Authors' notes/acknowledgements: Heartfelt thanks to Cindy Carrier for her excellent beta, to Grace for the "Spanish lessons", and to Jennie, for whom this story was written. Thanks for everything, pard.
Disclaimer: Standard ones apply.
Tuck and roll, Johnny-boy, tuck and roll.
Johnny Lancer was no stranger to falling. In fact, he had become a master at it by the time he was in his teens. He had become not only an accomplished horseman, but was also well on his way to becoming an expert in the art of breaking horses. And, as anyone who has ridden a thousand pounds of contrary horseflesh could attest, the time spent spitting up dirt was equal or greater to the time spent on their backs. If you didn't learn fast just how to tuck and roll, you'd best find yourself another vocation.
But if that vocation happened to be pistolero, and you'd planned on living through more than one gunfight, well, the fine art of falling played its part there, too. The added skill of being able to come up firing with deadly speed and accuracy explained in large part how and why Johnny was still here today. And how he'd made it through the near misses and even the didn't misses. . . the bullets that had found their man but not their lethal mark. Surviving long enough for the men his father hired to find him could bring him home.
Yeah, Johnny had learned how to get himself away from trouble or, at least protect what was vital. He'd been forced to learn that lesson even long before he'd begun shaving. Long enough that it had become second nature.
It was oddly funny then how he'd managed most all his years to keep himself basically in one piece -- avoid the serious damage that could be inflicted by a bigger man's fists or the flailing legs of a panicked horse, or even the toll of hot lead piercing his body. Yet, with all his skill, lightning quick reflexes and experience to draw on, he couldn't for the life of him manage to get out of the way of this God-forsaken wagon.
Even as his world narrowed down to this one moment in time, slowing down just like it did every time he faced off with another man, he couldn't prevent what was about to happen. And as he found himself literally falling through the air and about to crash onto the unforgiving terrain, he tucked his head and curled his body, trying not to tense up as he prepared to absorb the impact of the earth. He'd survive this fall too, he knew. It was just that damnable wagon he had to worry about. The one he and his brother had been riding in and the one he'd realized, at first with a sense of impending dread and then with resigned detachment, that was following his path like a hound from Hell. The one that without a doubt was really, truly going to cause him some hurt when it finally landed.
There was one consolation. Scott had already been thrown clear and Johnny just prayed that his brother's landing had been smoother and that he was unhurt. As long as Scott was all right, he would be too.
Johnny had been right.
Not that it required his brother's Harvard education to figure that bouncing out of control down a steep hill with a supply wagon in hot pursuit was going to result in anything but pain and misery. Still, now that he'd woken up, Johnny was having one hell of a time trying to keep from passing out again or worse, giving into the panic beginning to consume him.
And just where the Hell was Scott?
He remembered careening down the hill, his body seemingly finding every rock, tree stump and boulder nature had to offer, though he didn't actually remember stopping his descent. He suspected his landing had been more than a little abrupt, enough to knock the wind out of him along with his senses, at least for a while. He hadn't been out long though, he could see a wheel still turning on the underside of the wagon presently upturned and resting most awkwardly along his body and on top of the boulder Johnny was crammed up against. He realized he should be thankful for the rock's presence, despite the fact that he was certain his collision with it had caused more damage than the runaway buckboard.
He was decidedly ungrateful about his current state of immobility though and growing more concerned as he realized Scott hadn't so much as called out for him yet. That disturbing fact could only mean that his sibling was in a similar or worse situation.
Okay. That hurt more than it should have. He should settle down. Just because he knew his brother would be by his side in an instant if it was at all possible, it didn't mean Scott was really any worse off than Johnny. He had probably just been winded and was trying to get his wits about him too, just like Johnny was trying to do. Come on, Scott, c'mon!
Where was he? Between the wagon's position and the rock next to him, Johnny couldn't see much of his surroundings but he knew his brother couldn't be far. Within shouting distance at least. Well, if his brother couldn't come to him, then Johnny would have to go to Scott. All he had to do was get out from under his makeshift prison.
Johnny flexed his right hand. His fingers brushed against the cold steel of his revolver and he sighed with relief. His gun hand remained in one piece. A comforting thought; even if every other bone in his body remained useless, at least he could still shoot. Cold sweat popped out along his face from minimal movement and the chill of the ground could already be felt in his bones and he realized how helpless he truly was. He shivered, further awakening nerves he'd prayed would stay dormant.
The frantic shout escaped before he'd even realized it and he berated his weakness again. Enough was enough. After all, if Scott wasn't able to get to him, Johnny would just have to bite the bullet and save them both.
Taking a few calming breaths, he gritted his teeth and raised up slightly, enough to give his left elbow and forearm some purchase and allow himself a chance to lift his head and shoulders. Johnny gripped the side of the wagon bed with his left hand, shifting slightly to free his other arm.
"Oh, Dios." Johnny whispered as the blissful numbness in his legs abruptly gave way to blinding pain. He felt the sickening crunch of bone as he realized not only was he caught, but the real damage the boulder had caused. He clamped his jaws tight and dug wildly at the earth, trying to hold on to something solid to keep the pain from dragging him under. Rivulets of sweat trailed along his neck, igniting uncontrollable trembling and producing the sickening sensation of both freezing and burning and he was sure he was going to throw up. Or pass out.
A ragged cry tore from his lungs, cut short by the rising nausea swelling inside his throat and the agony of movement. Johnny gagged and choked it back, unwilling to give in to his own sickness. Not now. He had to make sure his brother was all right, then he'd worry about puking his guts out and how bad he hurt. Except he couldn't move. Pain and exhaustion held him tight and he had no reserves left to call upon.
But, he couldn't black out yet.
His unplanned look at the swirling stars had lasted a hell of a lot longer than the glance at his surroundings had. But Johnny knew that he had glimpsed his brother in his periphery. Or more precisely, Scott's gloved hand, a familiar tan jacket-sleeve, and his even-more-familiar shock of blond hair.
And his big brother wasn't moving.
"Scott!" He wished he could control his panic, but the thought of Scott lying there hurt, just yards away from him was creating such torment in his mind, Johnny was ready to pull himself out from under the wagon, broken leg or not.
"Scott!" Despondent and desperate, he called out again and again, though to his ears, all sound was muffled by the roar of ocean drowning him, threatening to take him under. Squeezing his eyes shut against the frustration springing forth, Johnny breathed in through his nose, fighting off the nausea and pain that had excruciatingly announced itself in his right leg.
Johnny warred against the dizzying gray fog trying to engulf him, defying its wishes, no matter how much he desperately wanted the pain to go away. His brother needed him. Scott needed him conscious, if only to provide him with a reason to wake up.
"Scott, you have to wake up." Despair rising in his chest, Johnny shook it off. He couldn't lose control now. He had to hold on, just until Murdoch got here. His father would take care of Scott, both of them. Hell, his old man would move mountains just to make sure his sons were all right. His father was coming, Murdoch was coming. Johnny just had to hold on.
It was only a matter of time before the old man switched from irritation to outright worry and gathered up a posse of hands to look for them. He smiled at the thought. It had taken Johnny some time but he'd finally figured out that old Murdoch Lancer's bark was worse than his bite and once his younger son had learned to recognize the worry in his eyes, well, Johnny had found something special. Home. With a father who loved him, but who harbored more guilt than anyone could possibly endure without closing himself off. If for no other reason than the fear of the unbearable rejection he fully expected and felt he deserved. Murdoch didn't deserve rejection though. Not from Johnny, not from Scott and, even though he'd never truly know what had gone on between his parents, Johnny was certain his father hadn't deserved it from his mother either.
What mattered now was, whether Maria Lancer had wanted it or not, that his family was together. Along with a father he looked up to and loved, he had a little sister who he adored and who adored him right back. He even had a crotchety old "uncle" in Jelly, a confidante who understood Johnny better than most and loved him anyway.
And then he had Scott. A best friend to idolize and worship like no other and yet compel Johnny to guide and teach him at the same time. He was Johnny's guardian and defender and the one Johnny wanted to protect most. He was the reason Johnny had survived the gun battle with Pardee's gang and the reason Johnny had stayed in the aftermath, long enough to find his true home. Scott was the big brother an orphan didn't even dare conjure in his dreams. Because brothers that wonderful weren't possible. And even if they were, they'd have no interest in the likes of Johnny Madrid.
Thank God he'd been so very wrong.
Why wouldn't Scott wake up? They weren't all that far apart so why couldn't he hear him? Fear crept back into Johnny's muddled thoughts. Maybe Scott couldn't wake up. He shoved aside the invading thought, he couldn't afford to wallow in maybes. Truth was his shouts had wound down into nothing more than glorified whispers. It was taking every ounce of strength left to just stay awake and he needed something louder than his feeble voice to wake his brother.
Carefully Johnny inched his hand along beside him until his palm connected with the pistol grip that fit him like a glove. He sucked in an unexpected hitch of breath as he slowly and awkwardly drew the gun from its holster. Blinking away the sweat burning his eyes, he took a few more calming breaths, determined not to pass out.
Stretching his arm out and away from him, as far as his aching body would allow and as close to the wagon's edge as he could get, Johnny instinctively cocked his gun and pulled the trigger, hoping like Hell he didn't get hit by a ricochet.
He shouldn't have bothered worrying about that. The recoil damn near made him puke. He really was a mess.
Waiting for the echoes of the gunshot to die down, he focused in the direction where he'd seen Scott. He nearly cried at the silence that greeted him. Firing again and again as he emptied his gun in frustration and desperation, Johnny let out a guttural moan as the pistol fell away from his hand.
Oh, Dios, what if. . . No. Johnny wouldn't think it, couldn't think it. Brothers didn't just up and die and leave their siblings trapped and cold and hurt. Especially not Scott.
"Damnit, Scott! Wake up!"
Scott fought through the blanket of haze smothering him. He could hear his brother's panicked voice calling for him, or was it merely the echo of a familiar fading dream? Reality began to invade the protective fog and he struggled to open his eyes and free himself from this mental confinement.
The high-pitched call finally reached his brain and it, followed by the distinct report of gunshots, told him this was all too real. Scott rolled over, sucking in a ragged breath as fire erupted in his side and sharp claws raked the inside of his skull. He could feel himself longing to give in to the blackness again, but Johnny's frightened cry kept him determined. He could give in to his own agony later; right now he had to make sure his brother was safe.
"Damn it, Scott! Wake up!"
Johnny's weak, yet insistent call shattered inside his head and sunlight assaulted his tender eyes as he tried to focus. He tried to call back, let Johnny know he was coming, but his throat refused to release enough moisture to carry the words further than his own ears.
Scott gritted his teeth and crawled toward the sound of his brother's voice, blinking hard to dislodge the sand and film obstructing his vision. Pain assaulted him as he pulled himself over the cold, rocky ground, but he forced it aside, his determination strengthened as he caught a glimpse of Johnny near the over-turned wagon.
"Johnny." The name came out not much above a whisper, but Johnny turned his head, a half-laugh, half-sob of relief flooded from his lips.
"Thought you'd gone deaf on me, brother," Johnny said, the weak smile on his lips not hiding the worry glazing his eyes.
Scott dragged himself next to Johnny, catching his breath as he sat up and leaned against the broken wagon. "Surprised you didn't. . . wake a few dead saints. . . with all that wailing."
Johnny laughed half-heartedly and let his head drop to the ground. "You all right?"
"Better than you. Where are you hurt?"
Scott followed Johnny's gaze downward, his heart seizing as he realized one of Johnny's legs appeared pinned underneath the buckboard. How could he have not noticed that? Scott turned around, trying in vain to see if by some chance he would be able to just fling the damaged buckboard off his brother. Instead he found himself fighting off the dizziness as his own pain resurfaced. Scott rested his forehead against the iron wheel, trying to will himself to stay conscious.
Johnny's worried voice helped him focus, to remember why he had to stay strong. His hope was that his brother's leg was merely pinned and it simply looked much worse than it actually was. "How bad is it?"
"Can't feel it much anymore, but it's busted up real good. I can't move it."
Scott let out a deep breath and peered under the wreckage. He ran his hand along Johnny's injured limb as far as he could reach. The wagon had mercifully landed at an angle, the one end supported by the boulder creating a large gap that kept the bed from crushing him, but Scott could tell from the awkward position that Johnny's leg was broken and getting him clear of the buckboard would be an ordeal. With his own waning strength and the dizziness, he knew he only had one shot at getting his brother free before he gave out.
"I'll get you out. Just hang on, brother."
Scott stood up, his mind racing. The sun warmed his face, but the stinging wind reminded him it was winter. He couldn't remember why they'd taken this route and he closed his eyes to try and bring back the memory of what kind of mission they'd been on and if they would be missed before morning.
He was sure he'd awoken to gunfire, but just who was shooting at them, he didn't know. And where were they now? Maybe it had all been a dream created solely from the monstrous pounding in his skull. He didn't plan to mention it to his brother either way. Johnny had enough to worry about without Scott's imagination heaping more anxiety onto his shoulders.
"Scott." Johnny's weak voice broke through his thoughts and he turned to his brother. "Get some planks from the wagon first -- to make a splint. Okay?"
Right, that was a good idea. Get Johnny taken care of so they'd be ready to go. It was never a good idea to stay in one place too long. He had to find a spot where he could defend them if necessary.
Scott stumbled to the rear of the wagon. Each step jolted his abused body and his stomach churned in time. Bending over slightly and resting his hands on his thighs, he inhaled cautiously, careful to avoid undue strain on his battered ribs and doing his utmost to prevent a decided display of weakness. Inspecting the damage to the wagon and assessing its usefulness, he faltered. He'd already known it was destroyed, hadn't he? The horses were nowhere in sight anyway so other than kindling, what possible use could the buckboard provide?
His brother's voice. Sounding weak and clearly worried and apparently with good reason. His elder sibling had momentarily forgotten about him. Shaking his head in disdain, Scott nearly sank to his knees with the action, one he'd have to remind himself not to repeat. His head might be pounding, but his brother was in worse condition so he'd simply have to chin up and function.
Just why was he back here though? Looking at the wreckage, all he could see was the underside of what remained of their supply wagon. Wood and metal. Metal and wood. Wood. . . wooden slats.
Johnny's leg! Clearly he wasn't thinking straight but he refused to let his own debility affect his performance or responsibilities. As an officer or older brother. Straightening up, Scott squared his shoulders, wincing at the cost but feeling a new resolve possess him.
Focusing on the task at hand, Scott chose two evenly sized strips of wood from the debris and peeled them away from the rest of the wreckage. Muscles straining and panting more than should have been necessary, he valiantly fought off the haze trying once again to envelope him before making his way back to his brother and dropping to his side.
He could feel the throb of his heartbeat booming in his skull and against his ribs and found himself oddly entranced, almost swaying to its rhythm. It would be so easy to give in to it, let it lead him down the path into blessed oblivion. Only the sudden grip on his forearm kept him anchored in reality.
"Scott, you all right?"
The urgency in Johnny's tone and the concern in those pain-filled blue eyes increased the affect that Johnny's hold already had on him. Scott hated knowing his brother was badly hurt, but seeing his fear and believing his own inadequacies were adding to it, well that just wasn't acceptable.
Scott transformed his features into the exasperated, yet amused older brother mask he adorned quite frequently. A look he'd be wearing quite naturally right now if not for the desire to have his head fall off and end his own misery. Still, Scott smiled down at Johnny, indulgently, even a little smugly, and patted the hand still holding his wrist in its iron grasp. "Johnny, I'm fine."
"Oh, don't even try it." His brother's eyes flashed fire now and Scott knew he'd have to give a little.
"All right, brother." Scott's words cut off any further protest from Johnny. He must have found some sincerity in Scott's tone for Johnny's fingers grew lax, though they didn't let him go completely.
"Don't lie to me." Johnny's whisper was as much plea as decree and Scott could only hope he'd be able to instil enough confidence in his words to lift his brother's spirits and convince him all would be well. He abhorred the idea of lying to Johnny but honestly, he knew he wasn't as bad off and, once he had a chance to rest, stopped jostling his head and ribs, he was certain his words would prove truthful.
"I am not lying to you." Johnny turned back to him, looking unconvinced, worry shining in his eyes. Wearing a mock scowl, he waved an accusing finger at him and admonished, "And don't give me that look. You're not exactly all that pretty yourself at the moment."
There it was, the smile he'd hoped to incite in place of his brother's anger and frustration and Scott could feel relief rolling off his shoulders in anticipation of Johnny's retort.
"Prettier than you on your best day."
Scott grinned back, grateful for some normalcy in their plight.
"Johnny, look, I really am all right. Bruised and scraped, just like you are but, if you haven't noticed, at least I'm mobile."
"You may be movin' but you ain't movin' right."
His all too observant brother. Scott decided it would only be prudent to confess a few more of his ailments if he wanted to ease Johnny's mind. "It's only my ribs, Johnny. I'm sure they're just bruised, none of them feel broken."
They locked eyes and Scott was momentarily grateful for the continuing effect Johnny's condition was having on his brother's vision and endurance. Johnny could always read him and sometimes out-stubborn him too, but not now, in this shape. And even though Scott still felt as though his head was coming apart, he was equally obstinate and, with more to gain from winning this battle of wills, he knew he could outlast Johnny.
Just as he expected, Johnny blinked first, sighing in what seemed to Scott to be a mixture of disgust and resigned acceptance. Scott simply felt immense relief and, knowing just how prideful his sibling could be, a touch of sympathy too. Scott settled his palm on Johnny's chest until their eyes met again. The challenge was gone but the intensity of emotion certainly remained, and this time it was Scott who found it nearly impossible to hold his gaze.
There was more than resignation in those expressive pools of blue. . .
Surrender. Dependence. Trust.
The kind that could only be gifted by a young man with too much faith in his big brother.
And as if those soulful eyes weren't enough to shake Scott to his very core, Johnny softly requested, "Get me out of here, Scott."
Scott was well aware that Johnny had only been asking for help in escaping from beneath the wagon, but the vow Scott made to himself went much deeper. His brother was depending on him and, come Hell or high water, Scott would get him out of this mess. Scott found himself on the opposite side of the wagon, on his knees, trying to figure out the best way to release his injured brother from the wreck without heaving his own stomach contents all over the soil. Still, his concern for Johnny far outweighed a little dizziness and Scott was determined to soldier on and get them both to safety. Their location might not be easy to spot from the roadway above but, to anyone scouring the fields, the Lancer brothers were easy pickings.
He hadn't lied completely about his injuries. Scott really didn't believe he'd broken any ribs, though some might have earned a few cracks along with their bruises. It was his headache that was most debilitating. Scott wasn't too pleased about the feeling of disorientation that would overcome him, especially when he didn't have Johnny right there to ground him but, he put the sensation down to a little fatigue and what seemed to be a rather insignificant, if tender, bump on his head. Aside from that, he couldn't find any open wound or evidence of blood. Certainly Johnny hadn't spied anything untoward when he had given his brother the once over.
Scott had to concede that, even in the best of shape, he wouldn't have the strength to lift the wagon. And, after having a closer look at Johnny's position relative to the wreckage, Scott had determined he couldn't simply pull his brother out from under it. Though the one end of the wagon had thankfully landed on the boulder, saving Johnny from certain death, the other end was on the ground providing very little space between the upturned wagon bed and Johnny's boot. Pulling him out was going to hurt like Hell no matter what, but having his foot get caught during the ordeal was not something Scott was willing to risk.
All Scott needed was an inch or two, something to wedge under the bed to lift it slightly higher at that end. Thanks to the impact of the wagon when it had finally landed, the walls of it had pretty much splintered or come apart so now Scott was rummaging beneath it, collecting scraps to work with. Stretching to almost beyond his limits, he was surprised to discover the smooth surface of blown glass meeting his fingertips. Lunging forward slightly and trying to suppress a groan, Scott snagged the bottle and cautiously worked it back toward him. He wondered if any more alcohol had survived the crash. No matter, this scotch had just been demoted for medicinal purposes.
Pleased that he'd procured something to actually help Johnny endure his pain, Scott found the renewed energy to hurry back to his brother. With a genuine smile on his face, he dropped down next to him, brandishing the scotch as though it was a prize. The look on his brother's face told him it was.
Reaching for it, Johnny grinned. "Oh, bless your heart. Gimme that."
"Just a minute, just a minute," Scott scolded, holding the bottle away from Johnny's reach and earning a glare in response. In reality more than happy to oblige him, Scott took a moment to slip in behind Johnny, providing his bent knees as a pillow. He knew Johnny was more than capable of handling hard liquor but Scott intended to get as much down his brother in as little time possible and he had no intention of letting him choke. They had enough to worry about.
Accepting the opened bottle, Johnny immediately took a couple of swigs before resting the bottle by his side. He then lolled his head back into Scott's lap, taking comfort in his brother's solid presence.
Though still a tequila man, Johnny had grown to appreciate his father's taste in fine whisky but, truth be told, this scotch was going down about as smooth as cow piss. He was too damn hot, despite his earlier chills, and the alcohol just seemed to add fuel to that heat. He could feel the sweat forming on his skin, crawling its way down his neck and it only served to make him feel worse. Though he understood why his brother was giving it to him, what he could use as much or more than the booze was simply a drink of water. That Scott hadn't yet thought to offer him any frankly astonished him but, he was loath to ask for some. He knew Scott was hurting worse than he was letting on and the last thing Johnny wanted his brother to have to do was go hill climbing with sore ribs to find their canteens. Scott would come up with water eventually and, in the mean time, Johnny would just have to make do with getting loaded on his old man's sippin' scotch.
As if on cue Johnny felt the cool glass slip from his loose hold and miraculously re-appear before his face, followed by the command to drink more. "Consider it an order."
"You tryin' to get me drunk?" Johnny asked, grasping the bottle and knowing full well the answer. Scott just motioned for him to continue so he gave his older brother a half-hearted salute along with a "yes, Sir" and downed another gulp.
In the short time it took Scott to coax about a third of the bottle into him, Johnny was feeling just god-awful. Mind you, his brother's plan had worked for the most part and he could no longer feel any pain in his leg. For that matter, he could barely feel, let alone use, any of his limbs. Johnny's head felt like it weighed a ton, his throat burned worse than his eyes and he felt so nauseous he knew he'd end up upchucking on Scott before this ordeal was through.
Coincidentally, his brother's anxious face came into view and Johnny couldn't help but wonder when exactly it was that Scott had slipped out from behind him and given him his jacket to use as a pillow instead. Before he had a chance to ask, he watched Scott's hand briefly rest on his brow before disappearing into his hair. Johnny knew he should have found it annoying, but he didn't feel that way at all. In fact it made him feel a little better and he knew it was probably helping Scott settle his nerves, too.
"Johnny, you ready?"
Scott just gave him a patronizing smirk and promptly slid in behind Johnny again. This time he wrapped his arms around Johnny's midsection and drew him up higher, nearly up to his waist. And Johnny just let him. He felt like a rag-doll and couldn't help if he'd tried. Besides which, despite the fact that he couldn't feel his legs just moments earlier, that little amount of jostling had re-ignited the flame shooting through the broken one and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out.
Johnny appreciated the fact that Scott wasn't prolonging the ordeal. They had no choice but for Scott to drag Johnny a full body's length out from beneath the wagon and there was no point in stalling. Even though he could hear the dread in his sibling's voice and knew this was going to be damn near as hard on Scott. Not wasting any time either, Johnny nodded his head against his brother's chest and grabbed onto the arms holding him tight. "Let 'er buck," he said, hoping his tremulous voice didn't give Scott cause to doubt Johnny's trust in him. On the contrary, Johnny's faith in his big brother was irrefutable.
Johnny didn't hear the rest. His brother's voice was drowned out by his own scream and the waves of agony that washed over him as his leg was torn apart. Oh, Dios, it hurt, it hurt, and it wasn't stopping either.
He was vaguely aware somehow that he was lying sprawled out on top of Scott, his brother unmoving though his arms still held him tight. The pain was relentless and Johnny prayed for blessed oblivion to take him, even though he knew that would mean abandoning Scott. Until then, all Johnny could do was keep sucking in air and lie there helpless as each surge of fiery pain worked its way upward. It seared along his broken leg, then into his gut, churning its contents until Johnny felt the burn in his chest and throat and, oh God, he knew it.
Though he never even opened his eyes, Johnny knew his world had just upended and he was mercifully puking his guts up in the dirt and not all over himself and his brother. He was still in Scott's arms, back braced up against Scott's chest, though one hand had shifted and was now supporting Johnny's head. An act of charity Johnny would have to thank him for whenever he got his breath back. His acrid retching continued until Johnny was certain he'd emptied out the previous night's supper, his breakfast, and every ounce of imported whiskey he'd swallowed earlier. He figured the old man would understand.
The heaves were quieting now and though his throat still scalded him nearly as badly as his leg, Johnny was beginning to feel a welcome lethargy sweep over him. He could make out Scott's words now, softly spoken directly into his ear as they were, telling him that everything was okay, that the worst was over and that it really would be alright to go to sleep. Scott would be there to watch over him, he promised, so let go. Just let go.
So he did.
"Thank God." Scott couldn't prevent the cry that escaped his throat as his brother blessedly passed out. His own body was shaking now, arms straining as he hugged his brother's lax form to his chest, one arm still wrapped around Johnny's waist, the other supporting his head which he braced against the side of his own as he felt Johnny faint.
Though he knew Johnny could no longer hear him, his whispers didn't stop. "That's it, let's get you lying down." Slowly he sat back on his heels, taking Johnny's full weight with him and gasping as his damaged ribcage protested the strain. Twisting Johnny around in his hold, he gently settled him onto the ground, away from the evidence of his sickness, once again using his jacket to cushion the dark head from the unforgiving earth. With utmost care, Scott took a moment to arrange his brother's arms and left leg into a more comfortable position, cringing at the misshapen sight of his right. "In a minute," he softly declared, knowing he'd have to deal with Johnny's leg soon, hopefully while his brother was still out cold.
Johnny was in such bad shape and Scott felt overcome by a crushing sense of inadequacy. He would splint Johnny's leg but what then? And where were his men? Had he failed them too? For that matter, where were he and Johnny? For the life of him, Scott still couldn't remember where they'd been headed and whether or not they were supposed to be alone. All he could remember was waking up to his brother's desperate calls and that vague recollection of gunshots in the distance.
He supposed he could no longer deny his disorientation was in large part due to the knot on his skull. How could he, given how relentlessly it was pounding right now? His head was reeling and smacking it on the hard ground when he'd pulled Johnny out from underneath the buckboard hadn't exactly helped with his steadiness. And though that effort had clearly been excruciating for Johnny, it hadn't been exactly a breeze for Scott either. Johnny was far from a lightweight and Scott's sore ribs were paying the price. Breathing had become increasingly painful and that breathlessness combined with the throbbing of his brain and an ever-present queasiness were making it more and more difficult to think straight. Still, his brother was depending on him and feeling sorry for himself would serve no useful purpose. He would not, could not, give in to desolation nor to debility.
Angrily wiping away the vestiges of his frailty, Scott breathed in as deeply as he dared, wincing inadvertently, and pulled himself together. There was still the matter of splinting Johnny's leg and getting him to safer cover. Once his brother was taken care of, Scott would set about scouting their surroundings before it became too dark, to get a lay of the land and hopefully come up with a plan.
Concentrating on his brother seemed to lessen his own suffering and pushed the now familiar fogginess and uncertainty away to the edges of his consciousness. His grandfather would undoubtedly maintain that this stemmed from the responsibility of command. More likely from fraternal devotion, Scott countered, bringing a smug smile of satisfaction to his face. Whatever the cause, Scott found his focus and, in very little time, using his belt and some strapping from the wreckage, he had set his brother's leg and securely splinted it between the wooden slats he'd gathered together earlier.
Aside from a brief moment of alarm when Scott was certain his brother was waking up to the bone being set, Johnny remained unconscious and unaware throughout what could have been yet one more agonizing ordeal. For that Scott breathed another little prayer, this time remembering to include his brother's saints in his thanks. He prayed too that Johnny would stay out, until he could move him. Scott dreaded the idea, but there was no question that sitting out in the open made them a poor excuse for target practice and besides, Scott had already decided upon their hideaway. His brother needed shelter, not only from the growing cold, but from whatever dangers the coming night might hold. Haunting memories and flashes of pain streaked through his skull and he found himself panting, gripping the wagon wheel like a lifeline as he fought to stay upright. He couldn't identify the visions, but the terror they invoked reinforced his need to stay hidden. Something waited for them, sought them out and he had to keep them safe until he could figure out what he needed to do.
Scott had no intention of dragging his brother again so he only had one choice. He'd have to carry him. Spurred on by necessity and fear, Scott defied the stabbing pain in his ribs and slung Johnny's arm over his back and straightened, bearing the full brunt of his brother's muscular form as he hoisted Johnny over his shoulder. Grunting with the effort, the sting of sweat suddenly reaching his eyes, Scott staggered before finding his footing and pushing off toward the outcropping he'd spotted overlooking the wagon.
He could feel every bruise, every scrape and every bump he'd sustained during his fall protest with each step, but he would not put his brother down. Nor would he drop him.
His destination finally reached after what seemed like an eternity, Scott positioned himself so that he could simply slide Johnny to the ground, letting his boneless body do the work while Scott supported his brother's head. Mindful of Johnny's leg, Scott eased him down, once again arranging his limbs into some semblance of comfort and nearly started at the gasp escaping his brother's lips.
Johnny was coming to.
He placed a firm hand on Johnny's shoulder, providing a distraction from the pain and a connection to the here and now before speaking softly. "It's all right, you're doing fine," he encouraged.
As confusion mastered pain in the battle of expressions warring on Johnny's face, Scott's concern turned to relief and he almost laughed out loud as his bewildered brother curiously checked out his new surroundings plus the splint on his leg. "How long?"
"About ten minutes too long. You couldn't have considered waking up before I had to carry your lazy hide?"
"Oh, sure. Harvard educated and you can't figure a way to wake somebody up?"
Scott grinned at the jibe, despite the strain in Johnny's voice. He'd endure a hundred headaches such as this, as many bruised and battered ribcages, as long as he knew his brother would still be there, well enough to badger him again tomorrow. "Brother, it would have taken dynamite to wake you ten minutes ago," he replied, trying desperately to hide the pain and breathlessness in his tone.
"Yeah, well. . . I guess I should be grateful then, huh?"
The gratitude was there, shining in Johnny's eyes and in his rough voice and Scott felt woefully undeserving. He knew he was doing his best but he feared his best wouldn't be good enough. "Definitely," he muttered, almost automatically. He had so much left to do, before he could rest, and not enough daylight to do it in. He felt better now that Johnny was awake, despite his unhealthy pallor and the sheen of sweat covering his face. Willing to leave his brother, if only long enough to scavenge more supplies from the wagon and do some reconnaissance, he had to see what was happening beyond their limited view.
"Scott, you all right? You didn't hurt yourself luggin' me around, did you?"
Johnny's concern broke Scott from what must have been a too-long reverie and he tried to cover his weakness. "Any more seconds at the mess tent and that might be the case."
His brother's mirth turned to puzzlement but Scott didn't stop to wonder why. He needed to get started on his mission and desperately wanted to deflect Johnny's thoughts away from pointless concern. "Never mind." Changing the subject then, he cheerfully asked, "How about some good news?"
"I had a good look at your leg while you were having your siesta. . ." Johnny flashed him an ineffective glare though Scott knew his brother was only attempting to mask his anxiety, in the same way Scott was using humor to cover up his. Broken legs were never anything but serious. "And, it looks like a simple fracture to me," Scott concluded, pleased to see the dread drain away from Johnny's face.
"Nothin' pokin' out where it shouldn't be?"
"Everything's where it should be," Scott replied, indulgently patting his brother's chest as he caught his breath. "If slightly askew."
Johnny's relief was so obvious, Scott watched in awe as his brother ignored the quip and seemed to relax further with a long, if tremulous, sigh.
Clearly their time for banter was over and, no matter how much he enjoyed the verbal sparring, he needed to get on his way. Besides, he may have been able to ease Johnny's fears about his leg but his brother was still very ill and Scott needed what little additional supplies he could find to better look after him. And, as much as he wanted to deny it, Scott was running out of energy fast.
In truth, he'd lied to Johnny about hurting himself carrying him. His ribs had passed aching and gone straight into stabbing and he was finding it increasingly difficult to tune out the marching band playing "The Battle Cry of Freedom" in his head.
Adopting a more serious tone and expression, he spoke. "Listen, Johnny, it's getting late and I want to take some time to reconnoitre, gather up some supplies from the wagon before we hunker down for the night."
"Help won't be long in comin', Scott."
Scott wished he shared his brother's convictions but then Johnny didn't really seem fully aware of their circumstances and Scott wasn't about to reveal them to him. His sibling had more than enough on his plate to worry about. "I hope so, Johnny," he placated. "Will you be all right while I'm gone?"
"Yeah. You be careful though."
"Aren't I always?"
"Ri--ght," Johnny practically scoffed. Suddenly growing more serious, Johnny almost reluctantly asked, "Say, Scott? You think you could find some water while you're out there and maybe bring me my gun?"
