moment, he thought to sit there until Johnny noticed he hadn’t moved. With a soft laugh, he headed down the hill.

“Murdoch, it’s simply stunning.”

He smiled, pride swelling in his heart. “Thank you, Martin. I knew the first time I laid eyes on this land, it was the perfect place.”

“You said it was heaven on earth in your letters. I thought you were just daft,” he laughed.

Murdoch chuckled, too. “Let’s go see what my boys are up to.”

“Spying, just like Johnny said,” he grinned. After a few moments of silence, he frowned in thought. “They’re both a joy. I’ll admit, I’m a bit envious. I always wanted a son. I thought maybe Joanna and I would … well.”

Looking sympathetically at his friend, Murdoch spoke softly. “She was a good woman.”

“I think, when she died, that’s what really changed Helena . She adored her mother.”

“How old was she?”

“Sixteen. She wanted to go to boarding school. I think she just wanted to get away from me.”

“I don’t believe that, Martin. I’m sure she just wanted to get away from the memories the house held. Maybe she thought a change of scenery would help her.”

“I believed that, too, but she isn’t the same girl. She used to laugh. She used to love life. She used to be kind to everyone.”

Murdoch grimaced. He didn’t know what to say. Girls were not his strong point. Teresa made it so easy. She was only sixteen when her father died but, she was so strong. Maybe being raised in this rough land was the difference. Maybe it helped her handle the loss better. She’d grieved deeply, of course. But, she’d also pulled herself together and kept him alive those long days after Paul’s death.

He only hoped his ward could get through to the girl. Teresa was practical but her heart was golden. She’d be able to sympathize with Helena , of that he was sure. Still, he didn’t want to think how she’d react if Helena disparaged Johnny in front of her. She’d readily agreed to the task this morning but, she hadn’t been privy to the girl’s … what? Sarcasm? the night before. Yes, he supposed that was it. Though the word hatred came to mind, he didn’t want to think it. How can you hate someone you don’t even know?

They topped the hill and saw the herd below, the men pushing them, and Murdoch easily spotted his sons.

Teresa spent the majority of her morning thinking of her conversation with Murdoch. He hadn’t been able to tell her much and she couldn’t begin to understand this girl’s reaction to Johnny. She’d only met Helena briefly yesterday before having to excuse herself. Bonita was having her baby and Teresa promised to be there as the young bride was terrified.

Now, she’d promised to try and be understanding but she wouldn’t put up with any animosity toward a man she’d come to love like a brother. She glanced at the clock and frowned. Ten o’clock and still no sign of the girl. Was she going to sleep her life away?

Shortly thereafter, she heard a strange sound. Well, strange for the house. Curiously, she walked into the dining room wondering who was ringing a bell. Sitting at the table was Helena with a small porcelain bell Teresa recognized as a knickknack Murdoch had given her one Christmas.

Raising a brow, she rounded the table to face the girl. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. I’m ready for my breakfast,” she replied flatly.

Teresa stared at her as if she had horns. “Breakfast was over hours ago. I’ll see if I can find you something.”

“Tea and a nice scone will do.”

“What’s a scone?”

Helena gave her a disgusted look. “A biscuit then?”

Teresa returned with tea, jam and biscuits and set the items in front of her then seated herself. She poured the tea and watched the frowning girl.

“Did you want something else? That isn’t much.”

“This will do, thank you,” she replied and glanced at the girl. “You’re Mr. Lancer’s ward?”

“That’s right. My father was the foreman here and good friends with Murdoch. When he died, Murdoch became my guardian.”

“Quite a coup for you. I mean, all this land must be worth a lot.”

Teresa shrugged her shoulders. “I suppose so. I’ve never really thought about it. I was born on Lancer. It’s my home.”

“For as long as Mr. Lancer says, you mean.”

Teresa ground her teeth together and tried very hard to remember her promise of this morning. She said nothing as Helena took tiny bites of the biscuit. If that’s how she eats, no wonder she only wanted a biscuit. She’ll still be working on it at lunch, she thought.

“Your father seems very nice,” she tried.

Helena glanced at her then went back to her food. “That’s what I hear.”

“He’s your father. Don’t you know?”

“We haven’t spent much time together. I went to school in Europe .”

“That must have been wonderful! I’ve always wanted to see different countries,” she smiled.

“Why don’t you? I’m sure your guardian would let you go.”

“I’m sure he would. It’s just hard to imagine leaving Lancer even for a while. He offered to send me to school but I didn’t want to leave.”

Helena looked at her, a coy expression on her face. “Would Scott have anything to do with that decision? He’s quite handsome.”

Teresa’s shoulders tensed. Now, she’d have to address the one thing she’d promised not to. If Helena was going to mention Scott, surely Johnny wouldn’t be far behind. “Scott had nothing to do with it. In fact, the offer was made long before he came home. Yes, he’s handsome but, to me, he’s like a brother.”

She cocked a brow at that then smiled. “That’s good to know.”

Teresa smiled back at her, she wanted to laugh. She didn’t think Helena was Scott’s type. As beautiful as she was, if she had such a dislike for Johnny, she had no chance with Scott. “Where exactly did you go to school?”

” Paris .”

It was only one word but Teresa could swear she heard a tome of information in her voice. It was as if the girl had just tasted something rancid. Everything she’d read about Paris told her it was a magical city. But, from Helena ‘s tone, one would think it was the most disgusting place on earth.

“That must have been exciting,” she said, a question in her voice.

“Where is my father?”

“He went for a ride with Murdoch to see the ranch.”

“That’s it. Now, just pull back on the reins. Now, turn him. Good!” Johnny smiled widely as Martin turned the steer in the vicinity of where it should be going. It was close enough, anyway.

“That was hard!”

Murdoch chuckled as he moved closer to them. “I think you may have a whole new career, Martin.”

“No, thank you. This is a young man’s game.” He quirked his mouth at his friend.

Murdoch scowled at him as the brothers tried and failed not to laugh. “It’s time for lunch.”

“How about it, Martin? Would you like to eat from a chuckwagon?” Scott asked, his eyes dancing.

“This is a bad idea, I just know it,” the man grumbled.

Murdoch found them a fairly level place to sit on the ground and they settled with their tin plates and cups. It was quiet as they tucked in, Scott and Johnny making a quick dent.

“I read somewhere that it isn’t healthy to eat so fast,” Martin said, amused at the two of them.

“Out here, there’s not much time to enjoy a repast, I’m afraid,” Scott replied. “The cattle don’t care how hungry we are.”

“Don’t care how healthy we are, either,” Johnny said as he chewed a piece of beef.

“They aren’t going anywhere without you, are they?”

Murdoch laughed. “No, which is exactly why we need to stay on top of them. They need new grazing for the rest of the summer. Then, we’ll move them to the winter pastures if they aren’t going to market.”

“Well, it’s hard work, that’s easy to see. I suppose that’s why you aren’t yet in a rocker.”

“A rocker? The day I’m in a rocker, you may as well put me in the ground,” he grunted.

Johnny looked sharply at him, swallowing the bite he had and standing up. He walked back to the wagon and handed his plate to the cook then walked down to the stream.

“Is he alright?” Martin asked.

“He’ll be fine. He just doesn’t like it when Murdoch talks like that,” Scott explained, giving his father a sour look.

“There’s always a nice breeze to be found near the water.”

Johnny looked over at him and smiled then skimmed a rock. It skipped twice before disappearing. Martin bent down and found a suitable missile, skipping it three times and smiling victoriously. Johnny, not to be outdone, went for four but was only able to match his competitor.

“Somehow, I don’t think your father is going to let us keep this game going.”

Johnny laughed and shook his head. “I could always tell him I was just being a good host.”

Martin smiled as he looked at the young man. “Are you alright? You seemed upset back there.”

“Sure, I’m fine,” he shrugged.

“I admire you, Johnny. The way you’ve turned your life around. I know it’s none of my business but, I just wanted to say it.”

“Thanks. It’s not always easy but, well, it’d be hard to beat this setup.”

He laughed at that. “You always seem to just shrug things off. Like how Helena has treated you.” The laughter was gone, no smile was seen and when Johnny looked at him, he saw the intense sadness.

“Don’t worry about that, please. I don’t want you and her goin at each other because of me. She don’t like me and that’s alright. No one said she had to.”

“My daughter went to the finest finishing school in Paris . She was taught manners and diplomacy. It seems since she’s been home, all that knowledge has flown out the window.”

Johnny smiled a little. “Sounds like she needs a trip to the woodshed.”

Martin looked wide-eyed at him then burst out laughing. “Maybe that is what she needs.” After a brief moment, the sadness returned. “Since her mother died, she’s changed so much.”

“When did she die?” Johnny asked gently.

“Four years ago. Helena was sixteen. She loved her mother so much.”

Johnny nodded and turned to look back at the water. “That’s hard. Maybe she never got over it.”

“Maybe. That still doesn’t excuse her.”

“No, it doesn’t but, it makes it easier to understand, doesn’t it? I mean, if they were that close, maybe she’s missing that in her life. Fathers just ain’t the same.” To himself, he thought sometimes, fathers were better.

“Maybe I should have tried to find someone, remarry. I just …”

“Can’t do that just for her sake, though. You have a life, too. She’s grown now and as much as you want to take care of her, you just can’t as much now.”

“How would you feel if Murdoch wanted to get married again?”

Johnny took a step back and stared at him. Swallowing hard, he answered. “Never thought about it. But, I want him to be happy.”

Martin smiled at him. “Boys are different. I don’t think Helena would take it very well. We’ve never talked about it but, I can see her reaction easily.”

“Maybe, she needs you more than even she knows,” Johnny said gently. Â

He bowed his head and turned away, taking a few steps along the shoreline. “She acts as though she doesn’t want to be around me at all much of the time.”

Johnny closed his eyes for a second and sighed lightly. He could hear the pain and felt badly for the man. He definitely thought that girl needed a good swatting. He looked over to where Murdoch and Scott were sitting. They looked deep in conversation and he wished his father would notice. He smirked a little. Maybe boys are different but, sometimes, they still needed a little help, too. Like right now.

Martin turned back, forcing a smile. “I should let you get back to work.”

Johnny nodded but he couldn’t help the sympathetic look he gave the man. It angered him a little but he had no right to get in the middle of a family problem.

Teresa tried not to feel the anger but it just wasn’t working that well. Helena had gone for a walk after hearing her father wasn’t about. She didn’t seem too interested when Teresa had asked if she’d like to do some needlework or help with supper. In fact, she’d scoffed at the idea of cooking. Evidently, whatever she’d learned in Paris , it wasn’t housework. She often wondered what these high society ladies did with their time. She was still wondering as she kneaded the dough a little more voraciously than necessary.

She saw the brown hand cover her own and looked up into Maria’s frowning face. “Nina, what has the dough done to you?”

Teresa smiled and shook her head. “Not a thing, Maria. It’s that girl. She’s … I don’t know what she is.”

“She does not like Johnny so you do not like her?”

“No, not really. I mean, I tried talking to her but, she’s such a snob!”

Maria shook her head slowly, disappointed Teresa hadn’t been able to get through to the girl. She held no opinion as she had not met the young lady. Still, she wasn’t all that fond of the notion of her. She patted the girl’s back and went back to the sink.

Teresa eased up on the dough but she was still upset. She felt she’d let Murdoch down. There was time, though. Maybe she shouldn’t have expected too much right away. Maybe Helena just needed time to adjust to her surroundings. Yes, she thought, that’s it. She set the dough aside to rise and was wiping her hands on her apron when she heard a loud crash and a squeal from the front of the house. She took off at a dead run.

Helena was standing in front of the fireplace staring at the floor. Teresa went quickly to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

“What happened?” she asked as her eyes went down.

“I’m sorry. It slipped from my hands.”

The anger was back as Teresa knelt down and started picking up the broken glass. She turned the photograph over and saw it was of Johnny, that sweet smile he used to charm the ladies on his face. With a sigh, she said, “no harm done. We’ll just replace the frame.”

She stood and turned as Maria came in with broom in hand. “I’ll do that.”

“No need, nina. Do not cut yourself.” Maria tsked when she saw the picture. Shaking her head, she went about sweeping up the mess.

Helena backed away when Maria came near, walking over to the French doors. Teresa went over to her.

“It’s really alright. Nothing that can’t be fixed.”

“Of course,” she answered dully.

Murdoch just frowned while Teresa told of her attempt with Helena . She thought he’d start growling when she told of the picture.

“She can’t stand him. Why was she looking at a picture of him?” Â

“I didn’t ask her that. The photograph is alright. We just need a new frame.”

“It isn’t the picture, darling.”

“I know,” she said sympathetically. She knew he hated his best friend’s daughter behaving this way. She was sure the father hated it, too. “I need to finish supper,” she added and went to the kitchen. Â

Martin walked into the great room and sensed the tension. “Something wrong?”

“Hmm? Oh, no, nothing. Feeling the saddle yet?” he asked with some humor.

Martin laughed. “Not yet. I suppose I will tomorrow. I had a good time today. I talked to Johnny about Helena . He had some interesting insights.”

“He usually does.”

“He thinks she needs to visit the woodshed.”

Murdoch laughed outright at that. Picturing it in his head only made him laugh more. Once he’d settled, he sat in one of the blue wing-backed chairs across from Martin.

“That young man has a good heart. He was very sympathetic when I told him about Joanna’s death and Helena ‘s reaction. I kept thinking he was much younger than she when his own mother died. I didn’t mention it, of course. I’m sure he didn’t act out like that.”

“I don’t know that he didn’t, Martin. It would be understandable.”

“Of course. I guess I meant, he isn’t still acting out years later.”

“You think she never got over it?”

“I’m beginning to think that’s part of the problem. As for why she acts the way she does around Johnny, I haven’t a clue and she won’t tell me.”

“Well, Teresa didn’t have any luck with her today but she’s not giving up.”

Martin eyed him for a long beat. “This isn’t your problem to solve, Murdoch. I appreciate your efforts more than you know. All of you. But, please don’t think you have to handle my daughter. If she doesn’t straighten up, and soon, we’ll leave.”

“Maybe, that’s what she hopes will happen.”

Johnny and Scott walked in the front door wearing most of the dust on Lancer. They were deep in discussion over who would get the bath first and didn’t notice her sitting there at first.

“Alright! I give up. You can go first.”

Johnny grinned and slapped his brother on the back. “I knew you’d see it my way.”

Scott rolled his eyes then saw her. “Oh, good afternoon, Helena .”

“Scott. It appears you’ve had a hard day,” she smiled.

“No more than any other, I suppose,” he said tiredly, trying to smile back.

“One of these days, brother, you’re gonna get busted. Murdoch’s gonna find out you just roll around in the dirt five minutes before gettin home. Then, he’s gonna figure out you spend most of your time under a tree asleep.”

“Johnny, these outrageous stories of yours are what is going to get you busted. Now, do us all a favor and take a bath.”

He bowed deeply as he backed toward the steps, grinning the whole way. His eyes roved over to Helena who was staring at him as if he were trash. His smile never faltered but he was getting very tired of her attitude.

Scott was too focused on the whiskey to see and made his way over. “Would you like a sherry?”

“No, thank you. May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I simply don’t understand what you’re doing here, Scott. I know of your grandfather and I know you don’t have to work like this. Why in the world do you stay here?”

He turned to look at her, his face implacable. “It’s simple really. I stay here because I like it and my family is here. I lived with my grandfather most of my life but, I’m happier here.”

“Well, I don’t understand it. This place is so … remote. So … dusty.”

Scott laughed. “It takes some getting used to but, there’s something very special about Lancer. I feel at home. I realize it isn’t the life for everyone but it’s the life for me.” He strolled over to the fireplace and rested his forearm on the mantle.

“I suppose everyone needs a place to feel at home. I don’t think I could ever get used to this, though.”

He smiled and turned his head to take a sip of his drink. He stopped with hand in midair as he looked hard. “Where’s the picture of Johnny?”

She didn’t answer and Murdoch walked in before Scott could press further. The look on his father’s face made him pause.

“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’ll get ready for dinner,” she said and made a hasty retreat.

Scott watched her go, perplexed beyond measure. “I don’t understand that girl.”

“Neither do I. She broke a picture of Johnny today. I have no idea why she was even looking at it.”

“I just noticed it was gone. Surely you don’t think it was intentional?” Scott asked.

Murdoch’s face was pensive but he shook his head. “No, I don’t. Martin told me if she doesn’t change her attitude, he’s going to leave.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up with that. “I’d hate to see that happen. Of course, that may be what she’s hoping for. It’s obvious she doesn’t like it here. In fact, she just reiterated that to me.”

Murdoch smiled a little. “Johnny told him she needed a trip to the woodshed. I’m beginning to think he’s right.” Sighing, he sat down heavily. “But, she’s had a rough time of it since her mother died. It’s been four years but, apparently, she’s still not dealing with it well.”

“I’m sorry if this sounds callous but, there are a lot of people who’ve had a much harder time than her. I know everyone mourns differently but still.”

“I think if she’d just get it out she’d feel better. Teresa tried today but didn’t get very far. She’s not giving up, though.”

Scott smiled warmly. “If anyone can get her to open up, it’s Teresa.”

Johnny made a run for it. It was only a couple of feet to his room and it wasn’t like he was naked, he told himself. But, he must have dropped his clean shirt in his room and he figured putting the dirty one back on would defeat the purpose of his bath. After all, he was still wearing pants. He was halfway there when the door opened.

She inhaled sharply and turned her back to him, her cheeks glowing.

“Sorry,” he mumbled and hurried past her.

“I suppose I could expect no less,” she spat.

He stopped, doorknob in hand and turned to her. “I don’t know what your problem with me is and I really don’t care but, this is my home so knock it off!”

She looked at him, eyes full of ire. “I beg your pardon!”

“Somehow, I doubt that. Look, it’s plain you don’t like me, that’s fine. But, you can cut the smart remarks and the attitude. I would think you’d try a little to get along for your father’s sake.”

“He hasn’t considered my feelings. Why should I consider his?”

Johnny cocked his head to one side and regarded her curiously. “Because he’s your father. He deserves some respect.”

She snorted. “That’s it? Because he’s my father? I suppose you’ve always shown your father respect!”

He dropped his eyes for a second before looking back at her. Releasing the doorknob, he leaned back against the wall. “No, I haven’t but, I hated him most of my life. Plus, I didn’t know him. You’ve always known your old man. What’s he done to make you hate him?”

She gasped at the very suggestion. “I don’t hate him!”

“Hard to tell,” he shrugged.

“You don’t know anything.”

“I know a lot more than you think. Sometime or other, you’re gonna have to get past your mother’s death. Seems to me, you’d want to spend even more time with him. He’s all you’ve got now.”

Her eyes welled. She blinked hard and set her jaw to keep the tears from spilling over.

“Crying such a bad thing?” he asked.

She stifled a sob and swallowed. “Leave me alone. Just stay away from me!” She turned and fled back into her room.

Johnny lowered his head and shook it. Well, so much for talkin it out.

He decided he’d best let Martin know about their conversation. If the man wanted to belt him, that was fine. He knew it wasn’t his business. Well, aside from telling her to lay off him. So, once dressed and downstairs, he asked the man outside.

Martin listened closely and silently until Johnny had finished. He said nothing for several minutes then sighed and ran a hand through his thick hair.

“I appreciate that you tried.”

“I’m sorry, it wasn’t my place but, sometimes, I run my mouth off before thinkin.”

He smiled at the younger man and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “It’s more than she’s said to me about anything more serious than stopping at a store. It still sounds like we’re no closer to finding out why she reacts to you as she does.”

“That don’t matter, Martin. What matters is she’s either blaming you for her mother’s death or she just can’t get over it. Either way, she’s gonna be in a world of trouble if she doesn’t snap out of this.”

His brows drew together as he looked hard at Johnny. “You think she blames me?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how she died.”

“It was cancer. By the time we knew anything was wrong …well, she went very quickly. Maybe that’s part of why she isn’t dealing with it. It was so fast.”

Johnny only nodded. Â Â

“Well, maybe she will talk to me now that the door has been opened. We will definitely be talking about her behavior towards you. I know you keep saying it doesn’t matter but, it does to me, Johnny. You’re my best friend’s son and this is your home. She knows better than this.”

“I’d like to ask a favor,” Johnny said, a little unsure he should say anything else. “Don’t leave because of this. I mean, it really doesn’t bother me. Not enough for you to leave. Murdoch’s been having a good time and I kind of like seein him enjoy himself.”

Martin smiled at him. “Alright, I promise. Unless,” he quantified, “it gets worse.”

Helena didn’t appear for supper and the meal was quiet. Scott and Johnny kept looking at each other, both at a loss. Martin pushed his food around on his plate, frowning the whole time. Finally, he sighed and laid his napkin on the table. With a quiet ‘excuse me’, he left the table and went upstairs. Â

“What happened?” Murdoch asked immediately.

With some reluctance, Johnny relayed the gist of his encounter with the girl. “I should have just kept goin. Should have kept my mouth shut.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. You did the right thing. Someone needed to and it’s clear she isn’t responding to her father,” Scott spoke up.

“I agree but, try not to run around the house half-dressed, son.” Murdoch tried to sound stern but he couldn’t pull it off. Johnny smiled at him.

“Well, she wasn’t very pleasant to me today. I hope her father can get through to her. And I hope she stays away from the photographs.” Teresa said.

Johnny turned halfway around in his seat and looked at her oddly. “Huh?”

