Riding through the south pasture, Johnny kept a wary eye out for any of the cagey cattle who had learned to evade the round up two weeks earlier. These steers and cows had adapted well to the thick brush and hot temperatures found in the south pasture. Dust billowed up from each step of Barranca’s hooves, sending the fine particles of powdery-like sand into the air to choke a man if he didn’t keep a bandana tied over his nose and mouth. It had been hot and dry in the San Joaquin Valley and Johnny was already feeling the heat, even though it wasn’t even close to noon, yet.
As Barranca plodded along, Johnny shifted his hat to the back of his head, but then immediately resettled it over his eyes when the bright mid-morning sun seemed to stab through his head like a knife. Pressing the fingers of his left hand against a throbbing ache in his left temple, Johnny sighed heavily and nearly choked on a mouthful of dust when a hot, sultry breeze lifted the edge of his dirt-caked bandana just as he inhaled.
“Whoa, boy,” Johnny called hoarsely to his horse as he gave the reins a gentle pull back to reiterate his words when Barranca continued his forward pace. Unwrapping his canteen from the saddle horn, Johnny jerked the dusty bandana covering his nose and mouth down in order to rinse his mouth out with the now-tepid water. Spitting the gritty water into the dust at Barranca’s feet, the dark-haired man then took another, deeper drink and swallowed it gratefully, the too-warm liquid at least providing some measure of comfort to his parched and itchy throat.
Taking his hat from his head, in an attempt to relieve the throbbing going on within, Johnny used the brim in a futile attempt to stir up a breeze. All he got for his efforts was a fine coating of dust that floated through the air from the hat and an undeniable desire to find a deep, cool spring-fed pool of water and dive into its depths. Unfortunately Johnny was well aware that there wasn’t any such thing in the south pasture, so he resituated his hat and hooked the canteen back over the saddle horn again before gently nudging Barranca’s sides with his spurs to get the sluggish horse moving.
As they neared a stand of boulders, Johnny eyed a large expanse of brambles that had began shaking slightly as they drew closer. Keeping a wary eye on the brush, he eased Barranca closer and made out the shape of a large bovine creature peering at him through the nearly dry vegetation. The movement spooked the horse beneath him and Johnny’s left hand automatically reached out to close around the saddle horn in an instinctive reaction, however the thick strap of the canteen suddenly unraveled and slapped against Barranca’s left shoulder before tumbling to the ground with a sloshing thump. The palomino, already nervously eyeing the shifting brush, jumped sideways, away from the canteen.
Somewhat prepared for the horse’s defensive movement, Johnny’s hand tightened around the saddle horn just as the huge steer crashed through the brambles and charged at the hated horse and rider. Johnny didn’t stand a chance when Barranca seemed to jump straight up into the air, his back humped, and then crow-hopped several feet before throwing up his hind quarters and sending his hapless rider sailing through the air toward the boulders Johnny had been looking at earlier. Barranca then stood shivering in fear as the steer took off in the opposite direction, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.
Landing hard on his left side, Johnny heard the snap of his left arm as he threw it out in an effort to control his fall. He had known it was a wasted effort, but instinct had kicked in and he couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d tried. Besides, he didn’t have time to even think as the ground suddenly came up to meet him. As soon as the left arm snapped and gave, Johnny’s head hit next and then the rest of his body impacted the hard, dusty ground. He was unconscious before his body came to a complete stop as it rolled over lifelessly, his face now unprotected from the dust cloud surrounding him, or the brilliantly blinding sun.
It was the soft grass-scented snort that brought Johnny to his senses as Barranca nudged the injured man on the cheek with his nose. Johnny’s head shifted slightly and the worried horse nickered lightly as he lipped the dust-covered dark hair hanging over his friend’s forehead. The coppery scent of blood that trickled from a cut on Johnny’s left temple made the horse nervous, but not to the point of ever leaving Johnny’s side.
Then came the sound that was sure to send fear ratcheting into pure terror for the palomino. The dry, rustling rattle of a snake. Shifting his large hooves dangerously near Johnny’s head and upper body, Barranca turned in a tight circle as he searched for the evil creature that would have normally sent him bolting for the safety of home. However, with his reins trailing the ground, the horse was too well-trained to do anything but stand nervously near the man lying too quietly at his feet.
Johnny groaned lowly and tried to push himself into an upright position, only to fall back to the ground with a harsh shout of pain as he was suddenly reminded of the break in his lower left arm. Cradling the injured limb to his chest with his right hand he lay on his back, eyes clenched tightly, as wave after wave of excruciating pain shafted through him from his arm, his head and even his back. A lone tear trailed through the dust down the side of his sun blistered face at the pain, though he didn’t make another sound.
He never heard the ominous warning rattle from the snake until it was too late.
Having drawn up his right leg in an attempt to alleviate the pain radiating down his spine to his right thigh, Johnny inadvertently moved the leg within striking distance of the rattlesnake and, before he could fathom what the new pain was, the snake had struck his right leg just above the top of his leather boot.
Suddenly Barranca whinnied shrilly, rearing up on his hind legs and coming down astraddle Johnny, his front hooves pounding the rattlesnake into the ground until there was nothing left but bits of skin and blood.
Johnny had opened his eyes at Barranca’s whinny and, for one horrifying moment, thought the horse had gone loco and was about to trample him. He made an abortive movement to get out of the horse’s path, but unwisely used his broken left arm to do so and lost consciousness as soon as his battered head hit the hard packed earth again.
Once again the soft snorting of his horse pulled Johnny up out of the depths of darkness, only to open his eyes to find that daylight had given in to night while he was out. There was only a sliver of a moon to give any source of light and even that was slowly being obscured by a bank of ominous-looking clouds.
“Hey, there, amigo,” Johnny whispered to Barranca when the horse gently lipped his cheek, leaving moisture that sent a chill through Johnny’s fever-heated body. Moaning as soon as his aching body began to shiver with fever, the injured man knew that time was of the essence if he were to survive the night.
Rolling painstakingly over onto his right side, Johnny ground his teeth together against the nausea that burned a hot trail up the back of his throat as his arm, leg and head began to throb with every beat of his sluggish heart. Swallowing convulsively past the bile rising in his throat, Johnny finally made it to his knees, using only his right arm as a lever to get him there. Panting heavily, he coughed roughly from the dust cloud his movement sent up around him.
“Com’ here, boy,” Johnny rasped when he could finally draw in a breath of clear air. With his chin resting on his chest, he looked the very picture of misery as, despite the chill shivering through his body, trails of sweat trickled down the side of his face and soaked the blue flower-print shirt along his aching back and under his arm pits. As Barranca cautiously walked up at Johnny’s softly spoken words, the horse was careful not to step on his friend.
Raising his right hand into the air took a great amount of time and energy, both of which Johnny found to be in very short supply and he couldn’t figure out how a broken arm could drain him like that. He’d had broken limbs before, but none had ever effected him like this. Finally grabbing hold of the left stirrup dangling just over his bowed head, Johnny held on tight as he readied himself to get to his unsteady feet and pull himself into the saddle.
It should have been a simple matter of standing up, but, for some reason, his right leg buckled beneath him, sending him nearly sprawling back to the ground if not for his near-death grip on the stirrup. Gasping harshly through the blinding pain in his left arm, he pressed his forehead against the wooden stirrup, feeling the edge biting hard into the sunburned skin there.
Gathering himself for one more try, Johnny finally managed to pull himself up so that he was leaning heavily against the horse, his death grip now shifted to the skirt of the saddle and the leather tie-down strings affixed there. Wrapping one of the long straps around his hand he prayed that Barranca wouldn’t move or he would be right back on the ground with no energy to try again. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he was aware it wasn’t just a broken arm. The thought of having a debilitating back injury niggled in his aching brain, but he pushed the thought aside as he had to concentrate on heaving his weary body into the saddle before Barranca took it into his head to move.
“Hold still, amigo,” Johnny crooned in a dry croak, his throat now as dry as the dusty ground beneath his feet. Shifting his hold to the cantle of the saddle, he continued to press his sweat-slicked forehead against the cool leather of the fender and tried to gather what little strength he had left in order to get himself into the saddle. He knew, once astride the horse, Barranca would see him home safely, as long as he stayed in the saddle.
As if reading Johnny’s mind, Barranca nickered lowly and turned his golden head to look curiously at his friend, as if to ask what was taking him so long.
“Lo siento, compadre,” Johnny whispered, his voice barely heard by his own ears, but the palomino seemed to have heard him for he snorted softly and turned his head back around to face forward without moving his big body.
Gripping the cantle with white-knuckled fingers, Johnny drew in as deep a breath as he could and slowly dragged his left leg into the air to slip his booted foot into the stirrup. For a heart-stopping moment Johnny felt his right leg buckling again, but with a strength he didn’t know he still possessed, he hauled himself into the saddle, throwing his right leg quickly over the other side and shifting his right hand to the pummel of the saddle in order to maintain his questionable balance.
Taking one step forward, Barranca quickly shifted his weight as he tried to balance the wavering man upon his back in order to keep Johnny from tumbling to the ground again. Many a time the palomino had carried his friend home after a night of revelry in one of the saloons in town and tonight it had become Barranca’s responsibility to see Johnny home safely in just such a manner.
Johnny moaned at Barranca’s slight movement, the nausea increasing to the point that he could no longer keep it at bay. Leaning as far forward as he could without tossing himself from his precarious position in the saddle, Johnny gagged and vomited, though nothing was on his stomach since he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast that morning. Just the thought of that plateful of huevos rancheros was enough to send him retching again until he was moaning from a new pain in his chest from dry heaves.