Scott was mortified. His brother's almost timid request felt like a slap in the face and Scott was appalled at the revelation that he'd been so neglectful of Johnny's needs. Johnny was fighting shock and fever and Scott hadn't even considered getting him any water. Lord, what was wrong with him? He had to snap out of this half haze he'd been barely functioning in, get his brother through the night and hopefully find his men tomorrow. That was all. Just make it through the night.
Murdoch Lancer looked out the exquisite windows of the great room and sighed uneasily. The view through the glass was as familiar to him as the back of his hand and, over the many years since his arrival in California, he'd stood in this position countless times before. His eyes surveying Lancer, taking in the glory of his grand cattle ranch. His empire. The product of the dreams of an adventure-seeking young Scotsman with far more enthusiasm and naivete than brains, or so it had seemed in the early days. In the eyes of many at least, including the cantankerous Harlan Garrett, Lancer -- the estancia -- would be only a dream. A sugar dream.
Lord knows, it should have been. But the Lancer name equalled stubborn and Murdoch, with the love and support of Garrett's infinitely patient only-child, Catherine, travelled west and commenced to build the ranch of their fantasies. It took time, excruciatingly hard work and innumerable losses, but thanks to the friendship of his segundo and dearest amigo, Paul O'Brien, Murdoch persevered and Lancer grew into what it was today, one hundred thousand acres of the largest and most exalted cattle ranch in the San Joaquin.
As far as the eye could see, beyond the green pastures and rolling hills, the clear lakes and swift running rivers, and as far as the mountain range just barely visible to him now in the distance, all of this splendor was his.
One third of it anyway.
A smile flitted across his face then, only to be chased away by regret. Of all the losses his illustrious enterprise had taken from him, the greatest had been that of his family. Catherine, lost to him during childbirth and Scott, their golden-haired son, taken by Garrett. Ostensibly for the infant's safety in the midst of an increasingly violent time in this valley and then, later, held hostage by his grandfather. . . Murdoch's silence and surrender in exchange for his cherished little boy's stability of home and peace of mind.
His second family had been lost to him, too. To this day Murdoch still didn't understand why Lancer had driven Maria away. Had it been Lancer, the man and husband, that she had grown to hate so very much? Or, rather Lancer, the land and their home? Or both? Then again, maybe it had just been Maria's wild nature and that alone. No matter her reasons, his captivating, exotic, and fiery Maria had abandoned her husband for another man and, worse yet, she had taken Murdoch's pride and joy with her.
But now, thanks to fate, fortunate timing and yes, the wealth and power that came from the financial success that had become Lancer, both of Murdoch's sons were home with him. Where they'd always belonged.
But instead of basking in the glow of pride and joy that often overtook his heart at the sight of his sons, viewed from this very spot, returning home from a work-day or outing, at this moment the Lancer patriarch was feeling increasingly unsettled. Johnny and Scott were late. Several hours late.
Sent together on an errand to Morro Coyo to pick up some odds and ends, including a supply of his favorite scotch whiskey that had arrived just in time for today's fiesta, he fully expected their return well before the party. They had even left before dawn, in order to ensure a timely arrival.
Though it hadn't been necessary to send both his sons to town, Murdoch had known how much his boys had missed spending time together this past week so he had been more than happy to suggest they accompany each other. Scott and Johnny had been coming home exhausted each night, none of their usual brotherly banter at the supper table. Both of them had practically dragged themselves upstairs immediately afterward and crawling into their respective beds.
His sons and their respective work crews had been particularly busy all week; spending these long hours on backbreaking jobs, often working miles apart on the ranch's vast expanse. The long days were worth it though, especially to Johnny and Scott, since the time well spent would allow for today's festivities to occur. A party was being held in honor of Lancer's vaqueros, work crews and house staff. A traditional thank-you for their hard work and loyalty to Murdoch and now his sons.
As father to Scott and Johnny Lancer, Murdoch was sometimes woefully aware of how time could fly when his sons were out carousing together. Coming home late, or even very early the next morning, after a wild poker-night in town, was certainly not unheard of. But today was different.
He was probably overreacting. After all, the house and grounds were still a veritable hive of activity as some decorations were yet to be hung, meals were still being cooked, and even the band and some of the honorees had yet to arrive. Even so, Scott and Johnny were no more likely to be this late before today's party than to miss it altogether. His heart clenched at the myriad of possibilities his imagination conjured up. As much as he loved his land and every blade of grass upon it, he knew how unforgiving it could be. How much it had taken from him already.
"You're worrying about them, aren't you?"
Murdoch couldn't say whether it was his ward's soft voice, or the equally soft grasp of his forearm that had startled him. Frankly, where his thoughts were headed though, he was grateful for Teresa's distraction. Unfortunately, given his obvious preoccupation with the world outside the great room and beyond, he knew his reaction was more than enough to contradict any denials he might utter in an endeavour to persuade Teresa that he wasn't concerned. Paul's daughter could read him like those ridiculous Austen books she fawned over.
"I suppose they could have run into some trouble with the wagon," he answered, attempting to downplay his uneasiness.
"Exactly. Or maybe they're simply delayed in town. You know how Johnny's never in a hurry to get ready for these kinds of affairs," she affirmed, patting Murdoch's arm as though she were the parent. But anxiety was clearly sharpening the pitch in her voice and it was then that Murdoch realized that Teresa's forced optimism was ringing about as false as his own. The girl he loved as a daughter was as worried about her big brothers as their father was.
Though Teresa was correct in her assertion that Johnny and his independent streak tended to balk when his fun was organized, both Murdoch and his ward knew that the young man's sense of responsibility would never allow him to be late, let alone not show up at all. Besides, he knew he could count on Scott to drag his younger brother home if he had to.
And once again that was the crux of this situation. . . Murdoch knew that both of his sons wanted to be here tonight every bit as much as they were expected. Damn it. . . something was definitely wrong.
Wrapping his arm around Teresa's slim waist, he hugged her to him briefly and then guided her around until she was facing him, one tiny hand now clasped in his. Solemn brown eyes met his and he knew she understood that he was about to ask her something important. "Teresa, honey," he started, his voice full of the paternal love he had for his girl. "I need you to hold down the fort for me, sweetheart. I'm going to go out and find the boys."
"And bring them home."
"Of course," Murdoch smiled, touched by Teresa's renewed hopefulness. "Now, while I find Jelly and saddle some horses, I need you to get some supplies together for me," he continued. "Anything you think we might need." He wasn't about to speak to some of those needs. He knew his voice would betray his fears and he had every faith that Teresa would muster together blankets and bandaging and whatever else she generally gathered for a makeshift medical kit.
He watched Teresa hurry off toward the kitchen, purpose radiating in her demeanour and his chest swelled anew with how proud he was of Paul's daughter. Her fierce devotion to her adoptive family had more than once been the glue that had kept the Lancer men together in the early days of their stumbling around in the darkness of pride, anger, and supreme hurt. He would always be indebted to her for that.
Still angry with himself for not having considered Johnny's need for water, Scott picked up his pace, urgency spurring him on despite the elevated pain. Blackness threatened his vision and his mind with each lurching footfall and, with Johnny out of his sight, Scott found his ability to focus on his mission waning. His thoughts wandering, slipping into another frightful place, where illness and injury were cocooned within a necessary fear. Where his men depended on him. No, it was his brother. His brother needed him now. Blinking rapidly, Scott tried to banish the confused images of now and then from his mind, straightening his shoulders determinedly when he resolved that Johnny was his first priority. His missing men second.
Picking his way through the scattered debris left by the wagon, Scott retrieved the canteens, a blanket, and another one of the few unbroken bottles of scotch they'd been carrying. Although the liquor had been well packed in wooden boxes and straw, the impact had burst the tops off most of the valuable cargo. The higher-ranking officers wouldn't be pleased, but right now Scott had more important things to worry about.
His thoughts drifting back to his men, he scanned the horizon for any sign of help. Although he'd done an acceptable job of setting Johnny's leg, Scott didn't want him exposed to the weather and the undeniable pain any longer than absolutely necessary. Worry nagged at him as to why they hadn't been missed. Scott set down his bundle of supplies, instinctively climbing toward the road to get a better vantage point. The incline wasn't overly steep, but his ribs protested and his sight blurred as he stumbled on the soft earth and loose stones under his boots. He gritted his teeth and pushed onward; a desperate urge to know what fuelled the impending dread in his heart. A few feet. . .stop. . .gather his strength and move on again until he finally crawled to the top of the ridge, his legs giving way as he reached the trail. He blinked hard, trying to clear his vision through the relentless pounding in his skull. A cold breeze stirred his hair as he stood up, wrapping an arm around his aching sides, as much to ease the pain as ward off the chill.
Nothing except the shadow of a lone bird overhead greeted him. No sign of his men, no enemy lying in wait, but Scott couldn't shake the anxiety that continued to build within. Why hadn't his men stayed to help them? Had they been attacked? He remembered the haunting sound of gunfire, but there appeared to be no sign of a battle.
He slowly scanned the road, his eyes adjusting to the distance as he searched valley trails below from his precipice. Still nothing. Where had his men gone? They wouldn't leave a missing wagon behind unless. . .
The horrid conclusion froze him in his tracks as grim reality sank in. They had to have been captured. There was no other explanation for it. They'd been attacked and he and Johnny were presumed dead. With that realization, the nausea and unyielding vertigo that had hovered just below the surface since he'd come to finally caught up with him and he pitched forward; heaving the contents of his stomach into the dust. He didn't try to suppress the instinctual cry that escaped along with the remnants of breakfast as pain crushed his ribs and exploded inside his head. Thoughts swirled, the last remaining bits of lucidity swimming just out of reach as he tried to grab hold to keep from drowning.
He hovered there, on his hands and knees, his body convulsing with dry heaves and near panic. Scott felt himself crumple, his sore ribs resting against the rocks, his head pressed into the hard earth, but he didn't have the strength or the will to move. Everything hurt, despair invaded his muddled thoughts and the promising blissfulness of sleep called to him, but Scott knew he couldn't give up. He didn't have that right. He had someone else to think about and if it were indeed true that his soldiers had been lost, then he was Johnny's only hope of getting out of here alive.
Johnny awoke in a cold sweat. The numbness that had blocked the pain in his leg had been slowly fading and giving way to the sickening throb of fire deep within the bone. Despite Scott's jacket tucked around his chest, his body shivered, making the agony intensify. He knew his brother had gone to get the extra blankets and water from the wagon, but he couldn't exactly tell how long ago. Johnny had apparently drifted off, probably only for a few minutes, although it felt like hours had passed since Scott brought him here. One thing he did know, he needed his brother where he could see him; watch out for him.
Despite the haze brought on by his injuries, Johnny knew that his sibling wasn't entirely all right either. He'd seemed fairly unhurt on the outside, a bit dazed and stunned from the accident, but okay. Except, something wasn't right. Scott's eyes were distant, pain and confusion replacing the normally calm and rational gaze Johnny knew so well. And he didn't sound like himself either. Or rather, he sounded a lot like the Scott Lancer he'd met that day they both got off the same stage instead of the one who'd loosened up and become Johnny's best friend. Nagging worry and a feeling of helplessness continued to disturb him. What if Scott had gotten lost or passed out somewhere? Johnny knew he wouldn't be able to go looking for him, wouldn't be able to do a damn thing.
Johnny looked beyond the outcropping of rocks where Scott had brought him, hoping to catch a glimpse of his brother. Only the twisted wreckage, the boulder that had saved him, and the broken bottles of Murdoch's scotch intermingled in the hay marred the barren scenery of rocks and dirt. He attempted to drag himself a little further, but the crushing pain stopped him cold. He could feel new beads of sweat pop out along his face and down his neck and had to close his eyes to keep from passing out. He had to remember not to try that move again. Remaining still was the only thing that kept him conscious.
Jelly Hoskins hissed as the head of the hammer caught the edge of his thumb for the third time in as many minutes. His thumbnail was starting to turn the color of the oaths he was trying in vain to keep down to a bare minimum. After all, there were ladies about. Served him right anyway, he knew, trying to drive nails and look over his shoulder at the same time. The dang digit was bound to get in the way.
He couldn't help himself though. Here he was hanging decorations for a party he knew full well wasn't going to come about. At least not if Murdoch Lancer's two pups didn't show their ugly mugs hereabouts in the next fifteen minutes.
Jelly had spent the last hour trying to concentrate on prettifying the grounds outside the Lancer hacienda, all the while craning his neck or jumping up to take a gander every time he heard the arrival of a new set of horses' hooves. It was a wonder he was still in one piece, what with tripping over a cleaning bucket, stubbing his toes on planters, banging his elbows and knees every which where and of course trying to flatten his thumbnail into a pancake.
Murdoch's boys were late though, promised they'd be home no less than about three hours ago as far as Hoskins figured. And Jelly was getting awful worried. He'd never met two more capable young men than Scott and Johnny and yet trouble seemed to have a way of finding them near as easily as a bear could locate itself a honey tree. He thanked heaven the two were together, looking out for each other the way they did. Still, as much as it caused him misery to think it, Jelly knew those boys wouldn't be delayed like this if something hadn't have happened. He only hoped that whatever had befallen them was on the minor side of the possibilities running roughshod through his imagination.
Though he hadn't stopped taking a look-see every time someone new arrived, Jelly had spent the last twenty minutes or so glancing in the direction of the great room's entrance as well. Waiting for a change to occur inside its majestic walls.
Making his way over to get a better glimpse of the doors, he shook his head in dismay. "Yessir, there he is. Starin' out them windows as if sheer will oughta bring those boys home." Jelly couldn't help muttering to himself. Waiting for Murdoch to make his move was getting a damn sight irritating. "What's taking him so long?" He griped, knowing full well that the big man was going to come to the same conclusion Jelly had near about an hour ago. Sure, Scott and Johnny were big boys but that didn't mean they might not've run into something or someone bigger.
He could see Teresa talking to Murdoch now and only hoped that her optimistic nature didn't convince his friend to stay put. The girl was as sweet as pie and had her guardian wrapped around her teensiest finger. And though Jelly loved Teresa's positive outlook most of the time, right now what Murdoch Lancer needed was cold, harsh reality thrown into his face. That way he'd ignore any of the misgivings he held about his shortcomings as a father and just go with his gut.
Jelly understood the dilemma Murdoch was going through: trying to walk the fine line between allowing his adult sons their independence and not wanting to appear distant or uncaring. That line between showing his boys he cared, but not smothering them with twenty-odd years' worth of worry and love. Jelly didn't envy his boss the quandary but now was truly not the time to worry about it. Jelly was all for gut instinct right now.
"Well, all right, it's about dang time," Jelly sighed under his breath. By the looks of things inside the house, Murdoch had made up his mind and was heading out those big double doors. Yep, there he was, looking about as determined as a starvin' mountain cat stalking its prey.
Hoskins almost smiled at the anxiety disguised as authority ringing in his friend's voice. Not that he wished worry on the man. On the contrary. It was just that he knew once Murdoch Lancer made his mind up about something, there was no stopping him and there'd be no stopping this search for the missing Lancer brothers now.
"Right here, Boss," Jelly responded, having to side-step the big man for fear of getting trampled. "What do you need?"
Unable to disguise the raw emotion bubbling to the surface this time, the Lancer patriarch answered, "I need to find my boys."
Satisfied that Jelly would round up enough volunteers to help form a search party, Murdoch took a deep calming breath, trying to will control over the tumultuous thoughts and emotions whirling throughout his being. He'd been hoping that he was over-reacting. And though he knew Jelly could be one heck of a worry-wart sometimes, the older man also had an uncanny knack for sensing trouble and the seriousness in his actions and the clouded look in his eyes said he feared the worst. And that scared the hell out of Murdoch Lancer.
Striding purposely toward the stable, Murdoch paused briefly as he entered, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Even though the big doors were wide open, the natural light permeating the area was fading, providing a grim reminder of just how late in the day it was getting. He made his way toward the tack room, stopping just inside the door seeing Cipriano and their young leather-smith, Jorge, in serious conversation. His heart skipped a beat as both men quieted and looked up with twin looks of surprise and dread on their faces.
"What's happened?" Murdoch demanded. Dark eyes lowered as soon as the smaller man's gaze found his employer's and, if Murdoch took no comfort in the solemn expression Jorge wore, he felt even worse looking into the weatherworn face of Lancer's long-time vaquero. A proud man, Cipriano would not look away, though given the sorrow so easily read in the older Mexican's eyes, Murdoch was beginning to wish he had.
"Senor Lancer," Cipriano responded respectfully, "Jorge, he thinks he knows the reason why Senor Scott and Senor Johnny have not returned."
"Well, speak up, man!" Murdoch replied, impatience and anxiety vying for supremacy. He didn't have time for this.
Listening as Jorge rushed out a flood of English words intermingled with those of his native language; tension crept up Murdoch's spine as the young worker explained how he'd laid out a damaged harness with the intention of repairing it today. But had been asked to help with the party instead and only just noticed its absence a short while ago. Murdoch closed his eyes, trying to block out the harsh reality as Jorge began to apologize for his carelessness.
Certainly since they'd left before dawn, they could have missed the telltale signs of wear and tear in the darkness. But that didn't mean they had. The ranch and its outbuildings had been swarming with activity all day, what with the party preparations on top of the regular goings on. Any one of a number of workers could have seen the harness and simply put it away amongst the other rigging.
"Then check again!" Murdoch shouted before Cipriano calmly explained that both he and Jorge had already accounted for all the other harnesses in the Lancer inventory.
Murdoch Lancer was far from an idiot and he was three decades removed from the dreamer who'd set sail across the ocean in search of a new life. So why was he fighting this reality with every tooth and nail? Clearly Scott and Johnny had taken the defective harness. There was no other logical explanation for its disappearance.
"Merciful God in heaven, they must 'a been in a wreck!" Jelly's shocked oath froze the blood in Murdoch's veins. He'd been too caught up in the continuing nightmare unfolding before him to notice Jelly's appearance. But clearly his friend had been there long enough to have heard everything he'd needed to come to the same conclusion Murdoch was resisting so fiercely.
"Boss, we gotta go find 'em."
Jelly's words galvanized him from paralysis to action. Mentally berating himself for assuming the worst, he quickly regrouped and began issuing orders. He was back on the same path as he had been before learning of the condition the harness. He and a search party were going to find his sons.
"Jelly," he said, begrudgingly accepting the reality of the one major addition they needed for this search. Just in case. "I need you and Jorge to ready another wagon, all right?"
"Sure thing, Boss."
Though clearly focussed on getting on his way as quickly as possible, Murdoch's nerves had settled enough so that he could hear the relief in Jorge's voice. He knew he'd let his infamous temper get away from him while he'd been talking to Cipriano and Jorge and he'd hoped that asking his newest hand to help get another team and wagon together would let the man know he held no grudges.
He owed Cipriano even more. Particularly knowing what he was going to request of a man who thought so highly of his sons.
"Cipriano, let the others see to the horses, I need to speak with you."
"Patron?" Clearly the vaquero had no idea what was going to be asked of him.
Murdoch began with an apology. For taking his denial out on a good man and good friend and for being a general ass over all. The latter earned him a smile from the normally stoic man and Murdoch felt the better for it.
Clasping a hand on his loyal friend's shoulder, he spoke, remorse still underlying his manner. "Cipriano, I know how much you want to join us, but I'm going to need you here to see to things while I'm gone." Murdoch felt guilty asking, knowing the strong sense of duty and honor the man held. But Maria and Teresa couldn't keep the fiesta going on their own and Murdoch knew that Scott and Johnny would loathe being the cause of its cancellation. Especially if they were unharmed, merely on foot and royally perturbed about being late. And Cipriano, as Lancer's senior hand, was the obvious choice to take Murdoch's place as host of the party in honor of the workers.
Cipriano raised an eyebrow at his patron's comments, confusion and an out of place measure of warmth in his eyes. Now, Murdoch was equally bewildered. "Cipriano?"
"Forgive me, Senor," the man replied in all seriousness. "Could you tell me, por favor, what things there are to see to?"
"The fiesta, of course."
At Murdoch's somewhat irritated response, he was taken aback when Cipriano placed an unusually informal hand on his shoulder. When the man guided him around to look out the door of the tack room to the yard beyond it, Murdoch suddenly understood. And his heart soared with pride.
There in front of him stood every able-bodied man who worked at Lancer. All of them anxious and obviously eager to help in some way. Teresa stood at the forefront, a bundle of supplies held in her arms and unshed tears glistening in her eyes, as touched by this show of uniformity, loyalty and love for her family as Murdoch.
"The party, Patron. It is cancelled, no?"
"Si, Cipriano," Murdoch whispered, not holding back the emotion he felt. "The party's cancelled."
Scott crawled into the welcomed shade beside his brother. Blue eyes snapped open to confront him before he'd even settled against the rocks.
"Where you been?"
Johnny's voice reeked of worry and Scott felt a stab of guilt. Had he been gone that long? Most likely his brother's confusion and pain fuelled his distortion of time, but Scott didn't have the strength or the heart to argue.
"Sorry, brother, I was picking up a few necessities." Placing Johnny's revolver next to him, he held out the canteen and unscrewed the top.
"Bless you," Johnny whispered as Scott supported his head and held the precious water to his lips.
Watching Johnny drink, Scott realized how dry his own throat felt. It worried him that he could forget something so basic, so imperative to survival as that.
"See anybody?" Johnny asked, pushing the water aside.
His brother's voice seemed to pull him back into the moment and he stopped himself before shaking his head in response. Instead he took a long swallow of water and capped the canteen with trembling fingers. "No one."
"They'll find us, Scott. The old man ain't gonna let them start that fiesta without us or his good scotch.
They'll find us. The phrase turned over in Scott's muddled mind making him uneasy. Fear crept upon him as he felt his thoughts running amok the more he tried to concentrate.
"Scott? Why don't you rest for a little while? I'll keep watch in case help shows up." Johnny's voice once again broke through the haze and grounded him. Gave him something tangible to focus on. Scott smiled weakly, but he could tell by the distress written on Johnny's features that his attempt to hide his infirmities was failing miserably.
"I'll be all right. Question is, how's that leg doing?" Scott turned away from his brother's prying eyes and let his hands run along the splint, relieved that the fractured limb seemed no worse than before. "How's it feel?"
"Numb. How's your head?"
Damn. Scott should have known it wouldn't take long for Johnny to figure out sore ribs weren't the only injury taking toll on him. He thought he'd been putting up a good front at least in Johnny's presence and now he hated that his brother knew he'd been keeping something from him. Lying to him. "It'll be fine, Johnny."
"Get some sleep, Scott."
Scott ignored the request and opened the dusty blanket he'd found and spread it across Johnny's body.
"Let me pull my own weight, brother. Are you gonna wait ‘til you pass out before you rest?"
His brother's quiet words throbbed against Scott's temples, but he purposely didn't respond or dare look at his sibling. Scott concentrated solely on making sure Johnny could rest comfortably, hoping he'd take the hint and let the whole subject drop.
"Damn it, Scott." Johnny grabbed Scott's shirt and forced him to look him in the eye. "You wanna take care of me? Then take care of yourself."
Scott hated this. He didn't want to argue, neither of them needed to waste precious strength butting heads. And though he couldn't deny he needed the rest, with Johnny hurt he couldn't afford to let down his guard.
Then again, he wasn't exactly the most efficient sentry right now, was he? Drifting in and out of his senses wasn't helping either of them. Perhaps resting his eyes a bit would relieve the pressure building in his head, control the confusion. That wouldn't be neglecting his duty would it?
"Okay. You win." Scott threw up his hands in defeat and settled against the outcropping facing Johnny. He'd close his eyes for a little while, pull himself together as well as appease his worrywart sibling. Let his mind rest for a few minutes. It would certainly be preferable to passing out in front of him.
Scott shut his eyes and leaned back, trying to will the agony away by sheer force. Except the sudden loss of vision made his head spin and the bile rise in the back of his throat. Oh, God, he hadn't thought the suffering could get any worse. He swallowed hard, careful not to move.
"I'll keep an eye out, you rest." Johnny's voice floated inside his skull and he hoped his brother knew he heard him; that he appreciated the sentiment, because he didn't dare risk even a whisper in response. His brother was right. He definitely needed the rest. Just long enough to garner some strength and then he'd find a way to get them out of this. Just a few minutes was all he needed. Just a few minutes. . .
Johnny watched his brother's eyes shut and held his breath as he noticed the underlying distress on his face. He knew Scott was dead on his feet and all he had to do was make him sit still for about three seconds and let exhaustion take over from there. Johnny let out a long sigh. He had no doubt that Murdoch had already begun searching for them, he just hoped they'd find signs of the wagon before the light gave out. He wished he'd asked Scott to build a signal fire before dark. The sky was clear and there had been a full moon the night before, so at least that would provide some light. But Johnny was concerned about keeping warm too. It wasn't cold enough to freeze out here, but just the thought of his body shivering with his unstable limb made him dizzy. Still, he wouldn't disturb Scott, not yet. He'd wake him just before the sunlight faded.
He watched as Scott's head jerked, his legs flexing as he fell into a restless sleep. Johnny desperately wanted to let him know they'd be fine, that their father wasn't far behind. Except he couldn't shift his weight without his head swimming. Damn fine pair they made. But, somehow, the fact they were together seemed to ease the anxiety this kind of helplessness would normally evoke. They were both hurting, but together they still made up one stubborn and determined front. He laughed inwardly at the absurdity of their situation. At least it was better than crying.
Scott moaned softly, his shoulder sliding down the rocks as he curled into himself, cradling his injured body, his face now a taut canvas of pain. Johnny couldn't stand it. He reached as far as he dared, let his hand rest on his brother's ankle, hoping the slight touch would somehow let Scott know he was there. That he shared in his suffering. That he wouldn't leave him.
Grit and emotion clouded Johnny's eyes and he blinked hard. Fighting to stay awake, to make good on his promise to keep watch, but fatigue and the dull ache in his leg lured him and he shut his eyes. Murdoch would find them. No doubt in the world his. . . no their. . . old man would move heaven and earth to bring them home. All they had to do was hang on.
Danger. Scott struggled to come awake, to keep watch, to be ready in case he had to protect himself and Johnny. Yet he couldn't find the strength to open his eyes. He kept telling himself just a few minutes of blissful rest, then he'd attend to the threat he sensed all around them.
Visions of an overturned wagon, barren earth and rocks, and his wounded brother swirled in his mind. Memories of an unspeakable place, both real and intermingled with nightmares he'd never share with anyone taunted him. Fear flooded his heart, thumping hard against his tender ribs, spreading through his veins and into his aching head and he twisted away from the pain. Horses, saddled and ready stared at him from the ridge, and he tried to stand up, to retrieve them, but his legs refused to work. He turned to Johnny. His brother lay sleeping beside him, unaware of the impending doom.
As he turned back to the horses, the rocks had been replaced with a lush meadow, cattle grazing in the flowers and he called out to Johnny that they must be close to home. Then he saw them.
Gray shapes moving among the steers. Men. No, soldiers. Uniforms dull and tattered, their faces smudged with mud and gunpowder, rifles swinging haphazardly from their hands. Terror replaced the dread.
He could feel himself out in the open, exposed to the encroaching enemy and he tried to retreat into the safety of the rocks. He could see Johnny crawling toward him and Scott shook his head violently despite the pain. He motioned Johnny back, while trying to make his own body obey his urgent commands.
Frustration filled him to bursting and he finally closed his eyes and dropped to the ground as the parade of soldiers marched by. Passing so close he could feel the vibrations of their footsteps against his ear. Scott fumbled for the gun at his hip, ready to do whatever was necessary to stay out of their hands. If he had to die in the attempt, so be it. Death didn't concern him nearly as much as the terror of capture, more so for Johnny than himself. He'd survived it once before, but the thought of his brother tortured and starved at the hands of these savage bastards. . . No, he would shoot them all before he allowed Johnny to be taken prisoner.
His heart thumped wildly, reverberating inside his fragile skull, so loud he was sure the enemy would hear his presence. He opened his eyes cautiously, daring a glimpse, but the battalion continued their trek, unaware of their quarry inches away. Scott swallowed hard, his body shaking. The soldiers were out of sight, but it didn't mean they wouldn't return, or that there weren't more out there, searching.
No, no, please! His mind screamed as he turned toward his brother. Scott felt like he was swimming in quicksand; the faster he tried to move, the more he flailed and sank. He shook his head, trying to warn him, but Johnny kept shouting his name. Didn't he realize the enemy was still within hearing range? That they were still in terrible danger?
He finally heaved himself toward his brother, his hand clamping over Johnny's mouth as another shout warmed his hand. "Shut up!"
Johnny yelled in alarm as Scott leapt toward him, a clammy palm smothering his face as the movement sent a jolt of agony the length of his leg. Instinctively Johnny knocked his brother's arm aside, freeing himself and forcing Scott backwards.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Johnny gritted his teeth as he propped himself unsteadily on one elbow.
"Be quiet!" Scott whispered frantically. The urgency in his voice stopped Johnny cold, but the shock reflecting in his brother's face ripped into his heart. Scott was trembling, his eyes wide pools of black that begged him to listen. Johnny had known that the blow Scott took in the fall had addled his usually rational sibling, but he'd never fathomed that it would block logic and trust. Johnny could tell by the feral look on his brother's face that the Scott he knew so well was trapped behind a shell of instinct and fear, survival his only goal. It was going to take more than a few words to talk him back into reality and out of the self-preservation mode he now resided in.
"Okay, sure. It's all right, Scott." Johnny released the words softly, unsure of what else to say. His eyes stung with pent up frustration, his body hurt, making it hard to think, much less move and now he had to figure out a way to save Scott from himself. He wasn't sure he had the strength for this, but truth was he didn't have another choice. Neither of them did.
Murdoch waved Cipriano and the others on as he reluctantly held his mount in place and turned back toward Jelly. The older man was currently bringing up the rear of their search party and his grizzled form would be making an appearance over the rise shortly. His friend was navigating the wagon that Murdoch prayed his boys wouldn't need but he'd insisted they bring along anyway. Just in case. His heart still soared with the memory of all his men clamouring to be part of the search party. And the disappointment in the faces of those Cipriano neglected to choose.
Murdoch had left it to Cipriano's discretion to pick and choose the searchers. But his segundo had been right, of course. Too many men involved in the search could ultimately destroy the signs they would be so desperately seeking. Logistically, they needed two search teams, one to take each path should they make it as far as the fork in the south road, which was indeed what had happened and where the two groups had parted.
He took comfort in having his senior hand by his side on this search. The man was a fine tracker, even better than Johnny, and he knew this land as well as Murdoch himself. Which is why Murdoch had just allowed him to carry onward while he stayed behind waiting for Jelly to catch up, no matter how agonizing the concept of even turning back one step was to him. The men would signal if they found something, two rapid rifle shots if they found sign and three if his sons were their discovery. And though he prayed his boys would turn up as quickly as possible -- safe and unhurt -- and that he'd hear the rapid succession of three shots, a very selfish part of him wanted to be the first to find his boys. The first to tend them, and the first to reassure them that they were safe and that their father was taking them home.
His heart stopped then, as did his breath, when he heard the first resounding crack of a rifle shot, and then immediately another. But not a third. Not a third.
He'd take what he could get.
Spurring his horse, he darted forward and then immediately spun the poor beast around, torn between racing after his men and staying behind to let Jelly know which way they were headed. God was being charitable though and Jelly's wagon suddenly appeared in the distance, moving faster than was sensible, especially with Jelly now standing up as he was driving it. He was keeping it under control though, holding the reins in one hand as he almost frantically waved Murdoch onward. His shout of "Go, go, go!" crossing the distance between them provided all the impetus Murdoch needed to follow his heart.
Rifle shots. Perhaps at another time, if he'd had the strength, Johnny would have whooped with relief that their ordeal would soon be over. But not now. Not while his brother was still so confused and convinced they needed to stay hidden. Though darkness crept along the walls of their shelter, Johnny didn't need to see Scott's face to know his brother didn't share in his enthusiasm. Tension filled the small area as Scott grabbed his rifle propped against the entrance.
"Scott, it's Murdoch." Johnny emphasized the joy in his voice as he tried to calm his sibling. "Answer them."
"Keep quiet." Scott chastised and scrambled stiffly to his feet.
Johnny sensed his brother's distress, unsure exactly what he needed to say or do to make Scott understand. To make him realize it wasn't some imagined enemy from his past behind those shots, but their friends. Their family.
He knew the shots on the ridge had come from his father or one of the hands, signaling the rest of the men that they'd found something. The problem was Scott seemed determined to keep them from being discovered. If he succeeded then they'd be stuck here at least until morning before a search party could spot them, a prospect that wouldn't bode well for either of them considering the state they were in. Surely Scott would be relieved once he saw Murdoch and realized he didn't have an enemy to fight.
Risking his brother's disapproval, Johnny lifted the gun beside him, determined to answer his father's shot as soon as Scott moved out of firing range. A whispered curse escaped his lips not only from the sudden movement jarring his leg, but from the grim certainty of sensing his gun was empty. How could he have been so foolhardy to not check if it was loaded? Hands shaking now, from near frenzy and fatigue, Johnny fumbled one bullet from out of his gunbelt and struggled to load it into its chamber. Snapping the cylinder shut, he couldn't prevent his pain-filled shout when he felt the gun being torn from his grip.
