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Scott was in another one of his moods, and Johnny was just not interested in playing along today. It was too hot, and he was nursing the worst hangover he could remember since he was thirteen and he’d found that jug of “Pure Prairie Juice” left behind by a group of prospectors when their lode petered out down around Escondido. He was sick as a dog for a week after that.
“You know, it’s about time you explored the finer culinary side of life, brother,” Scott said, seriously. “There are so many gastronomic delights awaiting you.”
Johnny looked over at Scott sharply. “My what?”
“Culinary…it means cooking. There are a whole host of things to try besides steaks that are barely singed and peppers hot enough to burn a hole through iron.”
Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop, hanging his head in misery. “Scott, one more word about blood red steaks and them hot peppers and I’m gonna puke my guts out. Let’s just get this day over with so I can go home and die in my own bed.”
Scott studied his brother’s pale complexion and the sweat beading up on his face. “You do look a bit green,” Scott admitted. “I heard you tried to out drink Tiny Malone last night. How many bottles of tequila did you have before you passed out?”
If looks could kill, Scott would be a dead man as Johnny’s cheeks puffed up and he yanked Barranca to the right, bolting out of the saddle and jumping behind a tree just in time to throw up. There was noting left to come up, he’d already been sick a dozen times since he woke up this morning, but his stomach wouldn’t believe him.
Scott sat patiently until Johnny was done, feeling a bit guilty that he had caused Johnny more misery. But as they said, payback was hell. And he had been sick himself, more than once, while he grew accustomed to the rotgut they passed off as whiskey in the local saloons. On the other hand, it seemed that Johnny could eat or drink almost anything and never be fazed. But this time was different, and his brother had been goaded into a drinking contest with Tiny Malone, a three hundred plus bull of a man who could drink any living man under the table. Why Johnny thought he could best him, drink for drink, was beyond him.
He had only known Johnny for six months now…but in that time he had never seen his brother not in control…sure he would have a few drinks…tequila was his poison… an apt word…or a few beers, but always stopped before he was drunk. It was a survival instinct. So what happened last night?
“You ok, Brother?” Scott asked as Johnny dragged himself back into the saddle.
Johnny leered at him and kicked Barranca in the sides and took off very un Johnny- like. It was no longer a question if Johnny could make it through the day…but how long before he called it quits and found a shady tree to rest under.
The inevitable came half an hour later when Johnny seemed to just tilt to the right until he tilted completely out of the saddle. Scott cringed when he hit the ground, but his brother was all arms and legs and he just plopped where he dropped.
Scott pulled up next to Barranca and looked down at his brother. Johnny’s complexion had gone from green to gray and now Scott was becoming a bit concerned. Johnny had obviously over done it, and then some…while a man sporting a hangover was perfect prey, there was nothing sporting about the way Johnny looked.
Scott looked up at the hot sun beating down on them and debated whether it would be wiser to just let Johnny rest under the shade of a nearby tree, or haul him up into the saddle and take him home to that bed he was longing for.
The only obstacle to taking him home was Murdoch. Luckily their father had been in the bathhouse when Glenn Chambers drove Johnny home in the back of his wagon last night. It took three men to carry Johnny up the stairs to his bedroom and a solemn promise from everyone that they wouldn’t say a word to Murdoch.
But home was where he belonged. Johnny was not just drunk, he was sick. Scott had seen men in the cavalry die from too much alcohol.
Scott wondered how a man could suddenly, seemingly, not have a bone in his body. Johnny flopped this way and that, and it took several tries to get his brother into the saddle, and jump on himself in time to keep Johnny from slipping out of the saddle again.
Once he had a good grip on him he grabbed Barranca’s leading rein and started the long, slow ride home.
Johnny was heavier then he looked and Scott’s arms were aching by the time he saw the Lancer arch and the white adobe hacienda. Now, if luck were on his side, Murdoch would be either sitting in the great room going over his books or in the shed working the forge.
But luck was someone else’s mistress today, and Scott saw Murdoch standing beneath the portico watching him ride under the arch.