With chagrin, she told him about the picture and Johnny laughed softly.

Five minutes later, Martin walked back downstairs and out the front door. The Lancers shared a wary look. It didn’t take a genius to figure out Helena had shut him down yet again.

Murdoch followed him though he was at a loss as to what to say.

Martin paced before the corral, hands clasped behind his back. He looked up when he heard the footsteps but never stopped his movements. “I’m taking her home as soon as possible. This has to stop. I just don’t know what to do.”

Murdoch leaned against the fence. “What happened?”

He stopped and faced the man. “Nothing. She closed the door in my face and locked it.”

The rancher raised his brows then set his face in a stern expression. “I think it really is time for that woodshed. Martin, the girl has a right to her feelings but things have gone beyond that. She’s showing you no respect. She’s not even trying. I hate to say it but, you have let her get away with it. I know you feel guilty, my friend but, it’s time to rein that girl in. “

“How, Murdoch? How do I rein her in when she won’t even open the door?” he asked, miserable.

“Break it down,” he shrugged. A smile flittered across his face at the stunned look he received. “We can replace the door. We can’t replace your relationship with your daughter.”

“You’re serious? I couldn’t do that.”

“Martin, if the room was on fire and she was trapped inside, you’d do it. That young lady is smothering. She needs someone to save her from herself.”

He took a deep breath and let it out harshly. “I promised Johnny I wouldn’t leave because of her behavior but …”

“My son takes a man’s word seriously. You wouldn’t want to betray his trust, would you?” Murdoch had to smile.

“That was hitting below the belt, my friend. Still…” he stared off into the darkness. “I’ll give her tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll talk if I have to tie her down.”

Murdoch sighed to himself. This wasn’t the take charge man he knew those years ago. Still, this wasn’t business or even a barroom brawl. This was his flesh and blood. He knew all too well himself, how lightly a man had to tread with grown children sometimes. It wasn’t in his nature to do so but, he’d adjusted with time and practice. He supposed Martin had as well. Â Â

“Ouch! Take it easy, will ya?”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, but you’re heavy.”

“Well, if you’d let go, I could get there on my own.”

Teresa pulled up short and released her hold, glaring at him. “Fine! Go ahead and try it.”

Johnny was immediately regretful for his harsh words. He smiled at her. “Thanks for helping me but it’s really not a big deal.”

“You always say that. Just let me clean it out before it becomes a big deal, alright?”

“Si, querida, but only for you.” He grinned and hobbled into the house.

She rolled her eyes heavenward. Men! She didn’t think she ever wanted to get married if they were going to act like this bunch all the time. Taking a deep breath, she followed him inside.

Johnny eased himself onto the sofa and she walked right past him to the kitchen for her supplies. He tried the smile again but, it wasn’t doing any good. Seemed everyone was in a bad mood these days. He reached down and unbuttoned the conchos up to his knee then, carefully removed his boot. Examining the wound, he decided he was right. It wasn’t a big deal. But, he’d let her carry on for a few minutes if it saved him some trouble later.

She walked back in and knelt beside him. “You know that nail could have gone right to the bone. You could easily get an infection as it is.”

“I know,” he said softly and she glanced up at him.

“Well, I hope someone fixes it and checks that whole fence. It’s just plain dangerous,” she went on.

“They will.”

She began to wash the wound a little more vigorously than was probably necessary, aggravated at his nonchalant attitude. She knew he was just placating her and that was more irritating than anything. Then, he hissed a little and she relented, giving him a quick smile.

Martin walked in as she was finishing with the bandage. “Are you alright?”

“Just a scratch,” Johnny said and glanced at Teresa before looking back at the man and rolling his eyes.

Martin smiled and coughed to hide the laugh then sat down across from them.

“It’s deeper than a scratch, Johnny. I really think you should rest that leg for a while. Just until we’re sure it’s not going to give you any real problems,” Teresa advised.

He looked down at her still knelt beside him. “And if I don’t?”

Cocking a brow, she raised her chin a little. “I’ll send for Murdoch.”


“Maybe I can keep you occupied,” Martin offered.

“Good luck. He’s the restless sort.” Teresa snorted then gathered her things. Standing up, she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “I’ll make you both some lunch.”

“Thanks, miel,” he smiled then took her hand. “Really.”

She smiled back and shook her head at him then left the men alone.

“She’s got you all right where she wants you,” Martin laughed.

“Yeah, she sure does.”

“Well, what can I do to keep you still?”

Johnny laughed softly at that. “Got any rope? You don’t have to.”

“It’s my pleasure, Johnny.” He took on a thoughtful look. “I know something that might interest you. I saw a book over here the other day. Let me see if I can find it.”

Johnny just nodded. He didn’t want to read or be read to, certainly. But, he couldn’t exactly say so to a guest. He raised his leg to rest on the table then thought better of that idea. He grabbed a pillow and tossed it on the table top. With a smile, he laid the leg atop the pillow and sighed out.

“Here it is,” Martin proclaimed enthusiastically.

He sat beside Johnny and started flipping through the pages until he found what he sought. “Ah, we were talking about the Common the other night. Here’s a map of Boston .”

Johnny leaned over, completely intrigued as Martin pointed out landmarks shown on the map and where some that weren’t shown would be.

“What’s that?” Johnny asked, pointing to several buildings.

“Why, that’s Harvard.”

He looked up at the man then back at the drawing. “All those buildings?”

“Yes, it’s a big place. Scott never described it?”

Shrugging, he answered, “if he did, I don’t remember it. Boy, that’s somethin, huh?”

Martin smiled at the top of his head as the young man leaned in further. “This,” he pointed, “is Beacon Hill and this is the street Scott’s grandfather lives on.”

“It’s right by the Common. I can see Scott now. Strollin through that park, tippin his hat to all the pretty girls, all fancied up in one of his suits.” Johnny smiled at the picture in his head.

Chuckling, Martin agreed. “It is a place where the young people like to meet.”

“Where’s your street?”

“Right here. Not far from Harlan.”

“Do you know him?” Johnny asked softly.

“Only by reputation. We didn’t have the same friends. It’s funny when I think about it. We should have run into each other over the years but, it just didn’t seem to happen.”

“It’s a big city.”

“True and we don’t have the same interests. Anyway, it would have been nice to have known Scott then.”

Johnny leaned back and smiled. “Thanks for showing it to me.”

“Would you like to visit Boston ?”

Johnny shrugged. “Sure, I guess. Not too sure what they’d think of me,” he laughed.

“I’d be happy to have you, all of you visit anytime. I’d love to show you the sights. It’s such a historical town.”

“Because of the war, you mean.”

“That and it’s one of the oldest cities in America . Much has happened in Boston over the years. Well, it’s all in the history books now,” he smiled.

Johnny only nodded and lowered his head. “Guess so. I don’t know much about that. Mexican history, I know some about.”

“Didn’t you study history in school?”

“Never had much schoolin. Just enough to get by. Anyway, it all sounds pretty fancy to me.”

Martin swallowed back the sympathy, knowing it would not be appreciated. “Not all of it’s fancy. There are plain, hard-working people there, too.”

Johnny caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and craned his neck, seeing her standing in the doorway. He immediately wondered how long she’d been there.

Martin turned as well and smiled. Finally up and about, he thought. “Hello, my dear. I was just telling Johnny about Boston .”

“Yes, I heard. Excuse me,” she said and started toward the dining room.

“Come join us, dear.”

“I haven’t had my breakfast yet, dad.”

“It’s time for lunch, not breakfast,” he said a bit sharply.

She smiled unpleasantly. “Perhaps for you.”

Martin scowled and opened his mouth to speak until he was interrupted.

“What happened?” came the booming voice.

Johnny sighed. “Who squealed?”

“Nevermind that, Johnny. What happened?” Murdoch repeated as he sat on the coffee table in front of his son. He looked at the bandage then into Johnny’s eyes.

“Scratched it on a nail stickin out of the corral fence. It’s not bad but you know Teresa.”

He nodded. “Yes, I do, which is why I find it hard to believe it’s nothing.”

“It’s deep but it didn’t bleed too much. He’s lucky,” Teresa said as she walked in with a tray of lemonade. “I told him to rest it a while.”

“And he did it?” Murdoch asked.

“Only under threat,” she remarked.

“HE is capable of answering for himself, ya know,” Johnny groused.

Murdoch smirked at him and Teresa poured them lemonade. She’d seen Helena at the table but she wasn’t going to drop everything to wait on her. In fact, she’d decided if the girl couldn’t get up at a decent hour, she would have to wait for the next meal to be served. She just had to tell Helena that. Only now, her father was here and she didn’t want to make him feel badly.

“Lunch is in five minutes,” she stated simply before walking back to the kitchen.

“Is someone checking the fence?” Murdoch asked.

“Raul’s doin it. Stop worryin so much.”

Martin laughed at that, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Johnny, but it’s in the rule book. Parents never stop worrying.”

Teresa turned to see Helena standing in the doorway of the kitchen looking like she’d rather be anyplace else.

“I’m ready for my breakfast,” she said blandly.

Squaring her shoulders, Teresa spoke firmly. “Breakfast is at six o’clock . It’s time for lunch now. I’m afraid you’re going to have to settle for that.”

The girl glared at her. “I’m a guest here …”

“Yes, you are but this is a working ranch with hard-working men who are used to getting up early and eating early. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for you but that’s just how it is. I don’t have time to stop and wait on you whenever you decide you want to eat. There’s always some fruit sitting out and biscuits on the stove so, please, help yourself.”

Her face turned even harder. “Nevermind,” she hissed and started to turn.

“You do know you’re only hurting yourself, don’t you?” Teresa asked, softening her tone. When Helena didn’t move, she went for it. “No, that’s not entirely true. You’re hurting your father, too. I know you don’t care about that, though. I’m not sure you care about anything. Everyone here has tried to give you a chance but you just throw it back in our faces.” She stepped closer since the girl still made no move to leave.

“I don’t understand why you act the way you do. I know your mother died. We’ve all had losses, Helena , and they seem unbearable for a while. But time goes by and the pain eases if we let it. You don’t seem to want to let go. You just want to make everyone else as miserable as you are. The longer you do that, the harder it’s going to be for you to ever be happy.”

She turned quickly then, her face red. “You think this is about my mother?”

Stunned, Teresa cocked her head. “Then, what is it about?”

Helena bit her lip, her breathing hard and rapid. She slowly calmed herself before answering. “It’s none of your business.” With that, she did leave the room quickly.

Martin watched her storm through the living room and up the stairs. He shook his head and wondered what had happened now. His eyes met Murdoch’s and he smiled weakly before getting up and following her.

Teresa came in just as he ascended the stairs. She’d thought Helena would run to her father but, that didn’t seem the case.

“What happened?” Murdoch asked her.

She sighed heavily and sat on the arm of the sofa next to Johnny. “I told her off.”

Johnny grinned as he craned his neck to look up at her.

“It’s not funny, really. But, I was trying to make her see how she was acting and when I mentioned it was because of her mother, she told me it wasn’t. She wouldn’t tell me what it was about, though. I don’t know. Maybe she should go home. She’s certainly not going to be happy here.”

“I have a feeling she isn’t going to be happy anywhere. Whatever is troubling her, Boston isn’t going to fix it.”

Johnny nodded at his father’s words then had a thought. “Why don’t you try, Murdoch?”

“Me? Why me?”

“Because, you have a way of getting to the heart of things without making people mad.”

Murdoch raised a brow as he stared at his son.

Johnny dipped his head for a second. “Well, with everyone but me,” he grinned.

“It’s not my place, son.”

“It’s your house. Who else has a right? Besides, me and Teresa didn’t get anywhere. Maybe talkin to someone older who’s not her old man would … thaw her out,” he shrugged.

As Murdoch considered that idea, Martin returned. “I’m sorry but, we’ll be leaving in the morning.”

Johnny frowned at this information. His eyes boring into Martin’s.

“I know I promised, Johnny, but this just isn’t going to work. She still won’t talk to me and I’m at my wit’s end.”

“Would you like me to try?” Murdoch offered.

“You can if you want but it won’t do any good.”

“She told Teresa she wasn’t angry over her mother’s death.”

Martin turned to the young girl, his eyes wide in surprise.

“She wouldn’t tell me anything else, I’m afraid.”

“I wish you’d reconsider, my friend. Going back to Boston isn’t going to solve her problems.”

Martin nodded his agreement. “No, but there’s no point in staying, either. I can’t enjoy myself while she’s in this state. Maybe … maybe I can get her some help there. I don’t know.”

Murdoch couldn’t argue that. It may be exactly what the girl needed. It wasn’t his place to say and he knew, were things reversed, he’d take his child wherever necessary to get him the help he needed.

“Well, I hope you come back once things are more settled with Helena ,” Johnny spoke.

“I’d like that very much. I’d also like it if you would all visit me sometime. I know it’s more difficult to get away but, maybe in the winter when things slow down.”

“I don’t know. Scott’s told me about winter in Boston ,” Johnny said and gave a shiver.

Murdoch smiled a little at that then walked over to his friend. “This may sound callous but, remember you have a life, too. Get her the help she needs but don’t neglect yourself in the bargain.”

“I’ll try. I’ll let you know how things are going.”

“Do that. We’ll all ride in with you in the morning. We need to lay in some supplies anyway.”

For the first time since arriving, Helena was up bright and early. She carried all her luggage downstairs and set it by the front door then joined them for breakfast. She didn’t speak but she ate as if she were starving. Teresa smirked a little. Stubbornness only got you so far. Missing a few meals sure could bring a person back to their senses.

Once breakfast was over, Scott and Johnny loaded their bags on the surrey then brought their saddled horses over.

“Are you going with us, Scott?” she asked.

“Yes, we need some things in town and we’d all like a little more time with Martin.” His voice was as flat as a pancake and she glared at him then turned on her heel and stepped into the surrey.

“This’ll be fun,” Johnny remarked.

“Yes, like walking over hot coals barefooted.”

Johnny looked over at his brother and laughed then brought Barranca in behind the surrey as Murdoch took up the reins. They got underway, Teresa waving them all off.

Martin and Murdoch went to the depot when they arrived in Green River as Helena stood on the boardwalk staring at nothing.

“Well, brother, shouldn’t you give it a try?”

Scott looked at him as if he were insane. “Try what? Arguing with her? Although, it seems I am the only one she hasn’t had a round with.”

“Nah, Murdoch hasn’t had the pleasure either.”

“I think I’ll pass, brother,” Scott smirked. “It’s a shame, really. She has a lot of good qualities hidden in there,” he added more introspectively.

“How can ya tell?” Johnny asked as he watched his father and Martin walk up to her.

The expression that came across her face made both brothers wince and they walked over with dread.

“Two hours?”

“That’s what the man said, Helena . I can’t make the stage come any sooner,” Martin explained.

“What am I supposed to do here for two hours?”

Johnny opened his mouth then immediately closed it. No sense in gettin walloped in the middle of town, he thought.

“There are some stores. Why don’t you look around that little dress shop down the street?” her father suggested.

She glanced in the direction he indicated and turned her nose up. “As if I’d find anything suitable. Well, it’s better than nothing. I’ll meet you back here.” She didn’t wait for a reply and walked away.

The four men stood uneasily as they watched her. Johnny was once again reminded she walked as if something were stuck up her ass. He sighed to himself then turned to the others.

“Well, what’s say we find a good cup of coffee.”

“Excellent suggestion, brother. Where?”

A slow grin spread across the younger man’s face.

“Don’t even say it, Johnny,” Scott warned. “I thought you liked Martin here. You wouldn’t want to poison him with Val’s coffee, would you?”

The light never waned from his eyes but he managed to look reticent. “Guess not. Well, there’s always the cafe.”

Murdoch was smiling at the two of them then turned to his friend. “How about it, Martin?”

“Hmmm? Oh, yes, coffee sounds fine,” he said. The distant quality of his voice was not lost on the others. They just didn’t know how to help the man.

The conversation was sparse though Murdoch and Scott tried to lighten the mood. But, it was useless and soon, it was time to head back to the stage depot.

All four of them kept looking down the street, waiting to spot Helena without success.

“She’s going to be late,” Martin said as if it were an everyday occurrence. Mostly, because it was.

“I thought she’d be here waiting for us,” Scott said and immediately regretted the sarcasm in his tone. He smiled apologetically at Martin who said nothing about it.

“I suppose I should go get her,” he sighed out.

“I’ll go. Spend some time with Murdoch,” Johnny offered.

“That may not be the best solution, son.”

Johnny smiled at his father and shrugged. “I’m just gonna go in and tell her it’s time to go.” To himself, he thought she’d probably run him down trying to get to the stage.

“I should go,” Scott said.

Johnny’s shoulders fell with exasperation. “I think I can handle one little lady, Scott. What’ya think she’s gonna do?”

Scott grimaced as he held his tongue. Johnny shook his head and walked off.

“I’m afraid that’s the best we have,” Mrs. McCollough said tightly. She’d had about enough of this woman and her high-falutin attitude. When the bell rang over the door, she actually sighed out her relief.

“Well, it simply won’t do,” Helena was saying as she tossed the hat aside. She turned slowly to the door then quickly turned away.

“Hello, Johnny. Would ya mind watchin things for a minute? I need to run over and tell Jake somethin,” the woman spoke even as she was headed out the door.

“Oh, well, I wasn’t stayin, ma’am. I just …” Johnny’s words trailed off as the door slammed. He laughed softly and shook his head. “Stage will be here soon. Your father is waiting,” he addressed Helena .

She walked slowly around a table and perused the fabrics displayed, touching a few to feel the texture and wrinkling her nose. Johnny watched her for a few seconds.

“Did you hear me? I thought you were in such a all-fired hurry to leave.”

She stopped and looked directly at him. She was about to speak when she felt something odd. She looked around the room quizzically then grabbed hold of the table as it began to shake.

Johnny looked up then grabbed the end of the counter. He waited to see if that’s all there would be. He didn’t have to wait long. The shaking intensified tenfold within a few seconds and he locked eyes with her. She still didn’t understand what was happening, he could see.

He was about to explain it to her when he heard a loud crack. He looked up to see the beam above her head splitting then the floor buckled beneath him. Johnny used the counter as leverage as he flung himself forward, hoping the momentum would take him to his destination. The floor bucked again, throwing him off balance as he staggered toward her.

Forcing himself, he grabbed her around the waist and kept right on going into the storeroom, falling as he went. He twisted his body to cushion the blow for her then they went rolling over and over until hitting the far wall. He heard the loud crash as the ceiling in the front room gave way.

She was screaming in his ear and he couldn’t help but wince. Then, he heard the words.

“GET OFF ME!!! GET OFF ME!!!” she kept shrieking.

He raised up on his hands and knees and she began scooting from underneath him, panic striking her face pale and waxy. Before she could get more than two inches, it started again, stronger than before. She froze, fear making her stop breathing. Johnny looked at her, his own eyes wide. There was no time to react. The floor gave way.

Murdoch grabbed the post next to him, stunned for a moment. Taking hold of himself quickly, he grabbed Martin’s arm and pushed him into the street then looked back for Scott. The young man had moved as well, but he stopped and released Remmie and Barranca from the hitching post before starting on the surrey. Murdoch ran to help him remove the harness.

“What’s happening?” Martin asked.

“Earthquake,” Scott replied, his voice trembling with the ground as he and Murdoch joined the other man.

They fought for balance but ended up lying in the dirt. Murdoch grabbed hold of Scott instinctively as the son latched onto his father as well.

They watched helplessly as buildings groaned under the strain and roofs began to collapse. Boardwalks buckled up, resembling small pyramids. The post Murdoch had grabbed just seconds before, gave way and fell into the street a few feet from him. People came running out into the streets, screaming and shouting. Pandemonium set in and they could do nothing for it.

Then, it was still and the voices stopped as everyone waited to see what would happen. Murdoch began to stand up but Scott pulled him back.

“It’s not over,” the young man said as the second tremor hit.

Martin’s mouth fell open as he watched the buildings before them simply fall into themselves. He thought of Helena and Johnny and tried to turn. He ended up on his knees, trying to find balance and, as he looked down the street, the dress shop collapsed before his eyes.

The cellar below the storeroom wasn’t used anymore. It once was a root cellar but all that remained was the dirt floor, a rickety table in a corner, some old cans and cobwebs. Johnny reached out to her as they began to fall through the breaking floorboards. She grabbed hold of him out of sheer reflex as they tumbled.

Landing breathlessly, Johnny stayed where he was, atop her, even though his instincts told him to move. Debris fell on his back and legs and he felt the wound on his leg reopen. He grunted loudly and ground his teeth together.

He didn’t think it would ever stop but, finally, it grew quiet. Silt and dust still filtered down but the worst was over – he hoped. He felt her sucking in deep breaths beneath him, her bosom rising and falling rapidly against his chest. For a brief second, nature reared her ugly head but Johnny angrily fought her down.

A guttural sound emanated from her. “Get off me.”

He rolled his eyes then rolled his body to the side as he fell onto his back and stared at the hole above them. Well, should be able to climb right out, he thought.

He heard her move then looked at her skittering to a corner far away from him. He sat up and winced at the pain in his leg. Looking at his pant leg, he shook his head. It was bleeding worse than when he’d first injured it. Confounded, he took in the room and saw little. Nothing that would help him with his leg and he had to do something about that first and foremost. Otherwise, he might just bleed to death, he thought quirkily.

“Get us out of here!” she shouted.

