“You know, Johnny,” Scott grinned, “Murdoch would have our hides if he could see us now.”
The Lancer brothers rested beneath the gnarled branches of an old oak tree, covering more than a quarter acre. A pile of ripe apples sat between them.
Johnny had shucked his shirt and used it as a pillow, breathing in the sweet smell of the fruit and the easy camaraderie between brothers.
Johnny laughed, biting into his third ripe apple, “Murdoch just plain forgot how to have fun,” he drawled. “Ya know, one of these days we ought’ a kidnap our old man and hog tie him to a tree just like this and make him eat apples and drink cool spring water all day until he busts a gut.”
“Johnny, have I ever told you, you have a knack for the spoken word?” Scott chortled.
Johnny ignored the friendly jibe. “I tell ya, Boston, their ain’t nothing finer in this world than a lazy summer afternoon like this…” Scott had to agree. What could be finer than the sun glinting through the tangle of heavy branches overhead, the soft buzz of insects floating on the light breeze that tugged at his hair? This was the closest anyone could get to paradise on God’s green earth.
“He might not take too kindly to the idea.” Scott mused, closing his eyes, letting the warm shade lull him into contentment.
“At first,” Johnny said, his words slurring as his drawl lengthened, “but even the great Murdoch Lancer would be no match for a day like today.”
“And the fence?” Scott asked, not really concerned. “What about the fence we’re supposed to finish this afternoon?”
Neither brother felt compelled to look back at the fence posts lying on the ground or the roll of barbed wire waiting for their return.
“Seems ta me there’s always tomorrow.” Johnny threw the apple core away and pulled his hat low over his eyes. “We get up a couple hours early tomorrow morning and be done before lunch.”
“Let’s not talk about tomorrow, little brother, let’s just think about the here and now. The consequences be dammed.”
“I knew there was a reason I liked you, Boston.” Johnny grinned beneath his hat. He stretched out and let the warm breeze caress his bare chest. These were the days he had lived a life time for. The comfortable banter between brothers, the feeling of belonging. If all the hell he had been through in his lifetime led up to this moment…then it was all worth it.
Scott closed his eyes…this was a moment in time that he would carry with him for a lifetime. Complete peace. Not a care in the world. He felt himself slip away into contented sleep.
Scott awoke to the lazy sounds of summer. He had forgotten the feeling of waking up to the soft chirping of cicadas in the trees and the light breeze tugging at his hair. He smiled as he heard Johnny snoring softly.
Johnny’s idea proved to be too much of a good thing. He checked his pocket watch and found that they had been sleeping for three hours. Returning in the morning to finish the fence before noon seemed impossible now. Murdoch would know that they had sluffed off. He could hear the old man’s words roaring in his ears…”You two are part owners of this ranch…whether you like it or not, you are the boss, and it is your duty to set an example…not sleeping the day away under an oak tree!”
Scott chuckled to himself, even Murdoch’s tirade was worth this moment of bliss.
He climbed to his feet, deciding to let Johnny sleep a little longer. Sleep did not come easy to the ex-gunfighter. He knew his brother still had nightmares that woke him during the night. He hoped that some day Johnny would share those dreams…let his family help him through the dark times.
But for the moment there was nothing dark or foreboding. Just a lazy summer afternoon.
He walked over to the horses, trying to banish the sleep from his brain. He would take them down to the creek to drink their fill then wake Johnny.
Suddenly a loud crack, like a rifle shot, pierced Scott’s eardrums, startling him. Instinctively he drew his gun, flinging himself to the ground for protection in the tall grass, searching for the attacker.
He looked toward the tree to see if Johnny had spotted anything.
As if in slow motion, he saw a huge limb of the old oak tree still quivering as it settled its massive tangle of branches on the ground. Where there was once shade, a gaping hole opened up for the hot sunlight to flood in. Right where Johnny had been lying.
With a feeling of utter disbelief, Scott stood frozen to the spot. His brain refused to accept what he saw. The horses pulled at their tethers, frightened by the sound and the scent of Scott’s fear in the air.
Before he could completely come to his senses, he heard another ear splitting crack and another branch started shaking violently, slowly tearing away from the trunk. It crashed like thunder atop the first branch.
A small piece of bark still remained on the trunk, keeping the second limb from completely breaking free of the tree. When that bark gave way, the full weight of both limbs would crush Johnny to death…if he was still alive.
“Johnny!” he yelled, shocked out of his haze of disbelief, running back and forth, trying to find a way through the tangle of branches and leaves. “Johnny…answer me!”
Silence. Even the insects seemed to be holding their breath.
He tried to gage where Johnny had been laying. With a sinking feeling in his stomach he realized the bulk of the branch covered the ground where his brother had laid.
He spent another ten minutes anxiously trying to spot Johnny beneath the criss cross of branches. Wasted time, he cursed to himself.
He loathed the thought of leaving Johnny lying beneath the tree, helpless and alone. But he couldn’t do a thing. He needed help.
“Johnny,” he called, “if you can hear me, I’m going for help. I’ll be back as fast as I can…I promise.”
Scott ran for the horses vaulting onto Charlemagne. Barranca whinnied nervously, watching horse and rider gallop away. He whinnied once again, waiting for Johnny to come for him.
Johnny’s first thought was that somehow Barranca had stumbled and rolled over on him.
There wasn’t an inch of his body that wasn’t throbbing from the heavy weight. He listened closely, trying to hear the heartbeat of his beloved horse. But there was only the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
His heart sank. No…not Barranca.
Damn, he wished he could remember where he was headed. But his mind could not focus on anything else but the growing number of aches and pains.
He tried to sort them out, figure out just how bad hurt he was. He’d seen men die or crippled for life after a horse rolled on them. He tried to push the thought away.
Then he felt something warm trickling down his forehead to pool in his right eye. Something sharp was poking him in the neck, just below his chin, he could feel the warm trickle of blood there too. Instinctively, he tried to brush the sharp object away from his neck and wipe the blood from his eye, but found he couldn’t move either arm. His arms and shoulders were trapped, even his left hand was pinned against the ground by something painfully heavy.
Along with the weight of the horse lying across his chest, making it almost impossible to take a breath, he felt something, pointed, digging into his side.
That didn’t make any sense to his confused mind, and the first traces of panic teased his heart into beating faster.
Taking a shallow breath, because that was all the horse would allow, he tried to swallow back the fear that was steadily creeping over him. He had survived up until now by not panicking…by taking things slow and easy…
First he had to open his eyes…correction… eye, so he could see how much of him was covered by the horse. He purposefully avoided the name Barranca…that made the ordeal all the more painful and tragic. For now, it was just a horse.
To his surprise and relief, he did not find Barranca draped over him, instead he saw a mass of tangled tree branches and leaves. Sunlight peeked between the leaves as they fluttered in the light breeze.
He tried to move and found that there was not an inch of his body that was not pinned in some way under the branches.
There was no way he could get free…not by himself. He needed help. Then he suddenly remembered. The warm summer afternoon, his belly full of sweet apples, Scott lying a few feet away, snoring lightly.
“Scott!” he yelled, but the name strangled in his throat as a sharp pain streaked across his chest, causing a coughing fit that shook the limbs around him. He heard a loud snap, and the limbs settled, pushing harder against his chest. The pointed object pressing against his waist, which he now knew was a tree branch, finally poked through his skin. Strangely, it was less painful now that the pressure was gone. In its place he felt the hot trickle of blood slowly make its path to the center of his back.
But the pain was secondary to the fear that Scott was trapped somewhere near him.
“Scott?” he called softly, feeling tightness in his lungs. “Scott…can you hear me?”
He listened, for the sound of a breath, for a simple word…nothing. Behind him, near the unfinished fence, he heard
Barranca’s worried nicker. Where was Charlemagne? Had Scott gone off for help? Or had he just left him sleeping here, figuring when he awoke he would make his way back to the ranch. And if not, if they were both trapped here, beneath this tree, would anyone ever find them in time?
Resigning himself to the fact that he could not help himself, he closed his eye and concentrated on taking slow shallow breaths…
Scott galloped beneath the Lancer arch, heedless of the worker’s looks of astonishment as he raced by. He spotted Murdoch helping Jelly with the corral gate. Everything seemed so normal. How could they not know that Johnny was hurt…or worse…
He jumped off Charlemagne before the horse came to a full stop.
Murdoch looked up, hammer and nails still in hand…
“Scott…?” he called, his voice mirroring the fear he felt building. No one galloped beyond the arch…a cardinal rule that was adhered to without question.
“Johnny’s in trouble.” Scott panted. He had not stopped galloping since he left Johnny beneath the tree. Charlemagne was covered in lather. The horse had not faltered for a moment. He would have dropped dead from exhaustion before failing his friend.
“What happened?” Murdoch moved toward Scott, Jose running between them grabbing Charlemagne’s reins. “I’ll saddle the horses, Senor…”
Scott heard Teresa running toward them.
“A tree limb fell from the old oak near Lancer Creek. Johnny’s under it.”
Jelly shuffled closer, “Johnny…? He couldn’t bring himself to ask the question. The boy was like a son to him.
“I don’t know, Jelly. I couldn’t get to him. I thought it best to come back here and get help.” The guilt in his voice reflecting his inner conflict.
“You did the right thing, son.” Murdoch squeezed Scott’s shoulder, then he was gone, shouting orders amid a frenzy of men and women gathered in the courtyard. Bad news traveled fast on an estancia…and when it involved Johnny Lancer, one of the Patron’s sons, and one of their own in the predominately Mexican work force, the panic grew like wildfire. “I need the wagon loaded with axes, saws, shovels, ropes anything you think we need to lift those limbs.”
“I’ll get the medical supplies.” Teresa said, already heading for the house. Maria was at her side shouting orders of her own to the women. She could do nothing beyond the hacienda, but she could make sure all was set when they brought back her Juanito.
“Someone go into town and bring Sam,” Scott shouted, “track him down if you have to.”
“Si, Senor Scott, it has been done already,” Cipirano said, pulling along a fresh mount for Scott and handing Murdoch his horse, “you should add lanterns to the supplies. It will be dark soon,” he said, looking at the sky.
Jelly was loading the wagon with blankets and a bale of hay if Johnny needed a soft bed to lie on, his fear for Johnny etched deeply on his old weathered face.
“Jelly,” Murdoch ordered, grabbing an ax from one of the hands filling the wagon, “You come along as soon as you can. Find Ramon and tell him to round up as many men as he can find. We may need help.”
“I’ll have the whole town of Morro Coyo, if need be, Boss.”
Murdoch leaned over, clutching the man’s shoulder tightly. No words needed to be said. Just the understanding between two men who loved the boy equally.
Johnny drifted. Sometimes he was acutely aware of where he was and the enormity of the situation. That this could actually be the end. A far cry from how he had envisioned it…facing the one gun who was faster than Johnny Madrid, or perhaps just a little younger and a bigger need to prove himself.
But most of the time he just listened to the sound of the breeze sighing through the tree, the gentle fluttering of the leaves.
At one point he heard a rustling sound, and the limb above his head began to shake…when he opened his eye, he saw a squirrel looking down at him. He couldn’t help but laugh at the little creature, its eyes wide with curiosity, its nose twitching, nervously watching him.
But the laugh and subsequent cough scared him away, and Johnny suddenly felt incredibly lonely.
Then his thoughts would shift to his brother…not knowing if Scott was only a few feet away beneath the same tree or sitting patiently on the veranda, drinking one of Teresa’s cool lemonades, waiting for his little brother’s return. He prayed fervently that Scott was back at Lancer. And if he wasn’t, was he in pain? Was he just as worried? The thought scared him.