"No!" Scott's undertone was harsh and Johnny wanted to scream in frustration as he watched his brother tuck the pistol in back of his belt.
"Scott, you don't understand."
"It's all right, Johnny, I understand. I do." Johnny wished he had the strength to tackle his brother, hold him down and force some sense into his addled brain. His sense of defeat was compounded by the tender touch placed on his shoulder as Scott continued, all traces of hostility draining from his voice. "You're not well, brother, but I promise. . . I'll take care of everything. I won't let them take us." Scott slipped out of his sight and Johnny crawled toward him, desperately turning over his own muddled thoughts in search of something, anything he could do to thwart Scott's plans. He should have asked for his gun back, to protect himself from whatever adversary his brother harbored in his head.
He let his head drop back to the ground and closed his eyes. Think, Johnny. Think. His hands clenched at his sides, wadding the blanket in his fists as he fought the fear and the renewed ache in his leg. His fingers brushed against smooth glass and a smile flitted across his face as another idea came to him. A damn good idea if he did say so himself. The only problem would be gathering enough strength and fortitude to pull it off.
Scott trembled as he maneuvered over the rocky terrain toward the outcropping above. The rough ground seemed to suck up the sunlight as he climbed, making each step more difficult. Fierce pounding in his temples and the shallow breaths he forced into his lungs only complicated his trek. He crawled wearily to the top of the ridge, closing his eyes briefly as he caught his breath and tried to push away the dizziness.
The flicker of moving lanterns gave away his enemy's position allowing him an ideal vantage point to watch or strike if the need arose. He and Johnny were in serious trouble, no doubt about it. The soldiers were back, confirming Scott's suspicions that the rest of his men had been captured or killed. And they couldn't even be satisfied with that victory. No, they couldn't let two stragglers die on their own out here in this God-forsaken desert without delighting in chasing them down like wounded dogs that needed to be put out of their misery. Or more likely, it was so they could prolong it.
Another shiver ran the length of Scott's spine as he fought back the rising nausea and the constant drumming in his head. He lay flat on the ridge, his rifle balanced against the rocks, waiting for any sign that the enemy below had discovered their trail.
Rage consumed him as he watched, and Scott considered picking them off as they rode by. They deserved no less for what they'd done to his men, but the experienced soldier in him couldn't give away his position unnecessarily. Of course if they started up that trail, he would shoot them all before they had a chance to take him prisoner again. And he'd fight them to the death before he'd let them subject his brother to the horrors Scott was all too familiar with.
Johnny took a deep breath and willed himself to act. He cradled the bottle of liquor under his arm, his fingers fumbling as he stuffed his dusty bandanna through the opening. He stopped, catching his breath from the minor exertion, then reached for the matches in his shirt pocket. Sweat dripped off his hair and face, stinging his eyes and blurring his vision. Not that it really mattered, the sun had all but abandoned him, but just knowing his eyes were hazy seemed to hinder his progress.
Gritting his teeth, Johnny summoned up the courage to move. Just a little. He had one chance and he had to be close enough to make it count. He prepared himself, but the gut-wrenching agony still caught him off guard, stealing his breath as he dragged his broken body past the entrance of the shelter. Dios, it was so hot and his head swam as he wiped the perspiration from his face again.
He continued his crawl, inch by inch, his busted limb dragging painfully along the rocks as he stopped to gather his strength. Don't pass out, you'll both die out here if you don't do this. Just a little further. He knew he'd never make it at this pace.
Johnny took a deep breath, summoning his courage and felt a surge of determination born of necessity and fear. He willed away the pain as he propelled himself closer, becoming detached from his physical body. His sole purpose now was just to get near enough for a clear shot when he tossed the half-full, flaming bottle of Murdoch's best scotch into the remains of that splintered wagon.
After what seemed an eternity he stopped, his body shook violently as he struck the match against his holster and lit the rag. Smoke and fumes assaulted him. Johnny summoned up the last reservoir of energy he possessed and flung the bottle. Time slowed and he watched with fascination as the fire danced in mid-air, lighting the sky as it sailed toward its target. He thought maybe he should try to get out of the way, to head back toward the safety of the rocks, but his strength had been sapped. All he could do was turn his head away from the pending explosion. And pray.
Five minutes felt like fifty but at last Murdoch caught up to his men. A quick scan of the scene before him told him little and much at the same time. . . his boys were still nowhere in sight. Just a brace of Lancer horses. He quickly dismounted and hurried his way over to Frank and Jorge, who'd been tending them until hearing their employer's arrival.
"The team's not too bad off, sir," the vaquero reported and Murdoch's tension ratcheted down a notch. Truthfully he didn't give a damn about the welfare of his horses at this point, just that their being relatively no worse for wear was a hopeful indicator of his sons' well-being too. A concept not lost on Frank, either, given his hope-filled delivery of the news.
"Good, good," he muttered, distracted by the noted absence of his other men as he peered into the fading light of dusk. "Where are Cipriano and Walt?"
"Lookin' for tracks, Mr. Lancer. Seein' if they can back track the horses to Scott and Johnny."
"Senor, the horses, they could not have traveled far dragging this," Jorge added optimistically, holding up a strap hanging loose from the remnants of the team's harness. It was true, the horses were still braced to each other and dragging line. Even terrified, they couldn't have gotten very far in this terrain. And Cipriano undoubtedly had a clear trail with which to follow.
His sons weren't far off. He could feel it now.
Unbearably long moments later, his segundo returned with the news Murdoch was fervidly praying for. The trail was indeed strong but they were losing precious light fast and even with lanterns to help guide them, it would be slow going. Leaving Jorge behind to tend the team and Walt to help guide Jelly along the route once he arrived, this time Murdoch set off with Cipriano and Frank. He would not be denied finding his sons. And he would find them alive.
He could feel that now too.
Until fate played out its next hand. . . in the guise of an explosion.
At first Scott thought his head had finally imploded as he stared over the ridge.
Except he could still see, if hazily, and he could certainly still feel the sickening throbbing behind his eyes. He turned slowly, his limbs shaking as he realized something awful had just happened. The wagon that would have been hidden by darkness and depth, was now a flaming beacon pointing straight to Johnny.
His world slowed to a crawl as he tried to run, tried to hurry down the rocks to get to his brother. He realized that together they couldn't make it very far, so moving Johnny wasn't an option. He'd have to make a stand, do or die, here and now. There only appeared to be a few men coming for them so he'd kill them all if he had to.
If only he could make his body cooperate.
Johnny could feel the rising heat across his back and the rain of embers and singed lumber stinging his arms and neck. He really should try to move away from the fire, but the pain he knew awaited him was far worse than what he endured now. He'd just stay here and hope Murdoch wasn't too far off. He could feel himself slipping into a welcome oblivion, but his mind screamed to stay awake.
Hands unexpectedly gripped under his arms. Johnny involuntarily cried out as his leg shifted between the splint as he was pulled backwards. Through the haze of smoke and confusion, he recognized Scott's touch and pain-filled grunts as his brother dragged him toward their makeshift shelter. He wanted to shout to him, tell him everything would be all right now, but the only word that managed to part his lips was "stop."
"Just stay here, brother. I won't let them take you. I promise."
Johnny fought through the blinding pain to stay conscious, trying to make his mouth work, trying to make his older sibling listen to him. "Scott, no." No response. "They are not the enemy. Scott!"
Helplessness enveloped him as he realized he'd failed to reach his brother. That maybe he couldn't be reached. He'd hoped that something would click inside Scott's head; that he would suddenly become rational and coherent, but it wasn't to be. Johnny could tell by the tone of his voice that Scott was still somewhere far away, and that his father and their friends were walking into a hornet's nest they couldn't imagine. He'd have to save his strength and warn Murdoch. The torturous pain in his leg and the haze settling over his eyes were taking their toll, but he had to stay alert. Or he might not have a family left.
Murdoch Lancer's mind reeled and the bitter taste of fear clung to his throat. He had no doubt the explosion on the other side of the canyon would lead him to his sons. Except he wasn't sure exactly what shape either of them would be in when he got there. Worry had taken root, was growing stronger and entangled his whole being with dread.
A stomach-turning sense of urgency pressed him forward. He had to know. Had to get to Scott and Johnny now or his own heart would break. He rode faster, pushing his weary mount through the dark trails toward the inferno.
His horse balked as they reached the burning wreckage and Murdoch dismounted quickly. He remained vaguely aware of the riders behind him, but his eyes scanned the landscape for his boys. "Scott! Johnny!" He heard the high-pitched panic in his voice, but he didn't care. He was scared and he didn't care who knew it.
"Scott! Johnny!" Murdoch called again as he climbed higher.
Johnny's voice. Strained and trying to mask obvious pain, but proof he was alive! Murdoch rushed toward the sound, the glow from the massive fire providing enough light to catch a glimpse of a figure standing near the rocks. He could see slight movement from another form lying down and he felt a release of breath as he realized that both his sons were alive. His joy was short-lived as he started to call to them and found himself nose to muzzle with a rifle. He sucked in a startled gasp as he followed the barrel and met the eyes of his elder son.
Scott hissed as a huge form appeared in front of him, the man's sheer bulk blocking out the glow of the fire. Instinct screamed at him to shoot, to kill him now before he lost the advantage. Soon the rest of them would be bolting up this hill and he couldn't take them all at once. Not in his ravaged condition. The enemy took a step backwards; a submissive gesture Scott wasn't expecting.
Light reflected around the man's features and Scott fought to keep his hands from shaking as he lowered the rifle to bear on his chest. He was older than any horse soldier he'd ever seen, he had the stature of a senior officer, but that made little sense. Why would they send anyone of his rank to capture a couple of cavalry men with a supply wagon? The lack of a uniform didn't mean much in the confederate ranks, but something about him made him hesitate. That something made Scott doubt his own intuition, else the man towering in front of him would be dead already.
"Careful, Murdoch. Scott ain't himself." The caution in his brother's voice turned imploring as he added, "Scott, it's our father. Let him help."
Scott tried to push Johnny's words aside as he stared down the adversary in front of him. Frustration grew as he tried to think, but the tormenting pain in his head was doing its best not to allow it. In fact he was using up precious reserves just to control the weakness invading his body and the churning dizziness that threatened to drop him to his knees. Shoot, damn it! He'll kill you and Johnny without a thought! Shoot! Scott flexed his finger on the trigger, his mind warring with his heart.
"It's all right, son."
Son. The word chilled him to the core, filled him with memories that he didn't have the strength to interpret. It simply added to his confusion and frustration. Unwilling to give voice to his frailties, he realized that he didn't have the energy to speak anyway. He could hear his commander telling him to destroy the enemy, but those words of authority mingled with his brother's pleas not to.
The man inched forward as he spoke and Scott again wondered why he wouldn't pull the damn trigger.
The rattle of an approaching wagon startled him and Scott glanced toward the sound. The driver shouted, jumping from his seat, his arms waving frantically as he ran toward them. Instinct and training took over and Scott pivoted and fired. He'd planned to hit the driver first then the soldier in front of him. Except the slight movement tore at his aching ribs and the blinding pain in his skull made his head spin. He cursed his dulled reflexes, realizing too late that they had cost him dearly.
Murdoch Lancer was in hell. And as he watched the flames dance in his elder son's eyes, he realized Scott was trapped there too.
In his silent prayers and wishes to find his sons alive, he never imagined he'd also need to ask that they would still know him. Scott not only didn't recognize his own father, he somehow thought he was to be feared. . . and killed. He could hear Johnny's frantic pleas from the shadows, calling out from somewhere behind Scott's protective stance. Trying to reason with his brother, trying in vain to make him drop the rifle and the barrier that kept father from sons. But Scott was somewhere else.
Murdoch took a step backward as Scott pointed the rifle at him, hoping the unaggressive move would buy him a little faith. At least he didn't shoot. Not yet anyway.
"It's all right, son."
Would Scott know his voice or should he take the rifle by force and risk losing more of his trust? Murdoch knew wrestling the weapon away wouldn't be hard. Scott looked ready to drop. If he could just wait him out a little longer surely his boy would pass out and make it easier on both of them.
"Scott." Murdoch moved closer, preparing to catch his fragile son when the time came. He could hear Jelly's wagon approaching and he silently willed him to keep quiet.
"Boss!" Murdoch motioned violently for his friend to stay back.
Murdoch realized a decision had been forced. He caught a glimpse of the terror in Scott's eyes and saw the rifle barrel swing to the right. Murdoch grabbed the gun, the deafening crack of gunpowder exploding over his head and into the night and he prayed Jelly hadn't been hit, but he didn't have time to check. He yanked the weapon from Scott's hands, thankful, yet disturbed at how easily the young man had been overpowered. His concern was short-lived when he felt the impact of his son's body almost knocking him off his feet as Scott attacked.
Scott felt the rifle stripped from his hands and heard it clatter down the hillside into the darkness. Rage invigorated him and he charged, using the larger man's backward momentum to send him reeling into the side of the rocks. Scott swung hard, his left hand grazing the bottom of the big man's jaw while he freed the gun at his side. Before it cleared his holster, the soldier had regained his footing and came at him again. Scott grunted as the man wrapped his fingers around his hand and the pistol, squeezing until Scott felt every bone had been pulverized. He tried to dislodge the grip, free himself from the pain and do what he should have already done -- shoot the bastard trying to kill him. The weapon in his grasp was the only thing that stood between that band of confederate soldiers and his wounded brother, so Scott stubbornly held on.
He used his other hand to swing again, connecting with the side of the man's face, pulling back and slamming into his ribs. Why wasn't this enemy striking back? The other man had merely tried to deflect the blows and subdue him, but he never attacked. The passiveness enraged Scott. The thought of being perceived as ineffectual fueled the inner fire of determination to win this battle and get his brother out of here. His inner voice screamed at him to kill or be killed. Except his failing body wasn't listening.
He could feel the gun being peeled from his weakening fingers, felt it hit the ground as the man spoke softly, but Scott wasn't prepared to give up. He relaxed, just long enough to make his enemy believe he was spent. When he felt the hold on his wrists slacken, he charged again. Voices reverberated in his fragile skull, background noise with no clear source, but he forced himself to ignore it. He had a mission to complete and his life and his brother's depended on him succeeding.
"No." The word, barely a wisp as it parted his lips, and Johnny moaned for its weakness. His weakness. His world was falling apart and he didn't even have the strength to do more than roll onto his side and watch the nightmare unfolding before him.
He lay there, like a useless lump in the dirt, watching with eyes blurred from pain and rising fever as the two most important people in his life fought a life and death battle. Johnny could feel his mind slipping into the realms of insanity. Terror and disbelief warred for supremacy as he witnessed his father trying to ward off Scott's assault. The brother Johnny adored had murder in his heart and all because he was trying to protect Johnny from phantom ghosts. "Don't! Please stop," Johnny begged, though he honestly didn't know for whom his pleading was meant. Both he realized. Both.
But nobody could hear him and Johnny watched in rapt horror as their grappling continued, sensing more than seeing when his father's use of force heightened. And though Johnny knew in his heart that Murdoch would do everything in his power to keep from seriously harming Scott, he also knew that his father had no idea that he was dealing with Scott Lancer, cavalryman, and not his devoted older son. Johnny had to do something, he had to do it now.
Groaning with the effort, Johnny planted one palm onto the ground and attempted to push himself up. Collapsing on the first try, both arms braced him now on the second, shaking uncontrollably but at least now he could crawl.
Drenched with sweat, Johnny felt himself shivering rather than hot, freezing if the truth were known but his brother's enraged curses and his father's frantic entreaties stamped out any thoughts of surrender. So he pushed himself forward, adding his voice -- fragile as it was -- to the din, calling out to his family to stop hurting each other, to just stop, damn it. Please stop.
Murdoch ignored the pain as he caught himself on the sharp rock wall behind him, determined to end this one-sided battle. Instead he received a glancing blow to his jaw that would have sent him reeling had it connected more solidly. If the situation had not been so dire, Murdoch would have admired his boy's tenacity, his obvious loyalty and fierce protectiveness of his brother. But he'd have to save those thoughts for another time; Scott was reaching for the pistol strapped to his hip.
Fear engulfed Murdoch's heart, more for the torment in his son's soul than for his own safety. What on earth had happened to him? What could make a rational and compassionate man like Scott react like some rabid wolf? Murdoch grabbed the gun, hoping it would be just as easy as the rifle to dislodge from Scott's grip. But he was his father's son and despite the damage Murdoch knew he was inflicting, Scott hung on to the weapon. Murdoch tried to dodge his son's fist and it glanced off his jaw, but a solid punch connected with his ribs. Murdoch didn't have time to dwell on the ache in his body and grabbed Scott's free hand, pleading with him. "Scott, calm down, son. I'm not going to hurt you." Murdoch doubted his words would make any difference, but he felt better saying them. He needed Scott to know that he wasn't trying to harm him, no matter what. He just wished he would submit so he could get him and Johnny home.
As if Scott had absorbed his thoughts, he felt his tension release, his fingers relaxed on the pistol. Murdoch gently pried it from his grip and dropped it to the ground. Thank God. Scott had surrendered, whether from trust or exhaustion Murdoch wasn't sure, but he'd take what he was given. "That's it, son. You're all right." He began to take his ailing child into his arms but Scott hadn't finished his fight.
Even hurt and confused, his son was a crafty fighter and Murdoch cursed himself for not expecting the next blow. This time Murdoch felt the bones of Scott's fist split open his cheek and he dropped to his knees on the cold earth. He heard Johnny yelling, or was it Jelly? He wasn't sure the shouts were even real, but the sight in front of him was. Murdoch braced against the rocks as he climbed to his feet. This time he didn't dare take his eyes off his oldest. Scott teetered like a drunk, his hand closing in on the pistol at his feet as he tried to regain his balance and aim. Murdoch rushed him, loathe to injure him anymore, but desperate. He heard Scott's pain-filled groan as they crashed. Murdoch flinched as the deafening pop and the breeze of a bullet whizzed by his ear.
Sore fingers closed in on the gun, but Scott's victory didn't last long. The soldier scrambled toward him and they both hit the ground in a heap. Scott grunted as his damaged ribcage met unforgiving earth, but he held onto the prize in his aching hand. He shot randomly, trying to hit his target, somewhere, anywhere, to slow him down. The soldier seemed unfazed. Scott struggled as he was shifted onto his stomach before a massive arm wrapped around his neck, lifting him from the cold rocks, another arm crushed his damaged ribs as he was held tight.
Scott thrashed in the enemy's grip, his limbs growing leaden, his body begging him to stop, but he strained violently, knowing he had no other option. He could hear the man talking again, his voice pleading as he tightened his hold. Scott could barely breathe. Between the pressure on his neck and the pain stabbing his side he felt himself fading out. He fought it, but the man's strength seemed to increase while his own continued to drain from every pore. Blackness settled in his vision, slowly taking his conscious mind with it.
He had lost. He had tried and failed miserably. As Scott finally gave in to the beckoning void, he prayed Johnny could somehow forgive him because he would never forgive himself.
The war before him persisted and throughout it, Johnny's pleas remained unheard. Though he could have wept at his ineptitude, he would not give up. Heaving himself once more toward his father and brother, Johnny's scream drowned out the sickening crack he'd heard, then felt, as his leg and the splint encasing it burst into flames in an excruciating parody of the wagon's fate minutes earlier. He fell then, his strength sapped but for whatever remained within to drive his body to tremble so. Dios, he was so cold. Wanting only to curl into a ball, Johnny tried drawing his legs up to his chest but his useless limb wouldn't cooperate. Giving up, he could only wrap his arms around himself, craving warmth and finding none.
Darkness encroached but, as the softness of a blanket blessedly enshrouded him and he felt the embrace of sturdy arms, he willed the abyss away one more time. "M-Murd-doch?" he dared to hope, but his father's voice didn't answer. It was Jelly, to be sure, softly berating his foolishness but Johnny didn't care. He had help. Finally, he had help. Though for what he no longer knew.
As he felt the blanket being lifted away from his legs, Johnny protested, "No, c-c-cold," he insisted and then moaned when bright light and the scent of kerosene assaulted his senses. A touch sent him reeling again, his agonized shout and Jelly's panicked oath reawakening the tremors and Johnny felt his body nearly convulse with its uncontrolled shuddering.
At Jelly's urgent call for his father, Johnny remembered. He remembered it all and the weight of that memory nearly crushed him. Frantic eyes sought out his father and brother and his heart broke at the scene confronting him. Dios, no. Scott, limp and lifeless and Murdoch, grieving, rocking his son in his hold. Unable to stop if he'd wanted to, Johnny felt himself begin to rock in time with his old man, no longer feeling the cold or the pain. No longer feeling anything at all. His mind shut down but for the vision before him and the memory of the nightmare that had provoked it.
Heartbroken, Murdoch released his chokehold, exhaustion, relief, guilt, and confusion all swirling in his soul as he cradled his unconscious firstborn son in his arms. Closing his eyes against his welling tears, he attempted to shut off his thoughts to the questions burning in his mind. All that mattered right now was the rise and fall of Scott's chest, the beat of his heart reverberating against his palm and the fact that both his sons were still alive.
Fear, pervasive in Jelly's voice, finally tore Murdoch's cheek from the blond crown of Scott's head, and he looked toward his friend and Johnny, confusion marring his granite features. Something was wrong.
Despite the darkness of night enshrouding them all, in the flickering light of the burning wagon and from the glow of their many lanterns, Murdoch could see that Johnny was shaking. Jelly had hold of him, and a blanket around him, but his youngest was quaking uncontrollably.
A large hand fell on his shoulder, making Murdoch flinch. "Patron, let me take Senor Scott." Cipriano said, sympathy and concern inducing a quaver in his voice. As he squatted down, meeting Murdoch at eye level, arms outstretched to take Scott, Murdoch could see the same emotions clouding the man's proud features. "Let me look after Scott, Senor Lancer. You must see to Johnny."
Murdoch clung tighter to his eldest. What was wrong with them? Johnny was fine. Hurting yes, he had heard it in his boy's voice when he'd first arrived at this God-forsaken place. But Johnny had called out to him, had tried to reason with Scott, he'd been all right, damn it.
"Boss, you gotta come here!"
"No," he whispered, disbelief in his heart but all the while slowly relinquishing his hold of Scott and gently passing him to Cipriano. Before straightening up, he cupped a large hand to his son's slack face, reverently holding it there a moment while whispering his promise to return. "Take care of him, mi amigo," he said and at Cipriano's pledge to do so, he inhaled a shaky breath and steeled his resolve.
Standing and ignoring aching back muscles that protested the sudden movement, he headed toward Jelly and his other injured son. As his vision adjusted to the lighting surrounding Jelly and his youngest, the first thing that struck Murdoch was his son's vacant eyes. Huge, dark and unblinking, looking right through him and staring beyond, toward Scott and Cipriano. But Murdoch was completely certain, that Johnny could no more see them than he could see the father who was now kneeling in front of him. Dear God, not Johnny too?
Though Johnny was blanketed in heavy wool and Jelly's arms were wrapped protectively around him, his body rocked and shook with an intensity Murdoch knew would unseat the older man if they weren't already on the ground. Placing a steadying hand on Johnny's shoulder, he could feel the heat coming through the thick layers of fabric. Johnny didn't even blink. He was speaking though, his words, mere whispers. A Spanish chant borne of fear and desperation. "Paren. Paren. Por favor paren," and Murdoch wondered, not for the first time, if in the not-so-distant past his child had begged others to stop, please stop.
"My God," he murmured, cupping his palm to Johnny's damp brow, this time expecting the heat but no less appalled by it. "Jelly, what's wrong with him?"
"Aw, Boss, just about everythin', I swear," Hoskins replied, the pitch of his voice rising despite his obvious attempts to control his alarm. "He's burnin' up somethin' awful and his leg's broke bad."
His leg. Dear God. Murdoch had been so focused on those staring, vacant eyes, that plaintive voice, and the tremors wracking his son's body he hadn't noticed the aberration that was now Johnny's right leg. Even in the flickering light he could see the skewed angle of his son's lower leg and worse, the sickening sliver of white through the blood-soaked tear in his pants.
"Hold on to him," Murdoch instructed, swallowing back the scorching bile working its way up from his gut. Johnny remained totally unaware and, for a brief moment, his father felt overwhelmed. Shaking it off, he placed his hands on either side of Johnny's face and gently called his name, his own face falling when no response came. He tried again. "Johnny, come on. Hear me, son." Still no reaction but for the imploring mantra that continued, unimpeded by his father's proximity or voice, seemingly breaking rhythm only when a grander shudder racked his afflicted frame. Murdoch stroked his son's face, ran calloused hands through sodden hair. "Come on, Johnny, come on. It's Murdoch, son, it's your father!" And yet still no reaction but those haunting words, repeated and repeated and driving home all of Murdoch's failings and insecurities, corroborating his disgrace as a father. . . then and now.
"No!" He fairly growled, disgust with himself causing Jelly to pull back, tightening his hold on his charge. "It's all right, Jelly. I'm all right." He was now. He was not giving up, not on his stubborn second son. It had taken time to reach him when Johnny had first come home. He could reach him again. Replacing his hands on either side of Johnny's head, he tenderly smoothed the unruly hair down, lightly gripping each side and supporting both head and neck with his large hands. "Johnny! Wake up, boy," he demanded, shaking his son and repeating, "Wake up!"
"Murdoch, no!" Jelly shouted, surprise and anger in his tone.
"Shut up, Jelly."
Murdoch knew Jelly would have persisted; his willingness to protect Scott and Johnny nearly as fierce as his own. But Jelly must have felt it almost as quickly as Murdoch had. A change. Johnny's mournful pleading just stopped, his shaking instantly reduced to small tremors.
"John?" Murdoch softly called, unable to restrain the plea in his own desperate voice. Ebony lashes fluttered, then drifted shut, only to blink open again and reveal glistening pools of blue, full of blessed recognition. Afraid to break the spell or worse, revive the agony that he knew could break through his son's consciousness at any moment, Murdoch remained silent, hoping his welling eyes were expressing the love he held for this boy. Only the sound of Johnny's labored breathing, and the rustle of Murdoch's jacket as he continued to rhythmically stroke his son's hair, could be heard.
Johnny's eyes fixed on his father, no longer disturbingly vacant but imploring, a question forming in their depths.
"Here, Jelly, let me take him," Murdoch said, never breaking Johnny's steady gaze as he and Jelly gingerly switched places. "Easy, now," he intoned when a pain-filled gasp escaped his son's throat. "Easy, that's it."
With Jelly's help, the two men settled Johnny into his father's hold, the young man's exhaustion and frailty evident in his seemingly boneless limbs. Despite the ravages of fever, Johnny was alive, as was Scott. Certain that was the question Johnny could only ask with his eyes. "He's going to be all right," Murdoch said then, assurance in his soft tone. And with a gaze as steadfast as Johnny's, he declared, "Scott. Is. Alive."
Those searching eyes spilled over then, Johnny's face crumbling in relief and pain, joy and sorrow and Murdoch held on tighter, this time rocking his second-born and resting a weatherworn cheek on a coal black crown.
Time stood still then, just as it had twenty years earlier when he'd held this son in his arms. Hours feeling only like minutes as he'd sit cradling his child after a long, exhausting workday. Just watching him breathe, feeling that tiny but powerful life force in his grasp. Finally retiring to bed only after Maria repeatedly beckoned him to place Johnny in his cradle, and later, tuck him into bed, then come to her.
How could a father's devotion to his baby boy become an issue between that child's parents? But it had. Even twenty years ago, Murdoch hadn't been a man inclined to explain himself, justify his actions, especially when his heart was driving them. He'd tried though, had hoped Maria understood that his single-minded attentiveness to Johnny had not only sprung from his irrefutable love for their son -- for her son -- but also from the fact that he'd never had a moment of that connection with Scott. Had never even seen his older boy, let alone touched or held him. And despite his dreams for Lancer, of reuniting his family and working tirelessly to build a legacy for his sons, he'd vowed to Maria that he'd spend as much time with Johnny as he possibly could. He'd be damned before being deprived of his second son too.
And he had been damned, hadn't he? Maria had seen to it. Sentencing their son to even greater damnation in the process.
Lost as he was in the memories swirling in his mind, it had apparently taken Jelly a few tries before Murdoch realized his friend was calling to him, trying to get his attention. Now, glad of the distraction, he tore his eyes away from the young man sleeping uneasily in his embrace. "Sorry, Jelly. What?" He replied, his tone softened by exhaustion and a reluctance to wake Johnny any sooner than he'd have to.
Squatting down next to Murdoch and Johnny, Hoskins spoke just as quietly. "We're all set to get movin'."
Sighing in acceptance, Murdoch responded. "All right, let's do this."
Though Murdoch was convinced, even with his questionable back, he could carry Johnny on his own, it was going to take most if not the entire search party to move him without jostling his leg any more than absolutely necessary. They'd use another of the big wool blankets currently covering each of his boys to help support him.
While Jelly set about readying the extra blanket next to them, Murdoch began mindfully adjusting his hold on Johnny, easing him as freely as possible onto the makeshift stretcher. As soon as the dark head and shoulder lost contact with his father's warmth and met the cold, unforgiving ground beneath the blanket, a moan parted the young man's lips and his shivering began anew, though thankfully not in earnest. "It's okay, John," he murmured. "You're all right."
"Right here, son."
The concerned father watched the lashes flicker as Johnny strained to orient himself, brows furrowed in pain and confusion and Murdoch held his breath in hopeful anticipation of the clarity he'd last seen in Johnny's eyes. As the slivers of blue grew wider, exposing the recognition Murdoch had hoped to find, as well as the agony he'd prayed would be absent, Murdoch used his bandanna to dab beads of moisture from his son's face. He offered Johnny water, provided by an observant Jelly, knowing that the older man was as relieved as he when Johnny eagerly accepted the drink.
"Better?" Murdoch asked, once he'd handed back the canteen to Jelly.
"Yeah. . . thanks." The response was weak and tinged with pain but Murdoch was grateful and relieved that Johnny was aware. Too aware, he realized, when Johnny began to ask for his brother. It almost broke Murdoch's heart to have to tell Johnny that Scott was still unconscious. The fear in his youngest's face was palpable but the promise that he'd soon be able to be with Scott pacified the young man slightly. It was then Murdoch decided, somewhat reluctantly, the sooner they moved Johnny, the better.
As if reading his thoughts, Jelly handed over a small bottle of laudanum. Johnny immediately protested, pushing his father's arm away.
"No, I need my wits . . . when Scott wakes up." Murdoch understood his son's reluctance, especially given Scott's frightful behavior earlier, but he also knew Johnny wasn't strong enough to endure the ride home without taking something. He could barely speak now without gasping for breath between words.
"I'm not arguing with you, John," Murdoch stated firmly, meeting his son's rebellious gaze and then promptly softening his tone. "Just a little to take the edge off." He removed the top from the bottle and held it out to his stubborn son. "Please, son. You know you need this, you won't be any help to Scott without it."
Murdoch could see the wheels of logic turning behind those fevered eyes. Johnny nodded and reached out a trembling hand and Jelly braced his head. Murdoch held onto the medicine, supporting the bottle as Johnny took a short swallow, tipping it slightly so he'd be forced to take more. He knew that even if Johnny consumed the whole bottle it wouldn't take away all the pain. Wouldn't numb the torture his son had yet to face.
"That's it." Murdoch soothed as he recapped the medicine, then cringed as Johnny's hand fell to his side and his head flopped against Jelly's hold. His hand instinctively smoothed back the sweaty hair stuck to his boy's face as he waited for the laudanum to take effect.
Waving over the rest of his men, Murdoch pushed down the lump of apprehension that had suddenly stolen his voice and started issuing orders, before once again focusing on Johnny.
"All right, John. . ." The strength he knew his son was relying on had somehow taken command of his voice. "Take a deep breath and let us know when you're ready to do this."
Eyes locked on his father, Johnny did as was bid of him. "Ready as I'll ever be."
Despite the men using as much caution and care as possible, once he was raised up off of the ground, the pain clearly became too much. The muffled scream that Johnny valiantly attempted to stifle tore through his father's soul, but mercifully, the ordeal was short-lived and Johnny passed out before being gently settled in the wagon next to his still silent brother.
"Damnit, Jelly, be more careful!" Murdoch barked as the wagon rocked violently. Gently bracing Scott's head against his thigh, he prayed the jostling wasn't doing any more harm to either of his sons. With one hand steadying his older boy, he mimicked his efforts with the younger, Johnny wedged tight between Murdoch and the buckboard wall in a desperate attempt to stabilize the young man's broken leg.
"'m sorry," Jelly responded with a guilty hitch in his voice that made Murdoch wince. "This time 'a year couldn't be worse for ruts in these roads but we'll do our best." Immediately Murdoch felt contrite, knowing just how much his sons meant to his good friend. Jelly would do just about anything to keep any member of the Lancer family from harm, including this task of carefully driving the wagon. Walt was riding just ahead of them, guiding them along the safest trail. Doing his part to ensure the injured occupants suffered as little jolting as was humanly possible on the rough terrain.
"I'm sorry too, Jelly. Don't pay me any mind, I know you and Walt are doing your best."
