If there was one thing more unnerving than following his brother’s blood trail, it was seeing Scott’s struggle laid out in cold, damp mud. The week long rain had let up, but Johnny could see the gray clouds gathering up in the horizon, just waiting to drop their load on the already saturated ground.
Those clouds were the enemy because as diluted as the blood trail was it gave him a path to follow when the churned up ground hid Scott’s sign. Johnny was a fair tracker, but he never claimed to be an expert and he sure wished he knew more now. The intermediate rainfall had washed out part of Scott’s trail, but Johnny knew his brother would head for home if he was able.
It was the unable that was cause for concern.
Scott was falling more and each time it was harder for him to get up. Johnny could read that all too well. He had ranged far and wide to pick up Scott’s trail again after losing it when his brother had crossed what was normally a small creek but had swollen to a medium-sized river. Scott had lost miles when it became obvious to Johnny he had slipped and was swept downstream.
There was an alarming amount of blood remaining on the bank where Scott had fought his way through the current and out of the river to collapse. He’d laid there a while gathering his strength and Johnny wished Scott was a little less stubborn so he could have caught up with him there.
But then Scott didn’t know about Johnny’s plan to ride out and meet him, having quite enough of wet clothing and soggy food. The idea of a fire in the hearth with a bowl of Maria’s stew made him moan, knowing that both awaited them – if he could just catch up with his brother.
A brother who was bleeding too much for far too long.
Johnny had come across the collapsed hillside over an hour ago. The sheer magnitude in the change of the landscape had shocked him, but it was the vague impression in the shape of a horse that had him tearing down to the bottom. Half buried in mud, the animal had died quickly; the broken neck unmistakable in spite of the muck.
The saddle and saddlebags remained buried under a good foot of mud, but Johnny knew this was the mount Scott rode out on that morning, along with a few of the vaqueros, to see what kind of damage the storm the night before had left. Scott would’ve seen this new front moving in and it would be like his brother to send the crew on ahead to get them out of the next wave of storms.
They did it all the time to Murdoch’s frustration, but then the ol’ man did it often enough himself that any argument about that particular practice was short. A few smirks in their father’s direction and an exasperated huff from Murdoch - conversation over.
Murdoch warned them every year about the mudslides. Told them not to get close to the edge, but there was no accounting for the sheer scope of this slide. He knew Scott had to have been taken by surprise.
One doesn’t expect half the hill to disappear under you unless there’s a quake.
Johnny shoved the idea of food and warmth to the back of his mind and focused once more on the ground beneath them. Barranca plodded on, the sucking sound revealing the earth’s reluctance to release the horse’s hooves. Johnny grimaced as his back twinged from hanging over the side of the saddle too long. He straightened, arching his back, and let out a soft groan as muscles took a moment to slide back where they belonged.
Barranca nickered and he stroked the damp neck. “I know, I know. Just hang on a bit longer. We’ll be home and dry in no time.”
Johnny couldn’t help taking it personally when the skies chose that moment to move from a fine mist to an all out downpour.
He shuddered as the rain worked down his collar and slid a shivery trail down his back. His bones ached with the cold it brought. He didn’t want to imagine Scott soaked through and struggling through this muck.
Scott couldn’t be that far ahead, hurt like he was.
Looking in the distance he spotted the game trail and gambled that Scott would take the path of least resistance. Deer and cows alike used it to skirt around the hillside. Dangerous now with the mudslides, but given Scott’s difficulty in walking his brother didn’t have the luxury of choice.
Urging Barranca forward the pair worked their way along the well-beaten track. There was eagerness to the palomino’s step as this was the route back to Lancer and Johnny felt some hope they were gaining on Scott.
Rain fell like a curtain over the landscape and visibility worsened yet again. Johnny swore as the force of it pummeled his body, and he hunched over the saddle in an effort to lessen the effect. His back took the brunt of it, but it was this position that allowed him to spot the bloody handprint on the boulder as they rounded a switchback.
Johnny slid off Barranca dropping to his knees beside it, unmindful of the mud. The mark dissolved as the rain washed it away, but the fact that it was there…
The downpour muted Johnny’s voice. He struggled to his feet searching further up the track.
His brother couldn’t be far. Slip-sliding in the mud Johnny pushed on, Barranca plodding at his heels.
The trail sloped down and it was impossible to see any tracks now, but the boot jutting out from behind a rock gave him his brother’s location.
Scott was folded over, limbs jumbled together looking much like a marionette with its strings cut. Johnny scrambled into the dubious cover Scott had dropped into. The hillside blocked some of the wind, but given the way it was gusting, it wasn’t enough. Johnny straddled Scott’s legs and leaned over him to block the stinging rain.
