Word Count 11,819
Originally appearing in the Homecoming 2005 Lancer Souvenir Fanzine
Johnny leaned on the counter as the employee counted out the money laboriously. He dipped his head and pushed his hat back with his thumbs while still leaving his elbows on the marked and dented wooden bench top.
Johnny let out a sigh. Why he didn’t know. For several reasons, he suspected. One that was paramount in his thoughts was the self control Johnny was asserting. Without that iron discipline, he would have snatched the money back in frustration and counted it out himself, slowly, deliberately, so this imbecile could keep track of the total. Another prime reason for his sigh was the pleasure in knowing that he had completed his assignment and could be on his way.
The correct total was finally arrived at by the cretin masquerading as a clerk. Johnny was duly issued with his ticket which symbolised his release from this mission. Taking it with a nod of his head, he placed it in his billfold which he carefully replaced in his inside coat pocket.
The warmth of the sun pulled Johnny outside. He stood on the boardwalk as the sun’s rays washed over him in a welcoming embrace. His hands rested on the hitching rail as his eyes skimmed the street and the surrounding buildings and recesses. Old habits died hard. Rather the old habits than himself, he reasoned.
He would be glad to be gone. The pungent air was ripe with the manure of too many horses in too narrow a thoroughfare. He felt hemmed in and needed to be away from the confines of the town.
Increased pedestrian traffic drew his attention. A small portly man sweating in his heavy coast and vest, his string tie acting like a noose which he could not loosen no matter how often he pulled at his collar neck, left the office and sat on the bench to the right.
A younger man, in his thirties, advanced in rapidly thudding footfalls. He wore tired and slightly grubby clothes, as if he had come straight off the trail or from the range. He turned to the office, grasped the handle, but then abruptly stopped to look around. His eyes lingered on Johnny longer than was necessary. He swallowed when his eyes met Johnny’s and beat a hasty retreat to the safety offered by the dark interior of the office behind him.
Light footsteps registered in Johnny’s consciousness. He looked down the boardwalk to see a young woman in her early twenties approaching confidently. Slim, without being skinny, and curves where they should be, she caught his attention. Her blond hair was twisted into a serviceable, but becoming, chignon at the back of her head, held in place by pins and two mother of pearl combs. While her blue travelling dress was practical, it bowed to fashion with ribbon and lace threaded through the neckline. She was reasonably tall for a woman, but probably four inches less so than himself.
She did not seem to take in her surroundings, but focussed on the door into which she disappeared quite suddenly. A little too suddenly. Johnny had been enjoying the view and did not appreciate it being cut short.
A ruckus from down the street could be heard. It grew to a crescendo of thumping hooves on the packed earth, jangling of harnesses and commands shouted above the din. Dust rose and swirled around the newly arrived stage. The horses prolonged this effect by stamping impatiently in their traces. Johnny knew that they were tired and eager to be on their way to the comfort of the livery stable. Their resentment at being teased was obvious. Johnny commiserated with the beasts. He felt the same way when delayed from setting out for the open range or from calling it quits after a long day.
A motley assortment of six passengers descended the steps, all breathing obvious deep breaths, reflecting their pleasure at being released from the stage’s confines. One couple was greeted by a young woman and child, no doubt their daughter and grandchild by the comments uttered. The driver hopped down and accepted the luggage passed down to him by the guard. Like a flock of vultures waiting for a feed, the passengers suddenly conglomerated, eager for their pickings. Just as quickly, they disbursed in all directions, glad to have their journey behind them.
The stage was equally swiftly gone. Johnny guessed that the team was being changed and it would be another 30 minutes or so before they could be on their way. He glanced around the street, considering options with which to while away the time. The saloon gave him pause, but it was the aroma from the ‘Traveller’s Eatery’, which decided him.
He descended the steps from the boardwalk and ambled across the road. The door was painted a welcoming red, with panes of glass in the upper sections framed by red and white gingham curtains. He was about to open it when two departing patrons beat him to the door knob. He allowed them out first, before removing his hat and entering the cosy interior. Years of habit saw him scan the room, then relax as he felt no evident threat.
The café was doing a thriving trade. It was full, he thought at first, but then noticed a small table for two in the front corner, near a window. He realized that it had no doubt just been vacated by the two clients who had left prior to his arrival. He made his way over to it and took a seat. Almost immediately, a buxom woman waddled up to him, a smile of greeting welcoming him.
“Good morning, what can I do for you?” she asked straight to the point.
“I was just going to have a coffee, thanks. Strong, please.”
“You look like you could do with a good feed. Why not have some bacon and eggs or we have homemade apple pie, with man sized portions,” she suggested.
Having had breakfast not an hour before, Johnny was about to decline when he saw gigantic servings of the apple pie in question being consumed heartily by a family seated at the next table. He was swayed.
“That pie sounds mighty fine, Ma’am.”
He graced her with his most charming smile. It did the trick. She beamed at him and the blush rose up along her neck to her cheeks. Her large bulk shuffled away, earnestly seeking to fulfil his order post haste.
Johnny leaned back, alternating between regarding the busy café and glancing through the window at the activity in the street. A blue blur caught his attention. It passed the window almost before he registered the fact, then it was gone.
He leaned sideways to peer through the window, but the blue had disappeared. He lost interest in the goings on outside as his attention was drawn to the entry area. The lady in the blue dress was there, glancing around, disappointment evident in the set of her shoulders. He watched the waitress approach her, then shake her head. A look of disappointed resignation was firmly stamped on the young woman’s face. She had turned to leave when the waitress suddenly reached and took hold of her arm.
Before he knew it, the café employee was bearing down on him, dragging the young woman behind him by the arm. Smiling ingratiatingly, she broached what was on her mind. “Sir, I was wondering if you would do this little lady a favour. We have no spare seats, except this one at your table. Would you mind if the lady joined you? She’s about to get on the stage and you know how far it is between refreshment stops.”
This last sentence was pronounced with an upward intonation as she emphasized her request. “No, Ma’am, I don’t mind at all,” Johnny replied.
“I knew you would be a gentleman!” she gushed. “Miss…?” the waitress’s voice petered out.
“Kinkade,” she offered quietly.
“Sir, this is Miss Kinkade. And miss, you just stay here, while I see to things. I’m sure you’d like some of my apple pie to go with that tea you wanted.” Arrangements organized to her satisfaction, she hustled her incredibly broad derrière back to the counter.
Johnny remembered his manners, so he pulled out her chair for her. “I’m Johnny,” he introduced himself.
She smiled nervously and offered her thanks. “I’m sorry about this. I was going to leave, but the lady suggested I sit here. I hope you don’t mind too much.”
“No, I don’t mind at all,” Johnny reassured her.
There was a silence as the two strangers sat waiting for their orders. She was steadfastly avoided his eyes and sat fiddling with the napkin on the table. She had lovely hands, he noticed. Long fingers and smooth skin. But they were practical ones, he thought. Not so perfect that they looked like showcase specimens. Johnny noticed that she was breathing a little fast and a little frown puckered her brow.
