Everything I Need
Scott Lancer cursed the rain and the wind and the sunless sky. He was cold, past physical cold; he was chilled to his soul. The only part of him that was warm, and he shuddered at the thought, was his hands, warm from his father's blood.
Kneeling in the clinging mud, he pressed on the wound in Murdoch's shoulder. Trying to stop the red flood that threatened his father's life, not succeeding, and fighting off a feeling of panic. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up to find his brother staring down, his eyes hard and angry and his face white as a sheet. A thin line of smoke drifted up from the barrel of the gun Johnny held, forgotten, by his side. The brothers' eyes met and a question passed, unvoiced.
"I don't know," said Scott. "I can't get the bleeding to stop."
Johnny's lips parted, as if he meant to say something, but his eyes went back to his father's face. He holstered his gun, dropped to one knee and reached out, then pulled his hand back. Scott could see the muscles in his jaw bunch and quiver.
"You're going to be OK, Old Man," he said. "Do you hear me? You're gonna be just fine. You listen to Scott and we'll have you home before you know it." This time when he reached out, his fingers barely brushed the shoulder of Murdoch's jacket. Then he lurched to his feet.
"Cipriano, I'm going for Sam. Get the boys to start a fire and see if you can rig up some sort of shelter. Put Ramon up on that hillside to keep watch and make sure everyone is ready for trouble." He stopped and looked down on his father again. "See if you can get him out of the dirt." Then more softly, "It ain't right he should be laying there in the mud."
Scott caught Johnny's eye again and Johnny gave a swift nod. "You make sure he keeps breathing, Scott. You make sure."
"I'll do my best. You just get back here with Sam, OK? And be careful."
Johnny nodded and turned toward the horses. His slicker, even smeared with mud and blood, formed an incongruous splotch of bright yellow in the gray and chilly afternoon.
Cipriano gave his orders. Looking down on Scott, he made up his mind and hurried after Johnny. The segundo's hand closed on Johnny's arm just as he reached his horse.
"Senor, you should not go. I will go and bring back Senor Sam, or I can send one of the men."
Johnny lifted the stirrup and hooked it over the pommel of the saddle while he checked the cinch. "No," he said. "You stay here with Murdoch and Scott." Satisfied that the girth was tight, Johnny replaced the stirrup and gathered the reins.
"But Senor, your hermano needs you and," the segundo hesitated, "what if something happens to the patron? You should be here."
Johnny's answer was a flat and fast "No."
"Then you should take one of the hands with you."
Johnny took a deep breath and looked back over his shoulder. "Look, this is not up for discussion. You don't get a vote here."
Cipriano stiffened and his chin rose in affront.
Johnny rubbed his hand over his eyes and down his face. "Cipriano," he said softly, "you heard it all. I knew the shooter, and he knew me. If I go, the threat goes with me."
Cipriano's stance softened a bit. "I see," he said, "but what if you are wrong? What if they are not after you?"
"That's why the hands stay here." Johnny put his foot in the stirrup and swung up onto the waiting palomino.
Gathering the reins, he looked down on his friend. "I want you to stay here and look out for Murdoch and Scott. Make sure nothing else happens to them."
"I do not think that your hermano needs me to watch out for him," Cipriano said with a small smile.
"No, he don't need you to watch out for him." One corner of Johnny's mouth quirked upward before his expression hardened. "But I do. Keep them safe for me, will you?"
Cipriano sighed and looked up at the patron's young son. "Si," he said. "You will take care, yes?"
Johnny nodded, spun Barranca and took off down the hill, leaving the suck and spatter of displaced mud in his wake.
The gunshot yanked Sam Jenkins out of his reverie, and nearly scared him to death. That is, until he heard the voice that accompanied the thundering hoof beats rapidly approaching from behind.
"Sam, wait, Sam!"
Sam brought his buggy to a halt just as Johnny Lancer pulled his lathered palomino to a plunging, muddy stop next to the doctor's phaeton.
"Doc," Johnny started. He coughed and had to stop and take a deep breath before going on. Barranca, standing on trembling legs, blew out a rolling snort.
"Doc," Johnny said, looking up and breathing hard. "Murdoch's been shot. We were up on Brendan's Ridge; there were three of them. . . Doc, you gotta get up there now. He's bleeding something fierce."
"Take it easy, Johnny. I'll get there but first I need to know what I'll be dealing with. How bad is it?"
"I don't know." He rubbed his left hand through his dripping hair and leaned against the pommel with his right. "Scott was trying to stop the bleeding but it wasn't stopping. It didn't look good. You got to go, Doc."
"Where was he shot?"
Sam lifted the reins and began maneuvering his rig around on the narrow and rutted track.
"Uh, left shoulder or chest. Now…"
"Rifle or handgun?"
Sam leaned over to check the position of his left rear wheel as the phaeton slewed in the deep mud.
