A Minor Setback
The floor of the arroyo wasn’t that deep. However, the walls of the canyon rising up from the arroyo were. In fact, as a general observation from the weary man limping along the dusty, sandy bottom of the dried streambed, it was a veritable deathtrap, especially given the ominous storm clouds hovering over the mountains to the north. With a wary eye on the dark clouds, Johnny attempted to hurry his equally lame horse along as he kept the other eye on a likely spot in which to get himself and his horse out of the arroyo and its potential danger.
“How on earth did I manage to make it to twenty-two, Barranca?” Johnny grumbled angrily as he winced when his injured ankle twisted yet again when a rock rolled beneath his foot. Cursing a blue streak, Johnny gripped a handful of Barranca’s white-blond mane and held on tight as he stopped to assess the damage done to his ankle.
Grinding his teeth in pain when he tried to flex his foot, Johnny quickly gave up on doing so when the swollen joint refused to obey his brain’s command.
Suddenly a heavy drop of rain pocked the sand beside his foot planted firmly in the sand. He jerked his head up to see that, in his moment of distraction, the storm clouds had moved closer, and much lower.
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Johnny cursed as he turned to Barranca and swiftly removed the saddle and bridle, despite the pain the hurried movement caused him. Slapping the horse on his golden rear with his battered hat, Johnny gave a loud shout and watched the startled steed race away down the arroyo despite the injury to his knee. Grabbing his lariat, canteen and the saddlebags containing the contracts he was to have brought back to Lancer the day before, Johnny limped as quickly as he could after the fast disappearing horse.
A low roar from further up the canyon caused Johnny’s heart to falter within his chest and the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He began to frantically search the steep sides of the arroyo for any type of reprieve from what was swiftly headed his way. He was about to be caught in a flashflood, with no way to avoid certain disaster.
Having released his horse in the hope that the animal would be able to find a way out for himself, Johnny was free to worry only about himself as he started running on his injured ankle in order to do the impossible. He was going to try and outrace a deadly flashflood.
Looping the rope over his shoulder and across his chest, Johnny flopped the saddlebags over his shoulder after slipping his other arm through the canteen strap. He knew he would need both hands and every bit of his concentration in the next few minutes.
As the roar of the flashflood drew ever nearer, a trickle of water cascaded over the toes of his boots as he ran unsteadily down the sandy streambed. Grinding his teeth against the pain and panting heavily, his breath sounding harsh in his ears, he continued to frantically scan the banks on either side for some kind of miracle.
Suddenly a blast of displaced air chilled the area directly behind him and Johnny knew that there would be no miracle this day as a wall of debris-laden water slammed into his back, tossing his body into the air as if he weighed nothing. Fighting the sucking currents with everything he had, he held his breath as a log rammed him from the side and submerged him beneath the turbulent waters and tried to hold him under.
Flailing to the surface, Johnny gasped for air as the clouds overhead joined in with the flashfloods attempt to drown its victim. A deluge fell from above, causing Johnny to cough and spit out the rainwater, as well as the muddy waters attempting to drag him down into an early, watery grave.
Tossed about like so much flotsam, Johnny nearly lost consciousness when an outcropping of boulders high along the canyon wall nearly bashed his head in. It was only interference from a logjam in a bend just ahead that kept the sharp, protruding rocks from scalping him. As it was, the contact split a three-inch gash on Johnny’s forehead and made him see stars for a moment before he could regain his senses.
He was losing the battle swiftly as the muscles in his battered body began to cramp and seize. Gritting his teeth against the almost overwhelming urge to give in to the siren call to simply sink beneath the surface, Johnny continued to fight the seemingly hopeless battle. Contrary to what he’d heard from people who’d faced death to tell about it later, Johnny didn’t see his life flash before his eyes, though even if he had, he figured he wouldn’t have had the time or energy to pay it much attention as the raging river of water tugged, pushed and pulled at him from every possible angle.
Then, suddenly, he was flipped around like a rag doll by a churning eddy and found himself facing the debris-filled water bearing him swiftly toward his watery grave. Before he could fight his way back around so that he could at least see the dangers he was being swept toward, he was thrown against the canyon wall like so much refuse and he could hold on to consciousness no longer.
Johnny’s last thought, as he sank beneath the surface, was to wonder if his father would mourn his loss.
“MURDOCH!” Scott’s panic-filled shout caused the hair on the back of Murdoch’s neck to stand on end. Bolting out of his desk chair, the older man raced out the front door, his gray eyes searching frantically for his eldest son. As soon as he saw Scott across the yard near the barn, Murdoch raced toward him without a thought to anything else around him.