“Shut up! Just shut up for once!” He took a deep breath and calmed himself before looking at her hateful glare. His eyes went to her skirt but he knew better than to ask for a piece of it. “I need to bind up my leg first.”

“Your leg? We need to get out of here while we still can!”

“There’s the door, lady,” he snarked as he pointed to what used to be the ceiling above them.

Helena stared at him then set her mouth and stood up. She raised her skirt and stepped judiciously over the debris until she was standing under the opening. “I can’t climb up there.”

“Neither can I until I get this bleeding stopped.”

She looked down at his leg and gasped at the amount of blood. Turning her head, she held her hand to her mouth.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Johnny said flatly. He watched as her shoulders began to tremble and she let out a small sob. Rolling his eyes, he tried. “We’ll get out, don’t worry. Just gonna take a minute, is all.” He spoke softly as if gentling a wild horse but it didn’t seem to be working as her sobs got louder.

He chewed his lip as he considered the situation. “If you’ll tear off a piece of your skirt, I can wrap this up and get us out of here.”

Her back straightened and she slowly turned to him. Eyes icy, she spoke in a low voice. “Hell will freeze over first.”

He smirked at her then felt the tremors starting again. Helena scrambled back to her corner and held her arms over her head.

His head hurt and he wondered why. Reality took its time seeping back into his brain but, slowly he remembered. Opening his eyes, Johnny blinked several times as his surroundings became unveiled. It was dark but not naturally so. Light glowed above him, scattered pieces of sun fighting through. That was good. At least they weren’t completely entombed. He shivered a little.

Clearing his throat, he called out rustily. ” Helena .” She didn’t answer and he tensed, craning his neck to the side where he’d last seen her. ” Helena !” he tried a little more loudly.

“I’m here.” It was barely a whisper but, in the deafening quiet, he heard her.

“Are you hurt?”

She sniffled and wiped her eyes then thought about the question. “I have some scrapes and cuts but I don’t think it’s too bad. I can climb.”

Johnny smiled, she sounded so hopeful. But, when he looked above him where the opening had been, the smile disappeared. It was gone. He tried to raise up but stopped instantly as pain tore through his entire body. Slumping back down, he wondered, now what? Methodically, he took inventory. Leg hurts, no surprise there. His arms seemed fine. He figured he had a pretty good cut on his head; he could feel the stickiness down the side of his face. But it was his gut that bothered him most. It wasn’t a sharp pain, more dull and constant. He frowned at that then, for the first time, noticed a beam laying half-way across his abdomen. Must be really out of it if I didn’t notice that right off, he thought. He got his hands underneath it and pushed it away with some effort but, at least it had moved.

Slowly, he turned on his side, ready to feel the pain again at any second. Oh, it hurt but, he could handle it. He figured he’d just tried too fast last time and concentrated on moving. Getting his left arm under himself, he pushed to sit up and that’s when the pain returned. Not as fierce as the first time. He grunted and sucked in a breath between clenched teeth.

“We need to get out of here,” she said unnecessarily.

“I know but, right now, I’m not sure how that’s gonna happen. Our door is gone and … I don’t feel too good.”

“My father will get me out,” she stated firmly.

Johnny smiled, his teeth ridiculously white against his filthy face. “I know he will as soon as he can. In the meantime, we need to see what we’re dealing with here.”

Once more he shivered, feeling the cold of the root cellar in his bones. Goosebumps erupted on his arms and he shuffled himself so he could sit properly. He scooted a couple of feet until he was in a ray of light so he could better see his leg. It was still bleeding at a fairly good rate and he sighed.

Johnny looked around. It seemed some of the fabrics from the storeroom had made it down to their little prison. He reached out and felt the pain in his stomach again. Dismissing it, he grabbed a bolt of broadcloth and pulled it to him. Reaching into his boot, he pulled out a knife and began cutting himself some bandages.

Martin struggled to his feet, taking a few staggering steps toward the dress shop when the third tremor left him right back on the ground again.

Scott and Murdoch crawled over to him and held on until the shaking stopped.

“What are you trying to do?” Murdoch asked.

He pointed. “Helena and Johnny. The store,” he gasped out.

Scott looked at the rubble and felt sick to his stomach. He made it to his feet and ran to what was left of the structure. He felt his father come to his side, then Martin, and all three simply stared in shock for a moment.

Scott walked around the edges, looking for a way in, some part that wasn’t completely flattened but he saw nothing. He looked at his father in disbelief. Shaking his head slowly, Scott croaked, “there’s nothing left.”

“There has to be,” Murdoch stated, his voice strong and encouraging. He walked around to the alleyway beside the building and dropped to his knees, leaning down with his head nearly on the ground.

“They may have gotten to the root cellar.”

Scott turned quickly to the shaking voice behind him as Murdoch stood and joined him.

“Where?” Martin asked roughly.

Mrs. McCollough pointed a shaky finger. “Around the back. It’s under the storeroom. There’s no outside entrance, though.” She looked at Murdoch, tears streaming down her face. “I’m so sorry. I asked Johnny to watch the store for a minute. I just needed to get away from that awful girl.”

Martin’s face reddened and he turned away. So Helena ‘s abominable behavior strikes again, he thought ruefully.

Murdoch put a hand on her quivering shoulder. “It’s alright, Mildred. I’m sure, if there’s a hole to find to keep them safe, Johnny found it.” His reassurance was a complete facade. He was afraid. More afraid than he’d been in a long time for his son. Not since he’d watched Johnny shot from the saddle by Pardee, had he felt this way. Hopeless.

“Then, we need to find this cellar and start digging.” Scott’s voice was full of determination. He walked away from them, toward the livery – or what was left of it. He knew Johnny wasn’t dead. How he knew that was a mystery but he would have ‘felt’ it if his brother had died. He was convinced of that.

Scott rummaged through the debris until he found a prybar and shovels. As he returned to the scene, several people had gathered around Murdoch, all talking a mile a minute.

“Alright!” the rancher’s voice boomed above the din. “We need to get organized. Where’s Sheriff Crawford?”

No one answered, all of them looking around.

“Find him. Check the jail. If he’s not there, someone go to his home. I need someone to ride out to Lancer and get some help. Who’s volunteering?”

A young man stepped forward. “I’ll go.”

“Thank you, Todd. And, do me a favor. Let me know if anyone at the ranch is hurt.”

The young man nodded then set off to find a horse.

“We need the doctor,” Murdoch said next.

“I’m right here,” Sam called, stepping through the throng. “I’ve done a quick look around town. The orphanage wasn’t damaged very much at all. I’ll use that as a hospital. Bring all the injured there and I’ll need some nursing help. And linens, towels, anything to make bandages out of. Anyone whose house is stable, bring all the medicines and salves you might have to the orphanage.”

Murdoch nodded, grateful his friend was unharmed. He refocused on the townspeople. “I know many of you have loved ones unaccounted for but, I think it’s prudent do to a building by building search. We’re starting here. It’s nearly in the center of town. Split into groups of three or four and fan out from this point. When Sheriff Crawford comes, he’ll be in charge.”

A voice rang out from the crowd as everyone was nodding their agreement to the plan. “I’m in charge here. I am the mayor of this town.”

Scott ground his teeth together as the self-important little man shouldered his way to the front of the crowd. “I don’t care who is in charge! Just get to it! People are trapped and hurt and may be dying while we stand around here barking about who is in charge of what!”

Murdoch put a hand on his son’s shoulder. He wanted nothing more than to get to Johnny, too but, there were others to consider.

Mayor Higgs puffed out his chest then looked at the people. “Mr. Lancer’s plan will work well. It’s just what I would have said. We all want to protect our family and property so we have to work together. I…”

“Aw shut up!”

Val Crawford walked up beside Scott and glowered at the mayor. “I want four men with me. The rest of ya start findin tools to work with. Picks, shovels, axes, prybars. Anything you can use to move all this mess. The others will come with me to find any working water pumps, bring in water from wells and the river. Start haulin it over to the orphanage for the doc and fill as many canteens as you can find for them that’s diggin. Make up some stretchers to carry the injured and get some lamps for when it gets dark. Blankets, too. Any questions?” He looked squarely at the mayor.

“Good! Now get going!”

“Thank you, Val. Are you alright?” Scott asked, his appreciation a palpable thing.

Val looked at his bloodied left forearm and shrugged. “It’s pretty deep. I’ll have Doc look at it in a while. Where’s Johnny?”

Scott’s eyes roved over to the dress shop as Val followed his stare.

He swallowed hard and nodded. “Well, I’ll leave ya to it. Let me know if…” he trailed off, unwilling to give the worst case scenario too much prevalence in his mind.

“I will, Val.” Scott watched him walk away with his volunteers. He allowed himself a brief moment to admire Val Crawford’s abilities then looked to his father.

“Let’s get those two free,” Murdoch smiled. He looked over at Martin, pale and still a little shaky. “We need to focus on Johnny and Helena now. We can all fall apart later.”

Martin nodded then squared his shoulders.

“Dammit!” He looked over when she gasped then lowered his eyes. “Sorry, I just can’t get this to stop bleeding.” He stared at his leg, the bandage saturated for the second time. He could feel himself getting weaker, more lightheaded with each passing minute. Johnny took in a deep breath as he thought of his options. He knew he had only two. Bleed to death or take some drastic action.

He figured out the original wound wasn’t the problem. Something had torn it back open and, apparently, hit a big vein or artery. Whatever the case, he had to stop it and soon.

“What about a tourniquet?” she asked.

He looked at her with raised brows. “That would help but it’s only temporary and I’d have to keep letting off it every little while. Look, I’m gonna be straight with you. This thing is bleedin like there’s no tomorrow. I might pass out and I might die.”

She leaned forward then got to her feet, still staying in her corner. “You are not going to die in here!”

He smiled a little and started to speak until she continued.

“I’m not going to be stuck in here with a dead body!”

His shoulders fell and he stared disbelievingly at her. “Have we ever met before you came here?”

“What? Of course not!”

“Then, what have I ever done to make you hate me so much?”

She stared at him, anger pouring from her. Then, she turned away and stared at the wall.

“I gotta tell ya I’ve met some mean hombres. Men who would kill you for your boots or just for the fun of it. But, I have never met anyone more hateful and heartless than you, lady. Save the tears, you’ll need the water,” he spat.

Johnny took a deep breath and lassoed his own ire. “Look, I can’t waste any more energy on you. If you ain’t gonna help me then leave me alone.”

“There’s nothing I can do for you.”

“Sure there is. You just won’t.”

She turned then. “What do you want?”

He thought about it, wondering if she’d just turn him down for the sport of it. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he spoke. “I need one of those tin cans over there and some small sticks, maybe.”

She opened her mouth to ask why then closed it and went to collect the items. Johnny stared at her, surprised she was actually doing anything remotely laborious.

Scott laid on his stomach, squinting to try and see any possible way in. There were areas where an inch or two of space could be seen but not enough for him to know what he was looking at. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and sighed in frustration before sitting up.

“I can’t see anything but there are some gaps. It’s possible they’re in the cellar.”

“Try calling out to them,” Martin suggested.

Scott nodded and laid back down, shouting his brother’s name every few seconds. He got no reply and desperation tried to seize him. Fighting it back, refusing to give in, Scott raised up on his feet. “We’ll start digging.”

Murdoch nodded his agreement, his heart in his throat. He swallowed dryly and grabbed the prybar, setting to at the debris with vigor.

Val walked over and watched for a minute until he caught Scott’s eyes. The younger man only shook his head and Val walked away. Sam’s barrage still echoed in his ears. He needed to rest, not use that arm, let someone else take over. The hell with that! This was his town and his responsibility no matter what Higgs said. That little weasel was only interested in making sure his property was protected. He’d already started assigning men to guard the businesses.

Val had told him clearly that he knew what he was doing and the man best let him do it in peace. Otherwise, he’d find himself locked in one of the cells that had escaped destruction. Val found it amusing the front of his office was nearly destroyed but the cells themselves were intact.

If the mayor hadn’t been so belligerent, Val would have told him he already planned on guarding the streets after dark. That was the time all the thieving would most likely start. It always astounded him how selfish some people could be when disaster struck. They only thought of what they could get out of it. Higgs was no different than the looters he expected to crawl from under the rocks come nightfall.

He heard a piercing scream and ran up the street to the bank where a young woman was near hysterical. The bank president was holding onto her, keeping her from falling out in the street. Val watched as a body was pulled out from the rubble. He sighed and rubbed a hand roughly over his face. There was nothing he could say to the young widow of the bank teller. He remembered they’d just had a baby six or so months ago and he shook his head.

He looked around at the galloping hooves and felt relief for the first time all day. Lancer hands were riding in and he waved at Cipriano as he walked over.

“How’s the ranch?” he asked.

“Bien. There was no damage. We are here to help, Senor. The men await your orders but I must tell Senor Lancer all is well with Senorita Teresa.”

Val nodded and his face fell even more. “He’s down the street at the dress shop with Scott. It collapsed. I … Johnny was inside with that friend of Murdoch’s daughter.”

Cipriano crossed himself and took off at a run.

Val held up a hand as the rest of the men made to follow. “I know ya’ll wanna help Johnny but they got plenty of help. I need you more right now.”

Helena set the requested items beside him then stepped away. “What are you going to do?”

Johnny glanced up at her. “Might wanna go back over there. If blood bothers you, this’ll make ya lose your lunch, for sure.”

She bit her lip and returned to her corner, drawing her knees up and ensuring they were properly covered. She wrapped her arms around them and watched him.

Johnny stuffed some cloth in the bottom of the can and covered it with the sticks. He pulled his knife out again and fished in his pocket, finding matches. He hesitated a minute as he looked around. He shifted some of the debris around him until he found the dirt floor.

“Listen, I might need you to put this fire out when I’m done. It’s gonna get a little smoky but it won’t be bad long as the fire’s doused. If I pass out, you’ll need to come over here and throw some dirt on it. Make sure it’s out good so the place doesn’t go up in flames.”

“You’re starting a fire? Are you insane?” she asked in a stunned voice.

Johnny laughed softly. “Been called worse, I reckon. I need the fire so just put it out if I can’t, alright?”

She nodded but she hadn’t a clue what he planned to do. She watched him curiously.

Johnny struck the match, his hand shaking badly and he cursed himself for it. He lit the fire and watched it grow then placed the knife’s blade over the flames. Closing his eyes, he called on all his reserves to keep his hand steady and true, like it had always been before. After a moment, he opened his eyes and held his hand out, smiling to himself when it only shook slightly.

He watched the steel begin to glow red then untied the bandage from his left lower leg. The fact it didn’t stick to the wound only reinforced to him that this was necessary. He supposed he’d done worse to survive but, at the moment, he couldn’t recall. He gave her one glance and wished he knew how she’d react. But he’d decided it would be worse to explain what he was doing. He’d spend an hour he didn’t have talking her off the ceiling, he reckoned.

Almost as an afterthought, Johnny unbuckled his pants belt and stuck the leather between his teeth, biting down. He picked the knife up and held it in front of him, nearly mesmerized by the bright red glow. Closing his eyes briefly, he brought the knife down to his leg. It took longer to do than he’d imagined; more guts than maybe he had, he thought. In the end, he wanted to live more than he didn’t want to feel this so, he pressed the blade to the wound.

Helena screamed when she saw him stick the knife to his leg. She covered her eyes and dropped her head as she heard his muffled cry. When she no longer heard Johnny, she slowly looked up. His eyes were closed, the knife lying on the ground next to his limp hand. She looked at the tin can still ablaze and slowly stood up. Making her way across the room, she noticed it was fairly smoky already. She knelt beside him, avoiding looking at his leg and scooped dirt into the can until it was completely smothered.

She allowed herself to look at his face, covered with sweat and pale as a sheet. Her hand came up, an inch from his face before she snatched it back and moved away from him. There was nothing she could do, she told herself. Nothing at all.

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and he moaned softly. He looked around, disappointed he was still in this hellhole. Slowly, he raised up on his elbows, wincing at the burning in his leg. With more strength than he should have had, he made it to a sitting position, leaning to his right against a beam lying beside him.

“You should have told me what you were going to do.”

He sighed at the flat, hard voice; completely over her. “Didn’t wanna hear it. Besides, what would you have done?”

She shrugged at him. “Nothing but I wouldn’t have screamed maybe.”

“Maybe,” he muttered. Louder, he added, “I didn’t hear ya anyway. But, you never know. Someone up there might have.”

“I’m so thirsty.”

He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “I know.” He winced again as he shifted his left leg slightly. Leaning forward, he looked at the burned flesh and felt a little sick. He was still so cold, his stomach still hurt and he didn’t know what that was about.

Johnny reached out for the broadcloth and cut another bandage, wrapping his leg. He then shook the remaining cloth out. Hesitating, he chewed his lip. Hell, no sense in acting like her. “You cold?”

“Cold? It’s a hundred degrees in here!”

He raised a brow at that. “Reckon I got a fever then cause I’m freezin,” he said casually and covered himself up. “Don’t make any sense, though. Fever doesn’t come on that fast.”

She looked at him funnily. “Maybe it’s from the blood loss. You were going to offer that to me? Why?”

“Because, I’m not like you,” he said sharply.

She sneered at him a little but said nothing.

Johnny leaned back, his eyes half-closed as he regarded her. “Why do you hate me?”

“Who said I hated you?”

He laughed until his head starting aching again. “Right. You treat everyone like dirt. It’s just us here. You might as well get it out in the open.”

She glowered at him then lowered her eyes as the tears sprung up.

“Dios! It can’t be that bad, can it?”

“You don’t know anything,” she retorted.

“No, I don’t because you won’t tell me. It’s not like I’m ever gonna see you again so what difference does it make?” After a second, he added, “I won’t tell your old man, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Of course you will!”

“I said I wouldn’t and I don’t lie, unlike some people,” he ground out.

“I haven’t lied!”

“Sure. You just haven’t told the truth. What’s the difference?”

“You certainly have high morals for a cowhand,” she sneered.

Johnny laughed softly. “My morals ain’t no higher than anyone else’s, I don’t guess. I just don’t take to lying without a real good reason.”

“And what is a good reason?” she asked.

He shrugged and winced from it. “To save someone’s life. That’s the only good reason I can think of.”

“What about to keep from hurting someone?”

He looked at her for a long moment. “Seems to me it hurts more not knowing the truth. If someone I loved was hurting, I’d rather they tell me what’s wrong than go crazy wondering and trying to figure it out myself. Your old man is suffering, Helena . He thinks he’s a failure as a father. He thinks you don’t love him.”

Her eyes widened as she took this in. “That’s not true.”

“How would he know? The way you been treatin him and everyone else, what else is he supposed to think? Whatever happened can’t be worse than what he’s thinkin.”

“Yes, it can,” she said softly.

“That’s a load of bull. You’ve built this up so much in your head, it probably feels that way. But, I can tell you, he wants to know the truth. He wants to help you. If you’re too stubborn or selfish to let that happen, you got no one to blame for your misery but yourself! Why don’t you stop feelin sorry for yourself and get on with it!”

“Why don’t you drop dead!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

Scott froze, shovel in hand as he listened. He looked at his father and saw, he too, had heard it. Martin stepped closer, dropping to his knees.

” Helena !”

He waited an interminable length of time before shouting his daughter’s name again. Murdoch and Scott had joined him and all three strained to hear anything.

In the cellar, Helena slowly raised her head. Had she really heard it? She scrambled to her feet, looking fleetingly at Johnny, before screaming loudly for her father.

Martin’s heart fluttered and he sighed then hung his head, exhausted. Yet, energy erupted from him so suddenly, he was startled. He grabbed the shovel and yelled back for her to hold on. He was coming.

Murdoch grabbed his arm as he was starting to dig again. “Johnny!” he shouted.

She looked over. What could she say? Licking her lips and swallowing, she called back. “He’s here! He’s hurt!”

All three men above renewed their efforts with an almost hysterical urgency.

“Why did you do that?” Johnny asked softly.

“Do what?”

“Tell them I’m hurt.”

She smiled at him. “What was all that about telling the truth?”

Johnny had the grace to blush a little. He laughed and nodded. “Ya got me there. Anyway, we’ll be out of here soon.”

She sighed and sat back down. “Thank God.”

Thirty grueling minutes passed as the three men worked to make a large enough opening. Scott calculated how much room they’d need to get in there and pull Johnny out. It hadn’t escaped him that his brother hadn’t answered. He had to assume that meant Johnny was too weak to call out. Anger pressed him into a near frenzy until they finally broke through.

Helena watched the opening grow larger. She couldn’t stand this waiting. It was big enough so why didn’t they stop and get her out? Then, she saw Scott’s head and she nearly ran to him, stumbling twice before reaching up to be pulled out.

“No, we’ve got a ladder. It’s safer,” Scott told her then disappeared.

She ground her teeth, wanting to scream at him but, he was gone. The ladder appeared and she guided it down as Scott directed her to ensure it was on solid ground. Once it was, she began climbing out as fast as she could.

Scott grabbed her arm and pulled her up as she scrambled on her knees out of the collapsed building. Immediately, she fell into her father’s arms and began sobbing.

Scott didn’t wait to see if she was hurt; Martin could tend her. He climbed down as Murdoch held the ladder steady from the top. At first, he didn’t see Johnny and this confused him. Helena had been right there by the opening so, he assumed Johnny was as well.


“Don’t shout. I’m over here,” came the soft voice.

