What Happened Next -- The High Riders
Not mine; I feel absolutely no shame in borrowing them, taking them out to play or keeping them forever young! A bit darker, rough Language.
It was still light; late afternoon, and the air was acrid with the smell of gun smoke, the thick haze beginning to dissipate along with the sound of retreating horses. Scott Lancer stood tall and lean above his younger brother, smiling slightly as the younger man pulled himself into an uneasy position against the old tree. He said nothing, waiting for his sibling to speak; almost willing the boy to open up to him.
“That was good shootin’” Johnny’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked up at the man that was standing above him; haloed by the sun at his back.
“Thanks, brother.” Scott smiled, the words coming softly. He watched as Johnny’s eyes betrayed a small flicker of warmth, and felt a need to say more. “We’d just about given up on you, boy,” he murmured.
Johnny’s jaws tightened. There it was again; that word boy. The smile he had been unable to stop slipped from his lips, and he grimaced in pain; the humor still in his eyes; his voice. “Well, you had your plan, and I had mine…”
Scott shook his head slowly, and reached down, only to have his hand pushed away. For a heartbeat there was nothing between them except the sound of their breathing, and then his brother reconsidered. “Take your time,” Scott encouraged, helping the younger man to rise, “take your time.”
Eyelashes fluttering as he tried to focus, Johnny felt himself being gently pulled to his feet. He was standing now, but his legs didn’t seem quite ready to work. Only his pride and his stubbornness kept him from falling, and he took a deep breath. The pain took him then, and he fought to remain in control. “I can make it,” he declared, hoping he wasn’t telling a lie. He waved his brother away.
One step forward; a second step, another smaller one. Two more, not quite so steady. Scott was at Johnny’s side now. He watched his brother’s face carefully, shifting his rifle to his left hand as he moved slightly forward. He could see the pain in the younger man’s face; the slight widening of Johnny’s eyes as he continued to try and focus.
Johnny’s gaze was locked firmly on his father as he willed himself to move forward. He licked his lips, faltering slightly as he took yet another step. His legs were failing him; becoming water beneath him, and he cursed softly under his breath.
Scott bent forward, feeling the dead weight as Johnny collapsed across his shoulder. His brother’s face flashed before him, just briefly, and it hit Scott suddenly just how young his brother looked; how young he was. Nothing more than a kid, he realized; the same angry boy he had seen in their father’s study such a short time ago.
But what he had seen in Johnny’s face just before the boy passed out had not been anger. What he had seen was longing; a longing to end the loneliness in a short life that had been filled with despair.
“Get him up stairs!!” Murdoch opened the front door wide, his cane tossed aside as he began barking orders; moving fast in spite of the pain that was written all over his face. The older man knew his limits, though, and he moved aside as Cipriano quickly reached out to help Scott with his burden.
Scott moved quickly up the stairs, Cipriano at his side; heading directly towards Johnny’s room. He could feel Johnny’s blood spilling across his shoulder; and stared down briefly at the droplets that seemed to fall like large raindrops against the dark treads, the sound coming loud above his labored breathing. It was dripping from his fingers now; and it was growing cold.
Teresa seemed to appear out of nowhere. She moved quickly to the side of Johnny’s bed, shoving it away from the wall toward the center of the room. Already pulling back the blankets, she smoothed the sheets and tossed the thick down pillows to the floor.
“On his stomach,” Murdoch ordered. He shoved his way past Scott and Cipriano, and began tugging at Johnny’s clothes. The short jacket first, which he tossed aside as soon as he had slipped it from Johnny’s arms.
The shirt was a different matter. The once white shirt, which had been such a contrast against his son’s fawn-colored skin, was stained scarlet. There was a bullet hole, just to the left of the younger man’s right shoulder blade; a dark hole in the vivid red river of blood that was spilling across his back and pouring down onto the sheets.
Murdoch tore the shirt away with his bare hands, the fabric yielding to strong fingers; the noise of the shredding material tearing into the silence. “Get Maria! Tell her to bring water and the medical kit.” His voice was rising, not in panic, but ringing with authority. “Send Walt for Sam Jenkins.” He was probing at Johnny’s neck now; feeling for a pulse, his eyes narrowing, his hand disappearing briefly beneath his son’s upper torso. His jaws tensed as he sought out his elder son’s face. “The bullet is still in there, Scott. There’s no exit wound.”
Scott was standing beside the bed, opposite his father, his right hand resting on Johnny’s head. Teresa had already left the room to find Maria, and he looked anxiously toward the dimly lit hallway. He could hear the women chattering in the kitchen below; the sounds of heavy pots clanging against the grate on the kitchen stove. “What have you in the way of medical supplies?” he asked.
balled up the remains of Johnny’s shirt and was pressing it hard to stem the
flow of blood. “Probes,” he answered, “a decent supply of cloth bandages and
padding. Carbolic acid, laudanum; medicinal brandy, whiskey. Maria and Teresa
have a good supply of herbal teas.”
Scott took a deep breath and nodded. He took a long look at his younger brother, canting his head as he counted the ragged breaths. “He’s out, Murdoch, but he’ll feel the pain,” he said. His recollections of the field hospitals came rushing back; along with the even more horrendous memories of the lack of care when he had been a prisoner. “We’ll have to tie him to the bed, Murdoch.”
The elder Lancer nodded, his face grim. “Can you help me?” he asked.
Scott nodded a single time. “Yes.”
Maria and Teresa arrived with the medical kit and basins of hot water. Both women were well equipped for the chore at hand, and they went about their business quietly. Scott reached out, taking one of the basins. He spoke directly to Teresa, gesturing toward the bottle of whiskey she held in her right hand. “Pour some in the basin,” he ordered, “and put the instruments in the water.”
Murdoch had taken the stack of clean linen Maria had brought into the room; selecting a long piece of white flannel. This he tore into four long strips. “Take off his boots, please, Maria,” he said, watching as Scott pulled Johnny’s gun and belt from his waist. The woman immediately set to the task; smiling as she pulled the well-worn boots off to uncover a pair of white socks in dire need of a good scrubbing. The now bare feet were only slightly better.
The two men made short work of their task; anchoring Johnny’s arms and ankles to the four bedposts. Scott was securing the younger man’s right wrist; surprised when his brother suddenly roused and tried to pull away, Johnny’s head rising slightly as he spewed forth a string of curse words in both Spanish and English.
Maria moved to the side of the bed, easing in beside Murdoch to quickly wash away as much of the blood as possible; her movements hurried but gentle. Careful not to dislodge the dark mass of clotted blood that had pooled within the wound, she dried his skin and then moved out of the way.
Scott reached into the still hot water to retrieve the long probe he knew his father would be needing. “Sir?”
Murdoch’s jaws were working, as if he were mouthing a silent prayer. He nodded, curtly. “Teresa, I’ll need you to hold the lantern closer, please.” Once again, his eyes explored his younger son’s body. Without turning to face the woman, he spoke to Maria. The words came with great difficulty. “We’ll need hot coals,” he said. “Fill one of the bed warmers;” he reached into the basin where a finger-thick rod rested, drawing it out and handing it to the woman. “You know what to do.”
Maria left the room immediately.
Reaching out, Murdoch took the still warm probe from Scott’s hand. With his free hand, he wiped at the hole in Johnny’s back, dislodging the blood clot and grimacing as the wound began to bleed. The flow was not as intense as before, and the man was grateful.
Intent on his chore, Murdoch inserted the probe, his grip relaxing as he allowed the spoon-shaped instrument to follow the precise path the bullet had taken, and cocking his head slightly as he listened hard for the sound he hoped would soon come. He had done this before, too many times in the past as he and his men fought to hold this land. His land.
Scott was the first to hear it. He, too, was familiar with the sound. Immediately, he took the second smaller probe from the basin; sweat forming on his forehead as he bent forward and meticulously inserted the instrument right above the one his father was holding in place.
“Nicked the bone,” Murdoch whispered. “I can feel it.” Like his elder son, he was sweating, as much from the effort as from the heat of the kerosene lantern Teresa was holding next to his face. “Got it!” He reached out, his fingers closing around the probe Scott was holding as he used both instruments as make-shift tweezers.
Johnny felt the grinding pain as the bullet was pried from its position against the bottom edge of his shoulder blade, and roused just enough to realize his hands had been bound to the bedposts; and he bucked in protest. The panic seized him. “Get away!” The words came instinctively. “Get the fuck away!!”