Their eyes met briefly, as Jelly risked a glance over his shoulder at his friend. Deep concern was mirrored in each other's weathered faces. "Don't you worry none 'bout me, Mr. Lancer," he said compassionately. "Ain't nobody got more right to complain than you do, worryin' over these two."
It was true. If ever a man had the right to worry, Murdoch Lancer felt he had earned that right a thousand times over. The two sons he'd lost so many years had blessedly come home to him and yet, here they were, both so seriously hurt, Murdoch didn't know which one he should be concerned about most.
Another rut in the road and the wagon bumped hard and Murdoch could have wept for the irony. . .
Still profoundly unconscious, Scott remained oblivious to the rough travel. Not a moan, not a whimper. Logic told Murdoch he should be grateful. Appreciative his son wasn't facing the nausea and pain of his head injury, and despite the fear swelling in his heart at his boy's unresponsiveness, Murdoch knew the situation could turn ugly if Scott awoke in the same state he'd witnessed earlier.
Murdoch gently cupped Scott's head, his thumb tracing the seemingly inconspicuous bump bordering his hairline; wondering what other injuries lay beneath the surface. Both physical and mental. There was no question that his Boston-bred son had more than proven his mettle a thousand times over. Under normal circumstances, Murdoch would have every faith that Scott could also beat what ailed him. But there was nothing at all normal about Scott's plight. Where Johnny's predicament provided little in the way of doubt as to the cause of his pain, Scott's circumstances provided only questions. Murdoch had no idea how serious his son's condition was or if he had made his injuries worse subduing him. And, what was probably most difficult for a man so used to being in control, he had no idea how to help his boy.
Either of his boys.
His youngest had mercifully passed out when he'd been lifted into the wagon. Murdoch could still hear the stifled scream that echoed in his heart. More than twenty years earlier, that same child's first cries had affected him so deeply, he'd found himself a changed man. Believing once again in having his family complete. Believing he had the strength and means to bring Scott home. Believing himself capable as a father. Maria had stolen that from him. Stole his faith and stole his child. And, when their son had come home in the embodiment of his mother, as Johnny Madrid no less, the Lancer patriarch had almost allowed Maria's damage to steal away his love for their child. His heart had grown cold by then. Or so he had thought. Until he felt his chest fill with the pride and love of fatherhood once again, watching Scott's rescue of Johnny during the gunfight with the land pirates. And feeling the relief at Johnny's survival of Pardee's bullet quickly turn to dread and horror as Johnny collapsed into his waiting brother's hold.
Soon after, in the earliest stages of Johnny's fevered recovery, he'd heard those cries again. And even though two decades had passed, they hadn't ceased to touch him to his very core. Just as they were affecting him now. Damn it to hell, Johnny was waking up.
Like a butterfly on the wind, the word flitted through Johnny's mind and he tried to grasp onto it, knowing it was important but not knowing why. He knew he should try to concentrate but the cool blackness enveloping him was tempting and he was just too damn tired to fight it. Too weak to do much of anything for that matter, though he didn't quite understand that sensation either. He realized that fact should worry him but truthfully, he was more comfortable there in the darkness. Oblivion appealed to him right now, certainly more than the jarring light of awareness did. Awareness was beginning to hurt. Let the soft blanket of darkness beckon him. He was more than willing to oblige.
Ruthless awareness had other plans for him though and the moment Johnny felt his body jolt as though the earth had just moved beneath him, an unbridled moan tore from his throat, followed by another. Suddenly Johnny began to understand his predicament. And with that understanding and terrifying awareness, came Johnny's panic.
He was on fire.
He remembered the fire now. He'd set it himself though he couldn't recollect why. All he knew was that he must have screwed up somehow and now here he was, hurt and burning and Dios, mio, if he didn't get out of there now, he was going to die!
Johnny could feel the heat surrounding him, suffocating him, and the searing heat of flames lapping up his right leg, scalding him in excruciating waves of pain. The horror of his situation all but overwhelming as the shameful sensation of nausea combined with the scorching agony. He couldn't help himself. It felt as if opposite forces within the blaze were battling to tear his leg apart.
Somehow he had to get out of this.
Johnny Madrid had survived more brushes with death than he could count and yet he'd made it home. For that matter, Johnny Lancer had found himself in more than his fair share of scrapes since signing the agreement that bound him to his new-found family in the days before love and respect sealed that bond forever. Adversity and fighting for his life were no strangers. He could fight this too. He had to.
Steeling himself against certain agony, Johnny tried to reach for his immobile leg and force himself upright, force himself to move. He couldn't. He was trapped. Johnny edged close to hysteria as flashes of memory licked at his mind in tandem with the flames already scalding his leg.
The wagon. It was coming back to him now, jumbled, but he remembered the accident, being trapped. And Scott. "Scott!" He shouted his brother's name but there was no response. Johnny knew that there was something terribly, terribly wrong with his brother. His struggles increased but still he couldn't move. He needed help. They both did.
Murdoch would be looking for them, their father would be coming. But Scott was hiding them. But why? His brother was confused. Again Johnny shouted for Scott, though even to his own ears, he knew his pitiful attempt wouldn't be heard. He knew his father couldn't hear him either but that didn't stop him calling out. Scott needed his father's help and Johnny needed them both.
Another futile attempt to free himself and Johnny felt the burst of newly formed flames course over his body. His face was flush with heat, eyes tearing and cheeks burning so hot he couldn't understand why the grisly smell of charred flesh hadn't greeted his senses yet. Small mercies, Jelly would say. After all, he'd done this to himself. As more memories assaulted him, he remembered once again with a warped sense of irony and despondency that he had set this fire. To signal his father.
But he couldn't let his father find him like this. No man, especially Murdoch Lancer, deserved that kind of pain. Determined to get help for his brother and protect his father from a gruesome find, Johnny resumed his struggles tenfold, calling out yet again for Scott.
"John! Johnny, stop it!" He felt hands on him now, heard his name and for an instant felt immense relief. But he still had to get away from the flames, get help for his brother, and these hands were restraining him. One large hand pressing down on his already bruised chest and another, maddeningly encircling both his wrists, preventing him from fighting back.
"Let me go!" He cried out, bucking his body in an effort to dislodge his subduer and nearly sending himself back into oblivion. But giving in would mean certain death, for him and possibly his brother, so Johnny continued to fight, calling out for Scott and Murdoch, knowing they were out there somewhere.
"Johnny, I'm here. Scott's here, you're safe! You're both safe!"
His father's voice. Broken and frantic in a way Johnny had never before heard yet still reassuring in its message and its presence. "Murdoch," he breathed, suddenly and shamefully aware that, in his confusion, he'd been fighting his old man. The struggle went out of him as he collapsed, repeating his father's name again and yet again, the mantra soothing his tormented mind and body.
"I've got you, son," his father murmured and Johnny revelled in the sanctuary promised by those few words and in the safe haven of the arms now encircling his head and shoulders. Once again, Murdoch Lancer had rescued his wayward son from the flames of Hell and though Johnny still felt the lingering intensity of its heat, he had faith that his father would keep him safe.
"I've got you," Murdoch vowed once again, lowering his weathered cheek to his younger son's ebony hair and gingerly tightening his hold on Johnny's fever-wracked frame.
At first loathe to relinquish hold of his son, it wasn't until he was certain he'd gotten through the haze of anguish, that he willingly shifted his grasp.
It had only been minutes though it had felt like hours since Johnny had first shown signs of coming to. And Murdoch was worn out from the ordeal.
Murdoch had felt the heat began to rise again, emanating from Johnny's body. As he'd kept a watchful, worried eye on his too still and too silent elder boy, he'd bathed the younger one's face, neck and chest with the ample supply of water the search party had carried with them. He prayed the fever wasn't a sign of infection and was only the coping mechanism of his son's body as it dealt with the shock, exposure and injury resulting from the accident.
Murdoch shook his head. Johnny had bucked the odds his entire life. With a family to fight for him, he'd surely survive this. Especially once his older brother woke up. Murdoch's convictions had stumbled though and traitorous doubts had surfaced when Johnny's murmuring commenced. Utterings of nonsense soon developed into words and Murdoch knew then that his boy was in trouble. "--Fuego--." Over and over again, Johnny whispered the word, interspersed with his brother's name and sometimes even his father's. His unconscious and drug-laced mind tormenting him with the threat of fire. And while the son fought a battle in his mind, the father was losing his own battle in trying to keep his fevered son cool.
"Jelly, stop!" Murdoch had shouted when Johnny's struggles became more physical.
"Boss?" The apprehension in Jelly's tone had reflected Murdoch's own fears as he'd stopped the wagon and hailed Walt to hold on. Turning in his seat, the lantern in his grasp illuminating Jelly's concerned gaze as he bore witness to the scene that had been unfolding behind him. "You do what you have to. I'll watch Scott."
Murdoch nodded his appreciation as he focused on Johnny. The more he'd held fast though, the more his son had fought him, calling desperately for his brother. But Johnny's pleas would remain unanswered. Johnny's champion and most ardent protector was unable to hear him and so it had been up to their father to pull his youngest out of the flame.
And with a heavy heart, Murdoch had found himself for the second time this day, forcefully subduing a son. At once thankful for his significant advantage in size, while at the same time mortified by his actions, Murdoch grabbed the flailing fists, gripping Johnny's wrists in one hand while firmly placing the other flat and leaning his weight against Johnny's heaving chest. God help him, he never wanted to fight one of his boys like this again.
He'd never know which of his pleas finally reached Johnny and, in the end, it didn't really matter. At the sound of his own name, whisper-soft in its desperate recognition, Murdoch realized that at long last, he'd bridged the distance between Johnny's delirium and reality. Johnny's struggles abruptly stopped, his body wilting so suddenly that his father could have sworn his son had passed out again. But Johnny was still conscious, eyes glassy and shimmering, exhausted and limp, repeating Murdoch's name with each exhalation. The act seemingly calming his boy and settling his old man's frazzled nerves and racing heart too.
"That's it. I've got you," Murdoch murmured, carefully rearranging his hold. Johnny would need water and his father's support to drink it. Murdoch settled Johnny's head into the crook of his arm, cradling his head and shoulders and holding on with a rekindled tenderness he'd once so freely bestowed upon his second-born, so many years before.
"I've got you," he said again, whispering the words into Johnny's soft hair. He gave in to those decades old emotions then. Just for a moment, allowing himself the indulgence of hugging Johnny closer to him, tears forming when he felt his weary son lean into his embrace.
Despite the heat of fever still soaking through Murdoch's shirt, the eldest Lancer dared to believe they'd reached a turning point with Johnny and that his frightful bout with delirium was mercifully over. Johnny now lay lax in his hold, his breathing settling into a steady rhythm and no longer could he feel the wild thumping of the young man's heart beneath his palm.
It was time to get him as comfortable as possible and resume their trek home.
Ever practical, wasn't he?
Murdoch sighed. Perhaps not anymore. Not with these two sons around to help break twenty years of old habits. That certainly would explain his complete and total reluctance to end this rare and fleeting moment of shared tenderness.
Ultimately necessity won out over sentiment.
Suppressing his paternal desire to hang on, Murdoch felt his chest swell with unwavering affection. Though he slackened his hold, he felt Johnny grasp his shirt and, unable to hide the warm smile forming on his lips, he looked into his ailing son's eyes. "Hello, son."
The response a raspy whisper, blue eyes still shining too bright for Murdoch's liking, but awareness and blessed recognition reflected in them as well. Maybe even a little too much awareness. Murdoch's smile grew broader as he realized the flush growing across those handsome features might not be entirely the result of his son's elevated temperature.
Feeling a little exposed himself and deciding not to bask too long in the glow of this rediscovered territory of emotional expression he and his son were travelling, the Lancer father returned once more to the tried and true ways of the pragmatic. Clearing his throat, he spoke encouragingly. "Let's get some water into you. Jelly?"
"Comin' right up, Boss," Hoskins replied, a hint of relief ringing in his voice. Handing over a full canteen, Jelly took a moment to cup a hand to Johnny's forehead. Nodding his approval, he backed away. "Well, he looks like he's been drug through a hedgerow backwards but I reckon that's still an improvement."
"That it is, Jelly. That it is," Murdoch affirmed, pleased to see the half-hearted attempt at an exasperated glare his son was shooting at his friend. His tension stepping down another notch, Murdoch instinctively shifted and laid his palm on Scott's shoulder.
"Scott!" Apparently his actions had given his youngest a clear view of his unconscious brother and Johnny tried to sit up. Murdoch stopped him with a firm hand, but the minute movement took its toll. Bottom lip firmly clenched in his teeth, Johnny stiffened in agony as his senses came alive. Though his delirium was over, Murdoch realized too late that he was still disoriented and was only now remembering the accident and his brother's part in it.
"Easy, boy, take it easy," he soothed, extricating Johnny's hand from the stranglehold he had on his shirt and grasping it into his own.
"Scott. He's hurt." Johnny implored, recovering some control.
"So are you, young man," his father admonished, pride in his heart at the selflessness both his sons shared. "Scott's fine. Isn't that right, Jelly?"
"He shore is, Mr. Lancer," the older man replied, unable to conceal the worry in his voice. "Why, he's sleepin' peaceful as a lamb."
"Thanks, Jelly." The words were spoken by both father and son and Jelly didn't know whose gratitude pained him more. Appreciation shone in Murdoch's eyes, and though it pained Jelly to mislead Johnny, he knew his dad was looking out for his best interests and Jelly was willing to stretch the truth. Especially if it meant Johnny could rest easier for the ride home.
And clearly Johnny needed the rest. Surely if he'd had his wits about him, he wouldn't have felt any comfort in Jelly's words. That Scott slept through Johnny's hysterics, all that awful thrashing and hollering, was testimony to how grave the older one's injuries were. Up until now, Jelly wouldn't have believed there was any bridge too far to cross to keep Scott Lancer away from his little brother when he was needed. A fact Johnny knew and cherished with all the wonder of an orphan believing for the first time he had a father and brother that truly loved him. No, if Johnny had his senses about him, he'd know his brother was in deep trouble and Jelly and Murdoch would never get him to cooperate.
The young man had been placated though to a large extent by their ruse and Jelly watched with growing admiration the gentle way in which Murdoch Lancer, prominent cattleman, businessman and landowner, ministered to his sick son.
"How about that water now, all right?" The big man gently prodded.
Johnny nodded his acceptance of the proffered canteen and attempted to meet his father halfway. The effort resulted in a gasp that cut Jelly to the quick but, even though Hoskins knew Johnny's distress sliced even deeper into his father's soul. Murdoch didn't falter. "Let me do all the work, John," he softly scolded, again supporting Johnny's head in the crook of his arm. "Take it slow, we've got plenty."
Johnny allowed his father to take control, finally pulling away when he'd had enough to drink. When Johnny started to baulk and his eyes widened with alarm, Jelly watched with an apprehension he knew Murdoch shared. The last thing this young man's body needed was a bout with nausea. But once again the senior Lancer seemed to instinctively know what to do to help his son. "You're all right, just breathe easy," he coached, handing the canteen back to Jelly and freeing up his hand to smooth it through Johnny's hair. "That's right, there you are." Jelly smiled as Johnny calmed and once again Jelly's chest filled with pride, revelling in the simple act of witnessing the growing bond between this father and his sons.
Once he'd begun to know this family and learned the story of Murdoch Lancer, his lost wives and his lost sons, Jelly had often cursed the fates that had kept them apart for more than twenty years. That had robbed Murdoch of the joy of being a father to his children. And he'd cursed the time and distance that had kept these good men apart.
As painful as it was to see these boys he loved as his own so seriously hurt, watching their father give them comfort as he'd been doing so freely since they'd been found, Jelly couldn't help but feel privileged to have become an extension of this special family. He only prayed that his family would remain whole and well and would recover from this terrible day.
"Murdoch? Is Scott really all right?" Jelly and Murdoch exchanged guilty glances before Murdoch pulled his thoughts together in search of a reasonable response.
"He will be, John," Murdoch answered, looking down at his still unconscious son and hoping to project more conviction than he truly felt. "Let him rest," he urged, returning his gaze to Johnny and adding a hint of paternal decree to his voice.
"I will. 's just. . ." Johnny hesitated.
"It's just what, son?"
"I think. . . there's something really wrong with him." His younger son's hesitancy combined with the uncertainty in his soft voice, quelled Murdoch's growing fear that he was going to lose the battle he hadn't even started yet. The battle to keep this stoic young man calmed down enough to fall asleep. Clearly Johnny's fever was still causing him some confusion.
Giving his son a reassuring pat, he shot Jelly another shame-filled look. "I know you're worried, Johnny, but I'm sure it's nothing Sam can't handle." Looking longingly at his older boy's still form, his words were his prayer. "All right?"
"Good." Murdoch smiled sadly, his heart filled with emotion. He didn't think he could endure Johnny's faith in his words any more than he could stand lying to him any further. They needed to be on their way. He needed to get his sons home. Worried that the laudanum might have contributed to Johnny's frightful delirium earlier, he had no intention of giving him more until Sam deemed it necessary. Resigned to that decision, he could only offer him the small comfort of more water. "Now, do you want another drink before we carry on our way?"
Johnny appeared bewildered for a moment, as though he just realized the wagon hadn't been moving. He suddenly looked more ashamed than Murdoch felt and so his father hurriedly spoke to assuage his son's fears. "It's okay, son. We've only been stopped for a few minutes."
Johnny's countenance relaxed briefly but then, as he seemed to take in his surroundings, paying particular attention to the splint on his leg, his expression grew into one of apprehension. "You got any whiskey?"
Murdoch laughed, he couldn't help himself. And as Jelly chuckled too, the elder Lancer found himself struggling to maintain his composure. Truthfully, if he did let himself go, he didn't know whether a sob or another laugh would result. He knew laughter in the face of this tragedy was absurd, but to think that this day had begun with sending his sons on a mission to pick up the liquor his youngest now craved was just too ironic. He shook his head then, knowing stress and exhaustion were beginning to claim him as well.
"I'm sorry, son. It seems we're all out," he replied, stifling the mixed emotions whirling in his soul. Johnny didn't seem to notice and simply sighed as he nodded in reluctant acceptance. He was clearly wearing down and thankfully his father's strange behavior hadn't invited any further questions. Nor did his comment trigger any disturbing memories of the accident or Scott's alarming condition in the aftermath.
Regaining his control of the situation, Murdoch supported his son once again as he placed the canteen against Johnny's lips. "Easy does it, just like last time," he instructed, permitting the dark head to settle back onto the makeshift pillow in the wagon-bed once the young man had quenched his thirst. Remembering how Johnny's stomach reacted to his last drink just moments earlier, his father didn't hesitate to pick up where he'd left off, softly offering comfort and encouragement with his words and his touch. And as he watched the long, dark lashes bequeathed by his mother flutter closed, Murdoch smiled fondly. Johnny had thankfully fallen asleep, a fistful of his old man's shirttail gathered loosely in his grasp.
"Let's go home, Jelly," Murdoch sighed and then signalled Walt, who had been hovering at a respectful distance from the wagon, to move out.
"That there was mighty fine work, Boss," Jelly said, urging the team forward at the necessary snail's pace while Murdoch shifted his aching bones to a more comfortable and balanced position in the wagon. One where he could again keep a watchful eye on Scott without breaking the contact his youngest sought. Contact he could no longer deny he needed as well -- from both of his sons.
"Was it, Jelly?" He replied, immediately regretting snapping his words. Ever grateful for Jelly's presence, especially right now, his harshness was definitely a product of the strain he was feeling, both physical and emotional. "I'm--"
"Now don't you go apologizin', Mr. Lancer," Jelly interrupted. "I know yer plumb wore out. Asides. . . Jellifer B. Hoskins knows a thing or two about rearin' boys and let me tell you something," he avowed, "you just did that boy a world of good."
"Ah, Jelly, I just don't know," uncertainty plain in his voice. "I don't like lying to Johnny."
God, that was so true. After all, had it not been for Maria's lies, Johnny might have come home to Lancer so much sooner. Might have still had the chance to grow up safe and loved in the home he'd been born into. Instead of having to survive the violence and loneliness he'd been forced to endure. And he might have grown to trust and love his father and feel secure, without the shadow of hate and doubt his mother's lies still cast.
It was because Murdoch could never forgive Maria for what her lies cost their son, he found it so hard to forgive himself the same sin now. Especially if Johnny were to lose the brother he adored. "If Scott doesn't make it, Jelly, he'll never-- "
"He'll understand is what," Hoskins affirmed, "'n don't you go and get to thinkin' like that, anyhow. Why, it's just like you told Johnny. . . once Doc Jenkins takes a look at Scott, he'll have him fit as a fiddle in no time."
If the finality in Jelly's tone hadn't already spoken volumes, his rigid back definitely brooked no argument. And frankly, Murdoch had no desire to oppose his friend's edict. He desperately wanted to believe Jelly was right. No, Murdoch Lancer wasn't about to give up on his firstborn either.
Swallowing hard, and desperately trying to force down the guilt that had manifested as bile in his throat, Murdoch pleaded with himself not to go down this path. His sons' lives were both in peril and yet he still found his thoughts leading him along this all-too-familiar road of self-recrimination. And self-loathing.
Always a man who looked to the release of good, hard physical labor to help expel his demons, the wagon's confinement had abruptly become stifling. Murdoch had to do something, anything, to take his thoughts elsewhere. He decided upon the task, however mundane, of ensuring the comfort of both his sons for the duration of the ride home. Starting with Scott and addressing the woollen blanket pulled up over his son's broad shoulders, his heart once again grew heavy with despair. There wasn't any need to make adjustments, not even a single rumple to smooth. In fact the effort was futile. Scott had moved not once since the moment he was laid in the wagon-bed.
Recognizing his next step for the cowardly act it was, he still deflected his attention from Scott, toward Johnny, and began to carefully re-cover him with the blanket that had been inadvertently shucked off during the young man's nightmare-fuelled struggles. At least Johnny might react to his ministrations. But as Murdoch painstakingly tucked the blanket along Johnny's injured side, he instantly regretted his thoughts. Hearing a haunting wisp of a moan barely part his boy's lips, Murdoch stilled suddenly. Though still asleep, Johnny angled his head away from his father and, as the fingers of his right hand began to slowly unfurl, releasing the fabric of his father's shirt and coming to rest in the bed of hay, Murdoch felt achingly bereft and forsaken. Knowing with all certainty that by turning his thoughts away from his failings with Scott, he was failing both sons.
And that was simply unacceptable.
Besides, Murdoch Lancer was not a coward. Smiling warmly at his youngest, who remained oblivious to the kick in the behind he'd just given his old man, Murdoch rested a hand onto each of his sons' chests, finding hope in their easy rise and fall. Determined now to fathom out at least some of his demons before they returned home and he handed his sons over to the care of their doctor.
It had taken more time than he cared to admit to be able to look at Johnny and see the wonderful young man he'd become and not simply the reminder or, worse yet, the victim of his parents' disastrous marriage. And that short-sightedness had almost cost him his son. What he hadn't realized, or perhaps hadn't been willing to accept, was that he was still acting in a very similar manner toward Scott.
Certainly their relationship, practically from the outset, was far from the volatile one he'd first had with Johnny. The fact that their minds worked so similarly, as were their interests, had, much to Murdoch's infinite delight, made them fast friends. And regarding the business of running Lancer, Scott's military discipline and somewhat reserved nature provided an ideal counterpoint to Murdoch's own more colorful temperament. But, when it came to their connection as father and son, Murdoch couldn't deny that he and his eldest both still had walls between them left to fell.
And though he could certainly attribute a large portion of blame to Harlan Garrett, Murdoch also knew that it was the guilt he himself harbored that still kept the barrier between father and son from toppling down. The passage of two and a half decades had helped Murdoch begin to come to terms with his own part in the death of Scott's mother. To forgive himself not being there for his beloved Catherine and their newborn son, though these failings would of course continue to pain his heart. More recently, it was the time spent getting to know his sons and the subsequent and still blooming paternal desire to lead by example and earn their love and respect that helped forge this forgiveness. And by making peace with Judd Haney and his wife, and demonstrating to his boys this new-found clemency, he even felt a certain pride in his ability to make peace with himself.
But he still hadn't come to terms with his utter failure in bringing his son home from Boston.
When Harlan Garrett had come to Lancer on his scarcely veiled mission to take Scott back east with him, it was Johnny who'd asked the question Murdoch most feared from Scott. Why? Why, if he'd known all along where Scott was, hadn't he gone to claim him? When his youngest so freely exonerated his father's inability to find a lost little boy in Mexico, it had nearly broken Murdoch's heart. But then to hear the childlike hurt in Johnny's soft voice asking why his father had, in essence, given up his big brother, well, it had damn near shredded it to pieces. And Murdoch had had no answer for him. At the time and even hence, he'd simply justified his inability to respond to fairness -- Scott deserved the answer first, after all. The fact that Murdoch had been so riddled with emotions and caught up in the past that he couldn't have choked out a response if he'd wanted to, he'd conveniently denied.
But there was no denying that Johnny Lancer's aim was as straight and true as Johnny Madrid's. His son had hit his mark, exposing the truth and exposing the rawest of nerves Murdoch carried in his guilty soul. And when moments later Scott had asked the same dreaded question, Murdoch had just froze. Oh, he'd blustered and stumbled. . . going on about forgetting the past, leaving it behind and only looking to the here and now and future. But, in reality, he'd simply not wanted to dredge up the past, as always.
More than once he'd told himself that his reasons for not recounting the past to Scott were altruistic. That he was protecting Scott from the truth about Harlan Garrett's dark side. Protecting Scott from the disclosure of the threatened custody battle that Harlan would no doubt have followed through upon. Unwilling to blemish the picture Scott had of the man who'd raised him, despite Murdoch's own abhorrence toward Catherine's father. After all, Murdoch had to begrudgingly admit that Harlan had done a fine job. No matter how much Murdoch cared to wish otherwise, Scott just couldn't have grown into the truly fine, honorable gentleman he was, simply in spite of Garrett's efforts.
So, Murdoch chose to take the high road, to be the bigger man.
Bull. Prime Lancer bull.
If altruism and protecting Scott from the facts about Garrett's vile character had been his only motive for keeping the past in the past, then why, in the aftermath of Harlan's nearly tragic visit, had Murdoch still not broached the subject with his son? After all, Scott's grandfather had shown off his true colors during that fateful period. Greed, ruthlessness, arrogance, bigotry and obsessiveness had all been served up for Scott to see. And his ego and threats had damn near gotten Scott killed. Something for which Murdoch had no qualms about remaining unforgiven.
If ever there had been the right time to discuss that past, it was then. Soon after Garrett had left with his tail between his legs. Murdoch had known it then but still he held his tongue, convincing himself that the facts would only rub salt into the very fresh and open wound of the son he knew was hurting.
Though this was partially true, as Murdoch looked down beside him at this same, extraordinary young man, unconscious and gravely ill, he realized how much time he had wasted since making that fateful decision. And while both his sons possessed the courage of young lions, their father now found himself hopelessly lacking. It had been his fear of admitting his failures to Scott that had kept him from opening up. And rather than telling Scott that he had come to take him home, only to have been waylaid by a more powerful foe, his true failure was in not letting him know the truth. . . that his father had tried and lost but never stopped wanting him or loving him.
Resolute, he turned his gaze to the heavens then and made a solemn vow. . . to Catherine and to God. That if Scott lived . . . No. That when Scott was well and truly hale, he would make it up to him. They would talk and he would willingly answer even the hardest of questions. From both of his sons. They deserved that much and more from their father. "I promise I will," he whispered, looking into Scott's lax face and then Johnny's. "I promise."
Teresa peered out through Johnny's bedroom window, straining her eyes to make out the tiny, moving speck of light she saw in the distance. She'd hoped it was her family returning home to her but she could already tell the speck was too small to be a group of riders carrying lanterns, let alone men escorting a wagon. She'd have to head downstairs to greet whoever it was but, she still had time before they'd reach the hacienda and, in the meantime she wanted to keep watch for her returning men.
She'd moved upstairs a while ago, begrudging her small stature and inability to see out into the far reaches of Lancer from her guardian's favorite vantage-point, the great-room's huge windows. From Johnny's room she could see well into the distance however and so, despite the late hour, she found herself here. Truthfully, all of the rooms on this floor provided spectacular viewing but she felt most comfortable in Johnny's. Murdoch's dark room held too many of his memories, the presence of both his wives had always seemed to cloak the room and Teresa often felt a little like an intruder in there. Wondering how welcome she would have been in this house if either marriage would have lasted.
She imagined that Catherine, with her grace and good manners, would have been kind to her and accepting. But would Teresa have measured up to such a refined lady's expectations? And if Catherine's memory left Teresa feeling uncertain of her place, Maria's was even more intimidating. From anything she'd heard about the second Mrs. Lancer, Teresa was sure she would have been unwelcome under her roof. After all, for a woman to have been, by some accounts, jealous of the time Murdoch spent with Johnny, certainly any attention he might have given Teresa would have been objectionable.
So, Teresa avoided Murdoch's room where possible but felt none of those same apprehensions in his sons' rooms. Not surprisingly, Scott's bedroom was neat and tidy, with everything in its place, unless his brother raided it to borrow something, of course. Then its orderliness would become spoiled and Scott would grump and chastise but Teresa knew, every bit as much as Johnny did, that Scott's heart wasn't behind his complaints. More often than not, he'd simply shake his head, wearing a delightfully warm half-smile/half smirk, and pick up after Johnny, returning everything to its proper place.
Teresa knew why. During their long hours of vigil, sitting next to Johnny's bed during his recovery from Day Pardee's bullet, she and Scott had been afforded opportunity to talk. At first it had been small talk, topics that felt safe. But, as Johnny's fever rose and despair settled over the hacienda like a heavy mantle, they opened up to each other more. Scott shared his childhood memories of feeling alone in a big, cold house and wishing that he had a brother to grow up with. The brother fate now allowed him to have.
Teresa prayed that fate wouldn't take that away from him now. It just couldn't. Surely fate wasn't that cruel.
Despite the order of Scott's room, she had always enjoyed spending time in it, dusting the trinkets and the photographs. Teresa had taken great delight in watching the room take on Scott's character as he began to truly make himself at home. His mother's favorite chair had worked its way into the corner and, despite the room's grand size, Scott had created a cozy atmosphere. Using other odds and ends he'd brought down from the attic, mixed with a few favorite pieces he'd shipped from his childhood home in Boston; her elder brother's presence was undeniable. The scent of leather mixed with the musky tang of Scott's cologne not only stamped it as Scott Lancer's room but, more importantly, that he was home to stay.
For the longest time Teresa had felt none of this same comfort in Johnny's room. His saddlebags had held everything he owned. Even when he started acquiring a few necessities, they never appeared in the drawers nor the wardrobe. What he didn't keep in his saddlebags laid strewn out on a chair or hung from a doorknob. It had confused and upset Teresa terribly to see Johnny so fiercely resisting the concept of staying at Lancer. How could he not love it here, the way she loved her home? It had felt like rejection and she had taken it hard.
It wasn't until the day he'd left with his friend Wes that she had finally understood. Johnny had walked away after a horrible confrontation with his father and though she'd begged him to stay, he turned his back on her and Scott and rode away. Realizing he'd left with nothing but a black stallion and the saddlebags across Barranca's rump, she'd broken from Scott's comforting hold and ran upstairs into Johnny's room. Certain she'd find something he'd forgotten, something he'd have to return for.
He'd left nothing behind.
The room had been stark and barren and with that observation she realized that it hadn't been Johnny rejecting Lancer in those first few months of his return. It had been Lancer rejecting Johnny all along, in the guise of his seemingly indifferent father. And it had only been a matter of time until he would feel compelled to leave as he had. The young man had known that, had expected and prepared for it and her acceptance of that sad fact had devastated Teresa.
But then he had come home. And Murdoch began to treat him a little kinder, eased off on the bit some, as Johnny had so eloquently explained. Acknowledging that Murdoch was trying. So Johnny had tried too, held his tongue, granted respect when it was due and before long there was a certain harmony between them. The tensions eased, time passed and soon Teresa began delighting in cleaning Johnny's room. . . discovering the heavy, woollen coat given to him by his father that had made its way first into his wardrobe, soon followed by his boleros. And then the leather and buckskin jackets that he began to wear more often as he grew comfortable in his Lancer skin. An assortment of bandannas were strewn about the dresser and offered a riot of color in contrast to the natural leathers of the hats and belts. Recently she'd discovered a guitar leaning in the corner nearest the window. Teresa hadn't said anything to him about it, as much as she wanted to. She was willing to wait, until it appeared in his hands some night, while Scott and Murdoch played chess, and she'd be mending their clothes or reading a book while Johnny sat cross-legged on the floor near the fire and played. Teresa wholeheartedly believed that day would come. Because she knew Johnny had finally found his home here.
Her attention returned to the window and her heart leapt as she recognized Cipriano. He wasn't galloping in madly but his pace was steady, ground-eating. Urgent. Her practical mind told her that the news was not good. If the boys were perfectly fine, they'd all be riding in together. Still, she realized with a renewed burst of hope that, if the news was the absolute worst -- if one or both of the boys had been lost to them -- Cipriano would not have been sent ahead. Even in grief Murdoch would not do that to her. He would be the one to tell her.
