It’s the stream from hell, Johnny Lancer thought to himself as he sat atop a large, flat rock at the edge of the water. He held a handful of pebbles in the palm of his hand as he thoughtfully lobbed them, one-by-one, into the murky, slow-moving water lapping lazily against the rocks edge.
Having started early in the morning on the brush-clogged stream in the uppermost section of the north pasture, Johnny had hoped to get the job done quickly in order to get back to the hacienda for lunch. However, a huge old oak stump had been severely trying his patience and his back muscles all morning long.
Scratching his cheek with dirt-encrusted fingers, he snorted in disgust when a clump of dried mud dropped into his lap. Remembering his last failed attempt to get the stubborn stump to budge from its position in the center of the stream, Johnny grimaced as his nimble fingers took a quick swipe across his itching face, only to dislodge more of the caked on mud.
He had roped the stump and after assuring himself that the rope wasn’t going to slip off the wet bark, he had pulled it taut and tied the other end to the horn of his saddle. Having helped clear streams with his master many times, Barranca knew to dig in his hooves as soon as Johnny gave him the signal to do so.
It had worked like a charm, until Barranca’s hooves had lost their purchase on the slippery bank of the stream and stumbled to his knees in the mud. The slack on the rope gave just enough that the loop slipped off the stump. Johnny, pulling on the rope with all his strength, fared no better than his horse as the rope grew lax long enough for the stump to splash back down into the stream, spewing mud and slime all over the hapless man lying on his back, his booted feet in the murky water.
Now sitting on the rock beside the stream, Johnny contemplated whether to bother with the stump after all. However, he knew that to leave it where it was would only invite trouble when the spring rains set in.
Casting a wary eye to the mountains at the northernmost edge of the ranch, Johnny scowled at the ominously dark clouds gathering there. He tossed the remaining pebbles into the water with a disgusted sigh.
“So, this is what you call hard work?”
Whipping his head around at his brother’s sarcastic voice, Johnny grinned broadly and climbed carefully to his feet. As soon as he turned to face the grinning blond looking down at him from atop his horse, Johnny spread out his mud-caked arms and shrugged his shoulders.
“What can I say, Boston?” He said with a broad smile shining brightly through the mud splattered over his face. “I just know how to pick the easy jobs!”
Quirking a blond brow at his brother’s muddy condition, Scott tipped his hat back on his head with a gloved finger before carefully dismounting from his horse. As soon as his booted feet touched the mud-covered ground they slipped and he nearly fell, but he quickly grabbed hold of the stirrup of his saddle to save himself.
“Yes, it certainly does look as though you’ve picked the easiest job.” Moving cautiously down the bank toward the rock and his brother, Scott reached out a tentative helping hand. “You know, there are places I heard about where the ladies pay big money for a mud bath such as you’ve apparently been indulging, little brother.”
“Yeah?” Johnny quipped as he grasped Scott’s hand with his own, and grinned when the mud there squished all over Scott’s new gloves.
With a grimace of distaste at the slimy mud transferred onto his gloves, quickly joined his brother on the flat rock and caught his first whiff of the hard-working man.
“What did you do, Johnny? Roll around in cow manure for good measure?” Scott groused as he shifted a bit further away from his grinning brother.
“Well, I suppose since this is a favorite waterhole for them, then I suppose some of this…” Johnny swept a hand down to indicate his clothes and the rest of his grubby body, “…could very well be…er…that.” He frowned at his words and took a tentative sniff of himself before wrinkling his nose at the odor that emanated from him. He raised blue eyes to look almost apologetically at Scott. “What’re you doin’ way up here anyway, Scott?”
“Murdoch sent me to bring you in. He’s got important news to tell us, but wouldn’t give me a hint. He said he’d rather you were there as he didn’t wish to repeat it twice.” Scott turned back to his horse and remounted.
“I need to get that stump out before I go anywhere, big brother,” Johnny informed Scott as he paced back toward the water’s edge and gestured toward the massive oak stump.
“You need my help?” Scott asked seriously as he propped his forearms atop the saddle horn, the reins held loosely in his right hand as he studied the stump critically.
“Nah. I’m not gonna let it get the best of me, Boston,” Johnny quickly said as he trudged through the mud to Barranca’s side. Removing the rope tied to the saddle horn, he shook out the loop and sent it sailing out over the water to settle neatly around the stump again.
Scott shook his head at how effortlessly the lasso had been thrown. “Are you sure, brother? Seems like the two of us could pull that very wily stump out a lot faster,” he said with a grin as he untied his coiled rope from the latigo holding it securely to the saddle. Shaking out the loop, he neatly sailed it through the air and watched as the rope settled around the top of the stump as if Scott had been using a lasso all of his life instead of the three years he’d been at Lancer.
“Whooee, Boston!” Johnny exclaimed with a broad grin and a loud clap of his hand against his leather-clad thigh. A puff of dust flew into the air and a clod of mud fell to the ground at his feet. Swiping his hand in front of his face to dissipate the cloud of dust surrounding him, Johnny laughed and nodded his mud-splattered head. “Yeah, brother. Together we just might win this battle!”
Wading into the murky stream, unmindful of the boots he wore, which were already ruined, he gave his brother instructions as he got down to business as he knew Murdoch Lancer did not like to be kept waiting for anyone.
“You and Barranca pull from that end, Scott, and I’ll apply my brawn from this end.” Splashing over to the stump, Johnny leaned both hands against the obstruction, just beneath both ropes. “All right, boss man, whenever you’re ready!” He shouted jovially to his brother.
“Boss man,” Scott grumbled beneath his breath as he settled deep in his saddle for the tug-of-war to come. Glancing over at the mud-splattered palomino beside him, he grinned when he saw that Barranca was already pulling the rope taut, as was befitting a well-trained cowpony.
“Let’r buck, Scott! Murdoch ain’t gonna wait all day, ya know,” Johnny reminded his brother from his awkward position behind the stump. He was more than ready to get back to the estancia and into a nice hot bath.
Suddenly the ropes were pulled so tight that they fairly sang as the stump shifted slightly beneath Johnny’s hands. Surprised for only a moment, he threw his full weight into the job, his face soon turning red with the effort as the stump slowly but surely moved.
Unable to spare a breath to inform his brother of their progress, Johnny ground his teeth together and pushed even harder as he heard Scott urging the horses on.
The stump rose sideways out of the water, it’s jagged roots grazing against Johnny’s shins as he stepped closer in order to maintain contact with the rolling stump. Then, as if in slow motion, the stump stopped moving as the top rope slipped off the wet bark with a slicing sound and the exposed end of the stump began to drop back into the water. Johnny’s boot slipped on an algae-covered rock and before he knew what was happening, he slid beneath the stump as it fell back into the stream with an enormous splash.
