Murdoch heard the buggy pull up outside and smiled. Sam was right on time, and not a minute too soon. It was getting harder and harder to keep Johnny inactive. It had only been a month since the trial, three months since they watched him hover between life and death, and his stubborn son was already pushing himself too hard. Desperate to return to life as he remembered it…but still months away from a full recovery, Johnny was coming dangerously close to a relapse. Everyone but Johnny could see that he was not ready.
The decision to move Johnny’s bed and all his belongings to a downstairs bedroom so he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs had been met with overt hostility…just one more thing yanked from his grasp…but now he was using it to his advantage, wandering further and further each day. The last two weeks had seen a war of words between the stubborn patient and even more stubborn doctor, and thankfully, so far, Sam Jenkins had won. Murdoch could only hope that he would be successful once again.
But he could tell that Sam was tiring. Murdoch no longer saw the spark that used to gleam in the doctor’s eyes when he went head to head against his most willful patient. Sam had seemed to age by the week. His niece Maggie’s betrayal had crushed him to the core…and Murdoch feared they were losing him.
Sam never spoke Maggie’s name, never talked about the hell she had put him through…the hell she had put them all through. But he didn’t have to put into words what they all could read in his eyes every time he looked at Johnny…guilt. Sam could not get past the fact that he had invited her here to Lancer…had stood shoulder to shoulder with her while he so desperately fought to save Johnny’s life as his niece did everything possible to see that Johnny died. All in the name of research for her damn story.
Well, today Murdoch was going to put a stop to it. He was going to sit down with his old friend, open a bottle of his best bourbon and get stinking drunk if he had to. They were going to get to the bottom of this…he was going to see that Sam understood they held nothing but respect for him…and that he had nothing to do with Maggie’s actions.
As he opened the door, Murdoch was surprised to see a stranger standing before him.
“Can I help you?” he asked, more gruffly than intended. The man squared his shoulders, obviously taken off guard. He was tall, nearly six feet by Murdoch’s estimation. Probably in his late forties by the look of his graying temples and salt and pepper mustache. He wore a tailored black suit and carried a black bag resembling Sam’s medical bag.
The stranger offered his hand cautiously. “Dr. Arnold Garner. Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch nodded, accepting the handshake.
“Dr. Jenkins described you perfectly.” Dr. Garner read the confusion on Murdoch’s face and cleared his throat nervously. “You don’t know do you?”
“Dr. Jenkins is retiring. He sent out a notice last month looking for someone to take over his practice.”
“Sam…retiring?” Murdoch felt like he was punched in the gut, more from disappointment that Sam had said nothing to him than surprise. “He never said…”
“He seems quite adamant about his decision. It appears he has just grown too tired to continue. I’m not surprised; he has a lot of patients spread across a large territory. There should be at least two doctors caring for a case load this size. Now, if I can take a look at your son I can be on my way to check on the rest of Dr. Jenkins…my…patients.”
“Yes, of course. Johnny’s in the barn.”
“In the barn? What in heaven’s name is he doing out there? Dr. Jenkins went over your son’s case with me very thoroughly. Truthfully, I find it amazing he survived. He must surely still be feeling the effects of such an ordeal. Doesn’t he know that he could push back his recovery if he doesn’t limit his activity now?”
“He knows, doctor.”
“But it appears you don’t if you let him wander around a dirty barn. Mr. Lancer, any minor infection could become serious in his depleted condition. And a blow or fall of any kind could reopen that puncture in his liver. It takes months for an injury like that to heal. By all accounts, he should be resting in bed. To tell you the truth, if he had been my patient I would have insisted that he be admitted to a hospital immediately and kept there until he was fully recovered.”
Murdoch smiled. “Where are you from, doctor?”
“St Louis. But I have practiced in both New York and Boston…I interned at an excellent hospital…I am a very qualified doctor…or else Dr. Jenkins would not have accepted my offer to take his practice over.”
“I’m sure you are, Dr. Garner. But things work differently out here. Men here tend to be very impatient patients. You’ll find if you don’t let them run a little they will buck and do themselves more harm. The only way to ‘handle’ Johnny is to give him enough rope to play with, but not hang himself. If you keep that in mind you will get a lot further than trying to tie him down.”
“I will not mince words when it comes to my patients or their families. And you will find in time that I can be as stubborn as your son or Dr. Jenkins. Now, shall we go see my patient?”
“I’ll get him.”
“That won’t be necessary, I’ll go with you. I want to see exactly what he’s up to and what’s he capable of.”
Murdoch led the way thinking that if Johnny were a rock, then Dr. Arnold Garner just might be that proverbial hard place.
“Yer gonna brush the hair right off his hide if’n yer not careful,” Jelly grinned from ear to ear as he watched Johnny brush Barranca. It was a plain pleasure to see the boy on his feet again. But even the fifteen minutes of stroking his prized palomino left Johnny sweating and winded. Everyone, including Johnny, knew he was doing too much too soon, but that was the boy’s nature, and it would’ve been easier to stop the flow of the Mississippi than change Johnny Lancer’s nature.
“You best be getting back in the house a’fore yer Daddy comes looking fer ya. He was darn near ready to explode when he found ya here yesterday.”
Johnny laid his forehead against Barranca’s smooth silky mane. “I know, Jelly, but don’t worry about the old man, I can…”
“You can what?!”
Johnny spun around at the unexpected voice and his leg buckled beneath him. If not for the firm grasp he had on Barranca’s mane he would have gone down.
“Damn it, Murdoch, don’t sneak up on a man like that,” Johnny shouted.
“You know very well if you were well enough to be out here you would have heard me coming before I left the patio. Now I think it’s time you went back in the house. Besides, you have a guest.”
Johnny looked past Murdoch to see a stranger standing in the barn entrance.
“Don’t know him,” Johnny clipped.
Murdoch stepped closer, wrapping his arm around Johnny’s waist. “Let’s get you inside and I’ll make the introductions.”
Johnny allowed Murdoch to wrap his arm around his waist as he hobbled toward the hacienda. It killed him to have to admit that he still needed help from anyone…but at least he didn’t feel he lost face when it was Murdoch or Scott…and especially if it was Jelly.
Murdoch steered Johnny across the courtyard and into the house heading straight down the hallway to Johnny’s “new” bedroom instead of the great room where Johnny wanted to be.
Johnny balked, but his father easily guided him into the room and helped him sit on the edge of bed. Johnny sighed heavily, knowing Murdoch was right. His bad leg burned with every step he took, making him clench his teeth to control the groan that threatened to escape his lips. And his good leg trembled with fatigue even though he had been up less than an hour. He felt betrayed by his body and by his emotions. He felt himself falling into a deep depression and fought every minute to hide it from his family. They had gone through enough already without burdening them with the dark thoughts that swirled around in his mind every time he lay down. He needed to be up and around to combat those thoughts…and if it meant resorting to pain medication to stay up longer he would do that. He made the decision to discuss it with Sam when the old doctor came for his weekly visit this afternoon.
“You’re out on your feet,” Murdoch admonished. “You get some rest…but first there is someone here to see you.”
Johnny looked past his father at the stranger hovering in the doorway. There was something about the man that Johnny instantly disliked. Perhaps an arrogance about him…Johnny didn’t like arrogance. Either a man was as good as he thought he was, in which case he didn’t need to flaunt it, or he was a fool. In the world he came from a fool was soon dead.
“John…” The man stepped into the room and approached the bed too quickly. Instinctively Johnny reached behind him for his gun resting in its holster that hung from the bedpost.
“That won’t be necessary, Johnny,” Murdoch said hastily, stepping between Johnny and Garner. Murdoch didn’t take his eyes off Johnny as he addressed Garner. “Would you give us a moment?”
“Of course.” The stranger was visibly shaken. “I’ll be right outside.” The door closed and the sound of the latch catching echoed in the too quiet room.
“What’s going on? Who is that guy?” Johnny finally demanded. A sheen of sweat shone on his face and his complexion had paled. He was overdoing it and Murdoch lowered his voice.
“His name is Dr. Arnold Garner…he is Sam’s replacement.”
“Sam’s replacement? What do you mean, Sam’s quitting?”
Murdoch nodded. “It seems so. He put out an announcement a few weeks ago to find someone to take over his practice…Dr. Garner is our new doctor.”
“Like hell he is!”
“Johnny, a lot of things have happened recently. If Sam feels like he needs to move on who are we to stop him?”
“We’re his family,” Johnny spat back. “You always say family sticks together. When the going gets tough, the family gets tougher. Well…I ain’t gonna let Sam leave without a fight.”
Murdoch sighed heavily. “Neither am I. But first I want you to let Dr. Garner examine you. You have been overdoing it all week. Then this afternoon Scott and I will ride into town, have Sam come out here and we’ll all discuss his plans. But Johnny…if this is what Sam really wants then we don’t have the right to stand in his way. Agreed?”
“He blames himself for all this.” Johnny’s eyes dropped to the white bandage peaking out from beneath his unbuttoned pant leg.
“I’m sure it had a lot to do with his decision. But it’s not your fault…it’s Maggie’s.”
“I’m just a constant reminder.”
“For now. But that won’t be the case for much longer…as long as you follow his instructions.”
Johnny nodded, resigned to the fact that Murdoch would not leave him alone until he let the new doctor have a look. “Bring your new doc in, I know he won’t leave until he’s poked and prodded me half to death.”
Murdoch had to laugh as he opened the door. “You can come in now, doctor. Johnny promises to behave.”
Dr. Garner eyed him suspiciously. “Do you mind removing that gun from your son’s reach? I’m not accustomed to having my patients pull a pistol on me.”
“The gun stays,” Johnny said coldly. “I promise not to shoot you, unless…”
“Johnny, be nice,” Murdoch warned.
Johnny closed his eyes. “Well let’s get this over with, I promised to help Jelly with the tack this afternoon.”
Johnny allowed Dr. Garner to push and prod, answering his questions truthfully. But when it came to examining his leg Johnny took a deep breath and held the sheet beneath him with white knuckles. The gesture was not lost on either Murdoch or the doctor.
“There is still a lot of inflammation here, and I’m not convinced that there may not be some infection imbedded deep in the tissue. I don’t want you to put any weight at all on this leg for the next two weeks, minimum. If you must move around you will need to use the crutches Dr. Jenkins gave you.”
“It’s either the crutches or I get my way and you stay bed ridden for the next two weeks…you decide.” Dr. Garner waited for Johnny’s further protests but when he got none he continued. “I’m sure Dr. Jenkins explained your condition and the consequences of not listening to orders, but I will refresh your memory. Your liver was damaged, and it takes time for it to heal. Meantime you are susceptible to infection. Wounds that would heal in a couple of weeks will take much longer…if you were to cut yourself it would take longer to stop the bleeding. Your leg is a prime example. If you are not careful you could develop blood poisoning. If you think I am trying to scare you, I am. Listen to your body, it is trying to tell you to rest…you are weak, and will remain weak for some time to come. It will take a long time to recover from the kind of injury you sustained. I know patience is a hard thing to practice when you are an active young man…but the consequences of not following my orders could be far worse. Do we understand each other?”
Johnny nodded. He would play along for now. Once he had a chance to talk Sam into staying things would be different.
“Dr. Jenkins has his ways and I have mine. You will obey my instructions or I will not treat you. Is that understood?”
“He understands,” Murdoch said, laying his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder. “He will follow orders or I will personally hog tie him to this bed.”
Dr. Garner raised an eyebrow. “Why do I think that you are not joking, Mr. Lancer?”
“Because I’m not, and Johnny knows it. Isn’t that right, son?”
“He would like nothing better,” Johnny grumbled.
“Good. Now I’m going to leave sleeping powders for you. I want you to take them at night. Sleep is essential to help get your strength back. I will also leave pain medication which I want you to take when you feel the need. Lastly, I want you to stay off your feet as much as possible for the next week…at least. That means no trips out to the barn. You can get up and eat with your family but that’s it. I’ll stop by in a couple of days to see how you’re doing. Any questions?”
Johnny shook his head, privately seething with anger…the man rubbed him the wrong way. They would be butting heads, he knew…not today though. First he had to convince Sam to stay then he would give this arrogant…so called doctor, a piece of Johnny Lancer’s mind.
“Very well, I’ll be on my way then.” He turned to Murdoch. “See that he uses the crutches and try to keep him in bed as much as possible. If you need me just send someone to my office. I plan on having my patients come to me if they can…Dr. Jenkins was much too liberal with his time. Good day gentlemen. I can find my way out.”
Johnny and Murdoch watched the door close. “We can’t let Sam leave, Murdoch. There’s no way he’s gonna make it around here.”
“I have to agree with you, son. But for now, you do as he says and Scott and I will ride into town later.”
Johnny closed his eyes as Murdoch pulled the blanket up to his shoulders. He had a lot to say to Sam when he saw him again.
Sam Jenkins sat back in his chair and stared at the medicine cabinet that dominated nearly one full wall of his office. It had started out as two shelves, holding only the most basic medical needs…how it had grown over the years.
For thirty years he had called this office home. When he first came to Green River it was no more than a dot in the middle of nowhere. A saloon and an undertaker…Ole Zachariah Turner worked as bartender, doctor, dentist and undertaker…
What made Sam stay there he never really knew, perhaps he was just tired of not having roots. And soon the town began to grow. Then Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells followed. A brash young man, fresh off the boat from Inverness settled on land not far from Morro Coyo and a friendship began that lasted through the good times and the bad.
Now he was tired. Not just in body- but in soul. It was time to step down and let someone else take over. Someone who had not been beaten down by the land, or the senseless brutality that was a way of life here.
He had held far too many babies in his arms, smacked the life into them just to see them die before their time. That had nearly happened to Johnny Lancer…and the cause sat squarely at his doorstep. He had invited Maggie to Morro Coyo…he had brought her to the Lancer ranch…he had unknowingly contributed to her plan to kill the boy. How could Johnny ever forgive him for what he had done…how could he ever forgive himself?
No, it was time to move on. He hoped Murdoch would understand. His old friend of thirty years…the man he had stood shoulder to shoulder with through the heartache as well as the joy. He would miss him. He would miss Scott, and especially he would miss Johnny. The boy had gotten under his skin. He was so needful in so many ways. Not in the ways you could see…but beneath the armor he wore, beneath Johnny Madrid…
He heard two horses stop in front of the office and he knew it was Murdoch and Scott come to talk him out of what he knew was inevitable…he was leaving.
“Murdoch, Scott…I’ve been expecting you.” Sam motioned them over to his desk where a bottle of whiskey and three glasses sat waiting. “Have a last drink with me?”
“That’s what we came to talk to you about, Sam.” Murdoch took his hat off and tossed it carelessly across the room, landing just where he wanted, on top of a chair filled with medical books. That chair had never been used for anything other than books and Murdoch’s hat for more years than Murdoch could remember.
“You’ll have to teach me to do that, sir.” Scott smiled. “That is if Sam stays around long enough for me to practice.”
Sam filled the glasses nearly to the brim and carefully handed one to each of the Lancers. “Sorry, Scott, but I won’t be staying that long.”
“So we heard.”
“You met Dr. Garner.” Sam took a sip of the whiskey and grimaced as it burned his throat. “He’s a good man, if you give him half a chance.”
“It won’t be easy to fill your shoes, Sam.” Murdoch downed the whiskey in one gulp and set the glass back down on the desk. “You know Johnny was pretty upset when he heard that you were planning on leaving. And he’s not the only one. You have a lot of people who will miss you if you go.”
“There’s a time for leaving, for all of us. It is just my time.”
“Why, Sam?” Scott asked point blank. “Because of Maggie?”
“Partly…and because it’s time. I’ve been here thirty-five years. Its time I saw a few places before I leave this world.”
“I can understand that,” Murdoch said. “And if I thought that was the truth I’d take you to the train station myself. But I don’t believe you, Sam. I think you can’t face Johnny anymore. I think you are so filled with so much guilt that you can hardly take a breath. I think you are taking the coward’s way out.”
“How dare you!” Sam crossed the room and picked up a heavy file from the pile of files on another chair. “This is Johnny’s. It’s almost as good as Maggie’s journal. I looked through it the other night…all the clues were there…if I had only opened my eyes I would have seen what she was doing…I could have saved Johnny so much pain…but I am too old to see it…he…you all deserve someone younger.”
“That’s a bunch of bull and you know it.” Scott spat. “If you think your leaving is going to help Johnny then you’re wrong. He needs you now…more than ever. He’s starting to fight his confinement. He’s going to bolt anytime now.”
“Johnny said Dr. Garner was arrogant…you know there is no one better at reading people than Johnny.” Scott took the last sip of his whiskey. “He’ll fight Garner to his own detriment. You know Johnny better than most, you know what I’m saying is true.”
Sam nodded sadly. “I know, Scott. But…please just respect my wishes. I have to leave. I have a ticket on Thursday morning’s stage for Stockton. From there I’ll decide which way to head. Who knows, I may find a quiet little town like Green River used to be and live out my life in quiet solitude.”
Murdoch snorted. “That will be the day.”
Sam ignored the gibe.
“Will you at least come home with us and say goodbye to Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch, I can’t do that. You can tell him. He will understand eventually. I left all my notes and files on all my patients with Dr. Garner. He is especially aware of Johnny’s condition and needs. He will take good care of the boy.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the office until Murdoch finally cleared his throat. “All right, Sam, we will respect your wishes. I think you’re wrong…and when you realize it, know that you have a home to come back to.”
“Thank you, Murdoch. Tell Johnny I am sorry for everything.”
“We will.” Murdoch extended his hand to Sam and pulled his old friend into a tight embrace. “Take care of yourself, Sam. The years haven’t always been good ones…but they were made easier with you by my side.”
“Sir…” Scott held his hand out next. “Three years isn’t half long enough to know a man…but it is to know a friend…take care.”
Sam nodded and watched two of the most important people in his life walk out the door and out of his life. He hoped he was doing the right thing. He looked down at his hands, old and wrinkled…but still strong and steady. These hands were a gift…but he didn’t have the heart to continue using them. Slowly he turned back to his desk and poured another glass of whiskey and held it skyward. “To the life that most men could only dream of…”
Johnny waited impatiently for Murdoch and Scott’s return. He had a lot to say to Sam when he got there and he hoped the old doctor would return with his brother and father. He couldn’t believe that Sam could just leave like this. Wasn’t he always the one who said if it was worth having it was worth fighting for? Wasn’t he the one who insisted Johnny stay when things got tough with Murdoch…stay and fight. And now, what was Sam doing? He was running. And all because he felt guilty about something that was not his fault. Well, he had a few choice words for Dr. Samuel Jenkins. One thing about being stuck in bed…it gave a man plenty of time to think.
He heard two horses enter the courtyard, but no buggy. Sam must have been busy and would stop by later or tomorrow. Sam didn’t know it, but the longer he took to get there the more time Johnny had to think.
Johnny heard the sound of one pair of boots walking down the terra cotta hallway toward his door. He didn’t need to see Scott open the door to know who it was. Scott’s steps were much lighter than Murdoch’s. And he didn’t need to ask the outcome of their meeting with Sam, he could read it all over Scott’s face.
“He’s not coming today?” Johnny asked.
Scott shook his head, sitting down on the chair facing the bed and sighed deeply. “We tried, Johnny. But Sam is adamant. He is leaving…catching the stage on Thursday.”
“Without coming to see me first?” Johnny couldn’t believe how much that hurt. He thought there was more to their friendship than that.
“I’m sorry. I know how much you wanted to try to talk him out of going. I guess that’s why he decided not to come. Sam has a hard time saying no to you.”
“Where’s he going?” Johnny asked softly. Scott could see Johnny sink deeper into the mattress. This was a big blow to Johnny…he only hoped it wasn’t too big. Johnny’s recuperation depended on his physical as well as mental well being. If he became any more depressed…something Scott had noticed lately…there could be serious ramifications.
“He says he doesn’t know, that he’ll decide when he gets to the train station.”
“And you just let him go?!” Johnny was sitting up now, his anger broiling. “You didn’t try to stop him?”
“Of course we tried to stop him. But he’s a grown man, Johnny, he can make the decision if he wants to go or wants to stay on his own. We don’t have the right to keep him here if he doesn’t want to stay.”
“But he’s leaving for all the wrong reasons. I gotta talk to him.” Johnny tried to fling the covers off but Scott forced him back down.
“You’ll stay right here like Dr. Garner said. When Sam gets to where he’s going I’m sure he will write us. Then maybe you can write him back, talk some sense into him. Johnny, it’s what he wants now.”
“He doesn’t know what he wants.” Johnny spat. “He’s confused. He’s blaming himself for everything that happened. I could strangle that bitch!”
“You would have to stand in line, little brother.”
Johnny looked away, staring out the window. There were clouds beginning to roll across the sky, it would probably be raining by nightfall. Maybe the weather would delay Sam’s departure. Unfortunately Johnny knew that wasn’t the case. The only thing that would change Sam’s mind was a good eye to eye talk. And Johnny meant to have that before Sam left on Thursday.
“I’m tired, Scott,” Johnny sighed. “I think I’ll take a little nap before dinner. Dr. Garner did say I could eat with you.”
“Yes he did. I’ll see you at the dinner table. And Johnny…it’s not your fault Sam is leaving.”
Johnny watched the door close slowly behind Scott. How could his brother read his mind so easily? He closed his eyes and tried to take that nap, but his leg was hurting him more and more every minute. Another reason he needed Sam.
Johnny felt the warmth of sleep fall away as he heard his name called and opened his eyes.
Rain pattered against his window and Johnny realized he must have slept for several hours…the light of day was replaced with the gray of a cloudy dusk. Scott stood at the head of the bed, a silly grin on his face and a pair of crutches in his hand.
“Dinner’s ready. You want to come and eat with the grownups?”
“Very funny. And I don’t need those,” he barked at the crutches.
“Dr. Garner’s orders. If you don’t want to use them I can have Maria bring in a tray for you.”
“Anybody ever tell you that you’re too pushy?”
Scott grinned even wider. “I think a stubborn brother has on occasion. Now, do we do it my way, or not at all?”
“I take that back, you’re not pushy…you’re a pain in the ass.” Johnny threw the covers back and went to swing his legs off the bed when he hissed sharply.
“Your leg?” Scott asked, concern replacing the smile.
“It’s all right. Now give me those damn crutches. I’m starving.”
Scott handed Johnny the crutches and moved out of his way as he maneuvered his way toward the door, but stayed close enough to help if he got in trouble. He didn’t like the look of pain on his brother’s face or the languid movements. His leg was obviously paining him more. If he didn’t seem better by the morning he would send for Dr. Garner whether Johnny thought he was arrogant or not.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Johnny spent most of his time pushing his food around the plate, something everyone noticed, but given the circumstances, no one said a word. Sam’s leaving had hurt Johnny. And it was not just the leaving…it was the way Sam was doing it. Not even a personal goodbye. Murdoch was disappointed in his old friend. He thought he had more character than that. It just went to prove how much Maggie Stewart had hurt him…had hurt them all.
Johnny had too few friends in his lifetime, and even fewer that he truly trusted. Sam was one of the few. His leaving would have a profound affect on Johnny. At this moment Murdoch couldn’t help but feel a strong animosity toward Sam Jenkins.
Finally Scott cleared his throat and spoke, his voice sounding overly loud in the quiet room. “If this rain keeps up it’s going to flood out that section of bottom land. Cipriano said he spotted a small herd of cattle grazing there last week.”
Murdoch nodded. “Take a few hands out first thing in the morning and move them to higher ground. The last time it started raining this early in the season it didn’t stop until January. We could be in for a long, wet winter. I’ll take a few men and check the north forty. The creeks will have to be cleared; I want to know exactly what work has to be done.”
“I’ll put together a list of supplies that need to be picked up before the winter sets in,” Teresa said. “Remember that winter we had about ten years ago, Murdoch? We were stranded for weeks with impassible roads. If you can spare Jelly I’d like him to drive me into town.”
“Good idea. I’ll let Jelly know.”
Johnny dropped his fork on his still full plate and pushed his chair away from the table. “I think I’ll go back to my room,” he said, grabbing the hated crutches and levering himself up. “I’m a little tired and you all have work to do.”
“Johnny…” Murdoch hastily shoved his own chair back and caught up with his son. “I’m sorry son, I know this is hard on you. But give yourself time to heal now, you’ll be back to work that much faster. Do you need help?”
