Heart of Darkness
by  Arrenall
Teresa O’Brien bounded down the steps and straight into Johnny who was passing with a steaming cup of coffee in his hands.

“Whoa, little girl. Watch where you’re going.”  He jumped back as hot coffee sloshed onto the tile floor.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.”  She threw her arms around his waist and hugged him fiercely.  “Good morning!”

“Wow, you’re in a good mood this morning.”  Johnny continued to trudge his way over to the sofa where he slowly and stiffly sank in.  Scott was already there, leaning against the far end, his coffee cup perched on the arm with his hand curled around it.

Without opening his eyes, Scott ventured, “The resilience of youth.”

Johnny smiled and sipped at the hot coffee, blowing on it a few times first.

Teresa was wearing riding pants, her long brown hair up in a ponytail.  She came over and stood before Johnny and Scott, looking down at them with her hands on her hips.  “I had a wonderful time last night, didn’t you two?”

Johnny nodded as he sipped at the hot liquid.  “Oh sure, it was great.”  He glanced over at Scott.  “It was great, wasn’t it, Scott?”  Johnny emphasized the question with a kick to Scott’s leg.

Scott jumped, opening his eyes and answering all at once,  “Oh!  Yes, it was great.  Had a wonderful time.”

Teresa’s shoulder’s sagged as she plopped down on the couch between the two.  “Well, I don’t care what you say, it was a great party and I had a wonderful birthday.”

Scott chimed in, “What’d I say?”

“It’s not what you said, it was how you said it.”

Johnny set his cup down and reached over and pulled her into a hug.  “It was a great party, honey.  We’re just a little, uh, hung-over.”

Teresa drew her legs up on the couch and snuggled into Johnny’s arm.  “You looked like you were having a good time.  I know Sally Cross must be on Cloud nine this morning.”

Johnny looked down at her suspiciously.  “Why?  What’d I do?”

Scott began to make chortling noises at the other end of the couch, then a loud snort.  “You don’t remember?”

Johnny paled, then realizing his leg was being pulled, he picked up a pillow and threw it at his brother.  “What do you know?  You’re in no better shape than I am, worse maybe.  You never could hold your liquor.”

Scott deflected the pillow with a well-placed arm and continued chuckling.  Ignoring him, Johnny bent low over Teresa’s head and whispered, “What’d I do?”

She smiled, then rose up out of the circle of Johnny’s arm and in a loud whisper said,  “You asked her to marry you in front of everybody.”

From the other end of the couch came, “On your knee.”

“On my knee?”  Johnny really was pale now.  He dropped his head into his hand and rubbed his eyes.  “I didn’t.”

Scott sat up straighter.  “Oh yes you did, little brother.  You were pretty sloshed by then, though.  Well, so was Sally come to think of it.”

Johnny was afraid to ask, but had to, “What’d she say?”

Teresa spoke up first.  “I don’t know, really.  You, Scott?”

“Nope, I didn’t hear her answer.  I was a little busy picking you up off the floor.”

Johnny looked aghast, “Me?”

“Yup, it was right about then that the punch caught up with you.  I guess you figured since you were already part way down, you might as well go the rest of the way.”

Oh, this was getting worse.  Johnny’s hand was scrubbing violently through his hair.  “Oh, God.”

“Yeah, you passed out in front of Him and everybody.”

“Oh, God.”

“Oh yeah, I had to pour you into bed.  I don’t suppose you remember that either?”

“No,” Johnny squeaked, shaking his head.

“Now, Scott, stop teasing him.  You make it sound like a drunken orgy or something.  It wasn’t that way at all.”  She put a small hand on Johnny’s arm and patted it.  “You just fell asleep, Johnny, that’s all.  It was late and you worked all day, and someone…,”  looking meaningfully at Scott,  “put two bottles of tequila in the punchbowl.  Why, if Murdoch had been here…”

Scott gasped in mock indignation.  “Are you accusing me, little girl?  Why, I never…”

“Well, if you didn’t, you know who did.  Now leave Johnny alone.”