The half dozen men rode in silence, each with his own thoughts of what they would find when they reached Johnny. They all saw the fear in Scott’s eyes.
Murdoch looked ahead stoically. There was not a day that went by that he didn’t wonder if this was the day that Johnny’s past would rear its ugly head and destroy the family that became more important to him than life itself.
The thought that a fallen limb could destroy that life had never crossed him mind.
Scott rode beside him, caught in a maelstrom of doubt. He could not forgive himself for leaving Johnny alone. What if he woke up, alone and scared. What if Johnny’s last words landed on deaf ears?
Survivors regret settled over him like a heavy blanket. What if’s whirled in his mind. What if he had not fallen asleep…what if he had nudged Johnny awake when he went to water the horses…would Johnny have had time to react in time to avoid the limb. What if the tables were reversed and he was lying beneath the tree limbs…
Cipirano pulled up beside him… “Juanito needs your help, Senor Scott,” he said knowingly, “and so does your padre. You are the strong one. The worst rests on your hombros…your shoulders. If you need help, I am here.” The old Segundo reined his horse back, allowing father and son to ride side by side.
Murdoch glanced toward him, a fleeting look of understanding passing between the two men.
Murdoch saw the tops of the old oak tree ahead. He loved that old tree. It had been old twenty- eight years ago when he first came to this valley. It withstood time, drought, floods and fire for a hundred years before that. Why then did it have to succumb to age now? Why not a few minutes before or a few minutes after his son was clear of its deadly collapse?
He knew there was no answer. But he needed something tangible to direct his hate. Something to blame for this senseless tragedy.
Scott spurred his horse into a dangerous gallop. Seeing the tree from this distance, he could see the sheer size of the limb spread across the ground.
“Johnny!” he yelled, nearly toppling the horse on his side as he yanked the reins back and jumped from the saddle.
He barely heard Murdoch and Cipirano at his side as he began hacking at the branches with an axe.
Murdoch jumped from his horse, disregarding the pain in his back and leg, his own axe in hand. He had spotted the salmon colored shirt beneath the tangle of oak limbs and branches. But Cipirano’s sharp warning froze him in place.
“No Patron, stop!” Cipirano grabbed his arm. “If we are not careful the limb will shift. If…if Juanito still lives…”
Murdoch’s face turned a paler shade of white. “Dear God,” he gasped. The reality of what stood between his son and freedom from the prison of branches struck him like a physical blow.
He felt his knees buckle and Cipirano’s strong arm steadying him.
The Segundo waited silently until Murdoch could draw a breath.
The sounds of Scott’s urgent cries filled the valley as he hacked wildly at the branches.
Cipirano was at his side yanking the axe from his hand. Murdoch grabbed is arm pulling him away from the downed limb, feeling Scott’s anger and fear lashing out at him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted. “We’ve got to get Johnny…”
“Think man,” Murdoch urged, “we have to go slow. We wait for the others.”
“No!” Scott lunged for the axe. “We have to get him out now.”
Murdoch’s formidable strength shoved Scott backwards…”Listen to me…if Johnny is still alive it’s because the bulk of the branch’s weight isn’t crushing him. One wrong move…”
Scott staggered back. He knew that. He knew it when he rode for help, he knew it now…it was just so hard to do nothing.
He stared at the shock of color beneath the tangled web of branches and leaves.
“Johnny…” he called again, praying for an answer.
He stood between Murdoch and Cipirano, his heart thudding in his chest. But there was no answering call from Johnny, not a sound, not a shift of movement…just the soft fluttering of leaves in the light breeze, and an errant bird beginning its melodious call.
“God, no…” he whispered,
Johnny thought he felt the ground rumble beneath him and waited expectantly…He had heard other sounds that had raised his hopes, only to realize he had been played the fool once again as his mind wandered…heading down paths that led home, or Morro Coyo on a raucous Friday night, or even that line shack near Pine Meadow where the morning mist hug heavy in the trees and the scent of coffee brewing on the pot belly stove stirred his senses.
Memories of people and places meandered through his thoughts. He pushed back bad or sad recollections, and concentrated on only the good ones. The good times, he realized, with a heavy heart, were far outnumbered by the bad times.
But the past three years…there had been some mighty good times in those past three years. A new found father and brother, a piece of land that he could call his own…that he could call home. The peace and serenity that only comes with a family’s love.
A smile twitched at his lips…it was the little things that brought the greatest pleasures…the smell of fresh sheets on his bed, just a hint of rose water left behind by Teresa as she strove to keep his room neat and tidy. A losing fight she had admitted more than once…but one worth fighting. The smell of Murdoch’s pipe tobacco as he lounged in his overstuffed desk chair, staring into the roaring fire, reminiscing. Jelly, mad as a wet hen, sputtering histrionic rage after being caught in another of Johnny’s jokes. The old handyman loved him like a son, and Johnny gratefully accepted the honor.
Suddenly the old tree branch trembled and sighed as it settled once again, smaller, weaker branches unable to hold up the enormous weight of the limb.
Johnny cried out in pain. He felt a sickening snap in his left ankle followed by excruciating pain traveling up his leg. “Madre de Dios…” he whispered, “help me.”
He waited out the pain, concentrating on drawing small breaths into his starved lungs. He forced himself to return to his prior thoughts, pushing back the pain. But it was getting harder to keep the darker thoughts away.
Scott…he grabbed onto the picture of Scott, the ridiculous eastern getup he wore when they first met that fateful day in Morro Coyo. The journey “Boston” took from greenhorn to seasoned rancher…worth his weight against any hand on Lancer now. But it was the love…a brother’s love that filled his heart, that led Johnny Madrid through the rough course, fraught with danger, both physical and mental, to Johnny Lancer.
He held that thought as he began to drift into the blackness again…forgetting the rumbling beneath him and missing the panicked shouts of his rescuers as they arrived to free him from his prison.
Scott painstakingly studied every branch of the limb he could see. Noted how the branch laid against the ground, the weight it supported. He drew a map in his mind, visualizing the path they would cut to reach Johnny. Only the branches that didn’t bear any of the limb’s weight could be cut away. One wrong move and the limb could collapse like a house of cards, crushing Johnny to death beneath its tremendous weight. The thought sent shockwaves of fear through Scott.
Had it only been a few minutes ago that elation had turned back to despair? They had heard Johnny cry out, a horrible pain filled cry, but it meant that he was still alive, reinforcing the fact that they had to get him out and into medical care immediately. But reality set in and they realized it would take hours to simply reach him. No one could speculate on how long it would take to free him.
The wagon with Jelly and the rest of the men would arrive soon. It would be a frustrating time for all, to have to work so slowly, so carefully. He feared that some of the men would not be able to resist the need to attack the tree like the enemy it was. But control was the only thing that would save Johnny.
Murdoch and Cipriano stood shoulder to shoulder with him, staring at the branch, each lost in their own personal hell. Each afraid of what they would find.
Murdoch handed him an axe. “Are you ready, son?” he asked, his voice husky with fear.
Scott nodded. “Yes, Sir.” He felt the balance of the heavy wooden handle and thick steel blade. It was Johnny who had taught him to use an axe with ease, how to put his shoulders into every powerful strike, feeling the wood split with ease.
He turned to look at Murdoch, his eyes meeting his father’s, holding them for a long moment. He needed his father’s strength, and Scott could see the need reflected in Murdoch’s eyes. But he pushed past the moment. There wasn’t time. “We need to take it slow and easy,” he warned. “If you’re not positively sure the branch is not load- bearing, don’t cut it.”
Murdoch said nothing…only stepped forward and began hacking at the branches. He was all too aware of the dwindling chances of bringing his son home to Lancer…alive.
The three men worked in silence, cutting away branches, hauling them to a pile just beyond the tree. It was painstaking work. They held their breath at each swipe of the axe, praying it would not be their cut that undermined the limb.
Jelly drove the wagon in silence. He felt Teresa’s fear as she sat next to him on the buckboard, tangible in the warm air. He had tried to persuade her not to come, fearing what they would find. But she was headstrong, and in the end…she had the right to be there. She and Johnny held a special bond.
He looked over at Jose who was driving the second wagon, heaped to overflowing with everything Jelly could think of to extricate Johnny. Axes, shovels, ropes, block and tackle. Food for the men, cooking pots to boil water if needed. Teresa had loaded bandages and towels along with a carpet bag filled with medicines. She had learned that the one thing you didn’t think you needed ended up being the thing you needed most. So she packed everything.
A dozen men rode behind the wagons with more on the way.
Jelly spotted the old oak tree and he felt Teresa stiffen.
“It’s gonna be all right, honey,” he promised. “No little ole branch is gonna keep Johnny Lancer down fer long. Ya know how stubborn, ornery that boy can get. Ain’t no tree gonna best my boy, cause…”
The rest of Jelly’s words faded into a gasp of disbelief. He knew the size of the old oak tree, had seen it a hundred times the past three years, but seeing that limb spread across the ground, knowing that Johnny was somewhere beneath it…
“Lord help us…” he whispered and steered the wagon to a stop beside the growing pile of cut branches.
Scott heard the wagons pull to a stop and stood up, disheartened by how little they had accomplished. He looked over at Murdoch, his face red with exertion, a ten foot path hacked out of the branches behind him, but still riddled with a tangle of limbs to unsafe to cut. Precious time was being eaten up…time Johnny didn’t have to spare. Ready to make his way back through the pathway he had cut, he heard Johnny cry out again.
Was it in pain or fear?
“Johnny!” he called back. “Johnny, we’re here. Hang on…just hang on.” Guilt racked his body and soul. It took every ounce of his willpower to slowly turn away from that cry and head back toward the wagons.
Scott found Murdoch standing on the back of the wagon, surrounded by a dozen ranch hands.
“Listen up!” Murdoch’s voice left no room for speculation on who was boss. “You all know why you’re here. Johnny is trapped beneath this limb, just to the left of the tree trunk. We know he’s still alive. However, we don’t know how badly he’s hurt. He hasn’t responded to us yet. The first thing we have to do is clear out some of these branches so we can reach him. But we have to go slow. The limb has not settled completely yet, if it had, Johnny would be dead already. You test every branch before you cut it. If it feels like it’s a load bearing branch, or you’re not sure, leave it. Does everyone understand?”
There was a collective nod, and a mumble of voices.
Scott stepped forward, his face streaked with sweat, his white shirt already torn by sharp branches. “If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask Murdoch or myself. Remember, it only takes one bad cut to bring this whole thing down on Johnny.”
“Grab an axe and get to work.” Murdoch ordered. “We only have a few hours of daylight left.”
Jelly handed out axes then joined Teresa in setting up camp. A fire was quickly built, water was put on to boil. Teresa set up a nursing station beside the fire, preparing for Johnny. Sam would be arriving soon. She looked up at the sky. Darkness would be upon them all too soon. A shiver went down her spine at the lack of time they had. “…Johnny…” she whispered.
The work was slow and grueling. The only sound that filled the air was the chopping of the axes. They had been working none stop for three hours and they were still at least four feet short of where Johnny lay.
Scott glanced over at Murdoch, his shirt torn and dripping with sweat, the pain on his chiseled face unmistakable. He knew that the older man’s back and leg would be torturing him by now. But to ask him to sit back and not help save his son was not worth the spit it would take to utter the words. There was not one person here who would not fight till they dropped from exhaustion to save Johnny Lancer.
Suddenly a voice rang out, “I got him!”
