Scott was beyond exasperated. His brother had downed three cups of strong coffee with breakfast and hadn’t stopped talking since they had left the house for the northernmost fence line. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Johnny had chosen not to ride the green-broke, jug-headed horse he was attempting to train.
After several miles of manhandling a buckboard loaded with fence posts, barbed wire and anything else the two might need in order to repair a downed section of fencing, Scott was ready to scream, or switch places with Johnny and vent his frustrations on the skittish yearling that Johnny was riding. At least then, Scott reckoned, he could outdistance Johnny’s incessant talking.
“Hey, Scott!” Johnny called out to his brother as he expertly maneuvered his nervously prancing horse close to the wagon. “Did Harvard teach ya why the sky’s blue?” Taking his eyes off the horse for a second, Johnny cast them upwards toward the clear blue sky above them and sighed happily. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. “It sure is pretty.”
Scott heard his little brother’s sigh of contentment and he relaxed enough to appreciate what Johnny was seeing as he, too, turned his eyes heavenward. He had just opened his mouth to reply to his brother’s query, but Johnny was off on another tangent. Johnny became distracted from the question when his horse began crow-hopping away from the wagon. Settling back in the hard plank seat, Scott shook his head in amazement as he slowed the team to watch anxiously as Johnny stuck with the horse until it decided to settle down.
Heaving a sigh of relief when the horse had calmed down enough for Johnny to angle him back toward the wagon, Scott hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath, expecting any moment to see his brother sail over the top of the horse’s head and then be trampled by the hardheaded creature.
“Are you okay?” He asked worriedly as his brother reigned the horse in to walk deceptively docilely alongside the wagon once more.
Looking at Scott as if he’d grown an extra head all of a sudden, Johnny saw the worry in his brother’s eyes and grinned crookedly at him. “Sure, big brother! There’s not a jug-headed horse alive that can throw Johnny Madrid!”
Anger replaced the worry in Scott’s eyes and he quickly averted them to look ahead at the rough terrain they were to drive over. He didn’t know why Johnny insisted on referring to himself as Madrid. Scott also didn’t know why it bothered him so much, since it was just a name.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on, Scott?” Johnny demanded as he reigned the horse closer to the front of the wagon where Scott sat, unconcerned that he was a little too close to the wagon wheel for the animal’s comfort. He had seen the change of expressions on his brother’s face and knew that Scott was mad at him for some reason. “Did I do somethin’ to make ya mad?”
The right front wheel rolled over a thick clump of grass, jarring the wagon and kicking the left front wheel to the side. It scraped up against the horse’s withers and suddenly Johnny had his hands full of equine dynamite. Bolting away from the wagon, the horse managed to get the bit firmly between his teeth and suddenly Johnny was an unwilling passenger on an unpredictable tornado as the horse headed straight for a deep six-foot wide ravine.
Hauling back on the reins to bring the wagon team to a skidding halt, Scott stood to his feet and shaded his eyes from the sun with his hand to watch in horror as the horse Johnny was riding didn’t hesitate a moment before leaping over the ravine. With his brother’s name screaming in his head, Scott kept his horror to himself, knowing better than to distract Johnny or the horse. He could finally breathe again when the animal made it safely to the other side with only a bit of a stumble at the edge.
With the jarring thud of his front hooves striking the ground on the other side of the ravine, the horse lost his control of the bit between his teeth and suddenly Johnny was in command again. Instead of stopping the horse, however, the savvy horseman dug in his heels and sent the nearly winded animal off across the pasture at a gallop, using only the slightest of pressure on the reins he had the horse racing in a zigzag motion that wore it out much quicker.
By the time Scott got the wagon across the narrow bridge over the ravine and arrived at the fence that required repair, he was ready to throttle his little brother. He had seen the moment Johnny had regained control over the horse, and when the two of them shot off across the pasture Scott’s fury knew no bounds. He didn’t know whether to hug Johnny because he was in one piece and uninjured, or ream him out for scaring ten years off his life.
Pulling the team to a halt beneath the shade of an old oak tree, Scott sat for a moment calming his shattered nerves. Closing his eyes and breathing deeply a few times did nothing to erase the memory of his brother nearly careening to his death at the bottom of that ravine. The sound of footsteps hesitantly approaching made Scott open his eyes to find his brother standing beside the wagon with a uncertain grin on his face, his hat hanging down his back from the stampede strap.
Surging to his feet, Scott whipped his hat from his head and leapt from the wagon to land on the ground in front of his startled brother. Wielding the hat as a weapon, Scott began pummeling Johnny about the chest and shoulders with it, all the while berating him for his foolhardiness and recklessness with his life. By the time Scott wound down, Johnny was laughing uproariously as he fended off the soft blows as best he could.
“Hey! Cut it out, Boston!” Johnny finally called out, his voice quaking with more laughter at the furious expression on his brother’s red face. “It ain’t like it was my fault that jug-head took off, ya know!”
Dropping the hand holding the sadly misshapen hat to his side, Scott’s anger swiftly subsided in the face of Johnny’s good humor. Slumping back against the wagon, Scott crammed his hat down over his blond head and drew his gloves from his hands in order to wipe the sweat from his face.
“You scared me to death, Johnny!” Scott admitted breathlessly as he tucked his gloves into his belt and looked up at his brother, his eyes automatically sweeping over the compact frame to assure himself that no harm had come to him. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Scott,” Johnny told him as he took a step closer and placed a gentle hand on Scott’s bowed shoulder. “Hey, you’re trembling!” All humor left him at the realization that his brother had been truly worried for his safety. “I had it under control, brother. I promise.”
“So you took that idiot horse over that ravine on purpose?” Scott exclaimed incredulously, his voice rising several octaves in shock at the idea Johnny had frightened him intentionally.
“Uh…well… No, ummm, the ravine wasn’t my idea…” Johnny said quietly, dropping his eyes to the ground in embarrassment at being caught in a half-truth.
