A/N: This story originally appeared in the Yucca Flower Press publication “The Great Room Bookshelf” volume 1, edited by A.J. Burfield, in March of 2005.
For the third night in a row, Murdoch Lancer heard the bedroom door down the hall open quietly, followed by the soft sound of bare feet treading lightly on creaking floorboards. It was late, two hours past midnight, he guessed, and he didn’t really know why he happened to wake in time to hear his son rise from an uneasy sleep to vanish into the darkness outside. It made Murdoch wonder and worry about how many nights before these he hadn’t woken up to hear Johnny cat-foot his way down the hall . . .
Maybe it was because Murdoch had finally noticed what Teresa had been trying to tell him for the past few days. Two mornings ago at breakfast after giving the usual run-down of the day’s jobs, he had paused and looked, really looked, at Johnny. The boy hadn’t said a word after Murdoch finished speaking, not one. He just nodded as he rose from the table, and then he slipped away before Murdoch could stop him. The usual good-natured sass was absent; the grin was nowhere to be seen. Lord knew Murdoch did not relish fighting with his youngest son, but even an argument would have been more welcome than this . . . this strangely quiet and restrained behavior.
He thought at first it was only because with Scott gone, they were both working harder, putting in longer hours. Of course Johnny was bound to be tired; Murdoch was feeling it himself. But yesterday he had observed Johnny’s appearance with a careful eye, and what he saw had him worried. How could he not have seen it earlier? Haggard, pale, eyes shadowed with exhaustion . . . and something else. While Johnny protested—of course—that he was “just fine” when asked, Murdoch knew damn well something had the boy tied up in knots. And while maybe Murdoch hadn’t been a father to Johnny beyond those first two years, he still knew, as a father, how to wake up in the middle of the night when his son was hurting. Now if only he could get that eternally stubborn son to talk to him . . . Murdoch breathed out a sigh as he lay there, looking up at the ceiling.
Talking to Johnny was not one of his better skills. Arguing, yes; yelling, shouting, chastising, ordering . . . but just talking, sometimes, could be a little . . . thorny. And awkward. He had found himself wishing yesterday that Scott was not in Stockton on business. And so he had ridden to town to wire his older son, in the hopes that Scott was almost done with Lancer business dealings and could come home soon. Scott knew how to talk to Johnny . . .
Murdoch sighed again. But he couldn’t wait to hear from Scott. He had to try himself. If the boy had it in his head to leave Lancer—Murdoch’s greatest fear—well, he’d rather find out sooner than later. On the other hand, it could be something else entirely; but whatever it was, he hated not knowing. Did he dare try to follow Johnny tonight? Or go wait in his room? Murdoch grimaced at the image of a suddenly confronted Johnny Madrid in the middle of the night and quickly discarded that idea. He’d take off like a spooked horse if Murdoch didn’t handle this right. Come morning, then, he decided, he’d figure out a way to talk to the boy and discover just what was going on behind those veiled blue eyes.
He rolled over and thumped the pillow a couple of times, knowing he wouldn’t sleep again until he heard Johnny return. He snorted. If this kept up much longer, he was going to wind up looking almost as bad as his son.
Another night of restless wandering, followed by maybe an hour or two of fitful sleep, left Johnny with a feeling of sand under his eyelids and barely enough energy to lift a mug of coffee to his mouth. He sat slumped at the kitchen table, cheek leaning into one propped hand, all too aware of the concerned glances Teresa kept throwing his way when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Maria was not quite so subtle. She banged down a plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits slathered in honey in front of him, and pointed at it.
“Eat, chico,” she said sternly.
He tilted his head up and forced a smile. “Sí, Maria.” It was all he could do to pick up a fork and choke down a mouthful of eggs. She watched him, then nodded before turning away to her next task.
Murdoch chose that moment to walk in, and Johnny knew by the expression on the old man’s face that he wouldn’t take “just fine” as an answer this morning.
“Johnny,” Murdoch nodded. “Good morning, Teresa. Maria.”
The two women murmured replies, and Maria set a plate for him and poured coffee.
Johnny managed another bite of eggs. He’d maintained some degree of normalcy for the first few days, but he knew he couldn’t keep it up. He was all too aware of how awful he looked—he’d stared into his face this morning while shaving, and didn’t know how to explain away the shadowed, sunken eyes or the growing prominence of his cheekbones. At least, not without telling Murdoch a whole lot more about his past that he didn’t want Murdoch to know . . . He wished Scott were here . . . He could talk to Scott. Maybe not about everything—well, maybe not about anything that had to do with why he wasn’t sleeping or eating . . . but at least enough to keep Murdoch from asking too many questions.
On the other hand, Scott wouldn’t settle for “just fine”—oh, no, Scott would badger him for as long as it took, using all of his considerable persuasive skills and patience to get Johnny to talk.
And it was definitely a good thing that Jelly was still gone and would be for a few days yet. Jelly had never been shy about telling Johnny what he thought the younger man needed to hear.
He concentrated on his coffee, as the eggs had become impossible, and not even the biscuits could tempt him this morning. It took all his gunfighter’s nerves just to sit there under Murdoch’s scrutiny rather than bolt for the barn and ride out somewhere, anywhere, he just needed some open sky . . .
“Johnny,” Murdoch began, his voice hesitant. “I was . . .” He cleared his throat. “That is, why don’t you take the day off, son?” he finished in a rush. “You’ve been putting in some long days, what with Scott gone, and I think we can manage without you today. There’s really nothing all that vital that needs to get done. What do you say? Go for a ride,” he cleared his throat again, “or take a nap. Whatever you want.”
“Ya mean that?” Johnny looked up to meet the ill-concealed worry in his father’s gaze. That Murdoch had obviously meant to say something else had hardly escaped his attention, but if the old man wasn’t going to push, he’d better take advantage of it.
“Sure.” Murdoch gave him a sharp look, only slightly eased by the forced smile that followed it. “Everybody needs to play hooky now and then.”
“Well, maybe I’ll just take ya up on that, Murdoch.” Johnny finished his coffee, cursing silently as his hand trembled in putting down the mug. He got to his feet, snagged his hat and was quickly out the door and across the yard before Murdoch could change his mind.
He lifted his face to the morning sun and breathed deep, trying to clear his head. Johnny knew that the sleeplessness would pass, that the dreams would diminish, and the darkness that sometimes came close to suffocating him would slowly lift. It always had in the past. He just had to get through it, one way or another. Tequila, and lots of it, was one way, but all that did was blur things for a while, and then he’d have to contend with a hangover on top of it before everything came roaring back.
No tequila, he decided—at least in the matter of drinking himself unconscious as a means of escape . . . He headed for the barn to saddle Barranca and take that ride somewhere, anywhere, across Lancer, until he found a place to sit and not think about anything. Maybe he could even catch an hour or two of sleep.
He wished Scott would come home.
Murdoch fought back the anger at himself for his sudden display of cowardice. Johnny was his son! He was afraid to talk to his own son! He had thought it all out, upstairs while getting dressed—just what to say and how to say it. Then to come down to breakfast and see the boy, worn out, listless, the usually vivid blue eyes dark with some hidden pain, and well, all those fine words just fled and the only thing he could come up with was to tell the boy to take the day off.
