Part Two
by  Ros


Chapter Eleven


The sun was just beginning to go behind the horizon when Scott and Murdoch rode up with Alby Harris to the cabin where the good people of Thompson’s Strike had quarantined Johnny.

About one hundred yards from it, they were stopped by two men. The men were armed, but they hailed Alby cheerfully when they recognized him.

"Who’ve you got there, Alby?" one of the men asked him.

"These here are the stranger's brother and father. They want to see him, Frank," Harris explained.

Frank gave them both a curious look and then he shrugged his shoulders and replied. "Well, if they go in there, they ain't comin' back out, Alby. You know the way it is."

"I know," Alby told them cuttingly. "An' I told them already."

Scott looked at the cabin and then back at his father. The expression on his father's face was hard and angry so Scott knew that he was thinking the same as he was. That place was hardly suitable for housing a sick man. It was run-down, overgrown with weeds and shutters hung from the windows.

He hated to think what they would find inside.

"Are you telling me that my brother is seriously ill and you've got him locked up in that?" he demanded of Harris.

"It ain't as bad as it looks from outside," Alby told him defensively.

"You've seen inside it then?" Murdoch asked him, freezing him with an icy glare that surprisingly reminded Scott of Johnny Madrid.

The little man squirmed in his saddle in obvious discomfort. "Well, no..." he admitted. "But I know Charity Blaine will have it fixed up fine by now."

"Let me see if I have this right," Murdoch said furiously. "My son is sick, so you brought him to this god-forsaken place and left him here with just one woman to clean up the place and look after him. Then you put guards around to make sure that no one comes or goes. Is that right?"

"Mr. Lancer, you have to see it from the town's point of view..." Alby began.

"I don't have to see it from anyone's point of view but my son's!" Murdoch shouted. "Does he at least have a doctor?"

Alby looked inquiringly at the two men on guard. Frank answered for him. "Doc Rawlins got here a few hours ago."

"A few hours ago?" Scott exclaimed. "I thought you said Johnny collapsed yesterday. Just when did you send for this doctor?"

"By the time we got him here and settled..." Alby began, but Scott lost what little was left of his temper.

"It sounds to me like you didn't give a damn about my brother!"

Harris looked at him nervously. "We had to think of the town. There are women and kids there we had to keep safe. As it is, one of the kids is sick now."

"And you've abandoned him here like you have Johnny," Scott pointed out disgustedly.

He took a deep breath to calm himself, but he found it didn't work. Their treatment of Johnny was beyond belief and he was shaking with anger.

Instead he turned on Alby Harris with a rage such, as he had never before experienced.

"Let me tell you this," he told Harris with an expression and tone that froze Alby right down to his bones. "It's lucky for you that I don't have my brother's temper, because I might have killed you where you sit right now if I did. As it is, if my brother dies because of the way that you and your town have treated him, I'll raze the place!"

Harris said nothing to that. He figured that anything he might have answered with in their defense was better left unsaid.

Scott looked at his father and urged his horse forward. Murdoch did the same. Normally, he wouldn't have approved of his son's words and he would have told him so, but this time Scott had pretty much spoken for both of them. If anything happened to Johnny that could have been prevented, he'd make sure that whoever was responsible paid for it.

They both noticed that Harris stayed back with the 'guards'. It seemed to epitomize the attitude of the town. They ignored it and rode unhesitatingly to the cabin where they dismounted, anxious to see Johnny. But both of them held back for a moment, afraid of what they would find when they went in.




        The doctor heard the horses outside before anyone else. He looked up quickly and stood up to look out of the window.

Charity was by Johnny’s side again. She was loath to leave him at all now. One minute he would be resting quietly but the next he could be thrashing about with delirium.

Likewise, Martha sat by her son. Robbie was awake, but too exhausted to talk. He lay quietly while his mother bathed his face and reassured him.

Both women looked up when they too heard the noises outside.

“Who is it, Jacob?” Charity asked the doctor, staying with Johnny rather than going to the window as well.

“I don’t know them,” he answered. “But they’re coming in.”

“Coming in?” She leaped to her feet and hurried to the door outside. “Martha, call me if Johnny wakes or gets restless, will you?”

“I’ll watch him, Charity,” the woman promised. And she meant it too. She hadn’t gotten past the shame she felt at nearly having taken his life.

The doctor followed her out of the room, just as curious as Charity was to find out who was coming in. No one from town was likely to enter this cabin, knowing full well that they would not be allowed to leave again. Even Tom Carson had seen the impossibility of the situation. He had to look after his two healthy children and the townspeople would never have allowed him near town or the children if he had set foot in here.

Charity heard the heavy tread of boots on the little porch and she opened the door. She didn’t recognize either of them. One was tall and built like an oak tree – big and broad, and much older than the handsome, slender young man beside him.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” she asked inquisitively.

“I understand my son is here,” Murdoch answered, removing his hat quickly and holding it in front of him rather awkwardly.

Charity gasped. “Oh my, you’re Johnny’s father? Please come in Mr. Lancer.”

She opened the door all the way and made room for them to pass by her and enter the cabin. She looked around the room and realized that it presented a sad picture. It was small and weather-beaten, but at least she had managed to clean it up a little, even if she had not had time to give the floors the scrubbing they merited.

Scott looked around him as well, taking note of the bare necessities the place offered and the stains of who knew what on the floorboards at his feet. It was cleaner than he had expected to find after seeing the outside. There were smells that reminded him of days when Teresa was fixing herbs in the kitchen with Maria, but it wasn’t the place for an invalid, least of all his brother.

“I’m Charity Blaine,” she introduced herself quickly, and then turned to introduce the doctor to them. “And this is Dr. Jacob Rawlins.”

“I’m Murdoch Lancer,” he told them both and shook hands with the doctor. “This is…”

“Oh I know,” Charity burst in animatedly. “You must be Scott. Johnny told me about both of you. He was upset that he was late meeting you in Peterson.”

“How is he?” Scott asked impatiently. “We were told he has typhoid.”

The doctor answered for her. “I think you should both sit down. We have a lot to tell you.”

“He’s not…?” Scott exclaimed, terrified at the thought that they had arrived too late.

“No, no, he’s resting quietly for now,” Charity rushed to assure them. “But Jacob is right. You need to understand what’s happening before you see him.”

“I don’t care what you have to say. I just want to see my brother.”

Charity took him by the arm gently and smiled warmly at him. “I don’t blame you. You must both be worried out of your minds. But, please, let Jacob talk to you first. We can’t talk in there in front of the child and a few minutes is not going to make any difference.”

“The lady’s right, Scott,” Murdoch admitted. He too wanted to see Johnny. He wanted to see for himself that his son was alive. But he could see the sense in what the woman was saying.

She guided Scott over to one of the rough-hewn chairs at the table and sat him down, and then she waited for Murdoch to join him. “I’m going to get some coffee for everyone. I know I could do with some, and I’m sure all of you could too.”

Before anyone could object, she had left them and headed for the kitchen, such as it was. There wasn’t much in the way of supplies in the pantry, but she knew she had coffee. She and Martha had been all but living on it to stay awake.

“First of all,” the doctor told them both. “Let me assure you that your son does not have typhoid fever.”

The relief on their faces was palpable. Charity could see it from where she was. It broke her heart that the news was going to get worse, rather than better as the two men obviously hoped. She looked at them and looked for a resemblance to Johnny. There was none that she could see. Both of these men were fair and although their eyes were blue, they weren’t the strikingly dark blue color that she had seen in Johnny’s.

The doctor took a seat on one of the benches and faced the father and son nervously across the table. “Unfortunately, the rest of my news isn’t as good,” he continued, as he sighed deeply and shook his head in frustration. “I have to be honest with you, gentlemen. I really have no idea what’s wrong with Johnny.”

Scott looked at him in disbelief. “No idea at all?”

“No, I’m sorry,” Jacob answered sadly.

“Jacob’s been driving himself crazy pouring over books and trying to think it out,” Charity explained to them as she came back into the room with mugs of coffee for Scott and Murdoch. Before heading back to bring one for the doctor and one for herself, she added, “I have to say that it has me beat too, for what that’s worth.”

“On the face of it, it must be a highly contagious disease because Robbie came down with it within hours of only slight contact with Johnny,” Rawlins offered. “There are only so many diseases that are that volatile, and not only do they not fit, but Charity and others who have been in direct contact with him haven’t even got a symptom. It doesn’t make sense.”

“How bad is he?” Murdoch asked anxiously.

 “He’s got a high fever and chills. He’s been hallucinating and delirious as well,” Rawlins told them bluntly. “The result is a rapid heart beat and I’m very concerned about that. Last time he was delirious, his heart was racing. I managed to bring it back nearer to normal with digitalis, but if it continues for any length of time, the very least it will cause is permanent heart damage.”

He looked at them seriously, and it unnerved both father and son. “What it comes down to is that we are treating the symptoms. It’s all we can do without knowing what we are dealing with.”

Murdoch took hold of the cup of coffee in front of him and stared at it. He appreciated the woman’s thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to drink it. His heart was pounding in his chest, and it surprised him that the others around him weren’t hearing it.

When he finally looked up, he found Scott’s eyes on him. His son looked as frightened as he felt. The thought of losing Johnny was too hard to deal with right now.

They would just have to be there for him, and help him fight.

“The child has the same symptoms?” Scott asked the doctor.

He nodded. “Exactly the same.”

Murdoch looked up at the doctor at last. “You said ‘on the face of it.’ What did you mean by that?”

Charity walked past them and went to the doorway to the bedroom, peeking in before turning back and joining the men at the table. She found that Scott had been watching her, and smiled at him reassuringly, but let the doctor continue to do the talking.

“I’ve been considering the possibility that it’s only coincidence that they are both sick at the same time. Since no one else has come down with it, I’ve been wondering if perhaps it’s not contagious at all,” Rawlins explained to them. “Is you son allergic to anything?”

Murdoch looked stunned by the question. He turned to Scott. “Not that I know of. Scott, has he ever mentioned anything to you?”

Scott shook his head. “I’ve sometimes wondered about laudanum,” he answered after considering the question for a minute. “But only because he refuses to take it. I don’t know of anything for certain.”

“Think back,” the doctor urged them. “Maybe something that you’ve forgotten. Something he had a reaction to in his childhood perhaps.”

He was taken aback by the anger on Scott’s face, but Murdoch Lancer’s reaction was far more disturbing. He slammed his fist onto the table and stood up furiously, the chair rocking and almost falling over.

Scott watched him as he paced across the room and peered into the bedroom. He turned back and explained briefly to the doctor and Charity.

“We really don’t know much about Johnny’s childhood. He … that is to say … my sons, didn’t grow up at Lancer. It’s a long story, but they only came back just over a year ago. Johnny keeps his past to himself.”

“I see,” Jacob mused. He would have liked to know more, but this was not the time. There were far more important matters to deal with first “Well, it might not make any difference. It’s an option, but not one that I have a lot of faith in. A high fever is not a common symptom of an allergic reaction, even a severe one, although it might explain the rash.”

“Rash?” Scott asked suddenly.

“It’s what’s causing me the most frustration. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Rawlins told him. “Apparently it’s spreading, and darkening. It just doesn’t match any of the illnesses that I can think of.”

Scott didn't like any of what he was hearing. He clasped his hands together and rested them on top of the table. Looking down at them, considering what they had told him, he felt that he had to ask the doctor outright.

“What are his chances?” Scott asked, not really sure that he wanted to hear the answer.

The doctor had to think for a moment before he answered the question. “The fever is high and the delirium is causing exhaustion and the rapid heart beat. That combination can be fatal, of course. But we haven’t given up on him or on Robbie.”

Murdoch had turned back to them. He ran his hand through his hair in resignation. “I think we’ve got the picture, Doctor,” he told Rawlins. “Now I’d like to see Johnny.”

“Of course,” Rawlins replied. “Charity, would you show them in, and let me know if there’s any change in either Robbie or Johnny.” He looked down at the coffee that was rapidly cooling in his hands. “I’m going to try the books again.”




        Charity led the way quietly into the room, followed by Murdoch and then by Scott. As they passed the bed where the sick boy lay, they both stopped for a moment.

The child looked so little and frail, and he was flushed with fever. He appeared to be asleep now, and a woman, his mother they assumed, sat holding his hand and wiping his face diligently.

The state of the boy did nothing to prepare them for the sight of Johnny, wrapped in blankets and sleeping in the other bed. He too was obviously in the grip of a high fever, but what shocked them both was how thin his face was and how labored his breathing.

He seemed a to be sleeping fitfully, tossing his head slowly to one side and then the other and clutching the blankets around him tightly. Charity Blaine checked him to make sure that he really was still asleep, and then stepped back to allow his father and his brother to get close to him.

She was a little surprised that it was the brother who sat on the edge of the bed while his father stood over him. Scott put his hand on Johnny’s forehead and scowled. He looked at Charity anxiously.

“Has he been this hot the whole time?”

She nodded sadly. “I’ve been able to bring it down a couple of times by getting him to take some sage tea, but it hasn’t broken it. It helps to keep him quiet, and I’m hoping it will help bring on the sweats. It has the advantage of cleansing the blood of impurities as well.” She shrugged her shoulders. “We're doing everything we can, Scott and I'm hopeful that it might do some good against whatever it is we’re fighting.”