Heaving a put-upon sigh, Scott grabbed his gloves back out of his belt and jerked them on as he stalked angrily around the wagon bed to lift up the tailgate and toss it aside. “Let’s get this wagon unloaded and get started,” he growled in frustration. He was angry because, to his knowledge, Johnny had never knowingly lied to him. Hauling a couple of fence posts out of the back of the wagon he hefted them up onto his shoulder and headed toward the downed fence line without another word.
They worked quietly in tandem with each other, with Johnny digging the postholes and Scott setting the posts. The day that had started out cool and crisp had turned into a scorcher with the sun beating relentlessly down on the hardworking men as they labored.
By midmorning Johnny had readily shed his shirt as sweat slicked his upper body, making the muscles beneath the tanned skin shimmer in the sun each time he moved. He dug the last posthole and then stopped to look back over their efforts as he leaned against the shovel handle. He smiled slightly at the straight line of posts and felt deep satisfaction at doing a job correctly. Then his eyes swung to the roll of barbed wire and he grimaced in distaste. He hated the stuff with a passion.
Since coming to Lancer, Johnny had learned that working with barbed wire took patience and lots of it. He had scars on his hands and arms to prove just how impatient he could be when the stubborn wire recoiled while being strung too fast. Johnny was glad that Scott had offered to unroll the wire while Johnny nailed it securely to each post.
Dropping the last post into the hole Johnny had ready, Scott began shoveling dirt back into the hole as Johnny held the post level. Tamping the handle of the shovel in the dirt around the post, Scott made sure it was set before turning to survey their mornings work. He shot his brother a glance and they both shared a satisfied smile.
“Water, big brother?” Johnny suggested with an expansive wave of his hand toward the beckoning shade of the oak where the wagon waited.
“Indeed,” Scott agreed with a gentle slap of the back of his hand against Johnny’s glistening abdomen. Shooting a quick glance at his brother’s sweat-slick back as Johnny walked ahead of him, Scott shook his head when the skin there didn’t look any darker than it had when Johnny had removed his shirt at midmorning.
Squinting up at the sky, Johnny noted the position of the sun and calculated that it was well past lunchtime. As if to concur, Johnny’s stomach growled loudly and he grinned unapologetically at Scott.
“I’m guessing lunch is in order, as well,” Scott said sarcastically as they approached the wagon. He lifted the canteen from beneath the seat of the wagon and removed the cork lid. Taking a small sip, he rinsed his mouth of dirt and spit it out on the ground at his feet. He then took a deeper swallow and sighed in pleasure as the cool liquid soothed his dry throat.
“You gonna share that, brother?” Johnny asked from beside Scott even as his hand reached out and took the canteen from his brother’s hands.
“Well, sure,” Scott said magnanimously as he hoisted out the cloth bag that held their lunch. Walking over to a large rock sitting at the base of the oak, he sat down and untied the top of the bag to peer inside at what Teresa had packed for them. He nearly groaned at finding several slightly smashed roast beef sandwiches and a few apples for dessert. Scott was sure he wouldn’t hear the end of Johnny’s complaints about not getting the last of the chocolate cake they’d had the night before.
“What’s in the bag, big brother?” Johnny asked as he walked over and dropped to a seat on the ground. Drawing his legs up beneath him to sit cross legged, he looked hopefully at the bag.
“Well it isn’t what you’re hoping for, little brother.” Pulling out a sandwich wrapped in cloth, Scott handed it to Johnny before pulling out another for himself.
“No chocolate cake?” Johnny sounded so disappointed that Scott nearly laughed aloud at the crestfallen expression on his face. “I’ll bet Teresa saved that last piece for Murdoch’s lunch and he ain’t even gonna be out workin’ hard like us!”
Scott leaned back against the tree trunk as he ate his sandwich, watching his brother as he halfheartedly ate his own. Johnny intrigued Scott. Having grown up on his own and becoming a gunfighter in order to survive could have made the young man bitter and hardened, but Johnny was an enigma. There was still that sense of childhood innocence in him that marveled at a clear blue sky or the many differing colors of a summer sunset. Laughter was often heard from the man and a smile was never far from his lips. However, there was a harder side to Johnny, especially when one of his own was threatened or injured. Scott had been the recipient of Johnny’s protective instincts several times and it never ceased to amaze him how quickly the smiling face could turn into a blank mask. And the rare times his brother had had to unleash Madrid to back up his protectiveness always took Scott’s breath away at the deadly speed and accuracy of Johnny’s aim.
Now as Scott sat surreptitiously watching his little brother eat his sandwich as if it were merely sawdust, he had to smile. “Hey, what did you expect Teresa to do? Give you the cake and make me eat an apple? How is that fair?”
Both brothers knew that Scott would have never eaten the cake, but in order to keep the byplay of words going, Johnny quickly chewed the bite he had in his mouth before speaking, gaining him an “attaboy” grin from Scott for using hard-learned manners.
“Ah, Scott, you don’t like chocolate like I do!” Johnny exclaimed, taking another big bite out of his slowly diminishing sandwich. Then, as if to show that he could be taught manners, but only to a certain point, he grinned at Scott with his mouth full.
“You’re disgusting,” Scott growled with a haughty lift of his nose, and then spoiled it by snorting in laughter at his childlike little brother. “And who said I don’t like chocolate?”
“Yeah? You wouldn’t have me any other way, brother,” Johnny chided as he popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and leaned back on an elbow to chew contentedly. “Besides, you said you don’t like chocolate all that much. Remember?” Johnny quickly glanced at his brother, a suddenly serious look in his blue eyes. “You don’t like chocolate, do you?”
