Better Out Than In
Disclaimer: Don’t ask, don’t tell applies, I think...you don’t ask if they’re mine, and I won’t have to risk prosecution when I claim they are.
Author’s note: I figured if I lived through this last week, it would be a breeze for Johnny to as well.
~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~
Johnny was hot, agitatedly hot, and not in just in the physical sense of the word. Yes, his hair clung to his scalp, face, and neck in heavy water logged weightiness. His shirt was so soaked in perspiration it appeared several shades darker than it was, and it stuck like glue to his torso. The flexibility of the garment compromised due to the condition had ripped at the shoulder, earlier, as he slammed the posthole diggers into the dirt to scoop out what felt like the one millionth hole of the day. The lining of his favorite leather pants was damp, along with his drawers, which caused the lining to pull against the pants and made them feel like they were bunching up, right in the crotch, and that in its self was enough to make him damn irritable.
However, the heat that was bothering him worse…the most, was the burning ball of molten pain that was building in his belly. He had first noticed the discomfort this morning after he was rudely awakened by his father’s glass shattering bellow, which rattled the window panes, and that damn near caused him to bounce clear off the bed and stick to the ceiling. Gravity mocked him and his landing after his startled response. His feet hit the scatter rug beside the bed, and it took flight like the magic carpet in that story Aladdin, and he was suspended in midair, only this time he crashed back down on his behind on the hard floor. He had also cracked his head on the bedside table as he fell back. The worst part of the experience had to be when his father, out of concern strode forward and helped him up. Murdoch’s calloused and gnarled fingers had gently inspected the steadily rising knot on the back of his head.
Johnny had been so distracted by the show of tender care and concern, that when his father inquired if he was hurt anywhere else he had absent-mindedly muttered, “Nowhere I want you inspecting.”
Chuckling at the petulant statement and disgruntled look on his youngest son’s face, Murdoch ruffled Johnny’s hair and replied, “You have a nice knot on your head, and no I don’t think I want to inspect your other injury.” Laughing softly, he added, “If you don’t want a tongue lashing to go with the knot on your head, or a wooden spoon smacking on your …sore pride, by Maria, well then I suggest you get dressed and get down stairs for breakfast.”
Johnny watched his father depart with a disinterested lethargy. He sighed as he shuffled across his room to the washstand. He stared in the mirror, thinking to himself that he looked kind of pale to have worked outside all day yesterday. He hadn’t rested well last night, and his stomach seemed to be sassing him this morning. He grabbed a soap and cloth and quickly washed the last vestiges of sleep from his face. Dipping his hands into the water basin he wet his hands, and then finger combed his unruly hair into some semblance of order.
Striding to his closet he was delighted to find his favorite faded red shirt, washed and mended. The soft wash worn cotton felt light against his morning chilled skin when he pulled it on. He pulled his favorite leather pants from the hanger. Bending at the waist to step into them he grimaced at the tight full feeling in his belly, and he could sense his stomach gurgling at him. He shrugged off the incident and laid it off to being hungry as he had gone to bed last night without his customary evening snack. He found a clean pair of socks and put them on, he searched around for his boots until he remembered he had pulled them off in the Great room the night before.
Padding down the stairs to the kitchen the smell of bacon and coffee assaulted his nose, and his stomach growled loud enough it echoed on the stairway. Entering the kitchen Johnny detoured from the table and headed towards the doorway to dining area, intending to retrieve his boots. Maria seeing the maneuver thought he was skipping breakfast and quickly set up a fuss.
“Juanito you cannot work on an empty stomach, come to the table and eat your breakfast.”
“I’m just going to get my boots, Mamacita.”
In less than a minute Johnny returned to the kitchen, yawning and scratching at his head. Scott snickered at the shock of hair standing straight up at the back of his little brother’s head. Murdoch got strangled on his swallow of coffee when he noted his son’s feet.
“Son, don’t you think your boots would feel more comfortable on the right feet?”
Looking down Johnny reddened at the sight of his boots, the toes pointing outward at an odd angle. He trudged the rest of the way to his chair and plopped down heavily. He leaned over to remove his shoes and put them on the right way, once again he was caught by an unpleasant pressure in his belly. The ache was enough to cause him to bite down on his bottom lip and slowly exhale through his nose to try and control the bit of pain. While his head was still down, Maria placed his plate in front of him, as he began to sit up and turn on his chair, the over powering scent of the hot food caused his stomach to flip, his mouth filled with salvia and a little throb began to beat at the back of his skull. Squeezing his eyes shut and screwing up his face as he got settled on his chair, Johnny opened his eyes to find Scott staring at him with a bemused look on his face.