A hush fell over the workers…waiting. “He’s alive.”
Jose raised his axe above his head.” Over here,” he shouted.
Scott ran back down the path he had cut, leaping over branches, heedless of the sharp twigs scratching his hands and face. His heart pounded in his ears. He lost sight of Murdoch but heard his labored breathing as he grunted each time he jumped over a branch.
He found the path Jose had cut out, careening down the narrow trail. He watched Jose carefully move around positioning himself so Scott would have room to reach Johnny.
Shock gripped Scott…he had tried not to visualize what he thought he would see when they finally reached Johnny. But he was not prepared for this.
Johnny lay as he had when they had dozed off beneath the shade of the oak tree. He never had the time to react. His salmon shirt still pillowed his head. His hands were trapped in tangles of branches. His left ankle hung several inches above the ground at an odd angle, threaded between more branches. The heaviest part of the limb lay across his chest…
Scott dropped to his knees, his hand shaking as he carefully reached through an opening in the branch’s lattice work, gently brushing Johnny’s cheek.
“Johnny…?” He called softly. “Johnny…can you hear me?”
Blood pooled in his right eye from a cut above his temple. A thin branch poked at his neck, a thread of blood stained the shirt beneath his head. His breaths came in short quick gasps, constricted by the weight of the limb.
Scott felt Murdoch clamp his hand tightly over his shoulder as he lowered himself to his knees.
He felt a tremor beneath his fingertips as Johnny slowly opened one eye. He stared up at Scott, indecision and fear embedded in his unfocused gaze.
“Johnny…it’s Scott. Johnny?”
He turned to Jose. “Bring me some water and cloths.”
“Si, Senor.” Jose nodded, climbing over Murdoch.
“Johnny, we’ve going to have you out of here soon.” He promised.
“Go away…” Johnny whispered, closing his eye. “Ain’t fallin’ for your tricks no more.”
“John…” Murdoch’s voice trembled as he threaded his huge hand through a gnarled clump of branches to hold Johnny’s hand. “John…it’s not a trick, we’re here, son.”
Jose handed Scott a canteen and towel.
“Johnny…I’m going to clean you up a little here. Make you feel better.”
Scott gently wiped the blood from Johnny’s eye, then carefully broke the branch that nicked his throat and pulled it away, satisfied that there was a minimal amount of blood oozing from the puncture.
“We’ve got a dozen men here working on getting you out, John.” Murdoch forced himself to sound calm, but inside he was shaking like a leaf. “It’s going to take awhile longer. But…”
“Get me out now!” Johnny hissed, his voice barely audible.
“We will.” Scott promised.
Johnny’s eyes darted in every direction, trying to see beyond the tangle of branches and leaves that held him tightly in its cocoon. “Get me out.”
Murdoch squeezed his hand tighter. “We will. Trust us. Not much longer.”
The sound of footsteps caught Scott and Murdoch’s attention and they looked up to find Sam making his way toward them.
“Sam’s here, son.” Murdoch pushed himself up to allow Sam room to reach Johnny.
“Well now, young man,” Sam said softly, his voice belying the look of horror on his face, “what have you got yourself into this time?”
“Get me out of here, Sam.”
“We will. There’s a lot of people working here to do just that. Now your job is to answer my questions and do everything I say.”
Johnny closed his eyes.
Sam nodded and began his examination. Ten minutes later he replaced his stethoscope back in his medical bag and brought out a black case containing a syringe and a small bottle of liquid.
“Johnny, I have always been honest with you, right?”
“Ya, doc, you have.”
“And I’m not going to stop now. You have several broken bones, all can be mended when we get you out of here. It’s hard for you to breathe because the tree limb is pressing against your diaphragm. I’m going to give you something to ease the pain and help you to breathe a little easier.”
“No drugs, Sam.”
“John, I’m afraid this time you have no say in the matter.”
Before Johnny could protest again he felt the sharp prick of the needle in his arm.
“There, that should ease your discomfort a bit. Now, I’m going to have a talk with your father and brother, but we’ll be right back.”
Cipriano took their place, kneeling next to Johnny, carefully cutting away branches covering Johnny’s face.
“Don’t worry Juanito…many men are here to help. You have made a difference in a lot of lives…they are here to repay the favor.”
Teresa handed Sam a steaming cup of coffee leaving Jelly to pour cups for Murdoch and Scott.
“Well, Sam.” Murdoch demanded.
Sam took his time answering. What he had just seen ripped at his heart. Johnny Lancer had become a true friend the past three years. “His lungs are congested because he can’t take a full breath with the weight on his chest. Pneumonia, at this point, is almost a given. His left ankle is broken of course, at least two ribs and his left shoulder. There may be more, but I can’t do a thorough exam until he’s free of that damn limb.”
Scott studied Sam’s face…”And the rest of it?”
Sam sighed. “There’s no telling how much internal damage there may be. There is the possibility that he is broken up inside. The weight of the limb is keeping the bleeding at a minimum. But once we remove the weight…”
“My God…” Murdoch breathed.
“It’s only a possibility.” Sam urged. “We won’t know for sure. It’s just, you have a right to know. Now, the sooner we get him free the quicker I can tend to him.”
“That won’t be for some time, Sam.”
“It’s getting dark. Soon it will be to dark to work. It’s too dangerous. If we cut the wrong branch...”
“Does Johnny know?”
Scott shook his head. “We didn’t know how to tell him.”
“Well, he deserves to know. And now.”
“But it’s so cold at night,” Teresa cried.
Sam nodded. “We must keep him awake and alert throughout the night. Hypothermia will be a problem. I have given him an injection of morphine.” He raised his hand in anticipation of the next question. “The morphine will ease the pain but won’t put him to sleep. In the morning I will add Chloral Hydrate, that will knock him out when you get ready to move him.”
“Doc…” Jelly’s voice trembled with the question that was almost too painful to ask. “What are his chances? Truth now.”
“I don’t know, Jelly. I truly don’t know.”
Teresa stood up, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. “Can I speak to him?”
“Of course you can, Honey. Do you want us to go with you?”
“No. I’d like this to be just between the two of us.”
Murdoch nodded his understanding. Teresa knew, as well as the rest of them that what was said tonight could be the last words they shared with Johnny.
Teresa made her way through the tangle of branches and leaves. She had prepared herself for what she would be seeing…but nothing could have prepared her for this…
Cipriano was bowed over Johnny’s head, carefully clearing away branches and leaves, gently speaking to him in Spanish. She didn’t have to understand the language to know what he was saying. Johnny stared up at his friend, listening calmly.
Cipriano heard her approach and looked back, a smile crossing his face.
“Ah, Juanito, you have a visitor.”
Teresa was grateful for the old Segundo’s strong arm as he helped her maneuver into a comfortable position next to Johnny.
“Teresa…you shouldn’t be here.” Johnny whispered, his voice breathless.
“And where should I be?”
She poured water into a clean cloth and began bathing his face.
“Looks like Murdoch caught me napping.” Johnny smiled. The morphine had dulled the pain, but breathing was still difficult.
“You never do anything half measure, Johnny Lancer.” Teresa laughed. “It looks like you found just about the largest limb you could find.”
“Well, we’ll have you out of here soon and back in your own bed.”
“It couldn’t be soon enough for me.”
Cipriano touched her arm and nodded back at Murdoch and Scott making their way toward them.
“Johnny, I’m going to go make you some nice warm broth, how does that sound?”
“That sounds great.”
“Good.” She leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“I’ll be here.” Johnny said bitterly, closing his eyes.
Teresa saw the pain in Scott and Murdoch’s eyes as they passed her. She let the tears spill down her cheeks…how were they going to tell Johnny that he would be there throughout the long cold night???
Johnny heard the frenzied sounds of axes cutting away at the branches, disembodied voices cursing as they found still more branches that could not be safely cut. He tried in vain to remain quiet when a branch shifted and the limb settled just a fraction, sending waves of pain coursing through his body, that even the morphine could not mask.
He tried to concentrate on other things. The smell of the campfire, coffee brewing, Jelly's salt pork and beans boiling over the open fire…
But the seriousness of his situation was growing more dire every hour. The hope he had for rescue faded with the track of the sun across the sky. They had not told him…not in words, but their eyes…their eyes told him they were running out of time.
How many hours had he been there already? His back ached from being crushed against the ground. The branch impaling his side seemed to be driving itself deeper. For over an hour Scot, Murdoch and Sam studied the branch, testing its strength, tracing it from limb to branch. In the end it was decided there was no way it could be removed without affecting the heavy limb. For now it stayed. He could not even imagine the pain if Sam had not insisted on giving him the morphine.
Teresa and Sam spent the most time with him. At first they had tried to give him water, but his head was trapped and he couldn't swallow in that position. Sam decided a nasal tube would have to be inserted somehow. Dehydration was a serious threat.... one that Sam could not ignored.
Threading the tube up his nose and down his throat was a hell all its own. Sam said it would be tricky and painful, but there was no other choice. While Murdoch and Scott kept his head perfectly steady, Teresa held his mouth open as wide as his position so Sam could see the progress of the tube snaking down the back of Johnny's throat, bringing tears to his eyes and threatening to gag him.
Just when Johnny thought he could not take it another minute, Sam sat back and patted his shoulder. "That's all for now, John." Sam drew a small amount of fluid from the tube with a syringe and dripped it onto a piece of paper. He nodded his head when he saw the paper turn pink. "The tube is where it belongs. Now we can get some water into you along with the medications you need."
"No laudanum…" Johnny croaked. His throat was raw and bruised, and he still felt the urge to gag on the offending tube.
"No laudanum, John, not yet. But when you need it, I will give it to you. No questions asked. Now, see if you can rest for a few minutes. Teresa is going to give you a cloth dipped in water to suck on, it won't require you to swallow but it should ease your thirst."
Scott stopped long enough to watch Jelly help Teresa to her feet and hug her gently. The ordeal of sitting next to Johnny was getting to everyone. Was it that he never complained, only moaned when the pain broke through the morphine?
He had developed a fever despite the medications Sam was feeding him through the tube. It was going to be a long night. They had still not told him…could not find the right words. But he would have to be told soon. The sun was casting long shadows across the valley. The mountains would cause an artificially early sunset here, blocking the sun before it actually set. Scott figured they had another hour at the most before Murdoch would have to order a halt for the day.
He looked around. They had made progress, there was no doubt about that. A pile of tree branches sat just beyond the fallen limb, getting steadily higher. But it was no longer the dense foliage that posed the greatest problem. What was left was a stark jungle of branches, stripped of their leaves, resting against the ground, supporting a major portion of the huge limb's weight.
The exposed branches sickened Scott. They revealed just how difficult, if not impossible, it was going to be to extricate Johnny. The main limb laid across his chest, large shoots, the size of a man's thigh rested on the ground, supporting the limb. More branches from those off shoots trapped Johnny beneath them, criss-crossing his arms and legs. What worried Scott most was the loss of one of those branches. Would the remaining branches hold the weight, or would the limb collapse under its own tremendous weight?
Murdoch had sent two men back to the ranch to bring all the lumber the wagons could carry. More men would be needed to build supports for the branches. When the branches were shored up, only then could they begin to lift the limb off Johnny.
A network of ropes, looking like a huge spider web, snaked round the tree trunk and cradled the limb, ready for the block and tackle. It would be painstakingly slow work. Work that could not be done at night.
Scott felt his father at his side and knew it was time to tell Johnny.
Johnny watched Sam infuse water and medications into the obscene tube that snaked down his throat into his stomach. If his hands were free he would have ripped the thing out…damn the consequences. It was an insult to his dignity.