Scott’s strong hands pressed hard against the young man’s shoulders, and he watched as Cipriano moved out of the darkness to grab the boy’s legs. “Stay still, brother!” he ordered, his voice softening as he repeated the words. “Just stay still, Johnny,” he crooned. Beside him, he heard Teresa stifle a small sob.
Maria had returned to the room. She was holding the bed warmer in front of her; large heavy pads protecting her hands as she lifted the lid to display the bed of bright orange coals, the tip of the long rod buried deep beneath the glowing embers.
Murdoch pulled the probes free, a contented sigh coming as he dropped the chunk of misshapen lead into the basin sitting at the foot of the bed. Then, bracing himself, he took the extra pad Teresa offered him, and reached for the glowing rod. He dipped it quickly into the whiskey-laced water, the tip glowing bright red but free from ash as he pulled it out; a quick sizzling sound filling the silence.
Scott quickly reached out to stem the flow of blood coming from his brother’s back. He held the thick bandage tight for a brief time, looking across to his father. “Ready?”
Again, Murdoch’s jaws tensed. The layered cloth Scott was holding was already turning bright red with his younger son’s blood. He nodded. “Now,” he ordered. He plunged the tip of the rod into the gaping wound and began to count.
The stench was overwhelming. Johnny writhed beneath the searing hot iron, the sudden shock rousing him to full awareness as his ears were filled with the sound of burning flesh. He screamed, just once, before he bit deeply into his lower lip to stop the shameful outcry; the coppery taste of his own blood filling his mouth as he buried his face in the softness of his mattress. And then he was still.
It was more than Teresa could bear. Wordlessly, she handed the lantern she had been holding to Scott, and fled the room.
“He’s out,” Scott breathed. He pulled himself erect, rubbing at the dull ache in the small of his back; wondering how his father was faring.
Murdoch’s face was etched with not only the physical pain he was feeling in his right hip and lower back; but the emotional strain of what had just transpired. He dropped the still hot cauterizing rod into the basin, seeing the water bubble; hearing the hiss. His hands were shaking now, and he fought to control the tremors. This was his son, his youngest son, and he had dug the bullet from his back with a strange detachment he didn’t understand. Because the last thing was feeling now was detached. He pulled himself straight, an involuntary grunt coming; the pain so intense he almost dropped to his knees.
Scott’s voice roused him from his sudden wave of self-pity as he forced himself erect. “Yes, son?”
“Johnny has another wound,” Scott replied. He was fingering an angry looking furrow just below Johnny’s right rib. “I missed it…” The self-accusation was in his face as well as his words.
“We missed it,” Murdoch frowned. Teresa had returned to the room and was helping Maria clean up; removing the assorted basins, collecting the strips of cloth Murdoch and Scott had used to swab Johnny’s back wound. The bed clothes were a study in shades of pink and red. He reached out, tenderly exploring the newly discovered wound. “He’s going to need stitches,” he observed.
“The last time I looked, Murdoch,” Sam Jenkins marched across the threshold, moving quickly into the room, “I am still the only one here possessing a medical degree.” It was obvious from the man’s disheveled appearance that he had ridden horseback to the ranch; aware there would be a need for his services before Lancer had sent for him. The physician extended his hand.
Relieved, Murdoch smiled. He shook the doctor’s hand; grateful for the man’s courage. Not too many people in Morro Coyo or Green River would have taken the same risk. “My son, Scott,” he said, nodding in the younger man’s direction. “And you already know…”
“Johnny,” Sam breathed. He moved immediately to the bedside.
Scott turned up the wick the lantern he was still holding. “We missed the wound in his side,” he murmured.
Jenkins nodded; his fingers busy. “No wonder,” he said, the words coming softly. “This wound,” he pointed to the hole in Johnny’s shoulder, “would have been my primary concern.” He turned to look at Murdoch. “You did a good job, Murdoch. Don’t let it go to your head.”
Murdoch laughed, softly, appreciating the other man’s dark humor. “And the stitches?”
“Another correct diagnoses. I don’t know why I bothered to come.” Jenkins tried hard to sound cranky, and succeeded. He pulled up the chair, sitting down and opening his bag. Already, he was pulling out the long box that contained his collection of curved, pre-threaded needles. He laid them aside and reached out, checking Johnny’s pulse. When Scott started to untie the strip of flannel binding the boy’s wrist, he shook his head. “Not until I take care of the stitches. I going to give him morphine before I begin; and I want him to be well sedated when we bandage him.” A sudden smile flickered across his lips, and he looked up at the younger man standing across from him. Catherine’s son, he thought, remembering the daguerreotype image Murdoch had shown him of his first wife. He has her eyes.
He took out the metal syringe from his bag, along with a single vial of clear liquid; and measured out the dose he knew would be needed. “Your brother was …” his brows lifted as he searched for the words.
“…was a hellion when he was a toddler.” Murdoch finished for him, wincing as he watched the long needle penetrate his son’s arm. He exchanged a quick look with his elder son. “Sam delivered Johnny when he was born,” he said, laying a broad hand on the physician’s thin shoulder. “He also nursed him through a long list of bumps, bruises, and contusions.”
Scott grinned. “Why do I not have any difficulty believing that?” he laughed. He stuck out his right hand, shaking the doctor’s and quickly letting go. “Someday, I hope you will share some of your Johnny stories, sir.”
Jenkins was concentrating on his work now. The injury below Johnny’s rib -- a graze where the bullet had simply skipped along the bone and exited cleanly -- was certainly not as serious as the bullet hole in his back, but it did require a number of stitches to close the finger-thick gap. He then checked the shoulder wound, deciding to suture only the bottom edge, drawing the skin together and knotting the silk. “Scissors,” he said softly, holding the thread taut.
Scott did the honors. “We’ll need to clean up his bed,” he observed. He felt Murdoch’s strong hand on his shoulder, and allowed himself to lean into the older man’s touch; but only briefly. Teresa was coming back into the room with an arm full of fresh linens.
“You can untie his arms and legs, Scott,” Jenkins said. He dabbed at the furrow he had just stitched; applying an ointment that would keep the skin supple. He used more of the concoction on the shoulder wound as well.
Together, the three men worked to rearrange Johnny on the bed; lifting him bodily from the narrow bunk as Teresa and Maria changed the sheets. Extra flannel padding was spread across the still damp mattress; hiding the blood stains. Then the crisp white sheeting Maria took such pride in.
“His trousers, Scott,” Murdoch urged, unfastening the belts at the waist band. Teresa was at the younger man’s feet, and she began tugging at the legs, pausing as Scott slid his arms beneath Johnny’s buttocks to lift him away from the bed. The young woman tugged again, a short gasp coming as she realized her new step brother was not wearing underwear; the gasp becoming a giggle. Maria smacked her arm and shooed her away, finishing the job.
Scott looked over to where Teresa was standing by the door; smiling as he saw the blush that had reddened the girl’s cheeks. “In my room, Teresa. Top drawer, right hand side in the large dresser. They’ll be too long, but he’s going to need something…” He felt his own cheeks flush as he realized he had purposely avoided using the word underwear.
Teresa exited the room and returned just as quickly with the bottom half of a pair of Scott’s summer long john’s; retreating again to the corner as Scott and Murdoch eased the underwear over Johnny’s feet and up his legs to his waist. Scott had been right; the underwear was too long, and Teresa watched in amusement as Murdoch’s big hands folded up the cuffs to make them right.
Once Johnny was settled, they manipulated him like a rag doll, Sam winding the long strips of muslin around the younger man’s slim frame, starting just above his waist and continuing up his bare chest; adding padding above the two wounds before bringing the bandage up and over his right shoulder. There was some hesitation as Jenkins considered what to do next; memories of Johnny as a hyperactive toddler prompting his decision. Taking another long piece of cloth, he crooked Johnny’s right arm so that it was lying against his chest, and secured it in place. He looked up, and saw the question forming on Scott’s lips. “I don’t want him moving that arm. This,” he nodded at the final strip of bandage, “will keep it stabilized. We’ll try a sling later.”