Johnny tightened his hold on Teresa.  “Yeah, leave me alone.”  He settled back, resting his aching head against the back of the sofa and closing his eyes.

Scott laughed.  “Well, it was a great party, Teresa.  I hope you had a good birthday.”

Bouncing up and sitting forward on the couch, she answered, “Oh yes, and thank you so much for Lily, she’s just wonderful, and the saddle and the rig…”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.  Actually, Johnny here found her, Murdoch and I just picked out the tack…”

“Well, she’s wonderful.  I was just about to go and take her out for a ride.”

Johnny smiled down at her, proud of himself for finding Lily, a beautiful, solid little white filly with good lines and an unusually noble bearing.  He had been fortunate to find her in Modesto, and had bought her when her previous owner was selling out and moving back east.  He had kept her in town at the livery for the week prior to Teresa’s birthday, riding in everyday to be sure she was being well groomed and kept up.  He had grown quite fond of her himself and was proud as a new papa when he presented her to Teresa yesterday with a big yellow bow around her neck.

Scott and Murdoch had bought an entire new rig for her and Scott had presented her with that.  Murdoch was supposed to be home from Sacramento that morning, but instead, a telegram arrived apologizing and saying that he had been unavoidably detained.  He insisted that they go ahead with the party without him and he would be back in a few days.  He added a very heartfelt happy birthday to his favorite girl.

Teresa rose from the couch and started for the glass doors leading out to the courtyard.  “Either of you want to come?”

Two groans were her only answer.  Unwilling to let anything spoil her good mood, Teresa opened the door and closed it quietly behind her.

Johnny was still grumbling.  “You put me in bed last night?”

“Oh, don’t thank me, brother, I’d expect the same…”

A shot broke through the banter, so close it almost disrupted the air in the room.  Both Johnny and Scott started, sitting up and looking at each other with alarm.  Without a word, they lunged off the couch and headed for the doors.  Scott, being closer, reached the glass doors first.  As he reached for the handle, another shot rang out and broke the glass right next to his hand.  He threw his arm out, stopped Johnny’s onrush, and pushed him against the wall behind him and shielded him with his body.  Johnny leaned around Scott’s arm, trying to see around him.  “Where’d that come from?”

“I don’t know.”  Scott was breathless as he inched his head around the corner.  Scott saw her lying on the ground out in the courtyard, and although Johnny hadn’t seen her yet, his first thought was that Teresa had just gone out that same door.   As one, they shouted, “Teresa!”  Johnny pushed Scott’s arm out of the way and tried to round the corner.  Scott pushed him back against the wall again.


“Scott, Teresa’s out there!”

“I know, I can see her.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s on the ground about ten yards out.”

Johnny once more pushed Scott’s arm out of his way.  This time he headed for the front entranceway where his gun and belt hung on the rack by the door.  He grabbed his own as well as Scott’s.  Then he went to the rack on the wall and pulled down a 30/30 rifle.  Buckling his belt on, he strode purposefully back to where Scott stood and handed him his gun.

“I’m going out there for her.  You cover me from here.”

“No, Johnny, let me go.”

Johnny stopped, examining his brother’s features.  He knew Scott was trying to protect him, but this wasn’t the time.  “Scott, I’m faster and you know it.  Besides, you’re better with a rifle.  Now cover me!”

Without giving Scott a chance to argue, Johnny lunged for the door, opened it and ducked outside, hugging the wall and staying low.  He heard Scott begin firing behind him, scattering random shots hoping to keep the shooter’s head down.  Johnny spotted Teresa.  She was lying on her side several yards beyond the hitching posts, and off to the right.  He silently began praying, something he hadn’t done since he was a child.  “Dear God, let her be alright, Dear God let her be alright…”

He moved swiftly, keeping low.  No shots came his way as he made his way out into the open.  Still staying low, he ran toward Teresa.  Just as he made it to her, a single shot rang out and he felt a sting and a burn in his side.  It knocked him back a step, but he continued, reaching down to scoop Teresa up.  He was momentarily amazed at how light she was.  She seemed to weigh almost nothing as he lifted her limp body from the ground and turned with her back toward the house.