Scott looked around him. The bed that Johnny was in was nothing more that a rough cot, probably with a hard wooden base under the thin mattress he was sleeping on. There were no sheets on the bed, only the two blankets that he was wrapped in. He glanced over his shoulder at the child and realized that the boy fared no better.

Above them, the shingles of the roof were visible over the timber beams, and the single window in the wall opposite him was open, but allowed very little air into the room.

“These two should be in proper beds, with clean sheets and a decent roof over their heads,” he snapped.

Charity nodded. “I know. I’m sorry but this is the best we could do. I’ve done what I could with it, but I agree with you – they shouldn’t be here.”

“Mr. Lancer, Charity fought so hard to get them to change their minds in town,” Martha told him. “She was willing to take him into her own home and nurse him there, but they wouldn’t let her.”

Scott looked a little embarrassed, but he was not appeased. “I’m sorry Miss Blaine. I know you’re doing what you can, but it’s not right that they should be treated like this.”

“I know, dear, I’ve told them so in no uncertain terms - and more than once. But fear does terrible things to people – even good people. It’s a human flaw I’m afraid.”

“Scott, we should let Johnny and the boy sleep without disturbing them,” Murdoch suggested, quietly resting his hand on his son’s shoulder. He had to get out of the room. It was too much to bear to see Johnny like this, with little or no hope that he was going to get through it. He felt like the walls were closing in on him.

But Scott was not going to be pried away from his brother now that he had found him. Instead, he picked up the cloth from the basin by the bed and wrung out the excess water. Then he folded it neatly and carefully, as if that little bit of extra care would make some sort of difference, and he began to wipe Johnny’s face to try to cool him.

Charity took Murdoch’s elbow. “Why don’t we leave him to watch his brother for a while,” she told him gently. “We can wait outside.”

Murdoch looked at his sons and nodded despondently. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

“Scott, dear,” Charity whispered in the young man’s ear. “If there’s any change at all, you call us.”

Scott nodded absently without answering. His mind was on other things.




        Charity could see what a blow this had been to Murdoch Lancer. It was written all over his face. She led him from the room and then turned back to him and said quietly, “Why don’t we go outside and get some air.”

The man seemed to be torn between staying close to his son, and getting away for a while. He stopped at the doorway and turned back to them, but Charity took the matter into her own hands and opened the front door. She led him out onto the little porch and watched him take a deep breath and slowly let it out.

The sun had gone down, and the twilight shadows were lengthening as the heavy darkness of night approached. It gave the world around them a surreal aura, fitting in the circumstances, but still depressing.

“I don’t know how to thank you for what you’ve done for Johnny,” Murdoch said awkwardly, breaking the mood. “I know you didn’t have to.”

“Nonsense, Mr. Lancer,” she chided him. “He’s a nice young man. You must be proud of him.”

“I am. I just hope he knows it,” Murdoch replied sighing. “And please, call me Murdoch. There are too many ‘Mr. Lancers’ around here at the moment.”

“Very well, Murdoch then. I’m sure he knows how you feel about him,” she said sympathetically.

Murdoch slammed his balled fist into the post on the porch. It came as a shock to Charity.

“I don’t know if he’s allergic to anything,” he snapped angrily. “I don’t know if he’s had the measles. I don’t even know how he came by most of the scars on his body. He won’t tell me, and I don’t ask. What does that say about us? What kind of relationship can we have?”

Charity moved closer to him and gently touched his arm. “You have the kind of relationship in which he is concerned that you and Scott will be worried about him being late. The kind of relationship where you can’t bear to see him sick without finding some way to blame yourself.”

She looked up into his face, and it was his turn to be surprised. “I don’t know why you don’t know these things about Johnny, but from what I have seen of all of you, you have a caring relationship. And that is all that matters."

Murdoch was silent for a minute and then he sighed. “Thank you. You’re right, and I should be with my sons instead of out here feeling sorry for myself.” He patted the hand that she still had resting on his arm. “You’re a wise woman Miss Blaine.”

Charity smiled at him. “Charity,” she corrected him. “And no, I’m not particularly wise. I just see what is there to be seen.”

“Charity, then. I couldn’t bear to lose him now that I have him back. Scott’s in there by his side because he feels just as strongly, maybe more. They’ve become close.”

“We’re not going to lose him. Not if I have anything to say about it,” she told him sternly. “And I don’t allow defeatist attitudes around my patients thank you.”

Murdoch actually laughed at her. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “In that case, I don’t want to keep you out here away from them. Go on in and tell Scott that I’m going to take care of the horses and then come in to take over from him.”




        Charity watched him unsaddle the horses and then went back inside. There she found the doctor just as angry and just as ready to blame himself.

He closed the book with a thud and stood up abruptly. “All my medical training, and all the science in these books – and nothing! Nothing Charity!”

“Then we’ll just have to continue to treat the symptoms Jacob. That’s all we can do.”

“It’s not enough,” he told her curtly. “You can be as optimistic as you like, but we’re only holding it at bay. Robbie is going to be just as bad as Johnny soon. You know it as well as I do. And Johnny is getting weaker all the time. Sooner or later, his heart will give out in one of those deliriums. Neither one of them is improving. I have to find out what it is and stop it.”

She pushed past him, her chin up determinedly, but her eyes suddenly glittering with unwanted tears. She headed straight for the little kitchen where she had water boiling, ready to make up one of her teas to have it handy as soon as it was needed.

“I won’t give up on them, Jacob. And I won’t hear of anyone else doing it either.”

“I’m sorry, Charity,” the doctor said, regretting his words. “I’m not giving up on them. I’m just angry with myself.”

He looked at her critically. The fact that she was close to tears was enough to warn him. “You look tired. Have you had any sleep at all in the last two days?”

She nodded. “I got a couple of hours last night. I’m okay.”

“You need more than a couple of hours. Now that you have help here, you should try to get some rest.”

“I don’t think I could, Jacob.”

“That’s exhaustion speaking. With all the strain, and the work you’ve put in here, you’re about ready to drop. There are three more of us here to watch Johnny. It’s not all in your hands now.”

“Martha needs the rest more than I do. I can look after Robbie while she gets some.”

Charity, you and I both know that even explosives won't shift Martha from that child right at the moment,” he told her firmly. “She’s handling it better now. I want you to get some sleep. I’ll call you if there’s any change in their conditions.”

Suddenly, Charity did feel tired – tired to the bone. But she didn’t want to rest. She felt that she had to be there, just in case. Common sense told her that Jacob Rawlins was right. Johnny’s father and brother, and Jacob himself, were here to share the burden now.

She thought about it seriously. They still had that dreadful smelly mattress that had been in the cabin when she first arrived. It was rolled up in the corner by the table and chairs, and she looked at it. A heavy feeling began to creep over her, and she knew that he was right. Soon she would be no good to anyone without some sleep, least of all Johnny.

But she didn’t get to agree in the end. Martha came out of the bedroom in a rush. “Charity, Dr. Rawlins, Johnny’s getting restless - muttering and rolling around. I think he’s hallucinating again.”

Chapter Twelve


        Murdoch walked back into the cabin just in time to hear Martha’s words and to see both Charity and the doctor run towards the bedroom. He hurried across the room and reached the doorway just after the two of them made their way into the small bedroom.  

        He hung back slightly, still close enough to hear and see everything, but making sure that he was well out of their way. 

Charity rushed to the head of the bed and knelt down beside Johnny. She took the wet cloth from the basin and washed his face lightly, as she crooned soothingly to him, running her hand over his head and trying to calm him. Scott held him down by the shoulders.

The doctor checked his fever first, then his breathing and finally his pulse. He frowned with concern that sent a chill of apprehension down Murdoch’s spine.

Before anyone could say or do anything more, Johnny tossed his head furiously and threw himself forward. “Let me go. Scott needs me…” he cried as his brother forced him back. “Scott…” he moaned and then tried again to get up.

“No you don’t, little brother,” Scott said, determinedly maintaining his grip on him. “You’re staying right there.”

Scott restrained him with all his might, wondering where Johnny was finding the energy to fight him so hard. A minute ago, he had looked weak and frail. So weak that Scott would have sworn that he wouldn’t have been able to lift his head off the pillow. But now it was taking all Scott’s strength to hold him down, and he was only just managing to do it.

“No!” Johnny shouted loudly, and he pushed himself forward again, this time into Scott’s waiting arms, but once again Scott was able to hold him and force him back onto the bed.

Rawlins pulled a small envelope from his bag and handed it to Murdoch.  “Put that into a glass of water. Mix it thoroughly and then bring it back to me quickly,” he ordered him.

He turned back to give all of his attention to Johnny, getting out his stethoscope and listening intently to his heart even though he thrashed from one side to the other and arched his back in his efforts to get loose.

All the while the worried frown remained on the doctor’s face.

Murdoch took the envelope and did as the doctor asked, running from the room without even asking what it was for. The urgency was all too obvious.

It took him only a minute to get back with the glass of medicated water. He handed it to Rawlins and stood watching Johnny toss violently from side to side.

It was a struggle to get him to swallow it. Charity tried to hold his head still, while Scott held him down by the shoulders. They ended up with as much on the bed and blankets as there was in his son. Johnny coughed as it went down, almost choking on it at one stage, and Murdoch prayed that he had swallowed enough.

“His heart is racing again,” Jacob Rawlins explained hastily to them when they had emptied the glass. “I think I got enough of the digitalis into him to slow it down, but it takes a while to take effect. We have to quiet him, or his heart could stop.”

“Hold him, Scott,” Charity said quietly. “Talk to him. I’m going to get some tea. It might calm him down and steady his heart a little until the digitalis has time to work.”

She stood up and hurried past Murdoch, who stepped aside to let her pass and then turned back to Johnny. The boy kept calling for Scott, who he seemed to think was in trouble and needed his help. He knew his son well enough to know that if that was what was going through his mind, it was going to be hard to keep him down. He’d do anything for his brother, even at the risk of his own life.

“Scott, talk to him,” Murdoch whispered to him. “Try to convince him that you’re all right.”

Scott nodded. “Johnny, I’m fine,” he tried to assure his brother. “I’m not in trouble. I don’t need any help. I’m right here with you.”

It was plain to see that Johnny didn’t hear him. He continued to thrash vigorously in the bed, calling Scott’s name and fighting to get up.

“Johnny,” Scott repeated, more firmly. “Listen to me. It’s Scott. I’m right here with you. You can rest easy. I’m fine.”

Johnny’s eyes suddenly flashed open. There was a wild, nearly frantic look in them, and their striking sapphire blue color had darkened almost to violet from the fever. It took everyone by surprise and this time Scott wasn’t ready when Johnny propelled himself forward.

He pushed Scott away from him angrily, crying out, “No, get away from me. Get away…”

Scott recovered quickly and grabbed hold of his brother, wrapped his arms around him tightly and clung to him as he shook with delirium and cried out hysterically.

Murdoch moved to the head of the bed, where Charity had been sitting, and knelt down. He took Johnny’s shoulders and tried to help Scott to get him to lie back down onto the bed. The strength of Johnny’s desperation was frightening.

“No Scott, get away from me…” Johnny yelled out again, taking them all off-guard. It was the first time Johnny had given them any indication that he was aware of anyone in the room. He seemed to realize that Scott was with him, but Johnny wasn’t comforted by Scott’s presence. That much was obvious.

He pushed with all his might and shoved Scott back away from him, but Murdoch held on tightly and managed to get him back down. Holding him there and using his own considerable strength to keep him still, he heard Johnny call out again. “Get away from me, all of you… I don’t want you here.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch said gently, trying to sound calm while his heart beat breathlessly in his chest. “You have to rest. Scott’s here and he’s fine.”

Johnny turned to face him, and his crazed eyes held just a flicker of recognition. “Get away from me, old man,” he growled. “I don’t want you here.”

He turned to face Scott with the same wild eyes and hissed, “Or you, Scott…get away from me…get away.”

His breathing was coming hard now. The violence of the last ten minutes had taken its toll on him and he sucked in air in frightening gasps. He was losing the battle and his energy was just about spent. Even his words were becoming slurred and quieter.

Charity returned with her mug, just as he lashed out at them one final time. “I don’t want you here. Get out of here… before…”

He stopped abruptly, mid-sentence.

“Before what, Johnny?” Scott asked him, determined to find out what was torturing Johnny so much. He had to know what was going on in Johnny’s mind that made him want to cast them off so viciously. Was he remembering those first days at Lancer, when years of pent up hatred for Murdoch had kept him from accepting either of them?

But Murdoch felt the fight go out of him. His body slackened and he slumped onto the bed in utter exhaustion.

Instead of holding him down, Murdoch cradled his younger son in his arms. “Before what, son?” he asked too.

Puffing with exhaustion, Johnny just looked into his father’s eyes for a moment and then closed his own wearily. He didn’t seem to have the energy left to answer.

Charity held the mug to his lips as Murdoch held him forward enough to drink from it. “Drink some of this tea, Johnny,” she whispered serenely. “It’ll do you good and then you can rest.”