“What is it, Scott?” Murdoch called as soon as he neared his son, who was acting strangely, his long arms stretched out on either side as if he were trying to keep something from getting out of the barn.
“I-It’s Barranca! He’s hurt,” Scott hissed as he sidestepped another of the palomino’s half-hearted evasive maneuvers.
As Murdoch reached Scott’s side, he saw the pale horse on the other side of the barn, his hind quarters pressed against the corral fence. Fear raced through his chest when he saw that the horse had no bridle or saddle. Crooning softly to the frightened animal, Murdoch sidestepped Scott’s outstretched arm and moved slowly toward Barranca.
Snorting nervously, the trembling animal nevertheless remained still, backed into the corner as he was, Barranca warily watched the tall man advance toward him.
“Get me a rope, Scott,” Murdoch ordered in the same soft voice he was using to calm the anxious horse.
Seeing that Murdoch had the upper hand at the moment, Scott slowly backed up until he could step quickly into the tack room. Bumping into Jelly, who had come running at the first shout from Scott, he quickly told the old wrangler get him a rope.
Wisely not questioning the tall, agitated blond man, Jelly ran into the tack room and retrieved a rope and then hurried back to hand it to Scott. When Scott turned a sprinted back through the barn, Jelly was right on his heels. Slowing his pace as he neared his father, Scott didn’t expect to be almost cannoned out into the yard when Jelly couldn’t check his headlong flight in time. Glaring angrily at the old man, Scott waved him back as he quietly stepped to his father’s side.
“I’ve got the rope, Murdoch,” Scott said softly to his father, who was now standing beside Barranca, his large hands gently smoothing along the horse’s sweat-slick neck.
“Bring it to me, son… But, gently, please. This horse is ready to bolt, despite his swollen knee.” All this was said in the same, soft crooning voice as the petting hands further helped soothe the agitated animal.
Coming to a stop before Barranca, Scott breathed a sigh of relief when Murdoch took the end of the rope and fashioned a loop to slip over the tawny ears. He then made another loop which he slid around the horse’s muzzle, to form a halter of sorts. “Come on, boy,” Murdoch said quietly, his voice unintentionally mimicking Johnny’s in its softness. “Let’s get you in your stall and see what’s going on with that knee.”
Scott followed behind his father and the golden horse, his brows furrowed when he noted several cuts along the animal’s flanks. Fear for his brother again reared its ugly head.
“I’ll get my kit, Boss,” Jelly called out quietly as soon as Murdoch had Barranca in his stall and the gate closed securely. “Looks like he’s gone a few rounds with a wildcat.”
Stepping closer to the stall, Scott watched Murdoch as he gently examined the injured knee, nearly getting his arm nipped when he tried to maneuver the joint and apparently caused the horse a considerable amount of pain. Neatly sidestepping the lethal teeth, Murdoch handed the end of the rope to Scott through the wooden slats of the stall gate. “Here, son, hold him steady. I think there’s something inside this wound.” Dropping into the straw on his own painful knees, the older man gently prodded the swollen gash, causing Barranca to jerk his head up, almost pulling the rope out of Scott’s hands. “HOLD HIM!”
Gripping the rope with both hands, Scott held on with everything he had while Murdoch continued his exploration of the injury as Barranca trumpeted shrilly in frustration at not being able to strike back at the human causing him pain.
By the time Jelly returned with his first aid kit, Murdoch had finished with his exam. Stepping out of the stall he stood out of range of the anxious horse, two small, jagged pebbles held in the palm of his hand.
“What’s that?” Jelly asked as he skidded to a stop beside Murdoch and Scott. He peered at the pebbles and then frowned up at Murdoch, waiting expectantly for an explanation.
“They came out of that cut on his left knee, Jelly.” He shared a worried glance with Scott. “Probably took a nasty fall somewhere on the way home.”
“But…where’s Johnny?” Scott asked quietly as he reached out a slightly shaking hand and touched a finger to the stones.
“More important,” Jelly said as he slipped into the stall, despite the fact that the horse within was watching him closely, his ears pinned back in pain, “is where is his saddle and bridle? If he took a tumble with Johnny aboard, where is the tack?”
“Exactly what I was wondering, Jelly,” Scott said with another glance at his father. “I’ll saddle our horses.”
“Better get a few men together, too, son, and some provisions as we don’t know how long we’ll be out there,” Murdoch ordered as he moved closer to the stall gate in order to assure himself that Jelly wasn’t in danger of being nipped, stomped or otherwise injured. To his surprise Barranca now stood docilely as Jelly gently cleaned the wound with warm, soapy water.
