Summary: This is a “WHN” for High Riders. I was always puzzled how both could answer in the positive when Joe Barker asked if they knew about him. Here’s how.
I’m sorry, but I really am infringing on someone else’s copyright, but
I mean it in the best possible way
Thank you to Kate and Rene who took the time to tell me what they think and show me the error of my ways.
Any comments welcome at email@example.com
It’s funny the things you notice at odd times. Minutes ago bullets had been whizzing around his head, dirt kicked up at his feet, his life in mortal danger and all he could think about now was how very quiet it was. The breeze was silently stirring the leaves on the trees but even the birds and bugs had stopped their little noises. It seemed the whole world was holding its breath.
He watched the younger man at his feet look up at him. “Good shootin’.” The dark haired young man said slowly, breaking the silence.
Of all the things to say! “Thanks, brother.” Scott couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “We’d just about given up on you, boy.” He couldn’t quite figure why he felt the need to tease at a time like this.
Johnny returned the smile. “Well, you had your plan and I had mine.” Scott watched as the younger man struggled to his feet. “Take your time.” He wanted to fold the younger man into a protective hug and let him know just how worried about him he’d been. But instinct told him now was not the time. Instead he reached out and curled his hand into the dark jacket and held him steady.
“I can make it.” Johnny said softly. They turned together to head back to the house. Scott kept his gaze firmly on the other man, not believing his claim for a minute. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his father, Teresa and one of the hands all step forward together.
Scott watched Johnny take a step, then another. His lips pressed together silently as he watched the color drain from his brother’s face. From such a short distance away it was easy to see when Johnny’s eyes turn glassy. Scott wanted to shake his head in dismay as his inner prediction came true, but there wasn’t time.
Johnny’s body went stiff seconds before it went slack. Scott moved in quickly as the younger man conveniently slumped over his shoulder.
Scott carried his younger brother into the house. He didn’t remember it being so far from the yard to the door. His brother may have been shorter then him, but his compact body was muscular. ‘And heavy.’ Scott thought with a grunt.
Murdoch watched with dark eyes. He wanted to assist his older son but his injured leg prevented anything strenuous. With a brisk sweep of his arm he cleared the dining room table, tumbling all the contents onto the floor. “Put him here,” Murdoch he said gruffly as he helped Scott ease Johnny onto the table.
It would be much easier to work on a firm surface with good light. Teresa had bustled threw the room passing into the kitchen. Murdoch set about quickly and gently removing Johnny’s jacket but the damaged shirt was simply torn strait up the seam on the back.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the doctor?” Scott moved out of the way, concern narrowing his eyes and furrowing his brow as he watched the older man work.
Teresa came back in with bed linen that had been sacrificed for bandages and left again. “One of the hands will have already gone to town, but we can’t wait.” Murdoch replied brusquely. After Pardee’s men had scattered in the wake of their leader being lost, it was a forgone conclusion that there would be wounded to tend.
Scott glanced down at the seeping wound as blood began to pool on the dark mahogany wood to be soaked up by the remnants of the tattered shirt. The bullet had lodged in the middle left portion of the younger man’s back between the two ribs just under the shoulder blade. “I think we should wait for the Doctor.” Scott continued with a frown as he stared down at the ugly injury.
Murdock took a moment to pull a couple of high backed chairs away from the table to give himself room to work and glanced at his older son, the ache in his leg momentarily forgotten. Teresa was coming back into the room with two pans of warm water and the bag filled with the ranches medical supplies. “It’s an hours ride into town and an hour back. That means it will be two hours before the doctor can get here. That’s if the doctor is in town and if he’s free to come right away. You don’t mind if I don’t want to wait that long, do you?” It wasn’t quite sarcasm that tinged Murdoch’s voice, more like dismay.
Scott nodded his head, abashed. “No, of course not. How can I help?”
“Come around and hold his shoulders.”
Scott climbed up on the table and ran his hands gently over his younger brothers cool back and swallowed down the bile in his throat. Memories he thought long buried of the war and the camp came to mind. He watched with a detached fascination as his father performed surgery. He briefly considered reminding Murdoch to send the girl from the room but he watched as she efficiently aided in the procedure and was grateful he’d kept his mouth shut.
Half an hour later Scott felt his arms and back begin to protest the odd angle he had put himself. He was half kneeling on the table using his upper body weight to pin the younger man to the same hard surface that was creating a dull ache in his knees. His neck was tightening up and he closed his eyes and rolled his stiff shoulders to ease the distress.
Just then Johnny started to force his way to awareness and moaned and struggled valiantly against the hands that held him down. “Keep him still.” Murdoch snapped and Scott lowly cursed his own inattention. He shifted his weight to lean more firmly onto his brother’s shoulders, stiffening his arms to hold him immobile. Scott leaned further over and whispered “Shh” softly in his brother’s ear, at a loss for anything else to say.
