The Darkest Hours
Johnny pulled his buckskin jacket tighter across his chest and shivered. These last few days had been the coldest he had ever experienced, not helped by the intermittent rain and gusting wind. It was his first January in this part of California and it was a far cry from the heat he had been used to while living in Mexico. He looked up at the sky. It was grey and overcast, hinting at more rain to come. The wind had finally died down, leaving the air feeling heavy and oppressive. His father had told him that the weather was unusual. They expected rain, but not the chill in the air that left them huddled round the fire at night. Johnny stood on the boardwalk outside the bank and watched the townsfolk hurrying about their business. No-one was loitering around, chatting with friends or browsing through the goods displayed outside the stores. He considered fetching Barranca and heading home until his eyes were drawn to the saloon. He could do with something to warm him up before he left and a couple of shots of tequila were just what he needed.
Although it was only mid-afternoon, the saloon was doing good business. It appeared he wasn’t the only one wanting some fortification before heading out on the trail. He spotted a couple of his Saturday night drinking buddies playing cards at the table furthest away from the cold drafts that were pushing their way under the batwing doors. After collecting a bottle of tequila and three glasses from the bartender he wandered over to speak to them.
“Howdy, boys. Mind if I join you?” Johnny deposited the bottle and glasses on the table.
“Pull up a chair, Johnny,” Eli Thomson replied amiably. “Always happy to relieve you of some of your money. Fancy playing some poker?”
Johnny pulled his hat off his dark hair and laid it down beside his glass. He rubbed his hands together to warm them up before pouring them all a shot of the fiery liquid. “Just passing through Eli. I need to get back to Lancer for supper or my old man’s gonna have my hide.”
“Aw come on, a couple of hands won’t hurt none,” Zac Wilkes cajoled. “Besides, what else is there to do in rotten weather like this?”
Johnny pulled out the watch that Murdoch had given him. It was the first timepiece he had ever owned and it was a cherished possession. Having it with him made him feel real close to his father. It was almost three o’clock and it wouldn’t start going dark until around five. He put the watch away and drew out some coins which he jingled in his hand as his blue eyes crinkled into a smile. “Guess I can spare an hour. Suddenly I’m feeling lucky.”
Johnny carefully sorted through his cards. Two additional players had joined in the game only to fall victim to the luckiest streak Johnny had experienced since returning to Lancer. His pile of coins was now significantly larger than when he had started playing. The beginnings of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he pushed the cards together and waited to see if anyone was going to call him on his last raise. Disgruntled muttering from the other players heralded their capitulation and he gleefully raked in the money. He sat back in his chair and stretched to loosen his muscles. As he reached for the bottle to pour himself another drink he glanced toward the window.
“Murdoch’s gonna kill me.” A quick look at his watch caused him to groan. It was almost five thirty and there was no chance of reaching Lancer in time for supper which was served promptly at six.
Eli nudged Zac and snickered. “You afraid of your daddy, Johnny boy?”
“Damn right I am,” Johnny’s grin told a different story. “Fortunately for me, his bark’s worse than his bite.” He collected his winnings and shoved them into his pocket. “I’ll see you on Saturday.” He settled his hat carefully on his head, checked the position of his gunbelt and then tossed a coin to the bartender.
It was dark when he stepped outside and the air was very still and cold. The thought of riding home and facing one of his father’s lectures on an empty stomach wasn’t appealing. He was going to get into trouble now no matter how late he was so he turned in the direction of the cantina.
The atmosphere in the cantina was warm and welcoming. Johnny settled back in his chair and closed his eyes. The sounds and smells were a reminder of times past. So much had changed for him these last nine months, but he still sometimes missed simply being able to drift from place to place without responsibility. He had been surprised at how quickly most of his restless impulses had faded. They still resurfaced occasionally, not surprising as he had lived so long without anything or anyone to tie him down. At first they had been hard to resist. Now their pull was getting weaker and weaker. Who would have thought that Johnny Madrid would be content to spend quiet evenings at home with his family? And that of course was the key…family.
