Johnny toed his left boot off and kicked it a few feet away. The muddy and scuffed footwear skidded beneath the edge of his bed. Grasping the heel and toe of his right boot, he tugged and pulled until it finally released his aching foot with a waft of definitely odorous socks. Quickly dropping his foot to the floor, Johnny wrinkled his nose at the gamy smell of his feet. He then took a brief sniff of his underarms and actually groaned as his head snapped upward again.
Stumbling his way across his darkened bedroom to the basin and water pitcher he kept on his dresser, Johnny cursed beneath his breath at finding the pitcher was empty. With a heavy sigh of disgust, he set the pitcher back down inside the basin with a resounding clunk that probably caused a crack or two in the porcelain. Knowing that Teresa usually kept a large pot of water on the stove at all times, Johnny huffed another sigh and grabbed up the pitcher again and tucked it beneath his arm as he headed downstairs.
He was tired, sore and extremely hungry, the last thing he wanted to do was have to trek about the house in his smelly socks in order to find some lukewarm water in which to bathe. But, having endured Teresa’s wrath one time too many because he’d gone to bed dirty and smelly, Johnny turned and trudged down the dimly lit staircase and made his cautious way to the kitchen without incident.
Lighting a candle once he was in the dark as pitch kitchen, Johnny set the pitcher down on the table and looked toward the stove to see the large pot sitting there. A grateful smile flitted across Johnny’s lips like an elusive butterfly as he lifted the pitcher from the table and moved to the stove and the pot sitting there. His grateful smile was immediately doused at finding the pot was bone dry.
Setting the container down on the stove with a definite clang of metal on metal, ignoring the fact that Teresa’s room was nearby and that he might disturb her sleep, Johnny actually growled in frustration as he grabbed up his pitcher and had to forcibly restrain himself from heaving it across the room into the adobe wall there. Once again tucking the porcelain pitcher in his arms, he headed back up the stairs to his bed, deciding that if Teresa said a word about his dirty self sleeping on her clean sheets he would deal with it then. Right now he was just too sore and too tired to worry too much about it.
With a decidedly loud thump, Johnny shut his door and nearly took his little toe off on the footboard of his bed as he stalked across his room in order to put the pitcher back on the dresser. Hanging onto the pitcher with his right hand, he hopped around on his left foot as he cradled his injured foot in his hand. Momentum sent him stumbling into the bed where the pitcher was juggled out of his arms. It bounced a couple of times on the mattress, and then took a slow dive, hitting the floor with a resounding crash.
Before he could right himself, his hand still wrapped around his aching foot, Johnny’s bedroom door flew open to reveal his brother standing there with his Colt revolver held steadily in his right hand, an obviously hastily pulled on robe barely covering his nearly naked body. Scott’s sleep-shrouded eyes quickly swept the room and just as quickly assessed any potential danger. At finding nothing out of the ordinary in Johnny’s room, Scott lowered the Colt to his side and wrinkled his nose dramatically.
“What in the world is that smell, brother?” Scott exclaimed and then quickly shifted out of the doorway as Murdoch careened through the open bedroom door and nearly bowled Scott over. Though Murdoch wore a nightshirt, his condition appeared to be just as disheveled as his eldest son, though his gray eyes seemed more alert as he eyed Johnny, who was still standing by his bed with his foot cradled in his hand.
“It smells like something DIED in here!” Murdoch stated gruffly as he leaned over to peer suspiciously beneath the bed, as if to find a dead rat or something equally as disgusting there. He saw the remains of the pitcher on the floor on the other side of the bed and he looked at his youngest son a bit impatiently. “Well? What’s going on in here, John?”
Johnny hated it when his father spoke to him in that tone, using Johnny’s proper name, too. Lowering his head, Johnny then eased his foot to the floor before turning his back on his family and slowly and deliberately sat down on the bed. As if he didn’t have a curious audience, Johnny pulled of his socks and tossed them as far away as he could before plopping down on his back across the mattress with a weary sigh.
“Nothin’ is goin’ on,” he muttered as he dragged his left arm up over his eyes when someone lit a candle and brought it close to the bed.
“Johnny! What happened to you?” Scott gasped as soon as he held the candle close in order to get a good look at his brother.