"I don't know. They were using both. Doc, please!"
"OK, Johnny, show me where."
"It's almost at the top of the ridge, right after you ford the creek. Look for a lightning split pine. You can't miss 'em."
"You're not going with me?"
"No, Barranca's played out." He reached down and ran a hand along the lathered horse's neck. "I'll go back to the ranch and make sure everything's ready for you there. It'll be closer to bring him back to Lancer than it would be to take him into town. Hurry, Doc."
Sam picked up the reins but took one more look at Johnny. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Johnny shot him an angry look. "Hell no, I'm not all right. Somebody just put a fuckin' big hole in my old man. He's bleeding to death on some God forsaken hilltop and I'm stuck here in the middle of the road talking to a stubborn old coot who doesn't have enough sense to get on his way before his patient dies. Will you move?" His voice got louder as he went on until the last phrase was a shout that startled Sam's mare into throwing up her head and dancing between the shafts.
Johnny spun Barranca around and grabbed the buggy horse's reins. He spent a moment soothing the nervous mare until she finally relaxed before he turned back to the doctor.
"Ah hell, Sam." He rubbed a mud stained hand across his eyes and forehead. "I'm sorry. It's just. . ." He looked into the doctor's eyes, "Don't let him die."
"It's OK, Johnny. I'll do my best. Now go home, get the house ready and get into some dry clothes. I'll have Murdoch back there before you know it."
Sam slapped the reins on his horse's back and started back the way he had come. He glanced back after a minute and saw Johnny, still sitting his horse in the middle of the road, his head bent and one arm propped against the saddle, unmoving. He was almost tempted to turn around when the horseman suddenly raised his head and Sam felt the force of those intense eyes urging him on. He spoke to the mare and sent her on at a faster trot.
Scott hunkered down next to the campfire and poured himself a cup of coffee. He wrapped his fingers around the tin cup and surveyed their little encampment.
They had moved Murdoch to the dubious shelter of a small ledge of rock that jutted out from the hillside. It wasn't much but the addition of a lean-to of pine boughs managed to keep most of the drizzle off the injured man.
They hadn't meant to stay out overnight so none of them had packed a bedroll. They'd made do by stripping the saddle blankets off several of the horses and had done their best to make the big man comfortable. Scott and Cipriano had slipped out of their jackets and piled them onto Murdoch as well. Now only his rain slicker and a cotton shirt stood between Scott and the piercing wind that scoured the ridge. He figured the scalding coffee and his worried pacing were all that kept him from freezing solid.
He took another deep drink from the tin cup, set it down and rolled one of the stones that they had been heating at the edge of the fire onto a ragged piece of cloth. He carried it over to his father and tucked it up against the blanket that covered Murdoch's legs. Then he sat back on his heels and studied the man.
Murdoch hadn't moved since they'd laid him here but the bleeding had finally stopped. Scott reached out and tugged Cipriano's jacket up tighter around his father's shoulders. "You hang on, you hear me? Sam's going to be here in just a little while and he'll fix you up in no time. Everything's going to be just fine." He laid his hand on his father's shoulder and took a deep breath. "It hasn't been long enough," he whispered, "we haven't had enough time, all those wasted years…." His voice cracked and he dropped his head. He fisted his hand in the collar of the jacket and brought the other up to pinch the bridge of his nose. When he looked back up he brushed the hair back off Murdoch's forehead, "Besides, if you were to do something stupid like…. well, if you did something stupid, your other son, the hot headed one, he'd have my hide. He said it was my job to keep you breathing and I don't intend to let him down. Do you understand me? Come on, Murdoch, please, open your. . ."
"Senor. Senor Scott."
Cipriano's voice cut through his thoughts. Scott rocked back on his heels and looked over his shoulder to see the big Mexican trotting across the camp in his direction.
"He is awake, Senor. You should come, quickly."
"Who's awake?" Scott climbed to his feet.
"The pistolero, the cobarde who shot the patron."
"I thought he was dead."
"Soon, Senor, not yet, but soon." Cipriano leaned to one side to peer under the lean-to. Then he straightened to look into Scott's eyes. "If you wish to speak with him, you must come now."
The segundo led the way past their sputtering fire and across the small camp to where one of the hands, carbine in hand, stood guard over the bodies of the three bushwhackers. Cipriano pointed to the oldest of the three.
The rain fell on the man's unprotected face. His hair was plastered to his skull and his coat was open so that the downpour diluted the heavy red stain that spread across the front of his shirt.
Scott crouched down by the outlaw and studied him for a moment. Then rolling the man's head toward him, Scott tapped his cheek till the heavy-lidded eyes opened and focused. "Talk to me you son of a bitch."