The aroma of food caused him to open his eyes. Rosita laid a steaming bowl of spicy chili in front of him together with a plateful of tortillas. He murmured his thanks as his stomach rumbled loudly in appreciation. The hot food slipped down easily, leaving him feeling warm and contented and not in the least inclined to venture out into the chill evening air.
Eventually his conscience tugged at him. His family would be starting to worry about him. He collected Barranca, took a last wistful look at the light spilling from the cantina and turned toward home.
Having laid down his book, Murdoch glanced again at the clock. He had been a little put out by the failure of his younger son to turn up for supper. In the early days after his sons had come home he had imposed a rigid routine which included them making an appearance on time for meals. He had told himself that it was part of the discipline that needed to be instilled into them. In truth he had simply wanted the pleasure of seeing his family together. Johnny’s timekeeping had been haphazard for the first few weeks after his recovery from the bullet wound in his back. This could be easily explained by the fact that he had never lived his life by the clock. It had only been on the day Johnny had caught that magnificent black stallion that Murdoch had realized his son didn’t even own a watch.
Life had settled down again following the incident with the Strykers and Johnny had made an obvious effort to conform to the rules necessary to run a large business like Lancer. Scott had helped, gently reminding his brother of appointments and ensuring that he put in an appearance at mealtimes. Now if Johnny was late, Murdoch felt concern rather than irritation. At the back of his mind lurked the worry that someone would come gunning for Johnny Madrid and that Johnny wouldn’t be fast enough to outdraw them. Although Johnny’s prowess with a pistol still took his breath away, Murdoch knew that his son wasn’t as fast as he had been. Johnny no longer felt the need to practice every day and it had been several weeks since it had been necessary for him to draw his gun in anger.
Murdoch reminded himself that his younger son was an adult who didn’t have to account to him for every minute of his day. His fears were unfounded, a product of too many years when he hadn’t known if his son was dead or alive. Johnny had probably met up with some friends or decided to call upon one of the many young women who seemed to vie for his attention.
The fire blazed brightly in the large hearth, warming the area where his family was gathered. He caught Scott’s eye and saw the concerned look. It was almost nine o’clock and he could sense the same unease in Scott as he was feeling himself. Murdoch stood up and walked over to the French doors, reaching out to push the heavy drapes to one side. His breath caught in his throat as he looked out at a world that was now shrouded in thick fog. Heaven help Johnny if he had been on his way home and had become caught in this.
“Murdoch?” The query came from Scott who must have noticed his father’s sudden stillness. “What’s wrong?”
In answer Murdoch pulled the drapes all the way back and opened the door. The temperature had dropped noticeably and it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Quick footsteps accompanied Scott’s arrival at his father’s side.
“We have to go and find him.” There was an edge of panic in Scott’s voice
Murdoch knew that having been raised in Boston Scott was used to the fog that could drift in from the sea without warning. He himself knew from experience that it could be hard enough to navigate a city in such conditions. He reached out and caught Scott’s sleeve. “Even if he is out there…and we don’t know that for sure…how do you think we would be able to find him in this? If he has any sense he’ll find someplace to hole up until the morning.”
“In this cold? Everything is wet. He won’t be able to light a fire. If you’re properly prepared, you might survive a night like this.”
Murdoch sighed in response. Scott didn’t have to add that Johnny most certainly wouldn’t be prepared to cope with such conditions.
“We have to try,” his son continued.
“I’m not going to ask anyone to ride out in this fog. It would be a foolish thing to do.”
“I’m not going to sit around here worrying about him.” Scott spoke with unshakeable determination. “If I take one of the wagons I can hang lanterns at the corners. That way if Johnny is out there he’ll see the lights. I know what fog can be like…it disorientates you. I’ll take it nice and slow.”