Johnny was covered in caked on green, slimy-looking mud, his favorite red shirt was torn at the left shoulder and had several buttons missing. From the meager light of the candle, Scott could see a painful looking bruise taking shape beneath the open edges of Johnny’s shirt.
“Murdoch, light the lamp,” Scott ordered his father, his tone conveying that he would brook no arguments. He leaned over Johnny, despite the definite stench emanating from his little brother’s body, and carefully parted the shirt a bit more so that he could take a closer look. With his free hand, he gently prodded the colorful bruising and could see that it was beginning to swell. It looked very painful and Johnny appeared to be beyond miserable.
After shooting his eldest a glaring scowl for ordering him about, Murdoch quickly lit the lamp by Johnny’s bed and then turned to look down at his youngest. Murdoch’s breath caught in the back of his throat at his first sight of the injured young man.
Johnny stubbornly remained on his back, his arm draped over his eyes as he endured Scott’s fingers gently probing the injury to his ribs. He wanted nothing more than to swat those pain-producing, prodding fingers away and tell Scott and Murdoch to get the hell out of his room. He was in no mood to play nice, especially now that Scott’s poking and prodding had managed to awaken nerves that had been blissfully numb up until that moment. A low, pain filled groan escaped Johnny’s tight control when Scott’s fingers hit a particularly sensitive area and Johnny’s right hand snaked down to slap the hand away.
“LEAVE IT!” Johnny hissed as he dropped his left arm to his side to turn a blue-eyed glare on his brother, whom he knew only had his best interest at heart.
Scott exchanged a quick glance with Murdoch before easing down on the bed by Johnny’s hip. “Johnny, have you taken a look at yourself in the mirror?” Scott asked softly, tentatively, as if he were speaking to a skittish child.
“Don’t have to,” Johnny muttered as his tongue snaked out to lick at his dry, cracked lips. He could feel the skin around his left eye swelling and knew that by morning he would most likely not be able to see out of that eye.
“Son, look at me,” Murdoch called softly, the tone so totally foreign to both young me that turned startled blue eyes on their father as if he had actually divulged his love for his so.
Turning his head with a wince of pain, Johnny could only stare in wonder at the concern clearly written on his father’s face. He opened his mouth to speak, but Murdoch spoke first.
“If I find out that you’ve been shirking your duties to ride into town for a free-for-all at the saloon…” The rest of the intended lecture was cut off when Scott leapt to his feet and grabbed a double fistful of his father’s nightshirt and shoved him backward toward the door.
“GET OUT!” Scott snarled as he released his hold on Murdoch and stood glaring angrily at the man when their father didn’t immediately do as he was ordered. “I SAID GET OUT NOW!” Fully expecting his command to be followed, Scott turned his back on Murdoch to sit back down on the edge of Johnny’s bed again, only to have his right shoulder grasped in a viselike grip. Before he knew what was happening, Murdoch had whipped him around to face him.
“You do NOT order me around in my own home, young man,” Murdoch growled in a deceptively low voice, his eyes practically shooting sparks, he was so angry. Maintaining a punishing grip on Scott’s shoulder, Murdoch then pushed the startled man up against the wall, dislodging a small pencil drawing of the ranch that Teresa had placed there. Murdoch opened his mouth to continue his tirade, only to be stopped abruptly by the unmistakable click of the hammer of a revolver being cocked.
“Let ‘im go, Old Man,” Johnny hissed lowly, his voice filled with menace. Johnny’s blue eyes were devoid of emotion when Murdoch looked back over his shoulder to make sure his ears weren’t deceiving him. Taking in the unwavering Colt in Johnny’s hand, Murdoch instantly dropped the punishing grip from Scott’s shoulder. The younger man slumped against the wall with relief, his right hand reaching up to massage his tingling arm. “Now get out of here, the both of ya.”
Scott’s startled blue eyes darted to his brother in disbelief. He started to protest his ejection from the room, but Johnny had obviously had enough.
“OUT!” He waved the barrel of the Colt toward the open doorway and looked expectantly at them, his left eye swollen to a mere slit.