With some last, desperate part of his pounding brain, Johnny untied his lariat and carefully, meticulously looped the lasso around his waist and then tied himself to the saddle horn and the cantle. He didn’t know how effective it would be if he lost consciousness, but it was all he could do as he then set Barranca in motion with a weak nudge of his left spur. Then, leaning his head over the horse’s white-blond mane, Johnny allowed Barranca to carry him home as best he could.
Teresa had foregone a trip into town with Murdoch, Jelly and Scott due to a persistent cold that made her head feel, at times, as if it would fare much better if it would just go ahead and simply roll off her neck. Unable to sleep, she was ensconced in one of the blue chairs in the study, her eyes half hooded as she gazed dully into the unlit fireplace.
The sound of metal striking repeatedly against stone suddenly caught Teresa’s attention and she sat up to look toward the drape-shrouded French doors, as if uncertain that she had heard anything after all when the sound wasn’t immediately repeated. Then it came again, now unmistakably the sound of a shod horse hoof hitting stone.
Scrambling to her feet, she slipped on her bedroom shoes and cinched the belt of her robe tighter about her small waist and quietly eased over to the door. Pushing the drape aside only far enough for her to see out, but hopefully not far enough for no one else to see in, she peered through the small opening to see Barranca practically standing on the front porch, his front right hoof raised to strike the stone again. To her shock, Johnny was slumped over the horse’s neck, his face nearly buried in Barranca’s mane, his right arm hanging limply along the pale coat of Barranca’s shoulder, his fingers brushing against the horse’s leg as it was raised to rake against the stone of the porch.
Easing open the door in order not to spook the horse, Teresa gasped softly at seeing the rope wrapped tightly around Johnny’s waist and the saddle. She quickly untied the knot holding the rope taut, preparing herself just in case Johnny slid from the saddle with the rope’s release, and carefully unwound it to drop the rope to the ground as Johnny’s body shifted slightly. Throwing her hands up to his waist, she managed to hold him in place, praying that one of the men would come out of the bunkhouse for some reason.
“T’resa,” Johnny whispered hoarsely as his blue eyes opened a slit and he worked valiantly to sit up in the saddle, but couldn’t make it.
“Hold still, Johnny,” Teresa hissed as more of Johnny’s weight shifted toward the left side. “C-Can you dismount?” Her arms were quivering from the effort to hold his nearly dead weight in the saddle so far above her and she knew it wouldn’t be long before they would both end up sprawled on the ground. When it appeared that Johnny was lapsing back into unconsciousness, Teresa gave his left arm a shake and nearly took a step back at his hoarse cry of pain. “Please, Johnny! I need to get you inside, but I can’t do it alone!”
“’kay,” he muttered, his voice barely audible as he gritted his teeth and slowly pulled his right leg over the back of the saddle.
There wasn’t a precise moment when Teresa realized that she had lost the battle for Johnny to dismount without causing himself more pain. One moment she was guiding his right leg over Barranca’s golden rump and the next both she and Johnny were laying in an unceremonious heap on the ground, with her body having broken his fall, but just barely.
Scrambling out from beneath the injured man, Teresa was stunned to find tears tracking down his dirt-covered cheeks and his eyes closed tightly as he cradled his left arm protectively to his chest.
“Oh God, Johnny! I’ll be right back!” She exclaimed as she realized she would never get him inside on her own. “I need to run to the bunkhouse and get help!” Before she could make good her promise, however, Johnny weakly grabbed hold of the tail of her robe.
“No! I-I can…d-do it… W-With y-your help…” He seemed to lose the ability to speak and simply opened pain-filled blue eyes to plead with her.
“Oh, Johnny, I don’t know i-if I can!” She cried out as she clasped his hand in both of her own and cradled it against her chest. “W-Where are you hurt, besides your arm?” It would have taken a blind woman not to see that his arm was a major source of his agony, but having grown up around the rough and tumble world of cowboys, she instinctively knew that there had to be something else going on, too.
“M’ head,” he whispered softly, as if to speak louder just might make it explode. “Think I…hit it…” He released the hem of her robe and pressed the heel of his hand against his left temple. “Hurts bad.”
“Did you get thrown off your horse, Johnny?” Teresa asked, fear filling her with dread as she tilted his bruised face gently aside to see a confused look in his eyes.
“’ranca wouldn’t th-throw me,” he muttered and then tensed abruptly, arching his back as pain once again knifed from his right calf up to his hip and then settled somewhere in the region of his chest. He began to pant heavily as he tried to control the nearly overwhelming pain, his eyes once again clenched tightly closed and he barred his teeth against an eerie, high-pitched moan that started deep in his throat.
“Shhhh, it’s all right, Johnny. Just hold on to me,” Teresa urged calmly, though she felt anything but calm as her heart pounded heavily in her chest.
Together, with most of his weight being leaned against Teresa’s small frame, they got Johnny to his feet. Swaying unsteadily on the porch steps, he moved forward when Teresa asked it of him. Once again his chin was resting against his chest, with his eyes closed, he clenched his teeth against the pain as they slowly walked into the house and down the hallway beside the stairs. She knew there was no way she could ever get him up the stairs.
“We’ll go to my room,” Teresa informed him in a voice gasping for breath as she took on more and more of his weight. “Come on, Johnny… just a little bit more.”
Breathing just as heavily as Teresa, Johnny felt as if his legs were made of some pliable material that had no substance at all and he once again worried that he’d done some damage to his spine. He didn’t have the breath to voice his concerns and then didn’t have the time as he opened his eyes and found himself in Teresa’s bedroom. He didn’t see the ruffles and lace curtains over the windows, nor the pastel quilt covering the bed, as Teresa maneuvered him down onto the mattress after quickly flipping the covers out of the way. Like a downed tree, Johnny dropped to the lavender-scented sheets as if he’d been pole-axed, unfortunately dragging Teresa down with him.
“JOHNNY!” Teresa cried out as Johnny’s full weight bore her body into the soft, goose down mattress. Breathing heavily she looked up into his eyes that were mere inches from her own and saw the instant he lost consciousness as his body went lax and pressed her even harder into the soft mattress.
Not wanting to cause his injured arm more damage, Teresa worked out of her robe, which was wedged beneath Johnny’s right side. She knew he was much too heavy for her to shift off of her, so she carefully wormed her way out from beneath him once the robe was removed. Kneeling on the bed beside the unconscious man, she placed a trembling hand against his sweat-slick forehead and gasped at the heat there.
Sliding off the bed, she quickly padded into the kitchen in her bare feet and nightgown to stir up the ashes in order to restart the fire in the stove. She then filled a large pot with water and set it on the stove before hurrying back to Johnny and pulling off his boots. Dropping them to the floor, she chewed her bottom lip in indecision as she considered removing his pants, but decided to leave them in place as she knew she wouldn’t be able to get the tight pants off without losing precious time needed to tend his injuries. Besides, she knew that Murdoch would be greatly displeased with her if she dared do such a thing. She blushed at the thought of seeing Johnny in the cut off underwear he used in deference to the hot summer weather. Having intimate knowledge of his underclothing because she was the one who helped Maria with the wash, Teresa blushed even deeper at the thought of seeing Johnny wearing the thin, skin-tight cotton fabric.
With the left arm injured, Teresa turned her attention to Johnny’s shirt. She knew it would have to come off, so she quickly moved to the side of the bed and started releasing the buttons as she listened for the water to come to a boil in the kitchen. Tugging the half-tucked shirt the rest of the way out of his pants, she carefully pulled Johnny’s right arm out of its sleeve, noting a long, painful looking bruise running from his forearm up the back of his biceps to his shoulder. She hurried around the bed to the other side and eased the shirt out from beneath Johnny and then slipped the left sleeve off his arm. Gazing down at the telltale lump in Johnny’s left forearm, tears filled Teresa’s eyes before she could control them at the pain he must have been in on the jarring ride home on the back of his horse. She prayed that he had been unconscious for the bulk of the ride.
“Oh, Johnny,” she whispered brokenly as a tear slowly trekked down her pale cheek. “You need Doc Jenkins, and you need him now!”
The sound of water boiling over onto the hot stove motivated Teresa into rushing into the kitchen to move the pot further back on the stove, away from the hot eye and then finding a bowl and some kitchen towels to use in order to clean Johnny’s injuries.
A sudden, light tapping at the back door caused her to jump in alarm as some of the hot water splashed on her forearm. She quickly set the bowl of hot water on the kitchen table and hurried to the split door there, carefully opening the top section and standing behind it. Peering out into the darkness she was able to make out Walt’s worried face.
“Miss Teresa, is everything all right?” He asked in concern as he tried to see through the small opening and into the dimly lit kitchen. “I saw the light…”
“Oh, Walt! Thank goodness you’ve come!” Teresa exclaimed breathlessly as she slipped out from the behind the door, forgetting that she was clad only in her nightgown. Grasping the edge of the bottom half of the door with one hand, she grabbed hold of Walt’s hand with the other. “You’ve got to ride into town and bring Sam back, quickly! Johnny’s been hurt and…and I don’t know how badly!”
“What happened?” Walt practically demanded, his protective instincts rising at the thought that one of Murdoch’s boys might have been ambushed.