“We’ll take it nice and slow,” Murdoch said, making up his mind and squeezing his son’s arm in approval. “Go and hitch up one of the teams. I’ll fetch coats and blankets.”
“I’ll get the lanterns ready,” Teresa offered worriedly.
“Thank you, darling.” Murdoch managed a smile for his ward. “And get some broth heated up. We’re all going to need something to warm us when we get back.”
Scott grabbed his gunbelt, hat, gloves and coat and disappeared into the fog. As he gathered what they would need Murdoch offered up a quick prayer that his son was still safe in town and not lost somewhere in the dark.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt. The fog had settled around him like a damp cloying blanket. The silence was unnerving. He had spent a lot of time alone on the trail during his gun fighting days and he knew that nights were never entirely quiet. There had always been something to anchor him to the world…the wind rustling the leaves, the scuffling of small animals or the call of birds that were happier in the dark than in the bright glare of the sun. He had been making good time back to the ranch when the fog had blotted out the sky, causing him to lose his sense of direction. The moon and stars had been completely swallowed up by the murky darkness. For a while, he had kept Barranca moving at a walk, trusting his horse to sense his way. As the darkness tightened around them, Barranca had become unsettled and skittish. Now Johnny sat, straining his ears in vain to hear any sound that might let him work out where he was. He couldn’t even be sure that they were still on the trail and he was reluctant to dismount and explore his surroundings.
The chilling wetness penetrated his jacket and shirt and he shivered convulsively. He had no experience with weather like this. Sure, he had often seen the morning mist rising from the ground and being dispelled by the first touch of the sun. He had found the sight fascinating as trees and rocks had appeared to be floating above some insubstantial river. This was entirely different and the cold hand of fear squeezed his chest. He felt as if he was fighting an invisible enemy and a feeling of panic seized him.
This wasn’t helping. He had to calm down and think. He had ridden this trail between Green River and Lancer hundreds of times. Where had he been when the fog closed in? He was certainly on Lancer and had been for some time. His best guess was that he was at least five miles from the hacienda although he no longer knew in which direction the house lay. He couldn’t stay where he was; it was too cold for that. Could he find some shelter where he might be able to light a fire? Even had he been able to see his surroundings he doubted that this would be an option. The area through which he had been travelling was flat, without so much as an outcropping of rock or stand of trees. He would have to keep going and hope for the best.
He dismounted reluctantly. There were too many hazards in the dark to allow him to ride safely. He spoke reassuringly to Barranca who looked no more solid than a ghost, tightened his grip on the reins and began to walk.
‘One foot in front of the other. Keep moving.’ The litany repeated itself over and over in Johnny’s mind. Exhaustion and cold were causing his steps to become less certain. He couldn’t even be sure that he was headed in the right direction. His boots had been designed for riding, not walking, and he could feel every stone, every rut in the track. More than once he had caught himself on the verge of turning his ankle.
He felt a softer surface beneath his feet and heard the muffled roar of the river seconds before his erratic path led him to the top of the bank. His right foot slid in the mud and he gave a startled cry before releasing his hold on the reins and tumbling down to land breathlessly, half in and half out of the freezing water.
His scrabbling fingers locked in a death grip on the branches of a small shrub growing close to the water’s edge. He could feel the fast flowing water tugging at his legs, trying to drag him into its icy depths. He gathered his strength and pulled himself slowly and laboriously away from the water and onto the dubious safety of the damp, slippery bank. He rolled over onto his back, panting from his exertions. The fog hung thickly around him, pressing down so that he could barely breathe. He could hear Barranca moving restlessly above him without being able to see a single golden hair.
The presence of the river told him that he had strayed from his path, but at least it appeared he had been headed in approximately the right direction. By keeping the water on his right hand side, he should come across the fence line for the south pasture and could follow that back to the main road. His boots and socks were soaked through as was the bottom half of his trousers. He had to get moving before he froze. Using his elbows he levered himself into a sitting position. The ground was treacherous and he wasn’t sure how he was going to climb back up. He quickly received his answer. He stood and his left ankle gave out, sending him crashing back to the ground. It looked like he wasn’t going to be able to climb out at all.