Johnny stilled for a moment, listening to the sounds above and around him so Scott kept whispering softly. He could see the younger man as he clamped his jaw shut to cover a moan.
“Here.” Teresa gently wedged a cloth-covered piece of wood between the straight white teeth and took a moment to wipe the sweat from his forehead, pushing back dark bangs.
Johnny bit down hard and let out a groan, clenching his fists in white-knuckled agony. She gently wiped away a tear that rolled from the corner of Johnny’s eye and ran down his cheek toward his ear. “We’re almost done,” she said softly as she brushed the backs of her fingers against his dark hair. He swallowed hard and nodded.
Murdock looked down at the hole he had created. It was bigger but neater than the one that had been there before. He used the back of one hand to wipe away a stray drip of sweat before he stuck his fingers into the wound and felt around for the bullet. Initially he had feared that there would be damage to the lung with the bullet between the ribs, but it had entered and lodged just under the rib. He’d cut away the damaged skin and now only had to see just how far the flattened piece of metal had skid beneath the surface.
Johnny tensed in agony as the blunt fingers dug into his back and then mercifully he drifted back into unconsciousness.
Above him, his father worked silently to remove the bullet and pulled it out with a relieved sigh. He dropped the mashed piece of metal into the pan of pink water and then accepted the needle and thread from Teresa.
narrowed his eyes as the long piece of cotton pulled the edges of the wound
closed. He’s seen worse done by physicians in the field. And wondered briefly
where his father had acquired such a skill out here in the wilderness.
Scott wiped his sweaty brow on his sleeve and watched as Teresa took the soiled cloths and tools and put them into the pans of now bloody water and carried them to the kitchen. He took a moment to look down at his younger brother’s still features before he, climbed off the table.
Murdoch was slower climbing down off the table, where he had been straddling his youngest son’s legs. He closed his eyes as he put his hands in the small of this back and stretched. He looked down at his hands and carelessly wiped at the red-brown substance that clung to his fingers, blood, his son’s blood. “Go get a couple of hands,” He said gruffly, “and we’ll move him upstairs to his bed.”
Scott nodded and quickly moved out threw the large glass door. He was surprised to find quite a few of the men milling just out side on the patio. “How’s he doing?” one of them asked, his concern obvious. Scott stared at the man, blinking, unable to think of an appropriate answer. “Better, I think.” He finally said, “Can you help me move him?” Two men followed Scott back into the house. Scott found himself again noticing just how quiet the world had become as he and Murdoch and the cowhands each took a limb and carried Johnny up the stairs.
It took some maneuvering to strip the unconscious man of his boots and down to his drawers and lay him on his stomach in the center of the feather mattress. Teresa had gone up ahead of them and turned back the covers and moved a pillow down from the headboard to the center of the bed. They laid him mostly on his right side, with his chest resting on the pillow, his arms up close to it made it almost look like he was hugging it. His legs stretched out across the length of the crisp, white sheets. In this position he would breathe better and keep him from rolling over onto the wound.
The two hands made a hasty departure after expressing their regrets to their employer in hushed tones. The three of them stood silently looking down on the man sprawled across the bed, his skin almost as pale as the sheet. Finally, Murdoch cleared his throat, “You two go and get something to eat, and I’ll sit with him awhile.”
Scott was going to protest that he wasn’t hungry, but he felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked down and saw Teresa indicate with her head for the door. Scott frowned but followed her out.
She stopped whatever comment he was going to make with a quick gesture and led him down the back stairs to the kitchen. She pushed him into a chair and went to the stove and brought back two cups of coffee and joined him at the table. “Just give him a few minutes alone with him.”
“He’s my brother.” Scott said sullenly.
“And he’s his son,” Teresa responded gently, “a son he just spent an hour digging a bullet out of. Just give him a few minutes.” Scott thought about arguing, but then acknowledged her point of view by nodding and quietly reveled in the warmth creeping up his arms from the cup in his hands.
Murdoch dragged a chair over from the corner of the room and set it beside the bed. Images flashed threw his mind of a small boy, and putting him to bed. Of cool fall nights and covering the boy when he’d kicked off the bedlinen. Even of a small toddler following him with arms extended, saying “Up, papa, up.” Murdoch scrubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the chair. It had all been so long ago. He closed his eyes and sighed loudly. He hadn’t realized when he’d asked his sons to come here, to help, that putting his sons in danger was such a risk to his own heart. He’d never stopped caring about either of his children, even when they weren’t with him, but he didn’t realize how much he already treasured these two men.
Another image flashed in his mind, the sight of his son, racing a horse across the meadow at a full gallop. The graceful way the palomino cleared the four-rung fence. And the sickening sight of his youngest child crashing to the ground with a thud.