“Johnny…” Scott pleaded, only to be met with that one-eyed glare. Scott turned to glare at Murdoch before grabbing hold of his father’s shirt sleeve, dragging the older, much heavier man toward the doorway. He looked quickly around his father’s girth at Johnny. “I’ll bring you some water, brother.”
“Don’t bother,” Johnny snapped as he eased his tired and weary body up into a sitting position, the Colt unwaveringly aimed about two feet to the left of his father and brother. He never had any intentions of shooting anyone, of course, but then he was sorely tempted when Murdoch balked at the doorway, only to be shoved from behind by Scott when he caught the irritated expression on his brother’s face. “And shut the door!” Johnny added as the two older men stumbled out into the hallway.
Scott eased Johnny’s door shut and then stood with his back against the portal as Murdoch strode angrily back to his room, his bare feet hitting the hardwood floor with resounding slaps until he slammed the door shut behind him.
Listening intently to what was going on inside Johnny’s room with his ear pressed against the thick wooden door, Scott nearly tumbled into the room when the door was flung open again. Now Johnny looked ready to commit murder.
“J-Johnny…” Scott gasped as he worked at righting himself without having to grab for his brother’s arm. Johnny quickly shot a hard hand out and shoved it against Scott’s chest sending the blond staggering upright, stopping him in his tracks. He took another glance at Johnny and realized that he had never seen his little brother so angry.
Scrambling out of Johnny’s path, Scott could only watch as the younger man shouldered past, his saddlebags held tightly grasped in his left hand.
“Wh-where are you going?” Scott asked as he quickly followed his angry brother to the head of the stairs where Scott was once again stopped in his tracks, only this time by Johnny’s cold glare.
“Out!” Johnny growled through gritted teeth before he pivoted on his heel and stomped down the stairs to be swallowed by the darkness below. Small clods of dirt littered the stairway and Scott’s stunned mind pondered what Teresa would have to say about finding them there in the morning.
Scott stood staring down into the darkness for what seemed like hours, but was, in reality, only minutes. The sound of Murdoch’s door sliding open with a quick snick pulled Scott out of his stupor and he turned to look at his father standing there in the doorway.
“Did he leave?” Murdoch inquired sadly, his eyes dropping from Scott’s and peering down the stairs when the front door was slammed shut.
“Yes.” Performing a precise about-face, Scott stalked to his bedroom and shut his door with a resounding crash.
Murdoch stood in his open doorway for a several moments and then was rewarded for his patience when Scott came storming out of his room again, now fully dressed. Hastily tucking the tail of his shirt the rest of the way into his pants, Scott didn’t see his father as Murdoch quietly slipped back into his room and closed the door without a sound. Murdoch wore a halfhearted smile knowing that if anyone could keep Johnny from leaving Lancer, it was Scott.
Taking the steps two at a time, Scott was downstairs before he could finish tucking in his shirt. He hurried over to the rack by the door and grabbed up his holster and gun with one hand as he snatched his hat up and onto his head with the other. Throwing the gun belt around his hips, Scott quickly had it buckled and set in place before opening the door just as Johnny rode out of the yard bay on a bay gelding the younger man had been training. Scott slumped with relief against the doorframe as he watched the horse break into a smooth, ground eating lope as soon as Johnny reached the Lancer arch.
“Brother, where are you going?” Scott whispered as he hurried toward the barn, his fears relieved as he realized that Johnny would never permanently leave Lancer without taking Barranca with him.
Guiding the bay off the main road, Johnny let the gelding have his head as it headed straight for the gurgling stream up ahead. Once the horse stopped at the water’s edge, Johnny dismounted and removed his saddlebags from the saddle before dropping the reins to the ground so the horse could drink to his heart’s content and graze on the lush patch of grass along the bank. Having trained the horse to ground tie, Johnny didn’t worry that he’d be left behind if something were to happen to spook the animal.
Speaking softly to the horse as he walked around him, Johnny ran a gentle hand along the bay’s left flank as he headed for the cool stream. Dropping the saddlebags onto the bank, Johnny sat gingerly on the ground beside them with an audible sigh and a wince of pain as he carefully prodded his ribs with the fingers of his right hand. He figured that at least one of his ribs was cracked, possibly more. He grimaced as he left off his self-exam and started working on the mud-caked buttons up the center of his shirt.