Scott rode up to the hacienda and swung down heavily from his horse. The closer he’d gotten to home, the louder the beat of the rain and the grayer the sky had become. He was soaked to the skin, tired to the bone and the day wasn't close to being over. He heaved a sigh and walked into the house. Five minutes later he strode out again. There was no one inside, no response to his calls. With a grimace of resignation, he looked toward the barn and splashed out into the rain again.
A brilliant bolt of lightning, followed by a clap of thunder so loud that he felt it in his bones, caused him to flinch and run the last few feet. He ducked inside, pulling the door shut behind him and turned, only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
For a moment the only sound was the hollow drumming of the rain against the roof. Then Johnny blew out a breath and straightened up. "Damn it, Scott," he said, shoving the pistol back into its holster. "When are you going to learn not to sneak up on me?"
Scott drew in a huge lungful of air, "Probably about the same time you stop pulling that cannon every time you hear a board creak or a twig snap."
"Great." Johnny rolled his eyes and turned back to his horse. "We'll both be dead."
"Besides, running in out of the storm is hardly sneaking." Scott took off his hat and shook the rain off it.
"Yeah, well, I…." Suddenly he stiffened and swung back toward Scott. "What are you doing here? Murdoch, he's not…"
Scott moved farther into the barn. Even in the dim light he could see that Johnny's face was white and his eyes were huge. "No, he's going to be fine, Johnny. He's going to be OK."
"Are you sure?"
Scott smiled. "Pretty much. Once I got the bleeding stopped it didn't look as bad as I had thought. And then Sam showed up and said he should be all right."
Johnny turned back to Barranca, his hand carding through the silver mane. "Es verdad?" His soft voice was almost lost in the sound of the rain on the roof.
"Yes, Johnny, really, it's going to be OK."
The dark head bent forward and rested briefly against the warm shoulder of the palomino. He straightened up and looked over his shoulder at Scott. "That still doesn't explain why you're here. You were supposed to be looking out for him."
"He has Sam and Cipriano to look out for him, not to mention Jelly and the four men you sent out with the buckboard. Besides, he sent me back."
Johnny flashed him a brief smile. "He was awake? That's good." His brow furrowed. "What'd he send you back for?"
"He was worried." Scott leaned back against one of the support posts and crossed his arms. "About you."
"It seems he got it into his head that his younger son might do something foolish, like taking off when no one was looking."
"I ain't going nowhere, Scott." Johnny hooked an arm over the pommel of the saddle and rested his weight against the horse.
"Really?" Scott raised one eyebrow and stared at the saddle on Barranca's back.
Johnny ducked his head, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Really." He looked up. "I'm not leaving. I just thought it might be better if I wasn't here at the hacienda for a while. Thought I'd stay in town or maybe at one of the line shacks. At least until we figure this out."
"Johnny, this didn't have anything to do with you."
The smile disappeared from Johnny's face. "Oh yeah, that makes sense. Damn it, Scott, you were there. The man said MY name; he called out to Johnny Madrid. You heard it. So how do you figure that this doesn't have to do with me?"
"Because the shooter told me so."
Johnny snorted. "Hard to do when you're dead."
"He is now, but he wasn't then. I talked to him. He was after Murdoch. It was something to do with the time that Murdoch was a deputy down in Texas. It had nothing to do with Madrid."
Johnny sagged against his horse and just stared.
"In fact," Scott smiled wryly, "he said, and I quote, that `If he'd known Murdoch had hired Johnny Madrid he probably would have forgotten the whole thing and just kept on riding.' Seems that seeing you was quite a shock for him."
Johnny started to say something, stopped and rubbed his hand over his eyes. It looked to Scott as if someone had taken all the starch out of his little brother.
Scott pushed away from the post and stood up. "Look, let's take any further discussion into the house, where it's warm and dry." He started for the door and smiled to himself when he heard the stall door open then latch again.
"No, Johnny." He paused with his hand on the door. "I'm not going to stand around this drafty barn freezing to death when I could be inside in front of the fire with a glass of brandy in my hand. Now come on."
There was something odd about Johnny's voice but Scott was intent on luring his impulsive brother away from his horse and into the house, so he ignored it until he heard a thud, a grunt, and the rattle and clink of falling harness.
"What the…" Scott stopped halfway out the door and glanced back over his shoulder. "Damn." Turning back, he rushed inside and dropped down beside his brother.
Johnny was on his knees with one arm wrapped around a support post. He was trying to push to his feet and disentangle himself from the carriage harness that had fallen when he lurched against it.
"What did you do to yourself now, boy?" Scott began to pull away the leather straps and buckles.
Johnny looked at him with a fuzzy expression. He shook his head, wavered and sat down hard against the post. "Sorry," he said. "I tripped."
"Yeah, sure you did. Here, let me…." Scott moved the last of the harness and sat back on his heels. "OK, can you stand up?"
Johnny had tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Now he peered up at Scott. "Course I can," he said. "I'm fine."