“Go ahead on, Boss. I’ll take care of Johnny’s horse while you get ready, ‘n then I’ll get the buckboard ready fer when ya find ‘im. I’ll also send a man to town to fetch Miz Teresa back. We’ll be awaitin’ to help ya bring the boy home,” Jelly kept his eyes on what he was doing, not inclined to allow anyone to see the tears gathering in his eyes, that certain was he that Johnny just might not make it home this time.
Lying on his back, baking in the midday sun, Johnny groaned and made the mistake of opening his eyes. Pain shot through his pounding head, making him fear that he’d been scalped after all. Raising a shaking hand to probe a very tender spot just above his left eye, Johnny hissed in agony as his fingers encountered a deep, bleeding laceration. He tried to rein in the overwhelming need to vomit, and then he had no choice as the nausea roiled and churned in his stomach before rushing up his esophagus and into his throat. Despite the pain caused by movement of any kind, Johnny instinctively rolled onto his side as a gush of nasty tasting river water erupted from his mouth.
Feeling much like a fish out of water, Johnny lay moaning desperately as wave after wave of nausea rolled over him. Cradling his forehead in his hand, Johnny leaned against the muddy ground that was rapidly drying in the heat of the sun. He knew it was imperative that he find some protection from the sun, he just couldn’t convince his bruised and battered body to move.
The strike of metal against stone made him stiffen, biting his lip to hold back the cry of pain at the protest from his screaming muscles. Listening closely, the chirping of crickets along the arroyo walls was loud, but he knew he had heard the alien sound in the natural world around him, so he lay perfectly still as he waited to see if it was a friend or foe. His free hand slowly reached down toward his gun, only to find the holster empty. Fear seized his heart at the feeling of vulnerability that empty holster gave him.
Barely breathing, Johnny heard the creak of leather and another metallic clink. A horse and rider then. He suddenly wondered why he wasn’t making some noise, after all, it wasn’t as if anyone was after him.
Rolling over onto his back made Johnny’s world shift toward darkness, but he bit his lip and held on tenaciously to consciousness as he gathered his wits to call out.
“HELP!” As an effort to cry out for assistance, the words didn’t come out very forcefully, though he chalked that up to a the fact that he felt as if his lungs were full of river water. Turning his head to the side, he coughed raggedly and couldn’t seem to stop.
The sweet sound of his brother’s voice echoed over and over through the arroyo and Johnny forced his lungs to behave so he could answer back.
“HERE!” He shouted, his voice a rough rasp. Opening his eyes against the brightness of the afternoon sun, Johnny glanced desperately around at the steep walls of the arroyo and prayed the Scott didn’t attempt to climb down to him as he was pretty certain they would both then be trapped.
“WHERE, BROTHER? I CAN’T SEE YOU!” Scott’s voice sounded frantic to Johnny and the injured man closed his eyes as he heard booted feet scrambling along the top of the ridge ten feet above him.
“DON’T…COME…DOWN!” He called out as he attempted to sit up and then to stand. Falling to his hands and knees, he cursed his injured ankle and all the other myriad aches and pains that were attempting to send him back into oblivion.
“JOHNNY! KEEP TALKING TO ME!”
A small landslide of dirt and rocks cascaded down the side of the embankment and Johnny coughed harshly as the dust cloud settled over him.
“YOU’RE…RIGHT…ABOVE ME!” Gasping for breath after his coughing jag, Johnny managed to drag himself over to the embankment to lean his back against the sun warmed rock.
“I’m going to drop a rope down to you, Johnny. Think you can get it around your chest?” Scott’s voice had calmed somewhat, now that he had located his brother, though his anxiety was no less.
“’kay,” Johnny agreed softly as he closed his eyes against another, much harsher wave of agony from his ankle when he tried to stand once again. “Think my ankle’s busted, Boston.”
“All right, buddy. I’ll take care of it when I get you up top,” Scott reassured him, his voice soft and caring, just the soothing balm Johnny’s battered soul needed at that moment.
A rope snaked down the side of the arroyo wall, nearly dropping atop Johnny’s head, making the dark-haired man smile grimly and make a mental note to congratulate his brother on his pinpoint accuracy. However, for the moment, Johnny quickly fashioned a loop in the end of the rope and then slipped it around his chest and underneath his arms.