Pain seared through Johnny’s left thigh as one of the jagged roots plunged deeply into the muscle and stopped only because it came to rest on the thick thigh bone.
A scream of sheer agony was ripped from Johnny as he gave up the battle to push the stump off his legs and fell back into the murky water. Both hands clawed frantically at the wound in his leg.
“JOHNNY!” Scott shouted frantically as he untangled himself from the rope that had slapped him hard in the back when it had slipped loose from the stump. Jumping from his horse, who was fighting Scott’s efforts to dismount because he had also been slapped by the rope, Scott stumbled to his knees before scrambling into the stream in order to get to his brother.
Fighting the water that was threatening to wash over him and pull him under, Johnny wrapped one hand around the root that had impaled his thigh. Panting heavily from the pain and near panic of an imminent drowning, he didn’t hear Scott splashing through the water. Johnny nearly lost his grip on the slippery root as his brother dropped to his knees beside him.
At first glance Scott could see that Johnny was in deep trouble. Without a word, the slender man pressed a shoulder against the stump, but it didn’t budge an inch. Grinding his teeth in fear and frustration, Scott once more applied all his strength to moving the stump. It didn’t move.
“Madre de Dios, Scott!” Johnny ground out from between gritted teeth seconds before his head dropped beneath the surface of the rising water.
Releasing his hold against the stump, Scott dropped to his knees and quickly grabbed Johnny to pull him up out of the water.
Sputtering and choking on the muddy water, Johnny gasped for breath as he gripped weakly at Scott’s shirt front. “H-Help me, S-Scott,” he rasped out from between chattering teeth. “Hurts!” He cried out in pain when the current from the stream shifted the stump slightly, causing the root to dig deeper into his thigh and pressed him further down into the muddy streambed. Tears flowed unchecked down his pale cheeks as his blue eyes begged his brother to help him.
Scott’s eyes swam with unshed tears as he held tightly to his brother. He knew, without a doubt, that if he removed his support, Johnny would sink back beneath the surface of the water again. He also knew that he had to do something as there was no way he could move the heavy stump by himself. It was killing him to see his little brother in such agony and be unable to help him.
“Oh God, Johnny! Tell me what to do!” Scott pleaded as Johnny dropped his hand from Scott’s shirtfront and reached beneath the water toward his leg.
“M’ leg, S-Scott. M’ leg!” He gasped out as he grabbed at the root with both hands now that Scott was holding him upright. Throwing his head back, he released a primal scream of agony that sent a shiver so hard through his brother’s body that it jarred the injured man, thereby making the root tear into the skin more.
Johnny could stand the pain no longer as he lost consciousness, his head fell lax against Scott’s shoulder and his pain-filled blue eyes closed.
“Johnny!” Scott cried out, giving the unconscious man a hard shake in a bid to bring him around. Johnny moaned in pain, but didn’t awaken.
Raising his head to look heavenward in despair and supplication, Scott was shocked to see dark, ominous-looking storm clouds overhead. Panic shook him to the core as he quickly looked north to see that the rain was already falling in torrents over the mountains. Knowing that the slowly moving stream they were trapped in would soon become a raging river, Scott shifted around behind Johnny and pulled frantically.
The scream of anguish from his brother streaked through to Scott’s very soul as he realized that there was more going on other than Johnny being trapped beneath the stump.
Holding Johnny’s upper body out of the water with one hand, Scott felt along his brother’s left hip and down his leg until his fingers encountered the root buried deeply in Johnny’s thigh.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Scott whispered prayerfully. “Help me, Lord! You know I can’t do this on my own. Help me save my brother’s life!” Tears trailed unheeded down Scott’s cheeks as he sank back on his heels, careful to keep Johnny as still as possible now that he knew of the dangerous root.
With his mind running in a hundred different directions as he tried to work out a solution to the problem, Scott was unable to find any one that would actually work.
Cradling his brother close to his heart, Scott shivered in fear and the suddenly chilled air as the sun became obscured by storm clouds. The wind picked up in velocity, whipping Scott’s blond hair about his head as he leaned over his brother in despair.
“S-Scott?” Johnny whispered, his lips turning blue from the cold and having been completely submerged.
“I’m right here, brother,” Scott quickly assured him. He gave Johnny a gentle squeeze and was relieved when his brother’s blue eyes opened to look up at him.
“Rain’s comin’,” Johnny muttered unnecessarily as a light spattering of raindrops pocked the surface of the water around them.
“I know, Johnny. We’ve got to get you out of here.” Again, an unnecessary statement, but voiced all the same because Scott didn’t know what else to say.
“Send… B-Barranca…h-home,” Johnny hissed out as his body bucked in Scott’s arms for a moment, making the injured man cry out in pain at the involuntary movement.
“Shhh… Settle down, little brother,” Scott soothed, casting around frantically with his eyes for a likely stone or a limb with which to prop his brother for the short time it would take him to free Johnny’s horse and send him home. Scott’s frustration grew when he found nothing of use. He growled beneath his breath and with Johnny’s ear pressed against his chest, the trapped man heard and felt the frustration.
“’s okay, S-Scott,” he stammered out, his teeth chattering from the cold and pain.
“Johnny, can you sit up for a couple of minutes on your own?” Scott asked doubtfully as he gazed down at his brave brother.
“Y-Yeah… Go…” The words were whispered weakly and Scott sincerely doubted his brother’s ability to do as asked, but he realized that they had very little time to discuss it.
“Okay. Okay. I’ll help you sit up and I will hurry as fast as I can.” He gave Johnny’s shoulders a quick shake when the dark head lolled against his chest. “Come on, Johnny. You with me?”
“Huh?” Johnny muttered before nodding his head as he tried to sit up on his own. He fell weakly back against Scott’s chest. “H-Help me.”
Cautiously raising Johnny’s upper body until his head was leaning against the stump, Scott shifted on his knees until he could look into his brother’s pale face. What he saw made him gasp in shock.
Blood streamed down Johnny’s chin where he had obviously bitten through his lip to avoid crying out in pain at the movement. Wanting nothing more than to haul his brother back into his arms again, Scott steeled himself to get to his feet. He made sure Johnny wasn’t going to fall back into the water when his support was removed.
“I’ll be right back, Johnny. I promise,” Scott vowed, giving Johnny one last worried glance before hurrying as fast as he could go through the knee-high water to the bank.
Slowing his frantic steps as he neared the agitated palomino, who was still holding the rope steady as he’d been trained to do, Scott wrapped Barranca’s reins around his fist and cautiously backed him up a step in order to remove the rope from the saddle horn. He kept his eyes on the stump, and his brother, to make sure it wasn’t moving as the pressure was released.