Scott kept up an almost continual barrage with first the rifle and then the pistol.  He also heard other shots, coming from over near the barn.  Some of the men must have been close and came to their aid.   Johnny kept his head down and ran for the house.  This time he didn’t even feel the sting of the second bullet as it tore through his upper arm.

He made it to the safety of the house and ran inside the door and to the couch.  Scott fired a few more rounds and then stopped.  There was some sporadic firing from over near the barn, but no more hits on the house.

Johnny laid Teresa down on the couch and giving her a quick once-over, didn’t see any evidence that she’d been hit.  He reached both hands up to her face and gently turned it toward him.  Then he saw it.  “That bastard.”    Scott was instantly behind him, reaching around him to touch Teresa’s face.

She had a large gash on the side of her temple, from around her right eyebrow, to just over her right ear.  The blood was still trickling out of the ugly wound.  “Scott, go get some towels!”

Johnny felt, rather than saw Scott move away.  He bent low over Teresa’s ear.  “Teresa, honey, can you hear me?”  She didn’t move.  Her face was very pale, almost gray.  He rested his ear on her chest and listened for a moment, listened to the soft in and out breaths.  He closed his eyes and relaxed, resting his head on her chest for a moment, breathing a deep sigh of relief.

“Johnny!  Scott!”  A loud bang accompanied the whirlwind entrance of Jelly and several of the hands through the front door.  “Where are you?  Johnny!”

Johnny raised his head, wiping the tears away with his sleeve.  “Over here, Jelly.”

Scott came out of the kitchen carrying a pan of water and some towels, hurrying across the room and shouting orders.  “Frank, take a few of the men and fan out around the house.  See if you can find out where those shots came from!”

“Anybody hit?”

Johnny quietly said, “Yeah, Teresa.”

Jelly and the four men with him stopped in their tracks.  They all went from stunned, to furious in a moment when they moved over to the couch to see the girl with blood matting her thick brown hair.  Jelly reached over to Murdoch’s chair and pulled a knitted afghan off and pulled it over her.

Johnny, his voice very quiet and steady said, “Jelly, will you go into town for the doctor?  Take some men with you in case that maniac is still out there.”

“Will do, boss.”

“And stop by Maria’s and ask her to come here to help with Teresa.”

“Okay, we’re on our way.”  Taking another look at Teresa, he turned and headed for the door, with the others in tow.

Scott kneeled by the sofa and began cleaning the gouge in Teresa’s head.  Johnny turned and sat down with his back against the couch.  “Scott?”


“I’m goin’ out with the men and see if I can find something.”  He reached for the edge of the couch and began pushing himself up, but his arm refused to work.  The pain, that he hadn’t noticed before, came with a vengeance.  He collapsed back to the floor and rested for a moment.  Johnny stole a look over to his brother.  He was busy with Teresa and hadn’t noticed.  “Is she going to be okay?”  He tried another tack, this time using his other arm to push himself up from the floor.

“I think so, it’s not very deep.  I hope the doctor hurries up and gets here.”  Scott cleaned the wound and then laid a dry clean towel across Teresa’s head and another beside her to absorb any new blood.  He checked her pupils, which looked okay to him and then held her hand and felt her pulse in her wrist.  “She has a good pulse…”   He glanced around and Johnny was heading for the glass doors near Murdoch’s desk.  For the first time, he noticed blood on Johnny’s shirt.

“Johnny!  Where’re you going?”

“Just out to look around.  I don’t want to give that shooter a chance to get away.  I’ll be back.”  He slipped out the door.

“Johnny!  You’ve got blood on your…”  But Johnny had already slipped out and moved quickly out of Scott’s line of sight.

Teresa moaned and pulled Scott’s attention back.  He turned just as Teresa’s eyes fluttered open.   He smiled down at her, the relief washing over him in waves.  “Hey, sweetheart.  How you feelin’?”

Teresa looked around, momentarily confused.  “What happened?”

“Well, seems someone took a shot at you.  You’re okay though, just a scratch on your head.  Does it hurt?”

Teresa reached up and fingered the towel lying across her forehead.  “Not really…who?”