Scott made his way across the room, climbing over beams and debris piled high. As soon as he laid eyes on Johnny, he froze for half a second then went to his brother. Dropping to his knees, Scott sighed harshly as he took in the dirt covered face.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered the sigh then grinned.

“Tell me.”

“Well,” Johnny drawled, “That cut on my leg got deeper, same damn place. My head is about to come off and my belly aches. I can move with help, I think.”

“You think?” Scott raised a brow then looked behind him. “Did you see all that rubble I just climbed over?”

Johnny grimaced. “Yeah. Maybe not,” he laughed softly.

“The things you find funny, Johnny. We watched this place collapse with you in it, you know. Somehow, it just didn’t tickle my funny bone.” Scott’s face was stern as was his voice. He was tired and filthy and worried and his brother’s attitude wasn’t helping.

“Sorry! I guess layin here bleedin to death and havin to slap a hot knife on my own leg ain’t nearly as bad as what you went through!”

Scott gawked at him then slowly shook his head back and forth. His stomach turned as he envisioned what Johnny had just told, no shouted, at him. “It was bleeding that badly?”

The younger man calmed with the softer tone his brother used and nodded. “I couldn’t get it to stop. Soaked two bandages and I had no idea how long we’d be down here.”

“Okay, okay. Well, I’m going to need some help, for sure.” Scott started planning the extrication and called to Murdoch to bring down a stretcher and canteen.

Soon, the tall rancher appeared, nearly bent in two as he avoided the low ceiling. Or, what was left of it. He knelt beside Johnny and helped him drink before saying a word.

“Thanks, that tastes like heaven,” Johnny smiled.

“How bad is it, son?”

Johnny went through his injuries again for Murdoch’s benefit. As with Scott, he didn’t mention the knife at first so, the elder sibling contributed that part.

Murdoch remained grim throughout but, he said nothing about it for now. “It’s going to be tight getting you out of here on the stretcher.”

“Maybe I can sort of crawl over the big pile if someone holds my bad leg,” Johnny suggested.

“I don’t know. It can’t be very stable,” Scott said doubtfully.

“It hasn’t shifted since that last tremor.”

“No one has crawled over it, either,” Scott retorted.

“We’ll try it but if it moves, we may have to clear a path,” Murdoch decided.

“Oh, hell no! I ain’t stayin down here while you shovel that mess outta the way!”

“Johnny!” Murdoch yelled then lowered his voice. “We may not have a choice, son. Let’s give it a try before getting all worked up.”

Johnny scooted backwards to the pile of debris as Scott held his left leg up. He rested his back against it, sweat popping out on his face. Murdoch climbed on top and reached down, grabbing his son under the arms.

“Listen to me. If this gets to be too much, I want you to say so.”

Johnny craned his neck but couldn’t see his father. “Okay.”

Scott rolled his eyes then stood bent over between Johnny’s legs, ready to lift.

“On three,” Murdoch said, readied himself and counted off.

Grunting and straining could be heard from all three men as they worked Johnny to the top of the pile. It shifted slightly but Murdoch didn’t stop. He kept pulling, backing his way down the other side. Scott got to a point where he could go no further and still hold onto Johnny. He stopped and pushed at his brother until he was out of reach.

Johnny slid down the other side of the pile like he was going backwards down a sliding board, rubble following in his wake. Murdoch fell onto his backside, Johnny’s back pulled up against his chest. Both men sat there, breathing hard as Scott made it to their side. He sat down and gulped air himself.

“That was fun,” Scott sniped.

“Yeah, let’s do it again,” Johnny replied likewise.

“Let’s not,” Murdoch growled then leaned forward. “Can you sit on your own?”

Johnny nodded and Murdoch stood as much as he could. His back was screaming at him but he showed no sign. “We’ll never get him out on that stretcher. It’s too steep.”

“We’ll have to do the same thing we just did,” Scott replied and moved to the foot of the ladder. “You get the feet this time,” he smiled. He knew this was hard on Murdoch though the old man would never admit it.

“Ya know, I might be able to hop up the ladder. I can put a little weight on that left leg,” Johnny put in. It was his body they were knockin all over the place. He figured he should get a say in how this was handled.

“We’ll try it, son.” Murdoch took a deep breath and steadied himself then helped Johnny to his feet.

Johnny grabbed hold of his father’s shirt sleeve, dizziness nearly knocking him right back down again. “Just need a minute,” he whispered.

Before Murdoch could decide this was a bad idea, Johnny turned and hobbled to the ladder.

Scott climbed up backwards, hand extended for Johnny to grab if need be. The younger man grabbed each rung in white knuckles as he hopped slowly upward. His right leg trembled badly and he had to stop with each rung. Sweat poured down his face as he struggled for breaths. His belly cramped and his leg burned but he wouldn’t stop.

As he reached for the last rung, his sweaty hand slipped and he nearly fell until Scott grabbed his wrist and hauled him out. They tumbled onto the ground, landing side by side as Murdoch hurried out.

“Johnny, are you alright?” Murdoch asked, turning him onto his back.

“Fine and dandy, old man,” he said then passed out.

Scott got to his feet and went back to the opening. He reached down and grabbed the stretcher they hadn’t used. Slowly, they got Johnny on and carried him to the orphanage.

Murdoch glanced around but couldn’t see Martin. He supposed the man had taken his daughter to the doctor.

“Sam!” Murdoch bellowed as he and Scott carried Johnny inside. They stood there, not knowing where to put the man until Dr. Jenkins ran out.

“In here. How bad is he?” Sam directed them to the kitchen.

“He passed out when we got him out. That wound on his leg is worse. He cauterized it himself. He has a head injury, too,” Murdoch reported as they laid Johnny on the table.

Sam stared at him for a split second then cut the bandage from Johnny’s leg. He had to pour water over it to pry the bandage loose. It began to bleed a little as he did this and he sighed as he examined the burn.

“Hold this on it, Scott,” he directed, handing the man a towel. Sam checked his head next. It was a deep cut but had stopped bleeding. “Not too bad. Concussion, I’m sure. Was he unconscious much?”

Sam turned to look in the corner of the room. It was only then Murdoch saw Helena and Martin.

“At first and after he … fixed his leg. Then, he was awake most of the time. He said he was cold once though it was very hot down there to me.” She finished her report and turned to lean into her father standing beside her chair.

“Was he making sense?” Sam pursued.

“Yes.” Helena, Scott and Murdoch all answered.

Sam smiled. “Good. This leg is going to require surgery. I want to wake him first just to make sure the concussion isn’t worse than it sounds.”

“He said his belly hurt, Sam,” Scott said.

Sam frowned at that then went to his bag. He pulled out a small bottle and uncorked it then held it under Johnny’s nose.

Two seconds later, Johnny nearly came off the table, swinging his arms.

“Easy, boy! It’s me, Sam. You’re safe now, Johnny. Your family got you out.” Sam spoke quickly and firmly to alleviate Johnny’s disorientation and fear.

Johnny stared at the man then blinked and relaxed. His hand went to his forehead and he sighed.

“Head hurt?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, it sure does,” he muttered.

“What else, Johnny? Tell me all of it.”

Johnny looked at him and smiled a little. “Head, leg, belly.”

“Where on your belly? Show me,” Sam asked.

Johnny’s hand went to his mid-abdomen and Sam took out his stethoscope and listened. Then, he gently palpated and Johnny sucked in a breath. Sam frowned and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing deep bruises. “What hit you, John?”

Smirking, Johnny answered, “a building.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “How bad is the pain?”

“Just aches. My leg hurts worse. I’m cold,” he shivered.

“Sam?” Murdoch asked.

“It’s badly bruised. I didn’t hear anything unusual. I’ll wait and see how he does with it but that leg needs attention now.” Turning back to Johnny, he leaned in a little. “I’m going to have to operate on that leg. I need to see what damage was done.”

He only nodded, figuring that’s what would happen.

Johnny awoke feeling drunk. No, hungover, he decided. Taking a few minutes to figure out what was happening, he cracked his eyes open and looked at the adobe ceiling. He felt a hand on his arm and turned his head. Smiling a little, he cleared his throat.

The glass touched his lips and he sipped slowly. He knew he couldn’t inhale the water like he wanted. He never had done well with ether; always made him queasy and this time was no different.

“Thanks,” he sighed out.

“Welcome. How ya feelin?”

“Lousy. What’s goin on?”

Val leaned back in the chair and studied him. “Still searchin the buildings. Should be done by noon tomorrow. It’s a wreck, Johnny. More than half the buildings are beyond repair. Five deaths so far.”

Johnny’s eyes opened wider as he took this in. “Who died?”

“Jim Monroe at the bank. The Sniders and Harvey Tyler at the feed and seed. Old Man Murphy.”

“Dios,” Johnny mumbled. He knew them all, not well, but still. Jim Monroe’s wife just had a baby a few months ago. He was a nice young fella. “How’s Sally?” he asked of the man’s wife.

“Tore up. Ain’t stopped cryin, I hear.”

Johnny nodded then looked over at his friend. “What happened to you?” he asked, eyes going to the sling.

Val shrugged. “Ain’t bad. My office is history but the cells are still standin.”

Johnny laughed at that. “Of course they are.”

“Scott and Murdoch are helpin with the search in case you was wonderin.”

“I figured as much. Did they get any rest first?”

Val snorted in answer. “Listen, I gotta get back out there, too. I’ll tell ’em you woke up but go back to sleep, amigo. You look like hell.”

“Feel like it, too. Thanks, Val.”

The next time he woke up, Scott was there. Johnny took one look at him and started laughing until the pain stopped him.

“What’s so funny?” Scott asked, irritated.

“You are, Boston . Have you looked in a mirror?”

Scott smirked. “Have you? I know I’m a mess but I haven’t had a chance to bathe, brother. Not that there’s any water for such luxuries at the moment.”

Johnny sobered at the thought of the town. “Val said it was bad.”

Scott sighed and ran a hand though his filthy hair, dust and dirt floating onto his shoulders and the floor. “I haven’t seen such devastation since the war. I’ve never seen anything like it brought on by Mother Nature.”

“She gets bitchy sometimes,” Johnny grinned a little. Becoming serious, he asked, “any more deaths?”

“No, thank God. At least, not yet. We’re nearly finished so that’s good news.”

“What about the rest of the valley?”

Scott grimaced. “Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells are alright. They only got a little tremor. Just minor damage. The outlying ranches and farms are still being checked. Murdoch sent some of our men to make the rounds.” Scott paused, then leaned forward. “Mrs. Wilson was brought in, Johnny. She’s in pretty bad shape. Sam isn’t very optimistic. Her house was hit hard.”

Johnny closed his eyes and felt his heart clench. She was an old woman and stubborn as the day was long. She refused to give up the home her husband had built for them some seventy years ago. When he died, her children tried to get her to move out and kept trying every so often. But, she refused to leave, saying she’d die there. Johnny reckoned she’d probably get her wish in a way.

She’d been good to him and he’d spent many nights on her front porch or by the fireplace listening to stories about the old days. How she and Wilbur had come here when it was still part of Mexico . How they’d been accepted by the Mexicans and all the hardships they’d endured. He’d been awestruck by this woman and her strength and courage. He admired her and he loved her. And, he wanted to see her.

“Where is she?”

“Next door. Sam set up one room for men and one for women. You aren’t well enough, brother,” he said, knowing what Johnny was thinking.

“You can get some help and carry me in there.”

Scott sat back, stunned. Johnny was willing to be carried? He knew his brother liked the old woman but … Scott sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Just do it, Scott. Please,” Johnny implored quietly.

Sam didn’t like it but he understood it. Scott grabbed Frank, a Lancer hand, and together they carried Johnny on a stretcher into the women’s room. They’d pulled a cot next to Mrs. Wilson and laid Johnny on it. He sat up, leaning on his elbow and reached out, taking her hand.

Helena watched all this with curiosity. She’d been relegated to this horrible room with these weeping and moaning women. No one would take her back to Lancer, saying they were too busy. She was about to go out of her mind with boredom.

He held her hand in a firm grip and called softly. “Abuela.”

Scott raised a brow at the endearment. He had no idea Johnny felt that much for the woman, to call her grandmother. He sat on the foot of the cot and stayed silent as Frank retreated to the doorway to wait.

She opened her eyes and grunted once. Slowly turning her head, she smiled warmly.

“Hola, abuela.”

“Johnny,” she whispered in a cracked voice.

“It’s alright. You’re gonna be just fine. We’ll get your house fixed up and have you back home in no time flat. I promise.” He smiled sadly at her.

“No, my boy. Not this time. It wasn’t Indians or outlaws that got me. It was the land itself. It’s alright, Johnny. I’m ready to go to Wilbur. More than ready.”

He swallowed hard and closed his eyes to keep the sting away. “Don’t talk like that. There’s still stories to tell. Still muffins to bake. You know I love your muffins.”

She laughed hoarsely and squeezed his hand. “You remember those stories, Johnny. Tell your children how it was back in the day. Make them understand how much was endured so their lives could be easier.” Her face grew sad as she added, “tell my children, too. They never wanted to hear me goin on about such.”

Anger flashed across his face but it was gone as quickly as it had come. “I swear it. Te amo, abuela.”

She smiled, love in her moist eyes. “I love you, too, son. I surely do.” She sighed out and closed her eyes, drifting off.

Johnny hung his head and released her lax hand then rubbed his eyes before turning his head toward his brother. He wouldn’t look at Scott. “I’m ready,” was all he said in a husky voice.

Helena watched the old woman who now had a slight smile on her face. She knew the woman was dying, had heard the doctor say so yet here she was smiling. She didn’t understand these people and she didn’t want to. All she wanted to do was go some place clean and quiet and sleep for a week.

She blinked her eyes and stared at Mrs. Wilson who was waving her over. Helena looked around the room but no one else was there, or at least, no one was conscious. She pointed to herself, sure the woman wasn’t beckoning a complete stranger. When Mrs. Wilson nodded, she stood and apprehensively walked over, sitting in the chair near her.

“I heard you earlier ask to be taken back to Lancer. You’re staying there?”

“I was. My father and I were supposed to leave on the stage today.”

Anna Wilson smiled at her. “Then, you know Johnny.”

She lowered her eyes and shook her head. “No, we only just met. I don’t know him.”

“That is your loss, my dear. But you know who he is and that’s the best I can hope for. I couldn’t do this and look in those eyes of his but, I must ask you a favor.”

Helena looked back up at her, curious and perplexed as to why a total stranger would be asking her for anything. “What is it?”

The old woman reached up and pulled a gold chain from beneath her dress. “Could you take this off for me?”

With shaky fingers, Helena removed the necklace and looked at it, admiring the intricate carvings on the crucifix.

“It was my mother’s. I’ve had it all these years. My children, they don’t care about the old ways. They don’t want to hear how hard it was for us when we first came to this valley. Johnny has always been interested.” She stopped and chuckled a little then coughed harshly. “He sat at my feet and listened to every word, asked a ton of questions and …”

She trailed off, her eyes glistening for a moment until she pulled herself together. “That boy has been a blessing to me in my old age. I wish he’d never been taken from his home.”

“Did you know him before?”

A soft smile of remembrance crossed her lips. “He doesn’t know it but, yes, I did. I remember when he was born and how proud Murdoch was. That man was busting at the seams. He’d bring Johnny by and let me make over the child. Then, it was all taken away.” Once more her eyes filled but she blinked angrily and sniffled.

“Well, it’s all done with now. Just give that to Johnny, please. Tell him not to say a word to my children. They won’t even miss it and he’s who I want to have it anyway. Tell him to give it to his daughter some day whenever he gets around to having one.”

Helena actually laughed at that. She sounded annoyed with Johnny for not having any children. Maybe, she hoped his children would treat her as a grandmother. From the little she’d heard, Mrs. Wilson’s own children couldn’t spare her any time.

“Children. They are a blessing and they’ll break your heart.” She sighed heavily and closed her eyes for a moment.

Hannah’s cheeks blushed and she lowered her eyes, fingering the crucifix gently.

“Will you, child? Will you tell Johnny and give him that?”

“Yes, ma’am. I will, I promise.” She looked at the woman then licked her lips. “You love him. Johnny, I mean.”

“Oh, my, yes. Doesn’t everyone?” She laughed a little then waved a hand. “Oh, I know some don’t but that’s because they refuse to look. They won’t see the man he really is. All they can see is the color of his skin or the past. Johnny Lancer is a treasure. That brother of his ain’t so bad either.” She grinned and winked at Helena .

She smiled back, wondering what the woman meant about the past. Mrs. Wilson’s eyes starting drooping then she reached out and took Helena ‘s hand. It was clear the woman was fighting hard. “Tell him he’d better not mourn too long. I want him happy and healthy. Tell him to take care of himself and let his father love him.”

She frowned at the last then nodded and smiled, squeezing the old woman’s hand. “I’ll tell him, abuela.”

Mrs. Wilson smiled then closed her eyes and sighed out her last breath.

To her amazement, Helena felt hot tears stinging her eyes. She eased the woman’s hand over her abdomen then, went to find the doctor.

Johnny frowned as he became aware. His leg still stung and his head still ached a little but his belly was worrying him still. Slowly, he opened his eyes and rubbed a hand over his face. He knew someone was there so he slowly turned to the right, more than surprised to see Helena .

“How do you feel?”

He raised both brows at the question. “Why?”

She lowered her head then looked back. “I suppose I deserve that. I need to tell you something and it won’t be easy to hear.”

Johnny raised up, ignoring his various pains as he settled himself on his elbow. “Is it Murdoch, Scott?”

“No, no. Your family is alright as far as I know. It’s about Mrs. Wilson.” She watched first relief then total sadness come to his face and she swallowed hard.

“She’s gone.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. She asked me to give you this.” She handed him the necklace and he studied it with a small smile.

“She loved this. It was her mother’s.”

“She said for you to give it to your daughter some day. She made it sound like an order for you to have children.”

Johnny laughed. “She’s a tough one. Was,” he corrected then lowered his eyes.

“She wanted me to tell you some things but it can wait if you want.”

Johnny looked back at her, the question clearly in his eyes.

Helena smiled a little and shrugged. “I was the only one around who was awake. She’d heard me mention Lancer. She wanted you to know how much she loved you and not to tell her children about the necklace. She said they wouldn’t miss it. And she said for you to let your father love you.”

Johnny’s eyes came up then his brows drew together as he cocked his head to one side.

“I don’t know and she didn’t explain,” Helena replied to the unspoken question. “She said not to spend a lot of time mourning her and to be happy and healthy and take care of yourself.”

Johnny nodded and lowered his head.

“She knew you when you were a baby. She said your father used to take you to visit her.”

He didn’t move, just sighed out then he rubbed his eyes. “Thanks for being with her.”

“You’re welcome. She said …”

Johnny looked up and waited but she didn’t appear to want to continue. “What? She said what?”

“She said everyone who knew you loved you but that there were some who refused to look beyond your heritage or your past. What did she mean about your past?”

Johnny laid back down and looked at the necklace, rubbing it gently with his thumb. “Nothing you need to worry with.”

“Are you alright?”

He looked at her and wondered why she was asking. She didn’t care one way or the other and she was just staring at him. She did look a little sad but he reckoned abuela had gotten to her like the woman got to everyone. Everyone but her own damned kids. He frowned thinking about that. It had always angered him that they basically ignored the woman most of the time. Well, they didn’t have to worry about it anymore. He sighed and shook his head.

“If you see Murdoch, Scott or Val, could you tell one of them to come see me? They need to let her kids know.”

“Of course, but you didn’t answer my question.”

“No, I’m not alright.”

She didn’t know what to say to that and she kept quiet.

“Would you mind finding Sam for me?”

Her eyes widened and she almost reached out to touch his arm then made a fist instead. “Of course.”

Scott sat on a pile of rubble from the church and hung his head. He almost swiped his face until he looked at his hand. Even with gloves, they were as filthy as the rest of him. Then again, what did it matter? he thought as he rubbed his face anyway. A small smile emerged as he thought of Johnny teasing him for being dirty. He needed to go see his brother.

He hated not being able to stay with Johnny but there was just so much to do. He wondered about Mrs. Wilson and if she was still alive. Johnny would take that hard if what he’d witnessed was any indication. He was still astonished that his brother kept right on surprising him. Why Johnny had never told him about the woman, he didn’t know.

He looked up and saw his father and Martin walking toward him; both looking as bad as he did, he imagined. He forced a tired smile for them as they sat near him.

“At least there was no one in the church,” Martin remarked in a voice husky from breathing in dust.

“This is the last building on this side of town. We should find Val and see what’s left to do.” Murdoch rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck.

“You both need to see Johnny. I’ll locate the sheriff.”

“Thank you, Martin. I was just thinking about him. Mrs. Wilson’s death will be hard on him.”

Murdoch’s head came up and he stared at his son. “Anna Wilson?”

“Yes, Sir. She was in pretty bad shape. Johnny asked me to carry him in to see her.”

Standing slowly, Murdoch glared at his son. “Did it ever occur to you to tell me?”

Scott came to his own feet, stunned by the anger. “No, I didn’t know you knew her.”

“Of course I know her!”

Martin stood as well and put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Have you ever mentioned her to Scott?”

Murdoch’s frown fell on Martin then, with understanding, he deflated. “No, no, I didn’t. I’m sorry, son. She’s a very old friend of mine.”

Scott accepted the apology, knowing they were all strung tight. “Apparently, Johnny has come to know her as well.”

Murdoch’s face relaxed a little. “He knew her when he was a baby. I didn’t know they’d become close now.”