The careful tending gave both Lancer men and the physician a good look at the youth’s upper torso. Murdoch studied the boy’s chest and back. He knew from the Pinkerton reports that his son had been seriously wounded at least twice in the past; the scar on his lower left side, and a second one through the fleshy part of his left shoulder, close to his neck, silent testimony to the trauma. There was evidence, too, of an unset fracture in his right collarbone; something Sam surmised had happened when he was very young. Green twig fracture, the physician explained as they gently settled Johnny back against the pillows. But other than those scars, the young man’s upper torso was flawless; the muscles well-defined.
It was, Scott mused, looking at his younger brother, like seeing a fine sculpture; Michelangelo’s young David.
Murdoch’s thoughts wavered between relief and rage. He had long feared his son had been physically abused as a child, and was relieved to see that his boy’s body did not bear the scars he had seen on other children who had been maimed and abandoned in the border towns. The rage, however, was another thing. It was obvious that his son -- that Johnny Madrid -- had managed to protect himself; but he did not find that thought entirely comforting. How many men had died, he wondered. How many men had Johnny Madrid killed?
He shook the thought away, his head coming up as Scott called out to him. “Yes, son?”
“Do you want to sit with him tonight, sir?”
Sam Jenkins was packing up his medical kit. “I need to see to the other men, Murdoch.” He looked across at his old friend, choosing his words carefully. “You need to rest.” He nodded at the man’s bloody shirt front; his bloody sleeves. “You look like Hell, Murdoch.”
“Is that a medical opinion, Sam, or a personal observation?” Murdoch snorted. He turned to face his eldest; smiling. “I’m going to change shirts, Scott,” he said. Then, turning, he faced the physician. “And then I’m going with you,” he pointed a long finger at the doctor, “when you look in on the rest of my men.”
Scott hid the smile with his right hand; turning the move into a quick sweep of his long hair. His own sleeves were not exactly clean. “I’ll stay with Johnny, sir. We can take shifts.”
The elder Lancer smiled, recognizing his son’s talent for negotiation. He nodded. “Yes,” he agreed, finally. He was no good to the ranch -- to his sons -- if he didn’t take care of himself; get the rest that had been sadly lacking the last several weeks. “I’m sure that will meet with your approval, Sam?” It wasn’t really a question.
Jenkins was shaking his head. “I learned a long time ago, Murdoch -- in spite of what I tell you regarding your health -- you’ll pretty much do what you damned well please.” He turned and headed out the door; pausing just at the threshold. “I’ve left a bottle of laudanum on the table,” he nodded to the small stand beside Johnny’s bed. “It’s important you keep him sedated for at least the next twenty-four hours.” His brow knotted. “Can you give him morphine if it’s needed?” he asked.
Scott nodded; something that surprised his father. “The War, sir,” he said simply.
Jenkins retraced his steps, reopening his satchel just long enough to take out a smaller syringe and the same bottle of morphine that he had used earlier. “He’s lost a great deal of blood, and we can’t risk either of those wounds opening up again, Scott.” He measured the dosage with his finger, marking the label on the vial with his long thumb nail; and laid both the syringe and the container of morphine next to the brown bottle of laudanum. “Nothing but water for the next full day,” he sighed.
Scott watched as both older men left the room. He looked up, surprised when Teresa came through the door. A clean shirt -- one his shirts -- was folded neatly across her arm, and she was carrying a tray with a covered plate and a small pot of coffee. She also had a book tucked under her arm; the one he had left on his bedside table the night before. He smiled. “Thank you,” he whispered.
She made room for the tray on the table next to Johnny’s bed, and then held out the shirt; laying it on the arm of the chair when he refused. “Anything else?” she asked, pouring him a cup of strong-smelling coffee.
Scott accepted the cup; surprised the tray also had a container of cream and a small porcelain sugar bowl. He shook his head, lifting the lid covering the plate to reveal several slices of roast beef and boiled new potatoes slathered with freshly churned butter. “No, Teresa. I think you’ve taken care of everything I need right now.” He reached out, taking the book.
She smiled, and turned back to Johnny’s bed. “He looks so…” the words faded into nothingness.
“Young?” Scott prompted, taking a long drink of coffee.
She was nodding. “Murdoch has a picture of him; when he was about two. The same dark curls,” she reached out, brushing the hair away from Johnny’s eyes; hesitating as she studied the long, silken lashes, “and pout,” she finished, laughing softly.
Johnny had stirred slightly; had winced just a bit. His lips turned down in a small frown; the expression causing Scott to smile. Teresa was right. He was pouting.
Teresa reached out, patting Scott’s arm. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “If you need anything…”
Scott peered at her over the brim of his cup; feeling the sudden rush as the coffee high hit him. “Sleep well, Teresa,” he smiled. Right now, he could even forgive the fact she still entered his room without knocking.
Scott’s long legs were stretched out before him, his buttocks resting on the edge of the wooden chair seat, the book open on his lap. He shifted slightly, making a mental note to bring another chair into the room; something upholstered. Beside him, Johnny slept.
Twice during the long night Scott had given him water; both times lacing the tepid liquid with a measure of laudanum. The first time Johnny had roused, it had been a terrifying thing. Scott had realized immediately that Johnny’s I always sleep well had been a lie: he suffered his own night terrors, and he knew too well the gut-wrenching fears that could tear at a man’s soul.
He wished now that he understood more Spanish. The fact that he had studied languages -- even Latin -- at Harvard was a help, along with the nine months he had spent in Europe at fifteen; but there was a vast difference, he realized, between the formal Castilian Spanish he had learned to speak, and the Mexican spoken by Johnny and the hands. But some words stuck out.
Muerto. Ayuda. No más… (Dead. Help. No more…)
The second time Johnny awoke, he demanded his pistol. He did not fall back asleep until Scott pressed the weapon into his left hand.
With the first pink light of dawn, Murdoch Lancer came through the door of his younger son’s bedroom. He was not a happy man. “You were to wake me,” he complained. The smile he greeted his son with disappeared when he saw the Colt in Johnny’s left hand.
Scott looked up from his book, hiding the smile. “I couldn’t do it, sir. I went to your room, but you were sleeping so soundly…”
Murdoch held out the mug of creamed and sugared coffee he was carrying, pressing it into his elder son’s hand. “You need your rest as well, Scott,” he scolded.
The coffee was still hot; and Scott blew into the mug before taking a drink. “He came to for a short time,” he said, nodding at his brother. “Twice.” His brow furrowed briefly as he debated saying more. Strange, he thought, this need to protect his new-found brother; to not betray a trust… Then, feeling it would be better to at least prepare his father for what might come, “He had a nightmare,” he said, his voice soft. “He called out in Spanish. The only words I understood were dead, help, and no more.”
Murdoch was standing by the bed, his hands shoved into his pockets; his face a grim mask betraying little emotion as he stared at Johnny’s clenched left hand. His eyes were another matter. There was a hardness in them; the blue almost the color of pale slate as he studied his younger son’s pale face. “And the pistol?”
Scott considered his words carefully before he answered the question; deciding on the truth. “He wouldn’t go back to sleep until I put it in his hand.” Seeing the look on his father’s face, he realized he needed to say more. “It’s not loaded.”
A curt nod from the older man. For him, the issue was not if the weapon was loaded; it was the idea that his youngest son felt the need to have it. “Morphine?”
The younger man shook his head. “No. The laudanum has been enough for now. That will change when he starts coming around; when he’s more aware of the pain.”
Murdoch’s expression remained the same. “You mix it in water.”
Scott moved closer to the bed, his head canted as he focused his attention on his sibling. “For now. It’s been my experience, however -- as someone regains consciousness and remains awake for longer periods of time -- that an undiluted dosage will bring more relief.” Aware of a subtle fluttering of Johnny’s eyes, he reached into the basin at the side of the bed and took out the cloth he had been using to bathe his brother’s face. “Last night,” he said softly, gently wiping Johnny’s mouth, “when you cauterized his wound. He started to scream, and…” He pulled the cloth away from the younger man’s lower lip. “He bit his lip to stop it. Look.”
Murdoch bent forward, one finger lifting to gently probe the cut lip; the teeth marks evident. “He was afraid to cry out,” he whispered.
“Johnny afraid?” Scott snorted. He was drying his hands. “Proud, Murdoch; too damned proud to admit he could be in pain, or that he could need help.” He was thinking of Johnny at the tree after the fire fight. I can make it.