Scott could tell that it bothered Johnny to think that he might have been eating more than his fair share of Teresa’s chocolate cake thinking Scott didn’t care for it. Scott smiled reassuringly at him. “I’d rather have an extra helping of Teresa’s apple pie, actually,” he admitted quietly. “But, I guess I’ve come to like her chocolate cake pretty well, too.”
“Well, what’d she put in the bag for our lunch today then?” Sitting up again, Johnny leaned forward and picked up the cloth bag to rummage through it while Scott continued to lean back against the tree and contemplate the sunshine filtering through the oak leaves above him. He grinned when he heard Johnny’s snort of disgust at finding the apples.
Flipping the top of the bag closed, Johnny left the apples inside, but did take another sandwich. He quietly ate the it as his eyes quickly studied the surrounding countryside, looking for any threat or danger that might arise while they were eating. When he was finished with his sandwich, he settled back against a patch of grass and closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before he had drifted off to sleep.
Scott ate another sandwich and then pulled an apple out to eat as he automatically took over surveying their surroundings while Johnny napped. It wasn’t something Scott did consciously, it was just a habit he’d learned over the years he and Johnny had been together. Their vigilance had never failed either of them. After about thirty minutes, Scott tossed his apple core over to where the horses were tethered and picked up the bag holding three other apples and the cloth that had covered the sandwiches. He stood gracefully to his feet to walk over to the wagon, stopping to gently toe Johnny in the side with the toe of his boot to wake him, though he was fairly certain Johnny had awakened at Scott’s first movement.
“Time to get back at it, brother,” Scott said quietly as he walked around his brother’s outstretched legs to place the bag under the seat of the wagon, along with the half-full canteen.
With an huge yawn and wide stretch of his tanned arms, Johnny lithely stood to his feet and brushed at the seat of his pants before joining Scott as he walked toward the hated roll of barbed wire.
Handing Johnny a pair of thick leather work gloves, used only when handling the barbed wire because they were too cumbersome for everyday work, Scott slid a shortened fence post into the roll and lifted the heavy wire with a grunt of effort. He sucked in a breath when one of the barbs snagged his denim shirt, neatly ripping a tear in the abdominal area.
“You okay?” Johnny asked quietly as he quickly grabbed the other side of the shortened post and looked anxiously at his brother, his eyes instantly focusing on the rip in Scott’s shirt. “It didn’t get you, did it?”
“No, I’m fine, brother. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time…or the last, for that matter.” Scott grinned at his brother and then nodded toward the waiting fence posts. “Let’s get this done early and maybe we can stop by the lake for a swim.”
“Sounds good to me, but you know it don’t pay to try to hurry barbed wire,” Johnny warned. He handed off the other side of the handle to Scott and hurried back to the wagon for the hammer and some nails.
As usual, they worked well together the rest of the afternoon stringing the wire as tightly as they could get it, with Johnny nailing it securely in place. Starting at the bottom line and stringing two others atop it, they were on the last section and running low on wire when something spooked the horses. Before Johnny could set the nail in the post to hold the wire taut, the roar of a cougar echoed across the pasture, sending Johnny’s green-broke horse into a bucking frenzy. Unfortunately the fence post they were working on was close to where the horses were tethered. The wild-eyed animals began to pull at the rope keeping them captive, the frantic movement of their hooves too close for comfort.
“LOOK OUT, SCOTT!” Johnny yelled as he tried to slip between the two lines of wire in order to get to the frightened horses before they could crash into his brother who couldn’t set the barbed wire down without causing it to unroll and cause Johnny harm.
As if in slow motion the untrained horse whipped his rear end around and lashed out his hind feet toward Scott, sending him sprawling to the ground from a solid hit to his shoulder and right side. Then, the tension released, the wire lashed back on itself, wrapping its deadly barbs tenaciously around Johnny as he whirled around to avoid a direct hit in the face.
Screaming in agony as the sharp barbs dug into his bare skin, Johnny tried to grab the end of the wire to keep it from wrapping around his chest. To his stunned disbelief, the hooked end of the wire neatly slipped over the nailed in section of fence, effectively wrapping around Johnny and holding him tightly against the post.
“JOHNNY!” Scott cried out as he staggered to his feet despite his own pain. He skidded to a stunned halt at seeing his brother wrapped in barbed wire and held fast to the fence post. “Oh, God!” Stumbling to Johnny’s side, Scott reached out a trembling hand and quickly drew it back when Johnny groaned when he tried to move. “Be still, brother! Don’t move.”
Racing to the wagon, Scott grabbed the wire cutters before hurrying back to his brother’s side. “I’m going to cut the wire, Johnny. You need to be still, okay?” Not waiting for Johnny to answer, Scott tried to lift his right hand to join with his left in order to snip the wire away. A sharp, agonizing pain shot from his shoulder to his hip and Scott suddenly dropped to his knees in the dirt beside his brother as he breathed through the torture of bone grating against bone.
“S-Scott?” Johnny moaned frantically as he attempted to turn his head to see what was causing his brother such pain that he was gasping for breath.
“Just…give me…a-a minute,” Scott pleaded as he cradled his right arm to his chest and willed the nausea creeping up his throat away.
Panting against the pain, Johnny nevertheless struggled to get to his brother. He could feel the barbs digging into his back and arms, but his brotherly instinct told his brain to ignore the agonizing pain in order to make sure Scott was all right.
Hearing Johnny’s painful struggle, Scott raised his head to see that the wire seemed to have a mind of its own as it appeared to wrap even tighter around Johnny’s body the more he moved. “BE STILL, JOHNNY!” Scott yelled as he forced himself to his feet. Reaching out his left hand, he quickly grabbed Johnny’s right forearm and gave it a hard squeeze in order to gain his attention. “You’re only making it worse, brother. Please, be still and let me take care of it.”
Gasping for breath, the movement of his heaving chest making the pain worse, Johnny leaned his cheek against the post as Scott moved into his limited line of vision. “You…’kay?” He rasped out breathlessly as his pain-filled blue eyes took in the fact that Scott was holding his right arm to his chest with his left and his face was pale white.