"I know you don't like this, John," Sam consoled him, "but it is very necessary. I promise to take it out as soon as it's no longer needed."
Johnny found it hard to talk around the tube at first. That combined with his shallow breathing left his voice sounding breathless.
"When have I not kept my promise, young man?" Sam asked, the light hearted question tinged with a serious note.
"Never…" Johnny admitted.
"Good. So, there's no need to mistrust me now."
"Sam…?" Johnny found and held Sam's eyes. Sam wanted to turn away, didn't want to look into the slightly glazed eyes, bright with fever. The morphine had reduced his pupils to pin points of black, stealing his peripheral vision, and would soon decrease his night vision.
"Yes?" he asked, softly, putting away his doctor's persona. This was just two friends talking now.
It was hard to believe the same man he met at the Lancer ranch, three years ago, fighting to stay alive with Day Pardee's bullet in his back, was the same man he called friend now.
The man he met that first day was cold and distant. Murdoch introduced him as his son, Johnny Lancer…but it was Johnny Madrid that lay in that bed.
Slowly the angry young man began to trust, first his brother Scott, then the hands on the ranch. It took time for father and son meet on even ground…ground that Murdoch pulled out from beneath Johnny's feet all too often. But the young man stayed. Gaining trust, making friends. There were not that many people who didn't truly like the young man now.
"Make me another promise."
"If I can."
"Make sure Scott and Murdoch stay together."
Sam had to turn away, regain his composure.
"I know Murdoch…" Johnny continued, his voice halting, "he'll need to blame someone for this. He'll blame Scott."
Sam couldn't deny that Johnny was right. That was Murdoch's pattern. Always affix blame…it sheltered him from his own guilt. Real or perceived.
"That won't be necessary, John. You can fight that battle yourself."
A crooked smile played at the corners of Johnny's mouth. "Sure, Sam."
"Johnny…" The use of his informal name surprised Johnny. He knew John was a form of respect the old man offered him. But this time it was friend talking to friend. "I don't want to hear that kind of talk from you. Not when you've got all those people out there working their butts off trying to get you free. You've got a job to do, young man, and I expect you to do it."
"I expect you to fight, Johnny. Fight no matter how long or hard it gets. Do you understand me?"
"I asked you a question, Johnny. Do you understand me?"
"I think he does. Sam." Sam felt a strong hand squeeze his shoulder from behind. He looked back to see Murdoch and Scott looking down at him.
"I tried ta tell ya, Sam." Johnny smiled.
Sam cleared his throat. "The least you could have done was make some noise."
"We did, Sam," Scott grinned, "you just weren't listening."
"Well," Sam struggled to his feet, taking Scott's strong arm for assistance. "I think I'll grab a cup of what Jelly mistakenly calls coffee. Tastes like mud if you ask me." He grumbled as he carefully made his way through the maze of tree branches.
Scott and Murdoch carefully maneuvered themselves around the branches until they could safely sit next to Johnny.
It had been only a couple of hours since Scott last saw Johnny, but in that time the ordeal had taken its toll. The struggle to breathe tinged his lips a slight blue. He needed desperately to fill his lungs. There was a slight rattle in his chest as the congestion deepened.
How were they going to tell him it would be dawn before the rescue operation could begin again?
The air was already cooler. By midnight it would drop into the mid fifties. Too cold for a man in Johnny's compromised position. And to make maters worse, his shirt was still bundled beneath his head and blankets would be next to impossible to use. It was going to be a long cold night.
"Anything we can get you, son?" Murdoch asked, wheedling his hand through a tangle of branches. He was taken aback by the coolness of Johnny's hand. He surreptitiously glanced at his son's fingers. His fingernails had taken on a bluish tinge, like his lips.
"A shot of tequila." Johnny chuckled softly.
"Tequila?" Murdoch shook his head in mock wonderment. "That rot- gut cactus juice?"
"That shows how much you know." Johnny countered, his voice faltering as he struggled to get enough air. "Tequila ain't made from cactus."
"Oh really." Scott grinned outwardly, but he was cringing inside, alarmed by Johnny's breathless words. "then please enlighten us, little brother."
"The Blue Agave."
"The Blue Agave plant. It kinda looks like a cactus, but it ain't."
"Well, Murdoch, I guess we stand corrected."
Murdoch nodded. "Anything else besides Tequila made from the Blue Agave plant?"
"A blanket, maybe. It's getting cold. I figure it'll be a couple more hours."
Johnny caught the despair in Scott's eyes. Fear had been knocking on the door all afternoon, but Johnny had managed to keep it on the outside. Until now. His hands began to shake and he felt Murdoch's strong fingers tighten around them.
"John…" Murdoch said softly, searching for an easy way to say the words that needed saying. "John, we've done all we can today. It will be dark in a few minutes. It's too dangerous to keep going. For you and the men."
Johnny swallowed back his fear.
"We have made a lot of progress, John. In the morning we'll shore up this limb and haul it off you."
Johnny closed his eyes. If he could he would have turned his head away. It was too much. He couldn't do this anymore. The pain was reasserting itself. The weight crushing his chest was pressing against his gut now. It was getting too hard to breath. He began to gasp for air. He heard voices telling him not to struggle. Hands pushed his shoulders into the ground. The earth trembled beneath him and agonizing pain speared his side and his left leg as the limb shifted again. There was no breath left in his lungs to scream. Then something stung his arm and the world spiraled away.
Scott couldn't stop his hands from shaking. They were wrapped around a tin cup of hot coffee, and he watched the brown liquid spill over the rim, droplets splashing on the toe of his boot, dripping into oblivion into the ground.
Murdoch sat silently beside him, the roaring campfire playing shadows across his haggard face. They had come so close to losing Johnny.
Were they wrong in being honest? Should they have strung him along, promising throughout the night that they would have him free any minute? No. They did the right thing. Scott had to believe that. His brother would have figured out the truth in time, and the deception would have crushed him. Crushed him: what a strange choice of words…
Scott took another took sip of the strong coffee. Sam was right, it did taste like mud.
He checked his pocket watch; ten after ten…a long night still lay ahead.
He looked past the fire to the fallen limb. Lanterns hung from branches, sat atop rocks, chasing away the dark shadows of night. But it could not hold back the cold that descended over the valley.
Weather here in California still baffled him. In Boston during the summer, hot days promised hot nights. Never had he seen the fluctuation in temperatures. It could be one hundred ten degrees during the day and plummet to fifty degrees at night here in the valley.
Scott saw Sam wearily thread his way through the maze of branches, his shoulders stooped and his face etched with deep worry lines.
"He is resting for the moment," Sam said with a heavy sigh. "His breathing is shallow, but even. His fever is a little higher, but that's to be expected. The effects of the Choral Hydrate should be wearing off soon. After that we must keep him awake. Hypothermia will be our biggest concern."
"Hypo…what?" Jelly sat an empty pot of coffee on the ground next to the fire.
"Hypothermia, Jelly," Sam answered, a tinge of annoyance in his voice." it simply means the body temperature drops too low."
"Why didn't ya just say that in the first place? All them highfalutin' words. It's enough to turn a man's mind to dust. Now if ya want ta keep that poor boy from freezing ta death tonight I got a few suggestions."
"Jelly Hoskins," Sam smiled, "a paragon of inestimable knowledge."
"I don't rightly know what you just said there, Doc, but I don't think I like…"
"It was a compliment, Jelly," Scott said, too tired to deal with petty squabbles.
"What kind of ideas, Jelly?" Murdoch asked.
"Warming stones fer one. Then ya got all them branches naked as a Jay Bird. Take them leaves ya stripped off and cover Johnny, it'll keep the raw cold out. We can't rightly set a fire too close to the boy without chancing them branches catching, but we kin build a whole bunch of fires around the tree, that should keep him a bit warmer."
"Brilliant, Jelly." Scott was truly impressed. He felt a renewed hope that they might be able to get Johnny through this ordeal."
"I agree, Scott. But we still have a long night ahead of us." Sam reached for the empty coffee pot. He waved Jelly back when the old man jumped to his feet, anxious to brew another pot. "No need, Jelly. Coffee is exactly what I don't need at the moment. Neither do the rest of you." He looked back toward the limb where Cipriano sat, watching Johnny sleep. "Like I said, Johnny's sleeping right now. But when he wakes up one of you must always be at his side. You need to keep him talking all night. If he should doze off don't let him sleep for more than ten minutes. With hypothermia, he could easily go into shock. So I am ordering both of you to rest while you have the chance. Now," he stood up, massaging the kink out of his back, "I'm going to take a look at Johnny before I take my own advice."
Sam slowly made his way back through the branches. Murdoch stood up, his back and leg protesting the long day.
"Sam said you should rest, Sir." Scott reminded him.
"I'll rest when Johnny's safe," Murdoch snapped.
"Sam's right." Teresa appeared out of nowhere, threading her arm through Murdoch's. "You need to rest. Neither of you will do Johnny any good tomorrow if you collapse from exhaustion."
"I appreciate your concern, but I have to get those stones…"
"I'll take care of the stones and the leaves. And I have plenty of help." She nodded toward the sea of sleeping bags spread out around them. When word went out that Johnny was trapped and needed help, a parade of men slowly assembled. Now they were forty strong. All willing to spend a night away from home to help a friend. "They're here to help, let them." She looked up at the man towering above her, his face drawn with fatigue and worry. "Please," her eyes pleaded, "let me help."
Silence hovered over them for a long moment. Then Murdoch slowly nodded his head. "Very well," he agreed, "we'll take that rest."
"Thank you, Murdoch." She squeezed his arm, then rushed past Jelly, grabbing the old man's hand and pulling him after her.
Murdoch bowed his head, too tired to move, too emotionally spent to contemplate tomorrow. For now all that existed was the halo of light encircling the prison of branches that held Johnny captive as solidly as if they were made of iron.
Scott stared at the camp fire, the flames licking at the bottom of an old Dutch oven, the smell of salt pork and beans and burnt coffee stilled lingering in the air.
The sound of men, voices lowered as if in reverence to the young man they had gathered to help, floated on the night air. They all knew that the chances of Johnny surviving diminished with every hour that passed. And yet they stayed. Some were old friends of Murdoch’s, there to comfort a grieving father. Others were there for Johnny. But not one of them had not been touched in some way by Johnny Madrid Lancer, whether it was through his kindness, or the very thing they had feared so much in the beginning… his gun.
The sun had set less than an hour ago, and already the temperature was falling. It was going to be one of those cold crisp nights. Summer was giving way to fall, when the days were still hot but the nights heralded the coming of winter. Already a few pinpoints of light began to sparkle in the velvety black sky. Soon the heavens would be filled with millions of twinkling stars.
He looked over at Murdoch, staring
into the same fire, his face haggard with worry. What was going through his
father’s mind? Was he writing his
son’s epitaph? What would he say?
What would he remember of his youngest son?
What memories would he keep close to his heart?
What memories would he discard as too painful? The years Johnny spent as
a gunfighter? The writings of a
long line of Pinkerton detectives, who only reported the violence, never the
causes he risked his life for?
Scott hoped he would remember the angry young man that fought for them and beside them when he only knew life as Johnny Madrid. For, to truly understand Johnny Lancer, you had to accept Johnny Madrid. One could not exist without the other. It suddenly reminded him of a new novella his grandfather had just sent him, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He had read Stevenson’s Treasure Island and enjoyed it, looking forward to the author’s next, never expecting to read a book that so passionately explored the duality of man’s subconscious. In so many ways Johnny was like that ill fated character…good and evil co existing. But Johnny had somehow found the fine balance between Lancer and Madrid…His Jekyll tamed the Hyde, but never forgot it.