“Gunfighter’s pride,” Murdoch growled. “And arrogance.” Resolute, he reached out and pried the Colt revolver from Johnny’s left hand. He turned away from the bed and strode across the room to the armoire; opening the top drawer and retrieving Johnny’s gun belt. Frowning, he shoved the pistol into the holster, standing for a time as he studied the rig; his fingers caressing the well-worn leather.
Scott surveyed his father through narrowed lids. Choose your battles, he reminded himself. “I’m going to get you another chair, sir,” he nodded toward the stark wooden chair next to Johnny’s bed, “something more comfortable.”
Murdoch’s lips twitched slightly. He started to say something, and changed his mind; beginning again. “You need to get some sleep, son. I’ve already spoken to Cipriano, and he’s begun organizing the crews to clean up the damages. The other men will be coming back now that Pardee’s gone, and we’ll set them to work gathering the horses and cattle.”
The younger man was shaking his head. “Just like that,” he said. He looked across to his father, his face neutral; but his eyes speaking volumes. “You’ll hire them back; the ones who didn’t fight.”
“The men who left had families, Scott; wives and children,” Murdoch declared, his voice even. “I bear them no ill will for wanting to protect their own.”
Scott wouldn’t let it go. “Cipriano stayed; so did his sons. Their wives stayed. And Maria…” He let the rest go unsaid.
“Cipriano has been with me since before Johnny was born. So has Maria. They are more than hired help.” Somehow, it was important to the man his elder son understood his feelings; but there was much he chose not to share, not just yet, maybe never.
There was a noise from the bed; a slight scraping against the stiff sheeting. Both men moved closer to the bedside. Johnny’s left hand tensed, his fingernails slowly dragging across the multicolored quilt that was bunched at his waist. It was clear he was looking for the pistol, and when he didn’t find it, his fingers knotted into a tightly clenched fist. Tentatively, he licked his upper lip, his eyes opening slightly as he sought to gain his bearings. He was hurting, back and ribs; and his mind was muddled from… maybe too much tequila; he wasn’t sure. His gaze swept the room. He wasn’t in jail. A good thing. Wasn’t in a whore house; at least, not one he recognized, the place was too clean. Possibly a good thing. And then it hit him. Lancer. He was in the room Teresa insisted on calling his bedroom. How the fuck had he gotten here?
The full-blown panic came when he realized his right arm was pinned against his body. Instinctively, he grabbed at his upper right arm, just above the elbow; his fingers clawing at the thick bandage. “What the fuck is this?” he demanded hoarsely, struggling hard to pull himself up in the bed. The pain tore into him then, causing him to take in a deep breath that brought even more pain just below his ribs. He was breathing hard now, his left arm still wrapped around his upper body, his fingers kneading the tender flesh; sweat beginning to pour from his forehead.
Murdoch moved to the opposite side of the bed. He reached out, his massive left hand pressing firmly against the boy’s chest; forcing the younger man back against the pillows. “Stay still,” he ordered.
Johnny’s mind was racing. He had heard those same words before, somewhere above the darkness and the pain that had burned through him another time, but they had been softer, gentle; not the harsh voice of this giant of a man who was imprisoning him beneath his strong fingers. “Let me go!” he ground out, renewing his struggle.
“Scott!” Murdoch was now holding Johnny with both hands, one on each shoulder.
His hands steady, Scott poured a measure of undiluted laudanum into the large metal spoon he was holding. “Johnny,” he breathed. “You need to stay still.” Resolutely, he aimed the spoon towards his brother’s mouth.
Johnny swept his head to the side, his jaw connecting with his brother’s outstretched hand; the laudanum spilling onto the bed. “Fuck off!” he snapped. He continued struggling against his father’s grasp, pushing hard in opposition to the hands that held him.
Scott put down the spoon. He exchanged a long look with his father and turned slightly, reaching back to uncover the syringe and the vial of morphine. Surreptitiously, he loaded the syringe, pressing the plunger to clear the air from the chamber. He turned back to the bed.
Johnny was still fighting his father; his right shoulder bunching as he attempted once again to sit up; the fingers of his left hand now digging into this father’s upper arm. “Goddammit, Old Man; let me go!”
He felt the pinch then, and the sudden bee-sting poke of the needle as liquid fire spread beneath the bare flesh of his upper right arm. Panicked, he turned to face his brother; another stream of curses coming as he watched the syringe empty and the plunger was fully depressed. “You son-of-a-bitch!” he roared. “You fucking son-of-a-bitch…”
The effect of the drug was almost immediate. He felt himself beginning to drift, sinking in to the abyss where his hidden demons lay, his tongue becoming thick as he tried to protest; the words refusing to come.
Scott put the empty syringe back on the table; turning away just long enough to cover the small tray. Then he turned back to the bed, bending down until his lips were next to his brother’s ears. He had been very careful when choosing the dosage; using only enough of the drug to calm his brother, and knew Johnny could hear him. “No more fighting, brother. You can do this the hard way, or you can do it my way; but you will stay still.”
Murdoch released his hold on his younger son, watching Johnny’s face closely as the boy yielded to his brother’s voice. He could see the struggle behind the sapphire blue eyes, the hardness that first appeared; like two blue marbles, cold and devoid of emotion. Then, something else. Confusion, perhaps; suspicion, and -- just before the eyes closed -- a flicker of reluctant acceptance.
Scott stood up. The fatigue showed plainly in his face now; dark circles beneath both eyes. “He’ll sleep now,” he whispered. He turned back to the table; picking up the syringe and wiping it off. Hesitating, he looked across to where his father was still standing; looming tall above the bed. “I’ll refill the syringe,” he announced. “If he refuses the laudanum, then you’ll have to give him another injection.”
The older man looked at the long needle, his eyebrow raising. He’d read about morphine; knew the potential for addiction. “He’ll take the laudanum,” he said, his tone firm.
Six hours, he mused; he had been sitting beside Johnny’s bed for six hours. It had been eighteen hours since he had dug the bullet out of his son’s back. Murdoch stood up and stretched, grateful that Scott had brought the large over-stuffed chair from his bedroom to replace the uncomfortable bench-like thing that had originally sat beside the bed. Johnny was still sleeping. There had been only one small break in his slumber; a sudden outcry in Spanish. Murdoch’s first instinct proved right. He had reached out, placing his hand on the boy’s forehead and smoothing his hair; crooning to him in the language Johnny had spoken when he first cried out. It had worked. The trembling eased; the young man’s breathing returning to normal.
“Agua,” he croaked. “Water.”
Roused from his musings, Murdoch sat back down in the chair and gently lifted his son’s head away from the pillows. He picked up the glass and allowed only a single sip, noting the grimace of pain, and pulled the tumbler away.
“More,” Johnny demanded.
Murdoch put the glass back down on the table, and picked up the bottle of laudanum. “Medicine first,” he countered. He filled the spoon.
“No.” Johnny was staring straight ahead. “Fuck, no!”
The older man closed his eyes, and just as quickly reopened them. “Laudanum, or morphine,” he stated. It was clear from his tone that he was offering no other options.
“Don’t need it,” Johnny spat. It was a lie, one often told; usually with great success.
This time it wasn’t working. Murdoch was shaking his head. “Don’t want it, you mean,” he snapped.
“Don’t fucking need it!” Johnny again, through clenched teeth.
Murdoch reached out, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand closing tightly around his son’s nose and pressing against the boy’s forehead. When the younger man gasped for air, he shoved the spoon into his mouth; keeping the boy’s nose pinched until he swallowed. “What you need, son,” he pulled the spoon free, “is a proper dosing with a bar of soap to clean up that mouth!”
Johnny’s eyes were watering; as much as from the pinched nose as the bitter taste of the medicine that burned against his throat. He was about to let loose with another string of curses when he felt the glass press against his lips. Instead, he took a long drink of the water.
The door leading to the hallway opened, and Scott stepped into the room. He had bathed and changed clothes; and was looking reasonably refreshed. “Maria asked me to tell you lunch will be ready soon,” he announced. He crossed the room, taking his place at the end of his brother’s bed; his hands wrapping around the wooden foot board. The grin came slowly. “So, has he been good?” he ventured.
Murdoch snorted. “No, he has not! He did take the laudanum, however.”
Johnny’s gaze swung from his brother, to his father. They were talking as if he wasn’t there. Worse, as if he were some kid to be seen and not heard. “Yeah. Well, see if I fuckin’ take it again,” he declared.