“What?” Johnny groused as he felt his early morning irritation growing larger.
“Oh, nothing,” Scott snickered, “I was just wondering if you were trying a new hairstyle, or if you just forgot to brush your hair, because it’s sticking straight up on the back of your head.”
In no mood to banter with his brother, Johnny snorted in derision, “So ain’t like anyone else is gonna see it with my hat on my head.” Then to his chagrin Maria stepped behind him and used her wet hands to smooth the hair in place as he had done earlier.
“Eat your breakfast. I will make you boys some lunch to take with you today.” Maria moved to the counter and took a loaf of bread and sliced it up, and then took the left over beef roast from the night before and began to carve it.
“I don’t want beef, Mamacita. I’d rather have some of the ham we had the other night.”
“That ham is not good. I threw it out this morning. It should have been thrown out the day before.”
“I had a sandwich out of it yesterday, weren’t nothing wrong with it.” Johnny replied as he picked at his eggs, for some reason they looked awful yellow. And yellow just did not seem enticing this morning. He took a swallow of coffee, and shuddered when the hot liquid entered his belly, the burning and churning causing the discomfort in his stomach to become annoyingly apparent. Johnny put the cup down and picked up his milk, and drank it along with eating his biscuit. The smells in the kitchen were beginning to get to him so he decided unless he wanted the meager amount of food he consumed for his meal to make a return he had better be on his way.
Seeing that Johnny was leaving the table with most of his breakfast left on the plate, Maria began to fuss. “Juanito, you cannot work all morning on such a little amount. Are you sick?” she inquired as she approached and cupped his cheek, checking for fever.”
Johnny dodged away from Maria’s hand only to find his father’s large calloused palm placed on his forehead. “You don’t feel feverish, but you do look a little pale,” Murdoch surmised.
Swallowing back the emotional lump that rose in his throat over such unaccustomed concern for his well-being, Johnny shrugged off the display of care while at the same time cherishing the sense of belonging it fed to his hungry soul. “I’m fine, now if you don’t mind I have work to do.”
Scott stood up, coffee cup still in his hand as he finished the bitter brew. He wiped his mouth on his napkin, and then reached for the sacks, Maria held out to him, with his and Johnny’s lunches inside.
“Scott…” his father started.
“Don’t worry sir. I’ll keep an eye on him. You’re right he does look pale, and he seems awful distracted this morning.”
~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~
True to his word Scott had watched his brother all morning. The higher the sun rose, the lower Johnny’s mood sunk. After several tangles with the barbed wire they were working with Johnny had grabbed a pair of posthole diggers and marched off at set intervals pre-digging the holes. Scott observed, over the course of the morning, his little brother wrapping his arms around his stomach as though guarding against something. A couple of times he saw him bend at the waist and press his hands firmly into his abdomen.
A little after noon Scott cautiously approached his brother after releasing the men to ride out to the chuck wagon. Johnny looked miserable. His hair was saturated, plastered to his flushed face. His shirt was wringing wet and molded to his chest, a new rip gracing the shoulder of it. When Johnny slammed the posthole diggers into the ground, and then abruptly released the handles to grab his mid-section Scott ran the last few steps to him.
“What’s wrong, Johnny? Are you hurt?” Scott patted Johnny’s back in concern as his brother hunched over, seemingly in pain.
Johnny turned his head and looked up at his brother. Beads of moisture glittered on his eyelashes and rivulets of sweat trickled down his face. He straightened up, grimacing and fighting the urge to groan, standing as tall as he could he still had to tilt his head upward to look his big brother in the eye. “What’s wrong? I’m hot, I’m drenched, I ripped my shirt, my pants feel like they’re trying to eat me, and now my belly feels like I swallowed a bucket of hot coals.”
“Perhaps, your stomach would feel better if you’ll come sit down in the shade and eat your lunch. You didn’t eat much for breakfast this morning, and that could be why you’re feeling unwell now.”
Johnny wasn’t so sure that would make him feel better, but it was a more inviting proposition then to continue to manhandle the posthole diggers. “I’ll come sit down, but I forgot my lunch this morning and I don’t want to ride out to the chuck wagon to eat with the men.”
“I have your lunch Maria gave it to me this morning. You go on and sit down and I’ll get it and the canteens.”
Scott watched in concern as Johnny shuffled towards the oak tree, his feet dragging enough it caused the dry dirt to puff and billow up around his feet, adding a layer of dust to his sweat ridden clothes. His concern heightened when he sat down next to Johnny and handed him his lunch sack. Now that he was in the shade, Johnny’s face appeared pale and drawn.