He stared at the old man, aging before his eyes. He loved Johnny so much but never understood him. Never knew how to reach him. Had Scott finally found the key? He looked toward the halo of light surrounding the fallen tree limb. The irony tasted bitter in his mouth. He may have found the answer too late.
Scott startled out of his reverie when he felt a hand clasp his shoulder.
“Doc says it’s time ta wake Johnny,” Jelly whispered.
Scott nodded. He leaned over, tapping Murdoch on the knee. The old man looked up at him, his eyes mirroring his despair. “It’s time,” Scott said gently.
“I heard.” Murdoch answered dully.
Scott started to stand up but Murdoch grabbed his arm…“Are we doing the right thing?” he asked.
“You heard Sam.”
Scott nodded. “I heard him. But I never heard him say that there was no chance.”
“He’s sleeping peacefully now…”
Scott looked at Murdoch, stunned. “Are you giving up on him?” Scott asked, a coldness seeping into his voice.
“I’m trying to do what is best for my son. I don’t want to see him suffer for nothing.”
“Scott, please try to understand. Johnny’s life has been filled with one painful event after another. How much more can he take? How much more do we have the right to ask of him?”
“It’s not our decision, Murdoch. Johnny is the only one that can decide he has had too much. Murdoch…” Scott leaned forward, watching the campfire play with the shadows on the old man’s face. “Johnny has something to live for now. He has us. A family who loves him. He’s waited a lifetime for this. We don’t have the right to take that away.”
Murdoch looked over his shoulder at the fallen limb, the lantern’s light holding back the darkness. “If a decision has to be made…I still call the tune.”
“Ya two just gonna keep jawing, or are ya goin’ ta help that boy?” Jelly barked. “Here, take these warmin’ stones.” He handed Scott and Murdoch burlap sacks filled with hot stones. “I ain’t never heard such dribble…a course he’s gonna fight. My Johnny ain’t never give’en up on anythin’…” He reached out and grabbed Murdoch’s arm, “An ya better not let Johnny see that hang-dog look on yer faces. He’s gotta know ya two got enough strength ta see him through this.”
Murdoch nodded, laying his huge hand atop Jelly’s. “Johnny’s a lucky man to have you as a friend, Jelly. We’ll do our best.”
“Lordy, Lordy…” Jelly whispered as he watched Murdoch and Scott make their way through the tangle of branches, “ain’t none of us gonna get through this night same as we was.” He looked up at the stars, cold as ice, he thought…Just watching And waiting. He sniffed at the air and his heart sank even deeper. “No…not ta’night.”
Scott watched Sam pull the stethoscope from his ears, obviously not happy with what he heard.
“Fluid is building up in his lungs. It will only continue to get worse until some of this pressure is removed. His heart is beating too fast as a result. I’ve administered tincture of Aconite to slow his heart rate. But we need to reduce the weight on his chest.”
Murdoch shook his head. “We can’t begin to move him until the morning…the risk…”
“Be dammed with the risk!” Sam’s voice erupted in an uncharacteristic swell of emotion. “If he stays like this he’ll be dead in an hour.”
Scott sat back, unnerved by Sam’s open show of emotion. Sam was always the professional…nothing fazed him on the outside. Scott had often seen the pain in the old doctor’s eyes, but he hid it within himself, never did he allow it to surface.
“We need an inch, maybe two, just enough to give him a fighting chance.”
Murdoch pushed back the layer of leaves covering Johnny’s chest and tried to squeeze his fingers between the limb and his son’s ribs. There was no space.
By the flickering light of the lanterns, Scott could see the web of ropes fashioning a sling around the limb in preparation for the morning, when the limb was shored up and they could begin to hoist the bough.
“Murdock, if we make sure those ropes are secure,” Scott pointed to the sling, “maybe we can dig beneath Johnny, just enough to relieve the pressure.”
Murdoch studied the webbing. “It would be dangerous. If the limb shifted…”
“Sir, I don’t think we have any other choice.” Scott looked down at Johnny, the bluish tinge to his lips spreading.
“Alright. Wake the men, tell them to check every rope, then double check it. We’ll need two by fours ready in case we need to shore right away. Sam, can you keep Johnny sedated while we do this, it won’t be easy on him.”
Sam shook his head. “I’ve waited as long as I dare. His body temperature is dropping rapidly. The threat of hypothermia is too great. We have to wake him now.”
Murdoch nodded, searching the campfires until he spotted Teresa and Jelly arranging more warming stones in the fire. “Teresa, Jelly, stay with Johnny.”
“What’s goin’ on boss?” Jelly asked anxiously as he and Teresa changed places with Murdoch and Scott.
“We’re going to try to give Johnny a fighting chance.” He glanced over at Scott and was rewarded with nod of approval. He had not given up on Johnny…not yet.
Men were rousted from their semi-sleep, orders were given and the camp was suddenly alive with activity.
Scott and Murdoch grabbed trowels from the wagon and headed back to the tree, each knowing what they were about to try could kill Johnny or give him a few more hours of survival.
Sam slapped Johnny’s cheek smartly. “Come on, John, it’s time to wake up.” He said over loudly. “Come on, son, you’ve got to wake up for us.”
Johnny’s eyes flickered for a moment, then settled. His breaths came in small gasps, the sounds of wheezing increasing as his lungs labored for air.
“Johnny…” Teresa moved in as close as the branches would allow, her hand trembling as she stroked his cheek. “Johnny, you have to wake up.”
There was a low moan and Johnny’s eyes opened, disoriented and confused.
“That’s it John.” Sam saturated the end of a strip of cloth with water from the canteen and wiped Johnny’s cracked lips.
Johnny’s eyes traveled from Teresa to Sam, and they could see the fear growing. The lack of oxygen was stripping away all his senses, leaving him panicked.
“Its alright, Johnny.” Teresa caressed his cheek. “Scott and Murdoch are going to make it easier for you to breath. Just hold on.”
“Get…me…out…” he gasped. “Please…”
“We will, very soon.” Sam promised. He saw the panic building. “Johnny, listen to me, you have to remain calm.”
“Can’t breathe… hurts...”
“I know it does.” Sam reached between the branches to hold his hand, concerned how cold his fingers felt. “But I can’t give you any more pain medication yet. Johnny, I need to know where it hurts.”
Johnny’s eyes slid closed and Teresa slapped his cheek again.
“John, where does it hurt?” Sam persisted.
“My chest and back…” Johnny answered, his eyes still closed.
“What about your arms and legs? How do your fingers and toes feel?”
“Leg broke. The rest…pins and needles.”
Teresa looked over at Sam.
“Lack of oxygen,” Sam whispered. “The blood flow isn’t reaching his extremities.”
“I’m cold,” Johnny whispered.
“I know, Johnny. We’ve got these warming stones for you.” Teresa quickly rearranged the stones as close as she could to his skin without burning him. “There, it that a little better?”
Johnny tried to nod, but the branch held his head tight.
Scott made his way through the branches, praying that what they were about to do would not cause Johnny further injury. But Sam was right. He wouldn’t make it through the night like this. He felt like his heart was ripped from his chest as he approached the fallen limb. Teresa was hovering over Johnny, speaking overly loud, trying to keep him focused. Johnny’s breaths sounded shorter and more labored.
A shout came from behind the tree. “All secured!”
Scott took one last look at Murdoch, then averted his eyes, he could not stand to see the pain in his father’s eyes.
“Alright.” Murdoch snapped, “Let’s get this done.”
Johnny felt the panic welling up
inside him. He couldn’t move. The weight of the limb seemed to bear down on
him harder with each labored breath. His heart pounded in his head so hard it
threatened to explode. He heard
voices through the din of internal noise, but couldn’t understand them.
The instinct to survive overrode every other thought in his mind. He had to get free. He had to breathe.
He tried to move his arms and legs but the branches were too heavy. The panic continued to swell. He struggled harder. Voices yelled at him. He screamed at them silently to get him free.
Now nothing existed but the need to escape. He felt like he was drowning, plunged into a nightmare of pain and fear. He clawed at the branches, felt them snap and cut his hands, but his arms were still trapped. He tried to kick at the branches trapping his good leg, but the tree shifted and his leg was crushed in a vice grip of pain. He struggled harder, oblivious to Teresa’s cries.
Blackness began crowding in around him. Mercifully, the world seemed to slip away. The last thing he felt was pain exploding in his side. Then he knew no more.
Scott dug frantically beneath Johnny’s back. The ground was hard packed, and the handle of the trowel threatened to crack under the strain.
Johnny’s breaths were coming in short gasps now. Thankfully he had passed out before he could do more harm to himself, but the branches had shifted ever so slightly, pinning his arms tighter against the ground.
“Hurry!” Sam shouted. “He’s going into shock.”
“The ground’s too hard,” Scott yelled back. He could hear Murdoch’s trowel scrapping and clanging against the unyielding ground on the other side of Johnny.
Suddenly Jelly was by his side carrying a bucket of water. “Try this.” he shouted. He poured the water over the ground Scott’s trowel had dug into and the ground soaked up the water. Scott began digging again. It was working. Cipriano grabbed another bucket of water and hovered over Murdoch, pouring the water until Johnny’s back was lying in mud.
Scott tossed the trowel away and started digging the mud out from beneath Johnny’s back. He dug and scraped, his hands bleeding from the rocks and pebbles, but he kept going. He was flat on his stomach now, forcing his arms beneath Johnny until he felt Murdoch’s fingers beneath the center of Johnny’s back. Frantically they continued digging the mud out, from Johnny’s shoulders to his waist. Men were sent down to the creek to fetch water until Johnny’s torso lay in a quagmire of mud.
Sam felt Johnny’s torso sink just slightly. He squeezed his fingers between the limb and the boy’s chest and felt an inch of clearance. Not much, but it was enough to partially fill Johnny’s starving lungs.
Scott laid a muddy hand on Teresa’s arm. “He has a chance now.” He sighed. But there was no conviction in his voice.
A long night still lay ahead of them.
Scott sat in front of the fire watching Teresa wrap bandages around his hands. He barely felt her ministrations. He felt distanced from reality, lost in a fog of disbelief and grief.
They had almost lost him. They had almost lost his brother.
The memory of Johnny crying out in fear and pain would be branded in his mind for a lifetime.
He drew the blanket tighter around himself. His clothes, along with Murdoch's, lay in a heap by the fire, covered in cold wet mud. The same cold wet mud Johnny laid in now. It had been necessary to dig the shallow trench beneath his back to save his life. But now he had to wonder if they had done the right thing. Maybe Murdoch was right…maybe Johnny had suffered enough already. There was no guarantee that they could get him out alive. And if they did there was no way to know how badly he was hurt. Sam had said there could internal injuries…He just didn't know, and that scared him. He had been so eager to condemn Murdoch for his doubts just a few hours ago. Now…he was not that sure.
"There," Teresa tied the bandage in place on his left hand, "that should help a little."
He pulled himself back from the dark thoughts. He would not play that game. Johnny deserved more than that. "Thanks Teresa." He looked at the wrappings. "They feel better already. Any luck in finding some clean clothes?
"Gabe Kemp had an extra pair of pants and old man Jonesey has a shirt that will probably fit. Jelly is collecting them now. It's going to be a bit harder to find something to fit Murdoch."