"I don't know about fine." Scott slipped his hand under Johnny's elbow and levered him to his feet. "I'd settle for just being able to walk to the house. Can you do that?"
Johnny nodded. "I can make it."
"Famous last words," Scott muttered under his breath as he pulled his brother's arm over his shoulder and slipped his arm around Johnny's waist. "Let's go."
The distance to the house was twice as far as it had been when Scott made the trip earlier. He would have sworn to it. The rain and the mud didn't make it any easier. Johnny slipped once and they'd both almost gone down. By the time they got to the porch, Scott was supporting most of Johnny's weight and breathing hard. He stopped to adjust the load and Johnny drew in a deep breath that hissed between his teeth.
"It's OK, we're almost there."
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"That's what you keep telling me." Johnny's head had rolled back against Scott's arm and the taller man could see the glitter of his eyes through half closed lids.
"Come on, boy, stay with me." Scott heard a muttered response but couldn't make it out. "Johnny, I need your help."
"Can you get the doorknob? My hands are kind of full."
Between the two of them they made it inside and Scott kicked the door shut behind them. He dragged his brother to the great room and propped him up on the sofa. Johnny's head lolled back against the cushion and he went limp.
Scott stripped off his slicker and sat down on the table in front of the sofa. "Where the hell's Maria?" he muttered as he pulled Johnny's hat off and dropped it on the floor.
"Her niece got a sick kid. She'll be back tomorrow."
Scott nearly jumped out of his skin. "I thought you'd passed out on me."
"Nah." He hadn't moved or opened his eyes. "I'm f…"
"Don't say it," Scott hissed. "Don't you dare say it." Scott started in on the buttons to Johnny's slicker.
"What?" Johnny looked at Scott. He reached down to help with the buttons but Scott batted his hands away and Johnny groaned as the sudden movement jarred him. His head dropped back onto the cushion.
Scott stared into Johnny's ashen face, then put a hand to his forehead. "You're running a fever too. Damn it, little brother, what have you done?" Scott finished the last button and pulled back the slicker. He sucked in a breath.
"Ain't that bad."
"Maybe it wasn't this morning, but it's a mess now." Johnny's left side was covered in blood, his shirt stained scarlet halfway to his armpit. His leather pants, where the slicker had covered them, were also red with it. "What the hell were you thinking, brother?"
Johnny swallowed heavily but didn't open his eyes. "We only have one doctor, Scott. Murdoch needed him."
Scott stared in amazement, shook his head and sighed. He didn't bother with the buttons on the shirt, just ripped it open. Johnny had used a towel to make a heavy pad and strapped it down with a long strip of bandage material. Scott cut the strap and with a glance at his brother's face, he peeled back the pad. Johnny groaned and the muscles in his torso tightened and shuddered. There was a bullet hole, down low on the outside left, just above his belt line. The wound was red and swollen and still seeping gently.
"Did it go straight through?"
"Yeah." The exhaustion showed through and made the drawl even softer.
"You stay put." Scott stood. "I'm going to get something to clean this up."
Scott turned back. "What?"
"Stuff's in Murdoch's room, ready for the doc. Hot water's in the kitchen."
Scott dropped a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed, then left to get his supplies and find someone to unsaddle Barranca and take care of his horse.
Thirty minutes later Scott had stripped off the slicker and stained shirt, washed off the blood, cleaned the wounds with carbolic and applied a new bandage. Johnny was exhausted. Sweat instead of rain now soaked his dark hair.
Johnny had wanted to stay downstairs and wait for Murdoch but Scott had convinced him that, since they'd bring Murdoch upstairs anyway, Johnny could keep a better eye on things if he were in his room. Actually, and Scott grinned to himself, what he'd really wanted was to get Johnny up the stairs and into his bed before he passed out and Scott had to carry him entirely on his own. They'd barely made it.
Scott pulled the blankets up a bit more. He would swear there wasn't an ounce of extra fat on his brother but still, if you had to lug him around, the boy weighed a ton. He pushed the hair off Johnny's forehead and frowned. Damn, his temperature was getting higher.
Scott spent the next two hours in Johnny's room, either sitting by the bed, fighting the fever that grew slowly worse, or standing at the window, watching the road for any sign of the small caravan that would bring Murdoch home.
Johnny drifted in and out, alternating between brief waking and periods of restless sleep. Each time he fought his way to awareness he would ask if Murdoch was back. Scott kept changing the cloths that he placed on Johnny's brow and hoping that the next time his brother asked, he could answer in the affirmative.
Finally, as the gray and dripping day was fading to a charcoal colored twilight, one of the hands that had been with them out on the ridge came thundering into the yard.
Scott ran down the stairs and threw open the door just as the cowboy was about to knock. "Where are they?" he demanded.