“I don’t know yet.  Johnny went out to look around.  I’m gonna get you to your room, Marie’s on her way over to sit with you and the doctor’s on his way.”

Teresa closed her eyes and sighed.  She nodded acknowledgement, but didn’t venture to speak again.  Scott lifted her carefully and she reached to put her arms around his neck.  He held her close and rested his cheek against the top of her head as he made his way across the living room to the back hall where Teresa’s room was.

Scott silently wished that Murdoch were here.  His father was a solid mass of capable strength.  He really felt like he needed him right now, and he acutely missed his father.  With a sigh, Scott pushed open the bedroom door with his boot.  The day had started out with a helluva hangover, and had gone downhill from there.  He was just finishing settling Teresa in her bed, when Maria came in behind him.  She must have already been nearby to have come so quickly.

Maria spoke only in Spanish when she was agitated and this was no exception.  She came in muttering and continued as she made herself useful tucking Teresa in and being sure that she was comfortable.  Scott watched in silence, and then, remembering  Johnny, he said, “Gracias, Maria.  The doctor should be here soon.  Will you stay?”

“Si, senor Scott, go see to your brother.”

Scott stopped and turned back to her.  “Did you see him?”

“Si, he was riding out when I came in.  He seemed…” she glanced at Teresa’s stricken face,  “…like he could use some help, senor.”

Scott nodded knowingly.  He bent and gave Teresa a quick kiss on the cheek and then hurried out the door.

Back in the living room, he buckled on his gun belt and pulled another rifle down from the rack.  Being sure that both were fully loaded, he shoved extra shells into his pockets as he headed for the door.


Johnny had Barranca covering a pattern, trying to stay near the house, and concentrating on places that were concealed, but had good, clear views of the house.  He had done mental calculations of how far out the shooter could have been with a powerful rifle and he started there.  The possibilities were numerous, mostly the large trees that dotted the landscape.  Despite the delay of him getting out of the house, it had actually only been less than ten minutes since the shooting began.  He couldn’t have gotten too far.  Johnny had made sure that some of the men were scouring the barn and the outbuildings, but he didn’t believe that the shooter had been that close.  It sounded like a high-powered rifle reverberating off the surrounding hills, possibly a hunting rifle and therefore, it could have been up to a thousand yards away.

Johnny removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve.  He tried desperately to ignore the ache in his side.  He had taken a towel with him on his way out, and had stuffed it into his belt and pressed it into the small hole that was oozing just above his belt-line on his right side.  It was near the outside, just in the fleshy part, and had come out the other side.  He pressed his hand to his back as much as he could to try to staunch the trickle that flowed there.  He’d had worse, much worse.  That one ached, and he knew he had lost quite a bit of blood, but the one in his arm hurt worse.

He looked down at the bandana that was tied tightly around his upper left arm.  It had soaked in blood at first, but he didn’t see any fresh blood now.  His arm hurt all the way up to his shoulder and down to his fingers.  The bullet was still in there and he felt it with every movement.  Returning his hat to his head, he set it firmly and then nudged Barranca to continue.

Johnny tried to keep his mind off of his wounds, and off of Teresa, although that proved to be much more difficult.  He saw her wound and was pretty certain that it wasn’t serious, but what made his gut tighten was the notion that someone, anyone, would take deliberate aim and shoot a nineteen-year-old girl, someone who was the very picture of innocence.  If blood could boil, that’s what Johnny Lancer’s was doing and that’s what kept him in the saddle, when all he really wanted to do was lay down and go to sleep somewhere.

He scanned every tree, every rocky outcropping for signs that someone had been there.  He kept up a slow, steady pace of covering the ground and scanning, fighting to keep his eyes open and his mind clear.  He had to periodically wipe prodigious amounts of sweat from his forehead and out of his eyes.

He had just removed his hat to do just that when he heard a rustle in some bushes immediately followed by, “Jest you hold it right there, mister.”

Johnny replaced his hat and put his right hand in the air.

“Git the other’n up too.”

Johnny sighed and started to turn around in the saddle.