But he turned his head away with what little strength he had left. “No,” he whispered, almost inaudibly. “You too, Charity. Get out of here… don’t want you here.”

She silenced him by pouring some of the tea into his mouth and forcing him to swallow some, though he tried to fight her. She could see that he was slipping into unconsciousness and tipped a little more into his mouth for him to take before he lost the battle to stay awake.

“Go home, Charity… all of you … leave me… before…”

“What is it, Johnny?” Scott asked him gently. “Before what?”

“No more…” Johnny whispered, but he was played out. There was no fight left in him as he panted heavily and leaned against Murdoch’s shoulder. “No more… deaths…. at my door…”

His head fell forward against his father’s arm and he was silent. He was unconscious, but at least the delirium had passed, so Murdoch gently laid him back on the bed.  He looked over at Charity and was taken aback by the sight of tears in her eyes.

“He’s afraid that you’ll catch it,” she explained to him sadly. “He blames himself already for Robbie, and he doesn’t want you at risk.”

Murdoch nodded. He too had understood what Johnny meant with his last words, perhaps more so. He knew what else he meant by them. Johnny was trying so hard to escape the memories of his past.  The boy had a habit of taking the blame on himself for just about everything that happened around him.

Murdoch sighed and picked up his son’s arm to tuck it back under the blankets, but Scott suddenly reached forward and took hold of it.

 "That’s the rash you were talking about?” he asked them unexpectedly, staring at the blackening blotches on his brother’s arm.

 Yes, why?” the doctor demanded.

 Scott turned back to him with a horrified expression. “Because I’ve seen it before.”




All eyes turned to Scott for explanation. “When… where?” the doctor questioned him quickly.

“When I was in the army, during the war,” Scott explained, reluctantly taking his eyes off Johnny. “One of the men in my regiment came down with a fever and spots on his hands and his feet. It was a lot like that – though not as dark. The doctor there didn’t know what it was either. He’d never seen anything like it before, but one of my sergeants recognized it.

"He said that he’d seen an outbreak of it at home. It’s a tick fever. He called it ‘black measles’!”

Rawlins leaped to his feet. “Oh my God, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” he exclaimed, aghast. “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it before.” He wasted no time.  He might never have seen a case of it before, but he knew the implications of the deadly disease. “There’s probably a tick still on each of them. That’s why we can’t beat the fever.”

He turned to Charity hurriedly. “Charity, you and Martha check Robbie all over. Strip him off and look for a tick. If you find it, don’t touch it or try to get it off. Call me.”

As she got to her feet and rushed over to join Martha, the doctor turned back to Scott and Murdoch.

“Help me get the rest of these clothes off him and look for a tick,” he ordered them. “And don’t you touch it if you find it either.”

The three men worked feverishly to get Johnny undressed and out from under the blankets, searching every inch of him for a tick, while the women did the same with the little boy. Johnny offered none of the resistance he might have had a few minutes ago, and for that they were grateful.

“I found it! I found it!” Martha cried elatedly from the other side of the room.

“Keep looking,” Jacob told Murdoch and Scott, and then he hurried over to Robbie’s side.

“It’s here, under his arm,” Martha told him quickly as he reached her side. She lifted the sleeping boys arm to reveal the tiny, engorged insect with its head buried deep under the skin.

Rawlins pulled a pair of tweezers from his bag and set to work extracting the tick carefully. If he didn’t get the head out with the body, they would be no better off than they were now. The poison would continue to infect his body.

Cautiously, he lifted the insect out, looking at it carefully to make sure he had the head as well. And then, satisfied that he had pulled it out successfully, he looked around to see if there was somewhere to put it safely. Charity solved the problem by offering him the mug, still with some of the warm sage tea in the bottom of it, and he dropped the creature into it.

It was still alive and it wriggled about disgustingly for a minute before drowning. Then she put the mug aside and looked over to where Johnny lay. His father and his brother had had no luck yet.

Robbie hadn’t even woken up. Martha was covering her son and getting him settled, and the doctor turned back to see how the others were doing with Johnny.

“Anything?” he asked them as he stood up and went back over to join them.

“No,” both men answered as one, without looking up.

“It has to be here,” Scott added desperately.

“Wait,” Murdoch exclaimed. He ran his hand through Johnny’s hair once again and found what he thought he had felt a moment before. “I think this is it.”

He couldn’t see it, but he could feel something under his fingers, so he kept his hand there until Rawlins could get to his side.

“Here,” he said eagerly. “Just behind his ear. It’s in his hair. That’s why we didn’t see it.”

The doctor felt behind Johnny’s ear and found what Murdoch had felt. “That’s it,” he told him ecstatically. “Move out of the way, Mr. Lancer. Let me get at it.”

Murdoch was more than happy to move aside now that he was sure he knew the doctor had found it. He stood back and watched Rawlins take his time removing it, being just as careful as he had been with the little boy – making sure that he got the whole thing.

He pulled it out triumphantly and dropped it into the mug with the other one. “Get rid of them, will you please, Charity?” he told her distractedly.

 She picked up the mug and carried it out to the kitchen, holding it out in front of her. She knew they could do no more harm, but the very sight of them disgusted her.

Her first inclination was to toss them out into the yard unceremoniously, but, just before she did, an idea came to her. They would have to be able to show the horrible little insects to Alby and his friends, to prove that they were telling the truth – that it wasn’t a contagious disease after all.

Harris had the town worked up into such a frenzy that they weren’t easily going to believe he was wrong. Their fear of typhoid, and their faith in him, was their justification for their behavior.

She looked at the ticks with revulsion and thought about what an appalling situation they had wrought upon so many people. Johnny and Robbie were both fighting for their lives, and their families were distraught. Townspeople, otherwise good kind folks, had turned on their fellow human beings in fear.

Charity had lost her faith in those friends and neighbors, and Jacob had doubted his faith in himself.

They seemed so small to have caused so much damage.

Charity had never heard of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever. She had never come across it before, but she would remember it now. She would never forget what those two tiny insects had done.




        Murdoch helped Scott to get Johnny dressed and back under the covers. It was important that they get him warm. Murdoch tucked the blankets around his chest just as his body began to shiver with chills again. He sat at the head of the bed and watched over him, while Scott sat further down and took his brother’s hand, holding it tight.

“What now?” Murdoch asked the doctor, anxiously, as Charity came back into the room. “Do you think removing them will make any difference?”

Martha Conroy looked up at Rawlins too, her face echoing the question Murdoch had asked.

“It should,” he answered, uncertainly. “I’m not sure how much difference, or how soon it will be before we notice it.”

He sighed in bitter frustration. “I just don’t know enough about it. Not much is known about Spotted Fever at all. It hasn’t been documented much and the outbreaks that I have heard about are so localized that the information on it is pretty scant,” he added. He turned to Scott. “What about that man you knew in the army? Did he make it?”

“Yes, he did, but he wasn’t anywhere near as sick as Johnny is. The rash he had was dark, but this one on Johnny is almost black.”

Jacob Rawlins nodded. “It’s been getting progressively worse. The tick has been on him for some time I’d say. We have no real way of knowing how long exactly, but he’s been sick for three days that we know of. It probably took at least another day or so to start affecting him.”

Scott looked anxiously at Murdoch. “That’s at least four days that it’s been pumping its poison into him.”

“That tea of Charity’s is supposed to cleanse impurities from the blood, so it’s probably been holding it off,” Rawlins told them.

“If we continue using it, it might have some effect now that the ticks are off them. Until now, they were putting the poison in as fast as the sage was taking it out,” Charity suggested hopefully.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “It’s as good as anything else we have at the moment.” He told her noncommittally and then turned to Scott again. Since he was the only one of them who had ever seen it before, he was their only source of information. “Scott, do you remember what treatment the doctor gave that man?”

“No,” Scott admitted uneasily. “I remember that he wasn’t confident. Like I said, he had no experience with it either.”

“What about your sergeant? Did he offer any suggestions?”

“Just to check for ticks and get them off,” Scott told him uncertainly. He shook his head in frustration. “There must be something we can do.”

“I think we’re just going to have to let it run its course now,” Rawlins replied despondently. “We’ll just have to go on treating the symptoms, like before.”

“Will they be alright?” Martha asked worriedly.

He looked first at Robbie. “Your boy probably succumbed to it fairly quickly,” he said. “Didn’t you say that he was playing in the woods before he and the other boys saw Johnny fall, Martha?”

“Yes,” she answered slowly, desperate for something from the doctor to hold onto.

“He’s not as sick as Johnny is, so he probably has a good chance of recovering now,” he told the worried mother with reasonable confidence, and her relief was plain to see. Tears rolled freely down her cheeks.

Murdoch and Scott both looked to him for similar good news, eager expressions on their faces. But he wasn’t sure he could give them any yet.

“I’m sorry gentlemen,” he said quietly and dejectedly. “I don’t know about Johnny. He’s so much further along than the boy. And we don’t know how long it’s been on him. He must have more poison in his body from that tick than the boy has though.”

He looked at the fever-ravaged body of his patient, now resting quietly and showing no sign of the unrestrained violence of the delirium that had just passed. It was hard to believe that someone so weak could have put up such a fight.

“I wish I could give you an answer right now, but I really don’t know. We’re just going to have to wait.”



Midnight came and went with no change in the condition of either Johnny or Robbie. But, on the other hand, neither of them appeared to have worsened either. Charity plied them both liberally with Sage tea. The boy took it easily when he was awake. It was sweet enough to appeal to him. But it was harder getting it into Johnny who had remained unconscious.

Charity watched Johnny’s father and brother sit with him, constantly on the alert for some change, even a small one – something to pin their hopes on.

The only thing they had to be relieved about so far was that Dr. Rawlins had confirmed that Johnny’s pulse had slowed to a steadier pace. He had given him another small dose of digitalis to keep it that way.

“Why don’t you two go outside and take a break?” she suggested to them in hushed tones. “A cup of coffee might do you both some good.”

Neither of them looked prepared to leave, so she added, “I promise I’ll call if there’s even the slightest change.”

Murdoch looked at Scott. He was worried about what he saw in his face. It was the closest thing to fear that he had seen in his elder son. He didn’t like it, and there was a suspicion growing within him that Scott was holding something back from him.

He stood up and took Scott’s elbow, pulling him to his feet. “I think Charity’s right, Scott. You need a break.”

Scott held back for a moment, but his father ushered him out without another word, and before long they found themselves sitting at the table outside with the doctor as he poured over his books again, all of them with a cup of coffee in hand.

Murdoch watched Scott toy with the steaming cup. He hadn’t said anything since leaving Johnny’s side, and it worried his father. He had seen him concerned about Johnny before, but this time he was particularly grim.

“Son, is there something you’re not telling me?” he asked him eventually, and the doctor looked up from his work. “Something about that other case of Spotted Fever, maybe?”

Scott still said nothing. He stared at the coffee in the cup despondently.

“Scott?” the doctor asked. “If you know anything more, you should tell us.”

He sighed, and this time he did answer. “It was like I told you. Mathers got over the tick fever just like I said.”

“But?” Murdoch asked.

“I talked with Russell, the sergeant who had seen it before. He told me about the outbreak in his home town.”

Murdoch and the doctor held silent, giving him time to continue when he was ready, and finally he did go on.

“He told me he’d never forget that rash because his own sister had had it,” he told them, without looking up from the cup. “She died.”

Murdoch blanched, and Rawlins sighed dejectedly. He already knew that the disease could be fatal.

“He told me that more than a dozen people in the town got it,” Scott continued, but stopped suddenly.

“Go on, son,” Murdoch urged him quietly.

Scott said nothing for a minute, just sitting, silently musing over that cup of coffee. When he finally did speak, there was a catch in his voice that gave vent to the worry in his heart for his brother.

“His sister was one of five that died from it, Murdoch,” he said reluctantly. “Five people, out of a dozen! They’re not good odds.”

Murdoch found himself unable to answer for a minute. Instead he too stared into the cup in his hands, just like his son.

“Johnny can handle himself in a fight anytime, Murdoch,” Scott went on further. Now that he had started to talk, he had to get it all off his chest. “But this… this is different. He’s not standing up in a gunfight with as much, or better chance, that the other man. He’s not even aware of what he’s up against.”

Murdoch looked up at Scott. “You’re right, Scott,” he finally replied. “But I’m backing him against those odds just the same.”



I hope you will forgive my having taken some liberty with historic time frames in the case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I have done so by using the excuse that while it was not officially recognized by the medical profession until the late 19th century, there was probably considerable local knowledge about it much earlier than that.

The following information is gleaned from several sources.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever was first recognized in 1896 in the Snake River Valley of Idaho and was originally called "black measles" because of the characteristic rash. It was a dreaded and frequently fatal disease that affected hundreds of people in this area. By the early 1900s, the recognized geographic distribution of this disease grew to encompass parts of the United States as far north as Washington and Montana and as far south as California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is the most severe and most frequently reported rickettsial illness in the United States.  The disease is caused by Rickettsia rickettsii, a species of bacteria that is spread to humans by ixodid (hard) ticks.  Initial signs and symptoms of the disease include sudden onset of fever, headache, and muscle pain, followed by development of rash.  The disease can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages, and without prompt and appropriate treatment it can be fatal. 