Murdoch’s frown deepened. “I’ve warned you about that mouth,” he barked. “I won’t have you talking like some border tramp, not in this house!”
The smile came slowly, Johnny’s eyes narrowing, and he turned his head to face his father. He’d hit a sore spot, and he intended to keep the advantage. “Well, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Old Man?” The sarcasm dripped like honey. “Border tramps?”
Scott immediately stepped forward and in two long, quick strides was between his brother and father. Murdoch was on his feet, his arms rigid at his sides; his fingers flexing. Ordinarily, Scott was a tolerant and patient man, but his demeanor was quickly changing. He stood above his sibling, his hands folded across his chest; painfully aware that his father was standing so close he could feel the man’s breath hot against his neck. “That was uncalled for, brother. Apologize.” It was a command, not a suggestion.
Johnny’s head snapped up. He stared hard into his brother’s face, his eyes, seeing for the first time the true measure of the man that stood before him. He’d seen Scott’s bravery before; in Morro Coyo when he had been confronted by Pardee’s men; at the river’s edge that second day when he had faced down Johnny Madrid; again, when he had left the safety of the walls surrounding the great house to lead the fire fight and drag him to safety, and that final, brief time when he had stepped in front of him to take down Pardee.
Scott was no coward. He was also not a man, in spite of his easy good humor, to be trifled with.
The younger man lifted his left hand to his mouth, wishing he could wipe away the words he had just spoken. He hated owing anyone anything; but the truth was, he owed Scott. Still, it was hard. In his entire life -- that part of his life he actually remembered -- he had only apologized to one other man, and that man had been his mentor.
His jaws tensed, and he gave a curt nod, finally tearing his gaze away from his brother’s face; those eyes. “Sorry.” Just the single word, but said meeting his father’s glare head on.
Murdoch nodded tersely, but remained silent.
It was Scott that finally breached the stalemate. “Lunch, sir?”
Scott settled into the chair beside the bed. He leaned back, saying nothing, choosing instead to study his younger brother’s profile; relentless in his scrutiny. Nothing escaped him; his sharp eyes taking in everything that lay before him. What he saw was a bundle of nervous energy, and a mind that -- in spite of the drugs -- was constantly working; planning. He’s going to run, Scott thought; as soon as he’s able, he’s going to run.
Johnny would never run from fear, the young man realized; not fear of physical danger, or even the threat of death. In fact, Scott had the sickening feeling that, somehow, his younger brother would welcome death, an end to his life as he perceived it. It would, he realized, explain Johnny’s recklessness and his choice to confront Pardee’s gang on his own.
The single word, spoken softly, roused Scott from his musings. “Yes, brother?”
Johnny smiled. Ol’ Boston sure liked tossing that word around; brother. “About you tellin’ me to apologize to the Old Man…”
Scott nodded, soft laughter coming. “Oh, you mean that eloquent Sorry? You, little brother, are a master of understatement!”
The younger man was picking at the stray threads on the quilt; plucking them loose from the seams. “Where I come from, sayin’ you’re sorry is a sign of weakness,” he breathed.
Laughter, again; but not the same as before. “And where I come from,” Scott countered, “it’s a sign a man is mature enough to admit when he’s been out of line, or that he’s made a mistake that needs to be corrected.”
Johnny’s mouth tightened, his eyes narrowing; the blue hidden by the dark lashes as he stared down at his hand. “I don’t make mistakes, Boston.”
Scott reached out, laying his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “So you got yourself shot on purpose?”
Unable to stop himself, Johnny laughed. It was a good sound; filled with humor. “Fuck you!”
“Our father is right, you know. A bar of soap may be in order if you keep talking like that.” There was absolutely no doubt in Scott’s mind that his younger brother’s use of vulgar language was just one more ploy to get under Murdoch’s skin.
“Sorry,” Johnny mocked. It was getting harder and harder not to like the man that sat beside him; his easy humor and his soft words. “Brother.”
Scott was about to reply when the door opened and Teresa entered the room carrying a tray. A thick gravied beef stew and biscuits for Scott along with a glass of lemonade; a cup of medicinal herbal tea and a mug of broth for Johnny.
Johnny at least had the good grace to say nothing until Teresa left them. He was vocal in his protests. “Jesus!” The broth was tasteless; a thin concoction of over-cooked chicken, only small traces of the fat that would have given it flavor floating impotently above what appeared to be nothing more than hot water. And the tea… Johnny took a drink; his eyes widening as the bitter liquid attacked his taste buds and beat them into submission. He coughed, wincing at the pain in his ribs. “Horse piss!” he croaked.
Scott dabbed the corner of his mouth with the checkered napkin; hiding the smile. “And just when, little brother, did you actually partake of equine urine?”
Johnny eyed his brother, seeing the warmth -- the humor -- and fighting a smile of his own. “Actually, it’s probably the Old Man’s scotch I’m thinkin’ of.”
This time, Scott couldn’t hide the smile. “Right.” Then, becoming serious. “You need to finish it; all of it,” he said, nodding at the still full cup and mug. “Sam’s orders, and Maria and Teresa intend for you to follow them.”
The younger man shrugged. He began fidgeting. “Boston.” His head came up slowly, and he managed to look distressed. “I need to piss,” he whispered.
Obligingly, Scott put down his bowl. He dropped to one knee, his long arm sweeping beneath the bed. When he got back to his feet, he was holding the chamber pot. “Need help?” he smirked.
“No!” Johnny held out his left hand, expectant. “If you don’t mind,” he snorted, indignant. He nodded toward the door.
Scott placed the porcelain vessel on the bed, close to his brother’s left hand. Then, picking up his bowl and glass, he headed for the door.
Johnny waited until he heard the latch snap shut. His first thought was to try and get up, but -- for once -- he knew better. The pain beneath his ribs was tolerable -- he’d had worse -- but the wound in his back was another matter. There were times, when he moved wrong; it felt like the hot poker was still there. Inhaling, he decided to make do.
The cup of tea went into the pot first; followed by the tasteless broth. To make it look good, he left just a bit of tea in the bottom of the cup; an even smaller amount of liquid in the mug. Then, because he didn’t feel like lying to his brother, he did himself proud and took a good healthy leak. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but he managed.
Scott came back into the room; the pungent scent of urine heavy on the air. He brushed a hand beneath his nose; grimacing. “Now that,” he grinned, “I could believe is horse piss!”
Johnny smiled. “Toss it out the window, will ya?” Teresa’s herb garden was just below the corner window.
“I think not,” Scott replied. Dutifully, he picked up the pot and -- holding it well in front of himself -- carried it to the door. He turned back to his brother. “I’ll be right back,” he lied.
Murdoch was at the bottom of the stairs when Scott appeared on the landing. One foot on the bottom step, he looked up, smiling slightly when he saw the chamber pot. “Isn’t that a little bit above and beyond, son?” he teased.
Scott nodded. “I think he’s feeling a bit better, though; enough that he’s trying to be clever.” He reached the landing, looked into the pot, and then held it out before his father. The contents were suspiciously dark. “One part tea, one part broth, and one part Johnny,” he calculated.
The older man’s eyes narrowed. He waved the offensive odor away; or tried to. “I trust you will dispose of that, Scott?”
The younger man nodded. “And you, sir?” He already knew the answer.
Murdoch was heading for the kitchen door. “I’ll be upstairs with your brother,” he answered.
Johnny leaned back against the pillows, his jaws tensing as he fought the pain. He needed to move; if nothing more than sweeping his legs apart and then together, shifting slightly to relief the tenderness in his butt. Worse than the pain and the restlessness; he was feeling trapped. Reaching up with his left hand, he finger-combed his hair. It was a pointless gesture. The dark curls tumbled back down across his forehead; spilling across his brows. He tried again, finally giving up as he let his head fall back into the comfort of the thick down.
The long lashes fluttered, moth-like, and then opened. Murdoch was standing above him; looking even taller as he loomed above the bed. Johnny took a quick look around the room. “Where’s Scott?”
There was a noise as Murdoch cleared a space on the bedside table; shoving the empty cup and mug aside as he replaced them with full vessels. “Outside disposing of your tea and broth,” he answered.
Johnny sucked in the corner of his mouth, chewing a bit on his lower lip, fighting the need to laugh. “I took a leak,” he shrugged; his face and eyes radiating pure innocence.