“He hasn’t been shot, but right now it’s more important to get Sam out here! Johnny’s left arm is broken and it’s swelling terribly, so hurry, please!” She practically slammed the door in Walt’s astonished face as she hurried back into the kitchen to pick up the basin of water and carry it and her towels into the bedroom where Johnny was tossing his head from side to side and moaning in obvious pain.
Setting the basin on the bedside table, Teresa dipped the edge of a towel into the water and got down to the business of washing the dirt and dust from Johnny’s upper body and face, sure in the knowledge that Walt would ride as fast as he could for the doctor.
Having switched out the hot water for a basin of cool water once Johnny was as clean as she could get him, Teresa was gently smoothing a cool, wet cloth across Johnny’s sweat-glistening chest when he suddenly reached out with his right hand and grasped her wrist tightly, yanking her down across his chest in one smooth movement.
“Johnny!” She gasped when, instead of releasing her arm when she cried out, he increased the pressure. Struggling up off his chest, Teresa looked into fever-ravaged eyes and realized that he had no idea where he was, or with whom. “Johnny, it’s me, Teresa. Can you let up on my wrist, please? You’re hurting me.”
Something flickered deep in Johnny’s blue eyes and though the painful pressure was eased off, the grip around her wrist remained. A string of Spanish words tumbled out from between his lips, so faint that Teresa, who was fluent in the language, couldn’t understand, but it seemed as if he were asking her a question.
“What are you saying, Johnny?” Teresa asked quietly, then spoke the question in Spanish, just in case. Johnny flicked his eyes toward his left arm and muttered another string of Spanish, of which Teresa only caught that he was in pain and he wanted her to fix it, pronto. She raised a trembling hand and gently brushed aside a thick lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead. Johnny flinched as if he thought she was going to hit him and Teresa’s heart constricted at the very idea that someone would do that to an injured man. “It’s all right, Johnny. No one is going to hurt you.” Her soothing tone must have reached his muddled brain as his hold on her loosened even more.
“T’resa?” Johnny whispered softly, the word a soothing balm to Teresa’s frazzled nerves. She smiled down at his fever-flushed face as he gazed raptly at her pale features.
“You’re going to be fine, Johnny,” she assured him, though she really had no idea if that statement were true. She then carefully extracted her arm from his grip and returned to smoothing the cool cloth across his chest and face.
“Where am I?” He asked quietly when she leaned over to refresh the now-warmed cloth in the basin of water by the bed. Teresa’s head whipped around so fast that the ligaments in her neck popped and snapped as she stared at him in stunned shock.
“Y-You’re home, Johnny,” she gasped breathlessly. “You’re at Lancer!”
Then, just as suddenly as he’d seemed lucid, Johnny began muttering in Spanish and quickly snagged Teresa’s wrist again when she started to apply the cool cloth to his forehead. Before she knew what he intended, Johnny’s hand slipped from her wrist to tangle in the front of her nightgown, the ripping of the delicate fabric loud in the otherwise silent room.
“NO, JOHNNY!” She cried out as she dropped the cloth to his chest and began to tug at his hand fisted in her nightgown. “Let go!”
Hauling Teresa’s much lighter weight down across his chest, Johnny rolled with her onto his left side, trapping her beneath the weight of his right leg as he fought the pain the sudden movement caused. Pulling his hand away from her shirtfront, he then wrapped his right arm around her ribs and pulled her hard against his chest as he breathed through a wave of nausea and pain. Leaning his forehead against Teresa’s temple as she lay stiffly beside him, Johnny moaned loudly as the pain from rolling over onto his broken arm knifed through his body. He started to turn back over onto his back when the bedroom door was slammed against the wall with such force that it rebounded into the tall, imposing figure filling the doorway there.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Murdoch Lancer’s booming voice threatened to shatter the windows in the room, though it had no effect on Johnny, who was operating on pure instinct as his arm tightened around Teresa’s tiny waist and he quickly rolled his body onto hers as the instinct protect her overruled the excruciating pain from his broken arm.
Suddenly Murdoch’s a hand grabbed the back of his neck, tangling painfully in his hair, and Johnny was unceremoniously dragged out of the bed and tossed across the room as if he weighed nothing. He landed against the wall on his left side and the pain that exploded from his injured arm paralyzed him long enough for those large hands to once again tangle in his hair, this time on either side of his head. He could hear someone whimpering in pain, but didn’t realize the sound was him as he weakly pushed at the hands holding him in their harsh grasp.
“OH GOD! NO, MURDOCH!” Teresa screamed as she scrambled across the tumbled bedcovering and dropped to her knees beside her guardian. He released one side of Johnny’s hair and pulled back his ham-like fist and plowed it against his son’s exposed cheek before Teresa could stop him. She watched in horror as Johnny’s head snapped back, his hair torn out of Murdoch’s grip by the force of the blow. Teresa gasped at seeing a large amount of Johnny’s hair tangled between his father’s fingers. Throwing herself against the enraged man, Teresa forced herself between Murdoch and Johnny. Holding the torn fabric of her bodice together with one trembling hand, Teresa held up her other badly shaking hand as if to ward off another blow from the man.
Murdoch subsided, sinking back onto his heels and breathing harshly as he glared over Teresa’s shoulder at Johnny, whose battered and abused body was instinctively attempting escape as he clawed at the hardwood flooring for anything to pull him away from his crazed father. Teresa quickly turned to Johnny and crawled across the floor to his side and gently gathered him into her arms, his bloodied cheek pressed against her breast.
“He’s hurt, Murdoch! Oh God, he’s hurt!” She cried as tears coursed down her cheeks when Johnny’s right arm tried to wrap around her waist, but he didn’t have the strength to lift it. She raised tear-filled eyes to the infuriated man crouched before them and shook her head in dismay at the blood-chillingly cold expression in Murdoch’s gray eyes.
“What’s going on here?” Scott demanded from the open doorway as he took in the scene in the bedroom. He instantly noted the state of Johnny’s undress and the badly swollen left arm that lay limply on the floor by his side as Teresa cradled his brother’s head to her breast. “Johnny?”
Moving swiftly across the room to Johnny and Teresa’s side, Scott carefully gathered the obviously injured young man into his arms and carried him to the bed. Laying Johnny on the mattress with extreme care, Scott ignored Murdoch as the man got to his feet and hovered near the bed as if to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t through with Johnny yet.
“Get out of the way,” Scott growled as he shoved his father up against the bedroom door. “How dare you attack him when he has clearly been injured!” Turning quickly back to Johnny, Scott ignored the expression of shock on his father’s face when Scott reached out and gently straightened out the broken arm and Johnny screamed in agony before losing consciousness and falling lax against the mattress.
“I-I didn’t know…” Murdoch stammered out wretchedly as he watched Scott and Teresa quickly set to work cleaning the laceration Murdoch’s fist had made on his son’s right cheek. “I didn’t know…”
The minute Sam Jenkins hurried into Teresa’s bedroom he knew all was not well between Scott and Murdoch. The rancher practically stood in the far corner of the room while Scott and a disheveled Teresa worked at keeping Johnny’s body cooled down. The young man lying so lifelessly in the bed was flushed red with fever, his normally dusky skin tone a dull gray and Sam’s suspicions grew exponentially when he saw the fist-sized bruise on Johnny’s right cheek, as well as the bleeding laceration there.
“Teresa, tell me what’s going on with Johnny,” Sam ordered as he entered the room and shifted Scott out of his way so that he could perch on the edge of the mattress by Johnny’s side. He noted Scott’s angry protest before the young man simply moved around the bed to Johnny’s other side, displacing Teresa in the process. “Teresa?”
“His horse brought him to the front door earlier this evening, Sam. Johnny had somehow lashed himself to his saddle so he wouldn’t fall off, despite having a broken arm.” Her trembling hand gestured toward the swollen left forearm that was currently wrapped in cool wet cloths in an attempt to reduce the swelling. She swallowed convulsively past the sudden lump in her throat at Johnny’s obviously declining condition, at a loss as to what else was going on with him. “I-I brought him in here, because I…there was no way I could get him up the stairs to his room,” she continued, her haunted eyes suddenly staring accusingly at Murdoch across the room. “I got his boots and shirt off, but didn’t want to try and remove his pants. I then cleaned him up as much as I could and started trying to cool his fever.”
Sam quickly placed the back of his hand against Johnny’s flushed cheek and grimaced at the dry heat there. Something niggled at the back of his mind about those symptoms, but when Teresa continued he turned his full attention on her.
“Then…” She gulped audibly in the room and her eyes dropped to her hands clasped tightly together and pressed against the torn bodice of her nightgown. She jerked suddenly, as if just then realizing that she and Scott had been working with Johnny for the better part of an hour with her bodice torn and gaping open to reveal too much of her chest. She slapped a suddenly nervous hand against the tattered fabric and blushed beet red when Scott gave her a commiserating glance before returning his attention back to his brother.
“Then, what, Teresa? I need to know everything,” Sam urged as he took his stethoscope out of his bag and held it in his hands and waited for Teresa to finish her obviously painful tale.
“And then I came into the room, jumped to conclusions and threw my son to the floor,” Murdoch said woodenly from across the room, his eyes unable to meet those of the three sets suddenly looking back at him. “I then punched him in the face when he was down.” The big man shook his head sadly as he dropped his eyes to the floor and noted the bright red stain of blood on the rug there. “I-I didn’t know…”
“Murdoch,” Sam said quietly, seeing the obvious signs of shock. “Why don’t you go into your study and get yourself a drink while I attend to Johnny.” Sam exchanged a glance with Scott and then with Teresa before looking back at Murdoch. “I’ll be in as soon as I finish up here.”