Nodding sadly, Scott told him what he’d witnessed at the orphanage and both men headed there.

Sam sat back and frowned as he took the stethoscope off and placed it in his bag. He stared hard at Johnny who was looking right back and waiting.

“You’re pale.”

“I feel like crap, Doc.”


“Yeah, and my gut’s aching all the time now. Worse than before.”

The doctor nodded. “You’re pretty tender. I’m going to have to get in there and take a look around.”

Johnny sighed in frustration and rolled his eyes. “You sure, Sam? I mean, you said we could wait to see what happens.”

“We did wait and you’re not getting any better. In fact, you’re getting worse. I don’t want to chance it, John. If you’re bleeding in there and, I’m pretty certain you are, I need to stop it. You could die.”

Both men heard a small gasp and looked toward the doorway at Helena . She stood there with her hand over her mouth, gaping at them.

“Young lady, perhaps you could do me a favor and find Johnny’s family?”

She didn’t move for a few seconds then nodded and quickly left the room.

Johnny shook his head. “Useless.”

Cocking a brow, Sam had no reply for that. “I’m going to get ready. Try to rest a while.” He stood then hesitated. “I know you’re hurting over Anna but try to stay focused on getting better, Johnny.”

The young man only nodded and stared at the ceiling thinking about the message from her. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so unkind about Helena . She’d been with Anna at the end and, it seemed she’d been a little upset about it. He turned his head toward the door as he heard voices, recognizing his father’s deep baritone. A smile flittered across his face, happy the man was here and hopefully, in one piece.

Scott and Murdoch walked in just then and Johnny smirked at their appearance.

“Don’t start, brother.”

“I’m not. How’s it lookin out there?”

Murdoch sat down heavily and leaned forward in the chair. “We’ve finished the north end. Martin is checking with Val on the south. We thought we’d check on you and I guess it’s a good thing we did.”

“Sam sent Helena to find you.”

“We saw her outside. I’m sorry about Mrs. Wilson,” Scott said.

Johnny nodded and lowered his eyes. “She was the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.”

“She was remarkable. I’ll miss her. I wish I’d gone to see her more often over the years.”

Johnny looked at his father. “That’s the way, ain’t it? We always think there’s plenty of time. Reckon her kids thought that, too. Someone needs to let them know.”

“I will as soon as the telegraph and stage are back up and running. Now, Sam said he has to operate.”

“Yeah, guess he’s bored.” Johnny snorted a little, knowing it wasn’t true but simply put out with the whole idea. He felt the hand on his arm and turned back to Murdoch.

“We’ll get you home as soon as we can, son.”

“I know. Don’t worry about that. I guess the town is wrecked.”

Scott sat on the edge of the cot. “And don’t you worry about that. We have plenty of help. Just get well.”

“That an order?”

Quirking his mouth, Scott put on his best officer’s face. “Yes, it is.”

Johnny smirked back then fell sullen. ” Helena stayed with Anna until she died. Anna wanted her to tell me some things.”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged a look.

“That was nice of her,” Scott said hesitantly.

“Yeah. Reckon she ain’t as bad as I thought.”

“Sometimes, it takes a disaster to see a person’s true worth,” Murdoch mused.

“Well, don’t get carried away. Seems that’s all she’s done. Said she was the only person around and Anna heard her asking someone to take her to Lancer.”

Scott rolled his eyes and sighed. He couldn’t spare much energy for Helena at the moment, or any moment, he decided. Some people just wouldn’t or couldn’t change. He thought Helena was one who wouldn’t.

“Nevermind that now, son. How do you feel?”

“Lousy, I guess. I know Sam’s gotta do this but I’d still rather be branding.”

Murdoch chuckled a little then stilled as Johnny’s face fell. He watched his son glance at him a few times and knew Johnny had something he wanted to say but wasn’t sure how it would be received.

Scott cleared his throat. “I think I’ll see if Sam needs a hand.” He touched his father’s shoulder as he stood then smiled at his brother before leaving them alone.

“Sometimes, I still marvel at how well you two read each other. What’s on your mind, son?”

Johnny grinned a little. “He does pretty well. It’s just something in Anna’s message that kind of threw me.”

Murdoch only waited, knowing Johnny was grieving the woman more deeply than he allowed to be seen.

“She said to let you love me. I don’t know what she meant by that.”

Stunned, the older man could only stare at his son then he shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure what she meant either.”

“I mean, it’s not like I’m keepin ya from it, is it?”

The tone was harsh and Murdoch nearly balked before allowing himself to see it for what it was. Softly but determinedly, he replied, “nothing ever could.”

Johnny looked into his father’s eyes and smiled then looked away, grimacing with a discomfort that had nothing to do with his injuries. “Me neither.”

Now, Murdoch smiled, knowing his son was as uncomfortable with this subject as he was. “Anna knew you as a baby.”

“I know. I mean, I didn’t until today. She told Helena .”

“I guess she was worried about how we’re doing together. Maybe … maybe something you said to her made her think you were struggling?”

Johnny turned his head and looked at the ceiling. “Maybe. I mean, I guess I told her I was worried about us gettin along and all.”

“That’s understandable but, I think we’re doing a lot better now.”

“Yeah, it was a while ago I told her that. We didn’t talk much about it. She liked to tell stories about the old days.”

“I know. She could really capture your full attention, make you see what she was saying in your mind.”

Johnny nodded, a smile of fond remembrance on his face.

Murdoch smiled, too, and put his hand on the side of Johnny’s face then frowned. “You’re awfully cool.”

“Thanks,” he replied cheekily.

But the older man didn’t smile back. “I mean it, son. Do you feel cold?”

“Yeah, a little. I figured it was from the bleeding. Murdoch, I wanted you to understand … what I said…”

“I do understand, son. It’s alright, John. I know what you believed for so long and I can hardly blame you. We’re together now and that’s what matters. Now, I’m going to find you a blanket.” As he started to rise, he felt the hand on his arm and sat back down.

“It’s not bad, really. Never mind about that. I want you to know, to understand.”

Murdoch settled back in the chair and caught his son’s stare. “Listen to me. I do understand everything. You don’t have to explain yourself to me, son. Unless, there’s something you really need to say?”

Johnny kept the stare, seeing his father’s words were deeply felt and true. He shook his head. He knew all he needed to know and so did Murdoch. And, with a small sigh of relief, he was grateful not to have to make a fool of himself.

Helena watched the men as they sat or paced glumly about the room. She walked over to her father who was leaning against a wall at the moment. In a soft voice she spoke. “There’s nothing left to do in town with the earthquake?”

“No, all the buildings have been cleared now. They’ll start hauling away debris then rebuild over the next several months, I imagine.” Martin looked at his daughter with a smile. “How are you holding up?”

“Not well,” she sighed. “I’m exhausted. All I really want is a long bath and a soft bed. Do you think someone could take me back to Lancer in the morning?”

Martin was a bit surprised she was asking, not demanding. “I’m sure they can, my dear, as long as Johnny is alright.”

“How long do you think he’ll have to stay here?”

“I have no idea. I suppose it depends on what the doctor finds. Helena , you realize we aren’t going to be able to leave any time soon, don’t you?”

She smiled a little. “Yes, I know, dad. I’m alright. I don’t have much choice in the matter anyway.”

He nodded then rubbed his eyes.

“Are you alright?”

He looked at her with surprise then chagrin. She was just now asking? Martin had thought he saw a change in his daughter today but, maybe he’d been wrong. Or, maybe she was so new to being concerned for anyone else, she needed to practice. Unkind thoughts for his own daughter, he knew but he was tired and heartsore for these people and all they’d lost. He managed to curb his tongue and simply nodded at her.

“Would anyone care for something to eat? It may be a long night.” Scott looked around at each person, frowning when no one answered. He knew none of the men had eaten for quite a while and he worried for his father, especially. Murdoch was not only waiting for word on his son but he’d lost more than one friend in this tragedy. Scott sighed and headed to the kitchen. He’d make them something, maybe even force his father to eat. Oh, yes, that will be happening, he snorted to himself.

Helena followed him, standing in the doorway for a moment before walking in. “I’m not much good in the kitchen but can I help?”

“I’m afraid I’m not that handy myself but I’m sure we can make something edible. Just some sandwiches. Could you grab the bread?”

She brought the bread to him then took the offered knife and started slicing it. She stopped when she heard the laugh.

“I’m sorry. Maybe I should do that.” Scott’s eyes danced with amusement as he glanced down at the crooked slices.

She pulled a face and handed the knife over then went for plates and silverware. “I’m sorry.”

Scott stopped and looked at her quizzically. “It’s not a big deal. Bread isn’t easy to cut.”

“I’m not talking about the bread, I’m talking about my behavior. I know I’ve been intolerable. I’m sorry.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Would you care to tell me why?” He held tight rein on his tone, still angry with her and especially her treatment of his brother.

Helena blushed a little and lowered her head. “I can’t.”

Sighing, he nodded. “Well, that’s your choice. You might want to consider telling your father, though.”

Scott sat the plate and coffee cup on the small table then carried it all over to where Murdoch sat in a chair beside the empty bed.

“Sir, you need to keep up your strength for Johnny.” He figured that was the only way to get the man to eat. Guilt him into it. Murdoch did nod and started in on the meal and Scott smiled his relief.

They all took in some nutrition, quietly and despondently. The silence in the room was oppressive. Murdoch stood up suddenly and paced about.

“What’s taking so long?”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s been three hours, Scott.”

Martin stood up and intercepted him as he neared. “That’s not so long for an operation. You don’t want him hurrying through it. He needs to be thorough, right? I know it’s torture, old friend, but try not to work yourself up.”

Murdoch ran a hand through his hair and nodded. “He and Scott are everything to me, Martin.”

Scott smiled a little and ducked his head.

“I know. Believe me, I know. Johnny is so strong and he loves life. He won’t give up.”

Murdoch forced a smile for his friend and went back to his chair.

Helena watched it all with some interest. She walked over to where Scott stood leaning against a wall and replicated his stance.

“This is probably a very bad time but may I ask you something?”

Scott shrugged. “I’m not doing anything anyway.”

“Mrs. Wilson said some people here couldn’t look beyond Johnny’s past to who he really is. What did she mean? What past?”

Scott pushed off the wall and pulled his shoulders back. “I hope you didn’t ask her about that.”

“No, of course not. The poor woman was struggling to tell me the little she did. What is the big secret?”

Scott relaxed a little and sighed. “It’s not a big secret. It’s just not something we talk about much. I’m sorry, Helena , but it’s not my place to discuss Johnny with you. You’ll have to ask him.”

She nodded but inwardly, she fumed. She wasn’t about to tell Scott she’d already asked Johnny. Still, what was the big deal? What could he have possibly done so bad if so many people around here liked him? It made no sense to her. Then again, not much in this place made sense to her. She still couldn’t believe she was trapped in this hell hole. But, she made herself a promise not to complain to anyone about it again. It did no good and only served to make them treat her worse. She didn’t think she’d ever been treated so badly before. Except that one time. Shuddering, she held herself and walked away.

Mercifully, Sam appeared in the doorway an hour later. Murdoch sprung to his feet and towered over the man, an expectant and anxious look on his face.

“He should be alright.”

“Should be?”

Sam almost smiled. “There was some bleeding and I got it fixed. He’s weak but fortunately it was a slow bleeder. He has lost a good amount of blood but it’s not life-threatening now. I put a tube in and gave him a good dose of water then took it out. He shouldn’t have any problems drinking on his own once he wakes up.”

“When will that be, Sam?” Scott asked.

“Probably not until morning. I know the anesthesia makes him queasy so we’ll have to go slow at first. That’s one reason I gave him the water now. The last thing he needs is to be dehydrated plus the blood he’s already lost. He won’t be able to move for a few days then just to get him home – slowly and carefully and as long as he’s ddoing well.”

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“I need some help bringing him back to his cot. Scott?”

“I’ll give a hand, too,” Martin offered and the three of them left the room.

Murdoch walked back to his chair and plopped down, his shoulders slumped wearily.

“It will take some time but at least he’ll recover,” Helena said as she ambled toward the rancher.

He looked up at her and nodded then stared at the floor again.

She watched him for a few seconds then sighed lightly. Seemed she couldn’t even be nice without it going unnoticed. Well, she’d tried though why she had no idea. All she wanted was to go home. Get away from this awful place and these strange people. Especially him. She walked back to her previous spot by the wall and wrapped her arms across her abdomen.

Christ! Not again! he thought as he became aware of the fire in his gut. Johnny slowly moved his right hand and touched the thick bandages. Pressing slightly, he found the spot and wondered how he’d gotten himself shot again. Confused and unsure where he was, he slowly cracked his eyes open and took in as much of his surroundings as he could see, which wasn’t much.

Another mission! Why the hell did he always seem to end up in missions? Had to be one. It was cold and gray and stark and adobe. He sighed and forced his eyes wider.


He frowned. Now he was really confused. Why was Murdoch in the mission? His head hurt and his stomach was flipping like a fish out of water. He groaned, he was pretty sure then started turning his head to the side. He saw his father sitting there watching him closely and he swallowed dryly.

“What’re you doin here?” He slurred the words.

“Where else would I be?”

He frowned deeper and shook his head a little. Something was wrong. He was wrong. “Where am I?”

Murdoch raised his brows at the question and wondered what Johnny was thinking. “The orphanage. Sam had to operate. You were bleeding inside.”

Orphanage? Too damned old for an orphanage. Wait … Sam? He closed his eyes and let it all seep back in. The earthquake. Okay, now he felt better about things. He looked back at Murdoch and could see the worry. He smiled faintly. “Right, I remember now.”

Murdoch relaxed and smiled back. “I guess it’s pretty disorienting. Sam said you’ll be fine and we can take you home in a few days.”

He nodded a little then grimaced. He felt something against his lips and automatically opened his mouth. Grimacing at the bitterness as he swallowed, he glared at his father.

“You can give me that look all day long, young man. You’re in pain and there’s no reason you have to be.”

“One of these days you’re gonna have to explain to me why that look never did work on you.”

Murdoch chuckled a little. “I can tell you now. I’m your father and I know you’d never hurt me.”

Johnny’s face fell and he looked away. The painful truth was, he could have before. Before that day and even during that day they’d first met. There was no reason to let Murdoch in on that little fact, though. If the old man thought he was invincible against Madrid , so be it.

Murdoch watched him and had a stark feeling he knew what the real truth was. That maybe Johnny could have hurt him once. But, he knew that time was past. He twitched his mouth then poured some water. “I know your stomach’s a little upset but try a few sips.”

Johnny took as much as he could then shook his head. “Where’s Scott?”

“He’s helping Val. We had to practically lasso the man to get him in earlier so Sam could check his arm. He hasn’t stopped hardly since this whole thing began.”

“He okay?”

“He will be. It was a deep cut but it’ll be alright.”

Johnny nodded, relieved his brother was running roughshod over his friend. Val never did take care of himself much. “What about Martin?”

Murdoch chuckled a little then laughed outright. “Well, he decided to help Scott and Val. They gave him a rifle and told him if anyone tries to steal anything, to shoot them. I thought he might pass out right then.”

Grinning and trying not to laugh himself, Johnny had to ask, “he took them seriously?”

“He did. Well, until Scott started laughing. Val got aggravated about that. Said Scott never could keep a straight face.”

“That’s true. Did you get Helena back to the ranch?”

“Not yet. She can wait until we’re ready to take you home. She’s, um, she’s been more complacent lately; since Anna died.”

Johnny grimaced at the reminder. “Think I’ll sleep for a while.”

“More than a while, John. As long as possible would be good.” Murdoch smiled as he tucked the blanket in a little more. “Cold?”

“A little.”

He grabbed another blanket and tucked that in, too. Johnny had to fight the laughter. Seeing Murdoch like this tickled him but it also warmed him right up.

Five days passed and the damage had been tallied. Six deaths wasn’t bad for the amount of ruin they faced but, one would have been too many. Aside from Val’s cells, the only buildings that escaped major damage were the orphanage and one of the churches. Everyone contemplated the meaning of that privately. Â

Johnny was more than ready. What was to be a sad goodbye to a friend and a day of buying supplies had turned into a nightmare. One he wanted badly to get away from. Home was where he wanted to be, where they all wanted to be. Today, that’s where they prepared to go.

Murdoch had Cipriano bring a wagon from the ranch, loaded with hay and blankets and a pillow for his son’s journey. They carried him out on a stretcher and Scott settled in beside him. Johnny lifted his head and looked around, wide-eyed at the little of the carnage he could see.


“I know,” Scott said with a sad smile. “It doesn’t even look like a town anymore.”

“When will they rebuild?”

“As soon as the supplies come in. They’ve gotten some from Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells but it’s not nearly enough. Some people have said they won’t rebuild. Some have already left.”

Johnny laid his head back down and sighed. “I know you would’ve already told me if something had happened to Barranca.”

“He’s home. He and Remmie made their own way back the day after. They’re fine, brother.”

“Glad someone came out of this untouched. You still look like hell, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Scott deadpanned. “I’m looking forward to a nice long and hot bath as soon as we get you settled.”

“You might have to fight a few folks for that.”

“I’m sure but, fortunately for me, there’s more than one bathtub.” He laid his hand on Johnny’s arm. “We’re going now.”

Johnny nodded and braced himself for that first jolt. It didn’t matter, it still hurt like hell but he didn’t care either. He was finally going home, his family in one piece and that’s all he could think about now. That and Anna. He missed her terribly.

Scott felt the hand on his knee and leaned down to his brother.

“Did Murdoch get hold of Anna’s kids?”

“Just yesterday. The lines were back up in Morro Coyo so he sent Frank over. Her son replied this morning and said they were on their way.”

Johnny nodded and touched the crucifix around his neck lightly. “I’d sure like to be at the burial.”

A sidelong look came his way as Scott knew that was a bad idea. He was sure they’d want to bury her right away. It had already been several days and hers was the only body left in the ice house. He and Murdoch had had a long discussion about burying her. In the end, they’d agreed it wasn’t their call to make.

Johnny pulled on his shirt sleeve to regain his attention and make him come closer. “Murdoch says Helena ‘s calmed down a little.”

Scott nodded. “It appears so. At least, she’s not whining anymore.” He paused then decided. “She was asking me about your past. Seems Anna made some remark.”

“Yeah, she asked me, too. Told her it wasn’t her business.” There was a question in his tone.

“That’s basically what I told her. That she’d have to ask you. She didn’t mention she already had. That was during your surgery so, she must have asked you before that?”

“She did. Nosy little thing, ain’t she?” Johnny grinned.

“Most likely just bored enough to bother.” Scott knew he was being sarcastic and unkind but she deserved it. His eyes went to his brother’s face when he heard the grunt. “Take some laudanum.”

“I did before we started. Nothing’s gonna ease this trip, Scott. I can take it as long as I get home in the end. So, where is she? I can’t see a damned thing back here.”

“She’s riding up top with Murdoch. Martin’s riding ahead on horseback. Don’t worry, she can’t hear us.”

Johnny smirked, his expression telling Scott he could care less if she did. He closed his eyes and sighed out then tried to sleep.

Scott sat back and watched him, glancing toward the wagon bench once. He noted her hand on the back of the seat, white-knuckled as she held on for dear life. He grinned and shook his head then went back to his vigil.

Murdoch pulled up to the house and jumped down. Helena waited for him to come around to her side then gawked as he stopped at the tail gate and let it down. Seething, she was about to unload her verbal assault when she felt a hand on hers. She looked down and saw her father there, waiting to help her and blushed slightly as he lowered her to the ground.

Martin waited for her to get her legs then let go. She headed straight inside without a backward glance or a word. He sighed and went to the back of the wagon to help.

Johnny settled into his bed with a deep sigh of contentment. Scott grinned and sat gently on the mattress. “Need anything?”

“A bath but I guess that’s not happening any time soon.”

“I’m afraid not, brother. At least, not for you. The rest of us are a different matter.”

“You’re all heart, Scott.”

Murdoch actually patted his head. “I’ll help you get a sponge bath, son. That’s the best we can do for now.”

“Thanks but you first. All of you. You’ve been workin like dogs for days. Go and relax.”

“I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” Teresa stood in the doorway, hands on hips. “I didn’t hear you come in. Helena came to the kitchen for hot water or I wouldn’t have known you were home.”

“I’m sorry, darling. We just wanted to get Johnny settled first.”

She pulled a face and went to the bed. “Go, all of you. You’re filthy. I’ll take care of Johnny.” Even as she spoke, she was wringing out a wet cloth and washing his face.

Martin cocked a brow and said with some amusement, “I believe we’ve been dismissed, gentlemen.”

Scott laughed. “We have indeed. I suggest we all get a bath while we can.”

“Supper is in two hours,” Teresa called after them as they left the room. “How do you feel?” she asked Johnny.

“Sore as … all get out, miel. But, it feels good to be home.”

“How was it being trapped with her?”

Johnny laughed softly then stopped as it pained his belly. “Wonderful. Never had a better time in my life. Well, except for this one time when I was out in the desert without a horse or water and a bullet in my leg.”

Teresa shook her head and bit her lip. “You’re lucky you got out of there alive. And I don’t mean the earthquake.”

“Yeah, I know. She’s either worn out or worn down now. Can’t tell which but I hear she’s been pretty quiet.”

“I hope it lasts.” She fell sullen then. “I was so sorry to hear about Mrs. Wilson.”

Johnny lowered his eyes. “Yeah, that was tough.” Again, he fingered the crucifix.