Murdoch eased himself into the bedside chair. He reached out to the table and picked up the bottle of laudanum and the spoon. As he had done before, he measured out a generous dose. “I’m not going to tolerate any more foolishness, John. You are going to take your medicine, and you will drink the broth and the tea; just as Sam has instructed.”
“And if I don’t?” The younger man’s face was now filled with the same belligerence as his voice.
It was an amazing thing, Murdoch thought; his younger son’s ability to shift from one emotional extreme to another. “Then Sam will come back here sooner than we planned, and he will introduce you to one of his more unpleasant methods for dealing with recalcitrant patients.” He held out the spoon. When Johnny clamped his mouth shut, he continued. “What he will do,” the older man intoned, “is force a length of rubber tubing up through your nose and down into your stomach. He will use that tube to force feed the broth and the tea; as well as the laudanum. Is that what you want, John?”
Johnny snorted. “You’re full of shit, Old Man!”
Scott chose this particular moment to slip through the door. He had heard the tail end of the conversation. “No, he’s not,” he announced. “I’ve seen it done, Johnny. You won’t like it, but if that’s what it takes to make you well…” His right eyebrow arched.
The younger man’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. Just as quickly, Murdoch slipped the spoon between his teeth. Johnny gagged, and then swallowed. “Water!”
Murdoch handed him the cup of tepid tea. “Drink.”
Johnny grimaced. He took a deep breath. He’d drink the goddamned tea; and the goddamned broth. Anything to get himself back on his feet, out of this room; away from his fuckin’ Old Man and his pain in the ass brother.
Sam Jenkins stood by Johnny’s bed. It had been ten days since he’d last seen the young man; a busy time for the doctor who had spent long days and even longer nights treating the many injured who had survived Pardee’s raids on the smaller farms and ranches beyond Lancer.
Three Lancer hands were still recovering, their injuries not as severe as the younger Lancer son. But the boy had been lucky. Two of the estancia’s vaqueros had died.
Johnny was quiet; and it was clear from the expression on his face he was thinking, and thinking hard. “Need to ask you a question, Doc.”
“You got a rubber tube in that bag?”
Surprised, the physician nodded. “Yes.” He reached down into the satchel, withdrawing the coil of black rubber and holding it up so the younger man could see. “It’s used to dispense liquids and medication to patients who…” the light suddenly went on, and he smiled, “…refuse to do what the doctor orders.” He should, he supposed, feel guilty about the small lie; but he didn’t. It wasn’t the first time a parent had used him as a scapegoat, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Satisfied the younger man believed him, he put the tube away.
Johnny considered the man’s words; filed them away. Skillfully, he changed the subject. “So when can I get up, Doc?” He was flexing his right hand; his right arm finally freed from the bandage that had secured the arm to his chest.
“What’s your hurry, Johnny?” The physician gestured for the young man to lean forward again. Slowly, he began to unwind the long strips of cloth from around the youth’s chest; taking his time as he neatly rolled the bindings, knowing Maria would wash the bandages before storing them away. He was frowning as he reached the final layer of dressing that rested just above the thick padding on the younger man’s back; his fingers probing at the dark circle of dry and semi-dry blood. “Don’t move,” he ordered.
Sam straightened, turning back to the basin on the bedside table; taking his time as he soaked the large sponge. Wringing it out, he moved again to the younger man’s side; using the swab to dampen the bloody bandage, prying it loose.
It was the same with the bandage just below Johnny’s ribs. There was more dried blood; more evidence that the younger man had not remained still as ordered.
Murdoch came through the door, Scott right behind him. “Sorry we’re late, Sam. It’s taking longer than we anticipated, getting things back in order.”
“Which one of you has been allowing him to get out of bed?” Sam’s voice was grave, his lips set in a grim line as he deposited the last strip of bandage on the floor at his feet. He nodded his head at Johnny, who had pulled the multi-colored quilt up around his bare chest.
“What?” Murdoch’s face colored; the single word coming whisper quiet.
“He’s pulled the stitches from the wound below his ribs, and there’s drainage from the wound in his back.” The physician removed his glasses; his jaws tensing as he used the front of his shirt to polish the lenses.
Murdoch swore; the quite damn! somehow sounding viler than his son’s usual obscenities. Quickly, he moved to Johnny’s side, pulling away the covers for a closer look. “We haven’t allowed him to get out of bed, Sam! In fact,” he shook his head, his hand going to his son’s shoulder, “both Scott and I made it perfectly clear he was to stay put.”
Johnny tried to pull away, and felt his father’s fingers tighten. “Let go,” he ordered.
Scott was moving around the room, opening and closing drawers; slamming them shut as he rummaged through their contents. “Where’s your pistol, Johnny?”
The younger man’s head dipped against his chest, but not before his brother saw the smirk. He shrugged. “How the fuck am I ‘sposed to know, brother? It kinda disappeared after I got shot!”
Disgusted, Scott slammed the top drawer shut, and stalked over to the bed. He moved with the speed of a coiled rattler, reaching out with his right hand to grope beneath his brother’s pillow. When he withdrew his hand, he was holding the pistol. It was loaded. “There’s only one way this pistol got beneath your pillow, little brother, and it wasn’t the tooth fairy!” He shoved the weapon into his waist band. “You’ve been getting out of bed,” he accused.
“So?” Johnny’s head came up as he met his brother’s gaze. Uncomfortable with what he saw in the man’s eyes, he turned to the doctor, and then to his father; and then back to Scott. “Give it back,” he ordered.
“You don’t need it, John.” This from Murdoch.
“It’s who I am, Old Man!” The words were filled with insolence, and something more than anger. A challenge; as if he was throwing down some unseen gauntlet and daring the older man to pick it up.
Murdoch’s fist slammed against the top of the bedside table. “Not here. And not in this house!” he roared.
Scott’s face was a mirrored reflection of his father’s. He was every bit as angry as the older man, but for different reasons. He removed the pistol from his waistband, held it up for a moment, and then slid it back beneath his brother’s pillows. “I’ll…” he hesitated, exchanging a quick glance with Murdoch, “we’ll leave it here for now,” he bargained. “But if you get up again before Sam says it’s all right, Johnny, I’ll take it away and personally put it somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine.”
It was, Johnny realized, a promise and not a threat.
Sam Jenkins watched the contest of wills between the brothers, and smiled. “I’ll need to change the bandages,” he announced. “And then, Johnny, I want you flat on your stomach,” he reached out, removing the top most pillows; leaving the one covering the pistol, “for the next twenty-four hours.”
Reluctantly, and refusing any help, Johnny turned over. He slipped his right hand beneath the pillow, taking comfort from the feel of cold steel beneath his fingers, and closed his eyes.
“He used to do that when he was a baby,” Murdoch said, watching as Sam Jenkins restitched the wound on Johnny’s side. “Make a fuss, and then go right to sleep.”
Jenkins nodded. “I remember,” he breathed. He replaced the bandage, this time using gauze pads and only a single length of cloth. Finished, he stood up. “He’s got a bit of a fever; nothing to be concerned about. But he does need to stay off his feet.”
Scott was cleaning up the litter. “How long?”
“A full day,” the physician answered. “And then you can get him up.” He looked across to where Murdoch was standing. “Downstairs, with both of you helping him,” he purposely spoke a bit louder; somehow sensing Johnny was merely catnapping and could hear him. “He needs to get out of this room. And it wouldn’t hurt him to be outside, as long as you keep him close to the house.” He nodded toward the door, a clear indication he wanted to speak to both older men privately.
Murdoch led the way as they exited Johnny’s room, Sam and Scott right behind him as they headed down the hallway to the stairs. Not one word was spoken until they reached the Great Room.
“Drink?” Murdoch was at the table, pouring himself a healthy measure of Talisker’s.
“Brandy,” Sam replied. He eased his long frame into one of the overstuffed chairs, sighing a bit as he leaned back.
Scott poured his own drink; a second for the physician; handing the doctor the snifter. “So how is he?”
“Remarkably well, considering,” Sam answered. He took a drink, welcoming the bite of the alcohol; feeling the sweetness as it coated his tongue and slid down his throat. “He’s young.” He closed his eyes a moment, rubbing the back of his neck and stretching.