By the time he was fully undressed, Johnny felt like growling in frustration as he gingerly stepped into the cold water of the swiftly moving stream. He immediately stepped on a sharp rock that was unseen in the darkness. Cursing beneath his breath, he kicked the rock aside with the edge of his foot and eased himself into the middle of the stream where he knew it would at least reach his thighs. As soon as he reached his destination he dropped his chin to his chest and sighed heavily before raising his head to look forlornly at the saddlebags containing his soap and scrub brush sitting on the bank.
“Hey, caballo,” Johnny called out hopefully to the bay as it contentedly munched on the grass along the stream’s bank. “Could ya get that soap for me?”
Suddenly a chill shivered up Johnny’s spine at the sound of metal against stone. His eyes shot toward his rig lying atop his pile of discarded clothing and Johnny immediately started wading noisily toward the bank. He had only gotten halfway there when he stepped on a moss-covered stone and went down to his knees just as a large shadowy form emerged from the trees lining the stream.
“Well, did the horse get the soap for you, brother?” Scott asked sarcastically as he slid from the saddle and strode purposefully to the saddlebags. Rummaging through first one side of the bags and then the other, he quickly pulled out a bar of soap and a handled brush. “This what you’re looking for?”
By the time Scott rode into his impromptu camp Johnny knew there was no danger. He found a flat rock on which to sit and gestured for his brother to toss the soap and brush to him. To Johnny’s chagrin, after Scott had seen the brush and soap safely in his brother’s hand, Scott settled quietly on the bank beside the saddlebags as if he was there to stay.
Ignoring the quiet man as Scott laid back on the grass, his arms cradling his head as he stared up through the leafy canopy of trees and looked at the stars shining brightly in the light of the half moon. Neither man spoke and all that was heard was the scratching sound of Johnny’s scrubbing away the mud caked on his body.
When he had thoroughly rinsed his twice washed hair, Johnny figured it wasn’t going to get any cleaner. Tossing the brush and soap in the vicinity of where his brother lay, he almost laughed when the soap landed precisely in Scott’s lap, making the blond jump in surprise, as if he’d fallen asleep.
Sitting up quickly, Scott stared in puzzlement at the slippery bar of soap as if he wondering how it had gotten there. As Johnny cautiously picked his way to the stream’s edge, Scott lifted the sticky bar of soap out of his lap and set it down on the pile of dirty clothes. He then pilfered through the saddlebags again for the toweling he’d seen earlier. Pulling it out, he handed the cloth to his brother as Johnny climbed up on the bank.
“Are you all right?” Scott asked quietly, his concerned eyes on the hideous bruising over his brother’s ribs as Johnny quickly and efficiently smoothed the towel over his body. Scott noted the extra care Johnny took near the bruises on his side and chest, mentally predicting his brother’s response to his question with one hundred percent accuracy.
“’m fine,” Johnny mumbled as he quickly toweled his hair and then threw the cloth down on the grassy bank to sit upon it. He fished out a clean pair of socks and a cut off pair of long johns, but he didn’t immediately pull them on. Instead he sat with the forgotten clothing in his lap, his legs jackknifed before him as he gazed across the stream as if lost deeply in thought.
“What happened today, brother?” Scott’s voice was soft and calm as he reclined back on his elbows, his eyes following Johnny’s to gaze at the darkness on the other side of the stream.
Johnny snorted what Scott supposed was a laugh, but turned into a pain filled yelp when his ribs protested the sudden movement. He sat up straighter and began tugging on his underwear before slipping his socks onto his cold feet. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told ya, Boston,” he muttered as he turned to pull a clean shirt and a pair of jeans out of the saddlebags on the ground beside his brother. Slipping his arms into the shirt, he left it unbuttoned as he held the jeans in his hands, looking thoughtfully down at the brass rivets on the pockets. Picking at one of them with his thumbnail, Johnny chanced a quick glance at Scott. Instead of the wry grin he expected to see there, Scott’s face held an expression of concern as his blue-gray eyes held Johnny’s for a full minute before Johnny looked back down at the jeans held tightly in his hands.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Scott said quietly, his tone one of complete understanding.