The young cowhand took a half a step back and snatched his hat off his head. "They're right behind me, sir." He looked back over his shoulder as if expecting the wagon to materialize out of nowhere. When nothing appeared but another spate of rain he turned back to Scott. "They should be here in about ten minutes. Mr. Cipriano sent me on ahead to let ya know."
"How. . .?" Scott hesitated, and the wet and bedraggled hand looked at him quizzically. "Never mind. You go put your horse away and if they come in tell them to pull up right here. I have some things to take care of before they arrive."
Scott made a beeline for the kitchen where he stoked up the fire under a big pot of water that had been steaming on the stove. He had just started back to the great room when the back door opened and Rosalie Hernandez walked in. She was no more than five feet tall with an ample girth, beautiful black hair and laughing eyes. She was the wife of one of the longtime vaqueros and sometimes helped Maria in the kitchen.
"Rosalie, am I ever glad to see you."
"I told your hermano that I would be back as soon as I could." She checked the big pot on the stove and peered into the firebox. "But you are here, Senor, have they returned with the patron?"
"No, but they're due back any minute."
"Ah," she said, whipping an apron around her waist. "They will be cold and wet. There is coffee to make and perhaps some soup." She pulled a covered crock out of one cupboard and a large mixing bowl out of another. "There is bread in the pantry, and some roast." Several jars of tomatoes and some spices appeared on the counter. She had started to mutter to herself in Spanish when she suddenly stopped and looked at Scott. "Why are you standing there? Vamanos. Go and meet the patron. Leave this to me."
Scott started to say something, but nodded instead and beat a hasty retreat, glad to leave the kitchen in the hands of the miniature whirlwind in an embroidered skirt.
He was headed for the stairs to check on Johnny when he heard a commotion out front. Switching direction in mid stride, he opened the door on a scene of total chaos.
Sam's buggy, covered with mud and grime, was pulled up just down from the porch. The buckboard was backed up as close as it could get to the overhang and what looked like a dozen horses, including Murdoch's big bay, were abandoned to wander between the house and barn. Around the wagon, five or six men argued and gestured, and Jelly's voice could be heard above the general din, shouting orders. Scott started out to the buckboard when Sam detached himself from the crowd and headed for the house with his bag in hand.
"How is he, Sam?"
Sam threw a disgusted look at the group around the wagon. "Well, if that bunch doesn't drop him on his head trying to get him into the house, we'll take him upstairs, put him into a nice warm bed and then I'll let you know."
Sam put his hand on Scott's arm. "You worry too much," he said, and pushed his way into the house.
"Scott, go see if you can't bring some order to that mess out there. I'm going to look for some coffee."
"Rosalie's in the kitchen," Scott called.
"Bless you," Sam said and disappeared down the hall.
Scott started out the door then stopped and shook his head. First he had to tell Sam about Johnny, it shouldn't wait. He started down the hall just as Sam stopped and turned around.
"Oh, by the way," Sam said, "where's Johnny?"
Sam forgot about his coffee and headed upstairs while Scott supervised the transfer of his father into the house and up to his bedroom.
The next couple of hours were a whirl of activity with Sam shuttling back and forth between two sickrooms. Scott carried water, rounded up supplies and finally was assigned the task of keeping an anxious and increasingly belligerent Murdoch in his bed so Sam could finish up with Johnny.
Now it finally looked like things were winding down. Scott found himself alone, with no immediate demands on his time. He drew a deep breath and made his way down to the kitchen. A few minutes later he walked into his brother's bedroom to find Sam fastening his shirtsleeves and staring at Johnny.
"Here, Sam." Scott handed him his long overdue cup of coffee. Stepping closer to the bed, he studied his brother. "How's he doing?"
"Your brother," Sam looked over at Scott, "is an idiot."
Scott snorted, and smiled. "Yes, but he's the only idiot I've got. So, is he going to be all right?"
Sam set down his coffee cup and ran his hand across Johnny's forehead, testing the fever. "It depends on how the infection behaves. I've cleaned and debrided the wound and removed some bits of cloth. I'm hoping that will take care of most of the problem. If it does, he should be fine."
Scott winced at the last word.
Sam looked up in surprise. "What?"
Scott shook his head. "Never mind. It's been a long day. Why don't I sit with him for a while and you can go and check on Murdoch? He's not going to stop fuming until he gets a full report."
Sam gave Scott a dirty look but picked up his coffee and headed out of the room. "I should have listened to my mother," he grumbled, "and become a longshoreman."
Scott chuckled to himself, then dipped a cloth in the basin of cool water and began to wipe down his brother's face and neck.