In that instant his mind had gone blank. How could he have believed that Johnny had left, gone back to whatever life he’d had before, taken the money and run? He tried to convince himself it was because this boy was a stranger to him, not the toddler he remembered. But Teresa’s words cut through him like a knife. “He was coming back to us.” She had known, she understood.
Murdoch had felt his heart stop at that moment. “He was coming back to us”, to him, and then to see him cut down right before his eyes. Murdoch reached forward and gently laid a hand on the boy’s arm and watched as the younger man shifted in his sleep. He didn’t want to think of losing his son again. He leaned back in the chair and rested his aching back and leg and pondered the choices he’d made.
An hour was all Scott could wait before he made his way up the back stairs to his brother’s room. He stood in the doorway and viewed the scene. Johnny lay where he’d been put and didn’t seem to have moved. Murdock sat beside the bed in a straight-backed chair with his eyes closed.
Scott took the time to survey the room. As soon as he’d gotten to Lancer, Scott had made himself at home. He’d unpacked what he’d brought and moved a little of the furniture around to suit him. But he could see Johnny’s saddlebags on the floor in the corner, and they were obviously still full. Scott licked his lips and cleared his throat. “I’ll spell you for a while.” He watched as his father’s eyes popped open and looked his way. It was a curious mix of emotions that swept across the older man’s face and Scott realized it would take some time to learn the messages hidden there.
Murdoch seemed hesitant at first, but then stood and stretched. “You’ll shout if there’s any change? I think he’s just sleeping.” Murdoch looked down at one son before meeting the eyes of the other. “I’ll just be in the kitchen getting something to eat.”
Scott nodded, “Yes, sir, I’ll yell.”
Murdoch nodded and the two passed just inside the doorway. “It’s good you’re here.” Murdoch said softly.
Scott looked at his brother before raising his eyes. Unable to think of any thing to say, he nodded in acknowledgement. Once Murdoch had left he moved over to the bed, gently smoothing the quilt of nonexistent wrinkles. Extending his hand just inches over his brother’s back, he hesitated to touch him for fear of waking the sleeping man. Suddenly he realized he was holding his breath and let it out slowly, pulling his hand back he dropped into the chair, his hand clenched in frustration. He didn’t recognize the emotions that knotted his stomach and with closed eyes he shook his head. He leaned over and put his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands, tangling his fingers in his hair. Things were changing entirely too fast. Just a few short weeks ago his life had been neat and orderly, now it was anything but.
A feeling of possessiveness filled his chest. Murdoch, his father, the words tangled in his mind. He didn’t know how he felt about the man. But Murdoch had given up on Johnny twice. Once, early this morning with his dismissive, “What difference” to Scott’s query of his brother’s whereabouts. The second time after Johnny had fallen from his horse.
Every instinct he had at that moment was to dash across the field and aid the younger man, but Murdoch’s words had stopped him. “It’s no use.” Scott opened his eyes but he didn’t see the room around him. He only saw the boy lying on the ground, he could still feel the dismay and regret that pounded in his chest. He’d been frustrated then and he was still feeling it now.
It was such a stupid thing for people to die over. Greed. How many were dead? At least a few of their men and more of Pardees'. And this boy whose fate was still to be determined. All for envy and greed, what a shameful waste.
Scott gave into temptation and gently placed his hand on his brother’s arm. It was warm to the touch, but not unnaturally so. The boy stirred, but made no other sound. Scott placed his brother’s hand in his and examined it carefully. He wondered what kind of work did the young man do? Did these long fingers play an instrument? He knew they could fire a gun and threw one heck of a punch. But there was so much he didn’t know.
He held the hand tightly between both of his and a small smile played across his lips. He spoke softly to the man in the bed, knowing full well his words were not being heard. “I’ve been spoiled all my life, Johnny-boy. One thing about me is I don’t like to share and I don’t like to lose. You’re my brother and I don’t intend to let anyone else hurt what belongs to me. Understand?”
Scott knew that Johnny hadn’t heard him, but it felt good saying it out loud. If the ‘old man’ wasn’t going to look out for Johnny, Scott intended to take up the job. Someone had to, the boy wasn’t doing a very good job of looking out for himself.
It was a good thing that they hadn’t waited for the doctor. Mrs. Whittle had gone into labor early and Doc Jenkins spent his day delivering twins. On his way back to town he’d stopped in at the Harrison place only to find Jake with a gash on his leg that was going septic and little Mary Sue with a stomachache from eating a live frog on a dare from her brother.
He got back to his office to see a hastily scrawled note on the chalkboard slate attached to his office door. “Come to Lancer-gun shot.” Heaving a sigh he didn’t bother to get down, he just turned the buggy around and drove to the livery. Earl Thompson swapped horses for him and filled him in on the news of the battle at Lancer as he helped himself to a cup of coffee and a bowl of stew Earl had on the back of the stove. He headed back out muttering to himself, “no rest for the wicked,” but admitting that having lost the likes of Pardee and his men was no great hardship to the community. Jenkins clucked the bay mare into a mile-eating trot as he headed down the road to Lancer.