Ignoring the question until he could better inventory his own injuries, Scott simply nodded his head and leaned down to pick up the wire cutters after tucking his useless arm into his shirtfront. His head swam dizzily when he leaned over, but he set his teeth and retrieved the cutters anyway. Knowing he had no other choice, Scott pulled the cutters all the way open using his teeth and his left hand. He then carefully placed the top blade against the wire by Johnny’s right shoulder and began squeezing the two blades together, but he didn’t have enough strength in his left hand to cut the thick wire.
Growling in frustration, Scott fought the urge to throw the cutters as far as he could. He tried repositioning the cutters, but the sharp blades were too close to Johnny’s skin, so he didn’t even attempt to apply pressure.
“’s okay, Scott,” Johnny whispered breathlessly as constant pain kept him from drawing a deep breath. “’s okay.”
“Damn it, Johnny! It’s not okay!” Scott hissed heatedly as he once again tried to cut the wire holding his brother hostage. “I-I can’t…I can’t cut it.” The wire cutters slipped out of his sweat-slick hand and clattered to the ground at their feet. With a disgusted grimace, Scott moved to Johnny’s left side on the hope that he could unwrap the wire from around Johnny’s back, only to find it twisted in a snarl that would take too long to unravel.
“S-Scott,” Johnny hissed out as he tried to move his head against the post so that he could see his brother over his left shoulder. Feeling the wire barbs digging deeper into his back he aborted the movement instantly, releasing a strangled cry of agony for his efforts.
“Please don’t move, Johnny. I-I’ll get you out. I promise,” Scott vowed as he began the long, slow process of unraveling the twisted wire.
Jelly was the first to see the team Scott had driven out that morning as they raced pell-mell from the north pasture. The old wrangler squinted his eyes, shocked to discover the animals were still wearing their harnesses. He knew, without a doubt, that something had happened to Scott and Johnny, as neither man would have allowed the horses to roam freely while still in their harnesses.
“BOSS!” Jelly shouted as he ran as fast as his arthritic knees would allow toward the big house. As soon as Murdoch hurried out the French doors leading into the study, Jelly switched directions and headed toward him, waving a hand toward the north. “The boys’re in trouble, Mr. Lancer!”
As soon as he saw the horses nearing the far side of the corral, Murdoch raced back into the house for his gun belt and hat. He came back out of the house from the front door, bellowing orders to anyone who could hear him. By the time he reached the barn, Juan already had Murdoch’s horse saddled and ready to ride. Mounting the horse, Murdoch nodded his head in approval when four other men quickly hurried out of the barn with saddled horses in tow.
“Jelly, go tell Teresa to get everything ready. She’ll know what to do. Then send someone into town to get Sam out here.” Kicking his heels into his horse’s side, Murdoch broke his own rule about running a horse within the home grounds as the horse took off toward the Lancer arch. Falling in behind their boss, the others quickly joined him, leaving Jelly behind in a cloud of choking dust.
Looking worriedly after the small group of horsemen, Jelly hurried to the corral and opened the gate for the wild-eyed horses seeking sanctuary. He left them in Juan’s care as he raced back to the house to carry out Murdoch’s orders.
“Scott,” Johnny gasped out in a breathy whisper. “’m hot.”
Cursing the wire that had sliced his fingers yet again, Scott tried to hurry with unraveling the section he’d managed to work loose from the tangle around the fence. He knew that Johnny had to be baking in the hot afternoon sun, not to mention fighting fatigue in order to keep on his feet.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said regretfully. “I can’t let loose of this wire or I’ll have to start all over again.” He growled in frustration when his blood-slick fingers slipped again and again, wishing he’d thought to bring the canteen closer to their work site.
“’s ‘kay,” Johnny slurred softly, unable to keep his eyes open any longer. He slumped against the post, his legs just barely holding him upright.
“Stay with me, brother,” Scott said loudly as Johnny’s body started to tremble with fatigue and, Scott knew, a dreaded fever. “I’m working as fast as I can, okay? Don’t go to sleep.”
“’kay,” Johnny mumbled almost incoherently as he licked at his dry, cracked lips with an equally dry tongue. Drawing in a shuddering breath he tried to straighten up a bit to relieve a cramp in his back, but the wire was unforgiving as it bit deeper into the muscles there. With a sharp cry he slumped against the post again.
“Easy, Johnny. Take it easy,” Scott crooned as he worked harder at the tangle of wire. The sound of a nearby cougar screaming for blood stiffened his spine and he quickly glanced around to find that all three horses had bolted at some point and where nowhere in sight. Fear trailed up his spine with ice cold fingers as he realized that Johnny’s holster had been strapped to his saddle horn and the rifle Scott had brought along was lying uselessly beneath the seat of the wagon.
“Lion?” Johnny muttered, his eyes opening to look around as far as he could as if to find the beast stalking them.
“Yeah, I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a jam, brother. Your gun rode off in a cloud of dust and my rifle is under the wagon seat,” Scott said reluctantly, and then bit back a yelp of pain when a barb sank deeply into the thick pad of his thumb.
“G-Get…t-the…g-gun,” Johnny gasped out before he choked on suppressing a cough that he knew would send his senses reeling. “And…water.”
Scott snorted, though he found nothing funny about the situation. “I can’t let go of this wire, Johnny. If I see the cougar, I’ll go get the rifle. I promise I won’t let anything else happen to you.”
Renewing his efforts, Scott nearly cried out when the part of the wire wrapped around the fencing finally became untangled. He carefully worked the wire from around the post where it held Johnny tight. “All right, brother, I’m going to need you to pay attention because this next part is going to hurt.”
“L-Like the o-other didn’t? J-Just…do it,” Johnny ground out through gritted teeth as the movement of the wire was already sending agonizing pain shooting from the many wounds in his back. He could feel fresh blood sluicing down his fever and sun-heated back, but knew there was nothing either of them could do about it until he was freed from the wire.
