In Time Less a Stranger
A “High Riders” missing scene
“You’re no stranger to this sort of thing.”
Scott gave Murdoch a sidelong glance and eased the blanket back over Johnny, careful not to re-disturb the sling. “It’s been a while,” he said slowly, “but I’ve had some practice.”
Practice, where? Murdoch’s mind flew back through the activities and slivers of conversations of the past couple of days, much of them unassimilated in his mind. Was there something…?
He cleared his throat and ventured, “I heard you say you were in a cavalry unit…”
“During the War.”
“They must have had doctors,” Murdoch said, frustration tightening the back of one shoulder. “Hospitals – I’d read--”
Scott rose, cutting him off. “Not enough of either. Not in the middle of battle. Men go down – try to go on…” His voice lowered. “Hours go by.”
Murdoch stared, instantly discomfited. A newspaper account, probably written from a city office, held no truth against a man’s personal experience. And not just a man – his son. He swallowed and gave a nod – what could he say in return?
“He’ll sleep now,” Scott commented in that same soft voice, glancing at Johnny. “For a while anyway.”
A safer subject to address, whether intentional or not. “Teresa said he slept through last night,” Murdoch offered.
“He had a little spell before she checked him.”
That tightness pinched the back of his neck. Dammit, why didn’t he know…? “I didn’t hear anything.”
Scott’s smile was slow in appearing. “I’m a light sleeper.” His gaze rested back on Johnny. “He was a little restless.”
It seemed his son tended toward understatements. There were both deep bruises and stitches under the bandages binding Johnny, and what looked to be an emerging fever heating his son’s flesh. That would make a man more than just restless. Murdoch took the chair Scott had vacated and touched Johnny, confirming the fever. Worry and memories, old and new, unfolded inside him: the joy of his dark-haired baby, strong and adventurous, then the emptiness of Johnny’s kidnapping, the frantic search for his missing boy, the terrible imaginings of his son’s fate. And even older memories – pushing Katherine into the buggy, kissing her tears, grieving at her grave, his loss so great… <<You were born, she died.>> Speaking as if she meant nothing to him and implying that her son – their son – was of no consequence, either.
And now the fresh vision of Johnny crashing to the earth, toppled by Pardee’s bullet. <<He was coming back to us,>> Teresa had said. Coming home…
“I’ll watch him,” Murdoch said, the image still wavering before his eyes.
“As you wish.” Scott’s footfalls retreated toward the door.
No, he hadn’t meant it like that. Scott didn’t understand – Scott had dragged his brother to safety, caught him when Johnny keeled over. Scott – the very image of his mother – it was hard, so hard… “Thank you,” Murdoch called and felt himself falter under that inherited stare, so like her. “I…Johnny – when he fell…well, thank you.” He snapped his lips shut over the miserable explanation and swallowed the rest.
Scott’s jaw had tightened. “I’ll change the guard for the night,” he said evenly, then paused. “With your permission.”
Permission – the word slapped him. He’d told them he called the tune, didn’t he? No young pups of his, strangers as they were, would be allowed to just step in and take over twenty-odd years of bone-breaking investment. That’s what he wanted them to know from the start. Yet here he sat feeling utterly useless and depleted. Men killed, his own son shot. Barely enough left to recover – he didn’t even know what was being done to bury the dead, repair the damage, someone must be attending to it all…And he glanced back up at his son and knew it was Scott.
“Whatever needs to be done,” he returned quietly, giving over control, because he knew at that moment he couldn’t do any of it – and knew that Scott knew it, too. Scott would take care of everything in that quiet, confident way that Murdoch had witnessed repeatedly since his son’s arrival. <<One thing I do know,>> he thought faintly. <<He says he’s a light sleeper…>>
“All right. Good night to you, sir.” Still that stiffness to his tone.
“Good night, Scott.”
The name tasted foreign, and he cursed himself for having used it, even though it was indeed the boy’s given name, the one he and Katherine had selected for their son so long ago. The name he’d tucked away after that fateful trip to Boston all those years before. Scott was his son – his son…Had he imagined the faint smile flitting across the young, strong face? He tried to smile back, but his lips turned in the other direction and the door closed before he could get his face back in order.
Murdoch closed his eyes and pressed a fist to his pounding head. He’d needed his sons’ arms and legs and guts. They’d given that, and more. But would they stay? He gazed at his injured son a moment, then at the presence of his eldest lingering by the closed door. His sons, born of love, separated by grief and circumstances. Could he explain all that, fix all that? His trite account earlier had given them nothing but more questions, he was sure. They deserved more, so much more.
Johnny shifted and uttered something. “Easy, easy,” Murdoch murmured to him. He laid a soothing palm on the restless fingers and felt a moment of reward when Johnny quieted again.
God, give him the strength to keep them here, to know them, to learn just who they were. Already he’d seen that they were strong and healthy, proud and determined, confident and capable. But he wanted to know so much more. They might never become a true family, but perhaps, in time, less strangers to each other. That’s all he could hope for – that’s all he dared hope for.
“I want to know,” he said softly to the room, to Johnny, to Scott off somewhere in charge of everything. “I want to know.”