Before he even opened his lunch Johnny grabbed his canteen, determined to drink the whole thing if that’s what it took to put out the fire in his belly. He guzzled the tepid water, making audible gulping sounds as he rushed to tame the inferno in his stomach. It seemed to be working, the flames were doused, but the relief lasted just mere seconds now he felt like he had an over grown beast in his belly, trying to claw its way out through his belly button.
The pain consumed Johnny, sharp and unrelenting, causing him to tighten his grip on the canteen until his knuckles whitened. His face felt hot, but his body shivered like it was chilled, salvia built up in his mouth causing him to gag. His belly contracted, and felt like it was twisting and then a ripping sensation tore across his abdomen that robbed him of his breath and convinced him he was splitting in two. He lost the ability to hold the canteen, and it dropped from his fingers landing in his lap. The water chugged out the opening soaking into his pants. He moaned, fighting the light headedness that threatened to send him spiraling into oblivion.
Johnny’s moan caught Scott’s attention and he turned his head just in time to see his brother pitching forward. Johnny’s face was totally devoid of color, even his lips appeared white. Scott immediately reach out to catch his little brother, when he did Johnny caught a whiff of the roast beef sandwich still clutched in his hand, and that’s all it took to finally send his stomach into full blown rebellion.
Johnny strangled as he opened his mouth to plead for help. The water he had just consumed shot from his mouth like a geyser. He scrambled desperately to get to his knees, mortified his big brother was seeing him spewing his guts out. However, after the next wave of misery ruptured in his belly and he felt the noxious contents of his stomach rising and clogging his throat he was relieved to feel Scott’s arms wrap around his chest and waist to help support his body.
Scott jumped to his feet to get the leverage to support Johnny. He didn’t have time to be disgusted by the vomiting. He was too consumed by fear for his little brother. After heaving up all the water he had just drunk, Johnny made gurgling and choking sounds, his face turned purplish red, and the veins on his neck were enlarged and distended as he strained to expel his breakfast and last night’s supper. Scott could feel the contracting and rolling of Johnny’s stomach as the misery continued, between spells of disgorging actual substance and dry heaving, he gasped for breath until he went limp in Scott’s grasp.
Johnny wilted, sagging in his arms, so Scott lifted him upward and to the side away from the puddle of mess in the dirt. He gently lowered Johnny’s inert form to the ground, and then rolled him over. Even in his unconscious state Johnny had the pinched countenance of pain painted all over his face. Grabbing his canteen Scott quickly wet his bandana and began to bathe Johnny’s face. He was trying to decide if he should go for help, or shoot off his rifle in a three shot signal for help to alert the hands to trouble when he heard the beat of hooves on the ground. Scott looked towards the direction the sound came from, and sighed in relief at the sight of his father racing to them.
Murdoch’s heart clenched in fear as he crested the rise in the hill and spied his sons under the spreading limbs of the oak tree. He could tell something was wrong, he was glad now he had given into that paternal instinct that told him he needed to check on Johnny. He thundered the last yards to his sons and jumped from the saddle with an agility he had thought abandoned him long ago.
“What happened, Scott?”
“Johnny’s been ill and out of sorts all morning. He went off to work by himself digging postholes, when I went to get him for lunch he looked miserable. I talked him into coming and sitting in the shade. He was acting like his stomach was bothering him. One second he was drinking from his canteen and the next he was throwing up. What do you think is wrong?”
“If I had to hazard a guess I would say that ham sandwich he had for lunch yesterday. Remember what Maria said this morning when he asked for ham, that she had thrown it out, that it should have been thrown out the day before?”
“What should we do? Do you know how sick this might make him?”
“I think the best thing to do would be for you to ride to town and get the doctor, since I can’t be sure that’s what’s wrong. I’ll get Johnny home while you do that.”
“If that’s what you think is best, sir. I’ll stop at the chuck wagon long enough to let the men know what happened, and instruct them to carry on without us.” Before mounting his horse Scott took the time to kick dirt over the evidence of Johnny’s sickness.
Murdoch watched Scott ride off, and then turned his attention back to Johnny. Johnny was just coming around and he noted the confusion in his son’s eyes when he saw him.
“Murdoch, what are you doing here?” Johnny rasped out in a voice weak and tainted by sickness.