To everyone’s surprise, Murdoch left without saying another word. As soon as he was out of the room, Sam placed the earpieces of his stethoscope in his ears and leaned over Johnny to listen to his heart and lungs, frowning when he detected a hint of unusual noise in the lungs. Schooling his features too late, Sam removed the stethoscope and looked up into Scott’s anxiously expectant eyes.
“Well? How is he?” The younger man demanded as he averted his intense gaze to carefully remove the wet cloths from around Johnny’s arm. “This swelling isn’t decreasing, Sam.”
“As you can probably tell, it’s way too soon for me to be making a diagnosis until I can give him a full examination.” At his words, Teresa turned her back on them and walked over to her wardrobe and pulled out some jeans and a shirt.
“I’ll go change while you do the exam, Sam,” she said quietly. “Then I’ll put on a big pot of coffee.” She hurried out of the room before either Scott or Sam could comment.
“What’s going on here, Scott?” Sam asked as he pulled the covers from Johnny’s legs and set to work at releasing the button fly of the butter soft leather pants. As soon as he had them undone, he gestured for Scott to hold Johnny still as the pants were carefully removed.
Scott never got to answer Sam’s question as both men saw the angry swelling of Johnny’s right leg at almost the same instant.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Sam gasped as his practiced eye noted the two puncture wounds in the midst of the swollen and bruised skin. “He’s been snake bit!”
The fever burned, uncontrolled, in Johnny’s body throughout the long, long night. Occasionally the young man would cry out in pain, especially when Sam had Scott hold the top half of Johnny’s left arm so the severe break could be set properly, but otherwise Johnny lay as still as death.
“I don’t like his color,” Sam muttered to no one in particular as he leaned once more over Johnny to listen to his chest with the stethoscope. He referred to the grayish cast to Johnny’s pale features and it worried him that the venom had been circulating throughout Johnny’s system for hours now. Sam knew that a snake bite, in and of itself wasn’t always fatal, but combined with a long jarring ride and all the obvious activity since his arrival at home, it didn’t bode well for the very ill young man.
“Sam, what can I do to help him?” Scot asked desperately as he tirelessly smoothed a cool, wet cloth gently over his brother’s face, chest and left leg. Sam had cold compresses wrapped around Johnny’s right leg in the hopes that the swelling would reduce without further complications. And, unfortunately, Sam had seen his share and he could only pray that Johnny would be one of the lucky ones to survive to tell about it.
“You’re doing what he needs for you to do right now, son.” Sam stood up carefully from the mattress and slowly arched his aching back. “Time is what he needs, Scott, and there’s no way to make more of it.”
“I should have…” Scott didn’t even get to finish his guilt-ridden sentence when Sam growled lowly at him and jabbed a pointed finger in his direction.
“Don’t you dare try to tell me that you should have been with him!” The doctor actually appeared angry at Scott. “THAT is the last thing this young man needs is to see that you feel guilty for not having prevented his injuries! He’s a big boy now, Scott.”
“I know, Sam,” Scott said quietly, his eyes following the movement of his hand as he continued to smooth the cloth over Johnny’s chest, soaking up droplets of sweat as he ministered to his brother. He stopped suddenly and gaped at the sweat popping up across Johnny’s chest and the droplets sliding down his face. “He’s sweating, Doc! He’s sweating!”
Sam’s eyes immediately darted to his patient and a broad smile spread instantly across his face as he confirmed the phenomenon. “Thank the good Lord, son! Now he’s got a good chance for recovery!” Sam quickly pulled his stethoscope out of his bag and listened to Johnny’s chest and heart again. The grin he shot Scott’s way made the blond-headed man’s heart practically sing. It was all Scott could do to keep from jumping up from the bed and dancing a jig in the middle of Teresa’s bedroom floor.
“Thank God, indeed!” Scott exclaimed as he returned Sam’s enthusiastic smile and then couldn’t erase it for a long time afterward.
“He’s turned the corner,” Sam said quietly and then moved closer to Johnny and gently lifted each shuttered eyelid in turn, releasing a sigh of relief when he was done. “Now it’s going to be a race to keep these bed linens clean and dry so he doesn’t develop a chill, or pneumonia.”
Scott’s blond head jerked up at those words to gaze at Sam before looking back down at his brother. “I’ll make sure the linens are changed, Dr. Jenkins. Hourly, if need be.”
“Good. Good,” Sam said as he peeked beneath the compresses to check the swelling in Johnny’s right leg. To his relief the area surrounding the puncture wounds didn’t look quite as red or swollen. The older man allowed the release of a weary, exhausted sigh as he smiled encouragingly at Scott, who darted a quick glance toward Teresa, who lay sound asleep with her head pillowed on her arms on the mattress beside Johnny’s left hip.
At Scott’s movement to wake Teresa, Sam shook his head and stayed Scott’s reaching hand. “No, let her sleep. She’s worn herself out taking care of him and she needs the rest desperately.” After Scott settled back to running the cooling cloth over his brother’s exposed skin, Sam sighed heavily and set his stethoscope aside. “I suppose I’ll go corner the bear in his den, huh?” The question was actually rhetorical and Scott obviously took it as such, since he didn’t answer the older man before Sam turned to head out of the bedroom. “I’ll go tell him the news and then I’m going to find a nice, soft bed on which to lay down and get some rest.” With that said, Sam walked quietly from the room.
“Oh, little brother,” Scott whispered, now that there weren’t any listening ears to hear his heartfelt words. “Why is it that trouble always seems to find you?” He rewet the cloth and wrung out the excess moisture before turning back to his task, only to see the flicker of blue eyes as Johnny sluggishly stirred awake. “Johnny?”
“S-Scott?” Johnny mumbled, his voice no more than a hissing rasp, but Scott heard him nonetheless.
“I’m right here, brother,” he answered softly as he gently brushed a lock of thick, dark hair from Johnny’s forehead and set the folded wet cloth there. His hand seemed to have a mind of its own as it settled gently atop Johnny’s head, his fingers softly massaging the area above his brother’s left temple.
“Wha’ ‘appened?” Johnny croaked out as he opened his eyes wider and gazed sleepily up at Scott, confusion evident in the blue depths.
Still speaking in a soft voice, Scott smiled fondly at his brother and then shook his head. “We were hoping you would tell us, brother.” When Johnny attempted to raise his left arm, Scott quickly and gently blocked the movement. “Your left arm is broken,” he said quietly as he settled the splinted limb back in place on the bed. He then placed his left hand on Johnny’s chest when, not surprisingly, the younger man appeared to be trying to sit up. “If you know what’s good for you, brother, you’ll stay right where you are, otherwise you’ll wake Teresa and they we’ll both have to answer to her!” He indicated the girl in question with a nod of his head and grinned at Johnny as he carefully settled back against the pillow.
“Feel like…crap,” the dark-haired man muttered as he licked at dry lips with an equally dry tongue. “Water?”
“Sure, coming right up, but you stay right there, young man, and let me do all the work, all right?” Scott gave Johnny a moment to answer in agreement before getting carefully up off the edge of the bed and walking over to pour a glass of water from the pitcher Teresa had waiting on the dresser. He then brought it back to the bed and after cautiously levering his brother up just enough not to drown him, he held the glass to Johnny’s lips and allowed him a few sips before taking the glass away, despite Johnny’s grunted protest. “Just a little bit for now. More later when we make sure that is going to stay down, all right?”
Setting the glass on the bedside table, Scott once again sat down carefully on the edge of the bed to face his now exhausted brother. Just drinking a few sips of water had worn the injured man out and he was having difficulty keeping his eyes open as he stared up at Scott.
“D-Di’ I fall off ‘ranca?” He mumbled, frustrated that the words didn’t sound clear to him and wondering how Scott was going to understand his question.
Scott dumped the cloth back into the basin of cool water and squeezed it out until it was just slightly damp before running the cooling wetness across Johnny’s chest, the sweat wicking into the towel as it smoothed through the dark-hair covered skin there.
“No, brother, I don’t think you fell off your horse,” Scott told him with a forced smile as he continued his ministrations. “In fact, Teresa said when she found you and Barranca at the front door, you were tied in the saddle.” Scott’s blue-gray eyes searched Johnny’s for a long moment before dipping back down to follow the movement of the cloth in his hand. “I-I don’t know how you did it…”
“Don’ ‘member,” Johnny whispered and then his eyes closed as he drifted off to sleep again without a sound as the soothing brush of the cool cloth against his skin lulled him back to where the throbbing pain in his arm no longer held him captive. His last coherent thoughts were of his brother and the girl they called sister, and wondering why his father wasn’t there with them.
Sam found Murdoch sitting in an armchair beside the fireplace, a full glass of bourbon in his large hand, though it didn’t appear that he had tasted any of it, or else had refilled the glass already. Seeing the condition of the knuckles that held the glass tightly, Sam connected the laceration on Johnny’s cheek with them and sadly shook his head, wondering if Murdoch would ever give his youngest son a break.
Dropping wearily onto the couch, Sam heaved a heavy sigh, wishing he had poured himself a glass of courage before sitting down. His sigh seemed to drag Murdoch out of his troubled reverie as the pensive rancher suddenly looked up at him.
“How is he, Sam?” He asked quietly as he set the glass on the small table to his left and leaned forward, his left hand automatically reaching out to cover the telltale signs of the battered knuckles.