Johnny decided to break the ice.
“You all right?” he enquired.
“Yes, thank you,” was her vague and all encompassing reply.
“Going far?” he enquired. “Well, as far as Green River,” she explained.
“Why Green River?” Johnny pursued.
“I’m coming to help my aunt. She’s not been well and I thought I could help her out,” she explained.
Johnny wrinkled his forehead and tilted his head in concentration. “Your aunt? Who’s that?”
“Does it matter? You probably don’t know anyone in Green River, anyway.”
“It so happens that I do. Who is your aunt?”
“That’s of no importance. She has a store. I said I would give her a hand.”
Johnny’s brow smoothed over as he made an educated guess. In reality it was probably a stab in the dark, but he proceeded with it anyway.
“I bet your aunt is Flo McCready!”
Her look of surprise was all he needed, but she seemed unwilling to admit to anything.
His smile broke out as his competitive nature enjoyed his presumed success.
She looked at his suspiciously. “Why do you think that?”
“Well, Flo has had a few turns lately. I know because she’s had to close the shop a few times and I heard Sam telling Teresa about it.”
Johnny paused, shaking his head grimly. “The town butcher.”
“And Teresa is …?”
“My sister. Well sort of my sister. My father’s ward.”
“Oh, I see.”
She said nothing more as her eyes turned to the view outside. He caught more of a glimpse of her profile as a result. Her nose was small. Perhaps cute, was a better word, he determined. It certainly was not on the proportions of several of the local girls. He swore he could house Barranca comfortably in some of the nasal cavities of a few of the neighbouring females.
Some freckles were spattered over her nose, he discerned. Not a lot, but enough to mean that she occasionally got sunburnt. Her skin was certainly not olive, like his. More like Scott’s, but even then his brother had managed to attain a light, even tan, without the disruption of freckles marking his skin.
Her ears were small, too. Delicate. Definitely more feminine than some he had seen lately. And very much more alluring than the convoluted cabbages Gertie Ferguson called ears. Strange protrusions, he reminisced, with dangling wobbly bits which passed for ear lobes, but which took on a life of their own whenever she moved her head. He recalled being morbidly fascinated by their movements last time she had visited Teresa.
He smiled softly, corners of his mouth ascending. As if by osmosis, the laughter lines which had appeared seeped into his skin, multiplying and concentrating around his eyes. Eyes which remembered Gertie’s enthusiasm for engaging the Lancer brothers in conversation. Both men had felt impaled by her ceaseless tongue. After finally making their escape, they had compared notes and drawn up both a disaster plan and a contingency plan should she ever arrive to spend a weekend again. The plan had been meticulously drawn up after he and Scott had bonded over a whisky bottle. It was in fact the drinking session with his brother, and accompanying witty repartee and plotting, which was invoking his amusement.
He brought himself back to the present. She was still gazing at life passing by outside.
“So?” Johnny prompted.
“So … what?” was the reply.
“So, am I right?”
Johnny looked at her. Was she a simpleton? It would be a pity if this fine specimen of womanhood was a wasted effort, all looks and no substance. “Am I right about your aunt?”
Her earnest eyes peered at him. She did not reply immediately.
“My parents said that I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger. We’ve been introduced.”
“The waitress dragged me over here. She didn’t even know my name to introduce me. You introduced yourself.”
“Well, wouldn’t I have been rude not to introduce myself if you were sharing my table?”
She regarded him. A little perplexed wrinkle appeared above her brows. “Do you own this café?”
Johnny looked at her, surprised. “No. Why do you think that?”
“I don’t, but you said that this is your table. If you don’t own the café, then it’s not your table.”
Johnny just sat. He didn’t reply. Disappointment weighed heavily, almost as heavily as the sigh he exhaled. Perhaps she was indeed mentally challenged. As thick as two short planks, a brick short of a load and not the sharpest axe on the woodpile, if she was going to take his words literally and follow her parents’ advice to the letter.
Finally he voiced an answer to her comment. He slowed his speech, enunciating clearly.
“I was just calling it that because I was sitting here and I got here first.” Just my luck to be saddled with a moron, he silently added to himself, before cursing the Almighty who could tease a man with such an attractive package camouflaging such basic defects as normal brain function.
“Uh huh,” she murmured, nodding her head in apparent understanding. “Well, at least you won’t claim ownership to both these apple pies, then.”
Johnny turned his head and raised his eyes to the waitress, who materialized at his side and placed two massive servings of the pie in front of them. The two portions were heaped with cream and were a meal in themselves.
Both diners uttered their thanks before the waitress hastened off for their beverages. These arrived as Johnny and the girl were arranging their napkins and about to pick up their spoons.
He had ignored her last comment, not quite sure how to make her out. He had merely pushed her plate closer to her, so there could be no doubt over whose pie was whose.
They concentrated on their food. Johnny noticed that she ate it all, without any of the pretence women went in for. She did not leave part of it behind in a token ladylike gesture to indicate that she was unable to finish such a generous portion.
Once finished, she sipped her tea as Johnny blew on his coffee to cool it. He couldn’t work out what the delay was with the coach. His eyes constantly raked the street from his window vantage point.
Taking a long sip, he glanced up to find her looking at him.
Gracing him with a small smile, she downed her cup and stood to leave. “Thank you for the seat.”
Johnny gulped the last of his coffee and stood to leave as well. They both went up to the counter to pay. Each did separately, which did not go unnoticed by a man and woman who had just entered the café. As Johnny and his companion collected their change, the man’s comment to his wife was deliberately audible.
“Humph! What has the world come to? In my day any gentleman would die rather than let a woman pay for herself!”
Miss Kinkade and Johnny turned to leave, but Johnny did not immediately proceed through the door. He leant in close to the man, right hand resting lightly on his holster, and spoke in a low drawl.
“Well, thank God I’m not a gentleman. Ain’t never heard of anything so stupid. No wonder that cemetery looked mighty full on the way into town!” Johnny held the man’s gaze a while longer and then withdrew his face abruptly. “Good day, Ma’am!” he uttered as he tipped his hat at the man’s companion and headed for the door.
He headed across the road to the stage office and found that he had unintentionally fallen into step with his dining partner. Something was different. She was shaking. Her head was down and her shoulders were in spasms. Reaching for her elbow, he stopped her to ask if she was all right. Tears were streaming down her face.
They stood in the middle of the road. Not the most sensible place to be, but he was perplexed by her behaviour.
She reached for her stomach with both of her hands. “His face!” she gasped.
Johnny was now concerned. “What about his face?” “I’ve never seen anything so funny! You removed his pompous smirk good and proper! He must have shrunk a good six inches, he was so frightened!”
She laughed out loud then. And Johnny liked the sound of it. It was a melodious giggle. The sort that lifted a man’s senses and made him soar like an eagle.
He smiled himself. A smile of amusement at her reaction and pleasure in her laugh.
The approaching racket of the stage interrupted her mirth. She quickly pulled herself together and he grabbed her elbow once again as they both bolted for the safety of the sidewalk.