He snorted in disgust and finished his coffee, noticing something odd in the wake of Johnny’s departure. The kitchen was far too quiet. Looking up from his breakfast, he saw Teresa and Maria, standing side by side, arms crossed, identical expressions of disgust on their faces as they stared pointedly back at him.
“That went well, I thought. Didn’t it, Maria?” Teresa’s voice could have cut glass.
Maria sniffed. She didn’t say a word, just kept looking at him with more than a hint of displeasure.
Faced with such formidable female wrath, Murdoch could only throw his hands in the air and confess. “All right, all right! I should’ve said something! But you both know he’s too stubborn to admit it when anything’s wrong! It’s not as if I can tie him to a chair and order him to answer my questions!”
“We just might have to,” Teresa said. Her foot tapped on the floor as her eyes narrowed in thought.
“Now, honey, don’t you be getting any ideas like that . . .”
“Well, someone around here has to, since certain other people who think they’re in charge can’t seem to take care of the problem.” The foot continued to tap and those big brown eyes flashed at him.
First Johnny, now Teresa. Couldn’t he stand up to anyone this morning? He sighed. “Here’s what I think. We leave him alone for the day, and with any luck, Scott will be home as soon as he can. I wired him yesterday, told him about Johnny, and you know Johnny will talk to Scott before he’ll talk to me.”
Teresa winced at that, and her eyes lost their steely glare. “Oh, Murdoch, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . . that is, you’re right, Johnny isn’t one to admit to anyone if he’s in trouble or hurt . . . I’ve just never seen him look quite so . . . lost . . . before. But it’s a good idea to get Scott back home.” She paused, and Murdoch could suddenly see the fear she had so valiantly hidden until now. “Do you think . . . do you think he’s going to leave?” she asked in a suddenly small voice.
He pushed back his chair and rose to his feet, gathering her in his arms. “I don’t know, honey, but if that’s what’s on his mind, we’ll just have to talk him out of it.” He glanced at Maria, and she nodded back, apparently finding him worthwhile again. “Each and every one of us.”
The sun balanced on the edge of the world as Johnny rode slowly down the long road to Lancer. The shadow he and Barranca made flowed endlessly over the grass, long and thin and disappearing into the dusk. The sky, shot through with high lingering wisps of cloud, was rose and gold and shading to blue velvet in the east. Then the sun dropped behind the hills and his shadow slid with it.
He usually loved this time of day, the cusp of twilight verging on night, the falling stillness and the dying of the wind, but tonight he could neither see it nor feel it. All it meant now was another day gone with a long night ahead, and he didn’t know how much more he could take.
He and Barranca had raced out of the corral that morning, and with nothing but the speed and power of his horse beneath him, the wind in his face and a far horizon ahead of him, he had forgotten his ghosts for a brief hour or two. After a hard run he had pulled Barranca back to a walk, and coming upon one of the streams that meandered through Lancer, they rambled easily beside it for a good distance. He made certain to avoid any of the crews of men out working at various places around the ranch. There were a few hands repairing fence line up on the north ridge, and more checking the line shacks, not to mention the fellas moving some of the herd down from the upper pastures, but that still left plenty of Lancer for him to roam.
Then he had found a peaceful little spot by the stream and decided to settle down for a spell. With a copse of trees to laze under and plenty of good grass for Barranca to graze on, he just stretched out and put his hat over his eyes. Between the heat of the sun and the hypnotic drone of insects, he managed to fall asleep, his exhaustion overriding all else.
When he awoke it was to hear a voice shouting, almost screaming, hoarsely in Spanish. His voice. He struggled to push himself upright; as ever, the vivid, horrific images left him shaking, gulping for air, and covered in a cold, clammy sweat. A quick glance up through the trees confirmed his guess that he’d been asleep for at least a couple of hours. He ran an unsteady hand over his face. Sleep. Hardly that. A restless catnap could hardly make up for far too many nights of tossing and turning and wandering about the ranch in the darkest hours of the morning.
Though it hardly seemed worth the effort, he hauled himself to his feet and stumbled over to Barranca. He leaned into the horse’s neck and closed his eyes. Barranca turned his head to nudge Johnny in the shoulder, and Johnny just let himself sag against the comforting warmth and strength of the animal before rousing to dig in his saddlebags for the lunch Teresa had packed him yesterday—or was it the day before?
The biscuits were a little hard by now, but not bad, and he ate one, slowly, with half a canteen of water. One was enough, he thought, enough to quiet the faint ache of hunger and to keep him going for a while. He’d gotten by on less once upon a time.
He spent the rest of the day riding, sometimes at a flat-out gallop, other times just giving Barranca his head and letting the horse choose their path. And that was how they wound up heading home at dusk. Barranca, at least, knew where to find dinner and a good place to sleep, Johnny thought wryly, amused in spite of his weariness.
As the sound of crickets filled the night air and fireflies danced in the dark, Johnny dismounted in front of the barn and led Barranca inside. The familiar routine of unsaddling and tending to his horse eased his mind a bit. He let his hands take over and worked slowly, reluctant to leave Barranca and the hay-scented comfort of the barn. But eventually he had done everything he could, and short of sleeping out here— and why not, part of him argued—it was time to go in, no doubt to face Murdoch once more and try to fend off the old man’s worry.
With a final pat on the palomino’s golden neck, he quietly stole out of the barn and made his way up to the house only to come to a sudden halt as a figure straightened up from beside the front archway. A very recognizable figure. Johnny breathed out a sigh and moved his hand away from his gun as the tall shadow emerged more fully from the edge of the arch and came down the path to meet him.
“Hey, boy, you missed dinner,” his brother said.
Johnny felt like a dying man in the desert who had just been given a drink of cool water. Scott was back. Scott was home. Some of the darkness at the edge of his soul receded a bit as he poked an elbow into Scott’s stomach even as Scott threw a companionable arm over Johnny’s shoulder.
“You’re home early,” Johnny said, hoping Scott did not hear the obvious relief in his voice.
“Yes, I am, and it certainly feels nice. I managed to wrap up things quicker than I first expected, and so I decided to come right on home. I missed Teresa’s cooking. I missed Lancer and my horse.” Scott lifted his hand up to ruffle Johnny’s hair. “I even missed you, little brother.”
They walked into the house, together, into the light, into the warmth.
By one of those lucky coincidences that every so often cropped up out of nowhere, Scott had very neatly closed on his business dealings in Stockton the same day the wire from Murdoch arrived. When the telegram was delivered to his hotel, he had merely assumed that it concerned the reason for his Stockton trip, more advice, more names of people he should see, and questions on how everything was going so far. But then he opened it, and flicked his eyes over the words. His heart racing nearly as fast as his thoughts, he wondered just what it was that Murdoch wasn’t saying.
Business concluded or not, Murdoch would know that he’d come home if Johnny was in trouble.
So he had arrived at the hacienda the very next day, to be met by Murdoch and Teresa at the front door. Their very evident worry fueled his own fears that something even worse had happened during the hours he had spent getting from Stockton to Lancer. He had barely shaken the dust of travel from his clothes before he was hauled into the kitchen, where, at least, Maria made him sit down and take time for a cup of coffee.