It was well after dark when he pulled up to the front of the house. A stable boy met him and held the horses’ head as he dismounted and pulled out his bag. The boy took the horse as he let himself in. He was met by Juanita, one of the girls who worked in the kitchen, who took his hat and coat. “Well,” he said without preamble, “who’s hurt and where is he?”
“It is Senor Johnny and he’s upstairs. Follow me.” The girl led the way threw the kitchen and up the stairs.
The news that Murdoch Lancer had finally found both his boys and brought them home had spread through the community like wildfire. Jenkins smiled to himself that it had been a long time coming, and in his opinion, it was well past time. They’d had more than one late night discussion about Murdoch getting his sons, but the Scotsman was a stubborn cuss and everything had to be his idea and in his time.
Jekins came into the room and was relieved by what he saw. A dark haired boy was on his stomach with the wound bandaged. There didn’t seem to be any visible blood, no smell of decay, and his color was good. Murdoch and Teresa sat beside the bed with another young man, no one seemed to be in a panic. All of these were good signs to a doctor well used to coming too late. “You must be Scott,” he said by way of announcement.
Scott got to his feet. “Yes sir.”
“Will…” Murdoch started but Doctor Jenkins talked over him and ushered them toward the door.
“I didn’t come here to see any of you, so give me a little room and let me meet this young man.” Murdoch and Scott both hesitated, but Teresa gently urged them out
The doctor put his hand first on Johnny’s back to test the warmth of the skin. “Whoa, Doc, you’re hands are cold.” Johnny said breathlessly.
Doc Jenkins had to smile, it was always a good sign when your patient had a sense of humor. “Sorry boy, didn’t know you were playin’ ‘possum.” With mock fierceness he grabbed the younger man’s wrist to take his pulse, “But I want no lip from you. Who shot you in the back?”
“Dead guy,” Johnny said half under his breath, “very dead guy.”
The doctor came back around and checked the bandage and peeked under. The wound didn’t seem hot or red. The bandage only had a little seepage, but it was in an awkward place and it would be hard to keep bound. Any movement might reopen the wound.
He came around to the front and crouched down to check his patient’s pupils and was startled to see vivid blue eyes that reminded him of the friend he’d sent from the room.
“Why were you playin’ at being asleep?”
Johnny hesitated trying to find just the right words. “They kinda hover.” His words regretful, “and they make me nervous.”
The doctor nodded with understanding. The news that spread around town had included the reputation of the famous gunfighter. “Do you think you can get to sleep or do you want something?”
Johnny shook his head no. The question was a test and more than half the people that asked for something for the pain didn’t get it, the ones that said they didn’t need it, especially with a grimace and a wince, got it whether they wanted it or not. Johnny got his mixed in with a lukewarm cup of tea.
“Here, drink this.” Johnny sipped at the bitter liquid as the doctor help hold the cup until the young mans’ eyes drifted shut. Doc Jenkins silently watched his patient before going out into the hall to talk to the family.
Murdoch leaned against one wall. Scott was across the hall, leaning against the other. Their arms were crossed over their chests in almost identical stances. Teresa tread a path between the two, twisting a small towel in her hands. She stopped pacing as the doctor came out. “How is he?”she queried softly putting in to words what they were all longing to know.
“He’s sleeping. You’ll need to keep him still for a few days and he’ll need to rest for a couple weeks after that, but it really does look very good.” They all relaxed noticeably. “Murdoch, do I recognize your handiwork in there?”
Murdoch snorted and Teresa laughed. “Have you had supper, Doctor Jenkins? Can I get you something?”
“I’d love some supper, Teresa.” He said graciously. “Are there any others I need to look after?” The doctor was thankful, but not surprised, not only was Murdoch a friend and gracious host, but it was common for the families to feed the doctor as well as to put him up for the night. It also gave him a chance to give the patient one final examination before returning to town.
Scott flicked his gaze from the three people moving down the hall to the closed bedroom door. Silently he slipped in and took the chair beside the bed.
For Johnny, the next three days passed in a laudanum-induced haze. Pillows and tight sheets kept him from rolling over and lying on his wound. He woke one night to find that pulling his legs up to his chest tugged at the unhealed wound in his back. He sucked air between his teeth in a sharp hiss. As he reached out to pull up the blankets, he gasped. A tiny warm hand pressed against his arm. “What is it? What do you need?” Teresa asked in a soft voice.
“M cold.” Johnny whispered back. She patted his arm gently and went to the chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a heavy feather quilt. She pulled it up to his shoulders and tucked him in. He shifted his weight and tried to roll over. For someone so small he didn’t expect her to be so strong.