“Actually, he’s doing better than I expected,” Sam admitted with a grimace as he sat up, his back snapping and popping like the embers in the fireplace. Pressing a hand against his lower back, he pondered his role as physician and peacemaker for the Lancer family and, for what seemed like the thousandth time, didn’t relish the coming discussion with his longtime friend. “His fever broke only moments ago and I suspect he’ll awaken soon.”
“Fever?” Murdoch asked in confusion, his eyes still on his hands now balled into fists in his lap. He had been mentally calling himself all sorts of a fool after mistaking the scene in Teresa’s bedroom. He cursed his suspicious mind that had only seen his youngest son apparently attacking his ward, whom he thought of as dearly as his two sons.
“You DO know that the boy has a broken arm and, when Scott and I removed the rest of his clothes we found that he’d been bitten by a snake. Rattler most likely, since he’s still breathing.” Sam waited for this information to sink in before continuing, despite the blanching of Murdoch’s features. “I thought, for a while there, that we just might lose him, Murdoch.” He shook his head when even that decree didn’t garner a response from the stubbornly proud Scotsman, other than a slight flinch.
“Good thing he’s as stubborn as his old man,” Sam growled sarcastically as he surged to his feet and stomped over to the side table and noisily poured himself a whiskey, which he then abruptly downed it in one gulp. Though he immediately regretted the action. After the resulting coughing jag receded, Sam raised moisture-filled eyes to find Murdoch watching him closely.
“You okay, Sam?” The rancher asked solicitously as he took in the fatigue clearly written on Sam’s face. Literally shaking himself, Murdoch stood and headed toward the kitchen. “I’ll fix you something to eat and then you need to get some rest, my friend.”
Sam was dumbfounded. He had just informed the man that his youngest son could have died and Murdoch acted as if they had been discussing the weather or the price of beef on the hoof.
Storming after the big man, Sam reached him just as Murdoch stepped onto the hardwood floor in the kitchen. Grabbing hold of the man’s elbow, Sam jerked him around to face him and staggered back a step, almost tripping over the rug at his feet. Murdoch looked as if he had aged ten years, his sun-bronzed face was a pasty white and was haggard. As Sam looked closer at the man, he realized that Murdoch’s hands were shaking terribly. He then further noted that the trembling was shaking the man’s entire body.
Quickly moving to his friend’s side, Sam slipped his arm around Murdoch’s waist and found himself taking most of his weight as he led him back to the chair by the fireplace and dropped him there rather abruptly. Grabbing a throw blanket draped over the back of the sofa, Sam quickly wrapped it around Murdoch’s shoulders, recognizing the symptoms of delayed shock setting in quickly.
“Come on now, Murdoch,” Sam coaxed anxiously as he fumbled for the full glass of bourbon Murdoch had set on the table by the chair. Holding the glass to his friend’s lips, he tilted it slightly and winced when Murdoch’s teeth chattered against the glass before the man practically gulped the alcohol as if it were water. Sam had to forcibly pull the glass away from Murdoch’s shaking hand when half the liquid had been swallowed without a pause to catch a breath. “You’re going to choke, man!” Buffing his hands against the blanket-shrouded back, Sam wished he’d thought to put on a fresh pot of coffee in order to warm Murdoch’s insides up.
“I-I’m…o-okay…” Murdoch stammered out even as he clutched the blanket in both hands and pulled it tight to his chest as if he thought he would never be warm again.
“Sure you are, my friend,” Sam said and then left him only long enough to place another couple of logs on the fire and stir the dying embers back to life. As soon as the flames were licking at the wood, he hurried back to Murdoch’s side. “I’m going into the kitchen and get some coffee going. Will you be all right for a minute while I’m gone?”
Having been friends with Murdoch for a number of decades, Sam could have easily predicted the stubborn man’s next words. At least he thought he could have.
“I-I need to s-see J-Johnny,” Murdoch ground out from between chattering teeth, his eyes pleading with Sam, as if for permission. “T-To apo-logize…”
“He’s most likely sleeping again, Murdoch. Besides, I don’t want him to get upset. That venom isn’t out of his system and he needs to remain calm.” Sam hated to be so blunt, but the fact was everything he said was true. “Tomorrow will be soon enough. Now, sit right there until I get that coffee brewing.” He waited expectantly as Murdoch tried to stare him down, but Sam knew he’d won the skirmish, if not the battle, when the gray eyes dropped to look at the floor and Murdoch slumped quietly against the chair in defeat. Which hadn’t been Sam’s intention at all, but if it gave him time to get something warm into the man, he’d take it.
The next time Johnny woke up, it was to find himself all alone in the room. Moving as little as possible since his body felt as if it had been beaten like a dirty rug, his eyes opened to roam over the familiar furniture and frilly curtains and he realized he was in Teresa’s bedroom. In Teresa’s bed. He frowned in confusion and then tried to shift himself up on the pillow beneath his head. Seconds later he was gritting his teeth against the excruciating agony and promising himself that he wouldn’t try that again anytime soon.
With tears stinging his eyes at the almost unbearable pain radiating up his left arm, Johnny prayed that no one would come into the room until he could master it and the unmanly moisture in his eyes. Though, truth to tell, he felt like sobbing like a child because he didn’t think he had ever felt as miserably sick as he did that very moment. Even his eyelids ached, causing him to try to avoid just blinking his eyes. Of course, that movement was instinctive and soon he realized that if he just closed his eyes, it would no longer be a problem.
He heard a tentative scraping footstep enter the room, but now his eyelids had suddenly become weighted with stones and he couldn’t have raised them if his life depended on it, and somehow he knew that wasn’t the case. So, remaining perfectly still, as his body demanded, he listened as those footsteps practically tiptoed across the room and came to a quiet stop beside the bed. Curiosity nearly set Johnny trembling, though he fought that movement as well, knowing instinctively how much it would hurt his aching body. He also knew, intuitively, that if he moved at all, it would send his visitor away.
The cool fingers that lightly touched his brow and gently brushed his hair back made Johnny flinch slightly, just enough for his visitor to realize he was awake. The comforting hand was quickly withdrawn and the footsteps, no longer quiet, hurried from the room.
Releasing a held breath, Johnny nearly gasped when he then inhaled raggedly and the mixed scent of Murdoch’s best bourbon whiskey and wood smoke told him who his visitor had been. Frowning in bewilderment, Johnny tried to figure out why his father didn’t stay with him and felt his heart constrict at the sudden feeling of abandonment he hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.
Turning his face into the coolness of the feather-soft pillow he waited for the darkness of unconsciousness to pull him under. Just as the sounds of the ranch faded away, the memory of being dragged out of bed and punched in the face by his enraged father wafted through his mind and then he was out.
Sam had sent a reluctant Scott into town to get some medical supplies from his office. Scott had protested vehemently and offered to send one of the hands, but Sam was adamant that Scott be the one to go as he didn’t want just any “Tom, Dick or Harry” rummaging through his supplies. So, Scott had ridden off like his horse’s tail was afire in order to get the task done and get back to his brother’s side. He felt responsible for Johnny, but knew that was only the tip of the iceberg of what he felt for his injured brother.
With Scott gone and Teresa sent off to oversee the washing of laundry, after all the ranch work didn’t come to a grinding halt just because one of the owners was ill, Sam sat in the bedside chair and watched Johnny as he slowly resurfaced from out of the depths of unconsciousness.
Stirring only slightly, the twitch of his right index finger being the first movement. Then, with a soft, almost inaudible moan, Johnny’s blue eyes creaked open a slit as he seemed to evaluate his situation. Sam waited quietly as his patient gradually lifted his right hand to his head and winced when his fingers came into contact with his bruised and battered cheek. A soft sigh slipped out from between dry, parted lips and Sam silently picked up the glass of water sitting on the bedside table. He didn’t think he’d made any sound, but Johnny suddenly tensed as his wary eyes swept the room and finally came to rest on the older man.
“Sam,” Johnny said, his voice little more than a dry croak.
“Would you like a drink of water, son?” Sam asked softly as he held the glass aloft so Johnny could see it.
“No m’cine?” The injured man growled suspiciously.
“No, John. There is no medicine in the water. You have my word on that, though I wish you would take something because I’ve sent Scott to my office to bring back the supplies to place a cast on your arm and I can’t promise you it won’t hurt.” Sam gently raised Johnny’s head and let him drink some water, but like Scott had done earlier, he took the glass away when Johnny started to drink too much of the cool, refreshing liquid. “Not too much at one time, son. You’ve nothing in your stomach and I know you don’t want to be throwing up.”
“No,” Johnny whispered as he snaked his tongue out to lick at a drop of water on his bottom lip. “Wha’ ‘appened?”
“Well, we’ve been waiting on you to supply that information, young man.” Sam set the glass aside and took his stethoscope from around his neck and quietly listened to Johnny’s heart and lungs. With a slight frown he readjusted the bell of the instrument over Johnny’s right lung and closed his eyes to listen. “Breathe in and hold it, John.” Sam listened attentively and then asked Johnny to breathe in again before removing the earpieces and draping the stethoscope around his neck again. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been trampled,” Johnny muttered softly as he tried to hitch himself further up in the bed, only to fall back against the mattress in defeat as his movement awakened several painful points in his body, as if to validate his point.
“No, I don’t think you were trampled, son, but you do have a broken left arm and a snake bite on your right leg.” Sam sat back down in the chair as he watched Johnny lay immobile, his mind seemingly miles away. The savvy doctor knew that the young man was silently taking inventory of his body, so he waited patiently for the questions to come.
