Johnny watched with satisfaction as billows of steam rose from the wooden tub.
Teresa deserved some credit for this……..after one look at his filthy appearance, she’d filled every pot in the kitchen and put them all on to boil.
Lugging those extra buckets of hot water had been exhausting, but it was going to be worth it! And there was an additional kettle resting atop the banked fire in the hearth……..this was one bath that wouldn’t be cut short because the water had turned cold.
His muddy boots had been discarded back in the kitchen, and now it was time to get rid of the rest of these sodden, reeking clothes.
Stripping quickly, Johnny took fleeting inventory of the scratches, bruises and pulled muscles he’d collected during the course of this endless day. He’d started before dawn. Long stretches of barbed wire fencing had needed repair. One of the streams had been choked by mounds of stout brambles. His leather gloves and pants had offered some protection from the razor-sharp thorns, but he hadn’t been left entirely unscathed. And—finally—he’d ended up wrestling a bawling, pea-brained heifer from a particularly smelly bog.
Lowering his much-abused body into the inviting warmth, he hissed slightly at the stinging from those open cuts. Closing his eyes, he allowed the almost-sensual pleasure of the soothing water to slowly drain the tension away. Johnny reflected wryly that if he’d thought those first long weeks of ranch work had been rough, the last couple of days made them look like a picnic in comparison.
There were several reasons for this, of course. It was an especially busy time of year…….the ranch had lost several good workers in the past month……and Scott was still not fully recovered from the bullet he took during that fracas with Stryker and his sons.
Johnny grinned. His brother would tackle any chore on the ranch that was reasonable for a man with one bum arm—and a bunch that were damn well unreasonable—but he still wasn’t fit to handle the most brutal work out there.
Which was probably one reason why Murdoch had sent his older son on that business trip to Stockton……to keep him from overdoing before he was completely healed.
So the brunt of the load had fallen to Johnny, and he was OK with that. Resting the back of his head on the rim of the wooden tub, he decided that the difference was Murdoch’s attitude. The old man was keeping a light hand on the reins and hadn’t put the spurs to his son since the incident with that wild stallion.
In return, Johnny was trying hard to show his father that he could be trusted to do a job of work……was responsible and reliable even when the going got tough. Grimacing a bit at some of his more persistent aches and pains, though, he couldn’t help but wonder if that message was starting to get through.
His train of thought was interrupted by a heavy knock at the door. Instinctively he slid down until the water was lapping at his chin. He and Scott had faced Teresa together, and held a hard line—she WOULD knock before barging into either of their bedrooms. Unfortunately—after knocking—she didn’t always wait for an invitation to enter before waltzing on in.
Murdoch’s massive frame filled the doorway.
Johnny’s eyes widened at the sight of the bottle in his father’s hand, and widened still further when he noticed the pair of glasses. “Ya know, I’d never have taken you for a tequila drinker, Murdoch.”
“Well, Johnny, I admit I’m a bit more susceptible to the lure of well-aged Scotch,” the older man pulled a chair up, "but this occasion just calls for good ‘sipping’ tequila.”
“And what occasion would ‘this’ be?” Johnny watched, bemused, as the old man poured a healthy two fingers into each tumbler.
“I’m drinking a toast to my son,” Murdoch replied, “an occasion I have put off for far too long.”
Handing one glass to the speechless recipient of this honor, he went on in a halting but determined voice, “Things have been pretty rough around here lately, but it’s helped me realize how much I can count on you. I don’t just mean taking on these extra chores……you’ve proven that you have strength and good judgement……’
“Along with arms…and legs…..and guts?” Johnny’s mild jest was one way to hide the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
“Plenty of those too…..” Murdoch agreed with a chuckle. But he was totally serious when he raised his glass and added, “I realize I can’t take any credit for it, but I want you to know how proud I am of the man you’ve become.”
The next few minutes were pretty much taken up with drinking tequila, discussing how good the tequila was, and then drinking more tequila.
Eventually, however, Johnny reached out and picked up the gold pocket watch setting on a nearby table. Flipping it open he murmured, “I better finish up……Teresa’s gonna have supper ready before long……don’t want ta be late.”
Murdoch shook his head, “You take your time, Johnny. Just this once, supper will be served at your convenience.” Glancing around the room, he spotted the kettle warming on the hearth and emptied it into the tub before making his way out of the room.
After the door closed, Johnny took up the bar of soap and began vigorously lathering his arms and chest. Aches and pains forgotten, he splashed with abandon, marveling at the amazing, restorative power of a good bath……..