Once safely on the boardwalk, she removed her arm with an embarrassed ‘thank you’ and turned away. He contemplated her back, hiding her face which in turn contemplated the coach.
The business of loading the stage took only a few minutes. Miss Kinkade mounted the steps first, to be followed by the other passengers he had noticed earlier. The small portly man sat next to her while the rather dusty man in his thirties folded his frame into the next to Johnny.
After initial nods of greeting, the trip ensued in silence. None were friendly, which suited Johnny just fine. He sat and let the horses devour the miles, each thumping of hooves bringing him closer to home.
The man next to him was shrouded in an invisible shield, proclaiming his unwillingness to communicate. He hugged his coat to himself and Johnny was intrigued to see him often reach inside it to reassure himself of the existence of something in the interior pocket. Just what the object was, Johnny could not discern, but it must have been extremely small as there were no telltale coat bulges.
His thoughts moved to their female travelling companion. He noticed Miss Kinkade shift a little uncomfortably, then a short while later repeat her movements as the little man next to her moved surreptitiously closer. Unnecessarily closer. Closer than the confines of the bench seat required. Close enough for his thigh to rub against hers each time there was a bump, which was constantly.
The man’s mouth was set in a smug pose. Or it was until he happened to glance in Johnny’s direction. Johnny’s eyes locked on his. He stiffened noticeably, then paled under Johnny’s scrutiny and the intensity of the ice blue onslaught. His body seemed to shrink back into the seat, but he made no move to slide over on the bench. It was only when Johnny’s eyes dropped to the man’s legs and back, did he suddenly react. Rustling material and the squeaking of leather announced his return to his own allotted portion of the seat.
He stared mesmerized at Johnny, as if waiting for approval. A slight nod of the head was given in recognition, allowing the man to relax his shoulders and begin breathing more regularly.
This interaction was not missed by the sharp eyed young woman. She, in turn, gave a nod of appreciation to Johnny.
The monotonous jolting of the coach was accompanied by the equally tedious countryside bouncing past. Several hours of this saw Johnny is danger of screaming, the enclosed interior of the coach shrinking in onto him. He needed the wide open spaces to feel at ease and being denied this made him feel like a turkey trussed up for Thanksgiving.
Four hours later, the coach stopped at a staging post. All passengers stepped out, none so grateful as Johnny. He breathed in the fresh air, not complaining at all that it was fouled by swirling trail dust and the odour of animal manure. At least he knew he was alive after the stifling constraints of his morning’s travel.
Each passenger was an island unto himself … or herself, as Johnny mentally corrected his thoughts. They trooped in to the ramshackle building, together, but apart. The odour of a stew pervaded the interior. A short and tubby man sporting a dirty apron moved forward to greet them.
“My, but I bet you’re hungry! Grub’s ready, so come an’ git it!”
He bustled over to a pot-bellied stove, grabbed a plate and ladelled a healthy sized serving onto it. He offered it to Miss Kinkade and then saw to the men’s meals. Johnny accepted it with a brief word of thanks. It was runny and fatty. Grease glistened on the top, reflecting rainbow colours. The antithesis of Maria’s chunky and wholesome culinary feats. Johnny was mesmerized by the unpalatable slop sloshing around his plate.
He finally tore his eyes from it, however, searching for a place to eat. The men were inside, eating opposite each other on a rough hewn table. He caught a blur movement from Miss Kinkade, as she sat down near them. Eating with these two men was as uninspiring a thought as downing the stew. Escape seemed an attractive option.
Outside beckoned. No tables were evident. It was the porch steps or nothing.
The stew was no more appetising seated. He made patterns in the mixture with his fork, just willing the rest stop to be over so he could get back home.
Home. A four letter word he never thought he would ever use. A word that he never thought would feel right. A word that symbolised the security he felt with his family. A word synonymous for his brother Scott. A word that helped shut the door on his past.
And a word that conjured up the tempting, wholesome meals prepared so lovingly by Maria and Teresa.
A swishing sound permeated his thoughts, replacing the scraping of his fork on the metal plate.
The skirt, and the woman in it, hovered. The railing drew her. She half perched there, balancing her bottom on the narrow balustrade.
She looked up then. Looked up and then looked away. Then looked back in confusion before returning her gaze to her dinner.
“You don’t look very comfortable,” he commented.
“I’m fine,” she replied into her plate.
“Well if you want to get back into that coach with your rump even more numb than it is now, just stay there. If not, there’s room on this step.”
“I’m sure you will. But why not manage a bit more comfortably?”
She met his eyes for a brief second. Her rear end fidgeted on the rough wooden bar.
“Hope you won’t need any splinters removed,” Johnny commented. “Though I’m sure one of us men could be the surgeon if need be.”
Her face did not just pale. It blanched totally.
Johnny concentrated on the configuration of his stew on his plate. And on keeping his grin contained.
He was interrupted by the voluminous skirt folds encroaching on his outer vision.
She sat down, all cramped and closed in on herself, careful not to overlap on his personal space. His blue eyes locked on her spangled hazel ones for an instant before he scooted over, allowing her more room.
“How come you didn’t stay at the table? It’s more comfortable.” Johnny continued dragging his fork through the unidentifiable mass on his plate.
“We’ve been cooped up for long enough. I needed to be outside.
“Couldn’t agree more, but are you sure that’s the only reason you’re out here?”
Her vice gave a clipped “Yes.”
Johnny studied her for a second before deciding that she was not giving a true version of events.
“Good chow, huh?”
She looked at him then, a twitch at the corners of her mouth betraying her. “Just dreadful.”
She looked at her meal, lifted her fork up and watched the contents dribble through, some blobs falling with a plop, spattering her dress a little. A little snort of self condemnation at her own stupidity ensued. Placing the plate on the step next to her, she wiped at the stains with her hand.
“Looks like I’ll need the pump,” she commented idly.
Johnny loosened the kerchief he wore around his neck.
“Here,” he offered. She looked up at him in surprise. Mistaking it for non-comprehension, he explained.
“Use it to draw out the marks. Just dampen it under the pump.”
“Thank you.” She hesitated a fraction, as if she had more to say, but then appeared to change her mind. She headed to the pump, and he watched her as she pumped the handle and soaked the kerchief in the water coursing out of the spout. She bent over, dabbing and rubbing at the spots. Seemingly satisfied, she rinsed out the kerchief and wrung it out, twisting it efficiently in her hands.
Returning, she smiled wryly. “It’s a bit soggy. I’ll just leave it here on the rail to dry for a bit. Thank you again.”
She sat again and picked up her plate. Staring at it, she seemed loath to continue her meal.
“It ain’t gonna get any better just by looking at it.”
Serious eyes met his. “Sadly, you’re not kidding.” She sighed a deep sigh at that point, but left the meal untouched.
She stood up and jerked her head towards the oak tree to the right of the stable. “That hound over there might appreciate it more.”
“I reckon so,” Johnny agreed.