She watched as Cipriano rode in through the gate and pulled herself from the window, rushing toward the doorway. Having long since abandoned her party dress in favor of more practical jeans, Teresa flew down the main staircase and ran to the entrance. Her imagination racing, she suddenly found herself hesitating. Afraid of what news Cipriano might bring. Terrified it would alter her world, her family. . . forever.
Inhaling a calming breath, she summoned all her strength before opening the door and hurried through it to meet Lancer's segundo.
The tall Mexican had already dismounted and was just handing over the reins to Eduardo when her eyes met his. Suddenly Teresa found her steps faltering yet again. For as long as Paul O'Brien's daughter had known Cipriano Morales, she had only seen that haunted look in his dark eyes once before. The night her father had been murdered and Murdoch had been gravely wounded. At that foreboding expression, she gasped and for a moment found she couldn't exhale. Hazy blackness swirled at the edges of her consciousness and she felt her herself growing weak, her knees buckling, mortified at the certainty that she was going to faint and yet unable to stop the inevitable. But powerful dark hands thwarted her collapse, grasping her shoulders and roughly shaking her, all the while a deep voice spoke, urgent and incessant, demanding she listen to the words.
"Senorita Teresa, por favor, they are alive! El patron's sons are very hurt, but they live Teresa, they live!"
At last their meaning registered and Teresa clung to the hope Cipriano's words offered. As long as Scott and Johnny were alive, she had that hope.
Feeling a wave of calm overtake her, Teresa pushed aside her fears and allowed her orderly nature to come forward. "Cipriano," she said, ushering the big man in through the door. "What's happened?"
Teresa's heart plummeted as he described the boys' injuries. Thankful that Dr. Jenkins had already been sent for, Teresa set her panic aside and let reason take over. She quickly assigned Cipriano the task of moving Scott's bed into Johnny's room. With both brothers severely hurt, Sam and Murdoch didn't need to be traipsing from one room to the other. More importantly, she wanted to keep Scott and Johnny together. She knew they'd need each other; whether they admitted it or not.
While the sickroom was being readied, Teresa and Maria boiled bandages, ensured that the stoves and lanterns were well fuelled and all the necessities were available for Dr. Jenkins' use.
The distinct clang of the fire bell signaled their arrival, followed shortly by the din of excitement and distress in both Spanish and English as the estancia came alive.
Teresa ran outside, the blood pounding in her ears as she watched the ranch hands surround the wagon. Even by the sparse light of the lanterns she could see the horrific condition her brothers were in and was equally appalled by Murdoch's ancient appearance. Though his granite chin remained stoic, the depth of emotion reflected in his eyes conveyed the anguish he suffered. She rushed to his side, her heart breaking and he hugged her briefly. Despite Murdoch's obvious strain, Teresa still took comfort in his presence and his authoritative voice. "I need you to show them where to take the boys," he prompted and she nodded and pulled away from him.
Teresa quickly pulled back the sheets and stepped back to let Jelly and Walt lay Scott down. She knew she should be used to this by now, but seeing men hurt never seemed to get any easier. Especially when they were family. Scott remained motionless as the men removed his boots and stripped off his coat and shirt. He didn't stir as his brother was slowly carried through the door and gently deposited onto his bed. Not even Johnny's pain-filled moans caused Scott to react. She brushed her fingers lightly over Scott's silky hair, lingering briefly before making her way to Johnny.
Unlike his brother, Johnny was fully aware and Teresa cringed at the misery etched on his features. Her eyes looked up to Murdoch for reassurance, confidence, anything to quell the helplessness washing over her.
"Frank's bringing the doctor, honey, I need you to get everything ready that you think he'll need."
"We're ready for him, Murdoch." Even as she spoke, Teresa's eyes inventoried the room once again, searching for but thankfully not finding anything remiss.
She tried to give Johnny a reassuring smile, but felt tears welling in her eyes instead as Johnny reached for her. "Teresa." His voice, barely a whisper, cut deep and she froze, staring into his fevered eyes.
"I'm here, Johnny." She recovered quickly, leaning over the bed so she could hear him.
"Talk to Scott. Tell him he's home. He's safe." Johnny swallowed hard, his eyes squeezing shut as a wave of pain overtook him.
Teresa took his hand in hers, and stroked the matted hair off his face. "I'll tell him."
Johnny shook his head, frustration mixing with fear as he tried to get through to her. "Promise you'll keep talking to him. He's scared, needs to hear. . . a woman's voice. Let's him know he's home. Make him understand that."
She could see Johnny fighting against the fever and the exhaustion that called him. She knew he was out of his head, that his words probably didn't mean anything except in his own confused mind. But then, both brothers usually knew what the other needed, whether anyone else understood or not. She trusted Johnny enough to believe him now. "I will, Johnny. I promise I'll make sure he knows he's safe."
Murdoch's back ached, but he didn't have the time or the inclination to dwell on his own miseries. The hardback chair he sat in would probably make his condition worse, but right now all that mattered were the two men on either side of him.
He sat close to Johnny, his hand resting on the young man's arm to keep him anchored. To let him know he was there just in case his dreams betrayed him again. Johnny had finally drifted off into a restless sleep after he'd taken another dose of laudanum. Given how disoriented Johnny had been a few hours before, Murdoch had been hesitant to give it to him. But, seeing the ever-present pain and exhaustion in his son's face, he relented. The dose wasn't nearly enough to ease him, but Murdoch understood Johnny's reluctance to take more. Johnny was worried for Scott too.
Murdoch let out a pent-up sigh as his eyes turned to Scott. Teresa sat with him, her small body hunched over as she whispered continuously as she held his hand. He couldn't hear except for a few stray words now and then. "Home" "safe" came out most often and he smiled sadly, figuring Johnny had recruited Teresa to keep up the mantra he couldn't.
Stretching and shifting in his seat, Murdoch reached again for the rag soaking in the basin and bathed Johnny's face with the cool water. The fever still worried him, but it was to be expected. It was Scott's stillness that terrified Murdoch, even more so than Johnny's ramblings and cries of pain. At least Johnny felt something. He still fought to survive. Murdoch longed to hear a whimper, a moan, something from his eldest. Any sign that Scott hadn't given up.
He looked again at the pocket watch, silently cursing the distance from Sam's practice to the ranch, the hampering darkness, and anything else that drifted through his mind. He needed Sam here. Right now. His boys needed help and he couldn't give it to them.
Voices echoed in the hallway and Murdoch stood up as Jelly ushered Sam Jenkins through the open door. About damn time. Murdoch knew the accusation wasn't fair, but his thoughts couldn't be controlled. Their eyes met briefly before the doctor let his gaze drift from one Lancer son to the other, Murdoch figured he was trying to decide which one needed his help first.
Sam stepped next to Scott's bed, gently turning the young man's head to face him. Scott still showed no signs of waking up and the doctor patted him softly on the shoulder then turned his attention to Johnny.
Johnny's eyes opened and Murdoch feared another episode like the one that had taken place in the wagon. He moved the chair closer to Johnny's head and sat beside him, placing his hand on his son's damp hair. "It's all right, son. Sam just needs to look you over."
"Frank said you busted yourself up real good this time." Jenkins tried to joke as he carefully untied the straps of the makeshift splint they'd fashioned together for the wagon ride.
Johnny flinched and Murdoch instinctively grabbed his arm, ready to restrain him if necessary.
"No, doc. Make sure Scott's okay."
"I will, John, I just need to get a look at you first." Sam continued to peel away the splint. Before Murdoch had time to stop him, Johnny had pulled away from his restraint and grabbed Sam's wrist.
"I know what's wrong with me. What I don't know is how bad off my brother is and that's worryin' me more than this damn leg!" Johnny let himself sink back into the pillow, gritting his teeth tight against the agony his actions caused.
Murdoch understood Johnny's aggravation. He would have smiled proudly at his son's stoicism and love for his brother except that he shared that same anxiety. For both his boys.
Clearly frustrated and almost as determined, Sam looked to Murdoch to back him. Except the elder Lancer knew confronting Johnny was futile. The young man's stance in spite of the extreme pain he suffered told him there would be no argument. Not about this. Both his sons shared his own dogged determination and downright stubbornness and he could see in his youngest boy's eyes that Scott would come first. That Johnny would fight them with his last ounce of strength to see to that.
"Easy, Johnny." Murdoch placed a firm hand on Johnny's chest, just enough to keep his exhausted son flat against the mattress. "Sam, why don't you see if you can do anything for Scott first?"
The doctor started to protest as Murdoch pulled him toward Scott's bedside and motioned to Jelly to take his place beside Johnny. "Murdoch, I have to set that leg before he damages it so bad it can't be fixed. At least Scott's not feeling any pain right now." Sam challenged as Murdoch led him to Scott's bed.
"Sam, you and I both know Johnny well enough to know he'll end up hurting himself and most likely you if you try to force him to cooperate. Now, do what you can for Scott, a few more minutes shouldn't make any difference right now."
Sam felt the knot in his stomach tighten, knowing there was no way to win in this situation. Both of Murdoch's boys needed immediate care and he thought he'd made the most reasonable decision under the circumstances. Except when it came to this family, logic usually got tossed out the window. Sam knew how close the brothers were and when one suffered they both did. He might have even considered it heart-warming if it wasn't so damn frustrating.
He nodded in resignation and again took Scott's face in his hands, turning the blond to better view the darkening bruise running along his temple. Experienced fingers traced around the swollen bump, but he could find no indication of an open wound.
Sam peeled back Scott's eyelids, looking for any reaction to the lamp light next to the bed. No response. The boy was deep in his own world and Sam prayed it was as peaceful as it appeared.
His experienced eye honed in on Scott's swollen hand and he examined it closely for any signs of broken bones. Satisfied nothing was out of place, Sam made a mental note to wrap it later. Once he'd finished his assessment of the young man's condition. The deep bruises along Scott's side worried him however and he ran his hand across them once again, more firmly this time. Nothing felt broken. Cracked and sore certainly and Jenkins expected a reaction, but Scott remained silent. Sam pressed into Scott's ribs harder, deliberately digging his fingers into his damaged side in hopes the pain would bring the young man out of his unnatural slumber. Not even a movement.
"How long has he been unconscious?" Sam asked as he covered Scott's chest with the blanket.
"He passed out on the ridge, about three hours or so ago." Murdoch cleared his throat, his voice hitching slightly as he continued. "Before that, well, he didn't recognize us. He shot at Jelly, held a gun on me to keep us from helping."
Teresa's eyes widened at the confession. "Scott wouldn't do that! He just couldn't see who it was in the darkness."
Jelly, uncharacteristically silent until now, piped up from next to Johnny's bed. "He could see jest fine. The boy was plumb out of his head though, swinging that rifle around ready to pick us all off."
"He was protecting me." Johnny said.
"Protecting you from us," Murdoch confirmed, meeting Johnny's gaze.
"He said he wouldn't let them take us." Johnny's voice cracked with fatigue and emotion and he fell silent.
"He thought he was still a soldier." Sam said softly, not sure he'd even meant for the words to be heard.
"And we were trying to capture him." Murdoch whispered.
"Capture us," Johnny corrected, worry for his brother straining his voice.
"But that doesn't make any sense!" Teresa protested, turning her attention to Johnny. "Why, Scott didn't even know about you during the war. How could he possibly think you'd be captured?"
Johnny shook his head weakly. "I dunno, Teresa," he whispered. "He just did."
"It does make sense, Teresa. With a severe head injury, hallucinations and paranoia are quite common, even to the point of confusing or combining parts of the past with the present." Sam asserted softly.
"But he will be all right?" Murdoch asked. The look of anguish in the man's eyes sent a wave of guilt over Jenkins for not being able to provide more answers. For not being able to truthfully tell his old friend that his son would be just fine with a little rest and some time.
"I won't know until he wakes up, Murdoch. He's strong and he's certainly got the family stubborn streak, so don't go counting him out just yet."
He stifled a frustrated sigh and motioned for Murdoch to hold his son up while he arranged the pillows behind Scott. "Teresa, keep him propped up on the pillows like this. Once he wakes up those ribs are going to make breathing very painful. And keep cool compresses on that bruise on his head, continue talking to him and see if you can get him to take a little water."
Teresa nodded solemnly and Sam realized she probably knew more about being a nursemaid than he'd given her credit for. He smiled, trying to reassure her and Murdoch. "And either of you, let me know the minute he begins to stir. He'll probably be confused and disoriented," Sam looked toward Murdoch, "maybe even violent."
Murdoch nodded. "You'll be the first to know."
Murdoch fought hard to keep his composure. The look of distress on Sam Jenkins' face told him that Scott's condition was worse than what he'd revealed verbally. He was grateful for the discretion with Teresa and Johnny within earshot, but the nagging sense of dread sapped his energy.
"Murdoch? I need your help." Sam's voice broke through his thoughts and he turned from Scott to see Dr. Jenkins tossing away the last of the homemade splint and preparing to set Johnny's leg.
He felt as if he were in a waking nightmare as he sat down next to his other son and prepared to hold him still. Apparently Cipriano had been called for and had already positioned himself toward the foot of the bed, his large hands pinning Johnny's good leg to the blanket. Jelly looked sick, but he settled in on the other side of Johnny, talking a blue-streak. His own brand of distraction, and Murdoch hoped Johnny would focus on the man's annoying chatter instead of the necessary, yet excruciating procedure.
Johnny looked up at him, his eyes filled with pain and dread for the torture he knew awaited him. Now Murdoch felt sick. His mind rushed with soothing thoughts and platitudes to spew forth, but instead he grasped Johnny's hand in his and held tight. Trying desperately to pull the pain from his son's body into his own.
If only he could.
The agony of having a broken leg set would be bliss compared to watching his youngest suffer.
Murdoch steeled himself as Sam told Johnny to relax. Ideally, Johnny would pass out before it became intolerable, but his youngest never did anything the easy way. That much Murdoch had learned within the first two days of meeting him.
"Hold on. Just take a deep breath and let us do all the work, all right, son?" Murdoch kept his grip on Johnny's hand and moved his other arm to gently pin him to the bed.
Johnny shut his eyes and Murdoch could feel the heave of his chest as he tried to calm himself. "Just let all the hurt go, John. Just give it to me."
"Let the hurt go. . . give it to me."
The words bounced harmlessly in his brain, but the emotion, the sincerity behind them tore at Johnny's heart. The old man really meant those words. They weren't merely to soothe his feelings or keep him steady. Johnny knew Murdoch would switch places with him if possible. Just as Johnny would gladly suffer to keep his father or his brother from any pain. It's what family did.
The faces around him blurred and Johnny's fingers clamped hard around his father's hand as the burning pain in his leg reached crescendo. His mind tried to focus on Murdoch's strong presence, the rough calloused hands that held him to the bed and anchored him to reality. But the sickening pull of muscle and pop of bone robbed him of any thought other than blinding misery. Despite the thin thread of rationality he tried to hang onto, he couldn't help the scream that passed his lips, the frantic fight to be free of restraining hands and the agony invading his body.
"Hold on." His father's words came to him as a whisper. Johnny dug his fingers into Murdoch's skin, trying to obey, trusting in that solemn voice more than any screaming from his own mind.
"That's it, son. That's it."
Johnny felt his shoulders sink into the softness beneath him, felt his mind dissolve into fuzzy edges and toward the blissful darkness. It was all right now. His father would watch over him and his wounded brother. He felt safe in that knowledge and he tried to smile, to let Murdoch know where he was going as he let go of his grasp.
"Thank God," Murdoch breathed, running a shaky hand through his grey hair. He truly was in Hell, he had to be. Where else could he possibly be, giving his thanks every time his youngest son passed out and actually wishing the other would react to pain? What kind of father was he?
He just couldn't stand seeing Johnny in agony like this, hearing him cry out. Johnny was just so tough. Both his sons were for that matter. Living here with them on the ranch, Murdoch had seen evidence of that first-hand, countless times over. But Johnny. . . growing up the way he had, well, that he had even survived at all showed the boy's grit. Yet he was hurting so very badly now. And he was still so sick. The break had to be serious.
"Sam," he choked out, mouth suddenly so dry Murdoch didn't recognize his own voice. He swallowed a few times, trying to work some moisture back into his throat, and keep the fear at bay at the same time. "Sam, how bad is it?" There, he'd gotten the dreaded question out.
"I'm not sure yet, Murdoch," Sam answered honestly. "Now that he's unconscious, I'm going to take a closer look at that wound."
As soon as Sam referred to the wound, Murdoch's eyes fixed upon it. He'd been purposely avoiding looking at Johnny's misshapen limb practically from the moment he'd found his two injured sons. Now he couldn't tear his eyes away from the sinister gash.
"Teresa, hand me a cloth and the iodine tincture," Jenkins instructed.
Eyes still rivetted, Murdoch watched as the doctor none-too-gently rubbed the foul-smelling linen onto Johnny's leg. His eyes shot to Johnny's face then, as a low moan parted Johnny's lips and dark lashes began to flutter. "Sam!" Murdoch's warning was harsh, he didn't want Johnny waking up to this.
"Keep him calm, this won't take long."
Murdoch wanted to shout at Sam that his son's misery had gone on far too long already, but his rational mind acquiesced and instead he turned his attention to Johnny. "It's all right, John. Go back to sleep now," he murmured, knowing full well that wasn't going to happen. Draping one arm across the pillow, above Johnny's head, and resting the other across his chest, the embrace served a dual purpose: keeping Johnny in place and providing comfort to a father and son who both needed it desperately.
Johnny didn't answer, too preoccupied biting his lip as the doctor continued his work. But Murdoch kept talking, encouraging, and promising that Sam would be finished soon.
He shuddered when he heard Sam's request for tissue forceps and Johnny's eyes, squeezed shut until now, flew open and Murdoch's heart bled for the reawakened dread he saw there. Johnny weakly attempted to raise his head, looking toward his leg and Murdoch scolded him immediately, his tone sharper than he'd intended as he told his son not to move a muscle and most definitely not to look.
Despite his instructions to Johnny, Murdoch chanced a look at Sam's ministrations and nearly gagged at the sight. Jenkins had begun to peel back the edges of the torn skin surrounding the wound and revealing the bone. As he watched Sam dab the iodine-laced cloth into the exposed area, Murdoch instantly felt the color drain from his own face. He'd never been squeamish in his life but if it hadn't been for the death-grip Johnny had just applied with both hands to the arm Murdoch still rested across him, his father was sure he'd have passed out on the spot. But that wasn't about to happen. Johnny needed him, both his sons needed him.
"That's it, John, hold onto me," he whispered, fingers playing through his son's sweat-slick hair while he contemplated just how much pressure his other arm could take before he'd be in need of the doctor's services as well. It didn't matter, he'd do anything at this moment to help relieve either of his sons' suffering.
"Dios, Murdoch, make him stop," Johnny gritted out, bracing his head against the unyielding arm above him as beads of sweat trailed into his hair and down onto the pillow.
Reading the torment in Johnny's pooling eyes and hearing it in his voice, Murdoch reacted out of pure instinct. The fatherly kind. "Sam, he's had enough!" The threat of violence more than evident in his tone.
Teresa gasped but Jenkins' only reaction was to look up, meet his gaze, a mask of irritation on the doctor's face and Murdoch's expression wavered. From pure malice to entreaty, knowing full well that Johnny's leg and quite possibly his life depended on Sam's actions at this moment, no matter how cruel those actions might be.
Sam straightened though, his expression softening as he handed Teresa the instrument and moved toward the head of the bed. Giving Johnny's shoulder a gentle squeeze, he spoke. "The hard part's over, son. Why don't you take a breather?" His next words were directed at Murdoch though. "Everything is looking just fine so far."
"Gracias," Johnny sighed, gratitude shining in eyes locked on his father, then he closed them and turned his head into the hand that hadn't left his hair. "Gracias," he whispered again, exhaustion and relief plain in his voice. Released from Johnny's tight grasp, Murdoch relaxed back into his chair and bowed his head. Relieved at Sam's words and more so by the confidence in which he stated them, but still feeling unsettled.
Murdoch dipped the tepid rag into the wash basin and wrung it out for what felt like the one hundredth time. He bathed Johnny's face and neck again, trying to cool the persistent fire burning beneath his son's skin. His youngest mumbled something unintelligible in his troubled sleep, then finally grew still and quiet. Murdoch held the wet cloth pressed to Johnny's forehead and closed his eyes for a brief respite.
As the sky evolved from cold blackness to the butter-colored swirls of dawn, Murdoch found himself watching over his sons; moving from Johnny's side, trying to soothe his fevered ramblings and spiking pain, to watching his other son suffer in silence.
Murdoch's mind raced with the memory of what had happened and what he could have done to prevent it. Then he chastised himself for even harboring such traitorous musings. He had long since decided that regrets were for fools, that a man chose his path and should learn to live with the consequences. Except that logic felt empty to him now. Like a stubborn old man's desperate attempt to push aside his failings and blame it on fate or the gods or even the position of the stars. More bull. He couldn't have prevented this accident, just as he couldn't stop Maria from leaving or Catherine from dying. What he could do was not let the two people who meant the most to him go on thinking that he didn't love or respect them enough to confess at least some of his truths.
Resolute, he still sighed heavily then startled as his youngest, awake once again, spoke his name.
"Murdoch?" Johnny's voice, sounding concerned and Murdoch couldn't help but wonder how long Johnny had been awake.
"Yes, son," he replied, drawing a trembling hand down his face before meeting Johnny's much clearer gaze.
"Your hand's shaking." His son's voice, almost accusatory, had gained in clarity too. Not nearly as strong as the grip Johnny now had on Murdoch's wrist though. Gone suddenly was Murdoch's very sick boy and in his stead was Johnny Madrid. Ailing, yes, but not lacking in any of his intensity.
"Just tired, son. Nothing to worry about."
"Murdoch you do need some rest, doesn't he, Sam?" Teresa offered as Sam followed her into the room. Last night Murdoch had sent them both away to rest, to leave him alone with his sons for a while, and though Teresa had kept her distance, Sam had kept up his duties all night.
"Listen to Teresa, Murdoch. You're dead on your feet," Jenkins concurred. "We'll stay with them and wake you in a few hours."
They were ganging up on him. Well, it wasn't going to work. He had no intention of leaving his sons for the sake of some restless sleep. "No," he stated firmly. "Now listen to me, all of you. I'm a big boy and know damn well when I've reached my limit." No one was going to talk him into leaving this room.
Damn. The boy was back now, his grasp on his father's wrist slackened and his bright blue eyes anxious, vulnerable, and imploring. "Murdoch, go get some rest. You need it."
"No, listen, you don't understand. . ." Releasing his father's wrist, Johnny sank deeper into his pillow, frustration now as evident in his bearing as weariness. Murdoch didn't want to argue, knew Johnny wasn't up to any more battles and, frankly, he felt about the same.
"What don't I understand, John?"
Johnny looked so lost, defeated and even alone, it nearly broke his father's heart. Murdoch followed Johnny's mournful gaze; exhausted eyes locked onto his unconscious brother as he spoke. "I -- I couldn't help him," he whispered. "Out there." Johnny looked at his father imploringly and Murdoch finally understood. "I tried, Murdoch. . . I tried so hard."
"Oh, Johnny, no--," Murdoch interrupted. His son certainly didn't need this burden but he was at a loss with how to stop it. Clearly Johnny's weakness and the fever were affecting these guilt-laden thoughts.
"But, I was so tired," Johnny insisted, cutting off his father yet talking so low now that Murdoch had to lean closer to make out the rest of his sorrowful words. "I'm still tired."
"I know, boy, I know," Murdoch answered, clasping his hand around Johnny's.
"You're tired too."
Murdoch froze. There it was again. That damnable Madrid aim. But with it came full comprehension and Murdoch realized what he had to do. He now understood his youngest's fears and what he needed from his father.
He'd learned quickly, though almost too late, that Johnny's ability to size up a man in no time, be they friend, foe or -- in the case of Joe Barker -- both, was exceptional. And Johnny was sizing up his old man now and finding him sorely lacking.
It was all-too-clear that Johnny believed he was too ill to fight for Scott. And though Murdoch knew that Johnny would use his last breath to risk himself for his brother, he would just as soon ensure that his younger son didn't have to. And that meant, at least to Johnny's too perceptive eyes, that his old man had to be well-rested in order to be properly armed and ready to handle any fight that might come their way. Especially if that fight came from Scott.
He could do that. Or at least try.
He smiled warmly at Johnny then, squeezing his hand and settling it onto his blanket. "You're right, John, of course," he said, pleased as he watched the tension release from the handsome features. Murdoch took one last glance at his sons and gently admonished, "All right, but I expect you to sleep too. I'll be right next door if you need me."
Awareness inched upon him, a dull ache permeating his bones and sounds invading his clouded mind as he fought the fog toward some kind of clarity. Scott knew something urgent called for his attention. Some kind of trouble, something life or death important that he had to take care of, but he couldn't quite wrap his thoughts around exactly what. Maybe if he could open his eyes, see where he was, he could remember what he had to do.
Except he couldn't move his eyelids. He couldn't move anything. He tried to lift his arms, tried to roll over and onto his feet, but his body refused his brain's commands. Panic swelled as he fought the darkness, ordered himself to shove aside the debilitating fatigue invading his limbs and get up.
Faint cries made his blood run cold and he realized what had woken him. Johnny. Images swam before him, his brother's battered body, shadows of soldiers marching across the hillside, their shouts as they spotted the fire consuming the supply wagon. Scott tried to move again, he had to get Johnny, had to get him out of here before they were captured or burned alive in the inferno. The stench of burning wood and the pop of artillery shells assaulted his senses as he struggled to move. Lord, he had to get them out of there, yet he still felt the solidness at his back as he desperately fought to control his own body. Brutal pain added to his dismay as he tried in vain to think, to determine why he remained immobile and what he must do to get free.
He could hear voices now. Solid and real this time. Grief washed over him. He had failed. It was too late to flee. He had allowed himself to be captured. Again. He'd failed himself, his fellow soldiers and most of all he'd failed Johnny. He wondered if the heavy stupor debilitating him came from being drugged, either because he had been badly hurt in the attack or to keep him compliant for transfer. Maybe both.
As his concentration returned so did the ache in his side and the increasing thrum in his head, but he had to open his eyes. He couldn't afford the luxury of rest right now. He had to know what he faced. With great effort, Scott managed to split apart sealed eyelids, just enough to survey the room. He turned his head slightly, opening his eyes as wide as he dared. He could make out the form of a man standing across the room and a woman, her back to him as she sat next to Johnny. Apparently a doctor and his nurse, although this wasn't like any hospital he'd ever seen. They were in a home most likely. Awaiting more soldiers to transport them to either a confederate hospital or straight to a prison camp. Scott's heart beat wildly as he watched the doctor concentrate on his brother's leg. No one else seemed to occupy the room, and with this being a holding area, well, Scott figured they might just have a chance to make their escape before reinforcements showed up. The doctor and a woman wouldn't be hard to get by, even in his condition. It was what lay beyond that door that worried him. He'd been this route before. Guards would probably be posted at every door and gate, but he didn't have any other choice.
Fierce agony slammed into his skull as he tried to think and he closed his eyes quickly, swallowing back a cry. Scott knew that once they were well enough to be sent to a prison camp their chances of getting away would be close to nil. They had to make their escape now, despite his fragile health and Johnny's injuries. Had to strike when they didn't expect it, when the number of guards would be few and the element of surprise was on their side. And if he and Johnny died in the attempt, well, he hoped his sibling would understand that death would be better than the hell that awaited them if they stayed. All he needed was a little luck and enough leverage to get them through those gates outside.
Now if he could only get the pounding in his head to shut up and his body to move.
Johnny sank back into the sheets and tried to ignore the renewed agony running the length of his busted leg. He'd consumed enough laudanum to reduce his pain to a dull ache, even drifted off into a somewhat peaceful sleep until Sam decided the splint needed to be loosened. Johnny tried to remain stoic, but with the incessant poking and pushing on his tender leg, not even the drug running through his veins could squelch his suffering.
"Damn it." Johnny hissed before a loud moan took control of his voice. He swore if he'd had his gun within reach Jenkins would be patching himself up. Probably a good idea Murdoch didn't leave his rig with him.
"Shhhh, easy, Johnny. It'll be over soon." He felt the cold sting of a wet cloth against his forehead and stopped himself before slapping Teresa's helping hand away. He'd had just about enough of everyone hovering over him and just wanted to be left alone. Was that too much to ask? Just leave him be. He had a hard enough time being charitable when he was this tired, much less feverish and in this much misery. Not to mention worried.
Mostly he wanted Teresa and Sam to leave him alone with Scott. He'd fallen asleep watching his brother, trying to will him to open his eyes and say he was okay. Truth was Scott's behavior out on the trail had scared the hell out of him. All calm and logical on the surface, but inside that normally rational mind of his, Scott had been anything but lucid. He had gone back to another place, another time. Far from where Johnny felt he could reach him even though, despite their separate histories, for some reason Scott had accepted Johnny's presence in this other place. The fact that Scott didn't even recognize their own father terrified him further and he wondered just how far into that past Scott had retreated. And if he'd gone too far to ever come back?
No. Hell, no. He wouldn't allow himself to even think that. Scott was just hurt, got the sense knocked out of himself during that tumble down the ridge and once he had time to heal up and rest, he'd be fine. He'd laugh and declare how stupid he was to have tried to take on Murdoch and that he'd been lucky the old man didn't break every bone just to teach him a lesson. And of course he'd be all contrite and apologetic for shooting at the vaqueros. And if he didn't remember any of it, well, Johnny would play that by ear. If he didn't think it was something his brother could handle, then the secret would be kept for as long as it needed to be.
Johnny studied his brother carefully, trying to remember if that was the same position he'd been in since he had last looked. Common sense told him his brother needed time, but patience had never been a close companion of Johnny's. He let out an exasperated sigh and closed his eyes. If Scott could just wake up long enough to understand that he was home and safe and there was no need to be afraid or worried, that would be enough for now.
Not that he didn't trust Teresa or Murdoch to watch after Scott, he knew they'd tried. Yet considering Scott's fragile state, well, Johnny couldn't rest properly until he saw for himself. And so far he hadn't been able to get anyone out without another concerned family member or friend coming to sit with him and not one of them would give in to his pleas that he needed to be alone with his brother.
Sharp pains exploded through his leg and he yelled out again in spite of himself as Sam tied off the splint. Johnny gritted his teeth and focused his attention on Scott again as he tried to push aside the frustration and the damn sickening throbbing that now spread throughout his body. He turned his head to see his unconscious brother in the next bed. Like he'd done a hundred times since they'd been brought home. Except this time, this time, Scott's eyes were open.
Johnny blinked hard, hoping it wasn't some hallucination fueled by hope. No, he wasn't dreaming. Johnny recognized the cautious tilt of his head and felt the coiled tension radiating from his brother's still form. Johnny couldn't see the fear in his brother's half-closed eyes, but he knew it was still there.
Johnny caught his breath, afraid any attempt to confront Scott now would turn into a disaster. He'd have to talk to him without anyone else around to interfere, to confuse or terrify his sibling any more than he already appeared.
He vaguely heard Sam and Teresa talking, but his whole being was focused on how he was going to get rid of them both.
"Do you need anything?" Johnny looked up and saw the doctor leaning over him.
"Sam." Johnny whispered and motioned him closer. "Get out of my room."
"Johnny Lancer! You have no. . ."
He could tell Sam was taken aback, but the doctor recovered quickly and let out a soft laugh. "No, it's all right, Teresa. Can't say as I blame him after what we've put him through."
Johnny could feel Teresa's eyes boring through him, but he didn't look her way. Sam patted him on the shoulder.
"Fine, but don't think you've scared me off for good. Get some sleep and I'll be back to check on you and my other model patient in a little while."
Johnny closed his eyes and let his head sink into the feather pillow.
"I know you're in terrible pain, but that's no reason to. . ." Teresa started.
"Teresa." Johnny kept his voice low, knowing she couldn't stay mad at him for long, especially when he felt so incredibly horrible. "Could you bring me some of that soup you made? I think I can probably eat it now."
"I'll send someone to get Maria."
"No, she's probably busy, and I really need you to get Jelly to check on Barranca."
"Johnny, Dr. Jenkins said not to leave either of you alone."
"We'll be all right, no need to bother anybody just to sit with us a few minutes, right?" Johnny could read the quandary on Teresa's face, but he'd long learned how to sweet-talk a woman into just about anything. Surrogate sisters were no different in that respect. "Please?"
"All right, but you stay put and if anything happens, yell. Murdoch's resting in the next room, he'll hear you."
"I promise." Johnny smiled, hoping the pain in his eyes and his growing weakness only enhanced its effect.
Teresa shook her head in mock disgust and disappeared out the door.
Johnny watched her leave, waited until he heard the soft footfalls on the stairs before he said anything. "Scott. They're gone."
Scott turned his head toward Johnny, his eyes now wide and the alarm Johnny had sensed shone in his older brother's gaze.
"It's all right, Scott. We're safe, we're home." Johnny repeated, hoping that Scott was lucid enough to take in his words and understand them this time.
Scott eased himself to a half-sitting position.