Teresa joined him at the table, her hands twisting together in front of her. Murdoch paced restlessly across the room several times before sitting down himself.
Leaning back in his chair, Scott rubbed a weary hand over his face then parked his elbows on the table and stared at his family. “Well?” he said. “What is it? Your telegram was not very explicit, Murdoch. What’s wrong with Johnny?”
“We don’t exactly know, Scott,” Murdoch began.
“He won’t eat,” Teresa blurted. “He looks just awful.”
“He’s not sleeping, either, and I’m not sure how long that’s been going on,” his father added. “I’ve heard him get up in the middle of the night three times now. I’d drag the boy into town to see Sam if I thought I could get away with it.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve asked Johnny what’s wrong?” At the look he got from all three of them, he simply answered his own question. “Of course, and he said he was just fine, and that was the end of it.”
“But he’ll talk to you, Scott,” Teresa said, earnestly, her eyes pleading with him to agree with her. “You’ve got to find out what’s bothering him. He’s going to make himself ill if he keeps this up much longer.”
He reached over and stilled her hands beneath his own. “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll figure it out. Johnny won’t stand a chance against all of us.”
Once inside, Scott got his first good look at Johnny in the light of the great room. What he saw nearly halted him in his tracks. But he thought he recovered quickly enough—maybe Johnny hadn’t noticed the sudden tightening of his arm that was, just a moment ago, draped so casually over his brother’s shoulders.
He’d seen Johnny ill before. He’d seen him wounded and feverish. He’d seen him drunk and, inevitably, hungover. But he’d never seen him look so . . . thin, and grey, and hollow-cheeked with exhaustion, and . . . what had Teresa said? Lost. Haunted—that was Murdoch’s word.
So what had happened in the last ten days to turn Johnny into what appeared to be a walking dead man?
An all-too familiar—and horrifying—image rose unbidden in his mind.
Emaciated men in rags that had once been uniforms, men with no life in their eyes, men who stared out at the world with nothing but hopeless misery, men just waiting to die—and his brother sighing quietly, sagging in Scott’s arms, and joining the numberless ranks of the dead.
Scott shivered. He shut his eyes briefly and shoved the vision away. No. Johnny was here, right now.
And here he was going to stay. Scott would do whatever it took to find out what was going on in his stubborn brother’s head and bring him back. He wasn’t about to let Johnny fall into some dark abyss of his own making. Not that he expected it to be easy—the enigmatic man who was Johnny Madrid Lancer avoided nearly every question asked about his past, hated showing any kind of weakness, was old beyond his years, and didn’t have the faintest idea how to ask for help.
It could be a long night.
Johnny slumped into the couch cushions with a sigh and stretched his legs out in front of him. Scott’s warm arm was gone, but his brother was adding more wood to the fire to take away some of the evening’s chill, and he soon had the flames leaping high again. He watched as Scott sat back on his heels, still staring into the fire. Johnny knew how to wait for an opponent to make the first move, be it a chess game or a gunfight. Or questions from a brother no doubt called home early by a desperate father.
“Do you want some supper?” Scott asked, barely turning his head. “I think Teresa kept a plate warm for you.”
“No, that’s all right. Not really hungry.”
“Then I probably shouldn’t offer you a drink.”
“Nope. Can’t say that would be a good idea.”
More silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Scott finally eased himself to his feet, and Johnny figured his wait was just about over. Joining him on the couch and matching his boneless sprawl, Scott let the silence stretch out a little longer. Johnny didn’t so much as twitch. Another minute, he thought, and Scott would surely crack . . .
“Well, Johnny my lad,” Scott said, his voice quiet, “I leave for a few days, and look what happens. Teresa tells me you’re not eating—which I can very clearly see for myself—and Murdoch said something about not sleeping—again, the evidence is there to see—and on top of all that, I hear you took the day off.”
“Ain’t you just the smart Harvard boy,” Johnny drawled, his voice slurring slightly.
He got an elbow in the ribcage in response. Just a nudge. It wasn’t enough to invite retaliation; it was merely a reminder that Scott was still there and not letting him get by with anything. A slight smile edged its way up one side of his mouth.
Despite himself, he found his eyes wanting to slide shut. Between the heat of the fire and the comfort of Scott’s shoulder almost leaning into his, he felt nearly relaxed enough to fall asleep. Which was quite a surprise, he thought, weary, but fighting it.
“As the smart Harvard man that I am, don’t try to insult my intelligence by pretending there’s nothing wrong with you. Come on, Johnny. You look like hell. I’ve seen healthier corpses.”
Johnny debated several responses to that, and wondered at the sudden odd note in Scott’s voice at those last few words.
“I’m all right,” he said at last, softly, gazing into the fire. At Scott’s sharp intake of breath, knowing his brother was about to argue that point, he added, “Well, maybe not. But I will be. Trust me. I ain’t stupid either. I don’t plan on starvin’ ta death.”
“Then what are you doing, Johnny? Please . . . we’re just worried about you, that’s all.”
“I know. An’ I thank ya for comin’ all the way back from Stockton just ‘cause Murdoch asked ya to.”
He heard a quiet sigh, and saw Scott run a hand over his face.
“Yes, Murdoch wired me. But I really did finish up business early—I didn’t lie to you about that.”
“An’ did Murdoch an’ Teresa agree to git outta here just so we could talk?” Johnny glanced up at Scott, and saw the blond eyebrows lift in what was no doubt exasperation. Somehow, Johnny found himself sliding lower on the couch, and Scott loomed over him, taller than ever.
“Yes, you have discovered all of our nefarious plotting. Now that we have that out of the way, are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
Scott was looking down at him, worry written all over his face. Not only taller, Johnny realized, but definitely a little blurry as well. By now Johnny was leaning almost completely sideways, and since it just seemed like the easiest way out, he decided to fall asleep on Scott.
“Nothin’s wrong,” he murmured. And when the darkness gathered him in, it held a little less terror than it had for too many nights before, because Scott was there and calling his name.
Murdoch finally lost out to his overwhelming anxiety and did his best to creep silently downstairs to the great room. He had been more than a little afraid that Johnny would lose his temper and storm out, even if it were Scott, and not Murdoch, putting him on the spot. But he hadn’t heard any shouting or slamming of doors—but now that he thought about it, perhaps it was a little too quiet . . .
Well, that explained it. He had to smile at the sight that greeted him as he eased his way into the room. Both of his sons lay in a loose-limbed sprawl on the couch, asleep. Scott was sitting up, mostly, and his head was tipped back, his mouth slightly open. Johnny was lying awkwardly, half on, half off the couch, his feet on the floor. His head was on Scott’s leg, and one of Scott’s hands rested on Johnny’s shoulder. Murdoch gave a silent prayer of thanks that Scott had managed to come home so quickly, and that Johnny had found some measure of peace tonight.
He propped himself against the fireplace and studied his youngest son, his smile slipping away. Usually when Johnny was asleep, unguarded, he looked boyish and astonishingly vulnerable. Tonight, all Murdoch could see in his face, a face that had grown far too thin, was a frown and tight lines of pain and exhaustion.