Scott looked across the fire at this father. Murdoch stared into the flames, lost in his own personal hell. To lose a child was a terrible tragedy, to have to stand by and watch him slip away right before your eyes…
The sound of footsteps pulled Scott from his reverie, and he looked up to see Sam nearly collapse onto the crude bench Jelly had hastily fashioned for the old doctor.
"Sam…?" That was Murdoch's voice, so low it was almost lost beneath the sound of the crackling fire.
"He's holding his own for the moment." Sam sighed. "But another incident like that…"
"Sam," Murdoch implored, "tell me."
The old doctor scrubbed his face then rubbed his eyes until he found the words he always prayed he'd never have to say. "Johnny's losing ground rapidly. To tell you the honest to God truth, I don't know how he has hung on this long."
"Are you saying he's not going to make it?" Scott asked huskily. Teresa inched closer to him, as if his strength could hold them both up…but he had none left to give.
"I'm telling you that you should prepare yourselves. We still have…" he checked his pocket watch, holding it up to the light of the fire, "four more hours of darkness. You gave him a little extra time by relieving the weight of that limb on his chest a bit, but now he's laying in cold mud. Whatever heat he had in his body is going to be sucked out by that mud."
"What can we do, Sam?" Teresa asked.
"What we have been doing. The Chloral hydrate will be wearing off in a few minutes, when he comes too you are going to have to keep him awake. I've been infusing warm water in the nasal tube, trying to warm him from the inside out. But his extremities are going to remain cold. Is there any way you could cut away some of those branches trapping his arms and legs? He needs circulation in those limbs."
"We've been afraid to touch them, Sam. If we disturb that trunk…" Murdoch left the rest unsaid.
Sam shook his head wearily. "I know, Murdoch. You have done everything you can. If we can warm him up somehow, keep him from going into shock…" He scrubbed his face with his hands again. "You two better find some clothes, Johnny will be awake soon."
Teresa kept her promise and Scott slipped into Jonsey's old and tattered work shirt, but it was clean and dry. He always kept a clean pair of socks in his saddle bags, and after slipping them on, then his boots, he headed back to Johnny.
Cipriano was kneeling over Johnny, his face just inches from his Juanito's face. Scott heard the old Segundo talking softly in Spanish, his huge work hardened hands gently brushing Johnny's cheek.
"How is he?" Scott asked softly, feeling as if he were intruding.
"He is a strong man, Senor Scott…" Cipriano looked up, the firelight catching the moisture in the old man's eyes. "He will fight…he has much to do in his life still."
Scott nodded, trying to talk around the lump in his throat. "Do you need more time?"
"No Senor, Jaunito needs his hermano. Come, he is waking."
Scott quickly changed places with Cipriano, just in time to see Johnny's eyes flutter open.
"Hey there…" Scott mimicked what he had seen Cipriano doing, and leaned down close to Johnny's face. "We throw a party and the guest of honor keeps falling asleep. It's either the lousy accommodations, or the company."
The smallest of smiles flirted across Johnny's face. "Accommodations, brother. The company's just fine."
"That's a relief. After all, we invited just about every able bodied man from Lancer and even a few from town."
Johnny's eyes wandered for a moment until Scott's gentle voice brought him back. "Stay with me Johnny. You have to stay awake."
A sudden chill rocked Johnny's body and the huge tree branch shuddered. Scott froze, listening to the creak of the limbs as the night itself seemed to hold its breath waiting until the limb once again calmed itself.
"You've got to stay still, Johnny," Scott warned.
"I'm cold, Scott. So cold."
"I know," Scott soothed, brushing Johnny's cheek with his bandaged hand. "You just have to hang on. We're all here for you. You know half the town's here, waiting for first light to get you out?"
"You ok, Scott?" Johnny stared at Scott's hand, his own predicament forgotten for the moment.
Scott had forgotten about the bandages. "I'm fine. Just scraped them a little is all. You know Teresa. She'd bandage a hangnail given half a chance."
"Teresa shouldn't be here. I don't want her ta see me like this."
"She needs to be here, Johnny. Just like we all do." Scott bit his lower lip forcing his voice to remain calm. Johnny needed his strength.
"Now…" Scott shifted himself into a more comfortable position, snaking his hand down through the limbs until he could squeeze Johnny's hand gently. "I thought it might be a good idea to discuss what we are going to tell our old man when he asks why you were lazing under an oak tree while you were supposed to be mending fences."
"You were here too, ya know."
"Oh no I wasn't. I was busy mending my section of the fence. Baking in the hot sun, working my tail off while you snored away."
Scott settled into the easy banter that was so much a part of their friendship, and gave silent thanks to the darkness for hiding the tears that glistened in his eyes.
Murdoch had finally found a pair of pants and shirt that were, surprisingly, too large. Tiny Miller stood six foot seven and weighed more than a Clydesdale. To every school aged child in Morro Coyo and Green River he was known as Mr. Miller, the schoolteacher. To Murdoch's surprise, the generous man had literally given him he clothes off his back. The big man now waited in the back of one of the wagons wrapped in several blankets until someone returned with a new set of clothes.
He looked out over the sea of bedrolls and tents spread
out before him. So many men with one goal in mind, saving the life of his son.
How could he ever thank them?
He crossed his arms, trying to ward off the cold. The heat
from the day had finally lost its grip on the land and the temperature was
falling rapidly. The past week the nights had averaged a cool forty-five
degrees. But tonight it promised to dip below that. Probably into the mid
thirties. Much too cold for a man in Johnny's condition.
He looked once again at the tree limb that held his son
prisoner. He would give anything to have the roles reversed.
He felt Teresa at his side handing him a sack of warming stones. Pitifully little to chase away the cold night and the cold mud that was drawing the very life from his son's body.
Murdoch slowly made his way toward his sons…both dying in their own way.
"You bring that right along here, Kyle," Jelly directed. He watched the young son of Brad Epsom carry the pail of hot dishwater just beyond camp. The last thing they needed was a soggy mess in camp. "Easy now," he warned. Kyle was a strapping sixteen year old boy with the mind of a twelve year old. He wanted to help, and his father could not deny his request to help his friend Johnny Lancer when he was in trouble. The youngest Lancer boy had paid close attention to Kyle. Teaching him to braid lariats and fashion bracelets made from rawhide strips. The boy idolized him.
Suddenly the boy tripped and the pail went flying from his hands, dousing Jelly with the hot water.
"Mr. Jelly I'm sorry," the boy cried. "I'm sorry. Are you hurt Mr. Jelly? I didn't burn ya did I?"
The boy took a step back, confused at the look on the old man's face.
"No boy," Jelly grinned, "you done good. You done real good. Now fetch that pail and grab whatever ya kin that'll hold water."
"Just do it boy! I need three men over here, now!" Jelly shouted.
Sam looked up from his bench. "Have you finally gone mad, Jelly?"
Jelly ignored the jibe. "Doc, we're gonna make that boy feel warmer than one of Teresa's loaves of bread coming straight out of the oven."
Scott and Murdoch looked up, surprised to see Jelly making his way through the tangle of branches with Kyle on his heels. The boy carefully carried a pail of steaming water. Sam followed behind them, every bit as confused as Scott and Murdoch.
"Hey there Johnny." Jelly squatted close to Johnny's head. "We've gonna warm you up a bit here, boy."
"Some of …your concoction…?" Johnny grinned weakly. It was seldom that the old man didn't bring a smile to his face.
Jelly wagged his finger at Johnny. "You give me sass like that boy, and that's just what I'll do."
"What are you doing?" Murdoch demanded.
"Kyle here gave me the idea."
Murdoch looked to Kyle for an explanation, but the boy could only shrug his shoulders.
"Ok Johnny, you listen up. I'm gonna pour this warm water here and we've gonna turn that cold mud in ta one of them hot spas I heared `bout from Miss uppity snippety Grace Lofgren. She spends her husband's hard earned dollar for the privilege of mucking around in the mud like a pig."
"That's brilliant," Sam yelled. "Brilliant."
"Now you three fellas start digging a trench away from Johnny so's he don't drown in all this nice warm water," Jelly ordered. "You ready Johnny?"
Johnny felt the warmth begin to spread beneath his back and shoulders. The cold mud that had been drawing the heat out of his body turned warm and he felt himself relax into its softness.
A lethargy came with it and he felt himself sink into a soft void…
"Johnny!" His face stung with the smart slap and he opened his eyes to see Scott hover over him. "Come on boy, you have to stay with us. You've only got a couple more hours until dawn then we'll have you out of here. Now stay with us."
Johnny let his eyelids close again…he was just too tired…
"Johnny!" Another slap. He was going to have to have a talk with that brother of his.
"Talk to me Johnny. Tell me what you thought when you first met me on that stage."
Johnny grinned. "You first."
"No…no you tell me. I want to know what Johnny Madrid thought of his soon- to- be brother."
"The one with them…God, it hurts, Scott…."
"I know Johnny. Doc will give you something for the pain in a few minutes. It's just a little too soon. Tell me Johnny…what about that first time."
"You mean the sissified fella in them plaid pants?" Jelly laughed.
"Yea…that's the one." Johnny's voice was growing weaker… "He sure was…pretty. Even smelled…better than some of them…ladies."
"Still do brother."
"How ya doing, Johnny? That warm water feel good?" Jelly asked.
"Good…sleepy…wanta sleep…" Johnny's eyelids began to slide closed. The feel of the warm mud sucked him into its embrace.
"Johnny!" That was Teresa. She sounded desperate. Johnny forced his eyes open again. "Johnny, you've got to stay awake. I won't let you die, you hear me. I won't let you. You and Scott, you came into my life…and I'll be damned if I will let you leave like this."
"…Damned?" Johnny grinned, a whisper of a laugh passing his lips. Then the world fell away from him and he sank into the deep warm protection of unconsciousness.
"Let him sleep for a few minutes," Sam said, "he's exhausted. Give him fifteen minutes then wake him again."
Murdoch nodded, stepping away to stand next to Jelly. The old handyman was hovering over the three men keeping the trench open, making sure the mud didn't form dams to obstruct the flow. But he saw the danger in Jelly's plan and grabbed his arm, pulling him beyond Johnny's earshot.
"This is a wonderful idea Jelly, and it's working perfectly, but you've got to make sure the men keep the water from spreading beyond Johnny. If the branches sink in the mud the trunk might sink too."
"Never thought of that, boss."
"Just dig that trench deep enough to keep the water from flowing over."
Jelly nodded. "You men there," he shouted, "make that trench at least two feet deeper."
The camp was once again alive with activity. A constant supply of water was hauled up from the river and set to heat over several camp fires. More men were assigned to keep the trough running smoothly.
For the first time that night Sam felt there was a chance that Johnny might survive. His body temperature had come up to near normal. The increased heat eased the pain in the boy's back.
If they could keep him conscious, there was a chance.
"Murdoch," Scott called. "Johnny wants you."
Murdoch quickly made his way back through the maze. Needing time to himself, he had found a quiet spot in the deep shadows and tried to make sense of it all. Of course, he knew there was no answer. Clay Martin's words echoed in his mind…"God must need him Murdoch…" but he could not believe that God would be so cruel to take Johnny away after he just found him again, after all those years.
He kneeled down with a heavy groan and smiled wanly at Scott. Threading his hand through the web of limbs, Murdoch felt Johnny squeeze his hand weakly and leaned he down closer.
The mud had crept over his shoulders, pooling around his neck and seeping into his ears. But it was warming his body.
"Talk…alone…" Johnny whispered, each word said with a halting breath.