The look of determination mingling with the fear on Scott's face set Johnny's heart racing again. He could handle a whole saloon of angry gunfighters without so much as a twitch, but seeing his beloved brother confused and about to do something irrational was scaring the crap out of him. Johnny threw off his blanket and tried to move, but the overwhelming pain stopped him. He could feel the cold sweat of nausea strangling him and he fought to stay conscious.
"Scott, damn it! Listen to me!"
Scott put his finger to his lips and shot Johnny a hard look as he stumbled toward the door and shut it lightly. He locked it, then walked stiffly over to his brother, one arm wrapped protectively against his ribs, as he bent over him. "We've got to get out of here. Can you move?"
Johnny bit back a curse. He hurt, he couldn't stand up, and his brother stood before him, weak and shaky and in a misguided panic. "Scott, it's okay, we're safe. We're home."
Scott's gaze darted from Johnny to the door to the window that looked out onto the courtyard. "This isn't grandfather's house."
"No, it's your house. . . our house. Please remember."
Confusion swirled in Scott's eyes. He paled and grabbed hold of the bed post to steady himself. "We have to leave now, before they come back."
Johnny's heart sank; the delusions his brother had suffered on the trail continued to control him and Johnny could feel his own strength waning against the monsters poisoning Scott's mind. He wanted to shake off the wave of helplessness that came over him but then decided he could use it to his advantage.
"I can't even sit up without passing out, brother. We'll have to wait or you'll have to go without me."
Scott shook his head, distress straining his features as he paced slowly. Johnny cursed the distracting ache in his leg and the laudanum in his system fogging his thoughts. Scott couldn't do this on his own and Johnny knew he wasn't in much of a position to help. "Scott, get some rest, they won't be taking us anywhere for a while. I heard them say so. Just rest and we'll decide what to do tomorrow."
A bump at the door made them both jump as Teresa's high pitched yelp echoed from the other side. A ray of hope erupted in Johnny's soul. She'd get Murdoch, he'd know what to say, know what to do.
Johnny could see Scott's increasing anxiety as he placed himself behind the door, waiting for the inevitable body to burst through. A commotion outside signaled that Teresa had brought help as the door knob turned frantically. "Johnny! What's going on in there?"
Sam's voice. Damn. While the doctor had long been a family friend, Johnny knew that Scott wouldn't recognize him. He needed to see Murdoch, not in the semi-darkness like before, but here, in the light, at home. Please let that be what it takes for Scott to remember.
"Sam! Stay out -- get Murdoch!"
The warning came too late and the door popped inward as Sam rushed inside. Despite Scott's obvious pain, he lunged and grabbed the unsuspecting doctor by the neck and yanked him against his chest. Teresa let out a short scream and Murdoch appeared in the doorway, his eyes wide with concern and confusion.
Johnny struggled upright, still fighting the light-headedness that threatened to send him crashing to the floor. "Scott, no. Let him go, brother."
Scott's chest heaved with exertion, his hand shaking as he pointed toward Murdoch. "Stay back or I'll break his damn neck!"
Murdoch thought he'd wakened to a walking nightmare. The shouts and door banging from the hallway had brought him out of a restless slumber and he immediately made his way to the room where his sons were. The scene before him confused him more than the commotion. Johnny sat up on the bed, his face covered in sweat and his eyes filled with dread. Scott was awake too, standing in the corner with Sam Jenkins' throat pinned in the crook of his elbow. What the hell had happened since he'd left this room?
"Scott?" Murdoch pushed Teresa back into the hallway and walked in slowly. He tried to read his eldest son's expression as he stopped to face him, but those familiar blue eyes were wild, his boy was hurting. . . and terrified.
Murdoch glanced toward Johnny, his heart going out him too as he noticed the pale and stricken face and the heart-wrenching plea in his youngest's eyes. Murdoch understood. Johnny had done everything he knew how to do in the state he was in, now he begged his father to do what he couldn't. He nodded toward Johnny and motioned for him to lie down.
"Talk to me, son." Murdoch turned his attention back to Scott and inched forward. Sam flinched as the grip around his neck tightened.
"My brother and I are leaving. I want a wagon hitched, ammunition, and guns loaded."
Murdoch spoke amiably, trying to treat Scott as a guest and not at all as a prisoner. Hoping to at least calm him, if not trigger his memories. "Don't you think you should stay another day? Give your brother a chance to heal up?"
Murdoch could see the bewilderment on Scott's face as he tried to figure out what was going on. He took a step closer, letting out a deep breath when Scott apparently didn't see the advance.
"Scott, we'll be okay here." Johnny's voice sounded thick and weary to Murdoch's ears, but he welcomed the input. Perhaps Johnny was the key to getting through to his brother.
"John's still very sick, son."
Scott looked at Johnny and back at his father. The confusion and pain etched on his features tore at Murdoch's heart. Still it was better than wrestling him to the ground, holding on with brute strength. Murdoch made up his mind that he would talk to Scott all night before he resorted to physical force to subdue him again. "You look very tired yourself, Scott. You could use some sleep before starting on your way."
Murdoch smiled, trying to impart a calm that he didn't feel. Scott relaxed his grip on the doctor, whether from weakness or resignation, Murdoch didn't know. Sam took the advantage he was given and slipped out of Scott's grasp and stumbled behind Murdoch. Scott straightened as best he could, breathing hard, but standing his ground even without the leverage of a hostage. Murdoch could tell by his posture he was ready to fight if he had to, but the self-assurance Scott usually possessed had been replaced by indecision and bafflement. He had no way of knowing exactly what whirled inside Scott's mind, but whatever it was, Murdoch Lancer was determined to get through to it.
Scott had never been this unsure about himself or his surroundings in his whole life. A part of him knew this man's words were lies, that he was as much a prisoner as he had been at Libby. Yet, Johnny seemed to believe this man, seemed to trust him. And strangely enough, so did Scott, just a little. Just enough to doubt what he thought was the truth. This man before him seemed so familiar. If only he could get past the buzzing in his head that wouldn't let him concentrate. If only this nagging need to escape would let him go long enough to rationalize. He wouldn't leave without his brother, but Johnny did look too sick to move, too sick to run. Yet they couldn't stay here.
The thoughts swirling inside his brain made Scott nauseous and he choked back the bile that threatened to rise in his throat. This is not the time, soldier. Don't let them see your weakness, don't back down.
The big man held out his hand to him, but Scott instinctively backed away and closer to Johnny's bed. "We're leaving, tonight." Scott said with more conviction that he felt.
"Scott." The soft tone echoed in his ear and he glanced at Johnny. "Who am I?"
Scott tried to comprehend Johnny asking such a thing. "What?"
"Am I your brother?"
"And brothers trust each other, right?"
"Johnny. . ."
"And they take care of each other?"
"Do you trust me?"
Scott pressed the heel of his hand tight against his forehead, trying to quell the increasing pain gathering behind his eyes. "More than anyone."
"Then believe me when I tell you we're home. Nobody's coming for us. Nobody's going to take you anywhere."
Scott could feel the pressure building inside his head and spreading into his chest. He did trust his brother, but Johnny had been hurt, he wasn't thinking straight, he didn't know who he was putting his own confidence in. Scott had to look out for him.
"I'd never lie to you, Scott. I'd never let anything hurt you, so please trust me now. We're home."
Scott suddenly realized his own thoughts weren't making a lot of sense. Theories battled back and forth, but the confusion was winning. Johnny's words were the first thing he'd felt secure in since all this started. He couldn't wrap his mind around their meaning, but he was worn out and knew it was time to stop this fight he was waging in his own head and trust his brother's judgment. He nodded, pushing aside the muddled thoughts, making way for only one. He finally made up his mind to put all his faith in Johnny and let his weary body rest.
Murdoch watched with pride as Johnny talked to his brother, his soothing words slicing through the layers of misinformation and incomprehension to get to the soul of what Scott needed. Someone to trust with his burden and someone to hand it over to when it became too much. Murdoch waited, ready to step in when Scott's strength gave out, but he let the brothers have their time without his intrusion. Despite how much he had adored them as unseen children and had grown to respect and love them as adults, they would always share an unbreakable bond that not even their old man could be a party to.
He watched as Scott's confusion dissolved into peaceful resignation, his eyes softening to look at him before they rolled back into his head and his body crumpled. Murdoch crossed the distance in two quick steps and caught Scott easily before he hit the floor. Relief flooded his senses as Murdoch held his son firmly, savoring the feel of his heartbeat against his chest and the silky blond hair between his fingers.
Murdoch reached down to grasp Johnny's arm as he helped his youngest lower himself back onto the mattress. "You did fine, son. Just fine. See, you didn't need me."
"Did, too." Johnny smiled weakly, obviously relieved and exhausted. "Take care of him, would ya?"
Murdoch pulled the blanket over Johnny's chest and let his hand rest on the young man's forehead. "I plan to. Both of you."
With Sam's help, Murdoch lifted his unconscious burden toward the other bed, not eager to break the connection, but realizing he couldn't stand here with Scott in his arms indefinitely. He carefully eased the blond head onto the pillow, lifting the lanky body and long legs across the sheets. Murdoch paused a moment, smoothing the hair out of Scott's eyes and covering him with the discarded blanket.
He pulled the wooden chair between the two beds and planted himself on it. Both his boys within reach if they needed him or if he needed them. No one would convince him or guilt him into leaving while either of his sons lay sick or hurting. He'd been deprived for too long of the right to watch over his sons. His comfort could wait.
Murdoch let out a long sigh of relief as he watched Johnny's eyes drift shut and his breathing even out. It had taken a good hour or so but exhaustion from this last ordeal with Scott and an extra dose of laudanum had won over the excruciating pain and Murdoch sank heavily into the chair.
"He should sleep comfortably for a few hours." Sam said as he pulled the quilt over Johnny's shoulders and moved toward Scott's bed.
"Good." Murdoch studied his youngest son's features, relieved to see the tension lines relaxing as Johnny fell into a healing sleep. He glanced at the doctor, locking eyes with him as he held his palm on Scott's forehead. "How is he?"
"A little warm, nothing to worry about. I need to try and wake him. . ."
Sam's words trailed off but Murdoch knew what he meant. He wanted to make sure Scott could be awakened. He wanted to see if he was merely asleep or unreachable again. Murdoch nodded and stood up. "Let me."
Fear settled in the older man's heart. Fear that Scott couldn't be roused, fear that if he did open his eyes that he might have to restrain him like before. That his own son might never remember him.
Murdoch gripped Scott's shoulder and shook gently. "Scott. Wake up, son."
Scott stirred slightly, a faint moan as he battled back to consciousness.
"That's it. Easy now." Murdoch laid his hand lightly on his eldest's chest. "It's all right."
He held his breath, praying Scott wouldn't be afraid of him anymore. Eyelids strained open and Murdoch smiled as glazed blue eyes locked on him. "How are you feeling, son?"
Scott blinked hard, trying to focus, his eyes roaming and taking in his surroundings. Suddenly he struggled against his father and the blankets pinning him to the bed, trying desperately to sit up.
"Whoa, easy, Scott." Murdoch held him firmly, motioning Sam away as the doctor moved in to help restrain the young man. The last thing Scott needed was to use up his waning strength when Murdoch knew his son wasn't fighting to get away. He was looking for Johnny.
Murdoch wasn't sure how he knew, perhaps some newly-awakened fatherly instinct, but it stood to reason that Scott needed to see his brother. "He's all right, son. Johnny's right here." Murdoch moved so Scott could see Johnny in the next bed. "He's going to be fine, he's just sleeping."
Murdoch could feel the tension release as Scott finally registered his words and the visual proof lying nearby. He eased Scott's head back onto the pillow and laid his hand on his son's chest, hoping his presence would calm the erratic beating beneath his palm. "You're both safe."
Scott watched him cautiously, his eyes drooping heavily as he fought to keep them open. Murdoch stayed close as Sam moved in. "Dr. Jenkins needs to have a quick look at you, all right?"
"I just want to check you over then you can go right back to sleep." Sam said, tentatively looking at Murdoch.
Murdoch figured Sam had every right to be nervous. Although he would have liked to believe Scott wouldn't have harmed the doctor, he knew firsthand the intensity and the uncertainty of trying to rationalize with someone so deep in his own terrifying world. Murdoch would have to remember to thank his old friend for his willingness to stick around and take care of his boys despite the likely danger Scott posed.
Sam apparently had set aside his apprehension, frowning as he reached for Scott's battered hand. A wave of nausea swept through Murdoch as Scott flinched, the memory of what he'd done to his son flooding back as he watched. Sam glanced at him, a mix of sympathy and understanding in his eyes, but he addressed Scott. "You won't be balancing the books anytime soon, but nothing feels too out of place. I'll get Teresa to bring some bandages and get that wrapped up for you."
Murdoch wanted to explain, wanted Scott to know he would have rather cut off his own arm than hurt him. But that confession would only serve his own selfish needs right now and he kept silent, grateful that he hadn't harmed Scott anymore than had been necessary. He'd make sure Scott knew that later, when he'd had a chance to heal and understand. When Murdoch could cope with the gut-wrenching despair he'd felt when he had to inflict those injuries. Instead, he focused on what he could do now.
Murdoch could see the strain on his eldest's face as Sam ran his fingers down his wounded side, felt his body stiffen as the pain grew. Scott remained stoic and on guard, but the wild, stricken look from before was gone.
At long last, the eyes looking to him were those of his son, not a stranger. Their depths still fearful, but Murdoch also recognized the seeds of trust. Without hesitation, Murdoch smiled and reached for him, gently cupping his hand around the crown of Scott's head and entwining his fingers in the damp silkiness of his hair.
"You're doing fine, son."
"Follow my finger with your eyes, Scott." Dr. Jenkins instructed as he moved his index finger slowly in front of his face. Murdoch watched as Scott did as he was told, grateful that the defiance seemed to have disappeared. Yet his passive compliance worried him a little too. As Scott followed Sam's movement to the left, he visibly paled, squeezing his eyes shut, agony written clearly in his facial features as his breathing increased and his body tensed again.
Sam noticed the change too and quickly concluded the exam. "That's good, Scott. Just rest now."
Murdoch pulled the covers over Scott's shoulders. Just as Sam had done for his youngest moments earlier. He smoothed back the hair on Scott's forehead, let his hand linger there as he savored the tender moment that his son probably wouldn't even remember. Seeing his boys like this tore at every fiber and he longed to turn back the clock chiming downstairs to prevent this. But he couldn't change fate. Not from twenty-four hours or twenty-four years ago. All he could do was move forward from where he landed and pray for yet another chance with them both.
"You should take a break, Murdoch."
Sam's request grated on his fragile nerves and he controlled the temptation to snap back at his friend. He'd already made his decision.
"No, Sam. You go downstairs and eat. I'll send for you if the boys need anything, but I'm not leaving them again."
Murdoch jerked awake, the room now dark except for the dim light of the lamp coming from the dresser. He reoriented himself, irritated for having dozed off. Scott's soft groan and the creaking of bedsprings alerted him to the source of his sudden wakefulness. Murdoch twisted quickly, catching Scott's shoulder as his eldest gripped the side of his bed, body convulsing as he tried in vain to vomit.
"It's all right, son." Murdoch said as he sat on the bed, supporting Scott's head. Scott continued to dry heave, his arms hugging his sore ribs with each hitching breath until he folded weakly against the mattress. Murdoch gently rolled him onto his back. "Better?"
Scott nodded slightly, his eyes squeezed tight from the agony behind them. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize." Murdoch patted him lightly on the chest and smiled at his considerate son; even in sickness Scott couldn't help being polite. He retrieved the damp linen draped across the basin and began bathing Scott's sweat-soaked face.
The chime of the grandfather clock downstairs signaled seven o'clock and Murdoch smiled at his son's timing. He knew Sam would wander into the room as he had every hour since he'd arrived. Murdoch appreciated the doctor's dedication and help for the past twenty-four hours, especially with Johnny's fluctuating fever, but Sam's insistence on waking Scott every hour was beginning to annoy. He conceded that Sam had the medical knowledge he was sorely lacking, but each time Scott was roused, he seemed to be in more pain and had a harder time getting back to sleep. Murdoch doubted his son had gotten a solid thirty minutes rest in the last few hours.
The only good sign, according to Sam, was that Scott's memory seemed to be improving. The first few times Murdoch had held his breath as Scott awoke, confusion still evident as the doctor asked him simple questions and he struggled to come up with answers. He knew his name, and Johnny's, but much beyond that taxed his waning strength. Though the last time Sam had prodded him awake Scott rattled off the answers to the previous questions and even identified Jenkins as "the doctor who wouldn't let him sleep." The bit of sarcasm had brought a grin to his old man's face and Murdoch dared hope that, after a long rest, Scott would have no trouble remembering him, the ranch and the time he'd spent here at Lancer. Instead, Murdoch had seen his son's returning memory shift into to an uneasy mix of tossing, groaning and nonsensical mutterings. And now the nausea Sam had predicted.
"Murdoch. Everything all right?"
Sam's presence shook him out of his trance. "I'm not sure. He's more restless, he's in a lot of pain. . ." Murdoch's voice trailed as he focused on his ailing son.
"Is this the first time he's felt sick?"
Murdoch nodded his head. "Yes, but he seems to be getting worse every time he wakes up."
Sam pressed his hand against Scott's forehead. "I hear you've been having a rough time of it. Can you open your eyes for me?" Dr. Jenkins motioned to the water on the nightstand and Murdoch quickly grabbed it as Sam lifted Scott's head off the pillow. Scott grunted softly, but his eyes remained tightly closed as Murdoch tilted the glass to his son's lips.
Scott swallowed hard, his head almost dropping back before Sam released his hold. "Can't shake this. . . stupid. . . headache."
"I suspect it's a whopper, boy. You took a nasty fall." Almost killed you too. Murdoch read the words in his old friend's gaze as he looked up at him and it made his heart skip a beat. "Just try to rest, it'll get better." He said to them both as he lightly gripped his shoulder.
Scott turned onto his side, his breathing growing ragged as he pressed the heel of his hand between his eyes. Murdoch Lancer could weather a lot of hardships, physical pain and emotional torment, but seeing one of his children in distress and being helpless to do anything about it tore his heart out. Yet, Murdoch stood rooted, like a log caught crossways in a gully, the water glass trembling in his grip.
"Isn't there something else you can do for him?" Murdoch turned to face Sam, knowing the answer before the words tumbled from his mouth. His friend had already done what he could, but Scott's misery was becoming unbearable; for both of them.
"I'm afraid I can't give him anything too strong. I'll get Maria to bring up some willow bark tea.That might help ease him enough to sleep." Sam sighed, his frustration showing. "I wish I could do more, but it's just too risky."
Murdoch understood, but that didn't stop the hurting in his heart or his son's head. Rest was the one thing that Scott needed and the main thing that eluded him. "Is he getting worse?" Murdoch almost whispered the question, exhaustion and fear playing with his rationale.
"Head injuries are tricky, Murdoch. In my opinion though, his increased agitation is a sign he's getting better. He's becoming more aware, his brain is trying to sort things out, to remember. . . to heal. Unfortunately now that he's not deeply unconscious, the pain will take over for a while."
"So we're just supposed to let him suffer." The words came out as a statement, not a question, but Murdoch had already decided he wouldn't just sit by and watch.
Sam shook his head, "No, I didn't mean that. Keep him cooled down. The more relaxed you can make him the more he can rest." Dr. Jenkins rinsed out the rag soaking in the basin and handed it to Murdoch. "Here, I want to check on Johnny."
"Thank-you, Sam." Smiling, Murdoch accepted the cloth, then grabbed the chair again and planted himself next to his eldest's bed. Suddenly he felt awkward, tentatively working the wet material between his fingers as he stared at Scott's back. It was one thing to indulge his own need to play father when Scott was unconscious or in immediate danger. Quite another story when he could be pushed away.
Murdoch felt Sam's eyes on him as his hand hovered, knowing he was being petty and stupid and that the doctor of all people wouldn't judge his ineptitude in this case. A low moan shuddered through Scott's body, his breath hitched, and his feet pushed against the mattress as he fought against the pain. Dormant paternal instincts resurfaced and Murdoch let them guide him. He slid one hand around the back of his son's neck, gently rolling him over with the other. "Easy, son. Easy."
He wiped the cloth around Scott's flushed cheeks, across his forehead and up into his already damp hair with the same ease as he'd comforted Johnny earlier. He loved both sons fiercely and equally, but had always found it harder to be physically demonstrative with Scott. Maybe it was because he had known Johnny as a baby, knew that at least he'd spent the first two years of his life knowing the comfort and security of a father's love. While he had no doubt that Harlan loved Scott, he also knew that the old man was hardly the affectionate type and that any display of emotion had probably been squashed. Murdoch told himself he didn't want to disrespect Scott's upbringing in the matter, but truth was he didn't dare risk the refutation. He'd tested the waters soon after his sons arrived, putting an awkward arm around their shoulders, a tentative touch on the back. Johnny seemed to thrive on the attention; Scott seemed accepting enough, but Murdoch could tell he wasn't as accustomed to outward affection. More fatherly regrets to add to his growing list.
Murdoch continued to mop the rag along his son's face and neck, knowing he should cool down the material again, but not daring to break the connection since Scott wasn't pulling away. He could feel the corded muscles of Scott's neck and he began to slowly work out the tension with strong fingers. Again, no resistance, and Murdoch smiled as Scott's features relaxed and he felt his head fall into his touch.
"That's it, rest easy, son." Murdoch continued to wipe Scott's face, his arms aching from the strained position, but determined to stay there for eternity if he had to. He glanced over his shoulder and Sam nodded his approval.
Scott fought against the threatening nausea again as the misery in his skull stretched and snapped in time with his racing heart. He could hear the men talking again, but it hurt too much to make sense of their words or form any coherent thoughts of his own. He'd seen Johnny sleeping across the room; or at least he thought he had. He pressed his fist between his eyes, trying in vain to ease the shattering agony thrumming in his head and just think. Except the pain continued to subdue him, holding him captive until he relented to its power.
He felt himself rolled over like a rag doll and closed his eyes tight against the dizziness and the roiling in his gut, no longer possessing the strength to even throw up if he had to. His mind whirled, his memory settling on another time he'd felt this helpless, this incredibly sick. It was two days before his tenth birthday and he could feel the memory more than he could remember the details. His body burning with fever, his limbs heavy against the damp sheets and pain so intense and draining, he hadn't had the strength to cry.
He remembered the soothing feel of cool linen against his face, caressing his cheeks and smoothing back the matted hair on his forehead. Like now. Large hands cradled his neck, as gentle as those of his nurse so long ago and he reveled in the sense of safety. He'd felt safe back then too. Safe and loved even if grandfather had rarely set foot in his sickroom. Yet, he'd never truly experienced real affection, nor the love that now spread through his pain-wracked brain.
Had Scott not hurt so badly or had the strength to put up the walls he'd maintained his whole life, he might have been able to stifle the emotion leaking from his eyes. Thankfully, a cool cloth washed his heated face again, wiping away the vestiges of this frailty. And with it, the blinding fear that had taken residence in his soul, for how long he didn't know. It didn't matter. Scott welcomed the calm that filled its place.
He believed his brother now. This had to be home.
Johnny was waking up again. The crisp morning air ruffled wayward strands of his hair and he smiled inwardly as sunshine penetrated the room and creased the top of his eyelids. He had long since lost track of the number of times he'd drifted off and then come to awareness in a world of hurt, but was relieved that those occasions had begun to subside. Thankfully, with Sam fixing up his leg and getting his fever down, the pain had become more manageable. He still hurt but, if he didn't move around too much, he could bear it.
And now that Scott finally realized he was home and safe, Johnny was more willing to accept the laudanum that everyone and their mother had been doggedly pouring down his throat the last few days. At least he'd been told it had only been a few days, otherwise he would have sworn he'd been laid up for at least two weeks. Still there wasn't much about laudanum Johnny could stand -- it tasted vile and he hated how thick-headed and fuzzy it made him feel but, with Scott getting better, Johnny was willing to swallow enough of the concoction to take the edge off. He had to admit the stuff was helping and he figured, if nothing else, he owed it to his exhausted father to try and give him one less son to fret over.
Not that Johnny having a restful sleep seemed to make much of a difference to the old man. Unless Teresa's hands had about quadrupled in size and she'd gained a ton of weight since he'd last fallen asleep, Johnny didn't have to turn his head or open his eyes to know his father was right there beside him. Still. Exactly where he'd been when Johnny had last drifted off and where he'd been pretty much since they got home.
Lying flat on his back, stuck in the position in order to accommodate his elevated leg, Johnny had awakened to the unexpected welcome of the sun's rays softly streaming into the room. Since there were times when he still felt more himself outdoors than cooped up inside, it was no wonder that even before the rest of him had woken up, his head had gravitated on its own toward the window opened just a bit. Teresa's thoughtfulness, he presumed.
Neither nature's sunshine nor the unseasonably mild breeze gently stirring the curtains were responsible for the warmth filling Johnny's soul though. That was all his old man's doing. Because he was there. The heavy, big arm resting next to Johnny's belonged to Murdoch and though Johnny Madrid might baulk at the concept of taking comfort in his daddy's presence, Johnny Lancer couldn't deny that he was revelling in it.
Hell, maybe he was going soft but, after what he and his brother had just been through, Johnny planned on taking solace anywhere he could get it. Now that he believed Scott was going to be okay, Johnny didn't have to stay on his guard anymore. And if Madrid was smart, he'd just swallow his pride and shut up about it.
Savoring the softness of the feather-pillow he still considered a luxury, he rolled his head toward his father. A smile quirked his lips as Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. The message of reassurance loud and clear. "Hey," he rasped, the abrasive sound catching him completely off guard. He didn't feel all that bad, considering, and hoped he'd sounded better to his father's ears.
Apparently he must've sounded something awful. The next thing Johnny knew, he was sitting up with more pillows behind his back and drinking blessedly cool water with the aid of ranch-worn hands. He hated how his own hands shook, hated how he needed the help but Johnny refused to fight it -- refused to fight him. They'd all been through hell, one look at the old man's bruised face was all it took to remind Johnny of that. Surely, Murdoch didn't need to go any rounds with Johnny's independence as well.
"Thanks," he said, after finishing his drink. What he really meant was Thank-you for not hurting Scott. For not fighting back. And for coming for us in the first place.
Murdoch's brow lost some of its tension, the bruising seemingly not as stark once his features softened. "Better?"
"Yeah, I'm good," he answered. Hoping the awe he felt at seeing his father in yet another new light wasn't too obvious.
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far," Murdoch answered, an almost playful grin quirking his lips.
Thrown by his father's levity, by the time Johnny worked his jaw closed enough to even consider trying to form an intelligible response, Murdoch had moved on to the seemingly more pressing paternal issues of checking for fever and asking how bad Johnny's leg felt.
Sticking with an old standard, Johnny replied, "It's fine." Glad that Murdoch's response was a more typical raised eyebrow and a throat clearing that telegraphed his displeasure, Johnny chose to change the subject. "How's Scott?"
Those granite features softened again and Johnny watched as Murdoch stood up from his chair and quietly moved the short distance to check more closely on Scott. Though he could basically reach both sons while seated between their beds, Johnny understood and appreciated that Murdoch was giving Scott the once over for his benefit as much as his own. His heart swelled as he watched Murdoch brush his fingers through Scott's hair before resting his hand against his brother's cheek and then his brow. He knew how those same actions had made him feel just moments earlier and Johnny fervently prayed that Scott would soon be aware enough to experience these same emotions.
As Murdoch turned back to Johnny, the openness written all over the older man's face let Johnny know that his prayers would be answered. As soon as Scott was ready. As long as his stubborn and stoic big brother was willing to give an inch, Johnny knew their father would offer up a mile. An offer either of his sons would be fools to refuse.
Nobody knew better than Johnny just how much tragedy could change a person and he could only believe that this near-tragedy had left a huge impact on Murdoch too. Johnny shuddered at the thought of just how horrible the outcome of their accident could have been. It had been devastating enough. They were all damn lucky and Johnny, for one, was not about to look Lady Luck in the eye and then turn away. He damn well wasn't going to turn his old man away either.
He met his father's relieved eyes but still felt the better for hearing Murdoch's assessment of Scott's condition. "He's a little warm but Sam said to expect that. I think he's resting easy now," his words assured.
"Good, he needs it."
"Yes. Yes, he does. As do you, Johnny-my-boy." That disarming, kind smile was back and Johnny couldn't help but marvel at the incongruity between this gentle giant of a man seated once again beside him and the one whose image had been sorely tainted by Maria's fallacies. Her stories had so influenced Johnny that, upon meeting Murdoch Lancer that first turbulent day, he'd found himself feeling inadequate and intimidated for months afterward. Father and son had come a long way since then but this accident had just shortened any distance that remained between them. The gap would soon be bridged and Johnny realized that he truly was ready to do his part and meet the old man in the middle. A little levity always helped.
"Why? You plannin' on entertainin' yourself watchin' me sleep some more?"
"It's what I do."
He couldn't help himself. Shooting a glance toward his brother's bed, Johnny had to confirm with his own eyes that Scott was indeed still there and hadn't somehow made his way over to this bedside in the embodiment of their father. The banter was so comfortable and familiar, Johnny had to wonder at its absence all this time.
Though Murdoch's comment was made in jest, his youngest son realized there was more truth in the statement than even his father was willing to admit. He was vaguely aware of his father's prior periodic late night visits to his room. They'd usually coincided with Johnny's return from a relatively long absence and occurred well after he'd fallen into bed, so Johnny had never really acknowledged them. Wouldn't know what to say if he had, anyway. Hell, half the time he was so damn tired, he wasn't sure if he'd dreamt them or not, hence why he'd never even asked Scott if he'd had the same experience. On the other hand, Johnny definitely had fuzzy memories of his father's bedside vigils after he'd been shot by Pardee. Remembered the awkward, hesitant moments of tenderness that had waned as he'd recovered, gotten stronger and that damn chip had resurfaced. Johnny understood those vigils but didn't quite comprehend the others. Or how Murdoch could be content to just sit here now. Just leave the ranch to Cipriano and Jelly, even though both he and Scott were no longer in danger. For a man who claimed to live and breathe his ranch, he sure didn't seem to be in any hurry to get back to it right now.
Interrupting his thoughts, Murdoch spoke again. "It's something you'll understand some day." Johnny glimpsed at Scott again. Only Scott could read his thoughts this well. Or so he'd thought.
"When's that?" A little unnerved, Johnny hadn't meant for the question to sound so harsh or sceptical.
It didn't seem to faze Murdoch though. "When you become a father." His expression had become more wistful, contemplative and Johnny realized that their conversation was about to turn more serious. Time to meet him half way.
Murdoch smiled then, but it was a sad, almost haunted smile and Johnny suddenly was afraid of where this talk was heading.
"Ah, Johnny. . . Until you experience it, I'm not sure you could imagine the kind of peace watching your child sleep brings you."
Murdoch was right. Johnny couldn't imagine it. His throat was closed tight now, clogged with the reality of knowing Murdoch's breaking voice and words revolved around him. Scott too, of course, but Johnny sensed the old man was talking about the distant past as well as the here and now and Johnny knew he had to be that child who'd been watched over in sleep.
It hurt to believe that, to know that the affection and concern shining in Murdoch's eyes had been deprived from him for twenty years. It hurt that he had no memory of it. "No, I don't suppose I could," he said softly. He didn't think Murdoch was looking for a response but Johnny felt he owed him one anyway. Especially since he was going to ask his father to open up even more. He didn't know where to start though.
His eyes sought out his brother momentarily, seeking strength or courage, he wasn't sure. Scott was still sleeping though and Johnny already knew he needn't be afraid of his father anymore. After all, Murdoch had opened up this door, Johnny was only following him through it.
"Did we. . . Uh, did you. . ." Damn, this was tough though and Murdoch's quiet attentiveness wasn't really helping. Johnny was much better at reacting to his old man than trying to take the lead. Finally, he glanced around the room, seeking -- not for the first time -- some sign that showed him he and his father had spent time in here two decades before. There was none, as always, and Johnny had to wonder if his room, as Teresa called it, had ever truly been his for any length of time. Much to his own surprise, he suddenly blurted, "Was this where you watched me sleep?"
To the old man's credit, he seemed to take the question in stride and answered honestly. "Yes, but not at the beginning. You spent the first few months in our room, in a cradle I'd made for Scott." The wistfulness was back and Johnny sensed his father's sorrow, though the hint of a smile hadn't faltered from his face either. "Back then, when we were just building up our stock, I had to spend from dawn until dusk in the saddle," he went on to explain. "I didn't have as many vaqueros -- couldn't afford them -- so, I worked long, hard days with Paul and the few other men I had." He paused then, the all-too-familiar emotion of regret flitting across his features and Johnny couldn't help but empathize.
"Then I'd have to spend time on the books," Murdoch continued, frustration plain in his voice. "There just weren't enough hours in the day to spend with you both and, to make up for that I kept you in our room as long as I could."
"So, she kicked me out, huh?" Johnny hadn't meant for the bitterness to come forth. Certainly hadn't meant for that flash of guilt to cross his father's face. Hell, he'd intended to lighten the mood but, too many memories of being abandoned by his mother's selfishness had clouded his thoughts.
Murdoch seemed to gather himself though, and then laughed softly. "Well, you might say she kicked us both out."