Scott guided the horses through the archway and onto the road leading to Green River. Their pace was painfully slow. The light from the half dozen lanterns barely pierced the gloom and tinged the fog a sickly yellow color, casting only enough light to show them the road immediately ahead. The two men huddled down inside their fleece lined jackets, gloves warding off the chill to their fingers and hats pulled down low over their eyes. Neither wanted to think about Johnny stranded somewhere wearing inadequate clothing.
They shouted until they were hoarse, only to have their voices swallowed by the suffocating air. Johnny could be ten feet away and never hear them. Scott pulled on the reins in frustration and brought the horses to a halt.
“This is hopeless.” He bowed his head, glad that the fog would be masking the anguish he was feeling.
“Maybe not.” Murdoch reached behind him and grasped his rifle. “This should be more effective.” He chambered a round and fired the weapon into the air.
They waited without breathing to see if there would be any response. Seconds stretched into minutes and Scott’s shoulders sagged wearily. “Nothing.”
“Move the horses on and we’ll try again. If Johnny is anywhere near the road eventually he’ll hear us.”
Johnny cautiously explored the injury to his ankle. He wasn’t going to risk removing his boot and could already feel the swelling. He was as sure as he could be that nothing was broken, which was only a minor comfort as the ankle was clearly not going to support his weight.
Well, if he couldn’t walk he could damn well crawl. He wasn’t a quitter and he wasn’t going to give up this fight for survival. That it was a fight for survival he had no doubt. The cold and damp were seeping into his body leeching his strength. If he stayed where he was he would die and that wasn’t something he was planning on doing. He felt aggrieved at the unfairness of his situation. He was on his own land, close to his family and friends and this sure as hell wasn’t the way he intended to end his life.
He could hear Barranca snorting and moving restlessly above him. His horse wouldn’t abandon him. If he could reach level ground he would find a way to get back into the saddle and then he would have a chance. He peered upwards but couldn’t see the top of the bank. How far had be fallen?
Gritting his teeth against the throbbing pain he searched for anything he could hang onto that might let him lever himself up the steep slope. He had to operate by touch as the fog was as thick as ever. His progress was painfully slow as he moved from one uncertain handhold to another. The muscles in his arms shook with the effort. His ankle throbbed in time to his heartbeat and he could feel his senses reeling. He misjudged a grab for a tree root poking out from the bank and began to slide. His ankle connected with a rock and dizziness overtook him. As his head cleared, he could hear the water and knew that all his efforts had been for nothing. He didn’t have the strength to try again. Slowly his mind accepted what his body already knew. He surrendered to the lethargy spreading through him and closed his eyes.
A sound teased the corners of Johnny’s consciousness. He thought that it was significant and that he should recognize it. It was too much of an effort to concentrate for long and he soon lost interest. He was drifting away again in a pleasant place where he wasn’t cold and sore when the sound was repeated. He heard Barranca whinnying in response, although even that seemed distant now. He snuggled deeper into the welcoming darkness. When he heard the sound for a third time he felt irritated and mumbled at it to stop and leave him in peace. Then he realized what he was hearing and the instincts that had kept him alive against all the odds for so many years swept through him. He groped blindly for his gun, praying that he hadn’t lost it when he fell. His fingers closed upon the handle and he drew it carefully from the holster.
He wasn’t sure how long it took for him to turn over onto his back. He had to use both hands to pull back the hammer and support the surprisingly heavy weight of the gun while he pointed it out over the water. The noise of the shot startled him. His arms dropped back to his sides and he knew that he would never have the strength to make a second shot. He waited…and waited…and finally sleep claimed him.
“Johnny, wake up.”
The voice was insistent and Johnny knew better than to ignore his brother when he used that tone. His brother! Johnny was afraid to open his eyes in case it was a dream.