“Oh, no you don’t. You need to stay still, understand me?” Her hands pressed on his shoulder and held him still until he settled. He let loose a shuddering breath.
“What time is it?” He asked as she got up to fill a glass with water.
“It’s very late, and you should be asleep,” she chided as she came back and helped him to drink. His mouth tasted like cotton, and even as he enjoyed the relief in his throat, he felt like he could have drained a lake and still be thirsty.
“I’m still cold,” he said again as his eyes grew heavy. He pulled his arms tighter hugging them close to his chest.
She rubbed her hands in large circles over his shoulders and arms to warm him before going and pulling another blanket from the chest. “Is that better?,” she asked gently.
He nodded, as his eyelids grew heavier with each inhalation.
She sat back in the chair and waited for him drift back to sleep before she closed her eyes. Her gentle rocks in the rocking chair matched his slow, even breathing.
Teresa wasn’t concerned by lack of rest, the girls would take care of making breakfast. She thought about her feelings about all the things that had happened since meeting these two young men she considered brothers. She thought about the friendship between her father and Murdoch. The two had been friends for years.
She rocked silently knowing that she knew much more than Murdoch ever suspected. She’d spent hours on the stairs as a child eavesdropping on conversations. She’d overheard the lengthy discussions over whether to build an outbuilding or hire another detective. She’d watched the ranch grow and prosper even as she watched Murdoch become more reserved and distant with each passing year.
She’d done everything she could to ease every burden possible and remind him of what family was all about. When her father had died, he’d taken her in, and although she felt the loss, this was still her home and he was still her family.
She had been excited when she’d heard that Murdoch was bringing his sons home. She knew about the ugly custody battle Harlan Garrett had threatened when Scott was a boy. She knew that ‘the grandfather’ as her father called him, would have done everything to ruin Murdoch financially and so Scott had been left behind. But she’d always pondered why Murdoch didn’t keep in touch. Why there weren’t letters written, why he hadn’t sent for the boy the day he’d turned twenty-one.
But the whys didn’t matter any more. They were here, now, and that was all that mattered. And as she sat there rocking in her favorite rocking chair, she found herself just a little jealous. It was a silly emotion, and she chided herself for it.
These two young men had been deprived of their family for their whole lives, and she was envious of them. She opened her eyes and looked down on the sleeping form of Johnny Lancer.
His dark hair fell over his forehead, and dark lashes lay in crescents against his pale cheeks. His breath was now smooth in sleep. She lay back in the chair and was being lulled by the rhythm of his breathing. She made herself a vow that as long as they were good to Murdoch, she’d do her best to make them as happy here as she had always been.
When Johnny woke the next morning there was a man between him and the window. As the dark shape took form in his pain and drug clouded mind he panicked. He shot forward on the bed trying to reach the gun he normally would have kept under his pillow.
He didn’t get far. Agony, as sharp as lightning, lanced up his spine and shot out the top of his head. He couldn’t suppress a groan. The dark shape was hovering over him and he tilted his head determined to meet what ever was coming, head on.
“Hey, shh, don’t try to move,” a soft voice whispered in his ear. Johnny fought back the prickles of burning heat in his eyes while the pain rippled over his back and down his arm. A warm hand caressed the back of his neck and then rubbed down his shoulders. “What do you want? What’s wrong?”
Johnny clenched his teeth and swallowed hard before grinding out, “Where’s my gun? I want my gun.”
“Okay, I’ll get it.” Murdoch patted his shoulder gently then got up to bring the gun and belt from the dresser and set it on the bed next to his youngest son. “Here it is,” Murdoch said as he picked up Johnny’s hand and set it over his weapon. But his son didn’t grab the gun. Instead those long fingers griped his hand and held tight.
“I’m not safe without it.” Johnny said with a grimace as he clung to the hand.
“Don’t worry,” Murdoch held the cool hand in his warm grasp, “You’re safe now. I’ll keep you safe,” the older man whispered.
“You’ll stand guard?”
“I’ll stand guard.” Murdoch reassured the younger man.
Johnny blinked and shifted his weight and pushed the gun a little closer to his father. “Keep it close. There’s a lot of back shooting going on around here,” his words echoing the ones he’d heard recently.
“I will.” Murdoch said glumly and picked up the gun and hung it over the bedpost. Murdoch strode over to the dresser and poured out a cup of tea. He knew there were a lot of things he didn’t know about his youngest son. There were folders full of information from various detectives he’d never been able to bring himself to read. He would read the cover letter which almost always ended the same, “currently unable to locate”, and file the rest away.