“What’s that?” she asked as she picked the chain up and pulled the cross out. “It’s beautiful.”

“Anna left it for me but don’t tell anyone. She don’t want her kids to know. She said they wouldn’t miss it anyway and she wanted me to have it.”

Teresa smiled warmly. “She loved you like her own. But now, you have to get some rest. I’ll bring you some soup soon.”

“Thanks, Teresa … for not hovering, too.”

She stood up and quirked her mouth. “I learned a long time ago it’s unwise to hover over Johnny Lancer. It causes hives.”

He laughed then held his belly as she left him be.

Johnny’s eyes flew open and he found the noise causer. With some humor, he watched his father pour steaming water into the wash basin and gather soap and other supplies. When Murdoch turned around, he nearly dropped everything in his hands.

“Johnny! Say something next time!”

He grinned and shrugged. “What are you up to?”

“I’m going to give you a bath and a shave.”

Johnny raised uncertain brows at that. “Are you now?”

He got the same look in return. “I am. I’ve already locked the door so you’re safe.”

“Who’s gonna keep me safe from you and that razor, old man?” He gave a cheeky grin.

Murdoch set his wares on the bedside table and turned the lamp wick up. “I guess you’re just going to have to trust me. Think you can do that?”

“With my life.”

He looked at his son’s sincere expression and smiled. Sitting on the bedside, he patted Johnny’s cheek. “Me, too. Now, let’s see if we can scrape off some of that beard.”

Johnny squinched his face, not looking forward to this. It wasn’t easy to shave someone else and he doubted his father had much experience with the task. His beard was always tough but, at least his skin wasn’t sensitive. He’d scraped it enough with knives to be able to handle about anything.

By the time Murdoch was finished, Johnny was sweating. It got pretty bad when his throat was involved. He didn’t dare say a word or twitch a muscle much less swallow while the old man was shaving there. He sighed his relief when Murdoch started washing the cream off.

“That bad?” he asked with a laugh.

“No, actually, it was pretty good. Don’t tell me. You worked as a barber once.”

“No, I’ve never had that job, thankfully. But, it’s not bad if I do say so myself.”

Johnny rubbed a hand over his face and nodded his approval. “Thanks. Feels tons better.”

Murdoch smiled again then became a little fidgety. “Well, I thought we’d just wash you off a little now.”

Cheeks flaming, Johnny turned his head away and finally took that swallow. “It’s okay. I mean, I can stand it a while longer.”

“Maybe just your arms and chest, then?”

“Yeah,” he cleared his throat. “That’d be okay, I guess.”

By the time the bath was over, Johnny was ready to crawl under a rock. As Murdoch dried his chest, focusing solely on his task, he cleared his throat and spoke hesitantly.

“If you wanted to … wash your … if you feel up to it, I can … leave or something.”

Johnny watched with some fascination as his father actually blushed. He’d never seen that before and it was stunning. Then, the words sank in and he felt his own cheeks grow hot again.

“Well, it would feel better to … I mean, yeah, okay.”

Somehow, they managed to lock eyes for a second before Murdoch stood up. He turned and busied himself at the wash basin for a minute and Johnny stared at the ceiling, wishing he could just slink away. He saw the cloth being offered him and took it but he didn’t make any further move.

Murdoch laid a towel across his lap then turned and walked to the window, staring out at the evening sky.

His eyes never left his father’s back as he took care of himself as quickly as he could. Then, he realized he couldn’t reach the basin and he needed to rinse off. With a sigh of frustration, he decided there was nothing else he could do. “I need another cloth to rinse off.”

Murdoch’s shoulders tensed and he cursed himself for not thinking of it. He walked over to the dresser and grabbed a cloth then wet it, wrung it out and handed it over before returning to his spot. His eyes never left the floor the entire time.

By now, Johnny was just plain mad about the whole situation. He rinsed and dried then wrapped everything in the towel. He straightened his covers before speaking. “Done now.”

Murdoch chanced a look, nodded and walked over to retrieve everything. As he stood there with wash basin full of towels and wash cloths, he smirked a little. “That may have been the most uncomfortable experience I’ve ever had.”

“I know it was for me.”

“I’m sorry, son.”

Johnny grimaced. “No need. You were just trying to help. I appreciate it and I feel a lot better.”

Murdoch smiled. “We’ll get you in a tub … I mean, you can get in a tub soon, I’m sure.”

Suddenly, Johnny burst out laughing, his hand going immediately to his abdomen as he tried to stop. It was contagious and soon, Murdoch’s thundering laughter could be heard all along the second story of the house.

Helena stood in the hallway outside her room and heard the laughter. She clenched her teeth together, fuming that anyone could find anything here the least bit amusing. She was still angry about her bath. Having to tote all that water herself had exhausted her and everyone had suddenly disappeared. She could find no one to help her. Not even her own father seemed to be available.

By the time she’d filled the tub, she was too angry to enjoy the bath. Plus, the water cooled entirely too quickly. Barbaric was what is was! How could they live like this? Back home, they had the latest in necessary rooms. All one had to do was turn a knob and water – hot water – ran into the tub. She had to get out of here. Surely, the stages were running again by now. She’d been so desperate to get out of that awful town, she hadn’t thought to ask.

As she passed Johnny’s room, she could still hear them laughing more quietly now. What was so funny? Â She stood there, leaning in toward the door but she could hear no words. She jumped three feet in the air when the hand touched her shoulder. Whirling around, she came face to face with Scott.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

Her heart raced and she was sure she’d faint any second. Slowly, she regained control. “I … I heard something. I thought …”

“You thought what, exactly?”

She stared into his pale blue eyes. “I don’t know. I thought maybe something was wrong.”

Scott raised a brow. “Yes, whenever I hear people laughing, my first thought is that something must be wrong.”

She only stared at him and he sighed then stepped around her and knocked on the door. Scott was a little surprised when he turned the knob and found the door locked. He waited a few seconds then heard the door being opened.

Murdoch stood there grinning as he eyed them both.

“Well, may I come in?” Scott was quite amused by his father’s countenance and more than a little curious as to what was going on in there.

“Of course, son.” He stepped aside then gave Helena a curious look. She met his eyes then turned quickly and headed downstairs. Murdoch shrugged and joined his sons.

“Come on, Johnny. Tell me what was so funny.”

The younger man’s eyes met their father’s and he grinned. “If we’d wanted you to know, the door would’ve been unlocked, brother.”

Scott pulled a face, sorely tempted to stick out his tongue just to hear his brother laugh again. He’d missed that sound this past week. “Well, Helena was snooping outside your door, trying to hear what was going on. She jumped five feet when I found her out.”

“Well, like I said, she’s nosy.”

Murdoch was a bit perturbed by this information. “Scott, let’s go see if we can find something for your brother to eat before he falls asleep on us.”

Once Johnny was fed and watered, Murdoch and Scott joined their guests at the dining table. Martin asked after Johnny and received a positive report.

“Yes, he’s doing very well. So much so that he and our father seemed to be having the time of their lives up there.” Scott made a toasting motion toward Murdoch, still a bit peeved he wasn’t in on the joke.

“It was nothing, son, I promise. Anyway, everyone seems to have found a bathtub.”

“Yes, thankfully. I’ve never been so grimy in my life. I’m sure Johnny is looking forward to being able to soak as well.”

Murdoch bit the inside of his cheek but a snort still managed to edge through. Scott shrugged at Martin. Everyone’s eyes went to Helena as she sighed rather loudly.

“Something wrong, my dear?”

She looked at her father pointedly. “I was just wondering if the stage was running yet.”

“I didn’t think to ask but I had intended on staying just a while longer. Just until Johnny is well on his way to recovery. Plus, I’d like to lend a hand in town if need be.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary, my friend. They have plenty of help. We’re more than happy to have you stay on. I know Johnny will appreciate it, as well. Scott and I will have to get out on the ranch tomorrow and catch up. I know he’d enjoy your company and you seem to be able to keep him occupied better than most.”

Teeth and fists clenched, Helena interrupted. “Dad, there’s nothing more you can do here. I’m sure Teresa can manage. We need to leave.”

Martin set his fork down and turned his full attention to his daughter. ” Helena , these people have been through hell and many of them have lost everything they have. Lancer was very lucky but that doesn’t mean their friends won’t be needing them. Teresa will have a great deal to do helping their neighbors. Besides, I am rather fond of Johnny and I’m not leaving until I’m sure he’s going to be alright. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but we’d thought he was doing well before this last surgery. I’d feel horrible if we left and something happened.”

He turned to Murdoch. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound like you can’t care for your own son or my being here will make any difference. I just have some experience with leaving people thinking they’ll be fine and finding out later, they weren’t. It may be superstitious or even foolish, but that’s how I feel.”

He then returned his attention back to his daughter who was gawking at him. “You’re just going to have to find some way to amuse yourself for a while longer. There are plenty of books here to read and plenty of land to walk. I’m sure Teresa has some knitting or embroidery or whatever it is you learned to do in Paris . You might even find some way to help out around here.”

Silence reigned supreme in the room as the Lancers stared at their plates and Helena stared at her father.

“How can you speak to me like this?”

“It’s high time I did, young lady. You’ve been behaving like a spoiled child. Your mother and I did not raise you to be such so I can only surmise Paris was not the ideal place for you. I’ve said my piece and that is how things stand.” He picked his fork back up and went back to his meal as she stood and ran from the room.

Again, it was quiet in the dining room until Scott, a small smile on his face and his head still down, spoke softly. “Bravo, Martin.”

They looked up at the same time and caught each other’s eyes. Martin smiled and winked and all three laughed a little.

“I must admit, it felt good to lay down the law. I’ve decided I’ve been too easy on her. She needs to grow up.”

“Well, I hope she’ll take this opportunity to do just that. In the meantime, I’m very pleased you’re staying,” Murdoch said and raised his glass to his friend.

Johnny lay propped up in bed, staring at the wall and smiling about the bath earlier. He’d never been so embarrassed but it felt good to laugh with his old man. Seeing Murdoch just as embarrassed was a real hoot, too.

His door swung open and she stood there looking like she was about to hit him. Johnny stared at her, stunned for a moment.

“This is all your fault!”

He shook his head slowly back and forth. “What are you talking about?”

“My father has decided to stay until you’re all better! Well, get better because I am not staying in this god-forsaken place any longer!”

Still stunned, he took a few seconds to let her words sink in. “What your father decides to do is up to him, not me.”

“He’s doing it because of you or so he says. He’s sooo fond of you! It’s laughable, really. He must be growing senile!”

She paced at the foot of his bed and he suddenly felt extremely disadvantaged. Ordinarily, a beautiful woman in his bedroom would be a welcome sight but, this one was far from ordinary.

“Well? Say something!”

He shrugged. “Why? You won’t listen. You’re too mad.”

She stared at him then took a deep breath and let it out. Relaxing her hands, she put them on her hips. “Fine. I’m no longer angry.”

Johnny laughed at that. “Yeah, you’re all better now, huh? Look, our fathers are good friends who haven’t seen each other in over twenty years. Why can’t you just let them have this time together? Who knows if they’ll ever get another chance? And, if they don’t, that would be your fault. You’ve done nothing but whine and complain and make everyone miserable on top of embarrassing your old man to death. I kind of thought you were calming down a little about that.”

“That was when I thought I was getting out of here soon.”

“Yeah, well, I know you hate this place. But, I think it’s more about me than the ranch. Maybe, if you gave yourself half a chance, you might not be so … disagreeable. Besides, it might be nice to think about someone other than yourself for a change.”

“No one has given a thought to what I want. Why should I care?”

Johnny sighed heavily. “Your father was willing to leave for you. He didn’t want to go, ya know. He did it because of you. If you loved him at all …”

“Of course I love him. He’s my father,” she huffed.

He snorted at that. “Yeah, I can tell how much you care. You’ve made him feel like crap the whole time you’ve been here. From what he’s said, it’s been going on since you got home. If you’re that unhappy, hire an escort to take you home but, give your father this time with his friend.”

She turned her back to him. “He’d never agree to that and I couldn’t go off with a complete stranger.” Turning back, her eyes lit up. “Maybe Scott could take me.”

Shaking his head, Johnny said, “nope. Scott’s got too much to do here. I doubt he’d agree anyway. Look, why can’t you try to deal with this? Just hang out here and … do something. You like to ride. There’s some really fine horses on this ranch. If you stopped trying so hard to get out, you might even enjoy yourself. Seems to me like you’re just determined to be miserable and take everyone else along for the ride, ta boot.”

He stared at her as her eyes teared up. Fighting the desire to roll his own eyes, he waited to see of she’d say anything else or just storm out, as usual. She didn’t speak and the tears never fell.

Johnny sucked in a breath. “You’re no happier in Boston , are you?”

She only shook her head vigorously.

“What is it, Helena ? What happened that you can’t get past?”

Turning her back once more, she stifled a sob and pulled her hanky from her sleeve. She dabbed her eyes and made herself stop before turning back to him.

“That’s none of your business.”

“Whose business is it?”


He frowned, his features darkening with anger. “Then deal with it or don’t but stop layin it at everyone else’s feet. If you don’t want help, don’t expect any. No one can help you if they don’t know what’s wrong. If it ain’t our problem then stop making it ours. We have enough to do.”

“I hate you!” she sobbed.

“Yeah, I got that. Well, I don’t hate you but I got no use for you either. Get out of here. Ain’t proper anyway.” He smirked with that.

Her face turned bright red, her fists once more clenched tightly as she glared hatefully at him. “How dare you tell me what’s proper?! You wouldn’t know which fork to use if Scott didn’t show you. I imagine you eat with your hands when no one is about. Or do you just stick your face in the plate? God! You are despicable! You think you’re so charming. You are nothing! Nothing but a filthy half-breed Spaniard!”


They both jumped a little, startled by the booming voice of Murdoch Lancer. He stood in the doorway and Johnny didn’t think he’d ever seen his father so livid. The vein in his neck jutted out, pulsing much too rapidly. Behind him, Johnny saw Martin. His face was pale and waxy and he looked like he might just pass out. He saw hands take hold of the man’s arms from behind and knew his brother was there. Christ! Looked like everyone got in on this show.

His eyes went to Helena who looked like a child caught stealing a pie from the window sill. Guilty as all hell. He would have laughed but Murdoch’s face kept him from it. His father stepped into the room and stood before her. Johnny could hear his teeth grinding.

“Murdoch, don’t,” he said softly into the quiet room.

Martin seemed to gather his senses about him and walked in, standing beside his daughter. He took her arm firmly and led her out the door. Johnny sighed with relief as Scott stepped in and closed the door.

He laid his head back and closed his eyes for a second, feeling his brother’s eyes on him.

“You okay?”

Johnny looked at Scott and nodded then his eyes fell on Murdoch. Scott walked over and touched his father’s arm, bringing him back to them. Both had to wonder what was happening to the man and where he’d just gone in his mind.

Murdoch blinked and turned, walking over to sit beside his injured son. His hand on Johnny’s knee, his voice a little shaky, he asked, “how did that happen?”

“She came in here on fire. Said it was my fault she couldn’t leave. I tried to talk to her but that never works. Then, we both got pretty mad. I told her to stop feelin sorry for herself, basically. Told her if she didn’t want help then to stop whinin about whatever is going on with her. That’s when she lit into me.”

“I’m so sorry, son. Martin laid down the law to her downstairs. It never occurred to me she’d come up here.”

“It’s not your fault. Not his either. Something is bad wrong with that girl. She’s all torn up but she won’t tell anyone.”

Scott just shook his head. He couldn’t believe how calm Johnny was. Then, a light went on. “Did she just call you a Spaniard?”

Johnny frowned. “No, she called me a half-breed Spaniard.” He grinned but it died quickly in the light of his father’s disapproving frown. “That is kind of strange, though. I mean, surely she knows I’m not Spanish.”

“Surely,” Scott mused. “Do you think she had some problem with a Spanish man before? I mean, maybe that’s why she doesn’t like you.”

“She hates my guts, brother. But, that might be it, I don’t know.”

“I don’t give a damn what it is. I will not tolerate that kind of behavior no matter how good friends Martin and I are.”

Johnny took hold on his father’s arm. “Did you see his face? I thought he was gonna pass slick out. He’s just as shocked as we are.”

“The man was mortified. I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Scott said.

“Maybe he’ll finally take her to the woodshed.” Johnny smiled a little then sighed tiredly.

Murdoch saw it and patted his leg. “We came up here to tell you the good news that Martin is staying on a while. Now, I doubt he will. Whatever happens, you need to rest, son. You shouldn’t have to put up with this foolishness. Especially not right now.” Â

He didn’t know what to do. Helena lay across her bed sobbing her eyes out. He was so beyond angry with her. He had to talk to her but she wouldn’t stop crying.

“Stop it, Helena .”

That only brought on another harsh bout and he sat beside her on the bed. “This has gone on long enough, young lady. You will tell me what happened to you and you will do it now. I cannot believe what I just heard in there. How dare you?” The more he spoke, the louder his voice and the higher his agitation.

It took ten minutes for her to settle enough for him to try again. He decided a softer approach might work. “Sweetheart, you must tell me. I can’t help if I don’t know the problem. You may think there’s nothing I can do but you’re wrong, love. Let dad help.”

She sat up then fell into his arms. “I can’t speak it. I just can’t.” Her voice was raw and whispered.

He rubbed her back and held her close. “You may think that but once you start, I know it will all come out. Please, Helena , you can’t go on like this. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

She took a stuttering breath and leaned away from him. He offered his handkerchief and she took it, wiping her nose and sniffling. Closing her eyes, she tried to say the words. But how? Maybe, if she just said a little of the beginning.

“I met someone in Paris . We started seeing each other but it wasn’t serious at first. Then, I began having feelings for him. Deep feelings. We had a wonderful time together. He was so handsome and exotic. He was Spanish and his accent was so beautiful. His words were so beautiful. He had the deepest blue eyes…” She stopped, the tears flowing once more.

Martin’s heart clenched. But, before he jumped to any conclusion, he had to know more. He waited for her, praying she’d go on.

“One day, he sent me a message breaking our date for that evening. He said some urgent business had come up. I was disappointed but I understood. My girlfriends talked me into going out to dinner with them. We were sitting in the restaurant when he walked in with another woman. A Spanish woman. She was incredibly beautiful. I tried to believe it was business but he didn’t see me and I watched them together. Soon, it was evident this was no business meeting. They were all over each other.

“I was heartbroken, dad. I loved him so. The next afternoon, I went to see him at his apartment. I confronted him about her and he laughed at me. He said Spanish men could never be with just one woman unless married. I made a fool of myself. I told him I loved him and I would marry him. I promised him I’d make him a perfect wife. But, he laughed again and said his family would never allow him to marry outside his faith. That I was just a diversion.

“I flew into a rage. I slapped him and called him all kinds of names but all he did was keep laughing. He caught my wrists and pulled me to him. He said I should have been born Spanish because I had so much fire. Then, he kissed me.”

She was trembling by now, no tears left in her yet, she cried with her words; unable to hold back the pain now. “At first, I let him. I loved him so much I thought I could change his mind. But, he started going too far.”

Martin’s hold on her tightened, his mind exploding with rage.

“I tried to make him stop but he said I was his woman. That I’d told him as much by offering to wed him. He said I belonged to him and he would do what he pleased and no one would do a thing about it. And … he did do what he wanted.”

In a whisper, he asked, “did you go to the police?”

She nodded. “They wouldn’t do anything. He was a member of the Spanish royal house and they couldn’t touch him, they said. I just went numb, dad. I couldn’t feel anything and I vowed to myself I never would again. I’d never love anyone again, not even you. That was three months before I came home. When we came here and I met Scott, I thought maybe I could try but … even if I hadn’t behaved as I have, I don’t think I could have pursued it. I never want another man near me again.” The tears returned and she sobbed into her hands.

Martin held her and made himself stay calm. Had he known then, he would have gone to Paris and killed this bastard. Nothing said he wouldn’t still. He didn’t care if they hung him for it.

“That’s why you’ve treated Johnny so hatefully. Because he reminds you of this man?”

She nodded and hiccoughed. “His eyes, they’re the same blue. He’s as handsome as Raphael. When he smiled, I could see … I could just see Raphael. I hated him the minute I saw him. I know it’s not right but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stand being anywhere near him. I couldn’t stand that you liked him so much. All I could feel was rage. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”

“My darling, it’s not me you must apologize to. You don’t have to tell him why, but you do have to apologize to Johnny and the whole family. Your words tonight were like a dagger through Murdoch’s heart. I could see it there behind his anger. It was the worst thing you could have said to Johnny. You understand that, don’t you?”

She nodded again, unable to speak at the moment.

“I’ll tell them to expect you tomorrow then, we’ll go home and get you some help. Do you think you can sleep now?”

“I’ll try,” she croaked out.

“If you can’t or you have bad dreams, come and get me. No matter the hour. Promise?”

She looked into his eyes for the first time and saw nothing but love for her there. Her eyes welled again and she smiled sadly at him. “I promise. Dad? I do love you.”

He hugged her tightly, relieved she allowed it. “I love you, too, my darling. I surely do.”

She didn’t sleep. Images of Raphael haunted her mind throughout the night hours. She tried but it was no use. She stood and paced her room most of the night through the bouts of crying. She hadn’t told her father all of it. She could never break his heart so completely. It didn’t matter now, anyway. The child never survived the first month in the womb and all because she’d been so devastated, she couldn’t eat, sleep or take care of herself at all. But, she didn’t know. How could she have known she was pregnant? It had taken her another two months to pull herself together enough to go home. She shook her head. Had it really been ten months ago all this happened? It seemed like yesterday.