Johnny moaned. Quietly. His head turned, and Murdoch took a step forward, only to freeze. He had promised Scott. He had promised to leave him alone with Johnny, no matter what. Damn! Murdoch ground his teeth in frustration. He only wanted to go to the boy . . . Then Johnny’s head tossed again, eyes still shut, and another soft moan broke the silence.
He had to leave, now, before Johnny woke up. Neither of his sons would thank him for being here to witness this. Nightmares, he thought. Oh, John. Is that what this has all been about? He watched as the frown deepened on his son’s face, and the quiet moan grew louder. He knew Johnny had nightmares, and had woken him out of them more than once. But nightmares had never left Johnny sick and pale for a week . . . Helpless, heart aching, Murdoch cast a last glance at Johnny, shifting restlessly, then Scott, and pushed regretfully away from the wall to go back to his bedroom, to keep his promise.
Scott stirred and tried to move, but the weight across his legs kept him pinned. A low cry jolted him fully awake and he remembered just what—who—it was that lay across his legs. Not long after Johnny pitched sideways on top of him, he had found himself drifting off to sleep as well; and since getting them both up and moving off to their respective beds looked far too daunting a task at that point, he decided to stay put. As a means of avoiding conversation, Scott had to admit that Johnny’s tactic worked pretty well. But now his hand tightened its grip on Johnny’s shoulder as the man began to toss and turn, in danger of rolling right off the couch. The low cry turned into speech, a few muttered words in Spanish, and Scott grew cold as he recognized one of them quite clearly.
“Muerte,” Johnny said again, struggling against Scott’s grasp. Death.
He stared down into his brother’s face, ashen and bathed in a cold sweat, and put his other hand on Johnny’s forehead.
“Johnny,” he said, “time to wake up.” Louder. “Come on, boy, I need you to wake up for me now. Johnny!”
The body under his hands convulsed, then with a gasping indrawn breath, Johnny’s eyes snapped open and looked wildly up at Scott.
“It’s all right,” Scott said, trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re safe, you’re home.”
“Scott?” The word came out as a cracked whisper. Johnny reached up to not quite touch Scott’s hand where it still gripped Johnny’s shoulder. “You really here?”
“I am indeed,” he smiled reassuringly.
“Oh,” Johnny sighed. “That’s good.” He slowly levered himself up, accepting Scott’s help, and sat back with another sigh as his breathing gradually evened out.
Scott got up, too, both to stretch his legs and to give Johnny a moment to recover. He spent a few minutes poking at the fire, adding more wood and fussing with it longer than he really needed to.
“Thanks,” Johnny finally said, his voice quiet and strained.
Scott turned, alarmed at the way Johnny had sagged limply into the couch, head lolling, with his eyes shut again, and that disturbing flash of memory—dream—hit him once more as he looked at his brother.
“You’re welcome. Can I get you a drink? Of water,” he added, as Johnny, thankfully, roused enough to open his eyes and look at him.
A moment later he was back, and he ran a critical gaze over his brother as he handed him a glass of water.
“Thanks,” Johnny said, again, sounding a little less hoarse after draining the glass. “Are ya gonna say anything or are ya gonna just stand there an’ stare at me all night?”
Refusing to allow Johnny to put him on the defensive, Scott came right back. “I rather think you’re the one who needs to say something. Talk to me, brother. And don’t tell me you’re all right, either. We both know you aren’t.”
Johnny pushed himself to his feet, and Scott could tell it was an effort; he was used to his brother moving with grace, with ease, and it hurt to see him struggling—just like it did every other time Johnny was hurt and trying not to show it.
“Just leave it alone, Scott,” he said, turning away. “It’ll pass. Always does.”
“What will pass? Johnny—” He reached out and seized his brother by the arm, swung him around and stared into the pale, drawn face. Growing angrier by the second, he was gripping both of Johnny’s arms now, and he gave him a slight shake. “You are not walking away from me. I care too much about you to let you do that. Let me help. Murdoch’s beyond worried, Teresa’s scared to death, and Maria has started lighting candles for you in the church. Please. Don’t shut us out.”
The dark head drooped. He kept hold of Johnny, but when his brother didn’t fight back, he had to quash the thought that an unresisting Johnny was a very bad sign. His heart sank as he looked down on the bowed head, and his anger fled as quickly as it had flared.
“Johnny, come on, boy. Look at me.” Scott spoke quietly, but firmly, not quite sure how to deal with this strange, passive behavior in his brother, but knowing he had to do something, and do it now.
“Can’t,” Johnny mumbled.
“Can’t what? Can’t talk? Can’t look at me?” Scott let go with one hand and used it to raise Johnny’s chin, forcing him to look up, and met those exhausted blue eyes with his own. Murdoch was right, Scott thought, trying to keep the shock from his face. Haunted. Something else, though . . . shame? Fear? God, Johnny, what’s doing this to you?
The blue eyes slid away, and Scott released his hold only to reach up and tap his brother on the cheek. “Hey.”
“I’m just so tired, Scott,” Johnny said, softly, as though admitting to some horrible weakness. He swayed slightly, and Scott went back to hanging onto him with both hands.
“Time for bed, then. Come on. Let’s talk upstairs.”
This time Johnny did resist.
“No. Not here,” he said, shaking his head. “Not Lancer. Outside.”
Well, you’re not making a whole lot of sense, but at least you’re talking.
“All right,” Scott agreed. “Whatever you say. Where do you want to go?”
And if you can make it past the front door, little brother, I’ll eat my hat. And my boots. Maybe even your hat.
But he had underestimated Johnny’s determination, somehow forgotten his stubbornness, and wryly chastised himself for not knowing better by now—Johnny had broken free of Scott’s grasp and started to take off. Scott managed to persuade his brother to wait for him, giving him just enough time to leave a hurriedly scrawled note for Murdoch to find on the great room desk. After another short detour, he hastened back to where he’d left Johnny propped against the inside of the front door.
Johnny leaned into the door, eyes closed and cheek pressed against the solid wood. Another nightmare had hit him, dammit, and Scott was there to see it all. Well, you wanted him to come home, he told himself sourly, and then you fell asleep—what the hell did ya think was gonna happen, huh? His minor diversionary tactic had only postponed the inevitable. If he hadn’t promised a very stern Scott to stay put, he’d be through this door and somewhere else in no time flat.
He just needed some sleep, that’s all. He’d be fine in a day or two. The ghosts would be back where they belonged. Life could go on again without everybody looking sideways at him, fussing over him, and generally caring way too much . . .
The sound of footsteps roused him from his drifting lethargy. A familiar presence and an arm flung over his shoulder got him to open his eyes.
“Hey, Scott,” he said, the dragging fatigue in his voice painfully obvious even to his own ears.
“Hey, Johnny,” Scott said, softly. “Are you sure you want to do this? And just what, exactly, is it that we’re doing, by the way?”
Johnny fumbled for the latch, his other hand reaching without thought for his gunbelt hanging on the wall, and stepped through the door into the cool darkness. Scott was right beside him, not letting go.
“Johnny?” Scott said again, questioning.
“If ya want to talk, we ain’t doin’ it here,” Johnny said, refusing to be drawn as he led the way to the barn.