“No!  Don’t turn around, jest git that other arm up!”

“I can’t.  It’s got a bullet in it.”

“Oky, then jest reach down real easy-like an’ pull that gun out with two fingers and drop it on the ground.”

Johnny weighed the situation carefully.  He was in front of the man, but couldn’t tell exactly where he was or whether there was more than one of them.  As he reached down for his gun, he said, “Are you the one that was shooting at the house?”

“Yup, shore was.  Did a dandy job too, if I do say so myself.”

Johnny seethed as he dropped his gun in the dirt.  “You shot a young girl.  You proud of yourself for that?”

“She ain’t dead, is she.”  It was a statement rather than a question.  “I didn’t aim to kill her.  Didn’t aim to kill you neither.”

“Then who were you aiming to kill!?”  Johnny’s temper was at the boiling point.

“I was aiming to draw Murdoch Lancer out.  Git on down off that horse.”

Johnny rose and started to dismount on the left when the man stopped him.  “Uh uh, you git off on this side.”

Johnny swung his left leg around front and slid to the ground, doubling over when he jarred his side.  His vision darkened for a few seconds and he was afraid he was going to pass out.  He gritted his teeth and straightened back up again.  The man stood about eight feet to his right.  He was tall, unhealthily thin and had long, stringy black hair and yellow teeth.

“Why are you after Murdoch Lancer?”

“I’ll ask the questions.  Who are you?”

Without hesitating Johnny replied, “Johnny Madrid.”

“I think I heard o’ you.”

Johnny said nothing, focusing all of his energy on staying upright.  The man circled around to the other side of Barranca and pulled Johnny’s rifle from its scabbard, then he slowly walked back to where he’d been.  “Move on over there an’ sit down on them rocks.”

After Johnny had settled on a large rock, grateful for a place to sit, the man continued his questions.  “What are you to Murdoch Lancer?”

“I was just visiting the girl.  He ain’t there though.”

The ugly mouth screwed up showing large yellow teeth; the man reached for his hat and threw it onto the ground.  “I’ll be damned!  He ain’t there?  You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure alright.  He’s not gonna be back till next week sometime.”  Johnny was trying to appear calm, but seething inside.  “Why you want him?”

The man appeared to relax.  Johnny hoped that his relaxed manner was having an affect on the man, throwing him off his guard.  Johnny was well experienced with killers, and this man was as frightening as they come.  The eyes were dead, he had a hint of madness about him, hard to put a finger on, but there nevertheless.

The man started pacing, walking around in circles, waving his gun and talking to himself.  Mumbling really, Johnny couldn’t make out what he was saying except a few words here and there.   Johnny watched him carefully for any signs that he was going to turn on him.  Finally the man seemed to come to some kind of decision.

“C’mon, git on up, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“We’re going to that house.  Yer gonna git me in and we’re gonna wait.  You can get us in and anyone that tries to stop us gits it.”  Besides the gun in his right hand, he reached in his boot and pulled out a long, ugly skinning knife.  His smile was the most evil thing Johnny had ever seen.

Johnny’s heart sank.  This madman wanted to go into his house and wait for his father to come home so he could kill him.  He’d already proven that he was willing to go through whomever he needed to accomplish his mission.  Murdoch was bound to be home tomorrow or the next day.  He couldn’t let him walk into a trap.  And what of Scott and Teresa?  Would this animal kill them just to make it easier on himself?  Would he kill them all once he got past the men on the outside?  Johnny made the decision, right then and there.  This man would never make it to the house, if he had to sacrifice himself to stop him, he would.  But that wasn’t in his plans.

Whatever he did, he had to act fast.  His strength was slowly but surely trickling out, along with his blood.  Maybe he’d been a fool to leave the house, but at the time, it was the only thing he could do.  He hadn’t even thought past finding the man that shot Teresa; he hadn’t considered that he might bleed to death and no one would find him for days. Now he’d found the man, or the man had found him.


Scott found out from one of the men in which direction Johnny had gone. He couldn’t help but hope that the blood he’d seen on Johnny’s shirt had been Teresa’s and not Johnny’s, but that hope was dashed when he found splatters of fresh blood in the dirt near the barn.