In the western U.S., the causative agent, R. rickettsii, is transmitted by the wood tick, and in the eastern U.S., by the dog tick. Other ticks transmit the infection in the southern U.S. and in Central and South America.

Contrary to the name "Rocky Mountain," most recent cases have been reported in the eastern United States: North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Most cases occur in the spring and summer with about 1,000 cases reported per year. Most of the reported cases have been in children.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever remains a serious and potentially life-threatening infectious disease today. Despite the availability of effective treatment and advances in medical care, approximately 3% to 5% of individuals who become ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever still die from the infection. However, effective antibiotic therapy has dramatically reduced the number of deaths caused by Rocky Mountain spotted fever; before the discovery of tetracycline and chloramphenicol in the late 1940s, as many as 30% of persons infected with
R. rickettsii died:

Chapter Thirteen


Jacob Rawlins walked out into the living area of the cabin and stretched his back. He’d sat with Johnny for the last hour, joining the young man’s father and brother at the bedside, hoping that he would see some change. But he’d met with no success. The fever was still high and he had begun to toss restlessly again.

He was concerned that another bout of delirium would send Johnny into rapid heart beat again, and had been monitoring it all night. Before leaving the room, he had given Scott strict instructions on how to watch his pulse and to call him if there was any change.

Charity had been with Martha and Robbie, and there was no real change in him yet either, though Martha was sure that he was cooler.

But that was a mother’s wishful thinking. It was too soon to expect anything favorable yet.

Murdoch Lancer followed him and took a seat in one of the chairs at the table.

There was only silence between them at first – an uncomfortable, awkward sort of silence that hung heavily in the room around them.

When it became too much, the doctor finally spoke. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of Spotted Fever, Mr. Lancer. Johnny need never have gotten this bad.”

But Murdoch shook his head dismissively. “No, it’s not your fault. I’ve never heard of it, and Scott said that the doctor in the army missed it too. I don’t blame you, Doctor.”

Rawlins took a seat beside him. “Maybe not, but I do.”

“Mr. Lancer…” the doctor began to add.

“Murdoch, please, just Murdoch.”

“All right then, Murdoch. He’s young and he’s strong. And by the look of the scars on him, he’s been though tough times before too. He’s fighting this.”

Murdoch smiled enigmatically. “He has. I don’t know about most of those scars, but that recent one on his back nearly killed him.” The smile faded. “Oh, I know he’ll fight. I know that much about him. He’s as stubborn as a mule. Like I told you, we don’t know much about him, or about each other for that matter. The three of us only met just over a year ago.”

Quietly, he pondered that thought. “It’s funny, but now I can’t imagine life without them.”

“Well, he has both of you here now to support him. And Charity won’t give up on him. You can count on that.”

“She’s quite a woman.”

The doctor grinned. “Oh yes, Charity Blaine and her herbal tonics. She swears by them, and I have to admit they do a lot more good than most of the quack remedies I see in my rounds. In fact, that Sage tea of hers is probably what’s been holding back the poison this long.”

He stood up and went to the kitchen with the idea of making coffee for them both. But he changed his mind. It might be a good idea to change that to a good belt of ‘medicinal’ brandy. Murdoch Lancer looked like he could do with it.

When he reached the bench, he came across the mug with the two dead ticks in it. Charity had mentioned earlier that she wanted to keep them to show to Alby and the rest of the town.

She was right about that. It would go a long way towards settling things down and convincing them that there was no contagious epidemic. Unless you counted poison ticks as an epidemic. He’d never seen Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever before, and two cases at once certainly indicated that there must be more of them out there. He’d have to warn the town to look out for them.

It was that thought that riled him. Alby Harris and his dire diagnosis of typhoid had caused a lot of unnecessary panic and fear. A first year medical student, or even a good nurse, would have known that Johnny didn’t have typhoid.

Thinking about it got him angry, and getting angry made him want to do something about it. Without thinking about it any further, he strode over to the front door, opened it and stepped out into the darkness. It was well after midnight now, but there was a good moon out and he could make out the shadows once his eyes became accustomed to it.

“You men out there,” he shouted irately. “Come closer to the cabin. I want to talk to you.”

There was no answer for some time, just the night insects and the hoot of a lone owl somewhere out there.

In fact, they didn’t speak up until they were clear of the bushes, just on the edge of the yard.

“What’s up Dr. Rawlins?” came a voice that cut through the night.

“Come out where I can see who I’m talking to,” Rawlins demanded crisply.

“We don’t wanta get too close, Doc,” came another voice, but they edged a little further into the moonlight and he could just make out their faces.

“Is that you, Charlie Cooper?” he asked one of them. He recognized a few of the people of Thompson’s Strike. He’d looked after them and their families for the last five years even though his office was in Peterson.

“Yeah, Doc,” came the reply.

“Then get over here where I can talk to you without shouting and waking my patients.”

“I dunno,” the man called back.

“Charlie, I wouldn’t ask if I thought there was any danger. Now get over here.”

The two men walked tentatively out into the open and stopped about ten feet from the cabin. “This is as far as we come. What do you want Doc?” Charlie Cooper asked warily.

“I’m surprised to see you in this, Charlie,” Rawlins told him in disgust. “Wasn’t it just last year that Alby told you that your little girl had the Whooping cough, when it turned out to be just a nasty case of the Croup?”

The man looked uneasy but spoke up just the same. “He might not always be right, but he’s all we got.”

“Nonsense,” the doctor threw back at him. “He has no training and no credentials. He took a wild guess and panicked the town into hysteria. There’s no excuse for that.”

“You sayin’ that fella ain’t got the typhoid, Doc?” Charlie’s companion asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he told the man bluntly. “Now I want you men to ride into town and bring Alby Harris out here to me. I have a few things to say to him.”

“Doc, it’s a rough ride to town in the dark!” Charlie protested. “Can’t it wait until mornin’?”

“No,” the doctor snapped angrily. “It can’t wait until morning. And you can bring Tom Carson out here while you’re about it.”

“His boy worse?” the other man asked him with some concern.

“No, but I want him here so he can see his wife and son.”

“You sure that’s safe, Doc?” Charlie Cooper asked him anxiously.

“It’s perfectly safe. I’ll tell you all about it later. It’s not contagious at all.”

Charlie frowned. “It ain’t what?”

“Catchin’!” his friend told him, nudging him with his elbow. “Come on, let’s go get Alby an’ Tom. Tom will be real happy to see Martha and the boy.”

They both turned around and headed back to where they had their horses, and Jacob was relieved that at least one of them had some understanding.

He sighed and went back inside, but he almost bumped into Charity coming to find him.




“Robbie’s fever has broken, Jacob,” she told him excitedly. She all but dragged him into the bedroom where Martha sat with tears in her eyes. Wiping them away with the sleeve of her dress and then wringing out the cloth in the basin so she could bathe the boy’s face.

He was tossing a little, restless and obviously uncomfortable, but he was sweating. Beads of perspiration gleamed on his face, neck and shoulders and his hair clung damp and limp to his head.

Jacob sat down on the edge of the bed, and Martha moved over to give him room.

She watched anxiously while he checked the little boy’s pulse and breathing, and listened to his lungs carefully. It seemed like he was taking forever to do it. Then, when she thought she couldn’t wait any longer, he turned around to face her, bestowing a satisfied smile.

“Looks like he’s beating it, Martha,” he told her encouragingly. “You make sure you keep him warm and get lots of that tea of Charity’s into him.”

“Then he’s going to be all right?” she asked breathlessly.

“I’d say so,” he answered. “He’s one tough little boy, Martha. But then, I keep telling you and Tom that. He’s not as frail as you think.”

Her tears broke free and rolled down her cheeks unchecked. “I wish Tom was here.”

“He will be soon. I’ve already sent for him.”

“Thank you Dr. Rawlins. I don’t know how to thank you.”

He looked a little embarrassed and shook his head slowly. “No you don’t owe me your thanks,” he told her. “If Scott hadn’t recognized that rash for what it was, I’m not sure that I ever would have come up with Spotted Fever. It’s him you should be thanking.”

She stopped crying and stood up, wiped her wet face with the back of her hand and then wiped her hand on the apron she was wearing. She sniffed loudly and looked uncompromisingly at Scott who was standing behind them and watching the doctor as he examined the boy. She stepped over to him and threw her arms around his neck in a grateful embrace.

“Thank you, thank you for giving me my son back,” she cried into his shoulder.

Scott looked gauchely at the doctor and then at his father, standing in the doorway with an indulgent smile. He was nonplussed for a minute, but he patted her gently on the back before trying to pry her loose.

“It was sheer luck,” he told her awkwardly.

She shook her head and lifted it off his shoulder. “You don’t understand. I don’t deserve it, not after trying to kill your brother,” she confessed, tears flowing again.

Scott pushed her away and held her by the arms, almost shaking her. “You what?”

The woman couldn’t look him in the eye. Instead, she stared down at her feet and nodded. “It’s true. I blamed him for Robbie being so sick. I thought my son was dying, and I lost my head.”

Scott turned to Charity and found that she too could not meet him face to face. Murdoch’s smile had disappeared, replaced by an angry scowl.

Charity stepped in before the situation got ugly. “She was out of her head with worry, Scott,” she explained to him. “Something in her mind snapped, but Jacob and I got here before she did any harm, and she was sorry as soon as she realized what she was doing.”

“And Johnny?” he asked her angrily. “Was he hurt?”

She shook her head firmly. “No, he won’t even know it happened.”

“And what if you hadn’t gotten here in time?” he continued, his angry grip on Martha’s arms tightening.

Martha threw her hands up to her face. “Oh please, I can’t bear to think about it,” she sobbed bitterly.

Charity went to her and took her gently from Scott’s grasp. Martha whispered again, “I’m so sorry,” before falling onto Charity’s shoulder in distress.

Scott looked down at his brother, sleeping quietly now in a state of deep unconsciousness. He forced aside the anger he felt at what Martha Conroy had done, and suddenly realized why Johnny feared laudanum and other such medications.

Unconscious, he had been vulnerable – utterly and completely at this tiny woman’s mercy. How much more dangerous would it have been if one of his many enemies had been in a position to do the same thing?

He shook away the feeling as best he could and looked back at the distraught woman in Charity’s arms. Charity’s eyes were pleading with him for a kind word – anything to ease the situation, and he found himself doing just that.

“I don’t know what I would have done in your position,” he told her coolly. “I guess I might have been tempted to do the same thing.”

Charity smiled her thanks at him, and the woman looked up into his eyes. “No,” she said as she sniffed back more tears. “No, I don’t believe you would. But thank you for saying it.”

“Your son needs you, Martha,” Charity told her calmly.

Martha got control of herself and straightened her back determinedly. “Yes, I know,” she said, but her eyes turned across to where Johnny lay and softened.

Then she turned back to Scott. “I’m so sorry Scott. I haven’t blamed him for a long time.. I know it’s not his fault. I want him to get well, so that I can thank him for his kindness to Robbie.” She put her hand gently on Scott’s wrist. “And he will, I just know it.”




Over the next couple of hours the little boy’s condition improved. The fever had certainly broken and was getting lower all the time. He still hadn’t woken, and he whimpered for his mother now and then, but it was obvious that he had passed the crisis.

Johnny’s condition hadn’t changed though. His fever still raged, but he was resting quietly. Jacob was pleased about that. It meant that his pulse was still relatively normal as well. He wasn’t sure how much more the young man’s heart could take.

As day broke, the sounds of horses outside caught everyone’s attention. Murdoch stood up and went to the window, squinting out into the still-gray shadows to see what was going on.

“It looks like half the town is out there,” he told them as he turned around. “But one of them is Harris.”

Charity joined him there and peered out. “Maybe not half the town, but there’s an awful lot of them,” she confirmed.

“Is Tom with them?” Martha asked anxiously.

“He sure is,” Charity reassured her and headed for the door.

Rawlins stood up and looked down at Scott, still sitting at his brother’s side. “You stay with him, Scott. Call me if there’s even the slightest change.”

Scott nodded. “Count on it.”

Jacob took one last look at Johnny and then at his brother. Scott was as pale as Johnny was flushed. He hadn’t left his brother’s side all night, though his father had taken to sitting in a chair that he had brought in from outside and put by the door to the bedroom. It had left more room for the doctor at the bed, but Jacob was surprised that he had made no attempt to pry Scott away so that he could be with Johnny himself.

Looking at the brothers now, he suspected that their father had realized that it would have been a waste of time. Scott was staying right where he was.

“Well,” Rawlins sighed. “Let’s see what Alby has to say for himself.”

He left the room and joined Charity out by the table. She had already collected the mug that still held the proof they wanted to show the people outside – two dead ticks that had wrought havoc on the two inside the bedroom, and on the minds of the people of Thompson’s Strike.




Tom Carson had already dismounted and tied his horse to the hitch-rail. He had one foot on the step when he looked up and saw Dr. Rawlins and Charity Blaine emerge from the cabin.

“Doc!” he exclaimed. “Charlie said Robbie is gettin’ better.”

“His fever broke a couple of hours ago, Tom. Go on in and see him. Martha’s waiting for you, and I’ll come back in soon and tell you all about it.”