Walking purposefully towards the dog, a mixture of indeterminate breed, she was brought to a stop. It had risen to its feet. Hackles stood up on the back of its neck and its teeth were bared. Johnny could hear the growling from where he sat. Springing to his feet in alarm, he halted when he witnessed the dog’s transformation.
The growling had ceased suddenly and it sat complacently. She reached down and let it sniff her open hand, then scratched it behind its ears. To Johnny’s surprise, it the dropped to the ground and rolled over, feet in the air.
Johnny ambled over, enthralled by this display of trust. The dog was in seventh heaven, straining its head back as she scratched it under its chin. She scratched its chest and Johnny could have sworn that the animal was grinning.
She was murmuring to it. After a moment, she scraped her plate into a bowl near the tree trunk. The dog devoured it hungrily and then sat at her feet, raising its paw appreciatively. Johnny shook his head from side to side in wonder. He, too, scraped his plate into the dog’s bowl. It disappeared rapidly. The dog wagged its tail in appreciation, then realizing that its banquet had ceased, it lowered itself with a satisfied sigh back to its patch of grass under the tree.
Noises from the stage coach drew their attention. The new horses were harnessed and the driver called them over.
Miss Kinkade picked up Johnny’s kerchief and examined it. “It’s not very dry,” she commented.
“Don’t matter.” Johnny took the proffered article and whipped it in the air before tying it around his neck again.
The journey continued. Still monotonous, the passing scenery seemed to repeat itself over and over. Johnny nevertheless felt some pleasure that he was gradually nearing Lancer.
He watched his dining partner give the scenery a miss. She settled in comfortably in her seat and her head began to droop, but she was jolted back to consciousness by a particularly vicious bump. She elected to rest her head against the side of the coach, but soon gave that up as the unforgiving wood bounced her head relentlessly against its surface.
She sighed. It was a stoic sigh, accompanied by a prim folding of her hands in her lap.
Johnny leaned forward and worked his arms out of his jacket. Shaking it, he smoothed it and folded it over.
“Miss?” he queried, as he held it out to her.
She regarded it, puzzled. “Pardon?”
“I thought you could use this to cushion your head. That wood’s not very soft.”
Comprehension dawned. She smiled a hesitant, but grateful smile at him.
“You won’t be cold?” It was a warm day and even warmer in the restricted airspace of the stagecoach.
“I can’t see myself freezing to death today, Miss Kinkade.”
“No, I don’t suppose you will. Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
And so he watched her place it where the top of the backrest joined the side of the coach. She wiggled her behind over slightly and leaned her head gratefully into its welcoming softness. In repose, her face was less guarded, more natural. Surprisingly, her breaths soon deepened into the regular pattern of sleep.
He envied her. Sleep never came to him on coaches. He didn’t like being trapped with a group of strangers pressing in on him, so he never felt he could give in to the temptation of any drowsiness. He wished he could, though. It sure made the journey go a lot faster.
The man seated next to Miss Kinkade left them at Hopeless Creek and no one boarded, so the occupants were able to make the most of the extra space. The young woman only briefly roused for the stopover, then settled back to her slumbers.
Johnny was restless to get home. He hated being crowded. For most of his life he had lived away from large cities, spending his time outside, away from the confines of four walls. As an adult, he had slept in the open as much as he had under a roof, he guessed. So he quietly and secretly was going stir crazy. He let is mind drift and latch on to anything to quell his growing frustration. He contemplated the scenery, his companions, Lancer.
He even contemplated stage coach design. Springs and suspension configurations, upholstery and the even more important thickness of padding underneath, seat width and leg room all met with his consideration. And all present designs were found wanting. His ponderings were suddenly interrupted, however. His sixth sense kicked in.
He felt the horses reduce their pace and for some reason this put him on the alert. There was no reason for the coach to slow yet. They were getting closer to Lancer and there were no scheduled stops.
Johnny peered out the window, his eyes raking any and every obstacle in an endeavour to discern anything unusual. He perceived nothing from his angle. Nothing until he heard the rifle fire.
Their world changed from sedate peace to a rocking surge which left the two male occupants flattened against the back of their seats and Miss Kinkade jolted from hers. She landed in an ungainly heap on top of Johnny’s boots, grunting as her nose and mouth connected with his knee.
Johnny tried to help her up at the same time as he tried to scour the outside world for the cause of their disturbance. They were being rocked more violently and it was obvious that the drivers had lost all control.
Red caught Johnny’s eyes. Returning his eyes to the interior of the coach, he noticed the blood dripping from the young woman’s nose and down her mouth and chin. She wiped ineffectually at it, then finding her hands lacking absorbency, she resorted to her skirts. She sensibly pulled the hem up and wiped her face with one hand as she tried to hold on to her seat with the other.
It was the other passenger next to Johnny who was stiff with terror and in danger of panicking. Leaving her to her own ministrations and their companion to his fright, Johnny again turned his attention to the outside.
He was able to discern the sound of hooves gaining on the coach. Above the din of the horses and the jangling harness, voices could be heard. Shouting. Cursing.
The jolting and bumping diminished almost imperceptibly at first and then more noticeably. They were slowing. Gradually the coach drew to a stop and just for a second there was a quiet. A calm before the storm.
Three sets of lungs worked overtime, obliterating the calm . Gasping breaths scraped the air while the snorting of horses punctuated the occupants’ strangled sounds of fright. Their little capsule of terror was pierced when the door was violently thrust open.
A gun was visible, and beyond the arm that held it, Johnny saw a scruffy cowboy covered in dust. This was a man who had been on the trail for some time. The stubble on his chin gave further evidence of this. This was also a man who was in a hurry to get what he wanted.
“Out! And no funny business!” he ordered.
The man next to Johnny was frozen in abject fear.
It was only the gun being aimed for his kneecap which prompted him to finally move. He gathered himself together and got out. Miss Kinkade followed and then Johnny.
“Hands up! And keep them that way!”
The passengers had handed their weapons to the driver for safe keeping at the start of the journey, but they were frisked anyway.
The other robber checked Miss Kinkade, making sure that he lingered over her legs as he felt for any weapon strapped to her person. A resounding slap rent the air as she took exception to his manhandling.
Holding his face where she had stuck him and cursing profoundly he viciously raked the side of her face with the butt of his gun. Enraged, Johnny pounced on the man and landed a heavy blow to his jaw. It was as he aimed his second punch that his world erupted into a mass of searing pain, heat and stars. His vision clouded as he gasped and clutched his midriff. Haze and blurriness merged into a sort of nothingness. A dark void which sucked him under to the tune of a female’s voice screaming in prolonged fury.
Fire burned through his abdomen. The flames engulfed him, melting flesh onto bone. He felt as though hell was alive within the brazier that was his own body. The very act of breathing scorched his throat and lungs.
Sounds filtered in through to his subconscious, hauling him forward to ever more pain. The temptation to once again succumb to the numbness of sleep-filled oblivion was great. But greater than that was the need to know what danger they were all in and if it was too late to do anything to help his travelling companions.