Murdoch slowly stirred some of the laudanum into the tea and knelt next to the bed. “Here, drink this,” he said as he held the cup to the younger man’s lips. Dutifully, Johnny drank down the bitter liquid. Murdoch didn’t move, but continued to watch his son as the medication began to take effect and his eyes drifted shut once more. Murdoch hesitated before reaching out to push the heavy dark hair from his son’s brow. Surprised to find that the hair was softer than it looked, he gazed down at the man before him.
It was startling to learn just how comfortable his twenty two-year-old son felt with a six-shooter and just how uncomfortable he was in trusting anyone. If only Johnny had been able to tell them his plan, he never would have believed his son had abandoned them.
Murdoch realized as he sat back down in his chair he would have to readjust the image of the sons he had constructed in his head and remember to accept these two young men for who they were, not what he wanted them to be.
Johnny drifted in and out of awareness. He remembered Teresa asking him if he could “drink this” and although he was pretty sure he’d responded in the affirmative, his next recollection was of Scott holding a bowl of broth. Johnny drank it down, but as he reopened his eyes it was Murdoch who was holding a glass of water. Sometimes the room was so bright it hurt his eyes, sometimes the only illumination came from moonlight.
Time was losing its meaning, and it was a feeling he didn’t like. He blinked rapidly and tried to force his addled brain to focus. When he recognized his surroundings once more, there was a stranger in the room. He looked up and saw his gun on the bedpost and stretched his arm out to reach it.
The stranger took his wrist in a warm grip. “Don’t worry, son, you don’t need that. You’re going to be just fine.”
Johnny licked his lips and forced his tired eyes open and squeaked out, “doctor?” from his parched throat.
“Yes, now hold still.” The doctor peeled back the bandage and examined the lesion. It was healing nicely and he knew his patient was no longer in any danger, unless he pulled out the sutures. With his hand over the wound he pressed gently. His patient made no sound but he could feel the muscles bunch and twitch under his hand. “Want to roll over?”
“More than you can ever know.” Johnny said wearily as the doctor snorted out a laugh.
“Let’s say I have a good imagination.” He kept his hand over the injury and with a groan and some muttered curse words, they managed to get the younger man turned over. “Can I imagine you staying in this bed for the next week?” the doctor asked as he assessed his patient with keen eyes.
“I don’t know if your imagination is that good, Doc,” Johnny responded lightly. “I’ll bet you can imagine a day of two for sure.”
“I could keep you drugged up enough you won’t be able to get out of bed,” the doctor said wryly.
“I imagine you could,” Johnny said glumly, “but I can also imagine you’re not the type to purposely make your patients cry, so…”
The doctor laughed again. He’d only known this young man for three days and most of those the boy had been unconscious, but he already liked the unpredictable young man. “All right, I won’t drug you, and you’ll use care about getting up and around, agreed?”
Johnny’s eyes were still heavy and he had to blink the extended hand into focus. He licked his lips once before shaking on the agreement. “Don’t worry, Doc, last thing I want is to be bedridden, honest.”
“Good, rest and eat. Those are my orders.”
“I’m pretty sure about the first, the second I can only do if I can keep my eyes open.” A warm smile spread slowly across the young man’s face flashing even white teeth. But the relief at being on his back was no match for his exhaustion and he quickly drifted back to sleep.
Johnny was slowly weaned off the medication, but continued to sleep through most of the next two days. Whenever he woke either Scott or Murdock or both were on hand for what ever he might need or want. It was a novel feeling, being doted over, and Johnny’s eyes followed both of them with barely suppressed amusement.
Scott found himself reluctant to leave the house. Not only was he worried Pardee’s men might have a lingering grudge to settle, but he felt the need to be near by. Recognizing his older son’s reluctance to leave his brothers’ side, Murdoch decided to let Scott learn the books. And Scott found it interesting to read over the account ledgers to see how the ranch had grown. He smiled to himself as he poured over antiquated bookkeeping techniques, but realized the process was sound.
Teresa had been completely unsuccessful in keeping the two men out of the sick room, so they set up a secretary desk and brought the work upstairs. They passed notes back and forth and discussed past success and failures, as well as future plans. Through it all Scott developed a new respect for his father. It made him wonder just why his grandfather disliked the man so much.
Late in the morning, Scott got to his feet and stretched. He gave his sleeping brother a quick glance before crossing to the window. As he took in the view of the of the barn and the meadow beyond he attempted to roll the out of his shoulders. As the vista spread before him he was filled with a sense of wonder. It was amazing to think of how his life had changed in such a sort period of time. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder to insure the younger man was still sleeping before turning back to admire the landscape.
So much had changed. How had he come to care for someone he barely knew so quickly? What was it about the cynical, arrogant, surreptitious young man that struck such a cord? Maybe it was the way the boy watched everything so carefully, while seemingly not paying much attention. Perhaps it was the casual slouch that was anything but casual. Maybe it was the stubborn independent streak that masked something much less skeptical than was apparent at first glance.