“Scott?” Only the back of his brother’s head was visible, and the blond hair was plastered to his scalp. Peeling off his gloves, Johnny shoved them in his belt and touched the side of Scott’s neck. His own fingers numb with the cold, it took longer than was comfortable for Johnny to find a pulse.
His knees almost buckled when he found it.
“Hey, Brother, can you hear me?” Johnny leaned in closer; hands on each side of Scott’s head to tilt his face up. “Scott.”
Whether Scott heard, or it was the movement, he gave a soft moan.
“That’s it. I need you to talk to me.” Johnny’s thighs began to burn in the crouched position and he shifted to ease the ache. Scott’s right hand came up to grasp Johnny’s left wrist in a weak grip.
“Johnny?” Eyes blinked open and focused on Johnny’s. “Where’d you come from?”
Johnny gave an inward grimace at the mere whisper of Scott’s voice. “Came looking for you. Thought we’d ride back home together.”
“Kind of glad you came.” Scott’s hand fell down to his side. “I’m not at my best.”
“Can see that. Where are you hurt?”
“Messed up most of my left side. Think there’s broken bones.” He took a deep shuddering breath. “Did you see?”
“Murdoch warned us. I –”
“Scott.” Johnny peeled his brother’s slicker to the side. Grimaced at the blood soaked arm, but was grateful not to see the white of a bone. It might be under the makeshift bandage, but now was not the time to find out. “Half that hill gave way. No one expects that.
Scott blinked up, eyes hazy. “I couldn’t stop it.”
“No one could.”
“How does something like that happen?” Johnny gripped his shoulder, just hearing the ‘he was a good horse’ before Scott’s voice gave out for good.
“Brother, I think it best I get you home now.”
Scott nodded, but the question shone in his face.
“We’ll get you up on Barranca and go from there.” Johnny tapped Scott on the cheek when he saw the protest building. “We’re not far. I can walk.”
A worried frown.
“It’s only a few miles.”
A reluctant nod.
“Can you get up with my help?” Scott raised his good arm up once again, and Johnny ducked under it to lift his brother up. Scott’s legs threatened to fold, but he locked them and gripped Johnny’s shoulder with more strength than Johnny figured he had, given that Scott was so pale he was almost blue.
Time to get home.
Barranca waited with weary patience as Johnny hefted Scott up into the saddle. The only sound out of Scott was a few sharp intakes of breath, but otherwise his brother was silent. Johnny’s hat was knocked loose and he felt the rain take advantage with the wet sneaking down his spine once again. Shuddering at the coldness, he retrieved his headgear and looked up at Scott.
Scott, whose eyes were clear and sharp. Johnny rolled his own.
“I’ll get us home. You just hang on.”
A soft snort. “I believe that is all I am capable of.”
Johnny gathered up Barranca’s reins. “You’ll be good at it then.”
Scott didn’t say anything after that. Johnny would glance up time and again to see his brother’s white-knuckled grip around the pommel. If he followed that hand up to the arm, he’d see Scott’s eyes closed, face set and white. Since it didn’t lessen the worry Johnny held or make slugging through the muck any easier, he stopped looking. Wasn’t anything to be done, but to get them home.
Johnny formed a rhythm of sorts as the trek wore on. Slide, catch his balance, and work his foot free when the mud became deep. He did a silent cheer when he trod on rockier ground and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his boots behind. He picked up the pace, and Barranca tired or not, was just as eager to get home, moving right along with him.
Scott was curved over Barranca’s back, his face hidden under his hat.
Don’t think- just get your brother home.
Johnny reminded himself of that about the time his deadened legs threatened to give out on him. They had about a mile to go and he was worried that it might be a mile too long.
Exhausted as he was, it took Johnny a long moment to make sense of what he was seeing, and when he figured it out he stopped. Relief so strong it took the rest of his strength and all he could do was stand.
Murdoch was riding their way with Cipriano and Frank alongside. Johnny didn’t think he had ever seen a more handsome sight.
“Johnny?’ A hoarse whisper.
“Murdoch’s on his way.” He shifted to stand by Scott’s leg and laid a hand on his knee. “Can you hold on yet?”
“Good. We’ll be home in no time.”
Johnny waited to see Scott nod, and then Murdoch was there.
Murdoch didn’t ask questions and neither did Cip or Frank. Frank held down his hand and pulled Johnny up behind him. Murdoch’s face was grim when he laid a hand on Scott’s shoulder and peered underneath Scott’s hat to see his face. Johnny could see their father didn’t like what he saw. Cip caught up Barranca’s reins and they covered the last mile for home in relative ease.
Johnny’s legs didn’t feel like they belonged to him when he slid off the back of Frank’s horse. Once he was certain they would support him, Johnny made his way over to his brother. Murdoch was off his horse, standing alongside Scott, his voice low and urgent as he laid a hand on Scott’s good leg. His eyes flicked to Johnny.