“I’m ready, Scott,” he called up to his brother, though he knew that in his battered condition, he was nowhere near ready for the ordeal sure to come. Gritting his teeth as the rope tightened slightly, Johnny held on to the rope with both hands as he was slowly dragged to a standing position and then pulled up the side of the rough rock wall.
As soon as he was hauled up onto level ground, Johnny felt his world tilt sickeningly and he passed out before his brother could reach his side.
Dropping to his knees beside Johnny, Scott made quick work of removing the rope that had become a tight constriction around his brother’s chest. Tossing the rope aside, Scott gently turned Johnny over and nearly lost his lunch at Johnny’s battered condition.
Angry red and purple bruises marred his brother’s handsome face. Along the top of his left eye was a painful-looking cut, still seeping blood that trickled down into Johnny’s swollen eye. Scott hesitated to try and move the unconscious man, lest he have internal injuries or broken ribs.
Shifting slightly to block as much of the sunlight as possible, Scott gently unbuttoned what was left of Johnny’s red embroidered shirt. Shunting the tattered remains aside, Scott winced at the bruises and contusions that covered Johnny’s tanned torso. Probing the rib area as gently as he could, he immediately stopped his examination when Johnny groaned and attempted to shy away from him. A broken rib, then.
After his brother settled back down again, Scott continued with a visual examination and didn’t like what he saw after he unbuttoned the conchos along the side of Johnny’s pants. The left ankle was swollen to twice its normal size and looked very painful, a telltale bruise colored the inside area of the swelling. Kneeling beside his unconscious brother, Scott tried to figure out what to do. Moving Johnny was out of the question, at least until his ribs were bound tightly and the ankle splinted to prevent further damage. As it was, Scott wasn’t so sure that pulling his brother up the rock wall had been the smartest thing he could have done. He should have waited for help to arrive.
At the thought of needing help, Scott scrambled to his feet and raced over to his horse to remove his rifle from the scabbard. Raising the barrel into the air, he shot it three times in quick succession, the ranch hand’s universal signal for distress. To his relief, three answering shots were heard from a short distance south of their position and he knew that help was on the way.
Moving back to Johnny’s side, Scott removed his jacket and held it up in order to protect his brother from the merciless heat of the hot summer sun. “It’s all right, brother. Murdoch’s on his way,” he crooned softly to the unconscious man as he studied Johnny’s lax features for any sign of pain or discomfort to indicate he was waking.
“SCOTT!” Murdoch’s loud shout shattered the solitude and Scott was never so glad to hear his father’s raised voice as he was now.
“OVER HERE!” He shouted back, earning him a grunt of pain from his brother as Johnny stirred awake by the noise. “Sorry, Johnny.” Gently patting Johnny’s right shoulder, Scott jerked his hand back when his brother hissed in a breath against the unintentional pain caused by the touch.
The clattering of hooves against stone reached the anxious blond and Scott ached to rise to his feet to make sure Murdoch didn’t ride right past them, but he remained steadfastly beside his brother, blocking the sun from his brother with his jacket.
“Scott?” Murdoch called out as soon as he reined his horse to a stop and vaulted from the saddle. Leaving the horse ground hitched, he ran over to kneel beside his injured son. “How bad is he, Scott?”
“Bad enough, Murdoch. I didn’t want to move him until I was able to bind a couple broken ribs…and I’m pretty sure his left ankle is broken.” Scott watched his father as Murdoch quickly assessed Johnny’s injuries with gentle fingers.
Shooting a glance at Johnny when Murdoch’s fingers grazed over the bruising over the ribs that Scott was sure were broken, Scott had to admire his brother’s fortitude as the injured man resisted the urge to cry out in pain at Murdoch’s touch.
“Hey, no need to go all ‘tough-guy’ on us, brother,” Scott said quietly as he leaned over Johnny and carefully feathered his long fingers through the dark, dirty hair. “If it hurts, tell us, okay? How else are we going to know if something needs attention?”
Panting from the effort to suppress his cries of agony, Johnny opened his pain-filled eyes and gazed up at his brother, a pleading look in the blue eyes.
“Hey, Murdoch, you want to hold up a minute,” Scott said to his father, his blue eyes locked on Johnny’s. “He’s in a lot of pain and probing those injuries isn’t helping him any.”
“T-Thanks…S-Scott,” Johnny whispered as he worked hard to avoid a cough that was working its way into his throat. He knew that if he gave in to the spasm, he would deeply regret it.
Seeing Johnny’s distress, Scott quickly leaned closer. “What can I do for you, brother?”