When he turned to check on his brother again he was startled to see two crystal blue eyes were staring back at him above a crooked half-smile. “So just what are you thinking about so serious?” Johnny asked with a raspy voice still heavy with sleep.
“Wondering what’s for lunch.” Scott said flippantly. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m stiff. Help me sit up.” Johnny shifted uneasily on the bed.
“I don’t know,” Scott said even as he moved to help his younger brother sit up and plumped the pillows behind Johnny’s back.
Johnny licked his lips and Scott was quick to fetch a glass of water. Johnny held it at arms’ length glaring at the liquid. “Don’t worry,” Scott said with a laugh, “there’s nothing in there but water.”
“I don’t like that laudanum. It makes me thick headed.” Johnny said with a frown. He shifted his shoulders, wincing when the movement pulled on the still healing wound.
Scott laughed, “I don’t think it’s the laudanum that makes you thick headed. I think it’s hereditary.” Grateful that his brother seemed alert and able to complete more than a two-word sentence Scott gave in to the temptation to tease the younger man. He perched on the edge of the bed and was relieved when it seemed to be received well as Johnny’s mouth twitched in amusement. “You should try to rest.”
“I’ve been doing nothing but. I don’t think I’ll sleep again till Christmas. ‘Sides, I’m hungry.”
“Who’s hungry?” Murdoch came in and leaned one broad shoulder against the doorframe, filling up the entryway.
Scott smiled as Johnny rolled his eyes dramatically, “I am. I’m starving to death. All those cows outside and not a single steak inside.”
Murdoch laughed. “Course not, that would be eating the profits. Now, maybe, we can find a few chicken bones you can gnaw on.”
Scott smiled, as the older man seemed to find it easy to tease Johnny, too. He watched as Johnny leaned his head back and covered his eyes with his arm.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m just going to lie here quietly and wither away,” Johnny said with a dramatic groan that would have made any melodrama actor proud.
Scott smirked, “that’d be a change if he laid there quietly, don’t you think, Murdock? He’s done nothing but groan and moan for the last few days.” Scott teased as Johnny had barely made a peep.
“Now Scott, a man gets shot it entitles him to a little complaining, don’t you think?” Murdock was amazed at the easy comaradie that warmed the room like sunshine.
“I suppose.” Scott said attempting to suppress the twitch of his lips and failing miserably.
“So, we’ve decided that I’m allowed to complain, but I’m not allowed to eat is that it?” Johnny inquired with a frown.
“Who won’t let you eat?” Teresa said with a glare at Scott and Murdoch as she skirted around Murdoch with natural grace.
Johnny shifted down against the pillows. “They won’t let me eat,” he said forlornly.
It was all Scott could do not to laugh out loud at the out-right audacity of the performance occurring before him.
Teresa stood close to his bedside and put her hand on his forehead. She took a moment and looked him over carefully and he did his best to meet her gaze. Happy with her assessment she offered him a gentle smile. “I’ll go get you something.”
“You’re an angel from heaven,” Johnny said with a smile before turning serious, “but it’s gonna be something more than broth, right?”
She looked him over and a slow smile spread across her face before she nodded. “I’ll be right back.” She skipped past Murdcoh and headed out the door.
Murdoch came fully into the room and perched on the other edge of the bed. There was a long silence that filled every corner of the room as each of them pondered their own thoughts. Johnny shifted one more time. “If I have to lay here much longer I’m gonna climb the walls.” He said firmly. Both Murdoch and Scott laughed. “How soon before I can get up?”
Murdoch pursed his lips before he answered. “It’ll be day or two yet, son. And then you’ll still have to take it easy.” Murdoch found he liked the way ‘son’ just rolled off his tongue. He’d said it in his head dozens of times, but he liked the sound of it out loud
Johnny frowned and rolled his eyes. He’d actually enjoyed the pampering he’d gotten in the beginning. In the past when he’d been injured he’d hole up in a hotel room and struggle to take care of himself. This time he’d soaked up the attention like a bar room towel. But he’d had enough hovering and fussing and just ached to get up and stretch his legs.
Scott patted his brothers’ leg in sympathy. “Do you play chess?” Scott asked with a pang of regret at how little they all knew about each other.
“Yeah.” Johnny’s voice held a note of hesitation.
“Then after lunch I’ll play you,” Scott said with a smile.
“Do you play Murdoch?” Johnny asked casting his glance to the other side of the bed.
Murdoch nodded. “I’ve been known to play a game or two in my day.”
Johnny smiled an interesting little smile as he thought of the afternoon’s entertainment. He was good at the game, a game he’d learned that could tell you an awful lot about your opponent.