Scott kept silent as they saddled up. Scrounging blankets and other gear from the tack room, they left the darkened house behind them. They rode out under a nearly full moon and a scattering of bright stars, accompanied by a background chorus of crickets.
Johnny tipped his head back and breathed deep, wondering just what the hell he thought he was doing out here. He could talk to Scott; he could trust him. He desperately wanted Scott’s help, but he had never spoken of this to another soul, knowing it was a weakness he had to hide. But how much longer could he keep going like this? Scott wasn’t about to let him get by with anything—his brother had made that clear. Brother. What a word. It was a word that barely described everything that Scott had come to mean to him in the last year, and yet it meant more to him than anything he’d ever had in his life.
Trust him. He can help.
He wanted to sleep and not wake up with a scream in his throat. Dios, he just wanted some peace, once and for all . . .
He rode easily in the dark, choosing his way with unerring accuracy and letting Barranca do the rest. Though still on Lancer land after an hour or more, and despite his reluctance to stop, he was weary to the bone and knew Scott wouldn’t keep quiet much longer. His brother had remained remarkably patient with him so far, and a sudden surge of affection and gratitude found him swiping at his stinging eyes.
The breeze that had started as comfortably cooling earlier that evening had since become chilly, and Johnny shivered. The memories and the dreams crowded close in the darkness. Fire, he thought, fire and light and warmth. And Scott . . .
He reined in Barranca after a few moments, and Scott stopped a heartbeat later, turning to look at him.
“Yeah, this’ll do.”
Johnny swung off his horse, surveying his chosen campsite. Not great, but at least the rocks would cut the wind, and there was plenty of deadwood to burn. They saw to the horses before setting up camp, and Johnny was all too conscious of Scott taking note of how slowly he was moving. But Scott kept quiet, and they were soon sitting in front of a blazing fire. Johnny wrapped his arms around his upraised knees, painfully aware of his brother’s unspoken concern and curiosity.
His head ached with a dull throb behind his eyes, his body cried out for sleep, and he could feel the fine tremble in his hand as he reached up to push hair out of his eyes. Now or never, Madrid. Just get it over with.
“Yeah, Boston, I’m here.” He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, and stared into the fire. “Scott . . . hell, I don’t know where to start. This ain’t easy, ya know.”
“I know,” Scott replied. “Take your time. We’ve got all night.” He turned away to rummage in his saddlebags. “Here,” he said, turning back to hand Johnny the bottle he pulled out. “Maybe this will help. Medicinal purposes only, you understand—just a swallow or two. It is not my intention to get you drunk.”
Johnny took the bottle, squinting at the label. “Murdoch know you been raidin’ his whiskey?”
“He won’t even notice.”
“Medicinal purposes, huh?” Johnny helped himself to a healthy swallow, feeling it burn all the way down his throat and into his empty stomach. “Oh, yeah, that helps,” he rasped. He handed the bottle back and watched as Scott took a swig himself.
With the whiskey hitting him like a freight train, he had to put a hand on the ground to keep from falling over. He flicked a glance over at Scott. In the past, he had always handled this himself, without anyone there to pick up the pieces of his shattered soul or even give a damn. What would Scott think of him after tonight? Would he recoil in disgust? Pity?
Well, his instincts rarely failed him; maybe he should pay attention and listen. He pulled his jacket a little closer around him and wondered where to start.
"Start at the beginning,” Scott said quietly.
“Dios, don’t do that!”
“You know what! You’re the one readin’ my mind!”
“Oh.” Scott threw him a smile. “Sorry. But you must admit, it is good advice.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny muttered, rubbing a hand across his eyes. The teasing was as natural as breathing, and that, more than anything, eased away some of the dark pain and despair he had felt these past days.
“So?” Scott prompted, obviously unwilling to put up with Johnny’s silence any longer.
Johnny felt that silence stretch out as he stared sightlessly into the fire. The beginning? He didn’t think so. Not tonight.
“Ain’t been sleepin’ real well,” he said, finally, after holding out his hand for the bottle again.
“I believe we’ve managed to ascertain that, brother. Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Thought you knew everything,” Johnny tossed back, an admittedly weak attempt at a distraction.
Scott just gave him a roll of his eyes that said he wasn’t buying any of it, and that Johnny had better start talking.
“Yeah, all right,” he sighed. Whiskey wouldn’t hurt, would it? He managed another swallow before Scott took the bottle from him. “Just been havin’ a few . . . bad dreams, is all,” he said at last.
“Johnny, I know you’ve had nightmares before, and they haven’t affected you like this.”
A shudder that had nothing to do with the chill breeze went through him. “These are different.”
“Just are, is all.”
“Different how? Talk to me—isn’t that why you dragged me all the way out here?”
“I dragged ya out here ‘cause I didn’t want to talk about . . . this . . . at Lancer. Didn’t want . . . the house . . . or Murdoch or Teresa or anybody ta hear any of this. Wouldn’t be right. An’ it ain’t goin’ no further, Scott.”
“You have my word.”
“I . . . just don’t want ‘em all worryin’.”
“They already are, Johnny, and they will continue to do so until you get over this. Teresa’s right—you’re just making yourself ill. How long since you really slept? Or ate?”
He lifted a shoulder in an uneasy shrug. “Few days, maybe,” he said, reluctant to go any further down that road.
Uh oh. That was Scott’s “no nonsense” tone of voice, the stern big brother voice.
Madre de Dios, but he was tired. Beyond tired. Maybe he shouldn’t have had any of that whiskey—Scott was starting to blur. Both of him . . .
The friendly circle of firelight suddenly felt far too small, and the shadows crowded too close upon his back. He thought he would shatter into a thousand pieces, mind, memory, body, everything gone, and he was just so tired, and all he wanted was to fall into the dark and not wake up . . .
But Scott’s voice was there, still there, and it was calling him back from edge of the beckoning abyss, and he would always answer if Scott called.
“I’m all right,” he said, or thought he did, opening his eyes. Scott crouched beside him, tense, worried, with one hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny was surprised to find himself lying down, his head and shoulders propped against his saddle and a blanket tossed over him. He licked dry lips. “What happened?” he croaked.
Scott didn’t answer, just held up a canteen, and Johnny reached for it gratefully. The water was tepid, but it soothed his throat, and felt mighty fine going down. Several swallows later, he handed the canteen back, and said again, “What happened?”
“You keeled over, boy. Luckily for you, I caught you before your hard head hit the ground.”
He struggled to sit up straight despite the fact that his head still spun; Scott shot him a disapproving look, but gave him a helping hand anyway.
“I fell asleep, huh?”
“If I were feeling charitable, I might say that. No, little brother, what you did was pass out.”
“Yes, I’m afraid you did. When did you eat last?”
“Don’t you dare say ‘I’m all right’ one more time to me.”
“Wasn’t gonna say that.”
“Don’t lie to me, either. Here, eat this.” Scott had reached into his saddlebag again and now unwrapped a hunk of bread and some jerked beef, handing it to him with a glare. “Eat.”
Johnny looked at the offering warily, but took a bite of bread, too bemused to do anything else. It was fresh, and for the first time in days, surprisingly, food did not taste like ashes in his mouth. He chewed slowly, and the bread disappeared, then the jerky, and a few more swallows of water followed.