Sam took another sip of Murdoch's excellent Scotch whisky and rolled his neck to loosen the kinks. What a day. Sam stopped to admire the firelight reflecting off the contents of his glass. He hadn't thought he was ever going to be warm again, or dry, but the liquor and the crackling blaze in the fireplace were going a long way towards rectifying those complaints. He dropped his head back on the cushions and sighed, only to open one eye at the sound of heavy footsteps descending the stairs. A moment later Scott came around the corner and trudged across the room to fall into the chair on the other side of the large fireplace.
"You, my boy, look beat."
"That makes two of us," Scott responded, reaching up to rub his eyes.
"How are things upstairs?"
"Quiet, thank God. I just looked in on Murdoch and he's asleep. Johnny hasn't so much as twitched for the last hour and a half."
"Good. That's what he needs. Rosalie made me a plate of sandwiches." Sam nodded toward a napkin-covered dish. "There's one left if you want it."
"Not yet, Sam. I just want to sit here for a moment and enjoy the quiet."
Murdoch lay in his big bed, propped up on a collection of feather pillows. His gray hair was mussed and untidy and the edge of a thick dressing peeked out from under the collar of his nightshirt. The lamp by his bed had been turned down to the barest glow and his breathing was slow and even.
His slumber was disturbed when a frown creased his brow and his hand twitched and curled closed. His eyes moved rapidly behind his lids and he murmured something under his breath. His breathing grew more erratic until suddenly he gasped and his eyes flew open.
He had been deeply asleep and the sudden waking unsettled him. It took him a moment to remember where he was and what had happened. The biggest reminder came from the jolt in his shoulder when he shifted position.
He blew out a breath and blinked several times before he glanced around the room to see if he was alone. He wasn't. He jumped again.
There by the foot of his bed, quiet as midnight and backlit by the glow of the hallway lamps, stood his younger son, wearing nothing but a bandage and a pair of patched and faded long johns.
"Johnny," Murdoch hissed. Somewhere back in the "father" part of Murdoch's brain, a little voice made a note: buy the boy some new underwear. "What are you doing out of bed?"
He didn't answer but something about the stillness of the figure sent a chill through the groggy man. Johnny's face was in shadow but Murdoch could see the sheen of his eyes and he would have sworn that they weren't focused on anything in the room.
Silently the figure moved, walking halfway down the length of the bed, one long brown finger trailing over the edge of the bedspread.
"Johnny?" Murdoch called out softly. He got no response so he leaned forward and gently touched that trailing hand.
Johnny jerked and gasped, his eyes darting around the room until they finally fell on his father. "Murdoch?" he whispered. He stood there staring for a moment before he swayed. His eyes rolled back and his knees gave out.
Scott and Sam were both just drifting away when an angry bellow from upstairs jerked them both halfway out of their chairs. Scott looked at Sam, his eyes round and startled.
"That sounded . . . healthy?" he said. They sprinted for the stairs.
Murdoch had the covers thrown back and was swinging his legs out of the bed when Scott stopped at the door to his father's room. Sam pushed him aside.
"Get back in that bed," Sam ordered. Scott thought his tone of voice would have done any of the generals that he had served under proud.
Murdoch's head came up as if he were going to argue but he slowly swung his legs back onto the bed. Sam pulled the covers back into place and knelt beside Johnny.
"What happened here?"
"I'm not really sure," said Murdoch. "He walked in and keeled over."
Scott went over and knelt by Johnny. He slipped one of Murdoch's pillows under the dark head and reached to turn up the lamp.
Murdoch related the story. "I swear, Sam, it was like he wasn't really here or like he was still asleep."
Sam sat back on his heels. "Well, he didn't pull his stitches and I can't find a bump on his head." He leaned forward again and placed a hand on Johnny's forehead. "One good thing, his fever doesn't seem to be any worse. Let's just get him back to bed and hopefully keep him there this time. You," he said, pointing a finger at Murdoch, "sleep."
Between the two of them, Scott and Sam got Johnny back down the hall and into his bed.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Scott asked as he pulled up the covers.
Sam just shrugged, shook his head and continued his examination.
"You know," Scott gave the blankets one last tug, "he'd been asking me all afternoon whether Murdoch was back yet. Maybe he just couldn't wait any longer to find out."
Sam looked up and a smile crinkled his eyes. "I'll tell you what, I'll take the first watch. You can take over in three hours."
Scott nodded. "It's a deal."
The day dawned bright and cheery. The only trace of yesterday's rain was the fresh scrubbed smell of the air and the puddles that the songbirds were using to splash their feathers.
Sam stopped in to check on Murdoch just after breakfast. After giving a report on Johnny's progress, including the good news that the fever was down, he began his examination. Sam cleaned the wound and changed the dressing while the senior Lancer grumbled nonstop about being stuck in bed, about Sam's uncomfortable ministrations and about the quality of the breakfast he'd been allowed.
Sam grunted and nodded in the right places. Finally he took his stethoscope off, shoved it in his pocket and stood looking down at his patient.
