The lasso swirled through the air with a clumsy shimmy before slapping the hindquarters of the steer for which it had been intended. With a piteous bawl, the steer rolled his big brown eyes and kicked up his back legs before trotting off to the far corner of the corral in a bid to escape the rope that had been dogging him all morning. He warily eyed the human standing in frustration on the other side of the enclosure as the rope was slowly pulled through the soft dirt of the corral, raising a small trail of dust in its wake.
Growling beneath his breath, Scott Lancer finished coiling the lasso and held it loosely in his left hand, as he’d seen the ranch hands do. He then carefully divided the business end from the rest of the stiffened rope and shook out the loop once more, determined to learn how to rope a steer if it was the last thing he ever did. Drawing his bottom lip between his white teeth, Scott advanced on the cagey steer watching him from across the corral.
“You gonna rope it, Scott? Or just whip it into submission with that rope?”
Scott froze in the middle of the dusty corral, his body tense at the laughing words. He’d been working all week on honing his roping skills in preparation for the upcoming cattle drive, and he certainly didn’t need his convalescing little brother laughing at his determined efforts for perfection. Pivoting on his heel, Scott spun to direct a blue-eyed glare at the jokester leaning nonchalantly against the corral fence.
With both fists clenched around the rope, Scott wanted nothing more than to wipe that smile from Johnny’s face.
Having only meet a few weeks earlier, both men were still trying to find their way around each other and the ranch, though Scott had to admit that Johnny had been at a disadvantage because of his forced recuperation from Pardee’s bullet in his back. However, Scott had a sneaking suspicion that Johnny knew much more about how to handle himself on a ranch than Scott would ever know.
“You think you can do any better, ‘brother’?” Scott snapped as he held the rope up as if in invitation for Johnny to give it a try.
“Well, sure, Boston,” Johnny chortled. His deep blue eyes danced with a shimmering light of laughter when Scott glowered at his use of the hated nickname. “’course I can do better’n that!” With a muffled groan, Johnny slipped gingerly through the corral fencing and sauntered over to accept Scott’s challenge and the rope with a huge grin on his face as Scott tossed it to him.
“Ummm…maybe you’d better not,” Scott muttered after getting a closer look at Johnny’s pale face. “Dr. Jenkins said…”
“Aw, what’s that old sawbones got to do with anything?” Johnny grumbled as he expertly shook out the loop in his right hand before nudging Scott out of the way with his elbow. He cautiously raised his right arm into the air above his head. “Gimme some room, will ya?”
“Johnny…” Scott warned quietly, suddenly having second thoughts and even third ones when he saw the sheen of sweat popping out over the dark-haired man’s face.
“No, no, Scott. ‘m fine. I can do it. I can do it,” Johnny informed his big brother as he took several steps toward the steer, twirled the loop twice over his head and watched it sail unerringly across the corral to settle precisely over the wary steer’s horns. He then flipped the end of the rope to release the steer just as quickly. He turned and threw a broad grin toward Scott and had started to gloat in playful triumph over his accomplishment when he saw the horror on Scott’s face.
“JOHNNY!” Scott screamed as he raced toward Johnny as soon as he saw that the steer was about to charge. “Run, Johnny! RUN!”
Before Scott could reach his brother’s side, the steer, who’d had enough of being a target for lasso practice, pawed his front hooves and then jerked his head to the left before choosing Johnny as an outlet for his anger.
Whipping around at the sound of the steer’s angry bellow, Johnny found himself facing five hundred pounds of irritated beef. Quickly dropping the rope he held in his hand, he threw himself to the side, out of the direct path of the steer. He didn’t count on the pain from his healing wound to buckle his left leg beneath him.
Johnny hit the ground with a bone-jarring jolt, the pain from his back radiated down his spine to knife through his legs as the air left his lungs in a breathless grasp. He was unable to move and could only wait for the steer to trample him. Closing his eyes tightly, Johnny gritted his teeth and awaited the inevitable.
Stunned only for a split second, Scott felt as if his heart had leapt into his throat as soon as he saw Johnny go down. Reaching for the discarded rope, Scott quickly scooped it up before swiftly rolling it into a coil to use as a weapon to deter the charging steer away from Johnny. With his heart thundering in his chest, Scott ran to Johnny’s side and placed himself in front of his downed brother, the rope held impotently in his right hand as the angry creature came closer.