“W-Water?” Perversely Johnny’s throat felt as dry as the ground upon which he lay, despite the fact that just a short while ago he was close to drowning. When the canteen appeared and was pressed gently against his lips, Johnny endured the pain of having his father assist him in sitting up slightly so he wouldn’t choke on the badly needed liquid. “Hur’s…”
Suddenly Johnny’s head lolled to the side, coming to rest against Murdoch’s broad chest.
“Let’s get him ready to move!” Scott growled as he scrambled to his feet and ran over to the buckboard lumbering up the little used trail. Scratching through the supplies that Jelly had gathered, Scott grabbed up an armload of bandages as he ordered someone to find a couple of two-inch thick sticks to be used as a splint for Johnny’s ankle.
Returning to his brother’s side, Scott and Murdoch made quick work of wrapping Johnny’s chest securely before turning to the laceration above Johnny’s eye.
“This is going to need stitches,” Murdoch muttered even as he placed a pad of cloth over the wound and then wrapped several lengths of bandages around Johnny’s head to hold the pad in place.
“Yes, and the bones in his ankle will need to be set, but I’m not going to even try it,” Scott answered quietly. “Let’s just splint the leg and let Sam take care of it when we get home.” Putting action to his words, Scott and Murdoch quickly and efficiently had Johnny ready for transport in no time.
Johnny awoke to a throbbing pain in his left ankle and the almost overwhelming feeling that someone was watching him. Keeping his eyes closed and his breathing steady, he listened for any sound to tell him who might be there.
“Give it up, Johnny,” Scott said softly from his seat in a chair drawn close to the bed. He reached out a hand and gently brushed a thick lock of dark hair back from the bandage wrapped around the cut on Johnny’s brow. “I know you’re awake, brother. Come on, open those eyes and look at me, please.” The last words came out sounding like a heartfelt plea, one that Johnny couldn’t have resisted if he’d tried. Which he didn’t.
The thick lashes fluttered open, revealing deep blue eyes that quickly squinted against the soft lamplight on the stand beside the bed. Scott swiftly lowered the wick until the room was cast in gloomy shadows.
“Is that better?” He asked quietly as he turned his worried eyes back to his brother.
“Water?” Johnny croaked out as his tongue snaked out to lick at his dry lips.
“Sure. Sure. Hold on a second.” Scott quickly grabbed up the full glass of water he had waiting on the night stand. He carefully slid a hand around his brother’s shoulders and gently lifted him up, holding the rim of the glass against Johnny’s lips. “Drink slowly, now.”
Having drunk his fill, Johnny let his head loll back against Scott’s supporting arm and closed his eyes with a sigh. “Good,” he whispered as he once again licked his dry lips to moisten them. “How long?”
Scott gently settled Johnny back onto the mattress and set the glass aside before answering him. “Two days, brother. You had me a little worried.” Dropping his eyes to stare at his hands clasped in his lap, Scott smiled softly when Johnny carefully reached out his hand to cover Scott’s.
“’m okay,” Johnny said quietly. “No flashflood ever kept Johnny Lancer down.” Though said with a hint of bravado, Scott could hear the uncertainty, as well.
Scott looked up from their clasped hands and smiled fondly at his blustering brother. “Been in a lot of flashfloods, have you?” He asked, his eyes twinkling with relief at seeing Johnny awake and lucid.
“Weeeelll,” Johnny drawled out, a smile dancing in his own eyes as he stared at the ceiling. He winced when he attempted to shift and Scott was immediately out of his chair and hovering over him.
“Johnny, Sam said you were to remain in bed as still as possible for the next few days.” Scott’s gentle hands helped shift his brother until Johnny nodded his head that he was as comfortable as he was going to get. Tugging the blanket up to smooth over Johnny’s chest, Scott resumed his seat when his brother shot him a disgruntled look and batted his hands away.
“I ain’t no kid. Leave it be, Scott!” The suddenly frustrated man growled as he strove to combat the waves of pain attacking him from all areas of his battered body.
“Yes, I know, little brother, but you are pretty banged up and I’m sure you could use a dose of pain medication right about now. Am I right?” Scott asked quietly, having dealt with a convalescing Johnny before.
Gritting his teeth, Johnny glared at his know-it-all brother and refused to answer his question, especially since Scott already knew the answer. Turning his head to the side with a wince from strained muscles, Johnny closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep, however, the synchronized throbbing in his ankle and the cut above his eye quickly informed him that he wasn’t going to get any more sleep tonight.