“It’s no big deal,” Johnny answered just as softly, his voice barely heard over the noise of the stream. He sighed and carefully touched the tender area on his cheek that had predictably swollen his eye shut, despite the chilly bath he’d just endured. “A steer caught me unaware when I was picking a stone outta Barranca’s hoof.” Johnny’s hand went from his face to his ribs and cautiously smoothed over the swelling there. “He rammed me in the chest and sent me into a mud wallow the herd had made of the waterhole.”
“Did this steer happen to have horns, Johnny?” Scott asked calmly, though his heart was racing at the thought that his brother might have been gored when there was no one around to help him.
“Yeah.” His brother’s whispered confirmation sent chills down Scott’s spine and he had to restrain himself from reaching out to lift Johnny’s shirt gently flapping in the evening breeze, just to make sure his brother hadn’t suffered a worse injury than a couple of cracked ribs and a black eye.
“You hurt anywhere else?” Scott found himself sitting up and turning toward his brother in one smooth movement when Johnny gasped and lay back against the grass when he tried to draw in too deep a breath. “Hey, take it easy!” Scott urged calmly as he took the jeans out of Johnny’s grasp and set them aside.
“’m okay,” Johnny ground out as he pushed Scott’s exploring fingers away. “It’s just a couple of cracked ribs. I breathed in too deep, that’s all.”
“Just hold still,” Scott growled sternly as he leapt to his feet and hurried over to his horse and removed his saddlebags. He then knelt beside his brother and quickly dug through the bags to find his spare shirt. Tearing it into wide strips, he turned back to Johnny, an expectant gleam in his eyes. “I’m going to need you to sit up again, brother.”
“I’m comfortable right here, Scott.” Johnny seemed comfortable enough to look ready to fall asleep, but Scott wasn’t having any of it.
“No, sir. I need to wrap those ribs and you know it.” Holding out his left hand, Scott waited patiently until Johnny hissed out a disgusted sigh and then slipped his hand into Scott’s. Gently pulling the injured man upright, Scott kept a close eye on Johnny’s facial expressions to make sure he wasn’t hurting his brother. When he was finally upright, Scott released his hold and began wrapping the cloth strips around Johnny’s ribs and chest.
“That isn’t too tight, is it, brother?” Scott asked when he’d finally tied off the last of the strips and sat back to look at his handiwork.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Johnny told him, his voice coming out in a breathless hiss.
“You’re a lousy liar, Johnny,” Scott said with an affectionate grin as he adjusted the cloth binding and smiled knowingly at his brother when Johnny breathed a sigh of relief without wincing. Scott then guided Johnny to his feet and helped him slip his legs into the jeans, leaving Johnny to slide the rather tight fabric up over his hips and to button the fly for himself. After all, there was just so much one brother should do for another.
“Well? Where to next?” Scott inquired as Johnny finished strapping his gun belt around his slender hips.
“’m kinda tired, Boston,” Johnny muttered as he stuffed his feet into his boots and carefully leaned over to pick his hat up from the ground. “Thought I would head home to bed.”
Scott grinned broadly, as if Johnny had just said the most intelligent thing. Stopping his hand just shy of clapping his brother on the back, Scott quickly dropped the arm to his side as he walked over to gather up Johnny’s reins and his own.
“Then let’s get home, little brother. I expect tomorrow is going to come way too early for us.” Handing Johnny’s reins to him, Scott waited for his brother to mount before swinging atop his own horse and following quietly out of the copse of trees and back onto the road.
Murdoch eased his bedroom door open slightly at the first sound of muffled footsteps on the stairs. Peeking through the open slit, he sighed with heartfelt relief to see his youngest son walking up the stairs beside his brother, his arm slung casually around Scott’s waist and Scott’s lying companionably across Johnny’s shoulders. The older man eased his door closed quietly and made his way back to his bed, breathing a grateful prayer that his boys were back home. He had determined earlier that he and Johnny would have a long, overdue discussion in the morning, and though he didn’t look forward to the coming confrontation, Murdoch knew that if he wanted to keep his boys at Lancer, it had to be done. Closing his eyes, Murdoch smiled contentedly upon hearing Johnny quietly calling goodnight to his brother.
Maybe tomorrow wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Created August 8, 2008
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