Raising his hand as soon as the steer was upon him, he slashed the rope down as hard as he could onto the animal’s sensitive nose and to his shock, the steer skidded to an stunned stop only inches from Scott and bawled loudly as he swung his huge head from side to side. Whipping off his hat, Scott flapped it in the air, along with the rope and the steer shied away from him and began to back off.
As soon as the steer had retreated to the other side of the corral again, Scott quickly dropped the rope and his hat and whirled around to scoop Johnny up and over his right shoulder. He ran as fast as he could toward the open gate where one of the hands stood waiting.
Gently lowering Johnny to the ground on the other side of the corral gate, Scott realized that he was shaking like a leaf in a stiff breeze. He closed his eyes tightly against the sudden impulse to throw up as the adrenalin rush left him feeling depleted.
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?” Murdoch Lancer’s angry voice demanded as he limped as fast as he could over to stand beside his sons. “Scott? What’s going on? What did he do?” Murdoch’s light blue eyes turned to scowl down at Johnny as his dark-haired, younger son moaned and slowly opened his eyes. With considerable effort, Murdoch knelt on his good knee and placed his free hand against Johnny’s shoulder to hold him in place when the stubborn man attempted to sit up. “Stay right there, boy. Looks like you’ve done yourself another injury.” Murdoch then switched his glare to his eldest son. “Talk, Scott.”
“I…uh…I was p-practicing…” Scott stammered out his explanation, trying to quickly figure out how to keep Johnny out of trouble with their father before involving him in any part of the story.
“It’s my fault, Old Man,” Johnny whispered as he raised his right hand and shoved Murdoch’s restraining hand from his shoulder. With a grunt of pain, Johnny sat up, swaying slightly, as he dropped his chin to his chest and rode out the dizziness and its accompanying nausea. He felt a trembling hand land on his shoulder and he gritted his teeth to shrug away from the touch, only to find himself gently hauled back against a supporting chest. He was suddenly grateful for the prop as he felt his body start to fall forward.
“Shhh, Johnny,” Scott crooned quietly, his soothing voice coming from right beside Johnny’s left ear. “Just close your eyes, take a deep breath and let it out.”
Relaxing back against Scott’s chest, Johnny didn’t even question the fact that he did just as his brother told him to do, but he was glad he did because the nausea disappeared and he was able to open his eyes again. Leaning his head back on Scott’s shoulder, Johnny looked up to see several faces peering down at him with varying degrees of emotions on them, ranging from concern to outright anger. The last face, the angry one, belonged to Murdoch and it didn’t surprise Johnny in the least. Rather than deal with the old man for the moment, Johnny simply allowed himself to drift off into unconsciousness, as his body was wont to do at the moment. He figured he’d live to fight with Murdoch another day.
As soon as he felt Johnny’s body go lax, Scott wrapped both arms around his brother’s chest and held him upright. He glanced at Murdoch and saw the anger leach from his face, to be replaced with worry as soon as he realized that Johnny had lost consciousness.
“All right, you boys help Scott get Johnny back to bed,” Murdoch ordered as he laboriously hoisted himself to his feet using the corral fencing for support until he could retrieve his cane. “Easy with him, boys! He’s still healing.” He reprimanded when one of the hands nearly dropped the leg he was carrying.
Trooping into the house with Johnny’s inert form, Scott ignored Teresa’s exclamation of shock as he led the group up the stairs and into Johnny’s bedroom. Once there, Scott gently lowered Johnny’s head down onto the quilt-covered bed and immediately dismissed the men who had helped him. He then carefully and gently removed Johnny’s boots in an attempt to make him more comfortable. He started to unbuckle the ever present gun belt, but a steel gripped hand clamped down over his left wrist with enough pressure to make Scott wince in pain.
“What’re you doin’?” Johnny growled as he opened his bleary eyes to see who was trying to disarm him.
“Let go my arm, Johnny,” Scott hissed painfully as he tried to wrench his arm out of Johnny’s grasp, to no avail.
“What’re you doin’ messin’ with my rig?” The injured man insisted, blinking his eyes in an attempt to see more clearly. As Scott’s face became more focused, Johnny instantly released his vise-like grip from around his wrist and the blond stumbled back from the bed and Johnny.