He commandeered an already-saddled horse and took off at a full-gallop leaving explicit instructions that all of the entrances to the house were to be guarded and a man be posted at Teresa’s door, even if they had to pull men in from the search.  Scott’s army training stood him in good stead.  When your fort is under attack, fortify it with a strong defense until all possibility of danger is over.  Of course, Scott knew that leaving the fort by himself was a potentially foolish endeavor, but Johnny had gone out, and he needed backup.

Johnny’s horse had left tracks that were fairly easy to follow for awhile, but then it became more and more difficult as the ground grew rockier.  The hot sun was at its peak and waves of heat rose from the surrounding hillsides.

It seemed like hours.  The man, Johnny had mentally dubbed him Dead-Man, had tied Johnny’s hands behind his back and then hoisted him up onto his horse.  Dead-Man led Barranca on a short lead.  With his hands tied, the pain in Johnny’s arm increased exponentially, and he had a difficult time keeping his balance, having to hold on and allow for shifts with only his legs.  As exhausting as it was, Johnny’s main focus was on Dead-Man, not three feet in front and to the right of him.  The man kept up a constant stream of babbling, incoherent mumbling, grunts and whistles.

They were on high ground, making their way down towards the south side of the estancia.  From here, Johnny could see the house in the distance.  Scott must have called the men back in to guard the house, because he didn’t see any out patrolling.  Their complement was low this time of the year.  Round-up didn’t start for another month.  That was when they would’ve had an army.  As it was, they had maybe seven or eight anywhere near the ranch house this time of day.  They had others out in the far ranges and line shacks.

Johnny found his thoughts wandering, his mind felt muddled.  His arms had mercifully become numb, but that made it all the more difficult to stay balanced.  He had sweat rolling down into his eyes, and had to try to wipe it off on his shoulder, mostly unsuccessfully.

As they neared the house, Johnny knew that Dead-Man would have to make a move.  He’d have to get behind Johnny and hold a weapon to his head…or throat, to keep from being fired on from the house.  Johnny knew he had to make a move himself before they got any closer.

Just then, he saw a single figure riding in the near distance, just emerging from a copse of trees.  It was far enough for a shout to not carry, but near enough that he could see who it was.  It was Scott.  And he was looking down at the ground.  He hadn’t seen them yet.

But Dead-Man had seen Scott.

Dead-Man pulled his horse to a halt and Barranca pulled up along side.  He reached behind him for his rifle.  Johnny got a good look at it for the first time.  It was a heavy gauge, bolt action rifle with a fancy scope on it, some kind of optical device for sighting.  No wonder he could shoot from the distances that he did.

As Dead-Man hoisted it to his shoulder, Johnny’s mind raced.  Suddenly, Dead-Man lowered the rifle and then swung down from his mount.   He couldn’t be sure of the horse’s steadiness.  He took a few paces out beyond the two horses, and then hoisted the rifle to his shoulder again.  Johnny decided it was now, or never.

He stood in the stirrups and swung his right leg over the saddle, at the same time launching himself toward Dead-Man.  He hit the ground on his feet and barreled, shoulder first into Dead-Man, just as Dead-Man pulled the trigger.  Johnny yelled, “Scott!”  just before the wind was knocked out of him.

The two men tumbled to the ground, Johnny landing squarely on top of the other man, the rifle flying out of Dead-Man’s hands.  There was cursing and spitting, but Johnny kept his head down and tried to use his body to keep the man on the ground.   The fleeting realization that he felt no pain flitted through Johnny’s fevered brain.

Three hundred yards away, Scott heard the report of the rifle, and then an instant later, saw the puff where the bullet hit the dirt about six feet in front of him.  Scott’s first instinct was to dive for cover, but something overrode instinct, and he spurred his horse in the direction of the shot, going on nothing but faith and need.  Faith in his brother, and the need to help him.

Scott laid low over the horse’s back, but the next shot never came.  He strained to see up ahead, and after several long moments, he could see two men struggling on the ground.  Johnny’s red shirt made him easy to identify, the other was larger and all in black, but otherwise, Scott didn’t recognize him.