Passed out. He gave himself a sardonic inward smile. It wasn’t as if he’d never gone hungry before, never gone days without much more than what he could scavenge or beg or steal. Too much easy livin’, Madrid. Faintin’ like a girl just ‘cause ya missed a few meals.
“Thanks,” he said, quiet, embarrassed at this show of weakness, even in front of his brother. He looked up at Scott, who hadn’t moved from his side.
“You’re welcome. Feel better?”
“Yeah, I do.” Scott was not doing very well at hiding his worry, so Johnny tried a smile, and it was a weak one at best. “Wouldn’t have any of Teresa’s chocolate cake in there, would ya?”
Scott grinned back. “You’ll have to ask for that when we get home. I’m sure she’d be happy to bake you one.” The grin faded. “Johnny, we’re not through yet. In fact, we’ve hardly started.”
“Look, I done told ya about the nightmares, that’s why I ain’t been sleepin’ so good. Ain’t been hungry much, but I ain’t gonna starve. What else do ya need ta hear?”
“Oh, only a few little facts,” Scott shot back. “When did these nightmares start? Why now? What will it take to stop you from having them? And what makes them different from the others you’ve had before?”
Surrendering to that persistent inner voice after a long moment, he began, “They . . . they just come an’ go, sometimes.” He studied his hands, now fiddling with the edge of the blanket that lay across him. “Get a bad spell of ‘em for a few days, an’ then they stop. Don’t have any for a good long while, then they hit again. Thought I’d be spared ‘em, here. At Lancer, I mean, ‘cause my life’s so different than before . . .” He drew a deep breath to steady himself before Scott could hear the tremor in his voice. “But they came back, dammit.” He pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes, trying to shove away the pain pounding in his head.
“Easy. Easy, now,” Scott soothed. “It’s all right.”
Throwing off the blanket, he ignored Scott’s protest and wobbled to his feet, stance only slightly shaky, and walked a few paces away to stare into the dark beyond the fire.
“You ever dream of the dead, Scott?” Johnny spoke at last, his voice barely above a whisper, as he searched for a way to put his own private hell into words. “Do ya see ghosts of people ya knew? Some kind of restless spirits . . .” His voice trailed off, and he could feel the hard hammering of his heart. He forced himself to go on. “The kind that come to a man in the night, that call to him of blood an’ death, of no hope or forgiveness, only death an’ darkness forever an’ ever . . .” He shivered again and wondered if speaking of them would give them more power.
He remembered those rare occasions as a child when his mother had taken him to church. Usually, he recalled with bitterness, because she’d sobered up and was feeling guilty and remorseful about one sin or another, and felt a need for some sort of forgiveness. Cynical of the rituals of the Catholic faith even at that young age, he had instead found it easier to believe in and understand the superstitious fears of the simple folk and poor peasants he had grown up amongst. It had become all too easy over the years to believe in the dead, in ghosts . . .
“Dream of the dead?” Scott echoed the question, his reply slow and thoughtful. “Sometimes I dream about . . . the past, and I . . . see . . . men from the war. Sometimes those dreams of the past turn into nightmares that wake me up in the middle of the night, and I don’t know where I am, or what year it is . . .” It was Scott’s turn to fade off into silence, and Johnny could feel his brother studying him.
Johnny forced himself to turn and meet Scott’s eyes, seeing nothing in those blue depths but empathy and compassion. “It’s the dead,” he whispered, and now that the first words were out, he couldn’t seem to stop. “Some are men I’ve killed, others are ones I couldn’t save. My mother’s there, sometimes. She’s always angry with me, shoutin’ . . . The others, they cry and plead, they beg me for help, or they curse me for lettin’ ‘em die. I ain’t no saint, Scott, I’ve killed plenty of men in gunfights, fair. Ain’t a backshooter, though, don’t hold with killin’ a man in cold blood. Always tried to do the right thing, I guess, but it don’t matter, ‘cause I got the dead cursin’ me, an’ I got too much blood on my hands.”
“You’re a good man, Johnny Lancer,” Scott said, firmly, not flinching away from Johnny’s anguish. “If you weren’t, I doubt you’d be troubled by nightmares . . . or the dead . . . in the first place.”
Head bowed and arms crossed tight, Johnny slowly paced around the fire, visions from his dreams leaping in his mind’s eye.
“It’s always the same ones, Scott . . . always the dead, angry an’ cryin’ out, an’ they want ta take me with ‘em . . .” He couldn’t stop the shudder that coursed through him. Then Scott was beside him, his hand on Johnny’s shoulder again, warm and strong.
“Well, they aren’t going to get you,” his brother said softly, “not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Just gonna tell ‘em to shove off, huh?” Johnny gave a humorless laugh. “Tried that already.”
“Then we’ll just have to do it together.”
“Why bother?” he asked wearily. “Too late. I’m crazy, ain’t I? Or damned. Hell, I’m probably both.” He looked at Scott, almost pleadingly. “What about you? How’d you get rid of your ghosts?”
Scott stilled, absolutely. For a moment Johnny thought he stopped breathing. Then his brother shook his head and moved away to poke up the fire, his back to Johnny.
“Scott? Sorry, I didn’t . . .”
“No, no, it’s all right. We are on the subject, after all.”
After a few more minutes of tending the fire, Scott sat back, and Johnny saw the whiskey bottle in his possession once more. He took a drink before speaking, and his voice was almost as low as Johnny’s. “After the war . . . after I got home, I mean . . . I dreamt about it for quite a while. Not every single night, but often enough. Mostly the dreams, nightmares, really, were about men I had served with . . .men who had died, in battle. . .or the prison camp.” He paused to take another swallow of whiskey. Still not looking directly at Johnny, he went on.
“The first time I was home and there was a thunderstorm, I woke up on the floor. I thought it was cannon fire, and I was trying to find a ditch to crawl into. That usually guaranteed bad dreams for a night or two. You may have noticed that I still don’t care much for thunderstorms.
“Anyway, the dreams, the nightmares, gradually disappeared, for the most part. But every so often, I still have one . . . and it’s always the same. It’s one I seemed to have the most, back in Boston, the one that woke me up feeling sick . . . the one that almost made me scream. However, one part of it has since changed, and that scares me even more.”
Johnny just waited, echoes of his own pain resounding in Scott’s quiet recitation. Maybe Scott needed to face his demons just as much as Johnny did . . .
He picked up the threads of his story again after another pull at the whiskey bottle. “And do you know what that part is, Johnny? Since coming to Lancer and meeting you, since having a brother who means more to me than anything, my nightmare has changed into something far worse. Instead of my sergeant dying in my arms in that God awful, stinking hellhole of a prison, it’s you.” His voice growing more ragged, he went on, as though determined to have it all purged from his mind and heart. “Three, four times now, it’s you. The first time it happened, I was so scared, I actually got up in the middle of the night to sneak into your room to make sure you were all right. That must make me at least as crazy as you.” He wiped a hand across his eyes, and added shakily, “So, you see, I haven’t gotten rid of my ghosts, either.”