"Oh, nothing much," said Sam. "I was just thinking that it was pretty early in the day to be listening to this routine for the second time."
Murdoch looked at him quizzically.
"When I was in Johnny's room he was giving me the same line of goods except that fortunately, he fell asleep about halfway through. The two of you sound just exactly alike."
Murdoch glared at the doctor.
"Which is too bad really," Sam continued. "Since Johnny is always such a hard patient, I was really hoping that you'd provide him with a better example. I guess that's not going to happen, is it?"
Murdoch’s glare got stronger. "You play dirty."
Sam smiled. "Whatever it takes, my friend. Whatever it takes. Now, take your medicine, follow my instructions, and set a good example." He patted Murdoch on the arm. "I'll be back tomorrow to check on the two of you."
With that, he gathered up his supplies and left with a jaunty spring to his stride.
Scott stopped in a bit later, bringing some books and the latest newspaper. He said he'd come back once he'd given out the work assignments for the day and taken care of a few chores. He promised to bring the cribbage board to help pass the time.
Murdoch finished the newspaper and laid his head back against the pillows. He took his glasses off, closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of his ranch as they drifted through the open window. The birds were singing in the trees, and he could hear the occasional snort and nicker from the horses. Jelly's voice, grousing at one of the ranch hands, drifted up from the yard and from a bit farther away he could make out one of the women singing as she went about her chores. A soft voice in his bedroom said "Hi."
Murdoch's eyes popped open. There at the foot of his bed stood his dark haired son, again. This time he had a blanket draped around his shoulders as well as the bandage and the long johns.
"Will you stop doing that?"
"Stop doing what?"
"Catfooting into my room and scaring me out of a year’s growth."
Murdoch studied his boy. In the light of day he could see the pallor of Johnny's normally bronzed skin and there were bruised looking shadows under his eyes. But the hectic color of fever was missing from his cheeks and his eyes were bright and clear.
"What are you doing out of bed, boy? Sam will have your hide."
Johnny shrugged, "Sam ain't here. I just wanted to see how you are. So," he said, looking up through his lashes, "are you all right?"
Murdoch shook his head. "No," he said, then smiled, "but I will be. How about you? It seems to me you ended up in worse shape than I did."
"Me? I'm fin…." He stopped when he saw the look on his father's face and his eyes lit up with laughter. "OK, so maybe I'm not quite fine, but I will be."
The smiles faded and an awkward silence settled between them. Johnny's restless hands played with the carving on the bedpost. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked, not looking up.
"Why'd you send Scott after me?"
Murdoch hesitated for a moment, looking for the right words. His voice was surprisingly gentle when he spoke. "I know how responsible you sometimes feel for our welfare, how you worry that someday something from your past will reach out and hurt us. I was afraid that after yesterday morning I'd get home to find you gone from my life, again."
It was Murdoch's turn to look away. "I couldn't have faced that."
He looked up to find something in his son's eyes that took his breath away. . .
"You didn't need to worry." Johnny fiddled with the edge of the blanket. "I wasn't going anywhere." He took a deep breath. "Haven't you figured it out yet, Old Man? You're stuck with me." Johnny met his father's eyes.
Murdoch felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. He didn't think he could pull enough into his lungs to make a reply even if he could think of something to say.
Before he could gather himself together, Johnny shot him an evil grin. "Besides, Scott said it didn't have anything to do with me. He told me it was an old ghost from your past that came causing trouble this time."
"He was right. It was an old enemy of mine. I helped throw him in jail after a botched robbery down in Texas. So it seems that you got hurt because of my past." He smiled. "Maybe I should be the one to leave Lancer."
What he had meant as a joke didn't go over that way, Johnny's head came up and he glared at Murdoch, suddenly serious again. "That ain't gonna happen either, you're not going anywhere, not for a long time. Right?"
Murdoch just stared at him, at a loss for words for the second time in as many minutes.
Johnny dropped his head and ran a finger along the top of the footboard. "You scared me, Old Man."
"I'm sorry, Johnny. I know how that feels. But maybe you can remember that feeling the next time you do something so reckless. It was a foolish thing you did yesterday, son."
"Aw, Murdoch," Johnny started to turn away. He swayed and grabbed for the bedpost.
"Johnny!" Murdoch reached out for his son but the sharp pain in his shoulder pulled him up short. "Johnny?"
"It's OK." He took a deep breath. "I just moved a little too fast there." He winced and pressed his arm to his side.
"Did you pull your stitches?"
"No." Johnny looked down at the bandage. "They're OK, but it's talking to me a bit."
Murdoch scowled. "Well, if you're going to insist on camping out here instead of staying in your own bedroom where you belong, at least get over in that chair. Having to scrape you off my floor more than once in a 24-hour period would be excessive."
Johnny looked back over his shoulder. "What. . .?"
"Never mind, just go. Can you manage? Do you need some help?"