“I was wondering how long he’d last,” Murdoch said, his voice and face not giving Scott a hint of his father’s disposition.
“He’s not feeling well.”
Murdoch nodded and raised his arms up to ease Johnny out of the saddle.
“Be careful of your back, Sir,” Scott warned. But Murdoch took his youngest and laid him gently on the ground.
Jelly appeared out of nowhere, fingers pulling at his suspenders and tongue clucking. “The boy’s got grit, got ta give him that. I didn’t think he’d make it this long, told ‘im not ta go out taday...but would he listen to ole Jelly? Noooo...well, I got one of my special ‘coctions brewing on the stove…it’ll be ready fer ‘im when he comes round. Need help getting ‘im up ta bed?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Thanks, Jelly, but we can handle him. You go make sure that…witches brew…is ready when he wakes up. I’m not so sure he wouldn’t rather have a hangover than one of your cures.”
Jelly jutted his bearded chin out and rocked back on his heels. “Well, Mr. Boss Man, yer still a standin’. Seems ta me one of my ‘coctions cured what ailed ya last month.”
“Yes it did, Jelly. And thank you. We all thank you.”
“That sounds a might better…” Jelly huffed one last time then trotted off toward the tack room and his concoction.
“Let’s get your brother upstairs so you can get back to work.”
Scott dismounted. “You knew…” he said, surprised.
Murdoch nodded. “It was the talk of the bunkhouse this morning.”
Was there just a touch of pride in Murdoch’s voice? “You’re not mad, Sir?”
“Of course I’m mad,” Murdoch growled. “Johnny won’t be fit to work the rest of the day, and probably not tomorrow…and you’re here playing nursemaid instead of out on the range working where you should be.”
“Don’t be too rough on him, Murdoch. I don’t know why he did it, but you know Johnny, it’s not something he would normally do.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “I barely know the boy. But I know Tiny Malone,” he added cryptically.
Again Scott was surprised. Did Murdoch Lancer just give his son an excuse? Afraid to press any further, Scott didn’t pursue the question. There would be time for that later. “Grab his legs,” he directed, pushing Johnny into a sitting position and wrapping his arms around his brothers chest. “And watch your back, he’s heavier than he looks.”
Scott placed Johnny’s boots neatly in the corner and turned back to see Murdoch covering Johnny up to his waist with a sheet. They had stripped off his clothes and washed him down with a cool towel..
“Close those drapes,” Murdoch ordered. “He’s going to have one hell of a headache when he wakes up.”
Scott did as he was asked and the room was shuttered in warm shadows. “I still can’t understand why Johnny would let this Malone character goad him into a drinking contest.”
Murdoch chuckled softly. “Tiny Malone’s gotten to just about every man in Morro Coyo. He’ll get to you too, just a matter of time.”
Scott rolled his shoulders back, affronted. “No one is going to talk me into nearly killing myself with that rattle snake venom they call whiskey.”
“We’ll see. But Tiny gets to everyone…eventually.”
Suddenly a thought came to mind and Scott looked at his father in amazement. “Everyone?” he asked.
Murdoch nodded. “From what I heard, your brother held his own, a lot longer than most.”
“And you?” Scott asked.
“Tiny nearly met his match. First time.” Murdoch dragged the over stuffed armchair Teresa had moved into his room when Johnny was recovering from Pardee’s bullet, and sank into it, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “Now you get back to work. It’s bad enough I have one man down, I don’t need another to sit and hold his hand.”
Scott took one last look at his sleeping brother. “But I want to hear more about this Tiny Malone when I get back,” he said, as he slipped out the door.
A strange thought came to Johnny’s mind. He remembered reading an article in one of Scott’s newspapers about a gold spike that had been driven into the ground in the Utah Territories to celebrate the beginning of the railroad out west. It felt like that very same spike was being driven into his head.
“Madre de Dios,” he groaned. He felt terrible. No, worse than terrible. Fuzzy memories danced just beyond his recollection, darting closer and closer, and with each pass he knew he was in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.