"Once we moved you in here, the rocking chair I'd bought for Maria came along." This time Murdoch's smile was almost conspiratorial and Johnny was amazed at how much pleasure it gave him to be able to read his father so well right now. "I suspect I spent more time in it with you than your mother did."
"Guess I come by it honestly, then."
"Oh, nothin'." He hadn't realized he'd spoken his thoughts out loud. Still, the closeness he felt to the old man right now wiped away any unease he might feel about saying the wrong thing, even bringing up Madrid. He also realized that, even though his father was being as honest and open as Johnny'd ever dared hope, what Murdoch wasn't saying was every bit as significant. He didn't need any fancy schooling to figure out what had gone on between his parents after he'd been born. Intimately familiar with both their tempers, he could only imagine the wars that went on between them. After all, Murdoch had just admitted to choosing spending time with his little boy over his wife. "Guess she wasn't too pleased about being picked second best, was she?"
Murdoch's face blanched and Johnny instantly regretted his callous words. But before he could apologize for the harshness these thoughts of his mother seemed to inspire, a torrent of words came tumbling from his father's lips. "Oh, Johnny, no, that's not how it was -- not how I felt. I can't deny losing Scott did contribute to me spending more time with you but I never meant for her to feel rejected by that."
Johnny hated the almost desperate tone his father's voice had taken, wanted to quell his guilt. He could imagine that, for most women, their husband's devotion to their child would be a blessing. But Maria Lancer wasn't most women. Johnny had spent half his life with her and he knew first-hand how easily she could twist good intentions into bad; manipulate words and actions to her advantage. He'd always loved her, had always tried to please her but the shoes she demanded he fill were simply too big for a child to wear. He understood that now. It was no wonder his father, a pillar of honor and propriety, couldn't see until it was too late that Maria didn't share his views on motherhood and marriage. "I know, Murdoch." He did, more than his father could ever know.
"But, if I had known Maria would've seen my attentiveness to you as neglect, I would have--"
"What?" Johnny interrupted. "Spent less time with me? Is that what you think I want to hear?"
His father shook his head and Johnny knew he had him trapped. He'd learned a thing or two about manipulation from his mother and, if he kept this up, he'd soon relieve his father of at least some of his guilt. "No. No, I don't think that," Murdoch responded, just as Johnny hoped he would. "And, no, frankly I can't say that I would have cut back on my time with you."
That comforting hand was back once again, lightly patting his wrist. The tenderness of the gesture threw Johnny, thoughts of being in control of this conversation out the window, and suddenly he could feel a telltale sting in his eyes, eyes that threatened to overflow at his father's next words. "I'm afraid I was already smitten with my little boy. . ."
Even if he could bring himself to speak, Johnny had no idea what to say. All he could do was lie there and let his father's words settle over him like the softest quilt. "Murdoch--"
"Perhaps I could have included her more though, maybe we could have worked it out. Maybe she wouldn't have left." The grief was palpable and Johnny couldn't help thinking back to Teresa's words those first days home, after his fight with Scott: When your father wasn't sure whether he'd live or die. . . He kept saying your mother's name, Johnny, asking for her. . . He loved her.
"Murdoch, no," he needed to break through his father's wall of guilt and grief. "She would've left anyway," he whispered, fearful of the damage his words might cause. Their eyes met, his father's seeking answers only Johnny could provide. "She always left, even when things were good."
Johnny closed his eyes, sank back into his pillows with a sigh and soaked up the strength emanating from that warm, rough hand on his wrist. He could do this. He and his father could get through this. "She could never be satisfied, Murdoch. Never. Even when our bellies were full and no-one was there knockin' us around, she'd still just up and move on."
The grip had clenched at those words and Johnny fervently prayed it wouldn't leave. He'd been deprived of this for so long, both of them had. "I'm sorry, son."
"It wasn't your fault, Murdoch. Don't you see? Seemed sometimes like leavin' was all Maria did. I remember this one time when we were stayin' at a boarding house. Senora Chavez, she ran the place and used to take me in sometimes, feed me, and we'd get to talkin' about Maria. She said mama had a restless spirit and it's what drove her to do the things she did. Even called her a tumbleweed, always on the move." Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny added, "Guess that made about as much sense to a ten year old as anything else."
"Do you believe that now?" Johnny could tell Murdoch was walking on eggshells, his voice just above a whisper.
"I dunno," he answered honestly, then added almost apologetically, "After she died, sometimes I'd think about her and wonder if she hadn't been just plain loco. Nothin' she did ever made sense." Worried about his next confession, Johnny locked eyes with his father, finding the strength and compassion to continue. "Once I started makin' a name for myself, I started to think maybe I was just like her. Driftin' from one place to the next. One job to another."
"You don't feel that way anymore?" Johnny could feel the apprehension in Murdoch's grasp, hated that it was still there after all this time. But he understood and was glad to be able to put it to rest.
He laughed softly then, more sure of his answer at this moment than he'd ever been before. "Nah, Murdoch," he smiled, shaking his head at the same time. "I may look like my mother but you just ask Scott or Jelly and they'd be glad to tell ya I've got way too much of my old man in me to be of a mind to leave. Hell, as long as I can cut loose on occasion, you got nothin' to worry about. I plan on stickin' around and growin' roots here deep as yours."
Father and son fell into a companionable silence then, giving each other time to let their revelations sink in. It was tranquil for Johnny, not that uncomfortable quiet that had commonly been found between them whenever Scott wasn't there to play middleman in the early days. Days? Hell, months, he thought remorsefully. This was true contentment though, or at least would be if his body wasn't starting to remind him of how banged up he was.
Though he didn't regret a minute of their talk, he hadn't realized just how much it had taken out of him. God how he hated being this weak. He felt drained, emotionally and physically, and the constant ache of his broken leg was turning into a pulsing throb again. Though he loathed the idea of taking more laudanum, screaming in agony with his father and brother within earshot was far from an appealing alternative. He definitely didn't want to ask for any though. If he did, he'd never get Sam or his family to stop plying him with the god-awful stuff.
Thankfully, the old man saved him the effort. Johnny hadn't even realized his eyes were squeezed shut until he pried them open to the familiar touch that had now found his hair. Rekindled worry was etched in Murdoch's face, hovering just inches from his own. "Bad?"
Instinctive denial battled with a desire to remain truthful with his father. "Getting there," he grimaced, honesty winning this time.
"Well, let's just see what we can do about that," Murdoch spoke with forced merriment, reaching for the bottle of medicine on the bedside table. "Damn, this one's empty." Giving Johnny's chest a reassuring rub, he stood up. "Don't worry, I know where to find more."
"I never worry," Johnny replied, the smile on his face his response to his father's open affection.
"See that you don't, young man. I'll be right back."
"Johnny, you all right?"
As he heard his big brother's voice, Johnny smiled at how its existence could ease the pain better than any concoction ever could. Mindful of his leg, he shifted slightly to get a better look at Scott, almost laughing when he saw his brother mirroring his position. Both of them propped up on their elbows, straining to see each other, merely a few feet away. What a truly sorry pair.
"Yeah, I'm okay."
Most people would probably take one look at Scott and decide he looked terrible. Pale, clammy skin, his face gaunt and pinched from the pain clearly still assaulting his head but, to Johnny, he looked heaven sent. An observation he'd keep to himself however. "You look like hell. How're you feelin'?"
Johnny watched, delighted as the edges of his brother's mouth quirked upward in that smirking little grin. Thank God for the return of the brother he'd left Lancer with before the accident.
"Stiff and sore but better." Scott's answer interrupted his thoughts and Johnny recognized it as the embellishment it was. But then he couldn't really call Scott on it since he was doing significantly more than stretching the truth in his own right. After all, he'd just willingly let Murdoch leave on a search for laudanum. He wondered if Scott knew. Despite the pronounced squint to his eyes, Johnny could tell his brother was scrutinizing him. He wasn't at all surprised then when Scott called his bluff. "Certainly better than you, given our father's current quest."
Johnny's eyes narrowed as he wondered how long his brother had been awake. It didn't upset him that Scott overheard his conversation with Murdoch. On the contrary, it would give him ammunition should Scott baulk at the idea of sharing the same with their father when he was up to it. What irked him though was Scott feigning sleep. Didn't he realize how worried his family was about him? How relieved they were every time he woke up? "Just how long have you been awake, brother?"
He could tell Scott was bristling at his tone, knew his brother was in pain too and didn't need to be chastised. But frankly he wasn't thinking about that right now.
"Long enough. What of it?"
That sure as hell didn't help Johnny's mood.
"Scott, Murdoch's been worried sick about us. About you and you're pretending to be asleep while he's sitting here with his butt glued to this seat!" Shoving the chair for emphasis, Johnny realized immediately, was not a smart gesture on his part. The slight movement jarred his leg, setting it afire again and he buried his face in one of his pillows to keep from screaming. That sickening haze of red and black was working its way to the edges of his vision again but he resolutely refused to pass out. He could hear Scott calling out to him, knew his pain would drive his brother to do something stupid like try to get out of bed. Thrusting his arm out in Scott's general direction, he mumbled into the pillowcase, "Don't you dare."
"Could you repeat that?"
"Say again? Perhaps without a mouthful of down."
"Jackass." Johnny muttered into his pillow, the wave of misery he'd created beginning to ebb. Sometimes it was downright impossible to stay mad at Scott.
"Now that was clear as crystal," Scott answered lightly, but Johnny heard the strain in his voice. Worried, Johnny slowly worked his face from its cotton confines to meet his brother's gaze and understood why. Scott sat upright on the bed, his feet already on the floor, his body swaying unsteadily as he gripped the bedpost. Beads of sweat clung to his face, his pallor now whiter than the sheets and Johnny was about ready to chastise his stubborn fool sibling, but Scott interrupted his thoughts.
"You're right, Johnny."
"About Murdoch. I simply didn't want to intrude."
Keeping up with Scott's disjointed thoughts wasn't easy, but Johnny understood Scott's reasoning. After all, he and Murdoch hadn't exactly been talking about the weather. Still, he wasn't happy with his brother's choice. "Scott, the old man's been through Hell over this and he's still awful worried about you. Me and Murdoch talkin' could 'a waited."
"No, that's where you're mistaken. As Murdoch would say, strike while the iron is hot." Scott wiped away the sweat rolling into his eyes and flashed a pained smile. "And I had no intention of spoiling your chance to get some answers."
"Not this time, Scott." Touched by his brother's thoughtfulness, Johnny wished he had the energy to debate this matter. Unfortunately his pillow was calling to him again.
"What do you mean?"
"This iron ain't gonna cool down," Johnny answered. "Us getting hurt together like this. . . I think it really shook Murdoch up. The door's open, brother. For both of us. All you have to do is be willin' to walk through it."
Johnny's eyelids were rebelling on him but that didn't prevent him from seeing the blend of scepticism and hope in his brother's eyes. He knew Scott wanted answers from their father even more than he did. Johnny also knew he'd get them. If only he could convince Scott.
"I'm happy for you, Johnny. Truly."
Damn. When had his brother become the cynical one? He knew Scott's words were genuine, but why was he so sure he couldn't have the same?
"It's different with Murdoch and me though."
"Simply because my time has passed for this." Johnny hated the despondency in his brother's tone. "Murdoch had the perfect opportunity and he didn't take it." Sadness and frustration permeated the words and Johnny knew he couldn't argue that point, even if he had the strength. "Opportunity knocks but once."
Damn his brother's debating skills. And those quotes. Even with a serious concussion, Scott was going to win this fight. . . if you could call it one. By default, if for no other reason, since Johnny was just about done in. That was okay though. Murdoch was his ace card and Johnny had every faith the old man wouldn't let him down. They both had time to prove Scott wrong, win the war in the end. Time and patience.
Johnny smiled then, at least he thought he did. Maybe he'd at least be able to get in the last word. "Sure, Scott," he sighed, his eyes closed now. "But patience is a virtue."
No answer. His brother had fallen asleep or passed out and though his brother's weakness disturbed Scott, he understood the wounded body's need for rest and was gratified Johnny's was heeding it. If only his mouth hadn't exerted itself so much.
Fighting the increasing dizziness, Scott's thoughts reeled. Not only from the relentless pounding in his skull, but from the surfacing memories from the other night. He'd considered that Murdoch's presence during his bout with sickness might have been a fever-induced dream; a fabrication of his injured mind to soothe and placate his weakened body. Except the same emotions had resurfaced when his father had checked on him earlier. That special mixture of strength and tenderness, not only in his touch, but reflected in his voice, proved how deeply Murdoch cared for them.
Relaxing his arms, he attempted to lean back in the direction of his pillows. He was more than ready to follow Johnny into oblivion, give himself time to rest before trying to absorb Johnny's entreaties. His intent was to ease himself onto the softness but he'd forgotten about his wounded hand until sharp pain buckled his wrist and his hands slipped. He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of thudding back against his mattress, or worse, missing entirely and striking his head against the headboard.
Though the faintness and pain pulsing in his brain were horrendous, salvation from utter agony came in the form of two immense hands, catching him and guiding his descent. Faith in his father's might permitted Scott to relinquish control and he felt his legs being lifted onto the mattress as he was eased back against the pillows propped up against his headboard. As Murdoch carefully glided his hands out from beneath him, Scott belatedly realized he was clinging like a drowning man to his father and that mortified him. Closing his eyes against the perceived weakness and the pain even his father's tender movements had invoked, his squint tightened against the flood of emotions swelling and he drew the heel of his hand to his brow, pressing it against his forehead, desperate to force his misery to converge in that one spot.
The unintentional onslaught on his suddenly fragile psyche continued though as Scott felt the warmth of a blanket carefully covering him before the mattress gave with his father's weight as he settled next to him. They were facing each other though Scott could only sense the man's presence, he dared not open his eyes and expose so much of himself. Those powerful hands were back now, effortlessly prying Scott's own from his brow and replacing the intense pressure with a remarkably light touch, sweeping his bangs away in a soothing, repetitive stroke.
The motion stopped all too soon but before Scott could truly react to the loss, an offer of water was made and accepted and his father's grasp was returned to the back of his neck. Once again supporting him, forcing him -- with an almost lyrical mixture of reproach and encouragement -- to drink sparingly.
"Care to explain yourself, young man?" He'd known the spell would break. Despite Johnny's assurances to the contrary, the gruff, hard man Scott called sir instead of father was back. Somehow Scott felt reassured by that familiarity but, if he was honest with himself, he couldn't deny a sense of deprivation also.
Deep respect for the man before him, combined with years of ingrained obedience to first Harlan Garrett then later his military leaders, prompted Scott's eyes to finally open, albeit not fully. His head did still hurt like hell.
Though Murdoch's voice had carried its usual hard edge, the indulgent smile the man wore was completely unexpected. There was no anger in his expression, at worst exasperation. All Scott could see was concern, compassion and a sympathetic near smirk that, for the first time, gave Scott physical confirmation of his father's and brother's likeness to add to their matching temperaments. There was even a glint in his father's eyes that was all Johnny. Or perhaps forevermore he'd think of it as all Lancer. The thought appealed greatly to him, so much so, he couldn't contain his own smile, particularly as he chose the wording of his response carefully. "It seems my brother over-exerted himself," Scott paused, allowing his father a moment to wipe the look of stupefaction off his face, "and--"
"Your brother over-exerted himself?" The big man cut in disdainfully, shaking his head in disbelief as he went to his younger son's side. Scott watched in fascination as Murdoch tended to Johnny. What was clearly a practiced hand lightly tested for fever, then checked Johnny's splint. In spite of the ever increasing strain on his eyes, Scott refused to close them. He'd seen Murdoch care for Johnny before and had watched the man's heart bleed for his newly returned son after being felled by Pardee's bullet. This was entirely different. This wasn't a grief and guilt filled vigil for a dying boy. Rather, it was the heartfelt love and affection of a parent.
Was this indeed proof that Johnny was right? That fear of losing them both at once had triggered this newly awakened fatherly persona in Murdoch? Or perhaps it had uncovered a long buried one?
Certainly the evidence was there and, for his younger brother's sake, if not for his own, Scott was glad. Though Johnny was far more man than boy, he'd been deprived so long of the kind of security and sense of belonging that only Murdoch could truly offer, Scott knew his brother would thrive on it. Johnny needed to feel wanted more than to feel needed and, if Murdoch was finally willing to tear down the last of his walls and truly welcome his youngest into his heart, Scott was pleased for them both. And if this closeness permitted the unburdening of truths and lies clung to for far too long, well, more power to them.
But for Scott, this new Murdoch left him feeling unsettled, off-kilter and he wasn't certain how he really felt about this change in the man. After all, wasn't he content with the relationship they had? Certainly he was. It was uncanny sometimes how similar their thinking was, their likes and dislikes. They had a good friendship and mutual respect. Truthfully, the only thing that had caused them much strife in their burgeoning relationship had been Murdoch's mishandling of Johnny in the early days and, since that obstacle seemed nearly breached, what more could Scott ask for?
If he was honest with himself though, he had to admit there definitely was the issue of the past and Murdoch never coming for him sooner. But Scott had reconciled with that. After Harlan's calamitous visit, he had resigned himself to the fact that both men shared responsibility and blame. And since neither apparently wanted to provide him with the whole truth, he would simply have to be satisfied with knowing they both were willing to fight for him, even today. Shouldn't that be enough?
Although not happy that Johnny had been forced to succumb to his pain without the laudanum now placed at his bedside, Murdoch was content to see that no signs of agony were marring his features. The soft breaths parting his lips were even, thankfully. Johnny was resting comfortably for now.
He wished he could say the same for his eldest.
The lines now absent from Johnny's face were stark on Scott's, drawn tight around his mouth, his eyes shut tight, wrinkling his brow as he tried to force back the pain with a trembling hand. Murdoch heaved a sigh as he realized the light streaming through the window was evidently hurting Scott's head.
"Scott, for God's sake, why didn't you say something?" He chastised, stepping toward the window and freeing the first of the curtains from the ties holding them open.
"No need," Scott protested. "Johnny likes the window open."
The protest fell on deaf ears. "Johnny is sound asleep," Murdoch asserted, releasing the other curtain's sash and drawing them both closed. "And the minute he wakes up, he's taking his medicine and going right back to sleep." He would have said more but, as their eyes met, his tongue tied at the vision of his blond-haired son -- Catherine's son -- looking back at him. It took his breath away. So much like his mother, even as he appeared now, fatigued and ill. Still regal and elegant, yet so much a part of this earth. Stubborn and strong, yet vulnerable. And as handsome as she was beautiful. He was so damn lucky to have Scott home. He fervently hoped Scott knew how proud and pleased he was that Scott had chosen to stay at Lancer and not return to Boston. Certainly Garrett had blundered in his attempts to take Scott back with him but Murdoch knew full well he'd nearly botched it all too. And he had yet to repair the damage. He would though, just as he'd vowed during their ride home in the wagon. Or at least he would try. As soon as Scott was feeling stronger, they would have the heart-to-heart talk Scott deserved.
"You didn't have to do that." Scott knew he was being stubborn. It was not as though he actually expected his father to suddenly change his mind and tie back the curtains again. He just hated being dismissed so readily like that.
"No, I suppose I didn't," his father agreed, to Scott's surprise. As Murdoch returned to take his seat between the two beds, he continued. "But I can already tell it's helping, son. I can see your eye-color again," he said almost teasingly and then added, much more seriously, "it used to help your mother, too."
"My mother?" Scott knew his astonishment was obvious. If his embarrassingly high-pitched response hadn't made it clear, his resultant wince certainly had. So much for Murdoch being able to see his irises. Pain and mortification had clamped his lids shut.
"Easy, boy. I didn't mean to throw you." Softly spoken words accompanied by that increasingly familiar hand carding through his hair pried them open. He couldn't remember his father ever calling him "boy" before and wondered why in hell it wasn't bothering him.
"I'm all right." He hesitated a moment before asking, "What were you saying about my mother?"
"It's nothing, just, well, you reminded me so much of her just now. . ." Murdoch's voice trailed.
"Oh." Scott couldn't help thinking he'd intruded on a private memory that his father hadn't meant to verbalize. As much as he longed to know more about Catherine Garrett Lancer than the version his grandfather spoon-fed him, he wouldn't push; out of respect and the fact he didn't have the strength anyway.
"I was just remembering how she started to get horrible headaches a couple of months into her pregnancy. She was so excited though, working all day setting up the nursery and trying to get everything ready for you." Murdoch's voice dropped lower, his eyes far away as he continued. "She'd try to hide her pain, keep pushing on until I'd notice her squinting and pressing her hand to her head. Like you've been doing." Murdoch smiled and Scott couldn't help but return it. "You see, I'm not the only parent you got a healthy dose of stubborn from."
Murdoch laughed, his eyes twinkling at his own joke. Fond memories of his first wife had clearly brought forth the warm expression his father wore and Scott felt both relief and satisfaction he hadn't even realized he'd been craving. And with it another flash from the other night surfaced; his father hovering close, the feel of a cool rag smoothing back his hair and wiping away the sweat and the fear. The overwhelming sense of affection that he hadn't dared hope to be real, except he now knew it was.
"Grandfather told me she was fragile." Scott said, excluding the part where Harlan had insisted travelling west with Murdoch was what eventually killed her. Despite what Scott had heard, he had always found it hard to imagine Murdoch Lancer taking such a woman as his wife, no matter how beautiful. Certainly, from what little he had gathered about Maria Lancer, his second wife had been far from frail.
Murdoch's reply was preceded by such an uncharacteristic bark of laughter that Scott could barely contain his surprise. "No, Scott, not at all," he said, shaking his head at the absurdity of the idea. "Son, I can assure you that your mother was hardly the delicate creature Harlan had fabricated in his mind."
At the words delicate creature Scott failed at suppressing his own quiet chuckle. Perhaps, when he was just a boy, Scott had believed that description of Harlan's precious Catherine. But, by the time he'd come of the age to discover for himself and appreciate all the delightful complexities of the fairer sex, he'd found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his grandfather's image of Catherine Garrett with that of a woman willing to leave behind all she'd ever known. To face a journey of hardship and potential peril. And for her to take on the likes of Harlan Garrett and win? She must have not only loved Murdoch Lancer fiercely but been a formidable woman too.
"I take it you've heard that described of your mother before?"
"Yes, I have," he answered. "I was brought up with that image, though sometimes creature was replaced with flower I'm afraid."
Murdoch smiled and dipped his head, meeting Scott's eyes when he straightened. "Scott, your mother was as poised and refined as any woman I've ever known. Harlan wouldn't have had it any other way, I'm sure you know that." Scott's answer was a nod, despite the swirling pressure inside his head, he dared not interrupt his father's flow of words. "But she was as hardy as she was elegant. In fact, it wasn't long after we'd settled here that she took to wearing dungarees instead of dresses, sat astride a horse and would even roll her shirt-sleeves up and help at calving time."
Scott felt his heart swell as he listened to the pride in his father's voice. Murdoch's love for his first wife was so strong, so obvious, that it nearly had its own presence in the room. Even after all these years. The emotions that realization brought forth were overwhelming and he needed to regroup. Fortunately, just thinking about Harlan Garrett's delicate flower ankle deep in cow dung whilst helping to pull a calf gave him the distraction he needed to pull himself together. "Grandfather would have been appalled."
Lightly slapping Scott's covered leg, Murdoch shared in the amusement, an almost conspiratorial gleam in his eyes. "Oh, he was. Catherine loved to write to him about her life out here and then delighted in sharing his replies with me." He sobered suddenly then, grief flashing before his expression softened. Placing a firm grip on Scott's closest arm, he continued. "Son, I honestly don't know why she died when you were born. I've spent twenty-five years beating myself up over it," he sighed. "Sam says it just happens sometimes and I've been around long enough to know that's true. All I can tell you is that I'll go to my grave with the belief that she was as strong a woman as I've known and she took to this life with flying colors. . . Just like her son."
Scott felt himself blushing and lowered his head to hide his satisfied grin. Even if Murdoch never spoke of why he hadn't travelled to Boston to claim him, the wonderful glimpse he'd just been given of his mother was almost enough to pacify him.
"Thank-you, Murdoch." His gratitude was heart-felt.
"I mean it, son. I hope you know how proud I am of what you've accomplished out here."
Scott was certainly thrilled to have earned his father's praise but Murdoch's words were misplaced. "That's kind of you but I was actually thanking you for telling me about my mother."
His father hung his head then and the reaction disturbed Scott greatly. What could he have possibly said wrong?
Murdoch slid the hand that had been resting on Scott's arm down to Scott's own. "Don't thank me for something you've been more than entitled to all along, son."
Scott's thoughts immediately thrust back to the words he'd spoken earlier to his brother: my time has passed for this, Johnny. How wrong he'd been. Scott, of all people, should have known better than to underestimate his brother's instincts.
Johnny Lancer was feeling smug. Just seconds earlier he'd awakened to Scott thanking their father for telling him about Catherine and though he had no idea what they'd discussed specifically, Johnny could hear in his brother's voice that it had done him a world of good.
He had to admit he felt guilty for riding Scott about playing possum earlier though. Johnny was up the same creek now, knowing full well he should let them know he was awake but loathe to interrupt. But, of the three Lancers, propriety meant the least to Johnny so he figured now was about as good a time as any to let his wakefulness be known.
Except Murdoch chose just then to say more.
"I'm glad to hear that, Scott. I know we have a great deal to talk about," he said and Johnny could sense the sincerity in his father's words. Knew the man was trying to make amends, trying to be there for Scott now. Murdoch's voice softened then but Johnny had no trouble hearing the words or feeling the apprehension within them. "Though I think some of it should wait until you're feeling a bit stronger, son. If that's all right with you?"
Johnny tensed, fearful that Scott would interpret Murdoch's reluctance to discuss the most difficult topics right now as an excuse to put off those talks indefinitely. Did Scott know how rough he looked? Did he understand that Murdoch was honestly looking out for him and not making excuses? Dios, Johnny hoped so.
"I'd appreciate that." Scott's words sounded every bit as genuine as the old man's. Gracias, Johnny sighed, releasing the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
"Good, good, I'm glad," Murdoch answered and Johnny almost laughed at the relief he could hear in his father's voice. Hell, he couldn't blame him, he felt the same. He wanted to say something then but again Murdoch beat him to it. "In the meantime, maybe I could tell you boys about growing up in Scotland. . ."
Johnny liked the sound of that and knew his brother would as well. And he could tell his father was looking forward to the possibility too. Hell, the man was obviously just warming up.
". . .Talk to you about your grandparents and aunts and uncles. . . start from the beginning."
Johnny just found his opening.
"You mean back to that prehistoric time Scott's talked about?" Johnny hated how raspy he sounded but at least he had their attention. As Murdoch quickly got up to pour Johnny some water, Scott asked how he was doing. Feeling parched, Johnny accepted his father's offering -- along with his support as his upper body was effortlessly lifted up -- and drained the glass before answering. "Just fine, Boston. I'm all right."
"You'll be better after you take more laudanum."
"Murdoch--" Johnny halted his protest. He really did feel lousy still, his damn leg wouldn't quit throbbing and it had been hours now since he'd had any of the drug. Despite all that, he figured Murdoch looked worse than he did.
The old man was in a good mood but Johnny could tell he was still exhausted. It was no wonder. Forced to contend with nearly losing both his sons, suffering through their pain, nursing them and now spilling his guts about the women he'd loved and lost. And now that Johnny was awake, with his leg pulsing as it was, he didn't think he'd be able to rest easily or go back to sleep without the help of that damn stuff anyway. Murdoch would end up fretting and Johnny didn't want to be responsible for that if he could help it.
So, with Scott surely about done in by now too, them both sleeping would be just what Doc Jenkins would prescribe for Murdoch's well-being. Johnny'd take his medicine. Give his pa a break. "Hell. . . all right," he sighed resignedly.
Murdoch's brow creased in concern. "Johnny?"
"Just hurtin', Murdoch, 'n I know I ain't gonna get back to sleep without it."
"All right then." His father seemed satisfied and proceeded to pour the offensive liquid onto a spoon and feed it to Johnny. The routine was becoming familiar to both of them now as Murdoch gave him some more water to help keep the drug down and once again supported his head and shoulders so that he could swallow it more easily. He then settled Johnny comfortably back onto his bed, the hand cupped at the base of his head lingering just a moment before slipping out from beneath him.
"Thanks," Johnny said wearily, his eyes already closing, giving in to the inevitable.
"We dinosaurs have our uses."
Johnny blinked a heavy lid open, not really trying to fight the lethargy sweeping through him but unwilling to miss out on seeing that new-found warmth and humor softening his father's features just one more time before he fell asleep. "You surely do."
Murdoch stepped into the great room, his eyes seeking out the couch upon which his youngest had been resting a half hour earlier. Concern, sympathy and a definite hint of frustration filled his chest as he made his way further across the floor. Johnny now stood awkwardly behind the grand old desk, leaning heavily against the glass and looking out into the yard. Though his back was turned to his father, Johnny's posture clearly betrayed the weakness that still claimed him.
Clearing his throat to announce his approach, Murdoch took a moment to ponder how he felt about that seemingly insignificant act. There was a time when Johnny would react -- and sadly, usually stiffen -- at his father's presence, practically before Murdoch himself knew he was approaching. Now, his own protective instincts were rising as he realized just how exposed the once formidable presence of Johnny Madrid appeared these days. Though infinitely grateful that Johnny now felt at ease in his father's presence, a part of him -- that part which had fervently resisted admitting his attachment to a boy whose fate had seemed sealed by his gun -- couldn't help but worry if Johnny was getting too complacent. Too comfortable in a world where countless other men believed their own worth could be measured by taking the life of this young man standing before him. Not long ago he would never have believed himself capable of yearning for a remnant of "Madrid" to remain with Johnny. But now he knew better. The accident had reminded Murdoch of just how vulnerable both of his boys could be. Shaking off the bitter irony and foreboding thoughts, Murdoch silently reiterated the vow he'd made since allowing his heart full access to his sons: that, as long as he breathed, he'd protect them. Especially when they were unable to do so themselves.
Walking up directly behind Johnny now, the expression his son wore, reflected in the glass, was inviting and all thoughts of irony and dread evaporated. Johnny was clearly glad to see his old man. Maybe even a little relieved.
Johnny let out a satisfied sigh as he felt his father's presence behind him. Though he'd hoped his irritatingly tight-lipped brother would come to his rescue so he could finally corner him, Murdoch's arrival was far from unwelcome. Minutes earlier, after he'd caught sight of Scott's hasty departure out the front door, Johnny had impulsively hopped over to the windows to see what his brother was up to. That Scott hadn't even stopped to see how he was doing before leaving had irked the hell out of him. Scott's swifter physical recovery had earned him freedom from their sick room days earlier and though Johnny was certainly thrilled that Scott's health had improved, he was still worried about him. He'd been stewing all morning over Scott's distant behavior and near refusal to say more than a passing greeting to anyone in the last few days. Johnny knew his sibling and suspected Scott would put the blame on himself once his memory returned. He'd only hoped that Scott would talk to him, give him a chance to ease his mind before shouldering the responsibility of what had happened on the trail.
However, much to Johnny's dismay, if not his surprise, Scott hadn't returned nor ventured much further than the porch. He just sat there on one of the low adobe walls surrounding the hacienda, gazing out into the yard, his once steaming coffee mug still untouched in his hand. It wasn't the familiar quiet contemplation of the land -- their land -- in his brother's demeanor that Johnny saw. That sensation of wonder or calm that overtook all three men when they viewed their vast holdings. No. There was definitely something wrong. Scott Lancer looked as miserable to Johnny as he supposed he himself looked to the giant of a man softly coming up behind him.
"'Bout time somebody showed up," Johnny grumbled at his father's reflection. Pain, overwhelming fatigue and that niggling concern for Scott inspired the terse words, but his tone remained light, softened by the genuine contentment he felt in having his father's solid presence at his back. The scents of almond-tinged shaving soap intermingled with black coffee comforted him, bringing him a greater sense of safety and security than even the familiarity of his pistol grip could provide.
"I didn't realize one of us was expected," Murdoch answered, equal parts gruffness and humor in his voice. "Besides," a large hand settled on the back of Johnny's neck and squeezed none-too-gently. "If I recall Sam's instructions correctly, your freedom today was contingent on staying on the sofa and keeping your leg elevated."
"Yeah, well, I know. . . I was kinda following Scott." Sensing, rather than seeing, the consternation flit across his father's face, Johnny quickly continued. "I wasn't gonna go outside. Hell," Johnny added with a heavy shrug, "I can't even make it back to the couch."
"And you were hoping Scott would come back in and rescue you?" The grip on his neck loosened, trailed up into his hair for a gentle swipe before settling on his shoulder. Johnny found himself leaning into the warm weight across his back, the pain in his leg subsiding a little, knowing Murdoch was there to support him.
"That was the plan," Johnny answered honestly, craning to look at Murdoch this time, searching for but not finding any hurt or rejection in his father's eyes. "Hopin' he'd come save me from myself, I guess," he added somewhat sheepishly.
"And I suppose leaving your crutches back at the couch was also part of the plan?"