“I came to check on you and it’s a good thing I did. Why didn’t you tell me this morning you felt this bad. You had no business working in this hot sun today,” Murdoch exclaimed, the harshness of his words camouflaging his fear. Seeing Johnny’s face going blank as he turned to stare out over the field, Murdoch regretted his rashness. Gently taking Johnny’s chin and turning his face to him, Murdoch apologized. “I’m sorry son. I didn’t mean to sound mad with you. I was just concerned that you put the interests of the ranch above your own health. As much as I might bellow about everyone pulling their weight and doing their share, it only applies to days they are able.”
Johnny noted the sincerity in his father’s eyes, and then extended his hand, requesting, “Help me up, this ground is hard.” His gesture telling his father all was forgiven.
Murdoch aided Johnny in sitting up, and then helped him scoot back to lean against the tree trunk. Worry clouded his eyes as he watched Johnny clutch his mid-section and slowly rock back and forth.
“Would you like some more water?”
“Noooooooo…I don’t care if I never have another drop!” Johnny moaned as his face blanched. “All I want is for my belly to quit trying to claw its way out.”
“You’ll have to drink sooner or later son, or you’ll get dehydrated.”
“Just let me sit here and rest a minute, and then we can start for home. Hell…I won’t even put up a fuss about going to bed.” Johnny vowed as he fell sideways and rested his head on his father’s thigh.
Murdoch sat quietly with his son’s head nestled in his lap for twenty minutes. Finally Johnny sat up and scrubbed at his face, sighing heavily. “Let’s make tracks for home old man; my nice soft bed is calling to me.”
Murdoch stood and helped Johnny over to Barranca wincing in sympathy when Johnny grunted with each foot fall. “Maybe you should ride with me Johnny.”
“Nope…I can ride by myself, if I feel like I can’t make it I’ll say so.”
Against his better judgment, Murdoch helped his son onto his horse, and then mounted his own. He made sure to ride right beside Johnny. He knew just how badly Johnny felt due to the fact he wasn’t moving above a plodding walk. Johnny also rode with his eyes clenched shut and his mouth pursed in to a tight white line of pain. Sweat poured from Johnny’s face as he struggled to stay upright in the saddle. When he began to audibly pant and sway Murdoch decided it was time to stop the foolishness, but before he could say it, he realized Johnny had called to him.
“Murdoch…I…I don’t think I can make it. I…I just ain’t got it in me today.”
Johnny slumped to the side and his father was right there to catch him and pull him into the saddle with him. He released the reins from Johnny’s limp fingers, and wrapped them around the saddle horn, knowing Barranca would follow his stable mate home.
“You rest easy son. I have you.”
Johnny gave into the darkness that promised a respite from the pain. His last conscious sight was of his father’s steel strong hands wrapped around his waist with velvet softness.
~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~ L ~*~
When next Johnny opened his eyes, he was laying in his bed at Lancer. His father sat on the side urging him to open his eyes and drink something in a glass he held. He could hear other voices, and it took him a moment to process them. It was his brother and Doc Jenkins. When he finally got his heavy eyes to open, they were all three standing over him grinning.
“Well hello young man, welcome back.”
“Hey Sam, I reckon you did your poking and prodding while I was out of it. So did you find that wild critter that was trying to dig out of my belly?”
Sam grinned and winked. He was pleased to see Johnny was fighting back to awareness. “I certainly did find it. It was a piece of pig, rooting around trying to get out.”
“A piece of pig…nope I’m pretty sure it was the whole hog,” Johnny claimed.
“All kidding aside young man, you had a nasty bout of food poisoning. I know you aren’t going to feel like eating for a few days, but it is important that you drink all that you can to help flush your system out. I have given your father some liquid belladonna to dilute in water to abate your stomach discomfort.”
“Johnny, drink this and we’ll get out of here and let you rest,” Murdoch instructed.
Eyeing the glass with no small amount of distrust and displeasure, Johnny none the less allowed his father to lift his head and help him drink it. His stomach gurgled but the liquid stayed put, and he sighed in relief at the pleasant warmth that spread across his belly.
“Good job,” Murdoch praised as he set the glass aside and helped Johnny snuggle back down. Now would you like to try some broth later? Maria has anticipated the return of your appetite and has prepared some beef, chicken and ham broth.”
“HAM! I don’t care if I ever have ham again. I’ll shoot the next person that offers me ham.”
As Johnny was drifting off to sleep the last thing he heard was Scott offering to walk Sam out. He sensed his father’s strong presence still in the room, and he knew that when the sun rose in the morning and he opened his eyes; he would find him there still.
“Night, Pa,” Johnny whispered.
“Night, my son. I hope you’re better in the morning,” Murdoch whispered.
March 26, 2008