“Johnny? Are you okay?” Scott called out worriedly as he couldn’t see his brother around the huge stump.
“Hurry!” Johnny rasped out in answer, though it wasn’t really an encouraging reply to Scott’s question at all.
Quickly removing the saddle from Barranca’s back, Scott swiftly tied the ends of the reins to the pale mane. He then swatted the horse on his rump and yelled at him to run home.
Barranca took a couple of faltering steps before wheeling about and charging into the stream, knocking into Scott’s shoulder and sending him sprawling. Coming to a stop beside Johnny, Barranca lowered his head and nuzzled the man’s dark hair, snorting in concern at the blood scent on his friend.
“G-Go home, boy. B-Bring help,” Johnny grated out from between gritted teeth before raising a trembling hand and pushing at the golden head. “GO!”
Nickering nervously at the weakness in Johnny’s shaking hand, Barranca pawed in agitation at the water swirling around his knees.
Scott quickly scrambled back into the stream after securing his horse’s reins to a nearby sapling. Once he managed to send Barranca home, he certainly didn’t want them to be stranded in case he was able to get Johnny free.
Cautiously approaching the confused horse, lest Barranca inadvertently trample Johnny, Scott grabbed hold of the bridle near the horse’s mouth and held tight. Barranca shied suddenly at the unaccustomed pressure of the bit biting against his tongue and very nearly sidestepped into Johnny.
Hauling back on the horse as hard as he could, Scott managed to guide him away from his brother, who was looking as if he was ready to drop. Pulling his pistol from the wet holster at his side, Scott held it up and shot three times into the air beside the horse.
Barranca reared up and then shot up the bank as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. Scott spared him a quick glance to make sure he was heading in the right direction before dropping his pistol back into the holster and turning back to his brother.
Fear coursed through Scott, settling sickeningly in the pit of his stomach when he saw that Johnny had slipped beneath the water’s surface once again.
Dropping to his knees, heedless of the sharp rocks that dug into the tender skin there, Scott quickly scooped Johnny’s upper body into his arms and pulled him up out of the water.
Sputtering against the water he had ingested, Johnny fell into a coughing fit that sent his sense reeling. He clung desperately to Scott as his brother held on to him just as tightly.
With Johnny’s dark head held against his chest, Scott sat on the streambed and started talking soothingly to him, saying anything to keep his brother awake and coherent as Johnny coughed hoarsely in an attempt to dispel the water he’d swallowed.
They’d been sitting in the stream for nearly an hour, by Scott’s calculations, though he had no real way of knowing for sure, when Scott suddenly realized that the water surrounding them was no longer flowing gently. In fact, several times he had noted a small limb brushing past them, or some other bit of debris catching against the dam of their bodies in the now swift-moving stream.
Where before the water level had lapped lazily at their waists, it now had risen to mid-chest for Scott and up to Johnny’s chin.
“Johnny,” Scott gasped as he tried to shift his brother’s head a little further out of the water, but only caused Johnny more pain from the change of position. Johnny screamed and began to thrash about as he reached out for the stump that was causing him such agony.
It took Scott several heart-stopping moments to calm his brother. When Johnny finally lay spent against Scott, watching him weakly, Scott had to swallow convulsively past the lump lodged in his throat at the expression of acceptance in Johnny’s eyes.
“I’m not giving up on you, Johnny Lancer! Do you hear me?” When Johnny continued to lay passively against his chest without changing his expression, Scott grew angry and gave his brother a hard shake. Pain flickered across Johnny’s pale face, but there was no other reaction. Hugging him close, Scott’s mind scrambled for a solution to the inevitable, if help didn’t arrive soon.
The water rose steadily now as the rain began to fall in earnest. As it lapped almost hungrily against Johnny’s right ear, Scott held his brother’s pale face above the water’s surface with both hands. Often the turbulent water washed over them both in a choking wave, causing Scott to panic.
“J-Just leave…m-me…,” Johnny sputtered out after another wave of debris-filled water sideswiped them, leaving them both gasping for air. “S-Save…y-your…self.”
“I AM NOT LEAVING YOU!” Scott shouted as he desperately held Johnny’s chin as high as he could stretch it above the water’s surface.
“D-Don’t…make h-him…lose us…b-both,” Johnny pleaded breathlessly as more water than air found its way down his nose, despite Scott’s struggle to keep it out. “P-Please!”
“I-I don’t…” Scott cried out, tears streaking down his cheeks to flow with the rainwater, and the raging water that was battering at them. “I-I can’t l-leave you, brother. I l-love you more than my life!”
Johnny looked up into his brother’s haunted blue eyes and saw the truth revealed in their depths. He knew that Scott could see the love reflected from his own eyes. “Te amo, hermano,” Johnny whispered before closing his eyes and falling limp in Scott’s arms.
“NO! DON’T YOU DARE DO THIS TO ME!” Scott screamed as he shook Johnny hard, aware that he was hurting him, but unable to stop the instinctive urge to protect the younger man. “Listen to me, Johnny!”
Another hard shake caused the shuttered blue eyes to open, only to have a wave of muddy water wash over his face. He felt Scott’s arms trembling with the effort to hold him above the water and knew that his brother was exhausted.
“Johnny! In a minute the water is going to be over your head,” Scott said urgently as soon as Johnny’s eyes turned back to look at him after the brunet suffered a severe coughing fit from inhaling water. “I need you to do what I say, okay? Do you trust me, Johnny?”
Johnny could only blink his eyes in answer, for if he had nodded his head in acceptance of whatever Scott had planned, his head would have sunk beneath the surface.
“All right. When the time comes, don’t panic,” Scott continued as he correctly interpreted his brother’s answer. “Don’t breathe under the water. Do you understand me? I’m going to take a deep breath of air and breathe it into your mouth. Okay?” Scott stared down at his brother, worry etching his face that Johnny wouldn’t comprehend what he was trying to tell him. “Blink once if you understand me, Johnny.”
Again Johnny closed and opened his eyes deliberately slowly, though he really wasn’t so sure he understood what Scott meant. Then suddenly there was no more time to wonder as the water won the battle to submerge him and his head sank beneath the surface.
Despite Scott’s plea for him not to panic, Johnny’s hands grabbed at anything in his struggle to resurface in order to draw in a breath of air. Then his hands were held in a viselike grip as Scott’s mouth settled over his. Johnny jerked his head away from the contact, but Scott’s free hand quickly pulled him back, his long fingers digging into the side of Johnny’s jaw to wedge his mouth open enough to release the held breath there.