“Come on, Johnny!” Scott pleaded. “Just enough laudanum to cut the edge and let you sleep. Please?” The blond brother was worried. Sam had told them two days ago that he wasn’t sure how Johnny had survived and not drowned in that flashflood. The most troubling fact was that pneumonia could set into Johnny’s overworked lungs, and with two broken ribs, it wasn’t a good prognosis. Scott and Murdoch had been given stringent orders to keep the active man as still as possible in order for the ribs to heal.
“Scott, ain’t no use in turnin’ those pleadin’ eyes on me. I’m not gonna take that medicine!” Clenching his eyes closed against the pain and Scott’s blue-gray eyes, Johnny’s breath hissed through gritted teeth as he tried to master the pain on his own. He heard Scott sigh heavily before he felt his brother’s hand settle on his fisted right hand and begin to gently smooth his fingers over the taut skin until Johnny’s hand relaxed. The soothing touch continued over Johnny’s calloused palm and fingers, the quiet rasp of skin against skin soothing in the near darkness of the room.
“Why do you hate taking pain medication so much, Johnny?” Scott’s soft whisper broke the silence and Johnny slowly turned his head to see that his brother’s eyes were staring at the hand he was holding, his concentration fully on the callous’ built up over the years of handling a Colt revolver.
“It makes me feel…I don’t know…” Johnny whispered quietly as he continued to watch Scott’s fingers smoothing across his hand over and over.
“Vulnerable?” Scott supplied the answer for him softly, his eyes flashing in the low lamplight as he turned to glance at his brother. “It means weak, defenseless…”
“Yeah, Scott, I know what vulnerable means,” Johnny answered, but without rancor. “It…just…”
“…makes you feel you have no control?”
“Would you stop puttin’ words in my mouth, Boston?” This time there was a hint of bitterness at his brother’s seemingly constant hints to remind Johnny that Scott was a highly educated man. “I ain’t stupid, ya know!”
Scott’s fingers stopped their soothing motion as the startled blond sat abruptly back in his chair at Johnny’s outburst. “I-I’m sorry, Johnny! I never meant…”
“Yeah, I know what you never meant, Scott. And the fact that I never had no schoolin’ don’t mean that I’m an idiot. I learned stuff the hard way.” Johnny didn’t know why he was attacking his well-meaning brother, only that the pain was becoming almost unbearable, and now that he was agitated, his ribs were adding in their two-cents worth.
Pressing his left elbow against his tightly bound side, Johnny clamped his lips and eyes shut, least he say anything more to alienate his brother or see the pain in his eyes from the hateful words already released.
The scrape of chair legs made Johnny jump, which set his entire, aching body to protesting and he suddenly wished he’d let Scott give him the laudanum. Opening his eyes a slit, he watched helplessly as Scott walked out of the room, quietly shutting the door behind him.
“Johnny Lancer, you’re a fool,” the dark-haired man ground out from between gritted teeth. Breathing shallowly to avoid more pain from his ribs, Johnny resigned himself to a restless, painful night without his brother’s soothing company. Clenching his eyes closed tightly, he tried to will his body to be still and go to sleep, but he knew it was useless. A groan of pain and frustration escaped just as the door flew back open to rebound against the wall.
“Johnny Lancer, you’re a damned jackass fool!” Scott’s fuming voice accused as he stalked right back into the room. “Now, you’re going to take this medicine and I’m not going to take any argument from you. As I see it, right about now you couldn’t fight your way out of a paper sack, so you’d better resign yourself to listening to your older, much wiser brother!”
Opening his eyes slowly, Johnny nearly choked on laughter at seeing his brother standing over him, his hair standing up wildly all over his head. In Scott’s hand was the hated brown bottle and in the other hand he held a large tablespoon. Clamping his lips together like a recalcitrant three-year old, Johnny prepared himself for a battle of wills, knowing that, though Scott had a much higher level of education, their father’s stubborn determination was much more prevalent in himself.
Scott stood staring down at his brother, who was obviously in excruciating pain, and had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the stubborn, and willful-looking young man lying in the bed. Keeping up the pretense of anger, even though he felt nothing of the sort toward his brother, Scott leaned his head over and uncorked the bottle of laudanum with his teeth before pouring a liberal amount into the spoon.
“Open your mouth, John Lancer, if you know what’s good for you,” he growled as he advanced closer to Johnny, the spoon held aloft so that it wouldn’t spill before reaching its intended destination. To his shock, Johnny shook his head vigorously, then winced when the movement set up a ringing in his ears and made his head start pounding.
Squinting his eyes against the painful throbbing in his head, right behind his left eye, Johnny nevertheless kept his eyes on his persistent brother.
“What the devil is going on in here?” Murdoch’s aggravated voice demanded from the darkened doorway.