“Snake?” Johnny queried in confusion, as he didn’t remember being bitten.
“Yes, son. On your right leg, just above your boot top.” Sam picked up the water glass again, and helped Johnny to a few more sips before laying him back again as he thought over what he’d been told.
“Face hur’s,” the dark-haired man mumbled as he raised his right hand to gently finger the bruised area before Sam shunted the seeking fingers aside.
“Don’t mess with it, son. I don’t want it to start bleeding again and would just as soon not have to stitch it closed.” Sam gestured toward the laceration on Johnny’s temple and explained that he had to place a few sutures in that wound to keep it closed and that it would leave a scar, but it would be covered by Johnny’s hair.
“Barranca okay?” Johnny suddenly asked in concern when he remembered what Sam said about the snake. He turned anxious eyes on the older man, who quickly assured him that the horse was being well taken care of by Jelly. Johnny visibly relaxed then and closed his eyes wearily. “’m tired.”
“Can you manage to stay awake long enough to drink some of this broth Teresa made for you?” Sam asked as he picked up a thick coffee mug and brought it forward so Johnny could see it. “You really do need to get something in your stomach, son.”
Johnny grimaced at the thought, but then nodded his head slightly and waited for Sam to carefully tuck another pillow behind him so that Johnny was in a semi-reclining position. When Sam kept hold of the mug, Johnny firmly wrapped his right hand around it and glared at the doctor.
“I can do it,” he muttered insistently, though from the sound of his voice he was quickly losing steam. Sam reluctantly eased his fingers out from around the mug and sat back in the chair as Johnny slowly sipped the lukewarm liquid, grimacing from time to time at the bland taste.
“If you keep that down, we’ll see about something more substantial later on this afternoon, all right?” The savvy doctor bargained when Johnny drained the last of the broth and the mug was lowered to rest on his chest, his eyes half closed as he drifted back to sleep. Sam smiled fondly at the stubborn young man as he took the empty mug and set it on the bedside table. Reaching over to carefully remove the extra pillow at Johnny’s back he pulled it out and dropped it to the floor and then jumped in surprise when Murdoch’s voice whispered from the doorway.
“Is he asleep, Sam?” The tall man asked as he stood with his hands clenched together behind his back.
“Yes, he is. Apparently drinking a cup of broth was more taxing than he realized.” Sam looked over at Murdoch and took pity on the other man. Waving him into the room, Sam stood up from the chair and picked up the mug to carry it into the kitchen. “Have a seat and keep an eye on him while I find Teresa and discuss a meal plan for this boy of yours.”
Without giving Murdoch a chance to protest, or leave, Sam walked around the bed and grabbed hold of the man’s elbow and guided him to the chair. “Sit. He should sleep for a while, if that’s what’s got you worried.”
It unnerved Murdoch that Sam could see right through his apprehension.
After the doctor quickly walked out of the room Murdoch turned his eyes on his son, flinching at the mottled blue and red laceration on Johnny’s cheek, the bruising now surrounding the eye. Feeling completely miserable for what he’d done, it took a full minute for Murdoch to realize that Johnny’s blue eyes were quietly watching his every move.
“You okay, Murdoch?” Johnny asked softly, his eyes taking in the haggard expression on his father’s face. The older man looked as if he hadn’t slept in days.
“Seems as if you have that a little bit backward, son,” Murdoch replied, his own voice nearly as soft as Johnny’s, which only served to confuse the younger man more. Murdoch’s voice seemed to never be lower than a shout whenever he talked with his youngest son and the fact that it was now worried Johnny to no end.
“I’m fine,” Johnny quickly said, and then smiled crookedly when Murdoch snorted his disbelief, especially given the younger man’s visible injuries.
“Yes, I can see that now, son.” Looking down at the splinted left arm, Murdoch’s features blanched of what color he had as he recalled tossing his injured son across the room, and all the time Johnny was badly injured. Suddenly dropping his head into his hands, he groaned lowly, sounding as if it came from the very depths of his soul.
“Murdoch?” Johnny exclaimed anxiously as he tried to sit up so he could get closer to his father. He couldn’t recall much of what had happened to him since before the accident that had him tethered to the bed. He only wanted to comfort his father. Pushing his body up with his trembling right arm, Johnny bit his lower lip in order to keep the groan of pain from tearing loose as he reached out toward his father. Grabbing for the older man’s arm, Johnny missed completely and wound up in a crumpled heap on the bed, his left arm trapped beneath his body and he could no longer hold the howl of pain at bay.
“WHAT IS GOING ON IN HERE?” Sam demanded as he and Scott careened into the bedroom after hearing Johnny’s cry of agony. When they entered the room both men saw Murdoch leaning over Johnny, his hands tangled in the shoulders of the injured man’s nightshirt.
“Get your hands off of him!” Scott snarled as he quickly pushed Sam aside and nearly leapt onto the bed to gently pull Johnny out of Murdoch’s grasp. “What were you thinking, Murdoch?” Ignoring the sputtering he was getting from his father as an answer, Scott turned his full attention back to his brother, whose face had paled to a shade whiter than the sheets on the bed. “SAM! Get over here!”
As soon as he saw the blood saturating the bandages holding the arm splint in place, Sam knew immediately where it was coming from. “Lay him down, Scott! Quickly!” The older man ordered in a voice not to be disobeyed and Scott reluctantly laid Johnny back against the pillow.
“NO!” Johnny cried out as soon as he felt Scott moving away from him. “Don’ leave me!” He made a grab for Scott’s hand and missed, but he needn’t have worried for there was no way Scott would leave his brother.
“I’m right here, Johnny,” he reassured him. “I’ll be right here, no matter what.” He settled at the head of the bed, right beside Johnny and, as if he were a magnet drawn to Scott’s steel, Johnny reached out and tangled his right hand tightly in the folds of his brother’s shirt. Clenching his eyes and teeth closed tight against the agony of whatever Sam was doing to his left arm, he pressed his forehead hard against Scott’s hip and moaned deep in his throat.
“What happened, Sam?” Scott asked anxiously, fear for his brother making his heart race so fast that it made him lightheaded. He averted his eyes from the bloodied bandages that Sam was removing from around the splint just as the profusely bleeding wound was exposed. Johnny screamed in anguish as the cooler air of the room touched the compound fracture and Scott found he had his hands full as he worked at keeping Johnny still while fighting the nausea that was churning in his throat.
“Keep him still, Scott!” Sam snapped as he quickly clapped a thick pad of bandages over the wound, mindful of the protruding bone there. Whipping his head around to glare at Murdoch, Sam gestured toward the box of items Scott had dropped to the floor in the hallway upon hearing his brother’s agonizing cry. “Get the morphine, Murdoch!” When the stunned rancher didn’t move fast enough to suit Sam, the irate doctor released his hold on the arm with one hand and grabbed hold of Murdoch’s shirt front, smearing his son’s blood on Murdoch’s tan shirt. “GET IT NOW! GO!”
Releasing Murdoch with a hefty shove toward the door, Sam returned his attention to Johnny. Muttering something inaudible beneath his breath, he peeked beneath the compress and cursed at finding that the bleeding wasn’t stopping and knew that the jagged edge of the radius must have nicked an artery inside the arm and Sam knew that time was of the essence.
As soon as Murdoch returned with the vial of morphine and the box holding the syringe kit, Sam grabbed the other man’s hand and directed it down onto Johnny’s arm to maintain pressure while he readied the syringe to inject the morphine.
Johnny only got a brief glimpse of the syringe and Scott suddenly felt as if he were trying to harness a wildcat. Wrapping both arms around Johnny’s chest, leaving the injured left arm out of his clasp, he pressed his cheek against Johnny’s temple in order to hold him immobile. He hated to restrain the obviously frightened man, but he had seen the alarm on Sam’s face when he’d looked at the arm and saw that the bleeding wasn’t slowing at all.
Leaning his mouth closer to Johnny’s exposed ear, Scott began to speak calmly to his brother, which seemed to help somewhat, until Sam swabbed Johnny’s hip with an alcohol-soaked cloth and then inserted the needle.
Growling against the pain he was causing himself as he tried to pull out of Scott’s arms, Johnny tried to buck his hips away from the needle, but Sam was prepared for the fight and quickly pushed the plunger down to inject the medication. He withdrew the needle and set the syringe aside before taking over the job of compression again from Murdoch.
“Sc-Scott!” Johnny cried out as the hated feeling of heated lethargy surged through his veins, making his head feel fuzzy and too heavy to hold up. His eyes closed and he heard himself whimper pitifully just before he lost consciousness.
“Sam, he’s never going to forgive me for doing that to him!” Scott moaned as Sam gently covered Johnny with a sheet, leaving the newly splinted and bandaged arm exposed. Two hours of nerve-racking surgery had stopped the bleeding and set both bones aright before Sam reapplied the splint instead of the much heavier casting material, as he would need proper access to monitor the wound and keep it clear of infection.
“He’ll understand why it had to be done, Scott,” Sam said wearily as he dropped limply into the bedside chair. “He won’t blame you. Besides, he probably won’t even remember.”
“I pray you’re right, Sam.” Scott stood beside the bed looking sadly down at his brother and sighed heavily. “He looks so young lying there like that.”