As quickly as the life-giving air was given, it flowed out Johnny’s nose again in a burst of bubbles, having never reached his oxygen starved lungs. Scott felt the bubbles against his cheek and quickly moved his hand to clamp over Johnny’s nose and mouth before his brother could inhale instinctively.
Raising his head quickly above the waters surface, Scott drew in a deep, gasping breath for himself and then another deeper breath for his brother before lowering his lips to Johnny’s once again. This time Johnny didn’t fight him and Scott knew enough to clamp a hand over his brother’s nose and mouth before rising again to repeat the process.
He didn’t know how long he’d been doing the breathing for his brother, or how much longer he’d be able to continue. He was feeling lightheaded as he continued his efforts tirelessly. He never heard the thundering of a half dozen horses nearing the stream.
As Murdoch sawed on the reins to stop his horse from plunging into the wildly surging stream, the big rancher looked frantically around the area for his sons. His blue-gray eyes took in the telltale evidence of the deep grooves in the bank, made obviously by a horse straining against something. He also saw Scott’s horse tied near the stream and noted the mud-splattered all the way up the bay’s chest.
“SCOTT! JOHNNY!” Murdoch shouted, the loud timbre of his voice making his horse shy uneasily beneath him. Scrambling from the saddle, Murdoch tossed the reins to Cipriano and moved closer to the water’s edge.
Scanning the stream that was quickly becoming a turbulent river, Murdoch saw nothing to indicate that his sons were anywhere near and worried that they had been washed downstream.
“JOHNNY? SCOTT?” He shouted again, cupping his hands around his mouth in the hope that the sound would carry further. His eyes swept the surface of the churning water once again, for some reason unknown to him, and saw a large stump creating a dam mid-stream. Various debris swirled around it, eddying recklessly before breaking loose and continuing on downstream.
Suddenly a water-slicked blond head broke the surface and Murdoch opened his mouth to call out to his eldest son, only to see Scott’s head drop back beneath the surface once again.
Bewildered beyond reason at Scott’s actions, Murdoch dove into the fast-moving water and struck out toward the stump and his son.
Reaching beneath the murky water where he’d seen Scott’s head disappear, the worried father grabbed hold of a shock of the blond hair and dragged Scott’s head upward. He didn’t expect the young man to come up fighting.
“NO!” Scott cried out breathlessly as he took a deep, gasping breath and jerked his head out of Murdoch’s hold before dropping back beneath the water again.
With a sickening suspicion, Murdoch’s hand dropped under the water again and followed the bend of Scott’s head to find not one, but two heads beneath the churning water. Fear surged through him as he realized what Scott was trying to do.
“CIPRIANO!” The frightened man screamed anxiously as soon as his head broke water. “Throw a rope here and send Joe and Paulo out to me. NOW!”
Doing as he was told without question, the Segundo quickly shook out the loop of his lasso and swung it over his head out to Murdoch.
Quickly dropping the loop over the stump, Murdoch wrapped the rope twice around the slippery bark before he and the others put everything they had into pushing the stump up and toward the bank. With Cipriano and his horse guiding the huge stump, it quickly gave up its position, and its prey, to meekly slide across the stream and up the bank to fall where it was dropped.
As soon as the stump was dispensed with, Murdoch reached beneath the water and pulled Johnny into his arms as Joe and Paulo lifted an exhausted Scott between them.
Making his way toward the bank, Murdoch didn’t turn his precious burden over to Cipriano’s waiting arms, instead he cautiously climbed the slippery bank until he was well clear of the water’s edge. Laying Johnny down on the wet grass beneath an oak tree in an attempt to shield him from the pounding rain as much as possible, Murdoch gently patted Johnny’s pale cheeks to awaken him.
“Oh God, Murdoch!” Jelly exclaimed as he hurried over to Murdoch with a blanket in his hands. “His leg!”
Murdoch glanced down at Johnny’s legs and gasped when he saw the jagged wound in his left thigh. As the rain pounded down on the ugly laceration, dark red blood flowed from the wound, mixing with mud and whatever else that was in the streambed.
“Cut his pants leg above the wound, Jelly,” Murdoch ordered as he continued to work at getting Johnny to come around. He was breathing, but just barely, and the older man was very afraid. Though he hated for his son to be conscious while in pain, the raspy gurgling in Johnny’s lungs sounded ominous to the older man. “Wrap your shirt tightly around the wound.”
Fear for the young man he thought of as a son coursed through Jelly’s old heart. His hands shook terribly as he carefully sliced through the sodden denim fabric of Johnny’s jeans. His eyes helplessly flickered to the bleeding laceration and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from losing his lunch.
A disturbance to his left made Murdoch hesitate as he continued to work at bringing his son around. Scott was struggling weakly with Joe and Paulo in an attempt to reach his brother’s side.
“Johnny!” Scott rasped out breathlessly as he tore his arm from Paulo’s grasp and staggered to his knees before the men could catch him.
“Bring him here,” Murdoch ordered as he turned his attention back to Johnny.
Scott fell to his hands and knees beside his brother, tears streaming unchecked down his pale cheeks as he grabbed hold of Johnny’s frigid hand and held on tight. Leaning forward, his forehead pressed against Johnny’s right temple, Scott spoke almost angrily to his brother.
“Don’t you do this to me, Johnny! I held up my part of the bargain. Now it’s your turn!” Scott coughed raggedly, averting his face momentarily before turning back to Johnny. This time his voice broke on a plea. “Please don’t leave me, brother. Oh God, please don’t die!”
To everyone’s shock, except Scott, Johnny’s blue eyes fluttered open a slit as he ground his teeth in agony as Jelly tied the arms of his shirt as tightly as he dared around the wound.
“Scott…” It was more a breathy thought than a word, but Scott heard him anyway.
“Right here, brother.” Holding tight to the hand that barely responded to the desperate pressure, Scott moved until he was leaning over his brother in order to shield his face from the hard pellets of rain now pocking the ground around them.
“T-Thanks,” Johnny breathed out gratefully before his head lolled to the side.
“Quickly, men! We need to get them home,” Murdoch commanded, smoothing a lock of dark hair back from Johnny’s pale forehead with trembling fingers.
“I’ll ride for the doc, Boss,” Joe said quickly as he ran to his horse and vaulted into the saddle. Reining the horse about, Joe took off across the pasture at a dead run.
“Cipriano, wait for me to mount and then hand Johnny up to me,” Murdoch ordered as he stood unsteadily to his feet and mounted his horse as Jelly held it still for him.
“Wait!” Scott cried out as he attempted to stand on trembling legs. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed hold of Cipriano’s pants leg as the older man gently lifted Johnny’s limp body into his arms.