Startled, Scott jumped guiltily, spilling the entire spoonful of laudanum onto the bedcovers as he whirled around to confront his father.
“Scott’s tryin’ to make me take medicine that I don’t wanna take!” Johnny said quickly, before Scott could say a word. The fact that he sounded like the small child that Scott had accused him of being didn’t faze Johnny in the least as he glared at Scott’s back.
“Son?” Murdoch’s voice had gentled quickly at seeing the situation for what it truly was. He looked at the strain on Scott’s face and knew that it was killing him to see his brother in such obvious pain.
“I-I was just…” Scott stammered out as his eyes dropped to look at the bottle and spoon in his hands. Striding toward Murdoch, he quickly thrust the objects at his father before shouldering past him in order to get out of the room.
Looking over his shoulder toward the hallway where Scott had swiftly disappeared, Murdoch sighed heavily when he heard a resounding slam of the huge front door. He then turned back to his other son lying in the bed.
“Well, I hope you’re satisfied,” Murdoch said quietly as he walked over to sit in the chair Scott had been sitting in earlier. Setting the bottle of medicine on the small bedside table beside the half full glass of water, he turned his attention on his youngest son.
“I don’t hafta take it,” Johnny said defensively. The fact that the words were barely audible because they were uttered from between gritted teeth told Murdoch that his much-too-stubborn young son was in dire need of the medication, just as Scott had figured.
Deciding to take a different tact than outright chastisement, Murdoch leaned back against the chair, crossing his arms over his chest and simply gazed at his son for a long moment until Johnny started to squirm uneasily beneath the steady gaze.
“What? Ain’t I a grown man, to do what I please?” Johnny demanded when he couldn’t stand the silent scrutiny any longer.
“Are you, John?” Murdoch asked quietly, his eyes seeming to assess the current situation and sorry condition of his son’s health. “Are you a grown man?” The older man paused and then relaxed his rigid stance to lean forward, propping both elbows on his thighs as he took his eyes off his son to stare at his hands held clasped before him. “Do you know how worried your brother was when your horse came home without you, the left knee cut and swollen?” Gray eyes lifted to lock with deep blue. “No, son, I don’t think you realize how deeply hurt your brother was to know that he hadn’t been there to prevent your getting injured.”
Johnny opened his mouth with the intent to protest, but Murdoch held up a staying hand. “Oh, I know. I know. You’ve managed to take care of yourself for many years without help from anyone else.” Murdoch returned his eyes to his hands, now showing white knuckles where he clenched them tightly between his knees. “But, Johnny, you’re no longer alone. You’ve got a family that cares for you and who want to help you however, and whenever, we can.”
“But, I don’t like the way the medicine makes me feel, Murdoch,” Johnny said weakly, his voice raspy and his breath wheezing slightly in his chest as he felt his heart constrict at knowing how much he’d hurt his brother. “I-I don’t know what it’s like to have someone to watch my back, t-to care for me.”
At the halting admission, Murdoch looked up to find his son watching him closely. Shifting closer to the bed, Murdoch laid a trembling hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I know, son. We’re all learning day by day. But, that’s what family is all about. Your brother only wanted to help you anyway he could, and he saw that you are in a great deal of pain, so the laudanum was his answer.”
The sound of drumming hoof beats racing away from the hacienda made both men turn their eyes toward the open window across the room.
“Go after him, Murdoch,” Johnny pleaded urgently. “He ain’t got any sense ridin’ out in the middle of the night!”
“No, Johnny,” Murdoch said quietly as he rose from the chair. “Scott can take care of himself and I think that he needs to be alone for a while…to think things through.” Walking from the bedroom, Murdoch purposefully left the door open so he could hear if Johnny needed him.
Johnny lay staring toward the window, at the dark, moonless night just beyond the billowing curtains and worried about his brother. Suddenly it hit him what Murdoch was trying to say. Closing his eyes in shame at causing his brother so much worry, Johnny glanced back at the small brown bottle sitting so innocently on the night stand.
It took a great deal of effort and pain, but Johnny finally managed to pour himself a spoonful of the hated golden brown liquid. Holding his breath in anticipation of the bitter medication, Johnny slid the spoon into his mouth and quickly swallowed. The pungent bite of the laudanum made him shudder as he quickly dropped the spoon onto the table and settled back against the pillow. Turning his eyes back toward the window, he lay tense and on edge as he waited for the medication to take control of his body.