The glow on the man’s face was the only joy Jacob Rawlins had had since he had arrived here, and it reminded him once more of the reason he had chosen to study medicine in the first place.

Tom Carson bounded up the step and past them both, without another word, in his haste to see his wife and son.

Charity smiled with real pleasure and then turned her attention back to Jacob. He was watching Alby Harris dismount slowly from his horse. She looked at the faces among the rest of the crowd. Ben Scrivens sat on his horse beside Alby, and beside him was Oscar Lang, looking uncomfortable. He wasn’t a man for riding much, so she was a little surprised that he had come along.

 She recognized them all, Ralph Turner, Charlie Doyle and Charlie Cooper, Bob Foster – all of them, and the others behind them, obviously anxious to hear what the doctor had to say.

“I only asked that you and Tom come out here, Alby,” Jacob said ominously, pulling Charity’s attention back to the matter at hand. “I don’t recall asking that you bring your ‘mob’ with you.”

“We got a right to know what’s happenin’ Doc,” Ben Scrivens pointed out. He sounded offended. “We ain’t no mob.”

“You’ve been a mob since the start of this, Ben,” the doctor told him bluntly. “There’s no other way to describe it. You’re here now, and uninvited, so I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself for now.”

Charity felt the corners of her mouth twitch and she forced the smile back. This was no time to take pleasure in Jacob’s words. She’d do that later.

Jacob stared down at Alby Harris. “Alby, I’ve tolerated your quack remedies for years and I always considered you pretty harmless,” he told the man devastatingly. “But this time, you’ve gone too far. This time you could have killed someone.”

“That ain’t fair, Doc,” the little man retorted angrily. “I didn’t do nothin’ to hurt neither of ‘em.”

Rawlins glared coldly at him. “You told these people that Johnny Lancer had Typhoid Fever and caused a panic. Then you had him brought out here to this hell-hole and left him here to die.”

Alby said nothing for the moment. It gave the doctor the chance to continue. “I call that damned irresponsible, but no – you went one step further and brought a little boy out here to die with him. You’ve kept that child from most of his family, and his mother from the support of her husband. That’s unforgivable.”

“We had to keep them away from our families,” Ben cut in angrily.

He was frozen by a look from the doctor. “I told you to keep your opinions to yourself, Ben,” he said cuttingly.

“Well, he’s right, Doc,” Alby replied at last. “We had to quarantine the fella. We didn’t know what he had.”

“Firstly, you could have quarantined him with Charity. She was more than willing to take him in. At least he would have had somewhere clean to get well. Not this rat-infested place. And secondly,” he smirked malevolently, “I am pleased to hear you admit that you didn’t know what he had. If that’s the case, why did you tell these people that he had Typhoid?”

“I didn’t. Just said it might be…”

“It might have been anything, but even a first year medical student could have told you that it wasn’t Typhoid. You’re not a doctor, Alby. You have no right to be making a diagnosis like that. It’s dangerous.”

“You sayin’ it ain’t Typhoid?” Oscar asked anxiously.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” the doctor told the hotel owner bluntly. “And if Alby hadn’t delayed sending for me, I could have told you that a lot sooner, and perhaps before the boy was brought here as well.”

“It was near dark by the time…” Alby began.

“I don’t want to hear any excuses Alby,” Rawlins snapped back at him. “None of them cut it with me. You know I would have ridden up here in the dark in an emergency. I’ve done it before.”

Ben Scrivens began to look uncomfortable now. He knew that that much was true. It went through his mind that perhaps they could have done more for the drifter than they had, and he felt shame at not having made more of an effort.

If he hadn’t been so worried about Pete, maybe he would have. All he had been able to see back then was fear.

Charity saw the change in Ben Scrivens. He looked embarrassed, but it only angered her.

“And why weren’t the Lancers told about Johnny?” she asked furiously. “I told you they were in Peterson waiting for him.”

“Guess in all the confusion when young Robbie got sick, we just forgot,” Alby admitted uneasily. “It’s a shame, but there was nothin’ they could a done anyway.”

“Scott Lancer is the one who saved Robbie’s life,” Rawlins told him candidly, and took a malicious delight in watching Harris’ face blanch.

“If he hadn’t recognized the rash, I don’t know if I would have in time,” he continued.

“Well, if it ain’t Typhoid, what is it then, Doc?” Ralph Turner asked at last.

“A tick fever,” Jacob announced. “Back east they mostly call it Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. We found a tick on each of them”

“You mean it’s not even contagious?” Oscar asked, outraged.

“No more contagious than a snake bite,” the doctor confirmed. He held up the mug. “Here are the dead ticks if you don’t believe me.”

Oscar dismounted and did go up for a look. He ogled at the sight of the insects. “He’s right. It’s ticks all right.”

Jacob Rawlins tried to keep the triumph from his voice as he continued. “The irony of it is that in your determination to keep Johnny and the boy cooped up in here, the men who were sitting guard were more at risk than Charity or anyone else in the cabin. These ticks are probably all around here.”

Cooper and the other men shifted uncomfortably in their saddles. Charity got the impression that all they wanted to do right now was to jump down to the ground and check themselves all over for the horrible little insects.

Lang glared at Harris. “You had me burn all that bedding for nothing?”

“I didn’t tell you to do it…”

“You said he had something contagious!” Lang growled furiously.

“He had spots!” Alby answered defensively. “My ma always said…”

He got no further. Oscar Lang, the small, insignificant little hotel proprietor, who had never lifted a hand to anyone in his life, leapt down from the porch and went for his throat. It took everyone so much by surprise that, at first, everyone froze.

Ben Scrivens finally jumped down and ran to Harris’ aid. He dragged the livid little Lang back, while he continued kicking and screaming “Spots? Spots? I’ll give you spots!”

Charity had to bite her cheek to keep from laughing this time.

Scrivens held him tightly until the fight went out of him and then headed him back to his horse – a dejected little figure of a man.

Then he turned back to the doctor. “You sayin’ there’s likely to be more of them ticks around, Doc?”

“Johnny probably didn’t pick it up in the same place as Robbie. We figured that the boy picked it up in the woods playing with his brother and your boy. But there’ll be more of them around. I suggest you tell everyone in town to check themselves and their children every time they go outside.”

“Well, at least we know what to look for now,” Scrivens said calmly, and the other men nodded. “I’m real sorry for the trouble we caused, Doc. Real sorry. But at least we can all rest easy now.”

“What gave you that impression, Ben?” the doctor retorted angrily.

“You just said that you got the ticks off of ‘em. The boy’s fever is broke ain’t it?”

“Yes, we got to the little boy in time,” the doctor replied, coldly. “But I’m not so sure about Johnny. He was sick for longer, and the delay in getting help meant that he was already in bad shape when I got here. He might not make it.”

“But it’s just a tick!” Turner pointed out.

“And a snake is just a snake,” Rawlins replied. “The poison it carries is just as deadly.”

“You mean, he might die ‘cause we didn’t send for you soon enough?” Ben asked nervously.

“Ben, you people had every right to be worried, even frightened. But you had no right to disregard his needs for the sake of your own. Yes, you should have sent for me sooner, and you should have sent word to his father and his brother as well. He shouldn’t have been left in this cabin with only Charity to look after him with a few meager supplies. You were playing God doing that, Ben, and I hope that God can forgive all of you.”

As one, they all hung their heads, embarrassed and ashamed. Alby Harris shifted his feet uncomfortably, but made no apology.

Charity watched them all, and wondered what would happen the next time a stranger came to town sick. Would they act any differently if they were caught up in hysteria again? She hoped so. They were good people at heart, but she would never look at them quite the same way again. Her trust had been breached.

She heard the door open behind her and turned to find Scott Lancer, white-faced and in a terrible hurry.

“Quickly, Doctor,” he called frantically from the open door. “It’s Johnny!”


Chapter Fourteen


Jacob didn’t wait to hear more. He knew that nothing less than an emergency would have gotten Scott away from his brother’s side. He left their ‘visitors’ without another word and hurried back inside the cabin, following Scott into the bedroom.

 Murdoch Lancer was trying to hold Johnny down. He was delirious again, and thrashing wildly. Tom Carson had joined Murdoch in keeping the young man from tossing, but it looked like even the two of them were finding it hard to cope.

 “It came on him quickly this time, Doctor,” Scott told him as he hurried over to the bed.

 Jacob pushed his way in between the two men already struggling with Johnny and he didn’t like what he saw. Johnny was panting loudly and gasping for breath. Even before he got out his stethoscope, Rawlins knew what he was going to find. In this condition, Johnny’s heart was bound to be racing again.

 Talk to him, Murdoch. Try to settle him down,” the doctor told him urgently. There was little hope that Johnny was going to hear anything that was said to him, but they had to try whatever they could. He put the stethoscope to Johnny’s chest as Murdoch strove to calm his son with reassurances, and, even over the gasping breaths, he could hear his heart beating far too fast.

 Without turning away from his patient, he tossed orders at them all. “Charity, get the laudanum from my bag and pour a dose out. Maybe that will work.”

 “Scott, take over from Tom here, and talk to your brother. See if you can calm him. Tom, I know you’re trying to help but get back a little and let us have some more room.”

 As everyone did as the doctor told them, there was a sort of coordinated pandemonium in the room. Martha looked on in awe and fear, and took her husband by the elbow to lead him over to her side and out of the way.

 With her own son out of danger now, she sat quietly praying that Johnny would get through this too.

 Charity held out the glass containing the laudanum for the doctor to take, but suddenly – Johnny’s delirium stopped. The violent thrashing ceased completely, and he dropped back heavily into the pillow behind his head.

 Jacob quickly leaned forward to listen to Johnny’s chest with the stethoscope. His frown worried the others in the room beyond measure, but no one spoke. No one wanted him to confirm what they all feared. He moved the instrument around Johnny’s chest frantically and then took it off and threw it aside quickly.

 Scott paled. He listened for Johnny’s breath as the rest of the room went silent in shock. Fear tightened around his heart as he realized that he couldn’t hear anything from Johnny at all.

 Everyone froze – everyone but Jacob Rawlins.

 He shoved Scott out of the way and leaped onto the bed, straddling Johnny’s waist and kneeling over him. He lifted his arm, balled his fist into a hard knot and thumped the young man’s chest with as much power as he could manage.

 “Charity,” he yelled. “Check his heart. Tell me if you can hear anything.”

 She picked up the stethoscope that he had hurriedly cast aside and put it to Johnny’s heart, listening intently. With tears in her eyes, she shook her head.

 “Move aside, Charity,” Rawlins ordered and he redoubled his efforts and hit Johnny’s heart with a huge blow, then waited for a moment for Charity to check again.

 The room was heavy with an appalling tension. Every eye in the room was on Charity now. Every breath was held waiting for her response.

 “I’ve got it!” she announced with delight. The tears of fear and distress fell from her eyes in utter relief instead. “He’s back with us.”

 A gasp from Johnny confirmed it. He breathed, heavy and irregular at first, then steadying to become more regular. It was bliss to the ears of those gathered around him.

 Murdoch, kneeling by his son’s bed, leaned his head forward onto the palms of his hands and closed his eyes. He couldn’t speak yet. A tear escaped before he could put a stop to it as the awful realization that for a few seconds his son had left him.

 He opened his eyes and watched the slow rise and fall of Johnny’s chest as he breathed, a pleasure that was tempered by the knowledge that the boy’s ordeal was not yet over. But he had had a reprieve – they had had a reprieve. Johnny was still with them.

 The room was still suspended in silence. No one spoke. Murdoch glanced over towards Scott, still standing where the doctor had pushed him aside to get to Johnny fast.

 His eyes rested on his blond, older son and stopped. Scott was standing stock still, staring at his brother as though he was frozen to the spot. He was white as a sheet and his eyes were wide and glazed.

 Murdoch recognized the symptoms of shock immediately and rose to go to his side, but before he could do more than get to his feet, the silence was broken.

 Like glass shattered by a rock, the words seemed to crash through the hush in the room.

 “Is he okay, Doc?” the unwelcome voice asked from the doorway.

 Murdoch saw Scott suddenly turn around and come to life as much as his brother had a moment ago. His face turned to stone and darkened as he caught sight of the speaker.

 “You! What are you doing in here? What do you care?” he thundered at Harris, standing in the doorway. “Get the hell out of here!”

 In a flash of movement, Scott started towards Harris. Murdoch saw it coming, and in three huge strides he crossed the room and managed to position himself between Scott and the little man.

 The storm in Scott’s eyes was like nothing his father had ever seen in them before. Scott, usually so calm and patient, and only occasionally given to an outburst of temper, had been driven much further this time.

 Scott tried to push his father out of the way. He wanted Harris, and he meant to have him this time. But Murdoch stood firm and grabbed his son by the arm as he tried to shoulder past him.

 “No, Scott,” he said, trying to stay composed and ease the situation, but Scott didn’t take his eyes off his ‘prey’.

 Harris backed up a step fearfully, sticking close to the wall. There was murder in Scott’s eyes, he was sure of it.

 Murdoch had seen it too. He held Scott relentlessly by the arm as his son tried to shake him off. “Let me go!” Scott snarled at him, his voice grim and forbidding.