“Jelly, you and Paulo bring Scott,” Murdoch told the older man, giving Jelly a pointed glance and then looked hard at Scott, who was impeding Cipriano’s progress. “Let’s go, men!”
Hurrying over to Scott’s side, Jelly quickly pried his cold, shivering fingers from the hold he had on the Segundo’s pants leg. Jelly then pulled Scott close as the blond tried to surge past him to get to his brother.
“C’mon, Scott. Let’s get you on your horse so we can get on home,” Jelly crooned gently to the distraught man.
“JOHNNY!” Scott cried out in anguish as Cipriano settled Johnny across Murdoch’s lap, the wounded leg propped carefully over his father’s left thigh. The last Scott saw of his brother was the dark head cradled tenderly against Murdoch’s chest as their father urged his horse forward at a ground-eating lope.
“C’mon, boy. Let’s ride.” Jelly guided Scott to his horse and helped the exhausted man up into the saddle. “You gonna make it?” He asked doubtfully as he watched the young man sway dangerously.
In answer to his question, Scott drove his heels into his horse’s sides, causing Jelly to scramble back out of the way or risk being trampled by the galloping horse.
Quickly climbing into his own saddle, Jelly cursed the rain, hard-headed youngsters and stumps that caused pain to one of his own.
The pounding hooves of a fast approaching horse caused Murdoch’s over-burdened horse to shy, giving the older man a moment of pure panic as he fought the fractious horse and his son’s unconscious body.
When Scott brought his horse alongside Murdoch’s bay, it was already breathing hard, but Scott was oblivious to the animal as he urged it to keep pace with Murdoch’s longer legged steed.
“Son, you’re going to kill that horse if you don’t…” Murdoch warned, but was cut off swiftly by Scott’s blue-eyed and desperate glare.
“I don’t give a damn about the horse, sir,” Scott snarled gruffly as he shifted in his saddle in an attempt to get a look at Johnny’s face. “How’s he doing?”
Murdoch didn’t have to check. He could feel Johnny’s chest rising and falling beneath the arm he held around his son, and he could hear the rasping breaths issued from deep within his son’s chest. “He’s breathing, Scott,” he announced quietly as he tightened his hold around his youngest son. He looked over into Scott’s guilt-ridden eyes and knew that his older son was taking the blame for the accident, no matter what might have gone wrong or whose fault it might have been. “Son, let’s get him home. When Sam takes care of his leg, we’ll talk.”
Settling back in his saddle, Scott chewed worriedly on his lower lip as they rode, his mind fragmented as he tried to hold back the terror of possibly losing his brother and best friend.
Sam Jenkins beat them to the hacienda by fifteen minutes. The doctor was pacing worriedly along the veranda as the rain pounded angrily around him. As Murdoch rode up to the front door, Cipriano was already there to accept Johnny’s limp body into his arms while Murdoch dismounted.
Carrying Johnny into the house and up the wide stairs to his bedroom, Murdoch was relieved to find Maria and Teresa prepared, as usual. Hot water steamed from a bowl on the bedside table. A stack of clean, white cloths waited on another sheet-shrouded table brought in from the hallway. Sam’s black bag was open on the same table, ready for any eventuality.
Gently lowering his son toward the bed, Murdoch was stopped inches from his destination by the doctor.
“Let’s get those wet clothes off him first and get him as dry as possible,” Sam ordered as he and Cipriano quickly moved to disrobe the unconscious man. Teresa was sent from the room as Sam carefully cut Johnny’s waterlogged pants from his hips, cutting off the shortened long johns along with the pants.
“How long has he been unconscious?” The doctor asked as soon as Murdoch placed his son carefully down on the bed and stepped out of Sam’s way. Sam was gently unwrapping the dirty shirt from around the wound on Johnny’s leg, though with the loud wheezing coming from the young man’s chest, the ugly laceration just might be the least of their worries.
“It took almost an hour to get him home and he was barely aware enough to speak with Scott before we left,” Murdoch answered Sam as he naturally gravitated to Johnny’s right side as the doctor continued to remove the makeshift bandage. Lifting Johnny’s fever-hot hand gently from the bed, Murdoch averted his eyes from the raw-looking wound that Sam uncovered. Even the doctor recoiled at the sight of the deep, angry-looking laceration.
“Get Teresa back in here. NOW!” Sam barked as he grabbed up a thick pad of bandages and pressed it hard over the wound as blood spurted with each beat of Johnny’s heart. “He’s likely nicked an artery and if I don’t get it sutured he could bleed to death!”
Murdoch tripped over Johnny’s discarded clothing lying in the floor in his haste to get Sam the help he needed.
Pacing the floor of his study, Murdoch came to an abrupt halt before the large window behind his desk. Glaring out at the rain-dreary morning, the only indication of sun was a subtle lightening of the eastern sky.
For four hours Sam had worked diligently over his patient as Johnny’s fever rose swifter than the stream that had tried to claim his life. The last word from Sam, before the exhausted man sought his bed in the guest room for a few hours rest, was that the doctor feared Johnny was coming down with pneumonia. The fact that the wound in Johnny’s leg was infected was a given, in Murdoch’s opinion, considering the conditions. How could it not be? And, he supposed that the thought of pneumonia had crossed his mind several times on the ride home as Johnny’s breathing seemed to rasp louder and louder in his chest. Fear for his son rode Murdoch Lancer’s shoulders hard as the older man leaned a shoulder against the window frame and stared out at the dreary day without seeing the yard covered in mud puddles.
“Sir?” Scott’s trembling voice broke into Murdoch’s fearful reverie and the older man jumped guiltily as he realized suddenly that he hadn’t given his older son’s whereabouts a second thought.
Turning to face Scott, Murdoch was stunned by the stark fear and devastation he saw in the pale blue eyes. “Son? Where have you been?” Murdoch asked gently, as if he were speaking to a skittish horse. He took a tentative step toward Scott, but the blond looked ready to bolt if Murdoch advanced any closer. “Why don’t you come over here by the fire and warm yourself.”
Murdoch was further shocked to realize that Scott still had on the wet clothing he’d been wearing while holding his brother in the stream. The younger man was shivering so hard his teeth were clacking loudly.
“H-How is J-Johnny?” Scott inquired softly, though he looked as if he didn’t think he had the right to know the answer.
“Sam took care of the leg wound,” Murdoch quickly assured him, apparently too quickly, for he saw sudden suspicion in Scott’s guilt-tortured eyes.
“W-What are you not telling m-me?” The shivering blond demanded as he took another step into the room, his intense gaze on his father and what the older man wasn’t telling him.
