by Jane Elliot

Will and John have a new life together, but unfortunately it seems as if their former lives are not completely behind them even now.  What was supposed to be a leisurely journey west turns into a fight for survival when they discover that an old enemy has taken over an innocent town, and that it’s going to need a hero to stop him – or perhaps even a whole group of heroes, willing to stand up and be counted.  It’s time for the real John Anderson, outlaw, to come out of retirement – but there’s still a price on his head, and now there’s a great deal more that he stands to lose…

67,000 words/246 pages

Publication 1 November 2012

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They were nearly two weeks into their journey when Butterscotch started acting up again. She’d been so well-behaved of late that Will had been anticipating an unpleasant incident as her true nature finally won out against the prospect of sweets, but John looked around intently and after just a few seconds pointed off to the north. “Smoke.”

Will stiffened. This far north there probably wasn’t much risk of anyone recognizing John, but they were far enough off of the main trail that the chances of the smoke being from a lunchtime cook fire were next to nil. Either someone was up to no good or someone was in trouble.

Unfortunately, there was no way to tell which without going to investigate.
John was already galloping in the direction of the smoke by the time Will turned to follow. For once, Will was grateful for the pair of six-shooters that John wore and he took a moment to ensure his own rifle was in easy reach before kicking Clarence to a gallop.

Butterscotch may not have been the sweetest-tempered horse Will had ever encountered, but she was one of the fastest. By the time Clarence reached the source of the fire, John was already off his horse and picking his way through the smoldering prairie grass to the charred remains of what had recently been a small wagon full of pioneers.

“Damn,” Will muttered as he slid off Clarence’s back. The horse immediately backed up a few steps, huffing in distress. Will couldn’t blame the poor creature. There were at least three bodies on the ground, and he thought he saw a glimpse of a fourth in the smoking remains of the wagon. The horses had been stolen, of course, along with most of the supplies, but Will could see some clothing lying about and a quilt that had been cast aside, probably in the search for more valuable plunder. The quilt was patchwork, slightly ragged with age and use, and the thought of all of the time and love that had been put into each one of those carefully shaped designs made Will’s eyes sting.

“Will!” John shouted and Will turned to see John crouched over the smallest of the bodies on the ground: a girl that couldn’t have been much more than eight. “I think she’s alive,” John added.

Will ran over to kneel down next to John. “The others?”

“Dead,” John said, carefully running his hand over the girl’s arms and legs to check for breaks. He didn’t find any, but when he carefully turned the girl’s head to see the other side of her face, Will gasped. Fire had burned away a large swath of her skin and hair, leaving behind a raw wound marked with streaks of char.

“Get some water,” John said tersely. “And the whisky.”

Will ran back to the horses to gather a canteen, the whisky, and after a moment’s thought, John’s spare shirt.

As he came back, he saw John had raised the girl’s skirt. With a relieved expression, he lowered it again.

“She’s intact?” Will asked quietly.

John nodded to him, then patted the girl’s hand. “I’m done now.” The girl didn’t respond. As far as Will could tell, she hadn’t moved at all since he and John had arrived, except to blink and breathe.

Will handed John the supplies he had brought. “What can I do?”

“Get a blanket for me to put her on, then set up camp nearby.” John looked over the ruins of the camp that surrounded them. “Not too close, though.”

Will nodded and retrieved the quilt that he’d seen earlier. John gently moved the girl over onto it and Will watched for a moment as John carefully scraped the girl’s hair out of her wound before turning away to collect the horses.

An hour later the camp was set up, with bedrolls laid out, horses pegged, wood gathered, and a fire burning inside of an unusually large and scrupulously built stone circle. Will looked over the pristine camp and felt a hint of shame that was quickly overcome by dread as he shoved down his cowardice and trudged back in John’s direction.

He had just cleared the hill between them when he met John with the girl in his arms. Will eyed the quilt-covered bundle and the tiny head swathed in strips of John’s silk shirt. “Need help?” he asked quietly.

“Not for this,” John said. “But you’re going to need to watch over her while I go for supplies.”

Will swallowed thickly, but nodded. A moment later he reconsidered. “Shouldn’t the girl go, too? Even if we can’t find a doctor, she’d be more comfortable in a hotel.”

John snorted. “Hotel? This far out, we’ll be lucky if we can find a saloon.”

Will thought about what saloons were like, especially in the middle of ranching country, and winced.

“Besides,” John added, “She can identify the bastards who did this.”

“All the more reason to bring her to the sheriff.”

“If there is a sheriff. And if she’s capable of talking by them.”

Will looked at the girl, who hadn’t made a motion or a sound the entire time he and John had been talking. He hadn’t heard any noise earlier, not when John was first looking the girl over, and not later, when he was cleaning the hair out of her wound. “Didn’t she react at all when you were tending to her?” John shook his head. “Not even when you used the whisky?” Another shake.

“Damn.” If Will had been in the girl’s place, he didn’t think he could’ve held back a scream. Considering what the girl went through, though, maybe it was for the best. “You think she’ll come out of it?”

“I don’t know,” John said. He started walking again and Will turned to keep pace with him. “I’ve only seen a couple of people in a daze like this before. Adults, both of them.” He glanced down at the girl before adding in a quiet voice, “Neither one made it.”

They finished the walk to the camp in silence.

Once the girl was settled down on one of the bedrolls, John gathered his and Will’s canteens and emptied one into the other. “Here,” he said, handing the full canteen to Will. “If she moves at all, try get to get her to drink as much water as she can.”

“And if she doesn’t move?”

“Pour some into her mouth anyway.” Off Will’s incredulous look, John explained, “Big burns like that, they leak water like a sieve. If she doesn’t drink enough, it won’t be the burns that kill her.”

Will’s stomach clenched at the thought; he’d never seen a child die before and the thought of one dying under his care … “I’ll make sure she drinks.”

Some of the tension bled out of John’s body. “I know you will.” He stared at Will for a moment, then pulled him into an embrace, which Will gratefully returned. “I’ll be as fast as I can,” John said fiercely.

“We’ll be right here waiting for you,” Will promised. “Be safe.”

“You, too. Keep an eye out, in case those bastards come back.”

Will stared out over the plains long after John left, not quite ready to face the damaged child behind him. Still, he couldn’t put it off forever so, with one last lingering look into the distance, he turned back to the girl.

She hadn’t moved so much as a hair and Will felt a brief rush of panic at the thought that she might have died in the minutes since John rode away. Rushing forward, he fell to his knees and, despite the shooting pain in his leg, held a shaky hand in front of her mouth. A moment later, he let himself fall back onto his ass as he felt the faintest brush of air. For now, at least, she was still alive.

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