His eyes blinked open and sighted red. The faded red of his shirt covered in the bright red of his life’s blood spilt all over his front. He lifted his head up slowly, desperately trying to focus on his surroundings.
He was in a cabin of some sort. In front of him, tied to a crossbeam at the base of the wall, sat Miss Kinkade. Her face was a bloody mess, but she was alert and staring hard at him. Terror filled eyes softened as his eyes locked on hers.
A growing smile seeped through the dried blood masking her face. White teeth gleamed in contrast to the crimson staining her skin.
And her smile was beautiful.
He answered her smile with a contorted affair intending to give reassurance. He wondered briefly whether it was more grotesque than genuinely warm. He did not dwell on it, though, as his attention was caught by the three men in the middle of the room.
Their two assailants were addressing the man who had been seated next to Johnny. One of the men held a gun to his head, while the other began waving a sheet of paper around.
“So you thought that you could keep it all for yourself! Well, you didn’t reckon on us! We ain’t about to be robbed of our share and you’re gonna lead us to it. And don’t think you’re gonna double cross us this time, cos you won’t get the chance! Got it?”
He nodded, his voice failing him and dwindling to a croak as he attempted to answer.
“You know where the money is. You had the map in your pocket and you were with Joe when the two of you buried it, so you’re gonna get us there. No fuss and none of your shenanigans.”
The robber with the gun traced the barrel across their victim’s forehead, down his neck and stopped at his chest.
“Zach and me ain’t gonna leave your side, Pete. We’ll stick to you like cow shit to the soles of your boots! Understand?”
Pete nodded his head grimly. Sweat poured down his face and neck. His skin glistened with the perspiration which soaked his shirt as his body exuded fear.
“Come on, Abe, let’s go!” urged Zach.
“There’s been enough time wasting.”
“What about them?” Abe queried.
Zach walked up to Johnny. He towered over him and kicked his leg. “He’s dead meat anyways, bein’ gut shot an’ all. Now her…”
He stopped, turned to Miss Kinkade, a leer infecting his face like a contagion. He squatted in front of her and reached out, his hand smothering one of her breasts, kneading it. “Whooee! When we get back to pick up the rest of our gear, you and me’s got a date sweetie and I won’t disappoint ya! I’m more man than you’re ever gonna have.”
He laughed, deliberately taunting her, as she struggled to get away from his grasp.
“You be real patient, honey. I won’t be long. Don’t want ya frettin’ none!”
They were gone suddenly.
Then they heard the horses whinnying and hooves thumping the earth in a brisk cadence. After that, there was just the silence.
They looked at each other from their respective locations on opposite sides of the room.
Johnny could only think about Zach attacking her when he got back and there would be nothing he could do about it. His hands were tied behind him and tightly at that. And agony sapped his ability to focus and think of a plan.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“I’ve been worse,” he grunted as he tried to find a more comfortable position which didn’t exacerbate the intense pain coursing through his midriff.
“I’m sorry to hear it. No one deserves to have suffered more than what you are going through now.”
Johnny had bowed his head. He lifted it at her words and blessed her with a crooked smile.
“Then again I wasn’t always hogtied at the time!”
She smiled back at his valiant attempt at humour. “Can you work your bindings loose?” she enquired.
“Nope… been trying,” Johnny gasped as a spasm of agony took his breath away.
“Johnny! Stay still! You’ll bleed too much!”
Johnny was woozy and felt nauseous.
“OK,” he breathed as he rested his head back against the wall.
“Wish we had something to cut the bonds with,” she lamented.
“Got … a knife … in my boot, but I can’t reach it,” Johnny offered.
His booted feet lay stretched out in front of him, a mere three feet from hers. But with their hands behind their backs, they might just as well have been a thousand miles away.
They both studied the room as best they could. It was a rather bare shack. Two cots stood in the two far corners. The rocky table hosted a rusty lamp and battered metal plate. One bentwood chair was sandwiched between the cots and another lay on its side missing a leg. Their options were not great.
“Hey!” Johnny called to get her attention.
“There’s an empty whiskey bottle on the horizontal strut above your head. Don’t suppose you can reach that, can you?”
That he was joking was obvious, but she gave it her consideration. Twisting her head to one side and back, she looked upwards to gauge the distance.
“Empty or full? I could do with a drink right now.”
Johnny closed his eyes, a smile ghosting his lips. Dios! It hurts. It hurts so damned much!
Rustlings and thumpings drew him out of his preoccupation with his realm of pain.
What he saw intrigued him. Miss Kinkade was hunched in a ball. She had slid down onto her shoulders and was attempting to kick off the ground. With grunts and groans and what sounded suspiciously like unladylike oaths, she succeeded in attaining a bizarre posture, something akin to a shoulder stand. Her dress followed gravity’s decree, however, and made life difficult as the skirts fell down to land over her face.
His mouth was agape. There she was upside down, her pantaloons in full view as her feet rested against the wall and tapped hesitantly in search of the whiskey bottle.
“To the right,” he instructed.
“You shouldn’t be looking,” she chastised him.
“Well, you sure can’t see a thing, so you can’t tell me you don’t need a set of eyes to help you out!”
A deep grunt reached his ears.
“No! Wrong way. My right, your left,” he corrected his directions.
Panting and emitting little strangled moans, she worked her feet over to the right spot.
Suddenly she felt it with her toes. Giving a flick, she pushed it until it fell to the floor with a satisfying crash. Glass shot out in all directions.
Johnny was suddenly aware that she was trying to right her body. As her legs descended from their precarious position, he called out anxiously. “Watch the glass!”
With a plop and a cry of pain, she landed in an ungainly heap of material and limbs.
“Are you all right?”
Her moans were stifled as she attempted to get some obvious pain under control. Panting heavily, she wiggled and squirmed back to her original sitting position. Leaning back heavily against the wall, she squeezed her eyes shut as she got her breathing under control.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she finally replied. “How are you managing?”
“Still here. Still breathing.”
As he finished these words, his voice caught and he sucked in a lungful of air with a hiss.
He opened his eyes to see concern over her face as she solemnly regarded him. At his weak smile, she turned her attention to the glass shards. Near her feet was the almost complete neck of the bottle. Using her boot-clad feet as tongs, she endeavoured to pick the piece up. It took her several minutes to finally succeed in lifting it, drawing her legs in and dropping it in front of her.
Johnny was fascinated to see what she had in mind. He couldn’t work out how she was going to manage to cut her bonds with the glass in front of her and her hands tied behind.
She bent forwards then, and nosed the glass into a position where she could pick it up in her mouth.
Johnny held his breath as she risked gashing her face.
She succeeded. Swivelling her hips as far as she could and turning her head, she dropped the jagged bottle remnant behind her. Perspiration formed on her forehead and top lip as she concentrated hard. Johnny had no doubt that she was feeling for the glass with her hands.
A sigh escaped her and she grinned triumphantly at him. “Got it!” she announced proudly.
Her grin slipped as a frown of concentration encroached over her features. Johnny winced in sympathy whenever she slipped. He could tell. There was a pause and a controlled grimace which she attempted to hide from him.