Gritting his teeth, much as Johnny was doing, Scott carefully rolled the wire into a tight ball as he pulled each barb out of Johnny’s skin. Disregarding the pain of the sharp wire digging into the palm of his hand, he persisted until Johnny was free. Slumping to his knees, Johnny’s cheek scraped painfully against the rough wood of the post as he lost consciousness.
Before his brother could fall to the ground, Scott grabbed hold of Johnny’s right shoulder and kept him sitting upright against the post. Without the use of both arms, Scott didn’t know how he was going to get Johnny into the wagon. The cougar chose that moment to make itself known as it unleashed a menacing scream, obviously on the scent of the blood trailing down Johnny’s back.
Sprinting toward the wagon as fast as his exhausted and injured body would allow, Scott quickly snatched up the rifle, water and even the cloth bag to use as temporary bandaging. He hurried back to Johnny’s side. Just as he reached his unconscious brother, Scott looked toward the tree line nearby to see the tawny body of the cougar slinking in and out of the trees, its golden eyes watching Scott’s every movement.
Crouching beside his brother, Scott set the rifle close by so that he could get to it fast if need be. He then emptied the remaining apples from the bag before working at ripping the cloth into broad strips by tearing it with his left hand and teeth. Tying the strips together was difficult for the one-armed man, but Scott persevered, always keeping one eye open for the cougar. Using the cloths that the sandwiches had been wrapped in, he placed them over the worst of the lacerations and then wrapped the strips around his brother’s bleeding torso to keep the pads of cloth in place.
Looking around for Johnny’s shirt, Scott quickly retrieved it when he saw it draped over the top of a post several feet away. Slipping his brother’s lax arms into the sleeves, Scott gently lowered Johnny to the ground on his left side, thankful that his injured brother was unconscious and blissfully unaware of the pain he would be in otherwise.
Ignoring his own injuries to care for his brother, Scott made certain the cougar hadn’t moved closer before swallowing a mouthful of tepid water. He then capped the canteen and set it within Johnny’s reach in case he woke up. Lifting the rifle, the worried man carefully stood to his feet to keep watch over his unconscious brother.
Racing across the pastureland wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done, but Murdoch Lancer wasn’t thinking with his brain. He was thinking with a father’s heart.
As he and the others set off across the upper section of the north pasture where he had sent his sons to repair the fencing, Murdoch kept his eyes on the broken and rough ground to keep from injuring his horse and slowing him down from finding his sons. When they reached the deep ravine where Johnny’s horse had gotten away from him, Murdoch slowed his horse to look down into the ravine and make sure the wagon hadn’t ended up at the bottom of the gulch.
“Mr. Lancer!” Pedro called out from an area closer to the wooden bridge. “Come quickly.”
With his heart racing Murdoch dug his heels into this horse’s sides and galloped toward Pedro. He quickly dismounted and ran to the edge of the ravine to find the horse Johnny had been riding lying dead at the bottom. Fear constricted his heart in his chest at seeing a glint of steel and realized Johnny’s gun lay on the ground a few feet from the horse’s head. Without a thought to his own well-being, Murdoch started down the steep embankment, but was pulled up short when Pedro and Joe grabbed hold of his arms and hauled him back up to level ground.
“LET ME GO!” Murdoch ordered frantically as he tried to wrest his arms from their tenacious hold.
“Listen to me, Boss,” Joe said loudly, giving Murdoch’s arm a hard shake. “Let Pedro go down there.” Joe was worried about his boss and knew that if Johnny was at the bottom of the ravine beneath the horse, it wasn’t something the older man would ever get over seeing.
“JOHNNY…” Murdoch cried as he gazed down at the dead horse. It didn’t enter his mind that he should have been able to see his son had he been sitting astride the animal when it went down.
Releasing Murdoch’s arm, Pedro cautiously picked his way down the embankment, nearly tripping several times in the process. When he arrived at the horse he quickly checked the area beneath the animal and immediately around him, to find only Johnny’s gun belt. Retrieving the Colt, Pedro slid it into the holster and the holster onto his shoulder before looking up at those watching him anxiously from above.
“Senor Johnny is not here, Senor Lancer,” Pedro called up to them. He held up the gun belt so that Murdoch could see it. “The gun belt, it was strapped over the saddle horn.”
Nodding his head, Murdoch quickly mounted his horse, leaving Joe to help Pedro retrieve Johnny’s gear from the dead horse. With Mason and Anderson in tow, Murdoch sent his horse racing across the bridge without a glance back.
Laying the rifle atop the fence post, Scott held it steady with his cheek and left shoulder as he sighted down the barrel at the big cougar crouched beside a boulder about ten feet away. Unable to get a clear shot of the animal, Scott had to wait for it to move in order to shoot.
Suddenly the cougar’s ears pricked forward and then flattened close to its skull, as if it had heard something it didn’t like. Before Scott could fathom what was happening the big cat had quickly disappeared back into the trees. Then Scott heard the pounding of hooves and he shot an anxious glance toward the trees before looking over his shoulder to see three men on horses racing toward them. His father’s tall figure riding at the front. Scott nearly wept with relief as he sagged back against the fence post behind him.
“SCOTT!” Murdoch shouted as he neared his sons. As soon as he saw Johnny lying on his side at Scott’s feet he urged his horse to a faster pace.
“Thank God,” Scott murmured as his suddenly nerveless fingers dropped the rifle. He then followed the rifle to the ground as he lost consciousness.
When Scott opened his eyes again, he found himself looking up at his father’s worried face. Grimacing in pain from the rocking motion of the wagon, he realized he was lying beside his brother in the bed of the buckboard.
“Johnny?” Scott whispered fearfully as he tried to roll over onto his side to get to his brother. “H-He’s hurt!”