 “Scott,” Murdoch pleaded quietly, but firmly. “Son, stop this. Forget about him.”

 “Forget about him?” Scott exclaimed. “Look at your son over there. Look at the hovel that man left him to die in!”

 Murdoch fought to control his own anger at Harris, so that he could keep Scott from doing something that he would regret.

 For the first time since he had met him, Murdoch feared that his elder son might actually be capable of killing another human being, and he wasn’t going to let it happen. He’d nearly lost one son today; he wasn’t going to let the other go to the gallows over a man like Alby Harris.

 “He’s as good as murdered Johnny,” Scott continued furiously, eying the trembling Harris.

 Murdoch yanked his son’s arm so hard that Scott was forced back to face him. “Johnny is not dead,” he said doggedly. “Your brother is alive, Scott, and he needs you.”

 The words seemed to find their mark this time. Something registered in Scott’s eyes, though Murdoch couldn’t work out whether it was surprise, horror or fear. Whatever it was, it broke him and Scott leaned heavily against him as shock took its toll.

 Murdoch caught him and held him close, keeping him on his feet. “It’s all right Scott,” he reassured him. “He’s alive and that’s what counts right now.”

 “Johnny… he…” Scott tried to say, his voice muffled by his father’s shirt.

 “I know, Son,” Murdoch comforted him, his own voice faltering as he choked back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him as well. “Come and sit with him for a while. He needs you.”

 Scott nodded slowly, and pushed away, straightening his back and pulling himself together.

 Charity brushed past them both as Scott turned and walked towards the bed where his brother lay. The doctor was standing beside it now, caught up in the drama of the moment, but keeping close to his patient and watching him intently.

 “Get out of here, Alby,” Charity whispered furiously to the man in the doorway as she reached him. “You’re not wanted and you can’t do anything but harm here.”

 “I just wanted to help,” the little man told her, hugging the wall in fear.

 Charity took his elbow and led him quickly to the front door. As she pushed him unceremoniously out of it, she added grimly, “I think you’ve ‘helped’ enough, Alby Harris. Now see if you can live with it.”

 She slammed the door behind him and turned back towards the bedroom. Suddenly, she felt so tired that she could barely walk, but she resolutely brushed the hair off her face and went back. The notion actually struck her that she must look a fright, and she shook her head at the foolishness of the thought.

 As she got to the doorway, she saw Murdoch Lancer seating his elder son on the edge of the bed by his brother. Both men looked pale and shaken, and the doctor hovered by watching Scott closely.

 It was Martha whose excited voice broke the uncomfortable gloom.

 “Doc Rawlins, he’s sweating. Look!”

 He snapped around to look at Johnny and then quickly sat down beside Scott. Murdoch watched from a step away and Charity could see that he was holding his breath in hope.

 Jacob put his hand to Johnny’s forehead, then to his cheeks and nodded with a very slight smile on his face.

 “She’s right,” he told everyone at once, as Johnny sighed and moaned softly, turning his head to the side away from them. “He’s starting to sweat. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but it looks like the fever’s broken.”



 As the words sank in, lack of sleep, strain and relief all combined to set her head spinning. Charity’s mind clouded in a fog of exhaustion and she leaned heavily against the door, suffocating a cry and closing her eyes to hold back tears.

 It was all she could do to stay on her feet, but even so, her legs began to give way and she slid towards the floor.

 Murdoch caught her as she fell and scooped her up into his powerful arms. Martha Carson hurried by him and led him to the stained and evil-smelling mattress on the floor in the other room. She covered it with a blanket and made room for him to lay Charity gently onto it, and then she covered her with another blanket.

 Charity was already asleep.

 Murdoch watched her, and swore that he would make sure that she never slept in those conditions again. She had done so much for Johnny and helped him against all odds. He would never forget that.

 “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” the woman whispered to him. “She’s been going non-stop for days.”

 “Has she gotten any sleep at all?” he asked her.

 “She got a couple of hours that first night, I think,” Martha told him quietly. “But not since then. She must be all in, poor thing.”

 Martha tiptoed back into the bedroom, leaving Murdoch to take a seat at the table. He tried to take stock of everything that had happened.

 The sounds of horses and men out in the yard made the silence in the cabin seem surreal. He heard their voices outside, and then the noise faded away as the townspeople left to go back to the lives and to their families.

 He hoped that Harris had gone with them. If he never saw the man again, it would be too soon. Murdoch blamed him just as much as Scott did. Johnny didn’t deserve to have been treated this way.

  But he blamed himself too. He’d forced that trip on his son out of frustration with him. Johnny’s temper was never going to hold against that damned Conroy, and Murdoch had sent him up to Toby Robert’s place as much to get him out of his hair as anything. 

 It grated on him that his lack of patience with his son had nearly killed him.

 He ran his hands over his face, deep in thought, and looked up as Martha Conroy reappeared.

 “Doc Rawlins asked me to get some of Charity’s sage tea. He wants to try to get some of it into your boy.”

 “Thank you for your help,” he told her solemnly. “Your own little boy, Robbie, how is he doing now?”

 Martha beamed. “His fever is right down. He’s sleepin’ peacefully. It’s a mercy you and your son arrived in time.”

 Murdoch nodded. “That’s good,” he answered, almost negligently. His mind was still numb.

She smiled and started to make up a mug full of the tea that Charity had left ready in the kitchen. “Your boys are close, Mr. Lancer. It’s nice to see brothers who care so much for each other,” she remarked quietly. “My sons aren’t like that, you know. Tommy, he just barely tolerates havin’ a kid brother around.”

“They’re just boys yet, Mrs. Carson,” he told her. “Maybe when they’re older they’ll appreciate each other more.”

Martha came from the kitchen, steaming mug in hand. “I hope so,” she said softly, careful not to wake Charity. “Your must be very proud of those two. Your older boy seems like a real gentleman, and Johnny was so good to Robbie. I’m ashamed to think how I behaved.”

He didn’t want to think about it. He was still trying to come to terms with the shock of seeing his son stop breathing before his eyes. Instead, he stood up and joined her in going back to his sons. “I can’t take much credit for either of them, Mrs. Carson, but you’re right. I’m very proud of both of them.”



Scott held Johnny’s head up as the doctor tried to spoon some of the tea into him. Spoonful by tedious spoonful, they forced about half of the mug’s contents into him, before they decided that that much would have to be enough. Then Scott laid his brother back down onto the pillow.

He hadn’t woken or said anything, not even a moan, but neither had he been delirious and his temperature had come down a little as he sweated the fever out. It was the most encouraging progress he had made since they had gotten there, and Scott took heart from it.

But his own lack of self-control weighed heavily on Scott’s mind. He couldn’t remember ever losing his temper quite that badly before, and especially at a time when Johnny needed him to stay with him.

He tried not to remember those awful moments when he had realized that Johnny’s heart had stopped. The cruel twist of fate that had given him a brother in one moment, and then threatened to take him away again so quickly, was too much to deal with. Instead he concentrated on getting his brother through this, just as he knew Johnny would be doing for him.

Scott wiped the perspiration from Johnny’s face and neck once again. It was a constant battle trying to keep him cool and dried off.

Rawlins left Scott in charge of his brother and quietly left the room to join Murdoch out at the table. Charity was sleeping off her exhaustion, and Tom Carson sat on the edge of the other bed and watched over his little boy, while his wife Martha was also taking some well earned rest, curled up sleeping on a blanket on the floor beside her son’s bed.

Once again Scott cursed the tiny cabin and its lack of comforts. Johnny should be in a bed with real sheets and decent ventilation, and the little boy across the room should be in his own bed at home. Not out here in the middle of nowhere, with limited supplies and too many people crowded into a small space.

A small, questioning voice interrupted his train of thought.

“Pa?” the boy said weakly. Scott looked over and smiled at the sight of the small boy’s eyes open and staring at his father.

“I’m here Son,” Tom Carson reassured him quietly, reveling in his son’s voice. It was the first time he had woken, and Tom finally felt safe in believing that he was out of danger. He brushed away an ‘unmanly’ tear and smiled at his boy.

“What’re you doin’ here, Pa? Where’s Mama?”

“Shhh. She’s sleepin’ right down next to the bed,” his father whispered. “She’s real tired, so don’t wake her.”

He ran his hand over the boy’s head lovingly. “How’re ya feelin’ Robbie?”

The boy smiled at him. “I don’t hurt so much now Pa.”

“That’s real good to hear, boy,” his father told him with a catch in his voice that had him clearing his throat to hide it from his son.

Robbie Carson looked over to where Johnny lay and caught sight of Scott. He frowned and asked bluntly. “Who’re you?”

“Now that ain’t polite, Robbie,” Tom Carson chastised him gently, but Scott just smiled at the boy.

“I’m Scott Lancer.”

Surprise registered on Robbie’s face. “You’re Johnny’s brother… his big brother.”

“Sure am. How did you know that? Did Johnny tell you?”

“Yep,” the boy replied, and then he frowned again. “He said he had a big brother just like I do, an’ a sister. And he told me about his ranch. It sounded real pretty.”

“It is. It sounds like Johnny said quite a lot.”

The boy frowned. “No, not so much. I was feelin’ kinda sick.” He glanced at his father before continuing, almost guiltily. “I wanted my Ma an’ she wasn’t here.”

Tom just ruffled his son’s hair reassuringly.

“Is Johnny still sick?” the boy asked innocently.

“Yes, but he’s getting better,” Scott assured him, as much for his own encouragement as for the boy’s. Saying it out loud made it more believable.

“He’s tough. He told me I had to be too,” the little boy answered. “He promised me a colt, a real pretty golden one like his.”

Scott grinned and the boy’s father looked embarrassed. “Now Robbie, that’s enough of that.”

Robbie turned back to glare at his father. “But he did, Pa. He said I could have it if I was tough enough.”

Scott laughed lightly. It did sound just like Johnny. “Well, I think you’ve proved that, Robbie. Don’t worry, Johnny keeps his promises.”

“Ya see, Pa,” the boy said excitedly. “Have you seen his horse? He’s pretty – like nothin’ you ever saw, and Johnny said he’s fast too – and smart!”

His father lifted a mug of Charity’s tea to the boy’s lips and hushed him. “You settle down an’ drink some of this, young man. We’ll talk about horses later. You have to get some more sleep an’ then we’ll take you back home to your own bed. You’ll soon get well there.”

Robbie looked a little defiantly at Tom. “I wanta stay till Johnny wakes up, Pa. Please?”

The father looked uncertainly at Scott. There was no guarantee that Johnny would wake up. The fever had broken, but it was still high.

Scott looked at the gaunt figure of his brother. He’d drastically lost weight from the illness. His breathing, far from the panting of last night and this morning, was now shallow and barely audible.

He’d seen his brother through a fever when he’d been shot by Pardee, but nothing like this. Scott had feared for Johnny’s life before, but he had always had faith in Johnny’s stubborn fighting nature to get him through. This morning had changed that. He knew now that while his brother’s heart might be trying, he was only human, and his body could take only so much before it surrendered.

He clung to the fact that Johnny had been given that reprieve this morning. Surely he wouldn’t give up now!

Scott wasn’t going to interfere, but he hoped that Tom would go along with the boy’s wish. He had the feeling that it would lift Johnny’s spirits, when he did wake up, to know that the child was well on the way to recovery.

He turned back to face Tom Carson and nodded his head slowly, hoping that the man would take it as a show of his faith in his brother’s ability to come through this.

“Well, I guess we’ll see what Doc Rawlins says,” the man finally relented, and the little boy smiled and then turned away and drifted back to sleep.

“It’s probably too soon to move him anyway,” Tom said quietly to Scott. Anger lit his eyes. “I just want to get him outa this rat-hole.”

“I know. I feel the same way. They should be in a decent bed at least, with help at hand.”

Carson’s expression changed infinitesimally. The anger faded and Scott was sure there was a touch of guilt there.

“I didn’t speak out against it when they moved your brother out here,” he admitted. “All I could think of was keepin’ him away from my family.” He shrugged his shoulders negligently. “Didn’t know him, didn’t care I guess. He was just a drifter.” He looked away from Scott’s eyes and dropped his head. “There was even talk in town that he might be a gun-hawk – you know – from the way he wore his gun low an’ all. Guess it made it easier for us all to excuse ourselves.”

Scott glared angrily at him. “Is that why he’s been treated this way? Did you think his life didn’t mean anything?”

The man looked him in the eye. “No, we were tryin’ to protect our wives an’ kids. It just made it easier that we didn’t know him.”

“But it’s different when it’s one of your own, isn’t it?”

Tom looked down at his son. “Yeah. It is.”

“Well, let me tell you something. He used to be a gunfighter,” Scott told the man coldly, and glared defiantly at Tom as he turned back to him with his eyes wide in surprise. “But he’s also the man who took the trouble to talk your son through a tough spot. He’d give away the shirt off his back to someone he thought needed it more than he did.”

His anger subsided and he looked at his brother solicitously. “I only found out that he was my brother a little while ago, but I’ve gotten to know him and I’m proud to call him brother and friend. He was given a chance to change things and he’s turned his life around. He deserved better than this, just as much as your son did.”

A soft sigh from Johnny caught their attention. It was the first sound he had made in hours and Scott’s hopes soared.