“No,” Johnny answered brusquely. “I can make it myself. You finish making your plans.”
“Just leave me alone, old man. I can make it on my own. I’ve been taking care of myself for a lot of years, I don’t need to be mollycoddled all the time.”
Murdoch watched Johnny awkwardly make his way toward his room. He hated the thought of leaving Johnny with only Maria and a couple of hands, but the ranch would not wait…neither would the rain.
Johnny climbed into bed slowly, still dressed. His leg really was beginning to throb. He needed Sam. He couldn’t…wouldn’t… trust that Garner fella. If Murdoch and Scott couldn’t get Sam to stay, then it was up to him to take the reins. He would have to intercept the stage somehow before Sam got to Stockton. Once face to face with him, he knew Sam would understand.
Feeling more tired than he had a right to be, Johnny closed his eyes. Tomorrow he would think about it… Murdoch and Scott would be furious, but so be it, they had been mad before. Sam had to be persuaded to do the right thing.
This feeling of need worried Johnny. But never before had he felt so vulnerable. He was sick, and he was getting sicker again. He needed Sam. If only to tell him that some day…soon… Johnny Lancer would return to the man he was. Because, as God was his witness…he could not live like this much longer.
As his eyes slid shut he fell into a troubled sleep. One filled with memories of the past and nightmares of what the future held.
Johnny awoke to the sound of
rain pounding on the roof. He slowly turned his head to look out the window.
Wind buffeted the windowpane and heavy rain pelted the glass. It was a miserable
day…one that matched his mood. He
felt tired all over…even taking a breath seemed to be a chore. When would he
ever feel like himself again? The
past three months had seemed like three years…how much more could he take?
Pushing back the covers he froze when he saw the sleeve of a nightshirt covering his arm. Anger and humiliation spread over him…someone had once again come into his room and removed his clothes, washed him down…he could smell the lingering fragrance of Teresa’s lightly scented soap… before pulling a nightshirt over his head like a helpless infant and tucked him beneath the covers.
He didn’t remember a thing, only his lasts thoughts of finding Sam before he drifted to sleep. Then he saw the nearly empty glass of water on his night stand with an empty packet of sleeping powder lying next to it. When had they coaxed him to drink that? His world was spinning out of control…he couldn’t take it anymore.
Turning away from the dismal view out the window he noticed the crutches propped against his dresser and his anger intensified. How could Sam have abandoned him like this when he needed him most?
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut tight against the pain in his leg and the pain in his heart. How could Sam simply walk away…without even a good bye?
But there was more to it than that, and Johnny knew it. Sam felt guilty and no one knew the ravages of guilt more than Johnny Madrid Lancer. He lived with it everyday of his life. Only recently had he felt safe enough to push those feelings into the corner of his mind…but they had been a part of him for so long…growing and festering. He would not let that happen to Sam. Sam Jenkins was completely innocent…not so when it came to Madrid’s guilt. The only thing Sam had done wrong was trust his niece. Johnny knew that eventually he would heal, that life would go on for him in some fashion or another…but for Sam, guilt would destroy him. He would die a bitter old man. Johnny would not…could not let that happen.
Johnny heard the soft steps of someone walking down the hall and knew it was Teresa. He knew everyone’s footsteps. Could tell their emotions by the way they walked. It was an ability he had honed as a child. Knowing who was coming and their mood had kept him from more than one beating.
The door swung open silently and Teresa entered with a tray in her hand.
“You’re awake,” she smiled. But there was worry in her eyes. “I thought you might like something to eat. I’m afraid Maria insists that it be light.”
Johnny smiled, but shook his head. “Thanks Quidera, but I’m not hungry.” He looked toward the window and the steady rain. “What time is it?”
“Nearly ten. We thought you could use the extra sleep this morning.” She walked across the room, quickly setting the tray town on the nightstand next to Johnny’s bed before leaning over him and laying the back of her hand against his forehead. “You are feverish again. It’s too bad that you can’t have some willow bark tea, it would help with the fever.”
Teresa blanched the moment she said the words. Johnny’s eyes grew dark with painful memories. The tea brought back images of the black feeding tube and Maggie, memories of pain and incapacitation – when he was too sick to even lift a finger. Even now, the pain in his leg throbbed with each beat of his heart. He could not go back to that time again.
Teresa tried to smile. “I’ll leave the tray here. Maybe you’ll feel hungry a little later.”
“No need. I’ll be up in a little while.”
“No, I think you should stay in bed today. I’ll have Maria bring up so hot compresses for your leg, I think there maybe more infection there than we thought. Perhaps Dr. Garner should have another look at you today.”
“No!” Johnny’s vehemence even startled himself. “No,” he said more quietly, “I’ll be fine. I don’t need him.”
“This is not something that I can take care of, you need a doctor.”
“Then get Sam to come out.”
“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa sighed, brushing his thick black bangs off his forehead. “I know this is hard on you…but Sam has made his decision. He’s leaving tomorrow.”
Johnny rolled his head away from her fingers and closed his eyes against the fierce anger he felt welling up inside him. “I think I’ll get some more rest.”
“All right, I’ll be back later to see if you need anything.”
Johnny nodded and listened to the sound of her footsteps walking out of his room and fading away down the hall… footsteps that echoed a broken heart.
He closed his eyes and made his decision. Tomorrow he and Sam would have a talk…
The rest of the morning went by with excruciating slowness. Teresa worked on her chores, keeping an ear open for Johnny if he needed anything. But she knew she could not give him what he needed. That had to come from Sam. She couldn’t believe how disappointed she felt in the man. Sam had always been there for them. And they in turn had been there for him. But now he was turning his back on them when they needed him most. When Johnny needed him most.
Lost in thought she didn’t hear Murdoch ride up until she heard the front door open.
“How’s Johnny?” he asked as he shucked his rain gear, hanging the wet rain slicker over a towel on the terra cotta floor to soak up the water.
“I’m worried about him. His fever is up…I think we should have the doctor check him out again.”
Murdoch nodded, pulling his rain gear back on. “I think we should have Sam check him out. I’m tired of dancing around Sam’s hurt feelings. He has a patient who needs him, and by God, if I have to, I’ll hogtie him to his buggy.”
Teresa had to smile as the door closed. The devil himself would have a hard time saying no to Murdoch Lancer when he was in a mood like this.
Sam packed the last of his belongings into a cardboard box. He would leave it stored in back until he knew where he was going, then have it shipped. He hefted its weight… thirty-five years packed into one small box. Not much to show for a man’s life. But it wasn’t articles that could be packed away in a box that were important…it was the memories. Those he would carry for a lifetime. The good and the bad.
He heard Dr. Garner cough discreetly. “This can’t be easy for you, doctor. But I admire you for your courage. It’s not easy to admit that time and age have caught up with you.”
What he was doing was not courageous, Sam thought…Murdoch was right, it was cowardly, an act of a man who was too tired to keep fighting.
“I can see why you are ready to take down your shingle…I spent the entire day on the road yesterday and there were only two patients who really needed my services. The rest could have easily come here to the office, or in the case of Mrs. Boarders, not need my services at all. That old woman is healthier than some women half her age.”
“Molly lost her husband two years ago. She’s a lonely old woman. It doesn’t hurt to visit her once a month to see how she’s feeling, to sit and talk for a few minutes. Doctoring isn’t only healing the body, Arnold, it’s also healing the soul. When you learn that, you may be a good doctor.”
Garner snorted. “Your way of thinking is, thankfully, going the way of the dinosaur. Medicine is science, not handholding.”
“Perhaps in the big cities. But out here I suggest that you mix your science with a little old fashioned bed-side manner.”
“I will take it under advisement.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Murdoch Lancer said that Johnny thought you were arrogant…I don’t know anyone who is a better judge of character than that boy.”
“I find it interesting that you would put so much stock in the opinion of a man who has such a questionable past. It only took a couple of questions at the saloon to hear all I needed to know about Johnny Madrid.”
“Don’t make the mistake of judging Johnny by his past. Take the time to get to know him before you pass judgment. And remember, there are a lot of people in this town who think the world of that boy…reputation and all.”
“I’m not here to make friends, doctor, I am here to treat the sick.”
“A good doctor does both.”
Dr. Garner shrugged. “A good doctor does not let his personal feelings get in the way of his practice. If you treat your patients as patients, not friends, you won’t get eaten up inside when your best is just not enough.”
“I feel sorry for you, Dr. Garner. And I feel sorry for your patients. If I were a stronger man I would send you on your way. But…”
“But you’ve reached the end of the line. Go, and don’t look back. You may find it hard to believe, but everyone will be just fine without you.”
Sam picked up the box and turned for the back door. “I’ll be in back if you need me.”
“I won’t, doctor.”
Murdoch was seething by the time he reached Morro Coyo. He had been willing to let Sam leave, could understand even, what his old friend was going through. But things were different now…Johnny needed him, not a new doctor who knew nothing about him. He needed Sam, and by God, Sam was who he was going to have.
As he opened the door into the office he could feel a change in it already. Gone was the warm, comforting feeling of a healer and a friend. Now he smelled carbolic and bleach…The books that had taken up permanent residency on the two chairs against the wall were now cleared. A small table sat between them, a newspaper provided for a waiting patient.
Every memory of Dr. Sam Jenkins seemed to have been wiped clean…replaced by a coldness that had nothing to do with the unlit pot-bellied stove sitting in the corner.
The desk had been moved to face the front door and Murdoch saw Dr. Garner leaning over an opened file, studying it.
“Mr. Lancer…I was expecting you,” Dr. Garner said with a hint of pomposity. “Is your son feeling worse?”
“Where’s Sam?” Murdoch demanded.
“He’s not here. Besides he is no longer the doctor, I am.”
“Johnny is asking to see Sam. Now where is he?”
Dr. Garner shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t tell you. He had some errands to attend to before leaving in the morning. If your son has taken a turn for the worse then I suggest you let me examine him.”
Murdoch vacillated. There was no doubt Johnny needed medical help, but he also needed Sam.
“I will be frank with you, Mr. Lancer.” Dr. Garner looked up from the file he had been reading. “This is your son’s medical file. I believe he has developed blood poisoning. If that is the case then there is a high risk of gangrene. I don’t have to tell you the consequences of that.”
Murdoch shook his head.
“All right then, I will leave for your ranch shortly. Meanwhile you should return home, elevate his leg and begin applying warm compresses. If he is running a fever then give him some willow bark tea.”
“But Sam said…”
“Dr. Jenkins is no longer caring for your son, I am. I know Dr. Jenkins concerns about the willow bark tea thinning Johnny’s blood, but we have to chance it. We need to control the infection in his leg now.”
Murdoch reluctantly agreed and left the office feeling hollow and very unsure of Dr. Garner. He would return home and carry out the doctor’s orders…for now. But he would send Scott back here to find Sam and bring him back to Lancer. Dr. Garner was not what Johnny needed. Not what this town needed.
Sam rushed back into the office. He thought he had heard Murdoch Lancer’s distinctive voice, but to his surprise he found only Dr. Garner packing his medical bag.
“I thought I heard Murdoch Lancer a moment ago,” Sam said, looking out the window at an empty boardwalk.
Dr. Garner shook his head. “Nathan Grill stopped by to give me a telegram. You must have mistaken him for Mr. Lancer.”
Sam nodded at Garner’s medical bag. “Going out on a call?”
“Nothing for you to worry about, doctor, just a minor affliction. But until I can retrain your patients to my ways I guess I must visit them at their homes. If I don’t see you in the morning have a good trip. And don’t worry about this place, I have everything well in hand.”
Sam watched the doctor step outside, opening his large black umbrella against the pouring rain, and had the terrible feeling that he was abandoning everyone under his care. But…he had made his decision and he would stick with it. Despite Dr. Garner’s lack of a good bed-side manner, he was probably a much better doctor. It was always hard to move on…but this was his time.
Johnny glared at Murdoch and Scott as they followed Dr. Garner into his room.
“What is he doing here?” he snapped. “I said I didn’t need him.”
“I thought we had this discussion already,” Dr. Green said, setting his medical bag at the edge of the mattress, eying Johnny’s gun still sitting in the holster hanging from the back of the bed. “I am the doctor, you are the patient, unless of course you want to remain obstinate and die of blood poisoning before the month is out.”
“Sam will take care of me.” The need in Johnny’s voice grabbed at Murdoch’s heart and he suddenly felt a real hatred for his old friend.
“Dr. Jenkins is leaving on the stage tomorrow morning. Nothing is going to change his mind. Now, you can either let me examine you again and treat you, or you can lie in this bed and let nature have her way.”
Johnny looked up at his brother and his father and saw that they were not going to help him, not this time.
“I guess I don’t have a choice,” he mumbled bitterly.
“I’m glad you can see that.” Opening his medical bag, Dr. Garner pulled out a syringe and a vile of clear liquid. “As soon as this morphine takes effect, I’ll clean out that wound and we’ll see what happens from there.”
“No…no morphine.” Johnny tried to grab for his gun but Murdoch grabbed the holster and pulled it out of his reach.
“Let the doctor do what he has to, son,” Murdoch ordered. “I will not risk your life. If I have to, I’ll hold you down. It’s your choice.”
“Murdoch, please. You know what you’re asking?”
“We know, Johnny.” Scott walked around the bed to stand next to Johnny, grabbing his hand tightly, he leaned in close to his brother. “We’ll be here. We’ll watch your back. Nothing will happen. I promise.”
Johnny slowly closed his eyes and turned his head away.
“Doctor,” Scott stood up, brushing his shoulder against Garner’s. “I just made a promise to my brother. I don’t make promises lightly.”
“You may not like me very much, Mr. Lancer, but I am a good doctor. Now step aside so I can get started.”
Johnny felt the pinch of the needle and the pain in his leg drained away. He felt so incredibly tired that he drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that Murdoch and Scott were by his side, but this was the last time Dr. Garner would put his hands on him. Tomorrow he would find Sam.
Morning came and the rain still fell. Memories of the night came in snatches, blurred by the morphine into surreal images. More than once Johnny thought he saw Maggie standing over the bed, taunting him, holding her diary in her manacled hands, writing down his life story…his death story.
Dr. Garner had stayed until dusk approached then left with instructions. Sam would have stayed the night…made sure he was all right. There was always someone sitting beside him, bathing his face, putting hot compresses on his leg.
He remembered snippets of conversations…Dr. Garner was making arrangements to take him to a hospital in San Francisco. And Murdoch had agreed.
There was no way he was going to any hospital. The only one he needed was Sam.
Sitting up slowly, Johnny waited for the room to stop spinning. He heard the ringing in his ears and the stinging around his eyes telling him that his fever had risen still higher overnight. But that could not be helped. With grim determination he dressed; his pants that at one time fit like a second skin, were now loose and baggy around his thin waist.
He pulled a clean pair of socks from the top drawer of his dresser and managed to pull the right one up to the beginnings of the bandaging around his leg. After some colorful Spanish expletives he had his left boot on. He strapped on his gun belt, cinching up two extra notches before grabbing the offending crutches and maneuvering himself awkwardly through the door. Thankfully he was on the ground floor. He made his way toward the front door, not knowing exactly how he was going to pull this off. He knew he couldn’t saddle Barranca on his own, and he couldn’t ride bareback…he didn’t have the strength. A wagon was what he needed; he only hoped he could convince one of the hands to hitch one up.
As he passed the great room he could hear Maria in an animated discussion with Teresa and Jelly. He remembered now…Jelly was going to take Teresa into town to stock up on supplies. They were all aware that a big storm could leave them stranded for some time to come. With Murdoch and Scott out on the range making sure everything was set for what looked like a long rainy season, setting in supplies for the house was Teresa’s responsibility.
As he opened the heavy oak door a strong gust of wind nearly ripped it from his hands. It took more strength then he could spare to manhandle it closed behind him. But there, sitting in front of him was the answer to his prayers. A buckboard was hitched and the horses stood dejectedly in the pouring rain, heads bowed against the strong wind.
“Gracias, Jelly,” he whispered and clumsily made his way toward the waiting wagon, his crutches sinking in the muddied ground. Hauling himself up into the seat left him gasping for air and the searing pain in his leg brought tears to his eyes…but he would not be daunted. He needed Sam. And Sam needed him, whether the old man knew it or not.
Suddenly, like a gift from heaven, a streak of lightening lit up the sky and the ground shook with a tremendous clap of thunder. Johnny whipped the reins and the horses pulled away from the house, the sound of the creaking wagon and horses hooves lost in the cacophony of sound as the thunder rolled away just to be met with another streak of lightening and another earth shaking clap of thunder.
He wasn’t sure what time it was…he should have checked somehow before he left…but he knew he would be early. But that was all right…he would travel across Lancer land until he reached the road leading to Stockton On a good weather day it would take an hour and a half to reach the junction that either headed toward Stockton or Sacramento…but today he could double that time.
As he passed beneath the Lancer arch he was already shivering violently from the cold rain and blustering wind. It would take every ounce of strength he had to make it to the road…but make it he would. There was too much at stake if he failed.
“Sorry, Teresa, ain’t no way we’re gonna make it in ta town in this kind a weather,” Jelly said around the last forkful of egg. He had been waylaid by Maria who insisted he have a hot breakfast before heading into town. “You ladies are gonna have ta make do with what ya got here. I’ll unhitch the team…poor horses, been out there more’n an hour in this rain.”
Teresa nodded. “When you’re done could you come back in and help me with Johnny? He started running a fever again last night and I want to change those sweaty sheets.”
“That boy ain’t gonna be happy stuck in bed again. Don’t help matters none that he don’t take too kindly to that new doc Sam sent out. Johnny’s gonna balk at everything that man tells him ta do.” Jelly hunkered down into his heavy rain slicker and opened the kitchen’s back door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Damn if the wagon ain’t gone!” Jelly swore as he trudged back into the kitchen, his rain slicker dripping puddles of water on the floor
“He’s gone!” Teresa cried as she rushed back into the kitchen. “Johnny’s gone! I can’t find him anywhere…and his gun is missing.”
Jelly ran into the great room to look out on the courtyard through the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk. “He took the wagon. The boy’s plumb loco. What’s he think he’s doin’?”
“He’s going after Sam.” Teresa grabbed for her own rain slicker. “But he’s too sick to be out there.”
“You just don’t fret your pretty little head about Johnny, I’ll find him and bring him back. Meanwhile do ya think you can make it out to Pine Ridge? Cipriano is out there. He’ll find Murdoch and Scott.”
Teresa nodded. “And I’ll have someone go for the doctor. Do you think he even knows that Sam left on the stage already?”
“I don’t rightly know what that boy knows. Neither does he…he’s pulled some lame brained stunts …but nothing like this. It’s got to be the fever that’s got him acting so crazy.”
“Madre de Dios…my chico.” Maria crossed herself whispering a prayer. “You find him, Jelly. You find him pronto… Aye…the patron will tie him to his bed after this. And I…I will supply the rope. El chico estupido.”
“I’ll find him. I promise.” Jelly rushed out of the house to saddle the horses.
Sam tried to right himself to no avail as the stagecoach hit another rut and he was nearly bounced off the seat. He expected the going to be rough, but he had not expected this. The thin leather upholstery covering the wooden bench seats did little to cushion the passengers inside as the coach wheels hit rut after rut. The leather window shades, drawn and tacked into place to keep the wind driven rain from soaking the inside of the coach, left Sam feeling claustrophobic in the small darkened space. The two women sat across from him, Arlene Cambridge and Mabel Roland, both in their mid- fifties he guessed, dressed in fashionable but uncomfortable clothes for a trip like this. Arlene Cambridge had talked and talked, asking questions incessantly for the first hour of their trip. Only after he had feigned sleep did she grow quiet, whispering occasionally to her companion. But sleep would not come easily to Sam. It hadn’t last night or the night before or the night before that. In fact, sleep had not come easily since the night he had realized what Maggie had done. Since then the guilt and the second guessing and the what ifs had haunted him day and night.
Now leaving Johnny behind added to his overflowing coffer of guilt. He knew he couldn’t face the boy again. Not those strikingly blue eyes that should have been filled with mischief and fun, not pain and depression. For three months Johnny had suffered, and he still had healing to do. How could he face him, knowing that he was ultimately responsible for Johnny being in the condition he was in? He had invited Maggie to Morro Coyo…he had eagerly accepted Murdoch’s suggestion for her to stay at Lancer.
His only solace was the hope that time and distance would help them both.
Sam clutched at the seat as the driver yelled and whistled at the team to keep moving. He couldn’t blame the poor animals. This weather was not fit for man or beast.
Johnny felt the left rear wagon wheel spin in the mud and prayed that he wouldn’t get bogged down here. He wasn’t more than a half mile from the road. The going was harder than he expected. The rain and wind pelted him from every direction. The water streamed down his face blinding him. He was barely able to control the horses as a new round of thunder and lightening erupted around them. He slapped the reins against the horse’s rumps and yelled at the struggling beasts. For a heart stopping moment the other back wheel began to spin before it found traction and the wagon moved forward.
He continued on in a haze, hardly aware of where he was or what he was doing. Even the ice cold rain seemed to fade into the background. Earlier he had had a moment of panic when he thought that maybe Gabe had decided not to take a chance driving the stagecoach through weather like this. But Gabe was tough as nails. He’d drive through a tornado to keep on schedule.
Johnny suddenly felt a difference in the way the wheels moved through the mud and realized they had finally reached the road. Not knowing if the stage had already passed him or if it was even coming today, Johnny felt his world spin away from him. The reins slipped from his frozen hands and he slumped sideways, slipping off the seat onto the floorboards beneath.
Murdoch listened in disbelief as Cipriano relayed Teresa’s message. He knew Johnny could be spontaneous sometimes…often not thinking of the consequences…but this was sheer insanity.
“I have sent for the new medico to return.” Cipriano shouted through the steady sheet of rain. “Teresa thinks Juanito is trying to reach Dr. Jenkins on the stage, but his tracks were washed away by the rain, there is no telling where he plans to meet him.”
“I doubt if he could even reach the road in a buckboard in this kind of weather,” Murdoch yelled back. His breaths produced little puffs of smoke around his mouth as he spoke. “He could be anywhere. Find Scott and have his men start searching east of the junction. I’ll head west. Where’s Teresa?”
“I sent her back to the estancia. She promised to wait for us there.”
“Good man.” Murdoch reached over and patted Cipriano on the shoulder. “We’ll find him.”
“Si. I just hope it is in time.”
Sam felt the stagecoach slow, Gabe’s torrent of curses filling the air between claps of thunder.
“Hold on, folks,” the old driver hollered from the top of the stage. “There’s a wagon in the middle of the road.”
Sam felt the stage come to a stop and rock fitfully as the driver climbed down. Long minutes passed before the door was suddenly whipped open and Gabe’s rain soaked face looked up toward him. “Ya better come quick, doc.”
“What is it?” Instinct spurred Sam on.
“You’re a doctor?” Arlene asked in surprise.
Sam nodded, then amended his thought. “I used to be.”
He climbed down, the cold rain stinging his bare head and soaking through his clothes. Sam saw the buckboard sitting on the road, the horse’s heads bowed against the buffeting wind, and his stomach plummeted. The Lancer “L” was painted on the side of the wagon. Through the curtain of rain he could see an arm outstretched and a hand hanging precariously between the spokes of the wheel. With a speed he didn’t know he still possessed, he caught up with Gabe just as the old driver was climbing onto the wagon wheel hub. Sam quickly moved the limp hand to safety, feeling for a pulse before running to the other side of the wagon and hauling himself up on the other wheel. What he saw nearly made him lose his purchase on the slippery wheel.
Johnny Lancer lay curled beneath the seat, his hands and face nearly blue from the cold.
“Is he still alive, doc?” Gabe yelled through the rain.
“He’s got a pulse…barely. Help me get him into the coach.”
“What’s he doing out here? I thought he’d been ailing since that trial.”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out. Now be careful of his right leg.”
Together the two old men maneuvered Johnny down off the buckboard and carried him over to the stage, slipping and sliding in the thick mud.
“Come on ladies, make room,” Sam ordered as he climbed into the coach and dragged Johnny’s limp body inside. Between him and Gabe they got him into a semi sitting position on the coach’s seat, propping his feet up on the seat across from him.
“My God, what do you think you’re doing?” Arlene cried. “Who is he? He’s getting me all wet.”