“Shhh, Scott. I’ve got him,” Murdoch reassured his son as he gently cradled Johnny’s head in his lap.
“NO! You don’t u-understand!” The frightened blond cried out as he succeeded in rolling over onto his left side. “His back…”
“I know, son. I’m being as gentle as I can.” Murdoch placed a soothing hand on Scott’s injured shoulder and then slid it down across Scott’s blond head. “He’s unconscious, which is a good thing right now. We’re taking you home.”
“He’s got a fever,” Scott said worriedly as he slipped his left hand into Johnny’s lying against the floor of the wagon.
“I know. I’ve been bathing his face with water.” Murdoch held the canteen up. “Would you like a drink, son?”
“No, save it for Johnny.” Scott closed his eyes wearily as his father’s fingers smoothed gently over his head. “He t-took off his shirt… sunburn…” He drifted off to sleep without hearing Murdoch’s confirmation.
Sitting in the back of the buckboard with his youngest son’s head in his lap and his oldest son lying asleep close beside him, Murdoch closed his eyes and prayed fervently for them both.
Johnny awoke to sheer agony just as the buckboard rumbled beneath the Lancer arch. Clenching his eyes closed tightly, he tried to bring his right hand up to lever himself over onto his side, but found another hand clutching it so tightly that he couldn’t feel his fingers. He groaned in pain, only then realizing that his head was lying in someone’s lap. Befuddled with pain, he couldn’t fathom what was happening or why he was being tortured. Opening his eyes he looked up to see his father watching him worriedly.
“Shhh, son, it’s going to be all right,” Murdoch said calmly to him as his big hand settled gently in Johnny’s hair.
“S-Scott?” Johnny whispered as he tried to raise up to look for his brother. He remembered something about a horse and a mountain lion, but couldn’t get his scattered thoughts together to recall what had happened. Then came a low, pain-filled moan close beside him and Johnny’s eyes shot open to see Scott lying there, his face pinched in pain.
Murdoch suddenly had his hands full with keeping Johnny down.
By the time Sam Jenkins reached the back of the buckboard, Johnny had lapsed back into unconsciousness just as Scott awoke.
It wasn’t a painless trip up to their rooms, but with Johnny unconscious he felt less pain than his brother. However, Scott simply set his teeth and bore the pain as he was settled in bed. He knew the sooner he was treated, the quicker he could get back to his brother’s side. So he stoically allowed Doc Jenkins’ quick exam, biting his lip to keep from screaming when Sam tried to maneuver the dislocated shoulder back into its socket. He grimly protested the injection of morphine that would put him under, but wasn’t really given much of a choice when Murdoch and two hands hurried in to hold him down, explaining that Sam had yet to see Johnny. That news alone was what made Scott allow the morphine injection
The last thing Scott remembered before losing consciousness was the loud pop of his shoulder joint as it slipped back into place again.
Jelly had tears in his eyes as he gently washed the blood from Johnny’s wounds. The boy’s back was riddled with deep puncture wounds and long tearing lacerations which could only come from close contact with barbed wire. Feeling the pain for his young friend, Jelly finished up the job Doc Jenkins had given him, though he knew he would have nightmares about it for years to come.
When the doctor hurried into the room he stopped short at the painful-looking sight of Johnny’s scarred, sunburned back. The skin was a deep red, turning almost purple from overexposure in some places, the lacerations and gouges puffy and swollen.
“Barbed wire?” Sam asked Jelly, though he’d cared for enough for such injuries to know them when he saw them. Judging from the condition of Scott’s left hand and fingers, Sam figured Johnny would have fared far worse. When he entered the room and came close to the bed, he was shocked by the young man’s condition. Placing a cool hand on Johnny’s forehead, Sam frowned when the skin was hot to the touch, but he wasn’t sure if the fever was from sun exposure or the festering lacerations.
“Yeah, danged stuff’ll cut ya if ya even look at it wrong,” Jelly growled as he continued washing the skin around a deep laceration on Johnny’s left shoulder. “He’s gonna be in a world a’ hurt, ain’t he, Doc?” Pale blue eyes looked anxiously across the bed at the doctor.
“That he will be, Jellifer. That he will be.” Setting his bag down on the bedside table, Sam pulled out a container of carbolic acid and set to work cleaning out the deepest wounds to prepare them for suturing.
Johnny drifted somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, knowing instinctively that he didn’t want to be fully awake. He could hear someone singing softly somewhere nearby and wondered for a brief moment if it was his mother. Then reality crashed down on him in the form of pain so agonizing that he felt paralyzed with fear for its intensity. A low, keening moan slipped out from between his gritted teeth, but he couldn’t do a thing to stop it. Not even when he’d been whipped while he was held in the Mexican prison had he felt such pain. It was as if someone had riddled his back and arms with a firebrand, pressing the red-hot branding iron against his skin. He was unaware that he was crying out for them to stop hurting him when suddenly he felt a sharp pinch in his arm. Then the sound of his father calling urgently to him brought him back to the present.
“Johnny! Listen to me!” Murdoch called anxiously as he knelt on the floor beside the bed, his big hand brushing gently through Johnny’s disheveled and dirt-encrusted hair. “You’re home, son. You’re safe. No one is stabbing you with a branding iron and I won’t let anyone strike you with a whip ever again.” Exchanging a worried glance with Sam, Murdoch gently grasped Johnny’s flailing hand. He grimaced in pain when his son clutched his hand tightly as wave after wave of pain washed over his lacerated back.
“Hurts,” Johnny ground out as he opened his eyes to look pleadingly at his father to do something about it.
“I know, son. Sam gave you an injection of pain medication. J-Just give it a minute…” Murdoch felt tears fill his eyes at his inability to keep his son safe, at being unable to do anything to take Johnny’s pain away. Sam had warned Murdoch that Johnny would be hurting upon awaking and Murdoch cursed himself for not allowing the doctor to administer the medication before his son woke up, but he had selfishly waited and now Johnny was in agony.