“You need to wake up. Stay with me, little brother.”
“Scott?” Johnny asked tentatively, wondering if he had finally lost his mind.
“I’m right here. Murdoch!” Their father’s name came out as a relieved shout. “He’s conscious. Throw down the rope.”
Johnny felt something slap against the mud close to his head. Now that he was aware of his surroundings again he found himself unable to control his violent shivering. “C…cold, Scott.”
“Don’t worry.” The pressure of Scott’s hand on his shoulder reassured him. “We’ll have you wrapped up nice and warm soon. Where do you hurt?”
“Ankle. Twisted it…couldn’t get up.” He opened his eyes fully and looked into the concerned blue-grey eyes of his brother. “How…?”
“We’ll talk later. I need to get this rope fastened around you then we can pull you up. It’ll be rough going if your ankle’s sore, but we’ll be as gentle as we can.”
“Be ok. Just get me out of here.”
Once the rope was secured around his chest Scott touched his arm to gain his attention. “Ready?”
Johnny nodded and listened distractedly as Scott shouted instructions to their father. He heard the familiar sounds of a wagon creaking as the team of horses were urged forward. The rope jerked and he stifled a cry. Scott steadied him as they made slow progress up the bank. As soon as he reached the top he found himself wrapped in blankets and coats, before being carried gently to the back of the wagon. Once he was settled Scott climbed in beside him and Murdoch handed over a flask of brandy.
“Drink this, Son. It should help to warm you up.”
Johnny drank deeply and then lay back against his brother’s chest. Feeling was returning to his body, a not altogether pleasant experience. “You came to find me.” That thought alone was enough to sustain him.
As Murdoch tied Barranca to the rear of the wagon he looked up at the sky. The fog was clearing and the oppressive darkness was giving way to the first hint of dawn. He looked over at his two sons. Johnny was asleep, held safely in his brother’s strong arms. Scott was dozing, worn out by the relentless worry of the night just past. He had spent so many years searching for his younger boy…how would he have coped if they hadn’t found him or had arrived too late? He had hesitated to leave the safety of the house and had Scott to thank for having the courage to venture out into the darkness. Why had the cruel hand of fate kept these two apart for so long? They should have had the joy of growing up together. Looking at them now, he wondered if their bond might perhaps be all the stronger because of those wasted years.
He shook himself out of his thoughts. They needed to get Johnny home and Teresa would be worrying about them all. He should have felt exhausted, but instead, he felt exhilarated by the knowledge that they were returning home in triumph, not despair. He urged the horses forward, a smile on his face as he saw light and life returning to Lancer.
The journey home took only a fraction of the time it had taken Murdoch and Scott to reach that spot through the fog. It still took longer than Murdoch would have liked. His frequent glances behind him showed that Johnny was still shivering despite being fast asleep. He knew how deadly extreme cold could be and was anxious to get his son warmed up.
He heaved a relieved sigh as they arrived back at the hacienda. Teresa ran out to meet them, exhaustion and worry starkly displayed on her face. She had her emotions under control though, and Murdoch knew that he could rely on her to do whatever was necessary.
“We found him.” He wasted no time in providing reassurance. “He’s alive, but we need to move quickly. Ask some of the men to bring a tub of hot water to his room. Once we get him cleaned up and warm we can find out what damage he’s managed to do to himself this time.” Concern rather than irritation infused Murdoch’s voice.
Teresa nodded and walked over to peer into the back of the wagon. The voices and the lack of motion roused Johnny and he looked sleepily back at his ‘sister.’
“Didn’t mean to worry you,” he said contritely as he tried to stop the persistent tremors running through his tired limbs.
“Oh, I wasn’t worried,” Teresa lied. “I knew that Murdoch and Scott would find you.”
Johnny twisted round to look up at his brother. “Yeah, me too.” He tried to burrow deeper into the blankets and closed his eyes again.