For his father's sake, Johnny lowered his head in mild chagrin. Truth be told, he hadn't been thinking that far ahead. He'd just reacted when he saw Scott walk out the front door, barely getting a chance to call out to him before the heavy door closed leaving Johnny's words to shatter and bounce back to his own ears. Over the last few days, it seemed that the more Scott healed, the more distant he became and, at the sound of that big door closing, Johnny had decided he'd had enough and was ready to confront him. Problem was, after making his way over from the couch to Murdoch's desk, Johnny had to begrudgingly accept that he was in no shape to get into another battle of wills with his brother. Not and stand up at the same time.
His half walk/half hop to the desk had reignited the dynamite residing in his leg that was still sizzling and popping under his skin. He supposed if he'd headed outside, the guaranteed resulting collapse would have gotten Scott's attention but, Johnny was becoming increasingly weary of the pain he'd been bearing. . . he'd have to figure another way to get to Scott. Or get Scott to him. "Hadn't really thought about it," Johnny finally answered, though he knew his father wasn't really looking for a response.
"I think that goes without saying, John." Murdoch was chastising him, maybe even mocking him a little, but Johnny didn't mind. First of all, it was well deserved and secondly, his father's words held no more venom than a newly born foal. Maybe the man was finally mellowing in his old age, but his worry for his former gunhawk son sure wasn't manifesting itself near as loud as it used to.
"Here, let's get you back to the couch." The offer was made mildly enough though Johnny didn't really have much say in the matter. Murdoch already had him tucked in close to his side and maneuvering around the desk. All Johnny could do, much to his dismay, was obey and hang on for the ride. It figured that just when Johnny was finally getting accustomed to Murdoch's bellowing and bluster, accepting it all as the way he showed he cared, he'd go and change tactics. It was just like Johnny had told Scott though, while they were both still laid up in Johnny's room. . . the accident had transformed Murdoch somehow. The casual embrace in which Johnny still found himself was testimony to that fact, just as Murdoch's softer demeanor was. 'Course he had no intention of letting the old man know his son thought he was going soft.
"I'm fine, Murdoch. No need."
"You let me be the judge of that, all right?" Murdoch shook his wrist loose from Johnny's grip and commenced tucking the Indian blanket from the back of the sofa around his son's elevated legs. Despite his seeming relief and relative acquiescence of moments earlier, Murdoch's youngest had switched from complacent to nearly combative in the time they'd made their way to the couch. He knew Johnny was fed up with his own frailty and was fast losing patience with everyone's hovering. It was still difficult for Johnny to accept help, especially from his father, so it really was a miracle that Johnny had been enduring his family's ministrations as well as he had. Murdoch wanted to believe that it wasn't simply necessity driving Johnny's tolerance, though he knew that was part of it. After all, being a survivor meant knowing when to retreat or lay low and knowing which battles to pick. Still, he felt that the fiercely independent young man was actually enjoying his father's attention too. Smiling at that thought and now at the exasperation sparking in those intense blue eyes, Murdoch couldn't resist having some fun at his irritated son's expense. "Besides, this is a parent's prerogative."
"This." Suddenly unable to utter the words as he felt the heat of Johnny's discomfort reflected on his own cheeks, Murdoch could only gesture at his hands as he finished tucking the blanket around Johnny's now rigid form. Still, as embarrassment and ire dueled for supremacy on Johnny's face, the pleasure Murdoch felt in performing such a simple act intermingled with the laughter tickling his throat, and Murdoch ventured forward with his teasing. "There is a way to get out of this, you know."
"Oh, I can think of more than one, old man."
"I'm sure you can." Murdoch chose to ignore the menace in his son's words, preferring to focus only on the quirk on his lips. Johnny would always challenge him, on that he could count. The difference between now and six months ago, was that father and son weren't out to hurt each other. Neither wanted to draw first blood. And they weren't afraid of each other anymore either. And with that new and still blossoming comfort level, came affection, banter and teasing. Now their challenges could even be playful. "Still," he continued, trying to maintain a serious expression. "There is one way to relinquish your position."
"And what's that?" Johnny asked, feigned suspicion now in his tone.
"Why, provide a replacement, of course." Murdoch beamed and then began to chuckle as Johnny's understanding dawned.
"Dios, Murdoch!" Johnny exclaimed, the grin he couldn't contain overriding his mortification. "If you're so all fired up about havin' grandkids to fuss over, go on 'n talk to Scott and just leave me out of it."
At the mention of Scott's name, Murdoch quieted. Though he was loathe to end the revelry he was having with Johnny, the idea of teasing Scott in the same manner seemed so completely and utterly unattainable at this moment, he couldn't maintain his good humor.
"Nothing, Johnny. It's nothing." He knew the minute he spoke, his attempt to placate his son's sudden concern would fail.
"Oh, don't give me that," Johnny replied, proving Murdoch right. "Scott's got you fit to be tied too, huh?"
Murdoch's only answer was a heavy sigh. Running a hand through his thinning hair as he considered his response, he sat down on the table directly across from Johnny. Their eyes met then and he knew he had Johnny's full attention. "I know he's acting very distant these days, John. You know Sam said his head injury, as serious as it was, might cause a change."
"I don't buy that, Murdoch. And neither do you," Johnny added, searing Murdoch with his gaze.
He was right. Murdoch was certain Scott's recent reclusive manner had little to do with his head-wound and much more to do with his memory coming back. Specifically his memories of his brutal encounter with his father at the site of the wagon wreck. Murdoch would give damn near anything to go back in time and erase that memory from their pasts. He was a man of many regrets, most from decades ago, but his latest was clearly that God-awful fight with Scott. "Aah, Johnny, you're right. I'm afraid Scott may be having a hard time dealing with what happened when we found you."
Johnny looked confused and Murdoch couldn't help but wonder just how much this son remembered from that night. His fever had been dangerously high and they hadn't really discussed the events since. Murdoch fervently hoped Johnny had no recollection of his father choking Scott into unconsciousness but doubted either of them would be so lucky.
Johnny's confused expression cleared, quickly overtaken by annoyance. "Havin' a hard time dealing with what? The part where you saved us, or the part where he was willin' to kill or be killed to protect me?"
"Johnny, it's not that simple," Murdoch argued, once again struck by his son's ability to fix onto the heart of a matter. Though in this case, Johnny's perspective of the events that had transpired was too simplified. Too cut and dry. Wasn't it? "More happened up there than you might remember, son."
"Ain't nothin' wrong with my memory, Murdoch," Johnny countered softly.
That tone and the flash of grief that briefly shone in his eyes provided all the proof Murdoch needed that Johnny was all-too-aware of what had happened. Shame filled his heart as he reached out to his son's nearest arm and gently clasped it. "I'm sorry, John."
"You did what you had to do, Murdoch. Hell, you don't have anything to be sorry for any more than--aw, Madre de Dios!" Johnny cursed, sitting up abruptly as he broke from Murdoch's grip and began shouting for his brother.
"Johnny, take it easy," Murdoch implored, grasping and pressing down on his son's shoulder in an effort to keep him in place. "I'll get Scott, just tell me what's wrong."
"What's wrong is there's too damn much Lancer-stubborn goin' on around here, old man, and I'm gonna put an end to it right now," Johnny fairly growled and then promptly yelled out again. "Scott, get in here!"
Scott heaved a heavy sigh. Despite countless prayers of thanks for his brother's survival and that of his own, he simply couldn't shake the despair that overwhelmed him. Though Johnny would remain on crutches for some time yet, Sam had assured the family that his prognosis for the leg was a complete recovery. Scott's restless sibling was going to remain miserable for a while longer but, Johnny would be fine. And Scott knew his own recovery was nothing short of a miracle. His ribs barely twinged at him now and his battered head was healing if not healed. Yes, everything was coming back together just fine.
Even his memory.
He needed a drink. And not the coffee growing cold in his grip.
He knew he was being a coward, hiding from his family, but he couldn't deal with anyone right now. Scott knew Johnny especially had probably figured out what troubled him and knew he wanted to help. . . Scott just couldn't talk about this yet. Hell, he didn't want to think about it at all, not that his mind was cooperating on that subject.
Though the bruises on Murdoch's face were gone and the split in his cheek had healed over, Scott still saw them in vivid detail every time he closed his eyes. How could he have done that? And, more to the point, how could he have not recognized him? The whole incident pained him and, as more of his memory came back in fits and starts, Scott just wanted to find a rock to crawl under and disappear.
He'd been told that his actions that night weren't his fault, and a part of Scott knew logically it was true, but he still couldn't let go of his culpability. As far as he was concerned, he should have recognized his own father no matter how addled his brain or how much he hurt. How could he have remembered Johnny, but not Murdoch?
Admittedly, he had seen similar occurrences in the midst of battle. Rational, strong, courageous men, overcome with terror and pain incited by the scent of blood and sound of death. He'd seen them snap like rotted underbrush and either flee like whimpering children or fight like mad dogs. He'd even witnessed one soldier kill his best friend in the thick of battle and then, horrified, take his own life once he'd regained his senses.
But these men weren't Scott Lancer. Weren't Harlan Garrett's grandson. Or Murdoch Lancer's son.
Scott never thought his own will could be so easily betrayed. Never imagined that he would ever lose himself like that. But he had. And he'd almost killed his own father and a good friend. He couldn't let that go as easily as Sam or Jelly or Johnny told him he should. Scott wasn't sure he would ever be able to get over the devastating visions that plagued his mind. He could still only recall bits and pieces of distorted images from that night, but they, along with what he'd overheard from whispered conversations, were enough. His imagination more than made up for his memory and he cringed at those thoughts.
Scott closed his eyes and let out the breath he'd been holding. How could he expect Murdoch or Johnny to forgive him? What he had done was inexcusable and he couldn't bear to see their looks of pity and forced understanding, so he'd been avoiding them both. Except that wasn't easing his pain and, from his father and brother's frustrated and downright hurt expressions, it certainly wasn't helping them either.
He owed it to them both to confront this failure like a man. To own up to it and at least apologize. Decision made, Scott dumped his tepid drink out over the wall and rose, intent on facing the two men who meant most to him. He paused at the front door, gathering his thoughts, hoping the words forming in his mind could convey what his heart felt. His brother's voice, shouting out his name, forced his hand and Scott found himself in their presence whether he was ready or not.
"What's wrong? What's happened?" Scott rushed into the great room to find Murdoch restraining Johnny from getting up off of the couch.
"I--I'm not sure," Murdoch answered, clearly as unnerved as Scott. "We were just talking and then--"
"I can speak for myself, Murdoch," Johnny interrupted sharply and Scott breathed a sigh of relief as he took in the intact appearance of his brother. Johnny was no longer fighting and simply looked agitated -- not a particularly novel state as of late. "You really wanna know what's wrong?" Johnny barked and Scott sighed. One crisis at a time.
"Of course, Johnny," Scott answered sincerely.
"Good." Johnny relaxed as did Murdoch who released his hold on his youngest and settled back with a grunt upon the coffee-table. Still within easy reach, Scott noted with a hint of amusement. "Sit down. We need to talk."
Scott moved closer, but had every intention of staying on his feet. Regardless of the fact that his brother needed to vent, Scott had a great deal to get off his chest and would just as soon have some space to work it out in. Johnny clearly had other plans. With no small amount of effort and obvious discomfort, Johnny moved his legs, freeing up one end of the sofa and patted the back, unmistakably indicating where Scott was expected to sit. Scott couldn't decide whether to be perturbed over his brother's ploy or admire his deviousness.
He wasn't certain if it was simply surrender or rather his instinctive need to look after his brother, but Scott found himself with a pair of blanket-covered feet now propped against his leg. He was effectively trapped. Jelly was right. . . sometimes he really was a pushover.
Though Murdoch's gaze would not meet Scott's, Johnny's on the other hand was making up for what their father's lacked. Scott could feel its intensity burning into him and one look at Johnny, arms crossed over his chest in a mixture of expectance and impatience, and Scott knew he could no longer avoid this conversation.
Sighing deeply, he nodded in acceptance of Johnny's declaration. "You're absolutely right, brother."
Johnny and Murdoch shared a look Scott couldn't quite decipher. Relief, possibly? Concern? He didn't know where to start, what words he could possibly say to explain his failings.
"Son, you have to know how sorry I am about what happened out there. About what I--"
So intent on his inner struggle, Scott didn't register Murdoch's words breaking the silence in the room. Interrupting him, his own rushed from his lips. "I need to apologize."
A short burst of laughter broke his concentration and Scott shot his brother an unappreciative glare. What possible reason could Johnny have to laugh? Looking to Murdoch for support, he was astonished to see his father's head lowered again but his shoulders were shaking slightly, clearly in amusement. "I hardly see this as a laughing matter," he said, irritated.
It was Johnny who answered. "Oh, trust me, Scott. This is downright hilarious." His opinion emphasized by the light shove his foot gave Scott's thigh. "You two are like peas in a pod."
Bewildered, Scott looked again to Murdoch whose sparkling eyes and almost impish grin now reflected the merriment in Johnny's voice. What had he missed here? Vaguely remembering that Murdoch had started to speak at the same time he had, he wondered if he'd missed the joke. He damn well didn't appreciate being the center of it. Unable to get up, let out his frustrations, he threw his arms open in indignation, then focused on his father. "I see no humor in the fact that I almost killed you."
"Son, I understand your concerns, but you have to accept the fact that you were hurt and all you could focus on was protecting your brother. And I'm damn proud of the way you put Johnny's safety above everything else. Especially knowing how much pain you must have been in."
Scott fidgeted. He wanted to break free from his brother's purposeful imprisonment, but he didn't risk it. Instead he lowered his head, awkwardness flushing his cheeks. "We're all damn lucky I didn't hurt you or Jelly. I'm not finding my lack of judgment and control as forgivable as everyone else seems to suggest."
He still refused to look up and Johnny poked him again with his foot. "Murdoch's right. You did everything you could to look after me and I appreciate it, brother."
Scott shook his head, "But I didn't take care of you. I tried to keep anyone from finding us and I shot at Murdoch, Jelly and then tried to strangle Sam."
"Son, you can't possibly think you're responsible for your actions while you were so hurt."
"That wouldn't have excused anything if I'd killed you." Scott cursed the sudden swell of moisture stinging his eyes and fought to hold it at bay. He'd already been enough of an embarrassment.
"But you didn't. And fortunately you weren't in any shape to force the point." Murdoch's words trailed off as he glanced at Scott's hand. "I have my regrets too, son, but you've got to stop blaming yourself for something you were incapable of controlling."
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes tight. The memory of wrestling Murdoch over the pistol surfaced too quickly and he fought to shove it back.
"Look, I appreciate your understanding. Both of you, but I don't think I'm capable of dismissing my culpability so readily."
Scott felt Murdoch's hands clasp his knees as he leaned closer. "Does that mean you also fault your brother?"
"What?" Bewildered by his father's accusation Scott shifted upright and met the older man's gaze. "That's ridiculous."
"Is it? According to your reasoning he should have been able to defy his injuries and hike up that cliff so he could find us first. Maybe pin you down so you couldn't hinder his rescue."
"That's not the same. . ."
"Why not? You get the sense knocked outta you and expect to get up and just shake it off?" Johnny leaned closer, his voice lowering to a near whisper. "I should 'a been able to get through to you. Make you remember, but I couldn't. I couldn't help you, brother. How do you think that makes me feel?"
Scott didn't want this. Couldn't take Johnny's unwarranted guilt in the face of his own. His heart was racing now and he felt the sweat beading along his hairline and the overwhelming desire to run. Except he was physically and emotionally ensnared between Johnny and his father. They weren't placating him though. Not with words of absolution nor Johnny's own remorse. On the contrary, Scott knew his failings had already been forgiven, ready to be forgotten and shoved aside. He just wished he could forgive himself as easily.
"I hope you can eventually see this from a new perspective." Murdoch patted his knee softly. "Give it some time, son, but know the only one condemning you in this house is you."
Scott swallowed the lump forming in his throat, but didn't dare speak yet. He glanced at Johnny to garner the support he needed before facing their father. And his sibling didn't let him down. Johnny was smiling softly at him, his eyes shining in agreement and Scott felt like a fool for doubting either of them. He looked into his father's sincere blue gaze and managed a slight smile. "Thank-you. I'll try."
Murdoch's gaze softened, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he grinned broadly. "Glad to hear it. Oh, but Scott? Just make sure that's the last time you try and take on your old man." His voice held an underlying tone of seriousness, but his words were not harsh.
"Yeah, Scott, I figured if you ever had the lack of sense to take on Murdoch, we'd be scraping you off the rocks with one of Maria's spatulas." Johnny laughed, but Scott could see the concern lingering in his sibling's eyes.
"I'll try and remember that, sir." Scott said, turning back to Murdoch with a slight grin on his lips.
"Good." Murdoch stood up. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a ranch to run."
Scott watched Murdoch until he disappeared through the doorway, knowing Johnny had something more to say. He suspected their father knew it too. He could feel the intensity of his brother's stare and smirked slightly as he turned to face him.
Johnny stretched and planted his splinted leg on top of Scott's thigh. "Comfortable?" Scott asked with mock irritation. Scott really didn't feel cornered anymore, actually didn't mind the extra weight resting on his lap. It was nothing compared to the weight that had been lifted from his heart.
And he no longer had any desire to avoid his family.
"All I need is a brandy and a slice of Teresa's apple pie and I'll be set." Johnny joked, settling his head into his pillow.
"No tequila? Careful, brother. You're starting to sound like Murdoch."
Johnny snorted and rolled his eyes before his expression turned serious. "I meant what I said before, Scott. "'Bout thanking you."
Scott dipped his head, unnerved by the praise. "I should be apologizing, not listening to you heap praise on me for something I didn't do."
"All I know is that I saw my brother fighting with everything he had to keep me safe. To get me out of there alive." Johnny nudged him again, his voice barely above a whisper. "And Scott. . ."
Scott faced his brother. "I saw him ready to die to keep me out of the same hell he'd already been through."
Johnny's eyes glistened with understanding and acceptance and Scott's breath caught in his throat with realization. His brother had apparently not only figured out the demons Scott had been battling on that ridge, but understood the torment they'd caused.
"I know what you did out there. More than any man could be expected to do under the circumstances. And I'd appreciate it if you'd just accept my thanks before I'm inclined to put another knot on that hard head and knock some sense into you."
The words hung between them, Johnny's request simple and incredibly difficult at the same time. Despite Johnny's argument, Scott could still feel that familiar twang of guilt, that knowledge that his brother was here and alive not so much because of him but in spite of him. Yet, Johnny believed, or wanted to believe, Scott had saved him, and maybe it was partially true. Maybe they had saved each other.
Scott extended his hand and Johnny shook it vigorously before releasing his grip.
He wanted to thank Johnny for understanding, for keeping him grounded in those hours when he didn't have the ability to do it himself, but his voice remained mute. The silence echoed throughout the great room, but Scott didn't mind. The previous awkwardness had dissipated like the remnants of a bad dream and settled into a peaceful quiet. No words were necessary because Scott knew, without a doubt, that his brother could read the gratitude mirrored in his eyes.
Johnny grinned and jabbed him again with his foot. "So, I reckon that means you don't regret saving me?"
"Not at all, Johnny," Scott answered, light laughter escaping his lips as he shifted Johnny's legs and stood up. "Kick me again, though and I might be forced to reconsider."
Johnny feigned indignation as he readjusted the covers.
"I'll see if Teresa can whip you up some apple pie, we'll save the brandy for after dinner." Scott teased as he started for the kitchen.
Scott turned back toward his brother. "Something else you need?"
Johnny shook his head. "Nah, just wanted to say thanks. . . for not forgetting who I was out there." The light tone of his voice belied the dead-serious reflection in his eyes.
Scott felt his cheeks flush, but he met Johnny's gaze. He smiled, his voice straining slightly above a whisper. "Brother, you're a rather hard man to forget."
PART 9 - Epilogue
Murdoch massaged his aching back as he dropped to the ground, bemoaning that the buckboard ride to Maria's seemed to take longer every time he made the trip. There was a time when he'd barely noticed the distance. The Lancer fiesta had finally come to pass and Maria had done more than her share of the cooking and serving despite everyone's vehement objections. He knew that she and the other workers always looked forward to the party, but this year it had been even more special for everyone. . . held in celebration of the survival and recovery of Scott and Johnny. Murdoch had put off holding it until he -- and more importantly Sam -- had felt his sons were well enough to join in the festivities. At this thought a flit of parental worry entered his mind as he remembered how worn out they'd seemed when he finally called an end to the gathering, though neither of them would admit it. Scott had issued a mild objection to Murdoch's decision to take their exhausted cook back home tonight instead of in the morning, but relented when Murdoch insisted she wouldn't get any rest if she stayed at Lancer. Now his weariness and the stiffness in his bones made him almost regret his decision.
Stepping into the foyer, he quietly closed the door behind him, not yet wanting to alert his family he was home. Though he'd left before the festivities had wound down completely, it was still very late so it was conceivable that either or both of his sons had already gone to bed.
Shucking his coat off his shoulders; his hat and holster soon followed and were neatly hung up next to those of his sons. Murdoch smiled. It never ceased to amaze him how just the sight of his sons' belongings, in their rightful place next to his own, brought him such contentment. As did the light laughter he now heard emanating from the family room.
Soundlessly he made his way toward the room, leaning a shoulder against the jamb, his arms crossed comfortably in front of him as he took in the scene before him.
Jelly and Scott sat facing each other, both hunched over the chessboard on the floor in front of the hearth. By the light of the fire and the lamps softly illuminating the room, one would never have guessed how seriously hurt Scott had been. How close Murdoch had come to losing him -- again. But here he was, whole and hale. And home. The bruises marring his handsome face and lithe body were long gone; the bandages encircling his head just a haunting memory. Though Murdoch knew his older son still had weight to regain and his pallor could use more time spent in the sun, the young man currently tormenting Jelly with repeated false moves of his rook, was all Scott Lancer. In body and mind, and Murdoch would forever be grateful.
Murdoch smiled warmly then turned his attention to his younger son; sitting on the sofa, his splinted leg awkwardly thrust to the side. Yet he seemed the picture of relaxation as he softly played the chords of a vaguely familiar Spanish tune on his guitar. Though Murdoch had no idea where the instrument had come from, he'd become infinitely grateful for its presence. It was an ideal distraction for a restless young man convalescing from severe injuries. At first, Johnny had clearly been reluctant to let anyone other than Scott hear him play, often setting the guitar down beside him the moment his father walked in the room. Over time though, perhaps as his confidence with the instrument grew, Johnny would continue to play. And though Murdoch realized he was far from ready for a solo concierto, the hours his son had spent honing this new talent had definitely paid off. Something his elder brother was doggedly determined would not go to his head.
"Give it up, Johnny, you'll never master it." Murdoch caught the wink Scott sent Jelly's way and smiled fondly.
"Better go 'n rinse out your ears, Scott. You're obviously not hearin' right." Johnny's strumming never waned.
"There's nothing at all wrong with my hearing, brother," Scott said smugly. "Though I am beginning to question yours. . ."
"Jealousy just don't become ya, Boston."
"Jealousy. . .?"
"Jes' you leave 'im be, Scott," Jelly chimed in, effectively cutting off the rest of Scott's retort. "Least ways he's keepin' the night critters away from the herd."
"Hey!" Johnny's indignation was tempered by the grin he wore and the fact that his playing only grew louder. Despite the lack of intended sting in any of the words being bandied about, Murdoch was sorely tempted to step in, unable to rein in the paternal instincts that had been released for all eternity. With Johnny still bearing evidence of his wounds, Murdoch's compulsion to come to the defense of his weakest child was now as natural as breathing. He needn't have bothered though, ever loyal to her latest patient, whichever brother that might be, Teresa beat him to it.
"Oh, that's not true and you both know it!" She scolded. "Why Johnny plays just beautifully."
Before another round of teasing could start, Murdoch decided to make his presence known. "I wouldn't go that far, but it sounded quite pleasant to me."
"Murdoch!" The delight in their combined greeting sent tendrils of warmth throughout his tired body. He didn't think it possible to feel any more welcome in his own home. Teresa quickly set down the stack of dishes she'd been gathering and found her way under his arm. Scott stood, pausing briefly to checkmate a flustered Jelly, before crossing the room to pour his father a drink.
"I see the party still hasn't finished." Murdoch said. "I would have thought you'd all be asleep by the time I got back."
"Oh, don't let them fool you. We were waiting up for you." Teresa confessed.
"I have no idea what she's talking about." Scott said, handing Murdoch a snifter of brandy.
"Just makin' sure you made it home." Johnny said, the irony not lost on Murdoch. "So, you gonna make me get my own drink, brother?" Johnny teased as he fumbled with his crutches, both feet now on the floor in an obvious effort to join the impromptu family reunion.
"Stay put!" His protectiveness came through more harshly than intended and Murdoch could have groaned at the flash of temper that crossed Johnny's face. Murdoch softened his voice in an effort to make amends. "Please don't get up, Johnny. Let Scott get it."
Brilliant blue eyes met his then and Murdoch felt himself being pulled into a familiar clash of wills he had no desire to partake in. Before he could try to break the stalemate though, much to his relief, a crack appeared in Johnny's mask. Softening his expression, the dark head dipped and, when father and son made eye contact a second time, those sapphires were dancing and a warm grin was spreading across Johnny's face. "You sure do make a lot 'a noise."
Murdoch knew the smile overtaking his own face mirrored Johnny's and he couldn't refuse taking the playful bait. "Just trying to get your attention, boy."
"No need to try so hard, old man," Johnny drawled, his lips still quirking with good humor. "In case you didn't know it, you're kinda hard to miss."
Scott's bark of laughter triggered one of his own and Murdoch shared a smile with his eldest before Scott made his way back to the bar.
"Now, that definitely calls for another drink," Scott said as he topped up his glass and filled another for Johnny. Reaching for a third snifter, he gestured toward Jelly. "Are you joining us?"
"Uh, none for me, Scott," Jelly replied, then turned his attention to a puzzled Murdoch. "I'm gonna go n' stable that ole black, Boss. Then, I think I'll call it a night."
"No need, Jelly. Emilio has him."
Jelly was shaking his head even before Murdoch finished speaking. "Naw, that Emilio means well but, I swear. . . there are days where he don't know which end needs feedin', so I think I better jes go 'n give him a see to."
Murdoch would have argued further but he could read the determined set of his friend's jaw, saw the insistence and emotion in his eyes and knew immediately that Jelly's reluctance to join them was his gift to Murdoch. The gift of spending a quiet moment with his sons after the day's celebrations. "You're a good friend, Jelly."
Seemingly flustered for a moment, Jelly recovered quickly. "That's what I keep tellin' ya." Hooking his thumbs around his braces, he puffed out his chest and Murdoch could have laughed as the image of Dewdrop strutting around the estancia suddenly came to mind. "And dontcha forget it," the bewhiskered little man continued, and then left the room and headed out for the night.
"Don't you worry, Jelly. We never will," a beaming Teresa called after him. "Sweet dreams," she added as the others wished Jelly a good night.
"Not that he'd ever let us forget it," Scott smirked, as he made his way to Johnny and handed him his drink.
"Nor should we," Murdoch said, receiving a nod of agreement and understanding from his elder son. They raised their glasses in unison, in a silent toast to their friend.
The solemn moment was quickly broken by his ever-vigilant ward. "Come, sit down, Murdoch," Teresa insisted, steering him toward his chair. "You must be exhausted and I bet you haven't eaten anything since this afternoon, have you?"
"I'm fine, honey."
"Oh, nonsense," she insisted. "Let me just heat something up for you, it won't take a minute." Murdoch decided retreat was his only option. Squeezing her hand affectionately, he uttered his thanks and watched her hurry off back to the kitchen.
Taking a sip of his brandy, Murdoch finally turned to his boys, Johnny's legs once again raised on the couch and Scott, half sitting/half leaning casually against the armrest. Unsurprisingly, they were both doing their damnedest to contain their grins but when they dared look at each other, laughter followed and though Murdoch tried to present a serious front, his own mouth quirked up on its own accord.
Addressing his brother, Johnny said, "Remind me sometime to talk to Teresa would ya? Get some pointers on how to bend six foot five to my will like that."
"You'll have to get in line, Johnny."
Murdoch chuckled lightly. "It's nothing your mother hadn't mastered when she was Teresa's age, Scott," he added, the memory adding a softness to his voice. Turning to Johnny, he continued. "Maria, I'm afraid, was too much of a whirlwind to practice the art of subtle persuasion--"
Scott coughed then, words akin to "little brother comes by it honestly" tumbling out under his breath after his gasps subsided.
"Oh, you think so?" Johnny lifted a brow and then, wearing an expression of pure mischief, shoved his sibling with his good leg, nearly hard enough to supplant Scott from his perch. But, with the grace and balance of a cavalryman, Scott not only managed to retain his seat but also salvaged the brandy precariously lapping the lip of his glass. Seeking a less hazardous position, Scott expertly looped his free arm around Johnny's ankles and moved his legs aside so he could sit squarely on the couch.
Murdoch watched in amusement as Johnny grunted at the mistreatment then shifted to allow Scott more room. Crossing his arms and settling them atop his chest, he exhaled an affronted huff and met his father's gaze. "Help me out here, Murdoch. Before I'm roped and branded too."
Their eyes still connected, Murdoch read a hint of apology there. No doubt concerned that their antics had interrupted Murdoch's momentum and that the opportunity to talk about Catherine had been lost. Before the accident that nearly cost him both sons, he might have retreated, allowed the distraction. Hell, if he was being honest with himself he'd have to admit the opportunity wouldn't have arisen at all.
But this was now. He wasn't hiding from them any longer. Though the Lancer ranch was a significant inheritance to pass on to his boys, he knew they deserved so much more. And the memories of their mothers were high atop that list.
Settling back into his chair, Murdoch smiled at Johnny, sending him a brief nod of understanding and acceptance. "Sure, John. Now what was I saying?" He paused, sorting his thoughts and settling on one of his most cherished memories of Catherine and her determination to participate in the first roundup at Lancer.
Just minutes into the story, Johnny's eyes began to droop, his still healing body unable to ignore the call for rest. And although Scott should have been just as exhausted, his eyes danced in the firelight as Murdoch recalled his mother's participation in the early days of the estancia. As more images of his first wife resurfaced Murdoch no longer felt the urge to push them back into the recesses of his mind where they'd been hidden away for so long. He let himself remember. For Scott's sake at first, but as the words flowed from his lips, the pictures came to life again. And, as he looked into the eyes of his son, he could see Catherine's smile, and felt the warmth of her touch on his shoulder. Goosebumps rose on his arms as he imagined her watching over them now and his voice ebbed into a quiet stillness.
Scott seemed lost in his own thoughts, the empty glass dangling from his fingers as he smiled, his gaze glued to the waning fire. Murdoch had so much more to say, but he didn't want to overwhelm Scott; or his own emerging emotions. There would be other times, other nights after dinner with just his boys and he would share similar stories with both of them.
Murdoch took the last swig of his drink, his eyes moving from Scott to Johnny. He smiled at the sight of his younger son; softly snoring, his body sprawled loosely across the pillows, one foot in his brother's lap, the other pressing Scott against the arm of the sofa.
Oblivious and unconcerned with his surroundings.
It wasn't just exhaustion from the day's activities or contentment in the aftermath its success. Johnny's peace came from some place deeper, the feeling of family, home and safety that he'd been deprived of for far too long. And Murdoch was so grateful to have been able to finally provide it for him.
But, if he was being honest with himself, Murdoch would have to admit that Johnny's sense of sanctuary came in large part from the young man wedged in beside him. The only evidence that Scott had even been aware of his predicament was that he'd absently removed the Indian blanket from the back of the couch to drape over Johnny while Murdoch had still been talking. The gesture spawning only a shrug and quirked lips when meeting his father's amused gaze.
Two brothers, so comfortable now in each others presence.
A contented sigh escaped Murdoch's lips; he was damn lucky to get a second chance with his sons. The time he'd spent sitting between them, watching over them and listening to their quiet breaths during their recovery had sealed that gratitude and finally started to push aside the guilt. As heartbreaking as losing them now would have been, never having known them at all would have been even more tragic. It had taken a few months after they'd returned home before Murdoch had allowed himself to realize how much he'd almost lost. His firstborn could have grown into a bitter and spiteful image of Harlan or been killed in battle or in that God-forsaken prison camp without ever knowing how much his father longed to know him or how much he loved him sight unseen. And Johnny. Murdoch was still haunted knowing how close he'd come to losing his boy to that firing squad; or the countless times before that. How close his child had been to dying without knowing he'd never been abandoned or forgotten.
The chime of the grandfather clock shook them out of their trances and Scott softly slapped Johnny's knee to awaken him. "Time to go to bed, brother. Lord knows you could use the beauty sleep."
Murdoch grinned as he watched Scott struggle to his feet, extending a hand to help his brother off the couch. Yes, the fates had certainly been kind to him, but more importantly they'd allowed his boys to survive their pasts and find each other.
It had taken two decades to bring back the family he'd lost, but they were together now, safe and whole despite their recent brush with tragedy. Testament to their resilience, with each trial Lancers grew stronger. . . in spirit and in their bond. Like steel forged from fire.
This story is dedicated to Annie and Tucker, beloved pets who spent hours keeping company with us during the writing of this story but sadly crossed over the Rainbow Bridge before we were able to see it through with them to the end. They will remain in our hearts forevermore.