“He won’t let go.”
Stubborn. Always stubborn.
Johnny closed his hand over Scott’s, gripping hard.
“We’re home, Scott. Let go now.” The rain had let up some, but Johnny couldn’t stand to be out in it another minute, and Scott needed to be out of it a long time ago. “Scott. Let. Go.”
Scott’s head tilted up a fraction. “We’re home?”
“Yeah, we are.”
“Good.” And Scott folded like a house of cards. One moment he was mounted on Barranca, the next he all but poured off the saddle. Johnny scrabbled around Barranca to help Murdoch stop Scott’s descent.
“Watch his arm!” Johnny fought for a grip, but Scott was dead weight. Then other hands joined theirs. Cip caught Scott’s head, while Frank held his feet with Murdoch and Johnny at each a side. The French doors swung open before they reached them. Teresa led the way to the couch, and they wasted no time getting Scott there.
The situation became blurred after that. Strong hands stripped Johnny of his clothes and he had a vague worry that Teresa would see. He must have said something out loud because he heard Teresa laugh and promise not to look. Wrapped in a quilt, he was pushed into the leather chair by the fireplace. Best of all, a glass of scotch was shoved in his hand with an order to drink.
Johnny did and felt the welcome burn all the way to his stomach.
Johnny was aware of soft orders and well-orchestrated movement in the half doze he was in. Scott was being taken care of and Johnny knew in his own exhaustion he would be a hindrance. Right now he was warm, comfortable and his muscles had all but melted into the chair.
A bowl of the best-smelling stew showed up in front of his face, and his stomach announced just how hungry he was. Teresa sat on the footstool by his elevated feet with a smile.
“You should eat this.” She held out a spoon. “Are you awake enough?”
Johnny reached for both. “I am now.” He looked over to the couch where his brother was laid out and sleeping, Murdoch seated on the coffee table beside him. Somewhere Johnny missed all the coming and goings. “How’s Scott?”
Pale, but not as much as before. Johnny wondered if it was a fever that burned some color into Scott’s cheeks. Murdoch glanced up from where he was smoothing a blanket over him.
“Left arm is broken, but we’ve set it.” Johnny was glad to have missed that. “He has a deep gash along that same arm. Bad bruising along his left side. I don’t think anything is broken, but I’ll have Sam have a look at him tomorrow. It’s too late tonight.”
Murdoch shifted toward Johnny. “What happened?”
“Half a hill came down with him on it.” Johnny took a spoonful of stew and chewed. “Killed his horse.”
Murdoch grimaced. “How long did he walk?”
“About five miles, I think. He lost some when he crossed the creek. Swept him down stream about a mile.”
Johnny felt Teresa’s hand close on his blanketed shin, and she smiled a soft smile. Didn’t say anything, but it was all there anyway.
“He’s got a fever, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t.” Murdoch slapped his knees and stood up. “You two go on to bed. I’ll stay with Scott.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just stay right here.” Johnny handed the now empty bowl to Teresa, who winked and headed for the kitchen.
“Your legs?” Murdoch was grinning. Johnny slid down in the chair, pulling the quilt around him.
“Pretty sure they won’t get me up those stairs.”
“Once the house settles for the night, I’ll give you a hand up.”
“No rush. I’m comfortable.”
Murdoch roamed the great room, extinguishing the lamps as he went until only the one by the couch remained lit and the fire in the hearth. Johnny felt a nice easy lassitude overtake him and he let it. Murdoch was settling in another chair he’d pulled closer, when Scott moaned.
Johnny’s eyes snapped open, and Murdoch bolted out of his chair perching once again on the coffee table.
“Good.” An audible swallow and Scott’s eyes blinked open. “Getting tired of dreaming that we were when we weren’t.”
Murdoch smiled at that and lifted a glass. “Water?”
Scott winced. “Seems I should’ve had plenty of that, but yes, I’d appreciate some.”
While Murdoch poured, Scott turned his head, and Johnny waved when their eyes met. “How you feelin’?”
“Like someone slipped me some laudanum, for which I am grateful.” Scott tried to reach, the movement awkward with his splinted left arm on the outside, while his good right arm was tucked within the blankets. Murdoch brought the glass to his mouth and with an arm under his shoulders eased him up enough to drink. Scott nodded his thanks and Murdoch settled him back on the pillows.
“I don’t think you’ll want to move much for the next few days.” Murdoch set the glass down.
“If it continues to rain like this, I’m fine with that.” Scott yawned. “Thanks for getting me home, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded and settled into his chair once again and Murdoch did the same. Outside, the rain picked up again.