Sam ignored the woman and began ripping Johnny’s soaked shirt off, letting the buttons ping onto the floor. “Gabe, get my bag up top.”
Gabe didn’t wait to ask questions before he disappeared back into the rain. Another clap of thunder spooked the horses and Sam heard Gabe coaxing them to settle down.
“We can’t stay here much longer without getting bogged down,” Gabe warned. “How’s the boy?”
Sam shook his head. “Among other things he’s suffering from hypothermia.”
“He’s nearly frozen to death. How long will it take to get back to Morro Coyo?”
“Morro Coyo?” Arlene cried. “We can’t go back now, we’ll miss our train.”
“I don’t give a damn about that train,” Sam shouted. “I have a patient here who comes first.”
“Why I never…I am going to report you both to the manager of this stagecoach…I paid good money for a ticket for this…”
“Shut your trap, lady!” Gabe yelled, pleased to see the startled reaction. “But I’m afraid she’s right, Sam. We can’t go back to Morro Coyo, the road ain’t passable no more.”
“How long before we reach Stockton?”
“Three, maybe four hours…if we can make it all the way. This storm is a beaut. Roads might be washed out ahead too.”
Sam felt for Johnny’s pulse again and shook his head. “He doesn’t have three or four hours. We have to get him someplace warm and get these wet clothes off him.”
“I don’t know what ta tell ya doc, with this here storm…wait a minute…don’t the Lancers got a line shack around here somewheres? I seem to remember one ‘bout four miles from here.”
“A line shack?” Arlene grabbed for Gabe’s arm. “I won’t allow it! You get this coach headed for Stockton immediately.”
Gabe brushed Arlene’s hand away. “Do all the caterwauling ya want, but we’re going ta that line shack.”
Sam nodded, turning back to Johnny. Gently he pushed the still dripping hair from Johnny’s forehead. “Make it fast, Gabe.
Gabe slammed the door shut and the coach rocked as he climbed back onto the driver’s seat.
“My husband is a well known attorney in San Francisco,” Arlene warned. “He’ll see that you all pay for this.”
“Lady, I don’t give a damn what you do…this boy comes first.” Sam slipped his coat off and tucked it around Johnny’s chest.
Arlene looked at Mabel in shock as the coach lurched then pulled off the road, heading for the Lancer line shack.
Sam began his examination; his
hands shaking despite his determination that he would not let this boy down
again. He quickly rechecked Johnny’s pulse and found it still too weak.
Listening to his chest, he heard the rumblings of congestion and he cursed
himself knowing full well that Johnny would be tucked safely in bed at
Lancer…albeit, not happy, but safe and cared for, if he had had the guts to do
his job. Lifting Johnny’s eyelids, he was relieved that he was unconscious and
not in a coma. He wiped the still dripping wet hair from Johnny’s forehead and
worried at the cold touch of his skin.
“What are you doing here, John?” he whispered.
“How is he?” Mabel Roland asked, the worry in her voice plain to hear if Sam had not been so absorbed in Johnny’s condition.
Sam didn’t bother to turn around to answer. “His lungs are congested, most likely the onset of pneumonia. He must have been out in this rain for hours.”
“What can we do?”
“We need to get him out of these wet clothes and into a warm dry place,” he answered, more to himself than anyone on the stage. The guilt he felt knowing that Johnny had made this trip because he was too much of a coward to face the boy was burrowing into his gut. His decision to leave was the worst mistake he had ever made, both professionally and personally. Johnny trusted him, believed he would be there for him when he was needed. If Johnny died, and there was a real chance he could, given the state he was in and the condition they now found themselves in, he would never forgive himself.
Someone’s elbow struck him in the back and he looked behind him to see Mabel unbuttoning her skirt and pulling it down over her petticoats.
“Well, I can’t do much about the warm dry place,” she said, “but…”
“Mabel!” Arlene shrieked. “Good heavens, what are you doing?”
“Helping,” Mabel snapped. “Doctor, go on and get those wet clothes off that boy before he freezes to death.”
Sam looked at her, surprised.
“For heavens sake,” she chided, sitting on the opposite seat and pulling Johnny’s one boot and both socks off before leaning forward and unbuckling his gun belt and laying it on the coach floor before tackling his pants belt. “I’m old enough to be his grandmother…now hurry. You can wrap my skirt around him until we can find a proper blanket.”
“Mabel, please…you are embarrassing yourself…and me too, I might add.”
The coach took off with a sudden jerk and Arlene’s head snapped back against the coach wall. “I will sue this stagecoach line, and you too, doctor. This is unacceptable.”
“Don’t listen to my sister, doctor, she’s all hot air…always has been.”
Sam couldn’t keep the grin from his face. “Call me, Sam,” he said, his thoughts of guilt put aside for the moment while he began stripping off Johnny’s soaking pants. He only hoped the hot tempered ex-pistolero didn’t find out that he let a woman help undress him.
It was nearly an hour before Sam heard Gabe call a halt to the team and the coach swayed to a stop. The door opened and Gabe looked inside, the rain spilling over his hat like a waterfall. “I hope you folks don’t mind roughing it for a few days, this coach ain’t going nowhere until this rain stops and these roads dry up a might.” Gabe’s eyes fell on Johnny. He didn’t say a word about the boy being wrapped like a cocoon in volumes of light green material. Some things were better left unasked.
“That will not be acceptable!” Arlene cried. “We can’t stay here. Look at it…It’s…it’s no better than a squatter’s hovel.”
“Quit the whining, Arlene,” Mabel ordered. “It’s got four walls and a roof. Now grab Sam’s bag and get inside. Make sure a bed’s ready for the boy.”
Sam could not remember feeling less in charge or more thankful for it.
They watched as Gabe helped an indignant Arlene down from the coach, her feet sinking into the quagmire between the stage and the line shack. Each step she took brought her dangerously close to slipping onto her rear end, her dress soaking up the mud and her hair falling into heavy wet curls around her face. But she made it inside, only to let loose with an ear shattering screech a moment later.
Mabel sighed, jumping down into the mud and pouring rain, trudging through the brown mire toward the line shack door. “I’ll make sure the bed is ready. Keep him as dry as you can,” she yelled back at Sam. “I don’t have that many skirts to spare.”
Mabel found Arlene frozen in place; her hand pointing to an equally frozen bundle of tan fur cowering in the far corner.
“For God’s sake, Arlene, it’s just a rabbit. It’s probably as scared of you as you are of it. I’m sure the poor thing was just trying to get out of the rain.”
The frightened animal bolted past them and out the door, leaving Arlene in near hysterics. “I can’t stay here, Mabel,” she cried, her eyes growing larger as she spotted spiders of every size nesting in webs along the ceiling, driven inside by the torrential rains. “You know how I hate creepy crawly things.”
“Well dear, this time you have no choice. That boy out there is very sick. He should be our only concern.”
“But we don’t even know him.”
“We have to know a person to help them? My dearest sister, we have been apart for far too many years. You have turned into an old, self-centered, dithering snob.”
“Mabel, how can you say such awful things?”
“Because they are true. I have put up with your nonsense this entire trip, but I will take no more. Now either start doing something useful or sit in a corner and shut up.”
Arlene stared at Mabel in mortification. Never had anyone spoken to her like that.
Mabel didn’t have time to console her sister as the door flew open amid a torrent of rain and wind with Sam and Gabe carrying Johnny between them.
She quickly grabbed a blanket and waited by one of the three cots already turned down, ordering Sam and Gabe to lay Johnny next to it. “There’s no need to put him in a dry bed if he’s still wet.”
Released from the volumes of Mabel’s light green skirt, Sam was once again devastated by the amount of weight Johnny had lost since Maggie started her campaign to carry out the Perfect Murder. The frail man that lay before him now was but a memory of the strong, high spirited man he knew. Johnny Lancer wasn’t a big man, but his body had always extolled the long hard hours working on a ranch, with tight strong muscles and deeply tanned skin. Now his ribs were painfully evident, his arms lacking well toned muscles, and even more disturbing, his skin tinged blue by the cold.
“I’ll get the stove started.” Mabel’s voice cut through Sam’s reverie. He felt her gentle hand settle on his shoulder. “Sam, on the stage you said you were a doctor… Whatever it is that happened, you’ve got to lay it aside for now. This boy needs you.”
Sam nodded, grateful for this woman’s insight. He needed her strength and courage now. He laid his hand atop hers for just a moment before issuing orders. “Gabe, help me lift Johnny onto the bed, then if you could, find some rocks we can use as warming stones.”
“Sure thing, Sam. I’ll get right on it.”
“And Gabe,” Mabel said as she watched the two men carefully lift the young man onto the cot. “If you could bring in our bags. I’m sure there are enough clothes between my sister and I to make another cozy blanket for the boy. And…” she ironed her now mud stained petticoat with her hands, “I’m sure my sister would feel a lot better if I was wearing a skirt.”
“Mabel! Have you no modesty?” Arlene cried.
Mabel gave her sister a wicked smile. “No.”
Arlene huffed and pulled a chair to the corner of the room and sat down, her arms crossing her breasts as he shivered with cold indignation.
The next half hour was filled with non-stop work, for everyone but Arlene. The stove was lit and tended into a warm steady heat, water was put on to boil and Sam’s medical instruments were sterilized just in case they were needed. Johnny was swaddled in several blankets and his hair was patted dry.
“Let’s get him sitting up some; it will make it easier for him to breathe.” Sam lifted Johnny’s shoulders, supporting his head while Mabel nestled two more pillows behind his back. “He needs fluids, both to combat the cold and that infection in his leg.” Sam drew a long coil of black tubing from his medical bag and grimaced. “Johnny will take my head off when he finds I’ve done this to him again.”
Mabel smiled, understanding in her voice. “You do what you have to do to save the boy’s life, he’ll understand.”
Sam nodded sadly. “He always does. Now, push his head back…”
It was late in the evening when Mabel pressed her hand against Johnny’s forehead. “His fever is building,” she said worriedly, sitting down in a chair next to Sam’s. “And his breathing is much more labored.”
“I know,” Sam sighed. “He had no business being out of bed, much less out in the rain like this.”
“He must have felt it was important.”
Sam closed his eyes, remembering when Johnny’s life hung in the balance, when he was but a whisper away from death. And here he was again, and this time it wasn’t because of a deranged woman, but because he had turned his back on the boy. How could he have been so blind not to see how much Johnny still needed him?
All those years Johnny had been on his own; trusting no one, no one trusting him. A child forced to act like a man, his only companion a horse, his only solace a gun strapped to his hip. Then he had come home. Somehow in that first week at Lancer, when he struggled through pain and fever from Day Pardee’s bullet in his back, they had formed a fragile trust. A bond that grew, allowing Johnny to talk to him…to tell him things that he couldn’t even tell his brother. Johnny trusted him, both as a doctor and a friend…and when Johnny needed him most…he had betrayed that trust.
Mabel left him for a moment, sitting there beside Johnny’s bed, and the room seemed to press in on him. The lamp burned on an old crate fashioned into a nightstand next to the bed, casting soft flickering shadows over Johnny’s pale face. The sounds of the rain battering the roof and slashing at the windows, mingled with Gabe’s soft snores from a cot pulled to the far corner of the room, and Arlene’s low mewling as she rocked herself on the bed next to Johnny’s, seemingly taking the very air out of the room, and Sam had to reach out for the edge of the bed to steady himself.
He was at the very brink of exhaustion. He had not had a full night’s sleep since this began…his worry and his guilt plagued him…followed him like a hungry beast. Eating at his very soul. And so he ran, like a child from a monster hiding in the shadows, he had taken the coward’s way out and now Johnny was paying the price for it once again.
“I ran…” he said bitterly as Mabel sat down in front of him, slipping a warm mug of coffee between his hands.
“Why?” she asked simply.
Sam didn’t know why he started talking. He was always a quiet man…as a doctor he was compelled to keep secrets….and it became a habit. The only person he felt he could confide in was his oldest friend Murdoch Lancer. But this time it was Murdoch’s very own son he had betrayed. So how could he tell him the depths of his despair?
It all came out, slowly, hesitantly. Maggie and his trust in her, the days and nights caring for Johnny together until the ultimate betrayal when he learned that it was Maggie who had devised a murderous plot for that all elusive “A” in her English class. The trial that followed and the looks of condemnation and sympathy from the townspeople…he wasn’t sure which was worse. Then Maggie pleading for his understanding and having nothing to give her but contempt and hate.
And his final decision to leave…to get as far away as he could from all the memories…to stop the nightmares…
“I never thought he would come after me.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Mabel said softly, tapping the mug for Sam to take another sip. “You thought you were leaving him in capable hands with your new doctor. But Sam, you are hurting so much here,” she reached over and touched his chest, “that you couldn’t see that Johnny needed you, not your medical experience. You two shared a terrible ordeal, and neither of you can heal from it alone. He needs you…and you need him.”
“What if he dies?”
“Then you will go back and face his family, and let them help you through this. You can’t do this alone. They wouldn’t want you to.”
Sam nodded. The words were all true…but he didn’t know if he had the strength left to do the right thing. Mabel reached over and laid a hand on his knee and they sat there in silence, watching Johnny sleep.
Sam awakened with a jerk. He hadn’t realized he had slipped off to sleep…the smell of salt pork and beans filled the room along with the rich aroma of strong coffee. To his surprise Gabe was busy working at the stove. Mabel was leaning over Johnny washing his face gently with a cloth.
“I believe his fever is down a bit.” She smiled.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I thought you could use the sleep. Besides there was nothing you could do that I couldn’t. I gave him his medicine like you showed me. He’s a tough one…this boy of yours…he’s a real fighter.”
This boy of yours…the words seemed so right. Yes…Johnny was like a son to him…and that was why this all hurt so badly. How often had he chastised Murdoch for being too hard on his son, for demanding perfection, when Johnny gave his best? How often had he persuaded Johnny to stay, just a little longer, to give Murdoch a chance to find his place in this new family? It was so easy to stand back and criticize Murdoch, when he had done something far worse…he had abandoned Johnny.
Then he was bending over Johnny, gently brushing the fever damp hair from the boy’s forehead. A soft moan escaped Johnny’s dry lips, a soft flutter of one eyelid announcing his return to their world.
“Come on, Johnny,” he urged, “wake up now.”
Both eyelids fluttered and Johnny shifted his head just slightly.
“John, I want you to open your eyes,” he ordered, his voice gentle but authoritative.
Johnny’s eyes opened slightly, confused at first, then he recognized Sam.
“Hey,” he breathed, a faint smile playing at his lips. “I found you.”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh. “Yes, you did. But we are going to have quite a talk when you are strong enough, young man.”
Johnny nodded before his eyes slid closed again.
“Is he going to be all right?” Arlene had rolled over on her cot to look at Johnny.
“He has to be,” Sam whispered. “Dear, God…he has to be.”
Scott felt rather than saw the
arch as he passed beneath it. The rain was coming down in torrents…whipped by
the fierce cold winds howling down from the High Sierras. It took all his
strength to stay in the saddle. If Johnny was still out in this…he pushed the
thought from his mind. His hardheaded, obstinate brother was probably already
home, snuggled in a warm bed and being catered to hand and foot by Teresa and
Maria. At least he hoped he was.
He let Charlemagne have his head, the horse wanted to be home as badly as Scott, and didn’t realize they had made it back until the lights from inside the house dimly flickered through the sheet of rain.
A blast of heat hit him in the face as he opened the door. The warmth soothed his freezing body but did nothing to ease the cold fear he felt in his heart. He shucked his raingear and walked into the great room.
Scott didn’t have to ask the question…the answer was on each face standing near the fireplace. The looks of expectant hope died as they read the failure in his eyes.
“I rode three miles past the south boundary then west…I didn’t see a thing.”
Murdoch nodded. He poured a glass of bourbon and handed it to Scott. “Warm your belly, Son.”
“I take it no one else had any luck.”
“I found the buckboard at the junction,” Murdoch said. “Horse was gone. There’s no telling if the stage was through there or not…there’s nothing but mud out there. I can’t see how Gabe could get that coach all the way to Stockton in this weather.”
“We don’t even know if the stage left Morro Coyo this morning. If Johnny’s out there alone…” Teresa let the thought trail off…they all knew the answer. She felt Maria’s strong arm tug her closer to the old woman. Maria’s chico was out there. Maybe not of her flesh and blood, but he was of her heart.
Jelly harrumphed, jutting his whiskered chin out. “Well I fer one thinks that Johnny met that stage with Sam on it, and they’re holed up somewhere until this storm blows over.”
“Where?” Scott asked. A little hope to cling to was better than the gnawing pain of no hope.
“Gabe knows about them line shacks…if he made fer one of those he could ride out this storm nice an cozy. There’s enough provisions to last three or four people a few days.”
Scott nodded and walked over to the window to look at the sheet of rain cascading down the glass. He would take Jelly’s idea and nurture it. He could not face the long dark night ahead thinking of the alternative.
Sam stood up slowly and stretched his tired back. Between falling asleep in the chair and yesterday’s coach ride, his joints were as stiff as a board. He was no longer a young man. He’d known that for years, between the mirror over his washstand and the ache in his joints…but never had he felt as weary as he did these past three months. Both his mind and body seemed to weigh him down until he could barely move.
“Here.” Mabel pushed a steaming cup of coffee into his hands. “It’s got a little extra something in it to warm you up. Gabe says it’s only for medicinal purposes, of course.”
“Of course.” Sam sipped at the doctored coffee gratefully. “Tell Dr. Gabe thank you.”
Mabel laughed. “I’ll be sure to tell him that. He went out to check the horses and see if he can find a rabbit or two. He says we could be here for a few days.”
Sam nodded, then looked down at Johnny. The boy’s fever was high…too high. Disappointing since he seemed to rally just a few hours ago. But Johnny had been ill for such a long time now…and pneumonia was inevitable once he left his warm bed at Lancer.
The sound of the rain continued to pound on the roof and he wondered if it would ever stop.
“I wish we could get word to Murdoch that Johnny was with us. They must be out of their minds with worry.”
“I’m sure they are. But Gabe said he would take one of the horses and ride out as soon as the roads are passable.”
A chair leg scraped across the floor and Sam looked over to see Arlene sitting near the stove, her hands busy rolling lengths of bandaging into a neat pile in a basket at her feet.
“You two aren’t very close.” He thought, then realized he had said the words out loud.
“No. I haven’t see Arlene in ten years. She wasn’t always this cynical…I don’t think she has been a happy woman for a lot of years. Being married to wealth is not always the answer to happiness.”
“We grew up together in Philly…She married Jonas Hamilton more than twenty years ago. I was certain I was destined to die an old spinster until Archibald Roland came to town. Arch was the biggest, meanest man I had ever met…to everyone but me. He treated me like a princess. When he asked me to marry him and move to Kansas, I didn’t have to think twice. Arlene was livid…she couldn’t believe I would leave the comfort of the city for the wilds of Kansas…or her…especially for the likes of Arch. I don’t think she ever forgave me for it. But I did and never regretted it for one day.”
“And your husband?”
“He died two years ago, rest his soul. Heart just gave out. I can still see him, smiling at me across the table. I had fixed him chicken stew and cornbread for dinner that night…he always liked my cornbread…then he just slumped over as if he went to sleep.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Sam said softly.
“I am too. But life goes on, and Arch would want me to move on. When Arlene said she was going to spend some time in San Francisco and asked if I would go along with her I said yes. I have some big decisions to make. The farm is getting awfully hard to run myself. Not that I don’t have good men working for me, it’s just a lot of paperwork and…”
Mabel nodded. “Them too.”
She leaned over and brushed the hair back from Johnny’s forehead. “He smiles a lot, doesn’t he?”
The question caught Sam by surprise. “Yes.”
“I thought so. See the tiny lines around his eyes…laugh lines. My Arch had those same lines…made me feel light as a feather when he’d turn that big smile my way.” She leaned down closer, gently stroking Johnny’s cheek. “Come on, Johnny, let me see that smile.”
Johnny moaned softly, his face turning into her hand just a little, as if Mabel’s touch brought him comfort.
“Ah…this boy is a heartbreaker. But I gotta ask, Sam. I have never seen so many scars on a body before. Bullet wounds, knife wounds…someone took a whip to his back.”
Sam nodded. “He’s led a hard life.” No one really knew how hard. Johnny was still guarded about his past. There were enough pieces of the puzzle to put together the ugly picture of his growing up…but the details, he kept those close to his heart, as if knowing them would turn everyone against him. Mabel saw the laugh lines…but he had been witness to the deep sorrow and the guilt Johnny carried in his heart. Too much for someone so young.
Squaring his shoulders, Sam put away those thoughts. It was Johnny’s story to tell…if he wanted Mabel or anyone else to know, then he would tell them. “We have to wake him up, get him to cough.”
Mabel laid a lingering hand on his arm. “He’ll make it, Sam. He’s a fighter. I can tell.”
Somehow Mabel’s words did not sound like empty platitudes.
With a small glimmer of hope where there was just emptiness before, Sam handed Mabel an extra pillow. “We will need to do this once an hour to keep his lungs from filling up with any more fluid. I can give him morphine for the pain, but no laudanum, that will only keep him asleep. Are you ready?”
Mabel nodded, pressing the pillow against Johnny’s chest as Sam lifted him into a sitting position.
“Come on Johnny, you have to cough for us…” Mabel coaxed.
Sam gently guided Johnny’s head forward until the boy was resting against his shoulder. “You know you have to do this,” Sam said. “Just two coughs and we’ll let you rest again.”
“It hurts…” Johnny whispered.
“I know, John.” Sam looked at Johnny’s right leg, bandaged after he had to cut away more of the infection that was determined not to let go. “I know. I’ll give you something to help with the pain.”
Sam felt Johnny’s shoulders stiffen and hastily added, “No laudanum, I promise, Johnny. Just something to help ease the pain. It won’t even put you to sleep.”
Johnny seemed to accept the answer and Sam could feel Johnny shudder just a moment before two small coughs jolted his body.
“That’s fine, John…Just fine,” he said as he eased Johnny back onto the mound of pillows. Sam watched as Johnny slid back into an exhausted sleep.
Sam sighed deeply. “As long as we can get him to cough every hour, he has a chance.”
“Then,” Mabel said, pulling the blanket up over Johnny’s shoulders, “that is what we will do. But for now you need some rest too. Arlene, come over here.”
Arlene looked up from her bandage rolling, startled that she would be asked to do something.
“Come over here and keep watch. I’m going to see that Sam here has something to eat and gets some rest.”
“But…” Arlene stood up slowly, her hands clutching at a half rolled strip of a petticoat sacrificed for bandages.
“You just watch him. We are right here if you need us.”
Arlene reluctantly took the seat vacated by Sam and her eyes fell on Johnny.
She hadn’t really looked at him before. Didn’t want to. He was just another cowboy in this dreadful land. Why had she left Philadelphia? She was safe there, surrounded by her servants and her friends. Her husband was there in name only…they had not shared a bed in years…but that was fine with her. But she had become bored of late and wanted to see something new. San Francisco seemed like the perfect place. If she had not detoured to Kansas to meet her sister and then, foolishly, sent her traveling companion back to Philadelphia, she would be wining and dining at this very moment in one of San Francisco’s most posh hotels.
Instead she was stuck in this God-forsaken shack with a man who looked like he was one step away from heaven or hell…whichever way he was destined to go, and her sister who was enjoying playing Florence Nightingale with an old doctor and a stage driver who had not taken a bath in several years.
Well, the stage lines would hear about this. There would be repercussions. Arlene Cambridge would not be treated like some low life pauper.
With an indignant harrumph, she crossed her arms beneath the fancy lace of her too-tight bodice and waited for Mabel to return.
But for some reason she could not keep her eyes from drifting back to the young man lying in the bed beside her chair. She found herself studying him. Unruly black hair, as black as coal, framed a face that was much younger than she had first thought. He was no more then twenty, maybe twenty-two. Equally dark eyelashes touched the dark circles of illness or pain beneath his eyes. The doctor said he had been ill for several months. A stab of concern touched her heart and she pushed it away quickly. Concern was not an emotion condoned by her rich society friends.
Still she continued to study him. In his fevered state, the young man had somehow pushed the blankets off his chest revealing a too thin torso…but it also revealed scars, some merely shadows they were so old, and some still dark and raised. How could someone so young have some many scars? What was this boy’s life like?