Breathing through the fiery pain, Johnny squeezed Murdoch’s hand tighter, as if in desperation. “S-Scott?” He hissed out as he attempted to roll over onto his back and get out of bed as if look for his brother.
“Hold still, son,” Murdoch quickly rose to his feet and, with Sam’s assistance, gently pressed Johnny back down onto his stomach on the bed. “Scott is resting in his room.”
“He ‘kay?” Slurring his words, Johnny felt a great lethargy sweep over him as the pain slacked off slightly thanks to the morphine Sam had injected. He blinked his eyes slowly as his father’s worried face swam in and out of focus. “Papa?”
Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat at the softly spoken word, but when he looked down at his son, Johnny had drifted off to sleep, his hand still holding Murdoch’s tightly.
“Did you hear him, Sam?” Murdoch asked the doctor, his voice filled with wonderment at hearing the name Johnny had called him years ago when he was just a baby. “He called me Papa!”
“I heard, Murdoch,” Sam said with a soft smile as he listened intently to Johnny’s heartbeat through his stethoscope and seemed satisfied with what he heard. “Now, let’s leave him to rest and go see what kind of trouble Scott is giving Teresa.”
“But, I need to see him!” Scott pleaded of his ‘sister’. He was halfway out of the bed with one foot on the floor when Murdoch and Sam entered the room. Changing tactics, Scott looked toward his father expectantly. “Murdoch, I have to see Johnny.”
“Scott, Johnny is asleep right now and lying quietly in his bed, just as you should be,” Murdoch told his eldest son as he moved closer to the bed.
“You don’t understand!” Scott exclaimed in agitation as he once again tried to get out of the bed, growing frustrated when his father moved to block any further movement. Shooting Murdoch an angry glare, Scott then slid his legs back onto the bed, only to try to slip off on the other side. Sam was there to prevent his escape.
“I HAVE TO KNOW HE’S ALL RIGHT!” The anxious blond fairly shouted.
Shocked that his normally level-headed son had practically screamed the words, Murdoch could only watch as Scott attempted to push Sam aside so he could get away before his father could stop him.
“Scott, I told you, he’s asleep.”
“I don’t care,” Scott snapped as he slumped carefully back against the pile of pillows behind him, seemingly giving up on seeing his injured brother. However, Murdoch hadn’t been born yesterday. “I just need to see that he’s okay.”
“Can’t you take my word and Sam’s that he’s sleeping and will be all right?” Murdoch asked quietly as he flanked Sam to keep Scott in the bed.
“With my own eyes, Murdoch! I have to make sure with my own eyes.” Falling back against the pillows, Scott turned pleading blue eyes on his father. “Please, Father. I promise I won’t wake him or disturb him in any way. I just need to see him.”
Again Murdoch and Sam exchanged glances, this time with a bit of a twinkle in their eyes at Scott’s use of the paternal name.
“Scott, you really shouldn’t be out of bed,” Sam warned the insistent blond. “That hip took quite a beating and I’m not entirely certain that your it isn’t fractured.”
“If it was broken then I wouldn’t be able to stand on it, right?” Scott asked quietly as his light blue eyes swept over the doctor before turning back to Murdoch. “Just help me into his room so I can see him and then I’ll gladly come right back here to do whatever you ask of me.”
Shaking his head in defeat, Murdoch turned to look at Sam expectantly. “Sam?”
“It’s against my better judgment,” the old doctor said reluctantly before finally capitulating and giving Scott permission to see his brother. He quickly held up a staying hand when Scott eagerly scooted toward the edge of the bed again. Scott looked impatiently at Sam. “Across the hall to his room only. When you’ve seen that he’s resting, then you will return to this room without any arguments, correct?”
“Whatever you say, Sam. I’ll do it.” Following the older man to the door, Scott was never more grateful for his father’s assistance as Murdoch walked right beside him, a long arm around his son’s waist.
As soon as Sam opened Johnny’s door, they were all witnesses to the younger man as he thrashed about in the bed. A low, pain-filled moan issuing from his throat.
“I was just coming to get you!” Teresa exclaimed as she looked at the reinforcements standing in the doorway. “Help me, please! I think he’s opened several of his wounds.”
Sam quickly hurried to Johnny’s side, with Murdoch and Scott following close behind him. “Murdoch, you hold his legs down and Scott, you get over on his left side and try to keep him as still as possible,” the doctor ordered as he moved to Johnny’s right side, displacing Teresa in the process.
Kneeling beside the bed, Scott placed a firm hand on Johnny’s shoulder, careful not to touch the lacerated areas there. “Johnny? It’s Scott,” he called out softly, but he could see that he wasn’t getting through to Johnny in his fevered delirium. Moving to sit on the edge of the bed, he gently stroked his fingers down the back of Johnny’s head. He smiled softly as the thick, dark lashes fluttered and then slowly opened to reveal pain-filled blue eyes when Johnny instinctively turned his head to look for Scott. “Hey, there, little brother.”
“S-Scott?” Johnny rasped dryly, his voice barely more than a whisper.
“I’m here, Johnny.” Scott looked over at Teresa and gestured with his chin toward the water pitcher. “Would you like a drink of water? You sound a little like a bullfrog.”
A slight movement at the corner of his lips in the semblance of a smile was the only reaction Johnny gave, but his eyes remained locked on Scott’s. When the glass was held against his lips, Johnny turned his head and clamped his lips together tightly.
“Hey, what’s this? It’s just water, brother. I promise,” Scott reassured him as he took the glass of water from Teresa and took a sip himself to show Johnny. “See? There’s noting in it. Would I lie to my little brother?”