Especially when she’d seen him. She thought about how she’d behaved and about Johnny. Of course, she’d always known why she reacted the way she did toward him. She’d tried not to and, a few times especially after the earthquake, she’d almost been civil. Then, Raphael’s face would jump into her thoughts and she’d feel the rage all over again. How she hated that man! How she had loved him!

And Johnny standing there being so handsome and trying so hard to ignore her taunts. How had he stood it as long as he had? He must love Murdoch a great deal to put up with her mouth. More than she could love her own father until now. Johnny had been right about that. She had to talk to someone and once she had, she’d been able to feel her father’s love and reciprocate it.

She did feel better and she was amazed all it took was telling someone about it. The pain would never go away. The anger would always be there, she was convinced. But, she was able to feel her love for her father again and that had been like lifting a boulder from her heart. So, maybe she could at least be more than civil to others.

She didn’t know how she was going to apologize to them. She wouldn’t blame them for not accepting it. She wouldn’t blame them if they threw her out. She knew she deserved it but she truly didn’t want her father’s visit cut short now. At some point during the night, she decided to ask her father to stay on here a while, if the Lancers allowed it. If not, she would tuck away her fears and hire that escort as Johnny had suggested. She would not ruin her father’s life anymore. She would not ruin her own, either.

Helena stood before the full length mirror as the sun rose and looked hard at herself. She stared deep into her own red and puffy eyes and found a hint of the girl she used to be. With a glimmer of hope for the first time in a long time, she washed up and changed her clothes. She looked terrible but she didn’t care today. She had to face the Lancers, Johnny most of all, and she was scared to death.

She’d waited until she was sure breakfast was over. There was no sense in ruining their meal. She trembled as she opened her bedroom door and stepped out. Slowly, she walked down the hall to Johnny’s room and stood before the door. Her resolve nearly left her until she remembered the love she’d seen in her father’s eyes last night. With a steadying breath, she rapped on the door.

There was no answer and she thought he may be asleep. As she was about to turn, she heard him call to come in. Closing her eyes for a second, she opened the door to find all three of them there.

“Nobody around here waits to be told to come in.”

Johnny’s voice was calm as always. No hint of anger could be heard and she was surprised by it. That was not the case when she looked at Murdoch and Scott. Both men were frowning deeply. Fleetingly, she wondered how they could be related as different as they were.

“I’m glad you’re all here,” she started, her voice shaking badly. She lightly cleared her throat and stepped closer to the bed but not too close. No one spoke and she almost lost her nerve.

“Oh, there you are. Did you sleep alright?” Martin walked in and put an arm around his daughter’s waist. She sighed in relief and gave him a semblance of a smile.

“I’m glad you’re here, dad. I was just about to start.” She looked back at the Lancers and took a deep breath. “I’d like to apologize to all of you for my abhorrent behavior. Most especially, to you, Johnny. What I said to you last night was despicable and I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me. Dad has offered to take me home but I’d like to stay and let him visit. If that’s not agreeable, I can hire an escort to take me home so he can stay here. I know a simple apology isn’t nearly enough but it’s all I can offer. That and a promise to behave more respectfully from this point on.

“There is a reason for all of it but it has nothing to do with any of you and I had no right to take it out on you. Mr. Lancer, I know what I said to Johnny last night cut deeply and I think you may have taken it even harder than he. All I can say is I’m so very sorry I’ve caused any of you pain. Scott, I’m ashamed of my behavior toward you and my … haughty assumptions that you don’t belong here.”

She stopped, her eyes down then she looked at Johnny who was watching her with great interest. “Most of all, I’m so terribly sorry for the way I’ve treated you, Johnny. You tried to be nice to me. You saved my life and I’ve been not only ungrateful, but insulting. I wouldn’t even help you when we were trapped and I knew you were hurt badly. I have no excuse for that.” She felt her eyes burning and cursed herself. She didn’t want them feeling sorry for some weepy woman.

“I think there’s an excuse, Helena . You may not want to share it with us and that’s okay, but I think there was a reason for everything you’ve done. I accept your apology and I hope, if you can, you’ll both stay here as long as you like.”

She looked curiously at him. Had he guessed her secret? His eyes told her he had and that he understood her pain. For the first time, she didn’t see Raphael when she looked at Johnny. She saw Johnny. She smiled tremuously at him and he returned it.

Martin held his breath, stunned at Johnny’s generosity of heart. He looked at his old friend and saw the same amazement on his face. He saw Murdoch was ready to speak.

“Well, young lady, I don’t quite know what to say. Yes, last night I was beyond livid with you. And, quite honestly, ready to toss you out on your ear. But, you’re not my child and Martin is the one to deal with you. Apparently, he’s done just that. I can’t say I’ve been very happy with you at all but, you seem to be very sincere. I’d like to give it another try if you’re both willing to stay on.”

“For my part, you’re comments about why I stay here never bothered me. It was how you treated my brother that offended me. Since he’s been able to accept your apology, I certainly can, as well.” Scott gave her a nod but he couldn’t manage to work up a smile this morning.

“You’re all more than generous and gracious. I’m grateful for your altruism and I promise you I will never speak another hateful word to any of you. I think I should go and talk to Teresa now.” She bowed her head to them and left the room.

Martin stared after her, proud of his daughter and wishing he could explain to his friends why she’d been so despicable.

“Whoever he was, he hurt her really bad,” Johnny said softly.

Martin turned quickly and stared at him. “Yes, my boy. Yes, he most certainly did and in the worst possible way. But, how did you know?”

Johnny looked at his father for a second before turning back to Martin. “I’ve seen that look before. She hid it pretty well for a long time. It’s no wonder she was being such a … witch.” He smiled a little.

Martin shook his head. “I’m not sure I shouldn’t get her home. Find her some help.”

“Shouldn’t she have a say in what helps her? I think she really wants to stay and not entirely for your sake. Maybe she’s realized being away from the city can help her. She’ll have plenty of time and quiet here to work through things. Then, she can talk it out with a doctor when she does go home.”

“That sounds very reasonable, Scott. Thank you. I’ll do whatever she needs when she needs it but I have to tell you, it’s taking everything I have not to head to Paris right now.”

“Can’t blame you for that. At least, this way, the two of you can spend some real time together, too. Get back what you had,” Johnny said.

“Yes, that would be wonderful. We’ll take it day by day. Thank you all for being so understanding.”

Murdoch stood and went to his friend. “None of us will mention a thing to her about it. You might suggest she talk to Teresa. It might help to talk it through with another female. Whatever happens, Martin, you are both welcome here as long as you like. And for as long as we can talk you into staying past that.” He smiled and patted the man on the shoulder.

Scott stood as well and walked to the foot of the bed. “I think we need to leave this one to it. He’s about to fall over.”

Johnny blinked a couple of times and growled at his brother. “I’m fine.”

Martin laughed at him. “Johnny, please. Even I’m not buying that one.”

A quiet week passed and Johnny was healing well. He was allowed to move around afoot and he made the most of his partial freedom. He didn’t even complain about not being able to ride yet. He knew he was damned lucky to be alive and there were those less fortunate than himself.

Scott had kept him updated on the news from Green River and told him about Anna’s funeral. Johnny was the only Lancer not in attendance but Scott assured him he let Anna’s children know how much Johnny wished he could be there and how upset his brother was with this loss. It hadn’t really helped to get a second-hand report but he appreciated Scott trying. What bothered him most was he didn’t know what the Wilson children planned to do with Anna’s home.

Children! He snorted to himself as he strolled through the garden. They were all as old or older than Murdoch, had kids and grandkids of their own. He wondered if their children ignored them the way they’d ignored their mother. Petty of him, he reckoned, but he didn’t care. It was their loss and it was one he hoped they regretted.

He made his way around the house and to the barn, intent on spending some time with his horse. Sometimes, talking to Barranca was better than talking to anyone else. Barranca didn’t talk back – much. He smiled at that thought then stopped short in the doorway. Someone was in there and he moved cautiously though he wasn’t sure why.

He heard the soft feminine voice and, at first, couldn’t distinguish who was speaking. As he moved closer, he saw her in the dim light and leaned against a post.

She didn’t see him, her focus all on the animal standing before her. She was dressed in a riding outfit; one of those eastern getups but, he had to admit, she looked fetching. Johnny smiled as she crooned to the little mare. Not wanting to scare her witless, he made a soft scuffing sound with his boot.

Helena turned and smiled. “I see no one has caught you out yet.”

“Nah, Doc gave me the go ahead to wander around. That’s about all, though. She’s a pretty little thing.” His eyes went to the mare and he walked up, extending a hand which the horse nuzzled.

“She’s very affectionate and gentle.”

“Yeah, she’s Teresa’s favorite.”

“She said I could ride her but I got so wrapped up in how beautiful she is. Her coat just shines.”

Johnny grinned with pride. “Reckon Scott’s been grooming her for me or maybe Jelly. I usually take care of her for Teresa. Hey, Chocolate. Did ya miss me?”

The mare extended her neck over the stall gate and pushed her head into his chest, nickering softly. Johnny laughed then heard a complaint further down the aisle. “I’m coming, Barranca.” His eyes met Helena ‘s and he shrugged. “He gets jealous sometimes.”

She laughed and he thought it a sweet sound. One he’d never heard from her before. He smiled and stepped away before Chocolate pushed him right to the ground. “There’s a side saddle around here somewhere.”

“I prefer to sit astride. I know it isn’t the proper ladylike thing to do.” Her eyes were alight with amusement.

He cocked his head to the side and regarded her. “So, this is you. I like it.”

She blushed and lowered her head.

“I can saddle her for you.”

Her eyes came up and she gave him a wary look. “I’m sure you could but I’d rather not have the wrath of Lancer come down on my head if someone saw you. I can manage. It’s been a long time but I think I remember how.”

“Well, western saddles are a lot different than what you’re used to. Scott showed me a picture of one of those English saddles once. I’d kill myself on one of those things.”

“They are a little hard on the knees but, really, I don’t want you hurting yourself just to saddle a horse. I’m sure someone can help me.”

“Okay, you’re probably right about that wrath thing anyway.” He sighed when he heard the whinny again. “Alright! Sheesh! Ya’d think he was spoiled or something.”

“I can’t imagine where anyone would get that idea, brother,” Scott teased as he walked into the barn.

“Saddle Chocolate, Scott. Make yourself useful for a change. I have to get down there before he kicks the door down.”

Scott shook his head at his brother’s back as he watched the man walk away. “Make myself useful. Hmmph!” He turned back to Helena and smiled. “I’ll be happy to saddle her for you, Helena. I’d wager my brother offered.”

“He did but I told him he’d get me in trouble so he relented.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Scott snorted.

She didn’t say anything, just stepped aside so he could get to the horse. They’d all been so kind to her but this was the first time she’d seen Johnny since her apology. She’d been worried he’d have a change of heart but it appeared he hadn’t. He was a gentleman, she decided. She shook off her thoughts and watched Scott as he applied the saddle, taking mental notes so she could do it herself next time. She was a little perplexed at first then everything fell together in her mind and she smiled.

Scott led her out and handed the reins over. “Would you like some company?”

“Oh, I don’t want to inconvenience you. I’m sure you have work to do.”

He raised a brow and glanced down the aisle at Johnny who was paying no mind. “According to some people, I don’t. Since I’m not one to debate my brother’s infinite wisdom, I should be as he believes me to be. Useless. At least, until it comes to showing a lovely lady around the ranch.”

She laughed at that rather long-winded if eloquent speech and bowed her head once. Â “I would be delighted, kind Sir.”

Johnny watched them walk out together and grinned. Maybe ole Scott would perk up now that she was acting like a person. Barranca butted him a little too hard and he stumbled back a little. “Take it easy, fella. You damned near knocked me off my feet. Or is that what you’re trying to do? Well, think again, compadre, if you ever want to go for another ride. The longer I’m down, the longer you’re stuck here. Either that, or Scott can ride you. How do you like that?”

Barranca shook his head, his white mane whipped about and he snorted loudly.

“I think that’s a no.”

Johnny looked up to see Martin standing by Chocolate’s stall. “Hey, I was wondering where you went.”

“Mr. Hoskins was entertaining me. At least, I think that’s what he was doing.”

Johnny laughed. “I’m sure that’s what he was trying to do. Figured you’d have a book in your hands.”

“Have I been that bad?”

Since Johnny’s illness, Martin had been plying him with books, reading to him sometimes and showing him maps of the world, pointing out places he’d traveled to and sites he’d seen. It was all very interesting but Johnny got the feeling the man wanted to show him those places in person. He was confused by that. Now that Helena was doing so much better, he would think the man would spend his time with his daughter. “No, not at all. Just thought you’d want to spend time with Helena .”

“Well, I have been but I don’t want to crowd her, either. She’s been wanting to spend a lot of time on her own. I understand, it helps her work things out but I let her know I’m close by. Did she go for a ride?”

“Yeah, but don’t worry. Scott’s with her.” He grinned at the man and Martin wasn’t sure what that meant. Johnny saw the frown and became defensive for some reason. “Scott’s a gentleman.”

“Oh, I know that, son. I didn’t mean to imply he wasn’t. I’m just surprised she’s out with anyone, frankly. I’m glad she has an escort. She doesn’t know the country.”

“She seems to be doing well. She’s a lot nicer. She laughed today. I’d never heard her do that before. I’m starting to see who she really is now. I’ve seen her and Teresa out in the garden a few times.”

Martin nodded and looked at his shoes. “I’ve seen them, too. Sometimes, Helena is crying but, I really think Teresa has been a great help to her. It has to be easier to talk to another woman.”

“Sure. Teresa is about the most understanding female I’ve ever met.” He grinned wickedly. “If she can put up with me, she can do about anything.”

Martin smiled warmly at him and stepped closer. Barranca had laid his head on Johnny’s shoulder and he was scratching the palominos ear.

“I see it more every day but I have to say I’m still worried. I think it will hit her from time to time.”

“No doubt about that. Bad memories can sneak right up on you.” His eyes darkened and he turned his head, raising his shoulder a little so Barranca would move. “I’m goin in now, amigo. I’ll see you later. Soon, we’ll be chasing the wind again. Promisa.”

Barranca snorted softly and moved over to his water, dismissing his friend. Johnny smiled and shook his head.

“He’s a beautiful animal.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said as he walked toward the door, Martin falling into to step with him.

As they reached the outdoors, they saw Murdoch riding in looking a bit more weary than usual. They walked over to the corral fence as he dismounted.

“Murdoch, you look like the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” Martin commented.

He smiled wanly at his friend then turned to his son. “I just rode over to the Wilson place. There’s a for sale sign in the yard.”

Johnny turned and leaned into the fence, sighing. “How much they want for it?”

“I didn’t ask. I can find out if you want.”

“Yeah, I do.” He turned back to his father, waiting for an argument that didn’t come.

“It was hit pretty hard. I don’t imagine it will go for much.”

“Did they bother to go through her stuff or just leave it for the trash?”

Murdoch stared at him, watching the anger begin to boil. “I don’t know, son. I didn’t go rooting around. No one was there so I didn’t go inside. Johnny, it’s theirs to do with as they want.”

“I know. I just don’t understand how they can just … well, it doesn’t matter now. She’s with Wilbur and that’s what she wanted. Think I’ll lay down for a while.”

Both men watched him walk away despondently.

“I never knew how close he’d gotten with her. I wish he’d told me. I wish I’d visited her more often. Since the boys came home, I hadn’t seen her at all.”

“Be glad he did know her and loved her. I can see from both of your reactions she was a remarkable woman. I think Johnny just knows how valuable a parent can be and he hates to see anyone mistreat theirs.”

“You mean especially since he hated me all his life?”

“I mean especially now that he realizes how much he loves you.”

Murdoch turned and looked disconcertingly at his friend.

“Don’t look at me like that. You know that boy loves you. Worships the ground you walk on.”

“Don’t get carried away, Martin.”

“I’m not.” Frustrated, he paced a few feet away. “Murdoch, Johnny thinks you hung the moon. How can you not see that?”

He turned his head and looked out over the land. He didn’t speak for a long time. “I know how he feels about me. I just don’t buy that worshipping the ground part.”

“Well, believe it. I know there were bad feelings on his part for a lot of years but, now he knows you. The one thing I noticed early on is how much both your sons love and respect you and each other. I know it hasn’t always been easy but you have it now, my friend. You have your family and nothing will ever tear you apart. Of that, I am most certain.”

Murdoch didn’t reply or even move and Martin sighed lightly. “Well, I could use a drink. Join me?”

“I’ll be right there. I just want to turn my horse out.”

Thirty minutes before the dinner hour, Scott and Helena walked through the front door laughing gaily. Martin stared at his daughter’s wind-tinged cheeks and askew hair with some incredulity. The sound of her laughter was musical and he felt deep emotions welling up. He hadn’t heard that truly genuine laughter from her in years.

He blinked and took a long, slow drink of his whiskey, trying to regain his decorum.

“Sounds like you two had fun,” Murdoch said.

“Oh, Mr. Lancer, I have to apologize again. Your ranch is really so beautiful. Scott took me to a place where the view was just magnificent.”

” South Mesa ,” Scott supplied and Murdoch nodded knowingly, a smile of appreciation going toward Helena .

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourselves but it’s nearly supper time.”

“We’re heading up now. Where’s Johnny?” asked Scott.

Murdoch’s face fell into a frown. “He went upstairs a while ago. He’s upset, son. Anna’s children are selling her place.”

Scott sighed and slapped his hat against his thigh. “How much?”

“I don’t know but Johnny asked, too. I’ll ride into town tomorrow and talk with Frank Hamilton. If he isn’t handling the sale, he’ll know who is.” Murdoch shook his head sadly.

“I asked them to stop by and see Johnny before they left. I guess they couldn’t manage to squeeze it in.” Scott’s annoyance was obvious.

Martin took it all in with some interest. “Mind if I go with you tomorrow, Murdoch?”

“Not at all but the bank is about the only business operating again. That was one of the first structures Val wanted repaired quickly.”

“I don’t blame him. All that money left unprotected would have been like honey to a bear. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get cleaned up,” Scott said.

“I’m going with you,” Helena said and followed him.

The next morning, Johnny watched sullenly as his father and Martin mounted up for the ride to town. He walked over and rubbed a hand down Murdoch’s horse’s neck. Looking up at his father, his face was as serious as the rancher had ever seen it.

“I don’t want strangers in that house. Buy it for me. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

Murdoch smiled down at him and nodded then pulled on the reins.

“You’re not really going to make him pay you back, are you?” Martin asked half an hour later.

“No, but I didn’t want to spend two hours arguing with him about it, either.”

He smiled and shook his head at this friend. “What was that again about believing Johnny doesn’t think you’re the best thing since the wheel?”

Murdoch growled a little for effect but it didn’t pay off.

“He completely expected you’d do this for him.”


“I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

“Alright! I get it. He thinks I’m great!”

Martin laughed boisterously. “Why is it so hard for you to accept?”

Murdoch grew solemn as he stared down the road they traveled. “I don’t want him disappointed when he finds out I’m not perfect.”

“Perfect? Who said you were perfect? I don’t think Johnny thinks that at all. Just as near to it as a man can come is all.” The smile left his face as he reached out and slapped Murdoch’s arm lightly. “Don’t ever worry about disappointing your sons, Murdoch. They are well aware of who you are. It’s easy for an outsider to see it but I suppose it’s much harder when you’re so close. I’m quite sure I’m overstepping by miles here.”

The rancher nodded then sighed. “Johnny told an old friend of mine once that I was pretty good at anything I did. He hadn’t been here but a few months then. I was pretty surprised by that comment especially since it had been such a short while.”

“His life hasn’t been easy and he’s had to depend on himself, his instincts and his judgments to keep him alive. I would imagine he’s able to size a person up very quickly.”

“Yes and not long after that we had a terrible falling out.”

“Well, as I said, not perfect. I’m sure you’ll argue again with them both. That only means it matters to you all.”

Murdoch looked over at him with an almost wistful expression. “When did you get so smart?”

Chuckling, he shrugged. “I have no idea. It’s easier, as I said, to see things when you aren’t in the middle of it. Like Helena and me. I couldn’t see how much pain she was in, couldn’t understand what was causing it and all because I was so afraid of losing her forever.”

With a grimace, Murdoch nodded his understanding. He knew that fear all too well.

Johnny walked up to the two young women sitting on the veranda with their embroidery. His arms were crossed snuggly but loosely over his chest and he was wearing his mischievous grin. Teresa watched him warily, knowing that look and waiting for Lord knew what.

“Afternoon, Ladies. How are you this fine day?”

Helena looked up and smiled. “Fine, thank you and yourself?”

“Fine as frog’s hair. I found something I thought you might be interested in.”

“Please, Johnny, no more frogs!” Teresa admonished.

He laughed as Helena ‘s eyes grew wide. “No, not a frog.” He reached inside his shirt and seemed to be grappling with something. Slowly, he pulled out a ball of fur and Helena sucked in a breath.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as she immediately held out her hands.

Johnny smiled widely and gently laid the baby in her hands. She immediately cuddled it to her bosom.

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Girl. Look at those markings. They’re perfect,” he replied as he knelt in front of her and petted the kitten. It mewed loudly for one so small.