She noticed the ring he wore on his middle finger…an unusual style, something she would not have expected to see on a cowboy’s hand…then she shuddered at the sound of a small gasp and looked up to see the bluest eyes staring at her.
“Thirsty…” Johnny whispered, his hand creeping up toward the black feeding tube snaking down his cheek.
“I’ll get your doctor friend,” Arlene said, her voice catching in her throat. She saw his fingers curl around the tube, slowly pulling on it.
“No!” she grabbed his hand. “Leave it alone. It’s there to help you.”
“Out…” Johnny said, his voice so low she could hardly hear it.
“Mabel!” she called, her fear rising. She never dealt with the sick. They were treated in rooms away from her; there was never a need for her to become involved. “Mabel, please. He’s awake.”
“And so he is…” Mabel’s hand snaked past Arlene’s shoulder and easily pried the boy’s hand free of the tube, gently forcing his arm down to his side while pulling the covers back over his chest.
“He says he’s thirsty,” Arlene offered.
“I’m sure he is.” Mabel walked around to the other side of the bed, held a cup up to Johnny’s lips, and let him sip at it. “Your mouth must be dry as the desert. My name is Mabel, and this here is my sister, Arlene. We seem to be stuck here in one of your line shacks until the weather lets up a bit.”
“Sam?” Johnny asked, his eyes not wavering from Mabel’s.
“He’s resting in one of the other bunks. He’s one tired man. But I guess you know that…or you wouldn’t be here.”
Johnny slid his eyes closed, a slight blush of embarrassment touching his already fevered cheeks.
Arlene bounded from the chair, but Mabel caught her arm, forcing her to stay next to the bed.
“He all right?” Johnny asked.
Mabel nodded. “He’s doing ok…and he’ll be doing a lot better when he finds that you’re doing better. Gabe caught a rabbit earlier…and I make a mean rabbit stew…you think you could take a sip or two of broth?”
“Good. Rabbit stew coming right up. Arlene will keep you company while I get you a cup.” Mabel pushed Arlene back down into the chair. “Now, you go easy on her…she’s from back East and ain’t used to no slick whippersnappers like you.”
A smile touched the laugh lines around Johnny’s eyes. “I’ll be gentle,” he breathed.
“Ah, ya see,” Mabel said, gently drawing her hand over his cheek. “I knew you were a heartbreaker.”
Mabel moved away from the bed, surprised to see Arlene’s fingers snake across the mattress and touch Johnny’s shoulder. Concern was a new emotion for her sister. Perhaps he was just the one to break through the wall of selfishness that had surrounded Arlene for far too many years.
She listened to the rain pelting the roof, and she wondered if they were not all sent here to learn two of God’s most basic lessons. Love and humility.
One thing she knew for sure, no one would leave this cabin the same as they entered.
Thunder continued to rumble
over the small shack, nearly shaking it to its very foundation. Again and again
lightening streaked across the sky, flickering through the windows. It seemed
that the storm would nearly pass over them, only to return again and again as if
bouncing back off the high Sierra peaks.
Mabel set the medicines back down on the make-shift nightstand and massaged her back. She was not as young as she used to be. A small smile twitched at the corner of her lips…but it didn’t stop that quirky little feeling she had in the pit of her stomach as she stood next to Sam Jenkins while he tended to his patient.
The gentle way he coaxed Johnny to wake, and endure the painful coughing that was so important to the boy’s recovery convinced her just how close those two were. Words were just words, and Sam could have easily painted an exaggerated picture of his affection for Johnny, but the proof was here, for all to see.
Johnny seemed to have stabilized for the time being, thanks to the steady repetition of medications…2 drops of tincture of aconite every hour through the nasal tube to lower his fever, followed by two teaspoons of antimony infused in the tube each hour to lessen the pain, since laudanum suppressed the respiratory system. Hot compresses were applied to his leg to help drain the infection away from the wound.
Mabel remembered Sam’s relief as he opened the small locker on the floor of the pantry when they first arrived, pulling out the chest containing a full supply of bandages and medicines needed for any emergency that might befall the Lancer hands.. Sam had told her how Teresa, still in her teens, had grown to become a fine nurse and carefully kept watch over the supplies in the shacks. Now it appeared that Teresa’s forethought may have saved her brother’s life.
The locker contained a treasure trove of medicines and herbs. Mabel quickly made a mustard poultice for Johnny’s chest and a kettle had been heated on the pot-bellied stove with Menthol crystals added to the steam to loosen the congestion in Johnny’s lungs.
“We need your assistance again,” Sam called to Arlene.
Arlene looked up, knowing what was required of her, and dreading it. Despite the abhorrent conditions she found herself in, and the company which she would never have sought out on her own, she could not dismiss the need to help the young man.
A blinding flash of lightening, followed almost immediately by a tremendous clap of thunder, froze her in her tracks. How much more could this poor excuse for a shelter handle?
She heard Johnny’s halting
voice, quarrelsome and short-tempered, between claps of thunder and the steady
drum of rain on the roof, as Sam and Mabel gently pulled him into a sitting
position. He had been through this exercise twice already and knew how painful
it would be. But it was necessary and Arlene quickly stacked two pillows on his
lap while Sam and Mabel forced him to lean forward, his head resting on his arms
as Sam began a deep massage of his back. With sweeping upward strokes to lift
his ribcage, Johnny would hopefully cough up the thick fluid in his lungs.
Arlene could only hold his arms down and stroke his hair, feeling his whole body tremble as Sam continued to apply the upward pressure until he was satisfied that Johnny had cleared his lungs enough for now. They would repeat the painful process again in a few hours until Johnny could breath normally again.
Setting him back on the pillows so Johnny was propped up in a semi-sitting position, Mabel began to wipe down his sweaty face and chest before applying another mustard poultice.
Exhausted by the ordeal herself, Arlene never the less stayed at Johnny’s side and held his hand. Why, she couldn’t understand. He was everything that she so fervently avoided. Just another rough and uncivilized cowboy like all the rest here in this part of the country…but there was something different about Johnny Lancer, and she could only attribute it to the kindness in his eyes as he looked at Sam, somehow letting the old doctor know, without words, that none of this was his fault.
With the tumultuous storm raging around them, Johnny’s eyes slid closed again, and Arlene quietly walked back to her seat next to the old stove, the fear of the storm tempered by a new feeling…concern for a young man she didn’t even know.
Mabel continued to stroke Johnny’s hair, soothing him with words too faint for anyone but Johnny to hear. And Sam, his hand clasped around Johnny’s, sat beside him, the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“You’re doing the best you can,” Mabel said, reaching across Johnny to pat Sam’s hand, “and so far it’s working. He’s still with us. His fever hasn’t gotten any higher and his breathing hasn’t worsened since this afternoon. He’s fighting as hard as you are.”
Sam shook his head, his worry pulling him toward complete exhaustion. It was true, Johnny was holding on, but for how much longer? It seemed that he had been holding on by his fingertips since Maggie had started her campaign.
“He needs a real house. No matter what we do, we can’t keep the cold drafts out of this shack. God knows how long this roof is going to hold up…” As if a demonstration were needed, the roof creaked ominously. “He should be home in his own bed…being fussed over by Teresa and Maria.”
“Well, he’s not,” Mabel said, a sudden edge to her voice. “He’s here. And you’re just going to have to make the best of it. He needs you, Sam. But I don’t think that’s why he’s here.”
Sam looked over at her, puzzled.
“Think about it. No matter how much he disliked that new doctor of yours, he knew he was getting the care he needed. You said so yourself…the surgery on his leg was excellent, and would have worked if Johnny hadn’t high tailed it from home. No, I think he came looking for you because he knew you needed him.”
Sam looked down at Johnny, the boy’s breathing still too labored. It was the truth, of course. It was exactly what Johnny would have done. He closed his eyes; he couldn’t handle another ounce of guilt.
“If you’re heaping more guilt on yourself, don’t,” Mabel warned. “You won’t be helping that boy. He needs you…all of you. Not just the part that isn’t wallowing in guilt and self-pity.”
Sam snapped his head up. “How dare you,” he fumed. “How dare you pass judgment on me. You don’t know anything.”
“Listen to me, Sam.” Mabel gently squeezed Johnny’s hand in hers, feeling the heat of fever in his languid fingers. Just an hour ago she had bathed his face, promising he would be all right soon. But that’s not what the boy had wanted to hear. He wanted to know that Sam was all right. What kind of life had this boy led that left so may scars on the outside yet allowed him to feel such compassion for others on the inside? “It’s perfectly normal to feel guilt. It’s what keeps us honest…keeps us human. But it has to stop at some point. It’s time you left the guilt behind. You have grabbed onto it because it protects you from other feelings. What is it that you are really running away from, Sam?”
Sam stood up, his legs wobbling. The truth was hard to hear. It was so much easier to run away. When had be become such a coward? He looked down at Mabel, her hand gently holding Johnny’s. Who was this woman who could she see straight through him?
The rain slowed for a moment…the wind dying down to a soft whistle. Sam and Mabel looked toward the ceiling. Was this the end of the storm? But all hopes were dashed when the rain began to batter the roof with renewed force, and the wind howled like a living creature.
The door suddenly flew open and Gabe was pushed inside by a gust of wind so strong it nearly sent him to his knees. With all his strength he shoved the door closed with his shoulder, the floor dripping wet around him.
“Damn it,” Gabe’s voice shook. “Don’t get much worse than this. That barn out there ain’t gonna make it.”
“The horses?” Mabel asked.
“I set ‘em loose. They have a better chance on their own.”
An uneasiness filled the cabin. They all knew any hope of getting out of this line shack alive seemed to shrink away with the growing fury of the storm.
Scott slammed his hand against the window sill as the wind and rain continued to assault the estancia, and mud and water rose at an alarming rate in the courtyard. Unable to take another minute of waiting, despite the weather and the flooding, he headed purposefully toward the front door.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch demanded, rushing up to catch his son.
“I can’t sit around here doing nothing. If Jelly is right, Johnny’s in that line shack.”
“And if he is?”
Another streak of lightning lit up the sky outside, flickering in through the windows as a false dusk descended over the land. Thunder rumbled over them, rolling away in the distance, only to be followed by another powerful explosion of light and sound.
“Son, I want to go after Johnny as much as you do…,” he said, grabbing hold of Scott’s arm. “But only a fool would take an animal out in weather like this. If you don’t get hit by lightning then your horse could break a leg. It’s too dangerous. We have to wait.” Murdoch looked out over the muddy courtyard, knowing the entire valley was mired in thick mud.
Scott yanked his arm free, knowing Murdoch’s words were true…but it didn’t ease the pain of knowing that Johnny was out there…”I don’t know if that line shack can hold up under weather like this.”
“If Johnny met the stage, then he’s with Sam and Gabe. Gabe’s been through storms like this before, he’ll know what to do.”
“If…” Scott spat. “If he made it to the road in time to meet the stage…if he didn’t pass out somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere…if…”
“Scott, you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking like this. There’s nothing we can do now except pray that he did make it to the stage and that they are all safe. As soon as the storm lets up and it’s safe to travel we’ll go looking for him. Scott…” Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arm again, pulling him around to look into his eyes. “I’ll be damned if I’ll take the chance of losing another son in this storm.”
Another earsplitting clap of thunder exploded overhead, seemingly taunting them.
They stood silently as the darkness closed in around them. The sound of swishing skirts drew Scott’s attention to Teresa and Maria as they began to light the oil lamps and candles against the hungry darkness.
“We never should have left Johnny alone,” Murdoch suddenly growled. “We should have known he would pull a stupid stunt like this.”
Scott shook his head. “We couldn’t have known he would do this. That he was even physically capable of getting out of bed and out the front door.”
“Damn it, he never thinks about himself. When will he realize that we care? That when he hurts, we hurt. He had no right to leave like that. To make us worry. What makes him think…”
“He wasn’t thinking. He was doing. Sir, that has been the hardest thing to understand and accept. That Johnny acts on his feeling, the consequences be damned.”
Silence descended once again over the great room as both men looked out at the turbulent sky…there would be no sleep tonight…just a long vigil…waiting for the storm to weaken enough for them to set out after Johnny.
Johnny felt like he was drowning. His heart raced, his chest heaved trying to draw air into his starving lungs. It was insufferably hot…too hot to breathe. The air was filled with the sound of thunderous explosions. “Madre de Dios,” he cried silently,” where am I?”
He tried to think, to remember…he saw Sam, standing in the middle of a street he didn’t recognize, his jacket off, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows…what was he doing? His medical bag lay open on the ground next to his foot, instruments and medicines scattered in the dirt. Blood…there was blood on his shirt, over his heart. Johnny looked for a bullet hole, a knife wound, but nothing marred his shirt but that ever widening swatch of blood, seeping down his chest.
A storm broiled overhead, lightning streaking between ominous black clouds, thunder rumbling closer until the ground shook beneath them.
“Sam…?” he called, but there was no answer. Sam looked at him with eyes so sad that it was almost too painful to look at.
Johnny tried to stand, but a dagger of pain shot through his right leg and he crumbled back to the ground.
to draw air into his throbbing chest he began to crawl toward Sam.
Sam yelled, the blood soaking his shirt with alarming speed. “I’m sorry. I
failed you, as a doctor and as a friend.”
you didn’t,” Johnny yelled, desperation in his voice. “You never failed
me. Not me or anyone else.”
you, John, the one who needed me most. Please forgive me.”
nothing to forgive…” Johnny
tried to reach out for Sam but his strength gave out and he collapsed on the
ground, rolling onto his back, his arms outstretched. The storm moved in over
them and he could see the clouds drifting down to engulf Sam.
Johnny screamed, helpless to stop the monstrous storm from wrapping itself
around Sam. He watched as Sam disappeared and he was left alone as the storm
folded into itself and vanished.
felt the pain of loss and he began to choke on the bitterness of it. Sam was
lost to him…
him up!” Sam yelled, “He’s choking.”
grabbed Johnny’s arms, pulling him forward against her chest, feeling the
boy’s body convulse as a fit of coughing suddenly left him gagging on the
secretions from his lungs. Arlene grabbed a towel and held it under Johnny chin.
hit him hard in the center of his back, “Come on, John, cough it up. Come on,
damn it, cough…”
storm rampaged around them as a storm of another kind rampaged inside the shack.
Sam hit Johnny in the back again and again. Mabel grabbed a pillow and wedged it
between herself and Johnny’s chest, pushing the pillow up against his ribcage
to increase the effects of Sam’s blows. Finally Johnny coughed and spit up the
obstruction. Still gasping for air, Sam eased the boy back on the pillows and
accepted the cool, damp towel Arlene offered to wipe Johnny’s face.
looked up at Sam, his eyes filled with terror. “Don’t leave me,” he
gasped, his voice barely audible.
won’t,” Sam promised. “I won’t.”
gasping to get air into his lungs, Johnny’s strength ran out and his eyes slid
Johnny gonna be all right?” Gabe asked, shuffling nervously in front of the
saw the stricken look on Sam’s face and quickly walked over to Gabe, pulling
him away from the bed. “That boy is a fighter, Gabe, he’s gonna be just
sat down, still holding Johnny’s hand, Mabel’s words ringing in his ears.
Johnny would be all right. He had to be…
fell over the small cabin and one lone oil lantern lit the room.
Hour after hour the storm howled outside. Sam took shifts with Mabel and Arlene as they gave Johnny his
medication and watched as he fought against his own storm.
Just before dusk the storm seemed to blow itself out. Only a steady light
rain continued to fall. The quiet
following the deafening roar of the storm left everyone on edge. As dawn finally
lightened the sky the survivors got their first look at the damage.
barn had collapsed, all but the roof submerged in thick mud. The shack stood
like an island in an ocean of water and mud. The stagecoach was mired in mud up
to the top of the wheels.
Lord,” Arlene gasped. “What are we going to do? How are we going to get out
ain’t no getting outta here until someone comes ta get us. And that’ll be a
day or two ‘fore they can get through this water.” Gabe said.
unison all eyes went to Johnny as he lay quietly on the cot.
cleared her throat. “Well, this is no time to start feeling sorry for
ourselves. We made it though one hell of a storm, now all we have to do is sit
back and wait. We’ve got food and we’ve got water. And we’ve got plenty of
medicine for Johnny here…so I think we just thank God and our lucky stars that
we made it and start getting ourselves organized.”
walked back to the chair sitting next to the bed and sank down on the hard seat,
his body aching from exhaustion, both physical and mental.
He leaned forward and checked Johnny’s forehead for fever. It seemed to
have gone down a bit. His breathing was less labored. If they were lucky, Johnny
may have turned the corner. Only time would tell now.
felt Mabel at his side and her gentle, but strong arms wrapped around him and
eased him over to the cot beside Johnny’s.
can watch over Johnny while you get some sleep. It won’t be long before that
young man will have some very hard questions for you. You owe it to both of you
to be strong enough to give him the answers he needs. Now rest, we’ll take
good care of him.
could only nod and allow Mabel to direct him like a child. He needed her…more
than she would ever know…
Mabel pulled a blanket over Sam’s shoulders his eyes slid closed and he fell
into a deep sleep with the knowledge that Johnny still needed him and this time
he would be there for his patient, and more importantly, he would be there for
Mabel let Sam sleep as long as she could. Sitting next to Johnny's bed, she listened to the storm rage outside, watching the young man flinch his head ever so slightly, disturbed by pain or a nightmare. She feared they would lose him. He had gotten worse instead of
better since they brought him here to the shack. She worried mostly about how it would affect Sam. If Johnny died then Sam would too…she had no doubt about that. She shook her head sadly. They were so close now…they only needed time to talk.
She gently shook Sam awake. "It's time for Johnny's massage."
"Come on Johnny, I know this hurts, but it's got to be done. Now cough for me." Sam put all his weight into his arms as he massaged Johnny's back, forcing him to cough up more congestion from his lungs. "That's it. You're doing fine. One more cough and we'll be done for now."
His hands moved along Johnny's back, his fingers sliding over old scars. Memories of the first time he had seen Johnny's back came flooding back. Sprawled face down in a bed the boy had not been in since he was two years old, Johnny Lancer lay gasping for breath, so much like he was right now.
Sam had questioned Murdoch when he first learned that his friend had sent for his sons to help him fight the land pirates. Scott was understandable. But not his youngest…not the boy who had made a name for himself as a gunslinger, a gun for hire. Johnny Madrid spelled trouble and he feared that Murdoch would be hurt, both physically and emotionally. But how wrong he had been. From the very start, when Sam had sat with Johnny as he fought to stay alive after Day Pardee's bullet and the subsequent pneumonia left him helplessly dependent on everyone for his most basic needs…he found a young man filled with a sense of right and wrong that belied his reputation. Confused and overwhelmed by feelings he had for his new found half brother and the father he had hated with every breath for as long as he could remember, Johnny had no one to turn to but his doctor. Sam had given him his oath that he would hold the secrets Johnny shared. Johnny trusted him and they formed a friendship that never faltered...until now.
How many times had he tended to Johnny since his first meeting after Day Pardee? How many times had he set broken bones and stitched up cuts and, yes, even more bullet wounds…and each time he had been there for Johnny. Why then, could he not face Johnny this time? Why had he turned his back on his friend, his patient, when he needed him more than at any other time? Mabel said he was running scared. But from what?
Sam felt Johnny's back arch beneath his hands as the boy coughed once more and he patted Johnny gently on the shoulder whispering in his ear that he had done well. Nodding to Mabel and Arlene, they eased Johnny back onto the pillows and Sam stood motionless, vowing that he would face his fears and face Johnny when he woke up. He would not run any longer. It was time to stand and fight. He just hoped to God that he was strong enough to give Johnny what he wanted and what he needed.
Johnny lay over the pillows piled high on his lap, too exhausted to move. He coughed twice, the pain in his chest sending him spiraling back toward the black void. But voices surrounded him, keeping him from falling all the way to oblivion. Some he knew, some he didn't. Gentle hands pushed him back onto the pillows and a cool cloth eased the heat on his face and chest. It seemed a lifetime now that he was caught up in this never ending nightmare. First he was so hot he couldn't breathe, then he was so cold his teeth chattered. He remembered thunder and lightning so intense he could see the lightning through his closed eyelids.
And the pain, it seemed to surge until he was ready to scream…his chest aching with each breath, his leg throbbing with each beat of his heart, then it melted away, only to return later…And he was always short of breath…gasping to draw air into his lungs as if he had just run for miles without stopping.
The blackness that had claimed him for so long seemed to be losing its grip and the weight that was crushing his chest eased up a bit. He listened intently, trying to decipher sounds and voices.
He recognized Sam's voice and would have smiled if he could. And a woman's voice…he had heard it somewhere on the peripheral of consciousness. It had eased his mind and made him feel safe. And Gabe…he would recognize that voice anywhere. He was complaining loudly about something…mud?
Something nudged his right foot and pain shot up his leg and he must have moaned because both Sam and the woman were stroking his face calling to him to wake up.
Unsure whether he wanted to or not, he had a nagging feeling that he had something to say to Sam. Something important.
Forcing his heavy eyelids to lift, he saw gray shadows moving before him. As his senses cleared and his eyes focused, he saw a woman he didn't recognize hovering over him.
"Well, it's about time you woke up, young man." Johnny didn't know the face but he knew the voice. Breathing in and out slowly, each breath catching in his chest, he waited silently until the second figure moved into his sight.
"Sam…" he breathed, and the one word left him breathless.
"Don't try to talk, Johnny, not just yet. Give yourself time."
Johnny nodded imperceptibly as his eyes slid closed again. As the storm finally blew itself out, Sam smiled. It seemed appropriate that the storm would abate just as Johnny took his first big step toward recovery.
As the rain turned to showers the Lancer ranch came back to life. Two feet of standing water and mud covered the ground as far as the eye could see and Murdoch knew there would be low lying areas that would have been hit harder than they were.
The house and other structures seemed to have weathered the storm, but he knew there would be a heavy price to pay in lost cattle and downed fences. It would take weeks to repair the damage, and months, possibly years, to recover financially. Thank God storms like this were rare.
It had been a long night of worrying about Johnny. Not knowing if he made it to the stagecoach and if he did, if the stagecoach made it to the line shack like Jelly thought, or if it made it all the way to Stockton. There was also the possibility that the stage hadn't weathered the storm. That everyone on board could have perished. Shaking his head he refused to go there again. His thoughts had whirled around so many ideas through the night…he had to believe that Johnny was safe…that Jelly was right.
Standing at the huge picture window behind his desk he couldn't help but wonder what God, in his wisdom, had planned for his family…especially his youngest son. What more could Johnny go through in his young life? It seemed some men were born to be tested, and if that was truly the case, then Johnny had faced a gauntlet of tests. Surely he had met the challenges, face to face, and now deserved a rest.
And if God was not at the helm, and did not steer everyone's life as they traveled from birth to death, then what quirk of fate had singled Johnny out, making him endure more than most men did in a lifetime?
There were no answers, Murdoch knew…he could only have faith in God, and manage to do his best day by day. And that is what made this so hard…what made him wonder if all that befell Johnny was not, at least in a small part, his fault.
He had met and bedded Maria without a second thought beyond his lusting desire. Then he had fallen in love with her…knowing she was too young and expected life to bow at her feet. Instead of a grand estancia with servants and parties, he gave her a run-down hacienda that required all his time and effort to rebuild and a thousand acres of land that required hard work and sacrifice. And a life growing in her womb. He saw her face as clearly as if she were standing right beside him. Her beauty was unsurpassed, but her eyes had grown cold and distant.
What should have been the most glorious time of her life, was the most damning for her. As her belly swelled with life, she became more sullen. He could see the look of a trapped animal in her eyes. He had hoped the birth of their child would change all that…that her instincts as a mother would sweep away her sadness and loneliness. But it didn't, and after two years she was gone. Along with one of the two most precious things he had ever known in his life…his youngest son, Johnny.
And that had been the beginning of a life no father could wish upon his son. And yet, if he had not been born…Murdoch shuddered at the thought of missing even one day with his son since his return. Even in the midst of their most heated arguments, he was still proud to call Johnny his son. And at times, when they simply sat quietly and reflected on what was and what might have been…he felt his heart swell with pride. This young man who had fought so many obstacles; the pain of hunger and loneliness, the humiliation of not being wanted because of his mixed heritage. Johnny seldom spoke of his past, what he did say was gut wrenching for Murdoch to hear, and he knew that what Johnny chose to share was only the tip of the iceberg. So much more lay hidden so deep no one could truly know what the boy had gone through.