“N-No,” Johnny croaked out as he continued to warily eye the water when Teresa held the brim to his lips again. He took a tentative sip and when he discovered that it was, indeed, only water and didn’t include the hated laudanum, he eagerly drank the entire contents before Sam could caution him to drink slowly.
“I guess you were thirsty,” Scott noted with a soft chuckle. He quickly leaned forward when it looked as if Johnny was attempting to roll onto his back. “Johnny, you really don’t want to lie on your back.”
“’m gonna…be sick,” Johnny gasped as he painfully moved his hand to cover his mouth as his face turned pale and quickly became slick with sweat. He moaned as his stomach cramped, protesting the overabundance of water he’d downed moments earlier. “S-Scott…”
“It’s all right, I’ve got you,” Scott told him as he quickly took the basin Sam handed to him and set it on the bed beside Johnny’s head. “I’m going to lift you up, Johnny, but I don’t want you doing anything to help, okay?”
“Hurry!” Came the distressed answer as the younger man began to gag.
Carefully slipping his arm beneath Johnny’s chest, Scott levered him up just in time as Johnny threw up in the basin. Moaning when the red-hot, fiery pain returned as his stomach muscles continued to contract painfully, he wrapped his arm around Scott’s knee lying beside him on the bed and held on tight as he lost the battle to hold the nausea at bay. He groaned and dropped his head down onto Scott’s knee and waited for the spasms to subside.
“Johnny,” Teresa said worriedly from beside the bed. “I’ve got some willow bark tea that might help.” She picked up the teapot and poured some of the tea into a cup and handed it to Scott.
“See if you can get him to drink at least half of that tea, Scott,” Sam said quietly. “It’s just as good as anything I have immediately at hand.”
“You heard them, Johnny. Can you lift up your head for me and drink some of this tea?” Scott asked his brother as he held the cup in his left hand.
“’m okay right here,” Johnny’s muffled voice answered. He refused to move when Scott nudged him gently with the cup.
“It will help, brother.”
“No.” Simply said, Scott just shrugged and handed the cooling tea back to Teresa.
“You heard him,” Scott said quietly as he laid a soothing hand on Johnny’s head and began to comb his fingers gently through the dark, tangled curls. He could have sworn he heard his brother purring as he nestled his head a little further up Scott’s leg in order to get his bruised cheek away from the bony kneecap he was lying against.
“Are you planning on using me for a pillow?” Scott asked with a chuckle as he watched his brother carefully squirm in order to get more comfortable.
“Uh-huh,” came the sleepy answer.
“Oh, well…okay, but if you dare drool on my pants…” Scott grinned down at his little brother, his heart filled to overflowing with a fierce love and protectiveness that actually made his heart hurt with its intensity. He looked up at Sam and shared a smile with the old man, their locked gazes speaking volumes.
“All right, folks, let’s leave this young man to get some rest, shall we?” Sam said quietly as he gently ushered Murdoch and Teresa from the room.
“What about Scott?” Teresa protested halfheartedly as she allowed herself to be herded away from the bed. “He can’t sit like that all night. He needs his rest, too.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll do just fine, Teresa,” Sam answered cryptically as he lowered the wick on the lamp beside the bed and then followed the other two out the door. With one last glance at the brothers, he smiled and gently closed the door behind him.
“Are they gone?” Johnny asked, his voice a raspy whisper.
“They’re gone. I thought you were asleep,” Scott chastised his brother as he leaned closer in order to hear him. “What’s going on?”
“You okay?” Came the persistent question.
“I’m fine, Johnny. I told you earlier, don’t you remember?” Scott enquired worriedly as his fingers stilled their soothing movement.
“Yeah, but wasn’t sure if I heard right,” Johnny murmured softly. He opened his eyes slightly to look up at his brother and saw the exhaustion on Scott’s face and in the slump of his normally militarily erect form. “Teresa’s right…you need to rest.”
“I’m fine.” Scott realized that he was repeating himself, but didn’t know any other way to assure his worried brother.
“Lay down.” Johnny cautiously slipped his arm out from around Scott’s knee and painstakingly shifted over in the big bed to make room for his brother. Remaining on his stomach, Johnny’s deep blue eyes watched Scott like a hawk as the blond seemed undecided as to whether he should lie down beside Johnny. “Ain’t gonna…tell ya… again,” the dark-haired man muttered as he moved his hand toward the other side of the bed and lightly patted the pillow there. “Sleep.”
“Johnny! I’ve got my own bed,” Scott protested and moved to slip from the bed, only Johnny was quicker, to the detriment of his injuries, but he refused to let it show.
“Need you,” he admitted quietly as he looked earnestly at his brother. “S-Stay?”
Wild horses wouldn’t have been able to drag Scott away from his brother’s side after that declaration. Knowing Johnny as he did, which was amazing since they’d only known each other for a couple of years, Scott knew what it took for the man to admit he needed anything or anyone.
Lying down on his back beside Johnny, Scott smiled affectionately when his little brother shifted closer, moving his head to lay on Scott’s left shoulder. Sighing softly with contentment, it didn’t take long before Johnny was sleeping soundly. Scott slipped his arm gingerly around Johnny’s shoulders and drifted off to sleep just as swiftly.
Sam stepped quietly into Johnny’s room, a worried Murdoch by his side. Smiling broadly at the two young men sleeping soundly in the bed, he winked at worried friend before herding him from the room again.
It was just as Sam had figured. Johnny couldn’t rest until he knew Scott was all right and Scott couldn’t rest for the same reason. A nasty conundrum, to say the least, but simply solved by putting the two of them together.
“Good job, Sam,” Murdoch said happily as he and the doctor headed down the back stairs toward the kitchen. “How about a cup of coffee? I’ll have to warn you, however; Jelly made it and it has quite a kick to it. I can’t give you any guarantees that you won’t be wired.”
Both men groaned at the unintentional pun as they continued on down the stairs for breakfast.
Constructive criticism welcome: email@example.com