“I’m sorry, Scott. I’m sorry to do that to ya . . . ” He dropped his eyes.
“It’s hardly your fault, Johnny. I’m just glad you weren’t in that place with me. My sergeant was a good man, and I’m sorry he died there, but he wasn’t my brother.”
“Yeah, well, six years ago, I was raisin’ hell all over Sonora, an’ I’m glad you weren’t there, either. Hand that whiskey over. Since ya ain’t got any chocolate cake in them saddlebags, I might as well have another drink.”
“Only when you tell me when all this started.”
“Scott . . . ”
“Bossy bastard,” Johnny muttered. “All right,” he began, wearily, “I guess I owe ya that, seein’ as how we’re puttin’ our cards on the table tonight.” He turned back to face the darkness again before he went on. “Remember a couple days before you left for Stockton, we were in Spanish Wells pickin’ up a few supplies?”
“An’ that kid called me out. Claimed I’d killed his brother in Tombstone some years back, an’ he was gonna see to it that he got a bit of justice. ‘Eye for an eye,’ he said. I’d killed his brother, an’ he was gonna kill mine after takin’ care of me.”
For a moment there was only the sound of wood snapping in the fire and the sigh of the wind in the trees.
“I didn’t hear that part,” Scott said, the shock evident in his quiet voice. “All I heard was that you’d killed his brother in Tombstone. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Why? What difference would it have made? He drew on me, he’s dead, an’ he ain’t gonna be killin’ anybody now.” Johnny laughed, short, sharp, and bitter. “An’ ya know what? I ain’t ever been to Tombstone. I had to shoot some stupid, fool kid for no reason. How’s that for a day’s work?”
“Oh, Johnny,” Scott breathed, “I’m sorry. But don’t blame yourself. You had no choice.”
He heard Scott get up to come stand behind him, and then his brother was gently maneuvering him back to the fire.
“Come on. You’re freezing. I think another round of medicinal whiskey is called for.”
His teeth were chattering, dammit. He sat as close as he could to the fire without singeing his boots and gratefully took the bottle of whiskey from Scott. “Thanks.” Then he added, his voice dropping lower, “I sure seem to be sayin’ that a lot to you lately.”
“My pleasure. You’re very welcome.” Scott hunkered down beside him. “So why would that man think you’d killed his brother?”
“Ah, hell, who knows? Maybe it was somebody usin’ my name an’ reputation, or the kid got told some story, or maybe he’d just read too many dime novels an’ decided to be part of one. I don’t know, Scott, an’ I’m way too tired to wonder anymore. I’m sorry he’s dead, but I can’t change what happened.” He paused to let some whiskey burn its way down his throat. “I had a . . . dream . . . that night, an’ hell, guess who showed up. So now I got me a new dead man to go along with all the old ones.”
“So . . . the nightmares started after that?” Scott grabbed the whiskey back after Johnny’s third or fourth swallow and had one himself. “Johnny, that was a good ten days ago!”
“Nothin’ good about ‘em,” Johnny muttered, thinking back with a grimace.
“How much sleep have you had in the last week and a half?” Scott demanded.
He shrugged. “Couple hours a night, maybe. Couldn’t get back to sleep after wakin’ up, about midnight or thereabouts, so I’d go for a walk around the ranch a bit. Sometimes managed another hour or two after. Kept tryin’ to wear myself out workin’, but that never really helped, either.” He looked over at Scott. “Fell asleep on you with no problem, though,” he added dryly.
“I noticed,” came the equally dry response. “Well, no wonder you look the way you do, boy. Johnny . . . what did you do about the nightmares before? How many times have you gone through this?”
Johnny sighed. His brother was nothing if not relentless. “First time, I got drunk an’ stayed that way for a week. Found a place to hole up with plenty of tequila, made sure nobody could sneak up on me, an’ woke up with a killer hangover a few days later. That didn’t work the next time . . . Then I tried stayin’ around lots of people. Spent three, four nights in a cantina, playin’ poker. Stayed with a girl . . . ”
“What happened to bring them on those times?”
Honestly, the man was like a dog with a goddamn bone.
“Hell, Scott, I don’t know!” Johnny knew Scott was only trying to help, but he was getting mighty tired of all this talking. How much more of his soul did he have to drag kicking and screaming out into the open tonight? He scrubbed a hand over his face and reached for calm. A couple of deep breaths later, and he opened his eyes to find Scott waiting patiently for an answer. “I don’t know,” he said again, gesturing with one hand. “Anything. Nothin’. Sounds? Time of year? Somethin’, a feelin’ in the air . . . ” He shook his head, knowing just how insane all of that sounded.
“‘I am but mad north-northwest,’” Scott murmured, after a moment, more to himself than Johnny, and then upended the bottle again.
“I ain’t crazy all the time, Scott,” Johnny said, with a slight but very real smile coming to his face. “‘When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’” As he finished the quote, he had the pleasure of watching his brother’s mouth fall open in complete and utter astonishment, and the smile grew to a grin. “What?” he went on, all wide-eyed and innocent. “Ya think I wouldn’t know a line from ‘Hamlet’ when I heard it?”
“What? How? But . . . ” Scott sputtered. “Since when?”
Johnny thought back, enjoying his brother’s confusion. Well, maybe it was worth hauling both their sorry hides out here if he got that kind of reaction from Scott just because Johnny threw some Shakespeare back at him.
“Oh, a few years ago I wound up sharin’ a jail cell with a drunk for about a week, an’ it turned out he was an actor, or had been. Well, when he was awake he spent most of his time yellin’ out all sorts of speeches and lines from one play or another. Of course, I didn’t know that then. When he sobered up, he introduced himself an’ he told me stories an’ plays, then acted out all the parts. I think he was happy to have an audience. Anyway, ‘Hamlet’ was his favorite. I must’ve heard that at least ten times.” Then he added, wistfully, “Always wanted to see it someday, for real, with actors an’ costumes—especially that swordfight at the end.”
“How old were you?”
Scott yet appeared to be in a state of shock, and Johnny felt that silly grin get even wider. Maybe he’d had too much whiskey; maybe they both had . . .
“Uh, maybe . . . fourteen? Fifteen?” He tipped his head sideways, recalling the incident; some messy little fracas in some dusty little town had left him with a black eye and a couple of cracked ribs, and landed him in jail. And he hadn’t even started it.
“You still remember those lines from that many years ago?”
“Well, yeah. Like I said, he probably ran through it ten times. Besides, I liked it. I may not have understood it all, even when he explained it to me, but I understood that it was about revenge, an’ a ghost, an’ a . . . father.” He ducked away then, unwilling to show that particular pain to Scott tonight.
“Actually, it’s always been rather a favorite of mine, too,” Scott said. He went on, loftily. “I’ll have you know that I played the part of Laertes in a production when I was at Harvard.”
“Is that so?” Johnny arched an eyebrow.
“Yes, and I was quite brilliant, if I may say so myself.”
“Uh huh. I bet you were.” He knew full well that Scott had seen right through him, but was pretending otherwise. How had he gotten so lucky to have this man for his brother? Not only his brother, but his friend, as well . . .
Scott was still eyeing him with faint surprise, either from his sudden literary revelation, or because he was looking for sarcasm in Johnny’s last remark. Johnny just let him wonder.