Sam watched Scott as the older brother carefully leaned down to press the back of his hand lightly against Johnny’s forehead, as if to test for fever. Smiling softly at the tender action, Sam felt tears sting his eyes. He was thoroughly exhausted and knew that Scott had to also be feeling the sleepless nights and the long, grueling hours spent by his brother’s bedside. However, the older man knew that it would do him no good to suggest to Scott to get some rest.
“All right, Scott. I would tell you to go to bed, but I know that you’ll only ignore me and say you’re fine. So, I’m going to get some rest and then I’ll come back to relieve you.” Sam then gave Scott strict instructions in case they were needed, though he figured Johnny wouldn’t awaken for quite some time. Giving the exhausted-looking blond a last glance, Sam took himself out of the room before he could spend more time wasting his breath.
Settling in the chair beside the bed, Scott found he couldn’t take his eyes off Johnny’s arm lying so still against the sheets. He shivered suddenly and the memory of someone telling him once that when you shivered for no apparent reason like that, it was someone walking over your grave. Scott shuddered again and then clenched his hands tightly together and pressed them to his forehead as he leaned forward in the chair. Propping his elbows against his thighs, Scott was content to sit and listen to his little brother softly breathing, but the unbidden question of what Murdoch had been doing when Scott and Sam had come back into the room had him sitting bolt upright again.
He remembered suddenly that they had never gotten an answer from his father as to what he’d been doing to Johnny. Bolting to his feet, Scott was halfway out of the room before he remember that he was supposed to be keeping an eye on his brother. Stopping in his tracks, he hung his head and retraced his steps back to the chair and settled down in it once again. Turning his eyes back to the bed, Scott sat gazing down at his brother in thoughtful reverie for the rest of the evening.
Before heading to one of the guest bedrooms, Sam took a detour down to Murdoch’s study to get his story on what he’d been doing in Johnny’s room. Sam knew that Scott’s suspicions just didn’t ring true to what the older man knew about Murdoch. He just couldn’t believe that the rancher would have deliberately done anything to harm his son, yet the fact that Murdoch had thrown Johnny across the bedroom even gave Sam pause.
Slowing his steps as he neared the doorway of the study, Sam stopped there and contemplated what he’d seen when he had run into the bedroom at Johnny’s cry of pain. Murdoch had been holding the young man by the shoulders and Johnny was obviously in excruciating pain from the jagged end of the radius bone tearing through the skin of his arm. Certain now that this was the cause of Johnny’s outcry, and not that of his father possibly abusing his injured youngest son, Sam continued more confidently into the study, only to find it empty, the fire in the fireplace gone cold.
Turning slowly on his heel to survey the room, just to make sure Murdoch wasn’t sitting in the dark shadows of the room, Sam then headed back up the stairs to Murdoch’s room.
Giving a light tap on the closed door, Sam invited himself in when it appeared Murdoch wasn’t going to do so. What he found when he opened the door made him rush into the room without a word.
Murdoch was lying silently in his bed, his eyes staring straight up at the ceiling, didn’t even acknowledge that Sam was standing by his side. Never blinking his eyes, he remained motionless even when Sam placed the back of his hand worriedly against Murdoch’s forehead and cheeks.
“Murdoch? It’s Sam, would you look at me for a moment,” Sam entreated quietly as he settled on the edge of the bed and moved his hand to Murdoch’s wrist to check his pulse. “Johnny’s sleeping now and, barring an infection in that arm, he should be just fine.” Sam scowled when his old friend never twitched an eyelash at Johnny’s prognosis. “Look, Murdoch, I know you never intended for that boy to come to harm, it’s just going to take Scott a bit to come to terms with the fact that Johnny is fully capable of getting himself into enough trouble without anyone helping him.”
As if he’d known what buttons to push, Sam smiled broadly when Murdoch’s eyelashes fluttered down and then swept back up, his head turning slight to shoot Sam a gray-eyed glare.
“Now, that’s more like the Murdoch Lancer I know,” Sam said softly as he gently patted the man’s wrist before placing his arm back down on the bed. “Tell me what happened with Johnny.”
“I-I hurt him, Sam,” Murdoch whispered, in his mind he was still seeing Johnny lying in a crumpled heap on the floor where he’d landed after being unceremoniously dragged out of the bed and tossed there without the benefit of an explanation. To Sam’s shock, Murdoch’s eyes filled with tears as he looked pleadingly up at his friend. “I know in my heart that Johnny would never do anything to harm Teresa. I-I don’t know what got into me.” Clenching his eyes closed tightly, Murdoch turned his head away, but not before Sam could see the tears streaking down the side of his face.
“Murdoch, you’re going to have to talk with that boy when he’s up to it, and you know it,” Sam told the upset man quietly, his voice gruff from his own suppressed emotions and he cursed the fact that he was so exhausted that he couldn’t hide them. “He’s going to be all right once that arm starts to heal, but until then, I’m going to caution you to stay away from him if you can’t keep your temper under control. Do you understand me?”
At Sam’s words Murdoch turned back to face him, bewilderment in his watery gray eyes as he stared at his friend. “Temper? I-I’m not mad at Johnny, Sam! I’m mad at ME!” Slamming his balled up fist against the mattress, Murdoch ground his teeth and growled. “I’m furious at my mule-headedness and my inability to listen to what my youngest boy has to say, especially when my temper gets between us!”
“Well, Murdoch,” Sam said thoughtfully as he leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re not such an old dog that you can’t change, are you?” The grizzled doctor knew he was most likely poking a sharp stick at a cornered bear, but as exhausted as he was, he couldn’t have controlled his tongue even if he’d had a spade bit in his mouth. To Sam’s amazement Murdoch actually snorted what passed for a laugh for the usually gruff rancher.
“No, Sam, I guess if I can get used to having my two adult children here with me, then I can learn how to change some more.” Murdoch sighed heavily and then cocked his head to the side as he gazed, unblinking, at his friend. “How long has it been since you had any sleep?”
“Too long,” Sam said with a weary smile as he dropped his defensive stance and slapped his right hand against his leg. “Which I am going to rectify momentarily. I just wanted to check on you and let you know about Johnny.” Rising to stand beside the bed, Sam looked down at Murdoch and again patted his wrist. “Why don’t you get some rest. Scott’s with Johnny, and from the protective way he’s been guarding him, I’m guessing that we couldn’t get him to move from his brother’s side, even with dynamite.”
Again Murdoch shocked Sam with a more-recognizable chuckle as the big man rolled over onto his side and tucked his left hand beneath the pillow case, his eyes half-hooded with sleep. “’s kind of extreme, doncha think, Sam?”
He was asleep before he could hear Sam’s weary chortle.
Dewdrop set up a noisy clamor as the hands rode off to their various appointed jobs, as if the goose was letting them know that he didn’t particularly appreciate being awakened from his comfortable nesting place just outside the barn door.
It was Dewdrop’s honking that startled Johnny out of a dreamless sleep. Opening his eyes slowly to take in the morning light coming in through the window of his room, he listened quietly for any other sound above that of Dewdrop’s fussing, which was slowly easing since the hands were now gone. A soft sigh caught Johnny’s attention from his right and he cautiously turned his head to find his brother sitting in the bedside chair, his neck canted to the side and leaning against his shoulder. Johnny winced in sympathy for when Scott woke up, as he knew the man would have the crick from hell from sleeping that way.
Gathering his waning strength, Johnny drew in a breath and held it a moment, testing his body’s reaction to movement. When all he felt was some vague muscle discomfort he grew a little more bold and tried to hitch up a bit higher on the pillow, only to find that he just hadn’t tested the right muscles. With an unstoppable groan he fell back against the pillow and closed his eyes as his left arm began to throb, the ache going clear through to the bone. He wondered what he had done to deserve such pain, but suddenly he didn’t have the energy to open his eyes to investigate. As he drifted back into the numbness of unconsciousness, his mind tried to replay a moment in time when he was fighting Scott with everything he had in order to get away from Sam and his needle, but the memory was soon floating away, as was his awareness.
Scott woke instantly at the sound of Johnny’s groan of pain. Straightening up in the chair, the tall blond gave a painful wince when his neck protested any movement at all. Massaging the back of his neck with his left hand, Scott leaned forward to peer through the feeble morning light at his brother and found him clenching his eyes and his teeth, as if he was awake and in pain.
“Johnny?” Scott called out softly to his brother, as he didn’t want to startle him and make him feel even worse. When the deep blue eyes didn’t immediately open, Scott slid out of the chair and onto the edge of the mattress. Placing the back of his hand against Johnny’s forehead, he was relieved that the skin there wasn’t overly warm. It was as he moved closer to his brother that Scott realized Johnny had lost consciousness again. He had been warned by Sam that Johnny would most likely drift in and out of consciousness as a side-effect of the morphine, so Scott bided his time until Johnny resurfaced again, because he wanted his brother to know how bad he felt for having to restrain him while Sam gave him the injection.
Picking up Johnny’s lax right hand, Scott gently turned the appendage over and, as the morning light brightened, thoroughly studied the long, delicate-looking fingers and the callous’ worn into his palm from many years of handling a Colt revolver. Stroking his own long finger over the thickened skin, Scott was suddenly overwhelmed with tenderness for his little brother and eternally grateful for those years of practice that had made the callous’, for he knew that was the only reason Johnny had survived to be with them at all.
“Wha’ you doin’?” Johnny mumbled, his words slurred and sounding as if they were being uttered through cotton batting. He licked his dry lips and turned his head to look up at Scott. “Tickles…”
Scott’s finger instantly froze in place, but he didn’t move his hand away from clinging to Johnny’s. Instead he gripped it a bit tighter as he gazed down into his little brother’s sleep-shrouded face.