“No you don’t,” Scott ordered gently. “You need to stay awake while we get you into the house. Mind you, I’m not sure that Teresa or Maria will be happy about you dragging all that mud across their clean floors.”
“You’re not looking so pretty either, brother,” Johnny retorted weakly.
Scott looked down at his hands and clothing. He was plastered in mud, not as badly as his brother who had been lying in it, but badly enough. “Can’t disagree with you there,” he replied amiably as he began to ease Johnny toward the back of the wagon.
“I’ll go and heat some broth.”
As Teresa turned to leave Johnny put out a hand to stop her. “Not broth,” he begged. “It’s breakfast time. How about some eggs, bacon and…”
“Broth,” Teresa told him firmly. “If you don’t behave I’ll ask Jelly to give you one of his ‘cures’.”
“That’s low,” Johnny muttered as he slid to the ground and sagged gratefully against his father. His ankle wasn’t going to co-operate and his legs were so cold that he wasn’t sure he could have walked unaided anyway. As Scott came round to support him on the other side, he relaxed and let them guide him into the house and up to his room.
“Go and get cleaned up while I see to your brother.” Murdoch looked sternly at Scott who was also beginning to shiver in his damp clothes.
Scott ducked his head in acknowledgment, clearly recognizing that now wasn’t the time to argue. “I’ll be back soon.”
Working with quiet efficiency Murdoch helped Johnny out of his wet clothes, wrapped him in warm blankets and put him to bed. Teresa arrived with a mug of hot broth which she pressed into Johnny’s hands. Murdoch waited until his son had taken a few sips before turning his attention to the bath.
The large wooden tub had been placed in a corner of the room and Jelly was overseeing the relay of men filling it with bucket loads of hot water. Once Murdoch was satisfied with the water level he tested the temperature to ensure that it wouldn’t scald his son.
Johnny had finished his broth and was drifting back to sleep. Murdoch shooed Teresa from the room and cleared his throat to attract his son’s attention. Tired blue eyes regarded him over the mound of blankets.
“Let’s get you cleaned up and then you can sleep.”
Johnny reluctantly allowed his father to help him over to the tub. As he could only balance on one leg Murdoch lifted him and lowered him gently into the water. “Dios, Murdoch,” Johnny gasped and struggled to get up.
Knowing too well the pain of returning circulation to half frozen limbs, Murdoch urged, “Stay put, John,” and pressed down to keep his son in the water until Johnny gave up his fight.
Scott strolled back into the room having cleaned up as best he could and wearing fresh clothes. “He giving you any trouble, Murdoch?” he smiled at the aggrieved look on his brother’s face.
“He’s trying to boil me alive,” Johnny complained as beads of sweat ran down his face.
Scott peered at him through the steam. “You do look a little red.” He poured a glass of water and handed it to his brother who gulped it down gratefully.
As the mud washed away they could see the numerous cuts and scrapes covering Johnny’s body. Once he was satisfied that his son had thawed out, Murdoch relented and helped him out of the water and back to the bed where he was dried and, despite his protests, dressed in a nightshirt.
Johnny lay back quietly as Murdoch’s capable hands explored the injury to his ankle. He tried to force his mind away from the pain and focused his attention on the beams of light now streaming in through the window. It was difficult to reconcile the bright sunlight with the cloying darkness of the night just ended.
“It looks like a sprain,” Murdoch announced. “We’ll ask Sam to come out and check it over, but hopefully it’ll heal quickly.” He reached for the bandages and wrapped the ankle tightly before pulling the covers over Johnny’s legs. “Get some rest.”
Johnny wriggled down under the blankets until he found a comfortable position. He stole a glance at his father and brother. “Told Eli and Zac I felt lucky,” he said with a hint of embarrassment.
“Lucky?” Scott asked, incredulously.
“Yeah,” Johnny yawned and closed his eyes. “Lucky I have a father and brother to watch my back.”