His horse got him there in less than a minute.  Johnny was struggling with the man, even though his hands were tied behind his back.   He used his head and his legs and had managed to keep the man on the ground.  As Scott drew closer, he saw a flash of silver.  A knife.  The man had managed to grab hold of large knife and was readying to roll over, pushing Johnny off him.

Scott leaped from his running horse and hit the ground just as the man underneath Johnny managed to roll Johnny off him and brandish the large knife, neatly slicing across Johnny’s ribs.  Johnny, obviously weak and about to succumb, desperately tried to scramble backwards.

Scott’s gun appeared in his hand, as if by magic, and it took a split second to shoot, his bullet finding it’s way directly into the heart of darkness.  The hand that held the knife seized, and then relinquished it’s hold, and the knife dropped harmlessly, bouncing off Johnny’s leg and coming to rest in the dirt.

The man slid soundlessly to the dirt, draped across Johnny’s legs, effectively immobilizing him.

Johnny lay, looking at the sky.  Time had seemed to stop.  The clouds weren’t moving, there was no wind, no sound at all…and best of all, no pain.

It seemed like an age before a shadow fell across his eyes, and he looked over to see the silhouette of his brother hovering over him, his blond hair looking like spun gold with the sun glinting off it.  Johnny smiled, “Howdy, brother.  ‘Bout time you got here.”  He gave a short laugh, and then coughed a few hard, harsh coughs.  When he calmed, he found Scott’s hand on his head, smoothing his hair.  Johnny was surprised to see tears running down his brother’s face.  Alarmed, his eyes opened wide.  “Is it Teresa?  Is she alright?”

Scott cleared his throat and smiled back at his brother.  He was always amazed at Johnny’s capacity to laugh at the most inappropriate times.  That disarming smile in the wake of what had just happened, took his breath away.  “No, no, she’s fine, Johnny.  She’s just fine.”

The smile returned and Johnny’s eyes slowly closed, his head rolling to the side as he finally, blessedly, passed out.

Scott dropped his head, letting the waves of relief overwhelm him briefly, letting the tears flow unchecked.  After a minute, the practical aspects of the situation demanded his attention.   He took hold of the stranger’s coat and pulled him roughly off of Johnny and threw him in the dirt, allowing him to fall in an ungainly heap.  He then stooped beside Johnny and, putting one hand on his shoulder and the other on his hip, rolled him over on his side.  He reached for the knife, still lying close by, and cut the ropes that were binding Johnny’s hands.  They had been tight, and were cutting in, Johnny’s hands had taken on a bluish tint.

Succeeding in cutting the rope, he rolled Johnny back over and took his hands in his own and rubbed them, smiling as he watched them turn pink again before his eyes.

Scott then lifted Johnny’s shirt and pulled away the sodden towel that was stuffed under it.  The bullet hole was neat and small, with dried blood caked around it and an ugly blue bruise making a halo about four or five inches wide.  Scott rolled Johnny slightly and saw where the bullet had exited.  It was dirtier, and more bruised, but no longer bleeding.  He raised the shirt a little higher and saw the slash across Johnny’s ribs.  It wasn’t deep, but was bleeding profusely.  He used the towel to soak up blood and put pressure on it.  The wound on his arm would have to wait.  He didn’t want to remove the bandana that was tied around it until he got home.

Looking around, Scott rose and walked over to Barranca, patting his neck and speaking softly to him.  Glancing at the dead body of the stranger, he took his rifle and walked a few yards out, and fired three shots in the air.  Afterwards, he watched the house for a minute and could just barely make out two riders leaving the courtyard and heading in his direction.

Scott went back over to Johnny and sat beside him, and waited.  It took about ten minutes at a full gallop, and several more shots for the men to find them and reach them.  With their help, Scott got Johnny up on his horse, and they rode double back to the house, Scott holding Johnny tightly to keep him from tumbling off.  Frank rode close, ready to help in a second in the unlikely case that Johnny should start to fall, while Stuart stayed behind to gather up the stranger and bring him back over his own horse.  Frank told Scott that the doctor had arrived about a half hour ago and was with Teresa right then.