“Johnny?” he whispered desperately. “Can you hear me?”

But there was nothing more. Scott wet the cloth and began wiping him down once again. He took stock again of his brother and was appalled at how thin he was. It was as though the poison had been eating him from the inside out. And with the flush of the fever fading, his face was pale and drawn.




The day wore on relentlessly. Charity woke just after lunch, too soon for the doctor’s liking but she took over again immediately. She made sandwiches for everyone, insisting that they eat to keep up their strength and particularly harassing Scott into it.

Even the indomitable Charity Blaine couldn’t get Scott to leave his brother. She could see that he needed rest from the strain around his eyes, but that was one battle she was never going to win. He was staying put.

She sat down on the edge of the bed beside Scott and smiled kindly at him. “He told me that you worry, you know.”

Scott sighed. “Someone has to. He doesn’t worry about himself.”

“I guessed that, but he cares about you and your father. He was anxious to get a message to you both. I tried, but those idiots didn’t do it.”

“You’ve done more than I can ever thank you for. As for getting a message to us -” he grinned mischievously. “He was probably worried that Murdoch would yell at him.”

She smiled. “Does your father do that a lot?”

“Sure. They’re two of a kind – both stubborn as mules, and they each take what the other says the wrong way every time.” He stopped for a moment, and then went on. “But they care about each other. They just have trouble expressing themselves.

She grinned knowingly. “A trait not uncommon among men,” she told him. “But from what I’ve seen of him, I believe you’re right. He cares a great deal about both of you.”

She patted his shoulder gently. “And I suspect that there’s more than a little of that stubbornness in you too, Scott. It’s not always a bad thing.”

“If you mean I’m not giving up on him, you can count on it.”

Johnny moaned softly and both of them quickly turned all their attention to him. Charity put her hand to his forehead to check the fever and found that it was much lower, if not completely gone.

Scott took his brother’s hand and gently talked to him, whispering his name, and coaxing him back to their world.

“Come on, little brother, I know you can do it,” he told him firmly. “Open your eyes, Johnny. Wake up for me.”

Johnny’s breathing got heavier. He moved his head ever so slightly and moaned again.

“Come on, Johnny. Wake up,” Scott urged him again.

Slowly, the long dark lashes parted and Johnny’s eyelids lifted to reveal the sapphire blue eyes that Scott had feared he would never see again.

Chapter Fifteen 


It was so hard. It was harder than anything he could remember having to do before and he felt the urge to just give up and go back to the darkness that called him.

His mind was fogged and clouded, but something was telling him that there was some sort of urgency and he wasn’t going to stop trying until he succeeded.

Slowly, his brain started to function again. He could make out sounds around him – then he became aware of voices, distant at first, and then closer - louder, and more insistent.

He recognized Scott’s voice before he was aware of anything else. Scott – his brother - urging him on, pulling him away from the peace of the darkness towards consciousness.

The darkness offered a safe harbor, away from the pain and confusion of the outside world. He had fought his way back before, but he felt so bad afterwards that he had been glad of the open arms the darkness wrapped around him.

His body wouldn’t answer his demands. His arms and legs, right down to his eyelids, all of them were frozen solid and unmoving. He fought the lethargy that enveloped him, but it seemed to be tying him down. He couldn’t seem to get anything to work properly.

Frustration began to set in.

He heard a moan, and the sound annoyed him He was trying to focus, and he didn’t need distractions. Then he was shocked when he realized that the sound he had heard was himself. He cut it off quickly and concentrated on the one important matter at hand.

Finally, he did it. His eyelids lifted. They felt as heavy as lead and the effort cost him dearly. He was breathless with exhaustion. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep them open, so he made the most of it. He frowned and tried to bring his eyes into focus. His sight was blurred and misty at first, but before long it began to clear, at least enough to make out figures around him.

The first thing he was able to discern was his brother. Scott was leaning over him with a ridiculous smile on his face that he would have laughed at, had he had the strength to do it.

“That’s it, Johnny. Welcome back,” Scott whispered with that smile beaming across his face.

“I’ll go get Jacob and your father,” he heard another voice say in the background. It was a soft, sweet feminine voice and for a moment it confused him. He tried to place it – to remember where he had heard it before. He was sure he had. He was certain that he should know it, but where did he know it from?

“Johnny, take it easy, brother. Nice and slow,” Scott whispered to him gently. He could hear the words clearly now, but found himself still unable to answer them.

Well, he had no intention of doing anything but take it nice and slow. He couldn’t have even if he wanted to. He wanted to reassure his brother of that, but he couldn’t find the words. His mind wasn’t working well enough to form them yet.

“Damn, it’s good to see you, boy,” Scott said quietly, but with a note of elation in his voice that Johnny cherished.

Suddenly the name of the owner of the other voice came back to him. “Charity,” he remembered, and then he realized that the word had come out aloud. He’d found his voice, even if it was only a whisper.

“She’ll be right back, Johnny. She’s just gone for Murdoch and the doctor.”

Johnny’s eyelids closed again. The weight of them was too much of a strain and the effort was just too difficult to maintain.

“No you don’t, Johnny,” Scott demanded firmly, squeezing his hand in a tight grip that Johnny could feel despite the numbness holding most of his body. “Don’t you slip away from me just yet, little brother. I want Dr. Rawlins to see those pretty blue eyes of yours first.”

Johnny lifted his eyelids again. It was definitely easier the second time around.

More voices! He recognized Murdoch’s deep and booming tones, but the other one was new to him and it confused him all the more.

Scott moved and stood up, shaking the bed ever so slightly as he rose.

“Scott?” Johnny sighed weakly and he frowned. “No…stay…”

“I’m not leaving you, Johnny. I’m just letting the doctor get close enough to have a look at you.”

The bed creaked as the doctor took Scott’s place at his side. The sound irritated a headache that was just beginning to make itself known to Johnny’s consciousness. Then he felt the cold touch of metal against his chest as the doctor leaned forward with a stethoscope and he flinched away from it.

It was a mistake. For the first time, Johnny was suddenly aware of pain. First his shoulder screamed in protest at his movement, and then his chest felt like fire was searing through it. Air hissed between his teeth as he clenched his jaws and breathed in hard and fast.

“Easy does it, Johnny,” the stranger said soothingly, and waited for him to relax a little. “I’m Jacob Rawlins. I’m a doctor from Peterson. I guess that shoulder still hurts some, doesn’t it?”

He got no answer, just a pair of confused blue eyes staring back at him.  “Well, that’s not surprising,” he continued. “Your shoulder’s black and blue, but there’s no serious damage done. Your chest is probably sore too. Sorry about that, but it couldn’t be helped and it’ll pass.”

Johnny’s silence was unnerving. Murdoch and Scott were used to hearing quick responses from him. Murdoch had pulled him up for it often enough, and it had caused some of the more notorious arguments that had raised the roof at Lancer.

But right now, Murdoch Lancer would have given anything to hear an answer from his younger son.

But Johnny just didn’t have the strength to answer. He closed his eyes wearily, and then he lay back and bore the doctor’s examination in silence.

Finally, the doctor finished and spoke again. “Well, looks to me like you’re doing just fine, Johnny.  I have to say that I wasn’t sure I’d get to say that to you. You’ve given everyone here a real fright, son. But the fever’s down some now, and just the fact that you’re awake is a relief to us all.”

He looked at his patient and could see that he was exhausted. He would have liked to have let him go back to sleep right away, but he had questions that needed answers from him. “Now,” he continued assuredly. “I need you to try to answer a couple of questions for me, okay? Just nod a little if you can.”

Johnny’s head moved ever so slightly and the doctor continued. “Good lad. All right, how’s your head? Any headache?”

He answered with a nod and closed his eyes against the pain that even that slight movement caused as it irritated that very same headache.

“I know your shoulder and your chest probably hurt, anywhere else? Any aches and pains?”

Johnny mouthed the word “No,” inaudibly, preferring not to try to move his head again. He was still suffering from the last time he tried it.

“Well, that’s good news anyway. Now, this is going to hurt a little, but I need to check those ribs. I’m afraid there might be a little damage there.”

The doctor was right, it did hurt, and Johnny’s face showed it. But he bore the poking and prodding stoically and when he was finished Rawlins was pleased to know that he hadn’t broken any ribs in jolting Johnny’s heart into beating again.

“There’s nothing broken,” he finally assured him, “but there’s some bruising. It will probably hurt to breathe for a few days. We’ll strap them up for you. It’ll ease the pain a little.”

He was quiet for a while, pouring some medicine into a small glass. “I want you to take this medicine. You should only need it for a couple of days, but be warned – it tastes horrible.” He smiled at Johnny and then he reached over and lifted his head a little so that he could drink it down.

He was surprised when Johnny pulled away, suddenly finding the strength to back from him.

“It’s not laudanum Johnny,” Murdoch told him reassuringly, leaning forward from behind Rawlins. “It’s just medicine, and you need it. Do as the doctor says for once.”

Johnny glanced at his father. He wished he had the strength to say something. But he didn’t. He had to admit it. So he bit back the retort and then did as he was told. Swallowing it, he gagged a little, but a glass of water washed it down and drowned the bitter taste.

“That’s good, Johnny. Now, I want you to try to drink down some of Charity Blaine’s miraculous sage tea. It’ll do wonders for you, and it doesn’t taste anywhere near as bad as that medicine did. I’m going to take your father and your brother outside for a minute to talk to them. Okay?”

Johnny nodded slightly, but a frown crossed his face.

“What…” Johnny tried to ask, but he stopped as his voice failed him. He closed his eyes for a moment and struggled to re-gather his strength. The word had barely come out as a croak, and there was something that he wanted to know. “What … is it?” he finally managed to ask.

“It was a tick fever,” the doctor answered calmly. “A particularly nasty one that I didn’t recognize. You have your brother to thank for knowing what it was. He’d seen it before back east.”

He turned his head to look at Scott. “Tick... fever?”

“We’ll tell you more when you’re stronger, Johnny. But it’s not contagious, so there’s no reason for you to worry about anyone else getting sick,” the doctor continued.

Johnny waited for a moment to catch his breath and then fought hard to get the words formed. “The boy?” he managed to ask in a voice he barely recognized as his own.

“Robbie’s just fine. It was sheer coincidence that he picked up a tick as well and got sick. They’re probably rife at the moment. It was just bad luck is all,” Scott explained to him. “He’s on the mend and looking forward to that fine palomino colt that you promised him.”

Johnny smiled wanly. He was too tired to try to answer. He just wanted to sleep for a while – for a long while.

“Right now, I want you to get some of that tea into you and then get some rest,” the doctor ordered him. “I’ll leave Charity here with you and then send your brother and your father back to you in a minute.”

He stood up and left the room, Scott following close behind him after a reassuring glance to his brother. Scott was anxious to hear what the doctor had to say, and he had a few questions of his own to ask. Murdoch lingered with Johnny for a minute though. He sat down on the bed and looked at his son, affectionately moving wet clumps of hair away from the boy’s still feverish face.

“You’re going to have to take it easy for a while son. Get your strength back,” he whispered comfortingly. “But you’re going to be just fine.”

He got up then, and left the room behind Jacob and Scott.



“Well Jacob, how is he?” Murdoch asked quietly when they got out of the room. He didn’t think Johnny would be able to hear them, but he wasn’t taking the chance. There were things to discuss that Johnny wasn’t ready to know about yet.

“There’s still a bit of a fever there, but it’s coming down slowly. I think we can say the worst is over.”

Scott heaved a sigh of relief, but he had a feeling there was more coming. “But?” he asked warily.

“He’s severely dehydrated. We need to get him to take as much fluids as we can, and keep that sage tea of Charity’s going. Pretty soon he should be able to stomach some broth and keep it down.”

“Jacob,” Murdoch said anxiously. “What about his heart?”

The doctor nodded, understanding their concern after the events of this morning. “I’ve been checking him regularly, Murdoch. I haven’t found anything that leads me to think there’s any permanent damage. I want to keep up the digitalis in regular doses for a couple of days, and then see how he is without it, but I really don’t foresee any problem.”

Murdoch sank wearily into one of the chairs. “I don’t know how to thank you, Jacob. If you hadn’t been here…”

“And if Scott hadn’t been here, or Charity?” Rawlins added. “It wasn’t just me. He’s a lucky young man, Murdoch. So is Robbie.”

“When can we move him? I want to get him into town, to a decent bed.”

“I don’t blame you, Murdoch,” the doctor replied with a sigh. “But it’ll be a day or two before I would let him be moved. He’s just too weak yet.”




Charity left Scott in charge of his brother for a while. Jacob was busy with Robbie and talking quietly with his parents, giving them detailed instructions for the boy’s recovery.

She found Murdoch at the table, looking years older than he had when she had first seen him only yesterday. It seemed longer than that. She felt as though she had known them all for years instead of days.

She considered making a cup of good strong coffee for him, but changed her mind and went to the pantry where she had put all of her ‘supplies’. Pulling out a bottle, she found a couple of clean mugs and poured a small amount of brandy into each of them.

“I don’t usually do this, Murdoch,” she assured him as she placed one of the mugs in front of him. “But I have a feeling we both need a shot of something a little stronger than coffee.”