Murdoch could sense a but. He said the word aloud. “But?”
Sam’s face was unreadable, and he could feel both men watching him. “But he is his own worst enemy. He needs time to heal properly; to recuperate. Time, medicine and continuing care; at least for a while. ” He shook his head. “I don’t think he realizes just how close he came to dying.”
Scott was leaning against the back of the couch, his buttocks resting on the thick cushioning, his long legs crossed at the ankles. “He knows, Sam,” he said, staring into his brandy. “I just don’t think he cares.”
Murdoch had taken his usual seat behind his desk, the chair squeaking slightly as he rocked back and forth. “Madrid,” he growled, his jaws tensing. He looked up to see his son staring at him; reading the disapproval in the younger man’s eyes. “It’s Johnny Madrid that doesn’t care. About any of it.” He gestured with an outstretched arm, toward the room; toward the land beyond the room.
“Then you’re just going to have to change that, Murdoch.” Scott’s voice carried more than a bit of recrimination. He was tiring of the game; the see-saw, back and forth wavering of his father between concerned parent and judgmental god. “He did come back.”
The chair stopped squeaking. Murdoch’s elbows were firmly planted on his desk, the tumbler of scotch rotating between his hands. “And if it’s too late?”
“Too late for what, Murdoch? For whom?” Scott shoved himself away from the couch.
Sam Jenkins finished the last of his drink. “I’ll be going now,” he announced. Without another word, he picked up his medical bag and headed for the door. Neither man took notice of his leave.
Murdoch looked up at his elder son. Scott was standing in front of the desk now; militarily erect, his expression remote. “Sit,” the older man ordered.
“I prefer to stand, sir,” came the reply; the words clipped, precise.
Something in Scott’s eyes stirred Murdoch to his very soul. “Please, son. Sit down.”
A small smile touched the younger man’s lips, and he complied. “I repeat, sir. Too late for what, and for whom?”
“Johnny,” Murdoch answered. When Scott attempted to speak, he held up his hand. “He needs to decide, Scott. Johnny Madrid, or Johnny Lancer.”
Scott’s jaws tensed, and he took another drink of his brandy. “And if he needs our help in making that decision? To become Johnny Lancer?” To become my brother; your son?
Murdoch put down his drink. He lifted his right hand to his face, as if to wipe away the deep frown that marred features that seemed hewn from granite. “Fifteen, Scott. That’s how old he was when he was first called out. And God only knows what he had done before that.”
“God, or the Pinkertons?” Scott asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “How long have you known?” There was something accusatory in his tone, and he made no attempt to hide it.
There was a scraping sound; wood against wood, as Murdoch opened the bottom right hand drawer of his desk. He reached inside without looking, and lifted out a thick, pressboard folder. “Two years ago,” he said, his forefinger thumping against the file folder, “a Pinkerton agent in Sonora reported seeing a young, blue-eyed mestizo pistolero.” He smiled, but there was no warmth in the grimace. “He told Johnny who he was, that I was looking for him.”
At this, Scott’s right eyebrow cocked. “And?”
“It seems your brother has known for some time that I’ve been looking for him. He got the Pinkerton man drunk, took his horse and gun, and disappeared.” He pushed the folder across the desk, flipping it open to the pages he had read and reread more times than he cared to remember. “Your brother is very good at disappearing. Like his mother.” The last three words came through clenched teeth.
Scott had the folder in his lap now, and he was reading. It was a game he could see his brother playing; cat and mouse, a boy toying with men and prevailing. What he found most disturbing was the fact that his brother had known his father was looking for him, and had chosen not to be found. “Maria,” he said finally. “He believed what she told him; that you had thrown them out.”
It was Murdoch’s turn to be surprised. “What?”
Scott sat staring into his drink for a brief moment, as if the answer was inscribed in the bottom of glass. The words, however, had been written indelibly into his heart, his very soul. He inhaled. “‘Do you want to know what he did to my mother?’” he began, the words coming softly, “‘He gave her the keys to the road one day and said ‘what’s your hurry’, and just a minute, don’t forget Buster here.’”
Murdoch’s face blanched, and then turned a dark red; the blood vessel in his temple beginning to throb. “That’s a lie,” he ground out. “A god-damned lie!”
The younger man straightened in the chair. It was the first time he had ever heard his father curse. “It’s what Maria told him,” he said. “He told Teresa and me, that day by the river, when he and I fought. I saw his face when Teresa told him the truth. It’s all he’s known, Murdoch; the lies his mother told him.”
Silence again, broken only by the sound of the two men breathing. Murdoch’s color had returned to normal, his eyes betraying the gut-wrenching pain that was tearing at his soul. He had been so blunt that first day; so adamant in his declaration: ‘I don’t care what you heard. It’s past, and gone.’ And he had been wrong. “What are we going to do, Scott?”
“Get him well,” the younger man answered, “and move on.”
It sounded so simple. “He’s been Madrid for a long time, Scott. Maybe too long.”
Scott was shaking his head. “It kept him alive, Murdoch; being Johnny Madrid. I don’t understand the why of it, but it did keep him alive.”
“They were going to kill him,” Murdoch said. “He was a hair breadth away from dying in front of that firing squad.” The thought still sickened him; his son dying in some god forsaken hole and buried in an unmarked grave.
“You found him in time,” Scott responded. “That should count for something.”
Murdoch drained his glass. “I hate it,” he said, making no effort to hide the vehemence. “That my son felt he had no choice but to live by the gun.”
“Life is always about choices, Murdoch. I chose to enlist, and to fight in a war. I knew I would have to kill, and I did.” There was something other than remorse in the younger man’s voice; regret, but no guilt.
The older man closed his eyes briefly, considering his son’s quiet declaration. “I was a deputy marshal for a time,” he murmured. “I know what it is to kill, Scott.” He was quiet a moment. “I carried a badge, but -- truth be told -- I killed for money.” When he saw the look on his son’s face, he continued. “Bounty money, Scott. For two years, it’s what kept this ranch running; what provided the extra cash to keep on looking for Johnny.”
“You went after men who were wanted by the law,” Scott reasoned.
Murdoch laughed. There was no humor in the sound. “I went after men with rewards on their heads. The last one was a sixteen year old boy who wanted to make a name for himself, to become a pistolero…” The words drifted off into nothingness.
Scott stood up. “Like Johnny,” he said finally. It was a sobering thought.
He’d been good. Well, as good as he could be and still stay sane. Now he was sitting outside, his ass end feeling every crack, every flaw in the wooden bench where Scott had planted him. Might as well have been wearing a collar and a leash, the way Teresa and Maria watched him, and Scott and the Old Man hadn’t been much better. Followed him everywhere, even to the jake.
“Getting restless, brother?” Scott reached out, tapping Johnny’s shoulder; smiling broadly when the younger man looked up. He should have scolded him for not wearing the sling, but he didn’t.
“Past restless, Boston,” Johnny grimaced. “When’s Sam coming?”
“You asked me that question five minutes ago, Johnny. The answer is still the same. He said to expect him in time for lunch.” Scott sat down next to his brother, his fingers reaching out to tap the younger man’s holster. “You plan on shooting him if he shows up late?”
Johnny laughed. “You ever notice how he manages to get here just before lunch, or when we’re about to sit down to supper?” He stretched, flexing his right arm; grimacing a bit when he felt a slight twinge in his back, just to the left of his right shoulder blade.
Scott didn’t miss the flicker of pain. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” It was Johnny’s standard answer, no matter what he was feeling.
“You better practice that poker face, brother,” Scott warned. “I saw that wince.”
“Gonna tell?” Johnny was swinging his legs.
“Maybe,” Scott answered.
“I’ll shoot ya,” the younger man smirked. He turned, flashing a rare smile. It happened more often now, the blue eyes dancing.
Scott smacked him across the belly with the back of his hand. “No you won’t.”
Johnny sighed. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a pain in the ass, brother?”
The laughter came then, the good-natured laughter that came so easily for the older man. “You. About every five minutes since you’ve gotten better.” He stood up, turning to look down the road toward the Lancer arch. “Sam’s coming,” he announced.
“‘Bout time,” Johnny snorted. His stomach growled. “Hope T’resa fixed somethin’ special.”
Scott shook his head. Johnny’s appetite was becoming a thing of legend with the women at the estancia. What he couldn’t wheedle from Maria and Teresa, he scrounged from the ranch cook shack or Cip’s wife, Elena. And he was always hungry.