Rubbing his reddened wrist with his other hand, Scott warily watched his younger brother. “I was just trying to make you more comfortable,” he admitted quietly as he stopped rubbing his wrist and instead dropped both hands down by his side when Johnny’s attention was drawn to the movement.
“Let me see,” Johnny told him, the words coming out more as a demand than anything.
“It’s okay,” Scott insisted as he quickly tucked his hands into the front pockets of his slacks.
“It ain’t okay, Scott. I can see it’s turnin’ red from here. Now get over here and let me take a look at it!” Returning Scott’s frustrated glare for one of his own, Johnny held out his right hand until Scott knew he had no other choice, unless it was to leave his brother alone, which he wasn’t willing to do when he knew Johnny might have done more damage to his back.
With a put-upon sigh, Scott stepped closer to the bed and stuck out his left arm for Johnny to peruse. He didn’t know who was more surprised, him or Johnny, when a sharp tug on the arm brought him down to sit awkwardly on the edge of the mattress.
Applying a surprisingly gentle touch to the wrist, Johnny studied the reddened skin and frowned before raising his eyes to look up at Scott. “’m sorry, brother,” Johnny whispered, his long, slender fingers gently smoothing over the welts those very fingers had caused on the pale, tender skin. “Didn’t mean to hurt ya.”
“It doesn’t hurt, Johnny,” Scott said quietly, though he didn’t move his arm away from the soothing fingers. His eyes dropped to watch Johnny’s darker hand against his own pale skin and he marveled, once again, at the thought that the two of them were brothers, literally as different as night and day.
“It’s probably gonna bruise.” Softly spoken, the words were filled with regret as the fingers slowed their movement and stopped, remaining lightly covering the red skin of the wrist. Johnny looked up at Scott and their eyes locked. It seemed as if an eternity lapsed, when it was really only moments, before Teresa bustled into the room with a tray of bandages and other first aid supplies to break the bond that had started to develop between the two brothers. Scott stood self-consciously to his feet, his wrist slipping out from beneath Johnny’s tapered fingers and he suddenly shivered as he felt as if he’d lost something precious and irretrievable. He glanced down at Johnny and saw that he had felt it, too. But, then Teresa set about ordering Scott to help Johnny undress so that she could get a look at the wound on the dark-haired brother’s back and they were both left to wonder what it was that had been started and whether it could ever be regained.
The lasso swirled through the air with a clumsy shimmy before slapping the hindquarters of the steer for which it had been intended. With a piteous bawl, the steer rolled his big brown eyes and kicked up his back legs before trotting off to the far corner of the corral in a bid to escape the rope that had been dogging him all afternoon. He warily eyed the human standing on the other side of the enclosure as the rope was slowly pulled through the soft dirt of the corral, raising a small trail of dust in its wake.
“Ah, come on, Scott! If I’ve told ya once, I’ve told ya a thousand times,” Johnny complained in obvious frustration as he sauntered across the corral to his big brother’s side. Grabbing hold of Scott’s right wrist, he gave it a sharp snap and then held the wrist tight with both hands. “Ya gotta hold your wrist like this!” Shoving the arm into the air, Johnny demonstrated what he wanted his brother to understand. “Now, rotate the wrist…not the arm.” The dark head nodded in approval when Scott did as he was told. “That’s good. That’s good. Now, rope ‘im and let’s get in to supper before the Old Man has a fit!”
Stalking back toward the corral fence, Johnny didn’t have time to evade the lasso that settled over the top of his head and quickly snagged around his chest before giving him a slight jerk to land him on his butt in the soft dusty sand of the corral.
“Oh, funny, Boston. Very, very funny,” Johnny growled, his back to Scott so the blond didn’t see the pleased grin blooming across Johnny’s face. Awkwardly climbing to his feet with the rope pulling tight enough to bind his arms to his side, Johnny was beginning to lose the humor in the situation and turned to find Scott grinning at him with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
“How’d I do, teacher?” Scott asked as he relented and gave the rope a flip to release the loop from around his brother. The lasso pooled to the ground at Johnny’s feet.
“I’d say you’ve learned very well, son,” Murdoch laughing voice called from beyond the corral as he walked over to lean against the fence. “You two about done playing for the evening?” He was smiling indulgently at his sons and when Scott walked over to throw a companionable arm around his brother’s shoulders, the smile broadened as the pair joined their father and headed inside the house for supper.
Created September 11, 2007
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