A flash of color caught Murdoch's attention and he saw Joe sloshing through the water towards the house. And behind him, Murdoch heard the hurried footsteps of this oldest son as Scott raced toward the door, a saddle bag filled with Johnny's clothes slung over his shoulder.
Joe had his hand raised to knock when Murdoch swung the door open. Scott didn't say a word as he slipped past them, his mind only on one thing…finding Johnny.
"Is he going after Johnny?" Joe asked.
Murdoch nodded, following Scott with his eyes as his son ran toward the barn, splashing water, drenching his pants up to his hips.
"Roads may be impassable for a day or two," Joe said, looking after Scott.
"I know. But Scott has to see it for himself." Murdoch dragged his attention back to Joe. "How are the men, anyone hurt?"
"Texas broke his leg and Juan slipped and knocked himself out. He still don't know where he is."
"Bring them in here, and anyone else who's hurt. Teresa will look after them until the doctor gets here."
Jelly was pulling on his jacket as he ducked past Murdoch and Joe.
"Jelly," Murdoch grabbed his arm. "I want you to see how the roads are into Morro Coyo. If you can get there, bring the doctor here."
"But I wanted ta go after Johnny," Jelly huffed.
"I know." Murdoch did know how worried Jelly was over Johnny. Sometimes he seemed to think he was the boy's father. "But all the ranchers in the area have always come to Lancer after a storm like this. They will expect to see the doctor here. If Johnny made it to the line shack, then he's in good hands with Sam. Now, please, get the doctor here as quickly as you can."
"He ain't gonna like it much, riding through this muck."
Murdoch squared his shoulders. "He doesn't have to like it. It's his job. If he gives you any trouble, Jelly, I want you to hog tie him and throw him over your saddle if you have to."
Jelly nodded. "You're darn tootin' I will. And when I get back I expect I'll be seeing that boy of ours. He's got a serious talkin' to coming."
"That he does, Jelly." Murdoch squeezed his arm, knowing the fear that ate at his gut ate at Jelly's too. "Jelly, we'll find him. Now, get going."
Murdoch turned back to Joe. "Tell Scott to hold up a minute…I'm going with him. And tell Cipriano that he's in charge until we get back. He'll know what to do."
Joe nodded. "You find him, boss…you find Johnny and bring him back safe."
Murdoch slapped Joe across the back, feeling a healthy dose of pride that the men felt so close to Johnny. His son had walked a thin tightrope between being a boss and being a friend, and Johnny had pulled it off without even realizing it.
"We'll find him, Joe. Now catch Scott before he takes off."
Murdoch made a hasty dash for the kitchen and grabbed some of Teresa's biscuits from last night's barely touched dinner. It promised to be a long day trying to reach the line shack.
Mabel stood in the doorway of the battered shack and breathed in the clean fresh air. Nothing smelled as good as the air after a storm. She often thought of it as Nature's housecleaning.
But the fresh air did nothing to alleviate the alarm at what she saw. Mud had risen up over the front porch, covering the two stairs, and now there was a solid floor of glistening mud for as far as the eye could see.
The stage listed in the mud with the right side submerged past the door, the tops of the wheels barely visible. Tree limbs were scattered everywhere, their branches sticking up out of the mud like fingers trying to grab onto anything to keep from being consumed by the mire. The barn was gone, only the roof remained. A tree, scorched by lightning, stood behind the barn, a testament to nature's fury.
The shack itself had not gone untouched. The overhang above the porch had collapsed near the right corner of the cabin and shingles were scattered on the top of the mud like discarded playing cards. Another hour and the storm would have taken the whole roof.
Everywhere the sound of water dripped, from the roof of the cabin and the leaves of the trees to the horse trough overflowing with crystal clear rain water.
Stepping back inside, Mabel closed the door to keep the draft off Johnny. The smell of the menthol steam and the heat from the pot-bellied stove assaulted her nose after the fresh smell outside.
It had been a long night. Gabe lay on the floor near the stove, his snores vying with the sounds of the dripping water outside. Arlene had finally left Johnny's side. It surprised Mabel that her sister, showing no sign of concern for anyone else since they had been reunited in Philadelphia, seemed drawn to Johnny's plight. Perhaps there was something good still left in her.
Sam was sleeping soundly on the cot next to Johnny's. Perhaps Johnny being there had chased some of the ghosts from Sam's dreams. There was still a long way for those two to go…but hopefully they already had a good start.
Deciding sleep was more important than food at the moment, she sat down in the chair vacated by Arlene and took Johnny's hand into hers. His skin felt cooler, the fever had dropped considerably. His breathing sounded easier too. She could still hear the wheeze from the congestion in his lungs, but the combination of the mustard poultice and the menthol crystals along with the deep massages Sam had performed every four hours, seemed to be winning the battle against the pneumonia.
Pushing the blanket off Johnny's leg she lifted the bandage and grimaced at the red and swollen area around the stitches. Infection still raged in that leg. She sighed deeply and walked over to the stove, pulling a towel soaking in a steaming pot of water and letting it drip over the sink until most of the water was gone. She placed it over Johnny's leg and held his hands tightly as his eyes blinked open at the sudden pain.
"It's all right," she whispered. "It's just a hot compress for your leg. Here," she reached for the glass that held the Antimony, drawing the right amount into a syringe. "this will help with the pain."
"No!" Johnny hissed, trying to whip his head away from her and thus pulling the offending nasal tube from Mabel's hand. "No laudanum."
"It's not laudanum. I promise. And it's not morphine either. But you need something." She quickly infused the medication into the tube then held a glass of water to his lips. "I bet you are mighty thirsty after that high fever you had. You had all of us pretty worried there for awhile."
"Sorry," Johnny said weakly, taking a sip of the water. "Didn't mean…to make trouble for…anyone," he said haltingly between breaths. "I just had to talk to Sam."
"I know, and he needs to talk to you. But he's exhausted now. I would like to see him get a little more rest before you two start hashing out your problems."
Johnny smiled. "Hashing out…our problems. That's a good way a saying it. How is he?" Johnny asked, looking over at Sam sleeping soundly on the cot next to him.
Mabel waited until Johnny looked back up at her. "He's been carrying around a heavy load of guilt."
Johnny sighed, looking back over at Sam. "It's not his to carry. He…he didn't do nothing wrong."
"I know. He told me a little about it. The rest I knew from the newspapers. Oh yes," Mabel nodded, "the Murder 101 Trial, as it was called in the papers, was headline news for weeks in Kansas. I'm sure it got as far as New York. Our little town paper, that seldom saw the light of day more than twice a month, went to printing daily. It was fascinating reading. I have to admit getting caught up in it myself. But I think that miserable excuse for a woman, Maggie Stewart, should of hung for what she tried to do to you."
"She didn't hurt me half as much as she…hurt Sam. He's a good man, he don't…deserve this."
Mabel reached over and brushed the back of her hand against Johnny's cheek. "You surely are a caution, Johnny Lancer. No wonder Sam thinks so highly of you."
Johnny turned away, embarrassed.
"Sounds like the storm's died down" He said. "How long…you think it's going to be before…we can get out of here?"
"It'll be awhile. Stagecoach is useless and Gabe had to turn the horses loose. We're gonna have to wait for someone to find us. That could be a spell."
"Sorry, I put you all in this kind of trouble."
Mabel shook her head as she stood up. "I told you, you don't have anything to be sorry about. And truth be told, you saved all our lives, Johnny. If we hadn't picked you up and headed for this line shack I don't think we would of made it through that storm. Worst I've ever seen, and I've seen some beauts. Gabe said he never should of left Morro Coyo in the first place. But," she leaned down and smoothed the covers over Johnny's shoulders, "I think this little meeting here was meant to be. Now you get some rest. You and Sam got some talking to do when he wakes up."
"I'm not tired," Johnny said, even as he eyes slid closed.
Mabel kissed him gently on the forehead. "Sleep tight anyway."
Huge broiling clouds, dark and heavy with rain were driven overhead by strong winds that occasionally drifted down and tugged at the hats of the two men who slowly made their way through the storm ravaged valley.
Scott clamped his knees around Charlie as the horse floundered once again in the thick mud that covered the ground as far as the eye could see, trying to get sure footing where there was none.
He looked over at Murdoch, his father's face cast in stone. They both desperately wanted to get to the line shack to see if Johnny had made it to the stage, and the stage had gone on to the line shack where he would be in Sam's capable care. But the going was getting rougher as the mud and standing water grew higher. All around them they saw islands of land peaking above the water and each island was a sanctuary to mewling cows stranded until the water receded.
Scott pulled Charlie to a stop. "We can't make it this way," he said, his voice mirroring the hopelessness he felt wash over him like the rain had washed over the land. "It will only get worse."
Murdoch pulled up beside Scott. "There's another way," Murdoch said, pointing toward the foothills in the distance. "If we can reach higher ground we can drop down from behind the shack. The going will still be rough once we hit the valley floor again, but it will only a couple of miles. We've got twenty miles going this way."
Scott looked behind them at the distance they had already come. It had taken them four hours to get this far. It would be another four hours before they backtracked to the trail that led up into the foothills.
"It'll be dark by the time we get back to the trail."
nodded. "Won't do much good trying to ride through country like that at
night. And it looks like more rain is coming. We'll get an early start in the
"No!" Scott's voice startled Charlie and Scott had to hold on as the horse bucked in the mud and nearly lost its footing. "We can't leave him out there another night."
"Scott…Johnny is either safe in that line shack with Sam or…in either case we won't be doing him any good by killing ourselves trying to get to him." Murdoch's own heart pounded in his chest, knowing that Scott felt the same way. "You know it's the right way to go, Son. The only way."
Scott nodded reluctantly. His military training and common sense told him that Murdoch was right. But it still ripped his heart out. He knew Johnny needed him…could feel it deep within himself…Slowly he turned Charlie around and headed back the way they came.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” Arnold Garner seethed. “If you don’t unhand me immediately, I will call the sheriff.”
right ahead,” Jelly yelled. “Val’ll tell ya the same thing. Now get your
doctoring supplies together, ya got patients waiting.”
is my clinic. They can come here if they need my services.”
ya got straw for brains?” Jelly roared. “We just had the worst storm to hits
these here parts in fifteen years. Most of the roads into town are impassable.
Thank the good Lord that the one from Lancer was clear enough. Still took me
more than half the day to get here. So if’n ya don’t want to travel at night
ya better get a move on.”
you don’t speak English…I said I was not going,”
Dr. Garner shouted. “Now leave here
“What’s all the caterwauling about here?” Val pushed the door open and stood gaping at the two antagonists. “I could hear you two all the way down to the livery.”
“Sheriff! You are just in time. Kindly escort this…this…man…out of my office. If he doesn’t leave immediately, I will press charges.”
Now hold on.” Val stepped between the two men
not sure if Jelly was going to jump the doctor. Jelly’s face was red with
rage, his whiskered chin jutted out in a defiant stare. “What’s this all
came ta get the doc and bring him back ta Lancer. We got hurt folks coming in
from the other ranches. Sam always used our ranch after a thing like this
happens. Easier for the folks ta get there than all the way ta town.”
Val nodded. “So what’s the problem?” he asked Garner.
problem is, Sheriff, that I am not your Dr. Jenkins. He’s gone. I am the new
doctor. And I handle my practice differently. I have no intentions of going to
the Lancer ranch when I have a fully stocked clinic here.”
tipped his hat back and took a deep breath. “I knowed you had some learning ta
do about being a doc out here, but I didn’t know you were a complete idiot. Ya
got any idea how far some of them folks live from town?
There’s no way for some of ‘em ta make it here for weeks. Some of
‘em might not be able to get to Lancer either. Everyone knows Lancer is where
the doc always is after somethin’ like this, and Lancer is where yer goin’
ta be. Now, ya kin ride peacefully, or I kin put ya in cuffs and haul yer
carcass out there.”
have your badge for this, Sheriff,” Garner
kin have it,” Val snapped. “After ya take care of them patients.”
well. I will go to the Lancer ranch, but under protest. Get my buggy ready.”
Jelly chuckled sarcastically. “There ain’t no buggy in these parts that’d
make it through that mud. I hope ya know how ta sit a saddle.”
do, quite well, in fact. Now get one saddled while I gather my supplies. You may
want to bring another horse along. If I must run a clinic at Lancer, I will run
a proper one.”
door slammed shut behind them as Val and Jelly carefully stepped out onto the
wooden sidewalk, slippery with mud. Val scowled. “I tell ya, Jelly, that
man’s dodgy enough ta crawl under a snake’s belly.”
“Ya got that right, Val. Ya want ta ride out with us? I don’t mind tellin’ ya that I don’t look forward ta travelin’ alone with the likes of him.”
“Sorry, Jelly, but I got plenty ta to here. But I’ll be out in a day or two ta see Johnny. How’s he doin’?”
“Johnny? The blame fool boy took off after Sam.”
“In the middle of that storm? Is he crazy?”
“Ya might think so. He was awful sick when he left, Val. Nobody knows fer sure if he made it. And…”
“And ya haven’t been able to look for him. Tell Murdoch I’ll be out there as soon as I can ta help look if ya haven’t found him by tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Val. Murdoch and Scott will appreciate the help.”
men parted company, Val to his office and Jelly to hire two horses for the trip
back to Lancer, both men with the same frightening thought. No man could have
survived that storm alone.
on Johnny, I know this hurts, but it’s got to be done. Now cough for me.”
Sam put all his weight into his arms as he massaged Johnny’s back, forcing
Johnny to cough up more congestion in his lungs. “That’s it. You’re doing
fine. One more cough and we’ll be done for now.”
hands moved along Johnny’s back, his fingers sliding over old scars,
testaments to a life no child should have had to endure, and the old memories
resurfaced again. Sam had feared
the angry young man at first...Johnny Madrid…gun slinger…killer for hire. He
had cautioned Murdoch not to get too close to him, not to trust him. He knew the
years Murdoch has spent searching for his lost boy…but this was not the son he
had dreamed of finding. This was a man hardened by life, devoid of conscience, a
danger to everyone he met. How wrong he had been.
Johnny was the antithesis of what he believed a gunfighter to be. Fearful at
first, afraid to trust, Johnny had reached out and Sam could not deny him.
Madrid’s need to be Lancer was so great, but he still didn’t know, didn’t
trust this new family. Sam remembered the night, three days after Johnny was
shot, when he was racked with fever and pain, still refusing the laudanum he so
desperately needed. Toward dawn, when Sam was the only one left in the room,
Johnny had looked up at him, asking if he could trust him. Sam nodded, and there
was a meeting of minds at that moment.
friendship developed between them that he thought could never be broken…and as
he looked down on this boy…this man…he realized it was just as strong as
ever, he just had to have the courage to accept that and return to the life he
had before Maggie tried to destroy it.
lay over the pillows piled on his lap too exhausted to move. He coughed twice,
the pain in his chest sending him spiraling back down into a black void. He felt
like he was at the bottom of a deep dark well…his chest burning, heaving to
draw air into his tortured lungs. Voices surrounded him. Some he knew, some he
didn’t. Gentle hands pushed him back onto the pillows and a cool cloth eased
the heat on his face. It seemed a lifetime now that he was caught up in this
never ending nightmare. First he was so hot he couldn’t breath, then he was so
cold his teeth chattered. He remembered thunder and lightning so intense he
could see the lightning through his closed eyelids. And he vaguely remembered
talking to a woman…her voice soft and comforting, promising him he could talk
the burning in his chest eased, he felt as if he was climbing towards the top of
that well…he only had to open his eyes. But not just yet…he felt himself
slip back down, just a little. Next time…next time he would be stronger and he
would open his eyes and have that talk with Sam.
Jelly thought he had never seen
a more comforting sight than the Lancer arch. For five hours he had nudged his
horse through knee high mud, coaxing the poor animal to continue on when he was
too tired in mind and spirit to carry on. But there were people at Lancer who
were counting on them making it back, and he was damn well gonna do it…
Tired, hungry and cursing Murdoch Lancer for sending him on this trip to hell, he silently listened to the unending complaints from Dr. Garner as they made their way toward the hacienda. By the time they left Morro Coyo, the doctor had two pack horses straining under a load of medical supplies. Somehow Sam Jenkins had gotten by with only his medical bag and a few splints when disaster hit.
The thought of Sam brought back his worry over Johnny. The boy had done some all fired dumb things since Jelly first met him, still slightly dazed by a bullet crease to his head and in the safe hands of Jelly’s orphans. But this was the worst. He still believed what he had said to Scott and Murdoch; that Johnny had made it to the stage and the stage had gone on to the safety of the line shack. But he had to admit to himself that the odds were slim that that was what happened. More than likely Johnny was lying…he pushed the thought out of his mind…he would not go there.
“At last…” Dr. Garner sighed loudly. “These are appalling conditions. How do you people live like this?”
Jelly ignored him, just like he ignored everything else that came out of the doctor’s mouth. In a few minutes he would be safe and dry inside the house…with news that they had found Johnny.
An hour later Murdoch sagged in the saddle as he and Scott also rode beneath the Lancer arch, exhausted in mind and body. Having to give up for the day was a painful blow to both men. Not knowing if Johnny had even made it to the stage, lay heavy on their minds and hearts. There was only a chance Jelly was right…something family and friends clamped on to, because the alternative was not acceptable. And now, the worst thing possible; they were unable to reach the line shack by the direct route. It would be another long, agonizing night of not knowing, and waiting for daybreak to start looking again.
The rain had started falling…lighter, but still not giving the ground a chance to dry out.
With their heads bowed against the rain and fatigue, they let their mounts make their way to the barn and the lure of shelter, oats and a good brushing.
Jose met them just inside the barn, and held the horses as they dismounted. Thirteen, if he were a day, the boy took the reins then stopped, imploring Murdoch and Scott for the answer he wanted to hear. But the dejected look on the two men’s faces told him the answer he did not want to hear...they had not found senor Jaunito.
Murdoch saw the look and his heart went out to the boy…so many people cared for his son…and he didn’t even know to what extent until now.
Murdoch laid a gentle hand on Jose’s shoulder. “We’ll head out again first thing in the morning,” he said. “Tell Cipriano that we would like him to join us.”
“Si senor, I will tell him.”
Scott looked over at his father. “Cipriano knows the foothills like the back of his hand,” Murdoch explained.
Nodding, Scott walked back out into the rain toward the house, noticing for the first time the dozen horses tethered in front of the door.
“Senor doctor, he is taking care of the hurt,” Jose quickly offered. “He was mucho mad. I could hear him yelling from here when he first arrived. Then Senor Jelly, he started yelling, and senorita Teresa started crying...and…”
Murdoch’s shoulders sagged. But there was a sudden sparkle in Joes’s eyes.
“Senora Maria started yelling. Everyone was very quiet after that.”
laugh so deep, and so unexpected, exploded from Murdoch’s chest making both
Scott and Jose jump. “We’d better rescue the good
doctor from Maria,” Murdoch said, and walked towards the house, the
overwhelming tension ebbing for just a moment.
Gabe stood in the doorway covered in mud up to his waist. “We got a problem, folks,” he said. “All the wood that’s left ta burn is in this shack. Everything out here is covered in mud. You’ll have ta conserve where ya can.”
Mabel nodded, throwing a pair of pants toward Gabe. “Here’s a pair of Sam’s pants. I took down what hem I could. They’ll still be a bit short, but better than what you’re wearing.
“Thank ya, ma’am.” Gabe caught the pants, being careful not to let them touch the mud. “And, ah…I kind a fixed a little privacy for ya ladies outside. It ain’t much, but I put some boards down so ya won’t sink in the mud and made a kind of lean to. No telling how long we’ll be here.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Arlene stepped forward. “But you are letting what little heat we have left in here out.” She closed the door unceremoniously in his face.
“Arlene!” Mabel cried.
“He just said we had to conserve the heat, didn’t he?” she asked innocently.
Sam could only shake his head. Turning back to look at Johnny, he was surprised to see Johnny’s eyes open, a smile lighting up his face.
“I thought you were still asleep.”
“Didn’t want to miss the show,” Johnny rasped breathlessly.
“Don’t try to talk just yet, John.” Sam walked over to him, pulling the blanket down to Johnny’s waist. “I’m going to check you over first, then we are going to have a talk, young man. At least I am. Whatever possessed you to go out into a storm like that in your condition?”
“I had to talk to you.”
“Didn’t I just say not to talk? Now, let’s get one thing straight, right away, I am the doctor and you are the patient. That means you listen and do what I say. Understood?”
Another smile softened the lines around Johnny’s eyes. He understood.
“Good. Now if I hurt you, just grunt good and loud.”
Johnny nodded, knowing he was safe in Sam’s care.
“Amazing. You can follow orders,” Sam quipped. “All right, I’m going to tell you exactly what is going on here.” Sam began his examination, describing what he found as he went along. “You have pneumonia, not surprising after getting drenched in that freezing rain. Your chest is still congested. We’ll have to continue to make you cough. I don’t know if you remember the massages I’ve been giving you…they hurt, but they are necessary. You still have a nasty infection in your leg. I’ve opened it again and put a drain in. We will continue to put hot compresses on it…again painful, but necessary. You are still running a fever, lower than it was, thank God, but still of concern. We will continue with the medications. When you think you can keep something down, you can have some broth by mouth. Until then, I’m afraid everything will be by that nasal tube.”
Johnny’s eyes sought the tube and he whispered, “Take it out.”
“Did I say no talking?” Sam asked sharply. “The nasal tube stays. Now, you are going to be pretty weak until the fever breaks and your lungs clear. And then for awhile after that. So, until I say differently, you are going to stay right in this bed…understood?”
Johnny understood. He was just too tired to answer as his eyelids slid closed. He felt safe as he drifted back to sleep. There was a lot to talk about….but it could wait. For now it was enough that he had found Sam.
Scott felt as if he were back
in a field hospital, in the center of a full engagement. Cots were set up in
neat rows, each one filled with an injured man or woman. Soft moans echoed in
the room and the smell of disinfectant hung heavy in the air. Even Brad
Foster’s two young boys occupied two of the cots nearest the roaring fire in
He spotted Teresa in the far corner tending to Joe. She wore a white apron and a white scarf over her hair. Maria came out of the kitchen carrying a pan of steaming water, also wearing a white apron and scarf. Dr. Garner sat at Murdoch’s desk, which had been pushed back against the picture window to allow more room for the cots. In fact every bit of furniture had been shoved up against the walls; even the large area rug was rolled up and pushed out of the way.
Scott couldn’t believe how many people had been injured in the storm. It appeared that Lancer had faired fairly well in comparison to the other ranches.
“Did you find your son?” Garner asked. There was no hint of real concern, just a question that he was expected to ask.
Murdoch shook his head. He seemed to have aged ten years in the past three months. Now with Johnny missing, his normally strong shoulders were stooped with worry. It was the not knowing… “We couldn’t get through the mud. We’ll have to go up through the foothills and down. We’ll be leaving at first light in the morning.”
“You should never have let him out of your sight in the first place,” Garner snapped. “According to Miss O’Brien, he’s capable of most anything. When, and if, you get him back here, I highly recommend that you send him to a hospital where he should have been all along.”
“I am too tired to discuss this with you now, doctor. If you will excuse me, I would like to talk to Miss O’Brien and Maria.”
“Yes.” Dr. Garner sighed deeply. “Another thing Dr. Jenkins was lacking…a competent nurse.”
“Now see here,” Scott began, his nerves in shambles, his temper barely in control.
Garner waved him off. “I’m not saying that Miss O’Brien and that Maria woman have not been helpful…but they are not trained nurses. A lot of things will be changing now that I have taken over the practice.”
Murdoch grabbed Scott by the arm and pulled him away from the desk before he had a chance to flatten the good doctor.
Teresa and Maria had by now noticed their return.
“Johnny?” Teresa asked. But the answer was written on Murdoch and Scott’s faces.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” Murdoch promised.
“Our Jaunito is strong. He will return to us.” Maria declared. “Now you both must go in the kitchen and eat before you rest. You are tired in both mind and body. Tomorrow we will have him back with us…I can feel it in my heart.”