“How do you feel, little brother?” He asked softly.
“Could use… water?” Johnny whispered and then tried for a hopeful smile that just missed its mark when it hurt his dry lips.
“You know the drill by now, buddy,” Scott told him as he reluctantly set Johnny’s hand back down on the bedcovers by his brother’s side and poured a glass of water for him. “I do all the work and you just do the drinking, okay?” He gently levered Johnny up and allowed him a few sips before taking the glass away, much to Johnny’s chagrin.
“Not until we see that you’re going to tolerate that much,” Scott warned gently, averting his eyes from the pleading in Johnny’s blue depths as those eyes stayed trained on the nearly full glass of water held in Scott’s hand.
“’s ‘kay. ‘m not gonna be sick,” the injured man promised as he lifted his right hand as if to take the glass from his brother. Scott held it aloft, just out of Johnny’s reach and felt bad for having done so, but he’d seen his little brother’s delayed reaction to morphine before, and he didn’t want Johnny to have to go through needless pain if he didn’t have to.
“I promise I will give you more water. Have I ever lied to you before?” Scott smiled indulgently at Johnny when he grumbled in Spanish beneath his breath. “Careful, little brother,” he warned with an evil grin toward Johnny when his brother glared at him for interrupting his quiet rant. “Remember that I know more Spanish now than I did when we first came here.” Scott nearly laughed at the look of disgust on Johnny’s face as the younger man clamped his lips together in a tight line and turned his head to the side to stare out the window.
“Are your lips pressed together because you’re angry, or because you feel like throwing up?” Scott asked worriedly when Johnny’s face paled and a light sheen of sweat covered his forehead.
Without verbally answering Scott, Johnny gulped audibly several times and turned frantic eyes on his brother before attempting to raise himself up on his elbows. Scott quickly set the glass aside and grabbed the now-empty water basin from the bedside table and held it ready as he gently levered Johnny up, being as careful as he could be with Johnny’s injured arm.
Shifting his body so that Johnny’s back lay against his chest, Scott steadied the younger man with one hand while his other hand and Johnny’s right held the basin beneath Johnny’s chin.
“It’s all right, brother, just breathe through it,” Scott crooned softly, his lips practically brushing Johnny’s left ear as he peered around Johnny’s bowed head to make sure the basin was positioned right. Johnny moaned deep in his throat, the minute vibrations telegraphing through to Scott’s chest. “Try to keep it down, Johnny.”
A slight nod of the dark, bowed head was all the answer Johnny could give as he swallowed convulsively against the bile stinging the back of his throat. He moaned again and knew that he was wasting his efforts as he gagged and then threw up, the action so forceful that he nearly toppled over into the basin before Scott could think to wrap his arm around Johnny’s chest to help hold him upright.
Coughing harshly against the bile still lingering in his throat and a sudden urge to vomit again, Johnny leaned his head back against Scott’s shoulder and stared miserably up at the ceiling for a long, tense moment before the nausea seemed to pass. Sweat slicked Johnny’s hair and face and he was all but unconscious as Scott carefully set the basin aside when he realized his brother was breathing easier. He then leaned back against the headboard, gently resting Johnny back against his chest, since it looked as if his brother was quite content to remain just where he was.
When Sam and Murdoch arrived in the room thirty minutes later, it was to find that both Scott and Johnny were sound asleep with Scott’s arms wrapped protectively around Johnny’s chest, his fingers laced tightly together in order to keep him there.
Turning to Murdoch, Sam smiled and nodded his head silently toward the kitchen. As soon as they reached the other room, Sam sat down in a chair at the table and grinned at his old friend. Exhaustion was evident on both men’s faces, but there was also pleasure that Scott was finally resting and Johnny’s complexion looked much better, more like himself.
“Could you imagine,” Murdoch mused thoughtfully as he poured them each a bracing cup of coffee, “if the two of them had been able to grow up together, as it should have been?” The big rancher sat down in the opposite chair from Sam, the wood giving its usual protesting groan at his weight. He gazed at the mug cradled in his hands and smiled softly.
“You know what,” Sam returned, just as thoughtfully as he sipped cautiously at the stiff brew before grimacing and setting it aside. He knew the last thing he needed was something to keep him awake. He looked up to find Murdoch watching him expectantly. “What?”
“You asked me if I know what…” Murdoch grinned at Sam’s blank look and shook his head. “Maybe you’d better head on up to bed, Sam. As exhausted as you are, I may just learn about all the maladies of Mrs. Hargis, and I do not wish to hear that!”
Sam snorted a laugh and pushed his chair out from under the table with a soft groan. “You’re right, of course, my friend. Have someone wake me if Johnny takes a turn…”
“He won’t,” Murdoch said confidently as his eyes automatically looked down the hallway to Teresa’s bedroom. “He’s got Scott with him.”
Giving his friend a quizzical look, Sam shook his grizzled head and walked out of the kitchen without another word.
Murdoch sat for a long time at the kitchen table, his ears tuned to any sound that might come from down the hall. Nursing the mug of coffee until it was merely cold dregs, Murdoch finally got up from the table and walked back to the bedroom where his sons were still sleeping soundly. Settling his big frame in the chair drawn up to the bedside, Murdoch contented himself with sitting and watching his boys as they slept.
Johnny was beginning to think that nothing would surprise him upon waking. Opening his eyes, he found himself cuddled up against his brother’s chest, Scott’s arms a gentle band around Johnny’s chest, helping to hold him upright. As he surveyed the part of the room he could see without turning his head, his eyes stopped rather abruptly on Murdoch sitting in the bedside chair and smiling almost affectionately at him.
“Mornin’,” Johnny whispered quietly to his father, so as not to awaken his obviously exhausted brother.
“Well, actually it’s closer to evening, son,” Murdoch informed him just as quietly, his eyes darting to Scott when the blond man grunted and shifted his weight slightly, but still managed to do so without disturbing Johnny overly much.
“’m sleepin’ m’ life away,” Johnny mumbled as he fought a yawn that won with an audible crack of his jaw. He winced and carefully turned his head to the side. He shared a grin with his father when Scott’s arms tightened a bit more around his chest. “Don’ think Boston’s gonna let me go…” Johnny yawned again and brought up his right hand to knuckle his eyes before finishing his sentence, “…anytime soon.”
“I might if the two of you would keep it down,” Scott’s gravelly voice grumbled from behind Johnny. Easing his hands loose from their nearly white-knuckled clasp across Johnny’s stomach, Scott winced in pain at the crick in his neck from his unusual sleeping position. “’s got so a man can’t get a decent nights sleep ‘round here anymore.”
Johnny laughed softly and tried to lever himself up and away from his brother, knowing that his weight had to be crushing the leaner man.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Scott said quickly in protest as Johnny managed to shift onto the mattress at Scott’s side.
Clenching his teeth closed against the throbbing in his left arm that started up the moment he moved, Johnny tuned out his brother’s words and concentrated on managing the pain until it was at a more tolerable level. When he opened his eyes again, it was to find both Scott and Murdoch watching him fearfully.
“What?” He asked quietly, suddenly uncomfortable with their anxious expressions. “’m fine.” He grinned cheekily when Scott snorted in disgust. Murdoch sent him a soft smile as the older man sat back in the chair, his shoulders less tense now that he could see his son was feeling better.
“Boy, I should take you out back and tan your hide!” Scott growled as he slipped off the bed and started smoothing his rumbled clothing back into some semblance of order. He turned and threw a glare at Johnny, who was watching him worriedly, but the dark-haired man saw the quick flash of humor in Scott’s blue eyes and that cheeky grin was right back on Johnny’s face again.
“You try it an’ I’ll tell Pa,” Johnny countered sleepily, throwing Murdoch a blatantly pitiful look, which earned yet another snort of disgust from Scott and a heartwarming smile from his father.
“Scott, why don’t you go see if Teresa has any of that broth left on the stove for this rascal,” Murdoch suggested quietly as he folded his arms over his chest and sat watching his boys as they bantered back and forth.
“You’re going to let him get away with that!” Scott exclaimed in mock disbelief before giving up on straightening his horribly wrinkled clothing to stalk resolutely out of the room, leaving Murdoch with his youngest son.
As soon as Scott was out of the room, Murdoch leaned forward, placing his right hand on Johnny’s right arm to gain his attention, for the younger man was drifting between wakefulness and sleep. “Johnny?” Murdoch called out softly, giving the arm a gentle shake. When Johnny’s eyes blinked open, Murdoch dropped his eyes and steadied himself for what he knew he had to say. “I’m sorry, son, for…”
“’s okay, Murdoch,” Johnny said sincerely as he opened his eyes wider and looked directly in his father’s worried eyes. “I know what you were thinkin’, and though I wish you knew me better than that, I guess we’ve both still got some learnin’ to do about each other, huh?” He smiled softly and lowered his eyes to watch as Murdoch’s hand gently slipped into his own.
“Yes, son, there’s a lot I’d like to learn,” Murdoch agreed with an answering smile. “Can you ever forgive me for being so pighea…”
Johnny cut his father’s sentence off with a hard squeeze of his hand, and then he said the words that would live within Murdoch Lancer’s heart forever, “Already done, Pa. Reckon that’s what family does when they love each other, huh?”
Created July 29, 2008 through August 3, 2008
Constructive criticism welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org