“He believes your brother has pneumonia,” Murdoch admitted warily as he continued his slow advance toward Scott. He could see the fatigue in the slump of his son’s usually straight carriage and knew that it would only be a matter of time before the exhausted man dropped.
“P-Pneumonia?” Scott queried in bewilderment before slowly nodding his head as his mind accepted the diagnosis. “Yes…it makes sense.”
“Son, would you like to go up to see him with me? I was just taking a short break.” Murdoch watched his eldest son closely. “Teresa’s with him now, but she needs to rest…” His words petered out when he saw sheer panic flash across Scott’s pale face.
“I-Is he… g-going to… die?” The frightened man whispered as he raised a trembling hand to his temple. His eyelids fluttered closed suddenly and he crumpled to the floor before Murdoch could take action to prevent the fall.
“SCOTT!” The older man cried as he rushed to Scott’s side. Kneeling by his side, Murdoch got a closer look at Scott’s condition and worried that, before it was all over, he might lose both of his sons.
Slipping his arms beneath Scott’s back and legs, Murdoch carefully lifted the unconscious man and held him against his chest, just as he’d carried Johnny the day before. With his back screaming for him to lower his burden, Murdoch steadfastly carried Scott up the stairs and into his bedroom. Once he had Scott safely in bed, Murdoch quickly removed the filthy clothes and slipped a nightshirt on the slumbering man before gently tucking him into bed. He paused to caress the tousled and dirt-encrusted blond hair before leaving the room to awaken Sam and inform him that he had another patient.
Fever raged in Johnny’s body. As Murdoch sat by his side, soothing the fever-flushed skin with a cool cloth, he was witness to his sons’ feverish ramblings. Most words Murdoch didn’t comprehend, but the ones he did understand frightened even the tough rancher. His heart broke at the tears that escaped from beneath his young son’s lashes as he seemed to be begging someone for something in rapid-fire Spanish. The words were so garbled that Murdoch couldn’t understand. Then, that something he’d been holding away from his son all those years seemed to crack dissolve away as he cared for his deathly ill son.
For so long Murdoch had vowed to never lose his heart again, not after having loved four times in the past, only to lose those he loved each time. He had hardened his heart against ever allowing anyone else in, but now Murdoch looked down into the gaunt, feverish face of his youngest son and did something he hadn’t done since his dear mother had been alive nearly thirty years ago. He dropped down onto aching knees, clasped his trembling hands together and lowered his head right there beside Johnny’s bed.
“Dear God,” he prayed aloud. “I don’t know if You hear me. I know it has been a long time since I’ve sought You on bended knee. But, dear Lord, please don’t take it out on my son.” Tears flooded the proud man’s eyes, choking off the words in his throat and he had to stop for a moment before he could continue.
In the short time since Murdoch had knelt to pray, Johnny’s rasping breath had grown louder in the room and Murdoch nearly abandoned the prayerful stance, but something indescribable kept him on his knees. He wasn’t sure that it wasn’t the very hand of God, so he didn’t resist it as he continued his prayerful supplication for his son’s life.
“Johnny’s had a hard life, Father. You know he has. I thank You, Lord, for bringing my boy safely home and I pray that You allow him to stay here with his family. I love this boy and his brother with all my heart and soul. Please take my life. Take the ranch. Take anything, God, but please don’t take my boy!”
“C-Can’t bargain…w-with…God,” Johnny wheezed out, his voice so hoarse and raspy it was barely heard.
“Johnny!” Murdoch cried, ignoring his painful knees as he climbed to his feet and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed to face his son. Lifting Johnny’s pale hand into both of his own, Murdoch smiled tenderly down at his son who was watching him avidly. “How do you feel, son?”
“Been better…,” Johnny answered breathlessly, his voice but a whisper.
“…been worse, too. Right, son?” Murdoch finished for Johnny, having received the same answer many times over the years after various injuries, some incapacitating and some slight.
“Yeah.” Johnny’s licked at dry lips in an attempt to moisten them. “Water?”
Quickly pouring water into a glass on the bedside table, Murdoch carefully slipped an arm beneath Johnny’s shoulders and lifted him up enough to drink before lowering him back down onto the pillows when Murdoch figured he’d had enough.
“M-More?” Johnny rasped out as his eyes followed the glass until it was placed back down on the table. He licked his lips again as he turned back to look at Murdoch again. “Please?”
“I’m sorry, son,” Murdoch said regretfully as he resettled the blanket back over Johnny’s bare chest. “Sam said you could only have a little bit at a time until we’re sure it’s going to stay down.” He looked regretfully down at his son as Johnny began to cough harshly.
As he’d been doing all night long, Murdoch carefully eased Johnny up, resting Johnny’s back against his chest as his large hands moved soothingly up and down the convulsing back.
Breathless by the time he managed to control the cough, Johnny was content to lean bonelessly against his father’s chest, his forehead nestled in the crook of Murdoch’s shoulder and neck. Closing his eyes, Johnny allowed himself to enjoy the soothing hands moving gently over his aching chest. There was some memory niggling at the back of his mind, but he shoved it further away as he reveled in the closeness with his father and the prayer he’d overheard.
Johnny knew his father loved him, though the first year had been rocky at best and he hadn’t been so sure then. However, over the last two years Johnny and Murdoch had seemed to come to a mutual understanding where Murdoch didn’t ride him as hard as he once did and Johnny had learned to bend to his father’s will a bit easier. That didn’t mean they didn’t still see eye-to-eye on some things, they were just not as vocal about it as they once were.
What filled Johnny’s heart to overflowing was to hear his father say that he loved him. It was the most precious thought to the young man. It didn’t matter to him that Murdoch hadn’t been speaking directly to him. He could feel the love in the hands smoothing gently over his aching chest and hear it in the voice crooning quietly in his ear. He sighed in contentment as he closed his eyes and drifted toward sleep.
Suddenly that niggling thought resurfaced and Johnny’s shoulders tensed as he realized that he hadn’t seen or heard his brother at all. He knew he had been out of it for the most part, but the last thing he remembered was Scott keeping him alive under the water by breathing life-giving air into his lungs.
“Son, what’s wrong?” Murdoch asked gently as his hands stilled their soothing motion. He carefully held Johnny’s now rigid body away from his chest so that he could look at his face. What he saw there made his heart falter in his chest. “Johnny?”
“S-Scott? Where’s…S-Scott?” Johnny wheezed out as his breathing began to labor in fear for his brother.
“Scott’s resting, son. He was exhausted,” Murdoch told him quietly as he gently held Johnny upright with one arm as he picked up the glass of water. “More water?”
“S-Saved…m’ life,” Johnny whispered gruffly as he accepted the glass of water gratefully.