With that said, she turned sharply on her heels and returned to her patients.
Murdoch laced his arm around Teresa’s and led her toward the kitchen. “You look exhausted, honey,” he said. “Have something to eat with us. Maria will be fine for a few minutes.”
Teresa agreed reluctantly, she was too tired to argue. And she wanted desperately to know exactly what had happened out on the trail.
Johnny had begun to cough…long bouts of coughing, leaving him even more winded. But Sam seemed to be pleased with it. “It’s your body’s way of clearing the pneumonia out of your lungs.”
“Can’t my body find another way to do it?” Johnny growled. He had awoken awhile ago, feeling stronger. His fever was down and the medication was controlling the worst of the pain in his leg. But he still felt incredibly tired and weak and that infuriated him. He wanted to be out of bed and headed home. Scott and Murdoch would be worried sick about him. He didn’t even want to think what this was doing to Teresa. He had made a hasty decision in leaving his bed at Lancer, one he was paying for now. But he knew he would do it again if it kept Sam from running away.
He had hoped to get the chance to talk to Sam alone, but everyone was stuck in this small shack and he would have to make the best of it. But first he needed food and before that, to answer nature’s call.
“Sam?” He hated how weak his voice sounded. He just wanted to be like his old self again.
Sam was sitting with Mabel at the small table near the pot-bellied stove, talking quietly together while they tore a petticoat into more bandages. Arlene, who he had yet to talk to, stood at the window and looked out longingly, wishing as much as he did that they were safe at home. Gabe was sleeping on the cot next to his, snoring lightly.
“Sam,” he tried again and this time both Sam and Mabel looked up. “Could you help me outside, Sam? I don’t think I can make it on my own.”
Sam stood up slowly, a sad look on his face. “I’m sorry, John, I can’t let you out of bed. You can’t put any weight on that leg at all, and it must be kept elevated.”
“But…” Johnny looked at Mabel then Arlene, both blushing at his embarrassment.
Mabel stood up and hurried to the door, grabbing Arlene’s arm and shuffling her out into the light rain. “This would be the perfect time to check out the facilities Gabe arranged for us.” Johnny heard her say as the door slammed shut behind the two ladies.
Johnny bit back his angry words and turned his face away as Sam began to help him as quickly as he could.
Johnny watched Gabe walk slowly around the shack studying each piece of furniture before going onto the next.
“What’s going on?” Johnny asked.
Gabe shrugged. “Wood for the fire is under a foot of mud outside, got ta keep the ladies warm in here. Thought a couple of these chairs would keep the fire going a little longer, at least.”
Johnny nodded. “Don’t need that pantry door,” he said. “Only put it there ‘cause Teresa wanted to keep the rabbits and squirrels out of the food.”
“Good idea. How ya feeling there, boy? Ya look a mite better.”
“I’m doing fine, Gabe.”
“Good ta hear it.”
Johnny nodded. “How bad is it out there?” Johnny asked.
“Bad,” Gabe answered. “Mud up to your knees as far as you can see. There ain’t no way we’re getting out, or anyone’s getting’ in until things dry up.”
Johnny looked down at his fingers worrying the frayed ends of the blanket that covered him to the waist. “My family…”
Sam slammed his hand down on the table, startling everyone in the room. “You should have thought about your family before you took off. What were you thinking, Johnny? You had to know that you were risking your life.”
“What were you thinking, taking off like you did?” Johnny countered. “Not even a goodbye.”
“I said my goodbyes to your brother and your father. They told you that I had made a decision. Why couldn’t you leave it at that?”
“Because it was wrong!” Johnny tried to shout, but a bout of coughing left him panting for air.
Mabel rushed over to give him a glass of water, holding the glass for him until he had drank his fill. To his surprise, Arlene made her way over to the far side of the bed and handed him a small hard candy drop she took out of her handkerchief. “This will help,” she said. “It’s called a cough drop, it has medicine in it to help ease your cough. I brought some with me from Philadelphia to ease my throat during the stagecoach ride. I forgot I had them.”
Johnny looked at the dark red drop sitting in the palm of his hand.
“You put it in your mouth and let it melt. Don’t chew it, or try to swallow it. Go on, it tastes sweet just like candy.”
Johnny looked up at Sam and popped it in his mouth when Sam nodded.
“Thank you,” Johnny said.
Arlene handed the handkerchief to Sam. “There are a few more here. I hope they help.”
Mabel took them from Sam’s hand and placed them in his medical bag. “They’ll be here when you need them,” she said. “Now you two get down to some serious talking.” She took Arlene by the hand and led her over to the table. There was nothing they wouldn’t hear in such close quarters…but she hoped the feeling of privacy would help the two men.
Sam swung the chair around so his back was to the women. This was hard enough without seeing their reactions to his words. Words he felt impossibly inadequate in the face of what he had done.
“Johnny, I don’t know what to say. How to start,” Sam began. He had thought of a million things to say to Johnny Lancer since the moment he had found him, more dead than alive, soaking wet in the wagon. He had been filled with such conflicting emotions, worry, anger, self loathing…and the heaviest of all…guilt.
“Maybe by telling me why you left…” Johnny said, his voice breathless from the congestion in his lungs and husky from the nasal tube that irritated his throat. Neither of which had to happen, Sam admitted to himself, if he had not left…if he had stayed and cared for Johnny like he should have.
The steady drum of the light rain on the roof sounded over loud in the otherwise quiet shack. The only other sound Sam heard was Johnny’s labored breaths.
Sam tried to look away from the devastatingly blue eyes, still too bright with fever. But Johnny had him trapped, ensnared in that all knowing look. Johnny knew far too much about life…about the dark side of a man.
“Because I’m tired, Johnny. I’ve been practicing medicine around here since before your father came to this valley. I need a rest.” The words sounded hollow even to Sam’s ears.
Johnny nodded. “It’s not easy taking on other people’s burdens. People looking up to you all the time, expecting you to know the right answer, expecting you to make everything right.”
“It’s not,” Sam admitted. And suddenly a terrible truth dawned on Sam; that was the burden Johnny had been under…only he was not asked to heal, he was asked to kill. The realization staggered Sam and he had to take a deep breath to keep from keeling over.
He remembered three years ago, when Murdoch was at his lowest, when the high riders had first starting raiding the surrounding ranches. The Lancer patriarch had asked him to join him in a drink after seeing to one of his vaqueros. One glass too many of Murdoch’s fine sipping port had loosened his tongue, and Murdoch had brought out the Pinkerton file on his youngest son. Sam had been appalled by the life Johnny had lived. But even then he had seen a pattern. Johnny Madrid was, without a doubt a hired gun, but he only took jobs that helped the down trodden. From what Sam could see, he seldom made money, but he stood on the side of the weak. Why then had he cautioned Murdoch to be careful of his new found son?
“And you figure you’ve taken all you can,” Johnny sad flatly.
Sam nodded. “I don’t have the answers for them anymore.”
He didn’t have answers for himself. He felt so terribly lost and he wanted desperately to run away from this confrontation with this young man. Johnny had a way of reaching inside a person…of drawing out the truth. Sam wasn’t sure if he wanted to see the truth. He knew it was ugly.
Johnny sighed deeply, turning his head to look up at the ceiling, staring at something only he could see. “But that’s not the real reason. You were scared, Sam,” Johnny said bluntly. “I could smell it all over you. You’re still scared.”
Sam sat a little straighter in the chair.
Johnny turned back to look at Sam, and Sam could not look away. “You’re scared that the guilt will eat you alive and leave you hollow inside. I know that feeling. But it doesn’t belong to you, Sam. You’ve done nothing to earn it.”
“And you have?” Sam asked.
Johnny’s face darkened, his eyes suddenly cold. “You got no idea what I got eatin’ at me. But I deserve it. And I’ll carry it to my grave. But you…you don’t deserve none of it.”
“I failed you, Johnny, and everyone who loves you. I invited Maggie to California; I niggled Murdoch into asking her to stay with you at Lancer. When you got sick I turned a blind eye to everything she did. I should have listened to my instincts when you relapsed each time she was alone with you. I should have made the connection between the missing chloral hydrate and tubing from my office. I…”
“I…I…I…” Johnny repeated derisively, the anger within him robbing him of what little strength he had. His words sounded breathy and labored. “You done feeling sorry for yourself, Sam?” Johnny tried to raise himself higher on the pillows, but failed miserably. And Sam could only watch…stunned by Johnny’s verbal assault. “You think laying all this guilt on yourself gives you the right to turn your back on everyone who needs you, who trusts you?”
“She was my niece, for God’s sake…”
“So what? Just because she’s got some of your bloodline in her doesn’t make you responsible for what she does. You never knew what she was doing …none of us did. Not then. She’s sick, Sam, sick in the head, and you’re not responsible for her. Hell, if you were responsible for everything she did, that would make Murdoch and Scott responsible for everything I did.”
“I took an oath to heal and to protect.”
“And you did. You know how close I was to giving up? How easy it would of been just to let go? I didn’t because I had my family there…people who cared…people who would of been hurt if I died. You know I never had that before. Never had anyone care if I lived or died…as long as I got their job done. Then I came here…and found a family. And Sam, you’re part of that family.”
“It wasn’t enough, or you wouldn’t be lying here.”
“I’m lying here because you tucked your tail between your legs and ran like a scared rabbit! I never thought I’d say it, Sam, but you’re a coward. Instead of facing me, you just packed your bags and said adios…not to my face, no, you sent Murdoch and Scott to deliver the message. You found that poor excuse for a doctor and you hightailed it.”
Exhausted, Johnny sank deeper into the pillows. His complexion had gone from pale to gray. Sam jumped up, grabbing a cloth and wiping at the sweat on Johnny’s face.
“That’s enough for now, we can talk later.”
“No.” Johnny grabbed Sam’s wrist with surprising strength. “We finish this now.”
“You are better off…”
“Don’t say it, Sam. Don’t say I’d be better off without you….’cause I wouldn’t. I’ve only met a handful of people in my life that I could count on to watch my back. You were one of them. I trusted you Sam, I told you things I never told anyone else. I trusted you with more than my life…I trusted you with my soul. And all those monsters that feed on me every night…there are a few less ‘cause you were there to listen. Even Scott doesn’t know some of the things I told you.
“You helped me with my demons…let me help you with yours.” A coughing fit grabbed hold of Johnny again. Sam drew him up, cradling Johnny’s head against his shoulder and rubbed his back, holding the boy tight until he could catch his breath again.
“You have to rest, John,” Sam said gently, laying Johnny back against the pillows again.
Johnny shook his head, his face glistening with sweat, his eyes capturing Sam’s. “Stay,” he managed to say. “Not just for me, but for yourself. You run now, and you’ll never be free.”
Sam sucked back the tears he felt welling in his eyes. He loved this boy…as much as if Johnny carried his blood in his veins. But he didn’t know if he had the strength…
Sam leaned forward, his hand shaking as he reached for Johnny’s hand. “I’m sorry, John, I don’t know if I can. I’m old and tired and…”
Mabel jumped to her feet, her hands balled into fists and her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “And a damn fool, Sam Jenkins! If you turn your back on that boy again, you will be making the worst mistake of your life. You might as well go and smother yourself in that mud out there because you’ll be just as dead if you walk away again. I liked you, Sam. I thought you were a kind, caring man who had made a mistake. But you are just a plain old fool.” Mabel pushed her chair back so hard it tipped over. “I’m going outside. I need some fresh air.”
All eyes watched the door slam, leaving behind a stunned silence.
“The lady’s right,” Gabe said softly from his cot. “I didn’t mean ta eavesdrop…but the lady’s right, Sam.”
Sam felt physically battered. He watched Johnny’s eyes fight to stay open, exhaustion pulling him down towards sleep. How could he have thought for one moment that he was doing the right thing in leaving? Johnny needed him, and he needed Johnny. He needed his strength, his will to fight for what was right. He had almost made the greatest mistake of his life…
Sam pulled the covers up over Johnny’s chest. “You need to rest, John.”
“I ain’t tired.”
Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You are by far the worst patient I have ever had…if you expect me to keep doctoring you, you had better start following my orders.”
“Does that mean you’re gonna stay?” Johnny asked, his voice barely a whisper.
Sam looked up as he saw Mabel walk back into the room, her gray hair heavy with rain and falling to her shoulders. Her eyes asked the question and Sam smiled. “I’m staying. I don’t have much of a choice. I seem to be out numbered.”
“Good,” Johnny settled deeper into the pillows, his eyes sliding shut. “Hey, Sam.” Johnny opened one eye, a smile creeping across his face. “I think Mabel likes you.”
“Go to sleep young man,” Sam scolded gently. A burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He knew the fight was not over, but he had help, and he knew Johnny would stand shoulder to shoulder every step of the way.
The sun was barely up and already Murdoch and Scott had eaten breakfast and were ready to start their long trek to the line shack.
They weren’t surprised to find Cipriano ready and waiting for them with their horses saddled, and they mounted quickly. Cipriano thought as much about Johnny as any of them and would turn heaven and earth to find him. The surprising thing was to see two more horses saddled, with several burlap bags covered with oilcloth to protect them from the rain, hanging from the saddles.
Jelly came walking out of the barn, wearing a rain slicker in an attempt to stay dry, carrying several canteens. “Here ya go,” he said, handing them up to each man. “There’ll probably be no fresh water out there at the shack, mud would have fouled all the streams, and I packed some extra supplies.” He noticed the confused looks on Murdoch and Scott’s faces and remembered he hadn’t had time to talk to them last night when they finally gotten home.
“I stopped by the telegraph office when I was in town yesterday,” Jelly explained. “Asked ta send a note to the stage depot in Stockton. The stage never made it. I figure they’re either at the line shack or bogged down somewhere in this mud. Either way, you’ll be needing extra horses to get them back here.”
“Good thinking, Jelly.” Murdoch knew Jelly wanted desperately to come with them, but he was needed here. New patients were still coming in from the out lying ranches, and Dr. Garner needed a quick kick in the pants every once in awhile to keep him going. Jelly was more than willing to be the kicker. “Jelly,” Murdoch reached down and squeezed Jelly’s shoulder. “We’ll find him. We’ll find him and bring him back safe and sound.”
“I know you will boss,” Jelly said, his voice betraying his worry. “Just hurry a fore I go stark raving mad.”
Murdoch kneed his horse and they started the long trip, trudging through the thick mud. It would be late afternoon before they reached the line shack…if they could.
Sam and Mabel took turns through the night tending to Johnny. They gave him his medications religiously on time, whether he was awake or asleep. When he was awake they soothed his growing agitation at being stuck in bed and being feed through the nasal tube.
The rain had continued to fall, not hard, but steady and Gabe worried that it might be too much for the small line shack. But they could do nothing else but hope and pray that the rain would stop and the mud would recede.
Sam poured a cup of coffee and welcomed the warmth and the caffeine. He looked back to see Johnny staring at him, his eyes more alert this morning.
“I could use a cup of that,” Johnny rasped.
Sam smiled. “Not just yet, John. Broth will have to do for awhile. Think you could handle some?”
“Good. You’ll feel a lot better with something in your stomach.” Sam brought the cup of broth over to the bed and handed it to Johnny, watching carefully to see if Johnny could handle it himself. He was satisfied to see that Johnny’s hands shook just a little. The boy was getting better by the hour.
Johnny looked up toward the ceiling. “Still raining?”
Sam took the empty cup back and held it in his hand, still feeling the latent warmth of the soup. “It’s gotten a little harder in the last hour. I’ve never seen a storm like this.”
“We had one down around Nogales when I was a kid. Rained for weeks. Most everyone lost everything to the mud.”
“Gabe thinks we’ll be on our own for awhile. I wish there was a way to get word to Murdoch and Scott that you were safe. I can only imagine…”
Sam saw Johnny’s face pale even more and he felt like kicking himself for mentioning the obvious. Of course the boy would be worried.
Johnny felt the awkward moment and quickly tried to divert Sam’s thoughts. He didn’t want Sam to backtrack into feelings of guilt again. “Hey, Sam.” He tugged at the covers. “How about letting me get out of this bed for awhile. I’m feeling better.”
“You’re feeling better because you’re in that bed. And that is where you are staying. No arguments. It’s going to be a rough trip getting you back to Lancer. I want you to get all the rest you can.”
“I just want to sit in that chair over there.” Johnny pointed to a chair sitting beneath the window. “I just want to see what the world looks like on the other side of these four walls.”
“Muddy…” Arlene grumbled, looking up from the spider she had been watching spinning a web. Her fear of the insects had taken a back seat to her boredom.
Sam shook his head. “I’m sorry, John. I don’t want you to move that leg until it is absolutely necessary.”
“And,” Mabel said, bringing over an extra blanket to cover Johnny. “I don’t think you need to sit next to a drafty window. You catch a chill now and you’ll be right back where you started from. “But,” she winked, “with this extra blanket over you, I don’t see why we can’t move this bed closer to the window.”
Johnny’s smile blossomed. “Sam, if you don’t start courting this lady I’m gonna have to start courting her myself.”
“John Lancer!” Sam barked, his face turning red as a tomato.
“Dear, Lord,” Mabel laughed. “Like I said before, you are a caution. I bet you have every girl in four counties swooning over you.”
“Between Johnny and his brother, it looks like ants at a picnic,” Sam chuckled.
Mabel noticed Johnny’s face going pale and knew he was doing too much despite his insistence he was feeling better. “Why don’t we get this bed moved over there so Johnny can see that the world still exists.”
It was harder than Johnny expected. Just the jostling of the bed as they carried it over to the window brought staggering pain to his leg. He squeezed his eyes shut and just held on. He felt someone wipe the sweat from his face and the nasal tube shifted.
“Johnny, are you all right,” he heard Sam ask from a long way away and he nodded, not sure if his head even moved. It only took a few minutes before he felt the pain medication take hold. Like a cool shower, he felt it flow from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, a languid feeling that left his limbs feeling like hundred pound weights. But he didn’t care.
Slowly he opened his eyes and looked outside. “Madre de Dios,” he breathed, when he saw the river of mud ever so slowly creep past the shack, already higher than the porch.
Only a miracle would get them out of this alive.
Cipriano stopped, waiting for Murdoch and Scott to come even with him. They had been riding all morning, and the rain had not let up once. Not heavy like before, but steady and demoralizing. They had reached the foothills after treading through mud that reached their horses knees.
Rain cascaded down the rocks from the hills above, slowly raising the level of the mud on the valley floor.
“This is not good,” Cipriano said tersely. “The ground will give way above…deslizamiento de tierra grande.”
Scott didn’t need a translation. He was already worried about the unstable mountainsides. He only hoped that they could reach the line shack in time to rescue the coach’s passengers, if that was where they were. The underlying fear that this was all for nothing, that Johnny was already buried beneath three feet of mud, plagued his every thought.
“We can’t go back,” Murdoch yelled, feeling his horse’s hooves slip and fight to regain purchase on the loose shale. “We’ll separate,” he ordered. “Thirty feet between each rider.”
Scott understood what his father was doing. If one of them was caught in a mudslide, hopefully the other two would be far enough away to escape.
They began moving again, heads bowed against the cold rain, determined to reach the line shack…praying their rescue would not be in vain.
Gabe reduced the pantry door to kindling to feed the pot- bellied stove. It was growing colder as the late afternoon approached. Yesterday’s wind had been too much for the roof of the line shack and rain began leaking through small holes in the ceiling. Mabel and Arlene had raced to find pans to catch the drips that were now more like steady streams of water.
Arlene’s hands shook as she tried to spoon feed warm broth to Johnny. The medication needed to keep the pain in Johnny’s leg under control left him too weak to even lift his hands to feed himself.
Johnny’s fever had again begun to rise and Sam reopened the abscess in his leg, not satisfied with the drain. His fever lowered again, but Sam had to increase the antimony.
“Are you scared?” Johnny asked, as Arlene fed him another spoonful of rabbit broth.
Arlene nodded. “I’ve only read about things like this in books. Men and women fighting bravely against the elements. It all seemed so exciting, so adventurous. ”
Arlene put the cup of broth down and dabbed at the small stream of broth running down Johnny’s chin. “I think those novels were highly over rated.”
That brought a smile to Johnny’s eyes and Arlene leaned in closer to him. “Are you scared, Johnny?”
Johnny thought about it for a long minute. “Yes.” He admitted. “But not of dying…I’ve been ready for that for a lot of years. I’m afraid of what it will do to my family.”
Arlene looked around the shack seeing that everyone else had found a place to lie down and get a few minutes sleep. “I have to admit that I was a bit scared when Gabe said you were Johnny Madrid. My husband and his friends have spoken of you more than once.”
“All the way in
“There are a dozen books
written about the exploits of the great and dangerous Johnny Madrid. I must
admit, you don’t look as mean or as old as my husband described. He, of
course, would not go into detail…but I have to admit sneaking a peak at the
books myself.” She shook her head in mock fright, “I should be running for
my life right now.”
“Why aren’t you?” Johnny asked seriously.
Arlene shrugged. “Can’t get far in this mud.”
“No, I mean…why are you doing this? A lot of people think I’m dangerous and would rather face that mud outside.”
“Then they haven’t taken the time to know Johnny Lancer…have they?”
The look in Johnny’s eyes hardened. “You don’t know me, lady,” he warned.
“I know enough.”
Johnny looked away and Arlene gently turned his chin back until he was looking at her once again. “Whatever you did in the past, for whatever reason, is just that, in the past. It is the here and now that counts. Johnny, I live a privileged life. I don’t want for anything. My husband and I have entertained men and women from only the highest social circles. I have met and dined with Generals and Senators. I have listened to over inflated egos and outright fabrications. Not one of those men could hold a candle to you. Not even my husband.”
Johnny tried to look away again, embarrassed by Arlene’s candor.
“I don’t know how true the
stories are of you being taken from your home at an early age and raised in
destitute poverty in Mexico. I only know that you survived a terrible childhood
and still had the compassion to risk your life to save a friend.”
“I only did what needed
doing. Sam was always good to me.”
Arlene brushed away a strand of
hair playing against Johnny’s long dark eyelashes, marveling at how young this
man looked, but knowing he had lived more in his lifetime than she ever had.
The sound of the rain drumming
on the roof grew louder. Johnny saw Arlene’s head snap up
to look at the ceiling.
Pulling his hand out from
beneath the blanket, he reached for her hand, cursing the weakness that kept him
from wrapping his arms around her and comforting her.
“What’s going to happen to
us?” she asked, accepting his hand and squeezing it gently. “Truthfully,
Johnny looked out the window.
Rain streaked the windows, but he could still see the river of mud slowly roll
past them. The stagecoach had shifted and was now listing over into the mud,
succumbing to the inevitable. But he could not tell her the truth; dash the last
hope she had that they would survive this. Hope was the only thing they had to
hold onto. He would not rob her of that.
“When the stage doesn’t reach Stockton they’ll send out a search party. It may take a few days, but they’ll find us.”
Arlene looked out at the dismal scene outside. “Do we have a few days?”
Johnny snorted. “More than a few. My father built this line shake. And if you knew him you would know that even a river of mud wouldn’t mess with something he built.”
A smile crept across Arlene’s face and she squeezed his hand. “My sister said you were a caution. I believe she was right. Now you need your rest.” She guided his hand back under the covers and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “Thank you for giving an old woman hope.”
Waiting until she saw his eyes slide closed, she turned to see Mabel lying on the cot a few feet away, a trail of tears running down her cheeks. She simply smiled, and Arlene felt a rush of acceptance. She at last understood how Mabel could have been happy with a man like Roland. With all her wealth, Arlene Cambridge was the poorest one there.
Cipriano tried to look up the
mountain knowing a torrent of water would soon tear down through these foothills
and flood the valley below. There had been too much rain at the higher
elevations…and sooner or later it would all descend on anything that got in
its way like a freight train. He had only seen a storm like this once before in
his lifetime. As a boy he remembered it had changed the course of streams and
changed the landscape like a man played with a slab of clay.
He prayed that Johnny and the stagecoach passengers had taken refuge in
the line shack. If they hadn’t, they would not survive. Of that he was
certain. He was also certain, if they did not reach that line shake very soon,
everyone, including the Patron and Senor Scott would be lost.
Relying on instinct and a sense
of knowing where he was at all times, he waited for Murdoch and Scott to catch
up with him. From now on, they had to work as a team, or face failure.