She held it away from her a little and examined the black and white fur. “They are. She’s adorable, Johnny. Just adorable!”

“You can have her if you want.”

Her eyes grew wide again. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. She’s too young.”

“I think she’s off her mother now. I hope she is.” His voice fell soft and Teresa knew what he meant.

“I’m sure there’s a bottle around here somewhere. Helena ‘s right, she’s too young.”

The other girl was too wrapped up in the kitten to gather what they were saying. “You should take her back to her mother.”

He shared a look with Teresa then addressed her. “I’m afraid I can’t. Her mama isn’t around anymore.”

Her eyes fell to the bundle of soft fur and she pressed it close to her again. “Then, I guess we’ll have to take care of her. Are you hungry, little one?”

Teresa smiled at her brother and stood up. “Come on. Let’s find that bottle and get her some milk. You’ll have to find a name for her.”

Murdoch waited for Martin to come around the horse and step onto the veranda with him. “I still think this is a bad idea. I’m not going to be responsible for how he reacts.”

“Well, if he takes it badly, we can go back to the original plan.”

Cocking a brow and thinking that’s what they’d be doing, Murdoch headed inside to find his family huddled on or near the sofa. They all seemed focused on something.

“What’s all this?” Martin asked as he rounded the sofa.

“Look, dad. Isn’t she precious?” Helena held the kitten out for inspection.

Martin smiled. “Yes, she’s very nice.”

“Nice? She’s perfect,” Teresa rejoined.

“What is that animal doing in the house?” Murdoch’s voice could have been louder, but not much.

“Ssshh! You’ll scare her. She’s just a baby and her mama died. Someone had to take care of her.” Johnny stood up and faced his father with expectation. “I gave her to Helena .”

Murdoch glanced at Scott who was waiting for his reply, as well. He wore a similar expression to Johnny’s on his face with a hint of warning for good measure.

“I’ll take care of her, Mr. Lancer. You won’t even know she’s here. She won’t make a mess. She just needs us so much.”

The expression in Helena ‘s eyes was just too much and he knew he’d been beaten. Trying to save some of his pride and control, he groused. “Well, see that you do.”

Scott and Johnny’s faces lit up in smiles and Murdoch figured he’d dodged a bullet. Still, he’d never cottoned to having animals in the house.

“What’s her name?” Martin asked.

“Dora. It’s short for adorable. That’s the first thing Helena said when she saw her. She’s adorable,” Teresa explained.

“Nah, the first thing she said was ‘oh’ but that’s a silly name for a cat,” Johnny teased.

Helena could see Murdoch wasn’t thrilled with this idea. “Well, I’ll take her up to my room. I have the perfect place for her to sleep.” She exited as quickly as she could. Teresa went with her, mumbling about getting supper ready.

“She’s never had a pet before. Never asked for one. That was very nice of you, Johnny.” Martin slapped his back.

He just shrugged and smiled. “Pets are nice. You can talk to them and they won’t say a word.” He turned to his father, his expression more serious. “Well?”

“Let’s sit down, son. Martin has something to tell you.” Murdoch smirked at his friend. He wasn’t about to do this.

Martin was second-guessing this bright idea of his as he looked at Johnny’s expectant face.

“Well, it was dirt cheap, quite frankly. I couldn’t pass it up. I bought the Wilson place and I want to make repairs, use it as a sort of summer home.”

All three men watched for Johnny’s reaction. It was slow in coming as he thought through what Martin was saying.

“So, you plan on coming out here every year?”

“Well, I’m not sure. But, it would be nice to have a place.”

Johnny nodded.

“What I’m hoping is that you could watch the place for me, Johnny. Maybe make sure it’s kept up. In fact, I was hoping you would oversee the repairs.”

No one spoke for a long while. Martin was about to rescind the offer to buy the place. Johnny didn’t seem too thrilled with the idea and he didn’t want to trample all over the young man’s grief.

“I guess that’s better than strangers living there. Don’t know what I would’ve done with it, anyway. It’s a real nice place. Or it was.”

“Actually, son, the structure itself isn’t too badly damaged. It’s going to take some work but it can be saved. We took a good look around before Martin made the offer. Most of her things are still there. I can’t remember everything exactly, but it seems there were some pieces of furniture taken. That old cherry writing table is gone, I know, and Charles’ old bed has been taken, too.”

Johnny just nodded again.

“If you want the place, Johnny, I’ll pull out of the deal.”

He looked at Martin and smiled a little. “No, like I said, what would I do with it? I’d like to go over there as soon as Sam let’s me loose.”

“Of course. I’m anxious to get started with the repairs.”

Four more days passed. Helena kept busy with her new kitten and Johnny walked enough to make it to Sacramento and back, he was sure. He spent some time with her and her father but mostly, he was at the corrals or in the barn. He asked Scott to ride Barranca a few days to exercise the horse. Other than that, he simply grieved for Anna and all those who’d lost so much in the earthquake.

He hated not being able to pitch in. Many of the ranch hands had been asked to volunteer in town and Murdoch had made out a schedule. That left Scott with even more work to do so he had that to feel guilty about. All in all, it was a miserable time for most everyone.

Then, Sam finally came out and told him he was alright to ride in a wagon but not sit a horse. Johnny kept his mouth shut but it wasn’t easy. He was losing his mind and needed something to do. Now, he could do it. The next morning, he, Murdoch and Martin set out for the Wilson place to start the process of repairing the house.

Johnny sat there on the wagon bench long enough for Murdoch to reach up for him, thinking he might need a hand down. He jerked his head, lost in his thoughts and smiled shyly at his father. Stepping to the ground, he was overcome with memories and felt a little drunk. With dread, he entered the house and his stomach sank.

“Dios!” he whispered. “What a mess!”

No one commented further and he walked gingerly through and over the debris. Murdoch held his breath and kept an arm extended at Johnny’s back in case he stumbled. But, he didn’t and made a round through the living room he’d spent so much time in.

“Well, the first thing is to move everything out of here so we can see the real damage. How’s the barn?”

“Not bad. It will hold,” Murdoch replied.

“We should move all the furniture in there, then. Just get it out of the way for now.” He walked through to the kitchen and frowned.

Two hours later, they were sitting in rockers under an elm tree near the house. Martin was making notes as Murdoch and Johnny made their recommendations.

“It’s going to be a while before you find any help, Martin. Everyone is still so busy in town.”

“How long do you think?” he asked his friend.

“Probably next month if things keep going as well as they have. You’ll have to order supplies and it will take that long to get them here, anyway.”

Martin frowned at that, his mind working furiously.

“You need to get back to Boston soon, huh?” Johnny asked.

“I’m afraid so. Next week, in fact. I was hoping to be in on the work but, if you will, I’ll have to leave it in your capable hands.”

“I can do it but you need to know it will take longer if you’re not here. I have other responsibilities. We have a drive in two months and it takes a lot to get ready for that. If you’re not planning on coming back until next year, it will definitely be done by then.”

Murdoch smiled at his son and looked over at Martin who was disappointed, to say the least.

“Is there a hurry, Martin?”

“No, I suppose being from the city, I’m used to things moving more quickly.”

Martin explained the whole process to his daughter that evening and she was truly disappointed, as well. She had been excited about the house and that surprised everyone. She stated her intentions to come back with her father next year for the Grand Unveiling, as she called it.

Johnny found her out in the garden later that evening. He walked over to the bench and laughed softly. “Your father said you never had a pet before. Can I tell ya something about this little one?”

“No, I haven’t and any advice will be appreciated.” She smiled up at him as she cuddled the kitten.

He sat down and petted the animal. “Well, cats have a mind of their own. They don’t do well if they’re held a lot. Thing is, they’re predatory animals. She’ll hunt when she’s older and she won’t want anyone getting in the way of that. If you coddle her too much, she might turn on you. Just love her and play with her then, let her be.”

She nodded her understanding. “I can’t believe how attached I’ve become to her. I hope I can take her on the stage and train.”

“You have one of those little carpet bags? Put her in there. Nobody will even notice.”

Nodding again, she set the cat in the basket she used to carry her around. Dora curled into a ball and closed her eyes, purring loudly.

“Yeah, she’s spoiled already.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk. Scott tells me you’ve spoiled your horse rotten.”

“Now, hang on there. Barranca is not spoiled. He’s smart and we’re amigos. He comes when I call him and he won’t let anyone but me and Scott ride him.”

“Right. Spoiled.” She laughed at his chagrined look.

He stood up and ambled to a rose bush. “I have to say, I’m surprised you want to come back here.”

She followed him, coming to stand beside him. “Once I let myself really look around, I found I like it here. It’s so peaceful. I’ll miss it when we go home.”

Johnny plucked a rose and handed it to her. She smiled as she brought the soft petals to her nose and inhaled the sweet fragrance.

“Maybe, you’ll miss it so much, you’ll come back sooner. If the house isn’t ready, you’re always welcome here.”

“That’s incredibly generous of you considering I almost let you die.” Her cheeks flushed and she lowered her eyes.

“Let me? Well, I guess you could’ve helped out but it’s not like it was your fault, Helena . We’ve already worked that all out, right? Besides, I figure you probably wouldn’t mind being around Scott more.”

Her head came up, total surprise on her face. “Scott?”

“Well, yeah. I thought you liked him.”

She shook her head slowly back and forth. “No, I mean, yes, I like him of course. He’s a nice person but … not like that.”

Johnny nodded, making an ‘oh’ with his mouth but not speaking it. He smiled at her, his eyes sparkling in the moonlight. “Well, you never can tell. My brother can be charming when he’s of a mind.”

She stared at him, her breathing increasing and her hand tightening its hold on the rose. Without warning, she stepped up and kissed him.

Johnny was more than surprised and he didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her in, making a complete effort to reciprocate. After what seemed a very long time, they separated. She pushed on his chest and stepped back, breathing even harder and blushing furiously.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.


She looked up at him blankly. “I … I shouldn’t have. I don’t know what came over me. I guess I wanted to see …” she turned her back.

Johnny stared at her for a moment then sighed. “You wanted to see if it would be like kissin that snake?”

She tensed at his anger and turned back quickly. “No! I wanted to see if I could do it. If I could kiss a man, be kissed.”

He relaxed a little and smiled softly. “Well, you sure can – and well.”

She blushed again, smiling softly as she bowed her head. Looking back at him, she said sincerely, “I am sorry. It wasn’t fair of me to use you like that.”

“Are you okay? I mean, was it okay?”

“Very! I mean, yes, I’m okay. I’m … very okay.”

He smiled again and stepped closer to her, lifting her chin with one finger and looking deeply into her eyes. “If you need to make any more test runs, I’m right here.”

She gazed into his eyes and quickly thought how wrong she’d been. He was nothing like … she let the thought go. Unwilling to even think of him in this moment. She lifted her chin and moved closer to his lips.

Johnny needed no further invitation and he wrapped his arms around her slim waist once more, pressing their mouths together. Passion erupting within them, they were lost to time and place. Â

The sound of his name being called broke the moment between them. Helena pulled away quickly and walked around the rose bush. Johnny sighed, disappointed and frustrated. He took some slow, deep breaths before answering his brother’s call. Suddenly, he felt ashamed. As if he’d betrayed Scott. He had no idea how the man felt about her so this was most perplexing to him.

“What are you doing out here?” Scott asked as he spied his brother.

“Just talking to Helena, brother.”

Scott raised a brow and glanced around. “Uh huh. Shouldn’t she be in the local vicinity for that to happen?”

“I’m here, Scott,” she called from behind the bush.

He craned his neck and barely saw part of her but she didn’t seem inclined to show her whole self. He looked back at Johnny, hard, and a light went off. “I see. Well, I’ll leave you to your … conversation, then.”

He didn’t seem upset. In fact, Johnny swore he saw a twinkle in his brother’s eyes as he turned and started back to the house. Still, he was unsure so he went after his brother, catching him by the arm. He glanced back but she hadn’t moved.

“You okay, Scott?”

Surprised by the question, he answered, “some reason I shouldn’t be?”

Johnny sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It just sort of happened, sudden like. If you like her, I mean, I’ll back off.”

Scott smiled warmly and put a hand on his brother’s arm. “As much as I appreciate that, and even if I did, it’s apparent the young lady has other ideas.” He saw the unconvinced look. “I don’t, Johnny. It’s fine, really. As long as she’s okay. We both know what she’s been through.”

Johnny lowered his head and nodded as Scott walked into the house. He knew, very well, but she’d started it and she wasn’t exactly screaming bloody murder. He figured she was ready but he knew he had to tread carefully with her.

“Nice of you to offer me up to your brother.”

He closed his eyes briefly, cursing that she’d heard. He turned slowly to face her and it was plain, she was pissed.

“It’s not easy. I mean, we’re brothers. We’ve never been interested in the same woman before. I just wanted to make sure he was alright with it. I wasn’t pawning you off. I would’ve talked to him about it but there’s no need.”

She relented, realizing what a position she could have put him in. But, Scott was right, it was her choice to make. Was she making a choice or just enjoying a relatively harmless tryst? She didn’t know and she wished she had more time to find out now. Damn it! She’d wasted so much time already.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. It would have been very awkward for the both of you. Me, as well.”

He smiled. “Well, luckily, my brother has gone blind.”

She laughed a little at that. “Would you like to take a walk?”

“Sure, I’ll just put Dora in the kitchen. She’ll be fine there.” He used the time with the cat to settle himself. It wasn’t easy but he was pretty sure she wasn’t ready for anything more than what they’d done. He had been pretty surprised by her, as it was.

As they strolled through the grassy pastureland behind the house, neither spoke. Helena seemed deep in thought and Johnny didn’t want to disturb her. He imagined she was struggling with what had happened and he felt guilty about it, even though she’d made the first move. He caught her hand up in his and saw her smile.

She looked up and around her then, scanned the area. “Where are we exactly?”

“Just some pasture. We don’t use it much. I think Murdoch likes keeping it untouched. Nothing out here but grass and crickets.”

“Would anyone come looking for us?”

He turned his head and smiled at her. “No.”

“What’s over this hill?”

“More grass,” he shrugged.

She climbed the small slope and looked out over the moonlit land. “It’s so beautiful here.” When she turned to look behind her, the house was no longer in sight. Then, she lowered herself to the grass. “I’m not sure why you’re being so nice to me, Johnny. I don’t deserve it after the way I treated you.”

He settled beside her, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them. He rested his chin on his arms, not speaking for a moment. “Truth? I’m not sure, either. I mean, I understand some of what you went through or, at least, a general idea. But, you’re not some little girl who can’t tell the difference. I guess I just don’t like the idea of you hurting anymore.”

Her eyes began to burn as she stared at his profile then, she lowered her head and closed her eyes. “It was … horrible but, you’re absolutely right. I wanted everyone else to suffer because I was. I couldn’t see anyone else’s problems or consider their feelings. I thought, if I did that, I might lose the anger and, I thought it was all I had left.” She sighed and shook her head. “Telling my father what happened and talking to Teresa has made me see things so clearly.”

There was a long silence and she looked over at him again. “I am sorry, Johnny. More sorry than I’ve ever been about anything. That you would even let me kiss you … I was half afraid you’d throw me into the rosh bushes.”

He laughed a little at that then turned his head toward her, resting his cheek on his knees. “I’ve never passed up a kiss from a pretty girl. But, I don’t think you’re ready for anything like that. It’s you’re call to make but, I’d rather not be the one that causes any bad memories for you.”

Nodding, she smiled softly. “Maybe I’m not. I’m not sure I’ll really know when I’m ready. There was a time not very long ago when I thought I never wanted to be around another man. I am attracted to you as crazy as that may sound.” Another, nervous laugh came from her throat. “Maybe, I am crazy.”

“No,” he said softly. “No, you’re not crazy. You’re hurt and you have a lot of stuff to deal with but, you’re not crazy. I just think you need to get better before you try getting involved with anyone again.”

“Would you ever consider … I mean, when I’m better …” she trailed off, unsure how to say what she was feeling. Unsure, really, what exactly she was feeling. The smile he gave her cleared a great deal of those uncertainties from her mind.

“Maybe. What I’ve seen the past few days is just a little of the girl you used to be, from what your father has said. I think that girl was pretty remarkable. I’d like to get to know her.”

She lowered her eyes again and spoke softly. “We’re leaving soon. Dad needs to get back to Boston and, I know he wants to get me back there, too.”

Johnny reached out and laid an hand on her arm. “I hope you’ll get that help he was talking about.”

“I will. I want this to stop. I still feel so … angry sometimes. I’m just getting better at not lashing out at others.”

“Can’t hold it in, either.”

She nodded and started to get up. Johnny jumped to his feet and helped her stand and they headed back toward the house. He felt her hand slip into his own and smiled.

Martin smiled as he stood next to Murdoch on the boardwalk and watched Johnny and Helena standing near the corner, heads close together and deep in discussion. Life was very strange sometimes. He thought maybe Johnny was about to become his son. Son-in-law, anyway. Then, he shook his head, knowing his daughter was not ready for that kind of relationship yet. Still, this past week he’d seen such a change in her, he almost believed she was fine.

He still planned on getting her that help. He wasn’t taking any chances with her future happiness. And, if those two had strong feelings for each other, they would still be there in a year. He heard Helena laugh and he smiled as they both walked up.

Scott came out of the stage office just then, a wicked grin on his face for his brother. He glanced at Murdoch and wasn’t quite sure what he saw. It wasn’t a smile nor a frown. He seemed … wary. Yes, Scott thought that a good description. Well, this had seemed to come on rather quickly and he wondered if Johnny was serious about the girl at all. It was hard to tell.

“Mr. Lancer, thank you for your hospitality. Especially since I didn’t deserve it most of the time.”

“We were happy to have you, Helena, and we look forward to seeing you again.” He smiled genuinely at her as he laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

“By the time you get back, the house will be in perfect condition.”

“I trust you to do the job, Johnny. Who knows? Maybe it won’t be a whole year,” Martin said with a grin.

Johnny and Helena shared a quick glance and a smile as the stage coach rounded the corner. She put her hand on his arm and squeezed a little. He walked her away a few paces and talked softly to her as the men loaded the luggage. Scott looked over just in time to see him kiss her hand.

“Let us know when you get home safely,” Murdoch said as his friend stood by the open stage door.

“We will. Murdoch, thank you, all of you. It’s been quite an experience.”

After several goodbyes, the driver called all aboard. Johnny helped Helena into the coach then stepped aside for Martin to climb in. The man stopped, his foot on the step and turned to the side. “Thank you, Johnny.”

He smiled and nodded though he wasn’t sure what he was being thanked for. He was pretty sure Martin would shoot him if he knew the thoughts he’d had toward the man’s daughter this past week.

The stage took off without further ado and the Lancers watched it disappear in a cloud of dust.

“Well, gentlemen, how about a drink?” Scott asked.

“You go ahead. I’m gonna go on home.”

Murdoch turned to his younger son. “Are you alright?”

With a shy smile, he sighed a little. “Yeah, sure.”

“What exactly are your feelings for the girl, son?”

He looked down the street in the direction the stage had gone. “I don’t know really. We didn’t get a lot of time to figure that out.”

“She’ll be back, brother. No since in pining away.” Scott threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s have a drink.”

“Nah, you go ahead. I don’t feel like it. I’ll see you at home.” He stepped into the street and to his horse. He mounted up then looked back down at them. With a wide smile he hoped would put them at ease, he tipped his hat. “I’m fine. I’ll see ya.”

Turning toward home, Johnny took off at a trot while Murdoch and Scott watched after him.

“Well, he’ll either get over her or wait for her. I don’t know which.”

“Neither do I, Sir. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves.” Scott smiled softly and Murdoch wrapped an arm around his back, gently turning him toward the saloon.

Johnny sat astride Barranca, looking down the hill at his home. He didn’t know how he felt about her. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He was attracted to her and she was really a wonderful girl. He just had that niggling doubt in his mind. Was she replacing the love she once had for that animal or was she really ready to move on?

He didn’t know for sure but he thought it was too soon for her to try. Maybe, she’ll work it out in Boston. If she came back, he’d know as soon as he saw her. If.

She had promised she would, vowed to it, actually. But, Johnny was a cynical man and he knew even if she meant it, time and distance had a way of dulling emotions.

He shook his head and sighed. He wasn’t in love with her but the potential was there. Funny how they couldn’t stand each other at first. He laughed softly at the memory. She couldn’t be more different than when she’d first arrived. He supposed he should have stayed angry with her but he couldn’t. Not after what she’d gone through. She told him a little about it but he hadn’t pried. It was her business and he wasn’t exactly in a position to help her. He knew Martin would, though.

Well, no sense sitting here wondering about it. She’ll either come back or she won’t. That thought left him doubting if there really could be anything for them. His heart didn’t hurt, just a sort of dull ache, and once more he knew he didn’t love her. Not now, anyway. Maybe, real love took time. Something he’d never thought he had much of before. Maybe that’s why he was always in such a hurry to grab hold of love and why it never worked out for him in the past.

Now, he was willing to take that time. Take things as they came and not worry himself sick about it. Feeling better about things as a whole, Johnny spurred Barranca toward home. He would see how things played out in the next year. They had time. With a smile, he pressed Barranca into a gallop.



Comments:  We don’t have this author’s current email address. If you leave a comment below, if she reconnects with the fandom, then she will see how much her work is appreciated.


6 thoughts on “On Shaky Ground by Winj

  1. As always another excellent Winj story with well crafted plot, action and characterisation. I can read these stories again and again. One of my favourites.


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