Her breathing became more ragged as her frustration grew. Johnny was having blanks. His concentration on her efforts became disjointed and he felt himself drifting away.
A shout snapped his head back up, but he could only search groggily for its source.
“Johnny, I’m through!”
He blinked, and blinked again. She had turned and was sawing furiously at her one remaining bound wrist. He stared. He stared at the blood covering her hands and wrists where she had slipped numerous times. There seemed to be so much blood.
Next, she was beside him. She gently leaned him into the support of her shoulder and bent over his back to undo his bindings.
Freedom came suddenly and he slumped into her. Arms around him, she hugged him delicately, then lay him down.
“Here, let me look at you.”
Johnny left himself to her ministrations, not having the strength to argue. Sliding his eyes closed, he felt his shirt being pulled out of his pants and lifted up. Her sharp intake of breath drew his gaze back to her face.
His succinct query jolted her. She looked into his vivid blue eyes.
“I don’t know. It’s in your side. Let me see if there is an exit wound. This might hurt a little,” she warned.
She rolled him gently onto his side and peered at his back.
“Well?” Johnny asked as she laid him back.
“There’s no exit wound.” A pause. She was figuring out something in her mind. “So that means the bullet is still there, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll need to get it out, then.”
Johnny tried to sit and groaned loudly. All energy was sapped from his body. It had seeped into the red pool of blood on the ground where he had been tied up.
“Hush!” she soothed. “Don’t make any sudden moves. The bleeding has slowed. You’ll only start it again.”
“No time,” Johnny gasped. “There’s no time to get the bullet out . . . Get out of here . . . before they come back!”
“No!” she replied forcefully.
“Yes!” Johnny insisted. “Look, we don’t have time for niceties, Miss Kinkade! They will be back soon and when they do they’re gonna have their way with you and then they’ll kill you.”
“Maybe they won’t,” she declared with false conviction.
“Yes, they will. They don’t want no witnesses.”
“They wouldn’t kill just because we witnessed a robbery!”
“Don’t be too sure. Plus it’s murder, too. What do you think happened to the driver and the guard? Why do you think the horses took off uncontrolled? They were probably shot and the horses bolted at the rifle shots. There was no one alive to drive.”
Miss Kinkade stared as the truth dawned. “You are right, they will need to kill us.”
“So, we don’t have time for surgery. Get going while you can.”
She sat back, glaring at him. “I’m not leaving you here!”
“Well, you can’t carry me lady! And I don’t think I’ll be walking too far! I’ll only slow you down.” Johnny moaned and clenched his eyes closed. “Please, go while you can. Get some distance between them and you.”
A steely ‘No!’ was her only response.
She hopped up and scoured the hut but did not see what she was looking for. Johnny was treated to a view of her pantalooned legs once more as she lifted her skirts and removed a voluminous petticoat. Using her teeth and quite some might, she tore the petticoat into strips. Folding it into a wad, she placed it over his wound and bound it on as tightly as she dared. She hesitated when he moaned in pain, but then completed her task.
“I’ll be back in a second,” she promised.
And she was gone. Johnny was alone, wondering what she was up to. He concentrated as best he could on noises outside, but he could discern no clue to cast light on her activities. His world wavered and he sank into the black embrace of unconsciousness.
He came to, to find his face being wiped over with a wet cloth. She was leaning over him. Come on, I need your help. I can’t carry you.”
“Go! Please go before they come back and hurt you!”
“No! You got shot because of me. I can’t leave you. Now, hang on to me and try to get your feet under you.”
“Your hands.” She looked at them pensively and gave wry smile.
“Can’t be helped.”
“No, wait. Give me some of that leftover material. Let me bind them for you.”
“No time, remember?”
“You’ll get infected. Out here, you don’t take cuts lightly.”
He struggled to sit and instantly her arm was around his shoulder, offering support. With shaking hands he indicated some strips of material.
Her exasperated look did not stop his insistence. Reluctantly, she gave him the smallest scraps and held out her hands. He bound them as gently as he could, but he was concerned by several deep cuts. Infection was a real possibility if they were not cleaned and possibly stitched.
“We need to get back to Lancer and get Sam to stitch you up.”
She looked at him.
“The butcher? I don’t think so!”
A smile grew over Johnny’s face and despite his pain he couldn’t miss cautioning her. “Just don’t let him hear that I called him that, OK?”
“I don’t guess that I will have the opportunity unless we get a move on out of here. What is Lancer, by the way?”
The home he never thought he’d have. The home that was now everything to him because of his family who lived there.
“So, it’s a town?”
“No, a ranch just outside of Morro Coyo. We’re not that far from there.”
She nodded, then was back to business. “Up!”
He did what he could do to assist, but he leaned heavily on her. Excruciating agony invaded his being. Standing on wobbly legs, the very air he breathed scraped at his throat as he panted with the exertion of moving and overcoming the overwhelming pain of the wound.
With her firmly stuck to his side like glue and supporting most of his weight, he hobbled to the door, barely staying upright. Trying to get his torso anywhere near vertical was mind-numbingly impossible.
Once outside, he noticed a horse. A horse that looked suspiciously like one of the horses from the stage. He looked from it to her.
“They let the horses loose. They mustn’t have wanted anyone using the stage. This one was wandering around by himself,” she offered.
They made their way slowly to him. There was no saddle, but strangely, the horse was wearing a bridle.
“I found this bridle in that lean-to over there. I hope it’s not too brittle. We don’t want it snapping on us.” The woman was a mind reader.
She positioned Johnny near the mount. She obviously intended them to use this steed for transport. Not a viable option to Johnny’s way of thinking.
“Now, you might have a mighty slim physique, but I can’t lift a dead weight. See these blocks of wood? I’m going to help you onto them to make it easier for you to mount. OK?”
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“You need to get away. I’ll slow you down. It’s too hard to stay on without a saddle when you’re wounded.”
She had done it again. Read his mind.
Closing his eyes on tormented images from his past, he smiled wanly.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I bet you didn’t quit then?”
Sharp as a tack and to the point, this woman. He looked up to meet her eyes. “Nope.”
“Well, why start making lifestyle changes now? Grab the bridle, put your foot on there and get on with it. Time’s awasting.”
He attempted to smother the groans that erupted involuntarily, but was not entirely successful. He tried desperately to boost his body upwards. He felt her push on his rump. One last mighty shove from her did the trick, giving him the momentum needed to reach the haven of the horse’s back. He leaned forward over its mane, trying to catch his breath.
Next thing he knew, she was behind him, one arm wrapped securely, but in an oddly gentle way, around his middle. She kneed the horse on.
They followed the crest on which the hut was located. Johnny looked down to see the stage coach lying at the base of the scarp, a broken mass of wood, wheels, spokes and harness. Various items of broken baggage spewed their contents on the dusty earth.
“The coach!” he exclaimed.
“Why is it down there?”
“I heard a crashing sound while you were unconscious. I think they pushed it over the edge.