“The line shack, it is half a mile down that way.” Cipriano pointed down the steep hill. “We must hurry…but also we must use muchos cuidado.”
“Let’s get this done,” Murdoch growled.
“Si,” Cipriano looked into the curtain of rain that covered the hillside above and back down at the treacherous climb below them. “But you must follow me, carefully. Entienda?”
“We understand,” Scott shouted anxiously, grateful that he had listened to Johnny talking to the vaqueros, learning a smattering of Spanish.
“No” Cipriano cautioned, “you do not. One wrong step and you and your caballo will end up at the bottom of the hill…mureto.”
“I understand,” Scott repeated tersely. “Now let’s get going.”
Cipriano nodded and began guiding his horse slowly down the hill. Using his years of experience and his horse’s instincts he headed for the line shack below.
Johnny was startled out of his sleep. The sound of wood creaking and groaning filled the small line shack, and he knew the shack was in the finale stages of its death knell.
While he was asleep, they had
moved his bed away from the window. Now, where his bed used to be, he saw mud
oozing under the door and spreading out, covering the floor beneath the window
he had been looking out of, an inch deep and growing.
The walls shuddered and a plume of steam erupted from the pot-bellied stove as another crack opened up in the ceiling and rain water dripped down on the hot stove.
Standing around him, as if to protect him, Sam, Mabel and Arlene hovered over the bed, with one eye on him and one eye on the encroaching mud. There was no escape. They wouldn’t survive the river of mud outside and the shack was about to collapse like a house of cards. Gabe looked at them, his shoulders sagging as the door bulged from the weight of the mud. His eyes asked for forgiveness. Mabel and Arlene reached out to him, beckoning him to join them.
Johnny felt a kinship to these people, so willing to give of themselves, when they knew there was no hope.
Accepting the inevitable, he drew his leaden hands from beneath the blankets and held Mabel and Arlene’s hands. Sam smiled sadly…too bad more people had not gotten the chance to know the real Johnny Lancer.
Teresa accepted the steaming
cup of coffee from Maria and blew on it until it was cool enough to sip. She had
long ago passed exhaustion…she was now running on sheer adrenaline. The great room, and now most of the guest rooms on the main
floor, were filled with people. The threat of flooding had sent entire families
fleeing their homes. Lancer had always been a haven in times of emergencies, and
once again it opened its doors to everyone in need.
Stories of flash floods and huge mudslides in the high country terrified Teresa. Now she not only feared for Johnny, but for Murdoch and Scott as well. They were traveling right into the worst of it.
She felt Maria draw her in and hug her tightly. “Your familia will be fine,” she promised. “They are mucho strong men…they will all come back to us. And they will bring Juanito with them. You must believe, chica…you must believe and it will be so.”
Teresa nodded, melting into Maria’s strong arms. It had all been too much, too long. It seemed like years since the family had been whole and happy. Before Maggie descended upon them, before she nearly killed Johnny and left the family devastated. She wanted them all back. She wanted to see Johnny riding Barranca, roughhousing with Scott in the great room. She wanted to hear Murdoch yell like an angry bear at their antics and yet see the sparkle in his eyes as he watched them, so grateful to have them home with him.
She wanted Sam back and to see Dr. Garner go back to whatever rock he’d crawled out from under. She just wanted her life back.
Maria hugged her tighter and Teresa felt safe for the moment, despite everything around her.
“Miss O’Brien, if you please.” The sound of Dr. Garner calling broke the spell, and she looked up to see the doctor waving her over to a patient. “This man should have had his bandages changed an hour ago,” he complained. “I know these are not the best conditions to treat the injured, and you are not a trained nurse, but if you will pay attention and follow my orders, we may be able to save most of these people here.”
Maria looked toward Dr. Garner, daggers in her eyes. “Usted pobre dispensa para un asno,” she spat, and a few snickers came from the cots around her.
Teresa quickly clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. What would Dr. Garner think if he knew she had just said he was “a poor excuse for a jackass?”
Making her way over to the patient needing tending, she couldn’t get Maria’s words out of her mind and could only giggle as she passed the doctor.
Gabe rushed back into the shack, a river of mud spilling across the floor in his wake.
“The barn’s gone,” he shouted. “We got ta get out of here before this place goes too.”
“There’s no place to go,” Arlene said miserably. She looked toward Johnny who now sat atop the table leaning heavily against Sam’s chest, his breathing coming in short huffs. He wore his shirt and pants again, the shirt unbuttoned and flung open and the right pant leg cut off above his bandaged leg. Their decision to wait quietly for the inevitable lasted only a few minutes, until the floor heaved and buckled beneath them, and mud oozed up through the slats, threatening to turn over the cots.
“You have more of a chance out there,” Johnny panted, damning his halting voice. “Find something to hold onto and don’t let go.”
“We’ll die out there,” Arlene screamed. The sounds of the shack creaking and groaning mixed with the rain hammering the roof and the mud slurping as it slowly rose higher fueled her growing terror.
“You’ll die in here for sure.” Johnny felt the shack sway sickeningly. The glass in the window bowed inward and cracked, a large sliver of glass hitting the mud soundlessly.
The west wall fractured at the baseboard, and more mud oozed in, covering the entire floor an inch deep.
“The horses?” Mabel yelled over the din.
“I set ‘em free hours ago,” Gabe yelled back. “They’ll have a better chance on their own. And you ladies better do something about them skirts. The mud’s past your knees. I got a rope tied between the stage and this cabin, you’re gonna have to pull yourselves across. There’s a stand of trees just beyond that. You find a good strong branch and you hold on for dear life.”
The shack gave another terrible shudder and a jagged tear, like a streak of lightning, sliced through the roof, rain spilling down on the hot stove. A sizzling plume of steam and smoke rose and hovered against the ceiling.
“Hurry!” Johnny urged.
Johnny’s words were unnecessary. Mabel grabbed Arlene by the waist and spun her around. It took only seconds for her to unhook her sister’s skirt and petticoat, leaving Arlene standing in her blouse and cotton drawers in the rising mud. She pushed her toward the front door. “Stay there and don’t move.”
The back wall sagged inward and the ceiling joists cracked.
“Let’s get Johnny ready.” Sam yelled over the cacophony of driving rain and the shack’s death knell.
“No.” Johnny struggled to sit up on his own. “Get the women out. Gabe will help me.”
“We’ll all get out together.” Sam wrapped his arms around Johnny’s chest, threading his fingers together tightly to keep the boy from breaking his hold. Adrenaline and fear gave Johnny strength when there was none left.
“You get them out of here, Sam. We’ll be right behind you.”
Sam tried to stay his ground, but Gabe pushed him aside and he had to let go of Johnny or take him down with him as he lost his balance. He fell against Mabel who somehow kept her feet beneath her and broke his fall. Gabe quickly jumped behind Johnny to support his back. “I’ll take care of him, now get out of here.” As if on cue, the shack gave a horrendous shudder and the back part of the ceiling cracked and buckled.
Sam grabbed Johnny’s arm. “We’re all getting out of here. Together.”
Mabel quickly climbed out of her skirt and petticoat. “He’s right. We’re all going.” She turned to Arlene. “Open the door,” she yelled. “And hold on tight, we’ve going to get one hell of a mud bath today.”
“No.” Johnny tried to free his arm, but Sam tightened his grip. “I’ll slow you down. Leave…” But the rest of his sentence was drowned out as Arlene turned the doorknob and the door flung open wide, a wall of mud three feet deep pouring into the shack. The cots were overturned, the chairs tilted and fell over. Arlene hung from the doorknob, unable to get her feet back under her.
The mud slammed into the table legs, lifted the table and Johnny up. Gabe lost his grip on Johnny and flailed his arms wildly trying to keep his balance. With nothing to support his back, Johnny’s shoulders sagged below the table edge. His shoulders and head sank into the freezing cold mud. Mabel lost her balance and began to go under when Sam caught her and dragged her into his arms.
“Get out of here!” Johnny bellowed as the table began to tilt.
“We won’t leave you behind,” Mabel screamed.
“No one is being left behind.”
Everyone froze for a split second at the sound of the new voice. Johnny only had a glimpse of the figure standing in the doorway, barely recognizable beneath a thick layer of mud, before the table listed all the way and he slipped beneath the mud. But as the ooze cut off all sight and sound, Johnny knew that it was Scott standing there.
Scott had struggled though the thigh high mud, the thick sludge threatening to pull his feet out from under him and wash him away on the strong current. The rain drummed on his hat and created mini waterfalls each time he lowered his head. Murdoch and Cipriano were right behind him, their shoulders hunched forward, every muscle straining against the flow of the mud to reach the cabin. All three wore ropes tied around their waists and tethered to the guide rope between the two trees. The rain had gathered more force and seemed determined to sabotage their rescue efforts.
Scott’s hand was on the door when it suddenly flew open and he was nearly carried in on a wave of mud as it ploughed into the shack. He stood in the doorway, unable to move for a second as he took in the scene. A woman clung to the door to his left, her eyes wide with panic. Sam held a woman in his arms, trying to keep both of them from losing their balance and plunging into the mud. Gabe was trying to push his way through the thick mud to get to Johnny as the table he was lying on tilted and disappeared beneath the slime.
“Johnny!” Scott screamed and pushed his way through the mud. The thought that he had finally found Johnny only to lose him before his very eyes nearly stopped his heart from beating. Behind him he heard Murdoch’s startled curse as he too saw Johnny go under. Pushing his way through the mud, Scott’s knees slammed into the submerged table and he nearly fell over; only Sam’s quick steadying arm kept him from going under. No words were said as the woman pushed away from Sam and began frantically feeling below the mud for Johnny along with the two men.
“I’ve got him!” Sam yelled, and pulled Johnny’s hand up. Gabe reached them just as Scott felt Johnny’s other arm and they pulled him up, sputtering mud from his mouth and nose.
Scott held onto Johnny, afraid to believe that he had actually found him.
Murdoch and Cipriano were at their sides now. Murdoch looked at his son, not knowing how hurt he might be under all the mud…but he was alive, and that would hold him for now. The shack groaned again, and the south wall collapsed, sending the ceiling perilously close to their heads.
“Cipriano, you help Gabe and Sam,” Murdoch ordered. “I’ll help the women. Scott, can you manage Johnny?”
Scott nodded, hefting his brother over his shoulder, despite Johnny’s weak protests.
“Grab a hold of the rope around my waist,” Murdoch yelled at Mabel. “And don’t let go. We have horses waiting up the hill.”
Mabel cinched her hand tightly around the rope, wading through the heavy mud. They reached the door and she grabbed Arlene, pulling her beside her and ordering her to take hold of the rope too. The three disappeared into the driving rain.
Gabe grabbed the rope around Cipriano’s waist. “Senor.” Cipriano tugged at Sam’s arm. “We must go. The mud is winning the battle with the choza.”
Sam shook his head. “We’ll follow Scott.”
“I can walk!” Johnny tried to squirm his way out of Scott’s arms.
“Shut up, Johnny,” Scott yelled. The shack began to twist and bend like a house made of cards. “Hang on…”
Johnny felt Scott’s legs sag beneath his weight with his first step. He knew his brother was already exhausted. “Let me down,” he yelled as loudly as he could. “We can’t make it like this.”
“We’ll make it,” Gabe shouted, righting Johnny as he began slipping off Scott’s shoulder.
Scott drew himself toward the door, hand over hand along the rope, feeling Gabe and Sam keeping Johnny centered over his shoulder, every muscle in his arms and back screaming with the effort. The shack shuddered again; and the pot bellied stove hissed one last time as it died beneath the mud.
They made it to the door and Scott stepped out, immediately sinking nearly to his waist when he reached the end of the small porch.
Johnny felt his feet dragging in the cold mud, sucking at his ankles and creeping up his legs. The pain in his leg dimmed as the freezing mud numbed his legs. Rain pelted his head and back. The only thing he could see was Scott’s back and the current of mud moving ever faster past his brother’s thighs.
The shack crumbled behind them, joining the barn as it slowly drifted away.
It seemed like hours and Johnny was just barely holding onto consciousness when he felt Scott begin to climb, lifting them out of the sucking mud. Hands grabbed his shoulders and he was stretched out on the hard ground, never so grateful to feel rocks digging into his back.
“The horses are waiting at the top of the ridge,” Murdoch panted. “We don’t have time to waste, this whole hillside could come sliding down on us at anytime.”
Johnny heard Arlene weeping beside him and her felt hands brushing the mud from his hair. “I’m too tired,” she whimpered.
“I know,” he heard Mabel soothe. “But it’s just a little further. Then the horses can do all the work.”
He felt Scott grab him beneath the arms and Cipriano carefully lift his legs.
“No,” Johnny yelled as loud as he could. “I’m all right, I can make it.”
“Like hell you can,” Scott shot back. “I intend to get you back to Lancer so I can rip into you for this stupid stunt! You hear me, Brother? And then there will be a line forming behind me to do the same thing. Further more…”
Sam’s voice broke in and Johnny saw his old friend lean over him. “Johnny knows exactly what he did,” he said to Scott, but his eyes held Johnny’s.
Johnny tried to reach up to grab Sam’s arm, but his strength seemed to flow out of him like the mud flowed down the valley. Every ounce of energy had been used up. He felt himself sliding into a black oblivion, but he wasn’t scared. Whatever happened he had done what he had set out to do.
The small group struggled up the hill, relying on hands and knees when the rope ended at the second tree. Scott and Cipriano took turns carrying Johnny on their backs as they made their way toward the horses. The rain seemed to fall harder the closer they got to the top of the ridge. Arlene had long forgotten she was dressed only in her underclothing…even as the mud was washed away by the unrelenting rain. Murdoch took her arm and helped her climb, stumbling and slipping over the slippery rocks. Sam helped Mabel, holding her close as they stopped every few feet to catch their breath. They were near the top now and the rain water cascaded down the hill gaining strength.
Gabe made it to the top first. The horses waited patiently, heads bowed against the driving rain. Murdoch and Arlene made it next. Murdoch gently laid Arlene on the ground, letting her catch her breath. He turned back to see Sam and Mabel reach the top, Sam easing Mabel down next to Arlene.
Cipriano struggled beneath Johnny’s weight. He had Johnny splayed over his back, holding Johnny’s hands across his chest with one giant hand and using the other to help him climb up the steep hill. Scott climbed by his side, righting Johnny when he shifted to the right or left.
Murdoch and Gabe grabbed Cipriano’s shoulders as he neared the top, hauling him over the edge and gently lifting Johnny off his back. Scott scrambled after them, leaning over Johnny trying to keep the rain from hitting his face.
“How is he?” Murdoch gasped, still fighting to catch his breath, as Sam began a quick examination.
“He has pneumonia and his leg is still infected,” Sam answered too harshly, regretting it immediately. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. He was holding his own until…this.” Sam raised his arms, his clothes still heavy with mud despite the heavy rain. “I don’t know…he should be home, in a warm bed…”
Mabel was at his side, laying a gentle hand on his back. “We already went through this, Sam. You made your peace with Johnny. Now let’s just get the boy home.”
The horses whinnied nervously, beginning to stomp their front legs.
Cipriano looked up the hill. “Apuro, we must hurry, the deslizamiento could be any minuto.”
“Johnny will ride with me,” Murdoch announced.
“Your back,” Scott began, but his father waved him off.
“I have the sturdiest, gentlest horse. He will ride with me.”
There was no time for arguing, and when Murdoch was settled in the saddle, Scott and Cipriano lifted Johnny into his father’s arms. Murdoch carefully eased Johnny against his chest, taking his son’s full weight and nodded to the worried circle of people that he was fine.
Soon they were slowly making their way back toward Lancer and home, Cipriano leading, each one praying that they had time before the mountain above them came hurtling down in a deadly landslide.
The going was rough for the
weary band of survivors. The rain continued to beat down on them, lashing at
their faces and hands, freezing them to the bone. The mud that had not been
rinsed away by the rain weighed heavy on their clothes. Cipriano took the
lead…sometimes moving to far ahead for anyone to see him through the curtain
of rain, but returning to point the direction for both exhausted horse and
Murdoch still clung to his precious cargo. Johnny’s body leaned heavily against his chest, his head lolling back and forth to the sway of the horse. Even though he was not a big man, Johnny’s limp weight caused Murdoch’s back to scream in pain, but nothing would make he relinquish his hold on his son. He had searched for too many years to find him, to now lose him again. He would face the devil and hellfire itself to keep Johnny safe.
Scott followed with Arlene clinging to him, her fingers locked in a death grip around his waist. He heard her mumble faintly when Charlemagne miss stepped on the slippery rocks, but she never complained.
Sam followed with Mabel tucked tightly behind him. He could feel her cheek pressed against his shoulder blade and it gave him comfort. He almost smiled in the midst of all the madness, remembering Johnny’s infectious grin when he said he would have to court Mabel himself. “Well, John,” he whispered, “she’s already taken.”
Gabe followed, keeping a wary eye on the hillside above them. It wouldn’t be long before the constant rain undermined the mountain and it would shed its skin like a snake, taking everything with it.
Cipriano pulled his horse up short and his heart leapt into his throat. The hillside had already given way in front of him. A large swatch of land had slipped away leaving an ugly gouge down the mountainside. He looked up the hill, trying to see through the sheet of rain. He knew this land, knew there was another ridge above them. If the landslide had started beneath the ridge, they had a chance of getting to Lancer. If the landslide had started higher…he refused to think of what would happen then. With a snap of the reins he started up the hill.
“Patron,” Cipriano panted, maneuvering his horse next to Murdoch and Johnny, “the way is blocked ahead. We must go up.”
Murdoch followed the Segundo’s eyes and he felt a shiver run down his spine, colder than the rain that hammered his body. “How far up?” he asked.
“Dos cientos metros,” Cipriano answered.
Murdoch quickly calculated the numbers in English and blanched. Two hundred feet. That was a long way for already exhausted horses.
Scott pulled up beside them, hearing the last of the conversation. “The horses will never make it up there riding double. They’re exhausted as it is.”
“La subida o muere,” Cipriano shot back. “We climb or we die here. We can’t go back. I have been to the top of the ridge, it is clear. It is the only way.”
Scott looked over at Johnny cradled in Murdoch’s arms. His brother’s arms hung limply at his sides, his head bowed, his hair plastered against his face from the unrelenting rain.
“Johnny won’t make it.”
Murdoch caught Scott’s eyes and held them with an intensity that startled him. “He will make it,” Murdoch said emphatically. “You and Cipriano see to the others.”
Without another word, Murdoch snapped his horse’s reins and kicked him hard in the side and the horse started up the steep slippery hill.
Sam and Gabe pulled up beside them, watching Murdoch struggle to reach the top. His horse faltered again and again, slipping on the cascading water rushing down the slippery rocks. They could see Johnny rocked from side to side, but Murdoch held him tightly against him.
It took fifteen long minutes before Murdoch felt his horse gain a solid purchase on the ledge. He was so exhausted he feared he would drop Johnny. He had no other choice than to ease him out of the saddle and lower him toward the ground. Johnny’s boneless legs just corkscrewed to the muddy ledge, not awaking once. Murdoch followed him, dropping to the ground next to his son. He shifted until he was lying beside Johnny and gently turned his son’s face toward him to keep the rain from drumming against his closed eyes. He would wait and rest until the rest caught up to them. Lying there with the rain pounding at his face, listening to Johnny’s labored breathing, he wondered if they would ever get him home. How could he have ever thought there was anything more precious in this world than his sons? He had been an ignorant man, and it shamed him.
Below, Scott took command. He brought all his military training to bear, and began issuing orders. “The rest of the horses won’t make it up riding double. Do you think you can hang on by yourselves?” He looked at the two women and Sam. All were haggard and exhausted. Where the strength would come to make it up that hill he didn’t know, but somehow he knew they would find it. Gabe and I will follow behind.”
Mabel looked up the steep hill. “I can,” she stated firmly. “Arlene can too, can’t you?”
Arlene nodded with less enthusiasm.
“Sam?” Scott asked.
Sam nodded. “You and Gabe just worry about yourselves. We’ll make it.”
“Good.” Scott looked back up the hill; he could see Murdoch’s horse standing near the edge of the ledge. Fear gnawed at his belly, what had happened to Murdoch and Johnny.
“Sam, you go first. Johnny needs you. And maybe Murdoch too.”
Sam gently lowered Mabel to the ground. “I’ll be waiting for you up at the top,” he said.
“I’ll be there.” Mabel patted his leg and stepped aside.
Four sets of eyes watched as Sam kicked his horse hard in the side and urged him to start climbing up the hill. They all waited anxiously until Sam made it to the top.
“All right,” Scott turned to Mabel. “You’re next. Just hold onto the pommel…once the horse is headed up he will be as anxious to get to the top as you are.”
Mabel hugged Arlene and climbed awkwardly into the saddle.
Scott watched as Arlene finally made it to the top and looked over at Cipriano. They both knew the climb would be rough and dangerous on foot.
“I am proud of you,” Cipriano said suddenly. “You came to us with much to learn…You have done well. I am orgulloso llamarle amigo.”
Scott didn’t know a lot of Spanish yet…but he understood that and nodded. “I too am proud to call you friend.”
“Now, let’s get up there so we can get my unbelievably hardheaded brother home where he belongs.”
“Si,” Cipriano grinned, and together they began there long hard climb up the hill.
It was nearing dusk as Teresa stood at the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk, wondering if she would ever see her family again. Her whole world had started spiraling downward the day Sam first brought Maggie to Lancer. And her venomous touch still continued to poison their lives.
As each hour passed, she had
less and less hope that Johnny could have survived… and now she faced the real
possibility that she had also lost Murdoch and Scott to the mudslides and floods
neighbors breathlessly told them about as they gathered here for shelter.
The hacienda was quiet now. The
severely wounded had been treated and rested quietly. Those who were still awake
whispered softly, their voices mingling with the snores and heavy sighs of those
No new victims of the torrential rains and mud had appeared at the Lancer door since late morning. Small camps had been made within the great room…families and friends gathering their cots and blankets into small groups…waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop - waiting for the water to recede and the mud to turn to hard clay again - waiting for the return of Murdoch and his sons.
Dr. Garner had disappeared into a room, off the downstairs hallway, that he had declared to be his, and his alone. If someone needed his attention, they must knock and wait, he would get to them when he could. So unlike Sam who was always there for his patients. Teresa longed for Sam’s kind words of encouragement, and the always ready shoulder to cry on.
“Chica,” Maria said as she walked up behind her. “You do yourself no good standing here worrying. I believe with all my heart that they will return to us…all…will return to us. Por favor, come and sit while there is time. The doctor will awaken soon, then…ey…we will have no time to think again. I pray that senor Dr. Sam returns soon.”
Teresa nodded. “We all do. But it’s been so long. I’m afraid…” Something caught her eye, a shadowy movement through the curtain of rain. She stared, her heart beating faster. She waited, her fingers worrying her skirt. She felt Maria shift beside her. She too had seen something…now slowly passing beneath the Lancer arch.
Teresa reached out blindly for Maria, not taking her eyes off the shadows as they drew nearer, taking shape. Five horses. They could be more neighbors displaced by the floods or they could be…
“Madre de Dios,” Maria breathed. “Madre de Dios…”
“It’s them,” Teresa whispered softly, then to everyone in the hacienda she cried, “It’s them!”
Footsteps rushed up behind her, men, women and children jockeying for position to see out the window as the weary horses treaded through the heavy rain and muddied ground. Teresa recognized Murdoch…even beneath the soaking clothes and lingering mud she knew it was him. At first she was elated when she recognized the figure slumped against his chest. It could be no one but Johnny, with his coal black hair, dripping a steady stream of water, but as his head lolled to the sway of the horse she realized that he was in terrible trouble. The horses came to a stop and the riders didn’t move, unaware that they had finally reached home.
“I knew it!” Jelly yelled as he ran for the heavy door, swinging it open. “I knew they’d make it. Didn’t I tell ya? But no…no one believes old Jelly Hoskins…”
Every able bodied man raced out the door behind him. Teresa hurried toward the door, tears running down her face. She recognized Scott, Sam, and Cipriano immediately. She thought perhaps Gabe was bringing up the rear. The other two women didn’t know…but she didn’t care. They would be taken care of by the others…she had to get to Johnny. She was half way out the door when a strong arm grasped her elbow and pulled her back.