“Scott. Johnny.” Sam Jenkins stepped down from his buggy. He reached beneath the seat and took out his medical bag, pausing for a long moment as he surveyed the younger boy. “So, has he been good, Scott?”
Johnny was on his feet now, right behind his brother. His lips barely moved as he whispered in his brother’s ear. “I’ll shoot you in the ass, Boston, if you tell.”
Scott moved forward and shook the physician’s hand. “Well, Sam, there’s good, and then there’s good,” he laughed. He turned slightly, and gestured toward the front door. “Shall we? Maria’s prepared a grand feast, and not even one tamale!”
Together, the two older men headed for the door; Johnny trailing behind them. “Feast, my ass,” the younger man complained.
“Fried chicken,” Sam chortled as the door opened and the smells from the kitchen filled the air.
Murdoch stepped into the hallway. “Sam,” he greeted. “Just in time for lunch.” He watched as the man hung up his hat, his gaze shifting to his sons. Scott had already removed his gun belt and was hanging it on one of the pegs, next to Murdoch’s weapon. “Johnny.”
The physician braced for what he thought was coming. Johnny’s pistol had been a bone of contention between father and son, ever since the boy’s recovery. He started to speak, only to find himself silenced by the elder Lancer’s stern look.
“We agreed, Johnny. Not in the house.” Murdoch’s tone was firm yet gentle; surprisingly paternal.
Johnny was struggling. It was still hard for him, yielding even a bit to this giant of a man who seemed determined to bend him to his will. “Yeah. But it’s not like we took a vote,” he groused.
“Would you care to repeat that, John?” Murdoch again, his voice even softer.
The boy’s head dropped, the dark curls hiding his eyes, but not the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Nope.” He unbuckled the belt, and hung up the gun.
The meal had been a leisurely affair, the conversation pleasant and unhurried. Finally, it was over. Sam excused himself, his hand resting briefly on Johnny’s shoulder. “Are you ready?”
Johnny scooted back in his chair. He was past ready. Already unbuttoning his shirt, he headed for the stairs. Scott trailed behind him, Murdoch and the doctor bringing up the rear as Sam detoured slightly to retrieve his bag.
“Jesus, Scott, you’d think it was a fuckin’ prayer meetin’.” Bare-chested, the younger man crossed the room and plopped down on the edge of the bed.
“Be good, little brother,” Scott cautioned.
Sam smiled, enjoying the easy banter between the two younger men. Silently, he poked and prodded, nodding his head as he checked both wounds; noting only a slight tenderness in the back wound, but saying nothing.
“Well?” This from Murdoch, who was trying hard not to hover.
Johnny was fidgeting, his right leg dancing up and down. “C’mon, Doc; am I goin’ live, or what?”
The physician cocked his head. “First, there are some ground rules we need to discuss,” he began. “Light chores, to begin with. No heavy lifting for a while,” he tapped the younger man’s shoulder.
“Can I ride?”
Scott inhaled, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. “Johnny…”
Murdoch interrupted his elder son. “Sam, I’m not concerned about his ability to do chores,” he smiled, “at least not right now.”
“You can ride, Johnny.” The doctor raised his hand. “Nothing too rigorous, and no more than a few hours a day to start. No roping.”
The younger man smiled. He shot a quick look at his older brother, well aware of what Scott’s current chore had been. “No diggin’ post holes?”
Sam laughed. “No post holes. Yet.”
Johnny was already buttoning his shirt. He stood up, heading for the door. He stopped just long enough to grab his brother’s arm. “C’mon, Scott. Race you to the barn.”
Murdoch followed his sons through the door into the hallway. He watched in awe as his youngest son hoisted himself up onto the banister, and shoved off. “John!”
He had risen early, before the family had even made it to the kitchen table for breakfast. Heading directly for the barn, saddlebags over his arm left arm, he disappeared into the dark interior. There was still some minor pain in his shoulder when he saddled Barranca, but not enough to deter him from what he intended to do. This would be the first time since Sam had given him permission to ride he would be riding out on his own, and no one was going to stop him; not Scott, and sure in Hell, not the Old Man.
Scott tapped lightly on his brother’s bedroom door, waiting a brief moment before trying again. When there was no response, he opened the door, stepping across the threshold and cursing softly when he saw the room was empty. Johnny’s saddlebags were gone from the corner, and he swore again. He took a quick look at the bed, reaching down to pick up the large pillow, and smiled.
From the bottom of the stairs, Murdoch bellowed for his eldest son. “Scott!” He was heading out the front door when the younger man joined him.
Johnny was already galloping toward the arch. There was a subtle move as he touched his heels lightly to the big palomino’s sides, the animal spreading full out, dropping into the rocking-chair run that ate up the ground beneath him until the long grass was nothing but a blur; a sea of green. Johnny dropped low in the saddle, relishing the feel of the sun and the wind on his face.
They sailed over the first fence, Johnny rising slightly in the saddle then settling in as the big horse picked up speed. The second fence, and then they were in the open, miles of open land rising to meet them as they raced the wind.
Murdoch stood in the front yard, Scott right beside him. “Where is he going, Scott? For God’s sake, where is he going?” The big Scot was frowning, his heart in his throat as he saw horse and rider jump a downed tree. Within him, he felt a very real dread; that his son was leaving, and he was not coming back.
Scott smiled. “Not too far, Murdoch,” he answered.
“What?” the older man scowled.
“He didn’t take his pistol,” Scott answered. The pistol and holster were still under Johnny’s pillow; right where Johnny had left them. He watched until his younger brother became nothing but a small, bright dot on the horizon.
“He’s late.” Murdoch stood on the front porch of John Randolph’s office; Teresa and Scott standing at his side. There was an edge to the older man’s words, something more than concern, almost fear. He was angry with himself for not insisting Johnny ride with them in the surrey; that he had not forbidden his son to ride Barranca.
“He’ll be here,” Scott said, no doubt in his voice. The smile came then, as he turned and saw Johnny and Barranca; the palomino loping easily down the street before dropping into a brief, bone-shaking trot.
Johnny swung down from the saddle, unhurried as he looped the reins around the single, wrought iron hitching ring, and gave the horse a final pat. He stood for a moment, his head pressed against the palomino’s arched neck, and then let go.
He was wearing the pistol. Slung low, resting easy against his right hip; the rawhide tie-down knotted at his inner thigh. Mounting the stairs, he exchanged a quick glance with his brother and Teresa, his jaws tensing as he swung his gaze to his father. His fingers tapped the pistol’s walnut grip, and then dropped to his side; the words coming whisper soft. “It’s who I am, Old Man.”
Murdoch gave a single curt nod, the frown deepening, but he said nothing. Instead, he turned, guiding Teresa through the office door.
Scott reached out, his fingers locking around Johnny’s right arm as he pulled him close. “But is it who you want to be, Johnny?” he asked softly.
Together, the Lancer brothers entered the attorney’s office. Teresa stood back, smiling tentatively as Johnny took his place slightly behind her. He leaned against the large cabinet, chewing on the storm string that held his Stetson in place at his back, watching as the attorney unfolded the single sheet of paper Murdoch had shown them that first day. It seemed so long ago now; and yet it had only been slightly more than a month.
Randolph picked up a pen from his desk, dipped it into the inkwell; tapped off the excess ink, and handed it to Scott. “Sign here,” he instructed.
Scott took the pen. He smiled across at his father and then signed, shoving the paper back across the desk. It was Murdoch’s turn now.
Again, the lawyer spoke, handing the pen to the big Scotsman. “Just above your name…”
Murdoch struggled with his cane, finally tucking beneath his arm. He signed the document and stood back, watching as the attorney turned to face Johnny.
“And you, sir,” the older man smiled, offering Johnny the same pen his father and brother had used.
Johnny shoved himself away from the cabinet and moved toward the desk; stopping when he heard his father speak.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Oh, Mr. Randolph, uh… I should have told you. That last name should read John Madrid,” he hesitated, glancing at his younger son, “…not Lancer.”
Randolph nodded. “I can fix it in a minute,” he said, preparing to cross out the third name and make the correction.
Johnny inhaled, squaring his shoulders as he exchanged a brief glance with his older brother. “No,” he said, taking the pen. “Let it stand.”