Scott nodded, but rode in silence, grateful for Frank’s presence, but not able to speak just then.  As Scott pulled up at the hitching rail outside the study, Doctor Jenkins and Maria came out to meet him.  Frank swung down and offered to help Scott with Johnny.

“No.  I have him.”  Scott was very clear, and his tone made Frank step back.  He swung down and reached back to pull Johnny down into his arms, then turned with him towards the house.  Staring straight ahead, he passed the others and walked stiffly and deliberately up the stairs to Johnny’s room.  Doctor Jenkins and Maria followed silently, Jenkins almost as concerned for Scott as he was for Johnny.

Scott settled Johnny on his bed and then sat next to him and began removing his clothes.  His hands were shaking almost uncontrollably, so much so that he couldn’t manage the buttons on Johnny’s shirt.

Jenkins came to Scott and placed a firm hand over Scott’s shaking ones.  “Scott, let us do this.  You’re in shock and you need to sit.”

Scott’s head was already shaking,  “No, I have to…”

Jenkins became firmer.  “No, Scott!”  Taking Scott firmly by the arm, he pulled him up and walked him over to the chair near the bed.  Scott did not resist, and sank into the chair, resting his head in his hand.  “You can watch from right there, but you need to let me do my work.”

Scott looked up at the doctor, the fear in his blue eyes was palpable.  “Is Teresa alright?”

“Yes.  She’s just fine.  She was sitting up a few minutes ago.”

Scott closed his eyes and sagged heavily against the back of the chair.  The doctor turned from him and focused his attention on his other patient.

It took hours.  Doctor Jenkins had to remove one bullet and sew up the hole, then sew up the two other holes from the wound on Johnny’s side, and finally he had to sew up a ten-inch gash on his ribs.  None of the wounds were serious or life threatening, but combined, they would serve to keep the boy down for a couple of weeks at least.

Johnny had remained unconscious throughout the ordeal, and the few times Jenkins was able to steal a glance at Scott, he was in a daze, watching the proceedings with an expression that told Jenkins he was in emotional shock.  Not surprising.  The boy’s world had almost come crashing down in one brief, bright, sun-shiny morning.  If things had worked out just a little differently, if bullets had been centimeters off the mark, if precious seconds had been missed, Scott would have lost two of the three most important people in his young life today.  Jenkins knew this family well enough to know how unimaginable that would be.

As he was finishing with his last bandage around Johnny’s wrist, a soft moan and stirring told him that Johnny was waking up.  Under his breath, he whispered, “Excellent timing, my boy.”  He stood back and smiled, turned to Scott and laid a hand on his arm.  “Scott, your brother is waking up.”

Scott looked at him, surprised and quickly sat up, then not bothering to stand, he leaned over toward the bed and fell on his knees beside it.  Johnny was laying in a nest of fluffy white pillows and clean white sheets, only a slight contrast to the paleness of his face.

Scott’s hand reached for his brother’s head and stroked his hair, willing him to wake up and talk to him.  Johnny’s eyes fluttered and finally opened.  His focus was fluid, but he turned slightly and saw his brother’s face hovering close to his own.  “Hey.”

Scott smiled big enough to break his face.  “Hey back atcha.”


Scott nodded, swallowing hard before answering.  “She’s fine.  Sitting up and eating soup.  Maria’s with her.”

Johnny closed his eyes and nodded.  “What about…”

“He’s dead, Johnny.  You got him.”

Johnny shook his head very briefly.  “No I didn’t, you did.”

“Well, you held him still for me.”

Johnny smiled, and then laughed, wincing with pain and holding his ribs.  “Ohhh, don’t make me laugh.”  He continued to shake with suppressed laughter.

“Okay, okay, you need to rest.  Doc Jenkins here says you’re gonna be fine.”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked directly into his brother’s.  “And you?”

“Me too.  You can count on it.”

Johnny nodded again and let himself drift off, sure in the knowledge that home would still be here when he woke up again.




Submission Guidelines