“I need you in here, Miss O’Brien,” Dr. Garner said, his voice brokering no argument. “You will be of no use to me soaking wet and covered with mud. Now, prepare the examination table, and Maria, find dry clothes for the others.”
Teresa balked at the doctor’s cold demeanor, but Maria grasped her hands, pulling her closer to the old woman. “He is right, Chica,” she whispered, “you are needed here. Others may need help.”
“Jaunito needs you here preparing for his care. You have been through much, I know, but we have him back, and we must do everything we can to ensure he stays with us. Now go.”
Teresa could not argue with Maria. She was right. It just hurt so to turn away from the door, to turn away from the men who had gathered around the horses, easing Johnny down from the saddle.
But as she walked back to the dinning table that had substituted for Dr. Garner’s examination and surgical table, she found that she was not alone. She was quickly surrounded by the wives and daughters of the men who were out in the rain helping Johnny and the rest of the rag-tag group of survivors.
She suddenly felt bolstered by their support. Here, at last, was tangible proof that there was hope.
Taking a deep breath, she started giving out orders, giving directions where extra bandages and towels could be found. She directed the women to move the massive table closer to the fire where Johnny could get warm. Boiling water was brought in from the kitchen and set on the hearth. Lamps were collected from every corner of the room and their wicks turned up high.
Sam wasn’t aware, not at first, that his horse had stopped moving. He sat motionless, his body heavy with fatigue and the pounds of mud that still clung to his clothes and filled his boots. He had no idea how long they had been traveling since making it to the ridge and getting Johnny back on the horse. Murdoch had still insisted that Johnny ride with him. Everyone knew what it meant to the Lancer patriarch, and no one had the heart to deny him, besides, everyone was equally as tired.
They had traveled mile after mile, the driving rain sending them into a semi-trance. If not for the horses, and their instinct to return home, they could have traveled in circles and never known it.
Mabel squeezed him, her arms still wrapped tightly around his waist. “I think we made it,” she said, her voice so weak he had hardly heard her.
Sam lifted his head, fearing that the house before him was just another cruel dream…
“Easy now…” Hands reached up and helped him slide from the saddle, Mabel already gently carried toward the house.
A group of men surrounded Murdoch and he saw Johnny being carefully lowered into their arms.
Renewed strength soared through Sam and he wadded through the mud and standing water to attend to Johnny.
“Easy,” he cautioned. “Be careful of his leg…”
Murdoch was helped off his horse, staggering toward the circle of men, trying to reach his son.
“We got ‘im,” Jelly assured everyone.
Scott eased Arlene down into waiting arms and joined Murdoch; afraid to let Johnny out of his sight.
“Just relax boss, ya got ‘im here, now we’ll take good care of ‘im.” Jelly had assumed command and everyone obeyed. Johnny was rushed into the house and Sam tried to follow. But Garner stepped in his way.
“He is my patient now, Dr. Jenkins. If you had done your job in the first place, that boy would have been in a hospital where he belongs. Now get cleaned up and get some rest, your services are not needed here. If you will excuse me, I have work to do.”
Scott launched past Sam, his arms reaching for Garner, but Sam grabbed him and held him back. “No, Scott. Dr. Garner is right. Johnny needs attention immediately, and we need to clean up.” Pushing the weary group back, Sam nodded toward the bathhouse. “I suggest we let the ladies go first. Teresa and Maria are with Johnny now…it will take them some time to clean him up before Dr. Garner can do much of anything.” Dropping his head, he sighed heavily. “We have done all we can.”
“Sam.” Murdoch laid a firm hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “Johnny has only one doctor. Get cleaned up and get in there where you belong.”
The sound of water splashing on the floor mimicked the sound of the rain outside as Teresa and Maria quickly, but gently washed Johnny down with warm water. His muddy clothes had been stripped and thrown outside to be washed later. Teresa carefully washed the mud from Johnny’s hair, brushing her fingers through the thick black strands. He looked so pale and his breathing was so terribly labored. Maria had quickly placed a towel across Johnny’s hips to give him privacy in the great room as women hurried around the table bringing more clean water and mopping up the floor. She quickly washed down his arms and legs, carefully working around the wound on his right leg.
Dr. Garner had ordered the women to clean his patient thoroughly after he had given him a cursory exam, and instructed them to call him when Johnny was ready. He had treated all his patients the same. It was as if he felt it was beneath his station to get dirty. Teresa fumed inside. Sam would have been right beside them helping them wash Johnny down. She looked toward the front door and wished Sam would hurry.
Dusk had turned to full night, and the lanterns and candles placed around the table sent macabre shadows dancing on the walls as Dr. Garner leaned over Johnny and began cleaning out the wound on his leg.
“If this young man survives it will be a miracle,” Garner muttered. “As soon as the roads are clear I intend to transfer him to my clinic in town, then on to the hospital in San Francisco where he belongs.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be your call, Dr. Garner.” Garner looked over this shoulder to see Sam standing in the doorway, flanked by Murdoch and Scott. “Johnny is my patient.”
“You gave up your practice, remember?” Dr. Garner said snidely. “High time too, if your patients here are any indication. It seems that you have been more of a friend to these people than a doctor. If you had treated this young man here like a patient and not a surrogate son, you would have seen that he needed the kind of treatment you are laughably unqualified for. I have a mind to bring you before the medical board for malpractice. If Johnny Lancer dies…”
Sam was across the room before anyone could stop him.
For a man in his sixties Sam Jenkins still carried a wallop…when his fist struck Dr. Garner, the doctor staggered backwards, wheeling his arms like a windmill, waiting for someone to grab him before he hit the ground.
No one came to his rescue and he lay sprawled on the floor.
Sam stood over him, a satisfied smirk on his face. “You can add assault charges to that malpractice charge, doctor. Now get out of my sight before I really lose my temper.”
There was a soft smattering of clapping that soon turned to a crescendo of applause as Dr. Arnold Garner silently exited the great room to return to his office.
Sam looked toward the table, startled to see Johnny’s eyes open at half mast.
“Gracias,” Johnny whispered with a twitch of a smile.
“You’re very welcome, John. Now let’s get you fixed up.”
“Where is he?” Sam demanded. “How am I supposed to have a wedding without a Best Man?” Standing by the window he looked out over the swarm of wedding guests and his face blanched.
“Relax, Sam.” Scott grinned. “Johnny just had to calm his nerves a little…you’d think he was the one getting married instead of you. He just took Barranca out for a run, he’ll be back.”
“Well, he could have taken me with him,” Sam muttered. “This is insanity. I should never have allowed this to get so far out of hand. I’m an old man, I don’t need this kind of …”
“Pomp and circumstance?” Scott supplied, not without a touch of pity for the doctor. “I’m afraid Teresa got a little carried away.”
“A little? There must be two hundred people down there.”
“Two hundred seventy-five at last count. Face it, Sam, you are a popular man. Everyone wants to share this day with you.”
There was one tap on the door and Murdoch swung the door open, three glasses and a bottle of his finest bourbon in his hand.
“I thought you might need some liquid courage, my friend,” he said sympathetically.
“Murdoch, I don’t think I’ve ever been more sure of anything in my life, or more scared.”
“Relax.” Murdoch chuckled. “This is exactly how it’s supposed to feel. When I married Catherine, I thought the ground itself was going to open and swallow me.”
Scott’s hand froze as he lifted his glass to his lips. His father seldom spoke of his mother…his heart beat faster at the prospect of hearing something about them together.
“I knew she was the one…the only person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.” Murdoch glanced over at Scott and saw the rapt expression on his face. How could he have not told his son more about the lovely woman that was his mother? He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Scott returned the nod. They would talk…very soon.
“I don’t remember much of the ceremony,” Murdoch continued. “Just that I had only a few acquaintances there, the rest were Catherine’s family and friends. And not all of them were happy with her choice of husbands. But it didn’t matter…I had my Catherine.
“Ah, but you, my friend, have a lifetime of friends who want to make this the most special day of your life. Embrace the moment, Sam, make it the most memorable of your life.”
All three men toasted.
“How do you think Mabel is doing? This is her second marriage and…”
“I’m sure she is just as nervous as you are, Sam.” Scott downed the last of his drink and handed the empty glass to Murdoch. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get dressed for a wedding.”
Sam and Murdoch watched Scott close the door behind him. “You have two wonderful boys, Murdoch. You are a man blessed.”
Murdoch nodded. “I thank God each and every day for bringing them back to me.”
There was a discreet knock at the door and when both men called, “Come in,” Teresa popped her head in. “The minister just arrived. Everything is right on schedule. Sam, in about an hour you will hear the music start and that is your cue to come outside. You know the rest, we’ve rehearsed it enough.”
Murdoch walked over to the door. “We’ll be there,” he said with a chuckle. “Have you seen Johnny yet? Sam is getting a bit worried.”
“Noting to worry about, Sam,” Teresa grinned, her face flushed with excitement. “He’ll be here. You know Johnny.”
“All too well,” Sam grumbled.
Johnny saw the Lancer arch growing closer and his heart beat faster the nearer he got to home. Everything had worked so perfectly, so far…and that worried him. Nothing that involved Johnny Madrid Lancer ever ran smoothly. He was like a magnet to trouble…one of the reasons he knew Sam Jenkins so well.
But in the past five months, life seemed to settle down. He had spent four weeks in bed, on his best behavior, with the prospect of a wedding in the future. After the four weeks were over, a life sentence in Johnny’s eyes at the time, he was allowed to move around the house on a pair of crutches. He graduated from crutches to a cane and then to nothing in another two months. And finally three weeks ago he was given the go ahead to start riding again.
Now was the day he had been looking forward to. There were a lot of things that had to be taken care of. Looking back on it, he wondered how they had ever done it.
Scott had taken care of Dr. Garner with all the diplomacy he could muster. It was not without a few well placed telegrams and a favor from Harlan Garrett that Dr. Garner was persuaded to leave Morro Coyo and return east. A small battle had ensued when Garner demanded that Sam pay a hefty price to reclaim his practice. It was then that Johnny Madrid stepped in and Dr. Garner quickly stepped out. Rumor had it that he was not happy at his new practice, but it would be a cold day in hell before he was asked back to Morro Coyo.
Seeing the plethora of carriages and horses surrounding the hacienda, Johnny dipped his hat at the wedding guests, all dressed up in their finest clothes, all happy. Everyone loved a wedding. But this one was special.
Stepping into the house he gave Teresa a nod and headed upstairs to change for the wedding.
Teresa and Maria stood at the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk in the great room and basked in their own success.
As the guest list grew, it was soon very apparent that the house was too small for so many people. To Murdoch’s dismay, every day new names were added to the already enormous list of friends and ex-patients. Everyone wanted to show their respects to Dr. Sam, and no one could be turned away. So one hundred and fifty grew to two hundred and seventy-five, and the wedding was still an hour away.
Looking behind them, Teresa and Maria admired the decorations they had arranged around the room. White ribbon with sprigs of green fern and white roses adorned every wall. The furniture had been polished and walls freshly painted. The huge dining table, struggled valiantly beneath a host of cakes and desserts brought by the ladies. Salads and finger sandwiches sat beside pitchers of lemonade and apple cider.
Outside a white gazebo had been built in the center of the courtyard. Volumes of white lace, donated by the Lady’s Sewing Society, weaved through the pergola with more white ribbon and white roses tied to the trellises with green sprigs of feathery ferns and Baby’s Breath.
A dozen chairs sat in a semi-circle in front of the gazebo for the families of the wedding party.
Teresa looked at Maria, her dark green dress accented by a rare tiara she only wore for the most important occasions. Teresa’s own dress was a light pink satin, created just for her by Arlene’s best seamstress. She felt like a princess.
Maria squeezed her hand. “You have done well, Chica…and you look hermoso…beautiful. Your Papa would be very proud.”
“Gracias, Maria. It is almost time. I’d better make sure the bride is ready.”
Scott leaned back on Johnny’s bed and admired Johnny. His brother had come a long way from the first time they met, nearly sitting on top of him in the stage…then standing at his side as they both faced the man that was their father, for the first time. And that awful week when Johnny hung between life and death after Pardee’s bullet nearly killed him.
Now he was grounded. Johnny had lost none of his cat like reflexes, or his instinct to always be on the alert…but he felt safe now, and he allowed people to get close. Sam Jenkins was one of those people he had let in…perhaps the old doctor was the first one he opened up to.
“You keep brushing your hair like that you’ll be as bald as old man Pepperdine,” Scott grinned.
Johnny put down the bush and turned to face Scott. “I’m not sure I can make that speech,” he said, looking toward the sound of the wedding guests talking and laughing below in the courtyard. “I ain’t much for public speaking…you know that.”
“You’re Sam’s Best Man, its customary for the Best Man to toast the Bride and Groom. You’ll be fine.”
“I’d rather be facing a herd of stampeding cattle than that herd of people down there.”
Scott laughed, coming off the bed and slapping Johnny across the back. “Trust me, you will be fine. Now, let’s see how the groom’s doing.”
The groom was pacing the floor. Murdoch stood in the corner, a grin plastered on his face, and waved the boys in as Johnny and Scott poked their heads in.
“All set, Sam?” Johnny asked.
Sam eyed him. “This is all your fault, young man. Mabel and I could have done this nice and easy, with just a couple of close personal friends…but no, you had to open your big mouth . Now look at them…they’re moving around down there like a bunch of buzzing bees.”
“It will all be over before you know it.” Johnny laughed. “And all those people down there would be mighty hurt if they couldn’t be here…you’re important to them, Sam.”
Suddenly the sound of music gently wafted in through the open window.
“I think that’s your cue, Sam,” Scott said, patting Johnny on the back. “Take good care of him. We’ll be downstairs waiting.”
Murdoch shook hands with Sam and slapped Johnny’s back. “See you two in a few minutes.”
Sam watched the door close and turned to Johnny. Dressed in an ink black bolero jacket, pants, and a ruffled white shirt with intricate black stitching, he was as good looking as any young man he had ever met. With his blues eyes twinkling mischievously beneath long black eyelashes he made a rakish figure. But it was the smile that melted Sam’s heart. He didn’t know of another person he would want standing beside him at this moment in his life. Johnny was as close to a son as he had ever had, and he was proud to know that Johnny listed him as one of his true friends.
What Johnny had done for him five months ago…nearly losing his life…knowing that he was so lost and risking so much to save him…how could he repay that?
“You ready, Sam?” Johnny asked.
Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then nodded.
“Good. So let’s get going. You don’t want to start your marriage off with your wife mad at you for being late.” Johnny opened the door and together they walked down the hallway.
“Do you think Sam is as nervous as I am?” Mabel asked. Arlene stood behind her adjusting the simple veil over her softly graying hair. She had it pulled up into a tight bun, flattering her still high cheekbones and strong chin. She was a handsome woman, a woman who had lived life to its fullest in Kansas. But she had been a happy woman, and that showed so much more than the hand of age that had stolen her youth.
“I’m sure Johnny is having
as much trouble calming him down as I am having with you.” She grinned. “Now
hold still while I pin this in place.”
Mabel looked at herself in the full length mirror, brought over by Mrs. Harper from the dress shop. It seemed everyone wanted to help make this the perfect wedding for Sam.
Arlene had commissioned the dress three months before Mabel made her way back to Morro Coyo to stay with the Lancers until the day of the wedding.
The dress was exquisite. Made of light blue silk, the bodice and long sleeves were adorned with small white beads set into small flowerets. The shirt was full with a small train. The perfect dress for a woman of age…and yet she looked and felt as young and vibrant as a twenty year old.
The music began out in the courtyard and Arlene squeezed her sister’s hand. “I am so happy for you, Mabel.”
“I didn’t think I would ever be this happy again.”
Arlene carefully pulled the light blue veil over Mabel’s face and smiled. “No one deserves it more. Now, let’s get you married.”
Sam thought his knees were knocking so loudly that the guests in the back row could hear them. He stood at the arch of the gazebo, Johnny at his side, a million happy faces looking at him. Teresa and Maria sat in the front row with Murdoch, Scott and Jelly. Cipriano and his wife sat beside them. Mabel’s family and friends had traveled cross country to be here for her, and took up two full rows of seats.
The sedate music stopped and a hush came over the crowd… the wedding march began. Sam felt Johnny’s hand squeeze his arm, and that small gesture kept him from passing out.
Why had he allowed them to talk himself into a wedding like this…it could have been a small affair…the judge could have pronounced them man and wife…he didn’t need…
Every worry evaporated into nothingness as he caught sight of Mabel as her brother escorted her down the isle.
She was the most beautiful sight he had ever laid his eyes upon. He felt his heart swell in his throat as Mabel’s brother placed her hand in his.
They turned toward the minister and only he and Mabel existed in that moment.
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God – and in the face of this company – to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony…”
Sam’s hand shook as he
listened to the words of the minister… “Marriage is the union of husband and
wife in heart, body and mind…” Mabel’s hand squeezed his and Sam felt her
warmth and support surround him. “By gathering together all the wishes of
happiness and our fondest hopes for Sam and Mabel from all present here, we
assure them that our hearts are in tune with theirs. These moments are so
meaningful to all of us, for what greater thing is there for two human souls
than to feel that they are joined together – to strengthen each other in all
labor – to minister to each other in all sorrow – to share with each other
in all gladness.
This relationship stands for love, loyalty, honesty and trust, but most of all for friendship. Before they knew love, they were friends, and it was from this seed of friendship that is their destiny. Do not think that you can direct the course of love – for love, if it finds you worthy, shall direct you.
Do you Sam, take Mabel to be your wife – to
live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will
you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, for
richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and
continually bestow upon her your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all
others, keep yourself only unto her as long as you both shall live?”
Sam spoke softly, his voice trembling. “I do.”
”Do you Mabel, take Sam to be your husband – to live together after God’s ordinance – in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sadness and in joy, to cherish and continually bestow upon him your heart’s deepest devotion, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto him as long as you both shall live?
Mabel nodded. “I do.”
”What token of your love do you offer? Would you place the rings in my hand?”
Johnny and Arlene quickly placed the rings in the
minister’s hand, smiling at each other.
”May these rings be blessed as the symbol of this affectionate unity. These two lives are now joined in one unbroken circle. Wherever they go – may they always return to one another. May these two find in each other the love for which all men and women yearn. May they grow in understanding and in compassion. May the home which they establish together be such a place that many will find there a friend. May these rings on their fingers symbolize the touch of the spirit of love in their hearts.”
The minister handed Sam a ring.
”Sam, in placing this ring on Mabel’s finger, repeat after me: Mabel you are now consecrated to me as my wife from this day forward and I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed.”
Sam’s voice rang clear, filled with joy as he
repeated the words. No longer nervous or shy, these words were a promise from
him, a promise he was proud to make.
Handing a ring to Mabel he continued.
”Mabel, in placing this ring on Sam’s finger, repeat after me: Sam you are now consecrated to me as my husband from this day forward and I give you this ring as the pledge of my love and as the symbol of our unity and with this ring, I thee wed.”
Mabel’s voice never faltered as she repeated the vow.
“May you always share with each other the gifts
of love – be one in heart and in mind – may you always create a home
together that puts in your hearts – love – generosity and kindness.
In as much as Sam and Mabel have consented together in marriage before this company of friends and family and have pledged their faith – and declared their unity by giving and receiving a ring – are now joined.
What – therefore – God has joined together – let no man put asunder.
And so, by the power vested in me and the Almighty God, I now pronounce you man and wife – and may your days be good and long upon the earth.
You may now kiss the bride.”
Teresa dabbed at the tears running down her cheeks as she watched Sam gently lift the veil and kiss Mabel.
“I guess it’s my turn.” Johnny grinned, stepping before the crowd. “Everyone…please allow me to present…Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Jenkins.”
A mighty cheer went up and the
music began again.
Together Sam and Mabel walked back down the isle, arm in arm, their faces glowing with pride and happiness.
Johnny slipped away from the crowd and watched as Sam and Mabel disappeared into the mass of well wishers. Never had he felt more a part of something so extraordinarily special. Everything that had happened in the past few months faded into a dark dream that now seemed far removed from the light and love he felt here today.
Perhaps Mabel was right, everything did happen for a reason. Perhaps Maggie came into their lives for a reason. If she did, and this was the path they had to take to get to this moment, then it was all worth it.
He felt Scott’s arm slip around his shoulder. “Well, brother, it seems we can add matchmaking to your list of credits.”
“Yeah? Maybe I should start working on you next, Brother.” Johnny grinned.
“That’s all right. One wedding is plenty for awhile. You think you should join the party?”
Scott raised an eyebrow.
“I will I promise. After all, I still have a speech to give, remember?”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten. Just don’t stay away too long.”
Johnny watched Scott drift back into the crowd, and Johnny smiled after him. Life was filled with wonderful surprises.
“Can I have your attention?” Scott called, tapping his spoon on a champagne glass. “My brother here has something to say to the happy couple. Johnny…”
A small platform had been built for him to stand on and he looked over the crowd of beaming faces.
He cleared his throat. “You all know I’m not much for public speaking…” he began.
“Tell that to the boys in the saloon on Saturday night!” Someone yelled, and a wave of laugher erupted from the crowd.
“Well, at least not something this important.” There was silence as he collected his thoughts. “When I was told that I had to make a speech to all you people I couldn’t think of a thing ta say. I don’t know none of that flowery stuff Scott does, and I can’t wrap an audience around my little finger like Murdoch can…I can only tell you how I feel. When I first came here there were a lot of people who didn’t like having me around much…but not Sam. He treated me fair and when I wanted to leave, he made me stay. He made me stay a lot of times when I was running scared. Sam, you saved my life more times than you’ll ever know, and not just from being hurt or sick…but here…” Johnny tapped his chest. “You treated me like a father, a brother…and most importantly, a friend.
“I can never repay what you have given me. But I think I can give back a little. I know your getting old…older…” he corrected with a mischievous grin, “and I know you spend too much time in that buggy of yours making rounds all over the countryside. Well, I got together with a few of your friends and…”
Johnny motioned for a young man to join him on the platform. “Recognize him, Sam?” Johnny asked, as Sam stared at the young man standing next to Johnny. He seemed so familiar.
“You should, Uncle Sam,” the young man grinned. “It was you who got me to go back east to medical school.”
“Marcus…?” Sam couldn’t believe his eyes. “Marcus Johnson?”
Johnny nodded, his smile so wide his mouth hurt. “Dr. Marcus Johnson, he’s even got one of them hippo---whatever oaths. Sam, could you and Mabel join me?”
Sam and Mabel stood next to Johnny as he pulled an envelope from his pocket. “Sam, I think I know you just about as good as anyone else here, and I know you never want to give up your practice, but you also can’t continue to be the only doctor in these parts as quickly as we’re growing. Sam, Mabel…these are the keys to your new house…just a mile from town, thirty acres of prime land. Four bedrooms, so Scott and I can come visit…and…your own doctor’s office in the back. Marcus made sure you had all the stuff you needed to run a complete clinic.”
Sam accepted the keys, his hands shaking, unshed tears welling in his eyes. “I…don’t know what to say….”
“This is from all of us…we all pitched in. And…” Johnny took out another envelope…”Teresa told me that no self respecting bride and groom would start their marriage without going on a honeymoon first. So here’s two tickets on tomorrow morning’s train to San Francisco and three nights at the Palace Hotel in the bridal suite.”
“Johnny it’s too much…”
“It’s not nearly enough to show you how much we care about you Sam. Now you two better get to dancing ‘cause another tradition Teresa made me swear to was that the first dance would go to the bride and groom. Coagulations Sam…Mabel.”
The bride and groom began their dance, as Johnny stood off to the side and watched.
“That honeymoon must have cost you a fortune,” Murdoch whispered. “You should have said something, we would have helped.”
Johnny shook his head. “I wanted to do it for them. I figured that thousand dollars listening money would come in handy someday.”
“I’m proud of you, son, for all you did for Sam and Mabel and for thinking of bringing Marcus here.”
Johnny watched Sam and Mabel dance around the circle of guests, their eyes shining with delight.
“Not many people get a second chance in life, Murdoch. I was lucky, I got mine, and I almost threw it away…But Sam wouldn’t let me. I owe him my life.”
“I believe you have paid your debt…many times over. Now, let’s go have some of that punch…I think Jelly got to the end bowl and put a little something stronger than just fruit juice.”
“Let’s go. Speech making is thirsty work.”