Murdoch looked to Scott, who smiled in understanding. "I'm going to check on Jelly's coffee. See if it's gotten any worse." He stood up slowly, patting Murdoch on the shoulder. He could see the fear in his father's eyes and he felt his own fear rise.
Murdoch carefully lowered himself to the ground, easing his long legs between branches until he was lying on his side, avoiding the trench that siphoned the excess warm water away from Johnny. Resting on his elbow, he used his other hand to comb Johnny's hair back from his forehead.
"A little warmer?" he asked.
"Thank…Jelly for me…"
"He'll be along in a few minutes, you can tell him yourself."
"Murdoch…" Johnny's voice sounded so weak that Murdoch had to strain to hear each word. "I wanted…you to know…I've been happy."
"Me too, son. Having you and Scott with me has been a blessing come true. I never thought I would ever have you two back home with me. I'm sorry we lost so many years, son. I should have looked harder. I should have…"
"I didn't…want to be found. I…was afraid."
There was a long silence and Murdoch waited, watching Johnny's eyes close then open again, as if he were fighting an inner battle.
"Of what I would… do… when I finally saw you," he answered at last. "I…I promised myself when Mama…died that I would…kill you… for what you did to her." Murdoch's hand froze, his fingers tangled in Johnny's fringe of black bangs. "That you would…pay for all her pain…and sadness."
"Johnny…" Murdoch reached down to find Johnny's hand, his own hand trembling.
"I never killed…a man in cold blood. Couldn't…" Johnny loosened his weak grip on Murdoch's hand, allowing his father to pull away if he wanted to. But Murdoch held steady.
"I know that, son."
"But…I wanted to…kill you."
Murdoch's throat constricted.
"I wanted you…to pay for Mama…"
"They were lies Johnny. I never threw you two out. I wouldn't …"
"I know….I know now…but then. I came to get my…thousand dollars and… then I was gonna…I was gonna goad you into…a fight. Make you so mad at me that you'd…try to draw on me."
"I would never have drawn on you, John. I couldn't…"
"I know that…now. But then…" Johnny fought to focus on the face that was so close to his. He expected to see anger and disappointment. He saw neither.
"But you stayed, after Pardee. You stayed."
"You weren't…the man I thought. I'm…sorry…"
"John, you listen to me. You have nothing to be sorry for. I don't care what brought you to Lancer, I just thank God every day that you came. We're going to get you out of here and then we are never going to speak of this again." Murdoch shifted, freeing his other hand to gently stroke Johnny's cheek. "I love you son. I always have, and I always will. Nothing you can tell me will change that."
Murdoch looked up to see Sam standing on the fringes of the branches, waiting. He cleared his throat and squeezed Johnny's hand again. "It looks like Sam wants to have a talk with you too. I'll just go see how that coffee is. With luck, Scott drank it all already."
"Murdoch!" Johnny tried to hold onto Murdoch's hand. "Take care of Scott… don't…don't let him leave Lancer."
"No one is leaving Lancer, including you, young man." But Murdoch's attempt at gruffness faltered when his voice betrayed him.
Sam was leaning over his shoulder now. "Murdoch, it's almost sunup. I have to talk to Johnny before we begin."
Murdoch reluctantly changed places with Sam, looking up at the sky. The old doctor was right. The first tinge of light was pushing back the black sky. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Was he ready for this? Were Sam's direst predictions about to come true?
The unknown terrified him…
Dawn arrived at last, pushing back the darkest part of the night. Already the camp was stirring. Voices lowered, as if the smallest sound would intrude on the drama playing out beneath the old oak tree.
A few of the men found relief from the pall of sadness that hovered over the camp in sleep. But most stared at the stars as they slowly marched across the sky, listening to the faint voices rising from the ring of lanterns chasing the dark night away from the young man, trapped for so many hours beneath the weight of the fallen limb.
Jelly pried himself away from his vigil and made fresh coffee and biscuits for the men, knowing that Johnny's life depended on their strength and alertness.
Teresa moved about, as if in a trance, preparing the medical tent, scrubbing the table that was to be used as a surgical table with carbolic acid and boiling water, sterilizing the instruments Sam might need. She had been through this before, preparing for operations, foreseeing what Sam might need.
She heard a footstep behind her and turned to see Murdoch standing under the open tent flap, his face grotesquely lit by the flickering flames of the oil lanterns. Never had she seen him so lost. The pain she saw in those light gray eyes wrenched at her heart and she flung herself into his arms. He held her wordlessly for what seemed like an eternity, his heart beating against her ear. She held on to him, as if in that moment they could stop time. Stop the inevitable.
"Johnny wants to talk to you, sweetheart," he whispered, his voice a ghost of the strong indomitable Murdoch Lancer she knew all her life.
"Is it time?" she asked hesitantly.
Murdoch nodded. "As soon as it's light enough to see. Sam and Scott are with him now."
"Murdoch, I don't know if I can do this. I love him so much."
She felt Murdoch's arms tighten around her, his face buried in her hair, "We all do, honey. And we have to prove it now. We have to give Johnny every ounce of strength we have. He would do no less for us."
Teresa pushed back from her guardian's chest, wiping the tears from her eyes. She nodded silently, and walked out of the tent.
Scott felt Johnny stir, his weak fingers tightening almost imperceptibly around his hand.
"Hey…" Scott leaned closer, his cramped legs forgotten. He wiped away the mud that seeped up along Johnny's jaw line. What had saved his life a few hours ago with its warmth, now threatened to drown him. "Murdoch went to get Teresa."
"…Good…" The word was little more than an exhale of air.
Teresa's steps slowed as she approached the tree. This nightmare they were living was killing them all. Tearing their hearts out. She saw Scott look up and the magnitude of despair she saw in his eyes made her stagger. The glow from the flickering oil lamps played at the deep furrows of worry in his forehead, making him look terribly old. She had to draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly, before she could take another step.
She heard him as he leaned closer to Johnny. "Teresa's here."
Then she was sitting by him, squeezed into the cubby of naked branches, feeling the outside world fall away. It was just her and Johnny. She held his hand, gently caressing his muddy fingers. They felt so cold.
She brushed the hair from his forehead, damp and caked with mud. And so hot with fever. Jelly's idea had saved his life, the warm mud returning the heat to his body, but with it came the fever.
"Johnny…?" Her lips quivered, her words caught by the lump in her throat.
Johnny's eyelashes trembled, so long and black against his pale skin, then lifted slowly.
"Murdoch said you wanted to see me." She tasted the hot salty tears as they made their way down her cheeks.
His eyes sought hers, fever bright and unfocused.
"I'm right here." She stroked his cheek. "There…" She smiled, seeing that his half closed eyes had found her. "I'll be here as long as you need me."
She watched Johnny's lips move silently, trying to find the strength to speak.…don't try to talk."
"….Promise…" he breathed.
"I'll promise you anything, Johnny."
Teresa sniffed back the tears. "That's a silly promise." She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth twitched downward. "We'll always be together. You and me and Scott and Murdoch."
She could no longer hold back the dam of tears and they flooded her face. "I promise, Johnny."
The smallest of smiles touched Johnny's lips and his eyes slid closed.
She felt someone gently lifting her to her feet.
"Sam needs to see him now," Scott said softly, brushing away her tears. His own tears left a trail down his cheeks in the dust and grime that covered his face.
"This can't be happening." She sobbed into his shoulder. "It can't."
He held her tight, crushing her chest into his. They held each other, too afraid of letting go. To afraid to face what lay ahead.
Murdoch watched the sky as daybreak chased away the darkness of night, revealing the old oak tree once again. He had admired it for its grace and strength, weathering the years without complaint, tall and strong, and now so very deadly.
He took a deep breath, willing his body and mind to carry on past the exhaustion and the grief, to do what had to be done to save the son he loved more than life itself.
The men stood around him, silently waiting. They had gathered here to save a life, Johnny's life. How could he thank them? What words would express his gratitude? In the end, he knew there were no words. Their eyes told him everything. And he hung his head, like he saw Johnny do so often, overwhelmed.
"Patron," Cipriano stepped forward, his sombrero in his hands, "it is time."
Murdoch raised his head. "Si…" It was time.
"Alright, every man knows his position." Grim faces nodded, spreading out among the branches, axes in hand.
"The team is in place, senor." The old Segundo squeezed his shoulder tightly. "El Dios este con usted…God be with you."
Murdoch watched his old friend make his way to the other side of the tree, his eyes drawn to Scott and Sam as they huddled over Johnny.
With a wave from Cipriano that he was in place, Murdoch swallowed the lump in his throat and yelled… "Let's get this God damned tree off my son!"
Scott heard the braces hammered into place, the huge limb shuddering in protest. Johnny's eyes opened, filled with fear and confusion, searching for him.
"I'm here, brother," he called over the noise. "They're just shoring up the limb. Making sure it doesn't slip. We'll have you out of here before you know it."
Johnny stared at him, looking straight through the façade, and seeing his fear and anger.
The limb jerked and Johnny cried out weakly, the branch digging deeper into his side.
"Scott." Sam was pushing him aside. He released Johnny's hand reluctantly.
Sam drew up the nasal tube and infused the medication into it, his hands shaking.
"Johnny, I have given you something to put you to sleep."
"…No…" Johnny's feeble cry cut into Sam's heart.
"Don't fight it, Johnny, just let it take you. When you wake up you'll be in your own bed back at Lancer."
"I'm here, Johnny, I won't leave you."
"I know. I know." Scott moved in behind Johnny's head, snapping the branches away from his face, damming the consequences. "I'm right here. I won't leave you."
"…I…know…" Johnny's eyes slid closed, his body relaxing deeper into the mud.
Sam quickly checked his pulse and nodded. "Now you go help your father. Leave Johnny to me."
"No. I made Johnny a promise."
"Scott," Sam raised Scott's chin, "there's nothing more you can do for Johnny here. Your father needs you now. If Johnny doesn't make it," Sam urged gently, "don't let this be a burden that Murdoch shoulders alone. He needs your strength."
Scott looked toward Murdoch, running from one side of the fallen branches to the other, watching every man's move, yelling orders. Even at this distance he could see the wild, terrified look in his eyes.
He nodded to Sam then leaned over Johnny, ever so carefully brushing away the errant strands of hair from his closed eyes. "Stay with us, brother," he whispered, touching his lips to Johnny's forehead. "Stay with us…"
He wondered as he slowly rose on trembling legs if he would ever hear Johnny's voice again.
Scott checked all the braces making sure every weight bearing branch was wedged tight. Making his way back to Sam he nodded and dropped to his knees, looking down at Johnny's still face. It wasn't natural to seem him this quiet. Even in sleep he could be seen moving, fidgeting…and now he lay like death had already claimed him. He pushed back the macabre thought.
Gripping the branch that had Johnny impaled since yesterday afternoon, he held tightly to the wood, Johnny's blood coating the bark, drawn up the stem like a siphon, making it slippery.
"Ok Sam, do it."
Sam started sawing at the branch with a small saw. "We'll leave it in until we can get him on the table," the old doctor panted. "We'll have to work fast once the limb is lifted."
"How long before we know?"
Sam looked over at Scott. "Not long. He will bleed to death internally within minutes if there is that kind of damage."
Feeling the branch snap free of the huge limb Scott panicked at the blood flowing around the branch.
"Don't worry." Sam scrambled around so he could press a towel against Johnny's side to staunch the blood flow. "I expected this. Now let's get him out of here."
Scott signaled Murdoch and silence fell over the camp. Men stood stone still, their axes hanging loosely from their hands, their chest still heaving from the exertion.
Murdoch whispered an anguished prayer and signaled Cipriano. "Slow and easy," he ordered.