“I know, Johnny,” Murdoch didn’t have all the details, but he thought he knew enough to figure out what Scott had done for his brother. Scott hadn’t said a word since he collapsed in the study, but Murdoch knew there were parts of the story he might never be told unless he demanded it.
“Need…to see…him,” Johnny gasped as he settled back against the pillow with a sigh and lost the battle to stay conscious.
“Murdoch?” Sam’s weary voice disturbed the rancher as he sat gazing down at his sleeping son.
Turning to look at his old friend standing in the bedroom doorway, Murdoch sighed. “Sam, what is it about these boys that trouble seems to follow them wherever they go?” He asked in bewilderment. He had been contemplating that very thought when Sam had interrupted him.
Sam sighed heavily as he advanced further into the room and came to a stop beside Murdoch. Placing a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder, he thought seriously before speaking.
“You know, I’m not so sure it follows them as much as this one seems to have the uncanny ability to find it and drag his brother along for the ride,” Sam mused with a soft smile. Murdoch didn’t find the doctor’s answer very funny at all.
“That was not amusing, Sam,” the angry man growled a bit too loudly.
“Was pretty…funny,” Johnny rasped quietly from the bed. “Probably…very accurate…” His voice was gone by the end of his speech. He drifted back to sleep without another word.
“See what you’ve done, Sam!” Murdoch exclaimed in frustration as he grabbed hold of the doctor’s arm and guided him out of the room. “Now I’m going to have to start all over again!”
“Murdoch, what on earth are you talking about?” Sam set his feet and refused to go another step as he turned a glare on Murdoch.
“Johnny’s confidence; in himself and in this family!” Murdoch growled as he dropped his hand from around Sam’s arm and turned to lean his shoulder against the wall. “He’s come so far since that first day back. That boy rode in here with a chip the size of Texas on his shoulder and it has taken me three years to whittle it away.” Shaking his gray head in disgust, Murdoch punched his fist into the palm of his hand. “Damnation!”
“Murdoch, I was merely jesting,” Sam exclaimed. “Johnny knows that!”
“Does he, Sam? To Johnny, the idea of Scott being hurt because of something he did has been planted in that boy’s mind and, though it might have been spoken in jest, that’s where it will remain! Mark my words; the next time something like this happens, Johnny will take the blame, no matter who was at fault.” Murdoch ran agitated fingers through his hair and growled beneath his breath in frustration. “Damnation!”
Slumping back against the wall he closed his eyes tightly in exhaustion.
“Come on, Murdoch. You aren’t indestructible, you know,” Sam said calmly as he led his friend toward his bedroom. “You need to rest, too.”
“I need to stay with Johnny,” the exhausted man protested even as his eyes blinked wearily. He attempted to glare at Sam for even making the suggestion that he rest, but he couldn’t see as his vision suddenly blurred.
“I will sit with him, my friend.” Sam wrapped his hand around Murdoch’s arm and gently guided the man into his bedroom. At the bedside, Sam started to unbutton Murdoch’s shirt, but his hands were quickly batted away.
“I can do it,” Murdoch grumbled as his fingers began to fumble with the seemingly tiny buttons. He finally managed to get the shirt undone and shrugged off before turning toward the bed and falling face first across the mattress. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
“I hope he doesn’t wonder where Johnny gets his stubborn streak,” Sam muttered as he removed the man’s boots and swung the long legs the rest of the way onto the bed. Covering his friend with a quilt folded atop the chest at the foot of the bed, Sam left the room to fulfill his promise to his friend.
Johnny couldn’t breathe. He tried to sit up, but hands pressed down on his chest, making the struggle to breathe that much more difficult.
“No-o-o-o!” He gasped out, using what little breath he had. He slumped back against the pillow, unconscious.
Sam quickly leaned Johnny up and pounded him on the back in an attempt to break up the congestion in his lungs that was choking the very life out of the very ill young man.
“Come on, Johnny! You can do it!” Sam urged as he renewed his efforts when Johnny managed to draw in a raspy, gasping breath. “That’s it, son. Now cough!”
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY BROTHER?”
Recognizing the panic in Scott’s frantic voice, Sam had to ignore the man as he focused his full attention on making sure Johnny was getting enough oxygen into his fluid-heavy lungs. Then, before he could fathom what was going on, Johnny was torn out of his arms and Sam suddenly found himself thrown to the floor as Scott wrapped his arms around his choking and gasping brother. Scott began to croon softly to him.
“Shhh, it’s all right, brother. I’ve got you,” he kept whispering softly over and over as he gently rocked Johnny in his arms.
“S-Scott?” Johnny rasped out between ragged coughs, too weary to move his head from where it lay pressed against his brother’s shoulder.
“I’m here, Johnny. I’m here.” Smoothing his hands up and down Johnny’s heaving back, the blond man felt contracting muscles slowly relax until his brother lay against him, spent and breathing harshly.
“W-Where… ya…been?” Johnny asked breathlessly, he shifted his forehead slightly so it pressed against Scott’s throat as he concentrated all his efforts on breathing and remaining conscious.
Closing his eyes against the bewilderment in his brother’s voice, Scott sighed heavily and leaned his cheek against the crown of dark hair. He didn’t know how to answer the heartfelt question, for he wasn’t exactly certain why he’d distanced himself from his injured brother’s side.
“I’m sorry, brother,” Scott whispered contritely as his hands continued their soothing caresses.
“’s okay,” Johnny assured him, his voice coming out in a hoarse rasp. “H-Here now.”
Tears of remorse flooded Scott’s eyes, but he forced them back as he knew he didn’t deserve his brother’s forgiveness.
Johnny’s hand reached up and patted weakly against Scott’s chest, directly over Scott’s pounding heart. “K-Know…ya love…me,” he whispered before falling asleep, his lax body slumping against his brother, who could no longer restrain the tears that trailed hotly down his cheeks to drip off his chin onto the dark head held beneath Scott’s chin.
“Yes, brother. I love you,” he whispered as he held Johnny close. “More than my own life.”
In two weeks time the Lancer hacienda had become a rather noisy hub of activity. Teresa had her hands more than full in keeping Johnny in bed until Sam gave the restless man permission to be up and about.
Over the past two weeks Scott had become Johnny’s constant companion, almost like his shadow or even an extension of the other man. Never long from his brother’s side, Scott made it his main goal to get Johnny well and back in the saddle again, even at the expense of his own health.
About a week into his secret endeavors to get Johnny back on his feet, two things happened to encourage his efforts. Johnny’s fever broke and the congestion in his lungs began to clear.
Scott began to lose weight that his tall, lean body could ill afford to lose. Despite his being so ill, it was actually Johnny who noticed the weight loss immediately.