Guess they wanted to strand us good and proper.” They sure didn’t reckon on this little lady, he pondered.
Each step of the horse jolted Johnny’s body and evoked lancing waves of sheer unadulterated pain. Dizziness spiralled in through the top of his head and seemed to corkscrew down and around throughout his body. Perspiring freely with the onset of fever and through his efforts to stay upright in the saddle, he began to feel clammy and bilious. He fought to stay conscious, unwilling to let his body sag back against hers and become too great a burden to support.
“Hey,” he croaked.
She reined in at the sound of his voice and reached into a bag she had slung over her shoulder. Uncorking a canteen, she gave him a sip. Johnny was bemused. He had not seen any canteens lying around.
“Where’d that come from?”
“The stage. I collected a few necessities before we left.”
The water was bliss. It cooled his dry mouth and then his body as it slid down his throat.
“You need to head southeast. We are closer to Lancer than we are to Morro Coyo from here, only the stage takes the longer route on the road. If I lose consciousness, keep heading south east. OK?”
“I’ll do my best. You just hold on.”
The horse was once again called to do its duty. Johnny watched as landmarks became more familiar, but nonetheless a good day’s ride away. He willed their progress just as he willed himself to stay awake, but his will could not overcome the effects of blood loss and shock.
He was no longer moving. He was certain that he was on solid ground. But the pain was worse. It welled up and swamped his body. Wave after wave. When he tried to move away from the pain, he only exacerbated the agony.
His face cooled. Fresh air fanned the water on his forehead, cheeks and chest. The pain was not less, but his mind refreshed itself. Bleary eyes worked open. He blinked, the bright light piercing his eyeballs and stabbing at his gut.
Moans escaped, breaking his pride and his composure. Immediately he heard soothing words and felt a feather light touch on his brow.
Her faced blurred and duplicated before once more coalescing into one. It was dappled dark and light, reflecting orange hues from the small fire flickering nearby. She was smiling, but he could detect the worry behind her eyes.
“Hey,” she greeted him.
“Hey,” was his like response.
Johnny needed to know what their situation was. He coughed lightly and groaned, before forming the question.
“You started to slip off. I tried, but I couldn’t maintain my grip on you, so we stopped before you fell totally out of my grasp. Plus, it’s well and truly dark. I’m just hoping that they won’t try to find us now that it’s night.”
“Uh huh,” he acknowledged.
“I used the time to check your wound. The bullet’s still there.”
“You don’t say!”
A sarcastic edge cloaked this reply. A look of hurt crossed her face and he felt sorry immediately.
“Sorry. I’m a cantankerous patient. Just ask Sam.”
“Well, Sam the butcher is not here. That leaves me.”
He was drifting and did not catch her intent at first. He felt a tug from his boot, then heard material ripping followed by the sound of splashing and dripping liquid.
He concentrated on his breathing, but felt compelled to open his eyes. And they met hers. That strange blue flecked brown. Most unusual. Quite different from anything he had seen before. He presumed that both were the same, as one remained virtually swollen shut. It looked sore. And he was missing what she was saying to him.
Her words floated around him, wafted intangibly and remained elusive. He focussed on her mouth to better hear her words. It was an M shaped mouth he decided, not a thin straight mouth or a big fat lipped mouth, but the sort that dipped in the middle to form a V shape in the centre. Or it would if it were still not so swollen.
“Johnny, are you ready?”
“Huh?” was all he managed.
“I need to get that bullet out and wrap you back up. Then we need to get going again.”
“Yes, now,” she confirmed.
“You done this before?”
“No, but I think I know what to do.”
Even in his hazy state, he detected her discomfort.
“I read about this sort of emergency and what people do in the wild.”
“Where … where did you read about this sort of stuff?” She positively squirmed, he was sure.
“My brother had some dime novels, so one day when I was tidying up, I took one and read it.”
He was dazzled by a grin from her.
“If you must know, there was a dashingly handsome cowboy on the cover. Or gunslinger, I suppose, really. I still remember the title, ‘Johnny Madrid’s Revenge’. Terribly dramatic happenings. All exaggerated, of course. So far-fetched. No one could possibly be that fast and that accurate. Come to think of it, nor that good looking. He was a bit too good to believe, you know?”
“Yeah, I can imagine.”
His weak smile was aimed at her and it was deadly accurate. She returned it as she stroked his brow.
“I need to try, Johnny. I have to get it out. I …”
He reached for her hand and covered it with his.
“I trust you. You can only do your best, and … whatever happens, thank you.”
“For bringing me with you. For trying.” He grinned weakly at her, “For sharing my table while you ate your apple pie.”
Miss Kinkade looked away, anywhere but at Johnny.
He squeezed her fingers. “Hey, what’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry I was rude to you in the café. I was being deliberately aggravating and obtuse.”
A deep sigh escaped her lungs. Her jawline hardened and her nostrils flared. “Because… Oh, it doesn’t make any sense!”
“Try me,” he encouraged. Yet another deep sigh preceded what she divulged.
“I saw you on the boardwalk. You looked just like Ramon Lopez, except for the blue eyes of course.”
Johnny was lost. “Should I know this Ramon Lopez?”
“No, but my sister did. She met him at a dance. He swept her off her feet. He was dashing and handsome like you. He had the same taste in flashy Mexican clothes. Wore his gun real low on the hip like you do. The Latin charm wooed her off her feet. So much charisma. So much … lust for life.”
“I get the impression there’s more to it.”
“Yes, he was a worthless, no-good two timing swine. He coerced my sister into … um … doing what she wouldn’t normally do. She … she ended up with child.”
Johnny winced as he moved uselessly to escape a shot of pain.
“And?” he encouraged.
“She died in childbirth.”
”I’m sorry,” he whispered. Thoughts of Scott’s mother haunted him. “The baby?”
“It died, too. It was a little boy.”
Johnny squeezed his eyes closed. It could have been Scott.
“Oh, he skedaddled faster than a wild stallion on the move once he heard about the baby. He wasn’t exactly husband material. He wasn’t going to stick around and make a decent woman of her.”
“No, I don’t think you do. Because after he left her, she tried to … end the pregnancy herself. If he had stayed with her she might have survived. She might be alive today.”
His eyes met hers. He ached to take away some of the hurt, but could not.
“So, I wanted to annoy you. I wanted to show you that I didn’t like you and I never would want to waste my time with anyone looking like you. That I could never like anyone like you.”
He simply nodded.
“I don’t understand how I could be so cruel. You’re not like him.” His eyes radiated sympathy for her.
“Hey, we all develop ways to protect ourselves.”
Her hand was soft against his cheek. As her finger traced the outline of his facial features, he turned into her hand and lightly graced it with a kiss.
“No harm done.”
“And Flo is my aunt.”
Johnny tried to smile in triumph, but was not totally successful. The silence between them stretched, only to be broken by a bossy and newly composed Miss Kinkade.
“If I’m going to be cutting into you, you’d better be calling me Lauren.”
“Lauren Kinkade.” He savoured it. “Pretty name.”