Something cool and soothing touched his forehead and he sighed. Someone lifted his head and a glass tapped his lips and he obediently opened his mouth. The water felt wonderful soothing his parched mouth and dry throat but turned his stomach the instant it hit.
“Take it easy,” he heard his father say. “Try to keep it down. You need something in your stomach.”
His father…he knew that wasn’t good but he couldn’t remember why.
“I guess I don’t have to ask how you feel,” his father spoke again and daggers went through his forehead with each word.
“Don’t shout,” he begged. “Just leave me alone and let me die in peace.”
“You’re not going to die, John, but you may wish you had when Jelly gets here with his ‘coctions.”
Johnny pried one eye open. “Murdoch, no…” he moaned.
“Next time you’ll think twice before you take Tiny on in a drinking contest.”
Johnny threw his arm over his eyes. “I don’t know how it happened, Murdoch.”
Johnny peeked out beneath his arm. “You do?” Despite the spinning room and undulating bed, he managed to stare at Murdoch for a long moment. “How?”
Murdoch wrung out the cloth again and carefully folded it before placing it on Johnny’s forehead.
“Tiny Malone first started passing through Morro Coyo about six years ago. Says he’s a traveling salesman, what he sells no one knows. He hits Morro Coyo and Green River about every six months or so, stays a week in each town and he’s gone. You’re not the first one to feel like death warmed over, Johnny. He seems to be able to talk someone into a drinking contest every night. I had the misfortune of trying to beat Tiny about four years ago. According to the hands in the bunkhouse, you came closer than anyone to matching him, drink for drink.”
“No…” Johnny gulped. “No more talk about Tiny Malone or drinking. Get my gun and shoot me…please.”
“I don’t think that’s the answer, son. But if I were you, I’d pretend to still be out. Here comes Jelly with his witches brew.”
Johnny paled even more, if that was possible, and snapped his eyes shut.
He felt Jelly hovering over him and a noxious odor filled the room. “He sure looks a sight, boss. My ‘coction here should fix ‘im right up.”
“I’m sure it will, Jelly. But as you can see he’s still out.” Murdoch’s voice sounded like a soothing tonic to Johnny’s throbbing head and churning stomach, and he thought he never appreciated his father more than he did at that very moment. “The best thing for him is sleep. When he wakes up I’ll be sure to give it to him.”
“It’s best when it’s still warm, that way it goes down real slow and coats his stomach.”
Johnny hoped he didn’t look as green as he felt.
“Fixed you right up, remember?”
“Oh yes, I remember all too well. Now, let the boy sleep. Tell Teresa I’ll be down shortly and not to bother setting a place for Johnny at dinner. I’m sure he won’t be feeling up to eating tonight.”
“And not tomorrow night neither, I reckon.” Johnny heard Jelly close the door and only then did he open one eye.
Johnny saw the steaming pot Jelly had brought up and was nearly sick again. “Could you get that out of here?”
Murdoch couldn’t agree more. But he couldn’t leave it in the hallway; Jelly might come back and see it. He put it the only other place he could think of. Opening Scott’s door he placed it on the floor and closed the door again. He’d have to remember to remove it before Scott got home.
Murdoch returned to his seat next to the bed and began to quietly talk. Johnny thought that perhaps he might survive as he listened to his father speak softly. It wasn’t what he said; it was just the sound of his voice. For the first time Johnny felt safe and at peace even though he wasn’t in control. He had his father to watch his back.
Three weeks later….
Jelly stood over the Franklin stove in the tack room and stirred another batch of his ‘coction. When Tiny Malone was in town, Jelly Hoskins was a busy man. Satisfied that it had boiled enough, and the stench was strong enough to burn the whiskers off his chin, he poured a healthy amount into a tin cup and headed for the main house.
“Dern fool youngin’s,” he muttered. “Ain’t got the good sense God gave ‘em. And just three weeks ago Scott was all over Johnny like fleas on a dog fer trying to best Tiny Malone. Just shows all that highfaluting schoolin’ don’t rightly make a man any smarter.”
Jelly headed up the stairs. “Hang on there, Scott,” he called. “I got the cure fer what ails ya.”