Teresa joined them in Johnny’s room for lunch. They set up tables around the bed and Teresa gave Johnny a heavily laden tray. She was pleased to see that he ate heartily. He even slapped Scott’s hand away when his brother tried to steal his pie. As a good hostess she kept the conversation moving and light until she got up to clear away the dishes.
Murdock left with her to get the board and brought it upstairs. Johnny watched as Scott helped to clear away the dishes and when he came back he dragged a table closer to the bed and set up the pieces. He cocked his head as he pondered all the trouble these people were going to, for him.
“I’ll try not to trounce you, little brother.” Scott said with a smirk.
“No such promises,” Johnny shot back.
Murdoch pulled his chair over to the window and opened his book and propped up his leg. He hadn’t even noticed the ache in the last few days. Perhaps here was the medicine that no doctor could prescribe. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon as he barely paid attention to the story and listened to his two son’s banter.
An hour later, Johnny could barely keep his eyes open and Scott found he was losing the game. “Give it up, brother,” Johnny said softly. “You’ve lost.”
Scott scowled at the board. “No, there’s still game left.”
Rising, Murdoch moved to Johnny’s side. He longed to caress the dark head beside him, but he held back, looking over the game board instead.
“There’s game, but you’re still going to lose. Give it up,” Johnny said again.
“No,” Scott said firmly glaring at the board as if willing the pieces to tell him some way out of his predicament.
studied the game more closely. He could see Johnny was right.
There were maybe five or six moves left in the game and there was little
chance that Scott would win.
“Give it up, Scott, he’s beaten you.”
Scott glared at the board one last time before tipping his king over with a sigh. “You play a good game, brother. Who taught you?”
Johnny, even in his exhausted state, didn’t miss the tension that rapidly filled the man standing beside him. “Just picked it up,” he said vaguely. How hard it must be for a father to know other people had raised his children, other people had taught his children the things he would have wanted them to know. Uncomfortable with seeing his father in this new light Johnny worried his bottom lip between his teeth.
Scott narrowed his eyes, but didn’t say anything as he started to put the chess pieces back in their velvet lined box. “I’d like to know,” Murdoch said softly as if reading his youngest son’s thoughts.
Johnny flicked his eyes upward and studied the older man’s face before he let a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Well actually I first learned when I was a kid, but just how to move the pieces around. Then when I was in jail in … San Felipe… no Cabrillo and there was this man in the other cell… Brett Taker…” Johnny paused again, this time much longer as his eyes took on a faraway look. “He taught me the finer points of the game. He called it “strategy” and told me about reading the other player and anticipation and subterfuge. He taught me a lot.”
As Scott got up to put the board away and move the table back where it belonged, Murdoch took his place at the foot of Johnny’s bed. Returning Scott sat down next to his brother, his back against the headboard. He pulled his long legs up on the mattress, crossed at the ankle with just his booted feet off the edge, so as not to dirty the quilt.
“What were you in jail for?” Murdoch asked hesitantly. He knew they were treading on new ground and he didn’t know just how much Johnny would reveal.
“Public nuisance, or something.” Johnny shook his head. “I don’t remember. I do remember it was thirty days of three meals a day and a place to sleep.”
“How old were you?”
Johnny frowned and squirmed. He was trying to be as honest as he could about his past with his new family. They had to suspect some things and he wanted to be as forthright as possible, but it wasn’t in his nature to talk about himself, and he didn’t want them to think any worse of him than they already did. “I was…” he sighed. “Eleven maybe twelve.”
Scott blinked and caught his father’s eye. His unspoken question of ‘who would do that to a child?’ hung unasked in the air. “Twelve?” Outrage tinged his voice.
Johnny nodded. “I’d been on my own for awhile by then. I think I got caught swiping food, or something. I don’t remember.” Johnny’s words came out fast as he quickly thought of a way to change the subject. “Who taught you?” he said with a glance to his brother.
Scott read the desperate need to move on to other things in his younger brother’s eyes. “Grandfather taught me the basics, but I learned more from Dave Haskell. He was a college chum of mine.” Scott flicked his glance up to his father. “And who taught you?” he asked with a half grin, ‘your turn’ clearly written on his face.
“My father, your grandfather, taught me the basics, but I learned more from a man I worked with in Abilene, Joe Barker.” Murdoch shifted around on the mattress so that his back was against the bedpost.
Johnny shifted, too, and slid down the length of the bed, tuned on his side and rested his head on Scott’s thigh. Scott blinked away a startled expression and looked up at his father who was almost as surprised. Scott took a quick moment to steal Johnny’s pillows and put one behind his back and pass the other to his father, who did the same. “Tell us about the man in Abilene.” Johnny said wearily.
Murdoch had to blink away the sudden image of a groggy two year old trying to delay bedtime with “tell a story, papa”. Murdoch nodded and began to tell them all about Sheriff Barker and his time as deputy sheriff.
Copyright July 2000
“In the Beginning”