Having come out of a feverish dream of being held underwater by unseen hands, Johnny was thrashing about in the bed when his hands locked on his brother’s arm. Holding tightly to the slender limb as an avenue of escape in his dreams, Johnny pulled himself up and awoke out of the dream. He found himself gasping desperately for breath. Scott spoke soothingly to him and Johnny had calmed almost instantly, his hands still clinging tightly to his brother’s arm.
As the dream receded, Johnny slowly became aware of his surroundings, recognizing his bedroom and then his eyes turned to look at Scott. He recoiled away from the sight of the too-thin man sitting beside him in the bed.
“S-Scott?” Johnny gasped out as he blinked his eyes in confusion at what he was seeing. “You…hurt?”
“No, brother. You’re the one who was hurt and I’m pretty sure Sam doesn’t want you talking very much right now.” The blond reached over to the bedside table and picked up a glass of water to offer to his brother. “I know you probably feel like you drank half the water in that stream, but Sam says you need to drink as much as you can when you’re awake.”
Holding the glass for his too-weak brother, Scott tilted it slightly against Johnny’s lips and smiled when his brother drained the entire glass of water and looked as if he wanted more.
“What h-happened?” Johnny persisted, referring to his brother’s weight-loss and not his own illness.
“Y-You almost d-drowned, brother,” Scott answered shakily as he quickly set the empty glass aside and cautiously gathered his brother into his arms, being careful not to jar Johnny’s left leg. “A stump fell…”
“No!” Johnny croaked vehemently, his eyes glaring in frustration at his brother. “Y-You…what…happened?” Johnny curled his hand tightly around Scott’s arm lying across his chest. “Too…s-skinny.”
“I’m fine, Johnny,” Scott quickly said, though Johnny knew that he wasn’t telling the truth as Scott wouldn’t look him directly in the eye. However, the injured man didn’t have the energy to insist as he drifted back to sleep, feeling safe and secure in his brother’s arms.
Murdoch walked quietly into Johnny’s room and stopped short at seeing both of his sons almost clinging to each other in their sleep. Tears flooded his eyes as he walked quietly over to the bed and set down the tray he carried that held broth and willow bark tea for Johnny.
He must have made some noise, though he had tried to be quiet, as Scott stirred awake. Blinking his eyes open, the blond looked around almost frantically upon awakening until he realized that for which he was searching was lying against his chest. He relaxed visibly, releasing his held breath before looking up to see Murdoch watching him with a soft smile on his face.
“Good morning,” Scott whispered sleepily.
“Good morning, son.” The older man’s eyes flickered to the dark head lying on Scott’s chest. “Is he all right?”
“Yes, sir. He’s finally healing,” Scott said softly as the fingers of his free hand automatically reached up to gently brush Johnny’s hair from the slumbering man’s eyes.
Standing beside his sons, Murdoch felt an almost physical pain in his chest at the thought of having nearly lost both of them. He staggered slightly, his hip hitting the tray he’d set down on the bedside table, making it clatter, before he sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed.
“Sir? Are you all right?” Scott exclaimed in alarm as he shifted slightly toward his father in concern. His movement stirred Johnny awake, though neither of the other men realized it.
“I’m fine, son,” Murdoch replied as he swiped a trembling hand down his exhausted face. He sighed heavily and looked down at his eldest son, who was watching him closely.
“God, Scott. I almost lost you both!” He cried as he reached a trembling hand out to gently smooth it across Johnny’s dark, tousled hair. It was then that he noticed his youngest son watching his every movement. “Good morning, Johnny,” Murdoch said gently as he continued to stroke his hair. “Are you hungry?”
Johnny closed his eyes in pure bliss at the loving comfort he felt for possibly the first time in his life. He cherished the soothing weight of his father’s hand smoothing gently over his head and also the steady beat of Scott’s heart beneath his ear. With the exception of the bothersome pain in his leg from the healing wound there, he was more than content. He drifted back to sleep without answering his father’s question, but the contented smile on his face was answer enough.
“Ah, come on, Scott!” Johnny groused as he trudged through the knee-high stream. “This is what got me in trouble the last time.” Tossing the rope he held in his hands around a particularly stubborn stump in the middle of the stream, Johnny didn’t expect the reaction from Scott that he received.
“Get out!” Scott ordered almost frantically as he stumbled as fast as he could to his brother’s side. “Get out now, Johnny! I’ll do it.” Giving Johnny’s back a healthy shove toward the bank, Scott quickly secured the rope around the stump with trembling fingers before following his bemused brother to where the horses stood well off the muddy bank.
Johnny had already tied the other end of the rope to his saddle horn and was in the process of mounting when Scott grabbed hold of his shoulders and quickly spun his brother around to face him.
“Scott!” Johnny exclaimed angrily before getting a good look at his brother’s pale complexion and trembling hands. Hauling Scott into his arms, Johnny could feet his brother’s body shivering despite the warm temperature. “Hey, Boston. Calm down. I’m all right.”
Running soothing hands up and down Scott’s quivering back, Johnny knew that his brother was reliving the horror of Johnny’s near drowning months earlier. They had gone through some rough times getting Johnny back on his feet again, and also getting to the bottom of Scott’s weight loss. Johnny had thought they had worked through his brother’s fears, but Scott’s next words told him differently.
“You nearly died, Johnny!” The frightened blond whispered as Johnny held him close. “You nearly died!”
“But, I didn’t, Scott. You saved me by breathin’ for me and keepin’ me alive until Murdoch could get me outta there.” Holding his brother tighter, Johnny knew that he would never remember those horrible moments in time, and that his brother would never forget. “Let’s get this stump out of that stream and head home, huh?” He gave Scott one last comforting squeeze before setting him gently away in order to look into his pale blue eyes. Suddenly Johnny grinned crookedly as he cocked his head to the side. “I hear Teresa’s bakin’ a chocolate cake for supper!”
As expected, Scott snorted a laugh as he gently cuffed his brother alongside the head before stepping back a couple of paces. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
Johnny quickly vaulted into the saddle and within minutes the troublesome stump was dragged out of the stream and pulled up onto the bank with just the slightest of effort.
“Let’s go home to that chocolate cake, brother,” Scott called out as he reined his horse around and kicked him into a ground-eating lope while Johnny was still retrieving his rope.
“HEY! That’s not fair!” The dark-haired man shouted laughingly even as he whirled Barranca about, guiding him with his knees, before spurring the horse after his brother while coiling the rope with both hands.
Laughter rang out across the north pasture as Johnny quickly reached his brother’s side and together they raced each other home.
Created August 22 through February 6, 2008
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