Scott didn’t ride far, as he knew the dangers of riding blindly into the night. Slowing his horse to a walk, he made sure to keep the animal on the roadway as the last thing his father needed was another injured son. Leaning an elbow atop the saddle horn, the reins held loosely in one hand, Scott contemplated his feelings for his younger brother and couldn’t deny that he loved him like no other person in his life. He didn’t remember when Johnny had become so important to him, but his brother’s latest close brush with death made Scott realize that he would be devastated if he lost Johnny.
The horse slowed to an amble, and then completely stopped when the animal noticed that Scott wasn’t paying attention to their surroundings. Pawing at the barn door that someone had closed for the night, the bay nickered a greeting to the other horses in the corral off to the side of the barn.
Raising his head at the noise of a hoof striking wood, Scott chuckled when he saw that his horse had, at some point, turned around and headed back to the barn and the comfort of his stall. Dismounting, the exhausted man opened the barn door and lead the horse inside. Quickly dispensing with the tack, Scott guided his horse into the stall beside Barranca and gave him some oats for his efforts this night. He then headed back to the house and to his own bed to get some much needed rest.
Walking as quietly as he could while wearing boots, Scott skirted past Johnny’s bedroom doorway without giving in to the almost irresistible urge to check on his stubborn brother. He didn’t, however, because if Johnny was still lying there in pain, Scott knew that he would have another argument on his hands. So he walked on past the room and entered his own room next door.
Lighting a lamp and lowering the wick so that it created only enough light for him to see shadows of the furniture, Scott quickly disrobed and climbed into bed where he lay on his back, hands behind his head and awaited sleep to crowd out the persistent worry.
The rooster crowed loudly outside his open bedroom window and Johnny jerked awake, his heart racing. Swallowing past the dryness in his throat was impossible, so he had to maneuver himself into a sitting position against the headboard so he could get to the half-full glass of water Scott had left sitting on the side table. To his shock and disgust, his hand shook so hard when he’d finally achieved his goal that most of the water was lost in the transport from the table to his lips.
Quenching his thirst only slightly, Johnny set the glass back down on the table and then collapsed back against the pillow he had managed to shove up against the headboard. The new position wasn’t helping his ribs at all, so he slowly inched his way back down until he was prone again, his face sweat-slicked from his activities. Breathing in short, gasping pants wasn’t the best for his ribs either, but he couldn’t do a thing about it except ride out the pain attacking him from all sides again.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Scott’s chastising voice asked from the doorway. He held a tray of food in his hands as he frowned at his brother.
“Scott!” Johnny called, despite his shortness of breath. “W-Where’d ya go last night?”
Shrugging a shoulder, Scott continued on into the room and slid the tray onto the bedside table after removing the empty glass. “I figured I’d overstayed my welcome. Besides, I needed to be alone for a while,” he muttered quietly as he fiddled with the cutlery on the tray. He turned to face his brother fully when Johnny called his name softly.
“I’m sorry, brother,” they both said in unison, and then grinned sheepishly at one another.
“I told you I don’t like the way pain medication makes me feel,” Johnny began when Scott waved a hand for him to precede him. In answer to Johnny’s statement, Scott nodded his head as he sat in the bedside chair and leaned closer to his brother. Johnny looked him square in the eye and continued. “What I didn’t tell ya was that once I had to take the stuff for a long time and then I couldn’t seem to stop.” Johnny watched his brother closely to see if there was any hint of disgust on Scott’s expressive face.
Sitting back in the chair at the admission, Scott closed his eyes tightly as a viselike grip tightened around his heart at the idea that his little brother had once been injured bad enough to require pain medication for any length of time.
“Scott?” Johnny’s uncertain voice made Scott open his eyes to see his brother watching him anxiously. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Scott assured Johnny. “In fact,” he slapped his hands down on his knees and turned to the tray, “I’m going to assist you in eating breakfast, little brother.” He pulled out a cloth napkin and flicked his wrist with a flourish before turning back to Johnny. “Well? You need any help sitting up, or have you got it under control?”
Johnny released the breath he’d been holding and shook his head at his brother’s attempts to lighten the mood. Raising his right hand, Johnny smiled when Scott eagerly enfolded it within his own and carefully assisted his brother up, two pillows at his back so that he was reclining, rather than sitting straight up.
When Murdoch stepped quietly into the room thirty minutes later, he smiled affectionately at his two boys as they both ate from the same plate, chiding each other for taking the bite the other one wanted. Shaking his head at their easygoing banter, Murdoch reckoned that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Quietly closing the door, his steps were a little lighter as he headed down the stairs to eat his own breakfast and to share the good news with his ward.
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