He looked up at her, rather surprised.

“Purely medicinal, you understand?” she added with a smile as she sat down opposite him.

Murdoch smiled warmly at her. “Of course,” he replied lightly, and took a sip of the brandy. It wasn’t the quality that he kept at home, and it might be out of a tin cup, but it tasted real good going down.

“You’re probably right. I haven’t felt this old and tired in a long time.”

Charity also took a sip of the brandy and she winced a little as it burned its way down, but it hit the spot in the end and she sighed.

“Murdoch, tell me about your sons,” she asked him, in her blunt fashion.

He looked stunned by the question. Not many people had the audacity to ask Murdoch Lancer anything so personal right out like that. He was surprised that he wasn’t offended or even annoyed by the question. There was something about her that convinced him that she wasn’t just being curious or prying.

“It’s a long story, Charity,” he answered evasively.

“I’d like to hear it. Johnny said some things that surprised me. I’d like to know why.”

“What sort of things?”

“Oh, just things – like he didn’t seem to understand why a stranger would want to help him.”

He sighed heavily. “How much time have you got?”


Murdoch straightened himself in the chair, and looked across at her awkwardly. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

She could see what he was up to, but Charity had the feeling that he needed to talk.

“The beginning is usually a good place,” she told him with a warm smile.

And he did tell her. Once he got started, he found he talked more than he had in years. There was something about her that invited trust.

When he had finished, she knew more than either of his sons did. Only Paul O’Brien had known all there was to know, and that had been because he had been there to witness it all – a friend to confide in at the time.

But Paul was gone now – murdered just over a year ago, and Murdoch had never been a man to share confidences. Charity sensed it early in the story, and knew that he was trusting her with his innermost secrets.

He talked about grief, about his fears – past and present – and about the joy he had found in finally having his sons in his life.

“You need to talk to them, Murdoch,” she told him quietly when he had finished. “You need to tell them all of it, and how you feel.”

“I know there are things they want to know, but I’m still learning to know them. I don’t know how to go about it.”

“It might help.”

He nodded. “Yes, some of it might. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Scott is still torn between loyalty and love for Johnny and me and for his Grandfather. There are things I can’t tell him about Harlan. It would either break his heart, or tear us apart if he didn’t believe me. And Johnny… he doesn’t like to open up any more than I do. There are things about his life before Lancer that I know he will never tell us.”

“So you’ll just go on as you have?”

Murdoch sighed. “For now, at least. I know it’s not perfect, but the longer we’re together, the better we understand each other. Scott and Johnny are already closer than brothers who were raised together. They have a special bond. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to sit down and talk it all out, but not yet. For now, the past is the past.”

She shook her head sadly. “No, our past is what makes us who and what we are. That’s why it’s important.”

He smiled at her. “You’re a very surprising woman, Charity Blaine.”

Charity laughed. “So I’ve been told.”



“Well, well, if it isn’t sleeping beauty – gracing us with his presence!” Scott said with a smile, seeing his brother had woken again. This time, Johnny seemed to open his eyes with less effort and Scott took that as a sign that he was feeling stronger. “How are you feeling, little brother?”

“Just fine, Scott,” Johnny answered in what was little more than a hoarse whisper. “Thirsty though.”

“Just as well. Charity has a whole batch of her Sage tea for you.”

He lifted Johnny’s head enough for him to be able to sip from the mug easily. He pulled it away once or twice to let his brother catch his breath, and then laid him back onto the pillow carefully.

“Hiya Johnny!” they both heard a young excited voice cry out from across the room.

Johnny slowly turned his head towards it. The boy was lying on his side, leaning up on his elbow and beaming a great smile that warmed Johnny’s heart.

“Hi kid,” he said, as loudly as he could, but he realized it didn’t sound like more that a croak. Still there was nothing he could do about that yet.

“I told ‘em you’d be okay,” Robbie bragged. “They were all worried about you, but I told ‘em you’re tough.”

Johnny chuckled a little. “Yeah – tough as ol’ boots, that’s me kid.”

He could just imagine the picture he presented at the moment, and he seriously doubted that ‘tough’ came to mind at all. He felt lousy, and he probably looked worse.

“You’re lookin’ pretty good, Robbie,” he continued after a moment of gathering some strength.

“Sure, I’m fine,” the boy answered gamely. “My Pa’s gone to get the wagon to take me home. But I wanted to see you first.”

Scott smiled. “It seems you owe our little friend here a colt, Johnny.”

“I know, I know,” Johnny answered with a tired sigh. He couldn’t believe how weary he felt already. “A deal’s a deal. An’ Robbie proved he’s strong enough to handle Barranca’s colt.”

“Ya mean it, Johnny?” Robbie exclaimed, sitting up straight.

“He means it,” Scott answered for his brother. He could see that Johnny was tired.

Johnny grinned. “An’ when I’m feelin’ a little better, I’ll give you a few tips on handlin’ big brothers too.”

The little boy laughed, and the aggrieved look on Scott’s face, as well as his “Is that so?” made him laugh all the more, with Johnny grinning along with him.

Charity Blaine came into the room, with Murdoch right behind her. They’d heard the commotion from the other room, and had to see what was going on.

“You’re supposed to be lying down resting, young man,” she said to the child with a serious tone in her voice. She was delighted to see Johnny awake and even talking, but she had to make sure he didn’t wear himself out too quickly. Fevers had a habit of springing to life again when you least expected them to.

“Yes, Ma’am,” the little boy answered and fell back onto the bed, still smiling.

“And you, Scott Lancer,” she said with a scowl at him. “I’m surprised at you – letting your brother get excited so soon.”

“He’s a bad influence on me all right,” Johnny said hoarsely, while Scott protested his innocence.

Murdoch walked over and sat down to join his sons. He put his hand to Johnny’s forehead and smiled.

“The fever seems to be gone now, Johnny,” he said. “And you look a lot better.”

Johnny scowled at his father. He didn’t believe a word of it. “I look lousy, Murdoch,” he told him morosely.

Murdoch’s smile turned to a grin. “Okay, so you look lousy. But you still look better than you did. And in another day or so you’ll be strong enough for us to be able to take you back into town. We’ll get a couple of rooms at the hotel and get you fattened up enough to travel.”

“Nonsense!” Charity burst in. “He’ll stay with me. You all can if you don’t mind stretching out on the sofa.”

“That’s kind of you, Charity,” Murdoch told her, truly grateful. “But you’ve done more than we can ever thank you for already. We couldn’t impose on you any more.”

“Rubbish! If you go to the hotel, Oscar Lang will overcharge you for sure to make up for having burned everything in Johnny’s room but the walls.” She grinned happily at the thought. “Besides, I happen to have a nice soft bed in my spare room that will be just perfect for Johnny. He’s going to need some good old fashioned mothering to get him back on his feet.”

Johnny rolled his eyes in dismay. “You mean ‘fussin’ over’,” he complained. “Don’t like bein’ fussed over.”

“A little ‘fussing’ will do you good, Johnny,” Murdoch said with a grin. “You need to put some meat back on those bones of yours.”

“You do look kind of scrawny, brother,” Scott put in with a teasing smile.

“And maybe Charity will be able to keep you in bed for a while,” Murdoch laughed. He turned to Charity and laughed again. “Patience is not one of Johnny’s virtues.”

“I don’t remember anyone saying anything about fussing in the first place,” Charity told them with a frown of annoyance. “I’m talking about a comfortable bed, decent home cooked food and nursing him back to health.”

Johnny looked at her, then to his father and finally to his brother. He nodded his head slowly and they watched him happily. There was no getting away from it. They all meant to keep him in bed for a while.

He shook his head knowingly and closed his eyes, tired enough to go back to sleep already. “Yeah, I know,” he said with a slow sigh. “Fussin’.”




Barranca looked fresh – too fresh for Scott’s liking. He hadn’t been ridden in weeks, and he was a frisky mount even at the best of times.

Scott had saddled him himself, contending with his evasiveness, playful nips and even a kick from the palomino while Johnny looked on, smiling. One word from Johnny had settled the animal enough to saddle him, but Scott didn’t like the rest of the plan as yet. Together they had walked the horse out of the barn and into the corral, and then they had gone over to join the others. Barranca stood waiting, but restless. Scott could see it and didn’t like it.

“He’s too fresh to put a kid on, Johnny,” he told him decisively.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll work some of it out of him before I put Robbie on him.”

Scott scowled at him. “Oh no, you won’t. You know you’re not allowed to ride him yet. I’ll do it.”

Johnny frowned – annoyed at the fussing. He’d had more than enough of it over the last two weeks.

He looked over at Barranca and felt a rush of pride. He stood quietly enough, bobbing his proud head up and down and flicking his tail restively. He was a joy to behold.

He sounded a short shrill whistle and the palomino pricked his ears and shook his head, then trotted over to where Johnny stood waiting, just inside the corral.

Grinning, Johnny patted the animal lovingly and wished that he could have his own way, mounting Barranca and heading out to stretch them both with a gallop. But there was no way he’d get away with it, not with so many onlookers. Scott was right beside him, and wouldn’t hesitate to yank him back before he could even get into the saddle. And then there were Murdoch, Tom and Martha Carson, Ben Scrivens and Charity Blaine to back him up.

And the idea of it being in front of the kids would have been just too embarrassing. So he put aside his yearning and swallowed his pride.

He turned to Robbie Carson, standing beside him and literally glowing with delight and apprehension.

“I told you he’s bossy, didn’t I?” he remarked, and winced at the glare of disapproval from his older brother.

Scott mounted the palomino easily, and pulled back on the reins as the animal frisked sideways. He’d ridden Barranca before and knew his tricks. He was more than capable of handling him, almost as well as his brother.

Johnny watched him with envy, and a flicker of temptation crossed his mind.

Scott saw it in the expression on his face and the sparkle in his eyes, and he growled at him. “Don’t try it, Johnny. One whistle and you’ll be washing dishes from now till Christmas!”

Johnny grinned wickedly. He knew he shouldn’t do it, but it had been tempting anyway. If Barranca threw him, and he would at a sound from Johnny, Scott could be hurt if he landed the wrong way.

He watched as Scott walked the horse away from the group of spectators and then cantered him around the corral for ten minutes. The animal didn’t raise a sweat, but the edge was off him and he walked him elegantly back to Johnny and his companions.

Scott dismounted and handed the reins over to his brother.

“Well, Robbie,” Johnny said, rubbing the horse’s nose affectionately as he turned to the boy. “You ready?”

“Yes sir!”

Johnny lifted him and hoisted him into the saddle. “Now get yourself settled and hold onto the pommel.”

He waited until the boy looked secure and then whispered to Barranca, “No tricks, amigo. This one’s just a kid.”

The horse lifted his head and nudged him playfully and Johnny grinned with pleasure, and then led him slowly around the corral a couple of times.

The nine-year-old didn’t stop grinning the whole time. He looked over at his parents gleefully, and then at his brother and Pete Scrivens with pride. He knew how envious they both were. They’d talked about nothing else all morning.

Johnny led the horse back to where Tom and Martha Carson were waiting for him. He helped him down carefully and led him to his parents.

“That’s real good, Robbie. By the time that colt is ready to leave his mama, you’ll be so strong you won’t have any trouble handlin’ him.”

Robbie squirmed with delight.

Then Johnny turned to the remaining two boys.

“You two want a turn now?”

Tommy and Pete jumped to their feet. “Boy, do I?” Pete exclaimed excitedly.

“You bet!” Tommy Carson cried out.

“Okay then, Pete you’re first.”

The boys both joined Robbie, close by Johnny’s side. “How come we get to ride, Johnny?” Pete asked. “We wasn’t sick or anythin’.”

“No, you’ve got it wrong. I’m givin’ Robbie the colt because of a promise he made to me when he was sick. He kept his promise and I’ll keep mine. But I’m lettin’ him and you boys ride Barranca for a different reason.”

The boys looked curiously at him and at each other.

“Why?” Pete finally asked.

“Because I owe you,” Johnny explained simply. The boys obviously didn’t understand. “You three boys tried to help me when your parents an’ everyone else in town didn’t want to. I won’t forget that, not ever, and I hope none of you do either. You did a good thing – you did the right thing.”

Scott walked over to his brother. Johnny was still far from well and he was concerned that the exercise was tiring him. “Why don’t I take over for you, Johnny,” he suggested and coolly accepted the glower of disapproval that his brother cast at him.

“I can do it,” was all the reply that Scott got, but he took the reins from Johnny anyway.

“I know you can, but you don’t have to. Sit down for a while.”

“Come on, Johnny,” Murdoch told him, agreeing with Scott that it was time for Johnny to take it easy. “Come over here and join us. Let Scott walk Barranca.”

With considerable bad grace, Johnny did as they told him. He stomped over to a bale of hay next to Murdoch and sat down, crossing his arms and scowling.

“If Scott’s so all fired determined to do things for me,” he told them testily. “Then the next time someone has to go see Toby Roberts, he can do it.”

A mischievous gleam appeared in his eyes as he looked at Scott and smiled. “He might even enjoy it. Ol’ Toby’s got himself a daughter – Ruby - best cook in three counties…”




Submission Guidelines