The team pulled forward and the limb shuddered, but didn't move.
"Keep pulling!" Scott yelled.
Cipriano urged the team to move forward.
The limb creaked and moaned, but stayed in place.
Sam kept his hand on Johnny's neck, feeling his pulse.
The limb shuddered again, as if it were refusing to leave Johnny behind, then it was free, hanging inches above Johnny's chest.
Scott watched the limb rise, its heavy weight sagging against the ropes. The ropes singing in protest.
"He's still with us," Sam yelled, his voice shaking with fear.
It seemed an eternity before Scott yelled, "Hold it!" The limb swung slowly three feet above Johnny's chest, the ropes moaning in protest.
"Let's get him out!"
Murdoch was next to him now, his face as white as a ghost, his hands trembling as he slid them through the thick mud beneath Johnny's shoulders.
"His pulse is weak but steady. I think we may have dodged the bullet."
"Then let's get him out of here!"
Men moved into place, groping beneath the mud, ready to lift Johnny's arms and legs. Scott cradled his head while Murdoch held his shoulders…
"Lift him, easy."
But the mud refused to release its hold on Johnny.
They pulled, trying to break the suction, fearful that they would injure him even more. The limb swayed above their heads, its weight groaning against the ropes. The horses snorted and panted against the tremendous weight.
And still they could not free Johnny.
Suddenly the suction was broken and Johnny was lifted from his bed of mud to a waiting blanket beyond the limb.
"Let it down!" Murdoch called and the limb eased back to the ground, and settled into the mud.
At last Teresa felt as if she could actually help.
She had watched them carry Johnny into the medical tent, eight men, struggling under the extra weight of the mud that covered him from head to toe. They laid him on a cot next to the table and she began washing away the thick mud from his bare chest, revealing scraps and cuts from the sharp branches, carefully avoiding the branch still impaling his side.
Scott undid his belt and Murdoch cut away his pants, not waiting for the conchos to be unbuttoned. Sam appeared in fresh clean clothes and began washing his hands in a basin of carbolic acid.
"Lift him onto the table carefully," he ordered, "then get yourselves cleaned up."
"Sam, I'm not leaving here until…" Murdoch began belligerently.
Sam's voice cut through the tent like a knife. "You will do as I say! This boy has gone thorough more hell than any of us could ever imagine. Now, he has a chance of surviving, and by God, you're not going to jeopardize that with that damn stubborn streak. Now, get out of here, all of you, and clean up. If I need you, I'll call you. Teresa here is all the help I need at the moment."
Scott and Murdoch paced a rut into the ground in front of the medical tent. Hour after hour they waited. They heard Sam and Teresa's muddled voices through the tent. They gave each other worried glances, neither one of them able to express the fear that clawed at their hearts.
They had followed Sam's orders and quickly washed the mud off themselves in the stream, allowing the warm sun to dry their clothes on their backs.
One hour seemed to drag into another, and still there was no news.
Murdoch looked around the camp and realized that not one man had left. They stood or sat in small groups, talking quietly. Jelly made lunch and forced Murdoch and Scott to eat at least half the sandwich he had made. "Ya won't do that young'n in there any good if ya get yerselves sick too. Now eat!"
Father and son complied, Murdoch reaching out to pat Jelly's shoulder. "You're a good friend Jelly Hoskins."
"Ah, get on with that sandwich, will ya?" But the old man was obviously pleased.
Inside the tent Sam stood up, leaning back to stretch his lower aching back.
"That's all we can do for now." Medicine was so woefully inept when it came to injuries beneath the skin. He could set bones and suture cuts. He could remove an inflamed appendix or cut away a ruptured spleen, but he could not see or treat the organs that sustained a man's life. He could not guarantee this young man's family that there was not a small perforation in a vein or an artery that would slowly leak inside his body until he keeled over dead, days or even weeks from now.
He wearily drew a white sheet up over Johnny's shoulders. The boy had survived when no man had a right to. Was it because he fought so tenaciously…or was it the love of family and friends, people who refused to let him go?
He would never know the answer. He would ponder it for many weeks and years to come. But the answer would remain as elusive as life itself.
"You'd better bring Murdoch and Scott in before they tear this tent down."
Teresa opened the tent flap motioning Murdoch and Scott inside.
Scott gasped at the sight of Johnny lying on the surgical table. His face was nearly as white as the pillowcase beneath his head. Bandages covered the deeper cuts from the sharp branches. But everywhere there were cuts and bruises. So much bruising.
"Sam…?" Murdoch whispered. He feared what he would hear.
"I've done all I can for him here." Sam sighed. "I removed the branch from his side and stitched the hole. Infection will be a problem. I also put temporary splints on his fractured leg."
"Is he going to make it, Sam?" Scott's voice was husky with worry.
"I wish I could give you an answer, Scott. But I just don't know yet. He has several broken ribs and his left lung is not filling like it should. I'm hoping with the weight off his chest it will begin to expand as it should. His right lung is clearer than I expected, but pneumonia is still a very real possibility. His back seems to be ok. His arms and legs react to stimulation. He's got deep bruising throughout most of his body.
I've given him another dose of chloral hydrate to keep him sleeping until we get back to Lancer. Then we'll use morphine and laudanum to control the pain once he's conscious. The next forty eight hours will tell us more. His fever is high, but his pulse is strong. "
Murdoch moved across the tent, his legs trembling. Johnny looked so vulnerable lying beneath the white sheet. His breaths came in short pants.
He leaned down close to Johnny's ear and whispered, "Stay with us son, we love you."
He stood up slowly, "I'll get the wagon ready," he said, his face almost as white as Johnny's. "You stay with him son. You have a promise to keep."
Scott grabbed Murdoch's arm. "Thank you, sir"
Murdoch nodded and disappeared into the daylight. He had friends to thank as well.
Scott moved over to the table. "I knew you would make it, little brother," he spoke softly, brushing the hair off Johnny's forehead as he had done so many times throughout the night. "We're going to take you home now."
He turned to Sam, the old doctor looked exhausted. But there was relief in his eyes. A burden as heavy as the limb that trapped Johnny had rested on his chest. Now it was lifted. The burden of not knowing if he could save the boy once he was free.
"Thank you…" he offered Sam his hand, but the old man swiped it away and embraced Scott tightly. "You take good care of that boy, you hear? I have a lot of hours invested in him."
"We will Sam. I promise, we will."
Teresa sniffed back the tears she felt building again. She feared this moment would never come. In the darkest part of the night she had lost hope. At last she could breathe again. Johnny would make it.
Johnny sipped at the warm soup, savoring the spicy bits of pork Maria had added. The first solid food he was allowed in over a week.
He looked out the window at the rain that lightly fell. It was unusual to have rain this early in the season, but he relished it, as it dampened the heat and refreshed the air.
Being stuck in bed was an uncomfortable, boring experience for most, but for Johnny it was nearly impossible.
If not for the fact that his well meaning family had stripped him of his clothes and hid every stitch in some other room, he would have made it out of bed somehow. But he was stuck, and he did everything he could think of to keep his mind occupied, and off the nightmare that still haunted him, day and night.
He worried the hem of the blanket, his fingers still swollen and bruised. Sam said it would take time for all the bruising to heal. The laudanum, despite his near fanatical abhorrence to the drug, was still necessary to ease the pain. The hole in his side still continued to fight Sam, and Johnny received a concerned look each time the old doctor changed the dressing, but Johnny was not worried. He had survived. He was alive.
But he could not escape the memory of the fear that gripped him, trapped beneath that limb, as Sam gave him the chloral hydrate and he slipped away from them…afraid that he would never return. He was never afraid of death before. But he had never had anything so precious to lose: A family and friends that loved him. And a promise from a brother…
He remembered opening his eyes for the first time, safe in his bed, Murdoch and Teresa waiting anxiously, but most of all, he remembered Scott, leaning over him, coaxing him to return to them.
He heard the door open and Scott stepped in, a pile of books in his arms.
"Here you go, brother, I thought you could use a little diversion. These are a few of the books I've read and liked."
Johnny eyed the books suspiciously. "You expect me to read all of these?"
"No, I was just giving you a variety of reading material." Scott dumped them on the bed. "I'm sure you'll find something that will interest you. Or do you want me to raid the bunkhouse and steal one of those dime novels? I'm sure I can find one about Johnny Madrid."
Scott flashed Johnny a smile so bright he couldn't help but chuckle.
"Naw, they never get the story right. These will do just fine, Boston."
Scott's smile sobered, "How are you feeling, Johnny?"
"Better. Much better."
"I heard you cry out in your sleep last night."
Johnny looked back down at his hands again. "Just nightmares. They'll pass."
Scott nodded. Silence fell between them, knowing they each had their own nightmares. But time would heal all, in time.
"I've got to get back to work. Someone has to pick up the slack, little brother."
"I owe ya."
"No, Johnny, you don't owe me a thing."
"I owe you my life."
The door closed softly, and Johnny closed his eyes. It was worth the fight. Every minute of it.
Two Months Later
Johnny sat astride Barranca, feeling the power of the beautiful palomino beneath him. He thought the day would never come when he was back in the saddle. Feeling whole again.
But there was something he had to do before he could put this behind him and go on with his life.
He glanced over at Scott as he rode beside him, his face expressionless. His brother knew what he had to do, and knew why he had to do it. He just thought it was too soon.
But an open wound would never heal, it would only going on festering, until it was cleaned out. And that is what he had, an open wound in his soul.
They slowed as the tree came into view.
The fallen limb had been hauled away, leaving no evidence of what went on there more than two months ago. Only those who knew the tree well would see the sun shining on the ground where branches should have shaded the grass.
Johnny felt his hands begin to sweat and his heart pound in his chest.
He knew fear, understood it, accepted it as friend and foe. It had kept him alive when pride and anger would have killed him. But today, and the past two months, it was his enemy. It kept him awake at night, drilled a hole right into his gut, and twisted it like a knife.
"Are you sure, Johnny?" Scott asked. "It may be too soon."
Johnny shook his head. It was long overdue. "It's time," he answered softly.
They walked their horses slowly toward the tree, its branches swaying lightly in the wind.
Johnny dismounted. His legs felt like rubber as he stood for a long moment, holding onto the saddle.
The tree loomed in front of him. Taunting him. He remembered the pain. The feeling of being trapped and unable to move. The fight to draw air into his starving lungs. The cold seeping into his body. But most of all he remembered the fear. So strong and overpowering that it nearly killed him.
"You're not strong enough for this, Johnny." Scott went to wrap his arm around Johnny's waist, but his younger brother slapped his hand away.
"I can do this, Scott. I have to."
Silence fell between them for a long moment. Then Scott nodded. "All right..." He held his arm out, "But you don't have to do it alone."
Johnny turned to him, saw the love and respect and the friendship in those blue eyes, and his fear drained away.
Together they walked toward the tree, Johnny leaning heavily on Scott's arm.
Scott helped ease him down to the ground beneath a huge oak branch and they laid on their backs looking at the sunlight sparkling through the leaves.
"You know what little brother?"
"What big brother?"
"We're going to have to come up with one hell of a good explanation for our old man."
Johnny turned to look at Scott, his brother's face beaming with contentment. "For what?"
Scott grinned. "Why we're resting under an oak tree in the middle of the day when there's work to be done."
Johnny smiled. "We're just gonna have to kidnap the old man one of these days and show him what he's missing."
He closed his eyes as the warm sun bathed his face and he drifted into a sweet dreamless sleep beneath the branches of the old oak tree.