“It’s very late,” Scott said, quietly, at last. “Do you think you could get some sleep?”
Johnny shifted, uneasy again, and longed to do nothing but that. He glanced at his brother. “Am I crazy, Scott?”
“If you’re crazy, Johnny, then so am I.”
“That ain’t exactly the reassurin’ answer I was hopin’ to hear.”
Scott smacked him on the arm, and he felt another smile growing on his face. Oh, I have missed you, brother. I’m right glad to have you home again.
“You are not crazy,” Scott said, firmly. “But maybe . . . maybe you need to let go of those memories of the dead, let those ghosts go back where they belong.”
Johnny cocked his head at his brother and pointed out, “Maybe we both do, brother.” Then he added, “But I ain’t a ghost, Scott. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
This time the hand came up to ruffle his hair. “I know you’re not, thank God, and you had better stay that way.”
Johnny had lost track of the whiskey bottle, but Scott appeared to have his hand on it again. He raised it, and said, “To Sergeant Matthew Martin Connelly. May his soul find peace.” After taking a swallow, he passed the bottle to Johnny.
Oh, what the hell. Couldn’t hurt. “‘And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,’” Johnny quoted softly. He drank off the last of the whiskey, and looked at Scott. “I hope they all find peace, and leave me to mine. I’m tired of not sleepin’.” He thought about that briefly, and added, “Does that make sense?”
“It does, and I don’t even think I’m drunk. Much.” Scott stood up and extended a hand to Johnny. “Come on, brother, time for bed.”
He let Scott haul him up, and with a steadying hand on his arm, led him the few steps back to his bedroll.
“Off with the boots. Gunbelt, too.”
Before Johnny knew it, he was tucked under a couple of blankets with his gun comfortably close at hand. He let loose a long sigh. Between the whiskey and the exhaustion dragging at his mind and body, he figured he was in no shape to resist Scott’s big brothering. With heavy lidded eyes, he watched as Scott added more wood to the fire and made a last check on the horses before turning in as well.
“I’ll be right here,” Scott said, propped on an elbow, only a couple of feet away. “You go to sleep, Johnny. It’ll be all right. I’ll see you in the morning. Go to sleep.”
He met his brother’s intense gaze, and so dearly wanted him to be telling the truth. “Promise?” he said. Sleep tugged insistently at him, but he fought it long enough to hear Scott’s reply. Not that he needed to, he thought, as he finally drifted off. Scott meant what he said, didn’t he, and always kept his word . . .
Scott watched as Johnny at last gave in. About time, little brother. Satisfied after several minutes that the slow, even breathing meant that Johnny really was asleep, he nevertheless continued to study the familiar features in the dancing firelight. Some of the tight lines and the frown had smoothed out in sleep, but the sharp jutting of cheekbone and jaw line in his too thin face was very evident. Not to mention that he still looked grey beneath his tan, and his closed eyes appeared bruised. Well, Johnny, you just sleep. I’m here, boy, and I’m not letting any of your dead take you away from me. Not tonight. Not ever. So you rest easy. I’m here.
He slept himself, eventually, though not deeply. He was always aware of Johnny off to his side, and once when he woke, he saw that his hand had reached out in Johnny’s direction, nearly touching him. But it was not until almost dawn that he heard a sound from his brother. Johnny had scarcely moved all night, but now he began to thrash restlessly, and as Scott became more fully awake, he heard the low moan and some muttered words.
“Not this time,” Scott whispered. He moved closer and reached out to grip Johnny by the shoulder. His other hand grabbed a flailing arm, and he leaned in to put his head next to Johnny’s. “Can you hear me, Johnny? It’s Scott. I’m right here, I’ve got you.” He could see Johnny’s eyes moving rapidly beneath the closed lids, and his breathing had quickened. A few more words in Spanish fell from his lips, but Scott just kept talking, his voice low and calm. “That’s it, it’s all right,” he crooned, as Johnny’s thrashing slowly eased and his head slid to one side. His words trailed off as he saw Johnny’s eyes blink open, and he looked into those eyes, large and almost black in the pale, grey light of a new morning, and hardly dared to breathe.
“Scott?” It was barely a sigh.
“I’m here, Johnny.” He tightened his hold on Johnny’s arm, not knowing what to make of that look in his brother’s eyes.
“Knew you were.” A faint smile came to his face, then, and with another quiet sigh, he said, “Big brother . . .”
“Always,” Scott said. But he wasn’t even certain if Johnny heard him, because the eyes had closed again, and though the smile remained, his brother seemed to be asleep once more. He carefully unclasped first the hand he had wrapped around Johnny’s forearm, and then the one that was fisted in his jacket. He smoothed out the blanket, tucking it in a bit, and finished up with flipping back one stray lock of Johnny’s hair. “I’m still here, Johnny, and I will be as long as you need me.”
Epilogue—Two weeks later
Murdoch watched in silent delight from the windows of the great room as his boys came tumbling in after a hard day’s work. From the barn, Johnny was half running, half skipping—backwards—and Scott was chasing after him, tossing clumps of hay at his head. Johnny dodged adroitly out of the way, and Murdoch could only marvel at the change in him.
Neither of the boys would say anything, and Johnny only remarked, of course, that he was “fine”—so Murdoch left it at that. He knew that Scott had spent a few nights in Johnny’s room, and he had been aware of Johnny slipping into Scott’s once or twice, but whatever had happened that first night when Scott came home seemed to have turned the tide. He could certainly see for himself that Johnny had regained his appetite and boundless energy. Murdoch realized how very much he had missed the sparkle in Johnny’s blue eyes, and he fervently hoped to never see it disappear again.
A shout of victorious laughter told him that Scott had scored a hit while he had been musing, and he looked up again to see Johnny disgustedly wiping dirty hay off of his favorite shirt. Then he threw up his hands in defeat, unbuttoned the shirt and pulled it off, holding the offending garment at arm’s length.
Scott just stood with his hands braced on his knees and laughed. Then he grabbed Johnny around the neck and dragged him into the house. Murdoch smiled and shook his head, and went to meet his boys at the door.
“Murdoch! Look what he did to my shirt!”
“Ah, yes, I see, John. Or rather, more to the point, I can smell what he did to your shirt.”
“Scott!” Johnny yelled. “You owe me a new shirt!”
Scott was still grinning. “I’ll buy you two new shirts. But I have something even better I want to give you, and I think now is the perfect time.”
Johnny stopped waving his shirt in Scott’s face. “What?” he asked, suspiciously. “Don’t know if I want anything else from you today.”
Scott, obviously enjoying his win, let his brother squirm for a moment. “Well, little brother, last week in the San Francisco Chronicle there was a story about a Shakespearean acting company on tour from London, and they’ll be performing in San Francisco for several days.” He paused, just long enough to get Johnny squirming again. “How would you like to go see ‘Hamlet’?”
Murdoch felt his jaw drop at such an outrageous suggestion, and he later said that the shout Johnny let loose stampeded the cattle in the north pasture and had the hens laying their eggs early.
“I guess that means ‘yes’?”
“Oh, yes, it does at that, Boston, it surely does.”