"Nope, I can mak. . ." Johnny grunted as he almost tripped over his blanket. He waved a hand at Murdoch's hiss of parental distress and kept on going.
Murdoch watched him intently until he reached the big, overstuffed wing chair in front of the window. It had flowered chintz upholstery and was big enough to accommodate a man of Murdoch's stature. Johnny sighed as he sank down into the cushions and put his feet up on the hassock.
He pulled the blanket around himself. Resting his head against the cushions he looked at his father. "So, what do you mean about scraping me off the floor?"
Murdoch started to explain but halfway through the story, he found that he was talking to himself. Johnny was sound asleep.
It must have been contagious because a few minutes later Murdoch also drifted off.
He awoke to the sound of an irate voice from down the hall. He could hear angry footsteps coming his way, accompanied by his older son's voice.
"I swear, when I find him he won't have to worry about recovering because I'm going to kill him!" With that, Scott swept into the room. "Murdoch, have you seen your son, because he's not. . ."
"Quietly, Scott." Murdoch jerked his head toward the window where Johnny sat. He was slumped into the embrace of the big chair, his blanket drawn close around him, his expression relaxed and peaceful.
Scott shook his head and sighed. "I should have known. I'll get him up and take him back to his room."
"Leave him be. He's fine where he is and sleep is the best thing for him. Besides," he continued in a softer voice, "I kind of enjoy having him in here where I can keep an eye on him. Did you bring the cribbage board?"
Scott looked from his brother to his father, a puzzled frown on his face. "Um, yes, I dropped it on the hall table when I couldn't find Johnny. If you don't mind my saying so, sir, for a wounded man, you seem uncommonly happy."
Murdoch smiled broadly. "My son, for a wounded man, I believe I am. Now, go get that cribbage board and we'll play a few hands. If I'm going to be stuck in this bed, at least I can at least enjoy the company of my sons."
Maria trudged up the stairs carrying a tray laden with a pot of willow bark tea and two cups. She was still trying to adjust to the fact that she even needed to brew the foul tasting medicine. She had left a peaceful, well-ordered house early yesterday and when she returned this morning everything was upside down. Her kitchen was a disaster. Dirty dishes were strewn around. There were crumbs and spills on the counter and a pot of coffee had almost boiled dry on the back of her stove.
As for her family, for that's how she thought of them, she sighed, two of them lay in their beds recovering from bullet wounds and the third, the older son, looked like he could sleep for a week and be better off for it. She had only left them for a few hours and look what they had done to themselves. She shook her head as she climbed the last few steps and turned down the hall toward Johnny's room.
She nudged the door open with her hip and stopped dead. The room was empty. He was gone. She looked around again as if she might have missed him. Where could he be? Her eyes narrowed. Wherever he was, when she found him she'd make him wish he'd never left this room. Turning, she headed down the hall toward the patron's room.
"Senor," she said, walking through the open door, "your son, he is not in his room, have you…..Ahhh!" A smile broke over her face as she surveyed the room. Murdoch was propped against the headboard of his bed, pillows stacked up behind his back and a book open on his lap. The cribbage board was abandoned on the blanket beside him. He looked at her over the top of his reading glasses.
Scott sat slumped in a chair drawn up next to the bed, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. One arm hung down beside the chair and the other elbow rested on the arm of the chair, his hand splayed across his stomach. His head lolled back and he snored gently.
Over by the window the missing son half lay, half sat in Murdoch's overstuffed chair, a gentle wash of sunlight painted across his cheek and shoulder. One bare foot poked out of the bottom of his blanket.
Maria set the tray on the dresser and grabbed a spare blanket off the quilt stand. She walked over and spread it over Johnny's recumbent form, taking special care to tuck it in around his feet. She put a hand to his forehead and nodded to herself in satisfaction. Then she walked back to the dresser and poured a cup of the tea, which she presented to Murdoch.
"This is for you, Patron. You must drink it."
"That's OK, Maria," he said, a trapped look appearing on his face. “I'm feeling fine, really, I don't need it."
"What is this? Patron, if you will not take your medicine, how can you expect your sons to take theirs?" She offered him the cup again.
Murdoch scowled for a moment before he took the cup. "Have you been talking to Sam?" He sipped the foul brew.
"No, Senor, I have not seen el doctor. Why?"
He just shook his head.
"When your son wakes, you will make sure he drinks his tea, yes?" she asked softly.
Murdoch nodded, a grimace on his face as he sipped. "Oh, yes, if I have to drink mine you'd better believe that Johnny is going to drink his."
Maria smiled at that, satisfied that things were going as she wished. She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. "Is there anything else that I can get you, Senor?"
Murdoch surveyed the room and his peacefully sleeping sons. He smiled softly.
"No, Maria, gracias, but no. I already have everything I need right here."
That's all she wrote.