“Thank you. Now, I’m going to have to get started.” She paused and looked hard at him. “I’ll try my best, but I’m going to hurt you.”
“Don’t I know it! Just do it fast. Don’t be worried about my pain. Just dig if you have to and I’ll try to stay as still as possible.”
His grin again lightened his face and erased the pain lines for a few seconds.
“But I ain’t promising I’ll be a statue!”
She smiled in understanding. For some strange reason he felt himself relax as he entrusted his body to her. A whiskey bottle appeared out of the bag she had slung over her shoulder.
“Where did you get that?”
“From the stage. Here, take a swig.”
He downed a hefty wallop. It felt good, that fire in the belly. Mellow, at least for a minute.
Lauren poured some of the alcohol over his wound.
His body jerked in reaction as the whiskey viciously irritated the already festering wound. It wore off gradually and with a start he realized that he was clasping her hand. Crushing it, really.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t realize.”
“Don’t be. Ready?” So softly asked.
He nodded. No matter how many times this had happened to him, it never got any easier. It wasn’t like he could practise and become immune to it, more’s the pity. Resolutely, he prepared himself mentally and gratefully accepted the cloth wrapped stick she offered him. He bit down and waited.
And it came with a vengeance that put his body on fire. An agony that tortured every nerve ending. A relentlessness that shackled him to that patch of dirt and allowed no escape. His muffled scream made her jump, but she continued her gruesome task.
Johnny writhed uncontrollably.
“Hush! Be still!”
He opened his eyes to see her concerned face bending over him. Tears were streaming from her eyes and she swiped at them with her arm. He stilled. It wasn’t fair to her. Taking a deep breath, he nodded his approval for her to continue.
Madrid appeared and he gratefully hid behind this façade. He lay quieter, but the hurt increased as she dug and probed for the offending piece of lead.
And then there was the respite of nothingness which swirled him away
She was leaning over him, tying the last of the bandages when he awoke.
“Hey, there! Have you decided to join me at last?”
He attempted a smile.
“Here, have some water.”
His mouth was dry, desert dry. The water was gratefully accepted. Somehow it helped ease the burning in his side just a fraction as well. His respite was short lived, however. His stomach rebelled at this liquid invasion.
Noticing his distress, she helped him roll to one side and supported his shoulders as he heaved into the dust. As he heaved and created new torture for himself in his side.
Finally, spent, he was eased back into a reclining position. His face was bathed gently and her smooth tones soothed him. His panting slowed. Once more he submitted to her care.
Some time later, many hours later, he was able to gather together the threads of reality.
He noticed the eerie dawn light was softening the stark black of night. He felt more calm and aware. Most of all he was aware of her presence by his side. Examining her face, he perceived the tear stains.
She sniffed and dabbed gingerly at her sore nose. Her good eye was red and puffy, which did not improve her looks any in the accepted sense. But to him she was strikingly lovely.
“How bad is it?”
“I don’t know. It was in your side. I got it out, but I have nothing to sew you up with. I don’t think it hit anything vital, but I am no doctor … as you are well aware, by now.”
She grimaced wryly. Johnny reached for her arm. “I’m sure you did a great job. Thank you.” Her lips pressed into a thin line, knowing that he was placating her.
“Is your face paining you a lot?” he asked Lauren. “Only when I laugh,” she responded. “Can you sit a horse?”
“Why don’t you make your way to Lancer? I’ll give you directions. If you leave me here, you could go faster.”
“No, it’s not open for discussion. Come on, up you get.”
She squatted next to him, assisting him to rise. He made it, but not under his own steam. He stood wavering in front of the horse she had brought over. Once again, she improvised, urging him onto a stump to use as a mounting block.
Then his vision sharpened and he could see clearly.
She stood in her bodice and pantaloons.
“What happened to your dress?”
She glanced down and grimaced.
“I didn’t bring enough clothing with me from my raid on the stage. I thought I had enough. I didn’t realize how much …”
Her voice trailed off miserably.
Blood. She was going to say ‘blood’.
His heart ached for what she had had to do.
“I had to clean you up and then I needed swabs, and a pad and bandages to bind you up. I didn’t have enough material. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, don’t be sorry. They’re mighty pretty pantaloons. They’ve just brightened my day.”
She blushed bright red in the glowing dawn, then laughed. She laughed at his sense of humour, the absurdity of her attire and his kindness in trying to take her mind off their ordeal.
He tried to pull himself on the animal’s back. Lauren did what she could by pushing hard and hoisting him up.
They set off in the direction that Johnny indicated.
Slowly, inexorably they plodded on, every step a living hell for Johnny. Yet every step brought him closer to home. He tried valiantly to stay awake, to guide her and to provide company for her on their arduous trek.
The back of the horse beneath them provided a bony and slippery seat. More and more it was falling to this woman to keep Johnny mounted. Johnny knew that he must be drifting in and out of consciousness. The scenery they passed was becoming staccato as he felt he was jumping from location to location.
“There!” he suddenly gasped.
“That hill! We’re nearly there.”
She rearranged her arms around his midriff to support him better, then headed the horse in that direction. The horse was obviously weary, but he seemed to have picked up on Johnny’s new buoyant frame of mind. At last they crested the rise.
She stopped the horse there and gazed at the view below her.
“How beautiful! Just stunning!”
Johnny placed his hand over hers.
“Looks like it. Come on, your family will be worried.”
The Lancer arch embraced them and soon they were in the yard just outside the porch. The door was flung open, to disgorge a mini stampede of anxious family members. Scott reached the horse just before Murdoch and Teresa, with Jelly bringing up the rear. Hands reached up to them. Willing and welcoming hands.
Lauren gratefully released her burden to his family. Putting his arm around Johnny and taking the brunt of his weight, Scott began to lead him inside.
“You got some explaining to do, brother. Can’t you even stay out of trouble on a stage coach?”
“Hi to you, too, Scott!”
Then Johnny stopped and made to turn.
“Aren’t you hopping off, Lauren?”
“I seem to be stuck. I’m so stiff,” she lamented.
Murdoch raised his arms. “Just slide down,” he advised.
This she did. Murdoch placed her gently on the porch. The spectacle of her in her pantaloons raised questions in everyone’s mind. But no one dared ask.
“Hey, everyone. This is Lauren,” Johnny explained.
And then he collapsed against his brother.
Scott hefted him up and made to go inside, but Johnny’s words delayed him.
“Look after her for me until I get better. Ain’t she beautiful, Scott?”
Scott turned and surveyed her bloody and swollen face, the cut on her cheek, her bandaged wrists and the enticing pantaloons.
“Yes, brother, she’s a true stunner!”
Johnny smiled in acknowledgement of his brother’s statement. Then he fainted. His unconscious body was taken inside, his smile lingering peacefully on his face.
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2 thoughts on “Stagecoach Encounter by Fay”
This was quite an adventure. Really good 👍. Thanks for sharing and keeping Lancer land alive. JML always ♥️
Lauren certainly has courage. It will be interesting to see how Johnny explains her to his family.